Spago Restaurant – Resume
“No thank you?” Buffy asked Faith. She still sounded like she couldn’t quite believe it.
“Yes, no thank you. That’s what I told Andrew. What makes you think I would tell you anything different?”
“Women are dying because of this. We need to shut it down.”
“Like I said, it’s killing slayers.”
“What I mean is, how is this your issue? Or even mine, for that matter?”
“We have an obligation to all these slayers that we created.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m sure you will, but from what I remember there’s only one person who created the slayers. And she’s not at this table right now.”
“So what are you saying? This is all Willow’s fault?”
“You know that’s not what I’m saying!” Faith exclaimed. Then she lowered her voice and glanced at the tables that had looked their way at the outburst. “We needed all those girls to beat back The First. And we did. But slayers aren’t dumb. I’m sure any woman who takes that serum realizes that there’s going to be risks with it.”
“But what if they don’t? What if this person or group is feeding them false hope?”
“And what if they’re not? What if it works? If someone’s willing to take those risks, who am I to say that she shouldn’t? Besides, isn’t the Council working on something themselves to help with this so-called ‘Slayer Syndrome’ for women over thirty? How is what you’re doing any different from what this pharmaceutical company is doing?”
“Why do you think it’s a pharma company?”
“Come on, B. Who do you think has the resources to do something like this and also doesn’t care if they just kill people left and right?”
“Well, unlike a pharma company, the Council is not using these women as live test subjects. And I can’t believe you don’t care about what happens to them.”
“Of course I care. Don’t confuse my reluctance to get involved in some undercover operation with apathy.”
“Then why not help us? Why not help me?”
“Honestly, this is one of the reasons that I left the Council. This very thing that’s happening here. Someone is always telling you what to do, where to go, and it gets old. I left so I could be in control of myself and not in the Council crosshairs.”
“I thought it was because you couldn’t be a slayer anymore.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but you thought wrong. If I tell these women what they should and shouldn’t do with their body, that makes me a hypocrite. I’m lots of things, but a hypocrite isn’t one of them.”
Buffy shook her head. “I can’t believe you won’t help.”
“I won’t because it’s not my place. I don’t think it’s yours either. But again, I’m not gonna tell any woman what she should and shouldn’t do – even you. So, if you wanna follow this wherever it leads, go right ahead. That’s your choice. And I wouldn’t stand in your way. But don’t ask me to help or try to manipulate me into feeling bad ’cause I won’t.”
Buffy closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“You’ll figure it out,” Faith continued. “You always do. But you don’t need my help to do it. I’m sorry you came here for nothing. And it’s gotta be getting pretty late for you, so why don’t we head back to my place for the night.”
Buffy grinned. “Looking for fun my husband wouldn’t approve of?”
Faith chuckled, “No, but since you mentioned it…”
Buffy smiled in return, but then it began to fade. Faith seemed to read her mind.
“I love ya, really. But this isn’t my fight and, truthfully, it’s not yours either. And if you’re gonna see this through, and I know you are because that’s just who you are…be careful.”
“I’m serious,” Faith stressed. “If you go to DC and start messing with the owners of this country, hell, the owners of this world, prepare for blow back. And I’m not talking about politicians. Those people are just puppets who do the owners’ bidding. Taking on ‘big pharma’ might have big consequences. And not just for you, but for anyone you love. Promise me you’ll keep lookin’ over your shoulder and plan your next steps carefully.”
“Is fear the real reason you’re not helping? Are you scared?” Buffy asked.
“No,” Faith replied. “But if you’re gonna pursue this, you should be.”
Watchers Council – Lobby – Next Day
The first thing that Maddie Allen noticed, besides the amount of natural sunlight thanks to the large windows, was the height of the Council foyer. She craned her neck, looking up toward a ceiling that appeared to be about six stories above her. Off to one side were three banks of glass elevators taking people to the various floors. She made her way over to the reception desk, her eyes shifting left and right, taking in all the sights around her. To her left, by a garbage can, appeared to be a janitor at work. To her right, a squad of slayers walked by in double file formation.
Watchers Council – Undisclosed Room – Same Time
An unknown person wore a headset as they looked at a monitor that featured facial recognition software. A still image of Maddie, along with her information, appeared next to the live video of her standing in the lobby line.
“Yes, sir,” the person said into the headset. “Ninety-two percent accuracy…I’ll stay with her until you say to disengage.”
Watchers Council – Lobby – Same Time
After the person in front of Maddie moved away from the desk, she heard the attendant ask, “Welcome to the Watchers Council. How can I help you today?”
“I don’t know if I’m at the right place,” Maddie said nervously. Then she quickly added, “I know you’re the Watchers Council. I just don’t know if you can help with the situation that may or may not be a thing. I know I’m being extremely vague, and chances are this was just a stupid idea anyway. I shouldn’t have come here. I’m sorry for taking up your time.” She sighed and then started to turn to leave.
“Please don’t leave,” the receptionist said. “Many times people see odd or strange things, and they’re not sure what to make of it, so let’s put you in touch with someone, and you can tell them your story.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t be here if I thought there was another choice, but…like I said, I don’t wanna bother anybody. I don’t even know if there’s really anything to be worried about.”
“How about we find out?” the receptionist offered.
At that moment, Robin, a phone at his ear, was making his way over from the exterior doors. With him were his daughter, Nikki, and all of the Rosenberg-Allister children. Nikki, Jen and Alex were laughing about something, while Sophie and Jake were playing a game of tag.
“Gotcha last,” Jake told Sophie as he poked her arm and then ran behind Jen.
Robin walked toward the front desk as the kids naturally and rather absently followed his progression. Alex was mid-laugh when he noticed Maddie. Everything around him seemed to stop and fall silent, until the only sound he thought he heard was, “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” by Cutting Crew. He was so fixated on looking at Maddie that he didn’t realize that Jen had stopped in front of him, and he ran into his sister.
“Dude! Walk much?” Jen snapped at her brother, turning herself away from her conversation with Nikki. “Watch where you’re going,” she told him.
“Sorry,” he said absent-mindedly.
Robin nodded toward the elevators and told his group, “Go on to class. I’ve got something here first.”
