Hearts of Darkness
Previously on Spike: Soul Survivor - Dracula resurrected Elizabeth Bathory and turned her into a vampire with strengths nearly equal to his own through the use of the spells and rites from the scrolls that his still-human minion, Victor, brought to him from the Hungarian National Archives. Victor expects to receive the dark gift from Dracula so that he, too, can become a powerful vampire via Dracula's potent blood.
With Haley's help, Akos and Balazs, the Hungarian shaman and Watcher, successfully transferred the Fred-shell threatening powers from Illyria into a blue quartz box that can be used as an artifact for The Offering. Illyria hopes that she retained all of the powers she had before absorbing the Gem of Illyria, plus maybe a little more besides -- especially the ability to commune with the green. The rest of Spike's team are all waiting for Dawn to arrive so that she can transport the quartz box to safekeeping in England. And everyone is healing the wounds that were inflicted during the big battle in the Budapest Hellmouth.
Victor's pace quickened as he vainly tried to keep in step with his master. Dracula was furious! The heels of his boots echoed in the long hallway as he stormed towards a door at the end. He forced the door open with one hard slam of his fist. His very first glimpse verified what Victor had told him.
The body of a young girl lay on the cold stone floor of Elizabeth's bedroom. Her throat was slit; her pale eyes gazed up at the ceiling.
Walking into the room, Dracula found that it was otherwise empty. His eyes grew even darker, and his teeth elongated as the scent of blood overwhelmed him. He followed the scent, quickly making his way to the bathroom. Victor remained right at his heels. Dracula's anger grew as soon as he saw Elizabeth lying in the bathtub.
Another young girl's arm hung over the rim of the tub. One of Dracula's minions held the girl's arm in place as the last drop of her blood was drained from her body. Dracula became enraged at the wasteful sight of Elizabeth lounging in a tub filled with blood. One arm was raised high in the air as her other hand slowly spread the blood over her pale skin.
"See, as I told you, Master," Victor softly declared.
Dracula realized that this dead girl was the servant that he had ordered to take care of Elizabeth. "What the hell are you doing?" Dracula demanded.
Her reply served only to intensify his anger as Elizabeth sang out from the tub, "Do be a good man and close the door. The draft is making me cold."
"Of course, you are cold. You are dead," Dracula hissed.
Elizabeth slowly turned her head to regard the angered vampire with indifference. "You have accorded me my life and youth. For that, I have already thanked you. That does not, however, give you the right to treat me like one of your acolytes."
Dracula began to pace the small room. As his anger grew, his pace quickened. "You are no longer the Blood Countess; that title and life is in your past. You are to be my consort -- a position higher than you could have possibly dreamed. I paid a high price to bring you back and ask only that you act in a manner befitting someone worthy to sit by my side."
"I am sorry, but I did not ask for this position," she said in a voice that grated on Dracula's nerves. Since her resurrection, she had learned quickly how to anger Dracula. She reveled in seeing him descend to a level to which she felt superior.
Dracula let out a snarl as he tripped over the still body of the young girl. He lashed out in anger and kicked her corpse.
"I already told you that I have private larders set aside for you and my army to quench our thirst. They are kept filled with a variety of humans full of nutritious, life-giving blood. I have always used villagers from afar as fodder for my larders because I have worked for centuries to earn the trust of our local villagers. It is their naïveté that has helped me maintain a sense of security and safety around my castle and my lands."
Dracula clenched his fists as he struggled to control his rage. "But ever since I brought you back from the dead, our villagers have been in a state of panic."
His pace now grew to a fevered pitch as he softly mumbled, "I cannot believe that you have created such a panic in just the two days since your resurrection."
A pleased smile graced Elizabeth's face. "Think of what I could do in a week's time."
Dracula stopped his pacing; his feet were planted firmly on the floor. "Did you think they would not notice their young girls vanishing? You are destroying the trust and respect that I have strived for generations to build."
Elizabeth dipped her hands deeper into the tub of blood and sprinkled some of the scarlet fluid over her breasts. "Really, Dracula. I am surprised at how much you care for these villagers."
"I told you from the very first day to use only those in the larders to sate your hunger, but since you appear not to have listened, I shall explain to you once more how things are done within my castle. But believe me, Elizabeth, when I say that this is the last time I will warn you. Times have changed greatly since you were alive, and you must learn to adapt your ways to them. You will follow my wishes or there will be dire repercussions for you. If not from the local villagers, themselves, then from me. Do you understand my meaning?"
Elizabeth merely smiled faintly as she looked up at him with a distinctly guarded expression. Taking her attention for what it was worth, he continued, his voice becoming louder and angrier as he went along.
"You will leave the humans with enough blood in their bodies that they can be drunk from again -- as soon as they have replaced what you have taken, like the accomodating blood-making vessels they are. You are not to kill them to indulge in your wasteful and perverse avocation! As I've pointed out before, you no longer need worry about replenishing your skin. You will not age. You will remain young and beautiful forever. Therefore, there will be no more bloodbaths!"
He picked up the lifeless servant girl and threw her out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. Silently waiting in the bedroom, Victor jumped to the side to avoid being hit by the girl's body. Dracula's rage escalated further as he heard Elizabeth answer his anger with a taunting laugh.
Without any shame, she stood up naked before them all in the porcelain tub filled with the crimson liquid. The male minion, whom Elizabeth had selected to replace her maidservant, rushed to her side.
Her open defiance in killing Dracula's female servant contrary to his wishes, coupled by her choice of a male replacement, was like a hard slap in Dracula's face. Pulling out the plug from the bathtub, the servant turned on the shower for his mistress.
Elizabeth moved sensuously into the spray. Slowly, laboriously, and still without a word of response to Dracula, she removed the red stain that covered her body as the blood of several virgin girls quickly drained from the tub and into the sewers below.
Once she was clean, Elizabeth motioned to her servant to turn the water off. As Dracula impatiently waited for her concession to his demands, she stepped out of the tub. Her servant dried her and dressed her in a soft, white nightgown.
"Now, Dracula -- or do you prefer Vlad? You never did say." She ran her fingers through her wet hair as she waited for his reply.
"Dracula," he said through clenched teeth.
"Very well, Dracula," she said his name again in that voice which felt to him like chalk scratching on a blackboard. A half-grin parted her lips as she walked past him and into her bedroom.
Lashing out in anger, Dracula slammed her servant into the stone wall. Victor, who had been listening to their argument with much interest from the bedroom, was happy to stay out of his master's path of rage. He still held out hope that he'd be rewarded with the dark gift and didn't want to do anything that might risk it.
"My dear Dracula, it is a wonder how far you have progressed despite that temper."
"My temper, dear Elizabeth, is not the problem. I am sorry to say that I find myself regretting the decision I made to include you in my plans."
"Yes, dear Dracula, about your plans." She walked to a small vanity table, and noting that her servant was lying unconscious on the floor, she let out a frustrated sigh and picked up a turtle shell brush. Angered at having to attend to herself, she sat down on the bed and slowly began to work the tangles out of her wet hair.
"I really do think we need to talk about them. I wonder why you hid your army several furlongs from the castle. Surely they are strong enough to begin your plans to conquer this -- wait, what exactly is it that you wish to conquer?"
She turned to face him, feigning a look of pure innocence. Her beauty was ethereal, and for a moment Dracula recalled why he had desired that she rule by his side. He sank down onto the bed in front of her and pressed his forehead to hers, sharing a calm moment in hope of developing some solidarity.
That moment was soon shattered and lost when her incessant, taunting laughter returned just before she spoke again.
"Is it the whole world that you wish to conquer? Quite a large feat, and yet it makes me wonder why you have not tried to accomplish this before? Perhaps it is because you need someone strong of mind, who is not so quick to lose her temper. Someone like me?"
Pulling the brush through her hair, she softly added, "Or perhaps it is only now that you have realized your plans are imperfect. My dear Dracula, I, more than anyone, know how to treat humans. After what they did to me, I wish to eradicate all of those lowly beings who took me from this world. Especially the rich and the powerful, who know not what true power is."
As Dracula began to voice a protest, this time it was Elizabeth who disallowed an interruption.
