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Chapter Sixteen

Los Angeles, Summer of 2003


Four Slayers already rounded up, and they’d even found Gunn…who, for some strange reason, had taken the form of a panther. From the expression on Angel’s face, Methos deduced the vampire may know the reason why, and he didn’t look too happy about it. Methos shook his head as he banished his curiosity from his mind, it wasn’t his problem, and he needed to keep his head in the game. They still had two Slayers to go, and one of them was Kennedy, and she was one Slayer he intended to bring home in one piece. A dead Kennedy was worse than a live and jealous one…and he can’t believe he’d just thought that.

He snorted at the unintended joke, and ignored Angel’s pointed glare. Something told him the vampire wasn’t in the mood for gallows humour, and he couldn’t blame the guy. Methos narrowed his eyes as he peered up at the sun, it was beginning to dip towards the horizon and he gauged they had less than an hour of good light left. For Angel that wouldn’t be a problem, he wasn’t so sure about the Slayers. “What’s a Slayer’s night vision like?” he asked.

“Better than a human’s but not as good as a Vamp’s,” Buffy said, understanding the question. “What about you?”

Methos shrugged. “Better than average,” he said. “Although that might be down to experience, rather than physiology.”

“Well, you sure move quietly, is that experience too?”

Methos’s lips quirked, she was a hell of a lot sharper than she looked. He supposed she’d have to be, to survive this long. “I dare say,” he said noncommitally.

“Not telling, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s good at that,” Angel muttered.

“Tell you what, I’ll tell you some of my old war stories, and you tell me some of yours. What were you up to a hundred years, or so, ago?” It was a low blow, and Methos knew it, but he was in no mood for fencing words. He needed to get out of here and back to Los Angeles as quickly as possible.

He had an uneasy feeling in his gut.

“I see something,” one of the slayers murmured. “Up there, on the ridge.”

Methos shaded his eyes and followed the Slayer’s gaze. “Human,” he murmured quietly. “And I don’t think she’s alone, she keeps looking over her shoulder.”

“The other Slayer?” Buffy wondered aloud.

“Let’s hope so,” said another of the Slayers, who didn’t look a day over thirteen. “My nose is beginning to peel.”

“Yes, Elaine, we know,” Buffy sighed. “This is the third time you’ve mentioned it.” Frowning, she gazed at the ridge. “Listen, this is how we’ll do it. Angel will be the bait, like last time; we all know that their Slayer instincts will wipe override their common sense once they get wind of him. Elaine, you, Susan and Gunn will take Katrina. I, Ivana and Ling will take Kennedy. Adam, once we’ve got them on the ground, you move in and do your glowy amulet thing. Got it?”

“Got it,” echoed the other Slayers. A quick smile passed across Angel’s face, which was gone the moment the Buffy turned to him. Maybe the Vampire’s sense of humour hadn’t completely dried up, after all.

“You ready for this,” Buffy asked, a worried frown suddenly developing on her face. “Ling gave you quite a pounding before we got the amulet to work.

“I’ll survive,” he said dryly. “Besides, what can go wrong when I’ve got five Slayers watching my back?” He paused, and made a wry face. “I can’t believe I just said that.”

“Positively asking for it,” Buffy agreed, with a small smile.

“And on that grim note,” Methos muttered under his breath, as the vampire started loping up the hill. He unsheathed his sword, ignoring Buffy’s disapproving look. His intention was to dissuade, not to maim, but he was still a little nervous after Elaine had nearly taken his head off with a branch when they’d caught up with her, earlier in the day.

He broke into an easy trot, not bothering to try and match the Slayer’s speed as they ran up the hill after the vampire. Gunn tried his best too keep up with them, however. He idly wondered what it would be like to have that kind of speed and agility, but quickly dismissed the thought. All in all, he though he’d got the better deal. He lived longer, for one.

The two other slayers had now broken their cover and were hurtling towards Angel’s position, totally ignoring the other four slayers. They probably thought they were going to join in on the hunt. He doubted he even pinged on their radar.

The one Buffy called Katrina went down first, in a tangle of limbs and muffled curses. The other slayers, and Gunn, were trying their best to restrain her with hurting her, but Katrina was having none of it. “Could you quicken up the pace, Man,” Gunn panted. “I’m getting bruises on my bruises.”

Methos smirked as he he used a last spurt of speed and reached in though the small pile of bodies weighing the slayer down. A quick gasp came from her Katrina’s lips as reason returned to eyes. “What the…uh, guys, not that I don’t appreciate the group hug and all, but could you get the hell off me.”

“With pleasure,” Gunn huffed, as he scrambled to his feet, and the other Slayers giggled as Katrina’s face reddened. Ah yes, young love.

