The Hero of the Piece
By Barb C
Disclaimers: The usual. All belongs to Joss and Mutant Enemy, and naught to me.
Synopsis: Where the hell was he? Come to that, who the hell was he?
Author’s notes: This story was written for the Fall 2009 round of seasonal_spuffy. The story takes place in the same universe as "Raising In the Sun," "Necessary Evils," and "A Parliament of Monsters." It's set in the year 2017 in the Barbverse timeline, and has spoilers for previous works in the series. Enormous thanks to betas rainkatt, shipperx, deborahc, brutti_ma_buoni, typographer, slaymesoftly, and kehf, without whose invaluable help this would be a far poorer story, and to jen_nsync_landl, green_maia, Gwyn, and ladyofthelog for last minute once-overs. Any remaining deficiencies are my own. As always, thanks to enigmaticblues for getting the band back together!
The wardrobe across the room was the sort you'd expect to lead to Narnia: big, dark, and elaborately carved, with fruit and flowers and fiddly bits along the top. The half-open door, however, revealed not a snowy wood, but a selection of girly fripperies on one side, obviously planning a raid into the territory of the more sober masculine attire on the other.
He blinked sleepily at it for a minute or two. He didn't recognize any of the clothes. He didn't recognize the wardrobe, either. He didn't recognize anything.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes. The sheets were redolent of delightful feminine musk, and half a dozen less assertive scents crowded companionably in his nose. He was lying in a very comfortable four-poster bed, located, unsurprisingly, in somebody's bedroom. Wardrobe, dresser, vanity, bookshelf, a couple of chairs — not new, but well-made, a homey eclecticism of pattern and style. Banks of fat pillar candles clustered on the night stand and the dresser, wax drippings bearing witness that they weren't just decor. The floor was covered in thick Turkish carpet whose lively pattern picked up the reds and golds in the heavy curtains covering the windows. The room had the slight air of dishabille of most lived-in bedrooms: articles of dropped clothing here, a half-finished paperback upside down over there.
Where the hell was he? Come to that, who the hell was he?
He swung his legs out of bed and held his hands up in front of his face, turning them back and forth. Wedding ring on the left. Battered knuckles and expressive fingers. The hands of a poet turned prize-fighter. The word conjured up visions of men in longjohns and handlebar mustaches. His nails were bitten to the quick and yellowed at the tips – nicotine stains, he realized, and was immediately overcome by a ferocious longing for a fag.
A search through the drawer of the nightstand turned up a pack of Marlboro Reds and a cheap plastic lighter. He fumbled a cigarette out of the pack and lit up - his hands and his body remembered this ritual of fire intimately, even if his brain was on the picket lines. Smoke curled into his lungs with a lover's caress, and he relaxed with a sigh of relief and the delicious sense of getting away with something forbidden.
The soothing tingle of nicotine calmed him. No memories. Right. He'd been hit on the head, or something. Post-traumatic whatsit. He rubbed his scalp, probing through thick curls for bruises. Nothing. Not so much as a headache. A spell, then? He had the vague notion that spells wouldn't have occurred to most people, but couldn't for the life of him think why that might be the case. He took a last drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out – there was an ashtray in the drawer, perfectly clean — and stood. He applied the lighter to a couple of the candles, and only when their mellow golden light filled the room did it occur to him that he'd had no trouble seeing without them.
He looked around with a frown. The toes of a pair of scuffed black Doc Martens peeked out from beneath the bedskirt, and there were black denim jeans draped over a nearby chair. Investigation of the dresser unearthed socks and half a dozen black t-shirts, and either they were his or the bloke who owned them wouldn't miss one. He picked up the jeans and measured them against his hips. Thirty-one waist, thirty-two inseam. All right, he wasn't a huge strapping bloke, but what he could see of himself was fit as a butcher's dog. No complaints about the wedding tackle, either - quite respectable. And uncut. Huh.
When he stepped into the jeans, they fit with the worn-in comfort of clothes someone had owned a good long time. There was a posh silver Zippo in the front pocket, a wallet in the back. He pulled the latter out and rifled through it – it contained a few hundred dollars in cash, along with a California driver's licence and a green card in the name of William Summers-Pratt. Poncy name. Was that him? Hopefully not. He squinted at the picture on the license (whoever he was, he needed reading glasses) but between the shittiness of the DMV photo and the farsighted blur of his own vision, it didn't ring any bells. Bloody hell. If it wasn't him, he didn't want to get caught walking around with stolen credit cards.
He bent over the vanity table to compare the driver's license to his reflection. This proved more difficult than anticipated, as he didn't seem to have one. In the mirror, there was nothing. Confused, he glanced downwards; he was still there, all right. He braced both hands against the vanity and stared into the empty mirror. Had to be a trick of some kind. He ran a hand through the hair he couldn't see, and looked down at the bottles of eye shadow, foundation, mascara, and whatnot marching in neat ranks along the tabletop, all of which were reflecting properly. He picked up a lipstick, waved it in front of the mirror. It promptly disappeared.
