Nikita pillowed her head on Michael's damp, smooth chest as his fingers rhythmically threaded through her hair. And, at the same time, dread was working its way through her system, clouding the languid afterglow.
"'Kita?" he wondered, reaching for the comforter with his free hand, pulling it over them both.
"Something's wrong," she murmured, listening to his steady heartbeat. "I don't know what, Michael...but I'm worried."
He shifted below her, kissing her temple. "About us? They can't touch us, *Cherie*. I've made sure of that."
Of course. All those games...deals...trades. Things she didn't want to know. "No, not us," she said slowly, eyes floating over to the tiny travel clock on the barge's windowsill. 6:30 a.m. They had to report soon. A briefing. "Buffy," she admitted.
Silence...except for breath. Not that he was an orator in normal circumstances. "Do you think she's with that man?" she elaborated with a sigh. That beautiful blond hood...?
"Probably." Michael drew circles along her scalp with his fingertips. His tone betrayed no approval or disapproval. "Section won't care. As long as they're discreet and she doesn't grow...attached." Now a hint of ire.
She closed her eyes and could see the light on her material's face. The cryptic eyes. The smile. Just a few days and her whole demeanor had changed. And the security team had recorded no nightmares, no screams of *Angel* or *Willow* or *Kendra*. "Michael...I think she's in love."
He swore in French, pulled her closer, and she could feel the tremors rocking his body, tried to quell them with the heat of hers. Did he all ready know? Or was he sorry for his soul sister because he knew what torture she was in for? She still didn't know parts of this man.
"*Merde*. She's damned, Nikita," he said into her hair. "She utterly... she's ...ah, *je ne sais*..." he drifted off, miserably.
"Where's all this coming from?" She brushed over his collarbone. All this desperation? "What do you know?"
"Nothing," he said quickly. Too quickly. And there was that telltale stillness in his eyes. More lies.
"She's our friend," she reminded quietly. "A *friend*." And, oddly enough, all she could think of was those first few weeks. Getting to know her. Watching the surveillance tapes of Buffy tossing and turning in her new, sterile Section room. Her screams. *Angel...oh, God, Angel. . .I'm sorry.* Agony and guilt in her voice...palpable, horrifying. "Is Section going to hurt her again?" she demanded, propping herself up on an elbow.
It was so quiet she could hear the calls of gulls outside...and the water lapping against the sides of the moored barge. Was he going for manipulation tactic #2 now? The lie of omission?
Michael's eyes were blue-green with tears and secrets. And suddenly he was crushing her down to him, kissing her so fiercely she couldn't breathe. "Yes, Nikita," he gasped into her mouth. "Yes."
She couldn't find the words to condemn him. Not this time. Instead she held him close...until the clock forced them apart.
"What the Hell has been going on around here?"
Paul was the throes of a tantrum. Madaleine almost smiled watching him pace his office floor like an expectant father. "*I* am Operations!" he continued, eyes flashing, "and I feel like I've been in abeyance for weeks. Is this revenge?" He stopped, turned on one heel and looked at her. "Is this for Charles?" he demanded hotly. "Have you been biding your time, waiting to get back at me?"
She did smile this time, crossing her arms and tossing her head. Oh, no, this had little to do with her dead husband--the husband he'd kept from her. It was bigger...older...worse. And there was no way he could handle it. "Nothing's going on," she murmured, eyes drifting over the hair he'd recently cut and bleached white. The irony was almost overwhelming. She wanted to laugh until her sides ached. "Nothing that concerns you," she amended, wondering if he was having a mid-life crisis. Spike had admitted it once...after 75 years with Drusilla, he'd reached for the peroxide in sheer desperation.
"I *know* when you're lying to me, Madaleine," Paul growled, moving to the glass and staring down at the busy workstations...where operatives scurried around like insects in a hive.
*Do you?* A twinge of guilt, but she blinked it away. In many ways, Paul's presence had saved her, gotten her through so many years here. But there were things she still couldn't share. Not with him. He was too emotional, too biased towards her all ready. The leader of Section One could not afford to be bogged down by her old lovers and illegitimate children.
"What's bothering you?" she asked, as his shoulders stiffened under his gray shirt. "Specifically."
"You know what's bothering me." The muscle in his cheek twitched.
"The Summers situation? The Oversight Committee? Michael?" She offered him suggestions, not playing into his hands.
"All of the above." He was grinding his teeth again. A bad habit, considering that, at his age, his teeth only had so many good years left. One palm flattened against the pane in front of him. "George has been patient, but now the Agency wants results. He thinks we've played the Slayer matter all wrong--too slow. He wants our target silenced before Oversight's next sweep."
"Then we'll step up the program." She shrugged, moved to his side. "Buffy hasn't exterminated her chosen foe in quite some time. We'll let her take care of some of the local element...and then she'll be ready to take on what she was meant for."
"And Michael?" Paul cast her a sidelong glance. Cynical about their other prized possession.
"He won't pose a threat," Madaleine lied easily. "He has known from the beginning that only the Slayer could neutralize the emerging enemy in the Balkans."
"Enemy?" He scoffed, tone thick with disgust. "Madaleine...this pair isn't just the enemy. They're monsters. What they have accomplished in just eight months? We haven't seen this kind of genocide since Bosnia."
"They're experts," she agreed, knowing the fact far more well than he could imagine.
"Will Summers stop them this time?" He was as caustic as ever, had been wary all this time. "She failed before."
She closed a hand around his shoulder, squeezed it. This would be no lie. "She wasn't a Section operative *before*. This is no melodramatic romance on the Hellmouth. Buffy will dispatch Angelus and Drusilla...or she will die."
She was gone...but the room still smelled like her. Vanilla. Skin. Sweat. Even a coppery hint of blood from a paper cut. And he lay against the headboard, still tangled in the sheets. "What the Hell?" It was just a room. He'd rented it months ago to hide out as he hunted new grounds after fleeing Sunnydale. Transient. No permanence. No meaning. But it was cold and empty without her. Without the Slayer.
"I love you," she'd said. *I love you* before slipping out of his arms and into the shower; singing an old Police song as she dressed for her 7 a.m. briefing. Fuck.
