Igni Interdictus
by Moonslash

It was over.

Just like that. They fought the vampire and his people for the last time, and they lost.

Because he stopped fighting. He, Daniel Holtz, stopped fighting.

Like a leaden cloud shielding his aching eyes from the too-bright sky, the knowledge settled into his mind, offering a strange comfort. Fragments of the past had flooded his brain, as if his entire life needed to take place all at once in the crazed kaleidoscope of memory. The overload actually made it easier: the overwhelming uproar of the whole, as numbing as it was, took the edge off the few sharpest points of recollection - those of agony and grief untouched by time. He knew he had to stay numb to survive this. At least for now.

Which is why he let Justine take his hand and lead him away - far, far away from the grounds of his final confrontation with Angelus, away from his scattered and defeated warriors, away from the child he saved and eventually returned to his sworn enemy. At the moment of a mutual checkmate between the warriors, Holtz simply stopped and the fight ended.

Ended. The word burned a hole in his heart and Holtz decided not to think of the pain. Instead, he let his mind drift as he followed the redhead's sharp stride. There were questions in his head that needed to be answered, but they sounded foreign, distant - as if made by a stranger, as if concerning someone else's life. He tried to focus, sort out the torrent of thoughts. What happened? After all the time and effort, after all the compromises and difficult choices, how did it all come to this... this moment of absolute pointlessness?

His life had always had a clear and certain purpose. Once upon a time, that purpose had been to love and protect his wife and children; ever since he had lost them, it had been to bring suffering and death to his enemy. The transition had been easy enough: all he had to do was get rid of one half of himself - that of his tenderness for the beauty founded by his hearth - and replace it with the other half - that of his fight against demons, in which he wielded a torch of righteousness lit at the same hearth.

The connection was just painful enough to have kept him on his warpath... almost forever. Holtz maintained it carefully, vigilantly: pain had been his only currency for a long time now and he deemed it sacred. It was the least he could do to preserve the memory of those who died. Because of him. Because he could not save them. Because at the most critical moment of his life, he failed those he loved best.

The last thought touched the deep, dark, pain-bleeding center of his heart, and Holtz closed his eyes momentarily, mid-step, trying to evade it. There was no room for such pain anymore; he had no right to invoke it, no right to claim the humanity of guilt. The wave of destruction - his purpose in life - was supposed to sear the last remnant of himself, as it eradicated his enemy; that was the plan.

But the plan had failed. He had failed.

His thoughts bounced off this point of ache and began to drift again, circling the swirl of memories. Between uncertain steps down a vaguely familiar street (where was Justine going, anyway?), Holtz thought of the past, of the times before he... changed. He could still remember the first time he heard of vampires, and how he pitied the survivor who had obviously lost his mind in the throes of ague. How he found out the incomprehensible truth, and then, for practical rather than religious reasons, put together a group of men to fight the unholy enemy that threatened their world. Holtz never had any doubt that his fight was good, justified, necessary; and worth the risk he had decided to take.

He could still recall the way the words "worth the risk" had tumbled around in his mind during that eternal night, ages ago, his home perfectly still for the first time since before his wedding day, as he sat and stared at the fire, letting the emptiness sink in. There was no use blaming God, even though Angelus was one of His creatures. There was no use wondering why He would punish a man who had tried so hard to do the right thing. And there was no use giving in to the guilt and anger blazing in his chest, screaming for vengeance - against the monsters that slaughtered his family, and against himself for letting it happen. In the hollow rooms, suddenly void of life and meaning, his heart prayed for death: the only refuge from the inferno of hatred raging inside his soul. He longed for the vacuum of silence to extinguish the conflagration and deliver him from his unbearable pain.

Maybe it would have worked. If only he had stayed still, perfectly still until daylight...

Justine made a sudden turn and Holtz almost bumped into her, finally noticing their surroundings. No wonder the streets looked familiar. She had brought him back to their headquarters, once the training ground for recruits and a home of sorts for most of them, now just a set of empty rooms, stripped of purpose. After all, the fight was over.

Over.

