Friday 2nd of April, evening
It really was a beautiful house. Not as large or ostentatious as Villa Borghese or any of those buildings, but the Rome Slayer Headquarters could probably easily fit inside a couple of times at least. The windows shone in the early evening dusk, soft music streamed out through the open door, and it really did seem to have popped right out of a fairy tale.
The taxi drove away and Buffy shot Dawn a nervous glance, but Dawn’s face only registered delight.
“Wow. This place looks amazing. I hope Andrew is right about how great these parties are - considering how he’s not shut up about them.”
Buffy sighed. “You know, I think Giles sent Andrew to Rome just to punish me for wanting to live somewhere nice and warm.”
Dawn chuckled as they started walking towards the door. “On the plus side he is good at research.”
“Reading The Immortal’s book 5 times in 4 days isn’t research, it’s obsession. I swear he was thinking of using a glamour and going instead of me.”
Watchers weren’t supposed to crush on their Slayer’s morally ambiguous date - especially when they’d never even seen him.
Not that this was a date of course.
Dawn shrugged. “Well, at least he stopped talking about the meteor crash.”
Buffy shook her head, yet again quelling her feelings of violence towards Andrew. “I think I preferred the crazy theories about aliens. Hey - we should have sent him out to investigate. He might have been abducted!”
At the door a deferential doorman relieved them of their coats before showing them through to the party itself, and they found themselves in a long, beautiful ballroom lit by ornate chandeliers, half full of people and demons in elegant outfits; dancing, chatting, and helping themselves to a generous and varied selection of food. In a corner there was a raised platform on which there was a small string quartet, playing softly.
Dawn’s eyes had grown huge, and Buffy did her best to appear as though she did this sort of thing on a regular basis. She was absurdly grateful that they’d dressed up.
Then The Immortal appeared - easily outshining everyone and everything else and being, if possible, even more charming than she remembered. She told herself that this was probably because he was now dressed in a gorgeously cut black suit and wearing a bow tie; again so Hollywood that it seemed ridiculous for him to be here in Rome.
“Buffy! You came. Welcome.” He enthusiastically shook her hand and then his eyes travelled to Dawn, smile deepening.
“And who are you?” he asked, holding out his hand as he did some more of that shameless flirting, and Buffy began to realise that her idea of bringing Dawn as chaperone/back-up might just have misfired spectacularly. Dawn was a whole four inches taller than herself these days, and seemed to consist of nothing except legs and chest - what had been going through those monks’ heads when they’d created her?
“This is Dawn - my little sister,” she replied, imbuing her voice with as much ‘Back off Buster!’-ness as she possibly could. “I spoke to someone on the phone - your housekeeper I think - and she said that it was OK to bring her.”
“Oh definitely. Very pleased to meet you Dawn.”
And pleased he certainly looked, before he suddenly he shot Buffy a shrewd look.
“You don’t come as a pair by any chance? I once dated these twin acrobats-”
She stared at him speechlessly, and he did what probably for him passed for a shamefaced look. “...obviously not. Won’t go there again.”
Dawn however was giggling, shaking her head. “Oh my god! You are unbelievable.”
“Oh I’m very believable,” he replied with a wink. Buffy rolled her eyes - Dawn was clearly a lost cause, so it was up to Buffy to keep a level head... She looked around the room, meaning to compliment him on the set-up, and then suddenly froze.
“You have vampires at your party?”
An apologetic expression came over his face.
“Well... I didn’t know you were a Slayer when I invited you. And it’d be a little impolite to un-invite them.”
She could feel her jaw drop. “You didn’t know I was a Slayer? But - but why did you talk to me?”
For just a moment the brashness fell off him - like an invisible gossamer veil had been dropped. “Because you looked lonely,” he said simply, and in his soft smile she glimpsed something none of her research had hinted at. But then the twinkle came back into his eyes as he added: “And you are pretty hot, in case it had escaped your notice!”
