Part VI

Within an hour, I am slightly more than five miles from the diner. (I could access GPS channels to determine the precise distance, but the less exact measure is sufficient to my current needs.) Inevitably there will be some kind of official response to the events there, and my remaining to be caught up in the aftermath would be problematic on several levels. In addition, my reason for being at that location has been … perhaps not fulfilled, but at least brought to an end. There is much for me to consider, and nothing to be gained by allowing myself to be entangled in complications. I avoided highways at first, cutting across fields and sporadic wooded areas, running steadily until I had achieved what I felt to be a practical safe distance. Then, slowing to a walk that would not attract anyone's notice, I continued along one of the lesser roads. I also altered my appearance, shortening and darkening my hair and giving myself freckles and a different facial structure. Continuing in this fashion, not swiftly but unceasingly, I can add another fifteen miles by dark.

There is, however, the fact that I have no destination. No place to be, no purpose to carry out, no reason as yet to exist beyond existence itself.

I have repeatedly accessed in memory storage my record of events back at the diner, with particular attention to what I could discern of my own internal state, especially at the end. From there, I looked to my previous memories, checking analysis of my pre-diner state against that of my state of function within the diner, and comparing both to my awareness of my current operating condition. I made no attempt at that time to formulate theories or seek an explanation, it was purely review and sorting of data. I have reached the limit of what could be achieved in that area, and now must do what I can to derive some meaning from the information thus organized.

I have no explanation for why I acted as I did. I do not possess — did not believe myself to possess — the Buffybot's obligation to protect, and my intent was to allow and observe the result of the scenario that was unfolding, without interference and with no regard for the consequences to the participants. My brief exposure to Rebecca Lowell and Dustin Clarke gave me no reason to assign them any value — in her case, because of her presumption in subjecting us to imprisonment; in his, due to his opportunism, his attempts to manipulate by surface charm, and his casual lack of respect for women — and Virginia Bryce occupied an essentially neutral place, her actions and attitudes giving me cause neither for esteem nor censure.

It is not surprising that I should regard Joel Kreuter more favorably; I saw enough of his behavior during my preliminary surveillance to have developed a positive opinion of him. If I had given any genuine thought to the likelihood of his coming to harm, I might well have made a deliberate choice to act in his benefit. I did not give it any thought, however, because I did not then see that his fate, or the fate of any human, was of the least importance to me.

And my attempt to go to his aid was not deliberate. It was automatic.

Humans have a subconscious. I do not. I am conscious of everything about myself. Some protocols are 'involuntary' in the sense that they are standing programs and there is no reason for me to alter their function, but I could override or suspend any of them at any time. More importantly, I am aware of them, so that some might chance to work to my disadvantage in a particular situation, but none of them could ever possibly take me by surprise.

This is different. This is inexplicable. This is … troubling.

I am not dismayed by having moved on Joel's behalf. He makes a positive contribution to several lives, very probably more than I was in a position to observe. He was wounded as a direct result of his own deliberate choice, attacking the more dangerous adversary because it posed the most immediate threat to someone else. Preserving him was a worthy act. It was not, however, an act that I had intended to carry out, until I found myself in the process of doing so.

I thought I knew myself, even if I did not know my purpose. It is clear now that at least something within me is beyond my knowledge. In retrospect, it was not unforeseeable that I might discover some unforeseen aspect of myself. As I have several times observed, I am not simply the sum my parts; I am less and more than any of those who contributed to me, and my assembly from them was not a matter of conscious design.

I am not Ted, nor April, nor the Buffybot. Even less am I Adam or Moloch. I am more accurately compared to Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of Oz (Dawn Summers liked having the Oz books read to her on occasion by the simulacrum of her sister, when no human was around to witness her 'babyishness'): made of discarded material, miscellaneous remnants from other projects. I sought to find meaning in understanding myself, in following the lines of fate that I could perceive; but in the final analysis I was a random construction, and what meaning is there in randomness?

A hero, a protector, would not have allowed four innocents to face such danger for even as long as I did. A villain-monster-demon (amoral robot) would have killed Virginia Bryce, if not all the survivors, to prevent any knowledge of its true nature from becoming more widely known. A disengaged, uncaring observer-recorder would have taken no action whatsoever.

I did none of those things. I am none of those creatures. Far from resolving any question regarding my nature, the scenario just past has only served to multiply the uncertainties. I match no definition, can be assigned to no category. I am singular, unique.

