"Yeah, well, I got into it with Dawn about hanging out with her friends on street corners after dark. I keep telling her that this is a Hellmouth, not the set of Dawson's Creek, but..." She let her voice trail off as she gazed about the bar, looking for...NO! NOT looking for Spike. Looking for her friends, of which Spike was not one.
"Where is everybody, anyway?"
"Oh, Tara didn't come. I think she kind of got her fill of all things Western last night. Xander and Anya are over there." Willow gestured in the direction of large, noisy knot of people clustered around a mechanical bull. Buffy turned just in time to witness some poor cowpoke get thrown from the bull into one of the surrounding bales of straw. "I haven't seen Spike."
"Spike? Who said anything about Spike? I certainly don't care if Spike shows up tonight--in fact, I hope he doesn't. I hope I never see him again. Ever."
Willow looked at her quizzically. "Oooookay. Um...wanna drink?"
"Yeah, a drink would be of the good."
"Be right back." As Willow rose and moved toward the bar, Buffy settled back into her seat and tried to not stare at the door. She heard the crowd over by the mechanical bull give another shout--it seemed to be the main attraction of the evening. Glancing toward the bar, she saw that Willow was deep in conversation with a classmate she had happened upon, so she got up and wandered over to where Anya and Xander stood.
Just as she reached the group, another brave soul was tossed into the air and hit the floor hard.
"Hi, guys. What's up?"
"Hey! It's the Buffster! And looking all Annie Oakley, too."
"Oh, Buffy, look! See? All the young men are taking turns riding the bucking machine, and they keep getting thrown off and suffering mild but very amusing injuries! Isn't it great?!"
"Yeah, Anya, it's great. So, are you gonna take a turn, Xander?" She poked him playfully in the ribs.
"Um...I'm thinking 'no' on that one, Buff, but thanks for asking."
"No, Buffy, I won't let Xander ride the bucking machine. He'd only get thrown off, and maybe he'd rupture something important, and then it could be DAYS before we could have sex again, and I'm on a very tight schedule, you know. I've calculated the exact number of orgasms that it is humanly possible to achieve before my estimated time of death, and we can't afford to lose a day--"
"OK, Anya, we said we weren't going to talk about that here, remember?"
Anya shrugged and went back to watching the riders fly off the bull.
Buffy's back was to the door, but she knew the moment he entered. She struggled not to turn.
He was wearing the same jeans and boots--a bit more scuffed and lived-in-looking--but his duster was thrown over his bare back and chest; he'd never bothered to don another shirt. His hair was wild and uncombed and he had a nearly empty bottle of bourbon in his hand, his third of the evening.
The crowd did the sensible thing and parted instantly as he stalked to the bar. The aura he gave off was well beyond his usual 'don't fuck with me, mate' vibe and deep into 'looking for trouble and if I can't find it, I'll be happy to make some' country. As he reached the bar, he threw back his head and chugged the last the bourbon.
"Barkeep. More a' this. Now." His tone was guttural, but his words weren't slurred.
Willow watched him for a few moments, then joined her friends.
"Um...I think we might have a problem, guys." She gave a worried glance back toward the bar. "It's Spike. He's drunk."
Xander spun around in delight. "Oh, but I LIKE it when Spike's drunk. He's a riot--reminds me of a Benny Hill sketch."
"Um...I don't think he's that kind of drunk, Xander. He doesn't look very cuddly and slurry and pathetic tonight--more, um...dangerous, actually."
"Hey, bonus. If he makes a move, Buffy's finally got a good excuse to stake his demon ass, right Buff?"
She didn't respond. She was watching Spike closely and fighting off major guilt at the sight of him. The result of her rejection was considerably beyond what she'd expected.
The crowd surrounding the mechanized bull gave another roar, and he looked over in their direction through narrowed eyes. Retrieving the fresh bottle that the bartender had handed him--against the rules and probably the law, but no one was arguing with Spike this nigh--the approached them, his stride steady and sure and full of bravado. Buffy wondered how he could drink so much and stay standing, much less in such apparently perfect control.
