Most of the room was in shadow, flickering light from a small fire producing just enough illumination to show paneled walls lined with expensively bound books.  Large oil paintings hung in shadow, the faces of the men -and they were invariably men- being portrayed concealed, their expressions unseen, their thoughts unknowable.

            That concealment may have been important to the man in the room.  Seated before the fireplace, the deep gold color of brandy in a large snifter in his right hand throwing sharp reflections onto his face, he occasionally glanced up at one or another of the paintings.  Not for long, however, just a furtive glance, as if he could not bare their gaze for too long.  Every so often he would let out an almost silent breath, almost a sigh, and even a casual observer would realize that his melancholy was apparent despite the depth of his obvious humiliation.

            Aside from the brandy, a book lay on a small table beside his chair.  With his left hand he tentatively reached out for the book -Dickens, bound more than a century before- but appeared to reluctantly change his mind. Instead he lightly touched the bottle of brandy –itself even older than the Dickens- and then returned his attention to the fire.  The only sound in the room was the crackling of the wood, and his quick indrawn breath as three feet of razor-sharp steel suddenly appeared at his throat.

            "Hello Buffy."  The words were precise, unafraid, the accent English.  Despite the quantity of brandy missing from the bottle there was no sign of intoxication in his voice, no hint of fear in his tone.

            Slowly the edge of the sword moved from his throat, the point coming around as the girl holding the blade came out from the shadows, the gap from blade to throat never varying by more than a fraction of a millimeter.  As she came into view the seated man looked at her, noticing the changes since they last met.  Still tiny, her blond hair shorter, more mature, her tight dark clothing emphasizing curves that were now definitely not those of a child.  Unfortunately her delicate facial features were still too pretty, too 'cute' to carry the expression of rage and fury she was trying to convey.  Someone who didn't know her might have mistaken her beauty with suggesting naiveté, her delicacy as implying weakness.  The man in the chair knew better.

            "You really should do something about your security, Quentin.  You never know who might come visiting."

            The man in the chair stared at her for a second, having half expected her to simply execute him on sight.  From his exhaustive files he also knew that it was her 'style' to give a witty quip before executing her victims, and the short pause was to see if she intended to finish him off right away or if she was interested in talking first.  Apparently the condemned man was permitted a final statement.  "I gave them a few days off.  They are rather proud, and might have done something foolish."  His guards were not part of the Council.  Hired muscle -even the very best hired muscle- would not understand that they were no match for a Slayer.  Especially a furious Slayer.  Especially this furious Slayer.

            "Why?"  The anger in the one harsh word was apparent, and no one hearing it would mistake her expression for pouty cuteness.

            For a second the man in the chair stared into her eyes, ignoring the blade that could remove his head faster than he could blink.  "Because we ran out of time."

            It was a measure of her rage that the rock-steady blade actually moved a fraction of an inch closer to his flesh, stopping just short of drawing blood.  "You mean she ran out of time."

            He sighed.  "If you insist.  But the truth is, we all ran out of time."

            "And of course your time is soooo much more important than anyone else's that it counted more than Faith's life?!?"

            The man looked at her steadily for a moment, a lifetime of stern self-discipline attempting to permit him to meet her furious glare, but bitter humiliation made it impossible.  "She wasn't supposed to die.  That wasn't the objective or the intention.  But even the simplest of plans seem to come apart around Slayers.  Both of them."

            For just a fraction of a second she looked confused, before she was able to conceal it behind her expression of rage.  The man in the chair noted the momentary lapse, and professionally marked it down as a failure on her part.  Not that he himself represented any threat, but against the sort of enemies a Slayer faced, even such a momentary loss of control could be fatal.  But she had faced far more formidable opponents than him and emerged victorious, so he forgave the small lapse.  "You thought we wanted her dead?  No, that wasn't necessary.  Awakening a new Chosen One does not require the permanent demise of the present Slayer, as you well know."

            "So why not kill me?  Why now, after all the work she put into getting better?  And she was getting better!  Why not just give her a chance?  Did you really need a third Slayer that badly??"

            It was obvious to them both that her control was slipping, and the man paused to give her a chance to gain control of her emotions.  He didn't really expect to survive this confrontation, but whatever happened, he hoped to come through it with his dignity intact.  A dignity he acknowledged that he himself had offended though his own pride and incompetence.  "There can't be a third Slayer, Buffy.  Until you, there have never been even two Slayers alive simultaneously.  When one dies, another is Called, even if the first is revived.  And others have been revived previously to your untimely demise.  None have ever retained their Slayer powers. 

