Darla followed Angelus out of the room a short time later, sensing something from her chosen mate that disturbed her even more than Drusilla’s visions. When Darla had made Angelus almost a hundred years before, she had only wished to take a mate because at the time, the young man she had encountered in that alley with his dark, brooding good looks and the devil’s own charm, had interested her. She thought to enjoy him for a time but had never imagined that he would become her equal. Within him was darkness waiting exploitation and the demon she unleashed in him reveled in every brutal and sadistic pleasure, teaching her things that even she had not dreamed in her already jaded non-existence. Within a year of taking him as her own, he had made her his and she knew every aspect of him, loved him for his complexity, for making vampires not merely feeders of blood but something to be whispered about by other demons in horrified awe.

That is why she had followed him when he left the room because she knew he was shaken. He had hidden it well of course, Darla was certain that neither William nor Drusilla suspected how shaken he was but she could tell. They had spent a hundred years together, she knew him inside out and she could tell that something Drusilla said had unsettled him greatly. He had walked out of the room, oblivious to the fact that she was behind him, expecting an answer. Darla closed the door behind her for good measure, wishing privacy because she did not want an audience when she confronted him. It would give William to much pleasure to see Angelus upset.

"Angelus, what troubles you?" She asked.

"Nothing," he muttered uncomfortably.

"You cannot hide from me," she said gently and slid her arms around his waist, binding her to him so he could not run but could take some comfort in her touch. "Tell me what is wrong."

"There is a slayer," he answered after a long pause. "I saw her tonight. She was there when I went to get Standish. She killed most of the minions I sired last night."

"Is she the one from Rhodesia?" Darla inquired, surprised by the fact that the slayer whom by all reports was in Africa had somehow miraculously appeared in Four Corners, in the heart of the New Mexican territory.

"I don’t think so," he responded. "She didn’t look African and her clothes were strange. She wasn’t dressed like anyone I’ve ever seen."

"There cannot be two slayers," Darla stated.

"She was a slayer," Angelus insisted. "I felt her power. She was fought well and…." His voice drifted off, almost as if he could not bring himself to say what came next.

"What is my darling boy?" She coaxed gently, sensing his worry growing deeper.

"She knew me," he finally answered. "She looked at me and she knew me."

"I don’t understand," Darla’s brow furrowed. "How could that be? Have you ever met her?"

She was certain he could not have. They had seldom been apart in almost 100 hundred years. If he had encountered a slayer, he would have told her. There were no secrets between them.

"I’ve never met her," Angelus responded, putting to rest her thoughts on that.

"Then how is it possible?" She mused.

"I don’t know," Angelus pulled away from her so that he could turn around. "She knew me and she called me Angel."

Darla stared at him, understanding why he was fearful. If Drusilla was right about that, was she right about everything else? It was clear Angelus feared she might be and if he had reason to worry, then Darla knew something had to be done. For now however, she needed to reassure him.

"Nothing is going to happen to us my darling boy," she smiled as she leaned forward and kissed him passionately. "I won’t allow it. Tomorrow night, we will gather our forces and we will go pay these humans a little visit. We’ll finish them once and for all."

"I like the way you think," Angelus smiled at her, drawing strength from her determination. There was very little that Darla did not accomplish when she set her mind to it. "However, I think we need to take more direct means of finding out what is going on. Care to take a little trip with me tonight?"

"I think I can accommodate you," Darla smiled. "What do you have in mind?"

"I plan to find someone who can answer these questions for me," Angelus responded. "One way or another."

+ + + + + + +

"This is all so incredible," Mary Travis mused as she took a sip of the cup of tea in her hands. "I mean I saw it for myself but I can’t believe it."

After Spike’s surprise disclosure, Mary had been revived enough for complete explanations to be made and while the lady had difficulty grasping all of it, the evidence of her eyes convinced her that everything said was the truth, no matter how incredible. Although they did not anticipate trouble this evening, Chris was reluctant for any of them to travel under the cover of darkness and though it was going to be cramped in his small shack, it was agreed that everyone should stay put for the rest of the evening. Since the seven were accustomed to being on the trail, their bedrolls were permanent fixtures on their saddles and the group prepared to bunk down for the night with the ladies taking up the small bedroom.

"Well, it probably would have helped if you Master of Tact over here hadn’t scared you half to death with his game face. " Buffy found herself needing to apologize for Spike and then came to the horrific realization that it was a very girlfriend thing to be doing for the vampire. She narrowed her eyes and shot Spike a venomous glare for placing her in such a position in the first place. Spike caught her expression and furrowed his brow in confusion wondering what had he done now that she was pointing daggers at him.

