The Letter

Chapter 24:
A Week in the Death
of William the Bloody

The Letter
The  Coat
The Man
The Truth
The Talk
The Visit
The Dinner
Friends Come Visiting
Epiphany
Making Contact
Back in the Saddle Again
Pennies from Heaven
The Prodigal
Revelation
Reconciliation
The Salon
A New Beginning
Tea and Sympathy
Convergence
Encounters and Interludes
Desperate Measures
Dancing in the Dark
The Vampire, the Witch and the Watcher
A Week in the Death of William the Bloody
Phoenix Rising
Picking Up the Pieces
I Love a Parade
Mr. and Mrs. Summers

"If you've got personal problems you need to take care of, come talk to me," Jake had said, when Spike had finally returned to the bar later that night. "We can work something out. But just take off like that again and you don't need to worry about coming back." Chastened, Spike had only nodded, and returned to work.

Instead of the usual rotation, he'd persuaded Corey and the other bouncers to let him finish out the shift at the front entrance. It was a position they ceded willingly, since everyone complained of the chill evening air. From this post, in quiet moments, Spike surveyed the street, looking for unfamiliar faces among the crowds. By the end of the night, he'd decided what to do, and asked Jake to give him a week. Jake had agreed, if reluctantly, and hadn't asked questions.

After work that night, and every night following, Spike spent hours walking the streets. He hardly slept, snatching a few hours at the Motel California or in the break room back at Desperados, but used his time questioning anyone who was willing to talk to him. Most were reluctant, but he marshalled the skills in persuasion he'd acquired in a century of dealing with Drusilla, and gradually gathered the information he wanted.

It didn't take him a week.

He had a name - Tonio - and the information that he could often be found at one of the strip clubs down the street from Desperados. He wasn't at all surprised when he found it was the Orange Grove.

Spike entered the Orange Grove late one afternoon. He paused for a moment inside the doorway to let his sun-dazzled eyes adjust to the dimness within. Despite the early hour, the club was about half full. The after-work crowd filled most of the tables near the stage, where a disinterested dancer was contorting her nearly nude body into improbable poses around the pole while the sound system thumped away.

He walked past the row of video lottery terminals with their attendant zombies - he took a second look, because in Sunnydale it paid to check out that sort of thing - but all the players were simply humans, mesmerized by the rapidly flickering lights. Like automatons, they deposited quarter after quarter and pressed buttons hoping for a payoff.

Beyond them the room opened out into a shallow flight of stairs. Up a few steps there was a secondary room filled with pool tables, with a number of games in progress. Spike's attention was immediately drawn to a man at one of the tables. He had the look of an athlete who'd been retired and had been living the good life a little too long. Broad shoulders and a generous belly strained the lines of his expensive suit. He was out of condition to the point that just playing pool had left his face slick and his hair in disarray. But his most outstanding feature by far was the large white plaster across his nose, in startling contrast to his oily, acne-scarred cheeks.

Usually Spike was able to distance himself from passing judgment on Allie's profession, maintaining a certain equanimity about it all. But the thought of this... gorilla... grunting and pumping away on top of her as she struggled to free herself filled him with formless rage. He swore that he could feel his features rearranging and fangs descending before he got hold of his emotions again.

Instead of lunging across the green felt and satisfying murderous urges, Spike rummaged in his pockets and turned over a fistful of limp bills to a scantily clad waitress in return for a table and a set of pool balls. He set up, took a cue from the rack on the wall behind him, and broke noisily, channelling his aggression into the balls.

He played aimlessly, setting up wild trick shots at a whim. The waitress brought him beer after beer as he played and drank long enough to hear Tonio and his companions discuss their plans for the evening, and Spike began crafting a plan of his own, a plan that seemed more and more justified in proportion to the amount of alcohol he had consumed.

He watched them as they left, noting with disdain that Tonio put the evening's expenses on account, and didn't bother to tip. As far as he was concerned, it was just another strike against him.

Spike waited a few minutes, letting Tonio get a head start, then waved the waitress over. "Thanks, pet." Taking the startled woman by the back of the neck, he pulled her close and planted a beery kiss on her lips. He then tucked a twenty deep into her cleavage, and spun to follow his quarry. "Got to see a man about a girl."

**********

"Wake up, you ape," Spike demanded, nudging the heavyset man with the steel toe of one boot where he leaned against the dumpster. His victim grunted, but opened his eyes.

