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Deadwar 1.1 (Damn Nation)

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  • Deadwar 1.1 (Damn Nation)

    Disclaimer: I am making not a penny from this. All characters belong to Joss/Mutant Enemy/whoever.

    Rating: PG-13

    Setting: Post-"Shadow Sun", roughly two years after "Chosen".

    Beta: Yosso

    "I have no name in the regions which I inhabit," replied the voice, mournfully; "I was mortal, but am fiend. I was merciless, but am pitiful. "
    --"The Premature Burial", Edgar A. Poe


    Fighting evil just doesn't pay. But then, that's not why she does it.

    Blond hair streaming behind her, she careens through the cemetery, dodging crumbling grey marble and the sagging branches of ill-placed trees. The latter are by far the more dangerous. A careless girl could stake herself on those. She has to not be careless. Not being careless is hard, though; impulsiveness is part of both her natures. A running leap carries her over the great bulk of a mausoleum, where she crumples to the ground, hidden from view. Moments later, her pursuers appear around the side, approaching more cautiously. She supposes they're afraid of her. It wouldn't be the first time she's been mistaken for something she's not.

    She lashes out in a rising side kick, toppling the greasy-looking fellow on her left. Some people use being dead as an excuse to totally lose their fashion sense. This loser probably never had one to start with. She slams him and his lame-ass tie-dyed t-shirt against the mausoleum wall. "Where'd you get that thing? Wal-Mart? No way you were buried in it." Don't they bury guys in a suit and tie, even if they were some kind of trailer trash? He snarls back at her. "Look, stupid, if you're going to make trouble, you really ought to pick on a fledgeling or something. I'm a master vampire, you know." Well, sort of. "I'm way stronger and faster than..." Something hard slams into her back. She'd half-forgotten about the other two. Witty banter just takes up too much of her attention.

    It could be worse. She's not falling apart in little bits of blow-away dust. It'd have been a crime to let this ensemble go that way, after all the trouble she went to. She spins around, keeping the greasy vampire locked in her grip. She's not totally stupid, after all; let him soak up the punches.

    "Traitor," growls some chick with curly red hair. "You think having a soul makes you better than us, but you're just as much a monster as we are. You're just conflicted about it." She reverses the wooden club she's holding and drives a pointy end into the hostage who was her buddy five seconds ago. Well, so much for that strategy. "That makes you weak."

    Aww...come on! "Hey! You have no idea how hard I've fought to get this soul and keep it." After the third time she had to go crawling back to Willow, whimpering about how much trouble and danger she was in, she finally had to ask people to stop giving gifts. Not being able to squeal over her latest bit of sparkly jewelry makes her miserable. If only that weren't the point. "If you're so tough, why don't you see how you handle one?" She holds her head up as proudly as she can manage with her hair full of scratchy twigs. "I've seen big mean football players stake themselves 'cause they can't handle an itty-bitty bit of guilt. Don't you get how totally lame that is? I mean, if I can manage one...." Harmony tries to put on a convincing sneer. These aren't terrified fledges scurrying from the new Big Bad...or is that Big Good? (It's awfully hard to tell.) They meant to kill her because they thought she was Buffy. Which makes them real idiots. Nobody can kill Buffy. And now that they've realized she's not Buffy, they want to kill her for having a soul, which is even dumber. Souls hurt. They hurt a lot. But they keep Buffy's stakes out of your heart. Better to be miserable than dusty.

    She's let herself get distracted again. How does Buffy do it? Vampire number three thwacks her on the head with his own club. He's a shrimpy little geek. For a moment she's tempted to make fun of him, but he probably passes for the brains of this outfit. That's what geeks are good for, after all. Maybe she can persuade him to take on a soul. He lunges for her, grumbling something under his breath about cheerleaders. No fair! So she grabs his arm and slams him into the redhead. "C'mon, four-eyes. Like you said...cheerleader." Harmony leaps into an aerial flip; it's so much easier than when she was human. At the top of it she snaps off a pair of long, pointy branches hanging overhead. "You can't take a cheerleader with moves like that, loser." Now she's angry. Screw ensouling these morons, if they're going to insult her. She stakes the geek on the way down. She tries to stake the redhead, too, but the improvised weapon misses the heart and merely pins her to the ground. The girl lets out a whimpering sort-of snarl and struggles free, staring around as if expecting her stupid little gang to rematerialize.

