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Backstage 10 - Objects in the Mirror

Chapter Text

Objects in the Mirror
by Aadler
Copyright January 2002
(previously titled None So Blind


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.


Part I

I’m not jealous. I’m not.

I could be, of course. I wouldn’t even be here if he hadn’t already demonstrated the typical male propensity for fecklessness and infidelity, and even though things are going reasonably well between us right now, I’m quite aware that I’m a tenuous addition to the social grouping that commands his first allegiance. (They think that talking the way I do means I don’t understand human society. Please; could I have infiltrated Harmony Kendall’s carnivorous little clique if I didn’t know how to mimic conventional behavior? I just don’t like acting all the time.) No, I believe he truly does care for me, and not just as a sexual convenience, but I know how big a mistake it would be to try and make him choose. I can be part of his life along with them, but never instead of them. That’s just a fact, and maybe his being like that is why I feel all gooey around him even when I’ve already met my day’s orgasm quota. So it’s not envy or insecurity speaking here, I’m just being realistic.

He’s a man. All men — all humans, for that matter — live and act within certain limits. If I’m going to link myself to a man, I’d better be clear on what the limits are and where things stand at any given time.

I know his history. I know how, more than most, his brain can be nullified by his gonads. And it’s impossible not to notice the weird affinity he has for mystical females (which does, of course, include Cordelia; the others may have missed the signs, but not me). He’s grown a lot in the last couple of years, I really don’t think he’s looked at any woman except me since that awful, lonely summer after they blew up the school. Three things shine bright in Xander: humor, and courage, and loyalty. His loyalty is to me, now, at least as far as copulatory pair-bonding is concerned; he’ll never deliberately set out to betray me, so I only have to see to it that he isn’t led by his penis into a change of feelings.

So I watch. Every single moment, I watch. The rest of them, and even Xander himself a lot of the time, think I’m oblivious to anything except sexual gratification and the systematic gathering of wealth. They’d never credit how much I pay attention to what’s going on around me, or how thoroughly I analyze it all. I learned from what happened with Willow, and later with Faith: the most serious danger will come from inside the group. No matter how fluttery he can make me go with that goofy grin, I never forget that he’s a man, which means he could march straight off a cliff-edge still telling himself, I can handle it. He might let one of them slip inside his guard without noticing what was happening, but nothing will get past me.

I spent more than a thousand years bringing down vengeance on faithless men. Evil, they called it. Hard justice, I called it. Either way, it didn’t accustom me to blind trust.

Willow poses the most obvious danger, and I’ll never underestimate her. She’s too many things at once, most of them contradictory: nice Jewish girl and enthusiastic pagan, hacker and witch, lifelong pal and guilty temptation. When Oz left, the first time, it took all the self-control I had to keep from driving Xander away with fears and suspicions, knowing she could take him from me any time she wanted. Sometimes I thought my head would explode (no exaggeration: I’ve made it happen to others, I know the symptoms), but I managed to hold it all in, and then she and Tara got together, and with every day I’ve been able to relax just a teeny bit more. I won’t really be safe as long as she’s breathing, but for now I’m reasonably secure where she’s concerned.

Tara, naturally, doesn’t worry me at all. I keep an eye on her, of course — she’s female, she has supernatural abilities, she lives in the same hemisphere as Xander, need I say more? — but all told she’s about as harmless as I could ask for. Whatever may be going in Willow’s head, Tara is the real deal: she likes men (some men) but there’s no physical appeal there for her, she loves Willow and can’t imagine wanting anyone else; all told, she’s about as threatening as Giles.

Nor does Dawn really register on the worry-meter. Oh, I’m conscious that I should be wary of her … and I might be, if she were a year or two older, or if she weren’t Buffy’s sister. Xander has the big brother routine polished to perfection, but he knows as well as the rest of us just what kind of crush she has on him, even if he acts as if the idea never crossed his mind; and, witless as he can be, I really can’t see him snarling up his life by getting involved with the Slayer’s sister, especially while she’s still solidly on the “jail” side of jailbait. I’ll keep an eye on the possibility, but it doesn’t bother me.

So, Willow stays at the top of the list. In fact, she is the list. Whatever she’s going through right now, she could come out of it just as unexpectedly, and if she does I’ll be ready. Maybe I’d feel easier if I understood the whole thing with Tara, but that just doesn’t make sense to me. I do know a few things about human nature — even if my field was restricted to women betrayed by men, a thousand years of dealing with personal relationships still gave me some insights — and this just doesn’t match anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t dream of objecting, Willow switching orientations was the luckiest break I’ve gotten since arriving in Sunnydale. But I don’t understand.

I also wonder about her on a professional level. It took me a long time to admit the fact, even after I learned about D’Hoffryn offering her my old job, but she’s well beyond the point I had reached when I was elevated from vengeance-seeking demi-sorceress to vengeance-dispensing quasi-demon. She still has a lot to learn about control, but the raw power is impossible to ignore. And there’s a cruel streak in her, if you know where to look for it. It’s like those macabre cartoons Xander cackles over: on the surface, the red-nosed spluttering tomcat and the technologically inept coyote are the villains, but the two birds — the freakishly fast purple one, and the small retarded yellow one with the bulbous head — are cheerful sadists of the kind that never called on me for help, they were perfectly capable of wreaking any vengeance they might desire. To compare them to Willow is an exaggeration, but an educational one, because she has the same kind of capacity, even if she won’t let herself recognize it.

No question, Willow is the biggest threat. But then, the thing that bothers me most right now isn’t a threat at all. In some ways, it bothers me because it’s not a threat. Which is stupid, and self-torturing, and pathetic, and all the proof I could ever need that I really am mortal now.

This body has practically no innate capacity for magic, and such skills as I once possessed are far out of date, so the few attempts I’ve made haven’t gone well. Even minor enchantments, harmless beginner’s tricks, tend to operate erratically. I worked one in, though, a makeshift hybrid scribe/ monitor spell, that I’ve managed to keep running for the last several weeks. Nothing fancy, I can barely make it work at all, but the bond between me and Xander helps, and I’ve tied it as closely as I can to his emotional state. Whenever he’s away from me (I switch it off when we’re together, no sense in letting what little mystical capacity I can muster go to waste), any emotional spikes will trigger a kind of invisible personal in-flight recorder, and when he sleeps I can take a peek at what’s come in while we were apart.

I’m not spying on him. This is just an early warning system. And I have to know. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was that the thing might actually tap into a memory, if that memory were vivid enough.

The night he came home and told me how much I meant to him, that gave me more joy than I had experienced in the previous eleven centuries. It wasn’t until later that I stopped to think that this new closeness meant I had more to lose, and began putting together the monitor spell. I never really got much out of it, most of the intense things Xander goes through happen while I’m around. And I can’t say just what it was that made the spell link back to his memory of that very night, or what made it lie there for so long, or what brought it back when I least expected it …

I really was sorry for Buffy when Riley left, but I can remember being a little smug that Xander had made his commitment about the time Riley was abandoning his. I didn’t know that they had happened at the same time, or how they were connected. I had no idea until last week, when it bobbed up during a routine evening reading (the male postcoital drowsiness has its uses, after all). In some ways, I wish I still didn’t know. In most ways, I wish it hadn’t affected me the way it did.

