Part 6

Waking up the second time didn’t feel any better. Spike vaguely wandered if the headache was a deliberate side effect of Phil’s spell. It would be just one more item to cover in the long, pointed discussion he intended to have with his former lieutenant when he got out of this.

I must have a leftover railroad spike or two lying about somewhere.

This return to consciousness was even more annoying than the previous because Spike had been having a very pleasant dream, involving he and Tara curled up together with no interfering worries about taking advantage of her. Not that much had happened beyond some rather enthusiastic snuggling, but he’d still enjoyed it quite a bit, an odd feeling of contentment surrounding him as they lay in each other’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder and her fingers stroking his spine.

Contentment wasn’t a sensation he normally associated with or had ever imagined wanting to associate with intimacy. Spike believed what he had told Tara and Buffy: real love was about fury, not gentleness; passion, not peace. But it had been … good … to feel that way, to see the welcome in her eyes, to not have to wonder if he would be left or told he was beneath someone.

Still, it was just a dream. The witch was gone, and he was a prisoner who needed to figure out a way to escape, and …

… and someone else was in the room with him.

That realization brought Spike the rest of the way awake, muscles tensing with preparation to fight. He cautiously slitted his eyes open and beheld Rupert Giles sitting propped against the opposite wall, looking approximately as bad as Spike felt. “Oh,” Spike said, painfully sitting upright. “It’s you.”

“More or less,” the Watcher said drily.

In an effort to distract himself from the fact that his head felt like it was going to shatter, Spike studied his surroundings. Two pallets, one of which he’d been lying on, were the only furnishings in the room. Walls and floor were of a uniform gray stone that fit together seamlessly, except for one opening that he could see led into a small bathroom. He couldn’t see any windows, anything that looked like a door leading out, or anything that could be used for a weapon. Even his shoes, duster, and belt had been taken. Glancing over at Giles, he saw that the other was also free of any accessories that might be useful.

Hauling himself to his feet, he poked his head into the bathroom, but all of the fixtures were fastened in place so tightly that even his vampiric strength couldn’t work anything free. Still, at least neither he nor Giles would be stinking up the place.

“Can’t say much for the enforced relaxation techniques, but the quarters are fairly posh as far as prisons go,” Spike remarked, sliding back into a sitting position against the wall.

Giles smiled slightly. “Ethan fancies himself a gentleman villain. Chains and beaten, reeking prisoners don’t go with his chosen image. He’s probably quite sincere in saying that he won’t hurt Willow if we don’t attempt to escape.”

“How come I rate a roomy?”

“I believe it’s his little joke, since he doesn’t intend to feed you.” He held up a stake. “And since I found this when I woke up. I assume we’re in one of those ‘only one of us walks out of this room’ situations.”

“Ah.” Now that he thought about it, Spike could feel hunger starting to gnaw. Not too bad yet, but it was growing, and in two more days it would be getting fairly intense. “Surprised you didn’t go ahead and use it, Ripper. I’m not chipped, you know. There’s nothing holding me back anymore.”

“I gathered the chip had become ineffective,” Giles said.

“But you thought I’d refrain from biting you out of the goodness of my heart?” Spike barked a laugh. “You lot will never learn, will you? I’m evil. A bad guy. One of the black hats. Always was. Always will be.”

“And yet, here you are on this side of the cell, and according to Lorne, you tried to help him and Angel. Unless, as you say, it’s part of some sort of master plan.”

Spike shrugged uncomfortably. “I didn’t know what was going on when I signed up. When I saw Angel and the other chap, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth, like most things to do with Sunnydale. I’ve tried lead a quiet existence ever since I got the damn bug-zapper out of my head, which was why I turned down certain jobs. I’ve gone smart, not soft. Start mucking about with innocent young girls and murder for hire, and you attract the attention of Slayers, souled vampires, and other annoying hero types. So you see, there’s nothing keeping you safe.”

“I do see your point,” Giles agreed. “However, you’re overlooking one thing.”

“Which would be what? That we have a better shot of getting out of here if we work together? Spare me. I’ve learned my lesson. I work alone.”

“I assure you I would never make the mistake of granting you altruistic motives. However, what you’re overlooking is that Ethan wants you to kill me, and as I recall from your time in Sunnydale, you’re far too much of a pain in the arse to willingly give someone what they want.”

The comment startled an unwilling grin out of Spike. “That one might actually save you for a while, Rupert. Till I get too hungry, anyhow.”

