All About Spike

Chapter: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21

Blood Rites
By Nan Dibble

Sequel to The Blood Is the Life

AU, continues from The Blood Is the Life. As Spike and Buffy try to hold onto their partnership and their love, recently unsouled Spike tries to secure his position as self-proclaimed Master Vampire of Sunnydale...against the wishes of The Powers That Be and the Slayer's ancient mandate. Magic, new arrivals, old friends (and enemies), dreams, visions, e-Bay, tribute blood, and cookies all play a part in the tense give and take between vampire priorities and human necessities.

Disclaimer: All is Joss's. None is mine. No profit. Just more Spikejoy for everyone.



Chapter 1: Good Order

Since Buffy was at work and Dawn at school, that Monday, Spike had taken on the chore of setting up the going-away party for Rupert Giles for that evening. It might be years before the Council of Watchers was fully functional again, building back from its destruction and the death of nearly all its senior members. So it might be years before the responsibilities Giles had taken on would free him for a visit to Casa Summers. Party had to be a total blowout, therefore, to be proportional to Buffy’s loss and, to a lesser degree, Rupert’s.

They’d surely meet again, but never again as Slayer and assigned Watcher. Buffy was in no more need of such, and what need did remain, Spike performed under his self-chosen mandate of “watching her back.” So as Giles’ de facto successor, Spike felt it important that it all be planned and seen to properly. He could plan, when he had to. He could make an agenda and keep to it, stage by stage. If that meant thinking everything out, setting it all going, and checking that it all was accomplished, he could do that.

The new-minted Master Vampire of Sunnydale putting together a proper send-off for Sunnydale’s last serving Watcher. There seemed a symmetry to it.

Somnambulating through the morning, Kennedy at his shoulder as help and correction, Spike made lists and made calls, ordering up the necessary and the whimsical, alerting the people…and others…who should be there, arranging deliveries through his crew, through the sewers and tunnels, when no other means could be found. The three SITs--Kennedy, Amanda, and Rona--collected the belowground deliveries, hauled them indoors, and Kennedy checked them off the lists. No Slayer strength there, but they were willing, able, and young. Good enough.

By noon, Spike was asleep, leaned back in the door arch of the front room. Still on his feet, available to sort whatever hang-ups Kennedy needed a ruling on, braced enough to hold. Returning from her morning classes at the university, Willow poked cautiously at his shoulder until he roused and blinked at her.

“You’re food,” he told her.

“What?”

“You’re in charge of the food. What gets made, what’s delivered. Ken.”

“Yeah, Spike.”

Looking around, Spike found Kennedy seated crossways on the stairs, bent over the clipboard, inspecting the contents of a box.

“Give Red a list of all that’s still to do by way of food,” Spike directed. Looking back to Willow, Spike went on, “See if I’ve forgot anything. Remembered ice, that’s coming. Mostly take-out or catered, but I put you down for cookies. Thought that’d be a good thing. That OK by you?”

Letting her dangling purse and bookbag slide to the floor, Willow nodded. “I have a class at two, but I can take over here until then. Why don’t you get some rest?”

“I’ll do.”

“But you don’t have to,” Willow persisted--eyebrows wrinkling, smiling. “Yesterday, let’s see: you were under a deathwish curse, got yourself blind drunk, nearly got caught by sunrise, made a foul wreck of my bedroom, had…how many fights? three? four? And I guess no sleep since. At least sit down before you fall down.”

Kennedy came then, clipboard tucked under her arm, holding out the list for Willow to take. Some way, Willow didn’t want to: stood looking at her feet, then at the list, and only last and reluctantly at the SIT’s impassive face. For a moment Spike didn’t get what the hold-up was. But before he’d said anything dumb, he recalled that they’d been an item and now weren’t, and people found that kind of history an awkwardness afterward and didn’t know how to behave anymore. He knew such things if he stopped to think them out. Even without the soul, he could still puzzle out what he needed to. That was all right then, he thought, reassured.

“Sorry,” Willow was saying to her former lover, uncomfortably. “About Isadora.”

Offering condolences on account of the SIT’s new playmate getting dusted last night. He understood that. Was still tracking all right.

“Yeah,” Kennedy responded flatly, eyes downcast, still holding the list. Finally, Willow took it, and Kennedy went back to the stairs and the chore of ticking off the paper plates and plastic cups and tableware in the box.

Child was doing fine, Spike thought. Not demanding to be let off work for personal things that didn’t signify. Seeing to the task at hand. She was shaping into a good second: he made a mental note to remember to tell her so. People needed praise, not just correction--more important to them than to vamps. So he needed to remember.

Nothing like as good as Bit, of course, but that wasn’t to be helped. Dawn had her own concerns: keeping up with her classes and her homework, having sister-time with Buffy. That had to take precedence. Couldn’t just expect her to be hanging about to help him, even though that was what they both liked, and missed when her proper priorities kept them apart. Had to get rid of the habit of looking for her to be there. Wasn’t fair to Kennedy, to always feel she was second choice, even though she was. Had to be sensible, responsible about such things, not just want what he wanted.

Willow’s presence reminded Spike of an unaddressed agenda item. “Red,” he said, and waited until she looked up from the list. “Something I need you to do.”

“What?”

“It’s about Bit. Dawn. Need you to get together with her, figure out some different way to keep her here. Anchor her, like.” Spike rubbed his eyes, trying to think how to put it. “She’s anchored down to this dimension with a piece of my soul.”

