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Completed October 1, 2015

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Fan Fiction: Never Look Back

Title: Never Look Back

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: All your Buffy are belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.

Rating: R. Language, violence, adult situations.

Pairings: Wes/Faith, others.

Summary: Then Shall the Chosen make their Choices Four" -- Can the Scooby and Fang Gangs integrate succesfully to meet the challenges that face them? Or will the trials ahead tear them apart?

Spoilers: Post B:tVS S6 and A:tS S3, which in my AU conform to canon through 6.17, "Normal Again" and 3.16, "Sleep Tight", before taking a sharp turn.

Series: There are three novellas and eight interludes prior to this story in my "Lesser Men" saga.

Faith, the Vampire Slayer

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, aka Connor

Chapter Index:

  1. Prologue
  2. The Cavalry Arrives
  3. Enemy Of My Enemy
  4. Out of the Frying Pan
  5. Into Temptation
  6. All Fall Down
  7. Sticks and Stones
  8. Waiting Game
  9. Magic Word
  10. Wishing for Justice
  11. Movers and Shakers
  12. Research Party
  13. Tea Time
  14. Guarded Optimism
  15. Potential Problems
  16. Arresting Developments
  17. Internal Politics
  18. Unpleasant Surprises
  19. Cross Country
  20. Change of State
  21. Bridging the Gaps
  22. Contingency Planning
  23. Self-Rescuing Damsels
  24. The Penny Drops
  25. ᚾ Marks the Spot
  26. The Die is Cast
  27. Breaking the Chains
  28. Moment of Truth
  29. What Can't We Do
  30. Picking Up the Pieces
  31. Business as Usual
  32. What Beside Remains
  33. Aiming to Misbehave
  34. Epilogue


SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:04 AM


Quentin Travers, sometime Field Watcher and current Head of Operations, frowned as his assistant knocked hesitantly at the door of his office. Travers had made it quite clear when he'd acquired the young man a year ago that he was not to be bothered on any working day before he'd finished his first cup of tea and perused the morning papers, and up until now that directive had been scrupulously obeyed. That Percy dared risk his displeasure before the tea had even been poured was suggestive of urgency and disaster, and given the operations currently underway, that did not bode well for the remainder of his day.

"Well, what is it?" he asked, his tone clipped and precise as he addressed the interruption. He pushed the open newspaper to one side, clearing an expanse of highly polished mahogany desktop directly in front of him, but neglected to refold the paper or remove his reading glasses. He was not a man who believed in unnecessary displays of emotion when a few well-placed props could hint at his displeasure and impatience just as effectively.

Percy sighed audibly and eased the door open, then took a few slow steps in the direction of the desk. He held a sheaf of papers before him like a shield, and the blank expression on his face owed as much to nervousness as any sort of professional behaviour. "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there has been a development, well, a few developments, regarding the subject of our current operations. You had asked that the airports be monitored for any incoming persons from America at all associated with her, or her acquaintances from her time in Sunnydale, with especial focus on those involved in that unpleasantness with the law firm in Los Angeles a month ago..."

"And...?" Travers cut in, hoping to bring him closer to the point. Whatever blood ran in young Percy's veins, it was Travers' opinion that the boy was not true Watcher material, despite his mild gifts in the areas of research and administration. Travers had been tempted to post him to the Archives and request a new assistant on more than one occasion, but then, he had also thought the same of Wyndam-Pryce the younger before that young man's Calling to Sunnydale. They were still dealing with the fallout of that misperception. It was always possible that there were more to Percy than met the eye, as well.

Percy stepped closer and proffered the papers with a slightly unsteady hand. Travers raised an eyebrow at the boy, then took them casually from his hand and glanced down, scanning the topmost page. His impatience fled, however, before an abrupt wash of unease as he recognised the face captured in a pair of digitised images, staring back up at him. It was clearly Ethan Rayne-- yet another fragment of the Council's dirty laundry come back to haunt them.

The images had apparently been taken in an airport, presumably one of the many in Britain whose camera feeds were regularly tapped by the Council, and the timestamps indicated that they were less than twelve hours old. The sorcerer had not aged particularly well-- few so deeply absorbed in the darker magics did-- but he possessed that same hungry, determined air about him that Travers remembered from their last, unpleasant meeting. What was more, he had clearly not returned to Britain alone. In both of the photographs, his eyes were directed off-camera, narrowed slightly as his attention was diverted by the person he was following.

"Damnation," Travers muttered. "Do we have any stills of the person he was tracking?"

Percy seemed mildly startled. "Ah, no, sir. The Head of Intelligence had the same concern when the images were recovered-- his department spent some hours on the question, but whoever it was, he or she managed to stay out of view of the cameras. Mr. Rayne avoided the obvious ones, but the individual he seemed to be watching wasn't even picked up by the hidden cameras."

Travers' scowl deepened further. It went without saying that such stealth should not have been possible, at least without attracting the attention of the airport's security personnel with unnaturally evasive behaviour. Every camera had its blind spots, but weaving such a path between them would have been extremely difficult, even with a working knowledge of the cameras' locations, and the cameras were not blind to magical means of concealment. "The presence of Mr. Rayne on his own is questionable," he mused aloud, "but if he were accompanied... do we know the current whereabouts of Rupert Giles and the younger Wyndam-Pryce?"

Percy cleared his throat. "Ah, the page following, sir. The overage account, the one cards are issued from in the event of a Special Operations deployment in America..."

Travers set aside the page containing the photographs and turned his attention to the second sheet of paper. It appeared to be a photocopy of a credit card receipt from a store within the Los Angeles International Airport, detailing the purchase of a number of travel-related items, such as a piece of luggage, a suit of clothing, toiletries, and so forth. Slight shadings and faded lettering suggested that the original receipt had perhaps been retrieved from a trash receptacle after being carelessly crumpled and discarded by the shopper. "This purchase was made on one of the associated cards?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Percy confirmed. "Specifically, the one issued to Weatherby's team when they were sent to Los Angeles to apprehend the subject three years ago."

"Immediately after she awakened from her coma," Travers nodded, remembering the event. "Weatherby didn't mention the loss of the card. Has he been reported for disciplinary action?"

"That report is in with the others," Percy said, gesturing toward the remaining stack of papers on Travers' desk. Then he shifted a little, uneasily, and continued his narration. "The passenger logs on Mr. Rayne's flight and the ones immediately preceding it from the States were checked carefully, and there was no mention of a Wyndam-Pryce, Wyndam, Pryce, Giles, Wesley, Rupert, or any derivation of those names. There was, however, a businessman on the flight in question that answers to young Wyndam-Pryce's description. A security guard, a flight attendant, and a woman at the ticket counter all remembered the scar at his throat clearly, but unfortunately none of them have any recollection of the name he was using."

Travers sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "And the rest of these papers?" he asked wearily. It was clear from Percy's manner that that had not been the last of the unpleasant news.

Percy winced. "If you will recall, sir, you asked that I pass on several specific security protocols to the men in charge of restraining the subject..."

"And you failed to impress the seriousness of the issue on them," Travers surmised, and his lips thinned to a grim line. The rest of the paperwork would likely be injury and damage reports, in that case. Very few of the Special Operations men had been in contact with an actual Slayer, as opposed to a Potential Slayer, in recent years and had likely overestimated their own ability to deal with her. He was suddenly glad he hadn't had his tea yet; this called for something a bit stronger. "How many casualties?" he asked.

"Half a dozen wounded, sir," the boy reported, "but no fatalities. There was, however, considerable destruction of property before they were able to subdue her."

Travers looked away from the paperwork, past his irritant of an assistant, and met the marble gaze of the bust positioned just to the left of the door. The Founder of the London branch of the Council had been immortalised in that form hundreds of years before, and the rumour persisted that something of the man still lived on, observing his successors. Indeed, the stone figure seemed to have developed a distinct sneer and superior tilt of chin in recent months that it had not possessed before.

I would like to see you do any better in these circumstances, Travers thought at the figure, then shook his head. Damn these unpredictable Slayers and their maverick Watchers.

"Aspirin, Percy, and a secured line, if you please," he said aloud, rubbing at the bridge of his nose again. "I have a few calls to make."

"Yes, sir." The young man backed carefully out of the room, then eased the door quietly shut behind him.

Travers reached for the bottle of scotch he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. It was shaping up to be a very long day.

Chapter One: The Cavalry Arrives

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:35 AM (GMT)


Dawn Summers blinked drowsily and covered her mouth to stifle another enormous yawn. "Aren't we there already?" she asked, well aware that she was whining but not alert enough to care. They'd been on the move since Giles found Wesley missing at some ungodly hour the day before, and all she really wanted to do at that point was find a bed and collapse. "What are we waiting for?"

Buffy sighed and leaned sideways in her chair to rub a strong hand over her sister's back. "We can't crash 'til we've got a room, Dawn," she said, then stifled a yawn of her own. "Giles is trying to find out what room Wes is in and book ours on the same floor. Only thing is, he didn't tell Cordy what name he's using, so..."

"Great." Dawn scowled. "So why didn't he? And why not just tell us which room to begin with? Why's he treating this like some kind of double-oh game? It's not like we would have told anyone else." She shifted in her seat again, then shot another half-hearted glare across the lobby at the back of Giles' head.

"Because he thinks we've got a spy, that's why," Anya said, matter-of-factly. Out of the nine travelers, she was the most rested; she'd refused to fly coach, insisting instead that she'd meet them when they arrived in London. True to her word, she had appeared without warning twenty minutes ago when they'd entered the hotel and was now sitting primly in a seat on the far side of a weary Xander.

"A spy?" Willow asked, sounding baffled. "How? I mean, it's not like there's all that many of us to infiltrate." She sketched a hand in the air, indicating their small group, and frowned at Anya. "And if he thinks one of us would take money from the Council, he's crazy. Well, I guess Giles does, but I mean, that's only because of Buffy."

Tara stirred against her girlfriend's shoulder, responding to the sound of distress in Willow's voice. She had fallen asleep in that half-sitting, half-leaning pose almost as soon as they'd sat down, but there were some things that could reach her even in the middle of a dream. She opened her eyes a little, breathing out a soft question. "Willow...?"

"Shhh, honey, it's okay. We're just talking, nothing's happening yet." Willow threaded her fingers through Tara's golden-brown hair almost absently, her green eyes still fixed on the justice demon.

"I didn't say he thought one of us was the spy," Anya said acerbically, crossing her arms in front of her with a frown. "Just that someone's been listening in. And I mean, it makes sense. You tell me how many things have gone wrong since we started moving to L.A. That remodeling crew, the first one, that tried to cut out a retaining wall? Or the boxes of store stock that mysteriously went missing? How about the three buyers that suddenly dropped out? We still haven't managed to sell Buffy's house."

Cordy groaned. "Oh, and that's the least of it. You guys have been in Sunnydale half the time, you haven't seen everything that happened to us. You know that paint we used for Lorne's club? Totally not my first choice. We had a custom batch specially made; just the perfect shade of moss green, and it bubbled up and slid off the walls six hours later. As if that wasn't enough, it turned into a mess of nasty little sludge demons and took up residence in the old swimming pool. It wasn't pretty."

Despite her exhaustion, Dawn couldn't help but smile at the familiar outrage in Cordy's voice. The former cheerleader may have been Sunnydale's Bitch Queen, but she'd been pretty cool to "mini Buffy" after she'd become part of the whole slaying gig. Dawn was sure half the stuff she said was just a smokescreen, as much as Xander's jokes were: misdirection.

"The new paint is also beautiful, Princess," Groo put in, smiling warmly at the Seer. "And sludge demon free. Please, do not fret."

"Anyway," Anya interrupted, throwing Groo an irritated look. "The point is that something is going on. I don't blame Wesley for being suspicious."

"Well, there'll be time to figure that out when we get back to L.A.," Buffy said, firmly. "In the meantime, we have Faith to worry about."

Her hand stilled on Dawn's back, prompting the younger girl to look up and see what she was staring at: Giles. Their Watcher had turned away from the counter and was walking in their direction, a fistful of plastic rectangles clenched in one hand. Keycards, probably.

"Looks like G-Man's figured it out," Xander said, then stood up, stretching lazily. "Finally. I'm dying for a nap and a change of clothes."

Dawn followed his example, wrinkling her nose at him as she stood. "A nap? Then what do you call what happened on the plane? A fainting spell? I heard you snoring."

He rolled his eyes at her, with a fond smile. "You can never have too many naps, Dawnster. Seriously, though, the easiest way to reset your time sense when you travel is not to crash until night, local-time. I'll just do the cat-nap thing, recharge my batteries, then see what Wes is up to."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Buffy put in, with a wan smile. "Slayers don't need that much rest anyway."

Older Slayers, maybe, Dawn thought with an irritated growl. She'd started breaking things accidentally a week and a half ago, right on schedule, but she hadn't noticed any major change in her sleeping patterns yet. Or in everyone else's attitudes; if she was suddenly a supernaturally enhanced warrior, wouldn't it make sense to lift her curfew? Ugh.

The others were all up and moving now as well, although Tara still didn't look entirely conscious. Bags were lifted, purses clutched, and they all shifted toward each other, forming a loose semi-circle facing towards the reservations counter. Giles had stopped to discuss something with a man halfway across the lobby, and from the expression on his face Dawn could tell it wasn't anything pleasant. He was wearing a variant of his Ripper look, and the air was starting to thicken around his shoulders and hands with little green sparks. That was never a good sign.

Before any of them could come to his rescue, though, the discussion was over as quickly as it had begun. Giles went white, then red, then spat something that made Dawn wish she could lip-read and stalked over toward the group with a lot more urgency. There was a brief flare of light behind him, and the other man suddenly shook his head with a confused expression and started walking slowly towards the doors of the hotel.

"Giles," Buffy greeted him, with a frown. "Talk to me. What was that all about?"

He frowned at her, then glanced around at the others, his gaze lingering on Dawn for a moment. He shook his head. "Nothing. It's nothing. Just, just a childhood friend. A, a Watcher. He's never forgiven me for taking up with Ethan, I'm afraid, and as it happens, Ethan was spotted in this hotel earlier in the evening. Jeremy was apparently under the impression we were up to old tricks, and I... disabused him of that notion."

There was more to it than that, even Dawn could tell that much, but it didn't look like he was going to say any more while she was there. God, sometimes being fifteen really sucked. Even being a Slayer didn't help at all, not with an older sister who could still beat her up and a Watcher who was more of a father to her than anything else.

"Ethan, huh?" Xander grunted. "Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? 'Cause I'm thinking, the last thing we need on this trip is his idea of fun."

Tara shivered. "He sure seemed like an oogly-boogly when I met him."

The comment seemed to break Giles' mood up a little, and he gave the blonde witch a ghost of a smile. "I'm not certain. His being here seems a bit too coincidental, but whether he's currently jobbing for the Council or if he simply followed Wesley, I can't say. With our luck, he'll be on the same floor we're on, and we can bother him about it in the morning. Er, in the afternoon, I suppose."

"So what name did Wes use?" Cordy asked, stepping forward a little. She'd been a little miffed and a lot curious since the ex-Watcher's cryptic phone call. "I'm betting it's some variant of Connor, but I'm dying to know how he finished off the name."

"Connor MacLiam, actually," Giles said, with a nod. "All things considered, it's rather appropriate. A bit transparent, but I doubt the Council will recognize it yet; I doubt Quentin or Richard Wyndam-Pryce have made the tale of Wesley's origins common knowledge."

The dark-haired Seer lifted her chin, looking smug. "I knew it!"

Willow nodded slowly. "Connor, son of Liam, huh?" she said, looking thoughtful. "Guess he doesn't know what Angel's last name is, either."

Dawn shot her a startled look, then giggled. It came out as an undignified little squeak, which she quickly choked down, trying to look innocent; trust Willow to go off on a tangent.

Giles sighed. "And on that note, we had best adjourn upstairs. I've procured us four rooms. Cordelia, you and the Groosalug will have one to yourselves, as will Willow and Tara; Buffy and Dawn will share with Anya, and..."

"...our illustrious leader will nobly suffer the indignities of rooming with moi," Xander finished the sentence for him, looking amused. He took his door card with a smile as Giles handed them around, studiously ignoring the man's irritated expression.

"Quite," was Giles' only response.

Buffy frowned as she took her card, glancing over toward the center of the lobby where the man Giles had argued with used to be. "Aren't you at all worried about that Germy guy? If he belongs to the Council, and he knows you're here, that just totally blew our cover."

"Oh, he already took care of that," Anya said off-handedly, before Giles could answer. "Didn't you see the green flash? Nice Obliviate, by the way." The last comment was addressed to Giles directly.

Obliviate? Now where had Dawn heard that before? "So you were the one borrowing my Harry Potter books," she accused, narrowing her eyes at Anya. "I wondered why they suddenly turned up with creases and smelly dust all over them."

"Children," Giles sighed, in his best put-upon librarian voice. "Yes, I took care of it, Anya; and no, it wasn't an Obliviate spell. Where that blasted woman gets her ideas...."

He trailed off, brow furrowing in concern as he glanced toward Tara, then seemed to suddenly notice the bored, exhausted expressions on everyone's faces. (Only Groo looked interested, and in Dawn's opinion, that just reinforced his basic weirdness). "Right. We're on the fourth floor; the lifts are this way."

"Fifth floor, you mean," Buffy groused, as she turned to follow him. "What's with the numbering system, anyway? And, lifts? Sounds like shoes gone wrong. Why not just say 'elevators'?"

"Because we're in England," Cordy answered, as if that would explain everything. "What, didn't you ever travel?"

Xander snorted. "You can take the girl out of high school..."

"You're one to talk," Cordy sniped back, but the corners of her mouth were twitching.

The good-natured bickering abruptly reminded Dawn of the people they'd left behind, who weren't quite suited to a daytime flight across the ocean. Spike would have been highly amused by the whole situation, and thrown in lots of little comments of his own. She missed him already - and she thought he probably missed them too, or at least her and Buffy. She doubted he was having nearly as much fun in his current company.

"Do you really think it was a good idea to leave Spike alone with Angel?" she asked, directing the question at no one in particular as they filed into one of the lifts.

Xander snickered somewhere behind her, then went quiet as somebody elbowed him.

"They have to work together sometime," Anya said pragmatically. "Either that, or kill each other."

On that note, the lift doors closed, and they jolted into motion.

Chapter Two: Enemy of My Enemy

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 3:13 AM (11:13 AM, GMT)


He appeared in Lilah Morgan's apartment without warning, while she was in the middle of counting her payoff for the third time. As it happened, five million pounds at an exchange rate of 1.48 or so had come out to seven million, four hundred thousand US dollars, all of which had been neatly packed in an overlarge briefcase for her tactile enjoyment. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the sums the firm had handled on a daily basis, but it seemed so much more impressive 'in person' than the cheque or direct deposit she'd been expecting-- and it was hers. All of it, hers. She was up to 'six million, five hundred ten thousand,' when a quiet "Ahem" broke into her thoughts.

"Sahjhan!" she exclaimed, blinking up at her visitor in shock. She'd almost forgotten he even existed, what with all the changes over the last several weeks. One day she'd been nodding and smiling, working his plots against Angel and his son into her own plans for the Souled Wonder's future misery; the next, it seemed, she had been staggering through a sewer with Wolfram and Hart disintegrating behind her. A lot of formerly important projects had seemed suddenly trivial, then.

"My, my," he said mildly, throwing a casual glance over the bundles of cash strewn on her bedspread. "We've done well for ourselves, haven't we?"

"I have done well for myself," she replied, regaining some of her composure. Her chin lifted a little, and she met his gaze squarely, resisting the urge to stuff the money back in the briefcase. "Strange how there's been no word from your corner since Linwood sucked the firm into Hell."

"What, you expected me to turn in a daily report?" he said, shrugging her sarcasm negligently away. "There wasn't anything you needed to know. But since my last few tries at Connor haven't gone quite as I'd hoped..."

"You thought you'd come and beg my help, like you did when Holtz fell through." Her plastic lawyer's smile slipped a little, and she narrowed her eyes at him as she got to her feet. "What, did you hang around in some other dimension just waiting for me to be in a good mood? I'm not going to help you for free, you know, rich or not."

He chuckled. "Hang around? My dear, time means nothing to me. What use would I have for waiting? I flit here, I flit there, I appear whenever I choose." He gestured expansively with his hands and posture as he spoke, like an actor on a stage. "One day I'm watching Angel mooning over that little human baby of his, the next the baby's all grown up and I'm insulting him with poetry..."

She must have blinked, because his tone abruptly shaded with amusement, and his scarred face cracked in an ugly smile. "What, that surprises you? I've got a lot of years under my belt, you know. You think I never cracked a book? I could quote for you if you want; how about 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'?"

She shook off the impulse to match him insult for insult, and counted ten seconds in her head for patience. It wasn't the poetry issue that had surprised her - erudite Big Bads weren't exactly uncommon in her world. The reference to 'all grown up', however, was new, and piqued her considerable curiosity. She widened her eyes a little, disarmingly, and cast out another question. "Isn't Connor just a little young for classical poetry, even if he was in the right dimension to read it?"

"Ah, ah, ah," he said, shaking a finger in her direction. "You do something for me, I do something for you. I don't work for free either."

Ah, here it was; the bargaining portion of this little encounter. The last time they'd done business had been a lot simpler. He'd had the plan and the prophecies, she'd had the infant's blood and the grudge, and they had simply merged goals. What was Sahjhan up to now? And was it compatible with her current goals? If not, they might have a problem.

"Mmmmm." She crossed her arms, pursing her lips a little in a semblance of disinterested irritation. "So you intend to pay me for services rendered with what, information? What makes you think I'd want this information of yours?"

"Trust me," he said, his voice warming with enthusiasm. "To some people, what I know is worth ten times what you were paid for kidnapping Faith. I'll even tell you part of it before you get started on my project, to prove it."

She frowned at the mention of Faith. Sahjhan could watch a lot of places at once, obviously, if he knew what the money was for; only Travers and a few of his friends on the Council had been involved. Rejecting this demon could be a risky proposition. What else might he know? And who would he tell, more importantly?

"And if I back out on you after that...?" she asked, slowly.

He shrugged, and his expression went serious and still. "You won't. We both know I can follow you anywhere and anywhen, and there's nothing to stop me from recruiting a few more minions. Ask Holtz. Oh wait, you can't; gee, I wonder why that is."

She winced at the sarcasm. "And if you back out on me, or feed me lies?" she prompted. "Seems like you have all the power, here."

"I guess you'll just have to trust me," he said, blinking innocently at her, and gave her another mild, ugly smile. "Really, what possible benefit could I get from double-crossing my primary contact in this time period?"

What, indeed. She nibbled a little at the inside of her lower lip, thinking hard. It was true, there were any number of supernatural groups who would pay handsomely for information about Angel's son, not to mention the fact that if he were an adult she might be able to bargain with him, as well-- surely, with Holtz to raise him, he couldn't be much of a White Hat? Besides, if worse came to worst, there was a Resikhian Urn sitting in her closet that she could try. She'd done her homework the first time, and knew they were supposed to trap his kind; it was sheer luck that she hadn't taken it into the offices before they were destroyed.

After a few moments, she came to a decision, and met the demon's mocking gaze once more. "Okay. Tell me what it is you want me to do, and if I think it's feasible, we've got a deal." She moved toward the dresser as she spoke, where a bottle of her favorite wine stood next to a half-filled glass, residue of her earlier celebration. She needed it to calm her nerves, now.

He smirked at her. "Good choice. Besides, I think you'll find the task kind of fun. Do you remember Angelus' grandchilde, Spike?"

She rolled her eyes and poured a bit more wine in the glass. "Of course I remember him. Bleached blond, obnoxious, lived with Drusilla for a hundred years? She had quite a bit to say about him, when we brought her to turn Darla, and some of it I could even understand. If it hadn't been for that chip of his, we would have considered him for our payroll, as well, but a killer who can't kill isn't very useful."

"So make him useful," Sahjhan suggested.

"What?" That wasn't what she'd been expecting, not even close. "You want me to take out Spike's chip?" Somehow, she'd thought he would want to cause harm to Angel, not to... Oh. She blinked, and for the first time since he'd shown up, her mouth curved upward in a genuine smile. "I think I see where you're going with this."

"Take it out, deactivate it, I don't care," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "Just take it permanently out of the picture, and let his nature take care of the rest."

She took a sip of the wine to cover her excitement as visions of potential mayhem danced in her mind. It was a matter of record that Spike had been helping the Slayer and her crew in Sunnydale, but he'd also sworn to bathe in their blood the moment the chip came out. And now that Angel's little gang had merged with Buffy's once more, the potential fallout was amazing. Angel would kill him in the end, of course, but in the meantime?

She nodded. "I'll have to get into the Initiative's sealed records and find a way to implement, which might take some time, but it sounds like a plan to me."

"Good." He rubbed his hands together, and took a step backward as if he were ready to depart. "So here's a snack to tide you over: Connor had a protective shield cast over him when Holtz took him through to Quar-Toth. That defeated the purpose of the exercise, so I sent him somewhere else, instead... or maybe I should say, somewhen?"

Without further ado, he disappeared, leaving Lilah blinking in confusion. Somewhen? He'd actually sent the baby back in time? The idea went spinning through her mind, rippling with possibilities, and she sank back to a seat on the bed, deep in thought.

Connor couldn't have already lived and died; Sahjhan might be able to travel to many wheres and whens, but whatever he was up to had to be in the here and now. She'd bet all her money on it. And given what she knew of the complex prophecies, Connor was virtually guaranteed to be living somewhere in Los Angeles, near his father. Was it possible that she'd already run across him somewhere?

Hell, he could be anyone. He could even be Spike. Would Sahjhan have tossed him back that far, to a time when Holtz would have been more comfortable? The idea appealed to her, and she turned it around in her mind a few minutes longer before setting it aside. It was impossible to be sure without more information, and there wasn't any Files and Records girl to ask questions of, anymore.

With a sigh, she set the empty wine glass down on the floor beside the bed and started gathering the bundles of money back into the briefcase. She'd better get this somewhere safe, and then...

Sahjhan had been right; she was going to have fun.

Chapter Three: Out of the Frying Pan

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 3:47 AM (11:47 AM, GMT)


They stopped the car a few miles outside of Vegas, at a gas station still in sight of the glow of the strip but far enough out that they were sure no one was chasing them. Jonathan, as the only one in the bunch still presentable in public, was tasked to go into the convenience store and buy a few essentials-- ice, Ziploc baggies, a few snacks, and a box of Band-aids. He paused over the limited spice shelf on his way to the register, remembering a box of garlic powder in another convenience store a month ago, then sighed and shook his head. He'd yet to make a road trip that didn't either begin or end in some kind of adventure. Sometimes both.

Fred took the ice from him as he got back into the car, and transferred some of it into several of the Ziploc baggies. Gunn hissed in pain as she applied one to his bruised cheek and handed him a second one for his damaged knuckles, then gave her a weak, grateful smile. "Thanks, girl. Don't know what I'd do without you."

Lorne, ensconced in the front passenger seat with a fedora to hide his horns and unusual skin tone, chuckled a little and looked back between the seats at the two of them. "I don't know what I'd have done without all of you," he said, animatedly. "It's a good thing the three of you were there with me; he wasn't going to let me go without serious persuasion."

Jonathan started the car and put it in gear, then eased out of the gas station parking lot and back onto the highway. "Hey, that's what we're here for," he said, giving Lorne a brief smile. "You said you needed someone to take care of the baggage on this little trip, right?"

"Baggage." Gunn snorted. "Right. Yeah, and 'persuasion' is what I do best. What did he want you for, anyway? I thought we were just here to touch base with your contacts and buy some stuff for your club that you couldn't get in L.A. What's this DeMarco guy to do with that? I thought he ran the shows at the Tropicana, and we didn't go near there the whole week we were in town."

Lorne sighed. "Oh, he did. Does. It's complicated. I heard about him awhile back, when he was still just a second rate lounge magician; that's pretty common in Vegas, you know, with all the free-floating magic in the air. Rumor around town is that he got his hands on something legitimately mystical several months back, and then he suddenly started moving up the food chain. Until today, though, I had no idea what he was up to."

"And?" Fred prompted. "I mean, it was easy to tell there was something wrong with the people in that casino, to me at least, but they weren't drunk or drugged or sick or anything. Just apathetic, kind of blank."

"Destinies," Lorne said, sounding disgusted. "Stealing destinies. He was running a big scamola with that million dollar prize wheel, capturing people's future blessings on those little chips and sucking them in. The thing's enchanted, of course, with the old black magic so it's rigged to never win. The only problem is, until recently he didn't have a way to separate the really valuable destinies from the rest-- wealth, power, fame, yadda yadda. He found out I could give him that."

"Ouch," Jonathan said with a wince. "That would have sucked. Helping that guy to hijack people's destinies, when all the time he was messing with yours, too."

"I don't really get it, though," Fred said, with a frown. "How do you borrow somebody's destiny? I mean, say you were going to be a gazillionaire because you invented some part that ended up revolutionizing space flight. Only you don't, because he stole your destiny. So what happens next? Does he sell it to some guy who just so happens to have the same talent and knowledge to invent the part? Or could he sell it to anyone and have it still happen? Or does the part just not get invented?"

Lorne frowned, deep in thought. "The first one, I think. DeMarco wouldn't do it if he couldn't make money from it, but Newton's Laws apply to magic as much as everything else; it would be a lot easier to propel a guy already near the goal to a better destiny than a guy who was, say, frying doughnuts at a greasy spoon and never even finished his high school education."

"That's a pretty specialized kind of theft," Jonathan scowled. "Sounds like a buyer's market to me. Makes sense he'd want a way to pick out the kind of destinies people are asking for, not to mention avoiding people who are going to go bankrupt or break their necks skiing."

"Well, he won't be doing it anymore," Gunn said, then moved the ice bag from his knuckles so he could lift a hand to cover his yawn. "Speaking of avoiding people, did anybody call Cordy in the last couple days? Her number showed up on the missed calls on my cell phone this morning, but things have been pretty messy ever since."

Fred shifted on the seat next to him, trying to adjust the microscopic outfit she was wearing for better comfort. DeMarco's men hadn't had Lorne for more than a few hours, but they'd had time to lock him up backstage at the Tropicana and Fred had been forced to go undercover as a dancing girl to find out what room he was in. "I didn't," she answered, distractedly. "I think I left my phone with my suitcase, and since we had to leave without going back to the hotel..."

"Ain't nothin' there we can't replace, Fred," Gunn assured her. "We already had the merchandise and the weapons in the car, and they was chasing us, so... well, we'll be home pretty soon."

She sighed. "I just wish I had something nicer to wear. This is pretty embarrassing, and it binds in some pretty uncomfortable places."

Jonathan glanced up at the rearview mirror, taking in the unhappy frown on her face. "TMI. But you know, I put my duffle out here because of the magic supplies in it, and I think there might be some clothes in the bottom. I don't know about nicer, but they'd at least come closer to fitting than anything these guys might have."

She blinked, and then a relieved smile began turning up the corners of her mouth. "Really? That would be wonderful. Thank you, Jonathan."

"No prob. Next time we stop, I'll get it out of the trunk for you." Sometimes, he thought, being a short guy actually had its uses. Chalk up another one for Jon-o on the Life vs. Jonathan scoreboard; his side was getting higher every day. At this rate, he actually might break even in 2010 or so.

"I don't suppose you had your phone in that bag, too?" Lorne asked hopefully, breaking into his musings. "I don't think any of us have more than two quarters to rub together right now, and it costs more than that to dial Los Angeles from a payphone."

"Actually, I put it in the glove box for emergencies," he said, shrugging. He was still baffled that they'd given him one to start with; it wasn't like he did more than hang out, shift boxes, and cast the odd minor spell. That wasn't much compared to most of the others on the team. "Anybody that called me would call you guys first, so..."

Lorne gave him a thoughtful look, then opened the glove box and started digging through the papers, gum wrappers, and other detritus stuffed inside. "I don't know about that," he said. "I've never even heard of half the spells you use; you're pretty specialized in your own way. What was the one you used to get into my room, by the bye? And why did it only work for you and Gunn? Fred was camouflaged, but I kind of stand out, you know. It would have made getting out a lot easier."

"Oh, just a tempus fugit kind of thing," Jonathan said, shrugging. "Makes time go faster, in a really limited area. I couldn't expand it to cover more than the two of us without burning myself out or attracting notice, and it only really works when no one is paying attention. If they saw a blur and freeze-framed the cameras, they'd still find us."

"Wow," Fred put in, her voice suddenly alive with excitement. "Hey, you're getting pretty good at time manipulation. Can I borrow you sometime next week, after we've finished moving everybody in? I've got some physics theories that are really hard to test unless you can alter time to see the effects better."

"Oh, you're in for it now," Gunn groaned, sounding amused. "You'll never get rid of her once she gets started."

"Charles!" Fred objected, laughing, and pretended to slap him upside the head. Jonathan grinned at the image in the rearview mirror, glad that the tensions of the last twenty-four hours were over and done with. They needed this little break, between Vegas and the Hyperion, to unwind before they had to help all the Sunnydale people unload. The moving van was supposed to arrive sometime this afternoon, and it would probably take several hours to empty it.

"Aha!" Lorne pulled his arm out of the glove box, the cell phone clutched firmly in his green-skinned hand. "Okay, guys, quiet. Princess is going to be upset enough as it is, I don't need you distracting me."

Gunn sighed. "Oh, gimme that. She doesn't scare me." He reached forward between the seats, and Lorne gladly dropped the phone into his hand.

"Suit yourself."

Gunn started to dial the number for Buffy's house in Sunnydale, then glanced at his watch and frowned. "Damn. It's pretty late, isn't it? What was the number at that hotel she's sleeping at?"

"555-2739, same area code," Fred told him. "It was pretty easy to remember; the last four digits spell CRDY."

"Cosmic irony, you think, or did she pick that hotel room on purpose?" Gunn asked, rhetorically, as he finished dialing. "Okay, ringing through."

There apparently wasn't any answer; after several seconds of waiting Gunn sighed and killed the call. "Guess they're out. Hope she didn't leave her cell behind." He dialed again, but once more, there was no answer.

"Buffy's house again, I guess," he finally said, and tried the number he'd originally meant to dial. "Didn't want to wake 'em all up, but maybe they stopped there after patrol?"

"Probably," Jonathan commented. "When we were stalking them, there were lots of times Buffy was up and around at this hour."

Silence filled the car again from Gunn's corner, and Jonathan frowned. No answer at any of the three phones probably meant something big was up, and that wasn't a good thing. He glanced down at the speedometer, then pressed his foot down a little more firmly on the gas pedal. There wasn't much traffic at this hour and they could take highways for most of the distance; no point in being leisurely about it.

"Oh, hey, Angel," Gunn suddenly said. It sounded like someone had answered, after all. "We've been out of contact for the last couple days, and I know we missed at least one call from Cordy. Mind filling us in?"

He was pretty quiet for several minutes after that, punctuating the buzz of Angel's conversation with a few Uh-huh's and No-shit's and a "This is bad, man." When Angel's monologue finally came to a halt, he heaved a deep sigh, and asked a question.

"So, is it bad enough that we need to find an airport, or should we come out there and help you guys? I know we got a limited rental on that truck."

Jonathan glanced over at Lorne and then in the rearview mirror, meeting Fred's puzzled gaze. Yep, something big was up. He frowned and let the speedometer creep up another few mph, hoping there weren't any cops in the area. The last thing they needed was to get pulled over looking like this, but major trouble back home took priority.

"'Kay," Gunn continued, replying to whatever Angel's answer was. "I don't like it, them being all the way out there without us, but if we hurry it up we can probably still fly out sometime Sunday. No way they can rush the Council before then, right? Besides, I don't like the idea of you alone with the chipped wonder, either."

There was another brief pause while Angel said something. Jonathan wished briefly for the enhanced hearing the vampires had, or Wes, or Xander; this was frustrating. One more thing for him to research in his magic books, or to pick Ethan's brain about if he ever came back.

"Yeah, see you in a few, man." Gunn turned the phone off, and sat still for a minute, staring at the back of Jonathan's head. From what Jonathan could see in the mirror, he looked pretty disturbed about something. Which only made sense; 'Council', 'over there', and 'fly out' added up to a trip to England, rescue-style. In no universe did that translate to a good thing.

"Charles?" Fred finally prompted, hesitantly.

He sighed, and shifted on the seat, turning to look at her. "Well, looks like we're going to Sunnydale. Faith's kidnapped, Wes went after her, and the whole Sunnydale gang upped stakes and followed, except for Angel and Spike..."

Good grief, Jonathan thought, as Gunn continued his explanation. So much for sleep anytime soon; who ever said 'no rest for the wicked' had it all backwards.

Chapter Four: Into Temptation

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 4:42 AM (12:42 PM, GMT)


The world was livening up a bit, creeping toward the hour when all vampires with an ounce of sense should be indoors, or underground. Spike could feel the sun's approach like a tingle just under his skin as he crept through one of Sunnydale's many graveyards; he'd come out looking for some rough and tumble to soothe the agitation running hot in his blood, but as the minutes advanced his chances of finding any were dropping sharply. Any minions rising so late would probably go up like a match to touch paper even without his help, and he'd be lucky to get back to Revello Drive without being singed himself.

He gave a snort of disgust and wandered back toward the cemetery gates, glancing idly out at quiet houses full of people whose fates he wouldn't have cared about a year ago. Two years ago, and he'd have been actively plotting against them; three, and he'd have been feeding from them, running amok with his mad, lovely Dru.

It wasn't that he didn't still feel the urge to rend, tear, and drain those frail humans to the last drop; of course he did. He was still a demon, after all, and he didn't have a soul like the great Brooding Wonder did to drown out the darker impulses. What he did have was a chip-bought space of his own to think in without the Powers that Be or their opposite number yanking his chain about. If he'd chosen to stick with the Summers girls and follow their do-gooding cause, then it was his choice and no one else's. No matter what that nancy boy said.

Spike sighed and thrust a hand into the pocket of his duster, rummaging for his packet of fags. He had time to smoke one more before running back if he took the sewers for the last little bit, and he was determined to stay out of the house as long as he could. If he'd had any idea how peevish the elder vampire could get when his little family was scattered to the four winds, he'd have insisted the Slayers truss him up and toss him in a trunk with a couple of blood bags. Only the fact that Spike worried, too-- about the Nibblet, anyway, as she still hadn't quite sorted her gifts out yet-- kept him from ending their latest argument with fists and fangs. Instead, he'd gone out in a futile attempt to burn the anger off.

Sod Angel, anyway. What did he know? The great git had never even considered sticking with the White Hats when his soul came loose the last time; because of that, because he'd done a complete about-face, he seemed determined to believe that Spike had to have an evil motive for staying on the Slayer's team. Especially after all Spike had been through.

For Spike's part, as far as he was concerned, Angelus was a sadistic, moody bastard, and the only difference between that version of Angel and the souled one was that 2.0 had a pesky conscience. What difference, then, would a soul make to Spike? Nothing but a decade or two of useless, guilty tears.

He checked the horizon line again, decided he'd stayed out long enough, and dropped the fag end into the dirt. Enough introspection for one night; if he was lucky, Angel would already be asleep, and Spike could work out the rest of his irritation shifting what was left in the house into the living room. They could finish it up tonight, pack everything in and drive it down before Sunday sunup; as long as the crew in Vegas came up for air and got their arses back to L.A. in time to unpack, they should still be able to make the deadline and get the truck returned by Monday. Spike would personally rather have paid the fines and left Angel to finish on his own, but if it would give Buffy peace of mind to have the task done... then he'd get it done.

He eased his way through the cemetery gates and turned onto the sidewalk, ambling in the direction of Buffy's house. There were a couple of early morning joggers down the road, trusting in the faint glow on the eastern horizon to keep the bogeymen away, and one strange bloke in shapeless brown robes standing at the end of the block that set off his danger sense.

Spike stopped in his tracks, tilting his head a little to the side as he gave the man a once-over, head to toe. His first thought had been 'Monk!', an image still capable of punching his buttons more than a year after Dawn's near-demise, but a second look turned up a hideously scarred demonic face, and his supernaturally enhanced senses didn't pick up any scent or sounds of movement. Either Ugly had been frozen in that pose long since and Spike was just unlucky enough to have found him, or his visitor was the incorporeal timephasing wanker that had stolen Angel's kid and sent him to the past.

"Sahjhan," he announced, narrowing his eyes at the stranger.

"William the Bloody," the figure spoke, finally showing signs of life, and sketched him a mocking little bow. "I'm pleased to see that reports of your intelligence were not exaggerated."

Spike raised an eyebrow at Sahjhan and abruptly started walking again, paying no further attention the demon's presence save for the sidestep required to keep from running into him as he walked.

"Or do you prefer Spike?" Sahjhan continued, sounding dryly amused this time.

"What I'd prefer," Spike said to no one in particular, "is to get home before I catch fire and become a pile of dust." He kept walking as he spoke, duster trailing behind him like half-furled wings as he picked up the pace of his steps.

There were only two reasons he could think of for that particular demon to be there, talking to him. Either Sahjhan wanted to gloat about what he'd planned for Angel, expecting Spike to play along, or he wanted to use Spike against the older vampire, the way he'd tried to use Wes. Spike didn't have enough patience for the first option-- he was sure to lose his temper before he got any useful information-- and the second promised the usual payoff of pain or death. Neither option was very tempting.

"Ah," Sahjhan said, from behind him. "I understand. Sunrise, vampires, not a good mix. I think I'll just tag along and talk as we go." The demon's voice sounded just as close as it had when Spike had first passed him by; obviously, he hadn't taken the hint.

Spike stopped short and turned to face him. "Look, I don't know what you want, but whatever it is, I'm not interested. Piss off."

"Are you sure?" Sahjhan said, eyes widened incredulously. "That's strange, because I'd heard you wanted your chip out."

If Spike's blood hadn't already been cooled to air-temperature, that remark would have chilled it. Twinned threads of hope and fear sprang up, twisting through his thoughts, and he struggled to keep his reaction neutral. "That's been tried, mate, and failed," he told the demon, his lip curled into a sneer. "Unless you've got the original schematics, which went up with the Initiative ..."

Sahjhan just chuckled. "It might surprise you to know it's still there," he replied. "Oh, no, not populated, but the order to destroy the place... mysteriously... got lost." He took a step to the side, then another, forcing Spike to turn in order to keep facing the demon.

"I could probably just have it turned off," Sahjhan continued, conversationally, as his path became a circle around the vampire. "Or I could have the pain turned up, keep you from getting within six feet of a human ever again. Or, maybe," he paused dramatically, "I could see about reprogramming to stimulate the pleasure centres instead. A little spike of joy every time you hurt someone, or take a life; just imagine what that would be like."

Spike didn't need to imagine; that was more or less the effect the vampire demon had on the human mind. To have it augmented...

Sahjhan's amused expression shifted to a thoroughly self-satisfied smile, and he stopped circling, leaving Spike facing East again. Abruptly, Spike realised that he'd shifted into 'game face' without noticing; the world around him had taken on a slight reddish tinge, and his jeans were fitting tighter than they ought. The promise of being uncaged after two and a half years of forced restrictions had excited him, and aroused him, more than he would have expected. Call him unnatural, but he'd got used to his 'cage', and even come to think of it as one of the more serendipitous changes in his long existence; he had a goal now, and a future unspooling in front of him that appealed to all sides of his nature. The sudden sea-change of emotion very definitely disturbed him; it wasn't natural, however good it felt.

Dawn, he thought, letting her name echo in his mind. Buffy, Wes, Watcher, Red, Tinkerbelle, Demon Girl, Harris. He kept going, reciting the names of their little clan in his thoughts as a sort of calming mantra, and after a moment, it began to work. There were reasons why they wouldn't make tasty snacks, reasons that the instinctive response of his demon to the whatever-it-was had obliterated with bloodlust.

"All right," he growled, "you can take off whatever it is you're using to try and convince me, and just tell me what you're here for, right quick like. I want to get underground before sun-up." He let the 'game face' melt away, watching Sahjhan intently as he did so.

"You have a very strong mind for one of such a capricious species," Sahjhan said quietly, suddenly very, very serious.

"I was a Master once, you know," Spike replied, just as quietly. "And I had Dru. She was better at it than you are."

"Ah, Dru. Do you want her back?"

Wheels within wheels, bait upon bait. It looked like option one was in play, after all, patience or no. "Right, then. You're offering me everything I've dreamed of for the last three years, so I assume you have something you want of me in return. Out with it, then." He thrust his hands into the pockets of his duster, squaring his stance and dropping his chin just a little in the malignant, determined posture his minions had always known better than to cross.

Sahjhan nodded slowly. "What I want from you is very simple; when the chip fails-- and you'll know when it does-- I want you to save Angel for last. That's it. I don't care what you do to the others, in what order, or even if you save any of them for toys or minions. Just do what you do best-- destroy things. Disrupt their lives. Create chaos. In short..." He grinned cheerfully. "Enjoy your freedom."

Enjoy his freedom? Would he really be free, or would he fall into yet another cage imposed on him by outside forces? Spike narrowed his eyes a little more. "It'll be permanently off?" he clarified.

"Yes," the demon assured him. "And don't worry about your Dru. I'll let her know you're a bad dog again." He chuckled. "Really, for a vampire, she's a most remarkable conversationalist."

"Done, then," Spike growled. "Now get out of my sight."

Sahjhan just smiled, then gave a nod of respect before taking a step backward into nothing. Returning to his own dimension, probably, or another one close by where he could watch what was going on... and where he could have seen Spike and Angel argue, and decide it was a good time to stick his nose in. At least the tosser didn't seem to have an ear in-- if he'd actually heard the argument, he'd have never tried that tack.

So how long would Sahjhan stay around if Spike was now his favoured project, he wondered. How much would Spike have to act along to keep him from interfering again? Whatever happened, he didn't like the idea of someone holding the controls for his chip.

Never mind. He shook his head, irritably, and strode swiftly toward the nearest sewer entrance. The first order of business was to get his own arse out of danger; next, watched or not, he had to let someone know what had happened. Someone who wouldn't stake him, ram a fireball down his throat, bar their doors, or otherwise announce to all and sundry that the chip was being turned off. Who also might have an idea or two on how to salvage the situation, keep him from following Sahjhan's intentions will-he, nil-he.

Who might have some idea how bloody tempting it all was-- and how determined he was to keep his arse firmly on the fence anyway.

And, of course, was also incommunicado, on another continent.


Chapter Five: All Fall Down

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 1:19 PM (GMT)


"Hello, Faith."

She knew that voice-- knew it pretty well, actually, though it usually rang a lot louder in her ears. B's little sis had been through a lot for her age, but fifteen was still fifteen and the girl could squeal and shriek with the best of them. Quiet and serious from Little D meant something was very, very wrong, and the elder Slayer felt a pang of alarm as she turned to get a better look at her.

The first thing she noticed was Dawn's face-- thin and paler than she'd seen it last, framed by that shiny mane of brown hair. She was wearing a long black duster that looked suspiciously like Spike's over a sparkly blue top out of Buffy's wardrobe and a pair of snug black jeans. There were two stakes tucked in a loop at her belt, a sword naked in her hand, and a crossbow slung across her back; she was poised in a ready stance, and there was no innocence left in her steady blue gaze. She looked scarily like Buffy standing there, despite her different coloring, and Faith knew instinctively that she was the Dawn that could be, not the Dawn that was.

And that meant Faith was Dreaming. Shit.

"Hey, D," she said warily, unsure how she was supposed to respond. "So, uh, what's going on?"

