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Part one of two

Episode Twelve: Wages

by cousinjean
Sick Cycle Carousel by Lifehouse
I Will Survive by Cake

Shoutouts: To all of my beta readers -- adjrun, Aurelio Zen, Ehann, fenwic, georgevna, and the rest of the DL crew -- for being spot on with most of your suggestions and for being patient with me when I cried and pitched fits and just didn't want to listen. It's a much better story for your influence. And to our regular readers, for not writing to complain about the schedule changes or all of the lateness that's been happening since I started back to school, and also for your support of this site. It is so very much appreciated.
Special thanks to Joss Whedon -- not that he'll ever see this -- for giving us these characters. I love them all so much. I can't wait to see what he's got planned for them all.


Friday night at the Bronze. Usually, that meant a packed house. Especially during the holidays, with the local students coming in to blow off steam from finals, and later to celebrate getting through them; but the regular crowds had been dwindling over the past several weeks. At the dinner hour, people should have been lined up at the bar, waiting their turn for a table. Instead, there were only a couple handfuls of regular patrons scattered throughout, with a few stragglers on the dance floor. Thermal scans showed that all who were there were living.
All but one of them, anyway; but he didn’t need a thermal scanner to tell him that. Tucking the device back in his pocket, he took a seat at the back of the club. He stuck to the shadows, and never took his eyes off his target.
The music slowed to something soft and romantic. The hostile took the hand of the girl who sat across from him and led her out onto the dance floor. It wrapped her in its arms, held her tight as it swayed in time to the music. The girl responded in kind, snaking her suntanned arms around the hostile’s neck, and staring into its eyes as if the creature were the only thing in the world that mattered at that moment.
It was the way he used to look at her.
The way she never looked at him.
Do you think that I spent the last year with you because you had super powers?
He took a swig of his beer, and studied the couple on the dance floor. Studied the way small, manicured, deceptively gentle fingers lovingly stroked peroxided hair. Studied her face when their lips met, the look of sheer contentment, the way she completely lost herself in the vampire’s kiss.
If that's what I wanted, then I'd be dating Spike.
Riley’s head started to hurt, and he realized he was grinding his teeth. Finally, it became too much, and he had to look away. As he went to the bar to get something stronger, he wondered how it had come to this.
Look at you. All afraid I’m hot for your honey.
It was his own fault. He could have stayed. He could have fought harder, could have at least made sure that damned little leech wouldn’t have a chance in hell of…
Riley sighed, and ordered two shots of tequila from the bartender.
He should have stayed; but he didn’t. He left. He had admitted defeat, and gotten on that helicopter, and gone to fight a war he stood a chance of winning, as far away from here as he could get. Because deep down, he’d known. Even if she hadn’t yet.
He’d seen this coming.
The song was ending. Riley downed both shots, then ordered another beer. He took it back to his table, and resumed his watch.
Buffy let out a whine as the music sped up into a danceable tune by some teenage pop diva. They looked at each other, and agreed: the song sucked. "But I don’t wanna stop slow dancing," she pouted.
"’S just as well," Spike said. "If they didn’t chase me out of here with this bubblegum crap I’d be tempted to stay here all night. I really should be getting back to the shop. Told Dawn we’d only take an hour." He kissed her temple and led her back to their table.
"You didn’t finish your wings," she observed. "You didn’t eat much at all." She eyed him critically. "If I didn’t know better, I’d ask if you were sick. You’re not losing your taste for actual food, are you?"
"Not a chance," he said, glancing towards the back of the club as he shrugged into his coat. "Just a bit distracted." He smiled at her. "Guess I was enjoying the company too much to notice the food. ‘Sides, I was saving room for dessert." His face lit up as he seemed to remember something. "Oi, we got any of that green Jell-O stuff left?"
Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Ew. I threw that out a week ago. It was starting to grow fur. And … other stuff. I waited any longer, I might’ve had to stake it."
"Damn. That stuff was brilliant."
"If you say so. I think you were the only one who ate any of it. I’ve never been much of a Jell-O fan."
"Really?" Spike cocked his head to one side, and regarded her with a mischievous, slightly lecherous smirk. "Bet I could change that."
Buffy raised an eyebrow. "How’s that?"
He leaned in conspiratorially and spoke in her ear, his voice low and husky. "There are all kinds of creative uses for Jell-O, pet."
Buffy swallowed. Hard. "You know, the sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can get our stuff done, and the sooner we can both get home."
Spike stood up straight. "Right. I’ll just go grab a box for the wings." He kissed her lightly on the lips and started to go, then suddenly turned back and swept her into a more passionate, but all too brief embrace. He let her go and, with a wink, turned and headed to the bar. Buffy watched him go, unable to control the grin on her face and feeling more than a little silly for it.
"So. That’s what one of those looks like."
Buffy looked at the source of the voice, and blinked. "Riley. Hi. Um, what one of what looks like?"
"A Buffy in love."
She felt herself blush. "Riley …"
"It’s a good look on you," he said. "I’m glad I got to see it."
Buffy considered him for a minute. She knew Spike didn’t trust him, but he seemed sincere. Besides, he was too nice a guy not to be. She smiled at him. "Thanks."
"So, you and Spike have big plans tonight?"
"Not really. He’s just on break from the shop. We’re getting ready to head back there now. Dawn’s minding the store, but she’s really too young to be left in charge for long."
Riley looked appalled. "She’s there alone?"
"Oh, no," Buffy said. "Of course not. I’m still Insane Overprotecty Buffy. That’s one thing that definitely hasn’t changed since you left. Faith and Xander are there with her."
Riley looked relieved. Buffy eyed him suspiciously. "Speaking of which, what about you? You’re not here alone, are you?"
"For now," he said, "but Ben’s supposed to meet me here. He wants to check out the seedier parts of town."
Buffy nodded. "Just be careful, okay?"
