Special Assignment Part 1
Act OneFade In:
Fancy Dining Room – Night
Lorinda Sheparton slipped a tiny mouthful of duck l'orange into her mouth with a carefully chosen, shining silver fork. She replaced the fork beside four apparently identical utensils next to her fine china plate, then dabbed lightly at her mouth with a fine silk napkin before replacing it in her lap. She wore her nicest dress, and it looked fabulous on her.
A woman sat across the table from her. She was elderly, with a well-coiffed mass of gray hair surrounding a very dignified face. She spoke with a British accent of the highest class.
"I must confess, when I first learned about your…relationship with Alfred, I was extremely concerned."
Lorinda nodded politely. "I completely understand, Your Majesty. You are only looking out for what's best for your family."
The Queen sighed at this. "Yes, indeed." She reached over for a glass of wine and took a sip. The two of them sat at a luxuriously set table for two. The dining room was small but heavily decorated. The wallpaper might have been gilded.
"Alfred has always needed special attention, you know," she continued. She sounded tired. "He has never handled the rigors of his station with as much verve as my other grandsons. I suppose it is only natural he would be attracted to someone like you."
Lorinda waited patiently in silence for a few moments. If she was offended by what the Queen had said, she hadn't shown it. But she could not help but prod. "You mean…a slayer?"
"A commoner," the Queen replied. "An American, of all things. History may be out of fashion, but you will remember that the last time one of our family took up with an American, it ended in scandal and abdication." She took another sip of her wine.
Lorinda placed a gloved hand on the tablecloth.
"Your Majesty, I'm a Sheparton. We're the closest thing America has to royalty, us and the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. You don't have to worry about anything on that front. And I think Alfie…Alfred is a wonderful man. He only needs some direction to realize his full potential."
The Queen eyed this creature sitting across from her with a wary eye. Lorinda smiled in response.
"I am concerned about your profession," she said. "Britain does not need a warrior Princess."
Lorinda's smile threatened to widen before she suppressed it. "It's far too early to begin to throw the P-word around, Your Majesty. But if that is the issue, then I'll quit. Alfred's the most important thing to me."
"To me as well," the Queen replied. "However, I am doubtful of how committed you may be to leaving your position at the Council. I am told that slaying is something of a calling. Do you disagree?"
Lorinda leaned forward, vaguely conspiratorially. "Confidentially, Your Majesty, the job feels…constricting. I am a leader, the highest-ranking slayer in London, the greatest city in the world. And yet I spend most of my nights on the streets, in alleys, grabbing at ugly things? No thanks. I feel like I'm meant for more than that."
"Perhaps," the Queen said simply. She turned back to her duck, carving carefully with her meat knife. Soon after, Lorinda turned back to hers as well.
A few moments later, without looking up, the Queen tossed out, "So, Miss Sheparton, have you and my grandson been intimate?"
Lorinda looked up but took the time to finish chewing. She swallowed, said, "Of course not, Your Majesty, we've been very careful," and grinned.
London Council HQ – Lobby – Night
Althenea Dimmons glanced up from the tablet PC she was examining to see Lorinda walk in the front door, still wearing her nicest dress and heels. She frowned at the sight. "Oh, fantastic," she groaned.
The young male witch beside her looked confused. "Sorry?"
Althenea shook her head and handed him back the tablet. "Fantastic work, Robert. Now get some rest, hmm?"
He nodded and cast a nervous glance in Lorinda's direction before walking off. Althenea was standing in the center of the London branch's lobby. The décor of the place tended more to old luxury rather than the slick modernism of the Cleveland branch. The walls were red and white marble, the carpets were thick, and in the center of the lobby was a cluster of burgundy leather chairs.
"So," Lorinda began as she sashayed up to Althenea, "I just lied to the Queen of England's face. Does that make me a terrible person?"
"Yes," Althenea replied, a little too swiftly and a little too firmly. "Good to have you back. We didn't expect to be graced with your presence this evening." Her voice was flat.
Lorinda turned and walked towards the nearest hallway, her heels clicking on the floor. Althenea followed a step behind. "Have you ever met her, Dimmons?"
"Unfortunately, I haven't," Althenea began, trying to have a civil conversation. "I once was scheduled to attend one of her benefits, but that was the week of the crisis in –"
"I wasn't impressed, I have to say," Lorinda said. "She's a nice enough lady, I guess, but I mean, you just want to say, 'You're the friggin' Queen! Let loose a little'!"
"I always appreciate your singular opinions," Althenea said.
A girl about the same age as Lorinda with straight blonde hair hurried to catch up with them. She carried a thick binder with a clipboard on top of it. "Miss Sheparton!" she called, almost out of breath as she caught up to them. "Miss Sheparton, I've those patrol schedules ye asked for." She spoke with a Scottish brogue.
Lorinda didn't look at the other girl but smiled as she kept walking. "Of course you do, Aileen. I never doubted it."
"I thought patrol schedules numbered among your responsibilities as lead slayer, Lorinda," Althenea pointed out.
"I find it's better to delegate," Lorinda replied. She glanced at Aileen. "And the rest?"
