Gypsies, Vamps and Thieves
NOTE : Our Hungarian characters, as well as Dracula and his minions would, naturally, speak their own language when talking among themselves. For simplicity's sake, as well as for the sake of our readers, we have translated their words and written all of their dialogue in English. Okay, not much of a joke, but you get our point, right? And while we've got your attention, we'd like to remind you that this first season of Spike: Soul Survivor takes place in the summer of 2004 - immediately following the final battle in that L.A. alley in the episode, Not Fade Away. Since some of our readers have been under the impression that our story is happening during this current year, we thought it best to clarify that this series is definitely set in 2004. Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoy this episode as well as our entire series.
Crouching in the cover of darkness, Sarolt could feel her heart beating too fast as she watched the proceedings before her. A group of vampires milled about, eerily illuminated by the faint glow of the candles they'd carefully arranged on the floor to perform some sort of profane ritual.
The catacombs beneath Budapest's beautiful castle, currently housing a popular museum, were hardly the place people would expect to find a Hellmouth -- that is, if the general public knew such a thing as a Hellmouth actually existed.
But it was exactly where Sarolt the Slayer had expected to find the vampires once her Watcher, Balazs, told her a new group of minions had reportedly arrived in town. The trail of bodies she and Balazs had followed had left little doubt as to where the vampires had gathered. In the center of their ritual, a great star-shaped form loomed, a symbol that forebode ill comings, as her grandfather would say.
Quelling her agitation, she took a deep breath, trying to clear her mind of the image of the slaughtered security guards lying not too far away. She looked up when she felt her Watcher's hand land firmly on her shoulder, a warm, assuring weight to assuage her fears about the odds they faced.
"It's time to fight," Balazs told her softly, right next to her ear, hand tightening on her shoulder. "No time for fear. Are you ready, Sarolt?"
Steeling herself, she nodded grimly, then jumped from her cover to stand in full view, smirking at the vampires' startled looks.
"Showtime," Sarolt muttered under her breath as the first vampires rushed her, hissing curses in shrill voices that echoed in the ancient, stone walls around them.
Grabbing the first one by his lapels before he had a chance to attack, she slammed him into the wall, dazing him long enough to plunge her stake into his chest without pausing. Careful not to breathe in the dust, she stepped back, landing a solid elbow punch into the gut of the vampire, hearing the satisfying gurgle it made as he stumbled. Whirling around, she punched him on the jaw, knocking him out and tossing him aside to kick a female vampire. Sarolt was surprised when that demon caught her foot and sent her flying into the wall.
"Oh, you're a little older than those fledglings, aren't you?" Sarolt asked grimly, blocking the array of punches the vampire tried to land on her while she straightened up. "I can see the wrinkles around your eyes. You should have used better beauty products while you had the chance. No need now, of course."
Wincing when a bruising blow caught her in the stomach, Sarolt backed up against the wall, carefully measuring the vampire's movement to break her defenses as Balazs had taught her.
"Sille, child of Mijail, Slayer!" The brunette vampire hissed, game-face effortlessly sliding away for just a moment to reveal large, green eyes and the face of a seventeen-year old. "I am an eternally youthful beauty who has seen more winters than you shall ever see."
"Perhaps," Sarolt conceded, hiding her grin when she finally spotted the weakness in the vampire's defenses and sent a powerful punch directly to the vampire's nose, hearing her howl in pain as the cartilage came loose and part of her cheekbone was shattered. "But I'm about to cut those winters short."
Pushing away from the column she'd been backed against, Sarolt kicked the vampire on the side of the head, then grabbed her neck and hoisted her up, smashing her into the pillar and staking her cleanly. She ran quickly to aid her Watcher where she could see him battling three vampires on his own.
With a cry, Sarolt jumped on the back of one, twisting his thick neck as hard as she was able before plunging her stake in place, stumbling slightly when his supporting build suddenly crumbled to dust beneath her.
"Behind you!" she heard Balazs yell, and she whirled just in time to be tackled to the ground by a hulking vampire, whose size and heft easily overpowered her.
Sarolt grimaced when her head hit the rock-hard ground, but then she easily blocked the meaty fist that flew towards her face, crushing the gigantic hand with all her strength while she bucked and hurled the vampire away. She chased after him, ducking to avoid his clumsy swipes and landing quick punches against his ribs, tiring him out until his defenses dropped, so she could plunge her stake in.
Spotting two vampires crouched in the far corner of the room, chanting as they sat in the circle of candles, Sarolt felt her blood run cold. She ran towards them and broke into the circle, scattering the candles and startling the vampires enough that their chanting was interrupted.
She rushed one of them and kicked his ribs, punching the other on the jaw and noting idly that it was the same vampire she had fought earlier, if the prominent bruise on the other side of his face was any indication. He had regained consciousness much too quickly. She'd just have to stop hitting him and dust him if he was going to insist on remaining awake.
"Would you stop that!" he wailed rather comically after yet another punch landed on his face, but Sarolt had no time to laugh. She fought him harder, surprised when he began to fight back with skill, making her retreat a few steps as he did. The other vampire was getting to her, amber eyes glowing dangerously as they regarded Sarolt with hatred.
Fighting back a cry when a kick caught her in the chest, Sarolt stumbled. Quickly regaining her footing, she blocked the next blow and tossed the male vampire aside, watching him crash headfirst into a wall. His dusty end would have to be postponed once again.
Engaging the female vampire next, Sarolt was grateful when she noticed the sloppy attack. She'd have no problem dusting this vampire who moved forward shakily to fight, obviously intimidated by a Slayer. The inexperienced vampire left her vulnerable chest wide open for attack; she was gone in seconds.
The male howled from behind her, but Sarolt was ready when he jumped onto her back. "I'm already bored with you," grunted Sarolt. "This is our last dance."
Quickly ducking the arm that tried to grasp her neck, she used his own momentum against him and sent him flying, then ran over to stake him before he had a chance to stand back up. His eternity was over.
She lost her stake as it disintegrated with the rest of him, but Sarolt was nothing if not prepared; she quickly took a second stake from the pocket of her jacket, standing ready.
Looking around, she was pleased to see her Watcher had things under control. Only two vampires remained. She rushed towards the one Balazs wasn't fighting, dismayed to hear the vampire's voice rise in pitch, his words a strange chant that, to her, sounded like Latin.
"Oh, no, you don't!" Sarolt growled, trying to ignore the touch of fear she felt when she noticed a bright golden fissure that seemingly appeared out of nowhere within the star-shaped symbol that stood out prominently on the ground. "Not in my city."
"Sarolt, stop him!" Balazs shouted to her, and she immediately jumped into action, kicking the feet from under the vampire and sending him crashing to the ground, easily evading the hand that tried to grasp her own foot.
Jumping back, she ducked the backhand the vampire aimed, taking hold of the attacking arm and twisting it, manhandling the vampire into an awkward position in front of her body.
"Give up, Slayer. Our Master will always win," the vampire growled, bucking his shoulders in a useless effort to throw her off. "His reign will last for all eternity."
Sarolt held on with all her strength, doubling him backwards, immensely grateful when her Watcher stepped up with a stake at the ready and dispatched him efficiently. Looking around, adrenalin receding, Sarolt felt her shoulders slump in exhaustion, her breath coming in short pants.
That had been the last vampire.
The bright fissure, just a thin line of light within the symbol, remained, though shining dully as if waiting for a larger tear to break through. Staring at it in fascination, Sarolt barely heard Balazs approach to stand next to her, his own breath short from the battle. They'd dusted at least twelve vampires on their own.
"We stopped it," Sarolt said at last, grinning tiredly at her Watcher. "We did it, Balazs! We stopped them!"
"It was fantastic work, Sarolt. I am proud," Balazs told her calmly, but the bright words were dimmed by the tone in which he delivered them. Sarolt felt her grin slipping as she turned to face her Watcher, but his eyes were trained on the fissure, and there was a hard set to his jaw. "However, I'm afraid we've merely delayed them."
"What are you talking about?" she frowned, looking around the darkened cave. "We stopped the ritual, didn't we? We dusted them! You said--"
"I know what I said," the Watcher muttered, meeting her gaze. "I was wrong. That, my dear, is a crack in the Hellmouth, right in front of you. It will hold for a short while, but it's going to open wider. Then it will swallow Hungary whole."
"B-but we stopped the ritual," Sarolt whispered dejectedly, turning back to stare at the crack of light. "Is there anything we can do?"
There was a moment of silence. Then Sarolt felt her Watcher's comforting hands once again on her shoulders, turning her away from the pentacle and towards the gates with gentle persuasion. She went willingly, mind drifting with the possibilities. The Budapest Hellmouth might open very soon. What would that mean for her country, for the people she'd sworn to protect?
"We can call for backup," Balazs told her gently, "and guard the Hellmouth as best as we can until they arrive. We have friends who will stand watch while we sleep. We also need to rush an order for more of those garlic darts from that new company in California. I used the last of them tonight. We will not give up, Sarolt. We will not be defeated without putting forth our best efforts for our country and for the world."
