She knew he was glancing at the clock again. It was a simple, round clock with Roman numerals on its face. Out of place somewhere this hi-tech. And even more irritating because it showed that less than an hour had passed.
"Any word?" he growled, shoving his hands into his pockets and pacing.
"Not yet," she murmured, looking up from the panel she was pretending to focus on. "Michael's still trying to triangulate Birkhoff's signal. There might be some interference."
Buffy watched Spike's eyes darken with dismay. He'd put up a good show for the others, but the minute Operations and Madaleine had left...he'd begun frantically walking the length of the room. Dragging his hands through his hair. Muttering obscenities and channeling his inner Cockney. Shutting her out. Thinking the worst.
"There's no tellin'...no tellin' wot they could be doing to 'im. A freak o' nature...a bloody science experiment for them to poke, prod, and torture. 'oly water...crosses...tiny little cuts inside 'is mouth with a razor blade...and Drusilla will sing to 'im...while Angelus laughs and wanks off."
She winced. "You don't have to draw a picture," she murmured, sickly. Equal parts for the image of Birky *and* the image of her ex-honey. "We're all worried, Spike. We're working as hard as we can."
He stopped. "Are we?" She knew that look. Had seen its scathing twin outside the Bronze when they'd first met. Predatory. Vicious. Cynical. "Do I not 'ave the right, Pet? Do that toff and that bitch up in that glass box 'ave more right to grieve for the boy than me? 'Cause I'm supposed to be the monster? 'Cause I 'ave no soul?" His shoulders shook. "*They* kill folks, too, y'know. Every friggin' day. Wot's it to them if they lose one more?"
"Spike, stop it!" Finally, she was out of her chair. Vaulting over the table so she could grab his arm and jerk him around. "Just *stop* with the brooding and the guilt!" she cried, shaking him. "No one's to blame. Not you. Not Operations and Madaleine. So none of you are Parents of the Year...big deal. Birkhoff doesn't *need* parents now," she hissed into his shattered eyes. "He needs Section. And the Slayer. And the cockiest damn vampire this side of the Equator!"
He vamped out. And his fists clenched. For just the tiniest instant, she readied herself to get punched. But then he seemed to deflate...and just leaned his forehead against hers again. So she could feel the ridges recede. So she could hear the whisper and the wheezing chuckle.
"What do you mean "this side"???"
Their noses bumped when she kissed him quiet...but she didn't care. Didn't tilt her head until she had to pull back to take a breath. It had been almost 24 hours since they'd last made love. The coolness of his lips was healing. Was comforting. Was perfect.
"I love you," she said, marveling at how easily the words came the more times she said them. She slipped her hands under his duster, wrapping her arms around his waist. "I love you a lot." In just a few days, she'd managed to fall for him, trust him, and depend on him more thoroughly than she ever had for anyone else. "Isn't that the maxi-weird? You and me?"
He kissed her temple, mouth moving back into her hair. "I figured one of us would kill the other, Slayer...I never figured on *this*." She closed her eyes, arching into the caress. "But I can't say I'm sorry. You're vibrant...you're stunning...you're like a child sometimes...you fight like no one else I've ever met..."
Why had it taken her two years to realize his voice was like warm honey?
"You're my other half, Buffy. You complete me." Utter levity combined with a touch of laughter.
"Heyyy! Copycat! Tom Cruise said that in "Jerry Maguire"!" She pulled back, socking him in the stomach lightly even though she felt her heart go skyrocketing.
" 'She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes,' " he quoted softly, running a finger down the side of her face. "Lord Byron said *that*. Doesn't make it any less true about you."
"Oh!" She hadn't known he was a poetry fan. Or that boring English class fare was really total seduction. "Oh, wow...Spike..."
This time he silenced *her*. Stuffing her brain through and through with sensory images that made her pulse race...made her want to push him back on the table and ravish him.
"Oh, wow, *indeed*," he gasped into her, nibbling at her lower lip.
And the comm panel embedded in the table's smooth surface beeped. Followed by a burst of static and Operations. With words that made their loveplay and fantasy grind to a halt.
"Michael has located Birkhoff and the targets. I'll brief the team shortly and then we move out. Thirty minutes."
This time both their eyes moved to the out-of-place wall clock. Thirty minutes. Thirty minutes until their worlds collided and death happened.
"We've got them..." She barely heard herself speak.
Spike held her tighter. "And we've got each other," he reminded. Strong. Confident. Cocky. Their odds suddenly looked good.
"I-I won't tell you anything..." the boy repeated, forcing the words through bruised, swollen, lips. He'd said nothing else for the last hour.