    Harmony's not really out to kill tonight. Not if she doesn't have to, anyway. Being a vampire is hard. Maybe the redhead will get that now. "Hey, look...you don't have to go on like this. I mean, it's no fun having a soul, but it's no fun being alone and having everyone hate you, either. Really...no hard feelings." She reaches out a hand. It's more of an offer than the girl deserves, but hey...forgiveness, right? And the more vampires with souls, the better.

    The redhead promptly kicks her in the face. By the time Harmony picks herself up off the ground, she's scurrying away through the graveyard. Oh well. Maybe she'll think it over. Sometimes they do. Ugh...she's got to be such a mess now. Harmony pulls a hard little case out of her pocket and flips it open. The digital camera renders an image of her face. Scratches, bruises, stuff in her hair... Maybe she should get in on Andrew's little business venture while she can.

    It'll pay more than fighting evil.
    ********
    Giles had spent his life preparing for the death of his Slayer. All Watchers did. But somewhere along the line, he'd forgotten that training. He'd determined that he was not going to allow Buffy to die. Nor did he. The trouble, he supposes, is that death rarely seems to wait for one's permission.

    The ghastly discovery that Buffy was not simply dead--that she was the first Slayer to be turned in perhaps a thousand years--had given him a sort of inchoate hope. Intellectually, he knew that the walking corpse was not...could not truly be Buffy. But, then, didn't the tales explain why such turnings were rare? That vampires knew the power that could result, and feared it? Perhaps, somehow, the Slayer nature lived on in some form...modified the demon...made it possible for it to serve the cause of good. That would explain Buffy's...the vampire's subsequent actions.

    He might even have wanted to believe that--once, years before, when he'd been fresh from the Council and determined that Buffy would do as she was told like every other Slayer. Now, though...only Buffy, only the real Buffy can give him relief from his sorrow. And she never will.

    Giles leafs cautiously through Planchard's Guide to the Spirits, careful lest he mar a page or blot the ink with his sweat. If it were truly Buffy...surely she would never resist the ensoulment. That she does so demonstrates as false what he already knows to be impossible. The creature with Buffy's face can never be Buffy. Not truly, not ever again. Even if they find the secret, wear down her shields, her body will always be cold; she will always share it with the demon that animates her form. Perhaps forever. None of their efforts to destroy her came near succeeding, not even once.

    He sighs and puts the book aside. Another false lead. He has no time for this, not really. He'd always had difficulties with Quentin Travers, but the man's impersonal style had served a purpose. No one could lead an organization of such size without some measure of detachment; Travers had simply carried it too far. Giles cannot devote infinite time to any one individual. Not even to Buffy.

    Giles needs numbers. Ideally, every Slayer should have a Watcher...a guide, a trainer, a confidant. But the order lies in ruins now, and even if it did not there were many members that he would never have wished on any girl. He has spent two years tracking down those he can trust and struggling to recruit new ones, but the former are difficult to find and the latter require almost as much training as Slayers themselves. There is simply too much to do.

    He gets up to pace around the office. Wesley's office, not so terribly long ago. The Hyperion is quiet this time of night, the twenty or so Slayers-in-training who reside here patrolling or asleep. Willow tells him often that he does not sleep enough. He is only human, after all, and needs his rest. But sleep brings dreams...nightmares that, having filtered through into reality, return distorted to his unconscious mind.

    On his second pass, the doorway has a woman standing in it. Giles stops, fumbling for words. "The door was unlocked," she informs him in a light tone. "I understand Angel Investigations helps the helpless?"