“Where’s Buffy?” Elaine suddenly asked.

Narrowing his eyes against the setting sun, Methos gestured at a small outcrop near the ridge. “It seems Kennedy is giving them a run for their money.”

“We’d better catch up before Kennedy gets in a lucky shot,” Gunn said worriedly.

“Uh, guys, sorry to break in here, but where the hell are we, and what am I wearing? ” Katrina asked.

“We’ll explain on the way,” Elaine said, grabbing her arm.

Methos sighed as, once again, they sped up the hill. He was getting too old for this.

You are never too old for the hunt.” a mocking voice said, and Methos raised an eyebrow at the apparition that had suddenly appeared at his side.

“Ah yes, the encore,” he said dryly, as he started to make his way up the hill. “A bit of advice, Kronos, you really should give up the amateur dramatics; it was never a good look for you.”

“You didn’t really think we’d let you go without giving you one more chance to be on the winning side, did you?”

Methos smirked. “Nice speech, don’t let the Hellmouth hit you on the way down.”

Kronos sighed. “This isn’t the right choice to make, my old friend. They’re going to lose, no matter what they say, you’d be wiser to cut your losses and run.”

“You always did have a very vague acquaintance with the truth, didn’t you?” Methos asked rhetorically.

What do you mean?

“I mean, what the hell are you doing traipsing around a bronze aged desert, chewing my ear off, if you’re so certain you’ll be the victor? No, my old friend, I remember the smell of fear, and you’re reeking of it.” A sharp yell caught Methos’s attention, and Methos smiled as he saw Buffy wave at him. “Well, it seems my ticket out of here has arrived. So long, Kronos, give my regards to Caspian.”

Kronos laughed lowly as he called after him. “It isn’t over, Methos, our time is here and we shall win…oh, and give my regards to your student, she seems such a good little girl.”



Paris, A week earlier


Tara looked up at the departure times and tried to calm the drumming of her heart in her chest. It had been over two weeks since Sunnydale had fallen into the crater–no, fallen into the Hellmouth, there was no point in deceiving herself – and Willow’s name still hadn’t been added to the list of the survivors. There was no list of the dead; the crater was still too unstable for excavation.

She was still surprised at how easily Adam had caved when she begged to go back to California, it was so out of character, but who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? She was going home, or as near to home as she could get.

She prayed that Willow was still alive.

She caught a glimpse of Adam from the corner of her eye, deep in conversation with Joe, who had driven them to airport. She had the distinct feeling that they were keeping something from her; but what it was, she didn’t dare hazard a guess at. She only hoped that it wasn’t something about Willow, as she knew from the expression on Adam’s face that it wasn’t good news. Shaking her head, Tara strolled on ahead to the departures lounge, her ticket and passport clutched in her hand. They’d catch up when they were ready.

The lounge was choked with people, some of them making themselves comfortable on the floor, and Tara made to join them until she noticed a row of seats that were empty except for the solitary woman who sat on the end chair. Frowning, Tara eyed the woman who sat gazing into the middle distance, her hands laid palm down on her lap. There was something about her that seemed familiar, yet she was sure they’d never met…

She took a step forward, and halted dead in her tracks as the familiar sensation of another immortal’s presence washed over her. The woman looked up and captured her eyes, and Tara suddenly understood.

Cassandra.

She hesitated, unsure of what to do, and a small smile quirked the side of the elder immortal’s lips, as if she knew what Tara was thinking.

And she probably does, Tara thought, grimly, as she lifted her chin. Carrying a sharp edged weapon into an airport, past security, was well nigh impossible nowadays; her own sword was already in the cargo hold.


Cautiously, she approached her, halting just out of arms reach. “May I sit?”

“But of course,” Cassandra said huskily, patting the seat beside her. “I presume you know who I am?”

“Cassandra,” Tara murmured as she sat. “Adam is here, you know.”

“But he is still busy conversing with Joe,” Cassandra said, with a slight smile. “So we have a few minutes…I must admit, you aren’t what I was expecting.”

Tara raised an eyebrow. “And what exactly were you expecting?” she asked dryly.

“Now that I think about it, I’m not really sure,” Cassandra admitted with a small laugh. “Someone like Duncan, I suppose.”

“The Highlander?” Tara asked, curious. She had never met Duncan MacLeod, but it seemed, at times, that everyone but her was on intimate terms with the man.

Cassandra smiled. “You two have not met yet,” she said lightly. “But you will, if you survive the next few weeks.”

“If?” Tara echoed.

