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 afar 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 forearms 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 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. The main thing 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 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 www . koalanet . com . au / australian-slang . html) 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.