liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
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CYA Fic-A-Thon (WiP): Discovering the Truth About the Wizard of Oz

I'm interrupting my regular feed of Living History to bring you this downpayment on my piece for the cya_ficathon.

My mission: Write a (relatively) angst-free, fun, non-shippy adventure for Giles, Buffy, Xander, and Willow.

Due to an insane writing schedule that includes finishing Living History and nwhepcat's birthday fic, this is being posted as "downpayment." I promise to finish it once I finish the other two stories. Why can't I write nice short ficcy pieces? Why?

As you can see,this story takes place in what I've dubbed the Psalm-verse (which begins with Contrite Spirits) as opposed to the Living History-verse (which I've decided includes Whisper, Living History, and nwhepcat's fic). The good news is you don't have to read any of the other stories since all stories in both verses are stand-alones.

 

ETA: Turns out that the requester is doyle_sb4. Hope you like....


Discovering the Truth About The Wizard of Oz

By Lizbeth Marcs

Summary: Buffy needs to regain her moral courage; Giles needs to regain his inventive mind; and Xander needs regain his heart. Willow just wants to regain a sense of home and to do it she’s going to give her friends what they need. When fate throws a greedy raven into the mix, it’s safe to say that things don’t go according to plan.

Rating: PG-13

Ships: None

Main Characters: Giles, Buffy, Xander, Willow

Supporting Characters: Faith, Roger Wyndham-Pryce, OC, and one raven

 

I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed.

 

I feel I might have almost slipped this skin. I fear that it’s easier now for you to get in. The innocence swept out from under us. Perceptions change when they turn the lights on. The years bring out the things I try to hide.

—Discovering the Truth About Oz, Averi

 

In all good fairytales the players start off with good intentions that don’t quite turn out the way they expected.

Consider: A girl delivers food to her ill grandmother who lives alone in a cottage. The widower marries a woman because he needs a mother for his beautiful children. All spinning wheels are banned from the kingdom to save a princess. The ruined merchant plucks a forbidden rose just so he’ll have something to give one of his daughters when he gets home.

And, in all good fairytales, something comes along to muck the whole business up.

For example: The girl attracts the attention of a ravenous wolf. The second wife hates the children from the first marriage and will do anything to humiliate them before eliminating them. One spinning wheel in the possession of a forgotten old woman is overlooked. The rose just happens to belong to a beast willing to kill the merchantman without a thought.

Reversals happen and bargains are made to preserve the self or someone else. Actions are taken that change the players for all time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

The point is not the intentions. The point is not how it can all go wrong. The point is what the characters do to overcome the reversals, leave the darkness, and achieve the happy ending.

In fairytales, problems can be resolved forever and characters can step into an untroubled future that will never again by marred by mountains that need climbing. They, those lucky fictional bastards, can live their happy, happy lives; secure in the knowledge that nothing will disrupt their Hollywood ending.

That’s the difference between fairytales and real life. No victory is that complete in real life. There will always be problems, there will always be trouble, and there will always be mountains that need climbing.

But there is one thing that runs through fairytales and real life, one story that they have in common:

Characters and real people walk a Yellow Brick Road; they eventually have to go into the woods; they always lose something important along the way; sooner or later they step foot in the Emerald City; and life can only continue after they’ve recaptured the one thing they’ve thoughtlessly tossed away as irrelevant.

This is a lesson that four people—people who should’ve known better, one might add—are about to learn in spades.

***

Willow Rosenberg’s mouth curled into a smile. Three tiny, silver medallions winked and shimmered in the dim candlelight on the altar. These gifts were the product of six months’ worth of spell work. The spells themselves were not particularly onerous. There were no rare herbs involved; no black market ingredients; no need to learn an obscure language to chant while working.

What made the business difficult was the subtlety necessary to make the spell work. First, the caster had to meditate for a full moon cycle. Then, the caster had to determine the needs of the recipients. And then, the caster had to constantly think about those needs while he or she worked, making sure that the touch was subtle enough that the spell didn’t overrun the recipients’ unique personalities, but not so subtle that the gift would have no effect.

She carefully wrapped each medallion in their separate cloths: red for courage was quickly and forcefully wrapped around Buffy’s gift; yellow for knowledge was thoughtfully and deliberately wrapped around Giles’s gift; pink for emotional strength was softly and gently wrapped around Xander’s gift.

Willow took a deep breath and stepped back. It was hard not to feel a certain amount of pride in finally completing her task. Bonus: she completed it with one week to spare before she flew to England to provide her once-a-year in-person report.

She half-wondered if some god or goddess was looking out for her because it just so happened the Buffy and Xander would be there the same week, also giving their once-a-year in-person reports. Buffy, since she was still living in Europe, stopped by the Watcher’s Council headquarters more often than anyone in the old gang. Xander, first by virtue of being in Africa for a year, and then by virtue of the fact that he was now in Cleveland working with Faith, kept his visits to only-if-he-had-to.

Willow generally went wherever and whenever and could be found one week in South America, the next in Tibet, depending on where her aid was needed. So her visits to the Watcher HQ was more rare than Buffy’s, but not as rare as Xander’s.

After the initial split in Cleveland two years ago that sent the Core Four—that’s how Willow had come to view Buffy, Giles, Xander, and herself—spinning to the corners of the globe, they hadn’t seen each other in the flesh. Oh, they talked by email and phone. They all kept in touch quite a lot at the beginning before slowly settling into the every-once-in-awhile randomness.

