With Felicia Day as Vi, Elijah Wood as Jeff, Stephanie March as Bonnie, Asia Argento as Marie, Alicia Silverstone as Heli, Rhona Mitra as Alex, Lindsay Felton as Skye, Thora Birch as Tracey, Michele Merkin as Saida, Victoria Pratt as Francesca, R. Lee Ermey as Sgt Zim, Jessica Biel as Lexa, Milla Jovovich as Sasha, Parminder Nagra as Sabina, Chiaki Kuriyama as Nozomi, Danielle Tricca as Haley, Ginny Holder as Liona, Aria Giovanni as Aria, Brad Dourif as Brell, Tyler Mane as Creed, Lawrence Makaore as Imbethit, Heather Graham as Kail, Jacqui Ainsley as Brighid, Jennifer Fisher as Angella, Duncan Young as the Flayer and Francesca Buller as the Lover
Guest Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, Robin Sachs as Ethan Rayne, Michelle Rodriguez as Kadin, Jennifer Connelly as Althenea, Bai Ling as Jhiera, Alexa Davalos as Gwen Raiden, Yancy Butler as Sara, Emannuelle Seigner as Irene, Peter Horton as Stone, Idris Elba as Vaughan Rice, Susannah Harker as Dr March, Bruce Spence as Tephros and Persis Khambatta as the Fallen
Watchers HQ Gymnasium – 11 hours to H-Hour
Faith stood in the doorway for a moment, gazing over the rows of slayers performing combat drills, the pairs duelling on the mats with gloves or practice swords, and the irregular grouping off to one side, secluded from the others, where Kennedy, Vi and some of the other experienced slayers were walking among sparring men and women, studying them. Faith looked faraway for a moment, gave a deep sigh, then strode quickly over to Kennedy.
"Leader on deck!" Kennedy called as she saw Faith, bringing the various bouts to a halt. Faith nodded at her then walked slowly in front of the group, glancing idly here and there as they watched her, some standing at attention, some simply standing, some leaning casually against exercise machines. She waited until everyone’s attention was fixed on her, then inclined her head slightly, bringing Kennedy to her side.
"No more new arrivals for a while," she said quietly. "Which are the good ones?"
Kennedy handed her four folders, and stood beside her, facing away from the group watching them.
"These are all good enough for patrol," she said. "The ones who couldn’t hack it are gone. The ones who came in these last few days are pretty good, I think we’ve exhausted the supply of wannabes. Those four are better than human, one way or another."
"Thanks," Faith nodded, flipping through the folders, noting the photo attached to each one. She closed them and raised her eyes to scan the group.
"Well, thanks for showing up," she began in a loud voice, pacing slowly back and forth. "Not everyone’s willing to stick their neck on the line. That’s your first test passed. I’m the other one. Each of you is going to pair off with a slayer. Short of doing anything that’d make you incapable of fighting after a few hours in the infirmary, they’re going to do everything in their power to take you down. And I’m gonna watch. Those of you who hold your own and I like the look of, you’ll get a shot at joining the ranks." She stopped and faced the group.
"Let me make one thing clear," she warned. "I don’t care if you’ve got a great destiny, or some magic weapon passed down for generations, or if you’re part-demon, or if your family’s been hunting critters since the stone age. You all think you’re good enough to stand side by side with my girls in a fight…that’s not going to happen until I see that you’re that good."
She took a last look at the folders, then tossed them onto a bench behind her.
"Stone, you’re with Marie. Adler, Vi. Raiden, Mia. Pezzini, Kennedy. The rest of you wait your turn. Five minutes to warm up, then you’d better come out swinging. That’s all."
She gave a grim little smile as the crowd dispersed, then turned at hearing a slow clapping from behind her.
"Well well," Faith began as she grinned. "Just in time for the apocalypse as usual."
"It’s a talent." Buffy Summers shrugged. "Giles asked if you could send Heli up with a final report, or something – have you guys been turning slaying into paperwork while my back’s turned?"
"Yeah but at least we get paid now. Lookin’ good, B," Faith said, hugging her friend with her good arm. "Is that a tan I see? You been lyin’ on a beach somewhere? Damn, how do I get your job?"
"You seem to be enjoying yours plenty," Buffy replied. She glanced down at Faith’s left arm, still in a sling. "That looks ouch."
"Not as bad as high explosives in the face, and that’s what the other guy got," Faith shrugged. "I thought you were getting in yesterday, what gives? Does Dawn know you’re here?"
"Bumped into her in the library. Flight got delayed out of Tokyo," Buffy explained. "Believe me, sitting in an airport lounge when I should be getting ready to kick some ass, not as much fun as it sounds. How’s it going?"
"Could be better, could be worse," Faith admitted. "A lot of the people we called weren’t exactly thrilled with what we asked. Hey guys, we’re off to hell to fight a huge army of killer demons! Come join us!"
"You gotta think like a salesman," Buffy nodded sagely. "Use the right words. Come to sunny hell, to join an adventure-of-a-lifetime battle against friendly, welcoming demon hordes…see?"
"Ah, we should’ve let you make the calls," Faith agreed. "Good news is the ones that did come in are the best, so what we’re lacking in numbers we’re making up in quality. It’s a bit of a bitch to get all the newcomers trained so they can work with slayers, and figure out exactly how much they can dish out, but we’re getting there. There’re some real good fighters out there, even if they aren’t slayers. Speaking of, though, hang on-" Faith whistled loudly, getting the attention of the nearby groups of slayers.
"Branch leaders, come here a minute!" she called. Six slayers left the training area, as the others resumed their drills.
"Ladies," Faith said proudly, "this is the Chosen One herself, Buffy Summers. We’ve got the best from each Council branch, and these are their leaders," she explained to Buffy. "Sasha from Moscow, Lexa from London, Haley from Sydney, Dharmini from New Delhi, Nozomi from Tokyo, Liona from Johannesburg."
"Hi girls," Buffy said, as the slayers nodded and greeted her. "Lexa, hey? Been here long?"
"Hey Buf’," the English slayer replied. "No, only got in this morning. We’ve patrolled together a few times," she added to Faith.
