"Do you trust me?"
Not long ago – not by Tara's present reckoning, at least – that simple question from Willow would have required an eternity of weighty consideration. Points in favor of 'yes' would have been carefully documented in a precise hand and meticulously debated against their 'no' counterparts. Evidence would be presented, both for and against. There would be questions and cross-examinations. Once both sides had rested their case, the jury would be taken into chambers where they would deliberate for days, sometimes weeks before presenting their verdict.
That was then.
"With everything," Tara replied without hesitation, and it was all Willow needed to hear.
Within a heartbeat, her grip on Tara's hands tightened. The two sapped bodies were hunched over, conjuring images of lifeless marionettes that were discarded and forgotten by their masters. But now, at Tara's words of utter conviction, Willow became revitalized. Her shoulders squared and as her back straightened, a bracing wind materialized, encircling the Sanctum. It swirled like a maelstrom about Willow, lifting her hair with its forceful gusts and causing the candles to flare with renewed ferocity. She was stronger now – refreshed, as if she had just awoken from a deep and restful twelve-hour sleep.
In comparison, Tara seemed withered. But then she too became stimulated as she tapped into the potent reservoir. She sat taller, her head held high. With the blonde's recovery, the wind increased in magnitude and the candles sparked furiously before shooting bursts of blinding flame into the air. As if on cue, a pulse of power radiated outward from Willow – a band of visible energy, which rippled like the surface of lake whose smooth waters had been broken by a falling stone. The wave expanded to embrace Tara and it flared stronger, picking up speed before shooting away from the witches and evaporating into nothingness.
What had hit the Super Slayers earlier was like a light breeze compared to the hurricane force that assaulted them now. One by one, the spell connected with each girl, almost seeming to bind them together, bonding them in a way that to the onlooker appeared almost tangible. Then, as the final Super Slayer was caught in the web, each went rigid with a synchronicity that was as disturbingly unnatural as it was fascinating. The Council Slayers remained tense and uncertain even as they were permitted to take a much-needed respite. Still, the Super Slayers did not move. The invaders glanced at each other, seeking some sort of explanation, and then as one, the entranced Slayers twitched and were released. There was no sign of any supernatural glow, not even the faintest trace of enhancement and, in some cases, not even the barest hint of awareness. The army staggered but was not done. Not yet. Functioning mostly on an impure cocktail of adrenaline and defiance, the defending Slayers resumed their private battles.
The reprieve had been an absolute necessity for Buffy, and although it had only been a few seconds, it was enough. Just as her opponent reached down to grab the blonde and dish out more punishment, Buffy swept out with her legs, knocking the girl off her feet and enabling Buffy to stand once more. Immediately, she surveyed the field of battle, verifying what she already suspected.
"This is it!" she yelled, striving to make her voice heard by each member of her team. "Take them down!" Making good on her own commands, Buffy grabbed her opponent by the head, yanking her up and then flinging her into the nearby support beam. With a groan, the other Slayer slumped to the ground. Buffy didn't wait to see her fall, she had already moved onto the next enemy.
The two Super Slayers who had turned on Kennedy had been joined by two more, and even without the benefit of extra strength and speed, four Slayers on one were overwhelming odds. Kennedy was struggling, pinned to the ground and unable to get the leverage she needed to buy some time. Luckily, she wasn't alone.
One of the Slayers was hauled off Kennedy, and then another. Kennedy didn't hesitate – she kicked out in a burst of power, breaking the grip one of the remaining Super Slayers had on her ankles and following up immediately with kick to the other's face. Spinning around on her back in a move that would make any breakdancer envious, Kennedy was able to free her wrists as well, easily rolling onto her shoulders and then her feet. Coming out of the rotation, she whirled again. Striking out with her combat boot, Kennedy was unable to suppress a smile of satisfaction as she heard the sound of cartilage popping in her opponent's knee. The other Slayer cried out in pain and collapsed, her hands scrabbling at her wound as she rocked back and forth.
Ignoring her for the moment, Kennedy's attentions turned to the nearby conflicts. Sonja was visible to her right, grappling with the Super Slayer who had been hauled away. Sonja delivered a head-butt that left the other girl all but unconscious and let her drop to the ground. The blonde Junior then glanced to Kennedy, hesitating just for a moment to see if there were any instructions.
There were. "Lynn, Tasha, Melanie, engage!" Kennedy commanded, turning to the nearest formation of Junior Slayers. "The rest of you, flank and assist!" Not even pausing for breath, she gestured at the next group. "Limbs and head, people, limbs and head!"
An ambitious Super Slayer broke through a weak link of the defense and rushed Kennedy, attempting to take out the Senior Slayer alone, but found herself almost laughably outclassed. Her would-be victim deftly evaded the incoming fist, snatched her by the arm and threw her to the ground. It was only the matter of a rapid stomp for Kennedy to force the girl's head into the concrete before immediately seeking the next challenge.
Across the room, close to the center of the combat zone, Judith discovered that her confidence has been washed away with her enhancement. Her grip remained locked around Faith's neck, but not for long. Moving as though the fight were just starting, barely evidencing the slightest hint of fatigue, Faith's hand snaked around Judith's wrist. With gritted teeth, she squeezed, presenting a very real threat of snapped bones. Gasping in pain, Judith relinquished her hold. It was the opening Faith needed.