As I said, my little spell attempts usually don’t go too well, and this one was about the same. Mostly I get flashes and fragments, with only the occasional spot of clear and complete reception. Xander’s memory of that night came through perfectly, though: watching Buffy wipe out the bloodwhore gang, then castigating her over how she had been treating Riley, and finally sending her after him. It was all sounds and images, the scribe is activated by emotions but it doesn’t record them, so the only index I have is the quality of the playback. I got this in full Dolby sensurround DVD quadraphonic, or whatever they call it, and it didn’t take much to figure out what that meant.

He loves her. He never stopped loving her. Any other man, especially one with Xander’s turbocharged hormones, would have seen that situation as an opportunity, but all he could think of was her happiness. He read her the riot act, and sent her chasing after a man who didn’t appreciate her, and he watched as she raced down the night street, watched until no last glimpse of her could still be seen. He never blinked. Not once.

I know now that he came to me that same night, but weeks passed before I saw the prefacing scene. It upset me badly, and I couldn’t figure out why. I lay awake for a long time. In the morning, I pretended to still be asleep when he got up to get ready for work, even though it meant skipping our morning quickie. When he was gone, I sat in the apartment, turning it over and over in my mind, stewing and talking to myself, getting more and more angry. What finally stopped me was when I realized why I was so worked up.

Is she insane?

Any woman can have rotten luck with men. They’re fickle, treacherous, self-involved, no stability or trustworthiness to them. I thought Riley was better than that, but I wasn’t really surprised when the truth came out, it’s the nature of the breed. So I don’t sneer at Buffy over the wreckage of her personal life, not even secretly to myself. The odds are stacked against her, so a bad run is almost to be expected.

No, what really gets me is how she can keep sinking her teeth into one lemon after another, and never see what’s standing beside her. How many times has he saved her life now? How many times has he charged into fights he couldn’t win, because she was depending on him? How many times has he told her truths she didn’t want to hear, because she needed to face them? How many times has he played the clown, played the gofer, played the man-shaped girlfriend, all for her sake?

I don’t blame her for Angel: soulful, tortured, forbidden love, it’s a rare woman who can resist something like that. I don’t blame her for Riley: earnest, and solid, and dependable (at least until the dark parts showed through, but none of us had a clue about that), it’s easy to see how she could have hoped for something stable after all the turmoil she’d been through. I didn’t even think less of her when I found out about Parker Abrams, he seems to have been extremely talented in the seduction-and-betrayal process that provided me with so much business during my demon years. (Wonder how he liked the impotence rumors I planted in the campus mating-pits? Nothing to preen about on the demonic scale, but I’m working with a handicap here.)

But — and it was mortifying to realize it, and even more mortifying when it  didn’t go away after I realized it — what I can’t forgive is the way she’s ignored Xander all this time.

How can she be so blind? How can she be so idiotic? How can she remember to breathe, with a brain that works so poorly? I’d like to say I can’t understand it, but I do, I’ve seen the syndrome too many times. Here’s a man who’ll stand beside her through anything, who’ll put her happiness ahead of his own masculine ego and possessiveness and lust, who’s proven over and over in every way imaginable that he’s exactly what she needs … and not only does she never notice, she waves it off when it’s pointed out, because she doesn’t feel that way about him. There’s a spark that just isn’t there between them.

Right. Absolutely. That “spark” has certainly been a big help to her, hasn’t it? I actually feel a little sympathy for Angel, but none at all for Riley, and I hope she burned everything she was wearing when she let Parker touch her.That’s oh-for-three for the magic spark. But does anyone really believe she’ll learn from that?

He’d die for her. He’d do anything for her. He urged her to follow a man who was leaving her, and watched her run, and prayed she’d be fast enough. And he’d do it again without even thinking about it.

He loves her, and she doesn’t care, and I don’t know which one makes me hate her more. He means more to me than anything else in this stupid mortal world, and he’s not good enough for her.

Could I do what he did? Could I send him to her, if it was what he wanted, what would make him happy? No chance. I would — I will — hold him to me with everything I have. If he left me for her, I’d kill him. Or her. Or myself. Or all three. Or try to. Or at least want to.

He never hesitated, never blinked.

He loves her more than he loves me, and probably doesn’t even know it. Worse, he loves her more than I love him. And it means nothing to her.

I’m not jealous. I wish I were. That would be easier.

Chapter Text

I’m not human. I may not like it, but I have to see it. That doesn’t mean I’m not a person.

I keep telling myself that. It doesn’t help. Or maybe it’s too soon, maybe I have to let it all work in before I can start to make any sense out of it. Right now it’s still too new to be anything but crazy.

Like me, maybe.

Things are mostly back to normal at home and at the Magic Box, at least up top where you can see what’s happening. Buffy and the others are still a little careful around me, but that doesn’t leave me all PO’d the way it did when I knew they were hiding something from me but didn’t know what. Mom alternates between ‘Wherever did my baby girl go?’ and doing a complete freak if I wait five measly minutes before I take the laundry out of the dryer. Nobody says much about THE SUBJECT, but the things they do say … well, it’s kinda obvious they’re more weirded out by how I acted, the first day or so, than by all the primal-energy, mystical-Key, six-month-old teenager deal. They’re afraid I’ll go off the deep end again, they’re trying to keep my spirits up and behave naturally and reassure me that nothing’s changed.

That means something, right? They wouldn’t care about my feelings if they didn’t care for me. Right?

Spike is the only one who doesn’t treat me any different, and the only one who’ll talk about it without being pushed into a corner. For him it’s all, ‘Okay, so you were born October past. Fine, just don’t block the sodding telly.’ Doesn’t dodge it, doesn’t make a big deal out of it, doesn’t act like I’m this delicate fragile flower who’s also stupid and annoying. Angel was never really comfortable around me — sister issues, I guess — but Spike has always been just the coolest.

Not that he was much help when I first found out. He’s really considerate most of the time (and gets insulted if I say anything about it), but he’s never exactly been Mister Empathy, and that first night he was so … I don’t know, I guess ‘intrigued’ is the right word, even though at the time it looked like he thought it was funny … anyway, he was so caught up in working through what it all meant, he never noticed what it meant to me. ’Course, I wasn’t really showing much reaction on the way back from the shop, I was still too rocked for it to really soak all the way in. Wasn’t till after I got home that I started the big dramatic meltdown.

I’m still mad. At Buffy, Giles, all the others who hid the truth from me. I’m not a child, I don’t want to be protected like that. So I really am mad … and at the same time, I can’t help feeling guilty over how worried they were when I did my vanishing act the next night. I was so messed up, I don’t even remember how I wound up at the hospital (and my little chat with the guys in the psycho ward is something I’d rather forget), but from what I hear, it’s a miracle I managed to slip through the Slayer/Scooby APB. Which, toward the last, put me in a first-class position for brainsucking, but they found me in the nick of time, just like always. (Well, it feels like always. Actually, it was only the sixth time in four years I’ve needed rescuing … no, I’m forgetting, only the last six months count, so that would make it the second time … but the memories make me who I am, even if they’re not real, so maybe I should count them after all … never mind.)

What does count is, they were there when I needed them. There because I needed them. Buffy’s little speech about ‘Summers blood’ helped wrap it up for me, but none of that would have mattered if they hadn’t cared enough to hit the streets the moment they knew I’d gone missing.

I’ve seen them fight before, including some times they didn’t know I was watching, but usually it was either one-on-one, Buffy and the icksoid of the week, or a crowd scene with all the Scoobies facing off against a gang of vampires or hell-hounds or henchmen. This was the whole group against Glory, and it was way obvious that she had them seriously outnumbered.

