arena I:
the masks we wear

By kismet

--------

She had done a lot in the name of her job, but this had to be the slowest, hardest and most boring thing she had ever had to do.

The line started at the front desk inside the club and wound its way around outside and right down the street. She had started right at the street corner and was now somewhere between the fire hydrant and the fourth street-lamp. She had been standing for more than an hour.

Buffy sighed, shifting her weight to her other hip and leg and wishing for the umpteenth time that she had not worn the knee-length high-heeled boots. They were part of her 'disguise', and they were killing her. But then since when had her calling not tried to kill her? Some things never changed.

Buffy Anne Summers, in her third year of Psychology. A normal student, part-time daughter and some-time waitress when she needed extra cash. Still full-time Slayer of All Things Evil and leader of the Scooby Gang. Well, she could never say that life was boring. Except for times like now.

A lot of things could happen in four years, not only in terms of normal life but also in terms of night-life.

LA was getting to be too much of a hot-bed lately for Angel to handle alone, so when slaying was slow on campus Buffy helped out here. This, of course, meant contact with the first and so far only love-of-her-life, but the pain had passed. Now at most all they felt was regret and what-ifs, but they could never be close friends even though she trusted him with her life. Too much lay between them for that, even if there was affection and a certain amount of unspoken tenderness.

The line shuffled forward and she bit her lip, thinking of her life. Even though she was happy with her friends, university, family life and, in a weird way, her 'job', there was a sense of something missing.

She wanted to be in love again. Not the casual, often sexual relationships she had naturally had, but the true thing. The thing that could make you feel like you were walking on Cloud 9, and which could tear your insides out the next moment. She chewed her thumbnail, thinking idly of Angel. Thinking of Angel naturally led her back to thinking about what she was doing here with half her hair in little braids, a dark, knee-length coat with fur ruffs over a black knee length skirt and those stupid boots, large sunglasses perched on her face even though it was night. A totally un-Buffylike outfit.

She was also doing a very un-Buffylike thing: standing outside a club queuing to get tickets to LA's famous Night Masquerade.

Demon-politics had changed more than White House scandals lately. The mysterious new Master in LA and his radical ways of amusing himself had set the City of Angels on its ear, in the process making it the most fashionable New Generation gathering place for vampires. Buffy was willing to bet that the number of close-box berths and private plane flights to London, Paris and Rome had declined drastically.

"This new guy is definitely flamboyant-much," she muttered under her breath as the entrance of the club hove into view. Dark red, silver and purple, 'Paradise' clubs had been springing up like mushrooms in LA, with three to count and one more coming up. It still wasn't enough for all the streams of people who lined up on the sidewalks and in the parking lots every night. Her senses tingled with the presence of vampires dotting the line, mingled with humans. The clubs were important links in the vampire-underworld, and in a bow to Anne Rice, maybe, no kills were allowed in the vicinity of any club. This was not the only unusual thing: most of this Master's henchmen were assorted demons, not vampires. The 'monster-masks' the security staff wore was one of the things that had delighted columnists and party-goers alike and spawned a rash of unsuccessful copy-cat attempts. He did not believe in having minions, apparently. Good thinking there; minions were generally useless pains-in-the-ass.

"We're reaching crisis-point here," Angel had said, his brown eyes earnest. "There's been no attempt to control the flow of vampires coming in and I don't know how long LA's human population is going to be able to sustain them without the authorities noticing something."

"Aren't the local packs mad about newcomers moving in on their hunting grounds?"

"That's actually another problem. The last thing we need is pack-war."

"Why? Let them stake each other and do our work for us."

"This isn't Sunnydale, Buffy. LA police are going to smell something fishy if gangs of people in monster 'masks' start stabbing each other to dust in the streets."

"I know it isn't Sunnydale, Angel. Let me talk it over with Giles and the gang."

They couldn't stake all the vampires in LA, so the logical conclusion was to remove the magnet; the Master who found running nightclubs such fun. His Night Masquerade made human and vampire news alike. There were actually people who flew in every year now just to get to the party, famous and infamous names included. There was only one problem with the plan. No one had ever seen the Master except briefly, and never his face. He went around masked and wigged, it seemed, this habit being the inspiration for the Masquerade itself. The warm-bloods didn't even know he existed, thinking that the clubs belonged to The Corporation, a fancy name for three shareholders. The undead and the demonic could not have said for the un-life of them even how tall he was or what colour his hair was.

Which was why she was standing here in this getup waiting to get a ticket to the Masquerade, rubbing shoulders with vampires.

"This isn't how I planned to spend my hols," she whispered into her coat-collar.

"At least you get to go to the biggest party in LA," Willow's voice crackled faintly into her earpiece. "Which we had to pay for till Giles can dig the green out of the Watcher's Council."

A half-smile came and went. "Peeved-much, Will ?"

"Well...I don't see why we can't go too..."

"We'll be recognised and torn to pieces good enough reason for you ?"

"Wha...hold on." There was a muffled murmur then Willow was back on. "Xander says it's hot in here, and Anya wants you to get her a souvenir."

"I'm not even getting inside, Will! The closest I'm coming to is the chest of some demon bouncer at the foyer!"

"She says peanuts from the reception counter or one of those little umbrellas will do."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Why would she want peanuts when she's already a member of the travelling nut-box?"

"Hey!"

