'Sweetie, you made it!' the Host proclaimed. 'Tara, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Tara, and she's gonna be our latest waitress!'
'Um... hi,' Tara said nervously, really, *really* hoping that those weren't looks of hunger she was getting from Caritas' patrons - demon expressions were /much/ harder to interpret than human. But this /was/ neutral ground, so... Wait, latest?
'Now, where /is/ that boy?' the Host wondered. 'I told him to be here for the six o'clock bell, and-'
'W-wait,' Tara said. 'T-there's someone else?'
'Of course, hon. You don't think I'd send you out into the Drokken's lair alone, do you?'
'W-what's a Drokken?' Tara asked.
At /that/ point, something yellow, black, and ever so slightly on /fire/, hurtled into the bar. 'Blanket!' it screeched. 'Gimme a blanket! NOW!'
The Host reached for the pitcher of water at the table where he'd been sitting, and threw it over thr blazing figure.
Moments later, a blond man in a black duster, now dripping wet, said 'That was unnecessary.'
'Really?' the Host said. 'Do you have any idea how many blankets I'd get through in a year putting out blazing vampires?'
'V-vampires?' Tara whispered to herself.
'Yeah, 'cause spontaneously combusting guys always burst through bar doors,' the blond retorted.
'W-well, they might. T-this /is/ a demon b-bar...'
'Congratulations, Sherlock. Did you work that out yourself, or did you need help?'
Tara stuttered, but couldn't say anything.
'Now, now...' the Host admonished. 'No beating on the other employees, capisce?'
'Tara, this's Spike, the new bartender. With his truly /fabulous/ coat.' the Host added. 'Also known as William the Bloody, thanks to his bloody awful poetry.' Spike opened his mouth. 'Ah ah. I read your aura, 'member? Not much hidden in /there/...' Spike clammed up.
'Spike, this's Tara. She'll be your main waitress. Now you two crazy kids kiss and make up, and play nice, 'kay? Don't wanna haveta come in here and clean up the bodies. The cleanup crew always wants bonuses for the hazardous jobs. Oh, and Tara, hon?'
'We only get spontaneous combustions three, maybe four times a year round here. Blankets are behind the bar, if ya need them.'
'Ah-ah, Spikey babe. Like I said, human combustion only. You don't count.'
Spike's eyes narrowed. 'And what about her?'
'She's a special case.'
Tara's heart nearly stopped.
'Hereditary witch,' the Host continued. 'So I'd watch it with the broomstick jokes, 'less you really wanna find out what it's like being the first vamp horned toad. Can use the blankets in case any fire spells get out of control, that okay?'
It took Tara a minute to realise he was talking to her. She brought herself under control. 'T-that's... fine.'
'Okay, sugar. Oh, and don't worry 'bout Spike here wanting a little snack. Gentle as a pussycat, 'neath that big bad exterior. That, and he's got a technical doohickey in his head, so he can't harm humans. Not without a nasty shock.'
Tara looked at the anger on Spike's face, and swallowed. Somehow, she didn't think that would stop him when it came to /her/...
Visibly, Spike brought himself under control. 'Right. Buffalo wings.'
The Host and Tara blinked. 'Buffalo wings?!'
Spike nodded, a flash of grim humour passing across his face. 'If I'm gonna be working with Glinda here, I'm gonna be needing a little somethin' to snack on, yeah?'
The Host sighed. 'Fine, fine, be Mr Madonna - and you ain't nothing like Maddy, let me tell you now. I'll call Alec in the kitchen, see what he can rustle up.'
'Thanks,' Spike said. 'Now, if you'll excuse me...' He swept past the others on his way to the bar.
'Like I said...' the Host said, dabbing at his forehead. 'Gentle as a pussycat.'
'Umm...' Tara said.
'Oh, don't worry 'bout him. You'll be fine. Now... a host's work is never done.' The Host stood up and smoothed down his suit. 'And the public awaits.'
Tara slumped into his vacated seat and put her head in her hands. 'Ohh... Goddess...'
'Hey, could I get some service?'
Right at the moment, Tara wanted to tell whoever was asking to go bother Spike. She looked up.
