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Darkness Rising

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This story is No. 3 in the series "The Darkness Series". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Buffy is finally happy in her new life. She has a great job, great friends, great boyfriend(s). But when her past comes, literally, dropping into her new life, will it tear apart everything she has?

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anita Blake > Buffy-Centered > Pairing: AsherDeesseFR18775,6602416723,3688 Apr 1221 Mar 13No

Chapter Six

Disclaimer: I don't Anita Blake or Buffy or their worlds; I just like to play in them.

A/N: Sorry about the delay in posting this one. Blame DeepRed. She posted this gorgeous picture for my other story and completely inspired me and I spent all my time on that one. Go check out her artwork, it's incredible! Thanks once again for all the reviews and suggestions and comments. I really do appreciate them. I'm sorry about the delay in answering them, as well. My work situation went insane and my internet time got cut in jillioniths. It's completely true that you don't know what you've got until it's gone!! I hope I keep your interest and just as a tease, I'll tell you that MY personal favorite character ever is coming up soon!


Darkness Rising - Chapter Six


“Aren’t teenagers supposed to be moody?” Dawn whined as she came out the bathroom, giving Giles and Xander a head-to-toe look over.

Giles didn’t roll his eyes (because he was British and older and it was quite beneath him) but sometimes the children, as much as he loved them all, tried his patience. While he certainly didn’t want to, as the vampire had put it, rip her limb from limb and leave her to die slowly, he had definitely, in the past, wanted to strangle the girl. Never for real, of course, and he would never hurt a child, but she had tried his patience more than even her sister had. She’d been a selfish and whiny child and while she’d grown that hadn’t really changed. Granted, she was only 18 now but when he thought about the others and what they’d been doing and dealing with at 18 he had to wonder where they’d gone wrong with Dawn.

“Don’t listen to anything Buffy said, Dawnster.” Xander moved over to throw an arm over her shoulder. “Do we really have to do this?” He asked Giles.

“I believe we do, Xander. I would suggest you make the best of it and use this opportunity to not only try to mend your fences with Buffy but to do as they wish and try to change your attitude.” Giles was looking forward to doing both, actually. He knew she’d be surrounded by guards and he probably wouldn’t be able to have anything resembling a private conversation with her but he was going to try his damndest.

He moved over to Willow. “How are you holding up?” He owed her several apologies as well.

“She’s holding up fine. She didn’t getting flambasted like the rest of us.” Xander led Dawn over to the bed and sat her down, flopping down next to her. “I don’t get what we’re even doing.”

Willow shot him a dirty look and then gave Giles a small smile. “I actually am holding up fine, Giles. And I’m looking forward to this. I probably shouldn’t be, but I really am. It seems like such a fascinating world, so different from ours but kinda the same in some ways, too. And…and I really want to talk to Buffy if I can.”

There was a loud snorting noise from the bed, where Kennedy had joined Dawn and Xander. “Why? I don’t get you, Will. I love you and all but I just don’t get you. She’s a bitch. She’s been a moody bitch for over a year, every since we got to Cleveland and she’s a bigger bitch now. You saw her in there, full of herself now that she has some power behind her. She slept her way to the top here and…”

“Kennedy, I think that’s enough.” Giles interrupted the slayer. “I think we can safely say from the information we have been able to gather that these people respect Buffy and I highly doubt it is for her, erm, sleeping abilities.”

Willow laughed at the blush spreading across the Watcher’s face. “I want to ask her about that, too. Did you see her disappear?!”

Giles shook his head. “I don’t believe so, Willow. I believe she moved so fast it appeared as if she just appeared on the other side of the room, but I would like to ask her about so much. Before we start asking her questions about her new life, though, I would dearly like to fix the things that went wrong with us in her old one.”

Willow nodded. “Me too. Xander’s right, she didn’t say anything to me at all. I don’t know if it’s because she just doesn’t give a damn or…”

Faith gave the witch a shoulder bump. “She knows you didn’t want to come here in the first place, Red. And she knows you don’t want to take her back. I think that weighs heavy with B and if what whoever was in the robe was saying is right then you weren’t part of what was making their powers go whack. I think they needed to fix that up first.”

“Speaking of going home.” Dawn said.

Willow pulled the beacon out of the pocket of her borrowed skirt, which she hoped she was still wearing when the timer went off. It was a beautiful brown ankle length pale green suede with deep pockets. It was a simple cut and so totally her. Whoever picked it out had paired it with a matching jacket and a cute little scoop-neck T in slightly darker shade.

She held the ball out and shook her head. “I don’t know. And my magic is off here. I tried a few simple spells and they didn’t work at all. They all need reworked, I can feel it. Like they would work if I could just figure out the changes that need made.”

“If Buffy was gone in our world for almost three weeks but she’s been here for five months that means the time is off by…two times two is nine plus twelve, carry the eight…”

“Xander.” Dawn laughed and gave him a shove.

“It’s still working.” She tipped it to the side, showed them all the very slight glow in even slighter depression on the bottom. “I just have no idea when it will go off.” She glanced at Faith. “I was kinda worried when they took you away. If it had gone off when we were separated…”

“Yeah.” Faith couldn’t deny that she’d spent a large portion of her time in that room daydreaming about what it would be like if she were in B’s shoes. Of course a lot of that daydreaming involved B’s boys but no one needed to know that. She could use a mind-blowing orgasm.

“I’ll ask again, what are we even doing?” Xander said.

“We’re going out with Buffy to see what this world is all about.” Dawn answered. “If I’m being completely honest, I’m curious. It could be fun. Plus, anything is better than sitting in this room.” And maybe Jason would be around. She wouldn’t mind getting to know him better at all.

“Well, I don’t give a shit what this world is all about. Why does it matter? We’re not going to be here that long and we’re never coming back.” Kennedy got to her feet, straightening her clothes. They were a little wet but she didn’t care. She wasn’t wearing anything these people wanted her to wear. Her own clothes would do just fine. She’d washed them in the shower using soap and shampoo and wrung them out by hand.

“I’m with Kennedy,” Xander scooted off the bed and stood next to her, fidgeting a little in the leather. He loved the way Faith looked in hers, had always appreciated it when Buffy wore it but really didn’t like it much on himself. The pants chafed and crunched things he didn’t like crunched. The T-shirt was pretty cool, though. It was a soft, silky material and he liked the way the red color looked.

“I don’t care whether you agree or not, any of you.” Giles said bluntly. “I want this understood, all of you. We are going to go, we are not going to antagonize Buffy. If we have a chance to speak to Buffy, that’s fine but I want no fighting. If that beacon should happen to activate, we will not be taking her with us. Is that clear? Dawn? Xander?” They looked at each other but neither of them answered and Giles said, again, “Dawn?”

“What? Giles, I don’t care what she said. She’s my sister. Maybe I was a brat but guess what? I was a kid. I was supposed to be a brat. And if I get the chance to talk to her, I’m going to have my say. She doesn’t just get to tell me off and think it’s all good. It’s not all good. I get she had issues but so did I and I think mine kinda trump hers. And I love you but I don’t care what you think or say, Giles. She belongs at home with us.”

Faith frowned and opened her mouth to say something when Willow elbowed her and shook her head. The slayer snapped her mouth closed but privately thought that that was 90% of the problem. Everyone kept their mouth shut. On the other hand, maybe during the course of the night Dawn would tell Buffy that kids are supposed to be brats and B would tee off on her again.

She tuned back in as Giles was saying, “We will not be taking her back against her will.”

“Whatever.”

There were two loud knocks on the door and then it opened to reveal Lissandro and Armando. “Let’s go,” one of them said.

Despite Dawn’s attitude, Giles felt a little thrill of excitement as he followed the men out the door.

**~~**

Buffy sighed as she stood with Nico and Ralph and sipped her coffee. She hated the Circus of the Damned. In her opinion it was the most appalling of Jean Claude’s businesses, most especially the freak show. The Circus itself was, basically, an indoor carnival with a huge circus complete with a tent housed in a giant refurbished warehouse.

The carnival part, aside from the disgusting freak show, was actually pretty cool. It had rides and games, all vampire-themed of course. When Buffy had first moved in, she and Jason had had a vomit contest on the rides during the daytime shutdown. It had been a draw since neither of them were pukers, even when they’d run the spinning rides at their fastest.

“My queen?”

“Hmmm?” She absently ran a hand down Nico’s arm.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Not even a little bit.” She sighed again. “I’d rather be doing anything else. Even things involving dental drills.”

“Why are you doing this again?”

She shrugged. “I thought it would help them understand this world, the way things work, the way it’s different. Who knows how long they’ll be here? They can’t stay here, in the Circus, forever. And, maybe it will make Xander and Kennedy see that back where I’m from it’s not so black and white as they make it. See demon doesn’t have to mean kill demon. You know?”