“O-kay...” she said weakly, too put out to say anything else. She’d been wondering for days what his motivations had been - if this party was some elaborate trap or if he just wanted to add a Slayer to his conquests... She had never considered the possibility that he had quite simply just liked her - she didn’t really know how to deal with that.
“And don’t worry about the vampires, they’ll behave. I know I shouldn’t have them around, what with the whole evil soulless thing, but they kinda make up for that by being pretty spectacular in bed - stamina, inventiveness, no inhibitions - seriously, the list just goes on and on.”
He suddenly seemed to realise that they were both staring at him in wide-eyed silence, and he with great exaggeration closed his mouth.
“Slayer. Sister of Slayer. Not big with the vampire-lovin’. I - seem to have shot myself rather successfully in the foot.”
There was a rustle by the door, and The Immortal’s eyes drifted past them to the new arrival.
“And - I see that I need to go be The Welcoming Host. Catch up with you later - until then, just enjoy yourselves. Oh, and please don’t kill anyone unless they try to kill you first, OK?”
He grinned, and then turned the newcomer behind them.
“Jemmella! And how are you? I swear your tusks have grown a whole inch since we last met.”
Curbing her intense curiosity, Buffy grabbed Dawn’s elbow and steered her towards the buffet.
“This was such a bad idea,” she muttered under her breath, and Dawn shook her head in disbelief.
“Are you kidding? He’s amazing! And obviously very open minded.”
Ignoring the implications of Dawn’s words, Buffy grabbed a glass of wine and some food and tried to escape into a corner to work out what to think. He hadn’t known that she was a Slayer... it threw all her assumptions to hell, and she’d have to start from scratch again.
But she was cut off from her retreat by an elegantly dressed demon, who looked at her with unnerving unblinking pale green eyes in a slightly darker pale green face, which emerged from a medium green embroidered robe - it was a bit like being stared down by a grassy field.
“Buffy? Buffy Summers? The Slayer? This is a most extraordinarily fortuitous coincidence, since we have been considering sending your organisation a missive concerning the interests of the Riithan Clan. We are a very peaceful family, but if it were possible to somehow affect an actual peace contract with the Slayers, this would install much calm amongst my people...”
Soon she was surrounded by eight different demons, all curious about her and eager to get on the good side of the Slayers. She suddenly wished she had brought Andrew, since, despite all his flaws, she had to admit that he was very good at ‘being the Watcher’. He’d have had them all eating out of his hand in moments; quoting Council directives, explaining codes of conduct and archaic rules.
After about 10 minutes, wondering if she’d ever escape and shooting murderous glances towards Dawn who looked like she was having a great time with some young half demons - if their bursts of laughter was anything to go by - The Immortal came to her rescue.
Deftly parting her from her inquirers by asking for a dance, he apologised profusely as he led her out amongst the other dancing couples.
“I’m so sorry - I should have told them not to bother you. Guess they’re just excited to see a Slayer in a... neutral situation.”
His hand rested lightly against the small of her back, and she was suddenly very aware of the fact that she was actually dancing - it had been so long that she had problems remembering the last time. She couldn’t help noticing how very tall he was, and that he smelled very good indeed. And he was clearly a great dancer...
Wait - she had to use the opportunity to get him to talk.
“So, how did you find out that I was a Slayer?”
A chuckle and another shrewd look. “Well, when you heard my name you instantly jumped to the conclusion that I was a demon. Most people just think it’s a joke. I figured there had to be more to you than met the eye.”
‘You’re one to talk!’ she wanted to shoot back, except that what met the eye was pretty spectacular...
“What did you discover then?” she asked lightly, as she suddenly began worrying about how thorough his research had been, and what was said about her on the demonic grapevine.
He shrugged. “Not much to be honest - I’ve been too busy. Just managed to dig out a few basic facts: You are Buffy Anne Summers, lately of Sunnydale, California, which is now - interestingly - a giant crater; you’re a legend in your own time and the woman who - so it is said - activated all the Slayers in the world.”
“There was an apocalypse,” she explained - a little curtly, since she was not going into that story - and he nodded, obviously familiar with such events. “Instant army - although somewhat widespread I presume? Good strategy nonetheless. You’ve certainly shaken up the demon population.”
