TITLE: Theatre of the Absurd
AUTHOR: Roseveare, t.l.green@talk21.com
RATING: Hard R
LENGTH: 6,500 words
TIMELINE: AU (wishverse with an Ats bent)
SUMMARY: "Don't get taken alive," the army major had said. She never was any good at taking orders.
NOTES: The play is 'The Changeling', which I remembered from school. The blind Slayer was intended as a Daredevil reference, though I bow to the idea's precedence in Sofia Jirafe's 'Thousand Yard Stare', but I liked it too much to edit out. The idea of a hero character carrying a corpse on their journey is from Stephen Donaldson's second Covenant series, though I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere. The rest of the twistedness, I think, is mine. And I'm really, really sorry...
In my defense (or possibly not) this would have been much more offensive if I'd been allowed to kill off Doyle instead.
DISCLAIMER: Antonio Banderas does not belong to me. Or to Darla. And, uh, the rest neither. Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda...
BOOK OF DAYS CHALLENGE INFO: Written for Sunka; Character Kate; Genre dark; And Darla; Restrictions no character death; spoiler unrestricted; rating to NC-17.

Theatre of the Absurd

Three feet of snow and the dead man on her shoulder dragged her steps. Too many days since last she'd fed, walking through a land filled with sweet fuck all, a world at a standstill around her. The only bright spot - and a 'bright spot' only with the employment of heavy irony - was that most days had cloud cover or snowfall so thick there was no need to dig under to hide from the sun.

Hunger, of course, had an obvious immediate remedy. As the days progressed and the corpse continued to smell better and not worse, she bit her lip instead and tasted a blood that did nothing to nourish.

//"Take me with you," Grissom said. "Whatever happens. Promise you won't leave me behind." It hadn't sounded like last gasps ought. It hadn't sounded like prophecy, either. It had sounded hard, his eyes staring through her from his wrinkled, leathery face, his grip on her arms too strong. The weakness had come the instant after, when the life passed from him and left her holding only the shell she was to carry three hundred miles through a polar winter in Pennsylvania and New York State.//

Eight days through miles and snow and hunger with the scent of his blood in her throat. When things were at their worst she talked to him to remind herself, recalling his growled jokes and his ever-constant cursing on the lack of tobacco or alcohol in the Master's New World, fighting back against the instincts of her monstrous nature all the way.

The city rose out of the blanket of the snow like poetry, like prayer, grey upon white, a bastion of civilisation, a tangle on the skyline -- in daylight still, but not for long. That first view was like magic; it faded with every step closing the distance between them. Nearness destroyed the illusion that this was still in any way a functional city. She reached its suburbs as the light was beginning to fade, and found them as empty as the land around.

No snow ploughs, no organisation, no roads or traffic - just a blanket of white, like a blank page, a clean slate. Untouched, untravelled, no footprints but her own. A changed world panorama, hardly a world at all.

***

//She'd been asking him about home. Things were better in Canada. There were still areas there under human control, and she'd never understood why he didn't just go back. Sure, he wasn't entirely human, but they'd never know it from appearances. Not like the way the vampires could smell the human in him strongly enough to override their distaste for the rest. A mission sanctified by some vague, nameless deity was one thing - both of their ball and chain - but he was too old, surely, for all of this. If he turned and walked away, what could they do? "Don't you want to find out if your family are still alive?"

"Family." He spat in the frozen dirt. Watched the spittle freeze for several silent moments. "Ptttttt." Irritable sound of breath rattling the back of his rotted teeth."I guess I do, damn it. But it's not gonna happen. Some things... you just know. You can feel. Don't know if it's this bull I been carrying around in my head all these years, but I know it. I ain't gonna see home again."

She wanted to tell him it didn't work like that, not that she had even the first idea what it did work like. She wanted to tell him he was full of shit, like she always did when he was doom-crying, the aggressive banter that was the language of his reassurance and her own. But she didn't have the chance.

