Disclaim Her: I do not own them. Still.
A/N: My birthday was yesterday, and I'm hungover so forgive me for the shortness of this.
1: I adore you, I love you, I want to marry you all. Thanks for the reviews.
2: It's now official, the next part is the end. Over and done with. No more Paradise Lost after the next part.
3: I'm feeling needy so I'm playing a game with you: For every ten reviews I receive I will post the Epilogue one day earlier. (10 reviews - Saturday, 20 - Friday and so on). At this point, I just want to get this over with.
+How to Live
Buffy was on her feet the exact moment Jean-Claude set foot in the hallway.
He turned, probably to face me. But as he did he caught sight of Buffy through the open front door and he froze. I stood rooted where I was as green eyes met blue and then the world disappeared behind a wash of emotions. It felt like floodgates bursting open as Jean-Claude’s memories, emotions and thoughts slammed into me with brutal force.
I saw flashes of faces, of places and things, light, dark, bright, harsh, loud, ugly, pretty, stunning, cruel; the images mixed in my head turning into a maelstrom of different feelings. They were too much to see, to register let alone analyze and I felt like I was drowning.
And then I opened my mouth to scream, but the sound got stuck in my throat as the images suddenly stopped. No, stopped wasn’t the right word, because they were still there. There but overlaid by something much more powerful.
I live on the rage that boils deep inside me but I’d never felt anything akin to what Jean-Claude was projecting just then. It was anger so overwhelming and all consuming I could taste it on the air. It was tinged with surprise, shock and yes, even disbelief. It was the kind of anger I felt toward Richard lately. The kind of anger that isn’t born out of hate but love. Of desperation and hopeless, blind, deaf and dumb love.
It’s was the worst kind of anger there is and it was stronger than anything I had ever felt. It blazed through me like a wild fire, so unlike anything that I usually associate the Master of the City with. His power had always been cold and silent before, like a breath of the grave but this was different. And just as the thought appeared in my head, the anger changed.
It became cold, so very cold and so did I.
Looking at Jean-Claude and Buffy it was impossible to tell what they felt. They both stood as still as statues. It was only due to my link with Jean-Claude that I knew of the war that was raging behind the calm facades. They stared at each other for a long moment during which all life around them ceased. No one, not Zane, not Richard, not any of the other people populating my house were moving.
And then Jean-Claude spoke. His voice was calm, smooth and empty. Too empty, too cold. It sent a shudder down my spine that settled in the small of my back and refused to leave.
“What do you think you are doing here?”
Buffy’s gaze left his, flitted to me for a second, before settling on the ground. She stayed like that for a beat, then lifted her head and looked him in the eye again. “I’m sorry.”
She managed a little smile that went with it. It was one of those smiles that said she knew that she’d already lost.
Jean-Claude took a deep breath, but instead of calming him I could feel it fuel the rage inside of him.
“Is this what you wanted,” he bit out, his voice like knives, “I am strong now. Is this what you wanted?
This time Buffy couldn’t meet his eyes. She stayed silent.
It happened so suddenly that I would have missed it had I blinked. One second Jean-Claude was standing at the far end of the hallway and the next he was in front of Buffy - who had stepped inside sometime during the whole thing – and backhanded her across the face.
She flew with the force of it, crashing into the wall separating the foyer from the living room and suddenly Jean-Claude’s anger was back full force.
“How dare you show up after all these years?” He hissed and I could feel years of despair and vain hopes flare up inside of him. Immediately he turned them into anger and directed it at the crumbled heap that had once been Buffy.
I was too shocked to do anything but wonder if she were dead. If she were, then I would have to kill Jean-Claude. Funny what you think of in a crisis. I looked around and found Richard looking pained. It seemed he got the same special treatment I did. Beside him Zane opened his mouth to say something, what I’ll never know because Buffy chose that second to get up.
She didn't climb to her feet in the traditional sense. First she lay on the floor and then she stood like someone had pulled her strings, pulling her upright. There was a small trickle of blood trailing down her cheek, nothing more. She coughed briefly before meeting the Master’s gaze once more.