A cold smile crossed Spike's lips - a smile Buffy would have recognized - that was sharp enough to flense the flesh from his bones. "So you're Tonio." He dragged the other man to his feet by the lapels of his now-ruined suit.

"Who wants to know?" Tonio wheezed, struggling to stay balanced on his feet, because Spike had lashed his hands behind him. "Whoever you're working for, I can double what they're paying you," he offered, with a show of bravado.

"Oh, me? I'm no one important." His first blow took Tonio squarely in the stomach, and doubled him over. "And I'm not working for anyone. This is entirely... personal." Slowly and methodically, with skills that could only have been gained through a century of violence, Spike began to take him apart, concentrating on duplicating Allie's injuries as much as he remembered them.

Spike made sure that he'd survive, of course. That was the whole point. He had to feel every bruise, every break and every lost tooth just as Allie had. It was with grim satisfaction that he finally left Tonio lying limp and naked in the grimy alley, and staggered away.

**********

He woke in a familiar bed with an aching head and a sour mouth. It took him a few minutes to place himself back in the room at the Motel California. Spike levered himself up from the bed and walked cautiously into the bathroom. He ran water into the cracked basin, rinsed his mouth and splashed his face before looking up at himself into the mirror.

He remembered then - with a kind of shameful joy - what he'd done to Tonio. The beating, the careful breaking of his ribs under a heavy boot, the--

Spike barely made it to the toilet before being violently ill. He collapsed to the cold tiles, shuddering and clutching at himself.

What have I done?

He'd been a man for nearly a year now - but he still thought he could feel the demon take a bleeding, ragged mouthful from his soul.

**********

Beth Patterson had been an honour student throughout high school, and valedictorian of her graduating class. She was the kind of overachiever that other students should have hated - if she just hadn't been so darn nice. While maintaining a straight-A average, she'd also been captain of the basketball team that had made it all the way to the state finals before being defeated by only a few points in the final match.

No one had been surprised, then, that she had received dozens of offers of full scholarships both academic and athletic from universities and colleges across the country. What had surprised even her closest friends was that she had turned down all the glamorous offers - in favour of a degree in sociology with a major in social work from Cal Poly.

When questioned why she hadn't considered a more prestigious school, she had just smiled and replied: "This is what I have to do." That, and play for the Mustangs, making the Big West All Rookie basketball team in her freshman year.

On receiving her degree - magna cum laude, of course - Beth had shocked everyone again by choosing the relative backwater of Sunnydale California in which to begin her career. "Have you looked at the statistics?" she'd asked. "Next to Cleveland, of all places, Sunnydale has the highest incidence of runaways and broken families in the country. What better place to start making a difference?"

The beleaguered caseworkers at the understaffed Social Services office in Sunnydale welcomed her with open arms, immediately assigning her a caseload that would have taxed the resources of an experienced employee. Beth accepted with good grace, and was on her way to becoming a most valued colleague.

None of this, of course, was obvious about the battered corpse found in an alleyway not far from the Bronze, its throat raggedly torn and its face beaten beyond recognition. Sunnydale police would barely have raised an eyebrow at another death by 'neck rupture', if not for the fact that the body had been found completely naked. In any other city, Beth's death would have made 72-point front-page headlines; in Sunnydale, it was a page four story, almost hidden by news of a tax hike being voted on by city council.

The police consulted dental records and missing persons reports nationwide in an effort to identify the body. It only took about a week - but by then, of course, it was already much too late.

**********

Spike returned to work and did his best to forget, both what he'd seen and what he'd done. The word got around the bar quickly to the rest of the staff that something had happened to Spike's girlfriend, and that they'd subsequently broken off with each other, so they all tried to cut him some slack. But everyone agreed that he wasn't quite the same, after. He was doing his job as well as before, but he talked less and kept to himself more - and Jake made no more mention of him dancing with the customers.

After several days, everyone had settled - if not comfortably, then at least professionally - back into their various working relationships with him. Tina tried the longest to get a smile out of him, but eventually even she gave up and just let Spike be as morose as he pleased.

By the end of the week it was understandable that Joey was eager to be able to give Spike some good news. He caught up to Spike as he came out of the break room. "Hey Spike, your girlfriend said to tell you she'd be right out."

It took a moment to realize that he must have meant Allie. She's back. Allie's come back. It had been more than a week since she'd left, and he'd almost given up hope of ever seeing her again. He let a small grin cross his lips, the first in some time. Maybe she's changed her mind. Maybe she'll let me help.