He came out of the vision with his face twisted in too-customary pain. "Darla," he said, eyes hollow and haunted. "I saw Darla." He didn't say how he knew it was Darla when she'd been long gone from Sunnydale before he arrived there; she thought of the past and shuddered, wondering what else he'd seen. "She's in New York, Kate. We need to go there. We need to go now."//

It took searching long into the night before she found any signs of habitation. A fledgling had laired in what remained of a mini-mart, decked with shelves still stocked with useless food drying and decaying. The fledgling had no answers to her questions. She snapped its neck and drained the stale, dead blood from its veins. Hunger and the memory of taste drew her to open a vacuum-sealed carton of salted peanuts, chocolate dated seven years ago, a can of vegetable curry. They might have been cardboard. At least they kept her teeth busy. Away from Grissom's corpse.

In the days that followed, she worked her way into the heart of the city. There were more vampires the deeper she progressed, mostly the fledglings whose numbers had exploded in the days of the war, when the Master's forces turned captives indiscriminately in order to swell their ranks, until the ratio was something in excess of fifty to one towards those created in speed and brutality from humans still living after battle and sent out to brutalise in their turn. The gnawing insistence of her hunger gradually subsided, eased by what essentially amounted to an act of cannibalism. She didn't see any humans. She didn't expect to. It was probably just as well.

She had seen much the same tableau a hundred elsewheres, but somehow here it was worse, made so by symbol and legend.

New York had been the last hold of significant resistance, the last to fall, at least in popular mythology; the other last stands too obscure to amount to anything in the remnant shreds of national psyche.

There were any number of places where humans still ruled. America was the stronghold, and the Master reigned supreme upon Sunnydale's hellmouth, though with little control over how the organisation of his immediate domain fell to anarchy over the rest of the nation. Outside his view, no structure or empire but destruction and chaos. The rest of the world, though bloodied, stood little danger of falling. The tactics of war were what defeated the empire, though they won battles enough.

After spending the second day in an abandoned residence hiding from the re-emergent sun, increasingly aware of the corpse's growing stench, on the third night and day she walked down streets last experienced in 1979, at age ten, her father's hand in hers and a cheap camera swinging from her wrist. And now again at thirty-two, age thirty-two eternal, with a corpse in one hand and a sword in the other, she asked her questions, fed, and walked on.

The third day, the snow was falling again in flurries that burned like shotgun pellets. She caught a fledgling eating half-frozen rats in an alley. Crouching into the space behind a rusting dumpster, he sucked on the small corpses, trying to melt fast-freezing blood with a body temperature marginally warmer than the land around.

"I'm looking for a vampire called Darla," she said, levelling the sword. The wooden hilt, sharpened to a point at the end, poised over his heart. "Know where I can find her?"

"The Lyceum," the fledgling gulped. "West 45th Street."

***

Broadway didn't have much glitter left. The theatre district looked like a hurricane had smashed through it. Maybe it had. It was certainly true that the dilapidation looked extreme for only ten years. Maybe the vampires had just played rough here before they tired of it.

//There was a moment - frozen in her memory, time almost standing still - when in a sudden bubble of calm she'd looked up from her personal battle, the dust at her feet and the creature... demon... whatever it was that she'd emptied her gun into and was still writhing with the back of its head and half its torso blown out.

She'd looked up beyond herself and realised she was standing in a field of slaughter, and her side wasn't winning. The uniforms, army and police interspersed, belonged almost exclusively to the bodies on the ground. Some of them were almost unrecognisable as bodies - except she recognised half a face, its whole eye still looking at her, its eyelid still twitching. He'd been standing next to her on the lines. Like a novice she let the shock eat up precious time she should have been using to reload; lost the gun to her next challenger and fought on with a mere length of sharpened wood clasped so hard in her hand its splintery surface left rough scar tissue she carried with her still.//

In amongst the rest, the Lyceum shone. The exterior, cleaned and in immaculate repair, was a marked contrast amid the devastation she'd been beginning to think there was no end to.

Even the glass in the doors was whole, and clean enough it actually sparkled, though she would never see her face in it. At least her fingers left faint grease prints when she pushed her way inside, some physical evidence of a connection with the world around.

