Buffy was amazed she managed to remain upright as she pulled the door shut behind her. She was trembling like a leaf in a high wind and wanted nothing more than to go back inside and sink into Willow's hold. Despite the fears that had plagued her after their lovemaking, she felt safe with Willow, whole, like a part of something larger than herself.
Silently chastising herself, she consciously straightened her spine, reminding herself of what she'd learned about her enemy. It was for the best, necessary even, if she was going to keep her loved ones safe.
She was still standing there a moment later, when she became aware that someone had come up behind her, and was clearing her throat softly--well, actually, not that softly, since she managed to make herself heard over the music blaring out of Buffy's room. The Slayer turned to look back over her shoulder, and found herself being studied by a pair of intelligent dark eyes. She tensed, noting shoulder length blond hair. Had DuCourvallier decided to bring the fight to her? The newcomer was pretty in a sort of girl next door way, but her clothes reeked of someone trying desperately not to be noticed and her manner was painfully shy, her gaze sliding away the moment Buffy's made contact. She hardly fit the role of the deadly killer demon. Then again, the Slayer had seen stranger things. And certainly the vampire had fooled her mother into thinking she was just an average coed.
Buffy's gaze became pointed, noting the steady movement of the girl's chest--respiration--the fluttery pulse at her throat--a heartbeat--and the thin sheen of moisture that dampened her skin--sweat. No vampire then. "May I help you?" she questioned cautiously, still uncertain who or what she was dealing with.
"I'm...uh...I'm sorry, I was ...um...I was looking for Willow Rosenberg's room..." the girl said haltingly, then seemed to lose control over her speech center as she babbled onward in explanation under the Slayer's silent scrutiny. "I...we...uh...met...a couple of weeks ago...at a Wiccan gathering...I-I just heard about the robbery...at the Twenty-Four/Seven. I wanted to know...to know if-if she's okay...."
Buffy relaxed a fraction. A friend of Willow's--she hunted her memory, trying to pull up anyone the hacker might have mentioned. "I'm her roommate...Buffy Summers...."
"You're the girl who was there with her," the wiccan said in a rush, and Buffy nodded
"Tara," the girl supplied as if she sensed the Slayer was searching her memory for the information.
Buffy blinked as she remembered Willow mentioning a girl named Tara that she'd met at the Wiccan gathering. She'd liked the girl, commenting on how sweet she'd been, and remarking on her shyness too, leaving Buffy with the feeling she was reminded of herself. "Right," she said. "She mentioned you... said you're nice..."
For a moment, Buffy thought Tara was going to combust she glowed so brightly at that brief bit of praise. Crushing and crushing bad, the Slayer diagnosed in an instant. She felt a brief flicker of jealousy as she wondered if Willow had noticed. " Don't worry," she assured the young woman. "She's okay...just a little shook up...she's...uh...spending a few days at her parents...." Buffy hoped Tara didn't know Willow too well, or she'd pick up on that little lie, since the chances of Will going home for tea and sympathy were slightly less than nonexistent.
But Tara only nodded after a moment. "I...uh...guess that makes sense...she must have been pretty scared."
"Yeah," Buffy flinched as she remembered the experience. She still hadn't had a chance to process it all. Just shoved it away in a mental closet with everything else she'd never had time to process. One day that closet was probably just going to explode and it wasn't likely to be a pretty sight. "Scared..." she exhaled, staring blankly into the distance. The room behind her was still pulsing with bad music, the screaming lead punker covering Willow's yelling, while stereos and boom boxes were being turned up, up and down the corridor. By morning, Buffy figured absently, there probably wouldn't be a member of Stevenson left with any hearing. That was assuming the walls were still standing.
Tara looked meaningfully at the door, her expression questioning. "I...uh...I think you left your stereo on," she observed after a beat, sensing the strangeness in Buffy's mood.
The Slayer glanced back as she shook free of her silent musings. "Um...yeah...it's...um...for the fish...Willow's fish..." Oh boy, that's lame, she chided herself silently, but having started the lie, she was stuck with it, no matter how high Tara's brows climbed on her forehead. "They like the music." Really, seriously lame. Get out now, before you shove your foot any farther down your throat. "Ahm, look, I kind of promised my mom I'd drop by...she's pretty shaken about the whole robbery thing." That last part at least made sense. Most people's mother's would be massively upset if their child was caught in the middle of an armed robbery, not consider it a slow night.
"Yeah...I guess I can understand that..." Tara said hesitantly, pausing for a long moment before continuing, "I-if you see Willow...would you tell her I'm glad she's okay?" Again the young woman's eyes fell away, her skin flushing with all the signs of embarrassment.
Oh boy, she has it bad. It startled Buffy to realize she couldn't even dislike the other woman. There was something entirely too shy and gentle about her to bear her any malice, especially since Buffy was pretty sure Willow didn't return the emotions. "I'll tell her," she assured Tara. At least, she would if she was still alive. "Like I said, I really do have to go," she added after a beat.
Tara nodded, looking up at Buffy with eyes that seemed far too old for her years. "Okay...thanks...." She squinted ever so slightly, the expression giving the Slayer the strangest feeling she was being stared through rather than at. "Be careful," She added after a beat.
