She was sick, clearly. Her taste in men was pathetic. Look at her over there, flirting with him like a trollop, while Spike licked his wounds and comforted himself with lukewarm beer.
Spike glared at the man beside her. He didn't know who the bohunk was and didn't care to know. Wasn't like he'd last, not with the Slayer being such a fickle jade.
When would she learn? Look how she and the farmboy had ended up. Him getting suckjobs, and her getting soggy all over town. It was nothing more than a bad habit, like biting your nails, or knitting.
"Excuse me, do you know where Warren is?" chirped a voice beside him.
He glanced at the girl. Brunette. Pretty. A little hippy, but nothing he couldn't work with.
He had other things on his mind, though. "No," he said shortly, turning back to Buffy and her flavor of the month. Why didn't she just—"Wait!" he exclaimed as the girl began a stiff march away. "See that bloke over there? The massive one with the eyebrow situation? I heard him talking 'bout Walter earlier. They're chums."
Spike chortled as the girl marched over to the lunk. Didn't do much good, though, the piker was finally heading away from Buffy. And the guy was such a loser he just blew the girl off! Unbelievable. What, he really thought he had a shot with the Slayer? With his huge forehead and his blank face and the way he hulked around like an overgrown…
Agh, bollocks! He was exactly her type! He couldn't be more her type if he had been poured into the world's most boring mold!
That was it—that was beyond it. He'd had to put up with Angelus and Slime Demons and Iowa's largest wood export, and oh yes, a damned chip in his head, but this was the absolute limit. He was sick of playing nice; nice never got anyone squat, least of all a vampire upon whom fate tended to crap.
All he needed was a plan.
"My god, again? You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Spike said innocently, dropping some money on the table. "Just remembered, I picked this up by mistake the other night. Belongs to Harris, I think."
Buffy blinked, surprised.
"Buffy? You okay?" asked Willow, appearing behind her with Tara at her side. Spike thought it was a stupid question, seeing as how the Slayer had thrashed him many a time. Maybe the witch thought he was hurting her little girl feelings. Which was also stupid, because Spike didn't plan on hurting Buffy any more than Buffy wanted to be hurt. Which, for all he knew, was rather a lot. He'd find out eventually.
Buffy stared hard at Spike for a moment before turning to her friends. "Yeah, let's get out of here."
As they drifted off to fetch Harris and his bint, Spike could hear her say to the others, "Spike's acting weird."
"Weirder than usual?" asked Willow.
"Weirder than kidnapping?" specified Tara.
"Just weird. I don't know about him."
Spike picked a napkin off the table and scribbled on the back of it. Buffy was right about not knowing about him; she didn't know anything. He wasn't a simp like Angel, and he was sick of messing around.
Time to level out the playing field.
Spike waited for the dark-haired man to provide his name. The dolt looked a little perplexed; maybe he was having trouble remembering it. That brow ridge didn't leave much room for a functioning brain.
"Ben," he finally answered.
"Right, Ben. Buffy asked me to give you this," Spike said, thrusting out a folded napkin.
Ben took it and hesitated.
"Sorry, you want some privacy. Wasn't thinking," Spike said, turning to give the other man some alone time with the note. He felt sure Ben would enjoy it.
Spike knew he would.
The bright light streaming through the Magic Box windows didn't quite reach the research table in the back, leaving enough ambient light to read comfortably but not enough make them obvious to passersby. As usual, they were all about the business of hunting demons.
"He's attractive," Tara offered a little breathlessly. Buffy didn't respond.
Willow didn't pipe up to agree. She tried not to interfere in Buffy's private life, really she did. But the man from the party reminded her a little bit of Angel, and she was worried about Buffy making some kind of decision based on a ghost. Except not a ghost, because Angel was still ali—okay, not alive. But still…
"I'm not sure that statement is accurate," said Anya. "However, he is a doctor. That makes him a good investment."
Xander winced. "Sweetie, men don't really like to be thought of as investments."
Anya bit back a comment about unreasonable expectations and bowed to tedious human convention. Again. "Fine. He's a fiscally prudent asset, which makes him more promising in that department than your previous sex partners. I'm pleased to see you're no longer pursuing dead-end relationships with financially dubious men. I like to think you learned from me," she praised.
Willow frowned. "I don't think I'd call Xander a—"
"Hey! Right here!"
"I'm not dating him."