Bruised and beaten though she was, Faith somehow managed to dig deep into herself and find more – more energy, more power, more determination, and Judith simply couldn't hope to compete. For every jab she blocked, there was a chop and a kick she missed. Each blow Faith landed seemed to somehow fuel her. She appeared to be getting faster and stronger, while Judith could only grow weaker and slower. It was a snowball effect that could have only one outcome, and in less than thirty seconds, Judith had been driven to her knees. Faith didn't hesitate as she cut loose with a merciless backhand that spun Judith completely around and she landed flat on her stomach.
Faith was relentless. Not pausing for even a heartbeat, she locked one of her arms around Judith's neck as the other tightened across the forehead. Judith could gain no leverage, both arms busy scrabbling against Faith's weight as she fought in vain to throw off the older Slayer.
"Know what you're thinkin'," Faith whispered, her hold constricting as she leaned forward to speak directly into the Super Slayer's ear. Judith's eyes widened; there was fear, but also some surprise. For all of Faith's rage, her voice was smooth and calm. "But this ain't for Hazel."
Savagely, Faith jerked back on Judith's head, eliciting a whimper but not exerting enough force to kill the other Slayer – not yet. Her eyes narrowed to slits, Faith bent over Judith once more.
"It's for me."
Then the muscles tensed and pulled around Judith's neck. Her eyes clenched tightly shut against what she was sure was the inevitable outcome. But when Faith's grip loosened, Judith blinked in surprise.
She was no more surprised than Faith herself. The blood had drained from her face and almost dreamily, Faith craned her neck around to peer in curiosity at her lower back – and the crossbow bolt buried there.
Still seeming bewildered, Faith's pain-filled gaze traveled upward to see Robespierre standing on the second level, a now-empty crossbow resting in his hands. She frowned, like she was trying to decipher some crucial yet impossibly complex puzzle, but her contemplation was interrupted as she was suddenly thrown off of Judith by an elbow to the ribs. Faith tumbled to her side, crying out in pain as the wound in her back was jarred from the impact. She had just enough time to catch a brief glimpse of the predatory grin on Judith's face before the Super Slayer was upon her.
High above the battle, Robespierre began to reload. He didn't seem to be in any particularly great rush, applying the same methodical, meticulous attitude toward the weapon as he did most everything. Glancing up again as he fumbled with the bolt, he allowed himself a tiny smile, noting that Judith had taken full advantage of the opportunity he had provided. Despite the otherwise dire situations around him, Robespierre still maintained a smug air of superiority – an air that was thoroughly disturbed as he suddenly found himself driven to the ground in a flying tackle. The crossbow and its arrows flew out of his hands and clattered to the floor below.
Robespierre narrowed his angry gaze at Giles, seeming much more indignant than injured. "Get off me, you idiot!" he snapped.
Giles' reply was to raise himself up just enough to make his sneer of bottomless disdain visible. "Do shut up."
As though to aid Robespierre in this task, Giles' fist flew with all due speed, connecting soundly with the Assemblage leader's jaw and rocking his head to the side. An undeniable hint of a satisfied smile tugged at the Watcher's lips, and he was so taken with the sensation, he punched Robespierre again.
Seeming to feel that the third time is the charm, Giles cocked his arm to land another blow, but in a surprising reaction, Robespierre managed to knock the other man back. Moving with a speed that his age and physique would not have suggested, Robespierre scrambled to his feet and, taking full advantage of Giles' prone position, savagely kicked the Watcher in the stomach. As Giles collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath, Robespierre frantically cast his gaze around for the crossbow. He finally spotted it through the metal catwalk, and ground his teeth in anger that it was unreachable. Then for the first time, Robespierre seemed to look – really look at the scene below.
Even to the untrained eye, it was clear that one side was winning, and that side was not Robespierre's. His eyes flitted from Super Slayer to Super Slayer – even those who were doing well in their individual battles were soon to be unavoidably outnumbered as the Council's team dispatched their weaker opponents and moved to help out their comrades. It was inevitable. Robespierre would lose. And in that moment, he realized there was only one option left to him.
As the Assemblage leader dashed back down the nearest hallway, Giles was using the nearby railing to pull himself upright. "Not ... that easy ..." he muttered, one arm wrapped protectively around his middle. He glowered down the corridor. "Poncy little bastard."
On unsteady legs, but getting stronger with every step, Giles made his pursuit.
Hannah knelt by Xander's side, the radiant orb behind her completely forgotten in her concern. He remained unconscious and she anxiously checked his pulse. Finding it steady and strong, she breathed a sigh of relief, and he began to regain his senses. Audibly groaning, Xander struggled to sit up and Hannah immediately lent support. "Slowly," she cautioned.
"I really wanted to say something more original than 'did you get the number of that truck' ..." He winced painfully and gingerly rubbed the back of his head. "But I think it overloaded my wit circuits."
"Are you all right?" queried the blonde, allowing herself a brief but amused smile at Xander's attempted levity.
"Considering I just got blasted by unspeakably powerful energy and wound up kissing wall ... Yeah, actually," he admitted with a touch of surprise. "Little tingly."
