|Spike hunched his shoulders and drew the collar of his cloth jacket up around his ears to ward of the chill of the mid October night. Having not been bothered by weather for over a century, even a California autumn seemed extreme. Really, it was nothing when compared to his memories of bone-chilling rainy English winters, where there had been no central heating and only inefficient fireplaces or wood stoves to warm the rooms. It was a time of year to envy the servants who worked in the kitchen near the radiant hobs.
Telling himself he'd felt worse didn't make him any warmer, only induced an unpleasant nostalgia. He certainly didn't miss the perpetual English damp. In the winter the pervasive moisture had often left draperies and bedclothes covered with a fine furring of mould and made warming pans filled with burning coals a necessity rather than a luxury before heading to bed. Giles was mad to go back there. I suppose this makes me officially Californian, to complain about weather as mild as this.
Walking briskly back to Buffy's house warmed him sufficiently to put an end to his complaints for a while. The porch light was on but no others burned; the main floor was dark and secured. As he watched, the light upstairs in Dawn's window was also extinguished.
He made his way onto the porch, looking for the best location to leave his gift and the accompanying note. After much internal debate, he decided to simply leave it propped against the front door. It was a trade off between the having it seen by some passing thief or having Buffy miss it, and he decided he'd rather risk the former than the latter. The note he tucked into the gap between the door and the frame so that it couldn't blow away. Stepping back off the porch, he surveyed the results with some satisfaction.
Despite his earlier complaints about the temperature, Spike wasn't in the mood to head back to the crypt immediately, knowing he'd feel smothered by Clem's concern for him. Away from worrying friends he could let his cheery demeanour slip. Solitude never meant silence any more, not with a thousand voices in his memory crying out. Every scream, every plea for mercy he had ever denied echoed endlessly in his head.
When he'd come back to himself there in the cave, the very first coherent thought in his head was Oh god, please let me die. He'd crawled back out onto the still-warm sand of the desert and lay there, waiting for sunrise to come and put an end to the agony that was so much more than one heart should hold. Words of repentance from the Book of Common Prayer that he thought forgotten along with his childhood tumbled from his lips in desperation as he awaited his judgement.
And then the sun had risen and he had not been destroyed and he knew he had experienced more than one transfiguration. For a while he had considered staying out in the desert and letting a lion devour him, but he realized that he didn't even know whether he was in a part of Africa where lions were found. William's education had been strong on British history and literature, long dead Greeks and Romans and their history and literature, and dead languages - and completely lacking in any information about a world considered inferior by most of his fellow citizens. Spike, of course, just never gave a damn. Deciding that death wasn't on the agenda for the day, a certain native stubbornness and pride had surfaced that had kept him going and had brought him home again. Home to Sunnydale. Dying's easy. Living is hard. I guess I'm supposed to live.
Half an hour of walking in this frame of mind had led him to decidedly the wrong side of Sunnydale's tracks and well out of his usual territory. He hoped to keep out of the way of anyone or anything that had known him before. It's not hiding, it's strategic planning. I need to get in some thinking time before I head back, and it's hard to do that whilst fending off attackers. Bit of a good brood, really, though I'll never match Angel for style. Thank god. If he didn't mock, he'd surely go mad. So he submitted with nettled grace to Clem's presence in his life as a shield against despair. He allowed Dawn's adolescent exuberance for living wash over him in the hope that some of it would remain with him. And he tried - without much success as yet - to discover what the purpose of his new existence was supposed to be.
Shadowed streets inefficiently lit by streetlights led him at last to a strip of sex shops, peep shows and clubs that represented Sunnydale's more squalid underbelly. Drawn unwillingly by the light and noise of the district, he turned down a narrow street lit mainly with the buzzing, flickering neon of shop signs. The harsh light sharply shadowed his lean face and returned him to something approaching his undead pallor under the cold glow.
