Whither Thou Goest... by Pink Rabbit Productions

Title: Whither Thou Goest...
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions
Archive: Pink Rabbit, A Slayer/A Hacker
Disclaimer: The characters and show all belong to Joss Whedon, Fox, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui, and God only knows who else. This particular arrangement of words in cyberspace belongs to me, however. Btw, it contains love between two women, so if such things offend you, are illegal where you live or somesuch, kindly don't read it and upset yourself, 'kay. It'll just make life easier on all of us.
Spoilers: Some general 5th season stuff, but nothing major.
Rating: soft R
Feedback: Always welcome at pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Author's Note: This is the latest story in the Spin Series (following Spin, Spinning, Spun Out; It All Depends on Your Timing; and Interludis Neanderthalensis.

Author's Apology: And here, I really feel like I should apologize for being such a wretch and leaving this one hanging for so long (many thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more, and saying kind things, and asking me ... more or less politely ... to please finish it). It's not really my usual style, but it got blocked ... really, really, really, badly blocked. I could offer a whole lot of reasons and excuses and such, but ... well ... it just happens now and then. Sigh. I hate getting left like that myself, so I really regret doing it to others. Thanks again for all the support and kindness. I promise, only finished stories from here on out. Here's hoping you enjoy and don't come after me shrieking, "How Lame!" and wanting to remove my head....
-- PB

| Prologue-Ch. 1 | Ch.2-3 | Ch. 4-5 | Ch. 6-7 | Ch. 8-9 | 10-11 | 12-13 | 14-Epilogue |

Chapter Fourteen

Buffy did another slow turn, barely resisting the urge to pace the confines of her mother's gallery. It was midnight, maybe even a few seconds after...and nothing. She couldn't believe it, but she was starting to wish the vampire would just show up. It would be better than the interminable waiting. Waiting was just not the Slayer's forte. "Just get here and get it over with," she muttered under her breath.

"Speak of the devil...." The voice was warm and faintly accented, the words softly spoken, though they carried easily enough as a slender blond figure stepped forward in the open window overhead, dropping straight down through a remaining glass pane, falling amid sharp glittering knives, black coat billowing around her lean frame, to land lightly no more than a few feet from the Slayer. Gone was the professionally dressed young woman that had done business with Joyce Summers. She was all black leather and loose-limbed sexuality now, blond hair tousled where it fell across kohl rimmed eyes. "...and the devil shall appear." If there was any resemblance to the innocent young woman in the painting Willow had shown her, it was a faint one indeed.

Buffy stared in shock, instantly recognizing the slender figure despite the change in dress and makeup. She'd stared at her slack features long enough, imprinting every rise and hollow on her memory as some kind of punishment for her failure to prevent yet another death. "You," she hissed furiously.

The newcomer flicked blond bangs out of her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. Physically, she appeared to be Buffy's age, but the green eyes that fastened on the Slayer belied that immediate impression. She was old. Very old. "Me," she exhaled, eyes sliding suspiciously around the interior of the gallery, though she'd already checked out the exterior and watched long enough to conclude there were no obvious traps. Still, it didn't pay to be careless. An advanced case of paranoia was the only reason she hadn't been dusted long before.

"What was that little scene in the Twenty-Four/Seven, some sick test for the Slayer," Buffy demanded. "Must've bummed you out when I ashcanned your little posse."

"My posse?" DuCourvallier repeated, the word sounding oddly out of place on her lips--like the rare occasions that Giles let some bit of Scooby slang slip out--then shook her head in polite disbelief. "Sorry, dear, they weren't with me. I just wanted a beer...then my Higher Power got clever and sent me a little reminder as to why I really shouldn't fall off the wagon." She brushed a hand over her stomach as if remembering the pain of the knife wound. "Besides, my employees are generally more competent than that bunch...though a person could be forgiven for thinking otherwise of late."

"Oh, of course, you were just there by accident. Just like your attempt on my mother's life was nothing but an accident." The Slayer's lip curled with disdain. "What's next, you gonna try and sell me a bridge?"

DuCourvallier's eyes narrowed fractionally. "I broke your mother's wrist--not the kindest of acts, I'll grant, but hardly a murder attempt...and there was some provocation." She straightened her shoulders, looking bored with the whole situation, though she was far too tense for that act to be believable. "However, that's neither here nor there. If you'll just give me my property, I'll be on my way."

Buffy shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't know what you're up to...or why you're really here, but you're not leaving except in a vacuum cleaner bag."

Again, the vampire's lips lifted in the faintest of wry smiles, a superior expression Buffy was fast learning to hate. "Clever threat, but I doubt you're up to the task."

"If that's what it takes to keep the people I love safe, believe it," the Slayer promised.

"If you want to keep them safe, I suggest you give me what's mine...then you can see the back end of me and go back to your life...such as it is. And I can be free of this little bit of hell on earth you call home." She waved an impatient hand. "And now I'd like my painting if you please."

"Painting?" Buffy drawled and made a show of trying to remember, purposely goading the other woman. "Oh yeah, I remember now...burned it." She took a certain vicious pleasure in the way the vampire flinched as though struck.

Dangerous lights flickered in green eyes. "I suggest you rethink this line of attack, Little Slayer."

Buffy didn't even pause to consider her response, just shot back, "Nope, burned it. It kind of crisped and curled on the edges, and then it went up like tissue paper." She smiled the same feral smile she'd shown the mayor when telling him how she'd stabbed Faith.

And got the same reaction...and more.

Buffy had been sure she was ready for the vampire. She expected strength and speed greater than her own, was braced to duck, roll, grab the sword near her boot, and come up fighting.

What she wasn't ready for was the woman's inhuman speed. Little more than a blur, she leapt at Buffy, coat billowing around her like a great, black cape. She was on her before the Slayer could do more than fall back a step and get an arm halfway up in an ineffectual block. She tried to duck the hand that clawed around her throat, but was nowhere near fast enough. In a heartbeat, she was lifted off her feet and carried backward several yards before the vampire slammed her into a wall with bone-rattling force, then used the length of her body to keep her pinned there. Buffy tried to punch and kick her way free, but in that position couldn't get leverage enough to make the blows count, not that she was entirely certain they would have counted even if she could have gotten leverage. The creature holding her was solid, obdurate muscle that made every demon she'd ever fought seem flabby and weak by comparison.

"Now," the vampire hissed near Buffy's ear, completely ignoring the kicks hammering into her side, "I suggest you reconsider your story and bear in mind," Delaine's voice dropped to little more than a throaty growl, her eyes seeming to glow with demonic lights, though her face did not transform, "I am not the sanest of souls."

"Coulda fooled me," the Slayer choked past the brutal grip on her throat.

The vampire shifted until they were eye to eye, separated by no more than a hand's width, so close Buffy could see her own reflection in the other woman's pupils. As she watched, she saw the vampire come within a millimeter of losing all control before pulling herself back from the edge, her expression shuttering down in an instant. The hold on Buffy's throat loosened fractionally, allowing her some room to breath as a muscle pulsed in the sharp cut of the vampire's jaw. She looked nothing like the fuzzy view of the painting Willow had shown the Slayer. That woman had been all soft curves and gentleness. This one was hard muscle with sharp angles and deep-set eyes. She wasn't precisely beautiful. In fact, at first glance, she was no more than average attractive. But on second look, there was something fiercely elegant about the power she radiated.

Even dead and turned, Buffy could sense the part of her that had been the Slayer.

"The truth," the vampire demanded, her breath a chill wind across Buffy's face.

"Why don't you let me go and I'll tell you," the Slayer choked past the harsh grip on her throat, trying to project an aura that would maybe intimidate her opponent. Yeah, and while I'm at it, maybe I can get her to donate to the Slayer's College Scholarship Fund, she thought as she hunted for some kind of opportunity to escape.

"Why don't I break your neck and watch while you die because your spinal cord is no longer transmitting the message from the part of your brain that tells your autonomic reflexes to do their thing. Suddenly you can't breathe, and your heart can't beat, and your brain is basically stuck on top of a lump of disconnected clay for the last couple of minutes of your life." She pressed Buffy harder against the wall. "Now, where is my painting?!" she demanded, each word coming out in shotgun blast syllables.

With more oxygen in her system, the Slayer could feel strength flowing back into her muscles. She did the only thing she could think of. She flung an insult. "I burned that piece of trash." And then she threw a punch with every last ounce of strength she possessed. "It bored me as much you're doing now."

The vampire's head rocked sideways with the force behind the blow, and blood ran freely from a split Buffy's knuckles opened in her lower lip. "Boring you? Can't have that," she murmured dryly, then ran her tongue along her lip, swiping up most of the blood.

And then suddenly Buffy found herself airborne, the interior of her mother's gallery flashing by at an alarming rate. She hit the shattered remains of a display case on the far side of the room and tumbled to the floor with a pained grunt. Not exactly the ideal way to obtain her freedom, but it would have to do. Tasting blood, she pushed to unsteady feet, eyes meeting the vampire's cold green gaze. "Oooo, now that gets about a two on the originality meter," she taunted. "That's the sort of thing I expect from a two bit Furial demon--all brawn and no brain--not the vaunted Vampire-Slayer: Terror of the Watcher's Council. Or was your plan to soften me up by boring me into submission?" Fully expecting to feel the impact of the creature's rage, she grabbed for a short spear of wood that stood up from the destroyed display case, brandishing it menacingly, ready to meet her charge.

It didn't come. At least not at first. Instead, the vampire didn't move than it took to turn and stare at Buffy. "Childish insults, pointless threats, and...." her eyes dropped to the pathetic weapon in the Slayer's hands, "...pointless stakes aside...I'm not really in the mood for games, child." She dragged the sword the Slayer had intended using from its hiding place with the point of her boot before toeing it lightly into the air. "Poorly weighted," she noted as she caught it and gave an experimental flick or two. "Your Watcher needs to learn a bit more about good steel. This weapon is garbage."

Buffy's lips lifted in a sneer. "Sharp enough to take a head." Another sword lay close to her position. If she could just get her hands on it.

Sensual lips twisted in an ironic smile. "This isn't an episode of Highlander, child." She looked tired and more than a little annoyed. "And the only head that would be lost would be yours, so I suggest you control your temper before I decide to end this conversation the hard way."

Buffy swallowed hard, but held her ground. "Go ahead and try."

