A/N: This fic is Part 2 of the series "Red Sorceress, White Knight". Part 1 is entitled "The Heart of Sorrow" if you'd like to read the series in order. Enjoy!
Eve Baird carried the heavy tray of assorted beverages and bowls of snack foods down the corridor from the kitchen to the Annex's main workroom. It had been a long day for the team so far, hours spent in catching up on the tedious, decidedly unexciting paperwork that the Library demanded in the normal course of its day to day business—and the paperwork had certainly piled up over the span of weeks that they were busy with the incident involving the Heart of Sorrow. On the heels of all that came the busy holiday season, and between the two, the stacks of paperwork had gotten so high that Flynn finally decided that enough was enough, and that today was the day to begin clearing away as much of the backlog as possible.
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortuitously, depending on one's point of view—last night Flynn was unexpectedly called away to the Iron Kingdom to mediate a rather nasty clan dispute. But, as he too cheerfully explained to the sullen team members he was leaving behind, as the new Tethered Librarian such things were simply part of his new job description. It would've helped the mood of everyone else if he hadn't announced his sudden departure in such a gleeful tone of voice...
And so, beginning at six o'clock this morning they went to work, with only a short break for lunch. They were almost half-way through the backlog now, and Eve decided they had all earned a one-hour midafternoon break before the final push. While she went to kitchen to get the drinks and snacks, Jake and Ezekiel pulled out their phones and started going through their texts and emails. Jenkins continued to work on the backlog, while Cassandra dashed off in the direction of the lab, muttering something about checking on an experiment she was running.
"Okay!" Baird announced loudly as she entered the room. "I have a soda for me!" She set the tray down on the closest, clear tabletop with a heavy clunk. She plucked her soda from the tray and popped the top on the can, took a quick swig and then set it aside.
"I have two India pale ales for Jake and Ezekiel." The two young men crowded around the tray, taking their eyes off of their phone screens just long enough to grab one of the long-necked green bottles and twist the caps off.
"Thanks, Baird!" said Stone. He took several loud gulps of the beer before finally lowering the bottle and smacking his lips appreciatively. "Aw, man! That sure hits the spot!" The Guardian grinned and gave him a fist bump before turning back to the tray.
"I have one bubble tea for Cassandra!" she announced, but no one claimed the drink. She looked around for the redheaded mathematician, but she was nowhere to be seen.
"Where's Cass?" she asked. Ezekiel shrugged his shoulders and grabbed a handful of miniature pretzels from the bowl on the tray.
"I dunno," he said, disinterested, popping a pretzel into his mouth. "I think she's still in the lab or something." Eve rolled her eyes; Cassandra was turning into quite the little workaholic since her encounter with the Heart of Sorrow. Eve noticed quickly that Cassandra was spending nearly every minute of free time she got in that lab, and the Guardian wasn't sure if she approved of that or not. She sighed and set the bubble tea back onto the tray.
"And last, but not least, I have one small pot of Darjeeling tea for Jenkins," she said, picking up the small pot and a teacup and carrying them over to the Caretaker's tall desk. She smiled to herself again at Jenkins's new look; his mane of long, silver-white hair was immaculately combed back and worked into a single thick braid that hung midway down his back, tied off with a silk ribbon that was color-coordinated every day to match his suit. It was the only physical reminder of his century-long nap in the Library's crypt, where he had lain undetected since 1912 until the team was able to find and revive him. Jenkins had planned to cut the hair off at the same time he removed the long snowy beard that had also grown in, but Cassandra begged him to keep the hair, at least for now; she thought it made him look especially sexy, much to his secret delight.
"There you go, Skip; I made it just the way you like it!" She set the tea things down as Jenkins stood up and stretched his long arms.
"Thank you, Eve, that's very kind of you." Baird leaned in a little as Jenkins began to pour tea into the cup.
"Hey, I also brought a little something for you-know-who, too, if that's okay with you?" She nodded at the green serpentine dragon that was draped over the old man's shoulders, his head resting on the Jenkins's chest as he dozed. Jenkins smiled and nodded.
