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

Episode Fourteen: Reclamation

by adjrun, cousinjean, & hold_that_thought

***

The paranoia was becoming more focused. Everyone seemed to push past their personal fears to find a common cause. As if that weren't bad enough, the cause they were focusing on appeared to be him. At first, Quentin wondered if he himself was becoming paranoid, falling prey to the hysteria that gripped the others. But he was quite certain that was not the case. There was nothing imagined about the furtive glances, whispered murmurs of his name as he moved through the halls, doing what little he could to maintain some semblance of order. They grew bolder as he went, gossiping openly. Accusations swirled all around him without being lobbed directly at him--that he was incompetent; that he was a relic, unfit to lead; that he was a chauvinistic, right-wing fanatic who conspired to get rid of a Slayer with too much power and independence.

It was this last accusation that most took him aback, but also let him rest assured that this was all simply a product of whatever was influencing the Council. Surely it was plain to see the respect he had for the Summers girl, even if it was grudging. Giles had never seen it, granted; but then Giles had grown too close to the girl to see a great many things. His complete loss of objectivity where Buffy was concerned had necessitated his replacement. But Quentin couldn't help admiring the loyalty that she inspired. She was a natural leader who understood the necessity of sacrifice and possessed the necessary fortitude to bear the burden of difficult decisions. Not only that, but she was a cunning tactician. The girl was so much more than simply a skilled and courageous fighter. It was a shame, almost, that she had been Chosen. Sooner or later, she would meet her end and all of her talents would be lost along with her. Quentin sincerely hoped that day hadn't already come. If they could help her, return her sanity, even if she was no longer fit to slay she could still prove a major asset to the Council. Miss Summers would make a phenomenal Watcher, if only she could learn a little more respect for tradition and authority.

But from the way people were currently talking--and occasionally shouting--one would think he openly despised the girl. He had a few supporters at least--more than one of the brawls he'd broken up had been about his leadership. He thought it best to return to the conference room before this mass hysteria made him a target for violence. Surely by now Miss Rosenberg had made some progress in locating McCullogh. He should be there when they questioned her.

He rounded the corridor connecting the north wing to the west, surprised to find it practically deserted. Sanchez was at the other end, brandishing a stack of papers and shouting yet more inflammatory propaganda into the connecting corridor. When she saw Quentin, her eyes went wide and she pointed at him. "Your time is ending, Travers!" she shouted before disappearing down the hall.

Quentin heaved a weary sigh and rubbed his forehead. Perhaps he should find a different route. As he started to turn back he noticed a sheet of paper on the floor a short way down the corridor--close enough for him to recognize his own badly copied photo behind a big circle with a slash in the middle. He went to pick it up. "Travers out--Giles in!" was emblazoned in bold across the top.

Gradually, Quentin realized his mouth was hanging open. Giles? They really were mad if they thought he was a better choice to lead them. Couldn't they see how unstable the man was? He was far too hot-tempered and reactionary. The notion was so absurd that Quentin almost found it amusing. He sniffed at the idea. Then he frowned. Something didn't smell right. He looked around for where the fumes might be coming from and realized that he stood before the supply closet. He reached for the doorknob.

"Quentin Travers!"

Quentin closed his eyes. What now? He turned to see Myong Kim approaching, flanked by Griffiths and Reaney. Half a dozen more Watchers followed in tow, each armed with crossbows--all of which were trained on Quentin.

He frowned. "Myong? What's the meaning of this?"

"You will come with us."

"I think not. Stop this nonsense at once."

"You have much to answer for," said Kim as he and the others continued their advance.

Quentin raised his sword and started to back away. "Mr. Kim, listen to me. Something is affecting you. It's affecting us all. Don't let it control you. Help me get to the bottom of--"

"The current insanity is the least of your problems, Travers," said Griffiths.

"Gentlemen, be reasonable." Quentin looked at Reaney. "Allistair?" Reaney merely averted his gaze.

"I assure you, Quentin," said Kim, "we're quite reasonable. I suggest you follow our example and don't make us use force."

"Damn it, Myong! We don't have time for this!"

"Well, we gave you a chance," said Kim. "Seize him!"

Quentin backed further away as Kim's party rushed at him. Griffiths produced a pistol and fired, sending Quentin diving for cover. But if the gun went off, Quentin never heard it thanks to the explosion. A blast of heat threw him into the north corridor and slammed him into the wall. He bounced off and landed hard on the floor; then he lay there a long moment, stunned, trying to catch his bearings and making sure he still had all his parts.

When he was certain he would live, he rose up to see a gaping hole where the door to the closet had been, the hall around it blackened with soot. Plaster and brick covered the Watchers who lay strewn about on the floor. Quentin stared at them, torn between grief and satisfaction. He was only human, after all. Then Kim moaned, and the others joined him in a chorus. They would live.

