Buffy didn’t notice the weird at first. Vamps? Usually kind of smelly. The fresh ones smelled like grave dirt and the others smelled... not so fresh. Like old blood and wet newspapers. Even Angel had, although the cologne mostly masked it.
Vamp hygiene wasn’t much to talk about either: hair that hadn’t seen conditioner in who knew how long; grody, ragged fingernails.
Still, when she was fighting Emily Horace (Devoted Sister, Beloved Friend), broke a heel, and fell back on the sad, sad cat-fight tactic of hair-pulling, what she did not expect was to land flat on her back clutching a handful of Emily’s frizzy perm. Emily roared and leapt on Buffy - better yet, on Buffy’s stake - and as she howled into whatever oblivion vamps went to, the frizz in Buffy’s hand dissolved to grit with the rest of it.
Vamp dusted. Day saved. Buffy rolled to her feet and glared down at her heelless shoe. Clearly not built for durability, stupid clearance sale bargain.
As she headed off towards home – just because she could patrol barefoot didn’t mean she liked it – Buffy fingered the remains of the dust in her palm. Emily Horace must’ve been sick with one of those diseases that makes your hair fall out. Or she was poisoned, maybe, like that one murder mystery.
Giles-worthy? Probably not.
Then again, maybe it’d make up for the not-telling about Riley and Initiative and all. He could lecture her about the twelve conditions – fourteen, depending on lunar activity – under which vampires’ hair fell out, and everyone would feel better.
Giles didn’t know any conditions under which vampires’ hair fell out. Likely the woman had been ill, he said. Or poisoned, perhaps?
Xander was the one who started wigging. It was just the crew, Buffy-Xander-Willow, which felt a bit like old times and a bit like gym shoes not so much broken-in as just broken. Sniping about Anya, questions about Oz, questions about moving on that flustered Willow even more than the questions about Oz, questions about Riley that never quite got asked but floated skin-deep. Awkward, in other words.
And in the middle of the awkward, and also a three-on-two battle with some fangy frat boys – “Coming on up in the world, are you?” – Xander kicked at the baseball bat in the vamp’s hand, and away went the bat. And also the guy’s hand.
“What’d you do that for, man?” yelled the vamp, and then Buffy staked it from behind.
Willow was already brushing the dust from her hands. “You know, this is getting easier. I staked that guy in, like, two seconds. I’m a vamp-dusting machine.”
“I don’t think it’s you, Will,” Buffy said, looking at Xander looking at the baseball bat, now hand-free.
Giles had never heard of such a thing. Were they sure it wasn’t a zombie, he asked. No?
What about a radioactive vampire/zombie hybrid? They call it ‘the zombire,’ argh argh.
No, Giles rather thought not.
To the books, then.
The books had never heard of such a thing either.
“Something’s happening to the vamps,” Riley told Buffy.
“Yeah?” Buffy was still feeling iffy about this whole freedom of information thing, especially when it was her information being freed. Especially after the Maggie-instigated attempted murder.
Also, it’d have been nice if this date were actually date-related, and not slay-related. She wistfully recalled her nice, normal guy idea.
Riley licked his lips and leaned in. “They wouldn’t... this is classfied.”
“Of course.” Riley could share all the information he liked, though. Buffy settled back and sipped her mocha.
“They’re decomposing. Hit ‘em hard, and things fall off. Fingers, limbs. We’ve started restraining them when we bring them in so they don’t tear themselves apart. And now there’s one or two that are getting... holey.”
Buffy set down her mocha. “Now there’s a lovely image to give to a girl.” She shoved to her feet.
“I’m gonna go wash that idea out of my head,” she said. And into Giles’.
Giles’ resources were exhausted , he said.
Angel, Buffy suggested, reluctant.
Angel, Giles agreed, equally reluctant. It took ten minutes to decide which of them would make the call.
Angel didn’t know anything, was in fact just fine, but wondered if the Sunnydale vamps had pissed off any lawyers lately.
The Council, Buffy suggested, more reluctant yet.
The Council, Giles agreed.
The Council would investigate the situation. They would doubtless know the whole of it within days, and would take under advisement the rogue Slayer’s request for their findings.
