The sewers were a livelier thoroughfare on the journey home - a veritable Goblin Fair of vampires and demons, shuffling, hopping and slithering along beside the gurgling runnels of human filth. William did his best not to stare like a tourist, which wasn't bloody easy considering what was on parade to stare at: vampires in full game face, creatures with scales, creatures with horns, creatures that were nothing but shambling mounds of teeth and fur. He made it a point to saunter confidently through the throng, dispensing the occasional "How d'you do" or lordly nod of acknowledgment. In return he got cheerful waves, disdainful snarls, and the occasional muttered threat - all of which seemed to translate to "Top of the evening!" in demon parlance.
Someone had replaced the manhole cover over his exit, for which he was grateful, although the sun was probably low enough by now that it wouldn't shine directly on him as he climbed up. The scorched coverlet was gone, but knowing what was in store, he thought he could make it back to the house relatively unscathed. He placed a foot on the lowest rung of the access ladder. Glanced up. Stepped back. Rummaged around for his lighter.
One cigarette smouldered into two, and his pacing bid fair to wear a trench in the cement at the bottom of the ladder. William tossed his third butt into the effluvium with a growl, consigning the reputed calming effects of nicotine to the lowest depths of whatever hell happened to have a "Vacancy" sign blinking at the moment. This was ridiculous. He'd thrown himself into a fight against three armed opponents without a second thought; why should he quail at the prospect of confronting a chit of a girl he'd apparently spent the last dozen years in wedded bliss with? Even if she was just possibly playing him for a fool in order to control the rest of the vampires in town?
He felt fangs prick his lip unbidden. Stupid berk. Of all things to take David's word for, why that? He took a deep breath, calling up the memory of the room where he'd awakened, the sights and sounds and textures, the warm homey scents. Didn't make sense - a bird who just wanted to use him might fuck him, but would she marry him? Bear his children?
Before his resolve could falter again, William lunged for the ladder, hauling himself up hand over hand as fast as he could go. He burst out of the manhole into the street, squinting into the blinding light. The front door of the house got the full brunt of the westering sun, but the spreading live oaks provided at least a modicum of shade. With a deep breath, he raced for the shelter of the biggest of the two. He vaulted the rose-hedge onto the porch, shoulder blades crawling with anticipation of the burn, and pressed his nose to the glass of the big picture window in a vain attempt to see inside.
No luck - heavy blackout curtains blocked the view. Fuck. He was starting to smoke again, little wisps of white curling up from his shoulders. With a frustrated glance at the sundrenched front door, William retreated to the bole of the oak tree and considered his options. Knock, and hope he didn't burn to a crisp while waiting for the lady of the house to answer, or...
Two minutes later he was stepping gingerly from the gnarled branches of the oak onto the leaf-covered shingles. A first-storey pair of gable windows overlooked the sloping roof, protected from the sun by the canopy of prickly leaves. In a few silent strides he was kneeling beside the nearest window.
Beyond the glass a curly-headed boy sprawled on the toy-strewn floor, poring over an old pre-WWI atlas, one grubby finger tracing the outline of nations long since dust. A smaller girl made soft "Vrrrrm vrrrrm!" noises as she skimmed a fleet of candy-coloured Hot Wheels across the floorboards.
The boy, William realized, had a heartbeat as slow as his own. He swallowed, throat choked with an unnameable yearning that dwarfed bloodlust to insignificance. His hand trembled on the windowsill. He had no idea why.
The door to the room opened, and William stopped breathing altogether.
She'd traded in the pyjamas for khaki shorts and a pink tank top. She had a crossbow slung over one shoulder and a sleepy-eyed boy of three or so balanced against the opposite hip, and she carried both with the same brisk confidence. She was a few years younger than he seemed to be - mid-thirties, he guessed, and she moved with the smooth power of an athlete, as graceful and deadly as... as he was. She could crack walnuts with those thighs, he'd wager. Might be her tits weren't quite so high, nor her belly quite so flat, as they'd been before popping out three kids, but a bit of softness to temper all that steel wasn't a bad thing, not at all.
She laid the toddler down in his crib, displaying a truly spectacular arse, and William dug his fangs into his lip. Her body spoke of experience, and his britches were getting uncomfortably tight imagining what kind. This was the Slayer. His wife. He didn't even know her name.
The boy looked up from his atlas. He had her eyes. "Mom? When's Dad coming home?"
"I don't know, honey." The Slayer sighed, a note of very unromantic irritation in her voice. David said - "
"Daddy!" the toddler caroled, bolting upright and rattling the crib slats lustily.
