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.
Xander drank. A lot.
The visit to the Morssago colony had gone quickly and, for Margot, unremarkably. The diminutive winged humanoids had been fascinating, the fact of finding herself inside a milieu not described by any direct observer since 1914 was queerly exciting, and Queen Shr’ta was strikingly beautiful … but it was an icy, forbidding beauty, and Buffy and Xander had as promised done most of the talking (using, naturally, the set of questions Margot had been instrumental in formulating, to best acquire pertinent information). The audience had ended quickly, and Margot had been unable to shake the impression that Shr’ta, whenever her gaze happened to rest on the new visitor, had all but literally sniffed. Disapprovingly. Dismissively. Disdainfully. Whichever dis one felt like applying to a foot-tall gauzy-winged monarch eyeing an uninvited and unwelcome guest.
“Okay, eight-day cycle,” Xander announced as they zoomed away from the hidden enclave. “If that holds, we’ve got some time to work with before the whatever-it-is comes back for another look. Even more, if looking is all it does. It may just be curious, or still scoping the defenses before it tries a serious penetration.”
“If the cycle holds,” Buffy agreed. She was in the front of the Mazda with Xander, her seat scooted far back to reduce cramping in her thickening ankles. “We can’t afford to take that for granted … but yeah, it doesn’t look like doom is bearing down on us right this moment.” She lifted her eyes to meet Margot’s in the mirror mounted on the sun visor. “So, does the info we just got give you any better idea of what we might be facing?”
Margot, in the back, was beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic; needing legroom of his own, Xander had his seat almost as far back as Buffy’s, and this wasn’t a large vehicle to begin with. Stuffing it back, she answered, “It looks to rule out some possibilities, and suggests a few others. I’ll have to check against the archives, but offhand I’d say we’ve narrowed the field by about half.”
“Progress,” Xander affirmed cheerfully.
There hadn’t been much to say after that, however, Xander had left Margot at the house to continue her research and driven Buffy to her monthly OB appointment. (The doctor was Council-sponsored, versed in the physiology of Slayers and the various occult maladies that might afflict them, and made regular reports to the offices in London, a fact of which Buffy Summers was fully aware and to which she had voiced no objection.) When the two of them returned, almost three hours later, they entered the house with the simmering tightness of a couple who had been having a blue but didn’t want to carry it on in front of witnesses. “I’m gonna wash the sweat off me,” Xander announced, tugging at the collar of his shirt, “and change out of these clothes. After that, I’m going clubbing.” He looked to Margot. “Whattaya say, Margie? Want to check out the night life?”
“I …” Margot hesitated finding herself the focus of two gazes: Xander’s sardonic, Buffy’s flat and unreadable. “I, I really should follow out some of the avenues we’ve opened —”
“Hey, all work and no play.” Xander shrugged. “Your call. But if you change your mind, wear something that says ‘party’.” Then he was up the stairs and gone.
Margot looked to Buffy. “I’ll stay,” she said. “There really is more than enough to occupy me, and there’s no point in wasting more time than we need to.”
Buffy’s expressionless expression didn’t change. “Like he said, your call. But I’m not up to riding herd on him tonight, I’m just too tired.” She started to turn away, stopped and looked back. “If you go along, I’ll at least know somebody is watching out for him.”
So Margot changed into something festive, and when Xander came downstairs, they left together.
And Xander drank. A lot.
Five minutes after leaving the house, he pulled a leather-wrapped silver flask from his pocket, unscrewed the hinge-flanged cap with the thumb and forefinger of the hand holding the flask while deftly controlling the steering wheel with the other hand — an adroitness that spoke of considerable practice — and took a long swallow. (Was that legal in the States? Several seasons of Law & Order made Margot doubt it.) He took them to a place called Vortex; there was a line at the door, but only a short one — “Place doesn’t really start hopping till maybe ten o’clock,” Xander explained tersely — and the doorman, nodding recognition to Xander, eyed Margot doubtfully for a moment and then waved them to the front. And, once inside, it turned out that the flask had only been pre-game prep.
He drank steadily, not recklessly, but he took his liquor straight and seemed to be aiming for four drinks per hour. (He offered to stand her a coldie, but why did Yanks always assume all Australians drank Foster’s? Margot asked for a Stella Artois instead.) The interior music and noise made conversation difficult unless one was determined, and Xander wasn’t. He danced with Margot a couple of times, matter-of-factly but without any enthusiasm; his interest was clearly elsewhere, on the other women in the club, and that interest was amply returned. After several consecutive dances with the same woman, a sleek smoky-eyed brunette who bore a disturbing resemblance to Faith Wood, he returned to the bar, ordered a double-shot, and tossed Margot the keys to the Mazda. “You can hang around if you want,” he told her. “I’ll get a ride home in the morning.”
Margot stared; this was not only rude, but stunningly unsafe. “Are you sure that’s … wise?” she asked cautiously.
The brunette gave her a smile of malicious triumph; Xander’s smile, knowing and amused, wasn’t much kinder. “I’ll survive,” he said. Then he gestured toward the bar mirror. “I just think a couple this hot-looking has to get to know each other better.”
Margot turned to look with sudden understanding, he’d spotted a female vampire and deliberately cut her out from the throng to be smoothly disposed of, he was signaling Margot to back him up, they’d be carrying this off together —
No. The woman had a reflection. He’d merely been informing Margot (rubbing her face in it, truth be told) that this had nothing to do with business, it was just a routine bar pickup segueing into an ordinary one-night stand.
