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Chapter Data

Chapter Eleven: Willow

Fan Fiction: Never Look Back

Chapter Eleven: Research Party

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 3:07 PM (GMT)


Willow Rosenberg rubbed at her eyes, took a deep breath, and propped her chin up with both hands. Her elbows, resting on the heavy wooden conference table, bracketed the current source of her frustration-- her laptop, which stubbornly refused to allow her access to Travers' files, no matter what approach she tried. None of the old Watcher system's backdoors were working, and she'd come very close to setting off a return-trace virus that would have fried her system.

An old joke floated through her mind: 'I worked my fingers to the bone, and what do I have to show for it? Bony fingers!' Or tired brains, in this case. Maybe if she'd kept up with the hacking community more, instead of just going techno with her magic... but it was useless to worry about that now. The Council's kung-fu was better than hers, and that was that.

"It looks like he finally dusted off your old journals and read up on Moloch," she groused, frowning across the table at Giles. "Or else he's been paying attention to the news. I mean, viruses, hackers, magic-- data integrity isn't easy to maintain if you leave your systems accessible over the Internet. I set a couple of watch-dogs in their servers myself, in case we ever wanted details about a prophecy or an apocalypse that we really need to not have been tampered with and they didn't have any serious security of their own, but someone must have taken them out before they made the changes since there weren't any messages in the email account I set up for monitoring..."

Willow's voice trailed off as Giles' eyebrows climbed steadily up his forehead. Abruptly, she realized that not only was she (a) babbling, she was also (b) revealing naughty doings to an authority figure. Not that Giles didn't know what she was doing already, but even he tended to object to the scope of her online activities, and she still got that twinge deep down when the Scoobies' father figure looked at her with disapproval in his eyes. Hastily, she switched topics, covering with a sip from the barely-warm coffee cup Tara had thoughtfully placed at her elbow.

"Anyway. The last time I checked the Watcher database was a few weeks ago, just after we got the Prophecy of the Rule, and I didn't have any problems. But today-- sometime in the last couple of weeks, they put up a massive firewall. A custom one. I'd say whatever Travers is planning, he's taking it very, very seriously, and it's probably a lot bigger than just Faith; this kind of security is unbelievably expensive."

Giles frowned back at her, dangling his glasses from careless fingers and running his other hand through rumpled hair. He looked tired, as though he was unraveling round the edges, but the more exhausted he got the more his 'Ripper' side was peeking through. His and Buffy's half of their telephone conversation with Spike a little while ago had been interesting to watch, and he'd barely managed to stay civil when Jonathan called back twenty minutes later to report it would take them most of a day yet to get there. Patience was clearly not Ripper's strong suit.

"That is... disheartening, but not entirely unexpected, given the other evidence at hand." Giles took in a deep breath, then expelled it in a frustrated sigh as he looked down at the map of Britain covering most of the table's surface. Tara had done a thorough scrying on it, but it hadn't been of much use in their efforts to find Faith, Wesley, or even Anya. Dawn and Xander had used handfuls of Skittles candy to mark each known Council outpost as she went, coding red for "no", green for "possible", and yellow for "too magically shielded to tell", but their efforts had mostly been in vain; the green and yellow outnumbered the red by a factor of two to one, and there were several dozen sites so marked.

Buffy, seated next to Giles, nodded at his words and picked absent-mindedly at the leftover candies piled up at the map's edge. "We did use way too many of the green ones," she said, agreeing with him. Her brow wrinkled up in a familiar worried-Buffy expression, and she threw a glance at Dawn before continuing. "There's no way they could have dragged Faith through all those places since they grabbed her, so there's got to be another reason Tara picked up so many traces of the Slayer. Something big."

"Potentials," Xander spoke up, his tone grim. He swatted Buffy's hands away from the excess Skittles and selected several purple ones for himself, then put a few in his mouth and started crunching on them. "I bet they've been collecting them. I mean, it's a given that they want Faith to die and pass on the torch. But that went pretty badly for them the last few times, so..."

Dawn sighed, idly tapping her fingers on the tome she was supposed to be reading. "Well, that fits with what Anya was saying. 'Dozens of voices'... whatever they're doing to Faith, lots of other girls are involved. How many Potentials are there, anyway? I mean, could they actually round them all up and wait for one to go super-powery?"

"It's quite possible, I'm afraid," Giles replied, looking up from the map to give the youngest Slayer a troubled look. "There are approximately fifty of them at any given time, probably between forty-five and forty-eight currently, dependent upon whether the magics governing their selection have compensated for the fact that there is more than one Slayer at the moment."

