Crossover: Roswell, Kindred: the Embraced, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Character Focus: Liz-centric, mostly. A bit of Max/Sasha for plot purposes.
Spoilers: Futurefic. Post-Departure for Roswell, Post-Cabin in the Woods for Kindred, Post-The Gift for BtVS.
Disclaimer: Nothing owned. Bite me. (That just gets funnier every time I say it.)
Summary: Liz's first assignment takes her to Sunnydale, where she learns more about her new destiny.
Author's Note: Again, thanks to hah - you rule.
Max didn't know what he expected when they hit California, but it wasn't an escort.
He'd still been ahead of Liz's group when they crossed the border, and it was only luck that he'd been glancing in the rear view mirror when he saw it. One minute it was just two dusty cars coming along the highway at a fair speed, the next there were seven motorcycles surrounding them and hemming them in on all sides.
Trying not to panic, he tried to watch them in his rear view without slowing down or driving off the road. Luckily there weren't too many vehicles on the road, but it was getting darker and he was worried that she'd turn off suddenly and he'd miss it.
He was coming up on some traffic now, and had to pay more attention to the road in front of him. And it happened. He lost them.
Uncertain of the best way to proceed and wishing he'd thought to 'appropriate' a Lojack tracker or something from the Roswell Sheriff's office, he slowed down and pulled over, waiting for lights to come up behind him on the road.
With a sinking feeling in his gut, he opened the door and stepped out, trying to get a clearer look along the stretch of road he'd just driven.
Too late he heard it. Whipping around, he saw several figures walking towards him out of the night. They seemed human, but in the glow from his headlights he could see that there was something very wrong with their faces.
In a flash he jumped into his car and pulled the door shut after him, glad he'd left the engine running. Doing his best to ignore the pounding on the windows, he looked left to make sure there was no traffic and then up, into the rear view mirror.
He drew in a sharp breath when he saw the glowing eyes of the thing sitting in the back seat, but that was all he had time for before something hit the back of his head, slamming his face into the steering wheel with impossible strength.
His last thought before darkness overcame him was of Liz, and his regret for having failed her.
Some time after being led into the private drive off the highway, Liz drove back out onto the highway.
She drove slowly at first, making sure Eddie's car was clearly visible behind her, but soon she picked up speed, eager to put several miles between them and the gothic monstrosity they'd just visited.
This time, she had Kyle next to her. As personal bodyguard, he'd insisted that he now travel with her at all times, and Willow and Tara had obediently climbed into Eddie's car to finish the trip into Sunnydale.
Beyond that, no one spoke.
No one could think of anything to say.
Suddenly, without warning, Kyle shivered. Violently. Soon his teeth began chattering and he rubbed his arms in reflex.
Liz couldn't help it. Despite herself, she laughed, earning a baleful look from her passenger.
"What's so funny?" he exploded. "They scared the crap out of me. Why didn't anyone tell me the prince here was a, whatchamacallit, a Tremere? Maybe they don't look like it, but man, talk about freaks. I've never seen never been never imagined " his voice trailed off, and he shuddered again.
Liz's mouth quirked to one side, welcoming any change from the tension of meeting a hostile prince. But she didn't say anything, just listened to Kyle ramble.
"And why aren't you more freaked? I know for a fact that you didn't enjoy that. Hell, you were as scared as I was. Weren't you?"
She nodded candidly.
"So why aren't you freaking, huh? Why aren't you shaking right now?"
Liz smirked with the lofty smugness of a full week's more experience as Kindred. "Kindred don't shiver, Kyle. Or get goosebumps. At least," she amended, because she wasn't as sure as she sounded, "no self-respecting Kindred. It's just not dignified."
He froze. "Oh. Right," he bluffed lamely, tugging self-consciously at his sleeves, "I knew that that."
They drove in silence for some time. Then, unable to help himself, Kyle asked, "Are you serious?"
"No, really," he persisted. "Kindred don't shiver? Or get goosebumps?" His eyes grew round with sudden mischief. "What about tickling? Are Kindred ticklish?"
"Don't even think about it," Liz advised, knowing the way his mind worked. Sensing that fingers were nearing her side, she sent a quick mental reinforcement.
Unable to move a hand towards her, Kyle slumped back in his seat, disappointed. But not beaten. "We'll see, Parker," he warned archly. "We'll see. When we're out of this mess, we're going to settle this."
Liz laughed, but it faded as his words sank in. She sighed.
"What is it?" Kyle asked, immediately serious.
"We really are in a mess, aren't we?"
"Did you understand any of that stuff about a prophecy?"
"No. But it seemed to be the only reason they were willing to let us be here, didn't you think?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Something about fulfilling Cain's legacy, or something like that."
Kyle frowned. "Yeah, Cain, that's who they said. Hey, why does that name sound familiar to me?"
"The first Kindred, I think," Liz answered after a minute. "So that would make us - Kindred - his legacy. The question is, what is the fulfilment of the Kindred legacy?"
"C'mon, wake up already."
The stinging on his cheek confirmed that the next sound was indeed a slap.
As if through a haze, Max managed to open his eyes, to focus on the person in front of him. She looked normal enough. About his age, too, although something about her eyes made him think she was older.
"Who are you, and why were you following her?" she asked.
"Max Evans," he answered after a moment. There was no point in lying about that; they could check his wallet easily enough.
There were about twenty of 'them', and they surrounded him. He was sitting on a chair, his hands tied behind him. For the moment, he decided not to try to escape, not until he found out a little more about what was going on, and whether Liz was in any danger.
"And?" she pressed impatiently, pushing curly hair behind one ear.
"I'm an old friend," he said evasively. "I was trying to - to protect her."
He winced when everyone in the room snickered. There was no mistaking the contempt his captors felt for him.
"You? Protect her? Don't make me laugh."
He was stunned at how certain she sounded. "What do you mean? Who are you? What's going on, and what does it have to do with Liz?"
She eyed him gravely. "I'm Sasha. And, since your little girlfriend is a good little soldier I believe that you really don't know what's going on here."
He tensed when she gestured with her hand, and everyone else filed out of the room.
Carefully keeping his eyes trained on hers, Max began working his wrists out of his bonds, using his powers to loosen them. "So tell me," he said, hoping to keep her talking. She was going to do something, he could tell, and he didn't think he was going to like it. He wanted to face her with his hands free and able to defend himself.
She cocked her head to one side, as if taking his measure. "I'm taking back what's mine, is what's going on. I'm going to take back my life, and I'm going to take my rightful place at my uncle's side. And you're going to help me do it."
What? Uncle? Who?
He froze as her eyes began to change, as she moved closer to him.
Mouth dry, he managed to ask, "How?"
"All in good time." She smiled suddenly, sniffing the air around him like she smelled something tasty. "Well, well, what do we have here?"
Max sat as far back in his chair as he could, trying to get as much leverage as possible. His hands were almost free, and every instinct he had told him he was running out of time.
"So not entirely human, are we?" Sasha teased, sending tiny icicles through his bloodstream. "So I'd heard, but you're never really prepared for when it finally happens "
Max gulped. She was playing with him. There was no way she could tell something like that just by by smelling him, was there? And she was moving in, fast.
"Doesn't change anything, though," she told him, as if he were arguing the point.
The rope broke, but before he could bring his hands in front him, she had his head gripped in her cold and very strong hands, and her lips pulled back to reveal several very sharp teeth.
"Oh, god," he choked out as the tip of her tongue darted out to tease one pointed canine.
"God can't help you now," she breathed, and then her face disappeared out of his field of view. He didn't care anymore, though, because he couldn't think past the pain burning into the side of his neck.
Liz sat up with a gasp and a look of utter bewilderment.
Kyle was watching her curiously. They'd had some time to kill before Willow and Tara would be back with their friends, and she'd decided to take a nap while he read up on Kindred lore. "What is it?"
"I had a nightmare," she answered, obviously baffled.
His eyes narrowed. "So? You've had a pretty eventful couple of weeks. Your mind is cleansing itself."
Despite herself, she smiled. She'd missed Kyle's unique take on human nature while in San Francisco. But it faded pretty quickly as she spoke. Seriously.
"Kindred don't dream."
His eyes widened in sudden understanding. "Oh."
He thought about that. "You're not ordinary Kindred," he reflected. "Neither of us is. Maybe this is just an unforeseen side effect."
"I guess." She paused. "But this is the first one I've had since becoming Kindred. I wonder what it means?"