"Ssshh, guards coming down the line! Talk to you in a minute." Buffy rearranged her hair to cover her collar. The bouncers were coming down the line, inorexible and menacing in their dark, smooth suits. She knew what this meant, as did the other people inhuman and otherwise around her. Groans and cries of disappointment rang out as the line shifted and moved.

"Quiet!" bellowed one of the largest guys. The skin of his face was rough and reddened, two sweeping horns covering his head and the tips of yellowed teeth showing under his lips. The type was familiar, but she couldn't put a name to it at the moment. There was a more pressing matter at hand: the tickets had run out.

"I never thought I'd thank Xander for this, but..." Buffy looked quickly around. The guards were already scanning the line with their little camera-thingies, selecting the lucky ones for whom the red lights blinked. Those people, selected by unseen eyes, would get tickets.

With a swift, stealthy movement, she took off her sunglasses and unzipped the coat. Dark, smoky eye-shadow was smudged around her eyes, making their hazel-gold tint leap out, and her lips were painted a dark, dark red. Underneath the coat the neckline of the halter-neck dress plunged nearly to her navel, making her blush. This was all Xander and Anya's doing. They had insisted that she 'look' cool enough to make someone want to pick her out. She didn't feel cool; she felt like a tart. She wanted to kill Xander slowly by roasting over a fire, or drowning in a bucket...

Mr. Goat-Horns stepped in front of her and she looked up from under her lashes at the tiny camera lens, a smile making her mouth pout. Her hip thrust forward provocatively, making the jacket fall open further. Come on, come on, blink already...

The green-light disappeared suddenly. A moment later a red dot blinked rapidly with a small beep.

"Congratulations," said the demon with heavy irony, holding out a cream, gold-embossed envelope to her. "Keep this ticket with you, or there will be no entry." He moved off.

"OK," she whispered to herself, feeling her stomach do a funny little rise into her throat as if she'd been in a car that had gone very suddenly down a hollow. "We're in."

*~*

"Not that shade of lipstick!" Cordelia Chase threw up her hands in disgust. "I don't know what you fashion-disaster-plates would do without me."

"Enjoy life?" Buffy said snidely as she stretched her aching calves. "Are we done already?" She glanced down to where Anya was adjusting her skirts only to have her earlobe tugged by Willow. "Ow!"

"Sorry," the redhead said less than contritely, biting her lips as she adjusted the heavy golden earring and its attendant chain of fine pendants that ran across Buffy's cheek to the jewelled clip in her nose. "I've got to make sure this doesn't slip." She glanced down at Anya. "What're you going to do with the envelope anyway ?"

"Frame it," said the ex-demon, fastening a belled anklet just above Buffy's embroidered slippers. "When you can't go to the ball itself, be satisfied with Cinderella's fan."

"Will you guys stop ribbing me about it?" groaned Buffy, closing her eyes and fighting the urge to sneeze as Cordelia dusted powder over her face with a huge brush. "I'm going there to tag a master vampire for dusting and hope that I don't get pounded into the floor for trying."

"They can't kill you in the club."

"That's just spiffy; there's lots of things they can do short of killing me."

"Well, in this outfit, any guy that looks at you will want to do only one thing to you, and trust me it won't be kill you," Anya said in satisfaction as she backed away and straightened. "By Ta'hoffran, girls, I think we've made a masterpiece."

Willow and Cordelia backed away to survey their work.

Buffy scowled as she stood in front of Cordelia's walk-in-wardrobe. She could never figure out exactly how the brunette had managed to get so many clothes on her salary. The house had been a deal after the resident ghost's mother had been exorcised, but not before making a try on Cordelia's life.

Cordy's eyebrows raised. "Very not-Buffy, which is such a good thing."

Willow's eyes were wide. "Wow. Splendiferous. Excellent."

Even with the scowl, the Slayer was a vision. Trying to find a costume that had enough space to hide myriad stakes and  vials of holy water had been something of a trial, but in the end they had settled on the garb of an Indian maharani. Layers of shining dark red embroidered and beaded with gold draped around her hips, fastening in a simple, decorative rosette-knot in the front. The dark red satin blouse was tight, with slender elbow-length sleeves, ending just under her sternum and revealing a good deal of bare midriff. A light cloth of gold gauze was draped over her head to envelope her body, fastened charmingly at her wrists and anchored on her head by a heavy, intricately worked gold strand that followed her hair-parting and ended with a pendant suspended in the middle of her forehead.

"I don't see why I can't just wear pants," grumble Buffy. "I'm going there to kick vampire butt, not play Princess."

"Which is why you've got to blend in." Cordelia picked up the veil off the bed. "Go in your usual Buffy-suit and you'd stand out like Pamela Anderson in a convent."

"Yuck!" Anya made a face at the thought.

"Anyway, if you need to kick your way out, just yank the knot the way we showed you and the skirt will come off. You have pants on underneath, right ?" Lifting the heavy earrings and the tinkling chain of pendants, Willow hooked the veil behind Buffy's ears and stretched it's dark red length across her face. "You look so beautiful I think I'm going to cry."

Buffy shot her a dirty look and Willow grinned.

The doorbell rang and Cordelia looked at her watch. "That'll be the guys. Time to go, princess."

"Don't call me that!"

Giles leaned against the car that was parked in front of the stake-out van, thrumming his fingers against its smooth side distractedly. After all this time and all they had been through, he was still not completely at ease with the tall, silent man beside him as they both watched Xander lean into the doorbell in a way that would assuredly drive Cordelia crazy.

