Everything was turning out so dark. It looked like Anita might be dead or close to death, and Oz was a rampaging beast.
This has been one bullshit kind of day, Jason thought. He was trying to will himself into invisibility.
Jean-Claude looked as though his whole world had been destroyed, but he was still fighting, still sending his vampires and the wolves forward, much good that it was doing. It was obvious to Jason that there wasn't anything they could do against Oz, not when he was hunched over Anita and they were afraid of him killing her. And there wasn't a doubt in Jason's mind that she was going to die tonight.
He thought that maybe he was supposed to feel bad, but he was empty inside. What fondness he'd once had for Anita had died an inch at a time with each weakness she had displayed, each bit of her morals she had thrown aside. She didn't even have the excuse of having a monster inside her. She had just liked being the strong one too much.
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. If that didn't explain what had happened to Anita, nothing else did.
Looking at her laid out on the floor with the hairy gray furred beast hovering over her, Jason wondered what had happened to the self-righteous yet good hearted woman she used to be. Where had all the doubts gone and was it that lack that had led to this rather ignoble end?
You weren't supposed to become worse than Raina, he thought at her, wondering if there was anything left in her to hear if he said the words out loud.
He didn't think so.
* * *
Jean-Claude was horrified by what was happening in front of him. Anita was lying completely still on the floor and there was so much blood... he feared that she would truly die if she didn't receive medical care soon.
He had been the one that had allowed Oz to stay in his territory and this had been the result. Anita had a flare for making enemies wherever she went, only this time it might prove fatal for her. And the Marks might see him and Richard both dragged down into the grave with her.
He regretted so carelessly tying his life to someone he had already known was unstable and hyper-aggressive. The result was that she was reminding him more and more of his old mistress and the terrors she had leveled. He had refused to face the idea that Anita had begun to frighten him. He no longer met her appearance with delight, but with the quiet dread of bad company.
As they said, "The love was gone." Asher had been right, the warnings he had quietly whispered in French when Anita wasn't there to hear. Jean-Claude hoped Anita never learned French or he and Asher would have to find another way to converse quietly.
Anita felt that every part of his life was hers to riffle through, while he should always respect her privacy and she could freely do as she wished. It was as ridiculous as her ban on his having other lovers -- Asher -- while she never even tried to control the ardeur.
She was careless of the feelings of others. At some point she had decided to set aside the niceties of manners and treated everyone as her inferior. Already Jean-Claude had had to smooth the angered tempers of several allies that she had casually offended. If he didn't have such a golden tongue their list of enemies -- which was already monstrously long -- would have been lengthened even further.
He worried that they had lost some friends to Anita's pride. She insisted on sating her ardeur wherever she wanted and with whoever, never mind her victim's relationship status or their desire to have sex with her.
Jean-Claude had already heard the word "rapist" thrown at her back. Thankfully she had never heard it herself or he would be facing a tremendous tantrum. He might have just told her what people saw her as, but there was the concern that she might use her gun on someone.
It worried him that she saw the law as something standing in her way. As a result, she had committed several acts that would have earned her a Writ of Execution of her very own. Sexual congress with a minor wouldn't exactly help her clear her name either.
Anita had gotten herself into and out of trouble in the years that he had known her, but tonight with Oz, he didn't think she was going to get out of it.
And more than anything he wanted to feel worse about it. He wanted his heart to ache and the terror and dread to build a fire in his belly. He wanted to feel something more than the echoing void he felt now.
Jean-Claude had fallen out of love with Anita, and he didn't even know when it had happened. It was dreadful.
* * *
Gathering the troops had become frighteningly normal. It seemed completely everyday to run around grabbing weapons and gear and anything else that might be useful.
Xander had long since put together what he called a "Go bag," something he could just grab on the way out the door. So he spent the bulk of his time helping Buffy and Willow get all their stuff up the stairs to the attic. Kennedy kept saying she was ready to go and didn't need anything else and didn't need help from anyone and blah blah, he didn't really care. He wasn't going to argue with her.
"Are you ready for this?" he asked Andrew, who swallowed and gave a grim faced nod. "All right, so we're leaving you to keep the home fires burning."
"I will not fail, Xander," Andrew promised. He would be staying behind to keep the portal anchored. "I'll get you all home."
"I know you will." Xander cupped Andrew's face with his palms. "I trust you."
Andrew's smile was all sunshine, desperate hardened sunshine. He lunged forward and their lips smacked together and it should have been an awkward thing, but Andrew was about one hundred percent enthusiasm and that was good.
They kissed for a long time until there was the interrupting clatter of the girls coming up the stairs. Xander pulled somewhat reluctantly out of Andrew's clasping hands. "I have to go."
"I know," Andrew said. "Please don't die."
"That's Rule One," Xander said. It was the nearest he ever came to a promise, because sometimes the dying came easy. Andrew understood that and gave Xander a quick peck on the side of the mouth before stepping away.
