"Ryan, slow down," she snapped. The command had no more effect on the boy in front of her than it had the first three times she'd uttered it. She tried to tug her hand free from her boyfriend's firm grip, and ended up stumbling drunkenly over her own feet instead, barely catching herself to prevent a swan-dive into the pavement.
"You were supposed to be in your dorm room," Ryan snapped back. His anger sounded more genuine than hers; or at least, she noted absently, a bit less slurred. In fact, he sounded furious. "You were supposed to be studying for that big mid-term tomorrow. You were *not* supposed to be out getting drunk at the Bronze. You were *not* supposed to be hanging all over that guy like you wanted him to do you right there on the pool table--"
"S'not what you think," she mumbled. Her protest stopped there, however, because she couldn't think of another thing that it could've been. Her boyfriend continued his tirade without a pause.
"And to top it all off, before I can get to you, you wander outside, drunk and vulnerable, alone, in Sunnydale, at *night*. You can be a real bitch sometimes, Ellie, and you can certainly be stupid--"
"I know," she said, interrupting again and rolling her eyes. The sparks of venomous anger in his eyes had sobered her up more than she would've cared for. "I've heard this lecture from my dad before." She lowered her voice ridiculously, sticking her lips out and poorly mimicking a universal father stereotype, shaking her finger for good measure. "'What were you thinking, young lady? You could've been hurt!'"
"Exactly right!" Ryan exclaimed. "I mean, you've already embarrassed me by not being home when I said you would be, but it would've been even worse if you'd gone out and gotten yourself eaten by somebody else!"
Ellen frowned. His grip on her wrist was rock-solid and biting, like the handcuffs had felt that time she'd been arrested on spring break. Hazily, she realized that he was pulling her along into a darkened alleyway.
"What would I have said *then?*" he snarled, ignoring her small sounds of pained protest as he tugged more sharply on her wrist. "'Oh, sorry, Master, I know I promised you a sweet young thing to eat, but somebody else got to her first. I brought the body if you want leftovers.'" He laughed, and it was an entirely humorless sound. "As a business major, I can tell you that bringing your boss somebody else's sloppy seconds is hardly the way to move up in an organization."
"I don't know what you mean," Ellen whimpered. And then abruptly they came to a stop when someone stepped out of the shadows.
"You're right, mate," the stranger said. "It's a good way to get dusty, though, if that's your thing." The voice was hard, cold, and clipped with a foreign accent. Australian, Ellen thought. The tip of a cigarette burned brightly in the darkness. "And I'm tempted to stake you right now, to be perfectly honest. I don't appreciate being led on a chase for my food."
Ryan winced. "I'm sorry, Master," he murmured in reply. "I thought she'd be in the dorm. It was -- it's my mistake."
"Yes," the other man replied, nodding. "It is. But I suppose you've come through in the end." His eyes, shining eerily with the reflection of a distant streetlamp, wandered over Ellen's body. She shivered. "She is every bit as luscious as you described."
"And she's all yours, Spike," Ryan said, stepping back, smiling a 'can I get you anything else?' smile that he'd perfected during that summer of waiting tables at the Bronze.
The answering smile was just as practiced, but it wasn't the smile of a subservient waiter; it was the twist of a rabid dog's lips just before biting. Ellen didn't even think to scream as the bleached-blond animal sunk his teeth into her throat and bore her to the ground.
* * * * * * * * * *
If stake-twirling were an officially recognized sport, Buffy mused, she'd be the MVP. And Mr. Pointy was certainly more functional than your average baton. The weapon flicked between Buffy's fingers, rolled over the backs of her hands, and was occasionally flipped into the air only to be caught again. Unfortunately the activity was more mindless than the Slayer would've liked, and it didn't do much to divert her attention from the fact that she was very, very bored.
For some reason, there were hardly any vampires around, and most of the big bad demons that hadn't been slaughtered by Buffy's friends while she'd been dead had fled town soon after she'd been returned to life. There was hardly a challenge to be had anymore, and as much as she complained about being the Slayer each time she faced a new Armageddon, at that moment she wanted nothing more than a good fight. Or possibly just an ice cream.
She heard him before she saw him; the low, dangerous British voice drifting faintly to her ears from the mouth of an alley as she passed, and she paused, suddenly torn by her options. Should she greet the vampire and ask where he'd been for the last few weeks? Should she keep walking and pretend she hadn't heard him at all? Could he possibly still be angry after that fight they'd had, and why should she care if he was mad at her, anyway?
The hesitation kept her immobile for a long, crucial second, and that was when she heard the second voice. Through the chain-link fence that blocked off the end of the alleyway, she could see Spike's bleached hair, and the drape of his long duster. She narrowed her eyes and squinted at the second figure, making out a UC Sunnydale letterman's jacket and jeans. She decided that all Spike needed was a good beating to remind him that his habit of mugging college students was not appreciated, and she took a few steps back, preparing to vault the fence.