Buffy nodded, her voice oddly choked as she responded, "Thanks." She turned away to leave, even took a few steps, only to turn back. For reasons she couldn't completely fathom, she wasn't surprised to find that Tara hadn't moved an inch. She didn't even know what she was going to say before the words left her mouth. "Look...Willow's fish...they need to be fed...in the morning. That's when she always feeds them...in the morning...." It was obviously Buffy's turn to babble, but then she wasn't thinking very clearly . "I was going to come back and do it...but since you're here...." Buffy offered a small shrug, trying to make light of the whole thing, so it didn't seem like it was that important. "I was wondering if you would mind?" She could see the hunger to please burning in the other girl's eyes. Well, she was a better choice for letting Willow out of the handcuffs than Todd, the floor RA--she didn't look like she'd enjoy it nearly as much as Todd would, which was fine by Buffy--and since Buffy didn't dare call one of the Scoobies--they would know something was up--Tara seemed like a logical choice. And she had gentle eyes. It wasn't just what Buffy was sure was a crush on Willow. There was something about her that seemed so caring. "Y'know, stopping by and feeding Willow's fish...in the morning."
Her brows knitted in a puzzled frown, Tara nodded. "Sure...I can stop by...to feed her fish...it's no problem."
Buffy fished into her pocket for her dorm key and handed it over to Tara, hoping the girl hadn't noticed that her fingers were trembling ever so slightly. "Thanks...I appreciate it." Tara was still staring at Buffy in a way that made the Slayer wonder if the other girl knew something about what was coming. If she did, she didn't mention it though, just took the key and tucked it in her wallet. "See ya around." Buffy turned away, hurrying down the hallway, the feeling of Tara's eyes on her back, an almost palpable sensation. Strangely enough, she never doubted that she'd made the right decision, and she didn't even know why.
* * * * * *
She shoved quarters into the phone, then dialed the number from memory, waiting impatiently while it rang. Four rings, five rings, six rings. Eight rings. Ten rings.
She slammed the handset down, hooking her arm over the payphone as she leaned deeper into the booth, momentarily escaping the sounds of traffic and humans moving ignorantly through the night. Too little, too late. She leaned her forehead against the cool surface of the phone, absently noting the graffiti scratched into the coinbox as she tried to remember if she was sane pretending to be crazy or the crazy pretending to sane. At times like this, it all seemed to meld together. Moments later, she straightened and moved on, moving through the dark streets; one more unnoticed wraith in a city full of them. She glanced at the watch residing on her inner wrist. Not so many hours left to go now. She couldn't help but wonder at the sanity of giving the Slayer a warning and time to prepare. Now there was a bad--possibly fatal--choice if ever there was one. She was still considering her own stupidity when the voice reached her, ancient and insinuating. The kind that could not be resisted, no matter how thoroughly common sense dictated walking away.
"Learn what is to come." The accent was heavy and, with the distinct dropped syllables and almost nonexistent R's of someone whose native language was Mandarin Chinese.
Delaine slowly pivoted to face the old woman, dressed like something out of a bad movie, the high necked silk sheath dress bright with twisting figures of hand-embroidered silk dragons and phoenixes, but she knew enough to recognize the real thing behind the costume designed to appeal to ignorant tourists. The woman was ancient, her white hair caught back from a wrinkled and lined face, her figure no longer filling out the curves sewn into the dress, leaving it to pillow out in odd ways. Jewelry hung in thick strands from her neck, and every finger glittered with jewels, all of them costume, except the one ring. She recognized the broad gold band with a simple opal. A scrying stone, a way of seeing into other times and places. Green eyes lifted and clashed with black, then she felt the woman's dark power as something reached out and gripped her tightly.
"To understand the past is to know the future," the old woman continued without missing a beat. "Nothing in life or death is accidental." A wizened hand slid through the air and the vampire nearly collapsed as a bolt of agony fired through her chest. "Everything lies within the realm of the Book of Changes."
She tried to back away, shivering as though she was still capable of feeling the cold. "I have no money to pay you," she nearly choked on the words. A hand landed on her arm, guiding her toward the narrow door that led into the woman's tiny shop where it resided between store fronts, barely wider than most alleyways.
"There are many terms of barter...as you well know..." the fortune teller whispered.
Strings of beads rattled against each other as they were pushed aside. Delaine didn't mean to step through the hanging barrier, didn't intend to...and yet...there she was, standing in the dully lit shop, the patterns of the I-Ching lying before her, the lines of the trigrams sketched in charcoal on the floor, while the musky smell of yarrow stalks filled the air alongside the cloying scent of sandalwood. She tried to pull back, but couldn't move as she stared at the patterns of the ancient Chinese method of divination.
"You know the I-Ching," the old woman was speaking Mandarin now, the lyric musicality of the language perversely threatening.
Delaine--already she had succumbed to the temptation to think of herself by her birth name once again--folded her arms around her midsection, trying again to back away, but the old woman's hand on her arm was implacable. "Don't," she croaked, her voice dry and ragged. "You don't know...."
But the Chinese woman's voice was as obdurate as her grip. "It has the power to see the future...and also to create it...as you were created...." She waved her free hand and powder so fine it was like smoke filled the air in front of the vampire as verbal images of her fate were laid out before her.
