[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of three

Episode Fourteen: Reclamation

by adjrun, cousinjean, & hold_that_thought
Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet
(Xander & Faith)
Ain't No Sunshine by Bill Withers
(Spike)


*

It could be demonic possession. They still hadn’t ruled out demonic possession. Which meant he could find something in the D’Armoto Grimoire, or the Pandaemonium, or maybe… wait, he didn’t know if Giles had a copy of Aeternia Vivendis, because that one would be really useful, unless it was the abridged which was a complete waste of paper. Well, they’d have the big one in the Council libraries. The multi-volume set. They had access to so much more stuff there. Giles’s collection, in comparison, was two Spider-Man comics and a book of knock-knock jokes. Unless they just had too many books to look through there, and Buffy’s thing was a needle in about eighty-seven haystacks. So would it be better to search through Giles’s volumes on the topic? Or could he just e-mail Willow a list of possibilities to check? Both? And who was he to think that he could research down something that they couldn’t anyway? Even with the training and the secret Watcher decoder ring, he wasn’t exactly Book-Larnin’ Guy but he -

“Um, my change?”

“Huh?” Xander asked.

A woman looked up at him from across the counter. “I gave you a fifty. So I get $6.37 in change?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.” He looked down at the bill in his hand, and the open register. What if it had to do with Ethan’s Wacky Water? What if it affected Buffy differently because… because…

“That’s one piece of paper with Lincoln on it, one with Washington, one big coin, one little silver coin, and two of the little orangey guys.”

“Crap! Again, sorry. It’s just - Hey, look, the guy on this paper money is the same one as on this shiny little penny.” He shook his head, playing rueful and amused for all it was worth. “Here you go. Your change. And your receipt. Did you want a bag for that?”

“You mean a second one?” She smiled. “You bagged me up already.”

“Yeah. Whoa,” Xander said. “Sorry. And I have to stop saying that. I’ve just - I’ve got things on my mind, and -”

“They’re shaking your brain back and forth, and won’t give it back to you? Yeah, I get the feeling. I thought finals would be easier summer term, and boy was I wrong.” She lifted her shopping bag. “That’s why I’m in here buying ginseng, ginkgo biloba, a sodalite crystal, angelica, a Saint Jude candle...”

“Oh right, to help you - I know this one, I…” Focus, Xander. Oh! “Mental focus. Clarity.”

“Yup! Anything to help maximize the effectiveness of my study time, right?”

He nodded. Studying. The Watcher diaries. The possibility that this just affects some Slayers - wait, he couldn’t track that down here, it was classified. So, useless to go through them. But he could check spells. Potions. A wish to a vengeance demon?

“Ginseng. Upper right hand shelf behind you.” The woman paused in the doorway. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” he said to the closing door. Turning around, he considered the lit rows of spell stuff behind the counter. Maybe that girl had something, maybe a little ginseng would help. Fenugreek, feverfew, fumitory, man, he needed to dust this stuff and he promised Giles he’d keep the store running just like he was here and -

And this was it. This was, without a doubt, bar none, the last time he’d get left behind. No more holding down the fort for him. The fort could flap up and blow away for all he cared. Better to be there - to be there and terrified and confused and thisclose to the need for Depends - than here. Than this.

The not knowing.

Feeling helpless.

Useless.

Half a world away from where Buffy could be dying.

So it didn’t matter if it was pointless, or futile. And it didn’t matter if he had the attention span of a four year-old on a sugar diet. He had to try. He pulled Wernicke’s Pernicious Enchantments down from the Restricted Section, and went to work.

Four hours and two customers later, he had a couple of choices on the Possible list. The Not Very Damn Likely list was slightly longer, and the Don’t Rule Out Completely But You Have A Better Chance Of Winning The Lottery list was stacking up. Also, his eyes hurt, his back hurt, and he was so hungry he could eat his own hand.

The bell on the door jangled.

“Welcome to the Magic Box, how may I… Oh, hey.”

Faith shut the door behind her. Drenched in sweat, she grimaced and clutched her side. “Hey,” she managed between pants.

“You okay?” Xander asked, pushing to his feet. “Something wrong? We need to set a DefCon level?”

“Oh. Nah. Just...” She bent over, resting her hands on her knees. “Out. Thought I’d come around and train for a while. Hit the heavy bag. Started to jog over here and then, I dunno. Just kept running.”

“For how long?"
She shrugged, so he pressed the issue. “Faith? How long?”

“No clue. Seriously.” He looked at her. “Fine. I started a couple minutes after ten.”

He glanced at the clock above the register. Two-fifteen. “So you went running for four hours?”

“Okay. So?”

“Faith, you ran a marathon. Maybe two or three. Sit.” He gestured to a chair at the table. Then grabbed a bottle of water and held it out to her. “Drink.”
She stared at him. The bottle. Him again.
Xander made a face. "Gimme a little credit, all right? Every bottle in town's been checked since then. This house is clean." He edged the bottle closer.

She rolled her eyes, but took it. Half the bottle gone in a swallow.

“Slow,” he warned. “You could be dehydrated. Or have sunstroke.”

“Slayers don’t get sunstroke.”

“Really. Never read that in the Watcher diaries. Strength, speed, healing, Spidey sense, sure. But strangely, no mention of immunity to heat exhaustion.”

“Fine. I pushed it too hard.” She took another swig, finished it off. “Stupid of me, huh?”

“No. Not stupid. Not exactly earning you that coveted spot in Mensa, either.” He took the bottle and went to get another, this time swinging through the training room to snag her a towel. She took it with a smile and finally sat down, mopping sweat off her neck.

“So,” Xander asked. “What brought about the need to kick the training regimen up about sixty-seven notches?”

She sighed. Reaching out for the fresh bottle, she turned it slowly in her hands, focusing on the water inside. “I just... Is it...? It’s weird for you, right? Being here, with everyone else...”

“Actually doing things?” He flopped into a chair beside her.

