Best Foot Forward
(the Easy to Say No Remix)
Copyright April 2011
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
In a situation involving a protected enclave of Morssago Fairies, a pregnant Slayer, a one-eyed Watcher reputedly suffering a case of near-terminal burnout, preparation to deal with some as-yet-undetermined demon species, and the very real potential for catastrophe in a major metropolitan area, you would think ‘In-group’ dynamics would rank pretty far down the list in terms of urgency. In such a case, you would be dead-assed wrong.
As the Council’s Liaison for Watcher-Slayer Relations, Margot Reddington had thought she would have a certain innate authority here. Not authority over them, of course — it was well-known that, where Buffy Summers was concerned, deference was definitely the more prudent approach — but inherent in her own status. She was several years older than the two she was to work with; they had far more experience in dealing directly with the supernatural, of course (for that matter, the two of them together probably had more than the fifth- through twentieth-most persons combined), but where preparation for duty was concerned, her education and demonstrated expertise would easily place her in the upper ten per cent of active Reformed Council of Watchers personnel.
She had never anticipated obedience or unearned respect, certainly not immediate trust. She had thought, though, that there would be a degree of fundamental acceptance, while they and she learned one another and determined how best to work together.
That would have made sense. Wouldn’t it?
Didn’t matter. It wasn’t happening.
* * *
The Senior Slayer had rented a two-story house on the outskirts of Atlanta, a few blocks from one of the seemingly endless array of streets named ‘Peachtree’ in that city, and at some point the Watcher she had peremptorily chosen for herself, Alexander (“Xander”) Harris, had likewise taken residence there. They slept well apart, and it had been definitively established that her pregnancy had been initiated while he was on another continent; plus, their personal history together (e.g., the utter absence of one) was part of Council lore.
He had spent years well apart from her, had married and divorced during that long separation, had located and sponsored and mentored numerous new Slayers in an extended solo stint that had other members of the new Council — the new Council, created in the irreverent, innovative spirit exemplified by Buffy Summers herself — almost tearing their hair in conflicting despair at his free-flowing eclectic approach and mystification at the unmatched success of his results.
Even to Margot’s eyes, it was obvious that their rekindled working relationship was uneasy, a bit stiff, driven more by determination than by actual operating affinity.
And yet, they were they, and she was she, and the distinction was clear, inescapable, and (thus far) unbridgeable.
* * *
Harris had picked her up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in a black Mazda Protege, either new or excellently refurbished. It was a bit of labor to get her luggage suitably stowed — the Protege, a two-door, had enough space in the back seat, but getting her largest bag into the back, over the obstacle of the head-rests, proved more challenging than Margot had foreseen. His brusqueness while dealing with the mechanics of the process had several times forestalled her attempts at making a proper greeting, but finally, once they were in their seats and he was pulling away from the terminal, there was time for her to make a good beginning. “Watcher Harris,” she said, “I can’t tell you what an honor —”
“Xander,” he interrupted her. “Just Xander.”
She paused, flustered. “Well, yes, all right. As I was saying, what an honor it is for me to be called to administer the Oath between Watcher and Slayer —”
“You’re not here to give us the oath,” he interrupted again. He shot her a quick glance — fortunately, his good eye was on the passenger’s side — and went on, “Seriously, we spent so much time working together over the years, it’d be kind of an afterthought by now, wouldn’t it? Anyhow, you’re here because we put out a call for the nearest person who knows the deal with Morssago Fairies, and that turned out to be you.”
Once again, Margot had to struggle to adjust to the unexpected change. Yes, she had indeed done a minor speciality on Morssago clan structure, her monograph on the subject earning her an unwilling grunt of approval from Roger Wyndham-Pryce himself. And, now that she thought of it … “Isn’t, er, the Senior Slayer currently keeping watch on —?”
“On a nest near Stone Mountain, yeah.” He sighed. “Light work, for someone nearly to her third trimester. That was the idea, anyhow. Now …” Another quick sideways glance. “Your accent. Adelaide?”
“Wallaroo,” she corrected, pleased. Most Yanks thought an ‘Aussie’ accent began and ended with Paul Hogan; and, Adelaide and Wallaroo were only 160 kilometers apart, so he’d actually got close. “And I attended university in Adelaide. You have a keen ear.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved it away. “It’s just, d’you happen to have Vegemite in any of those bags?”