Into Dawn's beaming face. 'Heya, T.'
'Dawny. Oh /Goddess/...' Tara put her head back in her hands.
Dawn's expression became serious. 'Are you okay?'
'I-I'll be fine.' Tara took a deep breath. 'I-I j-just need...' She breathed out again. 'I-i'll b-be okay.'
'He doesn't look /that/ scary.' Dawn observed.
It took Tara a moment to work out who her sister was talking about, and then...
'Spike?' She let another breath out. 'N-no, he doesn't. That's r-rather the p-point.'
Dawn raised an eyebrow. 'Bit hard to be scary when you're soaking wet. Not that he didn't need it. Looked like he'd been drinking so much he'd've burst into fire /without/ sunlight.'
Tara looked up in surprise.
'Please. He was on /fire/ when he came in here. And it's still sunny out. Don't need to be Van Helsing Junior to work it out.'
'Watch out for the spontaneous human combustions...' Tara murmured.
Dawn blinked. 'Huh?'
'Never mind,' Tara said. 'C-come on, and you c-can s-see your big sister's f-first d-day in t-the exciting w-world of work.'
Tara led Dawn to a stool by the bar, where Spike was fingering a bowl of what just might have been buffalo wings, if one stretched the imagination.
He looked up, and scowled. 'What, we running a bloody nursery now?'
'I'm /not/ a kid.' Dawn informed him.
Tara closed her eyes. 'S-Spike, this i-is my sister Dawn. She's c-come t-to see me.'
'Like I said.'
'S-Spike...' Tara closed her eyes again. 'J-just make sure s-she s-stays safe.'
'I don't need a babysitter!' Dawn protested.
'Brat /does/ have a point, wouldn't you say?' Spike observed. 'She must be all of what? Sixteen?'
'She's fourteen,' Tara said coldly. 'And that means no underage-'
'Excuse me,' Dawn said, crossing her arms. 'Drinking's for losers.'
A number of the patrons within earshot hurriedly set down their drinks.
Spike eyed them sardonically. 'Bunch of poofters. Fully armed demon hunters, it's all 'RAARGH!!' and 'KILL!!', but a fourteen year old girl with nothing but a big mouth, and they collapse faster than Everton's defence.'
'And what about you?' Dawn teased.
'Me? Well, people've been telling me these things'll kill me best part of a century.' Spike said, lighting up. 'Hasn't killed me yet.'
Off the Host's - and Tara and Dawn's - disgusted looks, he stabbed the cigarette out. 'As for the other thing, I've been a vampire for over a hundred years, and I'm still here. The demon hunters aren't. Should give you a good idea, huh?'
Tara felt a slow chill crawl down her spine. Dangerous. Very dangerous. Even with whatever stops him harming humans, he's survived. Survived Goddess knows how many victims.
Dawn giggled. Tara saw a momentary look of complete and total surprise cross Spike's face before the Spike sneer slid back into place. He wasn't expecting that. And neither was I, she added. I should have, but...
She shook her head. 'D-don't do anything I-I w-wouldn't d-do, please?'
'Like grow a backbone?'
She almost reacted to Spike's taunt - but calmed herself, and set off for a table where an impatient insectoid was beckoning her over.
Spike watched her go, his mind assessing and calculating.
Might actually have a spine, that one. Be interesting to see just how far he could push her, 'fore she pushed back. And, he was willing to bet, he tried anything on her little sister, she'd push back like a Buick...
He might not be able to lay finger one on 'em... but who needed to? An' it looked like someone'd already given it a good go. Girl was practically a doormat. Practically. Which meant whoever'd tried the head game hadn't succeeded. Not completely. He wasn't about to finish off that game just yet. Didn't mean he couldn't play with it, tho'...
'Oops.' He looked down to find a spilled bowl of buffalo wings, and a furiously flushing Dawn. A doormat... 'capt when it came to her sister, an' maybe not just her, either...
This looked interesting. Hell, everyone needed a project, right? Least 'till he got the damn chip outta his head. Which reminded him, as he cleared up the buffalo wings with a still crimson Dawn's help. Needed to check out the local graveyards, see what they had in the way of crypts. Looked like he'd be stayin' here a little longer than he planned.
