I don't own anything. Buffy is not owned by me. Nor is anything own by DC Comics. They are owned by rich, talented people. I'm a nobody. Please don't sue me.

Muffled Execution

Philip grinned drunkenly as he followed the woman he had met at the bar into the night. He normally avoided drinking too much, and he hadn't even tried to hit on a woman after his wife had died over ten years before, but with his daughter having just gotten a full scholarship for college, he felt entitled to celebrate. He had never been a terribly attractive man, and years of mourning, long working hours, and raising his daughter by himself had caused him to go bald and flabby. He hadn't expected his celebration to include more than a few beers.

He didn't know what Lisa saw in him. She was in her mid twenties and quite pretty, the sort of girl who would never have looked at him twice even in his prime. When she had hit on him he had looked around in confusion, expecting her to be talking to someone else, but instead, several drinks later, she was leading him away from the bar.

"Where're we goin'?" Philip asked.

"Not much farther," Lisa said, giving him a wicked smile that sent the blood pounding through his veins.

She suddenly pulled him into an alley, pressing him against a wall as she kissed him. He wrapped his arms around her, too excited to notice how cold her lips were. "Wait," he said, the situation finally cutting through his libido. "I can afford a hotel if you want... don't want to get arrested..."

"Ah, isn't he the gentleman?" a man cooed from further down the alley. He was short, with shaggy brown hair and a loosely buttoned shirt.

"What's wrong with your face?" Philip asked, shocked as he stared into the man's glowing yellow eyes.

"Smart too," the man sneered. "And why's he so fat?"

"That way there's plenty for both of us," Lisa said, her face transforming as well.

"Fine," the man said. "But next time, get something with less cholesterol."

Before Philip could scream Lisa clamped a hand over his mouth and bit his throat. She noisily slurped his blood, and he knew suddenly that he was going to die. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought of his poor daughter, who would be all alone before she even graduated high school. He would do anything to see her again...

"Put him down!" a young woman suddenly shouted. The man who had been standing nearby suddenly turned into dust, and in his place stood a teenage girl with long blonde hair holding a wooden stake.

Lisa dropped Philip with a hiss, turning to face the girl. "You killed Melvin!"

"Seriously... he was named Melvin?" the blonde asked incredulously. "Lame."

"Who are you, little girl?" Lisa snarled. "I want to carve it on your tombstone!"

The blonde drew herself up, folding her arms over her chest. "I'm Stephanie, the Vampire Slayer."

The vampire suddenly leapt at Stephanie, who was taken by surprise, stumbling backwards to avoid the attack. She traded several quick punches and kicks, and Philip could only stare in confused awe as he held a hand over his bleeding neck. He had never seen anything like it except in kung fu movies, and he couldn't help wondering how much he had really drunk.

"Ha!" Stephanie shouted, landing a powerful kick to Lisa's stomach which sent her flying back into the wall behind her. When she tried to move in to finish her however, Lisa managed to recover, punching her in the chin. Stephanie stumbled back, tripping over a broken bottle, falling to the ground. Lisa dove, grabbing her arms and leaning down to bite her throat.

"No..." Philip muttered, reaching out a shaking hand, wanting to do something to help. He had been rescued by a little girl even younger than his daughter, and she was about to die because of it.

Before Lisa could finish her move she was suddenly grabbed by the hair by a small asian girl around Stephanie's age and pulled backwards. Philip blinked, unable to tell where the girl had come from as she staked Lisa, turning her to dust as well.

"Ahhh, Cass, I had her right where I wanted her," Stephanie complained.

Cass tilted her head in confusion. "Wanted... be eaten?"

"I woulda been fine," Stephanie muttered, although she accepted Cass' hand up. The two of them turned their attention to Philip. "Hey, you okay? Think you can make it home?"

"Yeah," Philip said, standing with effort. "I can make it. Thank you."

Cass smiled at him, before leaning over and kissing his cheek as he stumbled past her, his mind repressing the vampire attack into a mugging. He pushed that away, concentrating on seeing his daughter again. She was what was really important.

Cassandra and Stephanie strolled out of the alley once the man had hailed a cab. Stephanie smiled sheepishly at Buffy, who had her arms folded sternly. "Hi?"

"What have we learned?" Buffy asked.

"Watch out for stray bottles?" Stephanie offered.

"Never assume a vamp is done 'til it's dust," Buffy corrected. "They're always armed. Always dangerous. Just cause you kicked one, doesn't mean it's down."

"Right," Stephanie said. "Totally. Never count my vampires 'til they're staked."

"Good enough," Buffy said with a smile. "Come on, I think that's enough for a little while. Let's go get some mid patrol pie from the diner."

"Yes!" Cass said happily.

Before long the three Slayers were seated around a table in a tiny diner in one of the rougher parts of Brooklyn. The city was big enough that they had to vary their patrols every night if they wanted to hit everywhere with any regularity, but they had already selected good spots to get slaying snacks on most of their regular routes.

"So, where are we goin' next?" Stephanie asked with a huge bite of pie in her mouth.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Buffy said, ignoring the girl's eye roll in response. "That new free clinic is getting a blood delivery tonight. We need to do the guardy thing."

"Ugh," Stephanie groaned. "How do vamps find out about that kinda stuff?"

Buffy shrugged. "They always seem to. After that, one more sweep through Brooklyn, and we'll head back to bed."

"Story?" Cass asked.

"Of course," Buffy said. "You can pick one out when you get back."

Cassandra beamed in reply. Once the Coven had fixed her ability to learn, Willow and Buffy had decided that children's books would be a good place to start building her English skills. She was still a long way from learning to read, but she was steadily developing a vocabulary and an understanding of grammar.

"Um, on Friday there's that Parent-Teacher conference thing," Stephanie said, poking at her empty plate and refusing to meet Buffy's eyes.

"Hey, I might be too young and hot to be a real mom, but I'll make it," Buffy said. "Have you... talked to your mother lately?"

