The dining room at the Scoobies' house was filled nearly to capacity. The long oak table in the center of the room was surrounded; Buffy and Giles sat across from each other at the ends of the table. Dawn sat to one side of Buffy with Xander on the other and Faith between him and Giles. Willow sat next to Dawn with Kennedy on her left. The meal was obviously winding to a close, most plates having been completely emptied.
Faith grabbed the wine bottle nearby and began filling her glass, glancing up when a Powerpuff Girls mug was suddenly thrust at her.
"Oo, more for me, too," Dawn insisted.
Shrugging, Faith reached out with the bottle. "Sure—" she began.
"No," came the immediate, simultaneous response from Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles.
Without missing a beat, Faith retracted the bottle smoothly and set it back down on the table. "Ooookay then," she responded, sipping her own glass.
Dawn huffed and heavily returned her mug to its original place next to her, just as Willow was ready to fill it to the brim with a much more appropriate beverage. "Growing girls need their milk," she explained cheerfully. "Lots of yummy calcium."
The dark look shooting from Dawn's eyes would have made lesser individuals cower in terror. Willow simply smiled indulgently as she finished topping off the mug.
"I'm, what? Technically several thousand years old? I think I'm done growing."
"Then you should worry about osteoporosis," replied Willow without hesitation. "Still needin' milk, still with the calcium," she added with a firm nod.
Across the table, Xander waggled his fork at Dawn. "Better drink up before she switches out your Flintstones vitamins for Centrum Silver."
Dawn pouted as only a maligned teenager could. She glanced to Faith, hoping for some modicum of sympathy, but the dark Slayer only toasted her before sipping the wine again. It was quite a feat, but somehow Dawn managed to pout even more; Willow and Xander were impressed.
"This is good," Buffy declared, breaking the budding tension. "With the food and the company and the food and the me not cleaning up and the food."
"I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say she enjoyed dinner," commented Kennedy, leaning over to Giles.
"Yes, that was my interpretation as well." Giles smiled across the table at Buffy, clearly pleased that the meal had gone over well. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm only sorry it took so long for us all to gather together."
Buffy shrugged nonchalantly before taking a long, dramatic sigh. "That's okay. I mean there was the bit where I cried at night, wailing to the unfeeling gods in my abandoned misery," she brightened considerably, "but then I remembered that being home meant cable, and all was well."
"You mean that was you?" queried Xander with surprise. "I thought it was—" He turned to behold Willow and Kennedy, both staring at him with matching flat, entirely unamused glares. Gulping audibly, he hastily corrected himself. "–a cat. I thought it was a cat." He sipped his water and managed to look absolutely everywhere but directly ahead.
Faith was less discerning and with an evil glint, opened her mouth to interject. Until she spied Dawn's doe-eyed expression and the 'speak your next words carefully as they may be your last' glare coming from Buffy. Grudgingly, Faith returned her attentions to the wine glass, muttering, "I had so much more fun when I didn't give a crap about getting along with you guys."
"So," Kennedy began, a bit too loudly, as she turned to Buffy, "now you're back, what're your plans?"
"Yeah, the whole 'bum' concept loses appeal when it's not in a foreign country," commented Xander confidently, as though speaking from great experience.
Buffy glanced from Kennedy to Xander, appearing lost for a moment before Willow exclaimed, "Oh!" like she'd just discovered the cure for cancer, the secret to world peace and innate knowledge of why there are five syllables in 'monosyllabic', all in that exact moment. "School!" she continued with the same level of enthusiasm. "With the learning! You never did get to go back, what with the Hellgod and the dying and the ..." Trailing off, finding the subject uncomfortable, the redhead quickly got back on track. "Bu-But now, there's money o' plenty a-and a very appreciated lack of big-haired, skanky evil to fight, so lots of free time to go back!"
Willow's 1000-watt smile threatened to blind everyone daring to look directly at it, but her enthusiasm was not infectious.
"IIII dunno, Will," Buffy dragged out as she rubbed the back of her neck, clearly not buying into the idea. "It's way too late for registration this term, and the thought of auditing again does nothing but drudge up unpleasant memories of mummy hands and time loss."
"Evil lint," added Xander, nodding sagely.
Gesturing at the carpenter, Buffy presented Xander's words as final proof.
"Payin' for school," remarked Faith with a disbelieving shake of her head. "Just seems unnatural to me. An' why bother anyway? People go to college or whatever to get trainin' to get a job." Draining the remainder of wine, she reached for the bottle to refill it again, her eyes on Buffy. "Way I see it, B, you already got a sweet ride set up. All you gotta do is jump in an' hang on."
