Fic: A Parliament of Monsters, Chapter 13, Part 1

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Hi All! I had hoped to have the entire chapter to post today, but I’ve been revising this right down to the wire, and the last few scenes are not quite ready for prime time yet. And the first half is where all the Spuffy action is anyway.

My thanks to my incredible beta readers, typographer, slaymesoftly, the_moonmoth, feliciacraft, and ApprenticeBard — there will be a couple more names on this list when the final version goes up, and I could not have done it without any of them. Any remaining infelicities of prose are entirely my own. With no further ado…

Previously in A Parliament of Monsters:

It’s been a year since Buffy and Spike closed the Hellmouth, but life hasn’t gotten any less exciting for Our Heroes as they try to take down a duo of vampire gang bosses. Kennedy arrives on a secret mission from the Watcher’s Council, just as Tara and Willow, who’s now a vampire with a soul, are having relationship problems. Riley Finn is back in town, looking for formerly-chipped demons, one of whom is now one of Spike’s minions. And the news from Los Angeles just keeps getting worse: Angel’s lost his soul again. Or has he? When Robin Wood, on his way to deliver a mysterious artifact to Buffy, turns up murdered, Spike’s the logical suspect, at least to Riley. But nothing is as it seems, and the now-missing Slayer artifact is only one piece in a larger and more dangerous puzzle than Buffy knows…


Cain was no easy mark. He spat blood in her face and flung himself backwards, scrabbling in the rubble for a splinter of wood. By the time Evie scrubbed the red from her eyes, he’d found one, and was driving it towards her chest in adrenaline-fueled rage. She rolled aside and the point gouged her arm as it drove past her, heading point first for the pavement. Somewhere in the background, the screech of tires announced the arrival of another car. Doors slammed, voices clamored, and footsteps pounded past to join the brawl behind her. Spike’s voice shouted, “Slayer! Over here!” Cain was on her again, trying to use his superior weight to take her leverage away. She snapped at his arm and shoved him off, rolling him over in the wreckage as he stabbed for her heart a second time. Fuck. She was a moron. She had strength and speed going for her, but she’d never been a fighter, didn’t know any fancy moves. And who knew when the fucking chip would kick back in and render her helpless again? If it did, she’d just screwed up her pretty sweet deal with Spike’s gang by attacking this bozo. And if it didn’t…

She’d think about that later. For just a second, his jugular was exposed.

Blood. Cain’s scream was choked by her fangs, and the fight around her faded into a voluptuous red haze as Evie gulped him down, a warm, salty crimson river. The only thing that mattered was the warmth flooding through her body, the influx of stolen life stirring the sluggish machinery of her undead cells to divide and grow, speeding her healing the way bags of cold, half-congealed pig’s blood could never do. She would have roared in triumph, but that would have meant removing her teeth from Cain’s throat, and she wasn’t finished, not by a fucking long shot. His thrashing limbs grew limp; his heart pounded, slowed, faltered. “Not so easy to push me around now, is it, cabron?” she snarled into mangled flesh. When his heart shuddered to a stop, his death would be the biggest goddamn rush she’d ever — “AAAAAAHHH!”

Lightning seared through her brain as the chip struck. A hand grabbed her shoulder and ripped her free of Cain’s body. Evie struck out blindly, growling. Her new assailant growled right back, and the pain and the blood-haze receded enough that she could see it was Spike, fangs bared and eyes blazing gold. He heaved her into the air and shook her like a terrier shaking a rat. “What were my orders, you dimwitted cow?”

Orders. Oh, yeah. Oh, shit. Evie settled her brow ridges into a sulky scowl and swiped the back of her sleeve across her gore-smeared mouth. “It’s not my fault! He was trying to stake me! The fucking chip went out!”

Spike backhanded her across the face, sparing none of his strength, and it was a damn good thing her canine hadn’t grown back in yet, because he’d probably have knocked it loose again. “What’s that tuppenny piece of silicon embedded in, a bath sponge? Thought you were supposed to have some semblance of a working brain about you!” The scorn in his voice would have made her hot with shame if she’d still possessed working capillaries. “If Gib sodding Cain dies, it’ll be because I killed him, and no one else, you hear me? The next time — ”

Sirens were wailing, closer by the second, and Evie realized, dimly, that the sounds of the fight in the Magic Box had dwindled away to the occasional moan or curse. A brace of police cars and an unmarked sedan pulled up, disgorging a horde of cops and a short, stocky Asian man in a neat dark suit and tortoiseshell glasses. A slim white girl with long dark hair shoved past the broken door of the Magic Box and limbo’d through the festoons of yellow crime scene tape which were rapidly enveloping the storefront like the web of some technologically-inclined spider, followed by the owner — Evie didn’t know her well, but she had a whiff of demon about her.