Dawn didn't answer immediately, just watching her with wary eyes, and Faith took the opportunity to glance around a little. The scenery wasn't very inviting; in fact, there mostly wasn't any. The glossy black surface that they stood on had no edges or interruptions that Faith could see, and the night sky arched above them like a starry bowl turned upside down. It reminded her a little of the Great Plains at night, actually. She'd crossed that vast sea of open earth at some point on her trek from Boston to Sunnydale and found it too exposed, too vast for her to really appreciate. It made her feel tiny and insignificant, and she'd never liked that feeling.

Besides which, the last time she'd talked with someone in a Dream she'd been in a coma, trying to tell Buffy how to stop Mayor Wilkins. What a fucked up trip that had been, too. Every time she opened her mouth, riddles came out; then, after B exited the Dream and went back to the real world, Faith had dreamt of nothing but B trying to kill her over and over again for the next eight months. Yeah, Faith got that her subconscious mind was punishing her for betraying the man who had treated her like a daughter; her therapist in prison had been kinda fond of repeating the obvious. Still. Not a pleasant precedent. It kind of colored her expectations, now.

Fucking PTB. She would have got the message just as easy if they'd set the Dream in the Hyperion, or their apartment. Used a face that wasn't in the Hellmouth prophecy. Even just showed her what she needed to see, like an ordinary Dream-vision, without taunting her with a creepy-ass conversation first. Linda, her first Watcher, had always said Slayer Dreams were a neutral thing; they were meant to share information and warnings, not to punish or manipulate or whatever. Yeah, right. Wes would be getting an earful about it when she woke up.

The Dawn-figure finally came to some conclusion. She nodded at Faith, and her intense gaze softened a little as she spoke. "Little Miss Muffet, curds and whey... It sat down beside her, and yet she stayed."

The words didn't make much sense, but they sounded familiar, and the old scar on her stomach twinged unexpectedly when she racked her memory for details. Coming on the heels of her earlier thoughts on Slayer Dreams, it raised her hackles something fierce. She frowned at the younger girl and shrugged her shoulders a little, then indulged herself in sarcasm.

"Sorry, D. I don't do this cryptic shit. Can you be a little more specific?"

Once again, Dawn didn't answer, not directly. Instead, she gestured at herself with her free hand, slowly repeating a line from the damned prophecy. "Then shall the Chosen make their choices," she said, as if that would explain everything. Then she looked away from Faith off into the vastness at her right, and pointed that way with the sword she held.

Faith followed the other girl's gaze, and flinched at what she saw. A stone crypt had suddenly appeared in the middle of nowhere, its grey bulk improbably welcome in that forbidding place. The scene taking place against it was less so. Buffy slumped there, pinned up against the near wall by a vampire with bleached hair; her eyes were wide and frightened, and her lips kept shaping the word 'no' as she pushed at the leather-clad shoulders above her. It wasn't any use. The vampire lunged for her, biting deep into her throat, and the light slowly faded from her eyes.

"Fuck!" Faith strained to move, to run over and stop it from happening, but her muscles refused to obey. She couldn't even turn her head to glare at Dawn, or to look away-- but even as the thought formed in her mind, the scene before her shifted and changed.

It was replaced by an equally disturbing vision of Wesley, chained hand and foot to a nondescript wall. Solid, no windows; it could have been any room, anywhere. But it wasn't. She knew before the image of Travers formed in the flickering shadows next to him that it had to be Council property.

'Should they ever find out what I've become...' Wes had said one night, when they'd compared their darkest fears. He'd never finished that sentence in her hearing, and remembering what the Council was capable of where she was concerned, she hadn't asked him to. 'I know,' she'd told him, and they'd left it at that. Maybe they shouldn't have. They could have planned, or ran, or something. Anything but what she was seeing.

The Travers-figure sneered something at the bound Wes, who glared back, eyes sparking with anger. Faith saw the flash of gold in their depths, and the way his muscles strained against the metal links; they had to've drugged him, or the chains would never have held against his new strength. There was a reason the prophets called him the Destroyer, after all. Did Travers know that? She shuddered, watching them, and kept straining to move... but she was still frozen, helpless to intervene when Travers suddenly pulled a stake from his pocket and drove it into Wes with all his might.

He didn't dust. But he bled. And his eyes, like Buffy's, slowly dimmed and then went flat.

"NO!" she screamed, at the top of her lungs. It wasn't the only thing she'd screamed, either; her throat was raw and her ears were ringing, but she couldn't remember one thing she'd said since the first strangled "Fuck" had left her lips. The two people who'd just died before her eyes knew her better than anyone else on the planet, except for Angel; sister Slayer, Watcher turned lover. The last month had seen bridges rebuilt, friendship reknitted, and lust kindling into something more. She would not believe it would all end that way, in violence and blood. Not so soon.

The wall faded from view, and the chains, with their prisoner. And Travers. Faith went silent again as they vanished, and felt angry tears pooling in her eyes. She wouldn't let them fall, though, not in front of some face-stealing avatar of the fucking Powers that Be. During the pause between that scene and the next one that had to be coming, she took a few deep breaths to calm herself.

The blackness lifted to reveal Faith herself, sprawled atop the coverlet of a massive four-poster bed. She was wearing black leather pants, high-heeled boots, a necklace Wes had given her, and a clinging maroon top; normal Slayage-wear. A perfect copy of the clothes she was actually wearing, as a matter of fact. Faith glanced down at herself in dismay, then up at the matching figure on the bed, and realized with a dizzying sense of shock that that was her, at that very moment, and that behind those dark lashes the Dream she watched from was playing out.

I was captured, she remembered suddenly. Lilah had set a trap with herself as bait, and Faith had sprung the fucking thing. Sold her to the Council, drugged to the gills, put her life in the hands of...

Sure enough, there he was, sitting in a heavy, ornate chair that materialized next to the bed. She'd recognize him anywhere; he was one Watcher she'd give her eyeteeth to have at knifepoint. Wes' dad. Or, at least, the man he'd called Father for too many years. He cradled a finely crafted pewter goblet in his hands, and he watched the sleeping Faith with a frightening intensity. Waiting for her to wake?

This was so far from five-by-five, it wasn't even funny.

Dawn chose that moment to interrupt her train of thought, walking into Faith's line of sight with a determined air. She extended her sword again, pointing directly at the goblet Mr. Wyndam-Pryce held, and made one last announcement.

"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down," she said, with a stern frown. "You must choose... wisely."

Instantly, Faith's mind flashed to an aged knight, standing watch over the Holy Grail, and Harrison Ford's character urgently searching through shelves full of cups. She didn't think that was what the Dawn-being meant, but even so, it was a disturbing comparison. In the movie, Indy'd at least had his dad's diary to help him with the choices he had to make; Faith had nothing.

"How am I supposed to choose?" she demanded. "How am I supposed to even know what choice you're talking about?"

Dawn shook her head and gestured at the goblet a second time, then gave her a sad smile. The scene faded away as the others had before it, taking Dawn with it that time. Faith was left with only the endless starscape for scenery, and even that started to fade after a few seconds.

"It has begun," a quiet voice whispered. And Faith woke up.

Faith stifled the urge to groan, suddenly aware of a throbbing pain in her temples and a heaviness in her limbs. She sucked in a slow breath, then flinched as the movement awakened all the bruises from her first awakening in Council company. After so many centuries of Cruciamentums, they ought to have known that even a drugged Slayer was never helpless, but she'd done a surprising amount of damage before they'd found a needle and put her back down.

A faint squeak of chair legs and the brush of fabric over skin alerted her that she wasn't alone, and the last vision from her Dream came rushing back. Bed, Watcher, goblet-- a choice. From what she could sense with her eyes shut, it had been pretty accurate. Unfortunately.

So, did that mean the other visions had come true? Doubt and fear snagged momentarily at her gut, sending chills through her, but she pushed them away as quickly as she could. She had to believe everyone else was still OK, at least until her part in things was over; she couldn't afford to get caught in that emotional undertow. Besides, why would the PTB put the visions and the whole 'choice' thing in the same Dream if they weren't connected to each other? Choose wisely, and they live; choose poorly, and... "ashes, ashes," Dawn had said.

Hmmm. Maybe the Indiana Jones thing wasn't such a bad analogy after all. Xander would get a kick out of that, if-- when!-- she saw him again.

Well; time for the villain to speak. She didn't have the patience to wait him out, so it looked like it was her move. Slowly, she blinked her eyes open, and focused on the figure beside the bed.

"Hello, Faith." The man spoke quietly, his voice low and infected with malice. His fingers tightened on the stem of the pewter goblet, and his lip twitched in a sneer.

Whatever else was going on with him, it was obvious he hated her quite thoroughly. The similarity to the Dawn-thing's words wasn't lost on her, either. She let her lips curve in an ironic smile as she answered him.

"Hey, Rich. Got your grubby hands on me at last, huh? You know, kidnapping your son's lover probably isn't the best way to patch things up."

"Kidnapping? No," he said, and made an ominous noise that might in some other universe be called a chuckle. "I’m merely offering you a choice. Kidnapping involves a lack of consent, and your fate is entirely up to you."

A choice? Already? What the fuck? Talk about your last minute warnings.

Faith narrowed her eyes at him, and let her glance stray to the cup in his hands. "You think I’d consent to anything you could tempt me with? Even you aren’t that stupid, Rich."

Surely that couldn’t be the choice the PTB were referring to. They were never that obvious. Never. So what the hell was going on?

"Did I say anything about temptation?" He rose smoothly out of the chair, the better to dominate the room with his presence, and took a step toward the bed. "For such a simple choice, that's hardly necessary."

From her new perspective, Faith thought, he really did look intimidating, even in tweed. Something about the conviction in his voice, and the glint of enjoyment in his eyes.... He was getting off on it, and there wasn't much she could do about it until her strength came back. He was too smart to get caught the way the others had, and there was something about the way he held that goblet....

"So what's behind Door #1?" she asked, defiantly.

He raised an eyebrow at the sarcastic tone of her voice, but held his ground. "You live. Under my control, as the good little Slayer you should always have been."

Flashes of early Wesley danced in her thoughts, and he'd only been parodying the source. Wyndam-Pryce senior, as her Watcher? That would happen when Hell froze over. She'd sooner....

Oh. Of course. "And Door #2?"

He gestured with the goblet. "You drink from this cup, and we'll have a new Slayer under our control. Young, sheltered, impressionable... They're so eager to please at that age."

The words were calculated to provoke, and he oozed smugness like rank oil. Anger burned bright in her thoughts-- fuck that, she'd take Door #1 and break free as soon as she could!-- then fizzled and left her feeling remarkably hollow. If Door #1 were the answer, then why the fuck send her that Dream? Because that's what she would have chosen, anyway. Was there something else? What was she supposed to do?

Just what were the Powers asking of her?

She cleared her throat and diverted the subject. "You're so sure the next Slayer would be yours? What if she's another one like me or Buffy?"

He chuckled again. "And what do you imagine we've been doing while you were behind bars? We devised a more certain method of locating Potential Slayers, and gathered them all within our walls. Forty-seven young women, all of whom now know better than to defy us."

She stared at him, aghast. Forty-seven? Shit. Her throat tightened, and her next question came out a lot weaker than intended. "And Door #3?"

"There isn't one," he announced. "Don't worry; I'm not going to pressure you for a decision. I'll come back in a few hours, and then... well, we'll see, now won't we?" He flashed his teeth in a predatory grin, then set the goblet on an elegantly carved table next to the bed.

"Fuck you," she hissed, thoughts racing as she tried to come up with an alternative.

"No, thank you," he answered, and strode unhurriedly out of the room. "I have a bit more taste than my son."

The door closed behind him, and she heard a key turning in the lock. The sound it made was remarkably like the sound the goblet had made when he set it on the table; ominous and final.

"We all fall down," she whispered, staring at the demonic figures molded in the goblet's outer surface. Fuck. It looked like she had a decision to make.

Chapter Six: Sticks and Stones

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 1:37 PM (GMT)


Wesley Wyndam-Pryce slowed for the left turn off the A34 toward Little Compton, grateful for the relative dearth of travellers on the roads. The Council research centre he meant to visit was located beneath a popular megalithic site, its existence thoroughly camouflaged by the heavy tourist trade, but by the same token access to the place was difficult to safely arrange. The fewer witnesses to his presence, the less difficult it would be to gain entrance to the lab complex below.

The small lay-by where visitors to the site were instructed to park was just a few hundred meters further down the road. There were a few cars already present, but he recognised one of them; it belonged to a member of the Rollright Trust, a subsidiary of the Council that managed the site. The number of actual tourists, therefore, was likely to be quite low. Good; his plan would be less difficult than he had feared.

The keys were heavy and warm in his hand as he pulled them from the ignition, and he sat there for a moment, studying the silvery flash of metal in the midday sunshine. It set off a chain of images in his memory-- the quicksilver of her presence in the link when they'd searched for Buffy, the silver of a belt buckle against the black leather of her pants, the silver of the Chi-Rho necklace he had given her against the pale skin of her throat-- and he winced, closing his fingers around them. There wasn't time yet for emotion, not until after he had succeeded. He took a deep breath, focusing on rebuilding his control, then got out of the car.

He dropped the keys into a pocket, then retrieved a small digital camera to support his masquerade as a tourist. Cyril was unlikely to report him-- he was there on the man's advice, after all-- but one could not be too careful, and there might be other Council employees about. The dark glasses he wore helped, as well; with luck, no one would give him a second glance, and he would not have to resort to magic.

It wasn't a far walk to the circle of stones commonly known as the 'King's Men'. It was easy to tell that they had been there for millennia; they were heavily weathered, worn down, and riddled with holes like rotten wood. The stones were accessible, human in scale, unlike the larger features of Avebury or Stonehenge. Like the larger sites, however, they carried a set of legends all their own.

For example, Wesley mused, it was commonly held that the stones could not be counted. Scholars had settled on 77, but it was consensus, not fact; it was rare that two observers ever came to the same number. Legend also held that they had once been actual men, and that, in concert with the King Stone across the road and the Whispering Knights' dolmen to the southeast, they had fallen victim to a witch's trick and been solidified in place.

Both legends, in some part, were true; it was a matter of definition. Where did one stone end and the next begin? Did 'men' apply to demonic beings? The verses that supposedly told the tale were largely inventions of a later culture, but the story had been based in fact. The protectress of the area had stood against an invading army, and raised her voice to their leader in challenge.

"Seven long strides shalt thou take,
If Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be."

The demon had found the promise irresistible. The town now known as Long Compton was just over the hilltop, and he believed he could not fail:

"Stick, stock, stone,
As King of England I shall be known."

Naturally, he had not succeeded. The witch had called to the Earth for defence, and it had lifted to block his view. Then she had struck, attacking the demons with all her might. Unfortunately, without backup, the effort of fossilising them all had taken more power than she could spend and survive:

"As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be,
Rise up stick and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And myself an eldern tree."

The Earth had simply claimed her, giving rise to additional legends about her tree's sap and its effects. Such legends, however, were false, as were as the tales of the faerie caverns under the circle and the stones' habit of leaving their places at certain hours of the night. They were entirely the Watchers' creation, serving as a distraction from what really went on after dark.

A burst of laughter sounded from Wesley's left, lifting him suddenly from his musings. Distraction, indeed. He'd been using history to block out the world again; an old defence, and an effective one, but not particularly appropriate today. He sighed, snapped a few belated photographs, then drifted across the grassy space to the far edge of the formation. There was only one tourist left, a man with a dowsing rod non-descript enough that Wesley's eyes had trouble settling on him; whoever he was, he was probably checking the circle for ley lines.

Enough. Wesley edged behind the largest of the stones, out of the man's view, and knelt to trace a symbol against the earth at its base. A faint ward-field tingled against his fingertips, lock to the key he quickly drew, then subsided as he stood. The next part of the procedure involved a slow, careful amble away from the circle and across the road, where he approached the fenced-in King Stone. The legends said that was where the faeries left their caverns; yet another level of defence. Any observers would think they were seeing things.

Ordinarily, the visit would be approved beforehand and the gate left unlocked. This visit was not ordinary, of course, but then neither was he, of late. He gathered his muscles, thinking wryly of all the acrobatics he'd seen Angel do, and leaped straight up and over the fence. A second key was required there, drawn directly on the surface of the rock; then, with only a soft 'click' as warning, the earth opened beneath his feet and he slid straight to the caverns below.

It wasn't a far drop to the floor; in fact, judging by the sharp lines of incipient bruising on his back, there seemed to have been stairs. He'd just been standing in the wrong place to use them. With a wince, he got back to his feet, shaking the pebbles and dirt from his jacket, and stepped forward to meet his welcoming party. Cyril looked thin and nervous as always, even more bookish than Wesley had ever been, with a weak little chin and dark, nervous eyes.

"Pryce," he said, with a sigh of relief. "I didn't think you'd make it."

"Cyril," Wesley replied, slightly disturbed by the man's tone of voice. "Where's Faith? You did say she was here?"

The other man shuffled his feet and dropped his head a little. "Not exactly, you see..."

"Not exactly?" Wesley's voice rose sharply, and he had to squelch the urge to throw the researcher up against the wall. He knew the man meant well, but in their business 'meant well' usually ranked at the level of a belly-flop in an Olympic diving competition.

Something in his voice must have communicated his mood, because Cyril took a quick step backward and raised his hands in supplication. "Look, it's not that I don't know where she is, it's just that..."

"Just that... what?" a new voice mocked.

The voice was coming from just behind Wesley's position; the roaring in his ears must have drowned out the man's approach. Cyril flinched and paled even further, but Wesley was turning before the words had even registered, reaching with one hand to encircle the intruder's throat. At times, he quite thoroughly frightened himself, but there were occasions when supernaturally swift reflexes were useful. Very useful.

"Rayne," he hissed, as the man's identity sank in.

To his credit, Ethan didn't so much as twitch a muscle. He swallowed once, looking lean and mischievous even half-strangled and covered in dust, and curved his lips in a defiantly smug smile. "You didn't recognise me, did you?" he said hoarsely, then dropped a stick-like object to the floor.

Wesley looked down, loosening his grip, and recognised the object as a dowsing rod. "Bloody hell," he groaned. Ethan had been the ley-finder in the circle; he must have been using some variant of a notice-me-not spell, and Wesley had been too distracted to recognise the effects. "How long have you been following me?" he demanded.

"Long enough," Ethan said, and tugged at the hem of his obnoxiously green shirt. A few pebbles clattered to the floor, and he curled his lip at them in disgust. "I've been having the same dreams you have, after all. At least, the ones involving a certain Slayer in various stages of messy death, and I seem to have developed a belated sense of responsibility."

Wesley shuddered and took a step back. "Angels and ministers of grace defend us," he said, not sure how far to trust him. On the one hand, he was there ... and Wesley was well aware that his 'death' might have activated another Watcher. The third presence in his connection to Faith had confirmed it, several weeks ago at Wolfram & Hart when they had tapped into the Slayers' link to find Buffy. On the other hand, he could not quite find it in him to believe that the Powers would permit Ethan Rayne to play guardian to one of their Champions. Chaos-worshipping, casually immoral Ethan Rayne? The man who had indirectly caused Wesley's death in the first place?

"Do I come in such a questionable shape?" Ethan teased, and it took Wesley a moment to place the comment as vaguely Shakespearian, a response to his Hamlet quote.

"You even have to ask?" he replied sarcastically, scowling in irritation.

"I hate to interrupt, but I have a question," Cyril said, sounding even more nervous. "Who is he, and what's he doing here?"

Wesley had almost forgotten the younger man was there. "Ethan Rayne," he said, rolling his eyes in Cyril's direction. "He's apparently here to help, but I suggest you keep an eye on him; I don't trust him as far as you can throw him."

"Wouldn't that be as far as you can..." Cyril began to ask, momentarily distracted, then took in the muscular shape of Wesley's arms, a definite change from the scholar's build he'd had three years ago. "Never mind. It's just that I wasn't expecting to cover for two of you; it's risky enough to just take one, and if I leave one of you here sooner or later someone's going to notice the door opened when it wasn't scheduled to..."

"Oh, don't put yourself out on my account," Ethan said, smirking, then began to chant something under his breath.

Wesley rolled his eyes, briefly reminded of Jonathan. "Be sure you haven't forgotten the counterspell," he said warily, and reached out to grab Ethan's arm as the sorcerer faded out of sight. The world took on the familiar dimness of a scene viewed through a dirty window, and Cyril gaped in their direction with something akin to shock.

"Oh dear," the man said, wincing. "You're not supposed to do magic in here! Now I'll have to think of something to explain that as well when they check the activity logs!"

"Just get on with it," Wesley growled, trying to ignore Ethan's chuckling. "I need to find Faith, now. Every second we waste is a second of torture, or death, that I might spare her."

Cyril sobered up instantly, as Wesley had intended. "I didn't want to say anything over the phone, but I ran across some information yesterday regarding a restricted Council base in a different part of the country. One that doesn't show up on any of our maps. I can't exactly bring the data to you; it's encoded in a language I don't understand, and I was hacking a rather sensitive account at the time. I don't dare print anything where the system administrator might catch me."

"I don't exactly have the time to sit and translate anything," Wesley warned. "The longer I'm here, over and beyond the danger to Faith, the more chance one of the other personnel will trip over us."

Cyril touched a keypad on the left wall, tapping a specific numeric code, and with a loud 'thunk' the stairs to the King Stone closed themselves off. "That's all right, I have a few screenshots, and I can burn them to a CD. I just needed you here in person to retrieve them. I don't dare send it through the mail, or even by courier. Travers has a good third of the Council in his pocket, now; do you know, he intends to kill her, then chain-resuscitate each of the Potentials? All forty-seven of them are in Council custody."

"Chain..." Wesley's voice trailed away as he followed Cyril down the hall, still gripping Ethan's arm. The idea sickened him-- Travers would actually kill each of those girls, even temporarily, in order to create an army of Slayers? Would that even work any longer, with he and Dawn now among the Chosen? Would the Powers That Be even permit it? Was there a prophecy he'd overlooked?

"Bugger that," Ethan growled. "Even Travers should know that sowing Death will only bring destruction. Will the man never learn?"

"You're one to talk," Wesley couldn't help but reply. Ah, the influence of California teenagers; at least he was swifter with a retort now, if a bit less erudite than before.

"I'm an avatar of Chaos, not Death," Ethan replied, his expression suddenly quite serious. "There is a difference, you know."

Wesley sighed. Ethan's words had the air of an oft-repeated argument, and there wasn't time to deal with it now. "I suggest we complete the mission and worry about the details later. We need to have a serious discussion, but I'd prefer to do it back at the hotel."

Ethan nodded, then shot a glance in his direction and summoned up another mischievous smirk. "Lead on, MacDuff," he misquoted, and began to pick up the pace.

Chapter Seven: Waiting Game

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 1:53 PM (GMT)


Buffy Summers drew spirals on the plate with her fork, idly redistributing leaves of lettuce and cherry tomatoes. The clock on the wall said it was nearly two and the angle of the sun also hinted 'afternoon', but her stomach still insisted it was only six a.m. and she hadn't been out Slaying in a couple of days. Her body liked to binge when she'd been burning energy, but since Wes had disappeared everything had been hurry up and wait. The thought of a full meal made her faintly nauseous.

Speaking of waiting, she mused to herself, where the hell was everyone, anyway? The only one she'd seen since leaving her room an hour ago was Xander, and he didn't count; she'd seen the faint lavender tint in the brown of his eyes, and knew he'd taken the Orbs out of storage. Through trial and error (and an awkward patrol that had left them trapped underground together for several hours) they'd discovered he needed much less sleep when 'invulnerable'. It was just like him to use an artifact of Power just to avoid a few hours of Z's; of course, if Dawn figured it out, she was going to kick his ass for that 'nap' speech earlier.

Hmmm. Now that would be fun to watch.

"Whatcha thinkin' about, Buff?" the object of her idle thoughts asked, dropping carefully into the chair across from her. He was much more careful with furniture now that he could break it with hardly a thought.

She sighed and dropped her fork onto the plate with a clatter, then propped her chin up in one hand and looked across the table at him. "Just that I'm really bored," she said. "Did you get a hold of Wesley?"

"Nope," he said, with a careless shrug. "I must have called his room a dozen times. Ethan's, too; Giles told me what his usual aliases were, and sure enough, he's registered under one of them. Anyway, neither of them is answering."

"Figures. We come all this way, and we're stuck doing nothing? We could have got a full night's sleep and then caught a plane." Dawn was the current master of pouting and sulking in the Summers household, but she had, after all, learned it somewhere. Buffy hadn't had much reason to practice it lately, but she felt somewhat justified indulging now. Besides, it gave Xander the perfect chance to do what he did best: cheering her up.

"Aw, come on, Buff." He widened his eyes and gave her an encouraging smile. "You can't tell me you weren't dying to know what they serve on Red-Eye flights. And 'Dracula 2000'? You know you didn't get enough chances to mock that movie when it first came out."

"Don't fuck with an antiques dealer," she quoted sternly, then let a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. "You know, we ought to get Giles to say that next time he patrols with us. He used to have antiques in his shop, right?"

"If not, I'm sure he did when he worked at the museum," Xander answered, bending his attention to the remnants of his own lunch. Club sandwich, 'chips'-- what did Brits call potato chips anyway, if 'chips' was what they called French fries?-- and a milk shake; he was a bottomless pit when it came to food, no matter what time it was.

"You want my salad?" she asked him, pushing her plate away with her thumbs. "I'm not really hungry; it's still morning to me."

"You sure?" He dipped a 'chip' in the little catsup bowl, then popped it whole into his mouth. "You haven't eaten much since yesterday morning."

"Slayer metabolism, I'm fine." She scowled at him. "And don't talk with your mouth full, it's kinda gross."

"Ma'am, yes ma'am," he mocked, with a half-salute and a mischievous grin. "So, does that mean your grocery bill's gonna go up, or down? Now that Dawn's all Slay-gal, I mean."

"Oh, God, I don't know." She covered her face with her hands, trying not to slip into those worries again. "From what Faith says, every Slayer's different, although I don't know how seriously I should take her comparisons with Wes. It's not like he got his powers the normal way."

"'Course not," Xander said, cheerily. "Since when did any of us ever do things the normal way? I mean, look at us. Two Slayers, a justice demon, two Wiccas, an Elemental mage, a part-demon Seer, a demon Champion, and then me. An 'empowered human', I think Giles said." With each person named, he ticked off another finger, until nine of them were raised, all but one thumb. "And all of us but Groo were 'normal' humans at some point during our lives. Pretty cool, huh?"

She laughed, and lowered her hands, crossing her arms on the surface of the table. "Somehow, I doubt you were ever normal, Xand."

"Yeah, well." He shrugged. "I think it was the clown that did it. I mean, clowns are just evil, you know? It traumatized my growing psyche at a vulnerable point in my childhood." His voice got more theatrical as he went, and he pressed a hand to his heart for good measure.

"It certainly did nothing for your sense of humor."

Buffy and Xander both looked up and found Giles looming above them, looking grumpier than usual.

"Hey, G-Man," Xander greeted him. "You look surprisingly un-rested. What's the what?"

The older man sank into the empty chair at Buffy's left. "I had another dream about Faith. I rather suspect I'm only getting the echoes of what Wesley's seeing, and none of it's pleasant. How are you faring, Buffy?" He turned his face to her with the question, and she could see the dark circles under his eyes.

She shook her head. "Not good, Giles. Lots of darkness and dread. I get the feeling that whoever's stalking her means to kill me, too, but I'm not getting any clear images."

"And hey, that's what I'm here for, right?" Xander joked. "I'm like Death repellent when it comes to Slayers."

"Xander," Giles growled, the lines on his face deepening into a frown.

Buffy shot her friend a look-- Enough, can't you see he's stressed?-- then laid a hand on her Watcher's arm. "It's okay, Giles. We'll get to her in time. But we gotta find Wesley first. He's not in the hotel, and neither is Ethan."

"I hadn't expected them to be," he replied, with a sigh. "It is midday, after all. Once Willow and Tara awaken we can try a location spell..."

"I thought you said we could do that mystic Slayer thingie," she objected. 'Once they awaken' meant more time waiting, and every minute they waited was a moment they weren't rescuing. The idea of Faith in Council hands made her skin crawl whenever she thought about it, and the idea of Wes on the loose and possibly captured, too, made it worse. They'd been careful to keep the truth of what had happened to him from being public knowledge; if the Council found out, there'd be hell to pay. And he'd be the one to suffer for it.

"That 'mystic Slayer thingie', as you so charmingly put it," Giles admonished her, "requires the presence of Dawn, and I rather doubt she'll be up before they are. When you... came back, the magics identified you and Dawn as one and the same-- you count as one Slayer, mystically speaking, and I can't make it work when you're apart. In fact, that's part of the reason we had so much trouble last year. Did you think I'd begun training both of you at once simply for the sake of convenience?"

"Calm down, Giles, and have some coffee. You're not much fun before caffeine in the morning." Xander waved at one of the wait staff, then snagged Buffy's plate and took her up on the offer of the salad. He speared three cherry tomatoes on his fork, then pulled them off one by one with his teeth and ate them with an exaggerated display of enjoyment.

Giles sighed, aggrieved, and Buffy couldn't help but smile at both of them. They might be sitting in a hotel restaurant in London, but they made it feel surprisingly like home for her. "So, can I call up to their rooms, then?"

"In another hour or so," Giles answered, with an apologetic glance. "I understand your impatience, but they need time to rest if we're to expect much from them." He blinked then, green-hazel eyes puzzled behind the glasses he still wore when he couldn't be bothered to put in contacts, and glanced at the empty fourth chair. "Incidentally, why isn't Anya here? I wouldn't have thought she'd need more sleep."

"Justice call," Buffy informed him, then paused to smile at the woman who came to take Giles' order and refill their water glasses. "Mmmm, thirsty." She took a long sip when the woman left, then set the glass down, tracing a finger around the rim. "She said it wouldn't take her too long. Something about a teenager who got scorned the morning after-- it was like eight on the east coast when she left. Um, an hour ago? Something like that."

Xander made a face. "I really wish she would stop doing that. I know she hasn't killed or maimed in like forever, not since she went back to being a demon, but sooner or later she's gonna get stuck. That boss of hers, D'Hoffryn? Not a nice guy, from what she says, and I can't imagine she's making him happy."

"She's a big girl," Buffy said. "And you know she'd kick you if she heard you say that."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Nobody appreciates me anymore." He faked a pout of his own, giving the remnants of the salad the full brunt of his puppy-dog look.

"Of course not!" A fourth voice joined their little group, and Buffy looked up to find Cordelia Chase in full Society Woman mode, dressed as richly as she could afford and armored with make-up and a light floral perfume. "It's your job to appreciate us, didn't you know?" She flashed perfectly white teeth in a quick smile, then sank into the empty chair.

"Morning, Cordelia," Buffy greeted the other girl. "It looks like England agrees with you. Where's your better half?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Still in the bathroom. I swear, he's nearly as vain as Angel sometimes; he's having trouble with his hair today. Where's everybody else?"

"Abed or abroad," Giles informed her, warming his hands around his coffee mug. "We'll give them another hour, then call everyone down and perform a locator spell. If all goes well, we should be able to reach Faith sometime this evening; I rather doubt they have taken her more than a few hours from the city."

"I hope you're right," Cordy said. "Wes was-- you didn't hear him. He sounded calm on the phone, like nothing could touch him, and he always gets reckless when he's like that."

"Sounds like someone else we know." Buffy glanced at Giles, remembering times when Giles had acted that way. Was it a Watcher thing, or just something that happened when the alternatives were so bad that you stopped caring what happened to you? She'd been pretty crazy herself a couple of times. That last moment with Glory came to mind, for example.

"I think all of us are like that, sometimes," Xander spoke up, looking remarkably introspective. "That night when Jack O'Toole..." He trailed off, then shook his head dismissively. "Given the choice of being reckless or letting myself get scared into paralysis, I think I'd pick the danger pretty much every time."

Cordy snorted. "Like that's news. I'm surprised I don't get more visions on your behalf, the way you rush into trouble. It's a good thing you got those Impervious things, although I wouldn't be surprised to find that there was something weird about you already. You've always healed up pretty fast from all those Slayage catastrophes."

Buffy glanced up at the clock again, losing track of the others' conversation. 2:17 and 30 seconds, 2:17 and 35 seconds, 2:17 and 40 seconds... "Has it been an hour yet?" she sighed, slipping back into Bored-Buffy mode.

"I'm afraid..." Giles began to reply, then trailed off into silence. As his voice failed, a heavy chill settled in Buffy's veins. "Oh, dear Lord..."

"I hate when he says that," Xander muttered, in the sudden quiet.

Whatever it was that was weighing her down, Giles obviously felt it, and it was bad. To Buffy, it felt like half her body had suddenly gone numb, a subliminal awareness of other suddenly vanished without warning. Something had happened to Wesley or Faith, then, or maybe both. "Forget the hour, I'm calling now," she said around the sudden lump in her throat, and pushed her chair back. "We are not going to be too late."

"And what if we already are?" Cordelia asked, eyeing her and Giles with a worried expression.

"Not gonna happen," Buffy repeated, firmly. "There's a Prophecy, remember? And we're all gonna fulfill it."

"I hope you're right," Giles said, then repeated himself in a quieter voice. "I hope you're right."

Chapter Eight: Magic Word

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 2:02 PM (GMT)


It occurred to Ethan Rayne, roughly thirty paces from the stairwell, that the complex they had entered was unlike any Council property he had ever seen. Between his early familial contacts, his antics with young Ripper, and his attempts to woo his old friend back after the debacle of Randall's death, he had visited more than a few of the Watchers' outposts. They invariably stank of nobility, money, and power, accessorised with antique furniture, thick burgundy carpeting, and vast libraries full of artefacts and ancient tomes. This place, by contrast, was less 'Imperial pedigree' and more 'industrial laboratory'. The difference was disquieting, to say the least.

"It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Travers has been in contact with the Americans," he muttered, frowning as sense memory brought back echoes of the years he'd spent in captivity.

Wesley's grip tightened briefly on his arm in a wordless rebuke for disturbing the silence, then abruptly slackened. He shot Ethan a sideways, questioning look, then removed his dark glasses with his free hand and scanned their surroundings more thoroughly. The walls were white and smooth-- or would have been, without the visual interference of the invisibility spell-- and devoid of decoration; the tile underfoot was smooth and polished, trailing echoes of their footsteps behind them. There were discreetly placed cameras everywhere, and the open doors they passed exposed offices and labs full of humming equipment.

"The Initiative?" he inquired, an unexpected flash of sympathy in his eyes.

Ethan shook his head, dismissing the younger man's concern with a grim little smile. He hadn't lived over twenty years as a Chaos Mage without being a survivor; the last thing he needed was a dose of the White Hat concern for broken things. "Never mind. Have you been here before?" he asked, redirecting the whispered conversation.

Wesley blinked at him, blue eyes open and vulnerable without the shield of his glasses to obscure them. "No, although I know my fath-" He swallowed, then began again, careful to keep his voice down. "Richard Wyndam-Pryce came here often. He made frequent mention of the depth and breadth of the research they undertook here, discoveries they made that took decades to filter out to the Council at large, but he never discussed them in detail. When Cyril and I completed our training and word came that he was to be sent here, I thought he would make a more reliable contact--"

"So he isn't actually a chum of yours?" Ethan shot another look at the mousy little man scurrying ahead of them, and the uneasiness his felt in this place eased upward another notch. Interesting, that Wesley had been thinking of strategy even at his most useless... but not particularly applicable to the matter at hand. Perhaps it was just the setting putting him on edge, but his instincts had yet to fail him in matters of survival, and they were telling him that something was very wrong.

Wesley frowned. "He was a friend, yes, although not a close one. Why do you ask? He has never given me any reason to mistrust him."

Unlike you, he didn't say, but Ethan knew the sentiment was there. He glanced up at the ceiling again, letting his gaze linger on the dark eye of the camera placed at the next juncture of hallways. "How do you think he planned to sneak you in here, before I intervened?" he asked.

"A disguise, perhaps? Or he may have diverted the camera feeds." Wesley's tone was dismissive, but his eyes followed Ethan's to the camera, and the grip on Ethan's arm tightened.

Ethan winced. He forgot, at times, the changes Wesley had undergone in the past month; apparently, there were times when Wesley forgot, as well. There would be bruises down to the bone by the time they left this place. "He said 'risky for one'," he continued, "but no matter what disguise he intended to use, the cameras would have caught you. You know they'll have a Watcher on the feed if a significant project is underway. If he's afraid of the system administrator discovering his use of a printer…."

"Then he can't have adjusted the cameras." The frown marring Wesley's features tightened momentarily into a scowl, then melted into a frighteningly blank intensity. "Very well. If he meant for me to walk into a trap, then by all means, let us not disappoint him."

"Us?" Ethan objected. If the younger man was going to play martyr, he did not want to be involved in it. His personal concept of responsibility might stretch farther than it used to, but that was a bit more than he was prepared to give. "You'd better be bloody sure that we'll make it out again; I didn't follow you here just to end up in a cell again."

"No, you came to help Faith, didn't you?" Wesley murmured, a trace of sarcasm in his tone. "I'm still not quite sure I believe that... but don't get your knickers in a twist. I doubt anything the Council could plan would be able to hold me, anymore. They have no idea what I'm capable of."

Ethan blinked, feeling the echoes of history pressing on him again, this time from a different era. "You sound very much like Ripper did, once upon a time. And he was back in the fold within the year."

"You'll just have to trust me," Wesley said blandly, and then closed the conversation with a dismissive frown.

An uneasy silence accompanied them down a few more maze-like passages, until Cyril came to a halt before a door labelled with a plaque that read "419". There was a passcard reader on the wall next to the door knob, and he swiped a small rectangle of plastic through it while Ethan stared at the plaque in amusement. Someone had scribbled a series of foreign characters beneath it, and despite the obvious signs of a thorough scrubbing and repainting, the message was still clearly legible.

"Does that honestly say..." Wesley whispered, his attention also caught by the graffiti.

Cyril was close enough to hear them, now, and threw an irritated look back over his shoulder at the space of air they occupied. "Bloody Americans. Travers had several of them over for a collaborative project several months ago, and they were a bit fond of practical jokes. They used some sort of magically durable ink, and I haven't found a way to negate it yet."

"They wouldn't have been from the Initiative, would they?" Ethan asked, his good humour dissipating into suspicion again. "This entire setup has their stamp all over it."

At the name "Initiative", Cyril swallowed and went suddenly pale; at the word "setup" he flinched visibly, and took a hasty step backward toward his desk. "Ah, actually... I was only peripherally involved with their project; I can't say for sure where they were visiting from..."

His hip connected with the desk. He looked down at its crowded surface, then grabbed at a stack of jewel cases and began hastily sorting through them. "Oh! Ah, um, I think I put it... Yes, it was this one. Just, just take it and go, all right?" The little researcher was starting to sweat, and something in his eyes looked a little wild. The cautious, helpful man he'd been until Ethan had mentioned the Initiative was gone, subsumed by fear.

"I thought you said you still had to burn it for us?" Wesley asked, sharply. He did not move to take the CD from Cyril's hand; instead, he took a slow step backward, pulling Ethan with him back out into the hallway.

Cyril drew in a sharp breath; it almost sounded like a sob. "If you knew, then why did you come? I didn't want to do it, you have to believe me, but... this is the CD, I could have brought it to the surface, but if I didn't get you to come down here..."

"Cyril, what have you done?" Wesley hissed.

The other man threw the CD toward him, suddenly, and lunged for something under the lip of his desk; a button, probably, like the security alarms at banks. "Just go," he replied, staring desperately through the doorway in their direction.

The CD hit the boundary of Ethan's spell and abruptly disappeared from Cyril's view, joining the two men in the light-bending bubble that hid them from the cameras. Ethan made an abortive grab for it, but Wesley was already in motion and quickly tucked the thing inside his jacket.

Without further discussion, they both backed further from the doorway and turned to face the direction they'd come from. It was-- Ethan checked his wristwatch-- 2:17, and it had taken them fifteen minutes to get there from the surface. How long would it take the security teams to locate them? There were ways of finding intruders who couldn't be seen, and he had no doubt the Watchers would use all of them...

As if aware of his train of thought, the invisibility shield flared wildly and dissipated in a sudden prism of colour. It wrenched sharply at his stomach, filling him with an abrupt sensation of loss. It was disorienting and alarming... but not as much as the sound he heard immediately afterward. Somewhere in his vicinity, an electrical force field had just gone up.

"Wesley," he began to say, by way of warning... but somewhere, someone obviously believed he hadn't enough to deal with yet; Wesley's fingers slipped from his arm and the man went down like a ton of bricks. The colour had all fled his face, leaving him an unhealthy shade of grey, and his eyes had rolled back in his head. Whatever magical effect had wrenched at Ethan had felled Wesley like a tree. So much for trusting him to get them out.

"Bugger!" With electrical fields between him and any ordinary exit, normal escape would not be possible, even if he were still invisible. He could not drag Wesley all that way. If there were ever a time to invoke Janus in his later incarnation-- the Roman god of doorways and of transportation, rather than his earlier manifestation as Chaos-- this was it. It had gotten Ethan out of the compound in Nevada once the drugs had ceased to affect him, though at great personal cost; this would be worse, but he could survive it. It would be better than being imprisoned again.

Swiftly, he knelt beside Wesley's fallen form and pulled a small knife from his pocket. He made a quick slash across Wesley's palm and then his own, and began sketching symbols on the floor around them as he chanted furiously. The full ritual was meant to take several minutes, but if he worked as fast as he could...

In mid-symbol, with one-quarter of the spell complete, he faltered to a stop. He was using blood magic, potent magic, and he had yet to feel the pressure of it rising or the faint feeling of being watched that always hailed the attention of his patron deity. Nothing was happening. Nothing. In a place like this, under a prehistoric worship site and surrounded by centuries of mystical research, that should have been impossible.

"Null space. They've mastered bloody null space!" That would be a far more effective containment of the magically gifted than any drug. And for those whose magic was their nature... He had only to look at Wesley to see the results of that. The man had wilted like a plant cut off at the root. What would happen if they brought a potential Slayer to a place like this? Or Faith herself?

What would happen to him if he couldn't get out?

A cluster of footsteps approached, echoing along the smooth, tiled floor, promising him the answer to that question. A spike of fear washed through him, followed by fury, and he wished again that he'd heeded his instincts at the beginning of this little jaunt.

"Sir, put down the knife and move away from Mr. Wyndam-Pryce."

Well, there was one consolation about this mess; they hadn't been expecting him. They didn't know him. And he hadn't survived all these years with only Chaos as his defence.

"You didn't say the magic word," he said mildly, and looked up at the security team with his most calculating smile.

Chapter Nine: Wishing for Justice

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:15 AM EST (2:15 PM GMT)


"What do you mean, done?" The girl's voice was high and petulant, and she wrung her handkerchief in her hands as she spoke. "And what just happened to your face?"

Anyanka felt almost sorry for the kerchief, but even sorrier for herself; it had taken her over an hour to get the silly chit to wade through her so-called tragedy to the wishing part, and the well of tears still hadn't dried up. "I meant, your wish is granted," she said, giving the girl a small, tight smile. "He won't know the touch of a woman ever again. And I guarantee that he'll know you're the reason why."

Happily, she didn't add. It hadn't exactly been his fault that the girl had gotten her feelings hurt; all he'd ever been guilty of was 'talking while male', from what Anyanka could tell. So he'd go through a life-change a little abruptly-- better than lifelong celibacy, she thought, and she'd bet most men with a sex drive would (eventually) agree.

Had the wishes always been that way? Eleven hundred years of serving up vengeance, and she'd never thought to ask if the victims deserved it. Well, so maybe that wasn't true. She'd thought about it a little, when the same woman kept calling her time after time... but she'd always put the female first. It just seemed so unbalanced in retrospect. Why wasn't there a patron saint of scorned men? Oh, right: because they'd be too manly to call on him for help. Stupid humans. They were all idiots.

Well, except for the ones who sometimes weren't. And maybe that was the real reason for her irritable mood; all kinds of things could have been happening in England while she was gone. If her co-workers and business partners-- friends-- were going to risk themselves saving Faith, then she wanted to be in on the action. She couldn't use the Wish without reason, but she could still cast a mean spell or two. Stupid D'Hoffryn and his stupid quotas; she should never have taken this call.

"Ohmigod!" the girl gasped, a stunned expression on her face. The embroidered square of cloth she'd been abusing fluttered unnoticed to the floor as she clapped both palms to her pale cheeks. Anyanka braced herself for all the 'Wait a minute, I didn't really mean...' arguments that she sometimes got at that point, but the girl's next words surprised her.

"You're, like, some kind of genie or something?" The hands came down off the teenager's cheeks to clasp at her scantily-clad bosom, and her voice trembled with excitement. "And you punished him for me? Oh, wow. I didn't think that happened in real life! Do I get two more wishes now? 'Cause I'm thinking, you know, Hugh Jackman..."

And they thought I was shallow, Anyanka thought darkly. "Do I look Arabic to you?" she snapped, rising from her chair and snatching up her purse in preparation to leave.

"What?" The girl flinched, her face falling with the sudden shift in mood. "I don't understand..."

"Next time you want to make a wish, do the world a favor, and don't. You have no idea of the forces you're messing with." What kind of fairy tales did they teach these days, anyway? Who in their right mind would want to summon a djinni? Anyanka shook her head, slid her purse strap on her shoulder, and exited the house as quickly as she could. Once the front door had slammed shut behind her, she tried to clear her thoughts for teleport back to England. Finally.

Of course, it wasn't that simple. She had more than her own thoughts to deal with; when she was in demon form, some part of her mind was always aware of every scorned woman on the planet. Their pain echoed in her mind like a choir of voices all trying to catch her attention. She could ignore them most of the time unless they performed the actual Anyanka-summoning ritual, but they never went away, and sometimes they were annoying enough to distract her from whatever she was doing. Hence, the serving of women who hadn't deliberately called her. This time, there was one voice that just would not let her concentrate.

Oh! It was because she knew the voice. Faith! She was picking up fear, worry, outrage-- something was going on, and it was about time, too. If Faith had woken up vengeful earlier, they could have wrapped up the whole mess hours ago. So much for the Scooby cavalry, Anyanka thought, and permitted herself a grim smile. With a little creativity, she could have everyone back home in time for dinner. One Slayer rescue, coming right...

Nothing. Blankness. Silence. Anyanka froze as Faith disappeared entirely from her internal radar as suddenly as she'd appeared, along with a few dozen other dim voices that she only really noticed in their absence. There was no death cry, no dimming as if they had fallen unconscious, just silence. Something really bad had just happened, and she had no idea what it was.

"...Hello? So, are you just playing statue now, or what?"

Anyanka blinked back to awareness and turned to see the teenager in the open doorway, staring at her. She glared back, took several steps away along the sidewalk, then gathered her energy again and focused on the London hotel. Between one breath and the next, she vanished from the walk and reappeared in her shared room.

"Anya!" Another irritating teenage voice broke in on her concentration, and Anyanka almost bit the girl's head off--metaphorically, of course-- before she realized it was Dawn and not the stupid girl she'd left behind. Buffy's little sister had still been asleep when she left, but something had happened to wake her up. She was sitting up on her bed, still dressed in pajamas, with a startled expression on her face.

"Not now, Dawn," Anyanka said sharply, letting her face smooth back into her human features. "Something's happened to Faith; I've got to find Buffy and Giles."

Dawn sighed and rolled her eyes, then reached for the suitcase at the foot of her bed and started digging for fresh clothes. "They already know," she said, in a tired voice. "Buffy called up here a second ago wanting the rest of us to come downstairs; she said something was up. I mean, I guessed already, because she woke me up out of this nightmare... Wait a minute. How'd you know?"