As the kids moved deeper into the Council, Robin stepped up to the desk where Maddie was talking with the attendant. For his part, Alex kept looking over his shoulder at the pair. Finally, when they were all waiting for the elevator, he handed his backpack to Jen and said, “Can you take this to class? I’ll see you there.” Without waiting for an answer, he let it go and started walking back toward the reception area.
“I’m not your servant,” Jen complained, but still put his pack over her shoulder.
Alex either completely ignored her remark or didn’t hear it, and simply said, “Thank you.”
He went back around the corner and, from afar, he saw Robin and Maddie talking to one another. He watched Robin hold up his hand and motioned for Maddie to stay there as he walked around the reception area and went to the phone. Alex took a deep breath and blew it out slowly before he made his way over to the young woman, who seemed about as nervous as he did.
Once he was within a few feet of her, he said, “Hey.” Under his breath, he muttered, annoyed with himself, “So not original.”
“What?” Maddie asked, not quite understanding what was happening.
“You were at the museum that night, weren’t you?” Alex asked.
“Yeah,” she responded, and then she started to look even more nervous. “Who are you?”
“Sorry. I’m Alex,” he said, extending his hand. “I was there that night.”
Maddie scrunched her eyes and then recognition took hold. “You’re the boy-witch who burned down the museum.”
“Man-witch,” Alex corrected as he lowered his un-shook hand. “I mean, just witch.”
“Okay, Witch. Is there something I can do for ya?”
Alex suddenly looked like a deer in the headlights. “I thought, maybe, if you were interested, you might want to hang out sometime.”
“Are you asking me on a date?”
“If I did, would you say yes?”
“No,” Maddie said in a monotone.
“Then I am not asking,” Alex said.
Robin had hung up at that point and saw Alex standing there with Maddie. “Did you need something, Alex?” he asked.
“No, I was just on my way to class. You guys have a good day.” Alex then turned around and rolled his eyes at his inept performance as he walked away.
University Lab – Afternoon
Dr. Tamara Goldman was standing directly behind Willow looking over her shoulder, mere centimeters separating the pair.
“Have a look. Tell me what you see,” the doctor instructed, nodding forward toward the microscope.
Willow leaned down, and when she did, her hair fell forward. Tamara used her index finger to push the wayward hair behind Willow’s ear. The witch glanced over with a slight smile, which Tamara returned. The doctor nodded again toward the microscope, and Willow put her eye back over the lens, the grin still planted on her face.
“Which sample is this?” Willow asked.
“The Brell demon.”
Willow looked a few moments more and said, “Whatever it is, I’m not seeing it.” She raised up and looked over at Tamara for confirmation. The woman simply nodded and then changed the slide.
“Now have a look at this one.”
Once more Willow put her head down and Tamara kept her hair out of her view. She pushed Willow’s hair over her back and her hand lingered on Willows’ shoulder. Willow was half-glancing at Tamara and looking in the microscope at the same time. She began to focus on the task at hand when Tamara asked, “Do you see it?”
Again, Willow stared at it for a moment, and then her head shot up and said, “There’s an anomaly. They look almost identical, except every tenth one or so appears to be misshapen.”
“Yes! It’s not just me who sees it.” She excitedly turned and grabbed two more slides. “This sample was taken from a Frytel Demon, not a Brell Demon.” Willow looked again and she nodded. “Now look at the second slide.”
Tamara moved the next slide into place.
“Different demon, but the same odd-looking cell again.” Willow rose back up as the doctor nodded and put away the slides before she grabbed two more.
“Last two samples,” the doctor told her. As Willow peered through the microscope, the doctor continued, “These are the Skrad Demon.”
“These two look the same. No change,” Willow replied.
“All three subjects were exposed; however, only two of them got sick. When that happened, they changed at the cellular level.”
“So this disease is kinda like…bizarro sickle cell anemia.”
“In a way, that’s correct. It’s only affecting certain subsets of a species. As you mentioned, it’s like homo sapiens with sickle cell anemia. Caucasians experience it far less. In your scenario, Skrad Demons would be the Caucasians.”
“So, if that’s the case, then how do we fight it?”
“We don’t have an answer…yet. But we’re getting there. I want to run more samples to see if it’s a coincidence or a cause. Maybe using something from the demons that aren’t inflicted with the virus might help with creating a vaccine or an antidote.”
Willow suddenly had a “ah-ha” expression and said, “Let me get ahold of Tess at WellFresh. She’s working on a trial to help slayers adjust after they lose their powers.” Willow dialed her phone and put it out to her ear. After a few moments, she said, “Willow Rosenberg. Demon vaccine.” After a few more moments, Tamara watched as Willow grinned. “I’m good. Thank you for taking my call. I know you must be busy, but we were wondering if you might be able to set us up with some ingredients for a vaccine we may be cookin’ up shortly.” Tamara watched as Willow continued to listen. “I’m here with Dr. Tamara Goldman, a geneticist from Case Western…Yes, I figured you might have heard of her.” A cockeyed grin formed on Tamara’s face. “Can I put you on speakerphone, Tess?” Willow tapped her phone and then said, “Okay, this will make it easier so I don’t have to repeat everything. Please tell me what you were just saying.”
“Not a problem. Hello, Dr. Goldman.”
“Hello. Thank you for taking our call.”
Wellfresh Pharmaceuticals – CEO’s Office – Same Time
“I always have time for Council business,” Tess replied, standing at the floor-to-ceiling window, staring out at the metropolis below. “As I was saying, we do have some compounds that you might be able to use if you’re looking to create a vaccine. You’re also welcome to use our laboratory, if you like. Just give us a heads-up and we can see about making that happen.”
“Actually, that would be wonderful,” Tamara’s voice echoed through the sleek modern office over the speakers.
“Okay, let me get in touch with development in Cleveland and tell them that we’re going to need an area for you guys. I can give you a call in, let’s say, two days?”
“That would be super, Tess. Thank you very much,” Willow replied.
“No worries. We’ll be in touch soon.”
University Lab – Afternoon – Same Time
“Look at you,” Tamara said to Willow with a smile after she hung up. “One quick call from you, and we suddenly have ourselves a state-of-the-art vaccine laboratory.”