The Vampire-Slayer watched the display with a raised eyebrow and then did something the Slayer never expected. She laughed. Not the sarcastic wry laugh she'd used like a sharp blade on Buffy's confidence when she'd first arrived, but a full out oh-god-this-is-too-funny-for-words guffaw, while Buffy could feel her face growing hot. God, this was worse than the vampires who'd critiqued her freshman entry into college. She redoubled her hold on the impromptu stake.

"Damn you!" the Slayer hissed furiously.

DuCourvallier waved a hand in an apologetic gesture that was totally at odds with the circumstances as she responded in a voice still thick with laughter, "Sorry, it just finally struck me how perversely funny this whole situation is." The laughter was fast turning to uncontrolled giggles that left Buffy wondering just how true that comment about not being the sanest of souls had been. "My business manager gets a crush on your mother at an antique auction and so ... knowing something of her monetary woes--you do know your mother's on the verge of bankruptcy, don't you?" she changed subjects with whiplash inducing abruptness.

Buffy stared at her antagonist in disbelief. "You don't know what you're talking about," she growled, growing angrier by the second.

"Don't I? Oh please. This place didn't come cheap;  your dad can barely make the child support payments -- and they ended when you turned eighteen anyway -- her insurance costs are through the roof -- do you have any idea what things like that cost when you make almost weekly claims -- and Sunnydale -- God love it -- hasn't had a lot of tourists to grab up this sort of kitsch since word got out to the travel agents that their customers had a bad habit of getting eaten in this burg." The vampire was barely keeping the giggles down as she continued with the shotgun blast words, while Buffy eased her toe under the edge of the sword blade that just barely peeked out from under the edge of the nearby display case. "Plus there's your schooling and medical expenses -- speaking of insurance rates that are through the roof -- buying a house that routinely gets wrecked by every passing demonic hellspawn with no date on a Saturday night, and it all adds up to between four-hundred and four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars in the hole. Actually, I'd be impressed that someone with a credit rating in negative numbers could achieve such a feat if it weren't so goddamned appalling." She shook her head. "Only in California."

"Lying bitch," Buffy snarled as she fought not to be noticed in her efforts to work the weapon free.

"Hardly. Actually, I was trying to be nice. I figure, what the hell, do the Slayer's mum a favor. Seemed like the right thing since she's not likely to live especially long. I mean why should whatever time she's got left be spent in the tortured realms of extreme debt."

Buffy chest was heaving with her ragged breathing and she could barely hold off on the urge to leap at the vampire. "If you touch my mother--"

"Me? Sorry, no. She's in no danger from me, but--"

"JUST SHUT UP!!" Buffy screamed, losing all pretense at control for a brief second even as she toed the blade another half inch toward freedom, the hilt scraping across the floor, the sound seeming so loud to her ears that she was amazed her antagonist hadn't heard it.

And then the vampire's gaze turned flint hard, the laughter dropping away in an instant. "Now, you know what it feels like to have something you cherish threatened." She lifted the blade to run her fingers down the edge, testing the steel. "I don't even have to use this to threaten her.... I just have to put out the word -- discretely, of course -- in the art world -- very small place -- about her financial problems and she loses everything she's ever wanted." Her voice dropped until it was little more than a hiss. "She loses her dreams...one...more...time... and that can be a lot worse than death. Trust me, I know."

"Fuck you!" Buffy snarled, but she held back and didn't lunge, knowing that against the sword, her stake was only likely to get her killed.

"Sorry, you're not my type ... and I don't think your little girlfriend wouldn't approve." The faintly leering quality of her smile made it apparent that she knew exactly what she was saying.

Buffy barely held back the explosion of sheer rage moving through her veins. "Touch her and I swear to god--"

"Don't worry, little girl, she was my present to you -- one Slayer to another -- though I'm not sure you appreciate the value of the gift yet. I suppose the young seldom appreciate the things they're given as much as the ones they earn. Unfortunately, I doubt you're up to that task just yet." She pointed the sword at Buffy then, the graceful arch of her arm and wrist bespeaking absolute confidence with the weapon. "However, that's hardly my problem. And since it seems..." she trailed off momentarily, eyes blazing though she took on the tone of businesswoman she was more than capable of pretending to be, "getting my property back is not going to be an option -- at least not tonight -- I'll bid you adieu with one final bit of advice -- a threat if you like -- tell your mother to arrange to have my property returned to the holding company handling the sale...particularly a certain painting -- or so help me, there will be hell to pay. And you do not want to learn what kind of coin I trade in." Her lips twisted in a smirk. "Oh... and tell your Watcher to learn something about swords before he gets you killed. The steel's crystallizing on this one -- it wasn't tempered properly -- it could shatter on impact."

And then she did something Buffy never expected, she turned neatly on her heel and started toward the door. The slayer was stunned into paralysis for a brief moment. The bitch was walking away, and God only knew when she'd walk back--or how many she'd kill when she did it. She couldn't allow that to happen. She dove forward, retrieving the hidden sword and kicking off into a leap at the retreating vampire's back, the blade arcing toward the slender arch of her neck. Moving as fast as she ever had, every muscle behind the force of the blow, her control perfect, she was sure she was going to end it all in one swift, sure blow.

It didn't quite happen that way.

Instead, the vampire's hand snapped up and back, swinging the blade around to block Buffy's blow blind. The swords clashed and sparked, steel skidding against steel as the vampire pivoted to face the Slayer again, flicking her wrist just enough to block a second attack from Buffy as the Slayer regained her balance. "And here I thought your Watcher would have taught you the sword," the vampire said, her expression disdainful. "Your grip's pathetic."

Buffy fell back a half step, the weapon still held at the ready. As the Slayer, she was used to outclassing the vast majority of her foes, and even when she didn't, the scales had generally been fairly equally balanced, most often her skills and brains against overwhelming brawn. If she was honest with herself, she was scared -- deeply, meaningfully scared -- but also well aware that if she didn't stop her, the vampire might well kill everyone she cared for. "Well, if you feel that way," she taunted, knowing she probably couldn't stop the creature if she decided to run, "why don't you just give me a lesson."

"Careful what you ask for, little girl," the vampire drawled, her voice seeming deeper than normal, hinting at her inhumanity. "You might just get it... I come from a time when men knew how to use these toys for real ... and I was taught by the best."

"Oh, come on. You're supposed to be the terror of the Watcher's Council. This should be easy for you...of course, that may all just be hype. Maybe you're just one more rat hiding underground...." It was Buffy's turn to snort disdainfully as she tried to artificially build her confidence, reminding herself that if this woman was as terrifying as the Council wanted to believe she would have long since left an unmistakable trail of blood and destruction across the planet. If she was everything they feared, she'd have left a wash of bodies visible from the space shuttle. Instead, they weren't even sure she was alive.

Her spirits buoyed by false confidence, Buffy straightened her shoulders and tightened her grip on the sword. "In my experience, cowards in life are cowards in death--"

The vampire still hadn't moved, simply standing there with the sword up and ready. "Careful," she hissed, glaring angrily.

"Did it start when you lured your Watcher's wife to her death--" Buffy didn't know how she knew how to trigger the woman. She just did.

And she got the results she wanted.

Sort of.

Buffy expected the attack to come from the sword, but instead, the vampire brought her left foot around in an arcing roundhouse kick that slammed into the Slayer's shoulder and tossed her off her feet. She hit the floor hard, rolling with the her momentum to regain her feet, barely coming back around in time to fend off a sharply delivered attack from a flashing blade. A flurry of rapidly delivered blows followed, driving the Slayer backward, the force behind them so violent she was nearly knocked off her feet more than once.

And then suddenly the hammering stopped. Buffy lifted her eyes from where the two weapons were still braced against each other, her breath coming in heaving gasps.

The vampire was smiling, a twisted, ironic expression. "First lesson," she said softly, "watch your enemy, not their weapon...attack can come from many fronts...." She started to throw another roundhouse kick, but Buffy saw it this time and blocked it with her arm.

"Better," the vampire allowed with the faintest inclination of her head, as though she was simply there to give a lesson. She tapped Buffy's weapon with her own, easily controlling it with small parrying movements. "Lesson two: each weapon has its own style of fighting and its own point of balance...." She elongated her arm, wrist and hand relaxing. "One fights with the epee from the wrist." And then she drove the Slayer back with quick slashes, controlling the fight with speed and grace instead of raw power. "Whereas the heavier rapier is controlled from the forearm." As she spoke the style of fighting shifted to demonstrate her point, even as she beat the Slayer back, giving her little if any opportunity to do more than protect herself. "While the saber is a slashing weapon and requires the strength of the entire arm."

Buffy had to bite back a scream as the point of the blade battered her weapon aside and tore through her shirt and the flesh beneath. She stumbled backwards, barely getting her blade up as the attack shifted again.

"And then there's the broadsword." DuCourvallier began delivering furious beating strokes, hammering Buffy with casual disdain. "It uses both hands and the shoulders."

Her body a throbbing mass of agony, Buffy slipped on a stray shard of glass and she went down hard, one knee deeply sliced by more of the glass.

DuCourvallier paused, a smile twisting sensual lips. She slowly raised the sword. "And then there's the Claymore. It's a six foot long Scottish weapon. Requires a two-handed grip and considerable strength." She had the blade poised over her head. "The power behind the blow comes from the back and utilizes the weight of the entire body."

Buffy swallowed hard and raised her weapon, redoubling her grip with both hands, more than certain that either the blade or her grip would not hold.

She was dead.

"I told you to be careful what you asked for, little girl," the vampire drawled.

Buffy rechecked her grip on her sword as she saw the blade start to descend. She would have one chance and one chance only.

"NO!"

Buffy followed the sound of the scream, spotting the slender red-headed figure standing in the open doorway of the shop, one hand raised even as a sharp bolt of energy cast forward.

The vampire still had the sword raised, but she too was staring at the newest entrant into the gallery. She was still standing like that when the bolt hit her no more than a heartbeat later.

Willow's lips barely moved and she stretched out one arm, focusing her thoughts into the spell.

And then the vampire wasn't standing over Buffy anymore. In fact, she was airborne, slender body tossed end over end before slamming into the opposite wall. She hit hard enough to leave a human shaped dent in the plaster that would have been comical under different circumstances, then tumbled to the floor.

Buffy blinked in surprise and slowly pushed to her feet. "Will?" she croaked as she turned her gaze back to the young woman standing in the doorway. "I-I thought I--"

"I couldn't stay away," Willow insisted and started forward to steady Buffy.

"Don't," Buffy hissed, holding out a hand in a halting motion. "Just stay there," she added as she swung her head back toward where the vampire had impacted the wall. She wouldn't have much time with an advantage and she lunged back into the fight, attacking with every ounce of strength she possessed, catching a second wind, the stakes raised now that Willow was in the room.