Angelus laughed, wrapping his hands around a mug of fresh blood. It was almost admirable...their captive hadn't broken. Bled, yes, but not broken. And he'd healed quickly, too. Making it even more interesting to try over and over. "Oh, we don't want to *know* anything...do we, Dru? We just tortured you for the sheer *fun* of it!"
"That's right, my Angel." Drusilla danced around the room, twirling out the skirt of her black velvet gown like a bell. "We have nothing to know...but we have things to tell...so many lovely things. . ."
Downstairs, he knew the minions were gearing up...readying for whatever Section was going spring on them very shortly. And, of course, there was the present for Buffy. A special treat whisked away from the Watchers Council petting zoo. But this was more fun. More fulfilling. He'd always liked pulling the wings off flies...torturing puppies and small children.
The chair moved a couple of inches...no doubt a result of young Birkhoff's unrealized strength. "F-fuck y-you!" he hissed. "You're monsters!"
Drusilla stopped and lashed out with her claws, whipping the young creature's head back. "Naughty-mouthed Baby...that's no way to speak to Auntie Dru."
"Or to your dear old grandfather," Angelus added, rising from his seat on the edge of the bed. "Saints alive, Lad! Have you no respect?" He couldn't help laying on the Irish...especially as his childe's son grew even more pale. And the dark eyes were filled with more panic. "This is no way to behave. Why, it'll break your poor da's heart...and hopefully a number of other body parts, too." He emptied the mugful of blood, tossing the pewter aside and listening to the lovely sound of it shattering as he chuckled.
His queen moved behind the boy's chair, wrapping her arms around him as he struggled. "Hush...hush, Baby," she keened, slowly licking the side of his face. Holding it still with her hands so he couldn't jerk away. "Be still. Listen to your Auntie Dru." And suddenly, she cocked her head, sending such a wicked look his way that Angelus was tempted to slam her up against the wall and take her. "Auntie? Or is it Nana? Couldn't I also be his nana, my Angel?"
"Y-you people are nuts...you're psychos..." Birkhoff gasped.
The poor kid. He didn't even realize that his bruises were gone again. Well, they would just have to make more.
"I know, I know..." he clicked his tongue, sympathetically shaking his head. "Its hard to accept at first. Vampires are a little bit hillbilly at heart."
A yelp. "V-vampires?!?!?"
"Oops." He knelt in front of his grand-childe, offering him his most charming smile. "I didn't mean to spring it on you like that, Kid. I'm sorry."
Drusilla began to hum...a haunting odd little tune. Britney Spears or Verdi? He wasn't sure.
And then she was bending forward, her dark hair flowing over Birkhoff's face. "Yes you did. You did...and now I'm going to take one more nibble," she whispered, as her teeth nicked soft, tender, flesh. "Mmmm. He tastes like my Spike..."
Angelus threw his head back and did every movie villian's evil laugh proud...let the sound echo through the entire stronghold even as the little half-vampire began to sob with horror and pain.
"You mean...he tastes like chicken?"
They spread out across the perimeter of the mansion like a flock of crows...black-clad and silent. She hung back, in the shadows of the dogwoods on the front lawn, wanting to go right up and knock on the front door. No...not knock. She wanted to dig into the pockets of her mission gear and pull out the rusty key. Let herself in.
The Dupres house in Metairie had been abandoned for almost 23 years. Since she'd been arrested. All the servants had fled that first week, claiming "bad mojo" lay in the old manor's foundation. Too much blood and sin and death.
Did Jean-Louis' blood still stain the Persian rug in the study? Or had it been replaced by Birkhoff's? Did Mamma's mad laughs still echo through the halls? Or had they been replaced by Drusilla's?
Madaleine didn't know why it had surprised her when Michael had uploaded this location to their panels. New Orleans and its suburbs brimmed with the lore of the undead. Anne Rice's decadence stalked the streets in velvet coats along with the grotesque reality of those like Angelus. And naturally Dru would remember the whispers from Washington society all those years ago. The gossip about a tragic teenager that Spike eventually chose to stalk and seduce. Her own memory of those days had aided *Section*'s plans and profiles.
Her life was coming full circle. Gearing up to have her son killed in the same place where she'd killed her father. Except that her father had been no innocent. And no child of a vampire. A long line of *powerful* vampires. She laughed harshly as she checked the clip on her Glock. Special holy water saturated ammunition. Buffy, Spike, and Michael would enter first. And then she, Paul, and Nikita would man the second wave, aided by abeyance ops. They would eliminate the targets, extract Birkhoff, destroy the base and commence egress. Any operatives left on site by Angelus' minions would be acceptable collateral. The mission profile was tight. There was little margin for error.