“I told you you’d be a master someday.”
“Something in which you had no part in,” Jean-Claude snarled. Over the last few years I’d learned what his voice can do to you. It’s such a sexual thing I sometimes believe it has a will of its own, but in that moment it hurt. It hurt to hear his voice. Then he hit her again. This time she flew straight over the couch to land in my coffee table.
Usually I would have interfered at that point, but I was immobilized by the flood of memories that were suddenly back. They came with a wave of helplessness and grief and there was nothing I could do to fight them off. I tried to see if Richard got the same flashes, but another person’s memories blocked my sight.
A woman dressed in a soft green gown, running down a cold hallway toward me. The same woman laughing, her hair sparkling in the candle light. She was combing her hair. Reading, sleeping, swimming naked in a lake, running through a rose garden a child on her hand. Whispering in my ear, talking to Asher and a brunette woman, playing with a leopard, smiling, crying, praying, working, thinking, brooding, lecturing, confessing, walking, running, flying, jumping, dancing, spinning, twirling, lying, murmuring, soothing, hugging, reigning, saving, hiding, hurting, loving, breaking, healing, caring.
The flashes sped up, faster and faster until suddenly they came to a jarring halt. One single image. The woman, crying softly, lying naked in a bed, a haze of red swirling around her, whispering something in choked French and then she faded. She simply faded out of existence like she’d never been there in the first place. Like her face hadn’t been staring down at me a scant second before and I – Jean-Claude was overcome with a sadness that could eat worlds.
The face had been Buffy’s.
I came back to reality in time to see Jean-Claude standing over Buffy’s form in the broken coffee table, talking or rather, yelling at her. Only that Jean-Claude never lifted his voice. It was silent yelling. He was speaking in rapid French, too fast for me to even attempt to follow. But I didn't need to understand to know what he was saying. His voice was low and sharp and his voice as expressive as a rock.
He was fighting internally, fighting to keep his anger up and burning, to keep those other emotions that I could only guess at bay.
Buffy didn't try to get to her feet now, she just stayed where she was, leaning on her elbows, looking up at the master vampire above her. Had she been a shifter I would have said she was attempting to look submissive, but there was nothing submissive about her pose. All day long I thought of her as delicate and fragile and now, as she lay there… She didn't submit to anyone, she just stayed where she was because it didn't matter whether she was standing or lying. It made no difference to her.
She was strong suddenly and her voice was very even as she cut Jean-Claude off.
“Are you pissed because I left or because I came back?”
I think it was the neutrality in Buffy’s tone that caused him to backhand her again before kneeling down, one leg on either side of her waist. We were all frozen where we stood, shocked, scared maybe impressed by the drama unfolding in front of us. I looked at Richard and he met my gaze as well as he could and we had a moment of perfect understanding.
If all those emotions had been inside of Jean-Claude all the time we’d known him, then we would not, could not, interfere. Not that I could have done anything to stop him. I was literally crippled by the memories still raging in my head and the emotions battering at my shields.
That and the paralyzing realisation that she
was the tiny blonde I was seeing inside my head. She
, the woman that Jean-Claude had loved and lost and never forgotten, the woman whose name he never spoke, whose memory he only whispered of in lonely dark nights, she
She was human and she was alive and yet she was the one. There wasn’t a single doubt in my head.
He spoke suddenly, his face only inches away from hers. “You disappeared four hundred years ago out of my very arms, with no explanation, no trace. You left me alone after swearing not to and now you come back, now that I do not need you anymore! And you have what every single one of our kind would willingly die for! You are human
!” he shook her hard and a few drops of blood from her split lip caught the light of the sinking sun filtering through the curtains. Not enough to hurt a vampire, but enough to allow the rest of us to see. “Is this why you are here? To rub in my face all that I lost? My life, my love and the safety only you could grant me?”
She stayed passive throughout his little rant, closing her eyes as if in pain.