    "It did. When it was located here. I'm afraid it's been closed down for three years." If not for that, this could be the classic opening of a detective novel, complete with femme fatale--albeit one not so slender or long-legged as the norm. Her shape, a bit fleshier than that, conforms more to older notions of beauty than to the modern, pencil-thin model. Wavy black hair has been pulled back into a loose braid almost to her waist. A disappointed frown crinkles her olive-brown face...but fails to touch her eyes.

    "That's a real shame. I suppose I'll have to settle for the new headquarters of the Watchers' Council, then. Mister Rupert Giles, I presume?"

    Startled, he offers her a hand, which she ignores. "I'm curious how you obtained the advantage of me. But yes, I am he. Please...take a seat." Watchers have been filtering in over the course of months, but this woman resembles none of the people in his files. Of course, the Council has always had its shadier operatives...but he has no real wish to take them on, and has not attempted to contact them. Their functions were typically darker than he has any desire to revive.

    He resumes his own seat behind the desk, looking up to see she has taken this offer, at least. "Sadha Kaur," she informs him, her tone pleasant, if a little curt. "I'm afraid I left the Council after the death of my Slayer. I try to keep tabs, however, as far as possible." He knows precisely how far that is--not very--but it explains her presence, at least. And his name, at least, is known, odd though it is that she recognizes his face.

    "Then I understand your pain...ah, Ms. Kaur. Some traditions, however well-intended, are difficult to keep. I must admit, however, that I do not recall encountering your name in my researches, which have been rather extensive of late. I had thought that I knew the names of all surviving Watchers who have mentored a Slayer." His hand goes to the cabinet in his desk, thoughtfully. Perhaps he has simply missed her file somehow.

    Sadha sighs gently. "It has been some time, I suppose. She died during the Third Rakshasa Uprising. After that...well, it simply wasn't possible for me to carry on." Her left hand worries at a strand of beads hanging around her neck, and she smiles as if at a small joke. "I became very, very upset with the Council."

    It's his turn to frown now, though not with disappointment. "I don't see how that can be, Ms. Kaur. I'm quite certain that the Third Rakshasa Uprising happened in 1804. Or did I misunderstand you?" Giles bends down over the file drawer, seeking not papers but a weapon, just in case. There have been impostors seeking positions with him lately; one, even, that he hired after the deception was revealed. Regrettable, but some degree of skullduggery, he supposes, will always be a necessity of his calling.

    "No, I believe you understood me," she states, with just a hint of lisp. Giles groans. The Hyperion is still a place of public accomodation. "I'm quite dead."
    ********
    Negotiating. Who would have believed it?

    Chao-Ahn struggles with the instinct warning her to lash out with the stakes in her belt loops. Another layer of sensation is telling her there is no need, but it seems incredulous somehow. Ten vampires with souls, all in one room...she might as well expect to meet a dragon. But then, she reminds herself, she's seen one of those too.

    "Surely you understand why we need to watch your movements," she begins in French. Not knowing English has always been an embarrassment to her, and so she has tried very hard, but the language is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. How the Americans manage with it, she has no idea. If only France had kept Louisiana, it would have been so much easier for her in North America. Mr. Giles had gone an amusing shade of red when he discovered she was fluent. But what kind of fool did he think she was, to speak only one language in Hong Kong?

    "Of course!" snaps the light-haired woman to her left. "Naturally you must treat us like dangerous animals, after all that we went through to make you safe!" Soul or no soul, her demon visage struggles forward, a sign of anger. Ironic, that the young ones are so much more prone to that than the old. Short unlives of mostly following orders have left many of them relatively little guilt. Only one of those here has spent more than fifty years among the undead.

    "I heard that it was to save yourselves," Chao-Ahn responds, "not for us at all." Believing the intense young woman from California has sent these ripples through the underworld is easy. So driven, so confident. It was imagining Buffy failing at anything that was difficult. Somehow, she must have failed, or she would be alive. "I thank you for it anyway, but yes, you are still dangerous."