"Are you sure this is the best thing to do?" He cleared his throat. "There must be some other way..."

"There's no other way to get close to this master," Angel said inexorably. "Believe me, I've tried."

"But to send Buffy in like this, the venue will be crawling with the undead! And we will not even have radio contact with her."

"She's not going to have to kill anyone," Angel pointed out reasonably. "There will be plenty of humans there tonight and a lot of them will be important people. The rule is that there will be no kills made in any Paradise club on any night, and on this night most of all they can't afford to have anyone find a corpse stuffed in a broom closet. Buffy will be safer in there than she is on any night patrolling. All she has to do is learn all she can about the Master himself."

"There will be other Master Vampires in there, p...possibly whole packs." Giles took off his glasses wearily. "She might be recognised and that will be the end of it. If they don't get her inside, they'll wait outside."

"The disguise will have to be enough." Angel turned his head, profile silhouetted by the porch light. "Do you think I'd willingly send her into anything too dangerous by herself ?"

Giles looked long and hard at him. "No, I don't really suppose you would." It lay silent between them. No matter what happened or what other women crossed his path, Angel would always hold Buffy in a special place in his heart. For him the effects would last far longer, their impact being much deeper than on Buffy, who had the resilience of the young with all her life and all possibilities in front of her.

"Come on already!" Xander protested, banging on the door. "What are you femmes doing? Flossing your teeth?"

"Besides, I'll be waiting outside." Angel folded his arms across his chest. "Anyone caught lurking won't remember anything when they wake up, if they do."

"How is she supposed to get any information on the master, by the way? Do you have some sort of plan?"

"Only the standard one. Play it by ear."

"I was afraid of that."

"All right already!" Cordelia swung open the door with a scowl. "One more ring out of you, Xander, and I'll wring your neck myself!"

"Haha, so so funny, Cordy." Xander stepped aside exaggeratedly. "Did I get you while you were waxing your moustache?"

"Stop it." Anya took Xander's arm. "You promised me you were going to leave Cordelia alone."

Angel raised his eyebrows at the little scene. "Your demoness still doesn't know about Xander and Cordelia, does she?"

"I hope she never finds out," Giles said morosely. "She may be human now but I daresay she knows enough witchcraft to make them both miserable if she's angry."

"She had better not. Cordelia's a member of Angel Investigations and is off limits."

Giles glanced at the vampire. "You have a very strong protective streak, don't you? You're somehow compelled to safeguard those close to you, which is interesting because it goes directly against your nature."

"You mean my being a bloodsucking demon?"

"K...kind of like that."

"You're wrong there, Watcher. Vampires can be very protective of those dear to them as they are of their hunting grounds. And I suppose when I got my soul back all that aggression I used to have turned into..." Angel broke off suddenly, half-rising from his leaning position against the car. Puzzled, Giles looked around and his jaw dropped.

"What do you think?" Anya beamed up at Xander proudly.

"Isn't she gorgeous?" Willow gave a little hop on tiptoe down the steps.

"OK, guys, just give me my coat already?" Buffy said in irritated embarrassment.

"Not till everyone gives me the admiration I deserve for thinking up this outfit." Cordelia held the coat behind her. "Not bad, though I could have used another model." She turned on her heel. "What do you think, Giles, Angel?"

They could only stare as Willow and Cordelia dragged a reluctant Buffy towards the car. Red suited Buffy, was all Angel could think. Red silk and cloth of gold, all those layers of it and that provocative little blouse...Her jewellery rang faintly as she moved, and the swirl of dark red skirts revealed little gold embroidered slippers with each step. Her eyes were outlined with kohl and an intricate pattern in black, red and gold had been painted across her forehead, centered on the heavy gold pendant. Her hair was long and loose down her shoulders, the way it had been in bed...

He turned abruptly on his heel. "We have to go, or we'll be late."

Everyone stared for a moment, then hastily tried to focus their eyes somewhere else. "Oh," was all Cordelia said before practically pushing the coat onto Buffy.

*~*

The Paradise Soleil was the largest of the three existing Paradise clubs in LA and was consequently the most glamorous, and the most mainstream, unlike the Paradise Luna, which catered mainly to the younger, tougher rock crowd, and the Paradise Stella which was the hottest venue for upcoming acts and bands. The Soleil was also the venue of the Night Masquerade every year.

The petite blond who arrived on the step, swathed in black wool, could not resist a smile of irony at the name. Soleil, according to Willow, meant Sun. Denial big time from the undead patrons.

"Sun, moon and stars," she said to herself as she stepped up to the imposing entrance with its veined green marble floors, holding out her invitation to the demon bouncer. He smiled at her, revealing a row of yellowing fangs. She blinked. The demon was smiling?

"Soleil, Luna, Stella." The demon had a deep, growly voice. What else? He handed back the invitation to her with a hand as large as a ham. "Have a pleasant evening, madam." He waved her in, past the white and black pillars into the lavishly decorated entrance hall.

Buffy was in a state of shock. A demon had been polite to her! Almost like a normal human being. She was so used to being jumped on by and bashing up demon opponents that actually having a nice demon talking to her was like having Cordelia being humble. "Well, I guess you can't have grunting, growling monsters greeting guests."

