Giles cursed softly as he hung up the phone and drew a thick line through the name and number listed on his notepad. No information to be had from that source. So far, not much information to be had from any source. The two names he had for DuCourvallier's alternate identities, Blaine Michaels and Devon Carstairs, had so far yielded almost nothing, leaving him uncertain whether they were made up identities, or ones that had been stolen from victims of the vampire's who happened to be hard to trace.
As wily as DuCourvallier was, either choice was a definite possibility.
He looked down at the list of names on his pad, all of them crossed out now, the number of notes painfully small in comparison to the time spent.
"Doesn't look like you've had much luck."
The Watcher's chin snapped up as a mug of something hot and steaming was thrust into his line of vision. "Oh...Joyce...I'm sorry, I was...thinking...."
Joyce Summers nodded wanly, her eyes tired as they met his. No surprise there. She'd gotten no sleep the night before, had a broken wrist, and had stopped taking the painkillers in an effort to think more clearly. She had to be feeling both the resulting pain and the exhaustion. "Have you learned anything?" she questioned.
Giles shook his head. "Nothing of any real use." He glanced into the livingroom, where Anya was still studying the painting, though Xander had finally collapsed and was snoring gently on the couch, one arm flopped across his eyes.
Joyce's eyes slid closed and she took a deep breath before letting it out slowly to calm herself. They hadn't really spoken during the day, both involved with their respective investigations and neither in any hurry for any contact. A magic-induced orgy on top of a police car generally doesn't leave mature adults anything but profoundly embarrassed. Joyce and Giles were both embarrassed and then some. "Delaine DuCourvallier was a Slayer...just like Buffy?" she murmured.
Giles shrugged. "She was a Slayer...but no, not like Buffy. Your daughter is one of the most...honorable individuals it has ever been my honor to know," he said with heartfelt emotion. He loved Buffy. It was just that simple. She was his student, his friend, his colleague, and the child he would never have. "I know this duty is not something she planned...certainly not what she would have chosen for her life, but she has accepted this responsibility with profound maturity. She is a true hero." He took off his glasses, polishing them as he continued, "Delaine DuCourvallier was a coward who betrayed those closest to her...turned over for murder, those who should most have been able to trust her." He replaced his glasses, then took a sip from the mug she'd brought before continuing, "She does not deserve to have her name mentioned in the same breath as your daughter."
Joyce's brows lifted, but she didn't immediately respond. It was the painting that was bothering her. The emotion was too real, too.... She couldn't think of the right word, but some part of her couldn't quite believe the artist who could create that much beauty could commit cold-blooded murder. And, of course, she had her own issues with the Watcher's Council.
Giles noted her doubtful look. "You disagree?" he asked, his tone crisply disapproving.
Joyce shrugged, trying to tamp down her own resentments against the secrets Giles had been part of keeping from her and the gulf in her relationship with her daughter that she often blamed him for. "I don't know enough to agree or disagree," she shot back, unable to quite keep the sharpness out of her voice. She caught her temper before continuing, "I do know though, that if I go out and drug a fifteen or sixteen year old child, kidnap her, force her to do my bidding, and punish her if she refuses, the last thing anyone would call her is a dishonorable coward if she fought to escape."
A muscle pulsed in the Watcher's jaw. "You don't understand."
"Maybe not," Joyce allowed. She started to move away, but Giles' voice called her back.
"Whatever you or I think of what has happened in the past is irrelevant," he said softly as she turned to face him again. "She is a vampire...and she is very likely here to kill Buffy."
"I understand that," Joyce murmured. "And I assure you, if I find a way to destroy her, I will...but only because she's a threat to my daughter. Not because of what she may have done to your precious Watcher's Council... not when they were more than willing to get Buffy killed in the name of some kind of test."
Even if he privately agreed with her, Giles couldn't go against a lifetime of programming, especially not when his more youthful defiance had led to so many evils. "You pity her," he said after a beat, the words bordering on accusation, but stopping just short.
Joyce shrugged. "I pity the child she was." With that, she turned away, moving into the kitchen and leaving Giles feeling oddly bereft.
Tamping down the wave of guilt that never quite left him for what he'd been a part of doing to Buffy Summers' life, he rose and stretched, then crossed to where Anya was still studying the painting through a magnifying glass. "Anything?"
The young woman looked up, her expression reflecting the strange mix of cynicism and naivete he'd come to expect from the former Vengeance Demon. "Well, the date on the painting is nearly four years after she supposedly died...her stroke is quite amazing, and she was a real stickler for details...you can see the crow's feet on the brunette if you look closely."
