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Forever Bonds

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The bullpen was eerily silent. Cat’s shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as she wove between unmanned desks. She’d expected Jane to be there. Working.

Working? Really? Tara’s good-natured mockery lit the bond.

Cat scowled. “I didn’t exactly plan to beat the entire squad today.” Jane was always the first one in the door and often the last one out, too. “I don’t even know which desk is mine.” As soon as she spoke, Cat wanted to take the words back. Dear Fate, she sounded like a five-year old.

Luckily, the two women entwined in her mind didn’t call her out. Much. Stiff upper lip, tiger, Faith told her as two pairs of mental arms wrapped around her.

No one mentions how much bonds can suck, Cat answered back. All she wanted was to turn around, flag down a cab, and crawl back into bed with her mistresses. Pretty much the same thing she’d been doing every day of their combination bonding and collaring leave. With a deep breath and a silent apology, she slid a barrier over their connection. Not a full-on block. Warmth continued to surround her. Enough to function. See you tonight.

The squad room was even emptier now that she was along in her mind. Cat stalked (she refused to acknowledge how her steps more resembled stomping) to Jane’s desk and dropped into the battered chair. The wheels squeaked and the faux leather sagged in places.

“Maura keeps threatening to buy me a new chair.” Jane’s voice, coming from the shadows behind Cat, caused her to start in surprise. “From the look on your face, I should let her.” She walked up and dumped an armful of files onto the desk. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“At least I slept in recent memory.” Between bouts of incredible sex, but Cat didn’t mention that part. “You look like shit. The bags under your eyes permanent?”

Jane curled a lip at Cat. “You’ll be the same way in less than a week.” She gripped Cat’s shoulder and manhandled her out of the chair. “Sit over there,” she said, pointing toward Frost’s adjoining workstation. “Frost finally decided to accept that promotion Cav’s been offering.”

“What the hell?” Cat stared at Jane in mingled confusion and disbelief. “I’m gone a couple of months and the whole unit changes. You gonna tell me Korsak retired now?”

Shuffling the files and avoiding Cat’s eyes, Jane didn’t immediately respond.

“Fuck!” Cat dropped into Frost’s…her desk chair.

“You’ve been spending too much time with that Southie lady of yours. And I haven’t retired.” Korsak strolled into the bullpen and pulled Cat into a bear hug. “Jane’s pouting because Frost chose a computer as a partner over her. I mentioned retiring one time in passing and she decided I was going to pack it up tomorrow.”

Korsak thinks I spend too much time with you, Cat told Faith without waiting for a reaction. “So you aren’t leaving? If you are, change your mind. Otherwise, Cav’ll think I’m the Summer Glau of the squad.”

His bellow of laughter filled the room. “Welcome home, kid. Tell those ladies of yours Dana has plans for a get-together as soon as we catch this latest bastard.”

Welcome home. Cat settled into the chair. Looked around the squad room. At the cluttered desks and chipped paint on the walls. “I’m here now. Shouldn’t take long,” she told Korsak, “polishing” her nails on her shirt. “After all, I single-handedly took down the Legion.”

Before she could continue boasting, Jane tossed several of the files Cat had noticed earlier onto Cat’s desk. “Put up or shut up, Legion Killer.”

And so it began. Cat left her desk for a cup of black sludge from the nearby coffee machine before digging into the information Jane had given her. “I thought you’d all still be working on the Bloodsucker fallout,” she murmured as she stared at a shockingly brutal series of crime scene photos.

“Bumped up to Organized Crime.” Korsak straightened his tie, piles of paper spread on the normally-pristine surface of his desk. “You caught the killers.” His wink was timed perfectly so that Jane couldn’t catch it, and Cat bit back a grin at the sour expression his comment gained from the other woman. “All the bookwork and money-chasing belongs to the white collar guys.”

At least Cat and the team had gotten the glory first. Only Frost would have enjoyed digging into the complex funding and black market connections. “Murder never stops,” she answered. Reaching into her backpack, Cat pulled out some of the supplies she’d removed from her old station. Pens (her lip twitched at the rainbow-hued colors), a couple of spiral notebooks, a box of nitrile gloves, a small digital camera, and a mismatched collection of flash drives.

***

Tara shifted and bit back a sigh. Over ten years of Council reforms didn’t make the briefings less mind-numbing. The young Watcher at the front of the conference table handled his tablet and the projection screen behind him with aplomb.

His voice was nasally and droning. His comments inane and not worth her time. She stood. Unfortunately, the Watcher didn’t notice. He simply continued to lecture the assembled Senior Witches and Senior Slayers. “We are still unclear on the size or location of the threat.”

Unclear. It was a common theme. “The Legion fell a month ago,” Tara announced. “Yet you have no new information. I’ve seen the reports.” Pored over them with Faith and Willow (via Skype). “Why is that?”

“Ms. Maclay.” The Watcher – what was his name? – stared at her in obvious shock.

The man’s name hit Tara in a flash of memory just in time. Being able to speak to him personally would hopefully give her scolding more weight. “Eric,” he had lost the privilege of a title, “we’re done here.”

Several of the Senior Slayers at the table sagged in relief.

“You called an emergency meeting of all senior staff in the region,” Tara snapped. “The most important people in three states. For what?” Her right hand rose in a sweeping motion. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This meeting was a waste of time. You took Slayers and Witches from key positions and spent four hours reviewing the same data we’ve all been studying for weeks. Who ordered this meeting?”

“I…well, I…” Eric floundered.