He spotted her as she left the washroom and waved to attract her attention. Her rounded face bore no trace of the injuries she'd received at Tonio's hands. As she crossed the floor, she reached into her purse to pull out a tube of lipstick and expertly refreshed her smile. Knowing Spike was watching, she teasingly rolled her hips with every stride, and he glanced up into the security mirror for a better view from behind her. Brutal seconds ticked by as he searched for her in the glass, until cold realization flooded him. Allie had no reflection. He closed his eyes and leaned heavily back against the bar.

"What's the matter, Spike?" she whispered darkly as she came up to him. "I thought you liked to watch."

"Please no," he sighed in futile protest, unable to do more than raise his hands weakly against her. What have I done to you? I should have stopped this... I should have known...

"You know, Spike, there was only one thing you forgot to tell me. You never told me how much fun it was." She hooked one impossibly strong hand behind his neck and forced his head down to capture his mouth with hers. Cold lips crushed against his and then her tongue pushed roughly into his mouth. She tasted as he'd often imagined she would, of smoke and stale night air, but now touched with decay. Her teeth scraped over his lower lip as she pulled back, drawing blood before she released him.

"Who did this to you?" he gasped, recovering his breath after her assault.

"Ran into some of your friends. You know, the ones you thought were at the clinic? It's a way bigger operation than your Slayer" --she pronounced the word with disdain-- "ever imagined. They've got a whole warehouse full of stuff going on."

"I should have been with you. Allie... I'm so sorry--"

"I'm not. I asked them to; I begged them. I even said we could have some fun first, before they did me." She lifted her shirt to expose smooth skin. "Look - you can't even see any of the marks anymore."

Spike wanted to vomit as Allie went on to describe what had been done to her before she'd been turned. She lingered over the descriptions in obvious delight.

"I see now why your Buffy only ever wanted to fuck vampires," she observed brightly. "The endurance is incredible. Too bad these boys didn't really have any imagination. Now you--" her smile chilled his blood, "I'll bet you would have been some fun.

"See you around, Spike," she murmured with a lewd wink and a bruising grab at his crotch. Blowing him a kiss from her now smudged lips, she was gone.

He clutched at the bar to keep his footing, the taste of his own blood metallic and sour in his mouth. When he wiped it from his lips, he saw it was the exact shade of her lipstick. When he finally came back to himself enough to realize that he had to go after her, the night was half over and Allie was long gone.

**********

"When are you going to tell him that you heard what he said to Giles?" Dawn asked her, for about the third time.

"I told you; if I could find him to tell him, I would have already," Buffy replied sharply. "But he hasn't been at work, and Clem hasn't seen him for days." She gathered her jacket and slung her backpack over her shoulder. "And I have too many other things that I have to do first - like finding someone to cover the end of my shift tonight so I can be back here to meet another damn social worker--"

Dawn drew back, stung, and Buffy relented. "Oh Dawn, I'm sorry. It's making me crazy, not being able to find him and not knowing what's happened to him, when I thought we might finally... And I can't just ditch work or miss this meeting tonight, because that risks everything else that's finally going right." She dug in her jacket pockets to confirm that she had her house keys.

"Okay. I'll be back about eight. Make sure you have something decent to eat, not just pizza - and don't leave dishes in the sink, and--"

"Buffy, I'll be fine. I was fine alone for months before Willow and Giles were here; I'll be fine alone again now that they've gone back to their own place. Really." Dawn opened the front door. "Now get going before you're late to work."

"I'll bring home some videos," Buffy promised, as Dawn ushered her out. "We'll have a chick flick night. We can make popcorn."

"Go!" Dawn laughed and rolled her eyes.

**********

Dawn responded to the doorbell to find a dark haired young woman standing on the front porch. She wore a severe grey suit and at her side she held a slim black leather briefcase.

"Um, hello?" she said, not recognizing her.

"Hi Dawn. Miss Patterson had a family emergency. I'm Miss Phillips." She flashed her ID. "I hope it's okay. I know I'm a little early," she said, checking her watch.

Dawn noted the familiar logo of the Social Services department, and relaxed. "Sure. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink?"

**********

They settled in the living room with a pot of tea and a plate of Dawn's latest homemade cookies on the table between them. Miss Phillips settled back thoughtfully with a cup, and consulted her notes.

"Is it all right if we go ahead and start? There's a lot to cover."