"Just when I’ve been passing through," Buffy said. "I get fidgety if I don’t get some slaying every now and then."
"She’s a handful, isn’t she?" Faith winked at Lexa.
"And a half," Lexa grinned and rolled her eyes.
"Oh thank you very much," Buffy grumbled, failing to hide a smile.
Giles’s office – 10:40 to H-Hour
"I’m sorry to have kept you waiting," Giles said, sighing as he closed the door behind him. "Today has…it’s been a long day."
"Well, that’s a hell of a thing to be saying before midday," Althenea observed, sitting opposite Giles’s desk.
"You’ve looked better," Ethan added from the couch at the side of the office.
"I imagine so," Giles frowned at Ethan. "And so have you," Giles nodded at Ethan’s left hand. The Sorcerer looked self-consciously at it and slowly stuck it into his pants pocket. He didn’t meet Giles’s gaze.
The Watcher stared at Ethan silently for moment, then turned back to Althenea. "We had an incident last night," he explained to her. "One of the pre-dawn patrols ran into an unusual subspecies vampire, and we had to all get out of bed and devise a means of getting rid of it. Nothing serious, thank god…"
"…but not the kind of thing you need the night before you deal with several dozen isolationist and argumentative demons and mages," Al nodded. "You can’t push the portal time back?"
"I’m reluctant to try," Giles admitted. "It took the better part of a week to get Creed and his cohorts to agree to allow us into their base of operations, even with everything we’ve promised them. Millennia of ill will between demons and humans doesn’t just vanish overnight, even if the demons are capable of reason…It’s not as if humans would behave much differently, come to that. We just have to hope that we can make a good impression once we’re among them."
"Well," Althenea murmured, "you’re really going…every time I think I’ve got the hang of the concept, I find myself being surprised all over again."
"We’re really going," Giles agreed, ignoring Ethan’s bitter chuckle. "Believe me, I’d rather not, but we simply have no choice. We’ve got less than a thousand slayers worldwide, only six covens capable of engaging in any kind of battle, conventional militaries just aren’t up to the task of dealing with demons and magic if it’s used against them…"
"Gotcha," Al nodded. "If we fight here, it’ll be a rout."
"It’ll be a massacre," Ethan put in. "So much for the great Watchers Council."
"Thank you," Giles growled. "There simply hasn’t been the time. Before this year, few people even considered the possibility of a force like this emerging from hell – demons cooperating have always been the exception rather than the rule. But the Presidium seems to command an enormous empire among the hell dimensions, and be able to direct its might wherever they wish. Against that kind of enemy…well, Faith is unquestionably right, we can’t wait for them to attack. Even a small percentage of their total forces would be too much for us to handle… hence the notion of a guerrilla campaign." He shrugged, and looked forlorn. "It’s all we’ve got. A handful of watchers and slayers, all the allies we can pull together, Creed’s troops…somehow we’ll have to make it enough. And, at the same time, leave enough people here and at the other branches to keep the world safe while we’re away."
"I’ve got some good news on that front," Al said. "The overtures we’ve made to elements within the EU have found some acceptance, so they’ll be extending as much help as we can reasonably expect. Robson has been meeting with Brigadier Bambera, and joint training exercised between her troops and our slayers have been promising. And the British government has loaned us two of their specialists, Vaughan Rice and Angela March, who’ll arrive tomorrow – Dr. March has been an expert in the field for more than fifteen years now, she could augment your watchers here considerably."
"That sounds promising," Giles agreed. "I wish I could say the same… our government’s failure in their Initiative project a few years ago seems to have scared off most of their top people who are aware of the demon problem. The only official aid we’re getting is from Riley Finn, a former acquaintance – he commands a strike force now, and he’s detached some troops for our use."
"See? It’s not all bad." Althenea grinned. "Should I see Robin about getting Rice and Dr. March put to work?"
"Yes, he’ll be done with the paperwork for our weapons requisitions by now," Giles nodded. "At least I hope he is…"
"I’ll see you later," Al said, getting up and leaving.
"You’re bloody mad," Ethan said, after she had left the room.
"Yes, well, you’ve often said so," Giles agreed largely ignoring him.
"This isn’t like sending a few slayers to some farm in the middle of nowhere to look into crop circles or something," Ethan persisted. "This is hell, Rupert. Believe me, I know the kind of places you’re likely to wind up in, and you don’t want to be there. Not even in these kinds of circumstances, no matter what Althenea the Teenage-Acting Witch might think."
"What would you suggest?" Giles asked, turning on him. "We can’t defeat the Presidium in battle, we can’t retreat-"
"Have you ever considered," Ethan interrupted, "that one way or another, the Presidium is going to take Earth? We both know what's coming. I’ve been doing my homework on them, believe me. And frankly, I’d rather take my chances under their rule than dash my brains out in some futile attempt to heroically defeat them."
"Take your chances?" Giles asked incredulously. "They mean to wipe us out, Ethan – they tried to kill you, if you’ll recall?"
"Welcome to my life," Ethan said dismissively. "I don’t have to go as far as hell to find someone who’d want me dead. I’m not sure I have to go outside this room," he added darkly.
"I bear you no ill-will," Giles protested stiffly.
"No, you just want to enlist me in a crusade to go get our throats cut in the wrong plane of reality."
"The door’s there, if you’d rather remain on your own," Giles offered, crossing his arms. "Perhaps if you make it clear to the Presidium that you’re not connected to the Council, they may offer you favorable terms. Some kind of gilded cage."
Ethan glared at Giles, then threw up his hands in defeat.
"Fine!" he exclaimed. "I’m not leaving – you’ll get yourself killed without me, you and your bloody heroism. You need someone to think the way I think."
"I’m not sure of that at all," Giles muttered. Both men glared at each other, until a knock on the door interrupted them.
"Is this a bad time?" Heli asked, peering around the door.
"No, just leaving," Ethan said dryly. Heli watched him suspiciously as he left.
"Mr. Giles, are you sure it’s a good idea having him with us?" she asked Giles once the door had closed.