Giles sighed softly. "I meant that might explain why she was so desperate to retrieve the painting."
"Oh," Anya murmured, though he suspected she'd known that all along. "No...nothing out of the ordinary. No words, spells, images, maps...nothing...nada...zip--"
"Got it," Giles said to forestall any further commentary.
Anya tipped her head to one side as she looked back at Xander where he was dozing. "Isn't he cute when he snores like that?"
"Ahm...yes...whatever..." Giles muttered and pivoted to return to his efforts to track down some kind of lead that might help them find the former Slayer.
* * * * * *
Joyce stood with her good hand braced on the kitchen counter, the tightly strapped and bound one held against her chest, her face pale with pain. A bottle of juice sat unopened on the counter near her hand, right where she'd set it after trying to open the top. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," she berated herself. Lost in her private musings, she'd had the brief thought that caffeine probably wasn't a good idea for her after all the drugs she'd had and bypassed the fresh-brewed coffee, instead grabbing the juice bottle out of the fridge. One quick twist intended to open the bottle had instead reminded her of the fragility of her newly broken wrist as bone ground against bone. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," she repeated the imprecation as she concentrated on simply remaining upright.
"Need help with that?" An arm reached past Joyce for the juice bottle, clad in dark leather, the hand long and fine-boned.
Startled, she spun to face the blond vampire, as he plucked up the bottle, easily popping it open before setting it back on the counter.
"...thank you..." she murmured hesitantly. She knew what he was. Certainly Buffy had been very clear with her warnings and her disdain for him, but training wouldn't let her be rude when he'd only been polite to her. It didn't mean she wasn't on her guard.
He offered a hint of a smile. "But you've been warned about me," he drawled knowingly.
"Something like that."
That lazy half-smile still danced along his lips. "I'm really not so bad, y'know." He reached up to grab a glass from the cupboard over her head. "I don't pretend to be what I'm not."
"You tried to kill my daughter," Joyce said quietly, willing herself not to show any fear of the man in front of her.
He shrugged, apparently indifferent to the accusation. "I'm a vampire. She's the Slayer. It's the natural order of things." His expression twisted to an angry sneer as he lifted a hand to his temple. "Or it was until those bastards put this bloody chip in my head." He filled the glass with juice, then presented it to her.
"Mmm, Xander and Anya mentioned something about that," Joyce murmured, then took a sip from the glass, letting the cool, biting sweet slide down her throat. "You'll pardon if I'm not to sympathetic that you can't eat people these days."
He laughed softly, eyes gleaming as he offered another shrug. "The Slayer and I know where we stand with each other." He leaned close, intentionally crowding her. "Actually, the irony of all of it is that her Watcher came closer to killing her than I ever did...and you too in the bargain."
Joyce swallowed hard. "How do you know about that?"
"There are no secrets amongst demons. Word gets around." He fingered a blond wave where it settled on her shoulder. "Now Giles, he appears to be the Slayer's dear friend...but.... Personally, I've always preferred the devil I know...and we all know I'm the devil."
Joyce stiffened, her gaze sliding away from his, not wanting him to see that she had some of the same doubts. "I should get back to what I was doing."
He didn't move. "Yes, looking for La Coeur Noir's long lost secrets."
"La Coeur Noir?" she repeated, forcing down a shiver as she continued to face him.
"The black heart. It's what they call her. The Watchers fear her, you know. You're hunting for her secrets," he leaned in close enough to whisper near her ear, "but they say she already knows all of theirs."
Joyce reached out with her good hand to push him aside, the glass still gripped tightly in her fingers threatening to spill juice all over his leather jacket. "As I said," she intoned coldly, "I should go."
Laughing softly, he let her push him back. "Of course. You have fun with that." Still chuckling, he watched her flee. Funny thing was, he still rather liked the Slayer's mum. Head canted to one side, he considered turning her once he got the chip out of his head only to discard the idea almost instantly. There'd been precious few humans he had any use for as anything other than a well-deserved meal, but he'd discovered through trial and error that, on the rare occasion he did like one of them, it was best not to do the vamp thing. He never seemed to like what they became. Better to simply kill them if it came down to it.
In the meantime--he chuckled again--there was always a bit of fun to be had. The Slayer's mother definitely had some serious issues with the Watcher. That could make for some interesting games.