The lobby was as immaculate as the exterior, and lit - someone must have installed a self-contained generator, and cared enough to keep foraging the wreck of New York to fuel it. Advertisements for old productions interspersed the elaborate decor, still as perfect as if she'd stepped into the America long lost to time and change. A nugget of human history, human culture.

Who would do this...?

She almost laughed at herself for the question. She knew well enough. Amazed... 'breathless' was an entirely redundant description, she supposed, but the tight feeling in her chest was one she could not help but associate with the word... she followed her nose up a gentle rise of red-carpeted staircase and down again into the main auditorium.

The voices drifting to her enhanced ears through the closed doors crystallised into words as she pushed inside.

"A token for me?"

"It was sent somewhat unwillingly, I could not get the ring without the finger."

A soft woman's voice, breathy, a man's faintly accented, both familiar somehow, dredging out a tendril of memory she couldn't quite put her finger on.

"Bless me! What have you done?"

"Why, is that more than killing the whole man...?"

Kate dropped her gaze, from the man and woman on stage to their silent audience. The players' words faded into background at her instant recognition, even from the back, of that blond hair like an angelic halo, and the grace of posture recognisable from any distance.

She stepped slowly down the aisle. Theatre elegance, over-elaborate, restored and polished to perfection, herself the only blemish here. She couldn't help but be aware of her stained travel-clothes damp and crumpled from the snow, the smell of blood and decay that wasn't just from the corpse she carried, scratches unhealed on her face from the last fledgling to put up more fight than anticipated, dirt and blood in her hair. But then she would always look shoddy beside Darla, who was standing now, turning at her approach, eyes widening a little before composure quashed surprise and replaced it with a chill smile.

//"Don't get taken alive," the army major had said. Had elaborated. Examples each more graphic than the last to give them incentive. Not too many examples. Not too many had gotten away. Not too many of those had been in any state to tell stories.

She never was any fucking good when it came to following orders.

The slap to her head bought them just seconds of dizziness. But it was enough. In seconds, hands gripped her jaw and thumbs levered open her mouth from the sides like a bit; her neck wrenched; a shaft of doughy dead flesh hit the back of her throat then forced its way further as fingers curled in her hair and yanked back her head. Impatiently deepening jerks made her gag. She tried to struggle and the wrist not already broken was caught in a crushing grip. More bones snapped.

"Gnnnh--" Her muffled scream of pain was barely a sound at all, and new fingers took advantage of her legs' reflexive kicks, catching her thighs parted and parting them further until dislocation threatened. Heavy knees freed the fingers to open two zips. Her frantic struggles stuffed the shaft in her throat deeper and made the creature above her laugh; made no impression on the one below who released her numbed thighs to crush her hips onto his. Her body convulsed with the revolted shock of dual invasion.

She never knew how she found the strength to close her teeth together hard, to claw blindly until her nails caught something soft. All she knew was that after, there was blood in her mouth, and someone was howling.

"Jesus fuck--" She managed to turn her head and spit blood before the one still inside her backhanded her, shattering half the bones in her cheek. She saw his right eye was gone before her head hit the floor. Someone whimpered somewhere behind her. He started to thrust with concentrated violence, and her broken wrists bounced against the ground to his rhythm. "Fucking bitch..."

A harsh laugh cracked the air. It came from behind him, in shadows where she couldn't see (and barely heard; was barely sensible). But a moment later a cold voice cut through the fog. "Dear me. We have been in the wars, haven't we, boys?" The monster was casually pulled from her and discarded, hitting head-first a wall and then, limply, the floor.

Clicks of a tongue rose into the air like music, and the figure stepping into the light waved a finger chidingly. Paused, digit still extended, but not towards the two men. Pointing.

Smiling.

"Mine."//

Darla looked like a porcelain doll when she smiled. Her silver satin dress only emphasized the effect. Blood-red lips, cheeks the pallor of death, golden hair. Baby-doll. Kate never played with dolls as a child.

The red mouth fell slightly open and the innocent eyes fractionally widened; the illusion of breath catching, false to the core. "Ah," she said breathily, appreciatively, her voice sliding down Kate's spine. "My warrior-consort..."

