Out Of Africa - Chapter 5
written by Pythia

She was alone. She was often alone, but he was never able to guarantee it. There was many a night he’d lurked in the shadows watching her, unwilling to make his presence known while she had company. Like last night, for instance. Last night he’d watched her walk into the cemetery and – seeing the man with her – had hastily stepped back into concealment. He knew her Watcher – her real Watcher that is, not the Council’s second-string substitute – had acknowledged his reappearance in her life with begrudged reluctance, and he’d been loath to aggravate that situation, understanding only too well the animosity that he inspired in the man. If there was a way - any way - for him to make amends for the terrible, unforgivable deeds that his soulless self had committed, for the pain and the loss he had inflicted, then he would move heaven and earth to make it happen. But there was no way, no compensation he could offer, no apology he could present that could possibly make up for what he had done. He didn’t expect forgiveness; that was more than he deserved, and he knew it. The best he could hope for was reluctant tolerance, a recognition that he had a place in Buffy’s life – and that, once again, they served a common cause.

Truth was, he had a great deal of respect for Rupert Giles, for his dedication, for his commitment, for his strength of heart - and for his love for his Slayer, which burned in him like a sacred fire, protected by layers of propriety, and its true brilliance concealed from all but the most perceptive of eyes. It was a love that Angel envied in a way. His own was just as fierce, and just as strong – but it demanded more, needed more. Much more. The torch the Watcher carried was a sincere and selfless flame; it burned for its own sake, a gift for the soul that inspired it – and it asked for nothing in return.

Which is not to say that it got nothing. Far from it in fact. Buffy returned that dedication with a deep and abiding devotion that was so much a part of her that she barely noticed it most of the time. Like any child, confident in a parent’s love, she accepted it, depended on it – and seemingly took it for granted. Angel knew better than that. Giles had filled a place in her heart she hadn’t even known was empty - and she guarded it with determined loyalty and unswerving affection.

And that was why Angelus had taken such delight in tormenting and torturing him. Because knowing he suffered had meant she suffered, had felt every moment of his pain. Murdering Jenny Calendar had been an entertaining diversion, a means of preventing the threat she represented. Wrapping her up in the trappings of seductive promise, giving her – in death – to the man who’d loved her in life … that had been an exquisite attack, one aimed at Buffy’s heart with confident cruelty.

It wasn’t the worst thing that Angelus had ever done, but that wasn’t the point. It was the reason that Angel burned inside, every time he and Giles came face to face.

And it was the reason that he was willing to step back, to let the Slayer and her Watcher share their time together without him. Only, last night, it had nearly cost the man his life …

"Buffy," he called softly as she walked past him, her eyes on the street ahead and her thoughts a long way away. She jumped and whirled to confront him, relaxing into a smile of greeting as she realised who he was.

"Angel." Her relief was almost tangible. She stepped into his arms and pulled him close – not with desire, but need. He returned the embrace with gentle consideration, offering her comfort and reassurance, letting her know he would be there for her – no matter what the problem might be.

"I was coming to find you," she said, recollecting her self with an effort and looking up at him with anxious eyes. "We think there may be trouble tonight."

"I’m up for trouble," he offered softly. "Is the lioness out hunting again?"

He’d caught a brief glimpse of the vampiress as she’d fled the scene of her crime, an exotic, dangerous creature, sleek and surefoot in the dark. He’d got a taste of her too - just a hint of her power, a taint that had lingered on her victim’s skin.

"Her – or her cubs," Buffy affirmed worriedly. "Wesley thinks she’s been recruiting; that there’ll be some kind of attack … at the mall, or the Bronze perhaps. She’s done it before."

That was bad – and it was good. If the Watchers were on the case, they’d have a chance to defeat the beast. The more they knew about her, the better. "Then they found out who she is? He and Giles tracked her down?"

She shivered, a sudden tremor that reached to her soul. "Not – exactly." Her expression was bleak – and told him more than he wanted to know.

"What’s wrong?" he asked, pushing her away a little so that he could read what lay in her eyes. "Something’s happened … what - ? Rupert …?" he breathed, a sudden sense of horror clenching his heart. She looked away with a wince of distress, confirming his guess and adding to his concern. "But - he was fine last night. Out of danger. Just needing rest."