'Is that what I think it is?' Dawn interrupted, pointing at the tall glass of red liquid which stood behind Spike.
'What do you think it is, nibblet?'
'Firstly, I think it's blood, secondly, I think you're gonna drink it, and thirdly, I think EWWW!!!'
'Give that girl a cigar.' Spike said, taking a gulp from the glass.
'Fat chance,' Dawn said. 'Those things smell horrible.'
'Part of the fun,' Spike said.
'So why the buffalo wings?'
'Just 'cause I need to drink blood don't mean I lost my sense of taste, does it?'
'Oh yeah, fangboy?'
Spike rounded on the short, dark-haired girl who'd just spoken.
'Looks like you lost your taste sometime before the Rolling Stones first roamed the Earth.' she continued.
'Oh really? The slutty look in this year?' Spike inquired.
'Oh yeah. The Seventies throwback gets to tell me where to get off. Newsflash, champ. Sid Vicious is dead, get your undead ass off the stick it's been on the last twenty years, join us here in 2000... and get me a Guinness.'
Dawn turned her head away, but her muffled giggles could still be heard.
'A girl who knows her drinks,' Spike observed. 'Shame can't say the same 'bout your fashion sense.'
'Well, maybe you'll get a clue, and join us in the twenty first century. Meantime, /you/-' she stabbed a finger at Dawn. '-make sure the drink don't go anywhere, and /you/-' the finger stabbed at Spike. '-make sure /she/ doesn't go anywhere with my drink, 'cause the slot's just opened up, and the karaoke queen's ready to sing.'
With that, she leaped off her seat and bounded over to the stage.
'Well,' Dawn said eventually, 'that was... interesting.'
'You can say that again,' Spike observed, 'but if you try, I'm gonna rip your voicebox out, and to hell with the pain.'
'Wonder what she was?'
'Please,' Spike scoffed. 'Only a bloodbag could get away with that outfit.'
Spike sniffed. 'Part-human, at any rate. Still alive, far as I can tell.'
Dawn's face twisted. 'Ew. You can tell that just from /sniffing?/ What are you, a dog?'
'I'm a /vamp/, nibblet, Don't go forgetting that.'
Dawn frowned as the first notes of the song boomed out. 'I Will Survive? Honestly. That was so nineties...'
'Oh God, now /I'm/ feeling old...' Spike muttered. '...Hey, where's she get off calling me a Seventies throwback?'
Dawn refrained from comment.
Before Spike could hold forth on his new friend, Tara handed him an order slip.
'Couldn't just tell me straight? Course not. If you did, we'd be here all night.'
'Hey! Where'd you get off making fun of my sister's stutter?'
'Right here, I think. All change!'
'C-could t-the two of y-you just /stop/ it?' Tara said.
'T-thank you... Dawn, what /a-are/ you doing with that?'
Dawn looked down at the drink resting by her right hand. 'Ummm... the girl up on stage asked me to look after it while she went retro?'
Tara winced as the singer segued into Adam and the Ants' 'Stand and Deliver'. 'N-now /those/ are t-two songs t-that shouldn't g-go together...'
Then she caught sight of the Host's face.
The expression of (somewhat pained) appreciation on his face had disappeared, replaced by-
Tara finally recognised it.
Whatever he was reading from her aura, it /scared/ him.
Tara swallowed. She didn't want to think what would terrify /him/...
The girl finally finshed her set, bowed, and hopped off the stage, to less than rapturous applause, which didn't seem to faze her.
She shook her head, getting her hair back into place, as she came back to the bar.
'Here,' Spike said, breaking Tara's train of thought by pushing a tray into her hands. 'Or are you as jittery with your hands as you are with your voice?'
'Thanks, kiddo,' she heard the girl say, and then it was lost in the bar's noise.
By the time she'd completed the bar's circuit, taking the next batch of orders, the girl had gone, and Spike and Dawn had reached the 'staring contest' stage.
It proved to be a very long night.
By midnight, the Host finally called a stop. 'Sweetie, you look like you're about to fall asleep standing up. Now, that's fine for some, but for humans...? And as for sis over there? She needs her beauty sleep, otherwise she'll never grow up as beautiful as her big sister, will she?'
