Warnings and disclaimer in Chapter 1. Enjoy.
"Morning," Willow said cheerfully as she and Tara entered the house. She frowned when nobody answered them. "Joyce?" she called out, starting to get scared. The house was never this quiet. Behind them the Watchers were coming up the walk, Andrew following them like a lost puppy. Tara held the door open as Willow cautiously moved beyond the foyer.
"Morning," Andrew called as he rushed past them and up the stairs. A second later he came running back down. "The twins are gone!" he screamed as he joined them in the foyer.
"What?" Tara asked, looking around the house carefully. Willow was doing the same, going from room to room looking for any signs of a disturbance.
"What's wrong?" Veronica asked, seeing Andrew nearly hyperventilating.
"The twins are gone," Tara said, placing a calming hand on Andrew's shoulder. The blonde boy started calming down at the touch. Willow joined them after her cursory inspection.
"No signs of any trouble," she said. She looked up when someone could be heard coming down the stairs. "Giles?" she asked when he got far enough down to make out his crumpled form.
"Willow," he greeted as he mechanically made his way into the kitchen.
"The twins are gone!" Andrew cried, grabbing his arm and shaking until Tara was able to pull him off.
"They're not gone," he said, tiredly, reaching for the freshly made coffee. He took a long drink, hoping the coffee would wake him up, before turning to the group.
"What's going on?" Willow asked, sensing the tension in the older man.
"A very bad night," he told them. "Buffy had a nightmare. A bad one. Joyce is with her right now, but she's not having very much success calming her down."
"You didn't give her a sedative?" Albert asked as he put some water on for tea.
"Of course I did," Giles grumbled. "She's been fighting it. She's been fighting everything since she woke up screaming."
"She's still awake?" Tara gasped. Giles nodded.
"Awake and fighting us at every turn," he told them.
"But where are the kids?" Andrew asked as a scream could be heard coming from upstairs. Everyone winced but Giles, who just sighed resignedly. He topped off his coffee cup before pouring a second one.
"Xander and Anya took them to their house," he told them, adding a liberal amount of sugar into each cup. "Buffy's screams woke them up more than once. Their cries added to an already tense situation. Anya thought the best solution was to simply remove them from the house. Joyce and I couldn't think of any better alternatives."
"So they're fine," Andrew said, visibly calming down. "I'll just go check on them then," he said, standing up.
"Oh no," Giles said, reaching out to restrain the boy. "They might not mind us walking into their house unannounced, but I can only imagine the creative ways Anya would deal with you intruding on them. We have enough to deal with right now without trying to undo whatever Anya would do to you."
"Right," Andrew said calmly. "Breakfast?" he asked, pulling on his apron. Giles shook his head.
"What can we do?" Tara asked kindly. Giles smiled at her.
"The best thing you can do right now is leave," he told them gently. "We are slowly making progress with Buffy, but she is in no state of mind to deal with anybody else right now. Give us some space. Help Xander and Anya with the twins. We'll call if we need help."
"What about Dawn?" Willow asked as she and Tara made their way to the door, dragging Andrew with them. "She's supposed to get back later today. Do you want us to intercept her?" Giles closed his eyes, groaning softly.
"I forgot," he admitted. "It would be best if you could intercept her and explain the situation." They nodded as they headed out the door. Veronica followed them. "Father?" he asked when Albert didn't follow the group.
"If you don't mind I would like to stay," he told his son. Giles sighed. He was too tired to fight right now.
"It's up to Joyce," he said, closing the door and leading him back upstairs. He led him into Joyce's bedroom, stopping short of the door connecting her room to Buffy's. He motioned for his father to wait, then slowly entered the room. "Joyce," he said calmly, handing her a coffee mug. Buffy's eyes were immediately on him. She was whimpering slightly at his presence, until he retook his seat. "My father is waiting outside," he said calmly, never breaking Buffy's intense stare.
"Why?" Joyce asked bluntly, her exhaustion clearly visible.
"I want to help," he told her honestly, inching closer to the doorway but staying out of sight. At his voice Buffy began searching the room, ignoring the two of them for the first time.
