An Eye to the Future
by Aadler
Copyright April 2011

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

Warning: Many references in this story will make little sense to anyone not familiar with much of the Backstage Series thus far, particularly "Shadow and Substance", "Tip of My Tongue", and "Kirlian Logic".

Madame Tiphaine was feeling her age today, and grumpy enough about it to be ready (almost) to reveal the fact. She wasn't much past the century mark, but longevity tended to be unpredictable among hybrids such as herself: she might squeeze out another fifty or sixty years, or she might begin to deliquesce tomorrow. She still looked fine, she knew, that was also characteristic of her nature. An uninformed observer would see a young woman in her mid-to-late twenties, petite and dark-haired and rather sweet-faced. (Tall and stately would have better suited her current profession; the flamboyant robes were cut as much to compensate for her short stature as for comfort.) Only careful scrutiny would show that her 'olive' complexion actually carried a faint undertone of indigo, or that her hair was so full because each root sprouted three separate tendrils, or that — if she forgot herself — her eyes could remain fixed while the pupils moved independently as free-floating structures.

Any look at her internal organs, or course, would blow the game in an instant. But she made sure that never happened.

Willy the barman was glowering in her direction again, which made the dull ache in her temples and wrists throb all the more. She had only a touch of the Sight, did Madame Tiphaine, but when it manifested it could be an utter bitch. Then there was Willy himself; he had been such an eagerly ingratiating young man, and Tiphaine had been going through one of her phases and still trying to make up for having missed the Summer of Love, and their lovemaking had been frenzied and insatiable. The next time they met, he had been fifteen years older (and none improved by it), while she looked exactly the same, and he could still be occasionally sullen about that.

She held up her glass. "Another, please," she said politely.

Willy's glower deepened, and over at his own barstool Merl groaned, "Oh, man." Andrew Wells (now there was a dark soul, and more the worse for the world if he ever fully realized it) merely looked from one face to another, confused. Really, this was ridiculous. Willy regularly served anything that fermented, coagulated, grew mold, decomposed into multiple elements, or fought you on its way down your throat; why did he make such a production of mixing Dos Equis with white grapefruit juice? Especially considering that there were demon species that anointed their young with that hair tonic he used.

Merl was easier to figure out. He was a dedicated spoilsport, and liked it, and worked hard to get better at it. One had to respect that kind of commitment, even knowing that, at too long an exposure, one would inevitably wind up hacking at that scaly face with the nearest handy utensil.

"I'm trying to explain," Andrew went on petulantly, "that it isn't my fault."

"Tell it ta somebody else, kid." Willy's expression was sour, while his hands automatically prepared Tiphaine's drink request. "I relocate from Sunnydale 'cause business is in the toilet, thanks to your gal-pal — that's the Slayer, 'case you didn't catch the reference — and no sooner do I get my feet back under me here than you come breezin' into town with, what? two dozen Slayers taggin' along?" He glared at the boy. "This is a vendetta, is what this is. There's gotta be some kinda court where I can sue."

"Cleveland has a Hellmouth," Andrew protested. "The Slayers of Vampyres have a destiny to confront the forces of darkness. When the forces of darkness start to gather in a particular place, they can't ignore it. That would be like … like the Lone Ranger hanging up his mask and selling Western belts at a roadside stand."

"And what's supposed ta be wrong with turnin' an honest buck?" Willy waved his hands in his agitation. "If I tried ta sell belts, your stable'a crazy broads'd just start slicin' up anybody wears pants! You're killin' me here, kid!"

"Heroes ruin everything," Merl agreed morosely. "Sure, I can understand 'em going after the big guys, all ritual sacrifices and dark altars and 'I will bring about the end of all existence' … go get 'em, says me, and I'll even draw a map in return for a little polite compensation." He scowled. "But show some discrimination, people! I mean, most of us are just tryin' to keep our heads down and mind our own business. But no-o-oo, next thing you know you're gettin' torn apart by a mob of crazed vigilantes, inspired by Guess Who, and nobody gives a thought to —"

"You insist this happened to one who was not you," Tiphaine interposed, "then speak of it as of your own injury. Really, Moori-a'ueil, you should choose a story and stick to it."