"Darla." Kate heard the dulled, heavy quality in her own voice, and the usual throaty rasp sharpened by lack of use. She took Darla's extended hand in her own automatically (when, she asked herself, had she sheathed the sword?) and raised it to her lips. The skin was warmer than her own from the ambient temperature of the theatre. She fancied she felt... something... before she withdrew.

"So cold," Darla chided. "Is that all I get? Come, now. I've missed you."

"You left," Kate reminded hoarsely.

"And you stayed. Always the good little girl." Her smirk was the very embodiment of mocking, and for a moment Kate was sure that she knew. "But I take it you finally grew tired of serving that dried up husk who calls himself our Master. I knew you would. He sired me and I left him. Twice over." Her lashes lowered. "But then, I suppose you aren't such a good girl, after all. You never came with me."

"I'm here now." And for what? Grissom had known what they were to do. All he'd ever told her was that they had to find Darla. Damn him for being so obtuse and close-mouthed.

"So you are." Darla's gaze drifted back to the stage, and Kate let her own follow. The action had taken a frenetic turn, the man's hands gripping the woman's shoulders, her clothing torn and askew; she tearing more in her struggles, he as he shook her to punctuate his words.

"Let this silence thee: the wealth of all Valencia shall not buy my pleasure from me. Can you weep fate from its determin'd purpose? So soon may you weep me."

Kate felt her jaw drop as recognition finally clicked. She stared at Darla, cast a pained look back at the stage to double-check the initial impulse, and blurted, "You ate Antonio Banderas?"

Darla rolled her eyes. "Michelle was more fun, and don't look at me like that. In fact, I should have gotten more actors when we took down LA. The minions make a balls-up of half their fill-in performances. There is no culture left in this city." The frown intensified. "Why do you have that disgraceful corpse on your shoulder?"

Kate lowered Grissom reluctantly to the floor and shrugged. Seeing no explanation forthcoming, Darla shrugged as well and turned back to the performance, where Antonio Banderas was gleefully raping Michelle Pfeiffer while, Kate noted, a host of faces looked on from the wings.

//"You only need a sip..." the smooth voice purred, angelic form stretching above her as she lay with blood aplenty already in her mouth. Her own blood darkened the blonde woman's lips, but the wound on her throat was numb.

Two fingers slipped inside her mouth. They emerged a moment later red. "Only a sip. You're already dead. Do you really want to be his?"

The slim body brushed full-length against hers, poised above with hands and knees somehow avoiding sprawled legs and unnaturally-angled arms, the buttons on the blonde's shirt ripped open to allow breasts free sway. Where they pressed to Kate's, the contact felt intimate despite the mass of shapeless uniform between them. Lips ghosted over her nose, her forehead, her fluttering eyelids.

A faint slicing whisper on the air... a fingernail withdrew... skin the texture of silk touched her chin, trailed it with moisture.

"A sip..." the voice insisted.

She parted her lips, and the first drops hit her tongue before Darla's bleeding nipple slid between them.//

"Why did you leave?" she countered, to distract herself from the stage, and the demon within raising its head and starting to tussle with the soul.

"For this." Darla didn't look at her, savagely spitting words enunciated with hate. "To salvage a piece of the world before they tore it all down." Kate noticed there was a champagne glass in her hand for the first time when she threw it. It crashed into the front of the stage and splintered. The players played on oblivious. "Fuck! Have you seen this place? No... no, you haven't seen it. You can't see the corpses beneath the snow, still lying where they were left to rot - the great talents, the finest minds, left in the dirt with the peasants and the tramps alike by fucking imbecile fledglings that know nothing beyond the base lust for their next bloody feed! Brave new world? Glorious achievement? The triumph of our kind? A brainless rabble! And when the human cattle run out, what then? We turn on each other, until there's nothing left but death, and the rats even they won't touch inherit the Earth!

