"You know, Giles, it would have been nice if someone had told me what was going on," said Rachel into the phone. "I'd like to think that someone using magic and advanced technology to mess with my friends would at least warrant a heads up."
"Ah, well, I rather thought that you had, umm, more important things to worry about at the time."
I will not throttle him, I will not throttle him, went the mantra Rachel chanted in her mind. "You thought that I had more important things to worry about than someone making some damn good efforts to drive Buffy round the bend completely?" she asked, endeavouring to keep her tone of voice neutral.
"Well, the war-"
"I am not even an observer to the war. I've had little more contact with it than you. Using it as an excuse to not inform me is ridiculous."
"Yes, well, I've been a little busy myself," snapped Giles. "Teaching the army how to fight demons is not how I was planning to spend my life and it hasn't left much time for anything else. Add in that the seers are predicting all sorts of doom and gloom for you, and I'm not really on top of things."
Rachel blinked. Ah, that explained things. "Well, okay. I'm sorry then," she said. "I'm still not happy that I was kept out of the loop, but it's as much Buffy and Willow's fault as yours."
Giles sighed. "You, as a group, can be incredibly infuriating at times."
"Can't argue there," said Rachel. "So what are the seers coming up with? How screwed am I according to them?"
"Quite. You've made some powerful enemies, Rachel."
"Yeah, well, I'm not without my resources. I don't suppose you have any specifics?"
"Well, the latest readings seem to indicate a combination of enemies," said Giles. "The aliens seem to be a given, but we're not really sure who else will be involved. My first thought would be demons. You have made quite the name for yourself amongst that kind."
"Demons and aliens," said Rachel. "Well, I could deal with that. Between myself and HK, they'd be hard pressed."
"Overconfidence could get you killed," chided Giles gently. "And it just as easily be wizards or Sith or any of the other groups that would love to make a name by claiming your scalp."
"I'm surrounded by a division of well-armed soldiers at virtually all times, uncle," said Rachel. "And the base has some of the best wards you'll ever see outside of ancient magic sinks. Beyond that, I have quite possibly the most vicious killing machine in this dimension at my beck and call as well as an array of rather dangerous prototype weapons. I'm quite safe here."
Admittedly, the prototypes were almost as dangerous to the person using them as to any enemy, but the thought was there.
"Well, I've asked Faith to make her way there, just in case," said Giles. "I'm sure you won't mind her presence."
Rachel sighed. "I don't mind her presence, but she doesn't really have clearance to be hanging around here," she said. "And she brings chaos wherever she goes. I'll have to pull some strings."
"But, even so, you couldn't have a better person to fight by your side than a Slayer," said Giles. "It may not be necessary, but I see no reason to take risks. These are dangerous times."
"Well she'll be popular with the soldiers if nothing else. What about Buffy and Willow? Have you told them?"
"I have, and it took all my powers of persuasion to keep them from running off to join you as well."
"You'd think I was incapable of defending myself."
"I could say the same about your reaction to what happened with those foolish boys."
"Touche. Well, aside from that, how are you?"
"Busy. I keep telling them that they'd be better off employing some real teachers to cover demons for their demon hunting units, but they insist that they'd rather have an expert doing the job."
That was probably Rachel's fault. She'd recommended Giles several times to various people as a consultant on the supernatural. She didn't think it would be a good idea to let that slip, though. "Well, they may have a point," she said. "You do know this stuff as well as anyone can and they need to get it right. It'd only take one slip-up and the accord with the demons would become very shaky indeed."
Giles's sigh was most heartfelt. "Why couldn't they have press-ganged Wesley instead?"
"Because the Crown beat them to it. He was just the right age for National Service and with his skills . . . they didn't waste any time. Anyway, I doubt it's that bad. They're not assigned their idiots to your classes."
"And thank God for that," said Giles with feeling.
"Hey, Miller," said Rachel as she breezed into his office. "We need to talk. Got some news you'll be interested in."
"You know, people in the army don't normally go breezing into their superior officer's office and make themselves at home without at least asking permission."
"Whoever said I was normal?"
"Well, there is that," said Miller with a theatrical sigh. "Oh for a normal command. So what is it?"
