Wow. This is very exciting. I gotta say, you're just what I expected. More, even. The fire, the power, the rage ... Even after all this time. You just gotta respect longevity.

In the interrogation room, Giles leaned heavily against the closed door and stared at the demoralized and now impotent form occupying the chair in the center. Eyes closed and with drooping head, the Super Slayer's chin rested on her sternum. She was clearly broken and in wretched condition, but breath still remained in her body. Giles watched the rise and fall of her chest for a moment before turning and leaving the room.

Sorry, sorry. I forget the social stuff sometimes, I just get so damned wound up, you know? Allow me to introduce myself – I'm Madrigan. I head up this little group, The Shrouded Cir— Heh. You've heard of us, I see. That's cool, sorta brings the mutual respect up right to the forefront, you know? No need for lame-ass 'let me show you our power so you can fear me' crap. Intimate understanding is the key to any strong relationship.

It was with some reluctance that Willow and Tara disengaged themselves from the embrace that had been so long in coming. Still seated across from each other on the floor of Willow's Sanctum, their lips brushed tenderly before they finally pulled apart, both realizing that this was neither the time nor the place for reconciliation. Nonetheless, the pair exchanged a silent promise – an unspoken affirmation that such a reunion would be realized. Their eyes turned toward the door, having reached an agreement to leave the comfort of their newly found sanctuary and join the others.

Now you're probably wondering why I'm here. Why are any of us here? That's a pretty existential question. My friend could probably lecture you for hours on that very topic ... though you might get it spelled out in Alphabits or something. There's a reason smart cookies have spent entire lifetimes on it though, since it's pretty much the question for most people. Not me though. I figure I got the whole thing sussed.

Kennedy walked down one of the long hallways that led to the entrance foyer of Slayer Central. She moved slowly, inspecting the photographs that lined the walls – images of various Junior Slayers, almost like the pictures found in a high school yearbook. Her body tensed as she paused before one such photograph, depicting herself standing next to Judith. Both faces that regarded her from within the frame wore bright smiles. With narrowed eyes, Kennedy stared at the photograph for a moment and then drew back her fist. The punch that followed was forceful enough to shatter the glass but the Slayer was heedless of the jagged splinters that drew blood from her otherwise white knuckles.

We like to think we have free will, masters of our fate, whatever whatever. That's all hooey. It's a myth we tell ourselves so we can survive the day-to-day. You, me, every last one of us are slaves to one very important thing: choices.

At the Memorial clearing, Buffy paused to reflect. She had no time to stop and rest, but did spend a brief moment in contemplation. Lost in deep thought, she stared at the now almost fully-grown sapling before moving on.

Life's not a wide-open plain where you can go any which way your little feetsies feel like going. It's like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book. You can do 'a' or you can do 'b'. If you're really lucky, you've got a 'c' and 'd' in the mix too, but life's still a multiple-choice exam.

Standing in front of a mirror in the private training room, Xander hefted a large broadsword, executing practice swings in an effort to loosen his tense muscles or perhaps make tiny corrections to his form. Glancing at the reflection, he was surprised to see Dawn suddenly appear behind him, toting a weapon almost identical to his own. Slowly, he turned to face her, beginning to shake his head. But before Xander could give voice to his concerns, he noted Dawn's expression of grim determination. He gave a small nod in her direction – an acknowledgement that they had found another point in common. Treating her to a tiny smile, the carpenter raised his challenging blade. Dawn quickly followed suit and with a clash of metal, they began to spar.

Not to worry though, cuz I got a system. Take a deck of cards. You've got 52 possible picks – which is really more than most people can handle, let's face it. Looks like it'd be hard to guess which one they'll take, right? Could be a seven of diamonds or a three of clubs ... Who needs that randomness? Way inefficient.

Faith's stride was deliberate as she made her way to Slayer Central. Her expression was unreadable and her eyes looked neither right nor left. Her demeanor was that of a woman on a mission. She apparently had no intention of being diverted and would obviously flout any attempt at restraint.

That's why you stack the deck. To make it really work, though, it takes a bit more than that. You've got to know your players. Know their loves and their fears and their passions and their weaknesses and then just ... offer them the deck. Pick a card, any card. So long as it's the one I want you to pick.

In the foyer of Slayer Central, the front door flew open at the violent push of Faith's hand. She stood on the threshold expectantly for a moment before moving to the center of the anteroom. From the doorway opposite the main entrance, Giles emerged, looking to his right as Dawn also quietly entered the area from another hall. Willow was the next to arrive, coming into view from a hallway to the left of the Watcher. Dawn briefly glanced behind to see Xander standing by her shoulder as Kennedy joined Giles while Tara appeared next to Willow. Finally, entering the building by the same door Faith had used, came Buffy. She quickly strode to the center of the area and took up position next to Faith. All was silence as the gathered group solemnly regarded each other.

Once you know them, they'll pick whatever damned card you want 'em to.

"Win, Lose or Draw"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf, Ultrace & Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 14 December 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

The pervading hush dominating the foyer persisted until Xander broke the silence. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," he announced, grinning with exaggerated cheerfulness.

Buffy looked to each face in turn. "What've we got?"

"We've got a lot," Giles told her with authority.

"We've got a team that's red-hot!" declared Dawn, with a cheeriness that matched Xander's grin. She wilted a little beneath the stares which greeted her proclamation. Nervously, the teenager cleared her throat and said nothing more.

Giles turned to his left. "Willow? Tara?"

The redhead twisted her fingers. "There are some snags," she admitted hesitantly. "Because, you know ... can't be easy. Where's the fun in that?"

"Snags?" queried Buffy, out of the loop.

"But we can do it," Willow continued with confidence.

The blonde Slayer's confusion surged to the forefront. "Wait, do what?"

"We can banish the extra power?" Tara replied, her voice lifting at the end as though she were asking a question. "The stuff that makes the Super Slayers ... super."

Willow smiled brightly. "Without the Super, they're just your common, garden variety Slayer."

"Fresh from your grocer's freezer," Xander added.

Kennedy frowned as she considered the witches. "But there's a problem?"

"Couple," nodded Willow with some disappointment. "I-It could be kinda tricky to get around, but ..." Her eyes drifted toward Giles, who returned the gaze with an affirmative nod as he picked up the threads of the explanation.

"No need to get into it here," agreed Giles. "We'll discuss the details shortly." Turning to address the group, he continued, "Now then, about the—"

"Screw this," interrupted Faith with an impatient toss of her head. She purposefully marched toward Giles and Kennedy, roughly pushing her way between them. Giles staggered backward a little, but Kennedy stood her ground, reaching out to seize Faith's arm.

"Faith—" she began, but the other Slayer violently jerked herself free.

"When you're done with the chitchat an' get ready to do, come find me." Faith's tone was deceptively calm. She didn't wait for confirmation; she simply stomped away.

Kennedy watched her leave and then began to follow. Xander had apparently reached the same conclusion and swiftly moved to track Kennedy's steps.

"Xander, Kennedy," called Buffy quickly, bringing them both to a halt. Very pointedly, she inquired, "How's everything else coming?"

Their expressions were uncertain, their desire to go after Faith readily apparent.

A look of understanding crept into Buffy's eyes. Nevertheless, she stood firm, her tone unwavering. "Guys."

Reluctantly, Xander turned away and resumed his position next to Dawn. Kennedy, too, made no further action toward Faith, but her compliance was by far the less graceful.

"The girls are pumped," she reported snappily. "They're ready to dish it out instead of taking it for a change."

Turning to Xander, Giles questioned, "Ruth?"

"She's working on it now."

Giles gave a nod of satisfaction.

"And me?" piped an expectant voice. "What can I do?"

Every eye turned to Dawn. The teenager returned each glance with an eager smile and then regarded her sister hopefully, but Buffy would not be swayed. She crossed to Dawn with a forced smile on her lips.

"Don't you have a big chemistry test coming up? You can study for that." Buffy suggested, as though this were a grand task that anyone in the room would be delighted to have bestowed upon them.

Dawn wasn't feeling the honor. "What? No! I want to help you guys!"

"Doing well on your chemistry test will help us," the Slayer insisted, every one of her supernaturally-endowed senses screaming that she was on shaky and rapidly deteriorating ground. "See, cuz ... when you get good grades that means you'll get a solid, high-paying job which is important because you'll have to support all of us in our old age." Buffy smiled weakly.

Emphatically shaking her head, Dawn folded her arms and stared at her sister defiantly. "Oh no. No, I'm a Scooby now. You made it all big and official and I'm going to help."

The two Summers stared at each other, locked in a fierce battle of wills. Then without warning, Dawn shifted tactics.

"C'mon," the teenager urged, "last time I got to fight the original vampires! You can't keep me out of this."

Buffy refused to relent. "You are not fighting anything but polyunsaccharine carbon atoms."

"What?" Willow interjected, blinking in utter bewilderment that went completely ignored.

"But I—"

From across the foyer, Tara stepped forward. "Dawnie, you can help Willow and me," she offered. Sensing the look of confusion on Willow's face, she turned back and added, "With the spells?"