Even half-conscious, Tara still felt herself blushing.
'See, when you do something like that, that's a real moment, right there. Love to get you on stage one of these days.'
'I-I couldn't...' Tara managed to say.
The Host waved a hand. 'Pfft. The moment you're up on stage, you'll find yourself singing like an angel. Forget the stutter, and you'll be great. Meanwhile... you gotta rest those angelic vocal cords, you hear me?'
Tara slowly made her way back over to the bar, the Host's gentle support resting on her back.
Spike was shrugging on his duster, while Dawn was snoozing gently on the bar.
The Host's eye raised. 'Going crypt-hunting, are we?'
'Unless you want a pile of dust serving your drinks tomorrow night, then yeah.' Spike gave the Host the eye. 'Unless you want me to stay the night.'
The Host shuddered. 'Clearing up /those/ butts? Not on the 'To Do' list /quite/ yet... but you'd better be careful out there.'
'The Slayer's in town.'
'And unlife just keeps getting better,' Spike muttered. 'So what's this one look like? They all start to look alike after a time...'
' 'Bout yea high, dark hair, brown eyes, figure to die for... Couldn't miss her,' the Host added. 'She was in the bar tonight.'
Spike paused as he stepped out from behind the bar.
Tara looked, *really* looked, at the Host.
'I-it was her.' Tara said softly. 'The one y-you were reading. S-she's a-a Slayer.'
The Host looked as if he'd rather be anywhere but where he was.
'/She's/ the Slayer? What's she do, use her tongue to stake the vamps?' Spike exploded.
Dawn blinked, bleary-eyed, lifting her head up from the bar. 'Hunh?... Nnh...? Slayer?'
'/The/ Slayer.' the Host corrected. 'The Chosen One, the One given the strength, the speed, you name it - all the tools in the vamp-killing box. 'Casionally a few demons, but mostly vamps. One girl dies, another's called, yadda yadda. And the current one is...'
'W-we just m-met the c-current one...' Tara realised. 'W-who is she?'
'...Faith.' the Host said reluctantly.
'And the ironies just keep piling up,' Spike muttered. 'Just my luck, I'd go outside and get dusted by a bint in a slutty outfit. Easy-Stake Vampire - just add chip!'
'You're off-limits,' the Host told him. 'All my employees are.'
'Yeah? Not hanging round to find out!' Spike snapped.
The Host snapped his fingers. 'Hey, real Odd Couple vibes I'm getting here...'
'Oh n-no...' Tara breathed. 'P-please. N-not that. Not that...'
'Hide out with Glinda and the Princess of Klutz? Are you bloody /pissed/?'
'Nope. But I intend to get roaring drunk and turn on some Renee and Renato. All willing, I'll be too blasted to notice. Anyway... it's either hang out with them, or find out whether you're off-limits the hard way.'
'I-I'm /no'/ a klutz...' Dawn mumbled.
Spike looked at Tara and Dawn, at the Host, at the door, then back at the Host. 'Bloody hell...' He shook his head. 'Let's get the nightmare over with, shall we?'
'S-S-Spike,' Tara said quietly.
'Yeah?' Spike followed her gaze; the witch was looking... Oh no. Oh bloody hell.
'Boo.' Faith said.
'William the Bloody? Killed two Slayers, yadda yadda?'
'And if I said I wasn't?'
'Umm... P-pardon me, but... d-do you want to k-kill him?'
'I'm the Slayer. He's a vampire.'
Tara frowned. 'B-but do y-you want to kill him?'
Faith sighed. 'Look, nothing personal, 'kay-'
'Oh, *that's* comforting, I must say.'
'-but there's some business I gotta take care of, and he's my first stop.'
'F-first stop for w-what?'
'Him. Killed two Slayers. Sunnydale. Killed two Slayers. I'm not gonna be the third.'
'So what?' Spike sneered. 'What makes you think I'm gonna give the Slayer anythin' like the truth? If I /don't/, an' you get yourself killed... no skin off my nose.'
