The Chosen - S8 Logo

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Buffy paced back and forth, practically wearing a hole in the living room carpet. Seated on the couch, Giles watched his Slayer, an expression of vague exasperation on his face. Much more impassively, Faith also kept an eye on Buffy from her perch on the arm of the couch, occasionally sipping the bottle of beer in her hand.

In stark contrast to the contained tension personified by Buffy, Dawn was bouncing from one foot to the other, flittering from the living room, to the door, to the kitchen and back again, full of too much energy to remain stationary for more than a heartbeat.

"Soon, right?" Dawn bubbled to Buffy. "She'll be home soon?"

"Should be any minute now," her sister confirmed as she completed another pacing circuit. "Unless there's trouble." As soon as the words had been spoken, their meaning shot through the blonde, and she suddenly became riveted to the spot. With a look of alarm, she spun around to face Giles. "Do you think there's trouble? There could be trouble. I should go find them. They could've been attacked again."

She actually managed to take a couple of steps toward the front door before Giles' calm voice sliced through Buffy's mounting panic. "I'm certain they weren't attacked again. Now why don't you sit down? Relax."

Making no further motions for the door, but also not moving toward the couch, the blonde balled her hands into fists at her side, then released them with a frustrated shake. "I can't relax," she stated.

"Try," Giles sternly insisted. "Very hard."

Ungracefully, Buffy threw herself onto the couch next to Giles. The Watcher patted her knee and smiled cheerfully. "There, see? I feel more relaxed already."

"So Oxford," Faith began, declining to comment on the scene, "what'cha got on these creeps?"

With a sigh, Giles leaned forward to address Faith, resting his forearms on his knees and clasping his hands together. "Precious little, I'm afraid," he admitted. "We've been thus far unable to uncover any sort of reference to the marking that Buffy saw. If it's accurate—"

"Oh, it's accurate," confirmed Buffy, her arms crossing as she sank further into the plush cushions. "Believe me. Won't be forgetting the image of Flambé Judith any time soon."

Giles continued, "I can only assume this is some sort of new threat." He shook his head ruefully. "But beyond wild speculation, we're at something of a loss."

"Think it was an attack on Red directly?" Faith questioned, earning a tiny squeak of alarm from Dawn, who had just made her way into the living room again.

"I honestly don't know. It's entirely possible that Willow simply ... had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Buffy shook her head and frowned, remaining unconvinced. "I dunno. Maybe. But my Slayer Intuition tells me there's something else going on here."

With a one-eyed squint, Faith peered into her beer bottle and grunted. "My Slayer Intuition tells me I need another beer," she declared, rising to her feet and striding into the kitchen.

Seizing the opportunity, Buffy spun in her seat to face the Watcher directly. "Giles, seriously. I think someone has it out for Willow. Attacked like that, right in Slayer Central, right under our noses." She ground her teeth together. "If I hadn't gotten there in time ..."

"But you did," responded Giles, resting a soothing hand on her shoulder. "We'll figure this out, Buffy. We always do."

Buffy wasn't so easily placated, and she shook her head, rejecting the simple assurance. "You didn't see her like that, right after ... God, I really thought ..."

"Willow's fine," he pressed. "She's—"

"She's here!" squealed Dawn excitedly from where she had been standing in the foyer, her face practically smashed against the window. Leaping back, she bounded to the front door and hopped in place, anxiously awaiting it to open. Almost as quickly, Buffy and Giles rose and joined her, as Faith lounged by the entryway to the kitchen. Cautiously, the door opened and Willow entered, supported on one side by Xander and the other by Kennedy.

The most readily apparent remnants of the beating Willow had received were on her face. She was still pale, and her ashen complexion only served to heighten the patchwork of cuts and bruises. They were all in various stages of healing, but the bruises in particular were a sickly mix of purple, and a greenish-yellow that stood out like painful, unwelcome beacons. Neither of Willow's eyes were swollen shut, however, and although the redhead was obviously battered and weary, the twinkle in them showed she was in good spirits.

The lingering testament to the attack was in the large white cast that stretched up the witch's forearm, leaving only her fingers and thumb exposed. Kennedy was holding it level to Willow's body gently as she helped escort her girlfriend inside. The dark-haired Slayer watched every move Willow made like a hawk, but her brow was furrowed constantly in barely contained fury, and although she moved with infinite care, she seemed to almost hum with a dangerous energy.