            "We suspect the reason for this is to prevent the possibility of a vampire turning a Slayer, creating a being with both vampiric and Slayer powers.  As for how you were able to retain those powers, there is some debate as to whether it was because you died while within the Hellmouth, within the bounds of the magical wards confining the Master to his prison, or a combination of both.  We… erh… doubted you would be amenable to any suggestions that we resolve the issue by volunteering to repeat the experience."

            The glare she shot him made it clear that their doubts were justified.  "There was never even the possibility that we would attack you.  Partly because we doubt whether your death would result in another Slayer being Called.  The line continues through Faith now.  But also, you patrol the Hellmouth, and a Slayer must patrol the Hellmouth.  Particularly during times such as these.  Although Faith was making considerable strides in her recovery, a decision was made that she would never be the sort of Slayer we needed, and that her recovery might in fact be enhanced without the added burden of being a Chosen One."

            At that statement the woman appeared to doubt her ability to hold the sword steady without using it for its intended purpose, and moved away from his chair, turning slightly away from him.  When she spoke, there was bitterness underlying her anger.  "As usual it all comes down to what you need, what you want.  The Slayer is just a doll for you to manipulate at will, and if it doesn't perform the way you like you replace it with a new model.  You people disgust me."

            She would have been surprised to notice the momentary expression of pain that crossed his face, but she wasn't watching him.  When he was able to respond, his tone was even.  "You have never performed 'the way we like' since the day you were Chosen, and you were never 'replaced.'   We could have, you realize.  It would have been difficult, and expensive, but even one such as you can be killed."

            When she turned to face him the bitterness in her expression hurt him more than the threat of the sword.  "I may not have been a puppet on a string, but I knew damned well how short my leash really was.  Don't think I didn't get the message of the Cruciamentum loud and clear.  Either I do the job or you use that stuff to take away my powers, and every creepy-crawly thing in Sunnydale will hunt me down."

            This time she did see the tiny flicker of embarrassment in his expression.  His voice, however, was steady when he finally responded.  "We did not invent the drug used during the Cruciamentum.  For centuries it was the greatest secret of the most powerful alchemists.   They would sell small samples to the most horrifying demons and vampires for prices that make a king's ransom pale by comparison.  It could then be used against a Slayer at a time and place of their choosing, almost invariably ending with the death of the Chosen One.  From the few who survived we learned that once it was used, the Slayer would develop immunity to the drug. 

            "You cannot imagine the price we paid to get the secret of that drug.  And don't for a moment believe that I mean a financial price.  We paid it only because we had no choice. The Slayer needed immunity from that damnable drug.  You must know that not all Watchers are evil, and the Council has, at times, been willing to put itself at risk to protect her."

            He could see the confusion in the girls' face at that news, but then her expression hardened.  "But you don't just give it to us, do you?  You make it a 'test,' a life-or-death struggle that serves only to show how insignificant we are, and how powerful your precious Council is."

            Even before she finished the man was shaking his head.  "Like the Slayer itself, the drug is partly magical.  Its properties must be activated by the stresses of a life-threatening situation.  Your own experience was far more extreme than usual, and for that I blame my own incompetence, as is the case with so many things when it comes to you.  But the rituals of the Cruciamentum are honest and there expression critical to a Slayer's survival.  Think of what might have happened had you not possessed immunity to the drug, and it been used against you any one of hundreds of times when you have faced opponents who would have exploited such a weakness at the most inopportune moment."

            Despite her shock, the girl was far from willing to forgive. "Why am I only hearing this now?  You knew how the 'test' was set up, how I would have no choice but to draw the obvious conclusions.  Even when you do something 'good' you have to twist it into a tool for manipulating us."

            The seated man couldn't prevent another sigh from escaping.  "What choice do we have, Buffy?  We're a bunch of prattling old men, exploiting the power and naiveté of a young girl who is burdened with a destiny no one in their right mind would ever want.  Even we recognize the obvious truth.  We need the Slayer a great deal more than she needs us.  If it weren't for the Slayer, humanity would have perished long since.  We know this, just as we know the price she must inevitably pay so that we can enjoy our fancy homes and expensive brandy."  He stared at the snifter he still held, his expression bitter.  "By any standard of morality you can name, what the Council does to the Slayer is offensive.  Except for the only standard that really matters in the end:  our very survival depends on it."

