Under Pressure - 6
~ Angel’s Mansion, Wednesday, 9:08 p.m.~
“I’m warning you, I’m armed.” Giles peered over the newspaper he was reading, to stare at Spike, who collapsed into the sofa as though it were made to fit him.
“You got the funnies?”
“I asked if you had the funnies.”
“I heard you.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“What on earth would you want with the funnies?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, read them perhaps?” Spike shot a sarcastic smirk at Giles, who responded with a disbelieving glare. “Actually I want the crossword. This damn house is damn boring, and Angel in his infinite broodiness, didn’t seem fit to spring for cable.”
Giles flipped through the newspaper he had borrowed from Joyce, and fished out the comics.
“I don’t suppose you have a pencil on you?” Spike asked as he folded the paper.
“Actually, I do have a pencil. Since the others became so fond of using them as makeshift stakes, I find it useful to keep several on me at all times.” Giles didn’t trust Spike a bit, and figured a bit of bravado up front might save considerable trouble later.
“Nevermind, I’ll just borrow Red’s.” Spike fetched a mechanical pencil from the makeshift computer desk they had set up for Willow. As he filled in the third across clue, he felt he was being watched. He glanced up to see that Giles had abandoned his newspaper article to stare at him. “Do you mind?”
“Sorry, it’s just … fascinating.”
“You’re doing a crossword. I don’t suppose there are many documented cases of vampires taking up such thoroughly human behaviors without nefarious ulterior motives.”
“What, this is fascinating? ‘Dear Diary, the most fascinating thing happened to me today. I got to watch William the Bloody fill in the Sunday crossword. I almost fainted when he asked me for a five letter word for ‘statement of belief’. How dreamy!’” Spike parodied, in a falsetto. “Damn, if the Watcher’s Chronicles are filled with such worthless fluff, no wonder none of your slayers last very long.”
“I wasn’t planning on recording this, I was merely commenting.” Giles replied, “And the word you want is tenet.”
Spike wrote down the answer, ignoring the smug look on Giles’ face. Giles tried to return his interest to the story about renovating the new town hall, but frankly he could care less about the current mayor. Undoubtedly, she was in someone’s pocket, and barring a disaster, it wasn’t his job to figure out whose. He soon found his thoughts trailing off. “Spike, have you given any thought to what you’ll do when this uneasy alliance is over?”
“Well, I had planned on brooding in the dark for hours on end, but, damn, someone else has already cornered that market.” Spike shot back, never missing a chance to mock his ensouled grandsire. “Why do you care?”
“I’m curious; that’s all.” Spike glanced back at his crossword, “But…” Giles started again. “I just think you should realize that once the Initiative is neutralized, there’s no reason Buffy shouldn’t stake you, with or without your chip.”
“What sort of a dumb pillock do you take me for?”
“And, I think you should know that if you were to have your chip removed, Buffy would have even more reason to stake you immediately, regardless of the state of the Initiative.”
“What do you mean by that?” Spike asked, keeping his voice level.
“Where did you all go this evening?” Giles asked. “You had plenty of blood in storage before
you left. You certainly didn’t need to send so many people just to intercept the Red Cross van.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Everything’s my business. I’m a watcher.” Giles answered. “Now, where did you go, and where is Zoltan? You may have thought none of us noticed that he wasn’t in your returning party, but he is a hard personality to forget.”
“How should I know where Zoltan is? He hops dimensions like its going out of style. I’m not his keeper.”
“You were awfully chipper heading out on your errand earlier, and since you’ve gotten back, you’ve been abnormally quiet, like the fight has gone out of you.”
“I’m touched that you’ve noticed, really I am,” Spike snidely remarked. “But if you’re looking for some secret plan, you’re just going to be disappointed. I’m just trying to play the hand that I’ve been dealt. The slayer’s under pressure, and I’d rather not be drawing attention to myself when she cracks…” Spike stood up, taking the crossword puzzle with him, “…which should be any day, now.” He left the room leaving the watcher to his dangerously close to the truth thoughts.
~ Initiative Level 1, Wednesday, 9:20 p.m.~
Graham was sitting in the mess hall debating whether he should finish reading the report Riley had given him when he was paged to the infirmary. When he got there, he found most of Kappa unit being treated for serious bites. “Was this caused by H.S.T.s?” Graham asked Agent Tanner, whose hand was getting wrapped up.
“Then what did this?” Graham wracked his brains trying to remember where Kappa had been stationed. The forest patrols sometimes got scratched up by wild animals, but given the current climate, he had pulled all patrols from the forest.
