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  • Blood Line

    Disclaimer: All characters, though creatively mangled, belong to Joss Whedon.

    Rating: PG-13

    Setting: An inverted AU version of Buffy S7

    Beta: Valyssia

    (This fic was originally produced at Buffyworld Forums; with Valyssia's help it has now been extensively revised. Hopefully it's less confusing than the original.)

    The dust showered over her. A part of her wanted to smile, but she restrained the urge. Last minion down... Anticipation building, Buffy waited for the fun to begin. The slayer's made it inside. Ten minutes. She's a little better than I thought.

    She's coming this way. Just a little further? A wicked smile tugged at Buffy's lips as she watched the slayer stride around a rock face and come into view. Sauntering forward to meet Faith, she grumbled, "Damn. I could use some decent minions."

    "Just one problem with that, B? You're not decent," Faith quipped offhandedly.

    Good girl, Faith. Smirk at me, crack some one-liners?and please come a little closer. "I take it you're here for the weapon," Buffy drawled. Mixed arrogance and mirth infecting her features as she stepped to the left and let Faith have a peek. The scythe stood embedded in stone like it had since the time it was last called into use. "Spiffy, huh? Considering it's been here umpteen thousand years. You'd think it'd be a little dinged up by now. A few scratches in the shiny red paint?"

    "Why don'tcha step aside and let me have that?" Faith queried, raising her fists and crouching a little, ready to take Buffy on. Winking to punctuate her point, she amended, "But I think goin' through you'll be more fun."

    "Actually, Faith?think red's more my color," Buffy observed, appearing truly amused by the slayer's overtures of hostility. Pffft?the King Arthur thing?total camp? Note to self: eat more witches. Trailing her fingers lightly over the scythe, she seized the handle and yanked it free from the rock, twirling it around to an angle in front of her. Slapping into her other palm, she asked, "How do I look?" shooting Faith a sunny smile.

    Standing ready for the fight she knew was coming. Faith retorted in a flat disinterested tone, "Like a psychopath?nuthin' new for ya, B." Her eyes betrayed her true feelings. She was starting to panic.

    Buffy was having fun; the shear pleasure of the situation reflected in her every feature and gesture. She looked Faith over carefully, twirling the scythe absently. Now I've got her off-balance. I don't think her eyes could be any wider if I'd stepped out of the wall-with the corpse of her best friend in my arms. Like she has friends?

    Eyeing the scythe, Faith commented dryly, "That thing?it's meant for the Slayer. Not sure how you did it, but..."

    "Aw, really?? Open your eyes, Faith. It's done," Buffy drawled; contempt replaced the amusement as she spoke. Giving the scythe another spin, she snarled malevolently, "Three guesses how I qualify, and the first two don't count."

    Buffy gave the slayer a moment to catch up. Poor Faith? I think she sees the light now?half of it, at least. Bit dim?

    Faith appeared as though she might be trying to find a deity she hadn't pissed off to pray to. "You were a potential?.That's why you were turned, isn't it? Someone was afraid you'd be chosen. So he took a bite," she said, catching up, she watched Buffy for signs of confirmation or worse movement.

    The wicked grin found its way back home, Buffy looked positively delighted. She's firming back up.

    Stalling for time, Faith suggested, "I guess we're gonna have to do this the hard way, then."

    Buffy arrogantly turned her back to Faith for a moment to place the scythe back into its rocky niche. Commenting dryly, she said, "Hard way, easy way?doesn't really matter so much." Making a subtle ?come hither' gesture with her index finger, she beckoned, "Come on out, girls. Let's show her there's no need to fight. We can all be friends."

    I've never been a fan of Willow's magic dye job. She always looked way better in red. Still, overall I'd have to say her fashion sense has improved since we met. Low-cut dress in jet-black, tight around the hips, swirly lower down. Not a big fan of the heels, but then she's got no need for footwork. And they bring her up a little closer to her girl.

    Tara?I don't think she worries much about appearances. Or maybe she's just got a different perspective. I always said the vengeance-y look's kinda like the skin's been peeled off her face to show the muscle underneath. And without any blood to show for it?I mean, what good is that? Her dress looks like something out of a Ren Faire. For most of her kind, that'd be a sign of age. For Tara, it's just what she likes.

    Faith knows what she can fight and what she can't, I'll give her that much. Buffy watched as the slayer tried to run, chuckling as she slammed into the barrier Willow put up when she came down the stairs. It's like watching a rat in a maze. Cheese is that way.

    "C'mon, B?I thought you were a sport? Three on one??" Faith remarked, nervously looking around for other options.

    Shaking her head, Buffy snickered a little. "Funny thing about being a bad girl? Fair play?not really an issue. But I said there's not going to be any fighting. At least, not while we're on different sides?" She continued to regard Faith like she might be an entertaining new toy.

    Pulling a stake out of her jacket, Faith threatened, "I'll stake myself now before I let ya turn me. Lots of blood, lots of mess... You don't want that? You'll never get it out of your clothes."

    Buffy rolled her eyes, ignoring the drama, her attention shifted to her aft momentarily as she tried to make out what Tara and Will were whispering. Those two are the real danger? Returning her focus to the slayer as she muttered, "Nah?You're not worth my time, Faith. Besides?I'm not that hungry?and frankly, I think Slayer blood's a bit overrated." That's good. This is the microchip era, and Faith's still got gears turning in her head. I'm gonna have to throw her a morsel or two, just to keep her attention.

    Watching as Faith gnawed at her bottom lip, Buffy reflected, "Faith, seriously...do you think I took this town from the Master so I could be the Queen of Podunk Hellmouth? I was gonna sit at Giles' right hand on the Day of Ascension. I turned a hellgod into my little sister. This isn't about you and your petty thorns in my side. This is about power, Faith. Real power? This is about sucking this whole pathetic world dry. And believe it or not?I want you to help me."

    Willow moved silently behind the vampire with Tara at her side. Closing the gap to the point she knew it would make Buffy uncomfortable, she leaned in, purring in the vampire's ear, "Are we gonna cast a love spell? She is kinda?.sexy." Listening in amusement as Faith made a disgusted noise in her throat; she closed the barrier around her, muffling the sound. A mischievous grin swept the witch's features as she groped Buffy's ass.

    "Hands, Will! Hands!" Buffy spat, trying not to seem alarmed.

    Willow pulled back, grumbling to herself.

    Glancing back to give the witch a scathing look, Buffy remarked, "Amusing as that'd be, I'm sorry. I need her around for the long haul, and your pets never last. No, we're going to have to give her to Xander."

    Willow made an frustrated clucking sound with her tongue.

    What's with that? Buffy considered, I think she picked it up from Giles.

    Pouting for all she was worth, Willow whined, "Xander always gets the pretty ones. Besides?I'm tired of sharing him. Why can't I have him just for me?"

    Tara gave Buffy a disgusted look and turned away. "Bored now."

    Uh-oh?bored Tara?as signs go-total badness. Oh well?can't exactly let her out to play now either. Time to start with the promises? Smiling sweetly, Buffy offered in a silky voice, "Tara?I absolutely promise you. Two days, and I'll get you girls Amy?and Dru. I know you like Dru. I'll make sure they don't see Xander, either. You won't have to share him with them."

    Willow smiled sweetly, giving Tara a throaty laugh.

    Watching the exchange with restrained amusement, Buffy mused, Funny when she laughs like that?always sends shivers up my spine. The laugh sounds so?innocent. Not like her at all.

    Tara put her hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Dru's good. She always makes me laugh. Talking about computers and stuff like they matter? You promise I won't have to share Xander with anyone else?"

    "Cross my non-beating heart, Tara," Buffy drawled, feeling Tara trail a hand down her back as she moved away. I really gotta get those girls more pets. "Let's give Xander his Slayer."

    ***********

    My name is Alexander Harris.

    I'm God.

    It's actually kind of funny. There's real power in this town-almost all of it female. I'm just a construction worker, an ordinary blue-collar Joe. But every drop of that feminine power is really mine. Buffy, Tara, Willow?all just batteries in the machine. I'm the one at the controls.

    Funnier still?I'm in control because of one of the stupidest acts of my life. Less than a week after the vampire queen strutted into town, I got in her way with a cross. I stopped her from feeding on some big sports hero-I don't even remember his name, now. Because it was all a scam. He wasn't the superstar jock he'd made himself out to be. He just had the jacket. And, like a fool, he was grateful enough to give it to me. He was about to graduate, after all. He figured that old high-school fame wouldn't matter out in the real world.

    Loser.

    Okay, granted, I've had to get this thing adjusted more than once. It still doesn't really fit. Kinda tight around the shoulders, Xander considered, shrugging to pull at the fabric. Maybe, one day, I'll finally get it properly broken in, and I won't notice it any more. Nah. No way I could forget about this.

    Sizing issues aside, this jacket is absolute perfection. I never did find out who made it, originally-it's pretty old. But it bypasses all the usual problems with love spells. You put it on, you're Adonis to every woman in eyeshot. Take it off, it keeps working on the girls you've already got, but leaves the bystanders alone. No new-groupies-every-second deal. Granted, I did have a bit of trouble when Will realized she was mostly into girls herself; it took me weeks to convince her to change me back. And they say vamps have trouble with mirrors! But it was a fluke. Every other moment with this thing-absolute freaking bliss?

    "Xander??" Willow said in a sweet voice steeped in adoration.

    Speak of the devil?or devils. Man, those two are hot. Xander stood considering Willow and Tara.

    "Xan, we've got a present for you," Willow purred, stepping aside to reveal the slayer.

    Tensing up, Xander considered for a moment whether he should run. Finally settling when he realized he didn't need to. They've brought me the Slayer. The last power in town that I didn't control?and now she's mine?

    Xander sat grinning like a fool, heaving himself up off the ratty old couch. Realizing he left the TV on, he hit the mute button. For this, even football can wait, he reflected, eyeing the slayer.

    "Tara?Will?thank you. Thank you so much," Xander said appreciatively, planting a quick kiss on Willow's lips, and then lingering a bit longer with Tara. Funny that even with the jacket I can tell she just doesn't want to like it. Sorta turns me on. Any other time, I'd have them both stay, and we'd?oh, do a few group spells, you might say. But tonight?tonight I have fresh meat. "This is wonderful, you two. Could you, um?close the door on your way out?"

    You can't help but like the disappointment on their faces. The way the corners of Willow's mouth sag and her eyes go dull? The way Tara drops her head, mumbling something softly to herself? Stuttering, I think. I love it when she stutters. I love it most of all when she stutters because of me. It means she can't stand to be away from me. They love me?unconditionally. And they always will. But they go?because I want them to. And they close the basement door behind them. What pleases me?pleases women?every last gorgeous one of them...

    "Faith," Xander said in a pleasant voice.

    "Mr. Harris."

    "Please?call me Xander. Or?hey?how about 'hot-lips'??" Xander replied, trying to be smooth. He watched in amusement as the slayer blushed. A lot of them blush at first. From Miss Goody-two-shoes Faith, I was expecting a little more embarrassment, but?well, odds are it means she's not quite the straight-arrow chick she pretends to be. A lot of women aren't, not deep down. You just have to strip off the veneer.