"Fucking hell!" he exclaimed, dropping it. The shiny gold tube popped into existence the instant it left his hand and bounced off the vanity and onto the floor. He grabbed a can of hairspray and repeated the process. He tapped a hairbrush with a fingertip. After considerable experimentation, he determined that anything he carried or wore went invisible in the mirror. Things he touched without picking up were unaffected, and larger objects, like the sheet or the chair, went into a headache-inducing shimmer if he lifted part of them while the rest was still touching something else.
Neat parlour trick, but it didn't get him any forwarder. Did rather bolster the spell theory, though. Or perhaps he was a ghost? He turned away from the mirror with a shudder. He didn't care for that idea at all.
Further exploration revealed that one of the two doors led to a bathroom (the mirror of which also declined to give him any clue as to whose face he was wearing). He flicked on the light switch, blinking in the sudden electric glare. There were patterned hose flung over the curtain rod, and more girly shite on the sink. He rubbed his jaw – he could use a shave, but aside from a flowery pink plastic contraption, the only razor he could locate was an old-fashioned straight-edged model straight off the set of Sweeney Todd. He didn't fancy trying it out with no reflection. Hopefully he was a chap on whom stubble looked rugged and manly.
At least the plumbing, when he took it out for a spin, seemed to be in perfect working order. A ghost wouldn't wake with morning wood and the urge to shake the dew from the lily, now, would he? Something was right with the world. Or... wait, since when was piss supposed to be that dark reddish colour? Was he sick? Drugged? Didn't feel drugged... aside from the complete lack of memory, of course.
"For fuck's sake, you wanker," he muttered, "you're the sodding Invisible Man. Got worse things than pissing blood to worry about." He buttoned up and strode back into the bedroom. Just to be on the safe side, he extracted the cash and tossed the wallet back on the night stand, stuffing the bills into his pocket and rolling the cigarettes up in one sleeve. He hesitated for a moment over the lighter; he ought to take the plastic one, but... he shoved the silver Zippo back into his pocket. He could return it if he had to, right?
He took a deep breath, nerving himself. Time for more information. He strode over to the curtains, and flung them wide.
"Ahhhh!" Actinic white light poured into the room, blinding him. He staggered backwards, one arm flung over his swimming eyes, and tripped over the chair, landing hard on his arse. He sprawled there on the carpet, squinting through tears and trying to blink the red and black spots from his vision. As his eyes adjusted, he caught a glimpse out the window of a painfully illuminated world, all blazing light and screaming colours. Why was it so sodding bright out there? Nuclear holocaust? Alien invasion?
In a panic, he scrambled backwards across the floor, out of the burning light. His shoulders banged painfully into the open door of the wardrobe, and he yelped. Huddled in the corner, he pushed himself upright against the wall, eyes wide and jaw clenched. The sunlight was still painfully hot on his face and arms, a stinging, itching burn that – bloody hell, it really was a burn. His skin was reddening as he watched.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and a woman's voice called, "What's going on in there?"
The bedroom door opened. The woman on the threshold was a tiny bit of a thing, perky and blonde and sweetly curved beneath thin cotton pyjamas. She smelled like heaven on earth, warm and spicy and challenging, a scent that made his mouth water and his todger sit up and take notice. Taken one at a time, her features weren't beautiful. Her chin was too small, her mouth too wide. Her nose had a funny quirk to it that he couldn't put into words at all, though he found himself desperately wanting to.
It was her eyes that pulled her whole face together, took you willing captive and dragged you down to drown in agate pools so deep you'd never see sunlight again, nor count it a loss. If this was what the ring on his left hand got him, he'd made a wise investment.
She stared in goggle-eyed shock from him to the sunlight streaming in through the window and back again. Like she'd never seen him before. "Spike!"
Sod it. If she'd called him William, he might have chanced trying to explain himself, but Spike, no doubt, would be the family Rottweiler, slavering to sink its teeth into his already bruised tailbone. Enough was enough. He had to get out of here, away from the burning light. Had to -
He leaped to his feet and snatched the coverlet off the bed, slinging it over his head and shoulders. The woman was blocking the doorway, shouting something he didn't bother listening to. Gritting his teeth, he dove for the window and wrenched the casement open, kicked out the screen and...bloody hell, he was on the first storey. With a muttered prayer, he leaped.
The world slowed around him, minutes caught in treacle, seconds stretching like taffy. A pigeon burst from the eaves overhead and flapped ponderously away, wings plowing the gelatinous air. It wasn't the universe in slow motion, he realized. It was him, moving and perceiving at impossible speed. He had the leisure to study the ground below as he fell, correct his balance, flex his spine and bend his knees. And wonder exactly what kind of brainless tosser's first impulse for escape involved leaping out of first-storey window into a radioactive hell.