"Hey! Franklin!" she called. "Look what I got for you!" Round black eyes instantly popped open and the little dragon's head shot up at the sound of his name. A low whine of expectation sounded in his throat and his long, thin tail began to move back and forth across Jenkins's torso. Eve reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out a matcha tea cookie.
"You want a cookie?" she asked the creature and held it up between them. Before she had even finished the sentence, Franklin squealed and scrambled over Jenkins's shoulders to get his hind legs underneath him. He leaped from Jenkins to Eve, landing squarely on her right shoulder. He then spun around and quickly wrapped his long tail around her neck as an anchorhold, at the same time crawling out onto her still outstretched arm as he tried to reach the tempting treat.
"Hey!" Baird squawked in surprise, her other hand automatically flying up to try and loosen the stranglehold around her throat. Franklin only tightened the powerful grip he had on her as he tried to reach the cookie while maintaining his balance. Jenkins quickly stepped out from behind his desk, forgetting his tea for the moment.
"Bring the cookie closer to his head, Colonel," he calmly instructed her. Eve obeyed, and as soon as he could reach the cookie, Franklin snatched it from her hand. The hold around her throat tightened even more for just a moment as he used his tail to help pull himself back up her arm and onto her shoulder. The moment he was stably perched, he loosened his tail completely and allowed it to fall limply down Eve's back.
"Wow!" Baird gasped, rubbing her throat. "That's some grip!" Jenkins chuckled as he went back to his desk and picked up his teacup. Franklin sat up and began happily munching on his prize, bright green crumbs falling to the floor as he ate.
"Indeed," the immortal agreed, taking a sip of tea. "In the wild, tea dragons use their tails not only to balance themselves while climbing. They're semi-prehensile, so they also use them to hold onto thick stems and branches as they forage amongst tea plants and trees. The tail is probably the strongest part of a tea dragon's body. Well, their tails and their jaws."
Within seconds the cookie was gone, and Franklin easily clambered down Eve's body, head-first, to the floor. There he snuffled around in search of the tasty crumbs, making tiny grunting sounds as he moved around at her feet.
"He's pretty agile, too," Eve said thoughtfully. "Seems like we should be able to train him. You know—teach him to fetch or to carry things from one location to another, obey commands, things like that. And that little trick of his where he squeezes himself underneath just about any door—that might come in handy on missions if we can control him." Jenkins dropped his cup onto its saucer with a sharp clatter.
"Franklin is a tea dragon, Colonel," he said, fixing her with a stern look from his sharp brown eyes. "He is not a circus animal trained to perform tricks for our amusement! He is a very intelligent creature, with a mind of his own. I daresay that he is even a sentient being, much like you and I. One cannot 'command' him, one can only ask." Taken aback by the Caretaker's vehemence, Eve held her hands up in a gesture of surrender.
"Okay, okay—sorry," she said defensively. "Didn't mean to overstep any boundaries or anything. It was just an idea." Franklin was whining for Jenkins to pick him up. He bent over and scooped the little reptile up from the floor and placed him back on his shoulders, then returned his attention to Eve, his eyes softer now.
"I apologize, Colonel," he said sincerely as he affectionately scratched Franklin's long neck. "I didn't mean to sound so harsh. It's just that... I'm very fond of Franklin. I understand your line of reasoning, but he's not just a pet or a mascot, at least not to me."
"I just thought that since you trained him to run those obstacle courses and take him to those competitions that, maybe, we could use those talents of his for our own benefit." She waved a hand, slightly frustrated by the old Caretaker's attitude. To her surprise, Jenkins chortled quietly.
"I taught him how to play a game, Colonel," he corrected her gently. "That's all those things are to him—just a game. He runs those courses because he enjoys it and chooses to do so. Any time he doesn't feel like running a course, he simply does not. And I do not force him to do it, nor anything else. I cannot." He then gave her a meaningful look.