The look he shot her would have melted lead. "I remember it, even if it didn't happen to me! What do you know about traumatic memory stamp in spontaneous death-cloning?"

"But …" As always, Andrew looked mystified. "But you still call yourself Merl."

Merl rounded on the boy. "And what's it to you? I have Merl's memories, even if I know I'm not him. I want to name myself after my dead bud-brother, how's that your business?"

"My business is what I care about!" Willy broke in. "As in, the business I ain't got." He made a sweeping gesture that took in the interior of the bar. "Look at this joint. Today oughtta be my second-best gross'a the week, even this early it should be showin' some action, and all I got here is you!"

Really, Tiphaine thought. Any one of the three of them could quite reasonably feel insulted at being lumped in with the others. Unschooled though it might be, Willy's diplomatic ability was extraordinarily well-developed, so this blunder betrayed just how distraught he truly was.

As was Andrew Wells. "But I need this place," he whined. "Do you have any idea what it's like to live in a house full of teen-aged girls? Super-powered teen-aged girls? Children of Destiny, chosen by Fate, heroines?" He shuddered histrionically. "They'll fight demons all night long, but not one of them can be counted on to attack her own laundry, not one can cook without destroying the kitchen … but they start grabbing for axes if somebody else winds up with any of their clothes, or scarfs down one of their favorite snackies without a signed contract." He gesticulated wildly. "I buy groceries by the truckload, sometimes every day, but I swear every one of them is on her own persnickety diet. They must use a thousand different brands of shampoo and lotion and conditioner. They get by on three hours of sleep a night, and never the same hours, and don't care that some people might not have the same hypermetabolism! And, and no matter how carefully I hide it, or seal it with my name on the label, I never get any of the hazelnut coffee!" Andrew set his elbows on the table, sunk his face into his hands. "Sometimes a man just needs to get away," he whispered. "Sometimes, you just … just need a place where nobody knows your name."

"Yeah, well, try the IHOP, kid!" Willy snarled. "Anybody here ever figures out who you are, they'll freakin' eviscerate you. Then they'll get nasty."

"Right," Merl agreed sanctimoniously. "Nobody likes a Slayer's pet."

"Also, the spicy wings here are really good," Andrew mumbled.

Tiphaine sat up straighter. "That sounds wonderful!" she said brightly. "Do you have any made yet, Willis? If so, surely they've not had time to vanish in the —" She waved at the near-emptiness of the bar. "— Friday afternoon rush."

From the long, slow breath Willy drew, he was fighting genuine anger rather than his customary chronic discontent. Yes, things were definitely topping out. "Some day, Tiffi," he said, voice very soft. "Some day you'll push too much. Old times'll only carry you just so far."

He was right, actually; in her current condition, Tiphaine seemed to automatically prod for a reaction. Like now. "Ah," she acknowledged. "So, is that a No on the wings, then?"

With an inarticulate sound in the back of his throat, Willy turned and stalked back into the bar's mediocre kitchen area. The look Merl gave her was long, slow and sardonic. "Well," he observed. "You've definitely got some kind of mood goin' tonight."

"Each of us is moved by forces," Tiphaine replied, unruffled. "And each of us sets forces in motion. Such is the nature of my livelihood."

"Your 'livelihood' is readin' tea leaves at seventy bucks a pop," Merl shot back. "Me, I already know what the leaves say: LIPTON."

Andrew peered at her through pink-tinged eyes. "You're a psychic?" he asked. "A seer?"

"I am an unrepentant, conscienceless fraud," Tiphaine assured him cheerfully. Then she winked. "Except when I'm not."

Willy stomped back in and dropped a plate of wings in front of her. For all the ostentatious rudeness, Tiphaine noted that he'd not neglected to include the carrot sticks, or the bottle of green Tabasco. Such a dear.

"I need a reading," Andrew announced.

Tiphaine measured him with a cool, amused glance. "You truly do not."

"I'm on a personal quest," Andrew insisted. "I was seduced by the Dark Side, and I did black deeds, things … unforgivable things." He blinked at her. "I'm trying to atone. I seek redemption. I walk a lonely, tortuous road, and I … I … I need someone to tell me if I'm headed in the right direction, or if I should hang a U-ie right away."

