"My mother?" Buffy demanded as she entered the Emergency Room waiting area several steps ahead of Willow and Anya.
Giles looked up from the vinyl covered, lime green couch that had been his resting place since bringing Xander and Joyce in. "Buffy, I--" he started to say as he rose, using the felt covered painting leaned against the arm of the couch as an impromptu brace.
"Where?" the Slayer cut him off without preamble.
"Ah...through there," Giles answered and nodded toward a corridor of curtained off examining rooms. "It's the third one on the...left..." he informed the Slayer's already retreating back, then swung around just as Willow reached him.
The redhead glanced at the covered painting, then at Giles and raised an eyebrow. "Most people just bring flowers," she noted after a beat.
"Well, I...uh..." Giles looked down at the painting and was just starting to explain when he realized that Willow had already taken off after her friend. Instead of the hacker, he lifted his eyes to find Anya standing expectantly in front of him.
"Xander?" was all the former vengeance demon said by way of question.
"Fourth cubicle on the right," Giles sighed, unsurprised to suddenly find himself alone once again.
* * * * * *
Despite the pain in her throbbing wrist, Joyce Summers was in a surprisingly good mood, though that was owing more to the Vicodin floating through her bloodstream--and the resulting buzz--than any real pleasure with the state of life. Her gaze more than a little unfocused, she watched as a doctor who appeared to be no more than a year or two older than Buffy laced her left hand and forearm into a canvas and steel brace. She'd been poked, prodded, X-rayed, had lights shined into her eyes, and generally found herself with far more attention than she really wanted. Especially since they kept asking her what had happened and, by the way, who was the tall Englishman glowering in the waiting room, while casting suspicious glances at her injuries, particularly when she didn't have much of an explanation beyond, "There was an accident at the art gallery I own." She had to tamp down a bubble of hysterical laughter as she realized they thought that Giles was somehow responsible for her condition. Probably thought he was her boyfriend and had gotten rough. God only knew how they thought Xander was involved.
She had to force down another giggle. The Vicodin was definitely doing its job. Joyce suspected she wouldn't feel anything for a week or more.
Joyce's gaze lifted as Buffy entered, her expression scared and suddenly found herself enveloped in a hard hug. She used her good arm to hug her daughter back, trying to soothe her obvious fears and reassure her. "I'm all right, really...just a little...." The world tilted on its axis and she had a hard time focusing for a brief moment. "A little woozy is all...and I think that's mostly the painkillers...."
Buffy tucked a finger under her mother's chin, tipping her head up as she studied her face, then down the length of her throat, where reddish marks were quickly turning several ugly shades of purple. It didn't take any imagination at all to make out shape of a human hand, with fingers spread, wrapped around her neck. She didn't say a word about the damage, not with half the hospital staff listening in and measuring Giles for a jail cell for domestic partner abuse. "They really loaded you up," she said softly, then hugged her mother again. "God, we've both had a couple of bad days." She carefully walled off any thoughts not related to the current situation. She just couldn't afford to think about anything past her mother's safety.
Joyce frowned, sensing her daughter's turmoil, and leaned back to peer up at her through bleary eyes. "Giles said there'd been some trouble last night," she murmured, seizing on the only possible cause she could think of. "I hope it wasn't anything too bad."
Buffy kept an arm across her mother's shoulders as she assured her, "Nothing I couldn't handle." She noted an eavesdropping nurse nearby and carefully continued, "The police have the situation well in hand."
"Police?" Joyce questioned, then noted the direction of her daughter's gaze. "Oh...right...police," she agreed none too believably.
Silently willing her mother to be quiet as she noted the doctor's speculative gaze, the Slayer met the doctor's curious look with a tight smile. "So, can I take my mother home?" she questioned, her tone purposely neutral.
He nodded. "She's got a prescription for Vicodin for the pain. She shouldn't need them for more than a day or two though." He waved Buffy his way. "However, if we could just talk for a moment, Miss Summers...."
"All right," Buffy murmured, glancing at her mom and offering a reassuring smile.
"I'll stay with your mother," Willow offered where she stood hanging at the edge of the cubicle, out of the way, but where she could be close if needed. Whatever else, she was still Buffy's friend, and she was determined not to let go of that. Not when they both needed each other so desperately.
The Slayer looked back, truly meeting Willow's gaze for the first time since the disastrously disruptive phone call. She tensed, half expecting to see anger in her friend's eyes, but the only thing she was a look of absolute support. "Thanks," she whispered past the sudden tightness in her throat.
Willow nodded. "It'll be...okay...." she exhaled, something about her expression leaving the Slayer uncertain whether she was referring to the present situation or their relationship.
"Thanks," Buffy repeated, then followed the doctor out into the corridor. "All right?" she said when he turned to face her.
The young man tucked his hands in the pockets of his smock. "Your mother claims her injuries came from an accident," he began.
"Right," Buffy allowed, her tone non-committal.
"You must have noticed those bruises on her neck were shaped like a human hand--as though someone tried to strangle her--and there's a matching set on her broken wrist." He took Buffy's silence for assent and continued. "The man who brought her in--the tall Englishman--I can't help but wonder what his relationship is to your mother...."
"He's a friend of the family," Buffy said after a beat.
"Miss Summers, your mother has clearly been attacked...that's painfully obvious despite her insistence to the contrary. What happened to her was no accident...."
"I know," Buffy said softly, her expression suddenly supremely dangerous--once she knew exactly what had happened, there wouldn't be enough of the vampire who'd done it left to fill a hibachi-- "and I assure you, the responsible party will be held accountable. Mr. Giles, however, is in now way involved in what happened. Quite the reverse. He was helping my mother."
The doctor frowned, startled as much by her tone as by the information.
"Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to take my mother home."
He ducked his head in acknowledgment. "Of course."
A few minutes later, Buffy waited impatiently while her mother sat in the hospital mandated wheelchair and filled out the necessary paperwork. She just wanted the hell out of this place.
Xander staggered out, an arm across Anya's shoulders as his girlfriend helped him keep from falling over.
"You okay?" Buffy questioned her friend.
He nodded. "My head's hard."
Anya didn't look happy though. "You could have been hurt," she complained to her boyfriend. "And saving someone who's old. Where's the point in that?"
