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Summary: Having fallen through a rift brought on by Wilkins' death, pint-sized Scoobies find themselves in a world where the supernatural is commonplace. Throw in sneaky governments, power-hungry vamps, and over-protective lycanthropes, it could almost be home.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anita Blake > General > FriendshipVampireCowFR1322123,680108573212,64322 Oct 102 Feb 14No

Riders on the Storm

The mud of the bank had hardened as he slept. It crackled, flaking off like dead skin, as he moved sleep frozen limbs out of the muck and into a shallow, stagnate pool of water. Green gobs of moss hung off his bod creating an almost perfect camouflage, and he drank. The taste of the earth in the brackish water was oddly similar to blood, rich with minerals, and he gulped it, visions of death dancing in his mind and fueling a different thirst. He could see them all, his new family, so clearly. Beautiful. Young. Soft. Rich golden hair, just like Hers. Only... it would never be quite like Hers, for she was special, twisted, just for him. For each other, and he remembered -Had he ever been that human?- spiting and cursing and promising what he now knew would never have the chance to come to pass. He'd missed his chance. Mother had left him, alone, to make his own way.

But he would make do. He always did.

Having drunk his fill, he righted himself, listening to the sound of joints popping and muscles twisting around immovable obstacles that burned just beneath his skin. It was strange, he mused, the feeling of hollowness in his chest. He ran a finger over mud-concealed scars in contemplation. They screamed inside of him: howls and pants and cackles scratching at the walls of his mind eager for blood. Violence. If he were anyone else, he might have termed it vengeance.

Sometimes he wondered how no one else heard it. For how could they not? It was a constant presence, like a wind chimes or a ticking clock, if they wind chimes had been strung with teeth and the clock made of claws.

A furred snout entered his vision, interrupting his thoughts. She whimpered for attention, and he gave it in the form a swipe that left bleeding stripes across her face. Belly to the dirt, she cried, and it was so damn pathetic, he was half tempted to rip out her throat and end it. End her, the poor substitute for his sister-wife. Learned helplessness, She had called it. The body was warped, imperfect, and a failure. Though some semblance of intelligence lurked in those slit reptilian eyes, it was clear the animals ruled where human thought once lived.

He reached out, slowly this time, with a clawed hand and a crocodile smile, gently cradling the whimpering she-wolf. "She's dead. She can't hurt you anymore." His voice came out in a resounding hiss as he stroked the top of her head, felt the fearful trembling cease, and in a blink reached around to snap the neck. Subject 019 let out a wheeze and a squeak as the light of life died in her eyes. For the briefest seconds, something that might have been fearful understanding gleamed. She had a name, maybe, once upon a time.

He thought he might have, too.

Rough, scaled fingers sunk into the pale flesh as he bent to rip off an arm. He could hear them, in the tall grass and weed that skirted the small river, perking up and drooling. Brothers and sisters, hungry, but scared. Respectful. They knew their place. Mother had seen to it.

But Mother was gone now, they knew it, in an indefinable way, that she was gone.

Bone crunched between his jaws, easily snapping through, and the meat went down sticky-sweet. The sun wasn't yet high in the sky, and at that moment he wanted nothing more than to find a nice sunny spot to nap and let the hot summer soak into his core. But he needed to keep moving. He had other hungers, other needs that needed seeing to.

Seamlessly, he slid into the moving waters, mindful of the small group of monsters watching him, expectingly. Twisted desires mingling with animal instinct as he navigated the waters, searching, plucking out useful memories from the foggy depths of his mind.

Finding people who didn't want to be found is one part art and one part luck. Most of those Ronnie had been hired to hunt down over the years had been disgruntled teenagers, dishonest spouses, and the psychotic elderly. The last of which were damn vicious fighters who had no problems using their teeth, and dentures hurt like a bitch. Veronica had hoped finding the kids would be easier, but she was wrong. The problem lay in the fact people simply didn't notice children, especially children in groups, because it was assumed that they belonged to someone else. If the children had a problem, expected the masses, surely they would seek out the nearest uniformed officer? Wasn't that what was taught in school?

Yep, side-by-side with the adage: Don't talk to strangers and, conversely, stay where you are till help finds you.