Catching on, Willow was immediately supportive. "Yeah! Yeah," she hastened to confirm. "We've got ... whoo, spells. And lots of 'em! It's like a- an entertainment expo or a real estate agent convention! Only with ... spells."

With narrowed eyes, Dawn regarded the blonde witch with suspicion. "You're just making up stuff, aren't you?" she asked directly.

The denial was instant. "No. Well, a little bit," Tara corrected with a small shrug. "But we really do need some research help."

Dawn's sigh was one of resignation. "It's the best I'm gonna get, huh?"

"For now," Tara smiled.

Accepting inevitable defeat with relatively good grace, Dawn marched toward the witches. "Fine, fine. Point me to the books."

Tara placed a comforting arm around Dawn's shoulders and led her down the hallway.

Kennedy watched for a moment and then brushed her palms together. "I'm going after Faith now." Without waiting for permission, she turned abruptly on her heel and made a determined exit.

For a moment it looked as though Xander was going to follow, but his own responsibilites surged to the forefront. "As for me," he announced, "I have a date with my workshop and many implements of destruction."

"Look at you," jibed Buffy, "all Mr. Important Destructo Man."

Xander's smile was irrefutably proud. "I make stuff go smashy."

"D'you ever stop to think about how weird it is that the tools for building something and the tools for breaking something are pretty much the same tools?" mused Willow thoughtfully. She took in the collection of puzzled looks this remark earned her. "No, okay then."

Shaking his head wryly, Xander turned to Buffy. "Care to come with? If you're very good, I'll let you touch my power drill."

The Slayer wore a somewhat dubious expression as she accepted Xander's offer to accompany him. "Was that some sort of lame come-on?"

"Not unless you want it to be," rejoined the carpenter amiably as the pair moved down the hall together.

With a fond smile, Giles pondered briefly on the lighthearted exchange before focusing on Willow. "We'll begin discussing the details of the spell, shall we?"

The redhead agreed with an affable nod and joined Giles as they exited the foyer. "Because, I mean," persisted Willow, "a saw can cut something into random tiny little pieces, or it can be used to cut exac—"

"Willow let it go."


Jogging relentlessly, Kennedy searched Slayer Central, her quest reaching its conclusion when she found Faith in the library. Although the room had been mostly cleared of debris from the battle, there had been no time to effectuate actual repairs and the area remained something of a disaster. Kennedy paused in the doorway, watching Faith as she stood before the gaping wounds in the plaster, where she had tried to claw her way through by hand in a desperate effort to reach Judith.

"Did a number on the wall," Kennedy noted with admiration. "Xander'll be a week fixing that one up."

Faith didn't turn around. "We headin' out yet?"

"Not quite."

"Then go away."

Kennedy considered this for a moment and then shook her head, even though Faith couldn't see the gesture. "I thought you could maybe use someone to talk to."

"Yeah, well you thought wrong," came the clipped response.

Kennedy moved further into the room. "Look Faith, I know—"

"Save it," Faith sneered, half-glancing over her shoulder. "I already did the touchy-feely thing. All those pretty words an' I'm feelin' like a million bucks, thanks."

As Faith turned away again, Kennedy reached out, but stopped far short of touching the rigid shoulders. "I just—"

"Go. Away."

Her jaw clenched tight in anger, Kennedy began to comply and then apparently changed her mind. Instead, she turned back to Faith who continued to stare stiffly at the damaged wall.

"You call me a brat?" spat an incensed Kennedy. "I think I'll hand my self-indulgent crown over to you." She waited for a second, but Faith maintained her silence. "I looked up to you once."

"That'd be just one of your many mistakes."

"Seriously. I thought you had something, you know?" Kennedy persisted. "Turning yourself into the cops, the whole redemptive path thing. I thought that was cool. Plus you didn't take any of Buffy's crap, and that always gets bonus points."

"Great," mocked Faith. "I'm the role model for wannabes everywhere. Thanks for stoppin' by with that."

For a moment, Kennedy said nothing, simply staring at Faith's determined stance.

"You're gonna kill her, aren't you?" she eventually asked. "Judith."

"Nah, I'm not gonna kill her," Faith denied bitterly, finally turning to face Kennedy. "I'm gonna freakin' end her." She paused and tilted her head, regarding Kennedy with a sardonic half-grin. "So go ahead. Let's hear the big speech. 'You can't kill, Faith, it's wrong. We have to turn the other cheek and love and forgive'."

"No speech from me," maintained Kennedy with narrowed eyes. "Bitch has been playing us since day one and she's killed our own. Hell," she rolled her shoulders and shifted her weight to the other foot. "I'd do it myself if I didn't think you'd had a slightly higher claim."

Somewhat taken aback by Kennedy's bluntness, Faith's eyes also grew narrow. "That ain't Scooby talk."

Kennedy shrugged dismissively. "I guess we're not Scoobies, are we?"

In companionable silence, Buffy and Xander made their way to Xander's workshop. He paused to open the door and then ushered the blonde to enter.

"Wow," remarked Buffy with something akin to awe. "It looks so ..."

"Grown up?" supplied a beaming Xander.

"Yes, actually."

Seemingly delighted with the observation, Xander gave a contented sigh. "I guess there just comes a time in every man's life where he sets aside the trappings of childhood for—" He stopped short and frowned. "Hey!"

Buffy looked to Xander in surprise as he hurried toward her, gesturing at her hands which contained a stack of comic books she had removed from a corner stool in readiness to take a seat. He gingerly accepted the pile she nervously offered and cradled it lovingly.

"I haven't had time to bag and board those yet," Xander told her reproachfully, "and if you don't stack 'em just right, the spines get little creases." He carefully began inspecting said spines.

The nod he received in return was a tad patronizing, but the affectionate smile was genuine. Buffy perched on the stool and watched Xander carefully deposit his stash of comics in a more secure location before attending to other business. With an expert eye, he verified the assortment of tools, seeming to test each one with a diligence reminiscent of Buffy going over her own weapon collection.

She settled herself more comfortably and leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees, hands clasped before her. "So what's the deal now?"

The carpenter smacked the head of a large hammer against his palm. "You know how Lady Wrinkles was going on about some magic thing, right?" He circled the tool in the air. "This big thingamabob that's powering the Super Slayers."

"Their source or whatever," confirmed the blonde.

"Right," agreed Xander. "We've gotta get in there and destroy it, but we can't really risk not putting every Slayer in the fight. Giles and Robin are gonna be helping coordinate the attack, so that leaves yours truly."

Buffy frowned at the news. "This is suddenly sounding less like a perfect plan."

"Probably because it's not," shrugged Xander. "I sure can't think of anything better, though. We've gotta destroy this thing, and as much as I hate to say it, I'm not gonna be much use with the fighting. Might as well apply my special Xander skills at breakin' stuff."

Hopping down from her perch, Buffy joined Xander at the worktable. "I could maybe go with you. Keep things from breaking you while you break other things," she offered.

Xander smiled down at her. "You know where you're really needed, Buff."

"Maybe," she pouted. "But I don't like you going solo."

"I won't be," reassured the carpenter. "Hannah's not so good with the strategizing either, so she's coming with me. Giles says she's pretty scrappy in a fight." He sniffed with indignation and looked toward the ceiling. "I think I could take her."

"I dunno," Buffy countered, sounding amused, "you gotta watch out for those deceptively strong blondes."

Xander treated her to a sideways glance. "True. Plus, I haven't really been emasculated for a while now and I'd like to keep it that way."

A brief silence followed as Xander resumed gathering assorted tools while Buffy returned to her stool. Apparently lost in her own thoughts, she watched him for a moment until he turned to look at her with curiosity.

"Shiny new penny for your thoughts," he proposed.

"Just thinking about this year. It's been an interesting one."

Nodding his agreement, Xander produced an oversized duffel bag and began to pack it. "That it has."

"And," continued the blonde, "I've found it surprisingly non-taxing for me, as a general rule."

"That a bad?"

Buffy vehemently shook her head. "No no. That would be a definite good. It's nice." Sighing contentedly, she straightened on the stool, stretching out her arms. "You know, sort of sit back, enjoy what I have ... I mean sure, big scary army of killer teenagers ready to take over the world and let an obsessive-compulsive control freak run things. But that aside? My destiny isn't quite so isolationist and burden-y, it looks like my little sister will actually be able to finish the school year at school, one of my friends came back to life, and my family feels happy and whole again. So yeah." Her chin jutting out, Buffy nodded once, decisively. "This makes a good."

She treated Xander to a bright smile, which was swiftly reciprocated.

"I'm glad you came home," he told her sincerely.

"I'm glad I had a home to come to."

There was a tiny pause as Buffy swung her feet to-and-fro. "Of course you know this means that next year—"

"Pain, suffering, angst," finished the carpenter, leaning back against his workbench with a boyish grin.

"Just checking."

"He was really freaky, Giles," Willow maintained firmly. "He knew stuff. I mean, even ignoring the fact that in there we were essentially nothing but thoughts wrapped up in highly attractive packages."