"Well, couple of things," said Rachel. "Firstly, Faith's coming for a visit."
Miller blinked and then his features settled into a put-upon frown. "Oh wonderful. Well, I suppose she'll liven things up if nothing else."
Rachel laughed. "Oh she'll do that. Secondly, it seems that we're looking at some sort of alliance of enemies coming after me in some way. Aliens and demons would be my guess."
"We can deal with that," he said after a moment's thought. "The aliens are a known quantity and we could take down an army of demons without them getting through the front door."
"As long as they don't find a god to help them out again. We'd be pretty screwed if that happened."
"We took the last one down eventually."
"Next one probably wouldn't be insane. Anyway, demons and aliens working together. Could be nasty."
"You know, ten years ago, I'd have called the men in white coats if you'd said something like that to me."
"Ten years ago I would have been all of twelve years old," said Rachel. "And I probably would have agreed with you."
Miller smiler. "Sensible kid," he said. "Oh, I have something here you might want to read. Remember that interview you gave a few weeks ago?"
"Well, it's been published," he said, waving at a copy of The Times on his desk. A copy that had a picture of Rachel on the front cover. She felt suddenly apprehensive just looking at the thing. "You might want to read it. Interesting little article."
"Don't suppose you want to give me the highlights?"
"And deprive you of the pleasure of reading it for yourself? Why would I do a thing like that, Giles?"
Rachel sighed. "Fine. I can see that you're not going to be the kind, benevolent leader today so I suppose I'll have to take it on the chin."
And with that she picked up the magazine and studiously ignored Miller's chucking - he was far too pleased with himself - as she flicked through it to the article. Well, the pictures weren't too bad anyway. She hadn't posed for any - hell no - but the ones they'd managed to lay their hands on were by no means objectionable, thankfully. Considering that she'd seen far too many magazines publishing pictures derived from footage of her fighting in her pyjamas in France, that was a relief.
"Terrifyingly intense? Hmm. Am I terrifyingly intense, Miller?"
"Can't say I've noticed."
"I notice that he doesn't mention that HK just about made him piss his pants."
The article was mostly unobjectionable fluff till . . . "What the fuck?" shouted Rachel. "Who . . . who . . . I'll skin them alive!"
Miller's grin was almost as huge as it was infuriating. "I have no idea, " he said. "Of course, I had no idea that your love-life was so interesting. You've always seemed rather boring that way to me."
If life was a manga, Rachel was sure that her head would be going volcanic at that point. "Dammit! It isn't!"
"I believe you, millions wouldn't."
Rachel was almost beyond speech. "Someone is going to pay for this," she hissed finally.
"Oh how I wish I had a camera right now."
"Were you in on this?"
"I wish! No, this has nothing to do with me. Lighten up, Giles. You're a celebrity. Speculation about your love-life is part of the territory."
"Hey, it could be a lot worse, you know. There are worse people to be linked with than Harry Potter. I hear he's quite the catch these days."
"Well, okay. That one's a little harsh."
"A little? Even if I was interested in men, I wouldn't consider that brat if he was the last man on Earth."
"Yes, well, I can see your point there," said Miller with a cough.
"Honestly, someone's going to have to pay for this," grumbled Rachel. "I can't let them get one up on me like this."
"Well, I'm sure you'll find them and extract suitable vengeance."
"Latrine duty for a year should do the trick," mused Rachel. "Or maybe some special training. Latrine duty doesn't work so well on a nice, civilised base after all."
"Declaration: I could arrange an accident for the meatbag who dares insult the master in such a heinous way," said HK. He was ignored.
"That it doesn't."
"Now, why are you so damned giddy? It's just . . . unnatural."
"Me? I'm going on leave. Some time away from this place is just what the doctor ordered."
"Going anywhere interesting?"
"Just going to spend some time with my family. Youngest's graduating from college. Smart kid, going to make a fine officer. Probably end up doing better than me if he has the inclination to stay in after the war."
"Well pass on my congratulations."