"She did something to him." Buffy’s words were tight. "A spell or – something. I don’t know what. But he’s – he’s – " She struggled for the words, wrestling with anger and more than a hint of fear. "He’s really sick. There’ve been fits – convulsions. Stuff like that. I think – I think you were right. She didn’t want to kill him. She wanted him – crippled. Unable to help me. To make us both suffer … Oh God," she gulped, fighting for self control. "I can’t lose him, Angel. I can’t."

He pulled her back into his embrace, wishing he could do more to reassure her. It would be so easy to say ‘you won’t’ with confident certainty – but there was no certainty, and he wouldn’t lie to her, no matter how much she might need him to. A Slayer put her life on the line every time she went into battle – and while the Watcher that guided her was supposed to stay back on the sidelines, most of them didn’t, and many of them had paid the ultimate price as a result. The role they played made them an inevitable target – which was something they all knew and accepted, the day they took the Watcher’s oath.

"Giles is stronger than he looks," he said, offering what little he could be sure of. "He won’t give up without a fight – and neither will you. We just have to find a way to deal with her, that’s all. You’re not alone in this, Buffy. You have me – and your friends, and that new, would-be Watcher of yours …"

"He’s not my Watcher." Her denial was a determined one. After it, her expression softened and she sighed wearily. "But he is a Watcher – and he’s doing his best. You’re right. We have to take the fight to her. Find a way …" She broke off, stepping away from him to stare out into the night. "We found some clues. Wesley’s working on them. And while he does – how about you and I hunting the huntress?"

He smiled, recognising the way she’d contained her grief, used it to armour herself and strengthen her resolve. "Sound’s good to me. Any idea where to start?"

* * * * *

They started at the mall. Late night shoppers barely gave them a second glance as they strolled through the atriums and along the shop lined walkways of Sunnydale’s foremost retail centre. There were other couples meandering past the fountains, window shopping or sharing a frozen yogurt from the stand. Gaggles of high school kids were hanging round the food courts, the video store and the games arcade, and some of the college students were holding an impromptu jam session in the music store. But no vampires. Not even the ordinary, common or garden kind.

From the mall they moved on to the cinema complex, checking out the bustle of the reception area and watching as eager movie goers streamed in to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Angel bought Buffy an ice cream from the ‘scoop and stack’ stand in the foyer, and they used it as an excuse to lurk for a while, trying for small talk and keeping their senses alert for the first sign of trouble. In any other circumstances, it would have been fun. Angel even contemplated asking Buffy if she’d like to come back once everything had been dealt with. It would be – pleasant – to take her to the movies again, to sit with her in the warmth and the dark of a movie theatre watching the shadows and light of the silver screen play out in front of them. She could eat popcorn and freezer mints, and he could… could what, exactly? he wondered.

Be with her, that’s what. Which was exactly what he was doing now, escorting her on the kind of date that only a vampire and a Slayer could have. A night out, hunting. There’d been a time when he’d have been the hunter that she hunted – but now he was on her side, helping her in her duties, there to watch her back …

His mental turn of phrase gave him cause to wince a little. Buffy’s obvious distraction was only partly due to the need to be vigilant. There was a piece of her focussed somewhere else entirely, holding vigil beside a hospital bed, pinned there by a mixture of guilt and fear and anxious love. Angel had nothing but sympathy for that concern, but he feared that it would do just what the vampiress wanted it to do – weaken Buffy’s resolve and affect her concentration. A troubled Slayer – one thrown off balance and preoccupied by external concerns – would struggle to fight an enemy as powerful and as cunning as this one appeared to be.

She caught him looking at her and smiled before hastily returning her attention to her ice cream. He smiled back, suddenly wondering what he was worrying about. This was Buffy – who, beset by all the torment Angelus could devise, had still found the strength to send him to hell. And had done it with love.

"What?" she asked, seeing the look which had crossed his face, and he dipped his head, unwilling to meet her eyes.

"I was just - thinking," he said. "Feeling sorry for Lilithu."

