Watchers Council – Dining Hall – Continuous
As Xander, Kennedy and the others stared in utter shock, Vi continued her battle with the winged demons inside the anomaly.
As her attackers turned, Vi thrust the pipe directly into one demon’s gut, sending the monster gurgling out of sight. As she tried to pull her makeshift weapon from the dying demon’s body, the other one grabbed Vi from behind.
“No!” Xander and Kennedy exclaimed simultaneously. They ran toward the misty apparition.
By the time they got there, however, the anomaly fizzled and vanished.
“No, no, no,” Xander repeated in a panicked voice. He moved around, touching the empty air where the misty vision had been seen.
Kennedy just stood in place, examining the area with a look of confusion on her face.
While Robin and Jim took charge of clearing the area of bystanders, Faith and Buffy made their way to the others.
“What the hell was that?” Faith demanded, stepping beside Kennedy. “Yo, Red, help us out here.”
Willow was now easing through the area, trying to sense what had happened. “I don’t know…it almost looked like –”
“A spatial anomaly!” Andrew interjected excitedly as he joined the group.
Faith rolled her eyes. “We need real-life stuff here, Andy, not science fiction.”
“No, Andrew’s right,” Willow said. “I think that might be the best explanation we have…or a starting place at least.”
“So, what are you saying?” Kennedy asked. “That we got a glimpse into another dimension or something?”
“Or something,” Willow murmured, still examining the area.
“But those demons Vi was fighting,” Faith pointed out, “they’re Lucifer’s minions. Does that mean we were looking into Hell?”
“No!” Xander shouted, pointing at Faith. “Vi is not in Hell! She’s an angel now…” His voice cracked, and he could barely go on. “She’s an angel…”
While Rowena went to comfort Xander, Buffy approached Willow. “Could this be some kind of mind trick? A mass hallucination…?”
“Maybe…” Willow shrugged apologetically. “Honestly, Buffy…at this point, it could be anything. I really don’t know. But it’s not the only thing that’s happened today, so something weird is definitely going on.”
“What? What happened today?” Buffy asked.
“Well, at the All Saints service, I felt this strange power surge,” Willow explained. “Kennedy and Xander felt it, too.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” Buffy said.
“Me either,” Faith added.
“Xander and Kennedy were right next to me, and we were holding hands, so maybe that’s why they felt it and no one else did.” Buffy and Faith nodded at that, and then Willow went on. “But that’s not all. This afternoon I heard some odd noises in the Coven Room, even though I was the only one in there, and then later, during an exercise, Hope swore she saw a demon. I thought her vision was just a side effect of the spell we were working on, but now…”
“Marsha was acting really strange this afternoon, too,” Kennedy said. “Like she was sensing something that I couldn’t see. But I just brushed it off.” Kennedy opened her mouth as if to go on, but then she quickly shut it.
“Was there something else?” Buffy asked.
Kennedy cut her eyes toward Willow for the briefest of seconds, then shook her head. “No, that’s it.”
“Okay then…we’ve got a mysterious power surge, some general spookiness, and a possible spatial anomaly,” Buffy summarized. “Anybody doubt that these things are connected?”
As everyone shook their heads, Robin rejoined the group. “And it’s not just here,” he said. “Before I came to the dining hall, I was reviewing the day’s incident reports from the other branches. There have been quite a few strange occurrences in other locations, as well…but only near the hellmouths. But none of them sounded anything like what we just saw.”
“Well, whatever’s causing this, it appears to be escalating,” Buffy said. “So we better –” Buffy stopped when she saw Lori Carew hobbling hurriedly in her direction.
When everyone turned to see, Lori came straight to Buffy and said, “Jason needs to see you. There’s been an accident.”
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Later that Night
As always, Buffy sat at the head of the table. With her were Willow, Rowena, Xander, Kennedy, Faith, Robin and Andrew. Jason Felix and Lori were also present representing Bureau Nine.
“I understand you can shed some light on what’s been happening today,” Buffy said to Felix, who was at the opposite end of the table.
“I believe so,” he replied. “By way of Bureau Nine’s governmental connections, we learned just this evening of an accident at the SSC facility in Waxahachie, Texas.”
“SSC?” Robin asked.
“Superconducting Super Collider,” Felix answered.
“A superconducting what’s-a-who?” inquired Buffy.
“It’s a huge particle accelerator,” Lori explained. “Like over fifty miles in circumference.”
“Oh, I heard about that in physics class,” Andrew said. “They started it in the eighties, right? But I thought the project got canceled.”
“It did, over budget issues,” Felix said. “But it was resurrected several years ago, secretly, under mostly private funding.”
“Let me guess…from the Oversight Committee?” Faith said.
“They are one of the primary partners, yes,” he confirmed.
“But what does this collider thing do?” Kennedy pressed.
“It isolates sub-atomic particles and, well, it speeds them up and bashes them into one another,” Willow explained.
“And the scientists are doing this because…why?” Buffy commented. “It’s the physicist version of demolition derby?”
“No, no,” Felix answered. “It’s a critical part of the research into the core of elementary physics…the very fabric of reality itself.”
