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DeadWar 1.7 (Strangers on the Bus)

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  • DeadWar 1.7 (Strangers on the Bus)

    Disclaimer: All non-original characters are the property of Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy/etc etc. All original characters belong to me. Hands off! Er, well...ask first, anyway.

    Rating: PG-13

    Setting: Roughly 2 years post-Chosen

    Beta: KingofCretins

    "I will show you the fate of the people who pray to the Prophets as gods. But then you must tell me: To whom do the Prophets pray?"
    --Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Star Trek DS9: Millennium Book II: The War of the Prophets

    Gabriel seizes her hand and hisses, softer than any human can hear, "Not now!"

    "But I want to," Michelle responds in equal silence.

    The waitress turns away, yawning. It's an all-night greasy spoon they're in, midway through Nevada. Just as well they don't need to sample the food, only meet a contact of Gabriel's.

    "I'm hungry," Michelle states bluntly. "I need to eat if I'm going to get my strength back."

    "Yes," Gabriel sighs. "You do. But not now, and not here. You'll get something to eat, I promise." When they're alone, it's different. When they're alone, she's almost the same as she was.

    "You're such a wet blanket," she tells him. "Why not here?"

    "'There are more things in heaven and earth,'" he quotes, "and in hell too. A lot of them are dangerous to humans, the same as we are. Once, a long time ago, someone made a protector for humanity. One girl in all the world. Something like now."
    ********
    Janine's gone to a lot of trouble to make unlife worthwhile. A mixture of threats and bribes got electricity and cable (there's not so much call for running water) secretly hooked up to her new home, no charge. Add to that plenty of choice furniture: a bed, a comfy sofa, flat-screen tv, even a few objets d'art--nothing too tacky, of course. Greg doesn't care much for the vases, but never mind that; he's mostly beefcake, and if necessary a little help handling intruders. There's always someone who wants to move in on your territory.

    Someone like the skinny blond girl who just dropped in through the hidden door from upstairs. "It's polite to knock," Janine tells her, more out of habit than anything else. Not many vampires bother being polite, and there's really nowhere to knock.

    The blond girl picks up the remote, flipping channels through several screens of late-night movies and music videos. "I like your crypt," she says without a hint of the feeling that ought to accompany those words.

    "Very nice of you, dear," says Janine. "As you said, it is mine, and I'd like you to leave. I don't appreciate having guests arrive unannounced." She motions Greg forward with a finger. "It's uncivilized."

    With a rush of air, the blond girl disappears. That's the only word Janine has for it. One moment she's next to the bed, and then gone. A rustle draws Janine's attention, and she turns hastily to find the girl near a shelf full of china. Janine almost chokes; she's pulled that trick on humans before, but the tables have never been turned on her.

    "Funny," says the girl. "I didn't believe Spike about Slayer blood, but I guess he was telling the truth for once." Spike? That Spike? Slayer blood? What exactly is going on?

    "Listen here, young lady," Janine begins. She doesn't get the chance to finish; pain spiderwebs through her chest like cracks in window glass.

    "I like your boyfriend," the girl says, turning towards Greg.

    The world curls away like smoke.
    ********
    Everyone's rushing around arguing about what to do, planning, mapping it out, getting ready to fight. Connor has opinions, and he gives them, but he's never been the planning type. He's a doer.

    Who are they really trying to save, anyway?

    Finally he slips away out onto the balcony of the suite he shares with Dawn. He needs sun. He needs air, and time. It looks as if she needs the same.

    "Hey," she says from the railing. There's no way for her to know it's him--she's no Slayer--except that no one else really uses this space. "Got tired of talking?"

    "It's all been the same questions for the past hour. Like vampires would put up with being 'protected' by us."

    Dawn nods. "Sorta like the fox watching the henhouse? Um, that didn't come out right. But still--I think that's how they'd see it."

    "None of this feels right, Dawn." Connor stretches, popping his back, and leans over the rails next to her. "I know what vampires are."