He hit the scrubby summer-browned grass with barely a grunt, folding into a squat and bouncing to his feet springy as a cat, as if he'd done this a million times before. He cast wildly around the back yard for shelter, finding only the imperfect shade of trees, toolshed, and a scattering of toys. Neighbor's house, yeh, but that was asking to be set upon by someone else's Rottweiler. If he lasted that long. He could feel the killing heat of the sun even through the coverlet. A wisp of white curled up before his eyes. Sweet holy fuck, was he starting to smoke?
Blind, terrified instinct woke within him, lashing him round the corner of the house, down the driveway. There, out on the street, a manhole cover. Pulling the quilted fabric tight around his shoulders, he put his head down and ran. Past the herd of cars and motorbikes crowding the driveway, past the rose bushes lining the front porch and the spreading live oaks in the front yard he raced, feet scarcely touching ground. The street was empty, but he wouldn't have cared if the bloody Grand Prix had been roaring past; every fibre of his being screamed for cooldarkquietsafe! He skidded to a halt, bent down and wrenched the manhole cover free, flinging a hundred pounds of cast iron aside as if it were a Frisbee. Without hesitation, he leaped.
He landed harder this time, sun-blind and toppling arse-backwards in the dark. On hands and knees, he scrambled out of range of the sunbeams pouring through the open manhole and plastered himself against the cool damp brick, shivering, breath coming in great ragged gasps, heart... Oh, Christ. It felt like his heart was pounding away double-time, the way it should after a good run, but in point of fact it was molasses-slow, and slowing.
Was he having a heart attack? Had it been like this all along? Who noticed their own heartbeat, unless something was wrong with it? He pressed a hand to his chest. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, thirty beats a minute, twenty, settling at last around twelve. He listened until he was reassured that it wasn't going to stop altogether, and let out a shaky sigh, only to realize he'd been holding his breath for a good ten minutes and hadn't even noticed.
What the fuck was wrong with him? He felt fine, except for the burns, and they were already starting to heal. He shook himself and sat up. No use panicking. He had to think this out. He wasn't your average bloke with amnesia, that was certain. Stronger and faster than human, but vulnerable, too. Some kind of superhero, maybe? Mutant? Super-soldier? Strange visitor from another planet? Could be he had a secret identity. Could be his memory loss wasn't an accident. Could be he had enemies.
A thrill ran through him at the thought, half dread, half anticipation. He wasn't helpless, he reminded himself, though you wouldn't know it from the way he'd been flapping about just now. There had to be a reason he'd awakened in that room, full of clothes that fit him and smells that whispered home. But if he was this William bloke, why hadn't the woman called him by name? Unless... oh, bloody hell. If he really was some kind of secret agent or superhero, might 'Spike' be his code name?
He glanced up at the pale blue circle of sky overhead. There was a perfectly good ladder leading back up to the street. He could retrace his steps. But the thought of shuffling up to the woman's doorstep like a truant schoolboy and stammering out his feeble excuses was more than his bruised pride could take at the moment. She'd think him a fool, a coward, and she'd not be far wrong.
He clenched his jaw and got to his feet. He wouldn't go back just yet. Might as well scout around. As sewers went, he supposed this one was all right: a narrow, brick-lined tunnel just big enough for a chap of moderate height to stand up in. A trickle of filthy sludge ran beside the narrow walkway he was sitting on. Slime clotted the margin of the bricks; miracle he hadn't careened over the edge and into shite creek. Beneath the stench of sewage he could smell faint traces of rat and... other things.
Wasn't going to think about what it meant that he knew what rat smelled like.
Interesting bit about his tumble, though, was the discovery that someone obviously used this tunnel on a regular basis, and he'd wager it wasn't the local stand-in for Ed Norton. At the foot of the ladder was a bucket filled with sand and a litter of cigarette butts, as though someone customarily stubbed them out here before leaving the sewer. And someone had tacked up a string of electric lights along the lichenous wall, patched into the municipal grid with a crude but effective splice. He played with the switch for a moment, then flicked the lights off. He could see quite well in the gloom.
Standing still wasn't an option, so he lit a fag and started walking. He fell into a loose-limbed, ground-covering stride, eyes and ears straining, nostrils drinking in the damp, fetid air. He passed several side-tunnels, puzzling briefly over the signs fastened to the brickwork beside many of them: Help Wanted - No Vampires Need Apply. Trespassers Will Be Eaten. Kittens For Sale - Reasonable Rates. He could hear things down the corridors, beyond the walls - shufflings, slurpings, the beating of hearts as alien as his own. The smells wafting from the dark openings made his nose twitch.
Some ways down the tunnel, a creature in khaki shorts and an over-sized San Diego Zoo t-shirt was sweeping the front stoop of a doorway emblazoned Clement & Family: Bless This Mess. It favored the world at large with an off-key rendition of "Fernando" as it did so, wielding the broom with such vigor that the sagging folds of skin covering its body flapped. When it saw him, it waved a wrinkled paw and gave him a wide, sunny, and extremely sharp-toothed smile. "Hey there! You're out bright and early!"
This was awkward. Pleased to meet you. By the way, what's my name? "Suppose I am," he replied guardedly.