Ronnie leaned back, causing her chair to squeak, and tapped her chin with her pen. She glanced at what information Louie had been able to bring by before going off to some shifter summit, and decided that she couldn't treat the four missing kids as disgruntled teenagers running away from mom and dad. No. These little midgets were definitely the psychotic elderly type; sneaky, suspicious, and skilled with something to prove. The blonde detective hummed a few notes of the Jeopardy theme and tried to figure out what the hell a bunch of kids would be after.

Investigating them, their histories, hadn't helped a whole lot. She had hoped their backgrounds would give her some insight into what they were doing and where they were going, but half of them were supposed to be dead. Louie had supplied her with a copy of a death certificate for one Daniel "Oz" Osborne, and Willow Rosenberg was Missing Presumed Deceased, along with over half her town which shouldn't have been statistically possible. Surely someone would know where all those bodies went? Buffy's prints didn't exist in any database Veronica had access to, and she now owed several people favors in exchange for bupkis. The private detective would have liked to probe deeper, and had been ready to dig herself in a little deeper, when common sense reared its coiffed head.

If children had such black-grounds, and she really needed coffee if she was making such horrible puns, then what kind of red flags would be thrown up if she did? What kind of alarms had she already tripped just by looking into their names?

Ronnie stood and shuffled over to her kitchen to pour a new pot of coffee. "The bureaucratic arts are a vast, often unintelligible, and many tentacled beast." She murmured to herself while spooning sugar into her cup. "They require an equally adaptable mindset." She slipped her little Colt into the back of her jeans and returned to her desk, caffeine enriched drink in hand. The case had been too interesting to sleep, and Louie was counting on her.

She thought about children. They were not something she'd ever planned on having, at least not since her first marriage failed. Tiny, drooling faces and poopie diapers.

Why would anyone want them? Really. If the motherly drive ever started hitting her uterus, she was going to get some at the market, aged and potty trained complete with kung-fu action!

Ronnie looked back down at the folder she'd been supplied, and at the image of a girl as thin as a willow-reed giggling at something her shaved headed companion said. She thought about the little boy that called her Pretty Lady. There was nothing drooly-faced or poopie diaper about them.

If their prison break was anything to go by, the definitely had kung-fu action going on.

"Not kids." She stated to no one, nodding to herself while sipping her jo. "Psychotic old folks that somehow got their hands on a youth serum, definitely."

Veronica Simms was a detective, and if there was one thing she knew about, it was the human psyche. It was necessary, in her business. You had to know what signs to look for in a cheating husband - Or wife: Ronnie was an equal opportunity investigator.- or where the dementia effected grandmother would sneak off to. Human beings, as a race, were rather lazy when it came down to it and you had to know what drove people. Motive, in cop speak.

Ronnie set her mug on the desk and watched her door through the mirror in the hall. She had no reason to. She wasn't expecting anyone but, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." And no one expects a bunch of 8-10 year old children to break into a highly secure facility to retrieve their companion. No one expects per-industrial weapons. A little voice piped up in the back of the blonde's head. No one expects a charity/state funded hospital to be a front for illicit government conspiracies.

But they did. And it was.

And it suddenly made sense, once she stopped thinking of them as scared traumatized children wanting their friend back. No one in their right mind would go wandering at night while there were half-sane shifters on the loose, but they WERE no one. Dead, missing, and/or records sealed. "Ah, SHIT!" Ronnie slapped her hands on her desk as she stood up, knocking over her coffee, spilling the hot liquid over her hands and cluttered desk, scalding her in desperate need of a manicure hands. "Shit. Shit. Shit."

She wiped her hands on her pant leg and stepped over to her row of metal cabinets, extraneous work files that she didn't store in her office, reaching for a drawer full of city and state maps. The detective spilled a pack of push-pins in her haste, but with her Missouri state map up on the wall and a highlighter clamped between her lips she began plotting points.

Outside, clouds moved over head, and the window rattled in its frame.