But even in those short missives, Willow could sense the shift as separate lives, separate pressures, and separate stresses worked real life transformations on her friends. Willow suspected that if you asked the others they would insist that they were still the same people deep down, just that sometimes life got in the way and that people had to eventually grow up.

The way Willow saw it, growing up wasn’t the issue, nor was growing apart. The issue—and she was very sure this was the case—was that her friends had lost the spark of what made them unique.

The witch for a brief moment considered pinching the candles out, but changed her mind. Let them burn down, she decided, make sure the spark remains right to the end.

***

Xander growled when a very obsequious Watcher-in-Training nervously handed him a pile of messages from Cleveland. He was gone for less than a day and already there were problems.

“I say you burn the fuckers,” Faith stated. “I mean, Jesus, what is this shit?”

“This shit would be Bonnie Prince Sit-On-My-Ass-And-Do-Nothing-For-My-Pay passing the buck to us. Again.” Xander flipped through the messages with a frown. “Carrie is whining that Alma treats her like a little kid. Alma is bitching that Carrie won’t follow her directions or stick to the training schedule.”

“Yeah, well, Alma does act like she’s better than everyone else just because of the Watcher’s Only pedigree,” Faith remarked.

“Yeah, but Carrie does act like a brat,” Xander countered. “She’s causing all sorts of problems in the house. Tell me you had a talk with her?”

Faith rolled her eyes, a clear signal that she tried and was ignored.

Xander riffled through the messages. “Great. Just great. Our accountant is still having issues with Council not putting money into the operating fund on time, which means she’s going to be paying the bills late unless someone floats us a loan again. And…oh…looks like someone here at HQ refused to okay our expense reports for Quebec.”

“What the fuck?” Faith snatched the offending message from his hand. “We go through this every fucking month. Why this time?”

Xander snatched it back and frowned at the scribbled handwriting. “This time they think we paid too much for a hotel.”

“Half the fucking bill was taxes. They know that, right?” Faith asked. “Last I checked the French version of Motel Six wasn’t the Ritz and we weren’t exactly running up the room service tab.”

“Better and better,” Xander remarked, as he looked a new message. “The housekeepers are threatening to quit again, this time over sentient demon goo that our crack team of Slayers missed when eradicating it from the house.” He slapped the rest of the unread messages down on the counter with a force that drove the hovering Watcher-in-Training to the far corner of the room. “Forget it. I’m not reading the rest. My blood pressure will just go through the roof.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, meet the leaders of tomorrow,” Faith said airily.

“There is a certain mulch-like quality to all the kiddies, yeah,” Xander agreed. “Jesus, I barely graduated high school and I have a better IQ than this. The world is doomed.”

Faith shook her head. “So, make ’em learn a little initiative if it riles your shit that much. Do what I’m going to do and don’t call back unless you hear someone’s gone nuclear. Maybe that way someone will finally kick his Lordship’s ass for not doing his job. I don’t know about you, but I’m here for the sun and surf vacay.”

“Then you’ve seriously taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque,” Xander grunted as he hefted his luggage. “When I think Watcher’s Council and England, I think tweed, scones, snooty accents, the third degree, and cold rain.”

“Okay, fine. The beer and the musical pub crawl.” Faith gave him a friendly swat on the shoulder that caused Xander to stumble a few steps. “Lighten the fuck up. This is my first visit across the Atlantic and I’m not going to listen to you bitch the whole time I’m here.”

“‘Lighten up,’ she says. Wait’ll you get the grilled by the evaluation committee. Pricks,” Xander huffed. Yet another Watcher-in-Training appeared from nowhere and seemed ready to offer a hand when Xander gave the poor young thing a bad-tempered warning snarl. He strode by the cowering kid without a backwards glance.

“Well, ain’t we in a fucking mood,” Faith commented sourly at his back.

“Faith, I got in this fucking mood when I started packing for this trip. The only way you’re getting me out of it is if I get to play target practice on the resident pencil-necked geeks while I’m here.”

***

Buffy listlessly tossed her bag on the bed. She shortly followed, flopping onto her back and enjoying the sinking sensation that only soft, down-filled mattresses could provide. Truthfully, she wasn’t looking forward to her presentation. Sure, she’d racked up an impressive number of Slayer “finds,” but there wasn’t much of a trick to it since the Council’s connections were strongest in the European Union.

Even the bads in the grand Old World weren’t all that bad. They were more civilized, less likely to go out and conveniently start rampaging. Vampires were discreet about their feeding, more often than not leaving their willing victims alive and jonesing to get bit one more time.

For a Slayer used to life on a Hellmouth where evil was more in-your-face, it was sometimes hard to tell who the bad guys were when they chatted with you over a latte. Sure, they still wanted and jockeyed for power, but without proof they were directly hurting humans, Buffy was in a bind. She couldn’t randomly Slay demons just because they were demons, but she knew they probably came by their wealth and influence in ways that weren’t exactly good.

The problem was that she couldn’t prove it and without proof she couldn’t do anything about it. Looking below the surface would require patience, which she never had; research, which she was never good at; and time, which was limited because she was always jetting around Europe to retrieve found Slayers or magical artifacts for the Council.

Buffy softly snorted. Yeah. “The Slayer soft shoe.” Her favorite part of the job. Get the girl to sign on the dotted line, get her on a plane to England, and go back to her apartment in Rome. A trained monkey could probably do her job and get the same results.

