He sent the three shooters away (one man in his twenties and one who looked to be past fifty, along with a fierce-eyed redheaded girl even younger than Leigh) with thanks and assurances that he'd be fine, he could take it from here, no really, he'd be okay and he'd see them at the pub later in the week. By this time Leigh had recovered enough to sit without aid. As the three started back down the road, the redhead with a last parting glare in her direction, Leigh swallowed a few times to clear the bile from her throat, and asked faintly, "Rubber bullets?"
"Something like that." Xander came to squat next to her. "Flexible baton rounds, fired from shotguns, and higher-powered than usual 'cause, hey, Slayer. One to the head might kill a normal person; you probably coulda taken even that, but I told them to stick to torso shots."
"Thanks," Leigh said, and was surprised to realize that she had meant it without sarcasm. "Okay, go on and say it."
He studied her, puzzled but not concerned. "Say what?"
" 'That's three.' "
With a shrug, he said, "What for? You already know." He stood up. "Let's see if you can walk yet. We need to be heading back to the hut."
She could walk. Every part of her hurt, she had bruises the size of salad plates, but she knew from experience that these would fade quickly. As they started back the way they had come, Xander pushing the bicycle along between them, Leigh asked, "Who were they? The three with the shotguns, I mean. At first I thought they must be from the Council, but that just doesn't feel right."
"They're local," Xander said. "When I first got here, I helped 'em with a little werewolf problem. At least, that's what they thought it was, it turned out to be something else … which was good, 'cause it meant we could kill it without them having to lose one of their own. They were happy for a chance to pay me back."
As was common with him, his answer had raised other questions. "You handled it yourself? You didn't try to bring in a Slayer?"
Xander's grin was rueful and reminiscent. "It was one of those 'no time, no choice' situations. Exactly my least favorite thing in the world."
Was I one of those? Leigh wondered. Aloud she said, "So what comes next? Now that I've failed your test."
He laughed softly. "That wasn't a test," he told her. "It was a lesson."
"Well, you made your point. I thought I was hot stuff, and I'm not. That's it, then? Back to pre-school?"
"They want you back," he agreed. "And I think it's a good idea."
The two of them walked for several minutes without speaking. Then Leigh said, "You're him, aren't you?"
"Huh?" Xander asked. "Him who?"
"The trainees talk," Leigh said. "The people in the program try to keep everything official, but most of the instructors aren't much older than we are. Rumors float around. One of them is about what they do with a rogue Slayer. One who's turned … bad. We know they can't let that go — I mean, we're supposed to protect people against supernatural menaces, and an outlaw Slayer would be pretty damn menacing — and one of the explanations is … a guy." She looked at him. "Pretty vague. Just a name: the Carpenter. If you make his list, well, he builds you a coffin, and then he puts you in it."
"The Carpenter," Xander repeated. "Oh my God."
"Now, I'm thinking there can't be enough rogue Slayers to make that a full-time job," Leigh went on. "It stands to reason, a guy like that, he should also be pretty good at slapping down somebody that got too full of herself."
Xander stopped and faced her. "Is that what you think I am? I've been working with Slayers since I was sixteen. Killing one … that is absolutely the last thing I would ever want to do. The last thing."
"Well, speaking as a Slayer," Leigh said, "if a job like that had to be done — I mean, no choice, had to — I think I'd want it done by somebody who doesn't like it. Who feels about it the way you do."
She could almost see him pushing away the anger, stuffing it back. "All right," Xander returned. "Say the guy exists. Say I'm him. Say he does the job of … that job. Would you be a case for him?"
"I don't know," Leigh said. Face and voice were controlled, neither revealing nor evading anything. "Would I?"
Xander shook his head. "You talk about rogue Slayers. I've seen it. Not the way the old Council meant it — for them, 'rogue' meant 'won't do what we tell her' — but the real thing. I'm not talking adorable bad girl, romantic outlaw, any of that; no, when I say 'rogue' I mean 'killer'. Killing people. Enjoying it. Bragging about it, and laughing at the look on your face when she talks about what she's going to do next."