"Well you—" began Hannah and then turned sharply at the sound of a hesitant footfall.
With a faltering step, the mage who had earlier engaged in conversation with Robespierre entered the room. With ever-widening eyes, he observed the fallen bodies of his four brethren and then, with some alarm, warily noted the presence of Hannah and Xander.
"Oh dear," he squeaked in a high-pitched voice.
Spinning on his heel, he started to exit the area, but only managed to take a few hurried strides before a dagger imbedded itself up to the hilt in his neck. With a strangled gurgle, he fell to the ground.
Xander's blinking gaze traveled swiftly from the motionless mage to Hannah, her arm still locked in position after her throw. "Right about now," he muttered admiringly, "I'm rethinking that whole 'I could take her' thing."
"We need to hurry," urged Hannah, relaxing her offensive posture. She turned back to Xander with no little urgency. "Can you stand?"
"I'm fine," he assured as he began to struggle to his feet, accepting Hannah's outstretched hand. "I'm good. I'm actually feeling extremely motivated to break this thing into tiny little orb-pieces now." Quickly finding his land legs, Xander moved to the bag and pulled out a weighty sledgehammer.
"You want me to...?" Hannah offered, but Xander was in no mood to be denied sweet revenge.
"Oh no," he dismissed firmly, hefting the hammer onto his shoulder. "I got a hunch this is gonna be really satisfying."
On the run, Robespierre sprinted down the narrow, featureless hallway until he reached a closed door. He almost shot past it in his haste, but instead he grappled with the knob. Finally steadying his agitated hands and with one final, frantic glance over his shoulder, he burst into a large office. Slamming the door shut, he locked it firmly behind him, before indulging in a small sigh of relief.
Panting heavily and sweating profusely, Robespierre sported an expression that was a curious study in rage and panic. He rushed toward a mirror hanging on the far wall and began to talk into it.
"Madrigan!" he commanded. The mirror remained conspicuously unresponsive as Robespierre's forbearance dwindled. "Madrigan!!" he snapped, fists clenched with irritation.
The mirror continued to maintain aloof indifference.
Remembrance coupled with irritation flared across Robespierre's face, and he hurried to his desk. Yanking open one of the drawers, he searched through its contents with angry frustration. A tiny exclamation of triumph escaped from his lips as he located a pouch and dashed back to the mirror. Ripping open the leather sack, he scooped out a handful of powder and sprinkled the particles liberally around the perimeter of the frame. Undoubtedly, the deed should have been performed with accuracy, but Robespierre had no time for such exacting gestures. Instead, his movements were stilted and almost begrudging. Quickly losing patience, he tossed the remaining granules toward the mirror in random fashion, and then followed up the act by furiously hurling the pouch itself at the glassy surface.
"Madrigan!" he roared, face purple with aggravation.
With infinite lack of urgency, the mirror swirled in ethereal clouds while Madrigan's voice issued cordially from its hazy depths.
"Doo-doo-doooo!" came the cheery sing-song vocal, reminiscent of an automatic message from the telephone company. "We're sorry. The party you are trying to reach has ceased giving a crap. Please hang up, and never try again." The message was overly chipper and delivered with all the precision of a recording.
"Madrigan stop with this foolishness!" blustered Robespierre. "That blasted Council has invaded!"
The gray whorls made a few more leisurely and enigmatic laps around the mirror before dispersing to reveal Madrigan's face peering out from its center. He wore an exaggerated expression of comic shock and his words dripped with overstated astonishment. "They have?"
"Yes!" Robespierre confirmed, his sarcasm sensors clearly in the shop. "And it's ... Somehow they've managed to undo your spell! My girls are being overrun and—"
"And it looks like certain doom for our poor Robby?" the mage suggested brightly.
Too wrapped up in his own concerns, Robspierre still failed to note anything unusual about Madrigan's responses. "You must do something!" he demanded. "Assert your powers, restore my girls!"
Sucking in a sympathetic and regretful breath, Madrigan chewed on the proposition. "Oo, yeah. Can't. See, right about, oh—" He glanced at his wrist. He wasn't actually wearing a watch but if he had been, that's what he'd be checking. "—nowish, I'd say it's half past too late. The sphere'll be smashed, the witches will have ripped your Slayers apart from the inside out, and I'm gonna guess they'll be coming for you aaaaany second now."
Immediately, the sounds of determined thumping on the locked door permeated the office. With an expression of overwhelming concern, Robespierre turned to face the insistent pounding.
"Robespierre!" Giles' voice was muffled, but the promise of pain and suffering was only too audible.
Madrigan leaned forward in the mirror. "I think it's for you," he confided in a whisper.
"Then get me out of here!" demanded Robespierre fearfully as he spun back toward the mirror.
"Well now, I thought about that," Madrigan told him sincerely. "For all your faults – and there are lots of faults, believe me – you actually do have a use or two. Drives me nuts, but I gotta tell ya, you are an organizing machine. Seriously dude, if I'm in need of a whole filing system restructure you'd be, like, in the top five of guys I'd call."
"You can't let them take me!" Robespierre insisted, almost pleadingly.
With a nod of consent, the mage conveyed his complete agreement. "That's actually true too."
The words seemed to leap from the older man's mouth, the note of desperation they carried making it only too clear it was his final trump card, and he knew it.