"What did you see?" Kyle asked reasonably. "Maybe we can figure it out."
Liz turned and pulled her customary notepad and pen out of her purse. Kyle waited as she drew something, frowned, made corrections, then sighed and showed it to him. "In my dream, I saw this."
It looked like a star inside a circle. Something nudged at him, some distant memory. "A pentagram," he said, trying to remember. "Witches are supposed to use them, right?"
They both looked up at the sound of someone knocking on the door.
"Come in, Eddie," Liz called out, and he stepped inside.
"I just spoke to Willow. They're on their way."
"Good," Liz said, looking down at her drawing thoughtfully. "We need them."
"What did you do to me?"
Sasha ignored him, throwing her head back in ecstasy. She was panting and weaker than she expected, but the exultant feeling of power flowing through her was intoxicating.
"Alien, huh? What a delicacy." She giggled lazily, licking at her wrist where she'd opened a vein for him to drink from.
"What did you do to me?" Max asked again, more demandingly. He was regaining his strength. And more. He felt different. The faint coppery residue in his mouth was electric.
"Oh, relax," she pouted. "I did you a favor. Now you can meet your little girlfriend on your own terms. You could never be with her before, you know. Not while you were so different. And I know just how you can thank me for it, too."
As she spoke, she carefully gouged at her other wrist and held it to him, expecting that he wouldn't have control over his hunger so soon and figuring she'd better feed him again.
Max listened and he watched, and he heard more than she said.
He felt the truth of the bond he now shared with her. Somewhere deep within him, he felt a pull towards the woman in front of him, and he knew that he would serve her. But he felt something else, something he suspected that she really didn't understand; a new hunger, one not served by the blood she gave him.
No, not entirely new, not exactly. He still hungered for the same thing. It was just more intense. Much more. And it seemed to accompany a deep void in his gut. Despite the pain, he smiled as he took in the truth of Sasha's words along with the warmth of the blood she was feeding him.
He didn't really know what Sasha was talking about, and he didn't really care. He barely noticed when she pulled away from him, muttering something about a meeting she had to get to. It didn't matter; he'd had enough to tide him over for a little while. That hunger was incidental. What he wanted was what he'd always wanted.
It always came back to her. And now, he could have her. Finally. That was all that mattered. And this time, she would come to him. Or he would take her. Either way, she would be his. And she would never leave him again.
He wouldn't let her.
"I'm coming for you, Liz," he whispered, and it sounded so right. So wonderfully right.
Liz and Kyle studied the men and women who stepped into the room.
"Liz, Kyle," Willow said, "meet Xander, Giles, Dawn, Spike, and Buffy."
Xander was a tall, muscular man who carried himself with a quiet air of confidence and, Liz thought, sadness. She recognized the signs all too easily herself, and she found herself smiling at him. She was glad when he nodded and smiled back; it changed his entire countenance, and she could tell that he'd also known joy. It made her feel better somehow.
Giles was an older man, conservative looking, with glasses. He was harder to read than Xander, but Liz saw the protective way he stood slightly in front of the young woman behind him, and liked him for it. When he nodded in greeting, she nodded back respectfully.
The youngest girl looked exactly like the picture Will had shown Liz back in San Francisco, and Liz found herself grinning in anticipation.
"Hey," Dawn shrugged, in the universal language of youth.
Liz shrugged back. "Hey."
"Nice to have some young blood around here," the girl continued blandly, and Liz laughed at the long-suffering expression on the faces of those around her.
The blonde man next to her looked insulted and bopped her none-too-gently on the shoulder. "Stuff it, you little git. Mind yer manners." He spoke in a clipped British accent, softened from years of living in the States, and Liz studied the Kindred carefully. Beside her Kyle had tensed, as though he recognized him somehow, and this made her cautious.
"Liz Parker, Ventrue. Childe of Julian," she said, none too subtly.
"Spike. Toreador by Embrace, anyway; been a while since it meant anything," he responded, casually and with a quick nod to Kyle. "Sired by Angelus."
Well, that explained Kyle's behaviour. "Kyle Valenti," he spoke up now. "Toreador. Childe of Santiago."
Introductions made, the three Kindred nodded, Spike uncharacteristically (Liz suspected) subdued. Finally Liz turned to the quiet, blonde woman who stood off to one side.
"Slayer," Liz said, testing the word on her lips. She was a little shocked at how abrupt it sounded, but just being in this woman's presence made her anxious.
"Most people just call me Buffy." She spoke lightly, but she was obviously put out.
Liz winced. "Sorry, I'm being rude." She held out a hand. "Let's try this again. Hi, I'm Liz, and I represent Julian Luna out of San Francisco. Willow has told me so much about you all, and it's nice to finally meet you."
Buffy relaxed. "I've heard a lot about you, too. I'm sorry we have to meet under such bad circumstances, but glad we're not meeting under worse."
Liz nodded candidly. There was no denying the aura of capability and power that fairly exuded from the other woman, and Liz knew she was dangerous. Right now, though, she was extending her hand to meet Liz halfway.
Suddenly Tara shouted something, but it was too late. Their hands met in a flash of light.
"Michael?" Isabel looked up hopefully as he walked in.
He shook his head.
She slumped back into her own seat. "This isn't like Max. He always checks in."
He shrugged, unwilling to reveal just how uneasy he felt about Max's absence, and lowered himself onto the couch next to Maria, who was holding their sleeping child to her as if afraid to take her eyes away.
"Maybe you should try dreamwalking him," she suggested without looking up.
Isabel looked up, surprised. "I doubt he's asleep this early."
Maria shrugged, and Michael wondered if it was a gesture that looked as futile on him as it did on her. "Try anyway."
She didn't have to explain what she was thinking. Max could be unconscious or drugged.
Isabel met Michael's gaze, and nodded slowly.
"What the hell was that?" Liz cried out, rubbing her eyes and shocked by the scent of burnt ozone wafting throughout the room. Fast, almost too fast to see, Kyle and Eddie were at her side, glowering protectively.
"The Circle's complete," Tara said, trying to hide her emotions behind a neutral expression. "You've been called." But she was looking at Willow, not Liz, when she said it.
"You've been what?" Liz demanded, also to Willow, wondering why Tara was looking at Willow and not her or at Buffy, who was standing stock-still, hand still outstretched.
Willow shook her head and looked pointedly at Liz. "She means we've been called," she explained. "We're in the same Circle of Power. Along with Kyle, Eddy, and Buffy, apparently." She sounded surprised.
"Buffy," the other witch confirmed, softly.
There was silence then as Kindred, Witch, and Slayer came together in the centre of the room. Without really knowing why, the five stood in a circle, Kyle to Liz's right, Buffy to her left, and Willow and Eddie opposite. Immediately, Liz was buffeted by a wave of some kind of energy.
Dizzily, she turned to Tara. "What's happening?"
"Don't panic," Tara said. "I'll try to explain."
"What do you mean you have to go to Sunnydale?" Jesse asked, trying to sound reasonable and failing miserably.
Isabel stared at her husband in anguish. "Something happened to Max. I don't know what, but he hasn't checked in, and I couldn't - I couldn't get in touch with him."
"I'm sure he's fine," he countered, hoping she couldn't see the sweat beading on his brow. He hoped nothing had happened to Philip's son why did Max have to go off and pull this kind of stunt? Liz could take care of herself, damn it, and if the Hellmouth held something she couldn't handle, it wouldn't be anything Max could save her from.
Isabel looked exasperated.
"It would make more sense to be here when he calls," he persisted. "Or if you're really worried, call the police."
She blinked, wondering why he was being so difficult. He was usually so easygoing, so understanding when she took off on short notice. Sometimes she even thought he was just humouring her, but since it worked to her advantage, she never called him on it.
"Jesse, he is the police," she reminded him. "Besides, Michael and Kyle already have the highway patrol keeping an eye out for him. Other than that, there's nothing they can do."
"Exactly," Jesse said. "What could you do that they couldn't?" Silently he pleaded with her not to argue with him about this, to stay for both their sakes, even though he couldn't explain why he didn't want her anywhere near Sunnydale. What could he tell her that wouldn't jeopardize his secret and her safety?
Isabel didn't answer. What could she say, that wouldn't jeopardize her secret and his safety?
Both looked to the door when someone knocked on the other side.
"That's Michael," Isabel said. "He's going too."
Jesse made his way over to the door to let his (more or less) brother-in-law inside.