"Early to bed, early to rise, I always say," the creature burbled. It blinked its mild, piggy little eyes. "Up by noon, that's me! Well, I'll see you at the office - Tina's got a class project, and she didn't tell me till today she needed a dozen egg cartons." It shook its head, basset-hound dewlaps quivering. "Kids. Can't live with 'em, can't devour 'em all before they hatch."
"Uh... yeh. Little rascals." He edged past, and the wrinkly thing swung into the first verse of "Dancing Queen" and went back to sweeping. He was, he realized, grinning wildly. There was a whole bloody underworld down here. Could well be he'd walked this stretch every day of his life, but today he was an adventurer in a brave new world.
His stomach rumbled, and he wondered if there was a subterranean restaurant in the offing. He had the feeling he wasn't used to skipping breakfast. Occupied with visions of toast soldiers and eggs and a nice rare steak dripping warm bloody juices, he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of approaching voices. Flattening against the bricks, he held his breath and listened hard. Voices, yeh, but no heartbeats to match. The scent of something else was growing stronger, raising his hackles in a way the wrinkly thing hadn't. Could they smell him, too, or hear the way-too-slow rhythm of his heart?
Up ahead he could see a junction, where the tunnel he was following joined up with a much larger main. He couldn't quite tell which direction the voices were coming from, but unless he turned tail and ran, there was no way he could avoid them. If he got to the junction first, he'd have some choice about which way to run. On the other hand, maybe he'd done enough running.
The voices were getting louder. He broke into a jog, and sod irony.
He reached the junction at the same moment they did, bursting out of the tunnel mouth. Four smaller tunnels intersected the larger main, meeting in an intricate mandala of stone archways. Gas lines and colour-coded electrical and fibre-optic cable snaked across the algae-stained brickwork, leaping from arch to arch, and narrow, slanting pencils of sunlight pierced the gloom, lancing through the tiny holes in the manhole covers high overhead.
The interlopers stopped dead at the sight of him. There were three of them, skulking figures bundled in layers of ragged, filthy clothing. The leader was wearing a wool hat pulled down over his ears in defiance of the summer heat. He might have thought, at first glance, that they were human, if his nose hadn't been telling him otherwise for the last five minutes. They reeked of stale blood and the rank, swampy pong of unwashed... something. Their feral yellow eyes and fang-distorted grins put paid to any notion that this was a friendly encounter.
"Well, well, well, that cold-blooded bastard was right, after all. If it isn't our good pal William the Bloody," Wool Hat said, rolling the name on his tongue. "Out for a constitutional all on his lonesome."
So he was definitely William. As good a name as any, he supposed, though the possibility that he'd have to live up to 'the Bloody' as a soubriquet was a trifle worrying. And his speculation had been correct - he did have enemies. Obvious villains, this lot, so odds made him the hero of the piece. Or possibly a rakish anti-hero. In any case, stripped of his memories by some Long-Time Nemesis, the hapless victim of a Nefarious Plot. "And what's that to you?" he asked, throwing his shoulders back and trying for nonchalance.
"A golden opportunity." Wool Hat glanced at his comrades. In an instant they'd encircled him, wary and silent as wolves, and William realized with dismay that they were as fast as he was. Long knives and nail-studded boards materialized from beneath shabby coats - though with those fangs, he could scarcely see why they needed any other weapons.
"The locals may be scared to wipe their asses without your say-so, but you're nothing to me," Wool Hat sneered. "A has-been traitor, that's all."
William swallowed. His heart was racing again, for extremely slow values of 'race,' and adrenaline surged through his limbs. He felt at once elated and terrified. Hapless he might be, but not helpless. After all, he was a superhero. He hoped. He nodded at Wool Hat's lackeys. "For someone going up against nothing, you've brought a lot of backup."
Wool Hat's laugh was little better than a bestial growl - but he didn't, William noted, make a move. "I'm not stupid. Get him, boys!"
All three leaped for him with a yell, and William reacted on pure instinct, ducking a swinging board, rolling, springing up and slamming a fist into Number Three's belly. Three staggered back into a stray sunbeam, and spat out a curse as his hair burst instantly into flame. Number Two was coming straight for him, and William met the monster's charge straight-on, shattering weapon and hand both with a vicious snap-kick and jabbing his fingers into a vulnerable eye. Wool Hat was on him and William smashed his head straight into Wool Hat's nose. Wool Hat bellowed in pain and rage, and the metallic tang of alien blood filled the air.
Any one of the blows he'd dealt had enough force behind them to break bones and rupture organs (was it disturbing or reassuring that he knew that?) but the creatures only shook their heads and growled, as if pain were a minor inconvenience. Cursing, Three slapped the flames out and dove back into the fray. William twisted free and raised his fists, balancing lightly on his toes - somewhere, somewhen, he'd learned how to box, thought it seemed his first impulse was to strike below the belt. He feinted and struck again, laughing, lashing out with fists and feet, spinning to meet each new attack with deadly, inhuman strength and grace, high on a cocktail of fear and elation.