    The swarthy man on her right shrugs. "We did not seek out souls so that we could spend eternity in fear of you." His temper is more even, though she hears the tension in his voice. "Obviously we had hoped we would be safe. That you would trust us, now. Sooner or later the others, the unsouled, will turn on us, when they believe the danger to them has eased. We will need protection like anyone else."

    Chao-Ahn shakes her head. "If only it were that simple. You have the proof that it is not." She glances at the blanketed figure lurking in the back of the room. "You still require blood to live. You still have the impulses that drive you to feed on us. We are pleased that you choose not to, but even humans kill at times, soul or no soul."

    "Well, that much is clear," the woman mutters. "What about your impulses? You can't tell me you don't want to stick those things in our hearts. Don't deny it...you want us dead."

    "You are dead," Chou-Ahn says softly, though not unkindly. "But you are not totally wrong. I merely point out that we have reason to fear each other, and offer ways to ease that fear, for both of our kinds' sakes."

    The light-haired woman seems on the verge of offering another rejoinder, but frightened babbling erupts from the back of the room. Perhaps one day Chao-Ahn will grow used to seeing concern on a vampire's face, ridges or no ridges, but not today. "Just a moment," the woman says instead, and rises. Chao-Ahn waits patiently. She should feel no pity...but she does.

    Determining a vampire's age is not an exact science, but from the corrugations on the forehead of the woman cowering against the wall, she might be as little as a century from losing her human face entirely. Far older than the others, their sire has no doubt bathed some corner of the world in blood--from elapsed time spent feeding, if nothing else. She huddles there, clutching wrinkled blankets so tightly that the pleats dig grooves in her flesh. Perhaps the physical pain is even a relief. Among the English words Chao-Ahn has learned to recognize are "sorry", "mercy", and "please"; she hears them over and over, now, mixed with a garble of other sounds that mean nothing to her. The vampires stroke their elder's back, her forehead, murmuring soothing words as if to a child. Chao-Ahn considers handing out a little mercy of her own. But would that make her no different from them?

    Finally the blond woman returns to her seat. "Buffy did this to her," she intones. "She was more afraid of Buffy than...than this. Have you given any thought to that? My sire could tear you limb from limb, Slayer or not. Ask yourself what could possibly terrify her into going through with this...and then ask yourself how you can call what Buffy does good."

    "I don't," Chao-Ahn answers, slightly embarrassed. "I won't make apologies for Buffy. She's...not our kind any more, though. She's yours." The response draws glares, and Chao-Ahn backs down a little. "Well, not only our kind. But everything your sire is going through now is far less than what she's earned. I admit to feeling sorry for her anyway, but she made her own decision, and now she has to live with it." A pause. "I won't stop her from living with it. For whatever that's worth to you."

    The man takes a deep breath. "And we've made the decision to care for her. We couldn't endanger humans if we wanted to, not while she's like this. Elsbet takes up too much of our time for that."

    Chao-Ahn nods. "I understand. But you need to understand as well. It's normal and natural for humans to be afraid of you. Most people can't tell you have souls. Even many Slayers can't." The vampires sigh resignedly; they recognize this as true. "The world is changing, and humans need time to adjust. We need...space," she concludes. "Space to breathe."

    The blond vampire snarls, rising from her seat. Chao-Ahn begins to reach for a stake--she might be able to escape, at least--but the vampire paces away from her across the room. Several of the others turn to glare. Chao-Ahn frowns in confusion. Surely the pun wasn't that bad.
    ********
    Beep. Beep. Beep.

    The slow, steady cadence that divides life from death.

    Gabriel doesn't need the overlay as humans do. He can hear the sound it was meant to represent, the steady thud of Michelle's heartbeat. He can hear the shallow wheeze of her breathing, too, and smell the fragrance of her sluggish blood, and see the heat that emanates from her body.