Already drifts of people were in the hallways, all in spectacular costume, all masked as they hurried deeper into the building, talking and laughing, or stood in the entrance waiting for friends and deep in conversation. The atmosphere was one of infectious, excited anticipation. Buffy felt it as she wandered down the lavishly decorated hall, marvelling. Black swathes of fabric spangled with silver and tassels covered the ceiling, imitating a sky full of stars. Banks of white flowers stood against walls painted in vibrant shades of purple, violet and fuchsia, surrounding the framed oils and pastels of jungle scenes. Jasmine, roses, lilies, carnations, huge white magnolias and chrysanthemums stood in huge urns, twined up pillars and hung in wreaths around the necks and forms of the marble Grecian-style statues, adding a floral perfume to the air. There were more people now that she was drawing near to the heart of the club. They practically reeked of money, the mortals among them anyway. The gold and diamonds that flashed were real, and the exquisitely detailed costumes must have cost small fortunes. Most, she suspected, had been commissioned specially for the party. Cordelia had been right: she would have stood out like a sore thumb in Slayer clothes.

She was so busy looking around that she bumped into someone at the door before the entrance proper.

"Oops, I'm sorr..."

The vampire snarled at her, yellow eyes glowing brighter than the champagne in the fluted glass he held. Weirdly enough he was dressed in a priest's clothing, backward collar and all, only it was dark green velvet and he wore rings on every finger, a huge emerald stud in one ear. Buffy stiffened, hand automatically reaching for one of the hidden stakes...

"Madam?" One of the ushers, human, stepped out from his position by the doors, holding out a black gloved hand. He was dressed in the manner of a seventeenth century gentleman, in the dark purple livery of the Club, with a red cloth knotted around the immaculately white collar of his wide-sleeved shirt. Brown eyes smiled at her from behind a simple silver domino mask. "The coat check is just there."

Looking askance at the vampire till he was lost in the swirl of the crowd milling around the small room, Buffy let the usher lead her over to the counter where three similarly liveried human women smoothly checked in cloaks and coats.

She produced the invitation. "Could I just, er, keep this on?" Buffy clutched the padded coat with its anorak hood close around her, feeling suddenly self-conscious.

"I'm sorry," said one of the women. "The rules are that all extra clothing be left at the counter and masks must remain on at all times." She smiled warmly. "Don't worry, madam. Our shelving system is excellent and no one has ever lost anything here before."

"I..."

"May I?" The usher was already lifting the coat off her shoulders.

It might have been funny, she fumed later, if it hadn't been her. The Slayer of All Things Evil, turned around like a meek little girl by the well-oiled machinery of excellent service.

*~*

She stopped at the black and silver art-deco railings, looking down over the heads of the crowd. The music leapt out at her immediately, enveloping her like the soft gold light of the interior. She raised a hand to adjust her veil as she tried to get her bearings, the little gilt bracelet tag the women at the counter had snapped around her wrist tinkling.

I blame you for the moonlit sky,
The dream up high,
Where the eagles fly...

"A large central hall, open-plan, spanning two floors. The second floor is divided into at least five large rooms, one of which will hold the tables and food. The others are modelled on a private mansion in the style of the old days when the rich entertained on a grand scale almost every night, for guests who want to evade the crowds for a while." Giles had lectured her until she wanted to scream. "The centre of the ground floor is a lowered area for dancing, but as in most nightclubs there are half-partitions and raised areas as well as scattered seating areas and cocktail tables. Three long stages extend out towards the central pit, but there are no bands. The music will be a mix of the recorded work commissioned by the Club specially from selected artistes and popular hits. Of course, there will be a definite leaning towards an arcane or fantastical theme."

"You don't say," muttered Buffy. "There are so many vampires in this room I can't even sense them individually, and that's not counting the demons. How am I supposed to pick out the master?"

Well, she wasn't going to get anything done standing up there. Taking a deep breath, she descended the staircase.

*~*

"This has the makings of the best Night Masquerade ever," the well-dressed young man seated in the chair at the end of the long table said. With neatly combed hair, his sleek, expensive suit and his overall unobtrusive elegance, everything about him screamed 'Lawyer!'. "You are to be congratulated, Mr. Mornay."

He had been staring out the huge wall of glass, over the city. "Am I supposed to thank you?"

"That is your choice, Mr. Mornay. Wolfram and Hart count you as a very important client."

"Which means I'll just have to pay more." He snorted. "It's not even the money you're really after; not with the kind of clients you specialise in."

"The Firm's reasons are its own, sir. With your leave?"

"Get out, do."

He hated to admit it, but without them he would not have been able to do half of this. They had handled all the legalities,  worked with the real estate agents and hired the human staff, overseen the advertising. He hated admitting that he was dependant on anyone. He was his own being, his own creation. Reliant on no one. He had been weak once, and gotten hurt because of that weakness. Not any more.

The clubs were his little kingdom, much more fun and less troublesome than a pack, even. They kept him busy and even gave him pleasure. He liked parties, big ones. He liked music. He liked feeding off his pick every night. He liked having some reason to spend money. Before, he had had the money but just couldn't be bothered to use it on anything.

He liked the hard, edgy modern elegance of the clubs, and most of all he liked the distraction that they were. Thinking about them and the things connected to them, the upkeep, the ideas; it kept all the bloody memories out of his head.

Smiling, he stepped out from behind the secret panel into the hall. Kurgah heard him immediately, swivelling his horned head around, red eyes blinking as he came swiftly down to his employer.

"We're ready."