DuCourvallier was still scrambling to her feet as Buffy leapt at her, swinging her weapon in a graceful arc, her skills already improved by the vampire's quick, brutal lesson. Buffy got in a good cut and it left a bright red line on DuCourvallier's upper chest, but the vampire ducked the second arc of the blade, rolling for her feet and scrambling after her own weapon where it had fallen several feet away. She came up fighting, but Willow's spell had left her dazed, making the battle much closer. Swords flashed and blows made contact, the only conversation now, the occasional grunt or gasp of the two combatants. Any thought of trading one liners or insults was lost in the need for concentration.

Willow stood watching helplessly from the sidelines, her body throbbing from the energy it had cost her to cast the force spell. She'd been practicing it in small form in hopes that it might help in a fight one day, but she'd never expected to need it this soon. And, she could have used it again. It had thrown the vampire's equilibrium, but she was still enough faster and stronger than Buffy that the Slayer was unlikely to win the confrontation. Unfortunately, Willow didn't think she could summon the concentration to cast another force spell and, done wrong, it was as likely to hurt Buffy as help her. Then she saw Buffy slip, while the vampire's blade skated along her shoulder, drawing a thin bead of blood. Her lover was weakening, the surge of energy running out. If something didn't happen quickly, she couldn't maintain the brutal pace of the battle for long.

The spell Willow wove was surprisingly simple one, a barricade to block the combat altogether and hopefully buy the Slayer some time, but as tired as she was, throwing it up required her to dig deep into herself, drawing on reserves she didn't really even understand yet. An ancient incantation slipped from her lips, hands lifting, fingers spread as she summoned the arcane energies around everything, molding and controlling them. Green eyes glowed with fierce concentration, energy sparked....

And then nothing happened. Or at least nothing visible happened, but as the two Slayers swung their swords, the blades hit an invisible wall, leaving bright trails of sparks without ever making contact.

Willow's magic barricade had worked with a vengeance. As plans made on the fly go, it wasn't actually bad one. Or it wouldn't have been if she hadn't made one crucial mistake. She threw the barricade into place with DuCourvallier on her side.

For a beat, neither vampire nor slayer seemed to understand that they were prevented from combat and swung again, their swords skittering against the supernatural barrier with the same result. They both fell back a step, then Buffy lunged forward, hands braced against the invisible wall like some hyper-violent mime, while DuCourvallier did a slow pivot, head canting to one side as her gaze fell on Willow.

Suddenly recognizing the danger, Buffy screamed in warning, "WILL, GET OUT!!" but it was already too late.

The hacker froze, caught like an animal in a trap by the dead slayer's gaze. She swallowed hard, expression twisting with the sudden realization of her plight. Her strength already expended helping Buffy, there was nothing she magikal could do to stop the vampire. Even knowing it wasn't likely to save her, she reached for the crossbow pistol she'd taken from Buffy's things. The hacker brought the puny looking weapon up, holding her fire as she waited, knowing that it wouldn't be any use at a distance of more than a few feet.

DuCourvallier shook her head slowly as she started forward, her gait loose and comfortably sensual, nose and mouth running blood down the lower half of her face. "Very good, Little Wicca," she exhaled, gleaming eyes drinking in Willow's slender frame.

Buffy hammered helplessly at the barricade Willow had erected, rushing to try and find some way around it as her enemy advanced on her lover with graceful, confident strides.

The redhead frowned as she recognized Buffy's attacker. She hadn't been able to really get a look at her face during the fight, certainly not well enough to recognize the dying woman from the quickie mart. "You," she breathed in shock, her finger jerking reflexively on the trigger. The vampire ducked the bolt easily, not even bothering to catch it as she continued to advance, while Willow twisted, grabbing for the door. She planned on yanking it open to at least try to flee. Instead, a hand flashed past her shoulder, ramming it shut again with a solid crash.

"Me," the Vampire-Slayer confirmed, her voice a silky whisper as her cool breath teased Willow's ear and chill curves pressed against her back. She easily stripped the now-empty weapon from the redhead's hand and flung it aside.

"NO!!" Buffy screamed, but nothing she tried got her past the spectral barrier.

"Time to dance," that softly accented voice whispered in Willow's ear, the tone low and sensual, like a lover too long denied. And then the hacker let out a startled cry as she was grabbed around the waist and by the hair, her head dragged sideways, baring the vulnerable arch of her throat.

Somewhere in the distance, Willow could hear Buffy screaming her name and hammering on something, but it wasn't real. None of it was real, not the hard grip holding her, and not the cold silky breath playing over her neck.

"Pray your Slayer loves you, little Wicca," the vampire whispered, "because if she doesn't, even I won't be able to save you."

Willow didn't have time to ponder the softly uttered words as she was suddenly spun back toward the room, still pinned against the vampire's chest with brutal efficiency, any struggles so pointless as to be silly. The first thing she saw was Buffy, her expression twisted by stark terror, a sword clenched in her bloody right hand, still blockaded from helping by the barrier Willow had thrown up.

"Damn you!" the Slayer screamed in frustration, beating on the invisible wall with fists and sword to no effect whatsoever. "Let her go! She's got nothing to do with this!"

The Vampire-Slayer's voice was low and too confident. "Surely even you aren't that foolish," she drawled knowingly, then Willow felt the brush of sharp teeth against the side of her neck, the feeling leaving her quivering with barely contained terror as it occurred to her that no one was going to save her this time. "Even a thing such as me can see the bonds of fate between you."

Willow trembled as a cool, rough tongue dragged the length of her neck, the touch perversely erotic despite her revulsion.

"So sweet and soft ... a Slayer's heart held in those delicate hands...."

Buffy was still beating desperately on the barricade, fighting an unwinnable battle with pure rage.

Willow felt the press of sharp canines against her neck and the warm rush of blood; only a tiny trickle, but enough to loose a red streamer to run down the side of her neck before it flared into a dozen tiny threads of crimson. She waited for the pressure to increase, to feel her life�s blood drained away -- she could almost smell the creature's feral hunger -- but the vampire�s teeth backed away even as Buffy went into a berserker rage, eyes blazing, fists hammering. Willow reached out as though she could touch her lover somehow, whispering not a spell, but something far more ancient and intimate.

Buffy saw the desperate gesture, fingers spreading against the barrier as if to reach back, her lips shaping Willow's name, though no sound escaped. And then she gasped, eyes widening fractionally as she felt a new warmth under her fingers; something familiar, something....

Willow ... inherently, touchably, and completely Willow.

It all came to her in an epiphany. In an instant, she calmed, her breathing slowing and becoming perfectly even. It was an extension of Willow, and she was a part of Willow. She and the barrier were one and the same. In an instant, it all made sense. Closing her eyes, Buffy simply stepped through like a ghost through a wall, slow, graceful, almost floating. As she moved, she sensed everything of her lover, was momentarily a part of her, images and emotions rushing through her mind with tumultuous impact, leaving Buffy with the sense that there was something momentous there. But she didn't have time to contemplate that impression as one foot and then the other hit the gritty, debris laden floor on the other side of the barrier. It seemed as though some measure of time should have passed during so amazing a journey, so she was surprised to find the scene exactly as it had been before; the vampire still holding Willow, who was still mid-breath, speaking her name. Only the look in Willow's eyes had changed, leaving Buffy with the strangest sense that the witch had experienced everything that she had during that extended second while she passed through the spectral barrier.

Then Buffy launched herself forward. She had a sense of moving at normal speed while everything around her was caught in slowly hardening amber. She was airborne and halfway across the room before the vampire could even start to respond, thrusting Willow aside in an effort to brace for the attack. Buffy saw the effort through new eyes and adjusted her body, throwing her arms wide and slowing her momentum enough to give Willow the tick of time needed to fall clear of the fight. The vampire adjusted, trying to duck the worst of the collision, but Buffy was moving too fast and in too much control. DuCourvallier took the hit full in the chest, the force behind the blow crunching her body between Buffy's boots and the brick and mortar of the doorjamb.

Willow scrambled desperately to get clear as the vampire straight-armed her lover back a pace, then lashed out with a bunched fist. Buffy dodged the blow with eerie ease, setting the standard for the combat -- though it was suddenly more of a beating than a fight -- that followed. Willow had been in enough real fights to know that they didn't happen with neat choreographed grace. They were ugly, close up, ungraceful things that generally tended to look more like playground wrestling matches than the latest John Woo flick, but it had never really occurred to her what all that slow motion movie magic might look like to the world still running at normal speed. The Matrix it wasn't. No stunning angles on gravitationally impossible moves that hung in the air for minutes on end. Instead what it mostly looked like was one giant, very fast moving blur. There was no artful sense of Buffy defying prodigious amounts of gravity for days at a time while doing incredible gymnastics, no grace, no beauty -- just an inhuman display of strength and control. The vampire did everything in her power to fight back and any other creature, human or otherwise, faced with the battle would have succumbed in moments. As it was, for every blow she got in, the Slayer returned it with several more. Blocks resulted in the sound of snapping bone, and the creature sprayed blood in fine spatters with every snarling, pained grunt as the Slayer landed another blow. Willow had no sense of time or reason as she watched, careful to keep out of the way while Buffy fought with a ferocity and speed she'd never shown before.

Until, suddenly, the vampire took a solid uppercut on the chin, her body tumbling in a high arc before landing face down in an ungainly sprawl. Bloodied and beaten, one arm twisted at an awkward angle in relation to her body, she didn't move this time. The Chosen One stood braced in a classical fighting stance, ready for the battle to continue, but her prey continued to lay perfectly still.

Buffy blinked, startled as she felt the world skid back into something resembling normal motion. She shook her head slowly, dazed and a little confused. It was like she'd entered another plane of existence for those few moments. She glanced over at Willow and saw her pressed into the doorway, watching with wide eyes, her lips parted, expression shocked. "Will?" There was a note of knowledge in her voice, something missing for months.

"I'm okay," the redhead breathed in awe. She'd felt the magikal tremor as Buffy stepped into the arcane barrier she'd created, their mystic energy combined for that moment, leaving her uncertain of anything but the fact that she and Buffy were twined together in a way they didn't yet understand.

"Will, I felt you ... I was a part of you...." Buffy couldn't finish, didn't know how to describe what she'd seen or what she felt.

"I know," the witch breathed, though she couldn't have put into words exactly what it was she knew if her life depended on it.