Willow blushed. “I’m not really that special.”
“No, you are,” Tamara told her, and put her hand on Willow’s shoulder. “What do you say we celebrate with lunch? My treat?”
Willow put her hand over top of Tamara’s and gave it an awkward pat. Her voice slightly cracked as she said, “Sounds great.”
Watchers Council – Grace’s Office — Day
Grace nearly jumped at the buzz from her intercom system. She turned from her computer screen to press down on the talk button. “Yes?”
“Chairwoman?” her assistant asked. “Your two o’clock is here.”
Grace took her finger off the intercom and cricked her neck to one side then the other. She licked her lips. Then she pressed the button again. “Send Ms. Stewart in.”
Her office door opened, and a tall, mahogany-skinned woman in a business suit and impeccable makeup strode into the Chairwoman’s office. As she did so, Grace stood and began to walk around her desk.
“Tiffany!” she said. A smile had appeared on Grace’s face. “It’s good to see you again.” Grace held out her hand, and the woman took it and gave it a firm shake.
“Thanks for making the time,” said Tiffany Stewart. Her smile seemed, if anything, more practiced than Grace’s, and her teeth were very white. “I know our office sent flowers, but I did want to extend my condolences for Ms. Pierce’s passing in person. I know you were her watcher.”
Grace’s smile didn’t quite flicker, but it froze briefly. “Thank you, Tiffany, it’s much appreciated.” She gestured to the two well-appointed chairs sitting by one of the windows. “Shall we?”
“You might think it a little bit strange for me to say,” Tiffany said as she sat down, crossing her legs and leaning forward slightly as she did so, “but I do understand what it’s like. I lost my watcher myself, you might recall.”
“That’s right,” Grace said. “Eric McMillan. You were at the Chicago Branch.”
The other woman nodded. “Where Jeff is now, I hear. That must be hard.”
Grace briefly looked out the window then back at her guest. “You know, we’ve talked around it the past few years, but one of these days when we have more time, you’ll have to tell me how you went from being Lead Slayer at a Council branch to running for President of the Guild of Independent Slayers.”
Tiffany gestured with both palms facing out. “But…surely you’ve read all that, right? You know everything I said in all my speeches, I’m sure.”
Grace’s smile grew more knowing. “Sure, but…I think we both know that knowing the ‘what’ and knowing the ‘why’ are very different. Maybe you’ll tell me what really happened one of these days.”
“Actually, that reminds me, the part about being Lead Slayer, I mean,” the other woman said, looking down at her notes as she changed the subject. “I also heard what happened to Lucia Dominguez. An absolute tragedy.”
The Chairwoman’s expression darkened slightly, and she paused a moment before answering. When she did so, her voice sounded harder. “Tiffany, why are you here?”
Tiffany’s mouth closed, and she breathed in and out deeply, just once, through her nose. “According to the description I saw, it seems like Ms. Dominguez was out on a patrol, despite having lost her powers about a year ago.”
“None of that’s public,” Grace said quickly, “and I can’t confirm or deny any of it. Also you didn’t answer my question.”
“Meanwhile,” the other woman continued, “rumors of some sort of drug or cure for slayers losing their powers are running rampant in the shadier corners of social media.”
“Well, don’t believe–”
“And it’s not just online. The girls I’ve talked to are hearing things. It’s all just a friend of a friend at this point, but I trust these women.”
“Again, you still haven’t–”
Tiffany Stewart looked Grace in the eye and asked, “Chairwoman, is any of this true? Is there a drug, or any kind of treatment, that will allow slayers to keep their powers past age thirty?” When Grace simply stared back, she continued, “We have had our differences in the past, and maybe in the present, so it’s easy to forget, I know, but we’re both on the same side of the good fight. I would really hope that if something like this were out there, you would want to reach out and work with the GIS on this. The women I represent deserve to know the real story.”
Grace sat back in her chair and put her hands in her lap. “Well, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t know the real story, either. It sounds like you know about as much as I do. More to the point…if the women you represent really thought they deserved to know everything we know, they could come by here, today, and sign up. We’d probably accept ninety percent of them.”
The other woman rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’ve heard that one before. You forget, I was on the inside once upon a time, and how I remember it is that you tend not to tell the slayers jack. Yeah, some of it’s because of OPSEC, but I’m pretty sure most of it is because the watchers want to tell the slayers to jump, and they want the slayers to ask ‘how high.’ They’re not supposed to ask why.”
“Tiffany, you know that’s not true.”
“Do I? You know what a girl told me earlier today?” Tiffany watched as Grace folded her arms and looked out the window, then pressed on. “She said that the watchers made it so the slayers all lose their powers at thirty so they can keep them under control. What am I supposed to say to something like that when you won’t even tell me what you know about one of the most fundamental issues facing slayers today?”
“I already told you what I know!” Grace looked away from the window and threw up her arms, raising her voice slightly. “Not much. Weren’t you the one who wrote that op-ed for The Atlantic the other week?” Her eyes closely monitored the other woman’s reaction, which was to cross her arms defensively across her chest. “Yeah, I saw that. ‘The era of the Watchers Council as the be-all-and-end-all of protecting the world from supernatural threats is over?’ Am I remembering that right? Maybe the GIS should figure it out themselves, if they don’t need us.”
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Tiffany pointed an accusatory finger at Grace. “You just don’t like that there’s somebody else who can tell you ‘no’ to your face. You’re used to having what you say go. Well, I don’t work for you, Chairwoman, and believe me when I say–”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” At the sound of the word ‘sorry’ being pronounced with a long ‘o,’ both women turned to see Rowena standing in the half-open door. “Your assistant told me I should come in, I didn’t…”
“Miss Allister, it’s no problem,” Tiffany said. The very white smile was back. “We were just finishing.”
“I mean, I thought we were just getting started,” Grace said, the smile back on her face. “It feels like you just got here.”
Rowena stood aside as Tiffany Stewart walked past her and out the door, nodding as she passed. Then she turned to Grace and asked, “Your assistant sent me in because she heard yelling, didn’t she?”
