Learning Curve
by Aadler
Copyright May 2006

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Season: post-Seventh (Buffy)
Spoiler(s): "Chosen" (S7-22)

Part I

"I can't believe they did this," the man said. It was the third time he had said it. "What do they think this is supposed to accomplish? Why do they think I came out here in the first place? I wanted to rest for awhile. Is that too much to ask?"

Leigh gave him a bleak look. "They didn't really discuss it with me. In fact, I didn't have any idea I'd be coming here until I woke up in your …" She glanced back at the small dwelling built into the side of the hill. "What is that, anyhow?"

"Shepherd's hut," the man supplied for her. "That's what the locals told me, anyhow. The idea was, a guy would come out with the flocks, stay a week or so, then move 'em to another grazing area with another hut. Probably haven't been any sheep out here in thirty, forty years, but they keep up the huts, for hikers and whatever."

"And we're the whatever," Leigh observed.

"I guess," he said, then added, "Have I mentioned that I hate this?"

"So send me back," Leigh said promptly.

"Right." He shook his head, sighed. "I really wish it was that simple, but it never is with these people. They shot you to me for a reason — and, oh yeah, you can bet they've got an agenda going with me, too — and unless we do something to satisfy 'em, they'll just pop you right back here. Or send you somewhere else, and hit me with some other kind of UNNECESSARY AND UNSOLICTED amateur therapy, and we might neither one of us like that." He sighed again. "No, better we work what we've got, and hope they'll accept it and move on. So what's your deal?"

Leigh thought about it. "You mean, what's my problem with them, or what's their problem with me?"

"Both, I guess. They're the ones who dropped this on us, so I need to know their side. You're the one I have to work with, so I need your side. Plenty of fun to go around."

"Fine," Leigh said. "They think I've got an attitude. I do. My attitude is, people who act like they know everything, either they're faking it or they've bought into their own hype. They think I don't listen. I listen. I just don't believe everything I hear. They seem to think I need to prove myself to them: show I'm good enough, meet some kind of standard they've set. I'm still waiting for them to prove to me that I should pay attention to their rules."

"Mm-hmm." He pondered on that. "Where are you from?"

"Grew up in New Mexico, Santa Fe area," she told him. "Arizona for the last four years."

"Small town, mid-sized city, or big urban area?" He quirked a smile. "Now, I mean. Where you were living when they found you."

"I guess you'd consider it a suburb," Leigh said after a moment's thought. "We can get to Phoenix in forty minutes on the interstate."

"And you're, what? Fifteen?"

"I'm nineteen," she said. "Do I look fifteen?"

"I've seen Slayers younger than you who looked older than you," he said. "And they usually are called young, so I was guessing down. Now —"

"Hold on a second," Leigh said. "You're getting set to pump me for my life history, but you haven't told me anything about yourself. I don't even know your name."

"Sure, yeah," he said, "I'm Xander, Xander Harris." He paused, gave her a small tilt of one eyebrow. "And, from your total non-reaction, I'm guessing you've never heard of me."

"No," Leigh answered. "But they're not big on names where the 'probationers' are concerned, it's all combat drills and conditioning runs and 'snap to, trainee!' "

"I think I get it," Xander said. "Basic military model, try to build a strong group identity, instill loyalty to the larger organization before they lay out all the particulars. And it sounds like that's not really your game."

"I've never been much of a joiner," Leigh said, keeping her voice flat.

He nodded. "So now they have to figure out if you're a misfit, an outlaw, or maybe something else."

Leigh looked him over. "And I'm here so you can decide that?"

"It's one guess," Xander said. "Might even be the right one. Our question is, what do we do?"

Her response was a shrug. "You know these people better than I do. Whatever it takes to get them off our backs."

Xander nodded. "Works for me. Except it still leaves figuring out what would do the trick." He glanced toward her. "You hungry?"

"I could eat," Leigh agreed. "What do you have?"

"Campbell's Chunky Soups," Xander told her. "Poptop cans, don't need to add any water, I even picked the kinds that taste okay without being heated. Bachelor's delight, if you're somewhere with no fridge or microwave." He gestured toward the hut. "Which, as you can see …"

"Right," Leigh said. "Do you have any with chicken?"

"Three kinds. There should be plenty for both of us … but if not, I'm calling dibs on the chicken corn chowder."

"Flip you for it," Leigh offered levelly.

"Or I could go with sirloin burger," Xander said without an instant's pause. " 'Cause every time I get flipped, I land on my head, which makes it way too easy to call."

"Doesn't matter," Leigh said. "You can have the chowder if you want. I was just checking."

"Uh-huh." Xander gave her a quick grin. "You can forget about me trying to play Master Pai Mei, dancing on your sword till you learn the five-point palm exploding heart technique. Not my style at all."

