Things were picking up at the Magic Box. For a while Xander had wondered if Sunnydale was done with its fascination with the occult and realised that collecting comics and action figures was a much better and safer idea. Sunnydale still had more than its fair share of vampires and demons, but they weren’t the Magic Box’s clientele. He couldn’t recall a vampire ever walking into the store and asking for an enchanted candle to bring it better luck and younger prey.
The shop’s normal customers were the hippy college students, the curious high school kids, the weird old ladies that smelled of lavender and loved the bundles of patchouli incense. Now and again they sold a crystal ball or crushed raven’s claws to a person Xander couldn’t pin down and categorise but, generally, the witches had moved on. The Magic Box was a tourist attraction. At least it would be if Sunnydale actually had any tourists.
But now, months on from Riley and his army, the “real” customers were returning.
‘Bye.’ Xander raised one hand and handed over a small paper bag filled with frankincense and grated beetle. ‘Thank you very much and have a fantastic day and an even better night. Uh, I didn’t mean anything sexual. You might be playing scrabble, for all I know. Or Boggle. Myself, I prefer the Game of Life.’
The young witch smiled uneasily and left with a scuttle of feet and the tinkle of the shop bell.
‘At least you’re scaring off the customers after they’ve made a purchase.’ Wesley looked up from the accounts and smiled. ‘You’re improving. Well done.’
‘Thanks, Wes! I live to please. And to irritate, but only if your name’s Angel.’
The vampire in question grunted in agreement, gaze never leaving the book in front of him. He was leaning on the counter next to Xander reading a text called Corpses and Reanimation: An intermediate Guide (updated edition with full index, scratchy drawings and immense amounts of unintelligible waffle) At least that was Xander’s closest guess, seeing as the book was in Latin.
‘Got anything?’ he whispered. No-one else but Spike, Angel and himself knew about these strange resurrections, and Xander was happy to keep it that way.
‘Hm? What does that mean? Hm yes, hm no, hm kinda maybe, or hm get away from me before I stuff you full of Nag Champa?’
He wouldn’t get anything out of Angel right now, Xander decided. He was in too deep. The cavebrow was wrinkly, the eyebrows were inverted to drastic proportions and Angel’s pupils were wiggling back and forth as he scanned the page.
‘Stop staring at me.’
Xander backed away before there was violence. Dawn was in the training room trying out a new move Spike had shown her, and from the occasional screech that cut through the store, Xander guessed that Cordelia was on the receiving end of it. Xander wasn’t completely sure he approved of Cordy training. Her biceps were getting bigger and her slaps stung much more than they used to. Xander had made the sensible decision to never go anywhere near her when she was in full-on, kick-ass slayerette mode. He didn’t want to go anywhere near Wes and his accounting books either due to his irrational fear of rational numbers and the slight possibility that Wesley would hand him a calculator and ask him to help. So instead, he retreated to the dragon ornaments and began dusting them.
The shop bell tinkled again. It was a delicate sound, slight and mystical, like maybe a fairy had just got its wings.
‘I really bloody needed that!’ Spike flung the door wide and strode in, full gameface in place and a manic grin flashing around sharp teeth and a bloody lower lip. Xander thought perhaps the fairy had just got itself eaten.
‘Have you been fighting or did you finally snap and go back to eating humans?’ As he said it, Xander felt a stab of something uncomfortable. Too close to home. He went back to flicking at the shelf with the feather duster. He wished it wasn’t pink.
‘Fledge. Walking down the road, bold as brass. Cheeky bugger.’ Spike cracked his knuckles and wiped at his bleeding lip.
‘Really? Wow. I’m gonna assume you dusted him.’
Spike’s gaze briefly flicked to the pink feather duster in Xander’s hand. ‘So much dust it aggravated an asthmatic.’
‘Good. Not about the asthmatic. I wonder if there has ever been an asthmatic Slayer. Awkward.’
Xander fluffed his feathers over a tall, bronze-coloured dragon. Its neck curled around its body as it slept. It looked like a comfortable, content creature with a full belly and the need for a post-dinner snooze.
Spike’s hands wrapped around Xander’s waist and a pale chin rested on his shoulder.