"No," Stephanie said, her voice hard. "Why would I want to?"

Buffy smiled sadly. "If you aren't comfortable with it I'd never try to do the force thing, but I think you should at least try to keep in touch with her. I know she was never there for you, but... you'd be upset if something happened to her and you never made up."

Stephanie didn't say anything, so after a moment Buffy continued. "Just think about it. No matter what, though, you'll always have a home with me. Okay?"

"Yeah," Stephanie said, smiling tightly. "Shouldn't we do something about those vamps?"

"Sure," Buffy said, leaving a tip and gathering the girls up. They walked out into the night, moving quickly towards the clinic. While the neighborhood was rough, they hadn't had too much trouble on the streets. Most of the gangs spent enough time out at night to have encountered vampires, and word got around through the underground about what the three women were. Even the toughest gang member tended to give them respectful nods as they passed, and in turn the women kept a blind eye to the small crimes they saw around them.

"Sometimes I wish we could do something about all this," Stephanie said after they had walked by a drug dealer standing on the corner. "People kill as many people as vamps do, and we just ignore it."

Buffy shrugged philosophically. "That's other people's job. Police, Federal Agents, masked Superhero-types. There are like, thirty thousand NYPD who try to stop that kinda stuff. We're some of the few that worry 'bout the rest. We can't do everything Steph – we just can do what we can."

Stephanie kicked a beer can. "It's just... it's not enough. It feels like we should do more."

"You just concentrate on school," Buffy said. "School, vamps, a cute boy or two... you've gotta live, not just fight all the time. Otherwise, the fight loses its meaning. If it still bothers you when you graduate, you can see about getting a badge or something. Try out some polyester."

"Ugh," Stephanie said, making a face. "Pass. No way would I want to be a police officer."

Buffy smiled nostalgically as she thought about a long ago career day, but didn't say anything.

Eventually they arrived at the small clinic that had been set up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. It had opened since their arrival in New York, and as far as they could tell it was all aboveboard and very dedicated to its work. As they approached they saw several suspicious figures lurking around, and Buffy felt the tingle that told her that they were vampires.

"Okay, I'll hang back again," Buffy said. "You two, see if you can thin the herd. Remember, don't stake anyone normal! That leads to all kinds of badness, trust me."

She stood in the shadows and watched the two young teens eagerly approach the loitering vampires, staking them quickly before anyone noticed the commotion. Stephanie still had a long way to go, but Cass was a smooth slaying machine, and she couldn't help but feel proud of both of them. She wondered if her mother had ever felt that way about her.

When the ambulance with the blood arrived, several cars suddenly drove up, blocking it in. From the vehicles a dozen vampires spilled out, already in game face as they rushed the workers. Buffy didn't hesitate, running forwards and taking two to the ground with the same flying split kick. Pulling out two stakes as she landed, she went to work, dust flying.

Cass joined in immediately, a fiercely grinning Steph watching her back as the three Slayers made short work of the surprised vampires. The three then moved away quickly, getting out of sight before anyone from the clinic could react. They stayed in the shadows nearby, though, in case any other vampires decided to try their luck.

"That was impressive," a man's voice said. Stephanie jumped visibly, whirling around in shock, while Buffy and Cass managed to school their reactions to the sudden intruder.

Turning slowly, Buffy gave the man her most vacant grin. "Huh?"

"The fighting," he said. He was a handsome man in his early thirties, with short, well groomed black hair, a square jaw, and an athletic build. Despite the late hour he was wearing dark sunglasses, but Buffy couldn't feel anything supernatural from him.

"Oh, well, a girl's gotta know some self-defense in this city," Buffy said blithely while she continued to study him. She noticed that he was very well dressed, wearing a suit that did not fit in with that part of Brooklyn, especially so late at night.

"I hadn't realized that 'self-defense' training covered fighting vampires," the man said drily.

"Of course," Buffy said with a wince. "How else could you defend yourself against vamps?"

The man chuckled. "You are not very good at maintaining a secret identity, are you Ms. Vampire Slayers?"

"Hey, how'd you know we were Slayers?" Stephanie asked.

"Well, I had suspected from the way that you fought," the man said. "You applied far more force than individuals of your build should be able to. Furthermore, you obviously possess a significant degree of skill at combat, which was employed to great effect against the vampires. I had heard through my sources that there were three Slayers in town, so it seemed a reasonable assumption. I hadn't known until you confirmed it however."

"Oops," Steph said, blushing.

"Who are you?" Buffy asked, her voice hard as she shifted her position slightly to protect her charges if he was a danger. "And how do you know about vampires?"

The man smiled and raised his hands innocently. "No need to worry about me. I am Doctor Pieter Cross, and I'm the one who opened this clinic. As for my knowledge, I had run a similar clinic in Portland for years, and having such an operation in a city after dark... it's more difficult not to be aware of vampires."

"Oh," Buffy said. "Most people seem to just ignore it anyway."

Pieter shrugged casually, giving Buffy a small smile that made something flutter before she ruthlessly suppressed it. "I've never been most people."

Before Buffy could say anything else Stephanie coughed, breaking the moment. "Right," Buffy said, her tone suddenly business-like. "We've got another sweep to do before bed, so..."

"Of course," Pieter said. "Thank you for looking out for the clinic. If you ever find yourself in need of treatment..."

"Sure," Buffy said as she led the two girls away.

She stopped when he called after her. "What's your name?"

"Buffy," she said as she started walking again.

"He's kinda hot, for an old guy," Stephanie said as they turned a corner.

"Um... really," Buffy said, trying for casual. "I hadn't noticed."

Cass giggled, ignoring Buffy's glare while Stephanie continued. "He's a doctor, too. You should totally ask him out. You're old enough for him."

"I'm not old!" Buffy objected, patting her hair, hoping she hadn't developed mom hair somewhere along the way. She had already been forced to switch her hair color regimen from just bleaching to some darkening as gray hairs had begun to appear. She did not intend to start looking old just yet. "He wasn't, either."