She seemed to sense that she'd said the wrong thing and flashed look at Buffy that was as close to apologetic as she ever got. "Not that I'm not glad your mother's alive...she is alive, right?"
"She's alive," Buffy confirmed, then turned a hard gaze on Giles, who was standing now, still clutching the painting tightly. "Though I'd like to know exactly what happened..." She looked around suddenly as if remembering something. "Spike...where's Spike? You mentioned him in your phone call," she snapped, each sentence falling hard on the heels of the previous one, not giving Giles a chance to answer. "Did he have something to do with this, because if he did, he's dead."
Giles held up a hand to halt her tirade before it gained any steam. "Buffy...no...actually, he didn't--"
"For once," Xander piped in helpfully. He didn't have Joyce's advantage of prodigious amounts of chemical pain buffer, but he'd found with time that hard blows to the head had almost the same effect.
"Yes, well, be that as it may," Giles grumbled and flashed a glare at the boy. "Spike is actually back the studio at present. I asked him to stay there and see if the ... party... in question tries to return."
"What?" Buffy demanded in disbelief. "In case you haven't noticed, Spike's one of the bad guys. If there's someone out there who wants me or anyone I care about dead, he's most likely to give them a map and personalized directions."
"Not in this instance," Giles said carefully. "Since it's rather a matter of self-preservation...."
* * * * * * *
"Stay here, Spike," Spike muttered as he exhaled smoke into the chilly night air that filled Joyce Summer's art gallery. Chill air blew in through the open skylight windows with enough ferocity that he would have been shivering had he been human and even as a vampire, he really would have preferred something a bit warmer. "Look after the place, Spike." He took another drag from his cigarette. "We don't really have room in the car, Spike." He blew out another stream of smoke, not noticing the way it wreathed his head as he enjoyed his serious dabble in the high art of self-pity. "You're expendable, Spike, so go play with the psycho Vampire-Slayer." He was half crouched, half sitting near the doors that led into the rear work area of Joyce's gallery. He'd locked the place up and was just considering packing it all in. He wasn't their bloody errand boy.
"That's right, Spike," Delaine DuCourvallier agreed charitably.
He twisted and started to push to his feet, but not before his throat was gripped in an impossibly strong hand. Still held tight, he found himself airborne before he knew what hit him. And then, he wished he was still airborne as she slammed him down into a display case, his impact shattering glass and sending the extensive collection of Pre-Columbian hand carved figures rolling and clattering across the floor. He tried to break her hold and twist away, but she only lifted him by the throat and hammered him back into the base of the display case, splintering the hardwood and drawing a noisy grunt of pain from the vampire. Before he could gather his wits and fight back, she lifted him, and shoved him headfirst into the next display case over, shattering the glass, then yanked him upright again, his nose and mouth bloodied.
"Now that you're a little tenderized, I think we can talk," she drawled knowingly. "In fact I'd love to hear how a whiney little rat-bastard like you apparently wound up as the Slayer's personal lapdog."
"I'm nobody's lapdog," Spike snarled, and tried to claw his way free, swinging a clenched fist at his tormentor.
She ducked the badly aimed blow, then -- to punish him for the brief display of defiance -- she shoved his head through another display case. "We've only got a few more of these to go," she murmured as she hauled him back, staggered and barely conscious. "And then I'm going to start using your head to punch holes in the walls." She lifted him high until his feet were almost off the ground, slender fingers pushing deep dents into his throat .
Spike spat blood and glared down at her. "So, you're the Dark Slayer...can't say I'm impressed."
She snickered. "Well, it's always a shame to disappoint, though you really should be grateful. If I were much more impressive, I'd just rip your head off and giggle while you turned to dust...however, lucky you, you're not the one I want to talk to."
Spike licked the blood off his lips, studying her with ferally assessing eyes. "Maybe we can work a deal," he offered slyly. "I've got no love for the Slayer. If you're here to kill her, I'm all for the idea."
DuCourvallier smiled, momentarily looking for all the world like a lighthearted college student.
And then she slammed him into another display case. "I don't think so, Billy," she murmured as she yanked him back, spilling him to unsteady feet amid falling glass and shattered collector's china. "You see, you're really not the calibre of help I like to have on my team."
Spike spat more blood, while streamers of crimson ran freely down his face from a cut at the hairline. "It's William the Bloody," he snarled in a voice thick with hate.
"Right...Bloody Billy, the terror of whatever slum you were hanging out in at the time," she dismissed his entire death with a sneer.
He lashed out furiously, rocking her head to one side and drawing a single bead of blood on her lower lip. She returned the blow with interest, nearly taking his head off, then lifted him by the collar, leaning close to his ear to whisper, "Now, Billy, do you really want to keep playing this game, because if you do, you won't even qualify as cigar ash when I'm done with you." A sensual smile twisted full lips. "And I really don't feel like killing you tonight."
"Go to hell," he coughed through split lips.
She shook her head, offering a mock sad smile. "Sorry...no...do you know you can't get a decent cheeseburger there to save your soul?"
Spike stared into her eyes, trying to decide if she was sane or mad and came away without making any conclusions. "So...what is this...some little game before you kill me?"
Again her lips lifted in an almost beatific smile. She set him back from herself, straightening his jacket and smoothing his collar, while Spike stood stiffly, very aware of how easily she had already dealt with his efforts at resistance. "Actually, I need you to carry a little message to the Slayer."
"Do I look like a courier service?" Spike demanded, straightening his shoulders as he tried to regain something of his dignity. She'd just managed to surprise him before. Now that he was expecting her, she'd never get one over on him.
"No...." Her eyes slid over him, her expression baldly assessing. "I don't know what you look like...except maybe a not very well-trained puppy." She laughed softly as he looked away, his expression taut at the unknowing reminder of his little problem. "Now, I suggest you think very hard and try to make that tiny mind of yours remember this...the Slayer...here...midnight... tomorrow night...with my painting...no telling the Watcher...and she's to come alone...or I might just decide to start eating her friends to get my point across."
Then she grabbed his coat and hurled him across the room, the momentum sending him skidding before he came to a halt.