He departed with the brunette. Margot left ten minutes later. She had no trouble finding her way back to the house, as she had automatically noted the route Xander had taken. When she let herself in, with the door key on the same ring, she saw a light from the kitchen, and went in to find Buffy sitting at the table with a Vegemite-spread cracker missing a single bite. The woman looked up, her expression remote but not antagonistic. “Thought I’d try this stuff out for myself,” she told Margot. “Turns out it’s really awful.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Margot not-quite-agreed. “Some people never do. Acquire it, I mean.”
Buffy nodded … then, still with no animation showing in her face, asked, “Xander?”
“Made a … new friend,” Margot said, hoping her tone was suitably diplomatic.
That elicited a flash of interest. “A tan-deficient friend?”
Ah. “No, we confirmed that she was, was adequately tanned.” Margot hesitated, then added, “All over, if I were to guess.” And no doubt Xander could offer direct testimony by now …
At the words, Buffy seemed to recede even further into herself. After several seconds of rather uncomfortable silence, she looked to Margot and said, “He drinks too much.”
“It … does look it,” Margot acknowledged reluctantly.
More silence. “I worry about him,” Buffy said at last.
Oh. Well. Was she supposed to offer her own opinion here? Margot was still smarting from the way she had all but ceased to exist for Xander, essentially from the moment they left together; for that matter, she hadn’t forgot the ignominy of hearing herself dismissed as a ‘fangirl’. Still, the reputation of these two was awe-inspiring enough to indicate discretion. “You’ll know better than I do that he’s dealt with much more, er, extreme circumstances than these.”
“Maybe.” Buffy stood up. “But nothing’s ever been able to hurt Xander as much as Xander can.” She went to the door of the kitchen, then stopped, her back still to Margot … and, almost too low to be heard, she added, “Unless it’s me.”
Then she was gone. Margot stood uncertainly for a minute, then picked up the abandoned cracker and ate the rest of it.
I mean, really, you couldn’t let it go to waste.
* * *
If Xander Harris truly was behaving in an unprofessional, even self-destructive fashion, what exactly could be done about it?
He was one of the icons, one of the “Core Four” who had held the line on an increasingly volatile Hellmouth for almost seven years. He had added to his legend since, but was still down in the records as the only non-supernatural human ever known to have averted an unprophesied apocalypse 1) single-handed, 2) without weapons or magicks of any kind, and 3) by the precise application — totally incomprehensible, and without any explicatory detail, but firmly corroborated by witnesses whose credentials one didn’t challenge — of a yellow crayon. Then there was the fact of his having not only saved the life of the Slayer (and then Slayers) on multiple occasions, but actually brought one back to life at least twice.
More than enough foundation, if any reminder were needed, for a Tread softly recommendation.
There were protocols for assessing and correcting researchers, field support teams, allied witches and magicians. Even errant Slayers were subject to internal controls, mainly from older and more experienced and more responsible Slayers: the carrot of praise, favorable assignments, exotic travels, prized weapons, even something so basic as bragging rights; and the stick of demotion, disapproval, less favorable accommodations and locale, even the blithe but brisk administration of a therapeutic ‘beat-down’. (What would have been unconscionable abuse, anywhere except in the most elite special forces, was simply a pointed lesson to a Slayer; violence was their bread and butter.) There had even, though this was part of no approved program, appeared a whispering campaign among the younger Slayers, warning of some shadowy enforcer who would silently extinguish any who crossed a certain line.
(They actually used that name: the Enforcer. Ridiculous. Mr Giles had forcibly disbanded the old extreme-action teams, flatly proclaiming that such things had no place in the Reformed Council, and he could be ruthless and subtle but he wasn’t prone to bald-faced lying. Any single individual fulfilling such a function would have to be a Slayer, certainly either Faith — the now-reformed Outlaw Slayer — or Violet Knowles, who was gradually becoming better known as “Red Death”, and either such high-profile individual would never be able to operate as a clandestine executioner of Slayers. No, the Enforcer was a myth, if a somewhat useful one. Still, something had brought Lelani Manoah’s blood-soaked rampage to an end … and no demon or shaman or strutting vampire had ever plausibly claimed credit …)
The point was that every level of the new Council had some higher authority to exercise control over it, but for those at the top — which essentially meant the tight-knit nucleus of Sunnydale survivors — the controls were much less explicit. In effect, they regulated each other, with nobody else willing to insist otherwise. In the case of Xander Harris, it didn’t seem to be working too well.
Which took Margot back to where she had begun: there was nothing she could do about this situation. She had her own mission here, and her responsibility was to focus on that.
All the same, she’d best be thinking of the report she would make to Mr Giles. Given the closeness of the core group, he probably already knew at least the basic facts, but perhaps reinforcing testimony from an objective observer would serve to clarify his perceptions, help him to determine if a decision was necessary and, if so, what it should be.
* * *
The Morssago Fairies had warning magicks of their own around their nest, and months ago Buffy had brought in a Council-approved wizard to supplement those with a low-grade compulsion spell. The latter was designed mainly to deter wandering humans from stumbling across the colony — any non-approved person getting too close would, unless properly warded, have to overcome a growing unease and then increasingly urgent intestinal upset — but would likewise affect a hefty spectrum of the common demon species. By integrating the information provided by Queen Shr’ta with the Council data and their own reasoning and intuition, Margot was eventually able to provide Buffy and Xander with a list of the five types most likely to be the still-unknown lurker.
