Copyright April 2016
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
The office was neat, tasteful, organized, furnished in subtle, soothing shades. The woman sitting across from Xander was perhaps forty, perhaps a bit younger, with sleek, glossy hair drawn back and fastened behind her neck with an enameled clip: stylish enough that you couldn’t really call it a ponytail even if the effect was essentially the same. Her features were high-planed and patrician, with either no makeup or done so expertly that it made her look good without showing. And Xander was staring at her as if she has just sprouted a second head.
“I’m sorry,” Xander said, “but what? I mean, seriously, could you repeat that? because there’s no way you actually said what it sounded like you said.”
The woman favored him with a measured, professional smile. “Along with the general assessment we do for our Slayer-Watcher teams on a regular basis, I was asked to determine whether there might be undue influence in your working relationship with Ms. Kennedy.”
Her accent was Bostonian, not the raw Southie he had heard from Faith but refined, precise. Xander was still staring, though now with a kind of stunned wonder instead of the original gaping surprise. “Undue influence,” he repeated, almost numbly. He stood up to pace in the small office, stopped at one wall. The diplomas there read JONELL SKUDEA. He glanced back at her. “So is this pronounced John-elle, or Joe-nell?” he asked.
“The proper pronunciation,” she replied crisply, “is ‘Doctor’. And if you’re not dodging the question, you’re certainly stalling.”
Xander sat down again, frowning slightly in the way of one concerned with choosing exactly the right words. “Tell me,” he said. “Have you ever heard of something called a Kimball’s balehound?”
Dr. Skudea considered it. “I believe so,” she said at last. “Originally from the Chelmit dimension? Keep to themselves in a settled pack, but the mavericks are aggressive?”
“Something like that,” Xander said, nodding. “Anyhow, this one time, Ken ’n’ me had just rolled into a little town, and we went to check out this abandoned factory vamps love places like that, almost as much as abandoned warehouses and while we were still climbing off the bike, a Kimball’s charges us from one of the outbuildings. And here’s something you may not have heard: balehounds grow a kind of … thing, right before their throat gives over to the stomach. It’s a lump of automatic-twitch muscle, and when a ’hound is hunting large prey, it can spit this big squirmy tentacle-y lump nearly twenty feet, and close for the kill while its target is trying to break loose from The Loogie From Hell.
“So that’s what happens. Ken sees the ’hound the moment it starts for us and jumps in front of me, grabbing for the claymore in a scabbard lengthwise of the bike’s body. And the ’hound hocks Grabby the Gross-out Glomp straight at Ken, and the thing wraps around her legs and the sign we’d stopped next to, big galvanized pipe sunk into the parking lot, and Ken swings the claymore but the glomp clenches just enough to pull her out of line. The claymore misses the ’hound by a whisker and plows up about a foot of asphalt, and the ’hound decides I’m easier prey and goes for me instead, it managed to get between us and I’ve got no weapon so I do what I do best and I run, cut around the gate into the factory yard and hope I can find shelter. There’s a little guard booth just inside the gate but the door is broken, so I jam up into the booth and start kicking to keep the balehound back, and he is just seriously unimpressed, and it’s lucky I’m wearing really good boots ’cause I’ve got nothing else.
“Now, Ken can hear all this; I mean, it’s been maybe fifteen seconds and I’m just on the other side of the wall, but she can’t get to me because she can’t kill the thing clamping her to the signpost it’s not alive, no vital organs, just a hunk of clench muscle and while she’s trying to hack through it, I’m auditioning for demon-pet-chow just a few feet away. So the hound gets a mouthful of my pant-leg and pulls my feet out from under me, and I’m trying to push him back with the soles of my boots, and I hear this yell from the other side and crunch!”
Xander smacked his fist into his palm for emphasis. “Since she couldn’t get loose fast enough, Ken heaved the motorcycle over the wall and squashed the balehound in his tracks. Aiming by sound.” He leaned toward the doctor. “And are you really trying to tell me that’s what I’m taking advantage of?”
The open, flabbergasted exasperation in his tone and expression would have been enough to make Dr. Skudea smile even if that hadn’t been the optimum response at the time. “You make a good point. Or would, if your initial presumptions were accurate.”