He noticed the wetness on his face about the same time as the throbbing in his forehead. His fingers gingerly probed the skin above his eye and came away sticky and red. Quentin found a handkerchief in his pocket and pressed it to his wound, then climbed unsteadily to his feet. It would be a long walk back to the conference room.

A very long walk, indeed.

***

At the sound of another explosion, Lydia gave a start. She slumped forward and rubbed her forehead. Let the others deal with that one. She was still awaiting a fax from Xander and couldn't risk leaving only to have the infirmary and its office overrun and the fax machine destroyed. Besides, Kent had managed to assemble most of the Sunnydale delegates and confirm their sanity before setting them to work patrolling the halls. Kent himself stood watch over Chambers. They had him sedated and strapped into bed, so he was no danger; but that also left him defenseless should anyone breach the infirmary's barricade.

With a sigh, Lydia put her glasses back on and checked her watch. What the bloody hell was taking Xander so long to get her message? It was only late afternoon in Sunnydale, not yet closing time for the shop. He should be there.

After her umpteenth check to make sure the machine was properly connected, she ventured out into the infirmary. "Any change?" she asked Kent.

"No, thankfully."

Lydia crossed the room to bend over Chambers and lift his lids to check his eyes. She shook her head. "I'm really not sure how long it took for the contaminated water's effects to culminate in brain damage."

"'Brain damage'." Kent gave a nervous little chuckle. "That's a tidy way to put it."

"Yes, well." Lydia straightened and removed her glasses to chew thoughtfully on the earpiece. She looked over at the counter where she'd gathered what few ingredients she could from memory. "As much as I'd like to test the potion on him, I fear that even with the instructions before me I would need Willow's expertise for the magical components. I should go see if she's had any luck finding McCullough." She put her glasses back on and went to the barricade. "Help me get out."

With Kent's assistance Lydia cleared a path through the shelves, gurneys and carts they'd piled in front of the doors. To her surprise, the hall outside was deserted. As much as she hoped for that to be a good omen, it gave her a sinking feeling. But at least the way was clear. She started in the direction of the executive conference room. After only a few steps she heard someone panting and wheezing behind her, and turned around.

"Mr. Travers! Dear God!" She rushed to where he leaned against the wall, pressing a blood-soaked handkerchief to his head and doing a poor job of trying to stay conscious. She carefully draped his arm about her shoulders. "Come, Sir. Let's get you inside."

"No time," he said, his voice weak. "Too much to be done."

"Begging your pardon, Sir, but there's always time to stop one from bleeding to death and check for a concussion."

He actually managed a laugh. "My dear Lydia. If that's how you talk to your Slayer then I know I made the right choice."

At that, Lydia smiled, but said nothing as she led him into the infirmary. "Open up, Kent!" she called upon finding the barricade back in place. "Please hurry!"

She heard the metallic rattling and scrapes of equipment being moved out of the way before the door opened and Kent's face appeared. His eyes widened and he shoved the opening wider. "What happened?" he asked, taking Travers's other arm.

"I found him like this in the hall. Here, get him on that bed." She pointed before going to rummage for antiseptic and bandages.

"Explosion," said Travers. "Knocked me for a bit of a loop."

Kent settled him on the bed and stepped back. "Seems more than a bit, Sir, if you don't mind my saying."

"Dear Lord," said Lydia. "Was it the explosion we heard just a few moments ago?"

"That's the one."

"Do you know what caused it?" she asked, dumping her things on a cart and pushing it over to his bed.

"I smelled fumes coming from a supply closet. I believe it was an accident. And a fortuitous one at that."

Lydia frowned, puzzled, as she set to work cleaning his wound. "Why do you say that?"

"Because it foiled what seems to have been an assassination attempt."

Lydia stepped back and looked at him in alarm. "Oh, Sir."

He waved a dismissive hand. "Just more temporary insanity, I'm certain. At least this experience is giving me a look at how some of the Council really feels about me. Still, I'm surprised that Myong Kim has such strong objections to my methods."

Lydia and Kent looked at each other. "You say Mr. Kim is the one who attacked you?" she asked.

"Yes. Why?"

"Well, it's just… he was with us in Sunnydale."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"Everyone who was in Sunnydale recently is unaffected by the current madness," said Kent.

"It seems that we're all vaccinated against it," Lydia added, tipping antiseptic onto a cotton ball. As she raised it to Travers's wound, he grabbed her arm.

"Are you telling me that Kim, Reaney and the others were in their right minds when they attacked me?"