“Sounds like something mere mortals should leave alone,” Rowena said pointedly. “Like making magic disappear, for example.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Faith echoed.
“I am merely pointing out that –” Felix began.
“What does any of this have to do with Vi?” Xander suddenly shouted, slamming his fist onto the table and startling everyone in the room. He took a few seconds to calm himself, then said quite deliberately, “What does this have to do with what we saw?”
Everyone slowly turned their eyes from Xander to Jason. He sighed and went on.
“The experiment they were conducting went awry,” Felix said. “And, well…we believe that they may have inadvertently…ripped a hole in reality.”
Everyone grew silent, trying to get their minds around what Jason was suggesting.
After a long moment, Kennedy finally spoke up. “But if the accident was in Texas, then why are we seeing stuff happen here?”
“And at the other hellmouths?” Robin interjected.
“No, i-i-it makes sense,” Willow said, “if we think of reality as a series of webs.” When she got puzzled looks, she went on. “We believe there are different timelines and universes and dimensions out there. Heck, we’ve even visited a few of them. Well, what if they’re like elaborately interconnected networks of simultaneous, but usually non-interactive, realities?”
“Hellmouths, then, would be like intersections,” Rowena continued. “Places where crossovers were possible.”
“So, any repercussions from the accident would be felt at these intersections.”
After Rowena and Willow’s exchange, Buffy glanced at Kennedy and Faith, who shared her confused expression. Buffy shook her head and turned back to the group.
“Okay, before the philosophical, theoretical ramifications of all this make my head explode,” she said, “we need to get with the practical.” She turned to Jason. “I’m assuming that if we don’t get down there and fix this little reality rip, we’re gonna be knee-deep in hell dimensions and worlds without shrimp, am I right?”
Jason looked perplexed for a moment, but then said, “Yes, that would be correct.”
“All righty, then,” Buffy said, rubbing her hands together in preparation for issuing a flurry of commands. “Faith, Willow, you’ll co-lead the mission. Kennedy, Andrew, I want you two along as well.” She got four quick nods in response.
“Robin, contact the Dallas branch and get a secondary team on site.”
“Will do,” Robin said.
“Rowena, get researchy. Look up everything even remotely related to alternate realities, dimensional travel, you name it.”
“I’m on it,” Rowena replied, already typing away on her laptop.
“Jason, we’ll need some of B9’s technical expertise on this one.”
“I know just the man,” he assured her.
“While the team’s away,” Buffy went on, “Mia will coordinate the slayer division, and Jeff and Dawn can cover the Coven.”
Just as Buffy was about to wind up her orders, Xander suddenly stood up and interrupted her. “I’m going too,” he announced.
Everyone froze and looked at the head of the table. Buffy met the stares briefly before finally turning to her friend.
“Xander…” she began, seemingly intending to deny him. The determined but vulnerable look in his eyes stopped her. She let out a long breath and said, “Okay.”
He gave her a brisk nod and then strode from the room.
Watchers Council – Kennedy’s Apartment – Later that Night
Kennedy brought a small bag from the bathroom and stuffed it into her backpack. She glanced around the bedroom, as if making a final check of what she had packed. Seeing nothing she had overlooked, she zipped up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.
Just then, her eyes caught the picture of Kadin sitting on her dresser. She walked over to it and picked it up. After looking at it for a long moment, she set it down and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She flipped it open, punched in a quick-dial number, and listened while it rang.
As soon as she heard the first few words of Kadin’s voicemail, she slumped and rolled her eyes. But she didn’t hang up. She waited until the prompt and began leaving her message.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m leaving on a mission, and I don’t know when I’ll get back. It’s in Waxahachie, Texas, of all places. Not very exotic, I know.” Kennedy chuckled a bit then sobered. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that I love you and I miss you and –”
Kennedy sighed and pulled the phone down. “And I wish we didn’t have to be apart so much,” she added in a whisper.
At that, she snapped her phone shut and shoved it back in her pocket. But when she turned to leave, she found Marsha whining at her feet.
“Hey, baby,” she told the little dragon as she picked her up into her arms. “Don’t worry. Mamma’ll be back soon. And Ro’ll be by to check on you.”
Marsha met Kennedy’s eyes and held her there for the longest time; then she stopped and rubbed her head under the slayer’s chin. Kennedy smiled and pulled the dragon to her, hugging her warmly.
Watchers Council – Willow and Rowena’s Apartment – Same Time
Willow zipped up her duffel bag, gave it a nice pat, and then looked up at Rowena, who was propped up in the bed against her pillows.
“Well, I think that’s everything,” Willow announced.
She flashed Rowena a smile, but the blonde couldn’t muster much of one in return. Willow grinned and crawled onto the bed till she was nearly nose to nose with her frowning wife.
“Well, there is one more thing I need.”
“What’s that?” Rowena replied, a hint of a smirk appearing on her lips.
Willow gave her a soft, sweet kiss. “That,” she said after pulling back.