The attic door opened and Buffy came in loaded down with two heavy duffel bags. "You guys decent in here? I really don't want to interrupt the pre-Slayage smoochies."
"We're fine," Xander said. "Are we about ready to go?"
Buffy thunked the bags down on the floor. "Willow said she needed some more stinky herbs, then we're golden."
Xander rubbed his hands together. "All right. It's gonna be great, doing some slaying with my best girls again."
Buffy smiled at him. "This will show everyone that wanted to put me in the Old Slayer Home that I don't need to be retired."
"Well, grab your walker," Willow said, coming through the door, "and let's go save Oz from the bad people."
"And if he's the 'bad people' in this particular scenario?" Xander asked. He didn't particularly want to slay Oz, but it might just turn out that way.
"Then we'll protect the bad people from Oz," Willow said. "We'll bring him home where he belongs." There was the glint of determination in her eyes; she would save Oz and no one would stop her.
* * *
There was a crackle of trapped lightning in the air, a storm gathering within the ballroom. The charge on the air was like the feel of an oncoming storm.
Richard didn't know what was happening, but he didn't think it was anything good. He's been sending his wolves forward to help Jean-Claude save Anita, but had refused to go himself.
It was probably a sign of weakness or something, but Richard couldn't stand the thought of being close to Anita. Some part of him was sure that if he got too far into her atmosphere she would suck him back into whatever deviltry she'd done to the Marks.
He didn't want to be pulled back into her wake, a slave to her angers and and passions, dancing on hidden strings. He was tired of feeling ashamed of himself and he simply refused to do it anymore.
"We're getting our asses handed to us. What do you want us to do?" Jamil asked.
Richard shook his head. "I don't even know what he's become, how am I supposed to say how to handle him?" He looked at his enforcer. "So you have any suggestions?"
"Kill him?" Jamil shrugged. "He doesn't seem to be having any problem tossing vampires around and he's taking out our wolves and the leopards."
"Maybe we should just let him keep Anita?" Richard said, then shifted under the look Jamil gave him. "I wasn't serious about that. With the Marks, I don't want to deal with some kind of aneurysm or something if she dies and Jean-Claude would be upset."
"But that's the only reason you want to look after her?" Jamil asked. He snorted. "Looks like you're finally getting over that number she did on you. That's a good thing."
"Sure," Richard said. "It's great for the pack and for me personally, but I can't help feeling as though I'm losing something as a person."
"Better than driving the pack into danger with you." Jamil was always so pragmatic. Anita hadn't been his favorite person from the first time he met her and he'd never had his opinion changed. He'd played at being a bit nicer -- she expected it and it hadn't taken Jamil long to realize she wouldn't leave it alone if he didn't at least pretend to like her -- but Richard had noticed that the smell of distrust was always in the air around Jamil whenever Anita was in the room.
Jamil was fiercely loyal to the pack and he didn't see Anita as being any kind of advantage for them. She pushed buttons wherever she went and lost them some of the allies they should have been able to call their own. And those that were already distrustful of the Lukoi, Anita poked and prodded at them and didn't realize why they snapped back.
Richard wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say. Jamil was getting his hate on, but that didn't necessarily mean he was wrong. The things that had been happening the last few years had been terrible and Richard fully acknowledged that he had done his part to make things worse.
Being Marked by Jean-Claude had seemed like the only thing he could do to save Anita's life, and he'd still been in love with her and he'd never paused to consider consequences. Somewhere in his romantic heart, he'd been sure they were going to be in love forever. Everything was going to work out and they would live happily ever after.
All it had taken was his mother losing a finger and one of his brothers being raped for him to realize that things were not going to work out the way he wanted and maybe there were no happy endings for a man afraid of being a monster.
At least he wasn't angry all the time anymore, that was something at least.
As he watched, Asher was suddenly flung across the room toward the far wall.
"Is it me, or is Oz getting stronger?" he asked. He probably should be stressing out about what was going on, but he'd seen so much stuff that he'd become pretty inured to it. And maybe it felt a little good to see Anita experiencing the horror for once.
"Hm, maybe," Jamil said. "Or maybe he wasn't angry before but he's getting there now. I'd be mad if a bunch of people were throwing themselves at me."
Richard opened his mouth to respond, but accidentally caught Jean-Claude's eye across the room. "Oops, I think we need to do something now."
He didn't want to get close to Anita, but the look Jean-Claude was giving was pure poison. So it was either personally step in to help save Anita or think about moving out of town.
"Come on," he said, walking across the room. The smell of human blood pervaded everything and he couldn't help relishing it.
Jamil followed after him along with the silently stoic Shang-da, who had been watching Anita writhe and scream with a faintly amused expression. He'd probably had to bite his tongue to keep from saying anything about Anita and her forthcoming demise.
Richard was a little grateful for that.