Lydia blinked. "Reaney? Yes, I suppose he was also there. I'm afraid so, Sir."

"Bloody…" Travers released her arm and fell silent. She finished cleaning his forehead and tore open a package of butterfly strips.

"So then, this is all connected to the water incident?" he asked as she applied the first strip.

"It seems so, yes."

"I had hoped that the current paranoia would prove to explain Niamh's actions. But if she's immune…" He shook his head.

"Please hold still, Mr. Travers."

"It must be Rayne." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "How our people managed to lose him…"

Lydia opened her mouth to say something comforting, but paused as a thought occurred to her. "Sir, if I may ask, who developed the security measures surrounding Ethan Rayne?"

"Your uncle handpicked his guards."

"Yes, but I meant his, um, his leash, for lack of a better term. The bracelet that was meant to prevent him from doing magic."

"Oh, right. That was McCul--" He looked up at Lydia as realization dawned on his face. Then he broke into laughter.

Lydia paused in applying another strip. "Sir, please."

"Mr. Travers?" asked Kent. "Not sure I get the joke, Sir."

"Oh, it's no joke, son. It's no laughing matter," he said, while continuing to laugh so hard he had to clutch his sides. Finally, he stopped, breathing a long sigh. "Apparently I really am the incompetent fool everyone seems to think I am."

Lydia gently smoothed the last strip over his cut. "Trusting your own people hardly makes you incompetent, Sir."

"If we're done here," he said, trying to stand, "I should get going. Clearly the sooner we find Niamh, the better."

She pushed him back onto the bed. "I think it might be best if you stayed here and helped Mr. Kent keep an eye on our patient. It's clearly not safe for you out there."

"I appreciate your concern, Lydia. But hiding in the midst of a crisis will only prove them right. Besides, it's not my style."

"Yes, Sir, but perhaps this once--"

She was interrupted by someone pounding on the door. "Oi, Kent! Open up! It's me, Worthing!"

She and Kent both hurried over to grant him access. He rushed through the door, panting. "It's gotten worse, I think," he said. "They're assembling."

"Who?" asked Travers.

Worthing froze. "S-sir! I didn't see--"

"I asked you a question, man."

"Yes, Sir." Worthing swallowed. "The others. Everybody. All the crazies, I mean. We got two factions grouping up, both of 'em going on about war. They're, um… they're fighting about you, Sir."

Quentin pushed Lydia aside and got to his feet. "Get me to Willow," he said. "We have to find McCullough. Now."

***

Willow knelt in front of the blueprints, watching the crystal necklace that hung from Niamh's dagger as it swung in lazy circles.

"I don't believe I've heard of anyone scrying in years," Giles remarked. Willow nodded.

"It's kinda archaic, as locating spells go. And it only works in close range. But it's impossible to block, so hopefully... there!" The crystal dropped with a plunk. "Niamh's in the east wing--one of the weaponry rooms."

As she stood and headed for the door, Giles grabbed her arm. "Willow, be careful. We don't yet know how dangerous Niamh is."

"Don't worry." Willow smiled grimly. "She just gets to find out what happens when you try and hurt a friend of mine."

Giles followed Willow into the hall. "Oh, thank goodness you two are all right!" They turned to see Lydia shuffling toward them, supporting a battered and bandaged Quentin Travers.

"Dear Lord!" said Giles, relieving Lydia of her burden. "What on earth happened?"

"He was caught in an explosion," said Lydia.

"No time to get into it," Quentin said as Giles led him to a chair. "I'm fine."

"Yes," said Lydia. "Other than the fact you can't go ten paces without keeling over and are probably suffering a concussion, you're perfectly fine."

Quentin simply grunted and waved an impatient hand. "Just tell me you've found Niamh."

"As a matter of fact," said Giles. "She's in one of the weapons rooms. We're going there now."

"I'll go see her alone," Quentin said, attempting to stand and swooning back into his chair.

"Yes, that's one of your more impressive plans," Giles muttered. Quentin looked up at him then, and there was a measure of hurt in the old man's face that Giles found surprisingly disquieting. He tried to look apologetic as he bit his tongue from commenting further. Clearly this was not one of Quentin's better days.

"I need a moment," he said, "and perhaps I'll need assistance getting there. But I want to confront her alone. She'll be more cooperative if she understands that this isn't an inquisition. Not yet."

"Okay, sure." Willow nodded. "And if she turns out to be evil and uses her evil witch powers on you, you're gonna be fine because you can do a protection shield spell on yourself, right?"

Quentin frowned. "Miss McCollough will not try to harm me."

"Are you certain of that?" asked Lydia. "She has worked closely with Mr. Kim. We don't know where her allegiance lies."