When she landed on the other side, the jock was gone, and she saw only the flutter of Spike's duster as he disappeared out the far end of the alleyway. She followed at a quiet jog, light on the balls of her feet, stealthy like a stalking cat--
Until she found herself sprawled face-down on the filthy asphalt, after tripping over something in the dark.
She knew, without looking, that the moisture seeping through the knees of her jeans was blood. And she knew that the dark lump she'd stumbled over was a body. And she had a feeling that there'd be puncture wounds on that body's neck. Buffy lifted her head, eyes straying to the last place where she'd seen Spike, and tried to swallow around the lump in her throat.
* * * * * * * * * *
Buffy could feel Dawn's eyes boring into the back of her neck. The force of the teenager's glare was almost painful, and Buffy rolled her shoulders as if she could shrug off the sensation. Willow was sprinkling something across the threshold of the kitchen entrance to the Summers' home, muttering words in a magical language that Buffy couldn't understand.
"I'll just invite him back in," Dawn said, sullenly.
"No, you won't," Buffy answered. There was a forceful command in her voice, and she turned to her sister, leveling her own glare at the younger girl as if to say, 'I perfected this look before you were born; don't mess with the master.' Dawn was the first to look away in the staring contest, but Buffy didn't feel very victorious.
"You don't even know if it was him," the teen said, quieter this time, trying to be the voice of reason. "It could've been that other guy he was with. Or maybe he just found the body. Or maybe--"
"I know all the maybes," Buffy interrupted. "The maybes and I have been introduced and are now on intimate terms. But if he's gotten the chip out and gone back to killing, then we're probably first on his list of people to eat, so we're gonna go with better safe than sorry."
When Willow turned to tell her that the dis-invitation spell was finished, Buffy pretended not to hear Dawn's muttered, "Yeah, he'd like to eat you alright, but not in the blood-and-dying kind of way." She thanked the witch for her help, and Willow only smiled faintly before gathering up her spell ingredients and retreating up the stairs.
"Tara leaving hit her pretty hard," Buffy observed, watching her friend's exit with a frown. "Maybe we should do something to cheer her up."
"Don't change the subject," Dawn snapped. The lanky girl hopped off the kitchen counter she'd been perched on, and immediately invaded her sister's personal space. "You can't just go out there and kill him."
"Yes I can," Buffy disagreed, pulling a stake out of the waistband of her pants. She pantomimed a staking motion, but it reminded Dawn more of *Psycho* than of slaying.
"You have to at least talk to him first," Dawn protested. She put her delicate little hands on her hips and fixed a no-nonsense scowl on her face. "You have to get his side of the story. You can't just kill him in cold blood."
Buffy rolled her eyes, talking to Dawn over her shoulder as she moved into the living room to gather up her jacket and the rest of her weapon supply. "I will talk to him first, Dawnie, I promise, but this isn't a great time for second chances. I mean, he tells you he's going on a trip and disappears without a word to the rest of us, and when he comes back weeks later he's killer guy again? It's obvious he found a surgeon to take the chip out or something, and that means he's up to something, and let's face it, that something that he's up to? Probably really evil." Buffy paused, checking all of her pockets and hidden armament over to make sure she hadn't missed anything, then turned to speak to her sister again. "I know you consider him a friend, and I guess I kinda do too, but--"
The kitchen door hung slightly open. Dawn was gone. Buffy completely forgot what she was going to say and dashed out the door after the young girl, surveying the street; she couldn't see Dawn in either direction, which meant that the teen had a decent head start. But Buffy knew where she'd be headed.
* * * * * * * * * *
They arrived outside Spike's crypt at almost the same moment, both out of breath. Buffy had planned on arriving first, counting on her supernatural strength and speed to easily eat up Dawn's advantage of time, but she'd been delayed by a pair of vampires who hadn't cared that she was on a timetable. The two girls stopped, one on each side of the crypt door, and stared at each other like it was high noon at the OK Corral.
"Are you trying to get yourself killed?" Buffy scolded, regaining her wind and advancing on the other girl, blocking the doorway.
"Spike would never hurt me," Dawn fired back. "I'm just trying to protect *him* from *you*!"
"Spike doesn't need your protection, little girl," another voice said. Buffy spared the intruder only a glance, determined the interruption to be a very scrawny and very poorly dressed vampire, and turned back to the argument.
"Dawn, I *said* I'd give him a fair chance to save his sorry ass. But this isn't a game. If he's de-chipped, he's dangerous. And he'd probably kill you first to get to me. So just humor me, okay?"
"Spike will kill you both," the intruder interrupted again, this time a little more loudly. "I'll take you to him, and my master will suck the blood from your veins and the marrow from your bones, and we will all feast on your entrails--"
Initially pleased that he'd finally caught their attention, the vampire smiled, but the expression faded as the two girls stared at him.