"It helped didn’t it?" He asked innocently.

"Next time, let me do the explaining," Giles responded, giving Spike a look that bordered on parental disapproval. "I’m more likely to be able to manage without incurring fainting spells."

"Sorry, I forgot what women were like in this day and age," Spike grumbled. "Always fainting or getting the vapors. Got too used to the bra burning types. It’s all petticoats and a complete lack of backbone now isn’t it? Letting the men do all the work, while you sit around at home being pretty."

"Oh boy," Buck winced, wondering if the vampire knew what he had gotten into. "You done it now boy. I’m going to get my stuff, anyone coming with me?"

At least four hands shot up and within seconds, half the seven’s compliment seemed to suddenly come to the conclusion that it was best to make themselves scarce, pre-empting the tirade they knew was going to come from Mary.

"Done what?" Spike stared at him and noted that remaining men were directing him a look of sympathy, even as they were retreating to minimum safe distance. Even Chris Larabee was somewhat anxious and Spike wondered why they were suddenly so nervous.

"Being pretty?" Mary stood up straight and declared hotly. "I’ll have you know that I do not faint regularly Mr. Spike! However, I do think that on this occasion, being confronted so starkly with your demon presence took me by surprise and I was allowed my discretion. I see chauvinism is alive and well in the demon world not to mention the future. I had hoped that blight would be eradicated in a hundred years but I suppose only the times change, men remain the same! Chauvinistic and ill tempered, not to mention misinformed! I do not sit around and let a man do anything for me Mr. Spike! I run my own newspaper and have been doing so quite well since my husband passed on. Most women are in the situation we are because stupid, arrogant men who seem to think that they are the only creatures on God’s green earth with a brain run the world will not allow us to be anything else! Heaven forbid if a woman showed the slightest bit of intelligence!"

"You tell him sister," Buffy grinned, deciding there and then she liked Mrs. Travis quite a bit. She must have been the Gloria Steinham of her time.

"And you Chris!" Mary glared at the gunslinger in her tirade, allowing no one to escape unscathed.

"What did I do?" He cried helplessly and then shot a look at Spike, telling the vampire he would pay for this later on.

"You could have told me that there were vampires roaming about town!" Mary said angrily, wishing she had a bit of warning instead of being taken by surprise as she had and fainting like some weak female.

"I didn’t want to scare you!" He replied automatically and decided that was probably the worst thing he could have said.

"Oh so you just let this creature appear at my door, rather than warning me? What if I had invited him in? Did you ever think about that?" Mary stared at him.

"Well, no…" Chris stammered to explain and then gave up all together. "I thought it was best not trouble you."

"I am not some delicate flower that needs protecting Mr. Larabee! I thought I had proven myself to you on numerous occasions that I am capable of taking care of myself!"

"Sure you are," Chris snorted, feeling his own anger get the better of him. "That’s why I’m always hauling your ass out of trouble. Face it Mrs. Travis you get into more hot water than any woman alive!"

"My ass," Mary hissed, "is none of your concern!"

"Don’t flatter yourself," Chris snapped. "If it was ass that I was after, I can find plenty to accommodate me that wouldn’t give me half as much lip as you do!"

"You pig!" Mary cried out in outrage.

"They always like this?" Spike asked Ezra Standish as they continued to watch the unfolding melee with fascination..

"Oh yes," Ezra grinned as he watched Chris being torn to strips by the lovely blond newspaperwoman. It was always gratifying to see someone as self-assured as Chris Larabee off balanced by Mary Travis. Their arguments were the stuff of legend even though to anyone who saw them together, the reason for such heated emotions was clear enough. "This is one of their more restrained jousts."

"She is so into him," Tara stated quietly.

"Nah," Buffy shook her head. "He’s into her."

"She’s seems a rather spirited woman for her time," Giles agreed, feeling a sliver of pain inside him which he hid from everyone because she reminded him a great deal of Jenny Calendar, a woman he had loved deeply once and had lost to the Master. Jenny had been a techno pagan and had been instrumental in introducing the librarian to the world of computers when she had begun teaching at Sunnydale High. Jenny was one of the first lives the Master had taken upon his emergence from exile and ever since then Giles had avenged her with each vampire he killed.

"Mary’s a tough lady," Vin Tanner agreed. "Ain’t many women who goes through what she does in the Territory, running a newspaper, raising a son and all."