No high school kids or college students would ever find their way to this lurid lane. This was a refuge for grim-faced blue-collar workers and labourers; long-time Sunnydale residents who knew full well something not quite right dwelled along side them but chose to drown that knowledge in the oblivion of loud music, cheap alcohol and even cheaper lives. Regular human debauchery had been taken and twisted by the proximity of the Hellmouth into something altogether darker and nastier. The occasional shriek of a siren added to the cacophony of voices as revellers - liberally doused with alcoholic antifreeze - braved the chill night air on patios and along the street as they stumbled from one questionable establishment to another. Who needs to see hell, with pandemonium putting on a show here nightly?
Laughter only a little short of a scream echoed down the street, drowning out the voices in Spike's head for a moment. Startled from his introspection, he found his lids prickling with incipient tears, and he dashed at his eyes angrily with the heels of his hands to thwart them. An alleyway offered gloomy sanctuary and he plunged into it gratefully to escape the crowds and regain some composure. I am not going to become some damn wailing Willie.
"Hey baby," came a woman's voice from further down the alley. "You lookin' for some company? You look like you could use some cheering up." Spike strained in the dim light of the alley mouth to make out the owner of the voice. A pale rounded form glided forward out of the shadows. Vampire was his first thought, and he reached with one hand into his jacket for the stakes concealed in the inner pocket there. He extended his other arm to block her approach.
He relaxed only marginally when his extended hand met warm, bare human flesh; there were still any number of threats she could represent. Painted lips curved invitingly as she placed a hand over his own on her arm. "What do you say? You and me could have a real nice time." Her clinging red scoop-neck top, short side-slit leather skirt and spike-heeled boots testified wordlessly to the kind of fun she intended.
"Sorry, not interested," Spike replied, releasing his hold on the stake in order to gently disentangle himself from her grasp.
"What's the matter, hon? You don't like girls?"
Sure I do. One in particular. Can't have her, though, he thought, even as his body protested that it had indeed been much too long. A long time ago in his old life, before Sunnydale - 'B.S.' There's a telling truth - he would have taken her up on her implied offer, then drained her and used the resulting vitality to make love to Dru - probably while standing over the empty corpse. Self-loathing overrode the dregs of lust and he shuddered.
It had been a bad mistake to let his wandering mind and feet lead him here, as though his conscience had judged it a fit place to match his thoughts. It was a dangerous place, where hearts, minds and lives were regularly lost and no one much gave a damn either way. A perfect hunting ground, in other words. And he had marched right into the thick of it. Spike forced himself to gather up his scattered wits and applied a harsh mental slap to his whiny conscience. Now the plan had to be how to get out of this neighbourhood unseen. There were too many creatures holding too many grudges against him to allow himself to remain exposed here. Having decided to live, he was damned if he'd let anyone else end his life before he was ready.
Still intent on plying her tired trade, the hooker worked her way up against him, reaching one hand to his crotch. "How about just a quick hand job, sweet? Only ten bucks," she wheedled, almost disinterestedly.
"I said leave off!" Spike replied roughly, twisting to shove her back against the alley wall. Before she could recover her footing he was away, out of the alley mouth and plunging back into the maelstrom of humanity streaming by.
"You cheap prick!" she yelled in outrage at his retreating back. "You probably can't even get it up!"
Don't have even ten dollars, he retorted silently as he moved off down the street.
A chill paranoia began to come over him; every doorway now held predatory eyes; every window concealed the enemies of a man who had made himself unpopular with humans and demons alike, and who was now uncertain of his ability to even defend himself. I have to get out of here, fear whispered at the back of his brain. I may already have been spotted. His traitorous human heart thundered in his chest and his breath came hissing between tightly clenched teeth. Somewhere deep in his mind, Spike hammered at a locked door, screaming. What the hell is happening to me?