Spike was numb. Hollow. Staked. "We have what we have," she'd said as they walked back towards Section two nights ago. But they didn't. It was a bloody pipe dream. A fantasy spy thriller where he could forget that she slayed and she could forget that he killed. Had they even talked about it? About whose blood filled his veins when she came to his bed? About a hundred years of slaughter? Of laying two Slayers wide with spikes in front of their family homes? No. Instead Washington...Madaleine...Prague...Section One. Such a tiny part of his threadbare excuse for existence.
*I love you*. He laughed. Sick. Hoarse. Mouth dry and hungry. "You're mad, Will," he whispered aloud. "Plum crazy."
He would sleep now. And then he would awaken to stalk the streets. Maybe a young woman. Maybe a mugger. Or a liquor store clerk. He would drink. And he would wait for her to come again.
Because he was all ready a fool. A murdering, vamped beast who'd fallen in love with a vampire slayer now. . .and the idea of her perhaps decades before.
"Birky, we've reached entry." Buffy's voice crackled over A channel.
His eyes scanned the layout on his screen as he nodded. "Team One, there's a penetration point on the southwest corner. Buffy, you're on point. Sampson, O'Brien, follow. Then, its all according to the profile."
"Roger." Crackle. Static. Repetition of orders. A routine cold mission, intel retrieval in Afghanistan. A terrorist compound with low level security. He wasn't worried. He turned his attention to the next screen, switching channels. Shanghai. Michael's team. Nikita on point in the warehouse district. The only two assignments he was guiding at the moment.
"I'm in, Michael."
"Fowler, Reese, await egress. Team Two, position yourselves around the perimeter."
Uh-oh. Heat sensors. Forms were moving towards the small blip that was Nikita. "Michael, you've got company coming," he warned. "From the west and south. About 45 seconds till contact."
No "Roger" from the Spyboy. Birkhoff pictured him blinking silently, as he modified the mission profile and passed on the news. He sighed, sliding his headset down around his neck even as he monitored both progressions on the panels.
He had no doubt both missions would be perfectly executed. The teams had been briefed and sent out two hours ago and they would be back by evening. All in a day's work.
"Just another day at the office," he muttered to himself, reaching into an open desk drawer for an Oreo from the plastic tray there. His only sugary vice now...the occasional influx of chocolate & cream. His system had slowly outgrown all the lollipops and Pixi Stix and candy bars. Medlab said it was a blood sugar deficiency. He hadn't been happy, but he'd adapted. Just like he'd adapted to everything else here. To training. To supercomputers and cryptography. To intrigue. To death. To living years and years of people's secrets in just 21 of his own. He was the Boy Genius. The blood sugar deficient Boy Genius.
Birkhoff tossed the whole cookie into his mouth and readjusted his headset and crunched as hostiles spread across the warehouse. Silenced gunfire pop-popped over the comm channel. And then the hostiles disappeared one by one.
"Got it," Nikita was saying. "The detonators are set."
"Commence egress," said Michael. Smooth sailing.
He switched over to the Afghan mission. No gunfire there.
"Shut up, O'Brien," Buffy was murmuring. "Or I'll make you pucker up and kiss Operations' ass."
"Summers, save the mouth for his dick where it belongs. Destroy the originals and get out."
Oh Lord. Madaleine would love listening to this. Although she'd never admit it.
"I'm coming, O'Brien. Panties. Bunch. Tension much?"
"Guys." Sampson's interruption. Harsher. Mad at her team leaders. "You'll both be licking Ops's body parts if Summers isn't at egress in 25 seconds."
He laughed out loud. No interceding necessary...they were right on schedule. He couldn't wait to see faces at the debrief. Buffy was a perfect addition to Section. A bright spot. Like Nikita. She was a great op...and didn't mind sticking it to dear old Ma and Pa Section.
He shuddered at the image. Ops and Maddy. Parents. And they *were* like his parents because he'd been here so long. One big twisted family. He barely remembered the Birkhoffs, the family whose name he held. His mom was a blurry image and a harsh voice...Dad an alcoholic who was never home. And his sister? A sad, beautiful shadow. Three years ago, he'd gotten word that she'd died of a heroin overdose. He hadn't been able to cry. Section was all he knew.
When Nikita had "died" three years ago ..he had, too. When Petrosian had shot Operations two years ago...he'd locked himself in a bathroom for 20 minutes and flipped out. When Madaleine had been kidnapped a few months later? Private hysterics in his head as he monitored Michael's mandatory refusal. And Michael? He was a walking tragedy that always came out unscathed.
He just hoped nothing changed about that. And that Buffy stayed safe, too. Because at some point--especially around here-- luck was bound to run out.
"I see a child...a little one...oh, my Daddy, he's lovely. So soft...and dark." "Can we *use* him?" He flopped back in a chair, watching the twirling figure in red velvet. She was elfin...pale like one of her porcelain dolls and black like raven's wings--both of hair and of squishy vampiric insides. And as mad as a hatter.
She swayed back and forth, writhed against the cool marble wall of their latest lodgings. Blood dripped down in viscous rivulets. Their last guest had been a gusher. She reached out with one slender index finger, bathing its all ready red tip in blood and licking it with a low, sensual purr. "Yes," she whispered. "He's a big boy now...but we can use him." And suddenly she stiffened, eyes fluttering shut. Her face screwed up as if he was whipping her.
More visions. He loved that about her. His vicious psychic childe. She'd come looking for him, brought him out of Hell with her spells. And together, they would suck the world dry. They'd started with Europe. Asia was next. Then Australia. Africa. South America. North America was last. Sunnydale. Luscious, Hell-mouthed Sunnydale would suffer the most. That sniveling redhead...the lame, pathetic skater boy...the wolf...the Watcher. And then the bitch. His Slayer. He knew she still lived. Felt it. When he found her, he would break her neck open like a chicken bone and eat out her insides like marrow. Make her pay for humanizing him. For shoving that sword through his stomach and sending him to the fires...he would--
"NO!!!!!" Dru was wailing like a siren. High. Keening. "No, it can't be!!! Nooooo...Daddy...no..."
"What?" His hands tightened around the arms of the chair. "What?"
She tossed herself into his lap, a trembling, throbbing mass of tears. He automatically stroked her hair, trying to quell the urge to yank, calming her. Now it was information he needed. Satisfaction would come later. "Drusilla... Baby, what do you see?"
"Spike!!" she cried. "My Spike is allied with the Slayer...in a land north. There's darkness...and oh, he reeks of her. Her reeks of her!!"