    Faith frowned. Looking a bit befuddled at the request, she offered, "Mr?.well?.Xander. Unless?"

    Yeah, it's taking hold. Not that she could've made a move against me, but it takes a few moments for the spell to really sink its hooks in, Xander mused, watching the slayer struggle.

    Appearing startled as she realized she had one foot up on the couch arm in a pose, Faith paused to consider whether to put it down, deciding against it. "Unless you really want me to call you hot-lips," she reflected in a questioning manner, resting her foot back on the floor.

    She's got a strong will, this one. Sometimes they're restless?when they're like that. At first?in the end, it doesn't make a difference. "Actually, Xander will do, but thanks, hon," Xander instructed, circling his prize. He ran his eyes up and down that firm, lithe body. Definitely the Slayer? She's got muscles I probably can't name or imagine. And the best part is, I can't even see them unless she flexes on purpose; every inch of her is smooth as the black leather pants she's wearing. Scratch that?the best part is, I get to tell those muscles what to do.

    Faith turned, looking apprehensively around her.

    Some part of her still thinks I'm the enemy. "Hold still, sweetie. Daddy wants a good look," Xander cooed, continuing to visually inspect the merchandise. He seemed amused that she did exactly as he instructed. Yup?life is good?

    "You probably don't want to be here, do you?" Xander queried, beginning to test the effects of the spell.

    Faith flinched.

    Hot damn, I made the slayer flinch! "You came to stop Buffy. I'll admit, it's kind of noble. Only, you really don't care about noble any more, do you?" Xander asked. Closing the distance between himself and Faith, he moved in for the kill.

    "Because you can't?you care about me. Some part of you is probably still fighting me, but it won't last. Anything I ask of you, you're gonna do for me," Xander reflected, placing his hands on her shoulders. Slowly moving the touch down her back, he continued, "I could make you scream." Reaching the slayer's waist he added, "I could make you die." Continuing the decent, he took a handful, giving it a little squeeze. Leaning, he breathed in her ear, "And best of all?I could make you like it."

    Letting go, Xander stepped away . "That's the hardest part, isn't it? And there's nothing you can do to stop it from happening. But you probably don't believe it, do you? So let's make it clear." Pausing for effect, he resumed visually undressing his victim. The anticipation's always the best? "Tell me, sweet-cheeks?.do you love me?" he asked plainly, watching as the slayer continued to stall.

    Faith put her hands on her hips, returning the gaze; a subtle smirk slowly infected her features.

    Posing, really, and boy do I ever like the view. Wait a second?was that a smirk? Okay, maybe for Faith this is something to smirk about. There could be more depth to this one than I was expecting . Watching carefully as Faith opened her mouth to speak, Xander felt a tingle. She's going to say it. Going to realize just how powerless she is.

    "I'm not programmed to respond in that area," Faith intoned in an almost mechanical voice.

    Folding in two as the steel bar made contact with his groin, Xander dropped to his knees. Fractions of a second later he felt a sharp pain at his back as the bar made contact again. This is?what in hell?this isn't supposed to?it's impossible? He blinked as the slayer rolled him onto his back. Watching as the fist closed in, suddenly his world went black.

    ***********

    Is that orange fabric in front of my eyes? Xander blinked, trying to clear them. It didn't help. Isn't that supposed to be a sign of concussion? I can't remember? Which probably is a sign of concussion? Struggling to rise, all his legs seemed to want to do was twitch. I feel like I just went a few rounds?well, one round, anyway?with a pro wrestler who wasn't paying any attention to the rules. Pro wrestling still has rules, doesn't it?

    After a few minutes Xander managed to roll over. Maybe I can get up from this position. I'm still seeing orange fabric. Maybe some yellow. Is that an "S" lying off to the right? Shouldn't it be? This better not be my vision clearing, because it looks like there are little pieces of jacket fabric lying all over the floor. And shoes. Two pairs of them. Not lying?I think there are feet in them. It's? "Willow?? Tara??" he croaked groggily.

    Glowering with contempt, Tara remarked, "It used my name. This?p-pathetic little creature just used my name."

    Willow reached over, patting Tara on the shoulder.

    Hello? I'm the one that needs comforting here, Xander considered, hoping this was all just a bad dream.

    "I know, sweetie?it used mine too. Just like it's been using us?and Buffy. Along with many others," Willow noted. Thoughtfully peering down at Xander, she considered what to do with the boy. Flaying is so pass??

    Tara laid her head on Willow's shoulder.

    I ought to be getting up. I ought to be running far, far away. My legs still aren't working. Must have something to do with the shooting pain? Xander labored to move again, feeling like every inch of him had been run over by a large truck.

    Willow wrinkled her nose. "I feel cheap."

    "It made us think we loved it. A man? That's?d-disgusting," Tara stuttered unable to hold back the flood of tears.

    This is bizarre?a vengeance demon?crying?? And probably not good news, either, Xander reflected as the panic set in.

    "Tara?Tara?I know it hurts, Tare?" Willow cooed in a comforting tone, patting Tara's shoulders.

    Anxiety rising to record levels, Xander worked to force his useless legs into compliance. I think?think maybe I'd better ignore the pain and get to my feet.

    "I think I know how to make the pain go away, hon?" Willow remarked pensively.

    Squirming to right himself, Xander looked up at the two women. It's not working, and I have a really bad feeling that's the start of a tiny little smile on Tara's face, he pondered, curling into a tight ball.

    A wicked smirk washed over Willow's features as she spoke, "I think I want some vengeance."

    "Well then?in that case?your wish is my command," Tara replied. Mopping tears away with her sleeve, she peered at Willow. Her expression changed to match her partner's as she turned her attention to the boy.

    Xander chanced another glance up.

    Oh god.

    ***********

    Appearing elated, Warren intoned in an official sounding voice, "Faith-bot reports that Xander is out, repeat: Xander is out. She's on her way back."

    Shaking his head, Spike sighed and rolled his eyes. Warren's such a ruddy git?brilliant, but still a git? No idea whether he actually buys the line of rubbish he bangs on about. Doesn't rightly matter much?because all he wants to do is wank about with his toys.

    I'll give it up to the bloke he did face Buffy once. Though, the only reason little ponce in't dead is because she was putting up airs to get his merry little band of pillow biters to jump sides. Andrew, that blithering poofter, actually did, and it took her all of an absent heartbeat to bleed him dry the moment the others turned their backs. Better her than me?bet he tasted like shite? Drawing a ciggy out of the pack in his shirt pocket, Spike tamped it on the table in front of him. He slid the smoke neatly between his lips. Leaning back in his chair, he fished his Zippo from his front right jeans pocket. A click and a flip produced fire from the worn lighter. Seconds later a cloud of smoke exhausted from his lightly pursed lips.

    Spike shot to his feet, striding over to the doorway. He leaned against the frame, taking a heavy pull off his fag before he spoke. "Right?good on you, Warren? Now that Casanova's down for the count?we can actually get on with it. Boy was a bloody inconvenience," he commented in an encouraging tone. Yeah?team white hat here is far too fem to have basement boy lurking about picking us off one dolly at a time. Hard to concoct a plan that wasn't tantamount to suicide with that prat lurking about to bugger it up? No disrespect to the ladies of course?just the facts? Sort of makes a bloke wonder if the jacket would've worked on our tribe of Nancy boys? I wasn't up for testing it out?but it might've been a laugh riot to watch?

    Pacing across the same piece of carpet she'd tread fifty times prior in the last hour, Faith directed in an annoyed tone, "Don't bring that walkin' pile of scrap back here yet. We still need ta know what B's got planned for the scythe."

    Grinning wryly, Spike shot the slayer a look. Right?that and you want to see your likeness in pieces. Give it a rest, Boston? Wonder what other programming the propeller heads put into their latest gadget?leads a mind to wander?

    Glaring at Faith, Warren grumbled, "Hey, I spent days on this thing. I'm not gonna have it destroyed because it makes you nervous. We're going to need everyone when the end goes down."

    Protective of his toys, isn't he? Spike mused to himself. No doubt he gave her the deluxe package?all the extra bits?be a crying shame to see all that hard work go up in smoke. Breathing out a pull off his cigarette, he watched the cloud trail off into the room.

    Still marching her path, Faith began to rant, "We need real bodies too, Warren. Not just Miss Erector Set. Maybe that thing can take out a vamp or two, but Buffy'll smack it once with the scythe and it'll blow all its fuses. You just want..."

    "Fuses," Dru interrupted so briskly it almost made Faith jump. "So old-fashioned? Warren is so much cleverer than to use fuses."

    Glancing at Drucilla, Spike gritted his teeth to bite back the internal tension. She's been so...different since Prague, as though almost getting caught by that mob shook her out of the fog. Part of the way, at least?and then a little further, later.

    "Buffy hates it when he tinkers with his toys, because they come in so handy," Drucilla commented, proudly regarding Warren.

    Brooding, his eyes fixed on a blank patch of wall, Spike reflected, It'd be nice to believe this were sanity?to sooth my nerves with a lie? I'm too much the realist for that?don't lie that well?least not to myself? Her version of reason is bloody buggered?as if she's teetering on the edge?fencing with the inexplicable desire to go arse over kettle. Calling her behavior erratic would be a kindness at best . Shaking himself from his reverie, he made his way back to his chair, brutally crushing the cigarette butt into the ashtray on the table.

    "Muscle is so handy when you need to lift and carry, but toys..." Drucilla prattled on, casting a reproachful look at Spike.

    Staring at the table so to avoid meeting Drucilla's gaze, Spike offered in a tone he hoped not too hollow, "Right you are my black goddess?new toys change everything."

    Peering around the room, Spike noted that everyone was intently glaring at him. Somehow the conversation had shifted from the bot to Dru and everyone's on the right page, but him. Bloody hell, people, what did you want me to do?! If I hadn't led The Initiative to her, she'd have eviscerated us all years ago. I just wanted her back. I thought their sodding chip would be like having a soul. How was I to know it'd be like this, with her taunting me at every step, watching our every bloody move and waiting for one of us to slip? I just wanted her to see me the way she used to, before those wretched gypsies cursed me. I just wanted her to love me again.

    Leveling his gaze at Faith, Spike said in a low almost dangerous voice, "Sorry Faith, we keep the bot. We keep it and fight it till all the fight's gone out of the sodding thing. Just like the rest of us. Dru's right; we can't afford to leave out any weapons, no matter how barking mad they may seem. Hell, I'll carry the freeze ray." He watched as attention shifted to Drucilla, then back to him, because using her was the most crack-brained idea of all.

    Drucilla snickered, sliding a razor-sharp fingernail down the back of Spike's neck, drawing blood. "Thank you, my darling, Spike," she purred into his ear, her nail trailing down, slicing into his shoulder. Smiling mischievously as her mate flinched away. She nuzzled into his neck, wiping the blood onto her face until she looked like a small child who's gotten into the candy.

    "Dru loves watching them hurt," Spike whispered softly to himself . Be careful what you wish for, Spike. Be careful what you bloody well wish for, because you just might get it.