* * * * * *
She leaned forward, her hand braced against the mirror, staring at the all too familiar lack of her own reflection, missing it for the first time in more decades than she cared to count. Like so many things she'd learned to exist without, she was suddenly feeling the loss. Like her home, her name, her past, it was one of the things that normalcy demanded and she had long since left behind. Delaine DuCourvallier...she tested the name as she allowed herself to think it...there had been so many other names, so many other identities and personalities in nearly four hundred years of being hunted in one form or another. She'd learned early to simply think of herself by whatever name she was using, to let go of her own identity, and become someone else. Now, it felt strange just to think of the name she'd been christened with and relate it to herself.
She turned away from the tangible reminder of what she was and wasn't with a graceful pivot, willing those thoughts away as her eyes landed on yet another tangible reminder of things she didn't want to think about.
Her clothes, or more correctly, the tattered remnants of her clothes hung drying over the arm of a chair, the bloodstains barely dented by her efforts to wash them out, the fabric ripped and torn from two days of hard living. Clearly her efforts at cleanliness had not done them any good. "From Vampire-Slayer to Flasher-Slayer in one easy step," she muttered disgustedly, silently castigating herself for compulsive stupidity.
A simple mistake brought to her attention and then she'd given in to a moment's temptation to see something she should have avoided like the plague. And now, where was she? In a low-rent motel used by prostitutes, buck naked and contemplating wearing the none too attractive leather pants and muscle shirt she'd found in the dead police officer's bag.
She ran slender fingers through her hair, still wet from the shower, absently combing out the tangles as she considered her situation.
And soon she would be off, most likely to step into a trap. "Fool," she whispered angrily.
But she didn't contemplate not trying to retrieve the painting.
Not even for a moment.
Not when she knew how quickly the Watcher's would throw it onto the fire if they ever got the chance.
Finally, she turned away to grab for a towel, scrubbing her hair and skin dry with vicious strokes in a completely unsuccessful attempt to redirect her thoughts.
* * * * * *
Buffy was sitting under a tree, the grass cool and damp underneath her, staring across the quad...or at least she thought it was the quad. There was the grass and the low wall that bordered the quad, but she couldn't remember seeing any naked women or men in velvet robes there before. Judging by the way those guys were staring at the girl, the university was definitely going to be up for a sexual harassment suit if they weren't careful.
The woman squealed as one of the men reached down to cop a feel.
Snorting something unkind under her breath, the Slayer rose easily, tipping her sunglasses down from their perch on top of her head as she moved. "Need some help?" she questioned the naked woman as she got closer. Obviously there was smudge on her glasses because she couldn't quite make out the face that turned her way, the contours little more than hazy indications of evenly spaced features.
"I wouldn't turn it down," the woman admitted, her copper hair glinting in the morning sun.
And then one of her robed tormentors (Is there a Shakespeare play on at the theater or something? Buffy wondered distantly) made another grab for a rounded breast, only to find his throat caught in a punishing grip.
"I don't think the lady's interested," Buffy drawled.
In that instant, the other one made a grab and found himself receiving similar treatment from his intended victim. Suddenly, the girl rose and turned, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Slayer. Both women spun, hurling their captives across the grass as though they'd rehearsed the maneuver.
The Slayer dropped into a fighting stance as the taller of the two robed men pushed to his feet, glaring at her with unconcealed anger. "I suggest you choose your allies very carefully, Slayer," he advised.
Buffy glanced over, surprisingly unsurprised to find that the naked woman was no longer nearly so naked. Decked out now, in black leather and silvery sunglasses, she shook her head like those women in hair commercials and the coppery curls tumbled away to reveal silky blond hair that just touched her shoulders. She was braced in a fighting stance that mirrored the Slayer's own, just like her sunglasses mirrored the world laid out before both of them; mirrored everything except her own hands where they were poised in front of her. "He's right," she said softly. "Often it's your allies and not your enemies who truly define the battle." The men lunged and suddenly, she opened one fist, passing a fine-boned hand in front of the scene. The two men crumbled to dust mid leap, their remains floating gently toward the grass, while the moon rose high in a suddenly dark sky. "Keep your friends close," she exhaled, "and your enemies closer." Then she turned and began walking away, her pace brisk.
The Slayer spun, hurrying after her, still trying to get a look at her face, which seemed to defy every effort to be seen. "Who are you?" she demanded, still trying to catch up the final few paces so they would be even.
The woman shrugged slender shoulders. "I don't remember anymore."
Buffy considered the answer for only a moment before shaking her head. "I don't believe that."
