by Shrift

He should have known right away that it was her.

Upwind or down, the First had no scent at all. No scent, no weight crunching gravel, couldn't see it unless it wanted you to. A predator of the highest order, if only it could touch.

But her -- she smelled of drying blood, sweat, deodorant, dust, and fading perfume. The brand Joyce favored, if he recalled correctly. He breathed her in and opened his eyes, and thought about dying.

He wished he knew why the First wanted him. Wished he knew whether he was convenient bait, convenient blood, or if his stupid sodding soul had earned him a name-drop in a relevant prophecy somewhere.

Yes, should have left the soul-having to Peaches. Hindsight only worked if you learned from your mistakes, and while Spike taught and taught, he did so in spite of his learning disability. But his sight had always been flawed, and his corrective spectacles hadn't allowed William to see Drusilla for what she truly was, anyway.

No, that wasn't the right kind of sight at all.

The skin between his shoulder blades itched as he stumbled forward, up and out, her hard shoulder digging into his side. "Up," she insisted, and he climbed blindly, opening cuts on hands that seemed disconnected from his body. The intricate tracery of scabs on his chest and abdomen pulled loose, trickling blood down onto the waistband of his trousers. They reached the top, and he saw sky, dark and velvet, and poked through with holes.

She guided him across the empty lot, a turn, down the street. He was weak, stumbling. He hadn't fed -- he couldn't remember the last meal, last plastic bag, last person. He had been bleeding for days.

"The vampire," he said suddenly, remembering. "Buffy --"

"What, that Uruk-Hai guy?" she asked lightly.

"Turok-Han," he mumbled, memory drifting back to days past, days of Darla's sneer, the back of Angelus's hand, and sweet Drusilla wearing a crown of dead daisies. Days of grand plans when the Master still lived. The vampire the First had brought forth reminded him of the Master he'd seen in Angelus's drawings, all bat-nosed and ugly.

"Yeah, him," she said. "He's in the great dust-buster in the sky."

"You--" He halted and looked at her, looked at her with so much awe it weighted her head. She looked down and still he stared. He didn't have enough pride in her; no one did. No one could. She was amazing. "You killed him."

"Yep," she said. "Just had to stop being afraid and remember that I could."

It couldn't have been that simple, he knew. Or, looking at her again, perhaps it had been. Violence was straight-forward, and Buffy always had been magnificent at killing things.

Oh, but the First would be angry that both its toys were gone. Perhaps Buffy should put him back?

"Spike!" she snapped, pushing into him with the sharp ball of her shoulder.

He didn't know what he had done. He assumed he'd leaned too hard and pulled back, tottering on his bare feet. She yanked him back to her side, her arm slipping around his waist. "No," he said. "No, you shouldn't."

She shouldn't touch him, he remembered now. It caused her pain, and she shouldn't.

"Get over it, Spike," Buffy snapped, tugging him forward. "We need to hurry. The others will worry."

He said nothing and simply walked as best as he could, trusting Buffy to lead him. His left eye was swollen shut and the right constantly drawn to the gash on Buffy's cheek that was held closed with plasters. Only the constant prodding of his vast store of guilt kept his face from changing, his teeth from lengthening. Saliva pooled in his mouth, thick and tacky with his own blood.

Downtown Sunnydale was dark and deserted, demons and humans alike hiding in their homes. Usually the arrival of a new Big Bad in town brought about a giddy revival of night-time festivities in the demon community, even when Angelus had promised the end of everything by awakening Acathla.

But the First wasn't of them, wasn't one of them, and it had them all terrified.

He must have lost some time, because suddenly the familiar house was in front of him. The grass wanted clipping, and the living room window was still boarded over with plywood. It looked a wreck.

Buffy led him up the sidewalk and opened the door that sat crooked on its hinges. It wasn't locked, and he found it amusing that they didn't worry about garden-variety burglars on the mouth of hell. The really dangerous creatures either needed an invitation to get inside, or were so strong that a metal lock wouldn't give them a moment's pause.

She eased them inside, and Spike propped himself against the wall while she shut the door behind them. He was so tired that it didn't register for a moment, that there were too many smells, too many people breathing, gasping now, the rush and pump of blood filling his ears.

He turned his head slowly to look into the living room with his good eye, and then he froze. Strange girls looked back at him, five in all, wide-eyed and awkwardly clutching swords and crossbows. "Bloody hell?" he whispered, whipping his head around to stare at Buffy.

She shrugged. "Potential slayers, meet Spike. Spike, meet a bunch of potential slayers."

The blond boy whose name he could never remember screamed and dove behind the brown couch, kicking his feet as he worked his body into the small space between the couch and the wall.

"Oh," Spike said weakly. "Right."

Xander came around the corner, flinching back when he saw Spike standing by the door. "Whoa," Xander said. "I see the First Evil's been playing pin the knife on the vampire."

"He's a real vampire?" one of them whispered. She had a mop of dark hair and looked too young, younger than Dawn. Too young to know that he could hear her as clearly as if she'd shouted. These girls made him hungry, damn them all. Weren't two dead slayers on his conscience enough?