“Dogs, sir.” The captain of the Kappa unit explained, feeling slightly better since being given local anesthesia for his leg wound. “The H.S.T. had mental powers to call dogs. When we tried to take him out, the dogs attacked en masse.”
Agent Finn said that you should review the footage from the observation van.”
“You ran into Agent Finn?” Graham mentally calculated how long it would take for Riley to run from the coffee shop to the house the Kappas were watching.
“Yes sir. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure we would have made it.”
“And he was still in constant contact with Summers and Giles?”
“Well, at least something is going right.” Graham mumbled just as the medical alert sirens rang. “What now?”
Members of the Gamma squad rushed in carrying two of their own. A third man from the squad lagged behind, supporting the entire weight of someone in a fireman’s carry. Miller rushed over to help the lagging man with his burden. “What happened here?” Graham didn’t even think Gamma had been deployed that evening. Had McNamara changed the orders before leaving for Washington?
“Walsh sent us to find Dr. Angleman. When we got to his place, we found that.” One of the limping soldiers nodded towards Graham. He took a closer look at the body he was helping to carry and realized that it was indeed Dr. Angleman, and he wasn’t just unconscious; he was dead. Graham and the soldier dumped the body on an empty infirmary bed.
“What did this to him?” Graham had never seen an H.S.T. that caused a man to bloat, bleed, then ultimately die, as it appeared Angleman had.
“We’re not sure, but we were attacked by four H.S.T.s, including Hostile 17.” The limping soldier answered.
“Actually, Hostile 17 attacked the rabid one and dragged him off of me.” The other beat up soldier answered. If I didn’t know better, I would think he was trying to save my life.”
“Did you dispense with the H.S.T. that attacked you?”
“No sir. They got away. We tried a pursuit, but…”
“Understandable. I want you guys to stay here. I’m recalling all units until after tomorrow’s captains’ meeting at 0800. I don’t know what’s going on, but the natives are restless tonight, and I recommend we leave them to it.”
“But Walsh said…”
“I don’t care what Dr. Walsh said.” Graham snapped. “She’s in charge of research, and until Finn returns, I’m in charge of agent deployment. I’ve seen two units suffer injuries tonight, and neither of you were even on active patrol. I say everyone stays on base until further notice. Are we clear agent?”
“Good, now I have to contact the captains. As soon as the nurse clears one of you for active duty, bring the tape from the bread truck to my room. I expect the rest of you to follow the nurses’ orders and stay inside.” Graham ordered.
“Yes sir.” The soldiers of Gamma and Kappa watched Graham storm out of the infirmary and wondered what had happened to turn the teacher’s pets in Alpha squad against Walsh so quickly.
~ Angel’s Mansion, Wednesday, 9:38 p.m.~
“You know you shouldn’t encourage him.” Angel said from the doorway of the living room.
“Encourage who?” Giles looked up from the paper.
“You gave Spike the crossword. He’s like a monster with those things.”
“And that’s different from his normal state how?”
Angel shrugged and walked further into the room. While Giles had been gruff, he hadn’t been openly hostile and so Angel thought it might be a good time to start a conversation. “Spike said you were asking questions.”
“It’s what I do.”
“I’ll answer any question you have. I owe it to you.” Angel quietly replied.
“Somehow, I don’t think a game of twenty questions quite balances everything out.”
“I know, but it’s all I can offer you right now. Do you want to talk or not?”
“Fine. Where did you really go this evening?”
“Not here. Follow me.” Angel led Giles out into the enclosed courtyard, shutting the doors on all sides and turning on the small fountain to drown out the sounds of their voices. While it was his own home and not anybody’s business what he said, he feared the repercussions if Asher ever got word of what he was doing. “Alright, ask that again.”
“Where did you go this evening? It took you considerably longer than I would think would be necessary for holding up the Red Cross truck.”
Angel thought for a few seconds before replying. “That boy said that there were only two doctors that could do the chip removal surgery- Walsh and Angleman- and that no one would be able to reach Walsh. We went to find Angleman to convince him to remove the chip in Zoltan and Spike.”
“That boy’s name is Riley.” Giles tried not to be too smug at Angel’s discomfort with Buffy’s new boyfriend.
“We found Angleman and brought him to the hospital. We found an empty operating room in the old teaching wing they’re remodeling, and had him remove the chip from Zoltan first.”
“You had him remove the chip? That hardly sounds like the path to redemption.”
“I know that Zoltan is not the nicest guy, but putting that chip in wasn’t a fair thing to do either. I was just trying to restore the normal balance.”
“And how did you convince the doctor to remove the chip?”
