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.
The second of my final questions, Dr. Skudea said, pertains to well. What you have told me already attests to much of the relationship the two of you have forged. That, however, was built atop another, what you yourself described as primary: the Slayer-
Watcher relationship. It seems clear that you and Ms. Kennedy could not have reached the point you have, had not that prior and more vital bond been already established and solidified. At what point, then, did you know were you certain that the Slayer- Watcher relationship had reached the proper level of function and professionalism?
Xander smiled, shrugging. Dont know if you could ever use professionalism to describe anything I do, but I think I get your drift. He shook his head. Its hard to say, actually. Ken and I were both experienced by then, just not with each other, and even there we had I guess you could call it history. So we already knew how to do the job, it was just a matter of sanding off the rough edges.
With your history, and your connection to prior conflicts, comprising some of those edges?
Some of em, yeah. Xander frowned in sudden thought. Only not the way you might be meaning it. Ken has exactly no tolerance for taking crap off anybody, but shes got her own kind of pride. Even if shedve gone off like a cruise missile if Id ever given her a single seconds worth of attitude, she wasnt about to start anything, cause that wouldve meant she was in the wrong. And, on my side of it, I knew I was juggling nitroglycerine there, so I was being triple-
careful about never doing or saying anything that might operate as a trigger. I didnt want a fight, she wanted to be sure she was justified if there was one, and you basically wound up with two people tiptoeing around each other. His shoulders moved in silent laughter. Took us a while to shake out of that part of things.
Dr. Skudea nodded acknowledgment. Was there never an explosion, then, or were you able to handle it when it did occur?
It just never did, Xander said. I knew better than to try and give her orders, so Id put it like a question instead: What do you think, you plow straight through the front while I cover the back doors? And after a while she started doing the same thing, and a little while after that, it was just how we did things and she wasnt watching for offense and I wasnt tap-
dancing around a mine field.
Dr. Skudea regarded him with what could have been either doubt or carefully masked surprise. It was a gradual transition, then, with no clear moment when you knew you had achieved the proper working relationship.
Xander looked up suddenly. You know, I cant say when we got there, but there actually is a moment when I knew we were there.
Ah, the doctor said. Go on.
Maybe five months in, Xander said, we were supposed to check out a brujo in La Paz. Now, a lot of these guys, just because theyre plugged into the magical community doesnt mean theyre a threat or even a concern. This guy, though, he was getting a rep; could have been just jockeying for position, or he might have been consolidating his power for some lets say aggressive expansion, so we were asked to eyeball the situation and send back a report.
Well, we learned what we could at a distance, talking to people and picking up background info, but it was still kind of iffy, so we decided we needed to speak with the man himself. And we might not have known yet if he was a threat, but he sure decided we were, the second he laid eyes on Ken he let out a howl for his guards and split out through your mandatory secret getaway exit. So the guards were Lei-achs, not exactly top of the line when it comes to demon muscle, but they take better than most to being organized. There were four in the room but more came running, Ken was going through em like a weedwhacker but it wound up with nearly a dozen of em in close quarters. Only three were still on their feet when she got to Bartolos escape hatch and she stopped for a second to look back at me, I said, Got it!, and she was off like Speedy Gonzalez. The three that were left were all wounded, and I had to kill one but I persuaded the others that it was a lost cause, and they just grumbled a bit, looted the bodies, and wandered off.
Dr. Skudea smiled. I believe I see, she said. But explain it for me anyhow.
Back when I was doing my Jimmy Olsen bit in Sunnydale, Xander said, I got royally sick of people treating me like I had to be protected. It was true, which was one of the reasons I hated it so much, and it took forever to get past it. The new Slayers, now, I had the opposite problem with those kids; either theyd be so eager to go straight for the biggest ugly in sight that theyd forget I was still there and eminently breakable, or theyd hear some of the stories Andrew passed down and figure I was this John McClane/
Terminator type who didnt need any help.
Ken knew better, knew me from our Sunnydale days, and we might have taken a little time to find our groove working together, but she always made sure I was covering her or her me, she wasnt taking anything for granted. Now, though shed looked, shed checked, but when I gave the word she zipped out and left me with three wounded but still very pissed-
off demon bodyguards. I told her I could handle it and she trusted me to know whether or not I could. He shook his head, grinning at the memory. It took me seven years to get Buffy to that point, and even then it was usually when she had no choice. Ken well, I just cant tell you how good it felt to know that we were right with each other, that I was with somebody who counted me as a solid part of a solid partnership.