Sarolt looked at him for a moment and then nodded grimly, for once, not having an answer.
They'd need all the help they could get.
Spike's traumatized team stayed on in Houston, waiting as Mena recovered, which was fairly quickly thanks to Slayer healing. She had regained consciousness soon after Hyllus was defeated. Each of the team took their turn keeping watch over Mena. All except Illyria.
She was doing her own recovering, the bite Hyllus took from her leg healing quite nicely. Her tissue regenerated rather quickly due to the additional power she had regained from the gem. She could have been back on her feet by the following day but found herself secretly enjoying the concern of the others for her well-being.
Illyria stayed at their hotel at the request of the entire group, but mainly because Spike and Xander wished it so. They were her warriors -- the warriors who went bravely into battle by her side. A battle that might have been hers to fight alone, in which case she would certainly have been defeated. Fortuitously, the battle had also become theirs because the gem was needed for their cause. Now the gem was gone. Destroyed by Illyria.
Although she had been torn between letting the team have the gem for their ritual and keeping it for herself, she had found it necessary to absorb the power in order to defeat Hyllus, despite knowing that the power would likely destroy her Fred-shell.
In the end, she did it not for the power, itself, but to save her human and her pet. Illyria realized she should no longer consider them such; they had earned more respect from her.
The team understood they must now work out an alternative to using the Gem of Illyria in the Offering Ritual. If there was an alternative. They were also frightened and extremely worried about Illyria because Spike had explained that after a few weeks in L.A. at full god-king power, her usurped human body had almost reached the point of exploding. An explosion that would have been of a magnitude to rival that of a bomb large enough to take out most of the West Coast.
They would try to help Illyria; she was part of their team now. They just had to figure out how to extract the power from her without the benefit of the Mutari Generator Wesley had used in L.A. Spike had called Giles to explain the situation, but neither Giles nor the Council knew where to get such a device, although their research uncovered scientific information that Spike said sounded just like the gobbledy-gook that Wes had prattled on about.
The Mutari Generator had created a pinhole into an infinite, extra-dimensional space -- a negatively charged pocket universe that drew some of Illyria's power into it. Giles said they'd try to discover a magical means to achieve similar ends to what the device had managed to do in L.A. In the meantime, the team was to rest and heal.
It had been decided that Spike would take the night shifts watching over Mena. It was made clear to all hospital staff that the room was to remain sunshine-free whenever Spike was in attendance. They were told he was afflicted with a rare allergy to sunshine that would cause severe burns if he were exposed. The staff provided him with a blanket to hang over the closed blinds to make sure he was not injured while he kept watch over Mena.
Very late during his second night shift, Spike sat at Mena's bedside, dozing on and off. She started to stir as her doctor and a specialist walked in and began discussing their special patient.
"Oi, keep it down. She needs her rest!" Spike said as he opened his eyes. He knew it must be very early in the morning because he could feel the dawn approaching.
"Sorry, Doc. Didn't realize it was you. Caught me sleeping on the job."
As they moved the rest of the way into the room, Dr. Cavanaugh replied, "Quite all right, Mr. Goodman. Everyone needs sleep, and Mena is doing fine. It would appear she has made quite a miraculous recovery. We will be releasing her sometime today."
"That's good news, Doc. Thanks for everything you've done for her."
Dr. Cavanaugh smiled. "She will still need lots of rest and should take it easy, but ultimately, she will be back to normal very soon. We will stop in again later this morning to do one last check-up before she goes home." They left to finish their rounds as Spike dialed Xander's cell.
Xander woke to the irritating ringing of his cell phone. He groped around in the dark, finally finding the offending object. "Harris here," he grumbled, looking at the clock and taking note of the very early hour.
"The doctors were just in here taking a peek at our girl, Xander. They're going to release her sometime today." When he got only silence from the other end, Spike became grumpy. "Bloody hell, man! Did you fall asleep on me?" he growled.
"Oh, no. Just moved the phone away from my mouth; I was yawning. I heard what you said, and I am so glad to hear that. She's been antsy since yesterday afternoon and very anxious to get out of there. This also means we can leave for New Orleans and get started in our search for the next artifact."
"Yeah, well, Mena's strong, but she'll still need a bit of rest. I'll call when they release her if you're not already here by then. Get some sleep. It's early yet," Spike told the young Watcher. Young in years, perhaps, but at times, he seemed older at heart and soul -- a result of growing up in Sunnydale and helping defend the Hellmouth.
"Okay. See you later today," Xander yawned again as he disconnected the call and drifted back to sleep, happy, knowing that Mena would be fine.
Spike's cell phone started ringing just as Dr. Cavanaugh left for the second time that day, after telling Mena her discharge papers would be ready by the time she finished lunch. Her lunch was already being wheeled in as Spike hit the talk button on the cell phone. "Yeah. Spike here."
"Spike? I am so glad I caught you," said Giles. "I was unable to contact Xander on his cell. He must be away from his phone. I'm sure he would not simply ignore it."
"Probably in the shower. Then they'll be on their way over here. Mena's about to be released from hospital."
"Ah! Marvelous! Do tell her I said hello and give her my best," Giles said.
"Will do, Rupert. She's chowing down on her lunch right now like a Quavrad Demon at a weasel roast." Mena smiled but kept chewing and swallowing as fast as she could in hopes of leaving as soon as possible. Spike noted an intake of breath but no reply from Giles.
"Something wrong, Watcher? You're awfully quiet. Don't seem as excited about Mena's release from hospital as I thought you'd be. Makes me think your mind's on other matters. Can almost hear you cleaning those bleeding glasses."
"I assure you, Spike, that I am elated about Mena's release from hospital. We were all very worried, knowing, as we do, that Slayer healing can do only so much. However, there is another reason I called in addition to checking on her condition."
"That right? Got more information on the New Orleans artifact? Xander's chomping at the bit to head on over there and make up for losing the gem here in Houston by snagging the next artifact in short order."
"Spike, I do have information for your team, but not about New Orleans. I am afraid there is a more pressing matter to attend to first. Your team will need to postpone the trip to New Orleans and fly immediately to Hungary."
"Hmm. Been planning on getting all the artifacts from here in the States first. Then head to Transylvania just before meeting up with your team in England for the magical, mystical ritual. Seems a right waste to cross the pond three times rather than just the once. What's so bloody pressing in Hungary? Did the Council select an artifact there to replace the gem we lost here? Something with a sodding "sell by" date that needs our immediate retrieval?"
"Slow down, Spike. Let's take this one thing at a time, shall we? First, your team is urgently needed in Hungary to help the local Slayer protect and re-seal the Hellmouth there. It appears that ever since the Sunnydale Hellmouth was destroyed, there have been rumblings at various Hellmouths around the world. The one in Budapest has been and remains the most volatile. Last night, it was partially opened."
"How partially are we talking here? Any nasties get through? Some of those Ubervamps?"
"Just a very small crack, thankfully. Not yet wide enough to allow demons access to this dimension. It is believed that all the Turok-Han were destroyed in Sunnydale when you demolished that Hellmouth. There are, however, all manner of big, scary demons who would just love an open portal to our world."
"Yeah. They love all the bright lights and big cities. The nightlife. All the cultural events and museums. Manchester United. Hip-hop music. Adam Sandler films."
"Are you quite through? Or would you care to add chocolate ice cream and reality television to your list? Perhaps American Idol," Giles remarked with his own tongue in cheek, determined to rival Spike's sarcasm if he could. The British take pride in their sharp wit, after all.
"Nah, that show's for nancy boys. Any demon worth his salt prefers Survivor."
"Quite right. Now, moving on," said Giles. "Last night, the Budapest Slayer/Watcher team, Sarolt and Balazs, had to fight off a rather large contingent of vampires intent on helping the fissure in the Hellmouth become a crevasse. Sarolt and Balazs need someone to watch their backs while they perform the ritual to re-seal it. Since Dracula's Goblet is also on the list of artifacts for your team, after you've re-sealed the Hellmouth, you should drive over to Transylvania and obtain the goblet before returning to the U.S. to acquire the New Orleans artifact." Giles finished quickly before Spike could interrupt.
"You know, Rupert, I think that's a right good idea. Can't wait to collect on the debt that wanker owes me. And old Drac's been on my arse-kicking list ever since he had the gall to bite MY Slayer!" Spike's voice had grown louder with each word. He gave Mena a rueful smile at her questioning glance.
"Yes, well, he did indeed bite Buffy, which is exactly why I made sure his goblet was on your team's list of artifacts. And believe me when I say that Buffy fought me over that."
"Bet she did. She told me she regretted not finding a way to dust Dracula when he was in Sunnydale. His gypsy tricks make it nigh on impossible to end his poncy existence, but she said she'd like another chance to try."