He met Ralph’s eyes over their petite queen’s head, both of them grinning. It was times like this, when she said such things so matter of factly, that drove it home to everyone why she was so loved by all. It wasn’t just her power that made her their queen. “I know, my queen.”

“I figured he’d get someone else to take them,” she muttered as she drained the rest of the coffee and tossed the cup in the garbage can. Sighing again, she stood up straighter and said, “Okay, here they come.”

Lissandro and Armando were leading the Scoobies through the crowd and she had to smile. While Xander and Kennedy looked expectedly sullen, Giles was taking everything in and she knew he was making a list of questions. Willow and Dawn were looking around, wide-eyed. Faith was trying to look bored but even she was looking kind of impressed by it all. She looked around again, trying to see it from a first-time point of view.

The circus part of the Circus of the Damned was a huge tent that took up the entire south end of the massive warehouse, which itself took up nearly two city blocks. The very end of the south section contained the freak show, which also actually housed many of the exotic animal acts while they weren’t being used as well as the “freaks”. The entire northern end contained the carnival with its rides, food, games, and souvenir stalls. She grinned as she thought about buying Xander a Circus T-shirt to take home with him. Vampire clown logo and all.

It was with said grin on her face that the Scoobies found her waiting for them. “Buffy.” Giles said, wondering at the grin.

The grin faded and she nodded as she waved an arm. “So, this is the Circus of the Damned. Um, it’s a carnival at this end and there are people who make their living on the other side of the circus in the Hall of Oddities, which is where we’re headed first. To be honest, I actually hate it over there.” Mostly because, she had to admit, there were people and other things over there who liked her way, way too much and sometimes they seriously gave her the creeps. She and Jean Claude had discovered, though, that she had to make an appearance over there at least a few times a week. And she really hated the way the crowds stared at the actual people who chose to work over there. And her. She felt like enough of a freak without going over there and being one herself.

“Hall of Oddities?” Dawn asked.

Buffy nodded and found Jara right, as she usually was. Getting her feelings out had made things better. She didn’t want to rip Dawn’s face off and she was able to answer her. “The less polite call it a freak show.”

“Like the bearded lady and stuff?”

“Um…well, yeah but...you’ll see. Are you guys hungry? Do you want to get some food first? Or something to drink before we head over that way? I figured we could start at that end and see a bit of the circus and then head out.”

Since everyone was hungry they stopped at a few food stalls along the way while everyone loaded up. Faith managed to work her way up to Buffy. “This place is wicked.”

“The next place is more your thing.”

Before Faith could answer, Armando was shoving his way between them. “You need to step back, ma’am.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, Armando. She’s fine.”

“Got my orders from the king himself, my queen.” He muttered. He actually liked the girl but orders were orders. And if he let his queen disappear not only would he be sad, because while he liked Faith, he loved Buffy, but Rafael would kill him. Slowly and painfully. And that was after Asher was done with him.

“For God’s sake, are you for real?”

At the anger in her voice, Armando hit the ground on one knee and bowed his head, making Buffy sigh again. She forgot, and who could blame her because she hadn’t even been here for the reign of terror that had been Nikolaos, how a lot of the older rats and had been trained to be instantly subservient at the first hint of anger. She’d never done anything to make any of them think she would punish them, she’d never lifted a hand against them, never even said a mean word to any of them. It hurt her when they did things like this and pissed her off. She wished Nikolaos were alive so she could kill her. “My queen, forgive me.”

She took his face in her hands and tipped his head back. “Armando…get up. I’m not mad at you.”

Giles watched, fascinated, as Armando’s hands came up and took Buffy’s, holding one and kissing the other, then pressing it to his forehead and back to his lips, repeating the ritual he’d seen other’s do when they’d first arrived. “I was ordered…”

“I know. We’re going to find a way for you guys to follow your orders but not make me be all bitchy Buffy.” She ran a hand through his hair and leaned down to kiss his forehead and then pulled him to his feet. She motioned the other guard, Lisandro, forward and he came, bending his head down as soon as he was within touching distance and Buffy kissed his forehead too.

He watched Buffy, still holding Armando’s hand, tip her head to the side slightly and close her eyes. He saw the four guards shiver visibly and then Buffy opened her eyes and said, “Okay, so Lisandro, you hang with Faith tonight.” Buffy shot the other girl a grin and a wink. “Make sure she doesn’t try to murder me and whatnot.” That was accompanied by an eye roll that had Giles grinning. “Armando,” she gave his hand a pat and then let it go, giving him a gentle push, “You’re on Willow duty. Same orders, which means you’re following Rafe’s as well, cause she’s not going to be all with the kidnapping me if you’re guarding her.”

As the two guards moved to take up their new positions, Giles watched Nico and Ralph move closer to Buffy. He’d already deduced that these were her personal guards and he figured she wouldn’t be handing them over to him and the others. No sooner had he finished the thought than three more men came up to Buffy. They were, once again, dressed identically in black cargo pants, black combat-style boots and tight black T-shirts. One of them said, “You called, my queen?” Giles hadn’t seen her call anyone. He was piling up so many questions he was afraid he was going to forget half of them.

She smiled, “I did, Anton. I was hoping you guys would like to volunteer for some guard duty tonight.”

They all bowed their heads, Anton answering for everyone, apparently. “Of course, my queen.”

She shook her head. “You’re allowed to say no. I’m taking them,” she pointed at them and Giles could see the dismay on her face. She wasn’t looking forward to this at all, he thought. He wished with all his heart that it didn’t have to be this way between them. He wished he could turn back time and fix things, wished Willow had left her alone when she’d earned her rest. He frowned as he realized he’d missed the rest of what she’d said but saw Anton nod as he said, “My queen, you do realize that guarding you is a favorite duty among us all, do you not? It doesn’t matter what you’re doing.”

Buffy rolled her eyes and, shaking her head pointed at Kennedy. “That’s Kennedy, Anton. She’s your assignment for tonight.” Then she grinned and, as it had since the day he met her, that smile seemed to make Giles’ own world seem to right itself. He wondered, not for the first time, if that was a Buffy thing or a Slayer thing. “In addition to making sure she doesn’t make me dead, you need to make sure she doesn’t end up dead. Good luck with that.”

As Anton moved over to stand next to Kennedy, with sympathetic looks from everyone present, Buffy said nothing out loud but a man with the shoulder-length auburn hair and grey eyes stepped forward, bowing his head. Giles assumed these were all wererats but he added it to the list of questions he had; could Buffy speak telepathically with these rat people?

“Troy, how are Lisa and the twins?”

Giles watched a happy smile spread across the man’s face and his eyes light up, such a goofy smile that he automatically assumed the twins must be babies. His suspicions were confirmed by Troy’s answer. “The twins are perfect! They’ve started to talk, can you believe that? Everyone says babies can’t possibly talk that young but I know those are words. Lisa’s tired and kind of moody.” His mouth dropped open comically. “Oh God! Don’t tell her I said that!”

Buffy laughed and ran a hand down his arm. “Not a word. I’m going to give you Xander, if that’s okay.” She gave him a slight push in the right direction and Giles wondered at the people she was assigning to them. Because she seemed to be missing one.

The last man stepped forward and bowed his blonde head. “Dimitri.”

She waited until he looked up and Giles saw that he was young. Really young. “My queen.” The words were formal but the kid looked like he was having a hard time fighting back the smile.

Buffy herself seemed to be having the same problem and she finally let it break free. “Well? How’d you do?”

The kid finally broke, making a fist and pumping it in the air. “4.0!” He grabbed her and spun her around in a circle as he made a whooping sound, which was barely heard over her own laughing cheers. Giles flicked his eyes to the other guards. They had been more formal with Buffy and he wanted to see their reaction. They didn’t seem at all upset, in fact they seemed to be happy, both about the news and the display.

Dimitri put Buffy down with a final spin and bowed his head again, saying “What would you have of me, my queen?” He was still grinning, though, and Giles again wondered about the way this rat…pack? tribe? What was the word they had used…Rodere. He wondered at the rules and wished he could study them. He wondered at the boy and the process of being a wererat. A were-anything. More questions.

She pointed at Dawn and Giles saw the young girl smile and quickly hide it. “You’re on Dawn duty, if that’s okay?”

Dimitri nodded and moved next to Dawn, sticking out a hand and saying, “I’m Dimitri, you can call me Tree,” as he took up a position next to her.

Buffy was out of people to assign and Giles was left wondering what she was going to do with him when she said, “Willow, do you have that beacon thing?”

Willow pulled it out of her skirt as she nodded and, seeming to know where Buffy was going with the question answered her. “It gives a warning pulse before it actually activates.” She ignored Dawn’s hissed, “Willow!” and continued on. “Once it pulses, we have around a minute to make sure we’re together for the transport home.”