Dr. Skudea was nodding. I am satisfied that I have learned the basics of what I needed to know. How I will word my report, which areas I will determine should be highlighted for further consideration, have yet to be determined. I believe, however, that I already know my general conclusion.
Uh-huh, Xander said. So, good news or bad for me n Ken?
That is not my decision to make, the doctor answered. I can only recommend, and my recommendation will be for a more comprehensive evaluation at a later time, after certain issues have been considered and evaluated at length. Her eyes met his without challenge or encouragement, simply a direct, frank gaze. I will suggest those areas I believe to be most in need of further attention.
I can imagine. Xander sighed. A Slayer and her Watcher gettin jiggy together I always knew that one would raise eyebrows somewhere down the line.
Dr. Skudeas own eyebrows lifted slightly. Curious, she said after a long moment. You were present for so many of the recent changes, you directly caused more than a few of them, and yet you appear to be genuinely unaware of just how far those changes have gone.
Xander considered that, his eyes on the psychiatrist. Okay, I guess Ill have to talk to some people next chance I have, get a feel for how things stand these days. But, you kinda make it sound like Im not exactly in trouble here.
Not exactly, the doctor replied. The old Council could afford to insist on stringent codes regarding Slayer-
Watcher relations which codes were largely appropriate, given that most Slayers were rather younger than Ms. Kennedy, and most Watchers markedly older than you. Too, in the time when a Slayer truly was one girl in all the world and the Watchers purpose was to guide her into the combat that would inevitably kill her any faintest whisper of conscience would insist that she not be subjected to sexual exploitation as well. Dr. Skudea closed her pad. The principal concern now is to how such an affiliation could affect the people involved. With additional consideration, of course, to how that in turn would affect the mission.
Huh, Xander said. So its really not that big a deal for them?
It could be, the doctor said, depending on circumstances. But the thing itself? No. She gave him an amused smile. Ms. Kennedy was in an explicitly sexual relationship with Ms. Rosenberg before you accepted her as a partner, and I dont recall any motions for censure regarding that.
Okay, point. Xander scratched his head. But Wil n Ken were together while the new Council was still being organized. And Wil isnt exactly a Watcher, more the uber-
witch of the West who also does a few Watcher duties. And well, shes Willow.
And, whether or not you recognize the fact, your own status is almost as intimidating, albeit in an entirely different fashion. Dr. Skudea shrugged. Which is one of the reasons for this interview. Your stature is such that few would question you and so I was tasked to do so.
I guess I can see that, Xander said. And, well, now that weve done our deal here, I wouldnt mind hearing what you think of the whole us.
Dr. Skudea nodded. Very well. I did not attempt a comprehensive analysis, either of the two of you as individuals or of the relationship itself. As each of you pointed out to me, you were both proven in this field before your own partnership began, which obviated many of the other concerns that might have arisen. My purpose was not to make certain that everything was all right, but to see if anything was clearly wrong.
Got it, Xander said. And?
Your working partnership, of course, is superb, Dr. Skudea said. Aside, naturally, from your own propensity for taking staggering risks, but I understand that this is a long-
established part of your innate identity, and that it cant be corrected by any means known to magic or science. She shook her head. The personal relationship, however In most other circumstances, the one potential flaw I saw on cursory inspection would be minor indeed, but you know very well that the life a Slayer- Watcher team faces is a far cry from most circumstances.
Potential flaw, Xander repeated evenly, his eyes steady on the doctors. I can already tell this is gonna be a wowser.
It isnt particularly abstruse or complex, Dr. Skudea told him. In the most basic terms, the relationship is lacking in the vital measure of trust.
Tru ? Xander was gaping at her, for the first time since the beginning of the interview, and he caught himself. We went over that, he insisted. I do trust Ken, trust her absolutely. I never could have let let this happen between us if I didnt. If you cant believe that, after everything Ive said
What I believe isnt the issue here, Dr. Skudea broke in briskly. That would be what you and Ms. Kennedy believe. Yes, you trust one another with your lives and more, and with ample justification from all I can see. Neither of you, however, has any trust that your current affiliation will endure.