Xander sat back in his chair, relaxing as if in resignation. “Oh, yeah, people are always telling me I jump to conclusions. So which one did I get wrong this time?”
Dr. Skudea held the smile. “Well, you seem to be operating on the assumption that we believe you were the one exerting undue influence.”
And again he was staring. “That … that is wrong on so many … No.” He shook his head, hard. “No. It’s nothing like that. I mean … you do know Ken’s history, right? As in, likes girls every bit as much as I do, and has snuggled with quite a few more than I ever will?”
Dr. Skudea tilted her head to regard him, and her smile was mild enough to trigger warning bells in anyone who had seen Rupert Giles smile in exactly the same way when he was thinking of giving Ripper a turn on the floor. “Are you formally stating, then, for the record, that there is nothing between you and Ms. Kennedy beyond the standard Slayer-Watcher relationship?”
This was a man who had grown far from his callow beginnings, was known to have dealt with his own demons and then many others around the world. He returned her gaze steadily enough, and the tiny flicker in the muscles around his eyes might even have been her imagination. (Might have been. It wasn’t.) “Nothing standard about either one of us,” he said. “We’re still making it up as we go … which is what Giles wound up having to do with Buffy, if you think about it.”
Dr. Skudea considered that. “I am not aware,” she said, “that Mr. Giles ever engaged in sexual congress with his Slayer.” Xander’s wince was visible this time. “We both know that you have done so, with yours, just as we both know that your attempt at evasion was half-hearted and without any real hope on your part for success.” She opened the leather portfolio to reveal a yellow legal pad, readied her pen. “You have always known this moment would come. It has come. Shall we begin addressing it, or must we squander further time in pointless delays?”
Xander sighed, and didn’t so much slump as release tension that had been carefully masked till now. “Yeah, me ’n’ Ken are together,” he admitted. “And yeah, I always knew we’d have to face the fallout on that someday.” He sighed again. “Guess that’s today.”
“Indeed. And I must stress that, to us, the fact of your affiliation with Ms. Kennedy is considerably less important than the nature of that affiliation.”
“Because I have to be protected from scheming women.” He shook his head mournfully. “Protected. It just never ends.”
“The information available to us doesn’t render such a suggestion impossible,” Dr. Skudea went on relentlessly. “Consider: as she has claimed in times past, Ms. Kennedy grew up in a wealthy household … but, we now know, this was as the daughter of the family’s housekeeper, and it became necessary for that family to discharge her mother after the younger Kennedy became involved, at age fifteen, with the family’s eldest son ”
“She told me about that,” Xander interrupted. “Not to make herself sound better, she just wanted me to know she hadn’t turned lesbian because some guy done her wrong.” He shook his head. “She was dumb, and the guy was a completely typical teenage jerk, and the family way overreacted … but not as bad as if she’d gone for the younger daughter, which she was already savvy enough to see would NOT go over well.”
“Be that as may,” Dr. Skudea said. “Next we find her, upon arrival in Sunnydale, promptly entangling herself with Ms. Rosenberg, and misrepresenting her own past to give herself greater standing ”
“She was trying to make Wil less self-conscious,” Xander insisted, interrupting again. “Ken’s got a lot of confidence, she could see Wil didn’t, and yeah, she was afraid the age thing would make Wil feel like she was dealing with barely-not-jailbait. So she fudged some things to make their status seem closer to equal, not to pump herself up but so Wil wouldn’t think she was taking advantage of a ‘vulnerable young girl’.” His tone clearly indicated exactly how vulnerable he believed Kennedy to be.
Dr. Skudea nodded with just a hint of impatience. “Yes, yes. Next, however, there was the matter of their rather spectacular public break-up, a year or so afterward. There are any number of theories as to what brought that about, but the true cause has never been determined.”
“Because neither one of them would ever talk about it with anyone else.” Xander spoke as one putting deliberate effort into being reasonable. “Neither of them. Ken finally told me a little bit about it a really little bit, and only after we’d been working together for more than a year but even that was mainly to say that it wasn’t Willow’s fault.”