One of the Slayers stood. “You got the same call out we did.” Everyone else at the table began to move as well. “Priority meeting of all Regional Senior Staff. Only two people in the Region have that kind of power.”

Tara had asked the question for effect. She met the Slayer’s gaze impatiently. “Since Buffy didn’t order the meeting, that leaves your boss, Eric.” The Senior Watcher in the New England Region. Tara had never met her in person. “Get her on the line.”

Most of the meeting attendees who’d started to leave resumed their seats, all more interested in this conversation than the previous one.

“That wasn’t a request.” All of Tara’s lingering politeness disappeared at Eric’s lack of action. He scrambled toward the polycom phone in the middle of the table. “Oh, and I’d like you to conference in Buffy, Willow, and Giles.” She could see the tremor in his fingers as he began jabbing at the touchscreen. I might be a little longer than I thought, she told Faith through the bond.

Need me to spring you, T? Laughter lit the thought. Sure I can come up with a reason to drag you out. An image of Faith draped naked over the end of their bed forced the air from Tara’s lungs.

You’ll pay for that, my Slayer. Tara had to pull a curtain across the bond to the mental sound of Faith’s husky laugh.

Her inattention had allowed Eric a chance to recover some of his moxie. “Ma’am, Ms. Maclay made me call you.” More than a hint of whine turned his voice shrill.

“Senior Watcher, thank you for taking my call.” Pushing Faith’s teasing completely out of mind, Tara strode to the table. “I’m afraid there were some questions during the emergency session. Let me just bring in a few other people.” She hit the “Flash” button and dialed Buffy’s personal cell phone.

Two rings later, Xander answered. “Tara? Hey! We haven’t…”

Cutting him off with a silent apology, Tara said. “Is Buffy there? I have a situation and I need her on the call for a few minutes.”

“Yeah. Yeah, she’s just in the shower. Hang on; I’ll go get her.” He was all business.

“I’m going to pull in Willow, too. Don’t hang up if I’m not on the line when Buffy is ready.” Tara hit the “Flash” button again, leaving Xander, Buffy, and the Senior Watcher in conference call limbo.

Giles and Willow were easier. Both were in Scotland at the International HQ. With a sense of triumph, she sat down in the chair Eric had used during his lecture. “Sorry to bother all of you,” she announced. “We’ve got a problem in Boston.” That wasn’t right. Now that she was on a roll, Tara realized she was still angry over the Boston HQ’s inability to gather solid information about the Legion and its connections with local vampires. Their incompetence had put Cat at risk. “Actually, in the whole region.”

“What do you need?” Tara smiled at Buffy’s immediate response.

“An investigation into recent personnel decisions as well as a review of all actions taken by the Senior Watcher. I’m sitting at a table with every single Senior-level Watcher and Slayer in the New England Region – and I have no idea why.” Scanning the room, she noticed a few shocked expressions (including Eric’s). Most of her counterparts were nodding in agreement, though.

“Giles? Will? Any objections? I know we’re stretched tight right now,” Buffy said.

There was a brief pause. “What gives you the right to question my decisions?” The Senior Watcher suddenly came alive on the call.

“You mean something other than the fact Tara’s the highest-ranking witch in the US?” Willow asked. “Oh, not to mention that rank isn’t even your biggest problem at the moment. ‘Cause Tara’s an Adept.” The ever-present typing sounds that followed Willow everywhere emanated from the room’s speakers. “And once I send her this file of memos and emails I lifted from your Council accounts, you’re going to be praying to every deity you can think of that she doesn’t turn you into a rat.”

Angry huffs and sputtering overrode the typing noises. Tara didn’t notice. She was wrapped up in Willow’s sharp voice and the news there were irregularities with the Senior Watcher. “Willow?”

“I know you aren’t at a laptop, Tara,” Willow answered. “I’ll fill you in, though.”

Before that happened, Giles and Buffy jumped into the conversation. “What have you found?” Giles first. “I’m already drafting a personnel change request.”

“Do I need to head back to Boston?” Buffy, always ready to personally involve herself in any Council hotspots.

“Don’t fire up the jet yet, Buffy,” Willow answered. “I mean, Tara’s got the top Slayers in the Region with her. Plus, I’m sure Faith would be more than happy to protect her – not that she’ll need to. Senior Watcher Featley can’t do more than throw a tantrum now. I’ve frozen all of her Council access and sent an electronic personnel request. Giles, I hacked your account. It always takes you forever to fill out the forms. You type slower than you drive.”

Not even the solemnity of the moment prevented the laughter at Giles’ expense. Chuckles came from the conference call and from the conference room. “Perhaps I’ll have a conversation with the head of Global Information Systems and Security. Hacking into my account should surely require more time and effort. What do you think, Ms. Rosenberg?”

“Ah, your Head Hacker’s pretty busy, Giles. Don’t rely on her to help you stop me.” Willow’s voice was chirpy then it sobered as she continued. “Tara, I’m really sorry I didn’t catch any of this when I was in Boston.”

A loud bang exploded from the speakers. The Senior Slayer shouted something that was overridden by a curt voice, “By order of Director Summers, you’ve been removed from your current position as Senior Watcher in Charge of the New England Region and detained for questioning.”

“Something you forgot to mention, Will?” Buffy asked.

“Oops!” Tara could easily imagine Willow’s gamin grin. “I sort of arranged for Watcher Featley to be arrested. You’d have done it, too, if you’d read the crazy stuff she’s done.”

One of the Slayers in the conference room spoke up. “What, exactly, did you find?”

Good question. Tara settled into the hard, uncomfortable chair and waited for Willow to flood the call with facts.