For once, Madrigan didn't come back with an immediate, flippant response. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Robespierre sensed his reprieve was at hand, and with this knowledge came a renewed sense of arrogance. "You need it," he continued, almost crowing with confidence, "and you can't get it without me. If you don't help me, I swear it will never be free."
The mage nodded wisely as he considered Robespierre's statement, rubbing his chin in deep contemplation. Outside the door, the pounding ceased, only to be quickly followed by the sounds of splintering as wood succumbed to the relentless chop of wielded metal – Giles had decided to make his entrance the hard way.
"Ahh yes," sighed Madrigan, "the Antediluvian. That's important, can't deny that. But how to get it without you, hmmm ..." A forefinger tapped against pursed lips as his eyes drifted upward in thought.
The sharpened blade of an axe burst through the door, demanding the Assemblage leader's undivided attention, if only for a moment. Still hearing no response, Robespierre's panic threatened to return, and he spun back to the mirror.
Madrigan slapped at his forehead as if he had just recalled a crucial fact. "Oh, wait, I already solved this little problem!" He favored Robespierre with a charming smile that only widened as Robespierre's expression was infused with shock.
"That lock's as good as open, Robby, has been for months," the mage disclosed with a satisfied smirk. "But you know, I do feel kinda bad. I mean here you are, facing ..." He gestured toward the rapid destruction of the door. "Well, whatever the hell those guys are gonna do to you, and you just found out the one thing that actually made you important in the grand scheme of things has been taken away." Full of sympathy, Madrigan shook his head at Robespierre's hapless plight. "That sucks, man, I feel for you. So here's something else. Sort of like a parting gift."
Instantly wary, Robespierre's eyes constricted to tiny slits as he took a slow step backward and away from the mirror. The action only seemed to further Madrigan's personal delight.
"There's this thing about good guys, Robby – they gotta have their heroic, pull-out-all-the-stops, final fight," Madrigan divulged with all the enthusiasm he might put into discussing his favorite hobby. "More than that, they gotta have their big win. If they don't beat up on someone at the end of it all, they're left feeling ..." He waved a hand, searching for the appropriate word. "Unfinished. Incomplete. Closure's very important, you know." He smiled winningly, as though about to bestow a priceless gift. "That's what you get to be, Robby. Closure."
As the upper half of the door suddenly caved, Giles thrust his arm through the opening and fumbled for the lock. Blowing a goodbye kiss, Madrigan regarded the wretched Robespierre with a captivating grin and then wiggled his fingers in farewell. Immediately, the area above Robespierre's heart ignited in the symbol of the Circle and the image within the mirror faded from view. The fiery tongues that licked hungrily at the burning chest quickly fanned outward as Robespierre screeched with agony.
"Good lord!" gritted Giles as he stormed through the door and dashed into the room, the rapidly spreading inferno almost searing his exposed flesh. Tearing off his jacket, the Watcher made to smother the blaze, but then Robespierre's as yet unscorched right hand emerged from the fire and seized Giles about the wrist. Shocked, the Watcher instinctively recoiled, but the other man's grip was firm.
Obviously in excruciating pain, Robespierre struggled to give vent to the words that bubbled hotly in his throat. His eyes darkened with hopelessness as he forced each syllable to issue from his parched lips.
"Can't ... let him ... get it ... Protect ... the Antedi—"
The explosion of flame that effectively terminated Robespierre's despairing monologue was so intense that the Watcher's eyebrows became singed from the heat. The clutching fingers withered before Giles' appalled eyes and he moved away until his back was against the shattered doorframe.
Robespierre's tortured cries increased in volume and pitch until his suffocated lungs simply collapsed, refusing to utter so much as a final moan. As the features of his face contorted into a grotesque mask, Robespierre's body disintegrated to the floor, charred almost beyond recognition and bearing virtually no resemblance to anything that might have once been human in form.
But the devastation did not stop there. Almost immediately, books and reams of paper housed in Robespierre's office were also torched, soon reduced to little more than smoking residue. Not every text suffered the same fate – it was quite clear that those items destroyed were very specifically selected. This was quickly followed by the computer erupting in a discharge of electrical sparks from the inside out. Warped components fizzled and expired with a hiss as the tower dissolved into itself, thus making any possible data completely unrecoverable.
Throughout the entire complex, the scenario was the same – papers now only piles of pulverized ash, what had once been sophisticated electronic systems now mangled heaps of twisted metal and melting plastic. Even worse were the blackened husks, the only remains of what had once been living and breathing individuals. Any trace of Madrigan's connection to the Assemblage, destroyed.
Stunned, the Watcher stared at the pathetic mound of charred flesh and still-smoldering bones. Then, his gaze traveled around the ruins of Robespierre's former office, eventually coming to rest upon the mirror. Just as his eyes lit upon the reflective surface, it shattered, the shards tumbling to the ground like shimmering raindrops. Giles watched them fall and narrowed his eyes.
Within the heat of battle, Faith was in serious trouble. Immobilized by Judith's powerful grip, the dark-haired Slayer stood no chance of breaking free. She bit viciously upon her lip to smother any sound of suffering as Judith, head tilted to one side, gently jiggled the arrow protruding from Faith's lower back. However, she was unable to stifle the tortured cry of agony as the Super Slayer suddenly executed a savage twist on the shaft, grinding the barb even further into the wound. Judith grinned with supreme satisfaction.