"The Judgement...If the superior man undertakes something and tries to lead...he goes astray...follows...finds guidance...favorable to find friends in the west and south...forego friends in the east and north...."
Delaine collapsed to her knees, barely aware of the door that slammed in the old woman's wake. She was cold, so damn cold she could barely keep her teeth from chattering. The words slid over her, sentences and phrases running together as the old woman knitted her past and future together, stitching power the way a seamstress had stitched her dress, mere snippets slipping through to her conscious mind.
"The Image... thunder within the earth...the Turning Point...kings of antiquity closed the passes... at solstice...Merchants and strangers did not go about...ruler...not travel through the provinces."
She was limp and unresisting as a withered hand dug into blond hair pulling her head back, forcing her to face fathomless black eyes as the old woman continued reading off a destiny that she could barely even comprehend.
"The Lines: Change at the beginning means: Return from a great distance. No need for remorse."
And then she was released, falling forward to her hands, gasping for air though she no longer needed to breathe.
"Change in the second place means: Straight, square, great. Without purpose, Yet nothing remains unfurthered."
Somehow, she focused, concentrated on hearing the words, knowing she needed them, running on instinct to simply survive.
"Change in the third place means: Hidden lines. One is able to remain persevering. If by chance you are in the service of a king. Seek not works, but bring to completion."
"Change in the fourth place means: Walking in the midst of others, One returns alone."
"Change in the fifth place means: Noblehearted return. No remorse."
She folded into herself, trying to ignore the voices hammering in her head as the prediction drew to a close while a gentle hand continued tenderly petting her hair back from her brow.
"Change at the top means: Missing the return. Misfortune. Misfortune from within and without. If armies are set marching in this way. One will in the end suffer a great defeat. Disastrous for the ruler of the country. For ten years, it will not be possible to attack again."
"No..." she hissed through clenched teeth, the words equal parts anger and torment. The thing inside her body roared, furious at the power being wielded against it, sweet features morphing to show its face to the world.
"The game goes on...and on..." her tormentor whispered, gesturing loosely with one hand, filling the air with more pale smokey powder. "You are what you are," that too-wise voice reminded her implacably. "And power suits, online stock trading, and rental cars do not change that." She gripped silky blond hair with an amazingly strong hand, wrenching Delaine's head back with more ease than should have been possible now that the thing inside her was raging and screaming. "You cannot run from destiny, just as you cannot hide from it or bargain with it. It is what you are." A finger trailed lightly along her cheek, the overlong pointed red nail just scratching the flesh and trailing humanity in its wake as she morphed back to her mortal form. "Destiny burns in you...you cannot escape it..."
The vampire twisted her head, trying to see into the old woman's black eyes, only to find herself staring at a young and unlined face, the dark hair and blue eyes framing features that had been soft and loving in the past, but now were hard and cold. When the blade was pressed against her throat, it was almost a relief. "Because if you can't face reality, then maybe we should just go ahead and end it."
Then she felt the knife cut deep, slicing through muscle, flesh, bone, veins and arteries even as she pitched forward, the last gasp of air from dead lungs whistling past her lips in barely audible syllables. "Elizabeth."
* * * * * *
Rupert Giles was very much aware of just how dark it was outside, the fact that no one was answering Buffy's phone, and, of course, that a day's efforts had yielded exactly nothing. He knew no more about where Delaine DuCourvallier might be, or what she might be up to than he had when he started.
And now he couldn't help but think of Buffy's voice when she'd told him she was going on patrol. It had been too nonchalant, too controlled, much too unBuffylike.... And she'd asked him to say hi to her mother...which made no sense whatsoever...unless....
"Oh, God," he exhaled as the realization struck him with the force of an actual blow. "She knows...she knows where DuCourvallier is...and she's going to face her alone."
"Did you say something G-man?" Xander inquired as he looked up from the corner of the painting he was studying, his tone surprisingly bouncy. The doctor had given him a couple of muscle relaxants for use if he got too sore from the beating, and he'd given in and taken one upon waking from his little nap. He was definitely feeling good...really good. A little unsteady maybe, but good.
Giles flung his pen down, ignoring Xander as he swore angrily, "Bloody hell, somehow Buffy found out where DuCourvallier is going to be. She's gone to meet her."
Xander paled, while Joyce, Anya, and a videotape-watching Spike all looked toward the former Watcher.
The blond vampire was the first to speak, asking quite cheerfully as he looked up from the blood soaked microwave popcorn he was enjoying with his soap opera, "So, what's up, mate?"
Giles' eyes fell on the vampire, he saw the look of laughing triumph and knew. "You did it," he hissed. He advanced on Spike, while the others looked on in confusion. "You're the bloody messenger she used, aren't you?"
"Don't know what you're talking about," the vampire insisted with a none-too-believable look of innocence.
Giles grabbed Spike by the collar hauling him to his feet. "Where?" he snarled, lips drawn back from tightly clenched teeth.
It was Xander who drew close to the two first. "Um...Giles, maybe a note of explanation--however brief--is in order."
"Yeah," Spike yelped, playing for time. "Since I don't know what you're talking about."