Giles was seated behind the desk in his office, Willow and Tara each occupying a leather chair before him.

The Watcher frowned. "He never gave you a name?"

"None," replied Tara. "It was him, though – he was the one who brought me back. Not Robespierre. Him."

Leaning back, Giles' brow was furrowed. "Maybe he was the- the power behind the act, but—"

"No Mr. Giles," came Tara's adamant response. "I mean it was all him. I-I ... I don't think anyone else was involved."

Removing his glasses, Giles began to vigorously polish, lost in deep and silent thought. He looked up sharply at the sound of Willow's voice invading the reverie.


"Do you think he'll interfere?" asked the Watcher, continuing to focus on his ardent polishing.

Willow and Tara exchanged a look.

"I have no idea," mused the redhead. "I couldn't really tell what he wanted, except to maybe keep me an' Tara apart."

"I got that too," Tara confirmed, nodding her agreement as she glanced at Giles. "He was trying hard to convince me that Willow would go evil again, and like I had to stay away from her."

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and then replaced his glasses. "Your magickal connection has them worried, perhaps." He turned to Tara. "They clearly expected you to kill Willow and, I presume, die yourself as a result. By failing in both—"

"Yay, by the way," enthused Willow.

Giles inclined his head in acknowledgment but quickly moved on. "Perhaps they're concerned what you can accomplish together. Speaking of ..." He paused and waited expectantly.

Easily picking up the thread, Willow leaned forward in her seat. "I was right, and we can use that spell to break the extra power away from the Slayers. Now we know what we're looking for, we can do it for all of them too."

"But...?" prompted the Watcher.

"But it comes back," Tara admitted.

"Comes back?" Giles was obviously more than a little concerned. "It's regenerating?"

"Sorta," confessed Willow. "We checked back in with the Super Guinea Pig and it's ... it's like the power's reforming. Whatever's out there keeping them together, it's gonna fix whatever we break."

A line of concern appeared between Tara's eyebrows as she further explained. "Once we're in place and we separate all the stolen powers and memories and stuff, we'll have to throw up a barrier, keep it apart. It won't be easy."

"Serious power drain," was Willow's crisp affirmation.

"When the source is destroyed though," the blonde's expression brightened, "all the essences will be able to move on. The other Slayers will just be ... regular Slayers." She looked to Willow again and smiled.

Willow grinned in return. "With a grade-five migraine."

Giles' chair hit the floor with a thud as he got to his feet. "With this in mind, will you both be able to pull this off and open a portal large enough to transport our Slayers into their facility?"

"And keep our own shields up," reminded the redhead. "Last thing we need is another visit from the Scary Irritating Man."

Giles' forehead creased into deep furrows as he strode back and forth behind his desk. Willow and Tara watched his restless pacing for several silent moments, their heads swiveling in unison as they tracked his movements.

"It'll come down to timing, I think," Tara finally offered aloud in an attempt to possibly lighten the burden. "We can't use too much power to open the portal, or we might not have enough left for the Super Slayers."

"A-And we can't deactivate the Super Slayers before we open the portal," added Willow, "since once we start that, we can't stop to bamf the team to wherever they're bamfin'."

"So, timing," reiterated Tara.

"A four-leaf clover or fifty might be good too." Willow's eyes widened. "And maybe one of those lucky cat statue things!" She raised her hand in the air, mimicking the beckoning paw displayed by said felines of good fortune and turned to Giles with a broad grin.

"This is critical," a serious-faced Giles sternly informed her. "Before we commit to this plan of action, I have to know if you can do it. Can you teleport our Slayers to their headquarters and keep the Super Slayers de-powered until Xander locates and destroys the conduit?"

Willow reached across the space between her and Tara, seeking and finding the blonde's hand. As Willow's fingers entwined with her own, Tara met the other woman's eyes and the loving expression that had appeared on her face.

"I've already had one miracle this year," Willow told him, though her gaze never left Tara. "What's one more?"

Squeezing Willow's hand in return, Tara's shy smile became one of confidence as she turned to the Watcher. "We won't let you down, Mr. Giles," she assured.

"No," he replied warmly, "I don't suppose you ever could."

I won't let you down, Fiver.

'Course not. That's a given.

Standing in the middle of Hazel's room, Faith was a study of intense concentration. Her head was tilted to one side, as though listening carefully to past echoes that only she could hear. Her eyes drifted from one area to the next. She barely moved, except to shift position slightly in order to better view yet another part of the room.

I always wanted a little brother. I thought that'd be cool. Read Spider-Man and stuff together. But no – little sis, and the Barbie thing wore off as soon as she entered the 'crew cuts on Hazel's dolls are neat' stage. Hey! Maybe you could be my little brother! Only older, and not a boy.

Faith's gaze traveled along the posters lining the wall, then moved to inspect the many knick-knacks which littered the desk and dresser. Such were the sole remaining remnants of Hazel's life – reminders of everything that had been important to her.

It's a dangerous world. Lotta things out there'd love t'have you as a between-meal snack.

Yeah, but you'll always keep me safe, right?

The Slayer's eyes journeyed over the many displayed photographs that represented but a small portion of Hazel's vast collection of memories, including one framed photograph of herself with the Junior Slayer. Reaching out, Faith gently lifted it from its resting place.

But I just thought, 'What would Faith do?' ...and then I did it.

For a long while, Faith regarded the images, so lifelike in their captured moment. Then, with a snarl, she cocked back her arm and aimed the picture toward a nearby wall. Her muscles trembled with the strain and it appeared that she could almost see the shattered frame and splintered glass already lying upon the carpet. An inner battle seemed to rage – an overpowering desire to destroy vying with the acute need to preserve. It was obvious she wanted so badly to give vent to destruction.

She didn't.

What would Faith do?

Slowly, Faith lowered the framed picture and stared at it for what seemed an eternity before hanging her head.

Act Two

Surrounded by books, Dawn sat at a table in one of Slayer Central's small and undesignated, but more comfortably furnished rooms. A tiny frown of concentration creased her forehead as she focused intently on the research she had been assigned, anxious to be successful in her quest. She jumped a little at the ringing of her cell phone but then, her eyes lit up at the tuneful tone – Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." With a delighted grin plastered across her face, she dug deep into her pocket and yanked out the mobile. However, she forced her expression into 'be cool, be calm' mode before flipping open the phone.

"Hello?" Her voice was nonchalant. "Hey Grip, what's up?" She laughed brightly at the response. "Oh my god, totally. It's, like, 'are you now or have you ever been a human being?'" Dawn paused briefly at the reply. "I know!" As she listened, she doodled on a pad – mostly plump little hearts with arrows through them, flanked by the letters 'G' and 'D'. Her face split into a huge beam of excitement. "I would love—" She pulled up short in an attempt to curb her overt enthusiasm. "I mean ..." she continued casually. "Yeah, sure, that'd be cool."

Barely able to contain herself, she emitted a silent squeal, and then morphed again into Jane Cool. From the hallway outside, Quinn peeked into the room at the sound of Dawn's voice and, recognizing its inhabitant, hurriedly flew back the way he had just come. Engrossed in conversation once more, the teenager failed to notice Quinn's arrival, and his hasty departure went equally unnoticed.

Dawn now twirled her hair around her fingers as she spoke. "So when were you—" Her face abruptly fell. "Oh. No, tonight's no good, I've got ..." She glanced at the books and other research materials surrounding her. "Homework. Research. For that paper in Mrs. Fornside's class." She nodded into the phone. "Yeah, not for two weeks, but ..." She paused to sigh, grimacing as several strands of hair tightened around one of her fingers, threatening to cut off the circulation. "I know it doesn't make a lot of sense, it's just ... It's really important that I do what I can now." She viciously tugged free the nearly numb digit and muttered, mostly to herself, with self-loathing. "God, I must sound like the most boring nerd alive."

She turned absently-mindedly as Quinn appeared on the threshold, closely followed by Ruth. Without waiting for an invitation, they entered the room, Ruth making a beeline for one of the more cozy armchairs. Dawn didn't pay them much attention. Instead, she cradled the phone in her hands, her features melting into something sappy and thoroughly enchanted.

"Really?" she murmured wonderingly into the mouthpiece. "No, Wednesday night'd be great. Yeah, I know, school night, but I got a hunch if things work out well today? I can get a least a week of leeway out of Buffy." She nodded enthusiastically. "Okay. See you then."

Snapping the phone shut, Dawn was the image of any steadily-becoming-completely-smitten 17-year old girl. Her expression grew dreamy and a far-away look invaded her eyes, interrupted only by Quinn floating down into her line of vision. The faerie hovered in front of her, sitting Indian-style with elbows resting on his knees and chin cupped in one hand. His facial expression almost mirrored that worn by Dawn. The teenager blinked in surprise and focused on the little creature.

He peered at the doodles with a wistful smile. "Ah. Young love."