"Killing people," Leigh repeated tonelessly.
"All Slayers are killers," Xander said. He started walking again, and Leigh fell in beside him. "I mean, they're named for it. But like you said, they're protectors, too: they protect people, ordinary humans, by killing the things that threaten us. They're designed that way, best I can tell. When a Slayer kills a regular human being … well, it can get bad."
"She goes crazy," Leigh said. "Right? That's in the rumor mill, too."
"It can happen." Xander sighed. "It's a … stress. Major stress. Trigger event. If there are other things going on at the same time, yeah, it can push a girl over the edge." He turned to face her again. "It's not black-and-white. The best Slayer I've ever known — maybe the best there's ever been — killed men in combat. They were coming at her with weapons, she was defending someone else, she didn't have time to go easy on them. She dealt. But, yeah, it seems to hit Slayers harder than most people."
"You said she was defending somebody?"
"Yep. You never wanted to get between her and her sister." He laughed. " 'Course, the sister turned out to be pretty tough, herself."
"So it makes a difference if … if it's to protect someone else. Somebody innocent."
"It makes a difference, yeah. Big difference." Xander was surveying her with that eerily incomplete gaze. "I'm not saying it'd amount to a free pass, but you get a little slack if you're doing what you have to do to save your best friend." He paused. "Or parents." Another beat. "Or little brother."
He had scored, and Leigh knew he could see it, but she nodded thoughtfully. "So, hypothetically speaking, if a Slayer who had taken that kind of … extreme measures … kept having nightmares about it, would that be a sign that she was cracking up?"
Xander shrugged. "Could just be conscience. I'd think that, hypothetically speaking, I'd be more interested in how far she'd go to avoid facing what she'd done. Or how likely she'd be to do it again."
They resumed walking. After a minute Leigh said, "Hypothetically speaking, I can't see how somebody who'd done that kind of thing could ever stand to do it again." She tried to stop there, but the next words insisted on emerging. "Not unless she had absolutely no other choice."
"That sounds like a pretty good attitude for somebody like that to have." Xander's tone was casual, amiable. "Taking it seriously, but still realistic. I mean, she'd have some work to do, but it would be reassuring to know she seemed to have her head on straight." He gave her a sideways glance, a slight tilt to his mouth. " 'Course, if a Slayer went through something like that, dealt with those kinds of issues … it would have to make her different, wouldn't it?"
Leigh thought about that. "Enough to notice?"
"Enough that people used to working with Slayers might want to check it out. Some secrets are private business; some, you want to know what they mean."
"I can see that," Leigh said. "But, once there's an answer, would that be enough?"
"Well, the new Council people would want to keep working with our hypothetical Slayer. They'd really hate to see her get away. And sooner or later, she'd have to talk to somebody about it." Xander grinned at her. "If you mean would she get any fallout, though, probably not. Not if somebody filed a good report on her. Which I kinda think will happen."
"I think I'm tired of talking hypothetically," Leigh said. "But … I'd say this Slayer would probably be willing to give it a try."
Xander nodded. "And I'd say there would probably be a lot of people who'd be really glad to hear that."
~ – ~ – ~
When they reached the hut, Leigh looked around and asked, "How long till they pull me back?"
"Some of that's up to you," Xander said. "I can send 'em a notification that you're ready, but it doesn't have to be right away."
"I could stand to rest awhile first," Leigh acknowledged. "Do you have anything to drink besides root beer and bottled water?"
"Why would I need anything else?" Xander asked, in such a way that she couldn't even guess as to whether or not he was serious.
He popped a can, she opened a bottle. They sat in the shade, sipping and not speaking. "So," he said at last. "What will you be taking away from this frolicsome little seminar?"
