Playing Dead part 2
I glance up from my swelling stack of papers to see Rebecca peeking around the office door.
"A private email has come for you. SDIT has scanned it and deemed it clean should you wish to view it in the privacy of your office."
"Thank you. I'll do that." I say politely, hiding my hatred that nothing is truly private here. The Council and its various Supernatural Defenses departments oversee everything. Ever since that demonic terrorist attack via the internet, there is no privacy, no web surfing or personal email or phone calls. I live in a military ruled state, serving as one of their many tools of suppression.
My illusion of privacy is restored with the closing office door and I punch the space bar of my laptop to see the flashing icon for mail awaiting me. With a click of the left mouse button, my fears are realized. Only two words appear on the white background, that and two distressing initials...
I swallow, hoping to coax moisture back into my mouth. It's useless. I shake my head and turn to the framed photo sitting on my desk. I'm smiling silly there, Willow and Xander hugging me from either side as Dawn hovers above, her arms wrapping around to hold us all. But it's the lonely figure standing apart from us that I'm drawn to. My finger traces his kindly face and again I find myself biting back tears I thought were satisfied months ago.
"If its war you want..." I scold the gentle image, "...then you'll get one!"
I spent four years of my life sleeping. What's one more day in the overall scheme of eternity? We drove so many miles. Three large vans worth, packed tight with the surviving undead militia who'd freed me so gallantly. Rupert sat in the front seat, reviewing the day's events and the coming day's plans. You can take the man out of the Council but you can't take the Council out of the man. Having exhausted what little energies I'd won with my resurrection, I found it hard to remain awake. I drifted in and out of consciousness, serenaded by the soothing sound of Rupert's soft-spoken voice directing his men over radios and discussions within the van. The others remained quiet, listening to their leader. Can't say I blame them. That voice is like good wine, rich, distinct and intoxicating.
I woke sporadically along our journey, glimpsing the stars as they progressed slowly across the moon roof of the van. It was the only impression of passing time I could relate to, a visual representation to remind me. For I had no seconds ticking away within me. My heart no longer thumped in a timely rhythm like some biological clock winding down to its inevitable termination. Time was an alien product of a society I was no longer constrained to.
But there was the hunger. It struck at dawn when we were trapped inside the van, windows inelegantly covered over with duct tape and black tarps. The only view to the outside was a slit from which the driver peeked. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere when my body went ridged, muscles stiff and unmoving, bones hardening to stone. I was weak, sick, as if dying all over again. Realizing these symptoms, we pulled over to the side of the road. Four young vampires and the driver, who was some sort of humanoid demon, helped heave me from the front to the back of the van. Rupert joined me, pulling closed a privacy curtain to separate us from the others. He cradled me in his arms, ripped back a bandage from his forearm, and offered his gashed wrist to me.
"It's not much but it'll be enough," he warned. "It should keep you until sundown. Drink."
And I did, drinking as if a man dehydrated in the arid desert, suckling while we drove on in wait for the night to return. Rupert encouraged me take all I could and I did, stopping only when the sickness sent me into a deep slumber.
He was right; it had been enough to prepare me for the present expedition trekking through sewers, winding tunnels that stink of feces and refuse. I must admit my expectations are not being met with our current predicament. Rupert's promised me a new world and given me mountains of filth. I wonder if I can I return this gift? However, the band of my brother vampires seems in good spirits and I finally witness them relaxing, falling back into the characters they are when not burdened with duty. The living demon among them leads the way deeper into the shadows, excavating any necessary passageways blockaded by ruptured earth and loose cement threatening to cave in. I can see why Rupert chose him, strong, quick and single minded on the mission. Rupert offers words of encouragement as he works. The others help but at a leisurely pace. They busy themselves with fooling around, chuckling over the sudden passing of the disagreeable beast back in my cell. Playful reenactments entertain me along our rough passage. Rupert allows them their fun but he remains steadfast, keeping an attentive eye on the path ahead. I, however, don't feel uneasy and wonder why he acts so troubled. Has so much changed since I was sent away?
The digger hoists a large chunk of cement and rebar up above his head, tossing it aside as if it were cardboard. The gang rally's around him in appreciation, rewarding him with pats on the back and good-natured punches to the shoulder. Rupert seems pleased as well, gesturing for them to hurry onward.
"Come now, they'll be time enough for celebration when we've reached home," he urges.
"Home?" I ask.
"Welcome home, Mr. Rayne." One soldier greets me with a salute and slams his fist hard against a folded interstate sign protruding from the fractured cement above. I eye the scratched paint, reading.
' Los Angeles .'
Bugger. I hate California .
"I don't want them involved." I don't know how I could be more clear, standing confrontationally across from him, leaning forward with fists braced firmly on his desk. I'm sure I look all resolute and unmoving but I feel my gut churning with what he requests. And though I tried to deny and ignore it, I knew this was coming. It was only a matter of time.
He tries to act the part of the concerned supervisor, creased brow, folded arms and contemplative face. But he's nothing more than a clone of Travers, the cookie cutter head of the Council who sits there in his big chair, spouting off his big words, sporting his big authority. I know better. We are always the ones who hurt, who bleed, who die and they are only score keepers. He needs to know it, whether or not he cares.
"They were involved the moment you befriended them in Sunnydale, Miss Summers. Rosenberg and Harris have as much at stake in this as you do."