Turning red as a recently boiled lobster, Dawn scrabbled desperately to turn over a new page as her pencil rolled onto the floor. Quickly stuffing the phone back into her pocket, she bent down to retrieve the writing implement. "It's—" she stammered, reappearing from beneath the table, "I mean, I'm not—"

Quinn looked to Ruth. "Oo, that flush!" he remarked, but not unkindly; he seemed genuinely excited. Turning back to Dawn, he reached out and nudged her shoulder. "Tell us all about him-or-her, and don't you skimp on the juicy bits!"

The teenager was only too eager to reveal all. Her eyes drifted heavenward. "Well he's a him for starters, his name's Grip," she confided with a swooning sigh, "and he's got just the softest brown eyes that crinkle when he smiles and—" Abruptly, Dawn shook her head. "No, wait." Her hand made a cutting motion in the air, as though physically severing that derailed train of thought. "Bad timing. I have to do research and stuff. Scooby stuff."

Her focus returned to Quinn, who had produced a tiny bowl of popcorn from thin air and was chomping down on the contents with much relish. Dawn blinked. He was no longer wearing what he had when he first entered the room. Now seeming as though had stepped out of any generic slumber party movie, Quinn sported a pair of red satin pajamas and his hair had been separated into three pigtails, each neatly tied with a scarlet ribbon. The faerie's popcorn-laden fist stopped mid-way to its target, the corners of his mouth turned downward in blatant disappointment.

"Aww," he pouted.

"Now Quinn," instructed Ruth sharply, "we shouldn't distract the poor dear from her work."

His lower lip jutted out further. "Not even for the juicy bits?"

"Oh, I can maybe tell you later?" suggested Dawn. "You know, when Buffy's stomped on the bad guys and we don't have this whole nasty battle-thing looming."

Quinn extended a buttery pinkie. "Swear?"

Dawn reciprocated and they made a deal courtesy of mutually wrapped pinkies. It was sealed with a solemn shake.

"Swear," pledged Dawn.

Ruth wriggled comfortably in her chair. "So what's all this?"

The teenager turned her attention to the old woman. "Tara wanted me to research some spell stuff. She and Willow only have so much power for everything, so they're looking for anything that could help make it easier."

"That sounds very important," replied Ruth with a wise nod.

Dawn tossed her head impatiently. "It's not. It's busy work."

"Doesn't look particularly busy to me," noted Quinn, mystically refilling his almost empty popcorn bowl.

The teenager hastened to clarify. "No, I mean ... There's really nothing I can do to help, right?" She gave Ruth a melancholy stare. "You know, you were there when they attacked. Buffy won't let me go to the fight, I can't do magick. So here I am, banished to the books yet again. They don't even really expect me to find anything, it's just something to do so I don't feel left out."

"So then why bother?" the old woman questioned.

Dawn's jaw became determined. "Because I wanna show them just how wrong they are."

With a small smile that hinted of approval, Ruth nodded. "It's hard for them to see you as you really are," she told Dawn fondly as she leaned forward. "Not just a young girl, but as so much more. They've been trying to shield you from things, trying to protect the innocence that they themselves lost so long ago." The teenager was focused intently on Ruth's words, every syllable causing her to become further enraptured by the soft, yet firm and confident voice. "But inside each person, Dawn – especially you – there's something special. Something powerful and uniquely your own, something you alone possess. It's all there inside you, just waiting to be unlocked."

Dawn absorbed this news very carefully for a while and then blinked several times. "Wow," she puffed. "All that in me, huh? Cool."

Then Dawn cocked her head to the side and leveled a flat look at the Keeper, all fascination dropping away. "But seriously, what's with the cryptic?"

Ruth's answer was a smirk.

"Oh, she's not cryptic, Sunshine," informed Quinn with an long-suffering eye-roll. "She's senile. It's easy to confuse the two."

Dawn emphatically shook her head. "No, nuh-uh," she disputed. "I know cryptic, and this is it." Leaning forward, Dawn tried to plead her case. "Look, you're here to help us, right?" Ruth confirmed this with a brief nod, and the teenager quickly pressed onward. "Okay, so then why the games? If you know something, that'll help, just tell us."

The old woman pondered on this for a moment, but as she opened her mouth to respond, Dawn hastened to add, "And don't be cryptic!"

Ruth's laugh sounded dry and brittle, but she regarded Dawn with much affection. "There are some things that you can't be told; you can only learn them for yourself."

In exasperation, Dawn threw her hands into the air and then looked to Quinn for some type of clarification. The faerie shrugged and popped another couple of kernels into his mouth. "You should hear her try to decide what to have for dinner," he whispered confidentially. "You get used to it, love."

Apparently, deafness could not be counted among Ruth's list of ailments, and this statement earned Quinn a glower of disapproval. But the old woman's severity faded as she refocused once more on Dawn.

"I promise, I'm not trying to be difficult," she told the teenager sincerely. "When someone asks a question, they want and expect a specific answer, which is only sometimes the truth. Truth itself has to be sought, but only when the seeker is ready to hear it."

Dawn sighed. "But if you know something that'll help us against this Robespierre guy ..." she entreated.

"Then I suppose I'd be talking to someone who's ready to look for a little bit of truth about herself, wouldn't I?" replied Ruth, pointedly locking her gaze on Dawn.

Dawn eyed the old woman with some suspicion. "Are you sure you're not evil?"

"I promise," guaranteed Ruth.

"Because if you are evil, I'm so telling my sister."

"That sounds fair," agreed the old woman amicably.

Regarding Ruth warily, Dawn gave the proposition very careful consideration, even as she dragged her chair closer. Ruth smiled knowingly and threw Quinn a meaningful glance. He promptly produced a large dish of assorted Jelly Bellies and deposited it in her lap, continuing to hover nearby as he munched on his own bowl of popcorn.

Willow and Xander had assembled with Giles in his office. Upon the arrival of Buffy, the gathering was complete and each took a chair, settling themselves comfortably.

"The girls are about ready," announced the Slayer briskly. "Kennedy's with them now."

Giles inclined his head. "Excellent."

"Okay," began Xander, making sure to keep everyone's gaze, "just so I know what exactly to worry about and when ... Will an' Tara are gonna do a locator pinpoint thing on the magickal signature they've gotten from Ruth."

"Right," Willow confirmed with a nod. "That's the easy part. Once we've got the signature location, we'll have to open up and stabilize a huge honkin' portal that'll send you guys and the other Slayers right to 'em."

"But the doohickey won't be there," he verified.

Sighing heavily, Giles rolled his eyes heavenward. "'Huge honking' portals and ..." He looked as though he had just ingested something very distasteful. "...'doohickeys'. Somewhere, the Council founders are rolling in their graves."

"Maybe even literally," Buffy suggested helpfully.

Giles' expression said 'quite possibly', but he didn't dwell there, instead focusing on Xander. "No, we'll not be by the source. We'll be in the same facility, but we can't arrive directly next to it, the risk of- of magickal 'feedback' is too great. We should appear at the largest, safe and hopefully vacant point nearby."

Buffy also directed her words toward the carpenter. "Once we're in, you wait for my signal, Xander. I don't want you running into a stream of Super Slayers on their way to us." Xander acknowledged the information with a crisp nod.

"Though, fingers crossed, they'll have a Super-ectomy by the time you guys see 'em," added Willow with an encouraging smile. "Tara and I'll keep it going as long as we can, but even if there's only fifty of 'em ... Well, let's just say the sooner Xander does his part, the better."

With a devious grin, the carpenter patted the bag o' goodies on the ground next to his chair. "Like the ancient caveman, I am prepared to club."

"I wish I was coming with you guys." Willow's tone was laced with concern and regret. "I don't like you going off all me-less."

"Yeah," the Slayer commiserated, "but you said you and Tara need peace, quiet and a safe place while you're doing the witchy mind meld, which are three things I can pretty much not guarantee you on a battlefield."

"I know, I know. But I still feel pouty, so—" Willow promptly threw all her energies into pouting furiously.

"Awww," cooed Xander, reaching over to pinch her cheek, "wookit da widdle—"

The indignant redhead smacked away the offending hand. "You deny me my pouty fun."

"Don't think of it as denying," rejoined the carpenter, wriggling threatening fingers. "Think of it as gratuitously mocking."

"But with love," Buffy hastened to clarify.

"Great big lovin' spoonfuls," affirmed Xander.

Giles massaged his forehead. "We really must find some place not my office to hold these intellectual discussions."

"Yeah, we could maybe go to—" Willow's eyes suddenly seemed to engulf a full 50% of her facial surface area, and she sat ramrod straight in her chair. "Oh!" Her hands flapped in the air, seemingly of their own accord. "Vacation!"

"Vacation?" Buffy immediately echoed, perking up like a puppy who'd heard the word 'walkies'. "A real, live, place-that-is-not-here-or-anywhere-close-where-Buffy-can-relax-and-be-pampered-and-shop vacation?"

"Include scantily clad native women," proposed Xander, "and I'm in."