Spike and Buffy? Allies? Again? Her head made a cracking noise when it hit the wall and she tumbled to the ground like Miss Edith. He didn't look. Ignored the whimpers. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Then Spike would die, too.
They came out of nowhere. A cliche, but it was true. Vampires. Vampires that weren't Spike. The alley just a few blocks from Section, on her way home, exploded with three sets of snarling fangs.
"Slayer...?" growled one with a mess of red hair and a hockey jersey as he sniffed the air.
She automatically dropped into fighting stance, eyes scanning her surroundings. Two brick walls. 3 of them. And no stake material in sight. "That's right. Me Slayer...you vampires," she murmured, glad that she was at least back in her own boots & leather and Spike's shirt. Clothes that she could actually fight in. "Now that we all know each other, wanna die?"
The Afghan mission, the debrief, the dirty looks from O'Brien...all gone. She was right back in the old days. The uglies circled her, game faces on. Besides the Maple Leafs fan, there was a suit-clad Asian and a traditional leather-wearing punk. The UN, she thought insanely as she dove. Kicks. Punches. A fist connected with her jaw. She retaliated with a sharp jab to the redhead's solar plexus, driving him to his knees, and closed an arm around his neck. Twist. Snap. And the Section issue switchblade in her pocket flashed out. Carving turkey. But dusty.
Buffy looked up at the remaining attackers, breathing harshly. "Like riding a bike," she gasped, rising. Easy. Were they fledglings? Or did being an operative give her an edge?
"You bitch!" The punk pounced, cutting short her internal debate on her strength. "That was my sire!"
She grabbed his shoulders before he could topple her, kneed him in the groin. The oldest trick in the book. "Aw, don't be sad. You'll be seeing him reallllly soon." Jab. Jab. Jab. The vampire's head snapped back with the force of her blows. He growled and grunted, landed a hit to her ribs. She brought up the switchblade, ignoring the feel of bone splintering. She would heal. Pain was no biggie. Her wrist turned deftly, driving the 10-inch blade into his chest. Cutting an efficient circle around the unbeating heart and then slicing it through. The pissed off orphan was surprised. And dead.
But the suit was waiting to pick up the slack. It didn't matter. She was all warmed up. "Lonely?" she teased.
He muttered something vaguely insulting in Japanese and kicked at her head...something she liked to do in rounds with Michael. She grabbed his foot, pushed him backwards with ease, and chopped at his kneecap. Effectively shattering it. What Michael liked to do back--although he'd never broken her. As the vamp howled his agonized outrage, she shoved him back to the wall. Her fist plunged through his chest like it was jello. Red haze. Rage. A black, shriveled, heart in her hand.
Covered in dust and splatters of thick, dark blood. . .Buffy felt her knees give out, and she slid bonelessly to the concrete. "L-like riding a b-bike," she said again, staring at her palms.
She closed her eyes and her uneven breaths turned into dry, hitching sobs that she couldn't seem to stop. Vampires. Vampires here. She hadn't slayed since...since..."Angel."
No. Not now. Not after all this time. *Angel's in Hell. Get over it. Move on.* But how could she? How could she...when just this morning, she'd climbed out of another vampire's bed? And after dark...she'd staked some.
"Get a grip, Buffy," she told herself. But she couldn't do it. Oh, God, right now, she couldn't.
Operations turned the chair away from the screen and gave her a half-smile. "She did well," he murmured. "Less than three minutes."
She nodded, eyes still focused on the surveillance. Summers had sunk to the ground, her face ghostly. "Anderson will be coming in shortly with correlative data and stats from the van," she replied, perfunctory.
From her position, nearer the alcove's exit, she could see what Paul could not. Buffy's lips forming a name over and over. The name she'd screamed in her sleep for months. The name of the very monster Section was preparing her to face. Madaleine knew it would pass. Momentary shock as her old life returned.
"She's ready. Now is the perfect time to go after Angelus," Paul surmised. eyes sparkling with ambition.
*It was only one exercise. Perhaps more insurrection needs to occur in the local vampire population first.* But she kept her doubts quiet. "I'll have Birkhoff work up a mission profile in the morning," she said instead.
Not that Birkhoff would know the true nature of the assignment. Such a risk was unnecessary and both she and Operations knew that. Even with all his valuable brilliance, he was still just a boy. Hadn't seen as much as Buffy. Even at the Prague hit, he'd been coordinating from inside one of the vans. Michael's skill had shielded him from any view of the contorted faces and explosions of dust. And the other operatives involved had long since been canceled.
Paul had risen...moved to the door.
She blinked, smoothing her hands down the sides of her suit. The look on his face was indicative of exactly what things he wanted to hear...to accomplish. "The Slayer is ready," she assured. "I would project an 87% P.O.S."
"I love it when the odds are that high. Excellent." And a different kind of hunger entered his eyes. "Would you like to join me for a glass of wine? Christopher sent up a vintage Merlot."
Blood and red wine. How appropriate. She inclined her head just slightly. A show of eagerness wouldn't do. "I'll join you shortly." It would be good to have Paul tonight. To indulge him. And that part of herself she kept buried.
"I'll be waiting."
If he could click his heels and bow from the waist, the gentlemanly departure would've been picture perfect. She watched him go, laughing softly. And then her gaze flashed back to the monitor.
Buffy was still slouched against the bricks, but her color had returned to normal. The resilience of youth. Or, Madaleine supposed, that of someone who had all ready spent a lifetime with damnation. She knew that feeling. Had made that deal *herself* at sixteen. There really weren't so many differences between her and the Slayer. Death. Section. Duty.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over the huddled operative and someone else was in the frame. Someone in a black leather duster was lifting Buffy up, into their arms. Madaleine's throat tightened...and her skin iced over. Peroxide blond hair. A pale, sharp profile as Buffy was carried out of the alley. So...death, Section, and duty weren't *all* they shared. Why hadn't she guessed? It was obvious...given that Spike had always had a rescue complex.
If there were audio feed, she had no doubt that whispers of "Shhh, it'll be all right, Pet. Everything will be fine," would accompany the picture.
Long ago...she'd heard those words. That first time...in the D.C. hotel suite she'd shared with Papa. She'd been held close...and the same cool fingertips had wiped away her fears. *"Shh, Pet," he'd said, pulling her down on top of him, letting her feel his uncompromising but unthreatening strength. "You're a stunning, bloody amazing, genius. And you're a fighter. No man can ever take that away. You don't belong to _him_ or to anyone. Learn this lesson from a vampire, Maddy Dupres. . ."*
"Never let someone own you...or break you. Not when you have the power to plan. And to kill," she finished aloud.