"A good idea, no," Giles admitted, slumping into his chair. "But whatever his failings, I’m quite sure he’d never side with the Presidium – being ruled, by anyone, is against his nature. Whether he’s any help or not, I don’t believe it will hurt our chances to have him along. My patience is another matter…"
"I have that report you wanted," Heli avoided the subject tactfully, offering a folder. "Faith’s notes on the new recruits as well – she says short of Lara Croft and Supergirl showing up, the evaluations are complete. And she told me to tell you there’re five she wants with the slayer team when you go. The others can supplement our patrols here or in the other cities."
"Only five?" Giles asked, opening the folder and looking through Faith’s hand-written notes.
"She said she’d rather have a small force she knows she can rely on to, uh, ‘kick ass’," Heli explained. "Sara, Gwen, Irene, Patience and Jhiera she considers, quote, ‘good enough’, which is her way of saying exceptional."
"She hasn’t included most of General Finn’s detachment," Giles noted. "Or that Ezekiel fellow, I thought their skills were sufficient?"
"Finn’s troops are good patrollers, but they may not respond well to a change of scenery as extreme as what we’re planning," Heli replied. "And we can’t afford to take chances. Faith spoke to Lieutenant Matheson though, the medic, he’s agreed to accompany the team individually. Detective Stone is a bloodhound, we’ll need his kind here to hold the fort – we’ll be far more in need of watchers than slayers while you’re gone. Faith agrees with me."
"Very well," Giles nodded. "You’re still comfortable with your assignment?"
"I’ll do my best," Heli said seriously. "Mr. Giles…have you told Buffy yet?"
"I haven’t had the chance," he admitted. "I thought it only fair to tell her in person, and we only met briefly earlier…but I will."
Coven Room – 10:25 to H-Hour
"Okay, tune into the ambient magic and give it your best," Willow said. She was sitting at a desk, opposite Jeff. Between them was a logic game, a closed wooden frame with flip-flopping gates, blue and red-painted discs that swivelled around in their sockets. Unusually they were flipping on their own, via small motors, rather than waiting for the ball bearing Willow was holding above one of the holes in the top of the toy.
"Red, blue, red, red, blue," Jeff said, keeping his eyes closed. Willow dropped the steel ball and watched it clatter through the puzzle, halting each revolving gate as it bumped its way past, leaving a trail of still discs – red, blue, red, red and blue.
"Five out of five," Willow smiled. "How are you feeling, any effects?"
"A bit dizzy," Jeff admitted. "I feel kind of like I’m not sure if I’m about to do something or if I’ve already done it sometimes. Actually," he said with a faint grin, "I almost ate breakfast twice this morning, I wasn’t concentrating and thought the first time was just a foresight. Andrew noticed before I could overdose on Fruit Loops though. But it’s getting better."
"You’re sure?" Willow asked.
"Yeah," Jeff replied confidently. "I made a bit more of an effort to control it, now the prescience seems a bit more regular, and I can feel the difference."
"Well, that’s good," Willow said. "Just remember, don’t push yourself too hard."
"I thought the idea was to push as hard as possible, as fast as possible?" Jeff asked. "We are going into a bit of a crisis. Unless there was a memo I missed saying the world’s safe again."
"The idea is to be as good as possible, as fast as possible," Willow clarified. "Like the slayers, they’re training like nobody’s business but they’re still taking time off, otherwise they’d be useless when we got to crunch time. I know we’re trying to work fast here Jeff, but remember ‘as good as possible’ doesn’t mean burned out and incapable of any foresight at all, or unable to distinguish between future and reality – or worse. That’s why we’re being careful, neither of those would do the Council any good at all. And I’d hate to see you hurt," she added kindly.
"Okay, I see your point," Jeff nodded thoughtfully.
"Good," Willow said.
"Actually I foresaw it around about ‘slayers training like nobody’s business’," he added with a mischievous grin. "But it gets weird when I answer people before they’ve said what they’re saying."
"Okay," Willow chuckled, "bear in mind we’re not actually aiming for ‘omnipotent smart-ass’ here, ‘k?"
"Yeah I know, I’m not omnipotent," Jeff laughed. "You’re about to have company. I’ll take a break." Willow looked up as Althenea appeared in the doorway and knocked on the open door.
"Hello Miss Dimmons," Jeff said, standing.
"No problem," Jeff replied, already gathering up his books. Althenea watched him with a bemused grin as he vacated the room.
"-would you give us a minute," she went on after the door had closed, looking at Willow curiously.
"He’s got a gift for it," she explained with a shrug. Althenea nodded and sat next to her.
"I can feel the difference," she said. "Last time I met him his energy was strong, but all over the place. Now he’s got it under much tighter control, he’s consciously directing it. It’s very promising…you’re keeping an eye on him?"
"Of course," Willow said quickly. "I know all about the pitfalls of prescience, after all the checking I did about Xander’s eye, just in case it manifested more powerfully than it was doing at first."
"So how is he?" Althenea asked.
"He’s headstrong," Willow admitted. "Impulsive, determined, acts more on instinct than considered rationale…"
"In other words, he’s a teen," Al said with a slight grin.
Willow grinned too and continued. "He means well, but sometimes doesn’t see the downside to whatever he’s doing until too late. But for a chromosome, there go I," she grinned wryly. "I do my best, but I can’t help worrying about him."
"But he’s got you to look after him," Althenea said. "You know the dangers, better than anyone else in the Council. You can help him realize his potential without losing his way."
"I learned from the best," Willow nodded, with a slight smile for Al.
"You learned from experience," she replied. "I only helped a little." Willow gave a non-committal shrug.
"How are you feeling, Willow?" Althenea probed gently.
"Worried," Willow admitted. "About everything, which I guess is natural enough when you’re getting ready to go start a guerrilla campaign in a hell dimension against a massively powerful empire, so I’m not worried by being worried, if you know what I mean…I’m not sure I know what I mean…"
"I’m glad to see you haven’t changed." Althenea laughed quietly.
"That’s what worries me though," Willow said with a frown. "I have…I’m nowhere near where I used to be magically, and I’m honestly not sure I can do much. I mean what do I have to offer? If I’d been like this last year, we’d never have won then."
"You don’t know that," Althenea said. "In my admittedly limited experience of you…you find a way, always. I’d trust my life to that, even now."