It wasn't enough. His nose was streaming blood now, and both forearms were half numb from clumsily blocked blows. His body knew what to do, but his brain hadn't a clue, and he couldn't fight on instinct alone, couldn't just keep reacting instead of acting. They were herding him towards the sunbeams. Two advanced, chuckling. William looked upwards, desperate.
Well, then. Showtime.
He gathered himself and leaped, twenty feet and more into the air. His fingers caught hold of a massive conduit running across the ceiling, adjacent to the nearest manhole cover, and he swung himself back and forth like a gymnast, once, twice, thrice, gathering momentum. Below him Two and Three gawped stupidly after him. He only had a moment; if he could make the jump, so could they. Taking a deep breath, he put all his weight into the last swing and kicked upwards, sending the manhole cover flying up and away into the street.
Pencil-thin shafts of sun expanded instantly into a blazing searchlight. Two, caught in the spotlight, burst into flame like a torch. William fell (in a fashion more reminiscent of one of the more dashingly Miltonian versions of Lucifer, he hoped, than a clumsy git who'd lost his grip on the conduit) driving into Two's face feet-first. The screaming monster hit the ground, and William rolled out of the shaft of light before he could catch fire himself. His exposed skin was crackling, and he could smell the burnt-bacon stench of charring flesh. Christ, it hurt, but he was alive - he'd gambled he could endure the light longer than these far-more-flammable creatures, and he'd won. One down.
He scrambled to his feet, wincing as his right leg buckled under him. Fuck, had he sprained an ankle with that stunt? Sensing his weakness, Wool Hat snarled, raising his knife high -
And disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Three flung his board down and took off running. William squelched the surprisingly powerful urge to chase after him and inflict more damage, spinning instead to stare at his rescuer.
The cavalry was a slender, balding man whose lashless olive-green eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses gave him a disconcertingly reptilian air. He was dressed in utterly ordinary suit and tie, and looked like an accountant transported unaccountably into Neverwhere... but he, too, smelled like Something Else.
"Who the bloody hell are you?" William demanded, aware on some level that he was being ungracious, but not really giving a fuck.
The man looked him up and down, spared a disinterested glance for Two, who was in the process of collapsing into a pile of glowing cinders, and murmured, "Very interesting." He extended a hand. "My name is David Farnham. I've worked for you for fifteen years. And you..." He gazed at William thoughtfully. "That's the sixty-four dollar question, isn't it?"
The door loomed impressively in the wall of the sewer tunnel, as though the city fathers had planned it there. Iron-bound and oaken-planked, it towered well over William's head. The gilt-lettered placard above read:
Service Entrance. Employees Only.
"You're the owner." David produced a large, ornate key from a waistcoat pocket. "We supply spell components to half the wizards and magical supply shops in southern California."
William snorted. "Bit pretentious, isn't it?"
"I wanted fiberglass, actually." David turned the key. "But you insisted on something atmospheric." The door swung open with a sonorous creak. Behind it, oil lamps lit a winding earthen corridor. "I assume you've realized that you're not human."
"The clues were accumulating, yeh." William gave the wooden trusses shoring up the tunnel's ceiling a dubious glance before following David inside. The bits of root poking out of the damp earth didn't inspire confidence. He wasn't sorry to leave the reek of the sewers behind, but despite the save, he wasn't entirely certain this chap was trustworthy. Still, he had a chance to learn something, and he'd be daft not to take it. "So what am I, then?"
David glanced back over his shoulder, face distorting around suddenly emergent fangs, ophidian eyes glinting yellow in the lamplight. "You're a vampire. As I am. The majority of your employees are also vampires - vampires who've agreed to forego killing humans in exchange for your protection from the Slayer."
"A vampire?" William scoffed. "Me? What, like those pathetic gits back in the sewer? Pull the other one, mate. I breathe, I piss, I've got a pulse." Not a very active pulse, but he'd heard somewhere that athletes had a lower heart rate than the average bloke, and judging from his performance back in the sewer, he was Paavo bloody Nurmi.
David shook his head impatiently. "We're not just animated corpses. It's more complicated than that. And you..." He pursed his lips. "Are a special case. Some years ago you contracted a... condition. But rest assured, you're a vampire."
What kind of conditions did vampires get? Had he come down with some kind of supernatural clap? William had little opportunity to ponder the question. The tunnel widened abruptly into a mid-size cavern, furnished in junkyard chic. Mountain ranges of guttering candles clustered on every flat surface, and hand-lettered signs pointed to "Front Office," "Warehouse," and "Showers." The whole place whiffed of vampire. Considerably better-washed vampire than that lot from the sewers, but William felt a territorial growl building up nonetheless.
"Hey!" A small dark girl - vampire, William reminded himself - strode in. "Just the guy I wanna see. Spike, Tanker's giving me grief about the security for tonight. How much of her lip do we take before I get to bite it off?"
William gaped at her. "Er..."