“There’s not going to be a next time,” a hard voice interrupted. The Slayer materialized at Spike’s side, a wicked-looking stake at the ready. A step or two behind her was a tall, professorish-looking man, human, but gripping his own stake with depressing confidence. “Stand aside, Spike,” she said, in the tones of someone who expected to be obeyed without question.

Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck. She knew how to read people, and she knew how to play them once read. It was how she’d survived this long, unable to bite. But a huge part of playing someone was not to get too cocky. Spike might have some kind of weird soft spot for her, but Evie wasn’t dumb enough to think that if it came down to her or the Slayer, she’d be anything but dust on the wind. If she wanted to unlive the night, she had to get out of here, and preferably out of Sunnydale entirely. She felt a strange pang of disappointment at the thought. It had been… nice, having a job, a purpose, regular meals, for a little while. Doing something she was good at, for people who appreciated that she was good at it.

And that, she told herself sternly, was how fine upstanding evil vampires were lured into becoming big Slayer-whipped pussies like Spike. The very fact she was starting to get comfortable here was reason enough to get the fuck out of Dodge.

Spike took a step backwards, out of the Slayer’s reach, and set Evie down, keeping a good grip on her shoulder nonetheless. Evie wriggled a little, testing the give in his arm, but there wasn’t any. “We’re having a moment here, Slayer,” he said, clipped.

Buffy shook her head. Her jaw was tight, her lips were set, but there was more weariness than anger in her eyes. To the Slayer, staking her wasn’t anything personal. It was just part of the job. All in a day’s work. Evie didn’t matter to the Slayer any more than some random human kill mattered to Evie. It was a weird realization, and Evie wasn’t sure she liked it. Because Cain hadn’t been some random kill. Cain was personal. He was her fucking nemesis. You got a bye for your fucking nemesis, didn’t you?

“Moment’s over.” Buffy raised her stake. “And so’s she.”

“He’s not dead.” Spike sounded more irritated than anything else. He waved his free hand at Cain, whose chest still rose and fell in jerky, painful heaves. Evie had to grant the guy was tough. “He’s still gurgling away, and – ” An ambulance howled up to the curb, or as close as it could get, given the van, Buffy’s Jeep, Spike’s DeSoto, and a handful of police cars splayed at random angles in the street, and paramedics joined the milling crowd. ” – they’ll take him to hospital inside of ten minutes, where it’s even odds he’ll pull through.” Evie would have bet that the odds were a lot lower than that, but she wasn’t about to argue the point.

“That doesn’t matter.” Buffy’s calm, utterly reasonable voice was more chilling than any amount of yelling or raging. “She tried to kill him. Period, end of story, ” She took a deep breath. “I hate to say it, but… the whole minion thing was an experiment. And I’m starting to think Kennedy’s right. It’s not working.”

Spike’s jaw twitched, and his eyes narrowed, blue and cold. There was something weird about the fact that when he was dead serious about something, he went human. “We had a deal, Slayer,” he growled. “And as long as Cain’s not dead, it’s still in force.”

Sea-ice grey eyes met his blue ones, just as chill. “Spike, do not start splitting hairs with me now. It’s obvious that the only thing keeping her in line was the chip, and if it’s not working anymore — ” Her shoulders sagged a fraction. “Riley warned me something like this would happen.”

“Oh, Riley,” sneered Spike. “Of course the bloody chip kept her in line! What it’s for, innit? And now she knows she’s got to do it herself.” He gave Evie a shake. “Don’t you?”

“Uh — ” Evie blinked up at him stupidly. Her head was ringing from the chip, and the strobing lights on the police cars were making her eyes tear up. Everything was happening way too fast. The chip was working, and then it wasn’t and then it was — what if it happened again? How could she tell? What if it went bad for good? Did Spike actually think she’d want to stick around if it did, when she could be a real vampire again? Strike out on her own and be the terror of… well, the terror of one dark alley, so long as some older, stronger vamp didn’t shove her out, or someone like Corvini didn’t press-gang her as Slayer fodder, or… fuck. She needed time to think about this shit. “It started working again,” she offered. “The chip. So we’re fine, right?”

