Disclaimer: I own nothing! Nothing I tell you!

AN: This story takes place long before Buffy is ever called as Slayer, but knowledge of the entire show is important. I don't know the comic books, so they are not really taken into account. As for "Quantum Leap," this story is kind of whenever. But, again, knowledge of the show's overall plotline helps. Enjoy!

A Leap of Destiny

Sam Beckett knew his time in 1956 Texas was coming to a close. He had saved Greta from a kidnapping, gotten Mark and Laurie together, and even performed live-saving surgery on a puppy. It was time to go. He just wondered where G-d would send him next. He never knew if he would have to play Cupid or be a spy or a lawyer or anything really. Sometimes he was white, sometimes black. Sometimes he was a man and sometimes he was a woman — and once he was a chimp. He had long ago stopped wondering what would come next. It was always something surprising and no amount of preparation could ever prepare him.

All he truly wanted was for the next leap to be the leap home. But he was beginning to believe that he would never return home. G-d had a purpose for him. And it surely wasn't fair, but there was nothing he could do.

He was even beginning to lose all faith. Oh, he believed G-d existed — his leaps were proof enough of that. But he was losing faith that G-d cared for him. He felt used. He felt abused. He felt discriminated against.

He knew his work was important, but he couldn't help wondering why it was so important for him to be the one to do it. Couldn't G-d find someone else? Someone more willing? Someone who didn't feel trapped? It was just getting to be too much for him. What if he were to continue leaping for the rest of eternity? Was there enough injustice in the world for him to remain busy for the rest of the universe's existence? And he couldn't help but think that, if that were true, perhaps G-d should just start over. If people were so bad that one man had to give up his entire life for an eternity to keep them from destroying themselves, perhaps they deserved to be destroyed.

He knew it wasn't fair to think such things and he felt guilty, but he couldn't help it. He almost felt selfish. He could never explain all this to Al. Al was his buddy — the only buddy he had these days — and he didn't want Al to think any less of him. Even without saying anything though, Sam got the feeling that Al knew anyway. Al may sometimes seem oblivious, but he was a smart man and he knew how to pick up on cues.

Sam looked over to the happy couple beside him and, just as Mark and Laurie began to kiss, he felt himself beginning to leap.

Before he truly knew what was happening, he found himself in a dim dojo, standing on a worn mat, facing the room's only other occupant. She was a young woman, with stunning eyes and dark hair curled into a tight afro. She had a hard set to her jaw and looked like she could break men in half. Sam found her quite beautiful.

Sadly, that was one of the last thoughts he had before her fist came smashing into his face. He was barely able to squeak out an "oh boy," before falling onto the mat, unconscious.

When Sam came to, he found himself moved to a soft bed, with the woman who had punched him out leaning over him, concern coloring her features. He idly wondered how such a lithe woman had been able to move him to the bed. Sam took a quick glance down at himself and was relieved to find that he was a man in seemingly good shape. If he had to rescue this young woman at some point, at least he wouldn't be hampered and slowed by an unsatisfactory physique.

He always tried to put off talking for as long as possible after a leap to give himself some time to register the situation. He was going to take complete advantage of having been punched out and he would remain "discombobulated" for several minutes while he surreptitiously looked around.

What he had originally thought to be a dojo was actually just a large area in a studio apartment that had been set up as a workout spot. Judging by the dim light struggling to penetrate the dusty windows, it was mid-afternoon, and by the noises of hustle and bustle coming from outside, Sam guessed they were in a large city. Looking at the woman's clothes and hair, he thought he might be somewhere in the mid to late 1970s. And, aside from the in-home gym, he could see children's toys spread out on the floor, lying where a child had obviously left them mid-play.

OK. First guess. He and this woman were lovers — he didn't see a wedding ring on either of them — and they had a child together. He and his lover spent a good deal of time practicing martial arts. Perhaps they lived in a bad neighborhood? Perhaps they were met with violence because he was white and she was black? Maybe she was a professional fighter? That one seemed probable to Sam as his jaw was still throbbing from the punch she had expertly thrown. It must have been a training accident.

"Geez, are you OK?" she asked. Her voice was deep and soothing, despite the hard inflections and tough set to her jaw.

"Yeah," said Sam, smiling shyly up at her.

"You're supposed to block those," she said, arching one eyebrow.

"Yeah, I got distracted, I guess," said Sam.

"A distraction can get you killed," she said as though it were something the two of them said often. Sam casually wondered if perhaps she was not a professional fighter and they did just live in a dangerous part of the city. While deaths weren't unheard of in professional fights, they weren't something you really expected — at least he didn't think so. He'd have to remember to ask Al; it seemed like something his friend would know.

"Right," agreed Sam noncommittally.

The woman was now just staring at him expectantly.

"What?" he asked.

"Aren't we going to get back to training?" she asked.

"My jaw is saying no," joked Sam, which was met by a second expectant and somewhat perplexed look.

"I'll just train on my own for a bit," she said. Sam watched her return to the training area and sit down at a weight set. He began to get nervous, seeing how much weight she was lifting without a spotter, but he had the feeling that if he had gone over, she would have given him that baffled look again. Her actions were so matter-of-fact that he knew he had to leave her be in order to play his role.

Suddenly, Al popped out his shimmering door right in front of Sam.

"Well there you are!" said Al, lighting a cigar.

"Here I am," agreed Sam.

"What?" asked the woman from across the room, pausing in her set.