Xander frowned at Faith's word choice and swiveled in his chair to look at her directly. "It's a life choice, not a dune buggy."
At this, miniature conversations erupted almost simultaneously around the table, as it seemed that everyone had some sort of opinion and felt quite keenly that they should vocalize it.
Rankling at Xander's words, Faith scowled at him. "I know what life is, Harris, an' what to do with it." She appraised him critically, not appearing terribly impressed with what she saw. "Question is, do you?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" snapped Xander defensively.
Buffy opened her mouth to try and divert the conversation before it could get ugly, but instead her focus was redirected as Kennedy jumped in first.
"When you say 'sweet ride'," she questioned Faith with a furrowed brow, "what do you mean exactly?"
Willow however had latched on to a completely different portion of Faith's feelings about Buffy's possible choices. "School's not just about degrees and- and career fairs," the redhead protested indignantly. "It's about learning! Knowledge for knowledge's sake! Buffy has the right to- to know stuff. And she's good at knowing stuff!" Willow added, gesturing at Buffy. The Slayer's face broke into a proud grin that persisted, even as the witch began to frown. "Okay, maybe not French so much," she amended in an afterthought as Buffy's face fell, "but other stuff!"
As though Willow hadn't spoken, Kennedy persisted. "Because we, you know, have trainers already ..."
"There's no denying we can always use another set of experienced hands with the new Slayers," Giles said thoughtfully, not seeing Kennedy's sharp look. He smiled across at the blonde Slayer. "Particularly Buffy's."
Her answering smile was weak and appeared to be more a grimace, but Xander's raised voice quickly attracted her full attention.
"Oh that's right, I forgot, you don't actually have the same kind of restraint we mere mortals do. And how's that workin' out for ya? Tried to kill any friends lately?"
"I cut way back, but I'm thinkin' about startin' up again," replied Faith pointedly.
"Then there's the on-campus activities," Willow continued, wrapped up in her own world somewhere far, far from this one. "Though I don't recommend environmental groups cuz, you know, scary. A-And, oh! History!" She whipped around toward Buffy with such enthusiasm that the Slayer actually jumped slightly. "The history department's one of the best. Plus, increased knowledge can only help broaden the quip material ..."
"Yeah, but, trainers." Kennedy was also locked in her own space, and from her expression, wasn't enjoying it anywhere near as much. "Sitting here. Training." Glancing from Faith to herself, she paused. "Or, well, not right now, but in a general sense ..."
Eyes darting from one person to the next, Buffy's expression becoming increasingly lost with each passing second. Dawn, the only one who hadn't said a word, casually leaned over to her sister to make herself heard above the din.
"Welcome home," she smiled pleasantly.
A similar large oak table was situated in the center of another location, however all similarities between the two settings ended there. Whereas Buffy's welcome home dinner was brightly lit and, degeneration into argument aside, a companionable event, the atmosphere at this meeting was all business.
Aside from the table, there were only two features in the room that were at all remarkable. The first, a giant pentagram drawn on the center of the floor, surrounded by runic markings and ornate symbols pulsating with a deep blue light. The second, its light throbbing in time with the other markings, was a stylized representation of an eye appearing to be affixed to the top of a long, strangely pointed stick or rod.
Eleven robed figures sat around the table, five on each side and one at its head. Power hummed from each individual, and yet all eyes remained riveted on the lone man, commanding the respect and attention afforded him by his seat of authority. No one spoke, and save for the constant buzz of energy in the air, there was no sound. Expectantly, patiently, they waited.
Eyes closed and lost deep in thought, the man at head of the table absently stroked the dirty blond stubble on his chin with the pad of his thumb. Closer examination revealed him to be young, no more than 25 or 26, an even greater contrast to the assembled men and women around the table, most of whom were graying and obviously advanced in years. Still though, they sat in silence, awaiting his words of infinite wisdom.
"Excellent. This rocks," he finally proclaimed with enthusiasm. His eyes opened and he focused upon the person sitting to his immediate right.
'Inhuman' would not have been an unfair adjective, despite the fact that the man appeared to be anything but. His irises, rather than blue or brown, were instead goldenrod, bright and almost ablaze in the darkness. At first glance, it seemed he had no pupil whatsoever, his eyes almost consumed by the strange color, but a pupil was indeed visible – only slightly larger than a pinprick of the deepest black directly in the center.
The figure, a elderly woman with streaks of dark brown still lingering amidst the gray, inclined her head, accepting his words as a compliment.
"The Sangerand?" the young man queried, his unblinking gaze never wavering.