Behind them, the cops had swarmed over the Magic Box, reading rights, taking statements, and reeling out yards of yellow crime scene tape. Suit-and-Glasses emerged from the scrum, picking his way towards them through the rubble. He nodded to the professorish guy. “I’m Detective Charles Ng. I don’t believe we’ve met. Hello again, Ms. Summers, Mr….” He raised an eyebrow at Spike. “…Williams?”

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” Spike replied blandly. “Oi! David! Round up our lot and give evidence to the nice policeman.”

“Detective Ng.” Buffy relaxed slightly. “Good to see you. You’re getting all the weird calls now, I guess. This is my Watcher, Rupert Giles. Giles, Detective Ng is the one who investigated when Warren Mears murdered that girl last summer, remember? We’ve got a professional understanding.”

The Watcher looked the detective up and down with an air of wary skepticism, but accepted his proffered hand nonetheless. “Ah. My pardon; working so… directly with the local authorities is a bit new to me.”

“It’s proven to be a profitable association for both Ms. Summers and the department so far. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Giles,” the detective replied agreeably. He jerked a thumb at Evie. “Is this one in my wheelhouse, or yours?”

“Mine,” Buffy and Spike said in unison.

“Look, we haven’t got bloody time for this!” Spike sounded ready to bite heads off.

“You’re right.” Buffy nodded at Evie. “We don’t.”

She moved. Spike moved faster, flinging up one arm to block her incoming stake and shoving Evie away with the other. “Run!” he snarled, and tackled Buffy straight-on.

Surprise pinned Buffy to the pavement as Spike barreled into her. By the time her brain caught up with the action her legs had already drawn up in reflex, ready to kick out and send him flying the instant they hit ground. She should have felt betrayed, but the emotion surging through her was only frantic annoyance at having to deal with this now. Why did Spike have to pick the most inconvenient times for his lack-of-moral crises? The Slayer-voice in the back of her head was pointing out that she’d always known that sooner or later, the day would come when they’d be at each other’s throats again, and there was an entire bonfire’s worth of splintered wood all around them, so why wasn’t she grabbing any of it? A much less objective part of her told the Slayer-voice to stuff it. Today wasn’t going to be that day, not if she could help it.

They hit hard, Spike on top of her, and she flung him off immediately. She bounced to her feet, and Spike landed on the curb with a whoof and staggered drunkenly to his. By the way he was moving, he was a hell of a lot worse off than he’d made out on the phone, but there wasn’t a fleck of yellow in his eyes. “Spike — ” Before she could get the next word out, he crashed into her again, a parody of his usual grace, and knocked her flat on her ass. He enveloped her in a sort of desperate bear-hug, pinning her arms to her sides while she bucked and kicked beneath him. The minions gathered around their scuffling forms, a ragged semicircle of yellow eyes and bared fangs. Except for David, who was still in his human face, and watching the whole spectacle with the detached interest of a bookmaker setting odds. Maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea to announce that she was having second thoughts about their continued existence while they were still in earshot. “Damn it, Spike, she’s getting away!”

“That’s the – OW! – idea!” Spike yelped as she head-butted him and followed up with a fist to his belly. He rolled off and lay there on the sidewalk groaning, clutching his abused middle.

“Hey,” the biggest of the minions rumbled. “I thought the deal was you protected us from the Slayer.”

“What the fuck does it look like I’m doing? I don’t roll around in piles of kindling for my health. Stand off, you miserable gits, or I’ll stake you myself.” Spike levered himself slowly and painfully to his feet, and despite the fact that he obviously wasn’t in any condition to make good on his threat, the minions shuffled back a step or two. He tugged his t-shirt into place and raked a hand through his hair, dislodging assorted fragments of Anya’s sadly diminished inventory. “David, once the plods are done with ’em, get everyone back to the crypt. I’ll be along presently.”

Detective Ng looked at Giles. “Do they do this all the time?” he asked.

“Regrettably, yes.” Giles eyed the two of them with exasperation. “If you’re quite finished…?”

Buffy took a deep breath and counted to… well, three; she didn’t have time to waste counting to ten. Dawn was all right; the Magic Box was smashed, but Anya had insurance; the apocalypse was taking place in L.A. for a change; and no one was dead… yet. Buck up, Buffy. By Sunnydale standards this was a fantastic night. “For the time being. Detective, I need to check on the stuff in my wheelhouse — if you need anything from me, you’ve got my cell. Giles, here’s my keys — take the car and get Dawn and Anya home. Willow knows you’re coming. Call Xander… and I guess Kennedy, too. We need a full-blown Scooby meeting, stat. Spike and I will catch up when we’re done here.”