"Right," Steph said, her tone disbelieving.

"Come on, one more sweep," Buffy said. "You're doing extra laps tomorrow, so you know." She smiled as she heard Stephanie groan.

"Hey Wills," Buffy said as she answered her phone. She smiled as she watched her daughter demonstrate once again the proper way to throw someone. Stephanie as squeaked as she hit the mats.

"Hey Buffy!" Willow said. "How's my niece?"

"She's good," Buffy said. "Her English is really coming along. Before you know it she'll be gettin' all conjugaty and stuff."

Willow paused. "Right. Anyway, I just wanted to know if you'd found anything else."

"No," Buffy answered. "There's definitely somethin' wiggy going on though. I can tell. Just... too many vamps, and they're way too organized."

"Are you sure it's not just normal?" Willow asked. "I mean, you've never been to New York before, and maybe some gangs are coming in, trying to prove they're the best by knocking off the original Slayer."

"Yeah, my gut tells me otherwise," Buffy said, before suddenly calling across the room. "Watch you're footwork, Steph! If you'd connected you wouldn't have had any power that way!"

"I think I'll be able to stay this summer," Willow said. "If things stay calm I should be able to be there a month."

"Good," Buffy said. "It'll be great seeing you again. Any chance you could drag Giles or Xander here?"

"Probably not for that long," Willow answered regretfully. "We're too good at our jobs to all take off at once for more than a day or two. Otherwise demons might eat Paris or something."

"That would be a tragedy," Buffy agreed. "All those designer clothes... Anyway, I'll have to call you back tomorrow. I think Steph needs a little help."

A week later Buffy and her girls were just finishing up another long patrol of Brooklyn when they all felt vampires. Circling immediately, they stood back to back as dozens of vamps suddenly appeared from the darkness. Fortunately, the group appeared to be armed with nothing but a few knives, and most had nothing at all.

"See, this is what I meant about something being up," Buffy said casually. "No way this many vamps are around without some kinda old vamp guy to give 'em orders."

"We serve the great Lord-" one of the vampires started self importantly, only to be cut off by an elbow to the stomach.

"Do not waste words on the infidels!" he snarled. "Just kill them!"

The vampires charged forward, fists and knives and fangs flashing as they attacked the three Slayers. Cass jumped at the first vampire to close, slamming her knee into his face and sending him to the ground, staking him before rolling backwards to her feet, backhanding her stake into another vamp that had tried to attack Stephanie from behind. Steph, meanwhile, had her hands full fending off her own attackers, waving a cross in one hand and a stake in the other as she kept them at bay, waiting for a good opportunity to attack.

Buffy kicked the first vampire to approach her hard enough to break his neck, throwing a stake at another and turning him to dust. She then backflipped through the air, landing behind a pair of vampires that had tried to attack her from behind, staking them both in one motion as she smoothly drew two stakes. Spinning, she attacked another cluster of vampires, using acrobatic moves to stay in motion and keep one step ahead of the surging mob of hungry attackers.

The air soon became full of dust as one vampire after another fell. Buffy stayed slightly apart from her girls, dividing the vampire's attention while Cass smoothly defeated any foolish enough to attack her while she protected Stephanie's back. Steph managed to stake a few herself, but for the most part she stayed on the defensive, allowing her more skilled allies to do most of the fighting until the vampires thinned out some.

Unfortunately, just when things seemed to be going their way, a large group of vampires who had been holding back before suddenly moved in, concentrating their attacks on Stephanie. The young Slayer tried her best to hold them off, but unlike the rest of the mob, the late comers were extremely skilled fighters. She was soon overwhelmed, pulling Cass' attention away from the fight to defend her friend more and more.

Buffy noticed the situation, turning and diving back into the mob, hitting and moving past vamps until she was by her girls' side. Fighting fiercely, she snarled as she saw Stephanie take a painful scrape from a mistimed block. Buffy kicked two vampires aside and plunged her stake into the one that had hurt Steph.

Buffy started to stake another vamp, but before she could fully react a knife stabbed out of the cloud of dust from her last target, stabbing into her side. She grunt in pain, shifting her stake to plunge it into her attacker, even as she dropped her second stake to clutch the blade still embedded in her flesh. The wound was deep and painful, but she put it out of her mind, switching to a defensive posture as she watched her girls' backs.

Strangely, after her injury the rest of the vampires broke off, scattering quickly in all directions. Stephanie and Cass started to pursue, but stopped when they noticed the knife. They rushed to Buffy's side, faces concerned.

"Mom?" Cass asked. "Hurt?"

"Are you okay?" Stephanie demanded, her face pinched with fear.

"What's a knife in the ribs to a tough ol' Slayer like me?" Buffy said, her voice fainter than she would've liked. "I'm way too tough for this to kill me. I'm like, all gristle and spite at this point."

"Hurt," Cass said shortly, gently grabbing Buffy's arm to help guide her. Cass' jaw set as she read the pain in Buffy's body language as she started walking.

"We're close to that clinic," Stephanie said.

"I'm fine," Buffy insisted, her voice trembling from the pain shooting up from her side as the knife grated against bone with every step. Despite the pain, she knew if she pulled it out she would begin bleeding even more freely, probably causing a swift fifth death. "Just a few s-stiches..."

"Hurt," Cass growled.

"Yeah, you are so doctor-bound," Steph said firmly. "Do you need an ambulance?"

"I hate hospitals," Buffy grumbled, although she didn't resist as they led her towards the clinic.

By the time they reached it, Buffy was glad that she hadn't put up more of a fight. Her head was spinning, her entire body cold as blood soaked her all the way from her shirt to her stylish boots. Her spinning thoughts were vaguely surprised that she had that much blood.

"Help!" Stephanie called as she held the clinic doors open as Cass all but carried Buffy into the room. "She's been stabbed!"

Buffy watched as dimly seen figures ran up to her, pushing what had to be a gurney as they went. Cass lifted her from the ground and placed her gently on it, and immediately she was wheeled down a hallway towards a treatment area. "I hate hospitals," Buffy said vaguely.