    ***********

    Jonathan wrenched his eyes away from the train wreck at the big kids' table. Even a crazy monster gets her say around here, more than me. Me, I'm a junior-league sorcerer who can maybe hold Amy's hand in case she needs a little extra juice. At least she listens to me, and usually passes it on. "We still don't know what Buffy wants with the Scythe," he muttered, watching as Amy turned her attention to him. The others are all so busy jockeying for position it's a wonder we aren't all as dead as Andrew. They don't even know I've spoken, he reflected, glancing at the others again.

    Giving him a pensive gaze, Amy noted in a reserved tone, "I know, Jonathan, but it's got to have something to do with what we heard her tell the 'bot. She said she'd make Faith be on her side. Not Xander's side, hers ?or she wouldn't have talked about having to give Faith to him. She'd have been loyal to Xander, not her; you heard how the other two acted." She pulled up a chair, taking the seat next to him.

    "And what about the 'sucking the whole world dry' part? It's got to be some kind of vampire thing, but she said she wasn't planning to turn Faith," Jonathan remarked, sensing the muscles under his left eye beginning to twitch. It's easy to pick up nervous tics around Sunnydale when you're trying to fight the good fight. I'm lucky that imagining a vampire/slayer doesn't leave me shivering in the corner. That wouldn't be heroic at all.

    "I don't think it's literal, but that much of an exaggeration over two vampires? I don't buy it. She's got something else going on. And, specifically, she said she wouldn't fight Faith, not that she wouldn't turn her," Amy replied, peering sympathetically at the young man.

    "Yeah, but how the heck do you turn a Slayer without fighting her first? She'd beat any vampire to a pulp if it got close to her neck," Jonathan retorted, struggling to keep an even timbre to his voice. If we're overanalyzing this, I'm going to kick myself in the morning until I'm bruised, but everything about what we've heard seems kinda off somehow.

    A pitying smile crept over Amy's features as she regarded the young man. "Well, they don't have to go for the neck." Taking in the scornful look Jonathan returned her; she shrugged, adding, "We'll work it out. Or maybe if we're really lucky Drusilla will just tell us."

    Putting on what he hoped looked like a confident smirk, Jonathan offered in a hushed tone, "Drusilla lies like a dog?and that's when she knows what she's talking about." Glancing toward the female vampire, he watched as she macked on Spike, who appeared weirdly bored. Realizing a moment too late the he'd managed to pique Drucilla's interest, he nervously averted his eyes. "We need to find out what she really knows."

    "Well," Amy said with a shrug, "I think I've figured out how to do that."

    ***********

    Being a justice demon is all about empathy. That's why I'm so good at it. And why some people-who shall remain nameless-were so bad at it. The job isn't about inflicting random pain; it's about giving people what they deserve. You have to understand them. You have to feel what they feel.

    Some people wouldn't expect me to understand that. I think I'm unique among my kind-I was born this way. Justice isn't the sort of thing that helps you keep a committed relationship; you have to be dedicated to your calling, not to any one person. My mother-fortunately for me-didn't get started until I was on the way. So D'Hoffryn changed me along with her. As far as I'm concerned, he's my father. Again-to hear mother tell it-fortunately? Anyway, I didn't choose this, didn't seek it out like the others. But I was born to it. I was raised for it. It's who I am.

    That's why I'm at a bar. Although after...well, no. Xander's got nothing to do with it. I just like to drink. It helps me be creative. And it helps to get people drunk, too. Most of the time, people try to hide what they're feeling, like it's something shameful to be angry when you've been hurt. This way, you don't have to dig for it. They let it out. Like Janine here. Fiddling with the little paper umbrella in her drink, Tara diligently peered at the woman across the table from her.

    "I mean, come on! What year is this anyway? What state is this? They don't have any right!" Janine spat, taking a healthy slug off the fruity concoction in front of her.

    Tara cast the paper umbrella aside. Taking the young woman's hand, she offered in a supple, caring voice, "No, they don't...and it's not about time or place, either. What they did would have been wrong no matter when or where they did it, Janine. The two of you have every right to be together."

    "It's not fair! They made fun of us, made fun of him, because he was dating me, because he was dating a white girl. They slashed our tires and...and...wrote all that awful stuff on the windshield. What kind of idiots, what kind of racist scumbags, what..." Janine trailed off, sobbing.

    It could have been worse. Even here in Sunnydale, which is pretty easy-going for a small town, it could have been much worse. Racists suck. Bigots in general suck. Well...mean people suck. But that's sort of going beyond my portfolio. At least neither of them got beaten up. Except emotionally, and that's what counts anyway, Tara considered. Fishing through her purse to retrieve a tissue for her client, she passed it off.

    Janine mopped at her eyes with the Kleenex. Continuing in a raspy, broken voice, she said, "He said he was going to call the police, have them arrested, and they just started pounding on him."

    Okay, forget the ?it could have been worse' part. I spoke too soon. I'm beginning to hope we're not building up to ?I tried to help him up, and he wasn't breathing'. It happens. Gazing attentively at the young woman Tara prodded, "Janine, hon, is he all right? What happened? And has he seen a doctor? Sometimes that sort of thing...it leaves damage you can't see."

    Sniffling, Janine continued, "I started to freak out, started screaming, and somebody heard me. I think they were calling the cops...the scumbags got spooked and ran. We went to the hospital, and they said he was going to be all right, he had a couple of broken ribs but nothing worse."

    Considering her client thoughtfully, Tara remarked, "Janine, he's not going to be all right. Well, physically, if the doctors said so, but these...these people, they'll come back. Did you tell the police about them?" I've seen worse cases than this. People beaten to death, whipped, dragged behind trucks...all because they were born different. Like me. Everyone deserves better than having this happen to them. Hopefully she'll make a good wish. People wish what's in their hearts, and sometimes that's not really what's best for them, but they have to go through the lesson and learn that on their own. You can't judge a person for being angry when they've been treated like this.

    Ignoring Tara's question entirely, Janine snarled, "He left me! He said he couldn't take any more and he walked away! I thought he loved me!"

    Ouch...this one could get complicated. That wasn't a good decision on his part, but I don't really want to hurt him more, Tara reflected, sighing softly, she offered aloud, "He's just afraid, sweetie...he's afraid it would have happened again. Afraid it will happen again, even now. I'm sure he loves you, and he's not the one to blame for this." With any luck that'll deflect her . Pausing for a moment, she prompted again, "You did talk to the police, right?"

    Appearing crestfallen, Janine replied, "I did, but they're not going to do anything. Not really. They said there
    wasn't any way of making it stick, that a lot of people get hurt or die in this town and most of the time there isn't anything to show who did it. It'd just be my word against theirs."

    Tara sighed again, louder this time. Not true, not if there were witnesses. How deep does the rot go in this place, anyway? Never mind that...I know how deep. I saw it for myself. Speaking in a pensive, even tone she instructed, "You should talk to the police again, Janine. Get your family to go with you, put some pressure on them. This isn't right, and you ought to be able to make it stick, if you push a little. Not all the police here are bad. They're just...really, really busy." Which is true-all manner of demon-related killings around here. But they ought to have some idea by this time which kinds are which. I've met plenty of demons who were anti-human, but never one who cared about skin color. Unless it was green, or something like that?

    Tara watched as the young woman slumped. Probably her family isn't well-connected, or doesn't have money. I'm starting to think she won't wish. Maybe I should talk to Mayor Giles. He could do something.

    "It won't help. We...we can't do that sort of thing. My family tries to keep up appearances, but we really don't have much money. I just wish I were able to hurt those guys the way they hurt Danny. I wish I were strong enough," Janine reflected, beginning to weep again.

    Okay...I have to admit I wasn't expecting that one. I've never been big on the face-punching; even with Buffy around, I forget sometimes that women get violent too, Tara considered, putting an arm around the young woman's shoulder. Some of us go in for the big shock, but this one needs a little bit of subtlety for maximum effect. "Don't worry, Janine," she said in a soothing tone, "You will be. You'll be strong, really strong, and you'll get through this." Of course, she thinks I'm talking about emotional strength-which, as far as I'm concerned, she already has in spades, the vengeance demon reflected, watching as her client cracked a weak smile, through the tears. She'll find out differently in the morning. Female Fyarl demons are even tougher than the male kind. And I've added a little something to be sure she finds the right people. She should have a great time with them.

    Let's hear it for justice.

    ***********

    My arms aren't working. I think Buffy's broken them.

    It's hard to tell because she hasn't exactly given me time to run a full system diagnostic. She's holding me by the back of my neck, shoving me along. We were in the tunnels at first. I think we're getting close to the Mayor's office.

    Mayor Giles is a sorcerer, maybe part demon. He tried to Ascend four years ago, and Faith stopped him. At least that's what my Heads-Up Display says. It's always weird to be reminded of that, because he's so nice all the time. I think I hear him singing?and playing an instrument. It takes almost fifteen seconds for my HUD to remind me what it is, and I'm starting to get worried until I see that it's an accordion. The note says polka is a strange kind of music that nobody likes. I wonder why it exists, but my files don't have an answer.

    "I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me!" Giles crooned in the distance.

    "He's just a poor boy from a poor family, spare him his life from this monstrosity," followed a nondescript, female voice.

    That's not Giles' voice. It's a girl. It must be Dawn. The Faith-bot checked the audio patterns to be certain. My files on Dawn say she doesn't like polka, but likes to sing with Giles anyway.

    "Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?" Giles cut in, singing his part with gusto.

    "Bismillah, no! We will not let you go!" Dawn accompanied, loudly enough it could be heard through the thick door.

    I don't think I understand this song. My memory banks don't have ?bismillah' listed as a word, and now Dawn is contradicting herself, the Faith-bot considered, appearing perplexed.

    Clearing her throat to announce herself, Buffy kicked the door open, wrestling the Faith-bot inside the room. Glancing from Giles who was sitting on top of his desk with his accordion; to Dawn who was is in his chair, she remarked, "Hello? Do you actually do any work in here, or just sit around and sing Weird Al tunes?"

    Regarding Buffy, Giles sighed impatiently. "Unlike some people, I do have a personal life, along with time for the little sisters they create on a whim and then discard. I see you've managed to capture Faith at last. Congratulations? Might I have a moment alone with her? She deserves considerable suffering, and I've been waiting quite some time for you to get around to her."

    Buffy rolled her eyes at Giles. "It's not Faith, Mr. Sarcasm. It's the robot."

    Noting her HUD was informing her that her cover had been blown for some time and she should tell the truth, the Faith-bot remarked in a contemptuous tone, "Not that she realized it until it was way too late. I kicked Xander's ass, and now B has no idea how to get the real Faith. Sucks to be her, huh?"

    Smacking the bot upside the head, Buffy growled, "If I wanted your opinion I'd beat it outta you."

    Flinching in response to the injury, the Faith-bot reflected, Luckily my CPU and main memory banks are in my torso. Her HUD responded to the blow with the reminder that Buffy has no soul, and that's why she's vicious and evil all the time. Huh. I guess I must have a soul; I never thought of that before.

    Giles shrugged. "I don't know why I bothered reminding you about the boy, but I believe I told you repeatedly that he couldn't be trusted. Dawn told me she no longer had a crush on him; I assume your current unpleasant attitude has to do with the breaking of the spell?" he offered, appearing amused.

    "This has nothing to do with Xander," Buffy snarled, her features shifting as she spoke to reveal the demon inside.

