He often felt he had a lot in common with the rats. They were predators too, and lived by feeding off the vulnerable, as he had once done. Given half a chance they'd eat him as readily as he drained them. Rats were comfortable; neither he nor they had any illusions about their relationship.
Illusions were where things started to get difficult, he felt. He was never quite sure nowadays what was hallucination and what wasn't. At least with a rat he could be sure. The old git had got that right, if nothing else. He wondered if you got used to the rankness of the taste after a decade or so. Probably stopped giving a toss in the end, stopped tasting anything much – perhaps that was why his sire never bothered to eat human food any more. Too much rat rotted the palate.
And talking of rat, there was a juicy one, staring at him, tempting him from the upturned pail in the corner. If he could only shut the fuck up while approaching this time, he might stand a chance. Zip the lips. Stretch out slowly. Fix the eyes.
Damn it all – the bloody thing moved. He followed, getting closer again. And it moved again. Not sodding funny any more – a bloke got hungry, you know. He lunged, grabbing out at the rodent – and bloody well missed it too. That did it – with a roar that would have impressed his long-dusted minions, and the speed he remembered once taking for granted, he chased the little bugger, round two corners and right to the foot of some steps.
These steps didn't go up into the school, it seemed. There was a faint light, both like and unlike sunlight. There was a fresh scent, like leaves, and under it that of fresh blood too. Not that this sort of blood was any use, not to him, not now. All it did was stir the appetite; no chance he could allow himself to sate it. Yet somehow it drew him, up the stairs, into the light, away from the friendly darkness and the rats. It was only a street-lamp after all – no danger of burning from that. Not quite sure now where or who he was, he stumbled away into the semi-darkness.
It was still a sweet pad, the crypt. Clem didn't often bother to go downstairs, where it was impossible to get rid of a faint charred smell, but it made a decent place to store stuff, and the upper room was now provided with all a reasonable demon could want in the way of snacks and entertainment. Tonight was a Farscape marathon, the third in recent months. Despite himself, Clem was hooked by the intriguingly attractive characters, with their interesting body parts arranged in a much more demon-friendly way than was usual on TV. Indeed, he half-wondered if it really was all makeup. A demon ready to work in special effects could have a future in Hollywood.
An armchair, only slightly battered, a bowl of popcorn and he was set for the night.
A strange, slumping sound came from the crypt entrance. Clem ignored it. After dark in a graveyard? He wasn't such a fool that he would go to meet trouble. Besides, people, demons and Slayers usually burst in if they really wanted to see him. After two or three minutes he could hear a muttering noise. Not threatening – if anything, it was irritating – but distracting enough to make the demon struggle out of the chair, place the bowl carefully on the floor and move with surprising delicacy towards the door.
Through a crack in the wood he could just make out a rambling litany of disconnected language. "A place to be. A place for a man. A man with a plan for a place with space to be and see." He knew that voice.
"Spike! Gosh! It is so great to see you! You're back! How good is that? It's a Farscape marathon tonight. You are so going to love these characters you know! How've you been? I've got popcorn here, and I think there's a beer left in the fridge, and we can get in pizza if you…" The excited voice trailed off. "Hey, buddy, you look in a bad way. Not that the bed hair isn't a good look on you, it is, and black's always been your colour…"
Unseeing, his guest stumbled past him, past the chair, the bowl, the TV. At the sarcophagus he sank to the ground, head bowed, shoulders turned to hide his face. Clem hovered, concern and sympathy crinkling his face even more. "Gosh, pal, you really don't look so good. Why not sit over here? Can I get you something? A wet cloth perhaps? Still having those headaches, huh?"
"No. No, no. No more a roving. Right? Late into the night? Too late for that now. Too late for loving and moving and roving. Bad man now, not a good boy, not William any more. Though the heart be still as – not beating. Heart be still. Still as still." A strange sound, something between a hiccup and a chuckle, but very muffled, reached Clem's ears.
"You still have issues with the Slayer, Spike? Still fighting the old trouble? Hey, d'you think it's maybe time to rethink? Sweet girl, I know, but was it really meant? Is it right for you is all I'm asking."
"Can't ask, can't tell. Don't tell. Won't tell. Too heavy to carry. Too bright." The vampire looked up, that strange intensity in his eyes catching Clem off-guard.
Suddenly Clem drew in a sharp breath. Was that? Could it be? His eyes narrowed, he stooped and gripped Spike's chin, not harshly but enough to enable him to tilt the face upward. "Spike! What have you done? Where'd you go? How'd you…?"