By the time she'd reached her office, Rachel had plans in mind to find out who had slipped the bullshit information to the interviewer about her love-life. Admittedly, it was a fairly simple plan, consisting of little more than a few oblique interrogations, but when you can tell with almost one-hundred percent accuracy when someone's bullshitting you it isn't that difficult to figure such things out. The list of people who were inclined to play that sort of practical joke out was pretty short too. It took a fairly twisted sense of humour, she reckoned. And a disregard for the payback.
It had to be Dawn really. She was the only one daft enough. Still, she should check other options just in case. You never know who's going to be stupid enough to pull a lame attempt at a practical joke.
"Hey, boss," said Sarah. "I've got some reports here for you."
"Anything interesting?" asked Rachel.
"Not really," said Sarah, dropping the pile down into Rachel's in-tray. "Just some progress reports on the turbolaser cannons they've been building and stuff. Not even sure why it's being sent to you, to be honest."
"Courtesy, most likely," said Rachel. "And they're probably hoping I spot any problems before they come up or something. Because, you know, I'm an expert on large-scale engineering projects."
"At least they're not expecting you to tell them how to make star destroyers or something."
"Oh, it's coming," said Rachel. "They'll need to take the fight to the aliens eventually and that'll need spaceships. What do you think of when you think of Star Wars spaceships? Star destroyers. Or death stars, but if they ask me to build one of those I'm opening a portal and leaving this dimension."
"Well, that'd be . . . interesting. The press would go mad if you ran off like that."
"So do you know to build a death star? Inquiring minds want to know."
"Well, it's a bloody big gun attached to a stupidly large hypermatter reactor. Beyond that? Not really. I suppose it's an evolution of turbolaser technology. Honestly, I prefer not to know."
"It is a bit excessive. I don't think I'd want to trust anyone with that sort of power."
"A wise choice," said Rachel before changing the subject entirely. "Have you seen the new issue of The Times?"
"Haven't had time, why?"
Rachel tossed the copy she'd filched off Miller to Sarah. "Have a look," she said. "I want to see what you think."
It didn't take long. Sarah could work her way through a text at a quite frankly obscene speed at the worst of times, and this was hardly that. Her disgusted facial expression quite frankly said it all. The information hadn't came from her, not unless she was an oscar-worthy actress. "That . . . Denver . . . YUCK!"
"My thoughts exactly," said Rachel with a frown on her face. "I don't suppose you know who the interviewer spoke to other than myself?"
"Not a clue," said Sarah, her face still screwed up. "Wish I knew. That's slander, saying that you'd be interested in Denver nevermind saying that . . . ye gods. It's inhuman."
"Well they could have dug up worse things to write about me," said Rachel. "But I'm certainly not happy about it."
"You've gotta find the person that gave them this and make them pay. You can't let this go."
"Have you ever known me to let things like this go?" asked Rachel. "Someone is having a laugh at my expense. It's not very Jedi-like, but I will have revenge."
"Good. Need my help?"
"I think I can handle it myself."
"Well, if you need any help, just ask."
When Rachel found Dawn she found the girl training in her bedroom. It looked like she was attempting to master the Force Whirlwind technique, but she was putting far too much strength behind it and the piece of wood she was trying to trap in the attack almost took Rachel's head off as Dawn lost control of it yet again and sent it spinning across the room at high speed.
"Subtlety really isn't your strong point, is it?" said Rachel as she snatched the piece of wood out of the air before it did some damage.
"I've almost got it!"
"If you 'get it' with the amount of power you're putting into the technique, you'll cause a tornado."
"Sticking your lip out won't change anything," said Rachel. "Control's more important than raw power for that technique. Even the weakest of Jedi can perform it, but control is essential."
Dawn promptly stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry at Rachel. "I'll get it," she said. "Just you watch."
"You probably will eventually," said Rachel. "I'm more worried about the destruction you'll cause in the meantime."
Dawn screwed her face up in irritation at that before turning to go back to her practice. Before she could start up again, HK weighed in. "Statement: master, I do not understand why you tolerate such insolence from the brat. I feel that a quick kneecapping would render her far more respectful of your superiority in all aspects of life."
"I'd like to see you try, you stupid bag of bolts," said Dawn. "I bet my sister could kick your ass anyway."