Leigh followed him toward the hut. "So what is your style?"

"Dive for cover whenever there's a loud noise," Xander said. "Hide till it goes away. If there's no hiding place, jump around and make squawking sounds." Again the flash of a grin. "Do that enough times, they start calling you a veteran."

At the door, Leigh stopped to look back at the hills surrounding them: grass interspersed with rock crags, the occasional scrubby bush. "Where are we?" she asked. "Montana? Wyoming? I know this can't be anywhere near Cleveland, the air tastes too clean."

Xander shook his head. "They really ran a number on you, didn't they? I guess there's no knowing once they fire up the teleportation express. Sorry, wrong hemisphere." He gestured at the hills. "Welcome to Scotland."

~ – ~ – ~

Leigh had assessed him on first awakening at the hut, and now she studied him more searchingly while they ate. He was not, she realized, as tall as she had thought; his leanness lent him the illusion of added height. His hair was very dark, and looked to be growing out from having been cut quite close in the recent past; but, short as it was, it still somehow came across as unruly. His eyes were friendly and guileless, but seemed to never quite focus on her … no, it was more as if he were only half-watching her, the other eye (and some secret thoughts) directed slightly elsewhere. He had a swimmer's physique, but nothing about him said 'athlete'; in fact, there was a deceptive gawkiness to his movements and posture, and it took sharp study to realize that the apparent awkwardness was in fact perfectly comfortable to him, that he seemed clumsy without actually being so.

His tan was even, but she suspected that it was fading from a yet deeper shade. His face had a lot of laugh lines, plus a few creases that hadn't been put there by mirth. He was in his mid-twenties, she thought, and some of them had been hard years. And there was something else, something subtle, easy to overlook and shrug away but you really shouldn't …

Well. How about that? It was like looking at Hugh Grant before anybody knew who he was: this could be one deeply sexy man, only it would never occur to most people to see him in those terms.

Leigh worked her way to the bottom of the soup can, trying to picture how she must look to him. He said he'd seen Slayers before, so he knew better than to buy into surface appearance, but even so he'd tend to react to the familiar visual cues. Leigh had been told she was proportioned like a long-distance runner, meaning a bit taller and a bit more slender than the average woman: not skinny, exactly (willowy, perhaps), but definitely not the Linda Hamilton/ Sigourney Weaver model. She kept her hair tied back, her makeup strictly practical … and she did not look fifteen …!

He probably wouldn't underestimate her, not if he'd been around Slayers. At the same time, though he had promptly deferred to the hint of challenge she'd tossed out, he didn't really seem intimidated, either. Not a problem; the main thing was that he not talk down to her, and so far he'd shown no sign of any such inclination.

Unless he was putting on a big act (and she wouldn't rule out the possibility, but it didn't seem likely), he was just as annoyed at this "intervention" as she was. So, she'd play out whatever scenario they worked up together, get back to the U.S. of A., and continue the process of figuring out just what she'd do once she said goodbye to Kiddie Kamp for Slayers.

At this point, all she knew was that it wouldn't be what they wanted.

~ – ~ – ~

"Let me make some guesses here," Xander said, "and when I'm done, you can tell me how close I got and where I missed."

Leigh shrugged. "Fine by me."

"Okay, then." Xander pondered for a moment, then began. "So, your life went something like this. You've always been high-energy, hardly ever sick, plenty of bumps and bruises 'cause you've got a daredevil streak, but you always bounced back fast. Mostly you just felt good all the time … you know, body-good, and that physical zest kept you from getting too down even when other things in your life were maybe not so great.

"Then, let's say about twenty-six months ago, something changed. You felt it change, like a wind going through you, something waking up inside you. Everything was different, you knew it even though you didn't know what it was or what it meant. And that was even before the dreams started.

"You probably didn't realize right away just how much stronger you were, 'cause it was like extra gears got added to what was already there. Go to open a jar of peanut butter, you open the jar; may have been surprised how easy it was, but you didn't crunch the glass in your fist or anything like that. It wasn't till you tried to do something you couldn't do before, or could do but just barely, that you started learning how much the limits had shifted.

"Now, location. Phoenix isn't as big OR as flaky as L.A., and I haven't heard about any Hellmouths in Arizona, so you wouldn't start running into supernatural creepy-crawlers right away. It would happen sooner or later, though; Slayer instincts come with the package, you'd have started noticing things other people didn't, plus there's something about the Chosen that attracts weirdness. Like gravity or magnetism, the lightweights get moved first but they all feel it, and more and more of 'em respond as time goes by. You don't sound like you've been a 'trainee' more than a month or so, so you've had at least two years to watch things get stranger and stranger. Not vampires at first, probably, unless there was already a nest established in your hometown, but vampires definitely would have started showing up. There's more of 'em around, and they jazz to that Slayer allure more than most other things do."