“And then there is you,” Dr. Skudea concluded. “Her involvement with you will make her second known change of … perhaps not orientation, perhaps more in the way of focus … and it is increasingly clear that this involvement, at the very least on your side, is deeply personal, emotional rather than simply sexual.” She leaned toward him slightly. “The pattern is not inconsistent with that of someone using her body to cement relationships that systematically increase her status, which would clearly be cause for concern.”
“That’s not how it is,” Xander protested. “I swear it isn’t!”
“If not, then not.” Dr. Skudea sat back. “Be assured, however: we will establish the truth of this matter to our satisfaction. And that is the responsibility I have been given to pursue.” She opened her notebook to a new page, clicked her pen, and looked to him. “Shall we begin?”
* * *
Where Xander had initially feigned incomprehension as a defense mechanism, Kennedy bristled with poorly suppressed hostility. “This is crap and you know it,” she announced.
And, where Dr. Skudea had addressed the man with cool professionalism, she chose amusement in dealing with the woman. “You are an expert on crap, then?”
Kennedy shrugged, with a half-sneer that Dr. Skudea suspected might have been consciously copied from the infamous Faith. “I’ve dealt with enough of it over the years. And a lot of that was from bureaucrats. So are you another one who cracks whatever little whip she has and prays that nobody ever thinks to call her bluff?”
Dr. Skudea tilted her head slightly, studying the defiant Slayer before her with interest. “Well, now. I have the oddest feeling that was supposed to put me on the defensive.” She tossed a shrug of her own. “There is one matter we might as well get out of the way at the beginning; otherwise it will simply hang in the air, unspoken but impossible to ignore.”
“Yeah?” Kennedy showed teeth in a tight smile. “Okay, give me your best shot.”
“We both know that, if you chose to stand up and walk out of here, there would be no possible way for me to stop you. We also know that you won’t do any such thing, for two reasons.”
Kennedy held the smile, with perhaps more teeth. “You’re sure of that?”
Dr. Skudea gave her a severe look. “Head games is a poor opening gambit against someone who does such things for a living. To continue: the first reason is your knowledge of Mr. Harris’s loyalty. Not perhaps to the larger Council, though that has never truly been put to the test; but its founders, its foremost personnel, are his oldest and dearest friends, more precious to him than any family has ever been. Even if you were entirely confident that he would choose you over them, you would not make such a demand, not if you do indeed care for him.
“The second reason is more basic and direct. If you and he were to repudiate the Council’s authority, declare yourself not bound by their rulings or laws, there would be no penalties exacted against you … but Council resources and backing would be immediately withdrawn, leaving the two of you completely on your own. You surely know by now that he is fundamentally incapable of giving up the work the two of you do, and you know that continuing it without all possible support would increase the likelihood of his early death. Because of this, however you may dislike submitting to our judgment, you will do so, because the alternative is utterly unacceptable to you.”
Kennedy had gone completely still as the psychiatrist spoke. Very softly she said, “If you know anything about me if you’ve even heard anything about me you know that threats are a really bad idea.”
Dr. Skudea dismissed that with an impatient wave. “There is no threat, only the foreseeable consequence of a choice that you will not make. I simply said it aloud so that we may dispense with it. Are you prepared now to get down to serious discussion?”
Kennedy slouched back, face set in disgust. “Fine, whatever. I can already see how this one is supposed to play out: somebody has to dash in and save Xander from that man-eater Kennedy. Well, I have news for you paper-pushers, which is Xander never needs saving. He may put himself out on a limb, sure, and trust his partner to come through in the clutch because it’s a Slayer he’s managing and that’s just how it’s done. But rescuing, no. Whatever is going on, whenever it is or wherever, you can count on Xander being on top of it.”
Dr. Skudea considered. “To begin with, I understand that ‘man-eater’ is essentially the exact opposite of your customary role ”
That drew a scornful grimace from Kennedy. “Oh, yeah, nothing at all snotty about that comment.”
“ and then there is the fact that you sound remarkably like someone caught up in the legend of Xander Harris the aw-shucks superman.”