    "Maybe more than anyone. I mean, your parents--"

    "Not what I mean. I told you about where I really grew up." The real story, or the basics of it, anyway, a little spotty with the false memories that seem just as real. And then the false story too--she'd laughed over that one. She understood.

    "Quor-Toth, the darkest of the dark realms. Which is full of little transparent squishy things that drink people from the inside." Dawn screws up her mouth. "Ick."

    "Not full of them," he points out, "or an old man and a baby wouldn't have lasted long enough there for me to grow up. But there were plenty of monsters around." She notices the way he's squinching his shoulders and moves around behind him, puts her hands on them. "There are two ways to live in Quor-Toth."

    "What do you mean?" Working at the knots.

    "Everything in Quor-Toth is...well, demonic. Not everything is just a monster, though. Being smart can keep you alive. There are, sort of, people there. Sort of. Some of them work together, trust each other with their lives, sometimes even lose themselves in the group, because they have to."

    "That's what you meant about Harmony, isn't it? Why you didn't want to turn your back on her?"

    He hangs his head. She doesn't understand. "Yeah, in a way. It's hard for humans to show demons that kind of trust, though. Especially ones like D...like Holtz. And then there's the other way to survive. The way the monsters live, even some of the smart ones. Steal anything, betray everyone, kill anyone." He stops there, then plunges on. "Destroy."

    "That's how Holtz raised you?" He hasn't told her this part before. He can see even beneath her sunglasses that her eyes have gone round.

    "As soon as I was old enough. Once he saw what I could do. And I was...damned good at it. To Holtz, anything that wasn't human was hellspawn. It deserved worse than you could do to it anyway." Dawn squeezes his shoulders, and hard. It's barely enough to make a dent. "Let's just say I was pretty messed up."

    "I can see why you hated Angel. And why you tried to blow yourself up after Jasmine."

    "It wasn't just that with Dad, but yeah...part of. Funny thing. Jasmine was actually when I was finally starting to get better. I decided Holtz was wrong, and she was good, and it didn't really matter how someone looked, even if they had maggots crawling out of their eyes."

    "You were right," Dawn tells him. He almost chokes before she can finish. "Jasmine wasn't evil because of how she looked. I mean, maggots, gross, but if she had actually been a good person, we should all have tried to get over it."

    "Yeah." He turns around, facing her. "Anyway, I've betrayed too many people to just turn on Harmony like that. Only, maybe I should have. She eats people too."

    "So did Angel. And she hasn't, not for three years now. She's been trying her hardest to be good, even when she kinda isn't."

    "But she is still a vampire. It's in her nature, like Dad says."

    Dawn brushes fingers along his left eyebrow. "You're the part-demon son of two vampires. I was made to destroy the universe. If that's all we are...if we can't be anything but our natures...don't you think we're both kinda screwed?"

    "Huh. Maybe we are."

    "Don't even say it."
    ********
    Willow's not paying attention to the big strategy meeting. She's fielded a few questions, but her heart's not in it. There's something else she has to take care of, and baking cookies isn't getting her out of this one.

    "Look, Chad, it's not her fault she's not some kind of dark warrior! Isn't that a good thing?" she says into her cell phone. Willow has priorities. Willow's going to do the right thing this time. If that means leaving the room while everyone else argues, so be it.

    "Isn't there some kind of work-around? Can you let her cheat? She wants this. She needs it! We can't go on having her lose her soul at the drop of a pair of earrings! Chad--!" Illyria is watching her, an uncomprehending but tolerant look in her eyes. As if Willow were a puppy nipping at her ankles--not that Illyria would allow that herself.

    "Don't make me go over your head, Chad. I can speak to your superior...who? Oh. Oh. I...I'll get back to you. I am not letting this go, you hear me!" She flips the phone shut. "Damn it!"

    "Who is his superior," Illyria asks, "and why does this news make you feel helpless? You are...a significant force in this realm."