"Ah, your mission reports, Ma'am, those 47-Bs from the op in Inverness, and the new insurance forms as well, all completed, awaiting your signature." She awkwardly juggled the items in her arms and produced the clipboard.
Lorinda waved her off. "Later. Is that all?"
"I, ah, yes, Ma'am." Aileen regained control of her papers and scurried off down the hall as Althenea watched.
"You know," the witch observed, "one day you may actually regret not reading those reports. Far stranger things have happened."
Lorinda shrugged. "Is there a reason you're following me around like a big, witch-mentoring puppy?"
"If it's not too far beneath your notice, I thought we might discuss the problem of the Fyarl nest in Twickenham…"
Lorinda quickly rattled off her answer without breaking stride. "Send in Ryu's team at the earliest convenience. Two in the front to draw their attention, tell them to watch out for the mucus, then the rest in the back. Silver weapons all around. If we outnumber them, it shouldn't be too hard."
Althenea bit her lip. "Well, there's also the matter regarding the sorcerer up in St. Albans. He's been raising ancient Roman soldiers as zombies, causing all sorts of –"
"He's gotta have a focusing amulet for that kind of spell, right? Have Laudrup do one of those…what the hell are you doing?!?"
Lorinda left the shocked Althenea behind and made a hard left turn into one of the rooms lining the hallway. Althenea threw up her arms and followed.
London Council HQ – Gymnasium – Same Time
Lorinda strode into the great open space of the branch's main gymnasium. Beneath the high-vaulted ceiling, a dozen-or-so preteens were sparring under the supervision of a single older girl. They all stopped what they were doing and went dead quiet when Lorinda entered the room.
"You!" Lorinda pointed at one of the smaller girls, who jumped in response. "What in the name of God was that because it sure as hell wasn't a real fighting stance?"
The girl looked around nervously for an escape but found none as Lorinda walked right up to her. She wore her hair in a ponytail and wore a yellow t-shirt decorated with pink flowers. "I-I-I wasn't…"
"You weren't what? You definitely weren't keeping your guard up. I try to tell all of you, this is life and death. I try everything to get it through your incredibly thick skulls." She poked the girl in the side of the head with her finger. "But you still leave your guard down."
She rounded on the tall, slight girl with a long face that the offending slayer had been sparring with. "And you! You weren't even exploiting it. You think a demon's going to hesitate to take advantage of an opening like that?"
"We, um, we were just sparring," the taller girl managed, "and I…"
"No," Lorinda said firmly. "She's gotta learn how it feels." She stepped back from the pair. "Take a free shot at her."
Both girls looked up at her. "Miss Sheparton –" the taller girl began.
"You heard me," Lorinda insisted. "Punch her as hard as you can."
The instructor stepped forward. She was a South Asian girl in her early twenties. "Miss Sheparton, I don't think –" Lorinda silenced her with a look then turned back to the taller girl.
"Do you want her using crappy technique like that when she's guarding your back? Look at her pathetic little face. Is that what a slayer looks like? Do. As. You're. Told."
The shorter girl's face was scrunched up now, expecting a blow. Still, the taller girl hesitated.
Gritting her teeth, the taller girl wound up and slugged her partner just below the eye. The smaller girl fell down to one knee, now crying openly.
Lorinda shook her head, disgusted. "There's no crying in vampire slaying." She walked back to the door, heels clicking on the floor. She tossed off a final "Keep an eye on them" to the instructor before exiting.
Althenea ran after her with furious eyes.
London Council HQ – Lorinda's Office – Moments Later
Lorinda's office door swung open, and the girl herself entered the room, followed closely by a very unhappy Althenea. The office was immaculate, everything in its place. It was appointed with the latest fashions in fine wood furniture. Two vases of fresh flowers framed Lorinda's desk. Nowhere was there a hint that Lorinda killed things for a living.
Lorinda slid into her chair. She flipped her shoes off and put her feet up on the desk. "What?" she asked innocently.
"That was…unacceptable," Althenea said, her voice low and angry.
"She's not going to forget to put her guard up anymore," Lorinda pointed out.
"That's not how we do things around here."
Lorinda sighed and pulled her feet down. "Cut the crap, Dimmons. How do you think I got this job?"
Althenea was pacing. "My understanding is that Shannon Matthewson was promoted and took the opportunity to finally get you out of her hair."
Lorinda stood up, stretching her back briefly before continuing. "And yet now I'm in charge, and not because of my looks. Shocking, I know. You and Robson, you've always had what's called a soft touch, and you've gone through slayers like I've gone through boyfriends. This branch needed someone to come in here and bitch-slap it and get its ass in gear. And nobody else here was a big enough bitch to deliver the slap. Oh!"
Distracted, Lorinda walked over to a table at one side of the room, on which a chess game was set up. "You took your move."
"I did," Althenea said through her teeth.
Lorinda cocked her head, examining the board for a moment. She nodded, reached down, and made a move with her knight. "Check!" she announced with a grin.
It took Althenea a moment to figure out what Lorinda had just done. Then her mouth slowly began to drop open.