DuCourvallier appeared deceptively calm, her arms already folded across her chest. "Oh, and one more thing, just in case you're thinking of not telling her in hopes I will kill off her friends..." Which had been Spike's precise plan there for a moment. "You should know that you'll be the first one to die." She didn't look at all bothered by the concept. "And if you know anything about me, you know I don't go in for that whole, 'Demons don't kill demons,' thing." Her voice dipped low, seemingly soft features taking on a demonic glow that would have appealed to Spike were it not his death she was contemplating. "If fact, I like killing vampires--that wonderful puff of dust is better than an after-sex cigarette--so you'd be wise to stay on my good side."
"I don't care about anyone's good side," Spike sneered, trying to appear as badass as possible--none of this would have been happening if not for the damn chip in his head-- as he pushed up on one hand.
She laughed at him, drawing a dull, dead flush of rage to his cheeks. "Then you'll die," she taunted. "Now, remember that little message for the Slayer. She and I have things to discuss. And remember, no telling the Watcher. I'd be far too tempted to kill him if he came along." Again she flashed that almost-mad smile, the one that made him wonder just how sane she was...or wasn't. And then she turned on one heel, the black coat flicking around her legs as she strode out, slender shoulders still shaking with her soft laughter.
Spike slowly pushed to his feet, features demonically twisted with raw hate. He was going to kill her, slit her throat, rip out her heart and send her back to Hell. He grabbed a spear of shattered wood from the destroyed display case, fully intending to chase after her and end it, but by the time he got outside she was nowhere to be seen.
Fine then, he'd sic the Slayer on her. Let the two of them work it out between them. Whoever killed whom, he stood to gain. He lit a fresh cigarette, drawing the smoke into long-dead lungs and letting the pleasant nicotine buzz wash over him. Yes, this could definitely work out to his advantage. Keep his head down and out of the way and with any luck at all, they'd all kill each other before it was over. To the east, the horizon was just beginning to lighten as he strode out into the remainder of the night, whistling a jaunty tune.
* * * * * * *
Giles' house was where the Scooby gang always did their research and mapped out strategy now that they were in college--he had both the necessary research materials and the money to afford the best snacks--and Buffy certainly wasn't going to leave her mother alone at their house. Which was how the former librarian wound up with the three teenagers and one semi-teenager and ex-vengeance demon spaced around his livingroom, Joyce Summers stretched out on the couch under a knitted afghan, and a Baroque era painting taking up its own chair as an impromptu display easel. The only one missing was Spike, and Giles was comfortably certain he was nowhere near lucky enough to have the vampire either disappear into the night, or even better, get himself dusted somewhere along the way. His life just didn't go that smoothly.
"It's..." the ex-librarian began as he stared at the painting only to fall silent for a beat.
"Very hot," Xander proclaimed as he moved to stand beside Giles. "I mean, am I the one thinking major girl on girl sex here?"
Sitting off to the side and just in front of Willow, Buffy did a doubletake--did he somehow know how she'd spent the night with Willow--then realized he was just referring to the painting. She could feel Willow's eyes on her back, but she resisted all temptation and didn't look back.
"It's a biblical story of selfless love and devotion, not Debbie Does Judea," Anya pointed out, sounding put out. "You just get excited by thinking that all women are about to have sex with each other."
"No," Xander corrected cheerfully, "I'm excited by the idea all women are about to have sex with each other while I watch and then invite me to join in."
"Xander," Buffy yelped, "my mother's here." Not to mention my best friend whom I spent last night making love to ... and we'd just as soon not go there, she added mentally. Says you, her little Willow-crazed nag disagreed.
Willow just hunched deeper into her chair.
"Sorry," Xander stammered an apology as he glanced back at the Slayer's mother, then slunk over to join Anya, who put a proprietary arm around his shoulders.
"'S'okay," Joyce assured him with a bleary wave of her good arm. She wasn't really tracking the conversation very well anyhow. Her entire attention was reserved for the artwork leaned only a few feet away. It was exquisite and the would-be artist in her couldn't help but be fascinated by the workmanship. Even in the unflattering light of Giles' livingroom, it glowed.
During the exchange, Giles had gone into his default ignore-mode, his usual method for dealing with the often inane chatter that tended to bounce back and forth between the teens. Finally, he lifted his chin and looked back at the small group assembled around the room, putting on his best I'm-in-charge-here face and voice as he informed them, "If you're finished.... We have to inform the Watcher's Council and let them handle this."
Buffy was the first to respond. "Excuse me?" the Slayer demanded. She pushed to her feet, ready to go toe to toe with her former Watcher. She was too tired and too on edge to control her first impulses. "Some vampire comes to town, nearly kills my mother and Xander, and you want to call the Watcher's Council. The last time I checked, I don't work for them anymore."
Giles' gaze slid back to the painting, though his expression held none of Joyce Summers almost reverent awe. "This is different," he insisted distantly, and without explanation.
She absorbed his non-answer answer, then shook her head. "Different?" the Slayer repeated. "What's different. See vamp, fight vamp, kill vamp. Same game, new channel is all I see."
Giles turned to look at his prot�g�, his expression sad. "You don't understand," he said softly. "Delaine DuCourvallier isn't like any other vampire you've ever fought--"
"None of them ever are," Buffy pointed out. "But you've never suggested I walk away before."
"Because you've never faced a vampire who was a Slayer before."
Buffy froze for a beat, then slowly exhaled, "A Slayer?"
Giles nodded, then turned back to the painting. "Delaine Annalise Marguerite DuCourvallier, born 1595, the only daughter of the Countess DuCourvallier. Wealthy, educated--
"And died of the plague in...what...sixteen-ten or eleven?" Joyce interrupted from her personal peanut gallery on the couch. "How could she have been a Slayer? When her mother arranged for her to study with Orazio Gentillesci, she went to Rome and then painted almost up until the hour of her death according to both Orazio's and his daughter, Artemesia's, accounts."
"She didn't die of the plague," Giles said quietly. "She was drugged to simulate the disease and then removed to England for training. Apparently, when her Watcher first contacted her, she refused to have anything to do with being the Slayer--"
"So they had to force her, and then make sure there was no one she could turn to for help," Willow filled in, not sounding at all surprised. Giles had no way of knowing about her research into the history of the Watcher's Council.
Giles frowned as he looked at the girl, startled by her accurate reading of the situation. "Something like that," he allowed, then felt the need to defend the long-dead Watcher's who'd made the decision. "But it was a necessity. There is only one Slayer--"
"And duty above all else," Buffy murmured with a distant sort of bitterness. "Right, Giles?"