"Nothing," said Sam quickly. "I'm just going to use the … uh … bathroom." He quickly located the bathroom and gratefully closed the door behind him.

"Nice bruise," smirked Al. "You arrive before or after that happened?"

"During," said Sam humorlessly. "So where am I?"

Al leaned over to consult his handheld computer. "New York City, July 12, 1977."

"And who am I?" asked Sam, looking at the stranger's face in the mirror. He was of medium height, with black hair and blue eyes. No discernible scars — nothing to really distinguish him from a crowd of people, except for the blooming bruise on his face.

"You are Bernard Crowley," said Al, punching more buttons on his handheld. "You are 47 and you hail from Beverly Hills, California. But you studied ancient languages and archaeology at Oxford."

"I studied those," said Sam, speaking about his true self, something on which he tried not to dwell too often.

"Right," said Al, looking slightly worried for a moment.

Sam hated seeing Al look at him so pityingly, so he quickly jumped to move the conversation forward. "What do I do for a living?"

"You earn pay from …" — Al began slapping the handheld — "… from a … um … company … a British company."

"That's specific," said Sam, finding his smile again. But when he glanced into the mirror, he found that it was a stranger's smile.

"That's all Ziggy has," said Al defensively.

"Do we know who the woman is?"

"Hot stuff out there?" asked Al, motioning at the bathroom door. "Her name is Nikki Wood. She is twenty-two — wow, you are really robbing the cradle — and she has a three-year-old son, Robin, who's going to be four in about a month."

"Is he … our son?" asked Sam.

"According to Ziggy, there is no father listed on the birth certificate," replied Al. Sam let out a quick sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived however, as Al cringed back, saying, "Oh, no."

"What is it?" asked Sam quickly.

"Bernard Crowley dies July 13, 1977."

"That's tomorrow," said Sam alarmed.

"Yeah."

"What happens?" asked Sam.

"You are murdered in a subway car close to midnight," answered Al. "Somebody murders you by breaking your neck."

"So, I'm here to save Crowley?" asked Sam, already expecting the answer to be "yes."

"Partially," said Al.

"Partially?" questioned Sam.

"According to Ziggy, a month after you die, Nikki dies. She gets stabbed; the killer is never caught."

"What happens to her kid?" asked Sam.

"Robin? Um … he ends up in foster care," said Al sadly. "He dies when he's fifteen. He'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get shot during an armed robbery."

"So, I have to stay alive so that I can keep Nikki alive so we can keep Robin alive?" asked Sam.

Suddenly, Al looked angry. He began hitting his controller and muttering, "Oh, really Ziggy? I'll tell you something …"

"What's wrong?" asked Sam.

But Al just kept fighting with his controller and muttering expletives at Ziggy. Finally, he straightened up and said, "I'll be back, I need to have some words with Ziggy."

"Wait," called Sam, just before Al left through the glowing door that Sam knew he could never go through. "What does Nikki do for a living?"

Glancing back down at his controller, Al said, "She's a waitress," before disappearing.

So, not a professional fighter, thought Sam. He felt at a loss. He barely had any information beyond: Don't get killed. Usually he at least had some inkling of from where the threat was coming. This time — zip.

And he was tired. So very tired. This had to be his what, five-hundredth leap maybe? He felt like he was stuck on a downward escalator and there was just no way to get off. He was constantly being propelled forward into new lives and new situations, when all he really wanted to do was just stand still. At this point, he just wanted to stay in any life — he didn't even require that it be his anymore. He knew he would never leap home. He just felt it in his bones. But the constant moving, the constant re-evaluating, the constant aloneness was crushing. He just wanted to stand still.

He jumped slightly when he heard a soft knock on the door. Getting up from the rim of the tub slowly, he walked to the door, unlocked it, and opened it to Nikki's soft smile.

"Just making sure you weren't unconscious in here," she said with a smirk.

"I'm fine. Thanks," said Sam, having a hard time looking her in the eyes. One of the worst things about constantly leaping was that he was constantly lying. And not just when he pretended that he didn't know how things would end. Every breath was a lie, because right now every breath he took was taken as Bernard Crowley, and he was not Bernard Crowley.

"We can probably get another half hour of training in before I need to pick Robin up," she said.

Nodding slowly, Sam followed Nikki back to the "training" area and stood watching her attack a wooden dummy for the next half hour. He realized that he should probably be offering pointers, but he had none to give, so he just watched, impressed by this woman's physicality. She was clearly stronger than she looked — and she looked pretty damn strong! But it was more than that; she attacked the dummy with determination. Though her face was smooth, her brow un-furrowed, he could see the how taut her muscles were; she looked like stone.

After delivering a particularly nasty-sounding punch, Nikki fell back, her face visibly relaxing. "I've got to pick little man up," she said with a small smile. Even with just that one, short sentence and that brief smile, Sam could tell how much Nikki loved her son. For those few seconds she spoke about him, her face just lit up. She even stood straighter.

So caught up in his analysis, Sam hadn't even noticed that she was now at the door, holding it for him, and looking at him with a raised eyebrow. Grabbing what was clearly his jacket, Sam walked through the door quickly, not quite sure where he was supposed to go, as it did not seem that he was going with Nikki to collect Robin. At the bottom of the building's stairs, Nikki turned to him. "We'll meet at 10 at the park." And then she walked off.

"Which park?" asked Sam quietly to himself. Glancing at his watch, he saw that he had nearly six hours to himself just to wander around. He didn't even know where he lived, as he certainly did not seem to live with Nikki.

