By Cynthia Martin
The Mustang was sorry-looking bird, primer gray from stem to stern and more dents than a sack of walnuts, but she had Go and no mistake. She sailed over the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River and her bumper kicked sparks as it nosed onto the flat. Her tires bounced lustily and found purchase, squealing as she shot away.
The windows were long gone and Spike could hear his pursuers even over the roar of wind and the music pounding from the Mustang's dash. A nice fat pack of biker demons were tearing up the dusty channel, close and gaining fast, their ugly gobs contorted with rage. Spike hooted and jeered, flipping a salute in the rearview, then found himself grappling with the wheel as the car shimmied. He fought her back under control, risking another glance to see what the ill-considered impulse had cost him. Not too bad: one greasy slob on a chopper had drawn almost even but the rest of the pack were in fine position.
Spike's grin vanished. The demons weren't alone. A flying wedge of squad cars had joined the chase, sirens screaming, red lights painting the concrete walls of the riverbed. Bugger every sodding buggerable thing, didn't those gits ever learn? It was going to be Modesto all over again. Christ Almighty, it hardly seemed fair. Another perfectly good plan shaping for a ballsup thanks to John Law.
Tensing, counting off the seconds, Spike tightened his wheel grip onehanded and shoved the wedge into place on the accelerator. The phial came out of his breast pocket and he thumbed the tiny gem set into the topmost band. A truly epic stench flowered inside the Mustang and a blazing dimensional portal exploded into being dead ahead, a yellow maw as wide as the channel itself.
Spike popped the door and hit the asphalt rolling. The Mustang shot herself through the portal and the bikers roared after her without even slowing down, and there was that part seen to -- but the black and whites of LA's finest were right behind them. Spike tumbled to a stop. The phial shot from his hands. He lunged for it, knocked it away, caught it again and brought his fist down hard. The phial shattered. The portal vanished. Patrol cars raced past him unmolested, brakes screaming in protest, and momentum carried them out of range.
Well. Scratch one gang of lackwit biker demons, anyway. Spike got stiffly to his feet, staring at the last wisps of yellow energy dissipating in the night air. Pity about the car. She had been a good companion and true, as fine a machine as the speedfreak's art could make her and she had spent herself in the cause of right. He would miss her, and mourn her, and --
There were nights a bloke couldn't seem catch a break. Spike turned to face the headlights of the latecomers. Two prowlies had flung themselves over the doors of a lone sedan, guns up and braced.
Spike sighed and took a step back. "Now, lads. Listen. Don't shoot me, I was just -- "
"Pull up that shirt!" yelled the young officer on the right.
"Get down on the ground!" shouted his partner on the left.
Spike had no intention of doing either. He dropped his hands and took to his heels. Two service pistols fired. Spike spun and fell with the impact and when he came up again his eyes were yellow. "For fuck's sake," he hissed. "When are you tossers going to stop shooting me?"
"Don't move!" yelped the officer on the right, clearly deaf to appeal.
The rest of the squad was closing the gap, having managed to turn themselves about and motor back in good order. Spike felt abruptly tired. What was the point of it? Why subject oneself to this lunacy night after bleeding night? Why light one candle when it was easier -- and unarguably safer -- to simply curse the darkness?
But Spike knew the score. That was one thing about which he was crystal clear. Spike was in possession of a first rate agenda and he was damned if a bunch of LA flatfoots were going to delay it by even a day.
Spike's face shifted into the most terrifying mask he could contrive, given a chronic a lack of blood and two smoking holes in the chest.
"Stay back," he growled, "if you want to keep all your manly bits. I'm not kidding, lads, you've put me right off my good mood."
Stuff this, thought Spike. Revolvers barked and a few more slugs buried themselves in his lower back as he turned and nipped up the walls of the channel. Fine, so what. He'd collected enough bullets over the summer to become a minor magnetic anomaly and it hadn't slowed him down yet. He picked up speed, dashing over the dusty dead zone of the channel's margin toward a line of towering oleander. He could hear engines starting and a few brave souls scrabbling up the sides to give chase, but he knew once he hit the foliage they'd never find him; he was as good as gone. Dusty leaves in the face, a nip from some barbed wire and then he was on the other side, skidding to a halt just in time to avoid barreling into a group of dark figures. They stood as if waiting for his arrival, arms folded and faces hard.
