Title: Search and Rescue
Count: 3,200 words
Characters: Tara, Buffybot, Dana, OC
Summary: When a new watcher goes missing, the team dispatched to find him learns the problem is not at all what they’d imagined. (This is set in my post-Chosen world in which Buffybot and Tara have both been resurrected -- which is all the background necessary to read the story.)
Richard Philips did a double take when a young woman, eyes wary and dark hair tangled around her face, perched carefully on one of the empty seats at his restaurant table. “Ah,” was all the watcher said, as he examined his new companion carefully.
“Can I have your ice cubes?” she asked. “We ran out in Muncie.”
Smiling, Richard pushed the glass he’d just finished draining across the table, and watched as Dana fished an ice cube out and began crunching on it. “It probably tastes like tea.”
The girl scrunched her nose up, then nodded. “Xander was afraid you’d started drinking. I mean, drinking alcohol.”
“I have my own demons.”
A waitress appeared beside them, sending the newcomer a friendly smile even as her eyes swept over the young slayer‘s black hooded sweatshirt. It was close to 80 degrees already. “Can I get you anything?”
Before Dana could speak, Richard put in, “Could you give us a few minutes? We’re going to be joined by at least three more young ladies, and they’ll all be hungry.”
Even as the waitress moved away, a click and hiss of static made the newcomer jump. Richard heard a faint, urgent voice: “Dana! Where are you? Why aren’t you in position?”
Dana’s cheeks reddened. “I was supposed to be in position.”
Richard held his hand out, and after a moment she pulled the small walkie from her hoodie pocket and handed it to him. Smiling, he triggered the mic. “Dana’s come in from the cold, so to speak. Breakfast for everyone -- I’m buying.” Handing the device back to her, he looked outside through the restaurant’s picture window.
The red courthouse that dominated the center of the little town filled the window, even from across the street, but Richard’s attention centered on the cars in angled parking spaces around the square. After a moment he picked out a black Ford Taurus, which had illegally backed into a space in such a way that it was pointed right at the restaurant. Holding up a hand, Richard waved and then gestured the occupant inside.
“Am I in trouble?” Dana asked, more in curiosity than fear.
“Nah.” Richard watched Tara get out of the car; at the same time his daughter, Kara, emerged from behind a tree on the opposite end of the block and pocketed her own walkie. With an exchange of shrugs, they both started to cross the street. “What made you come inside, Dana?”
“Well, you didn’t look like you were in trouble. Just -- lonely.”
A voice behind them put in, “When I came in from the back I thought he looked sad.“ The Buffybot pulled up a chair across from him, then gestured at the looming building behind her. “Isn’t that courthouse cool? It’s over a century old.”
“Couldn’t they afford a new one?” Dana asked. Tilting her head, she eyed the turrets and steep copper roof until the final two members of the team entered the restaurant.
“So.” Once they’d been seated, Richard let his gaze roam over the four females. “They sent the Four Friends after me.”
“Why does everyone call us that?” Bottie wondered. “We’re all friends.”
“We spend a lot of time together,” Tara explained, before turning her attention back to Richard. “You look tired.”
Kara just stared at her father, with a sullen frown.
“I signed out,” Richard told them, trying to not feel defensive. “Giles gave me a leave of absence, it’s not like I got kidnapped.”
“You were heading toward Madison!” Kara clutched the table so hard it groaned in protest. “You were going home without me. I haven’t been home since I became a slayer!”
Clearing his throat, Richard pointedly gazed around at the other diners, some of whom were trying hard to appear not to be listening. “We’re strangers in a small town,” he reminded them. “Let’s not call attention to ourselves.”
“Speaking of which,” Bottie said, “How did we end up in Albion, Indiana? I mean, the courthouse is on the historic register, and it has a well known animal park, and it’s in the smallest township in the United States, and it’s called the Gateway to Chain O’ Lakes State Park, and --”
“But you weren’t expecting me to show up somewhere as a tourist,” Richard interrupted.
“It’s okay if you are.” Dana scooped out another ice cube, examined it critically, then popped it into her mouth.
