Warning: the penultimate scene of this chapter contains a brief scene of violence/torture that may be upsetting to some readers.
Peeta swallowed hard, feeling the pressure of her fingers on his throat as he did. "My name's Peeta Mellark-"
"Pita?" Buffy's eyebrows shot up. "You're a type of flatbread?"
But before he could spell his name for her, he was interrupted again, this time by Wesley. "Buffy..."
She whirled around, finally letting go of Peeta. A flash of red-hot anger seared through her veins as the sight of her onetime Watcher brought the memory of the last time she saw him rushing back - she remembered being overpowered by a horde of demons, their numbers simply too great for her to fight, who had carried her to some kind of creepy altar and held her down while Wesley chanted over her...
The only thing that stopped her from attacking him now was that she also recalled the anguish in every line of his face as he did whatever he had done to her, but her voice was still cold as she said, "You've got one hell of a nerve letting me see your face again."
"Buffy, I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am-"
"Save it. You took away the Slayers' powers in the middle of an Armageddon-scale battle so they could be slaughtered like sheep! I lived with those girls, I trained them, they left everything behind to come join us because they believed in what we were doing, and now they're all dead because of you! How can you think anything you say now will ever make that okay?"
"I don't. I don't expect your forgiveness, and I know I have no right even to ask for it, but this isn't the time or place to discuss my sins. We have to get you out of here."
Only then, as she scanned the area for whatever perceived threat had him so on edge, did Buffy realize that she had no idea where they were; they appeared to be in some kind of Cold War-era bunker like the one where Robot Ted had planned on taking her mother when he was trying to make Joyce his very own Stepford wife, except this one was much larger and was set up like a magical museum. The shock of finding herself in completely unfamiliar surroundings with no idea how she got there, or of how much time had passed since the last events that she could remember, was enough to quell her fury. "Where is 'here', anyway?" she asked in a somewhat calmer, albeit apprehensive, tone.
As her adrenaline ebbed, she felt cold air prickling against her skin, which finally drew her attention to the fact that she wasn't wearing a single stitch of clothing. "And where the hell are my clothes?!"
She felt an instinctive urge to cover as much of herself as she could by crossing her arms over her chest, but another part of her brain - the part that held her Slayer instincts - warned her that showing any sign of vulnerability might not be a good idea right now, especially since she might need her arms for fighting. Neither Wesley nor the boy had made any move against her, but that could change at any moment.
Luckily, Peeta had also noticed her sartorially challenged state, and resolved her dilemma by stripping off his own shirt and offering it to her. "Here, take this."
She only hesitated for a second before grabbing the proffered garment and yanking it on; thanks to Peeta's bulkier frame, his shirt hung halfway down her thighs, easily covering everything that needed to be covered. Though she still wasn't anywhere near ready to let her guard down, her voice was a good deal warmer when she spoke to him again. "Thanks, Bread Boy."
"Yes, he's very kind," Wesley said with an odd mixture of approval and impatience, "but we really do need to get moving. We could be discovered at any moment-"
The sound of doors sliding open cut him off, followed by the rhythmic thud of booted feet running toward them. Within minutes, they were surrounded by Capitol security forces, both human and demonic, all armed to the teeth. Buffy raised her scythe, her eyes darting from one guard to the next as she tried to figure out which one would attack first, but none of them made a move; they just stood there, weapons at the ready but inactive... Then the ones in the back started to step aside. Their ranks parted like water flowing around a rock, revealing a man with thick, neatly combed white hair and a short beard.
All of Buffy's focus instantly locked onto this man; she had never seen him before, yet there was something strangely familiar about him. Then his faded blue eyes turned an ugly, sulfuric yellow, and he spoke in a voice with a weird triple timbre, as if multiple beings were speaking in unison through his mouth. "So...we meet again, Slayer."
Her hands clenched tighter on the scythe's shaft, which thrummed in her grip as if the blade yearned to bury itself in his neck as much as she wanted to put it there, but she held back, not wanting to jump into battle before she truly had the measure of her opponent. "Yeah, I remember - you were there after I was captured, although you were in a different meat suit then." She vividly remembered those yellow eyes gazing down at her, gleaming with malice as their owner gloated over how the Slayer line was about to end forever. The entity had made sure to mention that the ritual was Wesley's personal invention, not that that came as a huge surprise to Buffy; as far as she knew, he was the only one smart enough to pull off something like that, apart from Giles or Willow, but fortunately Wolfram and Hart had never managed to get their hooks into either of them. "You might want to change soon; this one's looking a little threadbare."