"Well someone ought to separate them before blood gets drawn," Giles commented.

"Oh they’ll be fine," Spike shrugged and then a thought filled his head which brought a smile to his face which he just had to share with Buffy. "Sometimes all it takes for two people to get going is just a little bit of violence to kick start things."

His response earned him a sharp nudge in the ribs to which he chuckled deviously to himself, enjoying the private joke immensely, much to the slayer’s chagrin.

"That’s not very romantic," Tara looked at him with her nose wrinkled in disapproval and wondered if this was vampire humor or was he really serious. Did people have relationships that started this way? Still Chris and Mary were fun to watch. "I think they’re kind of cute actually." She took up her observation of the feuding couple once more.

"Cute?" Vin looked at her with a smile and then glanced at Ezra with mischief.

"Mr. Larabee will be thrilled with that description," Ezra remarked and was almost tempted to tell him if he knew that it would probably get him shot, especially after how the gunslinger’s mood would probably be when he and Mary were done arguing.

"I dare you to tell him," Vin challenged.

"If I am going to gamble with my life, I would prefer a less dangerous outcome if I were to lose," the gambler said good-naturedly.

"Now there’s an idea," Spike looked at Ezra with interest. "Fancy a game of poker?"

Ezra raised a brow. The last time he had engaged in a game of poker he had almost been killed for his trouble. "That depends."

"On what?" Spike asked.

"On whether or not you will attempt to tear out my throat if I lose," Ezra retorted.

"Spike cheats at kitten poker!" Buffy blurted smugly and drew a look from her sometime lover.

"Quiet you," he growled, not wishing to explain that to this crowd. "That was playing with demons, this is for real."

"I’m not even going to ask what she means by that," Giles retorted, deciding a little bit of diversion was not a bad idea. Lord knows their attention was already focus on demons and vampires overlords ruling the future and as entertaining as Chris and Mary were, the duo would soon tire or kill each other, which ever came first. "However, if you’re talking about a straight game of poker, you can count me in."

"Me too," Vin added. "Someone’s got to keep you guys honest."

"I resent the implication Mr. Tanner," Ezra stared at him. "I never cheat when it comes to poker."

"Yeah right," Vin remarked in a tone that was completely skeptical of that claim.

"Hey Tara," Buffy motioned the shy young witch to her. Even though it was explained to Buffy that this was not the Tara that she knew, Buffy could not help feeling the same way towards Tara that she felt for Giles. To her, they were still the people she cared about, even if they were from different dimensions.

"Have you noticed how these guys didn’t even ask us if we wanted to play?" Buffy whispered quietly in her ear.

"I did kind of," Tara nodded and noted that the men had gathered around the table with Ezra producing a pack of cards. Mary had walked into Chris’ bedroom and slammed the door on the gunslinger, deciding to turn in for the night rather than continue arguing. Chris in turn had left the shack, opting to seek out the rest of his companions who had decided to take an extra long time in retrieving their bedrolls rather than get caught into the duo’s cross fire.

"We ought to teach them a lesson," Buffy gave Tara a look, her brow raising just a notch in a proposal of mischief.

Tara’s smiled spread across her lips and she found herself asking, "what did you have in mind?"

+ + + + + + +

"Can I play?" Buffy asked about an hour after the men were into the game.

"Can you play pet?" Spike looked over his shoulder at her, somewhat surprised that she wanted in. After all she had never professed any ability to play cards. In fact the last time he had actually been at a poker game, Buffy had not shown the slightest bit of interest.

"Sure I can," Buffy replied confidently. "I played in college."

"You played poker in college?" Nathan exclaimed. "In school?"

"What else are a bunch of college girls going to do at night in a dorm after curfew?" Buffy answered. "Its either poker or all night eating binges where we talk about boys and sex."

Vin and Ezra started choking on their spit and Buffy realized that was probably more than they needed to know. "Sorry," she apologized.

"I suppose sleep is out of the question?" Giles retorted feeling just as uncomfortable about Buffy’s last statement as his old west comrades, but not as obvious in his reaction.

"Giles, you really need to get a life," Buffy pointed out. "Okay deal me in."

"I am certain a descendant of mine will have the skills necessary to acquit herself in this game. After all, gender has never stopped my dear mother from playing with expertise." Ezra recovered enough to say.

"Ezra," Vin stared at him. "Your mother plays better than you."

"Really?" Buffy asked, thinking it kind of cool that her great, great, great grandmother was such a skillful cardsharp.

"I will die before I admit that," Ezra retorted with a completely straight face.