Dawn nodded agreement, and the social worker began with a series of questions - 'How do you feel about your performance at school?'; 'Do you feel you have friends you can confide in?'; 'What did you have for dinner tonight?'; and 'How good a job do you think your sister is doing balancing work and looking after the household?'

Dawn knew full well that answers to even the most innocent-seeming questions could carry a lot more weight than they appeared to on the surface, and so she considered her words carefully and tried to answer as thoroughly as possible. In any case, Miss Phillips - like Miss Patterson before her - was a definite improvement over bitchy Doris Kroeger who had been her social worker last year. Miss Phillips made occasional notations, but for the most part, watched Dawn's reactions.

"Buffy should really be home any time now," Dawn said, at a momentary lull in the questions. "Did you want to wait and meet her before we go on?"

Miss Phillips leaned forward and set her empty cup back on the table. "There's really only one thing I don't understand, Dawn," she said, with a small frown.

"What is it?" Dawn's gut tightened with apprehension. Did I remember to say Buffy always buys lettuce so I can have salads? Did I sound like I was complaining that she has to work nights? I like having time to myself in the evenings...

"I'm sure it's just an oversight... but it doesn't say anywhere in the files how you felt when you found out that for most of last year a vampire had been dicking your sister."

"It what? I... what?" Dawn stammered, her heart suddenly hammering. The resulting rush of blood was loud in her ears. Surely she hadn't heard what she'd just thought she heard. "I beg your pardon?"

"Because you just know Spike must have had every hole of her, in the bushes, in the alley - maybe even in your bed," Miss Phillips went on as though she hadn't heard a word of Dawn's protest. "Something like that is bound to be traumatic, don't you think? How did you deal with it?"

"Who the hell are you?" Dawn demanded, struggling up from her chair and backing away.

"I'm Allie. Spike's told me so many things about you, I thought I'd like to come meet you for myself," she said, with a disingenuous smile. "He likes it when I punish him, you know. So I thought I'd finally do it properly."

Dawn had always had a certain scorn for the victims in horror movies who simply stood and let the monsters attack them. But now she found herself frozen to the spot as Allie's features morphed and remoulded themselves to reveal icy yellow eyes and serrated fangs.

"Maybe I'll even let you tell him what a good job I did, when I'm done with you." Allie crouched over the table, ready to spring.

Dawn's mind somehow found that moment to wonder how long it had taken Spike to learn to talk around his fangs without lisping. As though that absurdity were the key that set her free, she whirled and ran.

She raced into the kitchen and almost immediately cursed herself. Buffy's weapons chest was only a few feet away from where she had been sitting, and she desperately racked her brain for an idea how to get back into the living room. But then Allie burst through the doorway and she was left with no time to think, only to react. Dawn grabbed the nearest object to hand and swung it with all her strength.

It was only when Allie shrieked and clutched at her face that Dawn realized what she was holding; she'd torn down the braided string of garlic that hung beside the doorway. Good thing I like to cook Italian, she thought - and had a sudden flash of inspiration.

She backed away around the kitchen island, her eyes never leaving Allie - who had shaken off the worst of the effects and had begun advancing on her again. Dawn felt rather than looked behind her for the spice rack mounted on the wall. Her fingers slipped over the containers as she counted along the rows. And Buffy laughed when I alphabetized the spice rack. She made her choice and pulled a jar from the rack. A quick twist and a flick of one thumb and she had removed the cap and the shaker lid, and Dawn flung the contents into Allie's face.

The results were instantaneous; Allie's face blistered and peeled everywhere the garlic powder touched her skin, and her eyes reddened and ran with viscous, cloudy tears. She screamed in agony, but didn't stop advancing. She reached for Dawn blindly, her hands scrabbling along the countertop in an effort to find her way. "Your sister won't be able to find all the pieces when I'm done with you!"

"Stay away from me you bitch!" Dawn grabbed the largest knife from the knife block and, holding it tightly in both fists, plunged it down through Allie's hand - where it stuck in the butcher-block top of their brand new built-in dishwasher. Realizing that this would probably be her only chance, Dawn dashed back into the living room and threw open the weapons chest.

Buffy's going to kill me... She wrenched open the lid and groped within, throwing out stakes and bottles of holy water in favour of the crossbow at the bottom. Cranking it back feverishly, she managed to get one of the bolts loaded into position just as Allie came through the doorway from the kitchen, her ruined hand splattering blood everywhere. Bracing her shoulders against the wall, Dawn fired.