Spike thought he recognized a few and there was no mistaking the one in front, the hulking troglodyte with the enormous forehead.
"Just goes to show you." Spike turned his head and spat. "I was dead sure the night couldn't get any better."
"What was that?" demanded Angel impassively. "What was that down there?"
Spike lifted his chin. "That was me puttin' paid to a grisly lot of murdering demons, that's what it was. Did 'em good. Got me a portal and biffed 'em on through and not a bad night's work, if you ask me. And hello yourself, you rude sod."
"So what? Now they're just going to terrorize some other innocent dimension, you idiot."
Spike opened his mouth to reply and stopped, frowning. "Hadn't thought of that," he admitted.
"Not surprising. You've been a hot topic all summer, Spike, among a certain element. One stupid exploit after another. It's a miracle you haven't set what's left of California to the torch."
Spike clicked his tongue. "Tsk, I'm hurt. You knew I was back and never looked me up? Left me out there to fight good fight solo, unfriended and alone? Cold, Peaches, cold."
"Fan out," Angel instructed his team. "Draw off those cops."
Spike tapped a cigarette loose. "Quite the biddable gang of lackeys you got there, Angel. If a fellah needs that sort of thing, I mean." Light flared briefly and he inhaled, waving offhandedly at the tendrils of smoke curling from his chest.
Angel eyed him with distaste. "Let's get a few things straight, Spike. I heard about the Hellmouth. I don't know how you managed to survive, but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. For now. And far from here. Get it?"
"So hit the road."
"And stay out of LA."
"Right," said Spike, sitting down abruptly beneath the oleander bushes. The sky seemed to tilt and the cigarette fell from his fingers.
"Angel!" shouted a voice. "Angel, this could go bad in a hurry. We need to get moving."
"Catch you later, Sunny Jim," mumbled Spike.
Spike heard Angel curse and then someone was hauling him upright, pulling him across the tarmac, shoving him into a car.
Nice car, thought Spike, and didn't think anything else for a while.
"Yyyyyaaaaarrrrghhh!" bellowed Spike. "Watch it!"
Fred dropped another slug onto the metal tray. "Sorry."
"Come on, Spike, get tough." Angel smiled contentedly as Fred probed again. "What's twelve bullets to a hardcase like you?"
"Fourteen," murmured Fred, digging.
"Just leave 'em. Hey! Ow!"
"I was thinking almost the same thing," remarked Angel. "I was thinking, just now, that we could have easily left you napping in the bushes, with cops everywhere and the sun about to rise."
"Well, why didn't you?"
"I guess I'm going soft," smirked Angel.
Spike grit his teeth as Fred's tweezers made another pass. "And this is where I thank you brokenly and weep on your fat neck, I suppose? Hah bloody -- harrrgh!"
"You're welcome, Spike," said Angel serenely.
"Done," announced Fred. "I think."
"Fair enough," panted Spike, struggling to sit up. "S'been lovely, all. Now if you'll excuse me --"
Fred reached forward to steady him. "Not so fast, cowboy. You're pretty much exsanguinated and your innards are ribbons. All of them --torn, shredded ribbons."
"Thanks, that's an effective picture."
"You need to hang out for a while."
Spike shook his head. "No, I don't."
"No, he doesn't," agreed Angel readily.
Fred gave them both a cool look and fastened a bag of AB Neg to the drip by the exam table. "Give me your arm, Spike."
"Ta," said Spike, honestly. "But I don't suppose, you couldn't let me -- I mean couldn't I, you know, drink it?"
Fred jammed the needle home and patted his arm. "P'shaw, a wizened critter like you? Now, now, don't whine -- we gotta be careful. Too much too soon could harmful. I think."
Spike blinked woozily as the IV tube filled. He put a hand back to brace himself, but it slithered away and he found himself staring up at the ceiling.
"See? Shape you're in, this is gonna kick like a mule."
"Whoof," mumbled Spike. "Wow."
Fred turned to Angel. "Gotta go scrounge more goodies. Gimme a holler if his eyes roll white."
Angel folded his arms and scowled.