Reaching behind from Willow's other side, Xander pushed the door closed, and turned back to the group, his own grip never once leaving the redhead's elbow. Despite not having been personally wounded, Xander seemed almost as hurt and drained as his best friend.

"Willow!" Dawn exclaimed happily as the trio made their way inside. She immediately sprung forward, arms wide and ready to close around the redhead in a massive bear hug that would, quite possibly, last until high school graduation. As she closed in, however, Dawn began to absorb in the full extent of Willow's injuries, and she froze. Shifting her arms into another, hopefully more accommodating arrangement, Dawn tried valiantly to find some position that didn't promise pain and suffering. When she decided that such a thing was impossible, she gazed worriedly at Willow.

"I'm not gonna break," Willow assured Dawn. "Just don't squeeze me too hard." She stepped forward on her own, leaving the other two hanging back, and spread her good arm wide. "C'mere you," she grinned, gesturing her head.

With utmost gentleness, Dawn embraced Willow, almost seeming to fold into the smaller woman. Kennedy hovered nearby, watching Willow intently for any sign of discomfort, ready to pull Dawn away at a moment's notice, but Willow simply smiled contentedly.

"I'm so glad you're home," whispered Dawn. "You scared us so much."

In the same tone, Willow replied, "I know. Sorry about that."

Sniffing, Dawn slowly pulled away, then glared with mock fierceness. "Just don't do it again," she ordered.

"Yes ma'am," smirked Willow.

"Red," Faith called out as she leaned against the doorway, nodding her head in greeting as the witch turned to her. "Glad you could make it."

"Hey, you know me – Party Girl. Wouldn't miss it."

They shared a smile before Giles stepped forward, clearing his throat. "Perhaps we could continue this in the living room?" he prompted. "Willow should be resting."

Stepping into the position Xander had occupied earlier, Giles took Willow's uninjured arm and began to lead her into the next room. Buffy immediately rushed to the other side, unknowingly cutting off Kennedy as the brunette stepped forward. A flash of irritation crossed Kennedy's face, but it quickly vanished and instead, she darted around the group to the couch, making sure the middle cushion was clear before occupying the one on its right. She extended her arms to help lower Willow into a sitting position as the redhead winced and hissed quietly in pain. Buffy claimed the open seat on the left as Giles sat on the coffee table, continuing to hold Willow's hand.

"How are you feeling?" he inquired gently.

Willow shrugged slightly. "Kinda groggy. Sorta like my- my head's stuffed with cotton. A-And not in a good, teddy bear kinda way." She smiled at her family reassuringly. "But I'm okay. No bleeding in the brain, no broken ribs. Some head stitches, some bruises, some really incredible pain medication ... But I'm okay."

Kneeling in front of Willow, Dawn reached out a tentative hand to touch the cast that was cradled in the witch's lap. "Does it hurt?" she asked quietly.

"Only without the aforementioned incredible pain medication," Willow joked, but became more serious as she regarded Dawn. "Yeah, kinda ouchie. I-It shattered pretty bad. But hey, no nerve damage!" she pointed out optimistically. "A-And they operated on it, and figure I'll get back a whole 80% use!" Dawn's expression fell as she was completely stricken, and the redhead hastened to add, 'Course, with a little magical bone regrowth, I think we can do better'n that, don't you?"

Dawn was cautiously hopeful. "Good as new?"

"Eventually, you betcha," nodded Willow with confidence. "I'll still even be able to play the piano! You know, if I ever get that insane urge."

That was enough for Dawn, and her spirits visibly improved.

Lingering by the entranceway, Xander watched the others but made no move to join them. Faith considered him critically as she approached; his gaze was distant and he gave no indication that he ever knew she was watching him.

"You okay over here?" she asked nonchalantly, without pressure.

"What?" Xander replied, turning his head to look at the Slayer for just a moment before returning to the others. "Oh. Yeah. I'm fine."

Faith nodded. "Right. Cuz you look fine." When Xander didn't respond, Faith jerked her chin at the group in the middle of the room just as Buffy was wrapping her arm around Willow and resting her head against her best friend's. "I figured you'd be all up in the mushy group hug stuff. That's your thing, ain't it?"