    "Osiris," Willow says. "His superior's Osiris. We have bad stinky rotten history."

    "Osiris can be very stubborn. Perhaps he was chosen for that reason. Allowing mortals to cheat death produces insubordination."

    "You know him? Would you--?"

    "We will not. Cursing a single half-breed is not an effective use of our time. Moreover, you have not considered the import of your own words--that there is always a price to be paid. Has it not occurred to you that the trials, however unfair you perceive them to be, may be the best price available?"

    Illyria has a point, though Willow hates to admit it. She glares...then hesitates. "It's not a curse! We're talking about the full treatment here. Permanent soul, no take-backs."

    "If a spirit foreign to what you are were implanted permanently within you, would you not consider that a curse?" Her tone is so matter-of-fact that Willow's resolve shatters. Illyria could make him do it, Willow is sure. She could...but she won't. "Why have you left the strategic discussion?"

    "Because it's not going anywhere right now. Everyone's stuck on the same couple of ideas. I'm doing something that matters, even if it's just to one person. You gonna drag me back in?"

    "That is what I was requested to do. But we concur with your assessment. We have no interest in endlessly repeating the same arguments."

    "They're still talking about the same things, then?" Willow sighed.

    "I can hear them repeating the same words. They radiate the same emotions, also. If there is something else you would rather do with your time, I will not detain you further."

    Willow begins to nod, though she isn't sure what else she can do on her own now, and then something else occurs to her. Something she's been meaning to ask. "Illyria...why Xander? What's he to you? I don't like the way he treats you, but why keep pestering him when he hates you?"

    Illyria's face freezes for a moment before she begins, "I have told you that he reminds me--"

    "No. I don't buy that. Maybe it's true, but it's not enough, not for you. You're not that...that...petty." The question has nagged at her for months, ever since she noticed what the Old One was up to.

    The expression on Illyria's face might be a rueful smile. It might be a grimace of fear. Neither seems to fit the occasion or the ex-god. Eventually..."Walk with me, Willow Rosenberg. I suspect you will understand soon enough in any case. You are too perceptive," she says grimly, and strides toward the stairs.

    Willow hurries after her; Illyria never dawdles, except for effect sometimes. "Human myth," Illyria says, "speaks of a time when cockroaches will rule the world. How if you awoke to see that day? If they spoke to you? How if they offered you a place among them? Would you accept it?"

    "We're still insects to you, then?" It fits most of Illyria's behavior, but not regarding Xander. "I was kinda hoping we'd made it at least up to amphibians by now."

    The blue demoness halts, turning her head to regard Willow curiously. "We might have told such tales of humans. If we had had such tales at all. It was not from you that I fled into slumber. When Wesley spoke of humans ruling the earth, I saw that he believed his words, but I thought him deceived. Perhaps you were the slaves of the Wolf, Ram, and Hart, or of some other. Only in the gaps between us did you have room to cower, in our age."

    "You've said this before." It's the same old boast--You are beneath me. Illyria never lets that rest for long.

    Illyria moves forward again, toward the door to her room. Dawn, she has said, is welcome inside, but no one else. And Dawn has never been in there either. "I could crush you to pulp if I desired," she states, "while you would be lucky to injure me even with your sorcery. Beside my intellect, you can scarcely be said to think at all. Humans worshipped us, and we sometimes deigned to notice you. I am in every way greater than you, Willow Rosenberg, and all of your kind." She opens the door. "Do you see the flaw?"

    The red-haired witch stops to peer inside, but Illyria beckons her onward. "Flaw?" she says, trying not to squeak. Fred's bed is still here, but it has been shoved into a corner, seemingly unused. The walls have been repainted in broad, quivering streaks, in shades of midnight blue and indigo, and white flecks for stars across a narrow, ragged band of the black ceiling. No matter how Willow moves, and despite the adequate light, the illusion persists of some dark grotto beneath the earth. Three plasma screens flicker fitfully, their glimmer enhancing, rather than defeating, the image.