            It was obvious he had finally surprised her.  The sword was lowered, her expression stunned.  But unlike a young Chosen One just Called to her power, the man was far too old and experienced to think the threat to his life was over just because he was willing to acknowledge an obvious truth.  "It might surprise you to know that every single person on the Council was once the Watcher of an active Slayer.  We try to assign our best and brightest to candidates who have the greatest potential to be Called, but it is far from an exact science, and some truly extraordinary people have been assigned to candidates who were never Called.  No matter their qualifications in other areas, however, they will never be elevated to the Council.  Some have reacted bitterly, feeling that they have been denied advancement due to circumstances beyond their control. 

            "But we have never succumbed to their blandishments, and we never will.  Not for the reasons they believe, however.  You can imagine their comments, the whispers that the Watchers of an active Slayer think they merit some reflected glory, the pretensions that what a Slayer has accomplished is somehow due to their own comparatively insignificant efforts.  No, that isn't why the policy is so entrenched.  It is in fact because all of us -every single one of us- has taken a young girl just on the verge of womanhood, and exploited her abilities 'for the common good' until she finally dies in a manner so horrific we all have nightmares about it for the rest of our lives.  We're not deluded by our own ambitions and imagining ourselves the heroes of very carefully selected historical anecdotes as are other Watchers.  We know what we are, what we do, and we do it anyway because we have no choice."

Once again he managed to surprise her, not only with his words, but the bitter melancholy of his tone.  For a moment he wanted to tell her about Annie, the young woman he had trained from the time she was only nine until she was Called at the age of fifteen.  Pretty, bright, cheerful Annie, who never lived to reach the 'sweet sixteen' birthday party she had talked about so often.  Generally, a good Watcher tried to 'break in' a novice Slayer against the youngest and least-experienced vampires.  He had restricted Annie to a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. He had confidently expected that the experience she gained there, and the confidence she would learn, as she grew comfortable with her new powers, would eventually permit them to challenge more formidable foes some time later.  It was only bad luck that she had run into the most powerful henchman of one of the region's Master vampires before she was ready.

            Of course, the young woman facing him had experienced the same sort of 'bad luck' and had survived the experience.  For a second he had to close his eyes to hide the pain.  As if he needed any more reasons to hate her for being better than he believed her to be.  To prevent her from asking questions he didn't want to answer he tried to return to the subject at hand.  "It is truly amazing how we can put self-aggrandizing blandishments on our rituals and behavior. But looking at it now, even without your own cynical interpretation of all motives behind the Council's actions, I wonder how any of our Watchers can bring themselves to administer the drug.  The naiveté exists on both sides, Buffy, and that is why the Council is comprised of former Watchers of active Slayers.  Only they have had their illusions shattered, only they know the twisted motives underlying age-old rituals we shroud in lies and deception.  If the larger body of Watchers knew the truth they would rebel in abhorrence.  And justifiably so.  But we need them, and the Slayer needs the organization we represent.  Even you will admit that your survival has been enhanced by the presence of your Watcher."

            As was so often the case when dealing with this Slayer, he miscalculated, and opened the door to another of her furious glares.  "My Watcher has been wonderful, but that has nothing to do with any support from the Council!  What support have you ever given us?!?  We had to do everything on our own because we couldn't count on the damned Council to help us with anything!"

It was obvious from his reaction that the charge struck a chord.  For a long minute he did not speak, until she wondered how he could possibly respond to what they both knew was true.  He drank more to the brandy, unable to savor it in the manner it deserved, and when he finally spoke it was more to himself than to the girl he didn't have the courage to face.  "At the time, the Council had precious little in the way of resources to offer."  He paused, and when he spoke again it was in a whisper. "Do you know how we get our resources, Buffy?  We identify sites where vampires are active. The Council then speaks to local officials, explains the situation, and negotiates a fee for resolving it."  He laughed bitterly, and glanced at the girls' shocked expression.  "In effect, we have been little more than procurers of the lowest sort, whoring out the Slayer to those who could meet our fee.  It works best when multiple sites are competing for the services of the one available Slayer, since I'm sure you can imagine what people will be willing to pay for something able to protect them from vampires."