I understand now why Buffy let that crazy skank lip off at her in our own house. If she’d fought her then, there wouldn’t be any house left, probably, and maybe not any Buffy or any me or any entire-block-we-live-on. I know how strong Buffy is, I’ve seen her bench-press cars, and Spike is almost as strong as she is and twice as nasty. And they had help, Giles firing from the sidelines and Xander distracting Glory with a crowbar, while Buffy unloaded everything she had on the frizzy hellbitch. Nothing did any good.

No surprise that it was Willow who saved the day. The way she and Tara work together is so awesome, Tara is this beautiful gentle spirit but she knows things, just by being there she makes Willow able to channel enough power to light up half the West Coast. Willow is the smartest person I know, and one of the most loving, but Tara with love is like Willow with computers, it’s as natural to her as breathing. (Although Willow’s not so much with the hacking lately, I can’t remember the last time I saw her do anything more complicated than key in a report for one of her classes.) They zapped Glory off to who-knows-where, and after that it was all tears and hugs and hot fudge sundaes.

They care about me. No getting around that. They care, and they worry, and they want everything to be normal again.

As if.

I must have been in worse shape than I knew, because I can’t think why else I’d have so much trouble remembering my talk with Ben. He is just so gorgeous, and so calm and nice and understanding. He didn’t have a clue what my real problem was, he couldn’t have, but I know he tried to make me feel better even though we hardly know each other. I could have this total major crush on him …

… except, what’s the point? It’s easy to see he’s already been marked with the super-potent blonde-big-sister mojo, just like Xander was before Anya got her hooks into him. If Buffy doesn’t actually have him in her sights yet, it’s only because she’s been busy. Give it time.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s what she needs.

Maybe she’ll marry him. And then when I’m older I’ll have this hot, passionate affair with him, and she’ll find out and be all crushed and outraged, it’ll be this whole big intense Jerry-Springer-cubed deal, and then who’s the special one?

Okay, even I know that kind of thinking is nuts. Are these things buzzing through my mind because I’m hormonally fourteen years old, or because I’m just an imitation person? Plus, let’s not forget about the crazy.

I guess I should stop using that word, because I don’t really believe it. Crazy is when you’re totally out of touch with reality or totally out of control, maybe both. I wasn’t either one, not even when I was so far off in the way-out-there it’s a wonder I didn’t snap off and fall into some bottomless pit. I knew the truth of things — that was the problem — and I knew what I was doing and why. I cut my arm to see if I would bleed. I burned my journals because they weren’t real: you could see them, touch them, believe in them, but they were just lies turned solid, like me. I left the house because it wasn’t my home at all.

I let myself warm up to Ben because he’s new. I only met him in the last few months, so every time he saw me, spoke to me, smiled at me, it actually happened. Whatever history we have is real, not made up.

The others … they can’t understand what that feels like, no matter how much they try. They look at everything they can remember about me, and know it’s just the result of some spell, and they have to rewrite this four-year chunk of their lives. For me, it is my life. And I could deal with that, really I could, you’re supposed to be working out all these identity problems when you’re fourteen, I could pretend I was in a new place with amnesia and just tell myself that this was where my life begins, everything that’s Me starts now.

Doing it for myself, I could handle that. It would be a lot harder to do it for the rest of them. I wonder if any of them have thought out that part of it? I’m not into philosophy yet, I won’t have to take any of that stuff till I’m in college, but everybody knows the old, “I think, therefore I am.” Well, yeah, but I’m not what I think I am — or thought I was — because everything I thought I was, was invented by some doofy old monks. And it’s as true for the others as it is for me.

More for them, maybe. I get to start over, clean slate. Weird, and it hurts, but still pretty simple. For Buffy and the rest, it gets a lot more tangled. They’re real, they’re human, they always have been … but they’re not who they think they are. My memories are just this giant block of bogus, and I can toss them all out and say Screw ’em. All the others, they have to look through everything they remember from the last four years — more for Buffy, less for Tara and Spike and Anya (like anybody cares about Anya, her human life is just as phony as mine but with cheaper workmanship) — and wonder what’s real and what’s not.

To me, to all of us, Xander is the guy who faced down Angel-when-he-was-evil. Stood up to him, half-bluff and all guts, and made him give up on his little plan to send my liver to Buffy as a get-well present while she was in the hospital. That’s the Xander we know. Except, he never did that, he couldn’t have if I didn’t exist (in a human body) before last year. So the Xander we know, isn’t.

Willow and Tara didn’t come to love each other they way they remember, during the big dreamquest, because I wasn’t there to get them wondering about how Buffy was acting when it was really Faith, wearing her body. Giles didn’t kick the snot out of Ethan during Halloween, ’cause there was no eleven-year-old Me to insist he make Buffy take me to the cool new costume shop with the nice owner who “talks just like you do”. (That also means I never actually turned into a four-foot dragon, which is kind of a gyp.) Without me to let it slip about Buffy sending the ring to Angel, Spike wouldn’t have had any reason to look for the Gem of Amarra in L.A., which means he didn’t get chipped when he thinks he did. I never planted the breeding pair of rabbits in Anya’s apartment, so the whole chain of events that ended up with her kissing Riley (gag, choke, barf) and Buffy finding out about the Initiative, just plain didn’t happen.

If it’s our memories that make us who we are, then every one of them has a “who am I really?” problem that makes mine look like a skit on Sesame Street.

None of them has said anything about that, so I don’t know if they’ve thought about it. I have, because …well, what else is there for me to do? But, like I said, I can deal. I can play the same history-begins-now routine for them that I have to do for myself. I mean, that’s really what you do anytime you meet someone new, right? So I just expand it a little, get myself some positive imaging tapes, and Maintain.

Yeah, nice if it was that simple. It’s not, though. On one side I have all these memories that go back years, and I have to work through them not being real. But, on the other hand, there are things I wish weren’t true, only they are. All the good things go away, and this is what’s left:

Buffy, so scared she’s practically attacking me. Buffy crying on the deck out back. Buffy shredding napkins in the waiting room. She tried so hard, she did everything she could to put on a brave front, but she thought Mom was going to die. I knew it was possible, but I never believed in it, not really, not till I saw Buffy hug the surgeon so hard I thought he’d pop like an overnuked chimichanga. That’s when I realized: she’s seen so much stupid, pointless death, so many people lost for no good reason, she knows it can happen anywhere. To Mom, to us. No matter how special you are, nobody’s safe.

That was before I knew I was really just this big green glow-y whatever, but for a second there I was outside my head and in Buffy’s. I don’t mean telepathy or mystical communion or anything like that, I just knew how she felt because I was able to put myself in her place. She’s nineteen years old (then), been battling all the gross ugly howly things since she was practically my age, and she’s about to lose her mother. Ghosts, vamps, demons, sorcerers, she can fight all that but not this, here she’s helpless. One bad break, one blood vessel growing in the wrong direction and it’s all over, she had a mother but now there’s nothing left but memories …

Memories. Mom used to sing that while she was doing the dishes, sing it till I thought I’d go bughouse: Mem’ries / of the path we left behind / misty watercolor mem’ries / of the way we were … Only we weren’t, because there was no We, I wasn’t there.

