Faith stood outside the Mayor’s office for the second time that day. Without noticing, she shifted from foot to foot and fidgeted nervously with the protective bracelet that encircled her wrist before taking a breath and letting the Slayer calm settle over her form. The closer to the Ascension date it got, the more… ooky being around the Mayor felt.Ooky?
she echoed internally. Definitely spending too much time around Red.
She forced to saunter slightly as she opened the door and slid fluidly into the room, grinning cheekily at her boss. “Got something for me?”
The Mayor gave her his broad smile. “Of course. There is a professor here in Sunnydale that could hold the key to my… weakness after I ascend. I need you to take care of it.” Around his words, Faith could feel something pushing on her, like something attempting to push past a bubble. She cast a covert eye around, trying to note where the difference was coming from.
“This professor guy got a name?” She tried to affect boredom but the impending pressure was more than a little unnerving.
“Professor Lester Worth. He’s a volcanologist.” The Mayor passed her a small file, the first time he had ever given her information on paper.
Faith picked up the folder, turning it over in her hands and arching an eyebrow at her superior. “He’s a what now? And what’s with this?”
The Mayor steepled his hands and leaned toward her in that congenial yet conspiratorial way he had. As he did so, a soft murmuring added to the feeling pressure around her body. “Because dear Willow has been quite useful for our cause, I want her to personally help you with this target.”
Faith winced visibly but decided it was fine to let him see it. After all, in his mind, she and Willow had become fast friends and it was only natural that she care for her well-being. “But, you know, Red’s not really the killing kind.”
The Mayor arched an eyebrow, his face the mask of a man that preferred not to argue when he knew he was in the right. “But she is a master strategist, as she has shown in spades. She has somehow managed to cut the legs out from under Miss Summers quite effectively and used what tools she has at hand to keep her distracted.” Faith almost frowned at that – did he know about their alternate plan with Angel? “Despite her own personal difficulties at the moment, she had come through for you quite admirably, which is all I need to know about her truly. Perhaps Willow can help you to dispose of Professor Worth without collecting the attention of reporters or the Slayer.”
Finally, the dark-haired Slayer allowed herself to frown, tilting her expression so it was perceived as a pout. “You think I can’t be… you know, inconspicuous or whatever?”
He grinned kindly at her. “Effective you may be, my dear, but subtle you are not.”
Faith tilted her hand, nodding once in acceptance and her eyes straying down to the protective bracelet on her wrist. Her eyes widened marginally as she realized that her continuous fidgeting with it had finally compromised the circle of temporary shielding. The knot that tied the ends together had frayed over time and finally gave out. As she watched, the bracelet opened from her wrist and lay limp on the thigh of one leg.
Like the crashing of a wave, words washed over her. If she were anyone else, her game face would have faltered but it instead settled on smug blankness while her mind tried to battle the attack. The Mayor might have been saying something but all she could hear were the words – true enough, they were in his smoother-than-silk voice but it wasn’t what he was actually saying. “I’m your friend. Trust me. Follow me. Obey me. I’m your friend, trust me, follow me, obey me. I’myourfriendtrustmefollowmeobeyme…
The words continuously circled inside her skull like a rabid fox chasing its own tail. It took a long moment of losing herself in what she now recognized as his compulsions before she figured out she needed to do something.
Desperately, she clawed for the ends of the bracelet, twisting them together until the voice finally faded. It was then that her focus came back and she realized that the Mayor was staring at her with mild concern. “I’m sorry, what?”
“That sounds like a plan, right?” There was a slight strain in his words and she knew automatically that he had noticed her weirdness.
She laughed self-consciously, trying to channel as much of Willow’s singular self-deprecating nature as she could manage. “Sorry, boss. I guess since this isn’t mega-urgent, I sort of spaced thinking about the whole Indian TV-ice cream party Red was thinking about throwing tonight.” She paused for a moment. “It doesn’t have to be right away, right?”
He inclined his head slightly. “Not tonight, no. Willow can speak Hindi?”
Faith shrugged her shoulder noncommittally and stood. “We done?”
Smiling endearingly at her, he gave her a dismissive wave and nod. “Give Willow my love,” he said automatically as she maneuvered around the room.
She set her hand on the doorknob and nodded. “Sure thing, boss.” Then, as smoothly as she could fake, she left the office and the county building as swiftly as her feet could carry her. After that wave of compulsion crashing over her like a tsunami, she couldn’t get away from the Mayor fast enough and it still felt like it was there at the back of her mind, waiting for her guard to slip.
She needed to get to Willow and fast. Having been free of the Mayor’s compulsions for almost a week now, she was desperately afraid of falling back into that hole. As soon as she could, she dodged off the street and darted through a park and the corner of a cemetery in her haste to return to Willow’s house. She may have encountered a couple vampires en route but her body must have made the necessary adjustments because she didn’t remember them.
Faith hadn’t been this frightened since her cross-country escape-and-evade of Kakistos. Her chest heaving with the effort of her heavy breathing, she grinned in relief when she finally spotted Willow’s house. She bounded up to the door and knocked loudly, barely able to keep herself from sagging against the door.