Merl shook his head, making a wordless noise of disgust. Willy simply watched with a skeptical half-sneer. They couldn't be blamed, the grandiose language all but demanded disbelief. Nor did they have any way of knowing what Tiphaine knew (from meticulous maintenance of gossip contacts, not any internal vision): that this wispy, ineffectual boy had contributed to one murder, and then himself perpetrated another. His guilt was genuine; was the desire for atonement equally so?

"Little one," Madame Tiphaine said to him, "you will have the truth from me this day, if never again, so listen attentively." She had not raised her voice, but something in it transfixed Andrew Wells. He stared, mouth slightly agape, then nodded jerkily. "When you seek out an oracle," she went on, "you place yourself in its power. Do you understand me? With what you have already told me, I could make you my slave, and you would never feel the chains. Nor would I need the Sight to do so, or more than a few small magicks."

She saw that register, and nodded. "Yes, I am a seer, but with only a whisper of the true vision. I am also a sorceress —" (Not technically true, but the demon part of her recognized and distinguished mystical forces more clearly, and so could utilize them more accurately, than any except truly talented humans.) "— again of small power, but more than enough to create any results I predicted, and so lead you as easily as a sheep. Among the ignorant who seek my counsel, I needn't do even that much: I listen to them, and they tell me the answers they wish to hear, and that is what I give them.

"If ever you call on a seer, there are four questions whose answers you must know before you begin. Does he know the truth? Will he tell the truth? Do I need this truth? and, finally, Am I willing to pay what this truth will cost me?"

She sat back on the barstool. "You have had a narrow escape, young fool. You said you seek redemption; why ask, then, for certainty of success? If you would atone, then do what is right. Look constantly into your own heart, and do what is right. And, if you do not believe your heart to be reliable, then look to those whose hearts you trust, and heed their words.

"Go now, fool. This day you have heard truer words than any other seer will ever give you."

Andrew stood as if hypnotized, moving across the barroom without taking his eyes from hers. Only when he stumbled at the door did he look away, and then he was gone.

Merl let out a loud, gusty sigh. "Slick work there. But throwin' him out would've been a lot faster."

She waved it away. "One must follow one's own talents." To Willy she said, "Might I have some buttermilk, to go with the wings?"

He brought her a glass, and she started. She was long adept at chewing and swallowing the bones along with the meat without it being apparent that she was doing so, but in familiar company she needn't trouble herself with concealment. She hummed in satisfaction. Buttermilk and Tabasco sauce … there was a God, and he clearly had a soft spot for those of half-demon ancestry. Or some of them, at least.

Willy had waited while she ate, but now he spoke again. "I wasn't kiddin' about those Slayer bitches bein' bad for business. I don't know how I'm suppos'd ta keep my head above water here. Why the hell'd you send me to this half-ass city, anyhow?"

"Willis, Willis." She sighed. "The destruction of Sunnydale was all but foreordained; by pointing you here, I gave you the opportunity to make a more controlled transition, so that you would already be established when the closing of a major Hellmouth channeled additional energies into the several lesser ones around the globe."

"But why do I hafta be on a Hellmouth?" Willy whined. "Why a place Slayers're automatically gonna show up? and what do I do about the damn Slayers?"

"It is a sensitive balance, Willis." Tiphaine kept her face placid as she began to interweave truth and necessary artifice. "Your talents, natural though they be, are perfectly attuned to a Hellmouth's emanations. Should you attempt to operate a supernaturally oriented establishment in any other location, your competitors would promptly crush you: literally, physically, rather than commercially. Here, you perform at optimum efficiency. And the Slayer — or Slayers, now — must be here also, lest the balance tilt away from that which most favors you. Without a predator to thin the herd, the herd would overgraze and destroy the range, leaving only wasteland."

"Great," Willy said. "So now I'm runnin' the Ponderosa."

She disregarded the comment, went on. "Still, while the Slayers are needed for the balance, they must be kept in balance as well." She looked to Willy. "I'm sure, before you discovered your more specialized avocation, you were familiar with the concept of Ladies' Night? Have you considered the advantages, once or twice a week, of having a Slayers' Night? When your nemeses may come here to congregate, and your normal clientele know to stay away if they wish?"

Willy actually blanched. "Have you flipped your gourd? They'll all stay away, all the time. Why not just burn the joint straight down 'n' get it over with?"