"No, my sweetness, your plans are not big enough to suit my needs. But you will not have to worry; I learned much on the subtleties of war from Count Ferencz, my husband in my previous life. Of course, I learned even more from my manservant Thorko. He is the one who introduced me into the black arts."
Dracula rose from the bed and strode across the room as he scoffed, "We cannot eradicate the entire human race, you little fool! I assure you that your fine tastes will not be satisfied with animal blood."
Dracula took a step closer to her. "I do not need your advice on how to use my army, dear Elizabeth. The plans have already been drawn and have begun to be implemented. Your only function here is to serve as my companion. You are to sit by my side and --"
Elizabeth bolted up from the bed. "I am sorry, dear Dracula, but you presume too much. I am Elizabeth Bathory. Regardless of what you may think, I will always be known as the Blood Countess. That has not been changed by any spell of your construction. I, too, once ruled this land! Never forget that!"
Dracula pointed to the two dead girls lying on the floor. "And it is because of your abominable obsession that you died before your time. I am giving you the opportunity to start over again, Elizabeth. No longer need you fear the piercing of time's sword. I have given you that gift. All I ask is that you honor me by accepting the noble position as the queen of my new kingdom."
"Your kingdom? In that statement, my dear Dracula, lies the problem."
Dracula fought to keep calm in the face of such a strong-willed woman. He would try one more time to explain to her his magnificent plans.
"It is true that for many years I had no desire for more than to rule my immediate surroundings, however, it is now time to expand my dominion. While you were mouldering in your grave, my darling, I worked hard to build an army worthy to carry my name. Even now, my soldiers travel further away to obtain more stock to fill my larders. For with a larger army, comes a larger appetite. Once they have grown strong enough, I will ravish this land!"
Dracula's entire countenance shone with the fervor of his words. "I will once again rule with an iron fist, just as I did in the past. My army will vanquish all of my enemies worldwide. I will create a world where Dracula's name will once again instill fear in the hearts of our chattel. For once my army is done, herds of humans will exist only to fill my larders. And you, dear Elizabeth, have been chosen by me to sit by my side. Are you not awed by what you have already seen and by the sheer magnitude of what I have planned?"
"I see but one large flaw in your marvelous plan," she softly said. "The one who should rightfully lead this great army is relegated to sit idly by the side of a fool and a madman."
Her flood of sharp words finally broke through his dam of tolerance. Dracula rushed towards her, intentions of murder flashing in his dark eyes. How dare she disrespect him so boldly in his own castle! He was surprised when she deftly avoided his attack. Spinning around, Dracula saw her standing across the room.
She had quickly learned how to use her vampire powers. The enhanced spell that he had used had seen to that. He had not only made her younger than when she had originally died, but he had used another spell from the scrolls that Victor brought back to make her power nearly equal to his own.
Dracula was definitely regretting his decision. The Blood Countess was proving to be more of a deficit than an asset.
"I give you fair warning, woman. Your position is not as secure as you might think. Someone very powerful and daring will soon visit my castle. It is he whom I have chosen to lead my soldiers throughout my great war. This land will run again with the blood of my enemies. Regardless of whether you choose to stand by me or not, my war will begin, and when it ends, it will be I who bathes in the blood of all who stand against me.
Spinning on his heels, the count stormed out of the room. Victor quickly followed him but paused at the doorway, gazing back at the beautiful Elizabeth. He could see she was unfazed by Dracula's tirade. Calling for her servant, who was beginning to rouse despite his injuries, she began to dress.
His master's plans for Elizabeth may have just altered, since she was rapidly becoming a hindrance. Victor had hoped to see his master kill the Blood Countess, but that did not happen. Elizabeth had managed to hold her ground against the great Count Dracula. Victor shook his head in wonder; no one else had ever survived after defying his master. Perhaps his new mistress could be more valuable than he had first thought.
Since Victor's return from Hungary, all that his master seemed to talk about was Elizabeth and Spike. Dracula had already made it clear that once Spike visited the castle, the plan was to try to woo the souled vampire into leading the dark army.
But that was what Victor dreamed of doing! Once his master carried out the long-awaited promise to turn him, he felt his reward for all his loyal years of service would be to help Dracula in his noble cause. To be a general in his dark army.
Unfortunately, his master told him that now was not the time for his dark gift. Victor's thirst to become a vampire parched his throat dry. He worried that if he waited too long to receive his gift, he might become a part of his master's larder instead of a valued ally.
"Victor!" Dracula called to him.
Victor turned from the doorway and took a few steps down the hallway. "Yes, Master?"
"Plans have changed. I want you to go and appease our villagers. Tell them what they want to hear. Make certain to say that Count Dracula assures them that they will be safe from further harm. Let them know that I myself have killed the cowardly foreign renegades who stole into our lands and murdered their innocent young women. Once you return, you are to prepare the castle for Spike's visit. I want him to feel as comfortable as possible. Go now, Victor!"
With his command given, Dracula turned his back on Victor and resumed his trek down the hallway. In seconds, he was gone from sight.
Victor gazed back into Elizabeth's room. He lingered, hesitant to make the decisive move that might determine his fate. His thoughts were troubled by what his master may have planned for his future. He feared that his dream of an eternal life as a vampire was slipping away from him. Perhaps he should move boldly right now.
Shaking his head, Victor decided it was too soon to approach Elizabeth with the idea of a coup. He would need to acquire some very valuable information to convince her that he was worthy of an alliance. Until he discovered something that would be a noteworthy asset, something crucial enough to entice Elizabeth into siring him, he would have to very carefully bide his time, while simultaneously remaining useful to Dracula.
With that in mind, Victor left for the village to obey his master's command.
The afternoon following the magical transfer of Illyria's imminently explosive, Fred-shell threatening powers into the blue quartz box, which was now an artifact for The Offering, Spike's team met up once more with the Hungarian team in the gorgeous lobby of the Gellert Hotel. They all exchanged greetings and asked after each other's wounds before separating into smaller conversations.
Sarolt swiftly engaged her fellow Slayer, Mena, in talk of a shopping excursion. Mena turned an eager face to her Watcher, hoping for his approval.
"Xander, since Dawn won't be arriving until late this aftenoon, would it be all right if I go shopping with Sarolt for just an hour or two? She knows about a couple of fantastic shops really near the hotel. I promise not to spend much, and I'll be back very soon."
"Sure," Xander laughed. "I won't be worried about you with Sarolt at your side. You two can certainly watch each other's backs. It's the shopkeepers who might need protection from teen-aged girls with bargains on their minds."
"Thanks," Mena smiled in appreciation and turned toward the exit with Sarolt.
"I'll see you back at the house later this afternoon, Grandfather," Sarolt called over her shoulder to Akos and grinned at Mena. "I really wish we could go with you to deal with Count Dracula, but the Council wants us to stay here to make sure there are no aftershocks from the Hellmouth sealing."
"You know the Council -- always better safe than sorry with them." Mena rolled her eyes, in a gesture of adolescent sisterhood, forgetting for the moment that she usually thought the same thing.
"I know," nodded Sarolt. "They also seem to think that some demons in the surrounding area might have heard about the plan to open it and could show up here, hoping to find things in turmoil. If so, they might cause some havoc on their own out of disappointment."
The last words heard from Mena before the doors closed behind the girls were, "Sorry you can't come with us, though. I can't help being excited at the opportunity to actually meet the infamous Count Drac--"
Balasz shook his head and sighed, "Teenagers. They think only of the dark, Gothic romance of the novel and the cinematic dramatizations rather than the treachery and cunning of the creature himself."
Spike raised an eyebrow and gave Haley an amused look but didn't embarrass her in front of her fellow Watcher by revealing her own romantic notions about the count.
"I met the creep in Sunnydale a few years ago," said Xander, "and have no desire to ever see him again. But since the Council says otherwise, I'll do my duty as a Watcher. There is no "I" in team, as they say -- which is a good thing, since I already gave up one eye for the team to another evil manipulator."
At Haley's look, Xander quickly added, "I know. I know. Bad joke. And the Council did make sure that I got a state of the art replacement, so really not grumbling. What have you got there, Balasz?"
