Out Of Africa - Chapter 6
written by Pythia





The ICU was quiet, a place of muted activity and anxious expectations. Its purposeful, attentive atmosphere was a long way from the hustle and panic of the emergency room, but somehow it retained that sense of tension, that feel of impending crisis. Subtle noises whispered at the bare edge of perception, the rhythmic wheezes of life sustaining machinery, the pulsing note of heart monitors, the soft ache of someone weeping. It was a place wreathed in despair and hope, a home for looming death and the defiant declaration of life, an affirmation of the sheer stubbornness of the human spirit.

Angel didn’t quite know what to make of it all.

Buffy led him through the maze; past darkened cubicles where old men clung to their mortality with the help of heart and lung machines; past islands of activity where doctors and nurses swarmed like disturbed ants to counter momentary crisis; and past empty, expectant beds, waiting for occupancy, waiting to support the desperate balance between life and death, waiting to cradle the dying and give them back the promise of life. At the end of the corridor was yet another of the glass fronted, curtained cubicles.

In that was the empty shell of a man.

Empty.

The vampire could sense it as soon as he stepped through the door, as soon as his perceptions adjusted to the impact of this technological womb. He was greeted by the murmur of active monitors and the brief stir of Xander’s alarm as he woke from semi-slumber. He could measure the young man’s pounding heart beat and - counter-pointing it - the slow steady pulse from the figure on the bed. While Xander’s anxious, embarrassed presence was bright and unmistakable, he could catch no hint, not even a whisper, of the soul that was uniquely Rupert Giles.

"How is he?" Buffy asked, getting hesitant, reluctant words in return. Angel moved to stand at the foot of the bed, looking down at its occupant with a puzzled frown. The man’s body was at rest, functioning with comfortable efficiency; his heart was beating with a slow and steady cadence, sending blood flowing through veins and arteries alike; and his chest rose and fell with equally steady confidence, drawing in air and expelling warm breath. But no-one was home. Even a vampire, a dead thing with no soul, had more presence than this.

"The doctors don’t know what to make of it," Xander said worriedly. "They got him - all hooked up to - to these monitory things." His hands waved vaguely at the bank of equipment behind the bed. It included a rank of monitors displaying patterns of light and colour, fed by innumerable wires which snaked down to wreath the sleeper in a tangled web. "They’re saying all the convulsy, short circuitage has stopped, but – they don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. It might just be the medication – and apparently they’ve got to cut back on that. The stuff they’ve been using? It’s – um – dangerous or something. Over the long term? I - I didn’t really get all the medical techno-babble, but I got the problem. Too many drugs," he glanced over at the silent figure on the bed and winced, "brain dead Giles. They want him to wake up."

Buffy stepped closer, to look down as Angel was doing, to study the slack, pale face against the pillows. "So do I," she said, three little words filled with quiet pain.

The vampire shivered, knowing how hard this was for her. How much harder was he about to make it? "It may already be too late," he said, soft words, reluctantly spoken. Buffy’s head jerked in his direction, her eyes filled with alarm.

"No," she breathed, denying the possibility, challenging him to justify his claim. Angel felt her fear go through him like a knife.

"He’s not here, Buffy." He tried to make his words gentle – but they couldn’t be, couldn’t possibly be, given what he had to say. "There’s nothing here. Just an empty shell."

"What?" Buffy frowned at him, not understanding what he meant. Not wanting to understand. Xander’s expression was equally bemused.

"Hello," the young man said, waving at the shimmer of the monitor screens. "We got heartbeat, we got autonomic response thingys, we even got brain activity. Not a lot of brain activity," he admitted, frowning at the relevant monitor. "But he’s in this – deep sleep thing … A fug they called it – or – or something like that."

"Fugue," Angel corrected distractedly. It was possible, possible that the man had sunk so deep that nothing of himself remained to be perceived on the surface. If that was the case, then retrieving him would be nothing short of a miracle - but if it wasn’t - The vampire didn’t know what to think. Didn’t know what sort of sorcery could wreak such damage, or if there were any way to counter its effect. "I can see why they’d think that. Xander – his body is functioning, but – as far as I can tell - there’s no-one in it. He’s just – gone."

"You’re wrong," Buffy concluded, her voice contained but tight with anger. "It’s just a spell. That’s all it is. She did this. He’s in there. Somewhere. Fighting to be free of her. Fighting to get back."