Buffy understood that tone too well. "Yeah," she exhaled, then her gaze swung back to the unmoving figure of the Vampire-Slayer, and she was struck by an odd sort of pity. Time to end it. Release the demon back to hell and end its possession of her predecessor's body. It was the least she could do for whoever or whatever the real Delaine DuCourvallier had once been. She snagged a discarded sword from the floor, lifting it over her head, muscles tightening preparatory to the downstroke as she moved. One quick blow to the back of the neck and it would all be over. No more threat to her friends and family. The Watchers Council could go on worrying for all she cared, but her loved ones would be safe ... or at least as safe as they ever were. And then she struck, swinging for the back of DuCourvallier's neck, braced for the natural resistance of flesh, bone, and sinew.

And she got it. Just not quite the way she planned. At the last moment, a hand snapped back and up, fingers closing on the heavy blade, tightening and pinning it in place though not before it took the better part of the vampire's thumb, slicing through at the base, then deeply into the flesh of her palm. Buffy tried to yank the weapon back, but it was gripped impossibly tightly as the creature somehow twisted and rolled to one knee. Her next action startled the Slayer more than she would have thought possible.

A tiny whimper escaped the vampire's lips, her eyes frightened as she stared up at Buffy with an expression that seemed to plead for something. She let out a soft cry, head rocking back on her shoulders, though her grip on the sword remained impossibly firm. "Non, J�sus merciful, non...."

Willow saw her lover's difficulty and lunged for one of the discarded swords, grabbing it and heaving it in a high arc as she called out, "Buffy!"

The Slayer barely glanced back, instinctively knowing what her lover had done. Still fighting to pull the trapped weapon back, she nonetheless reached out, easily snatching the weapon thrown her way out of the air. Moving with the momentum of the throw, she tried to bring it around in a fast moving arc, hoping to blindside the vampire before she had a chance to react. She almost made it. The blade was only millimeters from the creature's neck when a seemingly delicate hand moved with impossible speed to catch it in mid-flight, the force necessary to stop the blow jarring through Buffy.

For a moment, vampire and slayer both stood frozen, the creature's attention drawn by the bright silver blade glittering so close to her bare throat, the slayer caught in the horror of her own failure to move fast enough.

"You can't," Delaine whispered, staring at the way the blade didn't reflect her image back as it sliced deeply into her fingers, the blood running between them in bright crimson streamers. "It's awake now, and it won't let you."

Buffy frowned in confusion, head canting to one side as she tried to understand. "What won't?"

The answering laugh was low and dark, melding from the frightened whimper into something ancient and immensely powerful even as soft features elongated and arched, morphing into something wholly new. Neither the soft curves of humanity nor the blunted features and hairless brow of a vampire, but a slashing blade of a face with slanted brows, almond eyes, cheekbones that models could pay millions for and still not achieve, and a mouth that seemed perpetually twisted in a smirk. "I won't, little girl." The voice was a deep, velvet rumble as the vampire's head came back around to face her. Eyes gleaming amber, she smiled easily, and suddenly Buffy found the swords wrenched from her grip with such power that she never had a prayer of hanging on.

"Will!" the Slayer screamed in warning no more than a single heartbeat before the weapons were flung aside with such force that they thudded into opposing walls, the blades driven deeply into heavy brick where they hung vibrating gently.

Buffy stared at the creature in front of her uncertainly, meeting that amber-eyed gaze with a bizarre kind of curiosity, well past any normal kind of fear. Not any kind of demon she'd seen before, and certainly not human, but something else now, the features arching and perversely beautiful, but totally inhuman. "What are you?" she gasped.

Slashing lips drew up in a dark smile. "You are the Slayer," she drawled. Her arms were still outflung from hurling the swords aside, and she slowly turned them palms up, the blood from both wounded hands running down her palms and wrists before it fell away in bright red droplets. Unlike the vampires Buffy had dealt with, even her body seemed to change, the proportions lengthening and shifting into a sexless kind of androgyny, fingers becoming delicate strands of flesh where they fell away from her palms in a languorous drape.

"That's right," Buffy exhaled and reacted on pure instinct, lashing out with a closed fist. "So, how about I slay--"

The wisecrack ended mid-word. She never saw the blow that aborted her attack, it hit too quickly, catching her in the chest and hurling her backwards off her feet. When she looked up again, she was on her backside several yards back, while the vampire -- no, not a vampire, but something else entirely -- was still standing exactly as she had been, only now the gashes in her palms and over the rest of her body were glowing softly, the light a dull yellow.

"Buffy?" Willow gasped as she skidded to one knee behind her friend.

"I don't know," the slayer groaned, her chest a mass of agony from the most recent blow, sporting a badly bruised, perhaps even cracked, sternum. Just dragging air into her lungs suddenly a study in torture, she nonetheless tried to struggle for her feet while those eyes just kept watching with inhuman disinterest.

The slices on the vampire's body were glowing brighter now, white lights arced in dual sprays away from the wounds on her back and shoulders. Still smiling, she tipped her head back slowly, gasping softly as though in the throes of passion. The lights brightening with every passing second, becoming so intense, they almost seemed solid, spreading winglike away from her back and dripping from her hands and wrists. The lights flicked and she rose, toes pointed, one knee raised ever so slightly, the pose a perfect imitation of any number of painted and carved crucifixions Buffy had seen in her mother's art books.

Somehow, the Slayer found her feet, pushing Willow behind her as she staggered badly, her senses screaming at her to get both of them out of there before all hell broke loose. Unfortunately, she wasn't sure she could walk much less run.

The sleek head canted to one side, watching them dispassionately. "So this is the Slayer that has all the denizens of hell in such a lather," the creature's voice vibrated the surrounding walls, raining plaster down on their heads. "And her wiccan lover. Obviously hell's not what it used to be." Gleaming amber eyes swept the room before swinging back to the two young women.

One hand still clutching Willow where her lover was braced against her back, Buffy hunted desperately for anything she might use as a weapon, though doing battle with the creature in front of her seemed impossible to the point of ridiculousness. "Ain't euphoric memory a bitch," Buffy groaned, wondering at her own insane temerity even as the words left her mouth. Maybe if the thing was busy killing her, Willow would have time to escape.

"Do you have any idea how funny it is to have you making jokes about memory ... euphoric or otherwise?" The creature chuckled again. "No, I suppose you don't," it drawled before continuing, "But to answer the question, the memory's hardly euphoric, child. Why do you think demons are so desperate to escape hell that they'll take up residence in the scrawniest, most pathetic, lowborn human rather than stay there? And most of them have never been any deeper than the second level." The low, ironic voice shook more plaster down on their heads. If her mother's shop didn't topple before this was over, it was going to be a minor miracle. "The depths of the Abyss would make them as mad as it would most mortals."

It was a surreal moment, the thing hanging several feet in the air calmly lecturing them, while the building threatened to topple at any moment, plaster, brick, and wood creaking more loudly with every passing second. "Will, get out of here," she hissed, and would have pushed the redhead toward the door, but Willow shook her head, feet digging in, refusing to go.

"She won't leave you, Slayer," the demon purred, even its lowest pitch a stomach-churning rumble. "Even you should be wise enough to see that much. You live or die together"

"Touch her and I'll kill you," Buffy hissed, her voice thick with pain.

"And how do you plan on doing that, Slayer-Child, when you can barely stand?"

"However I have to," the Slayer promised, though simply remaining on her feet cost her so much it brought tears to her eyes. Her hand tightened on Willow's as she struggled to find that secret wellspring of power that had allowed her to pound the vampire into the dirt once already.

The mad, amber eyes narrowed ever so slightly, sparkling like a crystal cut stone with a light behind. "How very mortal," it said without any respect or affection for the species, "to make promises you can't possibly keep ... you're worse than the angels for that," a smile flickered across the perversely beautiful mouth, "though I must admit, you still lack their skill at the art of betrayal."

The Slayer's natural healing ability already easing the worst of the pain, Buffy straightened fractionally, digging deep into her soul in search of the strength to fight one more time. Her eyes flashed sideways, catching a glimpse of the last of her hidden weapons, hidden only a foot or two away in the debris from a shattered display case. A single stake ... it offered the only possible chance. "I'll bet you know all about betrayal, don't you?"

Impossibly delicate shoulders dipped in the faintest of shrugs and a flickering, inhuman smile touched knife edge lips then ghosted away as though it had never been. "I am the betraying and the betrayed ... the jailer and the imprisoned ... the left hand of God, and the right hand of the Morningstar ... architect of Chaos, slave of fate ... and killer of a Slayer if you take one step toward that weapon," she added pointedly, her voice going from grandly dramatic to utterly bland in an instant.

Buffy heard Willow's soft gasp and felt her lover stiffen as the creature dropped lightly to the floor and took a step forward. Thinking they were under attack, the wiccan whispered a simple spell, hurling debris at their assailant from every angle. It cost her, but she still had the strength for that much. It was just a larger version of controlling a pencil after all.

With a roar, the thing twisted, throwing its arms up and wrapping itself in bright lights, pale flesh cut and slashed by the flying debris. Realizing it was the only chance she was going to get, Buffy threw herself forward, grabbing for the stake as she shoulder rolled, then using her momentum to come back up to her feet. She lifted her arm, the stake gripped tightly, and moved to stab, the point of the weapon aimed perfectly for the narrow chest hidden behind gleaming lights. The thrust was hard and clean and moving so fast that nothing should have been able to stop it.

Except something did.

As Buffy's hand hit the spray of white light wrapped around the creature, her muscles locked and she froze in place, head tipping back on her shoulders, a raw scream torn from her throat as the light expanded, enveloping her and the rest of the room. Energy hammered through her, battering her brain until all she wanted to do was pull away and escape. Just run. That's all she wanted. To run away, escape, not be here anymore.

And then there was a hand on her shoulder, Willow at her back ... Willow in her head....

Willow ... once again inherently, touchably, and completely Willow.

Buffy couldn't contain another small gasp at the intensity of emotion and sensation. She stilled, the pain draining away with an unreal suddenness, surprisingly unsurprised by the sense of Willow that surrounded her. Taut muscles relaxed, and suddenly, it all came into focus like one of those 3D posters that looked like something by Jackson Pollock then turned into rough geometric versions of flowers and dinosaurs if a person could just stare long enough. Buffy didn't hear, but was achingly aware of Willow's soft gasp. In an instant, everything seemed to transform ... time slowing, sound vibrating, every single photon of light separate and visible to eyes that saw with a new kind of vision. Past, present, future, all somehow one and the same in an Einsteinian conundrum that shouldn't have made sense, but nonetheless did.