Five minutes later his breathing and heart rate had slowed somewhat, but he remained plastered tightly against the wall of the nearest building. It took all of his strength of will to peel himself away and stumble back in the direction he'd come. As he lurched back past the alley where she'd accosted him, he could see that the hooker hadn't wasted any time regretting his departure. She was entwined with a bear of a man who had his beefy hands twisted in her dark hair and his face pushed closely into her throat.
Spike paused, uncertain, until a nearly subsonic growl lifted the hairs at the nape of his neck. Raw nerve endings screamed 'run', so he did - into the alley. He crashed into the vampire and ripped him away from her, forcing him back against the bricks. Spike held one arm like an iron bar across his throat and looked up - way up - to confront a pair of piss-yellow eyes and a foul-breathed, razor-toothed grin.
"Well isn't this interesting," the vampire snarled, not at all impaired by the arm at his throat. "She your girlfriend or something? I wasn't going to be very long," he leered. Behind them, she clutched at her throat to staunch the flow of blood from her wounds.
Two large hands clawed into Spike's upper arms and pushed him back - then froze. "Spike?" the vamp asked incredulously, his ugly face twisted even more in fear and confusion. "Man, I didn't mean... I didn't know she was yours..."
Spike used the momentary lapse to break free of the hold and reach for a stake, but vampire senses took in the unmistakable scent of human sweat and fear and heard the racing heart and rush of blood in the warm body of prey. "Hey, what the hell?" The grin returned, even more baleful than before. Before Spike could bring the stake to bear, the vamp was on him again, carrying him roughly down to the pavement and knocking the wind out of him. "I don't know what's going on, but this is gonna be sweet!" Fangs drew near to his throat as Spike struggled to go to the limit of his reduced strength and break away. Black spots multiplied and swarmed before his eyes. "Payback is such a bitch," the vamp hissed in his ear.
Spike brought his knee up hard into his opponent's groin. Can't win a fair fight? Don't fight fair. The strength of his blow forced a scream from the vamp's throat and loosened his hold, and Spike took advantage to throw the hefty body off of him and scramble back to his feet. The vamp had clamoured to his knees when he suddenly shrieked like a demented teakettle. The woman stood behind him, her fingers wrapped tightly around the jackknife now buried deeply in the vampire's back.
"Looks as though payback isn't the bitch you should be worried about," Spike managed between gasps for breath. Knowing the knife was only a momentary distraction at best, he reached for a stake. Sooner than he had expected, the vamp leapt back to his feet and forward in a rush, catching him in a bear hug that pinned Spike's arms to his sides. Fangs were once again scraping his skin before he finally managed to free his arm and plunge the stake home.
He choked on a breath of foul ashes and stumbled back heavily against the alley wall, trying to deal with the after-effects of his body's extreme fear reaction. I've got to establish my new limits before I get myself into a situation like this again.
Another effect of a near-death experience on a human male's physiognomy became more readily apparent as his female cohort draped herself against him. Dru had always found the reaction quite amusing in her male victims, he recalled, sometimes prolonging their deaths to see how long it would last. Determined to give him a last chance at immortality, his erection pressed painfully at the buttons of his fly.
Looking up to gauge his response, she ran one hand down his stomach to the top button of his jeans. He bent his head to kiss her, but she drew back sharply. "Sorry sweet, no kissing. Rules of the trade. Still want this?" After a moment he nodded resignedly, and she began to slowly open his buttons. At her first touch he started, cracking the back of his head against the wall. Dazed, he couldn't tell how long it was before he spent himself helplessly at her hands, shuddering.
He came back to himself slowly, shamed at how easily his hunger for touch - any touch - had made him give in, and began to refasten his jeans. Maybe this is all I deserve. "Don't have any money," he admitted.
"That wasn't for money; that was for thanks," she replied casually, wiping both hands with a Wet Nap she had pulled from her purse. "Let's just say I'm very glad you decided to come back when you did. But don't expect a freebie next time." She gingerly swiped at the wound in her neck as well and dropped the bloodied wipe to the pavement. "Alley," she said, holding out one hand.