"Your *master*?" the blond finally said. There was disbelief in her voice. "Your *master *Spike?" Then she turned back to the brunette, and the blood-sucking fiend was ignored again. "See, Dawn, this is *exactly* what I was talking about! Spike's obviously got his chip out and he's running around making minions and doing evil things. And evil is bad. Now would you go home and let me do my job?"
"Hey, look over here!" the vampire said. It twisted its hands like claws and curled up its lip to expose its sharp teeth. "Grr, I'm evil! I'm going to eat you!" The hands dropped again, then flew up in a gesture of pure exasperation. "Come on people, work with me here! Scream! Faint! Run away! Let's see a little enthusiasm!"
"Yeah," a deeper male voice drawled, from the shadows. "I'm just not feeling like any of you are into this. Maybe you should all think about your motivation."
The coat swirled into view first, shifting around one black-clad leg, as the speaker stepped out of the deepest shadows and into the lighter ones. The rest of him just seemed to detach from the darkness, resolving into solid form like a developing Polaroid. The bleached-blond vampire hovered at the edge of the brighter circle of illumination cast by the nearest lamp, and then he spoke again.
"You," he said, pointing at Dawn, "Being the younger sister, have a big chip on your shoulder, but you're all sweetness and light anyway. Try to smile a bit more." The pointing finger turned to Buffy. "You're the slayer. You fight the forces of darkness without chipping any nails. You might want to put a little more bitchiness into your performance." The pointing finger dropped altogether, and the bleached blond thrust his hands into deep coat pockets, turning the full force of his attention to the scrawny vampire. "And *you*," he concluded, "just aren't doing anything for me. I think we should re-cast your part."
A stake whipped through the air, found its mark, and landed softly in the grass, cushioned by a cloud of ashes.
Spike smiled, put his left hand back in his pocket, and said, "They sure don't make them like they used to." He turned back to the girls only to find Buffy poised for a fight, Dawn behind her, and a stake clutched in the Slayer's hand. His smile faltered, turning into a tentative grin. "Hey Buffy. Nibblet. You miss me?"
"Like a hole in the head," Buffy answered, gripping her wooden weapon just a little bit tighter. "And speaking of people with holes in their heads, I've got to congratulate you on getting rid of that pesky chip. You must be overjoyed."
The last vestiges of a happy expression retreated from Spike's face entirely, and his gaze flickered from Buffy's frowning face to Dawn's. There was something defiant and proud in the teenager's stance, but she was betrayed by the doubt and fear that burned behind her eyes.
The vampire opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was a grunted, "Eh?"
"Yeah, I know the chip's done for," Buffy nodded, moving toward him slowly. Her eyes examined his defenses, sizing him up in a way that she hadn't done -- hadn't had to do -- for years. "And I've got to give you credit. All that impotence must've made you more patient. The old Spike would've come after me the second the chip was gone, but you're a little more cautious now, aren't you? Biding your time, acting like everything's normal, like nothing's changed, like you've just been away on a little vacation. But it's all changed, Spike. We're back at the beginning again, and I'm tired of this dance."
Dawn had never really seen her sister and Spike fight before. She'd seen them struggle, she'd seen them tussle, and on many occasions she'd seen them fight together against a common enemy. But she'd always been sheltered from the action years ago, when Spike had been the enemy, and she'd never actually witnessed the vampire and slayer locked in combat with each other, striking out with full power and deadly intent. It looked like an intensely choreographed routine of attack and counterattack, the fighters' motions blending together, the battle going back and forth but never really approaching a conclusion.
Then Buffy slipped, tripping over what looked like a sprinkler head, and very abruptly the fight was over. Spike swooped down on his opponent like an owl descending on a mouse, his arms pinning Buffy's to the ground, his body trapping the rest of her, and his coat fluttering over them both like outstretched wings.
"It's not what you think," Dawn heard Spike say. His voice sounded strange, deep and growling, and she realized he was speaking around fangs. "I haven't killed anyone. Nothing's changed, really, it's just that you know now, and that's good, because secrets are bad--" His voice faded out and became a murmur of background noise as Dawn bent over, grabbing the only weapon available, and moved toward the struggling pair. She could only make out his words again when she drew close enough to see the two combatants still locked together, on the ground only a few feet from her. "--listen to me?" Spike was saying. "I love you. The rest of this, everything, it's just details, and none of it really matters--"
Buffy was twisting in his grip, trying to break free. Dawn emerged from behind the tombstone that hid her, raised the heavy tree branch that she clutched in her hands, and brought it down with a loud crack over Spike's head.
"You're not going to make my sister a vampire!" the girl shouted, bringing the makeshift club up for another blow and striking the vampire again, this time across the back. "I trusted you!" And she hit him again, even though he was already rolling away from Buffy, raising his hands in self-defense. "I liked you!" And again. "I hate you!" And finally the vampire skittered away, out of range, and stumbled to his feet.