The bolt buried itself in Allie's shoulder.

She wiped her running eyes and laughed crazily. "Is that the best you can do? It's no wonder you were so jealous of your sister all these years." Allie pulled the bolt free and cast it skittering across the floor behind her.

Dawn worked desperately at the crossbow trying to load another, but Allie leapt for her and carried them both down onto the floor. Her uninjured hand closed crushingly tight around Dawn's throat, and she ran her tongue in a grotesque caress up Dawn's cheek. "Or maybe you're just jealous because he's had both of us and never once tried for a taste of you. Is that it? He'll never know now what he missed."

Her fangs sank deeply into Dawn's flesh.

**********

Buffy heard Dawn's screams before she even felt the tingling sensation that warned of a vampire's presence nearby, and she travelled the last block to home in what even for her was record time. Throwing open the door, she met a scene out of her nightmares. Dawn sprawled limply in the grasp of a wild-eyed female vampire in the middle of the living room floor. Buffy reacted with the first thing to hand; she flung the two rented videos in their cases and struck the vampire squarely on the top of the head.

Shattered plastic scattered across the floor, but the vampire only looked up slowly, meeting Buffy's gaze with liquid gold eyes that melted back into brown. "Nice to see you again too, Slayer. Remember me?" She got to her feet, carefully keeping Dawn positioned in front of her and maintaining her death grip on her throat.

Buffy's blood ran cold. Spike's girlfriend. "Allie."

"Very good. I was just introducing myself to your sister here when you so rudely interrupted us. Don't try it--" she warned, as Buffy started towards her. "I can still finish her off before you can stop me." Without warning, Allie flung Dawn's limp form at Buffy, and used the moment to make her escape.

Buffy caught Dawn and settled her gently to the floor again, then snatched up a stake for the pursuit, but Dawn stirred and moaned on the floor, bringing her to a sudden halt. Relief washed over Buffy so strongly that she couldn't even bring herself to care when she heard the back screen door bang shut behind Allie's retreating form, and she clutched Dawn to her, rocking her as though she were still the baby that memory insisted she once had been.

"I'm okay," Dawn insisted weakly, pushing back from Buffy's overprotective embrace.

"You are not okay; you are going to the hospital."

"I don't need a hospital," Dawn insisted, drawing herself up to lean back against the wall. "I'll be okay; she didn't have any time..." Memory came back with a rush. "She said something before, about punishing Spike."

Spike. Someone has to... I have to tell him. Before she goes after him too. "I can't leave you here; it's not safe."

"Call Giles. I'll go to Willow and Giles." Dawn clutched at Buffy's jacket. "Promise me you'll find Spike."

Buffy peeled Dawn's hand away from her lapel and held it tightly. "I promise."

**********

Spike thought that if he had to listen to that fucking Shania fucking Twain sing "Forever and For Always" one more time, he would probably welcome madness, instead of just flirting with the edge of sanity as he had for the past two days. His condition was not in any way improved by the contents of the flask in his hip pocket, nor by his realization that he not only knew the title of the current song but the artist as well, and found himself occasionally following the lyrics. His thoughts circled endlessly around what had happened and what he could have, should have done, and ended up going nowhere useful at all. He was so wrapped up in the cottony numbness provided by the alcohol that he didn't even see Buffy until she was standing right in front of him.

'Cause I'm keeping you
forever and for always
We will be together all of our days
Wanna wake up every
morning to your sweet face... always

"Bitch," he muttered - meaning Shania, still. "Stop... stop trying to see me," he added to Buffy, but more to his feet than to her face.

Buffy could barely believe the change from the man that had come to see Willow not that long ago. He looked even paler than usual, and dissolute, and she decided that a gentle approach wouldn't even reach him. "Bad news, Spike. Your girlfriend's a vampire," Buffy said bluntly.

"She's not my--" It certainly didn't matter any more how the relationship was defined. He pinched the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to dislodge the stabbing pain that had taken up residence between his eyes.

"She showed up at the house posing as a social worker and got Dawn to invite her in."

"Oh god - is Dawn--" Oh my Little Bit. What have I done? His gut churned, as though he'd swallowed poison. Everything I touch turns to dross. He felt his legs give way, and he collapsed heavily against the wall to end up huddled on the floor, his arms around his knees.

Buffy knelt before him and tugged impatiently at his hair until he was forced to look up at her again. "Don't go all catatonic on me, Spike; I need you to help me find her. Dawn's going to be all right. She put up one hell of a fight - and we got lucky that I was coming home early tonight." She stood and offered him her hand. "Now get up and help me."