Willow sighed. "Thanks," she replied, "I appreciate that, I do…it’s just something I’ve been feeling for a while, I guess."
"Since your powers were interrupted?"
"Yeah…I’m worried I’m not really complete anymore. I’m me, but I’m not the whole me, the Willow who worked so hard to be in harmony with the world, and make it a part of me…now I’m what I was before. Just plain Willow Rosenberg. When I say ‘I’ll do my best,’ I wonder how much use that’s going to be in any case."
"Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing," Althenea said gently. "Who you are has never changed, and everything you’ve done – magic or otherwise – comes from that. ‘Just plain Willow Rosenberg’ was always the one who saved people."
Xander’s Workshop – 10:00 to H-Hour
Xander spun around at the voice.
"Alex? Um, hi – I didn’t realize you were here."
"I saw you in the lobby, but you looked busy," the lawyer shrugged.
"Yeah, true." Xander grinned. "What’re you doing here? Not that you’re persona non grata or anything, just…"
"Mr. Giles has friends in high places," Alex said. "My firm has a contribution to make to your effort, and seeing as I’m your contact, they decided I’d be the go-between." She gave an alluring smile. "I’ll admit I didn’t mind an excuse to come down here. You’re going tonight?"
"Yeah," Xander nodded.
"If you can spare a few minutes from preparations, I’d…" Alex paused, and looked sheepish. "Well, I’m here. If you’d like." She swallowed, and fixed Xander with a stare. "I really wanted to see you…"
She reached out for Xander, smiling as he put his hand over hers. But her smile was replaced by a confused frown when he gently removed her hand from his shoulders, and held it.
"Alex," he said, "there’s something you should know…"
"Ah," she said. "This something…isn’t a good something."
"For us, no," Xander admitted. "No, it’s…look, I really like you, I do. I’ve had great times with you and in other circumstances I, well frankly I’d think I was insane for being about to do what I’m about to do. But we…I can’t go out with you any more."
"Can’t?" Alex asked in a quiet voice.
"Well I don’t want to say ‘won’t’," Xander said, "that’s about as not true as you can get, cause there’s nothing about you that doesn’t make me want to be around you – heck, even when we argue it’s better than being apart. But the truth is, there’s you, and there’s another girl, and you’re both…in here," Xander put a hand on his chest. "And that’s not fair to you, either of you. So I gotta choose."
"And you choose her," Alex said sadly.
"I choose her. I’m sorry," Xander said sincerely. "I never meant to hurt you. I swear I didn’t, and if there was any way I could make this whole thing better I would…"
"You’ve done enough," Alex said automatically, and Xander tensed. She swallowed again, sighed, and looked at him.
"You did the decent thing," she admitted. "I’m sorry too…you’re a good man, Xander. I…" she took a moment to compose herself. "She’s good? Honestly?"
"The best." Xander nodded.
"I-I’m glad…Don’t regret me?" she asked in a whisper.
"Never," he promised. Alex nodded, then leaned forward and gave Xander a kiss on the cheek.
"I’ll see you later," she said, and quickly turned and left the workshop. Xander raised a hand to his cheek and let out a slow sigh. He turned back to his workbench, and yelped when he saw Vi standing in the doorway leading to the slayer wing and the armory.
"I…she…" Xander stammered, looking between the slayer and the doorway Alex had disappeared through. "It’s not…oh hell," he sighed, slumping against the bench. "I have the worst timing in the universe."
Vi bit her lip, then crossed the room and leaned over the bench, taking Xander’s head in her hands and making him meet her eyes, shining with tears.
"No, you don’t," she said.
"Whu…uh?" Xander frowned in confusion, then his eyes widened. "You heard…the whole thing? You didn’t just come in at the end for the kiss, and think-"
"The whole thing," Vi said. She leaned closer, until her lips were almost touching his. Then her cellphone rang.
"Right," she said to herself, closing her eyes and standing back. "Calm thoughts, calm thoughts…not going to destroy phone. Okay." She opened her eyes, checked her phone’s screen, and looked up to meet Xander’s hopeful stare.
"They need me," she said forlornly. "Hand over your ‘worst timing in the universe’ trophy."
"We’ll share it," Xander suggested.
"Among other things," Vi promised, before turning and sprinting back out the door. Xander watched her go, then leaned on the bench again.
"The Powers That Be exist to drive me mad," he said, picking up an invoice list. "That’s okay…At least they and me understand each other."
Guest Room – 9:40 to H-Hour
"Buffy," Giles said warmly. Buffy turned from her suitcases, rushed across the room and hugged her former watcher tightly.
"I didn’t think you really needed to be hugged in front of everyone," she said, muffled by his shoulder. "So I saved it."
"It’s good to see you too," he replied, once she had let go of him. "I’m afraid I still only have a few minutes to spare, but-"
"Yeah, I get it," she said, "people to meet, butt-kicking to plan. Well, we’ll have time on the mission to catch up…"
"Actually that’s why I’m here," Giles said, taking a seat. "I’ve been going over the field reports of your participation in missions for the London branch, the expedition to the Paris catacombs two months ago, your visit to India-"
"Man, do they have some funky demons there," Buffy nodded. She frowned in thought. "How come I feel like I’m back in school, and in the principal’s office? This isn’t something bad, is it?"
"Well…I imagine you might think so," Giles nodded.
"Oh my god what’s wrong?" Buffy asked nervously. "Are you okay? Is Willow, okay? Xander? Faith-"
"Everyone is perfectly alright," Giles insisted. "Well, so far as can be expected under the circumstances. But I have to ask you to do something rather difficult."
"A special mission?" Buffy asked. "I’m up for it."
"I need you to stay here," Giles said.
"Um, where?" Buffy said. "This room? What’s outside?"
"Earth," Giles clarified. "I need you to remain here when the mission goes to Vor." Buffy frowned at him, then smiled and nodded knowingly.
"I get it," she said, "good one, who’s hiding behind a curtain waiting to take a picture of me with deer-in-headlights face?"