"Hey." He grinned. "A seasoned cop and a special ops soldier? I think we’ll hold our own."
Buffy frowned. It was that kind of overconfidence that got people killed. "Riley, no offense, but two Slayers and a vampire weren’t enough against the Master. Be. Careful."
His grin faded, and he looked down at her with those big, earnest eyes. "I will, Buffy. Don‘t worry."
She held his eyes for a moment, and noted the change in them. They still held kindness, and determination, and even a little of the old adoration as he looked at her; but there was something else. Something missing, actually. The naiveté was gone. So was some of the hope. In its place they held an oddly familiar look of aching. She felt a momentary sinking sensation coupled with a sense of déjà vu, and she shuddered. This big bad world had really done a number on Riley Finn. Buffy couldn’t help but feel she’d contributed to it.
"I hope you’re not thinking of poaching off my plate, Hawkeye."
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. "Spike …"
"What?" He gave her an innocent look. "I was talking about the wings." Spike reached between her and Riley and dumped his leftover chicken into the to go box, then snapped it shut and looked at her. "You ready?"
"Yeah." She looked at Riley, who glared at Spike. To his credit, Spike managed not to smirk back at him. "See you, Riley. And I meant what I said. Be careful."
"Yeah," he said. As she turned to follow Spike out, he added, "You too."
It all started to come back to him.
He was looking for food when they came, foraging through the Dumpster behind the restaurant. Sometimes people threw out entire meals, barely touched. Such a wasteful culture. Food was easy to come by, if you knew just where to look. That night’s hunt yielded an entire serving of Fettuccini Alfredo. He stood up with his prize, triumphant, until he realized he was surrounded. Yellow eyes, bumpy foreheads. He dropped his would be dinner and pulled a homemade cross out of his coat. He’d managed to burn a few, but the rest had just laughed at him as they wrestled him into the back of a van that was already full of street people.
"Cheer up, folks," one of the monsters told them before shutting them in. "You’re about to die in service to the Master. At least your pathetic little lives will mean something for once."
He could still hear the creature muttering as it climbed into the front of the van. "What d’you want to bet the Master will get to pick and choose from those college kids we rounded up the other night while we get stuck with the bottom feeders back there?"
"Blood’s blood, dude," the driver said. "At least this way we don’t have to risk running into the Slayer every night just to get something to eat."
He’d heard enough. Over the last couple years he’d gotten pretty good at passing out at will. Wasn’t hard to do when you were consistently loaded, and it was a pretty good way of escaping the things you didn‘t want to know about. He worked his way into the corner of a van, slumped forward, and slipped out of consciousness.
Too bad they hadn’t let him stay there. Instead, he was wide awake, and worse, he was starting to sober up.
Master. Slayer. Where had he heard those before?
He tried to remember. Damn, his head hurt. He didn’t want to remember. Remembering meant he would have to cope -- with losing his faith, his parish, his home and, bit by bit, his touch with reality. Even worse, his ability to care. He didn’t want to remember that, any more than he wanted to remember the fact that the Mayor had turned into a gigantic snake before his very eyes, and before the eyes of his parishioners. He didn’t want to remember his congregation's refusal to deal with that night, their willful blindness to what had happened to their children, or his failure to minister to them. How could he when they so stubbornly refused to see what was happening in this town?
He wanted a drink. A good, stiff bourbon, preferably, followed by another, and another, until he found himself wrapped like a blanket in the fuzzy, warm comfort of oblivion. Instead he found himself surrounded by bars, caged up with a few dozen others, in a line of six identical cages, all filled to capacity. They were cattle, waiting to be led to slaughter. A few seemed resigned to their fate, but most were frightened, pretending to have no idea what was going on, even though they had to have seen their captors. He recognized some of them from his parish, though none recognized him. Of course they didn’t. The very idea of having once made confession to this scruffy wino? That would be as far outside their sphere of reality as the fact that they were about to become entrees on an all-you-can-eat vampire buffet.
Vampires. This town had always been full of them, but not like the past few weeks. The more he sobered up, the more he remembered of things he had witnessed, acts of unspeakable evil performed by these unholy abominations. How could he remain in the service of a God who would allow these things to walk the earth unchecked? He couldn’t. So, he’d retired, but that hadn’t been enough. He’d lost his faith. In God, in redemption, in goodness. Everywhere he looked, he saw evil. It was the only thing he had faith in anymore. He thought he’d prepared himself to face it, to fight it, to survive. Looks like he was wrong, or else he wouldn’t be waiting his turn to die in service to the Master.
Where had he heard that name before?
It hit him. A back alley, a lover’s quarrel. A night that might have changed his life had he stayed sober enough to let it. The young woman -- the Slayer. A warrior. She’d known about the monsters, and had been preparing to confront them -- not hide from them or deny their existence like everyone else in this town. She and the other had been trying to prevent the Master from being raised. Obviously, they’d failed.
The other. He was a vampire. A monster, trying to stop the evil, to protect the girl he so clearly loved. And then the fight had ended, and the creature had discovered him pretending to sleep beneath a stack of boxes. The vampire didn’t even try to eat him. Instead he’d given him a cigarette, and told him to be careful. It had even worried that he might set himself on fire. He shook his head in wonder at the memory. Every day, his fellow human beings passed him by, averting their eyes, pretending he didn’t exist, same as they pretended the evil didn’t exist. Yet he’d been shown compassion by a creature of evil, and made to feel human again.
His hand shook as he ran it through his unwashed hair, remembering his own personal trip to Damascus. Once again, his entire world view shattered. Had the forces of evil become so strong that God was willing to use their soldiers to fight His war? The good news, now that he was sober enough to think about it, was that there was a war being waged. For the first time since his breakdown, he felt that it was a war worth fighting. If he could somehow survive this ordeal and make it out of this cage, he would fight it with everything that he had.