            After another sip he continued, no longer looking at the girl who stared at him in shocked horror.  "That is another thing the Council doesn't tell the Watchers.  To maintain an organization as long as we have requires the sort of commitment one cannot achieve by letting the field soldiers know that they are in fact little more than pimps, whoring out the Slayer to the highest bidder.  It comes as quite a shock when they are informed the truth.  A somewhat, depressing feeling, to be called to the Council.  Going from 'saving the world from the forces of darkness,' to pimping out a girl whom we had previously spent a lifetime training, and when our own Slayer had only shortly before given her life to save humanity."

            When he glanced over at the girl, her expression warned him that his words were doing nothing to convince her he deserved to live. For some reason, he no longer really cared.  "When I was selected to head the Council, I put a stop to such practices… for a time.  As usual, our lofty ambitions failed when confronted with the realities of mankinds' extraordinary capacity for petty self-interest.  A Council is made up of group of independent-minded individuals, all of who have their own agenda and their own priorities.  Altruism aside, what happens when there is a vampire outbreak in France as well as a simultaneous outbreak in Argentina?  If nothing else, going to the highest bidder made our decisions simpler.  With money no longer the only criteria, we fought, and lobbied, and politicized ourselves.  Finally we realized that the colossal expense of maintaining the Watchers –do you have any idea how much it costs to run a simple archeological dig?- brought us close to bankruptcy.  We felt there was no choice but to go back to the old methods. 

"It was only the discovery of the Hellmouth that made everything simple once more.  We had identified such magical concentrations several times before, and their propensity for becoming the locus of vampiric activity was well understood.   The additional mystical influence of the Millennium also could not be debated. Despite the fact that one day is the same as any other, humans give special meaning to certain days: birthdays, anniversaries and the like.  The Millennium had an enormous well of mystical energy, built up over centuries, and when combined with the focusing effect of the Hellmouth, we knew full well that there would be demonic forces at work on a scale unparalleled during the centuries we have monitored such activity.  There was simply no question that a Slayer had to be present in Sunnydale, no matter what it would do to our coffers."

He met her eyes steadily.  "One of the reasons I have gone out of my way to trivialize your accomplishments is to ensure that there is no incentive to try to remove you from Sunnydale.  Perhaps I have gone overboard in emphasizing your willfulness and somewhat colourful love life, but as I stated, the Council is expensive, and it will probably come as no surprise that Mayor Wilkins did not exactly enrich our coffers in order to maintain your presence in his community.  Fortunately, however, we had a way out of this dilemma.  Kendra."

The Slayer did not appear to know how to proceed.  Her plan had been to come in, exact vengeance, and leave.  There were strong compulsions against taking a human life, but when threatened, a Slayer could inflict enormous damage without paying any serious psychic penalty.  The murder of another Slayer clearly represented a threat.  But he wasn't acting in a threatening manner, and the information he was offering was the sort she had wondered about since she was first Called.  For the moment she was prepared to listen, but she held the sword steady in case things changed.

He continued, again speaking to the fire rather than the listening girl.  "To say that locating a potential Slayer is an 'inexact science' is overstating the matter considerably.  There are some guidelines based on centuries of observation, some mystical hints, some prophetic dreams.  We generally have six to eight girls in training at any given moment, and one of them will be called instead of some random child halfway around the world perhaps fifty percent of the time.

            "So you can imagine our surprise when we not only had clear indications that Kendra would be Chosen, but even a relatively clear timeframe as to when.  We assigned our best Watcher to her, and the Council devoted its entire resources into ensuring that she received the best training we could provide, the best education, the best preparation possible.  We knew someone would be Called before her, but the signs were so clouded, and the time she would have available so short before Kendra was to be Called, that we felt it would be a waste of precious resources to devote much effort on her behalf.  Cynical, perhaps even brutal, but sometimes we have to be.

            "I'm not entirely sure how Merrick found you, or what he saw in you that none of us did when he reported his discovery.  You had already been Called and so had the power of a Slayer but no training, no preparation, and we saw no indications of either ability or aptitude.  None of us saw the slightest indication that you would be capable of surviving the week, let alone be able to face the Hellmouth and the Millennium.