"Where's your manners? Not nice to make personal remarks. Not good style. Beneath you, beneath me. Not a problem; it's only a spark, just a little flicker of light. It hurts. It hurts all the time. Didn't know that. Not polite to say. Not correct. A true man, a true gentleman, must be correct. Must be right for her."
Beads gathered on Clem's forehead and ran down the runnels of his face onto his dewlaps. Where to go from here? Nice guy, Spike, but, whoo, was he out of his league with this one. A gentle hand under Spike's elbow, a lifting motion and, thank the Powers, he was standing, more or less, stumbling and finally sitting in the armchair. "You stay here, Spike, OK? Here, hold the popcorn and the remote. I'll be right back – don't you go away, now." One harried glance round and the floppy-faced demon was away. Spike was slumped, cradling the popcorn bowl, whispering to it from time to time. Go away? It didn't look like he had the energy to move even a hand unassisted.
The door creaked open slowly. An unearthly creature pushed through the widening gap.
A mound of packages, boxes and loose bags heralded the arrival of the Slayer, her most important mission accomplished. The stores of Sunnydale would remember her visit for some while. An actual income – well, pending – meant that shopping was once again an option – and what red-blooded Slayer could overlook that?
Dawn started up from the sofa at the sight of the superpowered loot. "Buffy! I wondered where you'd been. I shoulda guessed, huh? What'd you get me?
"Who says there is anything for you?"
The Teenage Face of Doom glared back at her. Just lurking at the corners of her mouth was a smile, but there was no doubt whatsoever that business was meant. Giving up the impossible struggle, Buffy pulled out a few familiar-styled packages and handed them over. It had been so long since she'd been able to indulge her sister.
With a squeal Dawn pounced on the sophisticated gold bag and the pink-and-white striped carry-all. Her sort of homecoming!
"There's a DVD too. I thought we could have some chill time tonight?"
"Prezzies and sisterly chat about a day at school? That sounds like, well, normal. Do we do that here? What was the day like?"
"Not as hellmouthy as I expected."
" Perhaps it's all gone what is the word? Dormouse? "
Buffy searched for the word for a moment, then dismissed it. Dormouse would do. "There were the normal demons of acne and teen angst. Nothing out of the ordinary. And absolutely no insane bursting into class. I'm not doing that again, promise."
"I admit you may, just may, have had a point then. But no more, not ever, right?"
"I just said so, didn't I?"
Resolutely pushing memories of the unscheduled basement visit to the back of her mind, Buffy settled down to an evening of sisterly bickering, chocolate goodness and chick-flicks. Perhaps there could be such a thing as a normal life for Summers women… just occasionally.
Outside the crypt – oh dear, would he have to offer it back now? – Clem paused in thought for a moment, and then scurried diagonally across the cemetery to a half-concealed gate. He knew the perfect people, but he really, really hoped they'd do house-calls. Spike didn't look as if he would be going anywhere under his own steam anytime soon, for sure and certain.
A mere twenty minutes later Clem stood outside the crypt door with two red-faced horned demons and another, mostly green, though with red eyes and horns, carrying a suit bag in one overlarge fist. From within came a steady sound, wavering in pitch but not volume. "The sword outwears. In the end everything outwears. And the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest. Rest? There has been no rest. Not here. Not allowed rest here." It was time to interrupt. No point in scaring off the makeover crew and wasting those hard-won kitties.
Carefully, to avoid spooking his unexpected guest, Clem pushed open the door. Spike was still exactly where he had been left, clutching the remote and the popcorn,
Clem ushered in his brood of style demons and firmly closed the door. They bustled forward,. and stopped, their eyes widening, some small tentacles waving frantically from Green Guy's head.
"Ah. I guess you spotted it, huh? Don't worry – he's as harmless as they come. Well, hey, still a hundred-year-old vampire with fangs and all, but he won't hurt you. I promise."
A surprisingly high-pitched voice responded: "This creature has a soul. That is just so disgusting. If it wasn't that I needed those tabbies, man, you would so be one heap of gloop and entrails right now."
Nervously, Clem smiled. "Guys, guys, we're all cool here, right? No big, huh? Just spruce the man up a bit – you can see he's in need of your talents. Then you can go, no questions, just juicy kitties."
Wordless eye-rolls passed between the three style leaders. There was perceptible loin-girding. Then, determination in their faces if not their body language, they advanced. They had been well-briefed. Peroxide appeared, and clippers. Heavy, metal restraints, too – and the vampire, strapped down, if not for his own safety then for that of his cosmeticians, began to undergo the process of transformation.
