The Vampire of Steel
Stirring her iced tea with a plastic straw, Buffy said, “Tell me, Kara. What was it like when you were my age?”
The redheaded woman looked intently at Buffy, both hands holding her coffee cup near her face. “I’d really rather you called me by the right name.”
“Right. Sorry, Karla.” Buffy was trying to hold her gyro sandwich together at the small table in the Laughing Greek, knowing the thing was probably going to give her a case of the runs inside of an hour and estimating the meal was worth it. “So, when you were my age...like what?”
Kara Zor-El put down her coffee and toyed with her lamb and rice, using a fork. “Altogether, I think I might have had it easier than you. Don’t forget, you never know who’s listening.”
“I thought you could listen really, really good.”
“I can. But I’m careful.”
Both of them were in a back booth at the restaurant, which, like most places in Sunnydale, had been the site of one of Buffy’s adventures. There wasn’t anyone in the booth in front of them, and the tables nearest their booth were empty. But the Slayer knew what Kara was talking about. Supergirl wasn’t the only one who had a secret identity.
“Which of us had to kill on a regular basis, Buffy? I didn’t.”
“Well, there is that,” Buffy conceded. “But I didn’t have to fly through space and save the world from aliens. Just, well, monsters and demons and all that.”
“Hmmm. Well, when I was your age, I got my real parents back.”
“You did? That was when they, um...”
“They were in another dimension. I’d thought they were dead, but they weren’t. It was the happiest day of my life, Buffy, when I got them back. I thought none of us would be able to turn off the tear flood. Didn’t really want to, either.”
“Of course, there were problems. Mainly, who would I go with, my birth parents or my foster parents from Earth? It was a pretty tragic thing, if you think about it. The Danvers had lost their only son years before they adopted me. What were they supposed to do if I walked out? And how were my dad and mom supposed to make it as Earth people? There was a lot of heartache all over the place.”
“I’ll bet,” said Buffy, remembering how her parents had parted ways after she’d burned down the gym at Hemery High. “How did it get, you know, sorted out?”
“My birth parents went to live in Kandor,” Kara explained. “That’s the city in a bottle that cousin Kal has up in his Fortress.”
“They live in a bottle?”
“They’re really small, now.”
“My foster folks still live in Midvale. I go to see each of them at different times. They’re all friends, but they’re kind of glad they don’t have to live with each other.”
“Uh huh,” said Buffy. “Y’know, sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like if Mom got married again. With my luck it’d be to a six-armed demon from the Otherworld who’d max out her credit card. Before I had a chance to, that is.” She snickered. Kara smiled, lightly. Then Buffy said, “But what about you? Any boyfriends?”
“How kind of?”
“Oh, none of them have really worked out,” said Kara. “There was this one guy who I knew since I came here, just about. A normal Earth guy. But I lost track of him when I graduated, and we tried to get back together again, but it just didn’t work out.”
“Also, there was Jerro. He was an Atlantean.”
“He was from Georgia?”
Kara burst out laughing. “No. No, honey, he was from Atlantis. The underwater city.”
“There’s a city underwater?”
“Several of them, as a matter of fact. Jerro was a merman. He had a fish’s tail.”
“He’s like a human male from the waist up, but where most guys have legs, he has a fish’s tale.”
“Oh, lord.” Buffy put her head between her hands. “All of a sudden, my love life is beginning to seem normal. Tell me, Kara, if he’s just a fish down below, doesn’t that, you know...”
Kara was looking at her evenly.
Buffy went ahead and finished it. “...well, doesn’t it put kind of a crimp in the love life?”
“I never went that far with him,” Kara said.
“Okay. Okay.” Buffy envisioned the goldfish she used to keep as a kid, what they had to do to spawn, and tried to translate it into human terms. No way.
“Plus there was a guy from, well, let’s say, somewhere else,” Kara continued. “He had it bad for me, still does, but...well, I like him as a friend. But I just can’t make myself do more than that. I’m kinda sad about that, for his sake, but you know how it goes.”
“What does he look like?”
“Green skin, too.”
“Am I beginning to see a trend here?”
Kara snickered. “You were the one who asked.”
“Yeah, I can see you’ve had trouble with your love life, too. Any other real hopefuls?”
“Oh, there was one guy I almost married. He was a prince from an underground world. But I don’t really want to get into that. What about your love life, Buffy? Does, well, slaying mix well with dating?”
Buffy frowned. “Don’t even ask.”
“I’m sorry, dear.”
The blonde girl shivered and clutched her arms. “It’s kind of complex, Kara. I know you’re used to complex, but this is a different complex. Okay? You know this guy Angel I told you about?”
“I remember you talking about him.”
“Well, he’s a vamp with a soul. That’s a contradiction in terms. And we’re in...you know.”
The Kryptonian woman nodded, but said nothing.
“But there’s a real big catch. If I, well, go all the way with him, he loses his soul. Turns back into a bad guy. And trust me, Kara, he was a major bad guy.”
Kara maintained her silence. Buffy couldn’t look at her, but she tried to keep talking.