The Senior Partners merely chuckled at the insult. "Fear not, Slayer, for there are always those willing to welcome us into their hearts and souls. We shall live on; we are eternal, while you are nothing more than a pitiful relic that will soon be consigned once more to the abyss...but not until we have tired of amusing ourselves with you. Take her!"
Two dozen demons surged forward at their command, and Buffy decapitated a handful almost in the blink of an eye, while another four were left wishing for such a clean, painless end. Then, while she was busy using her scythe to parry another demon's sword, a particularly brave human came up behind her with a stun gun, but before he could fire it, Peeta jumped into the fray, wrapped an arm around the man's throat, and wrested the weapon out of his grasp.
Hearing the scuffle behind her, Buffy glanced over her shoulder just long enough to catch a glimpse of her would-be assailant crumpling to the floor as Peeta zapped him with his own weapon, then turned back to her own fight at the sound of something whistling through the air, and saw her enemy's blade sweeping toward her neck. She nimbly ducked out of the path of its deadly arc, then swung her scythe, literally cutting the sword-wielding demon off at the knees. That move was followed by a roll that took her right between the legs of the next one; from there she executed a swift upward chop, and the resulting howl of agony told her that the demon in question was definitely male.
Buffy twisted out of the way as he blundered off, still howling, and came up perfectly positioned to stake the vampire in front of her, before quickly spinning her weapon so that the bladed end was foremost once more and using her momentum to behead another. The female vampire exploded into dust...and Buffy found herself staring straight at the Senior Partners' latest host, her path to him momentarily clear. She leapt into the air, her scythe's blade poised at precisely the right angle to come down on the crown of his head...and the Senior Partners fired a bolt of red lightning from their host's hand that hit her squarely in the chest, slamming her to the ground.
Peeta, who had been using his pilfered stun gun to take down as many guards as he could while they remained primarily focused on Buffy, looked around when he heard her cry out, and was shocked to see her lying in a heap at Snow's feet, clearly struggling not to pass out. A human and demon duo took advantage of his momentary distraction to confiscate his weapon, throw him to the floor, and cuff his hands behind his back.
Snow's features twisted into an awful smile as the Senior Partners looked through his eyes at their downed captives, then shifted to a fierce scowl when they turned to Wesley, who had hovered helplessly on the sidelines throughout the brief fight. He wished he could have helped, but of course he was forbidden to take any action against Wolfram and Hart's agents.
"Did you really think," the demonic triad demanded in a furious hiss, "that you could so brazenly defy us here, in the heart of our stronghold...and get away with it?"
"Well, hope springs eternal," Wesley replied coolly, "although technically, I already have. You never realized I had found a way to preserve Buffy's soul in the original ritual, and you failed to notice that I was working to reverse it until it was too late. Whatever you do to me now, I've already succeeded - the Slayer's line has been reforged. Kill Buffy now, and another will rise in her place. Of course, more may be called regardless; I admit I have no idea of whether Willow's spell to activate every potential Slayer will carry over into the new line, nor of how many Potentials there may be in Panem. Still, it's probably in your best interests to leave her alive, just in case."
The possessed president's eyes narrowed to burning slits, but the Senior Partners were unable to argue the point; if Buffy Summers' continued existence might prevent another of her pestilential breed from coming into her powers, killing her was simply too great a risk. "We had no plans for her immediate demise anyway; we may yet have a use for her, if only because we have been deprived of truly diverting entertainment since Angel broke free. You, on the other hand, have proven that your duplicity outweighs your usefulness, great though it is..."
"So now I suppose you'll send me to one of your hell dimensions until you decide I've been tortured long enough to see the error of my ways," Wesley said, sounding almost bored at the prospect. "I do hope you'll dream up some more imaginative punishments this time; my last sojourn in the penalty box grew quite monotonous after the first decade or so."