There would be death. This house would reek of it again before it exploded. Vampires. Mortals. Lovers. Children?
She closed her eyes, and it wasn't a prayer on her lips. . .just names. The names of the men in her life. The men who had perpetuated or become victimized in this terrible cycle. *Papa*. *Spike*. *Paul*. *Birkhoff.*
Michael's business-like whisper crackled over her comm unit, cutting off the brief reflection. "We're in. Team, begin second wave."
She moved forward...spying Paul's platinum hair out of the corner of her eye. He moved swiftly and stealthily...ever the soldier. And didn't spare her a second glance as he advanced on the entrance of her old family home. Nikita and the rest of the team flanked them.
They moved as one entity but she had never felt so alone.
The soft-spoken Frenchman was somewhere in the attic, having infiltrated a third floor window. And he and Buffy had come in through the veranda off the gardens, cutting the double glass doors efficiently and slipping into the heavily curtained but empty music room. Dru and Angelus were most certainly in the basement. Maybe even the wine cellar. The mission van's satellite interface had said as much. Not that he needed Section to know his sire and his princess's century-old habits.
Minions could, and *would*, be anywhere. They were stupid and expendable. Like Section's abeyance operatives.
The irony wasn't lost on Spike.
Stakes, two crossbows, and a flamethrower were stashed into various parts of his duster. Every sense was tuned and tensed. He was ready for this. But he couldn't say the same for his lover. This was only her third mission as an operative. And the hardest one she would ever undertake. She was ashen-faced in her mission blacks...moving like a professional thief, but with the wide eyes of a child needing to be held. And there was no time to hold her. Not now. Pulling her into his arms and tasting her sweet air would only give precious seconds to the enemy.
"The thermal sensors indicate three vamps in the hall...stationary," she murmured, shoulder to shoulder with him, adjusting the comm unit tucked behind her ear. "We're lucky Angel keeps them fed enough to generate body temperature."
He couldn't tell her that keeping minions fed was the only way to keep them from screwing everything in sight like dogs in heat. That would be trivia for another time. If they got out of here. "Let's pounce 'em, Pet...and get this show on the road."
No more words were necessary. They moved in perfect synchronicity, turning the door handle...slipping out into the candlelit hallway. The tall figures of monster-faced fledglings stood at each end...with the third just a few feet away, guarding a door. Before he could blink and focus on the intruders, Spike leapt. Twisted the thick neck and snapped it between his hands. He was vaguely aware of the sound of one silenced shot and then another. Holy water 9 millimeter bullets in the heart for each ugly bookend.
He heard Buffy's murmur of satisfaction, and reached out, catching her closer hand in a quick squeeze as his eyes chased each shadow in the musty, cobwebbed corridor. Her fingers were cool and clammy in his as they danced along one wall. No more fledglings here...he couldn't smell the death. But there were more below. And something stronger. The faintest sound of a heartbeat that wasn't Buffy's or Michael's. The pull of blood. His past. And his future.
He stumbled on a bunch in the faded carpet...felt her hand slip out of his as he caught himself on the edge of table before he hit the ground.
"Spike!" she whispered urgently.
"I'm all right," he hissed. "Go ahead."
"I said I'm fine, Slayer!" He looked up as he righted himself, expecting to see the concern bright in her compassionate eyes. "Damn it..."
Instead, he was faced with four, dark-haired, game-faced vampires.
And Buffy was gone.
One minute she'd been at Spike's side...and the next, a huge pair of hands had clamped over her mouth and the wall had swiveled like in a "Scooby Doo" cartoon. And still she couldn't let the hysteria overcome her. 'B' channel buzzed with the comforting noise of Operations barking orders to the team that was launching a full offensive on the front of the manor house. His voice was so cold, it chased away any chance that the creature that stood before her was going to scare her more.
It was a vampire with shaggy dark hair, and features that would've been striking if they were on his mortal face. Except that his smile betrayed fangs that were an extra two inches long. Gleaming in the dimness of the secret passage. And he was nearly seven feet tall.
She wrenched out of his grip, kicking at his knees with the steel toes of her boots, and as he released her, she took her favorite attack stance. "Okay, who are *you*?" she demanded, skipping banter and blowing hair out of her eyes.
"Angelus said you would be surprised...I'm glad to see he was right." The deep voice boomed, echoing through masses of spiderwebs and ickiness on the bricks walls that enclosed them. "I'm Kraylich," he supplied, with a superior smirk. "I'm what your Watcher's Council classifies a psychopath."