"Usually, yeah," he conceded. "I've just ... I feel like I've been livin' at the hospital ever since ..." He sighed, sounding bone weary. "We came close to losing her, Faith. Not Buffy-close, but too damn close for my taste. While I was at the hospital, I guess I didn't really think much about it. Now we're home, an' ..." He shrugged. "I dunno, it's like it's all startin' to hit me, all at once."

"Makes sense. Some sort of delayed reaction thing." Xander looked at Faith, surprised at her interpretation, but she waved it off. "Prison shrinks, they like to talk big. Anyway, point bein', now Red's home all safe an' sound, you can finally start dealin' with how scared you got."

Mulling it over, Xander asked casually, "An' how do I do that?"

"Dunno," the Slayer replied. "I broke out before we got to the big revelation. Best guess? You be all paranoid for a while then go back to normal."

With a flat stare, Xander observed, "Quite the knack for the pep talk you got goin' there."

"Here's a better one: have a beer." Faith handed him the second bottle she'd been holding and they clinked the bottlenecks together. "Cheers."

Back on the couch, Willow was complaining. Her voice was light, but strained and indicating an element of deeper truth to her words. "I still think the honor guard was a bit much," she stated.

"Absolutely not," disputed Buffy without hesitation.

"Yes, I'm inclined to agree," Giles cut in before Willow could further protest. "With no way of knowing why you were attacked, the threat of-of another assault while you were at your most vulnerable was simply too great."

"If we could've been 110% sure of more girls, I would've put a whole platoon of 'em outside your door," Kennedy practically growled.

Chuckling, the redhead tried to keep the atmosphere light. "Just as well you didn't. The two I did have nearly gave the poor orderly a heart attack."

Kennedy defended petulantly, "He was looking shifty."

"He was bringing me Jello," Willow countered.

"...shifty Jello," corrected Kennedy.

Willow smirked and shook her head lightly, finding the situation somewhere between amused and amused-with-a-hint-of-frustration. "Still, it's good to be home," she decided. "Free from 24/7 Slayer guard, to ..."

Catching the shift out of the corner of her eye, Willow first regarded her girlfriend and then slowly swiveled her head to her best friend. Both Buffy and Kennedy wore identical, stony expressions and had crossed their arms resolutely.

"Oh. 24/7 Slayer guard," observed Willow with tentative humor. "Fun."

Neither Slayer smiled.

"Oh c'mon you two. I'm home now, it's okay," the witch cajoled, trying to lighten the mood.

Buffy strongly disagreed, and vehemently pointed out, "You were attacked right in Slayer Central, Will. If it's not safe there—"

"I'm not letting you out of my sight again," interrupted Kennedy, just as insistent, "and that's final."

For a fraction of a second, Willow looked at the two women with intense irritation, but then turned to Kennedy and tried to dispel the brunette's guilt. "Kenn, sweetie, we've been over this. It wasn't your fault."

Kennedy shook her head, unwilling to forgive herself. "If I hadn't left ... If I'd brought my damn phone ..."

"And if I'd've cast the shield before goin' Detacho Girl with my brain, she never would've touched me," Willow asserted. "It happened, I'm okay, and I've learned a very valuable lesson about casting order."

But Buffy remained adamant. "Uh-uh," she stated firmly, her tone making it clear she would not be dissuaded. "Until we figure out what's going on ..."

Frustrated anger began to cloud Willow's features, and Giles quickly interceded before tempers could be allowed to build. "Have you been able to remember anything more from before the attack?"

Taking a deep breath, it caught in Willow's throat and her hand went quickly to her side as she winced in pain. "Uhh ... no," she managed, then glanced at him apologetically. "Not much. I remember they were willing to get pretty brutal ..." Her eyes dropped to her cast and she smirked. "Though I guess we figured that out the hard way. A-And they seemed really keen on me not doin' the tracer spell."

"Hm." Giles mulled this over in silence for a moment. "Obviously this isn't an option until you've recovered your strength," he finally began, "but I think it's all the more crucial that we proceed with the spell, if you still feel up to it."

Buffy and Kennedy were immediately up in arms at the idea.

"What?" the blonde exclaimed. "Are you insane?"

"No way," Kennedy stated, overlapping Buffy. "So they can send a dozen Judiths after her this time?"