No need going into the fact that said soul was magically contained inside a suitable Orb, wherever Dawn had hidden it, at his request. Shouldn’t signify, he thought. No need for the witch to know, even though Buffy now did--not where it was, just that he’d set it aside to free him for what he had to do. Or maybe not. Maybe that would matter. Couldn’t be sure, the one way or the other. Was for the witch to decide. Have to remember to tell Bit, then, that it was OK to admit that much. Not like it was a particular secret anymore, since Buffy knew. He made a mental note.

“Anyway,” he continued, “s’not right, her being tied to me that way. If I was to go, she’d be gone too, and that’s not right. So you two get together, figure out some different way, some different anchor that’s more reliable. Instead of me. Have I said it right, that you know what I mean?”

Willow continued to regard him with wrinkle-browed friendly concern. “Are you figuring to go poof, then?”

“Just want Bit clear of it, if it happens, is all. Clear of me. Dunno how to do that myself because I expect it would have to be magic. So I hoped you could take that on. Not tonight, necessarily. What with the party and all. Only soon. First chance you get, to talk it out with her.”

“You do realize,” Willow countered, “there’s more than Dawn gonna be pretty upset if you manage to get yourself dusted, right? You should be talking to Buffy about this.”

“She knows. Can’t be helped. Gonna be a target awhile yet. That’s the risk of starting this, and she knows. Trying to be sensible about it, is all. So you see to that, all right? And the cookies.”

“Yeah. And the cookies. Sure, Spike.” Willow pushed him, not very hard, nodding toward the far side of the room. “Take the chair. Have a nap while I get lunch. I’ll call you before I leave for class: promise.”

Spike set his back harder against the door arch. “’M fine. Keeping track of everything.”

“Sure you are. No pills, even.”

Spike shook his head. “They don’t help. Just make everything worse, after. Not doing that no more.”

“Right. That’s probably best.” She waved the list. “I’ll take care of the cookies and double-check all this. Consider it deputized.”

That was fine: Spike allowed himself to forget about everything to do with food, accepting it as seen to, handed off in proper fashion. Willow would take care of it. She was reliable. He trusted her.

He was days behind on the translation now. There’d been no time, no chance. And tonight, after they got the Watcher out the door and to the airport in good order, there’d be the downtown sweep to be attended to, though the Slayer would probably let the usual Monday patrol slide on account of the party and all. So he wouldn’t have to back her on that. Still, he couldn’t see any way to get caught up on the translation before week’s end, at the soonest, without dropping some other necessary chore like checking that Digger wasn’t up to any new tricks or that some other District Master, of the new ordering, wasn’t aiming something at the enormous target Spike now had on his chest, like the scars of the runes with which the First’s Bringers had marked him.

Not enough hands. Not enough time to attend to everything. But couldn’t let anything go. Had to keep the Slayer as clear as possible: this was his to see to. Vamp business. And Michael wasn’t ready yet to take on much more than his own little patch, the district Spike had assigned him. And Spike’s own crew, up at the factory, still needed considerable supervision. Needed training, like he’d trained the SITs, to come and go and do to his word, reliably, with minimal losses and dumb fuck-ups.

Spike missed Dalton. Useless in a fight, half blind, but a good scholar and translator, Dalton had been. Pity he’d got himself dusted. Spike had no help at all with the Council of Watchers translation, though the pay for that funded all the rest. Couldn’t let it get behind.

Put the word out, he thought. Shop for a replacement for Dalton, offer a finder’s reward. Yeah, that needed doing. Other specialists he needed. Time he set about ordering a court like the one he’d inherited, years back, from the Master-that-was, that Buffy had done for. All scattered or dusted now, have to begin fresh; and anyway, his needs were different from those of a standard vampire court. Should make up a whole agenda for that by itself, get it started.

Comfortably braced against the arch, eyes drifting shut, Spike made a note.

**********

Having private business, they’d withdrawn to the kitchen, leaving the party to proceed for awhile without them in the front room and the den. Buffy set about making a fresh pot of tea, talking over her shoulder to Giles--listening to him, mostly--about his immediate plans, trying to pretend the prospect of his going didn’t scare her down to the bones.

She was trying hard not to let the desertion scenario kick in. Trying not to feel young and overwhelmed and abandoned. Trying to at least act grown-up and sensible no matter how she felt.

Spike helped. Just by being there. By knowing perfectly well all her reflexive emotional hang-ups and reminding her with a word or a touch to her arm that it wasn’t abandonment, that she wasn’t facing the scary future all alone, that Spike never truly left and always had her back. That Giles leaving was now and necessary but wasn’t forever. That he’d left before and would again, and she’d managed. Survived. Endured.

That she therefore should and could be upbeat to Giles about his own anxieties, the challenges and opportunities of reestablishing the council and setting it on a better, truer path. Be encouraging, not needy. Give, not take. Be supportive, not a black hole of suckage. Not start an argument just to vent, ease the emotional tension, or let Spike do it either. Nor Giles, for that matter. They were all three of them wound up about doing the good-bye thing and trying not to let that matter.

Buffy alternately babbled and had gulping intervals of silence. Giles polished his glasses every five seconds. Spike leaned on the refrigerator, blinked sardonically, and tried to pretend he wasn’t smugly aware that when Giles was gone, he’d still be here, so nothing Giles said was worth getting upset about. Coping mechanisms.