The rest of them, I can learn all over again. Xander may not have stood up to Angel, but he did fight to protect me from Harmony, and Glory. Anya cheats at Life. Willow keeps learning new things, and Tara is proud and pleased and at the same time trying to stop her from getting too far ahead of herself. Giles got himself a midlifecrisismobile to replace the Citröen Xander wrecked. Spike has this Juliet Mills fixation. Buffy keeps Angel’s jacket even though she’ll never talk about him.

History starts now. I have time, for them. But Mom …

… Mom …

If Mom died, Buffy would hold onto all she could remember, try to keep it alive, because she wouldn’t have anything else. And I wouldn’t even have that, all my memories are phony, a scrapbook full of shitty fakes like some PhotoShop nerd pasting himself into a mambo scene with Angelina Jolie.

I’m not human. So my nose isn’t running, and my throat doesn’t hurt, and these aren’t tears.

 Note: Duncan (Dpjrugby@aol.com) was inspired by the reference to Dawn at Halloween to produce this drawing. Send him your comments! 

Chapter Text

I’m not getting out of here. Have to get used to the idea.

Another day in the life. Sleep nestled in pine shavings. Clean paws. Chew green pellets (and the occasional sunflower seed, oh joy, rapture), suck water from the little metal tube on the end of the bottle, run on the wheel. Sleep some more. Repeat. Then again. Basic routine, not enough raw material to make it complicated.

No idea how long. Seems like forever. Changes, I feel them but I can’t track them. Hot and cool, light and dark, new voices and patterns and smells. Incense, herbs, lotions, oils, different candles. Laughter, music. Chants, meditations, incantations, and talk, talk, talk. Excited, happy, tender, wondering, thoughtful, curious. Sometimes urgent, but not often. Sounds of sex when the lights go, voices murmuring and crying out.

And Her.

I know She’s there. The other one, the enemy. The one who’s keeping me bound here. Because it shouldn’t have taken this long, no matter how bad I screwed up. Something more is going on, something is blocking the flows and rhythms. I can feel Her.

Somebody out there doesn’t like me.

Can’t understand why Willow doesn’t know. She’s good, really good. I’ve got power, it’s in my bloodline, but Willow has talent. Not always as sensitive to the nuances as she could stand to be, but … even though I started out strong, I haven’t really grown that much (none at all, lately, duhh!), but Willow was weak and timid and hesitant for the longest time, and then when she finally started to gather some steam she just kept accelerating. I had more mystic muscle, but I already knew that soon she’d have enough skill to tip the balance. When you’re in that kind of higher gear, subtlety isn’t such a big deal.

Unless someone is coming in on your blind side. Unless your enemy plants Herself in a spot where you can’t see Her.

She’s there, I know it. I’d have been free long ago if not for Her. Transmogrification reversal can be tricky, sure — especially when you’re trying to realign someone else’s original spell — but Willow absolutely would have managed something by now. I want to scream at her sometimes (well, most of the time when I can think at all) to dump the brute-force approach and try drawing outside the lines. Give me a voice, so I can do my own spells. Borrow some IQ from wherever and siphon it into me, so I don’t have to scrape by on leftover fragments of awareness while this revolting little body is asleep.

Didn’t even have that much at first. And then I was back, human and whole, but gone again before I could do more than smile and draw a breath, only I snatched at whatever I could hold onto on the way back in. Big achievement, a few minutes of disorganized thought now and again when it can’t do me any good at all.

Note to self: next time you cast a spell, pay attention to where your hands are pointing.

Stupid rat brain. I’m crippled here. Awake, I could scratch out messages, or make hand(paw)-signals, or squeak some kind of makeshift Morse code. Willow’s drifting around in this preoccupied, dreamy fog, making only the occasional stab at bringing me back (Her fault, Her doing, damn Her!) … but I’m positive that if I could communicate, if she knew I was conscious in here, she’d give it everything she had until she found a way. But no, why make things easy? Save the smallest shred of intelligence for when I’m lying here twitching and snuffling.

Could be worse. At least the tiny animal-psyche isn’t interested enough to pay too much attention when she’s having sex. Might liven things up a little — Hecate knows I could use some excitement — but I don’t exactly want to get used to watching someone else’s intimate moments. Just enough sifts in to register when I shuffle through the memories, but that’s as far as it goes. Suits me fine.

God, I hope she doesn’t get the notion to stick a male in here with me, to give me “company.” That would just be too grotesque. And then I’d have to find a way to kill her.

Joking? Think so.

Pretty sure.

Don’t really have any sense of time, but I can separate the however-long-it’s-been into three basic phases of being. Willow. Then Willow-and-Buffy. And now Willow and the other one, the nameless girl. Still can’t really work out how that is; I think maybe I was in Willow’s room for the first part, I can remember seeing it when she’d have me over for brownies, and that human memory matches the sense-impression I got through the rat’s eyes. (That was also where she had sex the first time after I was enverminated. All her other couplings are a merciful blur of disconnected recollections, but I remember that one in way too much detail. Would it have killed her to stick my cage in a closet or something?)

The two remaining phases, I still haven’t gotten them sorted into anything that tracks. Buffy was there some during the first one, but then all of a sudden she was there a lot, sometimes I was alone and sometimes Willow was there, but I think mostly it was both of them. And then a while after, there were the new ones, the girl I don’t know and the two men I don’t know, too many people coming and going, and now that it’s all finally shaken out, Buffy isn’t around much anymore and Willow always smells like the other girl and sexual heat and cat.

Big shock, cats aren’t on my current list of favorite things. But it could be worse, it’s nowhere near as bad as the heavy predator smell I used to have to deal with all the time. The way it is now is a lot easier on me, and at the same time doesn’t make much sense. Did Willow find a way to cure Oz? (Really? and why not me?) Or is he of the past now, and her with some other guy? Hard to believe, but it’s definitely two people I hear in that bed — I don’t want to notice, but I might as well be wallpaper as far as she’s concerned — and I’d know if Oz had been around her.

I never realized rats were so sensitive to scent. Is this normal, or just one more freak twist to my whole freak existence? I can see why I’d be alert to Oz — he’s pure wolf, this body stays in a state of trembling panic anytime he’s near — but I wouldn’t expect to pick up on the others. I hate this life, hate every moment I’m here, but I’ll kind of miss that wonderful range of scent once I’m out for good. You get a whole different perspective of the world when you can assess it through this extra layer of sensing.

Willow, for instance. Nobody would underestimate Willow if they could perceive her the way I do; she smells sharp, like burning maple. Nameless Man Number One is leather and gun oil and hard soap: masculine, and actually kind of pleasant. (But he’s gone, too. How long? Don’t know, can’t remember when he was around, last. He had a nice voice.) Nameless Man Number Two, he confuses me. He doesn’t sweat, doesn’t carry any of that faint whiff of body secretions that’s always in the background for anyone else: whisky, cigarettes, old blood, but no human odors, just wrong somehow. (And Willow used to be frightened of him but now she’s not, and I don’t know what to make of that.) Buffy smells like … like sand feels, clean and dry and smooth. (She should be sunshine, and fire, and the brass of trumpets.) The nameless girl is lilies and talcum: too soft, too weak, don’t like it. Xander, now, his smell is …

Huh. Wonder if anybody else has noticed that. Weird.

The enemy doesn’t have a smell. But I know She’s there.