Giles was dangerously close to murder, but he reigned in his raging temper to force out an answer, "I believe Buffy's gone to meet Delaine DuCourvallier, with the intention of fighting her--"
"Four-hundred-year-old killer Vampire-Slayer chick," Xander repeated. "Oh, that can't be good."
"No," Giles confirmed and shook Spike to drive his point home. "Not good at all."
Joyce pushed to her feet, her expression horrified. "No," she exhaled.
"And since the only one here who had both the motive and the opportunity is Spike..."
The blond vampire was grinning, his eyes dancing with good humor, despite, or perhaps because of Giles' obvious fury.
"I have to conclude that this pissant, little bastard forwarded a message for the bitch." He shook Spike again to reinforce his point. "Now, where are they meeting?"
Spike appeared to consider the question, then suddenly his lips split into a grin and he laughed. "Y'know, Giles, you take life much too seriously. They'll probably share a Slayer's bonding sort of moment."
Xander pushed his way between the two before Giles had a chance to grab for anything wooden. "Whoa, Giles, no killing him...yet." Xander spun in place, grabbing Spike in Giles' place. "Not until after he's told us where they are."
"Oh, come on, you two," Spike taunted them. "We all know you're not going to kill me."
"Oh, don't bet on that," Xander disagreed.
"Oh, come on, Boy Blunder, you know you won't do it. Not as long as I can't fight back."
"But I will," Joyce said softly. All eyes swung to Buffy's mother where she stood only a few feet away, her expression deadly serious, a crossbow gripped tightly in her good hand. "If anything happens to my daughter, you die. It's that simple."
Spike laughed, but there was an edge of nervousness to it this time. "Now come on, Joyce," he coaxed, "you and I are friends."
"No," Buffy's mother corrected him grimly as she rocked the crossbow into position, pulled the string back and looped it over the hammer, ignoring the throbbing agony that bolted through her broken wrist. "We're not." She grabbed a crossbow bolt from the stack on the shelf where the weapon had been stored, dropped it into the slot, and took aim. "And if you don't tell me where my daughter is, I'll aim higher next time." She triggered the crossbow and the bolt tore through Spike's thigh, drawing a dull scream of agony.
"Ow! God, that hurts! Watch where you point that thing! You could have done some real damage!" he exploded in outrage.
Much to everyone's surprise, even her own, Joyce yanked the bowstring back again and dropped another bolt into place. "Guess where the next one's going to hit."
"Now, Joyce, let's be reasonable," the vampire bargained nervously, while Xander and Giles backed out of range of the weapon.
She smiled a brittle smile. "I've got a concussion, a broken wrist, plenty of drugs in my bloodstream, and a crossbow. Why be reasonable?"
The vampire swallowed hard. He would have been sweating if he could still sweat. "You wouldn't."
"Try me," she challenged in return. "I may not have Buffy's aim," she straightened her arm, sighting the weapon along the bolt, "but I'm betting I'll hit something."
Xander and Giles both took another step back, while Anya popped a potato chip in her mouth, chewing absently as she watched the ongoing saga with the same sort of fascination she usually reserved for bad horror movies and new episodes of Change of Heart.
"Now, wait--" Spike was still arguing when Joyce triggered the crossbow a second time and the bolt sailed harmlessly between the vampire's knees, close enough to just brush his leather pants and leave him shaking.
"Whoops," she sighed overdramatically. "I missed." She yanked the string back a third time, then retrieved another bolt from the shelf where Giles stored them. "Y'know, I think I see why Buffy likes this so much." Her eyes glinted wickedly. "It's fun."
"Go Buffy Mama," Xander muttered under his breath, while Spike's eyes widened another notch as he watched the woman reload the weapon.
"Giles," he pleaded, sounding more than a little panicked, "you aren't actually going to allow this?" the vampire demanded in appalled outrage.
Giles' gaze remained locked on Buffy's mother as though he'd never quite seen her before as he answered rather distantly, "Actually, I rather think I am."
Joyce made quite a show of closing one eye and aiming carefully as her hand wavered ever so slightly.
"Xander!" Spike shouted.
"Did you hear something, Anya?" the teen asked mock-innocently.
Not getting the joke, his former demon of a girlfriend responded seriously between bites, "Yeah, I heard Spike crying out in terror because Buffy's mother is about to shoot his genitals off. It was pretty loud actually. If you couldn't hear it, you should probably get your hearing checked."
Every eye in the room fell on the former demon for a beat.
"Umm, honey," Xander said at last, "remind he to explain the concept of sarcasm again sometime."
Anya only shrugged.
"Now, let's see what I can hit this time," Joyce mused out loud.
"The school!" Spike yelped, his voice rising a full octave as he saw her finger start to depress the trigger.
Joyce relaxed her hand fractionally. "The school?" she questioned, her tone politely demanding clarification. "That leaves several choices."
Spike's mind was racing. If he told them where to find the Slayer and her predecessor, then he was dead either way because he'd lied to all involved and neither side was likely to be terribly thrilled with him if and when they found out. At least with this lot he had a chance of escaping before they could do any real damage. If either Slayer got involved, then he was dustbuster-fodder for sure. "The high school," he insisted as though there was no other possible answer. "You know, the one your daughter trashed during the act of graduating. There's not much of the place left as I understand it, but it's where DuCourvallier bloody well wanted to meet her."
