The characters and concepts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are not mine. Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox, Sandollar, etc, etc, have all legal and monetary rights. I just get them waking me up at all hours of the morning demanding that I tell their stories, that's all...

As always, for the Sunnydale Slayers. This time they shuddered instead of cooing.

Praise, flames, chocolate and tall, dark, undead angsty guys to

Three of Spades

by Lizbetann
Copyright 1997

England, 1818
Old Nick's Tavern, on the road from London to Dover

Billy cursed under his breath at the last of the travelers who stumbled up the stairs, to bed and wives and sleep. They left him the dregs of their bottles, and not enough time to clear their purses of gold. Not nearly enough time. The rich, the idle, the careless poured forth from London, dreaming of the continent, barred to them for so long by a generation of unrelenting war. Their minds were fixed on Greek statues and French women, not on whether the friendly chap they met in a tavern was dealing from the top or the bottom of the deck. Billy made a tidy sum that way, hazing their minds with wine and stealing their gold with cards. It had occurred to him -- often -- that it might have been easier to simply steal their purses outright. Before he had left London -- before he had fled the Town to save his own sorry skin -- he hadn't flinched from doing what needed to be done, whether it was cutting a purse or cutting a throat.

But it was more of a challenge, this way. And he hungered for a challenge.

Tonight, however, all he hungered for was more. More play, more gold, more wine, more blackness spreading out and out, blanketing him, blanking him. Oblivion was what he sought, wanted until he began to wonder if the opium addict's pipe was truly as disgusting as it looked. All he had were the cards that he restlessly shuffled and reshuffled, their sound a purr in the still night.

Out here, on the road, in this filthy tavern, he couldn't make half the money that he had in London. In London they had feared him where he walked the nighttime streets. Here he was affable Billy, charming bloke, always willing for a round of ale and a round of whist. And the charm sickened him until it was a poison eating out his mind.

The innkeeper paused his considerable bulk by the cracked table Billy occupied. "Time's up," he said, not unkindly. Everyone thereabouts liked Billy. "Seek your own bed, boy. Get you gone."

Billy's hand closed convulsively on the knife he wore beneath his coat. ~One moment. Just one. That's all it'd take. Then his gut would lie open like a fish's and his mouth would gape like one. Just one. Just one...~

The bloodlust didn't haze Billy's mind, but sharpened it. Enough that it wasn't a footstep or a breath of sound that made him aware of the third person in the main room of the tavern -- just feral senses honed to a point that made him look up to meet dark eyes. The newcomer was perfectly positioned to see the knife gleaming, barely slipping free from its sheath, under the table and out of sight of the rotund innkeeper who had no idea how close silver death waited.

Not best pleased at having his sport interrupted -- although he knew quite well that in another moment the knife would have gone back into its sheath and he would have gone docilely home, Billy leaned back in his chair, his pose that of the lord of the manor, master of all he surveyed. The night might not yet be lost. Anyone fool enough to travel at night when the highwaymen lurked was fool enough to fall into a game of cards with him. And he was a rich one, too. His clothes were tailored close to his body in a fit that screamed of wealth, the fabric finer than anything Billy had touched in his wretched lifetime. A gold watch gleamed at the brocade waistcoat, and a silver ring winked from his hand.

A fob, a dandy, and a fool. Billy smiled, not even bothering to hide the predatory intent that prompted him. He'd be dining well tomorrow.

The innkeeper bustled over to his new guest, full of self-importance and fawning desire for his lordship's comfort. Even if his guest was not a lord, it never failed to make the gentry more generous to be called such. With three words and a sweet smile, the newcomer had the innkeeper stumbling back, his florid face gone white with fury or fear -- or both?

Swinging the cloak from his shoulders, the dark man crossed the room to sit at the table with Billy. Restlessly, the cards continued their endless shuffling song, a pitch that raised and lowered, raised and lowered.

"Care for a game?" Billy asked casually, ignoring the sting of sweat that had broken out on his body. Half of it was from pure covetousness, wanting the rich fabrics, the gold, the easy life. And half of it was from wondering if he was really seeing what he thought he was seeing in the stranger's eyes. He'd seen a man go mad, once, seen it happen right before him. And the eyes... had gone calm, tranquil as the man had used a broken bottle to tear a man to pieces. Very clear, very sure.

"I'm always ready for a game -- if the stakes are high enough." A cultured voice, carefully trained to sound precisely as it was meant to sound. Billy's senses sharpened again. He'd heard voices like that before, when those who had clawed their way out of the muck had tried to ape gentile manners.