She knew perfectly well: it was time. In some ways, it would even be a relief when Giles was gone. Not have to explain and defend her choices and decisions anymore. Not have to know that some of those choices--like her decision against college, like her partnership with Spike--were things Giles would never fully accept or be reconciled to, despite his seldom voicing actual criticism or opposition anymore.

They all knew it was time.

Pouring hot water into the teapot, Buffy asked, “When you get it all put back together, when there really is a council again, what do you think they’ll make…of us? Of what we’re doing now?”

Spike drawled, “Not like there was a whole lot of love to be lost there, pet. On either side.”

Giles commented, “Well, you’ve been very rash, Spike, and the council’s bound to take notice,” in a tone somewhere between annoyed, exasperated, and resigned. He already had his glasses off and produced a handkerchief to clean them.

“Gonna peach on me, are you, Rupert?” Spike inquired, amused.

“You know better than that. But eventually, they will know. In the present muddle of reconstitution, it may be some while before they both have the knowledge and act upon it. And I and others spent some considerable effort enlisting your services. Rewarding your exemplary behavior in regard to closing the Hellmouth. The council made a good faith attempt to reach an accommodation which you’ve now implicitly thrown back in their faces by this new move. Master of Sunnydale, indeed. You might have waited until I’d actually left before rendering it all a complete mockery. Then I’d have at least been able to claim ignorance.”

“Events dictate, Watcher. Couldn’t wait.”

“Well, I’ll provide you with what warning I can. Before the blood delivery is stopped. There’s no longer any point, of course, in my pressing for your appointment as Buffy’s de facto Watcher: that would, I’m afraid, only affect Buffy’s own position adversely. In fact, these present developments virtually eliminate any chance there might have been for arranging a stipend for her.”

“Why?” Spike shot back, finally touched, stung. “S’got nothing to do with her. Put it together all on my own. Kept it clear of her. Why--”

“Spike,” said Giles wearily, “we’re not children here. You’re in residence. You’re her acknowledged…”

As Giles tried to choose a sufficiently sexless word, Buffy put in, “Consort.” Then she lifted her chin. “Lover.” She stuck her right hand back and felt Spike clasp it in both of his. Glancing around, she saw him settling his temper, retreating again to his aloof distance. Turning back to Giles, Buffy made a sharp, dismissive gesture with her free hand. “There never was much chance anyway. It’d set a bad precedent, actually admitting Slayers were worth anything. I wasn’t holding my breath, Giles. We’ll manage.”

“It’s not right,” Giles declared, unreconciled.

“It matters that you tried, and I love you for trying. Don’t give up. It’s groundwork. Maybe a few Slayers down the line, without my awkward attachments…” She didn’t look at Spike. “Or my refusal to take the Boogey Man Credo as gospel or my dislike of being dictated to by a bunch of…dictators. Somebody who’s died a few less times performing her goddam sacred duty. Somebody who hasn’t saved the world a few too many times to expect any thanks for it, much less a salary. Maybe there’ll be a better chance then to push it through.”

“But not in my time. Nor in yours. I’m truly sorry, Buffy.”

“We’ll manage,” Buffy said again, squeezing Spike’s hand because she knew it galled him to have anything denied her, withheld from her, on his account. She wasn’t all that happy about it herself. But as Giles had said, they were none of them children, to expect life to be fair. Everything had a price. Or a cost. Consequences.

“And the translation?” Spike inquired, as if it didn’t matter or he didn’t care.

Pouring tea into his cup and then sipping it, Giles allowed himself a small, pursed smile. “Oh, I expect that will survive the revelation. That’s something they actually do need, after all. I don’t imagine they’ll let their principles impede the practicalities. In that one regard, your being a vampire, and a linguist, gives you the leverage of the unique. Your new title might even impart a certain cachet, like that of obscure expatriate Russian nobility in the age of the Euro. No, I imagine they’ll still be clamoring for results long after you’re sick of spells in otherwise forgotten demon languages, filtered through Babylonian cuneiform and assorted glyphs.”

Spike nodded sharply. “That’s all right, then. That, I can do. Whatever else gets cut off, if that stays, we can manage.”

“So,” said Giles, and brought a thick envelope from an inner pocket of his jacket. He slid the envelope toward Spike along the kitchen island. When Spike made no move to take it, his hands still occupied with holding Buffy’s, Giles explained, “The last of your paperwork.” Opening the envelope, Giles enumerated each of the papers as he laid them out. “Passport, suitably stamped. Birth certificate, with joint nationality, and please note your parents’ names and your birthdate: 5th November, 1976.”

Spike was startled into an abrupt bark of laughter.

“Yes,” said Giles, without glancing up, “you’ve been made one with gunpowder and treason. A little anarchy for the Guy. You wouldn’t specify, so I assigned you a memorable date and a bicentennial you have yet to earn, also memorable.”

“What?” asked Buffy, looking between them.

Spike hitched a shoulder, mouth wryly downturned. “He’s assigned me a holiday, pet: Guy Fawkes’ day. Notable traitor, burned in effigy each year.”

The date was less than two weeks away. Buffy had never given any thought to a vamp’s birthday. “What’s your real birthday, then?” she asked.

Spike shook his head, releasing her hand to fold his arms across his chest--a stubborn, defensive stance.

“Why?” Buffy persisted.

When Spike continued silent, Giles commented, “Public records, I expect. A means of identifying his actual antecedents. Spike, I’ve wondered: are members of your family still alive?”