“Right. Exactly. And being away. I mean, I know we’re supposed to be here, I know bad shit could go down and the Hellmouth has gotta be monitored, but I just keep thinking if I was there I could help, I could make the difference. You know? What if they need us, and we’re here stuck with the duty stuff and because we’re not there it’s all going to fall to shit and it bugs me how fucking quiet everything is.”

Xander started to speak, but she cut him off. “Not talking about patrols. Those are picking up, kinda. But then, I go home, and nobody’s there. Usually Giles, he’s up, puttering around, making like he’s reading or something but we both know he’s just staying up to make sure I’m home okay. It was - I liked it. But now, I finish my sweep and unlock the front door and it’s just… dark.”

“Yeah.”

“And Buffy’s house is worse, ‘cause I’m used to that place being Party Central.”

He nodded. He’d been over there yesterday to water plants, trying to pretend they were just away on vacation. Only it was hard to fake that when it looked like the place had been hit by Hurricane Buffy - boarded up windows, smashed chairs, the door to the basement demolished. He’d spent a couple hours cleaning up, salvaging what could be fixed, tossing the rest. It still wasn’t right. It was just emptier.

“No Willow, no Spike, no Dawn, hell, I’m even missing Travers.” Faith tried to laugh. “Okay, that last one not so much. But I swear, Xander, if you weren’t here? I’d be climbing the goddamn walls.”

“Likewise.”
“So, yeah.” She looked up at him. “It’s too quiet at my place. All these thoughts crashing around in my skull, making me nuts. Needed to turn my head off for a while. Thought running would help.”

To stop thinking. Worrying. Just for a few seconds. What he wouldn’t do… “Did it work?”

She grinned. “Yeah, you run so hard you puke. It’s great how blank your head gets when you’re retasting breakfast.”

“Sweet.” Xander stood up. “Okay. That was - a striking visual. And I thank you for that. And I’m still so hungry that the thought of your hurl hasn’t killed my appetite, which I’m finding a bit freaky. So. You. Go, hop in the shower, get cleaned up, use the toothbrush in there ‘cause it’s not mine and I don’t care if you get your puke molecules all over someone else’s Oral-B. Then we’ll close up the joint and pop over to Guido’s for some chow, okay? Sound good?”

Faith sat there at the table, tracing a drop of water down the side of her bottle with a fingertip.

“Hey! Come on! Hit the showers! I’m starving. And every moment you sit there is a moment longer I have to wait for four-cheese lasagna.”

Nothing.

He sat back down, tried to make eye contact. “Faith?”

“If...” She cleared her throat, started over. “Buffy.”

“They’re gonna find what’s wrong with her, don’t let it get to you. Willow and Giles, they’ll fix it. They never give up, ever. They will find a way to bring her back.”

“But if they don’t?” A look up at him, quick, then away, just long enough for him to see the dread in her eyes. “What if there’s nothing, if she’s stuck like that?”

“You can’t -”

“What if she’s never gonna be Buffy again? I hate it because I keep thinking it and you know how I - I’d do anything to bring her back, I would. But...” She took a long shuddering breath. “Oh, god, I’m a crappy person for thinking this and it’s so fucking selfish and -”

“You’re still worrying. That this could happen to you.”
“That I could go Psycho Slayer? Yeah.” Faith blinked, hard. "It... Yeah. Buffy went after Dawn. She went after Spike! She was out of control and she didn't care because it felt right to her. Like a Slayer."

"No! Not like a Slayer. What're you saying? That's not Buffy and that's not you. Faith --"


"It is. You always think that I... It is. It's what demons see." She looked directly at him, nailing him with the intensity of her gaze. "Then bam - not just monsters and demons. Werewolves who happen to be friends. Sisters who used to be Keys. Xander... It's what Spike saw."
"Spike never -"
"She coulda killed him! What about that don't you get? If I ever -"t;
“You won’t.”
"If Psycho Slayer ever pushes me out... If she goes for you... Anyone. You have to end it."

“No.”


"Xander -"
"NO!" He was on his feet again. Pacing. Trying to get away from -
“You son of a bitch! Your stubborn loyalty'll get you dead.”

“I don’t care! I’m not gonna kill you, Faith! I don’t give a rat’s ass for what reason - it’s not happening.”


"Sooo, what? You let me kill you? Giles? What about Willow, can I kill her, too? You'll live with that? You'll let me live with that? Again?"

“We won’t let you hurt anyone. We’ll stop you before it comes to that. Tranq you and drug you and stick you in a cage and wrap so many chains around you that you can’t twitch an eyebrow. And then we’ll make up the cure which we’ll already have because we’ve cured Buffy with it, and we’ll dose you with it, and you’ll be fine and you’ll owe me one huge apology for even bringing this up.”

She laughed a weary laugh. “Or worst case? Everybody dies."
“Then that’s what will happen! Because somebody tries to take you out? They’ll have to kill me first.”
"You." Faith looked at him, a long, slow measuring gaze. He went still in its wake. "You're the king of denial, you know that?"
"No. I'm just your Watcher."

She made a noise like surprise. Her lips parted and her eyes changed. Then she shut it all down with a shake of her head. “It’s a bad plan.”

“Yeah? Is it? Don’t care,” he said. “It’s the plan we’re going with.”
***
Every breath burned Willow's lungs as she sprinted the two blocks to Council Headquarters. After all these years, she should have known better than to trust any Council member. She just prayed she wasn't too late.

Mentally going through any spells that might be useful, she turned the street corner and got was shoved out of the way by someone running the other direction.

"Hey! Watch where you're... oh, crap."