‘My lip’s sore,’ Spike complained.
‘It’s already healed.’
‘So it’s psychosomatic. Kiss it better anyway.’
‘If I kiss you, you’ll want sex.’
‘How do you know?’
‘From the expression on your face when you walked in, the I’ve just pulverised someone and now I need to fuck strut and because it’s a day that ends in “y”.’
‘Yeah, well, also? Your hard-on is digging into my ass.’
He felt Spike grin and wasn’t surprised when cool lips touched his neck, and then a tongue, and then those firm hands started to move over his hips and down his thighs.
‘Guys, I could only find the miniature oh my god!’
Fred clasped her hands to her mouth and dropped a box full of something that clanged when it hit the floor. Xander jerked away from Spike’s hands, threw his pink feather duster in the air, and Spike caught a startled looking dragon with ruby-red eyes and a yellow ridge along its back.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Fred said. ‘I had no idea you were ...’ She waved her hand in the air.
‘Groping in a public place?’ Wesley provided from across the room. ‘Really, Fred, when it comes to these two, you really must expect the worst.’
Blushing furiously, Fred picked up her box and escaped Spike’s grinning gaze. He’d changed back to his human face now and, as Fred retreated, his hands slipped back to Xander’s hips.
‘Want to go home?’
‘For sex?’ Xander said, too loudly, and from the table Wesley made an exasperated sound.
‘Please, go, both of you. I’m sure we can manage here all by our lonesomes, all six of us. Please, get out.’
Xander hesitated and caught Angel’s gaze. He tried to communicate in that silent way Spike was so good at that Angel should carry on investigating the strange resurrections by himself and call them if he needed help or any more graves turned inside out. Angel nodded and went back to his book so either he understood or Xander had just silently suggested Angel would look great in clown trousers and Angel was about to make the fashion mistake of his life.
The best part about life with Spike was everything. The worst part about life with Spike was everything else. Spike was bad-tempered, rude, dangerous, far too sensitive about his duster and he fussed with his hair way more than he liked to admit. On the plus side, he was tough and firm and Xander could grip as hard as he liked and barely leave a bruise. Also? He made great pancakes, which tasted even better served in bed.
Xander shovelled the remains of his impromptu breakfast in his mouth and dropped his fork onto the plate with a clatter.
‘Good?’ Spike asked.
‘Little round perfections.’
‘Fancy some more perfection?’ Spike pushed down the covers and stretched his arms above his head.
Xander’s gaze travelled up the trail of fuzzy hair at Spike’s abdomen, and then drifted around his navel, bumping over ribcage and pecs and settling on his pale neck.
Yes, Spike was evil.
‘No, no, perfection later. Work now.’
‘Work is for mugs. Come on, babe.’
Spike reached for the maple syrup and, inevitably, Xander was late for work.
It was dark and wet when Xander returned later that night and he ran from the car and fumbled the key in the lock. Dawn was on patrol and Spike was probably still with her or at The Magic Box, making a nuisance of himself. The house was in darkness and Xander shut the door behind him, leaving the moonlight outside, and flicked up the light switch.
‘Gah!’ He fell back against the door with a thump. ‘Holy stalker, Broodman! What the hell are you doing in the dark? Do you do that to Cordy? How has she not staked you yet?’
Four feet away, directly in front of the door, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, Angel stood as still as a really creepy mannequin.
‘Sorry. I was waiting for you.’
Xander wasn’t one to show fear in front of Angel so he straightened himself and pasted an irritated expression on his face to replace the scared-almost-shitless one.
‘I know you don’t pay the bills around here, but I think we can allow you to use a light bulb or two. You could even go crazy and sit on the couch.’
‘I just arrived. Heard your car down the street, thought I’d just wait. Besides, I don’t want to ruin my lurker image.’ Angel’s lips looked as though they were about to smile, but the blank look won over them. Good effort, though.
‘Fine. But can you lurk in the kitchen? The fridge is calling me.’
Xander headed to the kitchen, his rumbling belly leading the way. He opened the fridge door and scanned the contents of the shelves.
‘There’s been another death.’