"You must understand that the Millennium had far more mystical prominence than a mere rollover in dating conventions would ordinarily warrant.  The sheer combined psychic 'weight' of centuries of belief that the Millennium had some special meaning gave it meaning.  We had records from the first millennial change and knew that vampiric activity, as well as that of other mystical creatures of dubious nature, would peak at levels far beyond the norms of less psychically important dates.  To meet that sort of challenge we needed a fully prepared Slayer, one who understood her duties and its importance.  Not some brainless California valley girl more interested in shopping for the latest in designer clothing than in preventing the destruction of the world."

            He didn't even bother to look at her to see the reaction to his insulting remark.  That had been their belief, and she was probably honest enough to know it was warranted.  "When Merrick died within a few days of meeting you we felt that our conclusions were justified.  In fact, we were quite surprised you survived him.  We had all expected you to be a 'weak' Slayer."  Finally he turned to face her, and with the fire behind her, the shadows surrounding her face prevented him from reading her expression.  "Do you know why we then 'weak' Slayers, Buffy?  Because they do not survive their first week after being Called.  Most of those who aren't prepared by a Watcher fall into that category.  Far more than half of all Slayers ever Called don't survive their first week, and very few of their names have ever been recorded because we didn't know who they were, they didn't know what they were; but the vampires knew.  And so they die quickly and in ignorance."

            He didn't mention that Annie had been a 'weak' Slayer.  The strongest girl he had ever known, dismissed by those who never met her with the word 'weak.'  He had long since given up on trying to explain the truth to those who didn't understand.  Only his colleagues on the Council, many of whom had similar memories, understood.  "Somehow you survived, of course.  We had to provide you a Watcher, and all of them with the requisite experience and ability were aware that Kendra would be Called within a year.  It would be rather difficult to work with someone you knew had less than a year to live, so we needed to send someone who wasn't aware of your impending demise.

            "For that and other reasons we chose Rupert Giles.  We had already had… issues… with him, and it was more of a punishment detail than anything else.  He didn't know that you were operating under a time limit.  Well, except that limit which all Slayers must face.  We felt that losing his Slayer might wake him up to some of the realities which the Council…" he paused, and took an angry sip of his brandy.

"We told him that although he would be your Watcher, we would be unable to devote much in the way of resources to assisting him. And so he set up his own support system via your infamous 'Scoobie' group while we devoted our time and resources to preparing Kendra.  Your survival, and particularly your retention of your powers after Kendra was Called, actually made things even simpler.  You did not appear to have any intentions of leaving Sunnydale so the Hellmouth continued to have a Slayer patrolling it, while we had a full-fledged Slayer who could put out brushfires elsewhere, for a modest fee of course.

"And then Kendra died."  Even the girl, ready to believe the worst of this man, could hear the pain in his voice.  "She was a wonderful, wonderful girl.  Respectful, obedient, everything you weren't.  We had placed all our hopes on her, and I still don't understand how she could have been defeated.  Of course, we find ourselves saying that a lot.  It's not often a Slayer is defeated in a huge, apocalyptic confrontation with the Forces of Evil.  It is usually in a small, seemingly trivial fight with an unworthy opponent when a Slayer falls.  Be that as it may, with the loss of Kendra we were left with you, whom we had alienated to the point where you didn't want anything to do with us, and Faith, who had all of your weaknesses and none of your strengths."

There was a long silence as both knew they were reaching the moment of truth.  The girl stood so still she might have been a statue, save for the anger returning to her eyes.  The man in the chair appeared to calm, his words chosen carefully, seemingly relieved to be offering a truth few Slayers were able to hear.  "An organization such as the Council of Watchers does not survive for hundreds of years were it to do things that offend the rank and file.  I am certain you believe we would have you murdered should you offend us, but that simply isn't true.  Nothing would turn the larger body of Watchers against the Council faster than the knowledge that we had ordered execution of a Slayer.  I won't deny that it hasn't happened in the past, but only after exhaustive, and very public, debate within the organization.  Our function is to support the Slayer, and even a rumor that we had turned against a Slayer without overwhelming evidence that there was an immediate need to do so would cause the Watchers to rebel against the Council.

"You see, from their standpoint, there is virtually never a reason to murder a Slayer because every Slayer comes with a time limit.  I suspect that Giles told you the same thing I told Annie:  Slayers generally die young, but a few have survived much longer, even into old age.  That is even true, so far as it goes.  But the full truth is that more than 95% of Slayers have died before their twentieth birthday, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who have lived to see their thirtieth.  And that number is based on records which extend back nearly a thousand years.  So even the most inept, incompetent, or uncooperative Slayer only has a few years to be an irritant.  All we have to do is wait for the inevitable and hope the next Slayer is more malleable."