"I've brought you copies of my reports on Dracula's recent activities," said Balasz as he offered a large manila envelope to Haley. "He doesn't often travel far from the area surrounding his property in Bistritz. Perhaps we could take a seat over there in the corner of the lobby to discuss him and your plans? I've also brought you some good maps with indications of the better roads to Transylvania and easiest route to Castle Drakul."
"You're very kind," said Haley. "We'll appreciate any insight or assistance you can provide us." She and Xander walked with Balazs toward the seating he had indicated.
That left only Spike, Illyria and Akos standing together. Akos nodded once in Spike's direction and turned to Illyria, who was, as usual when in public, wearing Fred's human face, hair and clothing.
"I am so very happy that we were able to work the magic in a way that allowed you to keep your ability to commune with the green. I could sense how much that power means to you," said the shaman.
"Yes, thank you," said Illyria in a manner so gracious that Spike was both surprised and touched. It was quite unlike her. Maybe Blue was not only learning how to behave like the human she appeared to be while wearing Fred's guise, but was actually internalizing the feelings that accompanied such behavior.
"I would have missed that power more than any other," Illyria continued. "I shall remember you fondly for having spared me its loss."
"It was my honor as a taltos to use my gift with magic to assist an Old One," said Akos before taking a deep breath and offering his hand to Spike.
"I thank you, too, Akos, for what you did for Blue here," said Spike as he shook the shaman's hand.
"I'm too old and set in my ways to ever feel comfortable in the company of a vampire, but I admire the amazing efforts you have made to redeem yourself. I sincerely hope you continue on that path."
"That's the plan," confirmed Spike. "Luckily for me, got plenty of mates bent on helping me stay on the straight and narrow. Understand that you lost friends and family members to vampires. Spent time in Budapest in the past and may have been responsible, myself, for one or more of your losses. Was evil for a long time; can't possibly make up for all the pain and suffering I've caused. No reason for you to want to be my friend."
"Then we'll part as two acquaintances with common goals -- the destruction of evil and the protection of all who we can manage to help." Akos adjusted his gaze to include Illyria as he added, "I wish your team luck with your artifact gathering. Should you need assistance with the magic when it comes time for The Offering, do not hesitate to call upon Balazs and myself."
"I'll make sure Rupert and the rest of the Council know of your willingness to help," said Spike. "Got a helluva powerful witch on our team, and the Devon coven is prepared to assist, but we all know that magic is always a risk. Might need all hands on deck for this one."
"We'll be ready," assured Akos who nodded to them both once more and then walked slowly across the lobby and out the door.
"So, Blue. Not really up for more yammering about the cape-wearing, gypsy-loving Count Poofy Shirt. Are you?" He indicated the three Watchers, deep in conversation in the corner of the lobby.
"What do you have in mind?" asked Illyria.
"If there's nothing good on the telly, how about you and me playing another friendly game of cards? You caught on right quick to five card draw, but there are lots of variations in poker playing."
"If you are certain that you do not mind losing again, Spike, I am willing to trounce you once more."
Spike chuckled as he flung an arm around Illyria's shoulders and led her toward the elevator.
"That was just what's known as beginner's luck, Blue. And I was trying to keep you interested by letting you win most of the hands. Things'll get more interesting now that you've got the gist of it all."
An hour later, when Xander and Haley arrived upstairs, Spike and Illyria were in the midst of a game that had see-sawed back and forth but currently had them at a nearly even status. By the time Mena returned to the room, Haley was acting as the dealer of a blackjack game at which Xander was steadily losing, but with Spike and Illyria neck-to-neck.
By the end of the afternoon, they were all bored with cards and impatient for Dawn to arrive. Haley immersed herself in the reports Balazs had given them, but the others had succumbed to the antics of children trapped indoors on a rainy summer's day.
Haley glared angrily at Xander.
"Sorry," he whispered.
Haley now turned her angry gaze on Mena.
"Sorry," she apologized.
Haley let out a small cough but only sweetly smiled at Illyria. She heard Xander sing, "Someone's teacher's pet."
Haley now directed her look of wrath at Spike.
An exasperated sigh escaped from Spike's lips. "Haley, it's bloody boring waiting for Dawn to arrive to retrieve Blue's Mojo, and this is the only sodding place we can play!"
Haley was currently seated on the couch in the sitting room between the two bedrooms. Glancing just to her left, she saw the dartboard that Spike had drawn on the wallpaper. Four garlic darts were embedded in the makeshift target. Spike, Xander, Illyria, and Mena were amusing themselves by playing a game of darts on the hotel wall.
"As I said before, the Council is not paying to have that plaster repaired," Haley said in an angry huff.
Spike stormed towards the opposite wall. Grabbing a painting that hung there, he marched back to the couch where Haley was sitting. A pleased smile graced his face.
"Already got it sussed out. Before we go, we just pop this here painting over the holes, and no one's the wiser."
"I'll know," Haley growled.
Leaning down towards Haley, Spike said, "Well, then, if they do find out, we won't have far to look for the one who snitched."
Crossing her arms, she scowled even more as she said, "When is Ms. Summers supposed to arrive?"
Mena checked her watch. "Actually, Dawn should have been here an hour ago."
Haley jumped from the couch. She grabbed the dart that Xander had just thrown and pulled it out of the wall. Spinning around, she stomped over to Xander and wagged the dart in his face.
"Can't you find something better to do? We just played cards for a couple of hours, so we all should be putting in a little work time now. I really do feel that we should be going over the maps of Transylvania that Balasz gave us."
"Aw, Haley," Xander moaned. "Too much work makes for very dull world savers. And we're...uh, we're doing the hotel a service!" he brightly added as he elbowed Spike in the stomach.
"Right, Spike?" Xander's eyes darted cautiously toward Haley before they implored Spike to indicate his agreement.
"Oh, yeah. Right, then," Spike said. "We aren't really playing darts; we're inoculating the hotel to protect it against vampires." He grinned at his lame explanation, still hoping to win her over.
Haley held her ground. She gripped Xander's dart tightly in her hand as she cast her eyes from one to the other, waiting for one of the four to back her up. Validation came from perhaps the least likely source.
"Humans do seem to squander an inordinate amount of time on trivial pursuits," agreed Illyria. "Vampires, as well, although they have more time to waste. Still, with The Offering only a month away, it would seem you should be more focused, Spike."
Shrugging his shoulders in defeat, Spike leaped over one of the lounge chairs and collapsed into its cushions. He draped one leg over an arm of the chair and began to spin a dart around in his hands.
"Haley, you can take the fun out of funeral," he grumbled.
"I know. It's a gift, actually," she declared proudly.
Finally achieving her goal, Haley quickly rushed over to the small table at the far side of the room. She emptied out a plastic bag that held several maps of Transylvania that she had purchased earlier in the week.
"Come along, everyone. We really do need to get a lay of the land, and I bought enough maps for everyone to get very familiar with the area."
"Been there," Spike sighed. Crossing his arms, he lay his head back and closed his eyes. "Not much to talk about. Lots of trees, grass, beer, trees, mountains, and oh, did I mention they have a lot of bleeding trees?"
"Well, that's a lovely description, Spike. I'm sure Xander would have no trouble at all finding Dracula's castle with those explicit directions."
Spike breathed in deeply. "Hmm, nothing like the scent of sarcasm to get you going in the morning."
Not getting the movie reference, Illyria pointed out the obvious. "It is late afternoon, Spike," she said as she began to open the maps that Haley had provided. "I cannot wait to meet this Dracula. From everything you have told me, he will be a formidable opponent."
"I can wait," Xander meekly said as he stepped over to where Spike was sitting.
Opening his eyes, Spike saw the distressed look on Xander's face and remembered that his friend had actually begged for a quick death if he fell under Dracula's thrall again. Jumping out of his chair, Spike placed a consoling hand on Xander's shoulder.
"Forewarned is forearmed, mate. Let's try to find out some more about Smokey."
"I assume that you are speaking of Dracula," Haley called out from the table. "Do you have many more pet names for him?"
"Just the tip of the iceberg, love," Spike replied as he and Xander joined the others around the small table. Spike's leather coat hung over the back of an available chair. Haley picked it up and handed it to him, so that no one would sit on it.
"Thanks, pet," he smiled and quickly slipped it on. Haley then smoothed out a large map and pointed to its center.