"Maybe a common enemy?" Giles suggested, seeing her reaction. He slid his eyes to Joyce, who shrugged.
"It couldn't hurt," she thought. Buffy's eyes moved to her mother for one second, before continuing her search. "Come in slowly, but stay near the wall," she instructed. He did so slowly, coming to stand in the doorjamb as he surveyed the scene. Buffy was in the middle of the bed, her arms around her legs as she pulled them up into her body, trying to become as small as possible. Her eyes scanned the room even as her head drooped and jerked back up. Stepping out of the doorway her eyes were immediately on him, her stare icy and wary. She dropped her legs, her hands forming fists that were held loosely at her side.
"Hello," he said calmly, taking a sideways step and leaning against the wall. Buffy watched every move he made. "It seems I have her undivided attention."
"What now?" Joyce asked.
"Go to your daughter," Albert told her. "Use me as a common foe, as Rupert suggested." Joyce nodded, getting slowly to her feet and inching closer to her daughter.
"Buffy," she called gently, reaching out to her. Buffy whimpered, but her eyes never left Albert. She allowed Joyce to touch her shoulder. "I won't let him hurt you. I promise." Her eyes slid to Joyce for one second before refocusing on Albert, but she dropped her fists, again pulling her legs up. Joyce slowly climbed on the bed, relieved when Buffy didn't pull away. She carefully wrapped her arms around her daughter, pulling her into her side. Buffy didn't fight her at all, letting Joyce lead her. "It's okay. It's okay," she said as she started running her fingers through her daughter's hair. Buffy whimpered, but allowed the touch. She stiffened when Albert moved to the empty chair, but didn't pull away.
"It's better than last night," Giles commented. Buffy glanced his way before looking back at Albert. They settled into an uncomfortable silence which seemed to last for hours. Eventually Buffy started relaxing, leaning into her mother even as she forced herself to stay awake. A soft knock interrupted them. They looked up to see Veronica quietly knocking on the door.
"Father," she started quietly. "The field reports you've been waiting for have arrived." Buffy looked for the new voice, but didn't try to leave her mother's embrace.
"That is not important now," he called out quietly.
"Actually it is," she said. "Kate delivered them personally. She said they pertain directly to Buffy."
"In what way?" Giles asked. Veronica took a step inside and Kate followed her. Buffy tensed but didn't pull away from her mother. Albert prepared to get to his feet, but Kate waved him back down, taking in the scene with a knowing grimace.
"There was nothing random about Buffy's abduction," she said softly. "It was all planned."
"What do you mean?" Joyce asked. Kate pulled out a two manila folders, one much thicker than the other, then placed them onto the dresser.
"The demons who ran The Ring apparently adopted the all too human practice of paperwork. This folder," she placed her hand on the thicker folder, "is a detailed record of everything they put Buffy through. Her re-education, which was continually re-enforced, right down to her client list and sales status. Along with her human customers, she was continually sold to different demons, which was slightly unique. The demons were required to provide detailed activity lists for their time together, which her Masters would approve, whereas her human clients simply needed a date and enough cash."
"And the demons did this?" Giles asked. "I can't imagine demons actually agreeing to this, let alone keeping any promises once they had her."
"I doubt the demons would have kept their promises, but The Ring was one step ahead of them. Her handler accompanied them whenever demons bought her. If the demon tried to renege on any part of the deal, or if the handler though they were going too far, the handler killed them. It happened more than a few times early on."
"What exactly did they do when they bought her?" Giles asked, his eyes closed as if he could shield them from the truth. Kate looked at him sympathetically.
"It looks like mostly revenge," she said quietly. "They would chain her up and beat her while she was helpless. Some would rape her while they beat her. Some would use her blood as part of a dark ritual. Others would offer her as a sacrifice or offering. The only rule The Ring had was they couldn't do anything that would disfigured or maim her." Everyone closed their eyes at this information, but Joyce was seething.