'Oh, I figured that. So I thought I'd start by training off 'gainst you. You die...' Faith shrugged. 'That means I've got a better chance - not a certainty, but a damn better chance - of surviving.'
'You think it's that simple?' Spike said. 'It's even simpler, kid - how much do you wanna live?'
'/W-why/ do you w-want t-to face w-what's in Sunnydale?'
'Like I said. Unfinished business.'
A sudden, terrible realisation filled Tara's mind.
'W-wait... D-do /all/ Slayers f-fight a-alone?'
'It's the Chosen One. Not the Chosen One and her friends.' Faith drawled. 'Y'see... Sunnydale's taken down two Slayers already. One - three years' experience, bamf, the other - couple of months, bamf. Then yours truly gets called - and she's got no intention of going down that fast. Wants to see her twenty-fifth birthday. So I'm scoping out the land, seein' what worked an' what didn't, learnin' whether I can take it on - and finishing off this last piece of business.'
Tara's frown deepened. She was telling the truth - and as far as she could tell, Faith /wasn't/ angry. Pragmatic, but not angry. Which meant...
...she wasn't doing this out of vengeance. Not directly, at any rate.
'W-what if you /c-can't/ take this on?'
Faith hesitated for a moment, only a minute, but Tara saw it in her body.
'Then I'm gonna do as good a clean-up job as I can - leave the info somewhere. That way, the next girl's not gonna go in unprepared.'
'T-the... /next/ one?'
'Yeah. Major needle for tweedboys, ya know? And they can't have that...'
'Tweedboys...? Oh, you mean the Watchers.' Spike said. 'Best description of that bunch of stuffed shirts I heard.'
'And what /they're/ figuring, is basic attrition. Send in enough Slayers, eventually one's gonna get lucky. Now /this/ one thinks a little /experience/ might be in order, but boss Watcher don't agree with her. Hey, we can replace her, after all.'
Tara's stomach churned. That... that was an /obscenity/.
Those were /girls/ they were sending in. /Girls/. They had /lives/. And these... these Watchers were sending them in without concern for who they were, whether they'd survive. Eventually, one would succeed.
Slayers were infinitely replaceable. It's /easy/ to think like that when something can be replaced. It's harder to think in terms of seeing each one as important in itself, as having her own special nature...
The Host looked even greener than she felt. 'Ye gods and Garland's ghost... Are they crazy?!'
'No,' Tara whispered. 'No, they're not.'
The others fell silent.
'Send in an infinite number of attackers one by one, eventually one will get lucky.' she whispered. 'Send in a group... and that's more people, more experience, more skills... and more chances to succeed. They're not thinking like that - because as far as they're concerned, there's only one weapon. And she can be replaced. But she's also one /person/. And that person can't be replaced.'
She stepped forward. 'You don't want to die. Do you want anyone /else/ to die?'
'No...' Faith hissed.
'Go in there alone - if you're not successful, another Slayer will be sent. If you are... well and good. But there are many of them, and one of you.
'Go in there as a group...' Tara left it hanging. 'People can't be replaced. They shouldn't have to be. But as a group, they can watch for each other... help make /sure/ no-one should be replaced. And together, they might be able to succeed, have a better chance... than one alone.'
Something clattered to the floor.
Faith didn't appear to notice. Her eyes were fixed on Tara.
'...And are /you/ offering to join?'
'M-me...?' Tara stammered.
But... if she /did/, who'd make sure Dawn was safe?
Didn't her /own/ safety matter? She was one person, too. One person who couldn't be replaced.
And there was no guarantee that a group would be successful where a single person wasn't.
'I-I'm offering y-you a chance,' Tara whispered. '/I/ don't want to die. I don't want to abandon Dawn. I /can't/. Neither do you. Together... together, maybe we can both get what we want. Alone...'
'Ahh. Really warms my heart, to see the two of you together,' Spike observed.
A moment ago, he'd been caught in Faith's grip. Now, he was standing against the bar, hands behind his head.
'Death, glory, and sod all else.' Spike said. 'Nice to see a Slayer actually want the glory for once...'
'This isn't 'bout glory.' Faith said, through gritted teeth. 'It's 'bout /survival/.'