"Evenin' all." He looked at Xander and Anya and Willow--and right through the Slayer.
"Uh, hi, Spike. Whatcha up to tonight?"
"Oh, you know, Red. The usual...lookin' for cheap thrills."
It was a direct shot at Buffy, but she pretended not to hear it.
"Spike, why don't you take a ride on the mechanical bull? Bet you could beat the champ."
"Uh, Xander. I don't think that's a very good--"
"Oh, come on Willow, it'd be fun for old Spike." Xander's eyes were filled with an evil twinkle.
"What are you natterin' on about, Harris?"
"The bull, Spike. The champ over there was able to stay on for almost fifteen seconds. Bet you could beat that without even trying." Xander gestured toward a lanky youth in the corner who looked as if he'd wandered on off the range just moments before.
Buffy spoke up. "Spike can't ride the bull, Xander--" Wrong thing to have said. Way wrong. Spike's glare stopped whatever further words she might have uttered.
He stripped his coat off and thrust it at Willow. "Hold this for me, Red." Setting his bottle down on a nearby table and pushing his way toward the front of the crowd, he reached the bull just as the current rider flew off backwards, narrowly missing several spectators.
Buffy watched in bemusement as his climbed astride the machine. As it began to rock and roll, she couldn't help fixating on the way the muscles of his arms, back, chest and abdomen shifted and stretched as he held on, and the way his nipples looked almost purple against his white flesh. Her mouth went dry and she found herself clutching her own arms hard enough to leave marks on her skin.
"Wow...he's good. He's very, very good." Anya said this without looking away from Spike's undulating form.
"Yeah, well, it's not fair. He's got all that stupid vampiric strength...that's cheating."
"Then why did you suggest it in the first place, Xander?" Willow smirked at him.
"Well, I didn't think he'd actually...and YOU said he was drunk, so I thought..." Xander looked uncomfortably uncomfortable.
Buffy tried time and again to look away. The seconds seemed to drag by, and still he held on, riding gracefully, not even tiring. The crowd began to chant. Ten seconds, then twelve. Fifteen--he'd beaten the champ, and still he rode. Twenty seconds, twenty-five. At thirty seconds, the bull began to wind down. When it stopped, he swung off to the cheers of the crowd.
He pushed his way back to them, grabbing his bottle off the table and drinking deeply from it.
"Thanks, Red." He took his coat from her and turned to Xander. "Your turn, Harris."
Xander's face paled visibly. "Uhhhh..."
"Xander, you don't have to ride that thing. Not everybody here has something to prove." Buffy looked pointedly at Spike.
"No? Thought a challenge had been laid down--but if the whelp's too weak..."
"You want to challenge somebody, Spike? I'll ride the stupid thing." Buffy set her soda down, untucked her shirt from her jeans and rolled up her sleeves.
"All right, Slayer, if you feel you must--but how 'bout we make it interestin'?"
"What did you have in mind, Spike?" Her tone of voice held a warning.
"How 'bout this: if you're thrown, we continue...what was begun last night."
She glared at him and glanced around at her friends. They looked at her flushed face and then looked away.
"Fine. But if I'm not thrown, I get to keep your coat."
He looked as if he was about to protest, then shrugged and handed the coat back to Willow.
"Fair enough, Slayer--it's a wager." He stepped aside and bowed with exaggerated courtesy as she passed by him and into the crowd.
She was the only female to try to tame the beast that night. The spectators grew quiet as she climbed aboard and the bucking began.
Taking a deep breath, she locked her hand around the grip at the front of the saddle and tried to stay relaxed and focused. Her training held up well, and she found herself riding easily, anticipating the movements of the machine.
Spike never looked away. Glancing up at him, Willow could see admiration in his eyes for the tiny form on the bull.
The thirty seconds were over quickly. The bull ran down and she dismounted to the sounds of cheering. She sauntered over to where Spike and the others stood.
"Game, set and match, William." He flinched, hating to be called that wanker name.