"Spike and I are busy at the moment, Evie," David cut in smoothly. "Deal with Tanker as you think best." With a glance at William, he added, "Within reasonable limits, of course. We don't want to drive them off. Oh, and bring a razor and a change of clothes to Spike's office."
The girl frowned, a hint of suspicion in her brown eyes. "Spike?"
"Uh... yeh. What he said." William made a vague, encouraging gesture. "Deal with him."
Evie's dark brows knit in a puzzled scowl, but with a few foot-dragging, backward looks she turned and went back the way she'd come.
David sighed. "Tanker is a woman," he said low-voiced. "Come on. We'll talk in my quarters. We won't be overheard there."
He waved William in the direction of an archway screened by hanging curtains, and down another short tunnel. The room at the end was small and Spartan, containing a cot, a dresser, a mini-fridge and a bookshelf crammed brimful of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and a motley collection of Romans. A small workbench in one corner was overrun with battalions of tiny pewter figures in various stages of completion. William poked at an exquisitely detailed Napoleonic soldier. "You don't strike me as the type to play at toy soldiers."
"They're military wargaming miniatures," David replied stiffly. "Please don't touch the primer."
William took possession of the single chair, rocking it back on two legs. "How many aliases have I got, anyway?"
"Only the two that I know of." David produced a briefcase from beneath the bed and flipped it open. "I received a call letting me know you'd left home this afternoon behaving erratically. I assume from the fact that you don't recognize me that something's happened to your memory."
The call must have come from the woman he'd scarpered from. Bloody embarrassing, that. "Seems like. I've sussed out a bit of it, but - oi, you wouldn't have a bit of provender stashed around here, would you? I'm famished."
A faint smile quirked David's lips. "There are some constants in the world. I might." He rose, procured a plastic bag of red fluid from the mini-fridge, snipped a corner off with the desk scissors, and poured a measure into a coffee mug. "Here you go."
William was about to protest that he was thinking more along the lines of steak and eggs when the blood-scent hit him like a velvet hammer. He was halfway across the room before he realized he was moving. The entire universe narrowed to the mouth of that coffee mug, and he ripped it from David's hands with a snarl and buried his nose in its crimson depths, gulping ravenously. This was it, the right stuff, liquid ecstasy. He swallowed the last drop with a porn-film moan and licked the inside of the mug, almost cutting his tongue on his —
"Bloody hell!" He dropped the mug in surprise. "I've got fangth!"
David plucked the mug out of mid-air and returned it to the top of the fridge. "At the risk of being tedious, I told you so. Human food will fill your stomach, but it won't nourish you... well, in your case that's not entirely true, but blood's still what your body needs above all else."
Perhaps there was something to this vampire business. William felt gingerly along the savage new lines of his brow and tested his fang-points with the pad of his thumb. Still, recollecting the filthy, yellow-eyed things in the sewer inspired nothing but disgust. That wasn't him. "All right, I'm a vampire. But I'm a good vampire, yeh? Fighting my own kind — sod that, my own nature!" He rather liked the sound of that. Had a ring to it. He sat up straighter, scarcely noticing his fangs recede as he warmed to the topic. "Battling evil to protect the innocents I once preyed on! Striving for redemption 'gainst impossible odds! Like that Nick Knight bloke, but with less whinging!"
David pinched the bridge of his nose as if his sinuses pained him, and heaved a sigh. "No, you are not a good vampire. You're a sentimental vampire, which is infinitely more annoying."
"You certain?" William shifted uneasily in the chair. "I don't feel evil." How did being evil feel, anyhow?
"That's human blood you're drinking," David said. "Do you want more?"
God, yes. William swallowed hard.
"I think you'll find that when you get hungry enough, your true nature will make itself plain, whatever it may be." David studied him from beneath half-closed lids, chin propped on contemplatively laced fingers. "Briefly, your name is William Henry Pratt, better known as William the Bloody - or more recently, Spike. You were born in 1852, turned in 1880. You're the eldest surviving scion of the Clan of Aurelius, begotten of Drusilla, begotten of Angelus, begotten of Darla, begotten of the Master himself. You're one of the greatest warriors of darkness the world has ever known, the Slayer of Slayers." David paused, unblinking. "Or you were. Once upon a time."
"Warrior of darkness, eh?" William set the mug down and cocked a skeptical eyebrow. "What happened to that?"
"You came to Sunnydale to find a cure for your ailing sire and beloved, Drusilla," David's eyes slid away, as if this part were too painful or embarrassing to relate. "You succeeded - but then you allied with the Slayer to save the world from your grandsire Angelus's plan to plunge it into Hell. Drusilla rejected you, and you were captured by a government agency which installed a behavior-modification chip in your brain that prevented you from killing and feeding on humans. You made another alliance with the Slayer in order to survive, and over the next few years you came to believe that you were in love with her. Even when the chip was eventually removed..." He trailed off with a grimace of distaste.
Rakish anti-hero for certain, then. Couldn't ask for a better origin story than that. William sucked his cheeks in. "What's a Slayer?"
