Playing Dead part 4
I stalk the home furnishings department in hunt for a firmer mattress. It's as if I suddenly require the feeling of stone rather than feathers, instinct perhaps to be tucked away within the confines of a coffin. How bloody common. I test a few, finding none suitable then hear the sound of the rickety gate to the linens department lifting. I take a few steps forward then stop, feeling an inexplicable nervousness flare in my gut. The air hangs thick with a familiar scent, a pleasant one. I sense Rupert in the distance and sure enough, his form emerges from the far off shadows. Still, my anxiety doesn't wane, an uncomfortable churning within that sets my body on edge. I notice him moving awkwardly through the displays as he makes his way towards me. That's when I smell it, the perfume of fear.
"Ethan, the sun's set. Time to wake," Rupert calls out as if he's announcing himself to me. Something's happening. Then it dawns on me, the day has come. My body readies for the test but I've forgotten the answers. At any minute I expect to find myself naked and late for finals.
"I hope this evening finds you well." He says, ever the proper gentleman, as he continues to make his way along.
"Better than most." The thumping in my mind begins to drown out all other sound.
What is eliciting this startling reaction? It's a new sickness, intensifying as he approaches. I catch a glimpse of his distracted features, glancing to and away and I follow his eyes to see a hunched over and hooded figure with him. It's being forced through the shadows by Rupert's direction. They step out from the final aisle and I see the figures arms tied behind them and their clothes ripped and soiled, bare footed and stumbling to keep upright. It reeks of fear; urine, sweat and endorphins coming together in an aromatic feast that makes my mouth water. Another whiff and I decipher the undeniable scent of femininity. It's a woman. No, not even… just a girl, young and ripe with the sickly sweet bouquet of dead blood seeping from her.
"Your instruction begins tonight, Ethan. Or had you forgotten?" He addresses me as if I were a student, remnants of his Watcher days, I suppose. With an effortless push, Rupert sends the hooded girl collapsing to the dusty ground and she immediately assumes a fetal position, quivering within her own shadows. Rupert stands at ease, hands folded together behind him, eyes staring at me, watching.
"I'd not forgotten." The fever is devastating. My hands tremble and sweat. My mouth dries like a desert and my groin stiffens with false life.
"I know it's difficult, but do try and listen. What you're feeling is natural," Rupert explains calmly. "Naturally unnatural in that it's only for us, collectively shared among our kind. It is a physical response generated on behalf of the presented stimulus. This creature contains what you need to survive and your body is informing you of that fact by way of the only means available. Pain, sickness, weakness; these may seem to be disadvantageous but in fact are benefits of our evolved natures."
I try to listen but the pumping of her heart is deafening music, a fatal temptation. And then the pain sets in, an agony to end all agonies. I fold over, grasping at my midsection as the muscles writhe into knots. My legs stiffen and I stagger backwards, tripping onto a bed.
"It hurts. Christ, it hurts." My body tenses as if rigor mortis was finally setting in. It is a brutal torture.
"It's the hunger." He tilts his head, speaking with faint sympathy and purpose. "Even if you've fed, you'll feel some form of it when a human violates your vicinity. It's difficult to interpret when other vampires are about. They tend to confuse the instincts, causing mixed signals, so to speak. This is why I secluded you to this wing. Without their company, you should clearly feel the reaction. Remember it well, it may spare you a dusty end."
"Make it stop." More plea than demand, but Rupert continues on with his tutorial.
"In time, Ethan." Rupert walks a circle around the hooded girl. "Much as a Slayer has a highly evolved impulse alerting her to our presence, we have ours alerting us to our prey." He stops. "And make no mistake about it, they are our prey." He unmasks her with a grand flourish.
When I lay my eyes on her, I'm moved to tears. She is a rare beauty, eyes large and green, locks of fiery hair generously curled, pulled back into a ponytail, cheeks rosy though turning ashen with dread. She sees me and tries to call out for help, gnawing ineffectually at her gag, jerking and twisting to be free from her captor. Rupert is unbothered. He grips her arms and yanks her to her feet but her knees buckle under her. She's completely beside herself with fear and he has to support her to keep her upright.