Feeling a need to have something concrete to provide for them, she had skipped breakfast, working in her bedroom with the encrypted laptop and a growing heap of notes, profiles and analyses. Then, with a set of preliminary conclusions ready to present, she went downstairs to find that the kitchen, and the house, was empty except for her. While she hadn’t by any means assumed that Xander would have returned by now (he’d said he would catch a ride, presumably from the slut who’d taken him home with her, and even sluts can be clingy in the morning), Margot was thrown by Buffy’s absence. Where would the Senior Slayer have gone, so early, in her condition, without telling anyone?
Twenty minutes later, she had her answer. Xander had made it back, early, and taken Buffy out for a morning run that was, apparently, part of their normal routine.
“Running?” Margot repeated, bemused. The Slayer, fanning herself with a paper plate, was flushed and freely perspiring, but seemed to be breathing evenly enough. By contrast, except for the sweat-stains on his t-shirt Xander might have just finished a leisurely stroll … and, Lord, could those shorts be any tighter —?
“Buf was getting lazy,” Xander explained. “Using pregnancy as an excuse to goof off. Well, we learned better than that with Faith’s twins, a Slayer doesn’t have to take it easy till she’s actually in labor. And the vamps won’t back off to give her maternity leave, if anything they’ll try to take advantage, so we have to be ready to handle anything they can throw at us and jam it right back in their faces with barbed-wire gift wrapping.”
Margot had not herself followed any of the anecdotes regarding Faith’s pregnancy, so she looked to Buffy. “How, um, how do you feel?”
“Okay.” The Slayer mopped her face with a paper towel, which she dropped into the kitchen wastebasket. “I’m strong enough that the extra weight doesn’t actually slow me down, I just have to get used to the balance change.” She sat down at the table. “And my cardiovascular system is different now, it took me some time to get back my wind, but Xan was right, I let myself go all flabby. No more o’ that with Coach Hard-ass on duty!”
Her smile was fond, and seemed genuine, so apparently there were to be no recriminations for the grazing-for-sex of the previous night. (And there was more than one use for the term ‘hard-ass’; Margot hastily averted her eyes.) Xander’s manner was brisk, but without last night’s faintly hostile undercurrent. “I’ll get started on breakfast,” he announced; then, to Margot, “Got something for us, Margie?”
“Uh, yes, well.” Margot took her own seat at the table. “Okay, we have four basic parameters to work with right now: the impressions the Morssagos got from whatever has been probing into their territory, the demon types that would be unaffected by the compulsion spell or motivated to push through it, the different things that might be gained by raiding a Morssago nest … and, without more to go on, which demons common to this area, or likely to appear here, best fit the little we know.
“Given those guidelines, these are the things we’d best prepare for.
“Utluith demons have a penchant for stealing the young of other species as available fodder for when their larvae hatch. The Utluith reproductive cycle is usually over by this time of year, but Morssago nestlings would be a bounty for such a creature, so it tops the list.
“Nariyishi delight in slaughter, but are somewhat more intelligent and quite a lot more cautious than most demons, so they’re rarely able to indulge their appetites as they would like. Their thick skin and bone plates would protect them from Morssago defensive weapons, and a Nariyishi could do a lot of killing in relative safety. It would have to know a nest was there, though, and well-populated, which reduces the likelihood somewhat.
“An Ahf-rogorr demon would respond to the kind of compulsion spell you describe as a burglar would to the sight of a wall safe in a suburban bedroom: the degree of protection would signal that here was something of value. I can’t think of anything Morssagos have that an Ahf-rogorr would want, but so far our unidentified stalker is still scouting, so we have to keep the possibility in mind.
“Moving on, the harmonizing effect of a Morssago nest would be anathema to a devotee of chaos, who would want to end it purely for the payoff in discord. Here we’re speaking of a human, rather than any type of demon; among chaos-worshipers, the most prominent of record is —”
“Ethan Rayne,” Buffy and Xander said in unison.
Margot stopped. “You know of him?” That wasn’t in any of the archives. Of course, many of the records had been obliterated with the old headquarters and almost all of the senior leadership …
“Way too well,” Xander agreed. He shot Buffy a sly grin, a lesser version of which she returned. “But you can cross Ethan off the list. I mean, I’ll shoot Wil a call to make sure nothing’s changed, but as of last report he’s … busy, elsewhere.”
The thought appeared to be vastly entertaining to the both of them. Margot decided not to ask. “Well, to wind up, then, our last likely possibility. A cHoltiche lamprey uses a substance very like a Morssago queen’s nectar as an euphoric and systemic stimulant; a comparable effect, for humans, would be like a combination of Oxycontin and anabolic steroids. Depending on prior exposure, a cHoltiche could be, er, avid in seeking such a rarified source.”
“Demon junkies.” Buffy sighed. “The fun in my life just never stops.”
“And I know how much you like to have fun,” Xander said. “So if those are our main suspects, let’s get to the top topics: what they look like, how they fight, what we need to watch out for, and the ever-popular ‘how do we kill them’?”
Fortunately, Margot had anticipated this, and had ready such information as was available. They were already familiar with chaos-worshipers (in case one other than the missing Ethan Rayne was involved), so the focus was on the four demon possibilities. Some of their weaponry was deficient — the Ahf-rogorr, for instance, was most susceptible to jade darts — but Buffy waved that away with a flippant, “Hack-and-slash works on pretty much everything. Since these guys are no exception, I’d say we’re good.”
They finished their breakfast along with the briefing. Xander went upstairs to shower, Buffy did the same in the ground-floor bathroom … and then, with no preamble, Buffy was gone for another appointment.
… A psychiatrist?
* * *
When she hesitantly broached the subject with Xander, he surprised her by laughing.