    If only he could hear more. If only he could hear her speak.

    They tell him her prognosis is poor. Despite the popular depictions of coma patients awakening after years of unconsciousness, those events are rare. Generally speaking, such people die never having opened their eyes again, never realizing what's become of them. It's not in any way fair, Gabriel thinks. To waste away like this...to wake, if at all, in a body years older, in a world perhaps changed beyond recognition. Michelle has been here for five years. It could be worse, of course. And almost certainly, it will.

    All that time, he left her here. Never once bothered to look on her face, or kiss her forehead, or drip tears on her flesh. The doctors have accepted--reluctantly--his tale of amnesia, a peculiar ailment that can behave in unexpected ways. None of it is true, though. He knew the woman he'd loved was here. He just didn't care.

    In that time, Gabriel had met vampires who were capable of love...or at least something that resembled it. Most often, among their own kind, usually between sire and spawn. Every now and then, affection for a human. Typically such attraction ended in the human being turned...but it was there. Otherwise, why transform one's lunch at all? He hadn't been among them, though. He'd woken to realize that his lover no longer meant more to him than any other warm, in this case rather tasteless meal.

    Oh, he'd given some thought to turning her. It was what his own sire had intended, after all. If not for the chance arrival of police--a misinformed drug raid--she might have been with him already. Instead, she'd been left for dead, lying there on the couch, just another discarded lunch wrapper. There were always other interesting humans to change, and being shot could hurt. And in the end, he'd decided the same thing his sire had. She wasn't worth the effort.

    Gabriel wonders, now, if something had always been wrong with their love that caused it not to last. Was it so imperfect, so impure with guilt, that the loss of guilt erased it? Could it be that such things were determined by the human personality too? Or was it merely a function of the exact nature of each demon that occupied the body? He knows which one he prefers to believe. If only he could convince himself it was the truth.

    He runs a finger along the curve of her lips, avoiding the feeding tube. The nurses come in from time to time, trying to keep her muscles stimulated...just in case she ever needs them again. Too much wasting away could mean her death, as well. They wouldn't want that. Losing a patient, no matter what the cause or circumstances, looks bad on their records. Wouldn't do to be sued for malpractice. Gabriel brushes his lips against the unblinking lids of her eyes. But this is not a fairy tale.

    Can "sorry" make up for five years of neglect? Does it matter that she would never have known he was here? Can it really make so much of a difference that he wasn't himself? It must not, he realizes. Else it would make the same difference to the ones he's killed.

    Gabriel holds her limp, warm hands in his cold, dextrous ones. He can feel the bones through her flesh. Her skin's pallor leaves it all but translucent...not so different from his own, really.

    Beep. Beep. Beep.

    It's only a heartbeat that lies between them, after all. Gabriel contemplates the machines that hold her here on the brink of life, and hates them for it. They can never heal her. He unclenches the fist he's made of his left hand, fingernails digging into his palm. Not sanitary, not at all. Especially not in a hospital, among the sick. Gabriel smooths the curly hair away from his love's waxen forehead, wishing her eyes could see his face. He clasps her hand, seeking forgiveness, if she can grant it to a thing like himself. He brushes his fingers along her lips once more.

    And gently feeds her death.
    ********
    Kennedy never warms the bed much. It's her metabolism, Willow supposes, slow for a Slayer. If Slayer powers have anything to do with metabolism. They never did figure that one out. Maybe she should try...but later. Right now she just wants to get out from under the cold sheets and get some breakfast.

    She pads down the hall in her pjs. Most of the Slayers are in by now, sleeping. The sun may not have reached all the way down the long canyons to street level yet, but it's up. There are demons about, of course, but most of them aren't the sort that humans have to be afraid of. Those prefer the darkness. Easier to hunt at night. Willow hears sleepy grunts, mumbled complaints, a few snores. Slayers dream an awful lot. Part of the package. Kennedy's always waking her up with sleeptalk.