It figured. That made twice that morning she'd thought she could be useful, and got upstaged by something else. Of course the Slayers would already know when something happened to one of them. "She was there one second, all vengeful and angry, and the next she was just-- gone. I didn't even have time to find out where she was. I don't think she's dead; it's more like when Amy was trapped... Oh, why am I explaining it to you?" Anyanka threw her hands up in agitation and took a few steps toward the door.

"Wait up!" Dawn yelped, hastily tugging on a pair of jeans and a slightly wrinkled lavender tee shirt that announced she was 'Rated P for Princess.' "Let me come with you! It'll just take me a second to get ready!"

"Okay, but hurry. This is important."

"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying! Just let me..." Dawn shoved her feet into a pair of thick-soled leather sandals and dashed into the bathroom. Less than a minute later she was back out, still a little disheveled-- she hadn't had time for make-up-- but her hair was smooth and her face looked freshly washed. "Okay. Let me grab my jewelry, and I'm good to go."

"That's got to be a record," Anyanka said, making a show of checking her watch. "So, are they still in the restaurant?"

Dawn nodded. She grabbed her keycard off the dresser, followed by a collection of small silver things from the nightstand, and trailed Anyanka out into the hall. "Yeah. They've been down there awhile, I guess-- I'm not sure when Buffy left the room. But she said they were still at the table when whatever it was happened."

Anyanka frowned, running the 'whatever' through her thoughts a few more times. The only time she'd ever felt anything like it before had been during large-scale human-caused disasters, like a bombing or a riot or a group execution. Things like earthquakes didn't carry the same weight-- people were angry at God or at the world, not men, and that didn't exactly fall under her purview. But, mass murder-- not that she'd put it past the Council, but something about the situation seemed off.

"Did Buffy specifically mention Faith?" she asked, still trying to mentally connect the dots. "Or just that something happened? Because she wasn't the only one it happened to. Dozens of voices cried out in pain, and then were silenced. Maybe they got the Potentials, too."

Dawn stared at her with wide eyes as they got onto the lift, stabbing absentmindedly at the correct button as though it were an afterthought. "Okay, now there's a disturbing thought," she said, with a little shudder. "Now you've got me thinking about honking death rays. I really hope that's not what happened; everyone's freaked enough as it is. I mean, the Council needs smashing anyway, but we need people thinking, not going kamikaze."

"Death rays?" Now it was Anyanka's turn to stare. Didn't these people understand by now that she had a weak grasp of pop-culture references?

"You know, the great disturbance in the Force? Alderaan? The Death Star?" Dawn arched her eyebrows, then lifted out of her mood long enough to give a short laugh. "Come on, I know Xander made you watch Star Wars."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Anyanka objected, still a little confused.

"Never mind." Dawn shook her head, hiding her face behind a fall of silky brown hair, and started putting on the jewelry she'd grabbed. She wore a silver cuff over the curve of cartilage on one ear, a black-and-silver band around one toe, a funky watch, and a chunky cross necklace. Nothing that required any piercing, which had made her big sister happy, but enough to catch the eye and assuage teenage vanity.

Anyanka sighed. "You're deflecting," she muttered. "Classic Xander. You shouldn't use him as a role model, you know." Grown-up or not, she still had flashes of resenting her ex. If he hadn't been so good at the deflecting thing, it could have saved them months of pointless wedding plans and a way-too-public dumping at the altar. Not to mention preventing her from lending the Wish to a bunch of stupid teenagers who thought every bout of indigestion was Cupid's arrow.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm not deflecting, you made an accidental quote. Besides, Xander? Totally role-model material. I mean, brave, loyal, strong? Has the occasional really great plan?"

"Plan? We have a plan?"

Anyanka blinked at the new voice, surprised to find that they'd reached their chosen floor already. The doors had slid open, revealing a pair of tired Scoobies standing a few paces out in the hall.

"Willow, Tara. Hey. How'd you get down here before we did?" Dawn complained.

Magic, Anyanka thought, but didn't say. The two witches looked as tense as she felt, but better put-together than Dawn; they'd probably used magic to get dressed in a hurry. Or Tara had, anyway. These days, the red-haired witch used her power like a battery and let her girlfriend actually cast the spells, which was more than OK in Anyanka's book. She encountered very few humans who could be a danger to her demon form, and Willow-with-no-brakes had rated pretty high on that list.

"Dawnie." Willow smiled at Dawn, then yawned and hid her mouth behind one hand; the other hand clutched at one of Tara's. The blonde witch smiled fondly at her girlfriend, then shrugged her shoulders in Dawn's direction.

"Buffy said we should hurry," Tara said simply, then let her gaze slide past Dawn to Anyanka. "Did she tell you what's w-wrong?"

"Something happened to Faith," Anyanka told her.

"Something bad, we think," Dawn added, and skipped past the others toward the restaurant. "Buffy wasn't sure exactly what."

"Of course not," Willow said, with a sigh. "I hope Giles remembered to reserve a private conference room-- I'll need a place to hook in my computer if I'm going to hack the Council's records, and Tara will need a table for the locating spells."

Anyanka rather doubted that the spells would work. But then, it couldn't hurt to try. And really, what else could they do, at that point?

A flicker of something at the edge of her awareness answered her question for her. "Wait-- I can feel her again! Whoever's holding her just made a big mistake."

"Anya?" Tara questioned.

She felt the crinkle of flesh as her face resumed its demon aspect, and she flashed a triumphant smile at the other girls. "Tell Giles I've gone to grant Faith's Wish," she said, and focused her concentration inward.

The hotel vanished with one quick thought.

Chapter Ten: Movers and Shakers

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 6:49 AM PST (2:49 PM GMT)


"...get this straight. You misplaced m'nephew, you haven't found his Slayer yet, the Chaos Git is lurkin' about, and now Demon Girl's vanished. Bloody good job, Rupert. Congratulations. I thought you were meant to be finding people, not losin' 'em."

Angel blinked his way back to consciousness, staring up at the underside of the kitchen floor and trying to make sense of the half-heard conversation. Rupert? Spike was talking to Giles? Now there was a recipe for civility. Normally they got along about as well as Spike and Angel did-- in other words, they didn't.

There was a sudden crash from above, followed by the tinkle of broken glass, and a few sharp British swearwords polluted the air.

"...'S nothing vital. Don't worry about it. Now, why don't you tell me... No. No, Rupes, don't pass the... Slayer! Good morning, luv. No, I don't know why he passed the... Sod it. So I dropped a box of dishes. It's not like you'll be usin' 'em in the Poof's hotel anyway... Now don't get your knickers in a twist..."

Angel rolled his eyes at the familiar nickname, then smirked as he listened to Buffy's rejoinder. When she really got going, she could wield words as well as any other weapon, and there was nothing quite like a Slayer in full snit. Since the dishes in question had been her mother's, she had a lot to say about it, too.

Dishes. His smile faded as he considered that, and he swung his legs off the makeshift bed and eyed the muffled line of light in the basement windows. It was very early-- or late-- for a vampire to be moving around up there. What was Spike up to, anyway? It wasn't like him to be that industrious.

"...ream me out yourself next time, she doesn't know when to pull her punches. So what were you callin' us about, then? Considerin' the hour, I don't buy you wanting to check up on our progress, and there's not much we can do about the lost ones from here."

Spike's voice had gone quiet and rough with the last few sentences, a tone Angel recognized from past episodes of 'William's Worried About Dru'. He still held firm to the belief that Spike was more evil than not, but he had to admit that the blond vampire did care for the ones that he called family. Dawn had fallen into that category early on, as did Buffy for reasons best left untouched, and since last month's revelations he'd apparently added Wesley to the list. Now, whether he'd turn them if he ever got the chip out, then kill and drain the ones he didn't care for... that was the question that needed asking, and part of what they'd fought over the night before.

Angel felt almost responsible for the younger vampire's choices, since he'd acted more as sire to him than Dru ever had-- and that was exactly why he was so suspicious of him. Angelus hadn't exactly been known for his goodness, and Spike didn't have a soul to counteract that training or his inherent bloodthirsty instincts. What possible incentive could Spike have to truly switch sides?

Giles sighed on the other end of the phone, and Angel could hear the faint familiar sound of cloth moving over glass. "I was wondering if Angel had heard from the Las Vegas contingent yet? I have a number of contacts left to try, but anything Lorne could add would be helpful, and we thought that perhaps Jonathan might have better luck tracking his father than we have. Given that Ethan apparently left the hotel at the same time as Wesley this morning, we suspect that they may have ended up at the same location."

Spike's footsteps moved across the kitchen again as he listened, and a few heavy thuds suggested more boxes being shifted into the living room. "I don't know. I haven't seen Peaches in a few hours, I went out patrolling and he was asleep when I got back. And before you ask, I didn't see a sodding thing, but that's pretty much what you expected, innit...? Wait a mo', there's a note here on the counter. Looks like they called about three hours ago to tell Angel they were on their way. I don't remember how far Vegas is, though. Why didn't you try callin' 'em direct?"

"I've tried Lorne's mobile, and Jonathan's, but they both appear to have been turned off," Giles replied. "And it's about four and a half hours by the posted limits. If they ignored the signs, and I don't see why they wouldn't, they could be there at any time. You must have them call me as soon as they arrive."

Angel sighed at Giles' estimate, then stood and brushed the creases out of his clothes and ran his fingers through his hair to check for flat spots. He'd intended to sleep through most of the day and get up to help the movers in the late afternoon, but there wasn't any way he was going back to sleep now. Not with Spike marching around upstairs and more of his crew arriving any minute.

Upstairs, Spike snorted. "Four and a half hours, he says. Done a bit of gambling, have we?"

Giles sighed. "You could just say, 'Yes, Rupert. No problem, Rupert.' And if you must know, I learnt the distance when Buffy left Sunnydale after the debacle with Acathla. I canvassed quite a bit of the country that summer."

"Yes, Rupert," Spike grumbled. "No problem, Rupert. Bend over so I can kiss your bloody arse, Rupert."


"All right, all right. I'll make sure they call. Tell Nibblet hello for me, would you? I'd better get back to the packing, unless there's something else you want."

Giles sighed. "Do try not to break any more of Joyce's china."

There was a final snort from Spike, followed by a faint beep as he ended the call and then a click as the phone went back on the hook. "I didn't exactly mean to break it to begin with," he muttered, and then stomped across the floor with another heavy load.

Angel frowned and headed for the stairs, Giles' mention of Acathla stirring up more of his worries from the night before. Spike on an electronic leash was problem child enough. He had the nagging feeling that wasn't going to last much longer, and he didn't know what they'd do when it failed; he'd always had a problem staking family, and it was still iffy whether they'd try the curse. But for now-- well.

Might as well get as much use out of Spike as he could, and shelve the worry until it was unavoidable. Fighting with him about it wasn't getting them anywhere.

"So what exactly were you trying to do?" he asked, slouching against the jamb of the open basement door.

Spike jumped, nearly dropping the load he carried, and gave his grandsire a narrow-eyed glare. "Didn't see you looming there, Peaches. Thought you were going to get a bit of sleep."

He looked almost human, standing there with his arms full of cardboard boxes and smudges of dust on the dark fabric of his tee shirt and jeans. The windows were still covered, but there was enough ambient light to give his hair a faint glow and lighten up the blue of his eyes. Shansu, Angel thought suddenly, then had to suppress a sudden pang of jealousy. Spike the ambiguous, with the stink of humanity, with half the body count and the viciousness of Angelus; if they did find another Orb of Thesulah and try the curse on him, who was to say who'd reach the redemption line first?

Best not to think on it; that way led to madness and beige auras, as Lorne would say. "It's kinda hard to sleep with you tossing breakables around up here," he replied, crossing his arms and casting his eyes toward the discarded box with a disapproving frown.

Spike twisted his mouth into a half-embarrassed scowl. "Yeah, well. Big boots, slippy stuff on the tiles, bound to happen sometime. Expect you heard me talkin' to Rupert, then?"

"Yeah. Something about company coming? I thought I might as well be up." He shrugged and pushed off of the doorframe, edging further into the room and eyeing the stacks of boxes Spike had lined up to move. "You know, that reminds me, I've been meaning to ask you, why do you get to call him Rupert? You irritate him worse than I do, and I've always called him Giles."

Spike blinked at him, and seemed to take the change of topic as the mood-lightener Angel had meant it to be. "It's a respect thing, I think. You met 'im back when Buffy was new here and he was all Mr. Responsible Librarian, and none of the kiddies dared to use his Christian name." He paused there and raised a dramatic eyebrow, as if to say, and how does this differ from my acquaintance with the man?

Angel chuckled. "Point taken. Okay. So what have you got done? I thought we were going to wait until tonight to finish, but we might as well hurry it up if there's trouble in England. I'd like to join them there as soon as possible."

"'Specially if we're going to have loaders on this end. They can pack it up before lunchtime, and the lot of us can caravan down before nightfall and take an evening flight over." Spike nodded, then adjusted the stack of boxes in his arms and headed for the front room with them. "I've got most everything from this floor stacked up in the living room, where the couch used to be. I'm not sure the blinds are down upstairs, but I was going to try up there next. At least half the rooms will still be in shadow, at any rate."

"Won't we need to leave someone in L.A. to unload?" That was the whole point of packing today, after all; to get the truck there and back again before Monday morning, when late fees would begin to accrue. "Not that I think it's a bad plan." He rolled up the cuffs of his shirt and got a grip on the next stack of boxes. One perk of having vampire movers: you could pack the boxes as big and heavy as you wanted, as long as you were sure the cardboard would hold up.

Spike grunted, rearranging something in the front room, then passed him in the hall with empty arms and rummaged in the kitchen for something else to carry. "Fred and Gunn, maybe," he said. "And we could call Amy back from visitin' her dad. She can play float-the-boxes, and Whiz Girl can organize to her heart's content, and her boyfriend can be all man-of-the-hotel."

Angel winced at the assessment of his friends. "Why do you do that?" he asked, genuinely curious for once about the inner workings of his grandchilde's byzantine brain.

"Do what?" Spike stopped and blinked at him again, all furrowed brow and sharp cheekbones.

"Give people ridiculous nicknames. Sum up their characters in joking little statements. I know Gunn has had problems with everyone else gaining enhancements, but I've been trying..."

Spike waved him off with a frown. "You've been too apologetic with him, is what it is. Of course he's fed up with the kid-glove treatment. And you wonder why I insist on calling you Poof. You're really making a mistake with this not-Angelus attitude. He's still part of you, you know, and there's a lot of what he did that you could learn from without staining your precious White Hat too much."

There were times, Angel thought, when Spike made entirely too much sense. He spent a lot of his time making sure that Angelus stayed in his subconscious where the curse had trapped him, not out on the surface where words could slip and careless actions could hurt his friends. If his darker side could be tamed...

But of course, it couldn't. He had only to remember what he'd been like four years ago during their little revival of the Scourge, or when Rebecca slipped him the Doximal, or last year when Darla came back for him, and it all collapsed back into impossibility. How could he chance that happening again? In some other reality he might have learned balance, but as things were, it would never work.

"That's a slippery slope, William," he said, and winced again at the stress-induced brogue creeping into his voice. "And I'm not going to set foot on it."

"Your loss, mate," Spike shrugged, then gave him an unsettling, entirely too knowing smile.

The tableau held a few more moments, two alpha vampires eyeing each other and remembering exactly why they'd avoided spending any more time together than necessary over the last month. Then, mercifully, the tension was broken by the sound of a car pulling up out front.

"Hey guys. Fred, Gunn? Wake up, we're here."

Jonathan's voice was weary, and none of the others sounded much better as human throats yawned and car doors opened.

"Oh, stop the world, I want to get off," Lorne's plaintive voice drifted into the house. "It's been such a long day already. Think they've got any beds still set up?"

"Wouldn't bet on it," Gunn sighed. "Man, they better have coffee and a shower ready, or I'm going to go on strike."

"Charles," Fred rebuked him, softly.

Angel shook his head, breaking away from Spike's gaze with a rueful smile to head for the front door. He unlocked it, then opened it a crack and took a few steps backward, waiting for his friends to come trooping up the stairs. It felt good to know that some part of his little family was safe, even if others were still in danger. Maybe it was an illusory kind of peace, but it would have to hold him for the next few hours.

They had a lot of work to do.

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.

Chapter Twelve: Tea Time

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 3:58 PM (GMT)


Lydia Chalmers paused outside the door of the 'guest' bedroom, breathing deeply and trying to keep her hands from shaking. It did no good for her image to have the teacups rattling on the tray, no matter how nervous she was.

She could think of only two possible scenarios that she might encounter on the other side of that door. She would either find Faith Lehane dead, willing victim of Travers' poison, or a Slayer enraged, seizing the opportunity of the open door to attempt her escape. Even without her usual strength, the girl was a menace; Lydia had seen Travers' morning reports, and had been impressed by the amount of damage she had wrought. Neither probability was very encouraging, and both had rather negative implications for Lydia's future wellbeing. The probability of a positive outcome was small. Nevertheless...

"I volunteered for this," she reminded herself, then straightened her spine and inclined her head at the Council flunky travelling in her wake. The young man-- Percy, was it?-- pulled a slim golden key from his pocket and turned it in the lock.

The process looked simple, but wasn't-- at least, not ordinarily. No one was quite sure as yet whether static enchantments were affected by the 'void spell' Travers' research teams had finally perfected, or if only biological organisms were magically suppressed. Regardless, the lock was a great deal more substantial than it appeared, both physically and otherwise. Enough to keep all unauthorised persons out, and all disgruntled supernatural beings in.

The tumblers engaged, and Percy gave her a weak smile before withdrawing the key and scurrying hastily out of range. Clearly, he was betting on the she's-alive option; most of the Watchers were. They still planned to stop Faith's heart, of course, but she would make a singularly effective weapon afterward, once she had been re-educated. The only Potential who came close to her level of skill or to Buffy's abilities was Kennedy, and that young woman would be far more useful in the role of trainer than as a fighter. For the next few years, the new Council would still need Faith in the lone warrior's role.

Lydia needed Faith too, although Travers would be surprised if he knew what for. Travers may have taken control of the cream of the Watcher hierarchy and property when he embarked on his multiple-Slayer project, but that didn't mean that all those who accompanied him endorsed his philosophies. Some, like Lydia, functioned as spies, acting on behalf of more conservative groups.

Of course, she admonished herself, she would not have much chance of thwarting Travers if she kept standing here like Schrödinger speculating about the fate of the cat! With a final weak smile for Percy, she balanced the tea tray with one hand and dropped the other to the doorknob.

The wooden portal opened slowly, giving her a narrow view of the room's sparsely furnished, elegant interior. There were no sounds of movement inside, but neither was there a corpse on the bed, and a spark of hope took up residence in the back of her mind. Quickly, she stepped inside, and tried not to flinch as Percy pulled the door shut and locked it behind her.

"Well, well, what have we here?" Yes; Faith was alive, and hadn't lost any of her attitude. "Ol' Rich too busy to follow up himself? What, did they think I wouldn't fight a woman? Lady, I got news for you; after the disaster that was Gwendolyn, I don't give a shit what gender you are."

Lydia turned her head to the right, moving slowly in an attempt to avoid any behaviour that might provoke a violent reaction. Faith's voice was husky with pain and exhaustion, and as the girl came into Lydia's field of vision she could see that the Slayer looked as bad as she sounded. She was pale, marked with livid bruises on her face, arms, and chest, and her immodest clothing undoubtedly concealed many other injuries. Her face was set in a mocking grin, but there was no sparkle in her eyes; they were empty and haunted.

"I am not here to fight you," Lydia said, carefully. "I was sent to ascertain what fate you had chosen, and as the deadline coincided with afternoon tea..." She gestured with the tray.

Faith's eyes widened in disbelief. "What, you think I'm going to just sit down and drink that shit with you? Do I look stupid?"

Lydia allowed herself a small smile. "No. After all, your suspicions are correct; everything on this tray has been saturated with drugs. I was given an antidote before I came." Magic-based, naturally, and possibly ineffective in the magic-less zone that encompassed the house; a 'necessary risk', according to Travers.

Faith looked a bit startled at her bluntness, but the girl's expression closed up again immediately. "And you're telling me this because...?" she prompted, crossing her arms and throwing a suspicious glance at the door. "What, intimidation's not working, so you're gonna try and trick me into trusting you?"

The tray was getting heavier with every moment, but Lydia didn't want to move and risk disrupting the dialogue. She took a deep breath and continued. "I'm fairly certain that that would be a waste of my time; I know of your past history with the Council. You may believe me or not as you choose. All I ask for is that you listen to what I have to say."

"Make her tell you what they did to me, first," a new voice said, very firmly. A familiar voice, actually, one that brought back bad memories of Lydia's one and only trip to Sunnydale.

"Anya Jenkins?" Lydia forgot all about maintaining eye contact and avoiding sudden movement and turned immediately toward the room's third occupant. "What... what are you doing here? This room was sealed, I checked it myself before they brought Faith in... and how on Earth could you know where she was?" Her eyes darted involuntarily to the heavily leaded, barred window, and then back to the angry, determined blonde. "Is, is Rupert Giles with you? Or the other Slayer?"

"Nope. Just me. Buffy told everyone I was an ex-demon when you visited us, don't you remember? Not that I appreciated her revealing my secret, but I thought for sure you would look me up in the Watcher chronicles after you left. I know I'm in them."

"Ah, actually..." Lydia gave up on the tray and set it on the floor to the left of the door, then laced her fingers together in an effort to keep from wringing her hands. "We were rather busy, what with Glory..."

Anya rolled her eyes. "I was a vengeance demon. Anyanka, patron saint of scorned women? Anyway, I'm back in the game now, and even your tiny Watcher mind should be able to guess what I'm doing here."

"V-vengeance?" Lydia blinked at the girl-- demoness-- in shock. This hadn't been in any of Mr. Giles' Watcher Diaries; he'd mentioned Anyanka, yes, but not that she'd somehow become human and joined his little band of civilian associates. What else had the man concealed over the years?

The sound of snapping fingers startled her and drew her attention back toward Faith. "In other words, you don't have any idea why she's suddenly as human as I am?" the Slayer asked, her voice sharpened with annoyance. "At first I thought it was the drugs, but when Anya showed up... Wait. This doesn't make any sense. Why would they send you in here clueless? I mean, two on one odds, if we'd decided to jump you..."

The backhanded reference to the void spell re-centred Lydia somewhat, reducing her confusion. At least that made sense. A vengeance demon's abilities would be blocked by the spell just as any magical being's would, but Anyanka might have had time to teleport in when the spell had been altered earlier in the afternoon. Well. Two would be much more difficult to release than one, but if Lydia could get them outside the boundaries... This changed things, considerably. Putting a stop to Travers' plan might be easier than she had feared, if she had the power of the Wish at her disposal.

"It's a general spell," she explained hurriedly, "not a specific one, and it limits us as much as you; we didn't even know whether you were alive. I doubt anyone knows she's in here. If, If I help you, if I tell you how it was done and get you out of here, will you exempt me from any vengeance you might Wish on the Council?"

At her oblique reference to the goblet of poison, Faith glanced quickly toward its presence on the bedside table. "Explain it to us first," she said warily. "You know, as a gesture of good faith." She snorted at her inadvertent self-referent, then waved her hand toward the bed. "Go on. Sit down. Talk. They don't expect you back out there anytime soon, do they? I mean, since you were bringing tea, and all."

"Actually, they do," Lydia said, with an apologetic frown. "They would expect the tea to render you unconscious almost immediately. I know this must sound suspicious to you, but if you will help me get you out of this house, you'll be outside the boundaries of the void and your abilities should immediately return. The spell takes too much power and preparation to adjust it quickly, so we should have several minutes to make good our escape."

"Void? As in void spell?" Anya raised her eyebrows at Lydia, then cast a shocked glance at Faith. "You mean they've managed to reconstruct a magic-exclusive internally-focussed shield matrix? I hate to break it to you, but we're not going anywhere until they take the thing down. There was a reason the lords of Arashmahar tried to burn all copies of those spells out of existence; they're trap spells. And they don't make any distinction between sub- and super-human sentient beings." Her voice got angrier with every word, until Lydia was sure Percy would hear her out in the hall.

"Like Slayers," Faith said, quietly, and sat down on the bed, a dismayed expression on her face.

"What?" Lydia was in shock. Again. It was supposed to be a simple rescue; well, perhaps not simple, but at least uncomplicated. What more could go wrong? "I've seen Travers' working notes, and there's no mention of traps, or shields, or anything else you've just mentioned!"

"Of course not!" Anya exclaimed. "The documentation got destroyed with the original spells; no one was supposed to ever cast them again. I only know because D'Hoffryn was involved. So, yes, it can trap Slayers. And demons. And werewolves. Even elemental mages like Giles. This thing will catch anyone whose DNA or aura is significantly different from a normal human's. The Church even tried to use them as witch-traps for a few years, but of course most witches and sorcerers aren't different enough from the average person for the spell to hold them, it just stops them making magic. That's irony for you."

Lydia tried to take a step back and fetched up against the wood of the door. Her knees folded and she went down a little heap, finding herself seated on the floor next to the tea tray. "Then we can't stop them," she said, feeling as though all her hopes were crumbling to dust like a newly-Slain vampire. "If you can't get out... They'll kill you, Faith, just for a moment, and then repeat the process with every new Slayer until they can activate no more. Then they'll drug them into obedience. An army of Slayers might sound like a good idea in principle, but under Travers' control..." Her voice faded out in horror.

Faith shuddered. "An evil Slayer army, huh? Figures. From what B said, he's not exactly Boy Scout material."

Lydia sighed. "Travers never forgave Buffy for her attitude when we came to review her before her last confrontation with Glory. She said a number of things that didn't set well with him..."

"'Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them'," Anya quoted, her gloom lifting a little. Apparently, that was a pleasant memory for her. "She really put him in his place."

"Go B," Faith muttered.

"Actually, it was more, 'You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watchin' Masterpiece Theater.'" Lydia reflected back on the surprise of that moment, of Travers' capitulation and his anger afterward. The long flight home had been very unpleasant. "When Rupert returned to England without Buffy that fall-- well, we didn't even have marginal control of her any longer, and as policy at that time forbid arranging Faith's death in prison..."

"He decided to make sure he'd have total control of the rest of the Slayers, for pretty much ever," Faith said, bluntly. "If it works, anyway."

"If? It worked for Buffy," Lydia reminded her. "Kendra was called, then Sherise, then you, and Buffy remained the Slayer throughout. The principle should hold true even when there are nearly fifty of you."

"Sherise?" Faith's eyebrows went up. "That's news to me. There was another Slayer?"

Lydia shook her head. "She was killed in her first active week. That happens to more Slayers than the Council would like to admit."

Faith shook her head. "Damn. But you know, all of this was before the Hellmouth went AWOL and the Prophecy of the Rule went active. What if the rules have changed?" Her tone of voice was lighter now, almost speculative, and she threw another long glance at the pewter goblet.

"The what? I, the Hellmouth is in Los Angeles, yes, we know that, but... AWOL? And what do you mean about the Prophecy of the Rule? I have not heard of it." Lydia just shook her head, feeling the beginnings of a migraine throbbing along the edges of her awareness. This was becoming an unmitigated disaster. She set the heels of her hands to her eyes, and tried to breathe deeply.

"Not many people have," Faith said quietly.

"Oh. Oh!" Anya suddenly exclaimed, a strange excitement in her voice. "The Hellmouth... Do you know how dark this kind of spellwork is? If the Watchers cast very many of them..."

Faith laughed softly. "Guess we're gonna have a English Hellmouth. Wes'll love that."

Lydia opened her eyes again and stared at her. "You can't be serious."

One corner of Faith's lifted in a bitter half-smile, and some of the life returned to her eyes. "Get out of here, Watcher-lady. Get word to G-Man, and Wes; if anyone can help, they can." She turned to Anya next, with a shrug of her shoulders. "Sorry, Ahn; I hope you can get out when they drop the spell. If they've only got it up because of me..." She looked at the goblet again, then took a deep breath, shifted to the edge of the bed, and reached for it.

"Guess I better start trusting the Powers sometime," she muttered, then tossed the contents of the pewter cup back and swallowed.

"Faith!" Anya objected loudly, rushing to her side. "What did you do that for? I was supposed to grant your Wish so everything would be okay!"

"Grant someone else's," the Slayer told her, through black-stained lips.

"Faith..." Lydia didn't know what else to say. What could she say? Faith had chosen Death; there was no salvaging anything, now.

"It's okay," the Slayer whispered, collapsing backward onto the bed. Her head turned toward Lydia, giving the Watcher full view of her face as she paled even further and her lips began to turn blue. "Dreamed... she said... my choice. Five by... five. Be... okay." Her voice went quieter with every word, then fell silent; her eyelids fluttered closed over dark, glazed eyes, and every muscle went suddenly limp.

"She's dead," Anya said, unnecessarily.

Lydia dropped her forehead to her knees and just breathed, crying without tears. What were they going to do now?

Chapter Thirteen: Guarded Optimism

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:00 AM PST (5:00 PM GMT)


It was the emptiness of the house that was getting to Winifred Burkle.

It wasn't really physically empty, of course. Even with the furniture gone, Buffy's house didn't have the echoey stillness that used to live in the upper rooms and back corners of the Hyperion. There were still piles of tightly-packed boxes labeled in forest green Magic Marker, drifts of dust that hadn't yet been swept, and several living (or not) moving beings cluttering up the planes and angles of the architecture.

None of that stopped Fred from feeling as though she were standing in a ruined church, emptied of its inhabitants and its purpose. With every box the boys moved and every swipe of her dusting-cloth over the baseboards, a little more of its soul seemed to fade away. Maybe she was just imagining things-- she'd had too little sleep over the past couple of days and not enough coffee to make up the difference-- but the entire building felt as though it were mourning, and she couldn't help the occasional shiver in response.

Maybe it was mourning. In a town like Sunnydale you never could tell. Maybe something of Joyce had lingered in the spaces between the walls, watching over her daughters after her death, resenting these strangers who'd come to take their things. Maybe it wasn't the fault of some demon or spy that the sales contracts kept falling through...

Fred shook her head with a half-laugh, and turned up the corners of her mouth in embarrassment. "I sure do have a morbid imagination," she scolded herself, then sat back on her heels to brush stray wisps of hair out of her eyes. It had been, oh, hours now since they'd started with the moving and the cleaning, and her once-tidy braid had begun to get its own ideas about organization.

"You say somethin', Fred?" Charles called from the upstairs hall.

"No," she called back, thinking again about all that had gone on in that house-- the tales Angel and Wesley and Faith had told her of the Summers family, of Scooby meetings, and of youth left behind. "Just thinkin' out loud."

"Oh, that's cool," he answered, stomping down the stairs with a couple of garbage bags clutched in his arms. They bulged in strange places, like some kind of demonic egg-sacs, but she knew they probably only held shoes; it wasn't Pylea, after all, even if she sometimes felt like she was still back in that cave, dreaming of the real world. She suppressed a shudder, and gave him a tired smile.

"You almost done with that room?" he continued, returning the smile with cheerful warmth. "We're nearly done packin' the big stuff, if you want to wait and finish the cleaning next week. The quicker we get outta here, the better."

She sighed, set the rag down and stood, dusting her palms on her jean-clad thighs. "Sounds good to me. I should probably check for messages before we go, but that'll only take me a minute... the phone line's still connected, right?"

"Far as I know," he said, with a shrug. "We got a hold of Angel here earlier, right?"

"Oh, right." She laughed softly at herself again, then took a couple of steps away from the wall towards Charles' tall form. "Guess I'm more tired than I thought."

His smile gentled as she approached, and he leaned forward just a bit to meet her as she planted two small hands on his wide, muscled chest and stretched up for a quick kiss. "Mmm. Just a couple more hours, girl. We get to L.A., we can nap on the plane; it's a long flight over."

Fred wrinkled her nose at him. "I don't usually look forward to flying, but I think I'll make an exception this time."

He gave her another quick peck on the lips, then stepped back and adjusted his grip on the garbage sacks. "Did I mention how cute you look in that T-shirt?"

She rolled her eyes. The T-shirt in question was an oversized, wrinkled black thing out of Jonathan's travel bag, adorned with the self-mocking caption, 'Im a pogramar, Iam a programer, I'm a pogramor, I write code.' All but the last phrase were X'ed out. Of course Charles would get a kick out of it. "I thought you said I always look cute?" she teased him.

"You know what I mean." He rolled his eyes, too, then winked and stepped around her, heading out toward the moving truck. She followed him with her eyes, feeling obscurely comforted by his warm, protective presence, then turned to the front door and felt for the car keys in her pocket. Her laptop was still out in the trunk with the rest of their gear.

It didn't take long to retrieve the portable computer, hook it into the phone line, and perch on the counter while the software booted up. Fred didn't think there would be anything of dire importance waiting for her-- everyone knew the phone number of the house, and they all should have cell phones-- but she still felt she should check. The extended Scooby gang wasn't the only group of people she was in contact with, and with everything so topsy-turvy she didn't want to miss any significant information.

There were twenty-three new messages in her e-mail box, but sixteen of them were obvious "Bulk Mail" (the politically-correct name for spam) and four were from the various online message groups she subscribed to. She deleted the junk, transferred the others to a temporary folder, and scrutinized the return addresses on the remaining three. The one from had an enormous attachment, which always made her leery of viruses, but there was no way that title could come from a mass marketer: 'Fwd: Rollright Feed: Pryce, Rayne'. It looked like Willow had found something.

Fred opened the message and set the file to download, then went back to look at the other two while it was busy. Both were from "ghost" addresses, generated by watchdog systems she'd set up-- one at, and the other at The spy software snooped all incoming and outgoing email on those servers for specific names and keywords, something she'd come up with over the last few months with Willow's expert help. She'd never expected what she saw now, though; both messages bore the exact same title. Someone had sent a message from Wolfram and Hart to the Initiative.

"Regarding Hostile 17 and behavioral modification technology," she read aloud, then shivered. "That can't be good."

"Did you say Hostile 17?" An alarmed voice drifted toward her from the kitchen doorway.

Fred bit her lip and looked up to meet Angel's concerned gaze. "Looks like the Initiative isn't as dead as we thought," she said, "or Wolfram and Hart."

"Oh, that's just great." Angel threw up his hands, then strode into the kitchen with a heavy scowl. "With everything else that's going on, of course we need to worry about someone turning off Spike's chip."

She sighed and looked back down at the screen, then clicked on the Wolfram and Hart version of the message. Angel was being a little melodramatic about the whole thing, but then again, he probably had a point. The Spike that Fred had met was a sarcastic, fierce fighter for the Light and an intelligent research partner, but she knew from Angel's alter ego how easily a vampire could shed his 'goodness' and return to his true nature. She shifted a little on the counter, feeling the reassuring length of a stake in the pocket of the shorts Jonathan had lent her, and summarized the text of the message aloud.

"Dear Col. McNamara,

It has recently come to my attention that your Sunnydale facility was not completely destroyed as was previously reported, and that the research and equipment from those premises might still be extant, in some form.

...In the interests of continued cooperation between your superiors and mine, I therefore request any and all information or technology pertaining to the being labeled Hostile 17... The Los Angeles branch of our firm recently had the fortune to acquire him, and we would appreciate a more certain method of controlling his actions.

...You will, of course, receive proper compensation for your assistance.

Lilah Morgan."

Angel swore under his breath, and started pacing back and forth behind her. "Had the fortune? As in past tense? Damn it. When was that message sent?"

Fred checked the timestamp in the message header; it had been sent early that morning, at oh-three-twenty-seven in the morning. She checked the ghost message produced by the Initiative server to make sure there hadn't been a glitch in one of the clocks, and found it stamped at oh-three-thirty-one. "About three-thirty this morning," she said with a frown. "Spike was here that whole time, right?"

"That's just the thing," Angel said, stopping in his tracks to make distressed gestures with his arms and expression. "We had a big fight at two-something this morning, and he went storming out of the house to look for a 'bit of rough and tumble'. What if they caught him, did something to his chip, and returned him just before dawn? He's been a little off today, like he's got something on his mind. If they got to him..." He let his voice trail off suggestively.

"I don't know," she replied, with a pensive frown. "That seems kinda sudden to me. Even if Lilah did happen to show up in Sunnydale at just the right time and grab him, that's really short notice for the Initiative to respond. Besides, he's not all that subtle. If he hasn't started getting violent or killing people..."

"Who hasn't started killing people?" Charles' voice carried into the kitchen, and he poked his head in from the hallway. "Angel? We got trouble? The truck's all loaded, and we got Spike out there in the back with the furniture. Jonathan and Lorne are makin' sure the house is all locked up. Unless there's somethin' going on here, we're ready to go."

Angel glanced at Fred, then at Charles, then shook his head and heaved an unnecessary sigh. "No, I think we're fine. Nothing to worry about-- yet. Hey, why don't you and Fred both ride up front with Jonathan? We can leave the car here, and I'll sit in the back of the truck with Lorne and Spike."

Charles frowned at them both, aware something was up, but he didn't argue. "Yeah, okay. We'll have to come back up next week anyway to get the little stuff, we can get the car then."

Fred checked the download box on the digital video file, and was pleased to see that it had finished. She could always watch it on the way-- she'd call Willow from Jonathan's cell phone if she needed more information. "Just make sure you get everything out of the trunk," she told Charles, and started the process of shutting her computer down.

Angel snorted. "Yeah. We don't want to leave anything important behind, after all the trouble you went to getting it out of Vegas."

Charles sighed. "Okay, no problem. You might as well go on out to the truck; there's shade still, if you hurry. Fred?"

She pulled the modem cord from the wall jack and hurriedly stowed laptop, cord, and power plug in the carrying case she'd brought. "All done," she assured him.

"Good." He took the computer from her and shoo'ed her in the direction of the downstairs bathroom. "We probably won't be making any stops, so... anyway, we'll be waiting out front."

The reminder owed as much to the fact that she tended to forget everything in favor of her current research project as it did to her years in Pylea without amenities; Charles had gotten used to reminding her about the little things, and she'd almost stopped getting embarrassed about them. He was good that way, comforting and strong when she needed him to be, and never made her feel like the outcast she'd been all her life. He made her feel included, part of something, cherished and protected; if she was honest with herself, that was why she'd turned to him instead of Wesley. It hadn't had anything to do with the incident when Billy's violence had possessed Wes and made him attack her, as scary as that had been.

With Wesley they'd have been two of a kind against the world. With Charles, she was just... loved. She had a sneaking suspicion that Faith was now doing the same for Wes, which made Fred feel much better about the whole thing.

Business taken care of, she took a moment to tuck the loose hairs back into her braid and splash some cool water on her tired face. The house had fallen silent around her; everyone else had gone outside, leaving her to secure the front door on her way out.

She paused in the front hall to glance around the bare front room, feeling that 'something of Joyce' again, the grieving spirit she'd imagined earlier. Maybe it was all in her head, but then again, maybe it wasn't. The Summers women had fought evil from their house for five long years, the entire length of Fred's time in Pylea, before falling to forces beyond their control and leaving Dawn behind to mourn them. Buffy had rejoined the living, but Joyce had not, and spirits never slept easily in Sunnydale.

"They're safe, Joyce," Fred said aloud, feeling a little silly. "They're just moving to L.A. They're beautiful, and strong, and they'll going to keep on making you proud. It's okay to let them go now."

Yes, maybe it was all in her head, but she could have sworn the air brightened at her words, and she felt much better going out the front door than she had walking in, hours earlier.

Now, if they could just get Faith back okay, and Wesley, and make sure Spike didn't go crazy on them... Well. It was just another day in their business. Everything would work out OK in the end; it always did. Eventually.

Chapter Fourteen: Potential Problems

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 4:35 PM (GMT)


"This is just like summer camp," Kennedy groaned, and slumped back onto her bed with her pillow over her face. Not that it helped any; with forty-three girls sharing one large dormitory space, things were just a little noisy.

No, scratch that, she thought. It wasn't even like summer camp. At camp she got to ride, hike, canoe, play tennis, water ski, swim... it didn't matter how many girls she had to share her showers and sleeping space with, she could spend most of the day outdoors doing whatever she wanted. Best of all, for those precious weeks she was free of her parents, her Watcher and her rigid daily schedule. This place, on the other hand, was more like her idea of Hell.

It already felt like she'd been here forever, and it had only been four days. Some of these girls had been here for weeks. Whatever else you could say about Travers-- and Thera had said plenty-- the guy did plan ahead. As soon as those lawyers in L.A. had magicked the Hellmouth away from Sunnydale, he'd started reeling the Potentials in hand over fist. Thera had dug her feet in so Kennedy wouldn't miss her high school graduation, but most of them had been uprooted without so much as a by-your-leave.

The bunk shuddered suddenly, interrupting Kennedy's thoughts, and the springs below her squeaked. She pulled the pillow off her face and frowned across the room at the clock on the wall-- 4:39-- then rolled over on her stomach and let her head hang down over the edge.

"'Manda?" she asked, shaking the curtain of long, brown hair out of her eyes. "I thought you had training 'til six. What's up?"

The lanky fifteen-year-old blinked up at her, biting at the edge of her lip with a worried expression on her face. "I'm not sure. They just came and told us-- Rona and me-- that our extra training was cancelled for today and that we should go back to the dorm."

"That can't be good." Kennedy frowned, then lifted her head and glanced around at the other twenty-one bunks. Most of them were occupied-- more than usual for this time of day. Amanda and Rona weren't the only Potentials with little or no training prior to coming here, and some of the younger ones spent long hours in the library doing extra schoolwork. For them to suddenly all be here at this hour of the day meant the Watchers had some kind of lecture planned, or pep talk, or something else mind-numbingly boring.

"Do, um, do you think it has something to do with that girl they brought in on the stretcher?" Amanda asked, hesitantly. "The one in the leather pants? She looked kinda familiar to me, but I couldn't remember where from. And they said all of us were here, already. So she can't be another Potential."

On the next bunk, a red-headed girl-- Kennedy thought she'd been introduced as Vi-- heard Amanda's speculation and swung around toward them, dangling her legs over the edge of the top mattress. "Oh, you mean the girl they took up to the second floor when we were all supposed to be at lunch? I saw her! And I think I know who it is."

Her voice dropped to a hush, and she darted her eyes from side to side before continuing as if checking for eavesdroppers. "It's the Slayer. You know, the second one. I heard she's been in jail or something; I guess they decided they need her too, for whatever it is we're all here for."

"The second Slayer?" Kennedy objected, frowning at Vi. "That can't be right. Thera must have given me The Speech a thousand times and it clearly says..."

"One girl in all the world, yeah, we know." Vi's bunkmate, Annabelle, walked up the aisle and plopped down on the lower mattress. "Are you still going on about that, Vi?" she asked, sounding bored, then unwound the towel from her damp hair and fished around in her toiletries case for a brush.

Vi didn't get the chance to answer. The doors to the hall all opened at once, and three tweed-clad young Watchers with clipboards started walking down the aisles, checking warm bodies against their lists. Kennedy frowned at them, then glanced back to the doors in time to see an older man in an expensive suit walk in, followed by a pair of nannies and the four youngest Potentials, who were all under the age of five. They'd been kept away from the rest others until now, but Kennedy had heard them crying from time to time when she walked by the nursery on her way to the cafeteria. They didn't look much happier now. Behind them all trailed a mousy-looking woman with glasses and a sloppy bun who kept wringing her hands as she glanced around the room; there were smudges under her eyes, as if she'd been crying and hadn't had time to do a good repair job on her makeup.

"This can't be good," Amanda whispered from the bunk below, unconsciously repeating Kennedy's earlier words.

Kennedy frowned in agreement, then straightened her spine and gave all her attention to the man in the suit. He'd gotten a microphone from somewhere, and he had that air about him that said 'Guy in Charge'. 'Guy in Charge with a Stick up his Ass', actually, but she didn't care so much about that as someone finally telling them what was going on.

The nannies settled their four small charges on the one spare bed-- forty-three girls in twenty-two bunk beds had left one mattress over-- then filed out of the room, ignoring the other occupants. A moment later, the guys with the clipboards finished counting heads and took up positions at the end of each row, giving solemn nods to their leader to verify that everyone was there. The man accepted each nod with a minute tilt of his head, then tapped the microphone to be certain it was on and cleared his throat in preparation to speak.

"My name is Richard Wyndam-Pryce," he began bluntly, "and you are all Potential Slayers. For some of you, this is all very new; for most of you, however, you have trained in this role for many years. Tonight, for all of you, that will change."

He took a deep breath, then continued, with the air of a history professor beginning a boring, but necessary, lecture. "In 1998, Buffy Summers, the active Slayer, was drowned in a pool of water at the hands of a master vampire. She was revived shortly thereafter, disrupting a good many prophecies in the process; one of the consequences of that incident was the Calling of a second Slayer. For... many reasons... this information was kept on a need-to-know basis, but we have moved beyond that now. The most recent Slayer of that line died not an hour ago, and one of you will be Called to replace her."

The room erupted in a chaotic chatter of shocked whispers at that statement. Vi's fierce exclamation-- "I knew it!"-- carried clearly to Kennedy's ears, and despite the tempting hope that she might finally get to be the Chosen One instead of an almost-was, something about the situation felt very wrong to her. This Windbag guy was very obviously not telling them that the dead Slayer had actually been here, in the building.

Kennedy believed Vi on that score; the girl seemed a little excitable, but not the type to make this up out of thin air. Had the Watchers killed her? Why? And what did Thera know about this? Kennedy hadn't seen her Watcher since their arrival.

Mr. Wyndam-Pryce waited a moment for the whispering to die down a little, then raised his hand and cleared his throat with a polite little "Ahem." The Potentials fell silent again, and he continued his little speech. "We have asked you to gather here in order to determine the identity of the next Slayer as quickly and easily as possible. Please, do not attempt to fight the process. Just relax, and when you awaken, you may be sure that the world will be a much more exciting place." He smiled thinly at them, eyes glittering, then handed the microphone to the female Watcher who had come in with him.

Shit, Kennedy thought. They were going to be put to sleep? Was it just her, or did that seem a little weird? Wouldn't it be obvious soon anyway, when the new Slayer started showing more strength and speed than the others? Or were they just doing this to see if one of them would have Slayer Dreams? That didn't seem right; they could wait 'til tonight for that, too. She glanced quickly around at the other Potentials in the room to see if anyone else was having the same kind of thoughts, but the faces nearest her were all bright with suspense and excitement.

A rustle of sheets filled the room as the girls began shifting into comfortable sleeping positions. Kennedy went right along with them, but she couldn't quite let go of the unease that coiled in the pit of her stomach, so she slipped a hand under her pillow and curled it around the stake she kept there. Thera had enchanted it for her graduation gift, infusing it with a complex spell designed to thwart vampire thrall and other low-level compulsions, and maybe, if she was lucky, it would keep her from going completely under now. She had the feeling that she really should be awake for whatever happened next.

The level of noise dropped again, until the silence was broken only by the susurrus of breathing and the sniffling of one of the littlest girls. Kennedy kept clutching her stake, waiting on edge for the woman with the microphone to begin putting them to sleep, but the quiet kept holding until she was ready to bolt up into a sitting position again and demand to know what the problem was. Then, finally, someone spoke.

"The charm has taken effect," a male voice said, barely audible without the microphone's aid. "You may begin."

"Very well," the mystery woman murmured, in a husky, tired voice. She sounded as though she had the entire weight of the world on her shoulders, and it leant a grim, solemn air to the rhythmic foreign words that followed. Kennedy didn't recognize the language, but it sounded old and non-European, and the amplification of the speaker system made it echo strangely in the large, open room.