Xander eyed up a packet of ham. ‘Really? Here in Sunnydale? Weird. You should report that.’ Was four days over the sell-by date dangerous or merely patient? He grabbed the packet.
‘Her name was Elise Western. She was nineteen-years-old.’
The ham in Xander’s mouth had an odd tang to it, nothing he couldn’t normally stomach, but he swallowed after only a couple of chews and it scraped down his throat like he was swallowing a dry rag.
Death was common on the Hellmouth, almost an everyday occurrence. Xander had long ago lost track of the dead bodies he’d seen, the countless ashen faces, clouded eyes and sticky, crimson puddles. As a teenager it had sickened him, made his hands tremble and gave him sleepless nights of worry over his own mortality. Not anymore. He was hardened to it now. Death was a shrug and an unfortunate occurrence.
‘Pretty girl,’ Angel said. ‘Rich. Just like her friends, Ferrari and Mercedes.’
Xander was sure his eyes were bulging. ‘Connection. Spooky coincidence?’
‘Maybe. I can’t find any connection to the empty grave from the other night. We’ll watch her grave.’
‘How did she die?’
‘Not the same way as the first two. This was definitely murder. Strangulation, according to the police report.’
They stared at each other in the darkness of the kitchen. Xander hadn’t bothered with the light as he’d entered at high speed and the only illumination was the yellow glow from the fridge.
‘Why are you telling me this? Where’s Spike?’
‘Patrolling with Dawn. I didn’t want to risk arousing her suspicions.’
Ah, right. He was second choice for the vital information. Fair dues. Angel trusted him as much as he trusted Angel. It was just the way the cookie crumbled, the flan flaked and the turkey trembled.
The cemetery was as quiet as it always was, the dark navy sky clouded with puffs of black that obscured the stars and brought with it a cold drizzle that defied the time of year. It was cold and damp enough that it was seeping right down into Spike’s bones, chilling him and making him wish for the comfort of home with its warm walls and even warmer humans.
He’d gone soft. Definitely. Plush carpets, hot baths, cotton sheets, mugs of hot chocolate and packets of cookie dough; it had all cushioned and squidged him, wrapped him in a blanket of domesticity and taken away the part of him that was happy to neck a whole bottle of vodka and pass out in the nearest gutter. It had warped his vampire brain so much that on a Sunday evening he much preferred to sit watching the telly with his feet encased in tartan slippers that he would never admit owning to anyone except Xander and Dawn, rather than stalking through the dark with murder on his mind.
Unluckily for the vampire standing before him with a sly grin and a twinkle in its golden eyes, it wasn’t a Sunday, and Spike wanted to play.
‘You know who I am?’ Spike asked as hopped over a tomb and backhanded the fledge. He was a fresh one. Spike could smell earth and funeral home make-up.
‘No idea. Some Australian dude with bad hair. And ow.’
Spike growled and changed to his gameface, and the fledge hesitated and backed up.
‘I’m a Master Vampire. Know how I got that title? By killing. A lot. I’ve done thousands of humans and demons, hundreds of my own kind and two Slayers. Oh and the Anointed One -- I finished him off too, although to be fair he was only a nipper.’
‘Right. So you’re an old dude. Who’s the Anointed One?’
Spike grinned and deflected a clumsy blow. He balled up his fist and punched the fledge in the face. ‘Wrong question,’ he said. ‘What you want to be asking is: what is a Slayer?’
‘Okay,’ the fledge said, clutching at his nose and stumbling over a marker. ‘Although I really don’t get your problem. Talk about an attitude! What’s a Slayer, oh wise, old and badly bleached one?’
Spike pointed to the fledge’s left, towards the side of a crypt where a girl stood, dark against the shadows. She stepped forward and the clouds shifted. She smiled under the moonlight.
‘A little girl? That’s a Slayer? Oh, I do like a kidder. Come on then, girlie, do your worst. I’m sure you will. Mind you don’t a break a—’
Spike winced and made his way to the crypt. He leaned against the cold wall and lit up a cigarette. ‘Mind out for the leg sweeps,’ he called over to Dawn. ‘Even fresh new fledges know how to take your legs out.’
‘Yeah, okay! Thanks!’ she called back, and then there was the sound of crunching bone and a shrill scream.’