Half the time she didn’t know why she bothered to even attend the big Council meetings or come in and give her year-in-review report. Oh, they treated her like a queen. They never questioned what she did in the field. They were always polite and so damn willing to bend over backwards to get her what she wanted.

She could announce plans to take over the world and rule over it with an army of fanatically loyal Slayers and the Council as a body would back her plans. Probably.

But, sheesh, even she knew she could do better. I mean, really, what have I accomplished? Nothing. I haven’t even had a good Slay in god knows how long.

Look at her: she got everything she wanted and more. And here she was wondering why the Council isn’t sending her to every major trouble spot on the planet like they do Willow; asking her to be more active in leadership like Giles; or building extensive support networks for local Slayers like Xander on not just one, but two continents.

She wanted a chance to kick back, relax, and make like a normal girl. Now she’s unhappy because she got it. She felt like she’d been put into a pair of velvet handcuffs. She didn’t realize the gotchya until it was too late and the handcuffs started feeling comfortable.

***

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and bit back every sharp retort bubbling in his brain.

That damn fool Roger Wyndham-Pryce was yammering again about procedure, tradition, and god knows what else.

“Really, Rupert, at the very least we should consider reinstating the Vow Renewal. To simply flush it away due to inconvenience for our membership is simply…”

“Tradition, of which you are so inordinately fond, holds that field Watchers caring for active Slayers are excused from this annual excuse to trade war stories.” Good lord. That did sound much sharper than he intended.

Roger puffed himself up to three times his size. “A sentiment I never agreed with. If anything, Watchers working with the Slayer needed to attend more than anyone.”

Giles resisted the urge to throw the teapot at his head. The son of a wererat had never been a field Watcher and so had no idea how difficult it was to just pack up and leave, especially for such spectacularly useless trivia as the Vow Renewal fete.

Not for the first time, he found himself revising his opinion of late Wesley Wyndham-Pryce upwards. Growing up under such a cantankerous, shortsighted, overbearing bore must have been quite the trial. The fact that Wesley at least qualified for field service said much more about the dead man than his father.

“The key word is ‘the,’ as in ‘the Slayer,’” Giles said. “Unless it missed your attention, there are a number of Slayers, many of which haven’t been found yet. All able bodies are too busy looking for them and I highly doubt they’d appreciate being forced to attend…”

“A shameful state of affairs. And as head of the Watcher’s Council, you should be doing more about finding those girls,” Roger interrupted. Lovely, he’d found something new to complain about, except that it wasn’t so much new as it was new to the current conversation. “Without the guiding hand of the Council, our new Slayers could very well cause problems. I need not remind you of the girl you retrieved from L.A.?”

“Need I remind you that our North American pilot program has shown that such situations can be defused before…”

“Yes,” Roger frowned. “About that. I still question the wisdom of leaving Harris in charge of that effort.”

Giles bit his tongue so hard that it hurt.

Roger leaned forward, as if he were consulting with a close friend. “Now, no disrespect for your protégé, but Harris is hardly to the manner born and the Slayer he’s chosen to work with him…to put it politely Lanoire’s past is rife with missteps and dead bodies.”

“And yet, they still seem to do much better than traditional Watchers in tracking new Slayers. How do you account for that?” The second he said it, Giles cursed himself for exposing one of his sore points. Both Xander and Faith had proved their worth time and time again, and yet the Old Guard constantly insisted that some defense for their activities was necessary.

“Oh, no one is saying they are incompetent, but one wonders if the burden they carry is too much for their young shoulders.” And just like that, Roger was able to pretend he didn’t mean to insult anyone. “Frankly, I fear the situation may be unraveling in Cleveland.”

“Oh?”

“From what I understand, discipline is not up to snuff. There are tensions between the Slayers. The Watchers feel their input is being ignored by your man in charge.”

“I do believe that both Xander and Faith are both in charge of the North American pilot. Furthermore, they are not supposed to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Cleveland house.”

“Harris is your Watcher and spearheading what may be one of the most important pilot programs in Council history, therefore he’s in charge.”

Giles noticed the emphasis on ‘your Watcher’ in Roger’s voice just as he noticed the utter dismissal of Faith’s contributions. He kept his peace since he knew that arguing the point would lead to more damn words than his aching head could take.

“What’s more, the Cleveland financial records are a mess,” Roger continued. “Do you realize they’re consistently late in paying their bills? And need I point out that all their fund requisitions are always in disarray?”

Giles frowned. “I was not aware of that.”

“As for their expense reports, really Rupert, I understand the need to have some leeway since they cannot always pick their accommodations, but it seems both Harris and Lanoire are constantly spending more money than they should.”

That, unfortunately, he could believe. While he was in Africa, Xander was famous for hitting up the Council for additional funds for his activities. However, he never saw any expense that could even be remotely termed extravagant considering that Xander had to build a base camp and bribe any number of low-level officials in his travels. Faith, no doubt, wouldn’t say no if Xander opted for a little extra comfort to make roadwork easier.

“I fear there may be quite the blow-up in Cleveland if we don’t get responsible people out there to review the situation,” Roger continued. “Honestly, putting Harris in charge?”

“His work was sterling in Africa,” Giles reminded him.

“Where he should have stayed,” Roger said, as if that resolved the matter. “Frankly, I’m shocked that Lanoire hasn’t driven him back to the heart of the Dark Continent given her track record with the never-ending stream of Watchers we sent to her in Cleveland prior to Harris’s arrival.”