Anya dug her heels in — literally; she was standing ankle-deep in rubble. “I can’t leave. I have to call my insurance agent. Also, if Angel’s lost his soul, again — ”

“Then we’ll put it back, again!” Buffy snapped. She tried to like Anya, she really did, but sometimes —

“How?” Anya pulled out her phone and jabbed buttons angrily. “Willow’s useless now. Even if we can find another Orb of Thessulah, Tara’s not strong enough to cast the spell a second time. Re-souling Willow nearly broke her. And — ” She looked close to tears. “What good is any of this, what we do, when it all just keeps happening again and again, and people lie to you about important things, really important things — ”

“We’ll call your agent before we leave,” Giles interrupted smoothly, taking Anya’s elbow and steering her away. “I’m sure you have excellent coverage.”

Buffy shot him a grateful look and went back to glaring at any of the minions who looked as if they were getting ideas. There was arguing and there was milling around, but half an hour later, she and Spike were standing shoulder to shoulder on the curb, she unobtrusively supporting him as they watched Ng’s men bundle Cain’s men into squad cars and envelop the Magic Box in crime scene tape like industrious blue-clad spiders. David was herding the minions back in the direction of the van. A chilly breeze whipped along the sidewalk, scattering the detritus of the attack, and overhead stars flickered behind a veil of scattered clouds. Spike extracted an already-grubby handkerchief from a jacket pocket and blotted the crusted blood from his nose. “Nine rounds with Angel and hardly a scratch,” he grumbled. “Five seconds with you and it’s straight for the nose.”

“You deserved it!” Buffy snapped back, suppressing the urge to cuddle him and make cooing noises. Hardly a scratch, yeah, right. “Are you going to explain what all that was about?”

Spike started to heave a sigh, winced, and pressed a hand to his side. There was a wet sheen to the fabric of his t-shirt there when his fingers fell away. With the same dogged determination which was currently keeping him upright, he started, “You told me once, ‘You may not have a soul, Spike, but you’ve got a brain, so use it!’ So here’s me, using it. Evie cocked up in the heat of the moment, right, fine, got the memo. But the knobber’s not dead, and it’s not like other members of our merry crew — vampires, even! — haven’t sown bloodshed and destruction in their wakes in the last year. Bint deserves another chance.”

She really, really wasn’t ready for this particular conversation now. Or ever. “Spike, there’s a difference between giving Willow, or even you, another chance and giving one to Evie. Willow’s got a soul, and you — you — ”

“Yeah, me.” Spike was starting to sway a little. “You saying I’m only standing here because I’m a good lay?”

“No!” If he hadn’t been so obviously ready to fall over, she would have punched him again. It was a question she’d asked herself often enough, and the answer wasn’t one she liked much. “Why do you even care?” she demanded. “I’ve seen you stake a minion for breathing funny when they weren’t even breathing! What’s so special about her?”

The patrol car flasher pulsed behind them, its waves of light washing over the planes of Spike’s face in alternating ruby and sapphire. Both made him look Masque of the Red-and-Blue Death ghastly. “Do you have any sodding idea…” He stopped, began again. “Look, if you need to chat someone up about the burdens of Slayerness, you’ve got Faith, or that Kennedy bint. You may not like ’em, but they’re there. If Will wants to have a heart-to-heart about vampires with souls, she’s got Angel. At least when he’s not completely barking. I’ve got… there’s no one who knows what it’s like, yeah? Having a chip shoved in your head. How it twists you round, makes you feel things you shouldn’t feel, want things you shouldn’t want, till you wake up some evening and you realize — ” Spike squeezed his eyes shut. “Maybe it was never the chip after all, maybe you really are this perverse and pathetic.” He opened his eyes again, and his mouth quirked in rueful resignation. “I thought… I dunno, maybe if I kept her ’round long enough, she’d get to tolerate some of you, the way I did, and I’d…” He sounded as if it were a shameful failing he was admitting to. “Have someone to talk to. Someone that gets it.”