“This is going to be a difficult time for you, Tara,” Cassandra sighed. “And you may have to do a few things that go against your nature, but it has to be done. Cast aside your doubt, you’re going to need to believe in yourself if you’re going to survive this…and I’d like you to survive this; mind, body, and soul.”

Tara felt a brief moment of irritation. “I don’t suppose you know someone by the name of Drusilla, by any chance?” she asked archly. “You two have a lot in common.”

Cassandra’s lips twitched. “I don’t mean to be obscure,” she said. “But I find myself in a quandary. If I say too little, you will not have the information you need, if I say too much, I may alter the future too much and create an even worse one…so I will tell you this: when the time comes, follow your heart. Do not trust your other senses-”

“Tara!”

Startled, Tara jumped in her seat, and quickly looked over her shoulder, wincing slightly as she saw glowering expression on Adam’s face as he bore down on her. “Adam,” she said as she got to her feet. “I can explain-”

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said sharply. “Let’s go.”

“But Cassand-”

“Is gone,” he said harshly.

Puzzled, Tara glanced down at the seat beside, to discover he spoke the truth. “But I don’t understand, how could she just disappear like that?”

“Witch, remember?” he said dryly. “Now, come on, you can tell me what she said to you when we’ve boarded the plane…word for exact word.



Los Angeles, Summer of 2003


Tara wasn’t exactly sure what she’d been expecting Arturo to look like, when she looked at him through the one way mirror, but she hadn’t been expecting the expression of smugness that was on his face as he half sat, half lay, on the cell’s bed. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she murmured worriedly.

Crossing her arms, Faith sighed. “I gotta agree with you there,” she admitted. “He kinda reminds of the way Angelus was, when he feeling particularly pleased with himself; all gloating and cat-with-cream. I’m expecting the anvil to drop any moment.”

Willow shuddered. “Not a nice analogy.”

“But an accurate one,” Faith drawled, and Tara noted that Willow didn’t disagree.

“It doesn’t change the plan, though, does it,” Tara said softly. “We still need the artifact.”

“Although why, we don’t know,” Willow sighed.

The door opened softly behind them, and Tara’s lips narrowed as Amanda walked into the room. She couldn’t help but feel that the older immortal was partly responsible for their current predicament, even though she knew that Amanda hadn’t intended to put Adam in harm’s way.

“I thought I could help,” Amanda said simply, returning Tara’s look with a steady gaze. “I know him better than anyone else in this room, and I fooled him once. For a man like Arturo, that is an unsettling thought.” Her gaze swept past them and through the glass. “And I definitely think we need to shake him out of his complacency,” she added thoughtfully. “My, my, what is he thinking?”

“And that’s the sixty four dollar question,” Faith said.

DeLongi suddenly glanced up and grinned at the mirror, his right hand slowly drawing a line across his neck. Tara felt the hairs on the back of her neck rising. Did he really know they were there, or was it an educated guess based on him sensing her quickening?

“Okay, that’s creepy,” Willow said shakily.

“He’s playing with us,” Faith said grimly, as she strode to the door. “And I don’t like being played with; time to change the rules.”

“Just keep in mind we’re working to a deadline here,” Willow said, her voice suddenly stern.

“Trust me, I ain’t ever going to forget it,” Faith said over her shoulder as house left the room. “Just give me five minutes. I’d like to have a stab at softening him before you lot get to him.”

Willow sighed as the door shut behind the slayer, and Tara reached over to squeeze her shoulder, giving her all the reassurance she could. “We’ll get the information.”

“I hope so,” Willow said, as the cell door opened and Faith sauntered into the room. “We can’t afford to fail.”

“Hiya, Arty,” Faith said cheerily as she grabbed a chair, swivelled it around, and straddled it, in one move. “Like the new digs. What’s the room service like?”

A flash of irritation flittered through the Immortal’s eyes, and Tara’s lips quirked. “Arty?” she asked.

“Faith spent some downtime in Milan, during the spring,” Willow explained. “Started calling him Arty on the first day, and kept on calling him that when she realised it annoyed him. Buffy was not amused”

“It probably upsets his sense of dignity,” Amanda murmured. “And Arturo is nothing if not prideful.”

“Aren’t your friends going to join us?” Arturo’s voice wafted though the speakers.

“Nah,” Faith said, waving her hand dismissively. “They’re givin’ us some alone time, so we can catch up. Thoughtful of them, isn’t it.”

The immortal relaxed back into the bed and smiled. “Veiled threats aren’t going to work with me, my dear,” he said. “You’ll have to be more inventive than that.”

