Sheer, utter exhaustion.
That was all that she felt as she made her way very slowly down the deserted, dimly lit city sidewalk, toward her tiny apartment a couple of blocks away – once again disgusted with herself for her failure to ever learn to drive – one of many failures, she sighed. And the reason why she was walking back to the apartment from her long shift waiting tables. Most girls would have been afraid to walk home alone down the streets of L.A.
She was not like most girls.
That shiny little card with a really unflattering pic of me on it would come in really handy right about now, she thought. Well…if I actually had something to drive.
All she wanted was to get to her apartment and collapse into her bed. Maybe if she was feeling really ambitious, take a shower first. With every step she felt more certain that the shower would be put off until the morning.
Shouldn't have volunteered to work that double, she reminded herself wearily. Her hand went unconsciously to her pocket, closing around her meager earnings for the evening. $47.52 for sixteen hours of grueling labor. It hardly seemed worth it.
But then, nothing in her life these days seemed worth the sacrifices she had made.
There were times when the whole world didn't seem worth the sacrifice she had made.
And with that thought, she remembered why she had volunteered to work so many extra hours. She hated working at the diner. She hated the smell of stale grease and fried foods and cigarette smoke.
She despised the disgusting, lecherous overweight middle-aged men who frequented it and called her "Baby" and "Sweetheart" and "Doll" affectionately as if they actually knew her, and then checked out her backside the moment they thought she wasn't looking. She hated not doing or saying anything about it when she knew that she could, just because she had decided it was best to keep a "low profile".
She hated the long, hard hours of difficult, fast-paced work for what little she made in tips. The diner was busy, and hectic, and rushed…and left her no time to think. And that was the single reason why she stayed, why she asked for extra hours until her back and feet and head ached and she was too exhausted to think of anything but sleep.
Thinking…well, it was not so much of the good anymore. She knew too well that if she stopped to rest, even briefly, if she gave her mind time to reflect on all she had done, all she had left behind…then, then her past would catch up with her.
She was half a block from her apartment when she felt it. A familiar feeling that she tried to block out these days – that sense that something was there, in the shadows – following her. She knew it wasn't her imagination or her fears running away with her mind.
She wasn't afraid.
She knew that whatever was lurking in the darkness should be afraid of her. She could take on anything or anyone that came against her, and destroy it before it could touch her – of that she was certain.
You're good at destruction, she reminded herself, fighting back bitter tears at the memory that somehow crept its way into her consciousness in spite of herself. You destroyed the only one you ever loved. Couldn't do it when he hated you, when he was trying to kill you…but when he loved you, when he trusted you? That's when you killed him! Because you're so strong that you'll do anything you have to do to save the world!
She shuddered with a feeling of self-disgust. Should she be proud of herself for what she had done, that had kept the world spinning, everything going on as it always had? Should she be proud that she had sacrificed the only person she'd ever loved to save that world?
She felt sick. She didn't even want to think about it, and shook her head so emphatically at no one but herself that anyone who saw her would have probably thought she was drunk or on something. But she didn't want to think about the past, the past she had come here to escape.
She wasn't what she had once been. She was trying her hand at being a normal girl.
Well…a normal girl who had killed her boyfriend to save the world and run away from home, leaving all that was familiar behind her forever.
Let's face it, she thought ruefully. I'm just no good at 'normal'.
When the tingly feeling at the back of her neck was suddenly accompanied by the sound of soft footsteps a few dozen yards behind her, she stopped in her tracks, not turning. Whatever it was, it was refusing to be ignored. She glanced around the street. Deserted.
She shrugged slightly, and then turned slowly, taking her time, not wanting to give the false impression of fear. Because she was really and truly not afraid. She was sure that she could defeat any monster that tried to attack her.
And if she couldn't…well, the truth was, at the moment she really didn't care much which way it turned out.
She saw no sign of anything behind her. Of course, her dramatic little stop and slow turn had given whatever it was ample time to hide itself.