"Sorta wish this'd hit your chest. Be a little more poetic, you know?" stated Judith as, with unfettered enthusiasm, she gave the arrow yet another brutal wrench, eliciting an even more anguished utterance from the tormented Faith. She shrugged. "Still I'll take what I can get."
Drawing upon her now virtually depleted stockpile of strength and determination, the dark-haired Slayer smashed the back of her head into Judith's nose, causing the off guard Super Slayer to stagger a little and release her vice-like hold. Unsupported, Faith dropped heavily to her hands and knees, spitting blood and sucking in great gasps of air that rattled in her chest.
Judith held a hand to her face, the pompous air more than a little deflated by her incredulity. "My nose! I think you broke my nose!"
Faith gritted her teeth through the pain. "Probably ... an improvement ..."
"You bitch," Judith growled, storming over to Faith, and grabbing her hair. She slammed the Slayer's forehead to the ground, and Faith lolled to her side, unable to avoid the foot to her stomach that followed. Judith knelt down and pummeled the side of Faith's head a few times for good measure, then tightened her hand for the final blow.
If she was hoping for some sign of fear or to hear Faith pleading for her life, Judith was sadly disappointed. Even as she lay prone and all but helpless against the finishing strike, Faith's dark eyes glittered with hatred and defiance. Judith searched Faith's features, seeking something that she clearly did not find. Her lips curled back into a sneer as she let her fist fly.
Unseen from the side, Buffy lunged at Judith and caught the Super Slayer around the waist. Careening along the ground, the blonde Slayer maintained control and when the two bodies rolled to a stop, Buffy was straddling Judith. She wasted no time, lashing out immediately.
A dazed Faith blinked at the confrontation through a hazy mist, appearing somewhat surprised and perhaps even a little desperate that she continued to live and breath.
In the orb room, Xander hefted the sledgehammer from his shoulder and held it aloft.
In the fight, Kennedy tossed aside three Slayers who were triple-teaming her.
In the orb room, Xander swung the sledgehammer around his head in a wide circle to gather momentum.
In the Sanctum, a confident Willow and Tara exuded strength, as the candles flared ever brighter and the swirling wind continued to whip at their hair.
In the orb room, Xander steadied the sledgehammer at the peak of its arc.
In Robespierre's office, Giles cast a final look at the surrounding devastation and then firmly turned his back on the ruins as he walked toward the shattered door.
In the orb room, the hammer began its descent.
In the Sanctum, Dawn blinked open her eyes. She looked from Ruth to Quinn and then grinned.
In the orb room, the hammer sped toward its target, mere centimeters from the smooth surface.
In the battle, Buffy maintained the upper hand and continued to beat Judith into submission.
In the orb room, the hammer made contact. The sphere shuddered for second beneath the force and then splintered into a myriad of reflective shards. The powerful glow contained within its depths seemed to immediately implode, devouring its own potency like a vacuum until its core exploded with a harmless and somewhat disappointing little puff, which instantly dissipated.
In the battle, the entire Super Slayer army staggered as though each girl had simultaneously been dealt an unrecoverable blow. The majority collapsed instantly, hitting the floor with a heavy thud. Only a few of the more formidable remained standing but, given their greatly dilapidated condition, were quickly and efficiently put of out commission. Above the hearts of every Super Slayer, a sudden and tiny burst of energy materialized, emblazoning the sigils each of them bore on their chests before vaporizing into diminutive tendrils of smoke, which left behind no indication such a mark had ever existed – not even the faintest scar.
In the Sanctum, Willow and Tara recoiled in unison, as though they had been suddenly and violently struck. Without a word, both immediately keeled over to sprawl motionless upon the floor.
In the orb room, Xander blinked at the jagged and unimpressive remnants adorning the still magnificent marble pedestal and then turned to Hannah. He leaned upon the handle of his sledgehammer. An expression of confusion crossed his face and he appeared to be rather under whelmed.
"That it?" he asked dubiously. "Did we win?"
In the battle, Buffy delivered yet another stinging blow to Judith's jaw. Pinned to the ground, Judith's face was a bloodied mess and she groaned miserably, obviously still alive but in no condition to put up any type of fight. Cautiously, Buffy released her hold and rose carefully to her feet, but Judith made no moves, sudden or otherwise. Crossing her arms, the blonde Slayer scrutinized the beaten figure before her. With a feeble roll of the head, Judith regarded Buffy through eyes swollen almost totally shut.
"It's over," Buffy told her matter-of-factly.
Judith swallowed painfully as her lids closed in acceptance of defeat. She winced, even such an insignificant act apparently bringing with it a certain degree of discomfort. Turning her back, Buffy moved away and then pulled up short at the sound of a loud and sharp crack. Whirling, she saw Faith releasing Judith's head from her hands and allowing the body to tumble back to the ground. The neck was set at an awkward angle – it had been snapped and the eyes that stared vacantly upward were already being drained of life's spark.
Faith regarded the body dispassionately and she turned her gaze to Buffy. "Now it's over."