The advice was still fresh--and still applicable. But this time, it wouldn't be followed by a gloriously freeing introduction into mutually pleasing, uncorrupted sex. No, this time...there would be no pleasure at all. Just closure.
She ran her hand over the wall panel by the door, keyed in the necessary comm sequence. "Paul...the drink must wait. Something unforeseen has come up...and must be dealt with immediately."
Birkhoff didn't normally leave Section. Not that he wasn't *allowed*... he just didn't like the outside. Crowds. Brightness. Noise. But tonight was an exception. After months of at-work flirting, he'd managed to get up the courage to ask one of the crypto-chicks, Tatyana, out for coffee. Okay, so it was a little late in the hours for a date, but Eartha's on Fifth would be open. And Tatyana was worth it. She was hot. And she liked him. She'd brought him a pot of violets for his station last week.
He whistled cheerfully as he emerged from the parking garage that stood above HQ. There was a little sliver of moon...and stars...but all the streetlights were off. A date. He hadn't had a date since Gail's cancelation. A while ago. And this was the first time he'd had enough time to spare, too. Missions had been cropping up all over the place lately...and it seemed like all of them had needed his expertise. Sometimes he wondered just how valuable he was to Section. Like...would the place run without him? Could it?
"You egotistical bastard," he said to himself, grinning and sticking his hands in the pockets of his favorite camouflage jacket. "Seymour Birkhoff, Supreme Ruler of Section One." He liked the sound of it. As much as anyone could like the sound of *Seymour*. Yargh. He still didn't know what had possessed his family to give him that name... it didn't fit him at all. Yeah, he was a technophile...but not a geek, for Chrissakes!
Girls like Tatyana didn't go for geeks. Oh, no. Not with legs like that. But on the other hand...he *was* her immediate superior. *Eek. What if she's sleeping her way to the top?* He stopped still in his tracks. And then shrugged. "Might as well enjoy it." And he kept walking. He was meeting her at midnight...and he would have to be back pretty early. Madaleine had sent a missive to his PDA--one line--telling him he would be needed at 5 to work up a special series of sims. "Holy abeyance pool, Batman," he muttered, dragging a palm over his hair. A Boy Wonder's work was never done.
Suddenly, there was something blocking his path. Someone tall. No, make that two someones.
"Oh...Daddy, he's so pretty. Can we keep him?"
"Princess, you can have anything you want...you know that." Funny...but the dark-haired woman in some sort of tight velvet didn't look quite young enough to be the daughter of the guy with her. Birkhoff swallowed hard. "Um...excuse me. . .?"
"No. . . excuse *me*."
And a hand came flying towards his head. Sudden bizarre things flashed through his mind before the unconsciousness...*Michael could definitely take fashion tips from *this* man in black.* *Looks like its *my* luck that ran out.* *Mommy...oh, Mommy, help me.*
"He wants his Mummy, my Angel." Dru stroked the pale cheek as the boy crumpled into Angelus's arms. She licked her lips, listening to the lovely sound of heartbeat and blood. "Isn't that sweet?"
"Oh, don't worry, Dru...he'll have more than that when he wakes up." Her sire hefted the genius up easily and half-turned, to face the parking garage. "We're going to have one, big, bloody, reunion," he assured, face shifting as he scowled. "For Prague. And for that little betraying bitch and our boy Spike."
She moaned, imagining the slaughter...oh, the glorious slaughter. "The stars will weep...and we will laugh...and laugh...and laugh."
"While we drink out of the Slayer's head," Angelus promised. His eyes sparkled...and he looked down at their prize..."Section One is going down, Kid. All thanks to you."
Birkhoff said nothing...blissfully unaware that two things were about to happen. He was going to miss his date. And people were going to die.
"Here, drink this." He handed Buffy a steaming cup of tea as she curled into the black leather couch. The blank look had finally left her face...and now, as a bit of calm set in, he realized that her apartment had not been the best place to come. Cameras. Cameras that would record him. Send his picture straight to Madaleine. *Oh, well. That's the un-life, I guess.*
"Th-thanks." She sipped carefully. "I'm sorry I went all catalytic on you." She fidgeted with the blue pewter mug, eyes cast downward.
"Catatonic," he corrected, managing a laugh as he sat down beside her.
"Yeah, that's what I meant." The laugh that escaped her was a lot less solid. "C-catalytic is with cars. Jesus, as if I haven't learned 1400 pounds of technical vocab. over the last six months."
He knew it wasn't her mix-up that was causing the frustration in her voice. "What happened back there, Luv?" he asked, gently, unable to keep from stroking her hair. Keeping some sort of physical contact. Good Christ... he never wanted to let her go again. The five minute walk from that alley to this room had been the hardest thing he'd ever done. Wondering if she was okay...if someone had attacked her...if Section had done something. It made him want to go bust some heads...break some bones. Make sure no one ever hurt her again.
Her answer took him totally by surprise. She looked up at him, setting down his pathetic attempt at tea...and said..."Vampires."
"Vampires????" He would've gasped if he could've. "What vampires? I mean, *I'm* here, and I know that. I've got a reason. But I never heard of any others in these parts. Least not in this neighborhood." His chest rattled like wind through chimes. What in the name of Judas Iscariot was going on? No self-respecting member of the undead would willingly hang out around Section One. Even if they didn't know about the agency's activities...there were enough kooky vibes to give even the ugliest Hellbeast the willies.
Buffy took his hands, laid them against her cheek and he could feel the tiny shivers rocking her body. "Nope, they're definitely here. And they knew me, Spike...they knew I was the Slayer. Like they came *looking* for me." Her voice hardened. "How? How would they know?"
"Because I told them."
Funny...he could've sworn he'd locked the door behind them.
Not that it mattered.
Spike rose to his feet, instinctively shielding Buffy from the gun...and ignoring the crossbow that was aimed at his own chest. Instead, he looked straight into dark, Madonna eyes that he hadn't seen in over twenty years.
"Hello, Spike." The expression on her face was still unerringly calm. And Lord, she was still beautiful. And even colder.
