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@mailexcite.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.

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

Chapter Eight

"I need to know anything and everything you can find out about Delaine DuCourvallier," Buffy told Willow as she watched the hacker power up her laptop. They had barely spoken during the long walk back to the dorm, but they were back to being friends, even if they weren't entirely certain what they were past that. "Use Giles books, the Internet, whatever you can think. She's got to have a weakness somewhere."

Willow nodded, already signing onto the Internet as she grabbed the top book in the stack she'd borrowed from Giles, and flipped it open. With the wait times online, there was no use in not getting something done while she was waiting for information to download. "I've found some stuff on this one site, but I'm not sure how much it will help you...I mean, when I was there before, I didn't really have anything specific I was looking for, so I just don't know...."

Buffy nodded, watching over her friend's shoulder. "Do whatever you can. I need to know what I'm up against," she bit out and rested an encouraging hand on Willow's shoulder, incredibly aware of the heat of her skin through her thin sweater.

Willow turned to look back up at her friend, her expression pensive. "Buffy, you're not thinking of facing her alone, are you?" she questioned worriedly. "I mean, what Spike said...you can't meet her alone...."

The Slayer shrugged, trying to look like it was just one more banal slaying in her life, but there was no denying the fear that lived in her eyes. "I haven't really made any...decision...Will...we'll see," she lied. She already knew in her heart what she had to do to keep the people she loved safe from the monster stalking them. The vampire had already proven she was more than capable of getting far too close for comfort. Buffy wasn't going to risk having that happen again.

"Because from what Giles said that is not something you want to do," Willow babbled onward, sensing that no matter what Buffy told her, she was arguing with an already chosen course of action. "She was a Slayer, Buffy...and now she's a vampire...which means she's not like any vampire you've ever faced--"

"I know that, Will," Buffy interrupted, hoping to forestall one of Willow's self-inflicted panic attacks.

"If Giles is right, then she's stronger and faster than you are...maybe a lot...and she's had four hundred years to perfect her slaying skills. You can't face her alone."

Buffy hitched her hip on the desk as she turned to face Willow. "Let's just not worry about it for the moment, okay. Right now, what I need is the best information possible." She smoothed a few stray hairs back from Willow's cheek. "And I don't know anyone else who can find secrets like you can."

Willow swallowed hard, but finally nodded. "I'll do everything I can."

"That's my Willow," Buffy praised, then fell momentarily silent as the possible double meaning of the comment struck her. "I mean..." she stumbled over her own words, then looked away, sighing softly, "I don't know what I mean."

It was Willow who caught the Slayer's hand in her own this time. "Maybe it would be best if we worry about that...tomorrow...." Neither of them needed any added stresses or distracting thoughts, at least no more than were absolutely necessary.

Assuming there is one

, the Slayer mentally amended, though her little voice was not so gently hinting that with possibly only one day left to live, she really ought to spend it doing something she enjoyed, like holding Willow close and tasting those sweet lips. "Yeah," she whispered after a beat. "Tomorrow." They sat like that for a long moment, until Willow's computer finished loading the page she was looking for, and then she hesitantly looked away.

"I...uh...let me just see what I can come up with here," the hacker murmured as her cursor danced across the screen.

Buffy was still waiting when she noticed the rhythmically blinking red light on their answering machine. "Looks like we've got a message," she told Willow as she reached out to press the Play button.

There was a brief pause as the tape cued up and then the message began, "Hello, Miss Summers, Miss Rosenberg, this is Officer Riordan over at the Police Department. My supervisor just wanted me to call and let you know that you won't be needed as witnesses against the three men arrested in the Twenty-Four/Seven robbery. The District Attorney has already plea bargained them into long jail terms. They won't be able to hurt anyone again for a long time. If you have any questions, you can call Detective Masters at 555-6166." And then the line clicked off.

"Well, I guess that's one less problem to deal with," Buffy sighed.

Willow frowned, staring at the answering machine with a quizzical look. "Seems a little...quick...doncha think?"

The Slayer shrugged. "I don't know. I've always been the suspect when I've dealt with the police before. Besides, it's not like those guys had any defense. I mean, I've read in the newspaper that they're always plea bargaining cases." She shrugged helplessly.

"I guess," Willow exhaled uncertainly. "I hope they give 'em life," she added after a beat.

"You and me both," Buffy admitted, then straightened away from the desk. As awful as what had happened at the convenience store was, she had other, more immediate worries to attend to. "Well, I guess I should be going." At Willow's questioning look, she quickly explained, "I really do want to talk to Willy, and also get a couple of other things done while I have the time." She moved to the closet, and pulled out a large duffel bag that clanked gently as she moved it. Willow knew that the impressive collection of weapons inside was enough to stock the average shop of horrors. Just the tools of the slaying trade. Buffy slung the strap over her shoulder as she turned to face her friend.

The bag served as a reminder of the things out there in the world that intended the Slayer harm and Willow experienced a hard bolt of sick terror. "You...you are coming back...aren't you?" the hacker choked out as she pushed to her feet, staring at her friend with a look of dread.

"Yeah, Will," Buffy assured her. Whatever happened, she had no intention of facing DuCourvallier without at least saying goodbye. "I'll be back. I promise. You gonna be okay?"