‘Dawnie sure has that sucker punch thing nailed, huh?’ Xander said. He leaned against the wall and Spike immediately felt Xander’s warmth as their shoulders brushed.
‘Yep, catches on quick, that one. Plus she’s got that teenage temperament thing going on. Wrong time of month, she’d be dangerous with a teddy bear.’
‘SPIKE! HAS! GOT! GREAT! HAIR! YOU SACK OF FESTERING VAMPIRE FAECES!’
‘I don’t know if I feel sorrier for the vamp,’ Xander said, ‘or the headstone.’
‘That is quite a crack.’ Spike took a long pull on his cigarette. ‘Angel gone to the Western grave?’
Xander nodded and waved at Spike’s cigarette smoke. ‘He’ll call if and when she decides to rise from the dead. You know, you two are gonna have egg on your faces if Elise Western rises complete with ridges and a shiny set of vampire pegs. In fact, I’m going to put the egg there myself. And then I’m gonna rat you out to Dawnie.’
‘You couldn’t kick a football, never mind my ass,’ Dawn said as she ducked a kick and spun one of her own.
‘I can so.’
‘Eat my stake.’
Xander shook his head. ‘We’ve got to work on her punning.’
Spike hummed in agreement. ‘Mind you, she hasn’t got much to work with.’
‘Yup. No such thing as a sharp fledge. Half the fun in the pun is the banter, the build up. It just doesn’t work unless the other party is willing to put out with the humour. Even a comedy fall would do.’
Ten feet away the fledge exploded and its dust filled the cold air and dropped under its damp weight.
‘See,’ Xander continued, ‘they don’t even explode like they used to. Where was the comedy expression, the half-a-scream and unfinished sentence?
‘Hey, Dawnifer, well done!’
Spike waited by the crypt while Xander bounded over to Dawn’s side. There was always excitement when Dawn made a kill. Xander had a little notebook and the time, date and place was recorded, along with a brief description of the circumstances. Spike wondered how long the novelty of it all would last, the fun and pride of ridding the world of evil. He wondered how long it would take for Dawn to realise that it wasn’t all that simple, that sometimes the lines between good and evil blurred, that there were exceptions. He wondered how long it would be before she realised the vampires she killed were just like him, or could be, if they found the right motivation: a Slayer to fall in love with, or maybe a tall and tanned human with beautiful dark eyes and a bad stomach after too much seafood.
One thing was for certain, no vampire was going to fall in love with Dawn. No vampire was going to confuse her world like he and Angel had confused Buffy’s, not as long as Spike was capable of pulling out entrails.
Spike’s pocket vibrated and he pulled out his cell phone. Angel.
‘Yeah? Be right there.’ He hung up the phone and stuffed it back into his pocket. ‘Xand!’
Xander turned to him. He’d heard the ring and he was smiling. ‘Scrambled or fried?’
Spike didn’t smile back. ‘Neither.’
‘Are you guys cracking up?’ Dawn asked as they trudged across the cemetery together. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Honestly?’ Xander said. ‘We have no clue. Well, Spike and I are clueless. Angel might have something. He’s hopeless, though. Does that count?’
As they walked, Angel appeared in the distance, a tall, bulky shadow standing at a graveside, his sword hanging loosely at his side. As they neared, his pale face became visible, his eyes cast down and his brow furrowed with thought. It soon became apparent what he was looking at. Dawn gasped.
‘What the heck is that?’
‘Good question,’ Xander said. ‘But I’m putting my eggs away.’
Spike stopped just before the grave and inches away from a bloodied pale hand that was restlessly clawing at the dirt. But it wasn’t the hand that was disturbing, it was the silently sobbing face breaking up through the surface, a face with green-tinged skin, sunken grey eyes and decomposing fluids dripping from its nostrils and lips.
‘I repeat,’ Dawn said. ‘What the heck is that?’
Angel looked up at her. ‘It’s a zombie.’
Xander stood next to him, his face twisted into a disgusted grimace. ‘Oh god, it stinks.’ He pinched his nose. ‘Say what you like about vamps, at least they’re only three steps away from freshness when they pop up. This girl smells like she died a month ago. In a swamp. With really bad BO. And epic halitosis.’