It was with some horror that Buffy continued to stare at Faith, who was having trouble even sitting up, her breath shallow and labored.
One by one, the Council troops reassembled. Xander and Hannah emerged from one of the upper entranceways and Giles appeared through another, while Kennedy and Wood anxiously made their way toward Buffy and the fast-weakening Faith.
"Once you know them, they'll pick whatever damned card you want 'em to," Madrigan stated decisively. On tiptoe, he peered casually through the metal bars of a sliding grille and grinned. Apparently, he was totally enjoying such grand conversation, even though it appeared to be somewhat one-sided.
He tutted softly to himself. "But I digress. Let's talk about you for a few seconds, Mr. Antedilu— Hey, you know, can I just call you 'Dilly'?" He arched an inquiring eyebrow, but didn't bother to wait for a response. "Cool. So yeah, Dilly, I know you're probably sorta having mixed feelings. On the one hand, you know Scarface is dead – I'm sure you can feel that. For some strange reason he never found himself a good woman with whom to procreate, so that's it, the end of the line. Which, of course, means no getting free for you, like, ever. That's pretty much a mixed bag, cuz I know you've gotta be sick of being in there by now, but you know what'll happen if you ever walk outta here. I got some good news though— Well, good for me, anyway." He paused, allowing the dramatic effect to thoroughly penetrate. "There's always another way." He chortled gleefully before continuing, as though he'd just been told a magnificently funny joke. "Ah, dude, you should've seen your face just then!"
Allowing his enthusiastic amusement to fade, Madrigan was obviously in a contented and sated mood, rather like he'd just indulged in a huge ten-course meal.
"Prophecies, you know, are really just like a complicated domino chain," he remarked with a satisfied smile, ostensibly well-pleased with his enlightening comparison. "Set up 'em—" He raised his palm in the air, the fingers pointing toward the ceiling before his wrist went limp and the digits flopped toward the ground. "—and knock 'em down. They're so close to falling now, I can almost taste it." Shooting a sidelong glance through the grille, Madrigan grinned knowingly. "You probably can too, can't you? Won't be long now, Dilly. Won't be long at all."
The mage's smile broadened as he took a step backward, still balancing on tippy-toe.
"Choice 'a' or choice 'b' – that's all they've got," he confided with a wink. "Be seein' you."
Whistling a catchy little tune, Madrigan departed with a saunter as Seneca's face appeared at the barred opening. Bending down, he peeked through the grille with an affable smile and a cordial wave. Then, employing an unpretentious gesture, used his magick to close the small metal door.
From somewhere deep within, almost as though it originated from both the bowels of the earth and the heavens above, came the sound of screaming. The sharply piercing cries resonated with anger, defiance and above all, impotent rage. The furor refused to be quelled for quite some considerable time, and the echoes seemed to linger long after the screamer had again fallen silent.
From the other side of a thick but otherwise nondescript door, came the sounds of pounding. The framework faltered for a moment but then remained firm. Another more forceful bang quickly followed, but still the sturdy barrier stood its ground. There was a moment of silence then, to the accompaniment of a violent kick from a powerful boot, the door burst open, its valiant hinges having finally met their match. An arm was graciously extended, as though showing the way.
"Thank you, Kennedy," remarked Giles.
"No problem," she rejoined, emerging into the basement level of an apparently abandoned building. A flight of stone steps led upward to a deserted alleyway and she took them two at time.
Giles quickly followed, although a little more sedately. He surveyed the area with a frown, trying to orient himself. Buffy was not far behind, and close on her heels came Xander, supporting Faith by the elbow while his other arm encircled her waist. The absence of a lethal projectile, replaced by a padded patch taped neatly around the wound, evidenced that Faith had been administered triage in the field, but it was a stopgap measure at best and blood had already stained the temporary white dressing.
"I still think you should've stayed there with the others," reproached Xander, but gently. "We can find a hospital, come back with a stretcher and some pretty medicine."
Lips tight, Faith sharply shook her head. "Walked in ..." she gasped painfully. "I'll walk out ..."
Grimacing, Faith slowly made it up the steps, guided by Xander. He spared a glance over his shoulder, and noted with gratification that a good number of Juniors had made it through relatively unscathed, those who had sustained only minor injuries helping their companions who had not been quite so lucky, but were still able to walk.
Bringing up the rear were Wood and Hannah. Heads together, they chatted amicably, presumably exchanging notes about recent events. Their eyes never stopped moving, however, scanning over each of the girls, taking stock of physical damage and medical needs.
Having reached the top of the steps, Kennedy turned first one way and then the others. "Looks a little familiar," she observed, placing her hands on her hips.
Giles readily agreed, although he seemed rather surprised. "We're in London," he mused. "Off Tottenham Court Road. The new Council facility is just a few blocks up that way." He pointed to the right. The roar of traffic could be heard, together with the honking horns of impatient motorists who were eager to get home after a long day at work.
"Cool," declared Kennedy with a grin. "I can stake a claim on my new room."
"At least we're not still in Trillium," puffed Buffy with relief. "If we'd gone through that whole big teleport thing just to wind up down the road? Boy, would my face have been red."
