If fate were kind, Rupert Giles thought, it would be in a room such as this that he would die. The very air was redolent of knowledge - leather and ink and aging paper, and the lingering tang of lemon oil rubbed painstakingly into dark gleaming walnut panels. There were books, of course: rank upon rank of them, towering to the beams of the ceiling, titles in gold and scarlet and black. No uneasy tingle of power from grimoires or spellbooks in this sanctuary, just the unsullied power of the written word. An old-fashioned globe stood in the corner, its faded blues and greens and pinks a mosaic of obsolete borders. Outside the tall bay windows, squadrons of bees hummed about the garden, but the scarlet hibiscus nodding against the windowpane rather shattered the illusion of Shropshire in Pasadena. The hills visible against the smog-hazed horizon beyond the window were parched and brown with the breath of summer, the hot dry Santa Ana winds hissing down from the mountains. The sight was oddly comforting. He had lived in California long enough to miss it when he left. Dreadful thought.
A bee in its livery of black and yellow lit on the lip of the nearest blossom and crawled into its blazing heart, to emerge a moment later bathed in a golden haze of pollen. "Africanized," said the very old man seated behind the desk. He waved a gnarled hand at the window. "So-called killer bees. No place in the Southwestern United States they haven't invaded. The European honeybees were dying out. Mites. The killer bees are immune." He smiled, putting only the minimum necessary humor into the expression. "And for the most part, humanity lives cheek by jowl with them, none the wiser. Very like our own situation, in some ways."
"There are certain parallels," Giles agreed. He was in an agreeable mood. Good company, good Scotch - a trifle early in the day for it, but this was something of a special occasion - and every prospect of finding the information he'd come for. He leaned back into the sinfully inviting armchair. "But the bees serve a useful purpose that I dare say most vampires do not."
"Who can say what purpose all things serve in the great balance?" Bernard Crowley rose to his feet and crossed to the bookshelf, his thin knobby hands crab-walking over cracked spines and foxed corners until they found the book they sought. "You are an ambitious man, Mr. Giles." Fingers closing pincer-like on the leatherbound volume, he drew it from the shelf and returned to his chair, also leatherbound and nearly as ancient as the books which surrounded it. "I don't believe I've heard of anyone attempting such an in-depth study of a single vampire before."
Giles shrugged and took a sip of his Scotch. "It's been an enormous project, to be sure, but I've had very able help and the inestimable advantage of having access to a willing subject. I hope to make the finished work as much an ethnography as a biography, though the latter would be task enough. We know so little about the creatures we hunt." He offered a small, professional smile of his own. "Which is why I decided to complete the project despite my, er, recent parting of ways with the Council. Who knows when another such opportunity will arise?"
The lines bracketing Crowley's mouth flexed in disapproval. "I heard something about your recent disagreement with young Quentin. You have a publisher, then?"
"A correspondent of mine in New England has connections with the Miskatonic University Press, and... " Giles waved a deprecating hand. "But that's of no moment now."
"Mmm." Crowley eased forward and laid the book open across the desk. He flipped the pages over, one by one, and yellowing ghosts of newsprint past fluttered in the breeze of their turning, clippings and photographs of a New York more than thirty years gone. He looked up, eyes glittering in their setting of pouched and wrinkled flesh. "Given your falling out with the Council, why do you assume I might be willing to jeopardize my pension by helping the notorious renegade Rupert Giles?"
"I've achieved notoriety so swiftly, have I? Standards for villainy are non-existent these days." Giles set his glass down and met the older man's inquisitive gaze. "For one thing, because the accumulation of knowledge is an end in itself. And for another... " He hesitated. "I know something of you as well, Mr. Crowley. Your relationship with the Council was also rather strained in its day. You know what it is to have a Slayer in your charge form... attachments."
Crowley adjusted his glasses and gazed down at the pictures before him. Giles caught an upside-down glimpse of a young woman, a young man, a baby... brilliant white smiles in dark handsome faces, moments of joy captured and pinned like butterflies to the page. "Indeed I do. Though not, I may say, in so colorful a fashion as your Buffy Summers has managed."
The crumpled-parchment face gave away nothing, but there was a gleam in his ink-dot eyes, and Giles was unsure if anger or mockery predominated. The old man had earned the right to either emotion in ways someone like Quentin Travers never could. Choosing his words with the care of a man picking his way through an unfamiliar swamp, Giles said, "On occasion, a little too colorful. Which is why I would be everlastingly grateful for any independent corroboration of events you can offer."
Crowley leaned back and steepled his fingers, gazing down at the book full of memories. At length he said, "There are no substantial inaccuracies in his account of Nikki Wood's death that I can see. I never had the misfortune to run afoul of him myself, but Nikki encountered him several times before the end. She was a very observant woman - I assume you've read my official Watcher's diary for 1977? And later, of course, the witnesses who saw him leave the subway station after he'd killed her gave the police a very vivid description." There was no identifiable emotion in his voice, but his fingers were shaking as with surprising delicacy he coaxed a photograph free of the fasteners attaching it to the scrapbook. He leaned forward, offering it to Giles. "Her neck was broken. A clean kill. He never set fangs upon her, nor violated the body." He rasped to a halt; the effort it took for him to continue was palpable. "Such terrible things to be grateful for."
Giles took the photograph. Nikki Wood's dead eyes stared up at him from the floor of the subway car, her head canted at a grotesque angle, her hands curling limp and helpless at her sides. She did not look asleep. "He has... spoken of her. He said... " Would this only make it harder? Would he want to know, in Crowley's place? "He saw her as a warrior. An equal. Not as... food, or a plaything." He laid the photograph reverently back upon the desk. "I don't suppose you have any contemporary photographs of... "
"Only this." Crowley held up another piece of paper, a copy of a police sketch. Even in the clumsy lines of the police rendering, there was no mistaking that face. Giles undid that catch of his briefcase and pulled out the photograph to compare. Beyond superficial differences of clothing and hairstyle, the high brow and aquiline nose, scimitar cheekbones and angular jaw were all the same, facing off across a quarter-century's gap. Across the room the old man's wrinkled throat worked, and the tremor in his hands increased. "That is the... subject?" Crowley inquired, a note of living pain in his voice as fragile as the old clippings in his lap.
Giles looked up, acutely aware that for the man before him, this was no matter of idle historical curiosity. "Yes. This is Spike." He passed the picture over: a slightly overexposed night shot of a small crowd of people standing around a bonfire on a sandy beach, making faces into the camera. At the forefront was a small, lithely-muscled man in a Union Jack t-shirt, out-at-the-knees blue jeans and scuffed black Docs, his thumbs hooked loosely into the waistband of his jeans. He had a slightly startled grin on his face; the flash had bleached his short spiky hair to an even more shocking white than the peroxide had, and stoked the pupils of his blue, blue eyes to a glowing demonic red. An even smaller woman in white shorts and halter top stood beside him, her arm around his waist, her summer tan dark against his ivory skin. The photographer had caught her in the act of looking up, her eyes sparkling and her mouth half open, her hair a raw-honey blur whipping across her shoulders. "The woman with him is Buffy Summers."
Crowley stared at the photograph for a long time, running his fingertips across the images. "William the Bloody. No Angelus, but... sufficient unto the day." He looked at Giles, voice under control once more - but a control no longer effortless. "Was it destiny, you think, that brought him to the bed of a third Slayer, having sent two before her to their graves? And if destiny drove this creature to love a Slayer, why this one, do you suppose, and not... "
And not the one you loved? "Buffy is a remarkable young woman," Giles said, as if gentling something wild and wounded.
"They are all," Bernard Crowley replied, "remarkable young women." He stared at the photograph for a while longer, and turned it over to read the inscription on the back, in Buffy's careless scrawl. Jul 4 2002 Dear Giles: Fireworks pretty. Had clambake after. S called everyone bloody Colonials till I clocked him. Wish you were here. Love, B.
"And your Nikki more so than most." Giles put all the sincerity he was capable of into the words. "She was the longest-lived Slayer in this century, was she not?"
"She was twenty-five when he killed her," Crowley said, expressionless. "How much of his past does she know of?"
It took a second to realize Crowley had changed 'shes' in mid-sentence. "More than I do," Giles admitted. "Spike refused to tell me anything about his life before he was turned, but a few things Buffy's said lead me to believe he's confided in her. And she's seen all my notes." He swirled the melting ice cubes around in the bottom of his glass. "She is not associating with him out of ignorance, if that's what you're asking."
Crowley's mouth spasmed around a sound which might have been a curse or a prayer. He handed back the photograph of Spike, and wiped his fingers on his sleeve before picking up Nikki's and returning it and the police sketch to their places in the scrapbook. "He never made an attempt on my life, or on the lives of Nikki's family. Not out of any concern for us, or any sense of honor. You must understand, Mr. Giles, that we were unimportant to him. He had come to slay the Slayer. We were... irrelevant. Food, as you say, or playthings. Had we stood between him and her death, he would have killed any of us, gladly and without a second thought."
There was such a freight of scorn in those clipped, precise words. Giles could hardly reproach him for it; it was a marvel, all things considered, that Bernard Crowley had agreed to meet with him at all. "I understand, Mr. Crowley. Believe me, I never forget what Spike is. And neither, I think, does Buffy." He felt the inadequacy of the words even as he spoke them - what precisely was Spike these days? "He has changed, or perhaps... reverted, but it would serve none of us well to pretend that he was human."
The old man stood, and returned the scrapbook to its place on the shelf. "I find myself too weary to talk of Nikki any longer today. Forgive an old man his weakness, and accept my best wishes for completing your work."
The tone of dismissal was plain, and Giles suppressed a sigh and rose to his feet, following Crowley's shuffling steps out of the study and down the long hall to the front door. There was little to be gained in pressing the matter. "Perhaps I might call again, when you're feeling stronger?"
Mr. Crowley smiled, bland and inscrutable, holding open the screen door. "I fear that I expect to be very much occupied with other matters for the foreseeable future."
Giles made his reluctant farewells and walked down the winding path from the house to the street, brushing aside the drooping dusty fronds of the pepper trees, back to the rented Jaguar he'd left parked at the foot of the driveway. When he looked back, the old man was standing on the front stoop watching him go, dwindled to a bent scarecrow figure of twig-thin limbs and wispy cornsilk hair. Bernard Crowley's was, Giles thought, the fate of all Watchers: to survive one's Slayer and live on, surrounded by books.
Perhaps, if the fates were kind, he would not die in a room like that after all.
Evie ordered a Michelob - she might as well get the cheap crap, since it tasted exactly the same as the expensive crap to a vampire's palate - and sauntered to the end of the bar. She leaned back, elbows propped against the bar rail, and sucked on her longneck, eyeing the crowd around the pool tables. Two big grizzled men with tattooed forearms and leather jackets gaping over beer bellies faced off over the expanse of worn green felt against a trio of slim brown pachucoswith impeccably slicked-back hair. Possibilities there. Her eyes sized each one up in turn, looking for the telltale signs: a hint of pallor beneath dark skin or redneck tans, a crescent scar on the wrist or above the collarbone. Nothing. Nothing obvious, anyway. Her stomach growled resentfully and she took another swallow of beer to silence it. God, was she going to have to seduce some virgin?
It didn't used to be like this. Who knew she'd end up missing Whip's crappy run-down rat-trap someday? Shit, she'd cheered the night the Slayer torched the place, and skedaddled for L.A. and greener pastures when Whip and the others stormed off to take the Slayer on. Got no pride, Evie? Whip had sneered. Gonna let a human run us outta the sweetest setup we've ever had? To which the only possible answer was Fuck, yes! She couldn't afford pride - if she could, she wouldn't have been working for Whip in the first place. And it wasn't like she could have fought the brass-haired, brass-balled little bitch in her condition, anyway. Whip and all the others had been dust in the wind for years, and she was still undead and back in Sunnydale. Again.
She inhaled again. Oh, yeah, there. Male, prime of life, healthy. Evie shifted position, checking out the man at the other end of the bar. Wearing a battered leather jacket. Tall, heavy-set, dark-haired, face a scrimshaw of hard, wind-carved lines. Dude had eyes like a gravel quarry, some dark, indeterminate color between brown and grey. Probably played a mean game of poker. Evie stared dead center at his bowed shoulders and put some mojo into it - it was bullshit, but she liked to pretend she had some of that thrall thing going for her. The guy didn't twitch at all, but after a moment he turned. Just his head, no excess motion. Stony eyes looked her over.
They always wanted something more, the ones whose eyes looked like that. Something to make them feel for a second. Dinner is served. "Hey," she said. "That seat taken?"
The man held her gaze for a second longer, then returned to the contemplation of his beer foam. The hitch of his shoulders might have been a shrug or a come-on; Evie plumped for the latter and swivel-hipped it down the length of the bar. The two off-duty whores whispered behind scarlet-clawed hands as she passed them, but Evie didn't bother sorting their crow-chatter from the background noise. Focus on the meal, here.
She slid onto the stool beside him with a practiced wriggle. She hadn't seen herself in a mirror for seven years, and what she'd seen the last time she looked hadn't been all that and a bag of chips, but anyone playing shark in the Fish Tank wasn't fussy. About anything. Evie tossed her hair over one shoulder - long and glossy and black, her one good feature - and took a long swig of her hops-flavored soda water, then set the bottle down on the bar, running the tip of her index finger around the rim. "They serve any food here?" she asked. She was still stalking her prey. Not the way she used to do it in the old days - and don't even think about the old days, the power and the blood and the hunt, only three years gone and might as well be a hundred. She was still a hunter. Hell, this was better than working for Whip, even if she did go hungry more often than not.
Another grunt. "Don't ask me. First time I've been here."
"New in town?" That might be good or bad. "I grew up here. Lived in L.A. the last couple years. I just got back." She injected a little hesitancy, a little concern, into her voice. "You wanna be careful after dark, mister. You wouldn't think it from the Leave It To Beaver vibe, but there's a lot of weird shit goes down in Sunnydale."
The man actually barked out a laugh. "Believe me, sister, I can take care of myself.”
Evie smiled, assessing the heft of his shoulders with a sidelong gaze. She could have lived off this one for a month, in the old days, if she'd been careful... but she hadn't needed to be, then. He was wearing some kind of necklace made out of... wolf's teeth, maybe? Bitchin'. Though human would have been more of a turn-on. This guy was more than he seemed, maybe, but that could be a plus. She grinned, slow and saucy, letting her tongue-tip trace the curve of her lower lip. "Bet you can. But I'm still hungry. You know anyplace around here where I might get a... bite, at this time of night? I promise I don't eat much."
She let the gold blossom and fade in her eyes, just obvious enough to make it clear what she was to someone in the know. His eyes reflected a smile almost as devoid of humanity as her own. "Yeah," he said. "Come to think of it, I do."
The streetlight outside the bar was broken, and the alley behind was impenetrably dark to human eyes. Her meal ticket glanced out at the street for passers-by before fading into the shadows of the rear entrance. He must have been back here before, Evie decided, picking her way through the maze of rotting garbage. The night air was close with the odors of stale urine, the dead-fish reek of the nearby docks, and things even a vampire really didn't want to think too much about. Rats scuttled away behind the piles of splintered wooden pallets, their sharp vicious chittering echoing off the brick and concrete. Evie shouldered up to the wall, folding her arms across her chest, unfolding them in irritation as she realized the defensiveness of her posture. Her prey kicked aside a packing crate. Would he want her to fake giving a shit? No, not this one. "You want a quickie, it's fifty bucks. You want me to make it last, it's a hundred," she said. Businesslike. "It's easier if you roll up your sleeve."
His flint-shard eyes swept her up and down, frank and impersonal as a man buying a racehorse. "I want it in the neck," he said. He pulled a wallet from his hip pocket, counted out five bedraggled twenties, and tossed them to the ground at her feet. "You'd better be worth it."
"Traditionalist, huh?" Evie shrugged her purse off and set it down in the cleanest spot she could find. She knelt to pick up the bills - this was part of the show she gave, letting them think they were in control, that their money meant something. She stuffed the money into her purse and straightened, smoothing her palms along her thighs and letting the gold rise in her eyes again. Her fangs made pinprick indentations in her lower lip. "Fine by me. You want it to scar?" She'd had fetishists ask for weirder things.
He opened his arms with a scary-ass smile. "Surprise me."
Evie's fingers closed on the heavy folds of leather and pulled him down, big broad shoulders kitten-helpless in her grip. The scent of dust and creosote hung about him, sweat-soaked leather and hot pulsing blood. Dizzy with hunger and need, Evie's lips parted and she set fangs to skin, fighting the urge to rend and tear - had to be oh so careful now, think good thoughts, how she wasn't going to kill this guy, wasn't going to rip through skin and cartilage and gorge herself on his fountaining blood. No. Slow. Careful. Because he wanted it. And it was OK if he wanted it. Stubble beneath her lips, salt beneath her tongue, God so good, careful, careful, careful...
It took a second to realize that the dagger-sharp pain was in her chest, not her head. "It's an oak dowel with a sharpened steel core," the flat voice whispered in her ear. She could feel the vibration of his vocal cords against her frozen lips. "It's slimmer than a wooden stake and far stronger, and I don't have to be a Slayer to push it all the way through your ribcage with no problem at all. What I want you to do is step back against the wall - no, you leave your demon face be. That's what I need, girl. Mind me, and maybe you won't be dust after I've finished."
A growl of outrage forced its way up her throat. What the hell was he up to? Was he gonna try to rape her? How goddam dare he? She was the hunter here. She would fucking kill this sonofabitch, if it made her head explode to do so. Later, when he didn't have twelve inches of wood stabbing her in the heart to make up for the three-inch floppy he probably sported elsewhere. Evie took two wary steps backward, until cold slimy brick pressed against her shoulder blades, and he followed, step for step. Most humans had no conception of how fast a vamp could move when they had to, but her captor (no, her dinner, damn it) kept that high-tech stake right to her ribs, right above the place her heart should have been hammering against. He'd torn her blouse and broken skin. She could feel blood she couldn't spare starting to seep into the fabric.
One-handed, he fished a pair of weirdly-curved pliers out of a coat pocket and limbered them up, click-click. She saw the silhouette of his upraised hand, black against black, and then the motion-sensitive light over the Fish Tank's rear entrance flooded the alley with its sickly glare and half-blinded her. "Open your mouth, girlie. And keep your face on. You drop it, or scream, or bite me, you're a pile of ash."
Evie blinked back light-tears. Christ on a crutch, he was going to go all Marathon Man on her. He was so goddam dead. She flung her head back, away from his looming backlit figure, lips skinned back in a snarl. Her skull cracked against the bricks, and she welcomed the pain as one more reason to hate. The man chuckled. "That's the ticket. Open wide." He levered the pliers into her mouth, forcing her jaw wide. The flat savorless taste of her own blood flooded her tongue, and the chill metal bruised her gums and split her lower lip as the pincers locked around her lower left canine.
Most humans had no conception of how keen a vampire's ears were, either. Someone was coming. She could hear the approaching footsteps, two pairs, man and a woman, and... no heartbeats. Fuck. Only another couple of vamps, and she'd be lucky if another vampire would so much as pause to snicker at her demise. On the other hand, maybe they'd take down Dr. Scrivello here just for the fun of it.
" - got to learn some time," the man's voice said. "Not every town's got a twenty-four-hour butcher on premises, you know." Light, sardonic British-accented baritone - she knew that voice. Double fuck. Spike. Not just any vampire, a completely fucked-up insane vampire who'd allied himself with the Slayer. On the other hand, Spike had some kind of hero complex these days. Maybe she could take advantage of it.
"But it's bunnies!" the woman countered, beseeching. "Cute little flop-eared bunnies. From a Make-the-World-Safe-For-Anya standpoint, OK, I can see it, but can't we start with something that's got less personality? And fluffiness? Scales would be good. And beadiness of eye. Frogs, maybe - or wait, not frogs, they make me nervous. Lizards. Or maybe not lizards, because, skittery? Not a good trait in a breakfast food."
"Won't do, Red. 'S got to be warm-blooded." Spike sounded as though he'd given this particular lecture before. "What, d'you think pig's blood generates spontaneously in plastic bags? Someone's got to nail the pig between the eyes with a whacking great mallet, string it up on a meathook, slit its throat and let it bleed out." A snort. "Thinking about it's the only way I can get the stuff down, some days."
The guy that smelled of the desert didn't hear; his face was a mask of impassive concentration. He wasn't even getting off on this, and how sick was that? He wrenched hard on the handles of his pliers and the thin bone around the tooth went snap-crackle-pop. Evie gagged reflexively on blood, fingernails clawing gory gouges on the brickwork behind her as her canine was jerked free of its socket. Steel cracked against the incisor beside it. Her jaw was on fire - no throbbing, because no heartbeat, just a steady agonizing nuclear burn. "Help," she choked out. No human being would hear her more than a few feet away, but what was coming down the sidewalk wasn't human. "Please. I need help."
The stake point grated against bone. "One more word, girlie, you'll be beyond help." Her captor dropped the crimson-smeared fang into his coat pocket, hooked the pliers around her upper left canine, and began working it free in a brutal back-and-forth sawing motion. Her lips were numb. A viscous glistening delta of bloody saliva drooled over the corners of her mouth and down the front of her shirt - adding insult to injury, her stomach was still knotting with hunger. She was going to scream. Then the chill sharp weight against her chest would sink in and she'd dissolve into nothingness and that would be a relief. That was it. Scream, and it would all be over.
Evie got a glimpse of a pale elfin face, distorted by ridges and fangs, and auburn hair flying - mother-of-pearl framed in dried blood. Pliers and steel-cored stake clattered to the filthy concrete, and the man who'd held them flew backwards against the stack of pallets, eyes white-ringed with startlement and pain. Wood splintered and collapsed beneath his weight. Her nemesis rolled to his knees, gasping and clutching his right hand to his belly. Small fingers encircled the man's left wrist with an audible crunch of bone grinding against bone and hauled him upright.
The little redhead glared at the man in the wolf's-tooth necklace, her thin chest expanding and contracting in jerky heaves. "Mr. Cain, I presume? You know, I'm really, truly getting to not like you at all."
Vampire, obviously, but there was something off about her, something weird in her scent and the tone of her voice, an alien light in the fulvius gold of her eyes. Evie turned and hotfooted it for the street. A shadow peeled off the wall as she reached the mouth of the alley, and strong hands caught her by the elbows, whirling her for an instant into the halogen glare of the light and back again into the darkness. Platinum blond hair and black leather jacket, knife-slash cheekbones, incongruous midsummer-blue eyes caught in nets of laugh-lines - Spike, grinning, Harlequin in moonlight and ebony. "What's the hurry, pet? Party's just starting."
"Let me go, chupacabra!" Evie howled, bucking against his grip. Spike chuckled and cuffed her across the mouth, and forked lighting jagged from the raw socket of her missing tooth all the way down her spinal cord. He flipped her off her feet and toted her back into the alley; Evie struggled, but the arm pinning hers to her sides might as well have been muscled with steel hawsers. Spike wasn't the oldest vampire she'd ever met, but he was up there, well into his second century, a hell of a lot stronger than she was and totally loco to boot, what with living off goddam animals and fucking the Slayer and helping close the Hellmouth and saving the world and all. Loco. Catch her running to humans and drinking the blood of dead pigs after... it happened? No fucking way.
Cain was down on his knees in the muck, staring up at the redhead with smoldering resentment, the first real expression Evie had seen on his face. He jerked his head in Spike's direction, his lips twisted in a rictus of disdain. "Spike."
"Cain." Spike stopped a few paces away, head cocked, regarding the confrontation with amused interest. "And now the traditional exchange of manly monosyllables is complete, I can't help but notice you're still in town. What part of sod off and die don't you understand?" He looked to the redhead, scarred eyebrow at half-mast. "I take it you're acquainted with this bloke, Will?"
Will transferred her grip from wrist to the necklace, yanking Cain's head down hard. The cord snapped with a high-tension ping and a dozen yellowing fangs rained to the ground, the fragile old bone shattering on impact. "He tried to kill Oz once." Her voice was Waterford crystal, clear and sharp, and Evie, listening, decided that maybe Cain had more to worry about from this Will than he did from Spike.
"Ah. You want to off him, then?" Spike sounded excessively cheerful at the prospect. "Dog-boy was a bit of a wanker, but - "
"Oh, for God's sake, Spike, it's just a damned vampire," Cain rasped. "Vermin even to other vermin. What's it to you if I take the saleable parts before your girlfriend dusts it? And speaking of your girlfriend, does she know you've got minions beating up humans for you?"
Spike extracted a slightly battered cigarette from an inside jacket pocket and tucked it in the corner of his mouth, flicking a glance in Willow's direction. The flare of his lighter picked out a starfield of sweat droplets on Cain's brow. "Interesting question, that," he drawled, drawing the cigarette to brilliant life. "Pity you won't get a chance to ask her. 'Sides, our Willow's not exactly a minion. More of a protege, like."
"You don't even remember me. Or Oz." Willow's voice quivered, but it wasn't a quiver that implied weakness. "I remember every single person I've tried to kill, Mr. Cain. And I don't feel like remembering you. You - you should leave. Now." She dropped Cain's wrist as if it were something fouler than alley-scrapings, and Evie realized in a burst of revolted clarity what was wrong with her.
"She's got a soul!"
"That being why Frank Buck here's still got his delicates intact." Spike plunked Evie down at his side and allowed her to get her feet underneath her. He turned the wolf-grin on Cain. "However, yours truly's not burdened, and Christ only knows when my killer instinct's going to overwhelm the extreme boredom inspired by the sight of your face. I don't care what you're after or why, Cain. Hellmouth's closed, and Sunnydale's my territory. You want bits and bobs, hunt 'em elsewhere."
Cain's breath hissing in and out through his clenched teeth was the only sound in the alley for a long moment. He hooked an elbow over the top of the nearby stack of pallets and pulled himself upright in ungainly no-hands-Ma lurches. "You ride me out on a rail, Spike, and you're in deeper shit than you can imagine. I told you, I'm not freelance any longer. I've got backing from the big boys. Your pissant little operation's just in the way."
"Yeah, you've got backing. I've got nice sharp teeth. Your boss isn't around to wipe your arse right now, but I'm right here to wipe the floor with it." A chainsaw rumble rolled up from the bottom of his chest and Spike's eyes shaded from blue to predatory yellow beneath gnarled ridges of bone. Willow hastily followed suit, baring her fangs in a somewhat unconvincing snarl. "Thinking you'd better be off, Gib old mate."
And he was, staggering out of the alley with his torn coat-sleeve hanging askew. Willow watched him go with a cold light in her eyes, and then shrank in on herself like Styrofoam in a pressure cooker. "Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God... "
"Snap out of it, Red. Time for that later." Spike gave Evie a little shake. He'd already shed his game face. "You. What's your story? You couldn't break loose from a berk who was practicing home dentistry with one hand and trying to keep you pinned with the other?"
Evie glared after the departing Cain with fervor exceeding Willow's, shaking with hunger and fury. He was her prey, damn it, she'd hunted him down and caught him - so she was using words instead of fangs, so what? She spat in Spike's face, or tried to; it didn't get very far. "I don't talk to goat-sucking, human-loving traitors. Stake me or turn me loose, chupacabra."
Willow snuffled and scrubbed the heel of her hand across her eyes, wiping away the fangs and ridges. With a deep shuddery breath she reached over for a length of broken pallet. "Splintery or extra-splintery?"
Evie gulped. "He... got me by surprise."
"I'll bet. You look familiar. Dalton's get, aren't you?" Spike exhaled a thoughtful plume of blue smoke, examining her at greater length. "Worked for me for awhile, few years back?"
Evie shrugged, sullen. "Yeah. Before the Slayer kicked your ass, Angelus stole your girl, and you hightailed out of town with your tail between your legs."
Spike cuffed her again, hard enough to stagger her back a pace. Evie clapped a hand to her jaw and spat incomprehensible profanities as Spike licked her blood from his knuckles. "Fair cop," he said with surprising mildness. "But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Not that I hold that against her." His hand dropped and he dug a thumb into her ribs. "You're turning tricks, you're skin and bone, and you let that arsewipe pin you." The corner of his mouth took on a self-satisfied curl, and he laid a finger to his temple. "Got it. Initiative, Class of Double-Ought?"
"She's got a behavior-modification chip? Like you used to?" Something took a whetstone to Willow's dull gaze, and the eyes that rose to meet Evie's were keen with interest. "I always wondered what happened to Hostiles One through Sixteen. I thought you were the only one who got out when the Initiative lab got all destroyed. You mean, she's harmless?"
"I'm not harmless!" Evie snarled. "Better a chip in my head than a fucking disgusting soul crawling around in my gut." Willow flinched, guilt displacing her momentary animation, and Evie turned the snarl on Spike. "Maybe I can't bite, but at least I'm living off human blood instead of human charity."
Spike snorted. "And living so very well, too, by the looks of you." Evie tried to smack his hand off her shoulder, with a signal lack of success. Not just because he was stronger than she was, either; she was getting dizzy from hunger and pain and blood loss. Right now she probably couldn't have fought Willow off. Willow was looking at her, all big sad puppy-eyed compassion. Fucking sick-making, her and her soul, standing there all clean and shiny and well-fed. "Nah, you're not harmless," Spike went on, a needling tone creeping into his voice. "Bet you've sussed out a way to kill even with the chip in your head, haven't you? Laid traps. Set houses afire. Beat the crap out of a demon or two, made them kill for you - " At the look on her face, he broke into incredulous laughter. "Bloody hell, you silly bint, you never even tried hitting a demon?"
"The chip only works on biochemistry native to this dimension," Willow put in helpfully. "It's got really interesting heuristics. I'd love to study one in detail." She eyed the back of Evie's skull with rather alarming avarice.
"Like you did all that stuff instead of hiding behind the Slayer's skirts, you big undead pussy?" Evie flung back at him. "Fuck you and the horse you slurp through a bendy straw, I'm out of here."
She yanked herself away and Spike let her go, his wicked blue eyes a-glitter with amusement. Evie made it three steps before one high heel went out from under her, and she collapsed beside her purse. Hundred bucks. She had Cain's hundred bucks in there, and that would buy... three, four bags of Willy's best at the Alibi Room. Enough to keep her mobile for another week if she'd been uninjured, barely enough to fuel her healing body for a day in her current condition. Evie looked down at the blood and spit smearing the front of her blouse. Assuming someone didn't just roll her as the easy prey she was, and steal the whole thing. She drew a ragged, determined breath, stowed the purse under one arm and forced herself to her feet again. If someone dusted her, she was taking the money with her.
"You're not going to make it a quarter-mile," Spike said behind her. "But happens we've got business in that direction."
Evie stopped, her head hanging. Screw it. Pride hadn't hit the sale table yet. "Yeah? I should care why?"
Spike sauntered over and sucked in his cheeks. "Got a word to have with Rack. Take us to his place, and I might feel generous later."
Evie blinked. The block or so surrounding Rack's place was prime hunting territory, a smorgasbord of half-dazed magic junkies too zoned on stolen power to run. She generally avoided it - too much of a fight to get a good spot. It wasn't far off; in fact, she'd passed it by on the way down to the docks, slinking past with lowered head, careful not to project any kind of challenge towards the three older vamps who'd staked out the entrance. But with these two with her... maybe she'd get a decent meal tonight after all. "Sure. Come on."
Spike and Willow followed her down the street, Spike vamp-silent, Willow walking almost as noisily as a human. Spike hadn't taught her shit about hunting, assuming he was her sire and responsible for such things. Or maybe she just didn't want to learn. Willow still looked haunted and unhappy - a soul thing, Evie guessed; Spike didn't say anything, but now and again he'd look down at her with a bewildered concern that was, in its way, even more deeply wrong than the soul business. Evie felt a sudden weird nostalgia for her own sire. She hadn't thought of Dalton for years, but he'd been all right. He'd looked damn funny when the Judge torched him, too.
Once they left the Fish Tank and its surrounding straggle of parked cars behind, the street was mostly deserted at this late hour. Evie tried to think through the hot-coal aching of her jaw. She wasn't going to heal fast, or at all, till she got a little blood in her, and she wasn't going to get any clientele till she healed. Her face felt lopsided and swollen. "Is it gonna grow back?" she asked.
"The tooth," she said impatiently. "You're old and you've lost enough fights - do they grow back?"
Spike grinned - teeth sharp, white, and all in perfect working order. "Give it a week or two. Won't give you odds on a finger, though. Never tried that one."
That was some comfort, if he was telling the truth. Evie frowned, taking the next turn to Rack's place automatically. If she bought animal blood, her money would last longer, but fuck, she'd managed to avoid that ultimate humiliation for so long, and it chapped her ass to fail now. She'd been down, but she'd never been reduced to drinking warmed-over pig like the fucking sellouts behind her. Not that it seemed to have hurt them any. Neither Spike nor Willow were exactly the heavyset type, but she could tell from their previous close encounter that his ribs were sheathed in a healthy layer of muscle, and she was acutely aware of her own gauntness in comparison.
"You're the only one I've run into," Spike said abruptly. "From that place. Heard tell a few more made it out, but I never met any of 'em."
Evie shrugged. "There was another guy got out with me, during the big fight. He couldn't take it, not being able to feed. Walked into the sun after a month." She threw a defiant sneer over her shoulder. "I saw you there when the place went smash. Killing off your own kind."
Spike didn't look particularly chastened. "Takes some amount of brains, surviving as long as you have with no bite." The smirk that never entirely left his face when dealing with her intensified. "If you call what you do surviving."
"I do OK," Evie snapped. Almost there. Rack's entrance would be right off the next alley; she could feel it in her bones. They passed an old man huddled on the stoop of the Navy recruitment office, and her stomach rumbled in protest. Her feet slowed down of their own volition, and Evie looked at the crumpled heap of humanity longingly. He was drunk and stinking, and she'd regret it in the evening, but she couldn't bear the black hole in her gut any longer. "Wait up. Lemme get a bite from this guy." If she did it carefully enough, he might not even wake up, and the chip might not fire at all.
Spike halted, interposing his deceptively lean frame between her and the bum. "Bloke's veins are running eighty proof, you nit. Two swallows and you'll keel over." He shucked off the motorcycle jacket and handed it to Willow, extending one bare arm, wrist up. "Well, come on, can't stand here all night."
Evie blinked down at the pale, blue-veined wrist before her. The streetlights gleamed off the curve of Spike's shoulder, where the dark fabric of his t-shirt strained over the muscles of his upper arm, and gilded the dusting of light brown hair on his forearm. "This doesn't make me your fucking minion or anything," she said.
"Good, because minions are suck-arse wastes of hemoglobin," Spike rejoined. "You do a job for me, I pay you, we go our separate ways."
Still Evie hesitated. She chin-pointed at Willow. "You made her. I can tell."
"No!" Willow looked quite shocked. "I made me. I mean, I made him make me. Kind of. I was in a place. But he's been a really great sire, a little on the cranky side maybe, but we deal, you know? And - "
"You gonna drink or not?" Spike demanded.
It occurred to Evie that if the two of them had come straight down Alembert to the Fish Tank, there was no way in hell they could have missed Rack's. But somehow, as she sank her remaining fangs into the vein and sucked down mouthful after avid mouthful, it didn't matter all that much.
Spike, striding along at her side and keeping a scowling eye on the back of Evie's head, snorted. "'Course you did. I keep telling you, Red - vampire with a soul's still a vampire."
"But it wasn't like that." Willow kicked at a drift of dead leaves by the side of the gravel path, disconsolate. Becoming a vampire should have made it all easier. "I didn't want to eat him. I was mad because he hurt Oz. This was me. Willow-me."
"Who were you expecting it to be, Wendell Wilkie?"
"I don't know. I thought... " She'd thought that she could label all her bad naughty urges demon and wall them off in a corner, all very Cask of Amontillado. That there'd be Good Willow with a soul, and Evil Willow without. And instead it was just all one big tangled mess of Willow. She jammed her hands into her coat pockets - she didn't need the coat for warmth these days, but you had to have somewhere to put your hands, right? "Do you remember what it was like? Having a soul?"
"Do I remember being a pathetic sodden mess?" Spike scoffed. "'Oooh, I'm sorry,' and 'Oh, how could I?' twenty-four-seven? Of course I - " He trailed off and crushed out his cigarette on the nearest tombstone, distance clouding his eyes, like a man trying to recall the words to a once-loved and long-forgotten song. "S' a little like remembering a dream. I felt things... try to get 'em back, sometimes. They don't make any sense to me now." He rolled his shoulders, shrugging introspection away. "You remember what it was like the five minutes you didn't have one?"
"Yeah." And it all made perfect sense. Willow shivered. "The scary thing? I wasn't someone else."
Spike chuckled, low and conspiratorial. "Terrifying, innit?" His scowl returned. "You think it would help to talk to the L.A. branch of the family... "
"Hey." Willow patted his arm. "Why? You've got me this far, right?"
Spike gave her a look, half startled pride and half reflexive sarcasm. "Guess I did."
"Hey! Spike! You said I could hit demons, right?" Evie hopped off a tombstone up ahead. She was all hyped up on the blood Spike had given her - vampire blood wasn't anything you could live off, but drinking from a vampire Spike's age was a little like mainlining Red Bull.
"You can try," Spike started, and then his eyes widened. Evie's foot was poised above a scaly, tight-coiled blue-black thing about the size of a bowling ball. "Oi, you daft bint, leave that be!"
Evie gave the whatever-it-was an energetic punt. It sailed over the tombstone in a graceful arc and landed with a squeal and a meaty thump fifty yards away. She threw back her head with a whoop of glee and tore after it. Spike muttered an imprecation that would have melted lead and sprinted off after his giddy not-a-minion. Willow shook her head and suppressed a tiny and wholly unreasonable flare of jealousy as she pulled out her cell phone. Reception was always lousy inside Restfield, but she'd promised. She punched in Tara's number and strolled towards the crypt as the line rang, and rang, and rang. Just before the voicemail recording kicked in, Tara picked up. "Whas marrer?"
Tara's bedroom voice, drowsy and molasses-sweet. Tara sprawled out all golden and silky-soft on the bed, tangled up in blankets and smelling like sun-warmed rosemary and girl-musk - the very thought made her feel all toasty and purrsome inside. "Tara? It's just me, honey - you wanted me to call before I started home?"
"Mrrmf." There was a muffled scraping noise, then, "Willow? It's three in the morning. I went to bed hours ago. I have morning classes tomorrow, remember?"
"Oh." Willow's face fell. She'd known that. "I'm sorry. We - I lost track of time. You know, Spike's been having trouble with this guy cutting in on the business, and he heard through the grapevine that someone was downtown tonight harvesting vampire teeth, and he asked if I wanted to come along when he took care of it, and you'll never guess who it turned out to be! Gib Cain!"
"Who?" Tara sounded as if she were starting to drift off.
"That werewolf hunter? That Buffy - never mind. I can tell you about it tomorrow."
"Well... it's good you found the guy. Did... did Spike really need you along tonight?"
Willow opened her mouth, shut it, and tried to keep the hurt out of her voice when she finally answered. "He wanted me along. He asked. He's my sire."
A sigh. "I know. And I'm... it's just that I worry. I mean... this isn't slaying. It's... " The voice on the phone sounded small and sad and confused now. "I know I've b-been... I haven't always been easy to be around, and sometimes... Never mind. I miss you. Come home soon."
Why? The Willow you miss died a year ago.
No. That wasn't fair, was it? Tara was trying, trying really hard. Willow's hand dropped to her side, cell dangling loosely from her fingers. A far-off voice piped "Willow? Willow?"
Spike had told her, back at the beginning, that being her sire didn't mean anything, but of course it did. She just couldn't define that meaning in human terms, and every time she tried she just ended up mumbling, "He's my sire," as if that could explain everything, and of course it could - to another vampire. Who would understand perfectly why she'd immediately accepted the casual offer to come along tonight, or why she resented the attention Spike gave the minions - despite Spike's crochets on the subject, she didn't know what else to call them - even though it was business and nothing to do with her.
It wasn't like she was out every night gadding about with Sunnydale's vampire set, she thought with a resentful scuff at the gravel. As Spike's get they accorded her grudging respect, but she wasn't one of them, nor did she want to be, really. She had a soul. Teensy social barrier, there, when she couldn't get into hanging around the water cooler and swapping tales of slaughter. Spike, who pursued humanity with such ferocious determination, made it easy to forget just how great the gap was, but sometimes she found herself staring even at him across an unbridgeable gulf.
Willow stuffed the plaintively cheeping cell phone back into her pocket and started to walk, fast, barely noticing where her feet were taking her. A year ago, Willow Rosenberg had plans. Big plans. OK, she'd burnt out her magic to the point it might never come back, she'd come within an inch of destroying the world, she was teetering on the edge of losing the woman she loved, she was kind of a vampire, and worst of all, she'd gotten two Cs on her mid-terms. The goblins might just as well come and carry her away. But she'd rallied. She was going to turn things around. She might be a vampire, but she had a soul and she was going to use her vast powers for good and noble purposes. Like Angel. Helping the helpless, befriending the friendless, and defeating the defeatless. Just maybe not so much with the hitting, because contrary to popular belief and to Willow's secret disappointment, becoming a vampire did not instantly endow you with a black-belt level command of every martial art known to man. The third or fourth time Buffy sent her flying across the training room and into the wall, Willow decided that increased pain threshold or no, this was not on the Fun List.
No, she should follow her strengths. Study. Research. The acquisition of forbidden knowledge. She had an unparalleled in now. She could mingle with demons, find out stuff no human investigator could ever discover. She could be the Dian Fossey of the demon world. Visions of papers co-authored with Harriet Doyle danced in her head, for about the ten seconds it took to discover that demons could smell the soul on her like stink on Anya's favorite Brie, and were even less than inclined to talk to such a freak of nature than to a human.
So a year later, here she was, risking life, limb, and spontaneous combustion for her degree in the afternoons, pitching in with occasional slayage in the evenings, and tagging along after Spike trying to build up her demonic street cred at night. Neither world fit her any longer, and unlike Spike, who didn't give a damn what world he lived in so long as Buffy existed in the center of it, she had yet to find her balance. The Rosenberg outline for So You Want To Be A Vampire had been refined down to a single word: Don't.
Spike's pale head re-materialized among the carious teeth of the tombstones. He had one hand clamped firmly on Evie's shoulder and was marching her ahead of him at arm's length. A horrible reek preceded them, the unholy mating of rotten hamburger and week-old socks. Willow gagged and exhaled quickly, trying to get the nauseating smell out of her lungs. "... and that," Spike said through tightly-clenched jaw, "is why we don't kick the Vernex demons despite their ever-so-tempting resemblance to a football, you buggering little cow." He threw an exasperated glare in Willow's direction, Please, God, tell me I was never this thick at her age implicit in every bristling line of his body.
Evie's manic grin got wider at the sight of Willow. She pumped her fist in the air. "Fuckin' A, I can kick demons!"
The iron-grated windows of Spike's old crypt spilled welcoming golden light across the close-cropped lawn as they came crunching single-file up the path. Spike flung the door open with a crash and swept inside. "Heads up, children, we've got company."
The homey clutter of furniture the crypt had once sported was long gone, cleared out to make room for counters and shelves and bins and an enormous old roll-top desk. Willow had honestly never thought Spike would be able to make a go of his demon-hunting business - he might be great at the killing part, but dealing with clients and taxes and paperwork wasn't exactly his idiom. Spike had solved that little problem by delegating the clients, taxes, and paperwork to someone else at the earliest opportunity. If he wasn't good at fiddly details, he was stunningly good at motivating people who were, as long as the motivation in question involved the occasional boot to the head. It shouldn't have been a surprise; after all, he'd made his Sunnydale debut by taking over the Master's old gang lock, stock, and sepulchre, and running it pretty darn efficiently until Buffy'd dropped the organ on him.
The 'employees' currently in residence rose hurriedly to their feet as Spike ushered Evie inside - balding, phlegmatic David, who craved numbers as much as he craved blood and had taken payroll and accounting over from Anya when it got to be more than a part-time job; small, fierce Nadia and her slim fey brother Denny, who looked after inventory and packaging, and never explained why they'd killed their own sire.
"Gah, Spike, don't tell me you kicked that damn Vernex demon again!" Nadia complained, pinching her nose.
"Shut your gob or I'll kick it down your throat next time," Spike replied amiably. "New bird's Evie. She'll be joining our merry band of outlaws. David, take her downstairs, fetch out the Lincoln green, and give her a feed - yeah, it's pig, and you'll drink it and like it."
Evie followed David over to the ladder leading downstairs without protest - too wiped out to argue, probably. She'd fit in, Willow was pretty sure. It was uncanny, the way Spike could pick them. The weirdos, the misfits, the geeks; he homed in unerringly and went for the jugular. Spike couldn't have known Evie was chipped. But he'd seen something, some weakness, or some strength. Maybe it was just that a century and a quarter's worth of experience in cutting out the vulnerable loners from the human herd could apply just as well to the vampire herd.
Or maybe it took one to know one.
"I'm gonna take off," Willow called across the room. "I kinda promised Tara I'd be home, um, three hours ago."
Spike glanced up from the pile of receipts David was showing him. "I'll be along in a tick, Red. Car's by the front gate; I'll give you a lift if you want."
"Sire's pet," Nadia whispered with a sly grin.
Willow grinned back and walked out into the night, shutting the crypt door behind her with a smugness as unreasonable in human terms as the earlier jealousy had been. She headed back towards the street, swinging along the path with something approaching good cheer. She'd make it up to Tara. When she got home, she'd catch a nap, and then take a really hot shower just before her beloved woke up, and duck into bed before the borrowed heat could dissipate. And she'd remember to breathe the whole time, and there would be snuggling. Severe, unrestrained snuggling.
A staticky crackle issued from her pocket. Drat, had she forgotten to turn the phone off? Way to waste weekend minutes. She pulled her cell phone out, about to turn it off, when something made her pause.
She wasn't all that great at the hunting thing, and she knew it. The raw ability was there - she could see in the dark, she could hear faint, mysterious crunching noises at fifty paces, she could pick Tara's clothes out of a pile of laundry blindfolded by the scent... but telling one mysterious crunching noise from another was another matter. It wasn't that Spike hadn't tried to teach her, but... she'd slacked. With verve and determination. Left to his own devices, her sire would certainly have lost patience and resorted to the Angelus Method ("You don't learn, you don't eat") on her, but there was Tara. And Buffy. And she was a noble vampire, living in a town with a twenty-four-hour butcher, and no intention of snacking on infants, so: slackage emerged triumphant. And probably? Better all around that way, because deep down, the thought of her fangs tearing into living flesh stirred an excited little flutter in her stomach, and she couldn't help wondering just a tiny, ultra-miniturized bit how much richer and better and warmer that lovely blood-taste would be coming straight from the vein. Which was bad. Very bad.
Except now that she really needed the skills for a virtuous enterprise, she didn't have them. What Spike had said about relaxing into the night, becoming part of it? Willow stood still and allowed the nocturnal symphony to wash over her, wind and distant cars and the defiant late-night song of a mockingbird. She could still hear voices from the crypt, and Denny'd tuned a radio to one of his everlasting salsa stations, but this had come from the other direction. The faint crackle of vegetation crushing beneath stealthy feet, or just a stray ground squirrel? She sniffed the breeze, but whatever it was was staying safely downwind of her.
Maybe it was Cain, come back to cause trouble. Definite possibility there. Spike was way too cavalier about Cain. Maybe he did have friends in low places. Spike's business was small, true, but since the Hellmouth had closed, Sunnydale wasn't attracting the huge number of exotic demons it had in the past, and competition was getting tougher.
She was confident that she could handle Cain. Maybe she even wanted to handle Cain. Willow pulled her jacket tightly around herself and started off in the direction of the mysterious noise, moving as silently as she knew how. A stand of junipers loomed before her, dark upright sentinels clustered around a weatherbeaten mausoleum. Was something moving beneath the shadows of the trees? Willow faded back into the shadow of the marble walls and flattened her shoulders to the cool stone, holding her nonexistent breath. Not that she wanted to impress Tara, but... OK, she wanted to impress Tara. Spike hadn't just asked her along to be nice, because Spike, nice? Sheeyah. Maybe she wasn't UberWitch any longer, but she could still use her semi-awesome, why-didn't-I-listen-when-Spike-tried-to-teach-me-this-sneaky-predator-stuff powers for good, darn it. She could -
A dark figure cannonballed out of the underbrush, striking Willow in the midsection and rolling her over backwards on the damp grass. After a second's panic, Willow dredged up her lessons and made a clumsy left-handed grab for her attacker's arm - clumsy, but faster than any human could block.
Her attacker blocked it. Her cell phone tumbled across the grass, buzzing. Willow dug her heels into the turf for leverage and flopped like a gaffed salmon, but a pair of slim, muscular thighs pinned her arms to her sides and a stake-point sharp and deadly as desire pressed down against her heart. Long dark hair lashed her face and flipped back over her attacker's shoulders, revealing a delicate, olive-skinned face with almond eyes and a wide, generous mouth.
"Hello, cutie," the girl said with a triumphant grin, bracing to ram the stake home. "I'm Kennedy, and you're dust."