Oh, God. He’s trying to make himself a BFF. With about as much success as he’d had making himself a girlfriend, probably, and Evie was a lot more dangerous than the Buffybot. “Spike…” She tightened her arm around his waist and he leaned gratefully into her shoulder. It was unnerving, this occasional reminder that for him, saving puppies and Christmas was like her taking up a career of robbing banks. “You’ve got it wrong,” she said after a moment. “It’s not that I can’t see… potential in some vampires. I can. Too often for comfort. I love you, but you’re not some special unique snowflake. Probably there are other vampires out there who could do what you’ve done if only I could stick a chip in them for a few years and find the right incentives… but I can’t be sure of that. And if I let the wrong one go because… because I let myself think of them as a person, then other people, human people, will die.”

“And that’s bad, right,” he muttered. Not even sarcastically, just as if he were checking to make sure. “Then stick to our original agreement, Slayer. If Cain dies, she’s dust. If not…”

Frustration boiled up in her. “Spike, her chip’s starting to malfunction! Just like Riley said it would! Either it’s going to go out and she’s going to kill someone, or it’s going to turn her brain to mush! Did you ever think that dusting her might be kinder to — ” No, he wouldn’t have. Spike didn’t do kind. Except, unaccountably, when he did. “It’s not like we can just send her out to have it repair — ” She cut herself off mid-word, just as Spike burst out, “Why not?”

They stared at each other. “Riley says the program’s been canceled.”

“Riley says!” Spike replied scornfully. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think there was something in those tinkertoys worth salvaging.”

He had a point. “Gah! All right. But whether Cain dies or not, if she even fantasizes about laying a fang on anyone else I’m going to turn her into charcoal briquets. Deal?”

“Deal.” His mission accomplished, Spike’s shoulders slumped. When he spoke again, his voice was lower. Not defeated, just…matter of fact. “Finn’s right, you know. Sooner or later, I will fuck it up. Almost did already. Only the luck of the draw I didn’t kill one of those sodding cops at Gregson’s. Didn’t even want to kill them, particularly. Just wasn’t thinking, and they were in the way, and it was fun. Seriously, love — how’s it any different? Between me and Willow, and her? I need to know.”

The note of desperate inquiry in his voice made her chest hurt. Buffy clenched her jaw in frustration. It wasn’t just pure selfishness on her part, was it, wanting to keep her friend and her lover in her life? There was something real here, something worth fighting for. “I don’t know. It just is.” And that wasn’t enough. She reached up, cupping his face in her palm, thumbing the arch of his cheekbone. “Look, you and Willow may screw up, but…” She paused, groping for the right words. “You try to do the right thing. That matters for… not everything, but a lot. Even if you’re only doing it for me, even if you can’t ever be really good, you’re trying to be… or at least act… not evil. And she isn’t.”

He let out a breath, nodded. Relieved, because she’d given him a rule he could follow, a guidepost in the trackless ethical swamp he navigated daily. “Yet.”

“Fine. Yet.” She gave him a little shoulder-thump, that being one of the few places he wasn’t dented or leaking. “Is your spleen going to stay inside if I let go of you?”

Spike looked down at himself, and his laugh was half a groan. “Wouldn’t bet on it. I could sleep for a week. Fuck, I’m an idiot.”

“No argument from me.” She glanced around; the minions had departed, and the last of the squad cars was starting to pull away. She’d gotten into the fight too late to do more than help with the clean-up, but she hadn’t come out of it completely unscathed. Buffy let her left hand slip down the angle of his jaw, pressing her skinned knuckles to his lips. She felt the muscles of his torso go tense beneath her other hand, felt the cool huff of breath as he inhaled the blood-scent and snorted it out through his nose, a ritual to banish temptation. “I’ve got an owie. Gonna kiss it?”

He really did groan this time, but then his tongue flicked out, cool and soothing on the torn flesh. He cleaned the blood from her hand as though it were a sacrament, tongue-tip exploring the tender webs of flesh between her fingers, lips tickling her palm, leaving no inch of skin untended. Just a lick, just a nibble, but hopefully it would give him enough healing oomph to get him through the night. When he finished, they stood there for a long moment, leaning into each other, her breath a faint mist in the chilly air, his invisible but no less present. Reluctantly, Buffy drew away. “OK. If we’re going to nip this Angel situation in the bud, we need to break out the clippers now. What we talked about on the phone, you still up for it?” Spike nodded. “Good. Go rally the troops, and make sure Evie hasn’t eaten an orphanage or something. I’ll find Riley and see if I can convince him that his guys could use a little R&R in L.A. And then…” She glanced up at the sky; much as she wanted to leap into action right now, they needed time to regroup. “Come home and maybe we can get some sleep.”