Her breath caught then -- though she wasn't certain she still actually breathing -- as two different versions of the past overlaid themselves in her mind, a tangled web that made no sense, different memories of the same events that she struggled to unbind and resolve. The answer for everything was there if she could just find it. She'd been confused for months, stressed by nightmares she could never quite remember and erotic dreams she couldn't quite forget. She traced the thread back in her mind, finding the point where her memories split into distinct branches, one where she kissed Willow, one where she didn't, one where she rescued Willow....

One where she didn't...

One where she loved Willow....

And one where she didn't....

And which was real? She traced the threads, discovering the truth with natural ease, instinctively knowing that the kiss was the real memory, then the uncertainty, the fear when Willow was kidnapped, heartbreak at the realization that the redhead would die without true love's kiss ... then the sharing of their mouths and hearts driving the demon out ... and Giles' betrayal later that night in the library....

One where she loved Willow....

And one where she wasn't allowed to....

It all came back to her in a flash from that first meeting through to making love only hours before.

Willow as slayerette ... Willow as best friend ... Willow as lover ... Willow as destiny.

And then the Slayer found herself whole once again, no longer separated from her own memories, no more torn from true thoughts and feelings, no longer bissected emotionally between the truth and a cleverly created fiction. Later, there would be time for anger at Giles for his part in months of uncertainty and confusion, but for the moment, her only concern was Willow. They were standing somewhere else or maybe in the same place, or maybe no place at all as she twisted to face her lover, reaching out to frame her face in gentle hands.

"Will?"

"I know," the redhead breathed, reaching out to brail the Slayer's face with gentle fingers. "We were ... were in love--"

"True love's kiss," Buffy whispered with a reverent kind of awe.

"And then Giles made it all go away." Her voice caught, thick with unshed tears as she asked, "Why?"

Buffy shook her head. "I don't know.... We'll find out ... somehow we'll find out."

"How very tender ... the mortals returned to one another's loving embrace." Slow, measured clapping accompanied the wry words.

Buffy spun, glaring at the thing as it stepped from the sudden inky darkness surrounding them, a single word on her lips, "Why?"

A genuine, if unnatural, smile twisted gamine lips while crystal cut eyes danced with an otherworldly kind of mirth. Slender shoulders dipped in an adolescent's all too knowing shrug. "Because the Powers That Be demanded it ... because no lie may stand in my light ... and because even fallen angels were angels once--" For the briefest second, there was something almost sympathetic in impossibly alien eyes....

And then all hell broke loose.

Light, explosive and atomic-explosion-bright pulsed through the Slayer's eyelids, the through her entire body, and for a moment, she had some sense of what Nagasaki must have been like at the precise moment it was vaporized. Then she was airborne, twisting and trying to find some kind of equilibrium as she was abruptly thrown back into the real world. She hit the floor before she could manage the trick, her body tumbling end over end on the very real, very hard floor. When she skidded to a halt, her shoulder was pressed against something warm and solid. She pushed up on one hand as Willow did the same. They were lying perpendicular to one another, Buffy's head and shoulder nudged against Willow's hip.

"You okay?" The question came out as little more than a raspy cough.

Willow nodded, her eyes flicking around them in confusion before swinging back to Buffy. "Was it--"

"It was real enough, little girl," the grimly offered answer came before Buffy could speak, in a voice that was rough from dust and heavily accented with stress.

Buffy thrust herself to a crouch, muscles screaming at what the effort cost her, glaring daggers at the creature standing a short distance away, her visage hauntingly human now, newly mortal features showing every cut and bruise the Slayer had inflicted. The vampire staggered, barely remaining on her feet, then looked down at her gashed and ruined hands. One thumb had nearly been severed in the last attack, and the Slayer felt her stomach roll as DuCourvallier calmly tore off the hanging digit, easily ripping through the bit of flesh still holding it in place, her face spasming momentarily with the pain before it settled back into an expressionless mask. She looked up again, shaking her head slowly as she saw the look of calculation settling on the Slayer's features. "Don't bother. It won't let you." A sad laugh escaped her lips. "No matter how much I might wish it." She straightened with obvious effort, then lazily shook the thumbless hand as though resettling the bones. Like something out of the latest special effects spectacular, bone, muscle, flesh writhed and expanded, twisting and reforming the missing joint. As it finished, she worked the hand, muscles rippling across fine-boned knuckles, then began rubbing the gashed and bleeding palm of her other hand, the newly made thumb pressing a deep slash closed, massaging slowly as though it would seal that much faster. And, all things considered, perhaps it would.

"Why?" Buffy demanded the same question of the newly human seeming creature that she'd demanded of the other.

And received an oddly similar shrug in return. "Because it worked out that way." Eyes now shaded in human colors slid closed as though to hide emotions too raw to be shared from the Slayer's eyes. "Because some ties are hard to break ... even for the dead...because I loved her ... and they killed her...." She looked Buffy then, a muscle pulsing in her jaw. "Because in that last moment, when I knew I was lost, I made a deal ... traded places with the one thing that could kill them all ... and damned myself to hell in the doing.... And then I made another deal to escape the first one...." She shook her head with a despairing kind of bitterness. "Never make deals with devils or angels.... They both stack the deck ... and they always win." Another bitter headshake followed, and her whispered words seemed to be directed more at herself than the two mortals. "Despite what the council thinks, I'm nothing but a slave...." A dark laugh escaped her lips, and then she straightened her shoulders, forcing the controlled mask back in place. "Tell your mother to return my property to the holding company, or to expect suit from my attorneys. They're very good, and I recommend she not risk incurring their ire." The words had a surreal, old world formality all things considered. "As for you, Slayer, I suggest you not inform the Watcher's Council about this little..." her eyes slid around the debris laden interior of the gallery, "t�te a t�te. I've never taken a Slayer's life. The same cannot be said of them."

Buffy somehow found the strength to lunge to her feet, though she tottered as though she might just spill right back to the floor. The two women stared at each other, understanding each other in a way not open to any other two creatures on the face of the earth. "Don't come back here," Buffy said softly, her voice taking on a low note of command that was surprisingly effective considering she could barely remain standing.

The vampire looked away, something akin to shame in her expression. She was beaten now. Any arrogance long gone, though Buffy was far from certain she was one who'd done that. "Don't worry ... this isn't a place I'm likely to want return to."

Buffy felt Willow join her, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder, her body a warm presence, and straightened her spine fractionally. "Get out."

The dead Slayer's eyes lifted, her head canting to one side. "The nightmares should stop now ... but hold onto her tightly. They can't control you and that makes you a threat. If they find out just how far out of their influence you are, you won't be safe anywhere."

Buffy's only response was a tense nod. Somehow, she already knew that.

And then the vampire was moving, despite everything, her body still inhumanly strong, bounding straight up, the only sign that she was any weaker coming as she grabbed for one of the remaining window frames and pushed off. Before she'd simply leapt past it. In an instant, she was out of sight.

As she disappeared, Buffy sank back down to one knee with a low groan, no longer able to maintain the fa�ade that she could have done anything but die if the vampire had decided to attack. She felt Willow's arms wrap around her from behind, the press of her lover's cheek against a bruised shoulder, and the burn of her hot tears as they touched the curve of her neck. She reached up and back -- wincing as overworked muscles protested the slight movement -- and curved a hand to the back of Willow's head, working her fingers into dust-laden, grimy hair and thinking that it felt better than the finest silk. Neither of them spoke. There were no words and no need for them anyway. They were past any words now.

* * * * * * *

The long-dead Slayer skidded to a halt on a nearby rooftop, her battered body all but collapsing as she toppled to her knees. She looked back, frowning as she hunted for pursuit. No, not much chance of that now. She sensed the presence without looking and uttered a single word. "Why?"

"You forget your place."

The Slayer's gaze rose, and she flashed a wounded look at the figure standing a short distance away, her robes molded perfectly to her lithe body, the intricately embroidered silk catching distant street and traffic lights, the fabric seeming to dance and whirl though the wearer didn't move a muscle. "At first, I thought it was because of the prophecy ... that the Council knew and was after them. But that wasn't it, was it? You didn't want me here, you just wanted me beaten until it came out. You've a dozen ways to undo what was done to them. Why this one?"

The Chinese woman's head canted to one side. "Because your conjoined servitude was the price of your release from hell ... because we wish it ... because the Slayer cannot fight if she is separated from herself ... and the Wiccan cannot spell if she is separated from the Slayer.... You simply contained a means of making things whole once more, while allowing them to see their own power ... a way of sending a dual message if you will."

Thin lips pulled back from suddenly sharp incisors in a feral snarl as Delaine thrust to her feet. "Send a telegram next time."

A graceful hand passed through the air and in an instant, the vampire was back on her knees, whimpering softly.

"We will send whatever message we wish," the creature's mistress said pointedly, "in whatever manner we wish. And if we choose to use you as our messenger, then you will perform the task before you without question. That was the price of your soul."

And then the demon's features morphed, elongating into the creature Buffy had faced in the art gallery and it glared its fury at its tormentor. "I believe the deal was mine, not hers." The beast's voice roared. "And now I'd like to know why I shouldn't just slaughter your pretty little Slayer the next time we meet." Whether the threat was sincere or not, it was impossible to tell.

The Chinese woman clearly took it seriously, almond eyes narrowing as she focused on the creature before her. "Because as she goes, so goes the world ... and as the world goes, so goes the body that houses you ... if it is destroyed, you return to the Abyss. Something I believe you do not wish."

Amber eyes spat fire and hate. "What I wish is beyond your understanding."

Ample lips turned up in triumphant smile as the woman leaned forward, no breath escaping her lips as they hovered near a sharply pointed ear. A slender hand lifted, fingers combing easily through pale blond hair, their touch almost sensual. "Nothing is beyond our understanding ... as you keep forgetting. In your perversity, you have value because -- despite your treachery -- you are still what you are ... and no untruth may stand in your light, but do not fool yourself that we are anything but your masters, or that we could not destroy you at any moment of our choosing."

Every touch caused enough pain to make the creature whimper softly, but it was as though it was held by invisible chains, unable to pull away.

"Since the dawn of the universe, you've been granted your every wish at every turn. We are not at fault because those wishes were not to your liking." Another pass of those delicate fingers and another whimper. She leaned even closer to the Vampire Slayer or, more correctly, the thing that inhabited her flesh. "Now, I suggest you be very careful about your next wish ... or you might just get it as well." She thrust hard, releasing her grip on fine hair and watching dispassionately as her prisoner toppled forward onto the tarpaper roof. "Now, leave the Slayer be. Your presence is not wanted or needed any longer. You've seen what the Wiccan can do. Careful, lest you discover her power more intimately."

