Thanks go to hesadevil and calove for their efforts to pull this into shape.
Chapter Five – The Bottom of the Bottle
The telephone sat patiently expectant.
Spike stared at it as if it was the root of all evil or something close. It was only an object, a thing, but its silence maintained a mute testimony on his deficient courage. Defeated, he gulped down yet another shot, while the forgotten Post It! stuck loosely to the bar by his arm, soaked slowly into a lagoon of spilled beer. The ink that marked out the phone number bled slowly into the paper. A girly heart doodled beside his girl’s name melted into nothing but a tie-dyed smudge as he failed to pick up the handset and dial. This wasn’t the wild night of debauchery he’d been planning at all. Despite all his intentions and months of working out exactly what he’d do once corporeal again, they were wasted almost as soon as his booted feet had touched the solid floor.
After leaving the Lab, the first task on his hedonistic To Do List had been the cigarette he’d found - still slightly crumpled from the Hellmouth - in his pocket. That had been smoked before he’d even reached the lobby, its smoky bitterness a tonic to his nicotine addiction. The butt now smouldered a dark ring into very expensive corporate carpeting. One item duly ticked off, he’d lingered at Harmony’s desk for a bit, letting her warm him a mug of blood.
“There you go.” She’d handed him the steaming mug with a small flourish and a hopeful smile.
He’d taken it and made a show of savouring the rich ferrous aroma of the fresh blood. It smelt wonderful. It might have only been pig, and swill compared to the taste of blood from the neck of a human kill, but after months of deprivation it was delicious.
Harmony had watched him knock it back with a kind of fascinated horror, not understanding how it felt to be deprived for so long that pigs’ blood was that appetizing. She had to drink it, as that was the rule Angel had set at Wolfram and Hart, but it didn’t mean she had to like it. “You were really hungry, I guess.”
He’d sighed in happy satisfaction; closing his eyes and throwing his head back in pleasure as the hot metallic liquid had refreshed his parched mouth and flushed warmth through his dead circulation. “You have no idea. That tasted wonderful, Harm.”
“Ew. I can get you two a room if you like?” she’d said with disgust.
“Nah.” He’d taken another, smaller swig. “Once I finish this, I got some fun to have. Going to have one wild night.”
With that Harmony had perked up, looking at him hopefully. “I finish in an hour. I could come with.”
He’d looked at her pretty face, eager smile and the cleavage straining her pink dress into submission. She’d been tempting, and the tension that had been building in his jeans was all for it, but it probably wasn’t worth the trouble for a tumble on a hastily cleared desk or a quickie against the photocopier just to scratch the itch. Half an hour of talk about shoes and he’d have been tempted to do something else altogether. He didn’t need empty sex anyway when he had Buffy to go to. He’d shot Harmony a contemptuous look and gone looking for a bar instead. He had a call to make.
Calling Buffy was something he needed to do on his own, away from Angel and the rest of the crowd at Wolfram and Hart, but not without having a few drinks inside him first. Los Angeles had any number of places he could’ve picked to get drunk in, from the rowdy clubs he’d once frequented with Drusilla, to sleazy neon strip joints he’d frequented on his own, but as he searched, he found he wasn’t up for the flashier places he’d first intended. The solid world had proved, so far, to be a mild disappointment, even if he was still giddy from the effects of the spell. The first flush of sensation returning to his body had been a glorious rush, and the remnants of the magic caused an ecstatic buzz to still zip along his nerves like a live wire; until the come down had hit him anyway. Then his rediscovered senses – familiar, yet oddly alien – began to feel flat and dead. His body might still have wanted to do all those things he’d always taken pleasure in, but as he moved from bar to bar and the inevitability of that call to Buffy grew closer, his enthusiasm drained away. The place he eventually chose wasn’t much. It was rough and business was slow, but it was good enough to celebrate the special occasion of his resurrection. No one questioned the appearance of a dishevelled and slightly dusty vampire at the bar, and more importantly, they left him to his maudlin drinking.
Despite having months to figure it out, he wasn’t prepared for making this call. No one could’ve guessed how terrified he’d be of hearing Buffy’s voice again, even as he longed to hear it so much. The ache inside, from not seeing her, not hearing her or feeling her close by, hurt so deeply and so purely that not even the swill of cheap beer and Jack Daniels mixing nicely in his belly was going to make any difference to the fear. Despite, or even because of, the drink, his hands were shaking as they raised the glass again. It wasn’t as simple as just calling her. He had no clue as to what he could say to her now. He didn't have the words or the perfect poetry to express what had happened to him since the day she’d seen him go down in flames. How could he explain to her what it was that made it so difficult to tell her that he was back, when he didn’t understand why he’d been given another chance himself?
The telephone remained untouched.