Council HQ – Jeff & Grace's Apartment – Bathroom – Early Morning
Steam filled the large bathroom, giving a strong indication the hot water had been running for some time. Behind the frosted glass of the shower door, two forms merged into one and moved in time to an orchestra of moans and heavy breathing.
"Oh gods, Grace," a man's voice gasped. "Right there…oh yeah."
"Jeff, Jeff…" a woman's voice panted. "Slowly, baby. Slowly, now!"
"No, slowly!" she repeated.
"Oh goddess!" he yelped.
"That's it! That's it! Let's do this!" The woman's voice rose to a crescendo. "Oh yeah, LEEEEEEEEEEEEEROY!"
"Oh sweet mother earth!" Jeff cried in tandem.
For a long minute the only sound was the running water and the slowly decreasing sound of gasping breaths. Finally, Jeff asked, "You okay, baby?"
"Oh gods, yeah," Grace replied. "Totally more than. That was fifty dkp plus, lover."
"Oh, that's good…I guess."
Finally, the water shut off, and a masculine arm opened the shower door to grab two plush towels from the heated rack. A few moments later, both Jeff and Grace stepped out of the stall wrapped in the towels and moved to the double sinks.
Jeff met Grace's eyes in the mirror. "Are you okay?" he asked.
With a shrug he said, "You seem a little more 'geekier' than usual, which means you've probably been hitting the games, which means you're probably stressed."
Grace returned the shrug and ran a comb through her wet hair. He didn't move his gaze from her in the mirror until she rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay!" she said. "Geez, you know me too well, don't you?"
He simply gave her a smirk.
She rolled her eyes again. "Okay, so yeah," she finally said. "I'm just tired of it all, you know."
"Tired of what?" he said with a hint of insecurity.
"Oh! Not of us, god no!" she said quickly. "No, it's just work."
"What about it?" Jeff asked as he lathered shaving cream on his face.
Grace sighed. "There's nowhere left to go," she said. "I mean, it's the same thing, day after day. I work, I research, I've written enough scholarly papers and books to fill a library, but so what? No one appreciates it."
"I do," he said. "Okay, so maybe some of your more esoteric articles are beyond me, but that's because we work in different fields."
"You hated the one on examining residual temporal particles left over from the Vor portal creations," she pointed out.
"I didn't hate it," he protested. "I just said it seemed a little…infinite in its level of detail."
"Yeah, in other words…boring."
"Not boring," he said. "I thought it was…very well-written."
She sighed again. "In any case, none of my peers appreciate the work I do. I don't know…maybe it's time for a change."
"What do you mean a change?" he said. "You're a watcher; that's what you've been chosen to do."
"Yeah, but that doesn't necessarily mean I have to do it here," she said. "I've had offers."
"Offers?" Jeff stopped his shaving to look at her.
"I had lunch last week with a headhunter from MystaCorp," she admitted, not meeting his gaze.
He stared then asked, "As a consultant?"
"No." She shook her head. "VP of new products development. A mil five a year to start, plus stock bonuses and more perks than you can shake a stick at."
"Holy Juno Moneta!" he said.
"Yeah," she agreed. "We could be set for life."
"But that's not really that important, is it?" he said. "I mean, we've got everything we need and everything our family will need for the future right here at the Council."
"I know, but that's just it!" she argued. "It's not only the money; it would mean we'd have more time to spend with each other and more time to start a family."
"Lots of watchers have started families," he pointed out. "Look at Will and Ro…three down and I'm sure they're not done yet."
Grace gave him a long look. "I thought you'd be happy for me."
He blinked in reply. "I am happy that you got the offer, Grace, but I just think you should consider it carefully. It would mean a big change for us."
"It would, but it could be a change for the better," she said and then glanced at the bathroom clock. "I've got to run. I'm covering for Ro at the budget meeting this morning."
"Okay," he replied and then grabbed her hand to pull her back for a kiss. "We'll talk about it more later. I promise that I'll seriously think about it."
She smiled. "Thanks, Leroy. Love you."
"Love you, too," he smiled. "Later."
Council HQ – Rowena & Willow's Apartment – Nursery – Morning
"Mommy, can we go now?" the whining voice of young Jen Rosenberg yelled from the living room.
Willow glanced up from where she was stowing diapers in a travel bag. "Yes, honey," she called. "Make sure Alex has his shoes on."
"Oh god, do I hafta?" came the plaintive reply. "He never wears shoes, and I want Aunt Buffy's pancakes!"
"Just do it, Jen!" Willow said loudly through her teeth as she put the bag aside and leaned into the crib to pick up infant Jake.
"Okay," the young girl's voice replied, thankfully in a much lower – although still petulant – tone.
Willow laid the baby on the changing table and expertly unsnapped his coverall to change his diaper. She sighed. "I tell you, Jake, my love," she said to the cooing infant. "I don't know what is stranger…my daughter calling her step-mother 'aunt' or her whining for the woman's cooking."
"Buffy's not really a step-mother," Rowena said as she entered the room and grabbed the travel bag from Willow. She placed two bottles of pressed milk into the side pouch.