Briefly, Buffy entertained the idea that if she wasn't already, then she was going insane. It could be that she'd never actually gotten out, and that she was still institutionalized with tiny bits of metal feeding into her veins and keeping her sedated. Pliable. That everything from the Hellmouth to the shrinkage was all part of her overactive imagination. An escape. Merrick had never mentioned supernatural hotspots or slayer lines, but then she hadn't known him long. They'd been more concerned with getting her trained enough to withstand Lothos than history.

Maybe everything she was seeing -doing- was all a fantasy and all the bits with the bloody girl in LA were the true reality trying to get in. Maybe Dana was another patient in the psycho pyro ward, and the doctors decided to stick the two violent maniacs together in the hopes they would kill each other.

Buffy pressed her head against the concrete pillar of the mall's parking garage. It was cool in the shade, out of the July heat, and the grit under her cheek felt so very real. She breathed in the dust, listened to the soft flutter of nervous pigeons, and clung to that reality because as much as she missed the smell of fresh waffles and the sound of her mother humming as she got ready for work... if this wasn't real..."Then neither are Willow, or Xan, or Oz..."

"Hey, Buff, you want the Volkswagen or the Toyota?" Oz questioned as he wandered out of the shadows, kicking a fragment of rubble as he went. He walked along, hands in pockets, and if Buffy opened the dictionary and looked up nonchalant she was willing to bet there would be a picture of Oz.

"Who? What? Where?" Buffy sputtered, snapping out of her daze. Her eyes flicked up, scanning the busy mid-day street and the garage entrance before refocusing on her friend.

Oz arched an eyebrow, somehow managing to look decades more mature with that single gesture than his blueberry hair and short statue would suggest. "You forgot when and why."

"Oh. Well, you know me and English." Buffy coughed as she picked at an invisible thread on her denim skirt. "The, uh, bug. German engineering and all that."

"Uh-huh." The werewolf cocked his head, listening, and Buffy's eyes widened marginally as she took the cue. The two of them ducked behind the short wall of brick work as a woman dressed in business casual passed by, heels clicking against the sidewalk. Further back in the lot a car beeped, headlights flashing, and the fugitive pair hunched down using various other parked cars for cover as the woman walked to her car. As the Escalade dove out into the sun, its driver unaware of her watchers, Buffy let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Oz glanced at her. "Do we need to have another one of those talks?"

"It's not that." Buffy shook her head, frowning. There was dirt on her hands, a result of crawling around alleyways and under cars, but no blood. Vampires dusted. Demons bled all sorts of colors. Werewolves would bleed red, though, like a person... She fluffed her hair. "I was just thinking about home. You know how it is."

Oz made a noise that could have been sympathy or indifference, and scratched at his nose. Buffy watched him as they headed deeper into the garage, up the gentle slope of the parking lot, and into the more deserted areas. His gait was relaxed and confident, as always, and most of all natural. Oz didn't do pretenses. There was something immensely comforting about that. You always, always knew where you were with Oz. Buffy quickened her step and shoved his shoulder. He shoved back.

"You didn't get much sleep last night." There was no judgement in his voice.

"Weird dreams. If I didn't know better, I might have thought they were slayer dreams." Running, jumping, slaying dreams. She waved away an imaginary cloud. "And there were all the mosquitoes. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out the original vampire demon was one."

Willow's head popped out from behind a little blue car, teeth worrying at her lower lip as she eyed the pair. "Do you think this is becoming a habit? Are we turning into criminals? That's how it starts you know. First, ding-dong-ditch, then a joyride, and before you know it we're knocking over banks and kicking puppies!"

Oz smiled, reaching over to lay a finger against her quivering, poised to rattle off another worst-case-scenario lips. "Collateral damage. Military term. When you start organizing a chop-shop, then we'll worry." Willow scowled at her boyfriend, but there was more relief than anything else in her expression. She crossed her arms over her chest as Buffy hid her laugh with a cough. "Buff called the beetle."

"Oh. Good." Willow smiled in relief. " Xander can reach the pedals in that one. Also, it's a happy yellow. I like yellow. Yellow is sunshine and daisies and butter and... what other things are yellow?"

"Banana pudding?" Buffy offered as they rounded a final pillar.

"Lemons. And french fires." Xander called around his fingertips out as the slid out of the VW in question, one of their daggers showing obvious signs of damage in his hands. "And I think I burned my fingers... guess we should be glad it's old... we're still gonna have to push it to get started, though. And then if we turn it off I'm not positive I can get it going again."

