The flash had frozen them all, and Warren and Andrew quickly locked metal collars around the necks of the four Slayers. They didn't notice Tara, of course, that was how it worked, and as the first shock faded and she found herself able to work her limbs, she slowly and quietly shifted away from the door, and stood against the wall, watching and listening.
"Ow," Jonathan said; he must have been off-balance when the flash hit, for he was on the floor, but he had recovered enough to sit up and was slapping pins and needles from his hands. "When did you get that working? You said the design wasn't finalized yet."
"Unlike some people," Warren said with a smirk, "I do my best work under pressure. Okay, ladies! Sorry for the inconvenience, but we couldn't chance you getting rambunctious when it came time to make hard choices." He wore a pair of mirror-like shades pushed up onto his forehead; he and the wispy blond boy had apparently used those to shield themselves from the paralyzing burst of light, and Tara realized suddenly that they had copped the idea from Men In Black. It was all a game for them; they were children, and not especially original children. "We'll get this done as quick as possible," Warren was continuing, "and meanwhile you can — Whoa!"
Buffy had gone for him, faster than he could have moved to respond, but she had barely initiated the action when her body was jerked by a massive convulsion, and she went to her knees with a little grunt of pain and surprise. "Cool," the blond boy said. "It works!"
"And against a Slayer, no less," Warren agreed, clearly pleased with himself. "Am I hot, or what?"
"Wow," Jonathan said. "Did the collar do that?"
"Oh, yeah," Warren told him. "I picked up the basic concept when I hacked into a government computer network; did you know there's a black-ops branch of the Feds that works up response scenarios for demon attacks? Their design has to be implanted, but I was able to whip up something a little more portable." To the women he said, "Keep it under control, ladies. The collar is activated by hostile action, and keyed to us, so if you try to move against us, you'd better be ready for a monster migraine."
"Oh, that's just great," Cordelia said. "So, what, we're supposed to be your little play-toys now? You'd better be jacked into a major power grid, because if you think I'll ever let one of you über-nerds touch me —"
Warren waved it away. "No, no, we'd never do anything like that. This is just a precautionary measure, to keep you from overreacting." He turned to Jonathan. "So what's with the digs, hotshot? We only had a minute to look around, but I can see this is a girl's place. You been holding out on us?"
Don't tell them about me, Tara warned.
Jonathan started, but directed his answer to Warren. "No, she's just a friend. She, she's already involved with somebody." He made a gesture that took in the apartment. "We just needed to chill out a little, we'd been on the move for hours. How'd you find this place, anyway?"
"You didn't answer when we called in, so we followed the tracker in the van." This was the blond boy: Andrew, that was it, Andrew was the third one. "It was out front, and the door here was open, so …" He held up Jonathan's cell phone. "You left this in the kitchen."
"What's happening here?" Joyce said; eyes flicking to Buffy, who was only now able to come back to her feet, she made no move toward them, but her tone was hard and challenging. "We've cooperated with you ever since we arrived here. Why have you made us prisoners now?"
"Like I said, just a precaution," Warren replied, and at the same time Jonathan addressed Tara. Are you here? I'd forgotten all about you, I don't know why …
Yes, I'm here, she answered, as Dawn said, "Precautions against what? Is there something you haven't told us?"
"Little details here and there," Warren acknowledged smugly. Don't tell them I asked you for help, Jonathan begged. We, we can still work something out here. , and Warren went on, "Like, for instance, one of you isn't supposed to be here; and, oh yeah, we're gonna have to kill you to save the world."
"Excuse me." Cordelia raised her hand. "When you say 'you', does that mean you her, or you us?" She looked around. "What? It's a perfectly legitimate question."
"Rest easy, Princess." Warren pointed at Dawn. "She's the lucky winner. Took some time to narrow it down, but her energy signature is light-years away from anybody else's, plus there's the whole back-from-the-future deal." To Dawn he said, "Nothing personal, sweetheart, but it's either you or … well, everybody else in every other reality plus you. Good news is, I think I've worked out a way to do it that probably won't hurt too much."
"No," Joyce said, while Tara said, Stop him, Jonathan. Don't let him do this. "We came here together," Joyce continued. "We've fought, together and against each other. We're all Slayers, which means we were all chosen by something bigger than you. You don't get to just pick out one of us and kill her. We won't let that happen."