"That is the city of Brasov. It was the original location for Dracula's castle, Poienari. Only ruins remain of this once grand residence today."
Her finger moved north. "Dracula now resides in Bistritz. It is a city located in the northern part of Transylvania. The Bistritz River flows nearby. History says that when Vlad Tepes III was alive, he managed to escape from the Turks through the Borgo pass to the east. Rodnei, Caliman and the Suhard Mountains surround the area. The Carpathian Mountains lie to the east."
Spike sniffed. "Told you there were mountains."
"Bistritz -- I believe that is where Bram Stoker placed Dracula in his novel," Mena said.
"Well done, Mena," Haley praised her. "That is correct, and I hear that Dracula has taken advantage of the location. Occasionally, he even puts on a show for the tourists who, of course, assume he is just an actor playing the infamous count."
"Bloody blighter's been making money off of that novel for years," Spike mumbled. "With all the money he's raked in, you'd think he'd pay me back what he owes me."
Everyone jumped at the sound of a dart hitting the wall behind them. They all turned to find a new dart embedded in the target. Haley's face paled in shock.
"Who...who threw that?" she stammered. Since everyone in the room was standing next to her, she knew they couldn't have tossed the dart.
Xander softly whispered, "Maybe the hotel is haunted?"
"Maybe it's the ghost from Christmas past?" Spike suggested. "I was hoping that they hadn't bleeding given up on warming your cold, fun-thwarting heart, Haley."
"Oh, no," cried Mena. "No more hotel ghosts. I've already dealt with more than enough of them this summer."
A small giggle suddenly filled the air. It came from the room that Spike and Xander shared. Rushing to the bedroom, all were glad and pleasantly surprised to find a chuckling Dawn standing in the room.
"Dawnie!" Xander gushed, hurrying towards her. He immediately fell to the ground as something hit him hard.
Illyria and Spike rushed to Xander's side, where they saw a large demon with a lion's face standing protectively in front of Dawn. Both Spike and Illyria were about to attack the demon when Dawn suddenly shouted.
"It's okay, Aloysius! That's Xander. I told you about him."
The large demon stepped back and shrank smaller until it was barely as tall as Dawn. Its facial features changed slowly to something much closer to a human's. Cupping his hands in front, he gave no explanation for his actions.
"Who's he, and why is it always me who ends up with my ass on the ground?" Xander moaned.
"Demon magnet lives up to his reputation," Spike teased as Illyria helped Xander up off the floor.
"I'm so sorry, Xander," Dawn apologized. "Aloysius was told to protect me, and he's a bit too eager to do his job."
"What is he?" Mena asked. She had been very intrigued when he transformed from a lion-faced demon to a man.
"He's a Singa Demon," Dawn explained, "from Indonesia. They live in the Sumatra Mountains, and the name means lion. From what I hear, he has the heart of one. He's a shapeshifter. As you saw, he's also a great bodyguard."
Spike nodded his head in agreement. "Rupert knows what he's doing. You might need a strong bodyguard to take Illyria's mojo back to England."
Squinting his eyes and cocking his head, Spike took a step closer to the demon. "Aloysius?"
"Got a problem with that?" the demon rumbled.
Spike struggled to hold back a grin. "Oh, no. That's a great name for a bodyguard. It's sure to strike fear in--" Pausing, he asked, "Who exactly does it strike fear in?"
Aloysius rolled his eyes. "This coming from a vampire named after a punk hairdo."
"Hey!" Spike shouted. "I am not named after a bloody punk hairdo."
"Oh, then it must be after a dog; that's so much better."
"A dog!" Spike snarled. He rushed towards Aloysius who rushed towards him.
"Guys!" Dawn shouted as she squeezed herself between them. "Let's not fight."
"Dawn, I can't believe that this is the guy you had me look like on our way over here," Aloysius said. Suddenly, he morphed into an exact duplicate of Spike. Right down to his leather coat and black boots.
Spike was very surprised to see he was staring at -- himself. Tugging Dawn out of his way, he gazed eye to eye with his duplicate. Aloysius was identical to him in every way. They inspected each other warily as they executed a complete circle.
Taking in a deep breath, Spike asked, "Am I really that short?"
"Oh, hey!" Dawn babbled. "Speaking of names--"
Both Spikes now turned to face Dawn. They asked in unison, "Who was speaking of names?"
Spike whirled around to face Aloysius/Spike again. "Stop that," they both said. "You're getting me bloody angry," everyone heard them say in perfect unison.
"What do you know -- Spike stereo," Xander quipped.
"Names!" Dawn blurted out. "Buffy and I were wondering if you guys picked a name for your team. You know, like the Scoobies, only less lame."
She grinned widely and moved closer to one of the Spikes. Elbowing him in the side, she whispered, "Aloysius, I told you not to let anyone know I asked you to look like Spike during our trip here."
Leaning close to her ear, he whispered back, "Nice to know you still care, Nibblet."
The color drained from her face as she saw the other Spike's face morph into Aloysius.
"Just kill me now," Dawn sighed.
"You guys were wondering about us naming our group?" Xander asked. "The others aren't calling themselves The Scoobies, are they? Cause that would just be wrong. I mean, I'm here, and Willow's still in Brazil"
"No. We're calling them the Globetrotters, or just the Trotters, for short. Andrew wanted to call them The Scoobie-Twos because he'd always wanted to be one of the Scoobs, but Buffy said, 'No way'. She said the only Scoobies were her original friends from Sunnydale, and since Sunnydale was gone, that name should rest with it."
"Okay, then," said Xander. "I'm on board with that decision. The Globetrotters, huh? Buffy suddenly take up basketball?"
"Don't be silly, Xander," said Mena. "I'm sure it's because that team has been jetting all over the world to so many exotic locations, right?"
"Right," confirmed Dawn. "At first, Andrew came up with a gazillion stupid names that apparently had to do with superheroes and comic books, but we finally settled on the Trotters. And we thought you guys should get to create your own."
"That could be fun!" enthused Mena.
"At first, Giles just referred to you guys as 'the other team', but Buffy, Vi, Andrew and I were always calling you 'Spike's team'. After a while, Giles began to call you that, too."
"Even old Rupert acknowledged me as the team's leader, eh?" mused Spike. "Bet that ate at his craw a mite." Spike couldn't help but let the idea pump up his pride a bit.
"Who says you're the leader?" challenged Xander. "Why not me or Haley?"
"Hey, it wasn't me calling us 'Spike's team'. Not like it's some bloody great honor, anyway."
"If that is the case, then I would like to suggest Haley's Heroes," said Haley.
"Wait a minute. Why not Xander's... uh... Xander's...?"
"Mena's Minions!" called out Mena. When she received blank stares from everyone, she squeaked, "Mena's Marauders?"
"I realize that I have only recently offered my assistance to your team, but I am the natural leader, of course. I am Illyria, god-king of the--"
"Yeah, yeah. We know, Blue. Hey, Blue's Crew wouldn't be so bloody bad. Or the Blue Meanies!" Spike laughed.
"Xander's Zanies? Okay, even I know that sucks. Maybe the team name shouldn't be for just one of us. Doesn't that defeat the whole idea of a team? We could make a name from the first letter of each of our names -- like SHMIX. Or SHIXM?"
"Sounds like a Jewish Momma took over your bleeding brain, you daft git."
"Then XMISH," suggested Xander, not willing to give up on the idea.
"Maybe you'd be better off with a more generic name, like the Globetrotters, only one that suits you guys," said Dawn.
Xander's chest puffed out a bit, "Well, I was thinking of The Hero Unit. My folks moved to Atlanta, so my Dad could work with my Uncle Rory after Sunnydale became a giant crater. I noticed Atlanta has these signs on the expressways of who to call if your vehicle breaks down and you need help. They've got this special squad called The Hero Unit."
"Yeah, right," Spike said. "You would think of a poncy name like that."
"What would you suggest we call ourselves, then, The Deadbeaters?" Xander snapped back.
"How about Knights of the Living Dead?" Mena offered. "Or Bravehearts?"
"With our track record, maybe we should call ourselves the Band of Buggered," Spike mumbled.
"What about the Soul Squad," Dawn said, "or The Soulsters or The Fang-Fighters? You know, like the rock band, The Foo-Fighters, except you fight fangs instead of...foo."