“It probably hasn’t happened because Xander has done the unthinkable by taking her seriously,” Giles remarked dryly.

“Perhaps.” Amazing the amount of innuendo Roger could shove into a simple word. “I’m not dismissing his good work, but putting him in such a position of responsibility…at least Rosenberg has the stuff of which Watchers are made.”

Giles raised an eyebrow in surprise at the sudden change in topic. Willow’s name rarely crossed Roger’s lips, so to hear him speak well of the witch, let alone mention her at all, came as something of a surprise.

“I know you have Rosenberg rather busy putting out fires,” Roger continued, “but are you certain that’s the best use of her time? She could do much more good here or…”

“Why don’t you write up a list of suggestions?” Giles could feel his headache turn to pounding, a common occurrence when Roger Wyndham-Pryce, voice of the Old Guard, came to call.

The other man snorted, which meant he knew that all his suggestions would go straight to the bottom of Giles’s impressive paper pile. “Rupert, mark my words. Things can’t continue in this ad hoc manner. We need to instill discipline and apply standards to the rank and file.”

“I heard no complaints when we were short-handed,” Giles mildly responded.

“And now we are not. The Council is rebuilding. Our personnel level our growing. Our recruitment drives are bearing fruit. We have some bright young trainees ready to embrace life outside these walls. Yet, you insist on operating as if the Council was the aspect of our operation still in crisis.”

Giles couldn’t help but see the unstated threat in Roger’s words: Fix it or I shall fix it for you. Giles cursed the day he reached out to the Watchers that survived the First’s onslaught. At the time, he truly believed he didn’t have a choice since he needed their resources and expertise. He was able to wring a large number of concessions out of the old guard. After all, he had the power and they didn’t.

But there were days he wondered whether he won the battle only to lose the war.

***

Once upon a time, there was a one-eyed white man in Africa who swept a prostitute off her feet in Yamoussoukro and spirited her away to a camp deep in the jungle. All the way there he told such tales that defied wonder. He told her of evil spirits and eviler gods; of dead men who drink the blood of the unwilling; of creatures so fantastic that she could barely comprehend what they were.

But always in the story was the One, the Great Warrior Woman of uncommon strength and beauty who fought them all and won; of wise men who taught and guided her; and of allies great and small who were willing to help.

He then told her that she, a prostitute who’d been forced to live by her wits for as long as she could remember, was a Great Warrior Woman destined to be a hero and that unlike the One, she would never have to fight alone.

Night after night she’d sit by the campfire as he told her of other warrior women who hunted evil and protected the weak. If she so wanted, she could join such women and take her rightful place in the world.

This prostitute—let us call her Alexandrine—had a difficult time following much of what he said. His French was only slightly better than her English, which was pretty much limited to advertising cruder acts of love. But that’s not the point. The point was she understood the gist. By the time she met her fellow warriors, she was ready to take on this new life.

She made friends quickly, helped in no small part by her willingness to teach the others how to pick pockets and pick locks. She, perhaps more than all the others, understood that sometimes subtlety is a better weapon than strength.

Alexandrine, former prostitute now Great Warrior-to-be, soon learned from the others that this one-eyed man was special. They claimed he was beloved of the gods. Depending on their tribe, it was Legba, or Eshu, or…well, any god who chooses to teach through trickery and jokes. And since the gods loved him, naturally it followed the company warriors loved him as well.

Had this been a fairytale, the one-eyed man would’ve known this. Perhaps he would’ve been told while food was laid out for a feast and songs of great deeds were sung. And he would’ve looked out upon the faces around him and declared, “And god bless us, every one!”

Since this is not a fairytale, there was never a chance for this to happen. The one-eyed man was constantly traveling to find other lost warriors and was not often in the camp. When present, he was kind and attentive, much like a good older brother. But he was not their peer, and so was accorded the respect he deserved as an elder—although in truth he was not much older than his charges. They were affectionate, but not forward, always aware of the line they weren’t allowed across.

When he left them they gave him gifts and wished him well. And if some cried to see him leave, well, they did so after he was gone and they did so only in secret.

Alexandrine, sharp judge of character that she was and knowledgeable in the way of stories, did not cry for him. Whatever happy ending he needed would only be found when he finally went home.

***

Faith found Xander sitting on the grass watching the newbie Slayers go through their training routine. The swords flashed deadly through the sunlight and the clang of metal on metal rolled through the air.

For his part, Xander’s eyes were narrowed and his head darted this way and that as he followed the action on the field with his good eye. Faith flopped on the grass next to him and began a running commentary, mostly involving rude comments about what she’d do if anyone went after her with a sword like that.

Every once in awhile Xander’d crack a smile, but added little more. He was back into his business-only mode. Here they had a chance to kick back and enjoy a whole new country—well, all new to Faith anyway—complete with castles and pubs and unfamiliar accents, and there was Xander acting like it was no big deal.

“Man, you so need to get laid,” Faith finally declared.

That got a reaction. “What?”

“Seriously,” Faith lazily waved at him. “We’ve been doing our schtick, what? For seven months now and I ain’t seen you even look at a woman. You sure your dick is working right?”

There was mucho sputtering and a few stray syllables from Xander as he tried to deal with this latest breach of his mental personal space.

Faith pretended not to notice. At first she was cool with the business-only deal he had going and, if anything, saw it as a vast improvement over his days in SunnyD. But the thing in her that hated stuffiness couldn’t resist trying to stick pins into the solid air around her latest in a long line of Watcher-partners. Half the time she did things just to see if she could get him to blow his cool.