For the first time in two years, Father Emil Sanchez began to pray.
"You’re late," Dawn complained as they entered the shop.
"Sorry, Bit," Spike said as he went to put his coat away behind the counter, "lost track of time. Won’t happen again."
"Yes, well," Dawn crossed her arms and attempted to imitate Giles. "See to it that it does not."
Spike rolled his eyes. "The bitty boss has spoken." Dawn giggled, and went back to dusting a shelf full of crystals.
"So," Buffy said, flouncing to the back and plopping in one of the overstuffed chairs across from Xander, "who’s patrolling with me tonight?"
Xander didn’t look up from his book as he replied, "Faith."
Buffy nodded. "And…"
He glanced up from his book. "Just Faith."
"But …" Before she could protest, Faith walked out from the training room. "But the new schedule, and Giles’s new rules," Buffy reminded him. "There’re supposed to always be three of us on patrol. Aren’t you coming?"
Xander sighed and closed his book, marking his place with his index finger. "Actually, the rule is one Slayer -- or Spike -- and one Watcher on every patrol. I figure since tonight there’re two Slayers, you can do without this Watcher."
"But we can’t," Buffy said. "We need you to … to watch. And to fight. And--"
"And to keep things from being all awkward between you two."
Buffy glanced sheepishly at the other Slayer, who seemed fascinated with a spot on the floor.
"Sorry, Buff," Xander said, "but I’ve got this big exam on demonology in the morning, and Willow’s gonna help me study. The last test I took seriously kicked my ass. I can’t afford to fail this one. Anyway, Faith’s been back for a while now." He looked at Faith, who looked as frightened as Buffy did at the prospect of patrolling alone together. "It’s time. You two need to either work out your differences -- and I know you two’ve got a buttload of those -- or else you just have to learn to pretend to get along on the job. People do it all the time. Hell, I did it. Believe you me, the world would be a much happier place if people got to choose their co-workers. But that’s just not how it is."
Silence as he looked back and forth between the two women. Finally Faith spoke up. "Look, B, if you want to split up or something I und--"
"No!" Xander said. "No splitting up! You two stay together, you watch each other’s backs. Is that clear? Faith?"
She nodded.
She grimaced, but then nodded. "Gotcha. No splitting up. We’ll be a model of Slayer solidarity."
"Right," Xander said. "Just keep each other from getting killed, okay? And no killing each other. I’m kind of attached to the both of you."
"We’ll be good, Watcher-man," Faith said, grabbing her jacket and loading up on stakes. "Ready when you are, B."
"Yeah. Okay." Buffy stood up. "Be right there." She crossed over to Spike, who was checking off a packing slip. "Did you hear? I’m patrolling with Faith. Alone."
He gave her a look of sympathy. "Buck up, sweetness," he said. "It only has to be hard if you make it hard."
"I know," she said. She glanced back to make sure Faith was out of earshot. "I can do this," she said, low enough for only Spike to hear. "I can be civil. We can get along."
"You could even be friends."
Buffy shook her head. "I don’t think so. Friendly, sure. I’m willing to go there. But … I can’t be friends with her again, Spike. She had her chance, and she threw it away. I can’t go through that again."
He nodded. "I understand. But …"
"But what?"
He shook his head, and didn’t seem to know quite how to continue. Finally, he looked at her, and sighed. "Just imagine if you’d never given me a second chance. Or a third, for that matter."
"Hey, B, plenty of bloodsuckers out there just waitin’ to become dust," Faith called from the front door. "No offense, Spike."
"None taken." He looked at Buffy, and she sighed resignedly. "Go kick some monster ass, Slayer," he told her. "And, hey, when you get home?" He winked, and grinned. "Jell-O surprise."
That did the trick. Buffy giggled as she leaned up to kiss him.
"Let’s go, Chosen Other," Buffy told Faith as she followed the younger Slayer out the door.
Xander closed his book and stood up. "I should be heading out too. I’m supposed to pick Willow up at the library in about fifteen minutes."
Spike nodded. "Demonology, eh? That something I could help you with? I’ve worked with my fair share of demons over the years."
"Yeah." Xander smiled. "You and Anya would’ve been perfect tutors for this test. If you both could’ve gotten past the creepy personal anecdotes long enough to tell me what I actually need to know." His smile became wistful, and he started to blink. He looked away for a moment, and Spike focused on his invoice.
"So," Xander said, "you’ve been living at Casa de la Summers a few days now. How’s that working out for you?"
Spike decided to ignore the slight quiver in Xander’s voice and go along with the subject change. "It doesn’t suck," he said. "’Specially since on Buffy’s little shopping spree the other day she bought a big screen TV and a satellite dish. Thing gets fifteen sports channels. One of ‘em’s devoted entirely to football. Proper football, mind you, not that cheap American knock-off."
"Ah, yes," Xander said. "What we Yanks so foolishly like to call ‘soccer.’"
"I’ll never have to miss a match or read about it after the fact again," Spike said. "You should come over some time, watch with me. Do you good to see how a real sport gets played."
"Yeah," Xander said, in the tone of one who was about to smart off, but then he stopped, and considered. "You know, that actually sounds like it could be fun."
Spike faltered, a little taken aback. A smart-ass retort he was always prepared for, but he didn’t expect the boy to think hanging out with him might actually be a good idea. He swallowed, and nodded. "I’ll uh … I’ll give you a ring next time Man U’s got a match."
"Okay," Xander said. "Cool. Uh, I better go. The library’s closing, I don’t want Will to have to wait for me outside."
"Yeah, catch you later," Spike said as he left, then shook his head in wonderment. When, exactly, did these people start seeing him as a friend? With a bemused smile, he tossed his clipboard on the counter. "Well!" he shouted. "Looks like it’s just you an’ me, Nibblet."
Dawn came over and eyed the merchandise that needed putting away. "Want me to do that?"