She smiled at the compliment, and for a moment allowed herself to just enjoy the sensation of dancing. Trying to sweet talk him would probably be a waste of time, since she had a feeling she’d end up telling more secrets than he. All she needed to know was whether he was evil or not, which was turning out to be a lot more complicated that she’d thought.
(What to do if he turned out to be a good guy was an entirely different question - one that she did her best to pretend didn’t exist.)
Before she had settled on a strategy for determining his rating on her evil-o-meter, a very polite three-eyed demon in a tuxedo cut in, and given the circumstances she felt unable to decline. Although part of her was panicking - what was she doing? Being on ‘friendly’ terms with demons was one thing, but dancing...
She extracted herself as soon as diplomatically possible, saying that she was hungry (which wasn’t a lie), and then spent a good while trying to pretend that she was a part of the buffet table.
What was she doing here? She watched The Immortal talk, laugh and dance, lighting up the room wherever he turned, and she wondered. The term ‘the life and soul of the party’ really could have been made up for his sake, she thought (and maybe it had been? You never knew with these immortal types). Now and again Dawn would appear next her, repeating how this party was ‘totally awesome!’ before disappearing off again. Buffy wished she could be that carefree - but she knew that she couldn’t just frolic away. Sometimes she really hated having lots of Slayers looking up to her, and for her actions to have to be above board. Being responsible was boring.
Her musings were interrupted when, for some reason she didn’t catch, the guests started chanting, “A song! A song!” The Immortal grinned and with faux-modesty got up on the dais in front of the band, which had, without Buffy noticing, metamorphosised into a jazz group. She made her way to the back of the crowd - praying that this wouldn’t turn into Demon Karaoke Night - and, seeing her, Dawn came over. But before she could speak (although it’d probably just be another ‘awesome party’) The Immortal grabbed the microphone:
“So, what would you like? Let’s start with some Glenn Miller - can’t go wrong there. Any suggestions?”
“Moonlight Serenade!” Dawn called out, and he caught her eyes before shaking his head.
“No. Unspoken house rule, that you couldn’t know - never ‘Moonlight Serenade’.”
Seeing the confusion on Dawn’s face, he smiled a little. “Think Casablanca. But - let’s have ‘Serenade in Blue’ instead. Will that do?”
Dawn nodded, and then the band started playing - the tune doleful and slow. A saxophone rose above the other instruments in melancholy loneliness, but then The Immortal began singing, his voice a clear, rich baritone, and the last of the chatter died away.
When I hear that serenade in blue
I'm somewhere in another world, alone with you
Buffy felt herself drift off into another world of her own as he sent her a dazzling smile - he had undone the bow tie and opened the top buttons of his shirt, and there was something utterly spellbinding about this impossibly handsome man, with the voice of an angel...
“Are we sure this isn’t a love spell?” she whispered to Dawn, and Dawn bit her lip.
“Well apparently he never uses magic. And it can’t be the jacket, ‘cause he’s taken that off.”
The thought of JD made Buffy smile, but there was something about the music that stirred her subconscious. She wasn’t sure what, so she stopped talking and focussed on The Immortal and his singing again, utterly unprepared for the last few lines.
And then the song became a sigh
Forever more became good-bye
But you remained in my heart, so
Tell me darling is there still a spark?
Or only lonely ashes of the flame we knew...
The words blindsided her, and she suddenly felt her chest constricting - the pain that she was getting so much better at living with cutting through her, and for a moment the world dipped out of existence as all she could see were hands enveloped in fire.
Dimly she felt Dawn touching her arm.
“Buffy? Are you OK?”
“I’m - I’m fine,” she said, but Dawn just looked at her and then steered her away from the group, which was now applauding, and into a side room before sitting her down.
“I’m really pathetic, huh?” Buffy said, but Dawn just looked concerned which made it all worse.
It was just that she really couldn’t cope with fire anymore, not even metaphorical - oh god he had burned to death...