"You feel it, don't you? Your body telling you what you need to do… what comes next. To make the pain stop, Ethan, you must feed." In hearing the instruction, the girl screams and tries to work free from his grip. It's futile, he pays little attention to her, staring forward, staring expectantly at me.
Though I sense his observation, I can't take my eyes off her, even with the anguish of the sickness racking my entire body. She's so young, so scared and with those green eyes pleading to me, I feel an echo of sympathy, of mercy and doubt.
"There's no place for that now," Rupert corrects me quietly as the girl sobs within his clutches. "What you're feeling, the human emotions that persist within you, they're useless here and only serve to hinder you."
"Bring me a bottle. Isn't that not enough?"
"No, it's not enough. What you're going through is something we've all endured, Ethan. Though you're never truly rid of those human emotions, they will deaden in time. You'll see, you'll understand once you've fed. This is the final step… and the hardest."
As if mental encouragements to succumb to Rupert's wishes, my mind fills with disturbing images, all worse then the preceding. Violent bursts of blood curdling screams, of unhinged terror and I am the willing and able cause. Snapshots of burying my itching teeth into her red stained and most intimate flesh. Glimpses of ravaging her as she begs for death and even after I've granted it, tasting her again and again. She is only a child and yet my decaying thoughts betray what lingering morality bleeds from me. I am a monster.
"I don't think I can."
She's begging me with pitiful whimpers now. Rupert's expression changes to empathetic. He cups the girls chin and directs her face towards him. She looks away and he forces her back again and again. Still, she denies him, battling to the last.
"See here," he orders her gently. "Look at me. Look… at… me…"
Defeated, she finally looks, eyes tearful and sore, sucking labored breaths through her ragged gag. Rupert caresses her cheek and smiles. It is a compassionate smile, one of kindness, of virtue, of patience. And he whispers sweetly, "There's no need to fear, child. You feel no pain, only peace."
She quiets, absorbed within his mild green eyes promising tranquility.
"Good girl. Now go introduce yourself to Ethan."
He bows forward, placing a kiss to her forehead and continues further down, placing a tender kiss to her lips then continues even further down to her neck. I can't see what he's doing but my body senses it, quaking with need and desire. When Rupert pulls back, his mouth is sodden with crimson, yet his features remain humanly. The girl stands dazed in a trance, her neck torn open and pulsing out a spray of blood.
Rupert guides the girl to step forward until she's showering me with her hearts final beats. I watch in shock and revulsion as the blood rains down upon my face. Instinctively, I lick a drop from my lips and instantly feel a rush of euphoria with the taste. Without warning, I lunge to claim the pulpy wound, sopping up all that I can. It's ecstasy, the sensation of stealing her life, a life I feel coursing through my veins with every swallow.
"Cliché as it sound, this is what we are, Ethan. You'll understand in time, just as I did. As we all did. It takes time, as does all change."
Rupert consoles me as I feed, caressing my sweat speckled brow. It seems oddly tender until I realize that this, as with all his actions, serves a purpose. I can feel how I've changed under his fingertips, my features having adjusted with the protruding ridges of the demon. I begin to understand what it is I've become. As I choke down the blood of the innocent I grip savagely in my hands, I reflect on how easily I transformed from man to beast. All with a single drop of liquid life.
"So what's the plan? We go in with stakes blazing and dust anything without a pulse?" I ask as I make myself comfortable in the seat near the bathroom. Buffy doesn't look amused. As a matter of fact, she looks down right wigged. Can't say I blame her. We've done this dance before and came out with our toes smashed. LA has been chocked up as a complete loss by all agencies who have tried taking it back. What makes the Council think we'll make any difference?
"I'll tell you when Willow gets…"
I turn to see Willow standing by the hotel room door, her shoulders and arms loaded with bags and sporting a very un-Willowy frown. I'm immediately on my feet and hugging the stuffing out of her. For a second, it feels like old times.
"My witchy Willow . Little Miss Magicks herself, how are you?" I give her one last squeeze and finally back away to let her breathe again.
"Good, kinda. How've you been, Xander?" She asks unenthusiastically and takes a seat on the bed before Buffy can get her chance at a hug.