He grabbed the duster form Willow and thrust it into Buffy's hands. A tight, unreadable smile touched his lips. "Well done, Slayer." With those words, he spun on his heel and stalked back through the crowd and out the door of the Bronze.
They were silent for several seconds.
"Well, that was...interesting." Xander stared at Buffy, wondering what the hell had just happened.
"Um...who needs a fresh drink?" Willow tried to do the spritely thing, and failed miserably.
"Uh, guys? I think I'd better go after him. I mean, he's had a lot to drink..."
"No, Xander, let her go." Willow gripped his arm to quiet him. Buffy was already moving toward the door, slipping the duster on as she walked.
The streets were as deserted as the Bronze had been crowded. She walked slowly, in no hurry to face the showdown that was coming. She felt like a gunslinger at high noon, except in this case, it was high midnight. She wondered if this was how Miss Buffy felt when Will Blood rode into town.
Get a grip, Buffy, that was just a story...just a lame story Spike made up to get you to--
To what? To let down my guard? Worked real well, didn't it?
The walk to the cemetery had never seemed so long and yet, when she finally arrived there, she felt as if she needed more time. For what, she wasn't sure. She had no idea what was about to happen--no plan, no intention beyond facing him.
The door to the crypt stood open, and candlelight streamed from within. He lay on his back atop the tomb, one arm drawn over his eyes, the bottle of bourbon clutched in his hand. He didn't appear to be aware of her approach.
Without moving, he answered. "Why're you here, Slayer? Come to gloat?"
She took a step toward him. "No, I...I'm not sure why I'm here--except to give you back your coat. I...I never meant to keep it..."
"It's yours now. Took it off a Slayer. Only fittin' it should go back to one. Always knew you'd end up with it eventually--figured you'd take it when you finally staked me."
"I'm not going to stake you, Spike. You should know that by now."
"Yeah, I know. Make's me feel all warm inside, too. Does my self-esteem no end of good to know that I'm not even important enough to you to dirty your Mr. Pointy with." He dragged his arm away from his face and sat up, looking at her blearily. "Keep the coat, Slayer. I won't have it back from you--not out of pity." His face hardened. "And get the hell out of my lair."
"Are we all done feeling sorry for ourselves yet? 'Cause it's mighty unattractive, Spike."
"Sod off, Slayer."
"Nope. Won't. Guess you'll have to make me."
He stood up suddenly, smashing the bottle against the tomb in his haste and shattering it. He stared down at the broken glass in his hand and then looked at her. He took an unsteady step forward.
"What's the matter with you, Spike?" She watched as he wobbled a bit, and then fell to his knees. "Hey--when was the last time you ate?"
"Mmmm...don't rightly recall...maybe yesterday morning before sun-up..."
"You're such an IDIOT. Not even you can drink that much on an empty stomach--you've poisoned yourself. Any second now, you're gonna puke and pass out."
"No one's askin' you to stay an' witness the festivities, Slayer. Toddle on home now, show's over. Let me suffer in peace."
"Yeah, well, I don't think so. Come on, up you go." She slipped one strong, slender arm around him and heaved him back onto the tomb. "Do you have any blood in the fridge?"
"Nope. Fresh out." His eyes had rolled back in his head and his speech had slowed and begun to slur. And Xander was missing it.
"OK, well, I think I know where to get some. I hope. I want you to stay here...don't do anything else stupid, OK? I'll be back as soon as I can." She covered him with the coat and looked at him for a moment.
Why am I doing this? He's just drunk, like he's been a lot of times before. He'll recover. It's not like he can die of alcohol poisoning, like that singer--what was his name?
"Hank Williams." Spike mumbled the words, now nearly unconscious.
She jumped a bit, startled. Great, now he's reading my mind.
She sighed and pulled the coat up a bit closer around his chest, letting her hand linger. A sweet smile touched his face. She grinned back at him and placed a soft kiss on his brow before leaving the crypt and then the cemetery, a Slayer in search of blood for a drunken vampire.
Continued in Chapter Seven