The heat was sweltering. He was almost certain he was cooking. July in New York City is an experience — one that people should work to avoid. Not only was it hot, but he felt indescribably sticky all of a sudden. And the smells! He had had no idea that puddles could smell so badly. It was nauseating. He then wondered if Bernard Crowley felt the same way. Sam, after all, was from a small town in Indiana, raised on a farm. But Crowley was from a city. Every leap, Sam would try to get into character, both so he wouldn't draw suspicion and to make himself feel better. If he were playing a role and nothing else, then nothing was truly his fault, nothing could truly affect him. He knew this wasn't true, but he hoped each time that it would be. Being able to blame others was a solace he treasured.

He knew that if he died tomorrow night, Nikki would die a month later and Robin in eleven years. If he couldn't save Bernard Crowley, those were three deaths on his conscious. And, despite still sometimes having fuzzy memories of Sam Beckett's life before the leaps, he always remembered the leaps where he couldn't help in the way he had wanted to.

Without warning, after he had been wandering for nearly an hour, dismayed to find that he did not have any kind of identification on him that would tell him where he lived, Al reappeared.

"Where have you been?" he demanded.

"I had to have some words with Ziggy," said Al, waving theatrically with a cigar in his hand. "Ziggy's really done it this time."

"Done what?" asked Sam, ignoring the looks he was receiving from passersby. To be fair, no one was staring at him — it was New York after all — but people were certainly giving him his space and they seemed to be taking extra effort not to look at him.

"Let's get somewhere private and discuss this," said Al, knowing Sam would not be happy with what he had to tell him.

"That would be great if I knew where I lived," said Sam, frustrated.

"Not a problem," said Al, and he began to direct Sam.

Sam had not known what he was expecting from Bernard Crowley's apartment, but he had not been expecting this. The place was nice — a lot nicer than Nikki's apartment. There were books stacked everywhere, books in languages that Sam knew and knew were dead. The more he looked around, the stranger everything seemed. Crowley's walls were adorned with oddly spooky masks and busts. The rooms smelled of burned incense. There were shriveled heads, crystals and amulets on every available surface. Crowley's room was rather Spartan compared to the rest of the apartment, with only a dresser, bed and small table. It was clean. It looked barely lived in. Crowley also had a second bedroom, this one with more color and more vibrancy. There were Superman sheets, some toys on the floor and picture books on a short bookcase. Clearly Robin, despite not being Crowley's son, sometimes spent the night with Crowley.

Closing the door to the room, Sam rejoined Al in the living room/library, sinking down onto an overly stuffed, brown leather chair. "So, what's the problem?" asked Sam, already knowing he did not want to know.

"Ziggy says you're here to save Crowley," said Al slowly.

"We already guessed that," said Sam, wishing Al would just get to the point. Just pull the Band-Aid off.

"But you're not here to save Nikki. Ziggy says she has to die."

Sam didn't know what he had been expecting Al to say, but it certainly wasn't that. It was so deeply ingrained in him that human life was precious. He always did all he could to save anyone's life — hell, even a chimp's! But to say that he wasn't supposed to save someone. In his many leaps, he had certainly come up against situations where he couldn't save someone, but Ziggy had never told him not to try, had never specifically told him to let someone die.

And how could he just turn his back on this young mother? What made her life less valuable than Bernard Crowley's?

Al was watching him closely for a reaction. "I know," said Al finally, "I hate it, too. But Ziggy is sure that Nikki Wood is meant to die. According to Ziggy, there is a ninety-four-percent probability that Nikki is supposed to die tomorrow night in your stead."

"How can that be?" questioned Sam, trying to wrap his head around it, and fastidiously holding to the six-percent chance that she was supposed to live.

"I don't know," said Al sadly, all jokes gone from his holographic lips.

The two sat in companionable silence for a long time, soothing each other just by their mere presence and by the feeling that neither was feeling anything alone.

It wasn't until it was dark outside that Sam suddenly got a good look at the clock. It was 9:15 p.m. and he was starving and his jaw hurt. While he didn't much feel like eating, he knew that he was there to save Bernard Crowley and he therefore could not let Crowley starve to death. After popping a couple of Anacin for his jaw, Sam made himself a deli sandwich with what was in Crowley's fridge. Chewing hurt. The food tasted like sawdust, despite the copious amount of mustard he had squirted on. But he forced himself to swallow, even when it seemed the dry, bland food would get stuck in his throat.

At 9:30 he walked back to Al and said, "We have a problem."

"I know," said Al, "but Ziggy is insistent."

"No …" said Sam, not wanting to talk about Ziggy's probabilities anymore. He didn't even want to think about them. "I'm supposed to meet Nikki at 10 at 'the park.' Any idea which park that would be?"

"No idea," said Al, jabbing at his handheld computer.

Sam began rifling through Crowley's many papers, hoping to get an idea of where he needed to be. Half of the pages were in other languages and the remaining half were useless fictions of monsters and warriors. Finally, though, Sam came across a calendar book that seemed to have a rotating schedule of parks and neighborhoods in it. According to Crowley's notes, which were written in a cramped hand, he and Nikki were supposed to "patrol" Central Park that night.

"Found it," said Sam, without adding any more explanation as he headed out, already trying to figure out which subway train he would need to take.

Despite having leaped into New York several times over the last several years, Sam still took the wrong train at first, and was fifteen minutes late to meet Nikki, who was waiting impatiently for him. Despite the summer swelter, she was wearing a long leather coat, which was spattered with raindrops, a forerunner of the coming downpour. More shocking than her outfit, however, was the tiny hand in her own.

