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Chapter Twenty-Nine: Picking Up the Pieces

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:21 PM (GMT)
COUNCIL SAFEHOUSE

-Lydia-

"Are you all right?"

It took her a moment to realise that the question had been directed to her, due to the sheer absurdity of it.

In the last few hours, Lydia Chalmers had witnessed a Slayer voluntarily drink poison; accidentally-- though fortuitously-- managed to revive said young woman and assist in her escape; been forced to perform draining and invasive magic several times; incapacitated a co-worker with his own syringe; been half-strangled and used as a body shield by a superior she once would have followed to the ends of the Earth; barely escaped a collapsing building with her life; and in summation, bore witness to the disastrous finale of a civil war that might yet have crippled the institution she had sworn to serve.

...What had happened to Percy, anyway, after she'd stuck him with the Cruciamentum drug? Lydia swallowed back a rush of nausea at the belated thought.

No, she was most decidedly not all right.

She took a shaky breath, flexing her burnt hand, and began fighting her way up through the fog of shock she'd been drowning in since Quentin Travers' exceedingly timely vanishment.

"Ms. Chalmers?" A careful touch accompanied the address this time, brushing against the torn sleeve of her blouse.

Lydia flinched instinctively from the outstretched fingers, then choked out a slightly hysterical laugh as she finally registered to whom they belonged. "Mr. Giles. I... I'm so...."

She trailed off there, for lack of any conclusive idea how to finish the sentence. It wasn't her responsibility to apologise for the events of the day; but she couldn't bring herself to remonstrate with the older Watcher about his means of dealing with them, either. The manor would have shaken itself to pieces with or without his and his charges' presence, if her earlier conversation with Faith and Anyanka was to be believed.

The day's stresses carved deep lines through the dust and grime that overlaid Mr. Giles' features like poorly applied cosmetic powder, but the set of his jaw spoke more of grimly assured determination than the frustrated entreaty that had marked their initial introduction. He no longer seemed to care how his appearance or attitude might affect the Council's perceptions of him and his Slayer. Though she could hardly blame him. Lydia was no longer surprised that the man had kept so many secrets from the Council; only that he had ever returned to the fold at all.

She swallowed hard as Mr. Giles' mouth twitched in a failed attempt at a smile. "No need to apologise," he said, tone aridly dry. "After all, you're still here."

Lydia flinched again at the reminder of all those who weren't... and one who still was, the sole traitor spared the effects of Anyanka's Wish by an unexpectedly divided allegiance. The elder Wyndam-Pryce currently lay face-down in the drive with a knee in his back and a knife to his throat. Lydia couldn't find it in her to judge Faith's actions, but she was just as grateful not to be within earshot of whatever the young woman was currently whispering in his ear. The wicked smile curving the Slayer's mouth was alarming enough on its own.

"Every person to freely play a part, I recall," she replied tightly, quoting the parameters of the Wish. "And yet."

Mr. Giles tilted his head in acknowledgment. "And yet. Perhaps I should have been more careful with the wording; I doubt Sahjhan bothered to suborn anyone else, but I've no doubt there are others who serve their own gain over the Council as a whole. But that will be your problem, now; I think you'll understand if my Slayers and I choose to officially part ways with the Council again."

Lydia swallowed thickly. "I suppose you have every right to tar us all with the same brush. Lord knows, for every Watcher who was part of this scheme, there were at least two more who knew and chose not to act; or chose to act only in secret. But whatever I believe, you must know that the Board...."

She trailed off there, brow wrinkling as she glanced over the crowd slowly moving away from the ruined manor, a mass of dull colours and Brownian motion in the dark. They were gathering on the lawn on the far side of the now-shattered fountain, busy clinging to one another and tending any minor wounds. Perhaps two-fifths of the Potentials' Watchers were among them, mingling with their surviving charges; a handful of the tactical squad remained unbound, though divested of weapons; the Sunnydale group and their associates had clumped together in a blur near Faith and Richard, including the two witches who'd remained outside the entire time; and... well.

Her stomach turned over again as she realised that there was no 'and'. She was the only administrative Watcher still standing: the most junior and inexperienced of the lot.

"Ah, that the remainder of the Board won't be willing to simply let them go again without some sort of arrangement," she faltered for words. "The Council isn't all-- or at least, wasn't originally-- about control, as I'm sure you recall; surely some agreement can be reached? Even in this century, the statistics regarding Slayers left on their own versus those with Council assistance...."