Tiphaine tskk!ed. "Set aside your prejudices and examine the proposition on a pragmatic basis. Slayers will come here, seeking information or … 'scoping the scene'. They do so already. Simply set an arrangement, much as you did in Sunnydale: your customers will do no killing on the premises, or within a negotiated radius, for which concession the Slayers will permit the business to operate more or less in its normal fashion. You may make it known that this is to be a place for recreation and relaxation, but emphatically not for hunting, and the young women will allow those who come here peaceably to linger without interference and depart in the same fashion." She chuckled. "Once such an agreement is in place, many of your customers will gather here in hope of seeing a Slayer, under conditions where they know they will be safe so long as they follow the rules."

Willy's panic had faded as she spoke, and he considered the matter now, lips pursed. "Sunnydale was a small burg," he observed at last. "Perimeter here'd have ta be bigger. A lot bigger. I don't know if all the boys would go for that."

"You could make it understood that it was a precondition for their safety," Tiphaine said. "I believe that, once they grasped the concept, they would themselves ruthlessly enforce the terms of the compact, rather than risk the retaliation they knew would follow. Self-interest is a powerful motivator."

Willy nodded, his eyes shifting as he continued to think. " 'Scuse me," he said, moving away from her. "Gotta make some calls."

Merl had followed the entire conversation with hooded, unblinking eyes, taking occasional pulls from his Dr Pepper. "Damn," he said, "but do you have that boy tied into a bunch'a knots."

Tiphaine gave him a serene smile. "My association with Willis extends well into the past. He has learned that he does better to heed me than not." Her gaze did not chill, but it most definitely sharpened. "Is your experience so different?"

Merl sneered, that lizardish face disconcertingly reproducing the human expression. "You conned me, lady. I came out of it okay, but if you expect gratitude, well, keep thinkin'."

This only brought a laugh from Tiphaine. "You did not find what you believed you would find, but you did find what I said you would find. Do not blame me for your own misapprehension."

"I did like you told me," Merl went on, anger beginning to make itself heard in the raspy voice. "I climbed through the ducts in that creepy damn place, movin' about a foot an hour 'n' getting' my ass cooked seventeen hours outta every day — d'you know I only had one stomach left for water reserves before I got to a spot where I could replenish?" (Precisely why you were the choice for this task, my boy.) "I found the guy you wanted, and I gave him the trigger you told me an' got his answer — which, let me tell you, was seriously weird, but what the hell, a code key is a code key — an' I matched that with the coordinates you'd said an' then spent another four days crawlin' out before I could even go lookin' for the gold …" He stopped, and those reptilian eyes were flat and alien and cold. "You said all I could carry. I only made it out with half a pack, runnin' like a goanna with a gunpowder colonic, before the cave walls collapsed."

"Which is to say, you came out with all you could carry safely." Tiphaine did not allow her gaze to waver. "And you have lived in some comfort, for well over two years, on what you were able to retrieve. An ample return for your labors, would you not say? Enough so that, your resentment notwithstanding, you would probably undertake another such venture, for comparable remuneration, were I to propose it. You were deceived, or deceived yourself, but do not say you were cheated."

Merl scowled. "You're a double-dealin' bitch, and no two ways about it."

Tiphaine regarded him with a gentle smile. "Of a certainty I occasionally manipulate those who follow my visions — should I not profit as well? — but I am careful always to provide value in return. You did not attempt vengeance, seeming to believe that complaint would suffice. Very well. Your complaint has been received and noted."

This time the sneer and scowl combined, but Merl did not reply, merely moving to the far end of the long bar, where he sat muttering darkly to himself and casting periodic seething glances her way.

Tiphaine finished the spicy wings and buttermilk, but her pleasure had been brief and transitory. The ache in her temples had grown to glaring pain, she could barely open and close her hands, and she could tell it would get much worse before it abated. Yes, this was a strong one, and she would pay for days, but she meant to mine every last scrap of it while it lasted. Her bones felt old, old, but she intended to see that they grew much older yet.

Willy came back up from the back. "What put the bug up his butt?" he asked, hooking a thumb toward Merl.

"Old business," she answered him. "He felt he had a grievance, and was dissatisfied with the response he received." She shrugged. "As you must have recognized by this time, Moori-a'ueil can be content only if he has some discontent or resentment properly festering."