He paused to give her a quizzical eyebrow. "Yes," Leigh said. "I've dealt with vampires."

"All to the good. Now, twenty years ago somebody in your shoes wouldn't have had any resources. Suddenly you're ten or a dozen times as strong as you used to be, your reaction speed is triple human norm, you're having nightmares that start to come true, and who the heck can you ask about it? With the Internet, though, you can check all kinds of possibilities, follow threads you wouldn't have run across any other way. And, if you caught a break — say, if one of the vamps you met called you 'Slayer' before you introduced him to a pointy piece of wood — and you Googled 'vampire' and 'Slayer' together, you might have started to get some hints about what was going on in your life.

"And, unless I've totally missed the boat — which, wow, that's never happened to me — a month or so after you really hit your stride with the 'Net searches, some people came to call on you. Totally polite, broad daylight, all very proper … but there would have been at least two girls your age, watching you really casual while a couple of people trying to act like schoolteachers explained to you that you were part of something bigger, and if you wanted to learn more you'd need to attend this special program in Cleveland."

"They were like me," Leigh said. "The girls, I mean. There were three of them, and I knew as soon as I saw them. One I might not have noticed, but they all had … I don't know, the same something."

Xander nodded. "Yep, hard to miss once you've seen it the first time."

"You could know all this if they'd sent you a report on me," Leigh observed. "But you're saying not. So it sounds like what happened in my case is just … standard procedure."

"Not exactly," Xander said. "I know their procedures, and I've seen it happen with other people. Some of it you told me yourself, some of it follows from you being here. I was around when the idea was first floated to tag any 'Net searches that used certain keywords … Anyway, that's what I'd guess. So, where'd I score and where was I just totally in the wrong playing field?"

Leigh considered it. "You were a little off here and there," she said. "And there were some important things you didn't mention. But I can't say you were flat wrong anywhere."

"A personal best," Xander said, nodding. " 'And Harris mounts the podium to the cheers of multitudes … and, yes, here to present the medal is Amy Yip herself —' " He shook his head. "Sorry. Back now. Okay, I wasn't just showing off, I wanted you to see I understand how these things go. You wouldn't be here unless there was something different about your case, though, so lay it on me. All ears here."

"You were right about the time," Leigh said. "Twenty-six months ago, almost exactly. And that was just how it felt, that 'wind blowing through me', and at the same time there's no way to explain what it was like. I knew it had to mean something; what, I had no idea, but I knew it was important.

"There wasn't really time for any dreams to start before I got my first clue. Two days after I felt the wind, I was at a shopping center, and I saw this moron in a jacked-up four-wheel drive pulling out of his parking space, only he was boosted so high he couldn't see in his rear mirror that he was about to back over a kid in a stroller. Just like that I was out of my car and across the lot and pulled the stroller out of the way, and then everybody was yelling for awhile, and finally it all calmed down because nobody had actually got hurt."

"Slayer speed," Xander said, nodding.

"I guess," Leigh said. "But that wouldn't have tipped me off by itself. When I got back to my car … Well, I'd been having trouble with my seat belt. Every now and then it would stick, and I'd have to work the buckle awhile to get it to let go. When I got back to my car, the belt was lying out on the pavement. I'd gone straight through it, I'd torn the mounting bolt right out of the frame, and I hadn't even noticed."

"And that," Xander said, "is what, in the supernatural biz, we call a clue."

"Yeah. So I started testing myself. I was like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, I couldn't stack enough plates on the weight bar to find my limit. I ran a three-minute mile on my first try. I went to jump over a wall, saw I wasn't going to make it, switched to a handspring vault in mid-air, cleared it easy. Ten-foot wall."

"I know the drill," Xander said. "One minute, mild-mannered high school student. The next, Wonder Woman without the bustier." He gave her a sideways glance. "There was no bustier, was there? 'Cause that would just be … extreme. And wrong."

"The situation didn't really seem to call for spandex," Leigh said. "But it did shake me, kind of. That 'body-good' feeling you mentioned, it was charged up higher than ever, I loved being able to do what I could do now. Loved being strong. And at the same time, I knew there had to be more to it."

" 'With great power comes great responsibility,' " Xander agreed.

"Thank you, Uncle Ben." Leigh shook her head. "No, more along the lines of, Oh crap, if I'm a superhero all of a sudden, when do the super-villains start popping up?"

"Oh," Xander said. "Yeah. Right. That."

"So the stuff you said I'd have started to notice, I was probably watching for that a little sooner than most." Leigh sighed. "Didn't take long for it to start happening, either."