No such fucking luck there. She concluded he’d turned to ice in the jungles of Africa.

Somewhere along the way, she noticed how he sometimes seemed…well…lost with a side helping of sad, for lack of a better description. She began to see a lot of little elements beneath the cool surface, like how he’s seize on any good thing or happy thought like a drowning man.

Then one day she realized she was doing things just to make him laugh. It sometimes worked, but it didn’t seem quite enough to break through. She concluded that he needed his world shaken up in a good way.

The thing in Quebec…well, that shook no one’s world up in a good way, yet it seemed to have at least cracked Xander’s shell just a tiny bit, not a lot, but enough that he let something of who he was peek through.

Now they were in England and they were right back to square one. Faith realized that she hated the reinstitution of Xander’s shell and couldn’t fucking stand it for another second.

“Relax,” she finally said, “you’re so goddamn uptight. What’s the worst they can do to us? Make us go without scones and tea? Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

“Spoken like someone who never had to sit there and listen to them,” Xander grumbled. “Wait’ll they start digging up crap you did when you were 16.”

“What?” Faith sat bolt upright.

“I’m being serious.” Xander clenched his jaw. “They’re not just going to tear you apart about what you’re doing wrong now, they’re going to go after you for crap that went wrong five, six, seven years ago. By the time they’re through with you, even the stuff you thought you did right is going to seem like all bad.”

“I get picking us apart now, but…”

“They’re looking for ‘patterns of behavior’ and ‘mental instability,’” Xander used air quotes around the offending phrases. “Basically, if you’ve got a flaw, they’re going to throw it in your face because only perfect little Watchers are allowed to play with Slayers. And me? I’m too imperfect for their taste.”

“Whoa. Slayer here, so…”

“You’re working with me, remember?” Xander’s shoulders defensively hunched. “And I was all but told by the last evaluation committee I had to deal with that if it wasn’t for Giles and Buffy they wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole. That’s gonna spill over on you, I figure.”

“They’re talking out their asses,” Faith said.

“Are they?” Xander looked at her full on. “I’m not exactly big with the research or the brains or the education-having, so they’re not entirely in the wrong.”

Faith figured the only reason why Xander was in a sharing mood was because he was worried about the evaluation committee tagging her for associating with the wrong kind of Watcher. He apparently forgot that they could tag her for plenty of shit if they started digging up her very nasty past, very little of which involved him.

Faith was trying to find the right words to point this out when a loud cry derailed the attempt. Next thing she new a black blur came out of nowhere and tackled Xander from behind.

Faith shot to her feet and was ready to intervene when she realized that the black blur was a very, very black girl sitting on Xander’s chest and laughing with obvious delight at seeing the guy.

Xander’s eyes widened in surprise and a grin stretched his mouth. “Alexandrine?”

“Oui, oui!” she declared as she scooped down to hug him. “You look fine! My pain eyes see you!” She reached down and caressed his face, her expression radiating confusion. “Deux?”

Xander hesitantly said something that was a mix of French and Something Else at that, probably explaining that the left eye was a fake, Faith supposed.

The girl—Alexandrine—nodded with a pleased air. “Much good,” she agreed. “Face much…” the words failed her and she covered her face with her hands before opening them in a motion that might be mistaken for peek-a-boo.

Xander’s head thunked back to the ground and he actually started to laugh since he obviously got her meaning. He said something in that not-English tongue, stumbling over a few words.

Faith realized that all action on the practice field had stopped and that the Slayers were now staring gape-mouthed in their direction. “Unh, guys? Hate to break up the grand reunion, but you gotta see how this looks.”

Alexandrine jumped to her feet and suddenly looked shy. She said something to Xander in her language as she held out a hand. Xander haltingly said something back as he took her hand and let her help him to his feet.

Whatever Xander said got the girl to smile and she was quickly jabbering away at him.

“Whoa!” Xander was actually laughing. “It’s been awhile. My ears! Before I forget, I want you to meet someone.”

“Pardon,” the girl said in her heavy accent. “My Anglais better, non? I learn so I come here for teaching much more.” She mimed throwing punches to underline her point.

“Better than my Francais,” Xander nodded with a wide grin. “Alexandrine? This is Faith. I work with her to find Slayers in America. Faith? This is Alexandrine. She’s from the Africa contingent.”

The girl nodded with all smiles, but Faith could see the girl was sizing her up. She looked at Xander and said a word that Faith couldn’t quite catch.

“Oui,” Xander replied.

The girl looked confused as she turned back to Faith, only her gaze was a little more penetrating. Alexandrine then broke out in a sunshine smile, as if Faith had passed some test and she reached out and grabbed Faith’s hand. “Here food no good.” She made a comical yuck face. “Better place for to eat.”

“I could do with lunch,” Xander agreed. Faith noticed he was practically bouncing on his feet. “And eating at a place that’s not here? Even better.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll just…” Faith began.

“You come, s’il vous plait?” Alexandrine asked. “Good food. Make you fat.”

“Fat?” Faith questioned with an amused look at Xander.

“Where she’s from, fat is beautiful,” Xander explained.

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Faith asked.

This comment seemed to amuse Alexandrine to no end.

“Dead serious,” Xander grinned. “So I figure there’s deep fat fried goodness at the other end of the rainbow. Plus if she’s invited you to eat with us, it’s because she likes you. You don’t want to insult her by turning her down, do you?”