The Watcher's and Slayer's gazes locked and held. "It was another time," he said simply. "And in any event, it scarcely matters. She betrayed them, plotted to escape her fate by handing the entire Council over to a cadre of vampires. She failed, though she did succeed in getting her Watcher's wife killed." He'd been told the tale in Watcher training over and over, learning every detail of the betrayal, and like all Watchers, he'd learned to hate and fear the long dead Slayer.
Buffy looked away from his hard gaze, not wanting to admit how thoroughly she'd momentarily identified with the young woman from another time, forced to accept a duty she had no desire for, and made to let go of whatever dreams and talents she might have had that had nothing to do with destiny and killing.
"So, if you're feeling too much kinship, you might remember that she was a killer before she became a vampire." Giles' voice throbbed with the long-held hatred the Council had for their legendary enemy. "Before all was said and done, all but two members of the Watcher's Council were dead and Delaine DuCourvallier was a vampire--and as much stronger than a normal vampire as you are stronger than a normal human. In the four-hundred years since she's killed at least six Slayers, perhaps more. That's why there's a standing order for the Council to deal with it if she's seen. They have teams of professionals searching for her at all times--"
Buffy shook her head. "But they're not here, and this bitch has threatened my family--"
"Well, actually," Joyce broke in, still more than a little buzzed, but oddly fascinated by the conversation. She couldn't help but wonder if this sort of thing was a huge part of the whole vampire fighting experience for her daughter. Actually, this wasn't so bad. Kind of interesting even, in an odd way. "She didn't exactly attack me...I mean, she just kept demanding her painting...who knows, she might have gone away if I'd just given it to her..."
"If you had given her the painting, she probably would have just killed you," Buffy explained patiently, but Joyce was already staring at the canvas in question once again, her mind a million miles away. Handed a mystery that related to her own field of interest, she couldn't help but be fascinated.
"Why does she want it so badly?" the older woman questioned out of the blue. "The painting, I mean. From what you've told me about vampires, they don't really seem like the artistic types."
"I'm certain she just used it as an excuse to get close to you," Giles dismissed. "Killing a Slayer's mother would probably appeal to her twisted sense of humor." His lip curled with distaste.
"I don't think so," Joyce disagreed. "If she was just trying to kill me, she had plenty of chances. No, she wanted the painting, and when I threatened to burn it, she froze...I mean she did not move a muscle." Her head canted to one side as she continued studying the play of paint on canvas. "So why is it so important to her?"
"I really don't think that's important--" Giles began, but Joyce waved him silent, throwing the blanket aside as she climbed unsteadily to her feet.
Giles and Buffy both automatically reached out to steady the woman when she weaved back and forth during the short journey to stand in front of the painting.
"I think maybe it is important," Joyce disagreed, still staring intently. Her mind was racing, or at least trying to race as several things occurred to her at once.
Giles glared at Buffy as if the interruption was her fault.
"Mom, I really think--"
"Maybe there's something coded into the picture," Joyce murmured thoughtfully as she held up a hand to silence her daughter, the fogginess leaving her incapable of noticing the hints to shut up.
"I really doubt--" Giles began, but Buffy cut him off.
"What do you mean?"
Joyce turned toward her daughter. "Elizabethan and Renaissance artists often included little in-jokes, like curse words, names, or Latin inscriptions in their paintings. To sort of put one over on their patrons I guess...there's a even a painting that some historians think is a clue in the possible murder of a couple of princes--I wish I could remember the story--but the point is, they hid things--"
"You mean like those old Seek and Find games in Highlights magazine?" Xander seized on the concept.
"I really don't think--" Giles tried to take control of the discussion again, but Joyce interrupted without ever noticing he'd started to speak.
"Actually, that's a pretty good analogy," she admitted, and Xander preened under the attention. "So, what if she hid something in there...some piece of knowledge she needs?"
"Like a map or spell?" Willow whispered as she moved to join them.
Joyce shrugged. "I don't know. You guys are the experts on that front."
Giles sighed softly, finally accepting that he'd lost all control over the situation. Ought to be used to it by now, he silently chastised himself for feeling put out. Actually, he had to admit that Joyce had a pretty good idea. "It's possible," he murmured aloud. "But--"
"Mom, do you think you're up to lending a hand?" Buffy asked her mother before Giles could put a stop to things. "None of us know enough to know what to look for."
Joyce turned to meet her daughter's gaze, blinking in surprise as she processed the request. "I...uh...of course. Any way I can help. I'm not really at my best, but I'll do what I can."
"I've got some experience in the arts," Anya volunteered, then shrugged when everyone looked her way. "Artists tend to be an unfaithful lot." A wicked smile curved her lips. "What, you thought it was Van Gogh's idea to cut off his own ear?"
"Honey," Xander said nervously, "remember that little conversation we had about sharing too many details about your past?"
Anya frowned, then noted her boyfriend's nervous look. "Don't worry, Xander. I like your ears far too much to ever do that." She reached out to play with his hair. "Besides it's so much fun nibbling on them when we're having sex--"
"More things we probably shouldn't share," Xander groaned, wondering why it was that demonic attacks, doorways into alternate universes, and reopening Hellmouths never appeared when he could most use them.
Buffy took pity on her friend. "Um, Anya, if you could help my mom, that would be great," she said, pointedly diverting the topic away from any and all sexual escapades. All things considered that was the last topic she wanted to discuss.
In fairly short order, things settled in a bit, with Anya and Xander helping Joyce, who took a seat, while the two teens found a couple of Giles' magnifying glasses, then began checking for signs of anything unusual.
While they did that, Giles caught Buffy's arm and tugged her into the kitchen with a soft hissed, "We need to talk."
"All right," the Slayer responded once they were alone. "Talk."
"I know you've had a couple of very bad nights--"
"Which is not that unusual for me," Buffy dismissed instantly. She was in no mood for his arguments to try and sway her from hunting DuCourvallier down and destroying her.
Giles studied his young prot�g�, taking in the circles under her eyes and the unusual jitteriness to her movements. Contrary to whatever she was saying, the stress was getting to her. He felt an all too familiar wave of guilt. No one should have to bear the things she did, but particularly not a teenager on the brink of starting her life. "A woman died in your arms and your mother was attacked by a creature that very probably intended to kill her for sport. I think that qualifies as unusual, even for you."