"Excellent. Do you have the lists?" They were moving down the dim hallway behind the stages. The music thumped through the very walls to them, and outside on the three platforms the hired dancers and performers would already be strutting their stuff, leading the crowd. His head was already starting to sway and he snapped his fingers in time to the beat, taking the proffered lists from the demon who was his chief of security.

"Well, what do we have here?" He flipped through the human list as he walked. "Would you say we're attracting more of the modern Rat-Pack this time, Kurgah? Lots of bimbos and wankers out there on the floor tonight." He licked his lips, smiling slightly. "I feel quite...peckish tonight."

"Be that as it may, sir." The towering demon handed him his mask, and he laughed. Kurgah always spoke with such perfect, polished speech, as upper-class British as his employer was Cockney slang. "You may want to look at the other List, sir?" The Head of Security gestured to the list of the inhuman guests. "Five of the master vampires of Los Angeles here tonight, seven from outside."

He glanced through the handwritten notes, taking in names, ages, location of claims. "Too young, too brash or too bloody stupid. What else have we got of the non-vampire variety? Banshee, shapeshifter, maggara, wolf...assorted run-of-the-mill types...what's this then?" A black nail underscored a line of writing as they paused behind the door that would lead out onto the main floor.

"The one I was telling you about, sir. Surveillance picked up something strange about her, so as you ordered, we issued her an invitation. In all respects humanoid, but there were some abnormalities we could not place."

"And you know what that means, don't you, Kurgah?" He handed the lists to one of the guards, a short, impossibly stocky fellow with one eye and lizard-skin.

"What might that be, sir?"

"My entertainment for tonight." Sharp teeth flashed as he tied on the black mask with it's wraparound black hood. At his nod two demon guards opened the door. "Point her out to me."

The roar of voices and music washed out over him. The revolving Turkish lights with their cut-out screens washed stars, moons, curlicues and geometric shards of coloured light over the crowds of glittering laughing people. The theme this year was of a fantasy garden and scent of the heavy white blooms on the miniature magnolia trees mingled headily with expensive perfumes and the scent of mortals. The floors had been sheeted with shimmering black, so the patrons looked as if they were walking on the glassy surface of a night-dark lake. Mirrors were everywhere, reflecting the light of the dripping candles that was already magnified by the simple artifice of round glass bowls full of water, some containing a water lily or a perfect rose nestled in ice. A beautiful, seductively perfect illusion.

The fine hairs raised on his skin in anticipation, and he let his game-face come through under the cover of his mask for a few moments, his amplified senses drinking it all in as he moved into the crowds followed by Kurgah.

"There, sir." A finger as thick as a sausage pointed across the crowd and his golden eyes followed, fixed on the figure descending the stairs, and widened.

"Sod it all!!"

*~*

Walking through the moonlit night,
Where the shadows hide and the night birds cry.
She walks in the panther's steps
And sees sunlight in the night.

Twining like the red-blood vine,
They walk the fine line between night and day.
In dark shines the wildcat fang
Heart's blood of that love of mine.

So many vampires to kill, so little time.

There was a good sprinkling of non-humans in the crowd, Buffy could see right off even as she came down the stairs. If she could somehow clean them all off the slate at one shot now, she could declare a two-year Slayer official holiday, the evil demon population would be that crippled.

And she couldn't even reach for a stake, much less lob a few grenades in.

The music thrummed, infectious in its beat and its haunting vocals, making her want to sway and dance. Slayer, she cautioned herself. You came, you saw, you left before you got yourself scalped. Stick to the plan, though it is one great party...bad Buffy! She mentally slapped herself on the back of the hand. Try to pick out this Master person, even though you have no idea what he's supposed to look like...

Looking down at the crowd, she suddenly realised that a good number of them were looking at her. Secretive eye slits in fanciful masks, amidst jewels and lace and velvet and gold, mouths murmuring indistinctly to each other as they appraised her, probably to find her wanting. The music swallowed their words. Buffy gulped, nearly stopping dead on the stairs. She was no wallflower at parties by any means, but this was very different from the raves and campus parties she was used to. For one thing it was huge, and classy. And she could see a lot of beautiful people on the floor; tall, bosomy women with knockout figures and long, long legs. She was positive she could recognise at least three rising starlets and an underwear model.

"Move it, Slayer," she murmured to herself under her breath, forcing her legs to walk. "Or he'll find you before you even realise who he is."

The minute she stepped down from the stairs she knew it was a mistake. The vampires dotted through the crowd around her might not recognise her for a Slayer, but they could certainly sense something about her which was not *right*.

The first one to come up to her was definitely not the guy she was looking for. Young, brash and cocksure, he was dressed in dark blues, his wig of white hair in  long, streaked mullet, gloves on his hands and a long cape around him. Dressed like the Goblin King from the Jim Henson movie 'Labyrinth', no less. Buffy had watched the movie umpteen times as a kid. She liked it. And she didn't like this young bloodsucker for being such a poor substitute for David Bowie.

"Creed?" was the first thing the rogue asked her, for he was definitely a lone rogue. Green eyes glittered down at her as a long-fingered, gloved hand raised, rings flashing. "Creed?" he asked again when she didn't answer, shoving her and making her take a step backwards.