Giles smiled back. “I thought as much. Besides, I can stake you later as well as now, and I won’t be easily taken.”

“I’m sure you won’t be. Besides, it’s all rather moot, isn’t it? Despite what mojo-guy says, I’m sure the Slayer’s tearing the world apart hunting you and her honey.”

“True. But her time and resources are limited. We’re on our own, I’m afraid.”

“Just the way I like it.”

*                              *                              *

“How’s it going up there?”

At least it wasn’t, ‘Are we there yet?’ Not that Tara blamed Buffy for her growing impatience. While she could distract herself by driving, the Slayer and the others were hidden in the rear of the rented mini-van, unable to see anything that was going on. Kate was bent over the book that contained data on Ramos, but the rest were left to chew their nails.

“Nothing yet,” she called back, glancing at the tiny light that hovered over the passenger seat.

Using an L.A. city map, they had narrowed Willow’s (and hopefully the others’) location to one of the many L.A. suburbs, but now, legwork was required. They couldn’t let the Arradia light go out in front of them — that would be noticed even in L.A. — so Tara had worked for several hours to shape it into an arrow and coax it into functioning as a sort of compass.

She was pleased that it had worked so well, pleased to have something to do to take her mind off her worry over her friends and … everything else. Tara banished the thought. After everyone was safe, she would have the luxury of going home to cry. Not now.

So far, the arrow had led them up through winding hills, the sound of the sea echoing through the windows of the van. Homes were rich here, not visible from the road even in tree-poor L.A. Private drives barred by high iron gates were the order of the day.

The gate they approached didn’t look any different from the others, but as they drove past, the arrow suddenly spun and pointed through the window straight at it, brightening like a star as it did so.

“Got it!” Tara cried. The impulse to ram the gates with the van was overwhelming. Her friends were nearby, close enough to reach out and touch. She wanted to run to the rescue, wanted them safe and clear and away from whatever danger lay concealed beyond the fence.

But they’d gone over and over the plan back at the hotel, over the need for caution and forethought, over the danger that reckless behavior could cause, so with difficulty, she kept the van moving steadily forward. The others remembered it, too. A furious rustle came from the back, as if everyone started to lunge toward the front of the van, then remembered what they had agreed on and sat back down reluctantly.

“What’s the address?” Buffy called.

“1621 Ocean Valley.”

Kate relayed the address into her cell phone then flipped it closed. “Cordelia will dig up what she can off her laptop and get back to us.”

“Good,” Buffy nodded. “Tara, why don’t you find somewhere to pull over? We could stand a little scouting.”

A nearby scenic overlook provided a reasonable location to park the van, and Tara swiveled her seat so that she could face the others.

“Won’t they be watching the Net?” she wondered. “What if they realize somebody’s looking up records about them? Or if they’re tracing your cell phones?”

Kate and Buffy looked at her in surprise, then looked at each other and grinned.

“I forgot,” Buffy said. “She hasn’t met Fred.” She looked back at Tara. “Remember how Will is with computers and robots and stuff? Fred makes her look like Giles.”

“Or me,” Xander said without embarrassment. “Or Cordelia. At least, earlier Cordelia.”

“Fred’s Angel Investigations tech-head,” Kate finished. “She’s worked on all of our equipment. Trust me. No one’s tracing anything.”

“Why didn’t she get taken or hurt?” Tara asked. “Where is she?”

“She was in London when everything went down,” Buffy explained. “The Royal College of Physicists wanted to give her some kind of award or get some DNA and clone her or something.”

“When everything happened, I called,” Kate continued. “She wanted to come back, but we were worried about travel, especially since magic’s involved, so we put her with the Council of Watchers. No one’s getting her out of there.”

“Besides, thinking about her and Travers gives me a warm fuzzy,” Buffy said. “Now, lets see what we’ve got.”

She slid the van door open and everyone piled out. They were dressed as tourists and more casually than usual, and it was hoped that the baseball caps, sunglasses and loose-fitting clothing would provide enough disguise to hide them from people who didn’t consider them a threat anyway.

They all walked to the edge of the overlook and stared at the ocean while Tara slid the strap of the binoculars around her neck. She held them to her closed eyes and concentrated, channeling the Arradia spell through the lenses. When she opened her eyes again, the golden arrow hovered in the center of her field of vision. She swept the coastline with the binoculars, then turned, as if seeking a better focus.