    Her vocal stress patterns indicate she's lying , the Faith-bot calculated.

    Tossing the bot aside, Buffy growled, "'Cept the bot's right. Without him, I haven't got a clue how to get Faith to come to me now, or to control her until..." Pausing to consider the Faith-bot, she amended, "You know. This thing has a radio hookup. I don't know if they hear what she hears or if she just transmits part time, but we shouldn't discuss some things with her around."

    "So why'd you bring her?" Dawn asked in a scathing tone.

    I don't recognize the emotional pattern in Dawn's words. She sounds condescending and sarcastic at the same time, the Faith-bot reflected, continuing to analyze the conversation.

    Continuing to dress her sister down, Dawn queried, "I mean, they sent her as a spy, and you bring her here? How stupid can you get?"

    "I've got to keep an eye on her, idiot! Giles, let's go to the other room. Watch the robot, you little brat," Buffy directed, annoyance dripping from every syllable she uttered. Opening the door to a conference room, she led Giles inside, leaving Dawn behind to sulk.

    Turning to regard Dawn, the Faith-bot remarked, "Buffy disabled my arms. I can't hurt you." Tilting her head in a gesture of curiosity, she inquired, "You know why they want Faith?"

    Dawn peered at the robot like it might be stupid. "I wouldn't tell you if I knew."

    Perplexed by Dawn's behavior, the Faith-bot queried, "Why're you so loyal to her? I know she's your sister, but sometimes sisters hate each other. It says so in my memory banks. You sure look like you hate each other."

    Kicking the Faith-bot in the shin, Dawn hobbled over to a chair and flopped down, holding her foot. "Ow!"

    I could have warned her that would happen , the Faith-bot determined.

    "She's the only one who's ever going to figure out how to turn me back. Well, her and Willow, maybe?and Giles. If I turn on them, I'll get old in this body and die," Dawn whined, still clutching her injured foot.

    "Oh," the Faith-bot commented, trying to grasp the concept of what it might mean to a corporeal life form to die. Analyzing the data from her HUD as it displayed Dawn's age, she reasoned, "You're only seventeen. You should have a lot of years before that happens."

    Glaring at the Faith-bot momentarily, Dawn remarked in an aggravated manner, "A lot? Fifty or sixty? I wouldn't want to get that old anyway. Do you even know who I am? I'm supposed to be a goddess, and I don't even remember it, except what I'm told. I'm supposed to live forever. I'm supposed to be pretty forever." Her mood shifted to pure sulk as she drew near the close.

    "Your real name is Glorificus," the Faith-bot replied, almost mechanically reacting as the data flashed to her HUD. "You can't change back because Faith killed Ben. Ben was the Key." I'm not sure what the Key is, exactly.

    Dawn groaned, appearing annoyed again. "I know all that, stupid robot. Buffy will find a way, after she takes over the world. She knows if she doesn't I'll stake her in her sleep."

    "Are you sure you want to be Glorificus? If you don't remember what she was like. Maybe she's not even you. Maybe...maybe you're you," the Faith-bot commented, a pensive look playing at her features. I don't know if that made sense. Sometimes people say I don't make sense, and now Dawn is looking at me the way people do when they say that. Continuing to analyze the problem, the Faith-bot offered, "What if Glorificus doesn't remember you any more than you remember her? Wouldn't you just be dead faster?"

    Dawn shrugged. "Not if she doesn't let me be dead."

    I'm not sure how to respond to that. I'm not really sure what a goddess is. Maybe they can make people not be dead, the Faith-bot reasoned, stretching the limits of her programming to grasp for answers.

    Kicking the door open, Buffy stomped into the room, followed closely by Giles.

    She does that a lot, maybe it's part of not having a soul. The Faith-bot leaned to one side as Buffy yanked at it's hair to drag it close to her. Luckily this doesn't hurt. I have no pain sensors there. Giles looks tired. I don't think she's ever really going to help him try to Ascend again. Or help Dawn change back. I guess that's good. But they shouldn't trust her.

    "Listen to me," Buffy said, "and listen good. The real Faith, I mean, so if you're not transmitting, bot, start now. I want to see you at the vineyard tomorrow. You don't want to come? Fine...I'll contaminate the Slayer line without you. You think I'm bluffing? Maybe I am. Do you want to take a chance on that? I've got a potential Slayer, and I've got the scythe, and personally I think that's all I need."

    The Faith-bot sent the message in a burst transmission to Warren's console. I don't know what Buffy means, but it's probably something evil.

    Ripping the back of Faith-bot's shirt up, Buffy wedged the cover to her power pack open. "As for the robot...consider it scrap."

    I really, really hope I'm right about having a soul.

    ************

    Spike is running? Running and running and running and? Running to save the world? Running to save the girl?

    "You're an idiot, you know that, William? You fall for the same tricks over and over."

    Someone is standing in the distance. The faster Spike runs, the further away the someone gets. Yet the someone is not moving very fast. Dreams are strange things.

    The someone is wearing a robe. The someone steps forward. The someone picks up a goblet. "I will drink," the someone says. "The blood will wash in me, over me, and I will be cleansed. I will be worthy to free Acathla. Bear witness as I ascend." The someone drinks from the goblet. The someone gags, then swallows it down. "As I become."

    "Nice book you found, William. You always did like books. Funny how you weren't listening when I told you I wrote the book on Acathla. Too bad." This is not the someone's voice. This voice is different. This voice is pleasing.

    "Everything that I am, everything that I have done, has led me here," the someone says. "I have strayed, I have been lost. But Acathla redeems me." The someone's voice quivers. The someone doesn't like these words at all. How disgusting. "With this act, we shall be free."

    "You don't get to control it, get rid of just the parts you want. You don't close the portal, the whole world gets sucked in. You do close it, it's like nothing happened. Except you still lose her." This is Angelus' voice. "And the funniest part? You're too early. You could've had a whole extra year with her, figured out a real way to stop the Ascension. Face it, William. I played you for a fool. That's what your soul got you. An eternity of pain, no matter what."

    The someone's hands are bleeding. The someone takes another step forward. "Acathla...Mundatus sum pro te necavi. Sanguinem meum pro te effundam quo me dignum esse demonstrem." The someone's name is Kendra. Kendra grabs the sword.

    I want to watch, but the dream begins to spin and break apart. Spike wakes up screaming and shaking. I reach up and take his arm. I brush his tears away. "Shh...shh...I'm here, Spike. Mummy's here."

    I hope the someone is still suffering. She tried to take my prince from me. I hold Spike until he stops shaking. I hope she hurts forever. Maybe if she does, he can stop.

    ***********

    Buffy's kind of cute when she's frustrated.

    Okay, I admit it. Buffy's always cute. It's hard to believe she's a vampire except when she's got her fangs out. Not that that isn't part of the attraction. Then there's the whole forbidden fruit thing-she looks like she's about fifteen, naturally or unnaturally enough, though of course she's seven years older.

    I shouldn't be watching her, of course, considering that I'm being kissed rather thoroughly. But I'm just not a one-woman sort of girl, sad to say. Fortunately Tara is...accommodating. Unfortunate [wbr] [/wbr]ly, Buffy isn't.

    "Will," Buffy snarked, "could you please turn down the lip-smacking?"

    Winking at Tara, Willow released her, offering in a silky voice, "Are we distracting you, Buffy?" Punctuating the thought, she flashed a bright smile at the irritated vampire. The result wasn't everything she might dream of, but it was what she expected.

    Buffy's eyes flashed golden, briefly fixing her attention on the witch, she produced a low feral growl. "I'm trying to study, Willow! Can't you do that in some other room?"

    "Since when do you like to study?" Willow asked sweetly.

    "Since I started having to figure out important rituals," Buffy snarled. Pausing to regard the witch with mild contempt, she added, "I screw this one up, I could end up...I dunno, with a soul or something. How would you like that?"

    "Might be kind of interesting," Willow reflected softly. True enough. She might feel even guilty about constantly breaking my heart. A girl can dream, anyway.

    Continuing to peer intently at the pages, Buffy half ignored the witch. Commenting dryly, she remarked, "Oh, for...get your mind out of the gutter, Will. Think about something besides the evil bloodsucking fiend. Focus on anything but the evil bloodsucking fiend, okay?"

    Trilling a little laugh, Willow asked, utterly deadpan, "Like what?"

    "Well, there's the evil wish-granting fiend. You know...your actual girlfriend ," Buffy noted, the final word catching in her throat.

    Noting the stutter Willow mused, Funny how she can't quite spit that one out. It's annoying, of course?and yet somehow attractive, in a challenging way.

    "Hello," Tara offered in a mock-cheerful tone, twiddling a small wave to get the witch's attention.

    She's right. I wouldn't mind going back to making out , Willow considered, noting that Tara sounded vaguely offended. And it's not really about me?she's that way a lot around Buffy.

    Willow murmured, "Be right with you," giving Tara a quick kiss. "Buffy, I don't know about you, but I want the taste of Xander Harris out of my mouth. I totally understand that you're freaked - I'm not all sunshine and roses myself - but it might help. If not us, maybe you should get out and find someone you like."

    Glaring at Willow with golden eyes, Buffy began, "I want..." stopping herself mid-thought, a disgusted look infected her features.

    She must have been about to say something vampire-y about Xander and blood in her mouth, and realized it didn't work, Willow considered, restraining the snicker.

    Trying again, Buffy growled, "If I never so much as think about a man again, it'll be too soon." Realizing a moment too late just how much of her foot she'd actually inhaled.

    Unable to control the snicker this time, Willow quipped, "Works for me."

    Buffy's face flashed abruptly back to human - for a vampire, the closest thing to turning bright red? Growling to herself she buried her nose back in the spellbook.

    Le sigh , Willow reflected, fanning herself.

    "Leaving now," Tara muttered, rising to make her way up the stairs.

    Willow sighed. I think she's lost the mood. Darn. "If that's what you want, hon," she said, picking up her own copy of the spells. The ones I really should be studying anyway. Allowing Tara to guide her out of the room, she commented, "She's so bummed. Maybe we should give her the chance to take a little vengeance of her own on Xander. She can wish him back and torture him, then eat him for breakfast. What do you think?" There's a reason D'Hoffryn's cool with me.

    "I think you need to get over your Buffy fixation," Tara grumbled, dragging the witch down the hallway.

    Great! Now Tare's all grouchy and grumbly.

    Tara opened the door to their room, ushering the witch inside. "I don't mind...experimenting with you, it's fun, and Buffy does have a nice body, but I'm pretty sure she's not ever going to come around. I...you might say I have a feeling about these things."

    Willow remarked pensively as she entered the room, "I figured it out a long time ago, Tara, but you know what they say about people like that. Maybe with the right stimulus...."

    Shaking her head, Tara replied, "Let's not play Pavlov, Will. Not now, anyway. You know you have me ; can I please have your full attention for a little while?" Making her way to the bed, she kicked off her shoes. Grabbing a pillow, she curled it up under her chest, lying gracefully across the foot of the bed.