At that, Quentin somehow managed to turn even more pale.

Kim? What did he have to do with anything? Giles opened his mouth to ask, but Lydia gave a slight shake of her head, a sign he took to mean "Not now." He closed his mouth and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

"No offense, Mr. Travers," said Willow, "but you're no match for Niamh on your best days. And now you're all hurt and woozy… and I can take care of myself. Plus, I can do understanding. See?" She gave him a sympathetic smile and pointed. "Understanding face." It slipped away. "But I can also be very, very scary if I have to be."

"I don't suppose you want my advice," said Giles.

"Not particularly," Quentin replied, predictable git that he was. He slumped back in his chair and blew out a long, heavy sigh. "Very well. But take Lydia and Rupert with you--if that's quite all right with you, Rupert."

Giles adjusted his glasses and tried not to look too smug. "Works for me."

Quentin nodded. "And bring her back here. I want to hear her explanation firsthand, and I want her to look me in the face while telling it."

"Okay then," said Willow, looking from Watcher to Watcher. "Let's do this."

***

"No."

"Kent..."

"I said no!" He and Worthing sat on the floor of the destroyed infirmary, their backs cold and uncomfortable against the pile of equipment that barricaded the way in. Kent was staring not at his friend, but at the third man in the room -- strapped to a gurney against the far wall, unconscious. "Lydia said to guard Chambers --"

"Bah!"

"And that's what I mean to do." He yanked up his shirttail and held it to the cut over his eye. Ow.

"You're taking orders from a girl--"

"That's no ordinary girl."

"-- while she and the old man are out there fighting the good fight?"

"'Fighting the --'" Damn-fool idealistic -- "You weren't there! You didn't see. This is no crusade, Henry, or even politics. I tell you, they went mad. The last time I saw Rupert Giles…" He shut his eyes at the memory. "This is madness."

"Then we fight the madness. We save who we can."

"No. I have been poked in the eye by madness a half-dozen times this week. Prior to Sunnydale, that number was never." Kent frowned at the blood on his shirt. "Now the Hellmouth has followed us home. The Council crashes down around us..."

"All the more reason to go out there and fight!"

"Oh, it's so easy for you to come over all romantic with your 'fighting' and your 'saving'. I've already been out there today. I followed orders and I went out there. Clawed my way through the mad to find the sane." He leaned in and pointed at his battered face. "Look at my eye!"

Worthing flinched. And then that wretch had the gall to laugh. Kent sighed. Damn the man.

"Kent, you ponce," he chortled, "now is the time --"

"Don't you d--"

A gurgle from Chambers stilled them. The sound churned deep and low for a moment, before surging into a prehistoric screech that ripped through the air and their already tattered nerves. Just when Kent thought he could stand no more, it ended on a whimper, sliding them into an eerie silence.

"Nigel's brain seeped out his ears," Kent whispered to no one in particular. Then he got to his feet, tugged at his still-damp clothing, and began to dismantle the barricade.

***

The weapons room was located on the second floor at the end of a mahogany-paneled hallway. When she reached the door, Willow turned to the others. "Stay out here. I can protect myself, but I don't have enough power to shield all of us if she attacks."

"Willow, do be careful," said Lydia.

Willow took a deep breath and opened the door. Niamh stood at the window with her forehead against the pane. Without moving she said, "Oh, Willow, I'm so sorry."

Willow halted. That hadn't been what she expected. "Okay," she said, shutting the door behind her. "So… you want to tell me how to stop it?"

Niamh turned to her then, and Willow gasped. She had studied with Niamh for months, and she'd never seen the woman look anything less than calm and collected. The sight of her wringing her hands, eyes red and puffy with dark circles underneath, just didn't fit Willow's world-view. But these days, what did?

"Stop it? The portal didn't close when the book was shut?"

"Yeah, it did. But that's kinda the least of our problems. Niamh, I don't know why you're doing this, but people are getting hurt. You have to stop this. Now."

Niamh shook her head, looking genuinely confused. "Stop what?"

"Hello? The big epidemic of crazy?" At Niamh's blank stare, Willow sighed. "How can you have no clue what I'm talking about?"

Niamh turned back to the window. "I came here right after I heard news of the portal, and I've been here since, waiting for someone to come for me. I thought you might put it all together."

"Yeah, it was easy, what with Giles telling us and all."

Niamh's head snapped toward her. "He survived?"

"'Fraid so."

"Oh." She smiled then, raising a hand to her chest. Either she deserved an Oscar, or she was truly relieved. "Oh, thank goodness."

"Niamh, I don't understand. What's going on? Why did you set Giles up like that?"