The trickiest bit, Clem afterwards decided, wasn't the hair, the nails, or even the shaving. It was the clothing. Nutso Spike seemed almost calm as they combed his hair. The trimming produced no more than a slight glint of yellow in the eyes. He relaxed into the presumably-familiar sting of the bleach, almost purring as they showed him a Polaroid of his restored blond looks. They took the risk of releasing the handcuffs in order to dress him. At that point the garment bag was opened and a heap of clothes cascaded out – a sombre collection conforming with the vampire's usual monotonous sartorial tastes. Now, however, it seemed that something had changed. The black denim passed muster with little more than a whimper, but the first sight of a black tee made the face contort into a scream, followed by a howl of agony at the appearance of a red shirt. Clearly this was a problem.
"Spike, buddy, what's the trouble? Bleach still stinging?" Clem nodded wisely. Spike had never mentioned it, but that amount of peroxide on a regular basis just had to smart.
"Black! No black. No blood colour. No blood and black. It's the Bad Man. He wore black. Shiny tiles, grey robe, black, black and hurting." More screams. Clem motioned to the waiting demon to move the tangle of shirts out of the way. Frantic signals produced a tentative move from the style guru.
"Mr Spike? How about this? Lovely colour. I hadn't thought it was your sort of thing, but it slipped in somehow. It would pick out your eyes nicely."
"Eyes? Pick them out? Like Oedipus? Gloucester? Yes. Good." The nails scrabbled towards the haunted blue eyes.
"No! Not that way! Hold him, please – quickly!" Clem and the red demons lunged for the restraints. The distraught vampire lunged this way and that, his wrists slipping from their grasp as if oiled. One red stylist hit the wall. Goodness but that would sting in the morning. Finally the remaining two managed to pin him down and clamp the manacles back on.
"Mr Spike? Can you hear me? The blue shirt? It accentuates your beautiful eyes. That's all I meant." The green demon was shaking slightly. A whole tubful of tabbies wouldn't be enough to get him back here once he was done. Wincing at the clash of the vibrant blue against his own skin tones, he waved the garment. Clem grabbed it.
Just how do you get a tight, stretchy shirt onto a writhing vampire in manacles? Very, very carefully. This style makeover was becoming less fun by the minute.
"Spike? Stay still, will you? Suffering cats! This is hard. Hey, P'tork, you grip his wrist while I hold the sleeve open. When I give the word, open the cuff just a touch."
Clem did his best to talk soothingly as the team wrestled the blue shirt onto an arm, over the head, onto the other arm. Possibly not the best working order, but it had the advantage of keeping the head trapped under the neck longest. You never knew with vamps.
His visitors, job done at last, seemed to be edging towards the door.
"Thanks guys. The kitties will be there for you tomorrow. I really appreciate it. You sure you won't stay for a beer or something? I've got nachos too…"
Panicked glances flickered between three very shaky visitors. Clem was the most hospitable creature alive – but none of them could be comfortable snacking quite so close to such an unpredictable and dangerous individual as Spike. Even without the radiance of the soul – and what was that about? – this was clearly a creature of power, a Master Vampire. "No, really. You're too kind, but we have to be going. Things to see, people to do. Same old, same old – you know."
"Oh. I understand. Thanks for all your help, boys. Be seeing you." Before the final sentence was completed, the door had slammed shut and Clem was once again alone with his friend. Spike, clean, white-haired and clothed, was back in his corner, rocking gently and murmuring softly to himself. That was not good.
"So. Old buddy. How you been doing?"
A look of withering contempt pinned him to the spot. "OK, OK, I get that. Let's try another one, shall we? Where have you been?"
"Well, you're back now." Ask him about the crypt, Clem. "The town felt kinda quiet without you." Not the best conversational gambit he'd made of late. But Spike seemed not to notice.
"Something's wrong about this town. Always been bloody wrong if you ask me. But now it's worse."
The sanest statement all evening. Pity it was about just the topic Clem would much rather avoid. What demon hadn't noticed? Something big was brewing – and that meant big even by the standards of Hellmouth Central. Boy, was that big. "I know what you mean. Things feel kinda wrong again, don't they?"
"Wrong? I hurt the girl. That was wrong. Can't ever be right, that. But this is different wrong. Big wrong."