"Or The Stake-Sisters," said Haley. "Oh, that wouldn't quite cover all of us, would it?"
"If the name has to represent only some of us," said Spike, "I learned enough about Haley's past love-life during our night at the pub to know that she rivals Xander and me for this title -- we could go with "Love's Bitches".
"Speak for yourself, Spike," replied Xander. "You can keep that title for your very own."
"Ha, bloody ha, Spike," said Haley. "I do think the name should reflect us all, anyway -- including Mena and Illy."
The room was soon filled with the sound of suggestions for team names as they all talked at once, trying to be heard over each other. Everyone grew quiet when Mena suddenly declared in a very loud voice, "I've got it!"
"What've you got, love?" Spike asked.
Grinning from ear to ear, Mena said, "Well, I do think that Spike is sort of our leader, even though we all work together. After all, he was the one to continue the fight against evil in another apocalyptic battle in LA just one year after sacrificing himself to close the Sunnydale Hellmouth. And apparently, The Powers That Be are looking out for him and depending on him to make sure The Offering goes off without a hitch. So I think we should honor his legend as a part of our name."
"Sounds good to me," Spike said.
"Oh, goody, now you're going to name your whole team after a dog," Aloysius softly said.
"For the last time, I am not named after a bloody--" Spike roared.
Mena interrupted him as she shouted. "Big B.A.D.S.!"
"Big Bads?" everyone in the room chorused.
"Oh, great, that's even better," Aloysius said. "I knew you'd name yourselves after a dog."
When he received confused looks, he explained. "Big bad, you know, as in who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Wolf, aka: dog, aka: peroxide-haired vampire."
"Actually," said Haley, "Wolves are of the species Canis Lupus and considered lupines rather than canines, but close enough, I guess, for your joke, Aloysius."
Dawn saw anger flash across Spike's face and realized that Aloysius and Spike definitely were not going to be drinking buddies.
"Not just Big Bads," Mena explained. "It's an acronym for Big Bad Ass Demon Slayers! Big B.A.D.S."
"Hey, that's pretty good," Xander said.
"Actually, I really like that name," Haley said.
"What do you think, Illy?" Xander asked her. He had noticed that she had been eyeing Dawn ever since she first saw her.
"The name is most pleasing to me as well, Xander," Illyria said.
"Is something wrong?" he asked her.
"Maybe she's wondering why no one has introduced us," said Dawn. She walked up to Illyria who was currently in her 'blue mood', since she was within the privacy of their hotel room.
Dawn studied the woman with awe because she had been told that Illyria used to be a god. During the flight to Budapest, she had felt a bit scared about meeting Illyria. She hoped that this ex-god was nothing like Glory. Even though Glory was gone, Dawn knew she would forever be 'the key'.
She knew that her entire existence was due only to her ability to open up a portal to a dimension that led to a world filled with nightmares and demons -- although she did not actually know how to use that ability.
Even though she was a god, Glory had failed in her attempt to use Dawn's 'keyness'. Buffy had sacrificed her life to kill Glory, and may believe the danger was over, but Dawn always felt deep inside that her story as the key had not ended forever with Glory's death.
Dawn timidly introduced herself. "Hello, I'm Dawn." Illyria studied Dawn with fascination.
"This is the one you said was the key, Xander," Illyria stated. "I can see why. She glows so brightly."
Dawn felt fear rush through her heart. Illyria was an Old One. Would she want to use her to open a portal just as Glory had? It was Spike who was able to dispel her fears.
"Don't worry, Nibblet. Illyria is nothing like Glory. She's had her wings clipped." He handed Dawn the small, blue quartz box.
Dawn knew this box was what she was supposed to take to the Devon Coven for safekeeping. She also knew that some of Illyria's power was contained within this vessel. Holding the box carefully in both hands, she was surprised to actually feel heat radiating from it.
Nervously giggling, she turned her gaze back to Illyria and said, "I bet you get a lot of stares walking out in public like that. Maybe you guys should choose another name for your team that sounds like a rock band. You know, as a cover? So people will accept the way Illyria looks more easily. We could still call you the Big B.A.D.S. whenever we talk about you amongst ourselves."
"They have convinced me to use my Fred-shell when we go out in public, but I prefer to be myself whenever possible," said Illyria. She morphed quickly into her Fred guise and back again to show Dawn.
"Wow! She can shape shift just like you, Aloysius."
"Impressive," he said. "You shift very quickly."
"Thank you, but I have only the two guises. I imagine you have many in your repertoire."
"Actually, we have occasionally told people that we're a rock band," Mena said, "so that Illy can pass for a rock star."
"Great! What's your rock band name?"
"So far, no one ever asked us, but we should probably have a name ready," agreed Xander. "And it would be nice for Illy to be able to be her lovely blue self more often."
"Then why don't you call your fake band The Midnight Blues?" suggested Dawn.
A smile appeared on Illyria's face as she heard the lovely name and realized she would no longer need to wear her Fred-features all the time.
"That is perfect, Dawn," Haley said. "Well, I think we've had a very productive day. We've named our team appropriately and given ourselves a trendy, pop culture alias as well. Not only that, but we successfully handed over Illyria's power for safekeeping and also managed to learn quite a bit for our upcoming drive to Dracula's castle. All in all, not too shabby for a day's work."
"Oh!" Dawn said. "I almost forgot. Buffy has a message for you, Spike. She said to kick Dracula's ass."
"Tell her to consider Count Poof-ula's ass well and truly kicked," he replied.
"Honestly, is there no end to your pet names?" Haley moaned.
"As a wise man once said," Spike replied. "I got a million of 'em."
"Can you stay for a while, Dawn?" Mena asked. Being the youngest of the group, she hungered to be around others her own age. Even though Dawn had been rather bitchy in Ann Arbor, she appeared to have gotten over whatever had been bugging her back then.
"Our plane doesn't leave until tomorrow," Dawn happily declared.
"Fantastic," Mena said. "You can tell us stories about all the artifacts the Globetrotters have acquired."
"Oh, I've got a great one about the Incan artifact that caused them a lot of trouble in Peru," offered Dawn.
Xander was also happy to hear Dawn would be staying overnight. "We've got some catching up to do."
As they moved into the sitting area, they all heard Aloysius softly singing, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf."
"Until we find out if Mr. Riding Hood is house trained," Spike snarked, "we'd best put some papers on the floor."
"I'll just use yours," was Aloysius's snappy comeback.
Spike decided to let Aloysius get away with his remarks for now -- one snarky bloke to another. It was just so great to have Dawn around. After she'd had some time to share stories with the group, he was determined to get a little alone time with her -- no matter what it took to convince the bloody bodyguard.
Contented grins blossomed on all their faces. They now had a name, something to bind them even further together in their cause. For now, they were with friends, and for a moment, just for this moment, they all felt safe. It was a feeling that they would try to hold onto for as long as possible, for they knew that soon all that would change, and reality would rush back into their lives.
After more than an hour of funny stories from Dawn about some of the experiences the Globetrotters had while obtaining the artifacts on their list, they all went out to dinner. By the time dinner was over, and they had returned to the hotel, Aloysius was convinced that Dawn would be safe if she went out alone with Spike. So the shapeshifting bodyguard agreed to stay behind with the others, playing cards, to give Spike and Dawn a chance to talk privately.
The two old friends left the Gellert Hotel and walked slowly, side by side, down the beautiful Budapest streets near the Danube River, enjoying the pleasant summer evening and each other's company.
"I don't know if you realize just how much I've missed you, Spike. Things were so messed up our last year in Sunnydale that we never really talked, and I think I missed that most of all. We had gotten so close during that summer while Buffy was...well, you know. You were the one I confided in and counted on, but by the end of that year, I lost that. And it was devastating."
"Sorry, Dawn. I--"
"No, you really don't need to apologize for that ever again, Spike. If only I'd pushed Buffy into explaining things sooner, I could've understood what happened and gotten over it. I'm just sorry that I wasted that whole next year being so angry with you that I wouldn't allow myself to even talk with you."
"Was certainly a right mess, myself, when I first came back. Wouldn't have been much of a conversationalist."