"Query: are you in some way defective, brattish apprentice of my master? The dwarven blonde is by no means intelligent enough to realise that bringing a knife to a blaster fight is a very bad idea."
"HK, you know better than to think I would train someone who was defective," said Rachel.
"Clarification: I did not mean to insult your judgement, master. I was simply curious as to if she had perhaps injured her already inadequate brain during her feeble attempts to master basic Jedi skills."
Dawn looked like she was about ready to unleash some lightning by that point, so Rachel decided to cut it off. "That's enough," she said. "Both of you. Save the violence for our enemies. And, Dawn, losing your temper is not a Jedi trait. Control yourself."
"Sorry," said Dawn in a contrite tone of voice.
"Observation: it would be easier to restrict my violent urges to the enemy if we were to actually engage the enemy at some point, master. I'm beginning to worry that my trigger finger will have rotted away through disuse by the next time I am allowed to use my skills."
"I should have programmed you with patience," said Rachel. "Or at least a little less in the way of psychotic urges."
"Dawn, have you see the latest issue of The Times," asked Rachel, deciding to get to the point of her dropping by.
"Huh?" asked Dawn. "Oh, yeah. I read the interview this morning . . . interesting article."
The poker face Dawn had on was, admittedly, excellent, but Rachel could still see the mirth dancing in her eyes. "Oh, yes," she said. "Very interesting. I don't suppose you happen to know anything about the contents?"
Dawn's face was the picture of innocence. "Me, master? Why would I know anything about that? I had no idea you were so inclined."
Rachel shoved down the urge to do something nasty and continued. "Well, people tend to talk to you more than they talk to me," she said. "And you get into all sorts of places you probably shouldn't."
Dawn's expression didn't change one iota. Still the picture of teenage innocence. "Not a thing, master," she said. "I wouldn't have known the interviewer was here if you hadn't told me."
Oh, that was impressive. She'd completely smoothed out all the deception from that as she'd said it. A very impressive trick for someone as inexperienced as Dawn. She'd gone too far though. She'd smoothed out everything, not just deception, leaving behind a conspicuous void. Subtlety really wasn't Dawn's strong point. "Ah," said Rachel. "You're sure?"
"Yes, master, I don't know a thing."
Ah, but her apprentice was a cheeky little thing. She had to applaud her going out of her way to learn esoteric skills that were rather difficult to pick up, but using them to play lame-brained jokes on her master? No.
"I think some extra training is in order," said Rachel. "Follow me, the pair of you."
Dawn looked confused, but she complied anyway.
The test facility was deserted, just as Rachel expected. The cavernous space, filled with debris from various tests that should have been cleared away but had been left behind by lazy scientists, was perfect for what she had in mind for Dawn, who looked both trepidatious and confused at the same time.
"I've been neglecting your combat training," said Rachel abruptly. "Now I will make amends for that omission."
Dawn suddenly looked very nervous indeed. "Uh," she said. "Really, no need. I'm fine. Really."
"Oh, I disagree," said Rachel. "Your skills in this area are sorely lacking and it must be addressed post-haste."
"But I've been practising my sparring and other stuff all the time!"
"There is more required to survive combat than the ability to wave a lightsabre around," said Rachel. "If you don't know that by now then I have sorely overestimated your intelligence."
"Well, I can't make you more intelligence," continued Rachel over Dawn's objections. "But I can, at least, enlighten you when it comes to your skills. Your lightsabre. Give it to me."
"Now, Dawn. No objections."
Dawn grumbled, but she handed it over. Rachel quickly clipped it to her belt before continuing her speech. "HK, set your blaster to minimum power," she said.
"Just do it," said Rachel. "Now, Dawn, I will explain this exercise. You have learned to fight with some minimal level of skill using your lightsabre and you have acquired basic competence in hand to hand combat. This is all well and good, but it does not qualify you to step onto an actual battlefield. We shall take the first steps towards preparing you for such a thing today."
Dawn looked like she was torn between running for her life and spewing venom Rachel's way.
"Today, I shall be teaching you Advanced Dodging 101," said Rachel. "And everyone's favourite homicidal maniac, HK-47, shall be assisting me. You shall dodge and he shall shoot until such a time that I am satisfied that you have learned your lesson."