"I didn't *do* anything!" he protested, and made as if to step forward, ready to argue the issue. Buffy took the branch from her sister's hands and brandished it in his direction, stopping him in his tracks. His hands fluttered by his sides in a futile gesture of frustration, then he dropped them, defeated. "You know," he said, quietly, looking at Dawn. "You reminded me of your mum, just now." He smiled, faintly, a very genuine and wistful smile, and then he turned and ran.
* * * * * * * * * *
Willy's bar was unusually packed, even for a Saturday night, and Xander paused just inside the doors, surveying the crowd -- lots of demons, lots of vampires, and lots of regular-looking people who probably weren't regular at all -- and wondered whether this was a good idea. But he decided it didn't matter, and he knew that being separated from Buffy in this particular crowd was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. He stuck close to the tiny blond as she effortlessly shoved her way through the crowd to the bar.
Buffy was already shaking down the twitchy little bartender when Xander stepped up behind her, having barely avoided an altercation of his own after accidentally stepping on somebody's tentacle.
"Where's Spike been holed up?" Buffy was asking. Well, not so much asking, Xander thought, as demanding forcefully and with threat of bodily harm.
"He's been outta town," Willy squeaked. Buffy shook him by the shirtfront, but allowed him to stand on his own feet again when it became apparent that he couldn't speak well while being manhandled. "But he's back now, if you're lookin'. You just missed him. Weirdest thing; he came in here and it got real quiet, like in the old days."
"Explain," the slayer suggested, frowning.
"Spike doesn't usually come in here anymore," Willy said, his hands nervously wiping down shot glasses, his eyes averted as if he were trying to pretend that he wasn't speaking to the white hats at all. "The crowds aren't friendly. Everybody knows that Spike can kill other demons, but that doesn't make him safe against force of numbers, right? He comes in here, he gets a lot of flak. 'Course, back in the old days when he was the resident master vampire, he got respect instead. When he came in here tonight like he owned the place, I was sure this crowd was gonna tear him apart. But they acted like he was a bad-ass again and they knew it." Willy leaned in over the bar, and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "You letting him eat people again, or what?"
Buffy gave the little man a shove, and he clattered back into a shelf crowded with liquor bottles. "So you haven't heard anything? About what he's up to, where he's hiding?"
Willy just shook his head, straightening the bottles. Miraculously, none of them had broken. "If it means anything to you, he looked pretty surprised by the VIP treatment, too. But he just came in, said he wanted a whole lot of blood and breezed out again. He helped himself to a box of bagged that I just got in from the hospital, *and* a crate full of bottled cow's blood, and he didn't pay for it either."
Buffy didn't bother to thank the bartender, but grabbed Xander's hand instead, tugging him back through the crowd toward the door. They were almost there, free and clear and so close to being out of the crush of demon flesh, when a heavy hand fell on Xander's shoulder and spun him around, his hand yanking free of Buffy's with the motion. He yelped in a very unmanly way, and suddenly the slayer was there with him again, squeezing between Xander and the very large, very angry-looking demon that he'd somehow managed to offend.
"You got a problem?" the little blond said, and the demon took a step back.
"No, Slayer, no," the creature answered. Xander thought that its voice sounded like the crackle of burning flesh, or maybe that image only came to mind because the thing smelled like roasted skin, as well, and kind of looked like a massive piece of scorched wood. "I only want to help," it continued. Xander shuddered and tried not to breathe. "I heard you talking to Willy. You're after Spike?"
From behind her, Xander could only see the slight bob of Buffy's head, but he could easily imagine her eyes narrowing as well.
"I've heard some things," the demon said. "Sounds like he's been up to his old tricks again. Got rid of that Initiative chip, I guess." The creature shivered, giving the distinct impression that it had been in town during the Initiative era and was glad it was over. "Building a gang, planning something. But cautious, like. Doesn't go out much, and never without minions as backup. Doesn't hunt his own food; he has his flunkies bring him humans to eat. Ronny and me--" it tipped its head toward a skinny blue scaly thing near the bar, which raised a mugful of blood in salute "--we figured he was doing that to so you and your friends wouldn't find out what he was up to. Being sneaky so he could kill you when you least expected. You know how he is about slayers; always going on about how he's killed two and he's aiming for number three. But you know his game now, huh? You're going to kill the little pest, right?"
"Did you see him around here earlier tonight?" Buffy asked, ignoring the demon's eager inquiry.
"Sure," it answered, nodding. "We've hardly seen him for weeks, then he just shows up and takes a lot of bottled blood. Bizarre. You'd expect him to send a flunky for all that, you know? We've seen his boys around town, and he's got plenty of minions to go around. But he ran this errand all by himself. Must've been important, huh? What's he need take-out for when he can eat people again, anyway?"