"Something tells me this isn't a social call to catch up on old times." Movement behind him. . .Buffy was standing, too, now. And he felt her hand on his shoulder. "*You* sent the vampires?" His new lover accused his old one coolly.
Spike couldn't find words. He couldn't. All he could do was stare.
"Jealous?" he said finally, in the long stretch of silence, arching an eyebrow.
"Oh, no." She shook her head...and the mirth that flitted through her gaze was almost like that of the Maddy he'd known instead of this mature, hardened creature before them. "The vampires were a scheduled part of Buffy's training," she assured. "They would've been sent even if she had not become reacquainted with you. Ask Michael... he knew."
"Why?" Buffy demanded icily. He knew what she was thinking. It was right there in every line of her frozen body. *Michael...in on it? No...it couldn't be. Nikita wouldn't allow it. But what if Nikita didn't know?* "Why?"
"It doesn't matter. You have been compromised. And, therefore, your purpose has been compromised." A click and then another as Madaleine steadied both weapons.
"Did Operations sanction this cancelation?" Ah, his girl...quick on the uptake even in the face of death. And just the tiniest waver of Maddy's hands. "He doesn't know, does he? You *are* jealous! My God, its not like I stole your boyfriend or something. Killing me over this is going to screw up whatever you guys wanted me to do."
"She's right, you know," he offered, moving backwards slowly...putting more space between them. "If you had some grand plan for a Slayer...axing her is just going to muck it up...and you'll have to answer to the big man."
"I'll answer. And Paul will understand. We'll find another way to combat what was slated for you," Madaleine assured, moving sideways, following them with her eyes. "I've cleaned up enough of *his* personal messes for him to allow me this. And this is not jealousy, Spike." Her yet-smooth face was as perfect as a Greek sculpture. "This is a tying of loose ends. Your connection to Buffy's old life has forced my hand. You know too much."
"So do I," Buffy pointed out. And he wanted to clap his hand over her mouth...but she was so blasted passionate! She pulled away from him...and moved in between him and Maddy. "I know all about the two of you!"
"Pet, shut up," he hissed. There was no need...no need to bring up the rest. It would only make things worse. . .
"I'm not going to shut up, Spike! How can she kill a guy she cared about? A guy who fathered her child?" she demanded, looking at first him, and then her superior operative.
Madaleine, to her immense credit, did not blink an eyelash. "How did you send Angel to Hell?" she countered, shrugging. "We do what we have to. Spike certainly won't be the first man in my life I've had to destroy. My father...my first husband...several lovers...once you start, it really doesn't matter."
He felt the rattling in his chest grow louder...and he swallowed the blood that had risen like bile in his throat. "So, you've killed the boy?" he wondered, remembering dark eyes...and that charming face he'd only seen once, in the midst of smoke and screams. "If its all part of the game...is he gone, too, Maddy?"
And this time, her mouth twitched. And she shook her head. Ah, movement. He'd hit the mark. Perhaps they *would* make it out alive.
"Never," she whispered. "I would *never*..."
Never what? Spike wanted to urge her...to taunt her...to bring back the fire and the rage of the woman he'd once known. *Crack, dammit. Crack and show us you're human. That you don't have to do this.*
But the sound of a cell phone ringing prevented his response. And Madaleine looked down with obvious distaste. But she did exactly what one would expect. She tossed down the crossbow, leaving the 9mm trained on Buffy, and rescued the wailing phone from her inside pocket. "Yes?"
As she listened to whatever message Section One had for her...Spike caught Buffy's gaze. Took in her pale face...listened to her jagged breaths. "You're an idiot," he growled.
"Of course I am. I love *you*, don't I?" she replied, grinning. And her body was tensed...ready to spring at the slightest cue.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, it catalogued that they were saying this out loud to each other for the first time...that he might regret this later... or he might want to remember it. "I love you, too," he told her as he inched closer to her.
But whatever move they would've made was cut short as the cell phone fell ...bounced on the rug and lay still. And then the shiny black Beretta followed. Madaleine's hands hung open...and her face had finally shifted to an entire emotion. Terror.
"What is it?" Buffy asked, automatically worried...even for a woman who'd been ready to kill them. Cor, she was a gem. Precious in so many ways.
"Madaleine?" he followed, gently.
Her eyes were far away...looking at something only she could see. And suddenly, he was reminded of the girl he'd taken to bed...the girl who'd been imprisoned by a father's sick possession and then freed to be as vibrant and vicious as she liked. "They have him," she whispered. "Spike, they have him."
"They have who?" he asked, even though his insides twisted. He knew the answer...
"Who's 'they'?" Buffy quizzed at the same time as they moved to her.
Somehow, their questions broke through her hypnotic fascination with the curtains. And the macabre, grief-stricken look that crossed her face would never find an equal. Neither would the sound of Buffy's limp form hitting the hardwood. Or his own undead heart screaming.
"Word has reached Section...that Angelus and Drusilla have taken Birkhoff. Our *son*, Birkhoff."
*Angelus. Angelus and Drusilla.*
"Oh, God. No." Even as the words left her trembling lips, Buffy knew she couldn't waste time on hysterics. Not at a time like this. The floor was solid, reassuring, under the palms she'd flattened to steady herself when her knees had given out. She drew from that strength as she looked up.
Spike's eyes were closed. And the pulse beat slow in his throat as his face shifted back and forth between mortal and demon because he was too shaken to control it. "My boy," he whispered, knuckles whitening and fists clenching. Were wishful hours spent with Birkhoff playing on his eyelids? Teaching the shy hacker to drink and flirt...how to appreciate the finer points of soccer...to enjoy punk rock? Things he might never get to do now. "They've got my boy."
Birkhoff's mother didn't move to correct the possession. Her lips were a thin line...pressed so tightly they were almost nonexistent. And she was just as pale as a vampire herself. "No doubt Drusilla's visions led her to believe he would be the best target to bring us down...and to flush out the Slayer."
The Slayer in question still didn't trust herself to stand...and suddenly, ludicrously, remembered her first day in Section. Nikita had commented that they needed someone like her around. And she'd wondered...*they need a vampire slayer?* "Th-that's it, isn't it?" she gasped suddenly. "The entire time. Why I was recruited? You *knew* Angel was out of Hell. I thought I'd killed him...I screamed over it every night and grieved over lost love...and you and Operations and M-michael *knew*."