“It’s a legend because he keeps doing it,” Kennedy said grimly. “Myth would be if it was made-up. Nobody could ever make up anything as over-the-top as what Xander does all the time.” She looked up suddenly. “Nobody not-named Andrew. Seriously, why haven’t they put that boy on meds yet?”
“Everything you say reinforces the impression that you’re totally dazzled by his reputation,” Dr. Skudea observed mildly.
“Reputation, nothing. These are things I’ve seen him do.” She glared at the psychiatrist. “Last year, he had to handle a vamp crew by himself not a bunch of low-hood bangers, but an actual hit-squad on a moving roller coaster.” Her eyes seemed to turn inward. “By the time I was able to get to him, he’d taken out four of them, and I swear it looked like the last one was trying to get away. And Xander? all he would talk about was how he really, really needed to change his underwear.” She looked up again. “That’s not ‘reputation’. That’s … that’s Xander. Me, yeah, I could manage five, six, seven at once. Done it before. But on a roller coaster?”
“Impressive, I’ll agree, but you can’t seriously claim such an exploit as typical.”
“Didn’t say it was typical.” Kennedy stood up and began to pace. “That was just the first one I thought of. You want more? Baton Rouge, I’m fighting a bunch of Connaught demons up and down the wharf, and I’m in trouble: they’re hereditary warriors, carrying weapons they know how to use and trained at working in small-group tactics, and I can tell they’re about to funnel me into a small enough space that my speed won’t be enough to tip the difference. Then Xander, he’s stolen a fire boat, he starts blasting the Connaughts with high-pressure water while I kill the ones he’s knocked down and disoriented, and then while I’m trying to take out the last few before they can recover, he charges in with a fire axe to keep ’em distracted while I finish them off.
“Jersey, we’re separated in the warehouse district, trying to track a Hodenbosch shrike. When I finally find Xander, he’s … God, I still don’t know what he did, something with glow-sticks and Silly String and those wind-up toy monkeys with banging cymbals, the shrike is squalling and trying to tear its way out through the walls and Xander is dancing around it about ten feet away, tootling away on a kazoo never would explain what that part was about, the bastard and he’s got the shrike so crazy and confused that me taking out this fearsome killing-thing is about as dramatic as peeling a banana.”
“I’m sure all these stories are pertinent,” Dr. Skudea interjected, “but sooner or later we have to ”
“Last one, I promise,” Kennedy said. “For now, anyway. So, eight months ago, Minneapolis, high-rise still under construction, and we’re closing in on a vamp who calls himself Drennan. Just one vamp, but he’s an old one, wily, not so much powerful as slick and smart and dangerous as hell. Anyway, we’ve got a tip that for now he’s set himself up in one of the unfinished penthouses, and we run a canned spell that one of our shamans gave us, bound up in a scroll, and it confirms our tip so I play it safe and send Xander downstairs while I get set to close in on our target.” Her mouth set in a hard line. “Really safe, elevator clear on the other side of the building where Drennan wouldn’t hear it. Which is why I didn’t hear when Drennan cut the elevator cable.”
Dr. Skudea nodded slightly. “Obviously, Mr. Harris wasn’t killed.”
“Nope.” Kennedy shook her head. “Banged up pretty hard, though. And dragged himself away, because he knew there’d be follow-up. He picked a place that was part supply room and part building maintenance office, got himself settled in behind a desk … and left the door open.”
That brought a lifted eyebrow from Dr. Skudea. “Not trying to hide.”
“He wanted to be found,” Kennedy said. “Because … well, we’ll get to that part.