Michael walked in, slowly, and sat down. Alarmed, Isabel pulled up a chair next to him, trying to get a better look at his face. "Michael? What's wrong?"
He looked up. "I can't go," he told her, and she knew how much it was killing him to back out. It was wrong, not going after Max when they both knew he was in trouble. "I can't leave Maria right now."
"Did something happen?" Isabel was honestly concerned. After Liz left Roswell, she and Maria had grown closer, as the only female members of their little group.
"Izzy she just found out. She's pregnant again," he said, so quietly that she could barely make out the words.
When she figured out what he said, she sat back and breathed deeply, forcing herself to stay calm.
Maria's first pregnancy had not gone well. With no way of knowing what to expect, she had been a nervous wreck and had in fact grown more frail than anyone would admit out loud, or to her face. And after the week they'd just had, dealing with Liz's 'death' and then her return Isabel accepted that he would no sooner leave his wife alone now than he would take her with them, possibly into danger. And she admired him for it.
"I'll go alone," she said, as reassuringly as she could. "I'll be fine."
"No," both men protested immediately, and all three looked surprised to hear Michael and Jesse agree about something. Guarded men both, they rarely fought but they weren't close either.
Shaking it off, Michael told her, "Going off alone is a mistake. We'll just wait. Maybe Max will call in, and later you can you know, try 'calling' him again."
Isabel couldn't fight the both of them, and she knew it. She sighed. "Fine. We'll wait and see."
Michael and Jesse relaxed, and Isabel felt like rolling her eyes in frustration. Instead she squeezed Michael's arm and did her best to smile. "By the way, Michael, congratulations. That's wonderful news. Do you think Maria would be up to company?"
He grinned tiredly. "Are you kidding? She'd love it." His smile fading, he slumped back into his seat and let out a long breath. "Thanks, Izzy," he said then, and she knew he meant it on a number of levels.
She nodded and squeezed his arm again, and they fell silent, both trying not to imagine what could be happening to Max at that very minute, or for that matter, Liz and Kyle.
"It's an ancient prophecy," Giles said as Tara went into his office to retrieve a book off his desk. "No one's really sure where it comes from, although we found it transcribed into Latin by a fourteenth century demon-worshipper. From what we can tell, he'd studied Celtic myth as well as various demonic conventions, and merged his knowledge of the two to interpret what he could of it."
"Which is why we use Wicca and other mystical traditions to try and focus the energy," Willow threw in, trying to sound reassuring. "It's the closest thing we can find to the ways and powers he spoke of."
"But what is it?" Liz asked, wishing they'd start telling her something she could understand. This must be what that Tremere prince had been going on about, and it sounded important. "And why didn't you say anything before?"
"I'm sorry," Willow said guiltily. "It's just that once you knew about it, you would have started things in motion that we were hoping to avoid. Every time you so much as think about it, you see, you risk activating the power of the Circle. And we're on a Hellmouth, Liz. This is a really dangerous place to be putting this kind of power into play. We're lucky we didn't trigger something a minute ago."
"But," Liz persisted, her tone hard, "what is it?"
"Basically, a recipe for apocalypse. Or creating a saviour. Maybe both."
Sasha stretched, utterly sated and rather happy that her latest conquest came fully equipped with the body of a Greek god. Embracing was one hell of an intimate enterprise, and she'd fully enjoyed every aspect of re-acquainting herself with their new bond.
Max had proved surprisingly inexperienced, but technique could be learned. For now, what he lacked in expertise he made up for in obedience and energy. She rolled over and traced a finger along a nicely sculptured chest while he watched her in silence.
"Well, that was fun," she drawled, and sighed. "Too bad it's time to get to work. We have a meeting to attend, my dear."
Max didn't move as she climbed out of bed and began dressing. He was thinking about the bond they shared, and wondering why she didn't seem to feel him as strongly as he felt her. Right then, for instance, he knew she was planning some kind of ritual, something that would open a doorway and called for purification and rebirth - hers, presumably.
He couldn't bring himself to care that much. He was her Childe; that much had been explained to him. But she didn't seem to understand just how much she'd given him. He felt more powerful than he ever had, and as soon as he had some time alone, he'd practise some of the powers he instinctively knew had increased. And she didn't seem to sense him the way he did her, didn't seem to recognize that there was a part of him separate from her, or that he could pull back from their link.
He could resist her, he'd found. He'd tested himself, and found that he could decide not to obey her. He had obeyed her, of course, because he didn't want her to know this. For now, it was better to play her game.
Plus, he thought as he rolled out of the bed and began to dress himself, she'd given him some important answers. He had a good idea, now, what was different about Liz: she'd been Embraced while in San Francisco. It explained a lot.
Kyle must have found out about it somehow, and of course, once he did it was either death or choose to be Embraced himself. That's why he followed Liz.
Even now, suffused in the scents of sex and his sire, Max felt an animal passion kindling in his belly, a deep-seated urge to find her, and to be with her.
This, apparently, was part of being Kindred. The animal urges. She must have felt them herself, and he guessed that she'd known what it was to act on these urges with other Kindred. He didn't care. Once he had her again, she'd never have or need or want anyone else.
There was something else, though. Mixed in with these urges to possess her were other urges, potent urges, urges to crush her, destroy her, take her and own her and control her. He thought these might be Sasha's feelings, but perhaps this was just what it meant to be Brujah. He didn't understand the clans, not yet, but he knew that Liz was Ventrue and everything Sasha yearned to be and was not. Maybe that had something to do with it.
A small matter, he decided. It didn't change anything.
"Who are we meeting?" he thought to ask. He didn't really care, but it seemed like something Sasha would expect him to show some curiosity about.
"My contact. The one who told me about the ritual and about your little friend in the first place," she answered distractedly. She was having trouble closing her dress all the way up her back.
Max moved to stand directly behind her, and she held her hair forward as his nimble fingers zipped it easily. "Oh?"
Her breath caught as he placed some light kisses along her neck, his hands skittering lightly over her full figure. "Mmm, I like that," she moaned, and continued. "I doubt you'd have heard of him. Weird name. Kender, Kindar, Khivar something like that."
"Together, you have access to some of the most fundamental powers of the universe," Giles told them. "You could change the fabric of reality as we know it."
There was silence.
"I just don't understand," Liz said, as politely as she could.
Next to her, Kyle nodded emphatically. "You do realize you all sound nuts, right?"
"It's elemental magic," Tara said. "Now that the Circle's complete, I can see the way your auras interact, and I can explain the dynamics a little better now. Actually, I can show you." She led them to an open space in the centre of the room. "Stand the way that seems most natural, will you?"
The five chose their places in the centre of the room, Liz between Kyle and Eddie with Buffy and Willow opposite. Together they turned expectantly towards Tara who, checking the open page in front of her, focused on the Toreador standing to Liz's right.
"I believe you are of the East, Kyle. The elemental you call upon is Air, and yours is the power of the external, that which is called from without and taken inside. The power you channel is that of harmony and continuity within the cosmos, and comes from a place of friendship and family. Its strength lies in the bonds you share with those closest to you. Does this feel right?"
Kyle considered her words for a moment before looking to Liz, who watched in fascination. "It does," he said in awe.
Liz smiled proudly. "You've always been a good friend, Kyle. I'm not surprised."
He grinned suddenly, mischievously. "Uh huh. Of course, you realize, that with me having the magical power of air channelled within -"
She interrupted quickly, eyes rolling. "I think we're a little old for fart jokes, Kyle."
"But, the power, Liz, the power!"
Dawn laughed suddenly, and Liz and Kyle turned back to the Circle, a little embarrassed to see frowns on some faces.
"I'm sorry," Liz apologized, looking at Tara but speaking to everyone. "We don't mean to seem disrespectful. It's just a coping mechanism, I guess."
Tara shrugged kindly. "Don't worry about it. Xander's worse."
"Hey," Xander protested from where he sat across the room. "I resemble that remark."
Smiling, Tara moved counter-clockwise away from Liz, to Willow, who stood to Kyle's right.
Willow began speaking as Tara walked to stand before her. "I'm of the North. I call upon Gaia, Mother Earth, the source of female power, and mine is the power of endurance, of wisdom, and of vision. I am a student of the arcane, and my strength lies in the teaching of it, in keeping it alive within me and in this Circle."
Tara leaned in and kissed Willow lightly before pulling back. "You know it, honey."