    Rounding the foot of the bed, Willow sat down, pulling off her boots. I'm so stupid. I guess I thought our own Xander wish was enough to make her feel better. She is a vengeance demon, after all. But instead I've been neglecting her. I'm such an idiot. "I'm sorry," she offered as Tara turned to face her. Brushing the hair away from where it's falling into her eyes, the witch turned sliding in next to her demon. "Of course you can," she whispered, peering deeply into her lover's eyes.

    Tara lips?soft, inviting and warm on mine, and I forget about Buffy. Almost, anyway?

    Withdrawing from the kiss, Tara purred, "When all of this is over, and we don't have to worry about distractions, I'll give you another wish. A little creative vengeance?"

    Tara must be reading my mind. Regarding the shift in her lover's appearance, Willow couldn't restrain a smile. And suddenly she's all veiny and scary-cute, the way that always sends creepy shivers up my spine.

    Leaning in close to the witch's ear, Tara said in a soft breathy voice, "After all...you could say she is my type."

    ***********
    Mabus
    evil soulless fundie
    Last edited by Mabus; 14-10-07, 03:28 AM.
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  • #2
    She was one-quarter of the Scourge of Europe. She's killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people. She's insane and a vampire. And she's been both for a hell of a lot longer than I've been alive.

    And she's crying on my shoulder?which is starting to go numb. She's nuzzled it a couple of times, too?or just gone rigid while she screamed for help. Sometimes she thinks she's in hell, and I've got to watch out for those fingernails while she bats at the flames only she can see. They're scary sharp, and even if for some reason I wanted to let her hurt me, I know what it'd do to her.

    Scarier still, I think this is a good sign. I think she's got her soul back.

    She's been slowly calming down while I talk to her. Jonathan's gone to tell Spike the ?good news', and to try and keep him away until she stops raving. I've explained to her a dozen times that, no, she's not evil, or doesn't have to be, at least. I've told her we're here to help her. I've pretended to be her "mummy", too. And someone named Edith, who apparently died in Prague. It'd take a lifetime or two and a whole hospital full of psychiatrists to sort her out-she's got that long, I guess, and more to spare-but I'm beginning to think that maybe at least she knows who and where she is, and at least halfway understands who we are and what's going on. But the shock...I haven't got a clue where her soul was. The easy answer, the obvious answer, would be ?heaven'. But I've never known a Drusilla who could have gone there, which makes it hard to picture.

    "I'm not evil," Drucilla muttered, appearing quite mad.

    This time she sounds disappointed, Amy reflected silently.

    "I'm not evil," Drucilla murmured again, trying to convince herself.

    This time, like a little kid in a candy store , Amy noted, trying to suppress the chilled that crept down her spine.

    Nuzzling into the witch's shoulder, Drucilla babbled deliriously, "It's bleeding, mummy, it's bleeding, and it makes me so hungry."

    I'm not bleeding anywhere that I know of, so I don't think there's any danger. Any more than usual, at least, Amy considered, trying to reassure herself.

    Pushing Drucilla to arms length, Amy worked to capture the crazy vampire's attention. Finally finding it, she intoned in a firm voice, "You're not evil," shaking Dru slightly to hopefully increase her lucidity the witch repeated herself. Hesitating for a moment or two, she added, "And we'll get you something to eat. It may not taste good, but veggies are like that. You do want to grow up big and strong, don't you, Dru?" I figure I may as well play along with the "mummy" role; it can't hurt.

    Drucilla made a sour face. "That's for the menfolk. Little girls are dainty and pretty and I don't want any veg-et-ables."

    Foiled by ancient history and gender stereotypes? Sighing deeply, Amy guided Drucilla back to her seat, taking the one next to her. Wait...of course. "Well, then you won't get any. But in that case, all we've got for you is blood. Sorry, um?sweet little Dru," she offered, trying to coat the entire issue with sugar and spice and everything utterly useless unless you're baking, which needless to say made her want to barf.

    "Blood?" Drucilla questioned, sounding disgusted. "I can't drink blood. That's...that's against the Will of God."

    Noting the change in Drucilla's expression, Amy hoped she might be getting somewhere. Funny, that her eyes lit up like it's Christmastime. Or whatever they had when she was a girl. Way to the girl's heart is obviously through her stomach. Now that's just gross?

    Drucilla's voice changed again, to something like eager awe. "Unless it's time for Mass? Is it?"

    It's not possible, is it? Reverence from Drusilla?

    "But we'll have to nick it from the cupboards. The priests don't give it to little girls," Drucilla revealed in a hushed tone like it might've been some huge secret.

    And back to craftiness, just like that. So many layers, Amy reflected, appearing intrigued. So help me, I think I'm starting to see what Spike saw in her. If this is what she was like...every day must have been an adventure, even when they weren't running from townsfolk with torches. I'd get tired of it- I'm already tired of it now-but for a poet, for the dark knight she saw in him, maybe this really was glorious. That's the word he's always used about her.

    "No worries, Drusilla. We've got it here already. The, um...the priests don't know," Amy offered patiently. I don't know how far I can run with this line of argument. My family's really seriously not Catholic. But the last thing we need is a crazy, starving vampire, even one with a soul, so we've got to work out something.

    Poking his head in the door, Jonathan said in a subdued timbre, "Um...Spike's getting kinda impatient. How is she?"

    Dru's head bobbed up to stare at the door, a dozen unreadable emotions flickering across her face.

    Sighing softly to herself, Amy considered, Soulless Dru loved soulless Spike, and at least halfway hated him cursed. What she'll think of him now...hell, for all I know she'll have reverted to modest maiden and won't look twice at him unless he proposes. But she looks about as stable as I expect her to get.

    "Bring him in, Jonathan. Tell him...tell him not to expect too much, but it looks hopeful," Amy offered bluntly. What I really want from her is information about what Buffy's planning, but Spike's told me she believed the Sight was evil. No way am I going to push her as much as I'd like. Unless the world is about to end, anyway?

    "No need," Spike commented abrasively. Shoving past Jonathan, he forced his way into the room.

    Cringing, Jonathan hastily took his leave.

    Poor Jonathan, all that hero junk, and it turns out vampires make him queasy. Not sure we'll ever get him over that, Amy mused, withdrawing into a remote corner of the room to watch whatever drama might unfold.

    "Dru, love...my beautiful ripe sweet," Spike offered lovingly, dropping to his knees, like a gentleman proposing.

    Shaking her head, Amy stifled a snicker. When they said chivalry was dead, they didn't take vampires into account.

    Meeting Drucilla's gaze, Spike asked delicately, "How are you, dearest?"

    "It's all blood, Spike. All the stars are swollen red and they're falling," Drucilla intoned dreamily, peering up at the ceiling.

    Cringing as she heard the answer; Amy cast a meaningful look at Spike, noting he seemed absolutely impassive. I guess he's used to this. Come to think of it, this is probably more like the Drusilla he used to know than she's been since we met.

    Watching Dru carefully for a moment, Spike turned to glance thoughtfully at the witch. "I've seen worse," he remarked. Silence lingering for a moment he finally added in a subtle reflective tone, "Thing is, you can shatter any rock if you hit it hard enough. But you can't break sand...only shift it around a bit."

    A pensive look washed over the witch's features as she silently reflected, Maybe the poet in him always understands her, now that I think of it. She's been broken so many times there's nothing left to break. Actually, kind of disturbing. Centuries of murder ought to leave a mark...but what can you do?

    Gently taking Drucilla's hand, Spike deferentially kissed the back in the style of the gentleman of old. Gazing up hopefully, he requested in a delicate tone, "Dearest...I come humbly, hoping only to catch a glimpse of your...undying love for me. You are always in my heart and in my soul, beautiful Drusilla. Will you not tell me the same?"

    It took all Amy's concentration not to roll her eyes. Sheesh?layin' it on thick aren't ya, Spike? And if it gets through to her, I'll kiss him myself. When she's not looking, that is.

    Squinting as if to extricate herself from an unpleasant dream, Drucilla cast a bewildered look at her suitor, asking in a hushed voice, "You...you seem familiar...William? Is it you?"

    Five seconds ago she was callin' him Spike, dammit. So much for crazy bein' romantic, Amy mused sardonically.

    "Have you come to take me home?" Drucilla queried pensively.

    Gritting his teeth Spike, offered sweetly, "It is I, William, and wherever we are together is home."

    Taken with the emotion behind William's words, and the feeling that her prince had come to rescue her, Drucilla began shower him with kisses.

    Averting her eyes, Amy started to edge toward the door . I've heard about these two lovebirds and what they're like together, more than I ever wanted him to tell me. About halfway across the room she heard Spike speak again.

    "I love you so much, Drusilla. I thought...I thought you would never look at me this way again. With love in your eyes, and not hate," Spike reflected joyfully.

    Drucilla sat silently observing her lover, noting the change in his expression.

    Starting to say something, Spike reacted to the sudden sensation that his insides are trying to become his outsides. Releasing a long drawn-out moan like something was boring a hole into him; he rose to his feet, clutching the sides of his head.

    The hell? Amy gazed at the scene not sure what to make of it.

    Drucilla stood over Spike like an evil queen in a fairy tale while he writhed on the floor. Her eyes glinted like sun on the ice. "William, whatever is the matter?" she asked in a mock concerned tone, utterly devoid of compassion. Pausing to enjoy the pain she was inflicting, she questioned, "Does my love not make you happy?"

    Fixed on the scene unfolding in front of her, Amy stopped to consider, I don't know what she's talking about, or what she did to Spike, but I know this much: there's no soul in there. All I did with that curse was hand her the rope to hang us.

    Peering up at Amy, Spike's face was awash with emotions, fear, pain, grief? "Run!" he howled urgently.

    Seeing Drucilla mirrored in Spike's visage, Amy resigned to the truth of the situation. I know it's already too late for that.

    Regret? A kind of dark joy?

    And hunger.

    ***********

    I'm not a hero. I never will be.

    Spike and Drusilla and Faith-they're the fighters-or were, anyway. Amy's the witch, the magic go-to girl?if she weren't all burned out from what looks like a failed spell. Warren's the inventor. He built most of the gizmos lying around the place, and the monitor cameras that let me know something's gone seriously wrong in Dru's room. And, see, that's bad. Because I'm pretty much all Amy's got.

    I could call Faith or Warren. By the time either of them gets back, though, Amy's dead, and most likely I am too.

    There ought to be something around here that would work. I say ?ought to be' because I'm not sure what it'd be. Amy had the failsafe syringe we always kept around; we figured if there was a problem, it'd be with Drusilla. Everybody always told me ?Spike's safe, he's harmless, he's got a soul'. So much for that? Syringe: out of reach. Freeze ray: probably effective on a temporary basis, but down for upgrades. Cerebral dampener: never finished the thing. We weren't sure it'd override Xander's magic jacket. Invisibility ray...

    Y'know, maybe I've got something there. Invisible vampires, bad idea, yeah, but the reason we never actually used the thing was the side effect. Nobody really wanted to risk getting demolecularized into mush. If I were sure it'd kill a vampire, and do it in one shot, I'd waltz in like Neo with gun blazing. But if it doesn't take Spike out in one shot, I've got an angry invisible vampire on my hands, and once again: two corpses for Faith and Warren to find.