“Thanks. Giles, you’re with us, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course, Buffy!” He was afraid the smile on his face might actually break it as he stepped forward. He wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms and hug her forever but her guards didn’t look at all happy with this turn of events so he settled for stopping in front of her.

“Okay, then. Let’s get this show on the road.” She led them past the entrance to the giant tent and to the entrance with a large sign bearing a naked woman with the head of a bird and huge black wings with the words “Hall of Oddities” in flowing silver script over her head.

As her hearing picked up kids talking inside, she frowned, saw matching frowns on all her guards, and raised her voice, mostly for everyone around them but talked to the Scoobies. “I know you guys aren’t rude little kids whose parents never taught them manners but I’ll just remind you anyway that there are people in here, and as such they have feelings. Yeah, they make their living doing this but only because bigoted jerks won’t give them jobs.” She very carefully did not look at Kennedy. Or Xander. She did notice a few in the crowd look at the ground so she felt okay about it. As they stepped through the entry way she was happy to hear Willow and Dawn asking Armando and Dimitri questions. She heard Faith say something about naked wrestling and alligators and wasn’t surprised. It was her traditional break the ice story.

She nodded at Ralph and he stepped behind her, using the movement to push Giles into position beside her. Nico stayed on her other side. She wasn’t quite sure how to even start talking to him, what to say, how to say it but she needn’t have worried because he didn’t have that problem.

“I have a million questions, Buffy but I want you to know I love you.” He said it quietly, though he had to know everyone with her could hear him. Or maybe he didn’t know it, she thought. “I want you to know that first and foremost no matter what happens because I don’t ever want you to spend even another second thinking I don’t, thinking I’m not proud of you, my darling, darling daughter.”

She stopped right where she was, holding up the line behind her and threw herself into his arms, hugging him hard, being hugged back just as hard. She dimly heard Willow sniffling in the background, Ralph and Nico spazzing but not really knowing what to do, she was, after all, their queen. She heard Faith whisper, “All right B.” But it was all in the background. In the foreground was Giles and his now-wet shirt and her now-wet hair. They were pretty much a teary mess. And she was pretty sure he couldn’t breathe with the slayer-strength hug but he wasn’t saying anything. Of course the former might have a lot to do with the latter; she pulled back a little, looked up at his face but it was glowing with happy. “I love you too, Giles.”

“I’ve missed you, Buffy. Not just since you’ve been gone, been here.”

“Me too.”

“Hey!” The angry shout came from somewhere in the crowd behind them. “What’s going on up there? What’s the hold up?”

She rolled her eyes and they turned, moving forward, hands still clasped together. “We have a lot of work to do, I know. Is it really, really wrong of me to hope that beacon takes its time?” Giles gave her hand a squeeze.

She smiled up at him as she nodded. “Probably. I wish I knew what was going to happen, Giles. I wish I could say it was going to be okay. Some of you are pretty much universally hated here. We’ll make the most of the time we’ve got.”

He nodded and squeezed her hand again, opened his mouth to say something and then snapped it closed again. He’d spent seven years on the Hellmouth, it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen his share of weird things but the site before him was something else entirely. Buffy laughed at the look on his face. “Jean Claude rearranged the entire Hall of Oddities when she showed up shortly after I got here. I call her Maya and can you say major freak out when she came knocking on the door out of the clear blue sky one night?”

They’d come to the first exhibit, which was a huge glass-walled floor to ceiling enclosure. Inside was a giant snake that very much resembled a hooded cobra. It was coiled but Giles estimated by the thickness of the body, which was at least double his own body, and the sheer amount of coils that it had to be at least 400 to 450 feet long, possibly, probably, more. It had eyes bigger than his head. It was terrifyingly beautiful. The minute it noticed Buffy it slithered to the glass, pressing its head to the wall.

Buffy shrugged apologetically and let go of his hand. “I have to…it’s a thing. I’ll be right back.”

Giles watched her head toward a door with a sign that said “Staff Only”, while she pulled keys out of her pocket. As she unlocked the door, Ralph frowned at Nico. “I hate this.”

The other guards moved forward and Nico turned and snapped, “Get back. You have your orders.” They obeyed instantly but they kept their eyes on the enclosure.

Giles gasped as he saw Buffy walk calmly up to the snake and the snake actually cuddle the girl. The crowd clustered around the cage, snapping pictures. Giles turned to Ralph. “Is she…is that safe?”

Ralph spared him a glance but his focus was all for Buffy and the snake. He did, however, answer. “So far it has been. Jean Claude had a snake like this a few years ago, smaller, I think less dangerous. It went crazy, got loose and they had to put it down. This one just showed up, attracted by our queen’s power. She has to come down here a few times a week to reassure the beast. The snake never hurts her and she seems to like it but it worries us.” He turned to look at Giles now. “She is our queen and we would not take kindly to anything happening to her.”

The gasping of the crowed had them both snapping their eyes back to the cage to see the snake had now wrapped its tail around Buffy’s waist and was rubbing its head up and down the side of her face while she ran her hands over the hood. Its tongue flicked out a few times and then it uncurled the tail, releasing the tiny slayer, who looked positively miniscule next to the thing. She gave it a final pat and then disappeared back through the door. The rat guards relaxed.

Xander moved up next to Giles. “Buffy’s job sucks.”

“It always has, Xander. I believe that is why, now that she is finally happy after so much sacrifice she deserves to stay happy.” He said it simply, trying to keep all judgment from his voice.

“He’s right, Xander. She’s needed here for more than just her happiness. I don’t think Anya would risk everything to help her stay if there weren’t a really good reason.” Willow said from behind him, hand on his back. Before Xander could answer either way, she said, “Armando said that snake is one of the acts in the actual circus and that it’s in here because it’s not on duty right now.”

“What? Like instead of a lion tamer?” Dawn asked, coming up to join them with Faith next to her and Kennedy right behind them.

“Yeah.” Willow was already fascinated and they’d seen all of one thing. “It’s really cool. I thought after the Hellmouth nothing would surprise me but after exhibit one, I’m wigged.”

Buffy appeared from out of nowhere and made Willow jump. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

She spun around, hand on her chest. “Buffy! You scared me to death.”

Nico was behind her, hand on her shoulder, pulling her backwards into his big body as Ralph stepped in front of her. “My queen, you can’t just get close to them like that.”

“Armando is right there, Nico. You’re worse than my mother.” But her hand was running up and down his arm, and her smile was gentle and was aimed at both of her guards, Giles noted. He wasn’t sure at all about what the Rodere was but she seemed like a very good queen, a very well loved queen, and he felt pride swell up in him. “Moving right along,” she said and they got back into their line and moved on through the hall.

Next to the snake’s cage was a dining room table and four chairs on a raised platform, three of which were occupied by nicely muscled men wearing jeans who appeared to be playing some sort of game. Which wouldn’t have been anything that belonged in the Hall of Oddities except that from the neck up, the men had snake heads.

As one, they stood up and came down from the platform, causing the crowd to gasp and move back and Buffy to roll her eyes. Giles noted that Buffy’s guards stepped back, though not in fear. More, it seemed to him, to let the snake men have some room. All three snake men bowed, all three of them saying, “Manasa”, though it was hard to understand. Buffy smiled at them and this time it was she who kissed their hands.

“How you guys doing? Where’s everyone else?”

There was no way to tell them apart, Giles thought, as, to him at least, they all looked the same. Same height, same body, same head, same facial expressions, which to him meant the same dull, glassy eyes. He had a feeling, though, that Buffy could probably tell who was who and who was missing.

“They are with Melanie in the Circus show.”

Buffy frowned. “Sorry.”

The one on the left shrugged. “It is what it is, Manasa.” He looked at the Scoobies. “These are the ones from your home? Would you like us to eat them?”

Nico nearly choked on his laugh as Buffy tried hard to keep a straight face. “Um…no, that’s okay. Thanks, though.”

They all bowed again and rubbed their faces against Buffy’s. “As you wish, Manasa.”

She turned to the others and began pointing, “Giles, Xander, Willow, Dawn, Kennedy, Faith.” She turned back to the snake men and as she named them, ran a gentle hand over each man’s head, starting with the man who’d asked if they’d needed eaten. “This is Dev, Cyril, and Ben. They’re willing to answer any questions you have.”

Giles watched as Buffy ended up flanked by them, protected by them as they stood just slightly in front of her, the two closest to her constantly touching her in some way.

Dawn, never shy, blurted out, “What are you?”

He still couldn’t tell them apart but as she’d introduced them in order, Cyril answered. They all had to listen very carefully because they were hard to understand, not because of any accent but because, he assumed, the difference in the throat of a snake versus the throat of a human. “We are the Vasuki, the snake lords.”

“What was that you called Buffy?” Willow asked, stepping forward.