"Stop!" Joyce commanded. Giles looked back at her, concerned she was hearing too much disturbing information, but instead her gaze was focused on Buffy. She was shaking even more, her eyes wide and terrified. "Every time you mention something more super than natural she gets more scared."
"Buffy?" Giles asked. She glanced his way briefly before burying her head in her mother's shoulder. The brief glance he got told him The Slayer was gone and Buffy was back.
"It's almost as if she's afraid of anything supernatural," Joyce said.
"She can't be," Albert insisted. "She's the Slayer." At the name Buffy started whimpering.
"She is also my daughter," Joyce said, glaring at the Watchers. "Now I might not have been able to protect my daughter from her destiny, but I can protect her right now. This talk is upsetting her. There will be no talk of any of this in front of my daughter."
"You can't protect her forever," Giles reminded her. "Even if she isn't who she is right now."
"I know," Joyce admitted longingly, "but I can protect her now. Please." Giles nodded.
"Perhaps we can continue this downstairs," Albert suggested. The Watchers nodded. Albert slowly got to his feet and left the room, Veronica following close behind.
"I'll leave this here for you," Kate said, pointing to the larger folder as she picked up the smaller on. "I won't lie. It's pretty disturbing, what they did to her, but hopefully you can use that information to help undo it." Joyce nodded and Kate left. She turned to look at Giles.
"Joyce?" Giles asked.
"I've wanted to say that for years," she admitted. She wanted to smile at the thought of finally telling off the Council, but there was nothing funny about this situation.
"Did it help?" he asked knowingly. She sighed.
"Not as much as I had hoped," she told him. "We're still here with the same problems we had a few minutes ago."
"Perhaps Kate found out something that will help," Giles suggested.
"Then you should go," she said. He stood carefully. Buffy shot him a look, then reburied her head in her mother's shoulder. He hovered uncertainly over the folder Kate left behind, but before he could move it out of the room Joyce held out her hand. "If there's anything in there that can help I need to know." He nodded, handing over the folder along with Mr. Gordo who had found his way up onto the dresser sometime during the night. He soon joined the others in the living room. Kate waited for him to arrive before continuing.
"I was one of the first Watchers in the re-education center" she told them. "Once it became apparent that it was the main office, I decided to base my investigation from there. The Watchers in the other arms sent their field reports to me there. They kept extensive records, mostly about their victims and their clients, but a couple of things stood out to me. First, the re-education center is out of sync with the rest of the world."
"What do you mean?" Albert asked.
"Time doesn't move at the same speed there," Kate said evenly. "It's not as noticeable if you're just popping in and out, but the longer you stay there the more pronounced it becomes."
"Like another dimension?" Veronica asked. Kate shook her head.
"I had some Watchers check it out. Apparently the lair sits on top of a Hellmouth. Though not nearly as large as this one, the demons were somehow able to siphon the energy of the Hellmouth into a concentrated area, creating something like a bubble around them. They are also able to physically control the passage of time in that bubble."
"How?" Albert asked, horrified at the prospect.
"I don't know," Kate told him. "Watchers are still investigating. They'll let us know as soon as they figure it out."
"That's probably why Azeroth was drawn to it in the first place," Giles said. "His plan was ruined and he just wanted to go home and lick his wounds, but the portal that brought him here was already closed."
"Definitely," Kate said, "except it wasn't an accident the bubble was there. Nothing about that encounter was an accident."
"What do you mean?" Veronica asked. Kate sighed.
"Once the field reports started coming in one arm jumped out at me. The Singapore arm. The last one Faith took care of before she passed the task onto the Watchers."
"Where we found the books," Giles said out loud. Kate nodded.
"The other arms were what I would expect," Kate continued, "but this arm was different. They never had a constant influx of slaves needed to carry out business, but every request they made was filled immediately. It was the only arm entirely staffed with demons, not a human in sight. Plus, they got to use Buffy whenever they wanted. The other arms had to petition for her months in advance."
"Which demons?" Giles asked.
"Some I've never heard of," she admitted. "Voulard demons. I wasn't able to find any information about them in the Council Library. Have you ever heard of them?" Everyone shook their heads.