“Sorry,” he said, using one finger to wipe under his remaining eye. “It’s just, when you’ve seen her go through the stuff I have, trust me, this is nothing. I figure she’s probably dealing with impending-mommy anxiety … but even if she’s got nightmares or phobias or rage issues or anything, I’m here to say she’s earned ’em and it’s none of my business.”
Margot nodded, but wasn’t entirely satisfied. “You’re acting as her Watcher,” she pointed out. “Isn’t her psychological status a matter of legitimate concern to you?”
He shrugged. “You probably noticed I’m not your standard-issue Watcher — I could never be Giles, I’d melt down if I tried, so I just muddle through the best I can and let somebody else pick up the pieces — and Buffy just defines Not A Traditional Slayer.” He shrugged again. “What works for other people would never work for us, which is fair ’cause anybody else would have to be crazy to try and do it our way. Somehow, though, we manage to stagger through every day, and then haul ourselves out of bed for the next one.”
“You’ve done better than that,” Margot said, leaning toward him. “Both of you, whether you were out on your own or together. But mostly together.”
He grinned like a shot fox, as if her very earnestness was a matter for private amusement. “Well, you have to remember, it’s never been just the two of us till now. Back in the ’Dale, she always had a full crew backing her up. I was part of that, and I’m proud of it, but I was just a cog in the machine. Buffy was what it was about, every moment.”
She could have argued; even disregarding single-handed world-saving or the resuscitation of a drowned Slayer, the Watchers’ chronicles recorded precisely one man who had stood alone and weaponless against Angelus, survived, and then gone on to do it again with William the Bloody. Instead she made her smile match his, and observed lightly, “That wasn’t the way Andrew Wells told it.”
And on the instant his face had gone blank, guarded, and his voice was very soft. “You knew Andrew?”
The change in mood was so sudden that Margot had no idea how to adjust. “I, I met him a few times, very briefly … I didn’t know him, but I had studied the anecdotal histories he compiled, hoping to flesh out some of Mr Giles’ more sparse narratives —” Xander swiveled in his chair, not putting his back to her but turning away as if he couldn’t bear to face her in that moment. “I’m sorry,” Margot said quietly. “I know you were close.”
“Close?” He turned back toward her. “I was never close to Andrew. Nobody was.”
“But … he was one of the inner circle after the collapse of Sunnydale, he helped organize the new Council, you all worked so closely together … I thought surely …”
“Yeah, he was inside on the fast track, all right. I never really worked out how that happened.” Xander drew a steadying breath. “Look, Andrew gave the mission everything he had, that’s a fact. The hero-worship made most of us want to throttle him, but I could see he was like that because he really wanted to be better than he was, and he fixed on us as the examples to live up to. And Regina swears he deliberately put himself between her and the S’n’gath, sacrificed himself to give her time to trigger the catalytic rods. If they want to list him on the Roll of Heroes, I won’t argue, because I just don’t know all the details and dying gives you the benefit of a whole lot of doubts.
“What I do know is that Andrew was weak.” His voice and expression were flat. “He fell in with evil twice, because he was weak. He worked with a guy who tried to kill Buffy and did kill one of the most genuinely good people I’ve ever known … Andrew wasn’t part of the killing, but I don’t think he’d have balked at that if it meant keeping up his fantasies. He wound up murdering his own best friend because he was pathetic and stupid and weak …”
Xander stopped, shook his head, and went on. “At that last battle in Sunnydale, all us non-super types were split off in teams of two. I was with Buffy’s sister, and Andrew was with a woman named Anya. Yeah, that one: former demon, joined us after she was turned human, got her power back and gave it up all over again … He survived, she didn’t. And I don’t hold that against him, we knew going in that probably we’d all die. But the thing is …” He paused, knuckling at the cheek below the eye-patch, as if to ease a tightening muscle. “The thing is, in the years up till then, my best friends were always tossing out little barbs about the things Anya had done back when she was a demon … and Andrew was a murderer and that just kind of got forgotten.” He looked up, his eye meeting Margot’s. “I didn’t hate him. But that was only because I wouldn’t let myself.”
Margot had no idea what response to make to this illuminating testimony, but it wasn’t necessary to find one. Xander stood up, saying, “I’m going out. If Buf comes back before I do, tell her I’m getting some groceries.”
He left, and once again Margot found herself sitting alone at the kitchen table, her head all but spinning. Crikes, could she say anything without hitting a tripwire? One moment, Xander and Buffy were sniping at one another, the next they bristled at anything that might hint at criticism of the other. Question anything and you were cut short, but try to affirm them — with what was supposed to be common knowledge! — and an entirely different bomb went off under your feet. For all that Andrew Wells had been something of a comical figure, she’d had no inkling that a minor reference to him might trigger such a … stringent reaction.
Something was niggling at her, and in the way of such things it skittered away from her whenever she tried to focus on it. She retraced her memory, trying to find her way back to whatever it was that was tickling at her attention.
Ah. The incident wherein a junior Slayer had prevented a S’n’gath outbreak, thanks to the just-maligned Andrew’s self-sacrificial intervention. So, why had that seemed important …?
And then the missing piece of information clicked into place, and Margot stiffened where she sat, eyes going distant and mind racing furiously. After a few minutes, she pulled a steno pad from her handbag and began to sketch out a series of quick, interconnected notes. Fifteen minutes later she went up to her room to compose a set of pointed inquiries to be sent out through the laptop’s security-shielded interface.
Buffy did return before Xander, but not by a great deal, he rocked up barely ten minutes later. Even so, a three-hour grocery trip seemed excessive. Then Margot saw, among the flimsy white plastic sacks containing various foodstuffs, two of the solid black that many American bottle shops used to prevent liquor labels from showing through. She also saw the same recognition in Buffy’s eyes, but the Senior Slayer seemed resigned rather than surprised or offended, so apparently Xander’s excessive alcohol consumption was not a new development. How long had this habit been in operation, she wondered?