"Yes, it is," he answered, confused, as he automatically returned her gesture.
She laughed breathlessly. "Funny man. Allie's my name. "
"Ah." Comprehension dawned. "Spike," he said in return.
"Seems appropriate," she said, bending to retrieve her knife. She paused for a moment, then shrugged and wiped it on the inner hem of her short skirt before folding it and returning it to her bag. "What the hell was that, anyway?"
"Vampire," he answered shortly. "You're not from Sunnydale, are you?"
"Moved here from Seattle a couple of weeks ago - mostly for the better weather," she said wryly.
"This isn't a safe part of town, for obvious reasons," he said, stirring the dust and ash in the alleyway with the scuffed toe of one boot. "Not that there really are any."
"This was the only place I could find where I didn't have to work for someone else. Now I know why."
Spike picked up the stake he had dropped and reversed it in his hand to offer it to her, blunt end first. Allie hesitated, then added it to the varied stash in her purse.
"You're taking this pretty calmly," Spike observed, surprised. Most people had yammering fits when first confronted with the concept of vampires.
"What, you think I'm going to deny what I just saw?" she asked.
"A lot of people do. That's the way it tends to work in Sunnydale."
"Well just because I turn tricks for a living doesn't make me stupid." She pulled a pack of cigarettes from somewhere else deep in her voluminous bag and extracted one. For all her bravado, her hands shook as she brought it to her lips. Spike brought his Zippo up and she cupped her hands around his and drew smoke gratefully into her lungs.
He followed suit, and they stood at the edge of the pool of light cast by the streetlamps, smoking silently in tandem for several minutes.
"So Spike," she sighed on a stream of smoke. "You some kind of big-time vampire hunter? Like in the movies?"
He shook his head, but didn't speak. Used to take out wankers like that one half a dozen at a time, just for sport. Now I have trouble defending myself against one. What the hell use can I be to her now?
"So what do you do?" she persisted.
I don't know. I kill vampires and demons, but now I have the same problem the Slayer does - it doesn't keep body and soul together. "I'm... between jobs right now," he said, to put her off.
"I was just coming from an audition for a spot as a stripper, myself," she said. "You know, get to work indoors, staff to keep the worst of the riff-raff off, meet some other girls... maybe even get something for health and dental," she envisaged optimistically, unconsciously worrying one candy-pink nail between her teeth. "It's rough being self-employed."
"Don't suppose I ever thought about it." Never had to.
"Of course, you could end up working for a jerk like the manager I saw tonight. Expected regular horizontal perks just for giving me a chance. Forget that," she snorted indignantly, dropping her cigarette butt to the sidewalk and crushing it with the toe of her boot.
"Well, I think I'm going to call it a night. I've had all the excitement I can take in one day." She hitched her purse up higher on her shoulder. "Thanks again for the help. I'll know what to watch out for next time." She looked up at him, pondering her next words. "I'm sorry I called you a cheap prick. It was a shitty night even before I met you."
"Well, I am cheap," he admitted. "Not a penny to my name at the moment."
"But not a prick, after all. When you finally get yourself a job, Spike, come look me up," she offered. "If I'm not dancing yet, you'll find me out here somewhere."
"Sure," he replied noncommittally. "I'll buy you a drink some time."
"Nah, I don't hang out in bars," she said with a cheery laugh. "Do that, and the fellows think you're there to get picked up and you're actually interested in them. Then they expect it for free, or because they bought you a couple of drinks. Out here, we all know it's just a business transaction, and nobody gets confused."
He watched her as she walked away, moving with an exaggerated hip-rolling stride as if she were certain he would be looking. Pink nails flashed as she gave him a quick wave over one shoulder before disappearing into the crowds. Does everyone know what they're doing with their lives but me? he asked himself with a shake of his head. For now, though, home sounds like enough of a plan.