"I didn't! I mean, I never intended…" Shaking her head, she moved to sink down into an overstuffed wing backed chair. "I didn't mean it to go that far," she whispered, rubbing her forehead. "I thought the book was planted to provide false clues, throw Giles off the trail. He never told me...."

"Who never told you? Told you what?"

Leaning back in the chair, Niamh looked up at Willow, her face becoming resolved. "He told me to direct Rupert toward the Codex. I didn't know... oh God, I never would have... I should have realized he was going too far."

"He who?"

"Magnus. Magnus has been leading a group, a faction within the Council. When he feared Giles was getting too close to the truth...." She trailed off and bowed her head. "I didn't want to work against Quentin, but Magnus was persuasive. I thought we were doing what was best for the Council and the Slayers. And when I began to understand that we were perhaps going too far... oh, Willow, I wanted to stop, to tell someone what we were doing! But Magnus said if I told, he'd...." Niamh wrapped her arms around herself. "I was frightened. I'm sorry."

Behind Willow the door opened and Lydia burst in. "You're lying!"

Giles followed her in. "Lydia…" He laid a hand on her arm.

She shook him off and pointed at Niamh. "Magnus would never go against the Council. Or try to hurt Rupert!" Niamh stared up at her in shock. "Why would I lie about such a thing?"

Lydia's hands clenched into fists. "Why? To cover your own ruddy ass, that's why! I won't let you get away with it!"

Niamh stood up and reached for Willow's hand. "Willow, please believe me. You know me! I wouldn't lie to you." She looked pleadingly at Giles. "Rupert, I never meant you harm. It was all Magnus's doing." She then turned to Lydia. "Just ask him!"

"I'll do just that." Lydia turned on her heel and stalked into the hall.

"Lydia, wait!" Giles called after her. She didn't stop. He paused only long enough to frown at Niamh before following.

Willow turned back to Niamh. "So, what was he afraid Giles was gonna find out?" Niamh opened her mouth to answer, but Willow held up a hand to cut her off. "Wait. Mr. Travers wants to hear all of this, too. You better come with me."

***

Worthing charged out of the infirmary, heedless of the darkened hallway and the alarms that grew louder as they progressed. Kent finally caught up, rounding a corner and almost tumbling over him, crouched as he was, beside a pile of debris.

The battle had moved through and past this corridor, leaving behind soot-covered walls, plaster-covered floors, the stench of burning chemicals, and --

Casualties. As Kent discovered when the pile of debris sat up and coughed.

"She's all right." Worthing straightened, clapping the dust off his hands. "And she'll see to the others."

Kent looked down at the girl. Didn't move until she ceased her coughing and turned red and bleary eyes on him. She managed a thin smile, which he returned. She'll have a shiner in the morning.

He turned back to Worthing. "On we go."

***

"Lydia, wait!"

Rupert's voice rang after her down the hall, but Lydia no inclination to stop and wait for him. This was ridiculous. She'd known Magnus for most of her life; he was dedicated to the Council, and he didn't have a cruel bone in his body. No, Niamh was lying. She had to be!

She found him in his favorite library, sitting in one of the green velvet armchairs and turning a small, brown disc over in his hands. "Lydia!" He leaped out of his chair and came toward her, hands extended. "Oh, my dear, I'm so glad you're all right. I can't tell you how my heart almost stopped when I saw you on the floor under all those books."

Taking his hands, she accepted his kiss on the cheek. Then she stepped back and looked into his eyes. "Magnus, I've just been to see Niamh. She says... she said there was some sort of faction that you were involved in, within the Council." The obvious surprise on his face made her smile. "I told her you would never go against Quentin and the other Council members."

"Did you?" He patted her hand absently. "Good, good." Then his eyes locked on hers. "What else did she tell you?"

"Nothing important. Her allegations are laughable."

He squeezed her hands more tightly. "What did she tell you, Lydia?"

Lydia blinked, surprised at his forcefulness, but shrugged it off. "She claims that you tried to trick her into killing Rupert." She shook her head. "I wouldn't worry, Uncle. How she could expect any of us to believe…"

Her voice trailed as Magnus sighed and pulled away. He crossed to the window, clasping his hands behind his back. "I never thought Niamh of all people would betray us."

"It is something of a shock," Lydia agreed. "We had hoped that she was under the influence of whatever is affecting the rest of the Council, but she appears to be in her right mind." She moved to lay a hand on Magnus's shoulder. "I can't imagine what she must have against you, or Rupert, to do such a thing."

A grim smile appeared on his face as he covered Lydia's hand with his own. "I would not have thought that I raised you to be quite so naïve."

Lydia's smile slipped. "What?"

"I feared you were getting too close." He gave her hand a pat. "I should have realized that your willful blindness could be counted on to keep you off the trail."