"Back from where, exactly?" Xander had this anxious, ‘I really don’t want to think about this’ look on his face. Buffy wasn’t the only one who’d be devastated by losing the Watcher. He’d become a supportive figure to all of the Scooby gang – and was that such a surprise, given their own, dysfunctional families? Buffy only had her mother; Xander’s home life was one of drunken disputes and bitter sniping; Willow’s parents ignored her most of the time; and Angel wasn’t even sure if Oz had parents. Compare all that to the constant, certain presence of one man, who, committed to his cause and only too aware of the risks they all took, was still prepared to support them and listen to them. True, he had a tendency to fuss and fret, and might sometimes express impatience with their youth or frustration at his own failure to understand them, but he did all that because he cared, because he had come to love them – and they loved him back, each in their own way, each accepting his place in their lives with confident, comfortable familiarity.

"I don’t know," Buffy admitted, sinking into the chair that Xander had abandoned and reaching to wrap her hand around limp, unresponsive fingers. "But I’m not giving up on him. Because I know – wherever he is – he’s still …" The end of the sentence was swallowed with a gulp, her heart clinging to hope while the evidence shredded it into desperate tatters. She glanced up, seeking Angel’s anxious eyes with a look of haunted intensity. "Find her," she ordered tightly. "Tear this town apart if you have to, but find her. And – Angel?" she asked as he turned to leave.

"Yes?"

"Be careful. I don’t want to lose you too …"

* * * * *

Something had died.

He could smell it. Taste it. There was the sickly sweet odour of burgeoning decay in his nostrils and the ugly flavour of death in his mouth. The combination was foul; he wanted to gag, to scramble away from the scent and the sourness – but while his perceptions appeared to have regained some of their expected clarity, nothing else obeyed him. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t stir so much as a single muscle.

Oddly enough – as far he could tell – he didn’t seem to be breathing either …

Did I die? he wondered with sudden horror, fighting against a surge of panic. The thought of being trapped – aware and helpless – in his own corpse was a terrifying one. Then there was the other possibility; that he had succumbed to the vampire’s bite and was – even now – undergoing the demonic transformation that would resurrect his flesh if not his soul. He found that thought equally terrifying, although the fact that he did probably meant that he wasn’t – unless, of course, all the vampire lore he’d ever studied was wrong, and the soul remained, bound to the dead body, an unwitting, unwilling passenger on its journey to damnation …

Stop that, Giles told himself firmly, trying to focus on what he could judge about his situation, rather than speculation and conjecture. If his Watcher’s training had taught him anything, it was the danger of making assumptions based on too little information. The more you observed, the more knowledge you accumulated, and that allowed you to both analyse and theorise. He took a mental step back and started with the basics. His eyes appeared to be shut and no amount of effort would make them open. He was lying down – flat on his back on what seemed to be a hard surface, the textures of rough stone and something else under his hands. Straw, he postulated, although that didn’t make any sense at all. His last focused memory was of lying on linen sheets. If he had died, then surely his support should be satin padding – or perhaps the cold metal of a morgue tray, the bitter chill of a marble slab.

And there was that smell. Sweet, nauseating and tainted with decay. Wherever it came from, it had to be close, since he clearly wasn’t drawing air into his lungs.

Something rustled and rattled close by. Muffled sounds of movement were followed by sudden and unexpected contact as the something – no, someone – touched him. Fingers stroked his cheek and then slid down the line of his throat, butterfly fingers, bestowing a gentle caress. They briefly lifted, then resettled something that sat in the centre of his chest, before returning in an upward sweep until they cupped his chin and turned his head this way and that, as if her were being studied with care.

He tried to speak, to alert his unknown company to his conscious state – but nothing responded. Nothing even stirred at his mental demand.

"There you are," a deep, sultry – and somewhat muted - voice announced with amusement and no little satisfaction. Giles’ non-existent heart skipped a non-existent beat. The voice was unmistakable.

It was the vampire from the cemetery. The one who’d practically ripped his throat out …

"You took your time. Such a hard struggle – all to no avail."

Fingertips pressed against his eyelids with uncomfortable force, and he felt something crack, something that pulled at his skin and then fell away in pieces. It was an unpleasant sensation, not unlike having plugs of hard wax peeled from his eye sockets.

