Caitlin Todd was confused. She’d stood up, Gibbs had given her a compliment
, something she’d honestly never thought she’d hear from him, and then-
The world had behaved very oddly. She should have been on a warehouse roof. Instead, she found herself in someone’s living room, facing a man wearing an eye patch, a tall teenager sitting on the arm of a couch, and a petite blonde in a defensive posture who was clearly ready for anything.
She went for her gun, but discovered to her consternation that it wasn’t there anymore. She’d dropped it on the rooftop before jumping in front of Gibbs. On the other hand, she was positive she hadn’t taken off her vest, yet it was missing.
“What the hell just happened?” she demanded.
“You might want to have a seat for this,” the teenager suggested.
“She’s not kidding about that,” the man confirmed.
“No, I don’t think I do. I want answers, now! I am a Federal agent-“
a federal agent,” the blonde woman said gently, shifting to a slightly more relaxed stance when Kate made no move toward anyone in the room. “Look, I know this is going to come as a shock, but as far as the world is concerned, Caitlin Todd was just killed on a roof in Norfolk by an unknown sniper. Your boss is going to assume-“
“Ari! That bastard!”
“Well, sort of,” the teenager said. “He actually seems like a pretty nice guy. I should probably warn you, there’s pretty much zero chance you’ll convince Buffy he’s evil after the shoes he bought her. But you are half right about the bastard thing. Actually, wait, she’s technically correct, isn’t she? Willow explained-“
“Not the time, Dawn,” the man said evenly. “Sorry, she spent her formative years around some world class babblers. “
“Who the hell are you people?” Kate demanded.
“We are the people who just helped save your life,” the blonde said firmly. “At Ari Haswari’s request, by the way. And while we understand you’re upset, cause you didn’t exactly get asked for your permission about how this played out, I’d still appreciate you not swearing in front of my kid sister.”
That provoked an indignant look from the younger girl.
“Buffy, please. She’s having a really bad day, and it’s not like I don’t know the words. I think we can agree getting killed buys some leeway on the swears.”
Kate eyed the trio.
The teenager was tall but thin- if she had to guess, Kate would put her around eighteen, but possibly still on the wrong side of legal- and was clearly not ready for a fight. From the sound of it, she was more likely to hand Kate a carton of Ben & Jerrys and a box of Kleenex. The man was older, probably a few years younger than Kate herself, but would be at a disadvantage with the eye patch. The blonde was short, screamed California Girl, and probably would have kittens if she broke one of her perfectly manicured nails. Situation assessment- she was outnumbered, but she could probably take them.
“I’m Buffy,” the blonde continued, unaware she was just confirming Kate’s mental categorization of her, “and since I can tell you’re thinking about it, you’re free to take a swing at me if you want, but leave Dawn and Xander out of it.”
“Hey!” Dawn protested. “I’m-“
“Still nowhere near the level of even a novice field operative,” Buffy cut her off, “and not going to shrug it off as fast as I do if Former Agent Todd here gets in any decent hits.”
Dawn appeared to be trying not to sulk.
“Dawnmeister, I really don’t get why you’re upset at being ruled out of punching bag duty,” Xander said. “It’s not that great. Trust me, voice of experience speaking here. I was excluded too, and do you see me complaining?”
“Again, who the hell are you people?” Kate asked, but with considerably less bite in her tone. “And what do you mean I was killed? I’m not dead. I’m standing right here! This is too bizarre to be real. I must have hit my head when I went down.”
Actually, now that she thought about it, head injury did seem more viable than Gibbs giving her a compliment…
“Ok, if it’s not real, where are you?” Buffy asked reasonably, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I don’t know! That’s not the point!”
“Cleveland,” Dawn told her helpfully.
“Dawn!” snapped Xander and Buffy in unison, glaring at the teen- though in Buffy’s case, without taking her attention fully off of Kate.
“What? She’d have figured it out soon. I mean, a look at any of the newspapers in the house might give it away. She was an investigator!”
“What do you mean, was?” Kate asked. She was trying to stay calm, but these people’s repeated reference to her life in the past tense was starting to freak her out.