"No! Wait! You can't!"
"Feel free to use the debris for cover, but you are not to attack HK in any way, shape, or form at any point during the exercise," continued Rachel. "Begin."
HK immediately opened fire with a stream of low-powered bolts that stitched their way up Dawn's torso before she could react and leap away. They wouldn't do any real damage at the power level Rachel had ordered, but they would sting like all hell. Dawn was barely one step ahead of the steady stream of fire HK maintained as she dived behind a large piece of metallic debris that had been near her at the start of the exercise. HK promptly advanced, maintaining a steady stream of suppression fire around the debris as he moved.
"Good!" said Rachel. "Using the terrain to your advantage, excellent. Shows positional awareness. You wouldn't survive long without that."
"Query: may I use grenades, master?"
"No grenades," said Rachel. "And no use of your special weapons either. Mrs Summers would be displeased if you burned her face off."
"Disappointed statement: of course, master, as you wish."
As HK reached the debris and started to round it, Rachel hopped up onto a gantry to get a better view of what was going on. Dawn was crouched behind the debris, her eyes darting to and fro as she searched for a good out. As HK rounded the debris, firing away all the while, she made a break for it, heading for another piece of debris. HK managed to tag her along the back of her legs a few times, but she made it to the new cover before HK was able to really get a lock on her.
"Too slow," shouted Rachel. "Each hit would be death in battle! You won't always have the luxury of being able to fight back."
The pattern continued from then, with Dawn darting from place to place using the debris as cover all the while. And slowly, ever so slowly, she stopped getting hit. It took a fair while, and there was a clearly visible sheen of sweat on her by the time she managed it, but eventually she mastered the exercise. A fairly impressive display for a rookie, but not what Rachel had in mind. She charged up a small fireball and then, when Dawn was least expecting it, she threw it at her back. Dawn was soon hopping about trying to put out the miniscule fire that had took hold of her shirt while HK peppered her with stingers.
"Awful," barked Rachel. "You must maintain awareness of the bigger picture. A Jedi will not face a single assassin. Traps aimed at us are much more thorough than that."
It took a minute or two but Dawn was able to put the fire out before it did any damage and then returned to the exercise with a large hole charred in the back of her shirt. Difference was, now Rachel was adding to HK's fire with her own attacks. She couldn't generate spells all that quickly, not like, say, Harry or Willow, but she was no slowpoke and she was quite capable of disguising her intentions from the Force to make it awkward for Dawn. It made for quite an entertaining show for as long as Rachel could keep it up, but the reserves of magical power she had access to paled next to the reserves of Force power and the show ended sooner than she would have liked.
Still, Dawn was a sweaty, bruised wreck by the end of it. She'd learned both her lessons from that little exercise. She'd know better than to play lame-brained jokes on her master again, and she'd improved her ability to read and react to danger through the Force. It was a fundamental skill for any Jedi and especially important for someone like Dawn who was living through some seriously turbulent times.
Rachel dropped down from the gantry and headed over to stand beside Dawn. "I think you've learned your lesson," she said. "You have, haven't you?"
"Yes," gasped Dawn.
"Excellent," said Rachel. "Your skills were showing a marked improvement by the end of the exercise. You may not be entirely hopeless after all. I recommend you draw yourself a hot bath and spend some time in it. It'll help."
And with that Rachel left, accompanied by HK. She was quite pleased with her spot of retribution. Made her feel a bit better if nothing else. As she headed to her office, she found herself in quite a good mood.
Rachel's good mood persisted for the next several days. Even finding herself in temporary command of the base when Miller went on leave and facing an even greater tonnage of paperwork didn't get to her too much. Her apprentice had been humbled, and HK contented himself with taunting Dawn rather than whining about not having enough people to slaughter. Good times. She knew that they wouldn't last, so she enjoyed them while they were there.
It all came to a crashing end with a single, terse message delivered over an encrypted communication link. "General Miller assassinated. Wizards believed involved. You are appointed as temporary base commander till successor is selected. Base is to be locked down immediately."
As ways to kill a mood went, it was a doozy.