*                  *                  *

I was wrong, or not wrong but I didn’t carry it far enough. There was another phase after that, when I first started seeing the green energy. Thought it had something to do with the other one, thought Her nature was finally staring to leak over. But, sometimes the energy is there and sometimes the enemy, and sometimes both, and lately I’ve been able to sense a subtle clash between them. They’re not the same, not even really the same type of thing. Coincidence, or maybe connected but in some way that doesn’t have anything to do with me. Don’t understand it, can’t work out either what’s the deal with them or how I might be able to make use of whatever-it-is. Just there. Maybe when I’ve had more time, or maybe when I’m out. Maybe maybe maybe.

Someday.

Well, now. Something new, break in the routine: broccoli. Never could stand broccoli, but the rat gorged until I’m halfway afraid these icky little intestines might rupture.

That would be one way out.

But no. I want this over, but not like that. I had a life of my own, and I lost it. Want my life back, the way it was, want to get back what was taken from me. Gods, demons, fires of hell and winds of heaven and roots of earth, I deserve that …

Whoa.

Déjà vu. Sometimes these thoughts sound so much like my mother, I feel like I’m hearing her voice. But that’s ridiculous. Not like her, not at all. She was vengeful, and frustrated, and bitter, and crazy. I just want out. Want to take back what I had, what’s mine by right.

And I will. Just ’cause I’m here doesn’t mean I’ll stay forever. Haven’t given up on Willow yet, but even if she never works out a cure, I won’t let myself be kept here. No way. Not gonna happen.

So much I wasted when I was free and walking! Not just taking for granted the things I don’t have now, but potential, too. All the stuff I did then, it was such a careless use of power. More focus, more awareness, more skillful application of the energy that’s already there … I may be helpless right now, but I’m not paralyzed. I’ve had time to think a lot of things through; with what I understand now, I could be three times the witch I was.

Will I even remember? Not sure. What I’m doing now is kind of like one of the things Willow taught us in Miss Calendar’s class: virtual RAM, I think it was, or something like that. Using the little pieces of stuff I can collect, in place of the human mind I lost, and will I be able to hold onto it when I finally change back? Don’t know, can’t say. But I will find a way to keep the essence, even if I can’t preserve the memories.

Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: life is about power. Having it, using it, building it, finding ways to get maximum mileage out of what you’ve got. You’re either one of the movers, or one of the victims, and that second option totally bites. Been there, done that, left the t-shirt to burn while I scampered out between the ropes. Let my mother terrorize me and steal my body, let Xander blackmail me and make a fool out of me, let the MOO morons truss me up for a luau.

Let Willow put me in a Habitrail.

Power. Hoard it, practice it, use every resource you can find to extend it and make it last. I’ll never be anybody’s cat’s paw (rat’s paw?) again.

I know You’re out there. Don’t know who, don’t know why, but I know you’re the reason I’m still scuttling around in fleas and fur. Enjoy it while you can. My day is coming.

I’m not getting out of here, not any time soon … but when I do, Somebody is going to be sorry.

Chapter Text

I’m not a ghost. Whatever I may be, it’s not that.

It’s funny, actually, that I should be so sure. I’ve been in this position before, or one like it, and then I thought I was a ghost, with less evidence than I have now. I met all the criteria: disembodied consciousness, memory of my own death, unable to move on … the difference being, this time I’ve actually seen my own corpse. I won’t be returning to that body, not again. I made sure of it.

By rights, that ought to settle the matter, and yet I still can’t believe it. Not a question of logic, more what I would have called visceral certainty, back when I still had a human frame that contained viscera. I just know. I’m sure there really are ghosts, and equally sure I’m not among them.

On the other hand, I also know there won’t be any miraculous saves this time. I was in the land of shades, and then I was brought back into the sun: wonderful, unexpected, beyond joy, and not to be repeated. I’ve already had my second chance, I don’t get another spin at the wheel.

Kill me once, shame on you. Kill me twice, I stay that way.

I hope. Blessed Jesus, let it be true. Because there is a way out (or may be), and it’s wrong, and I’m not strong enough to be sure I won’t take it, and I don’t have any way to arrange things so that I’ll no longer have the choice.

I’m angry now. I never was, before. Many other things: grief, despair, hopelessness, “Why me?”, but not anger. Which isn’t reasonable, I’m mad because I was brought back from the dead? That’s where I am, though. Angry at fate, at my own arrogance and carelessness, at all the things I planned but was never able to carry out. Angry at the lives wasted by my weakness and stupidity. Angry because I got another shot, and blew it; because I did something that may have hurt someone horribly, and can’t be sure I wouldn’t do it again …

Angry because I let her go.

I never found her, made it right between us. I wanted to, I watched for her, but I never truly searched. It still hurt, and I thought there was time.

It always comes back to time. Two lives weren’t enough for me, I still needed more.

The cruelest irony is that I understand her now, where I couldn’t before. I know how it feels to yearn so hopelessly for a lost life that you’ll do almost anything to get it back … and then watch that ‘almost’ be inexorably eroded, in increments too small to be measured. I know what it’s like to barter away your soul, one sliver at a time, at once realizing what you’re doing and reassuring yourself that it’s not really what it indisputably is. I know the shame that creeps up on you until you can’t stand to face the people who matter most to you.

She lied to me, and used me, and gave me back my life, and I never saw her again. And now, because I made so many of the same choices, I feel unworthy of her.

In my world as it is now, that actually makes sense.

Well, it’s done. I’m here now, like it or not, and every five or six weeks I have to come to a decision. When I first find myself in a new body, I can only watch and listen and feel; I have full sensory input, but no control. As time passes and my consciousness becomes more fully integrated with that of the host, I gradually become able to affect the body’s actions. It starts as a subtle influence, parts of my personality and desires seeping over into the host (they’re never aware of me, though sometimes they realize that their attitudes have changed), but I don’t doubt that if I stayed long enough, I would eventually have total dominance.

Problem is, I’m fairly sure that would involve obliterating the host personality. I’ve been killed twice now, had my life stripped from me against my will. I won’t do that to someone else.

I won’t. I won’t.

But it’s so hard to let go sometimes.

No matter what the charts may read (medical professionals don’t say ‘coma’ anymore these days, it’s ‘persistent vegetative state’), I still believe I actually died that first time, and then had my body jump-started by some mystical sideshift while my detached awareness was elsewhere. The worst of it was that I didn’t die for any reason: not from anger, nor appetite, nor greed for gain, nor anything at all. Just a whim, and to create the right effect, and voilà, I’m dead on the floor. I hated that, and when I had the power to fight back, I did everything I could to tilt the balance in the dark, savage war raging under the surface of business as usual in Sunnydale.

Now I rank alongside the same kind of menaces that killed me (twice!). Not one of them, not yet, but becoming one of them, or threatening to become. I want so much to do the right thing, because it’s right; and I want so much to do the wrong thing, because it’s easy. Wouldn’t even have to explicitly choose, really; just wait an extra day, and then another, put off the necessary act until it no longer matters …

No. I’m not one of them. I’m not like them, won’t let myself be like them. (She said that, and betrayed me, and I never forgave her. Will God forgive me?) Even with how things have changed for me, I still stand with the agents of light. I don’t have my old abilities — telepathy, mental projection, remote possession — but once you’ve seen the truth behind Sunnydale’s desperately cheerful facade, there are always opportunities to make a difference. I’ve done what I could, and I’ll keep doing it until some further change in the cosmic cycle sets me free again.

Or until temptation and weakness and self-deception damn me beyond redemption.