"Okay. I know you're there," she said in a tired, bored tone. "And you really, really don't wanna mess with me. I don't care who or what you are, I can take you. I am tired and dirty and sore and totally in the mood to beat the crap out of something. So either get out of here and leave me alone or get out here and let's get this over with."
She waited for a few moments. Absolutely nothing. Whatever had been stalking her had obviously thought better of it and taken off. She found herself oddly disappointed by the fact that she would not have the opportunity to kick the crap out of something as she turned around…
And opportunity knocked for a second time.
She jumped in spite of herself in surprise…and then shock, as she recognized the person who stood just behind her, smirking at her reaction of fear.
"Nice speech, love," he drawled. "Very intimidating. Sure it works very well on small children."
Her anger at the realization that he had been standing right behind her during her little speech, silently mocking her by his mere presence, and waiting to frighten her when she turned, momentarily overwhelmed the shock of seeing him, after all this time.
Then, her mind was overwhelmed with painful memories that she had shut away, released again by the sight of the familiar face in front of her. That night, almost a year ago, when they had joined forces against her lover-turned-enemy to save the world.
Fresh anger came over her as she remembered how in the end, he had left her to the battle and run off with his skanky nutcase girlfriend, leaving her to fight Angelus alone. She was not so deep in denial as to blame him for Angel's death. She knew that either way, he would have had to die.
But maybe – maybe if Spike had stayed around long enough to help her…She felt tears well up in her eyes at the memories that assailed her, and fought them back, focusing on the rage building in her as she met his startlingly blue eyes with her own steely emerald gaze.
Maybe if he had helped her…she would have at least had to kill Angelus…and not Angel.
"Oh, good," she said in a mockingly pleasant voice with a too-wide smile. "And I thought I was going to miss out on that ass-kicking after all."
"Oh, no, pet," he smirked right back at her. "If an ass-kicking's what you're after, then by all means I'll bloody well give it to you." His smile faded a little and his eyes hardened as he reminded her in a softer voice, "Our little truce is long gone, love. Ancient history. Nothing between me and you now but good old-fashioned hatred."
The smile slowly fell back into place as he allowed his true face to show and added in an almost jovial tone, his voice lower and thicker with the physical changes in his face, "As it should be."
"You got a death wish or something, Spike?" she asked him, preparing herself for the fight that he obviously wanted as badly as she did. "Coming looking for me after you ran out on our deal like you did?" The anger behind the question fueled her as she lunged toward him, her fist swinging to strike.
"Hello?" he sneered, disbelief clear in his expression, as he stepped back and easily dodged the blow. "What did you expect, love? I'm a bloody vampire! You had to know I was just gonna grab Dru and run!" He ducked quickly under her next blow and aimed one of his own at her jaw.
His aim was true, and she staggered backward under the force of the blow, tasting her blood in her mouth. She wiped her mouth hastily with the back of her hand, trying to gather her wits about her. She was obviously more exhausted and sore than she had realized…and a little out of practice. It began to dawn on her that if she was not careful this encounter could claim her life.
Somehow, the thought didn't bother her.
"You're right, Spike," she informed him. "I never expected you to really help me at all." She gave a little half-shrug as she advanced cautiously on him again. "I just thought I'd have to hunt you down to stake you. Didn't figure on you coming around begging for it!"
His golden eyes flashed anger and he lunged for her. She side-stepped his attack and grabbed him as he passed her, slamming him into the nearest wall with all the strength she could muster.
Obviously it wasn't much, because he was back on his feet and ready for more in seconds. "Funny, that, Slayer," he said, his tone light. "Doesn't look much like you're into hunting anything down lately. Seems like you're more in a duck-and-cover kind of frame of mind!"