He looked at the girl for a second, but continued before she could ask any questions.  "When Faith turned against you and began assisting the Mayor we had quite a debate over what, if anything, we should do.  Even given her obvious guilt there were many who felt we should do nothing.  To them our purpose is only to assist the Slayer, not to judge her, and if they are wrong, well, she'll be dead in a few years anyway.  In the end we only acted due to the mystical imbalances which heralded Glory's arrival.  Nobody wanted Faith interfering with whatever you would have to do to defeat such a formidable foe.  But even then we were only to bring her to England where she could be treated, not executed out of hand."

The girl finally spoke, tonelessly.  "And then you changed your mind last week?"

He sighed again, this time running his free hand through once neatly-combed white hair.  "I overestimated the respect the Council had for a Slayer.  Or perhaps I underestimated the importance trivial, mundane issues would have when compared to our duty.  For over seven years now the Council has funded the Watchers organization.  Seven years without the income derived from a Slayer, and our investments have done about as poorly as everyone else's over that time.  The sad fact is that we are running out of money.  We have cut back to the bone, but unless a new Slayer is called, we will be bankrupt within six months.  Our original intention was to use our influence to have Faith released from prison.  Chances were she would either die in some spectacular act of redemption or equally magnificent act of incompetence, but either way she would be dead, and we would have a new Slayer.  But the truth is, Faith was getting better, and she wanted to complete her treatment. 

"So our fallback option was to replace one of the guards' electric stun batons with one modified to the point where it could stop even a Slayer's heart.  Faith was frequently in altercations.  Generally not her fault, they were usually a new prisoner trying to make a name for themselves by challenging someone with Faith's reputation.  But to break up the fight the guard would use the baton on Faith, because they were far more frightened of her than anyone she might be fighting, and when it 'overloaded' and stopped her heart, they would get her to the infirmary in time to revive her.

"Unfortunately the fight got out of hand.  In the melee no one noticed that Faith was in serious trouble.  By the time they had restored order, she was dead."

The sword came up, and the girl's eyes were flint hard as she reduced his statement to its lowest common denominator.  "You had Faith murdered so that you could prostitute a replacement Slayer?!"

Despite her threatening demeanor the man met her eyes fearlessly.  "Unfortunately your assessment is far more accurate than I try to pretend to myself.  I tell myself how important our work is, I remind myself what the life expectancy is for a Slayer who doesn't have a Watcher training her and advising her, I delude myself with protestations that we never intended that Faith should die.  But die she did, and we are responsible.  And nothing I say will change that."

"What about all that crap you were spouting about how the Watchers wouldn't stand for it, and how all you had to do was wait for the inevitable!?  What are you going to tell them when they ask why you couldn't wait a year or two?!"

He met her anger with a sigh, and turned to look at the almost empty brandy snifter I his hand.  "I was hoping you wouldn't ask that question.  I told myself that no matter what happened tonight I would only tell you the truth, but I hoped you wouldn't ask that.  I expected to be dead before you got around to thinking it.  But, once again, I underestimated you.  After all this time you'd think I would have learned…"  His words just faded without really concluding, and he drained the glass and put it on the table before turning to fully face her for the first time.  "It isn't usually like this for Slayers, Buffy.  For most of recorded history a Slayer would have to fight perhaps one vampire a week, more sometimes if she found a nest, generally less.

"What is your average?  Several per day for six straight years, plus the other horrors you have faced?  Nobody has faced what you have fought, not even your counterpart during the original Millennium.  The point I am trying to make is that for much of the history of the Council we have been able to manage the vampire threat even without a Slayer.  Not as well, and not as efficiently, but if necessary we could.  So you must have wondered why virtually no Slayer has ever come to us and said 'I'm retiring to the cottage;  you take care of the bloodsuckers.'"

From the expression on her face he gathered that she had never wondered at such a question.  He almost sighed again.  Of course this one would have never seriously considered abandoning her duties.  "Most Watchers believe that excepting a few rogues such as Faith, when they are Chosen a Slayer is automatically endowed with greater courage and a sense of responsibility.  We both know that isn't true, don't we Buffy?  How many times have you been so frightened you wanted to just run away from your responsibilities, just go somewhere nobody could find you and hide?  And if you can consider it, how can you think that in a thousand years or more no Slayer hasn't done exactly that?  Well, let me tell you, some of them have run away.  Usually they head up north to Scotland or Norway or Canada where it's cold and vampires can't handle the temperatures.  Despite that, their life expectancy isn't appreciably greater than that of those who stay and fight."