"Sorry," she reacted with a hint of disbelief. "The bitch is going down, Angel. As soon we know what she’s up to, what she’s done. There’s no place in Sunnydale she can hide from me."

"That’s what I mean. She has no idea how strong you are. How strong you can be."

Buffy poked at the remnant of her ice cream, grimacing a little as she considered what that actually meant. "I don’t always feel strong," she admitted slowly. "Sometimes saving the world is hard work. But she was the one that made this personal. Nobody," she announced determinedly, "and I mean nobody, savages my Watcher under my nose and gets away with it."

"That’s my girl," Angel grinned. "We done here?"

"I think so." She pushed the now empty dish away. "Let’s go check out the Bronze."

* * * * *

The Bronze was bouncing. Wednesday night was popular among the college crowd, and this Wednesday was no exception. The band was from out of town, the music was hot, and the air was heavy with the usual miasma of soft smoke, the scent of beer and the impact of too many people packed in an enclosed space. It was no wonder that vampires were drawn to hunt around its environs; the place practically neoned ‘free food’ with every pulse and beat of its nightly revelry.

Buffy had smiled at the bouncer at the door – who’d smiled back as he saw Angel behind her and had opened the door with a flourish. Heavy, rhythm laden music had pounded out, laced with staccato drumbeats and deep bass chords. Jungle music; the sound of tribal dances and the bone humming incantations of a rave.

"Whoa," Angel remarked, stepping close so that he could be heard. "This is intense. You really think anyone will try anything in this kind of crowd?"

"Yes," Buffy nodded, leading the way into the club, her eyes peeled for trouble. "Wesley said the first thing Lilithu did last time she was out was send her people to attack a festival. Hunting tactics. Stir up the herd and then you can start picking the weak ones off at the edges."

He looked impressed. "Discovery channel?" he asked, over the pulsing din.

She shook her head. "Lion King," she answered with a grin. "Dad took me. Back in LA. We used to go to Disney movies a lot."

"I liked ‘Fantasia’," Angel admitted, adding, almost apologetically, "I went to the premier."

Buffy laughed. That was hard to picture, the earnest vampire sitting through the antics of Micky Mouse and being entertained by dancing mushrooms. The demon on the mountain sequence though – that might be more his kind of thing. And the dinosaur bits … No, she still couldn’t see it. "I shall remember that," she threatened warmly. "Next time I pick up a rental."

"No need," he murmured in her ear, the pounding rhythms of the place forcing them to be close, to be intimate in order to communicate. "Ru – Giles has a copy. We can borrow his."

There were a few more things in that statement than she wanted to cope with right there and then; the hesitation with which Angel slipped from her Watcher’s first name to his last, uncomfortable evidence of the way things now stood between the two of them; the confident implication that he’d still be around to lend them anything – and the mere idea of Giles owning a copy of a Disney movie.

Even if it was a total classic.

The thought started to lift a wry smile to her lips, one that froze there with sudden, disconcerted horror. There was no way Angel could know that. Those few times he’d been in Giles’ apartment had been strictly on business and hardly occasions for casual browsing. But as Angelus … She shivered, not wanting to follow that thought where it was taking her. She’d dealt with the whole Angel/Angelus thing. In her head they were two separate people, one her true love and the other the demon that he kept chained with the light of his soul, and she didn’t want to think about the demon, about the monster which had prowled her Watcher’s apartment, sifting through the trappings of his life and using them to dress and camouflage the sadistic trap he’d set.

The one with a very dead Jenny Calendar lying at its heart …

"I’ll – ask him," she managed to gulp, wondering if she’d ever be able to, if she could ever face him with knowledge like that and not have him question how she knew. Wondering if – hoping with all her heart – that he would wake up and be there to be asked …

Glass smashed.

The music faltered.

Someone screamed.

And Buffy went into overdrive, pushing thoughts and anxieties to one side in order to focus on the moment, to deal with the now, just as she’d been taught.