Michael. Oh, she couldn't think about him right now. Sweet, supportive Nikita's one true love. Her friend. Her sparring partner. Her betrayer. That was a question for another time.
"The Agency felt that training with Section One would increase your chances of defeating Angelus since your emotions prevented it the first time." Madaleine stonily defended the decision that may have just signed an innocent boy's death warrant.
Buffy felt the sickness rise in her throat. And she knew that her new lover was feeling double it. His scar gleamed white against the blackness of his eyebrow...echoing the scar that was probably on his heart. "Spike?"
He shook his head, growling. And a single tear slid down his cheek. "Do you know what they'll do to him, Pet? Do you know?"
And the parental horror in his voice was what finally gave her the will to rise. "Stop it!" she snapped, choking down her own answering fears and doubts. "They're not going to do *anything*!"
*Willow's goldfish in an envelope. Miss Calendar's broken body in Giles' bed. Kendra's throat, slashed wide by one of Dru's sharp nails.* "We'll save him!" she assured as she cupped his face in her hands.
Their foreheads brushed, and she knew the agony broiling inside him. Knew it mirrored hers. "Spike, look at me," she urged, grasping his chin.
Slowly, the stricken gray orbs made their appearance. "Buffy," he reminded brokenly, "Buffy...we couldn't kill them *then*."
"We'll kill them *now*," she assured. "They won't touch Birkhoff." The more times she said it aloud, the more she believed it.
"They won't touch Birkhoff," he repeated quietly. And suddenly, he was kissing her...mournful, desperate. And she aligned herself to the brief, comforting heat before Madaleine's once again poised presence made itself known.
"There's not much time."
"Oh, there's enough bloody time, Maddy." It was as if the kiss had rejuvenated the other side of Spike. His eyes darkened with rage and power that made Buffy's heart stop and start all over again. "My sire is going to pay for this. He's going to pay dearly."
His hand closed around hers even as he knelt down and picked up the fallen gun. "Let's get to Section," she said firmly, looking at her superior. "Because this is going to be an even bigger firestorm than Prague. And I'm going to *hit* Dru's kill spot," she added.
"Amen," Spike hissed...and any love he might have had for the vampiress was gone from his tone. Only hatred remained.
That odd half-smile of old graced Madaleine's features as she opened the door and led the way out of the apartment. Victorious. But Buffy didn't have time to analyze it. Not now.
"I want every available operative on stand-by. Tell Walter to ready the arsenal! And inform me the minute Madaleine returns!" Operations barked into the intercom as he paced back and forth in front of the briefing table. Was he wondering where Madaleine was...and what was taking her so long? "We must retrieve Birkhoff. At all and any cost," he hissed.
He was irrational. Biased. Was pulling rank for someone he cared about. But this time, no one in Section was complaining. Nikita simply nodded and was grateful for the pressure of Michael's hand in hers. He hadn't said a word when the call had come in. His face had just gone white...and he'd reached for her...and they'd come up to the command center together. She'd known what that meant. Things were bad. And Michael knew why.
"Our targets are beyond ruthless," Operations continued...lecturing to a yet un-assembled team. Probably to fight off the same stark terror she was feeling herself. "They aren't bound by normal laws of conscience."
He suddenly swung around to face them both and his eyes were glittering with near-madness. "Birkhoff may all ready be dead," he whispered, and all pretenses...all facades fell away like flakes of skin. For the first time since the Steven Wolfe mission so long ago, Nikita saw a father's grief.
She didn't know what terrified her more...the thought of Birkhoff being hurt. Or the fact that egotistical, incisive, Operations was human.
"What could these people gain from taking him?" she wondered, suddenly wanting the security of their know-it-all boss back. And who *were* they?
One word from Michael had never held so many levels of fear. Had never conveyed so many graphic, gruesome images. When she looked at him askance, she saw his eyes were fixed straight ahead. As if he couldn't bring himself to look at her.
*Dear God. What has been going on around here?*
Before she could echo the question out loud, the silent sanctum was invaded in a flurry of black leather and clicking bootheels. Buffy. And behind her, Madaleine. Behind *her*, the blond man from the street. All three looked older somehow...hollows under their eyes and an eerie shadow on their faces. Irrationally, Nikita wondered if the blond would be canceled for invading Section. His eyes were such a dark shade of gray that they promised death to anyone who might try such a thing.
She shivered...and was only made colder when Buffy stepped up, put her hands flat on the table, and leveled her Arctic gaze at Michael and then at Operations.
"Patch in a line to Sunnydale, California," the small, slender operative ordered. *Ordered*. "We'll need Rupert Giles and Willow Rosenberg's expertise. We also need access to the same weapons your boys used in Prague. Angel and Drusilla may be taking Birkhoff to the Hellmouth. If that's the case, its my turf...my rules. Section listens to *me*."
Prague? The Hellmouth? Drusilla? And what did Buffy's best friend, her dead boyfriend, and her librarian have to do with it? Moreover, why was Operations just standing there and not exploding at the insolence?
Nikita suddenly realized that, like always, she had been left out of the loop. That something large and dangerous had been brewing since Day One of Buffy's recruitment and she hadn't been told. And she wasn't likely to get an answer now, either.
"Understood," Operations spat, darkly, nodding to Buffy's demands. And then he turned to Madaleine. "Where *were* you?" he demanded.
It was a day for surprises. For earthquakes. Because Maddy, the Ice Queen, was far from composed. There was a wildness in her that Nikita had never seen before. "None of your business," she snapped. "I am back and prepared to do what is necessary to bring Birkhoff home."
Under other circumstances, that alone would've stopped everyone in the briefing room cold. But since nothing was normal, Operations accepted the cut and moved on. "Who is *this* and what is he doing here?" he growled, as if the third late arrival was a stray puppy that the women had brought in. No, not a puppy, she reflected. A sleek, mean alley cat.
"The name's Spike," he replied softly, in that same slow-casual tone she'd heard in the darkness. "William the Bloody." He moved with a dancer's grace to Buffy's side, draping an arm around her shoulders. "Your files probably say that I'm vicious, bloodthirsty, extremely fashionable, and the strongest male childe of the vampire Angelus."
"Vampire?" she couldn't help but gasp, noting that Michael looked even grimmer. Vampires weren't real, were they?