"Nah. You handle the customers."
"You sure? A lot of ‘em come in just to gawk at Hot British Guy. I think I might be a disappointment."
Spike smirked at her. "Tell you what. Any of ‘em start coming in to gawk at Cute Underage Girl, you come get me. Then I’ll show ‘em what disappointment’s all about."
Dawn rolled her eyes, and went to talk to a customer. Spike didn’t bother to suppress a chuckle as she walked away.
Darla leaned against the railing of the catwalk, staring out the open window at the overgrown, littered fields that stretched out of town. God, what she wouldn’t give for a decent view. She couldn’t wait until they’d finished here, so she could get back to LA, or New York. Or Paris, perhaps? Someplace she could return to the lifestyle to which she’d grown accustomed. With a bored sigh, she shut the window, and turned to survey the empty warehouse below. Drusilla sat in the middle of the floor, singing nursery rhymes to one of her dolls.
Darla wrinkled her nose. She thought she’d had her boys seal off the doors leading to the adjoining warehouse, to keep out the smell of the filthy, sweaty humans they were storing next door. It wasn’t just human body odor she smelled. It was the stench of spoiled meat. Darla rolled her eyes. Her boys weren’t too choosy about who they’d picked up, and occasionally an old one or a diseased one keeled over in its cage. She’d have to send someone to clean it up before the others became infected.
She started down the stairs, and smiled to herself. Sure, having the humans right next door was inconvenient, but Dracula would never suspect her of setting up her own operation here. It wasn’t her style. Let them hide in their musty church cellar. She and Dru would put in enough appearances there to keep from raising suspicion, and then they could come back here and carry out their own plans. Dracula had little respect for her tactical skills because she was a woman. That would be his undoing. She would hand deliver Dru’s prodigal son and his little Slayer bitch to the Master. Darla had to suppress a giggle as she imagined how that would go. There would be no slaughtering of the fatted calf, that much she could count on. The Master would be so pleased with her. Teach that pig of a Prince a thing or two about women’s lib.
As Darla neared the bottom, the stench became stronger, and she could hear the buzzing of flies mixed in with Dru’s singing.
"Grandmama, won’t you join us for tea?" Drusilla asked, reaching over to swipe a blood-drenched finger across the lips of her doll. Her doll … which smelled like rotting meat.
Darla closed her eyes, and sighed. "Drusilla, where did you get your doll?"
"I took a stroll next door and saw her crying in her cage. She was singing rhymes to me. I asked her if she wanted to play, and she said yes." Dru got a far-off, wistful look in her eyes as she licked the blood from her fingers. "Her mummy became very cross with me, and started screaming." She giggled. "It was a lovely sound, but it frightened my new dolly, and made her cry. So I made the screaming stop."
Darla crossed her arms. "And what did you do with the mother’s body?"
"I left it in the cage."
Darla shook her head. "Dru, you should’ve --"
Before she could finish, one of her fledglings burst in.
"Mistress, I have something you might like to see."
Darla studied this one. He wasn’t her usual type. He was smaller -- tallish, but thin. Still, he had very pretty eyes, and he was so eager to please.
"Parker, isn’t it?"
"Yes, Mistress."
"Please, just Darla. ‘Mistress’ is so …" She sidled up to him and ran her fingers through his hair, then caught a fistful of it and pulled him backwards, forcing him to kneel. "Actually, it’s perfectly appropriate. Now. What’s so important that you would cut me off in mid-sentence?"
He offered no apologies. She wasn’t sure whether that annoyed her or intrigued her. Instead, he simply held up an envelope, his eyes sparkling with pride in his accomplishment. "I snuck this off one of Dracula’s honeys."
"Do tell," Darla said, holding out her hand. He handed her the envelope, and she let go of his hair. He started to rise. "I didn’t say get up," she snapped, and he settled back on his knees. She slid out the contents: Photographs. Of the Slayer and William, at a restaurant -- a dive, judging by the décor -- hunched over a table loaded down with pie. The way they smiled at each other made her stomach lurch. There was one other person with them. A girl. A very familiar girl.
"Has Dracula seen these?"
"No," Parker said. "Melody -- or was it Harmony? Anyway, she was on her way to show him when I talked her out of them."
Darla gave him a skeptical look. "And how did you do that?"
Parker smiled the smug smile of someone who’s pretty and knows it. "It wasn’t too difficult."
She rolled her eyes, then handed the pictures back. "I want you to find out everything you can about the little girl in those pictures."
Parker flipped through the photos. "Hey. This is Buffy’s little sister."
Darla stared at him for almost a full minute before she realized her mouth was hanging open. "The Slayer has a sister?"
Parker nodded.
"How could I not know that?" She looked him up and down, then grabbed him by his collar and hauled him to his feet. "For that matter, how did you know that?"
"I’ve seen pictures of her before. In Buffy’s dorm." Somehow, the whelp managed to look even more smug. "I went out with Buffy a couple of times. She was a fun ride. Had a lot of stamina."
Darla threw Parker down in disgust and put her hands on her hips. "Are there any males in my line who haven’t screwed the little slut?"
The pictures scattered around Parker, who lay prostrate on the ground. Some of them flitted over by Dru, and she picked one up. "Spike!" Her voice was full of delight, but then she grimaced. "And the Slayer." She traced a finger over the picture. "Lovely Spike. He kept my present."
Darla looked up as something clicked. "Gimme that," she said, snatching the picture away from Dru. "That’s it. This is that little girl Spike was supposed to trade to those demons who never showed to back us up." She shook her head, and crumpled the picture up in her fist. "That lying, conniving, back-stabbing little …"
"William has been very naughty," Drusilla agreed.
"Yes, he has." Darla smiled. "And he’s also been very stupid."