"If you dislike them so much, you should try to avoid injuries," Pieter said.

Buffy turned her head towards him, squinting as she tried to make him out. "I knew I was doing it wrong. Avoid injury, Buffy."

Pieter chuckled, before calling out to a nurse. "Prep the operating table. Do you know her blood type?"

Buffy tried to answer, but something was placed over her face and everything grew further and further away.

Cass paced back and forth, every muscle tense as she waited for news. Stephanie watched her, slumped in a chair as she flipped through an old magazine again, her eyes not even looking at the pages as she failed to distract herself. Both girls jumped when the door opened and Dr. Cross stepped into the waiting room.

Cass slumped immediately, her relief palpable, and Steph relaxed as well after seeing how her friend reacted. If anything was truly wrong, Cass would have known just from a glance. Dr. Cross smiled as he walked up to the them.

"She'll be alright," he said. "The knife nicked her kidney, but her rib saved her life, keeping the blade from penetrating deeply. She should make a full recovery, although it'll take time."

"Slayers heal fast," Stephanie said reassuringly. "She'll but up and out of here by tomorrow."

"She suffered a very severe injury," Dr. Cross said, frowning. "She should recover, but she'll need to be very careful. Until she's healed she could easily reinjure herself, perhaps even fatally..."

"She's a really bad patient," Stephanie cut in. "Don't say we didn't warn you."

Despite Pieter Cross' doubts, Buffy felt well enough to head back home the next day. While she was glad to be away from the clinic, she was very pale and weak by the time the taxi dropped them off at their brownstone. Before she could object Cass picked her up and carried her up the steps and into the building.

"I can walk you know," Buffy grumbled. No one paid any attention.

Despite being a bad patient, Cassandra and Stephanie had figured out how to keep Buffy in line. Whenever she tried to do anything but rest they would look at her with such pathetic kicked puppy looks that she felt guilty about even going to the bathroom. In the end she settled for laying in bed watching bad movies with them all day.

Buffy eventually fell asleep in the middle of a disney movie, drifting away into the comforting warmth of being curled up between Cass and Steph. She smiled, happy to be with family again. Everything was right in the world.

And then it wasn't. A creeping coldness radiated outward from her side where the knife had sunk in. Buffy grunted in pain as a cold shard of ice seemed to burrow deeper into her body, leaching her warmth and happiness away with it. She opened her eyes, groaning as all she saw was a gray fog. Something in the distance seemed to pulse and glow with a sickly violet light, illuminating the mist without letting her truly see. She couldn't tell what it was, but she instinctively knew that it was a terrible danger... and that it was coming ever closer.

She was pulled awake with a gasp as she heard her daughter crying out for her, gently shaking her arm. "Mom! Mom!"

"Cass?" Buffy said. "I... I can't see."

"Steph!" Cass screamed as she waved a hand in front of Buffy's eyes. She didn't react at all.

Stephanie woke up with a start, quickly realizing something was very wrong. "Buffy? What's happening?"

"I can't see," Buffy said. "And I'm cold. Really, really cold..."

Cass touched her, flinching slightly as she realized her mother's skin was colder than it should be. She was even colder on her side where her injury was. Touching her there was like touching ice.

"Willow," Cass said, looking at Stephanie, who nodded and scrambled for a phone.

A few minutes later Willow came into the room, her face worried. "What's wrong? Stephanie wasn't making much sense on the phone."

"Wills?" Buffy asked. "Is that you?"

"Buffy?" Willow said. "What's wrong?"

"I -I can't see," Buffy said. "Everything's gray. And I'm cold. My side... my side is freezing."

Willow murmured something under her breath, and Cass couldn't help but stare once again at the strange babble that was Willow's body language while working magic. No matter how many times she saw it, someone casting spells was unlike anything she had ever otherwise seen. She focused back on the moment as she read Willow's distress at the results.

"What did this?" Willow asked quietly.

Stephanie ran off, returning a few moments later with the knife that had been pulled from Buffy's side. Willow took it gently, muttering spells over it for long minutes before she set it down. "Shit."

"Willow!?" Buffy asked, incredulous.

"Sorry," she said, turning red. "It's just... bad. The knife is cursed. Really cursed. Really really cursed. I... I don't know what I can do."

Buffy smiled sadly. "Your best."

Willow took a breath, before nodding. She spent over an hour slowly casting long, ritualistic spells, sometimes without so much as words, other times using dozens of ingredients that she sent Steph and Cass running about to track down. In the end, Buffy rested somewhat easier, although she was still obviously very weak.

"I'm sorry," Willow said. "You... I slowed it down. The curse drains your life away, and I can't seem to break it, no matter what I do. All my magic... you've only got a few days..."

"Oh," Buffy said. "Hey... don't cry. I've lived longer than any Slayer, ever. And I know where I'll go. It's a good place. And I'll see Mom, and Dawnie... I'll be okay."

Cass started to cry, wrapping Buffy in her arms as her mother held her gently, whispering reassuring things in her ear. They stayed like that for a long time, before Buffy spoke out loud again. "Willow? Look after them, will you?"

"Of course," Willow said. "I'll... I'll take care of them."

Buffy slowly drifted off to sleep, exhausted from the curse, leaving the other three women standing awkwardly over her deathbed. Cass looked at Steph for a moment, nodding to the door, and the other girl nodded. She then slowly pushed Willow into a chair beside Buffy's bed.

"Thanks," Willow said tremulously. "I'll sit here for a bit. Okay? Why don't you get some rest. It'll be a few days before she... before she won't be able to spend time with you. I'll see if I can figure anything else out."

Cass nodded, going out into the hall and straight to the weapons chest, grabbing several daggers and hiding them around her body. "What are you doing?" Stephanie asked quietly.

"Get cure," Cass said.

"How?" Stephanie asked, grabbing knives as well.

"Research," Cass said, holding up the cursed knife.