The overlook was the highest point around, and by turning back the way they had come, Tara could see the houses of the wealthy perched along the cliffs behind them. Careful not to remain in one place too long, she searched until one of the houses jumped into focus, outlined in gold. It was huge, a combination mansion and castle, perched directly on the edge of a cliff with a large round tower dominating the main structure.

“I can see it,” she said, passing the binoculars to Buffy. The Slayer did as she had, first looking out to sea, then turning casually to pan across the houses.

“Geez,” she muttered. “Why doesn’t evil ever operate out of a split-level? Or someplace with aluminum siding?”

Xander and Dawn took turns looking through the binoculars, while Kate talked quietly on her cell phone, Cordelia having apparently come back with the needed information.

“Okay,” the ex-policewoman said briskly at last. “I’ve got the info. Let’s talk in the van.”

They returned inside, doors open to let them see anyone who was coming, and picnic supplies spread out for cover. “The house is owned by one Arthur Winters, a former silent partner of Wolfram and Hart, no real surprise there.”

“Must have gotten overlooked during that apocalypse,” Dawn remarked. “It’s those little details that come back to get you.”

“He was on an extended trip to Romania when that all happened. He’s been there since and only come back into the country a year or so ago. He’s apparently high, and I mean very high, in the occult circles over there. He’s also obscenely rich, which you can tell from just looking at the house.”

Buffy frowned. “Then maybe it’s just him doing all this. What would somebody like that need Ethan for?”

“He’s a backstage player, likes to work through flunkies. It would be in character to have a second mage doing the actual dirty work. Especially since, according to Wes’ book, the Ramos ritual is incredibly dangerous. He’s called the Bridge Builder and can build links between dimensions. The one doing the sacrifice has to literally balance the two dimensions against each other, and then siphon off the power. There are huge forces involved, especially since Wes thinks we’re right and the idea is to balance the realms of living and dead.”

“This is all great,” Xander said impatiently. “If Biography does a show on the guy, I’ll be sure to catch it. Meanwhile, can we please get Will out of there? And everybody else?”

Kate shook her head. “It’s not that simple. Cordelia found that Winters has the house completely wired for security, using cutting-edge technology. Maybe if we had Fred here and about two weeks, we could do something, but not otherwise.”

“It’s also got magical security,” Tara spoke up. “Wards cover the house. Even if we got rid of the physical alarms, as soon as they’re crossed, any mages will know.”

“Then we go through the front door.” Xander’s face was bathed in sweat. “Right, Buffy? We’ve done it before. You and me, like old times? We’re not scared. We don’t need all this … stuff.”

“Xander,” Buffy said gently. “I want them out too. But Angel and Lorne are the ones for the sacrifice. If we just go in, they’ll use Willow and Giles to stop us. I can’t guarantee somebody won’t get killed.”

“Wes pointed out that you couldn’t guarantee that anyway,” Kate said, avoiding the Slayer’s eyes. “And that it was important to stop the sacrifice at any cost.”

The temperature dropped 50 degrees in the van.

“Wesley Wyndham-Price can bite my ass,” Buffy said in tones that were no less deadly for being mild. “I’m not losing anybody. Not the sacrifices, not the hostages, not anybody. Is everyone clear on that?”

Everyone was.

“So what do we do?” Dawn said with a worried look at her elder sister.

“I saved the best news for last,” Kate said with a cold smile. “For this spell to work, there needs to be a pool of life energy, like you’d get from a lot of people.” She nodded her head toward the open doors of the back of the van. “Guess who’s having a Halloween party?”

Xander relaxed. “Crashing? Got it covered. All over it. Crashing’s the only way I ever went to parties in high school.”

“This won’t be like breaking into a frat house,” Buffy said. “Security will be tight. They’ll have things like guest lists and guards. We’d do better going in as caterers or something, but those probably have to be vetted too …”

“We’ll need disguises,” Kate said. “They think they’re safe, but you know they’ll still be watching for us.”

Don’t say anything. They’re on top of it. They’ll figure out a way. Nobody else has even thought about it because they know better. They know you can’t do it. Being disguised as wait staff is a good idea, and …

But this idea was better. It stood the best chance of working with the least amount of danger to others, if of course, she could pull it off, which was a big if. The very idea was making her stomach knot and clench and sweat break out along her spine. Could she do it? Could she not and then live with herself if someone was hurt or killed?

“You won’t need to crash,” Tara said reluctantly. “Or wear disguises.”

Everyone stopped and looked at her. She saw the idea hit Kate and Buffy at approximately the same time. One face turned speculative, one worried.

“That is a good idea,” Kate mused.