"I miss civilisation. The opera... oh, God, real music! Shopping... fuck, I miss shopping... restaurants! Gourmet waiters... fucking running water... electricity... not having to worry about the goddamn wine running out!" Her hands contracted to claws, tucked into her sides, unaccustomed stiffness in her stance. "Vampires can't create for shit. And the fledglings... animals! Fucking animals! Damn the Master. Damn him. You know what we are... we know there's nothing better waiting after this world. And what the hell kind of a world is this one now?"

She paused, seeming to make an effort to rein in her fury. "This is mine," she said, pointing down to the floor. The creaky boards of the old theatre that shifted underfoot. "Mine."

On the stage, Michelle clutched the shreds of her clothes to her as she backed out of sight to a smatter of applause from the minions in the wings, splash of red vivid on her thigh. Antonio lounged on his back on the stage with his pants still undone. Whistling.

***

Surrounded by hot water, she felt herself thawing. She'd spent enough time in temperatures below freezing, and without any internal body-heat probably friction had been the only thing preventing her from becoming an icicle. If she'd stayed still too long, she'd have remained there until the spring.

Kate sighed as Darla dunked the fake chalice again and dribbled more warm water over her neck and shoulders. "Mmmm... I can't remember when I last had an actual bath..."

"Oh, do round it to the nearest year," Darla cooed. "And look at your hair! It's a disgrace."

While her fingers tugged at the sodden mass, catching in the tangles as they tried to brush through and sending little stabs of pain where they pulled, Kate peered toward the open door that led into Darla's suite again. She had checked before-hand that there was no way into the room without passing that door. Grissom's corpse was wrapped in a plastic sheet in the corner of the main room - Darla had put her foot down at the idea of having it in the bathroom - and the vampires that lived in Darla's theatre of the absurd hadn't seen human flesh and blood in a long time, however decayed.

Darla cast the chalice aside in order to use both hands on the tangles. It floated down the tub and butted against Kate's bare thigh. It was a theatre prop, gilt-leafed, inlaid with plastic gems, much lighter than it looked. She should have guessed Darla would never condescend to a common jug.

"I haven't seen my hair in over a decade," she said. Despite herself, she found she was relaxing, leaning back and nuzzling the top of her head into the curve of Darla's throat.

"We can tell," Darla responded with a chiding mock pomposity that sharply reminded her of how this, too, was a play. Was Darla capable of anything but the pretence of affection? The memory of it?

"I must admit, I never thought I'd meet Antonio Banderas," she said, searching for something to say. "I don't think he liked me, though."

"Oh, he liked you fine. He's just jealous. We'll double-team him sometime and end all that such nonsense." Darla gave her hair one last tug, and while Kate was still choking, announced, "I'm going to get a brush."

In the almost-sleepy void of Darla's absence, Kate wondered - hardly for the first time - just what she was here to achieve. Darla, Grissom had said, but he hadn't said, for example, that they had to kill Darla (and would she? Could she really drive in the stake?). He hadn't said, either, that they were to help Darla. And it hadn't sounded like a warning, but then Grissom could be obtuse enough on his own, even without the cursed visions thrown in.

Darla came back with a brush and roused her from her thoughts by leaning over the bath and scraping the bristles up Kate's unprotected leg from calf to inner thigh, ducking back with a high laugh from the splash Kate's flinch produced.

"Ah-ah," she said, pointing the hairbrush sternly. "I thought you were the good girl."

//The tranquilliser dart was wearing off. She was still sluggish, but it wouldn't be long before she could break the chains on her ankles and wrists. The question was whether she'd be strong enough to take down the blind girl and the Romany man before they shot her with another dose. She bided her time, watched and listened.

Five of them. Two female, two male, one silent unknown keeping him or herself to the shadows. Only the blind girl and the Romany had been there when she was ambushed - unexpected, that; as a general rule, humans did not lie in wait to jump vampires. The blind girl, mid-teens and dark-haired, careful silent movements and far too fucking strong, had to be a Slayer. Some idiot must have finally gone too far in his games and killed the one captive in Sunnydale. She'd heard of a feud between a Romany tribe and Darla's line, which explained the man. The older woman could be another Romany. The man in the ridiculous hat sure as hell wasn't.