Once again he’d caught her out with a quick change of subject, but at least the answer required no thought. “Of course,” she said.
“Big jar?” he prompted eagerly.
This time she smiled. “Of course.”
“I’ll pick up some crackers on the way,” he said, nodding happily. His grin was sudden and devastating. “Margie, we’re gonna get along great.”
An encouraging beginning, if a bit offbeat. Shame it hadn’t held.
* * *
The words came perfectly clear through the heating flue: “She’s a fangirl.”
Margot hadn’t been spying, honestly. But, while she was unpacking in the upstairs bedroom to which Watcher Har–… Xander had shown her, the Senior Slayer had returned home from some unspecified appointment, and a trick of internal ducting echo carried their conversation in the kitchen up to her, faint but quite intelligible. Margot held her breath and listened.
“Didn’t seem that bad to me, Buf.” Xander’s voice, with its lower register, was slightly harder to distinguish, but he seemed to use a bit more volume.
“You weren’t there for the ceremony in Siberia.” Was that scorn in her tone, or just annoyance? “She was doing fine till she realized I was there — I was even learning something about the cues the Council psychologists watch for in this Oath thingy — but once she spotted me, she just geeked out completely. It was like watching Cate Blanchett morph into Andrew.” A pause. “Andrew being introduced to Timothy Dalton.”
“Ouch.” Pause. “Well, the new ones do get excited when they’re in the presence of a legend, and it doesn’t get any more legendary than you.” The amusement might have held an undercurrent of something else, or it might have been acoustic blurring. “Trust me, Buf, she’ll figure out quick enough that we’re not demigods.”
“Yeah, when I have to run pee ten times an hour.” Pause. “What’s with the crackers? Settle the tummy of the pregnant lady?”
“No, these are for me.” His voice rose dramatically. “Mine! Mine, I tell you, all mine!”
It was Margot’s first exposure to the dynamic, such as it was, between the two of them. Tinged, unfortunately, by the unexpected insight into how she was regarded by those she had admired.
She finished unpacking, moving as quietly as possible — a fairly simple task, on the thick carpeting — and then she went downstairs to begin the process of working with this puzzling (and, yes, legendary) pair.
* * *
Yet again she had misunderstood, if less so this time. The issue was not of Morssagos per se, at least not directly, but of indications of a threat to the nest. That was an eventuality urgently to be avoided … but, unhappily, Margot’s knowledge of which demon species might be inclined to forcibly intrude on the fairies’ territory was much less comprehensive than her understanding of the Morssagos themselves.
“I’ll start fossicking on it right away,” she assured the Senior Slayer, trying to rush in ahead of the crinkled line between the woman’s eyes that seemed to warn of dissatisfaction, irritation … judgment. “Researching, I mean. At the Red Witch’s insistence, we’ve digitized almost all the remaining Council archives, with cybernetic and mystical security protocols she designed herself, so I shouldn’t have any trouble accessing all the available information. If need be, we can set up a video chat panel, to glean ideas from anyone who might know more than I do —”
“Do you have nicknames for everybody?” the Senior Slayer broke in. She didn’t interrupt as often as Xander, but did it just as abruptly. “Or is it just us?”
Margot paused, studying the woman across the table from her while she chose her words and made sure of her demeanor. “It’s a sign of respect,” she said carefully. “At the beginning, as I’m sure you know, there were some who saw you as … interlopers, opportunists, even usurpers. There was an old guard of retired Watchers who had to be placated, and their influence countered. Giving … titles … to those who served on the Sunnydale Hellmouth, was a new tradition created to help solidify your position.” She made her eyes meet the Slayer’s. “I believe that, er, Mr Giles and Miss Rosenberg were instrumental in putting the practice into place.”
“Yeah, I guess.” The Slayer’s interest was visibly dwindling, or perhaps the combination of Georgia heat and advancing pregnancy was making her moody. Then she looked back to Margot and asked, “So what do they call Xander?”