He lit his fifth cigarette of the night instead, wriggling uncomfortably on his seat and squirming under the telephone’s accusing gaze and his self-doubt. He picked at the Post It! note. Her blurry phone number seemed to burn in his hand, pulsing with promise, but of what? All he’d ever wanted? Unlikely. Just another rejection he knew was all too probable. He’d heard her say ‘I love you’, and those words had meant the world to him as he’d kept them close to his heart in the days after his return, held as a talisman of hope he didn’t dare feel. But all his existence he’d waited to hear someone utter those words. Now Buffy had said them, and he couldn’t bear the possible discovery that all they had ever been was an empty expression of an emotion she did not feel, uttered when she knew she would never have to take the risk of acting upon them. Now facing the moment where only the fact mattered, he didn’t dare believe in their truth - she’d burnt him too many times before with hopes that had come to nothing. If she’d said them those nights he’d held her close, he might have believed in her conviction. Instead, given in the last moments they’d spent together, they sounded like a brittle token she’d offered to a falling comrade, their sentiment hollow. If calling her would destroy the illusion of their truth, he couldn’t face that. It was one thing to not to believe her, but something else to hear the certainty in her voice as she pushed him away. He didn’t think he could survive that again.
With the emotional detachment provided by the physical distance between them and wisdom by bottom of the bottle, he could see what a sodding idiot he'd been. Again. No wonder her victory over him had been so emphatic, when she'd crushed what little self-respect he’d had under her impractical heels. A stupid, love-blind fool, the more he'd tried to clasp her affection, the more it had escaped his fingers. And he still bloody loved her so much. The world would continue to turn, nights would follow days and years would pass, and Spike would still love Buffy. Still love her with every molecule of his being. But right now he needed to face reality. She didn't love him and he had to grow up, accept that, and find himself a new place in the world. Short of this mysterious Shanshu business, he’d taken it as far as he could go with the soul, and if she couldn't love him for that, then she would never love him at all. The picture was becoming clearer now. There would always be a burning hole in his heart, a puzzle to which she held the last piece, but it would never be complete.
Should he call then? The world had changed; Sunnydale was a memory and new Slayers were carving a swathe through the demon population - girls who were victims no longer. Buffy could be a normal girl in this brave new world she’d created and wasn't that what she’d always wanted? Whatever suffering he'd been through with Buffy, it'd had been worth it, worth every bruise, every broken bone, every disappointment and humiliation. He'd touched something special, something unique in this world that he'd never come close to again. He'd never felt anything like it, but he could never offer her that normality, the picket fence of legend, even if the love was no less real or intense. The best thing he could do now for her was to grant her the freedom from him.
The doubt of all these "what ifs?" stopped him picking up the handset. She was an ocean and a call away and it might have been light years for all that it mattered, because he couldn’t bloody do it.
And that was that.
He wasn’t going to call.
He had other places he could be and he had friends of his own now - even if they were the losers at Wolfram and Hart. At least Angel’s people didn't despise him, however much the old git still might. He still owed Fred that favour, and it would be rude to not to be around to pay that debt, wouldn’t it? There was a niche waiting to be carved here, new opportunities, and he could help out. Maybe that tumble with Harmony wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all, if he could find a way to shut her up. He’d forget Buffy and the turbulence of her affections, such as they were, and stay to annoy Angel instead. At least the response there would be predictable. His heart was too fragile, like a sculpture of fine glass, to risk shattering again. Did he really want to swap all he had here for another round of thrust and parry with Buffy?
Ignoring the panicked yes from the small voice inside him, he stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray with a degree of finality that reflected his decision. It smouldered to a dying ember of grey ash next to the crumpled neon PostIt! The thought of Buffy had filled him for so long, he no longer knew that he’d ever been empty. She’d shaped him, moulding him into a Champion, and he’d tried to become a person that she’d be proud of. How could he not love her, when she'd set him free from himself? His soul was hers and always would be, bound to the love he felt for her, but it was time to break free from the yoke that his love for her had bound him to for so long. She was thousands of miles away and an sea of water had flowed under the bridge in the months he’d been ghostly. Only now, when he finally had something else to live for, did he have the strength to let her go and walk away. Hopefully, somewhere in the back of her mind, he’d be a fond memory for her and he was happy with that. He would move on and find another girl to crush his heart, even if at that moment it felt like there was no one for him if he couldn't have her. It didn't matter that his heart was dead to everyone else and no other woman would ever come close to her mark, he’d survived this long. He'd be okay. It was time at last to pick through the pieces of himself and see which ones still fit the man he’d become.
“You finished with that, buddy?” the bar tender asked, pointing at the telephone.
Spike sighed. Had he? “Yeah, suppose so. Thanks, mate.”
That was it. Decision made and he felt strangely numb. He picked himself off the barstool. It was no use drinking himself into a stupor now, he had some other needs that required his attention. Sunrise was only a few hours off, but there was time enough to get some fighting in. He could sort the rest of his life out tomorrow night.