"I know. I've heard her say the same thing. I simply pointed out that I didn't want to risk Dracula finding a way to use that previous bite as a means to overpower her. She was very angry and rather indignant, but in the end, she accepted my decision since our list of artifacts was quite full and included many exotic locales around the world that interested her. That's the real reason she agreed to Dracula's Goblet being on your list."
"Don't worry, Rupert. Our team will have no trouble with the fashion-challenged Count. I'll see to that," Spike assured him as he glanced over at Mena, whose eyes were fairly twinkling with excitement at the opportunity to delve into the history of Dracula.
"But there is one thing," added Spike. We were planning to arrange to have another vehicle ready for us with vampire-safe windows before we headed over there."
"Already taken care of, Spike. I ordered one for you last month but had it waiting in Transylvania. I'll call there as soon as we hang up and have them deliver it to the Gellert Hotel in Budapest, where I've reserved your rooms."
"Aren't you the perfect travel agent! Got our airfare all arranged, too, have you? Did you remember to include Illyria? I told you when I called before that she helped herself to Fred's passport and other identification papers before she left L.A., so she's all set on that count."
"Yes, I used the full name, Winifred Burkle, when I purchased the tickets. I'll call again and add one for Mena, too, now that I know she's ready to travel. They'll be waiting for you at the airport. The flight departs at 9:20 PM tonight with one brief stop in Paris, where you'll need to change planes."
"Sounds good. Mena is as anxious to get out of here as the rest of us. Houston sorta smells like failure now. Time to move on, yeah?" Mena nodded at Spike after she finished the last of her milk, then started looking for her clothes.
"About that sense of failure, Spike. You can all start shrugging that off."
"Balazs, the Budapest Watcher, is exceptionally gifted in magic, and so is Sarolt's grandfather. His name is Akos, and he just so happens to be a taltos."
"The Slayer's grandpa is a shaman? How convenient. But what does that have to do with solving our loss of the Gem of Illyria?"
"I told you that we'd find a magical means to extract the gem's power from Illyria. These two men are quite capable of not only removing it from Illyria but also transferring it into another vessel. It won't be easy for them, but they claim they can do it. So, you'll have a new artifact to replace the Gem of Illyria."
"Bloody brilliant!" whooped Spike. "That'll improve everyone's mood by a hundred fold. Xander, especially, has been stressing out about the possibility of llyria going boom and wiping out half the country. To be honest, we've all been right worried."
"As are we, Spike. Now, I must hang up and continue with my work here. Good luck with the work in Hungary, and then keep your wits about you when dealing with Dracula. He is a cunning opponent. Take care, all of you. Goodbye."
"Ta, Rupert." Both men disconnected the call at the same time. Spike sat there with a smile on his face. He couldn't wait to tell the others that not only would they be able to save Illyria, but they would also be able to still use the power of the Gem of Illyria for the Offering on September 22. It would just be in a new receptacle.
Mena was practically bouncing in her bed with excitement. "Are we really going to Hungary, Spike? Will we be able to see the sights and maybe a museum or two?" she asked with a wide smile on her face.
Spike placed the phone on the small tray beside Mena's bed and nodded his head. "It appears so, pet. Ought to have a little free time, since we're not going to end up being behind in our artifact gathering once we grab the goblet from Drac."
"Haley and I have just barely begun the research on his goblet, though, since we didn't think we'd be going there until after we finished our work in New Orleans."
"Should have some time while we're in Hungary to gather information before we pay a call on the bloody Count."
Mena giggled. "And this time, you really do mean bloody! We should be able to use our laptops on the plane to at least get started on the research. Not much else to do during a flight." She gathered the last of her clothing and went into the bathroom to shower and change.
Xander showed up a short while later, explaining that he had left Haley at the hotel to look after Illyria. By that time, Spike and Mena had already signed all the necessary paperwork and were ready to leave.
While Xander brought the car around, Spike wheeled Mena to the exit, stopping just long enough to throw the blanket over himself before jumping into the SUV. Xander helped Mena into the vehicle, although she kept insisting she could do it herself. Then the orderly who had walked to the exit with Spike and Mena took the wheelchair and waved as they drove away.
Spike and Mena teased Xander all the way to the hotel, saying they had great news but wouldn't tell him what it was, claiming they wanted to explain it to everyone all at once. By the time they entered their hotel room, Xander was as anxious as a kid on Christmas morning.
Xander, Haley and Illyria were convinced by Mena and Spike that this news might be better heard while sitting down, so they all took seats -- the women on one of the beds, and Spike and Xander in the two chairs from the table in the room.
Then Spike and Mena took turns interrupting each other -- Mena in excitement and Spike in an attempt to get all the facts straight -- until they had shared all the news from Giles. Haley was as excited as Mena was.
Xander, however, did not say one word, but he didn't have to as his facial expression and body language did all the communication for him. All occupants of the room saw the Watcher visibly pale at the mention of Dracula's name. That was when Spike remembered Buffy telling him that Xander had been caught up in Dracula's thrall and forced to do his bidding.
Standing up to add his extremely apprehensive thoughts to the conversation, Xander couldn't refrain from pacing and gesticulating wildly as he spoke.
"Okay, pleased as punch that we're going to be able to save Illyria and everyone else for miles around from being blown to bits, and couldn't be happier that we're going to end up with an artifact with the gem's power, after all, but I was counting on more time before going to Transylvania. I mean, Dracula's goblet? Are we supposed to just show up and take it? You know darn well it won't be that easy. And I refuse-- No, I swear by all that is holy that I will not be his butt-monkey again," Xander declared to the room.
Mena looked at him. "Butt-monkey? What do you mean? Do you know Dracula?"
Haley stood up and walked the few paces to stand next to him. "Xander? If you know him, maybe that would be to our advantage. I mean, we will need all the help we can get against a creature as cunning as Dracula. I do agree with you, in that I don't think it will be a simple feat to acquire his goblet."
"You don't know the half of it," sighed Xander.
Haley continued, "We might have to actually come face to face with the vampire himself. Maybe even fight him if he finds out what it is we are there to retrieve. Oh, my God. We might have to dust him! And I, for one, think that would be a shame."
"You've got to be kidding. Dusting Dracula would make my year! Make that my decade! Maybe my whole freaking life!" shouted Xander.
"If we were to do that, we would be taking away an important icon from the entire world's pop culture. I am sure Dracula would be missed by thousands, if not millions of people. It would make me very sad to be responsible for ending the existence of such an amazing icon." Haley looked at each of them in turn, displaying an earnest sincerity.
"No, you mean an amazing mass murderer!" argued Xander.
As if Xander's words had not even registered on her radar, Mena added, "Not to mention the history we'd be diminishing. I agree with Haley. The thought of actually killing Dracula--" She let the thought hang there for a few seconds and then continued. "If at all possible, we should just get in there, get the goblet, and get out."
Spike snorted. "I know the tosser, too, you know. You birds have got him all romanticized in your heads way beyond what the bloody poofter deserves."
"Okay, I am a trained Watcher with years of field experience. I can do this," Xander reassured himself. "I would love to be able to show him he can't just use me like he did last time. I will show him I am now able to resist his thrall."
"Xander, there is a technique that my Nyanya taught me to resist evil influences. It involves a special tea and a sort of mantra that you chant to help strengthen your self will. I will contact her and have her FedEx the exact stuff I would need to teach you."
"Thank you, Mena, that would mean a lot to me." He gently patted her shoulder.
"Better teach it to the other Watcher, too," laughed Spike. "She's already halfway to thrall-town without even being in his presence."
"I am quite capable of using meditation techniques to resist thrall," huffed Haley.
"But you've never met Count Dreamy Eyes with his silky, ruffled shirts and all," teased Spike. "He'll have you in his lap in no time with his showy gypsy tricks and flash. Oh, and his sexy voice."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with brushing up my skills," admitted Haley, who was both angry at Spike's teasing, yet also beginning to worry. She did have a sort of romanticized, Hollywood version of Dracula in her head. Her favorite film version was the one from the late 70's with Frank Langella in the role. Now he definitely played a romantic Dracula!
For that matter, Haley thought Spike cut a very romantic figure for a vampire, too, with those soulful baby blues and the cheekbones that models would kill for. And talk about a sexy voice! Of course, she'd never tell Spike that she sometimes thought of him in those terms. They were co-workers, and besides that, she knew he was in love with Buffy. No. Such thoughts were meant for private musings only.
Illyria had stayed quiet throughout this whole conversation, just watching and learning. She was also hoping in the back of her mind that she'd be able to retain at least some of the gem's power within her Fred-shell without it destroying her. She was not certain that she liked the idea of Hungarian strangers draining her of all that she had only so recently regained.
But now, the vampire the others had been discussing had caught her interest. "This Dracula? Is he a formidable opponent? I wish to meet this Dracula."
"Blue, he's not like me at all. He is evil personified! There are things written of Vlad the Impaler -- maybe you should read some of his history before you come in contact with him. You are used to being around Angel and me, and truth be told, we were very bad back in the day, more than evil enough in our own right."