He was sitting at the third side of the table, to Margot’s left and the Slayer’s right, and his head came up in sudden attention. Though he said nothing, there was a tautness in the way he sat that puzzled Margot. “There’s no single title for him,” she explained. “He was so, so in the middle of everything, for so long, his name itself carried more cachet than any official nickname could have.” She pondered a moment. “Although, a few times I’ve heard him referred to as —” The tension in Xander, and even in the Slayer, spiked so sharply that Margot almost faltered, but she forged on: “— the Heart.”
The tautness faded as inexplicably as it had appeared, in both of them. Relaxing, the Slayer looked to Xander and observed, “There are worse names to be known by.”
“Yeah,” Xander replied, his mouth in a tight line. “Even one nobody knows you’re known by.”
It was obvious that Margot had missed something, equally obvious that asking about it would not be a good idea. Instead she reached into the handbag she’d brought down, pulled out the Vegemite jar and placed it on the table, and asked Xander gravely, “Got a spoon?”
That, at least, brought a smile.
* * *
The thing about Morssagos was that, though neither technically demons nor particularly inclined to interact with humans, they could under the wrong circumstances be the source of more destruction than all but the most malevolent of dark mages. A fairy colony had a sort of harmonizing effect on the surrounding environs, so long as the colony’s own internal harmony was maintained. Over time, both the overall effect and the area affected tended to increase (one reason greater Atlanta was undergoing an economic boom as compared to most of the rest of the country); the result, while subtle, ran deep and was distinctly beneficial in the aggregate. The downside of that was that if anything disrupted the colony, the disruption to the affected area was … magnified. It would be as if the earth itself, in that bordered space, had been on a long, tranquilizing dose of Prozac, and then the medication was abruptly withdrawn with no tapering-off period.
Atlanta was far enough inland that hurricanes didn’t tend to reach it; that could change. (As had happened in one of the more recent examples of when a Morssago nest was too violently disturbed.) Tornadoes, on the other hand, were far less uncommon, and those might become more frequent, more powerful, and even appear in clusters. For that matter, so could earthquakes. No, if there truly was a threat to the nest here, preventing it would be far easier than would coping with the probable aftermath.
Or would be if they could determine what the threat might be. An all-night research session — with Margot doing most of the work, which was as it should have been, but the other two made periodic contributions — had produced indeterminate results. “Our parameters aren’t specific enough,” she explained when the crinkle-line began to show again between the Senior Slayer’s eyes. (Except, no, like Xander she preferred to be called simply by her first name. Margot understood informality, preferred it in her non-work life … but, really, could these two not understand that professional effectiveness might be enhanced by professional behavior?) “There are a few demon species that might want to raid a Morssago colony for their own purposes, others that wouldn’t seek them out specifically but would regard them as just another, er, plunderable resource. Some might want to disrupt the colony in order to deliberately initiate the resulting catastrophe, rather than to gain any particular prize from the Morssagos themselves. And, I guess, we shouldn’t forget that there might be some unknown motive for our unknown possible future raider, which would change what we’re facing, how we’d need to deal with it, and what might be the consequences.”
“Always worth remembering,” the … Buffy … murmured. “We can’t let uncertainty bog us down, though; sooner or later, we have to choose a course and just go at it.”
Margot opened her mouth for a pointed comment, then closed it. Honestly, there were some problems that couldn’t be met simply by flailing away at them with a battle-axe … but, for all her accomplishments and position, she didn’t have the stature to say that, flat-out, to the woman sitting across from her. (If she wanted to be fully honest, Margot also had to admit that she didn’t have the nerve. A pregnant Slayer, like a wounded tiger, might have her operating capacity diminished, but the effect on her mood made her far more dangerous.)
If Xander was aware of that consideration, it didn’t seem to bother him. “How ’bout we just visit the queen tomorrow?” The eye-patch, she was realizing, lent an appearance of competence that the easy, open face might not otherwise have projected. “Maybe she can tell us something that’d narrow down the list of usual suspects.”
This time Margot’s mouth stayed open. “You … you’ve dealt with a Morssago queen? Personally? I mean … this queen, here?”