It took Spike about half an hour to finish stocking the merchandise, at which point he sent Dawn to the back to study for her finals while he started winding the shop down. Business had been dreadfully slow all night. Hell, business had always been slow at night, and had gotten steadily worse since he’d started working there. He wondered how much of that was due to Sunnydale’s rapidly diminishing human population, and how much was just because Giles had never really looked into the value of extending store hours. He had to hand it to the Watcher. Daddy Rupert loved his girl so much he’d been willing to take a hit in his profit margin just to help her new beau make himself respectable. It must’ve hit doubly hard, considering the bloke had just given Buffy his entire life savings. Spike couldn’t think of a single other human being who he respected as much as Giles, even back when he’d been human himself.
Speaking of respect, it amazed him how far his bringing home a steady paycheck had gone towards making his and Buffy’s relationship more palatable to the others. Well … that, and the end of his petty thievery. Not that he didn’t understand why. Something about being able to contribute even his meager shop earnings to the Summers’ household satisfied some sense of Victorian male pride that he’d never quite managed to squelch. It stemmed from the same part of himself that still felt vaguely horrified by the notion that Buffy should even have to work at all. Of course, that part was also still vaguely horrified by the notions of silk teddies and of eating Jell-O off of anything other than a proper dish; but he’d become well practiced at telling the poncey twit to bugger off and quit trying to spoil his fun. He grinned as he wiped down the front of a display case, with perhaps a little more vigor than necessary, his tongue dancing along the edge of his teeth.
As much as he enjoyed playing at being an honest man, tonight he figured he’d soften the blow to Giles’s checkbook by closing up early. He wanted to get Dawn home. If the Master decided to stage an encore performance at the shop, Spike sure as hell didn’t want to find out the hard way whether he was strong enough to keep the bastard away from her.
"Oi! Sweet pea!" he called. "I’m gonna close up, so start getting your things together!"
No answer.
"Dawn?" His stomach knotted and the hairs on the back of his neck raised up as he considered possible reasons for her silence. His senses went on full alert as he set down the glass cleaner and crept back to the training room. As he peeked in the door, his whole body relaxed. Dawn lay curled up on one end of the sofa, sound asleep, her textbook about to slide out of her hands. Spike carefully took the book from her and slipped it into her backpack on the floor next to the couch. He bent to brush a quick kiss across her forehead as he swept her hair back from her face, then left her to get some much needed rest as he went to lock the front door and turn off the sign.
As he stepped up to the front of the shop, the bell over the door rang. Spike closed his eyes and sighed. "Sorry, we’re closed."
Detective Grant popped his head in. "Already?"
Spike smiled and waved him in. "Grant." His smile faded as Riley came in behind him. "Finn. Well, come on, in or out. Don’t stand there gawking about, you might let customers in." He went to the door and bolted it, then switched off the sign. "So what brings you boys by? Don’t suppose you’re here to buy anything. Eye of Newt doesn’t rate a spot on most folks’ Christmas wish lists, and neither of you looks like the Winter Solstice type to me."
"Is Buffy here?" Riley asked.
Spike smirked. "Come on, Finn, no need to beat around the bush. Why don’t you get right to the point?" He went back to the counter to put the cleaning supplies away. Grant followed him, but Riley stood there and glared, his entire body clenched like a fist.
"We did a sweep of downtown and the docks," Grant said. "We were hoping to compare notes with one of the Slayers."
"They’re both on patrol." Spike set the register to print out a reading, then pulled his coat out from beneath the counter and rummaged through the pockets. "But if you found anything interesting you can tell me, and I’ll be sure they get the message." He pulled out his glasses, and put them on without a second thought. Funny how Buffy's finding them sexy had nixed his embarrassment about wearing them. Out of habit he also pulled out his smokes, but then thought better of it and set the pack on the counter along with his coat. The shop was non-smoking, and he was trying to play by the rules. He popped the register open and began counting out the cash.
"We’d prefer to talk to Buffy," Riley said, finally coming the rest of the way into the shop to stand near the counter.
"Yeah, well, you don’t always get what you want." Spike spared him a quick glance. "Think you’d have learned that lesson by now." Hell with it. He needed a cigarette. With just the briefest pause from counting, he slid one out of the pack and up to his mouth. Once it was lit, he resumed counting.
Grant shifted his weight from foot to foot, obviously not loving the tension he’d walked into. "We didn’t find anything," he said.
"I’ll tell Buffy," Spike said absently as he began totaling up the receipts. "I’m sure she’ll be thrilled."
"I mean we didn’t find anything," Grant repeated. "No hookers, no homeless, no workers putting in overtime. It was like a ghost town."
Spike looked up from the register, then nodded. "Yeah, makes sense. You want to feed your minions without drawing attention to yourself, you start with vagrants and prostitutes. The people no one’s too keen on having around in the first place."
"Shoulda figured you’d know all about vampire feeding patterns," Riley muttered.
Spike rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, you should, seeing as how I’m a vampire and all." He blew smoke in Riley’s direction, then turned back to the receipts.
"Believe me, I haven’t forgotten that," Riley said. "Even if everybody else around here has."
"Anyway," Grant shot a warning look at Riley, "it’s damned eerie. The whole town feels deserted." He shook his head, and his eyes fell on Spike’s cigarettes. "Hey, do you mind if …?"
"Help yourself," Spike said.
He did. Once he’d lit up, Grant continued. "Only ten shopping days till Christmas, the town should be buzzing, even at night. Hell, especially at night, since that’s the only time most people have to shop. Either people are finally wising up and staying indoors, or …"
"Or there just aren’t that many people left in town," Spike finished.
Nobody spoke as the weight of his statement sunk in.
The sound of a beeper broke the silence. Grant fished his pager out of his pocket and grimaced at the display. "I’m needed at the station," he said. He looked at Riley. "I can drop you off someplace on the way."
"Thanks," Riley said, "but I’m good."
Grant looked from Riley to Spike, then shrugged. "If you say so. See you later, gentlemen."