The Slayer stopped mid-sentence, pivoting to face the window. She couldn't possibly see him through the leaves, not at this angle. A lock of tawny-gold hair slipped free of the artfully untidy bun piled atop her head, and she shook it back, frowning. "Spike?" She took a step forwards and flung open the window, bringing the crossbow up at ready. "Spike, I know you're out there. David's being all weird and avoidy, and you're being even weirder and avoidier. What's going on?"
The bolt was pointing straight at his heart. Incipient boner to raging hard-on in zero to sixty. Apparently he had a bit of a thing for dangerous women. He wanted her. Wanted to fight her, fuck her, bury his nose in her hair, his fangs in her neck and his cock in her pussy with a lust so primal he thought his balls were going to explode.
"Slayer," he croaked.
The Slayer frowned. "Spike? What is wrong with you?"
He'd hoped for a bit more, "Oh, William, I'm so glad to see you!" from a loving spouse. Not a question he could answer in twenty-five words or less, in any case. Before he could make the attempt, a jangle of music erupted - now really, would he marry someone with a Faith Hill ringtone? Without taking her eyes off him or her finger off the crossbow's trigger, the Slayer fished her cell phone out of her shorts pocket and flipped it open one-handed. "Hello? Yeah, he's here. I don't know, David, why don't you ask him?" She thrust the phone through the window. "Your creepy and increasingly annoying minion."
William took it and tried to think chaste thoughts. Didn't work very well. "Yeh?" he growled.
David's voice sounded a hair less cool and collected than usual. "Spike, what are you doing? It's almost sundown. You should be here, preparing!"
"Had a few preparations of my own to see to. Bloke's got a right to talk to his own wife, hasn't he?"
"The Slayer won't thank you if these negotiations fall through." David was starting to sound distinctly harried. "Evie told me about your idea. It's an excellent one, but I promise you, it'll take more than two hours to convince the Slayer of its merits. This is vampire business, and we simply haven't time for you to beg her permission." David hesitated. "There's an establishment called Bite Club on Seventh and Elm. Meet me there. I don't believe it'll be difficult to find someone who's... suitable for our purposes."
Beg her permission? He didn't like the sound of that. He reminded himself that David most likely had an axe to grind. "Yeh, fine, I'll be there in a bit." He flipped the phone closed and tossed it at the Slayer, who caught it and pocketed it without missing a beat. With the challenging note that had served him well thus far, William gestured to the crossbow. "What's with the ironmongery, Slayer? Don't trust me?"
She cocked her head. "What's my middle name?"
William gaped. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. "Uh..."
The Slayer heaved a sigh. "Thought so. So, spill. Are you ensorceled, mind-controlled, an evil twin, from an alternate dimension, or just acting really freaking strange for no reason?"
The girl looked up from her Hot Wheels and asked with great seriousness, "Daddy, are you a zombie now?"
"None of the bloody above," William replied crossly. "I'm a perfectly ordinary vampire, or so I'm told. And I've lost my memory, so pardon me if I find it a bit unnerving to return to the bosom and be met with death threats - " Something in her expression made him narrow his eyes. "You really don't trust me, do you? Think I'm going to go off on a killing spree, or suchlike."
"Mom!" The older boy scrambled to his feet, his eyes reproachful. "Dad wouldn't - "
The Slayer flinched as if he'd struck her. "That's not fair, and you know it. Or - you would know it, if - " She broke off with a huff, which did lovely things to her cleavage under the pink cotton. "It's not about trust," she went on, low-voiced and earnest. "If you don't remember who Spike is..."
Disappointment and wounded pride overtook him - in her eyes, then, he wasn't the rakish anti-hero at all, only the villain duped into virtue by her charms. David had been right, after all. "Remains to be seen," William snapped. "But I've heard a thing or two about who Spike was."
He spun around, blurry-fast, and leaped for the oak. He heard her shout "Spike! Wait!" behind him, but he wasn't about to loiter about here. He needed.... he needed another fight, was what he needed. Someone's face to punch in, someone's throat to -
Bite Club. Seventh and Elm. David would be waiting.
By the time William navigated the maze of the sewers to Seventh and Elm, the sun was hiding behind the downtown skyline, and he was able to emerge onto the street and stroll the few remaining blocks to his destination. Downtown... where the hell was he, anyhow? He hadn't thought to ask. Wherever it was, the streets were as crowded as the sewers below, and his nose told him that not all of the above-ground denizens were as human as they made themselves out to be. Still, most of the jostling multitude were real boys and girls. And every single one of them smelled delicious.