Willow stared at him, caught off guard by his unexpectedly concrete answer, then did a few quick sums in her head. "Oh. You're thinking forty-nine, total, counting Faith? That makes sense. Forty-nine is seven squared, and the number seven has all kinds of mystical significance. But if they know how many there are, why didn't they find Buffy until she was Called? And Faith said she didn't have much warning, either."

Giles sighed and put his glasses back on, then glanced toward Buffy again. "The method used to search out Potential Slayers is somewhat imprecise, and limited in range. The Council has never been quite certain that 49 was the appropriate number, in fact; there are other numbers of equal significance in that range. It is possible, however, that Travers has been able to procure a more thorough method of..."

Xander cleared his throat rather noisily. "Uh, G-Man, Wills, not that we don't appreciate the details, but I'll take a stab in the dark here and guess the short answer is 'Yes'?" He arched dark eyebrows at them, and only long years of acquaintance kept Willow from buying his innocent expression. He was bored and frustrated, not stupid; she knew that better than anyone.

Giles nodded, mouth pinched with disapproval and worry. "Yes," he answered. "Although I do wonder whether such a plan would work at all, given the latest additions to the Slayer line."

Buffy perked up, straightening in her chair and shooting a knowing look past Giles to meet her sister's eyes again. "Because of Dawn? And Wes? You mean one of them might be the trigger now? But since Dawn counts as me and I'm not it, and they probably have Wes... God, even if they don't make it work with Faith, they can still..."

They were all distracted from that very disturbing line of thought by a sudden loud chiming from Willow's computer. Willow was as startled as anyone else-- she'd left a password-cracking program running on one of the sites while they were throwing ideas around, but she'd never expected it to get anywhere, especially not this quickly. It hadn't even got past the search program on common English words and combinations.

"User ID QTravers, Password slayers... I don't believe it! I got into his email!" She stared at the screen with an expression of disbelief, then laughed as a sense of triumph bubbled up from within. So much for Travers' kung-fu. She'd done it after all, her ten fingers and sharp brain running rings around the competition. No magic involved. She spared a quick glance for Tara, and saw the quiet pride in the other girl's smile; oh, yeah. It felt good.

"Some of these addresses look pretty familiar," she added, turning serious again as she paged through the list of messages in Travers' inbox with quick clicks and scrolls of the mouse. ","

"Init dot... The Initative?" Buffy jumped to her feet in disbelief, and came around the table to lean in over Willow's right shoulder. "Colonel Mcnamawhosits that made fun of the magic gourd? But I thought he got killed in the free-for-all. I was pretty sure I saw something get its claws into him before we got out of there."

"That can't be good." Xander had followed Buffy; he braced a hand on the back of Willow's chair and bent to get a good look over her left shoulder at the screen. "Hey, and look at that-- someone sent him an email with an attachment, a big one too. An" He paused to glance up at Giles, who had joined them behind Willow's chair. "Sound familiar? And it's titled 'Rollright Feed: Pryce, Rayne'."

"Rollright?" Tara, who'd kept out of the conversation so far, let the book she'd been holding fall to the table and stood up to peer over the surface of the map. "There's a complex at the Rollright Stones; l-look, we marked it yellow."

"Shielded," Giles said, grimly. "Willow, can you tell when that missive was sent?"

"Uh, ten minutes ago?" she hazarded, glancing from the timestamp on the electronic message to the clock on the conference room wall. "And it doesn't look like he's read it yet..."

"Can you download that video file and delete it without leaving any sort of... what would you call it... electronic fingerprint?" Giles pressed her, his voice rough with urgency. "If someone at that office has seen Wesley and Ethan, and thought to alert Travers this way..."

"No problem." Willow's fingers flew over the keys, and the familiar Download box appeared, filling slowly with color as the file copied itself to her computer. Then she carefully hit the keystrokes required to send the email straight to oblivion, do not pass Go, do not linger in the Trash folder.

It had just disappeared from Travers' inbox when there was another clash of noise from the laptop's speakers. She exited the program in a hurry, then pulled the network cable out of the back of the laptop for good measure. "That was close," she muttered. "Someone was trying to log into his account, but I got out pretty quick. If we're lucky, the system won't notice that there were two instances of him logged in at the same time."

"And if we're not lucky?" The Voice of Doom spoke from behind her.