"Well," Xander said, coming close enough for Spike to see that although his eyes weren't welcoming, they weren't as cold and angry as they had been before Spike had begun leaving wet towels on Xander's bathroom floor. "I have to say I'm disappointed," Xander continued. "I mean, Glory was just a hellgod, and you looked like she'd put you through a full-body meat tenderizer when she was done. Right now it just looks like somebody cross-stitched 'The First Was Here' on your chest."

Spike laughed, and it rattled around in his chest like loose marbles. "Not the First. Can't touch. Was the other one."

"Our friendly neighborhood Ubervamp," Buffy supplied, taking his elbow. She was leading him toward the stairs.

"No!" he said, ripping his elbow from her grasp and stepping back so quickly he slammed back into the wall. "No," he repeated.

"What?" Buffy asked. She looked tired, hair fraying out of her ponytail and bruises beginning to darken under her skin.

"The First," he said. "Not safe."

Buffy took a step forward. "We need to get you cleaned up, Spike."

He shook his head. "Chains first."

She sighed and pushed back a lock of hair. "Spike --"

"Buffy, please."

She looked at him for a long moment before she nodded her head. "Okay."

He followed her down the steps into the basement, and it was like deja vu all over again as she fastened the cold metal cuffs around his bloody wrists. "I'll be right back," she told him, walking back up the stairs. Spike slid down the wall until he was sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees, and then lowered his head. The chains were cold at his temples.

It was only a matter of moments before he heard the others creep down the stairs, whispering and shoving at each other. He peered at them over his knees, watching the one with the striking dark eyebrows step forward, her crossbow pointing at the ground. An amateur's mistake, one that any decent Watcher should have corrected long ago. Then again, Spike doubted there were many like Giles in that particular organization.

"He doesn't look like much," she boasted, prodding him with her crossbow. He let his body shift and absorb the motion, watching them all warily.

They looked at him like he was a disappointing myth.

"He looks like a normal person," the black one said, her arms folded tightly across her chest. She was no Nikki, that one. No fire, no joy in the fight. "Well," she amended, "except for the hair."

"In the picture I saw, the vampire's face was all bumpy," one of the girls said. She wore a knit cap in rainbow colors. Too skinny. A bit gawky, like she hadn't yet finished growing.

The girl with the crossbow narrowed her eyes. "Show us your demon face," she said. When he didn't move, she poked him again. "What, are you afraid?"

He was on them before they could move, chains looped around two of their throats and the crossbow shattering against the basement wall. He had the oldest girl by the throat while the rest stared dumbly, unable to react. He could smell their fear like this with his fangs extended, their blood pumping ever faster.

It would be so easy to sink his teeth into her flesh; he'd been doing it for weeks and Buffy hadn't known. He could pretend to forget feeding from her, pretend the First had already seized control. It would be so very easy. He didn't even know their names.

She made a strangled noise when he pressed his fangs against her neck, not quite breaking the skin. She was smart enough not to struggle and make the decision to kill her even easier. He could hear one of them crying, the two with chains wrapped around their necks gasping for air. The pain of the chip seemed muted against his current injuries, a sickening pulse in his brain competing with the ravening desire to feed.

"Girls, if I might make a helpful suggestion," Xander said, coming down the stairs. "It's never a good idea to taunt a hungry vampire."

Spike released the girl and stepped back, loosening the chains on the two girls in danger of asphyxiating.

"Yes, he is chained to the wall," Xander continued, pausing to toss Spike several bags of blood, "but would you walk up to a chained, starving bear and poke it with a summer sausage?"

"Buffy would," Spike mumbled, hungrily sucking blood from two holes in the plastic.

"No," Xander said, turning slightly. "Buffy makes bears."

Spike rolled his eyes and hunched back down against the wall, already working on his second bag.

"What's going on?" Buffy voice cracked out across the basement. She carried a basin and some cloths, and her expression reminded him so much of Joyce that he nearly apologized out of hand.

"Just a little Introduction to Vampires 101," Xander said. He gestured toward the staircase with his arm. "Shall we?"

One by one, the girls edged forward, not coming any closer to him than physically possible. Buffy watched them as they passed her, her expression blank and measuring. Xander was last in the line, and he did his 'what are you gonna do?' open-handed shrug and head-tilt before closing the basement door.

Spike waited to speak until he heard Buffy put down the basin on the floor next to him. "I almost killed them."

"I know," she said, squeezing the excess water from a cloth.

"I wanted to kill them all."

She didn't say anything for a moment, gently forcing him to uncurl so she could clean the marks on his chest. "Good. They have to get used to it."

"I would have blamed it on the First," Spike pushed, watching her closely.

Buffy's expression didn't change. She wasn't fragile anymore, prey to the right combination of his hands and words. She dunked the cloth in the basin of water and wrung it out again. It stained the water pink.

"You'll have to get used to that, too," she said.


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