"Yeah, but see, I should've been there to help you out of your depression and confusion the way that you had helped me handle Buffy's death."
Spike shook his head. "I was beyond confused and depressed, pet. Barmy as a loon and under The First's bloody evil thumb. Not that your friendship and affection wouldn't have helped some, but don't fret over it. Took a lot more than you could've given me to break free from that evil wanker. Let's forget the past and focus on the now -- that's a philosophy I've been struggling to adopt as my new overall outlook on life."
Dawn nodded enthusiastically. "Sounds good to me. When this whole artifact gathering and Offering thing is over, I would love for all of us to spend some lengthy, in-depth time together -- really get to know each other all over again. Maybe you and Buffy and I could even move in together somewhere."
Spike smiled at her straightforward attitude. No mincing words for his Nibblet.
"Missed you, too, Bit. All of us getting together sounds great, but you should at least run it by Buffy first. You know how she can get sometimes. She doesn't like to be left out of the loop."
"Spike, I have talked to Buffy. She is very serious about you. I've never seen her so committed to anything. She wants to have a real relationship -- an honest and sincere relationship this time. No secrets. She loves you very much, Spike."
Dawn moved even closer to him, leaned in and wrapped her arm around his waist as they walked. Spike laid his arm loosely around her shoulders in happy response.
"I really love her, too, Dawn. Want things to work out between us so much I can hardly sleep some nights. Not like me to be so full of hope, at least not coupled with a sense that my hopes may actually be realized this time. Got so used to losing. But I've also learned that I can bloody well handle it if things don't go the way I want. Can carry on with the good fight on my own, if it comes to that. Reckon it might be that faith in myself was what I was lacking and what kept me floundering about like some git. May actually be worth loving now."
"You proved yourself worthy of my love years ago, you dork." Dawn looked up to meet the beautiful blue eyes of the vampire who had once been her best friend. She resolved to do everything in her power to rebuild that friendship.
"You wanna hear something I never admitted to you before?" she asked him.
Spike nodded his head. "Of course. You can tell me anything, Dawn. I hope you know that."
"Once I finally got over my girlish crush on you--" At his raised eyebrow, she smirked and quickly continued.
"Yes, I had a crush on you, Spike. Don't act like you didn't know. You had to know; everyone else did. But, once I got over it, I realized how much you loved Buffy. Ever since then, I've been hoping you two would stop annoying the hell out of each other long enough to figure out what a cool couple you could be. I actually used to fantasize about us becoming a real family, Spike."
"Yeah. I mean, we might as well, since I already think of you as my big brother. Who knows? Maybe we could even make it official someday and add an "in-law" to that title."
Now both of Spike's eyebrows were raised, along with a serious head tilt. Spike was very touched by everything Dawn had just said. He stopped walking and pulled Dawn into an impromptu hug as he struggled to find the right words.
"You already know that I love Buffy very much. There isn't a whole lot I wouldn't do for her. You either, for that matter. I love you, too, Dawn! Always had a soft spot where my Nibblet was concerned. Know you've grown several inches since I first met you, but you'll always be my Lil Bit!"
Dawn grinned. "Don't tell anybody else, but I've always loved that nickname. You can call me that, or Nibblet, forever, as far as I'm concerned -- even when I've become a wrinkled, white-haired, old crone who needs to crank up her hearing aid to be able to hear you say it."
Spike kissed her forehead and said, "You'll be a lovely lady at any age, Bit. You feel like family to me, too, and I will always protect you. No matter what! Even if the worst happens, and Buffy and I can't make a go of it for whatever reason." He could see an argument coming.
"Nah-ah-ah. We both know that things between your sister and me get right tense at times, for lack of a better word. We don't always see things eye to eye and probably never will. Certainly have lived long enough to know that relationships are never perfect, no matter how much love there is."
"I know but--"
"Let me finish, pet. There are always bad days and sometimes there are bad weeks or even longer. Buffy and I both know this, have experienced it firsthand, and I hope we will both give it our all and not give up when things get tough. I just want you to know -- no matter what -- I will always be here for you. I love you as if you were my own sister. My own blood."
Spike kissed her cheek as tears began to trickle down her sweet face, but he also noticed how her smile beamed in spite of those tears.
"No need for these," he told her as he wiped the tears away with his thumbs.
They turned around and headed back to the hotel arm in arm, both feeling better for having had this conversation. They sensed that they were now even closer to each other than they had ever been. And it almost seemed like Buffy was right there with them.
Since Dawn had been noticeably showing signs of jetlag, yawning and stumbling just a bit as they returned to the hotel, Spike was not surprised when she announced her intention to get some sleep as soon as they entered the lobby. He pushed the button to summon the elevator for her.
"Night, then, Bit. Going to toss back a few before I come upstairs. See you tomorrow." Spike gave Dawn a hug, which she returned and topped off with a sweet, sisterly kiss.
"I'm so glad we got the chance to spend a little time together and talk privately, Spike. Although I've been enjoying our e-mail messages, there's nothing like talking face to face."
"Yeah, especially since you've got such a funny face," Spike teased.
"You think my face is funny? Did my mascara run or something? I did get a little misty-eyed for a moment."
"Nah. Was just teasing you. You've got a lovely face, Dawn. Bet you're breaking hearts on both continents now."
She grinned as she replied, "Well, I have noticed a few heads turning to watch me as I walk past, but I don't really have time for any relationships right now. Maybe after we've saved the world again. On September 23, the guys in London will have their chance to catch my eye."
"I'll put out an alert," Spike said as the elevator doors opened, and Dawn walked inside to press the number for their floor. "They haven't got a bleeding chance. Their hearts are as good as lost."
He shook his head in mock sorrow for the imminent fall of young men everywhere, then smirked as Dawn laughed.
"I promise I'll be very gentle with them," she said as the elevator doors closed.
"Bloody fools won't know what's hit them," Spike muttered, heading for the hotel bar. "Once a Summers woman steals your heart, you never want her to give it back."
He asked a waitress for a double shot of Jack Daniels as he walked past her and then took a seat at a small table near the back of the bar. He was soon sipping his drink, seated far from the other patrons where he could be alone to think about Buffy and their possible future together.
But first, he pulled out from his inside coat pocket a print-out of the most recent e-mail message he had received from Buffy. He'd read it only four or five times so far; there was still plenty of enjoyment to be gleaned from further readings, and there was one section that slightly puzzled him.
Spike read those last three words repeatedly before moving on.
Again, Spike re-read the last two sentences several times, with a look of awe accompanied by a sweet smile on his face. He wondered if Buffy could possibly be hinting at a new sort of loveplay in their future? The idea both thrilled and frightened him. He wasn't sure if his demon could handle it without wanting more. He read on.
Now came the part of the e-mail that had Spike a bit bewildered in terms of what might have prompted it, but he was also rather amused because it seemed like Buffy might be jealous.
Darkness fell across the page when out of nowhere, a man stood at Spike's side, effectively blocking the dim bar lighting so that his face was also in shadows.
"Prefer to drink alone, mate. Better run along. Really not interested in any idle bar chat about--" Spike's words dropped off as he smelled a familiar aftershave.
"Can't spare even a hello for an old friend?" asked Wesley. "Not very hospitable, considering how far I've come to see you."
Spike was on his feet in a flash. Despite the usual reserve British men often display, the two immediately hugged and slapped each other on the back. Just as suddenly, the physical greeting stopped, and they stared at each other, grinning broadly.
"Good to see you, Spike, although as is usually the case, my time here will be quite brief."
"Well, then, let's make the most of it," Spike replied and waved to the waitress. "Bring a bottle and another glass, love."
Once the waitress left them, they both called out, "Cheers!" and swallowed the first of what would end up being several shots.
"Before I move on to the reason The Powers let me come, may I first compliment you on how well you're doing with Illyria. And much to my initial surprise, Xander Harris has proved to be quite helpful in that endeavor, too. I guess I should have believed Cordelia on that count."
"Yeah, the whelp's really grown up since the days you knew him, eh, Wes? Of course, if you'd asked me just a couple of years ago, I never would've believed he had it in him, either."
"We've all changed since Sunnydale," Wesley agreed.