Spike looked ready to argue, but another twinge from his ribs seemed to make him think better of it. He nodded and headed off down the rubble-covered sidewalk towards the DeSoto, trying without notable success to disguise his limp. Buffy watched him go, hugging herself. Some day. Some day…

But not tonight. “Spike,” she called after him. He turned, eyes questioning. “So is this thing with Evie officially the first time you’ve ever given a crap about someone who’s not connected to me somehow? Or have you been doing it on the sly for a while now?”

The expression on his face might have been absolute horror, but it was dark, so she couldn’t be sure.

“So’s I’d have someone to talk to,” Spike muttered as he wrenched the steering wheel and slewed round the corner towards Restfield. He hadn’t even fully articulated his reasons for hiring Evie to himself before Buffy’d sprung the question on him like that, and now — was this really what he’d come to? Rescuing the inhabitants of Angel’s larder had been easy to justify: it would brass Angel off, and it was what Buffy would want. But this? Going to bat for a sodding minion who’d rightly sneer in his face at the very idea? Two years ago he’d have sneered along with her. And yet here he was, with a larger-than-he’d-like-to-admit part of him still thinking this was a corking good plan. He vamped out with a frustrated snarl, then shook off the ridges and pulled his fangs back in. No. No. He had enough holes in his torso at the moment to remind him where going off half-cocked got him.

A glance up at the sky as he got out of the car told him that it was closing on midnight. The moon was rising in the east, waning but still more than half full, and Restfield’s wrought-iron gates loomed ahead of him. He could spare a minute for a restorative cigarette. Lighter, fags, flame: yeah, that was better. Spike leaned back against the gatepost with a sigh, drawing in smoke and rationing it out through his nose. Thank Christ and the Surgeon General that at least his second-favorite vice had turned out to be unequivocally evil.

Ought to just stake the chit now and be done with the whole mad idea. That was what Buffy wanted him to do, wasn’t it? Or… had she not been mocking him, after all? Was trying to convert a monster to the path of — well, usually trying not to kill people — more the right thing to do than knocking one off? Wasn’t that what Buffy was trying to do with him? And if so, should he be more narked off if his stunning good looks and winning personality weren’t the prime factor in their equation, or if they were? And bugger right things to do for coming in so many contradictory flavors, anyhow. Christ, he wanted to kill something. Killing things was simple. Satisfying. Except it wasn’t any longer — simple, anyway. Fuck. This was bleeding impossible. He took another drag, scowled at the glowing coal of his cigarette. Bugger what Buffy wanted for a moment; what did he want?

You already know, mate.

A chill pricked the fine hairs on the back of his neck and slithered down his spine to curl sick and hollow in his gut. It had been a relief, running into Tanner and Anne and Connor and Fred, and even sodding Sam Lawson, in L.A. He’d told Buffy once that the only reason she’d lasted so long as a Slayer was ties to the world, but he was in the same boat when it came to this trying-to-be-good business. That cobweb-thin net of connections with Buffy at the heart of it was the only thing holding him back — and far from struggling against it, here he was, Gulliver cheering the capturing Lilliputians on.

He wanted… friends.

“You fucking pussy,” he whispered, appalled. Being love’s bitch was one thing. Transcendent, in its way. Mere liking’s bitch, on the other hand… bloody sick-making, was what it was. Contemptible. And the worst part was, it didn’t matter. Whatever token revulsion he felt now, he’d get over it. Talk himself around somehow. There was some flaw bred into the heart of him, going all the way back to his human days, a thing that hungered for belonging as desperately as his body craved blood. When first he’d risen to his new life at Dru’s side, he’d told himself he didn’t need it any longer — taken particular glee in driving a spike through the hearts (and heads, and other assorted body parts) of those who’d denied it to him. For a century and more he’d convinced himself that he’d slain the longing in his own heart as well.

But the chip and its enforced helplessness had given that longing room to grow again, and over the last year it had unfurled in the sunshine of his girls’ regard, whispering Feed me, William, into his ear. Now it waxed monstrous, invading roots and treacherous shoots twining all through the rest of him. He should have realized that his little epiphany about Will and Tara was only the beginning, that the rot had spread far deeper than ever he’d imagined. Piece by piece the old, familiar Spike was being quarried away, replaced by… what? He couldn’t make out the shape of the thing he was becoming.

With a growl, he whipped out his cell phone and punched up a number, resolutely ignoring the fact that he had it memorized. A moment later a sleepy voice crackled, “Buffy, is that — ”

“Harris? Spike. Just calling to tell you that I bloody well hate you and hope you die covered in weeping pustules and reviled by your nearest and dearest at the earliest opportunity.”