“Uh-uh,” Rowena said, shaking her head, which earned her a puzzled look from Willow. “Not enough,” she explained. Then she laid a deep and earnest kiss on Willow’s lips. “Better?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” Willow eagerly agreed.
Rowena placed her hand on Willow’s cheek. “Please…be careful.”
“I will,” Willow assured her. “You too,” she warned. “Don’t overdo it.”
Then she turned her attention to Rowena’s belly. “And you, too,” she told the twins inside. “No more kickboxing.” She planted a loud and noisy kiss on Rowena’s stomach, which made the blonde giggle.
Willow glanced at the clock. “Oops! Gotta go!”
She gave Rowena one more quick kiss, then scrambled off the bed. She snatched up her duffel bag and began backing toward the door. “I’ll call you,” Willow told her, “just as soon as I can.”
“I know,” Rowena said. “Now go…before Faith sends armed guards after you.”
Willow laughed and dashed from the room. Rowena laughed too, until she heard the front door slam shut. Then her smile fell away, replaced by an expression of worry.
Watchers Council Jet – Passenger Cabin – Very Early Morning
Inside the jet, the mission team was essentially paired off in the small cabin. Though it was quite late, no one seemed inclined to sleep. Willow and Xander sat in the first row of seats. Faith and Kennedy were in the last row.
Andrew sat on the bench across from the rows. Next to him was Douglas Dent, the Bureau Nine expert that Jason Felix had tapped to accompany the team. The two had technical manuals spread all over the small table in front of the bench seat. They were talking animatedly about the supercollider’s design. Douglas pulled out a small handheld device and began explaining its features.
After listening to Douglas and Andrew’s discussion for a bit, Faith leaned over to Kennedy and said, “Any of that make a lick o’ sense to you?”
“No, it’s all Geek to me,” Kennedy replied.
Faith rolled her eyes at the pun, but then grew serious. “How’re you holding up? You know…with the whole seeing Vi again thing, ‘specially with it coming like a year to the date, practically.”
Kennedy shook her head and sighed. “I don’t know,” she answered honestly. She opened her mouth, as if to say more, but then just shrugged and said once again, “I don’t know.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Faith admitted. Then she shot Kennedy a grin. “At least you didn’t say ‘Fine‘,” she said, sarcastically emphasizing the last word. “‘Cause then I woulda had to kick your ass.”
Kennedy snorted. “Try to, you mean.”
At that, the two best friends fell into their typical banter, teasing and challenging one another.
Meanwhile, at the front of the cabin, Willow and Xander were having a more somber conversation.
“Do you think…do you think I’ll see her?” Xander asked softly.
Willow frowned sympathetically. “I don’t know, Xander. I really don’t.”
Xander nodded and was quiet for a while. Then he said, “You don’t think that she was really…” He stopped and swallowed. “…in Hell, do you?”
“No!” Willow fervently insisted. “No, of course not!” She turned in her seat to face him and took his hand in hers. “Vi was a good person, through and through. There’s no way she would end up in Hell.”
“If she was so good, then why did she have to die?” Xander asked, anger seeping into his tone. He pulled his hand away. “Why did she have to fall prey to some sick psycho like Heli, who had nothing better to do with her life than to play God with ours?”
The others in the cabin looked in that direction when they heard Xander raise his voice. Willow gave them a quick glance before turning back to her friend.
“I asked myself those same questions when Tara died,” Willow told him. “Even after all this time,” she said with a sigh, “I still don’t know the answers.”
“Well, you don’t know much, do you?” he shot back. When Willow sadly dropped her gaze, Xander’s expression softened immediately. He reached out and put his hand over hers. “I’m sorry…I-I-I didn’t mean it.”
Willow looked up and smiled. “It’s okay. I understand. A-A-And we’ll get through this…this whatever-it-is we’re about to go into. You’ll see.”
Xander managed a small smile in return, and then the two of them settled back into their seats.
Waxahachie, Texas – Supercollider Complex – Morning
The Council jet set down on the small but adequate airstrip near Waxahachie. When the mission team exited the jet, they saw a couple of unmarked, windowless vans a short distance away. A middle-aged man in a suit directed four uniformed men with luggage carriers to the cargo area of the jet, then hurried over to greet the team.
“Hi, I’m Stan Luker from the SSC,” the man said as he shook Willow’s hand. “You must be Ms. Rosenberg.” When she smiled, he then turned to Faith and shook her hand as well. “And I think the whole world knows who you are.”
“Yeah, right,” Faith replied with a forced smile.
“Well, you can introduce the rest of your folks on the way,” Luker said. “I think it’s best we get over there ASAP.”
By the time he had gotten them settled into the passenger van, the uniformed workers had loaded their gear and equipment into the other vehicle. Within minutes of landing, the team was speeding through Waxahachie toward the supercollider complex.
Watchers Council – Hallway – Same Time
“You ready?” Rowena asked.
Grace clutched a couple of folders to her chest as she stood with her back to the wall. She slowly blew out a stream of air and then said, “Ummm…”
“Ready as you’ll ever be?” Rowena raised a brow.