Inhuman features smoothed back into some semblance of humanity where the vampire lay with her cheek against rough tar paper.

"We ask little enough of you. One would expect you to be grateful--"

Delaine pushed up smoothly, anger reflected in her eyes. "Grateful that you've trapped me with that thing ... that I can feel its secrets in my head until my skull is ready to explode ... that I can never be what I really am because that's what it wants ... or that I'm your slave--"

"Grateful that you are no longer in the depths of hell--"

An insane laugh greeted the quiet proclamation. "Don't bet on it."

The response brought a soft sigh that was pure affectation and had nothing to do with the need to breathe. "You would be wise to accept your destiny, yet you have always strained against it ... fought and struggled. Why?"

Intelligent eyes narrowed faintly and the dead Slayer pushed to her feet, straightening her shoulders, her movements unconsciously regal as she regained some measure of control. "The Watchers used to ask me the same question," she drawled, her tone acid. Then she couldn't contain the smallest and bitterest of chuckles. "Perhaps that's my real destiny ... annoying the..." full lips twisted in the most ironic of smiles as she said the next word, "hell ... out of people with far too much power at their beck and call." She looked up then, her expression serious enough to make even The Powers That Be take notice. "Don't ever use Elizabeth's face again."

"You do not tell us what we may and may not do," the Chinese woman reminded Delaine, black eyes sparking angrily. "We will do as we see fit ... and use such tools as we see fit." A flicker of something akin to surprise crossed her expression as the Vampire-Slayer only straightened slender shoulders, drawing on the part of herself that had been born only one small step below royalty, raised among the most elite of Europe, and termed the 'Chosen One' by those who had failed to master her.

"She's off limits to you," Delaine bit out, her own gaze flinty. "Even you can go too far ... and even I have one or two weapons left." It wasn't a subtle threat and it seemed to catch her mistress completely off guard. "You will Never touch her again ... or so help me, I may just be insane enough to take this planet down for your presumption." Then before her tormentor could respond, she was moving. The Powers never explained their actions, justified themselves, or answered questions, so she saw no reason to stay and demand what would never be given. For all she knew, could never be given. Maybe The Powers That Be didn't know any more than anyone else. Maybe they were just making it up and bluffing their way through like the rest of the world. In any event, she no longer cared. She'd done their dirty work and was free again ... if only for a little while.... A day, a year, a decade. It didn't matter. Anything was a blessing.

* * * * * *

"Buffy?" Willow's voice was soft and hesitant with the leftover hoarseness that came from tears and breathing too much plaster dust.

The Slayer reached out to stroke a pale cheek tenderly, her fingers leaving a track through grime and dust. She threaded her fingers into feathery red hair. "I'm okay. Gonna hurt like hell in the morning, but I'll do the Slayer thing and it'll be out okay.... What about you?" Unlike her, Willow didn't have the benefit of superhuman healing abilities. She was just human, and she'd gotten banged around a lot.

The wiccan dropped a hand to her waist, lightly massaging the pain throbbing there. "Bruised ribs -- but I don't think they're broken -- and I feel like I went about ten rounds with a Mack truck."

"You sure that's all?" the Slayer breathed, continuing to stroke Willow's cheek with the pad of her thumb.

Willow nodded. She'd been pounded on by enough otherworldly creatures to have a pretty good feel for the severity of her own injuries. "I'm sure."

"Think you can stand?"

Willow nodded, reaching out and curving a hand Buffy's shoulder as they leaned against each other and pushed upright together, bracing one another and both gaining their feet that way when they wouldn't have made it alone. Once standing, Willow lifted her hand from her lover's shoulder, folding it around the back of the blonde's neck as they leaned against each other.

The Slayer lifted a hand to stroke Willow's cheek, her touch tender, the memory of everything they'd shared in her eyes. It was still sinking in; the reality of what they were -- and had been -- to each other becoming more real with every passing moment.

"What now?" the redhead breathed uncertainly.

"I don't know," Buffy admitted, staring into dazed green eyes. "All I know right now is that I love you and that everything that's been ... wrong ... makes sense now." She trailed her fingers up, brushing them along the curve of Willow's brow. "For months, I haven't understood anything ... it's been like being in a daze ... and suddenly everything's clear again...."

Willow nodded unsteadily. "You ... me ... us?" she filled in and Buffy nodded.

The kiss that followed was achingly tender; the barest of brushes. Even that much contact left both girls wincing at the brief pressure against bruised and bloody flesh. They pulled back, staring at each other.

"I'm better at that most of the time," Buffy felt the need to point out, her tone drawing a nod and a smile from the redhead.

They both fell silent for a long moment, more than a little overwhelmed by it all.

Finally, Willow reached out to brush her thumb along a darkening bruise on Buffy's cheek. "We've got a lot to figure out," she said practically.

"Yeah." Buffy sighed softly, blowing grimy bangs out of her eyes. "And we can't let Giles know any of it ... not until we know what the hell is going on. He can't even know she was here ... much less that we remember everything now." The knowledge of his betrayal put her in a situation where she couldn't afford to trust her Watcher. It was just too risky.

Willow nodded her assent, then looked around them, her expression doubtful as she eyed the nearly destroyed interior of the gallery. "Though I'm not entirely certain how we're gonna explain this any other way."

Buffy followed the direction of Willow's gaze. "Just ... um--"

The front door suddenly jimmied and then tumbled inward, falling off its hinges with a crash and leaving Giles standing in the open arch, one hand still outstretched, his fingers curved as though wrapped around an invisible doorknob.

"Just follow my lead," Buffy hissed to Willow as she pulled back from the Wiccan.

Giles was still standing as though paralyzed, while Xander stumbled past him, a stake gripped tightly in one hand, cross in the other, ready for battle, even if he was in less than ideal condition for a confrontation. Anya followed a step behind, less than thrilled, but determined to protect her one, true love, then Joyce, holding the same crossbow she'd used to threaten Spike, and finally the blond vampire, peering over Joyce's shoulder and looking decidedly nervous. After all, he'd betrayed them all in so many ways it was hard to know who might be the first to want him dead. Since Joyce seemed to have worked that impulse out of her system, he was hoping to play on her best mom-instincts.

"Hi, gang," the Slayer said before anyone could speak, pulling away from Willow and hurrying forward.

Her Watcher eyed the damage. "DuCourvallier?" he demanded instantly.

Buffy shook her head, her attitude purposely blas� as she responded. "She never showed."

Every other eyebrow in the shop rose, including Willow's.

"I ... uh...." Giles stumbled over his words as he stared at the damage in open disbelief. "Then what ... happened? I know she was supposed to meet you here." He threw an angry look at Spike who ducked down until just his eyes were visible over the edge of Joyce's shoulder. "Your friend ... Tara? ... called ... and then after some ... inducements ... Spike informed us of the proper meeting place."

"Threatened to turn your bloody mum loose on me again, he did," the vampire exploded self-righteously.

It was Buffy's turn to raise her brows. She peered at Giles. "And you stopped her because?" she enquired politely.

"Hey!" Spike exploded. "She threatened to shoot Little Spike off ... not that he's all that little, if you know what I mean." Joyce rolled her eyes, while the blond vampire looked insulted. "You all should be nicer to me. I was just doing what the Slayer told me to. She threatened me if I didn't," he insisted, sounding for all the world like a child shouting, 'she did it.' He reached around Joyce to point at Buffy. "And you should be grateful that I did finally tell them the truth so they could come rescue you."

Buffy considered killing him, then decided it was just too damn much work and she'd already had a hard night. "Spike, shut up."

"Nobody appreciates me," he muttered pathetically.

Buffy flashed a hard look his way, her expression reminding Spike that he was dead the moment she was in the mood.

Spike shut up.

"DuCourvallier?" Giles repeated impatiently, fighting to regain some infinitesimally small measure of control over the situation.

The Slayer's shrug was almost defiant, challenging him to call her on the lie. "She never showed. A batch of punk vampires was trying to move in. Guess they thought these were free digs now." She straightened her shoulders, ignoring the look her mother turned her way, sensing powerful truth rays beaming from familiar blue eyes. Really, it was amazing she'd managed to keep slayage a secret as long as she had considering the effect that look could have on a person. As it was, it took all of her willpower not to break down and confess all. "Willow and I explained to them that they'd been misinformed."

Giles frowned, his gaze sliding past Buffy to the slender figure standing several feet back, uncharacteristically silent. "Willow?" he said by way of question.

The hacker shrugged uncomfortably. "It's like Buffy said, just some punk vamps. They got pretty violent." She looked around at the nearly destroyed interior of the gallery. "Really trashed the place," she added unnecessarily.

"Are you certain?" the Watcher exhaled uncertainly. None of what they were telling him made sense, especially in light of the destruction.

"More than certain," Buffy responded sharply, turning a hard gaze on her Watcher. "As for DuCourvallier ... my guess is she turned tail and ran."

He frowned, sensing her hostility, but not understanding the cause of it. A dark suspicion filled him and he reached for the crucifix tucked in the bag slung over one shoulder, pulling it out. "Are you still certain?" he demanded, thrusting it at Buffy, his doubts obvious from his tone and action.

Blue eyes met his eye while a smirk twisted the Slayer's mouth. She curved delicate fingers to the heavy cross, taking it from him without changing her expression. "Still more than certain," she drawled, then felt a warm hand curve to her shoulder as Willow stepped closer, the small gesture an implicit reminder that forcing a confrontation now was a foolish choice at best. Until they knew why Giles had altered their memories, there was nothing to gain from alerting his suspicions. She took a breath and let it out, still holding her Watcher's gaze as she willed some of the tension from her muscles.

"The vampires told us she was here earlier," Willow filled in while Buffy was still gathering her thoughts and forcing down the sudden surge of resentment. "They bragged that she paid them to kill us ... that we weren't worth her time." She turned her gaze to Joyce, who had stepped more fully into the remains of her gallery and was looking around at the chaos with a hopeless look. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Summers," Willow felt the need to add, "they seemed to enjoy trashing the place."

Joyce sighed softly, but waved the apology off as she drew close enough to slip an arm across her daughter's shoulders and hug her lightly, careful of both of their injuries. She smiled gently at Willow. "I'm just grateful you two are all right."