“Yep,” Grace replied.
Melt Restaurant – Later that Day
“All four of them do it?”
Willow nodded. “Yes. Not in the same division obviously because of their ages, but yes they all do motocross. I have a picture actually.”
“Oh, show me,” Tamara said excitedly.
Willow pulled out her phone and then reached across a table of half-eaten extremely large and overstuffed grilled cheese sandwiches and showed her the image.
“Look at those little bikes. They look adorable.”
“Don’t they?” Willow beamed. “It’s the one thing they all do together, aside from the music, so I’m glad they have interests outside the Council.”
“How exactly did they get into motocross? I’ve seen the way they go over those hills, and that would scare the hell out of me.”
“Me too. I don’t have that kind of coordination. It actually started with Jen. She wanted to do it, and then Alex wanted to do everything that she did, so we got them small dirt bikes.”
“I’ll be honest. I would be too nervous to let my daughter do that.”
“Well, Jen’s a slayer and Alex has magic, so, honestly, I’m not too worried about the two of them. I’m not sure what will happen with Jake and Sophie since they just started getting into motocross with the old bikes that Jen and Alex got too big to use.”
“They don’t even look big enough to ride a bike, much less a cycle.”
“Actually, the younger they start, the better. They get more practice. Plus, you don’t know all the ins and outs of gravity at that age, so that makes you braver I think.” Both women chuckled. “I will say, Jen and Alex are very good teachers. For all the insanity they seem to bring to my life, they do take the safety of it very seriously, and they all love the track that Xander built them.”
“So, he’s an active part of their lives? If I’m being too personal, just tell me.”
“He is and he isn’t. For example, with our racing course, I mentioned, offhand, how the kids were getting into motocross and he saw the little setup we had in the backyard. Next week he comes in with blueprints and schematics and earthmovers,” Willow laughed, with Tamara joining her. “Biologically, he is their dad, but in the course of our relationship, he’s fun Uncle Xander. But enough about me. Tell me about your daughter.”
“She’s eight years old, so right between your youngest boy and girl. She’s still a sponge who soaks up everything. And she loves science, which is nice because we have that in common. We’ve thought about having more kids, but so far it’s just her, and we’re okay with that. I’m not sure if I want to start motherhood all over again.”
“I know what you mean. Rowena has talked about it, and even Kennedy had mentioned that it might be possible to have children literally together, but I don’t know if that’ll work for us.”
“I’m always happy to take on a new patient,” Tamara mentioned.
“Yeah, I’m just not sure I’m the same woman that I used to be.”
Tamara cocked her head slightly at the sadness in Willow’s voice. She reached out and put her hand on top of Willow’s that was resting on the table.
“I think you’re pretty phenomenal.”
“I doubt that.”
“You shouldn’t. I could have shown that microscope today to any of my graduate students or colleagues, and they wouldn’t have caught what you did.”
“Well, it’s easy when you’re there to show me the way.”
“Please. Don’t sell yourself short. Besides, I also heard a rumor that, and you can tell me to shut up if you like, it was you who activated all of the slayers we currently have. Is it true or an urban legend?”
“It’s been a few decades, but yes. What I’ve done since then, well, I’m not sure if there’s anything too special lately.”
“I find that hard to believe. Because I think you’re absolutely extraordinary and I don’t say that to everybody.”
Willow smiled. “It’s been a while since I felt extraordinary.”
“Well, get ready because I think the two of us are on a path that’s going to rock this world. You’ll see.”
Willow laced her fingers with Tamara’s, which had still been touching her hand. “I’d be lying if I said that’s something I haven’t been hoping to hear lately.” She gave the digits a squeeze and Tamara smiled even bigger.
“We make a great team,” Tamara said decidedly.
Tamara squeezed Willow’s hand and said, “I know that when your partner wants to take the next step in your family, it can be scary, trust me. But I can tell you from experience, your life doesn’t have to end when you have kids. It’s never easy, don’t get me wrong, but you and your wife can still make room for all kinds of…new experiences.”
Willow looked back into Tamara’s eyes, and her breath caught.
Tamara grinned and let go of her hand. “That’s how I see it, anyway.”
Watchers Council – Hallway – Same Time
“I’m sorry for pulling you out of class,” Robin told Rowena as they walked down the hallway going towards the Coven Room. “I seem to be making that a habit lately.”
“No worries,” Rowena told him. “Truth be told, I could use the break from the tweens today.”
Watchers Council – Coven Room – Continuous
As they entered the Coven Room, Dawn held up the USB stick and said, “It’s not enchanted magically, and we haven’t detected any viruses on it. It seems to be above-board. In fact, it’s not even encoded with encryption of any kind. It’s just a lot of files.”
“What kind of files?” Robin asked.
“Real estate transactions, primarily,” Skye offered. “To be honest, I was kinda disappointed. I was hoping it would have some mystical magical connotation that binds the world together or whatever, but it’s a lot of spreadsheets with boring shit.”
Robin and Rowena both looked to Dawn for confirmation, who simply shrugged and said, “She’s not wrong. But I’m sure it’s just pieces of a greater puzzle. I’d like to keep working on it if we can. Will Ms. Allen let us keep the thumb drive?”
“Let’s ask her,” Robin suggested.
Watchers Council – Lounge Area – Moments Later
Maddie was the only one seated in the lounge area as she sipped a can of soda pop. When she saw Robin walk in with three other women, she set the can down and stood up to meet him.
“I’d like to introduce—” Robin began.
“I know them — you’re the Original Slayer’s sister and she’s your vamp galpal, right?” Maddie asked. “Didn’t she experiment on you once upon a time?” she added, motioning to Rowena. She looked over at the blond watcher, who had one eyebrow raised. “Yeah, I read your book. The lancer can read. Surprise!”
Skye extended her hand. “I hear that you’re the lancer who crashed a party and destroyed a wing of the art museum. Congrats. It usually takes someone years of practice to reach that level of destruction.”
When Maddie didn’t take Skye’s offered hand, Dawn used one hand to put Skye’s arm down and extended her own hand to Maddie, “Yes, I’m Dawn Summers, and it’s nice to meet you, Ms. Allen.”