Giles raised a patient hand, silencing the two protesting Slayers. "The fact that ... whoever this is was willing to kill to remain hidden makes it all the urgent that we discover who they are and what it is they have to hide."

Thoughtfully, Willow nodded her agreement. "Giles is right. We ..." Trailing off, the witch broke into a huge yawn. "We need to know," she finished drowsily.

Instantly, Kennedy leapt to her feet. "It can wait," she declared. "Sleep first."

"No, Kenn," the redhead resisted. "I ... I wanna help."

"You can help. You can sleep. That's helping."

Willow dangerously skirted the border into whining territory. "I feel like I've done nothing but sleep for a week, I don't ..."

Her eyes resting on Kennedy, she detected an admirable version of her own resolve face staring back at her unblinkingly. Willow turned to Buffy for help, and noted the same expression. Searching the room, it was abundantly clear that nobody would be coming to her defense.

"Damn," Willow pouted, realizing her defeat. With a sigh, she began to rise to her feet, aided by Buffy and Giles.

Dawn also leapt up, and beamed at Willow. "Want me to bring you some magazines or something? The new Elle has a pretty in-depth article about home perms. Guaranteed to put you right to sleep."

"Nah, I'm good," Willow smiled. "Thanks, Dawnie."

Stepping in to take Giles' place next to Willow, Kennedy wrapped one arm around the redhead's waist and used the other to support the elbow. "I've got her," Kennedy told the others, and led Willow out of the room toward the stairs.

As they retreated from sight, Willow's voice could still be heard. "Can I have my laptop? I could do some more research on that eye-thingie. One-handed, of course— Oh! But maybe I could use, like, a-a pencil between my teeth for my right hand! I saw this thing on The Learning Channel where this guy ..."

The redhead's voice trailed off, and silence enveloped the room as the others watched her depart.

Dawn moved to stand next to Buffy, looking down at her sister with a worried expression. "She's ... gonna be okay, right?"

"She'll be fine," Buffy replied calmly and with complete confidence. "I promise."

For a moment, Dawn stared into Buffy's eyes as though searching for something, then nodded her head, visibly calmed and completely trusting in her sister's vow. The teenager crossed the room to Xander, who was still hovering by the doorway, and hugged him. Xander wrapped his arms around Dawn, seeming to feel better for the contact.

Faith stepped away from the pair toward the door. "I'm gonna head back," she announced. "Keep my eye on the fort."

Both Buffy and Giles nodded, and as Faith departed, the blonde pulled her Watcher to one side. She spoke in a low, urgent tone. "Giles, the more I think about it, the more worried I'm getting about Slayer Central," Buffy admitted. "We've pretty much invited an army of super-powered strangers into our home. I'm fairly certain my mother warned me about something very similar to this."

"I understand your concern. I've already taken steps to ensure that any future recruits undergo a rigorous background check before we even consider bringing them here. The Council's resources are quite extensive; I think it's time we started using them," replied Giles, a steely tone slipping into his words.

"That's great for then, but what about now?" Gesturing toward outside, Buffy's agitation was far from assuaged. "We've still got a dorm full of She-Hulks that we know squat about."

The Watcher was patient and he spoke with a soothing calm. "We're performing the same checks on them. We've already managed to clear some, such as those we had guarding Willow at the hospital. It's a lengthy process, but I assure you, by the time we're done we'll know what these girls had for breakfast on any given Wednesday morning five years ago."

Buffy sighed heavily, rubbing her arms. "Yeah ... yeah, okay," she relented.

"In addition, I'm working out some ... internal security that should prevent anything like this from happening again. This won't happen again, Buffy," he swore.

Gazing at Giles in much the same manner as Dawn just minutes before, Buffy enveloped Giles in a tight hug, which he returned without hesitation. He stroked her hair, his eyes fixed on the entrance to the living room where Willow had exited earlier. His expression became hard and completely, utterly resolute. "I won't let anything hurt any of you again."

Giles entered his office purposefully. Closing the door tightly behind him, he made sure to twist the lock, ensuring that nobody would be able to enter until he was ready. Making his way to the desk, Giles removed his glasses and set them on the surface. He rubbed his eyes wearily, then ran a hand through his hair, the stress of the past few days evident.