She had brought her son with her, decked out in a small raincoat and rain boots.

She had also clearly brought resolve.

"Hello, Robin," said Sam upon getting closer. The little boy, who was holding a wooden toy, some kind of car or train caboose, just looked up at him with bright eyes and smiled. Turning to Nikki, Sam began to apologize for being late.

"Your face looks worse," said Nikki, cutting to the chase.

"Yeah," agreed Sam. "I'm fine though."

Without another word, she turned around and entered the park, still towing Robin with her. Sam had no idea what they were doing in Central Park at 10 p.m., but experience had taught him that it couldn't be good. He began to suspect drugs maybe. Maybe LSD would explain some of the weird journal entries he had found in Crowley's apartment — journal entries filled with vampires, shapeshifters and demons. Sam following nervously in Nikki's wake, finding himself jumping at every strange noise.

But Nikki seemed confident. She strode forward with purpose, keeping a hold of little Robin's hand.

"You brought Robin," said Sam, trying to get her to talk to him a bit, to let him know what was going on. He controlled his inflection, so as not to make it a question, but just a statement, as he had no idea whether or not Nikki usually brought Robin on late-night excursions.

"The babysitter was sick," said Nikki shortly. And that was it.

Nobody spoke again for nearly an hour. By that time, Nikki was carrying a sleeping Robin as she and Sam just wandered through the park, practically walking in circles. The only other people they saw were some homeless people and some prostitutes; New York City wasn't the nicest place in 1977.

Suddenly, Nikki quietly roused Robin, setting him down. From her coat's deep pockets she pulled a piece of wood whittled into a fine point. Sam had no idea what was going on, but he could tell that every muscle in Nikki's body had suddenly tensed. She was like a tiger waiting to spring on prey.

Before he could ask her anything, she was gone, vaulting over a short fence and into a wooded area. She moved soundlessly, like something borne of the night.

Unthinkingly, Sam scooped Robin up into his arms and took off after Nikki, albeit at a much slower and louder rate. When he finally caught up to her, he saw her fighting some man. Although the man was not much taller than Nikki, he was certainly larger, easily weighting 200 pounds — and all of it muscle. Nevertheless, Nikki was holding her own. Each blow of his was deflected, though Sam wondered how her arms were not immediately broken by this action. She even laid him out a few times. Upon moving somewhat closer, ready to offer whatever help he could, Sam felt a terror root in his heart — a terror the likes of which he had never known before.

His face. There was something wrong with the man's face.

The forehead was ridged and the mouth had sprouted fangs. Sam had read books about all kinds of animals, but this creature matched none of those descriptions. This fiend was something else.

Vampire.

The word floated to his conscious unbidden. He attempted to push it away just as quickly as it had come, but he found he could not. Its physicality certainly matched folklore descriptions. He had found a wealth of information about vampires back at Crowley's apartment. The data points were matching up.

Vampire.

The scientist in him tried again to reject the idea as frivolity, but, as a scientist, he had learned to go where the facts led him, regardless of whether or not the outcome was what he had hypothesized or even wanted.

He didn't want to believe that vampires were real, but the proof was in front of him.

And if this creature were a vampire, what did that make Nikki? Perhaps the warrior he had briefly read about in Crowley's journal? Crowley had called the warrior "a creature of intense physicality and determination, a true example of selflessness and tenacity." His notes had also called this warrior "a woman not influenced by youthful fancies."

Watching the tableau before him, the show of a lithe woman battling a monster, Sam didn't realize how tightly he had been holding Robin until he felt the child begin to squirm in his arms. He loosed his hold somewhat and looked down at the child, expecting to see the child afraid or crying.

But Robin wasn't crying and he didn't look terribly afraid. This was clearly something he had seen before. His mama was a warrior and he knew it.

Without warning, Nikki, her face glowing with the exhilaration of battle, plunged her stake into the fiend's chest. The monster barely had time to register his surprise before he exploded into a cloud of ash and dust, which swirled around Nikki, who suddenly reminded Sam of a djinn, an Arabian creature made of fire and smoke. A creature of incredible power.

Plainly put, she was stunning, and Sam, who had told himself over and over again not to get overly invested in the lives of the people he met while leaping, found himself just fall utterly and hopelessly in love with her. It wasn't a sexual love. It was something more than that. He felt he had found a kindred spirit.

He remembered another part of Crowley's journal. He had written that the warrior "never shirked her destiny and avoided complaints." He had written: "She does as she must, as she is directed, as the higher powers deem necessary."

He wondered if the higher powers that commanded her were the same ones controlling his leaps. Is that why he had been brought here?

Vampires and supernatural creatures are real, therefore, magic must be real, too, thought Sam just as everything went black.

When he awoke, he was flat on his back, with Robin's little face, filled with worry and curiosity, mere inches from his own. "I fainted?" asked Sam, looking to Nikki, who was standing over him, appearing less concerned than her son.

"I guess I hit you harder than I thought, huh?" she said, holding out her hand to him. He grasped her arm and felt her pull him to his feet. Again she did so with ease. He was beginning to overcome his recurring surprise at her feats of strength.

"Yeah," agreed Sam gamely, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. Clearly Crowley already knew all about magic and vampires; to express surprise would be to give himself away as an imposter. He therefore just pretended that it was a result of her earlier punch and pretended, with great ease, that he was embarrassed.