Grace grumbled and gave a small shrug. “Guess so, but I think the butterflies are laying eggs in my ulcers.”
Rowena smiled, and she placed a hand on Grace’s shoulder. “You’ll do fine.”
It was then that voices could be heard coming down the hallway. Grace and Rowena turned and saw Robin, Jason Felix and Rajiv Venugopal coming towards them. The three men gave them polite nods of greeting as they headed into the conference room.
“I’ll be just a sec,” they heard Robin say inside, before he stepped back into the hallway. He walked over to Rowena and Grace with a friendly smile. “All set?”
Grace sighed and then smiled. “Sure. Let’s do this.”
As Robin and Grace walked into the conference room, Grace looked back over her shoulder and smiled at Rowena, who gave a small wave.
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Moments Later
Grace sat on the opposite side of the table from Robin, Venugopal and Jason. Her folders lay out in front of her, while the others each had a notebook.
“So, let’s make this official,” Robin announced. He tapped a button on the recording device in the center of the table. He recited the day, date and time, and then he asked all present to introduce themselves for the record. After that, he began his opening remarks.
“Within the last month,” Robin went on, “the Cleveland Branch of the Watchers Council has begun the final stages of filing formal dismissal charges against Dianna Earl for her actions last spring. However, we have received a request from Watcher Grace Hatherley to hear an appeal on her behalf before finalizing our decision. We have chosen to honor that request.”
Robin turned his gaze toward Grace as he continued. “After Ms. Hatherley’s presentation, we will consider all the evidence and render a decision. Since Mr. Venugopal is our outside party, we have asked him to chair this hearing. Rajiv?”
“Thank you, Robin,” Venugopal said. “Shall we begin?”
With nods from everyone, Rajiv gestured for Grace to begin.
Watchers Council – Rowena’s Office – Same Time
Rowena sat back in her chair, both hands on her large stomach. Giles, Mia and Jim sat across the table from her, also waiting.
“She has to do this,” Rowena explained on Grace’s behalf. “We may not agree, but we have to respect her for trying and not hold it against her, not even if she wins. Right?” She looked at the group. Jim didn’t seem impressed. “Jim?”
He sat forward and cocked his head to one side. “I’m not happy about it. In my opinion, we shouldn’t have even allowed this appeal.”
“She’s trying to save her mom, Jim. Wouldn’t you?” Rowena responded.
“Yes, only my mother wouldn’t pull a stunt like Dianna did,” Jim said. “Look, I respect Grace for trying, but as I said, I’m –”
“Not happy about it, we know,” Rowena said, cutting him off. “And I respect that.” Jim looked proud of himself as Rowena went on. “Everyone has the right to feel and think differently. All I ask is that you try and put yourself in Grace’s shoes.”
“I agree,” Giles added.
Mia snorted. “So says the guy who nearly yanked the hair right out of her mom’s head,” Mia said. “Reportedly,” she added.
Giles acknowledged the comment with a nod but made no attempt to either deny or apologize for the action it referenced. “Short of Grace herself, I imagine I know Dianna better than anyone,” he said. “Underneath it all, she is a good woman – misguided perhaps, in her later years – but I honestly don’t think she intended to do harm. Yet the simple fact is…I don’t trust her anymore. If she’s allowed to remain in the Council, I’ll accept it, of course, but in truth, this is more about Grace than it is her mother. I agree with Rowena on this point; Grace needs to do this.”
Mia pondered the thought and shook her head at Rowena and Giles. “Sorry, I’m with Jim here. Grace is a friend. Granted, we’re not best buds, but she’s been cool, and we’ve sat and talked and stuff. I thought she was on our side, but now I’m not so sure. She’s going above and beyond for one of them – one of them that was supposedly one of us. Makes me wonder where her loyalties lie.”
Rowena sighed, rubbing the back of her neck. “Please, not this again.”
“Yes, this again!” Mia shot back at the blonde. “Have we all just forgotten what Bureau Nine did? They sucked all the magic out of the world, for crying out loud! They killed people; they left us and the world defenseless. Who cares what their intentions were? They nearly killed Willow, remember?” Mia’s eyes locked on Rowena’s. “Tell me…if things were different, if things hadn’t worked out like they did, would you be supporting Grace now?”
“That’s just it, Mia…things are different!” Rowena replied sharply. “Things did work out, and it’s high time you and the others –”
“Okay, enough!” Giles raised his voice. “If there’s one thing we don’t need any more of, it’s all this bickering!” Both Mia and Rowena managed to look properly chastised. Giles took a calming breath and then continued. “Things are different, the Council is different, and now we must learn to move on and put our differences aside. Otherwise, this administration will fail, but more importantly, we will fail the cause.”
The room fell silent for a moment.
Mia bit her lip and then nodded. “Sorry.”
Rowena nodded too, then turned away from the group. She stared through the office doorway at the conference room across the hallway. She sighed and frowned.
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Same Time
Grace cleared her throat. “First, I’d just like to say thank you for even considering this hearing. I’ll be honest with you, my mother and I have had a…rocky relationship over the years, so I’d be the first one to put her down and in her place.”