Joyce straightened her arm, once again sighting the weapon, her expression coldly angry. "Thank you."
"She told me that if anyone else found out, she'd kill her. I did your bloody little Slayer-brat a favor by keeping her secret...and besides, she also threatened me if I told any of you. She was very clear about that. 'Tell them, Spike, and you're dead.' And since those camouflaged bastards made it so I can't even hit back--"
"I think I should just shoot," Joyce decided out loud.
"All right, that's enough," Giles said gently as he carefully reached out to remove the weapon from Joyce's hand before she could fire. "We know what we need to."
Weak kneed, Spike sank down onto the couch. If it hadn't been his equipment at risk, he'd have been impressed, maybe even a little turned on. As it was, he was just severely relieved to not be missing one more aspect of his character that he considered more than a little important to his overall personality. On top of losing the ability to hurt, kill, maim, and generally create havoc amongst the human race, it would have been just too much for his ego to bear.
"Xander," Giles clipped as he glanced at the young man.
Xander was already moving, gathering up the weapons they needed. "I'm on it, G-man."
"Wait a minute," Anya broke in. "Are you suggesting we go off to fight an infamous vamped Slayer? Because if you are, I have to say I think it's a really bad idea. Isn't that the sort of thing the Slayer is supposed to do? And since Buffy is apparently already off to do it--"
"Anya, honey," Xander said too sweetly. "Shut up, and start grabbing weapons."
Her eyebrows lifted in response as she was torn between outrage and arousal at his tone of command--or at least as close to a tone of command as Xander was ever likely to get. She finally settled on pouting as she moved to do as he'd told her. "Well, if you're going to be like that."
"We can take my Bronco," Joyce inserted, still glaring balefully at Spike, who glared right back.
"We?" Giles repeated uncertainly. "I really don't think you should--"
"I'm coming," she said flatly. "I will not be left out of my daughter's life one more time."
The two stared at each other for a long moment in a silent battle of wills, until, finally, it was Giles who looked away. "Very well," he said at last. "There's no time to argue about this."
Spike settled back onto the couch, making himself at ease now that he was comfortably certain the worst of the evening was over. "Well, you all have a good time. I won't wait up for y--" His words ended on a strangled gurgle as Giles yanked him to his feet by the collar.
"Oh, you're coming along, Spike," he snarled. "Though it remains to be seen whether or not you'll be coming back."
"If you insist," Spike drawled, but his already parchment-pale skin whitened another notch.
"Oh, I do," Giles murmured as he thrust the vampire toward the door, trusting Xander and Anya to handle transporting the weapons.
* * * * * *
Nanking, China-- 1842 -- The Last Days of the Heavenly Middle Kingdom
Outside the darkness of the rented crib, the world was coming to an end; greedy men destroying underarmed soldiers led by corrupted generals, while a hopelessly addicted populace looked on in helpless horror. Inside the small room none of it mattered to the girl who carefully cooked a small ball of white material, her hands trembling only slightly with nervous tension. She was perhaps fifteen, with gentle features, her long dark hair glossy where it hung down her slender back. Despite her youth, she'd done this a thousand different times for a thousand different men. Such was he fate of a peasant girl sold into slavery by a family with too many daughters and too few sons. As she finished preparing the opium, she looked up from under thick lashes at the woman who stood in the shadows a few feet away, tamping down her instinctive fear. She'd dealt with a thousand men, but this was the first woman...and the first person in the combination whorehouse and opium den to treat her with anything approaching kindness.
"It is ready," she said softly, her lower-class Cantonese accent dulling the high vowels of her Mandarin, marking her for a peasant to anyone with the ear to hear the differences in the dialects. She started to repeat the words in achingly learned English--almost none of the foreign savages spoke even the most common dialects--but the woman only waved her silent, responding in softly accented Mandarin that very nearly mastered the lyrical quality of the language.
"It's yours," she said gently.
The girl frowned, not quite understanding. She was an addict of course, like a horrifying percentage of her fellow countrymen, but with war raging around them, the prices were rising on the drug imported from the poppy fields of India. For a foreigner, even a rich one, to give such a thing to a prostitute was unheard of. Fear glittered in her eyes alongside a perverse sort of gratitude as she stared at the westerner. At some level, she knew the kindness was no kindness and that it would cost her, but she was no more able to resist the siren's song than any other addicted child with no comfort but the drug they've learned to both love and hate.
She inhaled deeply from the pipe, shuddering ever so slightly as she felt the first wave of numbing haze wash over her. She inhaled again and felt the familiar pull of the sky as gravity released her body from the earth.
Soft hands cupped her face, then slid down the graceful length of her neck before parting the front of her gown, while lips as fine as the Emperor's silk delicately teased her mouth. She'd heard of men wanting women to perform such perversities for their pleasure, but it had never occurred to her that they might do such things for their own pleasure. Another lungful of smoke had her floating, clinging to the arms that held her and arching against the caressing lips that slid down and over her bared torso.