“You really should sit down,” Dawn offered nervously. “I was completely serious about that. I’ve seen people have bad news broken to them before, and sometimes they just sit down even when there’s no chair. So we gave you the best chair. Usually there’s a fight over that one.”
“Dawn, if you can’t be helpful, Xander will take you somewhere else,” Buffy said. “Miss Todd… Caitlin? I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Caitlin Todd is dead. Her time of death was roughly 4:30pm local time. Cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. She was shot by a sniper presumed to be rogue Mossad agent Ari Haswari. As we speak, all federal agencies are on alert and conducting a manhunt for her killer.”
Kate glanced down, looking for the vest she should have been wearing. With the vest on- and there was no hiding she’d worn one after taking the bullet for Gibbs- a sniper would only have had one good shot. Her hand went involuntarily to her forehead, to where he would have aimed. The anger drained from her as she realized these people were completely serious. She sat down on the chair.
“I’m… dead?” she asked. “Why am I dead?”
The question sounded like something a child would ask, and her voice sounded strange even to her own ears.
“Well, obviously you’re still alive,” Buffy replied. “Your death was staged to convince al Qaeda that Ari is really their man. He’s not, but they and some other heavily armed people need to think he is.”
“This may be making less sense than it did when we rehearsed how to break the news to you. Basically, you have to be someone other than Caitlin Todd from now on. If al Qaeda find out Ari didn’t really kill you, they’ll come looking to get even with him, and that would probably involve you actually getting killed. I don’t think you want that, and we don’t either.”
The man Buffy had called Xander smiled crookedly.
“In general, we’re not fans of people getting shot,” he said. “Especially not in a fatal way.”
Buffy nodded in agreement.
“Unfortunately,” she continued, “right now, we don’t know who needs to be dealt with before it’s safe for you to be out and about. Hunting down terrorists and murderers isn’t really what we do. Chances are, by the time we figure things out, work out how to deal with the dangerous people, and it’s safe, Caitlin Todd will have been dead long enough that she can’t come back. I’m really sorry.”
“What gives you the right to make that decision?” Kate demanded. “I don’t even know you! And you seem to think Ari Haswari isn’t a terrorist.”
“That would be cause he’s not,” Dawn said, frowning. “Actually, he’s the reason you’re here and still alive. Didn’t we mention that? It was one of the first things we were going to explain after the whole ‘sorry you’re dead to the world and life as you knew it is over’ part.”
“Really? Cause according to what you’ve told me, Ari’s the one who was supposed to kill me.”
“He didn’t, though,” Buffy replied evenly. “Like you noticed, you’re not dead. Ari’s gone to great lengths to make sure you’re safe. To the point of faking his own death, even. In a little while, as far as your agency and his are concerned, you’ll be a dead hero, he’ll be a dead bad guy, al Qaeda will be a bad headache, and the world will go on as usual.”
Kate pinched the bridge of her nose. None of this made sense.
“Why didn’t Ari just miss his shot if he didn’t want to kill me?” she asked.
Buffy smiled sadly.
“It would have been easier, wouldn’t it? But it wasn’t that simple.”
“It never is.”
“You can still hit things if you want,” Buffy offered. “Even me. Just not Dawn or Xander.”
“Actually, we have a whole room-“ Dawn began, only to shut her mouth with an audible snap at Xander’s one-eyed glare.
“Won’t change anything,” Kate muttered, sinking back into the chair. It might make her feel better temporarily, but it wouldn’t change a damn thing. From the sound of it, she’d just been put into something like witness protection, but with no warning and no chance to say goodbye to anyone.
“No, it won’t,” Buffy agreed, showing every sign of sincere regret for the current situation. “But it might make you feel a little better in the short term to blow off some steam. I’d be pissed right now if I were you.”
“What am I going to do if I’m dead?” Kate asked. “I’ve been in law enforcement my entire career, and that’s pretty much the number one place I can’t be as a dead woman.”
“Well, we can offer you a job,” Buffy said. “Protection, new identity, all that jazz. We’ve been working on the new identity since we found out you’d need one, so we have some options, but it’s not like it’s set in stone. If you decide you don’t like what we came up with, feel free to tell us to chuck it and set up one up yourself. I mean, you may have experience with this, but this is a first for us.”
“New identity?” Kate asked blankly.