The zombie’s lips pulled back, baring teeth sticky with fluid. ‘Free meeeeee.’
‘Who did this to you?’ Spike asked.
‘Just woke ... so much paaaain.’
Spike stared down at her, his expression blank. ‘Then who killed you?’
‘He ... Always watching.’
‘From ... Watching us. Oh, god, he followed, rat bastard, mother fucker, tear him to pieces, feast on his flesh, mother fucker!’ She screamed and convulsed, then seem to calm, relaxing into the dirt that was now trapping her from the chest down. She sobbed quietly. ‘Followed ... from the Espresso Pump. GET ME OUT OF HERE, I’LL KILL YOU ALLLLLL!’
Dawn gripped her stake tighter and looked hesitantly at the others. ‘Is she evil? Well? What do we do?’
Xander just shrugged, but Spike exchanged a brief look with Angel.
‘We have to kill her,’ Spike said.
‘So much paaaain. Help me.’
‘That’s not what I asked.’
‘Help me. There’s so much pain. Help, please.’
Dawn bent down to help her, but Xander and Angel stopped her, their hands on her forearms.
Spike drew his sword.
‘No, Spike, wait!’ Dawn shouted. She shrugged herself free. ‘I’m the Slayer here so I decide who gets slayered. I mean slayed. Tell me about zombies.’
‘This,’ Spike said, with a little more vehemence than was probably necessary, ‘is what happens when you try to bring someone back. This is what could have happened to Buffy.’
That was the wrong thing to say. Dawn’s expression dropped and she looked down at the sobbing zombie. ‘You poor thing. We have to help her. Guys? What can we do?’
‘We can kill her,’ Spike said.
‘It’s the kindest thing.’
‘To slaughter her? Would you have done that to Buffy?!’
He and Dawn locked eyes and Spike felt anger bubble up inside him. He swallowed it back down and with it repressed the urge to vamp out and growl in her face. ‘If she’d come back like this, in agony, less than half a person, a fucking monster, then yeah, I’d have put her down.’
‘Spike,’ Xander warned, and Dawn pulled herself from his and Angel’s grasp again.
‘Like she should have put you down, Spike? William the Bloody? You were a monster to her yet she still had compassion enough to let you live.’
‘Okay, we need to stop this now,’ Xander said, his voice loud and unsteady. ‘Nobody go any further, okay, not over this, not now.’
Between them all, the zombie groaned and sobbed. ‘Free me, or I’ll tear the flesh from your bones. I’ll kill you!’ She braced her hands in the loosening dirt, her elbows pointing up, and pushed, heaved, her grey eyes scrunching up and a fresh gunk of fluid dribbling from her nose in a long milky-green trail.
‘There isn’t always a perfect answer, Dawn,’ Spike said. ‘Sometimes there’s only death.’
‘And that’s where I come in, isn’t it?’ Dawn said.
Xander covered his eyes with his hand. ‘Oh sheesh, you guys really know how to do the emo thing. Have you been taking lessons from Angel?’
Spike instinctively looked at Angel, expecting him to say something. He’d been silent so far and a little help would be nice. Evil or not evil, this creature was unnatural, even defying all demonic laws, and that had consequences. Angel knew that.
‘Look,’ Spike said, losing his patience, ‘you don’t have any problems killing vampires. You tell me the difference here.’
‘It’s just different.’
‘Because it is.’
‘You’ve got to do better than that.’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Yes you do. You want us to leave this thing alive, you tell me why.’
‘Tell me now.’
‘Fucking tell me!’
‘Because she’s crying!’ Dawn screamed, and then Xander quickly tugged her back and Angel’s sword cut the air and landed in the dirt with a thunk. The zombie’s head rolled until it hit Xander’s sneaker.
‘I’d say ew,’ Xander said, ‘but I’m trying to break the habit of understatement.’
Dawn looked at Angel in shock.
‘Instead of arguing, I suggest we get back to The Magic Box,’ Angel said. ‘I think we’ve got a lot to talk about.'
Love to kitty_poker1, the best beta in Spander Land and beyond. Thanks also to literati and amejisuto for their help and encouragement.