There was a moment of silence. “It’s okay, Spike. I hate you too.”

“Bloody right. And… and so’s your mum.” Spike hung up, feeling vaguely foolish. Enough of this bollocks; rooting about in his own navel-lint wouldn’t get him anywhere. He’d made his decision last year, thrown in his lot with the forces of goodness and light whether they wanted him or not. No sense whinging about it now. Wasn’t as if he was handing out sweeties to orphans on the streetcorner, was it? Whatever good turn he was doing Evie, it was for his own benefit first and foremost. So that was all right.

Wasn’t it? Bugger it all, this was exactly why he needed someone to talk to.

Spike tossed his cigarette aside and popped the boot of the DeSoto. Beneath the nicotine, the taste of Buffy’s blood lingered on his tongue like a benediction. He palpated his ribs, testing the extent of his healing. Still sore as bugger all, and where the bullets had penetrated there were multiple stabbing pains when he inhaled too deeply. Limp was improving, though. He felt like the arse-end of a rough Saturday night, but he’d do. None of his current crew had been picked for fighting spirit; if anything, the opposite. Even knowing he’d already had seven bells knocked out of him, if any of them decided to make trouble, they’d most likely pick stealth or treachery. Removing the cooler with the Mohra blood in it, he strode through the gates and down the gravel path towards the Alpert crypt, like a man expecting he’d find everything in order when he arrived.

Elise was perched atop one of the lesser mausoleums, one of their standard sentry posts. She eyed him warily, but made no overt challenge as he walked up. “David get everyone back all right?” Spike inquired. Business as usual, nothing to see here.

She hesitated for a moment, then hopped down, dreads swinging. Elise was tall and rangy, with a high-cheekboned, austere face at odds with the lush curve of her lips when she smiled, which wasn’t often. Spike had never inquired as to why she’d hired on with Bloody Vengeance, and she’d never volunteered the information. She cocked her head now, sizing him up. “Yeah,” she said. “Everyone except for Evie, and she just dragged her sorry ass back here fifteen minutes ago.”

“Small favors.” Spike paused to light another cigarette, for dramatic effect and whatever infinitesimal good the extra minute’s healing time would do. Maybe he should start carrying lucifers for times when an extra few seconds of posturing were crucial. “Come on in, then. I want everyone to hear this.”

The staff of Bloody Vengeance Inc. was assembled in the candlelit front office when he opened the inner door of the crypt: David cool and collected as always, Evie fearful and trying to cover it up with bravado, Elise and Fernando wary, and the new recruits milling nervously in the middle distance. Clem had weekends off, so no airing of dirty laundry in front of the true demons necessary. Spike strode in with all the confidence he didn’t feel, folded his arms, hitched one hip up on the reception desk, and stared each pair of golden eyes down, one by one. “Can’t leave you lot to your own devices for twenty-four hours before you bollocks it up, can I?”

“Diego said that the Slayer’s coming after us,” Fernando said, a challenging note in his voice. “What are you gonna — ”

“The Slayer,” Spike cut him off, “is sticking to our deal. Which means — ” He turned a hard look on Evie. “You’d bloody well better hope that Cain’s physician is a sodding miracle worker, because the moment he joins the choir eternal, you’re dust.” Evie wilted. “You want to run, there’s the door. But if you run, she’ll catch you, and if she catches you, I won’t interfere again. Got it?”

Evie swallowed, nodded. Spike’s eyes swept the room. “Good. Where’s Nadia?”

“Downstairs,” David replied.

“Get her.”

He waited while Fernando went to fetch her up, ash accumulating at the end of his cigarette. “Right then,” he said, when the miscreant had been deposited unceremoniously at his feet. “You bloody moron. You didn’t kill the berk, did you? So what the fuck did you break and run for?”

Nadia glared. “They — the Slayer was gonna — ”

With an impatient growl, Spike reached down and yanked her upright. “Trump something up and stake the lot of you regardless? For fuck’s sake, if she wanted to stake you, she wouldn’t bother with a trial first!” Stubbing his cigarette out on the desktop, he got to his feet and started to pace, prowling the length of the crypt and back. “Let me explain the situation, in words small enough that the best and brightest among you may be able to translate into grunts and hand signals for the rest. Angel’s lost the plot, gone barking, two cards short of a full deck. Dunno if he’s misplaced his soul or not, and it doesn’t matter — he’s wedged it into his pointy Neanderthal skull that he’s the second bloody coming of Aurelius, or something equally barmy. Any of you possess enough long-term memory to recall what he was like the last time he got ambitious?”