"All right," Buffy admitted stiffly. "I'll allow you have a point--"
"Which is why we need to turn this over to the Watcher's Council."
"No," Buffy said flatly, her tone brooking no argument. "My mother, my town, my problem."
"It's not that simple," Giles reiterated his point. "The Council..." He shook his head, trying to find a way to express the paranoia he knew existed when it came to the subject of the former Slayer. "They are terrified of her...and of any possible influence she might have over a current Slayer. They don't just want to make certain she's dead. They want everything she's ever done and every thought she's ever had eliminated. They've forbidden any Slayer from having contact with her...even if it's only the kind required to kill her."
"But I don't work for them anymore...and you said she's been around for four hundred years while they were hunting her. That's she's killed six Slayers--and who only knows how many of their family members. I'm sure the Watcher's don't keep stats on that, since we've both seen how much they value the lives of my friends and family. Sorry, Giles, but I'm not risking my friends and family on that kind of success rate."
"If the Council finds out you've defied their orders--"
"I don't give a damn about the Council. I care about stopping her!"
The two stood glaring at each other for a long moment, each judging the other's sincerity. "Twenty-four hours," Giles bit out at last. "I'll give you twenty-four hours, and if she's still alive after that, I'm calling the Council." And denying he'd delayed even a minute.
The Slayer tensed, but didn't argue, sensing that she'd already pushed her Watcher farther than he'd intended to go. "Well, then I guess I'd better make sure she's a pile of dust by then." Buffy straightened her shoulders. "So I need to know everything you know about her...everything...."
"That could be difficult," Giles admitted. "Since there isn't much to know. She's been remarkably successful at destroying or killing any information sources. The last fairly reliable sighting was in the 1840's in China, but it was during the Opium Wars and she managed to disappear in the confusion. Since then reports have been sporadic...uncertain..." His jaw muscles clenched and unclenched with every word as he had to admit that there was nothing to know. "There's evidence to indicate she was involved in various attempts to resurrect a Wraith Demon in the Arizona territories in the 1880's, a try at opening a HellMouth near St. Petersburg in the 1920's, and a late 1930's summoning of the demon Azrael in Germany...but due to the circumstances, confirmation was never possible."
Buffy couldn't help it. She laughed. This was just too funny. "So they're vaunted hit teams can't even tell you where she's been for over a century and a half, but they're gonna kill her." She shook her head disgustedly. "Pardon me for being unimpressed."
"You don't understand how smart and how very evil she is."
"Well, I guess I've got twenty-four hours to find out," the Slayer said. She turned as if to leave and suddenly stiffened as she realized that Willow was standing just inside the entrance to the kitchen, silently listening--though Buffy had no way of knowing how much of the discussion she'd heard--something haunted gleaming in her pale gaze. As Buffy watched, her friend's eyes slid over to Giles, an odd expression flickering there momentarily, before she looked back to Buffy. "Can I count on you to help, Will?" she questioned, her tone leaving Giles confused. He'd never heard Buffy sound so uncertain when asking Willow to do something before.
Willow nodded. "Whatever you need."
"Thanks." Buffy turned to look at Giles, silently willing him to leave her alone with her friend. "Do you mind?" she whispered at last when he still hadn't moved a long beat later. "I'd like to talk to Willow alone."
Giles seemed about to say something, but changed his mind and slipped out, leaving the two girls alone.
Willow didn't even try to broach what had happened between them earlier, thinking it wasn't the time. "It's bad this time, isn't it?"
Buffy shrugged, waving Willow closer as she responded. "No worse than the mayor, or the master, the Hellmouth...or a dozen other probable ends of the world we've faced. Maybe not even as bad." Maybe they were lucky, and it was only the Slayer this evil was in town to destroy, rather than the entire world.
"But it's personal this time," Willow reminded Buffy as her eyes slid over the Slayer's features, taking in the dark circles under her eyes and the tired slump of her shoulders.
"Personal...yeah...." Buffy sighed softly. She looked away for a moment, taking a deep breath in an effort to calm her suddenly racing pulse. Bad things were coming and coming fast. And with them, possibly her own death. She looked back, reaching out to catch Willow's hand in her own. She hadn't really had time to think about what she was going to say or how she felt, she just knew that she couldn't leave things with Willow where they were. "Will, I just want you to know..." she trailed off, not know what to say or how. Finally, she just whispered, "I love you, Will...nothing changes that ... and I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to be such a raving bitch...."
Willow let out the breath she hadn't even been aware of holding as she felt some of the constriction wrapped painfully tightly around her chest let go and her heart started beating again. "I know," she whispered past the tightness in her throat. "I just...." She couldn't quite finish.
"I know." Buffy's free hand lifted and she tucked a few stray strands of red hair behind Willow's ear. She swallowed hard, dropping the hand at Willow's cheek because she didn't know what to do with it. "We'll figure it out...I promise...." She almost reached out to trace cupid's bow lips. Almost leaned forward to taste them and see if they were as sweet as they'd seemed in the darkness of their dorm room.
"I trust you," Willow breathed.
"Of course you do. Too bloody stupid not to," Spike derided as he entered the kitchen. He'd cleaned up most of the mess the Vampire-Slayer had left his face in, and his vampire physiology had taken care of sealing the worst of the cuts, but he still looked like hell. "Y'know, Red, if you were as smart as they all say, you'd have taken one of those big scholarships you were offered and gotten the bloody hell out of this town. It's cursed in case you haven't noticed."
"Oh...joy...you're back," Buffy observed as the blond vampire stepped past them and headed straight for the refrigerator. She quickly released Willow's hand and pivoted to face him, turning only a little green as he retrieved a bottle of pig's blood and took a long draft.
"God, this stuff reeks," Spike observed as he tipped the bottle down.
"Hey, if you want to go find your own, you're welcome to try," Buffy taunted. "Oh, wait, I forgot, you can't." She never missed an opportunity to remind him of his little condition. It was the one revenge fair play still allowed her.
Spike growled softly. "Sod off, Slayer," he sneered. "You should be nicer to me since I come bearing messages that just might keep your...." He turned an assessing gaze Willow's way, making the Slayer wonder just how much he'd heard during his untimely entrance. "...loved ones alive."