An electric feeling began to build up in the air as each phrase rolled off the woman's tongue. Kennedy realized abruptly that the others must all be out already-- whatever 'charm' had put them asleep had done a quick and quiet job of it. They could never have all stayed quiet through this. It felt like the calm between a lightning strike and the thunderclap that followed, when the back of your eyelids burned with the afterimage and the scent of ozone was sharp in the air, and you were bracing for the big noise that was going to come rumbling down over your head.

Then the spell came to a close. And... nothing happened. Kennedy tensed her grip on the stake even further, feeling the carved crosses on the handle press into her sweaty palm, and tried to keep her breathing quiet, but the strange charge in the room didn't release, or explode, or anything. It just quietly dissipated, until the only thing noticeably out of place was the racing of her heart.

"Ah... Lydia?" The man in the suit spoke up again, sounding more than a little perturbed.

"I read the spell as written, sir," the woman-- Lydia-- answered wearily. "Every word."

"And yet nothing happened," came the clipped reply, in acid, condemning tones.

"I read it correctly, sir," Lydia replied, with a little more confidence. "The fact that there was no result simply means that there is no Slayer here."

"That is not possible!" he declared, loudly.

Kennedy couldn't keep her eyes shut any longer. She peered out through her eyelashes, trying to keep still so that no one would notice, but she had to see what was going on. The view didn't disappoint. Lydia, hair still all askew and glasses slipping on her nose, stood resolutely in front of the senior Watcher, who was gesturing vehemently with his hands. A vein bulged in his forehead, and his face was turning very red; it totally compromised the distinguished salt-and-pepper look he'd had going earlier.

"We have every single Potential Slayer in this room!" he continued, heedless of the interested attention of the junior Watchers still standing near the exits. "And Faith is dead! There has to be a new Slayer. That was the whole point of this exercise! You must have done something wrong!"

"No," Lydia said, and then suddenly smiled. "No, I didn't," she repeated, in tones of growing wonder. "She said something about trusting the Powers..."

"Bugger the Powers!" Mr. Wyndam-Pryce yelled, then turned on his heel and strode toward the doors. "Smythe! Gorton! I want an update on the Summers' girl's team, and Percy, find out where my son is!" The doors slammed shut behind him, and his voice dwindled as he stormed away from the room.

"Holy shit," Kennedy whispered, pressing her face into her pillow to muffle the words. She had no idea how to process what had just happened here.

From the sound of the hysterical laughter coming from the front of the room, Lydia had no idea, either.

Chapter Fifteen: Arresting Developments

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 4:53 PM (GMT)


"Buffy. Buffy!" Xander Harris hissed, trying to catch the blonde Slayer's attention without disturbing everyone else in the hotel's lobby. Especially the staff, whose attention they really didn't need focused on them right now. "Buffy, wait up!"

She either didn't hear him, or didn't want to, and stormed right out through the hotel's front doors, her small frame radiating tension and fury. Xander didn't really blame her; they had come to a foreign country trying to rescue a sister Slayer from men who should have been their allies, and far from making progress, had somehow managed to lose two more people to that same enemy. And now, the latest blow-- Cordelia had called from the car rental agency where she and Giles had gone to pick up a pair of vans with the unhelpful news that Giles had been arrested right in front of her.

Xander picked up the pace and hurried after her. Righteously upset or not, it was definitely not a good idea for Buffy to be loose on the streets in that mood. They had plans to make and things to do if they were going to have any chance of getting away before someone managed to connect Giles back to the hotel and come after them, and the clock was still ticking on their other lost friends. Scouring the streets for Slayage action in the middle of sunlit London was not what Giles would have called a constructive use of their time.

"Buffy!" He called her name again as he pushed through the glass doors, searching for a glimpse of her among the pedestrians outside. She might be able to outrun a gazelle on a good day, but on a busy sidewalk crowded with people carrying briefcases and shopping bags she wouldn't have gotten far. Unfortunately, she was also just a little on the short side, and her wavy blonde hair and cream blouse might as well have been camouflage.

Dawn was right on his heels, and she latched onto his arm as soon as he paused to crane his neck for a better look. It was a good thing he was still carrying the Orbs, or she might have left bruises; she'd only been at Slayer strength for a week and a half, and tended to forget the damage she could do in moments of stress.

"Do you see her? Xander, where'd she go?" Her voice was strained with worry, and he could smell the fear and anger on her, nearly as strong as they'd been on Buffy.

Smell. Duh! Xander smacked his forehead with the hand Dawn wasn't busy mangling, and turned his attention on the riot of scents clouding the air around them. He hadn't been paying much attention to the details his enhanced senses picked up in the busy city, as it was easy to get overwhelmed, but they were there all the same. A few quick breaths picked up the usual dirt, gasoline, pollution, body odor, perfume, and other scents left behind by the travelers all around them, but the traces of two Slayers stood out strongly over all of it: Dawn, standing at his side, and a fading trail that struck out leftward from where he stood.

"She went that way," he said, pointing in the direction Buffy had gone.

Dawn turned in that direction, frantically scanning the sidewalk for her sister, then took a step forward, still gripping Xander's arm for all she was worth. "We have to go after her," she said, breathing hard from the stress and adrenaline.

"No, I'll go after her," he told her, bracing his feet to keep from being dragged along in her wake. "Dawn, you heard her-- they arrested Giles more than fifteen minutes ago now, and it won't take them very long to track him back to the rest of us. You have to go back in there and get everybody packing."

"Me?" She gaped at him, dismayed. "Why me? Willow...."

... can keep you safer in there than you will be out here, Xander thought, but held his tongue. So far, everyone that had been taken had either Watcher breeding or Slayer power or both, except for Anya, who had tried to reach Faith and never come back. Letting both Summers Slayers wander around on the streets of London was asking for trouble, especially if someone had added their pictures to the ones of Giles that had apparently been distributed to the authorities. If the Watchers' Council had enough clout to get Giles arrested on a murder charge for a death that had been ruled accidental decades ago, who knew what they might dredge up to use against the other Scoobies?

He shook his head. "Willow is probably still stressing out, because she has no idea where to go or what to do next. Neither do I, but I do know we can't just wait for Travers' goons to find us." A thought occurred to him, and he fished his wallet out of his pocket, digging for his keycard. "Get mine and Giles' stuff too. As soon as I find Buffy, we'll move; as soon as we're safe, we can worry about the plan-making."

"But I don't... what if she...." Dawn stared at him a moment longer, drawing deep breaths, then glanced down the street where Buffy had disappeared and bit her lip. "Okay. You have your phone too, right? Don't you dare come back without her."

Xander pried her hand carefully off his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I promise. Now go back inside, we're blocking traffic."

She let the Resolve face go, and for a moment looked lost and far older than her fifteen years. Then she jerked her head in a quick nod, took the keycard from his hand, and hurried back through the hotel doors.

Xander scrubbed a hand through his hair and took another deep breath, ignoring the curious frowns their little conversation had attracted from some of the passersby. Then he set off after the slowly fading traces of his friend. He had a feeling Buffy hadn't gone far.

He caught up with her half a dozen blocks away, in a pocket of greenery next to the sidewalk set with an elaborately carved stone bench. She was poised on the edge of it, knees together, back straight, hands clasped in her lap like some perfect model of female decorum. He slowed as he got within a few yards of her, knowing her Slayer sense would pick up the presence of the Orbs, and approached with cautious steps.

"Hey, Buff."

She looked up at him warily, then let her mouth slide into an embarrassed half-frown and looked down at her hands again. Xander was close enough now that he could see Mr. Pointy clasped between them.

"This place is a lot bigger than Sunnydale, isn't it?" Buffy said, hesitantly, still studying her favorite stake. "I mean, duh. I lived in L.A., I should know this, but I still went storming off like I could do something about it by myself. Beat up a bartender. Thrash a few demons. I don't know. Something. But..."

She looked up at him again with tears standing in the corners of her hazel-green eyes, and took a deep breath, struggling to keep calm. "I don't fight humans, Xander. I'm really, really bad at it. Do you know how many months it took for us to stop the Nerd Squad? Not to mention the joy that was Evil Faith. And the only times I've gone up against Council goons before, it's just been a few, and they were on my turf. Giles was in charge of this, and they've taken him away... I don't know what to do."

Xander took the last few steps slowly, then lowered himself onto the bench next to her and clasped his empty hands together, stooping his back a little so that their shoulders were level. "Well," he said, drawing the word out. He'd had a chance to think a little as he ran, and saw only one real course of action open to them. "It occurs to me that the G-Man, being all Magified these days, is pretty darned likely to break his own self out of prison, and if he's anyplace he can't there's no way we'll be able to do anything about it without more resources. Like you said, this isn't our turf. But if we catch up with Wes and Ethan..."

Buffy sniffled a little. "You're telling me we should just leave him?"

"Not leave, leave him," he said. "More like a strategic withdrawal. Look, we don't even know where they took him, and if we try to find out we'll make targets of ourselves. On the other hand, we do know where to pick up Wes' trail..."

"And even if he's not there," Buffy nodded, perking up a little as she picked up his train of thought, "something has to be. He wouldn't have gone there if he didn't think it would help him find Faith."

"Right," he agreed, nudging her shoulders with his. "So we pack up, find a new car rental place, and make tracks. Or find tracks. Whichever."

"Listen to you, getting all Voice of Reason on me." Buffy threw a watery smile in his direction. "With the actual making of sense."

"Yeah, well," Xander shrugged, keeping his tone light. "Grew up, remember?"

Buffy's smile slipped at that remark, and she gave him a searching look. "Yeah. Yeah, I do remember. How are things with Anya, by the way?"

Xander blinked at the rather sudden change in topic, and gave his watch a surreptitious glance. It had been nearly twenty minutes since he left Dawn at the hotel. "Ah, we really should be getting back..."

"No." She shook her head, then took a hand off of Mr. Pointy and reached over to cover the face of his watch. "I need another few minutes out here for my nerves to settle, or I won't be good for anything. You have time to spill. Anya's been way anti-Xander this week, and that usually only happens when she's upset or in denial about something."

"Ask a hard question, why don't you?" he teased, then seriously tried to formulate an answer. He thought he knew what the problem was; he'd had a kind-of sort-of coffee date with Anya to try and establish some kind of framework for relating to each other past the wreck of their near-wedding, but he wasn't sure how he felt about it yet, much less what Anya was thinking.

"I dunno, Buff," he said, after a moment. "I've never really stopped loving her, but when that demon showed up at our wedding, it was like all my doubts came crashing down at once. I wasn't ready to get married. I wasn't putting her first in my life, and I'm not even sure I can. That's not fair to her, you know? And now that she's doing the vengeance thing again..." He let the sentence die, and sighed. "We went out for coffee and tried to talk about things, but I'm not sure either of us really understands each other's priorities."

"I know how that goes," Buffy said, quietly. "I know you don't really want to hear about it, but that's mostly why I ended my relationship with Spike. It wasn't fair to him-- I wasn't fair to him-- but he didn't understand my priorities, either."

Xander winced at that. It still stung that she'd reached out to a soulless vampire in the early days after her resurrection instead of confronting the Scoobies with the truth, but he could understand it a little better these days. "It's not that I hate him, you know," he said. "Even if I kind of do. It's just that no matter how helpful he is, he's not going to spontaneously grow a soul, and sooner or later the chip is going to fail. It's been in his best interests to stay good up 'til now, but when he gets the chance to be bad again..." He shrugged. "I worry."

"He won't take that chance," Buffy said, in a firm, quiet voice. "He's done so much the last couple of years, cared so much, I can't believe he'd turn on us now even without a conscience. But I didn't bring him up so we could argue about that again." She paused, threading her fingers together nervously, then gave him a sad look. "It's just, back before the sexcapades started, when I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere, we used to just hang out. No funny stuff, just talking and being in each other's company. I really, really miss that now, but I doubt that we can get it back, not after everything we did to each other."

Xander swallowed back what he wanted to say, and gave her a little one-armed hug instead. This was time to be Supporto-Guy, not Mr. Intervention. "And I know how that goes. Missing the friend part of it, too, I mean. Nothing against you and Wills, but I planned on spending the rest of my life with her, you know?" He planted a brotherly kiss on the top of her head, then let go of her and tried to lighten the mood a bit. "So. Are we pathetic, or is it just me? I think this calls for an angst-movie marathon as soon as we get back."

"I'm cool with that," she replied, giving him a faint smile. "Just so long as I get dibs on the cookie-dough fudge mint chip."

"Deal," he agreed.

Buffy nodded, then braced her hands on her knees, preparing to push to her feet. "I think I'm ready now. We really should be getting...."

The sentence trailed off unexpectedly, and every line of her face went tense again. "Xander," she said, in a soft, warning tone. "Someone's cast a spell, and I think..."

As she spoke, the smell of ozone began to sharpen the air around her, very pungent to Xander's sensitive nose. It wasn't exactly a new scent, either; he realized he'd been picking up slight traces of it during their conversation, but it had suddenly gotten a lot stronger. "Buffy?" He gripped her upper arms, turning her toward him, and was disturbed to see her eyes suddenly roll back into her head. Almost instantaneously, a great flash of electricity zapped his palms, throwing him away from her and off of the bench with considerable force.

"Buffy, are you okay?" He picked himself up off the pavement, absentmindedly brushing a hand over his black jeans to check for tears or abrasions, and silently gave thanks once again for the invulnerability provided by the Orbs of Nezzla'khan. Buffy was still seated on the bench, but she had hunched forward, bracing her elbows on her brown leather clad thighs, palms covering her face.

"Just peachy," she answered him, in a quiet, raspy voice. "That was-- I saw Dawn, back at the hotel, packing my clothes. I saw Wes running; he looked like he'd been through a war, but he was outside somewhere, he'd gotten away from that place we saw on the video. And then I saw Faith..."

Buffy took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Faith looked dead, Xander. Blue lips, pale skin. But she didn't feel dead to me. This... I think whoever cast that was trying to find something, someone. A Slayer. And I saw them all-- me, Dawn, Faith, and whatever the hell Wesley is. No others. Whatever they were trying, it didn't work the way they thought it would."

Xander stared at her a moment, processing that, and tried not to think about the fact that she hadn't mentioned Anya's name during her little recitation. "So we still have a chance at getting them back," he said, matter-of-factly.

"I... I think so. It was like a Slayer Dream," Buffy said quietly, then suddenly lurched to her feet. "Dawn! She probably felt that too, and she doesn't have any experience with this, she's going to freak."

Xander felt a wave of déjà vu sweep over him as he watched her take off toward the hotel, once again completely ignoring his presence. At least she was running in the right direction this time, though, and he'd managed to cheer her up a little. In the disaster of a week they were having, that at least had to count for something.

Chapter Sixteen: Internal Politics

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:46 AM PST (5:46 PM GMT)


"Wolfram and Hart, Special Projects, Gavin Park speaking."

Gavin answered the phone that way out of habit, some part of him still in mourning for the big office, the expensive suits, and the power that went with the title. It wasn't entirely false, of course; he was still on retainer for the firm, although these days he fell more into the category of a paid informant for the New Orleans division. Why the Senior Partners didn't just order the Los Angeles branch rebuilt, he didn't know-- although he suspected internal politics-- but they seemed content to pay one of LA's two Special Projects survivors to spy upon the other, and until today he had been quite satisfied with that role.

"Gavin, you little bastard, what are you up to?"

The voice on the other end of the line was moderately calm, but Gavin could almost taste the tightly-suppressed anger that hovered just beneath the surface. He let his mouth stretch wide in a grin that he knew his caller would hear, if not see, and reached for the button that would turn on the recording device.

"Lilah. I was just thinking of you," he said brightly, glancing across the surface of the desk at his open laptop, which displayed a stilled image of her face. The morning batch of video surveillance files had been very enlightening, and more than a little entertaining. "I just had the most interesting chat with Colonel McNamara."

"You're supposed to be dead," Lilah hissed, and he could just picture those dark eyes of hers flashing with fury. No denials, no accusations; it was as good as an admission that he already had her outmaneuvered. The feeling of triumph that gave him was nearly as potent as the dark joy of Billy's touch, still fresh in his memory; cleaner, perhaps, without the irrational rage and misogynistic violence, but the idea of putting Lilah in her place still made some primitive part of him thrum with satisfaction.

"Surprise, surprise," Gavin replied, glancing down at the fading rope scars on his wrists. "I would say the same thing about you, but I don't think I could manage the same level of outrage; I've had a few weeks to get used to the idea." Once he'd gotten over the shock and indignity of being bound half-naked in the Los Angeles sewers, showered with the dust of a former client, then put out of a job by Linwood's flawed machinations, the first thing he'd done had been to look for other cockroaches who might have survived their pocket apocalypse. He'd expected Lilah to be one of them, and he hadn't been disappointed.

"You had my apartment bugged, didn't you?" she spat back, and he could hear the determined click of heels on tile as she paced around with her phone. Kitchen, by the sound of it. She'd never find the camera in there by sight; it was wedged into the workings of her expensive coffee machine, where a searching eye would glide over the chrome fittings without pausing to examine every crevice. "I'm going to have the apartment swept, and you are going to send me the information you got from McNamara, and you are going to keep out of my business, and then maybe I won't have you killed."

"All that cash you came up with this morning would go a long way toward making sure of that, wouldn't it?" Gavin reached for the laptop, tapped in a few commands, then wound the morning's footage back a few hours. "Hmm. Seven million, four hundred thousand, wasn't it? You certainly counted it enough times. I hope you're aware, however, that none of that money is yours to spend?"

He had a fairly good idea where the money had come from-- the only outstanding contract in the seven-figure range in Special Projects when the firm collapsed had been the one regarding Faith Lehane, wanted alive, cash payable on delivery. It would be interesting to find out just how Lilah had subdued the brunette Slayer, but at that moment that aspect of the problem was peripheral to his concerns.

"What do you mean, it's not mine to spend?" Lilah spluttered, indignantly. "I fulfilled the contract, I earned it, and there's sure as Hell not an office here for me to sign it over to anymore. Until the Senior Partners rebuild it or send someone to tell me otherwise..."

"Consider yourself told," Gavin cut her off, smirking at the perfect lead-in she'd given him. "Mesektet has yet to be heard from, but in her absence Master Tarfall has made a few suggestions regarding the disposition of remaining Los Angeles branch assets, which include all outstanding cases, contracts, and projects that predate the destruction of the office, along with any resultant proceeds."

"Master Tarfall?" Lilah demanded. "You contacted New Orleans? Just how stupid are you? Did you even read the fine print in your contract?" She made a noise of disgust, then abruptly changed the subject. "And even if it's true, that doesn't explain the little stunt you just pulled with the Initiative. The deal I made with Sahjahn was mine, and our association was never down on paper at Wolfram and Hart to begin with. He won't negotiate with you, and any opportunity I might have brought to the firm because of the information he would have given me is going to be wasted because of your stupidity."

Gavin shook his head and hit a few more keys on the keyboard of his laptop, pulling up the information the Colonel's assistant had sent over from their Hostile 17 file. It was voluminous, very detailed, and worth far more in his opinion than any name that might be supplied by an incorporeal, unpredictable demon. Connor would surface sooner or later, betrayed by his very uniqueness, and in the meantime the child's uncle-- nephew?-- could be put to all sorts of entertaining and beneficial uses.

"Let it die," Gavin replied. "There are other ways to find Connor, and far better ways to use a leashed vampire than to turn him loose to kill indiscriminately. You might want to thank Sahjahn for reminding me Spike existed, though; I wasn't in Special Projects the last time he was in town, and I hadn't kept up with the details of his file."

"And just what do you plan to do with him?" Lilah demanded.

"Ah ah, what kind of opponent would I be if I told you everything I was planning?" Gavin teased her. "Oh wait-- that's your strategy. Suffice it to say, he's about to be involved in a rather delicate operation overseas, and a little... selective programming might turn the outcome decidedly in our favor."

"In favor of New Orleans, you mean," Lilah growled irritably. "You know very well that the prophecies state..."

"A lot of things that won't ever happen," Gavin broke in, "if Mesektet remains among the missing, and if she doesn't, well, whatever happens is between her and Master Tarfall. If I were you, I'd be more worried about the fact that you're going the way of Lindsey, and they aren't very accepting of that in their oath-bound employees."

"I am nothing like Lindsey," she hissed in reply, and Gavin thought for a minute she would hang up out of spite. Of course, she didn't-- she hadn't gotten the answers she wanted-- but he could almost hear her teeth grinding in frustration.

It was more true than she wanted to admit, and both of them knew it; no matter what loyalty she thought she was exercising, the fact remained that she was expressing loyalty in the first place, and while that was a worrisome but acceptable positive impulse in general for W&H employees it was a warning sign when other do-gooding impulses accompanied it. He could still remember her verbal scramble to cover herself after she had instinctively objected to their plans for Darla's baby.

"Prove it," he challenged her. "Go to New Orleans. Hand over the fee. Let go of this obsession you have with Angel and his kid. The firm will set you up with a job and an apartment just like the ones you left behind, and it'll be like none of this ever happened."

"And leave everything to you?" Lilah hissed. "You have no idea how to handle these people. Code violations on the hotel, for fuck's sake! You're going to screw everything up again, and this time I'm not going to clean up after you."

"I assure you, that won't be necessary," Gavin said crisply, and hung up on her.

When they rebuilt the firm, he made a mental note, there would be no more bright young lawyers plucked straight from law school to serve Special Projects. That entire class of charmingly initialed inductees-- Lilah Morgan, Lindsey McDonald, and Lee Martin-- had been rather ambivalently evil as a whole, and largely incapable of the detachment required to handle the department's work load. Gavin, by way of contrast, had put in several years in the Real Estate department first, and found the experience very helpful in his new role. Not only had he mastered the condescending attitude so necessary when dealing with lesser beings, he had acquired a really productive set of resources to draw from. Who would ever have imagined, for example, that the firm's transaction records for a certain secret army base would contribute so much value to later negotiations?

The Colonel's secretary-- aide? What did they call them in the military, anyway?-- had stonewalled him at first, but the mention of a "certain subterranean property in Sunnydale, California," had managed to get him through that initial roadblock. That benighted one-Starbucks town was as sensitive to the reformed Initiative as Los Angeles was to the rest of Wolfram and Hart.

"Note to self," Gavin mused, and reached for a legal pad. It would be interesting to find out if McNamara was aware of the Hellmouth's new status; they could hide a much larger operation in a city the size of L.A. than in a burg like the Slayer's home town. Future negotiation potential, there.

He tapped the ballpoint pen across his knuckles for a moment, considering whether he might have missed any other opportunities in the conversation, then keyed a few more commands into his laptop to bring up the audio file.

"McNamara," the Colonel's voice announced in a curt, gruff tone.

The Gavin in the recording took a deep breath and confidently began his appeal. "Sir, my name is Gavin Park. I'm an attorney with Wolfram and Hart..."

McNamara cut him off impatiently. "I've already heard from you people once this morning, and I'll tell you what I told Ms. Morgan; the U.S. government is not interested in providing that kind of proprietary information to a civilian law firm."

"Sir, you misunderstand me," Gavin replied, closing in for the kill. "The Hostile 17 project is not within my purview. My concern is the property that we assisted you in procuring beneath the UCSD campus. According to our records, you reported a large-scale fire and destruction of all contents in May of 2000?"

The Colonel hesitated before replying, and when he did, he sounded much warier. "Yes. We were forced to close operations and report the facility as a total loss, but all the property loans you assisted us with had been paid off by then. I don't see what there is to be concerned about."

"Insurance fraud, sir," Gavin said crisply. He'd arranged for an investigation after the last of the soldiers, one Riley Finn, finally packed up and left the town behind; just a precaution, but it had come in very handy today. "The Initiative claimed several million dollars' worth of destroyed equipment and other property that has been observed to still exist, not to mention a rather unique selection of quote, laboratory animals for whom no purchase records were ever filed."

There was silence on the other end of the line, followed by a muffled curse and the shuffling of paper. After a moment's pause, McNamara cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I am a reasonable man, Mr. Park. Should I happen to somehow lose a copy of the Hostile 17 data, might I count on the reciprocal disappearance of this line of questioning?"

"Consider it disappeared, sir," Gavin announced. "And might I suggest that the following fax number is a useful place to lose information?"

Gavin stopped the recording before the copy of his voice could list off the ten digits of his modem line, and considered the situation with a smug grin. Lilah stymied: check. Valuable resource acquired: check. Possible source of additional 'lost information' in future: check. The continued esteem of his current boss: assured.

It was shaping up to be a very good day.

Chapter Seventeen: Unpleasant Surprises

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 6:01 PM (GMT)


Quentin Travers shuddered as he crossed the verge of the null field and stepped into the facility's secured guest quarters. All of the old Council bloodlines had been heavily bred for power and intelligence in ages past, and though few in modern times exhibited the kind of power Rupert Giles had once had at his command, no Watcher grew to adulthood without becoming accustomed to the feel of magic as a constant background presence in their lives. To have it suddenly ripped away from one's being was akin to having a portion of one's body go unexpectedly numb; it felt to Travers as though his ears and skin had suddenly been wrapped in cotton wool.

He scowled through the sensation and strode forward to the bed, staring down at the corpse of the girl that had given the Watchers' Council so much trouble in recent years. From the moment she'd turned up in Sunnydale and the Council had become aware she had not fallen to Kakistos alongside her first Watcher, she had been nothing but a thorn in their side. At first, she'd bid fair to follow in Summers' rebellious footsteps; that level of notoriety had evidently not been enough for the dark Slayer, however, and she'd soon turned coat and made alliance with the enemy. Travers had hoped she'd perish in hospital after that unfortunate series of events had finally concluded, but she had escaped that fate... and then escaped the hands of the Council once more when she fled to the cursed vampire for sanctuary.

Even incarcerated, Faith could have been of use to the Council, but several members of the Board had put a stop to Travers' plans for her, refusing to recognise the necessity of the measures he intended. And so she had remained out of reach whilst their hold on Sunnydale had weakened further and the situation with young Wyndam-Pryce slipped entirely out of control. Not until the boy's origins had been laid bare at last had Travers found the leverage he needed to arrange matters as he wished. Richard had been willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the knowledge of the boy's exact origins limited to himself and Travers.

It seemed terribly fitting that in the end, it had been Faith's own failures that finally brought her back to them. The lawyer Faith had dealt with in her headlong flight after awakening from the coma, and whom she had made an enemy all on her own, had taken the Council's bait, engineering the Slayer's capture and turning her over for a tidy sum. With Cruciamentum drugs at hand, a null field in place suppressing whatever abilities might have escaped the medication, and hostages to her supposedly rehabilitated conscience in the form of the Potential Slayers, it had seemed impossible for her to find any further way to thwart them. Even the cup of poison, intended as a psychological measure only, should have played to the Council's benefit if she had succumbed.

If. Travers shook his head. There was no uncertainty about it: the emptied goblet had fallen from her hand to lie sideways on the carpet, only a few deadly drops still clinging to its interior. A dark stain had gathered in the corners of her mouth, and all colour had fled from her limp, indecently bared flesh. In addition, the body had been checked manually-- and quite thoroughly-- by the facility's medical staff to make certain that the stain around the girl's lips was indeed the poison and that she hadn't withdrawn into some sort of low-functioning meditative trance.

It was, and she hadn't. Her heart had stopped within seconds of ingesting the drink, and she had not moved since.

Had they made a mistake, renewing the null field around her room after they had adjusted the spell to exclude the Potential Slayers' dormitory? Had the Slayer essence somehow been confined within the walls of the bedroom by the imprisoning magic? Travers glanced around uneasily at that thought, all too aware of the origins of that sub-sentient, migratory spirit. The echo of Sineya would not be pleased by the presence of a descendant of the Shadow Men.

"Chalmers," he snapped, looking up from the body to fix his gaze on the incompetent woman who had been responsible for casting the spell in the Potentials' quarters.

She started a little, like a frightened rabbit, at his voice; he fought the urge to sneer at her. "Please inform Richard that the null field is no longer necessary. She cannot escape now, and its suppressant effects may be at fault for the delay in the Slayer transference."

The mousy woman ducked her head in acknowledgement, then fled out into the corridor. Travers sniffed in disapproval, then paced slowly around the edge of the bed. He had seen many deaths in his day, including his own Slayer after the failure of her Cruciamentum. There was nothing particularly special about this one, save for the particular benefits Travers would garner from the power that should have been-- and must still be-- released by her demise.

He paused by the head of the bed, studying the slackened lines of the Slayer's face, then let his eyes trail downward to the silver flash of the Chi-Rho necklace at her throat. An unusual choice for a Slayer, that; most Slayers were aware of the efficacy of crosses and holy water against vampires and certain other demons, but few ever thought to try other types of Christian paraphernalia or religious items from other cultures, and the Council did not encourage the practice. The exact function of the divine in her duties was not something such a short-lived foot soldier really needed to concern herself with.

Perhaps the necklace had served another purpose? The researchers had not yet proved to Travers' satisfaction whether static, persistent enchantments adhering to objects remained active within the null field's range. Curious, Travers took a step closer, extending one hand toward the bright, reflective metal.

He was arrested short of his goal by the peculiar sensation of a warm obstacle pressing against his left shin. A gasp emitted from the obstacle when he attempted to shift it with that foot, and Travers' tenuous hold on his temper slipped free.

"Chalmers! Percy!" he roared, absolutely furious, and took three quick steps away from the bed. How could they have let such a thing pass?

The bed skirt moved, then lifted to expose the lithe body of a young blonde woman little older than the dead Slayer squeezing back out from the space under the bed. An irritatingly familiar woman, whom he had last seen at the side of the Summers Slayer the year before. "You!" he spat, pulse throbbing at his temple in rage.

She staggered to her feet with something approximating a contrite expression on her face. "Oops?" she offered, smiling at him apologetically.

"Percy!" he yelled again, then glared as the door finally opened, disgorging the bookish young Watcher.

"Uh, s-sir?" he stammered, glancing in Travers' direction, then turned his focus back to the inexplicable Ms. Jenkins.

"How did she get in here?" Travers demanded of him.

When the dark Slayer had been installed, the room had been empty and the door locked; Richard himself had been here at the time, and whatever personal disagreements might lie between them, Travers trusted the other man's dedication to his duty. Someone must have admitted Ms. Jenkins to the room in the hours since.

"I, um, I--" Percy trailed off without even offering a complete sentence, his eyes fixated somewhere near the young woman's bust line.

"It's really rather simple," the blonde replied, her hands clasped in front of her. She appeared disconcertingly unconcerned about her current situation.

Travers narrowed his eyes at her, nostrils flaring, before responding. "Do explain," he said, forcing the words out through clenched teeth.

"It went something--" she said, then smiled and paused for a second as the air around them briefly glittered, leaving in its wake the feeling of magic seeping back into his bones.

"--Like this," she continued, and her face shifted into something entirely unexpected.

Horrified, Travers staggered backward again, belatedly equating her appearance in Sunnydale over two years ago with the reports of Anyanka the Vengeance Demon disappearing in that town. He flinched as his back made contact with the wall, then raised his arms in front of him, bracing for whatever curse she had come to inflict-- then blinked as she abruptly disappeared from the room.

The Potentials! he thought with a stab of dismay, then forced himself to relax as he remembered that they were currently still entrapped in spell-induced slumber. He would have to take care to raise the null field again before allowing them to be awakened, but in the meantime, with Faith Lehane no longer among the living, he was probably safe from Anyanka's wrath. Whether the Slayer had simply failed to make a wish, or Anyanka's ability to enforce wishes perished upon the petitioner's death, he did not know, and did not care; clearly, the Powers That Be were on his side in the matter.

Travers straightened his collar and stepped away from the wall, then turned the full force of his attention back on the hapless Percy. "We shall discuss this failure later," he said, scowling at the young man. "Return to the dormitory at once and assist Chalmers in re-casting the revelatory spell."

"At once, sir," Percy agreed hurriedly, then fled from the room.

Travers snorted at the boy's nervous haste, then shook his head and turned back to the body. Before Anyanka had interrupted him, he had been examining Faith's necklace; it still seemed a likely receptacle for defensive charm-work, especially if it were genuinely made from silver and not a more fashionable option such as white gold or platinum. He stepped back toward the bed-- briefly pausing to drop to one knee and peer beneath it to make certain there were no more intruders-- then gently applied the index and middle fingers of his right hand to the pendant.

Power flowed up Travers' arm at the contact, confirming his suspicions. He jerked his hand free immediately, startled by the hybrid flavour of the magic contained within, and swore under his breath at the implications. If the null field was, indeed, calibrated specifically to suppress supernatural emanations from biological organisms, sparing pre-set spells entirely, it now meant a possible additional layer of interference in the passing of the torch in question.

Unless he missed his guess, the vampire's son had been responsible for the pendant's enchantment, and the boy's spell-casting seemed to have improved greatly since his Academy days. It would take a team of experts to determine its exact functionality, and the examination would have to be done before the body was disposed of; Travers wanted no unpleasant surprises later on. Especially if Percy's errand failed as entirely as the earlier attempt to discover the next Slayer had done.

Regardless of the delay, however, it was only a matter of time before Travers had everything he wanted in his grasp. The Rollright installation had reported the capture of the chaos mage, Ethan Rayne, and the London branch had successfully engineered the arrest of Rupert Giles, who had been spotted in the city mere hours ago. A team was in hot pursuit of the rash young Wyndam-Pryce, and the only other British member of the so-called "Scooby Gang", the vampire known as William the Bloody, was the current subject of a great deal of plotting on American soil. That left the remainder of the group without leadership or native knowledge of the terrain, virtually guaranteeing that Summers and her little school friends would not be able to interrupt his plans until it was far too late.

Travers favoured the Slayer's body with one last smile of satisfaction, then turned on his heel and left the room.

Chapter Eighteen: Cross Country

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 6:47 PM (GMT)


Dawn Summers huddled further down in the corner between the van's bench seat and the windows, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. She was still tired from the plane trip, but after the day they'd been having she was still too wired to go back to sleep.

The countryside they were passing through was mostly green and pretty, but it was definitely on the wet and chilly side, at least compared to California. She wasn't going to get to see much more of it, either; the sun was only an hour or so above the horizon, and the moon had already come and gone for the day. Dawn had no real idea of the times or distances between London and the place they were going, but she figured they probably wouldn't even have got to the Stone thingies before night fell, which meant a lot of sneaking around in the dark and even less sleep after. Cordy had said there was some kind of inn two miles from the site, one with "Cross" in its name, but Dawn wasn't going to hold her breath that they'd actually get to stop there.

After the strange zappy vision thing that had happened back at the hotel, Buffy had been all nerves, wearing that impending-doom expression that usually meant "there's an apocalypse coming I'm not sure I can stop". The way Wes had looked in the vision, not to mention Faith, Dawn pretty much understood why, but that didn't make her feel any better about it. Nor did Buffy's fussing, projecting all her own worries on Dawn.

The Prophecy might imply all four of them would get to live awhile longer, long enough to have some kind of effect on the balance at least, but Dawn knew as well as anyone there were more ways around Destiny than you could shake a stake at. Her whole existence pretty much proved it.

All in all, this was definitely not what she'd hoped for on her first trip overseas. In quiet moments after Buffy's return, when Dawn had allowed herself to daydream, she'd been thinking maybe Oxford for college if she got her grades up, maybe visiting some castles, maybe even a trip to Rome. The whole Slaying gig had put a major crimp in those plans. She was starting to get why Buffy had tried so hard to keep her Calling from seeping into her regular life those first several years in Sunnydale; being normal might be seem kinda boring when you were the one watching your sister be a superhero, but you had no idea how good you really had it until it was taken from you.

Dawn shifted in her seat again, then stiffened as she realized her skin was starting to tingle in that newly familiar falling-asleep kind of way. She hadn't thought anything of it at first when the same thing had happened while she was packing Buffy's stuff, but that was before she'd scorched the clothes she was holding with an electrical discharge. "Buffy?" she asked, turning to the seat behind her to see if her sister was feeling the same thing.

Between the seven of them left at the hotel after Giles' arrest, only Cordy'd had the ID and experience necessary to drive in England without getting the rest of them lost, wrecked, or dumped in jail, so she'd rented a large passenger van instead of the two smaller, more inconspicuous vehicles Giles had planned on getting. It was the kind of van Dawn was used to seeing driving around with church youth group logos stenciled on the sides; she'd never been in one, but she had a vague idea you were supposed to be twenty-five before you could drive one. She wasn't going to ask questions, though. With five other people scattered around England that they were hopefully going to start collecting any time now, it was the best option they had available.

Buffy had claimed the last bench seat for herself, the one behind Dawn, intent on catching a few more Z's before they had to leap into the fray. It wasn't even noon back in California yet, and it wasn't like they'd been doing much that would require rest since they'd got here, but Dawn was pretty sure that what Buffy was really hoping for was a Slayer Dream. They could sure use some guidance. Whether she was Dreaming or not, though, it was no time for her to be asleep.

"Buffy?" Dawn prompted her sister again, leaning further over the back of her own seat. "Buffy, wake up!"

"Mmm." Buffy groaned and stretched slowly, stifling a yawn behind one small hand. Then she sat up and blinked into Dawn's face. "What is it Dawnie?"

"I think it's happening again," Dawn said, urgently. "Whatever they did last time-- do you feel it?"

A small frown appeared between Buffy's brows as she studied her sister's face for a moment. Then she reached a hand up, tucking a long strand of Dawn's hair behind one ear.

"Buffy!" Dawn objected, half-embarrassed and half-frustrated. "Are you awake yet? That thing with the spell, where we saw Wes and Faith--"

The sleepy haze cleared from Buffy's eyes immediately. She turned both hands palm up in front of her, staring intently at them for a moment, then looked up urgently in the direction of the driver's seat. "Cordy, is there anywhere we can pull over? Now would be a really good time to not be touching metal!"

"What?" Cordy sounded startled. "What's going on?"

Buffy answered her quickly, in a frustrated tone. "I think the Watchers are trying to cast that spell..."

But it was too late. Dawn was vaguely aware of having a mini-seizure right there in her seat, her eyes rolling back as electricity flooded from every pore, but mostly she was caught up in the vision again, her consciousness split between four separate locations. She saw Buffy, beside her, going through the same vision-thing; Faith still lying on the strange bed where she'd been before, cold and blue around the edges, with someone tweedy standing over her; and Wesley, somewhere in the countryside, dropping to his knees as he looked down at some road or other...

Awareness of her surroundings returned to Dawn in a rush, cluttered up with the scent of ozone and the sound of half a dozen voices screaming all at once. Or maybe it was five voices and the squeal of tires leaving rubber on the road; inertia was slamming her forward against the seat belt, and she could hear things clattering to the floor all over the van. Cordy must have slammed on the brakes the instant it happened.

When the van finally screeched to a halt, Dawn jerked away from her grip on the seat and plastered herself up against the nearest window. In her vision of Wes, she'd seen a van skidding out of control on a country road just below him, a van that looked very much like the one they were traveling in. If he'd stayed on foot, running parallel to the roads and trusting in his Slayer-like speed to keep him ahead of pursuit, it was actually pretty possible-- and it would seriously be the best luck they'd had all day. Could they really have found him that easily?

"Is, is everyone okay?" she heard Tara ask in the background. "I diverted as much of the energy as I could, but I wasn't sure I got it all in time."

"Okay?!" Cordelia shrieked. "We could have all gone in the ditch! What the hell is going on?"

"I am undamaged, Princess," Groo offered from the shotgun seat. "Your driving was most excellent."

"It was Watcher mojo," Xander spoke up next, answering Cordy's question. "Pretty much the same thing that happened earlier, except they zapped the van this time instead of just me."

"I don't think it did any damage..." Willow began, then trailed off. "Buffy, what are you... Buffy, are you okay?"

Dawn heard the van's passenger door open. She pulled herself away from the window long enough to see her sister disappear out onto the road, then run around the front of the van and out onto the grassy verge. It could only mean she'd seen it, too; and that meant Wes had to be up there! Dawn struggled with her seatbelt buckle for a moment, then bolted out of the van after her.

The outside air was refreshing after being cooped up in the van, full of the clean scents of water, earth and grass, but the setting sun was in Dawn's eyes, making them water as she ran. She nearly tripped over Buffy when her sister stopped suddenly, dropping to her knees beside a hunched figure. The man was wearing jeans and a leather jacket over one of Wes' blue shirts, but his clothes were slashed in several places and he was covered with blood. Whatever had happened before he got away from the Watchers hadn't been fun for him.

"Wesley? Wes, c'mon, we've got to get moving," Buffy said urgently, touching his shoulder. "We can't afford to get caught out here... Wes! What's wrong?"

The ex-Watcher lifted his head, and Dawn shuddered at the grief and anger she could see in his expression. "Dumbass!" she hissed to Buffy. It should be obvious, even to her egocentric elder sister, what was wrong. "He saw everything we did!"

Buffy flinched but persevered. "She isn't dead, Wes. Didn't you say you gave her something? Something that would keep her safe if she ever got captured, at least until you came for her? I don't know what it was or what it was supposed to do, but I know it worked; Faith isn't dead, Wes. I could feel her in there. I could feel her."

"It wasn't meant to last this long!" he shouted back, finally responding. "A matter of hours, that was all the talisman was meant to hold her for! If I don't reach her before dawn tomorrow..."

"Then we'll find her tonight," Buffy said, her voice low and deadly. "You got what you went there for, right? That guy, he threw you something before your spell went wonky-- we saw it on the camera footage."

"Camera footage?" Wes stared at her dazedly for a second, obviously surprised by the reference, but then pressed one hand up against his jacket as if protecting something. "Y-yes," he said, sanity creeping back into his expression. "Yes, I have it-- Cyril swore it contained the information I was looking for."

"And you trust this guy?" Dawn said, skeptically. "Isn't he the one who sprang the trap on you?"

Buffy threw her a glare at that, and Dawn winced. Yeah, the last thing they needed was a crazy Destroyer on their hands, and Buffy had almost had him calmed down. Fortunately, though, Wesley didn't react to her question; he was struggling to his feet already, one hand clasped around what looked like a computer CD case, his thoughts already miles away.

"Do you have a computer with you?" he asked urgently.

Dawn glanced back toward the van. Cordy had apparently moved it to one side of the road so traffic could still get by, and the others were slowly swarming out of it, staring up after them. Willow was among them, busy talking to Tara about something, her red hair as vibrant as a flame in the setting sun's light.

"Of course," Buffy assured him. "Have you ever known Willow to go anywhere without her laptop? I'm sure she'll let you use it."

He relaxed just a little at her answer, and let her and Dawn latch onto his arms to help him down the hill. Dawn had no idea how he'd kept moving so long, as battered as he was; if that was as much as he'd healed in the three or four hours since the attack, she was amazed he'd made it out at all. He flinched a little when the others swarmed around him back at the van, and frowned when he realized Giles wasn't among them, but he seemed to accept the explanation for that with only a grim frown; he was too focused on the CD, and Faith's whereabouts, to react much.

When they'd first hooked up, Dawn had been flabbergasted at the very idea of them being together after all they'd put each other through. It hadn't been very long since he'd been the tweedy, nerdy, arrogant Watcher, and Faith had been a wicked, murderous ho. Dawn had come to realize, though, that both of them had the same intensity, deep down; she didn't understand a lot of it, but that didn't mean she couldn't see it. They challenged each other, and loved each other to the point of obsession.

And seriously, if she had to get kidnapped again someday? Dawn would hope her boyfriend would be half as dedicated to getting her back as Wesley was. It took him maybe ten minutes to figure out their next destination from the CD, and then they were off again, without so much as stopping to do more than patch him up with the first aid kit.

Maybe things were going to work out after all. Dawn settled back against the window in the van, staring out into the growing dusk, and allowed herself to hope.

Chapter Nineteen: Change of State

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 11:10 AM PST (7:10 PM GMT)


Lilah Morgan snapped her cell phone shut with a bitter, self-satisfied smile. She'd known from the beginning that getting the information she wanted out of McNamara would likely require multiple contacts and negotiation strategies, and Gavin had made the problem even thornier with his poisonous interference. But, like many others before him, he'd underestimated the strength of her conviction and her imagination; she always found another way to move forward, no matter what was conjured up to slow her down.

The technological option would have been the easiest route to take, but she still had contacts in this city, and McNamara was hardly the only former member of the Initiative to remember the disposition of Hostile 17. Lilah'd had to talk fast to get Mrs. Finn to put her husband on the phone, and the young Captain hadn't been able to give her access to the exact schematics of the behavioral modification chip, but he had remembered enough about its nature and construction for her to go ahead with Plan B. He'd had one of his own, if she remembered his file right, and must have looked up the details at least once after joining the majority of the Initiative survivors in their roving demon-hunting squad.

From the sound of things, a pretty rare combination of materials had gone into the chips' construction; Maggie Walsh had been aware of HSTs for some time before gaining approval for her little project, and she must have picked up enough experience with other aspects of the supernatural to run experiments with magic, too. That was the only explanation for some of the ingredients Finn had mentioned. Apparently, it took more than wires, plastic, and programming to affect a demon's basic impulses; it took compulsion spells and pain enchantments, too, worked right into the chip's physical make-up. Which meant that flipping switches might not have been enough to do the job, anyway, no matter what McNamara's records said.

Fortunately, Lilah's secondary solution had involved attacking the problem from a new angle altogether. She had called in one of her shrinking number of markers to acquire the services of a dark warlock-- not quite as powerful as Vail, who hadn't been seen or heard from since the local branch of the Firm was obliterated, but powerful enough to do the job-- and she'd sweetened the deal with some of the bounty the Council had paid her.

If Gavin really did report to Master Tarfall and had told the demon lord about her deal with the Watchers, then Lilah's grip on the money was tenuous anyway. Better to spend some of it now in pursuit of a goal that she could paint to the benefit of Wolfram and Hart, trumping Gavin's not-yet-implemented byzantine plans, than to lose it all anyway because a disaffected former co-worker had poisoned the Senior Partners against her. It was a risk, of course; if Spike did not act as she expected him to when his leash was removed, then no amount of plotting or groveling would restore her to favor. But if it did...

She glanced down at the designer watch clasping her wrist, and watched the sweep of the second hand as it inched toward the time the warlock had claimed he'd be done with his spellwork. Lilah hadn't had anything available with enough of an association with Spike for the man to use as a focus for his locating spells, but the information she'd given him about the implant had been an adequate substitute; as she'd expected, he'd be able to search for the combination of materials that went into the chip in conjunction with the metaphysical essence of a vampire within a certain radius of Los Angeles. Once that unique identifier coalesced on his map, he would then turn every scrap of silver within a one-meter radius of said vampire into lead.

The warlock, Rack, had been quite bemused when she'd asked him if he knew anything about alchemy; he'd laughingly informed her that turning lead into gold would end up costing more in magical supplies than the worth of the gold itself. The smile had dropped out of his tone of voice, replaced by intrigued respect, when she'd told him that gold wasn't her goal at all. While gold was less conductive than copper and silver, lead was even less so; much less so, as a matter of fact. And while it was difficult to precisely target a spell at a distance, a roughly two-meter circle should be a large enough buffer zone to guarantee results.

If Spike's chip still worked after Rack's magic was through with him, Lilah would be very surprised.

"Let's see you spin that one to your precious Master Tarfall," Lilah said aloud as the time expired. Not that she expected Gavin to hear her; she had left her apartment after his call an hour ago to search out the nearest sanctuary space in town, a restaurant and bar not too different from the club Angel's pet Pylean had owned before his little Fang Gang had bulldozed their way through it one time too many. The sanctuary spell cast over the interior of this place, however, prevented more than just physical violence; it was calibrated to block most technological and magical methods of eavesdropping, as well. If it might drive away customers, the owner was determined to prevent it, and that had worked in Lilah's favor more than once over the years.

"Considering the fact that he just wasted one of the Firm's major markers against the Initiative, for no return?" an amused voice drawled suddenly in her ear. "Yeah, I'd say he'll have some explaining to do."