Cyril flicked his forked tongue out and in. “Manasa. She is our queen.”

Kennedy snorted. “And how did she get that way? Did she sleep with all of you or just your king?”

Giles actually took a step backwards so that he didn’t get stuck in the middle of the melee he saw coming but was surprised when Buffy just stood there, when everyone just stood there. Cyril tipped his head to the side, which looked quite odd on the snake man. He turned to Buffy. “Is she asking if we have sex?”

Buffy nodded. “Yes. She seems to think I run around sleeping with everyone in town.”

“Truly?”

Buffy shrugged. “I have no idea where she gets it, Cyril. I’m tired of defending myself.”

“She should be killed for her insolence, Manasa. We would be happy to…”

“No, that’s okay, really.”

He turned back to Kennedy. “You insult us all. You insult our queen and the Master of our city, you insult the Rodere of our city and Asher, friend of our rhumba and all the rhumba of St. Louis of which she is queen. You insult the wolves of this city. You insult many and many will not forgive as we do. We will talk to you no longer.”

He turned, rubbed his face against Buffy’s again and stomped off back to the dining room table, taking the other two with him, after they said their goodbyes to Buffy.

“So, that went well.” Xander muttered.

“Buffy, how did you get to be queen of the rats and the snakes and the wolves and…”

“I’m not queen of the wolves. That would be Anita.” She poked Nico in the stomach when he snorted. She looked at Dawn. “It’s part of the magical, mystical make up that is me.”

Ralph rolled his eyes. “It is because she is wise and cares about her people more than she cares about herself. She takes the time to know us, know what we do and who we are. She cares about what is best for us and not about what is best for her. It is not just her power, though it is considerable and she shares it generously.”

Buffy was gaping at him and Nico reached over and pushed her chin up, closing her mouth. “You will let in flies, my queen.”

“Can we leave Kennedy here?” Faith asked.

“Fuck off, Faith.” Kennedy muttered. “Can we just move this along?”

“Yes, we can.” Buffy said and, waving to the three men at the table, moved on down the way. Sighing, she stopped in front of Phoebe. Phoebe was tall, nearly six feet, with striking blue eyes. Tonight she was wearing a red bikini and a matching hooded bathrobe left open, with the hood down, of course. All the better to show off the hair. Because Phoebe didn’t actually have hair. She had a head full of living snakes because she was a medusa. Jean Claude had explained to Buffy that medusas were very, very rare. In fact, he’d only ever met the one, Phoebe. Had, in actuality, only ever heard of anyone ever seeing the one. Phoebe. She had shown up the day after Maya, also attracted by Buffy’s power. She’d begged to speak with Buffy alone and over the serious protestations of everyone Buffy had agreed. Phoebe had thrown herself into Buffy’s arms with such force they’d both fallen to the floor and the woman had sobbed in the slayer’s arms for nearly an hour, never saying why. In the end, Buffy couldn’t possibly turn her away.

She was one of the people that lived at the Circus that gave Buffy the creeps. Not because she was creepy but because she and her hair loved Buffy…and because Buffy felt that same sense of home that she felt with all the other shifters and weres she was connected to. It was just weird. When she’d gotten here the snakes had been much smaller and far fewer. Every time Buffy pumped power into the woman, the snakes grew and, it seemed, so did their love. Again, the only word Buffy could come up with was weird.

“Hi Phoebe.”

“My queen.” The woman bowed deeply, the snakes hissing and writhing over her head, around her neck, over her face, back up her neck, down her shoulders, around her face again, around and around in a frenzied mass of squirming reptile until Buffy stepped close enough for Phoebe to hug her and then the snakes swarmed over Buffy’s own head. The first time it had happened Buffy had been surprised but not at all disgusted, which had freaked her out but then she’d come to accept that it was just Phoebe. She’d tried to name all the snakes but there were so many that she’d given up and just collectively called them all “Bob”. It cracked Phoebe up to no end, which made Buffy happy because Phoebe always seemed sad and never seemed to want to talk about why. She pulled back gently, giving the snakes time to untangle from her hair and gave Phoebe a smile.

“How’s it going?”

“It has been a busy night. A lot of people coming to see what there is to see.”

“Sorry.”

“It is not your doing, my queen.” She looked over Buffy’s shoulder at the Scoobies. “These are the ones from your former home?”

Buffy introduced the Scoobies and then stepped aside as Dawn once again stepped forward, Willow with her and Giles behind them. Before Dawn could rudely ask what she was, Giles spoke up. “On our world, we have a myth about a woman with snakes for hair. Her name was Medusa and she could turn men to stone if they caught site of her.”

Phoebe glanced at Buffy and then stepped forward, coming to stand within touching distance of Giles. “Our race is called medusa. We cannot turn men to stone but we can enchant them, hypnotize them with our voice, make them see our true beauty. We can paralyze them or kill them with our venom. Here, in this country it is illegal to do but I will give you a small sample with your permission because my queen says it is all right.”

Giles looked at Buffy. He hadn’t heard her say a word. More questions. She shrugged. “It won’t be permanent, though she could make you her slave if she really wanted to, or like she said, paralyze or kill you.”

Giles trusted Buffy and he wanted her to know it. “I’d like to see it, Phoebe. Not killing me, of course. If Buffy trusts you, then I do.”

Phoebe leaned forward and began humming softly and then singing quietly into his ear and Giles thought it was the most beautifully sung song he’d ever heard. He pulled his head back and looked at her and thought that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He reached out a hand and lightly traced his fingers down the smooth skin of her face. Her lips curved up in a sultry smile. He slid his hand forward, into her soft blonde hair as he leaned forward, wanting nothing more than to kiss those red, pouty lips.

“Giles!” Xander yelled.

Phoebe was still smiling when Giles blinked his eyes to find himself a hair’s breadth away from kissing her. She was still beautiful but his hand was covered in crawling snakes. He very carefully controlled his face and managed a smile. “Yes, yes I see how that could be very deadly.” He pulled his hand away carefully, not wanting the snakes to bite him.

Buffy gave Phoebe another hug, the snakes sliding over her head, rolling through her hair, and they moved on through the Hall with Willow, Dawn and Faith moving up closer to Buffy, as close as the guards would allow, and Giles.

“You have a thing for the snakes, B?” Faith asked her.

“As near as we can tell it’s a side effect from all the magical crap combined with the trip through the portal, the whole being in both Heaven and Hell deal. Anything that got into my blood I have a connection with here.”

“Good Lord, Buffy!” Giles looked at her.

“Snakes?” Willow questioned.

“Lots of snakes.” Buffy muttered as she watched Willow try to work it out. She watched Giles open his mouth and shook her head at him. She really wanted to see if Willow had been paying any attention at all during high school.

“I don’t remember you ever getting bit by a snake, Buffy. I mean there was that whole thing with the ghosts in the school but did you actually get bit?”

Giles frowned at the witch. Had she really been so self-absorbed that she hadn’t realized the things Buffy had gone through? Respecting his Slayer’s wishes but also wanting to see for himself, he said, “So that means you’re connected to the wolves, rats, vampires of course, all reptiles, Buffy? Or just snakes?”

“Reptiles?” Willow asked, confused. “I still don’t get the snakes. And the rats, really. Is that because Rafael is your…lover? Are you married? And what about Asher? I know vampires have rights and stuff but can they get married?”

Buffy rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “We’re not married we’re bonded, which is actually closer than being married.”

“What does that mean, Buffy?” Giles asked, barely glancing at the rest of the people and creatures in the exhibits, even though he would normally be fascinated by things out of legend.

She gave up on the rest of the Hall and led them back outside into the Circus. She was actually kind of relieved in a way. She didn’t actually relish talking about herself, at least not to some of them but she really didn’t like Hall. She led them out into the parking lot, mostly for her own amusement because she wanted to see Xander’s face as he got a look at the outside of the Circus, and over to the SUV stretch limo Jean Claude had called for the evening. She turned and leaned against it, waving an arm. “Vampires here, some of them, like the flash, the show. So, The Circus of the Damned.”

They all turned, Xander actually taking three steps backwards until he banged into the car. “Jee-sus!”

Buffy thought it was actually very big of her not to laugh when his face actually paled. She could hear his heartbeat speed up, and she didn’t laugh at that, either.

Dawn patted his back but didn’t take her eyes off the giant vampire clowns on top of the huge warehouse. “Wow.”

“Parents bring their kids here?” Kennedy scowled up at the roof.