“What about Spike?” Willow asked.
Buffy looked at Xander, Xander looked at Giles, and Giles looked at Willow. “Do you think he might know something, you mean?”
“No, I mean, is he falling apart?”
So they – all of them, unified, feeling less like broken gym shoes now - went to Restfield Cemetary, to the crypt Giles said Spike had claimed for his own. Buffy didn’t know what she wanted them to find. On the one hand, Spike: pain in her ass. Him collapsing into vamp parts would save her ever having to listen to him – or chase him, or feed him, or manhandle him, or save people from him – ever again.
But on the other, she’d chased him and fed him and put up with him way too much for him to just dissolve now. Mootify all her hard work? She’d just see about that, Mysterious Vamp-Wasting Disease.
And there was the other thing, the thing she didn’t let sneak into her thoughts until they were looking around Spike’s filthy crypt and Willow wondered how they’d tell Spike from all the other piles of dust: what a yucky way to go. She wouldn’t wish that even on Spike. On Faith maybe – body-snatching boyfriend-stealing tramp – but not on Spike.
“Maybe he’s out,” Willow said, after they’d searched the whole crypt.
“Maybe he’s not,” Xander said, scuffing a shoe against the dirt-strewn floor.
Giles, poking at a crack with his foot, said, “I believe this is a door.”
It took Buffy-strength to pull the stone slab aside, and, with Giles’ ‘torch,’ it was Buffy who crept down the ladder first. She could see candles set in the walls, their wicks burned to nothing and their wax hardened in flows down the sides. There were more sarcophagi – take that, SAT vocab prep – and lots more cobwebs thick with dust.
“Spike?” She stepped further in, and grimaced when something snapped with a suspiciously bone-like sound beneath her feet. “Spike?”
Something moved off to her right. She swung the flashlight beam that way. Something groaned from behind a heap of who-knew-what.
A heap of Spike, Buffy realized as she got closer. She was a big Slayer now and ick didn’t make her hurl anymore, but God, it was a near thing. Ragged holes gaped in the sides of his face, through which she could see yellowed teeth. His scalp was gone, and she couldn’t help but think of Emily Horace’s hair coming away in her hand. His hands were all sinew and dead-white knuckles.
“Spike?” she whispered.
His mouth worked. Through split lips she spotted his tongue, white-spotted like bread at the back of the fridge. Air hissed up from his throat – though not, thank God, through it. “Slayer?” came the rasp, barely a word at all. “Come...” She could see all the muscles he used to swallow. She wondered if he had any saliva to swallow with. “Come to put me out of my misery.” He choked, and she’d have sworn his head would fall off. “Should have known it’d be you.”
“Buffy?” The word drifted down from above.
“He’s here,” Buffy yelled, rising. “It’s bad.”
The others came down then. There was gasping and hard swallowing and finally, from Xander, the lunch-losing Buffy had barely avoided.
“So, we stake him,” Willow said. “I mean, he’s probably in a lot of pain, and we don’t know anything to do for him.”
“Not that we would want to,” Xander added, uncertainly. “Waste of space, after all. And stealer of the last slice of pepperoni...”
“And murderer,” Giles said. “It’s clear, isn’t it, Buffy?” He said it gently.
It should have been pretty damn clear. But she was an executioner, not a veterinarian. Quips notwithstanding, putting things out of their misery? Not really in the Slayer job description.
Especially when the thing was someone she knew.
“We need to know what’s doing this,” Buffy said. “And until we do, hey, captive evidence.” Besides, giving Spike what he wanted? Never in the Buffy plan of action. “We should get some blood in him, too.”
Minor Council Flunky: “It’s a curse with a limited radius of action. It causes the vampires within the radius at the time of impact to disintegrate.”
“If a vampire is already affected, what can we do?” Buffy asked, thinking of Xander, who was right that minute flying his best-friend colors by crouching in Spike’s crypt, bottle-feeding him.
“I shouldn’t think there was anything you could do,” the woman said. “Generally, only the person who calls down the curse can reverse it.” After a pause, she added, “I’m sorry, is it Angelus...?”