The blade of realization slashed across his chest with deep, abrupt pain, just as they stepped into what served as a meeting room at their base. He halted and glared at the redhead at his side. Why the hell did she bring him back here? And why was she standing there, staring at him, still holding his hand, the stillness of her eyes saying... what? A wave of anger swept over him with unexpected ferocity. Without thinking, he grabbed the woman by the shoulders and pulled her violently toward him, ready to shake the explanation out of her.

Justine fell into his arms as if embraced, and he stopped. It doesn't matter, a voice whispered somewhere inside his mind: it was over. There was nothing left inside him worth preserving, and there was much to be scorched out of this unnatural life of cruelty, hatred, and pain. He had made a pact with the devil for it; even then, he knew that the blaze within his heart wouldn't fade out unless he destroyed everything that fed it. Including love. Including the part of him that believed in doing what was right, or even remembered what that meant.

Long ago, Holtz had taken great pride in being a righteous man, fundamentally different from his enemy; then, the pain had taught him better. So he had taken the demon's offer of enchanted life, and the flames had begun to eat at his soul. And now, the only peace he could hope for were the fires of hell. The real ones this time, inescapable, eternally damning...

And then he noticed the aura of heat surrounding the woman in his arms. It glimmered in her eyes, fluttered underneath her skin, trembled almost imperceptibly on her lips. It was... hypnotic, freeing. Numbness stilled his thoughts once again, and he relaxed. Justine was reading his mind, as always, waiting for him to realize what she already knew.

Then, without a word, without another touch, they reached for each other's clothes.

The process of undoing buttons had a strangely calming effect, and Holtz decided this was so because they both appreciated precision and effectiveness; they were fighters, after all. He unzipped her jacket, hardly glanced at the line of buttons on her shirt, then reached for her belt buckle instead. She undid his coat and the long sweater underneath, but wouldn't bother with the shirt. He lowered her jeans to her knees, then off one leg. She found his belt, then his zipper, quickly undoing one after the other, as if she'd thought about this, planned it, gone over it in her mind many times...

They were both unconsciously careful not to touch each other's bodies under the clothes they kept on, and to remove only the necessary. One reason was that their bodies were sore and battered from the recent fight. Another was that they knew this act would not be about new lovers' exploration of skin, taste, touch. They were fighters, functional, exact, true to the purpose; they both knew why they needed to do this. Yet, the odd combination of detached calmness and novel intimacy had unleashed the long-suppressed desire in both; still, respecting the significance of the act, they didn't rush. After all, this was the end. Like any finality, it was venerated by its very meaning.

Justine stepped toward the large table in the middle of the room, half-leaned and half-sat on it, then stretched out her legs until they slightly curved over his hips, pulling him toward her. She kept her lips tightly shut, but her breathing quickened when his fingertips leaned lightly against the slant of her collarbone and pushed her further back onto the table. For a second, Holtz stopped to marvel at the gentle fall of her hair, spreading in a cascade of silky fire around her pale face and throat...

The thought suddenly paralyzed him. This was not about lovemaking. This was about... the two of them, now motionless in the hollow room, among the ruins of their purpose. The tranquility of loss in the still air caught his breath and froze within his chest. But when he looked at Justine's face again, her eyes made him snap out of it. Her look was still perfectly calm, burning into him with the latency of passion he recognized at their very first meeting and had found, again and again, in their days of preparation and struggle.

Justine. His first soldier; his most faithful warrior; his ultimate tool of destruction. Holtz watched her with a mixture of admiration and curiosity, wondering briefly whether she realized her role in all this... but her eyes were as clear as ever, if a bit feverish, and he felt her body tense up at his stillness. She was waiting, a shadow of impatience forming around her mouth, and he realized she wanted him now, while she wasn't ready. So it would hurt.

Well, that sounded appropriate.

As he reached for her, his hand fell onto the luminous skin of her thigh only to withdraw quickly; for a moment, Holtz almost panicked. Her body felt soft, too soft. Where was his weapon, that hard and unforgiving tangle of nerve and muscle and bone? Where was the resilient flesh, the taut skin of the one who always traded pain for trust in perfect proportion? He couldn't touch her like this; he couldn't be reminded... But Justine understood and lifted her right leg until the bony knee found his hesitating palm. There. He grabbed the angular joint, pulling her lower body closer. She hissed at his grip, and he remembered -

- the round kick that took her out of the fight, Gunn's foot striking her leg just above and behind the knee, her body falling as in slow motion, slamming full length against the floor - and when he saw her fall, when he saw her hit the ground, what was it that shifted within him?