It didn’t matter, at least not at the moment. “While the two of you were away, I used the time to review the facts we have,” she told them. “Yesterday, you both acknowledged that we were basically hoping we could rely on the eight-day pattern that has held so far. I think we should take steps to be ready in case the pattern breaks.”
“Ahead of you there,” Buffy said with a single-shoulder shrug. “When Shr’ta let me know their sensing-fields were showing something edging past the boundaries, I got the Devon coven to make a modification to the compulsion spell I’d put in place; as in, I was literally able to phone that one in.” She reached inside the neckline of her blouse, pulled out a flat silver disk on a leather string. “They tuned into what the Council’s wizard had done for me, tweaked the spell so any deep intrusion activates this. Sharp little electric shock, like a hard nip from a Chihuahua, not something I’d sleep through. So we’re covered there.”
Margot nodded. “Yes, they filed the record of your modifications, though I appreciate the additional information. Your refinement actually was what inspired me. If we do a standard revelation invocation on a collection of Haussen crystals, we can seed a wide area around the nest; in so doing, we can not only receive notification of any new incursion but, by using a Chirkusik’s mirror, we can track a precise location. If the next occasion comes off-schedule or is a serious attack, that could be a valuable advantage.”
Xander and Buffy exchanged glances, and he gave Margot a lopsided smile. “Good one,” he said. “Sounds like a plan. Need anything from us?”
“Well, transportation,” Margot answered. “I Googled some local shops that might carry Haussen crystals and the other necessary ingredients, if you proved agreeable; give me a few minutes to call them and confirm, and then a ride to pick up what we need. I can do the invocatory preparation at the nest itself, and then place the crystals along all the potential lines of approach. Unless we encounter some obstacle, I see nothing to prevent us being done by sunset.”
“Works for me,” Buffy said. “Should I be doing the coming-along thing? ’cause I could totally do that, but long hot bath is also on the menu, and I always say a well-rounded Slayer is a more effective Slayer.”
That prompted a huge laugh from Xander. “You get any more ‘well-rounded’, Buf, you’ll need hand-extenders just to reach the doorknobs.”
“You see what I live with?” Buffy demanded of Margot in mock outrage. “Men are pigs.”
“Oink, baby,” he teased. “Can’t blame me for sticking with what I’m good at.”
So, the mood had changed again. This household felicity promised well for the immediate future, and the next several hours seemed to bear out that promise. Xander had to take Margot to only two shops to acquire the crystals and the ritual materials; the invocation was carried out without complication, and Margot spread crystals in three expanding rings. The nearest was a hundred yards from the outer perimeter of the Morssagos’ nest, the second a bit over a quarter of a mile out, and the final one a full mile distant. That last took the longest, of course, a walk of over three miles, but they filled the time with light conversation, Xander regaling her with a series of comic misadventures in Africa (undoubtedly exaggerated, the hapless larrikin he described couldn’t have survived the things she well knew he had faced), while she reciprocated with descriptions of various offbeat characters she had known in Wallaroo and during her education with the Council of Watchers.
She had thought, on first setting out with him, to offer an apology for inadvertently tripping over his memory of the deceased Anya Jenkins … but it was difficult to raise the subject without repeating the offense, and his behavior seemed to indicate a deliberate effort to put her at ease and re-establish a smooth working relationship, so she allowed herself to drop the notion and enjoy the process.
The completion of their activities meant it was nearly eight o’clock before they had dinner with Buffy, back at the house, after which the Slayer opted to take an early bedtime. Margot went up to her own room to review her notes, check the online archives for any further information, and finalize the planning for a few contingencies.
An hour later she heard movement in the hall, and rose to go to her door. Buffy had a ground-floor bedroom, of course — Slayer strength or no, her ankles protested too much use of the stairs — but Xander had the other bedroom on the second floor. He was just about to start down the stairs when Margot opened her door; he was dressed much as he had been the other night at Vortex, and she could see that he was carrying the flask as well, the sweet scent of bourbon hovering faintly in the hall.
However much he had been drinking, it hadn’t impaired his situational awareness, he was turning to look back at her even as she caught sight of him. Physically alert, he wasn’t emotionally guarded; she could see weariness in his expression, and old, deep pain, before it smoothed into the familiar nonchalant mask. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You didn’t,” she assured him. “But … is this necessary?”
“Look,” he told her, “we had a good day, I’m not knocking it, but I’ve got places to go and people to see. If I need a babysitter, I’ll call … but I won’t, ’cause I don’t.”
It wasn’t safe for him to be out driving if he’d been drinking. It wasn’t safe for him to be out alone, recklessly exposing himself, period, no matter how supernaturally run-of-the-mill Atlanta might be compared to other large cities. Those were not, however, the only considerations.
“There’s no need for you to go out,” Margot said to him.
His lip twitched, and he gave her the sardonic eyebrow-tilt. “No?”
She wasn’t deceiving herself about the realities here. She was seven years older than he was, and compared to the Slayers reputed to be regularly infatuated with him, she was a sturdy working-horse among thoroughbreds. More than that, he was a legend while she was (very talented) support staff. But she was worried about him, and she was in America alone and it had been awhile, and damn it, she wanted to.
“Not if you’d rather come in,” she said steadily.
And, after five or six eternal seconds, he did.
* * *
It wasn’t the absolute best Margot had ever experienced, but it was certainly the best first time she’d ever had. Even better, he didn’t do the infamous that-was-great-gotta-go dash once they were done, but spooned up against her under the duvet, so that she had the pleasure of falling asleep in his arms.