Kyle grinned archly over at Liz when the two witches kissed, but she silenced him with a warning look. She had an idea that whatever frat-boy comments he was about to make probably wouldn't be welcome right then. Of course, she had to grin herself when he winked anyway. He was irrepressible, and she was suddenly glad that being Embraced hadn't changed that part of him.
Tara spoke to the slayer next. "Buffy, you are of the West. The elemental you call upon is Water, source of the eternal, that which overcomes all and completes the cycle of life, of rebirth."
Buffy sighed ruefully. "I guess that fits, what with being brought back from the dead and all."
Liz couldn't help herself. "You were brought back from the dead?"
Buffy nodded. "Twice."
The two women shared a tentative smile while Tara continued. "The power you channel, Slayer, is that of inner knowledge and the light within. You find strength in emotion and intuition. You see what others cannot, and your purpose lies in your instinct to protect."
Buffy nodded philosophically. "In other words: same old, same old."
Tara shrugged. "Being part of a Circle doesn't change you, Buffy. Your destiny has always been a part of you."
Liz was intrigued to see Buffy smile wryly over to where Giles was standing with her sister, but remained quiet. This group had years of personal history and it was none of her business.
Eddie stood solemn as Tara came to a stop before him. "You are of the South, Eddie. The elemental you call upon is Fire, the source of male power, and of illumination and inspiration and healing. Your power comes from the place of mother and father, and from that which connects you to those who came before. This is the source of all that is courageous within you, and all that is daring." She paused uncertainly. Of everyone here, Eddie was perhaps the one she found the hardest to read. "Does - does this feel right?"
"It does," he said simply.
Liz had watched all of this closely, and she studied the blonde witch with furrowed brow when it was her turn. "I think you've used up all the elements and directions," she joked, but it fell flat. "What am I, an extra? A back up?"
Tara shook her head. "No," she said, quite seriously. "You are of the Centre, the Aether, the place where air and fire and earth and water combine in total balance. You don't call on any one elemental. You represent the Spirit, which means you call on the power of the Circle itself, and within your Circle your strength represents oneness, unity, wholeness, and infinity. It doesn't matter where you stand, for directions have no meaning for you, but with you at the pinnacle of the pentacle, the power of the four directions may be channelled together, through you."
She studied Liz as she spoke, clearly trying to gauge the young Kindred's acceptance of her gift and burden.
"That's why the Circle formed around you, you're the catalyst that binds the other four together and focuses their power. Their power is yours. Be careful with it, Liz. You can use this power to create and to destroy."
Liz stared at Tara, feeling a little dazed. "Are you kidding me?" she asked, mouth dry. She was painfully aware that everyone was watching her closely.
Tara shook her head, not breaking eye contact.
"But," Liz protested, "I'm not a witch. I'm not even a proper Kindred. I'm - I'm not really anything. How can I be any of this? Why are you so sure about it?"
"It's in the prophecy," Willow said, from the other side of the Circle.
"Yeah, what is this prophecy?" Kyle interjected. "That Tremere freak kept going on about it, but he never said precisely what it is."
"It's basically a list of factors that will point to the leader of a Circle," Giles spoke up. "According to the transcription, this leader would be born of man but reborn twice, first by a power beyond the stars and then at the hands of something demonic. He or she would have powers greater than both, but they would not be magical in origin."
"Like you told me before," Liz said suddenly, to Willow. "You said you needed me to come here because my powers weren't magic, so there were no counterspells, or whatever."
"But how does that work here? If my power isn't magical, than how am I part of this magic Circle?"
No one answered.
"We don't know exactly," Willow said. "I always figured it was because the Circle magic predates modern magic. So your power really is magical, just not a magic anyone here - or alive, probably - recognizes or understands."
Kyle interrupted. "So how come it's Liz and not me? That prophecy describes me too, you know."
Liz looked at him appraisingly. "Do you want to be leader of the Circle?"
Giles answered before he could. "It doesn't work that way. Was Liz the first to be changed?"
They nodded. "Both times," Kyle added.
"Then that's probably it. Her transformation is what triggered the Circle, so that's why it formed around her."
Kyle nodded and grinned at Liz. "I'm just as glad, you know. Damned if I'd know what to do with all this power if I had it."
Unspoken was the conviction that she would.
Rather gratified, Liz turned to Tara, who had gone to stand by Giles and was rubbing her arms. Moving about with the Circle had left her with goose bumps and staticky hair.
"Okay, so that fits. And I won't deny that what you've told us about the Circle makes sense to me on some level, although I don't know how that can be. But I feel something else," Liz insisted. "This is dangerous, isn't it? I don't know the first thing about magic, but I can tell you what I feel when I stand here. It just feels like ... danger. So why are we doing this? Why don't we just break the Circle and go our separate ways?"
Tara hesitated, seeming to lose some of the smooth confidence she'd shown a minute ago. This, clearly, was uncertain territory. "We talked about that," she hedged. "But we decided -"
Buffy spoke up. "My guess is that it has something to do with the other reason you're here. Things like this usually do. Follow patterns, I mean."
"What other reason? Stopping Sasha," Liz answered her own question before anyone else had the chance. "So that's tied in somehow with this prophecy business?"
Buffy nodded. "I bet that whatever it is she's up to, you'll need the power of the Circle to stop it. And in the long run, it's probably only important because it brought you and the Circle together."
"Are you saying the whole thing with Sasha happened just to to bring me here?" Liz looked as astounded as she felt.
"To activate the Circle."
"Do you have any idea what Sasha's planning?"
Buffy shook her head. "Nope."
"Then how can you know the rest of this?"
Buffy grinned, but it was a tired grin. "This is what I do, Liz. After a while, you learn to recognize the signs."
"Intuition," Tara reminded both of them of one of Buffy's strengths.
Liz nodded in resigned acceptance. "Okay."
She stepped back then, breaking the Circle. The others shivered suddenly, but backed away themselves.
"I'd say this is a good time to discuss the Sasha situation," Liz said, and her voice held authority. "I'd like to know everything you guys do know and your thoughts on how we should proceed, before -" She stopped abruptly.
"Before what, Liz?" Willow asked.
Liz didn't answer immediately. When she did, she spoke flatly, and no one doubted her sincerity.
"I don't like this feeling, that some force is trying to control me. I don't like it at all. I came here to take care of Sasha, and that's what I intend to do. But now I need to know everything there is to know about the Cain Legacy and why this Circle was called, too. It's -"
Tara held up her hand for attention. "Liz?"
"Why did you put it like that, that this Circle 'was called'? Like someone did it on purpose?"
"Isn't that what you were talking about? That everyone in this Circle was called here, to come together now? Well, I want to know what's so special about now. I don't believe it was random. It doesn't feel random. So what's going to happen that we need - that we need to risk - the power of the Circle? Did someone 'call' it? Could someone 'call' it? Can anyone tell me that?"
When no one answered, she continued. "Okay, what about this prophecy? What does it prophesize, precisely?"
Giles answered. "The end of the world, unless you stop it."
"But how? Is the threat demonic, human, magical, a meteor, radioactive termites, what? I need to know more about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this prophecy. In fact, let's start there. I want to see this prophecy."
She was starting to sound a little shrill. Clearly trying to placate her, Tara handed her the book the witch had been referring to earlier, flipping the pages to a section written in Latin.
Unable to read it but stubbornly unwilling to admit that she had no idea what she was looking for, Liz began leafing through the book. Suddenly she froze, her eyes glued to several pages of strange images. She turned to Tara. "What is this?"
Tara looked to where she was pointing. "That's the original prophecy," she said. "Well, a picture of it. I think it was found on a wall in a cave in a desert somewhere."
Liz didn't say anything, just traced some of the inscrutable shapes with a finger while her mind raced.
"Liz?" Kyle asked, concerned.
"Kyle," she choked out, and thrust the book out so he could see it. He gasped when he saw it, and then held it out to Eddie, who took one look and blinked in surprise.
"What?" Willow said, openly curious.
After exchanging another glance, Liz said, "We recognize this language. It's Antarian."
Instantly Giles was at her side. "What kind of demon is Antarian?"
"Slimy and deadly," Xander piped up, sighing moodily. "Aren't they all?"
Giles ignored him. "Liz?"
Liz hesitated. How to explain this? And did she have any right to?
"Tell them," Kyle said softly, and Eddie nodded.
"Antarians aren't demons. They're alien, from the planet Antar. And I don't know how to read this, but I know where we can probably get a translation."
"Did you say Khivar?"