"He's a real ray'a sunshine, no question." Willy gave her a sidelong glance. "Well, I got in touch with some'a the major gang leaders an' clan heads, told 'em there might be a way we could improve the situation here. They were pretty snotty about it, but I think they might be willin' to hash out some terms." He looked at his hands. "I'm wonderin' now if I maybe shoulda talked with the Slayers first, 'fore I started floatin' possibilities."

"I suspect you will have far less difficulty with the young women than with those who currently patronize your establishment," Tiphaine said. "You will be, after all, providing a zone of relative peace and safety, a small section of the city where humans will have … far less to fear, than elsewhere." She let her eyes settle on Willy, and though her smile did not alter, she saw him register the shift in her demeanor and tense just the least bit. "Willis, my boy," she said very gently, "you have covered the design again."

Willy groaned, with every sign that his dismay was only mostly feigned. "Come on, Tiffi, have a heart! I got a Hakklusch swears that thing makes him upchuck ever' time he sees it, an' he's a steady customer."

Tiphaine shook her head slowly. "On this, there can be no negotiation. The placement of the design was one of the conditions for your being relocated here, which conditions you accepted. Failing to scrupulously observe your promises shows not only bad faith but strikingly poor judgment." She leaned toward him, her voice low but quite clear. "This location was not chosen at random. I did not persuade you to move here out of altruism … or at least, not solely so. A time would come, I knew it but not when, and at that time the design must be visible. This is not only for my own purposes, Willis: there are permutations and complications that entangle with your line, so that any deviation from what I have dictated would, in time, bring substantial and unnecessary peril upon you." She reached forward to pat his hand, saw him flinch slightly at the cool vibrancy of her flesh. "That is not my wish. I do not believe you wish it, either."

Willy stood, shaking his head in vexation. "Fine, fine, have it your way." He went to the end of the bar, the one opposite where Merl had withdrawn to sulk, all the while muttering to himself, "Check out the babe in the caftan, says I. She's kinda exotic, Greek maybe? and definitely givin' me the old come-hither. Rassafrassen … knew I shoulda angled for the strawberry blonde instead …"

He pulled a large dartboard off the square wooden pillar that stood at the end of the bar, past which was the sharp left that led to the restrooms. (Or so the signs said; not for any promise of treasure or providence would Tiphaine have hazarded whichever one was designated for females.) In the space the dartboard had covered, an ornate pattern had been carved into the wood of the pillar, lines curving through and connecting and framing runes and sigils and suggestions of other designs, interweaving in a manner that foiled perspective and led the eye in unpredictable directions. Five large brass-headed nails punctuated the outer edges, hinting at but not actually revealing the familiar pentagram, and some of the carved lines had been bleached and others darkened to provide added contrast.

It was an assemblage specifically formulated to catch the notice — and then subtly shape the thoughts — of one particular individual. The effect on others was largely unknown and almost entirely immaterial; what mattered was that nothing obscure it when the precise moment arrived.

"Within the next several months," she said to Willy, "perhaps only weeks, perhaps a bit over a year, a pale woman will be here. You will remember seeing her from Sunnydale, though she never spoke to you in those days. She will have many questions regarding the design on that pillar." Tiphaine stood. Even in the heels she favored (ah, for the days when stilettoes were de rigueur and women knew how to walk with style!), her eyes were barely level with Willy's, but she well knew how to make stage presence substitute for height. "You will tell her nothing. You know nothing about the design, its meaning, or its origins. You will not even be able to recall if it was there when you leased this building, or later added by some passing shaman. Above all, you will not in any way or under any circumstances refer to me."

She took a step toward him. "You are a talented liar, Willis — truly, one of your most charming features — but you will require all your wits that day. This will be a woman of uncommon force and determination, and she must ascertain nothing from you, not even that you are concealing something, not even that her interest concerns you in the slightest. I tell you, this you must do, and do well, for failure will imperil you in ways that even I can barely glimpse."

Willy cleared his throat, his eyes darting. "This broad … she's dangerous?"