Lilah steeled herself not to flinch, then glanced over at the figure seated beside her in the booth. "Sahjhan, how... pleasant to see you again," she said, through clenched teeth. "I assume you're here to pay up on our little agreement?"

"I am a being of my word," he said amiably, favoring her with a scarred, shark-like smile. "You took out the chip; I tell you how to find Connor. Though I don't doubt you'd have figured it out soon enough on your own."

"Of course," she said, returning him smile for smile. If true, that would certainly explain his willingness to give up such valuable information at such a relatively cheap price; she'd half-expected him to wait until Spike's actions could be confirmed, or else to give her another task to perform before he'd talk. But of course, it would do him no good to sit on the information if she was able to uncover it herself.

Bastard. Maybe she should have asked for more. Too late now, of course.

"I appreciate your quick response," she continued, coolly. "I hadn't expected you so soon."

Sahjhan laughed. "Believe me, I want to see the boy reduced to his constituent parts as much as you do," he said. "The quicker you take him out, the better both our lives will be."

Lilah took a deep breath, striving to hold on to her patience, and released it through her nose. "That would be easier to arrange if you'd actually give me his name," she prompted him.

"You sure you want me to just blurt it out?" he taunted. "A revelation of this magnitude needs a little lead-up, I think. Why don't you order another glass of wine? C'mon, live a little."

"Oh, I think there's been enough lead-up already," she replied, refusing to give him the satisfaction he was looking for.

"Oh, all right, all right," he sighed, sliding out of the booth. "You ready for this? It starts with a W and ends in ice; add the nickname Destroyer, and that should suffice." He gave her a mocking bow, then disappeared, flitting off elsewhere in the timestream.

Lilah snarled after him, then picked her way through the mangled Robert Frost quote to come up with the only name she knew that fit the bill-- Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.

"Fuck," she muttered, kicking the base of the table in front of her. "Fuck! All this time, he's been right here in front of me. And then I had to kidnap his girlfriend and turn her over-- Shit! If the Council gets their hands on him, too...."

She fumed. So much for her plans to use Angel's son against him; whatever Holtz had done to ensure that Connor grew up hating the very thought of the leader of the Scourge of Europe, he'd still managed to end up as Angel's right arm. No wonder the vampire had taken him back in after the kidnapping debacle! She'd heard reports from various associates about Angel's abortive attempt to kill Wes, but the expected lengthy estrangement had never materialized; Wes had been right back in the thick of things with Angel Investigations in no time.

If what Sahjhan had just told her was true-- and she could see no benefit to him to lie about this-- then Angel's son was more than just a prophetic focus and potential weapon; he was also a vital cog in Angel Investigations' recently expanded operations. Forget killing him; whoever controlled him would have leverage over whichever of the Powers' current Champions survived Spike's rampage. And at the rate things were going, that 'whoever' was going to be the Watchers' Council.

I wonder what the Senior Partners would have to say about that? she wondered, and smiled grimly as she recalled Gavin's cavalier attitude earlier when they'd discussed her deal with Sahjhan. If she'd just 'let it go' as he'd mockingly advised her to do, then she would still be clueless about the bigger picture. Master Tarfall might forgive him his oversight regarding Spike's chip, but this?

Lilah flipped her cell phone open again to dial her travel agent's number. Wolfram and Hart agents there were already involved in the operation to hinder Faith's friends from their attempts to recover her, but when they found out about Connor's new identity... well, priorities might change. She didn't want to lose him to another branch; this was her deal, and she would be the one to benefit from it, which meant she needed to be there, on the ground, when he was dealt with.

Not to mention, if things went wrong? Being far away from Los Angeles when it happened might just save her life. If Mesektet was truly out of the picture, then the perpetuity clause on her contract might have died with the branch of Wolfram and Hart that had hired Lilah-- but Lilah knew better than to bet against the embodiment of darkness. Distance, and more powerful protection, was her best option to save herself.

Hopefully, she wouldn't need that option. But she wouldn't be Lilah Morgan without at least one back-up plan in her pocket.

If she hurried, she might still have time to pack a few necessities before catching a flight.

Chapter Twenty: Bridging the Gaps

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 11:15 AM PST (7:15 PM GMT)


They'd been on the road again for nearly two hours when the hair abruptly stood up on the back of Jonathan's neck. He looked up from Fred's laptop, which they'd perched half on his lap and half on hers while they tried to pick identifying information out of the video Willow had emailed to them, and stared blankly out the window for several long seconds as he tried to pin down whether it was just paranoia or if someone really was out to get them. Again.

"Jonathan?" Fred prompted him. "Something wrong?"

"I don't know," he mused. "I feel like maybe someone's walking over my grave?" He shuddered.

Outside, the late morning sun shone brightly down as the moving van entered the outskirts of Los Angeles. Gunn was driving, slowly merging over toward the rightmost lane of the freeway as the mile markers counted down toward their exit. There was a lot of Saturday morning traffic sharing the road with them, so it would probably still be a while before they reached the hotel, but a quick glance out the window at the nearest cars showed nothing out of the ordinary. Jonathan couldn't think of anything else that might have triggered his instincts-- unless someone was casting a spell at them from a distance?

But as quickly as the thought came to him, the anticipatory feeling in the air intensified: within the span of a couple of seconds his skin prickled all over, his stomach turned over-- and then a bunch of other bizarre things started happening all at once.

The laptop's keyboard made a sort of dying electronics fzzt sound, and the display went black without even the courtesy of a blue screen warning. The digital display on the clock radio went dark at the same time, and the van's engine made a series of unusual noises he could only call 'alarming' with no automotive experience to draw from. Fred sucked in a sharp breath and clapped a hand over the delicate necklace chain that had survived her undercover outfit change in Vegas. And a strangled roar like an animal in pain carried through the wall between the back of the van and Jonathan's seat.

Jonathan jerked his hands away from the laptop, fingertips tingling with the sudden discharge of energy. "I guess our curse just struck again."

"No shit," Gunn said, wrestling with the wheel as the van abruptly started to lose speed. "I think I'm gonna have to take the next exit, whether it's the right one or not!"

Jonathan grabbed for the laptop as it started to slide, closing up what he suspected had just become a very expensive paperweight, and shoved it into the foot well. Then he flailed for the passenger door and gripped the handle for dear life, wincing as Fred dug blunt fingernails into his thigh.

Couldn't the next disaster at least have waited until they got to the Hyperion? They were already behind on news from the rest of their friends since Giles had been arrested a couple of hours before, and now they'd be delayed even longer in reaching them. If it hadn't been for the fact that Ethan Rayne was already mixed up in events overseas, he would have suspected the man had cast some type of negative luck spell on them; that kind of ambivalent magic was right up his blood father's alley.

"Did we get hit by some kind of electromagnetic pulse?" Fred asked, glancing over her shoulder toward the back of the cab as the indecipherable shouting behind them petered out into a spate of short, sharp words that-- considering who was back there-- were probably British curse words. She was absently rubbing her breastbone with her free hand under her necklace; it looked different somehow too, duller maybe, though he was no jewelry expert. "But that doesn't make any sense; there should have been more cars affected."

Startled horn blares sounded around them as Gunn cut in front of a passenger car trying to pass them in the right lane-- and then they were coasting down the exit ramp, still slowing rapidly. The ramp curved in a wide spiral with a lawn-like patch in the center, circling around to join another freeway headed off to the left of their route; they weren't going to make that freeway, but the grass looked promising.

"Where our luck's concerned?" Gunn snorted, his voice strained as aimed the van into the verge. He left the rest of the statement as a rhetorical exercise while the wheels jolted and they rumbled over loose pebbles and weeds. Jonathan's grip spasmed on the door handle; then they finally came to a halt just short of a sign informing drivers of an impending merge, and he let out a relieved breath.

Gunn slumped against the steering wheel as the van settled, engine ticking with the release of heat. "So," he continued. "What now? That shit ain't natural. But we got all the Slayer's stuff in the back; we can't just abandon it, and it's almost noon. How are we gonna get Angel and Spike to the hotel from here?"

"Call a tow truck?" Jonathan joked. Sure, they were cut off from the city around them and its handy sewer system by a sea of cars, but: cars. "Then call a cab?" Surely whoever had cursed them would at least wait until there were fewer potential witnesses around to come after them again. Right?

"That might work, if...." Fred leaned forward to reach for the cell phone Jonathan had tossed up on the dashboard, and turned it over to show him-- its display screen had gone black, too. "No; it looks like whatever it was got the phone, too," she frowned.

Jonathan stared at the phone, then at the laptop, then the dash of the van-- then turned his head toward the back of the cab as the muffled cursing tapered off. One of these things is not like the others: he could almost hear the Sesame Street jingle running through his thoughts. One of these things does not belong....

...But as quick as the suspicion formed, he dismissed it. If Spike's chip was vulnerable to a spell capable of taking out ordinary electronics, surely he'd have tried that a long time ago. No, whatever was going on, the weirdness was Fred's necklace, not the behavioral modification device in Spike's head. Maybe the British vampire had been wearing something that reacted to the spell, too.

He swallowed nervously, glancing at the back of the cab again, listening for more sounds of mayhem. Spike in a towering mood made his guts go all watery even on the best of days; that time when Spike had taken him from Sunnydale to L.A. on his bike so they could save Buffy and Dawn from Wolfram and Hart had been simultaneously one of the most exciting and terrifying days of his life. But even if he was in pain, even if-- and surely it wasn't possible-- the chip was dead, Angel had an eye on him. Right?

"There's, uh, that sunblock spell I was working on?" he offered. "It isn't perfect yet, it'll probably only last an hour or so, but it should be enough to get us to a phone." He'd stashed his duffel slash magic kit behind the seat; he was pretty sure he'd brought the right ingredients with him.

Gunn gave him a considering look, then nodded. "Do it, then. Then we better start hiking our way out of this mess. I don't like the idea of being stuck here while everyone else is in danger-- just our luck someone'll come for us, too."

"Maybe we won't have to," Fred offered optimistically. "Pop the hood for me; I'll go stand out there looking like I don't know my way around an engine while you take care of the others, and just you see how long it'll take for someone to stop and let me use their phone." She offered Gunn a wry smile, then followed her boyfriend as he did as she asked and then slid out. Gunn dropped an appreciative kiss on her lips, then stood aside so she could edge forward, tiptoeing carefully along the narrow space between that side of the van and traffic still flooding by them down the exit ramp.

Fred caught herself against the van as she nearly tripped, then disappeared around the hood. Then Gunn turned and looked back into the cab, raising an eyebrow at Jonathan.

He sighed, then rummaged in the glove box for the rental agreement; they'd need it when they called the tow truck, wherever they were. Then he jumped down to follow Gunn around the back, snagging his duffel bag as he went, walking carefully on the uneven ground.

Gunn was already knocking on the roll-up door at the back of the van when he got there, calling to the three inside. "Angel? Lorne? ...Spike? You guys okay in there?"

"A little nauseous, sweetcheeks, but then, green is hardly a new color for me," Lorne's voice carried back to them.

"I'm all right, but whatever just happened burned Spike-- what the hell is going on?"

Burned him? Jonathan raised his eyebrows as Gunn worked at the lock and raised the door a crack, just enough to see inside without exposing the vampires directly to sunlight before the spell was finished. He was relieved that he'd been right that something other than the chip was behind Spike's shouting, but puzzled at the same time. "Burned how?" he called, setting his duffel down in the weeds, and bent to rummage inside for ingredients.

"M'rings all flared up, like someone heated 'em over a forge," Spike replied, voice terse with pain and annoyance. "Bracelet and necklace, too. They're darker now, like they've been scorched-- what the bloody hell hit us?"

Spike did wear an awful lot of jewelry for a guy; more than Angel, or any of the other Scoobies. Jonathan frowned, picturing the rings Spike habitually wore as his fingers closed around the little tube of Coppertone he carried around; he didn't make a habit of staring at the vampire's hands, but he'd noticed the simple silver bands on Spike's right thumb and middle finger, and the braided one on his left index finger.

Silver. Which was... also an ingredient in car batteries, circuit boards, and a lot of other electronics. Duh.

"Sounds like someone pulled off some pretty advanced alchemy," he shook his head. "It turned all the silver in the van into something else. Though I can't imagine why-- it's a lot of effort for not much reward." Unless they were trying for an untraceable attack, like a car wreck, because what cop would test the van's battery looking for its cause? And yeah, that didn't make him feel any better.

"Reward definitely isn't the word I would use," Spike scoffed.

"We can figure it out when we get to the hotel. Brace yourself; I'm gonna try that sunscreen spell," he said.

The main ingredient was a blob of sunscreen, for obvious reasons: ever since some smart guy in World War II had used a byproduct of crude oil refinement called red veterinary petrolatum to block UV absorption, various iterations of greasy, lotiony substances had been a symbol of holding back the sun's rays. He smeared the sunscreen on a lens from a broken pair of sunglasses, to strengthen the association, then started to hum under his breath. The graduation essay turned song was a much newer link than the physical parts of the spell, but it was well-known, and it came to Jonathan's mind quicker than any other sunscreen related song; that made it a strong enough sonic element to use.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future....

"Baz Lurhman? Really?" Gunn snorted at his side, catching the tune.

"Just-- shut up. I'm concentrating here." Jonathan flushed, throwing him a narrow-eyed glare, then finally muttered the keyword of the spell in Latin. A flare of energy left him, rushing out in all directions, and he stumbled, bracing himself against the van's rear bumper. Crap; he'd forgotten that casting without specifically daubing the vampires with the sunscreen first would mean it affected everyone in the group. Oh well; it wasn't like it would hurt the rest of them.

He heard someone sniff inside, and then Lorne made a gagging sound. "I love the smell of coconut as much as the next demon, but not that much," the Pylean said. "I hope it worked, because I'm really not looking forward to spending any more time in an enclosed space with that scent."

"Let's see." Footfalls sounded inside; then pale hands, ringless, thrust out under the door. "You know, I'll never really get tired of being able to do that," Angel said, wiggling his fingers. "And this time, without even having to go to another dimension first," the older vampire continued, grinning as he shoved the door up and then tipped his face up to the sun. "You know, you're turning out to be a pretty handy guy. Never would have expected that when you turned up in L.A. wearing Riley Finn's face."

Jonathan blushed harder at that; he still wasn't really used to being considered a White Hat, but it did have its benefits. If Warren and Andrew had ever been half as complimentary as his new friends, he might never have been discontented enough to leave the Trio in the first place, and while his new life had plenty of complications of its own, he felt a lot better about who he was now.

"You can make the J-man blush later; let's get around the side of the van so Fred can do her thing," Gunn said. "I don't want to be here any longer than we have to, either."

Spike squinted as he followed Angel out; he looked even paler than usual, and wore a pained expression as he glanced up at the sun. Lorne came next, already wearing his hat, though he didn't usually attract much more notice than a regular guy in costume in Los Angeles. The three of them were already muttering between themselves as they trailed Gunn into the grassy area... which left Jonathan as the last one standing there to pull the door back down.

Well, that just figured, didn't it? Jonathan sighed to himself; so much for the ego boost. He carefully climbed up on the bumper, reaching for the handles, and turned his face to the side as he tugged, trying to get enough leverage for his lesser strength and weight to perform the same task Angel had managed with no effort at all.

He was right in the middle of that task when a cab zoomed down the on ramp past them, slowing slightly as it passed them by. Jonathan was in just the right position to get a really good look at the woman seated in the back, holding a little folder in one hand as she chatted on her own phone... the kind that travel documents came in. He nearly choked on his own breath as he recognized her. What were the odds?

"And I can't even tell you how much I don't like the sound of that," Gunn snarked, walking back around the corner of the van. "What rates an 'oh shit' now when the van dying didn't? Do I need to get my axe out from behind the seat?"

Had he said that out loud? Jonathan winced. "I just saw Lilah Morgan. In a cab. Dressed like she was on her way to the airport," he managed to reply, then swore again as the door finally rattled down, smashing into his toes before he could jump down.

"You're sure?" Fred commented, turning to look after the cab from her pose at the front of the van. "I didn't get a good look, but I did notice there was a dark-haired woman...."

"I'm sure," Jonathan said, grimly.

"Then clearly, this isn't working quickly enough; we need to get to the airport now," Fred decided.

And without any further ado, she stepped right out into the flow of traffic.

Chapter Twenty-One: Contingency Planning

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 11:38 AM PST (7:38 PM GMT)


Spike had known the minute the spell had gone off what had happened. That manipulative git Sahjhan had warned him: "Save Angel for last," and all that rot.

What he hadn't warned Spike about was that the chip wouldn't be the only casualty. The burns on his hands and the lines of charred skin across neck and wrist weren't anything to write home about, not compared to the agony in his skull, but they were still an unpleasant surprise. At least they did come with one not-quite-silver lining: the obvious wounds kept the great brooding wonder from jumping to accurate conclusions when Spike suddenly cursed in pain.

Good thing, too. He didn't think much of the incorporeal wanker's timing. For one thing, he'd hoped to drop a word in Wes' ear first, so someone who wouldn't stake before asking questions would know what was what. And for another... wouldn't have done Sahjhan any good to let the Slayer of Slayers off his leash if he'd been turned to dust seconds later by his suspicious grandsire, now would it?

The next few minutes were a bit of a blur, from junior chaos' sunscreen spell filling his nose with pungent fumes, to the lawyer bint's unexpected drive by, to little Fred taking it in her head to literally stop traffic; it was hard to think about his next move through the instant bloody migraine.

Fortunately for Fred, the driver she'd stepped in front of had the reflexes of a mountain goat, and managed to dodge round her with no more damage than a snout full of burning rubber. And that gave the second driver just enough room to hit his brakes when she started waving her arms about in front of him like a bloody cheerleader. Bumper stopped just a few inches short of her knobby knees.

Even better, the owner of that car, a luxury sedan with a paint job that would have looked better on Spike's fingernails, had a sense of entitlement larger than the Slayer's and was in no mood to properly appreciate Fred's girlish charms. He was out of his car in a hot second, waving his mobile around and prosing on about lawyers, dressed like a ridiculous cliché of a Hollywood producer. Charlie-boy stepped up and cold-cocked him before the threats got even remotely interesting, then stowed him in the boot while cars stacked up behind them on the off-ramp, horns blaring.

Was a tight fit for six in the car, but at least it was more comfortable than walking, and Spike was hardly in any mood to complain. He wedged himself in behind the driver, Lorne sandwiched between him and Angel, and rested his forehead against the window in some faint hope that it would quiet the throbbing. Between the unaccustomed sunshine and the constant nervous babble going on in the front seat, though, there wasn't much respite to be had. He shut his eyes, resolutely ignoring Lorne's side-eyed glances, and tried to sort through his thoughts about what to do next.

The last time he'd thought the chip was out, he had to admit, had not been one of his finer moments. He'd decided to prove to the Slayer that he was still the Big Bad, not the doormat she took him for, and immediately sought a warm neck to sink his teeth into. The random woman he'd accosted in an alley had emerged from the event unscathed; but Buffy... well. His attempt to drag her down to his level had misfired badly. She might've tarnished that halo a bit, might've even had a little fun along the way, but the further down she went, the more miserable she got. And that hadn't been his aim at all.

Love's Bitch, and all. He wasn't bloody Angelus. He'd just thought that seeing as how she'd come back not quite so human after all, and didn't seem to be fitting well back into the sunlight world, that she'd find her feet to both his benefit and hers in the shadows where he'd been exiled once the Scoobies decided they could live without his help. In short, he'd courted her as though she actually was another demon.

He knew better now, of course. And more to the point: so did Buffy. She'd found purpose again in that new prophecy of hers, and that had given her back some of the vitality and shine she'd been missing. She was letting herself live again. And funny thing, as her gloom had lifted, as she and her friends found something more to do than sit around and eat their own livers, she'd actually begun reaching out to him again, no prompting required. Crying on his shoulder, when he'd told her about her Dad. Trusting him with the heavy lifting. Holding actual conversations. And if it wasn't more than that yet... well, it was still progress. No more talk of him being only an evil thing; she was treating him like a man again.

The last thing in the world Spike wanted to do was derail that progress. Not even for some vague promise of his lost, lovely Dru. He still didn't give any more of a damn about random Happy Meals with legs than ever-- but while he might not have a conscience, might not have a soul, might not even have the excuse of an electronic leash any more, he was still capable of making his own choices. So what if they were more along the lines of 'do as the Slayer would do' than 'do what's right'? Came down to the same bloody thing, didn't it?

And seen in that light: his path was obvious. He'd simply have to find some other way to deal with Sahjhan; Spike had neither the patience nor the desire to string the demon along any more, when it would almost inevitably lead him to cross Buffy. Whether that meant revealing the deactivation of the chip-- he'd just have to take events as they came. It was what he'd always done; he followed his blood, no matter how many problems that might cause him.

He lifted his head away from the window as they pulled into a thankfully well-shaded car park, tossed the ticket in the boot with the still-cursing driver, and made their way into the airport terminal.

Spike had never been a frequent flyer, not as a paying passenger; too much light got in through the cabin windows for a vampire to be aloft during the day, and few flight schedules catered to creatures of the night enough to allow for both departure and arrival during the hours of darkness. But terminals of every sort were alike: long lines of people waiting at ticket counters and security checkpoints, travellers milling about with bags on rollers, children in tears as family members said their farewells, lively chaos everywhere he looked. The perfect environment for a hunt...

...if he was only looking to cull one lonely human from the herd. Finding one particular human amongst the lot? Not the easiest task.

"I don't suppose we have any idea what airline she might be using?" Fred said doubtfully, staring around the gleaming, skylit lobby of the international terminal.

"Well, I'd assume she's probably headed for London, so my guess would be British Airways," Spike replied, rolling his eyes.

"And we'd better hope she hasn't already gone through security," Angel added. "We don't have any of our magical heavy-hitters with us-- no offence, Jonathan-- and they don't let non-passengers in the departure areas anymore."

"None taken," Jonathan sighed. "Besides, I think I'd better save what I do have in case I need to reapply the sunscreen spell again-- it's awfully bright in here." He cast a doubtful glance up toward the ceiling.

"Right then. So we'd better split up; you said she was wearing a navy suit, right?"

"Right," Jonathan confirmed. "She had her hair down, no scarf or anything, but I couldn't see her shoes or jewellery."

"Then it'll be just like finding a needle in a room full of pincushions," the Host sighed.

There were a considerable lot of businesswomen amidst the throng in the terminal; Spike didn't blame Lorne for the attitude. But the plan suited him well enough. Get him away from the others; give him a bit more time to shake the rust out, get his nerves settled before Peaches started putting two and two together. "Let's get started then, shall we?" he said, shouldering past his grandsire and heading for one of the security lines.

He didn't quite shake all of the others; they scattered in pairs, Lorne keeping Angel company, and Fred with her boyfriend at her side. That left Short Stack trotting at Spike's heels. Not an unfamiliar experience, the last few months; the younger Rayne was an annoying little geek, but at least he was the non-judgmental sort. Spike lifted a shamefully unattended suitcase as he strode by a row of seats-- someone hadn't been listening to the warnings broadcast incessantly over the intercoms, their loss-- and strolled down one of the aisles of ticket counters, shielding his awkward companion with the force of his natural charm.

"You'll really think we'll find her?" Jonathan asked, as they walked past traveller after traveller. "I mean, if we got here before her, we might see her come through, but that's a pretty big if. Do you think we're really gonna catch her checking her bags? I've never had that kind of luck."

"Yeah? I think your still being alive, and working with the Slayer after all you did, might say otherwise," Spike drawled, then stopped short, gaze drawn to a woman with glossy brown locks, the poise of a professional, the aforementioned navy suit, and a clipped, impatient tone in her voice as she dealt with an agent. "See there... isn't that the bird we're looking for?"

"What? It can't be... oh my god, it is!" Jonathan hissed, grabbing his arm and dragging him off to one side, behind a forest of colourful informative signage. "It is her! Now what do we do?"

Spike shook him off with an irritable glare. His skin was beginning to tingle a little in the diffuse sunlight; it was hard to tell whether it was natural exposure after so long in the dark, or if the spell was failing, but better safe than dust. "What do you think we do? I'm going to have a little chat with her, while you recast that sunshade spell of yours."

"What?" Jonathan's eyes widened in exaggerated dismay. "But... but Angel isn't here! I'll have to cast it over the whole terminal!"

"Just the bit outside the security gates," Spike reminded him, smirking.

"Like that's any better!" he hissed.

"Should have thought of that before," Spike wagged a finger at him, then thrust the handle of his stolen bag into Jonathan's hands and sauntered toward Ms. Morgan.

The lady had finished with her business and was turning to join the lines at the security gates when Spike caught up to her. He didn't say anything right away; just stepped into her line of sight and raised a reproving eyebrow at her. He'd never actually met the woman face-to-face before, just saw the backside of her from a distance that time they'd invaded Wolfram and Hart to save Dawn and Buffy, and later glimpsed her unconscious on the floor on their way out of the building. He was certain she'd know his face, though; Lilah was a player, and she'd met the other three-quarters of the once-famous Scourge at one point or another. Not a chance she hadn't read a file on him at some point.

She stilled, freezing mid-step like a frightened doe, then visibly forced herself to relax, offering him a faint, knife-edged smile. "If it isn't William the Bloody. Well, this is a surprise. Done so soon? I'm impressed."

Done so soon? Spike wasn't quite gormless enough to actually blurt Done with what? but he couldn't stop his eyebrow from climbing higher. Of course Sahjhan had to've been working with someone corporeal, it simply hadn't occurred to him that the same woman who sold the darker Slayer to the enemy might be stirring the pot back home as well. And it should've.

Irritation crackled along his nerves, sharpening his tongue. "Might want to have your agent be a little more specific next time, luv," he replied with a chiding tsk. "He told me to save Angel for last, and that he didn't care what I did to the others. Seems to me I've already done that part. And as for enjoying my freedom?" He shifted his face, running his tongue over his fangs. "Well, that's what I'm here for, innit?"

Lilah flinched, dropping a hand to fumble around in her purse. "You wouldn't dare. Not in public. Not with the rest of your goody-two-shoes bunch around here somewhere. If you're not going to kill them, that means you care what they think of you."

"I'm standing in sunlight; do you really think an ordinary stake is going to hurt me?" He bluffed, reverting to human face as the gasps and double-takes of startled travellers began to disturb the flow of humanity around them. Better not to risk drawing security down on them just yet. "And who's to know what really happened if you just ... disappear?"

He took a long step forward, and she took a cautious step back, slipping her hand out of her purse and raising the stake between them. "I have resources," she said. "If you don't want to kill the Slayer's bunch-- there are other things I can get you. Anything you want."

"Sorry, ducks. The only thing I want is something the likes of you could never get me," he replied, advancing another step. "I'm afraid you're just going to have to resign yourself to...."

"Sahjhan won't stop," Lilah interrupted hastily, trying to take another step back, caught short as she collided with a metal pole supporting another sign. "I'm not his only contact, or his only angle of attack. He's not really even after you, but he'll ruin you if you don't stay out of his way."

"But you know how to stop him, I suppose," Spike shook his head. "Lilah, Lilah. I'm disappointed at such an obvious tactic. Don't you know, if you want to reel me in...."

He stopped short once again, interrupted in the middle of a thought-- but this time, Lilah wasn't the one causing the distraction.

The concrete under his feet shook, first with a mild, almost unnoticeable tremor, then in a sharp jerk, knocking him staggering. Screams went up all across the lobby; the light streaming down wavered, then increased as a sharp shattering noise came from far overhead. The tingle on Spike's skin briefly increased into a mild burn-- then cut off again as the scent of cocoanuts overwhelmed him for the second time in one day. Banners fluttered down from the ceiling as the shaking went on; several of those signs on poles toppled over in loud clatters against the ground, and everywhere around them people dropped to their knees, clutching the ground or skittering to defensible positions.

"Earthquake!" Jonathan said shakily, rushing up to his side as the shaking eased to a halt.

Lilah staggered in her heels, a tight grip on the pole she'd been pressed up against the only thing keeping her upright as she glared at the new addition to their little tête-à-tête. "No, it isn't. What did you do?"

She wasn't wrong; the last time Spike had felt the floor rattle that way, he'd had a pair of reading glasses perched on his nose, peeling his eyes for prophecies amongst the books at Angel's hotel. And if it was truly a sign that dark magic elsewhere was luring the Hellmouth on again... it signalled nothing good about events overseas. Events this woman's actions had set in motion.

"It isn't what we did that's the problem, luv. It's what you did," he informed her, coolly.

Her brows drew together. "I don't understand."

"Oh, you will," he said. "All the trouble you went to?" He sucked at his teeth. "A whole building lost, and how many co-workers to shift the Hellmouth to Los Angeles? And now it's moving again. I can't imagine your bosses will be pleased."

"You're lying," she spat at him. "That can't-- there's no way any of the Slayer's friends would cast a spell dark enough for that."

"They didn't have to," Spike replied, smugly. "You feel it yet? The difference? No amount of denial's going to bring it back."

Lilah's lips whitened. "If that's true, then I really do have to make this flight."

He couldn't tell if that was meant to be a plea; either way, it worked for him. "And what was that you were saying about Sahjhan?" he prompted, curling a hand around one ear.

"Spike, what are you doing?" Jonathan interjected.

Spike shrugged the boy off, still staring at Lilah. "Well?"

She stared back at him for a long moment, then exhaled sharply and reached into her purse again. Her hand disappeared somewhere into apparently enchanted depths-- then came up again with an artefact that looked like it belonged on Wes' shelves. "This is a Resikhian Urn. It'll trap his kind; it's the only thing that can. That is... if it isn't broken." She held it out by one handle, dangling it above the floor.

Spike tensed. "And I should believe that because...?"

"Believe it-- or don't, but it's the only chance you have to stop his plans," Lilah said, edging around until she stood in the aisle leading to the security gates.

"Now, Lilah, don't do anything rash--" Angel said, finally catching up to them, the rest of his flock at his heels.

She threw the urn up into the air, then turned and bolted for the nearest security line.

"Bollocks," Spike swore, reaching for the falling urn.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Self-Rescuing Damsels

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 7:08 PM (GMT)


Faith wasn't sure whether she felt more disappointed, worried, or relieved to open her eyes again after downing that goblet full of poison to find herself back on the dark, featureless plain where the avatar of the Powers had taunted her with a pair of disturbing visions. The heavy, crushing weight that had made it so hard to breathe and stolen the strength from her muscles had evaporated away in the time it had taken to blink; she felt five by five again... except for the small fact that her heart didn't seem to be beating, and she felt cold clear through, like she'd just gone for a swim in an icy lake.

A hand flew up to her chest as the stillness and unnatural quiet registered. She hadn't realized how strange it would feel for the constant background pulse of her life to stop; did it weird vampires out when they first woke up dead, or were they just too caught up in the raging blood lust to really notice? She clutched at her necklace, riding out the spike of adrenaline-fueled panic curdling in her gut. She'd had nightmares that started like that before-- she wouldn't be surprised if most Slayers did-- but none that felt so freakishly real.

Had she drunk the poison after all? Or had she just been dreaming this whole time?

A cool, steel-blue light began to glow from between her fingers, and Faith swallowed as a burst of magic washed up her arm, pushing the dregs of the panic away. It felt like stepping into a warm shower, letting the tension bleed out of bruised muscles; or maybe what one of Wesley's private, appreciative smiles might feel like, condensed down to its essence to keep her company while they were apart.

Okay, then, she thought, re-centered by that mental image. No need to go all crazy just yet. She made a tight fist with her free hand, then consciously relaxed it again, releasing the last of her fear with it. Then she turned in a slow circle, scanning the chill, starlit emptiness all around her for some sign what she was supposed to do next, reminding herself just why she'd taken such a crazy risk in the first place.

Wes had told her the enchanted silver necklace would protect her in "direst circumstances", and not just because it was a symbol of faith she could wield against a vampire if she lost her other weapons: the Christogram that had been used as a battle standard in Roman times, probably even more appropriate for a Slayer than Buffy's silver cross. There was nowhere Faith could go that it wouldn't bring Wes to her; no line she could cross that he couldn't pull her back from. Which meant, if it was more than just a flowery romantic line, that the choice his adoptive father had given her wasn't as simple as "bend the neck or die". She'd had a third option old Rich hadn't known about, one Wes had had a backup plan for.

At least, in theory. She'd staked a lot on that gamble.

Faith hadn't trusted a lot of people in her life, and most of those she did had let her down at one point or another. This thing with Wes, though, the common ground they'd found once they'd put old regrets away and taken a look behind each other's masks, the understanding they'd built brick by brick since: it meant as much to her as Angel giving her a chance after she nearly killed him, as Buffy inviting her under the same roof again after everything she'd done to the other Slayer and her family. She'd learned the hard way never to let anyone else control her life... but if there was ever a time to play the legit damsel in distress and hope for her prince to come, she'd finally reached that moment.

So far, so... well, if not good, at least not bad. Hence the relief; and, yeah, the disappointment too. She had to admit, it had crossed her mind that if she had to go out, that warm, peaceful place Buffy had spoken of so longingly didn't sound bad at all; she wouldn't mind waiting there for whatever came next. But she didn't think she'd earned that golden ticket just yet. The blonde Slayer might not actually be the Little Miss Righteous Faith had taken her for in the early days, but she'd also made the kind of selfless sacrifices mostly found in old, heroic legends. So really, the fact that Faith didn't feel flames tickling her toes already put her one step ahead of what she probably deserved.

...Right? Surely the Powers would have let her know if she'd got things wrong...?

Faith tightened her grip on the necklace again, feeling the points and smooth upper curve of the labarum press into her palm as a wave of vertigo assaulted her. It reminded her of what she imagined a sensory deprivation room would be like, with nothing but herself and the distant stars to focus on, and the endless quiet was starting to make her lose her grip. She'd learned patience in her time behind bars, but the frozen stillness around her was more than even Buffy's Zen werewolf buddy could probably handle. Wasn't someone going to come taunt her again, give her cryptic warnings or some shit? Show her how her choice had changed the visions? Surely she wasn't going to be stuck there forever...?

Dread splashed into her soul, like a drop of blood falling into a still pond: unfurling from her center to stain everything it touched, coiling in her gut and sending ugly tendrils out to knees and wrists and even toes, leaving her wobbly on her feet with a sudden drain of energy. How long was it going to take Wes to come for her, anyway? What if he'd been wrong? What if he couldn't find her?

"C'mon, lover," she said, voice cracking slightly as she spoke. "What are you waiting for? Just this once, I promise I won't make any princess jokes when you come riding to the rescue and I end up saving your fine ass instead."

The silence grew deeper after her voice stopped echoing, like a muffling blanket around her; she shivered, then opened her mouth again, moved by an irresistible urge to shout--

--but before she could, the featureless plain shook, and her nose twitched at the sharp scent of ozone. An indistinct murmur broke the silence instead, like a conversation heard through a door. Faith held her breath-- not that she really seemed to need it anyway-- and listened, hoping against hope.

The words grew clearer as she focused, and for a moment, she almost thought... but no; it was a woman's voice, not Wesley's. Not Dawn's, though, either; nor anyone else Faith might have thought the Powers would use as an avatar. It sounded like that Lydia chick, actually; the one from before. And... she could hear someone else replying, a younger British dude whose voice she didn't recognize.

" effect when the null field was released?" she thought he was saying.

"No; but there was a noticeable gathering of energy when the seeking spell was recast. It must be the necklace; something about it is preventing the transference of the Slayer Calling," Lydia Chalmers replied, her voice clearer than the other Watcher's.

Faith's brow furrowed. Had that energy been what brought the voices back? She couldn't see anything, not like the last time she'd watched someone loom over her sleeping body. But then, she wasn't really sleeping this time, was she? She closed her eyes, concentrating harder, and thought she felt a very faint warmth, like a trickle of energy just over her breastbone. Was someone else touching the necklace too?

"...wants it removed and studied," the boy confirmed, and she felt something else touch her at the words, a more muted energy that sent another shiver through her--

"Carefully," the female Watcher cautioned him; and after a moment, the shivery sensation went away. "There may be failsafes worked into the chain to prevent an unauthorized removal; this is, after all, an enchantment placed by a man who has known connections to a necromantic sorceress, a white witch, a Janus worshipper, and an elemental mage."

Funny how much scarier the Scoobies and company sounded when you described 'em that way. Was Lydia right? She'd been trying to get Faith out of there earlier; was she lying to the guy? Was she trying to get Faith to wake up? Would it even work, if she wasn't Wes? Though that trickle of energy did feel kinda nice, alleviating the dull, heavy ache growing behind her breastbone again....

As soon as she became aware of it, the pain that had choked all the air out of her lungs roared back from wherever it had gone when she'd entered the between-place, drowning out most of the second watcher's reply. "...then perhaps... think Travers should... Wait...!"

Faith flinched, regaining awareness just long enough to find herself on her knees in the dreamspace, curled forward around the anvil crushing her chest, reaching out for a necklace that felt like it had just been ripped from her fingers. They ached, all of her ached with the sudden increase in cold as she lost contact with the enchanted silver... what the fuck...?

"Fortis," she seemed to hear Wes say, the single word echoing loudly enough to blot out everything else going on; it was the only clear thing she could hear over the roaring in her ears. She still couldn't breathe, but she felt a gathering sense of energy again, a lot like what she'd felt that time she'd meditated with Wes to track Buffy in the Wolfram and Hart building, and then--

Faith's vision whited out as a lance of pure energy seemed to spear her through the chest; warmth, and light, and strength following the same path chill dread had taken through her veins, only three times as strong, driving everything out that didn't belong and leaving every nerve tingling in its wake. She felt her back arch, and a gasping breath dragged its way into her lungs--

"Wes," she croaked hoarsely as her heart lurched into motion again. She felt like she'd been kicked by a mule, but-- she also felt warm again. Whole. She blinked her eyes open to find herself flat on her back, staring into the face of a startled, bespectacled young man. Who wasn't her lover.

There was a ceiling behind him: a bland creamy color replacing the dim vault of stars. Did that mean she was alive again? Was she still in England? Faith struggled to make sense of what she was seeing, feeling heavy and sore and a little stupid, like the early days of Slaying when she'd woken out of nightmares about Kakistos after her latest futile attempt to drink and fuck the memories away.

The boy-Watcher gasped as she met his gaze, staggering back away from her, reaching for something on a side table and then making a swift, stabbing motion in her direction.

Faith blocked instinctively, feeling every muscle protest as she did: sore, yes, but back to her usual strength and quickness, thank fuck. Or... maybe a little more? Not that that made any sense. Or did it? Apocryphal stories about her sister Slayer's drowning experience fluttered in the back of her thoughts as she knocked his hand away and planted a bare foot in the middle of the kid's chest.

Bare? Yeah, someone had taken her boots off; and messed with her clothes, too. Her pants were still on, just unbuttoned, but her shirt had been torn open, nearly to the waist; the place where the necklace had rested was clearly visible between her naked breasts, a red mark burned on her chest in the shape of the Chi-Rho symbol. Anger pierced through her confusion, clearing her mind like the sharp, clear scent of Wes' favorite incense, and she shoved the guy off, kicking him all the way across the room. His head made a clearly audible thud as he impacted with the wall. Something small and cylindrical rolled away from limp, outstretched fingers.

"Wes?" Faith said again, hoarsely, glancing wildly around the room.

Lydia Chalmers uncurled from her crouched, self-protecting position against the wall, giving Faith a wary look behind her old maid's glasses. The broken chain from Faith's necklace dangled from her right hand, and there was a bright brand-mark across her palm, too. "I'm sorry; he isn't here. Faith...."

"What? Then how did you...." Faith coughed, feeling a faint echo of the earlier pain shoot through her, and pressed the heel of her hand against the new scar as she kicked her feet over the edge of the bed to push herself upright. "Damn; I feel like five miles of bad road. Where is he?"

Lydia just shook her head, stumbling over to her fellow Watcher's side on unsteady feet; she dropped to her knees again when she reached him, then caught up the syringe Faith had knocked from his hand and stabbed it into his leg. "I don't know; when Travers mentioned the necklace-- well, I wasn't even sure it would work, if Wesley still used the same triggers for preset enchantments as he did back at the Academy, but I had to do something. You have to get out of here while they're all busy, before they test the Potential Slayers again or send someone else in here to check Percy's work."

The boy-Watcher-- Percy? Really?-- groaned as the drug went into his thigh; his eyes fluttered open as he made a feeble attempt to swat Lydia's hand away, then rolled back in his head again as he slumped further against the wall.

"Get out...?" Faith repeated blankly, then pushed herself away from the bed with more urgency as she caught the other woman's meaning, looking around for her boots. If Travers and company found out she was up again before she got out of spell-casting range, her whole purpose in swallowing the poison in the first place would be wasted. Why the hell hadn't the woman just waited for Wes to wake Faith, then, or at least get her body out of the building first? Things had to be pretty dire if she was taking that risk.

"Right-- you said the Potentials were here?" she added, struck by a sudden thought as she finished straightening her clothes as best she could. "And that's where all the other Watchers are right now, the ones who're in this with Travers and ol' Dick?"

Lydia looked scandalized, but nodded in the affirmative as she got back to her feet. "All of Travers' cronies; though there are, of course, several others of the rank and file, elsewhere. Mostly the younger Watchers, and the special operations squads, who've been impatient with the Council's stagnant policies of late. Even most of those assigned to the Potentials; it's been several years now since a new Slayer was activated, and many of the field Watchers have been... restless." She took off her jacket as she spoke, handing it to Faith and carefully smoothing the wrinkles out of the pale blouse she'd worn beneath it.

Well, if Slayers had really been dropping like flies for most of the Council's existence... it did make a sick sort of sense. "You mean, they were getting impatient waiting for me to die," she said flatly, shrugging out of her ripped shirt and sliding her arms into the jacket. It was a tweedy monstrosity, a little long in the torso and snug under her breasts, exposing a deep vee of cleavage above the topmost button; but hell, call it a style update, at least it was better than letting the girls swing in the breeze.

Lydia nodded again. "I know Mr. Giles and your-- Wesley-- have pushed for reform in recent years, but I don't think this is the sort of reform they had in mind."

Faith snorted. "Yeah. No. So-- while they're distracted, what say we do something about that? Otherwise-- what's to stop 'em from just picking up where they left off and killing the next girl, too? "

"But what if they raise the null field again?" Lydia wrung her hands. "You'll be trapped!"

"Only this time I won't be drugged, unarmed, or locked away out of sight, out of mind." Faith turned out Percy's pockets, palming his knife and stake, then grinned and looked Lydia in the eye, still buoyed by Wes' spell and the Slayer energy zinging through her. How'd that quote of Xander's go...?

"I'm not the one who'll be trapped... they'll be the ones trapped here with me."

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Penny Drops

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:00 PM (GMT)


Wesley Wyndam-Pryce took a measured, calming breath, then let it out again as he stared through the windscreen and counted down the kilometres to their destination. Deciphering the digital images he'd retrieved from the Rollright installation had been only the work of a moment-- in retrospect, the answer had been incredibly obvious; he should have thought to look into Travers' maternal family's private landholdings before taking the risk of meeting another Watcher, no matter how well he'd thought he knew the man-- but the journey there was taking considerably longer than he'd like.

But then, any span of time longer than an instant would have been too long. He couldn't stop thinking about that last vision-induced image of Faith: lying dead-- or as close to death as made little difference-- atop an anonymous bed in a Council facility under Travers' aegis. If she did not recover....

He tore his thoughts away from that unproductive line, flexing his fingers on the hilt of the sword lying unsheathed across his thighs. She would recover; he'd doubted her before, to both of their detriment, and had long sworn to himself never to do so again.

The Summers girls had patched Wesley up enough to allow for a change of shirt and the use of Willow's laptop computer, then ushered him to the front passenger seat of the van they'd rented in London. No one had objected, or suggested that he take over the driving duties instead, despite his superior knowledge of the local road network, for which forbearance he would have to thank them later. He'd had a difficult enough time holding onto his equilibrium before he'd acquired rather pointed first-hand knowledge of just how far Travers would go to ensure the success of his attempt to consolidate the Council's power; simply remaining quiet and calm was taxing all the reserves he had left.

Buffy let him breathe in silence for some minutes, waving off the others when they began murmuring questions. But she leaned forward as the last rays of the sun slipped under the horizon, knitting her fingers together at the edge of his peripheral vision.

"So. You ready to talk now?" she asked, bluntly.

Wesley inclined his head, turning slightly for a better look at her, taking in the furrowed brow and determined expression on the senior Slayer's face. He would just as soon not have discussed his failings with the careless young woman whose initial mocking disapproval still stung three years later; but she wasn't that girl anymore, any more than he was that failure of a Watcher, and little good had ever come from his concealing uncomfortable truths from his friends.

"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."

"We intercepted part of a video sent to Travers earlier," she said. "It looked like you had Jonathan's dad with you for a while. But he's not with you now. What happened?"

Wesley frowned. He'd half-expected Buffy to lead with an accusation for leaving the other Slayers and his team behind with no more warning than a note left for Giles. But of course, everyone in the van had been prone to that sort of behaviour at one time or another; let he who was without sin cast the first stone.

"They were prepared for my visit; my informant reported my presence to the security team on site, and they cast a spell intending to trap me without access to magic. Some sort of containment void-- only ordinary humans are able to cross its boundaries."

Recognition flickered in Buffy's green eyes at the description. "They must've done the same thing to Faith; we felt it when you both disappeared off our radar at the same time. How'd you get out of it?"

Wesley shrugged. "I didn't. Much as he might quarrel with the term ordinary, Ethan Rayne is, in fact, a rather middling practitioner. It's his ingenuity and choice of deity that distinguish him from the general run of sorcerers, not his genetic or spiritual heritage."

"And they were expecting you to bring Giles, I bet, if you brought anyone, and it would've trapped him too," she mused. "So Ethan got you out?"

"He did indeed," Wesley confirmed, grimacing as he recalled his last sight of the man, spattered in blood, the second of Wesley's collapsible swords in his hands. The operatives in the lab complex had obviously expected to find Wesley incapacitated by the spell, alone, and easily taken; the presence of Rupert's old friend, yet another of the Council's exiles come home to roost, had been a rude surprise. Not to mention far more skilled with a blade than any of Travers' foot soldiers had been prepared to handle.

"He was able to leave the radius of the spell and damage enough of the supporting runes to bring it down," he continued, glossing right over the seemingly endless minutes of bladework that had got them to that point: of steel clashing against modern weapons, of torn flesh and bright pain, of taunts and refusal to yield as he served as a distraction for the chaos sorcerer's actions. Desperate fights were nothing new to Buffy, or to the other listeners filling the van's bench seats behind her; they'd fill that part in for themselves without the need to waste words on it.

"Fortunately for us," he continued, "it's a rather sensitive construct, requiring a great deal of preparation and maintenance-- we should be able to free Faith the same way, provided they're still holding her under the same enchantment."

"Sounds like a plan," Buffy nodded, fiddling with a knife of her own. He recognised it as an ornate Jackal knife, more a thing of fantasy than a functional fighting knife, though still quite sharp and deadly; close kin to one he knew held a certain significance in her history with Faith.

"Still not hearing what happened to Chaos Senior, though," Dawn piped up. "We're not gonna have to break the news to Jonathan, are we? Not that I care about Ethan Rayne, but, you know. Jonathan's kind of okay. He doesn't talk down to me, or treat me like a kid."

Wesley shook his head; that concern, at least, he could alleviate. "He drew them away from the stairwell for me; said he'd find his own way out. I'm afraid I wasn't in any shape to object at the time." He met Buffy's eyes, then, holding her gaze with careful emphasis. "After having been unexpectedly cut off from my new abilities after finally becoming accustomed to them... I find I have a much greater respect for any Slayer to survive her eighteenth birthday."