What am I supposed to do? Jonathan asked plaintively, and Warren said, "Well, see, this is where contingency planning pays off." He held up something like a TV remote; no, it was a TV remote, though part of the casing was gone and extra components bulged from the circuit board. "You don't 'let' us do anything. Move against us, you get zapped automatically. Try to resist, or run, I trigger it with this. Now, if you don't mind …"
"I don't believe this," Dawn said; her face was slack with seeming shock, and Warren leveled the controller at her as her voice rose. "You bring us here, you make us jump through hoops all night, and now you tell me I have to die? That's, that's …" She shook her head as if words would no longer serve, and then wheeled to confront Cordelia. "And you, you. You're fine with them killing me as long as it doesn't mar your precious skin!"
"Hey, I just wanted to know," Cordelia protested. "I didn't mean —"
Dawn leaped at her with a wordless shout, and both women went tumbling over the couch. Everyone else was too surprised to react, Trio and Slayers alike; Jonathan and Andrew watched open-mouthed, and Warren's lips settled into a smile as the two Slayers clawed and pummeled at each other. For the second time in minutes, Tara found herself paralyzed, this time with indecision: what could she do, how could she stop this?
There was no way to intervene in the fight without revealing her presence, and that was an advantage they might need. Unwelcome and potentially disastrous though it might be, the clash between the two women was of secondary importance, and Tara chose accordingly. She made herself move, let herself drift, soft and silent as a shadow, to where Warren stood. She could never have done this alone, walking unseen through a group of people was an entire order of magnitude more difficult than just hanging back unnoticed, and she prayed that the link with Jonathan would be enough to maintain it. All right, she was beside Warren now, she could snatch the controller from him before he realized she was there, smash it with a hard throw against the wall; the women still wouldn't be able to act against him directly, but he could no longer threaten them by remote control —
On the other side of the room, Dawn broke free of Cordelia's grip and drove the second Slayer to her knees with a clubbing fist. Before she could follow up, Joyce was on her, pulling her back and away from the fallen Cordelia. Dawn spun and went for the older woman, her hands closing on Joyce's throat … but hooked instead inside the metal collar, and with a terrific outward wrench of her shoulders she tore the imprisoning circle apart.
Just that quickly, the action stopped. Dawn's fury, so wildly out of control moments before, fell away on the instant; she stepped back, letting her hands drop to her sides. Joyce regarded her with an unfathomable expression, and then she turned to Warren. "I think you want to put that thing away," she said.
Warren retreated automatically, but he still held the controller directed toward the three other Slayers. "Whoa, whoa, hold it right there." His hand and his voice shook as he struggled for confidence. "Stay where you are, or I'll key an overload and fry their brains."
Joyce didn't even glance back at the others. "I think Slayers are tougher than you realize. I think if I go for you now, you'll be broken before I find out whether I'm wrong."
Dawn stepped up to stand beside the older woman. "Take the collars off the others," she told Warren. "I'll do whatever you say. I knew it might come to this, I'm ready for whatever has to be done. But let them go, right now, or —"
"Oh, get real," Buffy said, and pulled apart Cordelia's collar; a moment later, Cordelia had returned the favor, and together they moved up to join their fellow Slayers. "You know," Buffy observed, "I think these guys need a good spanking. Like, with a brick."
"No," Dawn said. She looked to the three women beside her. "I meant what I said. The end of, of everything … I won't be the cause of that." To Warren she said, "Tell me what I need to do."
Joyce put a hand on her shoulder. "I won't let you —"
"It's my choice," Dawn insisted. "Maybe it's even my destiny, because this is the second time for me. Buffy …" She stopped, swallowed. "Buffy took it in my place, last time, but now I'm the older sister. It's my choice."
"Good girl!" Warren interjected, breaking in ahead of further argument. "I swear to you all, I never would have pulled the rough stuff if I'd known I could count on her to understand the program." He snapped his fingers. "Jonathan, Andrew, help me set up the relays, we'll do this just like at the Lair, then I'll adjust for desequencing —"
No. Stop him, Tara commanded mentally. He's wrong, tell him he's wrong! , and, "Wait," Jonathan said. "I, I think you're wrong."
Warren rounded on him. "What's your problem, Dweezil? You want to see our world turned into dimensional Spam? This isn't something you can fix by stroking your magic bone, we are talking quantum-level disruptions here. So fall into line like a good little munchkin and do what you're told."