Faith sighed dramatically. “But here’s the thing, Arty, my man,” she said. “If you’re not going to give it up, we don’t have much use for you. All you are is a waste of space. So I see it this way, either you give us the location of the Light of Rat thingummy or…how did you put it?” Slowly, Faith pulled a finger across her throat, adding a few appropriate gurgling noises.

Arturo laughed throatily. “Oh, and who are going to have to do the deed? The young witch? We both know that Pierson is unavailable at the moment.”

Tara’s eyes narrowed. “How did he know that?”

“Search me,” Willow said, puzzled. The only contact he’s had, since we put him in here, is with his guards – and, before you ask: no, we didn’t use Wolfram and Hart’s security force, we’ve had slayers on him around the clock.”

“He may have not used worldly means?” Amanda suggested.

“Not a chance,” Willow said firmly. “I’ve got him locked down so tight, he couldn’t even float a pencil, never mind contact someone, mind to mind.”

“Maybe someone contacted him, ” Tara mused aloud.

“You mean, someone like the First?” Willow said, a note of worry creeping into her voice.”

“It’s possible, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Willow said softly, as Faith shuffled her chair closer to the bed, as if daring Arturo to try something.

“Arty, Arty,” the Slayer singsonged. “You’ll have to come up a better comeback than that, that was positively limp.

Arturo bristled and sat up abruptly. “Don’t play little word games with me, little girl,” he hissed. “You might find you have bitten off more than you can chew.”

“Ooh, big words for an impotent little man locked up in a four by four cell!”

“Why you-”

It happened so fast, Tara wasn’t sure who’d made the first move, but it was pretty obvious who had won. “You can come in now, guys,” Faith said, as she nonchalantly kept Arturo’s arms wrenched behind his back, his face pressed flat against the wall. “I’ve got him all softened up for you.

Tara wasn’t positive, but she thought she could see a few flakes of plaster float down to the tiled floor.

“That was…impressive,” Amanda said, arching an eyebrow.

“You should see Buffy when she gets annoyed,” Willow said dryly. “Believe me, you don’t ever want to get on her bad side.”

Silently, Tara followed the others out of the observation room and wiped her palms nervously against her jeans as Willow opened the cell door. She couldn’t help but remember the note of derision in Arturo’s voice when he mentioned her, and she had to admit it rankled, for no other reason than it held more than an element of truth. When it came down to it, she wasn’t sure she could take another life, even if that life belonged to someone as irredeemable as Arturo DeLongi.

A hand squeezed her arm reassuringly, and Tara looked up into Amanda’s eyes. “Don’t worry,” she murmured. “Between the two of us, we’ve got this covered.”

Tara heard the unspoken offer, and she was disgusted with herself when she realised how much she wanted Arturo to be Amanda’s problem, not hers. She couldn’t expect Amanda to lift take all the hard decisions out of her hands for the rest of her life…or Adam, come to think of it.

But Amanda had already stepped into the cell by the time Tara could formulate her thoughts into words, and Tara reluctantly stepped into the room behind her.

“Well, if it isn’t my darling wife,” Arturo said, with a sneer, when he spotted Amanda. “I thought you would have skittered back to Paris, to hide behind your beloved Highlander’s skirts, by now.”

“So nice to see you too, Arturo,” Amanda said as she sat on the chair and elegantly crossed her legs.

“And the witches, too,” Arturo said, with a sly laugh. “Should I feel honoured?”

Faith rolled her eyes, and hiked his arm up another inch, ignoring Arturo’s cry of protest. “Play nice, Arty, or you’ll be worried about a lot more than a broken arm…tell me, can immortals grow back body parts if they lose ‘em?”

“Depends on how powerful the Immortal is, and how old they are,” Amanda supplied calmly. “Arturo doesn’t quite meet the requirements.”

“And I suppose you do?” Arturo snarled. “You two faced little slu-ooph!”

“Language,” Faith said, warningly, as Arturo’s face was pressed further into the wall.

Amanda smiled knowingly. “You think you know me, Arturo,” she said. “But in fact, you know little more than my name. When will it ever sink into your thick skull that our time together was nothing more than a charade? Rebecca wanted her property back, and I was the one she picked to do it.”

“Such a dutiful student,” Arturo sneered. “You can’t tell me you fell for her ‘I can see something better in you’ speech. You’re just like me, Amanda, out for anything you can get.”

“As I said,” Amanda said coolly. “You never really knew me at all.”

“You’re a liar and a thief!”

“But I’m not a cold blooded killer, Arturo, and I’ve never taken a head for the pleasure of it.”

“Is that your way of saying that you’re going to take mine?”

“If needs be.”

“Try it, bi- ahhh!”

“Arty, Arty, what did I say about language?”

“Enough,” Willow said softly. “Time to go to plan B.”

