Queen's Gambit
by SRoni and Aadler
Copyright June 2006 (SRoni)
Revised for collaboration May 2009 (Aadler)


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.


Part I

Her dreams had always been vivid, but she had never allowed herself to be bothered by them. Even as a child, she had been far too pragmatic for fantasy to get much of a grip on her. By the time she had turned thirteen, in fact, she had developed a series of checks by which she could, while dreaming, ascertain whether or not she was in a dream.

Public nudity was most obvious tip-off. You never simply went out naked; no, you always discovered, to your own mortified bewilderment, that you had somehow neglected to get dressed. Please: in what bizarro universe did Cordelia Chase ever forget about clothes? That would be like forgetting to breathe. So, first check: naked in public, it's a dream.

Almost as obvious was flying. It was fairly simple to remember that, Oh, right, I can't really fly when I'm awake. The dream mind had its own dodges, however, always trying to convince her that the little tricks she had developed — compressing the air under her feet so she could walk up invisible steps, extending a jump so that she just never quite came down, holding position two to six inches above the ground while she glided down a slope — weren't really flying even though they might look like it to the uninitiated. It required time and concentration to remember that these counted, too, but eventually she had it down: gravity doesn't hold me, it's a dream.

As her sleeping imagination became more devious, she learned to watch for colors. That never really worked well, though; she dreamed in black-and-white, as most people do, but whenever she tried within a dream to see if it was black-and-white, her mind immediately showed her vibrant colors, gold and sapphire and scarlet. If she was particularly alert, she might notice the shades of gray before her subconscious could leap in to fool her, but this was unreliable.

The trump card, though, the one that never failed: if there's any doubt, try to read something. She'd seen that on television once, something about the physical structure of the brain making it impossible for a person to read in dreams, and it turned out to be true. She was iron-clad protected, then: any time there was the least question, any time a dream threatened to disturb her, she would haul out her day planner and check the previous week's entries. Then, the matter settled, she could decide for herself whether to wake up, continue the dream without letting it matter, or turn it into something else. As with all other things in her life — and exactly as it should be — she was impervious, untouchable, exempt from ordinary limits.

And then, guess what? it turned out that Slayer dreams followed a different set of rules.

Yeah. Big shock. Color her surprised.

~ – ~ – ~

She came awake, heart racing, clutching at her bed with a force that threatened to drive her fingers through the mattress ticking. Sweat clung to her in a slick sheen, and there was a nasty taste in her mouth. The dream had been typical of her recent nightly fare: lives she hadn't been able to save, threats she couldn't ever come to grips with … same-old same-old, nothing she hadn't seen many times before. Familiarity provided no protection, however; no matter how often she faced the same scenarios, they always got inside her defenses, and there didn't seem to be any way she could prevent it.

She swung her feet to the floor, stood. At least she could do something about the foul taste that coated her tongue.

Her purpose was firm, but her attention still wasn't focused; the door she chose took her to Miss Calendar's classroom instead of to her bathroom. Cordelia slid into her accustomed seat (mouthwash would have to wait, you didn't want to be late to one of Miss C's classes because the lady was a fiend for surprise quizzes), and took a look at the board. Nothing there, which was a good sign, and — another plus — Miss C didn't seem to be in any kind of hurry; she sat chained in the witness box, staring at the blackboard as if oblivious to her students.

Cordelia wasn't sure what she was supposed to do in the courtroom — she didn't even know who was holding the trial, Jenny Calendar had a lot to answer for but none of it had broken any actual laws — but the popcorn was hot and the cappuccino fresh-brewed, so she settled in to watch the proceedings. The lights dimmed, though the courtroom didn't get any darker, and the test pattern on the blackboard dissolved and did a fade-in to … Giles' living room?

"Every night," the shackled Jenny Calendar said in the monotone of one too weary for emotion. "This same scene plays out every single night. It never comes out right, but I can't change the script. Destiny doesn't allow rewrites …" Her eyes caught Cordelia's in a quick, piercing glance. "But sometimes you can edit."

Cordelia felt a stab of guilt. While she wasn't, was not, responsible for what had happened to the woman, there was no denying that the consequences had descended from some of her choices. More than that, when Jenny died the state of things between them had still been ugly … which was totally merited, but it hadn't been supposed to last until death. And what she heard in the woman's voice — despair, hopelessness, a deadness of the spirit — made her feel cold inside.

In the tableau on the courtroom screen, a different, living, moving, feeling Jenny Calendar was at the computer desk she had installed in Giles' apartment.

(Hadn't been any harsh words over that, nuh-uh. Your sweetie gives you a false name and personal history, spies on your Slayer — your sacred trust! — and withholds vital information that only incidentally contributes to turning one of your staunchest allies into a carefree mass murderer? No prob, invite her to move in with you. While you're going giddy with unwedded bliss, said Slayer will be over here banging her head against a tree until the damn tree breaks. See? no bitterness at all.)