It wasn't all bad, being a moderately good-looking bloke who hit the weights on a regular basis. He got looks. Admiring ones, even. Some of the women in this burg might appreciate having a demon lover who'd forsworn his evil nature. Which he obviously had. Whatever the bloody Slayer might think. William strolled down Elm in the lingering dusk, while ice cream parlors and trendy boutiques gave way to tattoo parlors and bike shops, plans wheeling through his head. He'd find a wrongdoer, preferably a nice vicious trunk murderer. Catch 'em in the act and kill 'em in a suitably dramatic fashion. Then he could present the Slayer with a fait accompli: Corvini as their ally, and the vile Duke Sebassis's plans for world domination thwarted yet again.
"Like to see the bitch call me evil then," he muttered. The thought cheered him - returning as conquering hero, rather than crawling ignominiously in at the window because he couldn't brave the bleeding front door.
Bite Club was located on the second floor of a ramshackle building dating back to the sixties. From the outside, it looked like any other seedy bar. A red-lipped mouth with giant neon fangs blinked and hummed overhead, and a hulking vamp in full game face and biker tattoos played bouncer outside the door, admitting hopeful patrons on the basis of cool, or perhaps tastiness.
David was waiting on the corner, neon reflecting off his bald spot, an unprepossessing figure amidst the spiked hair and pierced eyebrows affected by the lineup of prospective clubgoers. William jerked a thumb at the sign. "This what it looks like?"
"A place where vampires gather to feed without killing? Yes. Though there are occasionally... accidents." David pronounced the last word with quiet relish. He glanced at his watch. "If you don't mind, I've got something to pick up at Rack's before we head inside. It's just over there."
Aside from the wrought-iron staircase leading up to Bite Club's front entrance, there were no obvious doorways to be seen. "It is?"
Disappointment flashed in David's eyes, and was just as swiftly gone. "The entrance is cloaked. Only those with a certain... I thought you'd be able - never mind, it's not that important. I can take care of it later." He waved towards the staircase. "After you."
The bouncer grinned as the two of them approached. He crossed bulging arms across his massive chest, not precisely blocking their way, but making no effort to let them pass, either. "Slumming it again tonight, Spike? S'matter, Slayer cut off your drinks as well as your - "
Without much having to think about it, William's left hand shot out, stiffened fingers ramming into Biker-Vamp's larynx. Biker-Vamp's eyes bugged out and he collapsed to his knees, clutching his throat. That was more like it. "Take a note," William advised, brushing past. "I'm in a bad mood."
The club's interior was surprisingly low-key. No Transylvanian decor or Dracula posters; perhaps you didn't need them when you had the real thing. He and David pushed their way inside amidst a blare of trendy music and vampire-friendly lighting. A waitress breezed up, pulse throbbing delectably beneath a black velvet choker. Her name tag read "Violet" in blood-red rhinestones. "Hey, Spike! Long time no see! If you're here to break heads, give me a tip-off so I can sneak out the back, won't you? I got classes tomorrow. What'll you have?"
"The usual?" William hazarded, as David shepherded him towards a table in the back.
It didn't take long to suss out that most of the patrons tarted up in black leather and studs were human. They stuck to the bar for the most part, while the vampires kept to the candlelit tables and booths on the far side of the room. The two species met to gyrate on the dance floor: coming together, breaking apart, drifting away in ones or twos or occasional threes. William watched in fascination as a dubiously-legal boy with goth eyeshadow and multiple piercings shimmied up to a tall lean woman in dreads and a Bob Marley t-shirt. The pounding music made it difficult for even his ears to pick up their whispered colloquy, no doubt a major reason why it was pounding in the first place. The woman laughed, her fangs gleaming ivory against her dark skin. A wad of crumpled bills passed from hand to discreet hand, and the boy was tugging the woman towards one of the shadowy alcoves in the rear of the club.
"That's how it goes here, then?" William asked. "We pay them to let us bite 'em?"
"At first," David slipped into his chair with a disapproving glance at the dancers. "After awhile, they pay us. It wasn't always like this," he added, voice tinged with disgust. "Before the Slayer came we ruled Sunnydale, and the humans were our cattle. Now vampires are merely a... a commodity. It's an abomination. A mockery of everything we are."