Council Headquarters loomed ahead, the ground around it quaking, smoke pouring from rattling windows. Nobody was minding the gate, so Willow had to magic it open. About a dozen people milled about the yard, trying to keep their footing as they chanted protection spells around the compound's perimeter-all except for one guy who stood literally hugging a tree, staring wild-eyed at the building. Willow thought he was chanting a spell, too, but as she drew closer she heard him muttering, "Not my fault. I'm not to blame. They're to blame. This was all them. All them. And we're all being punished."
That couldn't be good.
Willow tried to run on past, but a ground surge knocked her off balance and she stumbled in his direction. He looked at her then, and let go of the tree to point a finger at her. "You! You're one of them!"
"What? I'm not-"
"One of her people!" He was shouting now, and he stumbled toward her. "Everything was fine until you came here." Willow tried to back away, but he grabbed her by the arms. "This is your fault!" He shook her, hard. "What did you do?"
"Nothing! Let me go!"
"What did you do?!" he screamed, spraying her face with spittle.
Willow didn't have time for this. She kneed him in the groin and wrested herself free as he groaned and doubled over. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, but didn't stick around to feel bad. She made it up the front steps without tripping and pushed open the heavy oaken door.
Inside was even worse. The great hall was full of people running every direction, pushing, shoving and shouting to get where they needed or wanted to be. Maybe half of them actually knew where they were going. Fewer still had the presence of mind to stop and help those who were in danger of getting trampled. Willow shook off her surprise and started to brave the crowd, but someone grabbed her arm.
"Not again," she muttered.
"Help me," said a middle-aged, red-headed woman. "Please, I don't know where I'm supposed to…" She shook her head. "There are procedures for this sort of thing. I have a place, somewhere I'm supposed to be, but I don't…" She clutched at Willow. "Tell me where I'm supposed to be!"
"Look, just calm down." Willow grabbed her by the shoulders. "You can do something for me, okay?"
She nodded.
"Good. I need you to find Rupert Giles. Or Niamh McCullough. Can you do that?"
The woman smiled and nodded, letting out a relieved laugh. Then she frowned. "Where do I look?"
Willow sighed. "Never mind. Just go sit over there or something."
She pushed through the crowd, earning several jabs to the ribs and bruises on her shoulders as she made her way across the hall. When she finally reached the door on the other side, a cloud of smoke hit her face, stinging her eyes and making her cough. Hector, a mountain of a man from Special Ops, barreled towards her screaming about malevolent spirits. Just as he was set to flatten her, Willow was jerked backwards.

"Miss Rosenberg," Magnus said. "We need your expertise. We must find out what's causing-"

"I already know. I gotta find Giles, have you seen him?"
"No, but you-"

But she'd already pulled away from him and hurried down the hall, keeping a hand on the wall for support as the ground continued to tremble. The whole place was awash with magic, frantic protection spells mixed with something baser. She found Quentin in front of his office, shouting orders and directions to the Watchers who were still flooding the hall.

"Where's Giles?" Willow said as the ground gave another small shake.

"Miss Rosenberg, I'm rather occupied at the moment."

"You're gonna be a whole lot more occupied if you don't tell me where Giles is!"

Quentin frowned. "Calm yourself. Last I saw, Rupert was on his way to visit Miss Summers."

Magnus came up behind her. "I told her to help us ascertain the cause-"

"I told you, I already know the cause!" A brick broke free from the wall beside her and slammed to the ground between herself and the Watchers. "And we're all screwed if we don't get to Giles in time."

Willow felt her body humming as another wave of magic emanated from... somewhere. She turned and ran down the hallway, trying to sense where it came from.

Unfortunately, magic had twisted itself into every nook and cranny of the old building. As if the chaos around her wasn't making it hard enough, traces of spells hung like drapery on the stone walls. A recent truth spell over there, spicy with a hint of cinnamon. The cool afterglow of a binding spell floated out from under another door. If she could just block it all out, focus on Giles....

There. A black, foul magic wafted down the hall. Willow followed it, the pull growing stronger with each step. It surged towards her like an icy gust of wind when she wrenched open the door to the dungeon stairs.

"Giles?" she called out, hurrying down the steps. "Giles, are you -- oh!"

She tripped over a pile of books and landed on her stomach. Pushing herself to her feet, she noticed a small, pale hand protruding from an avalanche of tomes and journals. Willow scrambled over and cleared away a few of the books.

"Oh my god, Lydia!" Willow gently shook her shoulder. "Lydia, wake up!"

"What's going on here?" Magnus bellowed as his foot hit the last stair.

"I don't know, I just found her like this. Take care of her. I have to find Giles, now. Before it's too late." Please, don't let it be too late.

Magnus sank to his knees beside Lydia, while Willow climbed over the fallen bookshelf and sprinted down the aisle, looking for any sign of Giles. Towards the far end of the room, she spotted a faint glow coming from the previously-cloaked section. She rounded the corner and skidded to a stop.

The air crackled and hummed, awash in a pure, blue light, marred only by the dark outline of a frantically moving shape. Giles clung to a bookcase to avoid being pulled into the portal.

"Willow!" he screamed, before gritting his teeth in concentration as the pull of the portal increased.

"Giles, hang on!"

Small balls of white energy shot out of the portal and zoomed past her head. Willow flattened herself against the bookcase and tried to stay calm. She knew this, she could do this... okay, so she hadn't done it since Dawn had sent the Master into a volcano, but you don't forget how to close a giant portal that's sucking Giles into some hell dimension....

"Claudate portal!"
Nothing. "Stupid Sunnydale High, not offering Latin...."

One of Giles's hands slipped off the bookcase, and Willow felt herself being pulled forward, too.

Crap, oh crap, think, think... oh! "Claudatur porta!"

The shaking stopped and the portal snapped closed. Willow ran forward and caught Giles just before he went crashing to the ground, breaking his fall. They struggled to their feet.

Giles laughed weakly, swaying a little. "You always did have stellar timing."

She smiled and steadied him as they made their way back to the front of the library. As soon as he spotted Lydia sitting up and leaning against Magnus's shoulder, Giles pulled away from Willow and lurched towards her, pushing Magnus aside.

"Rupert," Lydia murmured, "what's going on?"