Xanders face had been darkening with suppressed anger, and now he said flatly, Thats bullshit. I know my history, I know it. I cheated on Cordelia, I left Anya at the altar I hate that part of myself, and I swore Id never let it screw things up again. I never wouldve got involved with Ken if I hadnt known where I stood and how I felt. He was breathing more quickly now, his mouth tight. Im committed here. I wouldnt do anything less than total commitment, not with Ken. She might change her mind on this but I never will.
Dr. Skudea sat quietly for the measured seconds that would allow this sudden anger to dispel, at least a bit, and then she said, And that is precisely my concern.
Xander snorted. What? That were really serious about this?
That each of you is adamant about your own commitment and each, without realizing you have said so, is doubtful regarding the longevity of the relationship itself.
I Xander stopped, blinking. I didnt say
You said she might change her mind on this. Ms. Kennedy said for as long as he wants to keep this going. Dr. Skudea sat back, regarding the poleaxed expression on Xanders face. If it is any comfort, I believe this mutual insecurity derives from doubts regarding your respective senses of self-
worth, rather than from lack of faith in one another. All the same, it is there, and needs to be addressed.
Xander slumped in his chair, still looking vaguely stunned. I dont doubt Ken for a minute, he said at last. But, lets face it, any relationship that includes me is probably gonna have the life-
span of a housefly. And when everything blows apart, its always because of something I screwed up.
You seem reasonably self-
aware regarding these issues, the doctor returned, and determined that they shant subvert your present partnership. And, of course, Ms. Kennedy doubtless has comparable reasons for lack of confidence in herself. These are for the two of you to deal with, along with whatever subsequent counseling my superiors choose to call for upon my report to them.
Yeah, Xander said, his gaze inward-
turned and unfocused. Yeah, well get right on that. He shook his head. I cant believe that Ken that she thought I
As I said, Dr. Skudea interrupted smoothly, I believe this represents non-
confidence in herself rather than in you. Honestly, the two of you seem rather desperately devoted to one another. She leaned forward. One parting note. I have observed that you always refer to Ms. Kennedy by her surname, or a diminutive thereof, rather than using her given name.
Xander frowned, perplexed. So? Kennedy is what she wants to be called, ever since well, she showed up in Sunnydale doing it, and no telling how long before that. Most people dont even know her first name, and thats how she likes it.
You do know the name, however, Dr. Skudea said, nodding. I believe you should talk to her about it.
Xander frowned slightly, and after a moments hesitation he said, I was always afraid it it would seem a little creepy to her.
Think of it as an exercise in sharing, Dr. Skudea said to him. This is something about you that she does not know. It might not matter but I suspect she would see it as trust.
I Xander shook his head as if to clear it. Ill think about it. He looked up. So, are we done?
We are, for now, Dr. Skudea said. You and Ms. Kennedy, however, are still very much a work in progress.
* * *
As soon as the door closed behind Xander Harris, Skudea stood and began briskly to undress. She had just finished when the connecting door opened, and another Skudea (who had dismissed Kennedy slightly earlier, and was now likewise sans clothing) came in to join her. Four hands clasped, flesh flowed and merged and interwove, and within a minute the two women had become one.
The complete Skudea was two inches taller and weighed nearly one hundred and ninety pounds of dense muscle and compact bone. Her divided halves compensated for the mass discrepancy with hollow bones, a honeycombed muscle structure, and expanded alveolar spaces, so that only a keen observer would ever note any difference in appearance. Whether divided or consolidated, however, she remained Skudea, her separate selves part of the same singular consciousness. Which made couples counseling simultaneously interviewing two people in different rooms, though she was careful not to let either of them know it was simultaneous something that was easy, pleasurable, and rewarding.
Her remote ancestors had actually fed on human emotions. Skudea and her contemporaries had evolved to practices less extreme and less prone to attracting unpleasant attention, the flow of emotions now serving as an enhancement to her digestion rather than an obligate necessity. (It also made her, as a trained connoisseur, rather adept at determining the flavor and significance of those emotions.) The diplomas on her office wall were genuine; she had devoted considerable time, care, and effort to placing herself in a position that would allow her to meet her needs while remaining well clear of any threatening human radar
which emphatically did not accord with involving herself, however tangentially, with the new Slayer-
Watcher Council. But then, shed not been given a great deal of choice in the matter.