    "It is not clear to you, then? We had expected better of you." Willow's steps carry her a little further, revealing a tiny alcove behind the door. A table there bears what seems to be a black light lamp, and--of all things--a ragged stuffed rabbit. Illyria clicks the lamp on, and equations scrawl themselves onto the nearest wall in fluorescent hues. "Fred Burkle was your equal, I think. She would have seen it. The fallacy. This room is my domain. What lies beyond its door?" Illyria's voice is taking on an edge, a tone of something Willow can hardly credit. Something startlingly like misery.

    "The rest of the world? I...Oh!" Like suddenly seeing the truth of calculus. Or relativity. Or... "Humanity. Us."

    "Yes." Illyria bites off the word bitterly. "Humanity. Some hybrids, of course, who bear your seeming. Some who hide their features and mimic your ways. A few monstrosities crawling unseen through your filth. You rule this world." Her fingers wrap around the back of a folding chair, digging in. "Even in slumber, I knew no defeat. I would rise again to grip the earth in my fists. And then I returned to find only dust. My army...my people...my children...my right hand. Gone. Your language lacks words for the terms in which I regarded them." Metal squeals and gives way, and Willow is abruptly not so certain about that last statement. "I was their god. And I failed them. I...failed." Illyria slumps over the chair. "By every measure I know, I am the strong and you are the weak. Yet those measures lie. I have known failure. You rule the world, and it is I who cower in your shadows. What, then, am I now?"

    "You..." Willow licks her lips, searching for words. She has the impending sense that Illyria is about to rip her to shreds. Or maybe kneel at her feet, and somehow that would be even worse. "You don't cower, Illyria. That's...that's crazy talk."

    "I bluster," Illyria snarls. "I prate of my own importance. I have become small. I am the insect now, and so I must justify my existence. Yet I humiliate myself further with every word. And you go on your way, pretending that you do not see. Were I truly still what I claim to be, your towers of steel and glass would bow to me as I passed by."

    This can lead nowhere good. "No one's pretending, Illyria. I can't tell you you're not less powerful than you were, because you are, and I...I'm sure it must suck. But the people who know what you still are really are afraid of you, and they really do believe you. You're the biggest big bad around, whether you realize it or not. And, well...what does this have to do with Xander? He's human. He's less than you either way you look at it."

    "He should be dead," mutters the ex-god. "Again, my measures fail--do you not see it? He is not only less than me--that is a given--he is less than you. Gunn, Wesley--these are dead. His former love is dead, and yours as well. Others whom you have drawn into your battles, all more than he is--dead. Even Buffy, who was your master and his, has fallen. Yet he lives. More, he dares to mock me. He alone sees through my deceit."

    Willow attempts to retrieve her jaw from the floor. "Tell me I'm not hearing you right. You like him because he treats you like dirt? Because that's really kind of sick, even for a demon."

    "No!" Illyria's composure seems to be returning. "His continued existence is a clue, a key to the power by which your people rule. How else should he remain? We believe he knows this. Once we have the secret of your strength--however loathsome it may be to us--we will take it for ourselves, and be once more supreme in this realm."

    "Even though it'll contaminate you that much more? I mean, won't that make you more human?" The witch allows herself a faint smile. Smurfette has no idea what she's getting herself into.

    "We are resolved to endure it, if it brings us dominion once more. But you will not allow this, will you? Therefore we must--"

    "I'll help you," Willow breaks in before Illyria can do anything bone-crushy. "I'm not sure Xander knows it himself, not anymore. And it's not something you can be told. You have to experience it. But I can tell you this: once you know the secret of our power, you won't be the same. If you can learn it at all."

    "I am capable of all things," Illyria insists. Predictably. Once you realize where she's coming from, it's not so hard. "And you cannot deter me. Do not try."