"The Slayer exists to destroy our kind." David rose to his feet. "You're the most powerful vampire in Sunnydale - Master in fact if not name. And she's made you her..." He turned away, lips pressed together in disapproval. "Never mind. If you were in your right mind, you wouldn't appreciate my speaking of her like this."
He wasn't sure he appreciated it now. Epic, wasn't it, the greatest warrior of darkness in yonks falling arse over tit for a warrior of light? Almost poetic. "She's in love with me, then?" He hadn't quite intended it as a question, but it came out that way anyhow.
David gave an uncomfortable shrug. "I'm sure I couldn't say. You've certainly been useful to her in keeping the local vampire population under control."
Not exactly the answer he'd been hoping for. William twisted the wedding ring on his finger. "If we're - "
"That's not important right now," David interrupted. "Tonight, you meet with Anna-Sophia Corvini to discuss the mutual threat to your territories Duke Sebassis poses. Sebassis is the demon Lord of Los Angeles, and you've made him very unhappy. Corvini's a small-time vampire gang leader - no threat to you alone, but if she allies with Sebassis, she'll give the Duke a foothold in Sunnydale. That would be disastrous." David blinked, once, a shutter-click of eyelids down and up again, and William wondered if he ought to mark the event down on a calendar. "Corvini's so far refused your overtures because she's unwilling to abide by the restrictions you impose upon your, er, employees in order to please the Slayer. If you fail to secure her cooperation, Sebassis will crush you."
Looking less and less like an accident, then, losing his memory. Someone wanted to queer the deal. William frowned. "So if I'm under a spell... we deal in blessings and curses and ever-filled purses, yeh? Can't someone here break it?"
"We're suppliers, not practitioners. Without knowing what spell's been used, breaking it will take time. Which we have precious little of." He paused. "Out of curiosity... what precisely makes you assume that you must be a good vampire?"
"I - what?"
David nodded at the empty mug. "Did it occur to you at all that a man may have died to give you your breakfast, and does that bother you in the slightest? Why was your first instinct to get as far away from the Slayer as you could?"
William blinked, nonplused. In truth he hadn't considered the source of that liquid delight at all, nor could he raise more than a scrap of concern about it even now. If the bloke it had come from was already dead, what could he do about it? "I... well, look here! Even a chap who's no good at all can want to be."
"What is it you want, Spike?" David asked, a note of genuine curiosity in his voice. "Goodness, or glory?"
What kind of question was that? "Same thing, innit?"
"You'd best get cleaned up." David's smile was as tight and enigmatic as the rest of him. He reached over and plucked a stray hair from William's shoulder, tucking it into a waistcoat pocket. "I'll inform the Slayer that you're here and she needn't be concerned. I'd avoid saying too much to Evie, if you can. She's worked for you a long time. Longer than I have. But she's not to be trusted."
"And you are?"
"I," David replied shortly, as if William had actually insulted him, "Am loyal to Aurelius. Not to my own comfort." He rose and brushed the knees of his neatly-creased trousers. "Your office is this way."
Spike's - no, his office paired a state of the art computer with a battered walnut desk right out of a Sam Spade movie. Stifling the irrational feeling that he was snooping, William plunked himself down in the comfortable leather chair and rifled through the drawers as soon as David left. He found a collection of bitten pencils, thumb drives, pens that wouldn't write, old stamps, tangled paper clips - and a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses, which was something of a relief.
Settling the glasses on his nose, he turned to the collage of Man U posters, client testimonials, and family photographs papering the walls. From the oldest photos a stranger gazed, all black leather and attitude: insolent blue eyes, razor cheekbones and bleached-blond hair. Not a bad face, all in all. It didn't feel like his own, but the drama of it appealed to him. That was a bloke people would notice.
The most recent photo showed him and the woman from the house, surrounded by children. David hadn't seen fit to mention that bit... or perhaps he had. None of the other vampires he'd run into so far sported a pulse, however sluggish, and according to the date in the corner of the computer screen, the century had turned twice since he had. That mysterious 'condition' he suffered from appeared to be a bad case of life. Going by the photos, he'd aged well, he supposed. Filled out a fair bit since the bleach-and-leather days; he'd been a scrawny little git back then. Deeper lines on his face, a hint of grey in his sandy-brown curls. He wasn't sure if he liked the change or not. A bit... ordinary, really. He didn't look like a superhero. Just a moderately good-looking bloke who hit the weights on a regular basis.
He caught Evie's scent and heard her footsteps long before she knocked. Not that ordinary, he assured himself.
Oh, right, that was him. He tucked the glasses away. "Come in."
Evie slipped in with a bundle of clothing under one arm and a tray of toiletries balanced against her hip. She set the tray down on the desk, handed over the clothes, and sized him up, brown eyes shrewd beneath Frida Kahlo brows. "So what's up? Damn it, Spike, if you're going to change the plans on me again - "
"Lost my memory," William interrupted, suddenly tired of all the subterfuge. David didn't want him mixing with the hoi polloi; best reason, maybe, to do just that. "Are you going to help me get it back, or do I have to kill you?"