“No it’s not!” Kara protested, but before she could push the issue the waitress arrived again, giving Richard the perfect opportunity to change the subject.
“Allow me.” He pointed to each of them in turn. “Kara will have the bacon and egg breakfast meal with a Diet Coke; Dana will have steak and eggs, the steak rare and the eggs runny, and orange juice; Tara will have a half stack of your wheat blueberry pancakes and milk; and Bot -- Buffy will have the full sampler meal and coffee. I’ll take a half order of biscuits and gravy and another glass of iced tea.”
“That sampler meal’s pretty big,” the waitress warned, giving the small blonde a critical once over.
Richard just smiled. “Buffy’s got a hollow leg.”
As soon as the waitress left, Bottie turned to him and hissed, “I do not!”
“To me the big question isn’t how I ended up in Albion; it’s how someone could possibly have found me here.”
He’d looked at Tara when he said that, but the witch raised her hands defensively. “GPS.”
“Oh. Of course. “ My world’s a different place, now. He shifted in his seat, and felt the newspaper article crumple in his shirt pocket. He‘d been a fool. With good reason, maybe, but a fool nonetheless. “Fine, but first thing’s first -- did you get permission to come after me?”
The others looked away, and in the uncomfortable silence that followed Richard tried not to laugh. He could criticize Tara; after all, she was supposed to be this group’s watcher, not their friend, and this particular group was more challenging than most. But judging from the expression on her face the witch had already come to that conclusion, and he didn’t have the heart to twist that particular knife in any deeper.
“We’re on a training mission,” Tara finally murmured.
Now Richard did laugh. “Let me guess -- you’re practicing tracking?”
“It wasn’t very challenging,” Dana told him. “We just followed the dot on the computer screen.”
A pair of departing customers were taking their time leaving the area, so Richard sat in silence until they gave up and, with one last questioning look, walked out the door. “I appreciate your concern, but this is something I felt I had to do alone.”
“What was?” Kara demanded.
“Order your food. Yep, I had to do that alone.”
Kara sent him a confused look, then rolled her eyes when she realized breakfast had arrived. She waited until the waitress left, then shoved a piece of bacon into her mouth and spoke again before she even started chewing. “It’s not like you to just suddenly -- oh my God that’s delicious.”
“You didn’t get anything to eat overnight?” Richard stared down at his biscuits and gravy, but his mind went immediately to the newsprint in his pocket, and with a flash of memories his appetite vanished again.
“You just kept driving,” Bottie told him. “First southeast, then northeast -- we grabbed some snacks at a gas station, but that was it.” She was turning the plate around and around, trying to figure out what to try first.
“We really should keep a stash in each of the cars.” Tara reached for the butter, then sent Richard a sharp look. “You’re not eating?”
Under her watchful gaze, he took a bite. He tasted nothing; it was like chewing cardboard. Although she started eating herself, Tara kept glancing over at him.
When her bacon was gone Kara forked up a piece of egg, then began again. “You don’t just go off doing things, Dad. You plan, you map, you -- um. Yum.”
Beside her, Bottie finally took a bite. Then she rotated the plate and took a bite of something else, and continued until she’d sampled all of the sampler. “Oh -- it’s the French toast. The French toast is perfect! I want all the French toast!” She started to call the waitress, but Tara stopped her with a look.
“Finish what’s on your plate first, sweetie --”
Bottie’s spoon and fork became a blur, and moments later all the food was gone. She held her hand up for the waitress, while Dana gave her a wondrous look and Tara turned a little green.
Kara had missed it all, her eyes closed as she chewed eggs slowly, with a blissful expression.
“Looks like I picked the right restaurant,” Richard murmured.
The waitress had missed it all, but looked startled at the sight of Bottie’s bare plate. “Give me all your French toast,” the robot told her.
“Um … you mean a full plate?”
“No, I mean everything you’ve got! The whole stock.”
“She means a full plate,” Richard told the stunned waitress, giving Bottie his patented Meaningful Look.
“Yes, that’s right.” Bottie meekly sat back in her chair, then added, “Completely full.”