Now suitability buoyed by the alcohol he had drunk, Spike went back out onto the city to look for a little aggro. There was still plenty of people on the L.A. streets and the twenty-four seven trade of the port made the dock area a hub of activity. People here had places to be at all hours, whether it was the grubby business of street trade or shift workers making their way to and from the ships tied up at the wharves. It was quite unlike sleepy Sunnydale, where only the foolhardy and demons drawn in by the siren call of the Hellmouth would wander out after sunset. Even this late, when the first signs of dawn began to herald the change from night to true morning, a lone vampire on his way through the dark alleys behind commercial units and run down offices was hardly an unusual sight. Times were changing though. These alleys would once have thronged with demons, attracted to the easy pickings from the port, but after years of Angel and the recent rise of the new Slayers, the numbers had been reduced to a handful and he was hard pressed to find a decent fight.
So, for the most part, barring minor scuffles with fledglings looking for an easy mark to boost their reputations and a more challenging tussle with a group of carousing demons, Spike was left to his thoughts. Once he would have swept down these streets, head high, Drusilla at his side, a couple of night terrors picking off whomever they chose for fun and quick snack. Most vampires would have thought twice about challenging a pair with such a reputation. Back then Drusilla had been his goddess, his savour. She’d awoken dreary William from sleepwalking through a dull life with a deadly kiss to his neck. Dark and strong for all her madness, he’d been Prince Consort at her side, dutiful, if subservient, guided by her dark star. William had always been a dreamer, always longing for the passion he thought life should really have, but never daring to get out of his ordered Victorian world to embrace it, how ironic then he should find that passion in death instead, finding his place amongst the night. He’d been William the Bloody, as impulsive as he was wicked, with his damnation as sure as the blood on his tongue. But those days felt like a long time ago now.
It was his own fault it was over, he supposed, his wicked princess had sensed that she was no longer the centre of his universe and that he revolved round Buffy’s sun. Although he’d denied it, in hindsight he saw that he had spent most of his time thinking of the Slayer in one way or another. He would spend hours coming up with endless ways of taking her life, wringing her neck, ripping her open, pulling her apart. In his dreams, his obsession would take dark and erotic turns; his hands would tear her to pieces as he fucked her, caught between pleasure, pain and grief. He’d beat his frustration out on her corpse as his black boiling hate blazed in its passion, long before it would ignite in other ways. He’d always felt something, but love couldn’t have been further from his thoughts. He hadn’t known it, but he’d been doomed from the start. The sight of his young nemesis dancing in the Bronze all those years ago - a fateful moment on which his unlife had pivoted unsteadily - had pierced his heart irrevocably and he’d been spiralling downward ever since. Until he’d ended up sprawled at her feet, defeated by his own heart and a girl with a shiny blonde ponytail. Still, he was a different man now, on the cusp of a whole new future. He had a soul and even if he couldn’t be with Buffy, then she’d set his purpose. The nasties of the world wouldn’t know what hit them.
A tingle as his skin started to singe warned him it was getting dangerously close to sunrise. He had wandered the streets for a good proportion of the night, and it was time to return to Wolfram and Hart and find shelter from the cruelty of the harsh Los Angeles sun. Instead, he found himself drawn to a run down, semi-commercial neighbourhood, where old, crumbling buildings with cheap office space survived amongst the tatty tenements, and a small office block that looked like it had survived a few earthquakes in its time. It was occupied by a few small businesses, but it looked like the kind of place that would have a cosy basement he could hole up in for a kip. He’d pester Angel later; let him know his plans to stay in L.A. after all. He couldn’t wait to see his Grand-Sire’s face when he heard that one.
The basement of the building turned out to be dark and windowless; the only light a soft luminescence from the ugly, stumpy candles on the altar and on the large candleholders in the corners of the room. Their flames cast twisted funereal shadows against walls bare to the cold stone. Hot and oppressive, the air carried the stink of rancid incense and dread. Circular, and not unlike a gigantic satanic birdbath, the heavy stone altar that dominated the room was consecrated to some monstrous god with a triskele of yellowed bones and dried blood. Spike had no idea what they were trying to conjure here, but whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be Christmas and puppies.
He stepped forward; somehow compelled to approach the altar against his better judgement, a huge invisible hand pulling him towards the centre. His head felt heavy and it throbbed. He saw them then, about twenty or so, approaching out of the gloom from every direction, cutting off any route of escape. The hum of the oppressive air became a soft chant of supplication in a language that predated everything. Their faces still in shadow, he could just about see under the cowls of their rough, brown robes. Hard, waxy skin stretched over obscenely disfigured and mutilated human features. Their eyes were sewn shut. Bringers, High Priests of the First Evil and, too late, Spike realised he was the one they had summoned.
He tensed, ready for battle. God, his head hurt. “Come on then, let’s have a go! I’m right ready for a rumble.”
In reply, the Bringers closed in, calmly circling around him, but just keeping their distance from the furthest reach of his kicks. They kept up the chant even as he stuck out at one, only to be repelled by some kind of magical barrier. He punched again in another direction – with the same result. Then again and again and again.
“That’s cheating!” he shouted, pacing, caged, frantic.
The Bringers stopped and turned inward.
“That’s a bit more like it, you bastards!”
One of them stepped forward and raised his staff. Magic crackled through the air; a bolt of blue lightening channelled into the crack from a powerful spell. Spike felt nothing after it hit him square in the chest.