For a little while, from everything except the feverish thoughts and the thumping in her chest and the (don't say it) soul that burned like ice somewhere deeper within, she escaped. She wasn't sure how she managed it; she'd have sworn the bastards had set up triggering alarms on the door of her apartment, and probably the window, too. Maybe they were sending firm-handed, blank-eyed security men even now to round her up and return her to her cage with a view. Maybe they'd just set someone tailing her, make sure she didn't get herself in trouble - it wasn't like she could cause anyone else any. Or maybe she was just lucky.
But Darla didn't believe in luck.
It didn't matter. For this little while, anyway, she could walk the sidewalk like any ordinary person, with only ordinary cares. A breath of breeze ruffled her hair, cooled her overwarm brow, lifted to her nose the faint shadowy scents of dirty oil and exhaust. Sometimes, if she inhaled at just the right moment, she could catch the sharp stink of sweat and overworked antiperspirant. Not the blood, just the sweat. It was enough frustration to send her into the first neon-lit boozehall she saw.
Here the smell of sweat and beer coiled around her with the cigarette smoke. She settled on a barstool and asked for the dark lager on tap. She only had enough cash for the one mug; Lindsey was a credit man and she hadn't been able to lift much from him last time he'd visited. She'd have to nurse this one until she smiled another out of one of these jokers. And then she realized, looking a little more carefully at the brute three stools down and then to the pool tables beyond, that half the people in the place were only passing for human.
Well. She fit right in, then.
Boots clumped up behind her. "Pint of O-neg and a bottle of Jack," said a growling male voice at her other side - a voice only passing for North London street trash.
For a moment Darla was stone, breath momentarily forgotten (she did forget, sometimes, that remembering was not necessary). She was a mouse frozen beneath the shadow of a hawk. And then she snorted at the image and turned around, curling her lips in her old pretense of a smile. "Spike."
For a moment he looked nearly spooked as she, and then the forked eyebrow lifted. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Fancy that." A tilt to the head. "You buy your blood now? I thought we taught you better than that."
He gave her the glare then, the one that threatened everything he wanted to do and couldn't. A shake of the head, a long gulp from the mug slid in front of him, and then, "Understood you were a bit dead."
"Spike. Dead? A vampire?"
He slid onto the stool next to hers, and a lick of anger flared at his presumption and then died. "Dusted," he said. "Since when did you care about semantics?"
"Well." She spread her arms, invited him to ogle her - which she'd always slapped him for. "Clearly you misunderstood."
"Don't get it. Angelus let it slip once -"
She caught her breath at the name and he narrowed his eyes.
"Here, now." He grabbed at her hand, and he felt enough before she snatched it away - not that he needed it, stupid boy. He could have heard her heart pounding in her before she spoke a word, if he'd been paying attention.
"Well, that is a new thing under the sun." She saw the moment when his words caught up with him. He snorted a laugh. "My very own great-grandsire, gone mortal."
"And what about you, O great-grandchilde mine? Still playing puppy to Angelus? Are you one of his crew now, out defeating evil and doing good?" Lindsey hadn't mentioned it, but then, it was clear Lindsey wasn't told as much as he thought he was.
"Hey, there, watch it," he said. "Just because I've got this chip don't you be thinking -"
"What?" He'd never made much sense. "Chip?"
"Bloody hell." He turned and scowled intently into his mug. And then abruptly he turned back again. "Yeah, all right then. Make fun of the Spike. Got a chip in his head, doesn't he, keeps him from digging his fangs into anyone worth tasting, lets the Slayer bash his nose in anytime she likes, and her friends, too, if they weren't all too nancy to take a swing." He was gesturing so violently it might as well have been a flail.
"So one day he hitches himself a ride into the city proper - hitches, mind you, 'cuz now he can't eat a guy and take his wheels like a proper vamp, and the sleek black rumbling love of his life got stolen out from under him when those soldier boys were busy pryin' his head open. And then when he gets there the stupid bint on Madison who says she reads dreams can't read anything but dollars.
"So then he goes into a pub and orders himself a quiet mug, thinking just for a little while he'd like to be someplace where at least he's no more a joke than any other vamp on the block. But no, universe won't let him forget for a moment that he's leashed, muzzled, and, oh yeah, a bleedin' idiot about women." And then he was dumping the whiskey in with the blood and determinedly not looking at her again.
Same nonsensical, different topic. "Women?"
"Don't want to talk about it." He scowled into his boozed blood.