"The threats the Council deals with on a day to day basis are not going to abate while we’re away," Giles continued. "All of Cleveland’s most experienced slayers and watchers will be leaving indefinitely – as long as it takes to see the job done, and the threat to Earth halted. We have plenty of trainees and junior slayers staying, but they need leaders."
"You can’t do this to me," Buffy protested. "I’m gonna have to stand back and watch the people I love go into danger, and just hope you’ll all come back, do you know what that’s like?"
"Yes," Giles said quietly. "Yes, I do. I’ve done it every night since the Harvest nine years ago." Buffy looked up sharply, then her anger seemed to evaporate.
"Oh god Giles I’m sorry," she said, sitting next to him. "I didn’t…I wasn’t thinking."
"I know how difficult it is," Giles said kindly. "But it’s necessary."
"Heli’s staying, isn’t she?" Buffy protested. "Faith said she’s-"
"She’ll be in charge of the slayer branch," Giles said, "she has the expertise and familiarity with the city. But the watcher branch is also being left without a leader."
"You’re serious?" Buffy asked. "You want me to command the watchers?"
"You’ll have the best support and advice possible under the circumstances," Giles said. "Althenea is remaining here as the Coven leader, Robson’s deputy, MacMillan, will be arriving here in two days to fill Robin’s role as administrative head…they’ll help you. But I believe, and I know they both agree, that you have the experience and the ability to command the Council during this crisis. A-And after, if need be."
"Don’t talk like that Giles," Buffy chastised.
"I have to be prepared for any scenario Buffy. If we fail…you’re the best person to head up the second front. So don’t underestimate yourself. Please, do this for me."
"Just for once, do what you ask me to do?" Buffy said, with a tiny grin.
"Something like that," Giles admitted. "I’ve drawn up the paperwork, your position will be somewhat different – Heli will defer to you on major decisions, as the more experienced slayer. And knowing your tendencies, I won’t try to stop you leading any missions of particular criticality yourself. Buffy, there are many people who have the knowledge the Council will need. But being a watcher is more than knowledge, it’s being able to make the right decision, under very difficult conditions. I trust you to do that. I’ve seen you do it too many times to doubt you now."
For a long moment they stared at each other, then Buffy nodded.
"Will you do something for me?"
"Name it," Giles said, surprised.
"I’ve talked to the gang. They all say you’re pretty much ready to go. I was thinking you’d be all busy getting me up to speed before H-Hour, but I guess that’s not an issue."
"No," Giles agreed apologetically.
"Then give everyone some time off," Buffy suggested. "Everyone’s run ragged, and I’m starting to feel like I need a nap just being around you all. Take a break, watch a movie – you, go see your wife."
"Is that an order?" Giles asked with a half-smile.
"Yes it is," Buffy nodded imperiously. "If you insist on hanging around here, I’ll be forced to inquire into this rumor I hear that you watch Xena."
"I wish you wouldn’t put it like that," Giles insisted at once, "the historical inaccuracies are quite deplorable, but on the balance of things there is from time to time a grandeur of storytelling that borders on operatic which, in spite of its faults…fine," he sighed, as Buffy collapsed on the couch holding her sides and laughing.
Bonnie’s Apartment – 8:00 to H-Hour
A knock sounded on the door, and Bonnie put down her book.
"Come in," she said in a bored tone. Andrew let himself into the apartment and took a set in an armchair, facing Bonnie across the coffee table.
"‘Crime and Punishment’," he noted, glancing at the open book.
"Actually I was reading a tacky erotic thriller," Bonnie said flatly, "it’s stuffed down the back of the couch. I just keep that around in case anyone drops by to give me a morality talk and needs something innocuous yet relevant to use as a starting point."
"I haven’t read it," Andrew confessed.
"It’s not my favorite," Bonnie shrugged. "Skipping ahead past the ‘why did you drop by?’ ‘It can’t just be to talk?’ ‘I don’t get many visitors who want to just talk’ ‘Feeling sorry for yourself?’ part of this conversation…?"
"I want you to come to Vor with us," Andrew said simply. Bonnie stared at him for a long moment, then shrugged.
"Okay," she replied. It was Andrew’s turn to stare.
"I’ve never really liked my limbs all attached to my torso," Bonnie said airily, "and having internal organs is starting to bore me, so-"
"I’m serious," Andrew complained.
"I know," Bonnie retorted without missing a beat.
"So, skipping the you-making-deadpan-jokes part of this conversation…?" Andrew suggested. Bonnie raised an eyebrow, and gave a little smile.
"What possible reason could you have for wanting me to come with you on your little crusade?" she asked.
"The same reason they’re taking me," Andrew replied. "You know demons from the other side of the fence. Maybe not the powerful ones, but most of them are dead or enslaves anyway. What’s left are the ones who were on the fringes of their worlds’ societies – the kind you used to do business with, and I used to try to summon in my parents’ basement. Anything – any knowledge – might tip the scales, just a bit."
"And your scales are in dire need of tipping," Bonnie summarized. "You’re really going?"
"You could try to be a bit not surprised."
"Actually I’m not – who else around here knows how to keep a small army fed? And never underestimate the usefulness of the middle-man. Sort of a life philosophy." Bonnie grinned. "Anyway, you’ve got the edge on me – I don’t even know how to summon a demon in one of your Dungeons & Dragons games, but I gave you a run for your money last year."
"We’re playing Planescape, at the moment."
"You know I’m just going to say ‘whatever’, don’t you?"
"I’ll go," Bonnie said.
There was a prolonged pause.
"There’s no deadpan joke attached to that last sentence," Bonnie prompted. "Or that one," she added, after Andrew continued to stare at her. "Look," she tried again, "I spent the whole summer after you people vaporized the Engineer hiding out. I couldn’t go home, could barely risk being seen in public – I spent three months in empty rooms wondering how many more days it’d be before I had to move on to the next empty room. Every time I went to sleep I was wondering at the back of my mind whether I’d left it too long already – if I was going to be woken up by something’s claws cutting my throat. This," she waved a hand around, encompassing her apartment, "isn’t so bad. At least there’re a few people who’ll grudgingly try to keep the demons from killing me. Even if you aren’t always entirely successful."
Andrew stared hard at her, and gave a thoughtful shrug.