"Maybe you should head home," said Nikki with an appraising look. "I can finish up myself."

"Sure," said Sam, walking away on wobbly legs. A second later he turned around and called: "Be careful."

Nikki just smiled at him, turning away and climbing through a wooded patch of park with Robin re-settled in her arms.

It wasn't until Sam was nearly back to Crowley's flat that he realized with regret that he had made no move to bring Robin with him. Knowing it was too late to do anything about it now, he slowly made his way upstairs.

But once he was inside the flat, he shook off the fatigue and torpor, becoming energized at the thought of all the books that seemed to be waiting for him, calling faintly, "Read me!" And he dove into the task. He began to read about demons and magic, the new words sinking into his mind: Lasovic, Sisterhood of Jhe, Mok'tagar, Kailiff, Kungai, Ethros, Skilosh, Glarghk Guhl Kashmas'nik …

— Slayer.

He had to know more.

He had already read some of a very dense and informative text about Slayers. He understood what they were and what they could do. But he wanted to know more.

He grabbed one of Crowley's journals and began to read about Nikki Wood. He had always been a speed reader, but he worked to quicken his pace. His need for information was insatiable. He needed to know everything there was to know about the woman. There just had to be a way to save her. She was the frontline against the army of darkness. She was a soldier — the most important soldier to the world. A champion.

He read about her early training, her relationship to her Watcher, and her son, whom she had birthed shortly after undergoing her Cruciamentum, an altogether shocking and despicable practice, in Sam's opinion.

But these facts weren't Nikki Wood. There was more to her; that was obvious to Sam, and he had only known her for half a day. He finally found her, as well as Crowley, in a journal entry from September 1974, after a gap of more than a year in the entries. It read:

"Nikki has returned from Mexico with little Robin and I find myself quite heartbroken by this development. I love seeing her again, but I had other hopes for her. And those hopes seem like a betrayal of my past. I was raised to be a Watcher. I was trained to believe there was no greater calling than Watcher, second only to that of the Slayer.

"But then I met Nikki. I trained her. I didn't mean to, but I grew to love her as if she were my own child. How could I not? She is smart, direct, kind, determined. She is everything you could want in a Slayer. And the Council knows this. But they don't know how funny she can be, how absolutely puckish. She has the weight of the world on her shoulders, a modern-day Atlas, and yet she loves orchestrating pranks.

"I will never forget the time she emptied the punching bag, filling it with small candies. She had even placed a sombrero atop the bag. She then urged me to show her a punching technique I had mentioned the week before. I had quirked my eyebrow at the hat, but only thought it one of her passing fancies, the whim of a child. I only got one punch in. The moment my fist hit the bag, it split, and candy came showering down around us. Her deep laugh was filled with so much delight that I couldn't even be angry with her. That's why I got her a piñata — a real piñata — for her seventeenth birthday. She loved it.

"But the Council doesn't know any of this. They don't want to know any of this. They would call it 'unimportant minutia.' They only see her as a weapon. They stopped seeing her as a person the moment her name appeared on that list saying she might one day be the Slayer. And she only seems to have sunk in their esteem since then. Weapons weren't supposed to have lives or feelings. But she did. And when she had dear Robin, they were furious. A Slayer having a baby — they thought it preposterous. But I didn't see it that way. I saw a young girl having a child, whom she loved more than anything. But they could never see that.

"That's why they were so furious when I sent her away, when they couldn't find her.

"But she had become my daughter, a daughter who suddenly had to care for a child, my de facto grandson. And I truly did love him as my own grandchild right when I first held him. After the pain of the Cruciamentum and then Robin's birth, I couldn't let it continue. I couldn't let the Council continue to use her in their war against evil. She is simply too good to die so young.

"I know the world needs a Slayer, but why does it have to be Nikki? Why does the world demand her blood? Her life?

"Why couldn't she stay away? Why couldn't she stay safe? My only conclusion: I was too good at my job. I instilled too strong a sense of duty in her. To me, Nikki always comes first. But she doesn't put herself first — she puts the world first.

"And I hate her for that. I do. I love her too much to lose her. Without her — her laugh, her kindness, her love — there is no world. I just want my girl to stay safe."

Sam swallowed hard, feeling tears pricking at his eyes. This woman was a hero, a mother … a daughter. And Al was telling him that she was supposed to die! How could he consign this woman to death when he had just read that the man whom he had been sent to save did not consider the world valid without her? Sam buried his face in his hands and only looked up when he heard Al say, "How's it going?"

"I've had a hell of a day," said Sam, laughing. Al grew worried. This wasn't an 'I just heard a great joke' laugh, or even a 'the world is playing a cosmic joke and I am the punch line' laugh. He had certainly heard both from Sam over the years. No, this was a manic laugh. This was a 'the world makes zero sense and I give up trying to understand it' laugh. It worried Al to hear it.

"What does that mean?" asked Al gamely, working to keep the alarm out of his voice. He honestly wasn't even sure he wanted to hear Sam's answer.

"It means," said Sam, suddenly bone-tired, "that the rug was just pulled out from under me. I'm a scientist. I know that there is still so much that we don't know. Every time science answers one question, it opens the door to at least ten more. The negligible size of our knowledge is astounding. But, until today, I thought I at least understood some of the basics. I thought I knew what the world stood on. But I was wrong; I was so wrong."

"What does that mean?" asked Al again, this time certain that he did not want to hear the answer.