"I will not." He waved a hand to take in the whole room.
"Like the rest of us, he's not just property or an asset to be utilized, Eve. He's...a companion, a friend. And, perhaps I'm being overly sentimental or protective, but I'm hesitant to put him into a situation where he could be injured. Or worse." Franklin nuzzled the old man's face before settling down for another nap, and Jenkins responded by smiling and giving the dragon a scratch behind one of his long ears. The bond between the two was almost palpable to Eve.
"Well, like I said, it was just an idea," she sighed, throwing in the towel. For now. Jenkins picked up his cup of tea and took a thoughtful sip.
"Perhaps...perhaps I can try and train him to respond to some commands," Jenkins offered. "Only if he's willing to learn them, of course, you understand." Baird smiled and accepted the olive branch the Caretaker was offering her.
"Sounds good, Skip," she said. "Let me know if..."
Eve's words were cut off by the sound of a deafeningly loud boom that sounded like a thunderclap. Franklin shrieked in fear and tried to hide his head beneath Jenkins's arm. The walls of the Annex and the floor beneath her feet vibrated sharply; books and artifacts fell off of the tables around the workroom, and the framed copy of the Gettysburg Address crashed to the floor, the glass shattering. High above them, the chandeliers rattled threateningly, but none fell. Years in NATO counterterrorism told Baird instantly what had happened.
The Guardian whirled around to face the others, their faces registering stunned confusion.
"Where did that come from?" she barked, moving towards the center of the room. "Was that inside of the Annex or outside?" Ezekiel ran over to the magic mirror and swiped it, activating it so that they could see outside the Annex via the security cameras. By then, everyone was clustered around and peering anxiously at the glass, but there was nothing for them to see outside. Everything seemed perfectly normal as a jogger slowly ran by, showing no sign of having witnessed or heard anything untoward.
"Okay, it's not outside, so it must've been inside!" Baird said shortly, spinning around to address the others. She suddenly realized that someone was still missing.
The color drained from Jenkins's face as he, too, realized that his wife wasn't with them. Without saying a word, he turned toward one of the corridor entrances, and began running, at the same time removing Franklin from his shoulders and lightly dropping him onto a table as he passed by it.
"The lab!" Jake growled tightly, turning to follow the Caretaker. "She said she was gonna be in the lab!"
Eve and Ezekiel were right behind him.
Jenkins sprinted down the hallway to his lab, his heart pounding against his ribcage. As he turned the corner, he skidded to a stop several feet down the corridor, his chest suddenly filling with cold dread, his face going slack in shock. The heavy laboratory door had been blown completely off of its hinges and now lay in the hallway, a twisted piece of useless steel.
"CASSANDRA!" he bellowed, and ran into the lab itself.
The room was a complete shambles. Bottles, jars, test tubes, specimens, mangled pieces of equipment lay scattered and broken everywhere. Doors had been ripped off of cabinets, the cabinets themselves fallen onto their sides with their contents spilling out onto the floor. Scorched books, papers, files and artifacts littered the cracked cement floor. Workbenches, shelving and chairs were hurled across the room and smashed by the force of the blast. The acrid smells of smoke, herbs and chemicals hung in the air, and he realized that a few combustible items were still burning. The direction in which the items that made up the debris field were laying showed Jenkins that the explosion originated from the back section of the lab, where Cassandra had her desk and equipment.
"Cassandra!" he shouted again, looking around wildly for the Librarian. By this time the others had caught up to him and were standing just outside the doorway, mouths hanging open in disbelief at the level of destruction. Jenkins didn't receive an answer to his call, so he waded further into the lab in a frantic search for his wife.
"CASSANDRA!" he yelled a third time, his voice betraying his fear. "Answer me! Can you hear me?!" Knowing that she would never be able to stop Jenkins, Baird turned to the others.
"Stay here until I make sure it's safe in there!" she ordered.
"Like hell!" Stone shot back; he started through the door, but Eve grabbed his arm and hauled him back. She turned him around and stared him in the eye.