“Asher didn't tell you what happened when I disappeared, did he?”
Again he shook her and I found my hand closer to my gun that it had been before. But who was I supposed to shoot? My master for shaking someone who had obviously caused him pain? He wasn’t even really hurting her. Or Buffy, the dying girl that took his anger with such calm defeat? Again I looked at Richard, but this time he averted his eyes. He couldn’t take it anymore than I could but I forced myself to watch, to see. If someone suffers then sharing their suffering is the least I can do.
“No-one told me what happened. No-one! After all I was only Jean-Claude, everyone’s catamite, oui? I was not worthy of an explanation!” His shoulders dropped and his voice lost some of its edge, filling with hurt instead.
Buffy finally moved, lifting her arm slowly, like she didn't want to startle him. She touched his cheek and I felt like a voyeur, watching something forbidden and intimate.
“I am so sorry.”
“You told me to forget you.” It was an accusation, yes, but there was no anger behind it now. I felt it drain away like water, quickly, without a trace. And what was left broke my heart. He was so sad, so alone, so desperate to understand. All those years he’d held all those feelings inside, away from me, away from Richard, giving us the pretty façade, never hinting at what lay behind. I thought back to the night he first told me about her
. That night I realised that there was something human inside of him, a soul. From that moment on I always thought of him as a monster with a scrap of humanity left. But kneeling there, over a dying woman, he was a human in a monster’s body.
He was real.
She smiled at him forlornly, turning her head to look at the window as though she could see the sun outside. “Can you feel it?” she asked in a whisper.
“Le coucher du soleil.” The sunset. She was asking if he could feel the sunset.
Jean-Claude opened his mouth, about to answer her, when her hand flew to her mouth and the horrible coughing that had followed me all day started again, only worse this time. It shook her frame, hurt my ears. She clutched her chest, rolling into a small ball, blood seeping through her fingers. Her voice snapped with the force of her coughing and suddenly there was a wet and sharp sound, deep inside her chest as something tore. Something important.
Finally what I’d known for over twelve hours sank in. She was dying. She was going to die, here, now, on my living room floor in a wash of blood and pain. She was just going to stop and there would be nothing left of her. Nothing at all except an empty body with no soul inside. I knew that better than anyone else.
Jean-Claude watched her, head cocked to one side, listening to something only he could hear. “You’re dying,” he finally said, sounding surprised.
He repeated it, sounding a little frantic this time, “You’re dying!”
She nodded, fighting to sit up and failing. I finally did what I should have done ten minutes earlier, I moved. I acted. Running the few steps that separated me from the two, I knelt down behind Buffy, pulling her up until she was almost sitting. That seemed to break the spell on everyone else and suddenly we were surrounded by kneeling figures. They all looked worried, except, strangely enough, Nathaniel. He seemed almost serene as he touched Buffy’s hand and told her not to try to take deep breaths.
It worked and she gave him a weak smile in thanks.
I asked the question, but she clearly answered it for Jean-Claude, as she looked at him while she spoke.
“This is-”, another cough, “the price.”
Her breath was coming in quick short pants now and something rattled inside her chest. From the worried looks all around I guessed that her heart was failing as well. Damn enhanced hearing of the supernatural.
“Price? What price?”
“The price for coming back here.”
I shook my head at her, although she couldn’t see it. “Buffy we don’t understand. What price?”
She rolled her eyes up to look at me for a second. If the situation hadn’t been this serious I would have been sure she was frowning at me. Then she looked back at the vampire still kneeling above her, but not in anger now.
“My humanity for another chance in this world, Anita. It’s not that hard to understand, really, just-“
Whatever she wanted to say was abruptly cut off as she jerked her head around to stare out the window. Automatically my eyes followed. The light was gone, the sun probably too low to see behind the woods outside the window. In one last desperate move she grabbed Jean-Claude’s hand and pulled it down to rest on her chest, above her heart.
Her body jerked one last time and then it was over.