“Parents and children are like that,” Felix said. “If she is wise – and I am quite certain she is – then she appreciates what you have become.”
“Well, she kinda does and she kinda doesn’t,” Grace said.
“What do you mean?” Robin asked.
“Unlike me, my mother’s not a Chosen watcher,” Grace explained. “But still, for most of her life, she’s dedicated herself to the cause.”
“Yes, she’s had quite a long history with the Council,” Venugopal noted.
“Right, and when I was born, she insisted that I be groomed to follow in her footsteps, but my father disagreed. Add that to a list of other things, and eventually my mother and father’s relationship broke down and they parted.”
Grace paused, frowning slightly. The others looked on sympathetically. After a moment, she shook off the frown and went on.
“Anyway, I blamed my mother for the breakup, and when I finished my education, I told her I didn’t want to be a watcher. We argued. Typical mother-daughter angst, I suppose,” Grace admitted with a grin. After sobering, she added, “And then everything changed.”
“What happened?” Jason asked.
“We found out that I was called as a watcher,” Grace said, “that I was Chosen.”
“And Dianna resented that?” Robin inquired.
“Sure. My mother had been a watcher her entire life. She had lived, breathed and slept her job, yet it was I who was Chosen. She saw this as a slight against her.” Grace shook her head and put on a disgusted smile. “How did she put it? Oh, yes. She wondered ‘how some little, ungrateful whining bitch who didn’t want to be a watcher was suddenly called’ and how someone like herself ‘who was utterly devoted was passed over’.”
“She said that to you?” Venugopal looked taken aback.
Grace nodded. “Yep. We’ve managed to resolve our troubles, but I hope you can see that I’m not blinded in my judgment just because she’s my mother. I know that it was this jealousy, in part, that led her to join Bureau Nine.”
“Jason?” Robin prompted.
“True,” Felix confirmed. “When we approached her, she was intrigued and happily accepted the position. She agreed that the prospect of finding a way to nullify magic was for the good. However, she did once confide to me a desire to…get back at magic for choosing her daughter over her.”
“Do you think that was the main influence in her decision to join Bureau Nine? Spite?” Venugopal asked.
Jason shook his head. “That would be inaccurate. Her comment was made jokingly, in passing, at a time when she was very tired. However, it was a joke with some teeth behind it.” He took a quick breath and then went on. “Still, my own view is that Dianna Earl has devoted her life to the same work as ourselves, but that personal issues have colored some of her decisions. This, in my opinion, simply makes her human.”
“Okay, here’s my thing,” Robin interjected. “Dianna was, and still is, a major game player. She came into the Council and played us all. She had just one objective – steal the Sphere. She did that right under our noses. And she did it perfectly. For the longest time, we didn’t even catch on that it was stolen, and when we did, nobody suspected her. And honestly, that scares me.”
Grace opened her mouth to say something, but Robin went on.
“Also, once she stole the Sphere, she kept on visiting the Council while she was on ‘vacation’.” Robin emphasized the word with air quotes. “But the truth is…she was essentially a Bureau Nine mole.”
Grace finally got to speak. “Her jealousy was only a minor part of her decision to join Bureau Nine. And if you take that small piece out of the equation, then you’re left with the main reason why she signed up: she believed that their plans would benefit the world.”
“I agree,” Felix said. “None of us are perfect. But with respect, Grace, that isn’t really the point.”
Grace stared at him. “So, what about you? Your grand plan for saving the world? Wasn’t it really just revenge for losing your family?”
Jason Felix’s expression didn’t change, but his features froze. He didn’t even blink. “Your loyalty to your mother is to your credit. As is my own loyalty to my family, and Mr. Wood’s and Mr. Venugopal’s to their own. This is not about whatever mistakes any of us may have made, even if such were guided by less than perfect motives.”
“Kettle. Pot. Black,” Grace shot back. “Didn’t you approve her plan to steal the Sphere? Hadn’t you tried to get the Sphere before my mother even entered this particular picture?”
“Jason is not the one facing charges,” Robin interjected. “Yes, comparisons can be made, but let’s get back on point.”
“I agree,” Venugopal said.
Grace and Felix shared a look, each wanting to say more. After a moment, Grace turned to Robin and said, “Okay then, let me ask you something. You would do what you felt was right in order to save the world, yes?”
“If saving the world meant that you had to lie to your friends and your family, would you?”
Robin hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
“What about stealing? Would you steal something to save the world?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I would.”
“From friends? From someone you liked, respected? Would you steal something really valuable from Faith, if that was the only way to save the world?”
With a sigh, Robin nodded. “Yes. Okay? I would.”
“Thank you,” Grace said.
“As I understand it,” Venugopal said after a few tense moments, “Dianna was key in the Council entering Bureau Nine. Am I correct? Her cooperation at that time was paramount in paving the way for the Council to restore magic to the world, was it not? Without her theft of the Sphere, magic would not have been taken away, yet in the same respect, without her, the Council would almost certainly have missed its window of opportunity to bring magic back. I think that needs to be taken into consideration.”