Buffy grinned and gestured all around them. "Well, we do have this nice, convenient downward slope."

Xander grinned back. "Point." He rubbed his hands together, as if grand-theft-auto was a special treat that he'd been waiting to commit all year. Buffy pressed her lips together. Perhaps Willow was right about gate-way crimes, like gate-way drugs, and they shouldn't have let him steal that rocket-launcher from the Army base. "Okay. I'll steer and wait for the engine to turn-over. Buffy and Oz, you guys will push. Willow, make sure the door stays open so they can jump in."

Oz nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

The smell of burning pork hung in the humid air. The grass was wet with a mixture of mud and blood where it hadn't been torn out by clawed feet and weapon's fire. Tree branches hung at odd, splintered-off angles, and every now and then a body part, or at least parts of a body, would be found half-buried in the wreckage. Bullet casings lay scattered about like bronze Easter eggs, only there was no chocolate inside and they had absolutely nothing to do with rebirth. It was a battlefield; plain and simple. Zebrowski wondered if the scattered, chewed up field was what his great-great-grandfather had witnessed during the Revolutionary War.

The RPIT veteran looked down and glassy eyes stared back at him. Pinkish grey matter had splattered with bits of skull on the tree trunk behind the corpse. A tiny mark sat between the eyes where the bullet had gone in, but instead of fear the man -Boy, really. Old enough to die for his country but not to drink.- had a look of relief in his features. And that didn't make sense. One of the legs was little more than hamburger, and a white bit of bone poked out from an arm, but it couldn't have been a mercy killing. Could it?

Zebrowski's gaze drifted to the deep, heavy not-quite-footprints pressed into the earth beside the corpse. The toes were too long and spread too far apart to be human.

He'd had a rat when he was little. Called it Betsy. Dogs were too big for his mother's apartment and she was allergic to cats, so with prodigious use of pleading and fact charts they'd compromised. The little gray and white fuzz puff had her own wheel, and a trail made out of PVC pipe and plastic soda bottles that lined his room. Betsy used to ride around in his coat pocket, standing on her back paws and peering out. It was kinda funny; he hadn't thought about her in years.

The detective rubbed at his neck and waved for the forensics team. Already a neat row of body bags waited for the meat wagon to return and cart the contents off to the land of refrigeration and postpartum biopsy. What was one more? People died everyday. The only difference was the why and how.

A steel chain glinted in the weak noon sun. Zebrowski leaned forward, elbows pressing into his legs to maintain balance, and gave a grunt of surprise. A pair of military dog-tags, non-reflective, hung half-hidden among the sticky folds of fabric. There was what could only be a codename, or else his parents really hated the poor bastard, where his real name should have been. The RPIT cop shifted on his feet and lifted the chain free, sliding it between latex covered fingers. "Hello, Daisy." Zebrowski's lips twisted into what might have been a smile if any feeling had been put into it. They had found the Jeffersons, or what was left of the Jeffersons. They still hadn't found Anita, though.

Or maybe they had, and she was scattered in with the many piles of parts being photographed and prepped for transport. The detective stood, eyes narrowing as they reassessed the field. It was a mess, and yet it was practically spotless. They didn't have much time.

"Jesus." Clive Perry whispered as he waded through the muck, the ends of his pressed pant-legs rapidly drenching, his own gaze trapped by the unseeing, unknown soldier. "He's a kid, just a kid."

No, Zebrowski thought as he reached into a jacket pocket for an emergency cigarette, our little vampire slayer isn't here. He didn't know where she was, exactly, but he knew she wasn't dead or dying. His gut was sure about that, and he knew to trust his gut. It was practically impossible to rope off such a large area and people, uniformed and not, were wandering around. A group of civilians had gathered by the road and Micheals was doing his damnedest to keep them back. The kid was throwing quite a few insults and threats into his explanation, but it seemed to be the only thing getting through to the people. Zebrowski couldn't see his superior anywhere.

"Where did Sargent Storr go?"