For hours the cards kept up their steady fall, gleaming ivory on the dark wood. Ladies danced and bowed to kings -- and fell, when it suited the king's pleasure. Billy's pleasure was of a different kind, gold and gold and more gold piling up before his hands. So much gold, a bright, shiny mass... his eyes dazzled in its reflection until he could see nothing but its glorious sunlit color.

Blinded by light, he did not notice when the gold began to disappear.

It wasn't until the stranger tossed a handful of coins into the pot and called to see his cards that Billy realized that he didn't have enough to match his opponent's bet. With a shock that chilled him to his soul, he realized he'd lost every ha'penny that he had won from the weak, foolish fop, and every penny of his own besides. Billy's breath began coming in puffs, each exhalation a denial of reality. "No... how did you... it can't... I can't..."

"Ah." One short word sliced through Billy's burgouing hysteria. Damn his black eyes, he hadn't even broken into a sweat. "Well, then. Shall I propose one final game?"

"I told you, I haven't got any more," Billy said fiercely. "And why would you want it? You don't need money."

"Who said we would be playing for money? Here's the rules: we each pull one card out of the deck. I'll shuffle, if you don't mind. You pull the high card, and you can take anything of mine you wish. I pull the high card -- and I can take anything of yours."

Billy's eyes narrowed as he watched his opponent across the table. He'd seen some perversions in London -- participated in some, if the truth be told -- and yet that wasn't what the gentleman had in mind.

Billy didn't know what his opponent wanted from him -- or with him. But he did know what he would take if he pulled the high card: everything. And he knew what he had to lose if he pulled the low: nothing.

Grinning, Billy handed the deck over to his dark-haired opponent. "Whatever you want, mate."

Long-fingered hands were surprisingly dexterous with the aging deck, shuffling and blending the pasteboard with ease. In a few moments, a fan spread out on the table between himself and Billy. "Pick a card," he invited.

With a hesitance he didn't quite understand, Billy slid one card from the rest of its kind and flipped it over. The three of spades. Unless Billy got very, very lucky, he'd lost the bet.

With a quick moment in the dim light, a hand flashed out and turned over another card. The king of hearts, with his axe held at the ready. For a moment, in the uncertain light, Billy thought he saw the bloodred heart bleeding across the card. Before he could blink to clear his sight, the card disappeared, along with the rest, along with the gold and the table and everything on it. The languid, indolent fop hauled him up by his collar, and his eyes gleamed the shade of the coins fallen on the hearth. "This is what I will take," he snarled, his face distorted into the mask of Hell. In a lifetime spent fighting in a world that would as easily slit your throat as breath a word, Billy had never lost a fight.

He lost one then. Knives gashed into the skin of his neck, burning with a bright agony that made the blood pouring across his flesh seem cold in comparison. He flailed like a rat caught in a terrier's grip, pathetically unable to protect himself. The weak light dimmed and faded, flickering until Billy wondered if it was the beginning flames of perdition he was seeing rather than the warm hearthfire.

Cold stones, under his cheek. He couldn't move. He could feel his heart beating, shallowly, rapidly, trying desperately to move blood that no longer coursed it his body. But his senses still focused on the stranger than knelt beside him. "Tell me... do you want to live, or do you want to die?"

He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't give the answer that his tormenter seemed to want. Watching his struggles for a few moments, the last, helpless flop of a fish caught on dry land, the stranger finally laughed. "I'll assume you want to live."

This time, the blood that flowed across his face felt warm on his death-chilled skin. It trickled into his mouth, and set up a hunger, a thirst, more powerful than any Billy had ever known. It didn't matter that he could barely move, that his nemesis had proven and reproven that he was stronger. He... needed... *more*, and would be willing to fight to the last moment of life to get it.

Later, he would dimly recall clamping his face against the cuts the stranger had made on his own neck. Then, his understanding was narrowed down the the blood that flowed into him, more and more, rich and powerful. And, with the blood, the sense of *other*, the demon that took residence in the twisted place where his soul used to be.

A century, a year, a moment later, Billy stirred, blinked like a child waking from a nap. The stranger's clothes were stained with blood but otherwise barely disordered, and the amused, arrogant light still lit his dark eyes. "What's your name?" he asked, his voice no more than casually curious.

"B--" Billy checked himself. "William the Bloody," he said instead, pride ringing.

"William the Bloody, hmm?" Leaning close, the stranger smiled. "Let's see you live up to that name, shall we?"

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