“Absolutely,” Felix replied. “As far as involvement in Project Roland is concerned, that applies to myself and Lori Carew, as well. Or any one of several dozen others.”
“Again,” said Grace. “Pot. Kettle. Black.”
“Once again,” Felix emphasized, “you are missing the point. No one is suggesting that your mother did not proceed out of good motives, quite possibly the highest ones. The issue is one of trust. It’s not whether she deserves any trust, but whether she can receive it.”
“This Council keeps a vampire on staff!” Grace blurted angrily. “One who killed a slayer! And from what I understand, this isn’t the first time, either!”
“Pardon me,” Rajiv said, “but it should be pointed out that Skye Talisker is not in truth a member of the Watchers Council. That may seem like a trivial detail, but I think it is not.”
“Grace,” Robin explained, “this isn’t about your mother’s worth as a human being. This is about whether or not anyone, anywhere in this Council, can work with her. In a way, it isn’t even about her. It’s about them.”
Grace leaned forward and met her audience’s eyes. “I’m sure we all agree that there are things in our past that we’re not proud of, things that we’re ashamed of, things that we’ve done that were wrong, but we were sure were right. I’m not saying that we should not be accountable for our actions. We should. But what matters is how we come through that, how we change, and how we make amends. It’s about redemption.”
She clasped her hands together in front of her, and, for the briefest of moments, she cast her eyes down. When she looked back up, she made her final plea. “If you can forgive Faith for assaulting a fellow slayer and then deserting the Council…if you can forgive Willow for going to the dark side and nearly destroying the world…if you can forgive Mr. Felix and the rest of Bureau Nine for almost killing Willow and Jeff and Andrew…and if you can forgive each other for all the other mistakes the Council has managed to accumulate over the years…then you should forgive my mum.”
Supercollider Complex – Perimeter Building – Later
The vans came to a halt at a rather small building just inside the outer fence of the supercollider complex. When the van doors opened and the mission team piled out, they all immediately stopped and stared.
About a mile in the distance lay the center of the complex. A glowing mass of energy swirled around the cluster of buildings, making them barely visible through the distortion.
Willow’s eyes grew wide, and she swallowed nervously. “Oh boy…”
“Come on,” Luker instructed. “Your local team has their command center set up over here.” He pointed at the small building. “You’ll be entering the facility via the emergency exit tunnel below.”
Supercollider Complex – Perimeter Building – Moments Later
When Willow, Faith and the others followed Stan Luker inside, they found the backup team from the local Council branch already at work. A couple of watchers were manning a bank of monitors and computers. Nearby, three slayers, two of them identical twins, were checking and rechecking weapons and supplies.
After introductions were made all around, Faith turned to Luker and asked, “So, what’s the sitch now?”
“Yeah, we’ve read the briefs. Has anything changed?” Willow asked.
“All of the perimeter employees have been accounted for,” he said, “but there’s still been no word from Dr. Solaris or his team.”
“Has anyone been inside yet?” Kennedy asked.
“In the tunnel, yes,” Luker replied. “But not inside the facility itself. We were told to wait until your arrival.”
“Well, we’re here, so let’s get going,” Faith said.
Supercollider Complex – Escape Tunnel – Moments Later
After going down a seemingly endless set of stairwells, the mission team came to a heavy steel door. They opened it and went inside, sealing the door behind them. The Cleveland team took in the sight of the thick concrete walls of the relatively narrow tunnel that lay before them.
“How far down are we?” Faith asked, with a hint of trepidation in her voice.
“About six hundred feet,” Douglas Dent answered.
“And the tunnel?”
“Not quite a mile,” he replied.
Faith clenched her jaw, then turned and faced the group. “April and August, you two cover our backs. Selene, you’re up front with me and Ken.” Faith turned to the rest of the Clevelanders. “Will, you’re behind us, and Andrew, you’re with the rest of the As. Xander, Doug, you stay between the two teams, got it?”
Once everyone was armed, ready and in place, Faith gave the command to move out.
Supercollider Complex – Escape Tunnel – Minutes Later
As the mission team approached the end of the tunnel, the temperature began to rise. With sweat pouring down her face, Faith ordered the team to halt. She removed her pack and stripped off her jacket. Following her example, the others did the same.
“Why’s it so hot?” Kennedy asked, as they all took the opportunity to drink some water.
“Just basic physics,” Andrew said. “When you slam things into one another, it generates heat.”
“Yep, that’s what happens when two worlds collide, or three or four or…” Xander quipped with a shrug. On that note, the team headed back out once again.
Within minutes, they came to the door that led into the complex itself. They stopped several yards out when they saw the condition of the door. Tendrils of wild energy lapped around the edges of the door, occasionally arcing out to the tunnel walls.
“Okay, everybody stay put,” Faith commanded. Then she started easing toward the doorway.
“Faith, no!” Willow said, grabbing the slayer’s arm.
“Look, Red, we gotta get through that door,” Faith said. “Somebody’s gotta be the guinea pig.”
“Let me,” Willow said. “I can at least shield myself.”