Xander shrugged, as if to say Why not? “Hey, Shr’ta’s cool. Definitely a royal, and you don’t want to be making any Tinkerbell jokes, but she’s pretty patient with the big pink bipeds. And if something does offend her, she won’t bite your head off or call a swarm jihad, she’ll just cut the visit short. And, uh, you might be kind of accident-prone for the next week or so. But don’t worry, me or Buf will do most of the talking.”
“Whatever.” Buffy stood up, not ponderously but carefully. “You two work it out, I’m going to bed.” And she left the kitchen table without another word.
Margot looked back to Xander to find him studying her, one eyebrow raised just the least bit. The single-eyed gaze was keen, but not challenging, and Margot shook her head. “She’s … er …” She stopped, uncertain how to proceed.
“Not her usual bubbly self,” Xander finished for her. “Hormones. Don’t take it personal.” He stretched until muscles popped audibly in his shoulders, and grunted in satisfaction. “So, okay, we can’t get much farther without more info. We should rest for awhile ourselves. But first, why don’t we figure out which questions we can ask Shr’ta to maybe get a better idea what we’re facing here —?”
It was much easier dealing with him alone. But then, as Margot was discovering, either one of them was easier than the both of them together.
* * *
When at last she lay down to nap for a bit, Margot fell asleep immediately, and slept hard for four hours. She woke all at once, with a jolt and the words “— stone cold bitch” seeping into her ear.
Her heart pounded wildly, adrenaline and disorientation rendering her world almost psychedelic. Then she heard Xander’s voice, it was the ventriloqual effect of the heating flue again, and he was saying, “Don’t forget, Buf, I was part of that, too. I’ve got my own issues, and you know how that can be.”
The impatient expulsion of breath could also be heard clearly. “I’m just telling you what I saw. Snooty, nose-in-the-air, all I’m too good for the likes of you … God, Xander, how could you put up with her for even a minute?”
Margot felt herself freezing. What? what? whatever had she said or done to make them think —? Then, Xander again, “Well, while it lasted the sex was fantastic, and you know what that’ll do to a guy’s brain.” A chuckle … maybe a bit forced? “Especially mine.”
Ah. They definitely weren’t talking about Margot, not unless she’d sustained an amnesia-inducing concussion she’d forgot about. Which wasn’t impossible, but, “I’m just saying I wish I’d known, Xander. I’m no champ when it comes to my own personal life — which, observe the belly! — but I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from bitch-shrieking to you about Fayne Landau.”
Of course, his now-ex-wife. There was a stiff silence, and then Xander’s voice again, several degrees cooler: “Well, you weren’t there, were you? And not for the first time.”
This time it was embarrassment that froze Margot. A longer silence, broken by Buffy, so soft as to be barely audible: “Are you having second thoughts about our arrangement? this, here, now? Is that what this is about?”
“No, I’m not saying that. It’s just —” And then the words cut off as Margot laid her folded skirt over the open grate of the heating vent. It’s not about you, she reminded herself sternly. Don’t get up yourself here, not everything is about you.
She knew Fayne Landau, and had trouble reconciling her memories with the … well, the actual venom in Buffy Summers’ voice. Fayne was proud, true enough, even haughty, and yes, some of her pride derived from the fact that her ancestors had been part of the Council of Watchers for nearly as long as it had kept written records. Unlike many self-styled aristocrats, however, Fayne had always used her heritage as a starting point, rather than attempting to rest on those unearned (by her) laurels; her own achievements, in alchemaic deconstruction and in two of the more esoteric demon languages, were themselves worthy of note, and her hauteur as such was primarily reserved for any who failed to accord her the respect she knew she was due. More than that, Margot had reason to know that the woman herself deeply regretted the failure of the marriage. Intensely private, Fayne had never been known to air the details of her personal life … but once, in an unguarded moment at an upscale pub, after an uncharacteristic one drink too many, she had bitterly observed of Xander Harris, “Good man. Dreadful husband. And I was never the woman he —” Then she had caught herself, phoned for a cab, and ordered (and downed) another double before making a hasty departure.
So now Margot knew something else she previously had not: the Senior Slayer was either fiercely protective or fiercely possessive, if not both, of those she considered ‘hers’ … and severely unforgiving of anyone who transgressed against — or upon — those persons.
She got up, took a quick, cool shower in the attached bathroom, then dressed and went downstairs to check on what would be the next step in their current program.