The duplicate Jenny stared, rapt, at the characters that spooled across the computer monitor, nodding now and then while her lips moved soundlessly. Then the monitor settled into a pattern of columns, and the other Jenny leaned forward, her fingers tightening on the computer mouse. "This will work," she breathed. "This will work. Yes!" She did a celebratory arm-pump, and then, compulsive techno-nerd that she was, saved the file, first to the hard disk and then to a floppy.

She had just ejected the floppy, and was reaching for a disk-storage box, when someone knocked at the door. Jenny got up and started across the room; then, seeing that she was still holding the floppy, she dropped it into a pocket of the open sweater she wore without breaking stride.

Two people were at the door. One, a teenager with a fresh eruption of pimples, began babbling something about a car wreck just down the block, his mother was unconscious, he didn't have a phone … Cordelia caught the basic theme, but she wasn't actually listening, her attention riveted on the second person outside the door. Hanging back, staying in the shadows, not speaking … even though Jenny had never seen Drusilla, she'd certainly be alerted by someone speaking in an accent that predated Cockney, but the deadly vampiress kept still and quiet, biding her time with predatory slyness. It may even have been that the not-quite-there quality in her eyes came across as post-accident shock, lending support to the boy's story.

Cordelia tried to shout a warning. No use. Her throat wouldn't work, and besides, people in movies never listen no matter how loud you yell. The on-screen Jenny was no novice — she'd carried her weight a few times with the other Slay Friends, she understood life on a Hellmouth — but neither was she truly on her guard. Though she automatically avoided inviting the pair inside, she let herself stand too close while listening to the boy. Dreamily and indifferently, Drusilla unwound the sash that cinched her dress at the waist … and then, without warning, she stepped forward and flipped the sash across the threshold in an open loop. It fell behind Jenny's neck, a hard yank brought the woman stumbling forward, and cold slender fingers fastened on her wrist before she could draw back again.

"You have designs on my Angel," Drusilla purred to her captive. "Wish to saddle him again, bring him to heel like a puppy. Horrid presumption, and not to be countenanced." Her grip turned and tightened, and color drained from Jenny's face. "It is not proper that we should stand talking on the stoop, like tradesmen," Drusilla observed with that mad, empty smile. "Invite us in for the festivities, why don't you?"

Jenny's mouth worked — the pain in her wrist must have been awful — but when she spoke at last, it was only a whispered, "No."

Drusilla broke one of Jenny's fingers as incuriously as if flicking away a buzzing insect. Jenny's knees almost buckled, but she shook her head. "No," she said again.

"So tedious," Drusilla sighed, and tugged at the captured wrist. Jenny tried to resist, but it was like fighting a cable winch; inexorably she was dragged over the threshold, and Drusilla's pimple-spattered henchman grabbed Jenny from behind, locking her in place.

"Now," Drusilla mused. "What shall we talk about first?"

Jenny opened her mouth to scream, perhaps hoping for help or at least attention from the neighbors, but the vampire teenager slapped his hand over it. She fought, twisting and writhing, and Drusilla watched with the amused interest of a child. The boy laughed … and then tore his hand away with a yelp, fingers streaming blood where Jenny had done her level best to bite them off. He drew back a fist, then halted as Drusilla raised her hand in a peremptory gesture. "Kittens break if you handle them too roughly," she cautioned. "And we're not done with this kitten yet, are we?" The boy lowered his hand, and Drusilla continued to Jenny in a confidential tone: "We need to be invited in, you see. We've much to learn from your busy little brain, but we also must be sure you've left no naughty messages." Her eyes locked with Jenny's, and she raised her other hand to rest it on her victim's head. "Invite us inside," she breathed, sing-song. "Step back across the threshold and give the invitation. And then we shall have, oh! such games! —"

Jenny tore her gaze away, and shook her head again, hard. "Go to hell," she gasped.

The shackled Jenny looked over at Cordelia. "She thought she could hypnotize me. Please. My clan mastered mind games long before Angelus created her."

"Perhaps I shall," Drusilla murmured, blood-colored fingernails stark against the smooth skin of Jenny's neck and wrist. "It waits for me, sometimes it calls so sweetly … or perhaps I shall bring it here, instead." Briskly she broke three more of Jenny's fingers, and Jenny's mouth opened in a soundless cry of pain. "You are shockingly neglectful of your guests. We place ourselves under your hospitality, and you deny it to us." Her voice became even more soft, caressing, terrible as she trailed her fingernails down Jenny's face, alongside her eye and down her cheek and across her throat. "Give us an invitation."

By now, Jenny was herself as pale as the mad vampiress, and probably would have fallen if the other two hadn't been supporting her. Even so, she hadn't lost her steel. "Never," she said. "I'll never ask you inside." And then she began to speak quickly, in a tongue Cordelia didn't recognize; not Latin, Cordelia had heard enough of that to recognize if not understand it, and from the speed and fluency of Jenny's speech, it must be some Romany dialect.