Spike snorted.
"Later," Riley called after Grant as he left.
Spike glanced at Riley as he bagged the day’s profits. "Let me guess. You’re going to wait here for Buffy."
"You got a problem with that?"
Spike raised an eyebrow. "Do I have a problem with my girlfriend’s ex shag-toy hanging ‘round waiting to see her? Hmm. Let me just think about that for a bit." He slammed the register shut and went to lock the money in Giles’s office safe.
"Gee, Spike," Riley called, "what happened to all that confidence you had when I first got back in town? If you’re so sure Buffy’s in love with you, then you shouldn’t feel so threatened just ‘cause I want to talk to her."
Spike held his tongue as he locked the safe. He wasn’t about to rise to the bait this boy was laying out for him. "Tell you what, mate," he said as he came out of the office, locking it behind him, "do what you like. Just be sure and lock up when you leave." He took off his glasses and laid them on the counter, then fished his keys out of his coat. Bloody hell. He couldn’t just leave Soldier Boy here alone. If something happened to him … well, Buffy’d lost enough this year, hadn’t she? He rolled his eyes, and sighed. "Look, I’m taking Dawn and going home. We can give you a ride somewhere or … hell, if whatever you’ve got to tell Buffy is that important, you can come and wait for her there."
"You’ve got to be kidding me," Riley said.
"Wish I was."
"No thanks."
Well, couldn’t say he didn’t try. He thought it was right big of himself, too, under the circumstances. He shrugged. "Suit yourself." He tossed his keys on the counter next to his glasses, snuffed his cigarette out on the bottom of his boot and tossed it in the trash, then he went to re-bolt the front door. On the way he considered rubbing in the fact that he was living with Buffy now, but decided there was really no point. He locked the door, then turned around, and stopped short. Riley had come up behind him, but he’d kept out of Spike’s reach. The boy had a gun pointed right at Spike’s head.
This was just too much. Spike couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing.
"Shut up, Spike."
"Or what?" he managed between chuckles. "You’ll shoot me? Please. Now who’s forgetting I’m a vampire? Y’know, undead? As in, bullets don’t kill?"
"No, they’ll just hurt like hell." Riley pulled a stake out of his coat. "This is what’ll kill you."
Spike snickered, and pointed at the stake. "That one better not be plastic."
"Nope. I told you next time would be for real."
"Yeah, you sure did." Spike managed to stop laughing, but he couldn’t suppress his smirk. "So, what exactly do you think Buffy’s gonna do when she comes in and finds you standing over the pile of dust that used to be her boyfriend?"
Riley shrugged. "I’ll tell her you went for my throat. It was self defense. She’ll cry. Hell, she’ll probably be devastated. She’ll probably need a shoulder to cry on."
"And conveniently, you’ve got two big strong shoulders to offer," Spike said.
"I certainly won’t turn her away if she wants to borrow one."
Again, Spike lost it.
"You don’t think I’m serious?" Riley asked.
"Oh, I do," Spike managed. "That’s the funny part."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, White Bread. You and I both know you don’t have it in you. I mean, sure, you’d love to kill me, but you won’t, for the same reason I don’t kill you. Because it would hurt Buffy."
Riley considered this, then shrugged. "She’d get over it, eventually."
"Sure she would," Spike said. "Right after she killed you."
This time Riley laughed. "Right. ‘Cause Buffy kills humans all the time."
Spike raised his eyebrows. "Know her so well, do you?"
"I know she would never kill a human being."
"Huh." Spike scratched his head. "Tell that to the knight whose brain she put a bullet in. Or better yet, tell Faith. Then ask her how she got that scar on her belly."
"You’re lying. I don’t believe that anymore than I believe you’ve turned your back on evil."
"Oooh, what’s the matter, Brawny? Did I sully the Slayer’s good name? She doesn’t look quite so good up on that pedestal with her faults showing, does she?"
"Shut up, Spike."
"I don’t see why you’re so bothered to find she’s not all sweetness and light. I mean, you go around here bein’ all Mr. Clean, convincing Buffy your paid suck jobs were just a lapse in judgment --"
"They were."
"Sure they were." Spike looked him up and down. "’Cause it wouldn‘t do for Captain Courageous to have himself a dark side, would it? And yet, here you are, getting ready to dust Buffy’s fella so you can move in and take his place." Spike scoffed. "Oh yeah, you’re a real nice guy, Finn."
"Yeah, well, you’re the one who said she needs some monster in her man."
Spike nodded. "I did, didn’t I?" He laughed again, this time without humor. "Funny, turned out to be the man inside the monster she fell for." He shook his head. "Sorry, Crowley. You’re dark, but you’re not that dark. It’s still not in your nature. I mean, this …" he pointed back and forth between the gun and stake, "even I wouldn’t sink this low."
They stared each other down for a moment, Riley’s eyes filled with loathing, his jaw working the entire time. Finally, he lowered the gun. "Come on, Spike. Give me a reason. Just one good reason."
"Got any in mind?"
"You’re working with them, aren’t you? Dracula and the Master. Your girlfriend’s in with them. You expect me to believe you’ve turned your back on her for Buffy’s sake?"
Spike sighed. This had already gone from amusing to boring, and it just took a sharp turn into irritating. "I give sod all what you believe, Finn. Tell me, did you come up with all of this while you were spying on Buffy and me at the Bronze?"
"Caught me, huh? Well, I’m kinda new at the whole pathetic stalker thing. Should’ve known better than to try and fool an old pro. Got any pointers?"
Spike smirked at him. "Yeh, here’s one. If you stand to the left of the lilac bush at the end the front porch, you can hear right into our bedroom, loud an’ clear."
Riley leapt the riser to the front of the shop in one bound and towered over Spike. "Do you have any idea how much I’d enjoy killing you?"