She sighed. "Not much we can do about that, but at least there's no way he can tell it was us. I'm sure he's got plenty of other enemies."

"One must plan for all possibilities," Giles chided her.

"I hate to say it, but Giles is right," Xander spoke up. "Plan for the worst, hope for the best, and there'll be a lot fewer surprises."

"Doesn't mean he can't be more cheerful about it," Dawn groused. "It's not like there's much planning we can do, anyway."

"Never mind all that," Buffy broke in, irritably. "Focus, guys. We just got a clue, didn't we? Less worrying, more doing."

"Doing what?" A voice sounded at the door, and Cordelia entered the room, bearing a few shopping bags full of small necessities that they'd overlooked in their hasty escape from California. She and Groo had been all too happy to put off book-duty with a quick trip to nearby stores. "Do we know something new?"

"We're about to, I think," Willow told her, then double-clicked on the video file's icon. It opened in a small window on the laptop screen, and she tilted it carefully so that everyone could see.

At first, it just showed an ordinary view of a plain, institutional-type corridor. White walls, tile, a boring looking guy in a lab-coat... wait. A nervous guy in a lab coat, throwing hesitant glances over his shoulder at empty air as he approached a closed door. He swiped his passcard through it, said something out loud, and then disappeared from the camera's viewpoint. Nothing else happened for several seconds, and the people gathered around Willow's desk held their collective, frustrated breath waiting for the title characters of the piece to show up. Any second now...

There! There was a flash of something in the doorway that disappeared almost instantly, then a wildly fluctuating burst of color a bit farther out in the hall. "Invisibility spell," Willow heard Giles mutter, as Wesley and Ethan Rayne suddenly appeared. Ethan looked startled; Wesley looked ill, and collapsed almost immediately to the floor.

"I've never s-seen a spell break up like that before," Tara said hesitantly, somewhere off to Willow's left.

"Neither have I," Giles replied, softly, then swore. "Oh, bugger. I'd wondered how Ethan escaped the Initiative. Daft bastard; that spell could kill both of them."

It was easy to see what Giles was referring to. Willow didn't have much experience of blood magic, save the spell used to bring Buffy back, but the symbols the aging sorcerer was drawing on the floor were not hard to interpret if you knew what to look for. It wasn't a good thing.

Neither was Ethan's sudden pause, or the shock on his face, or the sudden approach of foot soldiers from the edge of camera range. "It was a trap," Xander commented, unnecessarily, as they watched the security team move forward.

"When did this happen?" Cordelia asked, as they watched the stand-off progress. Ethan refused to give up his knife, but the soldiers all had familiar taser-like weapons, and they were working on encircling the pair.

"About forty-five minutes ago," Willow informed her, checking the timestamp on the corner of the image.

"Damn it," the Seer commented, frowning. "I was awake then. So why didn't the Powers show me something? I mean, come on. This is Wesley we're talking about, you think they'd be worried about his welfare."

"Because he's okay?" Dawn suggested. "Look, he's getting up."

"Good Lord, how many weapons does the man carry?" Xander joked, as a pair of swords suddenly appeared from nowhere in Wesley's hands. The ex-Watcher still looked pale and far older than his years, but his stance was sure. Ethan gave him a startled look, then grinned ferally and took one of the swords. The security team backed off abruptly, and started yelling something, back over their shoulders toward the office the pair had visited.

"Since when do you sound like Giles?" Buffy muttered in reply, then laughed suddenly. "How much you want to bet they're asking that guy why he didn't take their weapons?"

"No bet," Xander replied.

The film clip came to an abrupt halt at that point, returning to a black screen. "That's it?!" Cordelia objected.

"That's it," Willow said, reluctantly. "The guy that sent it was probably going to send the next couple of segments the same way, but we weren't online long enough to find out."

Giles rested a hand on her back for a moment, in a sort of silent good-job-Willow message, then left the cluster of people around the laptop to rest a long, callused finger on the yellow Skittle sitting in Oxfordshire. "Regardless of what happened next, at least we know more than we did before. We know where they were less than an hour ago, and we know that they were alive at that time."

"And we know the Council can neutralize magic, at least in certain circumstances," Willow said, with a worried glance at Tara. "If we're going in there..." she began, warningly.

"If?" Cordelia interrupted, in tones of disbelief.

"We'll be careful," Tara said, finishing Willow's statement in tones of reassurance.

"But we're not waiting for reinforcements," Buffy added, firmly. "We're going now."

No one argued with her.


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