"We're fine," Buffy assured her, though her gaze remained locked on the figure of her Watcher for a long moment before she focused on her mother. "But you'll need to send everything of hers back to the holding company, including the painting she was after--"

"Whoa, Buffy," Xander inserted, trading confused looks with Anya before peering at his friend again. "I thought we were worried about black mojo being worked through that thing."

The Slayer shook her head. "Since we didn't find anything, I don't think so ... and I don't want any further ties that might bring her back here." Or the Watcher's Council either, she thought as Xander stared at her in obvious confusion. DuCourvallier had been desperate for the painting and instinct told Buffy that if they kept it, sooner or later, she would be back. Considering how close she and Willow had both come to dying, it wasn't a risk she was willing to take.

Support came from an unexpected corner as Giles cleared his throat, then quietly spoke. "As loathe as I am to admit it, I'm afraid I must agree with Buffy in this instance. While I had intended on calling the Council in on this matter ... with DuCourvallier gone ... and in consideration of their stance regarding any contact between DuCourvallier and the Slayer, I think it best if we remove any evidence and promptly forget she was ever in town."

Joyce frowned at the brief explanation, but at her daughter's look, didn't argue. "Okay, I'll take care of it tomorrow." A tiny note of disappointment flickered in her voice. There was something about the piece that made it hard to surrender it. She'd had so few chances to work with genuine masterpieces, and it was on par with any number of great works. The fact that it also meant surrendering the largest dealer contract she'd ever had at a time her business was -- she eyed the ruined interior of the shop -- in less than sterling condition didn't help either.

Buffy reached out, squeezing her mother's hand, while she pulled Willow close on her other side, hugging her lover hard. "Thanks, Mom," she said hoarsely, as she held onto the two most important things in her life.

"Group hugs," Xander laughed abruptly, throwing his arms around all of them, and somehow including Anya in the gesture as well. Only Spike and Giles stood apart from the impromptu moment of celebration. The vampire looked away, eyes rolling dramatically, while her watcher stood as though carved from stone. His gaze suddenly tangled with Buffy's his expression unreadable. She tried to hide the anger away, but couldn't get the walls up in time. A frown touched her Watcher's face, but he didn't question her reaction.

And then a noisy creak from the rafters overhead reminded them all of the rickety state of the building around them.

"Ummm ... maybe it's time to retire the group hugs to outside?" Xander said hopefully.

* * * * * *

While the Slayer and her friends and family were busy stumbling to safety, whatever remained of Delaine DuCourvallier was still running, moving impossibly swiftly and perfectly silently, her body already healing, the Slayer in her coupling with the inhuman part to repair the damage done. For the moment, she released the tattered shreds of her humanity, letting loose the wildness that had been there since the moment of her birth more than four hundred years before. There were things in the night, moving, hunting, and hurting, but she feared none of them. The only real danger she faced lay trapped within her own flesh. The rental car had been picked up by the same people who'd thrown her "body" into a ravine to be forgotten, unaware their victim hadn't been alive to kill in the first place, and Blaine Michaels was now a dead issue. The Slayer and her friends would track that name quickly enough. Still moving fast, she hit the edge of a thick stand of trees and blended into their cool greenery, well aware of a thousand things humans denied even existed moving in the dark night. And she was one of them, she reminded herself, banishing any mortal emotions as she gave way to feral instinct, humanity too painful to be borne any longer.

And then she spun, ears pricking to the sound of boots and the stench of modern weaponry. She could smell the bite of gunpowder and the tang of ions charging. Very high tech stuff. To the north and moving fast. Maybe tracking her, maybe tracking....

She turned toward the south. Maybe a dozen bodies moving, part of the night and harder to sense than the dull-witted humans who doubtless thought they were being so inconspicuous, but plain to her senses all the same. Curious now, she took to the high ground, the trees providing more than adequate pathways as she moved from branch to branch, almost seeming to fly at times. She saw the soldier boys now, cocky and overconfident with their sensors, flack jackets, and big guns. She could have killed the lot of them without breaking a sweat, but she had other matters to attend to.

"Man, I got a pheromone signature a mile wide on here," one of them told his camouflaged comrades. "The target isn't far ahead of us."

She almost laughed at their foolishness, wondering if they ever bothered to look at the world with eyes and ears, or if they simply stared at it through sensor screens and night-vision goggles. "Little boys with little toys," she mouthed as she kept pace with them directly overhead. They never noticed.

"There must be at least a dozen."

Fourteen by her revised count, though some of the signs were a little confusing even to her.

"Probably like that one we got last week...the green one with the spikes and hair...oh man, that thing was ugly..."

No, not at all like a Prado demon

. She sniffed the breeze, forcing long dead lungs to draw in air. It was something scared, and Prados weren't smart enough to feel fear. Besides, the heaviness of the footstep was all wrong. It was something big...and several not so big somethings. Prados sometimes traveled in packs, but never with other, smaller creatures.

Her curiosity more than a little piqued now, she moved away from the soldier boys, smiling as she heard one of them mutter in her wake, "Did you hear something?"

"Just the wind, man...."

Just the wind.

She was moving again, dropping to earth and running faster than she could making like Tarzan in the trees. And then the stench struck her like a fist to the gut, making her eyes water and her lungs seize up and refuse to work, leaving her grateful that she didn't need to rely on them for anything important. Incubus. Scared incubus at that. She pulled up short, frowning ever so slightly, trying to sort out the other forms.

Not human, not demon, but somewhere in between.

Headed straight for the team she'd just left in her wake.

And straight for her.

She saw the thing then; big, the huge horns making it look clumsy and unwieldy, though she knew well enough that the reality was far different -- the memory was a foggy one, but she had a vague recollection of getting smashed repeatedly into the ground by one when she'd been flying higher than a kite and hungry enough to encroach on a woman he was interested in at least two centuries before -- and with it thirteen smaller figures, several of them clinging to beefy arms, while others ran alongside trying to keep up. He saw her on the path blocking their way and skidded to a halt, grabbing the children...and they were children she saw now. Halfbreed children...apparently being hunted by the camouflage cowboys stalking the night with their collection of demon-busting toys.

"Touch one of these kids and I'll flatten you," the Incubus snarled, bracing himself for an attack. This one was no fighter, that much was clear from his stance, but he did have the advantage of massive muscles, and she was in no mood for any more fights until she'd had a little more healing time.

"That's all right. I've never had a taste for veal," she drawled, then nodded behind her. "You don't want this path...."

He looked past her, searching for any signs of more hunters.

Full lips tipped in the faintest of smiles. She could feel his distrust. Smart boy, if he continued to play the game that way, he might just get out alive. "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," she quoted. "And it's carrying ion guns and tazers...not to mention night vision goggles, MP5's, nets, traps, and assorted other toys. I don't think you want to play with them though. I doubt they'd be a good influence on the children." She nodded toward the horizon. "Go West, young man."

"She's telling the truth," a little girl, half Bedali demon by the markings on her face--which meant she had the gift of insight into non-human souls--whispered.

The Incubus grabbed the child's hand, eyes fastened on the vampire blocking the path as he led his little band toward the west. She tracked them at the same time she tracked the team moving to the south and the north, waiting a beat before turning east.

In nearly four hundred years of life and death, she'd made very few disastrous miscalculations. Really only four that came instantly to mind.

Now she made a fifth. Focused on her own thoughts and the tiny mismatched band of demons, she missed a third team coming in from the east until they were almost on top of her and the tazers had already been fired. The first two didn't make contact as she ducked the points to catch the wires and fling the delicate points back at her attackers, but the next two hit her chest and hip, drawing a roar of rage, the pain spinning her around. More tazer shots hit as more teams arrived, the weapons far more powerful than anything they would ever dare use on a human. Normally, it took no more than two hits to take a vampire down, but they hit her a dozen times and she was still spinning, tangling into the wires in her efforts to escape them.

The thing inside of her slept, caring nothing for the affairs of mortals, sensing it was in no danger and apathetic to any threat to her that wouldn't prove fatal.

Drugged darts followed the tazer wires, their combined effect finally spilling her to her knees, then toppling her to the dirt.

She was still half-conscious when she heard them move in and felt the shackles being latched to her ankles, wrists, and forearms.

A hard hand gripped her by the hair, dragging her head up. "Quite a constitution on this one. Dr. Walsh'll want to take a look at her."

She blinked, trying to bring the boy's face into focus. Big, muscular, the vapid expression in his eyes typical of someone who can't think past their superior's orders. In short, big and dumb. The Jethro Bodine of the demon-hunting set. And she'd gotten caught by him. Heaven was definitely having a hell of a laugh at her expense. "So," she drawled, "Do you know what the difference is between a vampire and a human?"

His lips twisted in a sneer at the joke. "No...what's the difference between a vampire and a human," he played along.

"Didn't think you'd know," she jeered, wondering if he got the joke. He slammed the butt of his shotgun into her face and the world went blacker than Hell.

And then she was blinking against bright lights and white walls, while someone prepared to carve a hole in her skull. Even dazed and confused, she wasn't that quickly taken, and she easily snapped the restraints, scrambling in an effort to avoid blades and tazers. Her feet hit the floor, but it was like it was moving underneath her, making it hard to navigate and avoid the doctors and soldier boys and their weapons at the same time. One lunged at her, and she managed to hit him solidly in the chest, sending him flying into the gurney where she'd been strapped down and sending that into the white robed medicos who'd been preparing to operate.

"She's loose...oh shit...shoot her...fuck it...shoot her!" The panicked shouts and screams all ran together, the multiple voices inseparable in the confusion. "Shit...get the fucking trap door open...get her in it, dammit!"

She barely registered their words or the hole sliding open in the floor as she lurched toward the door, ducking a flying tazer bolt as she moved.

In an instant, the entry door slid open and more soldiers came piling through. Some kind of alarm system had been set off. She could hear it blaring somewhere in the distance. She fell back a step, but there were too many of them. The military equivalent of a cattle prod slammed into her kidneys, another into her sternum, and another the side of her neck. She stumbled backward, a foot hitting the edge of the trap.

And then she was falling, arms pinwheeling helplessly in an effort to regain her balance before she tipped over. She never had a chance, and tumbled momentarily before slapping painfully into a white steel floor twenty feet below.

Delaine rolled, came to a crouch, snarling up at the faces peering down at her, ready to fight if they tried to come down after her, even as she heard their astonished voices.

"Never seen one move like that...should've been out for a week...put her down? No...I want to know about this one...no chip...she's not going anywhere...as soon as she drinks...."

And then the trap door slammed shut.....