    I'm running out of time. I'm running out of options. It looks like Spike's got ahold of Amy. I so need a plan. If only I'd ever managed to progress a little further with the mojo. I should've gone through with the freaking paragon spell, monster or no monster. We could've contained that. But I never got past the basics...levitation, a few simple glamors...hey, wait a second.

    I've got it. I hope. I really don't wanna die.

    One deep breath. The door's not quite shut so...big kick. Make it look like somebody impressive's coming in. Spike'll be busy, so Drusilla will come after me. She can't hurt me, but she can hold me till he's done, and I can't possibly break free. Yeah...here she comes; I guessed right, she's gonna grab. Time to play hero.

    Time to grab first. She knows better than to fight too hard-she might hurt me, and then I'd have her for sure. And for once I judge it right. One arm around her waist. The other holding the invisibility ray to her chin. It may kill her or not-but he won't risk it. Can't stammer. Can't show any sign of weakness.

    "Hey, Spike! D-drop Amy, or your girlfriend's mush!" Jonathan demanded doing his best to sound authoritative and failing miserably. Dammit, I stuttered! He's going to see right through me!

    "Well, what do you know?" Spike remarked, giving the boy an amused glance. He dropped the witch, turning on Jonathan.

    I don't believe it....he's pulling away! There're fang marks on her neck, though, and she's not moving. She might have fainted. I've got to hope she's fainted. She was pretty wiped out, and if she tried to use magic on him, maybe it was too much for her.

    A delighted smirk infected Spike's features as he stood regarding the impetuous hero. "One of you prats grew some nadgers after all."

    I don't think I've fooled him. It's hard to tell with the lumpies, but I think he's sneering at me. I'm an inconvenience. He may not even care if she dies. He's going to walk right over here, and he's going to kill me. I've failed. I've failed. I've...

    Breathing deeply, Spike relished the smell of fear pouring off his would-be adversary, "Crying bloody shame it's not the Slayer? Bloke's got a reputation to uphold, which believe it or not, is all cocked-up after this rot about a soul. But you'll have to do?least for a taste," he reflected, surveying Jonathan, it was an effort not to just burst out laughing. Pausing, he drew a hand to his chin, stroking his jaw line in a gesture of reflection. "Gotta give it up I didn't see this coming."

    With a look of deadly earnest settling over his features, Jonathan took another stab that the voice of authority thing. "Walk on outta here, Spike. Take Drusilla and leave. Nobody has to get hurt."

    Starting to laugh, Spike sputtered, "Oh, please. You seriously believe for one bloody second..."

    Watching the scene, trying his level best to stay focused. Jonathan grinned as Spike jerked forward. Just like he was stabbed?because he was? With the failsafe syringe that it took me three tries to float off the table behind him. Straight into the body-I wish straight into a vein, but nobody's that lucky-a big horse-needle syringe-full of holy water.

    Spike shuddered, gasping for air he didn't need.

    One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one-thousand? He's a tough old guy, Jonathan mused, watching as Spike dropped to his knees.

    Suddenly Spike burst into flames, raining ash over the carpet.

    I've just turned our second-best warrior into ash on the floor. We're doomed. We are so freaking doomed. Releasing Drusilla, Jonathan ran to Amy's side. I just saw how ?helpless' she is, but at least she can't physically attack me. Passing a hand over the witch's face, he felt her exhale. His next impulse, to check for a pulse cut short, he reflected, Thank God, she's breathing. I can't tell how much blood he took, but maybe she'll be all right.

    Drusilla began wailing up a storm.

    Jonathan resisted the urge to cover his ears and hide. As long as she's moaning and crying she's not attacking us. I think.

    Amy's eyes fluttered open. "Faith? No...must be...Warren." Oh, for...

    "You sure know how to bolster a guy's confidence, Amy." Jonathan remarked in a mock-snarky tone, watching as the witch squinted and blinked in an attempt to clear her eyes . I don't think she believes what she's seeing.

    "Hell, no....I'm dead, right? Jonathan?" Amy mumbled.

    Smiling down at the witch, Jonathan offered in a patient voice, "We're not dead, Amy. Spike is. Um...Drusilla's still alive, she's the one damaging our eardrums. I guess we'll have to kill her too. Er...if the rest of you think it's a good idea." I'm not sure what we're going to do with her. Obviously we can't trust her.

    "You've got to be kidding me." Opening her eyes fully, Amy squinted and nearly shut them. "Ow. Damn lights. Are you seriously telling me you stood up to Spike? You killed Spike?" she queried, still not grasping what occurred.

    "I'm sorry, Amy, I really am sorry, I know we needed him, I guess you'd have wanted to try cursing him again, I should've known, I'm such an idiot, so stupid..." Jonathan babbled, appearing ashamed. I've done more than kill Spike. I've killed all of us. We just haven't quit breathing yet.

    Reaching up, Amy clamped a hand over Jonathan's mouth. Shaking her head at him, she commented, "You really are stupid, aren't you?"

    Averting his eyes, Jonathan flushed. She hates me. Please let her just kill me and not turn me into a rat or something.

    "You saved my life, Jonathan. You dumb, geeky little runt...you saved my life" Amy remarked, dropping her hand.

    Jonathan's mouth fell open.

    Glaring at the young man, Amy asked bluntly, "Oh, come on. Do I have to put this in a way a movie nerd can understand?" Putting on her most cheesy dramatic voice, she intoned, "My hero," drawing Jonathan into a proper ?thank you' kiss.

    She's got to be delirious. That's it. She's delirious from blood loss.

    But you know...it feels good anyway.

    ***********

    This ain't how I wanted it to go down. Not much goes the way I want it to, though, so I'm about used to it. I wanted to bust in here, crack some skulls, dust some vamps, and then hit the town. Doesn't work so well on the big-league types, though. They have too many minions.

    We knew the moment I showed up, Willow would pull the same crap with me she used on the bot. Almost wish we still had it, not that I liked it-just useful with this brand of crazy. Freaky, how it was a good copy of me one second and totally spacey the next. Where was I? Oh yeah?Little Miss Bad Mojo and her walkin' bag a dirty tricks. Figures she'd go for the bondage spells? So I came alone-sort of. Backup, such as it is, waited till the big guns brought me inside and hopefully they'll be showin' up any minute now.

    Straining to look at Buffy, Faith queried curiously, "So?where's the kid? I thought you had a Slayer wanna-be on your hands." ?Course they've got me trussed up like a turkey on some kind of ritual altar-seriously bad news. I could break loose, given time, which they ain't gonna give me. Just hope they're not plannin' to slit my throat.

    Raising a hand, Buffy smirked. "Right here? Didn't say she was alive..." Wondered when she'd actually catch up. Quick bunch?team white hat? Sorta makes me long for an actual challenge?but not?

    Shit! Guess we walked into that one. Doesn't mean she wouldn't have found a way to catch me eventually, though, or make whatever-it-is work without me. She's just too damn smart, plus you get the extra bonus of her little pep squad.

    Drifting up behind Buffy, Willow began to massage her shoulders.

    Craning the take another peek, Faith couldn't help but snicker. And?so much for smart...at least when it comes to B, the witch is totally clueless.. .

    "Hey, Buffy...Tara's finishing up the last of the chanting. Five more minutes and you're on. The two of you should get with the bodily fluids thing," Willow said in a low breathy voice, slipping a jagged little knife down into Buffy's collar.

    Unable to resist the show, Faith tensed to chance another glance. Considering the scene, it occurs to her that Willow's going to start cutting off the shirt. She's mildly disappointed when the witch just drops the dagger and lets it hang. Well that coulda been funny?had promise? She noticed the dagger pulled the vampire's shirt down in the front. Might be she's coppin' a view.

    Her formed blurred as Buffy turned around to face the witch. Seizing her hand, she began to squeeze until Willow started to wince and try to pull away. Shifting to her demonic countenance, she growled, "Last warning, Will? I'm sick of this. Touch me one more time - any part of me - and pull back a stump."

    Still struggling to enjoy the show, Faith cursed her aching body. Bitch Queen's in game face, not that I think it'll help. Elphaba's one wickedly twisted chick? Probably thinks it looks cute. I'll give her this much?she's persistent?or maybe that should be ?obsessive'. Here's a clue?puppydog eyes not gonna cut it. At best, you'll just make her hungry.

    "Um...right...last phase in four, then??" Willow commented dryly. Seeming much less affected than she should have, she massaged her hand to get the feeling back, shooting Buffy a hurt look.

    Glaring back impatiently, Buffy dismissed the witch's display offhand.

    A wicked grin passed over Willow's face as she taunted, "Kiss for luck?"

    Snickering silently, Faith dropped her head to the altar. Geeez. I'm rooting for Buffy to kill her right now. Maybe it'll stop the ritual.

    "What part of 'stump' didn't you get?" Buffy snarled, displaying her fangs in an exaggerated expression to illustrate the point.

    Appearing genuinely hurt this time; Willow turned her back to the vampire and stalked off. Exchanging a look with the Tara as she took her seat by some diagrams painted on the floor.

    Raised her eyebrows at the witch, Tara returned the gaze.

    Glancing over at the couple who were easily in view from her current vantage, Faith began to puzzle. What the hell is going on? I'm reading a lot more dissension in the ranks than usual. Maybe Xander was more important to this bunch than we figured; so long as he was around, they all focused on him. If all we had to do was wait for them to break down, I'm gonna have to kill somebody.

    Buffy rose from her seat, making her way to Faith. Sliding the point of the knife along the palm of her hand, she made a fist, and blood began to well out.

    Peering anxiously up at Buffy, the slayer reflected, Vampires don't have circulation exactly, but they sure manage to make the blood flow when they want it to.

    "Your turn, F," Buffy commented dryly, kneeling next to the slayer, she brandished the knife for effect.

    Faith winced as the vampire drug the across her skin. I didn't think the bodily-fluids bit was going to be anything fun, but damn that thing is sharp. I think she got some of her blood in the cut. Can't turn me that way?but couple blood-sharing and vampire rituals there is no good here.

    Collecting the scythe, Buffy held the weapon by the bladed end with her injured hand, allowing her blood to coat the shiny surface. Returning to Faith, she forced the slayer's injured hand free of its bindings.

    Faith was absolutely certain she was going to die as she tried to watch over her shoulder. Dread building as she waited for the stake to penetrate her back. Instead the vampire simply forced the stake end of the scythe into her hand. The surface coated with the slayer's blood.

    Withdrawing Buffy held the weapon out, allowing Faith to watch as the blood began to flow in thin lines toward the mid-point of the scythe.

    Leaning down to whisper in Faith's ear, Buffy purred, "Welcome to my world, Slayer."

    "Thought this wasn't about turning me, B?" Faith remarked, looking completely befuddled. It can't be?is that all she wanted? Why go to all this trouble just for that? Doesn't need any ritual?just the whole big sucking thing?

    Casting the slayer a pitying glance, Buffy spoke in a low growl, "F, you have a majorly oversized ego, did I ever tell you that? Once again, not about you, though you do make a nice bonus. It's about what I got cheated out of. It's about power." Placing the scythe above the table, she watched as it floated an inch off the table. The weapon began to resonate, producing a low humming noise.

