Transformations - Chapter 10

Ever since she'd been a kid, Maria Del Ciello had hated to wait. Now that she was dead, she swore that had gotten worse--maybe the demon inside her was even more impatient than she was.

Being stuck in the dark with the Potterville vamps made her want to bang her head against the wall until she lost consciousness, and Helena wasn't any help at all. Helena muttered to herself a little too much of the time: Maria felt like she'd made the decision to spend the rest of eternity with the kind of person she wouldn't have wanted to sit near on the BART train, back in her Bay Area days.

Maria really needed them to turn some interesting people, with a quickness, before she went crazy herself.

This little weaselly guy--Willie, she thought his name was--who ran a vamp-friendly dive in the worst part of town, had put them on to this place. "The Factory," he called it, the big capital letters plain in his voice. He told them The Factory had been like Vamp Central a little over a year before, for this ambitious vampire couple, Drusilla and Spike.

Helena just about went postal when Willie said the name "Spike," until Maria had to grab her in a chokehold and whisper Moira's name into her ear until she finally calmed down enough to be let go.

"Is your friend...okay?" Willie whispered to Maria, when Helena had at last subsided into her usual mumbling.

"She's dead and possessed by a demon." Maria shrugged. "She has issues. I wouldn't say the 'S' word."

"Point taken," Willie answered, swallowing hard. Which made his Adam's apple jump. Which made Maria stare just a little too intently at his jugular, unable to help herself. Willie hastily drew her a map on a cocktail napkin. "The place got a little--okay, a lot--burnt last year. But there are still plenty of sun-proof rooms, and some really quality access to the sewer system. I think you'll be happy there."

Helena had pulled herself together enough to smile.

"Take care," Willie told her nervously. "Watch out for the Slayer--you know we have one here, right?"

"I am a Slayer," Helena told him.

"No sh...kidding," Willie answered. Maybe he'd decided to avoid s-words on general principle.

"God's truth," Maria said, tossing a fifty on the counter. She'd had it off some movie producer guy five minutes after they'd touched down in L.A. "Cocaine is so eighties," were the last words he'd ever heard.

So here they were, waiting in the dark, in what Maria guessed--from the things she'd heard during her Candidate days--had once been Drusilla's place. It looked like Ozma of Oz's room at the nuthouse: all these half-burnt filmy, cobwebby princess dresses, dolls without eyes and their hair melted off, a big, dusty four-poster bed.

Helena perched on the edge of the mattress, rocking, singing the same words to The Farmer in the Dell over and over and over again: "the cat takes the rat, the rat takes the mouse, the mouse takes the cheese, the cheese stands alone."

Back against one wall five of the Potterville vamps were watching a rerun of Charlie's Angels on a portable TV, discussing which of the Angels would be the most fun to turn. Demons or not, they were, at heart, the kind of small-town guys who caught fish for a living, and the kind of provincial girls who worked in a fish-packing plant. There were around fifty of them total, give or take, and before they got turned, not one of them had set foot on dry land anywhere outside of the State of Maine. They'd all been born within thirty miles of Potterville. Even dead, they still talked a lot about seafood in general. Seafood and blood. So much for the majesty of evil.

What had Her Ladyship called this state of mind? "Going spare," that was it. If something doesn't happen, I'm going to go spare--by which she'd meant, bonkers, fruit loops, stark raving loony.

Thank God, or whoever, that when the sun set that night, they could finally begin. They finally would catch the cat that would catch the rat. And so on. And so forth.

Tonight, the interesting Mr. Giles was going to receive a little visit.

Willow came with Buffy to her house, where she packed a bag, and after about half an hour's discussion, put on a new outfit. She tucked Giles's shirt into the bottom dresser-drawer, deciding it was hers now, on the general "what's mine is mine, what's yours is mine principle." Will watched her, understanding, smiling a little.

"So, here's the sitch," Buffy told her. "I need you to put all that brain power to work, thinking up a way for me to break this to my mom that won't result in a major mom-meltdown."

"Like you locked in your room with the windows nailed shut until you're thirty, and your mom going after Giles with a dull, rusty knife?"

"Will, you're enjoying this far, far too much."

Willow laughed. "I have to get my enjoyment where I can. `Scuse me." A sad little purring sound was coming from her backpack. Will went digging and came up with the tiniest digital phone Buffy had ever seen. "Graduation gift. From Aunt Louise and Uncle Reuben. Hi!" she said, all breathless. "Oz?"

Buffy decided to redo her nails. This wasn't going to end any time soon.

"So what's it like there?" Willow was saying. "Ooh, that's hot! Have you seen any Elvises? Elvisi? What is the plural of Elvis anyway? Oh, that many?" She went on and on, and Buffy waved her hands gently, even though her nails were already dry.

"Oh, I wish!" Willow said. "Well, maybe not every minute--but lots and lots of minutes. I love you too." She made a kissing sound at the phone, and hung up. "That was Oz."

"I gathered."