Buffy slammed the phone on the hook.
After a short but fierce pan-scraping session, during which she directed a lot of effort towards not thinking at all, she took another carton of blood from the fridge and walked over to Restfield.
“He can’t swallow anymore,” Xander said, pointing to the darker spots down Spike’s t-shirt. His throat had developed a hole. “Maybe you should...”
“I know.” She knelt. “You can go, Xan.”
Reluctant but obedient, he went.
“It’s a curse,” Buffy said, settling butt-first into the dust. “Any idea who’d want to curse you?” She took the drop of his jaw for a smirk, instead of the collapsing muscle it probably was. “Right, who wouldn’t. And I’m not saying I mind, vamp disappearances in general being peachy with a side of keen.”
“Slayer,” he rasped, barely audible, and Buffy jumped. Collapsing muscle aside, she’d thought he was unconscious. “Please.”
“Stupid vampire,” Buffy said softly. She fingered her ever-present stake. “Not that I care, because have I mentioned what a pain in my ass you are? But nobody should have to go out like this.”
He coughed. Even with the wind whistling up his throat, he still managed to say, “So end it.”
She took a deep breath. “Okay.” It was so different, doing this in cold blood, deliberate, the vamp just slumped there.
Do the job, Buffy. Slay. She aimed the stake at the heart, and she drove it home. Spike howled a tattered, scraped-dry howl of pain.
And didn’t dust. He just slumped at the end of her stake, quivering like a pinned butterfly.
“God, I’m sorry, Spike.” She pulled the stake loose, adjusted her aim a little, and plunged it in again.
His howl was weaker now, gutteral. But solid.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Buffy yelled, verging on nervous tears. “Why won’t you dust?” She pulled the stake out again. “The others dusted fine!”
But Spike’s whimpering had fallen silent. She really, really hoped he was unconscious now. She’d try one last time. But she had tiny bit of previous experience at this; she was pretty positive she’d hit the target the first time.
Nothing happened, except for one more hole getting poked in Spike’s chest.
She rose, dropping the stake from trembling fingers. “I have to talk to Giles now,” she said. “You stay here.”
Giles served her tea and promised to get the Council woman back on the line. Buffy clenched her trembling hands and tried not to drop the tea mug.
“We could try burning him,” Willow said.
“Yeah, and if that didn’t actually kill him?” Xander asked.
Willow fell silent.
“I’m told Ms. Chalmers will call us back,” Giles said, turning from the phone.
“Sunlight?” Xander said. “Hazardous, but only in a fatal way.”
“But still with the burn risk,” Willow said.
“There’s the classic guillotine technique,” said Xander.
Together, Buffy and Willow said, “No.”
Giles’ phone range. Buffy did not drop the tea mug, but she may have set it down on Giles’ coffee table a bit harder than ceramic was meant to be set. She grabbed the phone before Giles had lifted it halfway to his ear.
“Giles?” said the voice.
“You’re sure it can’t hurt you?” Buffy asked, not looking at the stretcher where the crumbs of Spike continued to crumble.
“The curse had a one-time effect,” Angel said. “All the vampires in the radius when it hit...”
Like radiation burns, Buffy thought. It seemed appropriate. “And the vamp at the center of it goes like...” She flapped her hand in the direction she wasn’t looking in.
“It won’t be long now,” Angel said.
“Good.” Buffy rubbed her goosepimply arms.
“I don’t get it,” said Xander, conveniently forgotten until now beyond the triad of Buffy-Angel-Spike. “Why Spike? Even I never hated him that much.”
“It wasn’t Spike,” Angel said. “They screwed up. They sent it after the wrong Aurelian vampire.”
“Who did?” Xander said.
“The lawyers,” Angel said.
“Lawyers?” Buffy echoed. She’d thought his question the other night had been a joke.
“It was me they wanted dead,” Angel said. He wasn’t looking at the stretcher, either. “It was supposed to be me.”
No one could seem to think of anything else to say after that. Angel took Spike away, and Buffy and the rest watched them go.
There was plenty of slaying the next few weeks, and if Buffy never staked a grateful vamp again, it would be too soon.
They all dusted in the end, though. That was something.