“Are you sure?” Buffy said. “I know that strange people and you don’t mix all that well.”

“I c– c–” she dug her nails viciously into her palm and looked directly at Buffy. “I can do this. I have to.”

“Do what?” Xander said impatiently. “Get an invitation to the party? How? You’re not … Oh.” He paused, the light dawning. “That’s right. You’re not. But Claudia Harris is.”

“Everyone’s dying to get a look at her,” Tara said tiredly. “Especially with the new book coming out. It would be the party coup of the season. If I let it be known I want the invitation, it would look weird to not invite me.”

“That just gets you in,” Dawn said. “Are you going to rescue them by yourself? Or can you get invitations for all of us?”

She leaned her head against the side of the van, wishing she looked strong and competent, wishing she didn’t feel like she was going to throw up any second. It would make what she was saying look more convincing.

“Once I’m in the house, I should be able to use magic to cut the power. It’s not a spell, not something they can track: it’s just something I can do. That lets you guys get in for the rescuing. If we do it fast, maybe they won’t have time to go after Willow or Giles.”

“That still puts you in there by yourself,” Buffy fretted. “Tara, you’re one of the anybody I don’t want to lose.”

“I know.” She smiled weakly. “I don’t want to lose me, either, and if anybody has another idea, great, but right now, this is the only thing I can think of.”

Kate nodded briefly, but Tara saw a light of approval in her eyes.

“How are you going to let them know you want an invitation?” Dawn asked.

Tara managed a slight laugh. “This is L.A. Contacts are everything.” Without letting herself think about it anymore, she tugged out her phone, and pushed a number. “Sophie Carstairs, please. It’s Tara Maclay.”

When her agent’s effusive tones trilled over the line, she took a deep breath and plunged. “Sophie? I want to go to a party.”

*                              *                              *

Hunger twisted in Spike’s gut as it rose, worse than when he’d had the chip. Knowing he was physically incapable of biting anyone was one thing: simply resisting the temptation to bite for no good reason, at least no good reason to his demon self, something else entirely.

The smell of the blood flowing through the human’s veins called to him in a siren’s song of thirst and desire. He knew how the skin would pull taut as he bit through, how the first hot flow would jet across his tongue and hit the back of his throat, how the strength would pour into him as he fed.

There was little release. He didn’t even dare sleep, all his control needed to hold the demon at bay.

Giles wasn’t looking much better, although at least he was eating. He wasn’t sleeping, however, and Spike rather thought it had been a while since he’d seen the Watcher blink. He was seated as far from the vampire as possible, the stake loose in his hand, eyes unwavering and muscles quivering every time Spike shifted.

So why don’t you go ahead and eat him already? This business of spiting Ethan is cutting off my own nose, and probably something that Stuffed Shirt here made up besides.

He didn’t know why he didn’t feed. True, the Watcher had a stake, but Spike was reasonably sure he could overpower him, especially once he let the hunger have its head. Plus, the chance that the mages would let them go was non-existent. One way or the other, he was dust, all his heroism an empty, hollow gesture.

Like that was something new.

Escape wasn’t an option. They couldn’t find anything that looked remotely like a door, and whenever food was left for Giles, Phil’s spell knocked both of them unconscious despite their best efforts. He would wake, head splitting to see the fruit and bread — never anything that he could use, although Giles offered — and no target other than his cell mate.

Despite the accompanying pain, he welcomed the blackness, which was deep enough that the demon couldn’t surface. For a brief time, the hunger left him and allowed his body to find rest.

And Tara was always there in his dreams, her calm acceptance of him drawing the sliver of bitterness from his heart that had been lodged there since Sunnydale and perhaps before.

In the depths of his mind, behind his pride and anger and cynicism, Spike knew that was why he didn’t feed from Giles, why the cases he took didn’t harm the innocent. She had freely given him the ability to choose, asking nothing in return for the one act of genuine and ungrudging kindness he could recall being shown. He was loath to make choices that would hurt her and make her regret her belief in him. Not that she would know, but perhaps it didn’t matter.

“It must be getting close to time,” Giles said softly.

“It is,” Spike agreed, staring at the ceiling. Despite the lack of windows or any opening, he could sense the arrival and departure of the night. “Today’s Halloween.”

“Ah.” There was a pause, then Giles said carefully. “Spike, I wanted to tell you that you’ve impressed me over the past few days. Feeding would have been the easy way, and you didn’t take it.”