Willow felt her heart start beating again as she sank back down into her chair. "Fine...fine...I'm just gonna be doing the research thing. Yeah, that's me, research girl. Nothing to worry about here." She knew she was babbling, but somehow her brain had decided that if she just kept talking, maybe she could delay long enough to keep Buffy from leaving. Not a sensible strategy, but it was her instinctive response.

"Okay," Buffy cut her friend off gently. "I'll just--" Whatever else she was about to say was cut off by a sharp rap on their door. "Get the door," she finished, sounding annoyed at the interruption.

Willow tensed, then turned back toward her computer as she saw the broad shouldered figure standing at the door and heard Buffy say, "Oh...Riley. I wasn't expecting you."

"I just heard about what happened to you the other night at the Twenty-Four/Seven...I mean to you and Willow," he explained breathlessly. "Are you okay?" he asked before Buffy had a chance to say anything. "You and Willow both, I mean." He glanced over, noting the red-haired hacker hunched over her computer. "Hi Willow." He was a firm believer in the old rule about being nice to any prospective girlfriend's girlfriends. It just made everything easier in his experience.

Willow grunted something that passed for a greeting while Buffy set down her bag just long enough to pull on her coat. "We're okay, Riley," she assured him, wondering what the fastest method for getting rid of him might be. "But I was just going out. Personal stuff," she added without explanation.

"Oh." He appeared startled at her lack of willingness to make time for him. "But...well...I just...you must have been terrified." He glanced past her, trying to include Willow in the conversation. "Both of you."

Buffy shrugged, in no mood to go back over those few minutes of raw terror. "It was bad," she admitted after a beat, but didn't elaborate. "Look, I really don't want to talk about that...I...um..." she swallowed hard, fighting the images in her head.

"Probably seeing their faces in your dreams," Riley interjected sympathetically.

Buffy shook her head. "Actually, we never saw their faces...in dreams or otherwise. They were wearing ski masks, and they were still unconscious when the police took them away. The cops didn't bother to take them off." She shrugged again. "Actually, the police left a message earlier. They've already made some kind of deal, so we won't even have to testify."

"Well, at least your friend--that girl who was killed--she'll get some justice."

Buffy shook her head. "She wasn't a friend, just somebody trying to buy a beer. I don't know who she was."

"That's awful." He reached out to massage her shoulder, not noticing the way she tried to subtly tried to avoid the caress. With Willow sitting there thinking God only knew what--was she jealous, relieved, miserable, steaming--the last thing she wanted was to deal with Riley's romantic pursuit. Insipid, but safely heterosexual romantic pursuit, don't you mean? Her inner voice demanded sarcastically. "Well, at least you won't have to go through the trauma of living through it all again."

"Right," Buffy exhaled, wondering why he suddenly seemed hopelessly clueless rather than adorably naive. Did he really think not testifying made any real difference? Was it just the change in her relationship with Willow or had he always been this dense and she just hadn't noticed? Or had she even been purposely looking the other way? "Like I said, I really do have to go," she reminded him as she gestured toward the door.

His eyes floated over to Willow, who was still hunched over her computer, apparently trying to ignore them. He looked like he planned on staying and there was no question in Buffy's mind that would be a bad thing. "And as you can see, Will's really under the study gun."

Riley seemed reticent to leave to the point that Buffy almost had to push him out the door ahead of her. When he was out in the hall, she turned back, relieved that Willow turned to look at her. Relieved too--though she wasn't quite ready to admit it--to see a tiny flicker of jealousy in the redhead's eyes. "I'll see you later," she said softly, her tone making the words a promise.

"You do that," Willow responded, her voice only a little more stressed than normal, though after the door closed she had to pinch the bridge of her nose tightly to stop the tears that threatened to fall. The last thing she had time for was hysterics.

In the corridor, Riley had to jog to keep up with Buffy's hurried strides.

* * * * * * *

Riley Finn watched silently as Buffy hurried away down the sidewalk that led away from her dorm. He'd considered trying to go with her, but there'd been no graceful way of pressing the issue when she'd insisted she had private things to do. His hands fisted at his sides as he remembered how cool she'd been to him, no longer burning with that sweet fire he'd grown used to. It was almost as if--no, that wasn't possible--as if she no longer wanted him. He was still standing there like that when a hand curved to his muscular shoulder.

"Well?" Maggie Walsh's voice was clipped and short, very much the tone he expected from his commanding officer. She could be hard woman, though he well understood the need. They were fighting the worst kind of enemies, inhuman, soulless things. She had no room left for gentle sentiments. But she could also be surprisingly supportive of her men and he'd learned to lean on that support when things were bothering him. "Do they know anything?"

Riley glanced back, meeting her flinty gaze as he shook his head. "No. She said she never saw their faces and seemed relieved that they won't have to testify."

"Good," Maggie said, sounding more at ease after the revelation. "That makes things much simpler."

Riley frowned. "But the dead girl.... There are bound to be questions."

"It's been dealt with," Walsh assured him. "It's unfortunate, but by the time someone discovers her body where it was dumped, all of this will have blown over." An angry family demanding the maximum sentence for their daughter's killers would have made burying her team's complicity in the incident much harder. She sighed softly, her expression disgusted. "What a wasted opportunity," she muttered under her breath. Instead of a two inch headline blasting away on the front page, they'd had to bury it in small print on page ten. Three would-be, armed thieves stopped by two college coeds and a social-security-ready clerk was hardly the sort of thing likely to strike terror into the hearts of the citizens of Sunnydale.