When she woke to the first hazy hints of dawn, she was alone; turning over, however, she found that he had pulled her chair over next to the bed, and was sitting there, in his underwear, watching her. She smiled up at him, warm and satisfied, and he reached over to stroke her bare shoulder. “That was nice,” he told her, and showed no sign of flinching when she laid her hand over his. “But we can’t do it again.”
Margot nodded. “I know.”
He leaned over to place a soft kiss on her forehead, then stood, gathering his clothes and shoes, and slid quietly out the door. Margot closed her eyes and settled back in for a few more hours of sleep. She briefly wondered, in the fuzzy disconnected fashion of the half-awake, how she had measured against Anya, or even Fayne … but she already knew she would never be so foolish as to ask.
* * *
Margot spent much of the following day in further refinements on the Chirkusik’s mirror, enhancing its accuracy and sensitivity.
Xander dealt with her in a manner that was neither closer nor more distant than before, obviously shaped to set their night together in a separate, if comfortable, context. Margot accepted this — welcomed it, in some ways — while nonetheless allowing herself to dwell occasionally on gratifying memories.
Xander and Buffy went out together in the evening, in one of the infrequent but periodic patrol sweeps that she still maintained. Atlanta’s vampire population was tiny, per capita, but it still needed reminding now and then that a Slayer was in residence and she was the apex predator. They returned at one in the morning with Buffy still fluffing dust out of her hair and complaining loudly, and happier than Margot had ever seen her until now.
Margot had waited up until they came in; she was one of the team, albeit temporary. On their return she went on to bed, thinking how nice it would be if Xander came through her door again, and knowing he wouldn’t. All the same, her dreams were pleasant indeed.
And, midway through breakfast the following morning, the balloon went up.
* * *
Having been the one to suggest the upgrade in their mystical security, Margot had made a point of ensuring that her own preparations were of equal quality, keeping a “go-bag” next to the door and staying up-to-date on every smallest change in the overall situation. Three days remained in the cycle they had earlier determined, but none of them wanted to take anything for granted. In fact, Margot was thinking of suggesting that they get a three-person tent and spend the next few days at Stone Mountain itself —
— when Buffy jumped up, snatching at the leather cord around her neck and yelping, “Ow! Ow! Crap!”
They were out the door together within thirty seconds, actually on the highway before another three minutes had elapsed. Margot’s heart was pounding; this was real, this was field action, she was about to enter what could well be a battle situation alongside two of the five most famous names in the entire Council. Now was where she might learn if she was capable of more than academic work or should retreat to the safety of the research offices, now was when she might have a chance not only to discover but to show what she was made of!
Again, she was in the rear seat, and Buffy was passing something back to her: a Japanese sword, curved like a katana but short as a ninja-to. It was plain but not cheap, unornamented but solid, built for utility and nothing else. “Stay close to us, but don’t try to jump into any fight unless we yell for you,” she was calling to Margot over the snarl of the engine. “Xander and I have done this dance before, so just stay close, stay calm, and be ready to move quick if we tell you to do something.”
Margot agreed automatically, but most of her attention was elsewhere; she had activated the Chirkusik’s mirror, and as the image there sharpened, she announced, “Whatever we’re dealing with, it’s in the southwest quadrant, well inside the outer ring. It’s gone a third of a mile against the compulsion spell, so we know this is unlikely to be any random hiker.”
“Southwest, got it,” Xander shot back. “We can either cut around behind, or go straight through … you take the longsword, Buf, it’s the best thing for most of our top prospects, but I’ll toss you the axe if our bogie turns out to be an Utluith, or bleach if it’s a Nariyishi.”
“Gotcha,” Buffy agreed. “Hey, we didn’t get to finish breakfast, and we could work up an appetite with this business … how’s about we run out for lunch after this? ’Cause I’m thinking pizza.”
Xander groaned, while taking to the shoulder of the highway to slip around a UPS truck. “You’re gonna call for pineapple and jalapeño again, aren’t you? Seriously, that’s just cruel.”
“Pregnant women have needs, Xander. Besides, you’ve got no room to talk, with all that Vegemax goop you’ve been scarfing down.”
“There’s exotic, and then there’s vicious,” he parried promptly. “Just because the Slayer essence started out as some kind of low-grade demon possession, doesn’t mean you have to embrace your heritage right now.”
The flippant chatter faded to background noise as Margot watched for any change in the mirror, and mentally rechecked and re-rechecked her own preparations. “It’s reached the quarter-mile ring,” she announced. “That’s —” (Three-quarters of a mile in, let’s see, just over twenty minutes now, multiply by three for miles-per-hour …) “— that’s leisurely walking speed. The creature’s not in any tearing rush, unless that is its top speed —” Xander hopped lanes to transition from I-285 to the Stone Mountain Highway, again driving in places not normally meant for traffic. The problem, Margot realized, was that the intruder, still slow, was moving on a far more direct course than before, and was now most of the way to the target they didn’t want it to reach. They’d let the issue of travel time escape their notice, touching on it but not focusing, would they be in time —?
Two things were in their favor. First, the Morssago enclave was on the side of the Stone Mountain area nearest to Buffy’s house, so they could go there on a nearly direct route. (Doubtless, Buffy had chosen her lodging specifically for that proximity.) Second, it wasn’t in the public sections, but a portion that the Council had pulled strings to get designated as a private park, so that there was progressively less traffic to navigate as they got closer.