"The world doesn't stand on science and natural law," said Sam simply. "It stands on science and magic."

"Magic?" asked Al, certain that he had misheard his longtime friend. He had heard a lot of crazy things over the years, but this took the cake. He must have misheard Sam.

"Magic," confirmed Sam, "and demons and vampires and Slayers."

Al pulled back with immense sadness. A hidden part of his mind had always been expecting this day and dreading its arrival. He had already done extensive research into the Swiss cheese effect from which Sam had been suffering. He had hoped the brain damage had been confined to Sam's temporal lobe, which stored the memories of his personal life, and Al had prayed that this brain damage had been G-d's doing rather than being a side effect of leaping — he had hoped G-d had caused it to protect Sam's psyche from the pain of losing his home. But now he feared the neurological degradation had spread. Magic! Demons! It was all too fantastical. Surely this was the sign he had been dreading. The sign that, not only would his friend likely never leap home, but that he was now losing his friend's self all together. Al found himself so close to weeping he couldn't even respond.

And Sam, being a smart man, could tell exactly what his only friend was thinking. He had often feared the same thing as Al — that the rest of his brain would deteriorate. "I'm not crazy," he said as confidently as he could. "I promise you that what I saw was real."

"Of course it was," said Al sadly.

"Seriously," said Sam, "Nikki is a mystical warrior. She fights demons. She protects all of us — the world." Al still couldn't say anything; his grief had robbed him of his ability to speak. "We can't let her die, Al. I don't care what Ziggy says. We need her. The world needs her."

"What do you want me to do?" asked Al brokenly.

"Go back to Ziggy," said Sam, still knowing that his friend didn't believe him. "Make Ziggy run the numbers again. Nikki can't die. We can't let her die."

"Sam, I've had Ziggy running the numbers over and over again the entire time I've been gone," said Al plaintively.

"I don't care," said Sam, knowing he sounded irrational and whiny. "Keep running them until Ziggy tells you how we can save Nikki."

Al realized Sam wasn't going to take no for an answer, so, with a deep sigh, he disappeared back through his doorway, not quite sure what he would do when he returned, but knowing that running the numbers again would be pointless. He had been watching his friend struggle for so long. A part of him had known this breakdown to be inevitable. He felt an indescribable sadness in watching Sam give into delusions, sadness at a depth which he had never before even known possible.

Sam kept his eyes trained on the floor as Al left, knowing that Al didn't believe him. Al thought him close to breakdown — and he wasn't wrong. But he knew this wasn't the inevitable breakdown. This was real. He just didn't know what to do with this new information — this new reality — yet.

Al had only been gone maybe twenty minutes when Sam heard a soft knock at his door.

Opening the door, he saw a sopping wet Nikki standing there holding Robin's small hand. The boy looked very tired — it was clearly long past his bedtime. Sam quickly ushered them in. He could tell that something had happened just by looking at Nikki's face. She had looked serious before, but there was an intensity to her gaze that he had not seen before. But, rather than speak, they both just took care of Robin. They got him out of his wet clothes and into some spare clothes he had at Crowley's apartment. Nikki picked a small doll off of a shelf and gave it to him to hold. To Sam, the doll looked suspiciously like a voodoo doll. But it didn't seem to bother Robin, who held the doll close and slowly drifted off to sleep in the bed in his spare room, with the doll in one hand and his train toy in the other.

After Robin had fallen asleep, Sam took Nikki into the kitchen nook and demanded she tell him everything.

And tell him she did.

She had fought a second vampire that night, but the second fight did not go as smoothly as the first. The vampire, whom she described as a Billy Idol wannabe, had been smart and a skilled fighter. He was not some fledgling who still only had a vague understanding of what a Slayer was. This vampire knew what a Slayer was. This vampire had killed a Slayer — Nikki didn't know how she knew that, but she was sure of it. This vampire — this "Spike" — had been around the block. Although their meeting had not seemed too auspicious, she knew that Spike would be the fight of her life one day.

And she wanted that day to be far, far away.

She spent nearly a half hour describing the incident to her Watcher, even though the incident had certainly not lasted for longer than five minutes. She knew it was important and that her Watcher needed to know everything. She even told him her fears, her insecurities.

And Sam realized that, although Nikki put on a very brave face, she was still a young woman and she was still afraid of the things that went bump in the night. She was afraid that she would not be around for her son. She acted tough for the world — and even for her son — but inside, she was a roiling sea of indecision and insecurities. Throughout her monolog, she continually said, "It's the mission that matters," as if trying to convince herself. Sam said nothing; he did not want to bolster this belief of hers that she needed to go back and fight this monster. He wanted her to get away, to have a life. It was clearly what Crowley wanted as well.

He had practically made up his mind to go after this demon himself before he realized how foolish that would be. He had no super-strength or super-speed. He didn't even have the fighting knowledge that Crowley had. He would lose and he would lose quickly. He realized that this must be how Crowley dies. Tomorrow night — glancing at the clock he saw it was after midnight and corrected himself — tonight Crowley would seek out the vampire and he would die.

And while Sam was nearly at the point where he would rather sacrifice Crowley than Nikki — and knew that Crowley felt the same way — he also knew that he couldn't. If he allowed Crowley to die tonight, then there was nothing he could do to protect Nikki and she would die in a month's time anyway. It had already happened.