    Rolling again to try and watch, Faith queried, "So all this is about you wanting to be the Slayer?" The slayer struggled with herself, unsure whether she was making laughing or choking sounds. A vampire wants to be the Slayer?and Buffy?? Only, hell, if she's both at once...this job had better start comin' with benefits?

    "Think bigger, Faith. Think planet-sized for once. From now on, every girl who could be a Slayer...will be a vampire?and a Slayer. And best part here...totally under my control? I'm gonna wring the world so dry you could get more blood from a turnip afterwards. Oh, and Faith? You're included. My guess?? You're gonna love it." Buffy drawled, licking her lips, practically drooling.

    Faith was straining herself so hard to watch that her body started to tremble. It's a damn crazy idea?and if it works won't be nothin' in the world that can stop it?stop us.

    The blood trails on the Scythe trickled closer.

    I'm so dead.

    ***********

    Warren held up three fingers in plain view of his teammates. I'm looking forward to this. I finally get to throw down with her. Granted, she'll be using undead muscles and I'll be using a raygun, but hey, move with the times, right?

    Raising two digits in the air, Warren made eye contact with Jonathan. I have to admit he's a pretty clever guy. Okay, I did have to talk him out of that ?calciem temporis' spell or whatever it's called, but even that was a good idea. There's just no guarantee that the whole fight would count as a single problem, or just the first vampire. We might even have run into a cop with a few brain cells left to wonder why we're packing big gun-looking things, and then we've wasted the magics.

    Extending his index finger for the others to see, Warren clenched his hand into a fist, squeezing it tight.

    Jonathan and Amy return the gesture, only with a little more oomph.

    Propping himself casually against a tree, Warren relaxed and waited for phase one of the grand scheme they'd hatched to get underway. I won't pretend I don't understand magic; I know a fair amount about how it works. But actually getting it to work for me?that was the problem. I just don't seem to pack any punch. So I had to find other ways to fight evil. Guess that's life, right?

    Warren watched in amusement as it began to rain on the minions. Odd, huh, when there's not a cloud in the sky, but they don't realize anything's wrong until they start to sizzle. Well, they spotted some busted pieces of water balloons, but it wasn't enough to clue them in.

    The team watched the vampire minions writhed, clouds of vapor billowing from their undead flesh.

    Warren dropped his hand, and Jonathan and Amy let loose the remaining balloons. Holy water splattered in every direction. Completely harmless to us, but for the vampires it's like they're fighting xenomorphs, and Ripley's hiding in the bunker giving orders. He observed in amusement as several of the vampires scattered, forgetting what they've been hired for. That's what happens when you're evil. It's every undead monster for himself. The smarter ones know Buffy'll hold them to account, though.

    Watching as the savvier of the vampires retreated into the doorway looking for shelter, Warren motioned ?go' to Jonathan, tearing off across the lawn with the freeze ray in hand. Glancing over, he saw Jonathan keeping pace with the invisibility gun. I suppose we might as well call it a disintegrator gun now; it's not like we're using it for its intended purpose. From the test on Drusilla, vampires turn to dust, not mush, which I suppose makes a kind of sense, but it really doesn't matter. We amped up the basic power levels and whoomph! Instant death ray? The freeze gun's not as good, actually, though we did get around the whole icy arm bit. That last modification was the charm. I figured Short Round probably needs the better weapon. Levitating all those water balloons would've been enough to burn him out.

    Leveling on the first vamp, Warren froze his target solid. Watching as Jonathan exploded the group next to him, the two made short work of the remaining vamps. Packed in together like that the minions don't stand a chance. That's the thing about vampires, I guess. They may be smart, but with a few exceptions they don't adapt very well. Punching and kicking and wooden stakes waving around?? They get that. They're used to it being a little dangerous. Start shooting something that can kill them, though and they're toast. Or icebergs and invisible dust, in this case.

    Stopping at the door, Jonathan made sure the coast was clear and waved Amy forward.

    Warren watched the display of gallantry with mixed interest. They seem a little...different since Spike lost his marbles, but I haven't figured out quite what's going on with them. It can't be what it looks like. The holding hands is just a magic-sharing thing, and no way would Amy ever fall for the dweeb when I'm around. Anyway, she's our big gun now and we've got to conserve her a little. Warren cautiously edged into the main building of the vineyard, noting that the main level was absolutely empty he gestured the others to follow. Either they didn't expect us to get this far, which is possible-we'd never have fought our way through the minions barehanded-or they've got something nasty waiting in the basement.

    Scurrying for the trap door, Warren pulled out the pericam to take a look around. Lying on the floor to use the device, he peered through the lens. Damn, that's a lot of energy they're throwing around. The camera doesn't like magic, most kinds of technology don't, but it's too stupid to just shut down or burn out. It's hard to tell which energy flares are visible and which are interference, but really, it doesn't matter. Buffy's down there reading an incantation, the big red McGuffin is spinning around its long axis in mid-air, and Faith is tied so securely she might as well be frozen in carbonite.

    "Amy, can you interfere with what she's doing? Whatever the hell that is?" Warren queried, glancing up from his spot on the floor . Pretty obviously, we're late for the party.

    Gazing down at Warren, Amy described what she could sense in a pensive tone, "It's not just her, Warren. Not even mostly. I figure Willow's the real witch behind it, plus she's tied in to the Scythe and Tara's vengeance demon power. I couldn't even scratch that spell. We've got to get Faith loose before it's over."

    "Crap! Well this is really no good," Warren reflected, continuing to try and get a less obscured view.

    "Hey," Jonathan asked, sounding concerned, "where are Willow and her demon lover, anyw-?"

    Warren heard Jonathan's voice waver and dropped the pericam down the stairs. Failing in his attempt to right himself, he lay on the floor, watching as Jonathan's feet dangled. Tara's got him by the throat in a Byrne hold. That's gotta smart. He saw the invisibility gun clattered to the floor. Searching for an option, he considered, Well, I'll just freeze her...

    Aiming the freeze gun, Warren said, "Damn!" as made a rattling sigh. Glancing at the weapon, he saw that all its status lights were dark. Never mind that it doesn't take half as much energy as making things disintegrate into mush?

    Amy mumbled a quick incantation, casting an energy bolt at the vengeance demon.

    Cussing quietly, Warren frantically searched through his coat for a weapon. I've got way too many pockets in this trench coat, even if most of them do have something useful.

    Spinning Jonathan around in front of her, Tara used the boy as a shield to block the blast, smiling wickedly at Amy as he twitched.

    Warren looked up, responding to the sound of someone delicately clearing their throat. A figure from his worst nightmare was standing over to his left. Never have figured out why Darth Rosenberg scares me so much. She's out-and-out gothic with that black hair and pale veiny face, but truthfully, I think goth is hot. Except for her? Something deep down just insists she's going to be the death of me.

    "Warren, you naughty boy," Willow chided, giving the young man a glare meant to inspire shame.

    Pulling out the first weapon he located, Warren fired a maser pistol at the witch. "Crap! It's already dead," he spat as the piston made a little coughing noise. Tossing the gun aside, he resumed his search. The desperation of his actions building as the seconds ticked, he chanced a look up at Willow.

    Tara glanced at Willow to smirk, casting the limp form of Jonathan aside. Charging Amy, she took the witch off her feet and began the beating.

    Twitching her finger like a teacher lecturing a little boy, Willow smiled. "I know your secret, Warren. Hey, I get it; it's not like state of the art ever caught up with me either. All these nifty ideas and no components that can live up to them? So naturally you turn to magic. Your buddies find the quantum-mystical property stuff and you just slot it in like batteries. Very clever. No muss, no fuss, just smooth functioning hypertech. And I admit it was a smart idea, the sort of thing I might've come up with."

    "You wish," Warren spat childishly.

    Tara continued to methodically instruct Amy in the finer points of reason regarding the use of paltry magick tricks on vengeance demons.

    Unable to restrain himself Warren chanced a look in Jonathan's direction, noting that Amy was in big trouble and Jonathan was lying unconscious on the floor. At least he hoped that was unconscious.

    "You don't have the patience to think it through. If you'd actually tried to work with something people could use..." Willow snarled at Warren.

    Warren clapped his mouth shut involuntarily; sweat was rising on his brow.

    "No interrupting! Where was I? Trouble is, all that mystical energy? So easy to just take. And without it, your little gizmos aren't worth a shiny new nickel," Willow said, continuing her lecture.

    There's got to be something. Fumbling madly from pocket to pocket, Warren searched for anything, anything that Willow might be wrong about, while she closed in. Beam weapons, energy grenades, and...what?

    "No more robots, Warren. No more toys," Willow cooed, peering at Warren with sympathy in her eyes.

    A strangled little croak issued from Jonathan.

    Well, guess that's good?at least he's alive?for now , Warren reflected as he struggled against the rising panic.

    Tilting her head slightly to one side, her expression washed with curiosity as Willow queried, "No more friends. Just what do you have left, anyway?"

    In the bottom left pocket...not even time to take it out ...

    "This," Warren noted, swinging the weapon up in the wrong-hand, he fired right through the leather. Sounds a little like thunder, this close, not like television at all. Reeling as the recoil knocked him off balance, Warren struggled to recover. Feels like my arm's about to tear off. I didn't even have time to brace. All there is?is this little black mark on her chest. Warren gaped in disbelief as it began to turning to red. Trembling as he watched her eyes go wide.

    "Aw, f...." Willow gasped, collapsing on top of Warren.

    All the color drained from Warren's face as he tried to hoist the body off of him. He could see the blood all over the back of Willow's shirt. Looking up, he noticed that it was splattered all over Tara and Amy, too. Not like with a vampire, where it's ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Not clean, not pretty...I killed her. I killed a person. Still trying to get out from under the body, he realized his legs weren't moving. It hardly matters.

    Running over in nearly one deft move, Tara grabbed hold of Warren's coat, dragging him up to face her. This is it?it was a good run?

    The bloodless flayed skin of her face was drawn in a violent sneer, but Tara's eyes spoke of pain. She didn't have to look to know that Willow was dead.

    Warren was past panicking, he moved straight to completely numb as he looked into the demon's eyes. She knows. She's killed more people than I can count; she knows death when she sees it. Not like her power's all in the wishing, either. If she wants to rip my skin off, all she needs is her bare hands. The last thing you ever want to meet is a vengeance demon grieving.

    "I had t-to," Warren tried to explain; falling all over himself, knowing it didn't matter. "She was about to...she was..." Noting that Amy was saying something, he found himself unable to focus on it well enough to hear. At least she's alive. Maybe she can still pull this off while Tara takes me apart.

    "Shhhh," Tara whispered in a gentle soothing tone. "It doesn't matter why."

    "All that matters is you killed her, and that means you have to pay. Karma's a bitch, Warren. And I'm karma," Tara uttered in the same subtle voice.

    See you in hell, Willow. Counting down, three, two, one...

    Trying to register what was happening; Warren fell to the floor, landing on his hands and knees. He watched as Tara's dress drifted down next to him, trying to figure out what universe this made sense in.

    One of the dress sleeves twitched and a grey blur came streaking out. Unable to focus, Warren noted the movement and fell limp. Feels like, if the world ended now, I'm exhausted enough to miss it?or something like that.

    Warren heard Amy's voice echo from some galaxy far, far away. "Hot damn! I actually made it work!"

    ***********

    "...and heaven itself shall tremble, for the Beast shall be the Slayer and the Slayer shall be the Beast..." Buffy intoned, rushing through a handful of lines.

    Bit of a hurry there B?? Think it's 'cause magic makes her queasy-sorta feel the same way-mostly ?cause of whatever's goin' down upstairs. The cavalry's here, only I'm kinda thinkin' it's a bit late. Somebody fired a shot-a real gun, not one of the Star Trek toys-same time the blood trails met in the middle of the Scythe. Cute timing?this is gonna suck?

    Seizures racked Faith's slight form causing her to jerk violently at the ropes binding her. There mighta been some irony in that?bit busy to tell. Her body locked in an arched position, the pain was so intense she felt herself scream. The ropes snapped like thread as her body jerked again. Finally falling silent, she began to take stock of her condition. "Ow." Think I chipped a tooth. Maybe I'm dead or maybe not. Still wanna to rip Buffy a new one, so game's not over. Springing to her feet, she trembled. Whoa-kay?bit wobbly; it's still better'n I was hoping for.

    Watching out of the corner of her eye, Faith saw the Scythe flare bright red. Whatever that means, it's not stopping me , she shrugged internally. Slamming her shoulder into Buffy's gut, she lifted her up and back and into the rock wall. Listening in mild satisfaction as the vampire's head made sharp crack, hitting the ceiling as they moved. Odds of that putting her down for the count are way low. Taking one step back to let her drop, the slayer drew back her fist to break a few of those ugly teeth.

    Shaking her head, Buffy brought her knee up into the pit of the slayer's stomach.

    Faith folded over. Shaking off the blow, she growled, "Bring it, then." Drawing back, she got in a right cross to the jaw. This time there's no joking, no quips. Not even a weak pun. Playtime's over; this one is for keeps. We've fought before. Hell, when have we not fought? I know her moves, and she knows mine. Your typical bloodsucker has all the discipline of a rabid dog. Not Buffy; every punch is tight, under control. Prob'ly looks like I'm the vampire; I tend to let myself flow. Can't really make wild swings, but someone just watchin' might think I was.

    Shrugging off the punch, Buffy picked the slayer up, slamming her into the wall.

    Payback, I guess. She's gettin' faster?stronger. I can see it, or could a second ago. Laboring to get her breath back, Faith noticed what a waste of time it was. I'm not breathing. Maybe haven't been for the last fifteen seconds and I couldn't even tell. Feeling her heart stutter, she pushed off the wall. I'm dying right here on my feet and not even slowin' down for it. Being turned, without the intermission? So how come I'm not getting stronger, the way she is? Flying into a spinning kick?

    ...the bat cracks, it's a late game with the spotlights shining down and Shelley takes off, not noticing the ball's way gone, faster than anything human ought to be, let alone a little girl playing softball...

    Faith missed. ?Cause of-what the hell was that? At least it's in Buffy's head too.

    Staggering, Buffy nearly stumbled into the altar. Recovering quickly, she shook her head and snarled, delivering a powerful left hook that the slayer only narrowly blocked.

    Buffy's speeding up; I ought to see her blur, I think, only I can make out every twitch. I can see faster, think faster, but I can't make myself move. Mother?

    ?of all sunburns, spreading over her skin so fast she can see it grow, as Kennedy presses herself down against the horse's neck, urging more speed, more speed, and why did she have to be on vacation in England the one sunny morning of the year?

    Damn. Those things are distracting. B's gettin' used to 'em, too, or getting over 'em faster. I'm not. If anything, I think I'm starting to slow down, and it doesn't make any damn sense! Trying to deliver a sweeping-kick to Buffy's legs, Faith cursed as she leapt out of the way. It feels like I'm holding back?or being held back.

    Buffy seized the slayer by the shoulders, pulling back as she went for a head-butt, Faith slammed into the vampire's chin. Spinning the brunette hard, she delivered a knee to the slayer's kidney.

    ...into the wall. Ariel's been hit one too many times. This time she's fighting back. This time she sinks her teeth into Pop's neck, savoring his screams the way he always enjoyed hers.

    Reeling from the blow and the vision, Faith had to work to stay on her feet. They're the others. We're all changing, all of us at once. Some of us are gonna die, caught in the sun somewhere on the other side of the world, and it doesn't even matter to B. A hundred would be enough, and the way it feels there're plenty more than that. Demons where the demon-fighters used to be?

    And that's what's wrong with me? I'm not getting weaker. I'm freezing up 'cause I'm being taken over. The real Faith's fadin' out. Another couple minutes and I'm gone, nothing left but another monster out for blood and under her spell. Struggling to deliver another punch, Faith failed to connect. Fadin' like smoke, droppin' to my knees in front of her. Queen Buffy. She's got me. Watching as the Scythe shown blood-red behind the vampire, the slayer dropped to her knees.

    Placing her hands on her hips, Buffy sneered down at the slayer. "Huh. Guess it's over. Always thought you had more fight in you, F. Hope you enjoy kneeling." Rapping the brunette hard on the head, she growled, "Still in there? Well, let this be your last human thought, Faith. Bet it just kills you that you're gonna spend eternity as my slave."

    Click. It all slides into place, unnatural as hell, right as heaven, vampire, Slayer, and me, just me, all together, for that one instant. Faith? "Never!" she spat. Holding an impossible balance while thrusting upward with her legs, Faith grabbed Buffy and lifted, driving her up into the pointy end of the weapon behind her.

    Kicking just a second too late, Buffy's eyes grew wide, then wider as they vanished, showing the sockets behind them.

    Her dust settled over Faith as she staggered backward.

    The Scythe dimmed and clattered to the floor.

    Faith looked up to see Jonathan, Amy, Warren, all standing around her. Maybe I've blacked out for a few minutes. Maybe they made it down here during the fight; it's not like they could've done anything. I should get up, but for once I'm not hungry and I'm not horny. Just tired. Bone-tired. I beat her. She's gone. For good this time. I hope. And I'm still here, still me, so I guess the other girls must be too. I felt 'em when the Scythe fell, going back to sleep. The way they belong.

    "You all right?" Jonathan asked, appearing worried.

    Poor guy, always so concerned. One a' these days, somebody's gonna die and it's gonna kill him. Not today, though. Faith managed to look up. Was gonna say I'm fine, but the way they're lookin' at me...something's not just right.

    "Faith?" Amy squeaked, "Your face..."

    Something's way wrong. I manage to raise a hand to it. Not that I really have to check, from the looks in their eyes. No fuzz over my brows. Just lumpy ridges. And fangs. "Aw hell," Faith growled.


    Coda

    The look on her face...so awesome. Personally I wouldn't mind being a vampire. It'd be better than this. But if Faith hates it, great. She deserves every second she suffers for getting my sister killed. Again.

    Okay, so Buffy and me weren't always on great terms. And she sort of dragged her feet on finding a way to change me back. But I understood that; she was afraid of losing me. I didn't really want to lose her either. We're sisters, even if we weren't always, and I love her.

    If what Giles heard is right, Faith's having a rough time. I guess pig's blood doesn't exactly meet a slayer-vampire's recommended nightly allowance. She went around a couple of weeks looking like a famine victim before lifting a few bags from the hospital. Now she's signed on with one of those suck joints-which sounds sooo dirty-I bet that's driving her bananas. They have to watch her every second because she has trouble not taking too much. I love hearing it. Maybe she'll kill someone, someone human she'll actually care about. Stupid slayers. It's not vampires' fault they have to feed. Doubt this will clue Faith in, though. The enjoining spell didn't teach her anything either. Though that might have been stupid ghost-slayer's fault for killing Buffy afterwards?

    Giles is talking about adopting me. I wish we could find my dad, but Buffy freaked him out a few years ago and he's been hiding in Europe somewhere ever since. It'll be cool to be the Mayor's daughter. And maybe even cooler, if Giles' new plan works out. He says he might be able to cut short the time to the next cosmic alignment by switching demons. All those tentacles look much better to me than not having any arms. Apparently this Illyria-demon was a king once. Big step up from Mayor, totally sweet.

    I wasn't supposed to be at the vineyard. I'm glad I was, though, even if it did mean I had to find Willow's body and watch Buffy get dusted. See, I managed to find Tara before she scurried off. You'd think it would be hard to tell, but I guess the spell Amy used was meant for humans. Transformed people aren't supposed to be smart any more, but Tara is. She rearranged my cereal one day to spell out her name. That was kinda gross-yeah, she's Tara, but she's still a rat--so we've been using Scrabble tiles since then. It's awkward, but it's better than not being able to talk with her at all. It'd be so much easier if she could still grant wishes, but no luck.

    We've been making plans of our own; I don't know if Giles would approve and I don't really care. We're both sure there's a way to bring Buffy back. We did it before, after all. But there's no way I could capture five vampires by myself, even if I knew someone to turn Buffy again afterward, and Tara and I were two of the five closest people when Buffy died, so that's out too. But there's something. There's got to be something. I just hope I don't have to ask Giles for help. Some of these rituals take someone with real power. If I could just be Glory again?

    I'm thumbing through another book when Tara squeaks at me. She's finished spelling out a title and page number. It takes her forever to get anything across, and I just hate how exhausted she looks after long conversations. Poor thing. Weird, though...if I remember right the Taarn Grimoire is pretty basic stuff. Vengeance curses, mostly, but way below Tara and Willow's level. Even if the spell's something I can do, I don't see how it can possibly help.

    It's a vengeance curse all right. About the suckiest kind on record. I don't get it- Tara always said basic penance maledictions were sloppy, stuff no one with any self-respect used. They always fit the crime, but there's no creativity involved; the perp's subconscious mind does all the work.

    "Tara...do you think I suck this bad? I did help with bringing Buffy back last time. I'm not a total zero with magic. And what good is this anyway?"

    Squeaking loudly in exasperation, Tara labored to spell out the name, Warren.

    He's been depressed ever since killing Willow. Serves him right. I hate him. He's the one who should be dead, not her. She never did anything bad to him. I don't know what good putting this curse on him will do, though.

    Scurrying around, desperate to make Dawn understand, Tara's struggled to spell out, Willow.

    I'm still not seeing her point. Okay, they're connected, since he killed her, but...the only reason Tara ever said was good enough to use this sort of spell was that they can do things you don't have the power for. But since you can't control them, you have to hope what's on the person's mind is...related to what you want to happen. Oh. My. God. She can't be serious.

    We know exactly what's on Warren's mind. He'll punish himself by bringing her back somehow. And...I dunno...maybe she'll kill him. But we'll have her back. And with Willow we'll be able to call Buffy back too, piece of cake. Tara may not like it, but I bet Will's still crushing on my sister, no matter how dumb she has to be not to see it won't ever work.

    Snatching Tara up, Dawn chattered excitedly, "I love you guys! This is great!"

    Giving Dawn a sick look, Tara bit her finger.

    I must have been too fast. I forget she gets dizzy when I do that. We'll get them back. We'll get them both back. Not Xander, of course...and then we can change me back.

    And-teehee-Glorify my name in all the Earth.
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
    Out Now.
    Avatar by Barb
    Feedback is always welcome here.

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