Spike let out a laugh, then one hand shot up and clasped Riley’s throat as the other grabbed hold of his wrist and forced him to drop the stake. He growled and let his eyes flash yellow as he lifted the larger man off the ground. "About as much as I’d enjoy killing you, I reckon."
The sound of a scream filled the shop, and Spike went into full game face as he turned towards the training room. "Dawn?" He forgot all about Riley as he shucked him aside and ran to the back. The door to the alley stood ajar, and Dawn was nowhere in sight. Spike rushed outside. She screamed his name as a vampire pulled her into the back of a van. "Dawn!" He lunged after her, but the vampire pulled the doors shut as the van squealed out of the alley. Spike ran after them. He kept up for several blocks, almost caught them a couple of times, but even a vampire’s stamina had its limits. He felt himself slowing down, and the van gained more and more of a lead. Still, he kept running. If he could just keep them in sight …
As he rounded the next corner a car screeched to a halt in front of him, cutting him off. "Bloody --" He stopped as he recognized his DeSoto.
The passenger door flew open, and Riley leaned over from the driver’s seat. "Get in!"
Spike blinked at him for a second, then jumped in the car. "Go!" Before he could shut his door, they were on their way.
Dawn heard someone fumbling with the lock outside. Through her sleepy haze, she thought Buffy must’ve come back early from patrol and forgotten her key. Or maybe Spike had gone outside to smoke and locked himself out again. She rolled her eyes as she pushed herself off of the couch and shuffled to the back door.
"I know you’re really old and all," she grumped as she pulled the door open, "but I didn’t think vampires could get Alzheimer’s."
For a moment, she stood blinking at two strange guys in army fatigues. One knelt on the ground, lock picks poised in the air, blinking back up at her. The other looked back and forth from her to a picture in his hand. "The Slayer’s sister!" he shouted, and their features transformed.
Dawn screamed and turned to run.
Before she could cross the training room, Lock Pick Guy had hold of her, his hand clamped over her mouth. She kicked at him, trying to break free, but Picture Guy grabbed her legs as they both carried her outside to a van parked in the alley. Picture Guy had to let go of her to open the back of the van. She brought her foot down into Lock Pick Guy’s shin. He grunted in pain and let her go, but she only got about two steps before his arms closed around her middle and he dragged her into the back of the van. At that moment Spike ran out of the building. Dawn’s heart leapt. "Spike!" she screamed. He lunged for her, but before he could reach her, the doors slammed shut and she was on her way to wherever they were taking her.
"Wherever" turned out to be a bunch of warehouses just outside of town. The van stopped, and the vampires came around to let her out. They didn’t bother to tie her up. She was obviously no Slayer, and the vampires were stronger and faster. If she tried anything, she’d only end up dead.
"If you’re going to eat me, why don’t you just get it over with?" she asked as they led her inside.
"The Mistress wants you alive," Picture Guy told her.
Alive, huh? After Glory and those knights and all of their wanting her dead, this was good, right? Yet somehow, the "alive" part didn’t do much to reassure her.
They led her through a series of adjacent warehouses, then up a flight of stairs and down a rickety catwalk to what looked like an office door. Picture Guy knocked.
"What is it?" The voice somehow managed to sound baby-girl sweet and bitchy at the same time.
"We’ve brought you the Slayer’s sister, Ma’am," Picture Guy barked.
The door opened, and a small blonde woman stuck her head out. Darla. Last time Dawn had seen her, she’d been in vamp face, but there was no mistaking who she was.
Darla looked her henchmen up and down. "At ease, boys," she sneered, then looked at Dawn, and smiled. "Well, well, well. Hellooo, little sister!" She grabbed Dawn by the wrist and yanked her into the office. "Well done, boys. Wait here." She shut the door and turned to simper at Dawn. "You and Spike should really be proud. I’m not easily fooled, but you both managed to pull the wool right over my eyes." She sidled over to a desk chair that looked to be about as ancient as she probably was, and sat down. She leaned back and regarded Dawn. "So tell me, how did it escape my attention that Buffy had a little sister? After all," she grinned, "your mother and I became well acquainted."
"You mean that night you got in our house?" Dawn shrugged. "I was at my dad’s. After that, from what I hear, you were mostly dead."
Darla frowned, and stood up. "You’re a feisty one," she said, reaching out to stroke Dawn’s cheek. Dawn tried to pull away, but Darla grabbed her chin, and forced her to hold still. "Usually, I hate feisty. But on you, it’s kind of charming." She shoved Dawn down into the chair. "Maybe after your sister and Spike come to rescue you, I won’t kill you after all. Maybe I’ll turn you instead. Good help is so hard to find these days. Drusilla has her uses, and she’s always good for a few laughs, but it might be nice to have a girl around who can actually hold a conversation."
"What makes you so sure they’ll come?" Dawn asked.
Darla laughed. "Please. As stubborn as they both are?"
"But what if they can’t find me?"
"We’ll make sure that they do," Darla said, leaning down to look Dawn in the eye. "And when they do? Buffy and Spike are both going to learn whole new definitions of pain before they die."
Dawn swallowed, and lifted her chin. She refused to show fear, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to let this bitch make her cry. "Or maybe they’ll just kick your skanky ass. Not like they haven’t done it before."
Darla straightened up and smirked down at Dawn, then backhanded her across the face, sending her chair rolling. She crashed into the opposite wall and toppled out of it onto the floor. Okay, so maybe this bitch would make her cry, just a little. Dawn looked up at her, holding her face as tears stung her eyes.
Darla opened the door, and the soldier guys stepped in. "Take her down to the pantry. You can each take something for yourselves while you’re down there, but remember, she’s off limits." As they picked Dawn off of the floor and led her out the door, Darla added, "For now."
Spike picked a half-smoked cigarette out of the ashtray and punched the car’s lighter in to heat up. After they’d lost their quarry, Spike had made Riley pull over so that he could drive. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he turned to make yet another loop through the area where they’d last seen the van.