I came close with the soldier, terrifyingly close. There was a reason, and it still seems valid, but it carried me so far into the darkness … I had to do what I did, and there was no other way, but even so I keep wondering if it was worth the price. Some things can never be taken back; some forbidden fruit, once tasted, can never be forgotten. I had to do what I did, but it opened a door I can’t close now.

Another bit of irony: while I was still alive, I ordered my activities in conscious emulation of the Slayer (working in secret to preserve a world that knew nothing of my role in its continued existence; alone, unheralded, serving without recognition, classic routine with all the trappings) … and yet I had never heard of her — not as Slayer, at any rate — before my first death, and never actually saw her until moments before my second. There had been rumors, of course: petite, pixie-faced blonde that you never wanted to cross; a blue giant at the Sunnydale Mall, brought down by a piece of equipment variously identified as a laser cannon, a rocket launcher, and a portable disjunction generator; lights burning late at night in the high school library, and adolescent laughter and wise-cracks in one cemetery or another; tongue-in-cheek jokes about comings and goings at the city morgue, and any number of incidents at the Bronze too outlandish to be granted any credence at all. We moved in the same territory, but somehow never crossed orbits, at least not to my knowledge.

And then one night, there they were. Even with all I had heard, my eyes would have slid automatically past the little peroxide cheerleader type (no interest there), but my attention was seized by the sight of the red-haired witch, the one who could be twin sister to the leather-clad siren who had killed me a year before. Even though I had cleared up the distinction between them long ago, her face still transfixed me for an adrenaline-spurt fraction of a second. That was when I saw the Slayer, and the lanky, dark-haired boy with the clownish mannerisms, and the other girl, the chunky shy one too dishwater a blonde to be anything but genuine, and the muscular, open-faced man I would eventually know as Riley the soldier …

I still don’t know what happened. I had been tracking a minor nest of vampires for two nights, and killed three of the seven (self-stakings, no witnesses, a mystery never to be explained; one thing I had learned was, never leave tracks), and what sleep I had grabbed during the day hadn’t quite brought me up to speed. Maybe I was careless, maybe I was a little loopy with the 3:00 A.M. giggles, maybe my luck was just running the wrong way that night. As I said, I never would have noticed the Slayer in such a commonplace setting, but I had heard the group itself described often enough to recognize it when I saw it. I studied them, intrigued but not really curious; stories aside, there just didn’t seem to be anything especially remarkable about them. I tossed down the Buttery Nipple I had ordered (oh, yes, totally professional behavior when you’re on the hunt, but I used to love those things, damn it), and took another look. At third glance there still didn’t seem to be anything about them worth noticing, and I was about to turn away and do another basic scan for hostiles when I felt something, a little diffuse tickle almost below the level of awareness, and looked back. Something there, wonder what? Reached out with my mind: action invisible, undetectable, perfectly secure because nobody knew I was there, no one could see the power I carried within me …

I don’t remember anything after that. Or rather, my first subsequent memory was of realizing that Me was in the body of a nineteen-year-old male server at the Espresso Pump, and everything between that moment and the last an absolute blank. There’s no calculating how many times I’ve reconstructed and analyzed that last living memory, looking for some clue, but I’ve never recovered even a single snippet of recollection. Did I faint? Drink myself blind and unconscious? Was my mind struck down by some psychic presence whose powers so dwarfed mine that I could barely register them, and could never hope to equal or even measure them? Or was I simply plucked out of the herd by a random vampire while my attention was elsewhere?

I don’t know. I’ll never know. That my body was killed by a vampire was later independently established, and maybe it’s just denial that makes me suspect there was more to it than that. My essence and awareness grew and entrenched itself in the boy’s body, and when the day came that I used his hands to push away one of those awful frappuccinos he was always gulping down (cloying muck, and not even trendy anymore), and opened his mouth to order a Heath shake instead, I knew it was time to leave.

So I did. No effort, even, all I had to do was relax my hold on the anchors and let myself be borne away by arbitrary etheric currents. And then, within another week, I was coming back to life in the body of a courthouse secretary, mother of three, and I couldn’t fail to recognize that I was back on the treadmill.

How many people have faced the situation thrust upon me twice now? of being not-alive but enduring, unable either to return to the paths of the living or to move on to whatever next step of eternity was laid out by providence for everyone except me? I can’t live, and I can’t die, and I can’t change it. What did I do to deserve this?

All the same, I accepted it. The times between letting go and waking up again allowed me to rest, and my hatred of the jackals that prowl at the edges of a society they could never create was every bit as strong: more, in some ways, since I had been victimized yet again. I was no longer a champion, but I could still operate quietly from the sidelines. Leaving an alarm unattended; making a 911 call minutes before a casual bystander would have been able to see the necessity; sometimes just waiting a few extra seconds to turn off a pair of headlights, or asking some trivial question while a familiar quartet slipped past in the background shadows …

I tried not to think about it too much. We don’t always choose our crosses, but we must bear them with what grace we can. I bore mine, and recited Rosaries in my mind, and watched unceasingly for whatever little action I could take — or prompt the host to take — that might save another unwary life or smooth the path for the Slayer and her companions. Then two things happened, at the same time, that I wouldn’t have dreamed of anticipating.

I came to consciousness in the body of Riley, the soldier.

And I saw the thing with my face.

I genuinely had never thought about it before, at least not on the level of surface realization … but was there some secret part of me, unknown even to myself, that silently hoped this time was like the last, my abandoned body slumbering unattended somewhere, waiting for me to someday return to tenancy? If so, it died at the sight of her. She seemed … smoother somehow, more mature, more assured. I saw her, and envied her, and hated her with instant, shocking virulence, and dedicated myself to her destruction.

There’s latitude for variation in the sequence, but the basic cycle is this: about a week in a new body before I begin to recognize where I am and who I am, like gradually waking from an unremarkable dream; another two weeks, during which I settle into my new home and begin making myself felt; two weeks more, with influence rapidly growing toward mastery. And another week, two at most, when every hour I remain increases the danger that I won’t be able to leave before it’s too late. I’ve become accustomed to it, done it a dozen times since I began my second exile, until the rhythm is as familiar to me as any wake/shower/breakfast routine that preceded it.

Not this time. The sight of that smiling predator, gliding sleek and deadly and unnoticed through the heedless humanity around her, wrenched me into full focus days before it normally would have come to me. From that moment I was wrestling for control in the body of the soldier, seeking out any impulse or inclination or insecurity that could nudge him in the direction I wanted to go. God only knows what I did to him in the process; I was obsessed, and knew it, and didn’t care, no potential harm to him could be more important than stopping the creature hunting in my stolen flesh.

The most horrible part of it is that I don’t think he ever knew. When I fed and increased the distance growing between him and the Slayer, when I deepened the bleakness in his heart and edged him toward the territory where she would range, when I bared his throat to her and gripped the hidden stake with his hand …

… when I did all of that, through him and to him, he still didn’t know. Thought it was his own choice, his own misdoings. Blamed himself.

Sometimes I think I’m in hell. But that can’t be true, because the hell I’ve earned would be much worse than this.

I had to do it. I had to. I couldn’t leave her out there, killing with my face and my name, perhaps singling out the ones who used to care for me. I had to stop her. If my own final obliteration had been the price for that, it would have been worth it.

But then, I wasn’t the one who had to pay the price. Was I?