Wood and Hannah were the last to reach the deserted alley, which was rapidly becoming not so much a deserted alley as an overcrowded alley. Some of the girls flopped wearily onto the curb, legs extending into the road. Luckily, it was a thoroughfare not much given to passing vehicles.
"We should find a hospital," urged Wood. "Some of the girls are in bad shape."
Hannah hastened to add her concerns. "We'll need to deal with the, uhm ... mess down there as well." She jerked a meaningful thumb over her shoulder.
"Time to break in the new branch, I expect," stated Giles, before adding almost to himself, "Especially as none of us thought to bring passports ..."
Taking care not to jostle Faith, Xander looked around. "So this is England. Huh." He raised a speculative eyebrow in Giles' direction. "I expected more Beefeaters, and guys with big black q-tip hats."
With an amused grin, Buffy moved to stand at Xander's side and he released Faith's elbow in order to wrap her in a big one-armed hug. With a wry shake of her head, Kennedy also joined them and assumed custody of Faith. With a quick flash of appreciation, Xander seized the opportunity to envelop Buffy in a huge two-armed hug, which she reciprocated with much relish.
Kennedy smoothed Faith's matted hair away from the pallid face. "Looks painful," she remarked in a soft voice as her eyes drifted to the patch that was steadily becoming more red than white.
"Yeah," came the response, distant and detached.
"What's the matter?" asked Kennedy with a frown and then clarified. "I mean, besides the gaping hole in your back."
"I thought I'd feel better," replied Faith, although the answer seemed to be directed inwardly rather than at Kennedy. "I mean ... Judith killed Hazel, I killed Judith, and that should've ..." She turned to her fellow Slayer. "I should feel better now ... Right?"
Still locked in Xander's bear hug, Buffy stared up into his face. "I'm glad you're okay."
Xander grinned. "I'm glad I'm okay too." The embrace continued for a moment longer, then the carpenter made a suggestion. "Hey, guess we should check in with our magick mamas, huh?"
"Absolutely," nodded Buffy emphatically as the pair linked arms. "I'm thinking big love and mochas are in order," she added with another firm nod.
"Hey, maybe we can bring 'em back something while we're here," proposed Xander, his grin becoming broader. "Like a 'I teleported my friends to London so they could kick some bad guy's ass and all I got was this lousy t-shirt' shirt."
As he polished his glasses, Giles discussed the urgency of the current situation with his ex-wife. "Right then. Hannah, you—"
Interrupted by the abrupt demand of a cell phone, the Watcher hastily replaced his glasses. It was a typically generic tone, given that Giles had yet to master the art of fancy programming. Digging in his jacket pocket, he extracted the mobile and fumbled with the buttons, cursing quietly under his breath as the irritatingly repetitive melody persisted. Reaching over, Hannah depressed one of the keys and the three-note pattern ceased. Giles flashed her a grateful look as he raised the instrument to his ear, but Hannah shook her head in amused disbelief.
"Hello?" the Watcher inquired.
"Tara!" responded Giles with more exuberance than he customarily allowed himself to exhibit. He pointed to Hannah and then to Wood, before gesturing toward the new Council Headquarters. With nods of understanding, they jogged in that direction and Giles returned to his conversation. "Wonderful to hear you. You and- and Willow are...?"
"Fine," Tara assured with a small smile. "We're both fine."
She glanced at Willow, who was craning her neck sideways to the point of muscular malfunction in an effort to listen in. Hovering nervously nearby, Dawn was in no less of a high-strung state.
"Dawnie too," she added. "A- A little tired, and I think we could probably, uhm ... probably sleep for a whole week."
Giles let out a sigh of relief at the news. "Yes, well after this, I think we could all do with a rest."
"Is everyone okay?" asked Tara, her voice laced with a hint of anxiety. "Buffy and Xander and—"
"Yes, just fine," guaranteed the Watcher. "Buffy's right here, in fact. She—"
Buffy was indeed right there, her arm still linked to Xander, who looked very much as though someone with Slayer strength had just dragged him down the street. She peered up into the Watcher's face with a insistent little pout. "Who is it? I wanna talk!"
As a shrill request assaulted his ears, Giles visibly winced. "Is that Buffy!" came Willow's excited voice as she scrabbled for the phone. "I heard Buffy!" The redhead's agitation was obviously not going to subside any time soon, but Tara was determined to maintain control for as long as possible.
"Oo, lemme talk to Buffy!" Willow pleaded, snapping her hands open and closed ineffectually as she tried to get the phone. "I have to tell her about- about the power with the big whoosh and— Oh! Us!" She regarded Tara with eyes big and round as saucers. "S-She doesn't know about the wondtacular betterment of smoochie goodness and when we—"
With an expression of stunned confusion, Giles visibly jumped as Dawn's squeal rebounded from his eardrum. He held the phone at arms length, but could still plainly hear the teenager's shriek of delight.
"Oh my god! You two made up?!"
Buffy's jaw dropped. "They did what?"
She hopped into the air and deftly snatched the phone from Giles' outstretched hand. He surrendered to the inevitable without putting up much of a struggle, simply sighing and then rolling his eyes.
"Willow Danielle Rosenberg," Buffy crisply instructed, "you have been holding out on me and that is not allowed!"
"Secrets?" queried Xander, his elbow continuing to be captured in Buffy's vice-like grip. "Willow has secrets? Naughty Willow!"