"I'd like to know myself," Giles said, fixing his gaze on Quentin.
***


Alec Martinson still knelt on the ground, reeling from the pain in his groin, when the ground stopped shaking. He looked up at the building, where that impudent witch had hidden herself. He was on to her and she knew it. Obviously, she had called off her little earthquake in order to cover her tracks.
But Alec wasn't stupid. He'd heard the gossip. He knew how the witch and her ilk blamed the Council for the Slayer's condition. They were all in on it, Rupert Giles and those bloody Americans, with their smug superiority, thinking themselves better than everybody else just because they worked on the Hellmouth. As if administration wasn't just as important. Somebody had to do all the paperwork, didn't they? Somebody had to track all the expenses and make sure the precious Slayers got paid. They sure as bloody hell wouldn't do it. And that was another thing, seeking compensation for a sacred calling... It was obscene. Oh, Alec knew the strings that had been pulled to make that happen. Alec knew so much more than they ever gave him credit for.
And now here they were, punishing innocent people to get revenge for the little blonde one. Utter rubbish, accusing the Council like that; and even if it wasn't, he hadn't had anything to do with it, had he? But here they were, sending their witch to do their dirty work, regardless of who got hurt.
They wouldn't get away with it. Not on his watch.
Alec got to his feet and followed his colleagues back inside, making his plans as he went. It wouldn't do any good to tell his superiors, they never listened to him. And the witch had made too many friends on her last visit to the Council. Nobody would believe she wanted to kill them all. It was all on him, then.
But that was all right, because Alec knew lots of things.
Like how best to get rid of a witch.
***
Back upstairs in a conference room, Willow gingerly dabbed iodine on a small cut on Lydia’s forehead while Giles glowered and Quentin paced.
Finally, Quentin stopped in front of Willow. “I still don’t understand how you knew Rupert was in danger.”
“The book,” Willow said. “When Mr. Summers told me Giles was going to use Mudge’s Codex, I remembered something I’d read when I was looking through a treatise on forbidden books the other day.”
“Forbidden books?” Lydia said.
Willow shrugged. “I figured it would be worth breaking a few rules to help Buffy. Anyway, the Codex isn’t a book at all. It’s a, a key... a portal to a hell dimension. Sorcerers used it in the sixteenth century to get rid of their enemies. They’d plant it in libraries and wait for their target to open it up. Poof, no more enemy.”
“So Niamh....” Giles closed his eyes. “Why does Niamh want me dead? Why was I a threat?” After several moments of silence, Giles opened his eyes and looked at Quentin. “Well?”
Travers glared. “Why do you assume I know?”
“Because she works for you, you bloody fool,” Giles said, voice rising. “For all I know, you gave her the order!”
“That’s ridiculous and you know it,” Quentin snapped.
“Guys,” Willow began, but Giles ignored her and got right in Quentin’s face.
“Is it? You’re forgetting I know how the Council works, Travers. I know you have no qualms about eliminating anything that threatens your precious work.”
“And you’re forgetting who signs your pension check. Mr. Giles, I suggest you stand down--”
“Hey!” Willow screamed. When she had everyone’s attention, she sighed. “We don’t have time for this. We need to find out why Niamh tried to kill Giles. Find out if she was working with anyone, or--”
Quentin grabbed her by the arm. “Miss Rosenberg, this is now officially Council business, and therefore not your concern.”
“No, when people try to have my friends sucked into scary blue portals, it becomes my concern,” she said, pulling free of his grasp.
“Willow,” Lydia said, “we have to be careful. We can’t confront Niamh without knowing how dangerous she is. She’s an experienced witch. Who knows how much power she has? Not to mention, there are likely some unknown players in all this.”
Quentin shook his head. “Unknown players? Niamh dangerous? Lydia, listen to yourself. You know Niamh, why are you so willing to assume the worst of her?”
“I....” Lydia frowned. “I just want to be cautious. Make certain no one else gets hurt. Can’t we--”
Thud. Something slammed into the door from the other side, followed by scuffling and shouting.
When Quentin pulled the door open, two Watchers tumbled into the room, furiously clawing at each other .
“You filthy bastard,” the larger one snarled.
The short, brunette man didn’t reply, as he was too busy being choked.
“Philip, let go of Marcus this instant,” Quentin said, grabbing Philip’s shoulder and trying to pull him free. Philip brought his elbow back and cracked Quentin across the cheek before driving his fist into Marcus’s face.
Through the blood streaming over his split lip, Marcus chuckled. “That all you got, you ponce?”
“Enough,” Lydia shouted, standing and walking over to the men. She grabbed Philip’s hair in one hand and ear in the other and pulled him up.
“Ow, ow, ow,” he whined, batting at the air. “That hurts.”
Lydia smirked and let go. “Good.”
“Gentlemen, what is the meaning of this?” Quentin said, rubbing his cheek.
Marcus coughed and sat up. “I was simply telling Philip about my upcoming trip to catalogue demonic activity in Sydney when he attacked me.”
Philip clenched and unclenched his fists. “Because you’re going to Sydney to try and steal my job!”
“What? That’s ridic--”
“Why else would you go? You’ve been gunning for my job for years. This is the perfect opportunity to impress our superiors and see me out on my ear.”
“You crazy bastard, I’m only going because Marlowe asked me to.”
“Liar!” With a snarl, Philip again launched himself at Marcus, pinning him to the ground and driving his fist into his face over and over.
“Dormio!” Willow shouted.
The air around Philip shimmered for a second, then he slumped back, fast asleep.
Lydia helped Marcus to his feet just as a loud explosion echoed down the hallway.
Giles sighed. “Bloody hell, what now?”
“Another portal?” Lydia said.
Willow closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting her consciousness expand. Finally, she said, “Nope, not a portal.”
“Then I’m going to investigate.” Quentin started towards the door.
“I’ll go with you,” Lydia said. “Willow? Rupert?”
“I think we’d best find Niamh,” Giles said.