A soft laugh greeted the proclamation. "You should always believe the unbelievable," she chided gently without slowing her stride.
Buffy shook her head in confusion. "You can't believe the unbelievable. If you could believe it, it wouldn't be unbelievable."
Another laugh. "I daresay you haven�t had much practice," said the blond. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I�ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Buffy forced down her frustration. "Look, I just need to know. Are you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?"
"I'm not any kind of guy," was the laughter-tinged response.
And then the world spun out of control, pitching the Slayer to and fro until she collapsed to the grass.
When the earthquake finally shuddered away into nothingness, she slowly pushed up on her hands only to find that grass had turned to marble, moonlight to candlelight, and trees and openness of the quad to a huge ballroom that glowed with the light of a thousand candles glittering off mirror lined walls and jewel encrusted gowns. Hundreds of people moved to a song Buffy recognized from one of the grungier bands that often played The Bronze, dancing a neat minuet, their steps measured and perfect. Women in intricately stitched silk gowns with multitudes of rustling petticoats and wide panniers danced with men in camouflage and tactical vests.
The dancers turned to face each other in two neat rows, bowing gracefully, before resuming the dance.
Buffy could only stare in horror as she realized that the mirrors lining the entire hall showed only her own reflection standing in an empty room filled with candlelight. She did a slow turn as the monstrosity dawned on her and abruptly found herself swept into the moving line of dancers.
"I knew you'd be here," Riley's voice echoed in her ears as he took her hand, while on either side of them camouflaged dancers moved to and fro to the slow beat of the music.
She shook her head, trying to pull back, peering around him to find her image in the mirror, shadow dancing with nothingness. "Oh God." And then she did pull free, staring at him with raw revulsion. He was dressed like the other men, in camouflage and khaki, and carrying some kind of gun on a harness over one shoulder.
"What's wrong, Buffy?" he would-be suitor questioned, his expression blankly questioning. He followed the line of her gaze, then looked back at her, shrugging. "I don't see the problem."
The Slayer backed away from him, slapping his hands aside when he would have grabbed for her. "You're dead."
He looked hurt. "Why would you say something like that?" Again he tried to reach for her and again she knocked his hands aside.
"Because it's true, little boy," Angel's smooth voice cut through the ballroom as he dusted Riley from behind without even slowing his pace, grinning to reveal the oversharp canines that went with the game face he wore. Angel's other hand hung poised in mid-air, a woman's narrow fingers resting against his own. It was the blond again, though it was hard to recognize her. Instead of black leather and sunglasses, she wore the sort of gown Buffy had once fantasized about wearing for Angel; a low cut bodice and tight corset cinched her breasts into creamy mounds above the low neckline, while the skirt fell from her slender waist to the floor in a bell shape. The gold silk brocade glittered with subtle twists and curves of delicate fleur de lis, moving gracefully with the wearer, while her hair gleamed like a golden flame in the candlelight where it was piled on top of her head in soft ringlets. As she smiled at Buffy, the unfocused, but human shape of her features sharpened now to vampiric clarity.
"Now he's some kind of guy," the blond commented dryly as she nodded her head gracefully at Angel.
Angel flashed another toothy grin, then dropped his hand down and around the blond's slender waist, hauling her close. "Kind...me? Never." The kiss they shared was as hot-blooded as they were cold-blooded, burning between them and making Buffy nauseous.
The Slayer spun away, biting back on the surge of acid rising from her stomach. She was still contemplating whether to run or just start killing and not stop until she was the only one left in the room when she became aware of someone coming up behind her. She spun to face the gilt-gowned blond, snarling as she faced her smiling visage. "Get away from me!"
The blond shrugged, the gown dipping with the faint movement. "I can't...every story needs a villain...and somehow...I got elected..." She shrugged again and her tone was ironic. "I didn't get a vote, but I did get elected."
Buffy shook her head, backing away. "You aren't her. You're the thing that killed her."
The blond laughed softly, the vampire's features softening with pity in a way Buffy hadn't even known they could. "Whatever I am, that's not it." She reached out, cupping the Slayer's chin in a deceptively fragile looking hand. "Be careful, little Slayer, there are plenty of people out there ready to make you the villain too. It's not a job you want." She stroked the Slayer's lower lip with the pad of her thumb. "Trust me." Pain flickered in the depths of her eyes and then she moved faster than Buffy could track, striking the Slayer, spinning her around with the force of the blow and grabbing her again. One impossibly strong arm wrapped around Buffy's torso, while another braced across her throat, the fine-boned hand shaping to the side of her face to drag her head to the side. She tensed, braced for the feel of sharp canines tearing into her flesh.