When it was finally done, and the last physical remnant of my life settling into vague drifts of malefic dust, I left him as quickly as I could. I tell myself he’ll be okay, without my corrupting occupation, that he’ll shake off the memories of my time in his skull like some distasteful fantasy. I think he was a good man. I think he’ll be able to make it, now that he only has his own demons to face.

I was in him for almost seven weeks. I could have killed him, knew I was risking it. I don’t know what other path I could have taken, but I don’t deceive myself about the nature of what I did.

Will the Slayer come looking for me some day? Will the traces I leave coalesce over time into a pattern that can be detected and followed? Will she and the valiant others who walk beside her, of their own choice, see me as a threat that must be extinguished?

If such a day comes, will they, by then, be right?

I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. I just don’t know how to make it end.

I’m not a ghost. Ghosts can be exorcised, while I … God have mercy on me, for I fear I am eternal.

Chapter Text

I’m not happy about this. Not one little bit.

At the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. I had to get out (the life of a princess isn’t all shrieks and goulash, no matter what they say), and physical escape just wasn’t in the cards, what with Daddy’s toads always half a step away whenever we weren’t closeted and warded at home. There’s more than one way to skin a puppy, though, and I picked up a few little offbeat tricks during my last unsanctioned walkabout among the humans. And it was a good idea: go incorporeal, attach myself to a suitable mount, and let the masking soul screen me from the hounds Daddy would send to find me. Stay in Sunnydale, of course, all that Hellmouth energy keeps me perky, and besides, why take on learning my way around a new campus when I’d already made my start at superfun UCSunD?

It should have been the simplest thing. It should have been a walk. My life just sucks.

It went smoothly enough at first. I knew, once they weren’t able to fix on me by absence-of-soul, that Daddy would have his hounds range for traces of my psychic signature. If I could find someone with a little mystical potential of her own, though, her aura would help blur the trail, so I screened my prospects with that in mind. There were several that showed promise … and then, jackpot! I could hardly believe it; we’d actually met before, briefly, but I hadn’t been aware then of how potent she truly was. This one had some definite juice to her, but was just unsure enough that she’d be easy to dominate; no one would pay too much attention to her, and the dissonance between her and her parent-authority would mean fewer external ties I’d have to break or work around. No two ways about it, this one was an utter gem. So I put my mark on her, curdled the right fluids and tore open the requisite small helpless creatures and did all the dreary chants and self-degradations, and settled easily into her while she was sleeping.

(Wonder how many of the toads Daddy killed when he learned I’d got out again? Screw ’em, and serve ’em right. Girls just want to have fun.)

I played it very, very cautious at first. Part of it was just lying low while the first phases of the hunt ran past me. Part of it was learning the facts of my mount’s history and daily routine, so I could operate her without slipping up, and the topography of her mind so I could control her with minimal damage when the time came. Sport riding is one thing — burn ’em out, jump to another one, all you care about are pace and performance — but I had a different aim here, so I was ready to use a light rein.

It was actually kind of fun, doing the long stalk instead of going for the fast kill. Her insecurity and social ineptitude were comical, and her crude attempts at mystical practices were as entertaining as watching a klathwaer try to dance. I made mental notes, and enjoyed, and lined out exactly how I’d take her over and what I’d do with this promising surrogate body when the time came …

… and then she joined hands with the other witch, and eldritch force sizzled through them like a river of blue lightning, and my plans changed on the spot. This was way too interesting to pass up, I had to see more. So when I first began to guide her, it was a thousand times softer and more careful than I’d planned at first.

Things got very complicated very quick, but I thought it was worth it. The moment I settled on a different course, it brought in three issues I’d have ignored or brushed away otherwise.

First, the power that whetted my interest was embryonic, just beginning to peek out, and bound up in something indefinable between the two women. It would never be realized unless I let it develop at least semi-naturally, so I scrapped the notion of planting my flag in her upper brain and ruling there like a potentate; instead, I had to lie so far back she’d never know I was there.

Second, in order to let things flow along the necessary course, I had to accept the two women’s involvement with the Slayer. Ordinarily I would have discouraged it — grudges much? — but that was how the forces were aligning, so I had to swallow it as part of the cost. (I got a big shock the first time I ran into Anyanka: bad-tempered, self-righteous nouveau diable harridan, but we’d always had to treat her with respect because of the unearned power she bore. She had no way of recognizing me, but I almost gave myself away from sheer surprise. Once I got past the first jolt, though, seeing her stumble around powerless and humbled in mortal flesh was a never-ending treat.) And, I could draw advantage from being able to watch a potential foe’s camp from the inside, get advance warning of any developments that might cause me problems.

Third, not the hardest but certainly the oddest: it became clear that the other witch was making hesitant sexual overtures, and — this is the mystifying part — that my mount was interested. Okay, all human sexuality is a little strange (their matings are almost never fatal, which makes me wonder why they bother; where’s the thrill if there’s no risk of dying or prospect of conquering?), but the same-gender pairing made it even more of a confusion to me. Really, is there any kind of sense to that? It’s one thing to go against your own nature for power, status, gain, novelty, or even sheer spectacle — I’ll contest with the best when it comes to putting on a show — but this girl chose to use her body in a manner clearly contrary to its design, for no advantage at all. The sex itself is curious, and usually intense (if Daddy knew I’d accompanied my mount through body-rubbings with another of these grunting tubes of meat, and not even tried a little vivisection for decency’s sake, he might not be in such a lather to get me back; really, he can be a total prude), but this deliberate purposeless self-twisting should have given me some warning as to what might be in store.

Looking back to the beginning, the craziest part of the whole business is that I ran away in the first place because I was tired of having to always follow someone else’s orders … and then suddenly there I was, holding myself to a more brutal regime than anything Daddy ever laid on me. Watching, cataloguing, staying secret and silent and barely touching the reins, ever, for fear of disrupting the intoxicating energy gradually building between my mount and the other girl. My choice, done to follow my goals, but still nothing I’d ever have let anybody else force me to do. And I don’t think I’d have had the patience if I had known how long I’d have to wait; it was just, every few days there’d be some new exciting little extrusion in the reshaping of my mount’s internal conformation, and I was always eager to see what came next —

Also, I got a thoroughly unpleasant scare a few months after I first started my watchful waiting, about the time I was thinking I might try to tweak the process along a little quicker. We were out on one of those group sweeps of various Sunnydale areas, which sweep doubled as a social outing for the ‘Scooby Gang’ (a name so moronic it suited them perfectly), and for once it was the entire roster: the Slayer and her brawny mascot, Anyanka and the self-deprecating buffoon she let capture her heart (he’s lucky I didn’t remove his when he hugged me, without invitation, the first time we met), even my mount and her giddy blissful lover. Only the researcher and their gelded vampire were missing, no loss either way. I was bored but still keeping an eye out, if action blew up unexpectedly and my mount was killed, I could take some psychoplasmic bruising before I managed to exit her broken carcass, and wouldn’t that just totally piss away all the time I had invested? So I was noting the shifts in activity around us while she was all caught up in her simpering paramour, and that’s when I felt it.