She could hear The Immortal start on another song, and wondered what on earth she was doing, mooning over a pretty boy. Except of course he was far more than that. He was The Immortal, and every source they’d found in the last few days had said the same thing - he was perfect. She frowned. Too perfect? There had to be something wrong, something off... She’d had a whisper of a recollection of a memory before she’d been overwhelmed with... things that were now gone. She knew she had to concentrate on the here and now or she’d drown all over again. The song - there had been something about the song...
Seeing that Dawn was about to speak up she shushed her with a hand, closing her eyes and concentrating the way Giles had taught her - trying to cut out everything that wasn’t the song. Serenade in Blue, where had she heard it before? Somewhere different, but similar... someone singing to an adoring crowd...
Then the memory snapped into place and she gasped.
Jonathan! Jonathan - perfect, centre-of-the-world-Jonathan - and oh... it all made sense.
“Dawn,” she asked carefully. “Do you remember when Jonathan did that spell that made him Super!Jonathan?”
Her sister thought for a long moment, then slowly nodded. “Yeah, I think so. I had his book, I got you to ask him to sign it...”
Then her mouth fell open as they both recalled Andrew begging them to take his copy of The Immortal’s book to the party so he could sign it.
“Do you think that he-?” Dawn asked, shooting a look towards the main ballroom where they could now hear more applause. “He’s not... I mean he’s not famous famous like Jonathan was...”
Buffy bit her lip, brain working hard. “Jonathan was a geeky, maladjusted teenager, living out a fantasy. This guy is probably twice his age and smart...”
It was of course all just speculation, but - if it was true, everything fit. All she needed was proof. Pulling out her cellphone from her purse she dialled Giles’ number.
“Giles? I’m really sorry about calling so late, but I need you to look something up... and no I can’t ask Andrew. It’s about Jonathan.”
When she hung up she could feel Dawn studying her. “You know, you’re like the most cynical, pessimistic person ever.”
“I’m not, I’m just... cautious.”
And, she thought to herself, she knew that if something was too good to be true, it usually was. Whenever she got near a fairy tale she almost died.
Thankfully Giles was quick. The Immortal had taken a break from singing, but Buffy heard Jemella - thank goodness he’d not done an ‘open mike’ thing, Jemella would have had the house in ruins - say something about Champagne being good for his vocal chords, and figured they were safe for a while.
Then the cell bleeped, and she saw a message from Teresa, Giles’ indispensable secretary. She had very helpfully attached pictures of both the telltale symbol and the ugly beast, as well as some general notes on the nature of the spell. Buffy read through the notes before studying the brute, trying to remember if they’d heard of any maulings lately and telling Dawn - who was trying to get her attention - to be quiet, when there was suddenly a voice in her ear.
“OK now that is just gross! What it is?”
She turned and saw The Immortal peering over her shoulder at the image displayed on the screen.
“It’s... a side effect,” she answered, as she tried to gather herself, “from a spell.”
“Really?” He wrinkled his nose. “See this exactly is why I never use magic - there’s always some sort of nasty catch. Why would anyone want a thing like that running around?”
She turned around, then caught his eyes and held them. Time to lay the cards on the table. “Because the spell makes the person who casts it the most amazing person in the world.”
It took a few seconds, but then she saw understanding dawn.
He smiled slowly, dangerous shadows shimmering in his blue eyes. “Interesting. Come across it before?”
“A - someone I knew tried it a few years ago, and it would have ended really badly if I hadn’t stopped it.”
The Immortal nodded slowly, stroking his chin. “I see. How did you work it out?”
“He had a mark on him, same as the beast.” She flicked the picture onto the screen and held it up. “On his shoulder.”
She held The Immortal’s eyes and wondered what he’d do. She remembered Jonathan’s ridiculous swimsuit calendar, but this guy - despite his underground fame - did not have his face, or body, depicted anywhere at all. As if he was trying to exist mostly as a rumour...