Violet returned with a club soda for David and a bottle of Guinness and a wink for William. William slouched down in his chair and drummed his fingers on the table. He had to admit that the club's arrangement made sense, but something in him revolted nonetheless. The whole business seemed... cheap. Cheap and sordid. And yet Violet knew him by name and favorite beer. "Did I... come here often, before?"
"I'm not privy to the details of your private life." David toyed with the swizzle stick in his club soda, and then took... well, mercy would be the wrong word for it. "Several of your employees frequent this establishment - that was Elyse who just left. You enforced the Slayer's law here. And your own, of course."
There had been no bite scars on the Slayer's neck. The thought of putting one there simultaneously aroused and horrified him. William shifted to ease the pressure in his trousers and changed the subject. "Can't say as I'm noticing villainy thick upon the ground hereabouts."
"Prostitution is illegal in California," replied David, with an almost prissy sniff. "And these humans derive a sexual thrill from being bitten. Everyone here is breaking the law, in spirit if not in fact. That's why I suggested it. Much more efficient than trying to catch a wandering crackhead in the act of stealing Ipods."
William took a swig of his beer and frowned. "Really hoped for something more impressive than some damp little vampire fetishist who fancies an after-hours suck job."
David made an impatient tching noise. "We don't have much time, Spike. We don't need to impress Corvini, just feed her."
It wasn't Corvini he wanted to impress. William studied the patrons with what he hoped was a calculating, predatory eye. Surely in a barrel this large, there had to be one or two apples gone off. He skimmed the line-up at the bar, the huddled couples at the tables, the writhing bodies on the dance floor -
A thrill ran through him, at once familiar and new. The woman was human, young, pretty, but not dressed to show it off - big bulky sweater-dress over black tights. She bobbed her way through the other dancers, stepping on toes here, bumping hips there, slurred apologies lost in the driving beat. Two sheets and a pillowcase to the wind. But her eyes were a little too sharp, her stumbles a hair too calculated.
"That one?" David followed his gaze, shrugged. "Not my first choice, but I suppose she'll do."
"Look again," William settled back and grinned as another wallet disappeared into the voluminous folds of the sweater-dress, so neatly only vampire eyes could have caught it. "Best bloody pickpocket I've seen in..." Well, in twenty-four hours. But who picked pockets in the age of phishing scams and identity theft? No one used cash anymore... except at places like Bite Club, where the patrons might favor transactions that wouldn't show up on their next credit report. A lost art, that was, and the bint had balls of steel anyway, nicking blunt from the very vampires she'd just paid to suck her off. "Strikes me that if we just take her down here, no explanation given, we could leave the fangy set with the impression they're free to take liberties."
"Heaven forbid," said David, martini-dry. "We'll just have to convince her to leave the premises, and do this somewhere less public." He leaned forward, serpentine eyes unwavering. "Or rather, you will."
William blinked. "I?"
"It will make a statement to Corvini if you do it yourself. And besides..." David made a self-deprecating gesture. "My hunting technique is adapted to other environments. Believe me, Spike. You can do this."
Could he? William clenched his left hand into a fist, the gold band on his ring finger digging cold and uncompromising into the flesh. "Right, then," he muttered, rising to his feet. "Once more into the breach."
Let's see - didn't have his wallet on him, but the fistful of dollars he'd liberated from himself this morning was still burning a hole in his back pocket. William adjusted his jeans a little lower on his hips and made sure that Ben Franklin was peeping out of the pocket as he stepped out onto the dance floor.
He'd done this before. Maybe not of late, and maybe not in this club, but his body remembered these moves as surely as it remembered the punches and kicks of the earlier fight. It was a bit of luck, he thought, that he apparently did know how to dance. Bloody disaster if he'd turned out to have two left feet. Or two right feet, seeing as he was left-handed.
He focused on the girl, losing himself in her scent and her movements as the other dancers lost themselves in the beat. The toss of her hair, the sway of her body. He maneuvered closer, cutting her out of the herd. They were dancing together long before she realized it, and once she did, she probably thought she'd picked him out of the crowd. Might or might not have fingered him for a vamp. Might or might not have cared if she had. There were bite marks on her neck, scabbed over but not yet healed - not tidy Hollywood punctures, but a painful-looking half-moon of torn flesh. That could be the reason she needed the dosh, but there didn't have to be a reason, did there? Sometimes you did things just because you could.