Mind probe! Near-miss at first, it brushed past me without quite touching, but the force of it was stunning. Not one of Daddy’s hounds, they’re keener but a lot more subtle, and not made for fighting at all, while this was huge and irresistible and vaguely curious, like one of those shaggy omnivores that dig through campsite trash in the national parks: not actively malevolent, but of uncertain temperament and capable of devastating ferocity if roused. I pulled back even deeper, tucking everything in and at the same time coiling myself into position for the one good strike that was all I’d get. Here it came again! and I felt it catch my presence and veer toward me, and I lashed out with everything I had at … not a weak spot, but the only area I could feel not bristling with spines and armor, struck and waited to be torn away from my mount and ripped into screaming bits —

Only it was gone. Whatever it was, for all its awful massive strength it hadn’t learned the first thing about psionic combat, that single strike sheered straight through and disrupted some central vital nexus, and the thing just came apart and fell away. I was frantic for the rest of the evening, certain that Daddy’s hounds would trace back to the spot where their specialized retriever had disappeared, but it never happened.

The contrast there, between the power that almost rooted me out and the power growing in my mount’s belly, power I could have if I nurtured it properly and seized it at the right moment, kept me focused. This wasn’t vacation anymore, this was survival and freedom and a chance at girding myself for vengeance and dominion.

Better, maybe, if I had just gone home. I still hate being ordered around, but I do miss the mucus pools. And the way my little project developed has been SO not satisfying.

I should have known. I saw all the stages, recognized them as they were happening and placed them into context with all that had gone before. I saw it all, and still missed it all, because I just didn’t make that imaginative leap that would have warned me of the next obvious step.

First stage: I watched, learned what I could, and occasionally gave my mount a little nudge to shift her more in the direction I wanted her to go. Hints, not steering, she and the other witch were supposed to find and build that inner force themselves, I just wanted to keep her on track.

Second stage: guidance, firmer now but still long-range and indirect enough to escape detection. The girl had a tendency to go off on tangents, get caught up in other pursuits (her deviant lover was a constant unwelcome influence there), and it required more and more effort to keep her on the course that better suited my own purposes.

Third stage: by now I was exerting all the control I could apply without being detected, just trying to keep us within safe boundaries. Heedless with love and the exhilaration of mutual discovery, the two women were in repeated danger of taking things too far, letting that still-gathering mystical strength carry them into areas that could have posed some danger to me, either by immediate threat or from the risk of calling attention to us. (The seeking trance they did to ferret out the renegade Slayer was the first such example, but that came early enough that I was able to safeguard us all — and keep myself hidden — with only the lightest touches of redirection. If she gets any such notions now, I could be in trouble. But, Lords of Hell! the demon detection spell they attempted! It took all the artistry I could muster to quietly jinx that one, and even then I had to go at it indirectly.) I should have given it up and moved on, and I would have if the promised payoff hadn’t been so sweet and seemed so close.

Fourth stage: completely removed, standing off doing nothing but watch. The two women’s power was still growing and developing, feeding and reinforcing and looping from one to another in ways they’d never be knowledgeable enough to track. They had become so strong that I couldn’t control anything significant without bringing enough pressure to bear that I couldn’t help making myself known, and if my mount panicked and fought, I might break her before I was able to harvest all that lovely, scrumptious mana.

I saw all that, and never saw the last step coming. Not until the Slayer and her hangers-on went head-to-head with Glorificus, not until my mount and the other witch traded glances and started a chant I didn’t recognize, not until I decided this had gone too far and clamped down with a forcefulness I’d avoided before now, going for the adrenals and lower brain functions, meaning to trigger an uncontrollable flight response that could be passed off as a panic attack but would still serve to get me out of there —

— and nothing happened. Nothing.

Stage five: when the still-building power couples with the unexpected innate stubbornness of the witch to forge a synergistic binary that I can’t rule or guide or suppress or claim for my own.

I don’t understand it. I don’t even know where it comes from, the two witches make such different contributions, and then mix and trade and reweave all they share, I can’t say which one is the ultimate source of magic. The redhead usually serves as the hands, the blonde as the heart and foundation, and it didn’t really matter, because as long as I held the one I controlled both.

Now I don’t have any control at all. A year ago, the blast I hit her with would have laid her out jerking and near-catatonic. Not only did it not do that, I’m not even sure she felt it. Are they so much stronger? or I so much weaker? or is there something else at work, as invisible to me as I am to the two witches?

Be nice to think that. I’m still trying to puzzle out how the Slayer’s ersatz sister figures into everything. My memories of her go back a solid year, but she’s only been around half that long, so my brain was messed with, too, as if I were one of these sweaty, mind-blind pinkskins. Even knowing now, I still can’t see her as anything but a barely pubescent human, the internal energy that’s supposed to compose her true nature just doesn’t register to my blinkered human vision. It’s tempting to blame her for my problems, and to take a stab at exacting retribution; I’m just not sure that would be a good idea.

I’m not sure I could pull it off.

I operated so lightly, for so long, deliberately interwove my consciousness with my mount’s on the deepest levels I could reach, and now it turns out I’m nearly powerless in the creature I should be dominating. (Powerless in dealing with her, that is to say. I can still affect others, though I have to be careful about it.) Worse than that, I may not be able to leave now. I spent an entire year entrenching myself, and never considered that I might ever need to get out, or have any difficulty with it if I tried.

It’s infuriating to have waited so long, sacrificed so much, and then find that I’ve just been digging myself into a tarpit. What’s more infuriating is the suspicion that part of what’s holding me here, and resisting my inborn right to command, is my mount’s aberrant infatuation with the other witch. The whole concept is nonsensical — you subjugate those below you, grovel to those above you, and jockey for position with the rest — but even among humans her commitment would be seen as pathetic if they weren’t afraid any objection would slot them as homophobic (meaningless) or intolerant (as if it mattered).

I can see the truth because I understand the truth: she may be sincere, in her own brainless fashion, but the other girl isn’t. For that one, the whole business is just a means of escaping a self she learned to hate. And who can blame her? her status has risen, her influence has increased, her natural role as a stammering nonentity has been supplanted by one in which she’s actually a functioning part of an established social unit; what surprise that she’d want to keep all that and get more of it? It’s a lot more practical than the moonbeam delusions my mount keeps feeding herself — and, on that basis, even deserves a little respect — but it has nothing to do with love or loyalty or mutual devotion. It’s power, pure and simple.

She likes the direction she’s headed, and wants to keep going that way. She escaped the suffocating dominance of her family — know the feeling! — and never wants to return to it. She buried all that she used to be (or thinks she did), and wants it to stay buried. Why else would she have used astral communion as a subterfuge to shift shared interests into sexual/emotional involvement? Why else would she continually risk herself and my mount in these mystical ventures? Why else would she keep the third witch locked in a cage when the key to release is so obvious?

Why else, in choosing a lover, would she go to such lengths to select one even shyer and plainer and less impressive than she believed herself to be?

I got rooked. I traded one prison for another; even more offensive, I worked hard to screw myself so royally. I left home for freedom, and sublimated freedom for power, and wound up with total zip to show for it. I’m not finished yet, I’ll find a way out, but there’s just no way to turn any personal profit from the past year.

It gets worse. I’m going to have to become one of the “good guys”.

There’s no getting around it. I’ve practically turned my brain inside-out looking for another way, but I don’t see one. If love for the other witch is what’s keeping me so tightly bound to my mount, I’ll have to undercut it at the source. That means driving a wedge between the two of them. That means gradually forcing her, and the rest of the Slayer’s entourage, to recognize exactly what’s happening with their beloved Willow. That means helping them.

Maybe I should have gone with the redhead after all. I thought I was playing it safe. Who would have suspected that the blonde would turn out to be the stronger of the two?

I’m not happy about this, not at all … and I have an ugly feeling that I’ll be a lot less happy before it’s all over.

 
end