"And you carried it on your own for close to two years." Xander pulled at his chin. "That has to have been heavy baggage. And I don't mean standard teen angst, either, I'm talking Freddy-Meets-Jason, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off badness and isolation."

"Isolation?" Leigh scoffed. "Going through vampires, succubi, mind-controlling Mixtec masks, all without anybody to share it with? Getting by on three hours' sleep a day, sneaking out every night, trying to convince my parents and my little brother that I wasn't doing drugs or turning tricks on the boulevard? Seeing my best friend killed and turned by some Eurotrash lunatic, and having to stake her myself because I hadn't been able to just tell her, flat-out, exactly what kind of bad news this Gutrick character really was? Come on, how could any of that possibly make me feel alienated?"

Xander had gone very still. Alarmed by her outburst? "Your best friend," he said at last. "That's a rough one. I'm sorry."

Leigh turned hard eyes on him. "Don't try to pretend you understand."

"I won't." He didn't sound offended, but not apologetic either. "So then, after all that, the others showed up with their little recruiting pitch. What was that like?"

"A relief," Leigh said. "A door opening. I'd been doing this all by myself, and now here was somebody else who knew. I was sold before they started talking. Maybe not the entire program, I don't take a lot on trust, but at least I'd have a chance to get a clear idea about what was going on."

"Then you get there," Xander prompted. "Slayer Central. Major adjustment, I'm guessing."

"It was ridiculous," Leigh spat. "It was a joke. It was fucking nursery school. Two solid years I'd been doing this, and they acted like I had to be taught how to hold a stake. It wasn't even that they thought I didn't know anything; no, they acted like everything I knew was wrong, and I had to forget it all and start over."

"Nice to hear the new Watchers aren't neglecting the old traditions," Xander said. "So how long before you got fed up and told 'em where to stick it?"

She had been building a nice load of wrath, but at his lack of opposition, some of it seeped out of her. "Little under three weeks. I said I was sick of baby games. They said they couldn't change the whole program just for me. I said, then I'm outta here. They said they'd book me a flight."

"And they sent you here instead." Xander drew a slow breath. "I'm not totally on board with how they do things, but you need to understand, they're not really as dumb as they seem."

"Maybe not, but they blew it with me from Day One."

"They had to start over cold," Xander explained. "Make it up as they went. The old Council was gone — most of it, anyhow — and the whole situation had changed, so they couldn't just keep going by the way things had always been done. At the same time, they had a big job to do and they had to start right away, so they had to fall back on a lot of the old models till they had time to come up with something better. Plus, you'd be sort of a special problem for 'em."

"Yeah? Explain that part to me."

"Well, most of the first wave of new Chosen, they found pretty quick; the ones that they didn't get to till later, those usually hadn't run into a lot of mystical problems, because the ones that did generally didn't make it very long without backup. So with you, they had somebody who on one hand didn't know near enough, and on the other knew way too much. They put you in with a bunch of newbies 'cause they didn't know how else to handle you, and you got tired of it before they could come up with anything that'd fit you better."

"And then shipped me off to Scotland because they dropped the ball." Leigh fixed her host with a new, challenging look. "But why you, exactly? Where do you fit in all this? You talk like you're not really with them, but you seem to know a lot, and you're the one they think of when they hit a hitch. What's your deal?"

Xander laughed. "I'm kinda like you. I mean, I don't fit any of the molds, either, and nobody really knows what to do with me." His expression sobered. "You ever have your parents lecture you on how easy kids have it now? 'Cause, you know, they grew up without any Internet or DVDs or iPods, and everybody had to learn to drive a standard transmission, and the USSR was always kicking up trouble? Well, where Slayerdom is concerned, I come from exactly that kind of Bad Old Days, only times twenty. Back when there was only one Slayer — okay, two for a while, but trust me, no improvement — and apocalypses came once or twice a year, and … Anyway, bad. I was there, and I didn't die, so when the Council got blown up and the Sunnydale crew had to organize a new one, I was on the ground floor. Then I went and did other stuff for awhile, 'cause not upper management here, and then I put in for vacation time, and then somebody decided dropping you on my doorstep would do us both some good."

"Really?" Leigh studied him doubtfully. "What, are you in some kind of career burnout?"

"Hey, everybody's got issues," Xander said. "And when you're surrounded by women, they all seem to want to mother you — which, strangely enough, never figured into any of my major fantasies — and when you come right down to it, this business is really not about me."

"Right," Leigh said. "Got it. I'm the problem child. So does all this opening up and sharing get us any closer to figuring out what we're going to do?"

"I don't know," Xander said. "Maybe. I'll have to think on it for awhile." He half-turned away from her, dug around in a backpack for a moment, held up an aluminum can. "Root beer?"