Anya nodded as understanding dawned. "So it's just physical."
"It's not physical! It's not anything yet. It might never be anything. It might be just coffee."
"Coffee. Is that a metaphor?" Anya specified.
"It's a metaphor for coffee."
Anya frowned. "I think you may be confused about the meaning of metaphor. Traditionally metaphor takes the form of—"
"A seahorse?" suggested Willow.
"Wonder Twin powers, activate," offered Tara helpfully. Anya looked displeased, and turned to Xander in frustration.
He shrugged before she could make a protest, not wanting to be drawn into the eternal battle. "Anya, I think—"
Giles interrupted, thrusting a folded-over newspaper in front of Buffy. "This is concerning."
Buffy picked up the paper, a frisson of excitement running through her. She wasn't Ben-averse, but she wasn't sure she was Ben-friendly, either, so she didn't really feel like defining a relationship that didn't even exist.
Besides, the thought of killing something made her feel good right now. Spike had been irritating the other night—first with his attempt to worm his way into her good graces, then with his even more suspicious pretense of being a good guy. He'd probably picked someone's pocket for that money. And she couldn't stake him despite how irritating he was, because of the chip, but she wasn't averse to a little demon substitution. She could pound the crap out of some other vampire while thinking of Spike. Wouldn't be the first time.
"More neck trauma?" she asked idly, taking the paper, knowing it wasn't necessary. If Giles had nothing to explain, he was a sad panda.
"Less neck than whole-body trauma. A body was found in the park in several pieces."
"Not a vamp. I'll check it out," Buffy said, getting up and slipping into her training room to grab a weapon or two. Perhaps something in the machete family.
"Buffy." She looked up to see Giles in the doorway. "The body was found between the shrubs and the creek bank, not far from the playground."
Her expression because taut. "'Behind the elementary school?"
"Yes. And school's going to get out soon, so be discreet. But…"
The park was quiet when she approached it, empty, no children visible outside the school. Buffy cautiously circled the treeline at the back of the park before rounding the bushes crowding together near the creek that backed the park. It was a good spot for a demon, she thought, if all it was interested was in a steady supply of fresh food and the occasional slurp of creeky goodness. Spike would no doubt complain about the lack of cable reception. Sometimes she wondered about his demon cred.
"Slayer? You shouldn't be here—it's not safe."
God, he was the freaking Candyman—think his name and he appeared. It served her right for even thinking of him when she wasn't feeling homicidal.
She turned to face him, hidden in the deep shade provided by the trees. "Slayer, duh. 'It's not safe' is right in my wheelhouse. My wheelhouse is at the corner of 'it's not safe' street and 'insanely dangerous' boulevard."
"What weapons do you have?"
"What do you care? And why are you here?"
"Do you know what's in there?" he hissed, jerking his head towards the thick brush.
"Something that can tear a person apart," she returned quietly.
"It's a nest of Gnathen. They hardly ever move into a city. They're not to fit to live around people. Or vampires. Or even some of the smellier demons."
"So suddenly you're a protector of the people?" she scoffed. Him being there was just...weird. For him to want to kill demons was one thing. For him to want to kill demons without dragging her there to watch and give him credit he didn't even slightly deserve was something else entirely.
Spike looked offended. "Hardly. But your annoying sister left her jacket at my crypt, and when I heard about the nest I thought it would be too bad if she were demon kibble before I got it back to her. It's too small for me. Also, I don't look good in pink."
Which was indeed more or less the way it had happened, except first he didn't care for a few days, and then he'd given that lunkhead a note instructing him to meet Buffy more or less directly on top of the Gnathen nest. Which had angered them, unsurprisingly. Not that he'd watched and laughed his head off, of course. That would be wrong. But he had thought about Summers's brat sister eventually, and not completely hated the thought of her being alive, hence the extermination visit.
Buffy stared at him for a minute, chewing over his words. The corner of the heart where the monks had inserted her sister throbbed. She wondered if the monks had also created an affection for Dawn in Spike, and wondered at the curious choices the monks had made. As if a vampire's affection mattered.
And yet here he was, with an axe in his hand.
To defend her sister.
Buffy batted away the stray bits of Gnathen fur that clung to her clothing as she walked home. They'd been gross little demons, who'd blended in almost perfectly with the park's leaves and rocks. And they'd been fast.
And now they were dead.