“You can call me Maddie,” she said, shaking Dawn’s hand. “I’m not so much for the formal stuff.”
“So, where did you get this drive?” Rowena asked.
Maddie gave them a possibly guilty grin and said, “Funny you should mention the museum. A guy paid me to show up there, which I did. The story I was originally told was that someone was going to steal this artifact, and I had to stop them. Slayer strength and all that. I see you Council guys there, and I figured you were trying to steal the artifact, too.”
“That was the plan,” Rowena replied.
“Yeah, big shock. Well, as you know, the artifact was destroyed, and nobody got it. I figured he would give me a hard time since I didn’t complete the assignment. But he paid me in full and told me that I did exactly what he needed.”
“Which was?” Robin asked.
“Chaos. Turns out, he really didn’t care about the artifact at all.”
“What?” Dawn asked.
“Right?” Maddie continued. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dumb. But it didn’t make any sense to me either. Flash to earlier this week, I see a news broadcast that the guy who hired me, Todd, is dead and not in some ‘I’m an old guy who had a heart attack’ way. I did some diggin’. This guy was straight-up mutilated.”
“The real estate developer, Todd Kramer?” Rowena verified.
Maddie nodded. “Yep, and I see his secretary, who won’t talk to me about anything, but she hands me this thumb drive. I took it to the Stake and Crossbow, and some of the gals there had a look, so they sent me here.”
“I’m glad you reached out to us,” Robin said sincerely.
“Sure. But if I’m being completely honest, I’m worried now. Since I’ve seen this, am I gonna end up like Todd? Is my mother gonna end up like Todd? Are the girls at the bar gonna end up like Todd? You guys now? I don’t want anybody ending up like Todd, if you follow me.”
“So you think this drive is that valuable?” Dawn asked.
“I got no idea. That’s why I’m here. You guys are supposed to be the best in the world when it comes to this stuff, at least that’s what you tell everybody, and I know you’ve got no reason to help me whatsoever. I’m just outta places to go for answers. And now that I think about it, maybe comin’ here was a bad idea. If they’re watchin’ me and saw me come in here, then I’m screwed too. I should just go.”
Maddie started to move for her coat when Rowena stepped forward. “You’re scared.”
“Damn right I’m scared,” Maddie freely admitted.
“Then let us help,” the watcher continued.
“I ain’t joinin’ the Council,” she said firmly.
“We’re not offering,” Skye remarked.
Rowena shot her a “you’re not helping” look and then turned back to Maddie. “No one is asking anything of you other than your time. We’ll talk about the drive, but also ways we can keep you safe that don’t involve joining the mission. Okay?”
“The mission?” Maddie asked. “Who do you think is out on the streets every night?”
“I mean, us,” Skye pointed out.
Maddie turned to Dawn. “I’m sorry, I don’t get it. Is this, like, a fetish thing, or….?”
“Okay?” Rowena repeated loudly, annoyance entering her voice.
Maddie nodded but didn’t seem entirely convinced.
“Here’s an idea,” Dawn suggested chirpily. “Let’s go over what you know about Todd and what we know about Todd, and then we can look over the drive together.”
“You already know stuff about Todd?” Maddie asked.
Rowena nodded. “Anytime there’s a suspicious death, we investigate.”
“Wow,” Maddie seemed taken aback and, maybe in spite of herself, slightly impressed.
“Then later,” Dawn continued. “Lunch should be started by then, so we’ll grab a quick bite and then go over some protocols that could keep you safe – again, no need to join or anything. How’s that sound?”
Maddie nodded again, but this time with a bit more confidence.
“Grab your jacket and your drink,” Robin instructed her. “We’ll move this into the conference room.”
As Maddie followed Robin, Rowena leaned over to Dawn and whispered, “You were always good with those hard-to-reach slayers.”
“I learned from Buffy, and Faith, to a lesser extent. Offer a slayer food and they’ll follow you anywhere,” she whispered back. “Regardless of how they feel about your sex life.”
The women all smiled as they left the room.
Watchers Council – Slayer Gym – Afternoon
Buffy walked in with bags under her eyes. Despite it being afternoon, she raised a large tumbler to her lips and drank several glugs of coffee. She looked around the room and saw several other individual slayers and small groups, some working with watchers. Then she spotted Emma in one corner, spotting Cindy as the redhead power-lifted some very heavy-looking weights.
As Buffy walked over to the pair, she could hear that Cindy’s usual monologue was continuing through her lifts.
“I love Shannon, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve never been on the same wavelength, y’know? Like, I get that it’s a whole big scary thing, but she’s not even having an F.O.P. party.”
“She’s never really been a big…partier,” Emma offered between lifts.
“What about our needs?” Cindy argued as she kept up her lifts. “Some of my best drinking nights have been at F.O.P.s. Hey, do you remember Gretchen’s? Oh man, I took Ramon Gutierrez back to the dorm, and when he–”
“Yes, I do remember,” Emma said, “because I stayed in the hallway for two hours playing games on my phone then went to sleep in the lounge.”
With Emma’s help, Cindy set the weights back on their rails. She sat up and looked at her roommate. “I mean, you can just come in and join us. Trust me, the dude is not gonna say no.” Cindy’s tone made it very clear which participant in this conversation she thought was being unreasonable.
“Shockingly, I don’t plan on taking you up on that.”
Cindy just sighed and grabbed a towel. “Your loss,” she tossed off as she walked away.
A few moments later, Emma turned her attention from the retreating form of her sweaty, sports bra-clad roommate to the approaching Buffy. Her cheeks reddened slightly. “How much of that did you hear?”
“More than I wanted to,” Buffy said, “but enough to congratulate you on your life choices.” She offered the tumbler of coffee to Emma, who raised a hand and shook her head.
“Thanks,” Emma said, somewhat sardonically. She took a seat on the bench of the weightlifting station. “How did L.A. go?”
“Kind of a bust, actually,” Buffy said with a sigh, “which means we’re sort of back at square one.”
“At least you got a good dinner out of it,” Emma pointed out. “I wasn’t quite sure what the cafeteria special was serving, but it had the word ‘surprise’ in the name, which is never a good…you okay?”
The slayer had noticed Buffy had paused, a far-off look in her eye. At Emma’s inquiry, she snapped back to reality. “I’m listening!” she said, a little too quickly.
Buffy’s tone changed suddenly. “So, is Shannon having a hard time with the…transition?”
Emma blinked at her watcher then shrugged. “I mean, probably? Doesn’t everyone? She’s not turning cartwheels. But then, she never did. Shannon will have your back six ways to Sunday, but she was never real big with the sharing of the emotions. So who knows, maybe she’s thrilled.”
The wheels were clearly still turning behind Buffy’s eyes. “Okay,” she said after another pause. She looked down at Emma and said, “Why don’t you get changed, Grace wants us both on this one. We’ve got to go see a girl about a thing. I need to make a stop first.”
She took another long swig of coffee.
Watchers Council – Xander’s Workshop – Minutes Later
The sound of Buffy’s soft greeting pulled Xander’s eyes toward the entrance. He looked up from the weapon that he was working on and put down the screwdriver in his hand.
“Hey,” he replied in a similar tone and volume.
Several seconds passed with neither of them saying anything as Buffy walked deeper into the room. Finally, she said, “Before I went to bed in the plane’s suite, I told them not to wake me because I had my alarm set, but I slept through my alarm. That’s why I didn’t come home last night. I found out this morning that they sent a slayer to stand guard at the plane until I woke up because that was my last order. Can you believe that?”
“Actually, I do.”
“Well, when my wife doesn’t come home, I will try to find her.” He grinned, just slightly. “I called the hangar and they told me. I do have to wonder, though…is that the only reason Joyce and I were alone last night?”
“It is. And then this morning I found myself busy, since Faith was a bust – the chocolate mousse was good, though.” Again, Xander didn’t say anything. “I don’t wanna fight,” Buffy continued.
“I don’t wanna fight, either. But we need to figure this out.”
Buffy walked deeper into the room and took a seat on one of the wooden stools next to the workbench.
She cleared her throat. “I say this without any judgment…what do you expect from me as Joyce’s mom?”
Xander thought about it. “I want her to be the most important thing in your life.”
“Too bad – you hold that spot.”
“So am I,” Buffy replied without hesitation. “I can make more babies, well, maybe, but there’s only one you.”
“You know what I mean,” Xander countered.
“I really don’t. You asked for an answer and that’s my answer. Joyce is my second most important thing,” she replied. “But that doesn’t mean she’s the only thing. I have Emma, the Council and this pesky thing called defending humanity and civilization. I have an extended family, thanks to the Gileses, the Woods and the Rosenberg-Allisters. Joyce is not my universe, but she is the second brightest star in it. We already covered who’s the first. So honestly, Xander…what’s this really about?”
Xander considered her words again for a moment. “I don’t want Joyce to have the life I had growing up. I don’t want that for her.”
“You’re not your father, and I’m not your mother. We’re actually having a discussion here right now, not screaming or throwing things at each other.”
“I know…it’s just I worry. I think about how the only good ‘childhood memories’ I have are from when I’d sleep over at Willow’s house.”
“Again, we’re different.”
“Yes, but from the time I could work a lock on a door, I was pretty much alone. My parents didn’t raise me. I raised myself, with a scattering of Shelia and Ira Rosenberg mixed in. I don’t want that for Joyce. I want her to know you, to know me. I want her to love you because of the memories she has with you and not just because she has to ‘love’ you because you’re her mom.”
“Why don’t you think I’ll make memories with her?”
Xander shrugged. “Because everything else comes first now. Emma, the Council – all that comes before her.”
Buffy paused. “She can’t even say momma yet,” she pointed out.
“Yeah, but when she does, will you be there to hear it?” Xander asked.
“So what am I supposed to do? Don an apron and stay home all day? That’s fine for some women if that’s what they want, but that’s not me, Xander.”
“I just don’t want her to be a latchkey kid while you’re flying off to L.A. when duty calls.”
“I can’t promise that would never happen, because it might. Being a watcher takes me to many different places. It’s not like I have a desk job running a Council branch, like I did years ago. God help me, but I love being a watcher. I mean…who would have ever thought I’d say that, but I do. And I love Emma. I’m proud of what she’s done with her life and how far she’s come in these last six years and what the next six years will hold. And like you, she hasn’t had the best family life at times, but she’s persevered…like you.”
“I know you see her as a daughter,” Xander began.
“Sometimes I do,” Buffy admitted without shame.
“And despite what I said yesterday in the heat of the moment…it’s wonderful, truly, because…hello? Giles! I get the whole slayer watcher thing. I do. I know how deep those bonds go. I know you wanted a new Council where slayers weren’t treated as ‘tools’ – they deserved respect and love. I just don’t want Joyce getting lost in the shuffle.”
“Look…” Buffy left her seat and then closed the distance between them, taking Xander’s hands in hers. “I can’t promise we won’t have scheduling conflicts, like this week. Chances are we mostly likely will. And speaking of which, I’ll probably be in DC next.”
“Duty calls again, huh?”
“Right now, it does,” she replied. “I can’t sit by while these young women I helped create die. I just can’t.”
“I know you can’t. I just worry that when Joyce is older, she’ll feel… forgotten. And that’s a terrible feeling. I know firsthand.”
“I would never forget her – ever. And we’ll find a way to manage. She’s one kid. Hell, I have no idea how Willow and Rowena handle four, for God’s sake, but it can be done, and we can even ask them for tips. My point is, I can’t promise it will always be smooth. I can promise that you and Joyce will always be first and second. And the things I do with the Council are to help protect this world because the two things that matter most to me are a part of it.”
Xander leaned down and kissed Buffy, which she seemed happy to return.
“I love you, y’know?” Xander said as he pulled her into a hug.
“I love you too,” she replied.
“Jackson is gonna be mad I’m missing D&D.”
Buffy seemed to get an idea. “Can’t they come to our place? Joyce is not going to care, and I won’t be there to get in the way.”
“Don’t act so shocked I’m intelligent,” Buffy giggled.
“You know, maybe this whole parenting thing might work after all?”