Xander was thinking the same thing, but didn't say it.
"Maybe needs a lot of blood for a ritual," Ronny chimed in, his head suddenly swaying into view. Xander jumped, startled, and noticed that the demon's body was still several feet away; the head had joined the conversation courtesy of a very long, apparently telescoping neck. "Maybe has some magic up his sleeve, eh?"
"I heard he's got his girl back," another demon added, turning around and not even bothering to pretend he hadn't been eavesdropping with his huge ears. "What was her name? Darlene? Hot body. Little crazy."
Buffy tensed, and Xander did, too. "Anybody know where their lair is?" Xander asked.
All three demons stared at him for a moment, as if they hadn't realized he could speak, then all of them shrugged, mumbling vague answers that sounded a lot like "no", and turned back to their drinks. The two humans, having gleaned all the information they were going to get from that crowd, pushed the rest of the way through to the door, and emerged to breathe the sweet Southern California air.
"Spike: unchipped, building an army and back with Drusilla," Buffy muttered. "This night just keeps getting better."
Xander wasn't paying much attention. He was too busy trying to get the awful smell out of his nostrils.
* * * * * * * * * *
"All I want to know is where I can find Spike," Buffy said, for the third time. She toyed with the stake in her hands for a moment, then returned to toying with her prey, instead. "I'm sure he won't mind if you tell me. We're old friends. Well, old enemies, really. The friend thing was more recent. And is *so* over. So where is he?"
The minion just gurgled, and Buffy figured there was a lot of blood flowing down its throat from that very broken nose. And all those teeth she'd knocked out. Sighing impatiently, she staked the vampire and sauntered off, back toward home.
After five days of looking for Spike, five days of hearing a whole lot of nothing about his whereabouts and not running into many of his minions, either, Buffy was getting very tired of playing his game. And she was getting tired of wishing she knew what the game was in the first place. So she was more than a little surprised to find him leaning casually against the tree in her front yard, smoking a cigarette. He didn't move as she approached, but she could see the faint stiffening of his body as he prepared to defend himself.
"Little Bit was out here a moment ago, menacing me with a crossbow," Spike commented, once she'd reached the edge of her own yard and started across it toward him. "You really ought to get a child safety lock or something for those things. She could hurt somebody." He flicked the cigarette away, and moved as if to put his hands in his pockets, then thought better of it and let them hang at his sides, instead.
"If she's hurting you with it, I'll throw her a party," Buffy answered. She came to a stop a safe distance from her adversary and crossed her arms over her chest. "Complete with streamers, cakes and balloons."
A ghost of a smile flickered across his lips like a tumbling autumn leaf, then was gone. "I came here to talk," he said. "So no fighting, right? Let's be civil about this."
"Sure," she said, shrugging. "We'll talk calmly about you hunting in my town and raising armies of the undead and having the lamest hairdo ever."
Spike quirked an eyebrow, then gave up self-control and started casting about in his pockets for his cigarettes. "I don't know what you're on about, Slayer, but I figured a week would do for you to calm down and talk rationally. I know you're upset about this chip thing. I can understand that -- why do you think I never told you? Christ." He cursed and almost fumbled the lighter in his haste to light his cigarette. "But I'm on your side," he finally continued. The words were accompanied by a puff of smoke that rose up around his face. "And I'm not hunting, and I'm not raising any armies of any kind, and my hair is *not* lame."
Buffy shook her head; suddenly there was a stake in her hand and she was advancing on him. "As much as I wish I knew exactly what you were up to, Spike, I'm going to just settle for killing you. I should've done it a long time ago, but I get the feeling that like many forms of alcohol, killing you just gets better with age."
The attack didn't go as well as she'd hoped it might, and she found herself slammed up against that same tree Spike had been leaning on, with the bark digging into her back and his hard, cold body pressing into her front. His grip on her wrists was crushing, and he twisted them behind her back, forcing the stake to drop from her numbing fingers.
He clucked his tongue and chided, "That was clumsy, Slayer." His voice was low and intimate, and she could feel his lips brushing against her ear. "And I know why. You don't want to kill me." His lips pressed against her throat, cool and dangerous and thrilling, and fangs brushed against the vulnerable skin. "Don't worry, baby, I'll never tell," he murmured. "Thing is, I don't want to kill you either."
He drew back to regard her intently, nose to nose, and it wasn't the vampire's visage that met her eyes, but the man's. In his arsenal of personal weapons, he had a particularly effective kicked-puppy expression that she'd seen several times before, and he wore it again now, but she'd never admit that seeing that look on his face made her stomach flip unpleasantly. He hesitated for a moment, as if he were going to lean in and kiss her, but he resisted the impulse and spoke again, instead.