Sasha nodded but didn't seem to notice his agitation. "Yup. Come on, lover, we should get going or we'll be late."
Stunned, Max followed her down a hallway and into a room dominated by a large oval table and at least a dozen chairs. A tall but otherwise unimposing figure stood by a window at the far end, and as he turned he smiled.
Liz hung up the phone looking drained.
"Well?" Willow asked, almost finished scanning the prophecy onto her computer.
"Julian is calling in a favour. There's a cryptologist at Las Cruces that has agreed to translate this for us, using the same method a friend of ours once used to decode a similar document," Liz explained calmly, with a comforting hand on Kyle's shoulder.
Kyle had looked nauseous ever since he'd seen the pictograms and the unwelcome memories they dredged up.
"It should only take a few hours," she continued. "Apparently it's a really big favor."
"I'm a little confused," Giles said. "This prophecy is thousands of years old. Approximately seven thousand years, to be a bit more precise. But you say these aliens came to Earth fifty or so years ago."
Liz thought about that. "Our aliens did," she said eventually. "Maybe they weren't the first."
Willow's hands flew across her keyboard as she prepared transmission. "So what were aliens doing on Earth seven thousand years ago?"
"Experiments," Khivar explained.
"On people?" Max asked, forcing himself to stay calm. He had to find out as much as possible before he could even let himself think of killing anyone. He needed to know what this had to do with Liz before indulging in any plans for revenge.
"People, plants, animals," Khivar waved expansively. "Antarian civilization is over eighty thousand years old by Earth standards, you know. Our scientists have been studying the development of primitive cultures for a long time. Just observing, mostly, but then about seven thousand years ago, one team got a unique opportunity when some humans stumbled over a barrier breach between Earth and some demon realms - which are, strictly speaking, very distant galaxies, but for all intents and purposes they are like different dimensions, operating under different laws of reality and such."
"Dimensional breach? That's what a Hellmouth is?" Sasha mused perceptively. Still, she sounded bored. She wanted to get to the part where she got her reward. "So what?"
Khivar ignored her to maintain eye contact with Max. "It just so happened that an enterprising demon managed to merge with a young man named Cain. Caring little for human sensibilities, the demon had Cain kill his brother Abel, a rather self-righteous fellow who thought he could save his brother from the 'evil spirits' that possessed him."
"Wait," Sasha interrupted, fascinated now in spite of herself. "You mean Cain? The Cain? The father of all Kindred?"
Khivar nodded. "Our scientists were thrilled at the possibilities this offered. You have to understand," he said earnestly, "back then Antarians considered genetic tampering crucial to controlling the evolution of society. Here they were presented with whole new perspectives on hybridization. They were amazed at how the demons could infuse human bodies with enough essence to control them without completely compromising their physical integrity. It was all in the blood. The humans they possessed still looked human; the only measurable difference was in their blood."
Like Pierce's findings in the White Room, Max thought wildly. At some point the Antarians had figured out how to do it too. "And the prophecy?"
"Scientific conjecture. What would happen if a human were catastrophically altered by Antarian and Demonic means both? First one than the other? Our scientists speculated on the creation of a whole new being, one capable of harnessing tremendous power. Even more than you."
"Liz," Max said. It wasn't a question.
Khivar nodded. "And now, Kyle Valenti. But as the first and the stronger of the two, we believe Liz will be the focus for the conjunction of energies as her Circle gathers."
"This is what I don't get," Sasha said. "Why was it so important to call a Circle? It's hard to find sorcerers who know how to do that sort of thing these days," she told Max. "Expensive, too."
Khivar shrugged, as though it should be obvious. "The human body can only generate so much power. She needs a well to draw upon. Our scientists predicted this, and co-opted a pagan Human ritual for finding compatible power donors for her."
There was silence for a moment. "I still don't see what you get out of this," Max said. "All you're doing is creating a strong enemy. How does that help you?"
Khivar laughed. "Oh Max," he chided in mock reproach. "Who says she and I will be enemies? I assure you, by the time this settles, Liz Parker will be more than happy to help me achieve interplanetary domination."
"Okay, let me see if I understand this," Liz said, rubbing her temple in exhaustion.
It had been a long day, first waiting for the pages to be translated and then compiled and sent back. And then the hard work had begun: reading it through. Everyone had their own copy and was making notes. Everyone except Spike. He was making paper airplanes and adding sound effects as each one 'crashed'.
"According to this translation, the Antarians studied demons and what they could do to people. They figured out what would happen if a person was changed by an alien at a molecular level and then Embraced, because of course it doesn't work the other way around. Anyway, that explains me and Kyle. Then, at some point, someone figured out a magical way to give this us an additional source of power, otherwise known as earth magic. With me so far?"
Nods of varying degrees of confidence were her only response.
"So Sasha learns about this 'prophecy' and about me. Deciding that she could somehow coerce me into doing what she wanted," Liz speculated with a frown, "she called this Circle and then made sure Julian knew she was here and up to something. This is a bad time for him to leave San Francisco, so the logical thing for him to do is send a lieutenant. Right now, that just leaves me because Sonny was made a clan primogen."
Xander put up a hand. "You lost me." Next to him, Dawn held her head in mock pain.
Eddie, however, was nodding in support. "No, it makes sense. I don't know Julian Luna personally, but that is how Santiago would handle it."
"But what does it all mean?" Willow wanted to know.
Liz sighed. "It means that fancy light shows aside, our mission hasn't changed. I still need to get Sasha out of here and back to San Francisco where Julian can deal with her personally. Then we can learn about this Circle stuff when we have more time to handle it properly. Sound like a plan?"
Buffy shrugged. "Sure. Word of warning, though; Sasha might be harder to handle than you think. Fanatics and desperate people usually are."
"Oh, I think we can get one Kindred upstart on ice," Liz said confidently. "But we might need help in separating her from her gang, or whatever they are. Do you think maybe you could?"
Buffy grinned at Liz's hopeful expression. Sometimes it was hard to remember how dangerous she could be, when she looked more innocent than Dawn. "Sure. We can help you there."
The sound of laughter made them both look to Spike, who'd stayed pretty quiet so far. "What?" he smirked, and let fly with a paper airplane. They all watched as it spiralled gracefully in the air before smashing into a wall.."Damn right we can. We'll tear 'em apart."
Still unclear about Spike's involvement with a group of vampire hunters, Liz studied the kindred, feeling the weight of his years and sensing something else, something to do with the reason why he'd be so willing to go up against his own kind.
Then she shrugged. Like many Toreadors, he probably just tended towards emotional extremes. She'd find out soon enough if there was a story there. The important thing was, he followed Buffy's lead, and she trusted Buffy.
"Thanks, everyone. We appreciate it. Well," she finished, standing up and stretching, "it's been a long day, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I could use a little R 'n R. Why don't we meet again when we've tracked her down?"
Her pocket rang shrilly before anyone could agree or disagree, and Liz shrugged apologetically and answered her cell. "Yes?" Her expression alerted the rest of the room that there was something going on. Her next words electrified them. "Hello, Sasha," she said calmly. "Yes, we should definitely meet. We have a lot to talk about."
There was a moment of silence, during which Liz's eyes grew very round and sought out Kyle's reassuring presence.
"All right," she said, her voice a soft threat. "I will consider your demands. One hour."
"Liz? What happened?" Kyle didn't bother to hide his alarm.
"She has Max. She wants to trade his life to get her humanity back." The last words were a sneer.
There was silence. Then Buffy laughed without humor.
"Gotta love the irony."
"She's going to be there for sure?" Max looked a lot more sceptical than he felt. He knew Liz'd be there. He just wanted to know exactly where Sasha's head was at.
Sasha nodded. "She'll be there. And you'll go to her and distract her so Khivar can enthrall her."
"Mind warp," Max corrected her absently.
"Whatever. The important thing to remember, darling," Sasha told him, making sure she had his full attention, "is for her to fix me. After that, she's all yours and Khivar's. You understand me?"
Max nodded, subsuming the sudden urge to rip her head off in the obedience demanded of him as her childe.
Inside he was seething.
Khivar would never get his hands on Liz and her power.
Liz was his. End of story.
"It's obviously a trap," Giles told them.
Liz nodded. "Yeah. But we have to go. At least," she amended, "I do."
Kyle shook his head. "No. We all go. You're going to need back up and the Circle."
The others agreed, and Liz smiled in appreciation. She'd been sure they wouldn't bail, but she wanted the assurance that they'd do it by choice. "Okay, then, we need a plan." She frowned. "Will, you said once before that the amount of magic needed to fix Sasha would weaken the Hellmouth. What about my kind of magic?"