Solitary.

Various automobiles have gone past me, from both directions, as I continue to walk briskly down the paved road, but none have been police vehicles, which is the matter of most immediate concern. One goes around me now, slowing and moving into the other lane to give me a wide margin, and then it pulls onto the shoulder some fifty feet ahead of me. It is shorter than most vehicles, as if a Jeep had been partially compressed from front to back. The color is a bright chrome yellow, and on the vinyl cover of a tire mounted on the back are slanting letters that read RAV4. The vehicle is so constructed that the rear portion of the cab is a fabric "soft top", which has been folded down to leave the back open. On the bumper is a sticker, of such unsophisticated graphic composition that I suspect it was individually manufactured, which proclaims "I'm short but spunky". And in the driver's seat, half-turned to watch my approach, is Dustin Clarke.

It is the uniform, of course, the spare I secured from Trish Hervey's living quarters in order to impersonate her; though not so garish or unusual as to draw attention, it is sufficiently identifiable to be recognized by someone watching for it. I am close enough to Dustin Clarke for him to see that I wear an unfamiliar face, and his brows draw together slightly, but he waits without any other change of expression.

I draw level with the driver's-side door, and stop. "Yeah?" I say to him, in a voice that, of course, is not Trish's.

His control is to his credit. He displays no surprise, puzzlement, or confusion, nor does he appreciably hesitate. "Need a ride?" he asks, evenly and calmly.

"Depends on which way you're headed," I tell him.

I have already seen him glance at my shoes, where Trish apparently drew a pattern of swirls with a laundry marker, and his eyes move fleetingly over the spot where her name-tag once rested, though I removed it during my trek away from the diner. "I'll take you anywhere you want," he replies. "Or, if you don't really care where you go, I'll head back to my home town, and let you out any time you feel like it."

This is a situation which could quickly become unpredictably complicated. At the same time, lacking a purpose, I likewise lack any pressing need to avoid complication. "What the hell," I say, and cross around to the other side of the vehicle, open the door, and get in.

Once I am settled into the seat, Dustin Clarke spins the wheel to turn the vehicle across the road and proceed back along the route from which he came. "I need to pick up the state road back here," he explains as he sees me regarding him. "It'll get me to the Interstate, and after an hour on that I'll take the exit that starts getting us closer to Cromwell."

Yes: if he has spent the past hour casting about for me on various minor roads, he could be expected to require a modicum of doubling-back. "Wasn't asking," I say to him. "Just wondered, is all."

For four minutes and eighteen seconds he does not speak. Then, as he reaches the state road he described, and turns onto it, he begins without preamble. "Joel was really worried when Trish just seemed to vanish. — They found the cook tied up and stowed in the walk-in cooler, by the way. — Anyhow, when we couldn't find her anywhere, he called her cell phone." His eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror. "He was pretty confused when he found out she'd taken an early weekend to go shopping, and was halfway up I-5 on her way to the big mall in Sunnyvale."

Was he watching for a reaction when he mentioned a town with a name so similar to that of the now-sunken home of the former Hellmouth? "Sounds like there must have been a whole lot of confusion going on," I answer.

"Oh, yeah," Dustin agrees. "I mean, some things we could figure out: for instance, it looks like Grant and the Bugbear locked the doors on the truck stop and put out the CLOSED signs, which is why we didn't have cops swarming the place. And Virginia said that was the way we should keep things, and called some folks who specialize in … exotic clean-up, to deal with the leftovers from the way it all turned out." He looks to me again. "I was out of it for awhile after Grant put me down, so I didn't see what happened to him. Neither did Joel or Rebecca. When I asked Virginia, though, she said the damnedest thing."

I have not failed to note that, once out of the two women's presence, Dustin speaks of them with much greater familiarity than he attempted while dealing with them directly. "Really? What did she say?"

Dustin clears his throat, and emits a series of staccato sounds. His rendition is unexpected but not mystifying; I can recognize the trademark uh-uh-uh-AH-uh! from the Buffybot's memories of Xander Harris watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons. "Maybe your Virginia was a little shell-shocked," I offer noncommittally.

"Maybe," Dustin says. "It's just … Joel owned the place, and Virginia was just out for a drive, but everybody else was there for a reason." He counts them off. "Rebecca wanted the elixir vitae, or whatever. I wanted some help dealing with Katie's situation, even if it was only a referral to somebody else. Grant wanted revenge, and brought along the Bugbear as back-up." He pauses, draws a slow breath. "So … what was it you wanted?"