William let his fangs descend, reveling in the pleasure-pain of the change. He shadowed her movements, snake-hipped and sinuous, stalking in rhythm, hunting in sound. Making sure she caught a flash of the green in his back pocket as they circled one another. The girl laughed, miming exaggerated terror as he drew closer. His hands air-traced the contours of breast and hip, fangs a hairsbreadth away from the moist heat of her skin. He could smell her arousal through the funk of sweat and adrenaline; he was half-hard himself, and he let her feel it. Her hands slid down his sides, cupped his arse -
If he hadn't been expecting it, he might not have noticed, she was that good. But he was expecting it, and reflexes which had seemed merely adequate when matched against other vampires were mind-blowingly fast next to a human's. His fingers clamped around her wrist before hers had a chance to tug the bills free of his pocket. William yanked her close to his chest, her little cry of pain sweeter music to his ears than the industrial shite thumping away on the sound system.
The girl glared up at him, jaw clenched. Sweat beaded on her brow, smelling for the first time of real fear. "I'll scream for security."
William grinned. "And I'll summon the gendarmes." He pressed closer, his free hand caressing the lumpy outline of the wallets she'd already stowed away. "Or we can take this somewhere more private and come to a civilized agreement."
She held his eyes for the longest minute of his new life, and then, with a short, choppy nod, spun around and headed for the rear entrance. William followed her, barely aware of David leaving his seat and trailing after. He felt as jittery as a boy on his first date. Out the exit, past the restrooms, down the back stairs. Distorted echoes of the music from the club vibrated the bannisters and pounded in his bones. There was the door into the alley behind the club, and what exactly was he going to do when they got out there? It seemed a bit of a waste to kill her, somehow. She really was a bloody brilliant pickpocket.
The girl seemed to have her own ideas. She broke into a sprint the moment she hit the cracked and grimy pavement, leaving a trail of stolen wallets behind her like breadcrumbs. She might as well have been standing still. William cut her off in an eyeblink. She zigged, he zagged. She doubled back, but he was already waiting for her. Cat and mouse, all up and down the alley, till he laughed out loud from the sheer joy of toying with her. At last she made a stand in front of the Dumpster. In the glare of the security lights she wasn't so pretty any longer: hair disheveled, chest heaving, pale as he was and a lot less healthy-looking.
Defeated, she stuck out one arm and rolled up her sleeve, revealing a skinny, pallid wrist tattooed in a mosaic of ragged crescent scars. "Fine. You caught me. You get a free shot. Let's get it over with," she said. The defiance in her stance almost hid the slight wobble in her voice.
Now what? William deflected a stab of panic. "It's not going to be like that."
Her fingers brushed the half-healed wound on her neck. "What, you think it's too soon? I know how much I can give before - hey. You're that Spike guy, aren't you?" Suspicion laced her voice. "You don't bite people. Everyone knows that."
William scowled. "Do they?"
Her eyes were shrewd. "If it's not my blood you want - "
"Stop that!" William snarled, slapping her hands aside before she could hike her skirt up more than an inch or two. "I'm a happily married man. I think. Paragon of virtue." He trapped her wrists in his left hand, slammed her up against the Dumpster, right hand clamped over her mouth. She squirmed and struggled against the rusting, graffiti'd metal, a bundle of twigs beneath his weight. Her terror perfumed the squalid alley. More than half-hard, now. He pressed his lips close to her ear and breathed, "You, on the other hand, you've been very naughty."
"Excellent," said David's dry, cool voice in the doorway behind him. "But a little exposed. Take her behind the Dumpster, and finish it."
Beneath the heel of his hand the girl was chanting, "No, no, no, please, no, please..." and William growled, a deep rumble of anticipation. The siren beat of her pulse combined with her muffled whimpers went straight to his crotch. All David's bitching and moaning about Bite Club being a travesty made sense now. He got it. He understood. What went on inside was a sad, pathetic game, a parody of something true and vital. This was real. His fangs were aching, his cock straining for release. And yet... there was something... something he was forgetting.
William scrunched his eyes shut, shook his head hard. Something important... oh! Of course! "This one's already down a few pints," he said, hoarse. "We hand her over to Corvini, odds are there won't be enough of her to go around. Not hardly hospitable."
David made a lemon-sucking face. "There's no time to find someone else, Spike. Just kill her and let's get home. My car's parked just down the alley."
The girl sobbed. Suddenly furious, William backhanded her, hard. Her head banged the metal side of the Dumpster. "Shut it, you cowering slag! This is what you wanted, innit? To be bitten by vampires? What the fuck have you got to complain about?" He turned on David. "Wouldn't this Corvini bird rather make the kill herself?"
David vamped out. "Spike," he hissed, "Stop making excuses."