And a third thing: in crisis, Xander respected machinery no more than he did traffic rules. The last times they had come here, he had parked by the roadside, and they had walked the remaining distance to the nest. Today, the suspension of the Mazda bottomed out with a whoomp! as he left the road and cut straight across a green meadow, still going at the highest speed that would allow him to maintain control. The sudden roughness of the ride made it more difficult to track, but “It just reached the innermost ring,” Margot cried. “Within a hundred yards of the nest!”
“No problem,” Xander called back over his shoulder. “I see him.”
And seconds later, so did Margot: bouncing off the hood, the windshield, and tumbling over the roof of the car in a cartwheel of flailing, spindly limbs while Xander stomped the brake and slewed the vehicle to a shuddering stop.
Buffy and Xander were out of the doors, on either side, while Margot was still struggling with her bag. The single glimpse of the previously unidentified demon had confirmed her earlier tenuous suspicions, she’d been right and that meant there was no time to waste. She found what she needed and the seats, the car was a bloody two-door and she was stuck in the back! She fumbled desperately to find the lever that would release the seat, Buffy had done it for her before, this was insane! and then something worked and the seat flopped forward, she scrambled out in such a desperate, ungainly rush that she sprawled out on the grass, almost losing the precious materials she had prepared and stored two days ago.
Buffy and Xander were going at the demon from two angles with longsword and axe, Buffy carrying the brunt of the fighting but Xander contributing enough that the thing couldn’t manage to focus solely on the greatest threat. The problem was that they were facing an unanticipated foe, this wasn’t one of the prospects in the top five (top four, without the chaos worshipers), and they didn’t know the right approach to take.
In fact, she saw with a stab of alarm, they were unknowingly making the situation worse. Most common demons were roughly humanoid, but the S’n’gath was formed more like a huge, misshapen grasshopper with serrated mantis forelimbs, its quadripedal ‘chassis’ allowing it to move with unusual speed and the hard chitin of its exoskeleton offering a degree of protection against bladed weapons; most appalling, it was already in its budding phase, and Buffy’s and Xander’s efforts were hastening the process. Any time it wheeled to face one attacker, the other would strike at its back and flanks, each stroke hacking away a cluster of budlets. Margot could see dozens of the things littering the grass around the combatants, struggling toward motion and awareness — and ravenous, newly-awakened appetite — on being abruptly separated from their progenitor.
A catastrophe in the making. Fortunately, Margot was ready.
She had committed the incantation to memory, and mentally rehearsed it countless times, so that now she acted as if by instinct. With her left hand she cast a dash of thistlebane into the breeze over the meadow, while her right sketched the sigils of protection, the words of the chant overlaying all else.
It took fifteen seconds to work the ritual: lightning, compared to most. Even so, that was almost too long.
Xander had noticed the increasingly kinetic S’n’gathii and leaped to meet the new threat, while Buffy redoubled her own assault. In the spongy grass, however, she could match but not exceed the skittering speed of her adversary, and the whirling fury of those scythe-like forelimbs kept her sword too occupied to seek out any vital area. Xander was meanwhile facing a different but equivalent set of problems: the S’n’gathii were too small for him to readily engage them with the short-handled axe, so he was stomping, kicking, dancing around trying to trample as many as he could reach.
It was an equilibrium that couldn’t have held, for more and more of the forcibly detached S’n’gathii were coming to active, aggressive awareness … but as Margot spoke the last words of the incantation, the energies that had been gathering in the air for the past half-hour were released in an instant. Incandescent, sizzling lines of force lanced inward from the hundreds of Haussen crystals Margot had sewn in the rings surrounding the Morssago nest, most of them striking the parent demon but the rest piercing and bursting the dozens of ferocious budlets. Many of the force lines, too many to count, passed through Xander and Buffy and Margot herself, but the crackling light didn’t react with their bodies, only with S’n’gath flesh. It was over almost in the seeing of it, the borning horde obliterated, the original demon collapsing in a twitching, steaming heap, its carcass so riddled as to render it nearly unrecognizable.
It had been the chance mention of Andrew Wells being killed by a S’n’gath that had alerted Margot, that and the realization that the casting of the compulsion spell around the Morssago enclave had utilized a substance that S’n’gath were reputed to seek out when they wanted to stimulate reproduction. S’n’gath were almost unknown in the continental U.S. (Andrew had carked it in Belarus), but with the recognition that such a demon would actually be lured by an enchantment intended as a deterrent, Margot had thought it prudent to initiate measures that, along with their advertised function, would provide an emergency fallback in the event of another threatened S’n’gath outbreak.
And it had worked, it had worked, even with different complications cascading down on them she had carried it off just as planned, it was utterly brilliant —!
Then her eyes moved from the demon corpse to the expressions on the two faces turned toward her, and Margot began to feel the first inkling that the upshot of this whole business might not be quite so simple.
* * *
“I don’t understand,” she said, for what felt like the hundredth time.
“And I’d say that’s part of the problem,” Xander told her. Anger, hostility, even grimness she could have handled, but somehow this was worse: there was nothing there, he was almost casual, so sure of his course that he needed no determination to sustain him. “Maybe somebody back in London can explain it in a way that gets the message across. I’ll make sure they have enough facts to come up with a good lesson plan. What matters to me is, this is no longer my deal to deal with.”
At least he was speaking to her. Buffy had refused even that much. “But, please, this doesn’t make sense,” Margot insisted. “I foresaw an eventuality, I emplaced the means to address it if it emerged, and put them into effect at the proper time. A S’n’gath was a remote possibility, especially one about to multiply, but it could have been a disaster if unchecked so I did what needed to be done … I’m sorry, I just don’t understand.”