"She can be formidable," Tiphaine confirmed, "and would be a ruthless and implacable enemy. Still, it is the forces attending her that require the greatest wariness." She frowned, considering. "You will not be certain if she is human or vampire. Assume neither. Show no inappropriate familiarity, but equally no deference that would waken suspicion." Tiphaine's eyes bored into Willy's. "And upon your life, do not — do not — do not, offer her any pretzels."

"No pretzels," Willy croaked faintly. Then, shaking himself: "You hate me, right? This is all 'cause I wouldn't come along on the Deadhead tour."

She smiled. "I remember you with deepest fondness, my Willis. Thus my labors to ensure that you remain safe." Which was true; she genuinely did expend considerable effort to see that the machinations she wove around him wouldn't injure him. Probably wouldn't.

Her business was almost completed here. She started to turn, then swung back to face him. "Tuesday mornings," she said.

Willy jerked, startled. "What? Huh? What?"

"Between seven and noon," she went on. "You must — should — close your bar at that time, except to young Andrew and whomsoever he contrives to recruit for the role-playing group he wishes to form."

"The kid?" Willy seemed more stunned than offended by the thought. "Why him?"

"You may explain to your other habitués that this was one of the Slayers' conditions, and that they were so mysteriously and stridently insistent that you feared to inquire further." She smiled in his direction. "In doing this, you may signally lessen the likelihood of a truly costly calamity. I do not command this, but …" She trailed off meaningfully.

Willy shook himself. "Ah, screw it. Most'a Tuesday's dead anyhow." He raised his eyebrows. "Anything else? Broken mirrors? Hex signs? Mimes?"

Her only answer was a slight turning of the corners of her mouth, a soft chuckle of amusement, as she started for the exit. Her path took her past Merl, where he sat at his own forbidding remove, and she stopped and turned her face toward him. "There is a certain talisman," she said. "Its location and full nature yet remain clouded, but at the suitable time I believe you would be the individual best qualified to acquire it for me. I will, of course, make it worth the time and attention such a venture would require."

Merl's voice was flat. "Go suck mangoes, lady."

Tiphaine shrugged and continued past him. So, Merl knew at least one of her weaknesses. He could be unexpectedly knowledgeable, even innovative, which was what made him so periodically useful. Still, this provided yet another reason for her to never allow a drink to remain uncovered in his presence.

She could barely see now, her hands curled into claws and usable only with utmost difficulty, and the afternoon sun pierced her skull like a silver chisel. All the same, she walked confidently, following the path drawn by her inner eye. In anticipation of her current disability, she had stashed a box of mothballs and a small tin of lard in her handbag; now she bought a can of tomato juice at a sidewalk bodega (honestly: in Cleveland?) and, renting a room at the nearest convenient motel, she consumed her emergency supplies — with the tomato juice last, to catalyze the rest — and lay down to sleep until the pounding agony had lessened.

~ – ~ – ~

When she woke, the pain had diminished to the point where she could function again, and the thrall of the Sight itself was completely gone. The memory of what she had seen, however, was still a solid, detailed structure in her mind. She would be able to plan and act for months yet on the basis of this vision, integrating it with other structures developed over the decades and cemented into knowledge. Though not a complete map, the composite product made a glowing web that reached across great stretches of darkness, and by these nexi she could navigate with practiced sureness.

One act still was required today, but the necessity was not immediate, and appearance would be important for the proper effect. Madame Tiphaine took a long, luxurious shower, then plaited her thick hair just so. She used an electric toothbrush, which she had prudently brought along in her handbag, to smooth away much of the remaining discordance and instill some of the most productive rhythms into her metaconscious. She had hung up her robes while going through the partial recovery process; now, as restored as she could contrive within such a limited time-frame, she dressed again, erased the last occult traces of her presence from this temporary domicile (wouldn't do to leave that about to be scried out!), and went out to complete this day's final act.

The first hour after sundown had settled upon the city, and the evening was cool and pleasant. More importantly, the illumination from the municipal streetlights had a far less brutal impact on her still-sensitive eyes than would have been the case with the vanished sun. She walked steadily, so accustomed by now to the rigors and demands of her particular talents as to be almost comfortable. Tonight's effort, before recovery was complete, would trigger a relapse and add more than a day to her longer recuperation, but she had in the past paid far more for far less, and would do so again.