Exactly like, in fact. Fingernails scraped matching seals from his ears, and sound rushed back with startling clarity. A moment later he felt pressure against his mouth as she applied a forceful kiss that cracked the wax seal and forced his lips open. There was no warmth in the contact – and only the barest flutter of breath, her breath, the subtle lie of the vampire clinging to the pretences of life.

"There," she murmured, a soft whisper of sound against his skin. "Now – open your eyes and look at me. Look at me." The last was an order, a tight command that brooked no disobedience. Giles had no way to obey – but his eyes opened anyway, seemingly subservient to her will, if not his own.

Light flooded his perceptions – a dim light in reality, but briefly dazzling after being in the dark for so long. A shape and a shadow moved within it – one that slowly resolved itself into a sensuous face seemingly sculpted from gleaming ebony. A pair of tawny eyes, gold flecked and predatory, were smiling down at him.

"Perfect," the vampire murmured, reaching down to caress his cheek and sweep the last of the wax from his lips with her thumb. There was no tenderness in her touch; it was an arrogant, possessive gesture, as if he were a favourite pet – or a favoured slave. "Just perfect"

Oh dear lord …

Terror is not a rational emotion. Nor is it something that rational men choose to experience. It simply happens; a response to a situation - a reaction to event or the result of circumstances. It can creep up slowly, or strike instantly, without warning; it tears the heart out of a man and it rips through his soul.

And no matter how wise or sensible its victim might be, when it hits, it can hit hard.

Which is why – in a sudden instant of comprehension, in the understanding of just how much trouble he was in - Rupert Giles succumbed to a moment of total and utter panic.

Had he any control over the body in which his essence lay trapped, he would have been trying to scramble away from his abductor, voicing a cry of horror and dismay – but he couldn’t move, couldn’t even close his eyes or express the scream that would otherwise have choked his throat. His mind went into overdrive, struggling with a reckless mental frenzy to free himself, to tear loose, to escape. Like a fox caught in a trap, or a cat cornered by a ferocious dog, he fought with frantic reaction, desperate for release, exhausting his spirit as he threw himself at the restraints of her spell.

All to no avail. The magic held him, imprisoned him with relentless certainty. He was bound, helpless and hopeless, in a body not his own – in something dead and decaying, in someone else’s corpse.

"Are you done?" the vampire asked with amusement, her eyes gleaming in the dark. She’d moved her hand to rest it on his chest – no, on the corpse’s chest – and her fingers swirled through a complex pattern there, idly tracing glyphs he vaguely recognised. "Don’t waste your strength. This spell is as old as I am – and you have no way of breaking it. Not now. How does it feel?" She slid forward in a sensual movement, her face halting barely inches away as she studied him with disconcerting intentness. "To be a dead thing, clinging to life. Or is that a life – clinging to a dead thing?"

She laughed softly, a sound that sent a shiver through him. "Embrace it," she whispered, leaning closer still, pressing herself against him and murmuring into his ear. "I did. But not so soon," she advised, arching back and giving herself a little shake. "I need you as you are. What you are. Just for a little while. And when we are done? Ah …" Her smile was predatory. "If you serve me well, if you please me – I can reward you in ways you cannot begin to imagine."

Since Giles knew perfectly well what she was, even if not who exactly, he didn’t need to imagine what she meant. Especially since she was licking her lips with anticipation. His mind skittered across the exquisite agony of her bite, and he shivered. Mentally, at least. Even knowing what he knew – the true nature of the demon she was and the horror of her unlife – there was a hint of temptation in the memory, a whisper of unbearable pleasure that lured like a siren’s song. He could understand now why desperate souls might pay for the consummation offered in a vampire’s kiss – why deluded ones might try and protect the givers of such a dark gift.

A hint of temptation – and one he denied with determined ease. Dancing with Eyghon had offered him far more exotic intoxication – and that was an addiction he’d learnt to master a long time ago.

"Lilithu can be generous – when she gets what she wants." Her fingers had gone back to their careful tracings, sketching intricate designs on a dead man’s skin. "And what will you want, once I rule your world? The girl, perhaps." She paused to think about that, her lips curving back into one of those sensual smiles. "Yes. That would be fitting, don’t you think? You will give me your heart – and I will you give you the blood of your own, sweet, Slayer …" She finished the thought with a deep throated laugh, throwing her head back with anticipatory delight.

Giles simply stared at her in horror.

There was nothing else he could do.

Read: Chapter 7