Strange how swiftly things changed. Once, not too long ago, Spike would have bounded gleefully to his feet at the prospect of facing a new slayer, especially one who turned up so quickly on the heels of the last. The blood of a slayer was the ultimate trophy to most anyone who knew what it was worth, and to him, hunting down the chosen girl was a favorite pastime. He would have sought out as many as he liked had it not been for Dru’s ailment. The two he’d challenged and vanquished had simply been a happenstance of the right place, right time. As soon as he ditched Dru once and for all, he’d gone back to the only refuge he’d ever known.
Hunting down slayers was what he was good at. He lived for it. The entire idea that one girl found her name drawn out of the hat per generation to face the hordes of demons and other nasty uglies had him thoroughly enchanted, and even though his William side wanted to sympathize, the rest of him geared up for one bloody brilliant fight.
He’d loved fighting Buffy. She was a natural—feisty and unpredictable, passionate and righteous, vulnerable and soft, and she looked damn good doing it. He’d been drawn to her almost immediately without knowing why, though he’d told himself it was because she was the Slayer and he’d never met a slayer he didn’t like.
Then she’d come up to him dressed to fuck and sporting honest fangs, and some inner trigger had fired. He’d needed to possess her. Christ, he’d needed her more with a simple look than he’d ever needed in a lifetime and a half with Dru. What had followed was innate and primal, and though he’d been shocked when he found himself mated, his initial outrage had only masked his intense relief. At last, for the rest of his days, he’d be with the one for whom he’d searched. Perhaps he’d always known she’d be a slayer—anything seemed possible. Anything at all.
Once, yes, he would have rejoiced in getting a go at another slayer so quickly after tasting the last one’s blood. But not now. Not bloody now. Not with fuck knew how much distance separating him and Buffy, and not much time to spare before she gave him a more permanent slip.
“Move or I’ll move you,” Spike snarled, wiping off the scattering of dust that had settled across his duster. “I’ll let you off nice this time. How’s that?”
The bint had the audacity to smirk, her eyebrow twitching as her index finger smoothed the corners of the crossbow’s trigger. “Doesn’t look to me like you oughta be barking orders, Blood Breath,” she said. “Now, how about you cough up your girlfriend, huh? And you and me can pretend we never saw each other.”
“I’d love to. Get the hell out of the way, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“What?” the girl said, blinking innocently. “She not here? Well, that’s just fucking rude, is what that is. I had to haul ass to this shithole when there’s this new club on Ninth I’ve been dying to try, and Buffy the Wonder Brat doesn’t even have the courtesy to fucking be here?” She shook her head heavily and perfected her aim, an arrow now pointing at his heart. “Wanna try for the truth this time? Where’s the elusive Buff?”
Spike flexed his fist, a muscle in his jaw ticking. One lucky move was all he needed. Something told him this slayer thought a bit faster on her feet than the last, but she was cocky as hell and he knew from experience how exposed that made her. Delusions of invincibility were a surefire way of ending up in a coffin prematurely, and though he’d love to stick around and give her that lesson in person, there remained a much more pressing issue at hand.
“I’ll say it again,” he growled softly. “Put that bloody thing down and move. If you make me force you, you’re gonna beg.”
She jutted out her chin. “Not the begging kind.”
“Sorry, ducks, I’ve been around the block a time or two. Know how to call my beggars.”
“Ohhh. Is the Brit trying to threaten me?”
Spike stared at her for a long second before breaking off with a shrug. “Well,” he said conversationally, the bones in his face shifting as his fangs fell into place. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The next thing he knew, the girl had thrown the crossbow into his arms, kicking him back before he had time to feel the rush of surprise. He hadn’t seen that coming, but Spike was nothing if not adaptable. He threw the weapon aside hastily and seized the slayer’s leg, ducking under the mad swing of what looked to be a mean right hook before digging his fingers into her ankle and belting her into the wall.
“I’d love to stay and kill you,” he said cheerfully, “but I got me a real slayer to find.”
The girl blinked dazedly and rubbed her head, but by the time she pulled herself to her feet, he was long gone.
Buffy’s hands shook. God, all of her shook.
She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t begin to explain what had happened, even to herself. All she knew was the hungry beast in her belly was satiated, even as the girl who wore its skin fought to keep from gagging.