"Back to the City. Brass isn't too happy about what he did to Moss. They have to make a gesture, in the spirit of inter-agency cooperation of something." Perry answered. He moved as if to elaborate but changed his mind and leaned down, looking beyond the corpse to the blood painted bark. The dark skinned man took a pair of gloves from his pocket and snapped them on, reaching for something stuck in the gore.

Zebrowski moved, catching the other man with a look and shaking his head. "They haven't taken pictures of this area yet." They hadn't taken pictures of a lot of areas yet, they didn't have the man-power or experience with such a large case, and more were still being sectioned off. Much more and they'd have to close the road, dirt and old gravel though it was.

Perry peered at the tree, lines creasing between his eyes as he licked the salt from his lips. Sweat had broken out along his hair line. He pointed to a spot thoroughly caked in bits of brain with a pen light. Unlike the treated dog-tags, something glittered in the light. "Detective Zebrowski, what does that look like to you?"

"Metal." A bit of metal plate in the head from a former injury? "They found evidence of shrapnel grenades. Could be that."

"Then we wouldn't have such a pretty body."


They shared a moment of contemplative silence, watching as a shiny new Cobra with government plates drove up. Rocks crunched and pinged as the tires ground into the uneven surface. It wasn't going to be shiny for long. They watched a short haired woman in a skirt-suit get out, heels sinking into the ground, flashing a badge with three big capital letters on it. Agencies and their acronyms.

Perry's arms swung at his side to help him balance as they picked their way to the main center of authority figures. "Storr wasn't kidding. Whoever did this, they were good. Professional. I heard the tech guys talking, and the underground bunker has been wiped. Someone sent a virus through the computers in addition to setting the fire on their way out."

"...Shifter mafia, maybe?" Zebrowski looked up at the cloud covered sky. It was the kind of sky that would have his granddad's knees complaining. Granddad's knees talked a lot. At least to granddad. "You wouldn't happen to know what DRI stands for, would you?"

"DRI? ...Desert Research Institute?"

"See, that's what I thought, but there are no deserts out here." Zebrowski took two steps to the right, avoiding a pit, not breaking his stride.

"What it stands for, gentlemen." The new federal liaison, one without a recently broken nose, turned to face them. "Is classified. I'm Special Agent Carolyn Jaeger."

Zebrowski resisted the urge to spit, grinned instead, and let his eyes travel up and down the woman like a lecher. He wasn't the best, but his gut told him she had one gun by her ankle, the small of her back, and another in a shoulder holster. She was also good, very good, and the suit helped, but there was something primal about the way she moved. Zebrowski clasped his hands behind his back and affected an air of childish innocence. "Oh, can't we have even a little hint? Pretty please?"

"Sorry. Classified is classified." She then reached up, removing her fashionable sunglasses, and revealed cold, red eyes. "I cannot excuse Agent Moss' behavior, he let his personal bias get in the way, but I assure you such things won't happen again. We have a serial killer to catch, do we not? As for this mess, I have reason to believe it and the St. Peters brake-out are related."

"Do you now?" Micheals sing-songed with a heavy dollop of vehemence, and Zebrowski found it odd, and enjoyably novel, to not be on the receiving end of the territorial dispute.

Jaeger bobbed her head, quick, and his stomach clenched. He smiled through it all, because there was a predator in their midst, and she was hunting for something the government didn't want to admit existed. That was what classified meant.

Zebrowski had a feeling that when they finally got this all sorted out it and the report nicely typed up it was going to go in a moldy folder in some clandestine basement, waiting, until the idiots in charge screwed up again and it was up to two clever, determined, maverick agents to sort it all out.

"Are you well, Detective?" Pretty-and-Predatory asked with a cold concern.

Zebrowski rubbed his temples with one hand and let his grin turn into something almost whimsical. "Fine. Too much late-night TV, is all. You were saying about Adamson?"

Xander tapped the break as they approached the new suburban development site. He looked into the rear-view as they slowed, watching Willow and Oz tuck weapons and snacks about their person. The backpacks would be staying in their stolen car as the two would be covering more ground and needed freedom of movement. "I still don't like this." He stated, again, for the record. "This always happens in horror films. As soon as the hot teenage co-stars break up into groups 'investigate' the mystery, or hunt the monster, they get eaten/kidnapped/tortured. Speaking as the comedic relief, and the one most likely to get eaten/kidnapped/tortured first, I vote we stay together!"