Buck, JD and Josiah were outside taking watch, choosing not to be unprepared if Angelus should choose to come back for a second round tonight. Chris had decided that it was best if they stayed put at least until the morning before they headed back to town. At least in daylight, they could be assured of making that journey safely, especially now that Mary was counted among their number. The lady herself had chosen to retire following her argument with Chris and had promptly taken residence within the small room, which served as his bedroom. The gunslinger himself had opted to stay out of the game. Chris chose to spend the rest of the night staring out the window, claiming that he was keeping watch even though most could tell that his quarrel with the lovely newspaperwoman had upset him more than he liked to admit.

Buffy had not lied when she said she knew how to play poker. In the days before she had started dating Riley at college and when Willow was out with Oz, she had plenty of time to spend by herself in her dorm and had joined a few of the after hours activities undertaken by those who had nothing better to do. Poker had been one of these. Of course, that brief flirtation with the pastime did not mean her skill was anywhere matching that being shown at the table. Although Ezra was the professional card player at the table, Vin and Nathan appeared to be pretty good. Giles managed to hold his own but it was clear that the real challenge lay between Ezra and Spike. She could not tell this time whether or not the vampire was cheating when he had been playing for kittens but he seemed to very good at it.

However, it soon appeared that luck was tilting in her favor as the right cards seemed to come to her with every hand. Sooner than anyone would have liked, Nathan, Giles and Vin had been played out of the game and it was left to Buffy, Spike and Ezra. It pleased Buffy to no end to see the expression of astonishment on Spike’s face at her skill and it was nice to know that occasionally, she could surprise him. In a non-sexual way that is.

"Life must have been pretty boring before Captain Cardboard," Spike commented. "You must have been playing a lot of bloody games."

"I can’t help it," Buffy smirked at him, not at all upset by his less than flattering reference to Riley because there was more to her skill then he knew. "It’s in the genes."

"To that I have to say its true," Ezra responded. "She does have the Standish touch."

"You mean the ability to hide aces up your sleeve?" Nathan quipped with a little smile as they continued to watch.

"I take umbrage at that remark Sir," Ezra declared hotly. "My skill is in the hands. Besides anyone with expertise would never be fool enough to use an ace, its too easy to remember. One picks a card that does not stand out in memory."

"Oh my god," Buffy stared at him. "I really do come from a long line of cheaters’

"That is a harsh word my dear," Ezra said smoothly. "I believe illusionist is a better word."

"Houdini was an illusionist," Buffy retorted not at all fooled by the colorful terminology. "Hiding cards in one sleeves is cheating."

"She’s got you there Ez," Nathan grinned. "Nice to know that one of the Standish’ is gonna learn that. Makes me know that my hard work trying to teach Ezra some scruples isn’t going to waste."

"And I thought slaying was hard," Buffy teased.

"You know, you’re supposed to be on my side, being family and all?" Ezra reminded her.

"I could bite her for you if you like," Spike offered Ezra sweetly.

"You could try," Buffy glared at him. "And when you’re done trying, I’d stake you."

"Where did you learn to fight like that?" Vin asked interrupting the two of them before they were treated to the Sunnydale version of Chris and Mary.

"Reform school," Spike retorted and earned a jab in the shoulder for his trouble.

"Giles trained me," Buffy answered after a second of staring hatefully at Spike.

"You taught her to fight like that?" Chris exclaimed, somewhat surprised that the gentle librarian had the skill to teach the girl to kill vampires and to defend herself in general with such polished savagery. The rest of the seven present shared his astonishment as their eyes turned to the Watcher.

"Well not this Giles," Buffy quickly clarified for their understanding. "My Giles, the one I remember." She met Giles’ gaze, wishing he was her Giles, the man who had been there for her during the hardest events in her life, who always ensured that no matter how many times she fell, he would be there to pick her up and set on her feet again. He was also the one who had left her because he loved her enough to let her go because she needed that nudge to stand up for herself to reclaim her life and her existence. As much as Buffy hated him for that, she also loved him for it. "It was his job."

"I must say he did exceptionally well," Giles swallowed wishing that he had known what it was like to be her Watcher because the affection in her eyes touched him deeply. A Watcher’s allegiance was to the Council first, the slayer second. It was clear that her Giles had crossed the emotional barriers that were supposed to keep the Watchers neutral. Buffy had loved his alternate self like a father and he could not help being moved by that affection as well as feeling a little envious. He had always hoped to be Watcher to a slayer but that was not meant to be. He had not regretted it until now.