Such sweet pleasure; almost as addictive as the thick narcotic smoke making its way through her bloodstream. She cried out, nails digging into her strange lover's shoulders, body trembling with need, confused by the alien pleasure rippling through her nerve endings, but helpless to resist them. And when lips and fingers touched all the places in her body she'd learned to hate, she sobbed with pleasure for the first time in her young life.
Fingers digging into silky blond hair, she held on tightly as her lover slid back up the length of her body, begging and praying for the beauty to last the rest of her life.
"It will...I promise...." The softly accented voice wrapped around her, soothing any fears.
And then sharp teeth tore into the soft flesh of her throat.
Pleasure and pain coalesced into one entity as the girl experienced the first and last orgasm of her pain-filled life, dying far more sweetly than she'd lived.
Powerful hands slid through fine black silk hair as the vampire drank deeply from the peasant girl's throat, the thick narcotic of her blood flowing through long-dead veins, until the figure in her arms was little more than a dried out husk. She rose slowly, the girl's body still draped across her forearm, and wavered on suddenly unsteady feet as the familiar feeling of the drug washed through her. She tipped her head back, eyes sliding closed as she felt her body grow lighter with every passing second. At times like this, with the hunger sated and the mind dulled, the beast could almost forget the agony of its existence. Still holding the dead child like a cherished lover, it awaited the familiar brush of pleasurable nothingness.
But then instead of the familiar pleasure, there was pain, agonizing, bitter pain. She screamed, green eyes snapping open and clumsily threw an arm across her face, roaring as sunlight poured across her face. She dodged into the shadows, snarling in hate, but another hole appeared in the ceiling blocking off that escape route, knocked in the slat and plaster by a heavy sledge hammer. She tried to duck again, and again a hole was drilled from above to allow sunlight through, forming a cage of light around the roaring, raging beast.
She spun unsteadily as the door to the crypt-like interior of the crib was pushed open, lips drawing back from sharp canines in a feral snarl.
The men who entered were well-armed, and they quickly spread out, ready to deal with any resistance she might offer. "Who dares?" she growled in barely comprehensible Mandarin.
The response came in an ear-piercing wail in a language she didn't recognize, though with hundreds of dialects on the Chinese continent, that wasn't that unusual. The priests entered then, Shaolin, Shinto, Taoist, and a Buddhist monk, all praying, their whining drone painful to her ears.
"Hitting all the low points," she sneered, panic and inebriation driving her to slip into her native French, while the world tipped back and forth beneath her feet, threatening to toss her to the floor. And what an embarrassing way to die that would be. They lit incense wrapped in paper covered with delicately written prayers and pleadings to long dead ancestors, chanting and praying, while she snarled and tried to lunge forward, only to be forced back by the sharp beams of sunlight cutting through the smoky air.
And then the soldiers parted, making way for the slender figure that entered between them, her carriage erect and graceful, her gold silk robe embroidered in entwined patterns of dragons, and phoenixes, with black cuffs edged by images of bats and clouds.
The demon's eyes lifted, meeting the newcomer's black gaze and nearly losing herself in the obsidian depths. The Chinese woman was young and beautiful, her black hair swept back from smooth features, but the vampire cared nothing for that, only for the threat she sensed in her cool confidence. Uncertain now, she bared her teeth like any cornered animal.
A wry smile twisted strawberry kissed lips and the Chinese woman spoke with the clear and perfect accent befitting any member of the Emperor's court. "Did you think the sacred ancestors of my people would simply allow you to slaughter at will, beast?"
The creature allowed herself a small sneer, reminding herself of her essential superiority. "Since they haven't seen fit to do much to stop the British from killing far more than I ever thought of, I don't suppose I ever considered the problem."
Black eyes narrowed and the woman straightened if struck. "Such arrogance from a thing that cannot have the one thing it desires."
Hatred glittered in the creature's eyes for the truth behind the words. "You know nothing."
"It is you who know nothing. You could steal the artist's hands, but not the heart, her eyes, but not her soul. All of the alcohol and opium in the universe will never change that."
The creature roared in fury then, all control lost, lunging for her throat, then fell back screaming as a priest flicked yellow silk in her path, and it touched her skin, licking burns across her flesh like the caress of a Christian cross.
"Faith controls you. Faith can destroy you...."
She fell back, gagging and clawing at her face and arms as the smoke from the burning incense touched her skin. Above her, wooden javelins were ready to thrust down through the holes in the ceiling and send her back to dust. "Do it," she growled, almost welcoming the death to come. Too long had she lingered in this mortal world, unable to touch the one thing she had come for. Leaving would be a kind of peace. "End it." She fell to the dirt floor, an arm still around the dead prostitute, slender fingers clawing into the cool earth as she tried to escape the burning fingers of their faith floating around her.
"Or faith can create you," a soft voice whispered near her ear, the tone silky, promising a kind of peace she had no right to. "Surrender to me, and I can show you how to attain the one thing you long for."
"Meat puppet, you can show me nothing," she snarled, and suddenly found herself face to face with the dead child. A trembling hand lifted to brush soft hair from the delicate face. "I was made before your world was even a flickering ball of matter in the heavens. What can mere mortal flesh ever show me?"