Lydia crouched next to Philip and checked his pulse. “How long will he stay subdued?”
“Oh, that spell should keep him out for a good hour or two.” There were several more distant explosions, followed by shouting. Willow shook her head. “Okay, definitely going to find Niamh now.”
***
The earthquake's cessation did little to quell the turmoil inside Council Headquarters. A few of the more level-headed members had gone back to work, but the halls still teemed with more than the usual number of people milling about. Some simply stood 'round clucking about the quake, getting into heated arguments over the source. Some moved with a strange air of urgency and purpose. Still others stood around with their thumbs up their arses and looking like lost sheep.
None of them were making Alec's mission any easier.
It was the same in the science wing. But nobody paid him much attention. Not like that was anything new. Still, anonymity would be best. He almost longed for the days when he could have riled up a good, old-fashioned witch hunt, and sicced a mob on the girl. But these days, saying anything derogatory about magic practitioners in this place would probably earn him a lawsuit. Or at the very least, a reprimand and a day of being forced to watch in-house videos on workplace diversity and inappropriate conduct. So he was on his own for this one.
As he made his way down the hall, a loud boom assaulted him, and the floor beneath him rumbled. Oh God, it was happening again! Alec shoved his way to a doorframe and held on, but the shaking had already stopped. A few doors down, black smoke billowed out into the hall, chasing a couple of lab technicians, singed and coughing, flames lapping at them from behind. Overhead, black clouds gathered and roiled against the ceiling. And then the rain started.
Alec closed his eyes and sighed. Bugger. He'd forgotten all about the fire extinguishing charms. Those would put a damper on his plans - literally. He'd have to get the girl outside. Barring that, some sacrifices might have to be made. But all for the greater good. That was what the Council stood for, after all.
Despite the rain, more people flooded into the department, to help or to see what was going on. Far too many people for Alec's comfort. He turned back the way he'd come, but as he turned a corner, there was Mr. Travers storming toward him. Alec ducked behind a suit of armor and waited for him to pass. A familiar blonde woman strode beside him… Lydia something. He remembered filing the paperwork for her new commission and raise. She was one of them now. All puffed up with having her own Slayer. Forgetting where she came from, turning on her roots. But she'd always been nice enough before she went to the Hellmouth. Alec remembered that. She was Magnus Bellingham's niece, for fuck sake. She had to know better than to get taken in by that mad bastard Rupert Giles and his followers. This was just more of that witch's doing.
The little bitch had to be stopped at all costs.
Alec left his hiding place and headed for the apothecary wing. He should find what he needed there.
***
The Council was a shambles. Lydia was so used to seeing it as a center of calm and cool efficiency. The swiftness of its falling apart startled her.
The attempts on her and Rupert's lives were merely the tip of the iceberg. Since leaving the conference room, she and Mr. Travers had broken up several more inexplicable fights amongst her colleagues. Left and right, Travers barked orders that went unheeded as everyone they encountered seemed to have forgotten how to do their jobs, or even what their jobs were. Confusion reigned. Tempers ran hot, and fuses short. If Lydia didn't know better, she might suspect that all this was connected to Buffy somehow. Come to think of it, she didn't know better. She couldn't be sure whether her time in Sunnydale had made her paranoid, or simply more observant; but this all seemed too coincidental to be mere chance. If that were the case, then perhaps it meant that they were on to something, that this chaos masked a larger plan. But she'd be buggered if she knew what that something was.
As she followed Mr. Travers around a turn in the corridor, the locale of the recent explosion became immediately apparent. If the black smoke billowing out of one of the research laboratories hadn't been enough of a tip-off, the rainstorm covering the area might have provided a clue. Lydia's glasses began to fog. She removed them with a sigh.
"Chalmers!"
A hand grabbed Lydia's arm and spun her around. She squinted at her assailant, a tall, blond blur. "Pardon?"
"Tell me where he is! You can't hide that bastard from me forever."
"I'm afraid I don't-"
The man took hold of her other arm and gave her a shake. "I'll kill him, you hear? And if you try and stop me I'll-"
"Here now, what's the meaning of this?" Mr. Travers came to get between them. He looked the other man up and down. "Baker? Weren't you ordered to secure the laboratories when the quake started?"
Baker laughed. "Secure the labs? Are you daft?" He doubled over with laughter as Quentin and Lydia stared at him, dumbfounded. "You expect me to work…" Baker's face turned red as he tried to overcome his laughter enough to speak. "You expect me to worry about this shit when that fat git is fucking my wife?"
"Um." Lydia blinked. "That's… well, I mean, have you any proof?"
"Proof?!" Baker stopped laughing. "I know it in my gut. I've known it for a long time now. He's not going to get away with it. I'll kill him, I will!" He screamed the last bit.
Mr. Travers held up his hands. "Calm yourself, Baker." He heaved a weary sigh as he looked around the hall. "Where the bloody hell is security?"
"Shall I go find someone to help?" asked Lydia.
"Help me find that fat fuck so I can gut him!" screamed Baker.
Travers shook his head. "Get to the lab and see about that explosion. I'll handle this."
"Are you certain?"
Travers reached toward a suit of armor and pulled free a sword. "Quite," he said as he leveled it at Baker, in a tone that brooked no arguments.
"Yes, Sir," said Lydia, turning on her heel and heading toward the lab. She blew out a sigh as she approached the dissipating smoke and ran a check on her own state of mind. She was soaking wet, barely able to see, sore all over and still a bit shaken from the incident in the archives. All of it made her a tetch irritable, but she still felt fully in control. Perhaps her being buried under all those books had somehow protected her from the effects of whatever was happening to the rest of the Council? Although Mr. Travers also seemed to be fine, as did Magnus, Rupert and Willow…