Angel would have blushed if his complexion had allowed it. “We dropped a few threats, but Asher and I wouldn’t actually have done any of it. We just wanted to motivate him.” Angel hoped he was right on that last point. Asher had always been more interested in the threats than the violence back when Angel was at court. “I swore I would return him to his house as soon as he had helped us with the chips.”
“Alright, so you threatened a man but did not actually hurt him. Do I understand this correctly?”
“Well, that’s not so bad. Although, I suppose it means he’ll alert his superiors and you’ll now be a wanted vampire, putting this location in danger…. Wait, what do you mean, not exactly?”
“The doctor fixed up Zoltan, but then the demon tried out his powers by infecting the doctor with an incurable form of dengue.”
“Is this some sort of joke? If so, it’s in terribly poor taste.” Giles face went blank, and Angel began to doubt the wisdom of coming to Giles in the first place.
“We tried to get Zoltan to stop the disease, but he jumped dimensions. I don’t think he’ll be back any time soon. We then brought the doctor back to his house. It was there that we ran into El Lobo and some of the soldiers.”
“Dear lord.” Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I couldn’t imagine a worse scenario if I tried.”
Angel could think of several dozen worse scenarios, but none of them helped them with his current problem. “Giles, if it was just a problem with this military group, I wouldn’t come to you with this, I know how it must look, but I think there’s a bigger problem than having another scuffle with the foot soldiers.”
“A bigger problem?”
“Asher is here as a representative of the Vampire Council, and more specifically Belle Morte. If it were just a matter of learning about the chip, as he originally claimed, he would have taken Zoltan’s chip from the doctor and staked Spike. After all, as he is, Spike is a liability to Belle Morte.” Angel frowned, not sure if he could accurately explain this to Giles. While the man had studied vampires his entire life, it was one thing to study them, it was quite another thing to understand them. “Asher didn’t stake Spike. In fact, he’s trying to train Spike to feed on other things.”
“In our line, it’s common for masters to be able to feed off lust. Others can feed of fear or anger. If Spike succeeds in taking Asher’s ardeur, he’ll be a full master, just like Ness. Once Belle Morte has a master in Spike, she can position him to take over the Hellmouth.”
“Are you suggesting that Buffy should stake Spike before it’s too late?”
“I’m saying it may already be too late. Asher has Spike under his protection, and by extension, under Belle Morte’s protection. If Buffy kills Spike, Asher could bring the entire Council down on your heads.”
“That would be bad.”
“It might be worse. El Lobo is one of the Beast Master’s line. I think by alerting the Council to
the soldiers, the local vampires brought attention to the fact that the Hellmouth has been unclaimed for two years. Most of Ness’ power was in Belle Morte’s lust, making it relatively easy for Buffy to overcome it and attack the master. If El Lobo is here, it is only so that he can take control of the Hellmouth like Ness tried. If El Lobo were to take control, Buffy would be fighting not just against a very powerful master, but also against every dog in the county. It would be a bloodbath.”
“We got a taste of that tonight, I fear.”
“He’s just the first in a line of challengers, and if I’m guessing right, many of them will be worse than Asher and Lobo. As much as I hate to admit it, Buffy would be better off setting Spike up as the next master. If we can take down the Initiative soon, maybe Asher can get the Council to call off all other potential claims, leaving us only El Lobo to deal with, but the longer the soldiers remain, the longer the excuse for masters to send their representatives exists.”
“You mean we’ll have El Lobo, Spike, and Asher to deal with.”
“I mean you’ll have El Lobo to deal with. Spike can’t harm humans with the chip. He might find other ways to feed, but as long as the chip remains, he won’t cause the slayer any problems.”
“So we need to keep him away from Walsh at all costs. And what about Asher? Where does he fit in?”
“He goes where his mistress points him. If he convinces her that Spike’s well positioned, she’ll tell him to leave.”
“He’s going to break Willow’s heart.” Giles pronounced.
“I know.” Angel muttered.
“Damnit. It just isn’t fair.” Giles slapped the fountain ledge, startling Angel from his thoughts. “After the mayor, I thought the girls would get some time off from this mess. Now their hearts are just going to be trampled all over again.”
“Buffy seems to be doing fine.” Angel tried not to sound bitter.
“You have no idea just how strong Buffy’s heart really is.” Giles stared at Angel. “Now, if there is nothing else you have to say to me, I think I should retire for the night.”
“Just one more thing. Asher and Spike are going to try to bring down the Initiative tomorrow, with you or without you. It would probably cost fewer lives if the slayer were involved.”
“And what if Buffy decides she doesn’t want to turn on her fellow humans, no matter how deplorable their behavior? Which side will you be on then?”