Riley cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable as he broached what was bothering him. "Parker should be on report for drawing that knife. He was in charge of that mission and no one was supposed to get killed. Maybe we should cut back on the--"

"It's an unfortunate, even tragic accident, Riley," Walsh cut him off firmly, though she kept her tone reasonable, "but you know as well as I do how crucial it is that the citizens of this town perceive crime as a serious threat." She reached up to smooth a hand lightly down his upper arm. "It keeps them inside at night, out of our way...and safe, of course. And if it's ever necessary to institute martial law, the protests will be minimal this way."

"I know, but--"

She hushed him by holding up a hand as she began to speak. "In any war, there are losses--and make no mistake, this is a war. It's awful and it's tragic, but that young woman sacrificed herself for others," she pointed out, conveniently forgetting that any sacrifices hadn't been made willingly. "We have to honor her loss by making certain that this mission is successful. Otherwise she died for nothing." It was like the highlights tape of every schmaltzy war movie ever made, but desperate to justify his actions and willing acceptance of similar missions, he lapped up every word.

"I guess you're right," he exhaled at last.

Walsh patted his back as she directed him back toward the Psych building, her office, and the entry into the secret world of the Initiative. "It's hard to be part of a higher calling," she sympathized, "to know secrets that would panic others and send them straight into the arms of danger. We know this town has much higher than normal incidents of HST activity, but if the populace knew the truth, the panic would be a disaster. This way, they stay home in their safe beds and we have the time and the room to hunt these things down and put an end to the danger."

Riley nodded at her reminder. She was right of course. It was just the price of the war that was bothering him. Thank goodness he had such an insightful commander to help him through his doubts. "I know you're right," he admitted. "It's just hard to see people being hurt and not be able to do anything about."

She nodded in understanding. "Of course it is, but that's why what we're doing is so important." They entered the Psych building together, speaking freely since the building was quiet for the weekend.

"Well, I'm just glad that Buffy and Willow didn't see anything. It would have been hard to make them understand the necessity for this operation." His chest puffed out ever so slightly with pride as he continued, "After all, they don't have our understanding of the HST situation."

Maggie nodded again, offering a praising smile, but her eyes were flint hard. If the girls had seen her men's faces, the last thing she'd be worrying about was explaining the situation to them. "By the way," she said as they approached the corridor that led to her office, "you're right about Parker. He lost control of the situation and he belongs on report." She still hadn't had a chance to review the video retrieved from the store, but the accounts from her agents in the field had been appalling enough. They'd obviously gotten too excited and tripped all over themselves. How else to explain the fact that an encounter with three girls and one old man had left them all unconscious on the floor? If the officer in charge hadn't been on their payroll, it could have been a hell of a mess.

Riley brightened. He'd feel much better about everything if Parker was reprimanded for disobeying orders. There was just too much chance of more people getting seriously hurt if all operatives didn't stick to the game plan while on operations like the one at the Twenty-Four/Seven. "I think that's for the best," he agreed with her decision with a precise nod as they came to a halt in front of her office. "I want to make sure we don't have any similar problems on future missions."

Walsh bestowed another smile on him that made him stand a little taller--she so rarely gave them any praise that he knew he'd done well when she smiled at him that way--then reached up to stroke his arm again, her touch very light. "Well, I've got to get some paperwork done," she said as she unlocked her office and stepped inside. "But I want you to know that your thoroughness is one of the reasons you're such a valuable asset to me, Agent Finn."

"Thanks, Dr. Walsh," he said, beaming under her praise, as he hurried away down the hallway.

Maggie slammed the door closed, letting the mask fall away now that she didn't need it anymore. "Well, that," she added with a raised brow, "and the fact that you're dumb as a post and you'd slit those two girls' throats if I ordered you to." She dropped into the office chair behind the desk. "Though I've got to admit that body is..." She trailed off then let out a soft whistle, then shook off those thoughts as she leaned forward to turn on her computer. She had a lot of work to get done. HSTs to control, a man to design, soldiers to manipulate. "A doctor's job is never done," she sighed theatrically as she began opening files, a wry smile touching her lips.

* * * * * * *

"So, Willy, what can you tell me?" Buffy questioned as she sidled up to the bar in the dark, smoky, underground tavern preferred by the demonic denizens of Sunnydale.

The very human bartender looked around nervously, grateful to find he had no daytime customers. That was fine by him, particularly with the Slayer nosing around. They didn't take kindly to it when he was seen in the company of someone who regularly shrunk their ranks by dispatching them back to hell, no matter how unwilling he might be in the conversation. "Now, look," his eyes darted nervously toward the rear entrance, which linked into the sewers running under the city--the daytime travel route for those demons with an allergy to direct sunlight-- "Whatever's up with you, it's no business of mine. I can't help you." He suddenly found himself pressed face down against the top of the bar as the Slayer grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him forward as she shoved him down.

"Delaine DuCourvallier," Buffy whispered near the bartender's ear and felt him stiffen.