“Did I leave any alive, you mean. ‘Course not. What all vamps do, innit?”

Giles sighed. “Spike, your reputation for being the worst liar extant is in no danger. What possible difference--”

Spike put his arms around Buffy from behind--folding her into his refusal to provide details. “What’s mine, I keep.”

Buffy leaned into him just enough so he’d feel it, and Giles looked away.

“Yes, quite.” Giles resumed enumerating the papers. “Social Security card. Driver’s license. Transcripts of your purported schooling: please memorize the dates. Copies of various diplomas. A verifiable resume. Medical records establishing a severe allergy to sunlight, possibly even fatal, in case you’re ever thrown in jail.” Gathering up the papers, Giles squared them tidily, then returned them to the envelope. “Nothing as wholesale as the creation of Dawn, but this should survive even intense scrutiny. Should anything else be required, let me know. The council may be decimated, but we still have the resources to produce quite a cast-iron false identity. As much as I could, I dealt with different departments, reliable outside suppliers. Various pretexts. So even the council itself would find it difficult to retrace my path in creating these.” Tapping the envelope, Giles gave Spike a level, sober look. “Don’t rely on them any more than you must.”

“Yeah. I know. Should do for awhile, though. Thanks, Rupert.”

Giles attended to his tea. “Spike, we’ve had our differences, but I’d like to think we’ve come to an understanding. Unless you force it, I will never willingly be your enemy, or act to harm you. And not only for Buffy’s sake. Should either of you--”

Leaning in from the hall, Amanda blurted, “Spike. You have to come.”

As Spike let Buffy go and slid behind Giles, responding to the summons, Buffy followed right behind.

Counting Spike, six people stood in a tense group in the front hall. Dawn, the three SITs…no, four SITs. Buffy recognized the fair-haired girl standing just inside the open doorway as Suzanne.

Standing at the foot of the stairs, Dawn was saying tightly to Spike, “I let her in. I didn’t realize--” She had her taser in her hand, as did Amanda. They were all staring at Suzanne for no reason Buffy could see: in jeans, thick hiking shoes, a blue sweatshirt, and a yellow down vest, dusty-blonde hair in a braid down her back, a rucksack slung over her shoulder, she was looking around comfortably, no different than when she’d left, barely a month ago.

Suzanne said, “Hi, Spike. I’m back.”

Then her face changed. Went golden-eyed and fanged. With no change of pose, no change of expression.

Fingers lifting to touch her forehead, Suzanne said softly, “Oops. Guess I did it again, huh?”

**********

Spike took it all in: the SITs waiting for him to call it, appalled, horrified. And Bit the same, except she was still wound up over having let the fledge in. And Buffy was gone back to the kitchen. Didn’t take thought to know she’d be back in a second with a stake.

Would ruin the party.

Spike was perplexed and annoyed.

With no hesitation he went at the fledge and boosted her back through the open door, hard enough that she cleared the steps and half the front yard before she hit. Spike paused in the doorway long enough to level a finger at Dawn. “Tell Red to do a disinvite. Right now.” Without waiting for an answer he spun, took the steps at a bound, and was off after the fledge, fleeing away down the dark street.

She was going a good clip, straight ahead. It would take him a while to overtake her if she didn’t jink, if he couldn’t cut an angle, cut her off. Seeing where she was headed, he waited to see if she’d go inside. Could corner her there, no problem. But she barely slowed, realizing Casa Mike was empty now, and kept racing in long, easy strides.

Couldn’t be above two weeks turned and could already shed game face, though she couldn’t maintain human countenance very long. Already had enough control of her senses that she could pass a house, know if a vamp was inside or not. Though Spike was running quiet, she’d know he wasn’t but about six strides back and except for the running, he got no sense of fear from her. That was confirmed when she glanced around at him, grinning, and commented, “How come you never said how much fun this was? Did you figure if you didn’t tell, nobody would guess?”

“Something like. What you doing here, Sue?”

She faced front again but kept talking. “Did you know something like 90% of female fledges don’t make it through their first year?”

“Never counted, pet. Though that seems a fair enough figure.”

“You’re going to help me beat the odds.”

“I am, am I? Now why would I bother about what a fledge wants?”

“What do you want, Spike?”

Spike had been scanning driveways, looking for something suitable. Spotting it, he bent to scoop up a baseball-sized rock and threw, all in the one motion. Didn’t try for her legs, knew his aim wasn’t that good. Went for the broadest target, caught her right between the shoulder blades, knocked her tumbling. She was up the next minute, but he was there and backhanded her across the face. The second time she sprang up and he put her down, she had the sense to stay down, crouched, watching him.

Strolling up and down a driveway, he kept between her and Casa Summers. If she bolted, she’d have to head away. And though she’d be hard to take in a foot race, there were other stones to hand and he’d just bring her down again. And no way was she gonna outfight him--with weapons or without. He took his time, lighting a cigarette.

“Got better things to do tonight than chase you across the landscape, moron.”

“Then why did you?” she shot back. “And why’d you call me a moron?”

“Well, that’s plain, innit?” He tipped a hand at her, crouched on somebody’s lawn, against a hedge. “You did this on purpose. That makes you a moron.”

“Then you’re a moron, too--right?”

“That I am, pet. But I’m a bigger, stronger, older moron than you, and I could rip your head off just like that. An’ you know it. So what’s this all in aid of, tell me?”