Two blocks later, Spike was again forcibly reminded of what it meant to be human, especially a human after a large meal, a long walk and some vigorous physical activity. His stomach cramped sharply and he stopped, looking at the businesses around him. An alley wouldn't do for this, oh no. If you made me a man again to teach me humility, he railed at the unseen powers tormenting him, consider the lesson learned. To his right, a crowded bar beckoned. Desperados read the sign in flickering neon, and desperation being his current state it seemed the logical choice. At least the large crowd in the bar would offer some anonymity.
He passed through the doorway, past the doorman's cursory inspection, and entered. It took a few minutes for his vision to adjust to the dimness inside, but when it did, it revealed a cavernous space with heavy exposed wooden beams and dark panelled walls. Almost all the available wall space was covered with photos and memorabilia related to horses and other elements of a western lifestyle: saddles, bridles, chaps, cowboy hats and much more. The floor space was even more crowded, if possible, with people: drinking, eating, dancing cheek-by-jowl on the sunken dance floor, talking - shouting, really - or just leaning at the bar waiting for another drink.
Smoke curdled in the air, which throbbed with the low beat of a song about love and loss and pain - and pickup trucks. Spike winced. He intercepted a young woman wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a drink-laden tray. "'Scuse me, love, which way to the gents?" He couldn't make out a word of her response, but following her pointing finger, he pushed through the crowd and eventually found his way.
He emerged relieved in more ways than one, and began to force his way through the throng back to the front door, though not so vigorously that he risked setting off the chip in his head. The close press of so many bodies made him edgy, his new vulnerabilities at the forefront of his awareness.
"I said, let me go!" The woman's voice was audible even above the din. Dozens of heads swivelled to take in the source of the disturbance. The young man had her wrist in what had to be a painful grip.
"C'mon Suze, you're making a scene. Let's go."
"I told you; I wanted to spend some time with my friends. You and I will go out again on Friday."
"But I want to be with you tonight. Doesn't that mean anything to you?" the man wheedled, pulling her closer. "I love you. Come home with me now."
"If you love me, then you can trust me and give me some time on my own," she protested. The other two women at the table were looking around anxiously seeking support. The faces around them turned away with studied indifference as though this were something they saw every night.
One of the woman's friends caught Spike's eyes in silent entreaty as he went past, but he shook his head. Not my problem; I don't need to get involved here.
The man had both the woman's wrists now and had backed her up against the table. "I know you feel the same way about me Susan - why won't you admit it?"
"Please, Ryan, you're hurting me!"
Conscience roared. Walk away and you might as well be doing to Buffy all over again, it insisted. Spike clenched his fists until he felt the sting of bloody crescents in his palms. He could show aggression and the chip would sear his brain, or he could let the lunk batter him senseless. Either way, it would be a chance to trade mental pain for physical to expiate his offence. Spike moved forward and laid his hand on the man's arm. "When a lady says no, mate, she means no. Sooner you learn that, the better."
Ryan looked down at him incredulously. "This is none of your business. Why don't you just get lost?"
"I'm making it my business," said Spike, in the tone he would use in explaining matters to a simpleton. "I take exception to your tone, and I don't believe I care much for your face, either." You remind me of soldierboy; even your name sounds the same. Just one punch; it'll be worth it. He slid his hand to encircle Ryan's wrist, tightening his grip just enough to warn but not enough to hurt.
Enraged, Ryan released his hold on his girlfriend and spun, swinging his free arm around in front of him with a fist aimed at Spike's face - which suddenly wasn't there. Spike caught Ryan's fist and pulled, using the momentum of his spin to turn him right around and pull his arm up sharply behind him. Only get the one chance. His other hand came down hard on the back of the man's neck and slammed him brutally into the table, scattering glassware and spilling the drinks there. Spike gritted his teeth, waiting, and felt... nothing. He almost lost his grip in surprise.