Willow considered the question and then looked at Liz in surprise.
Liz's eyes narrowed as she felt the beginnings of an idea forming. "Given what we know, how much do you think Sasha understands about what we can do?"
"I would guess not very much," Willow mused.
"She thinks I'm limited by the rules of regular magic, doesn't she?"
Liz grinned. At first Willow returned it, but then she remembered something. She had to warn her friend. "Liz, before you do this, you have to understand that the real danger isn't in the damage you do on purpose, but on the things you don't think of, the casual mistakes you make."
Xander nodded, for once utterly serious. "Collateral damage."
Liz listened, trying to understand. "What do you mean?"
"The problem with magic like this," Willow said, "is that it's too easy. You might not take it for granted, but you can start being too casual about it. Witches have rites and rituals for a reason, you know. Partly because we need them to call upon mystical forces, but also to our attention focused, to remind us that nothing is free, and that power always comes at a cost."
"What do you mean? What cost?"
"I'm not sure. But there are always consequences, sometimes good, sometimes sometimes bad."
Liz studied her, gaining new insight into her sometimes flighty, sometimes solemn, friend and Circle mate. "You speaking from experience there, Will?" she asked softly.
The bleak expression on Willow's face was answer enough. "Just remember, the pentagram is a powerful symbol, but it's also a visual reminder that there are some lines that should not be crossed. Don't cross those lines, Liz."
"Liz Parker, I presume?"
Liz slowed to a stop, the echo of her footsteps loud in the emptiness of the warehouse. She regarded the woman in front of her with some approbation. "Sasha?"
Sasha nodded. "You ready to trade?"
"Where is he?"
Sasha turned around and gestured into the darkness. Out of the shadows two large Kindred emerged, carrying between them a bound and gagged figure.
"Where's everyone else?" Sasha asked. "You need the Circle for this."
Liz shook her head. "I need the power of the Circle for this," she explained. Pulling out a piece of chalk, she set about drawing a pentagram on the floor and then a circle around it, touching each point. Then she stood in the centre of it and drew a deep breath, feeling the power of the elements fill her and the protective energy of the Circle surround her. Nearby, she knew, Kyle, Willow, Buffy and Eddie were standing in one of their own and preparing to channel the energy to her.
Sasha watched impatiently. Obviously secure in the precautions she'd taken - especially if Liz really did come alone - she was in a hurry to get this over with.
Finally Liz stood up and turned to her audience. Sasha gasped, and for the first time, she seemed uncertain, unsure of herself.
Liz smiled inwardly, knowing that the sparkle of green electricity flowing over her skin cast an eerie light on the proceedings. Part of her felt grim satisfaction to see the fear her enemy couldn't quite hide. "Come on, then," she invited.
Slowly Sasha walked into the Circle, hope flickering across her face, making her look young and somehow vulnerable. She flinched as she felt the energy roiling within the chalk confines, but forced herself through it to stand before Liz.
Despite herself and her innate anger at anyone who would be so callous of others, let alone the people who meant something to her, Liz felt a certain grudging sympathy for Julian's niece, thanks to Kyle. Maybe, Willow was thinking, with the right blood flowing through her veins and some guidance, she really was worth saving. At the same time, Liz and Buffy's intuition sensed that the woman before her wasn't the true enemy. She was a pawn. There was a difference.
And so, without more of the scary and therefore distracting special effects Willow and Kyle had urged her to use, Liz placed one hand on her shoulder, closed her eyes, and concentrated on tapping Eddie's healing power. She felt a sort of nudging sensation from the Hellmouth some miles away, but she pushed it aside without effort to focus on the task before her, secure in the knowledge that she was not, in fact, about to bring about the end of the world.
There was a flash of light and Sasha fell to her knees. Every Kindred within hearing distance froze at the sound of her heart beating for the first time in eight years.
Sasha looked up at Liz, dazed and crying openly. "Thank you. And ... I'm sorry."
Liz frowned. "For what?"
Sasha bit her lip regretfully, but leaned back. In a second she'd wiped out enough chalk to break the circle.
Liz felt the shifting of energies and looked up to see a dozen or more Kindred barrelling down upon her.
Suddenly light flooded the warehouse, and Sasha's forces turned to find themselves surrounded. They didn't give up, though. With a quick, unfocused burst of energy, Liz forced the nearest Kindred attackers away from her and directly into the path of Buffy and her group.
Then Liz ignored the fighting around her, intent on her own mission. With one hand she grasped Sasha by the arm and dragged her over to where Max was lying on the floor, abandoned and rolling to avoid being trampled upon.
Sasha looked shocked, of course, but Liz didn't have time to gloat. Apparently Sasha had thought that breaking the pentagram would leave Liz vulnerable and defenceless, and the now-human girl seemed more bewildered than anything else. Ignoring her, Liz bent down and exerted a little power to dissolve Max's bindings before grabbing his hand with her free one and pulling him and Sasha with her towards one wall of the warehouse, away from the main fight.
In her weakened state, Sasha was helpless to resist, and Liz was none too gentle as she shoved the girl down behind a crate. She fully intended to return Sasha to her uncle safe and (mostly) sound, but that didn't mean she had to coddle her.
Liz found herself studying Max, curious about how he'd ended up where he was, but also confused. It was hard to tell, what with everything going on and the noise and the scent of battling Kindred, but something seemed ... off.
"Max?" she asked, uncertainly.
He looked at her, smiling. She automatically started to smile back, but it faded as the unnatural brightness of his eyes held her captive. Stepping towards her, completely disregarding the chaos going on around them, Max took her hand in his and pulled her to him.
In shock, Liz breathed deeply, and that's when she finally realized what every heightened sense was telling her. "No," she protested weakly, unbearably saddened and horrified, already grieving the loss of humanity she saw in his animal eyes.
"Yes," Max nodded, smiling proudly.
Liz tried to pull away from him, irrationally afraid that even touching her would contaminate him further.
He didn't let her, his grip brutally tight.
"It's our time," he told her fervently, hypnotically, eager to share his newfound joy with her. "We can be together now."
Suddenly he frowned and tugged her to one side, just before another Kindred crashed into them. Practically growling, Max reached down almost casually and broke the intruder's neck, smirking in satisfaction when left with just ashes in his hands.
For the first time, Liz felt fear when she looked at the man she'd loved for so long. Fear, grief, and ... anger.
"Now," he said brightly, happy again; "where were we?"
The power of the Circle was still running through her, and Liz automatically began tapping into it again, thinking only that she'd saved Sasha, and now she had to save Max. She had to; she couldn't allow him to become the monster she saw before her, and she refused to believe he might already be lost.
Across the room, in a dark corner above the rafters, a silent figure watched.
"Isabel?" Maria asked.
Isabel looked up distractedly from the catalogue in her lap. "Yes?"
"Are you all right?"
Isabel started to tell her the truth, but was struck by how pale and wan her friend seemed. Smiling reassuringly, she shook her head, trying to rid it of the disturbing images that had just gone through her mind, images of blood and violence and perhaps most jarring of all, of her brother.
There was something wrong with his eyes. And maybe, she thought, with him.
She shivered, but smiled bravely when a concerned Maria handed her a hot cup of herbal tea.
Max kissed her, hard.
Liz tried to concentrate on the forces warring within her, to make sense of the power, to connect with him somehow. It was hard with his hands on her, holding her against him rather intimately. She could feel his energy resisting her, too; he was so much stronger than Sasha and he was fighting her. He - his body - didn't want to be changed back.
She had to fight herself too, because her own traitorous body wanted nothing more than to succumb to his touch. Part of her liked him like this, wanted to join him in being animal.
But she persevered, and she knew she was close when his hands slowed, when he cocked his head to one side, trying to read her.
"What are you doing, Liz?"
She smiled weakly. "What you need me to do."
Smirking, he leaned in and whispered in her ear. "Hold that thought."
Liz watched in awe as he turned and flung out one hand. She barely managed to follow the burst of light that flew from his palm towards a dark corner of the warehouse, but she couldn't miss the blast tore it apart. She shuddered, horrified, when a man emerged from the flames, singed but very much alive.
"Who is that? What is that?"
"That," Max explained, obviously a little disappointed that his blast hadn't been successful, "is Khivar. I guess he's learned a few new tricks."