Almost reluctantly, the Watcher turned to the phone that was patiently waiting. He regarded it cautiously, as though it were some sort of dangerous animal that would strike at him as soon as he was within range, but his hesitation lasted for only the briefest of moments before the decisive expression returned to his face. His decision made, Giles lifted the receiver and proceeded to dial a long stream of digits from memory.

The call was answered quickly. "It's time," Giles spoke in a firm, authoritative tone. "I need you."

With an amused shake of her head, despite her obvious weariness, Kennedy jogged down the stairs and turned right into the living room. Buffy and Xander were sitting side-by-side on the couch, involved in what appeared to be a fairly intense conversation, but they broke off, glancing up expectantly as Kennedy entered.

"How is she?" Buffy inquired.

Kennedy let herself drop onto the couch with a noisy exhalation of air, claiming the seat on the other side of Xander. "Asleep, finally," she replied gratefully. "Took a good fifteen minutes before she gave up on trying to convince me that sitting in bed surrounded by research books and her computer was just as restful as sleep."

"Gotta love a girl with a one-track mind," quipped Xander.

Leaning forward slightly, Buffy surveyed both Kennedy and Xander, taking note of their drawn and fatigued expressions as the trio sat in a tired silence. "Xander?"

"Hm?" he replied, turning to Buffy.

"Why don't you take a few hours off?" she suggested. "Go do something that doesn't involve sitting around and worrying about Willow for a while."

"What?" blinked Xander, then shook his head. "No, I'm good. I'm fine."

Rolling her head on the cushion the barest amount to see more fully, Kennedy regarded Xander critically. "You do look like hell," she assessed.

"My maleness thanks you for that," Xander retorted, though without annoyance. "Really though, Buff, I'm ..." He shrugged and nodded toward ceiling. "I don't wanna leave."

The Slayer refused to let the matter lie. "You've gotten, what? A couple hours sleep a night? Max? And that was in hospital chairs, hardly the orthopedic mattress of choice," she added with a pointed look. "You should get out for a few hours, get some fresh air, do something that doesn't involve sitting around and waiting on Willow hand and foot."

"Maybe I like waitin' on Willow hand and foot," he countered.

"Well you've been hogging all the foot waiting action, so I'm taking over for a while." Buffy's tone made it clear that as far as she was concerned, the matter was closed. Extending a finger, she poked Xander's arm, emphasizing each word as she ordered, "Go – have – fun."

At first it seemed as though Xander was going to do just that, but he hesitated and shot a nervous glance at the ceiling once more.

"I'll keep her safe, Xand," Buffy vowed, "and you know she's only gonna worry once those pain meds wear off and she sees you looking like that."

Sighing, Xander nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, okay." He rose to his feet and glanced down at his friend. "I'll be back later tonight."

"Good. Have fun."

With another nod, Xander shuffled out of the house, leaving Buffy and Kennedy to watch him depart. Silence settled for another moment.

"Good call," commented Kennedy, still moving as little as possible from where she had landed. "I don't think I saw him leave the chair in her room except to shower and change clothes. And I think he only did that because I pointed out that with Slayer senses, he ran the risk of getting offensive."

"He was pretty shaken up," Buffy agreed, her gaze still fixed on the living room entrance. "Which I get. I nearly froze up myself when I saw her like that. I think what with losing Anya just a few months ago ..." Trailing off, she shook her head and changed topics. "So, how're you holding up?" she asked, turning to the other Slayer.

The answer was as immediate as it was harsh. "Still wishing I'd killed Judith."

Buffy's expression indicated that she understood the sentiment only too well. "If it helps," she offered with a tiny smirk, "I think she died pretty horribly."

"Doesn't help." Kennedy continued to glower before sighing heavily. "I mean I'd want to do this to anybody that hurt Willow, you know? But the fact that it was Judith ..." Gritting her teeth, she gave her head a violent shake. "Man, that just gets me. I trusted that bitch. I really thought she had something. And now when I think that she was probably just pumpin' me for information the whole time ... I'm such an idiot," she spat.

"It's not your fault. She had all of us fooled," Buffy reminded her. "God, we trusted all of them, we didn't think to question."

The fact did nothing to alleviate Kennedy from her guilt, and she tilted her head back further. "Yeah, but I probably knew Judith better than anyone else here. All that time we spent together, training, even just hanging out, and I never suspected." Fury blazed suddenly in the Slayer's eyes, and her clenched fist sunk deep in the cushion next to her as she brought it down forcefully. "Dammit, I should've seen it!"