"And this is new *how*?" she shot, backing up, one hand fluttering above her holstered gun as the other closed around a stake tucked into the back of her mission pants. "I wasn't aware that "vampire" and "psycho" were mutually exclusive."
"And witty, too? It'll be good to watch you die."
She was prepared when he lunged for her, sidestepping and whirling around him, but she wasn't prepared for his fist flying out...clipping her chin. The impact knocked her head back and made her teeth rattle, but she stayed upright, countering by tossing a stake into his thigh with a flick of her wrist.
Kraylich growled, and kept coming...as if she'd thrown a toothpick. She backed up...deeper into the passage. The weight of her heavy pistol comforting in the hand she hid behind her back. "I'm not dying," she assured coolly. *Not when she'd just learned how to live again.*
"We'll see." His fist flew out again...and when it connected this time, things began to hurt.
In a matter of hours, Nikita had gone from never even knowing vampires existed, to *seeing* one, to seeing fifteen explode around her clouds of dust. No one else seemed the least bit disturbed. Grace, Jameson, and the other three ops from the abeyance pool were struggling valiantly as if handfighting with perfectly normal enemies. She heard their screams, but couldn't look. Even when Grace's severed hand landed at her feet.
Operations had all ready headed into the first floor ballroom, flame-thrower blazing. And what was most amazing was watching Madaleine shooting and staking with the same mechanized, cool, focus she gave to her bonsai trees. Her dark eyes were merciless and unfazed, her aim perfect.
Nikita ducked a wild punch from a hulking female minion, bringing up her left hand to plunge a sharp wooden stiletto through the creature's abdomen and twisting it upwards. The dust rained down on her and she shuddered...but before she could move onto the next threat, she realized that she and Section's strategist were finally alone in the mansion's great room. Surrounded by ash and corpses.
"Coordinate with Michael, Sector B," Madaleine hissed, turning around slowly to make sure no more vampires were lying in wait. "Retrieve Birkhoff!"
Sector B. The wine cellar just off the basement. She holstered her Glock and her stake, patting her Kevlar jacket to make sure the crossbow was still secure. "What about you?" she asked as she called up her mental area map. The servants' stairs in the back kitchen were her most viable entry point.
Madaleine's gaze flitted to the double doors that led off the hall. There was an oddly fatalistic look on her face. Resigned. "Operations needs back-up," she snapped distantly. Something Nikita recognized as a lie. Then the mask wavered. "Stick to the mission profile, Nikita. *Go*." *Save my son at any cost*, she meant.
Her feet were poised to propel her towards the back of the house, but Nikita hesitated for one more instant. And all it took was watching Madaleine's gun come up and train itself at her heart. "Get moving, or you're *canceled*."
For, perhaps, the first time since she'd been recruited, Nikita did what she was told without reservation. She broke into a run and didn't look back.
He perched, like Rodin's Thinker, on the edge of the elegant wing chair, staring at the stacked boxes and old furniture that had built a wall around him.
Drusilla had disappeared through one of the stacks, claiming "the whispers were calling" and Angelus had watched her go with something near dispassion. Most likely, she was going to her death. Their grand-childe was in the next room, struggling against his bonds and questioning his sanity. And the gunfire and shouts from above grew louder...and closer.
The end was near. Would Kraylich lay Buffy's broken body at his feet? Would she beg for mercy through cracked and bleeding lips? Would she scream and claw or just lie silent and take it as he plowed every trace of Spike from womb and then ripped out her throat? Would his childe burst in and lunge at him, mad with grief? Would Spike meet Death before he could meet the boy his seed had created?
Angelus could only hope.
She hit the ground hard even as her jaw reknit itself, healing from Kraylich's previous blow. "Bastard," she hissed, willing her eyes to stay open. If she lost consciousness...it would be all over. *The pain is nothing,* she told herself. *Birkhoff needs me. Spike needs me.* Images flashed through her mind...holding Giles as the factory burned...her mom baking cupcakes for her fourth grade class...cramming for a math final with Will and Xand...training with Michael...fixing Operations chair so it would collapse...learning how to hack the FBI computer from Birky...and making love to Spike. Something she wanted to do over and over. Something she couldn't do if she died right now.
Her vision cleared. The red haze lifted as she drew on every last vestige of strength...just in time to focus on the one steel-toed boot that was descending at an alarming speed towards her ribcage. For the fatality. Buffy drew a deep breath...and then thrust her hands up, catching Kraylich's foot just inches from her sternum like she'd once caught Angelus' sword. She gave a violent shove and the huge vampire went flying. He slammed into the wall that had spun around some minutes ago.
"Bitch!" he roared, on his feet again almost instantly. "Now we stop playing."