"It costs you everything you care for... everything you love... family... friends... lovers... future... past... present... everything you are or will ever be... they take...and they spit on it for their own pleasure."
The Slayer strained against that harsh grip, muscles rippling with the effort. "Who?" she demanded, her voice hoarse with tears. She didn't want to die without some kind of answer.
And then she found herself free. Spinning to face her attacker, she dropped into a fighter's stance, only to find the vampire had disappeared along with the great hall of mirrors, to be replaced by the quickie mart where Willow had nearly died.
The young woman who had died was there instead, a monstrous gash still marring her midsection, calmly sitting on the counter and drinking a Heineken straight from the bottle. Reminded of her own guilt and failure, the Slayer's gaze slid away from the ragged edges of the wound. "I'm sorry," she managed to choke out, while the blond continued slowly downing her beer.
"Don't be. The beer's warm, but I'm not." She laughed softly at the joke and took another swallow from the bottle. "Besides, what could you have done?" She shook her head disgustedly and set the beer aside. "Really shouldn't be drinking these anymore, but they don't have AA meetings for the dead. More's the pity."
Buffy could feel choking tears sliding down her cheeks, but she couldn't think to speak.
The blond slid off the counter and dropped easily to the floor.
The Slayer suddenly became aware that Willow was there, standing just off to the side, waiting, but not involved in the conversation as the blond drew abreast of her, reached out and stroked the line of her jaw, leaned close, soft lips just dusting her cheek as she whispered, "She's my gift to you...the only chance you've got...so hold on tight." Then full lips split in a wicked grin. "'Cause it's gonna be a bumpy ride." Still smiling, she kept on walking, moving past the Slayer toward the door.
Buffy spun, the frustration in her voice calling the other woman back. "Wait! Who are you?!"
The blond paused, peering back over her shoulder to reveal a sad smile. She shook her head. "The dead can't answer questions. They can only ask them." Then she turned away again, moving into the night with loose limbed strides.
Buffy started to go after her, but paused as she felt arms wrap around her from behind, followed by the familiar sense of Willow pressed against her back. She didn't know exactly how it was she knew it was Willow without seeing her or hearing her speak, she just did. Maybe it was the smell of her body, or the feel of the curves she knew so intimately well. A hand gently petted her hair back from her brow as Willow's brushed her cheek, and then she felt the hacker's warm breath on her skin.
"Let her go...she has things to do." She brushed her fingers along Buffy's jaw, bringing her head around until their eyes met. "Just like you have things to do." And she kissed the Slayer softly, while Buffy stood stiff and uncertain how to respond.
"Kiss the girl, for God's sake." The words were half ironic, half plaintive, drawing Buffy to look up into her own eyes. Her jaw hung open as she suddenly found herself face to face with... herself.
A wryly smiling, sunglasses and leather jacket wearing rendition of herself who was eyeing Buffy over the edge of her the eyeglass frames. "And if you ask me who I am, I'm going to have to get mediaeval on you."
"I don't know who or what you are, but you're not me."
The other Buffy laughed at that, looking younger and more carefree than Buffy had felt in ages. "Of course I'm you...just not all of you...just like you're not all of you...I'm the you that's locked away where you can't reach me."
Sick and confused and tired of non-answer answers, Buffy was ready to scream and starting to suspect it was only a nightmare or at the very least a very unpleasant dream. "No," she insisted, wanting to deny what she could feel was true.
She smiled at herself, and then Buffy wasn't sure which her was her and which her wasn't her. It was all too confusing.
"Distracting isn't it?" she heard herself comment. "Sort of an Id Quo Pro, I suppose." And she laughed at her own joke. The other Buffy reached out a hand, the wry smile turning sweetly seductive. "Willow knows...Willow always knows...even when she doesn't know..."
And then the Slayer felt the loss of the comforting warmth of her friend against her back as she watched her alternate self take the hacker in her arms. The other Buffy winked. "Better get your act together," she told Buffy, then feathered a tiny kiss onto Willow's lips. "Because without me, you won't keep her, and without her...you're lost."
"Willow, please...." Buffy heard her own voice pleading to the red-headed hacker, felt the emptiness in her life, felt the panic that came from being locked away from her other half for all time.
And woke. For a moment, the Slayer lay confused as she separated reality from the dream. Her dorm room. She was asleep in the dorm she shared with Willow, the darkened room dimly lit by the hacker's glowing laptop. Buffy's eyes slid over to the desk and she spotted the redhead's slender frame, silhouetted in the soft illumination. She heaved a sigh of relief and pushed upright.