"I'm not making - "
William heard the hiss of a crossbow bolt in flight a fraction of a second before it hit home - time enough, if he'd been on guard and knew exactly where it was coming from, to snatch the bolt in mid-air. But he wasn't and he didn't and he staggered with the impact as the agony of a broken scapula exploded through his left shoulder. His left arm fell limply to his side. He spun around with a snarl and caught a brief glimpse of dark figures on the rooftop overhead, limned in the sanguine glow of neon, and then the Slayer came down like the proverbial Assyrian on the equally proverbial fold, with Evie right behind her.
Why didn't their Artful Dodger take advantage, throw him off and run? He couldn't have stopped her; she could have gotten away clean. But no, she was too paralyzed by fear... or perhaps he'd knocked her silly against the Dumpster. Bloody buggering fuck.
The Slayer planted both fists on her hips and looked William straight in the eye. "Now," she said conversationally. "About that killing spree you weren't going on?"
Something in him curled up and died of shame right on the spot. Wasn't his hard-on, worse luck; Little William seemed inclined to regard the excitement of the last ten minutes as mere pre-show, and was now raring to get to the main act. Right. So he was the sort of bloke who was more turned on by the thought of a girl killing him than by the thought of killing a girl. Brilliant. Everything was going completely pear-shaped. He really should have held out for an axe murderer.
"Now wait just a minute," William protested. He hauled the sobbing pickpocket to her feet and made a feeble, one-handed attempt to dust her off. "You don't understand. Let me explain."
Neither the Slayer's gaze nor her crossbow wavered. "You can explain after you let her go."
"Wait." David's voice was low and intense. "Think carefully. Why should you listen to her?"
Fantastic. No better time for David to go completely barmy. "For one thing, mate, she's the one with the crossbow."
"So order us to jump her," David said with an imperturbable look at Evie, who didn't look altogether pleased at the suggestion. "She can only shoot one of us before she has to reload, and the other one gets her. Let your victim go, and you'll be making an enormous mistake."
The Slayer regarded David with a thoughtful head-tilt, as if he were a bug she wasn't quite decided upon squashing yet. "You're making a bigger one," she said. "Truce? Officially over."
David ignored her. His eyes were cobra's eyes, mesmerizing. "You know what you are now. What you were made for. You've tasted what it means to be a vampire - the blood and the power and the poetry of it. Everything she's kept you from, all these years. All you have to do is reach out and take it."
William's mouth went suddenly dry, and the girl's fevered pulse was a drumbeat pounding in his ears. "Spike, don't," the Slayer said tightly. "We can get your memory back. Evie, show him what you found."
"Evie, you're not the Slayer's minion," David snapped.
Evie looked from David to the Slayer and back to William. "Shit. I shoulda brought popcorn." She hitched one hip up on a bale of compressed cardboard and nodded at David. "OK, you know what? I'm not gonna piss off the Slayer by siding with you. And I'm not gonna piss you off by siding with the Slayer, either. There's only one guy in this alley signs my paychecks." She grinned at Spike. "How's it hanging, El Jefe?"
"Long and low," William growled. "What's the Slayer on about?"
"I did me some thinking after you left." Evie fished around in her jacket pocket. "No brujo with any brains is gonna stop you on the street and wave his arms and chant, 'cause that's just asking for a knife in the eye. So whoever put the whammy on you probably used a talisman. Which means they had to hide it someplace nearby. If it was a vamp, they wouldn't have an invite to your house. So I did some snooping around your office first." She held up a grungy little cloth doll. "Found this buried under your desk."
The doll was dressed in a crudely stitched black tunic - the fabric was stiff with dried blood, and looked very similar to the damaged t-shirt he'd left in his office. Half a dozen curly hairs were glued to the thing's head, and a dirty wad of cotton wound around its lumpy, oversized skull, affixed with an old-fashioned hatpin driven straight between the blue-worsted eyes. It stank of magic. William repressed a shudder.
"I've got a call in to Willow," said the Slayer, as if that was supposed to mean something. "As soon as she tells us how to destroy it without destroying you, you're yourself again."
"And what makes you think I'm not myself now?" William snarled. He reached over his shoulder and yanked the crossbow bolt free, and shook the bloodstained shaft at David's nose. "You must think I'm thick as two short planks, mate, if you think I don't notice when a chap's egging me on." He rounded on the Slayer. "And you - you're no better! Thinking I'm going to run off and kill the first - all right, I was going to kill her, but..."
An unaccountable sadness welled up within him. They'd all known him so much better than he knew himself. "I really am evil, aren't I?"