Holtz wouldn't think about that either. The thought was a dam blocking off an immensity of pain, and he couldn't let it happen; not now. Instead, he took his hand off the trace of a large purplish bruise behind her knee, and reached for the sharp angle of her hip instead, ignoring the softness of the curves around it. Better.

Justine's head fell back as he pushed inside her, her face still set with tension, her eyes still resolute and shining; if she heard the sound that escaped his throat as he entered her, she didn't show it. They began to move in a temperate rhythm, already familiar to both although they weren't lovers. Neither was surprised by this: the way they responded to each other was set long ago in their sparring sessions. From the outset, traitorous desire had flared up whenever they touched; it charged their fights and electrified the air between them. And they had both decided to ignore it.

Holtz knew he was not supposed to want her - or anybody, for that matter. Only Angelus was to motivate him; only vengeance to satisfy him. Anything else was a progressive treason of his own heart. Sensations that leaked into the purity of his focus, emotions that muddled the clarity of his strategies, even glimpses of some distant happiness he dared to imagine sometimes, in the moments before he fell asleep... all threatened the sanctity of his purpose. Justine was slowly turning into a link between his present life and the life he pledged to destroy in himself, and the transformation terrified him.

Especially when he realized that he couldn't (wouldn't?) kill her if he had to.

He also knew what had driven him as he developed the kidnapping plan the one that would have allowed them to be together. It was a poor excuse for revenge. Although he wouldn't dare admit it to himself, and although his war against Angelus remained his primary purpose, some part of his heart wanted to live despite the unforgivable horror of his past.

Of their past, he corrected himself. There was blood on Justine's hands, and Holtz knew he was lying to himself when he dreamt of finding peace in her warmth. She was not a hearth, not now, not anymore; in fact, he helped turn her into a bonfire. It was just another sin in a long list of his cruelties; one of his heaviest. The thought was almost liberating, like a verdict after an interminable trial...

But now the thoughts had begun to melt away, as his body, drawn into the velocity of lust, began to pound more fiercely into her tight, slippery heat. Justine was still silent, focused on clutching his arms and moving against him for friction. He knew this could not be enough for her.

Slowly, Holtz leaned over her until their upper bodies touched in a gentle parallel. He felt the bottom of her rib cage move under him as he maneuvered his weight, pressing her fully against the hard table for a moment when the pain in his left arm became unbearable. Balance and support regained, he lifted her leg up and out carefully sparing her knee - until he could settle against her hips without trapping her underneath him. The shift let him enter her at a somewhat different angle; less aggressive, but closer, more intimate. The new contact of their bodies, even though it was subtle and impeded by the clothing they had kept on, was suddenly overwhelming; he shut his eyes at the sensation, then forced them open. Not yet.

Holtz slid his hand between their bodies and touched her. Justine gasped at the unexpected surge of pleasure, only to set her jaw again with determination; he almost smiled. Of course, she knew what this was: mechanical, ritualistic, purging. Controlled heat. Except that, under the rhythmic rubbing of his fingers, it looked like she couldn't control anything much longer. He recognized the change in her eyes even before she moved.

Propping herself on one elbow, her other arm snaking around his shoulders, Justine arched her upper body, pressing closer against him; she raised her legs higher and wrapped them around his waist, then squeezed her muscles around him, grinding violently against his hips. He felt the curve of her breasts against his chest, her feverish breath on his face, her desire melting underneath the pulse set by his hand and hips. Then his fingers dug into her and she burst into an almost painful orgasm, followed by another as she felt his release. Her suddenly numbed body slumped onto the table, and he fell over her, overpowered by the explosion of fire.

And then, it was over.

The woman who made him feel enough to forgive his enemy had now helped him complete the cycle of destruction.

He could stop now. No more worries. No more fighting.

No more.

Slowly, as their breathing returned to normal, Holtz became aware of the change in their embrace, even though neither of them had moved a muscle. Something was different, though; he could feel it. His face was buried in Justine's neck, her lips lightly touching his temple. Her arms were wrapped softly around his torso, as if she were afraid she could break him. Her body was a relaxed, supple monolith of breathing warmth, molded against the weight of his frame.