Disdaining her offer of assistance, Spike got slowly back to his feet. He wouldn't meet her eyes. "I knew about Allie," he admitted reluctantly.

"You knew?" she demanded, outraged. "What the hell do you mean, you knew?"

"She was in here coming on to me two days ago." He felt sick again, just at the memory. "That's when I found out."

"Two days?" Buffy's voice threatened to break several city noise ordinances. "We're talking about a vampire that probably has personal information about all of my friends and family, and you've known for two days?"

"If you're going to repeat everything I say, this conversation is going to take a very long time," he observed acerbically.

Her open palm cracked harshly against his cheek and brought flashes of light to his vision. "What the hell is wrong with you? You let her leave here, knowing that? You let her attack my sister? You must know how many people she could have killed even in only two days - or were you too busy thinking with your dick to manage even that simple math?"

His face contorting with rage, Spike slammed her back against the wall, pinning her wrists. She let him hold her there, though he knew she could break free any time she wished. "Yes, fine - I fucked her sometimes. Is that what you want to hear? She was still my friend, damn it!" He released her hands and stepped back before Corey or any of the others found it necessary to intervene. As yet, they were still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. "I can't..."

"Your friend is dead, Spike," Buffy said with surprising gentleness. "There's nothing there but the demon now."

"That's bullshit, Slayer, and you'd know it if you ever took a moment to pull your bottle-blonde head out of your ass. That's just a nice little bedtime story you tell yourself so you can sleep at night. Go ahead, tell me how much I've changed," he challenged.

When she didn't answer, he turned back to face her. "Strip away the animus - the soul - and you expose pits of jealousy, rage, fear, greed, lust... The demon... feeds. Allie's still in there - only now she just doesn't care any more. But everything she was or might have been is still there. I couldn't kill her. Do you want me to admit it? I froze. I couldn't--" His voice was hoarse with emotion.

Buffy closed her eyes, and when she spoke again her voice was suffused with pity. "William, we can't--"

"I know. Let's go find her and kill her, then. I guess that's what we're both best at, isn't it?" Spike ducked into the break room to grab his jacket. "Tell Jake thanks for everything," he called to Joey as he pulled it on. "I don't think I'll be coming back."

**********

"The first logical stop would be her place," Buffy directed as they reached the street.

"I don't know where she lives," Spike had to admit. Then, off Buffy's incredulous look: "She kept that part of our relationship strictly business - and Allie never took business home with her." He took a moment to survey the street before continuing. "You try Donnie Tranh's 'Motel California' down by the freeway off ramp. That's where we'd usually go. If she's not there, come back here and give me a hand checking the streets where she used to hang about."

"Motel California, check." Buffy's voice was all business, but when she turned to him the woman's compassionate eyes shone in the hard mask of the Slayer's face. "I'm sorry, William," she said.

"Yeah. Save it for later." He thrust his hands in his pockets. "But Buffy... thanks."

**********

The Motel California, Buffy decided, was a dump of the first order. It had been built in a neo-Spanish style, and she supposed it had been quite elegant once; its two levels of white stucco arches surrounded a large central courtyard with a reflecting pool. Of course, that had been in the days when the view had been more than merely the thick concrete supports of the freeway. Now the stucco was stained and cracking away in large patches from the underlying structure. The courtyard pool now held only an assortment of flyblown trash that she had no desire to examine any more closely than necessary.

The small Asian man in the fluorescent-lit office didn't even look up from the flickering screen of his small television when she came in. "Twenty bucks an hour, with a forty dollar deposit," he said in flawless English, to her complete surprise. When she didn't reply, he swivelled his recliner to look up at her. "What did you expect, bad dubbing? I was born here in Sunnydale."

"I'm not here for a room," she said defensively, feeling at a definite disadvantage for her automatic assumption. "I'm looking for--"

"That's too bad," he interrupted, leaning forward in his chair to better take in the sight of her where she stood at the counter. "You could make some good money."

Must... control... fist of death. "Are you Donnie Tranh?"

"No, I'm Vincent. Donnie's my old man. What do you want him for?"

"Just tell me if Allie's here," she asked, commending herself for her self-control in not laying him out flat on his own countertop. "You know Allie?"

He shrugged expressively. "The girls all look the same after a while."