"Not bad," I say, shrugging it off as I pass Buffy to return to my previous seat. "Not good, but not bad. How's mediocre sound? Just this side of hanging on by a thread?"
"Sounds just about right," Will smiles and it brightens the room. Man, I've missed her.
"Thanks for coming," Buffy says softly, forehead creased with worry.
"Save the thanks for when we have him, okay?"
She sounds so harsh, so anti-Willow it hurts. I suddenly feel the need to fill the silence.
"Hows about we give the Buffster a break. We're all family here. It's not like it's her fault or anything."
"That's a matter of opinion," Willow says under her breath and Buffy doesn't even attempt to argue the point. She knows what Willow means. We all do.
"This wasn't my idea. I didn't want you guys involved."
"Hear that, Xander? Isn't it just super peachy to be wanted?"
"You know what I mean. I didn't want you guys to have to do this. It's my job."
Never a good thing to say, and before Willow can respond, I step between them.
"Look, we're all here now, like it or not. Council ordered Scooby reunion so let's get over it. Okay? As in get past it and move on."
I pause long enough to watch for argument and cut them both off before they start.
"This is us, okay? Us as in a team us with the ‘rah, rah, rah's'. Go team Scooby's? Remember back when we used to be friends? Well, let's revisit those happy days, shall we?"
"I'm sorry," Buffy says and both Willow and I are a bit shocked. But she said it and seems to be backing it up with her remorse face so that's something.
"So am I," Willow gives a little. "Let's get to work."
"So who else is party crashing this bar mitzvah?" I ask, hoping we quickly move on to more pressing matters like having more troops coming.
Buffy steps forward to chime in with the details. "This is what we know. The Initiative is engaging in blanket air raids meant to flatten cells throughout the city, targeting buildings that are possibly housing the insurgents. So far their efforts to keep the borders secure are successful and they've kept the demon population from spreading beyond the boundaries of the city. Now they're expanding their scopes in expectation to infiltrate the city itself. They've gained full support of local Special Forces units but it's the Council who's really running the show. They've arranged for special ops and wetworks teams to infiltrate the city limits in ongoing offensive attacks. Their purpose will be to surgically remove previously identified and tracked hostiles. I think it's safe to assume a small army, though there are no official numbers being released to avoid revealing our strategy to the enemy."
‘Enemy' I laugh, an unintentional chuckle catching us all off guard. They glance over with disturbed looks and my smile quickly fades.
"Sorry. It just struck me as funny, is all."
Buffy tries to return to business. "The city is most secure…"
"I mean… to think of him like that, ‘the enemy'." I punctuate quotes with my fingers and shrug uselessly. They both stare at me and I can see Willow 's empathetic smile. She gets it. Always has. "Its good tactics, though, isn't it? To keep this hush, hush? An undercover operation of undisclosed participants targeting him."
They stare, worried with my ramblings. Frankly, I don't care.
"I mean, we don't even call him by his actual name anymore. It's like a dirty word or something. So, rather than risk an accidental slip of the tongue, we avoid the subject all together. It's like he never existed, like he doesn't exist." It aches all over again. I thought I'd gotten past this, damnit!
"They aren't targeting him." Again, Buffy tries to return to business and I'm actually relieved when she does.
"What?" Willow asks.
"Wetworks and Special Forces, their job is to reduce the vampires overall numbers. Strike anything that moves. They aren't targeting him specifically."
"So if the Council and the Initiative are sending their big guns, their very bestest and brightest, what's our part in this?" Willow gets right to the point. We've known each other far too long for bullshit.
"Intel hasn't collected much data. What little I managed to get my hands on is totally lame; sketchy location reports, unreliable hostiles stats. In essence, we got nothing but pages of numbers amounting to a big zero. After a lot of stuffy headed deliberation, the Council has determined that the best course of action is to go for the brain. Down side is they don't know where he is. They're sending us in to try and flush him out." Buffy sounds as logical and detached as any soldier. Riley would be impressed.
"Translation, we're the bait," I say bitterly.
"Or the decoy," Willow adds with just as much resentment.
"No," Buffy says with a cutting hostility. "We're the executioners."