Willow gave a dreamy nod at the suggestion, and then a new idea struck. Her face lit up like twinkling Christmas tree. "We can go to the Apple Campus in Cupertino! We can all take pictures by that adorable little street sign and—"

Still in the throes of delight, she found herself the object of incredulous stares. "Or, with the nearly naked native people," she finished meekly.

"I suppose it's too much to hope for you all to consider some sort of cultural significance to our destination beyond Mai Tais," ventured Giles, his tone indicating that his mind had already reviewed this possibility and sent it back with 'REJECTED' written in thick red ink.

"We are not spending our first family vacation surrounded by stodgy old things," Buffy declared firmly. "Unless we're going to Florida, in which case it's unavoidable."

The Watcher folded his arms across his chest. "I was thinking about Graceland, actually. I've often considered it's mere existence to be a cornerstone of American culture."

"You're just looking for new ways to be all snooty and British, aren't you?" Xander queried.

With mouth twitching, Giles agreed. "The thought had crossed my mind."

A brief smile of amusement shadowed Buffy's lips, but then she glanced at her watch. "Kennedy and the troops should be about ready. We'll figure out where we're going after?"

"Yeah," enthused Willow. "When we're all back and safe and sound and the bad guy's just another notch in the belt."

This was greeted with emphatic nods of approval. In unison, they got to their feet and looked at each other. They paused for a moment, seeming to wait for someone to fill the intervening space, but none did.

"Okay then," Buffy stated decisively, breaking the silence. "Let's do this."

"Do what?" asked an incredulous Robespierre.

With annoyance oozing from every pore, he stood in a room that was an exercise in contradictions. It was almost as though an architect had taken great pains to conceive and build a showplace of some grandiose design, but nobody had bothered to inform the interior decorator of the eminent plan. In short, the room was excessively ornate while remaining disappointingly ordinary. The area's most arresting feature stood in the center of the room – a glowing sphere some seven feet in diameter. It rested upon a tall, elaborate and sturdy pedestal of black marble delicately veined with gold leaf. The dominance of this flickering orb and its impressive plinth was unmistakable. Indeed, the remainder of the area paled to insignificance in the presence of this majestic artifact, whose interior glimmered with smoky swirls of a softly muted blue. Although the globe didn't appear to be emitting waves of infinite power, it nonetheless radiated with an aura of potential danger.

Like the cardinal points of a compass, four cloaked figures tended to the sphere. Their hands and outspread fingers extended toward its smooth surface. With eyes closed and wearing expressions of rapt concentration, the quartet of caretakers swayed gently in immaculate synchronicity as their lips moved in a soundless chant. A fifth cowled figure, identical in dress and appearance to his four entranced brethren, stood with bowed head before an intensely irritated Robespierre.

"He didn't say, sir," the mage informed politely. "Lord Madrigan simply bade us remain with the orb while he and the upper members of The Shrouded Circle returned to—"

Robespierre dismissed the explanation with a shake of his fist. "Well get him back here!"

An expression of mild amusement crossed the mage's face at such a notion. "Perhaps sir did not hear me correctly the first three times. Lord Madrigan is gone, sir. It is not for me to 'get' him. It is for him to return when he so chooses." He blinked innocently and waited with infinite patience for a response.

Robespierre's face began to turn purple and a small vein throbbed at his temple. "'When he so ...'" he spluttered from between tightly clenched teeth. "Send me to him."

With an air of urgent anticipation, Robespierre stood stiffly to attention as though he expected to be whisked through a portal at any second, or that some gigantic supernatural hand would lower itself into the room like a sky gondola, scoop him up and then deposit him instantly at his desired location. Neither of these things occurred and the mage regarded the man before him with something akin to pity.

"Lord Madrigan made it very clear he wasn't to be disturbed. Sir," he replied with a tone of mild sympathy.

"And I am making it clear that I want to see Madrigan. Now," came the enraged command.

The order was denied with a pacifying shake of the head. "Sorry, sir. If you'd like I could let Lord Madrigan know you're looking for him the next time he checks in?"

Robespierre obviously took this suggestion to be little more than an insult to injury and his temper soared. Seizing the mage by his cloak, he lifted him into the air and slammed him against the marble pedestal. The orb appeared unaffected by the impact and the quartet of caregivers simply shuffled several steps backward, effectively placing themselves well out of harm's way.

"You insignificant little insect," snarled Robespierre. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"

The reply of his hapless victim was delivered in a somewhat strained voice. "Someone in desperate need of a day off?"

Anger continuing to mount, Robespierre shook his captive like a rag doll, the glib response doing little to calm the tide of his vexation.

"I have crushed men – powerful men – beneath my heel," he hissed, "and each of them was worth a thousand of you. I have seen the closing of an era and risen to the calling of my father and his father, down through recorded history to the very foundation of the Watcher's Council. We were not meant to protect quietly from the shadows, we were meant to lead. I was meant to lead."

The mage's head rocked back and forth as he was rewarded with yet another violent shake. He visibly winced as he was slammed once more against the orb's pedestal.

"History was created by great men," continued the infuriated Robespierre, "and I will pen these final chapters in my own hand."

The distressed mage nodded in agreement. "Of course, sir. My apologies, sir."

"Does Madrigan forget who is in control here?" demanded Robespierre.

"No sir," reassured the unfortunate mage. "I'm certain he is only too well aware."

Robespierre's eyes narrowed for a moment and then he slammed his quarry into the pedestal one more time for good measure.

An expression of concern crossed the mage's face as he patted the sphere behind him with a slightly shaky hand. "Please be careful, sir. The orb is more fragile than it looks." Mostly to himself, he added, "The same might be said for me."

Suddenly repulsed, as though he were dirtying his hands with something totally abhorrent, Robespierre abruptly released the mage, who supported himself against the pedestal with a sigh of relief.

Regaining his composure, Robespierre smoothed the lapels of his jacket. "I don't even know why Madrigan insisted we keep that thing here," he muttered.

"It is the binding force behind your army, sir," reminded the mage, attempting to put some distance between himself and the Assemblage leader as smoothly as possible.

"All the more reason I'd think it shouldn't be kept here," sneered Robespierre, his expression ugly.

Tucking his hands into the fluted sleeves of his robe, the mage took another precautionary step backward. "Where on earth could be safer than among your invincible warriors?" he inquired cordially.

The answer he received was little more than a primal grunt. Robespierre clearly did not buy the reasoning, but refused to acknowledge so much as a hint that his precious girls might not be up to snuff.

"Not to worry," comforted the mage. "Lord Madrigan himself created it. You can rest assured it will perform its function flawlessly. Sir."

His foul mood still in overdrive, Robespierre turned toward the exit. "I want to see Madrigan the second you hear from him. The second." His tone was arrogant and he obviously expected to be obeyed without question.

"Absolutely, sir," the mage readily promised as Robespierre left the room. "I'm sure he can't wait to see you again."

Ensconced in the tranquility of the Sanctum, Willow and Tara sat on the floor across from each other. With eyes closed and each clasping the hands of the other, they were obviously in the depths of casting the spell that would open the portal. Hovering anxiously, Dawn was eager to lend what aid she could, but trying her best to remain still and not interrupt the delicate sequence. Also nearby sat Ruth, paying rapt attention to what was transpiring. From his perch on a table, Quinn watched the proceedings with avid interest.

In the courtyard outside Slayer Central, an army of girls stood in readiness. They numbered between 80 or 90, each armed to the teeth and shuffling with restive anticipation. None were inclined to engage in conversation while they waited, but there were many supportive nods exchanged and more than a few nervous smiles of encouragement.

With deeply furrowed brows, Willow and Tara descended further into their field of concentration. Glancing at Dawn, Ruth beckoned to the teenager, who moved slowly and carefully across the room until she reached the old woman's side. She bent down to catch the crackling whispered words, audible to Dawn alone. "Inside each person is something special."

An impatient Xander prowled back and forth behind the battalion assembled in the courtyard. A large canvas bag dangled from one hand and he bounced an impressive battleaxe on his right shoulder. He stopped pacing at Hannah's approach and noted her extensive arsenal with approval. She threw him a grin and then widened her eyes, as though asking 'Ready?' In response, he patted a crystal suspended from a thick silver chain around his neck and smiled confidently. Returning the smile with equal assurance, Hannah gestured with her thumb toward the tranquilizer gun strapped to her back and then treated the carpenter to a conspirative wink.

"Even if they don't realize it, it's there, inside," Ruth instructed softly. "Just waiting behind the door."

Dawn's eyes became veiled as her lids began to drift shut.

"We can't risk too much more," Tara informed quietly but urgently, sounding as though she were drowsy from her trance-like condition.

Willow's tone mirrored that of the blonde. "I know."

Kennedy patrolled the courtyard like a capable general inspecting the troops. Each muscle was tensed and every nerve in her body tingled. Her fists clenched and then unclenched as she seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of the impending battle, her brain churning over the minute details and blatantly more than keen to participate in the upcoming confrontation. Scanning the sea of faces, she spied an edgy Junior standing nearby. The girl was very young, perhaps no more than 14 years of age. She held her sword with some trepidation and the eyes that glanced briefly, almost ashamedly, in Kennedy's direction betrayed the anxiety she was trying so desperately to hide.