Whatever. Backtrack, then. "You're saying you can't bite people?"
"Bite 'em, drink 'em, bash their pretty blond heads in - not yours, love." Darla almost laughed at that, Spike reassuring her. "Sodding pathetic, is what it is." A beat, and then, "So, how is it you're all warm-blooded again?"
"Not like that." Whichever 'that' Spike had in mind. "I'm here because Angelus is bothering a law firm, and I get to return the favor. They resurrected me to torment him or corrupt him or... I don't know." That bothered her, the not knowing, in amidst the whole sea of other irritations and (don't say it) fears that she felt herself always just barely floating at the top of.
"Seems you're the corruptible one now."
"I was corrupting men three hundred years before you were born. You, " - a hope smashed as soon as thought of - "you can't even turn me."
"Like I'd bloody well be responsible for you getting immortal again." A flicker of amused surprise lit his face. "Huh. Pleasant thought, innit? Here you are, half the bane of my sodding undead existence for twenty years, and I'm gonna outlive you."
She rolled her eyes, and it occurred to her that it felt good, sniping like this at someone she didn't particularly care for but owed nothing to, needed nothing from. And then suddenly she was too tired even for that - she was always tired now, not in her muscles or her bones but her (don't say it!) soul. She stared down into her beer as though Spike might disappear if she looked away long enough.
"I can't smell," she said finally.
A sniff; a smirk. "Not to worry, love - you've got the full human bouquet wafting off you."
"I can smell the smoke and the whiskey, but I can't smell the blood. It's like... like I can't see any color but gray."
"Have a whiff." He held out his mug. "Or a taste, if you like."
Now she could smell it, blood and whiskey both. It was a heady mixture not quite edging towards rotten. It set her stomach roiling. "It's been refrigerated, Spike."
"Yeah, all right, then," he said, scowling as he lowered the mug.
And then she pulled it out of his hands and was gulping it down. It tasted just like she remembered it, rich and warm; and nothing like she remembered it, the whiskey burning and the blood slicking her teeth and hanging in her throat.
"Easy," he said, drawing the mug from her mouth. "Dunno what kind of head you've got alcohol now, bein' human and all..."
But it wasn't the whiskey churning in her stomach. She shut her eyes and swallowed again, hard, and then there was "Bloody hell" and lifting and shoving and concrete in her face as she retched crimson clots and Jack Daniels and then just beer, long after those few illicit swallows had been purged.
Finally she straightened enough to lean back against the cinderblock wall next to her. It was then she noticed Spike was sitting beside her in the alley, and that there was no blood dripping from her hair.
"A right sorry couple of vamps we are," he said, musing, almost companionable. "I can't get the blood, and you can't drink it."
And somehow that was precisely enough. She'd put up with a lot of outrageous things in her brief new human existence, but commiseration from Spike was one too many.
"That's the best part," she said, a hand to the wall as she eased herself to her feet. "I'm not a vampire anymore. What kind of stupid statement is that, anyway? 'Anymore.' Any idiot could tell you undead is forever, one way or the other. But I'm special."
"Right. Very special sort of bitch, you are." He rose, too. "Walk you someplace? Don't want the nasties to get you." Oh, and wasn't he loving this, watching his great-grandsire humiliate herself and then offering his protection.
"No point," she said. "My handlers will be around soon, if they aren't already." Then, relenting, which made no sense, "Better not be here when they are. They might be interested in you."
"Might be mutual." Belligerance. Bravado. No, some things didn't change.
"Spike. If you think that that chip in your skull is not enough excitement for you, then be my guest. Stay. Or better, come with me, I'll introduce you."
"Right." Frown. "You sure -"
One eyebrow just barely arched, the measure of ice in her voice precise. "Spike."
A pause. "Right then. I'll just be off. Do something unpleasant to the old poofter when you see him."
She watched him go. There went one person, at least, that she could still intimidate - impressive, considering he'd just held her hair out of her vomit.
Time to go home, before someone came and dragged her there. 'Home.' Back to the beck and call of the unfathomable purposes of lawyers, and to Lindsey's lashy boyish eyes asking impossible things, like innocence.
Within half a block she knew, by some residual sense of predator/prey, that she had a tail, but it was another three blocks before she caught sight of neon red glinting on peroxided hair and realized who it was. She wasn't as annoyed as she'd have expected to be. Just as she turned into the door of her high rise she glanced back, and Spike gave her a smirking half-salute before strolling off into the night.
Stupid boy. For once, there was very little rancor in the thought.