Whole now, she dressed again, replacing her heels with an otherwise identical pair of flats. Then, suitably reconstituted, she seated herself at the desk, picked up her phone, and dialed the number she had been given. It was answered on the second ring.
Skudea. I have completed my initial assessment.
I detect no sign of insincerity or of exploitative intent in either party. No, I didnt expect that you would have any such suspicions of Mr. Harris, but this is to show that I applied my fullest efforts to the task you set me, taking nothing for granted and making no assumptions without evidence.
One cannot be certain of such things, but I would expect the relationship to endure. They are both well into adulthood now, with no major personality changes likely, and whether or not in fact they are they truly believe themselves to be committed to one another. I stress, again, that there are no guarantees of permanence, but the odds are good, and this is absolutely not a casual matter for either of them. If the relationship does end eventually, it will not be from any lack of seriousness.
Yes, I am certain. Neither of them evidenced any suspicion regarding your involvement in this matter, though there were some stirrings in Ms. Kennedy that might have moved toward suspicion if I had continued the interview. Similarly, neither of them ever considered that the instruction to report for this assessment might not have genuinely come from their Council hierarchy. On which matter, I sincerely hope you have properly covered your own tracks; I believe attention from that quarter would be as unwelcome to you as to me.
That is assuredly not a threat. If I ever intended any resistance or retaliation, I would not be so foolish as to give you advance warning. My point is that it is as much in your interests as mine that our current, erm, arrangement, should remain a private matter.
Yes, I spoke of the likelihood of follow-
up interviews, because I wasnt sure how you would want to proceed. Little as I wish to do so, I will provide further counseling if you require it; that would certainly be preferable to the Council contacting me for my notes and inquiring how I know of their existence! If you decide this report is sufficient, I will send notification to Mr. Harris and Ms. Kennedy that the Council are satisfied with matters as they stand, and that it need not be spoken of further.
Perhaps so, perhaps not. That is for you to decide, Ms. Lehane. But then, it always was, was it not?
Call completed, Skudea replaced the phone in its cradle, and sat at the desk, thinking deeply and with growing unhappiness.
Jump now, or stay in place and gamble that it would all hold together? She had another identity already established if she needed to abandon her current position, and the materials to produce more as necessary, for even with the current Councils more tolerant policy regarding integrated demons, it didnt pay to become too complacent. Two things made her hesitate. First, the life she had constructed here for herself had (until the last few days) suited her perfectly, interesting and profitable and satisfying. Second, fleeing would probably be the more dangerous option if Lehane chose to take offense at her doing so. Balanced against that was the prospect of coming to the notice of the larger Council; if they became worried that an empathic quasi-
demon might have divined vital information from one of their premier Slayer- Watcher teams, they might feel it incumbent upon themselves to have said individual deeply investigated. Skudea had behaved sedately for the last couple of decades, but there had been a few incidents in her younger days which would have a severely prejudicial effect on any human assessors. The thought of the Red Witch rummaging around inside her skull made Skudea think longingly of the charms of rural Kamchatka.
It was a blind coin-
toss, a lady- or- the- tiger situation where there might be tigers behind both doors. There was no best choice; it was a matter of flicking through multiple undesirables and trying to settle on the least bad.
The irony was that Skudea had genuinely done good work in there today. Those two could have comprehensively undercut one another with subliminal I dont expect you to stay messages. The underlying insecurity was still there, of course, but at least they knew now. Not that it was likely to matter if the truth ever got out; some issues simply drove all others aside
One peril, at least, she had avoided. Skudea could mate with humans, could even reproduce thereby if she chose to allow it and, Kennedys insistence notwithstanding, she had always found mens bodies entirely adequate for such recreational diversions. Not this time, though; whatever attractive force might emanate from the man, this was one supernatural female who had interacted with Xander Harris and not become promptly ensnared.
Now if only, Skudea Jonell thought grimly, she could have contrived to avoid ever meeting him at all !