Jerking her hand away, Lydia took a step back. "What trail? What are you saying?"

Magnus turned from the window to face her. "Come, Lydia, don't fail me. After all that I've taught you about setting aside your perceptions to examine the evidence at hand, surely you don't need me to spell it out for you."

"N-no." Lydia shook her head and backed further away. "It's not true. Niamh is lying. She must be!"

"You're allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment."

"Well, I'm sure you'll excuse me if hearing that the man who raised me attempted to have the man I lo--" She swallowed, checking herself, then went on, "my colleague killed causes me to get a bit upset."

"I'll excuse no such thing. You are a Watcher, one of the best and brightest. I expect you to behave like one!" He sighed and went to lean against the back of his chair. "I can't tell you how much it pained me to believe you had to be dealt with. But if there is one thing your experiences in the Council must have taught you, it's that there is such thing as necessary evil."

"Necessary…" Lydia felt the wall behind her and leaned against it for support. "Dealt with?" She clutched her stomach, suddenly ill. "The Codex. It was meant for me, wasn't it? You didn't mean to kill Rupert. You meant to kill me."

"Don't be ridiculous. You know I would never harm you."

"But you sent me to the archive. Tell me, Uncle, what would my book have done had I opened it?"

Magnus sighed and rubbed wearily at the bridge of his nose. Lydia had never seen him look so old. "It was meant to erase your memory." At her horrified look he moved from behind the chair and came toward her. "Lydia, you must understand." He reached for her, but she jerked away. He looked stricken, and older still, as his hands fell limply at his sides. "It was the only way to save your life."

"By destroying that which makes it worth living? Taking away everything that makes me who I am?"

"It… no. We would have reconstructed your memory, after the danger passed."

"I can't believe what I'm hearing." Lydia had to get away from him. She stumbled through the room. One rubbed her forehead, the other still clutching her stomach while she looked around for an appropriate place to get sick. As she passed the open doorway she saw the others standing in the hall, hidden from Magnus's line of vision. She felt a pang of irritation at their eavesdropping; but however much of a dupe she'd been, she was still Watcher enough to realize it would pay to have witnesses. Forcing down her anger and bile, she calmly turned back to face her uncle. "What danger?"

"I don't suppose at this point I can simply ask you to trust me?"

"Perhaps, if you answer my question."

He nodded, but looked no less defeated. "Your investigation threatened to compromise something that we have worked too long and too hard to achieve."

Lydia folded her arms. "Is that why you tried to have Rupert killed?"

"I didn't order the attack on Mr. Giles. I give you my word on that."

"Well I hope you'll forgive me, Uncle, if your word means shit to me at the moment."

"I believe the question is, will you forgive me?" He smiled, a warm, gentle smile, full of hope.

Lydia felt her resolve momentarily melt, but that only added fuel to her anger. "Damn it, Magnus! This isn't like the time you restricted calls from my parents or forbade me to go on a date. I'm not a child you can placate with a kiss on the forehead. You betrayed me. You betrayed the Council!"

He exploded. "All that I have done, I have done for the good of the Council! For you!" He started toward her. Despite her instinct to back further away, Lydia met him halfway to prevent him from seeing their audience. "I have only ever wanted what is best for you, Lydia. Please believe that."

"Why should I? How can I?"

"Because even you should be able to see what a shambles the Council has become!" He turned away from her to pace the floor. "I wanted to leave you a legacy. To make the Council great again, restore it to a time when it was understood that we are at war!"

"But… Magnus, that time is now."

He laughed. "Don't be a fool, Lydia. Travers has let the Council fall to ruin. The way he coddles the Slayers, allowing them far too much power. He's allowed pawns to act as generals. Let that little Summers slut keep her pet vampires, let her dictate the terms in dealing with Glor--"

He was cut off by Rupert shoving him into the wall from behind. "Keep talking like that about Buffy and I'll make what I did to you in Sunnydale seem like a paper cut."

"Rupert!" Lydia rushed forward to grip his shoulder. "Let me handle this."

But he ignored her, turning Magnus around and pinning him. "You did something to Buffy, didn't you?" At Magnus's silence, Rupert picked him up and slammed him into the wall, hard. "Didn't you?!"

"Rupert, for God's sake! You're hurting him!"

"Yes, that's rather the point, Lydia."

Magnus merely looked from Rupert, to Lydia, to the others who had filed into the room behind her. "It appears I've already said too much."

"That does it, you bastard." Rupert drew his fist back, but Lydia shoved him aside and got between the two men. "What are you doing?" He tore off his glasses and got up in Lydia's face. "He can tell us what's wrong with Buffy!"