Xander drummed his fingers on the steering wheel; they were still several miles from the exit to the airport, but he didn’t appear to be in any hurry, just utterly implacable. “You seem to have studied up on the Sunnydale days,” he observed amiably. “Happen to know anything about Wesley Wyndham-Pryce?”
Margot felt a chill. Everyone knew about Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, he had been a cautionary tale in the schooling of new Watchers for almost ten years. Sacked by the Council for bungling the stewardship of two Slayers on an active Hellmouth, falling in with a supposedly reformed vampire in Los Angeles, becoming part of management in that city’s Wolfram & Hart branch, dying in some ridiculous in-company power squabble … to be compared to such an infamous incompetent was horribly foreboding. “You owe him big,” Xander was continuing. “He was such a drip when he started out with us, such a waste of, well, everything. But I have it from people I trust that he really stepped up after he made the move to L.A. So I figure, if somebody that hopeless can make such a turnaround … well, Wesley is why I didn’t call the home offices and tell them to write you out a severance check, right then and there.”
She had known from their reactions that it was bad, even if it made no sense, but somehow these words put some iron into her spine. “So,” she said coolly. “You’re really that jealous of your little pocket of authority?”
“It’s not about authority,” he returned, unruffled. “It’s attitude, it’s a way of looking at things. Something we’ve tried to build into the new Council from the ground up … and you don’t have it.” He actually sounded a bit sad in that moment, and Margot studied him sharply as he went on. “You got close, Margie, so close I thought it was there. But right at the last, you just had to do it your way, and that doesn’t fly these days.”
“I saw a need and I met it,” Margot insisted, stubborn.
“You took it on yourself to put your teammates at risk,” Xander said. “You saw a need, you met it — and a crackin’ fine job, I’ll say that much — but you didn’t tell us. We ran into something we weren’t ready for because you didn’t think it was worth mentioning —”
“I told you, the S’n’gath was such a very unlikely possibility —”
“It was likely enough for you to get yourself ready,” Xander cut in. “But you left us clueless, we’re prepped on four different demon types and here’s another one we don’t know about, and okay, we’re used to shifting gears on the fly so we just wade on in, and it starts going wrong but we’re adjusting ’cause that’s what we do. Only it didn’t have to happen: you knew. — And, by the way, when you started your chant in the middle of the battlefield? For about three seconds it was a coin-toss whether the axe I was holding would wind up in your skull. Bad memories of Gwendolyn Post and last-minute double-crosses. So there’s another good reason to keep your team up to speed, especially if you’re new to the crew.”
He shook his head, still studying the highway in front of them. “Basically, it’s old-school Council thinking. I don’t believe you were trying to take over, put the peons in their place; I figure you wanted so much to prove yourself, you kept a trump card hidden so you’d look better when you saved the day. Whichever it was, it comes out to the same thing: you put yourself first.”
He wasn’t just rubbishing her, Margot realized. He was explaining himself as carefully as he knew how. “Please believe I never intended to use you,” she pleaded. “I honestly wanted to do the best I could.”
He waved it away. “Doesn’t matter. Just remember this: You don’t come first. I don’t come first. Buffy comes first. The Council serves the Slayers, not the other way around. The girls come ahead of us, and Buffy comes ahead of everybody, and that’s just how it is.” Finally he spared her a glance. “If you can learn that, can take it to heart, you could maybe be one of the good ones. If not, well, holding your breath till we work together again? not the best survival move.”
Somehow they had reached the airport while he was speaking, and he stopped in front of the terminal for British Airways. “I told Giles he might try sticking you with Faith for awhile,” Xander said to her as he helped her extract her luggage. “You’d be taking your life in your hands to try anything cute with her, and you’re not likely to forget it, plus Robin can teach you a lot about the mindset I was talking about. That’s if he’s willing to give it a try.” He looked to Margot, but it seemed to her that his attention had already moved elsewhere. “Good luck. I mean it.” And then he was walking away.
Standing with her bags next to her, Margot watched him return to his car, and unbidden the thought came: He’s Willie Garvin to her Modesty Blaise. A remarkable man who had chosen to subordinate his entire destiny to an even more remarkable woman, and wouldn’t bother arguing with anyone who tried to convince him of any other course, because why should he waste his time on obvious nonsense?
Of course, the comparison wasn’t exact. In many ways, it could be said that Xander had come fully into his own during his years apart from Buffy Summers. He was with her again now, though, and it appeared the bond between them was as strong as ever, perhaps more so.
She had come here to meet the legends, and done so. Met them, worked with them, fought alongside them, even made love with one of them. She had studied them, comparing all she could observe with the tales told about them … but she couldn’t honestly claim she had come to understand them.
And, as she wrestled her bags around so she could wheel them into the terminal, Margot Reddington found herself wondering if she ever would.
There are a few terms of Australian slang sprinkled through this story. The definitions (from this site) are as follows:
Blue: fight (“he was having a blue with his wife”)
Bottle shop: liquor shop
Cark it: to die, cease functioning
Coldie: a beer
Fossick: search, rummage (“fossicking through the kitchen drawers”)
Grinning like a shot fox: very happy, smugly satisfied
Larrikin: a bloke who is always enjoying himself, harmless prankster
Rock up: to turn up, to arrive (“we rocked up at their house at 8pm”)
Rubbish (verb): to criticize
Up oneself: have a high opinion of oneself (“he’s really up himself”)
Special acknowledgments: Lizbeth Marcs, in her story “Living History”, first gave Vi the surname of Knowles. Vi becoming known as “Red Death” was cited by Unitarian Jihadist in the story “Primitive”, and was just too good not to use.