But he didn’t begin to make excuses as she’d half-expected. Instead he suddenly smiled, as if trying not to laugh, and pulled off his bow tie before beginning to unbutton his shirt. Buffy felt she ought to say something, but...
A moment later he tossed the shirt over a chair, then put his hands on his hips - clearly posing.
“Which shoulder did you say? Would you like a little twirl?”
He turned, and he clearly had no marks or tattoos of any kind on his very well toned body. The look in his eyes was pure cheekiness and unadulterated self-confidence, and he grinned as he continued:
“Of course I could have put this mark on a... different part of my body - do you want to check?”
His thumbs went into the side of his pants, and Buffy quickly shook her head.
“No that’s - that’s fine. I... believe you.”
“Sure?” he asked, and somehow he managed to imbue the word with a whole plethora of innuendoes.
Dawn cleared her throat - a little too loudly - and when she spoke there was a wobble to her voice that Buffy didn’t like at all.
“You... really don’t have a problem with nudity, huh?”
He shook his head, laughing. “None whatsoever!”
Then his serious face re-emerged. “But. I am who I say I am, and this-” a wide hand sweep that incorporated the whole house and all that it contained and represented, “-is all real.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “So you just happen to be drop dead gorgeous, charming, rich, funny, talented...”
“Indeed I do!” Smug didn’t begin to cover it, and yet somehow it didn’t chafe. How did he do that?
She was silent for a moment. Still, there was one question left.
“And the immortality? You say you’re not a demon and that you never use magic, so how did you...”
Her voice trailed off, not really knowing how to continue. If he’d found some fountain of youth, he’d certainly not just tell some random Slayer about it.
Silently he picked up his shirt and shrugged into it before buttoning up again. Then he lifted his head, and she was stunned to realise that she recognised the look in his eyes - a deep weariness mixed with resignation. Finally he spoke.
“I never chose to be immortal.”
She stared at him mutely, as another Jonathan-memory resurfaced. He had accused her of having it all, and she’d been stunned and angry at how he’d taken the surface of her life as the whole story. Opening her mouth to speak, she was cut short when there was a polite knock on the door, and then it was opened, revealing a deferential servant.
“Pardon me master, but His Eminence Knth-Rath’m’Rk has decided that it is the time for leaving for him and requests that you might bid him farewell.”
“Of course,” The Immortal said, grabbing the undone bow tie and trailing it around his neck as before. He stopped in the doorway and caught Buffy’s eyes, looking the very picture of elegant nonchalance, hands in his pockets and face in three quarter profile. “You will stay a little longer, won’t you?”
“Yes I... yes we will,” she answered, and he grinned. “Good! Because I think once His Eminence has left it might be time for some games...”
Then he walked out, and Buffy buried her face in her hands.
“Buffy?” Dawn asked, and Buffy shook her head. “He doesn’t make sense. At all. Why can’t he be evil? That I know how to deal with.”
But she wasn’t about to give up trying to figure him out - especially now she’d seen a little of what lay beneath the mask.
Heading back to the party they soon found themselves involved in an absorbing game of truth or dare - and Buffy noticed that she and The Immortal were the only ones to choose ‘dare’ every time. Thankfully the other guests were too intimidated to dare her to do anything embarrassing, so it was all nicely simple things like throwing knives blindfolded and bending steel bars.
Although in The Immortal’s case his choice might not be an out-and-out avoidance of truth telling, since he so obviously relished the dares. And despite the tiny glimpses of a more serious man beneath the glad exterior, his enjoyment of the festivities was clearly not fake - the reason he threw parties was because he liked them, of that there was no doubt.
As the night wore on the crowd thinned, and finally there were only eleven of them left, curled up on three large plush sofas listening to a never ending stream of incredible tales told with great skill and many gestures by their host. Whether they were fact or fiction - or some blend - was impossible to ascertain (of course he claimed that every word was true, but he would do that), and Buffy had not been this entertained in a long, long time - considering the life she’d led it took a lot to make her shake her head and exclaim ‘I don’t believe it!’