"I guess it’s a good enough reason to fight, to hold onto that," he conceded.
"Oh, I don’t think I’m going to hold onto anything," Bonnie said, her voice emotionless as she dropped her gaze. "I won’t repeat this to anyone else, because I know a bit about morale, but you’re different – I’ll give you that much credit. We’re going to lose this – we’re all dead and there’s nothing we can do about it. There never was. That was made abundantly clear to me the day the Engineer recruited me."
"I’d rather spend my last days in relative comfort, with something to keep me occupied. Even if it is futile, and all there is at the end is a hopefully quick death during a melee. Being on the run isn’t any better, and sooner or later it’d end the same way. So I’ll throw in my lot with you brave warriors."
She looked up, meeting Andrew’s gaze again.
"Sorry," she shrugged.
"It’ll do," he replied, getting up.
Gymnasium – 5:00 to H-Hour (evening)
Several slayers were still in the gym, working out or sparring or just relaxing. A figure watched them from the doorway. Her gaze moved across the room, finally settling on Kennedy, who was on her back bench-pressing a heavily-laden weight, chatting idly with one of the junior slayers who was spotting for her.
Kennedy’s dragon was sitting on the junior slayer’s shoulder, stealing potato chips from a bag she was holding. Her observer studied the scene for some time, then backed through the doorway as she returned the weight to its mount and got up.
The observer left the weights room and crossed the empty basketball courts, heading back towards the lobby. Half-way though she paused, and glanced sidelong over her shoulder.
"Hello Kadin," Mia said from behind her.
"Mia, hey," Kadin Van Helsing replied, turning to face her.
"Thought you were a no-show," Mia said flatly.
"I was out of contact for a while," Kadin admitted. "Had to stop off in Finland to set fire to some guys, got delayed. Heard you lost someone from your team, sorry. Must be hard on you."
"Yeah," Mia said without expression. "Well, some of us try to take care of more than just ourselves." Kadin glared at her.
"I’m here to fight demons, not you," she said quietly. "Don’t change that."
"We’ll see," Mia replied. She went to pass Kadin, heading for the weight room.
"Mia," Kadin said as she passed her. "I am sorry."
"Yeah," Mia replied tonelessly. "Me too."
Giles’s Living Room – 4:00 to H-Hour
"Finally gave your other half the slip?" Becca asked as Giles closed the door behind him.
"As I say every time he appears, I’m sorry about Ethan," Giles sighed. Becca chuckled momentarily, and pulled Giles down onto the couch next to her.
"It’s all arranged?" she asked.
"It is," Giles nodded. "We’ll begin in three hours." There was a long pause.
"I’m uncomfortably aware that ‘we’, in this case, means ‘you’," Becca noted dryly.
"I know, I know," she nodded, and then parroted Giles’ accent: "A hell dimension is no place for a very pregnant woman."
"No," Giles said, slightly exaggerating his accent himself, "it certainly is not. To tell the truth, nor is it the place for or a young Wiccan, or a Canadian fencer, or a former school principal, or…how would one define Andrew, exactly?"
"You’re really taking him along?" Becca asked, slightly incredulous.
"He really is quite skilled at managing supplies," Giles admitted. "And he’s quite determined-."
"He’s not a fighter," Becca pointed out quietly.
"No, he’s not," Giles agreed. "But he could help in other ways, as he did last year. We need every advantage."
"Even a middle-aged man with a heart condition?"
"One never knows," Giles replied. He hesitated, then continued: "I know how difficult this is for you-."
"I don't think you do," Becca replied – not angry or accusing, but quietly disbelieving nonetheless.
"Yes," Giles assured her, "I do. I’ve sent slayers into battle many times. Especially Buffy – in her own way she’s as dear to me as you are…and you," he added, placing a hand gently on Becca’s expansive stomach. "Her own way being quite often infuriating," he added after a moment.
"Seems to be something you look for in loved ones," Becca noted.
"So it seems," Giles agreed with a smile. "I really am dreadfully sorry…but I have to do this."
Becca paused a moment. "I'm scared of losing you. I'm...I'm not sure I can raise this child alone."
"And I know I don't want this child raised in a world where the Presidium reigns...I have to try to stop this."
"I know. I…" Becca stopped abruptly and choked back a sob, taking a moment to compose herself. "I want you to come back, when it’s done."
"I want that too," Giles said with utter sincerity, "more than almost anything."
"As I said…" Giles’ shoulders slumped, as if under a weight. "I want you to be free. I want Elizabeth," he nodded to her belly, "to grow up in a world that isn’t ruled by evil. If it came down to a choice between that, and my coming home…" he trailed off glumly.
"Rupert?" Becca asked after a long silence.
"‘Elizabeth’?" Becca asked, challenging the name choice.
Giles looked surprised, then grinned faintly.
"Elizabeth is a perfectly reasonable name. I’ve said so many number of times," he said reasonably.
"Like the queen," Becca teased.
"Like the actress," Giles answered.
"No, Hurley actually," Giles corrected.
"Hmm..." Becca said as if she thought about it. "So what about Alice instead?"
Giles smiled at Becca and shook his head at her stubbornness. Becca smiled in return, and held out a hand. Giles quickly stood and helped her up.
"Now you and I have business to attend to," she told him.
"We do?" Giles asked, confused.
"I may be pregnant, but that hardly means there’s nothing I can do to ‘prepare you for battle’. Though only having three hours might be a handicap," she added with a wicked grin.
"Preparing- oh," Giles’s eyes widened. "Well, if you don’t mind risking me having a heart attack before the apocalypse…"
"You’re risking it," Becca said, taking Giles’s hand and leading him in no uncertain terms towards their bedroom.
Watchers Council Lobby – 1:00 to H-Hour
Giles, looking quite cheerful, was supervising the moving of supplies, now packed up in heavy backpacks and impact-resistant containers, from the building to the grounds outside, when Alex approached him.
"Mr. Giles," she said quietly, to get his attention.
"Oh hello, Ms. Neel," he replied, "I’m sorry my mind was elsewhere…"
"And you’re getting ready to follow it," she nodded towards the small army of slayers and helpers acting as porters.