* * *
Kennedy was driving because of course she was, and her situational awareness was so automatic that neither of them needed to pay any actual attention to the whizzing traffic as they worked their way out of greater Chicago and toward the point where they could pick up I-90 toward Pennsylvania. Which was fortunate, because they were arguing.
Im telling you, it was red.
Sorry, Ken, cant go with you there. The ladys hair was a perfectly ordinary blonde. Maybe some brass notes, but thats as much as you could crowd it.
Men just dont see as many colors, its scientific fact. Blonde, yes, but much more red-
gold than yellow- gold.
I lived with a woman who changed her hair every other week, and made me suffer if I didnt notice. Trust me, I learned to pay attention. No red, it just wasnt there.
Thats where your mind goes as a default because, two years after Her Most Awesome Buffyness finally settled down with the cradle-
robber of her dreams, youre still fixated on blondes.
His laugh was easy and unstrained. And you never-
ever had a thing for redheads?
Kennedy suppressed the near-
automatic retort. They had been speaking lightly, even teasing, but this was an area where subcurrents had to be treated with some wariness. She still wasnt convinced the psychiatrist had been correct in her concerns, but she wasnt about to make the woman right by ignoring the issues that had been raised. Looking for a more casual subject, she observed, After that fun- filled afternoon, I could use a solid drink. What dyou say?
Xander shrugged. If we spot a place, sure. But Ill drive after that.
Really? Kennedy asked. Are you really gonna go there, Harris? Because you know I can drink you under the table any day of the year.
He laughed again. I know you can operate at full capacity with a BAC that would knock a horse down which means if any cop ever did try a breathalyzer on you, itd light up like a Christmas tree and maybe explode. So I drive.
Kennedy shot him a quick glance, one eyebrow curved and a half-
smile. Is this you being macho?
He puffed out his chest. Macho as it gets, baby.
Uh-huh, she said, nodding. Keep working on that.
Easily as she had spoken, she was still feeling a bit raw. The interview hadnt been anything like what she was braced for, and the shrink had touched not only on things she would have preferred to leave alone, but on some she hadnt even known were there. Had it been the same for Xander? Hed seemed as casual and unshaken as ever when they met again outside those offices but hed also been as eager as she was to make a quick departure.
Maybe theyd talk about that. Not right away, probably, but with a little time as a buffer
Did we ever really talk about your name? Xander asked unexpectedly, breaking in on her train of thought.
What? Kennedy asked, briefly flustered. No, why would we? You mentioned it, I told you I preferred Kennedy, I thought that settled it. Why?
(Seriously, where did this come from? Did she look like somebody whod answer to Jessamyn?)
Well, see, the thing is Xander stopped, thought for a moment, shook his head. You know what? it can wait. Itd take time to explain explain it right, anyhow and this just doesnt seem like the time.
Suit yourself, Kennedy said with a shrug. Oh, yeah, she could tell theyd be doing a lot of talking over the next few days, maybe the next few weeks. Damn that strawberry-
blonde bitch for stirring everything up, anyway
Kennedy mentally shook her head. No, this stuff truly did need to be dealt with, it was the feeling that it had been forced on her that made her bristle. So, okay, shed do it in her own way, in her own time, but shed make sure it got done. Neither practicality nor personal honor let you junk a message just because the messenger had pissed you off.
No, it wasnt the messenger, really, even though that Skudea snoot had most definitely rubbed her the wrong way. It wasnt even the knowledge that she was under judgment, that someone somewhere had thought a message needed to be delivered. No, what had gradually raised her hackles was a growing sense of something else: something between the lines, unseen and unspoken, an agenda that might or might not be hiding but certainly wasnt revealing itself. Something that, regardless of how Kennedy figured into it, had more to do with Xander than with her.
So, what agenda, and whose? Shed have been suspicious of the shrink if either of them had ever met the woman before. With that ruled out (tentatively, might come back to it later), Kennedy figured the unstated purpose must belong to whoever had sent them in for eval. Someone inside the new Slayer-
Watcher Council, someone with enough juice to pull a few strings. Someone concerned one way or another about Xander, and maybe about Kennedys effect on him. Someone who preferred to keep something like this on the QT, to hide their own involvement and their own reasons for acting. Someone inclined to be nosy, and inclined to be sneaky about it.