She bowed her head again before answering. "Everything is falling into place," she assured him, her voice raspy and deferred. "We are expecting a report tomorrow evening. Once we have enough information about the organization, we can decide upon and proceed with the next phase."
The man nodded, pleased with her answer. "And they don't have a clue?"
"They are not in the least bit aware. They're trusting to the last."
He grinned broadly at this, displaying a set of perfectly even, straight teeth. Despite a somewhat scrawny appearance, he looked as though he might have stepped out of the cover of an Eddie Bauer catalog – were it not for his unnatural and disconcerting eyes.
"You know," he remarked conversationally, his cheerful spirits coming through bright and clear, "you have to appreciate their predictability."
Toward the end of the table, another figure leaned forward slightly, peering hesitantly around his neighbor and raising a tentative hand, like a timid first grader asking for the bathroom pass. "L-Lord Madrigan," he began, stuttering over his words, "the Assemblage of Merodach has been pressing for—"
Instantly, Madrigan's jovial mood vanished, leaving behind no trace. The other man, despite being old enough to be Madrigan's father, cowered immediately beneath the fierce, threatening glare leveled at him. "Tell Robespierre he'll get his prototype when I'm ready and not a minute before."
Wishing he were anywhere else at all in the entire universe rather than the seat he currently inhabited, the man nodded his head so vigorously he nearly knocked himself unconscious. "O-Of course, Lord." Swallowing hard, the man dug deep and called upon whatever reserves he had left, fighting to keep his voice steady. "However if I might remind my Lord of The Antediluvian ..."
With an absent flick of his wrist, Madrigan tossed a stream of energy at the other man; deep, blood red in color laced with dark blue streaks. Even before the burst reached him, the man appeared frozen in terror, unable to run. When it hit, striking the center of his forehead first, he became rigid with agony. A terrifying, excruciating scream tore from the man's throat, but only for a moment as the energy bored into his body and spread, quickly reaching his mouth and blocking all sound. His body remained locked and trembling, but still he was unable to move, his face a fixed study in torment.
Around the table, nine heads never once turned, never once took their eyes from Madrigan. There were no signs of realization regarding what had transpired, let alone any feelings of sympathy for the suffering man.
Madrigan eyed his handiwork critically, like a sculptor surveying a new creation, before raising his hand, palm outward toward his victim. He folded his fingers, leaving only the thumb and forefinger extended, then rotated them until they were pointed at the man like a pistol. Tightly closing one eye, he cocked his head to one side and pretended to 'sight' down the 'gun', taking slow and deliberate aim at the still-twitching figure across the table. Sticking his tongue out between his lips, he made a show of concentrating very carefully, then whispered, "Bang," and slowly pulled his hand back in a mimicry of recoil.
The man shattered into a million frozen pieces.
Watching the fragments clatter to the ground, Madrigan sighed deeply. "I hate redundancy," he muttered to himself. "Seneca!"
A tall, perfectly toned man entered the room, also robed although his cowl was thrown back. He was at least six-foot of nearly solid muscle and looked as though he might have given Arnold Schwarzenegger more than a little competition. His stark white hair was expertly trimmed to best compliment his chiseled features. He glanced at Madrigan, saying nothing but raising an eyebrow expectantly.
The blond waved his hand at the general area where, just moments before, there had been a person. "You know I can't work in a mess," was all he said by way of explanation.
Seneca stood in place for a moment, a bemused smirk touching his lips, then motioned toward the now empty chair. The still-frozen remains of the deceased rose into the air, swirling over the chair and gathering. Madrigan watched intently, amused, but save himself and Seneca, no one else seemed to take notice of the fact that there were dancing pieces of a human being levitated mere feet from them.
Continuing to smirk, Seneca gestured with his fingers, and the fragments reformed into a not unimpressive facsimile of "The Thinker". He glanced at Madrigan, jerking his eyebrows at his creation.
Madrigan snorted a laugh. "Yeah, well, I think you're cleaning this up, therefore you are cleaning this up."
The smirk became a full-blown grin, and the image reformed into a giant " :P " emoticon. Still saying nothing, Seneca turned and strolled out of the room, the pieces trailed behind in a macabre game of follow-the-leader.
"I'm telling you, the Internet will be the death of human interaction as we know it," called Madrigan, despite the fact that the other man was well out of sight. The remaining particles began reforming into a rude gesture, causing the blond to burst into laughter. "Ass," he grinned.
Still chuckling with mirth, he turned to the others. "Right, so where were we? Ahh, yes, tomorrow night. We'll wait for the report to come in, and go from there. Everything's right on schedule." He sighed, deeply contended. "I do so love it when a plan comes together."