The bartender twisted so he could stare up at her through wide, terrified eyes, despite the discomfort of his position. "Oh geez, oh shit, you're kidding me, right? I mean, I've heard the legends, but...oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit," he breathed when he saw the deadly serious look on her face.

"Apparently she's here in Sunnydale," Buffy said as she tugged him upright again. "Now, I want to know if you've seen her."

"Seen her?" the bartender squealed. "I'm alive, aren't I?" he demanded, sounding outraged. "Of course I haven't seen her. The only people who've seen her are dead and by that I don't mean dead, but still with us. I mean dead, the permanent, non-moving, six-feet under and staying that way kind. She's crazy," he volunteered without even being asked. "And they say everybody she meets up with winds up dead one way or the other."

"What do you mean by one way or another?" Buffy demanded as she shook him hard enough to rattle his teeth.

Willy shook his head dazedly. "I just mean that according to everything I've ever heard about that chick, there's a really high body count whenever she shows up...and even if she leaves some folks alive, they don't seem to stay that way for long." He shuddered. "Explains why everybody's been all tense around here lately."

Buffy shook him again, her expression deadly serious. "Willy, this would be a very bad time for you to lie to me," she informed him, her voice low and threatening. "Because last night, this bitch attacked my mother and roughed up a friend."

Willy had the good sense to gulp noticeably and shake with stark terror.

Confident that she had his full attention, Buffy hauled him halfway across the bar until they were almost nose to nose. "Now, I suggest you tell me anything you know."

He swallowed again, Adam's apple bobbing against her hand where it was curled into his collar. "Nothin'," he insisted. "I mean just what everybody else knows. She was a Slayer back, like, in medieval times or somethin', and when she tried to ditch the job, the Council handed her over to a buncha vampires."

Buffy frowned. That wasn't the story she'd heard at all, leaving her to wonder where the truth lay.

"I guess they couldn't kill her themselves and they couldn't be without a Slayer...except she got turned and escaped. She's been killing demons and humans since then, though they say she's vowed vengeance against the Council for betraying her."

Wanting to believe he was lying, Buffy shook him again, her expression hard with anger, and was surprised when, instead of launching into another version of his story, he only insisted, "I'm telling you the truth. At least what I've ever heard about it."

"You'd better be," she snarled as she shoved him back.

"Hey, man, I got no reason to lie to protect her. One of her favorite hobbies is s'posed to be killing demons by the truckload. Where you think they all hang out in this 'burg?" He was panting hard, his skin sheen with sweat, eyes wide with terror. "Sheez, I oughta be asking you for protection."

He wasn't lying. Buffy knew Willy well enough to know when he was in lying-through-his-teeth mode and he wasn't. He was genuinely panicked, not just by her threats, but by the thought that this particular demon was in town. The Slayer's brows lifted and she couldn't restrain a disbelieving laugh. "Oh yeah, Willy, I'm in a hurry to do that." She shook her head and turned to leave.

"Come on, I'm human, 'n' you're supposed to protect humans."

"Not this time, Willy. Maybe you should consider another line of work," she suggested as she retrieved her bag from where she'd left it next to the door. "I have a feeling this one just got a whole lot more dangerous."

Out in the sunlight again, she drew Giles' phone from her pocket, dialing as she headed in the direction of her mother's gallery. "Giles, yeah, it's Buffy. Anything to report on your end," she said the instant her Watcher picked up.

"Not really. Your mother, Xander, and Anya have been checking the painting in detail, but they haven't been able to find anything out of the ordinary. She also called, trying to trace information about the original owner of the collection, but hasn't been able to learn anything. Apparently, all of the phone numbers she had have been disconnected."

"Now, there's a surprise," Buffy muttered dryly, while Giles just continued talking.

"She has a mailing address where she was supposed to send the check, but it's in Shanghai, China, so there's no easy way to trace it. I've put a call into the British embassy there, but I doubt they'll be much help and, all things considered, I don't dare use any Watcher contacts." There was a pause on the other end of the line and Buffy suspected he was debating suggesting they call the Council again.

"Damn," the Slayer sighed, wondering if maybe she was doing the wrong thing in not just letting the Council take care of the problem. "I just talked to Willy. He hasn't seen her. In fact he's quaking in his shoes now that he knows she's in town."

There was a brief pause before Giles replied, "Not too surprising. She has a habit of killing anyone in her vicinity rather indiscriminately."

"Yeah," Buffy exhaled. She started to say something about Willy's other comments, but something held her back. "Typical vampire."

"Hardly," Giles disagreed mildly before continuing. "In any event, we should just be grateful she hasn't linked up with the local demon population. She's quite dangerous enough on her own."

"Yeah." Buffy rounded a corner just down the block from the gallery. "More than dangerous enough, I'd say." The bag slung over her shoulder clanked gently as she jogged across the street. "Look, Giles, I've still got a couple of things I want to check into. I'll call in again later."

A few minutes later, the Slayer found herself standing in the shattered remains of what had been her mother's upscale art gallery. Broken glass covered the floor between the rubble of what had been expensive display cases. Overhead, the skylight had several panes shattered out and pigeons had found the opening and were roosting in the trendy runs of track lighting that hung from the ceiling. Not good. Not good at all. Buffy wondered if maybe she should suggest her mom bulk up on the prescription pain killers before coming back. She wasn't going to handle this well at all.