"I don't want to kill anybody," he whispered. "You did that to me. Used to drive me crazy, but I don't mind so much anymore. But we can talk about that later, 'cause I'm getting the sense that I can't hold you like this forever." He smiled, and she tried to knee him in the crotch, just to prove the point. "Now, listen here, because I did come here for a reason. The chip doesn't work anymore, that's true. I didn't have it taken out, I didn't have it tinkered with, it just... sort of fizzled. I'm not killing anybody. I'm not turning anybody. All I'm doing -- all I've done for a good long while now -- is trying to be the kind of man that you might, someday, possibly, consider worthy of a little affection. So would you stop with the 'let's all kill Spike' routine and just *talk* to me? Because I went on a vacation and when I came back, my unlife had somehow been thoroughly buggered, and I wasn't even around to do it."
"Well," Buffy began to reply, and her tone was so sweet that for a moment he believed that she was going to take him seriously. "In this age of modern technology and cutting-edge telecommunications, you don't even have to be in town to get the job done."
He released her with a frustrated snarl and spun away, pacing like a caged tiger on a caffeine high. "What does it take to get through to you?" he snarled. "What do I have to say to get you to even *consider* the possibility that something else is going on here? Why do you always assume that everything is *my fault*?"
He'd almost made that one too easy on her, but just when she'd opened her mouth for another witty reply, Spike disappeared. Or not so much disappeared, she decided, as flew; she saw a black blur pass her by as he was blasted backward, almost too fast for her eyes to track. She heard his body hit the street behind her and whirled around, prepared to fight, but he was just staggering to his feet, swaying dizzily. Trickles of blood dripped from his ears down to his jaw, and there was more of it running from his nose. He blinked for a moment as if he couldn't see, then his eyes focused on the porch behind her, and without another word, he took off down the street, his run slower than normal and weaving a bit.
With the threat gone for the moment, Buffy turned to see what Spike had seen: Dawn standing on the porch, this time with reinforcements in the form of a pajama-clad witch.
"Did I get him?" Willow murmured sleepily, rubbing her eyes.
"Yeah, Will," Dawn said, her fingers reaching out to tame the redhead's wild hair. "You got him."
They'd won the fight, but none of them were smiling.
* * * * * * * * * *
Their big break came the next morning, and they almost missed it entirely. It was buried on page twelve of the Sunnydale Press, right after the obituaries, in a very short column of corrections. Xander would never have noticed it at all, if reading the obits weren't a part of the Scooby job description.
He read the sentence three times, just to make sure he hadn't imagined it, before folding the paper up neatly -- corrections column up -- and sitting it down on the table. "Ahn?" he said, very calmly, as if he hadn't just had a major super-sleuth moment.
"Yes?" she answered, between incredibly large and dripping bites of pancakes.
"Remember a couple days ago when all those frat boys disappeared at once? Out on some initiation thing and got eaten by vampires?"
Anya nodded, reaching for the syrup and squeezing more of the maple-flavored liquid into the lake of it already on her plate. "Buffy thought that they might have stumbled onto Spike's lair and been killed by his gang," she recalled. "And we wasted a whole night wandering around checking all those warehouses around where the bodies were found. And when we got home you were cranky."
"We only checked that block," Xander said.
"Yes, and I was glad. It was very boring."
Xander smiled a very triumphant smile, tapped the paper with his finger, and said, "The newspaper misprinted the address. We should've been looking three blocks over." The smile grew bigger, and he waited to receive his praise.
Anya was watching him, and blinked a few times before she returned the smile and said, "You're very clever. Are there any more pancakes?"
* * * * * * * * * *
Finding the warehouse hadn't been too difficult; it was the only one in the area with a steady stream of foot traffic. Minions came and went through the three cargo bays in the back of the building, which appeared to be the only conventional entrances not thoroughly blocked up. But Buffy had never been much for convention.
The others waited below as she gripped a drainpipe, climbing toward the line of blacked out windows above. Once there, she clung to the pipe and peeked through the shoddy cover-up job. The windows looked in an upper level that had once been an office, but now seemed to have been turned into a bedroom. It was empty, and Buffy carefully pried at the windowpane until the window gave in and opened at the bottom, tilting upwards. She somersaulted gracefully into the room, pausing to be sure she wouldn't be attacked, before exiting through the open door to the main warehouse.
She stood on a catwalk overlooking the open main floor, and below her was obviously where all the action was. The warehouse was well lit with an eclectic combination of torches, lamps, light fixtures and candelabras, and there were at least twenty vampires milling around the room, some obviously busy at assigned tasks, others lounging on scavenged furniture. One vampire in particular caught Buffy's attention: a tall, long-haired brunette in an outdated dress swayed as she walked through the room, performing a waltz for one to a song that only she could hear; she certainly wasn't dancing to the Dave Matthews Band music pumping from the nearby boom box. Her dance was taking her toward the end of the warehouse, where Buffy had just spotted another familiar figure: a lean bleached blond man wearing a long leather duster. He stood in front of a whiteboard, of all things, and appeared to be giving some sort of lesson to a cluster of minions.