Willow eyed the bottles. "Will that be enough?" she asked.
Rowena glanced at the baby. "You already fed him, didn't you?" At Willow's nod, she continued, "Then yes, that's enough for him. If not, you can make more, right? By the way, it's only pancakes. And what do you have against Buffy's cooking anyway? She's not a bad cook."
"Well, she's not a good cook either," Willow joked with a smirk.
"Willow…" Rowena started to admonish.
"Okay, okay! I'm just teasing her in absentia," Willow shrugged. "Comes from many years of practice, but you're right, she's not that bad, and I happen to know she learned how to cook pancakes from the best."
"Her mom?" Rowena asked.
Willow shook her head while shifting her eyes and then turned her attention back to the baby as she finished with the diaper. She picked him up and cradled the child against her shoulder. "Are we ready?" she asked.
"Yep, let's roll," Rowena answered after a glance at the twins and a last check of the contents of the travel bag. "I am so looking forward to a child-free day."
Willow nodded emphatically in agreement.
Council HQ – Hallway – Minutes Later
Willow still carried Jake in her arms, while a somber Alex carefully pushed his brother's empty stroller. They paused at the hallway intersection as Rowena, leading the group, turned to the right.
"Wait," Willow said. "Their apartment is this way." She pointed her chin to the left corridor.
"Buffy texted us to meet her and Xander at the new storage area," Rowena replied. "She mentioned 'inspection,' so I'm assuming he needed her to sign off on its completion and she wanted his help taking the kids off our hands for the day."
Willow frowned. "Okay. As long as they do take this clutch of spawn away for the day, I don't care."
"Mommy!" Jen admonished over her shoulder as she and her twin walked ahead down the corridor. "We're not demons!"
"No, but we used to call her daddy 'demon magnet'," she whispered sotto voce to her wife.
Rowena rolled her eyes. "You're horrible, do you know that?"
"Hey, I seem to remember you calling him a demon when you were in the stirrups," she added with a rakish smirk and a nod toward the twins.
"You had a few choice words for him when you were there yourself not long ago. Names which, for the record, I won’t repeat in the company of children," Rowena said as she rushed to catch up with the Alex and Jen.
"Hee hee," Willow chuckled and laid a kiss on Jake's temple. "Yeah, but you were worth every drop of pain."
The baby just smiled in contentment at his mother.
Council HQ – Storage Room – Continuous
Willow and Jake entered the room to find the rest of their family along with Buffy, Xander and some other Council employees standing around with big grins on their faces. Instead of a storage room, the large area was decorated with brightly painted walls embellished with cartoon animal borders, child-sized tables and chairs and even cribs for small infants. Shelves and large plastic bins containing toys, art supplies and other youngster amusements filled the space.
"Oh! A day care!" Willow exclaimed as she came to a stop and looked around.
"Surprise!" Xander cried, bouncing on his heels.
"Wow!" Rowena said. "This is great! When did you do all this?"
"It was my idea, but this guy designed it," Buffy answered, throwing an arm around Xander's shoulders. "It's got all the amenities to keep kids educated and occupied. This room is right in the heart of the complex, so it's the safest for kiddies. I hired counselors with special combat training to staff during working hours and even arranged for volunteer slayers to be on call 24/7 for those Council 'emergencies' we all love and cherish. They're even taking child care training."
"Oh, this is great, Buff," Willow said. She handed over Jake to one of the counselors. "Thank you."
"Hey, my pleasure," Buffy said with a wide smile. "After all, these kids are the next generation of Chosen People…I mean, watchers and slayers, not…sorry, Willow."
"What?" Willow asked, distracted by her kids.
Buffy brightened. "Nothing! We need to protect them like…some sort of protecting thing. Plus it gives our staff some peace of mind that their kids are safe."
"A capital idea!" Giles said as he led young Elizabeth by the hand into the new room.
"Giles!" Xander said. "Glad you could make it, man. Welcome to the Watchers World of Kids."
"Excellent," he said, looking around in admiration. "I'm sure Becca would appreciate using your services. Have your staff members been trained to handle children of all ages and health concerns?"
"Yes, Mr. Giles," said a young man dressed in khakis and a blue polo shirt with the Watchers Council logo emblazoned on the chest. He held out a hand for Giles to shake. "Ben Nawaf, sir. Ms. Summers provided us with all the files of Council members' children that she had available, especially regarding past and present illnesses and known allergy alerts."
"Excellent," Giles repeated. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Nawaf."
The young man knelt down to the level of the little girl standing at her father's side and holding his hand. "You must be Elizabeth Giles, but I hear you like to be called Liz. I'm Ben."
"Hello, Ben," she replied. "Can we play with the toys here?"
"Sure can!" he answered. "They're here for you and your friends."
"Thank you." She let go of Giles's hand. "Come on, Alex!"
"Okay," the boy said as he followed her. Ben took charge of Jake's stroller.
Jen went up to Buffy and tugged on her slacks. "No pancakes for us, Aunt Buffy?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Sweetie," Buffy answered. "I'll have Andrew send some up, okay?"