“Now, the thing to remember is I didn’t know any of this. I started out by easing up to the penthouse, only Drennan wasn’t there, and along the way I ran across a bunch of booby-traps I had to work my way around. So, with no vamp, I started looking for more traps, because each one was a place he’d been and that might eventually lead me to something. Maybe he didn’t realize he was leaving a trail of bread-crumbs; more likely, it was part of a larger trap because he really was that sharp. Anyhow, I took my time, watching for any sign I might be getting caught up in something I wasn’t seeing. With one thing and another, it took me maybe forty-five minutes to work my way down to the basement. And finally I start hearing something, and I’ve been quiet already but now I’m a ghost, and as I get closer I can tell it’s two people talking, and even closer I can tell one of them is Xander. … Which is a surprise, but he’s talking so it can’t be too bad. So I ease up next to the door, and get my stake ready in case I need it because I still don’t really know, I’m not one of the Slayers who can detect a demon or vamp by tummy-tingles and Xander never lets up about knowing your target before you kill and I gather myself and jump into the room …”
Kennedy stopped, drew a long breath. “He was fast, God, you couldn’t believe how fast. I’d been ready, and I’d caught him totally by surprise, Xander confirmed that for me later, but Drennan was at my throat the instant I cleared the door. Except Xander had been just as fast, which isn’t possible, he put four three-inch steel spikes in Drennan’s back with a nail-gun he’d kept hid the whole time they were talking, and I caught Drennan in the belly with my first stake-thrust but got the next into his heart.”
“Teamwork,” Dr. Skudea said with approval. “And nicely done.”
“More than that,” Kennedy went on impatiently. “Xander had seen a couple of the booby-traps while he was looking for a place to hole up, and realized that Drennan might have figured a way to get me while I was focused on them. So he set himself up as bait, and sucked the guy in, and kept him there by pure power of mouth: jokes and bullshit and verbal tap-dancing, letting things slip now and then so it looked worthwhile to keep working him for information, talking about how his Slayer would be along any minute now but making it sound like a bluff, so Drennan must have half-figured Xander had come in alone for advance scouting and there was all the time in the world. When I tried to help Xander out from behind that desk, though, he nearly passed out. So I said screw it and just heaved the desk out of the way …”
She stopped, her face still strained at the memory, then went on, soft and controlled. “The elevator crash had driven a two-foot length of rebar through his leg. It was still there, twisted in a way that winched the material of his jeans around it to close the wound to a slow leak; Drennan would have smelled the blood, but probably put it down to the general banging-up that comes from being dropped down an elevator shaft. Xander had sat there for close to an hour, in agony, breezy and casual, stringing along a killer just to keep him busy, and when I finally showed up, it was him who saved me.”
Kennedy sat down again, her hands flat on the table in front of her, and her eyes bored into Dr. Skudea’s. “This guy doesn’t need rescuing, he doesn’t need anybody watching out for him. All he needs is somebody who can live up to how much trust he gives a partner … ’cause when Xander is in, he’s all in.”
Dr. Skudea nodded thoughtfully. “You do make him sound formidable.”
“You better damn bet on it,” Kennedy said in answer.
“The problem,” Dr. Skudea said, shaking her head slowly, “is that you’re reinforcing some of my concerns.”
Kennedy sat back. “The guy’s a rock-solid operator, a total bad-ass, and that worries you?”
“Consider his record,” Dr. Skudea pointed out. “The tales of ‘Xander the Demon Magnet’ are, of course, grossly exaggerated for comedic effect, but they derive from a known factual foundation. Within a single three-year period, he was sexually or romantically involved with ” She consulted a notepad. “A mantis demon, an Inca mummy, a future seer, a budding witch, a Slayer, a former vengeance demon … and this was before his reputation had assumed its current status.” She looked up. “Finally, there is the well-known fact that he lost an eye, directly in your defense, before you achieved Slayer status.” Her gaze was steady. “It would be understandable if you felt this as a debt.”
“Well, yes, that would be one of the side effects of owing him my life.” Kennedy’s own gaze sharpened abruptly. “Wait a minute: you think I’m the one who needs saving here? From Xander?”
Dr. Skudea shrugged. “As I said, there is a documented history of mystical women being drawn to him. Less remarked upon, but equally true, is that he responds to them. Strongly. Such a pronounced tendency could certainly have an effect upon a working relationship, even if there were no deliberate intent involved.”
“Not a chance,” Kennedy said flatly. “Xander would never do that, never do anything like that. He’d hate the thought of doing anything like that. What you’re talking about … that’s not Xander.”
Dr. Skudea gave a measured nod. “Your conviction in this matter does not mean you are correct in your opinion, but it will be one of many things that I consider.” She raised a cool eyebrow. “One of many things. Be assured, we’ve only barely begun here.”