“And could I have a glass of ice cubes?” Dana added.
The waitress went off again, while Richard mentally calculated a 20% tip.
He felt a touch on his arm, and looked over to see Tara’s concerned face. “You don’t have to tell us what you were doing --”
“Yes he does!” Kara protested.
“Kara, your father has a life of his own.”
“No he doesn’t! Not anymore. None of us does, and even if he did, he’s also got a daughter, and I have a right to know what he’s up to!” Kara’s voice rose despite Bottie’s attempt to quiet her, and the slayer’s fork bent double in her hands. “You need to think about people besides yourself! Don’t you realize how much I worried about you, when you just took off without even staying in touch? I was worried sick, and --” She stopped short, eyes wide. “Oh God, I’m you.”
The waitress set a glass of ice and a plate heaped with French toast on the table, then pointedly stared at the doubled over fork. “Put it on the bill,” Richard told her wearily, and to his surprise she didn’t question it.
“Kara, I’m only going to say this once, and I’m going to say it nicely.” Richard used his authority voice, guaranteed to gain the attention of any sixteen year old girl, slayer or not. “You’re right.”
“I messed up. I shouldn’t have just taken off in the state I was in. Giles said as much, and I’m guessing his permission for you to go on a ‘training exercise’ was a wink and a nod.”
“Giles winks?” Dana mumbled through an ice cube, causing Bottie to pause, forkful of French toast halfway to her mouth. After a moment Bottie shook her head, apparently concluding it would never happen, and resumed eating.
“Then why --”
Richard took his daughter’s hand, but spoke to the others. “I was a volunteer firefighter in Madison, for fourteen years, starting when I was twenty-one. I loved it. I only gave it up because my books started selling, and my celebrity status -- small though it was -- caused problems at emergency scenes.”
“You were a firefighter?” Dana stared at him, eyes wide.
“He was their training officer,” Tara told him, which brought her a startled look from Richard. Cheeks pink, the witch looked away. “I hear things.”
“Yeah, well … I gave it up for another reason, too. My wife had died, and after a time I came to realize it was too dangerous -- too much chance that Kara might lose her other parent.”
“But this life is pretty dangerous,” Bottie pointed out. “Even for watchers.”
“We didn’t know about this life back then.” Richard looked toward his daughter, knowing he couldn’t hold back anymore. “Firefighters still die ... did die.”
He felt Kara pull her hand away, and saw the shock of realization on her face. “No. W-Who?”
“It was Greg Cloud.” Kara gasped, and as her father went on talking, tears came to her eyes. “The assistant chief e-mailed a link to the news report to me.”
“He died in a fire?” Dana asked, her voice small.
“Yes. Roof collapse.” His voice sounded strange to his own ears. It must have to the others, too, because Dana swallowed the ice cube and sat very still, while Bottie stopped eating and leaned forward attentively. Tara held her breath, making Richard briefly wonder if she needed to breathe at all in this new body.
But he didn’t wonder about that for long; he’d spoken to no one about this since he got the news the day before, and he experienced a sudden need to make someone understand why it was so important. “Greg was a friend of mine in school -- a few years behind me, but we shared similar interests, and our parents were friends. I was on the Madison City Department, and he joined a neighboring company, Kent, just after his eighteenth birthday. That’s where you could find him from then on, whenever he wasn’t working or with his wife. Training, drills, fund raisers, meetings -- he was always there. He made all the calls, of course.”
A tear worked its way down Kara’s cheek.
“I remember once --” Richard cleared his throat. “One time we were venting, when the fire broke through a window right where we’d placed our ladder. We were trapped. It was a weekday -- manpower was low, and there was no one on the ground to put up another ladder. There we were, standing on this slanted roof, with a jet of fire coming out of our vent hole behind us and the ladder in front of us engulfed in flames, so hot the aluminum started to melt.
“All of the sudden Greg looked at me and said, ‘If we don’t get you back in time to take Kara to her karate class, she’s gonna kill me’.”