"Take it from me on that score," said Xander. "They were both what we call Big Bads."
"But since you've known Angel and me, Blue, we've been, for the most part, well, good. At least, we've been fighting on the side of good. I assure you there is no good in Dracula. The git is a completely and utterly self-centered vampire. And he has some bloody stupid but effective gypsy tricks that he uses. Just want you to know what you're up against."
"I can take care of myself, half-breed. You forget I have my powers back. He will be no match for me. I have no presumption that he is anything like you or Angel. I have seen enough other vampires to recognize the difference. I am merely interested in him as a means to gain knowledge. My shell's memories do not include this Dracula in any real sense. She has only silly, cinematic memories of him, and they vary greatly from one memory to the next." She turned away, tending to the almost completely healed wound on her leg.
"You know, speaking of your power, Blue, it will likely be removed again before we run into Dracula. We want only to keep you safe from harm. They won't take any more than Wesley took from you before, and maybe we can work it so that you retain just a touch more. Maybe the ability to communicate with the green again. I now know how lovely that was. How much it meant to you."
"You shared only a small taste of that with me, Spike. It is more beautiful and exquisite than you can possibly imagine. It was a loss that left me bereft. I will revel in it now since I may soon be forced to exist without it again."
"I'm sorry, Blue. I truly am."
"I'm sorry, too, Illyria," said Mena. "I know that I would greatly miss my Slayer powers were they ever to be taken from me. And I'm sure that loss is quite small in comparison to yours."
Xander kind of felt that he and Illyria had made great progress since their first meeting and certainly since going into battle at her side with Spike against Hyllus. He realized that he actually sort of liked her.
"I would hate to lose you as part of our team, Illyria. We'll all do everything we can to make certain that you, at the very least, keep all the powers you had before we ran into Hyllus." He was careful to make eye contact, letting her know he was sincere.
"I appreciate your attempts to console me, but I am inconsolable at the thought of losing any of my powers again. Allow me to dwell in my own thoughts for a while and say no more now. Your words cannot alleviate my sense of impending loss."
"Just a few more words, please, Illyria. I totally agree with Xander; I like having you as part of our team." Mena laid her hand on Illyria's shoulder in a comforting gesture, and surprisingly, Illyria allowed it. "I'd like it if we could become friends. How is your leg?" Mena asked with genuine concern.
"My leg is almost healed, young Slayer. I am glad to help, to fight at the side of those who are comrades of Spike and Xander. They are true warriors in battle, and you fought very bravely in the canine arena, Slayer. I know that you would have continued to fight had you not been so grievously injured." Illyria turned away, and it was clear that she considered the conversation ended.
Everyone split up and began packing for their impending trip to Hungary. Xander made arrangements for both the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Viper to be picked up at the Houston airport and shipped to the long term parking facility at the airport in New Orleans. Then he checked them out of the hotel as Spike and the others loaded all the luggage into the SUV.
Xander, Mena and Haley took the SUV to the airport, while Spike and Illyria shared a ride in the Viper. Spike explained the process they would undergo at the airport and stressed that she must not cause any trouble, even if an airport employee offended her. She reluctantly agreed to be on her best behavior.
When they reached the airport, Illyria assumed her Fred-shell's human appearance and remained in that guise throughout the flight. The jet took off shortly after they boarded without any fuss. They were on their way to Hungary to help the local Slayer.
The plane carrying Spike and his team landed at Ferihegy Airport in Budapest in the dead of night, all the better for the team's resident vampire. Once they had collected their baggage, they found that Giles had arranged for a driver with a van to transport them to the Gellert.
The driver told them, in rather good but heavily accented English, that the vehicle that would be available for them during their entire visit was expected to be delivered to the hotel the next morning. Then he handed them an envelope that turned out to contain the addresses and the numbers of both Sarolt the Slayer and Balazs the Watcher as well as a generous bundle of Euros.
"Although Hungary still uses the Forint as their currency, they also accept Euros as legal tender," said Haley as she divided the cash among them all, including Illyria.
"And now, please make yourselves comfortable, for this journey will take a while," the driver said as they pulled out onto the road that would lead them into the center of the capital. "Our airport is in an outer district of Budapest. Getting to the Gellert Hotel from here requires about one hour."
Glancing out of the van's windows, all they could see was darkness because the airport was situated in a very large field among other fields, far from the heart of the city. Nothing was visible in the dark but the road before them, lit only by the van's headlights and occasional billboards with advertisements written in Hungarian, which none of them could read, although Spike recognized a few words now and then.
"I cannot wait to see all the sights and maybe visit a museum," enthused Mena. She ducked her head when Xander gave her a look that plainly said -- no stealing anything!
"Xander, I want only to learn all I can about this
beautiful country. I promise, no stealing. Besides, I didn't
actually take anything from the museum in Nebraska, if you will remember,"
she stated firmly in her defense.
Haley looked over the back of the seat at Xander, surprised he had admitted that. "No, my brief venture in thievery didn't turn out too badly. Thank you for saying so; I appreciate it. And may I reiterate that it is not my custom to steal. That was quite an unusual circumstance. You need not concern yourself that it will ever happen again."
Xander looked steadily into her eyes. He didn't say anything, just nodded his head in acknowledgement.
"Always happy to oblige should any stealing need to be done," offered Spike with a grin and a raised eyebrow. "The rest of you lot can let old Spike handle such things and save your delicate, shiny reputations from ever getting tarnished."
Xander chose to ignore him. "Man, I am so tired. That flight took a lot out of me, and yeah, I know I slept some of the way here, but very uncomfortably. I guess it's mainly jet lag. I need to get to the hotel and just relax for a bit. Maybe if I sleep straight through the night, I'll be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning."
Illyria gave him a very strange look but refrained from commenting. She assumed it was another one of those puzzling idioms. She wondered to herself for the umpteenth time why humans didn't simply say what they meant. Such odd creatures, they were.
Haley glanced over at Mena, who was truly excited about this trip. She didn't want to smash that excitement, but they had only so much time before the equinox and the impending ritual.
"Mena, you do realize that we are in Hungary for only a brief period of time? We are here to help protect and secure the Hellmouth and to extract the excessive levels of Illyria's power. Then we must move on quickly to Transylvania to obtain Dracula's Goblet. And even though you and I," she said pointedly, although without looking accusingly at Xander or Spike, "made some headway on the research for this artifact during our flight, what we actually discovered was that finding the exact information we need will likely be very difficult. That doesn't leave much time for touristy kinds of things."
"Then we'll just have to squeeze in a little fun and sight-seeing whenever we find some free moments, yeah?" Spike smiled at Mena encouragingly. "Even if those moments are few."
Mena smiled back in gratitude and then yawned widely. Xander wasn't the only one with jet lag. Everyone sank back into their seats, watching occasional buildings flash by the car windows. Some that had clearly existed for centuries were interspersed with more modern buildings from time to time. The further they drove, the more signs of civilization they saw.
They had all become very quiet, deep in thoughts of the upcoming mission and what they were sure would be a tough battle with Dracula -- whether it ended up being physical and violent or a more tactical struggle.
Spike was enjoying the drive through the capital city. It had been quite a while since he'd spent time in any part of Hungary, let alone Budapest. It was such a lovely place. He understood why Mena was anxious to see some of it. As for Dracula, his thoughts were very clear on that subject.
Can't bloody wait to confront that wanker! Arrogant poofter really needs to be taken down a few pegs. He bit Buffy! What made Drac think he had any right to bite my girl? Well, she wasn't my girl at the time, but hey, who cares? She is now! And I've never had the pleasure of a bite into her lovely neck. Not a real bite. And not that I ever would -- at least, not without her permission. I wonder what she is doing right now?
Spike's thoughts turned wholeheartedly to Buffy and away from Dracula as the driver continued to transport them all to the hotel. As they drove deeper into the city, more and more buildings began to be revealed -- a truly eclectic mixture of old and new. Neon lights from shop windows, as well as pale streetlights, provided brightness to illuminate the night.
Mena's thoughts flitted between their mission and her desire to see some of the historic landmarks in the area. Well, I always like doing research, anyway, so surely I will gain some knowledge about Hungary while doing that. We'd better research Dracula very thoroughly, too, and not focus all of our attentions on the special goblet; from everything Spike and Xander have told us, the Count would appear to be a very clever adversary. And like Spike just said, I'll make sure I enjoy whatever sights I get to see along the way.
Haley was anxious to get further into the research as well. She always preferred to be quite well-informed about any missions she took on. She wouldn't admit it out loud, but she wanted to know more about Dracula, himself, as well as the goblet. I don't think we are prepared to face him with what little we know right now. We need more actual facts about his recent dealings and less fanciful history of his past exploits.
Abruptly, Haley's thoughts turned to more personal matters. Deep down, she knew that despite the friendships she had been cultivating lately with her teammates, she was rather lonely. It had been a while since she'd had someone special in her life. After the Ritual Offering at the end of September, I need to spend a little time looking for a decent bloke.