That’s when it hit Faith: Xander actually wanted her to come along. “Well, I can’t say no to an invite like that, can I?”

***

Buffy crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair. She’d been talking nonstop for two hours, desperately trying to make it look like she accomplished more in the past year than just running errands for the Council.

Giles beamed at her from his corner of the room and she resisted the urge to shrink into herself. He’d come in during the middle of her presentation and stationed himself in the corner. Why he was proud of her, she just didn’t know.

“Thank you for that report, Miss. Summers,” said a bespectacled female Watcher whose name Buffy couldn’t remember. “On behalf of the committee, I just want you to know that we all appreciate the fact that you are taking time out of your busy schedule to come talk to us.”

“It’s, unh, not a problem,” Buffy said. “I mean, hey, I think these things are a good idea so, y’know, it keeps the flow of information open between everyone.”

“Quite right,” said a male Watcher, Wesley’s father Buffy thought, although she wasn’t entirely sure on that point, “One thing we do need in this day in age is encourage greater and freer communication between our lead Slayers and the Council here at home. All the better to coordinate our efforts and make sure that any problems in the field are well in hand.”

There was a mumbled “hear, hear” from the other Watchers on the committee.

Buffy noticed Giles was frowning at that, although she couldn’t for the life of her see why. It wasn’t like the Council was trying to order anyone around. If anything, the Council seemed more responsive to the needs of Slayers than they had in the past, which could only be counted as of the good.

Right?

“So,” Buffy rubbed her hands, “any questions? Because I’m your answer girl if you’ve got questions, or complaints, or maybe something resembling a constructive suggestion? I mean, things are smooth-ish right now on the supernatural front, so, unh, I haven’t been much on the Slay train. Maybe I should help out somewhere else?”

“We really do have other regions well in hand,” said a second male Watcher as he flipped through a file. “Frankly, in my humble opinion, our operations in Europe are a well-oiled machine, no doubt because of your considerable skills and expertise. We really cannot afford to displace you from there if we want to keep things ticking along.”

Buffy felt her smile freeze on her face. They’re going to go kiss my ass again, aren’t they? She never thought she’d miss the days when the Council had issues with her, yet here she was wishing that someone would point out that she was coasting and toss a challenge in her face.

“We have all your written reports,” the bespectacled woman said, “so I don’t think we really need anything else. Ladies and gentlemen?”

There was murmured agreement.

“On that note then,” the woman continued as she flashed Buffy a smile, “please do enjoy your stay here. I understand that your old compatriots are with us this week. I’m sure it’ll be a fine time for you to catch them up on your good work.”

Great. Willow the Wonderful and Alexander the Great.

“Sure will!” Buffy sounded too enthusiastic about the prospect even to her. No way someone wasn’t going to pick up on that.

As it turned out she probably could’ve said, “I plan to murder my friends and bathe in their blood, so maybe a reunion is not such a good idea,” and she probably would’ve gotten the same beaming smiles from the evaluation committee.

All through the closing glad-handing between herself and the Watchers, she felt like her smile was very close to cracking down into a hail of tears.

I can see it now, Buffy thought. ‘Hey, Buffy! I’ve been to Sri Lanka, Moscow, Prague, and Chicago, and that’s just in last week! It was so cool! Wanna see pictures?’ Or, ‘Whelp, Faith and I helped this one Slayer defeat an army of Torgoth demons in New Orleans and then we had to travel to the fifth dimension to rescue this other Slayer who got the bad end of a spell in Seattle. But you don’t want to hear about my boring job. So what’s new with you?’ I hate my life.

When Buffy finally managed to disentangle herself from her admirers, she shot over to Giles, grabbed his arm, and whispered, “We so need to talk.”

“Outside,” Giles said under his breath through his beaming smile, “I fear my quarters may not be secure.”

Buffy couldn’t hold her fake smile when she heard that. Much as she wanted an explanation, Giles’s attitude told her that now was not the time to ask.

***

Walking the grounds always had a soothing effect, although the way Buffy fidgeted even after they made good on their escape did not put Giles in a relaxed frame of mind.

When they were far enough away from the any buildings that might house curious ears, Buffy finally exploded. “What’s going on?”

Much as Giles didn’t want to worry Buffy, especially given the fact that she deserved to be free of the Council’s petty politics, a brief warning was in order. “I fear my position isn’t as secure as we’d hoped.”

Buffy stopped with her hands on hips. “Why not?”

Giles crossed his arms and looked down. “You might say there are some elements within the Council that feel they could do a better job than I.”

“Really,” Buffy’s voice lowered to a growl.

“They aren’t without some good points in their favor,” Giles said.

“You can’t be serious. Giles, you’re the best man for the job!”

“Kind of you to say, if surprising,” Giles said.

“Of course you are!” Buffy reached out and grabbed his arm. “I mean, you’re the best! Natural born leader and…”

“You didn’t always think so,” Giles gently reminded her.

“Yeah, well, I’m talking about now.” Just like that Buffy dismissed the idea that she ever doubted him. “I mean, I don’t understand why someone thinks you’re not doing a good job.”

Giles sighed and began walking again. “We are still running around on an ad hoc basis. That works if you have a small band of merry people all singing from the same hymnal, as it were. But look around: Not everyone shares our experiences or even agrees with the way we think. Not that it’s bad, but it can make things difficult. I’m in this predicament because our rebuilding efforts have succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations. If you told me two years ago that we’d be standing right here and right now? I would’ve never believed you.”