His calm demeanor only served to further infuriate the Partners. With a snap of Snow's fingers, a swirling red vortex opened up beneath Wesley's feet, sucking his ghostly form down like smoke drawn into a fan. The Senior Partners then rounded on those of their minions who were still standing, barking out a sharp, "Well? Take care of this."
Four demons, all at least seven feet tall, stepped forward and clamped heavy steel manacles to Buffy's wrists and ankles, binding her with thick chains that weighed almost as much as she did. Only when they were sure she was thoroughly restrained - or as sure as one could ever be with a Slayer - did they hoist her onto their shoulders and carry her away. Another pair took charge of Peeta, roughly marching him from the vault.
Their business thus concluded, the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart withdrew from their host's mind, though they left the link open so they could continue to observe the goings-on in Panem through his eyes. Those eyes lost their yellow hue with the demons' departure, and one of the human guards called for a medical team as Snow collapsed, a fresh wave of blood bubbling up between his lips.
Underneath the vault's floor, Pollux shimmied down the ladder leading up to Wesley's hidden entrance, back into the main tunnel. He had waited there for Peeta to come back so he could lead him to a safe hiding place in the sewers, along with the woman Wesley had said would join them if all went well, but judging by what he'd just heard overhead, all had not gone well.
The Avox was distraught at the realization that their plan had failed - the thought of what punishments Snow might have in store for Wesley was particularly nerve-wracking - but then he remembered his friend telling him that he would be leaving his current work detail soon, to join his brother in the world above. Though he hadn't seen Castor in all the years since he was sent underground, he knew his brother was also a member of the resistance, and had apparently become part of a fairly well-connected group.
When I get out of here, he resolved, I'll tell him what happened. If his friends' connections are good enough, maybe we can still save Peeta and the woman.
Hundreds of miles away, District Thirteen was in an uproar. It had started shortly after midnight, when Drusilla woke Angel up in order to share her latest vision with him, only this time there was nothing flighty or coquettish in her manner; she had burst through his door in a snarling rage, ranting and raving even more incoherently than usual. It took Angel some time to calm her down enough to get a sensible word out of her, but when he did, the information she imparted was earth-shaking: impossible as it seemed, the power of the Slayer had through some miracle been restored to the world.
Drusilla, however, didn't see it as a miracle; she had always been convinced that Buffy was to blame for Spike's death, and no matter how many times Angel tried to explain to her that her former lover had willingly sacrificed himself when Sunnydale was destroyed, or that Buffy wasn't even present when Spike perished for the second and final time in Wolfram and Hart's apocalypse, nothing could shake the crazed seer out of that belief. Now it appeared that her warped mind had conflated Buffy with every Slayer that had ever existed, with the very concept of the Slayer itself, which accounted for her fury at its return.
By the time Angel managed to pacify her, an emergency meeting had been called - the district's other seers might not have been as gifted as Drusilla, but they weren't so blind as to miss a magical upheaval of this magnitude. The only question was what to do with the information - obviously they needed to find the new Slayer (or Slayers) before Wolfram and Hart did, but they had no idea of how many to look for, or what to do if the girls lived in districts that were still under the Capitol's control.
After all, as Coin pointed out, "Their defenses are so strong that it's all we can do to get a look inside, and we don't have the resources to mount extraction operations all over Panem."
"Maybe we won't have to," Angel countered. "For all we know, there may not be that many, and I have a hunch that at least one might be closer than we think."
Her pale eyebrows arched skeptically. "What, you're expecting a new Slayer to just walk through that door?"
She gestured to the main door leading into their command center, which at that very moment slid open to reveal Katniss standing there in the tank top and shorts she wore to bed, her tangled hair indicating that she'd done a lot of tossing and turning before giving up on sleep altogether. "Angel? Someone told me you were in here..." Her voice trailed off when she noticed that he wasn't alone. "Sorry, I didn't know you were busy."
"It's fine." Leaving his seat, he circled around the table so he could speak to her with no obstacles between them. "What's on your mind?"
She delayed answering by scuffing one bare foot against the other, clearly reluctant to share whatever was troubling her in front of Angel's entire war council. "It's probably nothing. I shouldn't have bothered you-"
"You're not bothering me; if there's anything I can do for you, I'm here to help. Why don't you tell me what woke you up? Did you have a nightmare?"