"We’re as ready as we can be," Giles said. "I must thank you again for your help, the information you’ve provided from your firm has already proven to be most enlightening with regards to the societies and species of demons, we’ve avoided several diplomatic mishaps already thanks to it."
"Glad to help," Alex smiled, "enlightening is what we do."
"Are you looking for Xander?" Giles asked helpfully. "I believe he’s out on the grounds helping inscribe the circle."
"No," Alex shook her head. "He and I talked earlier, and our…friendship, from now on, is just going to be a friendship."
"Oh… oh I’m most terribly sorry," Giles said, crestfallen. "I apologize, I didn’t know-"
"No, it’s alright," Alex said, forcing a smile. "I’ll admit to disappointment, but...I’m here on another matter actually. The partners of my firm have decided, within the boundaries they operate under, to extend more help than just information about hell and its denizens."
"Really? Well we’re very grateful," Giles said enthusiastically. "What manner of help would this be, exactly…?"
"They’re standing just over there," Alex said with a slight smile, pointing to a quiet spot at the side of the lobby. Giles looked, and started visibly as he saw two tall, wide-shouldered men standing there in heavy cloaks and long hoods that covered their faces in shadow. Despite this they were obviously watching Giles and Alex closely.
"Good lord," Giles said. "I never noticed them…I’m sorry gentlemen, how do you do?"
"Not being noticed is among their skills," Alex said. Giles nodded as each of the two strode over to him, their cloaks flowing about them, and shook his hand in turn with firm grips encased in thick, dark leather gloves.
"Arel and Azer," Alex said, indicating each as they stood silent and still. "They won’t make great conversationalists I’m afraid. But they are very useful men to have around should there be a crisis. My firm believes that the Presidium must be stopped, now, and that you and the Council are the best and only chance of accomplishing that."
"Well," Giles said, "thank you, very much." He turned to the two robed men. "And thank you both, your help and willingness to accompany us is very much appreciated…if I may ask, what is it exactly that you do?"
"Whatever they must to see that your mission succeeds," Alex said, "At present, given the environment you’re going into, a bodyguard role seems appropriate. If they’re needed in some other capacity, they’ll know. They always know when they’re needed."
"Indeed," Giles said, staring at them curiously. "My thanks again…I suppose we should go out and introduce you to Faith. She’ll be responsible for our force’s defense, which you two would seem to fall under…" The two robes nodded.
Watchers Council Grounds – 15 minutes to H-Hour
Behind the multi-story Council headquarters, out of sight of the road beyond it, a gathering was taking place. Willow, Xander, Dawn, Skye, Jeff, Giles and Althenea were walking the perimeter of a magic circle of epic proportions, more than two hundred meters in diameter. Within its bounds were stacks of crates and packs, weapons, supplies, boxes of documents, laptops by the dozen, bulky generators and fuel cells, portably lights, rolls of cable, crates of tightly-packed rations and bundles of folded up tents, sleeping bags and blankets.
Milling about them were more than a hundred people – Faith, Kennedy, Vi, Marie, and a large contingent of slayers, all in custom-fit combat suits, their handful of non-slayer recruits, including Kadin, Mia and the four remaining members of her Black Ops team in their armor, accompanied by Sergeant Zim in a well-worn uniform, and many watchers in padded survival gear – Andrew supervising the last of the supplies being stacked, ensuring the very center of the circle was kept clear, Rowena gazing at the stars and comparing them to a book of charts, Robin and Buffy standing near Faith, listening as she gave a last-minute pep talk to her slayers, Bonnie looking ill-at-ease, standing by a stack of crates and keeping out of everyone’s way, Brell looking around nervously at all the activity, and Alex’s two associates, silent as ever.
"Where the hell have you been?" Giles demanded as Ethan sauntered into view, with his dog following on a lead.
"Rupert!" Willow grinned, starting towards him, until Ethan stood in her way.
"He’s a bit touchy around people," he explained quickly, without meeting her gaze. "He isn’t…quite the same as before."
"I see," Willow said carefully.
"He’ll be alright," Ethan insisted, "It’ll just take time…in the meantime, best to give him a little space. He’s no danger to anyone. I’ve made sure of that, a little magic…just until he’s better."
"Ethan this is hardly the time-" Giles insisted quietly, as Willow moved away.
"I’m not leaving him!" Ethan interrupted. "He needs me, all right? I can’t leave him with anyone, it’d make things worse. Look, I promise you, this is not going to be a problem, just…for god’s sake, man, I’m doing you a favor by being here. Just let me have this."
Giles stared at him grimly, then nodded sharply and turned away.
"Five minutes!" Rowena called out after checking her watch.
"Okay, let’s go!" Robin added, his voice carrying easily through the night air. "Places, people! Vor team, inside the circle, everyone else, outside!"
"This feels so weird," Buffy said, as Willow and Faith walked with her to the edge of the circle.
"Yeah, an apocalypse without Buffy," Willow nodded. "Somehow I just won’t be able to enjoy it as much."
"You take care of my Council while we’re gone," Faith said.
"Won’t get a scratch on it," Buffy said breezily. "Hey, can I get one of those funky leather outfits you got all the slayers wearing?"
"Yeah but you still won’t look as hot as me." Faith laughed.
Buffy rolled her eyes, and turned to pick up a large, flat leather carry-case from the ground.
"I’m trying to cut back on speeches," she said, holding it out to Faith. "This is for you."
"What’d you do?" Faith grinned, taking the case and sliding down the zip on its side. "If this is inflatable I’m gonna…oh…" Willow leaned over to see the gleam of metal from within the case.
"The Scythe," Faith breathed. "No, I can’t – this belongs to you, it’s-"
"It belongs to the slayer," Buffy shook her head. "Right now you’re the slayer. Bring it back in one piece." Faith nodded dazedly. "And this is only temporary," Buffy added sternly. "The minute you’re done saving the planet I’m taking it back! It’s way useful for getting through crowds at one-day sales." She and Faith exchanged a look, then Buffy turned to Willow.
"Will," she said, then paused, unsure of how to continue. Willow nodded, then drew her into a tight hug. There were tears in both their eyes when they finally released each other.