As Buffy happened to agree with her, she didn’t answer, only got into the front seat of the long limo and waited while the guards figured out the rest of the seating. When they were ready to go, Buffy found herself in the front seat, next to the driver, who turned out to be Jenson. Jenson was a retired Green Beret and had been with Rafael for years. Buffy had liked him from the second she’d met him. He’d told her, at last count, 47 different stories of how he’d been infected with rat lycanthropy, each more ridiculous than the last. Her personal favorite had been one where he’d been on a super-secret mission to save the president’s kidnapped daughter from a tribe of cannibals in a country he wasn’t allowed to mention when he’d been attacked by wererats. It had gotten more and more unbelievable with each moment and by the end he’d single handedly killed both the rats and the cannibals, saved the daughter, turned down her teary-eyed proposal of marriage and been infected. His twinkling eyes told her he knew she knew he was full of shit and it was all in good fun.

“Hiya, Buffy. Vacation night?”

“Not even. How’s it going?”

“Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do much good if I did.”

“Sure it would, Jenson. I know your boss…could put in a good word for you.”

“Maybe you should dump the king and run away with me.”

She laughed. “Maybe I should. We’re going to Guilty Pleasures.” She’d been going to take them to a few places but decided why bother. She’d take them to Guilty Pleasures and then Dance Macabre and call it a night.

“Now why you want to go there when you can have me do the same show for free?” Jenson was 70 if he was a day.

“Well, you know I want you all to myself and I have all these people with me.”

He laughed and started the big car, headed toward Guilty Pleasures. She heard Giles clear his throat from the second seat, the one behind her, and she turned around so she could see him.

“Can you explain the relationship with you and Asher and Rafael, Buffy? You said bonded and that it was stronger than marriage.”

She nodded. “It is. It’s like being married but on steroids. Sometimes we share thoughts, memories.” She gave him a wry grin. “Feelings, emotions.”

Dawn spoke up from her seat in the back with Xander and Kennedy. Buffy had to admit, her guards knew their business. “So, they hate us because you hate us?”

She struggled for a minute to figure out how to answer her…sister. “First, I don’t hate you. Right at this moment, I’m not actually sure how I feel about you, Dawn. Angry, definitely. Betrayed, absolutely. Frustrated, hurt, annoyed. I could never hate you. Do I wish you’d never come here? Yeah, I really do. I get that you don’t understand why I’m not going back with you just like I get that you don’t agree with it but, to be honest with you Dawn, with you all, I just don’t care what you think anymore. What you think, thought, used to rule my life.” She shrugged. “It just doesn’t anymore. To answer your question, Dawn, that’s what we think happened, yeah. Rafe and Asher sort of got my emotions in a super-sized dose and after Jara…well, hate might have been on the menu a little bit but I don’t really hate any of you.”

“I just don’t get that, Buffy.” Xander said, putting an arm around Dawn. “We’ve been your support. Your rock. Your family for eight years.” He held up his other hand. “I’m really trying here. I just don’t understand how you throw us away for yet another dead guy and a rodent.”

The car swerved and Buffy put a hand on Jenson’s arm, sent him calming thoughts through the bond she shared with all the rats. “I know you don’t understand, Xander and I don’t think you’re really trying at all.” Her voice was tight, angry. “They’re not rodents and Asher isn’t a dead guy. They’re all men, good men. You’re a bigot and a hypocrite.” She turned around, facing front and looked out the window, breathing deeply, calming herself as well as the rats in the car.

Giles shot Xander a dirty look, noticed Kennedy giving him a supportive pat on the knee, and shook his head. This night was not going to go well at all if two of their number not only refused to keep an open mind but kept antagonizing Buffy. And the guards. He could feel the tension spike in the car, though it was practically gone now. “Buffy?”

“What?”

He was a bit dismayed that she didn’t turn around to answer him this time. Her voice was distracted, somewhat cold, though he couldn’t really blame her for that. “A-are you responsible for the decreased tension from the…the..uh wererats…” he paused and then looked at Ralph. “Is it okay to call you wererats? Do you prefer something else? I don’t want to insult you.”

Ralph nodded. “Wererat is fine. And yes, she is responsible. She is able to calm us. She shares a bond with every animal she is connected to.”

Buffy nearly snorted as she listened to Ralph. If only he knew the half of it.

“Can your king do the same thing?”

“He can now, yes. The bonding with our queen has increased his own powers and given him new ones. It was beneficial for both of them.”

Since Ralph was being so cooperative, Giles figured it was okay to keep asking questions. He glanced at Buffy as she leaned her head against the window, saw her reach out and take the driver’s hand. He wondered about that but thought he could ask her about it later. He turned back to Ralph. “How does one become a wererat?”

“Most people survive an attack by another wererat. Occasionally you’ll get someone who gets a bad batch of vaccine…” there were some snorts of laughter from the other guards. “In some of the other animals, tigers, swans, you have born shifters. We don’t have that. Now and then you get people who ask for it. Our king and queen forbid that. Some groups don’t.”

“Forbid?” Willow asked from next to Giles.

Armando shrugged and answered. “You get a human who, for whatever reason, thinks it’s cool to be a lycanthrope. Usually they go to the wolves but sometimes they come to us. They ask us to bite them, change them. It’s forbidden. Our old master, Nikolaos, forced us to comply but now it is forbidden by both our king and our queen.”

Kennedy leaned forward, hands on the back of the seat in front of her. “If it’s so awesome being you guys, why forbid it?”

Giles sighed, wishing he could gag the both of them, her and Xander, but Buffy answered. “Because they see power and they see strength but they don’t see the bigotry and they don’t see the pain and they don’t see the constant struggle to keep your humanity, to keep your life, to be who you are. It’s life you deal with because it’s the hand you’re dealt, not a life you go out and ask for. They don’t understand that the very minute they’re given this life they lose everything and everyone they’ve ever loved. No one will ever look at them the same again. Nothing will ever be the same again. You always, always have to pretend you’re what they knew, what they want. Sure, you’ll get the words, the support, the loving family that says all the right things at all the right times but it’s always there, right there under the surface. The fear, the mistrust, the hate for what we are…for the other, the different. We’re not like them, we’re not human no matter how hard we try to be.”

Giles started out looking at Buffy, hearing the pain in her voice but by the end of her speech he saw Faith looking out the window, and if he wasn’t mistaken she was casually wiping her face. Had that been the life of his slayer? Of all slayers? Had Buffy been speaking of her life as a slayer and not her life as…whatever she was now? He watched as all the guards that could reach Buffy touched her, as she touched them.

“But…” Xander said and it was, surprisingly, Kennedy who told him to shut up.

“And every city has groups like yours? Packs of wererats?”

“No.” Nico answered. “Not like ours.” His hand once again stroked over Buffy’s head. “There are none like ours anywhere.”

Buffy smiled at him and took his hand, kissed his palm. “You’ll turn a girl’s head, Nico.” She looked back at Dawn, who’d asked the question. “Most of the bigger cities have large packs of weres and a lot of smaller towns and rural areas have theirs as well. Not all cities are like St. Louis. We’re unique in our large numbers of all kinds of lycanthropes and vampires.”

“We have the largest wolf pack in the country, the largest rat pack and the largest hyena pack. We also have the largest number of public vampires and the most groups of smaller-numbered shifters as well as one of the largest animating firms in the country,” Ralph added.

Faith finally turned away from the window. “Why?”

Buffy shrugged. “Just lucky, I suppose. Power attracts power.”

“And enemies.” Ralph muttered under his breath.

“We’re here,” Jenson said as he pulled the large SUV up to the curb in front of a building with a line of women and a few men that stretched halfway down the block. There was a flashing sign in neon red that flashed “Guilty Pleasures” over and over.

“Yippee,” Buffy said but then grinned as she felt Jean Claude himself in the building. She was sure she could get a little even with him. Somehow.

Giles leaned forward. “What kind of place is this, Buffy?” He looked at the long line and added, “Some sort of club?”

“Yeah…you could say that.” She smiled wider and looked at Faith. “I don’t want to spoil the fun.” She leaned over and pressed a kiss against the old driver’s weathered cheek. “You’re more than welcome to join us, you know. Get some pointers for Aggie.” Aggie was his girlfriend of about a million years. Why he didn’t marry the poor girl, Buffy didn’t know, but it seemed to work for them, so who was she to judge?

He just laughed and pushed her toward the door. “Hush up, you. Go on and have your fun. I’ll be waiting for you.”

She got out of the limo and waited on the sidewalk for everyone else. Once they were all together, she bypassed the line and headed straight to the door, ignoring both the glares and the nasty comments from the people waiting. They were shown straight in and greeted by the thumping music. A glance at the stage showed her Nathaniel was halfway through his act because he was still mostly dressed. She rolled her eyes as she spotted a large table near the stage, right up front, with a “Reserved” sign on it. Jean Claude never missed a trick.

Marie, tonight’s holy item check girl, a position which never failed to crack Buffy up, especially since she’d found out it’s the job both Asher and Rafael had wanted her to take when she’d first come here, hurried up to her, literally wringing her hands. It made Buffy smile. It made Giles wonder what made the girl so nervous.