They whispered over a mess of spell components strewn on the grass. Kate's ears caught the whispers easily and dismissed them. Inconsequential bickering - the components on the ground made far more impression. She knew them. Darla liked to talk about Angelus. She'd been thorough, when she found what they'd done to him. After years of search for a way to reverse it, she knew the rite they'd used. And she'd described it.

The Romany man was reaching for the glass ball. "We need to stop wasting time."

So did Kate. Burst the chains in an explosion of movement, kicked the man back into the woman and the shadow-figure, swung the chains still trailing from her wrists at the blind girl's head, barrelled through the man in the hat and charged for freedom.

She was jerked short after a pace, overbalanced, dragged back along the ground with her resistance tearing up the grass. The blind girl had ducked the chains. Now she held the trailing end in both hands, feet planted, and smiled beneath blank white eyes. The drugs made Kate too slow to avoid the boot that near caved in the back of her skull. She heard the Romany man's grunt of satisfaction as she fell. Lay with her face in the dirt and senses scattered and heard, helplessly, the preparations completed and the chant begin. Heard it rise to a crescendo and diminish, and...

An impact that seemed to emanate from inside her chest, and for a moment she almost thought her heart had beat again. Then something opened up inside her and let the world rush in, and there was nowhere to hide from her guilt.//

The splash, this time, was intentional. Kate pulled herself upright and crossed her arms over the edge of the deep tub; rested her chin atop them. "Did you come here right after you left?"

"By a circuitous route," Darla agreed.

"Why a theatre?"

"Why not? I already had the actors. Besides, I was here in... 1922, I should think it was. The Merchant of Venice. Not one of the Bard's best, but I was in the company of an English Lord who tasted absolutely divine. Call it a sentimental judgement."

Kate sighed and let her weight hang on her arms. Darla stepped daintily over, kicking off her shoes and lifting the skirt of her dress to her waist. She perched behind Kate on the other tall side of the bath, her calves brushing Kate's hips. Ran slightly chill hands down the back of Kate's neck, fingers pressing in expertly, before the brush began to drag rhythmically through her hair. "I can tell you came a long way back to me." She sounded immeasurably pleased about that fact.

"Distance travel isn't as simple as it used to be."

"Poor baby." The brush tugged and tore. Darla swore; leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the back of Kate's neck. "Your poor hair, too, may never be the same. A pity. Maybe the scissors will prove the only solution."

Somewhere beyond the bathroom door, another door opened, and Kate looked sharply to the left. But the man who had entered turned straight into the bathroom. Darla set a hand on her jaw and turned her head back to centre; resumed brushing. "My fashion consultant. I gave him some specifications for you."

The 'fashion consultant' strolled into their direct line of sight and carefully arranged an armful of cloth on a delicate white-painted chair that had tiny dragons woven through the carvings on its back. He gave Darla a faintly disapproving look. Her hemline was trailing in the water.

With a dismissive snort, Darla cast aside care for her clothes and slid down beside Kate, who found herself caught between Darla's opened thighs, squashed together in a tub that, though broad, was still a squeeze for both of them. Knees hugged her waist and breasts pressed into her back. The state of her hair was apparently forgotten. Darla's teeth nipped at the skin kissed shortly before. Supple arms encircled her.

"Uh-" Kate nervously tracked the 'fashion consultant' as he held up the components of a theatrical soldier's uniform in finely tailored scarlet and black, even less keen on an audience than on the clothes.

"Oh, splendid!" Darla's hands loosed a moment as she applauded. "Next!"

The next was dull green. The same military affection, more realism. Too much realism. She felt Darla's frown twist against the back of her neck.

"Next, I think."

"I really don't-" Kate began.

"Hush." A knee poked her armpit and a foot hooked between her thighs, heel pushing insistently, compressing soft tissue into bone.

"Nnnnh." The intensity of touch after so long left her incoherent, helplessly responsive despite the audience, who cast the green outfit into a shamed heap on the floor and held up the next. Shades of blue and yellow. Kate winced at the ruffles on the tailored tunic. Whatever it was supposed to be - and she didn't know a great deal about the theatre - the associations it called up in her own mind were of Disney princes, all G-rated gallantry.