“And why is that, hunh?” Buffy asked. “’Cause of you.”

“Buffy, surely you can see that things have to change. We have to be a little bit more organized than we have been.” Giles shook his head. “Even I can see that, but in all honesty I don’t know how to get there without falling back on the old ways.”

“Old ways bad,” Buffy agreed. She brightened. “Hey! Maybe I can come here and help you out.”

“Much as I’d welcome seeing you once again on a daily basis, that might not be a wise move, politically speaking.”

“Why not? And since when do you worry about politics?”

“Since I ended up head of the Council,” Giles winced. “All governing bodies have politics, Buffy. That is the way of things. If you join me here, it might be seen as a silent threat against people who may wish to question policy for legitimate reasons.”

“I wouldn’t threaten anyone,” Buffy protested.

“But you are not precisely diplomatic, either,” Giles reminded her. “And to be blunt, your temper has been known to reach legendary proportions when you believe you’re right.”

“Afraid I might hit one of them?” Buffy kicked at a rock, sending it flying out of sight.

“Buffy, I’m rather concerned I’ll hit one of them. All things considered, I’d much rather you stayed out of the political muck. You shouldn’t have to deal with this. As it is, I’m only telling you so you’d have warning if things go pear shaped at some point in the future.”

“Fine. Don’t need my help,” Buffy grumbled.

“Actually, I’m much more concerned about helping you,” Giles lightly deflected. “I can only assume that you asked to speak to me for a reason?”

“Do I need a reason?” Buffy looked at him with such an innocent expression, that Giles knew she was about to ask him for something.

“No. But I rather get from your attitude that there is something you want.”

Buffy picked up a stick and started flipping it as if it were a stake. “I’m bored.”

“Bored?” Giles raised his eyebrows. “Going by your itinerary, I see you are quite busy.”

“I’m a go-fer. One big old go-fer girl. I might as well be fetching coffee and taking dictation.”

“I believe you’re overreacting.”

“No, I’m not.” Buffy’s shoulders slumped. “Look, I needed to go light on the Slay the first year. I did. Kick back, relax, and get in tune with my inner party girl. Know what I found out?”

“It wasn’t as much fun as you thought?” Giles was somewhat amused. This woman spent almost all of her teenaged years scheming and plotting to get a night off at the Bronze. The comparison of who she was to who she is now was too delicious not to enjoy.

“No. It was as much fun as I thought. But it gets boring!” Buffy crossed her arms and looked out over the hills. “While I’ve been shopping for dancing shoes, Willow and Xander have gone off and made lives for themselves, traveled the world, and…”

“I think you are very much over-romanticizing their lives.” Giles placed a steadying hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “Besides, I do believe you’re losing sight of the larger picture. You keep looking at this as if it’s a contest between you and your friends. I do believe…” When Buffy fixed him with a glare, he opted not to finish the thought. “What I’m trying to say is that you earned your sabbatical. After all, you fought for seven years so your desire for some time for yourself is eminently understandable, especially since there are others willing to give you that time.”

“I just…Giles, I need to do something with my life than just doing the Council’s shopping and picking up its dry cleaning.” Buffy kicked at the dirt. “I don’t suppose you could think of something that needs to be done? Anything?”

“What would you like to do?”

“That’s just it,” Buffy admitted. “I have no idea.”

***

Willow threw her luggage in her room and raced around the guest building in hopes of catching Giles, Buffy, or Xander. They were all out.

The momentary disappointment didn’t keep her down for long, although she was less-than-happy to find out that Faith was along for the ride with Xander. She settled in one of the wing chairs in front of the unlit fireplace and attempted to read Intersection: Quantum Physics and Magical Belief, a Study of Mind Over Matter in the Laboratory.

Sadly, she just couldn’t concentrate. Whenever the front door opened, blowing in laughing groups of people along with a hint of autumn, she would crane her neck in hopes of spotting one of her friends.

Truthfully, she hoped she’d spot Giles first. He’d be the hardest to convince that her plan was a good one: a little retreat for the four of them. While there, she’d surprise all three of them with her gifts.

She couldn’t wait. It was going to be so cool! She just knew they’d like the gifts.

Once again, the latest group traipsing through the guest house—well, guest manor, actually—didn’t have any familiar faces. She settled back and attempted to read, even if her mind kept wandering to some undetermined point in the future when she could get some alone time with all her friends.

“Ms. Rosenberg! I am so pleased to see you.”

Willow started and looked up from her book to see a heavy-set older gentleman standing a respectful distance away. “Ummm, hi. I’m Willow. I mean, Ms. Rosenberg. And you are, unh…”

“Roger Wyndham-Pryce. We’ve met.” The man offered his hand for Willow shake.

Willow jumped to her feet and took it. “Oh! That’s right. Wes’s dad. I, unh, sorry about your son. Wes was…”

“Yes. We do miss him.” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s smile became strained. “Thank you for your concern. We did receive your plant. My wife was most appreciative.”

“Oh. Glad she, ummm, liked it. Not that I thought it was…what I mean is that I’m sure you’d rather have Wes back instead of my stupid plant.”

“Indeed.”

Willow felt the urge to crawl into a hole and pull it closed after her. I’m so stupid. I mean, how many people have I lost and I sound like such an airhead.