    The offices downstairs are quiet; she starts to check voice mail for messages and sees a post-it note stuck to the fridge. Naturally. One day Giles is going to have to get the hang of voice mail, or they're all going to wake up dead. She means the thought as a joke, but it won't come out that way; her incipient smile turns upside down. Willow knows they could, in fact, wake up dead. Just like Buffy. Kinda takes the humor out of it.

    Giles has gone out on business. That's all the note says. What kind of business would be nice to know...but they really don't need to, and if they did, at least he's probably taken a cell phone. Even Giles manages to move with the times, if not as fast as the rest of them. She supposes he's found another Watcher to bring into the fold. They're always in need of Watchers. Desperately in need, Willow admits to herself. There are times when she wishes she could take the spell back. But she's tried that, and the genie is out of the bottle for good. Not to mention what might just happen if it worked, and left only one Slayer; Willow suspects she knows who'd be left standing.

    She ponders her options briefly and comes down in favor of ordinary cereal. Not the best start to a day, but Willow doesn't feel like cooking now. She can be perky later; right now she just feels sluggish and sleepy. Normally she doesn't wake this early, and for a moment she wonders what might have jolted her out of dreamland. But it was probably just Kennedy again.

    Willow thinks Kennedy loves her, she really does. But, munching on her Weet-a-Bix, it's hard to say for sure that Willow loves her back. There's affection, no question, but not like with Tara, or even Oz. Kennedy is pushy. Kennedy is loud. Kennedy is obnoxious. And Willow has learned to tolerate these things, because she knows how valuable the relationship has been to her. The other woman helped her find her way back from the darkness after Tara's death, back to solid footing and usefulness to her friends. But those days...they're long over.

    They'd argued again last night about Buffy. Kennedy just doesn't see what she sees--that Buffy, even if she can somehow manage to mean well, has gone much too far. From Kennedy's perspective, a demon is a demon, and it doesn't matter why Buffy kills them. Or how. Evil is evil, and that makes what Buffy does good. If she enjoys it...so much the better for her. It's a remarkably Faithlike perspective--the old Faith, the Faith who ended up working for Mayor Wilkins. And far too many of the new Slayers seem to agree with it.

    Willow's seen what Buffy does, though, and Kennedy hasn't. Willow was there when Buffy...rescued her. At first it was easy to be angry at the vampire who'd caught her from behind and nearly sucked the life out of her. At first. But Buffy didn't stake him. Didn't twist his head off, or set him on fire. She dug her fingers under the creature's skin and began to eviscerate him, organ by organ. Humans could die from a great many things. Vampires, not so much. Willow knew every piece that Buffy pulled out of him--dried and desiccated, they were so much more like the pictures in an anatomy book than squishy living organs would have been. His liver. His lungs. His heart. And more and more, while he began to wail in agony and plead for death, while Buffy sneered into his face and told him his pain was illusion, everything he felt was a lie. Killer had become victim, then; predator had become prey. And Willow's fear of him had turned to horror for him. Even a little sympathy, before the end. She'd driven a pencil into his discarded heart, and done it out of mercy. And Buffy had glared at her as if Willow were an ungrateful piece of filth and stalked away.

    Never mind that the vampire was a dead, soulless thing. He'd felt pain, felt fear, and Willow could never again believe otherwise. Kill them? Yes, when it had to be done. And it did have to be done, numbingly often. But torture them? No...not ever. Not ever again. So how can she love someone who can shrug off what Buffy does as harmless?

    Willow has finished her cereal. She'd barely even tasted it. Not unusual, for someone so easily lost in thought. But probably not a good thing, either. There are all those studies on habitual eating and obesity and...

    Something is scraping at the door. Or thumping, very very softly. It could be a cat, or a small puppy; there are way too many discarded pets in the city. It could be something else, too, something a lot less friendly. For some reason, the urban legend springs to her mind about the girl hiding in her car while her hanged boyfriend's shoes thump against its roof.