"Perfect!" Darla applauded all the louder.

"Darla, I'm not playing this-"

"Nonsense. We all do, here. It's much more fun." Darla kicked her foot lightly on the last word and Kate moaned, back arching, crushing the smaller woman against the tub wall behind.

Darla only cackled, grinding harder with her foot. "Good God, woman, have you fucked anything in the last ten years?"

No words came. She shook her head, whipping her hair against Darla's face.

"Saving yourself for me? That's almost sweet." Fingernails scraped down each of her breasts, not gently. She cried out as Darla seized her nipples, gripping them between thumb and forefinger like a vice and squeezing. Her foot pressed hard enough to bruise.

The sound that escaped Kate's lips was an undignified gurgle. A brush of lips against her neck turned into the sharp pain and sudden rush of her sire's teeth closing at the junction of her neck and shoulder, and the world exploded - cold melting, thawing, cascading into white-hot heat. She vaguely heard Darla say to the still-hovering 'fashion consultant', "Calvin? Leave," as the rush of sensation swallowed her whole.

//"We made you," the tall Romany said, thrusting his blunt, dirty finger in front of her face. "Don't ever forget that. We bound your soul. If you even think of turning again, we can do things to you you can't imagine."

The soul was still raw inside her, her vision blurred. She on her knees in the churned grass, hands clawed in the dirt. Three years was not so long - she did not have Darla's four hundred years - but they were enough. Three years' guilt and less than minutes to process it. She saw the Romany, but he was nothing but an imprint on her memory. Thought then and there processed nothing of him or his words.

"Aw, lay off, damn it." A new voice spoke up. The quiet, shadowed figure who'd held largely to the back throughout the ritual, letting the others talk and act, revealed now as a grizzled older man. "This is our girl." He knelt in front of her and extended a hand. Fingertips touched to her face, barely stirring the tiny invisible hairs of her cheek. "She was a police officer," he said, as though he could divine that by touch alone. "She's going to do great things."

There was some sort of sharp movement in her peripheral vision; the short man with the stupid hat. "You know that? You've seen it?" Disbelief in the words, a snort punctuating them, and maybe a trace of something like jealousy.

The old man didn't answer. His touch turned into a surprisingly strong grip.

He lifted her head to meet grey eyes with less years in them than Darla's, but an ethereal wisp of wisdom that spanned ages.//

***

"I can't believe you got me wearing this," Kate mumbled; her thoughts blurred with blood loss. She sprawled on the bed, limbs untidily askew. She had a vague recollection of Darla dragging her across the floor, but she didn't really have much recollection at all of the last few minutes, assuming minutes were all they had even been. Too much, she thought. Too much blood. She should probably be more alarmed, given that it left her too weak to object to Darla's more outlandish games.

The fairytale prince pants were unlaced and Darla's fingers still played lazily inside them.

"This is how I remember you best." Darla withdrew her fingers, licked them slowly, wiped the rest down the front of her still-sodden dress, which was enough like the princess match to Kate's outfit to create an odd fantasy scenario. "The first time I saw you. Those two idiots had just fucked you silly and you still managed to maim them for the rest of their pathetic unlives." Her hand trailed down the scarring on Kate's cheek, on her right wrist, where the broken bones sustained those last moments of her real life had never properly healed.

She moved only her eyes, following Darla's hands.

"War wounds," Darla reassured. Her tongue lapped at the uneven plane of Kate's cheek, her body straddling Kate's in a manner that brought the past vividly to mind. "You're beautiful."

"I can't see it anyway. I've never seen it."

"Then it doesn't matter... does it?" Darla's hands pressed down, pinning her arms to the bed, lowering herself so she was sitting across Kate's hips. "I chose you then. I knew you were special. That you'd be something, not just another of the Master's little fighting drones. My warrior consort, to replace the one I lost. I wanted to remember you like this.

"What the hell is it about my progeny and the fucking gypsies?"

At her sudden change in tone, Kate tried to sit up, alarmed, only to discover Darla had planted herself firmly and, in her weakened state, she couldn't throw her off.