"Perhaps he can, but I'm not going to stand by and let you beat it out of him!"

"You may as well tell them, Magnus" said Niamh, coming over to join them. "If you don't, I will."

"If you do, I assure you, Niamh, you will be dealt with most harshly."

"No, Magnus, I'm quite certain it is you who will be dealt with."

Magnus had the gall to laugh. "You really think that if you take us down, you won't fall as well?"

She lifted her chin. "I'm prepared to face the consequences for my actions."

Quentin limped further into the room, supported by Willow. "I've already promised her leniency, Magnus. Perhaps if you cooperate we'll go easy on you as well."

This only made Magnus laugh harder. "Quentin, you unmitigated fool. Don't you see that this is all your doing?"

"So I've heard. We have more civilized measures in place for dealing with leaders we don't approve of, if you recall."

"Hearings and committees?" Magnus snorted. "Ineffective wastes of time."

"Not nearly so efficient as an assassination, no." Quentin's manner and tone were dry as ever, but his anger was evident in his face.

"Uh, guys?" Willow spoke up. "We kinda have a bigger problem to deal with right now. Like the whole war zone concept outside going way beyond metaphorical."

Quentin nodded. "Quite right, Miss Rosenberg. Magnus, I suggest you tell us how to stop this madness while there is still time to avert a catastrophe."

"Would that I could. But I don't know."

Lydia sighed. "Magnus, please."

"Lydia, I have been nothing but truthful with you since you walked into this room. My actions have all been in the best interest of the Council. Do you really think that would include watching my colleagues tear themselves apart?"

They all looked at Niamh, who only shrugged. "I already told you, I don't know what's causing the madness."

"Who's 'we'?" asked Willow.

Lydia looked over at her. "What?"

"He keeps saying 'we.' Who else is he talking about? Maybe they're behind it."

"We already know some of his fellow conspirators," said Rupert, putting his glasses back on. "Those who attacked Quentin. Perhaps if we can find Mr. Kim--"

"It goes deeper than that," said Niamh.

"I'm warning you, McCullough," said Magnus.

"Shut up!" Rupert barked. "You're in no position to make threats."

"It's an ancient conspiracy," Niamh continued. "Begun centuries ago, to police the Council government from the inside and to keep the Slayers in line. Membership has been handed down from generation to generation, with the most ruthless and dedicated being recruited along the way."

"Clearly we were mistaken about you on both counts," Magnus muttered.

"On the contrary. I believed in the Cabal, in what it stood for. But that was before I realized it had become twisted into nothing more than a means of satisfying the whims of power hungry old men."

"What was that part about keeping the Slayers in line?" asked Willow.

Niamh turned to Lydia. "You've done your research. You've seen that Buffy was far from the first to suffer her condition. That's why Magnus wanted to wipe your memory."

Lydia shook her head. "But that's not new information. Quentin had already told us--"

"That the condition was fairly common among those got out from under the Council's guidance and teachings," Quentin concluded. "Without our help the power the girls had been given overwhelmed them and drove them mad. At least that's what I was always told."

"But it was you," said Rupert, advancing on Magnus. "You and your Cabal. You were behind all of them, weren't you?"

Quentin broke away from Willow and went to sink heavily into a chair. "In the past when the Slayers were deemed incurable they would be removed and a new Slayer would be activated."

"'Removed'?" Rupert scoffed. "That's a pretty euphemism for murder."

"In the past," Quentin repeated. "Believe me, Mr. Giles, I am as disturbed by this revelation as you are. And I have no intention of allowing unnecessary harm to come to Buffy."

"It's not necessary in Buffy's case," said Niamh, "since there is already another active Slayer. Most of us believed that her going mad would be sufficient to frighten Faith into submission. However, there are still those who think that leaving her alive is sloppy and cruel."

"Now they're worried about cruel?" Willow asked, then shook her head. "Whatever. Just tell me what you people did to her so I can fix it."

At Magnus's silence, Rupert took a menacing step toward him. "Well?"

Magnus looked to Lydia for assistance, but she wouldn't meet his eyes. "Is that why you nominated me to take Rupert's place as Buffy's Watcher? Because you knew I would be unable to protect her?"

"Of course not. But it is not a Watcher's job to protect the Slayer. Merely to teach and guide." His gaze drifted to Rupert as he continued speaking to Lydia. "I knew that it was too late for Buffy to receive proper guidance."

This time Lydia didn't interfere as Rupert grabbed Magnus by the collar and flung him into the nearby chair. "Tell us what you did to Buffy," he said, leaning over and bracing himself against the arms of the chair, "or so help me I will kill you where you sit."

Magnus smiled. "Do you really think I'm not prepared to become a martyr for my cause?"