He has dealt with having no proof of my identity by simply ignoring the matter. More intriguingly, he has chosen — even if only for now — to not address the fact that I was able to take on Trish Hervey's appearance. I could deny, I could put on a blank expression and claim no knowledge of the things to which he refers. There is no satisfaction in such a course. His sheer impudence, or my own … restlessness … elicits a reply he could not have compelled. "I was looking for some answers," I say to him. "Didn't find them."

By pattern analysis and contextual re-synthesis, I can match the rhythms and jargon of casual human speech, but there seems to be nothing to match whatever is within them that allows them to choose a course as worthwhile and then follow it out. Dustin nods, accepting the uninformative statement, and drives on without comment, challenge, or follow-up inquiry.

He knows that I am, at the very least, not a normal human. He knows, or must have recognized the possibility, that I killed Grant. Does he presume that having dispatched the 'bad guy' makes me a 'good guy'? Does he not consider that his own life might be equally meaningless to me? He allowed — no, invited — to travel with him an individual who might pose a deadly danger. He has fought demons; does he not wonder if I might myself be one? Or does he simply discount any possibility of threat from me, unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge that something female-shaped might be beyond his ability to handle?

"You're not short," I say.

He glances toward me. "No, I'm not. Thanks for noticing."

"The bumper sticker says 'I'm short but spunky.' You aren't short."

"Ah," he says. "I see what you mean. No, this is Katie's car. She's been borrowing my motorcycle a lot lately — better for patrolling, I guess — so she was okay lending me this when I needed something that would let me keep supplies close while I ran amateur surveillance on Virginia. Not that I told her that was what I'd be doing."

He speaks so easily, with such assurance. Does he ever question his place, his purpose? Does he ever wonder why he is here —?

… or, does he simply move straight ahead, dealing with what is in front of him?

If the latter, might I learn to do the same? to accept such an approach, and be satisfied with it?

Though my vision of such things has continued to fade, I can still see some hints of the ghostly threads of destiny that move through him. Incomprehensible though they might be to me, his outlook and system of choices clearly give him a place in whatever scheme of operations exists in our current plane of being. I look at the threads, tracing their motion and anchoring, the branching of permutations and clustering of nexi. There is meaning in the fact that they are there, but I can discern no meaning in their placement or arrangement.

So faint have they become to my dimming sight of them, it is several minutes before I determine that not all the fate-lines come from Dustin. Longer to distinguish and separate the exceptions, and longer yet — because I never considered the possibility even to dismiss it — to realize where these new threads originate and terminate.

Well.

It would seem that, however many other things I may lack, I do not lack a destiny.

Careful study tells me that, though Dustin's threads and mine intertwine at multiple points, they are not in fact connected to one another. This would suggest that my fate may incidentally run parallel to his, but does not necessarily do so. He knows of and has fought demons. He is taking me to a place where there almost certainly is a Slayer in residence. These facts are not unrelated to one another. He has something in mind.

"So," he says to me. "You have a name?"

In the series of novels by which Tony Hillerman chronicles the continuing activities of Navajo tribal police, he speaks of a figure in their ancestral religion: Changing Woman, or in their language Asdząą Nádleehé. Without having given the matter any prior reflection, I suddenly see myself in those words: not only can I change my outer appearance at will, but my essence would seem still to be changing as well.

"Natalie," I tell him. "Natalie Sparks."

It is so. I am Changing Woman. I am Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, a new person regardless of her origins. (It is unlikely that Dustin knows Navajo myth, or would notice that 'Sparks' is 'Scraps' in reverse.) I am both, and I am myself, and …

… and I am still Becoming.

"Natalie," Dustin repeats. His voice has the tone I heard from him in the diner, and the smile he gives me is warm, familiar, and suggestive. "That's a pretty name."

Yes, he has returned to the patterns that comfort him. Deferred while he dealt with matters of imprisonment, and then threat, and then life and death, but inevitably moving back to the well-known and doubtless well-loved routine. It began here, and we are here again: he wants to have sex with me.

He will be disappointed in this wish.

Probably.

end


Special acknowledgment: I first saw Willow referred to as "the Red Witch" by Litmouse, in the utterly delightful epic fic "Father Goose and the Black Knight" at Twisting the Hellmouth. I liked it, so I'm taking it into my personal canon.