He was going out of the coffee shop as she was going in, and neither would have noticed the other if it hadn't hit at that exact moment. She saw him register the sudden energies, and he saw her see it. Their eyes met for a succinct fraction of a second, then he continued on through the door, as did she, each shifting with the ingrained reflex of the lifelong urbanite, so that they passed without contact, though a sheet of waxed paper couldn't have been squeezed into the space between them.
When she emerged from the shop, minutes later, he was across the street, sitting on a bench at the edge of a green, open park. She noted him with a quick glance, then went to the corner, pausing at the light; and, watching, he genuinely couldn't tell whether she thought of changing the light ahead of schedule (and refrained to avoid providing him with knowledge of her abilities), or just contrived to have it appear that she had made such a choice (to imply that her capacities were small enough that she didn't wish to betray any of them).
At any rate she waited, crossed at the normal time, and came to the bench without discernible hurry or reluctance: a trim, brisk woman with light brown hair, wearing a tailored pants suit that somehow combined practicality and understated style. If not for the easy assurance with which she carried herself, she might have been in her late twenties, though he knew her to be at least ten years older.
She in turn saw a slightly built young man with gingery hair and eyelashes, in a nondescript sports coat, a garish magenta shirt, and a narrow-brimmed hat of gray dyed straw. "Hey," he greeted her, as if they were old acquaintances meeting routinely. "You went with the Danish, good choice. I keep trying to find a decent bagel, but they just don't do 'em right outside the Big Apple."
She sat at the other end of the bench, placing the coffee and Danish at her side. "I still haven't made up my mind," she said reflectively. "Was I not supposed to be able to sense that … pulse … or was it a test to see if I could detect it?"
"What it was, was coincidence." He took another bite of the bagel, spoke around it without self-consciousness. "I didn't even know you were here, I was kickin' back till time to check out an up-and-comer at a local dojo."
"So you scout gifted individuals," she said after a moment's consideration. "Would I get a straight answer if I asked why?"
"Depends." He looked her over with unconcealed appraisal; there was no prurience in it, only plain curiosity. "Truth's too complicated for straight, and you strike me as the type who'd rather have honest than simple. What I want to know is, I give you an answer, are you gonna believe me?"
She lifted her hand in a quick gesture of exasperation, and the edge of one finger caught the lip of the top on the styrofoam cup of coffee, jerking the cup upward in a half-flip. She snatched at it, only succeeded in knocking it further out to splat! on the pavement, her hand brushing against his knee in the follow-through of the miss …
"Whoa, smooth," he said in admiration. "Very convincing. So, what'd you get from the touch-pass?"
She had already begun babbling an apology, all flustered and embarrassed, but at his words it slid away from her like water from vinyl, and she looked back at him with matter-of-fact calm. "You're not human," she announced.
"Yeah, but apart from that I'm a real sweetheart." He shook his head. "Look, kid, we can keep dancing or we can do the cards- on-the-table thing. I'll show first: I go by Whistler, and you're Amanda."
If she was surprised that he knew her name, she didn't reveal it. "You don't have much mana, but your roots go very deep," she mused. She raised an eyebrow. "Demon? Earth-spirit? Cursed wanderer?"
"None of 'em, really, but you're in the neighborhood." He had finished the bagel, and now wiped his hands on his chinos. "I keep tabs on people, I scope out what's happening, sometimes I drop a couple words of advice. Mostly they don't listen, but you'd be surprised how much you can do with just a nudge at the right time."
"Like an agent of change," she said, still assessing the brief flash she had snatched from him. "Only the opposite: you make sure everything stays in balance."
"See, you keep doin' that," he told her, almost aggrieved. "Near enough I can't just say no, but still off the mark. People hear balance, they always think of scales, keepin' the scales even. It's not like that. Good 'n' evil, they can't stay even, it don't work like that, sooner or later it'll reach an end. But it's a process, and it has to go by certain rules. Think of balance like riding a bicycle, never leaning too far in any direction, and you'll have a better picture."
"And that mystical pulsation we felt," she prompted. "Where does it fit into all this?"
Whistler sighed. "Yeah, that's sort of a wild card. There's a guy … actually, he's kinda like a counterpart to me, he joneses on disorder where I work at easing things toward harmony. 'While back, he tied one on and tried to do a serious reshuffling of the deck; it didn't work out, least not the way he wanted, and the buzz we got was him trying to find out what went wrong."
"It was like … distant thunder," Amanda said, eyes focused inward. "Faint, but you could feel the force of it. Just how powerful is this chaosmonger of yours?"
"Oh, he's cute, but not a major mover. He was cookin' with gas on this one, he's gonna attract some unpleasant attention if he's not careful." Whistler showed teeth in a one-sided smile. "You, maybe."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said levelly. Her expression dared him to disagree.
"Really?" Whistler leaned back on the bench. "Not a clue?"
"You expect me to go looking for him? That's ridiculous. I know nothing about him: name, appearance, habits, history, nothing. I'd be groping in the dark … and even if I found him, then what?"
Whistler shrugged. "Your call, kid."
"It's ridiculous," she repeated. "I don't do that kind of thing. I never have."
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I know."
"I made choices," she insisted angrily. "A long time ago. To take it up again now, to try to go back into that world, it's, it's …"
"You don't need to convince me," Whistler said. "I was there."
Again she showed none of the surprise such a statement might have produced. She simply said, "When?"
"Look, you gotta understand, it's all about possibilities." He gave her an apologetic grimace. "I monitor lots of folks, watching how things shape, puttin' in my two cents when it's needed. Time was, you coulda been a player. 'Fact, you were supposed to be; way the currents were movin' then, you were gonna go head-to-head with a woman named Catherine Madison, square off against her a dozen times over the next five-six years, then take her out in a big showdown when she teamed up with this vampire shaman to try and drill through the center of a school quad in SoCal to open a secondary channel to a corked Hellmouth." He made a little snorting sound that could have been regret or amusement or both. "You probably woulda died doin' it, but I've seen worse."
"Apparently," she said. "You almost sound disappointed."
"Hey, don't take it personal. Things shifted, we made adjustments, it's all headed down a different track but the overall direction still holds. Life's what happens while you're planning something else. Coulda been a lot worse, believe me."
"Just don't expect me to feel guilty," she said grimly. "I have a husband, I have children, I had to make my decisions for their sake as well as my own. I won't apologize for that."
"Nah, you're missing the picture." He waved it away. "Your choices made a difference, sure, but the big switch happened before you married Rick Tucker. It caught us all by surprise, it was close to four years before things settled into a pattern we could start to read. Had nothin' to do with you, you were moved by the wave like everything else."
"You're positive?" She had relaxed at his lack of opposition, and her tone now held something that was almost wistful. "I meant it when I said I wouldn't apologize, but … I won't deny I've wondered if I was avoiding a responsibility just because it was unwelcome. I steered us away from cases that had supernatural overtones, I persuaded Rick to move the agency here because I could feel the occult energy building up in Los Angeles; I kept trying to put barriers between my family and the things that might have threatened them, and I knew I was turning my back on something but I did it anyway. Are you saying it was all right? That things worked out on their own?"
"You want comfort, I'm not your guy," Whistler replied. "If it had played out the way it looked at first, some people woulda died and some woulda lived. Instead, other people lived or died; different distribution, and who's to say which is better? I'm just sayin' it didn't start with you. Can't offer more than that."
She accepted it, and they sat in silence for several minutes. "And now?" she asked at last. "Am I supposed to go after the man who sent the seeking spell?"
"Like I said, your choice." He studied her with gentle detachment. "It's a place to start if you wanta get back into the game, but he's not the only open account we got right now. Truth is, the ripples have been building for close to twenty years; keep your eyes open, and you'll see plenty of opportunities."
"I suppose so." Her gaze didn't waver from his, but it was focused somewhere beyond him. "I should be pretty good at recognizing them by now, I spent enough time sidestepping them."
"Never know when somethin' like that's gonna come in handy," he agreed cheerfully.
"You're manipulating me," she said without heat. "I said I wasn't going to feel guilty, but you managed to do it anyhow."
"You're who you are," he told her. "I didn't hit you with anything you weren't already carrying."
"You're asking a lot of me," she went on. "I have two girls in high school. How can I let such things into my life, and still shield them from it?"
"High school kids, caught up in the battle between good and evil? " He held his hands against the sides of his face in a burlesque of dismay. "Horrors!"
Amanda gave him a long, measuring look that held no warmth. "I don't know if you're being condescending, or if that was some kind of inside joke. Either way, I don't appreciate it."
"Sorry," he said. "You see the kinda things I have, you either get a sense of humor or you drink battery acid."
"All right," she said, standing abruptly. "You've said your piece, you've tweaked my conscience. Fine, mission accomplished. Just don't expect me to like you for it."
Whistler sighed. "Nobody likes me. It's my curse."
"Not curse: attitude." Her expression still held that odd mix of composure, rebellion, and resignation. "We're talking about my life here, my family, my future and theirs. Maybe you can be flippant about it, but I can't."
"That's how it works," he said, tone soft with something that might have been sadness. "The people with the most to lose, they're the ones who fight hardest."
That struck deep, and he could see she wanted to blast back at him. Instead she just said, "I'm sure you know where to find me if you ever have anything useful to offer. Otherwise, I don't believe your company will be required." She turned without waiting for a reply, and strode quickly away down the street.
"You're who you are," Whistler murmured again. Her resentment and resistance wouldn't keep her from doing what was right; it was her nature, and she would have come to it on her own soon enough, even without the unexpected encounter. Amanda Tucker was back in play … and maybe her daughters, too, that was an option that had been outside the curve twenty years before.
Not quite twenty years, actually. The shift had hit in April of '80 (widely noted and much discussed at the time, though no one had been able to determine its source), so it was only just now nineteen years. The effects had been subtle at first, becoming more apparent as the divergence had firmed into new paths. Catherine Madison's blossoming obsession had been deflected and postponed by motherhood; Lucas Buck had never turned his attention to the West Coast; and Amanda, her destiny once so clear, had somehow never made it onto the stage.
Meanwhile, something else — someone else — had been moving unnoticed to fill the gap left by the change. What was it he had said to Buffy Summers? Nobody saw you coming. She and Amanda were polar opposites: one fading from prominence despite multiple portents, the other bursting onto the scene from nowhere, and then proceeding to confound or evade one prophecy after another; as if they didn't quite apply to her, as if she were somehow exempted from normal laws.
Nobody saw you coming. That had been truer and more important than she had been capable of understanding at the time, but it had intrigued Whistler, and he had been working through the implications ever since. Who was this girl? How had she attained such consequence without being noticed before now?
As soon as you took a hard look at her, you could see that anomalies had surrounded her from the beginning. The Council of Watchers had been unable to get a fix on her until after she had become the Slayer. Seeming totally unsuited to her new status, she had nonetheless survived direct combat with two master vampires in her first year. She had "died" nine months after assuming the role of the Chosen One … and come back stronger than ever. She had coexisted with two other Slayers, something that had never happened before, mainly because it wasn't possible.
She didn't just break the rules; her very existence was a violation of laws almost as old as humanity.
Ethan Rayne was the key to it all, Whistler had sensed that months ago. The miscast spell had jarred mystic seismographs over half the continent, but only Whistler seemed to have felt in it any similarity to the jolt that had realigned the future-to-be almost two decades previously. And the follow-up probe today (a miss, Whistler knew, Rayne hadn't found what he was seeking) had provided a triangulation point. He would have worked it out anyhow after that, all the pieces were there, but the conversation with Amanda Tucker had brought it into perfect focus without effort on his part.
No wonder the most skilled seers hadn't been able to pinpoint the origin of the massive shift in 1980; they'd been trying to track an enchantment — curse, actually — that hadn't been cast yet. Rayne himself didn't know what he had done, and hopefully never would; screwing with time was like playing bumper-cars with nuclear warheads, it was dangerous even to think about it.
What had happened was the kind of thing you could never sell in advance, it was just too improbable. A drunken sorcerer, a dilettante in the mystic arts but talented all the same, gets thoroughly hacked off at someone, and lines out a sequence of forces sufficient to remove the offending party from the world as we know it, erasing her not only from the present moment but retroactively clear back to the instant of her creation. What the sorcerer doesn't realize, what nobody knows, is that the target of his wrath is first coming into existence at the same time the spell is cast.
Picture the lifeline of Joyce Summers as a strand of silver wire. Picture the fertilized ovum that will become Buffy Summers as a bead strung on that wire. Picture a distant hand blindly pushing the bead backward along the wire, to come to rest nineteen years before it began.
Picture a child conceived on the hood of a police car in November of 1998, and her mother first becoming aware of the new life within her in June of 1980 …
Whistler rose from the bench and strolled down the street, east where Amanda had gone south, humming softly to himself. There was still plenty of time to look in on the kid Karasu (martial artist and clairvoyant, now there was a combination that could really be made to sing), and meanwhile he could ponder the ramifications of the meeting just past.
If Amanda and her daughters got into the mix with anything near her former potential, it would draw uncommitted energies away from the California nexus. Angel might be able to stay in L.A. after all, and Dale Cooper was sure to find the new developments in the Pacific Northwest more interesting than tenuous rumors out of South Carolina. A fresh set of ripples, intersecting and interacting with previous patterns, and no telling where it would all lead.
That was one thing you could say for this job: it could get wearing, but you were never bored. The game had broken wide open, danger and opportunity magnified exponentially. Now, if they could just keep anyone from recognizing the truth about Xander Harris for another six or seven years …!
The humming resolved itself into a tune that an intuitive and knowledgeable listener might have recognized as the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and Whistler began walking more quickly. Suddenly he was eager to meet the possibilities which had arrived with the new day.