"She's about this tall," Buffy said, indicating a height above her own with one hand. "Dark curly hair, and... you know..." Her hands cupped the air in front of her chest. When he still showed no sign of recognition, she tried a different tactic. "She'd maybe come in sometimes with a tall skinny blond guy. English. Looks like a refugee from a Billy Idol look-alike contest?"

"You mean Spike?" he asked, to her complete astonishment. "Why didn't you say so? Everyone around here knows Spike."

I really don't want to know why.

"I haven't seen the two of them together for at least a week - and they used to come by pretty regularly, too. If that's the girl you mean, then no, she's not here." He turned back to his television, no longer interested in her.

"You won't mind if I look around a bit then," she said. Vincent just waved one hand dismissively, already absorbed by the action on screen.

Buffy made two circuits of the motel, once on each level, straining to extend the web of her Slayer's awareness and waiting for the piercing sliver of sensation in her belly that said vampire near. Twice around, and she felt nothing. There was no one about other than humans damned in all the ordinary ways. Time was, she could have pinpointed Spike himself at several hundred yards. Of course, if Spike were still a vampire, we wouldn't have this problem. Resigned, she headed back towards Desperados.

**********

By the third block, Spike was beginning to lose hope that he'd ever find Allie in the vicinity. He'd poked his head into an uncounted number of clubs, adult video stores and assorted shops, looking for disturbances and asking after her. On any other day, he would have been gratified at the warmth of his reception, but today it only left him frustrated. If anything, there seemed to be less than the usual amount of vampire activity in the neighbourhood. He circled back to the alley where they had first met, at a loss for how to continue.

"Well I guess you'd have to call us both creatures of habit, hey Spike? Coming back to familiar ground this way." Her voice, once soothing, now poured like cold venom into his ears. She glided out of the shadows with more grace than she'd ever had in life, and he wondered how he possibly could have thought she was a vampire the first time they'd met. In his memory, her rounded form was vibrant and warm with life. Now she was cold, though still voluptuous, and deadly - a poisoned peach.

The intense red of her lips came not from her lipstick, he realized with a start, but had instead the sheen of fresh blood. Seeing his the focus of his gaze, she licked her lips with agonizing slowness. A freshet of blood spilled down her chin and she wiped it up with one finger that she slipped seductively into her mouth.

"I knew you'd come looking for me here eventually," she said. "I was just settling a little disagreement with Tonio. The bastard actually told me I'd never make it as a dancer, can you believe it? Told me I'd be a ten-dollar whore all my life."

"You know I can't let walk away from here, Allie."

"You managed it well enough the other day."

"That was a mistake."

"Story of your life, isn't it, Spike? You were failure as a man, and then you were a failure as a vampire. All of that power to do anything you wanted - so what do you do? You get stupid over something you think is love, and run off to find yourself a soul again. Make yourself weak again. She's got you running around doing her dirty work."

"This is what I have to do. If you know me at all, you should have known that, before you attacked someone I care about."

"So you immediately have to rush out and protect her? That's noble, Spike. Stupid, but noble. But that's just your speed, isn't it? Protecting little girls? Too bad it took you two days to figure it out." She snarled, her face a mask of rage and pain. "Where the fuck were you all of my life?"

"Allie..." he began. "I'm sorry. I tried to do everything I could. I almost loved you. You wouldn't let me--"

She laughed cruelly. "You are just too easy, Spike. A little sob story, and you crumble. 'Oh boo hoo, I've had a bad life,'" she said, in a singsong tone. Then she dropped her voice an octave and added, in a poor imitation of Spike's accent: "'Don't worry, pet. My love will save the day.'"

"You don't know anything about love," he protested.

Allie only laughed again. "I know she never wanted you. She didn't want you at all, Spike." Without warning, and with blinding speed she lunged at him, pinning him to the alley wall.

"She wanted something conveniently man-shaped to get her off. It didn't matter to her if you got anything out of it - who cares if their vibrator has feelings? That's all you were to her, Spike. You were the one who was stupid enough to believe it could have been love."

"No..." he objected weakly, struggling in her grip.

"You were convenient," she hissed coldly in his ear. "Why would she bother to think of you as a person? Did you really think anything would be different if you had a soul?"