With a soft sigh, she dropped the weapons bag to the ground and began digging things out, laying the extensive collection out on the floor as her gaze slid around the interior of the building, hunting out and finding any likely looking hiding places for the various implements of death she carried in the bag. She had no intention of going along with DuCourvallier's demands that she appear unarmed, but that didn't mean she had to be obvious about it. She secreted three swords, five daggers, two crossbows--both loaded and with a handful of bolts within reach--plus a dozen stakes, then stepped back to survey her handiwork. No one would ever guess the room was a virtual arsenal of hidden weaponry. It just looked like a trashed art gallery.

She glanced at her watch. Barely one, which meant she had time to get back to the dorm, find out what Willow had learned and maybe even catch a few Z's. She massaged the back of her neck, thinking that last option was deeply appealing. She'd barely slept for two days and even she was starting to feel the lack. Retrieving the now empty weapons duffel, she paused just long enough to lock up before heading in the direction of the campus at a jog.

* * * * * *

Chapter Nine

Buffy returned to their dorm room to find Willow still diligently working on her laptop, nearly a ream of printouts, a couple of empty chip and candy wrappers and what looked like about a half a dozen empty cans of Jolt (tm) Cola standing in mute testimony to the hours of research she'd already put in.

Buried in her work, she didn't realize the Slayer had entered until she felt strong hands land on her shoulders, and Buffy leaned down to see the screen as she murmured near Willow's ear, "I hope I don't have to read all of that before tonight." The Slayer gestured toward the thick stack of papers.

Willow felt her heart catch as she turned in her chair, eyes lifting to so she was looking at the Slayer's profile. "I-I didn't hear you come in," she stammered, startled to find herself no longer alone.

Buffy smiled, oddly happy just to be back in her friend's company. With Willow, she could almost forget the danger stalking them all. "What can I say, silent Slayer feet." She nodded toward the computer screen. "It looks like you found something." Then she glanced at the stack of printouts again. "Quite a lot of something, actually."

Willow nodded. "I've been scanning all of the art history sources that have any information on Delaine DuCourvallier and cross matching the information with anything I can find on secret British societies of the period." She glanced at the stack of papers. "I just printed everything I could find."

"And?" Buffy prompted.

"I've only had time to skim things and try to pull out what looks most important--but there's not really a whole lot that's very substantial after her supposed death in Italy. Before that, there's a fair amount, mostly because she was from one of the more powerful families in France, but it's not very interesting...at least not that I've found so far...mostly an accounting of how the estates were run and political alliances and stuff. The Watcher stuff on the other hand, is pretty sparse but pretty gruesome. So you want to start pre or post fangs?"

Buffy sighed softly, wishing she was surprised, but the council never had been terribly forthcoming when it came to information. "Let's go for the beginning of fanginess and post-fanginess," Buffy said as she pulled her chair over and sank down on it, sitting backwards with her chin pillowed on the backrest.

"Well, if we back it up just a little, we find that she was pretty well educated, particularly for a woman of the time. Her mother came from a family with some pretty funny ideas--like the notion that women should be just as educated as men--"

"How strange of them," Buffy interrupted with more than a touch of sarcasm.

"In this period it was," Willow noted before continuing. "Her mother had her tutored in French, English, Latin, music, mathematics, and even science and astronomy. Now, strange as it may seem, this didn't particularly please the Watchers. In fact, there are several mentions of sanctions against her for reading various books in her Watcher's library--"

"They punished her for reading?" Buffy said disbelievingly as she tried to envision Giles doing anything that boneheaded. More often than not, the man was frustrated because Buffy couldn't keep up with both her classroom studies and whatever research he wanted done at any given time. "I'm thinking that's a little weird."

Willow nodded her agreement. "From what little I can tell--I mean it's not like they just laid it all out--the Watchers liked to have absolute control over the flow of information their Slayer's received. Literacy was not encouraged."

"Charming," the Slayer murmured thoughtfully. Certainly, they'd never been pleased with her unconventional way of doing things, and from what she'd seen with both Faith and Kendra, they had no great interest in seeing their Slayer's educated beyond the skills required for vampire killing even in the present. She'd been lucky that, as Watcher's went, Giles was nearly as unconventional, in his own stuffy way, as she was.

Willow grabbed one of Giles' journals off the stack of books, flipping it open to a page she'd already flagged. "She was also in trouble because she hated the killing--they accused her of being sympathetic to the demons--she hated the fighting--they implied she was a coward--and she kept sneaking paints into her room--which of course, they completely forbade...."

"Of course." Buffy didn't want to admit how much she was relating to the long lost Slayer, despite Giles' remonstrations. Of course, whoever that girl had been, she was long dead, her soul freed from her body to be replaced by a demonic thing. She gnawed on her lower lip as she determinedly reminded herself of that reality. Whatever sympathy she was feeling had no place in the present. The Vampire-Slayer had to die. She just had to keep reminding herself of what she'd done to Xander and her mother.

"Four years after being taken to England, she tried to run away... they dragged her back...and then she apparently made a deal with the local vampires to kill her Watcher--"

"She must have thought it was the only way she could escape them," Buffy mused out loud.