“So that’s...the situation as it is. We, well, have a major thing going. But there’s only so far we can take it. We don’t want to lose it, we don’t want to lose each other, but it’s Planet Frustration. I’m sorry to put it in such a stupid way.”
The other woman touched her arm, gently. “Buffy. It’s not stupid at all. I’m very sorry for you. How long has this been going on?”
“Over a year. A lifetime.” She sighed. “Sorry. Don’t want to put the Rock of Gibraltar on your back, even if you probably could lift it.”
Kara lay her hand on Buffy’s. “Look. Don’t think I’m not human, just because I came from somewhere else, or I’m a bit stronger. I’m older, hon. I’ve gone through a lot of the same emotions. Maybe not in the same configuration, but I’m not too old to remember.”
Buffy smiled. “You sound like my mom. Sometimes.”
“Maybe a big sister?”
“Well.” Kara adjusted the napkin in her lap. “First things primary. We need to find the one we’re looking for, and get him taken care of properly.”
The younger girl nodded. “You’ve got that thing you showed me.”
“Don’t even talk about it. Nobody but you and the group must know it’s here, and nobody but I know where I’ve put it now.” Kara was looking at her with deadly seriousness.
“No problem,” said Buffy. “I’m kind of used to keeping secrets.”
“Yeah,” said Kara. “I can imagine. Can you imagine where our quarry would hide out?”
Buffy shrugged. “We’ve got plenty of graveyards. Death is a blue-chip industry in Sunnydale.”
“We don’t do badly in Chicago, either. But they mostly don’t die this way. Graveyards, then?”
“Graveyards. Definitely graveyards. Dress casual.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about it,” admitted Willow. “Giles, there’s a whole world full of super-heroes out there. Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Zatanna—“
“I knew she was going to mention that one,” put in Xander.
“—all the way down to the Teen Titans,” Willow continued. “But here we are, on top of the Hellmouth, and the only ones left to defend against it is—us. Doesn’t that seem, well, a little unequal to you?”
“Why?” The Watcher turned from one of the less faked-up versions of the Necronomicon on his desk. “Haven’t we managed to prevail so far?”
“Well, that would seem to be beside the point,” said Xander, stepping up. “Except for, you know, the bit about Buffy getting killed once and me having to CPR her, and all of us getting put on the critically disabled list several times a semester, and, well, Dead Boy doing what he did when he went bad again...”
Giles looked up at Xander, stolidly. The black-haired youth knew he’d made a faux pas, considering what the demonic Angel had done to Giles himself and to Jenny Calendar. The look on the Watcher’s face told that he would have no trouble remembering everything Angelus had done.
“...Sorry,” Xander continued. “But when you consider that the whole Justice League could be put on this thing, and they’d probably have Green Lantern put a plug on the Hellmouth and that’d be it...what are we here for?”
The Brit stood, sighed, and adjusted his glasses. “Perhaps, Xander, you should go a little further with your queries. Why haven’t the so-called super-heroes of Earth found out about the Hellmouth?”
Xander kept silent. Willow didn’t prompt him, sitting on a chair in Giles’s study with her knees pulled up and her arms around them. Finally, Xander said, “I don’t know.”
Giles nodded. “These are men and women of incredible power, handling world-threatening events month after month. But none of them, to my knowledge, and that includes all the Watcher texts I’ve read, have ever stumbled upon the Hellmouth. Why, do you think, is that?”
Shrugging, Xander ventured, “Because it’s pretty good at hiding?”
Willow interjected, “Because the Hellmouth conceals itself from them!”
“Or because some other force conceals them from the Hellmouth,” said Giles. “We’ve already learned of the existence of a vampiric Kryptonian. What if, for example, there should come a vampiric Amazon, or a vampiric power-ring wielder, or even, God help me, a vampire Batman? How would we deal with them? How would the world deal with them?”
After a pause, Willow said, “Not very easily, I’m sure.”
Giles went on. “I’ve no direct proof, but I believe whatever wards there are on the Hellmouth exist to keep such extraordinary folk as Superman away from it, possibly ignorant of it, that they may not be victimized. It is probable that such as we are the only ones who are equipped, in our own imperfect way, to deal with the Hellmouth problem. Or be dealt with by it.”
“So...they’re being kept out, just as we’re being kept in?” said Xander.
“It would seem so, yes,” said Giles.
Willow brushed her hair back from the left side of her face. “But bringing Kara here, have we, well, kind of upset the applecart? Not that there’s literally an applecart, of course, and it’s been a long time since there’s been an applecart anywhere but in a grocery store, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Giles replied. “But the applecart was upset already when the Kryptonian who became a vampire came here. So it became necessary to bring Supergirl to deal with it.”
“Provided she can,” said Xander. “Provided all of us can.”
“We have to,” said Giles. “It’s what we’re here to do, Xander.”
“Okay, now I’m questioning maybe more than I should,” Xander retorted. “Assuming we can’t. What then?”
Giles regarded his protege with silence for a long moment, then spoke.
“God save us from ever having to find out,” he said.
Kara and Buffy were taking their tour of the third graveyard in Sunnydale when the faux redhead simply sat down on the grass, between two rows of headstones and crosses. “This...is terrible,” she said.