"Okay," the little girl replied with a pout. "But his aren't the same as yours."
"Ohhhh…" Buffy said a loving smile on her face. "Tell you what…how about you and your brother come spend the weekend with us, and I'll make you pancakes every morning?" She stole a glance up at Xander. "She likes my pancakes!"
"Can we grill man-burgers for dinner?" Alex asked Xander.
"You betcha, little guy," Xander replied. "Real men know how to feed their women, don't they?"
Alex laughed and made crude grunting sounds that his father matched. Xander turned to find two sets of eyes glaring at him, and the laugh died on his lips.
"Man-burgers?" Rowena asked.
"Xander, didn't we talk about you teaching him that Tim Allen macho crap?" Willow seethed. "In case you hadn't noticed, this is the 21st century and that kind of patriarchal…"
Buffy stepped between the couple and her husband and held up both hands to signal for peace.
"Whoa there, Sheila," she said. Willow snorted indignantly in response. "I think little Alex has plenty of feminine role models around him to make sure he doesn't grow up as insensitive as his dad." At this Xander frowned, but Buffy ignored it and continued. "Besides, don't you two have a child-free date today?"
Willow took in a breath as if to protest, but then Rowena slipped her hand into Willow's and gave it a squeeze. Willow turned to her wife and her frown became a smile.
"Yeah, let's go." With that, she started to pull Rowena from the room.
"Thanks, guys!" Rowena called as she was dragged out.
After the couple was gone, Xander turned to Buffy.
"Insensitive?" he asked.
"Fine. You’re the most sensitive guy in the world," she said playfully. He stuck out his tongue. "And the most immature. Happy?"
Xander grinned. "It’s a start," he acknowledged before he turned to Giles and asked, "So where's Becca and Marty?"
"Infirmary for his treatment," Giles said. "They'll be up shortly. This really is a wonderful idea you had, Buffy."
The councilwoman shrugged. "Just a part of the service," she answered. "That's what comes from using Quentin Travers as my role model."
"Quentin?" Giles exclaimed.
"Yeah," she replied with a smirk. "Instead of 'what would Travers do?' when I'm stuck for ideas, I think 'what would Travers not do'?"
Giles gave a hearty laugh. "Indeed," he said.
"Daddy!" Elizabeth called with a happy laugh. "Come look at what Alex and I made."
With a fond smile, Giles walked over to the happy children.
Xander hopped up to sit on the counselor's desk away from the bustle of children. Buffy leaned back against him as he put his arms around her. After a few moments of watching the children at play, Xander whispered in her ear, "I got a penny with your name on it for those thoughts."
"In this economy?" she smiled. "Cost ya more than that."
"Hey, in any economy, I'm sure I can come up with whatever you need to take care of rapid inflation."
"Mmm, as long as you don't lay any rapid deflation on me," she hummed, reaching back and stroking a hand along his thigh. "I'm sure you do have what I need, but making a…deposit…these days is getting hard."
"Oh, it's hard all right," he agreed. "Between your trip to Moscow and this whole Suvolte thing, it's really hard to find time to get to the…bank."
"Got time to maybe slip between the lanes at the drive-thru window at lunch?" she asked.
Xander sighed. "Got to be at the proving grounds with the R&D team for the magic test on the new armored track vehicle," he said. "So I have to leave soon."
"And I've got a dinner meeting with the new congressman," she echoed his sigh.
"Well, we'll just have to save it for a night deposit after dinner then," he smiled, and they both looked down at her wristwatch that suddenly beeped. "Let me guess…Joanie with a reminder you're due in a few minutes for a meeting with such and such?"
Buffy nodded. "Just as well," she said. "I think we're all out of bank metaphors anyway."
He laughed and turned her around in his arms to give her a kiss. "See ya, later then?"
"You bet," she said with a smile, and he let her go, and they both left the new day care center to head off in different directions.
Kennedy & Kadin's Cabin – Bedroom – Day
Kennedy sprawled across the bed, face down among several pillows. For several seconds she lay there in silence. The walls were the sturdy logs of the cabin Kadin had once lived in alone, and which they now shared. The bed was a four-poster, strong and rough-hewn. The room was dark, and the floor was haphazardly strewn with clothes and pieces of paper.
Kennedy still did not move.
The door to the room opened, and Kadin appeared. She leaned against the door frame for a moment and then sighed in resignation when she saw the state of the room. She took about two steps into the room before treading on a rumpled sweater. Kadin leaned down to pick it up and draped it over one arm of a chair. She reached the foot of the bed and put her hands on her hips.
"Are you going to get up at some point?" she asked. In response there came an unintelligible noise somewhere between a groan and a low bellow. " 'Cause I was thinking if you're not, I should just go with it and have you bronzed. At least then you wouldn't get fat." Kadin waited for a response. Nothing. "You're not planning on getting fat, are you?"
Still nothing. Kadin huffed in exasperation and shrugged. She leaned over and grabbed Kennedy by the foot. Kennedy's yell was muffled by the pillows. She tried to grab onto the corners to keep from moving, still keeping her face buried.