She found the place, a bus stop, and sat down to wait. When she was finished here, she could from the same spot acquire a ride — she didn't yet know which bus, but it would be there — to the set of furnished rooms that now served as her home. The moment would come, would come. There was no hurry.

The moment came. At the end of the block, a figure turned the corner and began to walk in her direction with even, precise strides. It appeared to be a woman in her early twenties, medium-brown hair, wearing plain khaki slacks and a plain white shirt/ blouse, with plain tennis shoes. Tiphaine stood and waited, watching the figure's approach, and the other's eyes registered her gaze and returned it as the distance between them dwindled.

The newcomer stopped when ten feet of sidewalk still separated them. In an even, modulated voice the 'young woman' stated, "You are not completely human."

Pot, kettle. Eschewing her usual disarming smile, Tiphaine replied, just as evenly, "You are Natalie Sparks."

Natalie regarded her greeter with direct, steady eyes, and Tiphaine was certain that the time between blinks would be regulated to the microsecond. "None in this city should be aware of that name," Natalie said.

Tiphaine shrugged, as if to say, And yet, and Natalie simply stood waiting. Impressive: having determined that Tiphaine had a message, the young woman (yes, her self-image was indeed essentially female) had elected to dispense with the usual obligatory formalities and await the message's delivery. Refreshing — the conventions were useful and comfortable, but so could be directness — and worthy of respect, and Tiphaine responded with equivalent directness. "Tilton's Crossing," she said to the young woman facing her. "Kentucky."

There was more that could have been said, but Tiphaine already knew: far more than most, this one could be shown a path but not forced down it, and her analytical capacity would make her excessively dangerous if she decided she was facing a threat. Having made the first statement, this was the time to await a response rather than attempt to prompt one.

For a moment she thought that was all there would be, for this one was hard to read. Then Natalie's face became abruptly mobile; her mouth shifted, her eyes widened slightly, and a fluttering could be seen in the 'pulse' at her throat. It was as if humanity had suddenly flooded into the young woman. Extraordinary, and quite convincing. She looked to Tiphaine with what seemed genuinely to be hope and uncertainty. "Why?" she asked. "What's there for me?"

"You seek something," Tiphaine said to her. "In that place, you will find … circumstances, which may aid you in determining what path to follow in the seeking."

Natalie blinked, out of rhythm with the earlier regulated timing. "Can you tell me any more than that?" she asked.

Tiphaine gave her the smile she had thus far withheld. "I wish it were so," she said. "But with more, there would be the risk of tainting your actions and choices, rather than allowing them to follow their natural path."

Natalie's mouth twitched, and for the first time Tiphaine wondered if these manifestations, rather than being artifice carefully coordinated for purposes of simulating authenticity, might be an actual part of an emerging personality: controllable (in the way that one could, within limits, control one's breathing), but a true depiction when allowed. "Thank you," Natalie said to her. "Is … is there anything else?"

There shouldn't have been, but Tiphaine found herself speaking. "You desire to find a purpose for your existence," she said. "So do we all. These humans who surround you: those who share your self-awareness, share that need to find a meaning." She regarded the young woman with an empathy she had not expected. "What you need, I believe, is to discover a purpose that has meaning for you."

Natalie nodded. "Thank you," she said. Tiphaine nodded in response, then turned away, a signal that this interaction had reached its end. The sound of footsteps as the young woman passed behind her, doubtless moving toward a point from which she could begin a more direct journey to the place called Tilton's Crossing, and then the sound faded and Natalie was gone.

Tiphaine resumed her seat at the bus stop. She would spend much of tomorrow in gradually ebbing misery, and two days further before her recovery was complete, but her rest could begin now. It had been a grueling day, but the rewards promised to extend well into the future.

Natalie Sparks had been pointed toward the field of play where her presence and actions could potentiate many other events, and impact and influence a number of other key players. Her own choices would play a significant role, but it was the effects on others, at further and further removes, that would (or should) truly prove pivotal.

The pale woman … ah, that one's fate still balanced on a knife-edge, and would not be decided for some time to come. With the last pointed nudge to Willy, however, Tiphaine had all but guaranteed that the woman would be steered into a course where she would be either saved, or eliminated before the point where she might become a major danger. That, and the subtle adjustments to Andrew Wells' current situation and attitudes, would go a long way toward preventing Violet Knowles from dying in the near future … and the red-headed Slayer's continued activity would distinctly hinder the rise of Kruciak the Merciless, which in turn would contribute in several ways to the likelihood of Tiphaine's own long-term survival.