Two snarling, savage vampires had crashed though the upper windows and down onto the dance floor, scattering shards of glass and startled dancers with equal disregard. The crowd panicked, stampeding for the exits; the band hastily abandoned their instruments, leaving only the deep throbbing drum rhythms running in time to the strobe lights. Buffy snatched up a pool cue, leaping onto the nearest pool table and then over the heads of the struggling crowd to land – armed and ready – in front of the first vampire. Angel was briefly pushed back, but quickly powered forward again, emerging out of the throng on the far side of the dance floor, to confront the second beast.

They were beasts. There was no doubt about that.

In fact, they made the average vamp – even one in full demon face - look like a pussy cat.

Deep set eyes gleamed golden and savage in the pulsing, flaring light. Sharp pointed teeth dripped saliva and blood. Claws curved like talons from their fingertips, slashing and striking out at those few foolish – or unlucky – enough to linger on the dance floor. Where a normal vampire would stand upright like a man, these were hunched over, moving with loping, animal like steps. And they slobbered and they snarled, striking to kill and to maim, dealing damage with pleasure – and with frightening speed.

The first arrival had slashed through two people, gutting one and tearing open the other’s leg, leaving him crawling across the floor, whimpering with fear and pain. The second had pounced on a young woman, yanking her head back and ripping out her throat with one savage bite. Two dead already and one on the way; that was bad and it was fast and it was going to stop.

Right now.

Buffy swung the cue with determined force, knocking the vampire away from the wounded victim and following through with a jabbing backhand designed to send it flying. It dodged, grabbed the cue and pulled her forward. She dodged to one side just in time. Talons tore through her shirt and drew blood.

"Hey," she protested, jerking the wood up so that the heavy end of it slammed the creature under the chin. "No grabbing on a first date "

It staggered back – and then leapt sideways, heading back towards its victim, its hands extended to slash and grab. She cursed and went after it, shoulder slamming into it with directed force, so that it went tumbling a second time. A glance down made her wince. The wounded man had now joined the fatality list. His throat had been slashed from ear to ear. When she looked up again, the vampire was greedily licking the blood from its hands, painting scarlet stains across its lips and cheeks.

"Oh, gross," she reacted, sickened by the grotesque sight, by the primal pleasure the creature displayed. It had been a young man once. Its skin and build hinted at Mexican migrant or someone from even further south. Its long and dark and greasy hair was caught back by a twisted bandana, and it was wearing old jeans and an even older t-shirt - but it had the face of a monster, and eyes that gleamed with unholy and hungry fire. Cold light pulsed around the room, painting the world in staccato flashes, and deep pounding drums throbbed through the air; the sound and the fury turned the creature into a hunched terror, a brutish, bestial *thing*. Buffy realised she was staring at a true nightmare, at the vampire’s inner demon, its hunger and its depravity exposed to the world. "You are so going down," she promised, steeling her resolve and swinging the cue like a quarterstaff. It lifted its head and it growled at her, revealing its fangs in a threatening snarl.

After which it charged to the attack.

Buffy dodged just in time, slamming the cue into its stomach and lifting it with a jerk and a twist; it flew up and over, tumbling over the length of wood and landing flat on its back. She reversed the cue, powering round in a classic, ‘Bruce Lee would be proud of this’ stance, and getting ready to strike. She wasn’t quite fast enough; the vampire had already sprung up from the floor and was leaping for her with both arms extended. The pose became a startled backstep and reactive twist - and only just in time. Once again claws whispered past skin, leaving painful, stinging welts behind.

Angel wasn’t faring much better than she was. His vampire had gone for his throat, grappling him down onto the floor and fighting to get past his defence. Had he not been a vampire himself, he’d have had little chance to resist the assault. As it was, he was struggling, holding the creature back with effort as they rolled over and over, each trying to gain dominance.

Buffy had no time to spare to help him. She was fighting for her life, deflecting powerful, slashing strikes that drove her back and kept her on the defence. The creature was frighteningly fast – and it simply shrugged off blows that would have sent the average vamp staggering. That was part of the problem; it seemed to have absolutely no sense of self preservation. It wasn’t fighting so much as mauling, attacking with furious and delighted savagery. The strobe lights went on pulsing and flickering in time to the canned beat, turning the conflict into a surreal dance as they surged back and forth across the floor.