She went limp in my arms as if there’d never been any life in her at all and I felt cold suddenly. So very cold.
And then Richard’s arms were there, wrapping around me, pulling me backwards, away from the body.
Buffy was dead.
Richard pulled me to my feet and a few feet away from the body on the floor and I let him, too numb to resist. Too numb to even register that it was Richard
manoeuvring me through my own living room and onto the sofa. I sat down, uncaring, unseeing, just to jerk as suddenly something snapped inside of me.
Buffy’s French oath was broken.
That small band that had connected us the whole day long was gone. That seemed to make it that much more final and I felt a sob starting in my throat. I hadn’t known her all that well and I hated crying, but the way she’d gone… No-one deserved that much pain and anguish. No-one deserved to go that way and watching it had broken my heart.
I laid my hand on top of Richard’s resting on my shoulder, grateful for the moment that he was there. I leaned into his touch, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath to keep the tears at bay. The air smelled of lilies and the cool air after a summer’s rain.
It was a clean, comforting scent.
I frowned, my eyes snapping open. Neither had I lilies in the house nor had it rained lately. Whatever it is that makes me not completely human unfurled automatically inside of me, stretching and feeling the people and things around us. It crawled through the room like a living blanket, touching, covering everything. I tried to stop it, to put it back in its box, but my necromancy had hitched a ride and found something of interest.
It latched onto it, whatever it
was and followed it down the line to….Buffy.
I looked over to the spot my eyes had avoided until that moment, the spot where Jean-Claude was hugging Buffy’s body to his chest, surrounded by the leopards. The other shifters had all gotten to their feet as soon as the spook ended, unable to stand the sight I guessed. I climbed to my feet, following where my magic drew me. Distinctly, I heard Richard ask something behind me but I ignored him.
The smell grew stronger.
I opened my mouth to ask if anyone else smelled the lilies but Jason beat me to it.
“What’s happening?” he asked, looking around. He seemed to come to the same conclusion as me because his eyes landed on Buf- the body as well.
The power hit me and everyone else in the room like a tidal wave, sudden and incredibly strong, forcing me to take a step back. The smell became overwhelming and what I’d previously thought was soothing now pressed against my skin, behind my eyes, making me dizzy. It felt like I was being pressed against a wall, with no space to breathe, to move, to fight back and I was choking on it. Choking on the scent of lilies and the feeling of a thousand hands squeezing my body.
My eyes watered as a strange sound caught my attention. It was the wet sound of bones shifting and skin tearing. I opened my eyes, startled to realize that I was on my knees on the floor. At first I thought all the shifters in the room were changing, but that wasn't true. It was the leopards! They were all piled around the body, so tightly that even Jean-Claude was forced to move back and get to his feet, and they were changing!
The power, whatever it was, was making them change. I tried to get to my feet and failed, unable to push through the liquid power holding me down. So I did the only thing I could, I screamed. I screamed inside my head with all my might, tearing down the shields separating me from Jean-Claude, the only one still standing and Richard who was fighting behind me. I ripped open the marks with one silent scream.
“What the fuck is happening?!”
Richard gave the mental equivalent of a shrug but managed to twist the marks enough to help him to his feet. He pulled me up physically as soon as he stood. We leaned on each other, breathing heavily. I tasted blood on my upper lip and wiped at it with the back of my hand. My nose was bleeding. Great. I looked up, meeting Jean-Claude’s eyes across the pile of shifting, howling, mewling, dripping, changing bodies and I fell into them.
He knew the smell, knew the power because he had felt it before, seen what it did to all cats. To him it wasn't the cold hard wall I felt, to him it was a soft caressing wave of gentle strength and cloaked power. It was…Buffy. Only that the name I read in his head wasn’t Buffy, it was Lissbeth. The leopards were her animal to call, like all big cats and they responded to her call now.