Plan B? Tara gave her puzzled glance and Willow threw back a tight smile. With a sinking heart, Tara suddenly knew what she had planned. “Willow, no, it’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t have a choice, honey,” Willow said quietly. “We need the information, and if he isn’t prepared to give it to us, then I’ll have to take it from him-”

“Uh, guys,” Faith said, her voice suddenly tense. “I’m getting that tingly feeling, something’s up.”

“What do you mean?” Willow asked, with a worried frown.

“Can’t put a finger on it, but my Slayer Spidey senses are going haywire. There’s something here, and it’s big.”

A low chuckle came from Arturo’s lips, and Tara felt a shiver crawl down her spine as she realise it wasn’t his voice anymore. “Took you long enough,” he said coldly, as his eyes turned black and empty.

“The First,” Willow said flatly.

“Damn it,” Faith said hollowly, “I knew I should have grabbed the scythe from the suite.

With a wrench of his shoulder, Arturo twisted around and grabbed her by the throat. “Yes, you really should have,” he agreed.

In a flash, Amanda was on her feet, her sword in her hand, and Tara followed suit, holding her ground as Amanda circled to the other side of Arturo. By now, Faith was beginning to lose consciousness, and Tara felt her throat tighten. She had to do something; she couldn’t just let Faith die just because she wasn’t sure-

Augustus exustios!

A crackle ran through the air, and, suddenly, Faith was flying across the room, hitting the bed hard. For a moment, Tara thought the slayer might have passed out, but a low moan passed between her lips as Amanda ran to her side. “Bastard.”

“Now, now, language,” the First taunted, taking a step forward.

“Thicken!” Willow intoned, and, for a second, Tara thought the spell had taken hold, but the possessed Arturo pushed through the barrier and took another step forward. This time, however, his full attention was on Willow. “I remember you, Witch,” he said. “I remember what you did!”

“No!” Tara cried out, stepping in front of Willow.

“Tara, honey, what are you-”

The blow seemed to come out of nowhere, as Arturo sidestepped her blade with ease and slammed his fist into the side of her head. Dazed, Tara watched as Arturo stepped over her and grabbed Willow by the hair, smiling grimly. “Time to join me, witch,” he said, as Tara scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t lose Willow, not a second time.

Grimly, she raised her sword., and saw Willow’s eyes widening in understanding over Arturo’s shoulder as she brought the blade down. Arturo began to turn but it was already too late, the blade had already cut through his throat and severed his spine.

With A low cry, Tara fell to the ground, hardly feeling Willow’s arms as they enveloped her. “Oh Tara, Tara, sweetheart, my love…”

Dimly, she heard Amanda voice, felt her pull Willow away from her. “You have to leave the room, Willow, before it starts.”

“Starts?”

Small, glowing tendrils began to rise from Arturo’s body, and Tara felt her eyes blur. Some part of her, deep down, had always hoped that she would never have to go through this.

Guess it was not to be.

The first flash hit her with such intensity, it literally knocked her flat; the second lifted her bodily and slammed her against the wall. DeLongis memories screamed through her mind, and Tara desperately tried to hold onto them, to gleam some form of information about the artefact, even as the pain threatened to make her black her out. It has to be here, it has to be here.

Another flash of the quickening hit her, and Tara screamed. It was so intense, she hadn’t realised…was it supposed to be this bad? Adam had never said it would be this bad, and he never usually sugar coated the truth. Maybe he had no words to describe the truth.

A glimmer of a recent memory crowded her mind, and there it was, the light of R’Nathnor. Of course-

And then it hit.

No! What is-

It was like being buried alive, buried and choking on the scum of a mind so dark, so perverted…

And now you’re mine, my dear, now you’re mine.

The then, just as abruptly as it started, the quickening loosened its hold, and Tara fell to her knees, curling into a ball. What had happened to her? What was that-

But it was still there, creeping into her mind, staining her soul. Dimly, she heard Amanda cry out. “No, no, not Tara, not sweet little Tara…”

Funny, she’d never heard such pain in Amanda’s voice before…would she cry out again?

Yes, make her cry out like that again.

Tara tried to shake the strange new sensation flooding through her – was it pleasure – as she heard Willow’s light tread.

“What’s wrong with her, is this normal?”

“No, don’t go near her!”

Tara felt a snarl build within her. She wanted Willow, wanted to hold her, touch her…

Kill her…

Something deep within Tara screamed in protest, but it was losing battle. Too late, she understood what was happening.

“What is it? What has it done to her?”

Too late, Tara understood what was at stake.

“A dark quickening. God help her, she’s taken a dark quickening.”

Your soul.





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