Willow obviously heard the soft rustle of blankets, because she turned in her chair, eyes finding the Slayer's. "You're awake," Willow exhaled, and Buffy could hear the tension in her voice.
Buffy ran a hand through sleep tousled hair, smoothing it back from her face. "Yeah...awake..." she sighed, frowning as the strangeness of the dream washed over her, not knowing whether it was just a product of her highly stressed psyche, or another of the prescient visions she'd occasionally had since becoming the Slayer. In either event, since the damn thing made no sense, she supposed it hardly mattered. "Kinda...sorta...maybe..." She glanced out the window, noting that night had fallen while she slept and sighed softly.
As if reading her friend's--no, Willow mentally corrected herself, lover's--mind, the hacker quietly told her, "There's still time... I didn't wake you earlier because I figured...after everything that's happened...I just figured it was best if you get some extra sleep." They both knew why. If Spike was right and DuCourvallier was going to be there to meet Buffy, then the Slayer would need all of her strength just to survive.
Buffy nodded distantly, still staring out at the strip of night sky she could see through the window-blinds, trying to imagine what it would be like to be sentenced to nothing but night for all eternity. "When I was little, I was afraid of the dark," she admitted quietly. "And I didn't even know the half of it." A moment later, she felt the bed depress and then Willow's hand on her cheek bringing her head around until their eyes met in the darkened room.
"You aren't alone," the hacker reminded her.
Buffy reached out, tenderly brailing Willow's face, committing every curve and arch to memory. "You are so beautiful," she exhaled at last and felt the heat under her fingers as Willow blushed violently.
"Yes," Buffy said flatly.
A long moment of uncomfortable silence passed, then Willow cleared her throat and took a deep breath, knowing full well that what she had to say Buffy wouldn't want to hear. "Buffy, I think it's time to call Giles..."
The Slayer ignored the comment, nodding toward the open laptop. "Did you find anything?" she asked quietly.
Willow's eyes slid closed as she fought tears, but she managed to sound more controlled than she felt as she answered. "Some more history...but nothing...nothing of any real value..." She had never slept after...after...simply holding Buffy until she was deep in slumber, then quietly slipping from bed, hoping against hope that if she just dug hard enough that she could find the secret, the one thing that would make it all just go away. And she couldn't help but hate herself for failing.
"It's not your fault," the Slayer said softly as she tenderly stroked Willow's cheek. "She's lasted nearly four hundred years with the entire weight of the Council after her. If they couldn't find a way to kill her easily..." she trailed off, not liking the direction her mind was taking.
Willow's voice thickened as she spoke, "I really don't think you should do this alone."
Buffy allowed herself a tiny small smile. "And I really think I can't do it any other way." She hooked her hand around the hacker's narrow shoulder, stroking the sharp jut of her collarbone through the light fleece of the sweatshirt Willow had put on to ward off the chill while working. Then she pulled Willow into a soft kiss, exploring the depths of her mouth until they were both weak and gasping for air. "You have to trust me," she whispered when they parted.
"I do. You know that," Willow insisted. "But--"
"I can't have any of you in danger," Buffy cut her off. She swallowed hard. "This is going to take everything I've got...everything...and if I'm afraid that you or Giles or Xander is going to get caught in the crossfire, that's all I'm going to be able to think about." She kissed Willow again, barely touching their lips together. "It's not like dealing with regular vampires or the mayor or any other kind of demon..." Buffy caught Willow's hands in her own, holding on tightly. "It's like with Faith...she's my responsibility."
"Because she was a Slayer?" Willow whispered, just as confused now as she had been when Buffy had insisted on going up against Faith alone.
"Kinda...yeah..." Buffy sighed, unable to explain the sense of responsibility that since it was one of her own kind that was hunting them all, it was her job to deal with it.
Willow considered the comment for a long moment before quietly declaring, "That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life." She shook her head. "That's like me saying, 'Hey, because Moloch wound up in the computer, it's my problem to deal with it." Willow shuddered with distaste as she remembered her former boyfriend and cyber demon.
"Willow, it's not--"
"The same," Willow finished for her friend and now lover. "Oh, yeah, right. It's all about the whole Slayer thing...only the problem is, she's not just a Slayer, she's a vampire too...a four hundred year old vampire who's smarter and faster than other vampires...and who--if she can succeed in killing you--will probably turn her eye to everyone you know. That means the rest of us have a stake in this, Buffy."