"You just – gotta lay off – the caffine," she decided, ducking a sweeping attack and turning in to elbow the thing in the face. "Or else I need to drink more." A hasty spin and a kick sent it flying, giving her a momentary breathing space. It picked itself up and leapt at her again. This time she was ready for it. The pool cue rammed home with force, driving point first into the charging vampire’s chest. Its own momentum carried it forward, and it disintegrated into dust just as its claws reached her throat.

"Least he didn’t miss his cue," she quipped, spinning the length of polished wood with a gratified flourish.

There was an angry grunt, a startled yelp of pain – and the second vampire flew past her in a flail of limbs, landing in a sprawl across the light spattered floor. Buffy completed the twist, seized the cue in both hands – and rammed it down determinedly. Dust exploded outwards with satisfying force.

"Are you okay?" Angel was picking himself up from among the debris of several demolished tables. His jacket and shirt were ripped, and there were dark angry welts painted on the skin beneath. Buffy nodded, tossing away the cue and hastening over to inspect the damage. The scratches on her arm were stinging, but not badly enough to complain about. His wounds looked decidedly painful.

"I’m fine. You – are you okay?"

He thought about it, glancing down at the ruin of his shirt. "I’ll heal." His head lifted, taking in the sprawl of bodies on the floor, and his expression darkened with quiet anger. "They won’t."

She winced. He was right; killing the beasts never brought their victims back, and every life lost was one too many. But this was war, and if they hadn’t been there, the carnage would have been unthinkable. These vampires, these children of Lilithu, weren’t the subtle malevolent menace that she was used to fighting. They were monsters, pure and simple. Their mistress had sent them out to maim and feed and kill.

"She has to be stopped," Buffy declared tightly. "This has to be stopped."

He nodded, urging her towards the back door. They had to get out of the club before the police arrived. Armed and armoured men would be bursting through the doors at any moment. Garbled accounts and half drunk witnesses would suggest crazed drug addicts or make wild animals responsible for the attacks, and the police would mark it down as one more unsolved crime of violence. That kind of thing happened in Sunnydale.

If it wasn’t for her nightly patrols, it would happen regularly.

"She has to be hiding somewhere," Angel was saying, leading the way down the back ally and into a quiet corner where they could talk. "Somewhere where she can take her victims and turn them into these – beasts."

Buffy shuddered. It had been hard enough dealing with two of those things. How many more would be guarding their mistress’ lair?

"We have to find it," she considered anxiously. "We have to find her."

"No," Angel advised warily. "No, fighting on her terms would be a very bad idea. We only just held our ground in there. Buffy – you said she’d faced a Slayer before. She clearly knows much more about you than we know about her. That’s why she … attacked Giles. And why you can’t just charge in regardless. She’s a sorceress, remember? There has to be another way."

He was right – but that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

"I just want this over with," she said. "I want to know what she’s done, what she’s doing – and I want to stop her. Before anyone else dies."

"I know." His words were sympathetic. "Look – I’d say the excitement was over for tonight. Why don’t I take you up to the hospital, and then – start asking around. See if I can track down where she might be hiding."

Buffy sighed. It was a plan, of sorts. Her mind was busy reviewing the fight, trying to decide what she could do better the next time round. She didn’t have Giles’ analytical eye, and it was hard to disentangle the action from the emotion, to separate the moves from the memory of making them. A part of her desperately wished her Watcher had been there. She needed his input on this one, needed his advice and his guidance. And a part of her was just as glad he hadn’t been – because now that she’d actually met Lilithu’s spawn, she had a pretty good idea of how Gregory Webber must have died. ‘His body was badly ripped,’ Albrecht had said. It was too easy to picture what that really meant. But he – and Eva – had found a way to stop her. Somehow.

Somewhere in the Koenisgburg collection was the answer they needed. But all they had were vague hints, an entry in a dead Watcher’s diary and the chance that the rest of the paperwork might have been preserved in the Council’s archive. Even if Webber’s translations could be found, they’d still have to make sense of them. She hated to admit it, but with Giles out of action, there was only one person with the skills to unravel that riddle.

She desperately hoped that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was up to the challenge.

Read: Chapter 6