Best Foot Forward
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
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 Shrta 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 Shrta, 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, weve 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 cant afford to take that for granted but yeah, it doesnt look like doom is bearing down on us right this moment. She lifted her eyes to meet Margots 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 Buffys, and this wasnt a large vehicle to begin with. Stuffing it back, she answered, It looks to rule out some possibilities, and suggests a few others. Ill have to check against the archives, but offhand Id say weve narrowed the field by about half.
Progress, Xander affirmed cheerfully.
There hadnt 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 didnt want to carry it on in front of witnesses. Im gonna wash the sweat off me, Xander announced, tugging at the collar of his shirt, and change out of these clothes. After that, Im 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: Xanders sardonic, Buffys flat and unreadable. I, I really should follow out some of the avenues weve 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. Ill stay, she said. There really is more than enough to occupy me, and theres no point in wasting more time than we need to.
Buffys expressionless expression didnt change. Like he said, your call. But Im not up to riding herd on him tonight, Im just too tired. She started to turn away, stopped and looked back. If you go along, Ill 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 doesnt really start hopping till maybe ten oclock, 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 Fosterís? Margot asked for a Stella Artois instead.) The interior music and noise made conversation difficult unless one was determined, and Xander wasnt. 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. Ill get a ride home in the morning.
Margot stared; this was not only rude, but stunningly unsafe. Are you sure thats wise? she asked cautiously.
The brunette gave her a smile of malicious triumph; Xanders smile, knowing and amused, wasnt much kinder. Ill 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, hed 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, theyd be carrying this off together
No. The woman had a reflection. Hed 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 Id try this stuff out for myself, she told Margot. Turns out its really awful.
Its 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 hadnt forgot the ignominy of hearing herself dismissed as a fangirl. Still, the reputation of these two was awe-inspiring enough to indicate discretion. Youll know better than I do that hes dealt with much more, er, extreme circumstances than these.
Maybe. Buffy stood up. But nothings 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 its 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 Manoahs 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 didnt 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, shed 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 Shrta 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 hadnt by any means assumed that Xander would have returned by now (hed said he would catch a ride, presumably from the slut whod taken him home with her, and even sluts can be clingy in the morning), Margot was thrown by Buffys 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 Faiths twins, a Slayer doesnt have to take it easy till shes actually in labor. And the vamps wont back off to give her maternity leave, if anything theyll 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 Faiths 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. Im strong enough that the extra weight doesnt 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.) Xanders manner was brisk, but without last nights faintly hostile undercurrent. Ill 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 wed 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 theyre 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 cant 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 were 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 wasnt 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, Ill shoot Wil a call to make sure nothings changed, but as of last report hes 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 queens 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, lets 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, Id say were 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.
* * *
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. Its just, when youve seen her go through the stuff I have, trust me, this is nothing. I figure shes probably dealing with impending-mommy anxiety but even if shes got nightmares or phobias or rage issues or anything, Im here to say shes earned em and its none of my business.
Margot nodded, but wasnt entirely satisfied. Youre acting as her Watcher, she pointed out. Isnt her psychological status a matter of legitimate concern to you?
He shrugged. You probably noticed Im not your standard-issue Watcher I could never be Giles, Id 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.
Youve 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, its 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 Im 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt bear to face her in that moment. Im 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, thats 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 Sngath, sacrificed himself to give her time to trigger the catalytic rods. If they want to list him on the Roll of Heroes, I wont argue, because I just dont 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 Ive ever known Andrew wasnt part of the killing, but I dont think hed 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 Buffys 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 didnt. And I dont hold that against him, we knew going in that probably wed 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 Margots. I didnt hate him. But that was only because I wouldnt let myself.
Margot had no idea what response to make to this illuminating testimony, but it wasnt necessary to find one. Xander stood up, saying, Im going out. If Buf comes back before I do, tell her Im 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, shed 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 trying to catch her attention.
Ah. The incident wherein a junior Slayer had prevented a Sngath outbreak, thanks to the just-maligned Andrews 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 laptops security-shielded interface.
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