“Now, now, Ms. Rosenberg,” Mr. Wyndham-Pryce awkwardly patted her shoulder. “The foolishness is all on my end. It remains a sore point, so I fear I come across as rather more confrontational than I should.”

“Understandable,” Willow nodded, feeling no small amount of relief that her faux pas wasn’t going to be held against her.

“May I sit?”

“Oh, sure.” Willow waved at a chair, waited for Mr. Wyndham-Pryce to be seated, and then sat down herself.

“Ms. Rosenberg…”

“Willow.”

Mr. Wyndham-Pryce smiled. “I will call you by your Christian name only if you consent to call me Roger.”

“Ah, that would be Jewish.”

“Excuse me?”

“You said Christian.” She pointed to herself. “Jewish. And Wicca. Not so much with the Christian.”

Mr. Wynd—Roger—was smiling again, although Willow couldn’t tell if he was irritated or amused. “Quite right. I stand corrected. Apologies.” He inclined his head. “How do you enjoy your work?”

“It’s fine. But, I thought this was something we’d be discussing during evaluation.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’m trying to get a sense of you beforehand,” Roger waved off. “Please forgive a nosy old man.”

You’re going to be on my evaluation committee? Isn’t that against the rules you talking to me then?”

“Oh no. No. I will not be on your committee as I was on Miss Summers’s evaluation committee just this morning,” Roger replied.

“So then why…”

Roger leaned forward and began speaking in a low tone, forcing Willow to lean towards him and concentrate. “It has occurred to a number of people on the Council that we are perhaps not using you to your or our benefit.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Willow disagreed. “I’ve been a busy, busy bee. I’m totally bee-like. Plus, I really do enjoy what I’m doing.”

“Surely you’d like to do more than put out fires.”

“Okay, well, the emergency-ish nature of what I do is less fun sometimes, but someone has to do it.”

Roger leaned back. “Yes, being on emergency footing at all times must be quite tiring, I’d imagine. You literally have no chance to have a life, given that you must be off on a moment’s notice.”

In her mind’s eye, Willow could see Kennedy laying her clothes out on the bed as yet another planned fun night out was destroyed by a phone call from the Council. “I don’t mind,” she lied.

She could see Roger didn’t believe her, but he was too polite to push. “Frankly, a number of us on the Council feel that we do use you quite poorly, even if you don’t see it.”

“Well, thanks for being worried, but there’s no need for worry. None. I’m good.”

Roger again smiled his tight smile. “I’m not just inquiring after your health, dear girl.” Willow wasn’t sure if she was confusing strange British turns of phrase with condensation, or if Roger thought he was being diplomatic. “The fact is the Council has a desperate need that only you can fill and I’m attempting to discover if you’d be open to a change in status.”

“Oh?”

“The fact is, the supernatural world is larger than just the Council and Slayers,” Roger waved around him. “We need all the allies we can get if we are to successfully fight the war for the soul of our world.”

The words “drama queen” danced through Willow’s head, but she kept her mouth shut and waited.

“There is a very large magical community that remains untapped. Imagine if we had the leading mages and wicca allied to our cause. Imagine the progress we could make.”

“You do have the Coven in Devon working with you,” Willow pointed out.

“The Coven in Devon is a good start,” Roger corrected. “But it can’t possibly hurt to have more of your good people on our side. We have Slayers the world over without easy access to someone with magical abilities. You are living proof that we need people like you working with our Slayers.”

“Your Slayers?” Willow asked archly.

“I’m speaking communally, of course,” Roger leaned back. “The thing is, without you, we wouldn’t be here. Your ability with magic has not only saved lives, but has saved the world.”

And nearly destroyed it, Willow thought with a twinge of guilt.

“Imagine if we had witches with half your abilities helping out the Slayers, not just here in England, but all over the world.”

“It would be helpful,” Willow allowed.

“Yes, yes indeed it would.” Roger was smiling again. “What we need in this is a leader, someone who can speak to being both a witch and who has worked with Slayers. We need someone who is intelligent, flexible, and knowledgeable about different cultures. My dear girl, we need someone exactly like you leading this mission.”

“What does Giles say?”

Roger deflated slightly. “We haven’t quite put together a proposal we can place before him. He is terribly busy and we don’t want to disturb him unless we have a firm course of action that spells out the benefits and potential problems.”

“Makes sense,” Willow said doubtfully.

“The way some of us view this is that the Council desperately needs a diplomat to act as a liaison between us and the magical community. Someone who can be our public face.”

“I’m not sure that I’m the right…”

Roger grasped her hand, as if he thought he could pull her over to his side. “You are the only person qualified. Some of us truly believe that. We’ve considered a few members of the Devon Coven, but your name keeps occupying the space at the top of our candidate list.”

The door blew open again, letting in the sounds of girlish laughter and a cool breeze, but Willow resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good, good,” Roger clapped his hands. “That’s all I ask.” He stood up and gave her a slight bow. “I’ll take my leave of you now, especially since I’ve taken up so much of your time. I’m fairly certain you have plans this evening.”

“Dinner plans, yes.” Okay, she didn’t exactly have dinner plans, but she was hoping.

“Good evening, Willow.” Roger turned and exited the lobby, looking very pleased.

As for Willow, she wasn’t sure what to think, mostly because the offer came right out of the blue. She had to admit, it was a good idea. The bonus was she could actually have a life, which she didn’t have—thanks for that reminder—and she could still travel.

Even so, some little part of her remained suspicious.

 

TBC...really soon I promise...

 

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