Buffy paused, about to point out the site of another landmark battle. “Hey, I agree. Being on top of the Hellmouth is like seeing Saving Private Ryan about five times running.”
“No,” Kara said, looking a bit haunted. “Don’t you understand, Buffy? The dates on so many of these tombstones...they’re so young. So young, Buffy. Most of them aren’t even out of their teens.”
The Slayer knelt beside her friend. “I know. Believe me, I know.”
“It’s like an Auschwitz. A death camp for young people. Buffy, we have to stop it.”
“That’s something I’ve never been able to do, Kara,” said Buffy, honestly. “I doubt even you could do it.”
“We have to try. Rao, Buffy, I could get the Justice League. I could summon dozens of heroes to deal with it.”
“Don’t know if that’d be such a good idea.”
The Argonian looked at Buffy. “You must be kidding me. You want to see more kids murdered in this town?”
“I don’t want to see a single other person murdered in this town. Not even the principal. That, by the way, is a joke. But there’s only so much we have power to deal with.”
“I’m not talking about your power. I’m talking about super-hero power, combined. There are many of us, and we’ve had to deal with all sorts of menaces, including magical ones.”
Buffy sat beside her friend, cross-legged. “I know. I’ve read a lot about your friends. But I don’t know that they’re ready to handle this sort of thing. The Hellmouth may be out of their jurisdiction.”
“We won’t know that unless we try.”
“Kara.” Buffy lay a hand on Kara’s shoulder, sternly. “There’s a reason why I’m here. Just as much as there’s a reason why you’re not. Let’s work together on this thing, okay? Later on, we can discuss Slayerette Two-In-One, okay?”
“Sorry. Guess I’ve been looking at too many of Xander’s comic books. Look, I know this is weirding you out. Going to that satellite where the Justice League hangs out would give me the major wibbles too, okay? But, like Giles always tells me, stay focused. We’re here to stake the Vampire from Krypton. Right now, that’s what we do. Right?”
Kara Zor-El sighed and hugged her knees. “All right. But after that, we’re going to have to discuss things.”
“If you feel like it later, we will.” Buffy stood. Kara held out a hand. Buffy stared at it.
“Aren’t you going to help me up?” asked Kara.
Wordlessly, Buffy grasped her hand and helped Kara to her feet. “Why?” she asked.
Kara dusted off the back of her pants and smiled. “Oh. Just force of habit. Sorry.”
“Don’t be. Kind of neat. But it’s going to be dark in a couple of hours. Then I have something in mind for us. Even more educational. But you can duck out if you want to.”
“Not on your life, dear,” said Kara. “What is it?”
“Bar-hopping. And trust me, even in Chicago, you’ve never seen this kind of bar.”
The moon was up and the night was, thankfully, almost cloudless. Willy’s Bar was a place which the living had no business visiting. It still had a bustling and varied clientele. It was run by a bumbling demon who trucked with the criminal supernatural element (which, in Sunnydale, was just about all of it), and you could find pretty much your phantasmagoria of ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggity beasties there, with their beverages of choice.
Buffy and her friends were among the few breathing folk who came there in a capacity other than as victims.
This time, the Slayer went in with her redheaded friend, the latter of whom was wearing her Supergirl outfit under her jumpsuit. “Remember, we’re here for a fact-finding mission,” said Buffy. “Let me do the talking, and the fighting. Or most of it, anyway.”
Kara shrugged. “I’m good on improv.”
Buffy pushed open the door and went in. She didn’t need to worry about what kind of entrance she made. Within three seconds, every eye in the room, in whatever multiples they came, was on her. Secondarily, those eyes also took in Kara.
Willy, who always seemed to be swabbing a dirty glass behind the bar, looked up and dropped the mug he was scrubbing. “Holy jamole,” he said. “Uh, Buffy. Uh, hi. Been, what, almost two weeks, ain’t it?”
“Not quite,” said Buffy, muscling a dhampir out of the way and heading towards the bar, Kara following in her wake. “Nice you remembered, though, Willy.”
Kara’s instincts went on red alert as she stepped across the doorway, warning her of the presence of magic. Deadly magic. Even a Kryptonian couldn’t laugh that off. But, internally sending her fear to Sheol, she followed, joining Buffy silently at the bar. A biker werewolf seemed to be appraising her critically. She ignored him.
Willy had his mouth open, and was apparently trying to make sounds. Buffy finally saved him. “You’re trying to tell me something you want to tell me in private, Willy? Is that it?”
He finally managed to say something, hoarsely. “Get out, Buffy. Please, please, believe me, get out.”
“Why?” The Slayer fixed him with an unwavering gaze.
Kara felt the vibration below them a nanoinstant before the rumble came, but it didn’t make any difference.
The floorboards beneath their feet exploded upward, as a tall and muscular form in green, red, and gold raiment shot up like a human geyser from whatever lay below. It stopped just before it reached the ceiling, descended quickly to the floor, and looked at both women with an expression that baled together hatred, satisfaction, hunger, lust, and some emotions neither one of them were comfortable appraising. The denizens of Willy’s cleared away from his landing place, making for the door or hugging the walls.
The person before Kara and Buffy said three words:
“Because of me.”