So, rather than encouraging her or discouraging her, Sam remained silent, trying simply to loan her strength by understanding her struggles and being a shoulder for her to lean on. She soon began to fall asleep on his couch. He urged her to take his bed and be more comfortable, but she shot that idea down. Instead, she went into her son's room and crawled under the blankets with him, holding her little man close and feeling his chest rise and fall.

And Sam went back to Crowley's books. There had to be something there that could help Nikki. But he hadn't even been looking at the books for a half hour when there was another knock at his door. It was four in the morning. Who could it possibly be?

"Hey," said the shorter man as Sam opened the door. Sam's visitor had appalling taste, even for the 1980s. He wore a bowler hat that was somehow both too big and too small for his head, a garish yellow shirt under a brown jacket that did not go with the rest of the outfit. The look was topped off with a toothpick obnoxiously sticking out of the other man's mouth. The man standing on his doorstep didn't seem to be at all chagrinned about knocking on his door at four a.m. Sam concluded that Crowley must know the man, but changed his determination rapidly after the man held out a hand and said, "Name's Whistler. We need to talk."

Sam hesitantly shook Whistler's hand, but did not invite him in. In all of his recent reading, he had learned that vampires cannot enter without an invitation — not that he was sure his invitation would even count as he was not Bernard Crowley.

After seeing that he was not about to be invited into the apartment, Whistler sighed. "Look, Sam, I get that this is all new to you or whatever, but let me in. We need to jabber a bit." Sam stepped back from the door and wordlessly allowed the man to enter. "You've got it rough, man. I'm not going to lie. Really rough. But you're vital. That's not nothing." Sam was still too flabbergasted to respond, so Whistler just went on. "I mean, putting right what once went wrong is not easy, it's not for the lazy folk. I wish I could tell you that you're almost done, but I'm not really privy to that kind of information. I'm just here to talk about this case, this instance."

Finally finding his voice, Sam croaked out, "You know my name." This was the first time in all his leaping that an adult human of seemingly sound mind had been able to tell that he was not the person into whom he had leapt. But, even more, those who recognized him just knew he was not who he was pretending to be. This man knew his name.

"Yeah, you're Dr. Samual Beckett, and you're a time traveler … of sorts," said Whistler as if he had conversations with "time travelers … of sorts" all the time. This was a man accustomed to the weird. If he was a man?

"What are you?" asked Sam.

"Well that's rude," said Whistler, flashing him a brief smirk. "I'm a man. Not a man like you, but a man. The correct term is balance demon. But don't worry; I work for the good guys."

"And who would that be?" asked Sam.

"The Powers That Be. Some call them G-d, some nature, some have some pretty fanciful names for them. But at the end of the day, they are the good guys. They work to keep the world turning, to keep the evil from taking over. They go in for balance."

"What do you want?" asked Sam. "Why are you here now? I've been leaping for so long and no one in charge has ever contacted me before. Why?"

"The Powers prefer to act through people and not openly control things," answered Whistler. "They give nudges here and there, but don't like to step in too much. You, my friend, are a nudge. You were doing fine without them spelling things out for you. But you need guidance right now."

"You're here to help me save Crowley and Nikki," said Sam feeling immense relief.

"Not quite," said Whistler, screwing up his face and casting a sidelong glance at Sam. "I'm here to help you save Crowley. Nikki is a no-go though. The girl is meant to die. Whether it's tonight or next month, she's going to die. You can't change that. You shouldn't change that."

Sam was growing angry, but kept his voice low so as not to wake Nikki or her child. "How can you say that? She's a hero. She saves lives. The world needs her."

"The world needed her," said Whistler softly. "She has already served her purpose. And she's been great, really. But she needs to die tonight. When she dies, a young girl named Ja-Ying will be called halfway across the world. The world needs Ja-Ying; are you going to deny that girl her destiny? Are you going to deprive the world of her? When one Slayer dies another is called. It seems harsh. I know. But there's a reason. It's one girl to protect the whole world. It's too much."

"Then why do you let it happen?" fumed Sam, unable to continue listening to this man's soliloquy.

"We make it happen," said Whistler. "When Slayers go for too long, it destroys them. Their bodies might make it, but their souls don't. Dying young protects them. Dying is their sacrifice for the world. It's time for Nikki to make her sacrifice.

"Sam, her death will pave the way for a lot of future good. You see, one day, it's not going to be one girl. One day, it's going to be an army of girls. A Slayer named Buffy Summers is going to change everything. But she won't be able to do that if Nikki survives the night, and she certainly won't be able to do that if Crowley dies. He's vital, too. He has a part to play. And you have your part to play."

"What does that mean?" asked Sam, choking back tears. "What are you asking me to do?"

"Nikki is considering throwing it all away, she's pondering running again," said Whistler. "You need to remind her of her duty."

"I can't," said Sam, "I help people. I save lives."

"Exactly," countered Whistler. "You can't let Nikki's life matter more than all the future Slayers, than all the future generations. If Nikki lives, you have doomed the world." Whistler left Sam with that thought and quietly let himself out of the apartment.

To pardon the expression, once she had fallen asleep, Nikki slept like the dead for most of the day. It wasn't just that she was physically tired — Slayers do not require that much sleep; it's that she was emotionally fatigued. She was tired of being the Slayer and of worrying about her son and her life and the whole damn world. The previous night she had told her son that "it's the mission that matters." And she hated herself for that. It was true and she knew it: The mission was the most important thing. But she wished it weren't. She wished her family could be the most important thing. She regretted telling her son that; she didn't want him to think he didn't matter to her. But she had needed to say it in the hopes of convincing herself. It hadn't really worked.