"Sorry I took so long." Willow in love really was the cutest.

Buffy gave her a hug. "Here's to unsuitable men!"

Sunset was just starting when they left the house, one of those beautiful sunsets that reminded Buffy of Chinese dragons: all plum and orange and red. It was going to be one of those perfect Sunnydale nights, not too hot or too cold, the air just a little damp with the spray from everyone's sprinklers.

It caught Buffy as weird that things still went on the way they did: a demon had risen and nearly destroyed the town, kids had fought, and been killed or injured, but here people were watering their lawns, and here she was on her way to the video store, getting ready to spend an evening with a man that just over three years ago she'd considered the stuffiest guy on the planet--and Giles had, really, been pretty damn stuffy--who'd stood in the way of everything she thought of as fun. She'd still thought of him that way, mostly, the night the Master rose, when he'd been willing to give his life for her. And last year...

"Will," she said. "Last year, when I went away--"

Willow stood quiet, watching her face.

"What Angelus did to Giles--?"

"You don't want to go there," Willow told her gently. "It will only make you feel bad."

"How bad?" Buffy had to know.

"No," Willow said. "It would only ruin your happy night. Someday, when he's ready, Giles will tell you. Just let it go until then, okay?"

"You really are the smart one." Buffy opened the door to the video store, letting the topic go, letting Willow go in before her. They wandered happily up and down the aisles, chatting, stopping at last in front of New Releases.

"Oh, good, it's out!" Willow exclaimed, and put the box for Shakespeare in Love into Buffy's hands.

Buffy made a made a face. "Uh, Will, I don't know. Shakespeare?"

"In love. Think witty dialogue for Giles, cute boys in tights for you--plus hot sex and kissing, but not the gross kind. Trust me on this. Another good one is Much Ado About Nothing--which is, once more, Shakespeare for Giles, Keanu and Denzel Washington in leather pants for you. Starting to see how this works?"

"I'm beginning to think that you've given this some thought. Since when did you turn into the dating queen?"

"Since--" Willow blushed.

"And how is Oz?" Buffy couldn't help teasing.

"Oz is...Oz. He's amazing."

"Details to follow? By the way, I walked by the van the other night."

Willow leaned over and whispered in her ear; Buffy couldn't believe it. "Will, you are quite the vixen!"

"Do you even know what a vixen is?"

Buffy shook her head. "But I know it's something...vixenish."

"A girl fox. A vixen is a girl fox."

"I'm really gonna stick with you and Giles. Between the two of you, pretty soon I'm gonna be smart enough to go on Jeopardy and win the big bucks."

"Alex, I'd like Vampire Slaying for a thousand," Willow said under her breath, and giggled.

"I wish I got a thousand every time I Slayed one. Can I say Slayed, or do I have to say Slew?"

"Either one, I think. Personally, I'd stick with Slayed, unless you kill a dragon. Then it's definitely Slew. I think you could safely say that you and Giles Slew Mayor Wilkins."

Both of them cracked up, the way it felt like they hadn't done in forever. God, I feel free, Buffy thought--not to be responsible for Angel, not to have the Ascension hanging over her head. Next to that, slaying regular vamps felt like a piece of cake.

Giles woke feeling rested for what felt like the first time in days, if not months or years. Beside him, the bed bore the shallow impression of Buffy's body, and he ran his hand along the hollow, fancying he could still feel the lingering warmth of her skin. He found himself dangerously close to making a fool of himself over the dear girl, and yet realized that he didn't care. That Buffy had discovered in herself the ability to return even a tenth of his love--only that mattered, though he knew he must move slowly, so as not to hurry or frighten her. He must allow Buffy to set their pace in this, as in so many things.

He rose, dressing himself in khaki trousers and a chambray shirt, a bit awkward with the heavy bandage on his right hand. His headache had vanished entirely--most likely it had come from days of missed sleep, rather than the inconsequential bump on his head. He still felt mildly giddy, but not unpleasantly so, and he quite looked forward to an evening of supper and conversation spent in Buffy's company. Freed at last of their old roles, she made a warm and witty companion, and seemed to him, now, youthful but no longer childish.

Buffy had left a note for him on the pillow, her carefree scrawl an amusing contrast to his own formal letterhead. She'd signed the note, "Love, Buffy," with a small, lopsided heart beside her name. God help him, he found it utterly charming.

Knowing that he ought to clean up as best he could before she returned, Giles bounced down the stairs of his flat, actually singing. God, he could still sing--that came as a surprise. Yet another part of his soul the bloody Watchers hadn't managed to kill entirely. He recognized the song, a bit of Van Morrison's Sweet Thing:

And we will walk and talk,
In gardens all wet with rain
And I will never never never never get so old again...
Sweet thing, sweet thing

He literally could not wait for Buffy's return. His love for her seemed to overflow the confines of his body and shoot like invisible fireworks into the air. It wasn't just the love-making, wondrous as that had been--but the certainty of her, knowing that, at last Buffy had turned to him. That they had seen and known one another without masks. So many things no longer seemed of importance; only the fact that she would, at that moment, be circling back toward him could possibly matter.