Buffy stared back, eyes darkening with old, painful memories. Then she squared her jaw and gave a nod of acknowledgement. "And that's another bone to pick with Travers after we run him to ground; thanks for reminding me. And here I'd thought Faith would miss out on that oh so thrilling tradition."

Wesley hadn't thought of Faith's kidnapping in those terms; but he realised that Travers very likely did. She'd been in prison during the weeks the Cruciamentum drugs would traditionally have been administered, and no Council wetworks team would have been able to reach her there. Had Travers been behind Wolfram and Hart releasing her from prison in the first place? It wouldn't surprise him.

"At least all you had to deal with was a psycho vampire who kidnapped your mom," Cordelia interrupted brightly, throwing a glance over her shoulder at Buffy. "Though you would have thought she'd have learned from your example: the deadly poison's supposed to go in the other guy, not the Slayer."

"You think?" Buffy batted back. "Or maybe she had the right idea, and I was the one doing it wrong. Maybe I could have just drunk the holy water myself instead of tricking Kralik into it-- that would have been a lot easier. Hey, Wes-- how quickly does holy water hit the bloodstream? Or does it just, like, depurify when you drink it?"

Wesley appreciated what the two were trying to do, and made an effort to rally in response. "As far as I'm aware, no one's ever made a study of it; or if they have, no surviving record exists."

Dawn huffed a laugh. "Yeah, I can imagine. 'Is it burning yet? Glurk!'" She clutched theatrically at the side of her throat.

"I don't know; Buffy does kind of have a tame vampire following her around. She could be the first! What do you think, Buff? Would Spike be willing to risk spontaneous demon combustion for the chance to taste Slayer blood?" Xander ducked a reactive swipe of the hand over the seats between the two with a chortle.

The Groosalugg chose that moment to add his own two pence, in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone. He'd been carrying on a conversation with the two Sunnydale witches, but the lot of them tended to forget that he wasn't limited to the human range of senses. "For many demons, the risk would only add to the sweetness of the reward; or perhaps spice, depending on flavour preferences. Though I have not observed your friend Spike to be a particularly bloodthirsty individual."

"Groo, honey...." Cordelia cast another glance back over her shoulder-- then grinned, her face lighting up with affection. "You're getting better at the dry joke thing. Almost got me that time."

Wesley shook his head, smiling a little despite himself. He would never have predicted that relationship, but the Groosalugg had been good for her. Of course, a lot of things had happened in the last few years-- particularly the last few months-- that he would never have predicted, he realised, smile fading.

"This is entirely my fault, you realise," he blurted, then winced as everyone else fell silent in the wake of his ill-timed words.

Cordelia threw a glare in his direction. "What the hell are you talking about? If you mean Groo's mastery of the English language, pretty sure he's managing that all on his own. With, of course, a teensy amount of help from yours truly. But if you mean the epic international vacation from hell, pretty sure that can be laid at the feet of Quentin Travers, asshole extraordinaire."

"Because he won my father's-- Richard Wyndam-Pryce's-- backing in certain matters on the Senior Council on which they'd previously always been at odds," he countered.

"Because of you?" Buffy asked sceptically. "From what I heard, it seemed like they were already on the same side when they showed up at the Hyperion with that box from Anya's friend."

Wesley tightened his jaw at the memory of the tiny keepsake box, and its contents; so small a thing, to herald so much change. "An alliance of circumstance, I assumed; and one that seems to have changed character since. I admit, Richard was not always the... most supportive parental figure, and his interest now is undoubtedly mercenary in nature as well. But for whatever reason, he wishes the news of my heritage to remain a secret enough to cooperate...."

He trailed off as his choice of words abruptly connected a series of previously unrelated facts in the back of his mind. "Ah. Mercenary. Of course." His grip on the sword hilt tightened again.

Back when he'd still believed himself to be wholly human, the demon Sahjhan had wakened Daniel Holtz from a centuries-long slumber to target Angel's infant son, in effect using the hunter as a mercenary to carry out those actions his own incorporeal nature prevented him from enacting with his own hands. He'd also, according to Angel's recounting of their first meeting, been in contact with Lilah Morgan-- the woman who'd sold Faith to Travers' faction of the Watchers Council only two days ago. Sahjhan had torn the fabric of space and time to get rid of Connor; then sent him back in time in Holtz' care when Quor-Toth had not appeared to affect him. Sahjhan had even appeared to Wesley afterward, hinting broadly that further surprises were yet to unfold. Why had he assumed that the time-traveling demon was not at least partially behind current events, as well?

"Care to translate that from Watcherese to English for us?" Xander asked, dryly, as the silence lengthened.

"When I first discovered what had happened to Angel's son," he replied slowly, mouth dry at the implications. "My father-- Richard Wyndam-Pryce-- said that he had seized the opportunity to mould a child of fate, but that I had never quite measured up to his expectations."

Cordelia made a scoffing noise. "Not just that; he said you'd failed even in succeeding. At dying. If he could say something like that, why should he even care whether people still think he's your father or not?"

"Because Sahjhan must have promised him something in exchange for raising me... well, not to put too fine a point on it, as a sheep for slaughter. A reward that he obviously hasn't yet been granted. Allowing Travers to believe he's blackmailing him into going along with this ill-thought-out plan has given him the perfect excuse to set me up again, without alerting any of the other Watchers to his private arrangements."

"That does sound kinda like something Sahjhan would do," Cordelia said. "Doesn't excuse ol' Rich, though; in fact, it makes him even more of a jerk. Doesn't make it your fault, either. Of all the traits you could have inherited from Angel, why did the tendency to brood have to be one of them?"

"Save it for later, guys-- we're about to cross the outer wardline," Willow interrupted from the back of the van. "We kept an eye out for that shield signature that kept showing up on the map; I can feel it up ahead, behind that line of trees."

Wes examined the surrounding scenery in the dim light of dusk; he hadn't been to that particular property before, but it seemed to match the contour map he'd seen when he'd pulled up the coordinates on Willow's computer. The trees she'd pointed out marched along the gravelled drive up to an aging manor house, concealed at the moment just beyond a low rise of hill crowned with gardens long gone to seed. "Yes, this is it; be ready. There likely aren't any perimeter guards on the property; that would be too conspicuous. But there will be magical defences against unauthorised entry."

"We can hold the w-ward so it doesn't react to our presence," Tara suggested. "But if we're busy with that, and they do see you...."

"Just get us inside," Buffy said, reaching forward between the seats to squeeze Wesley's arm. "We'll take care of the rest."

"Right. Crossing the ward...." Willow replied as they passed the line of trees and slowed to turn up the drive. The grass of the surrounding fields had begun to infiltrate the rocky lane; clear lanes of bent blades betrayed the presence of other recent visitors. "And... oh, goddess!"

Wesley could hear Tara gasp in an echo of Willow's startlement; it was almost drowned out by his own hiss of breath as a familiar prickly sensation played over his skin. Dark magic. Specifically, the type of magic he'd felt earlier that day, in the complex under the Rollright Stones.

But why should Travers' faction reactivate that spell at their safe house... unless they had need?


Urgency thrummed through his veins, and in that moment, the only thing that mattered to him was getting to his Slayer, no matter the risk.

"There's no time. They're casting the containment spell again; I must get inside the boundary before it finishes activating. Look for the runes-- I doubt you'll be able to lower it by brute force!"

He wrenched the passenger door open before he'd even finished speaking, then leaped out, hitting the ground as Cordelia turned to avoid the dry, cracked fountain sitting at the centre of the drive where it crested the hill to approach the house itself. Gravel sprayed under his feet as he caught his balance, running with the sword tucked close at his side; barely knitted cuts and bruises from his last fight added to the chorus of complaint following him from the van. Brakes squealed; he heard the other door open, and two or three more pairs of feet pounding after him, but he didn't dare look back.

If Faith's necklace had been discovered... if they'd discovered how to use it to wake her, or worse, if she'd perished despite his attempts to safeguard her and they sought to contain the newest Slayer in her place... he would do absolutely no good trapped outside the spell's reach. The seconds or minutes it would take to hunt down the runes and disrupt it could mean a young woman's life, quite possibly the woman whose life had become more important to him than his own.

The wide front doors of the modestly sized brick building opened as he approached the front steps; a startled-looking young man in a suit with a crossbow in one arm swore and began to bring it to bear, but Wesley ploughed right into him before he could properly aim. The junior Watcher flew backward, knocked to the floor of the entry hall, and Wesley leapt right over him. Several other faces turned to greet him, startled and hostile expressions shifting to alarm as his backup arrived: Buffy, Dawn, and the Groosalugg.

"We'll deal with the goons, Wes," Buffy assured him. "Find her! Go!"

He took off again down the hall, running toward the sounds of turmoil carrying from deeper in the building. But before he could reach it... the spell coalesced, and he stumbled, caught off balance not only by the abrupt absence of magic but also by a sudden tremor in the earth.

A tremor similar to the one that had heralded the destruction of the Wolfram and Hart building.

If he couldn't find Faith in the next few minutes... the arrival of the Hellmouth would surely destroy them, as well.

Chapter Twenty-Four: ᚾ Marks the Spot

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:18 PM (GMT)


Buffy Summers staggered as the paneled flooring of the manor house's entry hall shook beneath her feet, thinking irritable thoughts at the Powers That Be regarding their timing. As if their rescue-roadtrip hadn't been semi-apocalyptic enough already. The only saving grace of the situation was that Travers' goons, in their matchy-matchy black outfits, seemed even less prepared for it than her people.

She spared a glance for the barely visible, mirage-like distortion in the air where the wide part of the entry hall narrowed down to something she'd have called an actual hall back home, and hoped Wes would be able to hold out until they could follow him. Then she set her jaw and turned her attention to the leader of the pack in front of her as the earthquake subsided. It was pretty easy to tell who that was: the other five goons deferred to him with their body language, watching to see what he'd do, between sending nervous glances around the room. Some dust had drifted down from the ceiling, and the pale cream paint had cracked on one of the walls above the oak-paneled dado, but the place seemed pretty sturdily built; good for the presumably trapped Potentials and Faith, not so much for the prospect of the Hellmouth cracking the containment runes for them.

Leader Goon's eyes glittered as he drew a gun from a holster: definitely special ops. Regular Watchers wouldn't have been armed to fight humans.

"You really think that's going to make a difference, here?" she said, giving his weapon of choice a contemptuous glance.

"You really think the three of you are going to deal with the six of us?" the guy drawled, returning contempt for contempt. "You may be the Slayer, but they're just deadweight."

A month or two ago, Buffy might have agreed with them. But a month ago, Dawnie hadn't been a Slayer yet, and neither of them had fought alongside Cordy's Champion-y boyfriend. Mr. Goon had no idea what he was talking about.

"Sure about that, are you?" Dawn scoffed, speaking up for all three of them. "It's not like Buffy's not known for making powerful allies, or anything."

"What do you take us for?" he replied scornfully, glaring in her direction. Buffy's nerves quivered like high-tension wires as the gun tracked to follow his gaze; she would have said much the same thing if Dawn had been a little slower off the mark, but that didn't make it any easier to see her little sister in danger. "We're Watchers; we know what her allies look like. He's not Angelus. And you're just the kid sister."

The other goons had been splitting their attention mostly between Buffy and Groo, but at their buddy's scoffing words, they mostly followed his lead and switched their focus to Dawn. The shift left Groo a couple of arm's lengths away from the nearest of them, dismissed as irrelevant from all the bad guys' minds... and just as Buffy would have done, he seized the opportunity to disarm him with prejudice, tackling the guy into the fireplace behind him and bashing his arm against the sturdy marble.

She could really get used to this competent backup thing. The instant he moved, she went for the gunman, knocking his weapon out of line and then mule-kicking him in the groin.

Mr. Bad Guy folded up with a little "oof", staggering toward the archway where the spell shimmered, clearing the way in front of her... for the goon next to him to fill. As he stepped past his fallen friend, Buffy turned to step inside the downswing of his sword, blocking his wrist with her forearm, then elbowed him full-strength in the gut and caught the blade as he curled in over the impact. Groo was already moving to engage a second opponent as well, but the remaining two were both going straight for Dawn, probably with the aim of using her against Buffy.

Dawn grinned sharply, more of her nerves probably dissipating under the rush of adrenaline Buffy knew so well, and sucker-punched the first of the pair. He went down with an expression of shock on his face, groaning in a heap on the rug next to his leader; she stomped his hand next to break his grip on his sword, then snatched it up off the floor and turned to face the spare, catching his blade on her own. She'd come a long way since her days of getting kidnapped by every Big Bad to roll into town.

They'd evened the odds; but Buffy knew there had to be at least a couple dozen more Watchers in the building, and she wasn't all that keen to wait for them to join in. Travers' in-crowd was probably there, for starters, plus whichever ones had stayed behind when they brought their Potentials to him. There was no way the entry guards were the only ones in the manor who knew how to wield a weapon.

Fortunately, at least a few of them were probably stuck behind the barrier... and she'd brought backup, too. Cordy must have parked the van; she could hear more footsteps on the flagstones outside. Buffy picked up her pace-- her current opponent was a fair match for her in skill, but not strength, and he was already sweating-- and finally knocked his blade out of line long enough to stab him through the shoulder. Non-fatally, because she still didn't believe her gifts gave her the right to judge humans, but she knew better than to leave the man capable of picking up a weapon again and making more trouble.

Speaking of which: her first opponent was still conscious, uncurling from her kick and reaching for the gun he'd dropped. She ducked out of Groo's way as his fight started drifting in her direction, stabbing the point of the sword through the gun's trigger guard, then sent it skittering across the floor in the direction of the open door. "Xander, catch!"

Her best male friend stepped through the door and stooped, lifting the handgun in a smooth, sure motion and aiming for the guy she'd liberated it from. Xand could still be a dork sometimes, but over the last month or so a lot of his awkwardness in combat situations had disappeared. Not Captain America level or anything, but enough she didn't have to worry so much about him anymore, either.

"Aw, Buff," he said, putting a bullet through the expensive rug and into the wooden flooring just in front of the gunman's hand, sending splinters flying. "You shouldn't have. I didn't bring you any presents!" Point made to the swearing and cringing bad guy, he stepped further into the hall, pivoting to sweep his sights across the other opponents.

"You know me," she quipped back, clotheslining the next guy-- who'd tried to charge her with a stake, of all things. "Only the very best violence for my Xander-shaped friend!"

"I'd return that gift if I were you, Xander; seems kind of mediocre if you ask me!" Cordelia put in, following him through the door. "Now, let's see what we can do about sprucing this place up a little!"

Cordy was already in full-on Emma Frost mode: making with the sparkly, anyway, not the mind-speaking. That was still Willow's gig. She raised her hands and brightened her glow until it flooded the entire visible portion of the building-- and at least half of the Watchers present immediately stopped struggling, staring at their hands in abject dismay.

It didn't touch the other half; not all humans needed toxic levels of hate or fear or manipulation to do cruel, dehumanizing, awful things. Unfortunately. But half was better than none, and even better, it seemed to give the rest of the attacking Watchers pause. So, go scrubbing bubbles!

The one thing it didn't do was take down the magical barrier; the burst of light ricocheted off the curtain of energy, dispersing back into the hall. Of course. That would have made things too easy.

"Dawn, take Cordy and find the runes. Groo and I will follow and keep the Watchers off your backs," she barked, nodding to the demon Champion. "Xander? Tie these guys up, and keep the door clear."

"Sure, Buffy. No prob," Xander said, moving to the nearest bad guy and grabbing a set of what must have been Slayer restraints off the dude's commando belt.

The Groosalugg nodded his own agreement, crossing the room to stand next to Cordy-- and the two still-armed goons in the room seemed to take that as their cue to resume the fight.

"Yeah, too easy," she rolled her eyes at herself, then leg-swept her guy, punched him in the face just hard enough to knock him out, and gestured her sister forward. "Go on! Wes said 'runes'; you'll know what to look for better than I would."

"Are we forgetting the fact that I'm more or less a dark magics detector now, and this is the spell that unanchored the Hellmouth?" Cordy snarked, shaking her head. "That purifying power doesn't take that much out of me anymore. Just give me a second...."

"Take all the time you need, Ms. Chase," a new voice spoke up, as snootily British as Giles at his most annoyed. An older guy, somewhere in Travers' and Richard Wyndam-Pryce's age bracket, had stepped through the edge of the void spell, holding up his hands in outward-facing claw shapes as though he was some sci-fi villain preparing to throw lightning bolts from his fingers. "It will not help you. You cannot stop us; none of you can."

"Oh, yeah?" Buffy stepped forward to face him, shifting her grip on her sword in preparation for a quick javelin toss. "We'd like to test that theory."

"You arrogant child," the Watcher sneered. "You had your time. You and that murderer; between you, you've perverted everything it means to be a Slayer. It's time to restore the balance; to see a new Slayer, a proper Slayer, take up the cause."

"One under your control, you mean? A nice little obedient Slayer who doesn't know any better, who'll suffer a mysterious loss of powers the minute she starts trying to make her own choices?" Buffy sneered. Eighteen was kind of a suspiciously legalistic demarcation line; she had a feeling the Council had been a lot more flexible with its application of the Cruciamentum in ye olden times.

He extended his hands, his expression ugly as purple-black veins of magic started to writhe around his fingers; Buffy cocked her arm and threw the sword, point first, at his shoulder. Before either blow could connect, though, the ground shook again; she heard the breaking of fragile things in one of the rooms opening into the hall, and the marble fireplace cracked clear through with a sound like a gunshot. Paneling creaked and split, and more dust drifted down from overhead.

The bolt of magic splashed off the ceiling as the man staggered backward, blasting by close enough to make Buffy's scalp tingle and knocking the beautiful crystal chandelier loose from its moorings. She dodged instinctively out of the way, throwing herself and Dawn out of the worst of the shatter zone, but in the process lost track of her sword... which rebounded from the wall instead of his head, clattering to the floor at his feet.

"When she starts? My dear, we gave you more than enough rope to hang yourself with. We're simply... cleaning up loose ends. The next Slayer will have every incentive to mind her place."

He raised his hands again, chanting something low under his breath.

"Her place? You mean yours. How about we let her pick her own for once?" Buffy braced herself to lunge for the sword again, hoping her shoes would hold up against the shards of chandelier-- and was caught entirely off guard when Xander put a round through his calf instead.

"Xander!" she yelped in surprise as the guy collapsed to the floor, a splash of blood staining the blond wood of the flooring between the spell-blocked arch and the pale patterned rug.

He shrugged at her, expression solemn but completely unapologetic. "And how's what I just did any different from stabbing the guy with the gun in the shoulder, again?"

"That's-- not what I meant," she blurted, shaking her head, unsure how to explain. Guns and Buffy had never been mixy; and since Warren, since Xander had nearly died in her arms, the idea of harming a human with one made her even queasier. But given the side-effects of Giles' Wish, and that he'd been the one actually shot that day... it made her feel kinda queasy about being judgy with him about it, too.

"It's just-- anybody have the creeping feeling we're missing something here?" she deflected. "I mean, five goons, a lieutenant, and an underboss who isn't even Travers or Wes' adoptive jerk. Where are the rest of them? Where's Wes-- and Faith?" She glanced around the hall, taking in the guys Xander had trussed up and shoved against the wall, Dawn still shaking a little but looking determined next to her, and Groo and Cordy.... What were Groo and Cordy doing?

Cordelia clearly hadn't been paying attention to the conversation for a while; she had her fingernails wedged into one of the splits in the dado paneling on the wall nearest the archway further into the building, straining at the solid oak to force it to split further.

"Groo, honey? A little help here?" she said.

"Uh, Cordelia? Something about that particular stretch of wall offend you?" Dawn asked, frowning.

"What did I just say about being a dark magics detector?" she grunted, then backed off a step as the Groosalugg wedged the point of his sword into the gap she'd been attacking with her nails. "Yes; right there. Pry it all off-- this panel, and the one to the left."

"As my lady wishes," Groo said, smiling, and put his back into it.

"Wow." Xander had stuck the gun in the waistband of his jeans and was busy tearing up the latest casualty's jacket for a bandage and wrist tie combo package, but he kept glancing back over his shoulder at the wall deconstruction. "Some good, solid workmanship there. Pity we have to take it down-- I never get to work on anything this nice. Maybe I'll install some like it back at the Hyperion."

"Mourn the woodwork later; we have a spell to take down," Cordy said impatiently, as Groo's efforts paid off with a loud cracking sound. The section of paneling she'd singled out fell away-- and behind it, in crossing lines of fluid, metallic silver, an oversized rune shimmered on the bare wall.

Buffy's eyes watered as she tried to look at it; even the sight of the thing seemed to exude some kind of pushback effect against supernatural entities, because everyone else in the room bar Xander cringed back too, even Cordelia. "Ugh. That must be it. So how do we...?"

"Allow me," Xander said, scowling. He cold-cocked the wounded Watcher he'd been tending with the butt of his gun-- the guy had started struggling and swearing the moment the rune was uncovered-- then strode over to the fireplace and picked up one of its ornate andirons. They'd been knocked over when Groo tackled his first attacker; Buffy hadn't noticed until Xander picked it up that they were shaped like demonic figures, complete with barbed armor and pointy claws.

He stepped closer to the wall, swinging the andiron backward as if it were an axe. Then he drove it forward into the wall with all his enhanced strength; she could see his eyes flash lavender as the andiron struck. It sank in several inches, piercing the center of the joined lines... and the silvery light immediately winked out.

Buffy glanced back at the shielded archway, but though the shimmer became more visible, the spell was still there. "Damn it. Cordy, could you...?"

Even as she spoke, the earth shook again in an aftershock. It was milder, but she heard more things falling somewhere-- and then Willow's voice spoke up in her head, sounding strained.

Buffy? Are you there?

"Kinda busy, Will," she murmured, holding up a hand to get the others' attention.

So are we. Might wanna hurry it up. The good news is, the defensive wards are down-- the bad news is, the house is about to follow. You remember what was left of the Wolfram and Hart building after the Hellmouth finished moving to LA?

"Not much," Buffy winced.

Exactly. Tara and I might be able to keep it together a few more minutes-- but that's it. Get out of there as soon as you can!

"I hear you," Buffy replied.

That's not a yes!

"We've got one rune already; as soon as we're through, I promise, we'll get the others and find a door before the manor falls down around our ears."

"Oh, great. As if we weren't operating under a deadline already," Cordelia sighed, and started feeling her way around the rest of the room.

Just hurry, came Willow's parting remark.

"Try across the archway from the other one...?" Dawn suggested.

One of the recumbent goons started at her words, as if to stand, and Buffy casually stomped him back down with a foot to the back. "I second that suggestion," she said.

The unearthing of the second rune went much more swiftly; as soon as Xander smashed it, the shimmery barrier flashed again, then faded entirely. And with it, some kind of dampening spell: all the noise she hadn't been hearing from all the other people that had to be in the building rushed out in a confusion of faint voices crying out in pain or anger and violent, crashing sounds of splintering furniture and fists striking flesh.

"I think that's our cue," she quipped, and headed through the archway at a flat run.

Chapter Twenty-Five: The Die Is Cast

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 7:55 PM (GMT)


The ripping, tearing pull of the transportation spell peaked, connecting two chosen points in space via a burning channel of energy, then faded, leaving Ethan Rayne scorched with exhaustion in its wake. He caught himself on torn palms, leaving bloody handprints on the slick concrete floor, and gasped for breath as he stared down at its smooth grey surface. If it hadn't been for the fact that the greater ring and pentagram of symbols he'd drawn to effect the teleportation had all vanished, he'd have feared he hadn't actually gone anywhere at all. The same serviceable flooring, the same institutionalised scents; what had Ripper been doing with himself while Ethan and Wesley were fighting for their lives?

He looked up, ready to mock his old friend-- then choked on a laugh. No need to ask, after all. Rupert bloody Giles, scion of two prestigious Council bloodlines, Watcher to the most successful Slayer of the modern era, and once and again elemental mage, lay on a tough blue mattress with his hands laced behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. Four unadorned yellow walls, one set with a metal door, hemmed them in; a utilitarian toilet and washbasin completed the furnishings.

Rupert flinched at the rasping sound of his voice, struggling to a seated position with hands clumsily linked before him, and stared aghast at the source of the disturbance. Now that was a more familiar sight; one Ethan would have enjoyed teasing into a wicked smile in their younger years, or a passionate snarl back in Sunnydale. He thought he might enjoy finding out which way the coin would fall now that their fates were linked again; a sort of knife's-edge uncertainty that appealed to the chaos mage in him as much as did the man.

"Ethan? What on Earth are you doing here?" Rupert asked. Then his eyes fell to the blood streaking Ethan's arms, and his frown deepened into something dark and jagged. "I rather thought you were intent on avoiding my notice, not risking your immortal soul-- and incidentally your blood volume-- to teleport to my side."

The acidic edge to the words spoke more of concern than anger; not that the anger was far beneath the surface, but then, it never was with Ripper. Ethan grinned at him, reminded again of their first encounter in Sunnydale after he'd visited harm-- however coincidental-- on part of the Watcher's flock, and sat back on his heels to spread his arms.

"What? No hug? Aren't you pleased to see your old mate?"

"I would suspect that depends on your definition of 'pleased'," Rupert said dryly, then held up his own wrists. Silvery wire caught the light, wrapped around and between his arms; streaks of dried blood showed where he had struggled. Ethan winced; he'd seen the like before. They didn't precisely block the wearer from doing magic, not like null space did; they punished him for the slightest touch of it, instead.

"Perhaps I should refine the question: why are you here, rather than, say, on the other side of that door?"

That called for a more direct response; Ethan struggled to get his feet under him, then grunted and put a hand down as one of his legs failed to cooperate, cramped and gashed deeply from the struggle in the Rollright complex. "Oh, I wasn't so much teleporting in as teleporting out. It seemed simplest to appear wherever you were, that we might... ah, compare notes, given the change in circumstances," he replied, sinking back to the floor. "I had no idea you'd cocked things up so thoroughly. Why the devil would you allow yourself to be caught in such a way to begin with? Rather careless of you, Ripper."

Rupert's jaw worked, and he made an abortive movement to stand that ended with another wince as the razor-edged wire pulled taut. "At first, I thought that the man who accosted me was a legitimate policeman," he admitted irritably, "but as it happened, he was one of Travers' under glamour. As were these. They appeared to be quite ordinary handcuffs at first."

Ethan had rejected what he thought of as the White Hat concern for broken things earlier that day, when accompanying Wesley to the Stones; but he found rather the opposite emotion churning in him at Rupert's instinctive gesture to help. Whether because this was Ripper, or because he genuinely could have used the assistance this time, didn't seem to matter. He made another effort of his own to stand, this time achieving his goal just long enough to stagger the few steps to the bed, and collapsed to a seat at Rupert's side. His old friend made a strong bulwark despite the awkward circumstances, a welcome support as the little energy he had left flickered and guttered with fatigue and pain.

"Naturally," he replied, wearily. "And when the initial twenty-four hours are up, they will no doubt discover the paperwork... misfiled. Or similarly glamoured. In the meantime, you've been penned neatly out of the way, separated from the children and all possibility of interfering with Quentin's grand plan, whatever that might be. Maximum results for minimal effort. Almost admirable, really."

Rupert snorted, but his warmth against Ethan's shoulder remained in unsubtle welcome. "I feared you had suffered the same-- or worse," he said, more softly. "Have you enough strength left to deal with these?"

"Given a moment's rest," Ethan sighed, reaching over to prod at the offending wire. His fingers felt three times thicker and clumsier than usual, and the wire bit at his fingertips with chill, coppery energy that tasted foul on the back of his tongue. It would challenge his abilities to magically defuse them even on a good day-- but necessity had always been the mother of improvisation. "I have no desire to be caught in yet another trap of Quentin's devising."

"How did you free yourself from the last? And where's Wesley? When I saw the video that the children intercepted...." Rupert's voice trailed off with a shudder that rippled through them both.

Ethan frowned at that. If Rupert had been locked up for some hours, and was yet unaware that Wesley had been freed... he could only have seen the initial confrontation, down in the sterile halls beneath the circle of the Rollright Stones. He didn't need to ask how they'd acquired the video at all; Rupert's children were highly resourceful. He could only hope that Jonathan hadn't seen it; he hadn't shown to best advantage in any of that day's misadventures.

...Or should he hope that his son had seen, and worried after his fate? A jolt of filial concern might just provide the edge Ethan needed for....

The thought trailed off into sour uncertainty, and Ethan shook his head at himself. For what, exactly? Jonathan had already made his stance more than clear.

"They set their trap for Wesley, not for the likes of me. I destroyed the wards, both mundane and magical, then cried surrender once he was clear. I'd done enough damage they couldn't simply bring them up again, so I let them lock me in a room and dose me with suppressant." He smiled at that, a bitter, wry curve of mouth. "Fortunately, it was the same drug the Initiative used; I was right about that connection. Eventually someone will learn that attempting to keep me without my consent is a losing proposition, but today was not that day."

When that day did come, it would probably mean the end of him; but for now, where there was breath, where there was chaos, there was life. Perhaps even a life worth living.

The weight of Rupert's gaze was heavy on the side of his face. He ignored it stoically as Rupert took a ragged breath and let the subject drop.

"You seem unusually concerned with Wesley's wellbeing," the other man murmured. "And Faith's, by extension. There was a time you would never have flown back to England on another's behalf, much less ensured anyone else's escape before your own."

Did he detect a hint of bitterness beneath that statement? Or perhaps jealousy? Amusing as that was, Ethan was no more selfless now than he'd been when they were young; best nip that potential source of toxic expectations in the bud. "Time was, I hadn't yet been caught by the side effects of old, broken bloodline oaths."

Ironically, it was even true. He'd finally come to some conclusions about the anchor his life seemed to have acquired over the last few months, and was finding it rather... karmically appropriate. He hadn't understood when he'd first chased Rupert to Sunnydale; the 'snivelling, tweed-clad guardian of the Slayer and her kin' hadn't been a false mask after all. It had always been a part of the man. But the Ripper still was, as well. Janus permit the same remain true of him, if he followed the choices before him to their logical conclusion.

"What do you mean?" Fine lines crinkled around Rupert's eyes and between his brows as he shot Ethan a sidelong frown.

"You should recall," he replied, lightly. "You were the one who quoted them at me when you left."

After Randall's death, Rupert had retreated into his father's teachings, where Ethan had been unwilling to follow: an armour of self-righteousness, forged of guilt, duty, and repentance, as effective as earplugs at warding off truths one did not want to hear.

"I had finished the training; I swore the oaths. But you did not." Rupert's forehead wrinkled further, that one off-centre vertical crease on the right side of his forehead just begging to be smoothed out with a rough thumb.

Ethan clenched his hands in his lap, ignoring the impulse to touch. "The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. I had cause to look the wording up, after my last visit to Sunnydale. 'Bound to serve the Slayer, so long as our line and hers shall endure; unless the sea rise and drown us, or the sky fall and crush us, or the world end.' It's rather old-fashioned these days; I don't believe the various field squads have been required to swear it for quite some time. But all the old families, and the ones who join now with the hope of Watching a Slayer... you all still do. As did my father, and his father before him, clear back to the first Rayne to join the Council."

Rupert digested that, eyes widening. "I... I've seen Wesley's research. He's shared some of it with me, but I never...." He swallowed. "It's, it's true that whatever the original Shadow Men may have done to create the first Slayer could never have perpetuated so long without either a very significant sacrifice, or an equitable bargain with the avatar of Sineya. More likely both. If the oath is a part of that...."

"Something changes, when a Slayer and a compatible Watcher are placed in proximity," Ethan confirmed. "Some vital part of you both is forever altered; something that modern Watcher training glosses over entirely. If you check the records-- how many field Watchers trained in Travers' distant, negligent school die with their Slayers, or within five years of her passing?"

How long would Rupert have lasted, if Buffy hadn't returned? Ethan had stolen a few moments with the Watcher diaries of that time, and knew the man had been at odds with his Slayer when she'd died.

The same seemed to have occurred to Ripper; he paled. "And how many have their Slayers returned to them?"

"How many ever acquire a second?" Ethan added, wryly.

On one level, Rupert was Watcher to two Slayers; on another, he was Watcher to a single Slayer essence in two bodies. It was unprecedented... just as unprecedented as the evident avatar of a new, male Slayer line, still linked to his former Slayer, the both of them newly bound to Ethan's soul. That it should be the two of them so affected... there was a point when coincidences stretched past the bounds of possibility. How long had the Council been following their oaths only in letter, to build such a debt?

"You are not the man you were before you met Buffy; or before Dawn was sent to her. Nor am I the man I was before Wesley's death and transformation. And if I'm right, whatever Travers hopes to accomplish this day...."

"...Will be visited back upon him, threefold." Horror warred with savage satisfaction in Rupert's tone.

"The house of cards he is attempting to build will fall about his ears," Ethan agreed. "You can be assured of that. But whether that fall comes soon or late... would seem to depend largely on how well you've taught your children, I'm afraid." A crooked smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Quiet pride crept into Rupert's expression, complement for the lingering fierceness. "I would love to claim the children's talents as a result of my teachings, but they came into my care fully formed and rather inclined to disobedience. I am-- I am quite sure Buffy and her friends will prevail. But I would not say that we are out of it yet," he added, gesturing with his wrists again. "Not if you can do something about these."

"Say please, then," Ethan replied. No giving without qualification; did he not recall?

Rupert's mouth twisted; but this once, he did not object. "Please," he repeated quietly, earnestly.

The word resonated like a note struck from a harp; it was enough. "Then hold still."

Ethan rested a fingertip against the manacles, bracing himself for the bite of their energy, and took a moment to bring his will to the test. It was as he had expected; his mind and spirit were still raw, too much so for the delicate work required to remove them without damage to himself, the prisoner, or the wire itself. A simpler solution would be required.

Some part of him mourned the very idea of destroying such a potentially valuable tool; but it was no more than a twinge, and he reached for the two-headed coin in his pocket. He ran a thumb over its serrated edge, murmuring spells of sharpness and purpose, then struck it against the wire with a quick, decisive motion.

Rupert cried out as the energy of the manacles flared, then sagged against him as the enchantment let go. He shook off the remnants of wire, rubbing at the wounds left behind with shaking hands, and Ethan quickly tucked the coin away again.

"Feeling a bit more the thing?" he inquired, lightly.

Green sparks lit in Rupert's eyes as they met Ethan's, and he opened his mouth to reply.

Whatever he might have said, though, was lost as the world shook around them; more metaphysical than actual, due to their likely physical distance from the epicentre, but nonetheless as clear as a trump from on high.

"Ad quod damnum," Ethan murmured, half in prayer, half in observation; may the remedy be in proportion to the damage. It really was up to the children now.

Rupert's brow furrowed, and he closed his hands in fists. "If I remain here while they fight this battle without me-- I violate those oaths as surely as my ancestors."

Strain grew in his face as his knuckles whitened-- and the walls began to shake in earnest, sprouting feathering tendrils of roots along one side that soon grew into thick, wooden fingers, splintering concrete and plaster apart with no more difficulty than loose earth. Green sparks whirled around him, and another phrase crept to mind: sowing the wind....

"Ripper," Ethan cautioned him, mouth dry at the sight. "Not that I disagree with the sentiment. But you do realise we're inside the walls you're currently tearing down?"

As if in response, one of the vinelike roots swarmed up his legs to twine around his waist, then branched out to surround him in a swiftly growing cage; as debris began to fall from the sagging wall, it struck the roots and slid aside. He stared in delight and alarm as parts of the room above collapsed as well; then the roots pushed them outward, surfacing amid the wreckage like a bubble in water.

"Time to go," Rupert said, turning with a sharp-edged smile and holding out a hand.

Ethan took a breath, then returned the gesture, drying blood slipping between their fingers as they clasped tight, the pressure on his wound riding the fine line between pleasure and pain.

Whatever the outcome-- and whether Travers was the source of all, or only a part of some other entity's play, as Ethan was beginning to suspect-- the time for a reckoning had come at last.

"Then what are you waiting for?"

Alea iacta est.

Chapter Twenty-Six: Breaking the Chains



One moment, the Patron Saint of Women Scorned had been staring straight into the face of evil, mentally reaching for the spiritual signature of a suitably vengeful friend... and the next, she'd found herself staring into another face entirely. One much less welcoming. And more problematic to deal with.

"Oh, my dear Anyanka," D'Hoffryn said, shaking his head with a grave expression as he turned to pace a circle around her. "You've been a naughty girl, haven't you?"

The space around them was dark, lit only where she was standing, as though she had arrived on a vast stage. But if she was a player, where was the audience? The only other person present was the Lord of Arashmaharr; it reminded Anyanka of the last time she'd visited his realm, cheeks streaked with tears and the skirts of her bridal gown rumpled beneath her on a chair. Only this time, she hadn't asked for an invitation.

"What is this?" she objected. Didn't he realize she was in a hurry? "This isn't where I meant to go. Why did you bring me here?"

"You honestly need to ask?" The blue, horned demon made a tsk'ing sound, reaching up to stroke a hand over his long, pale beard. "Every time I check in with you lately, you claim to be exploring exciting new fields of vengeance-- excuse me, justice. But what do I find when I take a closer look?

"A preference change. A simple relocation. And a bit of wound transference, to name a few of the 'highlights'. Pathetic. The curse on those arrogant young men to make them preemptively feel the effects of their intentions upon their victims was inventive, I'll grant you that; but tame in comparison to your former heights of glory. Worryingly tame. Where was the blood? The delightful cruelty you were always so well known for? And worst of all, the punishment you granted the one who hurt you: a maturity hex. Really, Anyanka? You could think of nothing better?"

A shiver of uneasiness shot down Anyanka's spine at his dismissive tone; she quelled it ruthlessly, tipping her chin up in defiance.

"Yes, well. Every man I cursed is one less out there scorning women, isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing? And anyway, you let Halfrek get away with calling it justice."

It might sound like she was trying to make excuses, but it was the truth. Most of the men she'd cursed had clearly been guilty, and were unlikely to repeat their mistakes. Even Jonathan; he might not have been the type to scorn women on his own, but he had followed his little friends' lead right up until the malicious one's girlfriend had died of it, and would never willingly submit to the authority of a man like that again. So he counted, too. Really, he was lucky Buffy had been so explicit about the other two's final punishment! It wasn't as if Anyanka was entirely pursuing her own agenda, just... trying to prove she didn't have to be evil just because she wasn't human anymore. What was so objectionable about that?

She'd gotten a little too used to having free will, she supposed. She'd forgotten-- or been trying to ignore the fact-- that she was answerable to a being who actively seduced angry, hurting young women at the darkest points of their lives. Justice wasn't exactly a key plank of his agenda. That probably should have occurred to her before.

"Halfrek hasn't lost any of her creativity with the change in terminology," D'Hoffryn chided her. "You know, what pains me most isn't the jaunty white hat you've put on to dazzle your little band of heroes; it's the fact that you aren't even trying anymore. One would think you're playing me for a fool; that you came to me with crocodile tears to steal the power of the Wish for the Slayer's use. Is it because of the boy? Do you still believe you love him? Even after what he did?"

The mocking tone in his voice made Anyanka want to cringe; it made her feel a little like an insect trapped under a magnifying glass. She'd actually done that to a particularly persistent stalker once, not long before meeting Xander.... all right, so D'Hoffryn wasn't exactly wrong about the fact that her attempts at justice tended to be a lot less painful than inspired vengeance. But that had been the point!

Another time, she might have properly groveled, tried to convince him that he had nothing to worry about, held onto the power a little longer. But she couldn't afford to show that much weakness. Or think too much about Xander's... Xanderness. Not when she had much more important things to be doing.

"You're issuing a warning. I get it. I'm sorry; I must be a little rusty. But can we have the rest of this conversation later? It's just, there's this man out there who's really in need of immediate vengeance...."

"And you know just the person to wish it upon him, I suppose," D'Hoffryn drawled, mockingly. "Let me guess. The Slayer, perhaps?"

"What does it matter? He's going to pay. As painfully as possible. If you'd just let me...." She reached with the senses she used to teleport to her callers' sides again, then winced at the feeling of running headlong into a brick wall.

"Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast, my dear. This is not an offense that can be brushed off with a mere warning. You're a big girl. You understand how it works. The proverbial scales must balance-- and you've thrown them sadly in the Slayer's direction of late."

Balance? Something about that word tickled at the back of Anyanka's scrambling thoughts-- and she gasped as she remembered Wesley's explanation about the prophecy. The prophecy of the Rule: the balance the four Chosen were prophesied to uphold... in the same verse that predicted the un-anchoring of the Hellmouth. Which would soon be moving to England, if Travers kept going like he was... because of the very same spell that had kept Anyanka trapped in Faith's bedroom with her almost-corpse for hours.

"If I have, it's because you've been falling down on the job," she rallied, tossing her hair back over her shoulder as a surge of triumph buoyed her up. "Or hadn't you noticed that someone's managed to reconstruct a magic-exclusive internally-focused shield matrix?"

That finally got D'Hoffryn's attention; he froze mid-stride, turning to stare sharply at her. "You are lying."

"Not about this." She made a scoffing noise. "I was trapped behind one for hours; why do you think I'm in such a hurry now? Imagine my surprise that not only did you not manage to burn all copies of those spells out of existence as you claimed to, you're holding me back from punishing the man who rediscovered them! I think the other lords of Arashmaharr would be surprised about that, too. What do you think?"

"Are you blackmailing me?" he replied indignantly.

Anyanka pressed her hands into tight fists to keep them from shaking as she stood her ground. It had been more than a thousand years since D'Hoffryn had found her, since he'd taken her in; she had to be mad, going directly against him after all that time. But she'd changed; mortality, and the immediacy of caring that came with it, had changed her. She'd caught it like some exotic human virus, hanging around with Xander and his friends, and even after she'd shed her human form again she couldn't shake it.

She felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for Spike, and felt her nerves settle at the reminder that she was still a part of the group. Even without Xander. It had been stupid of her to bare her throat to the demon lord at a moment of weakness and expect him not to take shameless advantage.

"Yes," she said, tipping her chin up again. "If that's what it takes."

D'Hoffryn stared at her a moment longer, then chuckled. "There's my vicious girl. It's almost enough to make me forgive the rest of it-- almost. One wish, then. Just the one, before I revoke your power. And if the threat of these trap spells disappears with it-- I'll clear the slate and call it even."

Anyanka swallowed at that, remembering how good it had felt to get her power back after three years without. How terrified she'd been at the start of those three years, stranded in a world a millennia and a continent away from the one she'd grown up in, with only the social skills that had gotten her scorned in the first place to rely on. She'd be human again. A failure, again. She wouldn't be-- well, inhuman-- if that didn't give her pause.

"Just one?" she replied. "Didn't you hear what I just said? Even you weren't able to eradicate the threat of these spells the last time they wreaked havoc, with all the power at your command, and you think I can do it with one wish?"

"The Anyanka I taught and trained could have. The one I see before me? Well. Think of it as a challenge."

The lesser of two possible evils, then. "And if I fail?"

"The fates will require a sacrifice," he continued in a sinister purr. "The life and soul of a vengeance demon should do nicely."

On the other hand, she would know what to expect this time. She'd done it once. She could do it again. Right? The thought made her insides quiver disconcertingly, but he was giving her no choice. Well, he was; but it was a choice she had already made, and couldn't bring herself to change now, no matter how alarming the consequences.

"Nothing like a little pressure," she smiled tightly. "Now, if you don't mind? I really must be going."

"More so than you know," D'Hoffryn smirked, making a gesture of dismissal. "I wish you luck!"

Anyanka noticed that he hadn't said what kind of luck... and then the significance of his other comment hit. She'd forgotten that time didn't always pass at the same rate in Arashmaharr as in the outside world.

"Oh, bunnies!" she swore. Then she quickly gathered her will, focused on the brightest point of vicious anger among the group she'd come to call friend, and reached for that emotional beacon.

This time, it worked. D'Hoffryn disappeared... and she found herself standing on the sidewalk in the shadows of a half-collapsed building. At least a couple of hours had passed; it had been not long after moonset when she'd left Travers behind, with a couple of hours yet to go before the sun joined it. The sky was still lit with streamers of color, but those were swiftly fading now, leaving the far-off twinkling of stars like diamond dust in their wake.

No Slayers shared the sidewalk with her, or even slayers-to-be. Just two slightly blood-stained, dust-spattered nontraditional Watchers. Who, from the looks of things, were far from where she needed them to be.

"Giles! And you! What are you doing here? Don't tell me-- no, I mean, it, don't!" She threw up a hand as Giles' expression registered, as dark and ominous as a thundercloud, aura spiking with green. He might actually wish for something unprompted this time if she let him speak, and she didn't dare waste it. At least they were already ready to go; pushing things with an extra teleportation spell would tempt fate as it was.

"Let me just take this party somewhere a little more... ah. Here we go." She got a fix on the Slayers specifically this time, and slid through the shadows to yet another location.

The teleportation was even more of a strain with passengers; a vengeance demon's version of the spell was optimized to transport one person, and it took a lot more of her personal energy reserves to bring both Giles and Rayne along with her. She wouldn't be getting any more where that came from, either. But what the hell. It wasn't as though saving it up was going to do her any good. They faded back into existence in the hall of another building that seemed to be undergoing reconstruction-- perhaps there was something to their insurance company's balky insistence on raising their business insurance rates back in L.A.-- at the hands of the friends she'd been trying to reach all along.

The three of them appeared in a room outfitted something like a dormitory; bunk beds marched in rows across a space that seemed bigger than the entire interior dimensions of the Magic Box. The walls and ceiling had been finished in an off-white plaster, concealing whatever the original structure might have been; some sort of cellar or basement, probably, from the lack of windows and the staircase visible through a pair of shattered double doors at the far end of the room. A wide crack ran across the ceiling, shedding dust; it cut across a track apparently used to section off part of the room with a folding temporary wall, but the stout wooden beams spaced throughout as ceiling supports were still largely intact.

One of the walls in the anteroom area was accessorized with chains and shackles. Fortunately, the restraints were empty; whatever had been done to the Potential Slayers to keep them there hadn't necessitated keys and locks.

Half the beds were still occupied by drowsy young women, ranging from toddler-sized to a little older than Dawn. The rest of the girls were scattered throughout the aisles, a few even rallying around Faith-- Faith!-- at the front. A golden-eyed young man Anyanka could barely recognize as Wesley fought at Faith's side against a group of armed Watchers, but even with his help the Slayers didn't seem to have the upper hand. Her friends were deadly within arm's reach, but someone on the other side had brought a gun to their swordfight; at least five people sprawled motionless and bleeding on the floor, and the room echoed with yells and sobs.

"My God," Giles breathed beside her. He made as if to step forward; Anyanka had no doubt that if Rayne hadn't still been gripping his hand, he probably would have hurled himself willy-nilly in the direction of the Slayers.

But Rayne pulled him back-- and turned in her direction, giving her a piercing look. "You brought us here and now for a reason," he said, accusingly.

More noise was coming from the stairwell area; Anyanka couldn't see Buffy, but she could hear her and several of the other Scoobies. Some heavy duty spell-slinging was going on in that direction. That was probably where Travers was, and Wesley's former father; she'd hoped to be able to cast her last wish right in their teeth, but strictly speaking, it wasn't one hundred percent necessary.

"Yes, I did," she replied, then fixed her gaze on Giles. "So make it count."

His brow wrinkled, and a little welcome sanity returned to his eyes. "Anya. What on earth...?"

"C'mon, Giles. We're kind of in a hurry, here! Don't you just wish...?" She made an open-handed gesture. "I advise creativity. And thoroughness. You'll only have one shot, so get it right the first time."