"Yeah," Buffy nodded with a bittersweet smile. "You could say that."

"Well young lady," Ezra stared pointedly at her direction returning her thoughts to the game she was playing. "What do you bet?"

Buffy allowed a smug smile to steal across her features before shifting her rather sizeable win into the centre of the table, making the pot already there look even more tempting. "Everything," she said confidently.

"Everything?" Her opponents voiced their surprise quite vocally.

"If I were you guys, I’d start to worry," Chris remarked with an amused smile, speaking for the first time in a while.

"She’s bluffing." Spike stated.

"What makes you say that?" Vin asked, not believing him for a second. The slayer looked all too satisfied to be playing a bluff.

"Because you don’t spend as much time wanting to kill a person without learning something about her," the vampire retorted but he did not seem nearly as certain as Buffy did about her hand.

"I must concur with my demonic opponent on this," Ezra added his voice into the mix, studying the young woman closely and was sure that this was a bluff. He had paid attention to where the cards had gone and noble types like her were too pure to cheat, even if she had Standish in her bloodline. "I believe the lady is bluffing, in which case I match your bet and call."

"Spike?" Buffy turned to her lover. "If you wanna see my cards, you’re going to have to pay."

"I still say you’re bluffing luv," Spike declared and took up her challenge by matching her stake in the center of the table.

"Buffy perhaps it was unwise to take such an exorbitant gamble," Giles found it necessary to remark, although he supposed that would have been a better warning if he had made it before the other two opponents had called her bluff.

"Trust me Giles," she gave the Watcher a confident grin, unable to help feeling the same towards him as she would with her Giles, especially when he wore the same comfortable manner.

"Alright then my dear," Ezra stared at her in expectation. "It is time to see if you have inherited the Standish touch. Let’s see your cards."

Buffy took a deep breath and presented her cards to her opponents, relishing their exclamations of shock when they saw what she had been holding in her hand.

"I don’t believe it," Nathan cried out. "A royal flush!"

"But…but…that’s impossible!" Ezra stammered as he stared in shock at the perfectly sequenced collection of spades, starting from the ace and finally reaching its customary end at the ten. "I was certain I saw those cards before."

"Don’t be a sore loser Ez," Vin drawled.

Spike however, did not say anything for a few seconds. Instead he looked around the room and noted that Tara was seated by herself in a corner, appearing to read but somehow her concentration as elsewhere. He watched her for a few seconds as Ezra tried to comprehend how Buffy could have won with the cards she had and noticed that Tara took an inordinately long time to turn the page she was reading. Suddenly, it came to him what tricks the slayer was up to. He was almost tempted to expose her but the argument she was presently having with her gambling ancestor was just too fun to watch.

"Are you accusing me of cheating?" Buffy’s voice sliced through his consciousness.

"If I did not think you incapable of it, I would say yes," Ezra responded haughtily. He had watched the game closely, there was no way she could have cheated without his knowing it. Ezra prided himself in knowing every trick to the game. There were people he could tell were cheating just by the look on their faces.

"Jesus, Ezra," Chris found himself saying. "Take it like a man."

"But…but…there is just no conceivable way she could have done it!" Ezra cried out in exasperation and looked to Spike. "Do you not find it peculiar?"

"Sure I do mate," Spike chuckled. "But then I’m used to dealing with Slayers and their magician friends."

"Hey I resent that!" Buffy said defensively but not before a smile of pure mischief crossed her face. "Tara likes to be called a witch not a magician."

"Thank you," Tara chuckled from where she was, enjoying her part in this little mischief. She did not get to do it often enough.

"You cheated using magic?" Ezra stared at her in accusation, not knowing whether or not he should be angry or proud.

"How else was I gonna teach you guys a lesson for not inviting me?" Buffy winked as the room started to rumble with laughter.

Unfortunately, whatever amusement to be had in Buffy and Tara’s little bout of trickery was soon forgotten when JD burst into the room, awkwardly supporting Buck on his considerably smaller frame. The big man was bleeding from the neck from what appeared to be a bite wound. Buck, JD and Josiah had been keeping guard outside, even though Chris had not thought that the vampires would be back tonight. However, it had seemed prudent to take the precaution. Now, it appeared that once again, he had underestimated Angelus’ determination to discover the truth.

"Where’s Josiah?" Chris demanded when he realized the preacher was not with them.

Buck seemed too dazed to answer but JD’s expression was grim and without even speaking, they knew what his answer would be.

Josiah was with Angelus.


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