"I can order a search of the Council Archives," Albert said, reaching for the phone.
"I already have," Kate told him. "They're looking into it, but so far nobody has any idea what kind of demons Voulard demons are."
"But you think they are behind all of this?" Giles asked. "Buffy's abduction?"
"I think they're behind the entire ring," Kate said. "And they've been building this for years."
"For what purpose?" Albert asked. "Demons are altruistic by their very nature. They don't do anything unless it benefits themselves. The Ring has been highly profitable, even by demonic standards, but you said the Voulard demons never partook of the riches."
"Not quite," Kate amended. "They never operated their arm in a day to day capacity, but they did get a few spoils."
"What did they get?" Giles asked darkly.
"Children," Kate whispered. "Human children. There are records showing the Voulard demons taking custody of two sets of twins, almost a year apart. The Watchers in Singapore say there's signs the Voulard were trying to fulfill a prophecy, but they have no information as to which one. There was also an order from the Voulard for a third set of children, but it wasn't filled by the time The Ring was taken down. I don't know what happened to them."
"They're next door right now," Giles said darkly, understanding blooming in his eyes. "At least two of them are."
"What?" Kate asked, but the other Watchers clearly caught on to something Kate didn't. Giles ignored her and turned to his father.
"Finding these children must be your highest priority."
"Of course. Kate, you're our top investigator. I need you to go to the Singapore arm right away."
"Not until you tell me what's going on?" she insisted. Giles sighed, but surprisingly it was Albert who answered her.
"We are in the midst of a Prophecy," he told her, "that very few know about. It is referred to as The Dawn of the Third Age."
"What is the Third Age?" she asked. Albert sighed but held her gaze.
"I can't tell you," he admitted regretfully. "I am bound by enchantments and oaths." Kate opened her mouth to protest, but was stopped by Giles.
"I'm not entirely sure myself," Giles told her. "I was only made aware of the prophecy a few weeks ago, and with things being the way they are here, I haven't had any time to really sit down and study. But I do have a theory."
"Which is what?" Veronica asked eagerly. Albert also looked to his son.
"If I'm right the First Age was the beginnings of the Slayer. The Second Age was when Watchers joined her. I believe the Third Age refers to a larger group surrounding the Slayer and her Watcher."
"Like what you've got here?" Kate asked, her brow scrunched up in confusion. "Hasn't it always been like this?"
"Oh no," Albert said, chuckling slightly. "A Slayer with family and friends was unheard of. All our experience taught us that personal connections only cause distractions and got Slayers killed. That is why potential Slayers are removed from their families at an early age, so that the only bond they form is with their Watcher. It has worked for thousands of years."
"Until Buffy was Called," Giles continued the story. "She refused to give up everything that made her human. Her friends, her family, even things she detested like school. She was determined to live as normally as possible. And, despite my misgivings and attempts to dissuade her, she thrived. Her friends were not the distractions I feared, rather sources of strength she tapped into when things were the most trying. Her attempts at normalcy gave her a reason to keep fighting and an outlet when being the Slayer was simply too much."
"So this is a good thing?" Kate asked. "This support system for the Slayer."
"Possibly," Giles admitted. "But there's always two sides to everything. What damage would Faith have been able to do if she had the same support Buffy does when she went dark? 'The seven scions of The Slayer shall gather together as one. A choice shall be made. And the world of man shall burn or be saved. At the Dawn of the Third Age.'"
"Is that it?" Kate asked. Veronica nodded.
"The last line of the prophecy," she confirmed. "Angel was able to find it for us."
"The seven scions," Kate mumbled, looking down at her papers. "Two sets of twins…"
"And one set of triplets," Giles finished for her. "Seven children of the Slayer that these Voulard demons could groom from birth to bring about the Third Age that the demons want."
"We need to find those children," Kate said.
"It is our number one priority," Albert reaffirmed, "but the demons miscalculated. One of the triplets died. Three sets of twins gives six children, not seven." Everyone looked at each other guiltily. "Unless there's something I don't know."