"Well, reading *is* fundamental," Buffy muttered to herself, making her way down the metal staircase toward the lower level. She nearly stumbled when Willow's voice suddenly intruded on her thoughts.
*Should we come in now?* The witch's question came from within Buffy's mind, and the slayer shuddered a little. They'd only used the magical walkie-talkies once before, and Buffy was sure that she'd *never* get used to it.
"There's at least twenty," she whispered in reply, knowing that Willow would hear. "Spike and Drusilla are here. I could definitely use the backup, and it looks like the cargo bay area's pretty clear."
*We'll be there in a minute,* Willow replied, and then Buffy felt the connection sever.
The slayer paused near the bottom of the stairs, forming a mental plan of attack. The stairs had taken her down closer to the closed end of the warehouse, opposite the cargo area where her friends would enter. But they'd brought her down near to Spike, who had his back turned to her, scrawling on the whiteboard and apparently outlining some kind of nefarious plan to his flunkies.
"Right," he was saying, "so Tommy, you'll circle around like this--" squeak of marker on whiteboard, and she could almost make out the squiggly lines and abstract shapes, wondered if he'd ever been a football coach "--and Paul and Donnie will go this way, and then we'll all come together in the center. See?"
The vampires gathered around the whiteboard made impressed noises, and none of them seemed to be watching Buffy as she vaulted over the handrail on the stairs and dropped the remaining distance to the warehouse floor.
"And then we'll kill the slayer and drink her blood and gnaw on her bones, et cetera, et cetera, and everybody's happy," Spike continued. His voice was unusually high-pitched, and she wondered if it was because of all the incense choking the air. She tensed to spring, he turned, and that was when all hell broke loose.
There was a distant scream that quickly grew nearer and louder as a vampire suddenly hurtled down into the middle of the room. The scream abruptly cut off when he hit the ground.
"Thanks, mate, but I think I can find my own way from here," a familiar voice said from far above, and then the speaker was among them, too, having bypassed the stairs altogether to leap straight down from the upper level.
Buffy had only a fraction of a second to process the thought that it was Spike who'd just appeared in their midst -- but, hadn't he just been outlining his devious and somewhat silly-looking plan on a whiteboard? -- before the Scoobies burst in through the cargo doors, the stunned vampires attacked every intruder in sight, and the place erupted into violence.
Three minions had disintegrated to dust under her hands before Buffy had a moment to take stock of the battle. Her friends were doing fine under the protection of a frighteningly powerful Willow; in fact, the whole group of them seemed to be a little bored as the witch took out the attacking minions on her own, shooting little fireballs from her fingertips.
She almost didn't recognize Spike; knowing that there were two of them running around was confusing enough, but this one -- the real one, the one who didn't make slayer-killing game plans -- had abandoned his usual black-on-black with a duster on top uniform in favor of more stealthy garb, in the form of jeans, boots, and a tight long-sleeved gray shirt. He was using the boom box to beat a minion's head in. "I know Dave Matthews Band gets a bad rep for being a college band," she could hear him say, and then there was a crash as he brought the electronics down again, "and they're pretty talented musicians, I must say," BANG, "but no self-respecting vampire should really be listening to this in the presence of other vampires," CRASH, "and I recommend you get yourselves some Nine Inch Nails," BANG, "or some Sex Pistols or something with *balls* to it."
The boom box was abandoned in favor of a stake, and Buffy turned her attention away, searching the melee for the other Spike, the one in the traditional outfit. Idly she thought that they ought to make a line of action figures, and there'd be Classic Spike and Stalking Spike and maybe even Hawaiian Shirt Spike, but she abandoned that line of thought when she caught sight of Not Quite Spike with his own personal Drusilla, trying to sneak up the stairs. They'd only ascended a few steps when Buffy leaped over the railing again and landed further up the stairway, blocking their path.
Up close, she could see that the resemblance was superficial; the girl looked not at all like Drusilla, beyond basic build and the get-up, and her hair looked like it had been dyed several shades too dark. And Spike was lean -- or as she recalled Xander once saying, "compact but densely muscled" -- but not as skinny as the impostor was, or as tall. The boy had sharp cheekbones, but not sharp enough, and his bone structure wasn't as graceful. His face was too dour, his eyes were brown, and the coat and bleach job only worked from a distance.
Buffy scowled at the pair of them, put her hands on her hips, and said, "You are in *so* much trouble."
"I fear there shall be a duel," the girl said, swaying dreamily. "Kill her, my Spike."
"Oh, *please*," the genuine article scoffed. "Is that supposed to be Dru? The accent's terrible. Hair's all wrong. Plus the dementia's difficult to fake."