"The only martyrs in this situation are the girls whose lives you and your little cult have destroyed. I will not allow you to add Buffy to their number."

"Nor will I," said Lydia. "Please, Uncle. Tell us how to help her. Show us that you're not a monster." Her voice trembled as she pleaded, "Show me."

He looked at her as tough she'd struck him. "A monster? Is that really what you think of me? After all that I've done for you?"

Lydia didn't trust herself to speak further. This was neither the time nor place for an emotional breakdown. She merely swallowed and turned away.

Magnus sighed. "It's too late. Even if I wanted to help the girl, there's nothing to be done for her."

"Let me be the judge of that," said Willow.

"I'm afraid he's right," said Niamh. "I've already tried. Aton's influences are irreversible."

Rupert straightened and went pale. "Did you say Aton?"

"Dear God," said Lydia.

Even Quentin jumped to his feet with a wince. "Are you mad? What were you thinking, dealing with that monster?"

Niamh folded her arms and peered down at the floor. "We understood the dangers. But Aton has long been in the service of the Cabal."

Rupert laughed. "He's been in your service? What makes you so bloody certain it hasn't been the other way 'round?"

"Okay," said Willow, raising her hand. "I'm confused. Who the heck is this Aton guy?"

"Aton is, simply put, a chaos demon, something of a mercenary in the underworld. To call him ancient is an understatement, and to call him powerful even moreso. There is a wide consensus among the Council that it was he whose essence combined with the First Slayer and infused her with power."

"Well that gets a big 'yikes'. But why does his name sound so familiar?"

"Because it was he who resurrected the Master."

"Oh yeah." Willow frowned. "I already don't like this guy."

Rupert shook his head. He looked ill. "And you wankers sicced him on Buffy."

"The water," said Lydia. Set aside your perceptions and examine the evidence, Magnus had told her. As she did that now, it all began to make perfect sense. "When you came to Sunnydale… Ethan Rayne, the contaminated water… it was all a diversion, wasn't it? To keep us from noticing Aton's presence while he worked his magic against Buffy."

"Very good," said Magnus. "I knew you had it in you, my dear."

Lydia gaped at him in disbelief as he beamed proudly at her. Then she shook it off and asked him, "Is what's happening now a distraction as well?"

"I told you," he sighed, "I don't know what's causing the current chaos."

"No," said Willow, stepping forward, "but we know it's linked to what happened with the water, because we were all vaccinated and we're fine. And it is chaos. If there's a chaos demon involved…"

"You think Aton could be behind what's happening outside?" Niamh shook her head. "It's doubtful. He's long gone by now."

"Maybe. You said you tried to reverse what he did to Buffy. How?"

"I tried to summon him, but nothing happened. He won't be summoned if he doesn't want to be."

"Let me try."

"Willow," said Rupert, "Aton is an extremely unpredictable being. Bring him here is too dangerous, and the magicks involved are too volatile."

"Not to mention terribly advanced," said Niamh. "We didn't get that far in your teachings."

Willow rolled her eyes. "Please. No offense, Niamh, but you taught me how to keep control of my powers. That doesn't mean you know what I'm capable of."

"I don't doubt that you have sufficient power to do the spell," said Rupert, "but what happens if you succeed?"

She shrugged. "Hopefully, we get him to stop the mess outside and cure Buffy."

"Yes, but how?"

"I don't know. You guys work on that while I work on getting him here." Rupert opened his mouth to protest further, but Willow cut him off. "Giles, what choice do we have?"

"Let her try," Quentin ordered. "She's right. We have no choice. As for myself, I'm going to see how I can assist in quelling the riots."

"But, sir," said Lydia, "you're injured."

He dismissed her concern with a wave. "I've had worse. Quite recently, I might add." He cast a look at Rupert.

"But if the riots are about you…" she protested.

"All the more reason I should be down there in the thick of it."

She sighed. "Then at least let me come with you."

"No. Someone who is still with the Council should be here. Someone I trust." He looked around the room, his disappointment plain to see. "That would be you, Lydia."

She nodded. "Yes, Sir."

Quentin put his hand in his vest pocket and once again surveyed the room. "Keep an eye on Bellingham," he said. "We'll need to question him when all of this is over. I'm trusting all of you to do what is necessary to restore order." With that, he left them.

"You heard the man," said Lydia. "Let's get going."

"There's something else you should know," said Niamh. "Aton's services usually require a human sacrifice."

The entire room fell into silence. Lydia looked at Magnus. She hadn't believed she could be more shocked or disgusted with him. She'd been wrong. Slowly, Rupert also turned to regard him, his mouth set in grim determination.

"That shouldn't be a problem," he said.
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