“I thought….” she began, then shook her head hard, shutting herself up. When she lifted her head again, she’d forced game face away. Looked almost like the child he’d known, except for the preternatural stillness. No pulse. No sweet girl bloodsmell. Except for the being dead. “I didn’t think you’d be like this,” she said softly, as if to herself.

“Oh, is that so. How’d you expect me to be, then? Figure I’d be all concerned, little SIT gone and made herself a monster, want to look out for you, like? Teach you the error of your ways?” Fast, he was down on his knees, shouting in her face. “It’s too late for that! That child is dead, and you’re what murdered her! Are you so stupid you don’t even know that?”

She turned her face away, pulling fretfully at her braid, fallen across her shoulder. “It’s hard to know what I’m showing. It wants to change. It’s like trying to hold my breath. Like it used to be, anyway. Because, well, don’t need to breathe anymore. Except to talk. It’s so strange, Spike. Like I thought it would be…and yet not. But…I still want it. Want the power and the speed and everything so bright. The smells….”

She moved slightly, changing balance, reacting to what Spike had caught at least a minute before: slow, unhurried footsteps, and the quicker patter of a dog. About a block away, approaching, opposite side of the street.

Spike said, “You budge an inch, I will put you down.”

“But I want….”

“Don’t give a damn what your demon wants. All demons want the same. You make it mind or I will.”

She was trying to hold herself still. Trying to obey. He could tell. But she wasn’t but a fledge, and as the dog-walking woman came level, the fledge lunged upright and forward. So Spike hammered her. Caved in her cheekbone, likely broke her jaw. Still had to close a hand around her wrist to lock her down and hit her twice more before her demon quit fighting to get free, get at the oblivious food.

But once he’d done what she couldn’t, deflected her demon, she stayed down, making no noise at all. Not whining or complaining. She’d always been good that way, he recalled.

“Now you listen,” he said finally. “This is my town now, and you can’t hunt without leave. Mine…or somebody’s.” He thought a while more--the time it took to smoke another cigarette, since the first got lost before he’d barely finished half of it. “You don’t go within a five block range of Casa Summers again. You got that?”

She bobbed her head. Likely couldn’t talk all that well at the moment.

Spike considered and discarded two more alternatives. “All right, the mark is the theater downtown. You be there before midnight. I’ll tell you where to go from there. You see any other vamps, you keep still, keep hid, till they’re gone. Situation’s…touchy right now. Setting borders, setting limits. If I don’t find you at the mark, you’re on your own. None of my concern. Not anymore. There’s a reason most vamp bints don’t survive their first year. First month, even. If you don’t want to be a statistic, you do what I say. You fucking mind.”

Again, she nodded.

Pitching the butt, Spike turned on his heel and started pacing back toward Casa Summers. At least wasn’t likely she’d hunt, not with her jaw like that.

He’d settle her later. Too tired to think about any non-agenda problems at the moment. The important thing was seeing Rupert had a proper send-off, getting him gone. Then he’d deal with the rest.

**********

Coming back from the airport, everybody was yawning and subdued. Well, nearly everybody, Dawn corrected: although Spike had managed to stay intermittently awake on the outward leg, as soon as Giles’ luggage was pulled out of the back, Spike tumbled over the bench seat into the vacated space and totally conked.

Inside the uncomfortably bright terminal, after the baggage was taken care of, Dawn pulled out of the group hug and the goodbyes as soon as she decently could and went outside where she could keep an eye on the SUV, parked in the yellow-striped pick-up/drop-off stretch near the doors. Pulling off the silly cardboard party hat, she pitched it in a convenient bin.

The past two days, at least four attempts had been made on Spike’s life. Dawn wanted to be uber-vigilant against another. Nobody had appointed her to sentry duty. Nobody had forbidden it, either. Hand in the pocket that held her taser, elbows pulled tight against her sides in the chilly air, Dawn paced the curb and watched.

Eventually everybody came out--Xander and Anya splitting off from Willow and going to Xander’s truck, Buffy and the SITs visibly dragging. They hadn’t gotten any sleep last night either and probably none through the day.

Noticing Dawn, Buffy said, “You shouldn’t go off like that.”

Falling in behind Willow, Dawn shrugged. “I’m not a Scooby or a SIT.”

“Then why did you come?” Buffy asked crossly, triggering the door locks.

Dawn only shrugged again. She slid the back door open and climbed in. She felt cranky, guilty, and anxious, all of the feelings combining as a sulky withdrawal she didn’t want to inflict on Buffy, who was enough on edge already.

Dawn was supposed to have planned the party but had blown it off in the upset of Spike’s marking her and refusing afterward to be anywhere around her. So Spike’d had to do the party set-up himself on top of all the rest of the crowbars, anvils, and knives he was juggling. All her fault--just like everything else.

That the mark had been...invalidated by another set over it, by a vamp who’d then been dusted, meant that things were supposedly back to normal now. Only they weren’t. Although present, Spike was more distant than ever. Shutting himself off, shutting her away. She'd barely been able to exchange two words with him since returning home from school or during the party and she doubted he'd really heard even them. Too distracted. Too focused on Buffy or Giles or all the invisible spinning hardware. And then Sue showing up, on top of everything: another concern added. Another piece of phantom hardware. Dawn could feel a crash coming.

Maybe, she thought hopefully, it was only that he was so totally wiped out in the aftermath of all that had happened. That hope lasted about two seconds because this hadn’t begun last night or even last week.