She gave a sheepish nod. "It was weird, though," she added quickly, as if eager to explain why she thought her latest nocturnal disturbance merited a late-night visit. "I dreamed about fighting demons, but these weren't battles I've lived through - it was like something out of another world, and then I saw this room where a man was doing some kind of spell with a bowl of blood..." Her words dwindled into silence again when she noticed the peculiar look Angel was giving her. "You think I'm crazy, don't you?"
"Not at all," he assured her. On the contrary, what she described sounded a lot like the prophetic dreams Buffy used to have, which seemed to indicate that his theory about the identity of Panem's first new Slayer was right on the money; he'd always thought Katniss had all the qualities the Powers That Be could want in their Chosen One, and the magical sensitivity she'd shown in the presence of Wolfram and Hart's totem underneath Eleven's Justice Building suggested that she was somehow attuned to the supernatural. "I think I know what your dream was about, but I just want to check something first."
Then he struck without warning - one minute he was standing there in a perfectly relaxed stance, the next he was a blur of motion, his fist flying toward her face so fast that she only just saw it out of the corner of her eye. He was prepared to pull his punch, but he didn't have to; she sidestepped just as he had taught her to do, then caught his outstretched arm and, thrusting her hip into his side to knock him off-balance, threw him neatly over her shoulder. The moves weren't new, but the speed with which she executed them certainly was, and she'd never been able to put him on the floor before.
Katniss, however, was oblivious to her display of unwonted physical prowess, too busy being perturbed at the impromptu martial arts lesson to realize what she had done. "What the hell was that for?" she demanded crossly, before noticing that every eye in the room was riveted on her, their owners' expressions ranging from disbelief to admiration, which in some cases almost bordered on reverence. "What?"
Peeta didn't know how long they left him alone in his cell - it seemed like several days, but since he couldn't discern any pattern to the intervals at which food appeared by the door or the lights were turned on and off, it was impossible to be sure. They came back for him eventually, and refused to answer any of his questions about what had become of Buffy as they dragged him off to the interrogation rooms again. He could only assume she had succumbed to whatever sadistic torments Snow had devised for her, which must be why their attention was now focused on him once more.
"So now that you're done with her, I guess it's my turn to be tortured," he surmised as a pair of guards shoved him into a metal chair, which was outfitted with shackles for his wrists and ankles. He was trying to emulate the blasé manner Wesley had affected in the moment before he was packed off to whatever hellish dimension the Senior Partners had deemed an appropriate punishment for his seditious activities, but he wasn't sure he'd managed to pull it off quite so well.
"In a manner of speaking," replied a gray-haired, gray-uniformed man who was currently the only other human present. "But not in the way you've probably been imagining. You see, President Snow understands certain things about you-"
"I doubt that."
This comment earned a thin-lipped smile from the man. "I think you'll find that he does. For instance, our president understands that you're brave and selfless-" His mouth twisted, indicating what he thought of these qualities "-and that such people are often able to withstand a great deal, if they believe they're serving a cause greater than themselves or protecting someone whose welfare they value above their own, as you do Katniss Everdeen's. President Snow also understands, however, that people like you are likely to be strongly affected by the suffering of others."
He signaled one of the demons flanking Peeta's chair, who opened the door and dragged in a rather battered figure - a figure Peeta recognized.
"Cinna?!" The stylist looked very different from the last time Peeta saw him, his fashionable clothes having been replaced with the plain white attire that seemed to be standard issue for prisoners and his gold eyeliner gone - instead, one eye was now accented with a nasty bruise - yet there was no doubt it was him. "What's he doing here? He hasn't done anything wrong!"
"Maybe not," the interrogator replied with an indifferent shrug, obviously not overly concerned with Cinna's actual guilt or innocence, "but he seemed friendly with you and Everdeen when he was prepping you for the Games, so we had to find out if he knew anything about your ties to the insurrectionists in District 13. It's a matter of national security."