As she entered the lab, she stopped trying to puzzle it out and focused on the matter at hand. The rain had succeeded in putting out the fires, and the smoke was almost entirely cleared out. Two men were still in the room; a lean, dark-haired young man leaning over a slightly older strawberry blond who crouched in a corner. "Are either of you hurt?" she asked them as she approached.
The younger man straightened and shook his head. "I came in after the explosion. He was already in here, hiding under a table. I didn't think he was hurt, but I'm starting to think he took a blow to the head, the way he's carrying on."
Indeed, the older man buried his face in his hands and sobbed. "I'm sorry!" he. "I didn't mean to! It's all over and it's my fault!"
"What is he talking about?" asked Lydia.
"Damned if I know. They were running tests on a recently acquired talisman when the quake hit. Not sure what caused the explosion, but the talisman seems to have been destroyed."
"We're all going to die!" wailed the other man.
"What do you mean?" Lydia put her glasses back on out of habit, but sighed and tore them off again when they only made her vision worse. She glowered up at the ceiling of clouds. "Don't either of you know the counter spell for this rain?"
"Hang on. Smoke's clearing out, it'll shut itself off once it's done its job."
Sure enough, the rain dried up and the clouds cleared away. "Thank you," sighed Lydia. She looked at the young Watcher. "And you are?"
"Kent."
"And who's he?" As she pointed at the huddling mass on the floor, he let out another pitiful sob.
"Chambers. Head of Mystical Artifacts. I can only guess that he was overseeing the tests."
Lydia nodded. "Mr. Chambers?" She crouched before him. "My name is Lydia. Why don't you relax and tell me what you were working on?"
"Apocalypse!" Chambers choked out. "Destruction! I started it all!"
"Yes, well, perhaps if you tell me what kind of talisman it was we'll be able to stop it."
"It's too late!" Chambers took his hands away and looked at her, his tear-stained face full of despair. "Can't stop it now. We're all going to hell."
"Um. Well, perhaps if we-"
Behind her, Kent coughed. Lydia looked up to see him shaking his head in bewilderment. "I already grilled one of the lab techs before I came in here and found him. It was just a Celtic fertility charm, relatively harmless. Certainly not the sort of thing apocalypses are made of."
"You're certain the talisman isn't behind what's happening here?"
Kent shrugged. "Pretty sure, yeh. I wrote my thesis on Celtic mysticism. They weren't into anything that destructive."
"You're lying!" Chambers shot to his feet, knocking Lydia on her bum and shoving past Kent to get to a tray of artifacts. He picked up an ancient-looking dagger and spun around, holding it out before him as Kent helped Lydia to her feet. "I'm the head of Artifacts. Me! Don't you think I'd know if it were harmless?!"
"O-of course," said Lydia, holding her hands up to placate him. "No one doubts your expertise."
Kent took a careful step forward. "Chambers, mate, let's have the knife."
"No!" Chambers swung the knife at them. Tears streaming down his face, he shook his head. "They're going to drag us down to hell. But I won't let them take me. I won't let them take you, either." He started toward them. "It'll be better this way."
"Chambers, what-"
"Bugger this," muttered Lydia. She spun and kicked the knife out of Chambers's hand.
Then Kent rushed him and tackled him to the floor, but the elder man remained undaunted. "They're not taking me!" he screamed, punching Kent and grasping for the knife. Lydia kicked it out of reach, then punched Chambers in the face, hard enough to stun him.
"Get something to restrain him," she told Kent, shoving him aside as she rolled Chambers onto his stomach and pinned his arms behind his back. Kent returned with a roll of packing tape, and Chambers lay sobbing as they taped his hands together.
"Wow," said Kent as they both stood up, panting. "That was… you move almost like a Slayer." Lydia merely offered him a tight smile while retrieving her dropped glasses. As she cleaned them, Kent blew out a long breath. "And here I thought I left nutters like this behind when I got out of Sunnydale."
Lydia paused her cleaning, then put her glasses on and gaped at Kent. "You were with the group in Sunnydale?"
"Yeh. Not surprised you don't remember me. We didn't interact much. I was helping out with Faith's trials. We met briefly at the hospital, but I was sporting two shiners, and you were a bit distracted." He looked down at Chambers and shook his head. "Rupert Giles losing his marbles was enough madness to last me a lifetime. And now this…."
"This… is awfully similar, isn't it?" Of course. It was all starting to make sense. "Mr. Kent, I need a favor."
He shrugged. "You likely just saved my life. I'm not saying no."
She smiled. "Yes, well. I'd like you to locate the rest of the Sunnydale contingent, or as many as you can find. Assess their mental states and report back to me."
"You don't really think this is the same thing, do you? We're not big bottled water drinkers around here, y'know. And Ethan Rayne is-"
"Missing. And at this point I'm not ruling anything out."
Kent turned a shade paler. "You, ah… you don't suppose people will start…" He grimaced, and swallowed. "I saw Nigel in the morgue, after his brain…"
"Perhaps it's not the same thing," Lydia offered. "But let me know if you see any signs of that, too."
He nodded. "And what about our friend?"
Lydia sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Take him to the infirmary. See if you can find someone coherent enough to sedate him."
"Right. And where are you off to?"
"To find Willow Rosenberg," she said, heading out of the lab. "I want a second opinion."
***
From his vantage point perched midway up a stairwell, Myong Kim was able to watch all the pandemonium from a comfortable distance. Travers was still running around, brandishing a decorative sword like a ninny. Two more Watchers were brawling smack in the middle of the corridor, tearing an admirable chunk out of each other and swearing in an assortment of dead demonic languages.
Everything was in an uproar.
With a smile, Kim opened his cell phone and dialed.
“It’s time.”
***
"Willow!"