"Speaking as the hot blonde sexy athlete chick, I veto your vote." Buffy puffed her chest out from where she sat in the passenger seat, but they could all see the false bravado for what it was. The Slayer didn't like the thought of them splitting up anymore than the Soldier did. "We talked about this, Xander, and if we stay together we'll only be able to watch one of the possible sites. What if Jack goes after the other guys? Who's going to warn them?"

"...I know but... its Willow!" He didn't add the other half of what he was thinking. There was something pacing in his mind, agitated. Oz slipped a silver dagger through a belt-loop, and reached over the seat to grasp their driver by the shoulder. The manly version of a hug of reassurance.

"We'll be careful. I'll sniff 'um out before they get too close, and Wills will keep her distance."

"Yeah, if they show up, and hey, Mister, I can do fireballs, now." The witch narrowed her eyes in concentration and held out a hand, palm up. It was a modification of another spell that she'd been rather hit-and-miss with, a simple trick for starting camp fires, but with practice came a modicum of control. She'd gotten quite a bit of practice in the last month. "Incindie."

Xander looked at the wavering bundle of flame dancing above his best friend's hand. "That's more like a fire golf-ball."

Willow pouted, waved her hand to banish the flame, and crossed her arms as they slowed to a stop at the unfinished gated community. Buffy shrugged, eyes dimming as the light vanished. Whether she ever admitted it or not, the blonde was a pyro at heart. "Fire's fire. Kick-ass, Wills. And if you do spot Jackie-boy-"

Oz held up their walkie-talkie. It was good for ten miles, give or take. They'd tested it. "No engagement, excepting the endangerment of civilians. We'll call for cavalry." The musician straightened in his seat, gaze darting between the other two as Willow opened the door and slid out into the drizzle, dragging her crossbow with her. "And, if you two locate the murdering bastard, you'll. Call. Us."

It was oddly warm in the small vehicle, like someone had turned the heater on, and the only silence was broken by fat raindrops hitting the roof or splattering against the window. He didn't like it. Rain washed away tracks, and would make it harder for Oz to sniff out the bad guys. Of course, Oz's nose was why it was him and Willow taking the suburban community. A decorative stream wound through the middle of the new neighborhood that eventually connected back to a tributary of the Mississippi, which made it an ideal place for Jack to use as a landing point if he choose, and the werewolf was best able to cover the larger area. Several of the houses were already inhabited, too, which meant victims.

"We will." Buffy promised earnestly, but unlike the other two she wasn't going to hang back and wait. Buffy would take the fight to the monsters, champion that she was, and they all knew it. Xander's job was to watch her back until Willow and Oz could provide much needed muscle and, literally, firepower.

Nodding, Oz shut the door and wrapped an arm around Willow, who's hair was already damp and plastering to her skin. Boyfriend and girlfriend ducked past the little decorative guardhouse and entered the neighborhood, mud and clay sticking to their feet, quickly vanishing in the rain.

"Come on, Key-guy." Buffy nudged him. "We got a mansion to get to."

Xander changed gears and reversed out of the near pothole they'd driven into. "I still don't like this. I could make lists of how many times Scoobies splitting up lead to Bad Things."

Buffy sighed, slumping. "I don't like it either, but we don't have a choice." The sky rumbled ominously overhead. She looked up, as if peering through the metal to the sky above. "At least there haven't been any earthquakes."

"Yeah." Xander perked up. "So if we fudge up, it'll only be us that dies!"

Because if the monster did get to Oz and Willow first, he'd get them back or die trying. Next to him, eyes gleaming strangely in the grey light of the storm, Buffy promised herself the same thing.

Anita tried to move, but her body felt too heavy, and she couldn't breathe. She could only continue to sink as her hands reached for the sun that sparkled above. She opened her mouth, as if screaming for help, but the only thing that happened was salt water filling her lungs while panic overflowed her veins.

This isn't right, she thought as a dark shapes swam around her. I've already been here. Done this.

