I Blame the Dutch (mpoetess) wrote,
I Blame the Dutch
mpoetess

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On the Good Ship

Lollipop Venus...

Co-written with piedmargaret, milked betaed by wolfling and wesleysgirl.

Spike/Ethan, post-Chosen, post-apocalypse, post-haste. Eventually NC-17, currently PGish. Pay no attention to the dead bovine behind the curtain.

Part One can be found here.



On the Good Ship Venus -- Chapter Two


Well, this day has turned out to be one very different from the many thousands that preceded it.

This is one that has created a memory Ethan will savour for as long as his mind can hold onto it. He's made a new friend -- one who speaks just a little bit like Ripper -- and in wonderfully preposterous circumstances. He's had his first vaguely intelligent conversation since, hmm... since that old girl he'd found dying in the outskirts of Chicago.

He had liked her. Stayed with her for weeks, bringing her food and clean water, pretending so hard to be a Good Samaritan that he actually became one -- anything to prolong her allotted time and keep the conversation going.

Ethan, who'd never cared much for human company while it had been ubiquitous, now treasures intelligent or even humdrum discussion more than almost anything else.

He managed to shed a tear or two when her soul moved on, mostly in self-pity of course, but still. Leah -- that had been her name. She'd been a child when the Ending came. Ripper liked her too. Said she had real spirit.

Ethan has a feeling this new friend of his will probably turn out badly, vampires being what they are. Well, were. But even if he can keep this companion for just, say, twenty-four hours, that will make those a better twenty-four hours than any since Leah died.

The sun is almost down when they leave the shop, and there are plenty of long shadows. "Come along, mate. This way," Ethan says brightly, and sets off down the road looking for a clothing or department store.

There are soft bare footfalls behind him on the pavement, but it's not long before they stop. He turns to see the vampire standing stock still, staring out at the empty street. Spike's mouth is half-open, and the look in his narrowed eyes is... somewhere between lost and fascinated. "It's like a George Romero flick. With a smaller budget."

Ethan comes back and lays a hand briefly on Spike's shoulder, feeling vaguely sympathetic. "They're all like this, I'm afraid. Or a lot more broken. The big cities are the worst; we don't risk them anymore. Not even for the books. We'll have to catch rabbits, I think."

"*We* don't risk?" Spike focuses on him, curious now, head atilt. "Who's 'we' when we're at home?"

"Ripper and I, of course." Ethan pats him again, understanding that it's confusing and prepared to make many allowances if it means this new companionship will continue. "Although 'we' the rabbit catchers will have to be you and I, chum. Ripper doesn't deal too well with such things anymore."

Spike is silent for a second, watching him, but at last nods his head. "Right. Ripper. Of course."

"Well done." Ethan grins at Spike encouragingly. "You know, much though I do admire your pale and pretty attractions, clothes could probably help you feel more... normal?"

Spike glances down at Ethan's cloak, fallen open from around his shoulders, and half-grins. "Not what they're wearing in Milan this year?" He twitches the cloak shut against the cool breeze, but there's nothing of body consciousness in the gesture, any more than there was earlier, when the vampire stood stark naked before Ethan.

Ethan chuckles darkly. "Actually, it quite possibly *is* what they're wearing in Milan... although if Europe has followed the same pattern as the Americas, the city itself will be empty. Come now, this way."

He walks backwards for a few steps until he knows Spike's actually going to follow him. There are things he wants to know, questions to ask, but all in good time. It's a seduction for all that it isn't sexual -- although he certainly wouldn't say no; he thinks he remembers well enough what goes where. But this is about companionship, not nookie.

Ethan will stalk his prey carefully, making no sudden moves, until the moment hits that Spike knows he's truly got nowhere else to be, no one else to be with... and then Ethan will have him hook, line and pale pretty sinker. And there'll be nothing Ripper can do about that whatsoever.

The department store, when they find it, is an old one, set off from the rest -- two stories of brick and mortar, spider-webbed with metal fire escapes. It could almost be quaint, nestled there among the low-level strip mall buildings, if they weren't all equally antique in this abandoned town. The street doors are locked, but Spike doesn't wait for Ethan to magic their way in. With a shrug, he puts a fist through one pane of glass, then the other, and reaches through to knock the steel bar latch from its perch. Any alarm that might once have shrieked lies silent, bereft of electricity.

Inside, the ground floor is coated in the dust that was absent from the Emporia Marketplace; it has filtered down over the years from the floors above. Spike stands looking up the still, silver steps of the escalator in the centre of the chamber. "What'd I tell you? Dawn of the Dead, direct-to-video remake. Are there zombies?"

"Unlikely," Ethan replies absently. "That would require bodies." He locates a sign on a pillar and wipes it clean. "Third floor, menswear," he reads. "I could possibly animate a few shop dummies, if you've a craving for such things."