"You take care of yourself." Buffy sniffed. "Or I’m coming after…you… what the heck is that?"
Willow spun around to see what had cause Buffy to stare, and saw the water from the distant lake surging up the gentle slope, as if a very localized flood was taking place.
"Stand down!" she called, as various slayers and their allies drew weapons. "Wait, I think I know what it is…" She walked past the crowd and waited for the water to reach her, sighing with relief as it rose up off the ground in front of her and assumed the familiar, towering form of Necksa.
"Titan of Lake and Sea," Willow said in greeting, "Welcome. Um, what brings you here?"
"Greetings Willow Rosenberg," the figure formed of water replied. "In our time of need you helped my kind. We repay our debts." The pool of water around the titan’s feet swelled up and produced two more Undines, human-sized and female. "These are Naiad and Oread. They will stand between you and whatever dangers you may face ahead. This they do for the good of us all."
"Really?" Willow asked. "I mean, thank you! That’s incredible…are your kind capable of leaving Earth though? I thought you were bound to this plane…"
In response Necksa dipped his head, as if concentrating. The two female figures shimmered and changed, their fluid skins hardening into ice.
"So armored, they can go anywhere they are needed," Necksa said. "I must go. Farewell in your struggle, and may the fortune of the fates travel with you."
"You too!" Willow called, as the titan flowed back to the ground and rushed away down the slope into the lake.
"You know, for me," Althenea said from behind Willow, "getting his attention is like dealing with the local council’s development board. Looks like there’s more to ‘just plain Willow Rosenberg’ than her magic."
"Well I never expected this," Willow said, bemused as she stared at the pair of icy figures in front of her. "Um, can you two…we’re about to leave, so you’ll need to be inside the circle."
"As you wish," the two said in unison, and quickly moved within the circle’s perimeter, their motions remaining elegantly fluid in spite of their brittle appearance.
"Dawn?" Willow called. "It’s time."
"For the next apocalypse," Skye said quietly, her forehead touching Dawn’s as they stood together, "I’m learning how to cast fireballs or something…whatever it takes to come with you."
"I wish you were," Dawn admitted. "I love you sweetie…you take care while I’m gone, okay?"
"I’ll be fine," Skye said with a fragile smile. "All I have to contend with is your big sister." Dawn laughed, then tilted her head forward and gave Skye a lingering kiss.
"I have to go," she whispered.
"Make sure you come back, okay?" Skye asked.
"Promise," Dawn replied. Skye watched her make her way through the crowd and the mounds of supplies, towards the center of the circle. She finally turned when Dawn disappeared behind a tall stack of crates, to find Jeff nearby, also watching her. Their eyes met, they stood still for a moment, then Skye closed the distance between them.
"Keep her safe," she said quietly. "Do whatever you have to do to keep her safe."
"I will," Jeff said, not quite meeting her gaze. Skye sighed.
"I hate leaving her with you so close," she admitted. "I’m sorry, but there it is." Jeff frowned, then nodded.
"I haven’t exactly given you reason to trust me on that count," he admitted in return.
"Just keep her safe," Skye repeated. "Whatever else happens, that’s between you and me and her, when this is all over." Without waiting for a reply she turned and left the circle.
"Robin, we’re ready," Willow called, on her way to the center of the circle. "Start the count."
"Final boarding call!" he shouted. "Two minutes to H-Hour!" Skye, Becca, Buffy, Althenea, Tracey and the other onlookers stood back from the edge of the circle, while those within stood together, their faces showing varying degrees of nervousness, grim resolution, or both.
Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Same Time
The vast circle and its surroundings spread around the Lover, immersing her. She seemed entranced, until a motion from the edge of the chamber caught her attention.
"Who disturbs me?" she barked, dispelling the illusion and turning. "Oh…Shaper, approach."
Emerging from the shadows came a strange figure. Eyes dark with eldritch power, yet somehow glassy and dull, its features were vaguely feminine, too much so to call this being a male. Yet the vagueness did not allow a ready judgment of this figure as female, either. Its attire offered no clue, consisting of dark robes and armor that fit a silhouette roughly human yet subtly other. In the place of limbs, mechanical arms created a gesture again somehow feminine and yet... not.
The Lover waved a hand vaguely at the darkness, which parted to reveal Angella, still missing an arm, and with her impassive face disfigured by the gaping wound in its side. The woman approached and stood near the Lover and the Shaper, waiting patiently.
"You remember your work?" the Lover asked.
"Of course, Highness," the Shaper replied in a thin voice. "From the moment you brought this human to me, until I completed rebuilding it. I remember all my creations."
"Her mission on Earth has been prematurely terminated," the Lover said. "I return her to you, to do with as you wish. Know that our trial by fire nears, perhaps sooner than we believed. It may be beneficial for you to practice your skills beforehand."
"Of course, Highness," the Shaper bowed stiffly. "Are our plans for Earth made difficult?"
"As it happens, no," the Lover said thoughtfully. "No, as chance would have it, quite the opposite. But leave now. Angella?"
"Mistress," the woman replied subserviently, slurring slightly through her torn lips.
"Go with the Shaper. Endeavor to be of some assistance during your dissection."
"Yes Mistress," Angella bowed. The Lover watched her follow the Shaper meekly out of the Panopticon, then quickly summoned back the vision of the Council’s circle.
Watchers Council Grounds – Midnight – H-Hour
"I feel it," Dawn said to Willow, as she stood in the exact center of the circle.
"Just let it happen," Willow said. "You don’t have to do anything, it’ll just flow right over you. Stay calm sweetie." Dawn nodded and closed her eyes.
"Everyone, this is it!" Willow called out. "Stay back from the edge…keep your arms inside the moving section of space-time," she added to herself in a wry murmur.
The circle inscribed in the ground suddenly blazed with light, seeming to change from a simply pattern on the turf to a shaped gap in reality, to a dimension of fire and brilliance. Then with alarming suddenness the whole space seemed to twist, folding eye-wateringly in on itself like some complex piece of origami, and a second later the circle, and everything in it, were gone.
Fade to black.
End of Act One
Onto Act Two