Focusing on this new threat, Liz determinedly pushed everything else out of her mind. "Khivar's behind this?"
Max nodded, his hands still holding her to him but his eyes on the figure coming towards them through the chaos. "He's strong," he said. "I'm going to need your help on this one, my love. He's trying to control your mind, and I need you more than he does."
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Liz made a decision.
It didn't take long. Max took the power she offered within himself and used it. Without ceremony, without drama.
One second the body that housed Khivar was there, and the next it was not.
Far away, Isabel Evans Ramirez fell to her knees, hands at her temples, eyes clenched, moaning. Her teacup and saucer crashed to the floor, sending hot liquid and shards of china flying.
"Isabel!" Maria cried out, rushing to her side, trying to understand where she hurt. When Isabel didn't respond, she fumbled for her cell phone.
Michael answered after two rings. "Yeah?"
"There's s-something wrong w-with Isabel," Maria hiccupped, her nerves already shot by the pregnancy and fear for her friends in Sunnydale - and wholly unable to handle another crisis with any degree of equanimity.
"What happened?" Michael yelled into his phone, his side of the exchange punctuated by the sounds of curious cops, doors slamming, and a siren wailing as he charged out of the sheriff's station. "Are you okay?"
Maria couldn't answer; she was crying too hard.
Suddenly Isabel threw back her head and screamed, a bloodcurdling shriek that made Maria scream too, more out of surprise than anything else.
"Maria!" Michael yelled frantically, weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, too impatient even to slow down at intersections. He never saw the sedan that almost hit him, and was a block away before Jesse Ramirez gathered his wits together enough to follow him.
Beads of sweat pooled on Maria's forehead as she felt the stress getting to her. Her breathing grew rapid and shallow, and she fell to the ground next to Isabel, hand on her belly, trying to calm down, to stop the sharp pain that had begun pulsing through her.
When Jesse arrived minutes later, the first thing he saw was a teary Isabel hunched over on the couch. And then he saw Maria, who had pulled up her shirt to give Michael room to place his hand on her belly.
Her glowing belly.
"We did it," he purred, gazing lovingly into Liz's eyes.
She smiled up at him, utterly entranced. Without speaking, the two drew together in a kiss, marking the moment. She'd made her decision, they were together now, and neither showed any willingness to pull away.
Around them things had calmed down, and the last of Sasha's Kindred henchmen fell before Buffy and the others.
"Liz!" Then, "Max? Man, you guys okay?"
Liz turned at the sound of Kyle's voice. Her relieved smile mirrored his.
"It worked," she said, looking around and counting their audience of weary fighters. To her delight, it didn't look like they'd lost anyone on their team. There was definitely something to be said for working with professionals.
"Let's go home. It's over."
"I'm okay. It's over. But are you okay?" Isabel asked for the hundredth time, terrified that something had happened to Maria and the baby, and that it was all her fault for not being able to control her intuitive powers better.
Something had happened to Max, she'd admitted, but it was okay now. Really, it was okay, and she felt bad for scaring them all over nothing.
Maria smiled tiredly. She believed Isabel about as much as Michael did, which was to say not at all, but she didn't have the strength to push it. Making a connection with Michael and the baby had left her wiped. "I'm fine, Isabel. I think Jesse's the one you need to talk to."
Both women looked up to see Jesse throw back another Scotch under Michael's watchful eyes.
"So you'll take a quick detour through San Francisco and then come back?" Eddie sounded calm, but Liz could tell that he wanted to leave. He was also clearly uncomfortable around Max, who was keeping one arm glued possessively around Liz and refusing to let her out of his sight.
Liz smiled. "Tell Santiago I'm just checking in with Julian and dropping off Sasha, and I'll be back in a couple days to report in."
Slamming the trunk shut, Kyle grabbed his bag and stood next to Eddie. With a concerned nod, he gestured to where Sasha slept in the back seat, exhausted by the events of the last few days. "You sure you don't want me to come along to keep an eye on her?"
Liz felt Max's arm tighten around her, and shook her head. "No, we're good. Take a vacation. You've earned it. Besides," she added, "I'd appreciate it if you'd check in on Maria for me. I keep getting a feeling that there's something going on with her, but when I called I just got the machine. Make sure everything's okay, will you?"
"No problem, boss. Enjoy sunny California. You've earned a break too; go to the beach and get a nice tan."
She groaned at the latest in a whole litany of lame jokes. Kindred humour, she'd decided, explained why there were so few Kindred comedians. Something told her that bad acts would get a stronger response than heckling - and deservedly so. "Don't quit your day job," she advised archly.
"Don't worry," he told her, serious now. "I won't. Not this one, anyway."
She appreciated his protectiveness, and was smiling when they drove away. That is, until she saw the expression on Max's face.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
He didn't answer, but she could feel some strong emotion building, the tension a palpable presence between them. She wondered if he was upset with Kyle staying on as her personal bodyguard. Did he feel threatened? Was it because Kyle was Toreador? Toreador and Brujah rarely got along for that matter, neither did Ventrue.
Finally Liz spoke up. "Max, we never talked about your Embrace."
"And we don't need to," he cut in, smoothly.
"Yes, I think we do," she argued. "Do you know what happened to Cash and Sasha?"
He didn't answer.
"Their clans came between them. And I know for a fact that the Brujah and the Ventrues fight all the time, and that Brujah and Toreadors are practically blood enemies. This could be a problem."
His eyes never left the road. "Nothing will ever come between us," he said finally, and his tone offered no room for disagreement.
She was speechless. The words were romantic enough, but she couldn't miss the animal menace behind them. Nor had he said anything about Kyle.
He took her hand and kissed the back of it. She tried to find comfort in the gesture.
"Ever," he added, and then they just drove in silence.
* * * * * *
"Kyle!" Isabel shouted delightedly as he walked in the door.
"Hey," Jesse mock-protested as he followed Kyle inside. "What about me?"
Isabel smiled winsomely and fluttered her eyelashes. "Oh Jesse, thank you for bringing Kyle home to me!"
Kyle pretended to hide behind her as Jesse scowled at him and Maria laughed.
Still in awe that he hadn't packed his bags and left her yet, Isabel kissed her husband before turning back to Kyle, who grinned and held his arms wide, hugging first her and then Maria with gusto. "Man, are you guys a sight for sore eyes!"
"You've only been gone a few days, Valenti," Michael said, rolling his eyes and pulling Maria into his own arms.
Maria elbowed him out of the way so she could talk to Kyle. "Where's Liz?"
"And where's Max?" Isabel demanded.
Before he could answer, they glanced at each other. "Together," they chorused.
Everyone laughed as Kyle nodded candidly. Acutely conscious that he was omitting a few key facts, he explained what he could. "Max showed up during negotiations, and made such a nuisance of himself that Liz finally just gave in and took him with her back to San Francisco. They should be home in a day or so."
"Did she do what she needed to?" Michael asked. He'd been curious about her job from the beginning, and this was his 'subtle' way of fishing for information.
Kyle didn't take the bait. "Yup," he said, simply.
Despite herself, Isabel sniffed and wiped a tear from one eye, careful not to smudge her makeup. "I'm just glad everyone's safe and coming home," she said.
"Hello Max, welcome to the clan," Cameron said, a hint of a smile on his lips. His eyes, however, never left the girl held firmly within the newest Brujah's arms. "A pleasure as always, Liz."
Liz nodded in greeting. Max studied his primogen with barely concealed suspicion, obviously annoyed by his open admiration of Max's very powerful girlfriend. And she was powerful; unlike Max's energy, which he forcibly suppressed out of habit, her energy permeated the air around her like a living, pulsing thing.
Julian entered then, along with Daedalus, Cash, Lillie, and Sonny. Liz brightened noticeably and broke from Max's clasp to join them.
Julian looked down on her with open fondness and not a little regret. He knew that there had been a shift in Liz's attentions but he was secure enough in his bond to her to let it go for a while. There would be a reckoning some day soon, and he would claim what was his then.
For now, he could indulge her whims. She was young. They had time.
The others followed his lead. Cash grinned rakishly, and Daedalus permitted a slight softening of his features that, for Daedalus, was tantamount to an emotional outburst. Lillie quirked an eyebrow in elegant amusement and welcomed her back.
Sonny made a point of taking her hands in his. He was expected to treat her as something of a young sister, he knew, and he had no problems with that - especially since Liz was no threat to him. Julian looked on in approval as they greeted each other warmly.