The Slayer's eyes brimmed with emotion he couldn't read. "Yes," she said.
William glanced down at the girl, still cradled one-armed to his chest, gulping, hopeless sobs wracking her thin frame. The tantalizing scent of her fear permeated the air, and his fangs ached in their sockets. "You really don't trust me."
Those remarkable eyes squeezed shut for a second, then flashed open. Wide. Vulnerable. Daring him to take her beating heart, and rip it asunder. The Slayer lowered her crossbow.
And William fell in love.
Features shifting back into human shape, he gave the pickpocket a shake. "All right, Modesty Blaise. What's your name?"
"S-su-susie," she squeaked.
"Susie. Christ." He spun her around and shoved her towards the mouth of the alley. "Off you go, Susie, and take this little interlude as a lesson. Sodding well don't get caught next time."
The girl stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. She stumbled a few steps down the alley, then wheeled and screamed at the Slayer, "Why don't you kill him?"
The Slayer gave an irritated sigh. "Because he didn't kill you. This is the part where I'm supposed to give you an inspirational speech and turn your life around, but I'm paying the babysitter time and a half, so here's the Reader's Digest version: you're being incredibly stupid. Stop it."
Susie's mouth worked. Then she whirled and was gone, the rapid-fire tattoo of her footsteps fading in the distance.
David made an inarticulate noise. "You can't - "
"Just did." William rubbed his jaw. "Suppose we'll have to stop for appetizers on the way back to the crypt. They have a Fortnum & Mason's around here?"
"Look me in the eye and tell me," said David with clipped fury, "That you've ever felt more alive than you did when that girl's neck was beneath your fangs."
William pursed his lips, recalling his first scent of Slayer. "Matter of fact, yes, I have." Another recent memory returned to him: David, carefully removing the stray hair from his shoulder, and just as carefully tucking it away. For use in making more repulsive little poppets, no doubt. Talk about the power behind the throne. He supposed he ought to feel betrayed, but he just didn't know any of them that well. "Here's what I don't get, mate. Stands to reason that whoever did this to me wants to bugger up the deal with Corvini, and give this Sebassis wanker his in. But I'd lay any odds you're keen for the deal to go through." He vamped out, baring his fangs. "So tell me: what was the sodding point of all this?"
David raised his chin. "Weren't you listening? I am loyal to Aurelius. And you were the last of the great Aurelians. For fifteen years I've been waiting for you to see reason, to lift our line from the ashes and set the world afire once more. I'd have waited fifteen, fifty, a hundred years more, until she died and you came to your senses, but no - you had to make a grand, romantic, stupid gesture with that Mohra blood, and make yourself mortal." He took a deep, pained breath. "I had to show you, don't you see? Before it was too late. Before you got old. I took your memory away so you'd remember who you really are." His voice was icy with a conviction no less passionate for its chill. "And you did. You would have killed her if the Slayer hadn't stopped you. And enjoyed it."
William rocked back and forth on his heels, contemplating the other vampire. "You're right," he said at last. "That's what I am." With one swift motion, plunged the crossbow bolt, still glistening with his own dark blood, straight into David's heart. The betrayal in David's eyes, he guessed, was enough for both of them. "But it's not what I want to be." As the ashes drifted down to the dirty pavement, he whispered, "I want to be the hero."
Evie eyed the pile of dust. "Well, fuck. Now we need another accountant. He was the only one who knew the code to the safe. Can I have his office?"
The Slayer slumped against the stair rails to Bite Club's back entrance and adjusted the earpiece of her cell. "Xander? It's OK. You can stand down."
William looked up, startled, just in time to see a third, bulkier figure slip down below the roofline, carrying something suspiciously rifle-shaped. "You had backup?" he squeaked, half an octave higher than the hero of the piece ideally ought.
The Slayer sauntered over with a blinding smile, stood on tiptoe, and planted a kiss on the tip of his nose. "Honey? I love you. But I'm not stupid."
Late morning sunlight hammered at the bedroom window. The light couldn't penetrate the curtains, but its warmth suffused the room, easing the maddening deep-down itch of knitting bone in Spike's shoulder. Buffy rode his cock like an Amazon queen, flushed and triumphant - You're mine, buster, and don't forget it again. The bed creaked in lazy rhythm beneath them as her hips rocked against his. Words might come later. Here and now they conversed in their native tongue, the language of flesh and blood.