The girls stared at him. He started to make a joke, something about how it had seemed funny at the time, but then he heard a great sob and realized it had burst from his own throat. “It was a truss roof,” he gasped. “Cheap to build, easy to burn. We call them killer roofs, because they fail so quickly in a fire. Every time we tried to get them banned the construction industry would trot out their damn lawyers, and their army of lobbyists would head up to the statehouse to grease the palms of every senator they could corner …”
He blinked, and although his vision was still blurred he could see Bottie and Dana staring, mouths agape, trying to process the information. Teams streamed down Kara’s face, and Tara sat very still, a hand clamped over her mouth.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Richard told his daughter. “I was in a blind rage. All I wanted to do was go to Madison, track down the son of a bitch who built that house, and strangle the life out of him until he was just as dead as Gregory Cloud.”
He rubbed his eyes. “But it’s never that easy. Halfway there I came to my senses and started back, but I still wasn’t thinking straight. I was so damned angry and … well, a couple of hours later I realized I’d taken a wrong turn and was on I69, so I turned back west, then decided to stop and collect myself. And here I am, two hours out of Chicago, with a dead friend and no more answers now than when I got this.” Reaching into his pocket, Richard pulled out the newspaper printout and passed it to Kara, who accepted it without a word.
“He was Kara’s godfather,” he told the others.
After a moment Bottie scooted over to Kara, putting her arm around the slayer as Kara read the article. Richard sat back and closed his eyes, feeling raw, then felt someone wiping his cheeks with a napkin. He opened his eyes, expecting to see Tara, and to his great surprise discovered Dana was the one drying his tears.
“You need ice,” she murmured, and without waiting for his consent pressed an ice cube to his lips.
Richard chewed on it without comment; to his knowledge this was the first time Dana had voluntarily touched a male without then killing something, so he wouldn’t have known what to say, anyway.
From his other side, Tara again reached out to touch his hand. “We’d like to go to the funeral with you.”
Funeral. Yes. Another funeral for a dead firefighter. Nodding, Richard gratefully squeezed her hand in return. “It’s tomorrow. We can spend the night at my house in Madison -- that’s where I left my dress uniform, anyway.”
Dana sat back, looking satisfied that an action of some sort was about to be taken, while Bottie’s panicked
gaze swept down over her own bright, flowered sundress. “But we’re not dressed for a funeral.”
“Council credit card,” Tara told her with a slight smile.
Now Richard turned to Kara, knowing he should have told her right away, knowing he shouldn’t have gone off, mad and with no plan other than to commit violence against someone who was just doing a job. “Are you all right with that?”
“Yeah.” She seemed about to say more -- whether an apology, more accusations, or something that would have just come out as awkward in this situation he didn’t know. “It’ll be nice to have our new friends with us … when we say goodbye.”
Decision made, they rose to leave, to head south again, and Richard threw enough cash on the table to cover meal, tip, and damaged cutlery. They paused only a moment, when Bottie turned to the concerned looking waitress who’d been hovering nearby.
“Can we have a doggie bag?”
A/N: Gregory Cloud died at a house fire in rural Jefferson County, near Madison, on November 6, 2006. He died not of a roof collapse, but of smoke inhalation after a flashover separated him from the rest of his company and trapped him inside. The Chief of the Madison City Fire Department was seriously injured when he led a rescue attempt moments later. I was inspired to write this story because I’d established previously that Richard and Kara had lived in Madison before she became a slayer, and that Richard had been a member of the volunteer fire department there.
This story, then, is dedicated to Cloud and all the firefighters who die in the line of duty, at the rate of about 100 per year in the United States alone.
One of the largest volunteer fire departments in Indiana, The Madison Fire Department is organizationally unique in that it is comprised of six independent fire companies, each operating under separate contract with the City. The first of those companies, Fairplay Fire Co. #1, is the oldest fire company in Indiana, having been established in 1841. Washington Fire Co. # 2 operates out of the oldest active fire station in Indiana which was built in 1848. The department is known for its colorful apparatus which include engines that are blue, white and the traditional red and an aerial ladder that is Kelly green.