Liz was the only person in the room who missed the twitch in Max's cheek and the way his gaze glinted with hostility at the sight.
Still, realizing that he wasn't behind her, she ran back to Max and dragged him over, eager to introduce him to her sire and the Kindred she felt closest to. Introductions were genial enough, but the awkward hush that fell afterwards subdued even Liz, who looked at Max with bewildered concern. She truly wanted the approval of her elders, and the strong emotions that filled the space around them made her nervous.
It was Julian who broke the silence. "Liz," he said, courteously, "will you join me in my office? I would hear about your experiences since leaving San Francisco."
"So you're really an alien " Jesse said that night, when they'd gone home.
Isabel nodded patiently yet again. "And Max, and Michael. Tess was, too."
Jesse collapsed onto a chair, looking as though he was finally starting to understand the enormity of what she was telling him.
Isabel nodded solemnly. "I'm still the woman you married," she reminded him. "Only now ... there are no secrets between us."
He stood up and went to stare blindly out a window - anything to avoid looking her in the eyes. His mind was whirling, but he knew that if there was a time not to lie to his wife, this was it.
"Just one," he whispered, letting his head fall forward to rest against the cool glass.
"What?" For the first time since steeling herself to tell him, Isabel looked shaken. This, she hadn't expected.
Taking a deep breath, Jesse swung around to take Isabel's hands in his and draw her to him. "There's something I need to tell you. You're not the only one with an interesting family heritage."
"Your Embrace was unsanctioned," Cameron said abruptly, all warmth gone along with Liz and Julian.
Cash and Daedalus stood nearby, quietly but openly studying the new Kindred. Lillie and Sonny had retired to another room to discuss business.
Cameron's eyebrows rose to hear such impertinence. "So, there is some question about what is to be done with you."
Max shrugged. "Nothing to decide. I'm with Liz."
"Which is the only reason you've lived this long." Cameron's expression never changed, but all could sense his anger spiking.
For the first time Max looked interested in something other than Liz. "You mean, you're 'letting' me live as a favour to her? Or you want me to spy on her and Julian, is that it?"
Cameron didn't answer. Clearly he had no intention of saying any such thing in front of Cash or Daedalus, and just as clearly, he was not happy that Max had.
Max shook his head. "Sorry," he said, sounding not apologetic at all, "but I answer to no one."
Eyes narrowed at his blatant display of ego and defiance, Cameron smiled. It was not a nice smile. "We'll see," he promised. Letting that sink in, he turned and left.
Cash followed him out. With Julian on the property, he had no intention of letting Cameron out of his sight.
Alone with Max, Daedalus came closer. "Who are you?" he asked. "What are you?"
The young Kindred just grinned and made a show of looking at his watch. "If you'll excuse me," he said with pointed civility, "It's getting late, and I have hotel reservations to make."
Daedalus stared as he walked away, but said nothing.
Isabel sat as far away from Jesse as she could without actually getting off the couch.
Slowly she edged towards her husband, until she was right next to him. Silently she took his hand in hers, and rested her head against his shoulder.
He closed his eyes, releasing the breath he'd been holding. "We're going to be okay," he said, but it sounded like a question.
Isabel smiled, eyes bright with suppressed emotion. "We have a lot to work out," she said, "and I need to talk to my dad, but yeah - somehow we're going to be okay." She paused. "I love you," she added, not knowing whom she needed to convince more.
He turned to pull her to him, needing to feel her warmth. "I love you too. No matter what, I'll always love you."
They sat together in silence, each lost in his or her thoughts.
"What are you thinking?" he asked, at one point.
"I'm worried about Max."
He nodded, half glad that she wasn't brooding on their situation. He thought about telling her the rumours he'd heard about a battle of sorts in Sunnydale, but then decided against it.
They were only rumours, and he didn't want to scare her any more than she already was. Not when things were so precarious right now.
He turned to her, eyes gleaming.
"Do you want me to change you back? Like I did with Sasha?"
"How will this change things for you?" she asked. "Your sire is gone, and I'm not sure how you'll fit into Kindred society, or what to do about Isabel and Michael and Maria and your parents. What do you want to do?"
"I found another way back to Antar," he said abruptly. "Instantaneous travel. Khivar used it, and I think we could too."
Liz stared at him, mouth open, not expecting that. "What?"
"I was thinking that it wouldn't be a bad commute," he continued. "We can work something out, so you don't lose your power base here on Earth and I can gain mine back on Antar. Everyone else can stay here and lead their happy little lives if they want. It'll be a win-win situation all around."
Troubled and not a little confused, Liz turned back to the highway in front of them. Max didn't sound like he was joking, and she didn't know what to think. It was true, she hadn't given any real thought to how Khivar had come to Earth, and now she realized that there was a lot she and Max needed to talk about.
A few miles closer to the hotel he'd insisted on - having refused outright staying in Julian's house - she reached for his hand, as if needing to reassure herself that he was still there, that he was still her Max. They could work out the details later, as crazy as they were.
He pulled her to him, wrapping one muscular arm around her and smiling faintly when her head rested trustingly on his shoulder.
"You're finally with me," he said. "I don't care that you've been Embraced or that I've been Embraced, except that it's brought us together again. I love you, Liz Parker, and nothing else matters. I don't care that we're different species or that we belong to different clans. It just doesn't matter. I don't even care about Julian or Sasha or Tess or Kyle. They're all ancient history.
"I have you now, and that's all that matters."
She didn't answer.
"Pull over, Max."
He pulled over.
"Look at me, Max."
He looked at her. She wasn't smiling, exactly, because she was biting her lip so hard it was starting to bleed. Tensing at the scent of her blood so invitingly close, he never looked away from her eyes he could see everything he needed to see in her eyes.
In something less than a second she was on top of him, straddling him, cupping his face in her hands.
"I love you, too. And you're right. None of that matters, not when we're together. We can do anything, if we're together."
"Are you happy?" Julian asked his niece, ambivalent about rewarding her transgressions but unable to deny a very real satisfaction in being able to call her kin and mean it.
Sasha smiled up at him, and he was perversely thrilled and saddened to see a spark of her old defiant self within Gangrel eyes. The house would feel very empty without any younger Kindred to fill it.
Both turned as Cash and Sonny entered the room. Cash nodded to Julian but clearly had eyes only for Sasha.
Julian smiled indulgently as Sasha went to Cash and Sonny came to stand by him. "Be careful," he called after them. Next to him, Sonny chuckled.
Cash had Embraced her the very evening of her return, bursting with pride and ill-concealed desire. Julian still wanted to keep her under close supervision, but he never made the same mistake twice. Caging her would only break her spirit; he had to let her go.
His smile faded as he watched the red light of Cash's bike disappear into the night. It weighed upon him, the knowledge that he had to let everyone he loved go at some point or another. Evelyn, Lillie, August, Alexandra, Archon, Caitlyn, Sasha Liz.
Liz. Daedalus said he'd never lose her, and Daedalus never lied. Maybe someday she'd come back to him. He smiled inwardly; hope was a cruel temptress.
Solemnly, he turned to Sonny, noting the thoughtful expression on his face. "What is it?"
"Julian, do you believe in demonic possession?"
Julian considered the question seriously, as expected. "If you believe the legends, Embracing is a form of possession," he suggested.
"Well, do you think a Kindred could be possessed a second time?"
Julian looked at his onetime Childe with no little curiosity. "How do you mean?"
Sonny hesitated. "Something Cash got from Sasha when he Embraced her," he said finally.
Julian's eyebrows raised. Cash had gone to Sonny and not to him?
The knowing look Sonny levied on his prince was very telling, and Julian nodded in acceptance. Now that he thought about it, he was just as happy that Cash had been so discreet. Still, Cash and Sonny had never been that close. What could have worried Cash so much that he'd seek the counsel of another clan's primogen?
"I don't understand it, exactly," Sonny said, as if reading Julian's thoughts, "but apparently she holds a very clear cellular-level memory of her experience with that last Childe."
"Max?" Julian prompted.
Sonny nodded. "I know that's what everyone calls him, but in Sasha's mind, he's not Max anymore. Something else happened in that warehouse, if you ask me. I don't know whether it's accurate to call it possession, but Cash says that's how Sasha thinks of it."
Julian's eyes glinted in the waning twilight. "Is Liz in danger?"
Sonny hesitated. "I don't know," he hedged. "Does the name Khivar mean anything to you?"
The End, Part Three
Keep an eye out for Part Four:Antar It'll happen some day.