Something... was not right.

Holtz tried to move, but found that his body had suddenly become a few tons too heavy for even the best effort. Maybe this was it, he thought. Maybe all he had to do was let the stillness have its way. Let it fall around them slowly, in the growing darkness of this abandoned, dusty space, their haven back in the days when they shared a purpose...

The memory came suddenly, as clear and sharp as hail, of the moment long ago when his demonic visitor had arrived and offered him the gift (the curse) of purpose. Or rather, had dug it out from the depths of pain that engulfed the grieving man's soul. Somewhere in his heart, Holtz knew too well that the source of his determination was poisoned from the very first moment of his choice, but he also knew that descending into cruelty would be the only way to redeem himself, the only way to justify the monstrosity for which he was responsible ever since (no, even before) the moment he pushed his child into the merciless sunlight.

The image flickered over his pupils, and for the first time since the horror of that eternal night, he saw it clearly: the flames rising like screams from within the small figure, tearing it up, dissolving it, bringing peace to the demon/innocent. Holtz watched the memory play out before his eyes, its pain almost too immense to be experienced fully. He wondered if that's what the release from the heat of one's own hell would feel like... A sudden insight burst inside his heart - a strange mixture of terror and exhilaration - but then Justine moved underneath him and broke the stillness.

No, he thought. Please, no.

But it was too late. He realized she had been slightly trembling all this time, and the shivers of her body had now turned into a slow, almost unnoticeable rhythm. She was rocking him gently from side to side, her whispers smooth and warm on his forehead, half-breathing and half-humming some serene tune - without words, without meaning.

It wasn't right. He wasn't supposed to feel this way.

But he couldn't help it.

Holtz didn't notice when he began to cry. It was... surprising. He always imagined that the world would quake and drown within the tumult of his pain if he ever let it out, but these tears were quiet, the sobs as tender as Justine's embrace. This wasn't right, he thought again, because his life was in cold ashes, and yet there was this soothing warmth of... what? Forgiveness? Mercy? He didn't (couldn't) deserve such peace. Not now. Not with her.

But he was unable to leave the woman's arms, and turn his back on the incomprehensible salvation in which they enveloped him.

 

Justine knew that the moment would have to end, and wished she could savor it a little longer. This was perfection, resolution, final and complete; but it would not last. She knew what he had been waiting for, ever since that night when she saw him realize that he couldn't kill Angelus's son. He had wanted the end, and she had to deliver it. The alternatives were unbearable.

So she pressed her lips to his forehead, pulled the knife out of the pocket (his? hers? she couldn't tell), aimed it slowly and precisely at his back, and with a sure movement drove it into his heart.

Holtz hardly moved as the embrace tightened and the blade went through him. Then he sighed and closed his eyes.

It was over.

Over.

Justine waited until the body on top of her became perfectly still; then she shifted slowly, as if afraid that a sudden movement would disrupt the peace of his rest. The motion only resulted in some more blood spilling onto her shirt, but after some maneuvering, she succeeded and got out from underneath him. The air felt heavy with sheer fatigue, but Justine knew a temporary rest would not help. Not now. She just needed a moment to focus on what was left... of her purpose. Right. She laid out his body on the table, arranged his clothes and wiped the traces of salt from the corners of his eyes.

There. All done.

Taking one last look at her lover, her fallen savior, Justine sighed; she had hoped (unrealistically, she knew) to avoid this moment, but was now glad she had prepared for it. With the step of a sleepwalker, the woman walked across and outside the room, then down into the bowels of the building and toward the heavy door at the end of the hallway. Looking through her pockets for the key, she thought, with vague regret, that they had never even kissed.

Oh, well.

 

The creature behind the door began to stir, then roar, smelling the strong scent of the dark substance in which she was covered. Justine pushed the key into the lock. The vampire on the other side was not chained, nor had he been fed for several days.

He will be too starved to even think of turning her.

All she had to do was push the door into him hard enough to take him down, so she could jump inside without tripping over the thin thread at the threshold. And then, once he was done with her and made that first step out the door of his cell, the thread would release the simple mechanism of the trap, spill out the holy water, and burn the demon into pure, beautiful, clean dust.

And then, it would be over.

 

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