When she awoke an hour before sundown, having slept through the whole day, she found her mind unmade. She knew she should go kill that bleach-blond monster, but she also knew she should gather Robin close and cuddle him all night, protecting him from the evils of the world, both supernatural and pedestrian. But she had tried the normal life. Just after Robin had been born, she had given it all up. And, as much as she had loved her time with her son, some part of her had been miserable as well. She had felt like a failure. She may have been protecting her son, but she had left the world to rot, leaving it defenseless. And it had eaten away at her until she couldn't take it anymore. It got to the point where, every time she saw her son smile, she would wonder how many children had been killed by demons back in New York City because she wasn't there. So she had come back and resumed her Slayer duties. Crowley had wanted her to stay away. To stay safe. She could tell he was disappointed when he saw her, because they both knew that her return was just a precursor to an early death, the destiny of all Slayers. But he had also been proud; she was a champion and that day she had acted like it.

Looking down, she saw Robin sitting on the floor, playing with some of his toys. He was being very quiet; he knew his mama was tired and needed rest. But when he saw her looking at him, he flashed her a bright smile and began chattering about his day, which had been spent playing with his toys and with Crowley's artifacts, eating meals and snacks with her Watcher, coloring. The list went on. Even with her practically comatose, her son had had a good day.

After spending a few moments playing with Robin, she left the room and found her Watcher sitting on the floor of his apartment's entry hall. Something was off with him and she didn't know what. There was a struggle in his eyes. She had seen a struggle like that before, when Crowley had sent her and Robin away. He had been beating himself up — one fist had been for the Council and the other had been for their makeshift family. It was different this time though. Nikki wasn't sure what was different, but it almost seemed like she was dealing with another man. A man who had seen too much.

"Thanks for taking care of Robin," she said.

"Always," said Sam gravely, knowing that Crowley would have said just that.

"You look worse than me," joked Nikki, but her Watcher only looked at her tiredly. "What's wrong?" she asked, sliding down to the floor next to him with an indefinable grace.

"I don't want you to die," said Sam softly.

"I don't either," said Nikki, dropping the small smile from her face. "Do you think I'm going to? I mean soon?"

Sam didn't answer for a long time. He didn't know what to say to her. Finally he settled on his words: "I think we both know last night's fight had a finality in it."

"Yeah," agreed Nikki. Even though she had survived her first fight with the blond vampire, she had a feeling as she was fighting him that this was the monster that was going to kill her. She just knew it. She didn't even have words for it. She had learned long ago to trust her Slayer instincts and her instincts were telling her right now that, if she met with Spike in combat again, she would die. She idly wondered if Crowley felt it too, or if he was just picking up on it from her; in the end it didn't really matter. "What do you think I should do?"

And there it was. Such a simple question, and yet a death-knell for Sam. He knew what he was supposed to say. Everyone had already told him what to say. He was supposed to tell her to die, to sacrifice herself, to let her son grow up without his mother. Sam shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Nikki just watched him, waiting.

After a long silence, he told her, "I think you should do what you think is right."

"What's right?" she suddenly exploded. "If I die, what happens to Robin? And if I die, I'm just dooming the next girl to a life of heartache. How can I do that to some girl?"

"Because it's your destiny," said Sam, so quietly that Nikki wasn't sure she had heard him correctly at first. "We all have destinies," continued Sam, "and I am no happier about mine. There are things I want that I will never have. Things I long for. But in the end, I'm not my own agent. I work to do good. I don't know if it is G-d or the Powers, but someone has been jumping me around from place to place, never letting me get a moment's downtime, all to help people. It's exhausting. I know. But maybe it's the pain that makes it worthwhile. If saving lives were easy, everyone would do it and it would be meaningless. Sometimes it's not about the lives you save; it's about the effort."

"You think I should fight him again?"

"I think you need to search deep inside yourself and see what you think. Don't do something just because I tell you to. It needs to be your choice."

"You're my Watcher, it's kind of your job to tell me what to do."

Sam swallowed hard at that. He didn't know what he was doing half the time, and this girl expected him to tell her what to do. It was the old battle. He hated being told what to do, but if someone else made the decisions, at least he could blame someone else. At the end of the day, when there were only crap decisions, it sometimes felt better to let someone else shoulder the burden, even if you would be suffering the consequences regardless. So, he gave her what she needed. "Don't worry about Robin; I'll take care of him. You should go kill this Spike and we'll laugh about it later when you get back."

They both knew she wouldn't come back, but neither of them said it. They would pretend that they would see each other later.

Nikki went back into her son's spare room, again sitting on the floor with him and playing. She did her best to soak up every moment of it, just basking in her son's smile and alert attentions. She loved him more than anyone else in the world and she just hoped he knew that. She let the sun go down and didn't move. She just continued playing with her son, all the way until his bedtime, which was quite fungible most nights. But not tonight. She changed him into his pajamas and helped him brush his teeth, then she carried him to his bed, tucking the sheet around him. It was a warm night and a blanket would have been overkill, but she did not want to leave him bare. It wouldn't be the same as her embrace, but it was the best she could do. She kissed him on the forehead and then sat with him until he fell asleep.

As she left the apartment, she only nodded to her Watcher. Neither of them could handle a goodbye. Not tonight.

After Nikki left, Sam just hunkered down, waiting for the leap. He knew when it would come. He would leap after she died.

And he did.

AN: Please leave me a review! There is a short epilog to follow.