Jonathan's face was a changing canvas of doubt, fear, uncertainty. I know what I'm talking about, Tara insisted. Just say what I tell you. It's not Dawn. Say that.
"It's not Dawn," Jonathan repeated like a robot.
"You're out of your depth here, Frodo." Warren was getting angry now. "Why don't you just stick to things you understand —"
"Let him talk," Joyce ordered.
"Listen to what I have to say," Jonathan said, obedient to instructions from Tara. "Just hear me out first. It isn't Dawn. I'm not guessing here, I know what I'm talking about. I can see auras. Not, not all the time —" The last was his own words, he was starting to think as well as repeat the lines he was being fed. "— but it's really clear on these four. For the last half an hour, Buffy's and Mrs. Summers' auras have been changing, moving closer together, shifting to match each other. It's not Dawn. It's them. They're supposed to be together. They got split, but they're supposed to be together. We didn't call up three and get an extra one shoved in. We called three, and had one of them separate into two. That's what happened. And, and we don't have to null anybody out to fix it. We need to put the two of them back together. Send them back, together. That's what we have to do."
A long silence greeted the end of this remarkable recitation. Tara ignored Andrew; Warren, Warren was the deciding voice here, and she couldn't read what was going on behind those eyes. Once again she debated whether she should make herself known. She needed for him to willingly carry out the process of sending the four Slayers back to their realities of origin, and his reaction if she abruptly 'appeared' in front of him …
"Auras, huh?" Warren studied Jonathan with interest. "You're just full of surprises. And you say, what, Buffy and her mother are supposed to be one person? That doesn't make a lot of sense. You sure you don't just have the hots for Future Girl?"
"Not the same person, I didn't mean that." Jonathan was becoming more assured now, needing only the occasional prompt from Tara. "But they're from the same time, only that time got snarled, looped around … overdubbed. It's what they call a temporal fold, different layers written over each other. Mrs. Summers is the Slayer in one layer, mirror-Buffy in the other. We reached in and pulled out, like, a cross-section, and the layers separated and gave us two people."
"This is no time for playing a hunch," Warren warned. "We've got all the marbles on this one, we're carrying the fate of universes here. Are you absolutely positive?"
"It's not a guess," Jonathan replied firmly. "I can see them. Buffy and Mrs. Summers are supposed to go back to the same time. That's how it is."
There was more to it than that, of course. The similarity between the threatened melding of dimensions and the catastrophe averted by Buffy's self-sacrifice the year before was too much to be a coincidence; it had to be tied to Dawn, maybe no single universe could ever contain two Keys. Even if her presence had caused the stress and direction of the threat, though, reuniting Joyce and Buffy was the cornerstone that would allow the balances to be reestablished.
Jonathan must have sounded convincing, because the scarred Buffy was regarding the stranger with her mother's face, doubt and perplexity shadowing her own expression. "Me … and her?" she said.
"The two of us," Joyce said, speaking as if her lips were numb; then, to Jonathan, "Are you sure?"
"Staking my life on it here," Jonathan said. "Yeah, I'm sure."
The two Slayers stared at one another, and Dawn spoke from behind them, echoing Jonathan's words. "You belong together, you always have. That's how it's supposed to be."
There was a long silence. Something was happening here, all of them could feel it, and no one seemed willing to break the spell. "I couldn't … even remember what you looked like, until I saw you here," Buffy said at last.
"I held you when you died," Joyce said in reply. "Your blood was all over me. I was screaming."
Buffy shook her head. "It wasn't me."
"It was," Jonathan said. Tara was sending to him again, and they explained it together. "You're both from the same time, except that time got screwed up by some demon curse. It isn't even a parallel timeline, like Cordelia and Dawn come from; it's a shunt, a dead end, for both of you it goes just so far and then stops." He paused. "No, not for both of you: for each of you. You got split apart, and I think … I think, if you go back together, you can make it right again. Set your time back on track, start all over again. Together."
They looked to one another, mother and daughter, two people who had hurt too much even to hope, pushing each other away because they had seen dreams shatter. "He thinks we can set things right by going back together," Buffy said.
"Yes." Joyce nodded. "There are no guarantees. We could wind up right back at the same … dead end. Or wink out into nothing. Oblivion." She stopped, drew a breath. "I don't care."
Buffy let it hang for a heartbeat. Then: "Me, either." She turned to Warren. "So what do we have to do?"