"Hmm," Malcolm Hayes said in a very tweedy british accent. He was an older man, with a round face, tiny squinting eyes half hidden by spectacles, and only a few wisps of thin white hair on top of his pale head. "Yes... here it is... that is a Katar of Shiva."

"Not katar," Cass said, eyeing the thick tome the Research Watcher was looking at distrustfully.

"I am aware that it is a standard European-style single edged combat knife," he huffed. "It appears to have been hand forged sometime in the late eighteenth century. However, the enchantments laid upon it are those employed by certain obscure sects of Shiva worshippers for their ceremonial katars."

"Is there a cure?" Stephanie asked hopefully.

The man hesitated for a moment. "No. There is not. I'm sorry."

"Liar," Cass hissed, looming over him.

The Watcher swallowed hard. "There isn't a known cure. It was created to kill heroes, not allow them a reprieve."

"Have idea," Cass insisted.

He sighed, looking suddenly even older. "Yes. I have an idea. This weapon bears a very complex, and very specific curse. It can only be used against a warrior who is winning a battle against significant odds. Some sources claim that, with Shiva's blessing, one can survive the blow. I... I think that if you were to somehow receive Shiva's blessing, the curse could be undone."

"How?" Stephanie demanded. "Isn't Shiva a god or something?"

"Yes," Malcolm said. "However, such a blessing may not involve the god himself. Rather, you may need to seek out someone who has the authority to speak for him in certain affairs. Some sort of high priest or other endowed representative of sufficient standing."

"Where," Cass demanded.

Malcolm shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry. I wish that I could help more, but it's only a theory, and I know of no way to employ it. I know of no one who could fulfill the requirements of the curse."

Cass grabbed the knife, and the two girls quickly left the library. "What now?" Stephanie asked as they strolled across Columbia University campus.

The door burst open, so much force being applied that the solid oak split in two, spraying splinters everywhere. Two girls barely into their teens stepped into the room, glaring at the demons and vampires that filled the bar. The first through the door, Cass, stormed to the bartender, a three eyed demon which looked at her warily.

"Hey, sorry 'bout the door," Stephanie said brightly. "We're just in a bit of a hurry, and, well, Cass is a bit cranky. Or, you know, homicidally insane. It'd probably be in your best interest to tell us where we can find a Temple of Shiva or High Priest or something."

A particularly ugly, eight foot tall, broken horned Fyarl demon growled at Cass as he loomed over her menacingly. She slowly turned her piercing gaze from the bartender to look the bouncer in the eyes. He snarled something to her in his native Fyarl.

Cass answered in her own native language, punching him in the stomach with organ bursting force. He bent over, his breath exploding from his lungs, and Cass grabbed the stumps of his horns, one on each side of his head, before planting a foot on his chest. With a snarl of effort, she twisted and pulled at the horns until the demon's head popped off like grape, spraying thick green slime everywhere. She then dropped the head onto the counter and glared at the bartender, who was visibly shaking.

A large demon with compound eyes and a sideways mouth approached next, long claws extending as it growled at Cass. She slowly turned her head again, looking at it, before swiping her hand quickly towards its neck. The gesture looked almost gentle, but the demon fell to the floor, gurgling, as the Slayer dropped its ripped out throat onto the bart next to the fyarl's head.

With the death of the second demon a large wave of attackers decided to try their luck. Several broke off and approached Stephanie, who drew a knife in one hand and a stake in the other as she began to fend off attackers. "Too slow!" she taunted as she stabbed a Frophla demon in its heart, which was about an inch above its jiggling waist. The demon crumpled dead to the floor, quickly turning into a large patch of very slippery green slime.

A blue skinned howler demon ran screeching at Steph, but it slipped in the patch the dead demon had left behind, falling to the ground, and the Slayer easily slit its throat. While the demon gurgled and died she raised her weapons, ready to react as two vampires slowly circled her, looking for an opening. She took a moment to glance over and see how Cass was faring.

A pile of demon bodies, lay around the enraged Slayer, and more joined them by the second. Slayer training was highly lethal, focused heavily on skills valuable for stalking and quickly dispatching the various demons that filled the world. Much of it, however, was based in relatively ordinary martial arts techniques, refined and honed through centuries of live combat to create the ultimate warrior.

Cass, however, had been trained from birth to be an assassin. Her lessons had focused not just on quickly winning battles, but on instant killing. Every blow had been intended to be the only blow, all aimed at points that would be fatal. While her training had been necessarily rounded out with other methods, something for which she was thankful when she wasn't fighting demons, or when she fought demons that didn't die like people, her combat style was at heart a tool for assassination.

That day, filled with fear and anger so intense that she was almost shaking with them, Cass unleashed everything into the demons that were keeping her from helping her mother. She used no weapons, no flashy techniques – no jumps, no tumbles, no aerial kicks. She simply killed, her bare hands tearing flesh, breaking bone, and ripping out organs. Any demon that approached her died instantly from a single blow, and when they stopped approaching her, she sprang at them.

"Wait!" a small demon with a scorpion's tail squeaked as she attacked it. Her fingers stopped an inch from its yellow eyes. The demon gulped noisily as it stared a the rainbow of gore that covered her hand. "I know where one is!"

The vampires that had been harassing Steph, like the rest of the bar, backed away nervously from the tiny avatar of death that stood in their midst. Stephanie stepped forward, clearing her throat nervously. "Then talk. Or she's not gonna stop."

"The closest one is in San Francisco-" the demon began. Cass simply reached out, grabbing his arm with one hand, and his chest with the other. With a full bodied twist she ripped his arm off in a spray of yellow slime. The demon fell, screaming in pain.

"Liar," Cass hissed venomously.

"I swear, I-" the demon started, only to be cut off when he was struck in the face with his own arm hard enough to blacken his eye.

"Talk," Cass growled, raising the limb again.

The demon swallowed thickly, clutching his stump while staring up at the woman brandishing his limb threateningly. Finally, he slumped and began to speak. "Gotham... there's a Temple in Gotham."