Marie bowed her head as she stopped in front of Buffy, which made Buffy shake her head. Jean Claude’s humans never quite knew how to act around her. She was Asher’s human servant and Asher was not only Jean Claude’s second but his former lover and best friend. She herself was also Jean Claude’s good and trusted friend. To offend her to was to offend him. It was a tough row to hoe for the humans who were trying to be more in his organization. “Ma’am.”

Buffy snorted. “Buffy. I’ve told you a hundred times.”

Marie bowed her head lower, eyes flicking at the contingent of guards. “My apologies, mistress.”

“Marie. It’s fine.” She sighed. “I just meant call me Buffy.” She glanced at Giles, who was staring at her as if she’d grown a second head and shrugged. “It’s a thing.”

Marie, head still bowed, said, “I’m sorry. I have to ask for your holy items.”

“Right. You know I don’t have any.” She looked around at the Scoobies. “You guys got any holy items? Crosses, stuff like that?” She’d be surprised if they did, none of them were very religious. At everyone’s head shake, she turned back to Marie. “We’re clean.”

Marie nodded and went back to her little room and Buffy was happy to see her go. It was getting to the point where she was actually uncomfortable around humans. She didn’t need her Jason radar to tell her he was coming her way, Dawn’s slight gasp did it for her. She grinned as he swept her into his arms and twirled her around before leaving her where she started.

Through her laughter she managed to spit out, “What the hell are you not wearing?”

He grinned. “You like? I’m on in two sets, it’s my new look for the stage.” He twirled around a few times for her. He was wearing fishnet, but not the shirt. The pants. The only part of the pants not silver fishnet was a very, very small, strategically placed triangle of blue cloth over his crotch. The shirt, which was only a shirt in the sense that it was where a shirt would normally go, was more like a few threads strung across his chest, was also silver and hung across that well-muscled chest in two diagonal drapes from his left shoulder to his right hip.

She came closer, reached out to flick one of the threads. “How does it come off?”

He turned around, giving her his back, reached around and showed her a well-placed and well-hidden fastener at the waist that connected everything. “The blue G-string stays on.”

“Thank God for that.”

“Some supportive sister you are.” He turned back around and gave her shoulder a shove as she laughed again. “I’ll make sure to torture you.” He glanced at Nathaniel, who was now down to his own G-string. “In fact, I’ll make it a point to have everyone torture you.”

She laughed again. “Yeah, I don’t think that’ll go over too well with Asher or Rafael, do you?”

“Probably not, but since when do I care about that shit?” He turned and gave his butt a little shake. “Come on, I’ll show to your table.”

She turned around to find everyone nearly open-mouthed with their gaping and grinned widely at them all. Now this was fun. “Oh, right. This is Guilty Pleasures…it’s a vampire and shifter strip club. Follow me.” She turned, enjoying both the looks on the Scoobies faces and the looks of amusement on the faces of the guards.

By the time they got settled at the front table, Faith and Dawn had stopped gaping and started to have fun, actually asking their guards if they had any dollar bills. Buffy, rolling her eyes, had given them a stack of ones and fives. Giles had seated himself next to her, which had been reluctantly allowed by Ralph and Nico, though the two were very close. Kennedy, Willow and Xander had taken seats together across the table, facing the stage but not really looking at Gregory, one of Anita’s leopards, who was now performing.

Dawn turned away from the stage and leaned across the table. “Buffy.”

Buffy leaned forward slightly as well. “Dawn?”

“I think you’re completely wrong.”

“You do?”

“I do.” She shrugged. “I think I was entitled to my feelings then and I think I’m entitled to them now. If you want to go from there, then I’m willing. If not then I guess we’re just two people who, like you said, share genetic material.”

Buffy nodded and leaned back in her chair, thought about what Dawn had said. Everyone was entitled to their feelings, that was certainly true. But, just like Dawn was entitled to her feelings, so was she. And it was her feeling that Dawn had been selfish. She really did understand where Dawn was coming from…to a point. Yes, she’d been young, 16 years old when their mother had died. She’d had a hard life, it was true. But so had a lot of people. Harder lives, in fact. They didn’t turn out to be betraying little bitches. Okay, so that was harsh. But Dawn had grown up, for the most part, with a loving, supportive family. And when that family had been taken away, she’d still had support. She’d had Buffy, had her mother, had friends. When Buffy had been called as the Slayer, things hadn’t really changed for Dawn for a long time, and when they had, she’d worked very hard to make sure they hadn’t changed that drastically…but, in reality, none of that had even happened. In reality, Dawn was ancient. Practically older than time. It was a confusing situation for everyone. And maybe, probably actually, Buffy could forgive her for being a whiny brat, because she had gone through hell…sort of. But that last and final betrayal…that Buffy couldn’t forgive. Not Dawn. Her sister.

She flashed Dawn a smile and nodded again, letting the girl make of it what she would. She was feeling pretty good about things. Three relationships taken off the “on hold” status. She shot a glance at Xander and Kennedy. Probably five, if she was really being honest.

Giles leaned closer so that Buffy could hear him over the music. “You’re not going to forgive and forget with Dawn, are you?”

Buffy shook her head. “She’s an adult now, young but still all grown up. She’s going back, I’m not. She has to live her life, without me in it either way. I’ve got the closure I needed.”

“What about the rest of them? Me?”

She turned her head to look at him. “I hope we have the time, Giles. We’re doing okay, I think. We still have stuff but we’re getting there, don’t you think?”

“You’ve grown up a lot and I feel like I missed it all.”

She shrugged again. “You kinda did, Giles. You left when I needed you the most and it hurt. I just don’t…we don’t need to do this now.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing for you, Buffy. I really did.”

“Yeah, I just don’t get that, Giles. I’m sorry. You find out I was ripped out of Heaven, I’m flat broke because they spent all my money, I have a teenager to raise, no skills, no job, a magic-addicted friend, a Xander to deal with and a Hellmouth to watch. You were my Watcher. I just don’t get how that was even in the realm of ‘right thing’.” She held up a hand. “Like I said, we don’t need to do this right now. Right now, it’s all about the learning.”

He saw Nico’s hand land on her shoulder, rub it and then slide over her neck, saw her eyes drift closed. “All I can say is I’m sorry, Buffy. Again.”

“I know that, Giles.” She opened her eyes and smiled softly at him. “Now, I’m sure you want to watch the stripper.”

“Er…”

She laughed at him as Willow turned from the show to ask, “Are all the…uh…entertainers vampires or were…what do I call them?”

Armando answered her. “Weres or shifters and yes. All of the staff except the holy item check girl are nonhuman.”

Kennedy frowned. “And you guys just parade yourselves for the humans like that? Don’t you consider it exploitation?”

Giles was about to yell at her when Buffy put a hand on his arm. “No…she’s not being snarky.”

Armando answered again. “Being Other isn’t easy and even though it’s illegal to discriminate it’s done every day, in all fields. We can’t get jobs, we get fired if people find out what we are. The humans come here, pay to look at us, even drool over us, while they sit there, thinking they’re safe, and then they can go home to their nice little human homes. It’s all we can do. It’s all they let us do.”

Kennedy was quiet as she turned and watched Gregory dance in front of a group of 30-something women who looked as if they definitely belonged in suburbia. One of them reached out and shoved a bill into his G-string, making sure to get a good grope. Buffy wanted to slap her, even though Gregory wasn’t one of hers.

“That sucks.” Dawn said as she glared at the groper. “They’re allowed to just grab you like that?”

“Not really but it’s one of those rules that everyone breaks.” Dimiti said with a grimace.

“You work here?” Dawn asked.

He nodded. “Part time, on the slower nights. My queen won’t let me work the busier nights anymore.” He shot a look at Buffy that was full of love that Giles actually felt his eyes tear up.

He leaned close again. “How did you come to be the queen of the rats and the snakes, Buffy?”

“The portal that sent me here altered the magics inside me. I’m a ginormous mess inside. Anything that was inside me got twisted up.”

Giles was quiet for a moment as he put that together with everything else he’d learned and then said, “The spell that turned you into a rat? Machida, the mayor, Lurconis, what about the swim team? They weren’t snakes but reptilian? And the hellhounds? They weren’t exactly wolves, but were canine like but not quite? And…”

She laughed. “I’m not exactly sure, yet. Things keep turning up little by little. And…” she shot a glance at Xander. “Apparently Xander was enough to make me a hyena magnet.”

He was silent while he digested that. He hadn’t been sure but had suspected that something had happened. Buffy had refused to malign the boy and Xander had refused to say. “I’m so sorry, Buffy.”

She shrugged. “All part of the slayer package.”

“That’s really quite fascinating. Why aren’t Kennedy and Faith different?”