"Are not relevant here," Mr. Giles replied firmly, "and for more reasons than I think you realise. Before the modern restructuring of the Council...." He trailed off, gaze shifting to the Summers sisters, and the Potential they'd dragged along with them; Kennedy, Lydia believed her name was. One of the oldest and most skilled of the group: the one Travers and Richard had been certain would assume the mantle after Faith's death. It was fitting that she'd been the one to slap Richard when he'd attempted to blame everything on Wesley.

"But I digress," he continued. "You have a far more urgent matter on your hands. It is the sheerest luck that the Hellmouth failed to open as it did when it relocated to Los Angeles, but even in its dormant state, it is not safe to remain near it while the energy patterns normalise. The children brought a van, and I assume there are additional vehicles elsewhere on the grounds....?"

Lydia glanced at the crowd of young women again: nearly forty of them left, with perhaps twenty adults not a part of Mr. Giles' group to protect them. She forced herself to think through what else she'd seen of the property when she arrived, and turned to point down a smaller lane that parted ways from the main drive at the foot of the hill. "There's a dowager cottage at the edge of the property, and I saw a detached garage. I've no idea what was kept there, but there should be something."

"Then I suggest you take whatever vehicles you can find, load them up, and regroup in London."

The very idea of trying to go anywhere yet that night, much less attempt to shepherd the ragged bunch before her along, seemed to increase her fatigue fourfold. "London? Tonight?"

Mr. Giles took a deep breath, pressing finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose. "Yes, tonight. Wrap them all in blankets on the floor of the main conference room, for all I care, but anywhere will be better than here. My people and I will secure the cottage for the night, and then... I suppose, work out some sort of plan to deal with the situation on an ongoing basis." He waved another hand toward the ruins.

Belatedly, it occurred to her that he must be at least as worn and weary as she was, if not more so; he was covered in dust and blood, greying hair as dishevelled as though he'd stood in the centre of a storm, and his wrists were visibly swollen, marked with angry red lines. Lydia flexed her own hand again, staring down at the vivid, tender skin marking the shape of a Chi-Rho symbol on her palm, and frowned.

"I'm not sure I have the authority for that," she said, helplessly.

Something seemed to strike Mr. Giles as humorous about that; his expression twisted wryly, and for a moment, his gaze seemed almost kind, an echo of the less burdened shopkeeper of their first encounter. "Perhaps I should find you a sword to throw at them, then; there ought to be one around here somewhere."

"Pardon?" Lydia shook her head, confused.

He cleared his throat. "I, ah-- 'power, you have it, they don't,'" he quoted, stirring up memories: of Mr. Giles' Slayer, indignant over Travers' attempt to bring her back to heel, and Anyanka, earlier that day in Faith's room. "It doesn't matter how much authority you think you have, only how much you can make them believe you have. You have the resources, the ability, and a potential solution. So get it done."

Lydia sucked in a cleansing breath, trying to appropriate a bit of that confidence. "I suppose I can only try."

"Please do. I'd rather deal with you than any more of Quentin's ilk, when the time comes."

With that rather alarming parting shot, he nodded respectfully to her, then moved toward his Slayer and her friends. Faith had finally stopped tormenting Richard; someone had produced a set of restraints while Lydia and Mr. Giles were talking, securing Richard's hands behind his back, and the young man with the lavender-tinted eyes had dragged him over to join the still-trussed members of the tactical squad. The young people seemed deep in some sort of argument now, hands waving wildly, at least one of their number holding a phone to an ear; Lydia shook her head, then left them to it, turning to seek out the Watchers she'd need to convince to get things moving.

Someone else intercepted her before she could reach them, though: a certain blue-eyed former classmate, covered in splinters and cuts from the battle in the basement. He had a hard-forged steeliness about him that she recognised more from the magic left behind in Faith's amulet than from their long-ago time at the Academy together; the same back-of-the-brain instinct that had made her flinch at Giles' approach went still and quiet like a prey animal under Wesley Wyndam-Pryce's gravely intent gaze. And yet, despite the outward changes... he still keyed his spells exactly the same way, like matching thumbprints of the soul.

"Wesley," she said, even more at a loss than she had been at Mr. Giles' approach. What could she say? "It's good, ah... I'm glad to see you're... in one piece?" Because surely, he was no more all right than she was, after everything.

He spared her any more verbal waffling and got straight to the point, softening slightly around the edges. "You as well. I simply wanted to say... thank you. For being here when I was not." A glance toward Faith, swiping the blade of her knife with a thumb before turning it to offer hilt first to her sister Slayer, made the intended inference clear.