"Cordy told me you and Fred are influencing Blue as much as you could. Gotta say, you must have some powerful mojo going on, because she has come a long way, too," said Spike.
"I wish we could take all the credit for it, but it's definitely been a joint project. We're actually quite limited in what we can do. Most of Illyria's progress is due to your team and to Illyria, herself, of course. We will, however, continue to help as much as we're allowed."
"The Powers still into that mind set of just keeping the balance, eh? Not going to go too much out of their way to help us poor buggers, who are down here fighting the good fight everyday?" Spike downed another shot.
"It's more complicated than that, and, I'm sorry to say, something that I'm not at liberty to explain. But I remember feeling exactly as you feel now about The Powers, and speaking of the balance, that's the real reason I'm here."
"So I take it old Drac is trying to tip the balance with this vampire army he's organizing?"
"That is a good portion of the difficulty, yes." Wesley sipped at his drink, choosing his next words carefully, but Spike spoke first.
"So you're gonna help us in our fight against the Count?"
"Not directly, no. We've been told quite firmly that we mustn't interfere beyond what I can tell you today. And believe me when I say that all of us argued for more direct assistance in this matter."
"I'll bet Angel's been actively fighting the reins, particularly for this mission. There's no love lost between Dracula and him."
"You could say that," Wes replied dryly with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "And Gunn continues to exercise his legal skills; he's truly formidable now during any debate about which he feels strongly. Unfortunately, even Charles' prowess couldn't convince them to give us more leeway. If we were to try to help in any way beyond what has been decreed, we'd run the risk of never being allowed to help again."
"Then we'll bloody well take what we can get. What've you got for us?"
"Mostly just some information, I'm afraid, as well as to encourage you to use something that we believe you do not realize is already within you. Since Dracula, obviously, has at his disposal all of his special abilities--"
"Nothing but gypsy tricks and flash!" Spike sneered as he poured himself another drink.
"Yes, well, unfortunately, they work very well for him. In any event, The Powers That Be would like to offer just a little extra boost to an untapped ability you already have." Wesley sipped his drink as he eyed Spike for signs that he'd take the upcoming advice well.
"What's that, then?" Spike asked suspiciously.
"When you were in Nebraska, you must have noticed a certain affinity that you possess for wolves. That wolf mask artifact called out to your inner wolf spirit or totem, as the Native American tribes would say."
"I did feel something rather unnerving. Didn't know quite what it was. You saying the wolf is my kindred spirit?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes. And since Dracula claims to have some sort of mastery over wolves--"
Spike snorted at that. "Calls them his 'children of the night.' What a tosser!"
"How about if you stop interrupting and allow me to say what I've come to say?"
"Pardon me, oh heavenly spirit guide. Oh lofty wise man from above or from beyond or from wherever the bloody hell it is that you Powers hang out. I reckon you're my own, personal Obi-wan Kenobi for this mission, yeah?"
"Are you quite through?"
"Once called Angel my Yoda. Guess you can be my Obi-wan. All right. I'm done now."
"As I was saying, since Dracula will likely call upon the wolves at some point, we just wanted you to know that you can call upon your own inner wolf spirit to guide you through your encounter with the Count."
"Rather a lame turn of phrase for a celestial being."
"Through your ordeal with the Count, then, if you prefer. The point is, even though you already sent that artifact on to the Council's safekeeping, your fairly recent personal contact with the wolf mask will help you to connect with your inner wolf. And you may have noticed that your leather duster has developed a rather unusual power since it was returned to you."
"That's putting it mildly," Spike snarked. "So, Nikki giving me the duster -- that was a gift from The Powers, yeah? Is that why it's now able to heal itself?"
"Correct. It's also why you've been healing even more rapidly than usual, lately. It is rather like your own mystical wolf pelt, in a manner of speaking, isn't it? A means to connect to your inner power when you need it. That's all I'm saying here. If Dracula tries to influence you--"
"He can't enthrall me. The wanker has tried before. I'm immune to that mumbo-jumbo."
"I'm not talking about his use of thrall but rather his attempt to influence you -- to try to draw you to the dark side--"
"Ha! I knew you saw Star Wars! Despite always pretending to be above such pop culture pursuits."
"If you had let me continue, you cheeky devil, you would have known I was talking about the dark side of your nature as a vampire. Nothing at all to do with Jedi knights."
"Jedi! You just said Jedi knights. Come on, admit that you saw Star Wars. You were just a lad when it first came out. You must've seen it. Your entire childhood couldn't have been spent with your nose in books and a few weeks at Watchers' Council summer camp."
"All right, Spike. I saw Star Wars. Are you happy now?"
"Yes. Gives you a little common ground with the rest of us blokes -- a brush with the working class. Knew you had it in you. And don't worry about my dark nature as a vampire; I'm very aware of it. Work at controlling it every day, don't I? Not going to lose it the first bloody minute I'm in Drac's presence. I can handle that poofter." Spike finished off his glass of J.D. and poured another.
"I'm sure you can, Spike. Nevertheless, please keep in mind that you can call on assistance from your wolf spirit should the need arise. Just be sure to wear your duster when you meet with Dracula." It was Wesley's turn to finish his drink and refill his glass.
"Not a problem. Pretty much always wear it, anyway, don't I?"
"The coat is our means to connect with you, since none of us will be allowed to come and assist you in person. Please know, Spike, that we will always be with you in spirit -- as long as you continue fighting the good fight that we can no longer fight ourselves. You're our representative, Spike. The last man standing, so to speak."
"So I'm your 'go to guy' now, huh? Bet that grinds Angel's arse."
"Actually, he's quite proud of you. We all are. But his nose does get out of joint now and then; that old rivalry of yours apparently extends even further than just beyond the grave. It may turn out to continue for all eternity."
"Damn straight!" Spike enthused. "Tell the big, broody bugger he can count on it!"
Wesley just had time to notice Spike's amused grin before the former Watcher cocked his head, as if listening to someone speaking.
"I must return now, Spike. Keep the faith, baby! How's that for pop culture?" Wesley winked and grinned just before he disappeared from Spike's view.
Spike tossed back another drink while he contemplated if his meeting with Wesley should remain private information. Wes certainly hadn't said anything that would be useful to the others. Spike wasn't even sure how useful it might turn out to be for him.
I have an inner wolf spirit? he mused. Wonder how it would fare going fangs to fangs with my inner demon?
Spike drank one last shot and then tossed some Euros on the table. He figured that he might as well go to bed, since his teammates would be rising earlier than he'd like.
No matter how hard it was for the vampire to adjust to the daytime hours, there was no way to get around it. At least, he'd gotten them to compromise a little. They sometimes slept until 10:00AM and stayed up until well after midnight, often after 2:00AM.
That was a damn sight better than businessmen's hours or the bloody awful farmers' hours that some humans lived by. He was satisfied that he now had his mates living almost the equivalent of rock band hours.
Spike rode the elevator up to his floor, entered his room
quietly, and fell asleep to Xander's snores.
Shortly after Dawn and Aloysius left for England, Illyria decided to take one last stroll through Budapest. The other Big B.A.D.S. ate an early lunch together, and on their way back to their rooms, they stopped at the Gellert's front desk to check for the expected FedEx package from Mena's nyanya. They were all quite grateful to find that it had indeed arrived.
As they rode the elevator up to their rooms, Xander began asking again some of the same questions about the herbs and the technique to resist thrall that he'd been asking Mena for days.
"Are you sure this will work for Haley and me? I mean, since we're not Kenyans, will the herb tea have the same effect on us?"
"Gee, I don't know, Xander. Does penicillin have the same effect on Americans as it does for Kenyans?" Spike smirked. "Know it works perfectly well for Brits and Kenyans -- isn't that right, ladies? But you bloody Yanks are so peculiar and all. Your body chemistry is so unique, you probably need everything made specially just for you."
"Come on, Spike. I'm just trying to think of all the possibilities -- things that might go wrong or need adjustments -- cause I'm really counting on this thrall-resisting thing to work, you know? I really need it to work for me."
"I'm sure the tea will have the same effect on all of us, Xander," comforted Haley. "Mena, why don't you tell us again what the main ingredients are?"