    "All right," says Willow. "I guess we'll find out."
    ********
    "...Naanak naam charhdee kalaa..." Andrew stops there in the doorway, trying to puzzle out the chant. It's not in any demonic language, though, and those are all he knows. Well...those and Klingon. "...tayray bhaanay Sarbaht dah Phahla." Sadha, apparently finished, turns to look at him, revealing what looks like a huge dagger strapped to her belt. This would be a good time to run, he thinks, but his feet seem to be sort of frozen.

    "It's called the Ardas," she tells him with an amused smirk. "It's a Sikh prayer for assistance. Considering the task I've been set, I think I need all I can get, wouldn't you say?" Oh.

    "I, uh...you had me a little worried there for a second." His throat's still tight. "I mean, I hear some of the girls praying every now and then, but they're Slayers, not...and, um...what's the dagger for?"

    She's still smiling. "Ceremonial and self-defense. It's called a kirpan. I suppose it's rather larger than average these days, so feel free to call me a traditionalist if you like. It's supposed to be one of five symbolic things I have on me at all times, but it's been a very long time since I really lived as a Sikh. Perhaps it's time I returned, eh?"

    "Since you became a vam-pire." Confidence is starting to trickle back into his voice. That's good.

    "No," Sadha says. "Since I became a Watcher. Or close as makes no difference. I started having other things on my mind."

    "But you want to go back to it now?" Andrew is trying not to look at her, but she hasn't really furnished the room, or even unpacked. Which makes sense, he guesses. "You, um...have a point about needing help if you're going to be Dena's Watcher. I even turned down Regan when I heard the two of them had been assigned to work together. Being a Watcher might have kept Dena off my case, but I don't think Phil would want to stay here without me, and a Slayer doesn't need a truck to drag you by the ankles if she gets it in her head."

    "I see. Well, we can't have that going on, can we?" the vampire says coldly. "That wasn't in her file."

    Andrew shakes his head. "Not right out, but if you know what you're looking for...she scares me."

    "That's fairly obvious. You really must learn to conceal your emotions if you want to Watch effectively, Andrew." Sadha looks over at the pair of files on her bed. "I don't think Regan would have been suitable for you either. She needs someone to push her."

    "Giles wants me to take on someone in Chicago. I haven't had the chance to read up on her yet. Maybe now that the planning's over for the night.... What was your first Slayer like? I'm, uh...it'll be my first time."

    For a few moments, she doesn't answer him. When she does, she speaks crisply, not so much remembering as reciting. "Shefali was Dalit...what you call an 'untouchable', trained almost from birth to clean others' filth, and to stay out of her so-called betters' way. The Brahmins--most of the native Watchers, in those days, were Brahmin--could barely stand to be in her presence. The British were little better, overwhelming her with more concern and care than she'd received in a lifetime. My family, though.... In theory, Sikhs are supposed to ignore caste distinctions. Ideas like that are rarely lived out in practice as well as they should be, but it was a place to start. So they gave her to me."

    Sadha gradually seems to realize that she's still standing, and takes a seat on the bed. "Better. Feel free to sit. Being a Slayer was almost a vacation for Shefali, not that she'd have understood the concept of time off. At times, I actually had to make her stop training and rest. I told Buffy last night that Shefali was more mature at thirteen than Buffy is now, and that was truth, but not in the way I meant her to take it. Shefali had hardly been allowed to be a child.. She lasted three years as one of the most dedicated Slayers on record."

    Andrew finally speaks to fill the long pause after this. "What happened? Did she burn out?"

    "In a way, I suppose she did. The Rakshasa Rebellion...never mind that. It's been a very long time, Andrew, and I don't feel like rehashing her death now. It wouldn't be of any help to you, and I have enough regrets from my time as a vampire. You understand?" He nods to her. She must blame herself somehow. "Is there anything else?"

    "Oh...yeah. Sorry. Giles sent me to ask if you were hungry. Wouldn't want to freak out any of the girls." She'd gotten him totally distracted.