Giles stared at her, hesitating, then glanced toward the other end of the room just in time to see a wave of purplish magic pour through the open doors. It picked up the wooden fragments like a fistful of darts, casting them toward the combatants regardless of their affiliation. Faith and Wesley both reacted instantly, trying to position themselves to shield each other, but neither quite managed; they ended up tangled together, clutching each other's arms as splintery shrapnel sprayed Slayers, Potentials, and Watchers alike.

Everyone in the line of fire suddenly sprouted quills like porcupines; another of the Watchers went down, clutching his throat. Faith had changed her shirt since Anyanka saw her last, but it was nearly as red now as the other one had been, ruined with bloodstains. She swore, then strode to the wall where the shackles hung and pulled a chain free with vicious force; Wesley pulled a splinter from his arm, then turned toward the unseen spellcaster, gesturing with a flick of bloody fingers.

But whatever he'd tried to do, it failed; Travers walked unopposed through the doorway, holding a familiar young woman-- that helpful Watcher, glaring and disheveled now-- before him like a shield.

Faith's hands clenched on the heavy chain, but she checked her swing, taking up stance again next to Wesley.

Giles cleared his throat, fury and protectiveness radiating from him like heat-- but oddly enough, without green sparks this time.

"I wish that every person who freely played a part in Travers' plot to subjugate the Slayer line never be able to approach within a hundred miles of anyone connected to any Slayer in any way, ever again," he called out, voice raised to carry over all other noise in the room.

Travers flinched, horror dawning in his expression as he caught sight of them. "No-- wait!"

Too late. Anyanka grinned, feeling her face shift into the familiar demonic lines. Perfect. The wording should include most of those who'd reconstructed the trap spells, too. But Giles hadn't specified what 'connected' meant, and there were only so many options for removing that many beings the specified distance from every eligible vestige of humanity. In deference to the principles she'd defied D'Hoffryn for in the first place, she would rather not kill, but....

Well. No one had said they had to stay human.

She let the power of the Wish expand out of her in a draining rush. "Done."

Travers vanished. The chaos carrying from the rest of the building quieted. Lydia clutched at her arm, a slight edge of hysteria to her laughter.

And then one of the stressed support beams gave, and the house began coming down around their ears.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Moment of Truth

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 12:23 PM PST (8:23 PM GMT)


"This is not my best day ever," Angel muttered to himself as he hurried past lines of shocked, panicky travelers, abandoning his search for Lilah in favor of collecting his own people.

He might be older than the country he currently called home, but he'd lived in California long enough to have a pretty good idea what would happen-- or rather, wouldn't happen-- as soon as the airport administrators got up from under their desks to take a look at the 'earthquake' damage and start directing recovery procedures. None of the would-be passengers clogging the terminal would be flying anywhere until the planes and runways were checked for readiness and a long list of other safety and security procedures were followed. And he'd rather not be there when people with badges and medical equipment started combing the crowd for injuries. Being temporarily shielded from sunlight didn't make him any less a vampire.

So much for getting to England in time to help Wesley. But on the other hand-- so much for Lilah getting there ahead of them. Even if the terminal wasn't evacuated, she wouldn't be getting on any flight; that would give them a little breathing room on at least one front. And he'd take any silver lining he could get at this point.

"Oh! There they are, Angel," Fred said, pointing to a knot of people several lines farther down. One of them-- a blond man of average height in a familiar leather jacket-- had a woman in a navy suit crowded up against one of the ubiquitous signage poles spread throughout the terminal like crossing guards. He sighed with relief as he recognized Spike and Lilah. A third, shorter figure hovered beside them: the source of the strong scent of coconut currently inspiring half the terminal to fan at their noses while they clutched at each other.

An idea sparked in the back of his thoughts; he filed it away for later as he changed trajectories. No point worrying how they'd get out of there before they actually, well, got out of there. From Spike's homicidally smug expression and the way Lilah was sneaking her hand into her purse, that wasn't a guarantee; his grandchilde had an infuriating tendency to turn the simplest of plans into absolute chaos, even before considering all the questions that day's events had brought up about the chip supposedly keeping him tame.

"I see them," he replied, picking up the pace a little. "Thanks, Fred."

"If I'd known there'd be so much walking in my immediate future, I would have worn better shoes," he heard Lorne mutter behind him; Gunn cracked something back about humming to himself in the morning, but Angel didn't catch it, too distracted by the hardening resolve on Lilah's face as her hand came back out of the purse clutching an unfamiliar piece of ancient-looking pottery that absolutely could not have fit in a bag that small. It was some kind of greenish color, fat-bellied, double-handled, and about the size of a funerary urn; no kind of good associations came to mind at the sight.

She said something to Spike, then lifted the thing negligently by one handle, her expression a taunt. Spike apparently didn't feel any better about that than Angel did, because he visibly tensed as she gestured with it, lifting his chin belligerently as Angel and the others finally got within hearing range.

"And I should believe that because?" Spike said challengingly.

"Believe it-- or don't, but it's the only chance you have to stop his plans," Lilah replied, edging sideways until she had her back to the open area rather than the blue guidance lines mazing the approaches to the airline counters.

It was obvious there was something going on Angel didn't have all the pieces to; it was also obvious that Lilah was about to do something drastic, like a trapped animal ready to bite off its paw in order to be free. And there weren't any mundane authorities in a position to interrupt the scene; they were all either just uncurling from their duck-cover-hold positions, or had their hands full with travelers knocked down or struck by falling glass.

"Now, Lilah, don't do anything rash," he blurted over the din of voices around them, trying to buy more time to get a better handle on events.

Lilah didn't pause, or even bother look at him; she threw the urn up into the air, then turned and ran.

"Bollocks," Spike swore, reaching for the falling object-- somehow managing to trip over Jonathan, who had reached for it at the same time. He managed to get one long-fingered hand under the wide belly of the urn, but at all the wrong angle; he broke its momentum, but it ricocheted off his palm as he stumbled, and Lilah used the confusion of the moment to yell for help as she headed for the nearest person wearing a uniform.

Given the choice between stopping Lilah, and catching the urn, she was a known quantity; the artefact of indeterminate age was decidedly not. Angel swore, then lunged for the urn, and got a finger through one of the handle-arms just before it would have hit the ground.

"Angel, she collared one of the security guys; we better think about getting outta here," Gunn commented grimly, reaching a hand down to help Jonathan up. "Whatever we were here for, got a feeling there's more important things to be worrying about now. Too bad it don't sound like they're evacuating."

The speaker system had survived the ground-shock intact; an authoritative voice overhead was encouraging the travelers to remain calm, assist one another, and wait for assistance from trained airline employees. Much as Angel was glad there hadn't been more damage, Gunn was right. As the confusion in the terminal began to subside, whatever distraction the restive crowd might have provided their exit was quickly evaporating.

"I hope this was important," he groused, glaring at Spike as he tucked the urn under one arm and turned to walk casually toward the doors. A quick glance behind showed Lilah making sharp, controlled gestures in their direction, and a sense of concern dawning over the face of the guard. "What the hell was she talking about?"

"Sahjhan," Spike growled, avoiding Angel's eye as he righted himself to follow. One hand knocked against the extended handle of an abandoned suitcase on wheels; the vampire swore at it, then glanced toward the security guard again as the man's body language shifted towards action. Then a slow, vicious smirk flashed over his face, quickly enough that Angel wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been looking, replaced by alarmed imperiousness.

"I'd like to report an unattended suitcase," he said, approaching the next employee between them and the exit. The uniform was still crisply new, the face behind it young, the boy's hands shaky with nerves as he opened a first aid kit to help an older woman with a cut arm: the perfect target for Spike's troublemaking tactics. "I was just accosted by some bint who said this wasn't an earthquake. Then she scarpered and left that behind. I'm not touchin' it; I don't want it anywhere near me!"

The shadowed corner of Angel's being that still thought in such terms, no matter how much he'd protested to Spike that he couldn't afford to set foot on that slippery slope anymore, approved... and reminded him of that idea he'd filed away earlier. He stepped up behind Spike, then raised his own voice and added in distressed tones, "And now the air in here smells like coconuts. What is that? Does anyone else smell coconuts?"

Several of the people who had been queuing in earshot glanced at each other in alarm at that; one middle-aged man in a suit clutched tighter at his briefcase and commented, "There hasn't been an aftershock yet... and after the mini-quake last month they found the Wolfram and Hart building in ruins. Has anyone checked the news?"

The combined suggestions went through the gathered travelers in a ripple of nervous energy and outcries, and Lorne gave Angel a dirty look as the various travelers abandoned all attempts at orderly calm and began streaming toward the exit doors en masse. The employee didn't seem to know how to respond, other than trying to ask everyone to be calm; the one Lilah had gone to wasn't visible anymore through the throng. Hopefully he'd forget all about trying to file any report in the chaos of trying to manage the crowd.

"Well done, Angel. You might as well have screamed 'fire' in a crowded theater," the Pylean sighed.

"I'm not proud of it, and I'll have words with Spike later, but it's getting us out of here," Angel muttered back, ducking his head a little to blend with the flow. "If we can't get Lilah, and we can't get to Wes...."

"Beige auras, my friend," Lorne replied, casually stooping to pick up someone's dropped cell phone as he glanced back over his shoulder to check on the others.

"I know, I know, lecture me later."

"No... no, I don't think you do," Lorne said, this time in a more troubled tone. "With most people? Beige is a practical color, conservative; means you're dispelling your doubts and thinking clearly. But when it comes to you and Spike...." He pressed green lips tightly together, trapping the rest of the remark behind his teeth.

Angel frowned. He'd never been all that great at balance, and that was the second time in one day that someone had reminded him there was a bit more Angelus to his makeup than he usually liked to pretend. He didn't see how he could possibly do anything about it other than what he was doing already, though; he was out of the gutter now, a father, a friend, a Champion. Buffy had started it; but he had found more reasons to stay the course, and had others around him to help keep him on track. He'd lose those if he....

His train of thought fractured as he suddenly recognized, with a visceral shock, the patterns behind Spike's recent behavior. Soul or no soul, for all their different natures, he had been the one Spike had shaped himself to please as a young vampire; that had been a source of guilt for years. And now? Angel swallowed, then shook off the thought-- he did not have any desire to deal with it at the moment-- and pushed through the exit door. The sunscreen was still working, and there was plenty of transportation available within reach. Time to get moving.

He waited until they were all back on the road-- he'd sought out a showy, spic-and-span SUV smelling of leather polish, rather than some soccer mom's car, and told himself the lack of guilt was because he meant to return it as soon as he retrieved his convertible-- before glancing at Lorne again in the rearview.

"Got the moving van squared away?" he asked, casually.

"Oh, yes. Called a family of U'halu demons I know; friendly guys, hard workers, have a taste for packing peanuts. They'll have it to the hotel by tonight. Then I tried to call England again, but...."

Tried? Angel winced. "We already know what's going on in England. The details... aren't important right now." The Hellmouth moving on so quickly had been a pretty clear sign, after all. It just wasn't one they could do anything about. Not anymore.

He was still having trouble enough with the concept that the infant son he'd cradled in his arms a month before was now his friend Wes, and had in fact been Wes all along; the idea of losing said son and his potential daughter-in-law who just so happened to also be a Slayer-- never mind that she'd tried to kill him more than once-- along with most of their other friends and family was....

Well, he was mostly trying not to think about it. They'd call. Everything would be okay. And then they'd fly back. And when they did, they'd expect everything in Los Angeles to be squared away. That, he could deal with. The rest just wasn't up for discussion.

"What's important is what's happening here," he continued, throwing a glare over his shoulder toward the other vampire. Angel had handed the urn back over when they lifted the new car, and Spike was currently staring into its mouth with a perturbed scowl. "Which brings me back to you, Spike. What exactly is that, and what does Sahjhan have to do with it? It's been a month since he's stirred the waters. I was starting to think he'd missed his chance and we wouldn't have to deal with him anymore."

"Starting to hope, you mean," Spike replied, sourly. "He might not've stirred your waters, but he's been a busy little bumble. Talking to Lilah, for one; tried to tempt me with Dru, for another."

"He what?" The steering wheel jerked briefly with the force of Angel's reaction. "What did he say to you?"

Spike gave him a strange look, blue eyes narrowed when Angel glanced at him. "Not askin' what reply I gave?"

Angel gave a frustrated growl. "I think it's pretty plain what your answer was, given that we're all still here. What did he say, Spike?"

"Not worried I'm just biding my time to tear out your throats?"

"What was it you said to me once? A good plan, smart plan, carefully laid out... but you got bored? Not really seeing how this situation would go all that differently."

"Guys. Guys!" Gunn interrupted, waving a hand between the seats to break their line of sight. He was tucked in between Fred and Spike in the SUV's middle bench seat, legs folded up awkwardly behind the center console. "You can't stand each other, we get it. Believe me, we get it. So bring us up to speed, already. 'Cause my girl nearly got herself run over to get us there to stop Lilah, and instead we ended up withthis ugly piece of art as a souvenir." He tapped one blunt finger against its worn glaze.

Jonathan cleared his throat from where he sat alone in the back. "Uh... she said it was a Resikhian Urn?" he offered, tentatively. "She said it could trap Sahjhan; that it was the only thing that could."

"Stop his kind, actually. Guess we should be grateful we only have to deal with one of 'em."

"Speaking of dealing," Angel dragged the conversation back around to his original question. It was good to know that they might have a way of dealing with the incorporeal time-traveling demon now, but what went into a jar could always come back out again, and until they had a chance to test it he didn't dare trust that promise of fortune. "Still waiting to hear what he wanted from you, Spike."

Spike turned his head away, staring out the window, muttering something incomprehensible under his breath about bloody nephew when I need him. Then he sighed, hunching his shoulders a little under his coat. "Doesn't matter, does it? He's carrying a chip for you and yours; but you knew that already."

"You know, the more you refuse to answer? The more I really want to know," Angel frowned. There was something important there; he could feel it.

"Save it, guys. We're almost there... and it looks like we're not the first ones," Fred put in.

Sure enough, as they approached the Hyperion, they could see lights on in the lobby; Amy must have come back from her dad's place early, what with everything going on.

"Uh, Angelcakes?" Lorne sucked in a breath. "Speak of the devil...."

Angel's attention had drifted from the road at the sight of their home; he turned back just in time to see a figure in brown standing right in front of the SUV. He slammed on the brakes, hoping against hope not to hear a thump; then felt a different sort of emotion altogether as the car passed right through the jaywalker without any resistance at all, and he caught a glimpse of his face.

"Sahjhan," he swore, then threw a backward glance. "Spike?"

"Got it," Spike replied grimly, reaching for the door. Angel threw the SUV into park right where it sat and got out; Spike followed close behind him, urn in hand but shielded from view by Angel's broad back.

The Granok demon did not look impressed by their advance. He also looked uglier than ever out in the bright sunshine, the old scars and runes carved into his face standing out starkly against his pale skin, framed by long brown hair and flowing dark robes. "You just keep turning up like a bad penny. What is it going to take to finally get rid of you? I was only after you to stop your kid at first; but now it's starting to get personal."

"Funny, I was thinking the same thing," Angel scoffed. "Except for the part about my kid. But you know, when you really want something done, you ought to do it yourself. Oh, wait; you can't, can you?"

"Hah, hah, mock the tangibility impaired. Of course, that means you can't do anything to me, either," Sahjhan pointed out, as condescending as ever.

He shifted his gaze over Angel's shoulder when he refused to rise to the bait, moving to another target. "You know, I really expected better out of you though, Spike. You gave me your word that if I took out the chip, you'd take care of Angel."

Angel had wondered, after the moving van incident and Spike's subsequent evasiveness; his gut lurched, but Spike was already speaking up before he could react. "No, you told me to cause chaos and destruction, and save Angel for last. Didn't care what happened to the others. Done, and will do. Pretty damn convenient Peaches is the only one of this lot immortal, now innit?"

"Don't think you're going to rules-lawyer your way out of your due reward," Sahjhan snarled. "Holtz tried to pull that on me, and now he's no one's problem. I've got all the time in the world; not like the rest of you. Especially the vampire's son. I just had a look in on him over in England; his ragtag little band of do-gooders very nearly won the day, but alas, he was still in the basement when the manor started coming down around their ears. So much for the prophecy that said he would kill me. I had the damn thing rewritten, and look where we are now!"

"And that's bloody well enough of that," Spike growled, stepping out from behind Angel to reveal the urn.

Sahjhan had just enough time to choke in recognition before Spike opened the lid, and a column of light and wind reached out of its depths to suck him in. The whole process took only seconds; Angel stared mutely as it slammed back closed, feeling as though he was the one who had just been folded, spindled, and vacuumed up. "I never thought I would say this, but thank God for Lilah."

Spike's gaze was defiant as he handed the urn back over. "Might, uh." He cleared his throat. "Might want to have Wes smash the thing when he gets back. Just to be sure."

"Yeah," Lorne added, shuddering. "Genuine prophecies are funny that way. Even if you do manage to alter one-- time travel's a new variation on me, but I've heard of other attempts-- it generally just causes both versions to come true."

"Is that what... all this was just...?" Angel stammered, staring blankly at the thing as he took it. "Everything, all the attacks the last couple of months? It was about killing my son before he could kill him?" The scale of that thought was just as appalling as the one he'd had earlier about Spike's motives.

He didn't even want to think about what Sahjhan had said about Wes; he was determinedly ignoring that for the moment.

"Half, maybe?" Fred said, doubtfully. "What with the Prophecy, and Wolfram and Hart and... oh my God, Angel, you're on fire!"


Of course the sunscreen spell had chosen that exact moment to wear off.

Angel swore, then ran for the hotel, Spike trailing smoke at his heels.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: What Can't We Do

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:40 PM (GMT)


When Willow had promised to go cold-turkey on the magics, she'd expected it to be one of the hardest things she'd ever have to do. She still remembered how empty she'd felt every time Rack's spells worked their way out of her system; so logically, rejecting all magic should be lots worse. But she'd also known exactly how lucky she was that she was being given a second chance; cookies wouldn't cut anymore if someone got hurt again because she was careless with her spellwork. And if she could only have one or the other, even if magic was what had brought them together in the first place... well, that wasn't really a choice, was it?

To her bewilderment, the universe had seemed to agree with her, almost as though she was being rewarded for the decision. There'd been none of the grand, noble suffering she'd imagined; none of the howling emptiness she'd feared. She could still sense magic, for one thing, and touch minds she'd touched before; that kind of passive ability wasn't something that could just be turned off. And when she and Tara linked hands so Tara could borrow Willow's power to cast her spells.... Tara's love and energy brushing against her spirit felt more wonderful than any cheap imitation she could find at Rack's. She wasn't living magic the way she used to, it was true, and that was sometimes inconvenient; but she wasn't nearly as cut off as she'd expected, either.

But for all she'd appreciated the ease of transition, she'd also worried that it was too easy; and sure enough, it had left her ill prepared for days like this one, when it seemed like all the dire consequences she'd been avoiding had combined into one overwhelming wave of awful. When the house her best friends, daughtery little sister figure, and associate heroey types had invaded started collapsing under the weight of an incoming Hellmouth; when all that stood between them and pancake-y horror was one witch's spellwork.

The urge to just take over was so strong Willow could almost taste it.

Surely, Tara wouldn't mind if I just... helped? It's not as if it would be much more than I'm already doing. Just... giving the spell a nudge. Not actually taking control or anything.

Though even if I did take over, you know, just this once. Would it be so bad? I'm the one with all the magical heavy lifting experience, aren't I? After Glory, and Adam, and every other time I pushed myself to the limit to be the Big Gun the Slayer needed? They would have died without me! What if I don't take over, and something goes wrong, and they do die this time? Surely Tara would forgive me....

Willow swallowed guiltily around the knot of worry in her throat, remembering thinking something not unsimilar with a sprig of Lethe's Bramble in her hand. How many times had she decided she knew what was best, only to make the problem worse? Tara had all the witchy knowledge Willow hadn't been raised with, plus access to Willow's own power; even Giles with all his new tricks probably couldn't do any better. Pushing her aside now would be like saying Willow had no faith in Tara, that Willow was the only one allowed to save their friends when it really mattered.

That she had to still be the one they turned to, even with all the other changes in their lives. That... she was afraid, and didn't trust anyone else to fix things. Not even Tara.

But that was what kept relationships together, wasn't it? Trusting one another. They'd already found out the hard way that love wasn't enough. Backing out of her commitment now would be like throwing Tara's trust back in her face, and something deep within Willow balked at doing that to her again. She remembered Tara trying to reassure her the day after they'd got back together, telling her that she was still the real Scooby; Willow felt ashamed, now, that she hadn't turned right around and told Tara she was a real Scooby, too.

She took a deep breath at that thought, opening her eyes just long enough to get a good look at her girlfriend's serene face. Tara looked focused, but also peaceful, and more beautiful than anything else in Willow's life. Worth everything Willow had to give her... even, surely, the effort of a little faith.

"I can do this," she murmured, tightening her grip on Tara's fingers as she shut her eyes again, concentrating on holding up her end of the spellweave. On keeping the flow of power moving steadily from her to Tara, and from there to the crumbling house atop the hill, shoring up its failing structure. "We can do this."

And for several long, strained minutes she thought that might be enough: knitting the timbers and stone of the aging manor together while the earth trembled beneath it. It was like one of those trust exercises they'd done in college, the one where two people linked hands and one leaned over backward until there was no way to catch themselves if the person holding them up failed. Only, in this case, the person being held up was doing something complicated at the same time; something she could only do if Willow just did not let go.

The oppressive Hellmouth magic flooding up from the foundations of the house like toxic smoke worsened as the minutes passed, and she sank her teeth deep enough into her lip to draw blood as her stomach turned over. The feel of it had spiked after the magic-trapping ward had gone down, so she knew Buffy and the others had made at least some progress; and right after that, the suddenly appearing sense of several dozen would-be Slayers nearby had made it clear they really were in the right place. But no one had come back out yet, and if they didn't hurry up, there'd be devouring going on from beneath again no matter who'd promised what.

She was on the verge of reaching out to the others to give another frantic warning when a sudden flare of incoming magic pierced the spell around the house. It felt familiar; weird, but familiar, as if a bunch of well-known presences had squashed themselves into one blobby being for transport. Anya was the only person Willow knew who could flash around willy-nilly these days, but if it was her, she definitely wasn't alone.

"Tara," she breathed, concerned.

"Is that Giles? And-- Ethan Rayne?" Tara gasped, and her eyes flew open as the steady, rising pressure of the Hellmouth's magic fluctuated abruptly. The counter-pressure that Tara's spell had been applying against it slipped in turn, unable to adjust quickly enough to the new additions; the air split with a series of ominous groaning and cracking sounds, and Willow swallowed hard against her renewed fear.

If she could just-- but she couldn't, but what if she didn't--

Buffy! she reached out again, almost involuntarily, a fretful thread of thought.

But only a half-sent Wills, it's...! made it through in reply before the magic inside the manor spiked a second time, worse than before, as if a nova of demonic energy had suddenly ignited in the basement. The way Willow and Tara's mingled magic had spread throughout the structure, it was as though someone had suddenly flashed them in the eyes with a million-candlepower spotlight; both women flinched, nearly losing control of the flow of magic again, and this time the spell began unravelling irreparably around the edges.

It was like trying to weave a scarf more quickly than a kitten could tease it apart from the other end: very much a losing battle, but one they couldn't just surrender. Willow suffered a bad few seconds of abject panic before another infusion of energy shored up the spell-- this one more like a spreading root system than a hammerstrike, and comfortingly familiar. It still wasn't enough to stop the collapse, but it did help enough for them to keep hold of the occupied areas, Tara wrapping their energy protectively around the sparks of life they could still sense in the building. The rest of the manor began to fall apart like a house of cards shaken off its foundation, splintering and cracking and crumpling room by room in a thunderous clamor of noise.

"Oh, goddess," Willow whispered under her breath, hoping against hope that they hadn't just lost any of their family. There seemed to be fewer presences in the manor than there had been before all the magical disruptions, but it was impossible to be sure amid all the chaos. "Please be okay. Please be okay."

"Just a little longer," Tara murmured in turn. "I think they're coming; we just need to hold it a little longer!"

Willow glanced up over Tara's shoulder, and realized she was right: people really were starting to flee the manor. The two witches had settled onto the drive between the van and the house to cast the spell; their legs had numbed quickly from the chill, uneven pressure of the cobbles, but it gave Willow an excellent view now as bodies hurled themselves out through the wide, still open front door. For a moment, her concentration on the spell wavered again as she wondered if they were going to need to defend themselves-- but the first people to stumble out looked befuddled, not hostile. Sort of stunned, disbelieving, and mortified all at once.

She relaxed a little, sinking most of her attention back into the spell as they milled around, gathering beside the front door. The first handful were quickly joined by an angrier, more worried-looking group of tweedy types, but those didn't approach either beyond giving Willow and Tara a few wary glances. A few of the most agitated ones plunged back inside; they must have been the lifesigns uppermost in the house, gathered together before the house's structural integrity had been compromised. Prisoners like the Potential Slayers, maybe... possibly even their field Watchers? Though there didn't seem to be nearly as many of them as there should, if Giles was right about there being a total of forty-nine girls marked by the hand of Sineya.

Willow bit her lip, worry mounting for one particular Watcher, the one whose magic she'd bet anything had reached out to help them hold up the house. They'd had to leave him behind in London in the uncertain custody of the police, but if that had really been Anya flashing in, well, she knew the justice demon had answered one of Giles' wishes before. It really could be him; anything could have happened! And if it had....

Well, anything could still happen. Willow took a deep breath, blinking the weariness away, and held on.

The few Watchers who'd gone back inside started staggering back out after a minute or two, and with them, the first of the faces she'd been looking for, at long last. Relief washed over Willow's ragged nerves as Xander walked out through the door, a gun held casually in one hand and the other supporting a young woman bleeding from several shallow, ragged wounds. He handed the girl off to one of the fretting Watchers, who threw her arms around the young woman, exclaiming something that got lost in the general din of noise; then he stuck the gun in his waistband and strode back inside, returning a second time with a somewhat older woman in a torn, bloodstained blouse who looked kinda familiar.

More young women poured out after the pair, a few dozen maybe; followed by Faith and Wes, ragged and weary-looking and holding each other up but alive. At least one thing had gone according to plan, thank Hecate! Cordy and Groo walked out next, carrying a pair of crying prepubescent girls; then Xander again, guiding a pair of handcuffed, traumatized looking guys in black; then Dawn, arm-in-arm with a dark-eyed, attractive young woman who looked sort of angry with the world. Buffy was right behind them, similarly burdened with a wounded Slayer-to-Be, though her eyes were on Dawn's companion; that seemed strange to Willow, but she missed what happened next as the still slowly collapsing spell took the basement with it. The ceiling supports had finally let go, along with the last of its structural integrity-- but that was all right, because the rest of the manor's inhabitants seemed to have finally made it to the entry hall. Giles and Ethan and Anya filed out next to last, each carrying tragically adorable, whimpering toddler-sized Potentials.

Last of all, an aristocratic looking older Watcher emerged-- and Willow gasped, slumping forward as Tara finally let the spell go. They'd done it; they'd held the house together long enough for everyone still alive to make it out, and Willow hadn't even needed to reach for the darker magics to do it. She laughed faintly in exhaustion and disbelief, the sound lost in the clamor of the house's final death throes, then sat up straighter and reached out to frame Tara's weary face with shaky hands.

"We did it, baby. You did it. You're amazing."

An abashed smile broke over Tara's face as she beamed back. "You know I couldn't have done it without...."

She stopped there, though, the light in her expression going out as she turned sharply, staring over her shoulder. "Oh, no...." Tara breathed, then started trying to struggle back to her feet, hampered by cramping limbs.

"Tara, what...?" Willow replied, confused and feeling a little let down as she followed suit, bracing herself against the van. The guy Tara was staring at, the last Watcher out, didn't look like anything particularly horrifying; though he was stalking rather purposefully toward the group of young Slayer Potentials and the Scoobies still among them. Maybe he was related to one of the girls? Because he looked sort of....

"Oh, goddess," she echoed her girlfriend, understanding Tara's reaction instantly as comprehension hit.

She heard Anya cry out next, her voice shrill and carrying with disbelief: "But I thought... Giles, you said every person to freely play a part in Travers' plot, why is he still here?"

Heads turned at her exclamation, one in particular just in time: Faith lunged toward the incoming Watcher, who had drawn a dagger from some hidden sheath as he headed for his erstwhile son. She was barefoot for some reason, but that didn't hamper her stride as she moved, a flash of metal lashing out from her hand-- was that a chain she was carrying? Sparks flew as she deflected the blade.

"I'll give you door number two, you son of a bitch!" the Slayer spat at him, then whirled and struck out with the chain again, sending its length whipping toward his throat.

He ducked, missing the strike by a hair's breadth-- but by that point, everyone else had caught on to what was happening. Willow and Tara, finally steady on their feet again, made it to the group just as Xander emerged victorious from the hurried dogpile, eyes flashing lavender as he wrapped his hands immovably around the senior Wyndam-Price's wrists.

Willow had expected, if she were ever to meet him, that Wes' adoptive dad would be the same type of starched-shirt jerk as Quentin Travers. But current events seemed to have unraveled him, too: he was red-faced in anger, lips drawn back in a snarl, and a deep, bitter anger flared in his eyes as he met gazes with Wes.

"Years," he hissed. "Decades I spent setting the scene, and twice now...."

Wes interrupted him, voice glacially cool. "It is not my failures but your own which should concern you now. I don't know what you were promised-- and I don't care to know-- but you had better hope that your master's tastes in punishment are not as extravagant as his rewards."

Richard's face darkened further, and he would have said something else-- but then the young woman Dawn and Buffy had been so focused on stepped up and slapped him full across the face. Hard enough to rock his head to one side, despite her relatively slender muscles and petite frame.

Willow glanced at Buffy, then Faith, biting her lip as the dots connected.

"Kennedy!" one of the Watchers cried out.

The world's newest Slayer threw an angry, hurt look at the woman who'd spoken; probably her training Watcher, if Willow had to guess. "You can't tell me he doesn't deserve it, Thera. Or did you set me up for all this?" She gestured toward the still-settling ruins of the house.

The older woman reeled back. "No. Of course not. I would never! But-- but he's--" She reached out to Kennedy, then withdrew her hand, deflating. "I would have said he was one of the Council's strongest loyal proponents of adapting our methods to modern times. But after seeing the lengths toward which he and Travers were willing to go in that pursuit...." She squared her shoulders, then, and nodded to Giles. "I begin to see the point you've been trying to make, all these years."

Giles very carefully did not roll his eyes, though Willow saw his mouth twitch as he acknowledged the statement. "Indeed."

"How do you like that, Dick? You might have done some good here after all," Faith said, smirking at Richard Wyndam-Price with unholy cheer. Then she turned to Anya. "So. I got a good wish in mind for this guy. You still taking orders?"

Uncharacteristically, Anya paused; then she glanced at Xander before clearing her throat and replying. "Actually, well. D'Hoffryn... he took the Wish back again. He said I had one last try, and that if it worked, we'd be even, but he couldn't let me upset the balance on the Slayer's behalf anymore."

Xander's face did something complicated at that, and Willow's heart lurched for him; she reached out for Tara's hand again, gripping her fingers tightly.

Tara squeezed back as Anya hurried to continue before Xander could reply. "So-- I did it. It's done. Travers and company... well, they're not dead, but they're somewhere no one from this world will ever find them."

"But I saw you in demon face on our way out," Buffy said, narrowing her eyes.

"Yes, well," Anya fidgeted, this time obviously not looking at her ex-fiancé. "Unlike last time, he only took the magic, not the...." She gestured up and down the length of her body. "I guess that's his idea of even."

The conversation had apparently distracted Xander enough to loosen his grip on the captured Watcher; the elder Wyndam-Price broke abruptly away in the silence that followed Anya's statement, toes digging deep in the cobbles as he tried to run.

Faith stopped him before he'd even made it two steps by the simple expedient of kicking him in the back of a knee as he passed her. Buffy had drawn the knife she'd been playing with in the van the instant he'd moved; she tossed it to Faith as smoothly as if the move had been rehearsed. Faith caught it, pausing for a second to give Buffy a wry look; then she knelt and pressed the ornate edge against his throat. "Might want to rethink your strategy."

The man went still again under the threat, but his eyes blazed with helpless fury. "You might wish to rethink yours," he replied. "I'm not Sahjhan's only contact, nor his only means of reaching you. Merely the one he's been cultivating the longest. Perhaps if you free me, he might not kill the rest of you when he comes for my son. Sahjahn. Sahjhan. Sahjhan!"

Faith paused at the repetition of the name, glancing up toward the sky; but after a long moment of held breaths, she lowered her gaze again.

"Sorry, Dick. Seems your master ain't listening tonight," she said, giving him a sharp grin.

The old Watcher's expression finally slipped at that, and for a moment, naked dismay showed on his face.

Travers gone, Wes' old dad defanged, Sahjhan possibly retreated from the field....

"It's almost over," Willow said hopefully, meeting her girlfriend's gaze. At least this go-round; at least until the Hellmouth moved again, or some other disaster happened.

Tara's smile lit up again; and this time, they weren't interrupted as they wrapped their arms around one another in exhausted relief.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Picking Up the Pieces

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:21 PM (GMT)


"Are you all right?"

It took her a moment to realise that the question had been directed to her, due to the sheer absurdity of it.

In the last few hours, Lydia Chalmers had witnessed a Slayer voluntarily drink poison; accidentally-- though fortuitously-- managed to revive said young woman and assist in her escape; been forced to perform draining and invasive magic several times; incapacitated a co-worker with his own syringe; been half-strangled and used as a body shield by a superior she once would have followed to the ends of the Earth; barely escaped a collapsing building with her life; and in summation, bore witness to the disastrous finale of a civil war that might yet have crippled the institution she had sworn to serve.

...What had happened to Percy, anyway, after she'd stuck him with the Cruciamentum drug? Lydia swallowed back a rush of nausea at the belated thought.

No, she was most decidedly not all right.

She took a shaky breath, flexing her burnt hand, and began fighting her way up through the fog of shock she'd been drowning in since Quentin Travers' exceedingly timely vanishment.

"Ms. Chalmers?" A careful touch accompanied the address this time, brushing against the torn sleeve of her blouse.

Lydia flinched instinctively from the outstretched fingers, then choked out a slightly hysterical laugh as she finally registered to whom they belonged. "Mr. Giles. I... I'm so...."

She trailed off there, for lack of any conclusive idea how to finish the sentence. It wasn't her responsibility to apologise for the events of the day; but she couldn't bring herself to remonstrate with the older Watcher about his means of dealing with them, either. The manor would have shaken itself to pieces with or without his and his charges' presence, if her earlier conversation with Faith and Anyanka was to be believed.

The day's stresses carved deep lines through the dust and grime that overlaid Mr. Giles' features like poorly applied cosmetic powder, but the set of his jaw spoke more of grimly assured determination than the frustrated entreaty that had marked their initial introduction. He no longer seemed to care how his appearance or attitude might affect the Council's perceptions of him and his Slayer. Though she could hardly blame him. Lydia was no longer surprised that the man had kept so many secrets from the Council; only that he had ever returned to the fold at all.

She swallowed hard as Mr. Giles' mouth twitched in a failed attempt at a smile. "No need to apologise," he said, tone aridly dry. "After all, you're still here."

Lydia flinched again at the reminder of all those who weren't... and one who still was, the sole traitor spared the effects of Anyanka's Wish by an unexpectedly divided allegiance. The elder Wyndam-Pryce currently lay face-down in the drive with a knee in his back and a knife to his throat. Lydia couldn't find it in her to judge Faith's actions, but she was just as grateful not to be within earshot of whatever the young woman was currently whispering in his ear. The wicked smile curving the Slayer's mouth was alarming enough on its own.

"Every person to freely play a part, I recall," she replied tightly, quoting the parameters of the Wish. "And yet."

Mr. Giles tilted his head in acknowledgment. "And yet. Perhaps I should have been more careful with the wording; I doubt Sahjhan bothered to suborn anyone else, but I've no doubt there are others who serve their own gain over the Council as a whole. But that will be your problem, now; I think you'll understand if my Slayers and I choose to officially part ways with the Council again."

Lydia swallowed thickly. "I suppose you have every right to tar us all with the same brush. Lord knows, for every Watcher who was part of this scheme, there were at least two more who knew and chose not to act; or chose to act only in secret. But whatever I believe, you must know that the Board...."

She trailed off there, brow wrinkling as she glanced over the crowd slowly moving away from the ruined manor, a mass of dull colours and Brownian motion in the dark. They were gathering on the lawn on the far side of the now-shattered fountain, busy clinging to one another and tending any minor wounds. Perhaps two-fifths of the Potentials' Watchers were among them, mingling with their surviving charges; a handful of the tactical squad remained unbound, though divested of weapons; the Sunnydale group and their associates had clumped together in a blur near Faith and Richard, including the two witches who'd remained outside the entire time; and... well.

Her stomach turned over again as she realised that there was no 'and'. She was the only administrative Watcher still standing: the most junior and inexperienced of the lot.

"Ah, that the remainder of the Board won't be willing to simply let them go again without some sort of arrangement," she faltered for words. "The Council isn't all-- or at least, wasn't originally-- about control, as I'm sure you recall; surely some agreement can be reached? Even in this century, the statistics regarding Slayers left on their own versus those with Council assistance...."

"Are not relevant here," Mr. Giles replied firmly, "and for more reasons than I think you realise. Before the modern restructuring of the Council...." He trailed off, gaze shifting to the Summers sisters, and the Potential they'd dragged along with them; Kennedy, Lydia believed her name was. One of the oldest and most skilled of the group: the one Travers and Richard had been certain would assume the mantle after Faith's death. It was fitting that she'd been the one to slap Richard when he'd attempted to blame everything on Wesley.

"But I digress," he continued. "You have a far more urgent matter on your hands. It is the sheerest luck that the Hellmouth failed to open as it did when it relocated to Los Angeles, but even in its dormant state, it is not safe to remain near it while the energy patterns normalise. The children brought a van, and I assume there are additional vehicles elsewhere on the grounds....?"

Lydia glanced at the crowd of young women again: nearly forty of them left, with perhaps twenty adults not a part of Mr. Giles' group to protect them. She forced herself to think through what else she'd seen of the property when she arrived, and turned to point down a smaller lane that parted ways from the main drive at the foot of the hill. "There's a dowager cottage at the edge of the property, and I saw a detached garage. I've no idea what was kept there, but there should be something."

"Then I suggest you take whatever vehicles you can find, load them up, and regroup in London."

The very idea of trying to go anywhere yet that night, much less attempt to shepherd the ragged bunch before her along, seemed to increase her fatigue fourfold. "London? Tonight?"

Mr. Giles took a deep breath, pressing finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose. "Yes, tonight. Wrap them all in blankets on the floor of the main conference room, for all I care, but anywhere will be better than here. My people and I will secure the cottage for the night, and then... I suppose, work out some sort of plan to deal with the situation on an ongoing basis." He waved another hand toward the ruins.

Belatedly, it occurred to her that he must be at least as worn and weary as she was, if not more so; he was covered in dust and blood, greying hair as dishevelled as though he'd stood in the centre of a storm, and his wrists were visibly swollen, marked with angry red lines. Lydia flexed her own hand again, staring down at the vivid, tender skin marking the shape of a Chi-Rho symbol on her palm, and frowned.

"I'm not sure I have the authority for that," she said, helplessly.

Something seemed to strike Mr. Giles as humorous about that; his expression twisted wryly, and for a moment, his gaze seemed almost kind, an echo of the less burdened shopkeeper of their first encounter. "Perhaps I should find you a sword to throw at them, then; there ought to be one around here somewhere."

"Pardon?" Lydia shook her head, confused.

He cleared his throat. "I, ah-- 'power, you have it, they don't,'" he quoted, stirring up memories: of Mr. Giles' Slayer, indignant over Travers' attempt to bring her back to heel, and Anyanka, earlier that day in Faith's room. "It doesn't matter how much authority you think you have, only how much you can make them believe you have. You have the resources, the ability, and a potential solution. So get it done."

Lydia sucked in a cleansing breath, trying to appropriate a bit of that confidence. "I suppose I can only try."

"Please do. I'd rather deal with you than any more of Quentin's ilk, when the time comes."

With that rather alarming parting shot, he nodded respectfully to her, then moved toward his Slayer and her friends. Faith had finally stopped tormenting Richard; someone had produced a set of restraints while Lydia and Mr. Giles were talking, securing Richard's hands behind his back, and the young man with the lavender-tinted eyes had dragged him over to join the still-trussed members of the tactical squad. The young people seemed deep in some sort of argument now, hands waving wildly, at least one of their number holding a phone to an ear; Lydia shook her head, then left them to it, turning to seek out the Watchers she'd need to convince to get things moving.

Someone else intercepted her before she could reach them, though: a certain blue-eyed former classmate, covered in splinters and cuts from the battle in the basement. He had a hard-forged steeliness about him that she recognised more from the magic left behind in Faith's amulet than from their long-ago time at the Academy together; the same back-of-the-brain instinct that had made her flinch at Giles' approach went still and quiet like a prey animal under Wesley Wyndam-Pryce's gravely intent gaze. And yet, despite the outward changes... he still keyed his spells exactly the same way, like matching thumbprints of the soul.

"Wesley," she said, even more at a loss than she had been at Mr. Giles' approach. What could she say? "It's good, ah... I'm glad to see you're... in one piece?" Because surely, he was no more all right than she was, after everything.

He spared her any more verbal waffling and got straight to the point, softening slightly around the edges. "You as well. I simply wanted to say... thank you. For being here when I was not." A glance toward Faith, swiping the blade of her knife with a thumb before turning it to offer hilt first to her sister Slayer, made the intended inference clear.

Lydia knew any response she could make would be inadequate; but she had to say something. "It was the right thing to do. Besides, what are friends for?" she managed, with a hesitant smile.

"Friends, yes." His expression warmed, and she knew she'd said the right thing. "Those have been thin on the ground of late, for both of us I suspect. And it won't get any easier, with the Council to rebuild and... well, the other concerns at hand." He frowned toward the still-settling ruins.

"The Hellmouth. Here." She shook her head. She still didn't understand the mechanism of its arrival; the Council had never found out precisely what Wolfram and Hart had done to shift it to Los Angeles, but from what she'd patched together from Faith and Anyanka's conversation, its choice of destination had something to do with Travers' void spells. She made a mental note to ensure the destruction of any research that might remain, to avoid any further consequences. "Mr. Giles suggested I take the Potential Slayers back to London tonight for safety's sake, but at a minimum, we'll have to return to... to search for bodies."

There would be some, she knew; of Potentials and Watchers both, those who'd fallen before the enactment of the Wish. Heaven help whatever remained of the so-called progressive faction that had idolised Travers and Richard, when the rest of the Council realised what had happened; the older families, particularly those who ran the Academy and staffed the archival segments of the organisation, would close ranks like a brick wall after this and roll back every change the two men had ever spearheaded.

For the Council at large, Lydia believed that a return to the organisation's roots would be a good thing; she'd staked more than her career on that goal. But for those it viewed as black sheep? She wasn't entirely naïve.

Wesley nodded. "Of course. We'll be happy to have an official meeting once the situation becomes... less fluid. But I think the outcome may be less dire than you assume, given that Travers appears to have been successful in at least one of his aims."

It took a moment for the implications of that statement to sink in; one more shock in a day full of them. She turned sharply to gaze over the crowd of Potentials, searching for one particular head of long, dark hair, and let out a breath as she spotted Kennedy conversing intently with her Watcher, gesturing with something in her hand.

"A third Slayer!" Some part of her honestly hadn't expected it to happen, not after the repeated failure of the seeking spell. She'd feared the Slayer spirit had simply broken free of the line at long last: karma for Travers' attempts to pervert the terms of the original binding. He must have been right about the amulet; in suspending Faith's death, it had also suspended the passage of the Slayer spirit until the activation of its enchantments had simultaneously released and revived her.

And yes; that would make the medicine go down much more easily, for some of the staunch traditionalists. "Is it wrong of me to feel relieved?"

"No; only human." Wesley shook his head. He opened his mouth, then shut it again briefly, as if he'd intended to add to that statement and then thought better of it. "Perhaps you should suggest the Council consider her to be the Slayer going forward, however," he finally continued, "rather than the third; because I can assure you that while they may of necessity work with you in the future, neither Faith nor Buffy will ever again submit themselves to Council oversight."

"Mr. Giles said much the same," she sighed, then rubbed at her temple, only just then becoming aware that she must have lost her glasses at some point during the last hour. No wonder everything still seemed slightly blurry; it was no doubt contributing to the dull pounding in her skull as well. "Wesley, I'm... I'm sorry for everything. Take care of your... Faith. I'll do what I can, I promise."

He opened his mouth again; then again visibly reconsidered; then finally approached her with arms outstretched. "That's all anyone can hope to do," he murmured into her hair.

She accepted the awkward hug, lashes unaccountably dampening with restrained tears.

"Be well, Lydia," he said, letting her go. "And... thank you, again."

"You as well," she murmured, staring after him as he walked back to his Slayer. He passed Ethan Rayne as he walked; the chaos sorcerer had been holding a low-voiced conversation with Mr. Giles, but reached out as Wesley passed, laying a hand on his arm with a nod. Wesley nodded back, some understanding apparently passing between them; then he moved to wrap his arms around the young woman still wearing the shredded remains of Lydia's suit jacket.

Lydia turned away as they clung to each other, then sighed and trudged toward her own duty.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a small voice was panicking, wringing its metaphorical hands and begging for reassurance: it's all gone wrong, sir, what do we do now?

You have the resources, the ability, and a potential solution. So get it done, she reminded herself, then smiled faintly at the thought of how Travers would have reacted in Mr. Giles' stead. Undoubtedly some sort of platitude: it's all right, Lydia. We are still masters of our fate, still captains of our souls.

She snorted. No, it wasn't all right. But... maybe it eventually would be.

Lydia pulled her shoulders back, straightening her spine as she arrowed toward Thera Smythe, and refocused her thoughts on what needed to be done next.

Everything else could wait its turn.

Chapter Thirty: Business as Usual

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 1:05 PM PST (9:05 PM GMT)


By the time the rest of the team made it through the front door of the Hyperion, Angel and Spike were already swatting out the last of the hot spots on their hair and clothes. They'd been maybe five seconds away from bursting into flame out in the street: the closest call yet in a long day full of stress and adventure.

Fred clutched at Charles' arm, sighing with relief to see them only barely singed. Spike had even managed not to drop Sahjhan's urn in his rush; he'd set it on the high part of the round gray couch in the lobby, like some kind of macabre centerpiece. "You're okay! Thank God. For a second there I was afraid...."

A sudden giggle interrupted her: a young voice, loud and strangely carrying, as though its owner was on a soundstage. "Only for a second? You're more resilient than I thought."

There was something about that voice that made all the fine hairs on Fred's arms stand on end, and not just because of the mild threat implied by the words. Fred turned away from their vampires toward the soft red visitor's chairs to the left of the door, and found herself meeting gazes with a little girl about nine or ten years old. She was dressed in a party gown a few shades darker than the chair she sat in, set off with a pretty little lace collar; her hair was a dark blonde, just long enough to tuck behind her ears, and her hands were folded primly in her lap. Her expression was coolly amused, and her eyes were much, much older than the rest of her.

Fred was reminded of nothing so much as the computer avatar in that zombie movie Charles had dragged her to a couple months back, as if they didn't get enough creepiness in their everyday lives. The comparison wasn't very encouraging.

"I-- I'm sorry. Do I know you?" she asked, warily.