"Nyanya blends some things together, but the main part of the tea is Mondia Whytei root, which we just call mukombera. The plant is a natural appetizer, so in the future, it might be wise to drink it before meals rather than after, but I think we should get started on the training right away, even though we just ate."
"Not a problem for Xander," teased Spike. "He can eat 24 hours a day."
"Well, we didn't have dessert," countered Xander. "If we get hungry from the tea, we can always go have some pie or those delicious little pastries from the bakery around the corner."
Mena continued with her explanation about the contents of the tea. "Mukombera also enhances cerebral and peripheral blood circulation and is a source of many nutrients, like Vitamins A, D, K and E plus magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium and even protein."
"That's quite a wonder-herb all on its own," marveled Haley.
"Yeah, and it has a rather nice aroma and flavor, too. You won't have any trouble enjoying the tea," said Mena. "The other main ingredient is pelil, which we also call chesamus. It's used mainly to relieve headaches. I'm not exactly sure what else Nyanya includes in her special blend, but she swears by it. And so do I."
"That's good enough for me," said Xander. "I just hope I can handle the meditation part of the training to resist thrall."
They had reached the rooms by this time, and they all piled into the sitting room between their two bedrooms, where the coffee and tea-making appliances and utensils, as well as cups and saucers, were lined up on a counter top. Spike collapsed onto the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table.
"Hotel suite, hotel," Spike intoned just as if he were reciting the axiom, 'Home, sweet home'. "Don't really need your special brew, myself, Mena, but wouldn't say no to a cuppa since you're brewing, anyway. Got any more of the Earl Grey?"
"Sure, Spike. No problem. Haley and Xander, you should take seats, too, and start clearing your minds. Use the relaxation meditation techniques we learned in Slayer and Watcher training."
"So all I've got to do is drink the tea and chant the mantra, and I'll be safe from Dracula's thrall?" asked Xander anxiously.
"Nyanya has been able to help many people all over the Nairobi area, Xander. All kinds of people -- both poor villagers and also powerful, great leaders have benefitted from her tea and her guidance."
"I believe you, Mena. I'm not doubting your nyanya's skills, just doubting myself. Why is it that you can resist thrall, Spike?" asked Xander as he took a seat. "I know it's not just that you're a vampire because we've seen some vamps under the thrall of others."
"I'm a master vampire, you git. But that's not all there is to it. Very few vampires, even masters, learn the skills of thrall. Dru had her second sight already working in her favor, and then she picked up some more skills from a gypsy woman, just like old Drac."
"So it was only in your young and tender years as a ruthless killer that you were susceptible to Dru's thrall?" sniped Xander.
"Nah. Just to her charms. Thought I was in love with her for over a century; that's what bound me to her. Not thrall. I'm a one-woman kind of bloke, you know. Then I met Buffy and found out what real love is."
"All right, all right. Enough about your penchant for everlasting love. Talking about thrall here. So you never fell under Dru's or Dracula's thrall. Why not?" inquired Xander.
"Maybe because I know in my gut that it's all bloody bollocks. Nothing but gypsy tricks. Smoke and mirrors kind of crap. Reckon it's all due just to my own natural strength of mind. Strength of self will's more like it."
"So the rest of us are just weak, little wusses with naïve minds open to suggestion? That what you're saying?" Xander was getting angry and frustrated, and since Spike could sense it, he relented in order to help a mate in need.
"Nah. I've seen lots of strong, intelligent people succumb to it, when the circumstances were right -- when they were afraid or very tired or injured and in pain. Rupert fell under Dru's thrall after Angelus had been beating the bloody hell out of him for a while. Nothing to be ashamed of, Xander."
"I think perhaps part of the reason you fell under Dracula's power was because you've seen so many movies about him that you believed he could enthrall you," suggested Haley.
"Right. That fear was already deep in your psyche," said Mena. "So we're going to break through that to your inner self will and then build a fortress in your mind."
Mena poured steaming water into the teapot over her nyanya's blended herbs to let it steep for a while. She also prepared separate cups for herself and Spike with Earl Grey tea.
"Know I think highly of myself, mate," said Spike. "Can't really help that. I'm such a good looking, clever, manly man, after all, and have had plenty of years to build my self confidence. Still, The First was able to get under my defenses because I was all riddled with guilt and feeling like such a loser when I first got back from getting my soul restored. Might have been able to handle The First if I hadn't been so weakened to begin with."
"And crazy as a loon!" added Xander.
"Yep! I was totally sack of hammers, but that was mostly The First's doing. And it couldn't have driven me that barmy if I hadn't given it an opening by being so wounded from the demon trials and all down on myself."
"So you're saying I've just gotta be like The Little Engine That Could?" snarked Xander. "That's all it takes? If I convince myself I can do it, then I can do it?"
"Well, that should certainly lay a good foundation, Xander," said Haley. "As lame as it may sound to you, after having already experienced the strength of Dracula's thrall, self confidence actually can have a strong effect on people."
"Not like there's some kind of chip in your head, forcing you to comply," added Spike. "Let me tell you, that would make it downright, bloody impossible. But you've got balls, Xander. Use them."
"Gee, thanks, Spike. Glad to know you've noticed I've got balls. Sorry, Mena," Xander added, catching Haley's warning glance.
"Just saying, I've noticed you make some right ballsy moves over the years, mate, so I know you've got it in you," Spike continued.
"Let's move on from balls, shall we?" implored Haley.
"The word doesn't bother me," said Mena. "But I told you to prepare your minds, and all you've been doing is talking. You've probably got Xander's mind so full of Dracula and the count's former power over him, that he'll have a hard time freeing his mind of it. Please take a few moments for quiet reflection because the tea is almost ready to drink."
"That means you, too, Spike," Mena said as she placed a cup of Earl Grey in his hands. "Fill your mouth with this and stop talking, please."
"Now, the mantra I'm going to teach you is, more or less, Swahili for 'strengthen my self will'. It's Shupaza Hiari Wangu. Repeat that a few times to become familiar with the words. Then I'll give you the tea to drink."
Xander and Haley repeated Shupaza Hiari Wangu several times before Xander could get it straight, although Haley caught on to it right away. After a few giggles from Mena and some minor swearing from Xander, he, too, was able to say the words correctly over and over again.
Mena convinced them all to remain completely silent for five minutes, while Xander and Haley breathed deeply and centered themselves.
Since Spike had finished his tea by the time they started drinking Nyanya's special blend, he excused himself to the men's bedroom with the laptop, intent on sending a reply to Buffy's e-mail.
That left just Mena and her trainees in the sitting room to practice the will-strengthening mantra. Haley was an apt pupil -- very focused and adept. Xander had some difficulty, but by the time Illyria returned from her stroll, even he seemed to be doing quite well.
Mena promised to guide them again when they arrived at the inn where they'd be staying in Bistritz, but explained that she planned to partake as well, in order to strengthen her own will before meeting Count Dracula.
The Big B.A.D.S. packed their bags, checked out, loaded up the SUV, and were on their way to Transylvania by late that afternoon. They enjoyed the lovely drive through forests and mountains, soaking up the beauty of the rustic countryside.
After eating a hearty dinner in the last town on the Hungarian side of the map, worried that the food in Romania might not be as good or as plentiful, they then crossed the border and drove on through the evening, until they finally decided to stop for the rest of the night.
They managed to find a small inn with clean, if somewhat worn, rooms and bedsheets, although they had to wake the very sleepy and slightly disgruntled owner in order to obtain the keys for their rooms.
Rising late the next morning, Xander convinced Mena to brew some more of the tea and lead them in meditation. At first curious, Illyria soon became bored with the chanting and joined Spike in his room for some conversation.
Within a half hour, the thrall-busters were finished. They loaded the SUV, and then Xander pulled it up right next to the door of the inn so that Spike could quickly clamber into the vehicle with his duster over his head.
By mid-afternoon, they were drawing close to Bistritz and Xander began to worry whether Dracula might be keeping watch for them. If so, the count might surprise them by showing up before they were quite ready to see him. Xander reminded himself that it was unlikely they'd see Dracula before nightfall.
Even though the day was a bit overcast, Xander figured the count would prefer to make a grand entrance in the dark of night, so he decided to enjoy his last supper at the best restaurant they could find near their rooms. He feared that it might very well be his last meal ever.
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