Riley studied the vampire from the passenger seat. He had to admit, Spike looked genuinely worried; but was he worried about Dawn, or about what Buffy would do to him when she found out what happened? Maybe a little of both. Maybe Riley should be just as worried about what Buffy might do to him. After all, if he hadn’t sidetracked Spike with his stupid stunt, he’d have taken Dawn home, and she’d be safe in her bed now instead of … God, he didn’t even want to think about the instead. Spike wasn’t saying so, but Riley imagined he was probably thinking the same thing.
Again, out of habit, he reached for his mobile phone and then remembered that he didn’t have it. Of all the nights to leave it home on the charger … With a sigh, Riley leaned forward and squinted through the black film coating the windshield. "This thing can’t be street legal," he muttered.
Spike grunted. "S’pose not."
Riley leaned back and looked at Spike. "Haven’t you ever gotten ticketed for it?"
Spike reached for the lighter, and then just looked at him as he lit his cigarette. As if he’d ever stop for the police. Especially in daylight. "Right," Riley said, and went back to looking out the window.
"Y’know, they do roll down," Spike told him. With a sheepish look, Riley rolled down his window. Spike did likewise, and flicked ashes out of the car. "So, back at the shop. Did you really think Buffy’d just fall into your arms if you got rid of me?"
Riley shrugged. "It worked that way for you, didn’t it?"
Spike glanced at him, then did a double take. "What’re you talking about?"
"What do you mean, what am I talking about? You brought Buffy to that warehouse that night because you knew it would break us up."
"Well … yeah, I hoped it would. I hoped you’d go away, and she’d come cry on my shoulder, and I’d get my chance to show her how much better I could be for her. And I regretted it the minute we walked out of that place and I saw how hurt she was."
"But you got what you wanted," Riley said. "We broke up, and I left."
"You two were headed there anyway, and you know it. Anyway, if you think the rest of it worked out in my favor, you’re even more of a prat than I gave you credit for."
"So you’re telling me it didn’t happen that way."
Spike shot him a look. "Buffy didn’t speak to me for weeks after that night. Then we were just patching things up, getting back to status quo, when I went and did something even more stupid. She quit speaking to me all over again, even had Willow revoke my invitation to the house." He shook his head as he turned down a road that would take them to the outskirts of town. "Then her mum up and died, then the business with Glory … suffice it to say, it was a long and winding road to get where we are."
"And you stuck with it the whole way."
"Yeah, well, I’m nothing if not stubborn." He inhaled on his cigarette, then let out a long and weary sigh. "Can’t say it wasn’t worth it. Every twist and turn, every bump, pothole and washed out bridge along the way …" The corners of his mouth quirked up in a small, wistful smile. "It was all worth it."
Riley stared at Spike for a long time as the vampire drove, his eyes constantly alert, scanning their surroundings for any sign of the van. Finally, he shook his head. "You really love her." It wasn’t a question.
"We really love each other," Spike said. "And that’s what eats at you."
Riley stared out his window at the fields leading up to a row of abandoned warehouses. "I love Buffy more than I’ve loved anything my whole life."
"So why’d you leave?"
Riley said nothing. They both knew the reason.
"Y’know, I don’t get you blokes. You, Angel …" Spike made a little disgusted noise. "You left her. You could’ve stayed, could’ve tried to make things work, but instead you ran. Then you come back to town and get all pissed off because she had the audacity to get on with her life? On Buffy’s behalf, I’d just like to take this opportunity to say, fuck you."
"It’s not that she’s moved on," Riley said, "it’s what she moved on to."
"Yeah, well, fuck you again. That one’s just from me."
"You’d be the same way in my situation," Riley said.
Spike laughed. "I’ll never be in your situation, Finn."
"You sure about that?"
"Positive," Spike said. "I’ll never leave her. I’d die first. And I expect I’ll die if she ever decides to leave me. So that would preclude my ever again having to stand about and watch while she carries on with some wanker I can’t stand." He tossed his spent cigarette out the window and turned onto the row of warehouses. "Buffy’s my whole life. She and Dawn both are. They’re my family. So rest assured, Finn, if we don’t get to the Little Bit in time, you will be put out of your misery before the night’s over."
Riley opened his mouth to respond, but shut it as he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. The van. It was parked right out in front of the warehouses. "Hold up," he told Spike, and pointed. "Looks like we found it. That was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be."
Spike killed the lights and pulled his car off the road, and took in the situation. "Well," he said, "the good news is, Dawn’s probably still alive and well. So I guess you don’t get to die tonight after all."
"And the bad news?"
"This is a trap."
Riley eyed him suspiciously. "How do you know?"
"This is too easy. They wanted to be found. Why else would they park the van right out in plain view?"
Riley nodded. Of course. He should’ve thought of that. "So, we know where they took Dawn. We should probably go get the others, then come back for her."
"No." Spike got out of the car, closed his door quietly, then leaned in to look at Riley. "I’m going in to get her. You stay here. If Dawn comes out without me, take her and get out of here. If neither of us comes out in half an hour, go get help."
Riley slid over to the driver’s side. "Why don't we just go get help now?"
Spike shook his head. "If Dawn gets too scared, she could bring this whole place down."
Spike glanced at him. "No time to explain how, but it turns out Bit’s packing some pretty destructive powers. We don’t know how they work or what sets them off, but if they do go off she could kill everybody in the whole place."
Riley still didn’t understand. "So what if she does? They’re vampires. They’re supposed to be the enemy."
"And if she kills herself in the process?" Spike opened the back door and rummaged through the trash in the back seat until he found a sword. "’Sides, they’ve got humans in there. A bunch of humans, by the smell of it." He closed the door. "Remember," he said, "thirty minutes, then go for help."
With that, Spike headed into the lion’s den to rescue his cub.


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