"How polite," the little girl replied, smiling. "Your receptionist was, too; not at all what I was led to expect. And the wards on the building; much more comprehensive than last report. They're impressed with Angel, but They don't think very much of the rest of you, do They? I'll have to make sure something is done about that."

Receptionist? Fred thought, confused-- then glanced sharply at the figure frozen in the other chair, next to the front desk. She'd been so intensely disturbed by the little girl's presence that she'd completely missed Amy's; the recovering witch's eyes were wide, and her face was chalk-pale above the softly glowing amulet at her throat. Her stillness reminded Fred of nothing so much as a mouse trapped under the gaze of a self-satisfied cat.

What could the girl have possibly said to her to cause that kind of defensive reaction? Considering the type of person Fred had heard Amy consorted with in Sunnydale-- back when she'd gone a little crazy after spending years as a rat, not that Fred judged her too harshly, given how crazy she'd gone after her years as a 'cow'-- things would have to be pretty awful for Amy to be that far out of her depth.

Angel ambled casually back toward the rest of the group, deliberately blocking the little girl's line of sight to Fred and the others. "Amy?" he said, guardedly. "Care to make introductions?"

Amy wet her lips, breaking her gaze away from their visitor with visible effort. "I felt the Hellmouth leave, and I thought I'd be more useful here than at home with my dad. She was waiting outside when I got here. But she said she'd only speak to you."

The little girl kicked her feet, bouncing her heels off the front of her seat. "I like these chairs. Very red. It's my favorite color. Shame that the bullet missed its mark back in Sunnydale; there would have been a lot more of it for me to enjoy."

She glanced around, taking in everyone's reactions, then shrugged innocently. "But then again, there wouldn't have been much of a future for me in that timeline, either. So what's an entity to do but mind her manners and say thanks?"

Really, really not a little girl, then, Fred realized, sense of alarm rising. It might be the exhaustion and adrenaline talking, but some part of her that had been on edge since rescuing Lorne in Vegas the night before was really craving a blank wall and a marker right now. She squashed it down with an effort, sliding her fingers in among Charles'.

Angel answered again in clipped tones, keeping their visitor's attention fixed on him. "If we're going to properly appreciate that thanks, it might help to know what we're being thanked for-- and to whom our welcome should be addressed."

The girl giggled again, sending a wave of gooseflesh up Fred's arms. Charles' hand gripped hers more tightly, and she felt Lorne edge up close on her other side, Jonathan standing uneasily in his shadow.

"Oh, I'm not going to make it that easy for you," she said. "You think if you can name a thing, you can kill it? You don't have the power to kill me, Angel. Though it might be entertaining to see you try."

"Might surprise you," Spike interjected, his tone almost a growl.

"Oh, you already have, Spike," she replied brightly, shifting her attention to the younger vampire where he still stood in the middle of the lobby. "If just a few decisions had gone differently, this little band of Chosen you're clinging to so desperately would have fallen apart by now, and you might have been getting a taste of your third Slayer. Or getting tortured in Africa on her behalf, if you look a little further back for the divergence. Funny how quickly the so-called righteous will turn on each other, if only you can convince them they're asking for it, or they're doing the right thing."

She sounded so smug; another horrified shiver went up Fred's spine as she continued. "I would have enjoyed those shows very much. But I have to say, this one has its compensations as well."

"Me? Are you talking about-- Buffy?" Spike's voice was sharp with outrage. "I don't know who you are, but if you think I would ever-- or that she--"

"Spike," Angel barked, punctuating the command with a glare; then he turned back to the girl. "You're connected to Wolfram and Hart," he said, even less politely than before. "That means-- you're here because of the Hellmouth. Found out having a portal to a demon dimension in your basement's not all it's cracked up to be?"

"Smart boy," the girl said, finally moving. She stood like she'd sat: ruler-straight posture, hands clasped in front of her, hair hanging just so against the angle of her jaw. The cheeriness had evaporated out of her voice, though; she even sounded as emotionless as the Red Queen, now. "Linwood's mistake caused me a lot of trouble. Don't get me wrong, I love trouble-- but I hate chaos. That's all better now, because of you."

"I hate to break it to you, luv, but that wasn't exactly our intention," Spike replied, ignoring Angel's attempt to shush him again. "It was for that Slayer, and her friends, and all the other little Happy Meals on Legs they so love to protect. The whole wide world your Wolfram and Hart lackeys say their masters want to end."

"What is it the humans say? The ends justify the means?" The girl grinned again, suddenly: a wide, gap-toothed smile with all the chill of endless space behind it. "So as a token of my thanks, I'm giving the order for all local branch employees to leave your operation here alone-- and to make sure everyone else leaves it alone, as well. Wouldn't want anything to happen that might draw all that chaos back to our city, now would we?"

Lorne drew in a sudden breath at that; but only shook his head when Fred threw him an alarmed glance.

"By... by chaos, you don't suppose she means...?" Fred heard Jonathan whisper from behind them.

"Ssshhh," Gunn murmured back, as if their guest couldn't hear them. "Better not risk it."

The girl raised an eyebrow, gaze sliding around Angel to linger briefly on Fred and each of the others. "I'm called Mesektet, in this vessel; conjure by it if you dare," she said, finally answering Angel's first question. "I think I'm looking forward to the next time we meet."

On that cheery note, the lobby filled with a sudden flash of white light, brighter even than Cordy shone when she was exercising her scrubbing bubbles power. When it cleared, the space where Mesektet had stood was empty-- and the lobby phone immediately began ringing off the hook.

Amy scampered over to the phone, still a little wild-eyed, and grabbed onto the receiver like it was a lifeline. "Angel Investigations, we help the... yes, ma'am, we felt it. No, no, it's all right, it was just...."

Fred tuned the rest of the conversation out, turning to Charles and letting him wrap her in his arms. Her knees felt all trembly, and her pulse was faster than it had been even when they were facing Sahjhan. "Well," she managed to say, shakily. "That was bracing."

"More so than you know, kitten," Lorne said, his voice sounding troubled. "I know we were intent on keeping a base here in the city, Angelcakes, but I think that cute little avatar of evil might just have put the kibosh on half our businesses. Any of our contacts or suppliers on the murkier side of things, the ones that do business with Wolfram and Hart-- I'm pretty sure she just banned all those ties."

"But how's she planning to enforce it? I mean, besides being utterly creepy in person-- the law firm's in ruins. Most of their staff is dead," Fred pointed out.

"I wouldn't count on that," Lorne shuddered. "They're an interdimensional law firm, remember? And if the Hellmouth really was keeping Mesektet stuck there like a cork in a bottle-- now that she's out, anything could happen."

"Back to business as usual, then?" Angel shook his head.

"On the bright side, though, sounds like this place mighta just got a lot safer," Charles pointed out, voice rumbling under Fred's cheek. "That's not nothin', considering what's gone down here in the past. And we were always planning on keeping a roaming team, weren't we? Whoever's traveling can handle anything that won't come to us anymore."

"Wouldn't have figured you to be the optimistic one, Chuckles," Spike drawled.

"I just think we're staring down the barrel of enough shit already, might as well look for whatever silver lining we can," Charles sighed, suddenly sounding as tired as Fred felt.

"Oh, my God. Wes." Fred pulled back out of her boyfriend's grasp, suddenly reminded of Sahjhan's taunting words. She couldn't believe she'd forgot! "You don't think he's really...."

She cast a pleading look at Lorne, the only one of them with a working mobile phone at the moment-- except maybe Amy, who was still taking one call after another on the hotel line.

"No, no. I'm sure he's fine, Fred," Lorne hastily assured her, reaching into his pocket for the phone he'd lifted at the airport. "He's as tough as old leather, just like his old man, and you know he isn't exactly alone over there."

"I hope you're right," Angel said, holding out a hand.

Lorne frowned, glancing between the phone and Angel's pale, wide palm. "Are you sure, sweet cheeks? Because you know I'm more than willing to...."

Angel swallowed. "Yeah, I'm sure. I've got to know, Lorne. He's... he's my son."

"Right, right. Sure." Lorne handed it over, then turned to watch as Angel hurried toward the office and some semblance of privacy, dialing a number from memory as he went.

The rest of them stayed where they stood, looking at one another helplessly.

"So what now?" Jonathan said.

"Well, we're not going to England tonight. So... when'd you say those U'Halu demons were gonna get here with the truck?" Charles raised an eyebrow in Lorne's direction.

"Not for a few hours yet," the Pylean shrugged.

"Then how about a nap? 'Cause I'm beat. We never did get to rest in Sunnydale."

"Uh, hello, have all of you just forgotten about the other thing Sahjhan said?" Jonathan frowned. "Shouldn't we, I don't know, be looking up that soul-curse already? No offense, Spike, but if there's any chance you're gonna eat me in my sleep...."

Fred stared at Spike, startled. That's right, Sahjhan had mentioned the chip, too. Was that what all that business with the transmuted silver had been about? The idea that whoever'd cast the spell had been targeting the moving van had always seemed a little... squidgy. But Spike wasn't acting any differently that she could tell; nothing like the sharp divide between Angel and Angelus.

"If I wanted to eat you, little man, I would have done it already," Spike replied, with a bitter curl to his lip. "See, now this is why I didn't say anything. Does no one ever remember that I'm a master vampire? If I was that keen to kill you all, there were any number of ways I could've done you in long since without ever laying a fang on you myself."

"I guess... we could lock you in the basement? Just for today?" Fred suggested, then turned to their aura-reader. "Or... Lorne! He could sing for you, couldn't he?"

"I don't always get a good read off the soulless... but Spike's always had more humanity than most vampires," Lorne agreed, reluctantly.

Spike glared at him, then turned a sneer on Fred. "And you'd just take his word for it? Vampire, luv. Filled to the brim with bloodlust, even on a good day. Maybe especially on a good day. What d'you expect he'll say when you ask him if I want to eat any of you? Not on my top ten list of things to do? That really gonna be enough?"

Fred swallowed, taking in the defensive way he hunched his shoulders under his coat; the uncertain look on Jonathan's face; and the way Charles had edged half in front of her, but hadn't drawn a stake. This was one of those divergence things Mesektet had talked about, wasn't it?

She could choose fear... or she could choose faith, and shape the future with it. Put like that, the choice was simple.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, it would."

Spike's expression softened immediately. "For you, then, ducks," he said, then jerked his chin toward the stairs. "Out of earshot, though. 'M in no mood to put on a show."

"At least try to pick something easier on the ears this time, would you?" Lorne sighed, but followed him without further objection.

Fred watched them go, then sighed and moved to the chair Mesektet had abandoned, slumping wearily onto the cushion. "God. When will today end? Every time I think I've got a handle on what's going on...."

"I know, babe, I know." Charles sat down on the arm of her chair, and Jonathan shuffled over to sink into the chair Amy had been using, burying his face in his hands.

Amy turned away from the front desk at the motion, blinking over at them, then hung up her latest call. "Hey... where'd everyone else go? I didn't get a chance to ask-- did you leave the rental truck in Sunnydale? You weren't originally supposed to be back until tomorrow, right?"

"It's a long story," Jonathan mumbled. "Let Angel tell it."

"...Tell her what?" Angel opened the office door again. His shoulders were much more relaxed than they had been as he strode out of the office, and Fred felt all the fretful tension knotting in her stomach finally start to dissolve at the sight. "Hey, where's Spike and Lorne?"

"Singing," Charles said. "So what's the news, man? Wes okay?"

"Yeah. He's fine."

Charles blew out a breath, and Jonathan looked up from his hands, eyes wide.

Angel smiled then, a more genuine smile than Fred had seen on him in a while; maybe even since he'd cooed over Connor when he was a baby. She could still remember the day they'd brought him home from the hospital... when Angel had named him, and Wes had asked Angel if he'd ever considered naming Connor after him. Funny how things turned out.

"And Faith?" Fred asked. "Did he find her?"

"And, uh. My dad? I mean, Ethan?" Jonathan pressed. "Is he there?"

"They're alive," Angel nodded, looking happily stunned. "And everyone else, too. I mean, a house did fall down on them, and they sort of dismantled the Watcher's Council-- I'll have to get the details later; they kept passing the phone around-- and some of them will have to stay behind for a few days to sort things out, but it sounds like Travers and his people are all out of the picture. There's no reason for the Council to be after Wes and Faith anymore. It's actually over."

Charles snorted. "Don't say that. We still got the remodeling to finish, and that piece of ugly pottery to deal with, and whatever our surprise visitor was talking about...."

Amy waved a message slip. "And that cop from Sunnydale-- I don't know how he found out where we went, but he left some weird message about bringing his daughter to see her friends?"

"Yeah, so don't jinx us, man," Charles finished, a grin of his own breaking out as the news sank in.

Fred laughed, then looked up as Spike and Lorne came back down the staircase. Their green friend acted... relieved? And Spike seemed... a little thoughtful, but not unhappy?

"Back to business as usual, then," she smiled, deliberately echoing Angel's earlier words.

Chapter Thirty-One: What Beside Remains

SUNDAY, JUNE 9, 2002, 5:41 AM (GMT)


"Kennedy?" A concerned voice called from somewhere nearby. "Where are you?"

It was a little while past dawn; Kennedy had been curled in the dining room window seat in her pajamas for nearly an hour, staring out as the world lightened on a new day.

"I'm in here!" she called back, lifting her chin from her knees to glance toward the door.

Thera Smythe was several years older than Kennedy, though not quite old enough to be her mother; more like a youngish aunt. She'd always been strict about Kennedy's lessons, especially when her parents were around, but otherwise friendly and even indulgent in a stiff British kind of way. Kennedy hadn't realized just how good she'd had it, though, until she'd hung out with forty-plus other Potentials for several days and met some of their Watchers. She'd always assumed that becoming the Slayer would be treated with just as much reverence by the people in charge of her as by the lucky girl herself; she was still trying to adjust to the reality that neither thing was actually true.

Somehow, during all those years she'd spent daydreaming about the perks of her destiny, she'd managed to avoid thinking about what a Slayer's responsibilities would cost. Meeting her foresisters had given Kennedy pause for thought, and not just because of the reason they'd been there.

Thera was totally put together even at that hour: sensible shoes, dark slacks, a well-tailored blouse under a lightweight jacket, and long auburn hair done up in a bun. Kennedy didn't think she'd ever seen the woman without makeup, either: always neutral colors, perfectly applied even before her first cup of tea. She didn't look like someone who'd found out her boss had gone off the deep end, barely escaped a collapsing building with her life, drove for hours in the dark in a caravan of other surviving Watchers and Potentials, and didn't even get to bed until after two in the morning. Kennedy had tried to sleep, but only lasted a couple of hours until a surge of restless energy had driven her back out of bed. She guessed that was part of being the Slayer, but she had no idea what Thera's excuse was.

Thera clucked her tongue, then approached, offering a steaming mug. "I hope you got some sleep. We've a long day ahead of us. I've taken the liberty of laying out one of your smarter ensembles; hopefully there'll be no call to exercise your new status so soon, but I think we'd best establish our tone carefully from the start in light of yesterday's events. Ms. Chalmers is capable, but there'll be no predicting how the remainder of the Board may react to what's happened."

Kennedy took the mug, warming her hands around it as she stared down into its sweet, milky depths. Thera always remembered just how she liked her coffee; she'd always tried to be respectful of all of Kennedy's preferences, in fact. Something that had surprised her at first, given the Council's very conservative public face... until it had occurred to her that a lesbian Potential or Slayer was less likely to become a pregnant Potential or Slayer. One less life-or-death concern for her Watcher to worry about.

And that was cynical of her, she knew. But she didn't think Thera would be so sanguine about what Kennedy had decided that morning.

"I slept enough," she shrugged. "But I don't want to talk to the Board. I want to go back."

Thera's brow wrinkled, but she didn't pretend not to understand. "And you will, in a few days' time. After the Council has had a chance to regroup, and selected a team to speak with Mr. Giles' people regarding the relocated Hellmouth. There are questions that must be asked."

Kennedy shook her head. Even if Mr. Travers and the other Watchers directly involved in everything that went down had all been taken out of the picture, the very fact that there'd been more of them than just the big QT said a lot to her. As did the fact that his little project-- which as far as she could tell had been gathering up all the Potential Slayers so he could brainwash the next actual one, meaning her, to his preferences-- had apparently not been approved by the Watchers' Council at large. But they still hadn't stopped him. Or even investigated what he was up to. Even her own Watcher-- Kennedy hadn't seen her at all between their arrival and the house falling in. And it didn't make it any better to think that she might have been kept from Kennedy rather than just going along.

Why the hell would Kennedy want to give the people who created and maintained that kind of malignant environment a vote in any of her choices? The only reason Kennedy was a Slayer at all was because they'd kidnapped and killed the last one. Kennedy might not have known Faith Lehane existed before Vi had mentioned her, but she'd asked Thera a few careful questions on the drive down to London, and between the way Faith had been treated and the way the Watchers in general talked about Buffy Summers? Kennedy could see the pattern, and didn't intend to let them weave her into it.

"No. Not in a few days. Today," she replied. "They've got plenty of witnesses; they can question the other Potentials about what happened. And if they need someone to talk to Mr. Giles, you can do it. I heard you talking to him last night. You were willing to admit the Council was wrong about something; do you really think anyone else your bosses might pick would do that? Or would they be mad at him for, what, coming to my rescue? 'Cause it wasn't just Faith they saved; it was all of us."

Thera's frown darkened as she studied Kennedy's expression. "I understand why you might not be eager to return to Headquarters just now; I'm not looking forward to it myself," she replied. "But regardless of my opinion of the Council's policies... I also had a cousin and several friends that didn't make it out of the manor alive last night. Good people, who didn't deserve to die because they were misled by someone they respected. Mr. Giles may have a point; but ultimately, I appreciate his method of expressing it little better than I did Travers' overt fanaticism."

Kennedy's eyes widened. Yeah, now that she thought about it, she'd heard Richard Wyndam-Pryce call one of the weedy little Watchers following him around Smythe. It hadn't registered at the time. She was kind of glad it hadn't, actually.

Thera hadn't been there in the basement when everything went to hell. She still didn't know. And Kennedy felt even more stressed for having to be the one to tell her.

She wiped a shaky hand over her mouth. "Did you know, they tried to put us all to sleep when they did the test to see if one of us was the Slayer? I had that hypnosis-proof stake you gave me, though, so I didn't go under when the rest did. I heard the way they talked about us when they thought we couldn't hear, and the way they treated Ms. Chalmers. I was still awake when Faith came to rescue us, instead of escaping like any sane person would have, and when her boyfriend broke in to save her. I was there, Thera. And because I got up to help them-- the Watchers guarding us tried to kill me, too."

Kennedy had had the same training she assumed any Potential Slayer got about respecting human life. But after seeing other girls-- just girls, still fighting their way free of the spell that had held them down-- fall next to her, she'd been too angry to hold back her punches. Most of the Potentials had been unarmed, and very few of them trained enough to be an offensive threat against a man with a gun. She didn't feel even a little bit guilty about what she'd done to the Watcher that shot Eve. Queasy, maybe. Remorseful? Hell, no.

"I don't know who all they were; I don't even clearly remember all their faces. I just remember wanting not to die. And not wanting the other girls to die, either. So I did what I had to. Would you say the same thing if it turned out I was the one who killed your cousin?" She swallowed and wrapped her arms more tightly around her knees, turning back to the window.

She heard Thera's breath catch on a gasp; and then a careful hand settled on her shoulder. "Kennedy...."

Kennedy shrugged it off. "I know you know what they did to Faith. And the only reason any of us made it out of there at all is because her people came to get her-- and some of us still didn't. So if it's all the same to you, I trust them to teach me how to survive as a Slayer a hell of a lot more than I do the Council right now."

The hand withdrew, followed by the sound of a mournful, indrawn breath. "I don't even know what to say. None of this should ever have happened."

"You're telling me," Kennedy snorted. Then she finally turned back, looking up at her Watcher again. Thera's eyes were shimmering with unshed tears, and her expression was conflicted.

"You said last night that you'd never have set me up for what they did, if you'd known," Kennedy continued. "And I'm not blind. I grew up around people with power. Even if all the Watchers that actively supported Travers went down last night? The Slayer is still the only purpose the Council's got. How long do you think it'll take the rest to start thinking maybe it wouldn't be so bad to follow in his footsteps, if I throw them over like Faith and Buffy did? I don't really want to go off on my own. But it's like you said-- I think I'd better establish the right tone from the start. I'll work with you, but I'm not gonna be their puppet."

Thera's jaw worked, and then she nodded, then wiped hastily at her eyes. "Fair enough," she said. "I withdraw my objection. I'll prepare breakfast while you dress. Lydia said Mr. Giles planned to send a sizeable portion of his group back to America today to deal with obligations that couldn't be delayed, but he and Mr. Rayne and two of their associates were to remain behind to maintain a guard on the Hellmouth. Mr. Rayne is a chaos mage, and ordinarily... well, regardless, he was also raised in a Watcher home, and may be better equipped to answer some of your questions."

Kennedy wasn't even gonna ask how that came about; the idea of rebelling in a resource-rich household by using that resource in ways your parents wouldn't approve of was not exactly an unfamiliar scenario in her economic bracket. Neither was growing up determined to Uphold the Family Name, though. As upset as she was... she really didn't blame Thera for her initial reaction.

She unfolded from her seat as Thera started to walk away, and snagged the other woman in a quick hug. "Thank you," she said, thickly. "I am sorry about your cousin, you know, I just... anyway, thank you."

Then she brushed away tears of her own and left the room, darting up the stairs to armor herself to face the day.

A sturdy English breakfast, a few sternly voiced phone calls, and the drive back up to the new Hellmouth consumed the rest of the morning. It was nearly noon when they turned left at the foot of the hill sloping up to the new ruins and pulled up to the dower house at the back of the property.

There were no other vehicles visible in the garage or the parking area next to the house; the place seemed utterly still and quiet, and when she peeked in through the windows the rooms were all dark. "They must've already gone to take the others to the airport."

"No doubt the younger pair did," Thera replied, glancing back in the direction of the larger, collapsed building. "But I doubt Mr. Giles would have been willing to leave the Hellmouth unguarded; daylight is little deterrent to supernatural activity so far from major population centers. Very few species, vampires aside, are completely allergic to the sun's rays."

"Great, so I'm going to be a target twenty-four seven out here," Kennedy sighed, then stretched and got her bag out of the trunk. "More opportunities to learn, I guess."

The manor's lawns were regularly cut, though not much cared for otherwise in the last few years, from what Kennedy had gathered during the few days she'd stayed there; the occasional patch of mowed-over weeds marred the wide green sweep of the grounds, especially around the overgrown gardens that had bracketed the manor. It had probably helped divert attention from the property, if Travers usually socialized with people like Kennedy's family. Her stepmother would have gasped in horror, then ordered it all dug up and relandscaped before she'd ever have let herself be associated with a place like this.

The extensive, empty lawns would make it easier to see bad guys coming, though, in the event that something else did happen. Kennedy glanced thoughtfully in the windows again, then left her bag on the doorstep and turned her feet up the graveled drive. She slipped a stake in one pocket and a knife in the other just in case, though hopefully she wouldn't need them just yet.

She hadn't properly met either Mr. Giles or his friend the night before, though she'd heard them arrive like everybody else in that basement. She had been introduced to Buffy Summers, though; the legendary blonde Slayer and her little sister had been the ones closest to Kennedy when the ceiling had started coming down and they'd had to evacuate. She'd taken Kennedy's hand after Kennedy had blurted some horrifically embarrassing greeting and given her a very intent look; then she'd told her that Rule #1 was not to die, and that if she kept that in mind, she might make it long enough to learn the rest. Kennedy didn't know what to expect from the man who'd taught Buffy that; she might have just learned the hard way that being the Slayer wasn't the shiny prize she'd dreamed of, but there was still enough pride in her to want to be one of the names people said in the same breath as Buffy Summers, or Nikki Wood, or Sineya.

"It looks even worse in daylight," Thera murmured as they crested the rise of the hill, approaching the toppled fountain at the center of the drive.

The graveled space around the fountain was even more torn up and littered with dust and debris than it had been the night before, scuffed by dozens of pairs of fleeing feet. A lone crystal prism separated from some massive chandelier bounced off Kennedy's unwary boot as she picked her way past it. Shafts of colored light bounced gaily off splintered wood and shattered brick as it spun through the air, dragging her eye from point to point across the vast landbound wreck of the house.

"I can't believe we were in there just yesterday," Kennedy agreed, trying to picture the building as it had been before the collapse. That was a lot of wood and plaster and glass to pancake in on itself all at once. And somewhere beneath it, a portal to a hell dimension now slumbered; she could almost feel its energy beating against her skin now that she was paying attention, like someone had turned on a giant space heater of evil.

No one was immediately visible from the drive, but she thought she could hear voices carrying from the left side of the house, and turned her path a little more in that direction.

"...not surprised," an older male voice was saying in a wry tone as she approached within hearing range. Mr. Giles, Kennedy thought; though she wouldn't have been able to swear to it. "I did my best to discourage his interest when we ran across one another at the hotel, but if he was the one that arranged for me to be taken in by the authorities...."

"He was, according to Ms. Chase," the other replied. "He returned to leave a message for you, apparently, then vanished into thin air in front of a concierge. Wesley's fair-weather friend, on the other hand, is still with us, more's the pity; he left a panicked message after half the staff at the Rollright facility disappeared in the middle of their emergency meeting last night."

"Separating the sheep from the goats," the first voice snorted. "I wonder where Anya sent them? She wouldn't say; only laughed when I asked and said I would approve."

Kennedy exchanged a round-eyed glance with Thera, freezing in her tracks; had some of the people who hadn't made it out actually survived after all? She knew Mr. Giles and his companions had cast some kind of spell after they'd arrived in the basement, but she'd been too busy fighting to pay much attention until Travers had screamed and vanished right in front of her.

"Somewhere a good deal more secure than the cell where I found you, no doubt," the second voice replied, a curl of teasing warmth under the words. "Pity I had to destroy the handcuffs on the way out."

"Now is not the time, Ethan," the first voice chided in response-- definitely Mr. Giles, then.

"And when will it be?" Mr. Rayne replied, tone souring with dissatisfaction.

"Certainly not when we have an audience," Mr. Giles said dryly; and Kennedy shared another glance with her Watcher. Wow; Kennedy hadn't ever heard that sort of rumor about him. And how'd he figure out they were there?

Never mind; what mattered was that she wasn't making the kind of first impression she'd wanted. Kennedy cleared her throat, then picked her way forward again, rounding the corner of what had once been the house to see a pair of middle-aged guys standing over an exposed, rubble-choked window into the erstwhile basement.

"Ah," Mr. Rayne said, dark eyes glittering as he took them in. "The new Slayer-- and her Watcher. I was under the impression Ms. Chalmers intended to wrap the pair of you up in cotton wool and snug you away to placate the old families."

"Ask me how much I don't care about what the 'old families' think right now," Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Kinda looks like their system's broken, to me."

"And what do you care about, then?" Mr. Giles asked; his tone was mild, but he stared at Kennedy with a sharp, speculative expression, one of his hands half-curled and strangely green-tinted in the morning light. An injury maybe? Or some kind of magic? Kennedy couldn't tell-- not that that really mattered, either.

"I care about actually being the superhero our Watchers told us the Slayer's supposed to be," she said, staring back at him challengingly. "I care about saving people, and kicking ass, and making sure no one ever does what they tried to do to us here, ever again. If that means going back to the Council after you teach me, whatever; but I want to be sure I'm going to survive it, first."

"She cares about doing the right thing, not the easy thing," Mr. Rayne replied, amused; though he was looking at his friend when he said it. "Then you've come to the right place, child."

Mr. Giles turned to Thera. "And you support her in this?"

Thera glanced at Kennedy, then nodded. "She's my Slayer."

Something shifted close by with a loud thunk and a clattering of debris, and Mr. Rayne glanced out over the destruction with an oddly triumphant smile. "So much for the shattered visage," he murmured.

"Then I believe we can come to an arrangement," Mr. Giles spoke past him.

Obscure poetry references and tense negotiations? And she'd thought being the Slayer would be different than her childhood dinner parties.

Kennedy smiled wryly at the thought, then nodded. "Great. Sounds like a plan."

Chapter Thirty-Two: Aiming to Misbehave

MONDAY, JUNE 10, 2002, 1:35 PM PST (9:35 AM GMT)


Almost exactly forty-eight hours after walking into a hotel lobby in London, Xander Harris walked into a hotel lobby in Los Angeles, stifling a jaw-cracking yawn. Despite having the Orbs of Nezzla'khan to ease the way, his internal time sense was way out of whack after two intercontinental flights in three days with a major boss fight between them.

He wasn't the only one feeling it, either. The people who'd stayed behind in Los Angeles were industriously moving or unpacking all over the lobby, emptying and inventorying boxes labeled in a mixture of Buffy's hurried cursive, Tara's more elegant handwriting, and Spike's emphatic scribbles. But the folks who'd been with him on the flight back from London had mostly just draped themselves over various pieces of furniture, eyelids sagging at half-mast. Even the Slayers looked pretty wiped.

"Anyone get around to picking up some Mountain Dew?" he asked around another massive yawn.

Whether by accident or design-- with her, it could go either way-- Anya was the person nearest the main staircase as he descended, feet tucked beneath her in one of the comfy red chairs while she idly sorted through the contents of a box. She looked up at him, expression half-defiant and half-defensive the way it had been a lot lately, then looked away with exaggerated nonchalance.

"No one's gone shopping for non-herbal supplies yet, but I asked Fred to get you something when she ran out for tacos earlier. She wasn't kidding, either; she really did run. It should be on the counter."

Xander took a deep, scenting breath, and felt a smile curl at one corner of his mouth as the aromas of spiced beef, crisp tortilla, and sugary neon-yellow caffeine tickled his palate. The tacos were still warm enough that the oil in the meat hadn't started to congeal yet, according to his sensitive nose, so there was probably even still ice in the Dew.

"Anya, you're a lifesaver," he said fervently, drifting toward the counter with his nose still in the air. In the weeks since Giles' wish had left him with supernaturally amplified senses and the inability to ignore inconvenient reality when it stared him in the face, the way it enhanced his appreciation of food had been one of the few side-effects he'd had no qualms about.

His ex went still in his peripheral vision as he passed her, shooting another one of those conflicted looks in his direction. "Nice of you to say so. Even if I'm not sure why I still care what you think," she muttered, quietly enough that he probably wouldn't have heard it if not for those same enhancements.

Xander stopped in his tracks at that, drawing his hand back from the thirty-two ounce prize awaiting him at the hotel's check-in desk to stare at her. He wasn't clueless enough-- at least, not anymore-- to think that her comment had been about the fast food, too. But what else could she mean?

He thought back over the long hours that had passed since Anya had flashed in with Giles and Ethan to roll up Travers' plan, and realized with a cringe that he'd been so distracted by the house falling down, the 'still a demon but no more vengeance' thing, and the inability to shut his threat assessment instincts off on the plane that he actually hadn't said anything positive to Anya about her part in the rescue efforts.

Had it really only been, what, a day and a half ago that he'd whined to Buffy that he and Anya just didn't seem to have compatible priorities? And then she'd gone and done this massively huge thing, giving up her powers to help save a woman she hardly even knew, for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. Xander didn't believe for a second that D'Hoffryn hadn't given her some out clause, after what she'd said about her boss accusing her of upsetting the balance on the Slayer's behalf.

Yeah, Xander didn't know why she still cared what he thought, either. This, on top of the whole being ashamed of her in public thing-- he still hadn't managed to man up and apologize for that, even though that had been the original point behind the reconciliation coffee date he'd asked her on a week ago. He still loved Anya, and for the most part found her forthrightness and lack of shame pretty charming when it was just the two of them together. But somewhere in his screwed-up childhood he'd picked up the belief that he shouldn't love a woman who didn't fit a particular socially acceptable mold... and that was the ugly tip of an iceberg of issues he'd have been happy to go on ignoring for the rest of his life. He'd choked at the altar because he'd been afraid of failing her, but the truth was, he'd been failing her ever since he met her.

And here she was, essentially hinting that he still had a chance. So. He could choose to kick up a fuss over the demon thing again, despite the fact that she was still the same person he'd had a hard time imagining the rest of his life without; or he could finally get over himself and suck up his pride. So maybe the future held no guarantees. So maybe neither he nor Anya were exactly normal. So what? If the last few months-- hell, the last few years-- had taught him anything, it was that you had to seize the moments of joy as they came, or risk missing out entirely.

"Did I say lifesaver? I misspoke," Xander said, abandoning the food to approach Anya's chair. He sank to one knee in front of her, reaching up to touch her chin when she refused to meet his gaze. "I meant to add: you are the caffeine in my soda, the subtitles to the foreign-language film of my life, and probably the best thing that's ever happened to me. And I should have made that clear to you a long time ago."

Anya looked up at him then, eyes widening with surprise, reminding him of the day he'd signed for his first apartment and invited her over for a celebratory picnic. He'd told her then that he'd done it all for her, because he'd known she wanted it... and he'd meant it, even if it had taken a demon with a glowstick of doom removing his weak side first to give him the motivation to do so. Pity he'd fallen down on the job after they'd put him back together.

Which-- huh! Now that he thought about it, that incident was probably at least as responsible for the whole 'frayed aura' thing Tara had mentioned as the soldier and hyena possession incidents. Could that have been what Anya had been thinking about when she'd granted the wish? 'Suave Xander' rearranging his life again, in more ways than one. He was definitely luckier than he deserved.

"Do you mean that?" she said, searchingly.

He nodded, dropping his hand to rest over the fingers linked in her lap. "Yeah, I really do."

A frown line gathered between Anya's brows, a familiar signal of exasperation with his incomprehensible humanness. "Then why didn't you just say all that three months ago?"

Xander gave an awkward, sheepish shrug. "Because sometimes I can be an idiot?"

"Only sometimes?" she scoffed, but her expression softened too, backed by a dawning hope that he couldn't help but reflect back at her.

"I guess this means I get the cookie-dough fudge mint chip all to myself?" an amused voice broke in, and Xander abruptly remembered that yeah, they were having this intensely personal conversation in a very public place.

He refused to be embarrassed though, and grinned unapologetically up at Buffy. The Slayer was carrying another box full of the same kind of bric-a-brac Anya was sorting, dressed in old, worn jeans and a Carpe Noctem tee shirt that had probably come out of Dawnie's wardrobe. She looked oddly younger herself, as though she'd settled a few of her own thorny issues in the middle of the world falling in on them that weekend. And given what little he'd heard about what had happened in LA while they were gone....

"Sorry, Buff. But somehow, I don't think you'll have a problem finding someone else to share it with. Just because things can't be the same as before doesn't mean they can't be a different kind of good."

She rolled her eyes at him, but Xander didn't miss the glance she immediately sent in a particular bleached blond vampire's direction, either. He still never wanted any details, but he couldn't help but remember the conversation they'd had when she'd finally admitted to dating Spike in the first place. The look on her face... yeah. And given everything with Anya? He wasn't going to be that guy; not anymore. It wasn't like they'd even be the only members of the 'tangled up with not entirely human reformed murderers' club in the hotel. Or even, and how sad was it that this part was equally notable, the only ones rekindling something with an ex.

"Thought you were all Mr. Worrywart?" Buffy replied, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, well." His knees were starting to complain, so Xander got to his feet, squeezing Anya's hand and shooting her a warm look as he did. "Suddenly finding my priorities aren't what I thought they were, either. Life's too short for 'shoulda', Buff. Plus, Deadboy Junior got the thumbs-up from the resident psychic; he's made his choice, and I guess I can respect that."

"Yeah." Buffy's expression went soft and a little distant; she didn't elaborate, and he didn't really expect her to, because this was Buffy. But something in the angle of her smile said yeah, he'd probably have to deal with the occasional attack of Oh God, I Didn't See Anything, Moving Along in her vicinity again sometime soon. Sigh.

"I guess we've all had some pretty big choices to make lately," Anya commented.

Xander opened his mouth to agree... then paused as he felt the gears in his mind grind to an unexpected halt. Choices. Why did that sound so naggingly important? Beyond the obvious, anyway?

He cast his mind back over what had happened that weekend, then further back over the month or so since they'd first heard the Prophecy of the Rule, then further yet to his original reaction to the thing. He'd noticed from day one that the Prophecy didn't say whether the choices to be made were limited to the numbered Chosen. But there was something else about the wording bugging him now.

"Xander? Did I say something wrong?" Anya asked, breaking into his distracted thoughts. "I don't like it when your expression goes all vacant like that. It seldom leads to anything good."

"Uh, Buffy... did you ever get a good look at the wording of the prophecy? The new one? I mean, was it printed in a book, or hand written on a scroll, or....?" Xander hadn't been there when they'd discovered it, himself; he and Giles and the girls had been cleaning up after the Duo at the time.

Buffy's gaze sharpened on him again. "In a book, I think; Fred found it, right? Wes?" She turned, seeking out Wes across the lobby, where he and Faith slouched against each other on a couch, an ugly old piece of pottery on the floor at their feet the focus of their attention.

"Yes?" The Destroyer raised a brow in her direction.

"The prophecy, Wes; you remember where you put it?"

Wes turned his attention toward the weapons cabinet, where Angel and Spike were busy adding the more common swords and axes and such from Buffy's chest to the collection. "Angel? The book with the Prophecy of the Rule? Is it still in the office?"

"If you didn't take it with you. Why?" Angel frowned. "You think we missed something?"

"Not to my knowledge," Wes replied. "But Xander seems to have a concern.... Fred?" He raised his voice. "Could you bring the prophecy text out to the lobby? You know the one."

"Sure," the petite Texan called out. She was brushing taco crumbs from the corner of her mouth when she walked out of the office a moment later, sending Xander's stomach rumbling, but he ignored that in favor of the leather-bound volume in her other hand. "Here y'all go."

Xander reluctantly let go of Anya's hand to step forward and take the book. Its cover was nondescript, an earthy color with accent lines in gold, already crumbling around the edges even though it was less than three centuries old. When he flipped back the cover, though, the date written under the spidery script of the title sent a jolt of adrenaline through his veins. It hadn't been typed; it had been hand-written, probably by the prophet him or herself, the way the Watchers still did their journals. And if he remembered his years right, it had been written less than a decade after Holtz left his own century for their future. Not exactly what he'd been looking for; but somehow, the timing didn't surprise him.

He swallowed, then flipped hastily to the magnetic fold-over bookmark Fred had used to mark the prophecy.

"When the Thirteen take their stand 'gainst Devils' law
In the City that the angels gave their name
The Mouth of Hell shall gape and bring forth fire,
Called into focus by the Key of Blood.
Then shall the Chosen make their choices..."

Xander sucked in a sharp breath at the next word written in the text. Choices four? Everyone had said so; and he could see why they had. But the way the vowels were formed, scribbled so closely together, it could easily be another word entirely.

"Then shall the Chosen make their choices fair," he substituted carefully, "and ever after fight they for the Rule. Could it be fair, not four, or am I losing it here? I always thought it was kind of weird that it should group the Slayers and Wes together but ignore all the rest of us; it's not like they're the only ones with capital-D destinies."

"Are you saying it's thirteen choices?" Buffy replied dubiously, then snagged the book from him. "But that doesn't... there weren't even actually thirteen of us when the first part came true, and didn't Whistler confirm the rest was meant for the four of us?" She glanced back at Wes and Faith, who'd got up from the chair and begun drifting in their direction, then over to her sister, frowning in concern.

"No," Wes said, slowly. "As I recall... he called me bright for assuming I was among those to be given a choice; and spoke of a counterbalance. He didn't refer to a specific number at all."

"But what does that mean?" Dawn spoke up, indignantly. "Four I get; but fair? What's 'fair', in the context of a prophecy?"

"Defined as just, or, or favorable," Tara answered her wonderingly, turning to Willow. "It isn't a number, b-because it's a description. You become one of the Chosen by the act of making a Choice. F-free will over destiny."

Willow's eyes widened as she caught her girlfriend's gist. "You mean....?"

"I know what my Choice was," Tara replied softly, gaze still fixed on Willow's. "And I think you know what yours is, too."

"I'd kind of been thinking, uh, 'I will diminish, and go into the West'," Willow quoted sheepishly in reply. "You know? Like Galadriel. I think... I could handle it now, touch the magics without going right for the dark stuff. But I don't feel like I need them; not anymore."

Some part of Xander felt relieved, for her sake; but the rest was adding that thoughtfully to his speculations. They'd all faced crisis points of one kind or another since the events tangled up with the prophecy had begun to unfold, hadn't they? Anya's was just the most significant to him, the one that had brought the subject to his attention.

"Like Anya chose to give up her power," he nodded. "I don't think we all necessarily need to say what our specific Choices are, but-- I'm not spitting in the wind here, am I? Even the folks we left in England-- we've all faced up to something important, recently."

Buffy bit her lip, struggling with something, then reached out a hand to grasp her sister's and nodded. "I Chose to live," she admitted.

Xander's heart stung at the look on her face; and at the compassion on Fred's when she smiled warmly at them and added her contribution. "And I Chose not to be afraid."

Angel glanced between Buffy and Spike, then shook his head with a frown. "Isn't it possible this is all just a coincidence?"

Wes reached out and took the text from Xander, tracing over the words himself. "Somehow, I don't think so. Though that may be my own hope speaking, rather than impartial conviction. I have to admit, I'd find that prospect far more palatable." Then he offered the text to Angel.

The elder vampire stared at him, then carefully shut the volume without glancing at the pages and left it in his son's hands. "Then-- I Chose to let the past go, and accept things as they are," he said, ruefully.

"Oh," Faith blurted as if enlightened, staring at him, then Spike. "I get it now. The visions-- never mind. But I think you're right. I Chose trust. Fang-boy over there Chose love."

"Giles chose to be all of who he is, not just the Watcher; and I think my dad did too, though kind of the reverse," Jonathan added, thoughtfully.

He didn't elaborate on his own Choice; nor did Dawn, who was blushing, or a pensive Gunn, or Lorne, who'd joined the party as everyone gravitated to the center of the lobby. But as Xander glanced from face to face around the group, he didn't doubt that they were all in agreement, one way or the other. He was reminded again of the first time he'd heard the prophecy; of leaning across the table to ask Wes when he wanted the rest of them in Los Angeles; and later that night, Wes toasting them all as Grey Hats.

"We may not be perfect, but we do our best to make the world a better place," he quoted wryly, dropping a hand into his pocket to finger the deformed bullet he'd carried every day since it nearly killed him.

He didn't really need the reminder of how short life could be; the entirety of his life in Sunnydale had provided plenty of those, starting with Jessie's empty grave and bookended with Buffy's. But the ordinariness of it spoke to him somehow, like a talisman against taking even the weirdness of everything for granted. "Whether we were born with power, or cursed with it, or picked up later in life, or just figured out how to deal with it without any of those gifts...." he continued, nodding at each of the people in the room in turn.

"Here's to... us, I guess," he finished with a sheepish shrug.

Anya grinned at him, then reached for his free hand again, lacing her fingers with his. "Yes. Here's to us!" she said, raising their joined hands in the air. "Now, are you going to eat those tacos before they get cold? I'm still hungry too, you know, and it's a waste of food otherwise."

Startled, warm laughter ran around the group; then they all broke apart again, clapping each other on arms and shoulders before they scattered back to their corners of the room.

"Well said, Xander," Wes said. "And well spotted; I'll have to take the text along for further research when Faith and I go back to take up the Watch."

"No rest for the wicked, huh?"

"Whoever first said that had it all backward, according to Jonathan; but I'll take it as a compliment regardless," Wes replied, wryly.

"Probably a good philosophy for life in general, in this business," Xander smirked at him, then gently untangled himself from Anya. "Now, tacos; and then, I guess, on to the next challenge?"

"Together," Anya reminded him.

"I promise," he assured her, grinning. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."




Gavin frowned as the last of his surveillance windows blacked out on the screen of his laptop, and brought up the software settings to make sure, yet again, that nothing had changed.

No; everything was still set the way it had been before, the program had simply stopped receiving any signals from his bugs. Theoretically, the inhabitants of the Hyperion might have been bright enough to realize they were being observed-- a spell could have taken all the bugs there out at once, or even the demon they had on staff with the operatic voice. But all the other locations? One by one they'd all gone dark, from Lilah's apartment to Cordelia Chase's digs to the ruins of the Wolfram and Hart offices, and nothing he'd seen in the moments before the footage stopped offered even a hint at an explanation.

And that, he realized suddenly, was a rather worrisome explanation all its own. He opened up his email program, creating a new message with a flick of the keys, and began to type.

"Master Tarfall," he began. "I believe my position here may have been compromi--"

White light flared around him before he could finish detailing his suspicions, and his stomach sank straight to his scuffed, full-grain leather, captoed, Goodyear welted shoes.

"Gavin, Gavin," a little girl's voice addressed him, in amused, scolding tones. "I didn't want to believe Lilah when she told me; I didn't think you were that stupid. But I see it's true. You've been a very naughty boy."

Gavin glanced around automatically, taking in the vast room he'd appeared in. It looked like the inside of an enormous warehouse in which a home improvement store's entire inventory of white paint had exploded, forming a smooth coating over walls, support structures, light sources, and floor surface alike. He couldn't tell if it was concrete or tile, what type of lighting illuminated the space, or even how big the room was; the only breaks of color were himself and the young woman addressing him, wearing a velvety red, old-fashioned dress.

This was the White Room. He'd never been invited there when the Firm was intact, but he'd heard about it. And that meant... he was fucked, unless he came up with an adequate, believable explanation in a tearing hurry.

"M-Mesektet," he blurted, wincing as he betrayed his nervousness with an unaccustomed stutter. "I don't know what lies Lilah might have told you, but I assure you, I've had nothing but your best interests in mind with every move I've made. Lilah, on the other hand...."

"Bwah, bwah, bwah." The embodiment of darkness made mocking duckbill motions with her right hand, then smirked, as he found himself abruptly deprived of his voice. "I know all about the money, Gavin. Do you really think I care about a little cash? A snap of my fingers, a little human sacrifice, and I can rebuild the entire offices without bothering to spend so much as one disk of copper-plated zinc. What I care about is that one of my so-called brothers has made inroads on my territory in my absence... and that one of my own minions not only failed to help free me, he helped that waste of a lovely panther skin instead."

"If I'd had even the slightest clue that you were alive... I thought, since you were gone, the Firm...." His throat closed up again, strangling off his justifications. He was fucked.

Surely Lilah hadn't fared any better, though. He'd watched her; Lilah hadn't helped Mesektet, either. Had she?

"You thought, hmm? And yet, Lilah's move is the one that ended up setting me free," Mesektet waved a finger in his face, torpedoing those thoughts. "It might not have been her intention... but since when do good intentions matter in this business?" She laughed then, a charming little girl's giggle undercut by the malevolent spark of brightness in her eyes.

"What matters," she continued, "is where those intentions take you. And I'm afraid your wasting of several of my key resources to such little effect has led you to... well, see above about the requirements for raising the offices again." She gave a chilling smirk. "Not quite as clever, perhaps, as the other side's solution to their inconvenient opponents... who's going to be able to identify a bunch of long lived shrimp added to a universe filled with nothing but crustaceans?... but at least you'll be useful to me this way."

Gavin's hands shook, and he grasped desperately for anything that might save him. "But... are you sure you wouldn't rather...."

"Fun as it is to watch you squirm, I'm sure," Mesektet said, in chiding tones. "Really, Gavin. Be a man about it. You always wanted to be part of the foundation of the Firm; now you literally will be. And maybe your next time around the wheel will be more successful, hmm?"

She approached, tugging him down by his tie to bestow a burning kiss on his brow...

...and with that gesture, the story Gavin Park had been a part of came at last to a close.




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