Yeah. For a bit over two years, Kennedy had spent more than a little time with her face between the legs of someone who fit those specs to a T. No way to be sure, but when you hear something go quack, your first thought isnt poodle.
If it really was Willow behind this, it was for damn sure she cared more about what Kennedy might be doing to Xander than vice versa. And Kennedy didnt know which thought chapped her more: that Willow was actually worried about this, or that she thought it was any of her damn business in the first place.
You get anything off the doc? she asked Xander.
Hmm? He looked up. What do you mean?
I mean did you catch yourself wishing you could bang her bones? or feeling like she wanted to bang your bones, or maybe sacrifice your spleen to the unholy nether gods in her panini press?
Oh, Xander said. I get it. Sweetbreads, bow down to Zuul! He sighed. I know theres a history there, but it really doesnt work to try and use me as a demon detector. Seriously, it doesnt.
Yeah, yeah, noted. Just answer the question, Harris.
Xander thought about it. I didnt really notice, which I guess is kind of an answer by itself. I wasnt wondering how she looked without clothes, or trying not to think about it. And she was all business, no subtext or double meanings or knowing looks. Very proper, a little starchy, entirely no-
nonsense. His brow furrowed slightly. To tell the truth, Id say she reminded me just a little bit of Gwendolyn Post, Mrs.
Kennedy had heard the stories. Thats not necessarily good.
No, but she was one hundred per cent human, and she never noticed me. That kind of thing.
Kennedy considered it, shrugged. Then grinned. Ill bet you noticed, though. Post, I mean.
Well, I kind of had other things on my mind back then, Xander said. But Ill admit she looked better than linoleum.
Kennedy stared at him for a moment, then returned her gaze to the highway ahead. I have no idea what on earth that was supposed to mean. And Im really just a little bit afraid to ask.
Then done here my work is, Xander intoned in a squeaky Frank Oz voice. Normal again, he added, No cosmic hidden meanings, just a random memory. He gave her a lopsided smile. Anyway, dont think I forgot that Im not the only one with an eye for the ladies. What kind of readings did you get off our friendly neighborhood couch-
Nothing, really, Kennedy said, shaking her head. I didnt like her much, but I didnt get any kind of ripples off her, bad or good.
Xander waggled his eyebrows. What, no subtext?
Fair is fair, Kennedy reminded herself, only a bit grimly. Fair is fair, you asked him the same thing. Aloud she said, Not my type.
A little older than we usually go for, Xander admitted. But not by that much. I know you love a challenge, and youve talked about how much fun it is to unwrap the ones who are wrapped just a little tight, show em how much wild was there waiting to be uncovered. So are you telling me theres no part of you, none at all, that wouldnt like to see the doc with her hair down? cause dont forget, youre the one who convinced yourself she had red hair.
I could go there, Kennedy said with a shrug. But thats not what I was thinking at the time. Mostly I was just annoyed.
Xander nodded. Pretty much the same here. But I want you to know, if you ever need to let that part of yourself out again, Im okay with it. As long as I get to join in. He leered theatrically. Or even just watch.
Kennedy burst out laughing; God, shed come within a hair of giggling just then! He wasnt even trying to be sleazy, but he was certainly trying to look like he was trying. In your dreams, Harris.
Several of them, he agreed. Its hope that keeps us alive. He settled back in his seat. Same old Ken, then?
Bet on it, she assured him.
He nodded and then, in exactly the same tone of voice, he said, But youll never leave me?
She kept her eyes on the road ahead, but she could tell that he was looking at her, that his face showed everything he wouldnt dream of trying to hide. Her vision misted for a moment, and she blinked rapidly to clear it; then, reaching over to lay her hand on his, she said steadily, I never will.
Special acknowledgment: In Part II, the stories Kennedy heard about Xander? Cleveland house/New York SVU team is a reference to Father Goose and the Black Knight by Litmouse, and Slayer in Reno/
cult leader/ another Slayer likewise points to Phoukas Points of View. Both stories are eminently worth reading, and I advise any aficionados of BtVS and Xander to do so immediately.
Questions? Comments? Any feedback is welcome!
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