Fury overcame her at his words which were painfully close to home. "Shut up, Spike!" she snarled, striking out at him with her fists, indiscriminate blows falling on his face, shoulders, chest, as she backed him toward the wall again. "You don't know anything about me! You couldn't possibly understand what it's like to watch someone you love die because of you! To have everything you know…everything you…" Her voice broke off with pain, and she paused before going on. "How dare you even…"
But that was as far as she got. She saw the menace and hatred in his eyes the moment before he lunged for her, slamming her down against the concrete, hard, before she could react. She struggled against the hard hands that held her there as he straddled her stomach, pinning her to the ground, and realized as her efforts proved futile just how terribly out of form she really was. He had obviously been toying with her the whole time, allowing her to believe that she was giving him a good fight – but now, he held her effortlessly to the ground beneath him, and she couldn't seem to break his grip no matter how hard she tried.
Barely restrained fury in his flashing eyes, he leaned down close to her face and said in a low, menacing voice, "You don't know me, either, Slayer. You've no bloody idea what I can understand and what I can't. At least I'll still fight for me and mine, pet. Look at you," he sneered in disgust, releasing her arms but not getting up.
She didn't try to move, too stung by the truth of his words to react for a moment as he went on. "Just lying down to die. Like there was nothing worth living for for you anymore." He shrugged as he stood up, and she struggled to her feet, facing him warily as she tried to get her breath. "But I guess there really isn't anything for you, anymore, is there? Your almighty soul-boy is gone to hell…your family and friends, well…" He paused, laughing softly.
Buffy's eyes, downcast during his little speech, shot up to his, a new fire in them at his words. Doing her best to conceal the dread she felt, she advanced on him a few steps. "What about my family? My friends?" she demanded, her voice trembling. "What are you talking about?" She paused, her tearful green eyes boring into his. "What do you know?" she asked, her voice low and intense.
He just shook his head at her, with a sort of sad smile. "Nothing you can do anything about. Seems you've been replaced already, Slayer," he smirked. He frowned, puzzled for a moment. "Thought they could only do that when the last Slayer died. Hmm…" His features slowly shifted back to his human guise, as if to show her how little he actually feared her, that he did not need his extra vampire strength or fangs to defend himself against her. His piercing blue eyes met hers with a challenge in them as he added softly, "Guess you just might qualify, love."
She glared at him, even more furious because she could find no words to counter his claim…she hated to admit that he was right, at least in part. At barely eighteen, she had given up on life.
But of more concern to her right now was what he was telling her about Sunnydale. "Not me," she informed him scornfully. "Kendra. A new Slayer's been called to replace Kendra? And she's in Sunnydale?"
"Someone's gotta run that place, keep the Hellmouth in line, yeah?" he smiled at her, an odd light in his eyes. "Course…that leaves a little room for interpretation…the Slayer's own…personal way of doing things." He shrugged. "Either way…don't really see as how Sunnydale needs you around mucking up the works." He gave her a derisive up-and-down look. "Seems to me you wouldn't tip the scale either direction, as it is."
"What are you saying?" she demanded impatiently, tiring of his too-accurate assessments of her current condition, which were painfully similar to her own view of herself at the moment. "Could you just try to make sense for a change?"
"I am making sense, love," he said, further insulting her power by deliberately turning his back and walking away from her. "Seems to me you're the one who's confused?"
And as he slowly walked away, she was too stunned and worried by his cryptic words to even think of going after him.
Not that she could have really done anything if she had. She never carried even so much as a single stake with her anymore these days. She realized suddenly with a shock that he could have very easily killed her several times during the unexpected little encounter. He had had the best of her several times, and when he had her pinned to the ground, it would have been a simple matter to go in for the kill right then and drain her dry where she lay, helpless beneath him.
And her…the Slayer…with not even so much as a stake in her pocket for defense! Maybe he was right, she thought, her heart heavy and her mind racing as she hurried the rest of the way toward her apartment. Maybe she had really not even wanted to survive the encounter.
But in the space of a few moments, everything had changed, subtlely, but quite clearly. His mysterious comments about her friends and family and this new Slayer with her own way of handling the Hellmouth had her more than a little worried about her loved ones back home.
She knew as she ran up the stairs and into her apartment, dragging the single duffel bag she had brought with her from home off of the top shelf in her closet, that she could not stay here if there was even the slightest chance that they were in danger. As much as she hated to admit it, the encounter with Spike had scared her…badly.
It had scared her to life.