"We didn't have any ties to Thirteen before the Games - we didn't even know it still existed! All Katniss and I wanted was to go home and live in peace, but Snow just couldn't leave us alone-"
One of the demon guards cuffed him on the back of the head, cutting him off while the interrogator watched impassively. Once Peeta was silenced, he continued speaking. "It appears now that he really was ignorant of Everdeen's plans to foment rebellion, that he was only doing his job as a stylist in making the two of you stand out from the crowd... However, the fact remains that he seems to be the closest thing either of you have to a friend in the Capitol-" He leaned forward, placing both hands on the steel table between them as he lowered his face to Peeta's eye level "-and you're not the kind of person who would let a friend suffer if it was within your power to stop it."
Peeta's stomach twisted as he stared into those cold eyes, empty of any emotion or compassion. "So you're going to hurt him unless I give you information on the rebels?" he asked in a strangled voice.
Cinna, who had hung like a rag doll in the guards' grasp since he was brought in, suddenly became more animated. "Peeta," he rasped out, his voice dry and hoarse yet urgent, "don't tell them anyth-"
A beefy fist slammed into his stomach, knocking the breath out of him and causing him to double over, wheezing. The demon who owned said fist was already drawing it back in preparation for another blow when the interrogator held up his hand.
"I don't expect you to tell me anything," he informed Peeta, "at least not yet. Right now, I imagine you're still trying to think of a way out of this; you haven't yet accepted the fact that you are powerless here, that thereis nothing you can do to influence what happens in this room aside from telling me every detail of what you've learned during your time in District 13, right down to the type of blood Angel prefers to drink...but you will. Begin."
The guards obeyed his order with great enthusiasm, punching and kicking the stylist into a bloody pulp. He endured the beating bravely, only letting out the occasional grunt of pain; in fact, Peeta made more noise than he did, yelling at them to stop and thrashing against his restraints, but of course they didn't give even the tiniest bit. All he could do was watch until finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the interrogator said, "Enough."
The demons ceased pummeling Cinna immediately and backed away, but Peeta didn't bother watching to see where they went or what they did next; his attention was fixed on the crumpled body they had left lying on the floor, as he searched desperately for any sign of life. "Cinna?" he called out softly, his voice ragged from shouting. "Can you hear me?"
"He's alive," the interrogator said dismissively. "Killing him would serve no purpose at the moment, but now you see what will happen to him if you refuse our demands. I want you to think about that in your cell tonight, and I want you to think about how much worse it can get. I believe you've already seen that we have much more effective tools than fists at our disposal."
Peeta didn't want to think about it, but he couldn't help it; his mind kept revisiting the torture chambers he'd seen upon his arrival, churning out images of each instrument within being used to gruesome effect on Cinna until he was driven to pacing his cell like a caged animal, unable to even try to sleep despite knowing that the lack of rest would only make it harder to keep a clear head tomorrow.
Betraying the resistance couldn't possibly be the right thing to do, he knew that, but how could it be right to let Cinna be tortured when he could end his suffering with just a few words? He supposed he could stick with his original plan to feed them false information, except that he wasn't sure he would be able to lie convincingly now that there was another life on the line, not just his own, and if the interrogator realized he was being dishonest... He shuddered at the thought of what would happen to Cinna then.
Sitting down hard on his poor excuse for a bed, he rubbed vigorously at his forehead as if doing so would erase the horrific images unfolding inside his head, and hopefully stimulate his brain into coming up with a solution to his deadly predicament, but his mind remained locked in the same hopeless spiral. No matter what angle he tried to approach the problem from, he kept coming up against the inescapable fact that Wolfram and Hart had him and Cinna right in the palm of their hand, and they were utterly ruthless; their agents would have no qualms about playing this twisted game through to the very end...and even with the lives of everyone he cared for hanging in the balance, as well as the future of the entire nation of Panem, Peeta didn't know if he could do the same.
Well, things have certainly taken a dark turn for our heroes, haven't they? I'm sorry if reading about Cinna getting beaten up was hard for anyone, but it seemed like the kind of thing Wolfram and Hart's Capitol would do, so I went with it.
Also, I hope Katniss being the first new Slayer wasn't too predictable - but if it was, I guess predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing, since she really is a perfect candidate in a lot of ways. I do plan to add more Slayers later on, though I'm not completely sure yet how many or who they'll be. Johanna Mason is another obvious choice, and if anyone would like to put forward any other suggestions, I'm open to considering them...unless it's Effie Trinket. I'm pretty sure the Powers That Be would take one look at her and run the other way.