"Sorry, but I don't do Goth." And with a spurt of anger she knocked aside his arm and backhanded him in the face, feeling the satisfying crunch of cartilage as his nose broke. Neatly sidestepping, she brought up her foot and kicked backwards into the back of his knees, sending him sprawling on the steps. The music masked any sound, but heads turned anyway, the mortals shocked and amused, chattering excitedly as they watched the altercation. A subtle shift rippled through those among them who were inhuman even as two of the huge demon bouncers appeared from nowhere and dragged off the protesting vamp.

Great, Slayer. So much for coming in unnoticed. Next time you should just crash through the skylight like Batman.

As quickly as she could she made her way into the crowd, but was stopped before she even got through the first few standing groups. He was human this time, an older guy in a white knight's outfit complete with chain mail and helmet.

"That was some move you put on him." A flash of teeth showed behind the helmet's bars. "Would you like a drink? Maybe you could show me how you did that sometime."

In your dreams.  "I'm sorry, but I'm looking for someone." Buffy pushed past him irefully. The last thing she needed now was bad pick up lines.

In short order she was approached by a dragon, a Phantom-of-the-Opera wannabe, a court jester, a vampire dressed la Anne Rice who wanted to question her and a Venetian nobleman who practically oozed screen-money who called her his 'Arabian Princess'. She had just told him that he had halitosis and that any idiot would have seen that she was an Indian maharani, when her senses went into overload, screaming warning signals through her system.

"Excuse me," a smooth voice said from behind the Venetian nobleman. "Could I speak to the lady, please?"

The nobleman looked miffed. "Look, pal. I was here first..." then he turned and looked into the ridged, fanged face of the Master Vampire. The 'mask' didn't scare him so much as the sight of the three other similarly 'masked' acolytes around the Master did.

"Thank you," the Master said with a smile as the flustered yuppie moved away with murmured excuses. Then he fixed yellow eyes on Buffy. "And what do we have here?"

Stake, Buffy's mind was yelling. Stake the bastard already! But he obviously wasn't the one she was looking for because he wasn't wearing a mask, and the owner of the Paradise clubs didn't go for acolytes. On his own he probably fed enough to gain all the strength he needed. The clubs were like open restaurants to him.

"What might you be, my dear?" the Master said patronisingly. "A high-level witch? A body-snatcher of some kind? You smell delectably human enough to me, except for that little tinge of a little something extra..."

"Get out of my way." Her patience was about to snap. She was just one or two layers away from the dance floor and at this rate it was going to take her forever to search the place. "Before I lay you flat on your back."

One of the acolytes hissed and came forward, but with an abrupt movement of his hand the Master held him back. "Fool! Do you want to get us thrown out?" Then to Buffy, "You might be safe here, but outside is another thing. Rudeness doesn't go unpunished and you shouldn't confuse me with that pitiful weakling you just beat."

"You aren't from around here, are you?" Buffy's senses prickled, blurring as she felt strong signals moving in from all sides. "So you're a Master, big deal. Killing you isn't quite Mission Impossible, you know." A chuckle from behind her made her whirl around, silk and gauze flying and jewellery clashing faintly.

"All too true," the other Master grinned, showing all his vampire teeth. "Serric isn't all too good outside of Boston, is he? And bringing all his acolytes with him where anyone could stake them all in a row..." he clicked his tongue as Serric snarled. Somewhere behind them a group of people burst into laughter and there was the faint click of champagne flutes through the music. Santana's 'Supernatural', her brain registered automatically as the Master continued, "But I'm from around here, sweetheart, and I'm a lot more persuasive than he is."

"Look," said Buffy in distraction as she saw two more Masters heading her way. All this attention would be nice if only all of them weren't undead demons! "Judging by your skill at chatting up a girl, I get why you're desperate-much to get a date, but you really don't want to be giving empty threats, which will be empty alright if you're dust. I'm..."

"Obviously a strong succubi," put in the next Master to arrive. "But remember, in human flesh you're vulnerable." He bared his fangs at her, then over her head at the other two.

Whoa, this is getting out of hand. They're squabbling over who gets to try and frighten my identity out of me? That perfume Anya spritzed on me must have had Master Vampire-attracting pheromones in it...way wiggy!  In vain Buffy turned around looking for a way out. There was none, except if she knocked one of them down and stomped over him. Which would be majorly-fun, but which would also get her thrown out for fighting. With a glittering clientele like this, on the Night Masquerade night of all things, security would be really tight. Worse than anything Principal Snyder had ever managed to do.  She backed up slowly...and bumped into something solid, like a wall.

A hand as large as a ham fell on her shoulder and she jumped, whirling around to see that the huge, horned guard whose red-light had selected her from the line the first day was standing behind her. Unnoticed, he had pushed his way into the tightening circle of vampires. "Come with me," was all he said.

"I wasn't fighting!" she protested. She raised her hand, the charm bracelet tinkling. "See? Ticket!"

"She's staying!" snarled Serric from Boston. "I haven't finished with her."

"My apologies, sir, but someone she came to meet is waiting for her."

Buffy broke off her glare at Serric to stare at the guard. "Really?"

In answer the gigantic guard moved aside, and then they saw him standing just a little way away. She hadn't sensed him because with so many Masters around her Slayer senses were on overload. It was him, the Master Vampire who owned the Paradise Soleil, Luna and Stella.