Cass and Steph crouched in a dark alley. It was late at night, and in the rundown section of Gotham they were currently in, only the most desperate people were still on the streets. The two young Slayers certainly qualified as desperate.

"That... it?" Cass asked haltingly as they stared at an old six story apartment building with huge, wooden double doors at its front. All of the windows appeared to have the same dark red curtains, and they all were visibly lit.

"That's what he said," Steph agreed. "It doesn't look much like a temple."

Cass just nodded before striding determinedly across the street to the doors. Pushing them open, she stepped inside, Stephanie on her heels. Despite its outward appearance, the building was an empty shell, a single large chamber with red curtains that stretched from the ceiling six stories above all the way to the wooden floor. The space was wide open, resembling a dojo more than a temple, but with large braziers scattered about the room, some providing light while others burned fragrant incense. A huge banner with a yin yang hung on the far side of the room, and the only other decorations were messages written in chinese scattered about, and large pictures hanging on the walls of brutally beaten men and women, all obviously dead.

Stephanie stared at the picture of one of the more painfully dead women, gulping audibly. "Let's not hire their interior decorator."

A bearded man dressed in a red tunic and trousers stepped stepped out from a curtained niche, frowning as he approached them. He looked like he had stepped out of some kind of kung fu movie, with an intricate symbol tattooed on his bald forehead and white bandages wrapped around his limbs. "Have you come to pray at the temple?"

"Uh, we need to speak to someone that can, um, can speak for Shiva," Stephanie said nervously.

"There is no need for a representative," a woman said with a throaty chuckle. Stepping from the same alcove as the man came an asian woman with shoulder length black hair and a haughty expression. She wore black pants and a purple coat which flared out to the ground like a cloak from her waist. Cass was confused for a moment when she saw a flicker of carefully hidden recognition appear in the woman's body language when she saw her. "I am Lady Shiva. What business do you have here?"

Cass and Steph both frowned and looked at each other, as they felt nothing supernatural about the woman. Cass shrugged and pulled out the knife, while Stephanie explained. "Cass' mom was stabbed with this knife, and it's cursed. We need someone who can, um, fix it."

Shiva eyed the knife for a moment, a strange smile on her face. "Ah, I see. But tell me, why should I help you?"

"If you don't, she'll die," Stephanie said.

"Irrelevant," Shiva said coldly. "People die all the time. Why should I care?"

"What do you want?" Stephanie asked.

Shiva smirked. "Nothing that you can offer me, little girl. No, I'm not looking for money or mundane things. I'll only help you if you are worthy."

Stephanie gulped, before crossing her arms over her chest. "Okay. How do we prove it?"

"Trial by combat," Shiva explained. "You, Cass. If you desire for her to live, then come at me. Prove your mettle."

Cassandra didn't have to be asked a second time. She ran forward and launched a Slayer speed flying kick at Shiva's head. The woman's eyes widened for a moment as she was taken by surprise, raising her arms at the last moment and rolling with the blow, tumbling backwards and onto her feet with nothing more than some bruises.

Shiva cocked her head to the side, studying Cass for a moment, before smiling slightly. "I see. You are a Slayer."

"Give... up," Cass ordered, entering a combat stance.

Shiva smiled slightly. "That would normally be my only choice, would it not? Giving up when faced by a Slayer. No matter the skill disparity, it would be nearly impossible for a normal mortal to beat a Slayer in a fair fight. Fortunately... I'm not so ordinary."

Shiva closed her eyes for a moment, and when she reopened them they glowed purple. Cass and Steph both flinched and took a step back as the woman suddenly exploded with supernatural power to their Slayer senses. Whatever she was, she had more power than anything either Slayer had ever encountered.

"W-what are you?" Stephanie gasped.

"I am the Lady Shiva," the woman said. "That is no mere title I gave myself. Like you are Chosen by the Powers, I was Chosen by Shiva to be his mortal representative. I am deadliest human warrior walking this earth, a title I earned in blood. I have never used this against a normal human, but against a Slayer? This is simply... balance."

Lady Shiva then set herself in a long combat stance, and Cass took her own defensive posture. They stared at each other for a moment, before Cass attacked. Unfortunately, Shiva was ready, easily deflecting the blow, and following up with a sharp jab. Cass read it in her posture, bringing up one hand to block while launching a knee to Shiva's stomach in return.

Cass grunted in pain from the block, barely holding it as she realized that her opponent was even stronger than Buffy. She also was faster, easily guiding Cass' knee to the side, before following up with a punch that Cass was forced to take on her chin, rolling with it to reduce the impact. She still saw stars as she came to her feet, dodging immediately to avoid a follow up.

Everything blended together for Cass as she mentally entered a pure combat zone. Nothing mattered except beating Lady Shiva. She dodged, blocked, punched and kicked, analyzing every nuance and tick of body language to help her fight.

Shiva's body language was disturbing. Buffy was the most confident fighter Cass had ever met, a lifetime of conflict and experience having taught her that she could win against almost any odds. But Buffy had known defeat, known loss. She knew that someday, she would slip up and some monster would get a lucky shot in, and that would be it.

Shiva's body language didn't even allow for the possibility of defeat. She wasn't a brash youth, thinking that she was unbeatable. Lady Shiva was even older than Buffy, and she had fought enough battles to have suffered losses in the past. But where Buffy believed that she would win, Shiva knew that she would win. The longer the fight lasted, the more bruises Cass collected, and the more she feared that Shiva was right.

It was when Cass prepared herself to launch one of her most deceptive kick combinations, that her eyes widened as she realized the stunning truth. "You... read me," she panted.

"Yes," Shiva agreed calmly, connecting with a high kick that forced Cass to scramble backwards.

Somehow, Cass' ability to understand body language to perfectly predict her opponents wasn't unique. As she continued to fight, forced onto the defensive, she realized that Shiva was truly a master of the technique as well. She would start to block or dodge even before the hit was launched, and even shift her attacks to account for Cass' defenses, allowing her to make contact more often.