"No, they have more," I whisper under my breath. "I'll do this alone. It's too dangerous for them."
"That has never stopped you from including them before."
"Dammit, I said no!" I slam my fist down, rattling his fancy desk with my Slayer strength. The next one won't be so gentle. "They've done enough. They deserve to have lives."
"And they will once you've completed your mission." He says it with such confidence, as if he honestly believes in our abilities. That's at least something. "You know as well as I that he won't allow that. Freeing Rayne was further evidence of that fact."
"I won't do it." I cross my arms, determined even though I know I'd already lost this battle before coming in here.
"I'm afraid it isn't your choice to make. The Council wants this wrapped up quickly and discretely. Since you three are already aware of the situation and the threat it proposes, naturally you are the ones the Council deems qualified to handle this rather sensitive operation."
"Fuck you." Yeah, that'll work.
"Yes, well… I'll be sure to note your disagreement with protocol on record, Miss Summers."
I sigh, a heavy the-world-is-ending-and-taking-me-with-it sigh. It's not new to me, the work. I've done this hundreds of times, faced hundreds of vampires and way too many Big Bads. But this… this is so completely different. This is one of our own. *Was* one of our own.
"If I'm going to do this, I'm doing it right. I want maps… every type you have; terrain, traffic, tourist, public works, especially sewers. Give me the works. I want all current stats on operations running in LA. I mean everything from pencil pushers to casualty rates and don't hold back the grisly details. If someone so much as broke a nail while serving a tour there, I want to know about it." We need to know what we're getting into. I need to know what sort of damage he's already done. God, I don't want to know.
"You have my word."
"I think you know what you can do with that." I turn to storm out.
"I realize this must be difficult for you…"
"Don't!" I swivel, interrupting his with a stern finger. "You can't even begin to understand how hard this is." I'm practically trembling with fury.
"I don't have to imagine what it's like to lose someone close to you. I'll have you know I lost Rebecca, my last active Slayer, not more than two years ago. It was like losing my own child. I, like many who serve the Council, understand well the grief and heartache that comes with burying our associates… our friends." I see the sympathy in his eyes. It's not enough. Never will be.
"Miss Summers. He was a good man and a brilliant Watcher. We owe it to him to prevent his honorable reputation from being tarnished by the actions of this pitiless demon that killed him. We owe it to Gi…"
"I swear on your soon-to-be-shallow grave that if you say his name, I will kill you." My fists are clenched so tightly that my nails are cutting into my palm, drawing blood.
"I'm being a very patient man but I don't take kindly to threats, Miss Summers. Seeing as how recent events have overshadowed your better judgment, I'll forgive and forget such indiscretions. You have twenty four hours to contact them both. If we haven't heard a response in forty eight, we will be forced to pursue further actions."
I stare at him, seeing only a suit now, a corporate logo. No soul remains. Is that what I'm becoming?
"I suggest that you make sure all your affairs are in order because if anything happens to them out there, I'm going to hold you accountable."
After I blame myself.
Ethan reminds me of a child seeing Disneyland for the first time. His eyes are wide, taking in all that surrounds him with his new sight, smelling the air with his awakened senses. He'd spent months, perhaps even years dangling by deaths dull threat only to be forced over and through to a life beyond death. He is Peter Pan discovering Neverland and I have the unfortunate task of revealing there are dangers still awaiting him. But these pirates are far more deadly. They tout their morality of the just; declare themselves the righteous by way of humanity, all the while wielding an army of demon-seeded girls to do their bidding. Hypocrites, the whole lot of ‘em.
My ranting thoughts quiet as I watch Ethan move. There is a cocky spring in his step as we make our way within the depths of the abandoned strip mall. I see questions in his eyes and feel I have time now to address them appropriately. I gesture to my boys to break formation and spread out, securing the location as we continue on. They dutifully obey.
"Much has happened since your incarceration," I begin with a laughable understatement.
"Really? I hadn't noticed." He smirks and scans the deserted landscape of forgotten capitalism.
"Eight months ago, Los Angeles fell into chaos." His brows lift with my choice of words and his smile broadens. "As you can see, much of the city lies in ruins. All utilities are shut off and refused from outside resources. For all intents and purposes, this city is as dead as we are."
"Charming. And what glorious gods reigned down this brilliant plague?"
"Oddly enough, it was a law firm, Wolfram and Hart."
"Ah, I know it well. Worked a few petty jobs here and there. They paid well, never asked questions."
"They are responsible for ripping open dimensions and unleashing hells minions upon this unsuspecting soil." I take a moment to inspect the corridor ahead. "We are the inheritors of their impressive efforts."
"And when you say we?"
"Half-breeds, whole-breeds, blooded brethren and ancient beasts. Uncivilized demonists and demons alike. All walks of creature deemed inhuman, subhuman and thusly unworthy of existence. We are pests to be exterminated, Ethan. But we will not go quietly."
"Poetic. You've practiced this, haven't you?"
"To win over a callous audience," I admit. "We need your help, Ethan. I need you."
"Never heard such sweet songs as your singing now, Ripper." He's wary. Can't say I blame him. "Why?"
I am not ready to tell the tale. There are other things to attend to first.
"There is much to learn, Ethan."
"Lucky me, I could choose no better tutor."