Xander's mind was focused entirely on Dracula. He shuddered when he remembered his last encounter with the Count. I absolutely refuse to be his butt-monkey this time, damn it! I will resist his thrall with every particle of my being. I just know the bastard is going to direct his whammy in my direction, since it worked out so well for him in Sunnydale. Bloody hell!
He snorted out loud when he realized what phrase his mind had just chosen to express his inner turmoil. I hope I never say that out loud. Spike would never let me hear the end of it. He remembered that Mena had contacted her Nyanya to send the ingredients for that magic potion or tea or whatever it was. He resolved to learn her Nyanya's mantra, just in case. Anything to help him resist the thrall was worth trying. Because I will NOT succumb to Dracula again. He's not MY master! he declared to himself as he watched the city go by.
Illyria sat in the middle, between Mena and Haley, noticing how deeply in thought the others were. I want to learn more of this Dracula; they all seem to be either frightened of him or intrigued by him. Surely no half-breed can be as intimidating as Xander believes him to be.
Her lips twitched and threatened to turn slightly upward in the shape of a human smile when she thought of Xander. Perhaps Spike was right about him after all. He had more depths than she had first seen.
She was beginning to realize that she desired his company when he was not present. And he slept so much. All of these creatures do. They sleep away a third of their short lives. How foolish and how sad.
Everyone perked up as the driver pulled onto the beautiful Chain Bridge, which was gloriously adorned in white lights that reflected in the water of the Danube as if the river were full of tiny, sparkling gemstones. On the other side of the Danube, a beautiful castle emerged in golden light on top of the hill, proudly greeting visitors to the capital.
Spike immediately recognized the view; it was a sight he had enjoyed many times over the years and one he would never forget. He appreciated the sense of permanency that Europe provided the world.
The driver smiled, noting with satisfaction the amazement on the faces of his passengers. Then he turned onto the road that led to the Gellert Hotel.
It was well into the night by the time they pulled up at the hotel, and even Mena's enthusiasm seemed to be giving way to exhaustion. Haley hid a yawn as she retrieved her bags, stepping around Xander as he tried half-heartedly to make a grab for them.
Their previous arguments came to mind, and she gave him a faint smile, trying not to make him angry. He was, she thought idly, still prone to irritation when it came to her. Then again, that seemed to be a mutual thing.
"It's quite all right, Xander. I can manage them tonight," she told him calmly, turning to follow Spike into the hotel lobby. Mena fell into step next to her, carrying her own bag, as did Illyria, while Xander stayed behind to tip the driver from his stash of recently acquired Euros.
"This is a gloriously beautiful hotel. Don't you think so, Haley?" Mena asked, grinning up at her. Haley smiled back, squinting her eyes when they reached the bright lights of the lobby.
"Quite lovely," she answered honestly, looking ahead to see Spike flirting shamelessly with the hotel's flustered clerk. Maybe we'll get a discount, she thought with a grin, before turning back to Mena.
"I know I said this will, unfortunately, be a short stay, but with all the Old World charm and fantastic architecture we've already seen on the drive from the airport, I'm now as eager as you are to see more of the city. We'll try to find the time, Mena. I promise."
"I see no point to hold to a tight schedule," Illyria said slowly, her face still that of a normal woman as she stood perusing the lobby. Haley met Illyria's eyes, surprised, as she always was, at the lack of humanity that gaze so often revealed, even when in Fred's face. "We hold destiny in our hands. Surely we can bend it to make it wait for young Mena."
"I'm not sure that fate likes being bent," Mena told Illyria with a smile, sighing when the Old One merely cocked an eyebrow in her direction, in a gesture rather reminiscent of Spike.
"Yes, well, I'm afraid that's not how it works in our reality, Illyria," Haley said simply, turning away to see Xander approaching them. "We are the ones who have to run to meet our destiny."
"No rest for the wicked," Xander announced grandly as he joined them, placing his hands on Mena's shoulders. "Or in this case, no fun for the good guys."
"White hats! That's what we're called, much to my demon's shame," Spike announced in mock sadness, walking over to them while dangling two keys in front of their eyes.
Haley was rather amused to notice the clerk's lingering gaze still trained on the handsome vampire. Then, much to her surprise, a flash of jealousy passed through her, which she immediately dismissed from her mind.
"Hats?" Illyria blinked at Spike, and Haley had to fight the childish urge to roll her eyes. This 'befriending the fox' thing was wearing them all down, and they had agreed to take turns, to give each other a break from time to time. Tonight was Spike's turn, and Haley was more than glad to let him handle Illyria, who seemed unwilling to let the comment go without an explanation.
"I do not grasp the connection. None of you wear hats - neither white nor of any color. What would fashion have to do with our mission?"
"Nothing, pet. Just another one of those pesky, non-literal comments I make to see you wrinkle that ageless brow of yours." Spike grinned at Illyria, handing one of the room keys to Haley.
"Look, I got us great rooms. The ones Rupert had reserved over the phone weren't much to speak of. These are not only adjoining rooms, but there's also a sitting room between them. I was told one bedroom is a corner room with a spectacular morning view, so I've kindly given that one to the fair ladies in our company."
"Of course, it has nothing to do with you waking up in flames if we were to take it," Xander drawled, grabbing the set of keys Spike was offering him and turning to walk to the elevators. "What floor are we on?"
"Fourth. And of course not, you bloody brute. I'm all about the chivalry," Spike replied, giving Mena a wink when she couldn't hold back a snort. Haley smiled at their friendly banter, trailing after them as they piled into the elevator.
"I am most aggrieved, young lady, that you find amusement in my gentlemanly side." Spike held one hand to his heart and bowed his head.
"I, for one, find amusement in your every side," Xander laughed, clapping Spike on his back and prompting the vampire to glare at him in mock disapproval. "By the way, where did the Giles accent come from?"
"One of my many hidden talents," Spike told him seriously, but Haley could spot a hint of embarrassment. It reminded her of some of the theories circulating around the Watchers' Council about Spike's or rather, William the Bloody's origins. She smiled conspiratorially at him and winked, amused when the look seemed to make him uncomfortable.
"Spike," Illyria said suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled over them just as an elderly couple stopped the lift on the second floor and climbed in. "Where shall I spend these nightly hours while you seek rest?"
"With Mena and Haley, I'd expect," Spike said slowly, giving Haley an apologetic look that she shrugged off. Odd as Illyria proved herself to be, Haley was beginning to get used to the Old One's ways. "So you lovely lasses can have all the girlie fun you want."
"I'd rather kill--"
"Kill the time with games! Why, yes, that's a great idea! Why didn't I think of that?" Mena announced brightly, smiling for the benefit of the elderly couple who were giving them odd looks. Illyria frowned, but was mercifully silent until the elevator doors opened on the fourth floor.
They all stepped out into the hallway in silence, splitting into the two adjoining rooms in a fashion that was becoming familiar with every hotel they visited. Xander quietly closed the door behind Spike and himself, while Haley fumbled with the key for a moment, slowly opening the door and allowing both Mena and Illyria to step through.
Haley moved to the farthest bed in the corner. Carefully arranging her bag on top of the covers, she looked up to see Illyria standing stiffly just inside the door, staring blankly at the bed. Haley had long since discovered the ex-god did not sleep.
"Perhaps you'd like to at least rest your body?" Haley suggested softly, trying not to feel the twinge of unease when she found ice-crystal eyes trained on her. In the blink of an eye, Illyria's form had shifted, her body once again tinged with splashes and streaks of blue. "Or you could use the laptop or watch television in the sitting room," Haley added.
"Oh, God! Look at this!" Mena wailed suddenly, and Haley immediately looked away from Illyria, expecting to see some sort of difficulty or even danger. Instead, she found Mena standing by the window, having pulled the curtains open, and staring open-mouthed at the beauty of the view before them.
Like a blanket of lights, Budapest was spread out for their view, a gorgeous spectacle of the architecture of old bathed by the glow of today's electricity. The bridge that split the city stood proudly in the distance, its awe-inspiring sight making Haley forget all about unpacking as she moved closer to Mena, standing for a while to admire the view.
"It is breathtaking," Haley said at last, stealing a glance at Mena's enchanted gaze.
"If it were so, then it would be fatal to your kind," Illyria stated flatly, but she drew nearer to them, standing next to Haley and staring out the window. She wasn't upset that they had not recognized her attempt at humor; she'd just keep working on it. Spike had explained that humor was an art that took practice to get right. "Much beauty lies within this city. The sight pleases me."
A knock on the door interrupted the moment, and Haley stepped away, opening it to reveal Spike standing there in his duster with a smile on his face.
"Any of you ladies care for a walk around the city? My memories can't be so rusty as to prevent me from serving as a decent tour guide."