“I tried to sit on the fence, but it won’t work. When all this is over, Buffy won’t need me, but Spike might. It’s my fault he’s in the mess he is, and if I’m not there to temper Asher’s influence, it’ll only get worse. I don’t want to stand in Buffy’s way, but I can’t deny what I am.”
“So you’re giving up on redemption?”
“There’s more than one way to be redeemed.” Angel took a step back, letting the shadows of the garden overtake him. Clearly he had told Giles all he was willing to tell, and it was up to the watcher to make all the pieces fit.
~Angel’s Mansion, Thursday, 4:32 a.m.~
Asher could feel dawn, still an hour off. It would not do for the girl to wake up and find him after the sun, and if he was to find alternate sanctuary, he needed to start looking now. He gently rolled Willow off him, listening for any changes in her slow breathing. Content that she was still asleep, he got out of bed and went out to the hall.
“Hey, I don’t suppose you know a four letter word for extreme passion?” Spike asked, strolling down the hallway on his patrol of the Scoobies’ rooms. While they all claimed to tuck in early, he didn’t trust them not to plot on staking him in his sleep. He had just passed the sound of the slayer snoring and was passing the boy wonder’s room.
Asher cocked his head in concentration. “Ardeur.”
“That has too many letters.”
“No, I mean that this is the perfect opportunity for you to learn about the ardeur. Here, put your hand on the door, and listen. What do you hear?” Asher whispered.
Spike put his hand on the door. “Harris is getting it on with his demon chick.”
“You can sense them.”
“Even a puny human could hear them through the door. That chit’s got quite a set of lungs on her.”
“True.” Asher allowed a faint smirk to grace his lips. “But that is not what I mean. I want you to close your eyes and try to feel the energy around them.”
Spike closed his eyes and concentrated. A minute later his shoulders slouched. “I got nothing.”
“Here. Feel what I feel.” Asher rested his hand on top of Spike’s, and let down the shields of his own faint ardeur. While his gift was not nearly as strong as Jean-Claude’s had been, he could send the ardeur through Spike to the couple on the other side, and feel the wave return to him, like an inevitable tide.
“I can taste blood on my tongue.” Spike murmured.
“Concentrate on that taste. It is not blood, but life.” Asher muttered. “I want you to very slowly swallow that taste. Let it fill you, slowly.” The moan coming from Spike’s lips nearly echoed the moan coming from the other room.
“Hey, guys, what are you doing?” Willow’s voice cut through their concentration, and they both dropped their hands from the door. “Guys?” As they both looked guiltily at Willow, she caught the sound Xander and Anya going at it. “Ew! I can’t believe you were listening to them. What sort of disgusted perv…?” Before Willow could finish her incriminations, the wave of ardeur swung back, hitting Spike with a full dose.
Unable to stop himself, Spike flung himself at Willow, stopping her rant with a desperate kiss. “Mmrph!” Willow reached out to Asher, hoping he could pull Spike off before the vampire got any farther with whatever he was doing. Asher grabbed her hand and rested another hand on Spike’s back, trying to coax the ardeur back into him through their connection. With a final pop, his shields closed off as Spike backed up from the kiss. “Phtth!” Spike spat.
“Pttph, yourself.” Willow wrapped her arms around her, “How dare you try to distract me with your evil vampire cooties?”
“What, and you think I wanted nerd cooties?” Spike retorted.
“Enough.” Asher pronounced. They both stayed silent. “Monsieur Spike, how is your hunger?”
Spike stopped his argument and thought. “Not as bad,” he admitted.
“You have had a taste. We will continue your training later.” He dismissed the vampire. “As for you young lady, you were supposed to be asleep.”
“Well, I was, and then I wasn’t and you were gone, and I was worried that something…”
“Shh…” Asher picked up the girl as though she weighed nothing. “I would not have left if I thought you were going to wake up.”
“Well, I did.”
“I see that.” Honestly, Asher was surprised not only that she had woken up but that she had managed to walk on her cast almost the entire hall length without the vampires noticing. Clearly the ardeur was his master as much as he was the master of it. “Since you are awake, and I still have almost an hour on the edge of night, was there something you wanted to do?”
“Well, you could tell me more about this ardeur? Can you really feed through closed doors? Can you really teach Spike to feed like that? What kind of trouble could he get into at the Bronze if he could feed on hormones? Does anyone get hurt by it? Would it hurt Xander and Anya if you kept feeding and I didn’t interrupt you?”
“I have a better idea. How about I give you a practical demonstration?”
“Hmm.” Willow smiled mischievously. Asher took that his cue to carry Willow back into their bedroom. He hadn’t had this much amusement from the ardeur in nearly a century.