"Did you think I wouldn't notice?" The baby-doll face had become twisted and demonic. "After Angelus? With you here right in front of me? Did you really think I wouldn't know? That I didn't know the moment they put that thing inside you? I felt it. Why in the hell did you come here, now, soldier-girl? To kill me? Is that what your masters want?"

"No..." Kate rolled her head. "Darla... I could never... I don't know why I'm here."

"I don't believe you. Damn you, I should snap your neck right now!" She moved her right hand, reaching for Kate's throat, and there was a split second's opportunity to gather strength and act. Kate bucked enough to unbalance Darla and the hand overreached, landed instead on her mouth. Where her teeth were waiting.

Darla screamed fury and flung herself backward, ripping the flesh of her hand and tumbling from the bed. Kate had drained only a pittance, but a pittance she'd become well accustomed to functioning on. She sprung off the bed, feeling her face a match for Darla's, and crouched over her sire in a ready stance.

"I didn't come to kill you! Listen to me, damn it! I love you!"

"'Love'!" Darla spat; a globule of blood on the pristine floor. "You're an abomination! Just like he was."

"Screw the soul. Isn't it better at least than his way?" Darla tried to get up and she knocked her down again. "Changed circumstances, Darla. This isn't the world you lived in with Angelus. You said it yourself - vampires can't create. But look at what you've surrounded yourself with here! Don't you want some culture back? Fine foods, and wines, the utilities we used to take for granted, real fashion designers and real actors and real theatres instead of your dead toy ones?"

"I want to tear out your throat!" A nasty cunning replaced the foiled anger in her eyes. "But I'll do the next best thing."

Kate hadn't realised she'd knocked Darla so close to Grissom's wrapped corpse. Despite herself, there was an instant horror froze her into inaction. By the time she was moving, Darla had already ripped the plastic off and was tearing great chunks from the dead meat with her teeth. There was an indent the size of half a football in Grissom's shoulder and neck when she caught Darla by the hair and hauled her up... shrieking, mouth bloody, dress a red-stained ruin... and repeatedly slammed her against the wall.

It took several seconds before she realised Darla's screams weren't related to anything she was doing.

She released the fistful of hair and fell back a pace, watching astonished. The pain that twisted Darla's face, the roll of her expression as though she experienced half a dozen different emotions and alien sensations at once, the hands that rose to clutch at her head - she had seen all of these before.

Grissom...

"Ahhhhh!" Darla's eyes popped open very wide. They stared up with a nakedness and genuine emotion Kate had never thought to see in them; sheer terror. "What the hell was that? What have you done to me?"

"Nothing," Kate said slowly. "What... did you see?"

"Some idiot human in a snowdrift. God, I'm hungry now. I haven't seen a human in too long. I could even smell..." She snapped her mouth shut, suspicion flaring. "Why? How do you know I saw anything? What the fuck have you done to me?"

"I didn't do it." She nodded toward the corpse, realisation dawning. "You did it... to yourself."

"What?"

"You ingested my friend, you stupid bitch! He was a seer. Now I guess you are too. And no, I fucking didn't know it could work like that, and it wouldn't have made any difference if I had. He saw this... he knew. You're my new..." She choked and, surprising her, a giggle somehow welled up in her throat. She couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed. "You're an agent of the Powers That Be."

"Screw that," Darla said distinctly.

"You're the one to help me bring back the world," Kate said positively.

"Balls. I'm still evil. Remember?"

Kate dropped to her knees in front of her. "You're not happy, either. You know things were better before. Face it, Darla, you want the world to change - and you've landed the job of changing it."

"I won't."

"You... will." She closed her eyes and saw, again, Grissom as he emerged from that last vision; saw the odd certainty in his face; saw all the marks, laid out like a map in the lines of his face, of the things he wasn't telling. His future and hers, their ultimate goals, bound together in, of all people, Darla. And she was no visionary, but she could see it now as clearly. There would be refusals and tantrums, tears and rows and bloodshed, and eventually, inevitably, the thaw. "He saw it...

"That's why I came here."

END