Willow nodded. "Yeah...only instead of her Watcher, it was his wife, Elizabeth VanOoten, who was killed. They caught Delaine the same night it happened and she was put on trial." Willow looked up at Buffy again. "Unfortunately, according to this, any trial transcripts were burned when the vampires attacked during the trail. They decimated the council--only two members survived--and turned Delaine. One of the accounts claims she gave herself to them, shouting that she'd destroy the council now...if she had to destroy the whole world to do it. After that, they spent the next several years rebuilding the core council from a surviving group of lower level Watchers."

"And DuCourvallier?" Buffy interrupted. She didn't care about the council. She cared about her enemy.

"She disappeared. According to this, they've had hit teams out looking for her every day since she was turned. Looks to me like they haven't done the greatest job though, because the records are really sparse. She was supposedly involved in several pretty nasty demonic summonings in the two decades that followed as well a series of attacks on the council during the 1670's and 80's, but there are very few details. Apparently she didn't leave survivors."

Buffy paled. No survivors. God, her mother had been lucky. She resolved to buy Xander...well, not a beer, because they were all off the stuff anymore, but something. Maybe a milkshake. No, not nearly enough. Burger, fries and the works to go with it. Hell, she'd just buy him junkfood till he couldn't eat anymore. It was as good a way as any to blow her college fund.

The Slayer was still lost in thought as Willow flipped to another page, her finger tracing over the ancient, yellowed parchment. "Giles' account of how strong and fast she was looks to be pretty accurate though...at least if this one story is true. She was spotted going toe to toe with a demon better than twice her height in the 1740's, and she was the one still standing when it was over...but the street they were on wasn't."

Buffy let out a soft whistle. That wasn't good.

"She pops up again in the account by a Watcher tracing vampiric activity in China during the 1840's. The country was in a mess because of the Opium Wars with England--the British kept forcing the import of opium when the Chinese tried to ban it-- Anyway, apparently, her preferred...method...of feeding...." Willow sounded ill.

"Just spill it, Will," Buffy prompted.

"She'd buy an addicted prostitute opium, let her use it...and then...when she was...." Willow fell silent, a muscle pulsing in her jaw. She took a breath, getting herself under control before continuing, "After the prostitute had used the drug...and was...well, inebriated...she'd feed. She killed them...and never turned them as far as the Watcher could tell."

The Slayer's eyes were closed, her expression twisted by revulsion. She'd heard worse in the course of her duties, but for some reason, she found this latest news more disturbing than most.

"The Watcher tried to raise a group of locals to hunt her down, but by the time he managed, she'd disappeared. It's the last confirmed sighting in the journals..." Willow snapped the book closed. "Everything else in here is too general...too uncertain...to be of any use." She grabbed for a printout she'd set aside from the thick stack. "I also found two related accounts of her possible activities that don't come from the Watcher journals." She reached behind herself, tapping a key to bring up a picture onscreen. It was a painting showing a pretty young woman, very naked, auburn hair flowing around her shoulders as she flinched away from two men leering over a low wall at her. "The painting is Susannah and the Elders," she said by way of explanation.

Susannah and the Elders by Artemesia GentileschiBuffy's brows lifted. "I'm assuming this relates somehow?" she questioned after a beat.

Willow nodded. "When Delaine was studying with Orazio, he was also teaching his daughter, Artemesia--she became a pretty well respected artist in her own right. About two years after this was painted, she was raped by another artist named Agostino Tassi. In court documents, he made various allegations about her moral character." Willow's tone signaled her disapproval of what she'd read. "Among other things, he offered this painting as proof that Artemesia had had an 'unnatural relationship' with Delaine DuCourvallier and was an immoral and licentious woman."

Buffy peered at the softly rounded features of the woman in the painting as she leaned closer to the screen, trying to commit every curve to memory. "So this is her?"

The hacker shrugged. "I don't know for certain--it's not exactly well documented--but it's mentioned in several places and she...um...pretty much fits the descriptions I've found...except, well, hair color--she's always described as a blond--but that's pretty inconsequential."

"Call me funny, but a rapist isn't my ideal information source," Buffy admitted uncomfortably after a long moment.

The hacker didn't argue as she continued. "I know--and since he'd already spent time in jail for having incestuous relations with his sister-in-law and been accused of trying to have his wife murdered, there's considerable reason to doubt his word--but others had the same opinion...not that they had an unnatural relationship, but that Delaine DuCourvallier was the model for the painting. It was pretty scandalous at the time. I mean young ladies of good birth didn't appear naked in public--in paintings or otherwise."

Buffy continued studying the piece, trying to imagine what the real life version of the figure would have looked like. Like most graphics on the web, it was fairly low resolution, leaving her wishing she could make out the details better. "All right, so for the moment, we'll assume it's a decent likeness."

Willow grabbed another printout. "In a related account, there's a mention in the records of the court of King Charles I of England, in the year 1641--Artemesia was in residence in the English court at the King's invitation--apparently, he served as patron to a number of artists. The country was on the verge of civil war and Artemesia was getting ready to leave to return to Italy, when she reported to the castle warden that she'd had a late night visitor--according to the documents, she was badly shaken, and insisted that Delaine DuCourvallier had called to her in her apartments, drawing her outside. She said the ghost told her that Tassi was dead."