"Not until I make sure it's safe!" she repeated slowly. "We don't know what caused this, and until we do, I don't want anyone else going in there! Now stay put!" Jacob glared back angrily, frustrated at not being able to help, but he obeyed the Guardian.
Eve turned and started into the lab after Jenkins. By now he was in the back portion of the room, throwing things out of his way and calling out frantically for Cassandra. Judging by the panicked sound of his voice, he wasn't finding her, and he was growing more desperate by the second.
"Jenkins!" Eve called out as she plowed her way through the mess. "Jenkins, come back! It's not safe in here! I'll look for Cassandra!"
As she expected, though, he totally ignored her. Finally, Baird caught up with him. The fact that they hadn't heard Cassandra or found any sign of her yet meant one of three things to the Guardian: She was unconscious and couldn't answer; she hadn't been in the lab at all when it exploded; or she was... Baird gritted her teeth and refused to consider that possibility.
"Colonel! Please! Help me find Cassandra!" Jenkins pleaded, his voice cracking under the strain of his desperation to find his wife. She could see by the look in his eyes that he was also fighting hard not to consider the possibility that beloved Cassandra had been killed.
"She must be here somewhere!" he went on, his wild, worried eyes sweeping the area. "I have to find her! She could be seriously injured, she could be..." He fell silent and froze suddenly, cocked his head. Eve stopped where she was and held her breath as she, too, listened. Then, barely audible, she heard it: A faint groaning coming from beneath an overturned steel cabinet.
"Here!" Jenkins shouted and moved toward the sound, his long legs easily picking their way through the destruction. Eve followed right behind him.
Jenkins reached the cabinet and then waved sharply for Eve to be quiet again. He lowered his head over the twisted cabinet in order to hear better.
"Cassandra?" he called out loudly. He was rewarded with another soft moan.
"Jenkins?" Cassandra called out weakly from beneath the cabinet. "Help..."
Jenkins cried out with relief and seized the large cabinet. Eve guessed that it must have weighed at least a hundred pounds, but with a strength that took her by surprise, he lifted it up and shoved it aside as though it was made of cardboard.
There was Cassandra, lying on the floor, disheveled, dirty and disoriented, but alive. She made a move as if to try and sit up, but she cried out and fell back to the floor, clutched her left side and wincing in pain. Jenkins was on her in an instant.
"No! Don't move, Cassandra! Stay still!" he ordered her in a shaking voice. Eve turned to where the others were waiting anxiously.
"Guys! We need a stretcher here!" she shouted. "And a gurney! Now!"
"Is she...?" the Jake called back, half-dreading the answer. Baird realized that the boys probably couldn't hear Cassandra's soft groans from the doorway; they didn't know if this was a rescue or a recovery.
"She's okay!" Baird shouted. "But she's hurt; we need to get her to the infirmary as fast as possible!"
"We got it!" Stone yelled. He turned and grabbed Jones by the arm and the two of them raced to the Library Infirmary.
With the men dispatched to fetch a gurney, Eve turned back to Cassandra. Jenkins was kneeling on the floor next to his wife. He held her small hand in one of his, while his other hand gently combed his long fingers through Cassandra's tangled, glass-strewn hair.
"It's all right, Cassandra, we're here!" he murmured to her softly. "Where are you feeling pain?"
"My left side. My left arm. My head." She looked up at him, tears welling in her dazed eyes. "I think I had an accident; I think I blew up the lab…" Her face crumpled. "I'm sorry!"
"Hush, Cassandra, it's all right!" he said. "Just lie still now!" Baird saw Jenkins press his lips tightly together as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. He tenderly stroked Cassandra's temple, then lowered his head and lovingly kissed his wife's forehead.
"You'll be fine, now, my love, I promise! You're going to be just fine...!"
Eve swallowed against a hard lump forming in her throat as she watched him, and wondered who, exactly, Jenkins was trying so hard to reassure more—Cassandra or himself?