Kennedy noted the expression and moved toward the girl. "It's okay, Chrissie, don't be scared," she told her firmly but kindly. "You're not alone. You hear that? Feel it? The humming in your blood? Just listen for it."

As directed, Chrissie scrunched her lids tightly closed and appeared to focus solely on the sense of internal sound. A tiny smile began to invade her face, beginning with the lips and ending in the eyes which, when they opened again shone brightly with newfound awareness. Kennedy grinned broadly and Chrissie grinned back, all trace of misgiving having evaporated.

Kennedy slapped the girl upon the shoulder. "That's the sound of the thousand Slayers who came before you and the hundred more who've got your back. You can do it. You were born to do it."

"You were born to open the door," Ruth whispered to Dawn. Her tone was low and compelling. "To reach out your hand ..."

"It won't be enough," muttered Tara, her voice plainly revealing the strain.

"It has to be," gritted Willow, her breath coming in rapid and constrictive gasps.

Faith stood solitary within her self-imposed isolation. She might have been a statue, features etched dour with determination. She did not move and barely blinked, staring straight ahead as though by the sheer force of willpower alone, she could wrench open the portal.

With eyes clenched tightly shut, Dawn extended a trembling hand.

"... reach for the lock ..." urged Ruth, eagerly leaning forward as if such an action might lend potency to the teenager's efforts.

A grim-faced Giles waited in the courtyard. His outer mask of steadfast patience belied the inner restlessness. He glanced quickly at the person standing next to him as the faint hint of a proud smile played unconsciously and unbidden about his lips.

"...and turn the key," came Ruth's insistent demand.

Dawn's hand was now directly in front of her, fingers quivering. Suddenly, there was a blinding flare of greenish-white energy spikes, and on the lawn just beyond the courtyard, a large gateway materialized. The assembled army, wary and somewhat taken aback at its abrupt appearance, regarded the shimmering opening suspiciously for an instant.

Treating Giles to a brief nod and fleeting smile of reassurance, Buffy left her place at his side and moved to the front of the group. Briskly turning her back on the entranceway, the blonde crossed her arms and then addressed her comrades.

"I was going to come up here and make a big speech," she informed, the corners of her mouth turning slightly upward as though an amusing thought had flittered through her mind. "Something about protecting innocents and keeping the world safe. But that's what each one of you does, every single night. So instead I'll just say this: the Slayers on the other side of this portal might have been you. They're the you that chose to walk a different path. Here's where we set them straight. Who's ready to show them what the winning team looks like?"

Act Three

The instant the last person crossed the threshold, the shimmering gateway closed, leaving no sign that it had ever existed.

Xander glanced quickly over his shoulder. "I can't tell if that was the coolest thing ever or the most disturbing." He considered the statement momentarily before adding, "It might possibly be both."

Each member of the group began to assess the situation, trying to orient themselves. The room in which they had arrived was indeed large, almost the size of an aircraft hangar. The area was comprised of multiple levels, with a metal staircase that led to catwalks circling most of the perimeter. Their port of entry was at the far end of the room, close to a raised stage and a wooden lectern.

Kennedy gestured with her thumb. "I'm guessing this is where the Fuhrer gives his daily affirmations."

The room was well lit, but otherwise painfully drab and rather boring with its unadorned walls, painted pristine white.

Hannah wrinkled her nose. "Can't say I think much of their décor."

"I was thinking something in a nice gray dungeon-y brickwork instead of a trip to Sterile World," commented Xander.

But Buffy was all business. "Guys, shut up a minute."

As silence fell, the sound of approaching footsteps could be heard – several pairs of boot heels tapping briskly along a tiled floor. In unison, the company turned toward one of the many hallways leading like a sunburst from the room. Within seconds, six Super Slayers emerged into the area. From the girls' expressions, it was all too apparent that they had been unaware of the breach in security, but the sudden shock was fleeting and without further hesitation, they surged forward. The attack was not unexpected and the group promptly tensed in preparation to meet the charge.

"At least they're not so super, right?" asked Xander hopefully, keeping a tight grip on both his bag and his battleaxe.

The first line of Juniors who met the initial wave of assault were virtually swept aside, as though they were little more than breadcrumbs being brushed from a tablecloth.

Giles was swift to evaluate the state of affairs. "The spell hasn't taken effect yet! Defensive maneuvers!" he commanded with loud authority.

The reaction was instantaneous. No longer did the Slayers seek to engage in open confrontation, each focusing solely on avoiding obliteration. Each that is except Faith, who blindly attempted to land punch after vicious punch on any opponent who crossed her path. The question she snapped in time to every powerful blow was always the same.

"Where's Judith?"

As chaos seemed to assume control, a reverberated voice called out, "Chalmers, get Robespierre!"

In immediate response to the team leader, one of the Super Slayers broke free from the bedlam and sprinted toward the metal staircase. Buffy was acutely aware of the move but could do nothing to halt the girl's departure, embroiled as she was in fending off her own aggressor. She quickly surveyed the room and then shouted, "Kennedy!"

But the brunette was well aware of the action, already rushing in pursuit. It was a valiant but vain attempt. As another of the Super Slayers intercepted, effectively barring the way, Kennedy tried to duck past. But the other girl was by far the more speedy of the two and she easily seized Kennedy about the waist, hurling the brunette back into the scrimmage like a football. With a grin of satisfaction, the retreating Super Slayer took the stairs two-at-a-time and disappeared down a snaking corridor, just as the sound of more footsteps were heard hurrying toward the room. In less than a heartbeat, enemy reinforcements had arrived upon the scene.

Taking in the rapidly escalating situation, Buffy only just managed to evade a blow that very well may have decapitated her on the spot. She gnawed her lower lip, expression worried. "Any time, Will!" she muttered.

The strategically placed candles within Willow's Sanctum sputtered erratically. The flames flickered upward in spurts, tongues of fire licking toward the ceiling. Neither Willow nor Tara paid them any mind, both far too absorbed in the all-important task at hand.

Slumped against the wall in a far corner of the room was Dawn, seemingly unconscious. Hauling herself from the chair, Ruth crouched painfully by the side of the unmoving teenager, gently patting the pale cheek with a gnarled hand, but otherwise seemingly unconcerned at Dawn's loss of sensibility.

"You did well, dear," she crooned softly, even though it was obvious Dawn was unable to process the words.

Hovering nearby, Quinn carefully smoothed the hair away from Dawn's moist and glistening forehead as an expression of vicarious pride crossed his face. He glanced over his shoulder toward the two witches surrounded by a circle of flames and arched a dubious eyebrow.

"I somehow doubt they'll have as good a time of it."

Pandemonium was the descriptive word of choice for the state of the battlefield. Although outnumbered, the Super Slayers clearly had the edge in terms of power and raw fighting prowess – Spartans to the Council's Persian forces. Still though, the defenders seemed to hesitate, not giving ground but not taking any either, as though without a direct order, they were uncertain of how best to proceed.

It was perhaps this alone that saved the Council from devastating losses at the outset, yet still the casualties began to mount. Every few seconds, another Junior's body would be flung over the heads of her teammates, or a grasped limb would be shattered within a grip that could easily rend the hardest stone into fine powder. Several bodies already littered the ground, sending shockwaves through those in the immediate area and causing still more mistakes and more injuries. The thin but fairly steady trickle of Super Slayers into the room only worsened the odds with every passing moment.

Buffy, Kennedy and Faith had become separated, although if by plan or design it was impossible to say. The former two were now stationed at opposite ends of the arena, doing their best to organize the girls closest to them while simultaneously keeping themselves alive. In overall command were Giles – who was staying as close to Buffy as he could reasonably manage – and Wood, who was helping to direct the battle on Kennedy's side.

Of all the invaders, only Faith seemed without a tingle of anxiety or worry, the rage inside her having swelled to such an extent that there was no room for any other emotion. Indeed, her very aura seemed to give pause to some of the Super Slayers around her, in spite of the obvious differences in power. She waded into the fray with only one purpose in mind, deflecting blows from the defenders and giving them right back without the slightest loss of focus.

"Where is Judith?!"

Faith landed a punch across the jaw of her current opponent, but in her single-mindedness failed to even notice that the girl actually staggered, nor that her glowing eyes and symbol had dimmed somewhat – the first signs that the witches' magick was beginning to assert itself.

Sweeping her eyes across the battlefield, Buffy could see that an equilibrium had finally been achieved, with the Council's forces managing to hold out against the slowly increasing tide of Super Slayers. Buffy realized, however, that attrition was an inevitability, and that there was every possibility the situation would improve no further. A section of the offense to her left had already begun to unravel, though before she could make a move, Kennedy was barking orders to shore it up. The implication was clear, however – now or never.

Buffy whipped around to face her Watcher. "Giles!"