* * * * * *

EPILOGUE

Buffy Summers slept; deeply, dreamlessly; the first slumber untainted by a confusing array of dreams and nightmares in months. Her only real movement after hours of utter stillness, was to turn and reach for the slender figure that should have been close in the small, dorm-room bed. She snapped awake as she abruptly realized she was alone.

A dull glow filled the other end of the room, the light from a laptop casting her lover's face in odd shadows. "Will?" she whispered, eyes hunting the darkness for any possible threats. She was still half afraid the Vampire-Slayer would return to come after them all.

Willow turned, rising easily and moving to join her lover. "Shhh, it's okay," she whispered as she sat on the edge of the bed next to the Slayer. "I couldn't sleep, so I was doing some research." She took a deep breath and reached out to stroke pale gold hair back from Buffy's brow, her touch impossibly tender.

"What is it?" Buffy questioned, sensing the hacker's unease.

A half smile touched Willow's mouth. "Good news, bad news," she said by way of reply and slid her hand down to tangle it with Buffy's, lacing their fingers together and rubbing the rise of fine-boned knuckles. "Kinda closely twined together, so no choices whether to get the good or bad first...."

"And?" Buffy prompted when Willow paused.

"I think I've figured out why Giles did what he did when he ... he reworked our memories," the hacker said hesitantly.

Buffy's teeth gritted at the reminder of her Watcher's betrayal. "Tell me," she growled after a beat, needing to understand.

"It's tied to DuCourvallier ... what happened to her ... and the reason they ... the Watcher's Council, I mean ... well, why they ... dealt with her the way they did," Willow explained in halting syllables. "And I think I may have figured out what that thing she turned into was ... the one that floated and wasn't a vamp or mortal looking," the hacker quickly added as if Buffy might now know what she was talking about.

Yet another incident Buffy didn't really need clarified. "I remember," the Slayer exhaled. She wasn't likely to forget that thing any time soon. A delicate shudder rippled through her shoulders. "What is it?" She'd just assumed it was some new demon face, but Willow's tone implied something very different. Buffy couldn't decide whether that was part of the good news or the bad news.

The hacker took a deep breath and let it out to smooth over jangled nerves, then held up a hand to slow the questions, continuing with her quiet explanation. "I was going through the stuff I downloaded earlier ... and also searching through some of books we brought ... really obscure Watcher volumes ... and judging by the dust on them, if Giles has ever opened them, it's been a lot of years. In the oldest one, I found the actual notes from DuCourvallier's trial. They don't match the version that's in the later volumes ... those were written long after everyone involved was dead...." She trailed off for a moment.

"Will," Buffy prompted firmly.

"According to Giles and the more recent account, she was tried for murdering her Watcher's wife, but according to the trial notes ... and that's not it--" The wiccan's eyes were wide and a little frightened. This didn't bode well.

"What then?" Buffy whispered, suddenly wondering if she'd made a mistake in not at least trying to stop the creature, if the crime was more serious than cold blooded murder.

"She tried to flee ... with her Watcher's wife. She didn't kill her, Buffy, they were lovers. And the accusations don't say she killed Elizabeth VanOoten. They say she was responsible for her death."

"Same thing, isn't it?" the Slayer whispered in confusion, not understanding what Willow was trying to tell her at all.

"Not necessarily ... especially not once you know that they didn't try Delaine DuCourvallier for murder. They tried her for moral perversity ... and for betraying her service to God and the Council.... Not necessarily in that order." Willow's voice was bitter. "They killed her for being in love with another woman, Buffy." It would always have been a horrifying notion, but with the change in their relationship it became triply so. "The more common version was written much later ... I don't think the changes were a mistake either. They knew what they'd done, and they didn't want future slayers to realize how far they were willing to go ... maybe they didn't want future watchers to know either." She swallowed hard. "But they did come up with a cover story ... or maybe it's why they did it. I don't know." Her voice was ragged, the threat of tears making her hoarse.

"What?"

"A prophecy ... that a Slayer, beloved of a woman, would destroy the council one day...unless the council destroys them both first." Willow lifted Buffy's hand, kissing her knuckles softly, gaining emotional succor from the delicate contact before continuing. "I think that's why Giles did what he did," she whispered, "to protect us ... because he was afraid they'd find out ... and come after you and I...."

Buffy's jaw hardened, the look in her eyes horrified. She'd already ditched the council and its ham-handed efforts at controlling her, but if this was true....

"When I knew what I was looking for," Willow continued, well aware of her lover's response to the information, though uncertain quite what it portended, "I found the full prophecy in a later volume. The page was flagged with a Post-it, so I'm sure he knows about it." Giles' tendency toward Post-its was something of a joke among his young charges.

Feeling as though she'd been gut punched, Buffy bent nearly double, fighting to drag oxygen into her lungs, uncertain whether knowing the reasons for his betrayal made it easier or harder to bear. It made sense that he'd somehow been trying to protect them, but after months of nightmares and confusion -- not to mention being denied what her heart had come to need like oxygen -- it was hard to feel anything but profoundly deep anger at his actions. Buffy remembered the vampire's words. "She said she loved her," she whispered after a beat. "You're telling me they killed her for it."

"Not exactly," Willow said softly. "They didn't make it that easy; didn't just slit her throat and end it. No, they used some ancient rite of trial by combat. Bound her so she couldn't fight and tossed her into a pit of hungry vampires...."

Buffy couldn't contain a sharp gasp of horror.

"Yeah." Her voice thick with her own horror, Willow stared at their twined hands. "She said  that when she knew she was lost, she made a deal with the one thing she knew could kill them all...." She shook her head. "A vampire couldn't have done that."

"That thing we saw," Buffy exhaled, a sick well of dread forming in the pit of her stomach.

A quick nod. "It said it was the betraying and the betrayed, the jailer and the imprisoned, architect of chaos and slave of fate." Willow was amazed she could regurgitate the words so easily. "And it said it was the left of God and the right hand of the Morningstar."

The slayer shook her head, not understanding what Willow was saying.

"The Morningstar is another name for Lucifer," Willow explained and saw Buffy's answering frown. "It said it was the left hand of God and the right hand of the devil."

Buffy's frown deepened as she struggled with the concept. During her time as the Slayer, she'd had to face things that could throw a dozen religious scholars into an agony of debate every night and twice on Sundays for millennia. Being the Slayer wasn't an occupation for anyone who didn't deal well with religious conundrums. As a result, she managed to deal with it most of the time through a distinctly secularized viewpoint. She dealt with demons and vampires on earth and left heaven and hell to other people to worry about. "What does that mean exactly?" she asked at last, strongly suspecting she didn't really want to know.

"I think it's one of the Fallen ... one of the angels that sided with Lucifer when he rose up against God ... then was thrown into the Abyss -- the lowest, more horrific part of hell -- when Lucifer feared being betrayed in turn." She paused long enough to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "When she was on the verge of dying -- knowing she couldn't avenge herself or her lover -- I think Delaine DuCourvallier made a deal with the one thing she thought could. She didn't quite sell her soul to the devil ... just his assistant."

"It said it," Buffy whispered, the haunting words coming back to her. "When I asked it why, it told us what it was ... 'Fallen angels are angels still....'" she quoted, then shook her head, the enormity of it all leaving her with the profound desire to hide under her bed and not come out again. She glanced down. It was big enough under there. They could both fit. And as far as she was concerned, if Willow was with her, everything was okay.

Willow nodded. "And that's what it is ... a fallen angel." she whispered, as though saying it any louder might bring the wrath of heaven down upon them. "One named Mulciber if I'm right.... According to a text I found, it sided with Lucifer when he made war on God.... God wanted the angels to worship man, and Mulciber swore to worship only his own art. He was an artist ... even built Lucifer's palace in hell ... named Chaos...."

"Architect of Chaos," Buffy exhaled with sudden understanding. What had seemed simply like hyperbole and poetic language took on a whole new meaning with that little tidbit. She couldn't contain a tiny snort. "So ... what? It wanted an artist's body."

Willow could only offer an uncertain shrug.

"But somehow, she's in there too," Buffy exhaled, remembering what she'd seen after the creature. She'd seen it in the vampire's eyes ... the thing in her that had been, and somehow still was, the Slayer. "I don't know how, but she is. And maybe a demon too for all I know."

Willow nodded. "For what it's worth, I don't think it's evil." At Buffy's arch look, she offered a small, defensive shrug. "I just don't think it's good either."

"It just is," Buffy said at last with a degree of understanding. It was like the Slayer herself ... maybe all of the Slayers ... somehow too complex for the normal rules of morality. "The question isn't whether it's good or evil, but what it wants...." She looked at Willow hopefully.

All she got in return was a dazed head shake. "I don't know," Willow admitted. "I just don't know."

Blue eyes slid closed and then Buffy reached out, pulling her lover back into bed, needing the comfort of holding and being held.

"What are we gonna do about Giles?" the hacker asked as she slipped under the covers with Buffy, grateful to be wrapped safely in her lover's arms once again. Amazing how she could have missed something so much without even knowing it. She nuzzled into Buffy's shoulder and felt the Slayer pet her hair, her touch warm and soothing. "If he finds out...."

"We can't trust him," Buffy said regretfully and pressed a soft kiss to Willow's forehead, curving her hand along the side of her face to guide her chin up until their eyes met. "We have to be careful ... keep this absolutely secret." She hated the idea, but it was the only way for the moment. "At least until we know more." She kissed Willow softly, the brief touch little more than a butterfly wing's touch, then snuggled the redhead more firmly against her side under the blankets. For now, such hidden pleasures would have to be enough. She massaged Willow's back lightly, feeling the ripple of muscle as she slid her hand under the hacker's shirt to caress bare skin.

They were both silent for a long time, drawing strength and much needed comfort from feel of warm flesh, the smell of perfume and sweet breath, and the simple knowledge that they were together.

"Do you think it's really gone for good?" Willow asked at last, waiting a long beat before pushing up on her elbow to stare down at her lover. "Buffy?" she whispered after another long moment.

Reaching up to stroke silky red hair, Buffy offered an ironic smile, amazed at the twining of good and bad that always seemed to be an inherent part of her life. "No," she whispered at last. She wanted it to be otherwise, but instinct told her they hadn't seen the last of the creature. Then she hooked a finger under Willow's chin, drawing her head up and finding soft lips with blind hunger. "But we'll be okay," she breathed, between soft caresses and sweet kisses. Suddenly achingly in need of her lover's touch, she rolled Willow beneath her, linking their hands together as she pushed up on her elbows. "Whatever happens, we'll be together."

END

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