"No problems here." She stood on shaky legs, hand jerking her Glock semi-automatic from her back holster. She squeezed off three shots in quick succession. Kraylich's arms and then his stomach burst into flames. A roundhouse to his throat crushed his windpipe. Then, she jettisoned a stake from the clip in her sleeve. Angelus' big surprise had a few seconds to look shocked before his face dissipated into ash and floated down to her feet.
The air rushed back into her lungs. Energy into her limbs. Her legs propelled her further down the secret passage. She'd studied the 3D site map Tactical had drawn up from the Metairie Hall of Records' blueprints. If Section's projections and her interpretation of Kraylich's intentions were correct...the passage led straight to the basements. And Angelus.
As she ran through the narrow corridor, she adjusted her comm unit, switching to the back-up channel. But where there should have been the comforting sound of sporadic check-ins, intel updates, and gunfire...there was only static. No breathing. No words. No Operations or Madaleine.
Buffy could only pray that everyone else was still alive.
The instant she entered the ballroom, her worst fears were confirmed. The flamethrower lay by the doorway in a pile of ash and dust. A trail of shells on the white marble floor led to a spent clip...a handgun broken in half...and, finally, Paul.
His eyes were blank. The gray of death instead of the blue of life. He stood, swaying slightly, in front of a beautiful woman that Madaleine had hoped to never see again. Earnest, almost child-like black eyes...blood red fingernails waving in his face. Her voice was a thick Cockney. "See in me...be in me... "
"Drusilla!" The creature's name spilled from her lips and echoed sharply through the circular white and gold room. "Stop!" Madaleine fired a warning shot. Plaster and dry wall rained down from the ceiling. "It's me you want!"
Dru leapt back, feral mask dropping as she whirled and growled. She cocked her head, showing her teeth like a wolf bitch asserting dominance. "Mummy's come to get her baby, but she'll lose her love," she trilled, a vision of death in a black velvet shroud. "How awful...how perfectly sad."
Madaleine advanced slowly, watching the color start to come back to Paul's face, the sense fade back into his eyes, as the witchery wore off. "You're the one who has lost," she began conversationally. Her best White Room head game voice. "Angelus and Spike both love the Slayer and by the end of the night, one will have her and the other will be dead...that's what this is all about. And where does that leave you, Dru? It means you're all alone."
"You will be, too. You'll be alone, Miss Maddy...forever." One sharp nail trailed lightly across Paul's throat. "This place sings to me...puts pictures in my head," Drusilla sighed, her brows knitting together with consternation.
"What does it sing?" she questioned delicately, keeping her fingers on the sensitive trigger of her firearm. "Of a scared little girl whose mother used to call her a 'devil child'? Of a dark, evil, man who made her cry night after night? Does that sound familiar?"
The vampiress, who held Paul's life in her vicious grasp, stilled. Caught by the images. By the implication.
"You and I are the same, Drusilla," Madaleine continued smoothly. "We're victims...victims who need love. If you kill the man *I* love, I promise you...*both* of the men you love will die. I will kill Spike myself. Sides don't matter to people like me." Even as she said the heartless words, she knew they were true. She would sacrifice her child's father and Buffy's lover in an instant if it meant she could save her child and her own lover. And William the Bloody would do the exact same...sacrifice *her* for the same end. A species separated them, but inside, they were one.
Drusilla's pale face was taut with struggle, torn between demon seed and human longing. But insanity won. "No...no," she keened, clapping her hands over her ears. "The whispers...oh, you can't kill my Spike...not my Spike. . .only the child must die tonight." She shook her head, and her keening wail grew louder. "Mummy's wrong...I'm not a devil child."
"No. You're a vampire."
With a low hiss, Paul snapped out of his self-imposed catatonia, wrapping his arm around her alabaster throat. He tightened the chokehold as the mad monster flailed. Madaleine didn't flinch, didn't pause as she brought up her Glock.
"Maddy, Maddy...you said we were the same," Drusilla reminded, thrashing as her eyes yellowed and her teeth elongated.
As Operations thrust the vampiress forward and dove out of range, she emptied her clip. Drusilla's chest began to smoke and then to burn. First her black heart disintegrated...and then her corporeal body. A last high-pitched sob swirled into the abyss.
In the ensuing silence, as ashes settled on their clothes, Paul's eyes were delightfully alive. Delightfully warm. And forgiving. Not the man who had shut her out just hours ago, but the man who had let her *in* over two decades ago. "You love me?" he wondered hoarsely.
She simply smiled and wrapped her arm around his waist. She brushed a light kiss across his weathered cheek, and they stumbled out of the ballroom together.