Faced with Willow's fierce determination, the Slayer could only smile, warmed by the passion in her voice. For all of the logic, Buffy knew perfectly well it wasn't her own life that Willow was worrying about. She squeezed Willow's hands tightly in her own. "I'll tell you what," she bargained at last, "I've got to call Giles and find out what he's learned. I won't make any decisions until then."
Willow sighed very softly. It was nowhere near the total concession she'd hoped for, but neither was it the total refusal she'd half expected. It was also as close to victory as she was likely to come for the moment. "All right," she exhaled hesitantly.
"I guess I should...ah...get dressed," Buffy murmured after a beat, suddenly very much aware of her nudity. "Naked slayage being a bad idea...and...all...that...." Both girls looked away, still uncertain quite how to deal with the change in their relationship, not even entirely certain what the change in their relationship actually was...past the obvious. After a long moment, Buffy slid from bed, wrapping the sheet around herself as an impromptu robe as she moved, while Willow moved back to her computer, organizing files on her hard drive to distract herself from the soft sounds Buffy made getting dressed.
Finally, the hacker felt the warmth of the Slayer's body as Buffy leaned past her to reach for the phone. "Time to find out what Giles knows," she murmured, then glanced down at Willow. "Is the line clear?"
Willow nodded distantly, stomach clenching as she became more and more aware of every passing second moving past and drawing Buffy closer to the confrontation with her deadly predecessor. She lifted a foot, bracing it on the edge of the chair, while she rested her chin on her knee and wrapped her arms around her folded leg as she silently listened to Buffy's end of the call. Once the greetings were over with, it consisted mostly of "Yes," "No," "Nothing," "What about you?" and a few other choice phrases that communicated precious little meaning.
The brief conversation wound down quickly and soon Buffy was saying her goodbyes, her tone purposely neutral. "No, I'm just going to patrol the campus. You keep checking. I'll call in later. Yeah...thanks...and Giles...say hi to my Mom for me when she wakes up...yeah, thanks. I'll talk to you later."
Willow was in agony by the time her friend hung up the phone. She knew from Buffy's expression what the answer was. The Slayer was wearing her resolve face, eyes flinty with a warrior's determination. "I'm coming with you," Willow bit out before Buffy had a chance to even tell her that there was nothing to report from Giles and she intended to face DuCourvallier on her own.
Buffy's mouth softened to a gentle sad smile and she reached out to rhythmically stroke Willow's hair back from her temples, ignoring the impetuous comment as she carefully explained, "They haven't found anything in the painting that might explain why she wants it so badly and they haven't been able to trace any current locations on any of her known identities or contacts."
Willow could barely feel the pain where her teeth were digging into her lower lip as she unsuccessfully fought the threat of tears.
Buffy swallowed hard, her own emotions raw. Tell her the truth--the annoying little voice that she'd grown so used to hearing in her head of late, insisted, and for the first time, Buffy realized the voice sounded just like her own--that you love her too much to let her risk her life, no matter how much you want her there by your side. "Giles traced the name of the woman selling the art collection--Devon Carstairs--to an art history professor at George Washington University who was killed several months ago. A car was rented in her name in Los Angeles five days ago. Giles believes it must have been DuCourvallier...which means she may have been in town as much as four days before making contact with my mother. She may have watched us all...and know where we all live by now...."
The Slayer continued, her tone implacable. "Giles thinks she must have killed Devon Carstairs to steal her identity...all things considered she could undoubtedly get close to an art history prof without much effort. He's calling the Watcher's Council in the morning." Buffy swallowed again, her throat painfully dry from the stress. "We both know how much they care about all of your lives," she added tightly. "So if I don't come back, I'm trusting you to make certain that you and my mom, Giles, Xander...and even Anya...get out of town. It won't be safe here."
Silver tears slipped from Willow's eyes, sliding down her cheeks in ragged trails.
Buffy leaned down, barely brushing her lips over Willow's, her voice the barest whisper as they parted and she swore, "It'll be okay." Then she pulled away, moving back to her closet to grab for a jacket. After slinging on a black leather biker type that not only looked rough and tumble, but was also heavy enough that it tended to lessen the impact of any hard blows--and she expected a lot of solid hits to be aimed her way very soon--she knelt next to her bed, ignoring the tumbled sheets that were a very physical reminder of how she'd spent her last hours. She pulled a wooden lock box out from under the bed, flicking it open to grab Mr. Pointy--Kendra's last gift to anyone--into an inner pocket, settling it until it didn't make the jacket bulge.