The kid looked young, maybe a year or so ahead of her. College seemed the best bet. A weekend job at a hotel was reasonable. A nice, normal, not-hellmouthy job wherein the only danger he faced came in the form of lousy tips and bad breath. There was no way he’d foreseen—no way he could have predicted—the starving vampire hiding behind the oversized purple suitcase. No way he could have known how sweet he smelled and how the mere hint of his pulse pushed aside sanity and coaxed out something she hadn’t known existed within herself. He couldn’t have known that opening the cargo area of a Greyhound bus would be his last act on Earth.
Blood stained her hands and smeared her mouth. She knew she should move. The bus had stopped at a Holiday Inn sometime after three in the morning. The parking lot was empty, but it wouldn’t be for long. Someone would have heard or seen something. Someone would wonder where their luggage was. Someone would come looking for the dead man lying on the pavement, and she needed to be somewhere far from here when they did.
But Buffy couldn’t stop staring at him anymore than she could keep from shaking. A life was gone now because of her. She’d seen fear in his eyes and heard the ring of a horrified scream on his lips, but her fangs had torn out his throat before it had the chance to touch the air. She’d killed a man. Not her first, but this wasn’t something she could wish away or blame on a lack of a conscience. She had lost control. She hadn’t realized how controlled she was by hunger until that moment, and it hadn’t even been that long since she fed.
Of course, she had tossed up her last meal…and by the way her stomach rumbled, this one wasn’t too far behind.
“Oh, God,” Buffy murmured, staggering to her feet. She wiped her hands on her shirt, which did little more than spread the bloodstain. Her eyes shot back to the boy, as though hoping to catch him stirring awake. “Gotta get…”
She blinked dumbly. She had no idea where she was. She’d tried to listen in on the driver’s announcements and the muffled conversation of the bus’s occupants, but advanced as her vamp hearing was, the screech of the engine and the roll along the highway had drowned out everything else. So she was stranded in a strange place, isolated from everything she’d once known and everyone she’d once relied on, and staring at the dead body of the man whose life she’d ripped away.
“Gotta get outta here,” she said, sniffing and vainly attempting to keep tears from flooding her vision. “Gotta get…”
Her eyes fell on a shiny, bloodstained ring of metal protruding from the boy’s pocket.
“Okay,” she murmured, wiping her cheeks. “We’re definitely not going to steal the dead guy’s car. That’d be…”
He was a mangled wreck. Torn flesh exposed parts of the human form no one should ever see, jagged bits of broken bone spearing the gooey mess that had once been his neck. His eyes were open and glassy, a frozen look of absolute terror locked for an eternity on his face.
She supposed the line separating right and wrong had already been crossed.
“No. No, no, no.”
Yet even as she spoke, her feet carried her forward. There was little in the way of options; she needed to get away from here, and fast.
“Well,” Buffy whimpered, choking back a sob as she pried the slippery key-ring from the corpse’s pocket. Then her eyes fell on what had to be his wallet. A long sigh rattled through her breaking body. “Well,” she said again, pinching the leather and pulling it free. At the very least, it would contain an address. A place—hopefully an apartment where he lived by himself—where she could rest and wash up before hitting the road again. “At least I already know I’m going to Hell.”
She wiped her eyes again, turned away, and paused.
She had to leave. She couldn’t be here any longer.
But she couldn’t leave him out here like this. She had to put him somewhere. If nothing else, if she left him he’d be found quicker than she could afford, and her hope of a temporary refuge would be completely eradicated.
“I’m sorry,” she told him as she took him into her arms. And God, how she meant it. She meant it with every cell in her body.
The parking lot remained unoccupied long enough for Buffy to find a suitable place to hide the boy’s remains. It wouldn’t be difficult to find, but at least now she’d bought herself enough time to clean up, find out where she was, and decide where she wanted to go. Where in the great continental US she could hide until the pain in her chest went away—until she learned how to live without destroying everything she touched.
By the time she returned to the parking lot, dripping in blood and doing her best not to get sick all over herself, she was no longer alone. Two hotel employees had stepped outside for a smoke break, talking loudly and oblivious to her presence, but there nonetheless. Buffy’s feet went rigid a hair of a second before the rest of her could react—then she ducked behind a blue Honda, hand diving into her pocket in search for the purloined keychain. “Okay,” she muttered, panic tickling her spine. “This is bad.”
She paused then, an awful burst of laughter bubbling off her lips.
From awaking in New York City and finding herself encased in a vampire’s body to hitching a ride to who-knows-where and killing some poor kid whose only crime was smelling like dinner…yes, this was bad. Very bad.
She kept waiting to wake up.