There was only one problem, Lissbeth was Buffy now, a human and she was dead. Except –
The power disappeared so fast I stumbled and would have fallen, if Richard hadn’t caught me. His arm around my waist steadied me as the smell of lilies drained away faster than anything else I’d ever felt. It was sucked back to whence it came, leaving the room empty, the air clean and all the leopards in their furry form, licking and cuddling up to the body in their midst.
A body that was changing. Not shifting, like the wereleopards had, but definitely changing. Buffy’s already pale skin turned translucent in front of our eyes. Her hair seemed to grow even longer, but that might have just been me. Everything about her still body became ethereal and light until she looked as if the slightest breeze would take her away, blowing her to the end of the world and beyond.
And then she opened her eyes.
I stood, dumbstruck and completely speechless as Buffy- Lissbeth raised both her hands to stroke and pet the leopards surrounding her. Only moments before I’d watched her die – of natural causes – and suddenly she was back, alive, healthy and undead. She was a vampire.
She sat up, eyes fixed on, how else could it be, Jean-Claude, unwaveringly. Her eyes were a bright green, the green of cats and sprites and there were dainty fangs peeking out from her smile and suddenly there was nothing fragile about her anymore. Delicate, yes, fragile, a hell of a big no.
I must have made some sort of sound because her eyes flitted to me for a split second and it was almost enough. Enough for her to pull me under and roll me without even trying. She was powerful enough to rival any vampire I had ever met, including the Earthmover. But where the Earthmover had been old and stuck in his ways, the vampire in front of me was not. She was flexible, smart, all the things that made the powerful ones dangerous. Without those attributes, the most powerful were easy prey, but she wasn't.
No, I definitely understood now why the Council had always made a point to stay away from her. I hadn’t believed it when Jean-Claude told me, but now, boy was I ever the believer now.
Finally her smile turned into a broad grin as she stood soundlessly and said, “Morning!”
The leopards were still rubbing themselves against her legs, begging for attention as she took a couple of steps forward, stopping in front of the Master of the City.
“Your humanity?” Jean-Claude looked at her with a mixture of joy, grief and the need to understand, which I shared. Hell, we all wanted to know what the hell just happened.
“You gave your humanity to come here, to….”
“Yes. Now I heard the Council’s in town, messing with your people?” She asked, completely changing the subject. I blinked surprised. Before her death
she’d been patiently taking his anger and rage and beating, waiting for him to calm down enough to be talked to. And now that he was calm and willing to listen to her, stunned by her sacrifice after he’d spent centuries convinced that she left him for something better, she changed the subject.
“Oui, but Lissbeth, what– “
“Anita said something about a dinner tonight.” She was completely blocking him. “If you let me come I can probably convince them to leave you and your city alone. I even think I have some clothes I could wear, now that we’re finally in the 21st century and-“
She blinked owlishly as Jean-Claude cut her off, “Stop it, sacre bleu
! What just happened? Where have you been? How did you come back? What-“
“No,” she said. “No, Jean, you stop it. I came back to this world, knowing that 400 years passed. I came back, knowing the price and knowing that you probably moved on a long time ago. I needed to see you again, to know that you were alive. You and Asher and Valentina. Ten minutes ago you were yelling yourself hoarse at me. Too much has happened while I was gone and I know that. I got what I wanted. Now let’s deal with the Council.”
Her hand moved while she talked, to stroke his cheek softly. I don’t think either of them noticed the gesture, it was so familiar. Lissbeth’s face was serious now, her big eyes focused and sad as she watched Jean-Claude climb back behind his blank face. They stood like that for a long moment before he nodded.
“I am trying to understand, to forgive what I now know not to be your fault but it is hard. For so long…”
He trailed off, not unsure, but like he knew that she knew what he wanted to say. She did.
“We have time,” she offered.
And just like that, the drama was over. The two master vampires simply locked down whatever they felt for later inspection because we did not have the time to deal with 400 years of betrayal and loneliness now. Jean-Claude had spent so many years believing that she’d stopped loving him and I could feel how hard it was for him to let go of that concept, of the anger that had protected him until today.