The tiny gesture knocked Willow from the brief paralysis that had overtaken her and she dropped her foot to the floor to stand. "I'll call Giles," she choked out, eyes meeting Buffy's as the Slayer peered back over her shoulder. "I swear to God, the moment you're out the door," Willow promised, "I'll call and tell him everything." She straightened her shoulders, terrified of angering her friend and pushing her away, but also unwilling to do nothing. "I won't just stand by and let you get yourself killed."
"Oh, Will," Buffy sighed sadly as she pushed to her feet. Anything but angry, she reached out to the hacker, drawing her into a hard hug, felt Willow's arms wrap around her, holding on with desperate strength. They were both shaking, trembling hard as they clung to each other. Buffy worked her fingers into silky red hair, gently tugging Willow's head up from her shoulder, tasting salty tears as she nuzzled her cheek tenderly. "I love you, Willow Rosenberg, do you hear me?" she whispered raggedly. "Always remember that." She was still holding her lover like that when she snapped the handcuff she'd palmed from the box around one of Willow's slender wrists.
The hacker jumped, uncertain what was happening until she found herself tipped back onto the bed and realized that one wrist was locked in a silver bracelet. "No," Willow grunted, trying to push upward as the she Slayer came down over her, pinning her to the mattress. It was the strangest of battles, both girls desperate to get their own way, and neither one willing to hurt the other to do it.
Willow never had a chance. Not against Slayer strength, even gently applied. In moments, Buffy had her hands pinned against the mattress over her head and had passed the loose cuff through the slotted headboard before locking it around Willow's other wrist. No more than a heartbeat later, Buffy felt Willow draw a breath, read her intentions, and did the only thing she could think of; she kissed Willow, dragging the breath from her lungs with hungry lips that pressed with a fervor made up of equal parts love and frustration. The hacker bucked desperately, but was nowhere near strong enough to dislodge her gentle assailant. Her lips still wedded with Willow's, Buffy scrambled, reaching for the clock-radio that sat on her nightstand. With a set of circadian rhythms that would never let her be a morning person, even if it weren't for the late nights required by her slayerly avocation, Buffy had found through hard-won experience that an alarm too many decibels below a low yield nuclear device was doomed to failure. As she flipped the switch, the familiar and raucous sounds of the local punk station--the only one that could consistently rouse her from bed for an eight a.m. class--blasted through the room. She pushed the volume all the way to the top until the music rocked the light fixtures and made the plaster walls shudder in time with the throbbing beat.
Within moments, the rooms on either side of theirs were alive with overloud, bad music, following the long held dormitory tradition of turning one's own volume up in lieu of asking a neighbor to turn theirs down.
Willow could scream herself hoarse and no one would ever hear.
The Slayer pushed herself up on her hands, flinching under the impact of the angry gaze directed her way. "I'm sorry, Will," she mouthed to avoid screaming above the sound of the music.
Willow tugged against the cuffs, twisting to glare over her head at the chased silver bracelets. "Damn you," she hissed, her voice inaudible above the din, not that the Slayer needed to hear her to know what she'd said.
Struggling to ignore the guilt burning in her chest, Buffy pushed up on her knees, reaching over the edge of the bed to snag the pair of red velvet lined cuffs she'd retrieved from a Spiel Demon with interesting tastes months before. She'd kept them with some distant thought of playing a tacky joke on Giles sometime when he got on her bad side. In moments, she had Willow's ankles bound to the bedframe, despite the hacker's efforts to avoid her. She slid back up, trying to ignore the headache the music--if it could be called that--was threatening to inflict on her skull, sitting on the edge of the bed next to Willow.
"Don't do this," Willow panted desperately, her eyes glinting with unshed tears of panic and anger.
The Slayer leaned down, stroking Willow's cheek tenderly as she pressed her lips against a delicate ear to make herself heard. "I'm sorry. I wish there was another way, but I can't risk you...I just can't." She kissed Willow's cheek softly. "I'll make sure there's someone here to let you out in the morning." And then she was standing and moving toward the door.
Willow could barely hear herself screaming Buffy's name, her voice hoarse with effort as she strained against the all too effective bindings. Helplessly, she watched as the Slayer dropped the handcuff keys into the top desk drawer, then moved to leave. She looked back as she reached the door, mouth barely moving as her eyes met Willow's.
"I love you."
And then she was gone, leaving Willow alone with her desperation.