He didn’t move except when a turn rolled him to one side or the other. Facing backward, chin on arms folded on the bench seat, Dawn watched him worriedly, feeling a smothered, sad anxiety.

They dropped off Amanda at home, then Kennedy and Rona together at the boarding house. Finally Buffy pulled up in front of the theater marquee, turned off the engine, and twisted around in her seat, looking for Spike.

“He’s out of it,” Dawn reported quietly, pointing with a thumb.

In the front seat Willow asked Buffy, “What d’you think: just go home?”

Dawn shook her head. “He has the sweep still to do.” Not waiting for any more discussion, Dawn leaned over the seat back and poked and shook him a few times. “Spike. Spike, wake up. We’re at the mark.”

He went tight and startled for a second. Then he pushed up on an elbow, looking around, rubbing his eyes. “Right. Next to last on the agenda.” Abruptly unwinding, he popped the rear hatch and slid out, holding a sack of stakes. As he shut the hatch solidly, Dawn was down on the curb and back beside him.

“What’s this, then?”

“I’m staying. At least until it’s time to start the sweep.”

“You and whose great aunt? None of that nonsense, Bit. Back in the van.” He pushed, trying to turn and steer her, but she set her feet and grasped the curve of the SUV’s rear corner. And of course he wasn’t gonna outright shove her.

“I was good about last night,” she argued. “Played good soldier, stayed home like you said. But we have to talk.”

“And get home how? I’ll be out here till nearly sunup.”

“Buffy will come back,” Dawn proposed indifferently.

“Buffy will go home and have her beauty sleep. And so will you. School day, work day tomorrow, Bit.”

Willow lowered her window enough to lean out. “What’s the problem?”

Spike came up onto the sidewalk. “No problem. Just saying goodbye to Bit.” Looking around but past Dawn, not meeting her eyes, Spike added softly, “Don’t want to have a thing about this here. You go home now.”

“Spike, please. It’s important.”

“No. Got no head for more chat anyway. We’ll talk. Tomorrow…or the next day, maybe. Soon. Call you, maybe. Something.”

She was making it worse. She could see him trying to sort through the descending hardware, all the concerns backed up and overdue, trying to find a gap to slot her into and not finding any. She could imagine and feel his frustration. And she hadn’t the heart to push or insist anymore.

She patted his arm. “Be careful. Take a pill.”

“Trying not to do that no more.” He lifted his head, looking blankly at the sky. “Maybe. If I have to. Gonna be all right here, nothing for you to worry about.”

Willow called, “Dawn?”

“All right, all right!” Dawn yanked the rear door and flung herself inside far enough to draw it shut. The locks clicked. She watched Spike turn and head slowly toward the alley as the SUV pulled away.

From the front, Buffy directed, “Seat belt,” and Willow inquired, “What was that all about?” Neither of them sounded angry or impatient.

Facing forward, Dawn did up her seat belt.

Willow persisted, “Dawnie?”

They waited out a red light. When the SUV went forward again, Dawn said abruptly, “I don’t like this. I’m worried about him. He’s not connecting well or right anymore. No matter how he tries, or I do. I’m afraid it’s the soul: setting it aside. Afraid he’s coming unstuck and drifting and I can’t reach….” The image in her mind was of helplessly watching an untethered boat moving slowly farther from shore with the pull of the tide.

Which didn’t matter because Willow’s remarking to Buffy something about the Devon coven told Dawn nobody had heard her anyway.

**********

Finishing a cigarette and pacing the alley to stay alert, Spike checked his watch: 11:16. Watcher would be off, then. So that was done and hadn’t gone off too badly except for Clem startling Red considerable by showing some bumpies, wrinklies, and sudden visual nastiness as the punchline of an interminable joke. Doing a Beetlejuice, Dawn had called it, when she could stop laughing.

Important to have a few of the more harmless demon types present, party like that. Remind Rupert not all demons had nothing on their minds except eating the citizenry and trying to end the world from some combination of malice and boredom.

Snacks Clem had brought had been popular too. And the Angharan had been fine in the charades. Didn’t think anybody had noticed anything off about the punch or twigged to the actual nature of the crisp meat on skewers, with various dipping sauces. Spike had never been partial to kitten himself, but most kinds of demon liked it. Not as if it’d been human, after all: Spike had checked and slid the other away before anybody else had a chance to try it, had a word with Gregor afterward. Actually, several words, a shove, and poke in the eye.

Cookies had been good, though. Went well with the punch.

So that was accomplished and all right. He could forget about it now.

Vamp approaching. Several. He watched as they came into range of the streetlights: Emil, Mary, Kehoe, Strait. All in the colors, the black and the scarlet. All walking in the open as though they owned this town, which they did, when the sun was gone. Proudly game-faced, looking purposeful and dangerous. And from behind him, up the alley, another group coming: Bitter, Liz, Carlos, and then Huey, leading off from behind.

As the latter group came into talking distance, Spike directed, “Huey--coffee.”

Not like Spike didn’t have the pills, had some right in the duster pocket, but didn’t want to be relying on them so much. He’d be frazzled and flying all night and his judgment wasn’t the best at such times. And then the crash afterward, when the strangest of the dreams got in and occupied him like a conquered territory with no hope of escape. If coffee would do, he’d stick to that.

As Huey sent Carlos, the current junior, running the errand, the squad gathered around Spike to get their directions for the night.