“Thank you, Rupert,” he said with equal gravity. “You’ve given me something to hope for. Namely that after I’m killed by your old school chum, I won’t have to listen to any more drivel.” The Watcher’s laughter was the last thing he heard as the blackness swept over him again.

*                              *                              *

“Look up.”

Tara obeyed, having learned that this was the simplest method to use with Cordelia, and felt the light touch of the eyelash pencil draw across her lower lashes.

“Look at me. Blink. Good, that isn’t going anywhere.”

The woman stood back, hands on hips and surveyed Tara. “Okay. That’s as good as it’s going to get.”

“Way to show enthusiasm,” Buffy said dryly from her seat across the room where she was doing a final check on her weapons satchel.

The brunette relented. “You look great. Very classic elegance. Although I still think we should have gone with the other dress.”

The other dress had consisted mostly of Lycra and been cut almost to the navel. It was the only battle she had won during the shopping spree. “No, we really shouldn’t have.”

“Maybe not. You’re nervous enough without yanking at your neckline all night. For God’s sake, smile! You’re going to a party.”

Tara attempted a smile, and Cordelia’s eyebrows raised. “Forget the smile. Let’s set a realistic goal. Try looking like you’re not about to scream.”

“Don’t listen to her.” Buffy crossed the room and took Tara’s shoulders, turning her to face the mirror. “You’re gorgeous. We can probably just walk straight in behind you while everyone’s passed out in admiration.”

“You think the dress is okay?”

“I think the dress is fine,” Buffy said firmly.

“If you’re joining a convent,” Cordelia added.

Tara tried to look at herself objectively. The dress was simple — black velvet, with a boatneck that rose to her collarbones and dipped just below her shoulder blades. Long sleeves ended in points at her wrists. The body clung closer than most of her clothes, emphasizing the curve of her breasts, waist, and hips before ending just above the knee. From there, black stockings covered her legs until ending in uncomfortably stiletto-heeled pumps.

Cordelia had fastened her hair into a complicated French twist that drew attention to the diamond studs in her ears and to cheekbones that had received additional sculpting from makeup. A matching diamond pendant hung just below her neckline. All in all, Tara had to admit that her reflection didn’t look like somebody with palms that managed to be both sweaty and icy, and who had been throwing up since noon.

Get over yourself. This is for Willow and Lorne and Giles and Angel and all your friends.

She had barely been able to sleep since her idea had been hatched and accepted. When she did drop off, dreams troubled her, tarot cards tumbling about her head. The King of Cups had been particularly troublesome, flapping and flying around agitatedly, until in the last dream, she finally managed to catch it.

“Stop that,” she remembered telling the picture on the card. “Calm down. I’ll be there soon. And don’t eat Giles.”

She had awakened with her mother’s tarot deck cradled in her arms as if she were trying to soothe it.

We have to resolve this one way or another, or I’m going to need Sophie to check me in to some clinic or other.

“The limo will be here any minute,” Cordelia said more gently.

Tara met Buffy’s gaze in the mirror.

“We can still do something else,” the Slayer said quietly. “Just say the word, and we’ll go in as caterers. That’ll work, too.”

She was tempted. It would be so much easier, so much better than being entirely alone in a room full of strangers, without even her shields to protect her. She would be with Buffy and the others, not everyone depending on her. She wouldn’t have to be so desperately afraid of screwing up.

Any of the others would do it, from Buffy to Dawn, without even thinking. Was she truly so much less? Yes, probably, but did that matter? She was what they had.

“I’ll be fine,” she said as calmly as she could. “As long as I don’t break my ankle in these shoes.”

Buffy nodded. “Okay. You know the plan. We’re going to be close behind you. He’s starting the party late, probably so nobody will leave much before midnight. It’ll be about 9:30 when you get there. You’ve got one hour to cut the security. We’re going in at 10:30 either way.”

“One Arradia light will lead you to Willow,” Tara continued. “I’ll cast another one and meet you there.”

“And kick ass,” Buffy finished grimly.

“I’m going to take Dawn to the hospital,” Cordelia said. “We’ll be in Wes’ room. Good luck.”

She nodded to Buffy, then unexpectedly gave Tara a quick hug. “I think you’re really brave,” she whispered. “Doing this as scared as you are. If it gets too much for you to handle, pretend you’re somebody else. Pretend you’re me.”

The entered the main sitting room of the suite and Xander gave a low whistle. “Check you out.”

“Thanks,” she said uncomfortably.

“You look … sinisterly beautiful,” Dawn said admiringly.