    But it's daylight, now, and even if that daylight hasn't quite made it down to ground level there aren't going to be vampires roaming the city now. Not more than one or two, and certainly not scratching at the door of Slayer Central. Except maybe one of the handful of ensouled vampires that they know for sure is an ally. Harmony, maybe. Or Anne.

    That doesn't make the slow thumping any less creepy.

    She peers out the peephole and sees nothing. But the faint noise continues from the other side. So, keeping a eensy defensive spell on her lips, she whips the door open, ready for anything imaginable. Which, for her, is an awful lot.

    Still nothing, for just an instant. And then something rolls against her feet and she looks down.

    Willow begins to scream.
    ********
    Lois O'Neil knows for a fact that vampires can love, whatever foolishness some humans believe. She loves her job. She loves her bar. Oh, maybe she doesn't love all her clientele, the less so in recent months, but she's fond enough of them too, and fond enough of the money they bring in that she's not planning to keep anyone out. An ensouled vampire's cash is still cash, after all.

    There are a good deal more of them, too. Ordinary vampires come to a place like this to relax; hunting is fun, but one doesn't always want to exert oneself for a meal. But the ensouled are stupidly squeamish. Like vegetarians, she thinks, they can't stand the thought of eating anything that moves around. They differ in what they can put up with; some will take bagged human blood (often without asking where she got it), while others feel free to feed on "evil" humans, and still others--the lowest, in her mind--will drink only from animals. Last month she accepted her first shipment of dog blood, which is not so foul as pig, let alone rat, but far from otter, something of an occasional delicacy even for the unsouled. Otter is simply too hard to get ahold of, sadly, at least for a small operator like herself. She'd rather not purchase the disgusting stuff at all...well, otter, maybe, if she could find it cheap enough...but the customer is always right, and there's no profit these days in being a bigot.

    Someone always makes money off chaos, though. The bar is lined with poor unhappy sots struggling to stay afloat under the massive weight of guilt they've brought on themselves, and the tables too, and the booths are filled with slightly higher-quality customers plotting out some way of making their own profit off the mess, along with a few demonic minions--Fyarl, mostly. It's almost enough to make Lois forgive that sire-killing Slayer bitch Buffy Summers. No one seems entirely certain who it was that turned the girl, but everyone agrees the fool is dead. Must have been off his rocker, Lois supposes. Nothing good ever came of turning Slayers. Except, in Lois' case, a tidy sum.

    If this keeps up, she realizes, she'll soon be able to buy one of those new-fangled tap contraptions that draw off the blood and heat it. Rumor had it the blueprints had come out of Sunnydale too, a few years back, albeit a bit modified. Lois' lips twitch at the thought of restoring the original specs and filling taps off live humans. The poor devils here would never guess, and she'd really be doing them a favor. Live blood is so much healthier in the long run. Too much risk of giving them back a taste for the good stuff, though. They might go off hunting on their own again. She shakes her head and goes on filling glasses.

    The doors swing open, admitting a foul odor of alcohol and other noxious chemicals. Lois sighs as the scent's owner follows it inside. Not so much for the nasty smell--which would be bad enough on its own--as for her sire. A hundred-fifty years of bloodshed and destruction, and in the end it all comes down to this. One damned girl in all the world. Hundreds of Slayers had been bad enough, though fortunately they seemed ill-trained, but everyone lived with the possibility of ending as dust and always had. The real risk is in not ending, in spending weeks or months or--who knew?--maybe even years in misery first.

    Lois searches briefly for an empty spot before shooing a fresh-faced girl with too high a running tab from her stool. Respect for one's sire--up to a point, anyway--makes the world go round. Though sometimes the best respect one can offer a sire is to show you've outgrown him. "Eddie," she calls, "over here, hon." Edwin is still so much faster than her, so much stronger. Always will be, barring training rather too intense for her tastes. He shambles over to the cleared seat with a grateful look on his face, clutching his jacket tight around him as if he were cold. It might be kinder to put him out of his misery, but for now she still owes him too much. And he owes her a bit too much, too. Maybe if he ever manages to pay up.