Buffy came with a sharp, startled cry, as if it still took her by surprise, after all these years, how good he could make her feel. She clapped a hand to her mouth, half guilty, half laughing – Bill and Connie were off to school, but Alex was napping in his bedroom. Spike followed her in short order, but that was all right; they'd both had their fair share by now, and this was just both of them being greedy. He settled back against the pillows with a contented rumble - she would call it purring, no matter how often he insisted otherwise - as his Slayer collapsed across his chest with a happy little moan.
The room was no different. Buffy was no different. Her body was the map of their lives: the fine lines at the corners of her eyes that she moisturized so religiously, the ghostly striations of stretch marks across the small soft pillow of her belly, the near-invisible fretwork of scars, legacy of twenty years of slaying. But somehow home seemed fresh and new for his having lost it, however briefly. If his penance for forgetting her was to memorize her all over again, then let the punishment fit the crime.
"You're sure Corvini won't back out of the deal?" Buffy murmured at last.
Time for the words, then. Spike gave a one-shouldered shrug. His belly was full, his balls were drained, and at the moment he didn't give a tinker's damn about vampire politics. "Who knows? Evil and all. But it's to her advantage. She'll be a bigger fish in this little pond as my second in command than as Sebassis's lackey." He chuckled, hooking his good arm behind his head. "Suppose I ought to thank David for opening up the position."
Buffy lay quiet for a moment, toying with the little whorl of hair around his navel. Her eyes were on the nightstand where the doll lay. Harmless, now, though Willow'd given him quite the lecture on practicing safe hex once she'd told them how to disarm it. "You weren't exactly what any of us expected, I guess."
"Christ, don't remind me. What a git." He reached across and picked up the doll. One strand of stolen hair glinted silver in the diffuse light. "S' just...strange. I was so sure I was a good man. A hero." Recalling that certainty was... disconcerting. "But I went off the rails anyway.""
"For a guy who can't tell where the rails are, you did okay." Buffy nuzzled his uninjured shoulder until he dropped the doll and wrapped his arm around her. "Maybe I can't trust you to be good. But I can always trust you to be you. Even when you don't remember who you is." She gave his chest a little pat. "And I need you to be you even more than I need you to be good." Her eyes narrowed. "Not that I'm letting you off the 'be good' hook any time soon. As close to good as you can get, anyway."
He could've smirked and said something like, "Lying next to you's as close to good as I'm ever likely to get, love." But he hadn't been able to find the entrance to Rack's place in fifteen years, and that took a bit of the swagger out of a bloke. Not good enough to feel a twinge for Susie's potential sad demise, nor bad enough to see through Rack's cloaking spell... he'd thought 'okay' was good enough, once upon a time. He wasn't so sure any longer. "Funny thing is, it's easier to stay on the straight and narrow when I know I'm evil."
"You really do miss it, don't you?" Buffy asked. She sounded... sad? Wistful? So hard to tell, sometimes, with the souled. "Killing people."
"Course I do. Sometimes. But..."
"Mommy? Daddy?" Alex was standing in the bedroom doorway, drowsy and obdurate. "I want juice."
"'s nap time, little man. Your Mum and I are fair knackered."
Dark brows knit and rosy little-boy lips shaped a pout. "Want juice now."
"All right, then. Give us a moment." Spike tossed the doll into the wastebasket and fumbled for his jeans.
Buffy caught his wrist as he pulled the jeans on and rolled out of bed. "I'll get it," she said. "Your arm - "
Spike slid his left arm out of the sling and flexed his fingers experimentally. Could do with a few more days of mending, but... "It'll do." A trifle sheepishly, he added, "Might need some help with the can opener." He bent and scooped Alex up. "What was it you wanted again? Greasy grimy gopher guts?"
Alex giggled, clinging to his neck. "Juice!"
"Mutilated monkey meat?"
"All-purpose porpoise pus?"
"Ah, juice. Got it." Wasn't just a matter of souls or the lack thereof. He'd crossed some kind of Rubicon when his heart began to beat again, when his investment in the future became embodied in someone other than himself, but there was no single choice that had led him to this house, to this room, to her bed. David had never understood that the man who'd made the first of those choices wasn't the same one who'd made the last.
He met Buffy's eyes over the top of their son's head. "Trust me on this one, love. Taking life's not a patch on making it."
Buffy laughed. "I'll remind you of that the next time some of the life we've made leaves an ice cream cone in the back seat of your car."
They went downstairs together, the Slayer's small hand warm on his shoulder. He might never be able to bear the full light of the sun, but Christ, it felt good to stand close.