That almost made her laugh. “Sinister? Me?”

“Yeah. Like you really know all that stuff you write about.”

Cordelia stared. “You mean you really are Claudia Harris? I thought you were just pretending to be her because they’d know everybody else. Damn. She writes some hot books.” Her eyes grew huge. “OH MY GOD! Shiv! That means Shiv must be —!”

“Time to go,” Buffy said briskly, shoving her sister at Cordelia. “Dawnie, you be good and stay with Wes and Cordie.”

“Be good? What am I, 10?”

“No, you’re 19. It’s even more important to be good. Bad has bigger consequences.”

Cordelia, gaping like a fish, drew a protesting Dawn out of the hotel suite, just as the phone rang. Tara picked it up with an icy hand.

“Ms. Maclay? Your car is here.”

“Thank you, John,” she gulped. She hung the phone up and faced the others. She wished she could think of something witty or brave to say, but the only thing that came to mind was ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘I feel like I’m going to be sick’. Both of which were true but not helpful.

“See you there,” was all Tara could manage, but it seemed to be enough. Both Xander and Buffy hugged her and Kate smiled and touched her arm.

“We’re right behind you,” Kate said.

“All you have to do is smile and look pretty until you can sneak away,” Buffy said. “Claudia Harris is supposed to be mysterious, so small talk is not required.”

“If I can’t think what to do, I’ll channel Cordelia,” Tara said.

Xander frowned. “How will being a bitch help?”

*                              *                              *

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here.”

Another reason to look forward to the final death. I won’t have to listen to him anymore.

Spike made the now-familiar painful journey to full consciousness and sat up. He was back in the room where he’d first awakened after capture, the cells were once again full of his fellow prisoners, and Ethan was in the middle of the floor, being terribly pleased with himself.

There was one notable difference, however, and looking at the would-be evil mastermind, Spike couldn’t prevent himself from bursting out laughing.

“Congratulations. You’ve set some sort of record. I didn’t think it was possible to look more of a Nance than Dracula.”

“I’m glad you finally woke up,” Angel commented dryly. “I’ve been waiting to hear your reaction. My thought was, at least I’ll die amused.”

Ethan stalked to the entrance of Spike’s cell with a swirl of his cloak, the red-satin lining the only flash of color in the unrelieved black of his outfit.

“You billow very nicely,” Giles drawled, interrupting the man before he could blast Spike into oblivion. “Really, Ethan, you look ridiculous. You’re giving all the other evil magicians a bad name.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Lorne consoled. “I like it. It’s very … retro. Screams David Copperfield.”

“You’re so bloody clever,” Ethan hissed. “Let’s all remember who’s on the outside of the cells shall we?” He glared at Spike. “You think you beat me by not killing Rupert? It just shows how pathetic you’ve become. If you’d given in to your demon nature, I would have offered you a position in my new regime.”

“Ooh, you mean I’ve missed the chance to watch you prance about on a daily basis?” Spike sneered. “How will I console myself?”

Ethan’s smile became crueler. “Did you think it would matter to them that you didn’t kill him?” he asked, nodding to the occupants of the other cells. “That they would care? That they would think you were anything other than a monster? That they would approve of you at last?”

Spike kept his face neutral, trying not to show that the last shot had told. All the times he’d tried to help and been laughed at or slapped down slid through his mind despite himself.

“I think it was cool,” said a slurred voice.

All eyes turned to Willow, who was still seated on the floor, weak and dizzy from the extra drugs she had been given. She smiled at him slightly.

“You did good, Spike. You were tough. And you were scarier in Xander’s shirt than this jerk is in his bad-guy wear.”

Despite the pain in his head and the ever-increasing gnawing in his gut, her words warmed him, as did Angel’s quiet nod, Lorne’s thumbs-up and Giles’ slight bow. They understood. He was accepted. Come what might, he was part of the group at last.

“This is all very touching,” Ethan said with a sneer that fell somewhat flat. “Be sure to remember it when I absorb the power of the realm of the dead. For the hour grows near. Even now, I can feel the pool of life energy forming.”

He waved a hand at a large mirror that now hung on the wall not taken up by cells. Apparently, it had a purpose other than giving Ethan the ability to admire himself, for at his gesture, fog swirled across the glass, and when it cleared, revealed a large party in progress, well-dressed people swirling in and out of an elegant ballroom.

“Look at them,” he gloated. “Intent on enjoying themselves, networking, finding some companion to while away the lonely hours. They have no idea they’re only here to aid my quest, or that I could kill them at a word.