Having reached the same conclusion, he nodded his understanding, freeing Buffy to focus on the conflict at hand while he addressed Xander and Hannah who were anxiously waiting nearby. "We can't afford to keep waiting," he admitted ruefully. "Go now, but for god's sake, be careful."

Xander clapped him on the shoulder with what he hoped was a calming smile. "No problem. Being careful in life-threatening situations is one of my favorite things."

Taking advantage of their position of relative safety, Hannah's eyes had been glued to the combat and she had a plan. "Since the girls all seem to be coming from over there—" She pointed to a pair of large entryways at the far end of the lower level, "—I recommend we start up there." Her finger moved to indicate the staircase leading up.

Grabbing the crystal around his neck, Xander peered at it. "Well, it's not saying 'no' so let's give it a whirl."

Moving quickly and carefully, they headed for the stairs together, Hannah keeping an especially wary eye out. They arrived without incident, scaling the steps without hesitation and disappearing down the adjacent hallway.

Meanwhile, Giles' attention had returned to the legions of Slayers before him, all fighting for their lives.

Through a combination of encouragement, demands and sheer tenacity, Kennedy had strengthened the weak contingent of girls who, moments before, were in danger of being overrun. Opposite them, Buffy was attempting to do the same for another beleaguered section of the defense but, being closest to the Super Slayer entryway, they had a disproportionate number of opponents, and were not faring so well. Additionally, the defenders appeared to be overcoming whatever ennui had gripped them, and were beginning to escalate their efforts. Only occasionally would a Super Slayer stagger, the glow fading from her eyes to leave her confused and, relatively speaking, powerless. The Watcher's expression said it all – it wasn't enough. They were going to lose.

Oblivious to the overall tide of battle, or indeed anything else around her, Faith continued to plow through Super Slayers in her one-woman quest, weaving and bobbing, grabbing and throwing without end. Even now, she was in the process of unloading her anger, one fist bunched with a girl's shirt while another slammed relentlessly into her face. Any possible injury was slight and superficial, however the unbridled ferocity of the attack was enough to keep the other Slayer disoriented and inert.

"Judith!" Faith bellowed at the girl. "Where is she?!"

Lacking the patience to wait for an answer, Faith threw the Slayer to the side as though she were less than nothing and began to reach for the next when a finger casually extended and tapped her on the shoulder. Whirling, Faith responded with a backhanded fist, obviously caring little for who was attempting to garner her attention, but her arm was easily and solidly caught by the wrist.

Judith spared a moment to smile, the expression almost a perversion given the vicious gleam in her eyes. "Ask and ye shall receive," she greeted.

Before Faith could blink, let alone act, Judith's hand lashed out. The flat of her palm landed square in Faith's chest, hurtling her across the room. While the blow might have killed or at least winded most, Faith somehow managed to roll with the momentum and come out of the tumble on her feet. Her body was taut and her face a twisted mask of animalistic rage.

Now with her target in sight, it was as if the Faith of before had been the very embodiment of cool, detached restraint. She launched herself toward Judith at full speed, moving with such power that it seemed anything short of a steel-reinforced slab of concrete would be torn through like tissue paper. But none of that mattered to Judith. With a lack of effort that seemed nearly impossible, Judith simply hoisted Faith into the air as soon as she was within range, and then slung the dark Slayer around in a 180-degree arc. All of the air was violenly expelled from Faith's lungs as she landed with enough force that it seemed to generate its own aftershocks.

Judith peered down at her opponent, her eyes twinkling with glee. "Gulping down little Hazel like a Cherry Slurpee ... That was just business. But this? This is pleasure."

Without further warning, Judith dropped like a stone, her fist a jackhammer prepared to split Faith's head wide open. But Faith had been expecting the attack and was already on the move. The rage that was blazing in the Slayer was still evident, but was now overshadowed by something greater – something crazed. Taking advantage of Judith's momentary shock at missing her attack, she launched her fist at Judith's throat, further stunning the Super Slayer when it connected. As she stumbled back slightly, Faith leapt forward, grabbing Judith's head and plunging her thumbs into the other woman's eye sockets.

A guttural cry tore its way from Faith's throat, even as Judith yelled in a combination of surprise and pain. Instinctively, Judith shoved her attacker away with both hands and then immediately used them to check her eyes. Whereas a normal person, perhaps even a normal Slayer would have little more than gaping, bloody sockets, Judith suffered only reddening from irritation, and already that was beginning to disappear.

She glared at Faith. "That actually hurt. I don't know how, but it did. Now, I'm pissed."

Then Judith was there and she lashed out, her fist catching the side of Faith's head even as the Slayer tried to dodge. Faith staggered, and another blow landed in her stomach. She managed to deflect a third strike, but Judith's other arm was already en route with a fourth, and Faith staggered and fell under the barrage.

"Feeling better already," Judith remarked with a small sigh of contentment.

Pain now making a strong contention for dominance on Faith's face, she valiantly tried to regain her footing. Her limbs remained frustratingly uncooperative, however, and as she stumbled to her knees once more, she could only glare up at Judith – Judith, who peered down at Faith with victory etched into every feature.

Luxuriating in the moment, savoring its every detail, Judith closed in on Faith. But then her expression faltered into one of puzzlement and she stopped short. The blue glow that emanated from her eyes spluttered and flickered like dying candle, and she regarded her hands quizzically before glancing back to Faith with utter confusion.

Within the Sanctum, trailing wisps of candle smoke circled the room like tiny restless specters. Stress had begun to take its inevitable toll on both Willow and Tara, their expressions now growing fatigued with perpetual strain. Nonetheless, neither was prepared to relinquish so much as an ounce of concentration.

With a puff of triumph, Willow whispered, "There."

Tara had no breath to answer with anything but a hushed, "Yes."

Instantly, a magnificent glow suffused their joined hands. The brilliance journeyed up and down the two tense bodies, gaining momentum until, with a glorious rush of speed, it made good its departure and vanished like the final twinkle of an obliterated star.

All across the battlefield, the Super Slayers lurched, whatever magickal glow they possessed being snuffed out, one by one. The impact on the combat was almost instantaneous, but Giles resolved to take no chances. "Buffy!" he yelled. "The spell!"

"I see it!" she shouted back over her shoulder before returning her focus to the Slayers surrounding her. "Press the attack! Now!" she ordered, her voice carrying loud and clear as she gave heed to her own advice and charged into the nearest fighting group.

The Super Slayers, having been progressively gaining ground had now come to a standstill, wavering under the far superior numbers of the Council. They held their line for only a few moments before beginning to fall back under the renewed assault. From her vantage point, Kennedy cupped hands around her mouth like a megaphone. "Attack formation! Pairs, like we practiced!"

Having issued her command, she resumed fighting, moving around to the back of an enemy Slayer who had a Junior pinned in a grip she was struggling vainly to break. Kennedy grabbed the other girl, one hand seizing a shoulder while the other grasped the nearby arm. With the faintest grunt of effort, Kennedy jerked her hands apart and was rewarded with a satisfying snap. The Super Slayer howled in pain and immediately relinquished her hold on the Junior Slayer. The Junior flashed Kennedy a brief but sincere smile of gratitude that Kennedy quickly returned before rushing off to the aid of another Junior nearby.

Across the room, the effect was much the same. With the advantage of numbers, most invading Slayers were able to team up with a partner and strike enemies two-on-one. The home team was suffering even more under the renewed assault, steadily losing ground and sustaining grievous injuries at nearly every turn.

The overall events mattered nothing to either Faith or Judith. Taking full advantage of Judith's momentary confusion, Faith had struggled to her feet and tackled the traitor, raining down a torrent of punches and kicks that left Judith completely disoriented. As the Super Slayer fell, Faith was there, grabbing great fistfuls of the other woman's hair and propelling Judith's head into the ground, then lifting it up and repeating the action, causing tiny spider-web cracks to appear in the concrete.

As Faith released her hold on Judith, the younger Slayer tried to rise, but the effort was weak at best and Faith drove her foot into the girl's elbow, knocking away the support and causing Judith to collapse once more. Unceremoniously, Faith moved to straddle Judith's stomach, drawing back her arm with a fist clenched so tightly that blood began to seep out between her fingernails.

Judith searched desperately for some shred of mercy in Faith, some sign that her life would be spared.

She found none.

Moving with extreme caution, Xander and Hannah navigated the many hallways. Hannah assumed the lead, a sharply honed sword balanced in her expert hand, poised and ready to be used at the first indication of danger. Lagging behind a little, Xander held out the crystal as far as it would stretch on its silver chain. The clasp dug into the back of his neck, but he ignored the sharp jab as best he could and peered intently into the quartz pendant, searching for the all-important glow. It was now displaying a slight glimmer at its core – not strong enough to be the cause for celebration, but nonetheless noticeable and definitely encouraging.

As the pair reached yet another intersection, Xander stepped forward and held the crystal aloft, first toward the corridor on his left and then toward the one on his right. He quickly checked with Hannah to verify that the gleam intensified when pointing right and with silent nods of agreement, they moved in that direction, talking to each other in low voices.

"Handy," remarked Hannah as Xander stepped aside, allowing the blonde to resume her former position.