“Ya think?” Buffy teased. “Because it’s too late now. At least for me. Dads can leave. That’s something I know firsthand.”
“Nah, sorry. You’re both stuck with me,” Xander promised with a grin.
Buffy reached up and stroked his face. “You shaved.”
“You noticed. A day late, but you’ve been preoccupied. You like it?”
“I love any Xander I can get,” she said, still cupping his cheek.
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Afternoon
Maddie sat at the conference room table along with Robin, Rowena, Dawn, Skye, Giles and two demons, Brell and Reteesk, whom she regarded with a bit of apprehension. Of the two of them, Reteesk noticed that Maddie spent more time staring than listening to them.
“My dear,” Reteesk told the young woman, “I can assure you that you are safe in our presence.”
Maddie didn’t look entirely convinced. “I just never…had too many conversations with demons, or at least ones that weren’t trying to kill me. I feel like I’m being extra super understanding, honestly.”
“We understand, too,” Brell added. “We all have the same goal. Defending our home. That is why we are here.”
Maddie turned to Skye and then pointed to Brell, and said, “He never learned contractions, huh?”
Giles piped in and said, “How he says something isn’t as important as what he says. They have news from Vor.”
“Yes,” Reteesk said, getting things back on track. “Vor, the largest of the demon dimensions that borders our world, is under new leadership. Once there was the Presidium – it was a council of ancient members, each with their specialties. This new leader is named Zorgrafilloraxtragor.”
“Who is he?” Rowena asked.
“She,” Reteesk corrected. “She rose to power after the vacuum was created upon the defeat of the Presidium. As my contacts describe, there was a conflict between two factions for many years…”
“You mean, after we blew up the old regime and then all left the next day?” Skye said pointedly. “I’m shocked that didn’t work out.”
“The Watchers Council is hardly set up for–” Giles argued.
“Dimension building?” Maddie cut in. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m with the vampire on this one.”
Skye reached out a fist for Maddie to bump, but the slayer just regarded her balefully. Dawn again found herself reaching out to pull back her girlfriend’s arm.
“In any case,” Reteesk continued. “These factions alternated between fragile truces and openly fighting each other, but for the most part, life went on for most demons. But then, from this war, Zorgrafilloraxtragor rose above both sides to become the supreme leader.”
“What’s so special about…” Robin hesitated at the name. “About this woman? How did she end up in charge?”
Reteesk paused a moment in thought. “As with any such situation, that is a complicated question, but from what I am told, she uses strife as a weapon. Although that does not sound very serious on the surface, I can assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that this is where she is a master. She doesn’t need to fight her enemies if her enemies are fighting each other.”
“Why haven’t we heard of her before this time?” Giles asked.
“Wait!” Dawn interrupted. “What was her name again?”
“Zorgrafilloraxtragor,” Reteesk said easily, “Why?”
“The files that Maddie brought have our friend Todd Kramer corresponding with someone simply known as ‘Z’.”
“He wanted chaos,” Maddie muttered. “That was his end goal – chaos,” she said louder. “What if…and I’m just stormin’ the brains here…what if this Z lady is the one who really hired me, so she could wreck the Council’s party at the museum.”
“It was a costly night on many levels,” Rowena sheepishly admitted.
“Do we know her endgame?” Robin asked.
Reteesk shook his head and cleared his throat. “We do not. The refugees I spoke with are simply fleeing the persecution they suffered at the hands of other demons, at the encouragement of this new Empress. We demons have ever been a fractious lot. For a time, the old differences were forgotten by most, first out of fear of the Presidium, then in unity as we rose up against them. But now…it would seem this Zorgrafilloraxtragor would prefer they were remembered.”
“We need to find out what she’s up to,” Dawn said. “No offense, but if she’s messing with the Council, that means she wants something on Earth, and if she has just a fraction of Presidium’s old forces, that’s…well, I wouldn’t make any long-term real estate investments. Just ask Todd.”
“Sounds pretty serious,” Maddie offered.
Skye turned to her. “No more Earth would really cut into your lancer profits, huh?”
Maddie nodded slowly.
Watchers Council – Cafeteria – Afternoon
Maddie walked into the cafeteria just behind Dawn, Skye and Robin. The place bustled with Council personnel, slayers, witches and watchers. Her nostrils flared a little as she looked around at the crowd. There were a number of food stations serving different kinds of local and internationals dishes.
“I don’t know if this was a good idea,” she said, backing up a step. “I-I told you, I’m not…I’m not joining up.”
“No, you’re getting food,” Dawn said, turning to look at her, “that’s all. Do you think we put all the food under a spell that makes you stay here if you eat it, like a fairy tale?”
Maddie just looked at her for a beat.
“Well, we didn’t,” Dawn said.
“But that’s not a terrible idea,” Skye pointed out. She glanced briefly over at Robin. “Would’ve helped…a couple times.”
For his part, Robin sighed and turned back to Maddie. “So, the line’s over here.”
She looked at him above crossed arms. “Is there pizza?”
“There is, in fact, usually pizza in the Italian area up there. Once we’re there, you pick what you want,” he said as he pointed.
“Non-enchanted pizza,” Dawn put in hopefully. “I, like, ninety-eight percent guarantee it.”
“Good job, baby,” Skye said in a patronizing tone, patting Dawn on the shoulder. “That will make the nervous fawn feel more secure.”
“Just being honest. Nothing is 100% guaranteed in this world,” Dawn countered.
Further ahead in the line, Liz and Jen were in the midst of perusing trays of boiled vegetables under heat lamps for a moment.
“I’m just saying,” Jen said as she picked up and spooned some unidentified green sludge onto her plate, “even if you’re going as friends, don’t you have to, I dunno, kiss him at some point?”
“Maybe I will. But I know for sure I don’t have to do anything,” Liz protested as she moved a bit further down and took a sushi assortment and a green salad with ginger dressing. “And what do you care? Like Spencer was a real prize. Besides, Belizet’s a good guy.”
Jen shook her head and looked up at her somewhat taller friend. “No, he isn’t a guy. He’s a good demon. He has actual horns. He wasn’t a kid, he was a spawn.”