Buffy raised her trembling head high enough to peer through the Honda’s windows. The employees were still there, of course. They sucked heavily on their cigarettes and spoke animatedly, likely about some unpleasant guest or a manager. To them, this was a typical night, after all. Nothing out of the norm. Sometime tomorrow or the day after, one might wonder what had happened to what’s-his-face. He hadn’t been seen in quite a while, and that wasn’t like him. Then a guest or one of the other employees would remark on the terrible smell emanating from one of the dumpsters, and then everyone’s lives would take a radical turn. Whether or not these two future cancer-patients knew the boy who had, up until a half hour ago, breathed and talked and laughed and snored just like everyone else, was a different matter. This sort of thing changed people in ways most didn’t realize. Buffy had the unlucky advantage of knowing just how much.
She didn’t know how long they stood there, but it seemed like hours. More than once she contemplated smashing out the Honda’s windows and attempting to hotwire the damn thing, but that was really more Spike’s line of expertise.
The pain in her chest expanded, but she shoved it aside. Don’t think about him.
Impossible. The mind was no one’s slave. The mind did what it would, and the command alone had it pissed enough to shower her with a collage of images she’d done her best to ignore. Spike smiling. Spike laughing. Spike’s eyes sparkling. Spike stroking her skin. Spike kissing her lips. Spike buried between her thighs. Spike’s tongue tapping her clit. Spike holding her to his chest. Spike nuzzling her hair. Spike inviting himself into her shower. Spike shoving her against a wall and mauling her with his mouth. Spike cupping her breasts. Spike telling her he loved her.
Her stomach twisted again. He had loved her. She knew that. She wasn’t blind or stupid or anything in between. These last few months might have belonged to some entity of herself that no longer existed, but she knew he’d meant it. He’d loved her, and she, in her soulless way, had loved him.
And she missed him. She missed his confidence—confidence she could surely use right now. Yet she also knew thinking about how she missed him wouldn’t do her any favors. Spike was gone. She couldn’t go back to him; he represented a part of her that hadn’t really been real. A part of her now stuffed inside a soul. A part of her that couldn’t love a monster. She could barely stand living with herself; how could she handle living with him as well?
What was more, Spike wouldn’t want her now. He’d loved the thing she wasn’t and could never be. He wouldn’t want this hollowed shade of someone she’d once been. She wasn’t even the Slayer he’d known. She was just…
Buffy wiped at her eyes and again peered through the car window. The parking lot was empty once more.
“Okay,” she said softly. “Time to move.”
Here. Right here. She’d stood in this very spot not too long ago. Her scent was strong here. Rich. As though she could turn the corner at any minute and bathe him in the warmth of her eyes. As though she hadn’t gone at all, even though he knew she had.
Spike grunted and tore away from the payphone at which he’d stared longer than he cared to admit. Buffy’s scent had been scattered but rather simple to follow, and it had led him to a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Manhattan. It matched the muffled location he’d heard through the receiver, and while he felt good about having sussed this much out, he’d thought finding where she’d gone would leave some indicator as to what had happened to cause her departure in the first place. No one here had any answers, and he was left with more questions than he’d had since waking up that morning.
“Why did you run, love?” he murmured. “Something I did? Something I said? Why couldn’t you tell me?”
He sighed and surfed out a pack of fags from his duster pocket. Buffy’s scent died just a few feet from where he stood, which indicated she’d left on something with wheels, and that didn’t help him much. New York bloody New York—people came and went every five minutes. She could have offed some motorist and hiked his bicycle or eaten some businessman’s driver to jack his ride. She could have, but something told Spike she hadn’t.
The largest clue came with the lack of fresh blood in the air. He could always tell when there had been a struggle, and even if the pickings Buffy selected for her evening meals weren’t bright, they always fought. Always.
“So you hitched a ride,” Spike said, indulging a long drag of his cigarette. “Or knicked one.”
That wasn’t likely. A stolen vehicle would have been reported by now…or so he suspected. People could be ridiculously blind at times, but his gut told him Buffy had found herself a ride some other way. A way that she wouldn’t be spotted. It could be wrong, but Spike trusted his instincts. Right now they were all he had.
“Right then, ducks. Tell me where you went.”
The shine of headlights took him out of himself for half a second. Spike made a face and tossed his cigarette to the pavement, feet backtracking until he was out of sight. Another group of overnight lodgers, from the looks of things, in a monstrously large tour bus. He watched as the two dozen or so travelers piled off, making inane chitchat and snapping photos of the Holiday Inn as though it were the Chrysler building. Any one of them would make for a good quick meal, but he wasn’t hungry. Not right now.
His worry for Buffy eclipsed mere hunger.