Stepping aside to let him in the room, Haley closed the door behind him quietly, surprised by the awe in his face when he caught sight of the large window they had been staring out not a minute earlier.
"Xander blew you off on the offer to take a walk, didn't he?" Mena was saying, but Spike, Haley noticed, wasn't paying attention. He cocked his head to one side and moved closer to the window, tracing the glass with a pale hand.
Flashback ~ Hungary, 1903
"Come now, my Spike," Drusilla cooed softly, lips tracing the outline of his ear. "Time to wake. All the stars are out, and the lovely children just cry for us to find them."
"And make a right tasty snack of them for you, yeah?" Spike mumbled sleepily, smiling up at his dark princess as he stretched his limbs without leaving the luxurious bed.
The soft linens of the bedding made getting up so much more difficult, but he managed, stumbling to his feet while pulling Drusilla closer by a grip on her waist. She smiled, drawing near, lips whispering against his for but a second before she danced away again, laughing in a trail of ribboned petticoats that his eyes followed hungrily.
She paid him no mind as she moved to open the curtains of the window wide, brightening their room with the silvery shine of the full moon outside.
"Now, now, my sweet boy. Play nicely with me. We have a beautiful city to dine in tonight! And the pixies, my love -- they shall dance to our tune! They shall dance and twist and swirl and cry and scream! Will you make them scream for me, my love? Will you make them cry before their delicious little end?"
"How about I make you scream first?" Spike growled softly, catching her around the waist and spinning her about the room, laughing at her shrieks. Then they slowed down, moving languidly to a melody only she seemed to hear, but that he so gladly followed. She looked deeply into his eyes for a moment, insanity shining in her gaze like the stars that lined the night outside.
"The stars say we shall dine well tonight, my love. We shall dine on wine and love and tears and blood. What say you, my knight? Shall you escort your princess?"
"To the end and far beyond it," he swore softly, bending to steal a kiss from her lips. Soon, they parted beneath his, and he plundered her mouth with his tongue, moaning in the back of his throat when her nails dug into his back hard enough to draw blood.
"Budapest is ours tonight, pet," Drusilla cooed softly, kissing the tip of his nose. "I remember how much you loved Hungarian cuisine the last time we were here. Get ready to enjoy the tastes the streets have to offer us tonight."
Budapest, Hungary ~ August, 2004
"Spike?" Surprisingly enough, it was Illyria who broke the silence that had fallen over the room. Spike blinked once and turned to look at them, a bemused smile on his face as he stepped away from the window.
"Yeah, pet. I'd forgotten how much I liked this place, is all. So, any of you up for that midnight stroll?"
"I'll go!" Mena said brightly, quickly deflating under Spike's concerned glance and Haley's resolute shake of the head. "But I'm guessing that's out of the question, since you overprotective people won't let me."
"It's quite late," Haley pointed out gently, smiling for Mena's benefit. "You're still recovering, Mena, and I'd be more comfortable if you got a good night's sleep. Besides, you've been yawning ever since we left the airport. I'm sure that, tomorrow, Spike will be glad to tell you all the best places that--"
"Not quite the same," the girl interrupted sullenly, then grinned at their concerned expressions. "Oh, don't worry, I'll get over it. And you're right; I am very sleepy. Don't you want to go, though, Haley? You don't look all that tired, and I'm sure Spike would love the company."
"Well," Haley looked over at Spike's hopeful expression and smiled, nodding her head slightly. "I have always wanted to explore this city," Haley said slowly, as if contemplating the choice, laughing when Spike immediately gave her a mock-bow and opened the door for her.
"Then, by all means, let me be your tour guide," he laughed, heading for the hallway door, but not before giving Illyria a pointed look. "Blue, you look after Mena, yeah? We shouldn't be long."
"I am no nursemaid," Illyria began to protest, then thought better of it. Spike and Xander wanted her to learn to care about others. The Slayer was not entirely disagreeable, therefore spending time in her presence would be acceptable. "Very well. I will make certain the young one sleeps well and heals the last of the wounds my enemy inflicted upon her body. I can wait until later to make my explorations."
"Thank you, Illyria," said Haley.
"Have fun," said Mena. "Twesha, Spike. Twesha, Haley."
"Good night," Spike called over his shoulder, then closed the door behind them, leading Haley towards the elevators. "You'll love Budapest, Haley. I bloody guarantee it! As sure as my name's Spike."
"Your nickname is Spike. Your name is William," Haley countered playfully, watching as he pressed the button for the ground floor.
"Yeah, yeah. Same thing," he muttered, grinning at her as the doors slid closed.
As Spike and Haley exited the hotel, they gazed up at an almost black, midnight blue summer sky. It was studded with sparkling silver stars, like diamonds scattered across a jeweler's velvet display cloth. A cool breeze caressed the leaves in the trees, and the air was fresh and sweet. Since Spike always enjoyed the act of breathing, despite no longer needing oxygen, he savored a deep breath of the fragrant evening air.
Haley felt just a bit uneasy about going out alone with Spike. She wasn't afraid of the vampire, of course. Quite the contrary. She was just a little disconcerted about her secret fascination with him and therefore appreciated the presence of others as a buffer. Not only was he handsome, intelligent and charming, but the stories of his heroic journey, redemption and sacrifice intrigued her. And, of course, his snarky wit made him fun to be around.
Ever since they had first met in Ann Arbor, she had been attracted to him, even though she knew of his involvement with Buffy. Haley had studied all the reports in the Watchers' Diaries concerning William the Bloody. She had spoken briefly about Spike with Xander and Mena, and Spike had occasionally told stories from his past during their long drives across the U.S., but she found herself wanting to know more.
Spike was no typical vampire. Of that, she was certain, especially now that she had witnessed the remarkable incident with his leather duster. The coat had virtually healed itself of the acid burns that had been splashed across it. That, and the fact that the coat had been given to him through mystical means in Memphis, made her wonder if Spike was being guided by powerful forces for some special purpose. That mystery fueled her imagination.
When Spike had suggested a little tour of Budapest at night, she thought she might take that opportunity to get to know him better and also to satisfy her curiosity about the city she heard so much of as a little girl.
"Ahhh," Spike murmured as he drew the familiar scents through his nostrils and deep into his lungs. "This city hasn't changed all that much in over a century," he remarked with a grin. "Even though the 'progress of modern civilization' has added petrol fumes, and God knows what else to the mix, that Old World aroma still lingers."
Haley smiled at his nostalgic revelation. "You really seem to like it here."
"Yeah. You got that right, love. Budapest brings back a lot of pleasant memories for me," Spike sighed.
"You mentioned recognizing the Old World aroma, so when was that exactly?" Haley inquired, trying to start a conversation.
"Oh, about 1890," Spike thought back and rubbed his neck. "Bloody hell, that was a long time ago," he chuckled. "Just reminded me how bleeding old I really am. Pretty, young thing like you might not want to be seen with such a decrepit, old geezer." Spike turned to Haley and winked wickedly.
Caught off guard by his comment and the endearing tilt of his head, Haley blushed and tried to offer a witty comeback which, under the circumstances, wasn't up to her usual standards.
"Actually, Spike, I think you look amazingly good for such an old git, and I don't mind being seen with you at all. Especially since I have no idea where we are nor do I speak a word of the language."
"So you think I look good, do you?" he teased as Haley quickly looked away.
Noticing her discomfort, Spike smiled and directed her attention to the green iron Liberty Bridge in front of them. "Care to take a little stroll across the Danube?" he asked tentatively.
"Sure," Haley nodded, "you're the guide."
"You won't believe this, but as old as the structure looks, this bridge didn't exist back during my first stay in Budapest." Spike grinned as they crossed the road and headed for the bridge's pedestrian walkway.
Haley's astonished look met his bewitching one. Even in the darkness, Spike's eyes seemed to captivate her.
"Isn't it a bit unsettling for you?" she muttered, trying not to stare too long at his face. "I mean, you come back here 100 years later and see not only the things that existed in your past, but also things that the people of that historic period would never dream could exist. How does it feel to witness a century of change in just one lifetime? It sounds terrifying to me and yet exhilarating, too," she shuddered.
Spike laughed quietly. "Hard to explain, really. See, part of it was slightly terrifying at first, although change is very gradual while you're experiencing it. But as I witnessed certain things become obsolete and disappear into the face of the new, it sometimes felt like I was leaving part of myself, or the people I came to know, behind. Would have been a right lonely existence if it hadn't been for Dru."
He stared into the depths of the Danube for a moment, then shook off the memory of Drusilla that had sprung to mind and turned back to Haley.
"But in other ways, it's bloody thrilling just living on the edge. Being immortal, or damn near indestructible, is definitely a rush. That's something I've always liked about my vampire existence. I could see and experience more than other people ever could, and if I was smart and lucky, I could do it again and again. I know this sounds more than a little profane, but I always reckoned it was kind of a gift for us vampires, from one of the powers in the universe. Then again, maybe it was just their idea of a cruel joke."