In the midst of all the colourfully and extravagantly costumed and painted people, his costume almost seemed reserved even though the high collared, exquisitely cut long red coat which he wore was intricately embroidered with gold and black all the way down to where it flared a little in mid-shin. Yet as he walked towards them, the coat parting to show tight black trousers going into knee-high black boots, one leg dramatically striped up the front with a bar of red, there was no mistaking his easy, proprietorial gait. The other Masters shifted as he broached the circle coming right up to her, feeling as if they ought to challenge him but unable to do so. Not in the clubs. The golden rule: not in the clubs.

Buffy stared up at him, her pulse racing. He wore a black mask molded to his upper face and a black hood obscured everything except his mouth and chin. The mouth smiled at her. It was a human smile, but so close she could sense him alright, very strong.

She and Angel had never quite gotten around to discussing what she was supposed to do after she actually ran into him.

His cool fingers took hers and he bent over and kissed the back of her hand very lightly, just brushing his cold lips over the skin. Again there was a frisson...was there something actually familiar about him? She almost panicked when she realised he was drawing her away out towards the dance floor but he put a hand gently around her shoulders, glancing down at her to reassure her. His eyes were blue, she noted. Very dark, like a blueberry stain.

"I can't dance here!" she blurted out in horror. Not in front of all these people and un-people. Not only might someone recognise her at last, she might just make a very major fool of herself in front of the rich, sophisticated and famous. AND she was having a major inferiority complex fit here.

He only smiled at her as he led her into the dancing crowd that his guards were clearing a path through.

"Couldn't we just sit down and drink or something?" Buffy tried again, worriedly checking her veil fastening with her other hand to make sure it was in place. "We'll talk. You can talk, can't you?"

They had almost reached the heart of the floor, centered in front of the three stages where the dancers were doing lascivious dance moves to the beat which pounded out all around them. Another smile, and the guards were gone, leaving only the two of them. Buffy gulped as he ran one hand up her shoulder under the gauzy length of the headdress, and slipped his arm around her waist. She'd bet that when Angel had said 'get close' to the guy he had not dreamed it would be this close! And it was actually...nice.

He didn't pressure or hurry her, not even when everyone else was dancing frenetically around them and swinging their hips. Which was really smart, since if he had she would have had to stake him, rules or no rules. She was nervous enough to. In graveyards, killing vampires, fighting demons and saving the world she was not nervous. Here and now she was. This scenario was just weird-much! The next thing she knew he might even kiss her!

When he leaned forward she thought in panic that he was going to do exactly that, but he only brought his mouth close to her ear, outside the gold of the headdress. And he finally spoke.

"What's the matter, Slayer? You used to be more lively than this on the dance floor; I hope you haven't caught a permanent case of death?"

Her head shot up and she reared back in horror as the familiar tone registered in her brain. "SPIKE!!"

"The one and only, pet." He grinned under his mask, never breaking his hold as a new song fitted neatly into the ending of the old one, melodic even with its heavy dance beat. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, ducks?"

Buffy closed her eyes. "OK, this isn't happening. This is all a dream. I'll wake up in bed late for class again and Willow will be banging her books about...I am not standing here with the William the Wordy, Scum of Britain."

She pushed against Spike's chest. She might as well have been pushing at a wall.

"Let go of me!"

"Now now, Slayer, bad manners to walk out on the owner of the club in the middle of the dance floor with everybody watching, especially since I rescued you from that group of big bad vampires over there." He began to move, easing into the rhythm slowly, forcing her to move with him.

"I have a stake here with your name on it!" Buffy hissed, her cheeks flaming. The dancing she usually did meant little if any bodily contact. With hard music it was like that, but this...They were melded from chest to pelvis and the way he moved was disturbingly sinuous and very, very suggestive.

"You figured I was gone from your life, love?"

"The Fates wouldn't let me get so lucky, not even if I bribed them!" she spat under the veil. He chuckled, an unexpected sound coming from him as his stroked cold fingers through her hair under the golden transparency of her headdress in a way that made the fine hairs rise on her nape and arms.

"Well, all you have to do is ask, pet. I'll help you get lucky for nothing." She gasped in outrage, but it soon turned into an entirely different gasp when his fingers dipped under her veil and touched her bottom lip. "Red and gold suit you, Slayer. You could be an Empress, the beautiful Maharani of all the World."

Buffy felt winded. "You actually..."

"Stated the obvious? You're the most beautiful woman on the floor, pet. And the only one that I can't seem to sink my teeth into." His hands slid up over the red silk of her blouse, over her collarbones and up gently on either side of her neck, thumbs slipping under the curve of her ears.

Once we were Dreamers, oh Dreamers you and I,
And Fighters and Lovers we saw, live and die...

His touch was silky cool, not threatening at all. It disorientated her. Spike had never touched her except to hit her in a fight, and vice versa. He could be this gentle?

And all around them hundreds of people danced, packed together yet in their own worlds, linked by the music. Somehow she couldn't think straight, couldn't clear her head of the singer's haunting vocals. Couldn't stop her body from moving with his in thrall to the rhythm.

We thought Time was ours and its Seas would never dry,
But we woke from the Dream and found it a lie...

He spun her away in a swirl of red silk and gold, flaring out like a vibrant flower mirrored in the glassy floor, before bringing her back to him.

I thought it would be forever so I did never try,
To tell you the tale of my Heart's keening cry...

Her hair swung out behind her, cloaked in a shimmering gold cloud that fluttered, anchored to her wrists, till she felt that she might spin out of orbit and crash if he did not keep his cold, strong hold on her hands. He Held. Brought her up against him again, arms wrapping around her back. Cheek to Cheek, Heart to Heart. Her blood thundered through her veins, making her flush hotly against his cold.