"Nice... skirt," whispered Spike, rolling his head to track Fred's exit.
"Spike, what are you doing?"
"Hm... drifting in a sea of plenty at present, Gaffer."
"It's the drifting in a sea of not-death, frankly, that makes me ask." Angel peered at him. "How long since you last fed? And how did you get out of the Hellmouth?"
"Who told you about the Hellmouth?"
Spike shut his eyes tighter. "Yeah, shoulda figured that."
"She told me --"
"Are you asking me or not?" snapped Spike.
Angel said nothing.
"Right then. I'm sure you'll be pleased as punch to know that I didn't. Get out, I mean. I went up like a roman candle. Burned to cinders. Quite the fatal incendiary display -- too bad you missed it."
"I think so, too," said Angel, "considering that's the only way I'd believe this crap."
"Held the rearguard," continued Spike, not minding him, "scorning the pain and stalwart to the end. Said a few valedictory words. Did some laughing in the face of death, too. Took one for the team and died noble as dammit." Spike opened one eye and gave Angel a lopsided grin. "Felt great. Once the mind-bending agony quit, I mean."
"So what are you doing here?" prompted Angel neutrally.
"Back!" cried Fred. "Look, num, nutritious goodness." She hooked another bag to the IV drip, transferred the feed and checked Spike's arm.
"Ask anything of me, fair one, unto half my kingdom," slurred Spike adoringly.
Fred patted him and scuttled off.
"Don't worry about saving the reserves or anything, Fred," muttered Angel.
"Muh... where was I... Oh, yes: dead, you know, very dead and disembodied but not feeling too low, considering. Bit confused at first -- had some sanity issues even before getting blown ass over teakettle across nine dimensions -- but some blokes took me in hand and gave me the lowdown."
"What kind of blokes?"
"Oh, you know," Spike waved his untaped arm bonelessly. "Floaty blokes. Robes, maybe. This one nob, he gets me aside an' he says, You ain't done, Spikey lad. You got some atoning to do. Right ho, says I: let me at 'em."
Angel's eyes grew narrow. "Is that so."
Spike chuckled. "Sure, why not? Seemed a pretty ripe kind of plan all round. But here's the good part. He tells me that if I do lots of good deeds, I get to snuff it and save the world again at some point down the road -- and that one's gonna be for all the marbles, Angel, old son. They're gonna let me come back human after that."
Angel had gone very still. "What?"
"What did you say?"
Spike winced. "Jesus, you don't need to shout. Pull yourself together, Captain Bringdown, I'm sickly."
"I think you're a liar."
"Why would I bother to lie? Besides: good now."
Angel drew himself up. "There's a name for what you're describing. It's called Shanshu. And it can only happen... once."
"Put ten bob on old Spike, then, because I'm a cert. Here, look." Spike fumbled in his back pocket and withdrew a battered notepad held together by rubber bands. "I been keeping very strict accounts. Places, dates... names, when I could get 'em. Meet my quota every day. Fighting demons, slaying sucubi, doing down the odd malignant primal force. There was a dustup in Ojai that --"
"Spike, forget it. The prophecy of Shanshu is spoken for. You're not the one."
"Says you," retorted Spike genially. "What do you know about it?"
"All there is to know: a souled vampire, a champion of justice, who earns his mortality by a life of atonement. Dammit, the Shanshu prophecy refers to me."
Spike considered the ceiling for a moment. "Nope," he said at last. "I don't buy it. You're out of luck, Creamcakes -- I dunno where you've been getting your information, but I have mine straight from a member of Heaven's top drawer."
"Then he needs to get on the same page with the Powers That Be, because he's wrong."
"Aw, dry those puppy eyes and take it like a man, Angel. Life is full of ups and downs." Spike sat up, gripping the sides of the gurney. "My advice? Buck up and deal, there's a good lad. As for me, I'm going right back out there to do good until the next apocalypse fries me, and then we'll see who laughs last."
"If you manage to do any good at all," replied Angel, "that'll be funny enough for me."
Spike hopped down and yanked the IV from his arms. "Well, thanks for the teary welcome and succor and all. I'm off to right some wrongs. And feel free to visit me in the winner's circle at the End of Days, Gaffer."
"Yeah, and maybe we'll go ice skating in hell too, Spike."