Kennedy's Car – Day
Kennedy sat behind the wheel of her Audi with bags under her eyes and her hair bedraggled. Her eyes stared ahead as she inched along in rush-hour traffic. An overly cheery newsreader blared over her radio.
"Prominent Senators promised to filibuster the President's appointee to the new post of Secretary of Supernatural Affairs…clouds and rain are in the forecast once again, hope you brought your umbrella today…the Indians' hot start has prompted a league investigation into a possible deal with the devil…this will be the third divorce for the Oscar-winning actress…"
Kennedy tried in vain to stretch her neck out. She winced as she rubbed it with one hand while keeping the other on the wheel.
"And now the big hit sweeping the airwaves, it's Hadley Ramirez with Stake to My Heart."
An energetic techno-pop beat began on Kennedy's speakers. Hadley delivered her lyrics in a husky croon, with occasional bits of autotune around the edges. "I'm out on the street/And I'm walkin' the beat/But in my soul I'm home with you/If only you would want me too…"
Kennedy growled and changed the station.
Council HQ – Front Door – Day
Kennedy hurried up to the front doors of the Council HQ at something awkwardly between a walk and a skip. "So I'm late," she mumbled to herself. "What are they gonna do, fire me?" She reached the revolving doors, which gave only grudgingly when Kennedy pushed on them.
Kennedy had only gotten about halfway when the door refused to move any further. Kennedy stood up for a moment then leaned into the door as much as she could, her muscles straining with the effort. The door did not budge. She looked behind her, but the glass had sealed her in. She tried again, throwing herself at the door shoulder first. She just bounced off with an ineffectual thud.
Her wordless yell of frustration was muffled by the glass doors on either side of her. When she was finished, she looked up, breathing hard, to see Grace standing there staring at her, a tablet computer tucked under one arm. Grace cocked her head. Kennedy pushed again, and the door squeaked loudly but still did not move.
Trying desperately not to smile, Grace walked over to the revolving door and kicked a piece of carpet that had been sticking up back into place. "Try it now," she said, loud enough to be heard through the door.
Kennedy pushed, and the door popped free. She entered the lobby with chest still heaving from her efforts. Grace waited, giving her a moment to collect herself.
When Kennedy finally turned to Grace , she said, "Thanks." She sounded miserable. She smoothed down her hair and started to walk away toward the nearest hallway. Grace hurried after her.
Kennedy sighed. "I'm okay, really."
"You really are, you know," Grace told her. "Okay, I mean. You're just going through sort of an…adjustment period."
"Guess I'll just have to stick it out," Kennedy said darkly.
"Yes," Grace nodded. "You know, you're not the first person to go through this, and…"
Kennedy rounded on her. "No, I'm not. And no matter what you think, I'm gonna figure this out."
"I never said…" Grace began, but Kennedy was already on her way.
"I'm gonna stick this out," Kennedy repeated as she left Grace behind. "Unlike some people."
Council HQ – Classroom – Day
Shannon stood in front of a class of younger slayers. A few were paying attention, at least one was busily taking notes, but most looked bored or distracted. On the whiteboard at the front of the room Shannon had created an elaborate diagram that looked a little like a football play, slayers represented as O's and bad guys represented as X's.
"So if we're doing a standard flanking, Slayer A will come around the side here." She drew a line on the board to illustrate her point. "And Slayer B does the same on the other side. Slayers C will act as a disruptor, right into the center. So does anybody know what Slayer D's assignment is?"
Shannon looked around at the room. The hand of the girl who had been busily taking notes shot into the air. Shannon sighed. "Yes, Ava?"
"She's performing preventative surveillance," Ava answered primly.
"Good, Ava," Shannon said. "Now, for our friends in the back who think I don't see them texting each other, what does that really mean?"
Two girls in the back of the room hurriedly hid their cell phones. Another girl spoke up. "She watches their backs."
Shannon looked back up at her diagram, licking her lips. "That's right." Then she continued, her voice more quiet. "But how do they know that's what she'll do?"
The girl who had spoken up looked confused. Ava diligently kept taking notes.
"I mean, sure, she promises, but how do they know she won't go staking other vampires behind their backs or-or just run off, just like her mother. They're…they're taking a risk, right? I mean, how do they know if the risk is too big?"
Shannon turned back around to look at the class. They were all paying attention now. "Well?" she asked, sounding particularly plaintive. Fortunately, at just that moment the bell rang. The class filed out, whispering to each to each other. Shannon stayed where she was, wringing her hands, until the class was gone and she saw Dawn standing in the doorway with a sly grin on her face.
"Though I may not look it, it's been a while since I took English class," Dawn said. "Was that a metaphor, an analogy, or spontaneous verbal combustion?"
Shannon sank into one of the desks. She let her head fall down against it with a thunk. "This is Norman's fault, you know."
"Yes, how dare he fall madly in love with you? Darn him." Dawn sat down in the desk beside Shannon.
"Yes!" Shannon insisted, sitting up. "You know, I told him I think of him as a friend. And I went out with those other guys."