Her legs kicked, and something wrapped around her, trying to keep her down. Phantom scales slid over her skin, nowhere near as smooth as they looked, and her twin fires glowed at her from the depths.

Jormungand, a voice in the tone of her Comparative Mythology professor whispered, the world serpent. A giant. A shape-shifter. Once a snake, then a cat. Eating itself for a reason only it knew, and when it stopped the whole world would end...

Calm down, you're safe. A new voice said, and she thought she recognized the soft wing beats of the syllables, but it was far away and muffled by miles of water...

They were cocooned in a layer of pulsing, electric heat. Vivian blinked open drowsy eyes as the door creaked to admit a slight, slim body, intruding on their little world. She raised her head the smallest bit, scenting the air, and picked out the distinct soap-and-honey combination of Cherry's skin amid the vanilla of Nathaniel and the sweat-blood-gunpowder that drifted off the Nimir-Ra. Cherry's feet didn't make any sounds as she padded across the dimly lit room to the bed, though the springs squeaked as she climbed over Nathaniel's legs. Vivian settled her head back down against Anita's chest, listening to the sluggish beating of a heart in deep sleep. Anita didn't really like them piling on her like this, she worried that if zombies came crawling through the window (And they had, before she was their Nimir-Ra, Elizabeth's skepticism and Zane's teasing had unleashed a graphic description of the incident.) she wouldn't be able to reach her gun in time.

But Anita, the Nimir-Ra, was out of it. Still. They'd cleaned her up as best they could, licking the blood and gore from her body even as they called her back from... from the Edge, but after the Pard had managed to bring her down she'd collapsed. Fallen asleep. It was normal, they rationalized, shifting took a lot out of a person, and it was Anita's first time but-

"Any change?" Cherry asked, her breath curling against Vivian's ear as her own heat added to the soothing blanket of energy filling the room.

"No." Vivian answered while Nathaniel shook his head, long hair sliding with a slithery sound against bare skin as he moved. She held on tighter, breathing in, searching for that recently added musk of leopard that had made Anita their Nimir-Ra in more than name. She should be upset, Vivian knew, that the virus had claimed yet another victim. Some groups called the period before a new shifters first full-moon the Mourning. To never have children. To be considered unsafe and cast out. To lose your humanity. You died on that first full-moon, the human you died and another was born to a new people and culture and there was a damned fast learning curve.

Anita had been peripheral. She was a dominate, but she wasn't an Alpha, and in shifter minds there was a very clear distinction even if humans (or vampires for that matter) couldn't tell the difference. Couldn't see any reason for difference.

Vivian knew she should be sad, but a selfish part of her wasn't, and she was more ashamed of that fact than anything else. She turned away from Cherry's gaze, letting Anita's tangled hair tickle her nose. There it was. The smell, like a new born kitten, was a real, sharp, and physical sign of change. Anita was their Nimir-Ra. She couldn't just pass them off to the next available Leopard Alpha to pass through St. Louis, not now, not when she was really, truly, Pard.

She would feel that, when she woke, right?

"Did she, did she really-?" Vivian let the question hang, voice muffled from pressing her face into Anita's shoulder. Cherry, in a way that only Cherry could, got it.

"Zane said so. He went with them to get her and said she, led them back." Led a group of munin controlling zombies to the lupanar while wearing a shape that should have been impossible. Once you were infected, you stayed infected, you held one shape. You didn't... "Can't you feel them?"

It was Nathaniel who whispered the yes, who stared at the shadows as he lay curled up at the end of the bed, listening to the relaxed, contented purrs of the dead.

It's impossible, Vivian thought with faint amusement, but nobody told her that. So she did it anyway. As a rule, the Leopards had never cared for the spirits of their dead, they didn't have the rituals of feasting that the Wolves did, and yet... Vivian was so caught up in her own thoughts she almost missed the way the heart beat in her ear sped up, and the way the body beside her tensed. Anita's breathing hitched, her arms began to twitch, and the comforting blanket of energy, of Pard, snapped hostilely against Vivian's skin. There was rapid movement under the Nimir-Ra's closed eyelids. "Anita? It's okay. You're not-"

Not what? Not there? Not in danger? Not in any condition to be up and about? What do you say to someone who has been sanctioned by the government to kill monsters, who was kidnapped and likely tortured by a radical branch of said government, and now was what she formerly spent so much time hunting down and executing?