Part of him was surprised, a little, at the ease with which the threat left his lips. Evie didn't appear to take it personally. Her jaw dropped for a second and she promptly snapped it shut. "You're shitting me."
"Sadly, no." William examined the razor - an ordinary disposable, thank God - and gave the rest of the supplies a cursory once-over. Did vampires use deodorant? He didn't like the idea; muting all those natural scents would be like going about blindfolded. "So why don't you tell me about the security arrangements for this do whilst I make myself presentable?"
Scrubbing off the stink of the sewer fight over a washbowl filled with chilly water seemed oddly familiar, and shaving gave him time to think. Muscle memory kicked in as he rubbed foam briskly over his jaw, and, scraping it off in even, deliberate strokes, William wondered if he might not have been able to handle the straight-edge after all. Evie was rattling off the details of how many minions Corvini had, and how many Spike had, and how many were to be allowed into the crypt for the negotiations, and what weapons, spells, and extra minions both sides were likely to have concealed in violation of the agreement. Smart girl, but William could tell she was bursting to ask questions instead of answer them.
"That's enough," he said, toweling himself off and running his fingers along the line of his jaw to check for any spots he'd missed. "I've got the gist. Now answer me this: David says Corvini's lot won't wear the Lincoln green because they don't care to give up killing people. What made you decide to throw in?"
Evie's expression turned sullen. She wound a strand of glossy black hair around one finger. "You know I've got that fucking chip in my head," she said. "As soon as I get it out - "
David had mentioned a chip. The only thing the word brought to mind was fried potatoes, but he was afraid that if he asked, she'd be another hour explaining it. "What's keeping you?"
Her jaw jutted. "My employer's crappy insurance plan doesn't cover elective brain surgery."
"Fair enough. What about the others?"
Evie perched on the corner of the desk, one foot swinging, regarding him from beneath dark lashes. "You really don't remember, do you? Most of them? It's just...easier." She bit her lip. "Not everybody's like you, Spike. You were fucking legend. You killed two Slayers, varón, one on one! And then you fell for one, which I gotta tell you is even crazier. Most of us, we just want to get by. Take the easy kills when we can get them, maybe have a little fun breaking heads on the weekends...I mean, shit, deep down we all know we should be out there slaughtering and maiming, but sometimes you just wanna kick back and watch TV."
"So Corvini's... what?" William ran a gel-slick comb through his unruly curls. "Selling herself as the Master with traditional family values?"
"Just about. She's no Angelus, but hell, all she has to do is be eviller than you. Not hard these days."
William tried to decide if he ought to be insulted or not. "You don't think I'm evil, then?"
Evie gave a startled bark of laughter. "Mi chupacabra, I don't think anyone knows what you are any longer."
Including me. William shrugged into the fresh shirt - very posh navy silk; David wanted him dressing to impress, apparently. Where did all this leave him? He couldn't keep wandering through his own life like a baby duckling, following everyone else's lead. Memory or no memory, he had to make a plan. A good plan, well-thought out. He rubbed the back of his skull - the bumps and bruises of flight and fight were already fading, and his ankle felt sturdy enough - and licked his lips. Still a bit peckish, but... hold on. He might have something there. Something absolutely brilliant. "This Slayer's a definite white hat, right? Protect the innocent, smite the ungodly?"
"Well, then," William said with a triumphant nod, "it's bloody obvious, isn't it?" And it really was, when you thought about it. He couldn't imagine why a bloke as clever as he was reputed to be hadn't come up with it before. "We'll tell Corvini's lot they can keep killing, so long as they only kill criminals - murderers and jaywalkers and such. Slayer can't object to us doing her work for her, can she?"
"I dunno, Spike." Evie's brows scrunched. "It sounds good, but the Slayer can be pretty fucking unreasonable."
"I'll just head home and have a chat with her, then." It was past time for that anyway. William tugged his shirt straight, ran a hand through his hair, and beamed at Evie. Felt good to be doing something at last. Obviously he'd have to sweet-talk the Slayer a bit, so she wouldn't get huffy about them muscling in on her territory, and he'd have to look sharp when he was talking the plan up to this Corvini bird, but just deciding upon a course of action lifted a weight from his shoulders. "I'll pick up some suitable evildoer on the way back, offer 'em up to Corvini as earnest money, and everyone's happy. Tell David I'll be back an hour past sundown, and not to get his knickers in a bunch."
William laid the razor neatly beside the wash basin and strode for the door. "One thing, though. Strikes me that whoever cast this spell on me's someone who doesn't want this deal to close. You give some thought to whom that might be, yeh? Have a feeling I'll want to have a chat with them."
Evie grinned, teeth lengthening. "You got it. Hey... could we start killing criminals too? Only fair, right?"
"Don't see why not," he said breezily. "I'll look into it." As he strode down the corridor, William decided that he rather liked Evie. He hoped she wasn't the traitor herself. It'd be a pity to have to kill her after all.