At her look of confusion he elaborated.  "Slayers aren't Chosen because they are somehow found 'worthy' of the honor.  There are some mystical rules, which is how we can sometimes narrow down a list of successors, but even then an element of randomness is incorporated.  Whatever it is that makes a Slayer isn't looking for anything in particular beyond that she be female and approximately the correct age. All it is looking for is a host, and pretty much anyone will do.  And when you're dealing with that sort of random selection process, you are often going to wind up with some duds.  Someone who just wants to run away and hide, rendering the Slayer power impotent at protecting humanity.  The Slayer power isn't 'alive' in the sense that it can't recognize such an individual before she has been Chosen and move on to someone else.  But natural selection can accommodate such unworthy Slayers in the same way the Watchers do…"

He waited for it, and the girl understood.  "They wait her out."

"Exactly!  Because even if she won't fight, Slayers don't live for very long.  The increased efficiencies of the muscles, the cardio-vascular system, the strength of the bones, all push the human body far beyond its design limits, and cannot be maintained indefinitely.  I told you that there were a few Slayers who lived to see their 30th birthday.  What I didn't tell you is that by the time they reach that age they were crippled, the strength of their tendons having twisted the long bones of their arms and legs into useless loops.  They had to be hand fed because they couldn't hold a kitchen utensil.  Soon after that they will die of a stroke as their magnificent heart pumps blood faster than the decaying arteries in their brains can handle.  It is not a pretty sight, even when just seen as a picture drawn in an old book.  Almost all Slayers would rather die fighting than expire in such a condition."

He could see that she was frightened, and felt no satisfaction in it.  The tip of sword was pointing at the floor as she looked at him in horror.  "You mean Faith…"

He shook his head.  "No.  I don't mean Faith."

Unable to face her horrified expression of dawning comprehension, he looked away.  "We keep an eye on you, of course, and a few months ago we noted a change in your fighting style.  You are still as fast as you used to be, but you began to use more power moves as opposed to your previous finesse movements.  Within two months we noted you were protecting your elbows, and were more careful with your knees.  They are always the first to go.  That was when we knew."

When he looked up he could see that she was unconsciously holding her right elbow with her left hand.  Noticing the direction of his eyes, she dropped her hand, and struggled to control herself.  "How long do I have?"

Not wanting to see the expression on her face, the man reached for the decanter and poured himself some more of the precious brandy.  "Once it starts the deterioration progresses rapidly.  You are such an incredible fighter you might be able to defeat most opponents for another two months, perhaps even three.  But within six you'll be unable to walk without the use of a cane, and based on historical precedent, you will not survive much more than a year beyond that."  Even in the dim firelight he could see that she was as pale as a sheet, her eyes so huge they seemed child-like.  "I'm sorry Buffy.  More sorry than I can say.

"Giles wanted to tell you.  He noticed it even before we did.  But you were facing Glory at the time, and we didn't want you distracted.  That was why we ordered Giles home at what I am sure was an extremely inconvenient time."  She wasn't even looking at him, numb with shock.  "Looking back, we probably should have let your friends know.  But who could imagine what Willow would consider doing, or that she would have the power to succeed?  You would go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak, the way a hero of your caliber was meant to.  But she brought you back and we had to make a decision none of us wanted to face.

"There is an infestation of vampires in what used to be East Germany.  So far we have managed to keep it from the Press, but there are already seventeen confirmed casualties, and we believe a Master Vampire is behind it.  Previously such a creature would have been drawn to Sunnydale, and his presence in Europe suggests to us that the most senior among the vampires know that you have only a short time left, and they have decided to wait you out.  We need a new Slayer, and we need time to break her in while you are still able to maintain control over the Hellmouth…"

Thick carpeting dampened the sound of the falling sword as the girl who would never live to be an old woman was no longer able to hold it upright.  For a moment she stood facing him, her expression horrified beyond anything ever seen by the monsters she had previously faced.  Finally, without a word, she turned and disappeared among the shadows.  He never heard her leave, never saw where she went.  The only sound the rest of the night was the violent shattering of the brandy snifter as he threw it into the fireplace.