It wasn’t until the group was inside and the bellhops came forward to unload the passengers’ belongings that he knew what had happened.
Buffy’s mind would have worked this way. She was brilliant for being such a young vampire, but her ideas of travel were a bit outdated. She wouldn’t have thought of their Desoto and the black paint smeared across the windows. Her first idea, point of fact, when he mentioned a cross country trip had been hiding out in the cargo area of a bus or semi-truck. She hadn’t given much thought to daytime traveling where they were behind the wheel. Not until he mentioned it.
And if she had been in a hurry to leave town, that’s what she would have done.
An excited shiver raced through his veins.
Now all he had to do was find some nice, breakable human to tell him the destination of the bus that had left between five thirty and six o’clock.
Buffy had led him to her whether she knew it or not. And if she ached nearly as much as he did, she wouldn’t get much farther than she’d managed.
Soon, very soon, he’d know exactly the reason why she’d fled.
Showers had healing powers, Buffy was certain of it. As soon as she stepped under the welcome nozzle in the bathroom of Mr. Dead’s—thankfully unoccupied—apartment, she felt completely and unequivocally healed. It was a temporary fix, she knew, but one in which she basked for as long as she could. While the water ran, she couldn’t hear the inner screams of the dying girl who lived inside her chest. She couldn’t chastise herself for being so flippant about the life she’d taken in a fit of hunger, or how callously she’d stolen his cash and broken in to the sanctuary he’d once called home.
Healing powers indeed. She shampooed her hair and watched blood and grit slide off her skin and into the waiting drain. Right now she might be home, scrubbing herself clean after patrol. She could almost hear her mother snoring down the hall. She could almost imagine the cozy bed waiting her arrival. She saw Mr. Gordo sitting expectantly on a pillow, and wondered briefly if she had forgotten any homework that was due tomorrow.
None of that was real, she knew, but right now she could pretend. Hell, with as dirty as she felt, she might never rejoin the world outside. It wasn’t as though the water running cold would bother her.
Buffy rubbed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. God, yes, she could hide in here forever.
But she didn’t. The realist inside knew her time here was borrowed, and therefore needed to be used wisely. She stepped out just after hitting the half-hour mark, her skin pruney and cold. She would have felt normal were it not for the lack of a reflection that met her gaze when she turned to the mirror.
Sorrow crushed her chest, but she brushed it off with a shaky sigh. No time for that now. She had to find clothes. Judging by the closet, she wouldn’t find anything gender appropriate, but she figured the boy had owned a pair of jeans, at the least, and one or two t-shirts. She didn’t have a bra but she doubted she’d need one immediately. It wasn’t as though she was going to be out in public anytime soon.
“Maybe a butcher,” she said absently, pressing a hand to her stomach. For the time being, she located a pair of boxers and a white undershirt. She’d sleep now. She couldn’t do anything until she slept. “I’ll need blood.”
The thought had her shivering again, but there was no sense denying it. She would need blood. If she didn’t eat, she risked putting someone else in danger. She’d take another life as she’d so thoughtlessly taken the boy’s tonight, just because she couldn’t control her hunger.
Of course, there was an alternative.
Buffy trembled and cast a glance to the window. The sun would be up in six hours, give or take. She could end this easily with a quick outdoor stroll.
It wasn’t the first time the thought had surfaced, and while she knew it wouldn’t be the last, Buffy wasn’t a coward. Death was the wussy way out, and though it might be appealing as all hell right now, it wasn’t deserved.
What she deserved was exactly this, if not worse.
A knock to the front door jarred her out of her thoughts. Then her eyes went wide.
They had found him already. The boy. They had found him. She hadn’t hidden him well enough. She’d been in a hurry, panicked, and she’d missed something she shouldn’t have missed. She’d left something behind.
“Umm,” she said loudly. “No one’s home?”
She winced. Right. That only worked in cartoons.
Well, damn, and the Dumb Blonde Award goes to…
All of her froze, her head going light. That voice couldn’t be real. She’d lost it. She’d officially lost it. No one knew she was here.
“What?” she asked.
“Buffy, you can open up. I know you’re in there.”
The space separating her from the door fell behind her in a matter of seconds. She couldn’t have heard right. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t…
The door flew open and there he was. It wasn’t a dream or a mirage.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered.
A pregnant pause stretched between them. She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and blinked again. He stood where he was, watching her with a heavy gaze. He didn’t disappear.
“Oh, God…” She stumbled a bit against the door, unable to reconcile sight with reality. “Angel?”
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