"You sought to become mere mortal flesh. Mere mortal flesh can create a painting with a soul...while you can create nothing more than a dead likeness on canvas."
The vampire roared, a feral sound that echoed off the walls, but didn't look up to face her enemy.
A hand dug into her hair, dragging her head back when she would have fought. "I know what you are," her tormentor hissed. "What you have been...and what you can become...I can give you what you long for...but only if you surrender to me."
A long moment passed, the air thick with smoke; silent, except for the occasional rustle of bamboo armor. The vampire had no fear of death. Whether it was an ending or simply a return to the Abyss, she didn't know, but either way, it was barely mattered. Nothing had mattered for more millennia than she cared to count. Her very existence was cursed by God. Perhaps that meant that nothing at all mattered in the end.
And yet, there stood her strange captor, holding out the promise of some measure of peace...some small bit of fulfillment.
Or a swift death.
It wasn't such a hard choice in the end.
"Yes," she whispered after another beat. Almost instantly, the hold on her hair gentled, becoming almost tender, rewarding her for her submission.
"And it begins."
The sweet voice muted and melded into another, speaking English now as Delaine struggled up through the enveloping haze surrounding her.
"...eyes rolled back in her head and she just pitched forward." It was the old Chinese woman's voice...sort of--but not exactly-- because her English perfect and unaccented now.
A hand landed on her upper arm, breaking in on her addled musing. "Miss?"
"Damn junkies, you'd think they could find somebody else's place of business to die in."
She blinked back to full consciousness, suddenly becoming aware of the feel of cold cement under her cheek.
"Better call this one in." A cop, and then she heard the staticky sound of a radio.
"No, it's...it's all right," she mumbled and pushed upright, staring around herself in confusion as she realized she was on the floor of the Chinese woman's tiny shop, though the trigrams of the I-Ching were no longer in evidence. An officer, younger and less jaded looking than most, was crouched down next to her, his expression worried. "I...I just slipped and fell." She reached up and massaged her temple as if it throbbed, trying not to tremble in the aftermath of the visions despite their probable meaning. "Must have hit my head."
The cop's eyes lifted to the fortune teller. "Really?" he questioned. "She said you mumbled something and passed out."
Green eyes lifted, finding the fortune teller, and then she blinked in momentary surprise. This one was younger--a lot younger--and the scrying stone was gone, though the gaudy jewelry remained. Her hair was cut short and modern, the Suzy Wong sheath dress made taut by overfull curves, while the embroidery was still expansive, but with the machine-styled perfection of mass production. "No," she said softly, leaning on the hand he offered as she climbed to her feet. He had the look of a man protective of women and she flashed an appreciative smile. "Just slipped and fell."
His eyes turned suspiciously toward the fortune teller. They'd had complaints before.
"I'm fine...really. She was facing the other way when it happened. Probably didn't realize what happened." She heard her own voice, sounding confident despite the quavering in her stomach.
The fortune teller was scared now. She already had enough trouble keeping her business license. The last thing she needed was some hotheaded young cop deciding she'd endangered a customer. "Yeah...I guess I just didn't see as much as I thought."
The vampire heard her own voice, her normally almost nonexistent French accent far more pronounced than usual as she assured him, "Really, I'm fine. It was just a little accident." She straightened her coat, trying to look more respectable than the form-fitting leather she was wearing under the trenchcoat would have indicated. "I-I need to go."
The officer's hand caught her back. He still wasn't convinced what had happened. "Maybe you should go to the hospital." She tried to pull her arm back, but he insisted on holding on.
In that instant, she almost killed him, almost turned back and devoured him before he knew what hit him. "No," she gasped instead and yanked her arm loose to flee into the night. She turned herself free then, letting go all of the self-control she maintained to maneuver unseen and unnoticed among humans, moving as only she could, fast and high, dancing along rooftops and treelimbs with the ease and grace of a wraith. In the distance, she could hear the officer calling after her, but he was long gone and she simply was what she was.
* * * * * *
Buffy did a slow pivot in the interior of her mother's shop, willing her heart to slow its hammering beat against the inside of her ribcage. She drew a deep breath and exhaled heavily in a futile attempt to release the stress gathered in the pit of her stomach.
"You're ready," she whispered to herself. "You can do this." She fisted her hands at her sides, silently reviewing where she'd stashed the weapons. As she ran through the mental checklist, she tried not to think of Willow and the way she'd been forced to leave her.
No, best not to think about that. Willow would be okay. She would see to it even if it cost her everything.
There was no way in hell she was going to let any goddamn demon--ex-Slayer, or not--hurt the woman she-- the people-- she loved, she silently amended.
She was ready. She was prepared. She was psyched.
And hopefully, she wasn't doomed.
* * * * * *
Tara stood outside Willow's dorm room, her expression a mixture of guilt and uncertainty. She couldn't believe what she was contemplating doing; sneaking into the pretty redhead's room just to see where she lived, and perhaps feel a little closer to her, even if only for a brief moment. She'd known from the first brief meeting at the Wiccan gathering that the other girl was special, sensing the power hiding just beneath her quiet surface, but she'd held back, too shy to do more than introduce herself--and barely able to even do that much--thrilled to simply be in the other girl's presence. When she'd heard that Willow had been caught in the violence at the Twenty-Four/Seven, she'd almost passed out with sheer terror. Tara had it bad and she knew she had it bad.