Cass knew, in that moment, that Shiva was better than her. Buffy was a better fighter than Cass as well, but that was a combination of her experience and her superior physical ability. Buffy was one of the most skilled fighters in the world, but Cass was better in that one area, and combined with her body reading, she had been able to give Buffy a serious fight from the first day.

Shiva, while using her gifts, was stronger and faster than Buffy, and had nearly the same breadth of experience. She was also even more skilled than Cass, and could read body language as well. Cass knew that if she kept fighting as she had been that she would lose.

If she lost Buffy would die.

Gritting her teeth, Cass shifted slightly, launching a long chain of attacks designed to setup one of her father's killing shots. Despite her powers, Shiva was human, and the thought of killing her nearly made Cass violently ill. But nothing else was working, and Buffy would die. She couldn't let that happen.

Shiva responded appropriately, her defenses slowly shifting out of alignment under Cass' flurry of attacks, until finally both fighters were in the perfect position. Cass launched her attack, stiffened fingers ready to crush Shiva's throat. Cass began to move, began to strike...

And couldn't. In the heartbeat between thought and deed, she realized that she couldn't do it. She just... couldn't kill again. Shame filled her, both at her failing to do it, and at even having considered it in the first place. She shifted her aim ever so slightly, going for a painful hit rather than a killing one.

It didn't matter. Shiva had seen the attack coming, and at the last moment she brushed Cass' hand away contemptuously. In that instant, Cass saw the truth. Shiva had known what she was about to do. Had invited her try, and now knew that she couldn't go through with a killing blow.

Shiva stopped holding back, her hand blurring forward with lightning speed, connecting with Cass' upper chest. Cass recognized it instantly as an obscure nerve cluster strike. She collapsed, her body momentarily paralyzed from the neck down. Defenseless.

Shiva stepped back, before jumping into the air, her fist raised. Cass looked up, and saw her intention to kill. Cass was going to die. She couldn't move. Couldn't defend herself. Couldn't save Buffy. Couldn't do anything.

She tried to think about what Buffy would do in that moment. She smiled slightly, realizing that her mom would probably make some kind of quip, something memorable. Cass had never been good enough with words to imitate that aspect of her mother.

The only thing that she could do, was move her head. As the fist came closer and closer, she decided that at least she could spit in Shiva's face. It wouldn't do anything, but it would make her feel better to defy her killer at the end.

At the last instant, she saw Shiva's aim shift, the blow connecting with her collar bone instead of her throat, breaking it painfully but leaving her alive. The world swam, and she was certain that if she was a normal human she would have lost consciousness. Instead, she lay in terrible pain even as the nerve strike slowly wore off.

"Pathetic," Shiva said coldly as the light faded from her eyes, returning them to their natural cinnamon color. "You cannot even kill."

"Cass!" Steph screamed, about to run to her side, although she was stopped with a glare from Shiva.

"No," Cass said sadly. She slowly pulled herself to her feet, her body shaking as she tried to keep from fainting as the ends of her collarbone grated against each other.

"Give me the dagger," Shiva said. "You are not worthy to possess it. Give it to me with your left hand."

Cass bit her lip as she carefully drew the dagger with her injured arm. Raising it slowly, she started to hand it to Shiva, every motion sending waves of pain through her body. Shiva reached out a hand to take it.

Cass surged forward, stabbing Shiva in the stomach with the blade, the move so sudden that, despite her body reading, she couldn't react in time. Cass carefully aimed to avoid all vital organs, but she still buried it to the hilt, the shock of the blow transmitting up her arm and to her shoulder. She grabbed it with her other hand, her eyes rolling back into her head as her mouth opened wide in a silent scream, her body losing the ability to make a sound as she reverted to her native language from the pain.

Shiva grunted, stumbling back and gripping the knife's hilt. "And still, no killing blow," she mused.

Cass fell to her knees, the world spinning around her, but she refused to pass out. "Curse," she rasped.

"No," Shiva said with a pained grimace. "You haven't fulfilled its conditions. We were no longer in battle, and the odds were in my favor. This is nothing but a knife wound. Still..."

She looked over at Stephanie. "Leave us."

"What?!" Stephanie objected. "No way! I'm not leaving Cass with you!"

"You are a rank amateur," Shiva said. "You are not even worth bloodying my hands for, and even with this knife wound I would have no trouble killing you. Cass will be returned to you unharmed. Now wait outside."

Stephanie set her jaw mutinously, about to object, when Cass spoke up. "Please."

"Cass," Stephanie said. "Don't do this. Who knows what this psycho'll do to you."

"Help mom," Cass said.

They stared at each other for a long moment, before Steph finally nodded, walking through the door and leaning against the wall outside. Minutes slowly passed, with the young Slayer growing steadily more anxious, until finally the door opened and Cass stepped outside, her face blank. Stephanie swallowed thickly. "Cass? What happened... are you alright?"

Cass gave her a serene smiled. "Yes. Just talked. Then cured."

"You mean..." Stephanie trailed off, hardly daring to hope.

Buffy sat anxiously on her couch, her side still badly injured, but the cold and weakness having suddenly disappeared, with her eyesight returned shortly thereafter. Willow had been shocked to see her friend up and about, but they had quickly noticed the mysterious absence of her girls, and come to some very likely conclusions. The only thing that had so far kept Buffy from calling in all council assets to search for them had been Willow's assurance that they were alright.

The door finally opened, and the two girls came in the door, worried expressions on their faces. When they saw Buffy up and healthy they ran over, grinning from ear to ear. Buffy smiled and wrapped them both in a gentle hug.

"Mom," Cass sobbed, gripping her tightly, although she was very careful not to put any pressure on her wounded side.

Buffy smiled, holding them both for a few minutes, before finally asking the question that had been burning at her since they had come in the door. "What happened to your arm, Cass?"