"Oh, hey, Lydia!" Willow weaved through the crowed hall to meet her halfway. "Any luck finding Niamh?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Figures," said Willow. "I'm just trying to get to her office. Hey, watch it!" she shouted as a young woman bumped into them in her hurry to get through the hall. With an exasperated sigh, Lydia grabbed Willow by the wrist and led her to an empty office. Willow watched her lock the door. "God, this place is a madhouse! Like, literally!"

"Yes, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Doesn't all of this madness seem familiar?"

"What, you mean like, wacky water madness?" Willow nodded. "Yeah, that crossed my mind. But it's different. Everybody in Sunnydale was psychotic. These people are all just really pissed off and confused."

"Not to mention paranoid," said Lydia. "Still, there are enough similarities to garner suspicion. And Willow... it appears that those who were in Sunnydale and treated for the water's effects are immune."

Willow frowned. "Okay, yeah, that's fishy."

Lydia began to pace the small office. "It's all very, well, chaotic, isn't it?"

"It does all kinda scream Ethan Rayne. Except it can't be him."

Stopping in her tracks, Lydia turned back to Willow. "Why not?"

"Because Ethan's d- I mean, witch's intuition. Just call it a gut feeling. This is something else."

"You're certain?"

"Yeah." Willow nodded. "We gotta find Niamh. She was in Sunnydale, too."

Lydia removed her glasses and chewed on the earpiece. "It could be that she's an exception, and is under the influence of... whatever it is. Perhaps that's why she attacked Rupert and me."

"Yeah. Or it could be that she was in cahoots with Ethan and she's behind the whatever it is."

"Surely you don't think-"

"I don't know. But if she's behind the new crazy, then she'll know how to stop it."

"Yes, of course." Lydia put her glasses back on. "Keep looking for her. Meanwhile I'll get to work manufacturing the antidote. It might not work on this new strain, but at least we'll have a base with which to start."

"Great. Call Xander, he can fax you the potion."

"I'll be in the infirmary if you need me," said Lydia as she opened the door. "I've already got a test subject all trussed up and waiting."

"Wow, already?"

"Long story. Good luck."

"Yeah. You, too."
***
"Don't you understand?" Kim said, handing another book to Kailani Payden. "This is wonderful!"

"Wonderful how?" She put the book down and pulled a rubber band out of her pocket, tying back her long hair before picking the stack of books up and carrying them across Kim's office.

"With all the turmoil inside the Council at the moment, there's never been a better opportunity for Magnus to bring all our plans to fruition."

"Bellingham doesn't seem terribly concerned. Last I saw, he was sitting in the Kimball library watching the paint dry."

Kim chuckled. "Silly girl. He can't strike while Travers is blundering about. No, we'll have to do his work for him. Find others who will align with our cause." He stood up and walked over to the door. "Tonight, this ends."

***
Giles found Willow on the second floor, coming out of Niamh's office.

"She's not here," Willow said.

"That's not surprising. With the amount of power she has, she could well have teleported out of the country by now."

She shook her head. "No, she's definitely still in the building. I can sense her, but she's blocking all the locator spells I've tried. Luckily, I have a way to find her that she didn't teach me."

"Oh?"

Willow held up a small, ceremonial dagger. "Got this from her desk. Now we just need a map or blueprints of the building."


***
Alistair Reaney ran a hand through his thinning blonde hair and grimaced. "Not sure I follow you, old man."

Kim glanced nervously around the room and lowered his voice. "You can't tell me you haven't noticed Travers's incompetence."

"Perhaps he fumbles occasionally." Alistair shrugged. "That's just how things are."

"But it isn't how things have to be!" The elderly Korean man's eyes took on a zealous gleam. "There are others who want to bring about a change. A new outlook for the Council. However, we must work quickly if we're to do it. We have to act now, before Quentin can neutralize our allies."

Truth told, Alistair had been hoping for someone to bring about reform to the Council. But he wasn't sure he wanted to join this... faction that Kim spoke of. At least, not until he heard the magic word.

"Think of the power, Reaney."

Alistair smiled.


***
"Sounds like I missed the excitement." Rebecca Southani's voice crackled over the line. "I was thrilled when they shipped me off to monitor Hellmouth activity in Cleveland, but God, I'm so bored. I envy you your earthquake."

"Yes," Maria Sanchez said, straightening the bottled potions that had been upended all over her office, "but I can't believe someone tried to harm Rupert Giles."

"Mmm. He's had his share of disputes with the ways of the Council, but.... Well...."

"But he's not wrong," said Maria.

"I'm not saying he is. Nor am I saying that Quentin hasn't been doing a good job. God knows I don't envy him his position, but-"

"A good job? Are you mad? They're conspiring to kill Rupert!"

"You don't know that," said Rebecca. "But I agree that Mr. Giles might be on to someth-"

"I think it's pretty bloody clear what's going on around here." Maria picked up a small vial and squeezed it. "Ooh, it just makes me so…"

"It is frustrating," Rebecca agreed. "Rupert's loyalty to his Slayer is... almost unprecedented. Quentin sees it as a weakness, but I'm not so sure."

"I am." Maria paced her small office. "Rupert Giles is the only one around here with the stones to stand up to this great bunch of misogynistic prats. And look how they've punished him for it. Now they're trying to get him out of the way… God, the whole thing just makes me so-ah!"

"What is it?" asked Rebecca. "What's wrong?"

Maria looked down at the broken vial resting in her bloodied palm, and shook her head. "Nothing," she said. The tinge of pain gave way to profound clarity, as if all of the answers lay in the shards of glass embedded in her skin. "Nothing at all. Rupert's not the only one with the fortitude to go against them."

"Maria? What are you planning?"

Maria smiled. "It's high time for a change in the Council."
***
“It’s time for a change within the Council,” Kim said to Simms. “This is our chance to make the Council what it once was and deserves to be again. You know Magnus is more capable a leader than Quentin.”
“That may be so,” Simms said, closing his book and placing it on the table. “But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to join your little insurrection.”
“And why not?” Kim picked the book up, running his hand over the hard, leather cover.
“Because Bellingham is a power-hungry megalomaniac.”
“I never considered you one to align yourself with the losing team,” Kim sniffed. Then he shrugged. “Your loss. But I hope this isn’t a decision you come to regret.”
Simms narrowed his eyes. “Is that a threat, Myong?”
“Of course not.” He raised the book high and cracked Simms over the head with it. As Simms crumpled into a heap on the floor, Kim smiled. “I never bother with threats.”
***
Sometimes, Magnus thought, it was simply easier to bide one's time. Certainly, there were several ways he could turn the current turmoil to his advantage. But there was likely a handful of his most loyal associates working on contingencies already. So there was no cause for him to leave the relatively safe confines of the library for the time being.
Besides which, this library was his favorite. Lydia's, too, if he recalled correctly. It really was a shame his plan for her had been disrupted. It really would have been best for everyone if....
Still. The weaker part of him, the part willing to forget how much was at stake in the face of his emotions... that part of Magnus was relieved Lydia was safe. For how long, though, was anyone's guess. Especially if she was going to insist on being so inquisitive.
With a sigh, he turned back to his book. Outside, something thumped against the door, followed by a string of expletives. Magnus smiled. Let the mongrels tire themselves out with their skirmishes and inanities; he'd step in when the dust settled.
***
"The time has come, Ladies and Gentlemen." Myong Kim stopped pacing at the head of the conference table. In turn, he met the eyes of each of the small handful of Watchers that had gathered-the few Cabalists and trustworthy sympathizers who had not succumbed to the mass hysteria. "For a millenium our forebears have worked in secret, guiding the Council from within. Protecting it from corruption. Ensuring that neither Slayer nor Watcher loses sight of the Council's purpose, of the war it is our mission to wage on the forces of evil. And dealing with those that do by whatever means necessary." He paused to see if any of the newcomers would object to this last part. When none did, he resumed pacing. "But a new millenium has dawned. We can no longer afford to operate in shadow. The upstart Slayer has been removed from commission, but not yet disposed of. Since the line no longer runs through Miss Summers, Quentin Travers has decided that he has the luxury of helping her. He would see her returned to power-of which he has allowed her to gain far too much."