Other factors, while still potentially useful, were less distinctly defined. The talisman of which she had spoken to Merl, might or might not be significant, might or might not in fact be accessible at all … but simply in mentioning it she had, despite his churlish response, ensured that Merl remained positioned for further utilization. And there were, oh yes there truly were, any number of developing contingencies in which the disgruntled creature's particular skill-set could prove inordinately useful.

Some contingencies never developed. Parker Abrams, trying by her aid to contrive an emergency exit from the Old One's domain in pursuit of his obsession … he had played out his obvious role, but had also seemed fraught with so many additional possibilities. Yet, none of them had ever been realized. He remained within view, continually potential but stubbornly refusing to become actual, always poised for becoming but never doing so. Tiphaine had wearied of trying to factor him into the multiple scenarios always trembling on the edge of possibility, but still could not afford to disregard him merely because his fate remained so obstinately uncommitted.

There were days when her own partial humanity seemed so distant from Tiphaine, and this was a day when the call was particularly acute. She was she, her choices rather than her heritage determining who and what she was … but oh! sometimes one's palate just craved a warm, wriggling kitten, and human conventions and sensibilities be hanged!

Madame Tiphaine thought of herself, albeit cautiously, as basically a good person. Her entire existence orbited around turning others (persons, demons, occasional higher forces) into tools for her use. When possible, however, she did attempt to avoid using them to their detriment, or even to see to it that they profited from the exchange. Indeed, sometimes she chose to set into motion forces that could threaten her as easily as benefit her, simply because it felt right. (The trigger she had sent to Hank Summers through Merl, knowing that the man's dazed first response would complete the code-key the scaly humanoid would use to locate his cherished treasure: by now the seed thus planted should certainly have freed him from his long nightmare captivity … but what advantage was there in it for Tiffi? Bupkis. All done purely from the goodness of her five-chambered heart.)

The last remote fading echo of this day's foray into vision told Tiphaine that the bus she needed would arrive within ten minutes. She was so drained that the bench seemed to suck her into itself, and by the time she arrived home she would be barely able to move; but, all told, this had been an uncommonly productive day. Andrew's unexpected evolution into the next Dark Mage was now somewhat less likely; certain key points had been clarified, key figures better positioned. She would spend months calculating the ramifications and integrating them into consolidation with prior predictive structures. All in all, a great deal with which to work, and much of it propitiously oriented toward extending and enriching her lifespan.

Perhaps, she reflected, it would now be more possible to avoid becoming Xander Harris' lover within the next three to seven years. The idea had its attractions; by all reports, Anyanka's depiction of him as a Viking in the sack had not been mere boastful hyperbole. (And it had been a long dry spell, by now Tiphaine was almost horny enough to essay a return engagement with Whistler, a sign of desperation if ever one existed!) Still, the long-term cost of such an affiliation would be extreme, besides which was the fact that women who loved Xander tended to die tragically. Better if he followed out the trend-line that led to the Slayer Prime's younger sister (although Tiphaine still harbored sentimental but largely tenuous hopes for Violet in that regard).

There were other possible issues. A vampire with a soul whose existence might need safeguarding (or was that one better left alone?); a father-daughter reunion that could occur at any number of different times but would unquestionably be better at some times than others; an Asian girl who would almost certainly come to grief if set on a particular path but whose grief might be greater without such intervention; a new Slayer with a particularly keen talent kept carefully hidden from her new sisters … Threads that could be dealt with separately, or woven together in various combinations, held in abeyance until more was known …

Time would tell, time would well. Fate would bring about the answers in due course … and if the answers looming on the horizon were to appear unfavorable, well, there were ways to rewrite them into more salubrious conformations.

She had only a touch of the Sight, did Madame Tiphaine … but, as she well knew, the right touch, at precisely the right moment, could bring about very great changes indeed.


[ Special acknowledgment: Lizbeth Marcs, in her story "Living History", first gave Vi the surname of Knowles. As canon has never contradicted this, I'm happy to perpetuate it as continuing fanon. ]