"They were vengeance demons," Dawn pointed out.
"Only one of them!" Shannon got to her feet and started pacing in front of the whiteboard. "But he was always there, waiting, and eventually I thought, he's not gonna get over me until I give him one date, but it's just one date. And then it went really well, and I thought, okay, maybe this could be nice, but it-it wasn't supposed to be…you know!"
"Serious?" Dawn ventured. "A commitment?"
"Yes!" Shannon stopped and pointed at Dawn.
"Well, it seems to me that Norman's been taking it pretty seriously. You have to know that."
Shannon opened her mouth and closed it again. "Maybe."
"So there're really only a couple of options here," Dawn said. "Either you've been selfish and led him on, or maybe you feel the same way about him that he feels about you, and you're afraid of what that means."
Shannon threw up her arms in frustration. "Well, maybe I am afraid. I'm a slayer. I think it's natural to be a little commitment-phobic."
At this, she gathered up her books and headed out the door. Dawn groaned and followed.
Council HQ – Hallway – Moments Later
Dawn ran to catch up with Shannon, threading her way between kids. Shannon did not look happy to see her.
"Oh good," she said darkly. "I was hoping we could talk some more."
"You know," Dawn said, "I can't help wondering how much of this is about the other thing."
"What other thing?" Shannon asked innocently.
" 'Just like her mom'?" Dawn quoted. "He really is a great guy, Shan. It's not his fault his mom's run away more often than the French army."
Shannon thought this over. "I, um, I think it's more of symbolic significance than actual significance."
"So you're not going to marry him because of his mom's symbolic significance?"
"That's not…" Shannon huffed and cut a left into a doorway.
Council HQ – Lounge – Same Time
The lounge was mostly empty at this time of the morning, but Skye was sitting at the far end of the room watching the news on TV. Shannon entered with Dawn close behind her.
"Why do we even do this?" Shannon asked, now completely exasperated. "Why do we have to label things? Why can't we just be with each other and be happy and not have it be all…legal and sealed in fate and 'till death' about it?"
Skye turned around to look at them. "I see we've entered the 'ridiculous wishful thinking' phase of our latest soap opera."
"Baby…" Dawn sighed.
"Yeah, sorry, that was reflex," Skye said.
Dawn turned back to Shannon. "We're here for you, really."
Shannon ran a hand over her forehead and plopped down in one of the recliners. "I know I'm being weird here, guys. I have at least some self-awareness. I just…I put everything on the line every night fighting the forces of darkness. I don't need to do it in my personal life, too."
Skye shrugged. "Then don't marry him." Dawn shot her a look. "Or do marry him. It's not like most people take the 'till death' part seriously these days. I get to plan the bachelorette party. But, sister, be sure to get a pre-nup, that's all I'm…What?"
Shannon had picked up a magazine from the coffee table in front of her and was staring at it. She growled in frustration, threw the magazine down on the floor, and stood up. "I swear to God, it's like she's…she's haunting me!"
Shannon stormed out of the room. Dawn leaned down and picked up the magazine. It was a copy of Us Weekly. The main picture was a paparazzi shot of Lorinda and the young prince holding hands as they strolled in a garden. The headline blared "HAS HE ASKED HER YET?" in large type.
Coldstone Creamery – Day
Rowena slipped another spoonful of cheesecake-flavored ice-cream into her mouth. Her eyes nearly rolled up in her head. “Oh my God, it's so good.”
Willow cracked a smile. The two of them sat across from each other at a table in the back corner a suburban ice cream parlor. Elaborate sundaes occupied paper dishes in front of them. “I'm glad you like it,” Willow said. “I almost feel bad coming here without the kids.”
“They don't need the sugar,” Rowena rationalized. “I, on the other hand...” She groaned in delight as she downed another bite. “Oh!” She perked up, obviously having just had a thought. “What if we all came back here for Sophie's birthday next week?
“Actually, I've been meaning to tell you...” Willow began. She shifted awkwardly in her seat. “I won't be able to be there. In fact, I'm actually going AWOL for... several days.”
Rowena's smile faded, and she licked her lips. “Well, I wish you'd told me sooner. This is for work, right?”
“Well, sort of,” Willow told her. Rowena sat back in her seat, arms folded. “Okay, enough with the third degree!” Willow exclaimed. “We've been doing some research in the Coven and we feel like, well, the Council would be a lot better off if we had better allies. Well, bigger allies, actually. Why wait for a crisis to start asking for help?”
“You're talking about Gods, aren't you?” Rowena sighed. “Willow, you know that's dangerous.”
“Well, for some people,” Willow looked a little sheepish. “So anyway, I need to head to Greece personally to, y'know, supplicate and what-not, or it won't work. But if we don't do it soon the next window won't be for several months, because the gate is only open for a few days. It's 'cause of Persephone or something. But look, everything will be fine, I'll be back in a week tops.”
Rowena poked her ice cream with a long red plastic spoon. “Well, while you're drinking ambrosia, think of me elbow-deep in poopy diapers.”
“Don't worry, I will,” Willow said with a grin. Rowena did not look happy.