"Yes, vampire." And the peroxide punk grinned at her. So charming that in spite of all the lunacy, she found herself smiling back. And then suddenly, his smooth, pale face was contorting. . .becoming ridged. Fangs grew in his mouth and his eyes went from gray to yellow. "I have also been, at various times," he whispered, still sounding calm and human, "The lover of the psychotic vampiress Drusilla...of Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer, *and* of Section strategist, Madaleine Dupres."
Both she and Operations spoke at once.
"Various times, my ass, Spike," Buffy murmured as if she hadn't said anything. "I'm planning to keep you for as long as possible."
Madaleine had moved to the head of the table, in between Operations and the rest of them. And she flinched...because of her last name being revealed or her affiliation with the blond? Nikita couldn't guess. "Spike and I," she began carefully, "Were involved several years ago. Before I came to Section One. Our brief relationship produced a child. That child entered Section as Seymour Birkhoff. He has been kidnapped, by Spike and Buffy's former lovers, for revenge and for sport."
Nikita's head was spinning. Operations looked thunderstruck. And still Michael said nothing and she wondered how much he knew. How much he'd been keeping from her. Buffy was a...a vampire slayer? Both of the men in her young life were vampires? Madaleine and this Spike creature were Birky's parents? She wanted to crawl under the table and hide...but her limbs wouldn't listen to her.
And amidst the frozen tableau, it was Michael who rose slowly from his seat. His hand slipped away from hers, setting her adrift with her unasked questions. "We'll have to work differently than the team in Prague," he said, and his eyes met those of Buffy's vampire boyfriend. "They'll be expecting a similar hit."
"Dru didn't forget," Spike assured, his arm still holding Buffy close to him. "Neither did I," he added, cocking his head. Recognition filtered in, as well as his prettier, mortal looks. And Nikita was just the tiniest bit relieved. "You're the one who bagged Heller," the vampire continued, with a note of admiration in his voice. "You work like an artist, Mate."
"A *lying* artist*." There was undisguised anger in her material's voice. And the Slayer pulled out of Spike's grasp and was in front of Michael as if she'd teleported. "Don't tell me how to fight *my* enemies, you son of a bitch," she hissed. "Not this time."
Michael's eyes closed and then reopened. His Adam's apple shifted as he swallowed. He was expecting a blow. He deserved one.
But Buffy didn't hit him. "Call Giles," she said, speaking over her shoulder to Spike. "Give him the short version of all the happys and the sads and tell him to get the Gang ready." She then looked back and Madaleine and Operations, who were still locked in some sort of silent battle of wills. "You can break up later. You can cancel me later. Right now, Birkhoff needs us," she reminded. "Get a mission profile and a small team ready."
"I'll do that," Michael whispered. The least he could do. He drew away from the circle of people and headed for Communications. Almost as if he was drawing away from them all. Self-exile for his multitude of lies and omissions.
And Nikita shook off the last of her fears and uncertainties as she watched his proud back disappear. "Don't forget *me*." She stood up, shoving her hands into the pockets of her white suede jacket. "You may be a Slayer of things...but you're still my material." She tried hopeful.. "I can help. I'm *going* to help."
"Of course you are, Pet...ow!" The strangely timed flirtation was interrupted as Buffy thwacked her lover upside the head with force and fondness.
"Turn it off, Spike." Buffy's eyes were softening, becoming recognizable again. "You can lead the team, Nikita. A quick lesson on vampire maintenance shouldn't be too hard."
Vampire maintenance? It made her laugh. Releasing the hysteria that had been building. Nikita could hear Birkhoff's laughter along with her own. Could remember how scared he was of large crowds. Of beautiful women. And how devoted he was to Section. Not just the organization, but the people. He kept everyone together. He was the soul of this place. "Hang in there," she whispered. "Hang in there, Birkhoff, we're coming."
The first thing Birkhoff was aware of were smells. Candle wax. Potpourri...or dead flowers kept too long. And something faintly metallic, bitter. And next came the knowledge that his head was as heavy and jumbled as one of Section's mainframes. And it would hurt to move. Not that he could.
His hands were cuffed behind his back...and his legs were secured to something. The chair's legs? Even as he forced his eyes to open, he realized that looking around would do no good.
It was pitch black. Except for one small white candle burning on an end table. It didn't throw out enough light to do anything but sting and tease his blurred vision. Whoever had him wasn't into high technology like Section One. But you didn't need machines to grab people...to torture. To kill.
"Help." His voice sounded weak and pathetic, reminding him that, on the outside, he was no better than any other average twenty-one year old. There were no computers here. No gadgets. And no Michael and Nikita to keep him safe. "Help me." This time he whispered it. Like a prayer. Even though he didn't believe in God and had never prayed before in his life.
And suddenly there were cool fingers on his cheek, brushing away the frustrated tears he'd shed. Fingers that were so cold he flinched.
The candlelight didn't need to illuminate the dark woman from the street. He knew she was there.
He could hear her laughs over his own screaming.
*She had teeth...the torture technicians in the White Room never used teeth...*
Rupert Giles hadn't slept in almost a year. And in that time, he had gone from looking like a healthy, normal 45 year old...to a haggard, frail man of sixty. He spent his nights pacing holes in his living room rug...flipping through books...calling old British intelligence contacts...and praying. Praying his Slayer was safe.
"Buffy," he whispered, staring at the picture on his mantel. Willow had given it to him on his last birthday...a close-up shot of her, Buffy, and Xander sitting on the steps outside the school. Buffy's smile was so bright...giving no hint of what was to come. All the death. And the fact that she would soon disappear. He'd known...known she wasn't dead...had felt it. But what consolation was that?
"Where *are* you?" he demanded, brushing his fingers over the glass.
Since Spike's phone call a few nights ago...he'd only grown more incensed. He'd called in sick to Principal Snyder...instructing the insufferable twit to engage his head in a physical impossibility. He answered the phone on the first ring every time...jumping for it...nearly crying whenever it was someone who couldn't be of use.
He couldn't even let her friends comfort him. Knew they were bewildered, in pain, still grieving even as they moved on with their every day lives. He couldn't give them hope that she was alive. And couldn't let them try to ease his madness. Dear, dear, Willow and Oz. Xander. Even Cordelia... Cordelia had brought him lunch today. The packet from the ritzy French restaurant sat untouched on his kitchen counter.
And then the phone rang.
He stumbled...tripped over furniture and books..."Hello???"