Buffy observed the outburst without any indication that she was either surprised or disturbed by it. "What could you see?" she asked simply. "You can't look inside someone's heart and examine all the evil bits. I learned a long time ago, bad guys don't always wear a black hat, you know?"

"How can I keep her safe if I can't—"

"Hey," Buffy interrupted, "we'll all keep her safe, okay? It's a group effort." Much as she'd done earlier, the Slayer regarded a frazzled Kennedy almost twitching in her pent-up anger and frustration. "Speaking of time off ..."

Kennedy's eyebrow jerked upward and she turned to Buffy. "We weren't."

"Work with me here," she smirked. "You need a break too."

Instantly, Kennedy crossed her arms and set her jaw. "Uh-uh. I'm not leaving," she declared with finality.

"Just for a little bit," coaxed Buffy, pressing onward even as the other Slayer firmly shook her head. "Take a walk, go work out, do something. Sitting here doing nothing is just gonna make you feel worse, believe me."

"How would you know?" Kennedy shot back, though without antagonism. "I heard all about your nightly patrol-slash-interrogations of the local baddies while Will was in the hospital."

Buffy waved her hand, dismissing the silly notion that she should take her own advice. "Yeah well, it's something I read about then. But I do know you need to do something, and that something's not sitting here on a couch."

Considering carefully, Kennedy began to nod. "Yeah ... yeah, you're right. I gotta do something." As though she had reached a decision, the Slayer sprung to her feet, suddenly looking quite alert. She glanced to Buffy. "You'll—"

"I'll be here," came the quick response, and it was all Kennedy needed to hear as she strode to the door.

Faith leaned against the open doorframe, content for the moment to simply watch the lone occupant, who seemed oblivious to her presence. The room was darkened, lit only by a few end table lamps, and the lack of illumination added to the gloomy atmosphere. After a minute, Faith raised her hand and knocked lightly on the door.

Glancing over her shoulder, Hazel's eyebrows were raised questioningly until she realized who it was and her expression relaxed. The girl was sitting cross-legged on her bed, back to the door as she faced the other twin bed that occupied half of the room. "Faith, hey," Hazel greeted. "Did I forget a training session or something?"

"Nah, nothin' like that," the Slayer responded. "Just thought I'd stop by, see how you're doin'."

With a smile, Hazel nodded, and Faith took that as an invitation to enter. Several long strides brought her to the center of the room, to the side of Hazel, where she seemed satisfied to simply stand, casting her gaze around the room and taking in its contents.

For all intents and purposes, it seemed every bit a typical girl's room. Posters decorated the walls, ranging from movies to promotionals from the Vortex for local bands. The dresser and end table on Hazel's side of the room included framed photographs of people who were most likely friends and family. It had a comfortable, lived-in look, which was at a complete contrast to the opposite side of the room where Hazel continued to stare, lost in thought.

It was as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply rubbed out the room at the exact halfway point, stripping it of color and identity. There were no wall adornments, no personalizations, not even sheets on the bed. There was no sign that anybody lived there or that they ever had.

"It's so weird. I mean ..." Hazel smirked, glancing at Faith. "Sure, I was secretly wishing for a room to myself," she gestured to the empty bed, "but I didn't want it like this." Faith chuckled once, but said nothing, still watching the younger girl as she continued. "She drove me nuts and all, but it just seems so surreal." Shaking her head with disbelief, it was apparent that Hazel was still taken aback by the news. "Judith, one of the bad guys. I mean, we thought she was one of us, but then trying to kill Willow ... I just don't understand how someone could have all of this and turn their back on it."

Faith shrugged. "People do stupid crap sometimes," was her only explanation. "Most likely, you'll never know why she did it."

Eyes resting on the older Slayer, Hazel cocked her head to one side. "Because someone told her to?" she guessed.

"Nah, it's deeper'n that. It's not just about someone dishin' out orders and someone else followin' 'em." Faith spoke with authority, and Hazel hung on her every word. "Person makes their own choice t'do somethin' good or somethin' evil. Can't hide behind orders. Even with a gun to your head, person's always got a choice."

Hazel mulled this over, considering it carefully before nodding, seeming to find some insight in the words. "You sound like you know what you're talking about," she pointed out.