“We think it’s because they haven’t been magicked to death, literally.” She shrugged. “I’ve been to Hell, to Heaven, through Glory’s portal, used as the focus for the Slayer spell, had spell after spell after more spells cast on me…they’re slayers. They slay.”

He shook his head. “I think we all took for granted what you’d been through, Buffy. Just how far above and beyond you’d gone.”

She shrugged again. “It was what it was.”

“So, you are the queen of the rats and the queen of the snakes but not of the wolves?”

“Well, the position was kind of already filled. I have a connection with the wolves, a pretty strong one. It seems to go on the contact I had with the animal in the world I left. Oz cut me up pretty bad a few times so big connection. Machida and Lurconis, the mayor so big connection with the snakes. I WAS a rat so huge, major connection there. Xander…well, all with the biting and stuff. The hyenas here,” she laughed a little, “just like there, are morons, and I don’t hang much with them.”

“And the vampires?”

“The vampires here are different. They all have souls. But I really only feel connections, strong connections to some of them. And even among them some are stronger, way stronger, than others.”

“This is all so fascinating, Buffy.”

“Always the Watcher.” She smiled at him when he turned slightly red and then gestured at the stage. “Watch…this should be…illuminating. See how I used a watcher word for you?”

He turned towards the stage as Gregory left and a man in leather pants came behind him, using a push broom to sweep the money off the stage behind him. Jean Claude’s voice filled the room, causing all the human’s to fidget in their seats, much to everyone else’s amusement, as he introduced Jason. The women in the crowd went wild as he strutted to center stage and struck a pose that had his hip jutted out to the side, one hand fisted on it and the other in the air. It reminded Buffy of a disco stance.

The music started and he began to move in a slow, sultry, steady rhythm that matched the pulsing baseline and had women fanning themselves. It was a good dance, sexy, human moves. But then it became something else, something animal, and Jason moved his body in a way no person could every hope to move. It was still sexy but it went beyond human sexy.

He met her eyes and she saw the glint in them. She’d been his “victim” more than once and she didn’t mind it. In fact, she usually had fun because she could let loose and be herself on the stage. Let the music take her and just let go. But tonight…she smiled and said, quietly because she knew he’d hear her. “Take Faith. Tell her to let it all out, get her slay on.” Because she’d heard about Faith crying in her room, and she’d heard the quiet sniffling in the car. Faith could use some ‘let it all out’ time.

Giles snapped his head toward her. “What’s going on?”

“Watch. For all the time you’ve been a Watcher, Giles, I don’t know if you’ve ever actually seen a Slayer.”

Jason suddenly jumped to the middle of their table, crouched low, hips still moving, now in slow, sensual circles. His face slid into Buffy’s neck and he rubbed his cheek against hers, and then pivoted on his toes, putting his face almost against Faith’s and held out a hand to hers.

Faith looked over Jason’s shoulder and saw Buffy smiling at her and nodding. Shrugging, she put her hand in the stripper’s and was pulled to her feet and onto the stage, held to the front of his body as the crowd clapped.

“Um…okay, wolf boy. What now.”

“Buffy says you’re not supposed to hold back. You’re supposed to let go and, whatever this means, let your slay on.” He spun her around, pulled her flush against his body as the crowd cheered louder. He saw the confused look in her eyes and added, “Of course, Buffy thinks you can keep up with me and I don’t.” He smiled as he saw the light of challenge appear in her eyes and then stuck his leg between hers and slid his hand up her stomach, between her breasts and used it to dip her back, bending her over his arm, which he’d wrapped around her back. He felt her go limp and flung her gently from side to side and then whipped her upright.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and a leg around his waist as she ground against him, a throaty laugh bursting from her as she did as B said…she let it all out.

At the table, Kennedy watched Faith dance with the werewolf not with the disgust she would have thought but with an envy she hated feeling. This night was definitely not what she was expecting. She’d never expected to feel anything but the desire to kill these things, these people. She never expected to feel compassion for them. And she never, ever expected to feel kinship with them. But she knew what it was like to feel like an outsider. She hadn’t realized that Faith and Buffy knew, too. Hadn’t ever thought to ask them.

She watched Jason use those animal moves to seduce the crowd, watched Faith match him. She saw Faith, like she’d seen Buffy, look happy, content, at peace. She could actually feel the power coming off the two of them. The moved together like they were one being and it was something to see. She looked out over the audience, who weren’t going wild anymore. They were sitting with rapt attention, staring at the show. It was, to put it bluntly, Kennedy thought, as if they were actually having sex right there on the stage, but fully clothed. It was sexy, yes, but it was also animal and primal and completely uncomfortable but in a way that you couldn’t stop watching and it made you squirm in your seat and wish you had the guts to just stick your hands down there and take care of things quick and dirty. It was…hot.

All too soon, Jason jerked Faith to him, dipped her over and kissed her, deeply and even the people in the back could tell there was a whole lot of tongue involved in the deal. He led her back to the edge of the stage and two men wearing Guilty Pleasures Security shirts helped her to her chair. She was grinning widely as she sat down.

She looked at Buffy and then at Armando and Lisandro, back at Buffy. “So, B. Do all shifters kiss like that? ‘Cause I might want to borrow these two for a while.”

Every rat at the table laughed as did Buffy. Dawn was shooting dirty looks at Faith and Giles was just blushing.

Buffy’s answer was delayed by her phone going off. She dug in her pocket and frowned as she checked the display. “Damn, damn…” She got up, waving Ralph and Nico off as they moved to get up with her. She headed toward the closest quiet spot, which was, actually Jean Claude’s office. She shot him a look, as he was sitting at his desk doing whatever it was he did and answered the phone with a “Dolph?” as she shut the door behind her.

“Summers. Got a crime scene right up your alley. Already called Blake. She’s half an hour out. Tower Grove Park.”

“What is it?”

“You know I don’t like to spoil the fun. Get here ASAP, Summers.” He hung up before she could say another word, as he always did.

She swore and looked up at Jean Claude, who was looking at her, amused smile on his face. “Problem, cher?”

She shrugged. “Crime scene. I thought you were out there hosting the show or some such thing.”

“Jason has an extended set. I was watching the show he put on with Faith.”

“Yeah…it was something. I have to go. See you later.” She headed out of the office and back to the table, rolling her eyes as Jason did a few pelvic thrusts in her direction, wearing nothing but the G-string now.

“I have a crime scene to go to, so I’m going to have to get going.”

“We’ll go too!” Dawn jumped up from her seat.

“Um…I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Dawnie.” Willow spoke up.

“What better way to get a feel for this world?” Dawn said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? And we’ll stay behind the tape or whatever. Mingle with the crowd.”

“Um…yeah, you guys stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She looked at Armando. “If I’m not back before the club closes, take them to the Danse. If I’m not back before THAT closes, take them back to the Circus. Put Faith back in her room. Put Giles in the Green room.”

He stood, bowed his head. “Yes, my queen.”

Ralph and Nico got to their feet and followed her out the door, leaving the Scoobies alone with the guards, who, now that Buffy was gone, looked at each other for a moment before Armando spoke. “We will leave you to this table. We will be right over there.” He pointed to the exit. “We will be watching you, so do nothing but enjoy the show. When it is time to leave, we will come and get you and escort you to the SUV.”

“But, you’re supposed to answer our questions and stuff.” Dawn said.

“Write them down. We will answer them in the car.”

“Geez.”

As soon as they were gone Xander leaned forward. “This place is fucked up.”

Willow frowned. “I think it’s amazing.”

“Me too.” Giles agreed. “And I’m seeing just how much we took Buffy for granted on the Hellmouth and after.”

Kennedy spoke up, surprising everyone. “It’s not what I was expecting. They’re not demons at all.”

Faith slapped her on the back. “No, they’re not. They’re pretty cool.”

Kennedy nodded and Willow reached over and took her hand, making Giles smile.

Dawn nodded. “What did Buffy have to say, Giles?”

“Not a lot as of yet. She was telling me about the magical mess inside of her. She really is among friends here and happy. I’m quite confident that it’s where she belongs.” He looked at Xander and then at Dawn. “I really don’t want any more arguments about it.”

Xander shook his head. “You were always too easy on her, Giles.”

“No, Xander. You were always too hard on her and you never understood her calling at all. Thinking you know what you’re talking about and knowing it are two different things. This discussion is over. As Buffy has said, it’s not up to you.”

“Giles is right.” Willow said quietly. “Who are we to think we have the right to decide Buffy’s life?”

“They’re both right.” Kennedy couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. “Buffy’s put in her time. She’s died for the cause. Twice. Leave her the fuck alone, Xander.” She spun in her seat. “Now let’s watch naked men dance.”