Spike leaned his shoulders against the alley wall beside a dumpster, lighting a fresh cigarette. “All right, looking tonight for anybody trolling for druggies. One squad. After last night, whoever’s defying the schedule will likely be out in packs of three or four so as not to get caught on their own. So you stay together too. Anything you run across that’s out of your league, too many or too well armed, whatever, fall back, send a runner to the mark to tell me, and I’ll call it. Don’t want to get in a pitched territorial battle yet. All clear so far?

Strait raised his hand, and Spike nodded. “Who leads off?” the young vamp wanted to know. Had about twenty visible piercings: currently fascinated with pain and vamp healing.

“Huey. And Mary to second.” Huey wasn’t even close to the best fighter, but he kept a cool head, wasn’t easily rattled, and right now, Spike considered that the most important consideration. He stopped, reviewing what he’d said and what therefore remained to say. “Right. Druggies. Start at Sycamore, work around from there, east to west. Dust any vamps you find. Dealers are fair game too, if they’re not too wasted. Share ‘em around if you do, though. Don’t want nobody incapable on a sweep.” Not much of the designated protective scent yet in circulation: do as many of the dealers as possible until it was, when feeding on ‘em would have to be regretfully prohibited. “Let the druggies be. And drunks and so forth that you come across. Pass ‘em by. Stick to vamps and the odd dealer for now. Any questions.”

Again, Strait lifted a hesitant hand.

Spike said, “What.”

“Haven’t fed.”

“Then you’ll have to go hungry, won’t you?” Spike flicked a glance to Huey, who nodded. Huey would see that the lad had sufficient chance at the night’s first prey. Otherwise, underfed and desperate, the boy’s demon might push him into doing something dumb.

“Keeping Carlos as a runner for awhile,” Spike said. “So go on. Back here to report at five.”

He distributed stakes from the bag, and the squad headed out in good order. So that was sorted and all right. Presently Carlos came with the coffee--double espresso, triple sugar, Spike’s current favorite. Uncapping the cup, Spike sent the boy to mind the back of the alley, to warn of anything coming up from behind. In a couple of days, Spike would have to change the gather mark from the theater--any point, used too often, was asking for an ambush. But for now it was convenient and handy to the Espresso Pump, that now kept all-night hours because of the recent increase in nighttime business. Mainly Spike’s doing. He ran a tab there now for himself and those of his crew who had a taste for the stuff.

The concentrated caffeine hit his system almost like the first gulp of good whiskey but with opposite effect: awakening prickles everywhere and a wash of stronger alertness, jumping the reach of his perceptions almost to those of sight.

A vamp hiding under a parked van, opposite side of the street. With a little concentration, he could smell her, though vamps didn’t have much scent.

Having downed about half the remaining coffee, Spike said quietly, “Coast’s clear now. Come on.”

As Sue emerged from under the van, dragging her carryall, Spike checked his watch: ten to midnight.

“All right,” he said as she stood in front of the dumpster, “let’s see the damage.” He set thumb and finger on her chin and turned her head, inspecting. Looked to be about halfway healed, still plenty showing. Good enough. “Here,” he said, fishing in a duster pocket, and produced the two bags of tribute blood delivered for his evening meal. He figured he was fed up good enough not to need them and anyway he was used to going quite awhile without. Not as if he was a fledge, needed feeding every night. He watched her tear into the bags and gulp the blood with ravenous haste.

“It’s cold,” she complained, but pitched the empty bags into the dumpster, obedient to his nod.

“Ain’t got the time,” Spike said, “to be lumbered with a fledge. So I’m sending you off to somebody who has. District Master, old enough to have trained up a thousand fledges, knows what he’s about. Long as you mind him as best you can, he won’t just lose patience and dust you, on account of he’s a bit short-handed at the moment. He’ll have other fledges around, most likely. Train you all. Name of Digger.”

“Want you,” Sue objected. “Came back here for you.”

Ignoring the comment, Spike went on, “Digger wants me gone real bad. Had a couple of tries at it and I don’t expect he’ll quit now. You take notice of what you can. He won’t know you, doesn’t know you were a SIT. You see it stays that way. You’re just a local fledge, got turned here, just before the Hellmouth was closed. He’s not apt to ask you much--nobody cares where a fledge came from, who they used to be, nothing like that. You just sing small, do what you’re told, keep your eyes and ears open. I’ll set up some way to check on you, swap news and like that. You come on something interesting, you pass it along.”

“Spy,” Sue remarked, liking that.

Finishing the coffee, Spike nodded. “Digger’s current fuck is a bint calls herself ‘Star.’ You stay wide of her. Don’t give her a reason to dust you. ‘Cause she will if she thinks you’re a threat, getting too cozy with Digger. You pick somebody else, somebody you figure is a good fighter, to get cozy with. Fledge needs a protector, a partner, specially bints. Digger’s not for you, though he’ll likely fuck you from time to time. Try you out, keep you in line. When--”

“Didn’t come back for that,” Sue interrupted sullenly.

“Well, that’s just your bad luck and bad judgment, innit? Told you, I ain’t got the time. An’ I’m not the toy surprise in your box of sweets, just reach in and take. Part of what you gave up in letting yourself get turned. S’not up to you anymore, you’re not the queen of the May, you’re maybe one step up from a dog bitch in heat and a bloody liability till you can get your damn demon under some sort of control, and nobody’s gonna give you any slack whatever until that happens. Until you can mind. Until you can choose and not just let yourself get flung around by whatever wind that blows. Might be years. Might be never.” He pitched the coffee container into the dumpster.