Gulping, Clem tried to puzzle out the meaning of the rambling. Hurt the girl? Now there was something to ponder on later. Just now, though, there was a vampire in pain. Or confusion. Most likely both. "You can feel it's different, right? It's not felt like this since that Glory woman left town. And she was one kooky lady. This is even worse. You know, pal…"
The silence, delicately left for Spike, remained unfilled. No help was going to come from there, then. "You know, if it's bad, there's someone it's going to hit bad. Buffy might want help. Look, I don't know what went on between you and her…"
"No, and not gonna know either, chum. But Buffy won't want help from me, whoever else."
Startled, Clem moved towards the shaking man in the corner. "But she brought Dawn round for you to look after, just before things got really weird. Again." Now that got a response. A jerk of the head, then a sudden stillness. "She did? Never thought the bint would want anything to do with me again after..." He paused for a beat. "Weird? How so?"
"End-of-the-worldy weird. You know. Stuff happened."
"So is that what's wrong now. Is that what you're saying? Dawn in trouble?" Suddenly Clem felt crowded. The shivering wreck in the corner was all at once towering over him, glaring out of eyes that somehow seemed completely sane. Excessively so. How did he do that so suddenly?
"No, nothing like that, that was all sorted out a while back. No, this is new. Can't you feel it?"
"Feel it? The demon's under control, not dead in me. Of course I can feel it. You think Buffy needs help?" There was complete coherence now, a total focus that was even more disturbing than the demented ramblings of a few minutes ago.
"Look. Whatever happened. I'm real sorry. You maybe don't want to have a lot to do with her again? But she's a sweet girl, Spike, and this thing that's coming – could be too big for her on her own."
"Beneath you. From beneath you it devours. Right?"
"You know that, Spike." All the demons in town recognized that turn of phrase.
"Gotta go. Gotta help the girl, give her service. Gotta be the man she needs. Be a man."
As Clem moved to reply, he realized there was little point. A twist of blue, a flash of peroxide white and the doorway was open and empty. He was on his own. Ah well. Picking up the popcorn, not even soft yet, he settled down to Farscape.
He'd done what he could, after all.
Visions of white tiles, a grey robe, a horrified realization, flooded his memory. No, there was no possible way he could go in there. Prowling was what he did best, right? Prowling could be done here. There was really no need to disturb the inhabitants of the unassuming suburban house as long as he could just stand watch.
It was possible to see a few stars despite the glow from the streetlights and the downtown area. The tree was still there, still a support for the back of any vampire who might just want to stand and watch for some reason. There was something very strange about the sidewalk, however. It smelled odd and looked odder. Something was definitely moving beneath there. Clem had been right. There was a need for help.
"Buffy. You need me. Look, you knew what I am. What did you expect? How was I to know? But it's all over now. Can't you forgive me?" No. Bloody stupid to say that. Pointless. A good way to get a fist in the nose, but no way to forge a team.
"Buffy. We can still work together. I know you need help. I'm here for you." Right. Straight out of some teen flick, that.
"Buffy. I'll do anything to help you. I was so wrong. Can't we just start again?" Oh yes. That was the best yet. The girl needs help, you wanker, not a pile of dust to sweep up, which is all there'd be if you went in with that ruddy line. Best to make it up as he went along, really. After all, he'd known the girl for years. It couldn't be that hard, could it?
Who was he trying to kid? Only the hardest thing he'd done in a century and more. But that didn't offer him any sort of out. It still needed to be done. A dozen demons to fight would be easier – not to mention much more fun – but the girl had to be faced.
A deep swallow. A deeper breath – unnecessary but steadying. Now for it. He walked towards the front of the house. Perhaps there'd been a lockout spell? Back door, then – he'd look just a touch less stupid if he couldn't get in there – and human locks were also an issue. Just a gentle push, and if he couldn't get in, at least he'd tried.
When the door swung away from him as he turned the handle, he honestly didn't know whether he was pleased or disappointed. Expecting to be repelled by an invisible wall, he stepped forward – and through the entrance. No disinvite? Why ever not? It's what he would have done in her place. After… Just after.
There was talking audible from the living room. Once in the hall he paused and sniffed. Familiar scents – the Slayer, obviously. Her sister, that irritating boy – and another. Female, frightened if the heartbeat was anything to go by. He focused on the words.
"Look, Nancy, we're going to get into this. And I promise you, if your dog is alive, we're going to find him. The only thing that I need is a little—"
Well, if ever a bloke had a cue, this had to be it. "What you need is help. Fortunately, you've got me."