Buffy frowned, mentally debating whether to hear him out or just go ahead and stake him and make all of their lives easier. "Spill it," she snarled at last.
"DuCourvallier put in a little appearance after your Watcher and the others left. She wants a meeting with you--and just you...tell your Watcher and the deal's apparently off--tonight at midnight in your mother's gallery. You're to come alone and unarmed."
"That'd be suicide," Willow gasped.
Spike shrugged. "I think murder's probably a better term for it," he observed cheerfully and took another long swallow of the pig's blood, curling his lip in distaste as he noted, "Doesn't get any better the second time around. That's why I add the cookies and crackers, y'know, to try and kill the taste."
"And why would I want to do that? Meet with her, I mean," Buffy clarified. "Unarmed and alone."
Spike offered a feral smile. "Because if you don't, she starts going after your friends ... and ... family." Again his eyes touched on Willow, sensing the same vulnerability on that front that his sire had wielded against the Slayer only two years before. "Starting with Red here." He offered a toothy smile. "I've always heard that DuCourvallier was quite a connoisseur of the ladies." His voice dropped low, becoming suggestive as he added, "Particularly the young and succulent type. She liked them very pink by all accounts."
Willow stiffened, determined not to show any fear and not succeeding to any great effect.
Buffy, on the other hand, took one pace forward, slamming a hand into Spike's throat, fingers clenching tight as she used her hold to slam him into the refrigerator hard enough to send it skidding back into the wall. "And I should trust your word because?" she growled, eyes flashing with fury.
Spike glared at her with thick anger. "Because I've got no reason to lie," he choked past the punishing hold.
"Other than the fact that you'd like to see all of us dead, that is," Buffy jeered. "Now tell me another one. I repeat, why should I trust you?"
"Because your precious Scooby gang aren't the only ones with their heads on the chopping block," he gagged. "That lunatic threatened to dust me as well." He tried to pry her fingers off without success. "She half destroyed your mother's gallery using my head as a battering ram...believe me, I want the stupid bitch dead."
The Slayer released the harsh grip on his throat, a grim smile twisting her lips. "Now that sounds more like the Spike I know and loathe."
The vampire straightened his shoulders, resettling his jacket as he rubbed his sore throat. "Y'know, it would almost worth being dusted to see her take you apart," he shot back.
Buffy's hand shot out, fingers closing on his groin with punishing strength and nearly dropping the vampire to his knees as she leaned close to his bent over frame. "Just remember, if you're lying, I'll take you apart a piece at a time...and this is the piece I'll start with."
Bent double, his eyes rapidly filling with crimson tears of raw agony, he almost told her the truth, filled in every left-out detail, and begged forgiveness for lying. Only his hatred kept him from surrendering to the awful pain and saying anything she wanted. "I'm telling the truth," he gasped, his voice bordering on a shriek.
"You'd better be," Buffy whispered near his ear, then released her brutal hold as she backed off, while Spike spilled to his knees, whimpering softly. "Come on, Will," the Slayer said as she grabbed her friend's hand and tugged her out.
"Bitch," Spike exhaled to no one in particular. He could hear the blond Slayer speaking to her Watcher in the livingroom, but didn't have the strength to care what she was saying.
* * * * * *
"What do you mean you're leaving?" Giles demanded as he watched Willow start gathering the volumes she needed from his collection.
"Will needs her laptop, and I want to go talk to Willy...see if he's heard anything."
"We'll call in regularly to see if you've found anything, and I'll have your cell," she added as she grabbed Giles' tiny flip phone from the coffee table. She tucked it in her pocket, then leaned over to kiss her mother's cheek. "Mom, you be careful, okay. Don't go out tonight." She looked at Giles. "And whatever you do, don't let anyone in."
Her Watcher frowned. "Buffy, if you find out anything, we'll fight her together...right?"
"Of course," the Slayer lied smoothly. "But I've got to find her first. I'll call you later and let you know what's going on."
Willow looked over as she finished stuffing leather bound books into a borrowed backpack. Buffy had forbidden her from saying anything or she'd have told the others the truth, but she'd promised. Which meant she had to make sure the Slayer was okay. "I've got what I need."
Buffy jerked her head toward the door. "Come on."
"Be careful," Xander murmured as Buffy started to turn away.
The Slayer pivoted back to face her friend, her expression neutral, though she had the oddest sensation he'd guessed what was going on. "You too."
The teen offered the smallest of smiles and a brief nod. "Don't worry. I'll look after things here."
"You'd better." And then she and Willow were stepping into the early morning sun and a day so beautiful it was hard to believe there was real evil anywhere in the world.
* * * * * * *
The motel was little more than a low rent flophouse, a leftover from the 1960's love of Route 66 and the automobile, long since fallen into disrepair. It had a pool--though the water was less than clean--hourly rates, in-room movies of a particularly fleshy nature, and beds that vibrated for a quarter. However, the primary appeal to the woman lying naked--the torn and bloody clothes she'd been wearing for two days soaking in the sink-- on a bed that felt as though it had been cast from cement, were the thick brick masonry and tiny windows that faced north behind their heavy, plastic-backed curtains. Sunlight didn't get into the main room, which was a relief. Otherwise, she'd have had to spend the day in the bathroom. She rolled over, grumbling impolitely under her breath. Not that the bathtub probably wasn't more comfortable than the bed. She rolled onto her back again, folding her hands across her stomach as she glared at the ceiling as though it was responsible for the muck ups of the previous two days. She swallowed hard, closing her eyes and concentrating on quieting herself. The hunger was on her, thick and hot, the need for blood drawing her muscles taut and making every sense painfully acute.
A less than ideal situation in view of the fact that there are some things Dominoes doesn't deliver.
Lying there with her eyes closed, she could hear the few denizens haunting the motel at that hour, her blood running at their frenzied couplings and torrid, sweaty interactions. She tried to distract herself with mental games, but that only brought up the memory of the sound of her name on the Watcher's lips. So strange to hear it again after so many years of other names, other identities, none of them truly her, until it sometimes seemed she had no identity beyond the moment in which she existed. Then she had to distract herself from the distractions.
More sounds and smells of thick lust filled her senses, making the hunger burn in her veins.
The sewers were starting to sound better with every passing moment. At least there the clinging stench might have distracted her from the hunger and her own thoughts. She rolled onto her stomach, burying her face in the pillow and striving to ignore the voices and the sounds of lust coming at her from all sides.