She opened the cell phone her mother had given her, which she never used. She didn't even leave it on, afraid it would ring when she was stalking demons or doing something else that required quiet, like…well, not homework, but…okay, so apparently just slaying.
She turned it on and pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. She'd put it in there that morning with the vague thought that she should call Ben, but now she felt more decisive. He was perfect, and she wasn't interested in him. He was boring. He was a tall, dark, handsome doctor, and he was boring. Every time she dated a man because he sounded right on paper, it blew up in her face. And they were human! Riley and Parker and, okay, there were only two, but still! They'd done awful things. And it was not her fault Riley left, and giving her an ultimatum like that had been total bs. She didn't know what to think. Demons could be better than she'd thought, and humans worse.
"Life is confusing," she mumbled to herself, punching in the number. Maybe she shouldn't even try to understand it.
They were all gathered in the apartment foyer, all those who served the incomparable Glorificus. They were always in readiness for her, no matter what form she might assume. Her moods were as the wind, and they strove to anticipate them.
But that was at an end. Jinx shook his head sadly; there was no easy way to tell them. "Her Magnificence is gone."
"Gone? She can't be gone. Has that Ben done something to ensure he remains in control—to repress his greater half?"
Jinx shook his head mournfully. "It was his fault—of course! And we shall mourn for all eternity because of his failure."
"Stop the pontificating and tell us what happened," barked Gronk, waving her hand impatiently at a few servants who were already crying.
Jinx scowled; he hated to be rushed. And he'd had awhile to get used to the news and wonder if perhaps it was really such a terrible thing after all. Which, of course, it was. Unquestionably. Still… "I was searching for her unworthy bodymate at the hospital when I happened to overhear some of the employees talking. They said Ben had been found in the park in a number of pieces." He was interrupted by a couple of cries of "impossible," which he ignored. "I went to the morgue. He was there. Parts of him—enough parts. I have no idea how he came to be in that state, but because of his carelessness the Unparalleled Glorificus is no more."
"We should avenge her!" cried Dreg. A couple of the others gave tentative nods.
Behind them, the phone rang. The phone that Glory never used, because why would a god use a phone? That pestilent intruder in her body had made use of it sometimes, but now…
The answering machine, still with the factory-set message, took the call. After a moment a hesitant voice filled the air. "Hi, this is Buffy. Um, look, I've thought about things and I just wanted to say I don't think this is going to work."
"The Slayer!" gasped Gronk. "How did she get this number? What does she want?"
"Basically I'm kind of thinking this whole thing is a dead end. It's time for me to clean house, you know, and I'm not sure if—"
"She killed her Delicious Preeminence and now she's going to come after us!" shrieked Murk, who was usually calm about external threats. But then that had been in the past, when Glory rooted them in fear and awe. Now she was dead, and they were just a bunch of good-looking unemployed minions who had no reason to stay in this cow town, with its overabundance of Slayers and lack of Cuban restaurants and independent bookstores.
"Everybody run! Grab essentials only!" Jinx shouted, knocking some of the others out of the way on the race to the common sleeping room.
"What will we do?" wailed Slook.
"I'm going to Albuquerque!"
Jinx didn't stop rushing to consider who made that unlikely statement. The others could go where they wanted; now that Glorificus was gone they weren't bound together, except maybe Dreg could go with him, if he wanted to split expenses. And maybe get to know each other on a more personal level. He'd always wanted to see Mazatlan.
The others grabbed wildly at spare robes and random possessions, then began fleeing the apartment. On the answering machine the Slayer was still taunting them; they ran out the door and down the hall with her evil voice ringing in their ears. The elevator was slow, so they skipped it entirely to run down the stairs.
"…I just think maybe I'm ready to go in a new direction, you know? Or maybe it's an old direction. Well, I don't know, I don't have to make a commitment, right? I mean, it's not like if I don't like a direction I have to keep going. I can always just wander a little down the street and if I think the direction is full of it, well, more full of it than I definitely know it is, I can always turn around.
"And that direction, if I go in that direction, is a long way off, right? I mean, I've got Glo—all kinds of things to deal with right now, and any directions I'd take are far in the future. So far in the future I'd need directions to find those directions.
"Anyway, though, you seem like a great guy, and I'm grateful for everything you did for my mother. If you're okay just being friends maybe we really could go for coffee sometime. Thanks!"