Almost immediately, the door opened and the Slayer did then sag inside, her mind still fairly reeling from the recent attack. “Faith, what’s wrong?”
Pressing herself against the wall in the foyer, she inhaled great gasps of air, finally letting the calm of Willow’s singular shield settle into her skin. Then she held up the frayed bracelet to her friend’s eye level. “It broke.”
“What’s her trauma?” a sharp voice demanded suddenly. Faith turned her head to see Cordelia, ex-girlfriend of Xander and queen-god of all cheerleaders. It would be an understatement to say that she wasn’t expecting her to be there.
For her part, Willow just rolled her eyes. “Cordy, can you get my laptop?”
The brunette placed her hands on her hips haughtily. “What for?”
“Research. If I’m right, Faith just got hit by the equivalent of a brick wall of the Mayor’s compulsions. I need to find out if there are any… side effects.”
Pressing her hands to her eyes, Faith sagged to the floor. “Thanks, Red. God, that was horrible. It was like…” But it was there that she trailed off. For all the bad that she’d gone through in her very short life, she wasn’t entirely sure she had anything to compare it to.
“Don’t worry. We’ll fix it.”
Gibbs glanced at his cell phone for the tenth time that night, wondering if he should call Willow. He was about to pick up the phone to dial her number, silently berating himself for acting like some nervous teenager, when he heard a knock at his door. With a soft growl and a promise to himself to get rid of the interloper as quickly as possible, he let the phone clatter to the table and took long strides to his front door, jerking it open in a fluid motion.
He had not expected to see Ira Rosenberg. Especially without Sheila at his side.
Suppressing a heavy sigh, he stepped back from the doorway, allowing the man entrance without a word. With a slight twitch of an eyebrow, he realized his tendency to not be welcoming to those who came to his home now had a new dimension. Willow and Faith had both confirmed that a vampire needed permission to enter the home. Gibbs vowed he would never say the words “come in” ever again.
“Ira,” he greeted softly. He pressed down the emotions he felt at the sight of the man: equal parts relief and agitation. He still felt a little betrayed about not knowing about Willow for so long but the Jewish man was obviously here for a reason. Bringing up wounds that would heal with time would just be counterproductive.
“Jethro,” Ira returned, stepping silently across the threshold. It wasn’t until he released his breath that Gibbs realized he’d been holding it. Well, it was odd enough for the shorter man to be there that thinking he was a vampire wasn’t too much of a long shot.
They both trailed to his dining room table, a large wooden thing that was very close to his kitchen. Gibbs didn’t want to be the first to say anything. He knew he would likely say absolutely the wrong thing. So, he rummaged through the kitchen, pouring a half-glass of bourbon for himself and turning on the coffeemaker in order to warm the liquid that still remained in the pot.
“I want to apologize,” Ira said finally. He was staring hard at the table and tracing an indeterminable design with his fingertips. “I was selfish to keep this from you.”
“You were right to,” the former Marine answered quietly from his position in the kitchen. “She wasn’t mine, not really. And Sheila should never have done what she did.”
Ira shot him a sharp look but his not-quite-so-hard expression told Gibbs that he agreed with him more than he was letting on. Then he sighed and the venom faded from his gaze. “I suppose you’re right,” he muttered.
“Something’s been bothering me about this whole thing, though,” Gibbs said, pinning the Jewish man with his gray eyes.
Ira frowned and looked back at him guilelessly. It made him realize just where Willow’s innocent but piercing stare had come from. “What?” He sounded exceedingly tired, making Gibbs feel just the tiniest bit of guilt.
Gibbs sighed and glanced at the coffeemaker. The yellow light indicated that the coffee had reached the right temperature. “Why tell me at all? I mean, she could have been in this area and I would have never known. So, I just want to know why.”
Tilting his head down again, Ira pressed his lips together tightly. “She needs someone she can rely on,” he said softly after a long moment.
Gibbs snorted, setting a mug of coffee in front of the man. It contained a touch of milk and two teaspoons of sugar, enough to make the former Marine want to gag but he knew that was how Ira likes his caffeine. “Rosenberg, you’re the most reliable person I know.”
Haunted hazel eyes looked at him again before darting away. “Not anymore.” He sighed. “She grew up not wanting for anything. She had the clothes she wanted, the education she wanted and she was well-behaved enough not to ask for more. But for the last three years…”
Gibbs looked at him, waiting for him to continue. Something was bugging the man heavily. He looked about ready to drown his sorrows in a fifth of whiskey and the Marine knew for a fact that Ira steered clear of all alcoholic ventures. Not that the same could be said of his wife, however…
“We haven’t been around,” the Jewish man continued finally. “Not for a while. Her friends are her family now. But we know better than anyone, Jethro – friends drift apart.”
“You want me to be her family?” Gibbs asked incredulously. It wasn’t the suggestion itself that was surprising; it was the massive implications of just a request that was astounding.
Ira nodded. “She’s very independent – Sheila raised her to be that way. But she needs to know that she isn’t alone.”