She giggled with demented amusement. "Love's a game for fools, Spike. You should have learned that by now. It does nothing but blind you to what's really going on. There's pleasure--" She shifted until she held him pinned to the wall by the throat with one hand while the other leisurely explored his body - then her fingers suddenly doubled into a fist that drove hard into his stomach, leaving him bent over gasping for air. "--and there's pain." She dragged him vertical again against the wall. Tugging his shirt loose from his jeans, she raked her nails viciously over his skin, tearing at one nipple until blood welled freely. "And nothing else. And sometimes the pain is pleasure, isn't it?"

He hissed, but didn't struggle any more in her grasp. "You still want this, don't you?" she asked in a breathy whisper. "A chance to go back, to be strong again and forget how it hurts to be alive. Isn't that what you were always telling me?"

I'm not brave. I've never been brave. My whole life, alive and dead, has been about fear. Fear of being unloved, of being alone, of being with someone... And now I'm not brave enough to stick around. I thought I was afraid to die - but now I know I've always been afraid to live.

Just give in. I'm so tired of fighting. Make me what I was. I don't deserve to be a man, so let me be a monster again. Buffy knows what to do to monsters. He closed his eyes and turned his head to one side, willingly baring his throat to her fangs. Her bite was quick and clean - she'd always been a quick study was his unwilling thought - a sharp, slicing pain and then warmth and numbness radiated outward from his wounds. He would have collapsed without her hold on him.

The world had dimmed to hold only the two of them when she finally withdrew from him. She used one nail to gouge a furrow in her own arm until the dark blood pooled freely, then lifted her wrist to his lips. "You know this is the only way to make the pain go away," she purred tenderly in his ear, nuzzling him again. "I told you - I'll always know what you need."

Spike held her bloodied wrist to his mouth with one hand, and brought his other arm up to press her more tightly to him as he drank. "It'll all be over soon, sweet. Soon the two of us will be able to take whatever we want." She laughed, smoothing his hair and petting his cheek with her free hand, feeling him shiver.

"Allie, sweet... I'm so sorry," he murmured when he finally let her wrist drop. She had only enough time to look up at him, confused, before her dark curls blazed up in a glorious corona of flames. The breath she drew to shriek her outrage and pain pulled the fire into her dead lungs. For an instant she seemed to glow from the inside and her eyes became windows into the hell for which she was destined. Then in the next moment nothing remained of her but a cloud of ashes and dust, already being dispersed by the winds.

Spike's Zippo fell from his hand and clattered to the pavement. He didn't hear it fall, didn't feel the pain of the blisters forming on the skin of his face and neck, and didn't even smell his own singed hair. Now that her support was gone he fell to his knees. He wavered there for a moment; trembling like an ecstatic in the grip of some vision before collapsing in a sprawl, face down in the welcome blackness of the shadows.

**********

There was a brief moment as Buffy drew nearer to Desperados that she thought she felt the presence of a vampire, but it vanished too quickly for her to determine a direction. A nameless dread gripped her and she picked up her pace. When she heard the first siren wail in the distance, she broke into a flat-out run.

She arrived back at the bar just in time to see a sheet-covered figure on a stretcher being wheeled out of the Orange Grove strip club, surrounded by dazed patrons and bystanders. She pushed through the ring of curious onlookers, easily brushing aside hands that tried to hold her back, until she was next to the still, covered form. Before the paramedics could stop her, she had stripped the concealing sheet away. Her knees trembled, as tension she hadn't even realized she felt drained away - the victim was a heavyset man with dark, greasy hair. The only thing familiar about him was the ragged wound in his throat that testified mutely to the cause of death.

Buffy let the paramedics push her back from the stretcher as she turned to scan the crowd for some sign of Spike. She saw nothing. Maybe he's inside already. Police officers were already fastening crime scene tape over the door to the club, so she set out to find some back way in.

The alleyway was indirectly lit; the illumination from the streetlights only reached a few yards from the sidewalk. Pulsing light from the ambulance emergency lights washed intermittently over the bricks, staining them with red. If it hadn't been for his pale skin and hair, she wouldn't have seen him at all. He lay face down in the trash-strewn alley, one hand outstretched as though grasping at something just beyond his reach. Twin puncture wounds stood out angrily against the white flesh of his throat, and his lips were stained with blood.

Buffy knelt, heedless of the muck, and lifted Spike's limp body in her arms to cradle him against her chest. They always leave me. Damn you, Spike - don't you do this to me. "Don't you fucking dare leave me again, you coward!" Her tears streaked the blood and dust on his ravaged face as she held him, rocking helplessly and sobbing. You did it; you stopped her. I know you did. But it wasn't supposed to be like this.  

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