Haley instinctively grimaced in disapproval. Spike shrugged it off but was a bit disappointed. "Told you it was a sacrilegious thought," he said as they started across the bridge.
"It is, but I realize that's just an aspect of what you once were. Since being soulless is part of the package with the immortality, vampirism cannot really be a gift, but it would certainly make it easier for a demon to commit evil acts without having a conscience berating him."
"Sort of like sociopathic humans," commented Spike dryly.
"Exactly. I do, however, think you're quite different now," Haley noted, "and it would seem that you began to redevelop your sense of right and wrong even before you regained your soul. But then, it's clear that you and the Gilroy vampires are definitely not typical of vampires as a whole."
Haley decided it might be a good idea to lighten the conversation. It was too beautiful a night for such heavy topics. Looking up at the bridge's intricate iron work, she noticed figures of huge birds perched on the top of the pillars. "Those birds are quite impressive. I've never seen anything like them. What are they?" she asked casually.
"They look like the Turuls to me," Spike mused, "one of the mythical symbols in Hungarian history."
Haley's scientific nature was instantly awakened, and her eyes lit up with curiosity. Spike looked at her and was reminded of both Fred and Mena, and the way the thirst for knowledge always excited them. Sometimes to a fault, he thought bitterly, remembering Fred's fascination with the sarcophagus that eventually led to--. Pushing that memory away, he turned back once again to Haley.
"A mythological bird?" she inquired, tilting her head to get a better look.
"Yeah, something like that," Spike replied, furrowing his brow thoughtfully as he tried to recall all he knew about the creatures.
"If I remember correctly, according to ancient legend, the Turul was mentioned, at least twice, as being instrumental in shaping the fate of the Hungarian nation. The first time concerned the founding family of Hungary." He searched his memory and came up with the names he needed.
"Emese, the mother of Álmos, who became the father of Árpád, had a dream where a Turul appeared and told her that her child was going to be the father of a great nation. Later, Árpád became the founder of the Hungarian state." Spike paused as he noted Haley had been listening to him, spellbound, then he continued.
"The second time, the leader of the early Hungarian tribes had a dream in which eagles were attacking their horses. Just when the situation looked dire, a Turul came, destroyed the marauding eagles and saved the herd. To the tribal leaders, this was a portent that told them they had to move, and when they did, the Turul helped to show the way, basically leading them to a new homeland which became Hungary."
"That's quite an interesting story; you seem to know a good deal about Hungarian folklore." Haley looked up once again at the birds. "You've been around Mena so long, you're starting to sound rather like our little history buff," she giggled.
"Hey!" Spike exclaimed with mocked dismay, "Mena's a walking, talking travelogue and a bleeding history freak to boot! I'm not that bad. Just have a good memory for the details."
Spike hesitated a moment for Haley to stop laughing, then he leaned in and whispered solemnly, "If you really want to know the truth, Dru and I met a very nice gentleman, on one of our many visits to Budapest, who gave us a lecture on the historical folklore of his country. Later, of course, we decided to sample some Hungarian cuisine, and he had the rather unfortunate fate of becoming the main course, so to speak."
"A truly pitiful way to thank the poor man for his kindness," she chastised, not trying to hide her revulsion this time.
"You're right, love, it was pitiful and distasteful as well, but it's how I was for a very long time. Killing was just my way of life." Spike sighed, staring down at the tranquil water beneath them once more, then added firmly, "But that's in the past. That's history. Not that bloke anymore."
Haley watched him quietly from the corner of her eye. She couldn't help but be upset by the details of his sordid exploits, but she also felt guilty for letting those dark deeds cloud her view of him sometimes. She knew Spike had an infamous past. He never denied it, and she was sure the soul would never let him forget it.
But she also knew that Spike was different now. He still struggled with his demon, probably on a daily basis, but she knew his journey towards redemption had been unprecedented. No other vampire in recorded history had ever fought to regain his soul. She had no doubts whose side he was on.
Tentatively, she put a hand on his arm and spoke quietly, "I know you're not that person anymore, and I'm sure all of us who know you are proud of the man you've become. It's just that some of your more -- umm, graphic stories are a bit gory for my taste. I do enjoy hearing tales from your past, but perhaps you could avoid the mention of killing humans. And maybe just for tonight, you could focus more on being my pleasant tour guide. Okay?"
Spike looked at her for a moment, then nodded once, "Sorry, love, just thought you might be interested in a bit of my colorful past mixed in with the city's, but I understand your reluctance to listen to tales of me murdering humans. Promise to concentrate on just showing you the local sights for the rest of the evening. What do you say we move on, then?"
Haley nodded, then asked shyly, "Could we take a walk along the river bank? It's such a lovely night, and the water looks so peaceful."
"Sure, love. That sounds like a perfect idea."
Turning left at the end of the bridge, they stepped down onto the concrete sidewalk that followed the path of the Danube. After walking for about fifteen minutes, they rounded a bend, and Spike suddenly stopped. Raising his arm he pointed out the golden lights of the Parliament buildings sitting on the banks of the river.
"Bloody hell," he exclaimed, "I'd forgotten what an amazing sight the Houses of Parliament are! I'd have said 'awesome' sight if that word hadn't become egregiously associated with teenaged gits."
Haley laughed at that but agreed with Spike's assessment of the buildings. "Magnificent!" she said. "And may I say, Spike, that I appreciate that you're beginning to drop the facade, at least around us, of being undereducated."
He looked at her a bit puzzled, then figured out what had precipitated her statement. "Ah, egregiously."
"Bloody right!" she laughed. "There's really no need to hide it any longer. We've all noticed it over the last few weeks."
"So I should feel free to use words of more than one syllable from time to time, eh?"
"Please do. And we're all eagerly awaiting the backstory that you're keeping from us. I assure you we're more than ready to hear about William before he was 'The Bloody'. Whenever you're ready, of course."
"Not sure when I'll be ready, love, but I'll keep it in mind. Now as for the Parliament Buildings, it looks like some of the structures are new. I remember when a good part of the Capital building was just being built -- depots, mills and barracks -- but now, it is truly impressive! I'll wager it's most beautiful at night, like this, with the lights on the water."
Spike's face showed true fascination as he leaned on the bridge's railing, and his eyes studied the slender towers of the neo-Gothic building, with their intricate ornamentation of iron spikes and lacy stonework.
"It certainly is beautiful," Haley whispered with awe. "The design is similar to the Houses of Parliament in London, don't you think?"
"That it is, pet. It's always been said that London's Parliament was the inspiration for Budapest's."
As they resumed their stroll, Spike continued to voice his praise for the great city. "God, it's good to be back," he shouted out exuberantly. "I always loved this city, and no matter how long I spend away from it, the memories never fade."
"It must have been fun for you, living in so many exotic places over the years, learning about different people and life throughout the decades. Think of it, Spike, you're now in your third century! I have to admit, in many ways, I envy you. It had to be exciting to witness as much as you have."
"Well, in many respects, it was. I've seen a lot of history -- lived through good and bad times, even though I rarely lacked for anything. Just took whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it. Most of the time, I never looked back." He sighed deeply before continuing.
"But on the other hand, life as a vampire had its drawbacks, too. Dru and I were always on the move, never settled down in one place too long. As I said before, it could be a lonely existence, and sometimes that left me emotionally vulnerable. I committed a lot of terrible acts and made a lot of mistakes along the way."
"That's true, Spike, but that was your previous life, and you certainly made up for things when you saved the entire bloody world last year."
"Gotta admit, love, it feels good to converse with another Brit, as the sodding Yanks call us. I like hearing your accent after so many years in California. Reminds me of my Mum, although she would've died before uttering "bloody".
"Brilliant," Haley groused. "I remind you of your mother. Just what every girl likes to hear."
Spike laughed. "No way, pet. Look nothing like my Mum. Your particular accent isn't exactly like hers either. Just meant that it's nice hearing an Englishwoman's voice, is all."
"Well, in that case, I'm glad to oblige, love," said Haley, smiling broadly. "So knickers, wanker, shillings, Guinness, shirty, tosser, dodgy, knackered, cheeky, bangers and mash. Will that tide you over for a bit?"
"It's a good start," grinned Spike.
"But again, Spike, and maybe we can then put this to rest -- please don't keep beating yourself up about things from your past. You've moved on from William the Bloody and the Spike of old."
"Thanks, pet. Hope I atoned for some of my wrongs, but I'll never live them all down, even if I live ten lifetimes. Getting my soul back opened my eyes to a lot of hard truths about myself, but it also made me resolve to be something better. With the soul to guide me, and Buffy's love as my anchor, I think I have a right good chance of succeeding."
Spike fell silent, and Haley didn't know how to continue the conversation, so she just gazed out across the water. A few moments later, he motioned for her to come along, and they resumed walking beside the river bank. Suddenly, they heard a loud, rumbling sound, and a bright yellow tram approached from the far end of the next bridge in front of them.