"As opposed to the many things we don't know about this prophecy," Giles pointed out.
"You know I am bound by sorcery," Albert defended. Giles nodded as he reached for the phone.
"If you can't talk about the prophecy, perhaps the demons who made it can," he said as he searched through the papers by the phone, looking for a number he rarely called.
"The Council is already working on identifying the demons," Veronica reminded him. Giles nodded, finding the number and punching it into the headset.
"I'm sure they'll find something eventually," he said as he listened on the phone, "but I need something sooner. Right now."
"Who are you calling?" Kate asked.
"The greatest source of information I know," he responded before focusing on the telephone. He finished his phone call quickly before looking up when someone came down the stairs. "Joyce?" he asked. She looked terrible, tear tracks on her cheeks still wet with tears, but she spoke steadily.
"She's finally asleep," she told him, holding out the monitor while she clutched the folder Kate brought close to her chest. "I was reading through the folder, trying to find anything that would help her. I was getting angrier and angrier, and she picked up on that. She reached out for my hand, stopping me from reading any more, then fumbled through the folder until she found a picture of the brands on her back. She pointed to the one for punishment." At this Joyce broke down, the steady voice she had been using cracked as tears ran down her face again. "She thought I was mad at her and going to punish her for upsetting me. Worse, she was resigned to her punishment, expecting it even."
"What did you do?" Giles asked quietly.
"I broke down," she told him. "I pulled her into my arms and cried. I don't even know what I said to her, if I was even able to say anything at all. I just cried and held her. Eventually she copied me and cried herself to sleep." The last word broke on a sob. Joyce crumpled onto the stairs, the folder falling from limp hands. Giles scooped it up and put it somewhere safe before turning back to the distraught woman. He wondered how to comfort her but soon realized Kate and Veronica had beaten him to it. He went to help, but was pulled away by his father. The last thing he saw was Kate and Veronica encircling the distraught woman with their arms, rocking her gently on the awkward incline of the stairs.
"It is best to let women deal with these situations," Albert told him. Giles looked around, realizing he had been pulled into the kitchen. Albert began making tea, a task Giles readily helped with.
"Is that your experience as a Watcher talking?" Giles asked casually as he grabbed a tray and laid out cookies. Albert laughed.
"There are some things that even Watchers are unprepared for." He filled the kettle and put it on the stove. "This is my experience as a husband and a father. As men we are naturally inclined to be protectors and guardians, but that instinct doesn't help us against emotional attacks. Women, on the other hand, are natural healers. She's in good hands Rupert. They'll look after her and sort her out, before we even finish making the tea." Giles sighed as he added various tea bags to the tray.
"I don't know how to help them," he admitted to his father. "Either of them."
"You already are," Albert told him, "simply by staying." He joined his son, adding sugar, honey, and milk to the tray. "The world is changing, much faster than ever before. I was caught unaware between the two worlds, unprepared for the changes, unwilling to bend to meet them. You and Veronica paid the price for my ineptitude. But I did try my best. Many others can't say the same. You now stand in my place. It is a testament to your devotion that you haven't run." He stopped, turning so he was facing his son directly and waiting for Rupert to acknowledge him. "Raising a family is always scary. You'll make mistakes. But if you're truly the man I think you are, you'll learn from them, not be frightened by them. And I know you'll make a great father and grandfather."
"You know?" he asked. Albert nodded. "Since when?"
"New York," he said. "That's why I came. I wanted to get to know my family. All of them."
"And what did you find?" he asked tiredly.
"An amazing family," he told him. "You've done a good job raising them."
"I haven't done anything," Giles protested. Albert smiled.
"You can't see it because you're so close to them. But I'm an outsider. I see the way they look up to you. All of them, even a Master Vampire. You are their father. Joyce is their mother. And they are your children."
"Even Spike?" Giles asked.
"Surprising isn't it," Albert joked as Giles grabbed a second tray and began loading it with mugs. The door opened and they heard footsteps as others headed into the living room. Giles automatically added extra mugs and tea bags even as Albert grabbed the first tray and headed into the living room.