    "I've already eaten tonight, but tell him I said thank you." Sadha offers a strangely devilish smile. "He's a good man, Andrew. Tell him I said to watch Ada. I believe she's not as friendly to him as she pretends. Her scent...I think Rupert has enemies on the new Council that he may not be aware of."

    "He knows. The Wyndham-Price party's all cloak-and-dagger with him. But thanks, and...good luck with the praying."

    She goes all game-face on him, suddenly. "I'll need it, won't I? Thank you." Shifting back, she makes shooing motions. "Go get some rest, you young whipper-snapper, and let your elders have theirs. We have another long night ahead of us."

    "Um, yeah. I'll do that." Sadha's nothing like Spike, nothing like Angel. Of course not...she's herself, not them. Andrew just wishes she didn't creep him out so much.
    ********
    The first sign that something is different comes when he lands on his feet. Last time Angel visited the Conduit, he came slamming down on his side, and that was with vampire agility working for him. This time, it's not even that much of a drop. The exit's still missing, though.

    "Hello?" he calls, hoping not to be shoved into the chamber's walls.

    "I thought you might come here," says Xander's voice, off to the left, and now that empty spot isn't so empty anymore.

    "Looking for answers, huh?" says Willow, sitting on the square block in the room's center. "I guess we can give you some."

    "Though in all honesty," says Giles, now standing where Xander was a moment ago, "we thought it should all be rather obvious."

    "I don't need answers," Angel insists. "I need you to turn time back, like the Oracles did last time I was human."

    "Not gonna happen," says a voice from the block. Willow has faded out, leaving Andrew in her place. "Temporal mechanics is a pain in the butt, don't you think?"

    "And, no," says Dawn, "we're not the First Evil. Chill already. You're different now, so we can be different with you. Anyone who walks in the living world is fair game."

    "So this place is different because I'm not a vampire? But I'm not your champion any more either, and you need a champion, right? So you need to change things back to the way they were. You need me."

    "We've had many champions," says Sadha. "You're not the first."

    "Nor the last," Buffy finishes. "Your journey has come to an end. Enjoy your life. It's what you wanted, right?"

    "Wait," Angel says, confused. "You're not--"

    "Living?" Lilah asks. "No, but that's not what we said, is it? Good thing you never had to argue a case in court."

    "It's a free will thing," says Dawn. "Think of it as time share. If you could be totally certain which side you were talking to..."

    "...it'd be way too easy," Faith finishes.

    Angel stalks around the center block towards her. "Look, we're in the middle of an apocalypse here! It doesn't matter what I want. I can't just sit around, I've got to help stop this thing! I need to be a vampire again!"

    "Adversarial," Andrew says.

    Willow looks at Andrew, smirking cheekily. "Confrontational."

    "He must be--" Xander stops mid-sentence. "Never mind, he doesn't get it. I'll say it again, Angel. Your journey's come to an end. Over, stopped, done with. You're human. It's time to live that life you've been after all these years."

    "You wanted a reward," says Buffy. "Now you've got it."

    "The shanshu? I signed it away!"

    "The shanshu was always something we chose to give you," Illyria tells him patiently, "or not. Whether the prophecy refers to you is irrelevant."

    "It's your life," Angel says to Angel, "and you can do whatever you want with it. But we're not taking it away again. Sorry to disappoint you."

    "How can my journey be over?" Angel erupts, kicking the central block. "I said we're having an apocalypse!"

    "There is always an apocalypse," says Giles with a shrug, "and all journeys end the same way."

    A doorway appears in the wall. "Don't come back here," says Connor. "You said it yourself: you're not our champion any more."

    The last figures fade away. Angel waits there a little while, hoping for one more word. But there is nothing. Finally he steps out into the sunlight, and the door vanishes behind him.

    "That boy," Andrew says, "was our last hope."

    Only a faint breeze stirring the dust answers.
    Last edited by Mabus; 01-07-07, 04:14 AM.
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
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