"Hey, I always know what I'm talkin' about," Faith shot back, amused.

"Oh?" the girl questioned, a grin forming. "What about that time you told me Karl Marx was that 'funny dude with the cigar'?"

Faith spread her arms wide. "Said I always know what I'm talkin' about, didn't say I always knew if it was right or not."

Her grin spreading across her face, Hazel leapt from the bed and began to make her way to the door. "This place is depressing," she decided. "Let's get outta here."

Not moving, Faith smirked. "That an order?"

"Maybe," replied Hazel, turning around again. "What's your choice?"

With a shrug, Faith followed Hazel out of the room. "Eh, I've followed worse ones."

The sun was beginning its descent across the sky when Kennedy returned home to find Buffy sitting alone in the living room. She didn't appear to have moved; however now a half-empty mug of coffee sat on the table next to a pile of papers that the Slayer had obviously been pouring over while on guard. Glancing up only briefly, Buffy continued reading over the pages in her hand. "Better?" she inquired.

For just a moment, Kennedy focus hard on Buffy, as though seeking something, but then blinked and refocused. "Yup. Much more accomplished."

"Cool," the blonde responded, still intent on her reading. "What'd you do?"

Kennedy shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, you know. Nothing much. Worked out a bit, tried to gain some insight and perspective."

"How'd that work for ya?"

Considering the question, Kennedy chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. "Not sure," she finally decided. "Nearly knocked the weight bag down again, though."

Buffy looked up with a sympathetic grimace. "I hate when that happens."

Crossing to the sofa, Kennedy sat down at the far end and took in the cluttered mess strewn across the coffee table's surface. "What's all this?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

A small, tired groan escaped as Buffy sunk back into the couch. "Stuff on Judith. I got Giles to give me copies of everything they'd dug up so far, but I'm going nowhere fast." Flicking her fingers in the air in a 'poof!' gesture, the Slayer continued, "It's like Judith just stopped existing somewhere between Willow's big light show in Sunnydale and the day Faith turned up on her doorstep. And I can't find anything in here that points to her making like George Foreman ... Only without one of those cute low fat grill things," she added. With an irritated grunt, the blonde tossed the papers back onto the table, glaring at them as though their lack of knowledge was a personal affront.

"So what do we know?" Kennedy pressed, her own aggravation mounting.

Buffy shot a look at Kennedy, momentarily considering a snapped retort, but instead she redirected her anger, eyes becoming steely cold as she did so.

"That anything wanting to try for round two has to go through me first."

Across the room from a large conference table, three robed figures slowly circled the now-familiar glowing pentagram on the floor. Their movements were unhurried but rhythmic, their low chanting helping the trio to keep time as they threw handfuls of some sort of powder into the symbol at regular intervals. The powder would drift to the ground, only to reach an invisible point whereupon the granules would burst into a reddish flame, and the figures would repeat the action. Around the perimeter of the circle, well back from the three, stood four more mages, each clutching a wooden rod and holding it aloft, pointing toward the center of the pentagram. The four tips met in a steeple over the marking, and if the staff bearers felt any degree of discomfort from their extended limbs, they showed no sign of it.

Seated directly in front of the large eye symbol in a high-backed office chair was Madrigan. He watched the nearby proceedings with casual interest while absently tossing a tennis ball into the air and catching it. The cowl of his robe had been tossed back to reveal long, fine blond hair tied in a ponytail that rested near the nape of his neck.

"Madrigan!" an angry voice yelled out as a tall, impeccably groomed older man in a three-piece suit strode across the room toward the table. He paid no attention to the mages or their ritual, and they repaid the favor by not taking apparent notice of the huge, smooth scar that disfigured the left side of his face.

At the sound of his name, Madrigan tilted his head to one side, his golden eyes questioning. "Robespierre!" he exclaimed cheerfully as the seething man came to a stop before the chair. "Great to see you, man, how you been?"

The expression Robespierre shot at the younger man was one of pure disdain. Madrigan's, however, did not change in the slightest; he continued to beam an open, toothy smile.