'Uh-huh. And being the Slayer who took out Sunnydale don't matter?'
'No. It. Doesn't.'
'Oh? Moment ago, you were saying clearing it up was gonna help out the next kid. You saying that doesn't matter?'
'That's not what I said.'
'Then you'd better decide what it does mean. You wanna help the newbie - or you just wanna survive?'
'I can do /both/, Slayer killer. 'Cause /you/ didn't kill Slayers to help out other vamps - if you did, you'd have tried to stop the Slayers altogether. You did it for the glory.'
'Yeah.' Spike said. 'That and the rush. And the dance. I /am/ a monster - least I'm /honest/ about it. I enjoyed it. Telling me you don't enjoy killing us?'
'And what if I do?'
'Then what makes you different from me?'
Faith grabbed Spike by the shirt. 'Don't say that again... fangboy.'
'Excuse me,' the Host said diffidently. 'Would you mind /not/ dusting him on the premises, please? You have a personal problem, take it outside. This is /neutral/ ground.'
'So I kill him here.'
'So /I/ lose business.' The Host's voice was quiet. 'No-one comes to a bar where they can be killed - they come to a bar to take some time out, to think, to get drunk, to lose themselves - or find themselves. They come to /relax/. And once that's lost... why do you /think/ Caritas is neutral? 'Cause if it's not, then I lose business - and there are a hell of a lot of unhappy demons on the streets of LA. And if one of my /employees/ gets killed because they work for the bar... then someone's making me take sides, and that loses me business.'
'Oh, don't worry.' Faith said, a crooked grin on his face. 'He's had this coming for a long time.'
'D-do you t-think there's a way you c-can do this without letting him win?'
'Oh sure. He's dead. I call that a win.'
'And we don't see you as different from him.'
'And your opinion matters?'
'This /is/ a club,' the Host observed. 'Most all the regulars will hear 'bout it, one way or the other.'
'Like I said, your opinion matters?'
'J-just /how/ f-far would you go to s-survive?'
'Far enough,' Faith said. 'Far enough.'
'How many people would you take down in order to survive?' Tara's voice was soft. 'Not could, but would, if you had the choice. If the answer's even one... then you're going down the Watchers' path.'
Faith looked Spike in the eye.
Then she let him slump against the bar.
'Get to live another day, fangboy.' she said, her back turned to him. 'Don't forget that.'
' 'Cause I choose to.' Spike muttered. 'Don't /you/ forget /that/.'
'Oh, and I'll be talkin' to /you/ tomorrow.' Faith said, jerking a thumb at Tara. 'Seeya.'
With that, she left.
Tara sat down. 'I-I t-think I need a-a drink. A-and a b-bucket.'
'A bucket? Ohh...' the Host said. 'Stupid of me. Coffee do ya?'
'Please,' Tara said.
The Host moved behind the bar.
'Y-Yes, I-I'd be h-happy for y-you to stay over,' Tara said, before Spike could finish.
Spike paused. 'Okay... What the hell. An' the least she can do's kill me.'
'Actually...' Tara frowned. 'M-maybe it'd b-be better all round i-if w-we found y-you a p-place on campus... she d-did say 'see me t-tomorrow'...'
'Get your point,' Spike observed. 'Speakin' strictly for myself, mind you, but somehow, I'm guessing accomodation don't take kindly to extra added vampires...'
'W-which is w-why we've got t-to find somewhere quiet and p-private.'
'Hey, just a couple of things I wanna know.'
'First, can I get these to go?' Spike indicated what remained of the buffalo wings.
'Sure, sure. Not like I'm running a business here, or anything...' the Host grumbled.
'Second... can I get cable there?'
'Gotta catch up on "Passions", you know. Missed God knows how many weeks...'
'There a problem?'
'Oh n-no...' Tara sighed. 'Now I-I've got *t-two* Passions fans h-hanging around.'
'Nothing wrong with Passions,' the Host said, handing her the coffee. 'Just the thing to unwind with after a hard day's night.'
Tara looked at the three of them, from the Host, to Spike, to Dawn.
And buried her head in her hands.
'By the way,' Spike said. 'How'd they get Timmy out of the well?'
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat