“I am going to take a picture of you like that,” Buffy said.
“Uh…Spike….? Who cares? It doesn’t matter to me what you wear.”
Spike exhaled in the manner of a man trying to count to ten. “It does to me.”
Here we go again, Buffy again, but she had to feel for the guy. It almost seemed like divine retribution for all the times she’d experienced the whole ‘I-have-nothing-to-wear’ panic attack. Now, frankly, she didn’t care what she wore, and by extension, what he wore, either. How did she get that across?
It would be very, very, ironic if I suddenly became fashion-optional and Spike became the couture-whore, she thought. “Look, all we have to do is get you one outfit to shop in, okay?”
“Not like this.”
Another thing to avoid considering was how miserable he looked. She wouldn’t be doing him any favors by indulging his bad moods the way he had once tolerated hers. That did not mean, however, that she couldn’t promise herself an opportunity to cheer him up later. Some instinct inside her warned her neither pamper him too much nor be too harsh with him. With something like pleasure, she recognized the Mom gene awakening. There was a twinge that Joyce had not lived to see it in action. She’d have been proud.
“Last chance,” she sang at the door. “You’re leaving yourself at my mercy.”
All she got for her gloating was a very disgusted-sounding snort from the bedroom. She jingled the keys in her hand as one final warning, but all she got was another snort in reply.
She locked the door behind her and headed out. In an odd, guilt-inducing way, being on her own was kind of nice, although if she had actually arranged this little pocket of solitude deliberately she’d probably have to resort to self-flagellation to get over the indulgence. She had Xander to check on. She had Dawn to supervise. If she failed to do the latter correctly, she had to pick between visiting her in California Youth Authority, or dealing with the icky Angel issues which would result from using his law firm to get Dawn’s record expunged—if she tried blackmailing him. Wasn’t that a conflict of interest?
Now there’s a dilemma, she thought. Dawn thought it would be fun to blackmail Angel about his weird law-firm deal. She herself had been quite happy just drifting since the Hellmouth had been destroyed, but now she felt like she’d been dozing and it was time to wake up. It was oddly pleasant. It was also rather uncomfortably vivid.
Clothes. For Spike, she thought. It was very important to make sure she brought something that he could go out in. Clothes shopping for the guy had Mom-like connotations that were not at all the good ones of taking care of the people she loved.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the tall buildings of downtown LA, and she turned and looked for the towers of Wolfram and Hart. I wonder if Angel’ll want a shingle too, now? Oh, to be the publicity firm that takes that account.
Somewhere, Xander was trying to make funeral arrangements for Anya, and at least two police detectives were trying to figure out if a skinny unnamed Brit could be nailed for several homicides that weren’t, actually, homicides. Unlike all the victims that the police had allowed to fall, unprotected and sometimes unmarked, the Potentials who had died fighting the First deserved a better soubriquet. What did you call someone who’d died a good death, in battle, on behalf of others? She wondered for a moment if that was a good enough question to use as an excuse for another Giles phone call, then realized she was pushing her luck.
Somewhere, Dawn was plotting blackmail, and Angel was probably dealing with it. Maybe there were teams of demonic lawyers involved. Somewhere, too, there had to be someone who could help her deal with the various issues that permeated the whole I-must-buy-my-new/old-boyfriend-clothes-that-don’t-refer-to-his-previous-identity-but-don’t-insult-his-new-personality, either.
That thought made her sit down on a bus bench. Should she just buy Spike jeans, a tee shirt, and Doc Martens, and then haul his butt out to do his own shopping? Such an outfit might be interpreted as her longing for the old Spike. However, not buying such an outfit could be interpreted as rejection of his whole vampire-phase. What about a suit? She coughed suddenly, trying to hold back a giggle that she felt would be unseemly. What, are we grown-ups now? Then she stared off into space for a moment, flushing at the memory of the impulse in the hospital bathroom, that rush of mortality and possibility. How did you sum that up in fabric and cut and stitch? She put her head in her hands. She couldn’t remind him of his past self, but couldn’t reject it, either. She couldn’t buy anything that might be interpreted as imposing her wishes on his personality. More than that, she remembered that little moment again, where Spike’s exasperation had taken such a suddenly charming turn. Who would he be now? If you had that opportunity to start over again, leaving all your baggage behind, what would it be like?
She stared at the skyline again, awed by the immensity of it all. Mom, why can’t you be here? It was with something like pride that she recognized the new strength that prevented her from indulging in what had been a constant refrain the previous year. Come back. Come back. I miss you. Help me. The loss would always be there. Now there were other things that balanced it.
She looked around, oddly proud of herself for disliking the whole concept of shopping. Where on earth could you go when you suddenly realized you had no interest in shopping? What could you do? She turned to the west, and there it was.
If nothing else brought it home to her that she had changed, wandering disconsolately in her old shopping stomping grounds certainly did the trick. It was the season of frou-frou, and she wandered amidst ruffles and lace and wondered how on earth she’d manage to take out vamps in those things. She could certainly afford---professionally---to buy stuff like that, if she wanted to: once she’d resented every vampire-incurred wardrobe loss. With a mutter of nostalgia, she wondered how long the vamps would last. There were so many Slayers now. An even worse jolt made her look around with her jaw dropped. Was it possible that vampires could be eradicated?
Not for a while, she thought. Not for a long, long time.
There were hundreds of Slayers, though. She couldn’t even begin to consider how many vamps she might have killed in her lifetime. If they didn’t reproduce faster than they were killed…..
Okay, that’s definitely a question for Giles.
Excuse firmly held in mind, she should have felt better. It’s a good excuse, too, she thought defensively, but now she was vaguely nervous. There’s got to be another shoe somewhere, she thought. It’s got to drop some time or other.
Her weapon had always been wood, and it seemed obscurely comforting that knocking on wood was supposed to guarantee good luck. She hoped fiberboard was a good enough substitute, and she knocked on the cash register’s counter.
Buffy snapped back as a cashier all but leaped up from behind the counter, Jack-in-the-Box style, larger than life and grin fixed in place. After a second, she took another step back, her senses tingling. It had been so long since she’d been around a vampire that she wondered if her vamp-dar was off. Her spidey sense was definitely tingling, but she couldn’t tell in what direction. I’m all rusty. My compass is off. Maybe it was just the lure of the almighty commission sale that made the woman look rather maniacal, but she’d seen the horror movies about clowns---courtesy of Xander----and the woman’s Kabuki-like makeup brought back some very bad movie-night memories. “Uh…Hi.”
“Can I help you? Was there something you were looking for?”
The exit, she almost said. Got any sunlight? was another request she stifled. They were so deep in the building that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen windows. Another tingle, and her spidey sense pointed out that all the big department stores in LA were like that---windowless boxes once you got away from the doors. “Men’s clothes?”
“Oh, here, I’ll show you. You’re on the wrong side of the building.” That wide, fixed smile never varied as she stepped out from behind the counter. The clothes didn’t do a great deal to alter the impression of clownishness, either. The woman was dressed in bright primary colors with strong stripes and angles that seemed all too consistent with the sort of psycho that would laugh maniacally and clutch a knife behind her back. Her hair was the only real thing about her, soft and dark and unemphatic. By all rights, she should have been wearing a fright wig.
“Thanks,” Buffy said uncomfortably, then stepped aside to let the other woman precede her. Watch your back, came Giles’ dry voice in her head, and she obeyed it. The wide grin faltered just a notch, and Buffy wondered if she was being rude or….obvious. To someone or something that knew what I was doing, that is, she thought. Another question for Giles. Yay.
“You’ll have to forgive my enthusiasm,” the woman said. “I just moved down here and got this job, and I’m just very happy.”
Information, Buffy thought. “Oh, really? Where are you from?”
Buffy stopped as if an invisible wall and slammed down in front of her face. It took the woman several paces before she realized that Buffy wasn’t following her. Buffy stood where she stopped and stared at the woman. The freakish smile dimmed, the eyes darkening beneath the layers of paint. If anything, the sight of things moving beneath that…enamel….was even worse. Buffy was reminded of ominous things stirring beneath the surface of nightmare lakes, predators lurking near the bottom, brushing up against unwary toes and feet amongst the weeds. “I’m sorry, dear, are you all right? You’re very pale.”
“I’m sorry, did you say, Sunnydale?” Buffy asked.
“Unfortunately, I did,” the woman said with a sigh. The sigh was exasperated, in the manner of someone discussing something mundane rather than tragic. “Why?” The smile began widening again, the eyes starting to sparkle with glee. “I feel very lucky to have gotten away.”
Slightly sickened, Buffy took another step back. Xander’s parents---and Anya----were dead, and he’d lived. Almost everyone had lost their homes, their memories, their background. CNN had said that almost half the city’s population had lost at least one family member or friend. Even those who had not knew someone who had, and their relief at their own safety was tempered by the knowledge of their friends’ losses. It was beyond Buffy’s comprehension that this woman could treat the event like a simple relocation, and she spoke more sharply than she intended.
“To a city with a big huge fault line?”
“Well, it sure doesn’t have a big huge he---“
A boisterous family of four crossed the aisle abruptly behind the sales clerk and she whipped around to watch their progress.
Hellmouth, Buffy thought. She’s going to say Hellmouth. She backed up still further, and watched the woman’s eyes gleam. She knows about Hellmouths. How? What if we didn’t actually close it? What if we just plugged it a bit after blowing it wide open?
“I’m sorry,” she prodded. “What were you saying?”
“Oh, what was I saying? I’ve been through so much…. Sunnydale. Just awful. I lost a lot of ….”She paused, then, the Kabuki mask relaxing into something that seemed to gloat just a little. “Well, I didn’t exactly know them, but there are lots of people there who made it possible for me to have my new existence here in sunny Los Angeles. People who lost their lives. How could I thank them?”
Myrtle said the nametag on the woman’s bright, bright, chest. It didn’t seem to fit in at Bullock’s Wilshire. Shouldn’t she have some higher class name? Wasn’t that a job requirement for the sales girls here? All the other ones seemed to be named for tragic queens and ballerinas: Natalia, Isabella, Elizabeth, Eugenia, Caroline, Maria, Katherine. Myrt’s was the first name she’d seen that had lacked grandeur and that all-important third syllable. Myrtle was what you expected to find in that trailer park at the west end of Sunnydale, right near St. Stephen’s cemetery, one of the oldest ones in Sunnydale. It was an old-sounding name, too, and this woman didn’t look old at all. Forty, tops. So why the thick, thick makeup? She’d plastered it on way past the jaw line, Buffy noticed, too.
People who lost their lives, Buffy thought. How did that work? How did they help her? “So what happened?”
“Oh, it’s complicated,” Myrtle said. The grin widened. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be grateful.” My, my, my, Buffy thought. What sharp, sharp teeth you have. Just really intensive incisors, she told herself. That’s all. She’s just got white-trash teeth and white trash makeup. She came down here and goosed her resume, and nobody’s going to be the wiser. Just relax, Nancy Drew. “I wish I could thank them, but they’re gone.” One hand made a flapping motion. Is that makeup? Buffy thought. Is she wearing make up on her hands?
“Gone?” Buffy inquired weakly. “Did they rescue you?”
The grin got even wider. The resemblance to some sinister mask was no longer accidental; it was deliberate. She thinks she’s scaring me, Buffy thought. A flash of heat whipped through her and made her draw herself up to her full height. She doesn’t know she’s out of her league. “Not exactly, “Myrtle said coyly, “but that’s a very apt description.”
“Men’s fine apparel,” she said gaily, waving an arm at the department before them. “You have fun, now.” Slippery fast, she dodged back around Buffy and when Buffy feinted away to turn with her she found herself facing empty space.
A shirt sleeve on a mannequin fluttered as if a breeze had brushed against it, then stilled.
Buffy realized she’d left the apartment without a single stake and glanced around. Not a vampire, she thought. Just some really weird woman who got a job in a real ritzy store despite not being ritzy or glamorous herself. Maybe she just knew the right people to get the job.
The nerves on the back of her neck were tingling in earnest now. I’m out of shape, she thought. That’s all there is to it. I’m not used to this.
Just a coincidence.
I have to find out what made Spike come back, she thought. What if he’s not the only one? If something could make a vampire human, what could it do to humans?
Continued in Chapter 15