Council HQ – Buffy's Office – Same Time
Buffy stood with her back to the room, her arms crossed. She was looking up at the Slayer Scythe. It still hung in the same spot on the wall, red and silver glinting as if freshly polished.
"Do you still feel it?" Kennedy asked from behind her. Buffy spun around, a little startled. "The connection, when you hold it I mean," Kennedy clarified. "That sense of…I dunno, belonging?"
Buffy didn't answer, instead pulling out the chair behind her desk and sitting down. "I was beginning to think you wouldn't show."
Kennedy collapsed into the chair across from Buffy. She had a large brown stain on the front of her shirt. "Sorry, I had a stain emergency during breakfast."
One of the corners of Buffy's mouth turned up. "Miss your mouth with your coffee?"
"Third time this week," Kennedy nodded. "It's been years since I actually had to pay attention to my hand-eye coordination. How do you do this? I feel tired just walking! I've been holding back my whole life, and now I'm finding out that I don't know how to not hold back, and it's, um…"
"Frustrating?" Buffy supplied. "Look, it gets better, really, it does. I was a slayer longer than anybody and look at me now. I only miss my mouth once a week."
Kennedy was not placated. She gesticulated wildly. "Am I past my prime? Already? I pass thirty, and that's it? I can't have a mid-life crisis at 30, Buffy! Being useless it’s…it’s not my color, okay? I don’t wear it well."
"Trust me, Kennedy," Buffy sighed, by now used to dealing with this sort of angst, "you've got plenty more to give. Your future's so bright, you have to pull the blinds down. Or something. But listen, I actually wanted to talk about things more generally. How do you think Shannon's adjusting to being the top girl in the field?"
Kennedy folded her arms across her chest. "She's doing just dandy. Have you seen that girl fight? She's better than me. She's probably better than you."
Buffy's brow wrinkled. "Hey!"
"Then you haven't seen her. Trust me, it's not an insult. Her technique is just…awesome. She doesn't slay demons. She deconstructs them. Like a Proust novel…"
"So she's good," Buffy interrupted. "In a reference-I-don't-get sort of way. But is she, I dunno, leadership material?"
Kennedy quirked an eyebrow and thought about this for a moment. "Where's this coming from?"
"Well, the girl did shoot me with a crossbow once," Buffy pointed out. "On purpose. Doesn't tend to engender the trust on my part. But you like her?"
Kennedy blinked. "Yeah. I mean, yeah, I guess. She's Shannon, y'know? I mean, your sister trained her."
"Because that's a comfort," Buffy said, but she was smiling. "Moving on…" She glanced at her computer screen and clicked her mouse a few times. "Duty roster?"
Looking somewhat apologetic, Kennedy produced a folded and wrinkled sheet of paper from the back pocket of her jeans and handed it over. Buffy sighed and put on a pair of bifocals so that she could read it.
Kennedy licked her lips and adjusted herself in her seat. "I was actually thinking, um, if you wouldn't mind, maybe you could cover for me doing assignments tonight."
Buffy glanced up at her over her glasses. "You have plans with Kadin?"
"Not with Kadin," Kennedy replied. "Look, it shouldn't be too hard, it's looking like a really quiet wee –"
"Don't say it!" Buffy snapped, reaching out a finger as if to physically shush Kennedy. "No jinxing!"
Kennedy grinned. "I forgot. Your streak. Can we still talk to you, or are you like a pitcher working on a Perfect Game?"
"I…don't know what you mean," Buffy said innocently, studiously turning her attention back to the duty roster.
"Going on 700 days without an apocalypse," Kennedy said. "That's gotta be your personal best."
"I haven't been counting," Buffy insisted without looking up. "But it's been 745, actually. I'd like to make it 746, if it's perfectly all right with you."
Smash Cut To:
Thailand – Remote Village –Night
Flames engulfed the heavy thatched roofs of the village, sending thick plumes of dark smoke into the night sky. The sound of human anguish hung thickly in the air. The villagers rushed to and fro in a panic.
A young girl, maybe ten years old, ran down a narrow street carrying a scrawny goat in her arms. She screamed for her parents. Not looking where she was going, she tripped over a woven basket that lay on its side in the center of the street. The goat slipped free from her arms with a bleat and darted away. The girl yelled after it, but it had disappeared in the smoke and gloom.
A pair of dirty bare feet with long toenails stopped in front of the crying girl. A long-fingered hand reached down to help her up. She accepted it.
The demon from the shack in the forest looked down at her, as if trying to find some hidden meaning in her presence. A demon of the same species, wearing the same simple clothing, appeared behind him.
"Jengar, we have captured most of the humans and are loading them into
the vehicles," the second demon said in the local dialect. "Do you
have additional orders?"
Jengar's expression hardened. He grabbed the girl and shoved her in his subordinate's direction. "Take this one," he said. "Take them all."
"Yes sir," said the subordinate. The girl whimpered as she was roughly dragged away.
Jengar strode down the street toward his waiting truck. Behind him, there was an orange wall of flame where the village had been.
End of Act One
Onto Act Two