"How have I been?" Robespierre repeated with a forced calm that only served to heighten his fury, aided by the fact that his accent was thick, proper and so very British. "Let me see ... I have lost my inside agent, our security is on the verge of being completely breeched, and we are still no closer to solving this Rosenberg problem that you assured me would not become such a problem in the first place!" He had closed the gap between them during his tirade, and was all but shouting in Madrigan's face by the time it was over. Robespierre did not appear to be remotely embarrassed by that fact, and Madrigan didn't seem to particularly care, his cheery smile never wavering once. With a deep, calming breath, Robespierre straightened, running a hand down the lapel of his jacket to smooth out wrinkles that only he could see. "Over all, I would say unwell," he summed up.

Leaning back, Madrigan brought a hand to his chin and he regarded Robespierre thoughtfully. "Have you considered taking a vacation?" the younger man finally inquired. "I mean, seriously, your aura ... Whoo!" Madrigan waggled his fingers in the air around Robespierre's outline. "Off the charts, man! You're headin' for heart attack city if you keep this up."

It was all Robespierre could do to remain silent, his teeth grinding together and his face turning a bright red.

With a roll of his eyes, the mage chided, "Ah, that's right, you Assemblages guys dunno the meaning of 'vacation'. Oh, but I bet I know somethin' you do know. Tea! The British like tea," Madrigan added with a wave of his hand that seemed intended to encompass the entire nation. "Seneca!"

In the far corner of the room, Seneca's gaze lifted. He was seated in a chair identical to Madrigan's, however his sheer bulk almost dwarfed it. His hood was also tossed behind him, and his short-cropped silver hair appeared to almost glow in the dim light of the room. In one giant fist he held a well-worn copy of Being and Nothingness, and he lowered it to incline his head questioningly at Madrigan.

"Tea for our esteemed guest."

Glancing at the mages working across the room, Seneca gestured toward them. Two of the staffs were ripped away and they floated serenely toward Robespierre, coming to a rest before him and reforming themselves into a capital T.

For a moment, Robespierre could only stare, and then he closed his eyes tightly as he rubbed the throbbing vein in his forehead, his lips pulling back in a snarl of endless frustration.

Madrigan simply rolled his eyes, the normal act appearing somehow incongruous given their unnatural color. "You'll have to forgive Seneca," he explained, "he's under the delusion that he's amusing."

Still grinning, Seneca returned the rods to the mages, who both snatched them from the air and did their utmost to suppress the annoyed expression that threatened to appear on their faces. If he noticed, Seneca clearly didn't care, instead grabbing a bookmark that depicted a kitten clinging desperately to a tree limb with the caption 'Hang in there!' Slipping it between the open pages, Seneca rose, carefully placed the book on his now vacant seat, and left the room, presumably in search of tea.

"Now then," Madrigan smiled at Robespierre, who was, almost reluctantly, lowering his hand, "while we're waiting for your miracle elixir, why don't you have a seat."

Robespierre stepped back as Madrigan waved a finger in the air and an office chair rolled away from the table and swiveled toward the older man. Rather than sit, however, Robespierre crossed his arms and glowered down at Madrigan, seeming fond of his stance and the authority he felt it granted him.

The mage simply looked bored. "Oh come on. It'll be okay, Robbie, don't get your panties in a bunch." Again, he waved at the chair. "Just sit."

Reluctantly, glaring all the while, Robespierre did so. As soon as he was settled, Madrigan leaned an elbow on the table, the hand still clutching the tennis ball.

"Okay, so your agent," he began. "That does suck, no denying that, but I'm sure you're in agreement that we couldn't allow her to talk, right?" Madrigan waited for Robespierre's confirming nod before continuing. "Plus, I've read her reports, and it sounds like she was about to hit her useful limit anyway. And yeah, okay, so things got a little bit sped up on our timetable, but that's what makes this so much fun! Who needs things to be all stilted and organized and planned all the time?" he queried with a huge grin, clearly enjoying himself.

A level glare was his only answer, and Madrigan waved at Robespierre dismissively. "Oh, right, you do. Okay then, I'll explain this in a very logical fashion: It's done. It can't be undone. It's a waste of energy to stay pissed about it."

Blinking, Robespierre considered this reasoning, and appeared almost irritated that it was sound. "I suppose you're right," he reluctantly agreed, speaking with some calm for the first time since his arrival. "But Rosenberg—"

"You let me worry about Rosenberg," Madrigan interrupted, becoming serious as he squeezed the tennis ball clenched in his fist. "Trust me. I've got plans, Robbie. Big plans. The witch'll never know what hit her."

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