Uneasy murmuring and jostling of shoulders confirmed that they did. “He’s already sending out scouts. Snaffling up the vamps he thinks are worthy of his exclusive little Aurelian club. That’s why you’re here, innit?” He indicated the new recruits — bugger, what were their names? Diego, Thingy, and Wossit? — and garnered a few tentative nods. “Thought so. We’ve been pissing around gearing up for a cattle raid from the locals, but that’s nothing compared to what’s coming. Soon as Angel gets his house in order down in L.A., he’ll come marching up here trailing Armageddon in his wake, looking to go two rounds out of three with the Slayer.”

More uneasy murmuring. Spike braced himself; this was where he really had to sell it. Bully, brag, and bribe in equal measure. “Yeah, you heard me. There’s gonna be war. But it’s not going to be on his terms. Slayer’s doing some recruiting of her own as we speak. We’ll have allies, strong ones.” I hope. “Insults aside, I hired you lot because you’re smarter than the usual run of stake fodder. And we’re not the only vamps in Sunnydale, are we? You think that any of the other gang bosses are happy about the prospect of Angelus prancing in here and taking away our town? If we move fast, we can hit him now, low and hard, and catch him with his knickers round his ankles, before he can raise and train enough fledges to have the numbers on us. We’ll bloody well show him who’s worthy!”

David’s eyes glittered in the uncertain light of the candle-flames, and his face was strangely eager. “Do you seriously believe that you can convince Amherst or Nguyen to follow your lead?”

“Won’t know till I try,” Spike shot back. It occurred to him that in a way, this was what David had been urging him to do all along. Well, balls to that; there was no way in hell he was going to nursemaid Sunnydale’s entire vampire population once this immediate threat was disposed of. He might have conceded to a perverse yen for companionship, but a chap could be a bit more selective than that. “They won’t get a better offer from Angelus, that’s for bloody certain. And you know as well as I do that His Nibs doesn’t look kindly on neutral parties.”

He vamped out and bared his fangs in a savage grin. “Now, if you’d rather turn tail and run, the door’s that way. Just keep in mind that once you leave, you’re fair game for whoever catches you first. If it’s the Slayer, she’ll just kill you. If it’s Angelus….” He let the sentence trail off with a suggestive lift of one eyebrow. “So what do you say?”

The rest of the minions exchanged looks, jostling one another, and behind them their shadows leaped and danced across the crypt walls. Spike figured he had about a fifty percent chance of convincing them; they weren’t fighters, this lot, and right now it could go either way. Then David smiled a tight, economical smile, as if he had a ration of good cheer he didn’t want to squander too quickly. “I see no reason to terminate my employment with Bloody Vengeance Inc. at this point.” A second later, Evie took a step forward.

“I’m in,” she said, jaw clenched. “I served under that dickhead once, and I’m never gonna do it again. This is my town and I’m sick and fucking tired of running away.”

“Me too,” said one of the new recruits. Points for Wossit, Spike thought. Make a note. Fernando and Elise were nodding, and the rest of the newcomers, and Nadia —

“No,” she said, backing towards the door. “The only reason I signed on with you was to keep Denny safe. He’s gone. I quit. I’m out of this dump.” She spat in disgust. “Have fun kissing the Slayer’s ass, all of you.”

“Your loss,” Spike drawled. “Don’t let the door smack your bum on the way out.” Nadia stalked out, lip curled and her narrow shoulders twitching, and Spike watched her go. Pity. She’d been a decent worker. The moment she cleared the outer door, “Elise, Fernando, I believe we’ve got a trespasser on the premises. Deal with her, won’t you?”

Elise grinned, fangs lengthening. “Anything you say, Boss.” She and Fernando vanished, and a second later, a scream pierced the darkness, and abruptly choked off.

“For a second I thought you were going to let her go,” David murmured.

Spike leaned back against the nearest desk, arms folded across his chest, trying to determine if he felt any other sort of pity or not. On the whole, he decided, not. Which was also a relief of sorts. God, he was tired. Let Buffy be waiting for him at home, was all he asked. “When she could trot off to Amherst, or worse, Angelus, and tell them everything? Not bloody likely. I may be working with the white hats, but I’m not completely daft.”

One corner of David’s mouth twitched upwards in the barest hint of an approving smile. “Good to know,” he said. “Good to know.”

To be continued…


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