Not human.

Vivian slipped off the bed with Nathaniel, drawing away as Cherry wrestled with their distressed and only half-awake queen. It was an effort to pin her down, to fight the urge to submit, and all the while the slim blonde nurse ducked away from hands curved into, but not sporting, claws. They all kept calling, begging, and slowly pale green eyes opened and focused.

Anita swallowed, gaze haunted, and choked out, "Cherry? What, what happened? Where did-"

Vivian didn't hear what Cherry said, but it seemed to calm their Nimir-Ra down, she was too busy looking into eyes that might never be the rich, earthy, human brown of their birth again. She held herself as Nathaniel produced the Browning that one of the rats had discovered at a gas station, and closed her own eyes. Her beast rolled beneath her skin, curiously trying to reach out, and the Others -What did they call them?- responded with an invisible, cold touch.

Vivian shivered.

On the bed, the Nimir-Ra popped out the magazine of the Browning, checked the rounds, and kicked off the blankets with a glare of disgust.

There was a crack in the world. Something new had entered the place of light and darkness and warmth. It hadn't stayed. The Predator had seen to that, but in the leave taking the Something -cold, dead, dirt, ashes in its mouth with sweet lies on lips- had carved out a place. Scarred the landscape-that-was-not. The warmth had burned bright, so angry it was almost painful, and the Predator stalked the very boundaries of the darkness, sending out tendrils of power to the warmth, echoing the Something and whispering indefinable words. Threats. The Predator had hungered, mirroring the warmth. The world of light and dark was tinged in rust.

It peered at the crack the Something had made -the dead thing that had the Predator snapping at shadows in territorial defiance- and spied the world of color and shape. Careful to remain in the protective corona of the warmth, it inched closer, sensing the echos that bled through the crack. Vague chattering, claws on stone, wind through trees, and a smell of wet fur and Home.

It'd never had a home, unless it considered the warmth home.

The Predator stilled in the darkness, and turned to the crack, the weak point, and began circling it. Something was coming. They could feel the change like a sudden pressure against their skin, even though neither of them had skin, not in this place. It quivered, and retreated back to the warmth waiting, watching, gathering the echos around it like a nest. Eroded instincts swam up from the depths, pressing in on it, and recalled, vaguely, a word that when properly pronounced was more a growl and hiss than any human speech. It was a word that meant many things, that encapsulated concepts -Strength in numbers, absence of loneliness, place of gathering- more than any solid thing.


A/N- Okay, so firstly, I apologize for this chapter taking so long in coming out. There are various reasons, part of it is because this is one of those transitions chapters, and endings are hard. Part of it is I took a creative writing class this semester and that was WAY more work than I thought it would be.

I can't see this particular story arc going much further. Maybe five chapters at the most. I do plan on a sequel or two, mostly to wrap up the issues with Dana and the rest of the Sunnydale 'verse crew, as well as two others focused back on the mini-scoobs. Eventually. After all, Anya needs to reunite with her Xander, and Edward interacting with the scoobs would be adorable. You know. In a deadly kind of way.

In other news, I was driving around when the song "Sexy and I Know It" came on the radio. My brain short circuited, and I burst out laughing because... because would it not be the perfect theme song for Jean-Claude? And it is hilarious. Here's a youtube link if you haven't heard it:

As long as I'm going to talk about theme songs, I have to give a few I've chosen for other people in They Had Crossbows. Somehow, they just embody the characters, to me.

Edward: I Wanna Be a Cowboy, by Boys Don't Cry. (Ted, oh, Ted, fighting off danger!)

Anita: Weather Channel, by Sheryl Crow.

Raphael: Lay Lady Lay, by Bob Dylan.

Oz: Joyride, by The Killers.

Buffy: Gypsy, by Shakira.

Xander: Bouncing off the Walls, by Sugar Cult.

When it comes to Willow, I'm torn between Summer Boy by Lady Gaga, and Hummingbird Heartbeat by Katy Perry.

Thoughts? Also, Happy Christmas/New Year!
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