“What a pity,” he added, moving little to the side and running an admiring finger over a figure who had just entered the room. “That I have to start the ritual soon when there’s such charming company down below.”

It was fortunate that the scrying mirror didn’t reflect the occupants of the room, for Spike’s dropped jaw and widened eyes were repeated on the faces of his fellow prisoners as they recognized the guest who had caught Ethan’s eye.

The cavalry had arrived, and a damned pretty cavalry it was too. Black velvet hugged a figure like an hourglass, the dark color making her upswept hair even paler as it caught the light from the chandelier. Strong, curving calves, heretofore concealed by long skirts or wide-legged pants, terminated in delicate ankles that were thrown into prominence by high-heeled pumps. Expert makeup highlighted her cheekbones and deepened the color of her eyes until the blue could be told even through the mirror.

It was also a terrified cavalry, her smile locked in place, tension evident in her back and shoulders as she hesitantly moved through the room. Even as they watched, Tara stumbled a little, putting out a hand to catch herself on one of the occasional tables and blushing painfully as several people looked in her direction.

Spike found himself in a morass of conflicting desires, including kissing her senseless, fighting duels in her honor, and making her some hot tea. Everything coalesced into one overwhelming urge to kill as a contingent of the male party guests began sidling casually in Tara’s direction, only to be thwarted by Ethan’s cohort. He descended on her with a predatory smile, bowing low over one of her hands, which he then tucked into the crook of his arm. Tara was practically rigid, reluctance writ large in every line of her, but she let him lead her away out of the range of the mirror.

Everything in Spike’s head screamed MINE, and he had to fight to keep the demon from surfacing.

Ethan started to turn back towards them, and Spike managed to wipe his expression clear … or at least, clear enough to fool the mage, who wasn’t paying any attention anyway.

“To work, I suppose,” Ethan said with a smirk. “I hope you’ve all had the opportunity to say your farewells.” He gestured at the two cells on the far end that contained Angel and Lorne. They slumped to the floor as Phil entered, wheeling two gurneys.

Spike risked a look toward the mirror, and was relieved to see that it was dark now. Phil had seen and might remember Tara, even though he reserved most of his attention for corpses.

They all watched in silence as Angel and Lorne’s unconscious bodies were strapped to the gurneys and rolled out of the room. Willow raised a hand and rested it against the barrier, tears in her eyes.

“Whatever they’re going to do, it better be fast,” Spike said when they were alone.

“She’s absolutely terrified,” Willow whispered. “Poor baby. And the way he had his hands on her? Ugh.”

Spike appreciated the sentiment, shared it in fact, but Willow’s words filled him with annoyance. It was no longer her place to worry about who had their hands on Tara.

“She seems to be holding together well enough,” Giles said.

The red-head smiled proudly. “Tara’s very brave.” The smile grew fond. “She’s my girl.”

All right. That’s just about enough of that.

“Was,” Spike said clearly. “She was your girl.”

Giles and Willow stared at him for an instant, then Giles groaned, “Oh, God, not this again!” as Willow shoved herself up and stalked to the edge of her cell to glare at him.

“You don’t want to go there,” she growled, eyes snapping with fury and beginning to darken. “You don’t want to think about even heading in that direction!”

“Why not? She’s not with you any longer. You’ve apparently decided to walk the main side of the street again, all snuggled up with Woodshop Boy. It’s not your business if she does the same.”

“It’s my business if some vampire tries that ‘I’m a sexy creature of the night’ seduction thing on a friend of mine. Tara’s very sheltered and innocent and …”

Spike grinned. “Oh, is she? Maybe you don’t know her as well as you thought. Read any good books lately?”

“What does that mean?”

“It means both of you shut up and focus!” Giles roared. “Your romantic entanglements aren’t going to matter if Ethan sacrifices Angel and Lorne and opens the portal.”

Two sets of eyes flicked to the Watcher and back to scowl at each other, but any further conversation was stopped when the room plunged into darkness.

*                              *                              *

The party wasn’t as bad as Tara had thought it would be.

It was worse.

She had planned to fade into the walls, her usual behavior at gatherings, but instead she found herself being led from one group of people to another like one of her father’s cows at the livestock fair.

Arthur Winters’ proximity was making her feel even sicker than she normally would have been in this situation. His dark power stood out around him in a black roiling aura only slightly more terrifying than his toothy, insincere smile and his assessing eyes that swept over her, making her want a very long, very hot shower.