~ – ~ – ~
While the equipment was being set up for reverse transport, Tara found a moment to again join hands with Jonathan, and together they wove what she needed. Then she moved softly about the apartment, touching each of the Slayers in turn, extending the link to cover them, cautioning them not to reveal her presence. She had no wish to deal with the other members of the Trio — even if they couldn't hurt her, with everyone else set against them, it was a complication to be avoided if at all possible — but was equally unwilling to let the women depart without a farewell. Connected in a way that excluded the men (even Jonathan chose to withdraw), they could speak briefly to people they would never see again.
If Warren and Andrew saw anything odd in the sustained silence of the four women, they didn't remark on it. As Anya would have said, That's men for you.
I'm sorry I helped him deceive you, she told them all. I tried to keep it from getting out of hand, but … I had to protect him, as well as help you. I hope you can understand.
I'm okay, Dawn said. I never really trusted Warren anyhow, I remember hearing that creepy story about April. No harm.
It was you, wasn't it? Joyce asked. When Jonathan was explaining about shunts and layers, you were talking through him.
It took me till then to realize the truth, Tara admitted. And I deal better with Warren when I … don't deal with him.
You gave me my daughter back, Joyce said. I won't begrudge your methods.
Same here, Buffy said. You want to keep secrets, your biz. But I really am a little pissed about no beer.
It wouldn't have occurred to Tara that a mental voice could incorporate a snarl, but Cordelia managed it. So, break out the marshmallows and everybody sing 'Kumbayah'. Her lips held a practiced pout. I don't like being lied to, people. What if the Geek Patrol had decided I was the oddball, just because I never dipped my toes in the Summers gene pool? I could have been wiped from existence and never known it was coming.
I'm sorry, Tara told her again. I wouldn't have let that happen.
Cordelia sniffed. Well, color me confident.
"Almost ready, ladies," Warren announced. "If you have any goodbyes, say 'em quick."
"I think we're covered there," Dawn said.
Will you be all right? Tara asked her. You've lost so much … I wish we could have talked more.
You did enough, Dawn replied. Let me act out some of my suicidal tendencies, and then stopped Warren from blanking me. I'll deal.
Tara had thought she had narrowed the link to just the two of them, but perhaps not; Joyce caught Dawn's eye and asked, You and — Even mentally, she couldn't seem to give him a name; she shook her head and started again. Does he … love you?
He loves Buffy. Dawn made a sad smile. Nearly ten years, and he's still mourning her. But he'll never leave me, just because he promised her he'd look after me.
It was hard for the older woman. Tara could see the struggle within her. But she made herself meet the eyes of the grown daughter she had never known, and said, Take care of yourself.
Time had run out. The Trio had finished laying out the transport schematic, a latticework of improvised mechanical components within the lines of a pentagram. Three circles had been established there, bordered with copper wire and colored chalks — I'll come back later and help you vacuum that up, Jonathan projected apologetically — and the women took their place within them: Dawn in one circle, Cordelia in the second, and Joyce and Buffy in the last one, squeezing tightly together to stay within the borders, their arms around one another.
"Showtime!" Warren called. "T minus twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen —"
Cordelia! Tara called abruptly; why hadn't she thought of this before? In this reality, they found a way to give Angel back his soul. There's a ritual — She explained as quickly as she could, everything she could remember from Willow's story of her first manifestation of mystical ability, rushing to beat the countdown.
Computer disk, got you, Cordelia shot back. Okay, I'll have Willow look for it. Thanks —
It was done. They were gone.
~ – ~ – ~
Even though he couldn't see her, Jonathan was pretty sure Tara was still there — it was her apartment, after all — so as he helped his friends disassemble and pack the reverse transit mechanism, he called cautiously, What are you going to tell Anya and Spike?
The truth, she answered immediately. Yes, she was there. Lies hurt people. But … I think I'll try to persuade them to keep it a secret from everyone else. Things are so hard for Buffy right now … it's just not a good idea. I'll tell her eventually, when I think she's ready to handle something like that.
That was a relief: one more thing he wouldn't have to face, at least not right away. Okay, then, he told her. And then: Thanks again for helping me. I owe you, big time.
I told you already, I did it for Buffy, and for them. But … I'm glad you asked me. She was quiet — well, non-communicating — for several seconds, and then she said, Jonathan, I don't think you belong with the Trio.