The Slayer's expression was unreadable. "Was he?"

Willow nodded. "Decapitated in a whorehouse in Naples two months before...which is ironic in view of the fact that, after the rape, one of Artemesia's favorite subjects was the biblical tale of Judith slaying Holofernes...by beheading him."

Buffy's brows drew together, a neat line forming between them as she considered the information. Had the vampire DuCourvallier taken revenge on the part of someone the human DuCourvallier had known before dying? She'd never heard of vampire doing anything like that. In fact, they were far more likely to kill those they'd loved in life than those they hated. If it was true, this was not your average bite or fight vampire. "Anything else?" she asked after a long moment.

"One other thing that might be relevant..." Willow slowed, her tone becoming hesitant. "For the most part, she doesn't seem to have had a lot to do with demons or vampires--at least not in any way that left them alive...or not alive, but mobile...you know what I mean--but there is a mention of one vampire she was supposedly seen with several times in Paris in the 1820's...." Willow fell silent, her head bowed, visibly uncomfortable.

Which could have only one possible meaning in Buffy's experience. "Angelus," she exhaled.

Willow nodded. "Just for a short time...but...yeah...."

"I wonder if she's the one who taught him how to draw?" the Slayer exhaled wryly. Sometimes she wondered why it was the things that the demon had done had the power to hurt her. It hadn't been Angel, not her Angel. At least the pain wasn't anywhere near as sharp as it had once been. The months away from him had at least numbed her to the agony of thinking about his other life.

Willow's eyes were still downcast, and she took a deep breath, leaving Buffy with the distinct feeling she wasn't going to like what came next. She was right. "I...um...I kinda thought maybe he'd know something that wasn't in the books...."

"Will, you didn't..." Buffy sighed.

The hacker sighed softly, signaling that she had. "Well, I mean...I wasn't sure you'd feel comfortable calling...so...I called...he wasn't in...so I left a message...with Cordelia...." Willow's tone made it plain that that had not been a fun moment. "Are you mad at me?" she asked in a tiny voice.

Buffy drew a deep breath, then exhaled a heavy sigh. "No," she said at last. She reached out and patted Willow's shoulder. "You're right...if he...he was...with her...." Just getting the words out made Buffy nauseous. She massaged her temple, wishing she could make the headache suddenly pulsing behind her eyes go away. "You did the right thing," she said after a beat.

Willow shrugged. "Well, I just thought you should know...in case...y'know, in case he calls...so you won't be...surprised...."

The Slayer nodded, then tipped her head forward, hiding her face in her arms where they were folded across the back of the chair. She was just tired of all of it; Watchers, Slayer, vampires, and most especially Vampire-Slayers. She was seriously considering just getting up and moving lock, stock, and barrel to Antigua--not for any particular reason, just because Antigua sounded better than Sunnydale at that point--when she heard the soft creak of Willow's chair.

"I'm sorry if my calling Angel upset you," the hacker apologized.

"Not your fault," Buffy mumbled without looking up. "You just did what you thought was best." There was a long moment of pensive silence, and then Buffy felt warm hands land on her shoulders.

"You must be exhausted," Willow murmured as she slowly began massaging her best friend's taut shoulders. She hadn't thought about it as she stood and reached out to work away Buffy's aches and pains just like she'd done so many times before, but this time she knew it was different the moment she made contact and felt Buffy tense under her hands. She froze almost instantly, suddenly self-conscious and uncertain whether stopping or continuing was likely to draw more attention to the situation. A dull flush sliding over her skin, she just stood there for a long moment, unmoving, but not breaking contact.

Buffy could feel her friend's apprehension, not to mention her own, but at the same time, it felt so right, so.... She couldn't think of a word, except maybe comforting. And familiar. Deja Vu all over again. And comforting and familiar suddenly had an irresistible allure. Consciously, she could attribute it to the myriad of times they'd touched each other over the years, the innocent hugs, friendly handholding, and comforting backrubs ... but ... somehow it felt ... different ... and not just because of what had happened between then. There was something else there as well; something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Buffy was still pondering the paradox when she felt Willow's hands break contact with her shoulders. "Don't stop," she exhaled without thinking. In an instant, the air thickened with their mutual awareness. "I mean...it feels...good...." Oh, that'll help break the tension, Buffy derided herself. She kept her face hidden in her arms, blushing furiously as she kept trying to recover. "Tense," she mumbled. "My shoulders are ... tense and...it...helps...." Just quit while you're behind, she silently chided herself. Just sit here and enjoy and whatever you do, don't think. It's all okay, so long as you don't think.

Willow swallowed hard, silently willing her hands to stop shaking. She'd done this plenty of times; massaging away the Slayer's multitude of aches and pains. Except, those times they hadn't spent the previous night making love, hadn't kissed and touched, and made each other cry out with need. It was all confusing, scary--and wonderfully exhilarating--like coming home after being away for too long. Her heart thumping in her chest, Willow lowered her hands to Buffy's shoulders, smoothing outward from the curve of her neck, pressing in with her thumbs in rhythmic strokes. Buffy had stripped off her jacket on entering and was wearing a simple tank top that left her neck, arms, and shoulders almost entirely bare, and Willow was very much aware of the texture of warm silk skin overlaying taut, steel- cabled muscles. She continued the firm, slow caresses, feeling Buffy's muscles relax and warm under her fingers, even as her mind kept summoning up memories of the tastes and textures of the Slayer's body.