Spike was reaching for the door when the lights went out. The air moaned and turned icy. Beakers jingled. Spike's bullets rattled in their tray. The door slammed open and Fred staggered into the room, a hellish gleaming glow where her eyes had been, ichor streaming from the sockets. "Cower!" She shrieked. "Die now and despair! Fudo comes!"
Spike caught her as she dropped in a dead faint.
"Fred," choked Angel.
The building shuddered as from a blow. The moans scaled upward, shredding into tortured screams. A drumming began, like the pulse of some huge unhallowed heart, louder, closer, crueler.
"Get her out of here, Spike! Now!"
Spike and Angel traded a grim look. Then Spike gathered Fred into his arms and obeyed.
Seven ladder companies responded to the stubborn blaze. Spike and Angel took a discreet walk.
"Well, that was certainly a fat steaming heap of nothing." Spike shook his head and tried to scrape away a lump of chemical retardant. "Can't anyone mount a decent apocalypse any more? The place is failed."
Angel glowered. "I told you not to come back for me."
"You didn't say a bloody thing!"
"I gave you the Look."
"How was I supposed to know what that meant? You might have been telling me to check the gas on the way out, for all I knew." Spike tossed aside his ruined cigarettes and wagged an admonishing finger. "You're not the most expressive of blokes, Angel. If we're gonna start using nonverbal cues you really need to work on that."
Angel turned fully around. "Don't even think it. Your services are not required. The night's not long enough to tell you how not required they are."
"Oh, don't be such a -- look, it'll be brilliant. Pretty clear you need the help. And I rather fancy myself as a mysterious hanger-on, lending aid when needed, drifting away unthanked..."
"Emphasis on the latter, I hope," muttered Angel.
"Besides, gotta keep an eye on you. This notion of you getting the, uh... the, uh..."
"Shanshu. Shanshu. How many times do I have to say it?"
"-- the Shanshu is pure bosh, of course, but I'm a careful lad. Don't want you pulling a fast one. Be just like you to brown-nose some softhearted demiurge at the critical moment and snaffle it. Gotta stay on my toes."
"While fulfilling your quota of good," Angel reminded him drily. "Don't forget about all the good you want to do."
"Not a chance." Spike laughed. "Absolutely top of mind, that."
"I talk to her a lot, you know."
Spike stopped dead. "Leave that," he warned softly.
"I'm just saying, Spike. She was really bad off for while... after."
"She was?" asked Spike reluctantly. Then his face grew cold and impassive. "Needed some comfort, I expect, which you were more than happy to provide?"
"I can't say no. She's... We...There's a lot of history."
"History's a nice word for it. Very prissy, very pure." Spike looked away. "And I bet you had your hands full, what with your history and offering the broad shoulder to cry on and all. Bet you never quite found the time to mention that I was back, did you?"
"It was just a rumor at the time," replied Angel. "I couldn't do that to her."
Spike snorted with disgust and stalked away. Then he wheeled. "Jesus, listen to youself! Couldn't do that, can't do this. Beats me why you gotta be so bleedin' obsessive about her. Fixated, that's you. Aren't you ever gonna move on? There's plenty of fish on the sea, Angel, God knows -- these LA bints are anything but choosy."
Angel eyed him.
"I mean, well... not that I'd know personally," coughed Spike.
"If you want to tell her I can't stop you," said Angel evenly. "Nobody's stopping you, Spike."
Spike shrugged and dropped his eyes, muttering inaudibly.
"Didn't catch that," taunted Angel, suddenly out of patience. "Come again?"
Spike waved dismissively and turned away. "See you around, Nancy," he called. "Wherever's there's Injustice, look for me. Whenever there's a Cockup, I'll be there. And the next time you get your nuts stuck in a vise, do us a favor and get stuffed, eh?"
Angel didn't answer. Spike reached the alley's end, merged with the silvery shadows of La Cienega and was gone.
It was a long walk back to the old place. It occurred to Angel, along the way, that if he actually *was* locked into a do-gooding contest for the Shanshu, Spike had just presented him with a fine opportunity to rack up some points.
But it wasn't a contest, Angel told himself wearily. It wasn't.
Only an idiot could believe something like that.