Even the sight of his kitchen, an utter disaster of spoiled food and blood, did not faze him, and though it required some ingenuity to dispose of the mess one-handed, Giles managed in the end. The loo, though in equal disarray, presented less of a challenge, merely a matter of disposing of the used towels and gauze, and giving a quick scrub over all. Perhaps his cleaning wouldn't pass the white glove test, but for now, it would do. By nature, he was cluttered, but tidy, and it pleased him to have the worst of it cleared away.

Buffy's letter crackled in his pocket, his talisman against all evil. He wanted very much to make something special for her, something magical in the less-than-literal sense of the word, and so he hunted out two dozen or so candles from the back of a cupboard and set improvised holders all round the front room, lighting each so that the warm light flickered and the honied smell of beeswax filled the air.

He hadn't bothered to don his glasses, and the soft light combined with the blurred edges of the things around him made rather a pleasant picture--it converted the mound of cartons from an unsightly task that must be dealt with, to a soft brown wall that might be easily ignored.

When the knock sounded at his door, Giles hurried to answer, saying with amusement, "Buffy, love, did you forget your key?" Instead of the answering embrace that he half-expected, a certain energetic golden-haired Slayer flinging herself into his arms, a hand struck him, quite hard, across the face, flinging him deep into the room--so deep, in fact, that he struck the cartons and sent one flying. The box burst open, spilling its valuable contents to the floor.

Multicoloured lights whirling before his eyes, Giles fought to gain his feet. He'd a vague memory of leaving his glasses on the coffeetable, and felt quite a strong need to see his attacker clearly. He--or she--though the intruder was quite tall, he rather thought it might be a woman, something in the feline way it stalked the room, and the dark hair hanging long and loose about its shoulders. He realized, too, that this was no human assailant, but a vampire--he could smell the blood on her--that had somehow, uninvited, gained access to his flat.

Giles reached for his glasses. The vampire threw him back, his spine striking painfully against the edge of a stair. Even then, though he had determined that she was, in fact, female, the truth of her identity would not reveal itself--several moments passed, during which he stared open-mouthed into a blur of textured colours like a Turner landscape of a sunset glimpsed through fog. She performed with horrible ease that action of moving without the appearance of motion--which Giles couldn't really appreciate, because he could not clearly see.

"Aren't you gonna say hello, Rupert, my good old friend?" the vampire asked him.

Giles felt his jaw drop; he couldn't answer.

Helena. Dear God, it's Helena, he thought, recognizing even that cruel mockery of the living Slayer's voice. He remembered the last letter she'd written to him, shortly before her death: Love, Lena, she'd signed it, and under the words placed a straggling little line of X's and O's, her hugs and kisses. He'd once pitied, and in a way loved her. He'd thought she was finally and irrevocably dead.

"Aren't you gonna say hello?" she screamed at him.

Giles shivered: with fear, and with the cold that came off the vampire in waves and stole his own body heat. He could not outrun her, and nothing near to hand would be of any defense.

God, how he'd hoped he'd been wrong.

Up in Potterville more than three years before, freezing in weather unusually harsh even for a February in Maine, he and Moira had cast spell after spell, but neither of their castings seemed to produce any results--until, just at the end of his very last, Giles had thought he felt the faintest glimmer. He'd taken it for a sign of life, and dug frantically down to nothing, Helena, of course, hadn't been alive. What he'd felt had been this: her unlife, her turning.

And yet, now that she'd come close, and he could make out her features--no longer a Turner landscape, but a Manet portrait--Helena looked more beautiful in death than she ever had done when he'd known her. How in God's name had she entered? Was this some new skill, some undiscovered power, that a vampire could enter where it wasn't permitted?

As if she'd read his mind, Helena answered, in uncanny imitation of his own speech. "'Wherever my home is, Helena, you are welcome.'"

Oh. That. Bloody hell, one would think he'd know better.

"What is it you want?" Giles asked her, feigning calm. "To kill me? To turn me?"

"We want a queen," she answered. "We want my Emmy."

That sounded so much like the girl he had known, Giles felt awash with sadness. "In life, you loved her, Helena. I know that has changed for you. However--"

"No howevers, Rupert. We are many, and we want a queen. My sorceress will reign over the Hellmouth, and I will be her General, forever at her side."

Helena was still mad, he saw. That had not changed--but she had, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a "method to her madness."

Knowing he had no other options, Giles began the first phrases of a binding spell, murmuring softly, so that Helena could not hear what they were. She caught his intent, though, for she shrieked and laid hands upon him, shaking him as a lioness will shake her prey. Desperate, Giles continued his spell, but was stopped abruptly by the impact of his head against the wall.

His last thought, the final picture in his mind as he slipped into unconsciousness for the second time that day, was of Buffy coming home to find him gone, and how he did not want her to worry.

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