**~~**

Buffy pulled up to the crime scene in a borrowed car because no way in hell was she showing up in stretch SUV limo. Tower Grove Park was big but the actual crime scene was easy to find, what with all the cops milling around, throwing up in the bushes, avoiding the actual body like the plague. She flashed her badge at the cops guarding the area and they let her in, barely even looking at her. That didn’t really bode well, she thought. She spotted Dolph, noticed even he wasn’t looking at the body. He was ordering people about, pointing this way and that. He spotted her and headed over to meet her, which was a serious differentiation from the norm. He usually stood there and waited for them to come to him.

“Summers.”

“Dolph. Anita here yet?”

He glanced over her shoulder, making her turn around. Anita was about 100 feet behind her so they waited until she’d caught up. “Buffy, Dolph.” She said when she got there.

“Anita.” Buffy said and Dolph nodded.

“What do we have?”

Buffy shrugged. “Just got here myself. No one’s said anything yet.”

Dolph turned instead of answering and started walking back the way he’d come, leaving them to look at each other, shrug at each other and then follow him.

The body was male. She could tell because the pants had been ripped off and the penis was still there. The entire torso was ripped open and the inside was hollowed out. What was supposed to be inside was spread around the area. Her eyes widened as she searched, trying to see what she could readily identify but there was nothing. Loops of intestine maybe? Something intestine looking at least. It was long and ropy.

She moved carefully, picking her way through

“Would you believe I’ve seen something like this twice before?” Anita’s voice sounded tired.

Buffy spared her a sideways glance. “That’s just sad. You shouldn’t have a chance to get all…I don’t know…blasé about hollowed out people.”

“No. No you shouldn’t.”

Buffy stepped over the body to crouch next to it on one side while Anita did the same on the other, Buffy saying in a low voice, in case she was wrong, “It’s been torn open, jagged edges.”

Anita nodded, wondering if Buffy knew that because she was spending so much time watching the wolves tear open animals in the forest and then shoved that jealousy away, telling herself that not only was this not the time but that she herself had that same opportunity if she only chose to take it. And she’d promised Buffy months ago that she’d curb her inner jealous bitch.

“You thinking a shifter did this?” Dolph asked from behind Buffy, making the shoved jealousy return just a little. Dolph seemed to like Buffy a lot. Anita didn’t know if it was because Buffy had given him a coffee cup of her blood that had tested completely human where her own had come back a veritable rainbow of shifter colors or if it was just Buffy’s natural personality, after all hadn’t even she fallen for the girl’s charm in the end?

Buffy tipped her head backwards far enough that Anita wondered how she didn’t tip over and looked up at Dolph, shrugged. “Could be, might not be. It’s torn, though. But you probably already knew that. And stop lurking behind me when I’m clearing whispering. Big guys like you shouldn’t be able to be so sneaky.”

He smiled at her, a genuine real smile that made Anita sad because she hadn’t seen it directed at her in a very long time. It faded as he looked at her. “You agree. Shifter?” At least he still trusted her judgment, it seemed. “Like she said, could be. Certainly strong enough and it’s torn. A shifter would have the strength.” She glanced around, waved a hand at the viscera strewn about. “Some of it’s half eaten. A shifter would do that.”

“But it’s neat.” Buffy added. “A fully shifted lycanthrope wouldn’t be so neat.”

“You’re saying…what are you saying?” Dolph was writing in his little notebook.

Anita frowned at her partner. “There aren’t that many alphas that can half shift in St. Louis.”

Buffy shrugged. “There weren’t that many.”

“Jesus.” She looked at Dolph. “I’ve told you before, some of the more powerful shifters can half shift, shift only their hands or their faces, like that. Lately there’s been an increase in the power of the shifters in the area. Some who couldn’t do that might now be able to.”

He stopped writing and looked at them both. “What caused this increase?”

Buffy dipped her head, examined the body closer, leaving Anita to deal with the cop but before Anita could say anything they heard Buffy’s sharply indrawn breath and her loud “Dammit!” as she lurched to her feet, staggered slightly and Dolph reached out a hand to steady her.

“Summers?”

“ID? Do you have an ID?”

“No…no wallet, you can see no prints, you can see facial recognition is useless…”

Actually she hadn’t gotten that far, she’d only gotten to the neck, which had been far enough. She shook her head. “His name is Halo. He’s from the local wolf pack.”

Anita frowned as she stood up as well. “What?”

Buffy pointed at the neck, which, as the face was turned away from her she had a clear view of. “The tattoos. They’re custom, he designed them himself.”

Dolph moved his hand to wrap and an arm around her. “You all right?”

She nodded. “Yeah…we just…we hung out sometimes. He was a nice kid.” She looked up at him. “Oh…um…John Halloran. 21, student at U of M. Next of kin is Jamil Alpuente.” She dug out her cell, thankful Rafael had the foresight to keep cloning hers and rifled through her contact list for Jamil’s number, held it out to Dolph. “He’s the pack’s liaison. Halo didn’t have any family, they all died in an attack when he was 12. He was the only survivor.”

Dolph’s pen paused briefly as he looked up. “The kid’s been a shifter since he was 12?”

Buffy nodded. “He’s had it really rough. Almost didn’t get out of the halfway house. Really smart kid. He was majoring in aerospace engineering on a full ride. Loved video games and really badly dubbed anime.” Her voice cracked a bit so she took a second to swallow. “Do you want me to call Jamil?”

“We’ll do it. Can you think of anyone who would do this to him?” She’d apparently gone from investigator to witness.

“No. He was a good kid, a nice kid. He had no enemies in the pack at all. He wasn’t ambitious in that way. At all. He wasn’t looking to move up and anyone under him knew it. He was never challenged because if anyone under him wanted his spot he just stepped aside. He didn’t fight for dominance.” She waved a hand at the body. “This isn’t a dominance thing anyway. This is…I don’t even know what the hell this is.”

“So now we’re looking for something that took out a shifter. How strong was he?” He asked the question of Anita, trying to give Buffy another minute.

Anita shrugged. She didn’t even know the kid. Sighing, she sucked it up. “Buffy?”

“Low alpha, actually. But like I said, he wasn’t a fighter.” She shook her head. “If something or someone came at him, he honestly wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Are you saying all shifters can’t fight?” Dolph frowned at her.

Buffy managed a laugh and patted the big man’s arm. “You really have to get over this prejudice of yours, Dolph. That’s what I’m saying. There are a lot, a sadly large number, in fact, of the wolves that wouldn’t know what the hell to do if someone slapped them.” She glanced at Anita. “Maybe run and cry.”

“Why are you looking at me?” Anita asked.

“I don’t know.” She crouched down again, put two fingers on Halo’s chin and turned his face toward her, nearly falling on her butt when she saw it. It was only her slayer reflexes that had her standing instead.

“You ever see anything like that before?” Dolph asked.

“No.” She lied.

“Anything else you can tell me at all?”

“Not really. Anita?”

Anita was busy staring at Buffy, wondering what she was lying about. “Probably another shifter, one that can half shift so a strong one. Other than, nothing yet. Maybe the lab can tell you what kind, narrow it down for you.”

Dolph nodded and then looked at Buffy. “I know I don’t have to tell you but I’ll tell you anyway. You can’t share details…”

“You’re right. You don’t have to tell me. I won’t say anything, Dolph.”

“I’m sorry about your friend.”

Anita didn’t gape at him but it was a close thing. She’d had bodies on the ground and had gotten insults. Buffy got sympathy. It was harder and harder, the not being jealous thing.

“Thanks, Dolph.” She ran a hand down his arm. “If I can think of anything else that will help you, I’ll call.” She walked around the body, waited for Anita to join her and headed back to their cars, pulling her phone back out the second they were out of sight.

“What aren’t you telling the cops?” Anita asked her.

“You saw the eyes?”

“Yeah…creepy and weird. I figure it’s some kind of calling card so we’ll know the next time he does it. Like we’re not going to know from the hollowed out torso and eaten organs.”

She held up a hand as the phone was answered on the other end. “Claudia. Where are you?”

There was a slight pause. “At Rafael’s downtown office.”

“Where is Rafael?”

“In his office.”

“Has he been there all night?”

“Yes. What’s going on, Buffy?”

“Has he been out of your sight at all?”

“He’s been in his office, we’ve been outside of his office while he’s been in meetings.”

“So, you haven’t actually seen him all night, then?”

“He’s been in his office.”

“Go look.”

“What?”

“Go open the door and look.”

“He’s in a meeting.”

“I don’t care, Claudia. Go look.”

“I’m not…”

“Look. NOW.”

There was another long pause and then Claudia said stiffly, “Yes, my queen.” There was silence and then she heard the sound of a door opening and Claudia saying, “My king?” There was another pause, another “My king?” before Claudia came back on the phone. “He appears to have stepped out for a moment, my queen.”

Buffy hung up and looked at Anita. “The sewn up eyes? The X’s sewn on the eyes? Mark of the First.”
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