Removed from the amicable bickering, Giles approached Kennedy and Faith, who was half-resting against a stony outcropping on the building behind her.
"We need to get you to a hospital," he told her gently.
She looked up at him with a dazed expression. Her eyes were shining and though she refused to cry, it seemed as though part of her yearned for the comfort that tears would bring. However the larger part of Faith – the stronger part – refused to allow this to happen.
"Don't think it'll help," she gritted with resignation.
"Giles says we're in London," Buffy told the phone and whoever might be listening at the other end.
"I-I don't even know how we did the big portal thing," Willow rejoined with some amazement, "that was just ... whooo. How cool was that?"
Standing at Willow's side, Dawn beamed with pride but preserved her silence. From the far side of the Sanctum, Ruth smiled indulgently at the enthusiasm being displayed by all concerned and Quinn's wings positively quivered with vicarious joy. He sniffed happily and dabbed at his eyes with a delicate lace-edged handkerchief that he pulled from the top of his boot.
Tara tried her best to include the pair of somewhat detached onlookers in the celebration, but failed miserably to reach them. Willow had Tara's hand tightly clenched and wasn't about to let go. The arms of the two witches were stretched as far as bones and tendons would allow, but engrossed as she was in her conversation, Willow truly didn't notice. Thoroughly amused, Tara glanced from their entwined fingers to Willow and then to Ruth and Quinn, smiling and shrugging with an expression that clearly said 'what can you do?'
Talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, Willow barely paused for breath. "London though, that's— I went through there, but didn't really stop to—" Face aglow, she tugged on Tara's hand. "Baby, you wanna maybe go to London with Buffy and Xander and everyone for a week or something? Oh, then we can do Florence, you know how you've always wanted to—"
"I think we should maybe nap first," suggested the blonde, arching an eyebrow. "You know, before we do 'Around the World in 80 Seconds'."
Dawn hopped from one foot to the other. "Does this mean I get to miss school next week?"
"No," replied Willow and Tara with one voice.
Visibly pouting, the teenager crossed her arms.
The sound of approaching sirens could be heard echoing down the street. Having handed the phone over to Xander, Buffy went to join Faith, Kennedy and Giles. "So I guess that's it, huh?" she asked softly. "All over?"
She glanced behind as several ambulances screeched to a halt in front of the building and teams of paramedics swiftly exited with their equipment. One immediately made his way to Faith, but she steadfastly shook her head.
"Check the others first."
He hesitated for a second but then, noting the determined set of her jaw, nodded and hurried down the stone steps, where Wood was already directing rescue operations. Accepting the gallant offer of a helping hand, Hannah allowed Giles to escort her from one of the vehicles.
"They're on the payroll," she informed him under her breath.
The Watcher nodded in acknowledgment, but his focus remained on Buffy or, more specifically, Buffy's question.
"Over. Yes," he murmured and then turned his attention to the basement and the building entrance. "Perhaps."
"Will, I am not goin' in the first restaurant I see and ask for fish and chips," Xander was protesting loudly. "I'm gonna ask for spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, and spam. Like a normal person."
As the stream of casualties being whisked away to hospital dwindled to a trickle, Faith finally allowed herself to accept medical attention, but still insisted on getting into the ambulance under her own steam with minimal assistance. The effort almost proved too much, but she clung to consciousness with an incredible show of will.
Those remaining behind either gathered in small groups to chat amongst themselves about nothing in particular or, with much curiosity and interest, eyed the bright lights radiating from the more densely populated areas just beyond the alleyway. London had now donned its fashionable evening dress and was ready to party.
Leaning against the railings that bordered the basement, Xander's long-distance conversation had lost none of its momentum. Giles, Kennedy, Buffy and Hannah gravitated toward him.
"So, what'd you think? Choice 'a', we head to the hospital, 'b' we make for the new Council branch ..." began Kennedy.
"I vote 'c', we get dinner," interrupted Xander with a hungry gleam in his eye.
Giles shoved his hands into his pockets and gazed up at the skyline. "I suppose it'll be a while before we can get transportation home sorted."
"I'm thinking 'd' – we hit Soho," decided Kennedy. " I'm nowhere near ready to bunk down for the night."
"Don't sightsee without us!" came Willow's demand from down the phone line.
"Yeah," added Dawn, making sure her voice contained sufficient volume to be clearly heard across the miles. "I wanna go to any random bridge in London, just so I can sing the song. The looks alone will be worth it."
Willow extended the phone to Tara so the blonde could make her contribution, but she retained possession nonetheless. "I've always wanted to see the Tower of London," Tara mused softly. "Lots of history." She paused for a moment. "Lots of people killed too ... but historically."
Grinning broadly, Willow returned the instrument to her own ear.
Xander listened attentively. "Okay, so Will's team votes for sightseeing—" He flinched at the ensuing flurry of protestations emanating from Trillium and swiftly clarified. "After they get here."
"What's your pick, Buffy?" asked Kennedy.
The blonde Slayer considered this for an instant and then, without further thought, began to simply walk down the street.
"Eh," she shrugged. "I don't like multiple-choice tests. I'm just gonna go this way."
She glanced back over her shoulder at the others.