"In all fairness to Mr. Travers," said Reaney, causing all eyes to turn on him, "he did give the order to terminate Faith when she turned rogue. He does tend to put the Council's welfare before his own sentiment."

Across the table, Griffiths scoffed. "He only gave the order after two failed attempts to detain the girl. And how many did she have to kill before he authorized capital force?" He shook his head, a disgusted sneer spreading across his face. "Now he's content to let her carry out her duties, after only a brief stay in an American prison to 'reform' her, with none but that greenhorn Harris to keep her in line. And what of the potentials? Look at how lax he's allowed their training to become! Letting them live at home if they choose, continuing ties with their families, attending school…. How is this meant to make them into warriors?"

"Let's not forget how easily he caved to Summers's demands," said Payden, "after she had the audacity to attempt a resignation from the Council. And allowing the Slayer to draw a salary…" She let that sit there, as if it said everything.

"About time, too," countered Reaney. "After all, soldiers in Her Majesty's Army get paid, why shouldn't the soldiers in ours?"
"The Slayer is not a soldier," said Griffiths. "She is the sword arm of the Council. A weapon, forged by us and ours to weild."

Reaney opened his mouth to comment, but Kim raised a hand and shot him a look of warning. Perhaps bringing him on board was a mistake. No matter. He would learn, and he would fall in line. Or else he would be got out of the way. "I think we can all agree that Travers is far too lenient with the Slayers. And their Watchers."

"Speaking of which," said Payden, "Mr. Travers isn't our only problem. There are murmurings among our more liberal colleagues that Rupert Giles ought to be placed in charge. They seem to think that Travers is actually too hard on the Slayers, that our traditional means of handling the girls are antiquated and innefectual."

Griffiths jumped to his feet. "You see? This sort of thing must be stopped!"

"And it will be," said Kim. "That's why we're here. Our usual methods of secrecy and manipulation have failed. It's time that we stepped out of the shadows and took this Council by the horns. Right now, Magnus Bellingham is on the front lines, risking himself and doing what must be done to bring order back to the Council. Whether he unleashed the current madness to serve as a diversion, or whether it's merely a fortuitous coincidence, I do not know. But I do know that this is a sign. Now is the time to move, while all eyes are directed elsewhere. We will seize Travers. Make him answer for the shambles he has allowed the Council to become, and turn his seat over to Bellingham."

"An insurrection?" asked Reaney.

"A coup d'état."

"A coup d'état with weapons," Griffiths said, smirking.

"Once Travers is out of the way, we will deal with Rupert Giles as necessary. Although I suspect any threat he poses will diminish in light of the new order." Kim smiled. "Congratulations. You are all ushering in the dawn of a new Council."
***
The supply closet. Yes, yes, of course! It was perfect! Find the right mix of solvents, and he could blow the witch to Kingdom Come and make it look like an accident. Then once order was restored and everyone realized they had been in the witch's thrall, he could remove his caretaker's disguise and reveal that it was he, Alec Martinson, who had saved them all.

He had to hurry. The madness was getting out of hand. He'd been accosted in the corridor by Maria Sanchez, decrying Quentin Travers in an attempt to rally an insurrection to place Rupert Giles, of all people, in charge. She had even printed off a stack of flyers announcing her cause, and was going around shoving them in everyone's faces. He'd thrown his down as he reached the closet, dismissing it for the nonsense it was. What was worse, Sanchez seemed to be gaining support, with poor Mr. Travers none the wiser. But Alec would put a stop to it all. And perhaps Travers would grant him a promotion for it.

He found a set of overalls hanging inside the door, and shimmied into them. A bit snug, but they would do. Next he put on a cap and pulled it low. Then he went to work. A mop bucket would serve. He could push it up to the girl and light it from a safe distance without her suspecting a thing. He only needed a fuse…. There, some old rags. They smelled of turpentine, but that would only make them more flammable. He tied them together until he had several feet of fuse. Satisfied, he set to work on his bomb.

Turpentine would make a good base. He found the can and emptied it into the bucket. A jug of ammonia went in next. That would probably do it, but Alec had to be sure. He rummaged the shelves for more. He was becoming lightheaded. Best to get done quickly and get out of this closet. He grabbed a bottle of cleaning solvent and poured it in with the rest.

That should do it.

Alec found a mop to complete his disguise and started to roll the bucket out of the closet. But as he reached the door he heard voices on the other side. One of them belonged to Mr. Travers. Alec waited for it to pass, but it sounded as though Travers were having an argument. How to get past without being recognized? Perhaps if he… if he… what was he doing again? Oh, right, the witch. Had to stop her. Burn her, the way his lungs burned, and his eyes. Mr. Travers was starting to sound far away, as if twenty doors lay between them. Surely it was safe to pass. Alec reached for the doorknob, but his hand suddenly fascinated him, all blurry and gray. He felt as though he were falling, floating in a sea of gray. And then he was drowning, choking, being pulled down into an endless chasm filled with pitch.
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