A flash of memory surfaced: Scarabs tickling their way up his body, their legs a thousand pricking pains as they clamoured over his skin and then inside him, crawling into his mouth and nose, invading his whole body, crawling even behind his eyes and into his brain... He shivered involuntarily, but the memory of revulsion soon gave way to a fierce glee. Either the chip had been destroyed in the pain of his trials, or it had never been designed to work on living human tissues. How didn't matter. He was free.
His conscience, however, applied as tight a leash as the chip might have. Starting a bar brawl, however enjoyable, would hardly be an example to Buffy of how he had changed. She'll never find out, part of him insisted. But I'd know, replied another he immediately dubbed Wanker Willie. Spike wrestled William for control and won, for the moment.
Ryan struggled as his hold loosened momentarily, and Spike tugged his arm a little more tightly up behind his back, holding him firmly to the table. "I suggest you behave, or I'll pull your arm from your socket. Got that?" Ryan whimpered assent, blood from his damaged nose already staining the table. It would take a lot more force than this, but if you think I can...
Spike took him by the collar and pulled him upright while maintaining his hold on Ryan's arm. He steered him into the arms of two bouncers who had appeared out of nowhere. Oh sure, now you show up. Where the hell were you when the fun was just starting? They escorted Ryan to the door and none too gently pushed him out into the night.
Spike fully expected to be next, but the hammering of fists against his back took him by surprise. He spun, astonished, to find Susan battering at him and crying. "You could have hurt him, you bastard!" she shouted, before pushing past him to go and comfort her would-be attacker.
I don't understand women. I will never understand women. His internal monologue was cut short by the approach of a heavyset man with all the mannerisms of officialdom. Spike braced himself for a straight-armed march to the door, resolving for the moment to not cause trouble and attract any more attention to himself. So it was yet another shock in a night filled with them when the man offered his hand instead.
"You handled that pretty neatly," he observed. "Looking for work? I can always use another fellow to take care of things. My name's Jake, and Desperados is my place."
The retort 'you couldn't possibly pay me enough' died unspoken on his lips. Fact was, almost anything would be enough, living rent-free in a crypt as he did - and he wasn't likely to get any better offers with a resume that listed 'former occupation: vampire'. I need the money. Buffy needs money. I could help. "Cash. Paid daily," Spike offered. The part of him that still longed to think of itself as big bad howled in protest at the prospect of working here; he stifled it impatiently.
The man fixed him with a knowing stare. "Green card troubles, huh?"
"You might say that," Spike replied evenly. It was true as far as it went. He certainly hadn't been concerned about the niceties of immigration when he had come to this country.
The proposal didn't seem to bother Jake. "Wednesday through Saturday, then, six 'til two. Fifty bucks a night, cash."
He knew that as an illegal employee he wouldn't have much room to push, but he wasn't about to roll over without a fight, either. "I expect Friday and Saturday are a mite rough here. One hundred each for those two nights." It would still be a bargain for the bar, not having to worry about paperwork or annoying details of social security payments and the like.
"Seventy-five," was the counter-offer.
"Throw in dinner every night and it's a deal."
As he hadn't really expected the dinner offer to fly, the limitation was hardly a hardship. "Only soda. Deal?"
"Deal, then. See me tomorrow at five and I'll get you set up." The two men shook hands, and Jake disappeared back into the crowds.
Spike was almost certain he'd been taken; that had been much too easy. He probably could have worked Jake up to nearly twice that amount without much protest. Still, he was determined not to complain. He had a position that would bring in more than enough money to cover his meagre expenses and let him give some to Buffy, the prospect of regular meals, and even the chance of a little sanctioned mayhem. As he built up his strength again, he could begin some regular patrols of the neighbourhood after work. Warmth spread through him, and for just a moment the clamour of voices in his memory seemed to grow a little less piercing.
He was brought suddenly back down to earth by the shrill whine of a steel guitar as the DJ fired up another song. Angel thinks he suffers? He's got no frigging idea. Spike laughed, and stepped out into the night.
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