“This is Claudia Harris,” he crooned at yet another group. “The talented author of The Underworld, whose new book, Dark Waltz, will be out soon.”

She saw it again, the look in the eyes that showed its owner expected her to strip and perform some sort of sex act in the middle of the room. Maybe she should start toning down the sensuality in her books, or take up writing children’s poetry or something a little less titillating.

“It’s, um, nice of you to introduce me around, Mr. Winters,” she managed. “But I’ve taken up enough of your time. I’ll just mingle.”

She tried to pull her hand free from his arm, but his grip tightened, and his eyes grew even more possessive. “Nonsense, my dear. You’re practically the guest of honor, the one everyone wants to meet. And as I’ve said, do call me Arthur.”

His hand covered hers, closing tightly around her fingers, and she almost screamed in sheer panic, having no idea how to handle this. Making a scene would cause even more attention to be paid to her.

Unexpectedly, Cordelia’s cynical, humorous face rose up in front of her mental eyes.

Just pretend you’re me.

Okay. What would Cordelia do?

It came to her abruptly, making her relax where she stood and even produce a smile for Winters. “Of course, Arthur,” she said demurely.

He looked slightly surprised, but his grip loosened at her acquiescence and she let him take her around to two more groups before stumbling over her shoes again and dumping her untouched champagne all over his snowy shirt front.

“Clumsy me!” she said brightly with an empty-headed laugh. “I’m so sorry. Let me get something for you.”

“No, no, it’s all right,” he said testily, wiping at his shirt as several waiters and other servants and guests surrounded them.

Tara backed away and glided out of the room, screened by all the offered napkins and handkerchiefs. Out in the hallway, she put an icy hand to her forehead and shuddered.

God, how did those people do it? Even if they weren’t in the presence of evil, how could they smile and flirt pretend to enjoy themselves? The tension and unhappiness in that room could be felt, despite the bright smiles and flashing eyes.

“You all right, Miss?”

Panicked, she looked up at the man who stood leaning against the wall. He was well dressed, but obviously not one of the guests. She could see a small ear-phone running from his ear to his pocket. Probably a guard posted to make sure no one went wondering where they weren’t supposed to. Her mouth went dry as she tried to form words, sure her purpose was written across her forehead.

Cordelia, Cordelia, Cordelia

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “Could you tell me where the powder room is, please?”

“Down the hall,” he said, gesturing.

She nodded brief thanks and tottered down to the well-appointed, and thankfully empty lounge. Tara wanted to collapse against the wall, or possibly hide under the couch, but her watch told her it was 10:00, which meant time was running out.

Grounding herself, she laid a palm against one of the inside walls. Deepening her awareness, she could feel the power flowing, both electricity and the occult power of the wards. She could try to shut it off from here, but closer to the source would be better. Unfortunately, the guards weren’t likely to let her go wandering through the house, so that meant shielding despite the presence of mages.

She drew them around her as unobtrusively as she could and they fitted to her like old friends. The shields were barely magic at all, mostly an aspect of her personality, the ability to blend in, to hide, that she had learned so early. When Tara was sure they were in place, she left the powder room, forcing herself to move normally, not scuttle or creep which would draw the attention she feared.

There’s nothing to see, nothing to worry about. No one’s here who shouldn’t be.

The guard’s eyes passed over her disinterestedly as she walked away from him, trailing her fingers along the wall, feeling the power thrum through the circuits. Her movements led her toward the back of the house, passing cooks and staff who became increasingly less human as she left the areas where guests might go. She moved forward smoothly, drifting through the rooms, feeling their gazes slide around her and away.

At last, she felt the power increase and knew she approached the source. The next door she opened revealed itself as the cellar and she stepped through hastily closing it behind her. Tara felt her way down the stairs, not daring to turn on a light or even to call the Tinkerbell light to guide her. Any extra magic would be noticed.

She found and opened the circuit box and laid her hands against the switches. It wasn’t enough to trip the breakers. That would be fixed too fast and too easily. She was going to have to blow the whole thing.

There was one piece of luck, at least. Apparently, whoever had set the wards had followed the paths of the electrical currents, which meant that the occult power source was also located in the circuit box, a glowing green stone that pulsed rhythmically.

She reached with her understanding, threading her awareness into the flow of energy, seeing how it worked, following the flows of the wards. As soon as she had the pattern in her mind, she called on her own power, swirling it up through her belly and heart and throat before spilling it into the circuit board. There was an audible crack and flash of green and white energy, and the room went dark.

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