Liz sighed and watched as Jen grabbed a spoonful of macaroni and cheese. “I’m pretty sure that’s racist, Jen. Like that guy at breakfast.”
“No, even Brell calls him a ‘spawn.’ If anything, I’m speciest,” Jen corrected. “And don’t get me wrong, I am pro-Belizet, I just don’t want to make out with him. I don’t feel like that’s over the– What the fuck is she doing here?”
Liz followed Jen’s eyes over to the end of the line, where Maddie was joining with her group of Council members.
“Is-is that the girl from the museum?” Liz asked. “The lancer? The one whose uterus you said you would–”
“Yes, it’s her!” Jen growled. She turned back to her friend. “What if she tries to talk to me, what do I do?”
“Just remember, if you feel the urge to murder anyone, murder the fork instead,” Liz advised.
Jen looked at her then sheepishly held up the metal fork she’d been carrying on her tray. It was now bent in half.
“Ah,” Liz said. “Well, we’ll get you another one.”
Back down the line, Maddie’s eyes widened when Alex suddenly used his tray as a shield to push between her and the people behind her.
“Sorry!” he told the somewhat agitated watchers-in-training he had cut in front of, before taking a deep breath, putting a smile on his face, and turning to Maddie. He opened his mouth, almost made a sound, then closed it again. “I, uh, I hear the meatloaf is good,” he finally said. Then he turned away for a moment, a definite look on his face like he was inwardly kicking himself.
“Sure,” Maddie said. “Are you stalking me?”
Alex laughed, sounding much crazier than he would have liked in the process. “Me? Stalking you? No, see, I just…saw that you were here, and I know you don’t know anyone here, and I thought–”
“Well, I’m here with them.” Maddie motioned to Dawn, Robin and Skye in front of her in line. “So…I’m good. You can…go back wherever you came from. I’m just waiting for the pizza.” She made a small gesture with her hand as if shooing him away.
“I like pizza!” Alex replied a bit too enthusiastically. “I like Hawaiian – with pineapple and ham.”
“That’s gross,” she said dryly.
“My sister likes to eat dead animals.”
Maddie did a double take at the news.
Alex giggled nervously. “That’s what she calls the meat lovers.”
Maddie shrugged. “Your sister has better taste.”
Alex took another deep breath then said nothing. The two of them stood in line next to each other for the next several seconds, pushing their trays along. She completely ignored his continued presence, but Alex snuck several looks at her that he thought were surreptitious but were, in fact, extremely obvious.
Then he said, “So, do you watch Stranger Things?”
Maddie turned on him. “I’m not joining the Council!” she growled, very exasperated. “I am a lead dog. It’s who I am. You know why?”
Alex pulled away, making himself as small as possible. “The, um, the glory of bringing diphtheria serum across the Arctic?”
“No. What? No. Because if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes!”
Alex didn’t look away from her. “I…that’s great. That’s really deep. Sounds like something Joe Sterling would say. He’s the owner of the club that does battle of the bands where we play–”
“Go away!” she shouted at him. This got Dawn’s attention, causing her to turn around.
“Is everything okay…?” she began.
“Oh, yeah,” Alex said hurriedly, stepping out of line with his still-empty tray before she could finish her sentence. “I was just…see you!”
He took three steps backward, during which time “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight” began again on his personal soundtrack. He watched Maddie turn back to the reheated trays of food, her hair seeming to shimmer as she moved in slow motion.
Then he tripped over the end of a chair leg while walking backwards and nearly went sprawling.
“Watch it, Rosenberg!” someone yelled.
“Yeah, got it!” He waved sheepishly, pulling the strap of his bookbag back up onto his shoulder.
Watchers Council – Shannon’s Office – Minutes Later
Somewhere in the bowels of Council HQ, Shannon’s office was not especially decorated. There were a couple of Norman’s small, framed drawings hung on the walls, and no windows. One drawing looked to be many years old and created by someone younger. There was also a charcoal work of her son Kelvin that, by comparison, was much more detailed, so much so that it resembled a black and white photo. The desk was remarkably free of papers. The place did not seem like somewhere Shannon spent a large portion of her time.
She leaned back in her standard-issue office chair. “I’m still a slayer, y’know? For a couple months, at least. I’m not sure I get it.”
Buffy and Emma, sitting across from her, exchanged a brief look. Then Buffy turned back to Shannon and said, “I think it makes sense, after everything that’s happened, that you would be…worried and wanting to explore your options. Because your birthday is coming up here.”
Shannon raised one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, what are you saying?”
“No!” Buffy held up a hand. “No, I mean, we can get someone to believe that.”
Emma put a hand on Buffy’s arm, which Buffy looked down at. “What my esteemed watcher is trying to say, I think,” Emma said, “is that we would still like to run the undercover operation. We have to find out where this stuff is coming from before more women die. Faith won’t do it because she’s, um…”
“A doctor now?” Buffy ventured.
“I was going to say ‘a bitch now,’ but whatever floats your boat,” Emma continued. A corner of Shannon’s mouth quirked upward slightly. “Sorry. Sorry. I forgot Faith’s your mother-in-law.” Still Shannon’s face didn’t show anything, so Emma continued, “The point is, we want you to be the point person. People know you work for the Council, but nobody knows what you think about anything because you never talk to the press and you’re not on social media.”
“On board with both those things,” Buffy said. “More good life choices from the Shannster.” Shannon glared at her, and Buffy sat back a little in her seat.
“If we play it right,” Emma said, “we, hopefully, can get whoever is behind this to approach you. You get them to show you where the drugs come from, we come in, everybody gets arrested and/or pummeled. The end.”
“Except,” Buffy interjected, “we should probably emphasize, whoever this is has shown that they have absolutely no problem straight up murdering a bunch of deactivated slayers. This is a high danger assignment.”
“Kind of a special assi–” Emma began to say before Buffy smacked her in the shoulder. Emma grinned.
Shannon still said nothing. She leaned forward and leaned her arms on the desk. She looked up at a drawing showing Norman holding baby Kelvin, hanging behind Buffy’s head. Her expression betrayed nothing of what was going on behind it.
“Yeah, okay,” she finally said. “I’m in.”
End of Act Three