And Loss hurts my darling, I've learned to not ask Why,
In Love's name two Strangers could not Pride, defy...

She knew the blue eyes behind the mask. Not as a sworn enemy, not as a killer, but as someone who had always been there but whom she had never seen. Someone she could almost believe to be human. Someone who knew Her. And even as she thought that, she knew that this moment would pass and everything would be as it should be again. It made her irrevocably sad.

And now we are here, Love, again, just you and I
So kiss me my darling before this can die...

So gently his fingers stroked up the column of her neck, under the thick gold hair. Gently they unhooked the fastening of the veil from her right ear, and the red silk fluttered down like an admission of surrender. Just for one moment when Reason had flown and consciences were silent, he bent his head down, and kissed her.

For Time always passes, like a falcon it must fly
Away far beyond reach up into the sky...

Lips parting hers, tongue slipping in between her teeth to taste her. She gasped into him as he crushed her closer, the both of them melded by the music and the heat which flashed between them. He flicked his tongue against her teeth, sucked lightly on her lower lip before moving up again to claim her mouth, making her bones turn to melting honey as he pressed her hips to his.

And now you are gone, yet my Head must I hold high
And forever remember your parting Goodbye...

Abruptly, he broke the kiss, holding her at arms length as if she would burn him. Jolted out of the dream, Buffy gave a small cry off surprise and loss, staring up at his black mask as he hooked back her veil with fingers that were not as steady as they should have been. She took one look around her and back at him, then it all crashed into her.

"It's been fun, love. You dance as well as I remember."

Her face went white as if he had slapped her and she actually flinched. She had never flinched or backed down even slightly from him before and a scalding rage and self-loathing came over her. That she had shown him her loneliness and her weakness and gotten this in return.

Her arm came up and before she knew it she had slapped him hard across the face. Then she did it again across the other cheek, snapping his head the other way. That done, she jerked her other arm out of his hold and pushed her way blindly across the dance floor, running for the stairs before the tears spilled over.

Grant me your Heartbeat, and Love's light in your Eye
For this moment must last me through the long paths of Life.

*~*

He had cursed himself by every curse he knew to curse by. He should never have done that, never.

She had looked like a Goddess coming down the stairs in red silk and gold with all her hair loose down her back under that embroidered gauze. Even in the few years that had passed, the blink of an eye in vampire time, he had forgotten how beautiful she was. Maturity made her even more bloody beautiful still. And she had not lost her touch. How he had loved it, watching her down the rogue and cut the wankers who tried to forestall her, dead with a flick of the sharper edge of her tongue.

Buffy. The Slayer after all this time. The only nemesis he had never been able to defeat in a fight.

He supposed he should have been prepared for their paths to cross again one day. After all, she was still keeping in touch with that wuss Angel, and he himself had not exactly arrived on the LA scene quietly.

She was hunting him, was she? Well, he'd play her little game with her, then. No point playing alone, was there?

That was all he had meant it to be, a game. That and to put the other Masters in their bleedin' places. He had marked her as HIS kill ever since the day he had met her, and damn their bloody hides if they were thinking to move in on HIS kill!

He had only wanted to kill her. Not hurt her. Only meant to dance with her and laugh at her discomfort. He had never meant to kiss her. KISS her, oh bleedin' hell!

It was the smell of her that had done it. He had forgotten how good, how delicious and how downright sexy she smelled. And the way she felt in his arms, soft and warm like a ripe peach just begging for him to bite down into her, to break past the furred skin and right down into that juicy heart of warmth...Vampires only carried scent in their blood. The skin, the hair and the body were odourless, cold. Not like humans who exuded scent with every beat of their pumping hearts. Not like Buffy.

She had been so little and warm in his arms, so fragile under all that heavy gold jewellery. He had wanted to nibble on her, not break the skin, just taste and feel her plump skin. To tug playfully on that tantalising string of pendants running from her ear to her neat little nose.

Thinking about her as he lay in bed, he couldn't get to sleep. In the past when he was agitated like this, having Drusilla lying beside him had always helped. Now Dru was gone and he was alone in the vast bed, alone and actually sodding sorry about what he had done to the Slayer, and as horny as hell.

He lashed out and hit the headboard in frustration, making the canopy of the bed shake. "Why did she have to come along just when everything was going bloody fine for once?!"

*~*

"Your pardon, Mr. Mornay, I'm not sure that I heard you all that clearly. You want us to what?"

"I want to you close down the goddamn clubs. All of it. It's all bloody finished; time to move on now. Always time to move on."

A long pause. "I'm afraid it's not that simple."

"You bet your bloody life it is. Take the money, sell off the clubs, I don't give a damn. I'm leaving bloody Los Angeles because I'm getting bleedin' sick of this. Routine was never my strong point."

"Under the circumstances, Mr. Mornay, I'm afraid it would be inadvisable for you to leave Los Angeles. We had a contract."

Incredulous laughter. "Are you goin' to stop me, now? This is bleedin' priceless! You should know what you're dealin' with by now."

The dart was small, the shot silent. The clean-cut young man barely turned a hair.

"Oh, yes we do, Mr. Mornay. More than you think."

The number was already on the memory list on his cell-phone.

"Hello? About your earlier offer, things have...changed somewhat. We will be more than happy to do business with you."

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