Faith thought about it for a long moment, then gestured to Willow ahead. Willow took a deep breath, then whispered an incantation, causing a magical shield to enclose her body. Once encased, she moved toward the doorway.
The closer she got, the more intense the energies became. The tips of the energy tendrils grazed Willow’s shield, creating a flashy reaction, but they could not penetrate. Just as she reached the door, however, a strong arc burst from the door and struck Willow’s shield, dispelling it instantly and hitting her right in the chest.
“Will!” Xander cried out. He tried to run toward her, but Faith stopped him.
“It’s okay,” Willow called back, catching her breath.
She had stumbled at first when the arc had hit her, but now she was standing firmly on her feet, reaching out to touch the whirling beam of energy. She smiled and turned back to the group.
“It’s kinda like touching one of those Van de Graaff generators,” she said.
“Say what?” Xander asked.
“You know, the thing we saw in science class that made your hair stand on end?” she reminded him. When he made an “oh” of recognition, she immediately reached up and touched her hair, but found it perfectly normal. “Though apparently without the hair-standing part.”
“Well, that first zap didn’t look too fun,” Selene commented.
“I think it was the shield itself,” Willow said. “The energy was just drawn to it…kinda like lightning to a metal tower.”
“I guess that means shields are out,” Kennedy said.
Willow nodded ruefully and said, “Probably so. Come on, let’s go.”
At that, the team warily passed into the energy field, opened the heavy steel door, and cautiously stepped inside the complex.
Supercollider Complex – Maintenance Area – Moments Later
When the mission team came through the door, they entered what was supposed to be an outer maintenance area. What they found was a warped and distorted world.
Energy tendrils swirled and lapped about the room. Some were dense, spinning into eddies and whirlpools, while others were thin, almost insubstantial, barely moving, like the first mists of a developing fog.
Most of the room looked like the typical maintenance area of a highly industrial and technical complex. However, some parts of the room looked anything but. It was as if they had been transformed – changed into, or perhaps replaced by – objects and things from another place. One corner had boulders, sand and desert scrub, while another had lush foliage that didn’t appear to be from Earth.
Suddenly, a nearby eddy spun itself into transparency, but it wasn’t the maintenance room that was visible through the eddy. It was another place, another time, another…something.
“What the hell?” Selene exclaimed.
Just then, a screeching three-horned demon came into view inside the swirling anomaly. Everyone jumped back in alarm. The slayers drew their weapons, and Willow and Andrew readied their magic. As the demon tried to reach its clawed arm through, however, the energy window closed in on itself and disappeared.
Kennedy looked over at Selene. “Hell is right,” she told her.
“I guess B wasn’t kidding when she said knee-deep in hell dimensions,” Faith added.
Willow looked over at Xander, but he wouldn’t make eye contact. His face was hard, like stone, unreadable. “Let’s just go,” he barked.
Supercollider Complex – Service Corridor – Later that Day
Nearly an hour later, the mission team had progressed deep into the complex. They had come to an intersection in the service corridor and had stopped to get their bearings. As Andrew studied the detailed map that Stan Luker had provided, Douglas pulled out his handheld sensor and began taking readings.
Gradually, the team began to hear a sound like rumbling thunder coming from the left corridor. They immediately took up defensive positions and waited for the source of the sound to emerge. Suddenly, a group of people came stampeding into the intersection. They were dirty, injured and scared out of their minds. Some were dressed in lab coats, while others wore jumpsuits, all with the SSC logo prominently displayed.
Willow grabbed one of the panicked workers. “What’s going on? Are there more with you?”
“Run!” he screamed hysterically. “You’ve got to run!”
“April! August!” Faith yelled. “Get them to the hallway we just came from. Hold ’em there! Xander, Andrew, Doug, help ’em out! Willow, shield the entrance!”
“But –” Willow started to object.
“Do it!” Faith yelled.
As Willow and the others complied with the order, Faith, Kennedy and Selene came face to face with half a dozen snarling, sword-carrying winged demons, straight out of Lucifer’s army.
Kennedy made a disgusted scowl. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Nope,” Faith said. “Looks like it’s deja vu all over again.”
With a roar, the three slayers rushed forward to engage the demons. The air filled with the sound of screams, groans and clashing steel. The slayers killed one demon and then a second, and as Selene was about to dispatch a third, she was taken out by the largest and meanest of the demons, neatly decapitated by his cruel broadsword. Already bleeding from several wounds, Faith and Kennedy retreated several steps back, trying to catch their breath.
The large demon let out a deep, bellowing laugh. “Slayers! You are all the same…pathetic!” He glanced at his fellow demons and boomed, “Kill them! Kill them all!”
With an angry snap of their wings, the three other demons charged.
Working together, the two slayers were able to hold off the three for a time, but soon the demons were able to separate the slayers. As one of the demons kept Kennedy busy, the other two closed in on Faith.
She fought like a mad woman, lasting far longer than the demons expected, all while the large one watched with malicious glee. She managed to stab one of the two, but not before the other grabbed her from behind. She struggled with all her might, but could not break the demon’s grip on her. The large one smiled and approached, twirling his sword in his hand.