"Spike!" he dropped, numbly, onto the arm of the sofa. "Tell me where she is...tell me this instant!"
"I can't." The vampire's tone lacked any of the humor of his first call... instead there was clear tension on the line...and background noise. Raised, urgent voices. "We have bigger problems than missing Slayers, Mate."
"What could be bigger?" The spark of anger threaded life back into his limbs. "Damn it, Spike--"
One swift, soft word cut off any threat he would've made. "Angelus?" he repeated, fingers convulsing around the receiver...fingers that had never quite knitted back together properly after being broken.
"He's back...Dru must've got him out of Hell after she left me and they've been offing thousands of people in Eastern Europe," Spike explained quickly as his horror mounted. "So keep your eyes open, Watcher. If the bastard shows in Sunnyhell, we want to know."
"We?" He latched onto what seemed to be the most puzzling word in sentences full of bad news. "Who is 'we'?"
"There's no time for games," his caller hissed sharply. "Yes, she's with me, but she can't talk to you. Its safer that way. For everyone."
"W-why should I believe you?" Giles tried to breathe...tried. But all the air seemed to have been sucked out of his lungs. Could he hear her in the background? Buffy's wry words laced with steel? Or was it his imagination?
"Because they took my boy, Watcher. My *son*. A bloody 21-year-old miracle child who might just die because his da's girlfriend and his da dared to betray the wrong vampires last year."
The venom and the grief coming across the miles of telephone line were unmistakable. And not faked. Giles heard those things in his own voice every day. This vampire had indeed fathered a child...a lost human child. "Spike, I--"
"I'll call back in two hours for a report...and anything useful you can find. Tell the witch, Willow, if you have to."
The dial tone was impossibly loud...like a siren. Blaring.
Girlfriend. Spike had called Buffy his "girlfriend." And that piece of news, on top of everything else, was what made Giles laugh for the first time in ages. Hysterically. Until the dial tone was drowned out by the sound of madness.
He would allow himself a few minutes of insanity...of disbelief...and then he would do what he was supposed to do. He would Watch.
For the vampire that had taken away all too much from too many people.
"Do we have a lock on Birkhoff's location?"
*Dieu*. Michael had known that Nikita would come looking for him. And he wished she hadn't. "Not yet," he murmured, eyes flashing over the data his panel was uploading. "Section never had him implanted...probably because of his unusual body chemistry...and the trackers on his clothing are unreliable."
She gently closed the office door behind her, leaning on it. Sometime after he'd left the briefing room, she'd tucked her hair up into a messy bun, sticking a few pens in it to stabilize it. But there was nothing else sedate about her. Her entire body seemed to be vibrating with questions...and her eyes were nearly gray with worry. "Its a madhouse out there...Operations won't talk to Madaleine...or to Spike...and Buffy's trying to keep them all together."
He leaned back, taking turns staring at the map on the small screen and her face. "Was her Watcher contacted?"
"Yeah, I left after the call was made. Either way, we should know soon if these...*things* take Birkhoff to California." She shoved her hands into the pockets of her baggy pants, and the suspicion in her eyes was unsurprising.
He was used to it. Used to her thinking the worst. It still hurt. He waited for her to ask...for her voice to drop into that sad whisper that reminded him of an unworn wedding gown hanging in a closet.
"How much did you know, Michael?"
The roads were a bright yellow on the map, and his fingers flew across the keyboard as he narrowed the perimeter. "I knew about Buffy," he said simply, not looking at her. "I knew what was expected of her."
"And you couldn't tell me." A statement, not a question. Her lips flattened into a thin line...she shook her head. "Its never going to change, is it? Section is always going to come first. When Operations says 'Jump!'...you're always going to ask 'How high?'." Her smoky voice held nothing but anger. "I thought I could handle it, Michael, but you've gone too far in your crusade for loyalty."
"No!" She cut him off, as he knew she would. One tear slid down her cheek before she wiped it away with the back of her hand. "I can't live like this anymore. I *can't*."
She meant it. She meant it even more than the words she'd whispered into his skin last night. All he could do was nod. Show her that impassive face she expected. "Fine," he whispered. "I'll be in the briefing room shortly with the mission profile."
She turned on her heel and walked out.
And he went back to doing what he was supposed to.
"How high?" he murmured. "How high?" But there was no grief in his voice...no, there couldn't be.
She prided herself on her control. On her intelligence holding her higher than those around her. On her ability to close her own needs off and see to the good of Section One. She had spurned Paul's touch, his gifts, and his humanity a thousand times as proof. Had given him sex over the years as a reward, not as a promise of anything.
Now was her comeuppance, because under this veneer of vicious calm, she was a woman who wanted absolution for her lies...a woman who needed Paul's unwavering strength to get through the longest day of her life. And she would get no such concession.
Not after all she'd hidden from him.
He stood with his back to her, at his usual place, in front of the great panes of glass...staring down at the floor. His shoulders were stiff and she wondered if he was staring at the empty chair at Birkhoff's workstation. Or if he was plotting some way to pay back her betrayal.
It had been so easy. After that first initial terror of not knowing what had become of her newborn son, she'd welcomed recruitment, welcomed training--punishment for allowing those prison nurses to take him away. Paul and Adrian had been hard taskmasters, but kind. And by the time she'd become an operative, it had been easy to obtain hospital and adoption records. No had needed to know that she monitored a little boy's progress. And no one had been more delighted when a brilliant 12-year-old had hacked his way into one of Section's databases from his home terminal. That made it easier. Bringing him in, overseeing his training. She hadn't been able to become a parent in the purest sense of the word, but he at least he was close. Not safe, she reminded herself darkly. Just close.
And all the while, there had been Operations and the man behind the ominous title. Unaware of her secrets, but, just the same, trusting her and loving her in a way that bordered on obsession.
Her not-quite son and her not-quite lover. Had she finally lost them both?
Madaleine shook her head slowly and turned to leave the place many operatives had dubbed the Ivory Tower.
"I've loved him as if he were mine."
The words were so soft, they seemed imagined.
She drew in a deep breath and continued on her way out of the office. But she couldn't quite make it over the threshold, had to turn and face the cold eyes that had finally flickered her way. "So have I," she told him, heart suddenly leaping into her throat. "He's more yours than anyone's, Paul." *Even me.*
And perhaps his gaze began to thaw, but she didn't see.
She walked out.
Through a Glass Darkly