“I’ll learn,” Sue declared. “Didn’t pick the first vamp I bumped into, to turn me. The plane had a layover at O’Hare and I got my gear and left--big city, lots to choose from. I hunted every night. Quizzed ‘em, dusted all that didn’t suit, until I found one who remembered the First World War. Nearly a century. Bribed him to turn me and keep watch till I rose, not just become another forgotten meal. Jeffrey. Dusted him after, of course. Chicago’s OK, easy hunting there, but I always planned to come back here. To you. So you’d teach me how to survive. Like before.”

“And I’m passing you along to Digger,” Spike replied, mildly annoyed by her ignorant arrogance, thinking he’d give a fraction of a damn about her history, her stupid choices. Thinking her priorities were all that mattered. “Where maybe you can be some use to me, but likely not. At least you’ll be out of my hair.”

She fiddled with her braid, frowning. “Send me to Mike, then.”

“No. Michael’s hardly past a fledge himself, you know that. He’s got enough on his plate without you. And you’d be no use to me there.”

She didn’t argue, which meant she was planning to go hunt Michael anyway. And therefore would be blundering into some other District Master’s territory, trespassing, and likely gone before daybreak. Feeling his eyes go yellow, Spike was tempted to dust her himself, except he was too tired to bother.

“Michael won’t take you on.”

“Maybe he would.”

“Not if I tell him No. Unlike you, Michael knows how to mind.”

That finally got through to her. She bent her head, lowered her eyes--at last assuming a submissive pose.

Spike said, “When you can shed game face ten minutes at a go, maybe I’ll listen to what you want. Until then, you’re just a nuisance and a chore. Better Digger’s than mine. You do what I say or I’m done with you, right here.”

“All right, Spike,” Sue said softly. “I’ll be good. You’ll see.”

“You better be, or else you’ll be gone. Digger won’t put up with your nonsense any more than I would. Except he needs numbers and has a reason to want to keep you standing, which is more than I have.”

She sniffled, which made him look at her. Tears were rolling down her ridged, fanged face. “Why are you being so mean to me?”

“Fuck off,” said Spike, and whistled up Carlos from the far end of the alley. “She’s one of Digger’s,” Spike explained. “Only a fledge, ain’t quite caught on to the new rules. Gonna give her a pass, this once. See her to the edge of his territory, point her toward the lair. Don’t touch her--don’t want Digger to smell us on her or we might as well not bother. Come back here after.”

Carlos nodded smartly and led her away. Carlos was fairly reliable. Should go all right unless she decided to feed along the way. Well, that was gonna happen, Spike knew. Had to expect it. Nothing he could do about it. Couldn’t control everything and it’d be stupid even to try. Maybe could moderate the numbers, night by night, but only an idiot would try to alter or suppress fundamental vamp nature. Had to work within what was possible, accept the limits.

Spike didn’t expect much. Figured about an 80% chance Suzanne would get all caught up in the new place, new way of thinking and being, get caught up in the always-shifting interlace of allegiances and enmities that was life in a vampire pack, and forget the rest. Forget whatever tie she’d imagined she had to him. Likely sell him out, if the chance came, to win favor from her new master. He didn’t intend to trust her. But she might survive. He’d done the best for her he could think of. And she’d known enough to choose a vamp of some age to turn her. Inherited an old, experienced demon. The results were plain: still only a fledge, but more control and awareness than most who were many times her age. She might have a chance. No going back now to what had been before.

Last agenda item for tonight was deciding where he’d lair up to sleep, come sunup. Still be awhile before he’d risk returning to Casa Summers or his factory, either one, on anything like a regular basis. Be the same as extending the invisible target on his chest to cover those places, each of them, like a tent. An invitation to mass attack and firebombs--the sort that had reduced Casa Spike to smoking rubble. Nor was Spike stupid enough to believe Digger, and a few others, didn’t have or couldn’t get minions who could be abroad during the day, poking and looking. He could consider nothing safe until he’d made it safe, shut out all avenues of attack. Until he’d done that, he had to stay unpredictable, elusive. And thoroughly wipe out whatever came at him, till the opposition left off trying.

Last he’d heard, the bounty Digger had set on him was $ 10,000; after last night, it was likely up at least by half. Doing Spike had become a valuable commodity, ripe for speculation. The bounty, and the current odds, were up on the board at Willy’s, quoted for all to see. Were he not involved, Spike would have liked the odds and taken a chance on collecting. Only natural.

A vamp was most vulnerable asleep. So Spike had to make himself scarce and hard to find. Never the same place twice. Anyplace would do so long as it was away from the sun, away from anybody he cared about or wanted to protect, and big enough to curl up in.

Sorting among the alternatives, he jerked, realizing he’d been dozing on his feet again. He smacked a fist hard against the edge of the dumpster. The pain brought him back to alertness, but that would fade fast. Even the dumpster was starting to look good to him: enclosed dark space once the lid was shut. Quiet. Smell didn’t matter. Great way to find yourself falling toward an incinerator at high noon, out at the rubbish tip. Stupid even to consider it.

No more coffee until Carlos got back to fetch it.

Reluctantly, resignedly, Spike reached into the duster pocket for the vial of pills.



Continued in Chapter 2: Components, Influences

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