Tried and failed as a girl's voice cried out, "No!" The sound of flesh hitting flesh.
The vampire pushed up on her hands, sharp eyes sliding around the room as she separated the nearby sounds from the background noises.
"You'll do what you were paid for, bitch."
Her gaze landed on the door that sat in the corner of the room. The sort that was meant to allow rooms to be joined together. Probably so families could have a room for the parents and one for the children during the motel's first life as a wholesome, overnight, vacation stop.
"I told you before--" Again the sound of flesh on flesh, followed by a small cry of pain.
She pushed to her feet, moving to stand in front of the connecting door, her head canted to one side as she listened to the little passion play being performed on the other side.
"Keep it up, and I'll still do what I want, but you won't be getting paid." And again the sound of flesh striking flesh.
Followed by the crash and smash of double wooden doors being torn off their hinges by a solid kick from a seemingly delicate bare foot. For a brief second after that, the only sound was the soft rhythmic scree of the doors gently rocking on the tattered remainders of their hinges.
The girl was young and dark haired, pretty maybe, if not for the caked on makeup running with panicked tears and clothes that would have looked tacky and slutty on a woman twice her age and twice as sluttish. On her knees and pressed back against the bed, her eyes went wide as she stared in shock at the naked newcomer, visibly not quite believing what she was seeing. Too many drugs and too much life hadn't left her with the firmest of grips on reality.
"What the fuck?" Her would-be suitor twisted, peering over his tattooed shoulder. He was on the short side, but wiry-strong with thinning dark hair and a heavy mustache. Just the sort of pug-ugly who considered beating a woman to be a fair hobby.
Short man's syndrome, bald man's syndrome, and an excess of machismo all in one special package. She was comfortably certain she was going to enjoy this. "It's very difficult to get any sleep with all the noise you're making," she observed dryly, well aware of the way his eyes slid over her body with a combination of lust and hate. No surprise there. It took a lot of hate to be like he was. "And I haven't had the best of nights lately."
"I don't know who the fuck you are, but you have no fucking idea who you're dealing with," he growled, the repetition of mindless swear words accompanied by the sound of a zipper sliding before he turned to fully face her.
She smiled. "Obviously you've confused the meaning of the words know and care," she dismissed. Green eyes slid over to the girl. "How old are you?"
"None of your fucking business," he cut in before the girl could answer.
The green eyes touched on him again. "Could have sworn I was talking to her."
"I don't give a shit who you're talking to, bitch. Unless you want to take her place, I suggest you haul your ass the fuck out of here."
Pale brows lifted and a hint of a wry smile twisted her lips. "Such a tempting offer," she drawled and appeared to consider his manly charms.
Confused now--he was used to having women flinch from him in fear--actually, he liked having women flinch from him in fear--the would-be suitor's eyes slid past the delicately built blond to the doors hanging half off their hinges. No way she could have done that. They must have just been old and rusted. Right, that was the answer; old and rusted and probably just gave way when she knocked. This whole place was falling down so it was no surprise. His composure buoyed up by a healthy dose of false confidence, he looked back at her, eyes sliding insultingly over her body, noting perfect rose-tipped breasts and rounded hips with particular greed. Probably one of those kinkoids that liked it rough. Probably hung around No-tell Motels looking for guys to do her, he decided. "Yeah, babe, I got a lot to offer."
And then she laughed, dashing his ugly fantasies with innate cruelty. "Somehow I don't think you'd measure up to my standards."
"Bitch." He took three long strides forward, intending to grab her and teach her who was in charge in this world.
Only a hand lashed out with the speed of a striking rattlesnake, grabbing him around the throat and lifting him off his feet. He grabbed for her hand, trying to take some of the pressure off his windpipe as he kicked and struggled, trying to break free.
The teenaged hooker pressed harder against the bed, whispering the few fragments of the Lord's Prayer she still remembered as she stared in horror at the woman effortlessly dangling her john in mid-air.
"So, how old are you?" the blond asked as though she wasn't holding a kicking and clawing man several inches off the floor in a one-handed grip, while standing naked in the middle of the motel room she'd just broken into. Gleaming cat's eyes stared down at the quivering girl, silently willing her to answer.
"Eighteen," responded the hooker, whose name was actually Jennifer Holly Hollings, though she'd been going by Jenny Cherry long enough that she sometimes forgot she'd had another name before her parents divorce, her stepfather's entry into her life, and her own exit from that same life.
"No...really...how old are you?" the blond asked dryly, her eyes no longer seeming to glitter with quite so many yellow lights.
But that was just a trick of the light, Jenny reassured herself, then her eyes lifted to the middle-aged man still trying unsuccessfully to claw his way free. Or maybe not. "Fourteen," she answered honestly, then remembered it had to be November -- maybe even December -- by now and her birthday had been in October when she was still Jennifer Holly and Jenny Cherry hadn't been born yet. "No...fifteen," she corrected. "I...I just turned fifteen."
"How much he promise to pay you?" the blond interrogated briskly, showing no pity, if indeed she felt any.
She ducked her chin, cheeks flushing with shame. "Twenty," she admitted, hating the thought of what she'd been willing to do for the price of a couple of meals at a burger joint. A grim laugh brought her chin up.
"J�su...a whoremonger and a cheap one at that." A brown leather wallet lay on the nightstand and she pivoted, grabbing it and flipping it open, noting the silver badge inside with a raised brow. "Well...well...Sunnydale's finest at work." She flipped the moneyclip inside out with agile fingers and tossed it to the girl. "Get out and lock your door on the way," she bit out.
Jenny pushed to shaking feet, not even bothering to straighten her clothes as she staggered toward the door.
"One more thing," the blond's silky voice called her back and Jenny pivoted to find herself staring into the face of hell itself, the woman's newly remade sharp demon's features like something she'd seen in a horror movie as a child. She froze, unable to even breathe as she stared at the thing standing only a few feet away. She'd heard other runaways tell tales of murder and mayhem on the dark streets, but never believed them. Now she believed. "Think about how you're going to spend that money, because there are things a lot worse than him," she nodded toward her rapidly weakening prisoner, "out there in the world. You wouldn't want to run into them, now would you?"
The girl shook her head stiffly, expecting to die at any moment.