Uncurling herself from the sofa as morning neared, trying to get some feeling back in her legs, Buffy thought to herself that if anything the party had been more extraordinary than the tales had implied. Whatever he was, The Immortal sure knew how to have a good time.
As she shook his hand a little later, saying good-bye and trying not to sound too clichéd, he suddenly stopped her and asked if he could just speak with her in private for a minute.
When they were alone he smiled, of all things appearing nervous, which was not something she’d expected him capable of.
“Look - I’m only here for a month or two and... I’d really like to see you again.”
She didn’t quite know how to respond, so picked the first thing that came to mind. “So... you’re not offended that I accused you of being a big fake then?”
“Offended?” he echoed, surprised. “Oh no. I’m very flattered to be honest. And impressed of course.”
“Impressed?” she asked, raising her eyebrows in surprise.
He studied her for a long moment before replying - and even then his words were slow and careful. “I’ve been watching you tonight, watching me - studying me. Slayers are usually described as killers, which I always figured was a rather narrow-minded view. Anyone can kill - that part’s simple. But determining the level of danger, deciding what makes an ‘acceptable’ risk - that’s the part where it gets hard. Most people just follow the rules, but you...” his eyes narrowed, “you don’t accept what you see, and you trust your intuition - trying to find the truth, no matter what, and then you act on it. That’s very rare.”
She wasn’t quite sure how to respond, since he’d pulled the night’s dilemma right out of her mind and she was getting rather freaked out. But there was something about the way he said it, like he spoke from personal experience...
Before she could ask, he handed her a slip of paper. “Here’s my mobile number - I’ve always got my phone with me. Just... promise you’ll think about calling, OK?”
She nodded, and he smiled again, all bright eyes and dimples and breathtaking charm. It was very distracting, and she forgot what she was going to say.
But as he led her out of the room, a warm hand cupping her elbow, he leaned down and whispered in her ear.
“You weren’t right tonight with your clever little theory. But you weren’t entirely wrong either...”
She turned, shocked, but he just winked, as enigmatic as ever, and then Dawn dragged her out to the waiting taxi. Buffy followed, too thrown and absorbed by his words to do much more than nod along to Dawn’s happy monologue.
‘She’d not been wrong’... what did that mean? She really, really couldn’t figure him out - he was unlike anyone else she’d ever come across. Clearly he was not a conformist, but neither could he be labelled an outsider or a rebel - he seemed to regard rules as nothing more than vague guidelines, to be followed or ignored on a whim.
And he’d given her his cellphone number and paid her one of the oddest - and most unnervingly insightful - compliments she’d ever been given. Apparently he genuinely wanted to see her again. What to do?
Sighing he set to work, wanting it finished so he could drop it into a mailbox when he was going back to the Ettian craft after breakfast - Rome was obviously good for his work ethic.
But his mind kept wandering back to Buffy and their confrontation. She had been so utterly fearless - completely sure of herself and her authority, plainly not even remotely considering the possibility that he could get the better of her. He wondered if she had been able to sense just how thoroughly she had affected him in that moment. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have been very tempted to ask her if maybe she came from Gallifrey... unless of course the righteous hero stuff was a Doctor specialty, and not a Time Lord thing. Whatever the case, Buffy also had it to overflowing, and he knew that he was utterly helpless against it - especially considering how very brilliant she was.
See hero, will follow.
But he’d played the part long enough himself to understand the strain and the loneliness. If just... if he could just somehow win her trust. This particular alias was not the best one for that purpose, he thought ruefully, although they could have so much fun if she came round!
Sighing deeply he stared at the quarterly budget again. Was he just imagining it, or were all the figures higher than when he’d been looking at them just over a week previously? Suzie had apparently decided to increase spending, but she probably had good reason - Suzie always did. Logic all the way, that was his Suzie - unlike a certain other woman...
Surely she’d call? He really wasn’t very good at the conventional ‘dating’ thing - all those unwritten rules that changed every decade or so were difficult to keep up with, and sitting around waiting for a girl to call was just frustrating and distracting and... unsatisfying.
Stupid 21st century.