"None of that," Drusilla told her sternly, and rocked the other woman's head back with a slap that probably would have broken her jaw if delivered from a different angle. "This is very awkward," she observed to her pimply companion. "But a lady knows how to bear up under difficult circumstances. If we cannot enter, as this dreary creature is determined we shan't, then we shall have to make do as best we can." While speaking, she had taken Jenny's other hand and begun snapping those fingers as well. Jenny jerked and moaned, but was still too stunned to scream.

The boy's demon-face had come out when Jenny bit him, and now he studied her, and the apartment through the open door, with pitiless amber eyes. "We could burn the whole place," he offered. "Then it wouldn't matter what she had inside —"

Drusilla froze him with a withering look. "We do not do fire," she reproached. "Still … that dreadful contrivance, on the desk there —" She pointed. "Be a love, would you?"

The other vampire grinned, looked around, and picked up one of the decorative stones that bordered the sidewalk. He hefted it, tossed it up once and caught it, then whipped his arm forward. Inside the apartment, the CPU of Jenny's computer cracked open from the force of the missile; another stone, seconds later, shattered the hard disk array. "Think that'll do it?" he asked, smiling.

Drusilla clapped her hands, delighted. "Crash and bombards! Bang goes the drum, the horses bring fresh loads and charges —" She stopped, looked to Jenny, still locked in her minion's grip. "Forgot you. Voices jangle, all is confusion, it made me forget you. That won't do, no, not at all."

She pulled the sweater from her victim and tossed it away (it landed inside the apartment, Cordelia noted, falling half inside the umbrella stand by the door). Then she drew her thumbnail the length of Jenny's inner arm, from just above the elbow clear down to the wrist, opening the flesh as cleanly as with a scalpel. Jenny didn't even seem to feel it, but the minion snarled automatically at the sight of the surging blood. Drusilla ignored him, and shifted to slice open Jenny's other arm; then, dropping to one knee for better access, she repeated the process on the woman's inner thighs.

"The Watcher so loves things tidy," she announced, though it was anybody's guess whether she was speaking to herself, her flunky, or invisible hummingbirds. "He shan't be happy with this mess, not one bit."

"Aw, man," the boy complained. "Do we have to let all that good stuff go to waste?"

"Drink if you wish," she answered brusquely. "But bite inside one of the wounds."

"Huh?" He tilted his head, frowning puzzlement. "Why?"

"Symmetry," Drusilla said. "Destiny. I know it, even if she doesn't. Our little secret, shh, shh! A loose tongue is a careless servant. Best hurry," she added, suddenly matter-of-fact. "She has little blood remaining."

The minion bent eagerly to his meal, sinking his teeth into the deepest part of the gash on Jenny's right arm. Drusilla watched with satisfaction as life drained from the semi-conscious woman, hastened by the minion's feeding. As the blood flow slowed and faded, she bent to take hold of Jenny's head. "Sleep tight," she said … then snapped the other woman's neck with a negligent twist of her hands, adding, "And long."

The boy detached from Jenny's arm, stood up. Clearly disgruntled, he said, "I wasn't finished."

"Not yet," Drusilla observed. "But your end has been marked." He stared at her, uncomprehending, and she went on with serene assurance. "Leave that as it lies. The bookkeeper will be home soon, and we don't wish to distract him from the welcome we've prepared. So much, we have so much to do before the fiddler calls the change —!"

She strolled away, still speaking that mish-mash of Regency platitudes, stark lunacy, and gleeful malice. The minion followed, using his sleeve to wipe blood from his mouth. And the scene faded from the courtroom screen.

I'm sorry, Cordelia tried to say. You hurt me, and I wanted you to pay, but not like that. She still had no voice, but apparently the effort was enough. "Not your fault," the chained Jenny told her. "I've tried a lot of different things, looking for a way out, even gone scrying into alternate realities. So far, every one I've seen, I die right after deciphering the spell." She sighed, shook her head in vexation. "But why does it always have to be the neck?"

Cordelia found her eyes drawn to the ornate pendant cross that Jenny wore on a chain. I thought you were a pagan, she 'said'. Have a change of heart in the afterlife?

Jenny's expression clouded. "There have been a lot of changes. Some of them are none of your business." Her gaze was bleak. "You need to focus on what matters, let the rest go. Remember, curiosity killed the cat."

Yeah, right, Cordelia answered. People always forget the rest of that saying: Satisfaction brought him back.

"Trust me," Jenny said. "It takes a lot more than just satisfaction."

The courtroom walls opened behind the shackled woman, and the witness box — with her still in it — retreated back into the darkness as if on a wheeled track. Unwilling to let her have the exit line, Cordelia called irritably after her: "Next time, try for some cryptic, why don't you?"

The walls closed. The blackboard held a single word in eight-inch letters: ACUL. The now-empty courtroom echoed with hollow, ghostly laughter —

— except that it wasn't ghostly, and suddenly there was sunlight streaming through windows that hadn't been there before. Cordelia sat up straight at her desk; she was in class, Mr Whitmore was staring at her with his mouth open, the other students were still laughing, and Cordelia could feel on her lips that she'd said the last bit aloud.

Great. So now even daytime wasn't safe.

And she still had that taste in her mouth.