"Smart girl. I saw a church about three blocks East of here. You might want to start looking for help there."
Jenny nodded jerkily, barely able to make her body obey the dictates of her mind.
"You'd better move along now. You have things to do and people to see."
Again the girl nodded, then slipped out, careful to make certain the door locked in her wake.
The john suddenly found that she'd lowered him enough that his toes just touched the worn shag carpeting. If he pressed hard enough with the balls of his feet, he could almost push high enough to take most of his weight off his throat. "You'll pay for this," he croaked, his voice ragged as he forced it out past his bruised larynx. "When the cops get here--"
"And who's going to call them?" his captor demanded politely as her head came back around, seemingly as sweet and human as the day she'd died centuries before. "The little whore? I don't think so. Not with your money burning a hole in her pocket. She'll either use it to leave here or buy enough of the drug of her choice that her exit from this life may well be the first painless pleasure of her young life. No, she won't be calling anyone," she dashed his hopes with a smile, then clenched her fingers, pressuring them more deeply into his neck as she wrenched him back into the air, relishing the pain she saw on his face. "You're all mine, my friend." She lowered him again a beat later, letting him have just enough oxygen to stay alive. "So, tell me, do you have a wife...children...a family you beat and torment for fun?"
He spat then, nostrils flaring as his lungs fought to draw in enough air to simply maintain consciousness.
His tormentor lifted her free hand, wiping the spittle away with the back as she peered at him like she might a particularly ugly bug under a microscope. "Now, that's not friendly at all." And she increased the pressure on his larynx, reminding him just who was in charge. "Now, answer the question. Do you have a wife, maybe a daughter that CPS really should remove from the home before even your cop friends can't cover up what you are anymore?"
"The fucking bitch left me!" he screamed, tears of hate and loss leaking from eyes bloodshot from too many nights of whiskey and drugs. "But I'll find her and then that fucking bitch is dead! I'll kill them all!"
Blond brows rose in polite disbelief. "I doubt that very much," she disagreed. "However, I guess that means there are no insurance matters to worry about, which makes things much simpler, Officer Riordan." And then her features morphed again, arching and twisting, showing the hellborne face and sharp canines of the hunter within.
She smiled and shook her head. "Sorry...no...not here, but I'll tell him you called the next time I see him." She started to yank him close.
"Wait. I can help you." Riordan was openly crying now, tears running down his leathery cheeks, while his nose dripped with his sniveling pleas.
"Really?" she drawled, her tone courteously disbelieving.
"Yeah...I-I worked for the mayor...y'know, when he tried to take over the town...I mean...I can work with demons...don't even try to roust 'em at that hangout downtown--"
"How kind of you."
"Right...kind...hey, I'm a demon's best friend. You could probably use a friend on the force. I know we're not supposed to know about...about...."
"Vampires?" his captor supplied wryly.
"Right, vampires." He was gaining confidence now, certain he was winning her over. Demon or no, she was just like any other woman in his book, too stupid to know that he always came out on top. He's play her just right and the moment she wasn't looking--bam--a stake right through the heart. That'd teach her who was boss. "But a lot of cops do...and not just the ones that were on the mayor's payroll. Some of 'em, they even think they can fight it...fools...don't understand you gotta go along to get along."
"Fools," she agreed pleasantly. "Unfortunately, you have a small problem. I don't like demons." She drew him close, so that her cool breath wafted across his face as she spoke. "I don't like you...and...I'm hungry. Very hungry."
Riordan barely had time to gasp before her fangs pierced his neck. He could feel her lips and tongue moving against his skin, drinking so deeply, he could hear the soft sounds as she swept up and swallowed each drop blood slipping from his body. He was just sliding away when she dropped him and pressed her wrist, slick and red with her blood, against his lips.
"Drink if you want to become like me," she offered him a chance at life.
He almost laughed even as he was dying. The fool. She was giving him a chance at eternal life. And the first thing he was going to do was rip out her unbeating heart. He drank, swallowing the thick blood. He felt something inside him start to change as his heart threatened to seize up and quit altogether.
She leaned down into his field of vision during his last moments of life, laughing at him in a way that he would remember even when he arrived in hell. "Oh, by the way, I thought you might like to know, that while your body lives on, your soul will be nowhere in residence. Tell Lucifer hello for me." And the last thing he heard was her triumphant laughter.
She stared down at the body for a brief moment, wondering how long the change would take this time. It was always different, though the soft incantation she whispered was supposed to speed things along. She turned away from the rapidly cooling corpse, noting the gym bag at the foot of the bed with some interest. It yielded a few clothes that smelled of sweat and urine, a dime bag of marijuana, a vial that looked to be crack, and a medicine bottle of cocaine. "Had quite a party planned for yourself, didn't you, Officer Riordan," she murmured, thinking it was just as well she'd fed before he'd indulged. The last thing she needed was to face the Slayer while she was stoned off her ass. Lastly, she pulled out a pistol wrapped in a shoulder holster from the bottom of the bag--an expensive Sig-Sauer with a spare clip tucked into the shoulder harness--and tossed it aside with no more interest than she had for the drugs. There was a cell phone, but it was too dangerous to consider using it. Too much chance of the Slayer or the Watcher's Council somehow using it to track her down. Nothing that would do her any good.
She was just settling in to catch an old Gilligan's Island rerun on the snowy TV when the body twitched. "They're he-ere..." she sing-songed as she pushed up and moved to stand straddling his hips, watching impassively as the dead body began twitching its way back to an unearthly existence.
And then bloodshot eyes snapped open, a feral smile slowly curving the newborn demon's mouth.
She dropped to her knees, grinning down at him.
"Now, this is the way to come into the world," the newcomer noted cheerfully.
She smiled with him, then reached past him, easily snapping a spindly leg from the wooden nightstand. "Or leave it," she added as she plunged the makeshift stake through his chest before he had a chance to stop her.
"Fuck..." His last words were all too appropriate. And then he shattered into nothing but dust.
"Makes getting rid of the body so much easier." She leaned into the stinging ash, breathing it in with a sensual smile, then exhaling it again like cigarette smoke. "Was it good for you? Because it was good for me," she murmured to no one in particular as she pushed to her feet, wondering if this bed was any more comfortable than the one in the other room, the dispatched demon already forgotten.
* * * * * * *