Which was why she was standing outside the other girl's dorm room, striving to ignore the bad music blasting from the rooms up and down the hall, slipping the key into the lock, and trying desperately to pretend she was just doing this for the sake of Willow's fish. After all, while they might like the punk music Buffy had left playing (being fish, they probably didn't have the most highly developed music taste in the world), but even the most forgiving of fishy tastes couldn't be enjoying the cacophony that was blaring through the building until the foundations were probably starting to crumble.
Okay, so even Tara wasn't buying that mental argument, but it was all she had, so she clung to it fervently as she turned the key, and pushed the door open. She stepped through quickly--the flickering fear of being caught in the potentially embarrassing, if not exactly compromising position adding speed to her movements--turned, pausing momentarily as her eyes adjusted to the relative darkness of the room.
And froze, mouth dropping open as she stared at the scene before her in abject horror. "Oh, my God...Willow..." she exhaled and rushed forward, reaching for the cuffs latched over Willow's head.
The redhead shook her head violently, shouting hoarsely to make herself heard above the music. "THE KEYS ARE IN THE TOP DESK DRAWER!" She'd begun her captivity by straining against the handcuffs, but after it quickly became apparent that technique was doomed to failure, she'd calmed herself and worked on levitating the drawer open, something she'd managed with relative ease. Unfortunately, the iron in the steel alloy keys had proven as resistant to magical powers as the legends said, and they had sat unmoving in the open drawer despite her best efforts.
Unable to quickly spot the volume control on the radio, Tara yanked the cord out of the wall, lowering the sound level in the room to a dull, undirected roar, then scrambled after the keys. "What happened?" she stammered quickly. "We should call the police...my God, are you hurt?" Her hands were shaking so badly, she could barely get the key in the handcuff lock and finally, Willow took over, freeing herself. Tara pushed to her feet, adrenaline making her jittery. "We've got to call 911." And then her eyes darted around the room, shoulders straightening as she summoned something deep inside herself. "Is there any chance whoever did this is still here?" The questions came so fast and furious, stuttery though they were, that Willow had no chance to answer until that point.
"No," Willow said sharply, her tone forestalling Tara's move toward the phone. "It's not what you think. It wasn't an...intruder...it was Buffy...."
Tara's eyes went wide. "You...your roommate?"
Forcing Willow to quickly amend, "It's not like that either. She did it to protect me--the boneheaded idiot." Tara was still staring at her like she'd lost her mind as Willow tossed the cuffs aside and leaned down to free her ankles. Luckily, those restraints were just latched with velcro, so she was free in moments. "It's complicated." The hacker pushed to her feet, grabbing for the phone and dialing as she snagged her shoes and socks and began yanking them on.
"Um...what are you..." Tara stuttered uneasily. "W-Willow--"
"Really complicated," Willow added, then muttered to herself, "Dammit, Giles, pick up." Finally, when it was clear no one was going to answer, she slammed the phone down, finished tying off her track shoes, and scrambled first to the closet where she grabbed a lightweight jacket of the Slayer's that was blessed with a myriad of pockets, then over to the bed. "I'm sorry, but I don't have time to explain." She yanked Buffy's weapon's box out from under the bed, grabbing for a crossbow pistol the Slayer had apparently deemed too small to be effective. She grabbed a handful of short wooden bolts and shoved them in her pocket, then reached for the couple of stakes still remaining in the box. They were less than ideally sharp, but all that she had. Willow looked up as she heard Tara's soft gasp.
"Vampires," the blond exhaled heavily, her expressive eyes going wide with fright.
Willow stared at the other girl in shock. "You know?" she breathed.
"I-I've heard rumors...but...I never...I...y-you can't go out there if--"
"I don't have a choice," Willow said as she rose again. "I can't let Buffy face her alone."
"H-her? I don't understand."
"I know and I don't have time to explain." Willow grabbed a sheet of scratch-paper off the desk, quickly scrawling a phone number across the top. "But I need you to do me a favor." She turned a pleading look Tara's way and the blond felt her heart melt even as she realized that any fantasies she had about Willow were doomed to remain nothing more than fantasies. The hacker was in love--real love--it burned in her aura like a living flame.
"A-anything," Tara whispered.
"Thanks..." Willow jotted a couple of words on the paper, then handed it to Tara. "I need you to keep trying this number. If someone picks up, ask for Giles, tell him that Buffy has gone to Joyce's gallery to face DuCourvallier. He needs to come loaded for bear. Same message if he calls here. 'Kay?"
Tara nodded. "I'll tell him," she promised. "But, Willow--"
"I have to go now," the hacker said as she pocketed her keys and headed toward the door.
"Willow," Tara spoke sharply, her voice edged in desperation.
The hacker turned back.
A hint of a smile graced Willow's lips. "If I were careful, I probably wouldn't be going...but thanks." And then she slipped out, pulling the door closed in her wake, and leaving Tara alone in the darkened room.
"Gaia, protect them," the girl whispered, then picked up the phone and began dialing.