And Lissbeth, well, she seemed to be elated just knowing that he was alive and well.
Seeing as the leopards were all out of order for the moment, I ushered them out into the expanse of forest behind my garden. They would only be in the way tonight. I was just coming back inside as Lissbeth called my name in the upstairs bedroom. It was empty once more. Gregory and Vivian, to some degree, had been healed by the power surge earlier. Both were out hunting with the rest of the pard.
I entered the room to find the newly born vampire standing in front of my floor length mirror, dressed in a bra and panties and nothing else. She frowned at her reflection briefly before turning to me, pointing at the bed. It was covered in clothes.
Some of the stuff was hers, but most was too big for her. On the very top lay a black velvet dress, that seemed to be missing about three inches on all ends. Beside it was an outfit that I prayed wasn't for me. Leather skirt, boots and a minuscule deep purple top.
“Put on the dress and some shoes you can move in,” Lissbeth ordered and I complied, glad that no-one was making me wear the skirt ensemble. And really, Jean-Claude had tried stuffing me into worse things in the past couple of years. The dress wasn't all that bad, I decided as Richard walked into the room and stopped short at the sight of me in it.
He gulped audibly before holding up the tie that went with the black tux he was wearing. Looking sheepish.
Once we had the tie fixed we both turned to Lissbeth to see how she looked. She was wearing the skirt, slit reaching up to the apex of her thigh. It stopped just above the knee, leaving an inch or two of tantalizingly white skin before the boots started. The top left her midriff bare and translucent in the artificial light of the room. On me that outfit would have looked cheap and slutty. On her it looked dangerous and sexy.
She waved at Richard, “Hi there. Looking good.”
He didn't look like he was really comfortable with the vampire checking him out. “Thanks, Buffy.”
“Lissbeth,” we both corrected at the same time. It seemed I was the only one besides Jean-Claude who didn’t have a problem with calling her Lissbeth instead of Buffy. In my mind they were two completely different people. Buffy, the human, dying girl and Lissbeth, the master vampire. The latter had nothing to do with the girl I’d met in the morning. Nothing at all.
Just then my cell rang. It was Dolph, telling me they knew who the leak among the vampires was that had given away all the daytime hiding places. It was Harry, the owner of the bar where a vamp attack had been staged the night before. Of course, Harry had disappeared. Dolph asked if either I or the Master of the City knew anything. Once I told him that no, we had no idea where he was, he asked me not to tell the vampires. Said he didn't want a bloodbath. It pissed my off that he thought that a, I’d condone something like this and b, I’d be present for it. I was about to tell him that, when Lissbeth snatched the phone from my hands faster than I could protest.
“Listen Sergeant, the laws vampires live by are older than any human law. They are as old as our race and in all that time, they haven’t changed. And you know why? Because they work. They’ve been working for eons now. Harry knew the laws and he broke them and now we’ll deal with it our way because it’s the way that’s kept us alive for millennia. Stay out of this. You’ll only get hurt.”
She broke the connection without another word. I scowled at her angrily. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She shrugged. “Helping you? Now he can’t say you told us because he knows you were overheard. Besides, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion where the little cockroach is hiding.”
I sighed as she looked unrepentant. If she really decided to stick around, this was going to turn into a long couple of decades. Awake barely two hours, and already she was bugging me. But then, she probably had
helped me. Darn.
During the ride to the Circus, Lissbeth and Jean-Claude were acting perfectly civil with each other, talking like they weren't both torn on the inside. Richard and I kept exchanging glances until finally I opened the marks enough to send him a single thought.
“Do you think we could be like this, not hating each other despite our differences?”
He slammed the marks shut as soon as the thought was through and I turned my head to look outside, away from him and the others riding with us. I didn't want them to see me fingering the edge of my dress, trying not to cry. At least until, suddenly, a warm and heavy arm came to rest across my shoulders, pulling me closer to Richard’s warm body.
His scent ghosted over my skin, followed by a thought: We can try.