Buffy could hear the smirk in his voice, and turned her head so she could see it on its lips, as well. The warehouse was emptied of inhabitants now, their dust still settling on the floor. The mimics looked, too, and apparently hadn't actually seen Spike during the fight, because their eyes widened almost comically before they dashed back down the stairs and tried to make a break for the exit. Buffy intercepted "Drusilla" with no trouble, and Spike grabbed his own double before the boy had traveled five paces.
"I'm waiting for an explanation," Spike hissed at his imitator, holding the other man by the nape. "And it had better be right entertaining, or I'm liable to get upset."
"Er," was all the other Spike said for a moment as he cast about for a story, then he said, "I'm William the Bloody, and--urk!"
Spike expressed his disappointment with the attempt by throttling the double. "That accent's far too upper-crust," he growled. "And I'm in no mood. Talk. Or I could just kill you without assuaging my curiosity; wouldn't lose any sleep over it, believe you me. You've been more than enough trouble already, buggering up my life." Spike pulled a stake from his pocket, and smiled maliciously as he prepared to plunge it home.
"We're drama students!" his captive squeaked out, in a much more high-pitched and accent-free voice.
Spike's head cocked to one side, like a curious bird, or possibly like a hungry dog. "Go on." He released the impostor's neck, but stood uncomfortably close.
"Jill and me were theater majors at USC," the double said, rubbing at his abused throat. "And one night this dude jumped out and like... bit us. And made us into vampires, right? So we're in his gang and stuff, and we're all sitting around and hanging out, and he starts telling us how he used to live in Chicago, and his sire's sire was some crazy chick named Dru, and her boyfriend was this bad-ass called Spike. So like, we figure, hey, we can do that. So I'm like, 'Hey, man, where are these dudes now?' And he's like, 'They're in Brazil or something.' So we thought we'd just like, you know... improve our standing in the community and stuff. Move up in the food chain. I mean, Jesus, man, we say, 'hey everybody, we're Bobby and Jill' and we just get beat up; but we say we're Spike and Drusilla and other vamps fall all over themselves to get in our gang. You're legends. And stuff."
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," Xander said. He tapped a stake against his palm like a drumstick, somewhat disappointed that he hadn't even gotten the chance to use it. "Why would anybody *want* to be Spike?"
"I think it's very smart," Anya disagreed. "To use someone else's reputation. That way you don't have to bother with making your own."
Buffy tried really hard not to laugh, but a little chuckle escaped anyway. Spike was just staring at his prisoner.
"Don't laugh, Slayer," he said, his voice deadly calm. "You would've killed me because of these little idiots. I've been living on the run in various ratholes for the last week instead of my nice, well-furnished crypt." The calm abruptly vanished when he leaned forward, nose to nose with Bobby, like a snake striking. "Dawn *hates me* because of you," he snarled, and he struck the boy with a sudden, ferocious uppercut. His victim sailed through the air and crashed to the floor just inches to the left of a nice soft bean bag chair.
Jill never knew what hit her; one moment she was standing under Buffy's guard, and the next she'd been yanked in front of her boyfriend's counterpart, who proceeded to shove a pointy wooden stick through her heart. Bobby's death wasn't so quick, and it might've gone on for days if Buffy hadn't stepped in, placed a calming hand on Spike's shoulder, and handed him another stake. He looked at her, looked at Bobby, then shrugged and drove the weapon into the boy's chest. Then he did it again.
"You missed," Buffy pointed out, after the third staking attempt. "Why don't you step aside and let a professional do this, hmmm?"
"I am a professional," Spike grunted, finally driving the stake into the vampire's heart. "It's just that my profession's a little less about killing and a little more about pain." He blew the dust from her stake before handing it back to her, handle first, very gentleman-like.
"So," she said, tucking the weapon into her back pocket.
"So," he replied, crossing his arms over his chest. "Somebody owes me an apology."
"Oh yeah? Who?"
"Well, all of you," he said, and there was an unspoken 'duh' in his tone. "But you ought to start, I think."
"Me? Apologize? For what?"
He gaped at her in disbelief, only slightly distracted by the view of her backside as she turned and began to walk away, toward the open bay doors.
"*For what*?" he repeated, swaggering along after her. "For trying to kill me. For being a stubborn bitch. For always arguing with me. For not having the *slightest* bit of faith in me. For--"
"Okay, okay, I get it. You're wounded-ego guy." She turned, shook a stake at him, and said, "How about this instead: I agree not to kill you right now because I don't think you've earned it quite yet, but we all understand that if you're a bad boy, you're dust."
He scowled. "That didn't sound very much like 'I'm sorry' to me. I didn't hear any 'sorry' in there at all."
"That's because I'm not," she replied brightly, and then her and the whole pack of her friends disappeared through the doors and around the corner.
"She's fuckin' well *impossible*," Spike growled to no one in particular. Then he smiled, just a little, and trotted out the door after her.