"The yellow worm!" Spike shouted and grinned as if he just met up again with a long-lost friend. "Used to love riding that train! Come on, if we hurry we can catch it!"
Next thing she knew, Haley was being pulled along the walkway, and Spike was waving his hand madly for the conductor to hold the car for them. Haley ran along with him, willingly, laughing and trying to catch her breath.
Spike's enthusiasm was infectious, and she had to admit she was feeling much more at ease with him and having fun as well. Maybe a little time away from the tension of their mission was what they both needed.
The conductor scowled as Spike paid for two fares but smiled when he saw the added tip Spike handed him. Moving to the back of the tram car, they sat down on two vacant seats facing each other.
Spike was beaming like a little boy, and that made Haley smile. "What?" he asked, as he saw her staring at him.
Haley shook her head. "Nothing. Oh, all right. It's just - you're enjoying this so much, you looked almost childlike for a moment."
"Humph," he chuckled, "looked like or acted like?"
Spike grinned sheepishly, "Yeah, reckon that could be true. You know, I'm really grateful to Rupert for sending us here. After all the bad luck, stress and worry we left behind, it almost feels like we're on holiday. Oh, I know it's part of the mission, and I know it's serious and all. But it's kinda like coming home, you know? Being in Europe, I mean."
Nodding, Haley gave him a warm smile. "You certainly look very happy to be back here again, even if so much has changed."
"It's weird," Spike responded. "All these old memories are coming back, and it's almost like watching a movie. Even though my previous life feels so far away now, I still have these moments of deja vu. Most of the surroundings have changed, of course, and yet they still seem so familiar. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear the sound of horses and carriages on dirt roads, instead of cars on asphalt."
"I know what you mean," agreed Haley. "There's definitely a sense of the past in this city."
"Can still picture counts and countesses in my mind's eye -- the aristocracy ruled then, and their taste and style influenced everything. Balls; the theatre - both plays and operas; poetry; the music, which is now known as Classical, was brand new, popular music back then. People really knew how to live. Turn of the century Budapest was a vampire's playground, and Dru and I loved living here. Those were the good times, at least for a while."
"Those must have been very elegant times. I bet you looked brill in a waistcoat and tails." Haley winked as she turned her head back to the window, peeking outside.
"Actually, I looked a bit too poncy for my tastes, but Dru always enjoyed dressing me up like one of her bleeding dollies, so I indulged her."
The two of them watched the buildings and the life of the city as the tram twisted its way through the boulevard into the heart of the capital. A few stops later, they got off at Oktogon Square which, quite naturally, got its name because of its octagonal shape.
They continued their stroll along pristine, tree-lined pedestrian walkways, which ran the entire length of the avenue and crisscrossed the boulevard, dividing it into three lanes. It reminded Haley of the main arteries of a beating heart. The whole square was bathed in the soft, golden light of lamps that lined the sidewalks. After about a fifteen-minute walk, they arrived at the most spectacular park in the capital. The name was designated at the entrance as City Park.
Haley's jaw dropped as she stared at a huge column in the center of the grounds.
"This is the Millennium Memorial," Spike stated before she could ask any questions. "The statue on top of that huge column is Archangel Gabriel. He's holding the Hungarian Holy Crown and the Apostolic Double Cross."
Haley's gaze turned from the column to the semi-circular colonnades extending to both its left and right.
"The figures between the pillars of the colonnade are famous heroes from Hungarian history. The piers are embellished with emblematic, sculptured ensembles that represent work, welfare, knowledge, honor and peace," Spike explained.
He was pretty pleased with himself for remembering so many detail and grateful to the old man who had imparted the information nearly a hundred years ago.
"Stunning," Haley murmured, not taking her gaze off of the monument.
"It sure is. I'm lucky to have been here around the time it was erected," he noted. "There is something else we haven't seen yet. They built it during the years in between my visits here, so I don't know all the details. But I wager you're going to love it!" Spike smiled mysteriously and starting to walk towards the monument, beckoning Haley to follow after him.
On the other side of the monument, they reached a road that lead into City Park. Spike took Haley's hand, turned to the right and led her across the freshly mowed grounds. At the end of the parkway, they caught their first glimpse of the 'surprise destination.'
"My God," was all that the gobsmacked Haley could utter as her eyes were riveted to the sight in front of her.
"Bloody hell," Spike's equally astonished words fell from his lips. "Forgot just how bloody amazing it is!"
Towering before them was a magnificent castle erected on an island in the middle of a lake and surrounded by a moat. Its resemblance to the Transylvanian castles they had seen in the travel brochures, as well as their research books, was plainly visible.
A short bridge made of wooden planks led up to the iron gates of the castle. Warm, orange light bathed the entire building, offering a mesmerizing sight to scores of tourists walking around, even at this late hour, enjoying the sights of Budapest at night. The castle was incredibly beautiful and awe inspiring, and neither Spike nor Haley could tear their eyes away from it.
"Amazing, isn't it?" asked the middle-aged man who had stopped beside them. His accent was clearly Hungarian, and he was filled with pride as he watched the foreign visitors admiring the structure.
"It reminds me of how I imagine Dracula's castle," Haley murmured, still awestruck, as she glanced at the man.
The stranger grinned. "Actually, that's not far from the truth, Miss. The castle was originally built of timber and cardboard for the World Exhibition in 1896. It was to commemorate the one thousandth anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. The idea was to give the visitor an insight into Hungary's architectural past. Every section of the edifice is different. Each one features a small-scale reproduction of various buildings in the country and represents different historical and architectural styles. The castle itself is a true representation of a thousand years of Hungarian architecture, all combined in one single monument."
"You said the words 'originally built'. Does that mean it was destroyed, perhaps in wartime, and had to be reconstructed?" asked Haley.
"Doesn't look like timber and cardboard," added Spike.
"No, it wasn't ruined by war, nor is it now made of cardboard. It was such a success at the 1896 Exhibition, that it was later painstakingly rebuilt in brick and stone as a permanent monument. The wing facing the lake is an imitation of the Castle of Vajdahunyad in Transylvania, the family fortress of János Hunyadi, a hero of the Turkish wars. On the opposite side, the outer structure with the more Gothic appearance is a copy of the castle tower of Segesvár in Transylvania."
Both Spike and Haley were listening intently to their impromptu tour guide as he continued to describe the historic architecture.
"Today, Vajdahunyad Castle is the home of the Hungarian Agricultural Museum," the man remarked with a smile. "If you have time, it's really quite worth visiting."
"Thanks, mate," Spike nodded, "maybe we'll get the chance to give it a closer look."
"Yes, thank you, sir. You're far more tourist friendly than the brochures." Haley smiled back.
"No thanks are needed. It is always a pleasure to help such a nice, young couple!" With a wink and a smile, he bade them goodbye and walked away.
Spike and Haley exchanged a look of surprise at being called a couple by the Hungarian man. Although Haley appeared somewhat embarrassed, Spike had found it merely amusing.
"Pretty impressive construction, huh?" he marveled. "Can't imagine what it would be like living in something like that."
"One almost expects to see Dracula peeking out from one of the windows, don't you think?" Haley suggested, studying the castle again with fascination.
"See, there you go again, romanticizing that poncy braggart. Trust me, when you meet him in the flesh, you won't be so impressed. Don't get me wrong, he's definitely powerful and evil. Can be a right sneaky bastard, too. Wanker's always using some trumped-up gypsy magic. Plain, old smoke and mirrors, that's all it is." Spike scowled at Haley, and they started walking down the street.
She, in turn, was amused at Spike's obvious, personal contempt for the legendary Count, and she made no attempt to hide it. It occurred to her that Spike might be envious of Dracula's renown.
"Are you implying that Dracula is not quite the icon he appears to be?" she teased. "Or is it that he's just not so iconic to you?"
"We've already been through this, woman. He's just way too over-romanticized and glorified, in my opinion. Gets crowned the king of Evil Incarnate when some drunken Irishman decides to write a book about him, and then Hollywood thinks it would make a good horror flick. Bollocks! They'd have been better off filming the exploits of Angel or yours truly here. Been far more exciting and a hell of a sight more believable."
"Sounds like I hit a nerve here, Spike. Do I detect a bit of jealousy?"
"No! That'll be the day," he grumbled, "but for now, could we just not speak of Vlad the Unimpressive Impaler any more than we have to?"
"Fine. We shall speak of him no more."
"Good. And don't ever let me hear you prattling on about Lestat or any other of those poofter Anne Rice vampires either. Now, I've got a better idea. There used to be a great little pub that Dru and I frequented. I think it was close to the Gellert Hotel, where we're staying. Hopefully, it still exists. Want to go check it out?"
"That sounds like one of the best ideas I've heard in a long time," she replied. "Lead the way, my illustrious tour guide."
"You can handle your liquor, right?" Spike asked with a wicked grin.
Click here or on Spike to finish reading the first half of Gypsies, Vamps and Thieves right now, or take a break and come back later.
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