"Besides bruises?" Leigh shook her head. "I don't know. For a while I had you slotted in with the rest of them, and I wasn't interested in what you had to say. When you suckered me, left me with the note and the arrow, I was mad. But …" She bit her lip. "Three times. You took me out three times, one right after another, and I never saw it coming. Not even when I was watching for it. I'd got used to being a big fish in a little pond, even when I was pulled in with the other Slayers I knew I was better than them …" She stopped. "I was wrong. I'm not special at all."
"Hmm," Xander said. "Not exactly the point I was trying to put across."
"No? What, then?"
"Yeah, I aced you. Once by hitting you when you were looking the other way. Once by having a trap waiting for you. Once with help from friends you didn't know I had, with me so far away you weren't expecting anything yet. I set you up from the start, I never gave you any kind of chance —"
"I know," Leigh said. "I know. You didn't even use magical weapons, you rubbed my face in it. Okay, I get it. Big bad super-strong female, can't even take on a regular human … I'm nothing. I get it."
"No, you don't. You're a Slayer, and not an ordinary one. You made it for two years with no Watcher, no backup, nobody to tell you the score, and you did it against some pretty heavy opposition. Even Bu– … even the Slayer Prime never had to pull that off. You are special."
"But you still beat me," Leigh protested, not understanding. "Over and over."
"I beat you," Xander agreed. "But I never fought you. If I had, you'd have turned me into a smear on the landscape."
"I never got the chance."
He snorted. "I should say not! I made sure of it. You're a Slayer. I'll never be able to do what you can. Never." He paused. "But you can learn to do what I did."
Leigh discovered that her mouth was open. "I can?"
"Sure. Strategy. Deception. Coordination with other fighters. That was what the lesson was about. I'm human, but I beat you. Use the same tactics, learn to focus on winning instead of on fighting, and you'll be able to beat things that think they're invincible."
"I guess I could," Leigh said. "That … that makes sense."
"I've seen it done," Xander told her. "A time or two, I got to help."
"So … they wouldn't go through all this, if they didn't think I was worth it, would they?"
"We don't give up on any of our people," Xander said firmly. "Not if we can help it. But, yeah, you're worth it."
"I can't see why," Leigh said. "I'm not arguing with you, or putting myself down, or fishing for compliments. I just can't see it."
Xander sat quietly, looking straight ahead; Leigh, beside him, couldn't begin to guess his thoughts. At last he spoke.
"There's this girl," he said. "A Slayer. Ran away from her duty after her Watcher was killed. Ran away from it again after … well, lots of things. Let a vampire go when she could have dusted him, and he thanked her by killing somebody close to her. Bad taste in men: two of her boyfriends, well, add together their body counts and it'd probably hit five figures. Tried to kill herself. Tried to kill her friends and her sister, while she was whacked-out on drugs.
"Another one. Again, ran away after a dead Watcher. Killed a guy by mistake, and then killed at least two more deliberately. Tried to kill me. Tried to kill my friends. Threw in with a local demon wannabe and tried to help kill my whole graduating class. Then, after a year of bed-rest, she kidnapped one of her replacement Watchers and tortured him for hours. Spent three years in prison, and then broke out.
"Last one. She got a taste of power, and liked it. She went looking for more. People tried to tell her she needed to be careful, but she just waved it off, she knew best. Got into some really dark stuff, did some very creepy things. Started manipulating the people who cared about her: memory erasure, maybe even some mind control. Then she really went off the rails. Hunted a man down, tortured him, flayed him alive, and then burned him alive. Which showstopper she followed by trying to kill everybody around her. And then everybody everywhere.
"Now: can you maybe tell me what those three women have in common?"
Leigh wet her lips. "Just as a guess, would they be three of the targets that … that the guy you say isn't you, would have had to go after? That's, you know, if he actually existed."
"Nope," Xander said. "They're three of the founders of the new Slayer-Watcher co-op."
Leigh's mouth was open again. It was becoming an embarrassing habit. "Are you serious?" she asked.
"They turned things around," Xander told her. "They made bad choices, but they learned from them. Now they're leaders. Thing is … a lot of what they've become, a lot of what they have to offer, comes straight from the bad stuff. It's given them a perspective they couldn't have gotten any other way. It makes them more than they would be without it."