    Eddie fumbles about with the box of napkins to no obvious purpose. "G'd evenin', Lo'." From the scent, she'd say he's had a little too much wine. She never drinks wine, not seeing the point in becoming drunk and not particularly liking the taste. They said one had to acquire such things, and Lois had never really cared to. It doesn't really matter what she does any more--she'd said her prayers in life and her soul is perfectly safe with Jesus now--but she prefers to be fully aware of the mayhem she's causing. Odd, though...he doesn't sound drunk.

    "Lemme get you a glass, Eddie. We've got plenty of dog on hand. Or horse, if you'd rather...it's a little fuller." What a waste he's become, the man who taught her everything she needed to know. Bloodshed. Chaos. Oh, and the joy of old monster movies. Eddie knew the greats backward and front. Boris Karloff...Bela Lugosi...Lon Chaney. Eddie had shown her that, for all the expense of modern special effects, the old masters of the genre were the ones who truly understood what they represented. She doubts now that he could so much as be roused to complain about the travesty of "Nightmare on Elm Street". He's simply too far gone.

    To her surprise, Eddie smiles at her. "Ac'shally...I think, j'st this once, you sh'ld get me an AB." Diffidently, but with more confidence than he's shown in...well, far too long. "J'st this one time, that is. I, um..." He drops his head again, sighing. "Even if you killed 'em, I'm not hurtin' em anymore, right?"

    She stares at him for a moment before fetching a glass. Maybe he's recovering. A fool thought--they never really recover, not the good parts at least--but just maybe. At least enough to stop moping about and do something with his unlife. "Here you go. Drink up, hon. This'll fix you up proper, not like that glop you've been on."

    Eddie takes a hesitant sip, and his face lights up. How long has it been since he so much as showed a fang? "Yer right, Lo'. This's the good stuff." He swallows it down like the ambrosia it is. "Can't get 'way from it, can we?"

    "Course we can't, Eddie." She pats him on the shoulder. Some sires would never allow such familiarity, but Eddie'd always taken great pleasure in observing his spawn. "It's in our nature, you know. You shouldn't fight it so hard." He'd told her he liked to change all different kinds of people--rich and poor, good and evil, old and young--to see what the transformation made of them. There were always similiarities and differences, naturally, and it seemed impossible to predict the degree. He himself had been a "freethinker" in England in life, though he'd never quite given up belief in God. For him it had been more a matter of fashion than real conviction, and he'd especially enjoyed seeing what became of people with strong faith of any kind. She'd been a Baptist herself...actually, supposes the other part of her still is, as far as such things matter in the afterlife. "Besides, hon...it's way too late for us to go changing now, isn't it?"

    Eddie just nods and finishes his drink, not looking so enthused anymore. He'd never wanted to change before; none of them had. It was this whole unnatural mucking about with souls and black magic that made them want that. "S'pose it is. Way, way too late." Now that his glass is empty, he seems to be sinking back into melancholy, but when she moves to refill it he blocks her. "Had enough, Lo'." She doubts that, but lets him be.

    "Will you be staying a spell, then? I've missed seeing you around here. Vanessa and Curt would be glad to talk to you too." They're his spawn, too, both a few years younger than her. They tend more toward the violent kills, but every now and then the four of them had gotten together here to shoot the breeze. There's still such a thing as friendship, after all.

    "Don't 'spect to leave here t'night, Lo'." Eddie shakes his head, and for the first time lets his jacket fall open a little. Lois' eyes go wide. She could run for it, but maybe she'd have a better chance trying to rip the wires loose...not that she knows the first thing about what she's seeing. No telling how much he's got packed in there. "I really am sorry." He palms a sort of button-trigger out of his left sleeve. He's always been faster than her. His thumb tightens on the button. "But we belong dead."
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
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