“Faith!” Kennedy screamed from across the room, but with her own demon to worry about, she could do nothing to help her friend.
“Faith…” the demon said in a low growl, as he placed the tip of his sword under her chin. “There will be no angel to save you this time.” Then he roared and drew back his sword to strike.
Before he could, though, a large, jagged metal pipe came bursting through his chest, sending dark blood splattering over Faith and the other demon. The large demon grabbed uselessly at the pipe, but didn’t go down right away. As he turned to face his attacker, Faith heard a voice choked with fury.
“I told you I wasn’t done with you yet,” the voice said.
When the demon went to his knees, Faith saw who it was.
It was Vi.
Beaten, bruised, bleeding…but simply indomitable.
With rage burning in her eyes, Vi stepped forward and yanked the bloody pipe from the demon’s chest. As she flipped the weapon in her hands so that it was jagged end first, the large one crumpled to the floor, dead.
When Vi lifted her eyes to the demon holding Faith, he immediately released the slayer and began backing away. But by then Kennedy was free, and she neatly sent his head flying off his body.
With all the demons dead, the three slayers merely stood there, unable to do more than just stay on their feet and breathe. Vi was slowly coming down from her slayer rage, and after a moment she blinked and actually took in the details of her surroundings.
“Faith, Kennedy!” Vi exclaimed, running to them. “What are you doing here? Did you get zapped too?” She wrapped the both of them in a fierce hug. “Boy, am I glad you’re here.”
Kennedy couldn’t speak. Faith mumbled, “Not exactly.”
When Vi released her friends, she saw Willow and the others emerging from the other corridor. “Xander!” she cried, rushing over to literally jump into his arms.
Xander was dumbfounded at first. Then he wrapped his arms around her, letting out the breath he had been holding. It caught in his throat, nearly becoming a sob. “Vi…” he finally whispered, closing his eyes and caressing the back of her head.
As Willow hovered worriedly near Xander, Faith did the same for Kennedy, who still seemed to be in a state of shock. Faith reached out and touched Kennedy’s arm. “You okay?” she asked gently.
After a noticeable hesitation, Kennedy turned and answered. “Yeah,” she said, without meeting Faith’s eyes. Then she looked up and repeated her answer more firmly. “Yeah.”
Faith gave her friend’s arm a squeeze, then headed over to where Andrew, Douglas and the others were holding the evacuees. She went straight to the two local slayers.
“August, April…I’m…I’m really sorry about Selene,” she told them sincerely.
The twins nodded, fighting back the tears.
“Look, I know you don’t want to leave her here, but…I need you two to get these people to safety. We’ll come back for her, I promise.”
The sisters glanced quickly at their friend’s mutilated body, then looked at each other for a long moment. When they turned back to Faith, they gave her two determined nods.
“When you get them into the escape tunnel, guard that exit,” Faith said. “If we find any more workers, we’ll send them your way, if we can.” Faith looked at the swirling energies around them. “And watch out for those whirlpool sinkhole things. Don’t think any of us wanna end up on the other side o’ one of those.”
At that, the twins herded up their charges and headed back the way the mission team had already come.
As Faith trudged back over, Willow set Andrew and Douglas on the task of getting out a blanket from one of the packs. When they had done so, Faith and Willow used it to cover Selene’s body.
Everyone tried not to stare at the strange reunion they were witnessing, but it was almost impossible not to.
Douglas leaned over to Andrew, “Isn’t that –?”
“Uh-huh,” Andrew replied.
“But isn’t she –?”
Xander pulled away from Vi, grabbed her head with both hands and kissed her desperately, again and again. “God, I missed you so much,” he told her when he finally ended his kisses.
Vi gave him a playful smack on his chest. “Don’t be silly…you’ve been gone less than a day. Just playing around in Hollywood with Andrew and company, while I’m slaving away in Cleveland.” When Xander just stared at her, she said in mock confession, “Okay, so I wasn’t slaving away, I was at the movies with Angie. But then this happened. Did you get called away from Hollywood for this?”
Xander glanced at the others briefly, then said, “Um, yeah, I, uh, I guess you could say that.”
At Xander’s words, everyone nervously looked away. Vi noticed, but shook it off to focus on her boyfriend.
“I’m really sorry that you had to end your vacation early and that it was for something like this,” she said, “but I sure am glad to see you.” Vi pulled Xander to her and kissed him warmly. Then the two just stood smiling at one another, love beaming from their faces.
“Well…isn’t that special?”
At the sound of the snarky, familiar voice, Xander whipped around in alarm, causing Vi and the others to look as well.
Heli stood before them, her lips twisted in a half-smirk, half-snarl. She looked ten times worse than post-fight Vi. Her long blonde hair was filthy and matted in places. Her clothing was torn and bloody. Wounds, both old and new, covered her body. Her eyes were still cold, but now they were tinged with a dangerous ferocity.
When every eye was on her, she said, “It’s like a sweet little reunion, isn’t it?”
End of Act Two