Buffy felt her body relax and threaten to go limp as Willow continued massaging her neck and shoulders. "Better than 'Magic Fingers,'" she exhaled. In two days her emotions had been all over the map, but suddenly it was all forgotten. She was right where she wanted to be.

The hacker couldn't repress a smile as she pressed the heel of her hand into the center of Buffy's back, working it down the length of her spine. "I aim to please," she exhaled as she continued kneading the Slayer's narrow back and shoulders, growing more comfortable with each stroke.

"And you do," Buffy breathed, letting herself float while Willow took care of her. Emotional stress and 48 hours with very little sleep had left her on the verge of collapse, and the soothing massage was only making her more aware of how close to the limit she'd pushed herself. Long minutes passed while the Slayer enjoyed the gentle ministrations and seriously considered simply falling asleep where she sat. It felt perfectly natural when she lifted her hands, holding them up over her head in silent invitation. She didn't know if Willow would understand the unspoken signal--didn't even know if she understood it herself--but after a brief moment, she felt the warmth of slender fingers wrapping around her palms.

"Buffy?" Willow's voice was a gaspy, chokey version of its normal self that made Buffy smile in spite of everything. There was something so cute about nervous Willow. She gently tugged Willow's hands down, pulling the hacker's arms around her until she felt warm curves pressed against her back. The crimson tips barely brushed Buffy's bare shoulder as the hacker leaned forward until her lips were near the Slayer's cheek, their hair blending together in contrasting strands of red and blond.

"You should get some sleep," the hacker whispered, her warm breath playing over the Slayer's cheek.

Buffy's eyes were closed as she nodded. "Later," she breathed. It wasn't a conscious decision, just a natural progression from comfort and safety to need and desire. Still holding Willow's hands loosely in her own, Buffy rose gracefully, the movement toppling the chair. It fell the floor forgotten as the Slayer released her hold on Willow's hands, turning inside the comforting warmth of her arms before she had a chance to drop them to her sides. Then, reaching behind herself, she threaded her fingers with Willow's, holding the hacker's hands right where they were as she crossed the tiny distance that still lay between them. Her head canted one way, Willow's the other, and then their lips met, the kiss tender and trusting.

Soft, warm, the contrasting textures of sharp teeth, a rough tongue, and velvety lips, kisses trading back and forth until they were both gasping and shivering. "The computer," Buffy groaned through the shared bonding of their lips. "Needs to be...Offline." That was as responsible as she was capable of being at that moment, despite knowing that there were more productive things she could be doing to ready for the night ahead. More kissage followed, despite any good intentions. Lots more kissage.

"Mmm, needs to be offline," Willow agreed long moments later, but they didn't separate, instead leaning harder into each other. "... in a ... moment..."

Opting for the direct route, the Slayer reached behind herself and simply yanked the phone cord out of the wall, not caring when the tiny plastic piece that usually snapped it tightly in place went spinning one way while the cord fell in the opposite direction. Willow, who normally would have gone spastic over such an event, barely glanced over. She had other things on her mind.

Clothes were peeled and dropped or tossed, buttons popped, collars pulled out of shape; whatever it took to remove them quickly as they made their way to the bed. Buffy landed on the bottom, steadying Willow's hips as the hacker came down over her, then opening her mouth to the soft lips that found hers again.

They kissed, touched, stroked, caressed, saying with their bodies what they couldn't see clear to say with words, releasing themselves to the passion that neither quite understood, not knowing of the cruel game played with thoughts and memories, understanding only that flesh seemed to comprehend what the mind resisted.

And as she arched over her lover, her skin glistening with a fine sheen of sweat, the Slayer felt more at peace than she had in months. Even knowing that she faced probable death in a few scant hours.

* * * * * * *

To Be Continued

Author's notes: Just a brief mention that Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi were real people (and Susannah and the Elders is a real painting--if you're curious, you can see a copy of it by clicking the link to the left) as was Agostino Tassi, and there really was a rape trial in which Tassi accused Artemesia of being a licentious woman (though accusations that she was a lesbian didn't actually come until later in her life--instead he accused her of being an "insatiable whore" and of sleeping with her father, among other things). Artemesia was probably one of the most important of the tiny minority women artists of the period, though few of her works survive (probably more than we know, since there are several pieces credited to her father that may well have either been hers or theirs in concert, since they worked together on several projects over the years). If anyone wants to know more, the following url has lots of links as well as an interesting article on the film (which had zilch to do with reality)

http//darkwing.uoregon.edu/~acd/site3/Artemisia.html#Notes. 

Obviously, I've taken a lot of liberties here, but hopefully without completely contradicting what little is known (since the mentions are pretty distant, I've just tried to weave in and out of the known dates). One exception I never could find any information on how Tassi died (I sincerely doubt it was by being decapitated in Naples--though with the life he led, it's possible) so that is a complete and total fiction. Is any of this important to the story? Nah, just me having fun with my hobby (hmmm, so is that the art history or the writing?).

--PB

Continue to Chapters 10-11

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