Cass sat back, placing a hand on her shoulder, which was heavily bandaged and with her left arm in a sling. "Broke."

"She fought this crazy Shiva person to get her to heal you," Stephanie explained. "She broke Cass' collarbone, but she managed to stab her."

"Shiva?" Buffy demanded. "Like, the god Shiva? Cass... you could've died!"

"You die!" Cass shouted, tears in her eyes. "Had to."

Buffy smiled at her sadly. "I'm a Slayer, Cass. I don't want to die, but it'll happen eventually. Even with so many of us, someday I'll meet something I can't slay, and that'll be it."

"No!" Cass said. "Won't let. Need you. Don't... leave."

Buffy started crying as well, wrapping Cass in her arms. "I don't want to, honey. And I'll stay alive as long as I can, okay? I know... how much it hurts to lose a mom. But I don't want to lose you either. It would... I don't know if I could survive it. Promise me you'll be more careful, okay?"

"You... promise," Cass demanded.

"Okay," Buffy said. "I promise to be careful."

"Promise," Cass agreed solemnly, her expression pained and distant.

Willow snuck away during the tearful reunion, and she returned not long after with cake and ice cream, and they threw an impromptu 'Not Dying' party. The four of them laughed and smiled, watched silly movies together, and generally spent the day as a family. Eventually, Buffy's injuries sent her to bed, and the others soon followed, content.

All except for Cass. Despite her injuries, she couldn't sleep. She stood at the window, staring out into the dark streets, her conversation with Lady Shiva replaying over and over in her head.

"I will allow your 'mother' to heal, if you swear to fulfill a certain condition," Shiva offered.

"Okay," Cass agreed. She would do anything to heal her mom.

"In less than two years, you will turn sixteen. On the day that happens, come to this temple, and we will have another fight. You will use all of your killing arts, and we shall fight to the death."

Cass swallowed hard. She couldn't kill someone, even the woman holding her mother's life hostage for her sick games. She didn't want to die either... but she couldn't live without her mom. She had never known real love, true happiness, until Buffy had found her living on the streets of Rome. She would do anything for her, even give up her own life. She nodded slowly. "Yes."

Shiva's eyes glowed purple for a moment, and Cass could feel supernatural power fill the room, shifting and distorting everything, before slowly seeping away. "It is done. The curse is broken. Remember, return on your sixteenth birthday... or I will take from you that which you purchase with your word."

Cass swallowed and started to walk slowly away, before pausing uncertainly. "Don't know... when."

Lady Shiva had been walking back to the alcove she had emerged from, and she paused in front of its curtain. "January twenty-sixth, in two years."

Cass walked out onto the street, her only thoughts on her mother.

Staring into the dark, Cass wondered how Shiva had known when she was born. Not even she knew when, and she hadn't relished the thought of tracking down her father to find out the answer. Was it some kind of power she had from being chosen by Shiva?

But more importantly, she had agreed to a battle to the death. She had promised to... kill. Even if the woman had supernatural powers, she was still human. Could she go through with it, stain her own hands with blood again? All she could picture was the dead body of the man she had killed when she was eight, his throat torn out by her tiny, once innocent hands.

"No," Cass whispered quietly. She couldn't do it. No matter what, she couldn't kill another person. Even if... even if it cost her own life.

Two years. She had two years left before she faced Lady Shiva again. She probably couldn't win against her even if she was willing to kill, and she had no hope if she held back. In two years... she would die. All she could do was make the most of every day she had.

"Sorry... mom."

"I'm sorry, master," the vampire said obsequiously.

"You have failed me," the red eyed vampire said, his voice flat and dead.

"We stabbed her with the Katar of Shiva," the vampire said, his face firmly pressed to the ground. "Somehow, the Slayer survived."

The red eyed vampire slowly leaned down, helping the vampire to his feet. "So, the failure was beyond your control?"

"Yes, master!" the vampire agreed nodding vigorously. "We did everything we could!"

The leader suddenly grabbed his minion, growling angrily. "Not enough, or she would be dead."

He then sank his fangs into the neck of the struggling vampire, draining his cold, dead blood until nothing was left and the vampire burst into a cloud of dust. Raising his glowing red eyes he surveyed the crowd of vampires and demons that filled the dark temple. "Let that be a lesson. Trigon helps those who help themselves... and devours those who fail. We will destroy the Slayer before the Winter Solstice! Then we shall ensure that our lord Trigon is reborn!"

"All hail Skaath!" the crowd chanted. "All hail Skaath!"

Author's Notes

Well, that was much slower coming out than anticipated. My sister convinced me to write a Cass related fic for a DCU Big Bang on livejournal. It was supposed to have a minimum of 10,000 words... I wrote around 60,000. As you might imagine, that took awhile, but I'm back in the Buffy writing saddle, so here we are, as promised if a bit late.

Cass kissing the victim she rescued was actually drawn from an issue of her comic. I was reading a blog a little while back, and the author said that her doing that was, for them, a defining moment of Cass' character, so I felt a need to make use of it. Personally, I felt that in the comics, when Cass was beaten by Lady Shiva and she decided that she could still spit on her before she died was a defining moment of my understanding of her. I included both in this chapter, even though I changed a lot of context.

Anyway, things are getting dangerous for our Slayers, and now Cass is operating under a secret timeframe. While I do advance the timeline pretty freely in this series, it'll be a few stories before it's time for the duel. I hope there's enough interest in this to keep me writing to it and beyond.

In the comics Lady Shiva has no powers – she's simply the deadliest martial artist in the DCU. Since her interactions with Cass were important to me, I decided to keep her, and gave her a power she could turn off at will to keep things fair. Otherwise, she wouldn't pose a serious threat to Cass in combat, and that would do more to destroy the feel of the character in my opinion than giving her a power up does. I hope that choice doesn't anger anyone. I also hope you liked Dr. Cross – I plan to keep him recurring (and yes, he is a DC character, just a moderately obscure one). This was after his own comic, but before the start of JSA.