"Yeah," agreed the carpenter. "If it had a greater purpose than 'locate evil mojo machine', I'd consider buying 'em in bulk for Christmas." He pulled his head back, craning to get a better view of the pendant. "I wish Mrs. Keeper Lady had put it on a different chain, though. I feel like I just walked off the set of QVC."

"Next time we'll ask for customization," Hannah told him dryly.

"No offense, but I'm hoping there won't be a next time for— Whoa."

His exclamation brought Hannah to an abrupt stop and she whirled swiftly to find Xander blinking at the crystal, which was now emitting a seriously steady and vivid glow.

"I'm gonna hazard a guess and say we're close," he whispered.

"I'll back you up on that one," agreed Hannah. Turning around, she peered into the distance and spied what appeared to be an arched entrance some yards away. She waved a staying hand behind her. "Wait here, let me check it out."

"Nuh-uh," refuted the carpenter firmly. "Have axe, will battle."

For a heartbeat, it seemed as though Hannah was putting her foot down and gearing up to insist that Xander stay behind. But she took one look at his determined posture, at the steely glint in his eye, and she instead grinned and nodded her head in mute acknowledgement. Together, they crept silently toward the opening, each moving to either side of the arch for concealment before peeking into the room beyond. Their surveillance was immediately drawn to the pulsating sphere that dominated center stage, and to the four hooded mages presumably tending to the orb.

Xander and Hannah exchanged glances. The blonde pointed to Xander and then gestured to the two mages standing on the left of the orb. She then indicated herself, and motioned to the pair positioned on the right. Xander sharply bobbed his head in understanding and removed the necklace, stuffing it quickly into his duffel bag to stifle the brilliant glow. Bending down slowly, he pushed the bag against the wall and then focused once more on Hannah. She held up three fingers and began the countdown ... 3 – 2 – 1. As her last finger lowered, they both rushed the room, weapons at the ready.

The attending quartet was taken completely off-guard at the sudden invasion. Xander reached his intended target first. Forcefully swinging the axe like a baseball bat, he caught his quarry squarely on the jaw with the flat of his blade. The mage sailed gracefully through the air for a moment, before smashing into the wall, whereupon he slid down the brickwork and landed in an untidy heap on the floor.

Hannah had no such sympathetic compunction. Seizing her target by the shoulder, she held him steady and then ran him through. Withdrawing her sword, she hurled the nearly lifeless figure into her second victim, who was running toward her. As they tumbled to the ground, she swiftly impaled both bodies without a moment's hesitation.

Sticking with the tried and true methods, Xander zeroed in on his last opponent. As the final mage raised his hands in preparation to cast a spell, Xander drew back his fist and simply punched him out. The mage dropped like a stone.

Looking rather pleased with himself, Xander blew on his knuckles and then turned to Hannah. He blinked to see her kneeling by the two fallen bodies, using the cloak of one to wipe the blood from her blade.

"Was that really necessary?" he asked, his voice tight.

"Yes," clipped Hannah harshly.

"But they—" Xander started to protest, before clamping his mouth shut beneath her unforgiving eyes. "Okay then," he finished quietly.

Hoisting his weapon onto one shoulder, he moved toward the archway to retrieve his bag. Sitting on her haunches, Hannah watched him go and her expression became almost sorrowful.

"I don't take any pleasure in it," she told him quietly.

Xander turned to face her and his rigid expression also softened. He nodded in acceptance of the sincere statement. "No, I get that. It's okay," he assured. "It's actually more okay than I'm entirely comfortable with, but there's a time and place for that, and as it so happens, this is neither." He disappeared into the hall and soon returned with the duffel.

Skirting the dead mages, he dropped to his knees beside Hannah and began to sift through the contents of the bag. The blonde still seemed a little perturbed, but she shook off the threatening mood and got to her feet, striding closer to the sphere. Her eyes narrowed as they lit upon a series of strange and indecipherable carvings near the base.

"Interesting," she murmured.

Xander glanced in her direction. "What's that?"

"These markings," she informed him, brushing her finger across the alien symbols. "It looks like a language of some sort, but none that I'm familiar with. I don't recognize these characters at all."

Xander's curiosity was immediately peaked and he made his way to the plinth. "Oo, is it Klingon?" he wondered aloud, then his eye widened in panic. "Not that I'd know what Klingon looks like!" he hastened to assure. "Where is it?"

The blonde gestured toward the markings and Xander moved in for a closer look. He considered the string of characters carefully, then frowned at Hannah.

"Looks readable to me," he stated with confusion. "Not that it makes any more sense, mind you. 'The Baani'." He shrugged as Hannah's brow furrowed and she stared with even more intensity at the indecipherable hieroglyphics before her eyes. Slowly shaking her head, her attention returned to Xander.

The carpenter repeated the inscription thoughtfully to himself a couple of times, employing a different emphasis with each recitation as he fingers drifted toward the sphere. "What do you suppose that—"

The moment his flesh made contact with the orb, a bolt of concentrated power slammed directly into Xander's chest. The force was so massive that he was lifted off of his feet and flung backward until he impacted against the wall with a sickening thud. Bonelessly, he dropped to the floor and lay there, unmoving.

Hannah's eyes widened with alarm as she hurried to his side. "Xander!"

Within the Sanctum, both Willow and Tara recoiled as though a bolt of lightning had just struck them. Their bodies stiffened and their fingers twitched uncontrollably, threatening to break contact. Somehow, they managed to hold on, but their eyes snapped open. The unyielding strain was now taking a marked effect and they regarded each other with serious concern.

"It's ... It's too much ..." Tara panted desperately. "We're slipping ..."

Willow's tone was more firm, but no less breathless. "We can't. We can't."

Beads of sweat coursed unchecked down their ashen faces from the exertion. They snatched for oxygen in short, despairing gasps. It had turned into a battle of wills – one that the two witches were obviously losing.

Once more, the tide of the battle was beginning to shift. The defending Slayers, depowered and outnumbered, were regrouping as their stolen essences once more began to return. Girls who, mere moments ago were floundering under the concentrated, coordinated attacks of two, three or even four of the Council Slayers, found themselves rejuvenated, and only too eager to dish out the punishment they had been taking.

Kennedy weaved to one side, narrowly avoiding the punch that was designed to crush her skull, but was unable to adjust in time to dodge the second Super Slayer who had joined in the fight. A well-aimed kick sent Kennedy's knee buckling beneath her, and she collapsed, buried under a barrage of unerringly accurate strikes.

Every ounce of Giles' attention was focused on orchestrating his Slayers, attempting to stave off the inevitable. "Defensive positions!" he yelled. "Hold the line!"

He was so intent on the battle before him that he failed to notice the Super Slayer approaching from behind, her arms extended as though she planned to rip the Watcher apart with her bare hands. Something she may very well have managed to accomplish, had it not been for Buffy. The Super Slayer was almost upon Giles when the blonde tackled her, sending them both to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. As good as Buffy might be, however, the Super Slayer was better. After the briefest of scuffles, she came out on top, and wasted no time in unleashing her fury. Buffy's head rocked from side-to-side as she was assaulted with blow after blow.

The situation was rapidly deteriorating. Even Super Slayers previously knocked unconscious or crippled were recovering, healing with a speed that only accelerated the invaders' downfall.

In the middle of it all, Faith and Judith also felt the change in the balance of power. Where Judith was caught in a steady stream of punishment before, her eyes and symbol began to glow again and her skin hardened to the density of tempered steel. An arm shot up to block Faith's incoming fist, and with one leg, she kicked Faith off and away.

Although Judith was obviously filled again with power, Faith either didn't notice the change or didn't care. In spite of the odds against her, she came back after Judith, who had easily surged to her feet. The struggle between them began anew, with each Slayer both taking and receiving punishment. Amazingly, Faith continued to stand, but she could make no headway. What was more, Judith had clearly reached the limits of her patience.

Throwing a flat palm into the air, she grabbed Faith's fist in mid-strike and held it immobile in a crushing grip. The dark Slayer gritted her teeth in pain as Judith jerked Faith forward and latched her remaining hand around her victim's neck, squeezing.

"Now. Where were we?"

"Tara," murmured Willow urgently.

Both witches were now flagging badly. It was all too clear that neither could withstand this type of pressure for very much longer and they were both acutely aware of the fact.

At the sound of her name, Tara's eyes sought out Willow through a veil of misery. The blonde's pale face was drawn and her shoulders slumped in utter exhaustion. The redhead appeared no less spent and depleted, but her expression also reflected something else – a look of determination.

"Tara, do you trust me?"

Tara blinked in confusion. "What?"

"We need more," stated Willow with authority.

"More power ..." whispered Tara as realization began to penetrate.

"Yes," confirmed Willow. "And I can get it." She affixed Tara with a piercing gaze, searching frantically for the affirmation she needed so badly.

"Do you trust me?"

Act Four

"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.

He ran.

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 Antediluvian!"

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.

"Mr. Giles?"

"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.

"You coming?"

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