Lydia knew any response she could make would be inadequate; but she had to say something. "It was the right thing to do. Besides, what are friends for?" she managed, with a hesitant smile.

"Friends, yes." His expression warmed, and she knew she'd said the right thing. "Those have been thin on the ground of late, for both of us I suspect. And it won't get any easier, with the Council to rebuild and... well, the other concerns at hand." He frowned toward the still-settling ruins.

"The Hellmouth. Here." She shook her head. She still didn't understand the mechanism of its arrival; the Council had never found out precisely what Wolfram and Hart had done to shift it to Los Angeles, but from what she'd patched together from Faith and Anyanka's conversation, its choice of destination had something to do with Travers' void spells. She made a mental note to ensure the destruction of any research that might remain, to avoid any further consequences. "Mr. Giles suggested I take the Potential Slayers back to London tonight for safety's sake, but at a minimum, we'll have to return to... to search for bodies."

There would be some, she knew; of Potentials and Watchers both, those who'd fallen before the enactment of the Wish. Heaven help whatever remained of the so-called progressive faction that had idolised Travers and Richard, when the rest of the Council realised what had happened; the older families, particularly those who ran the Academy and staffed the archival segments of the organisation, would close ranks like a brick wall after this and roll back every change the two men had ever spearheaded.

For the Council at large, Lydia believed that a return to the organisation's roots would be a good thing; she'd staked more than her career on that goal. But for those it viewed as black sheep? She wasn't entirely naïve.

Wesley nodded. "Of course. We'll be happy to have an official meeting once the situation becomes... less fluid. But I think the outcome may be less dire than you assume, given that Travers appears to have been successful in at least one of his aims."

It took a moment for the implications of that statement to sink in; one more shock in a day full of them. She turned sharply to gaze over the crowd of Potentials, searching for one particular head of long, dark hair, and let out a breath as she spotted Kennedy conversing intently with her Watcher, gesturing with something in her hand.

"A third Slayer!" Some part of her honestly hadn't expected it to happen, not after the repeated failure of the seeking spell. She'd feared the Slayer spirit had simply broken free of the line at long last: karma for Travers' attempts to pervert the terms of the original binding. He must have been right about the amulet; in suspending Faith's death, it had also suspended the passage of the Slayer spirit until the activation of its enchantments had simultaneously released and revived her.

And yes; that would make the medicine go down much more easily, for some of the staunch traditionalists. "Is it wrong of me to feel relieved?"

"No; only human." Wesley shook his head. He opened his mouth, then shut it again briefly, as if he'd intended to add to that statement and then thought better of it. "Perhaps you should suggest the Council consider her to be the Slayer going forward, however," he finally continued, "rather than the third; because I can assure you that while they may of necessity work with you in the future, neither Faith nor Buffy will ever again submit themselves to Council oversight."

"Mr. Giles said much the same," she sighed, then rubbed at her temple, only just then becoming aware that she must have lost her glasses at some point during the last hour. No wonder everything still seemed slightly blurry; it was no doubt contributing to the dull pounding in her skull as well. "Wesley, I'm... I'm sorry for everything. Take care of your... Faith. I'll do what I can, I promise."

He opened his mouth again; then again visibly reconsidered; then finally approached her with arms outstretched. "That's all anyone can hope to do," he murmured into her hair.

She accepted the awkward hug, lashes unaccountably dampening with restrained tears.

"Be well, Lydia," he said, letting her go. "And... thank you, again."

"You as well," she murmured, staring after him as he walked back to his Slayer. He passed Ethan Rayne as he walked; the chaos sorcerer had been holding a low-voiced conversation with Mr. Giles, but reached out as Wesley passed, laying a hand on his arm with a nod. Wesley nodded back, some understanding apparently passing between them; then he moved to wrap his arms around the young woman still wearing the shredded remains of Lydia's suit jacket.

Lydia turned away as they clung to each other, then sighed and trudged toward her own duty.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a small voice was panicking, wringing its metaphorical hands and begging for reassurance: it's all gone wrong, sir, what do we do now?

You have the resources, the ability, and a potential solution. So get it done, she reminded herself, then smiled faintly at the thought of how Travers would have reacted in Mr. Giles' stead. Undoubtedly some sort of platitude: it's all right, Lydia. We are still masters of our fate, still captains of our souls.

She snorted. No, it wasn't all right. But... maybe it eventually would be.

Lydia pulled her shoulders back, straightening her spine as she arrowed toward Thera Smythe, and refocused her thoughts on what needed to be done next.

Everything else could wait its turn.


Index | CHAPTER THIRTY >>
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