What are you talking about? He kept packing, and focused on keeping his expression neutral. I'm a founding member. We swore an oath.
Something Dawn said to me, just before Anya got here … I think you were with the Slayerettes, back in her reality. I think that was supposed to be your destiny here, but you got … sidetracked.
Jonathan remembered the rib-creaking hug Dawn had given him, back at the vampire tenement, and felt a fluttering of doubt. They're my friends, Tara. What kind of person would I be if I ran out on them?
Her reply was some time in coming; even without the stutter, she seemed hesitant in choosing her words. They're not good for you. I don't really know anything about Andrew, he seems harmless, but Warren … there's something wrong with him, Jonathan. He was ready to kill Buffy, back when she was invisible. Maybe he hadn't really thought through what that would mean … He's a big kid, it's like he thinks he's the, the dungeon master in some role-playing game. What if someone gets hurt before he realizes how serious this all is? What if it's you?
Reproach would have been easier to resist than the genuine concern that emanated from her. Part of him wanted to agree to her plea, but there was no escaping the answer. They're my friends. I won't desert them.
It wouldn't be necessary for him to return; Warren didn't want to leave any trace of their activities, and Jonathan and Andrew brushed and vacuumed the carpet under his direction. Tara's thoughts came to him again. Friends or not, they're wrong for you. They've started down a bad road, and you're about to follow them. That's not how it should be. These super-villain fantasies … I think you're supposed to be with us, Jonathan.
Yearning flooded through him at the thought, but he pushed it away. He had made a commitment, and he would honor it. I'm sorry, he said. But … can we still, you know, talk sometimes? Like we are now?
No. He could feel regret from her, but no uncertainty. I have loyalties, too … and, I'm sorry, you can't have it both ways. As soon as you leave, I'll close the link. It's, it's too personal, for people who are on opposite sides.
Oh. He felt his face stiffen, and was surprised at the keenness of the disappointment.
But … you can call me, on the telephone, if you ever want to change your mind. If you ever need help, getting out. There was another pause, and she went on just before he would have answered. I know how you feel about your friends. I'm sure you're making a mistake, but I understand. If you can ever get past where you are now … I'll be here to help you. It's important that you believe that.
They were finished, and Warren was hustling them out the door. I believe it, Jonathan said. I'll remember. And then, knowing that it was about to end, he sent his final message. Thanks for all you've done. It, it meant a lot to me.
Goodbye, she said as Andrew pulled the door closed behind them. And then the link was broken, and he was alone.
Warren was characteristically hyper during the drive back to the Lair (they'd come to Tara's apartment on bicycles, carrying the equipment in aluminum-frame rucksacks; it was all stowed in the back of the van now), and Andrew played along happily with the exuberance of the more dominant personality. Jonathan didn't take part in any of the byplay; he felt sad, and wondered if he had made the right choice, even though he couldn't have done otherwise.
Maybe Tara was right. Maybe it was all just a game to them. Jonathan had been shut out too many times to be willing to do it to someone else, but …
No, no buts. They'd do this until it wasn't fun any more, and then they'd let it drop. These things never lasted forever. A natural end would come, sooner or later, and then …
Then, maybe he would give Tara that call. Jonathan Levinson, one of the Slayerettes; it had a nice feel to it.
Relieved and cheered by his unvoiced decision, Jonathan allowed himself to pay attention to what the others were saying. And just in time, it seemed: Warren was asking, "So, boys and girls, what have we learned tonight?"
Jonathan thought about it. "Don't try to date Slayers?"
Andrew was more optimistic. "We should build our own dream girl, like the guys in Weird Science?"
"No, no." Warren shook his head with authority. "Supernatural females, off limits. There are just too many factors we can't control. No, we need to focus on regular girls … but find a way to make them want us."
Andrew seemed to vibrate between awe and dread at the concept. "Can we do that?" he whispered.
Warren laughed. "Bunch of evil geniuses like us? Piece of cake. I already have some ideas; iron out a few wrinkles, and trust me, we'll be wall-to-wall with buxom blondes in no time at all."
Okay, then! Jonathan congratulated himself on sticking with the program. What if he'd weakened, and left the Trio just before Warren had his brainstorm? Disaster. No, this one was too good to miss.
He did note that Warren, in his excitement, had taken the wrong road. It didn't matter. One way or another, they would all get where they were going.