Leigh regarded him doubtfully. "Are you saying I can do the same thing?"
"I'm saying it looks like you're most of the way there already." He put his hand on her shoulder: lightly, a gentle contact rather than possessive or intrusive. "Go back. Learn everything they can teach you. Anything that seems stupid or wrong, don't argue, just mark it down and think about how you'd teach it. Because pretty soon, probably, you will be."
She thought about it. He withdrew his hand, sat beside her silently, gave her the time. "I think I'd like that," she said at last. "That sounds … really good. I think I'd like it a lot."
"There'll be others like you," Xander said. "Probably not many left from the first wave, but newer awakenings it's taken us time to catch up to. You know what that's like; it'd give you street cred with them, and let you understand them better than we might. Once you learn the rest of it, the stuff only a Council can teach, you'll be ready to change their world."
"I'm in," Leigh said. "I mean, it's good, you've sold me. Everything I hated, the reasons I wanted to leave … now you're telling me I get to do something about that, make it different for others like me. I'm in." She shook her head. "I can hardly believe it."
Xander grinned at her. "We need you," he said. "Big time. Believe that."
Another silence: relaxed, restful, companionable. The shadows were lengthening along the hillside, edging toward day's end.
Looking back on how consummately he had outmaneuvered her, Leigh found herself wondering if he had actually known all the facts about her before she had arrived; if, in fact, it had been a total set-up from the beginning. After some thought, she ruled it out. It just didn't seem to fit his style. He was masterful when it came to misdirection, but she could think of no instance where he had clearly lied to her.
She thought of his anger when she had spoken of the (still hypothetical) nemesis of rogue Slayers. Of his oft-expressed desire to continue with a badly needed vacation. Of the suggested possibility that she had been sent here as much for his sake as for her own. Even — though he had instantly denounced it — of some hints at the DarkSun Index website.
What was the truth about Xander Harris? She couldn't know … but she wanted to learn.
"There is one other thing I kind of wondered about," Leigh said, breaking the long quiet.
Xander glanced over at her. "Yeah?"
"This guy I mentioned to you," she said. "This mythical Carpenter. There was more than one set of rumors about him. I never bought either version, myself, but now I'm starting to think I might have been wrong about that, too."
He shook his head. "Sorry, not following you."
"Well, there were some who said the real reason he was called the Carpenter was because he was really good at nailing Slayers."
Xander had caught the tone behind the words, and his expression went from quizzical to no expression at all. "Nailing," he repeated. "As in —?"
Leigh nodded confirmation. "Lot of speculation about that after lights-out, I can tell you."
"And now," Xander said firmly, "we have left the bogeyman behind and moved directly into bodice-ripper fantasy."
"I don't know." Leigh shifted next to him on the bench, turning more toward him without actually moving closer. "I can see how it could happen."
The finality was unmistakable. Leigh nodded again, accepting it. After a moment she asked, "Is it because you're responsible for me right now?"
"That'd be a lot of it, yeah."
"And the … issues … you mentioned; the reason you wanted a vacation, the reason they tossed a problem your way to pull you back into the game; would that figure in?"
Xander sighed. "I'd have to say that would probably cover most of the rest of it."
She nodded. "So how would it be if we ran into each other again, say in a year or two? Once I was past probationer status, and you'd had time to get past some of your … issues?"
"Things might be different then," Xander said. He looked to her. "Or they might not."
"Nicely indefinite." Leigh smiled. "But I think maybe I can live with that."
She shifted back, so that they were again sitting side by side, looking out over the sheep meadows. They remained that way while the evening gave way to twilight, and the twilight to dusk.
Special acknowledgment: This story is original, but the notion of Xander as the executioner of rogue Slayers (and spoken of in whispered rumors as a warning) was something I saw by Lori Bush in her story, "How to Be Dead". Though I called him 'the Carpenter' rather than 'the Enforcer', she nonetheless used the concept before I did.