"I'll pass, thanks. Fine for a little light comedy in the movies, but the real versions aren't too choosy about whether their dinner's live or dead. Had to fight off a pack of 'em once, a few..." He stops. "More than a few years ago, I guess." Spike shakes his head and starts for the unmoving steps.

Ethan watches after the vampire for a few moments. He knows Spike isn't really facing the truth yet; knows he won't until he starts asking questions and actually finds out that truth. All of it. Ethan knows that could take weeks.

But still there's something strange about this one.

He trots after Spike, who is climbing the dead stairs in great strides. Ethan takes them one at a time, climbing rapidly. There is absolutely no need for this impatience anymore, but the vampire doesn't understand, and Ethan wants to talk. When he catches up, he asks, "Been drinking the Lethe too long, or are you always like this?"

Spike keeps climbing -- he doesn't slow down, but now that they're apace, it's not hard for longer legs to keep up. "Like what?"

Ethan considers his words. "Hmm, controlled, calm. For a vampire, that is. Most of them would have had a hissy fit by now." He chuckles softly. "The entire species always seemed to be on the verge of one terrible tantrum or another, like fanged Violet Elizabeths. Still, I wouldn't have wished extinction upon them. Ripper feels differently, of course."

Spike pauses, turns to look at him. "Calm?" It's the same tone a child would use to say 'Squashed beetroot?' There's a pause, before the frown. "Extinction?"

Ethan continues to walk. "Yes, m'dear. You're the dodo resurrected. Ah, menswear. In pretty good nick too." He turns and winks at Spike. "For a dead bird."

"The menswear or me?" Although he catches up at the top of the stairs, Spike isn't looking at Ethan as he asks the question. Instead, he's staring rather fixedly at one of those shop dummies Ethan had offered to animate. "Don't answer that; doubt the old ego could take it if you think that's -- " A rather bilious yellow running suit. "-- in better nick than I am." Ethan can't see his face; after too long a second, it's obvious that's deliberate.

"Now, I know my concentration is probably not what it used to be," Ethan remarks casually, heading off towards a display of colourful ties. "But I'm fairly certain I've already complimented your not inconsiderable charms and more than once. Or is it my taste you are questioning as opposed to your body's appeal? My tastes are my own, I'll grant you, but I can assure you that I've always had an eye for quality."

And because Ethan still has a sadistic streak a mile wide, despite his need for company, he deliberately chooses the most ghastly polyester tie on the rack and holds it up as if it were treasure.

"Mostly your sanity, but I s'pose I don't have much room to talk on that account." Spike takes the tie from him gingerly, then loops it about the neck of the tracksuit-wearing dummy. "Y'know, they *would* pick me for the only vampire on the bloody planet. Any other vamp except one would be over the moon at the lack of competition, and he'd be getting off on the sheer beatific joy of knowing he's the very fucking last."

Spike straightens the tie, steps back as if to admire the view, then kicks the mannequin's head so hard that it flies off and shatters a display case a good twenty feet away. "Mature enough for you?" He's examining a rack of blue jeans, his back turned, before the words are quite out of his mouth.

Ethan shivers, memories flickering like fireflies within his skull. "Good boy," he says a little shakily. "Thrash the plastic people; I'm sure they enjoy it." Suddenly he can smell tobacco and beer, feel hard lips pressing into him, other hard things pressing below... "Do you smoke?" he asks, apropos of everything.

Spike looks over his shoulder, jeans on a hanger in his hand, lips twisted in a painful smirk. "Why, you need a light? I seem to have lost mine... somewhere. No, wait, don't tell me. Fags are extinct too. This is your way of breaking it to me gently."

"Actually no. They are all rather stale, but I can fix that. We could find a tobacconist's," Ethan offers, keen to smell tobacco on the vampire... and perhaps some other things too. "Whisky and other spirits have kept well also if you can find them. But most liquor stores were raided decades ago. Did you say you wanted leather?"

With several pairs of trousers over his arm now, Spike nods thoughtfully. "Lost a good coat on the trip over from Never Never Land. Be nice to find a replacement."

"*This* is Never Never Land for the likes of you and me... Oh yes, very funny, Ripper, and not at all predictable." Ethan sighs. "Leather's this way, Peter." He turns and heads towards an area full of brand name leatherwear.

There's a definite moment before Spike follows him, although they're growing shorter, these delays while the vampire processes something Ethan did or didn't say. Then Spike is pawing through coats on a circular rack, the slide-screech-slide of metal hangers on metal tubing quite loud in the echoing space of the empty store.

Spike holds up a coat, three quarter length, or it would be on someone a bit taller. "How come nobody looted this place?" The question is suspicious, almost accusatory.

Ethan shrugs. "So many towns, so few humanoids. And the later generations are wary of anything to do with times before the Ending. It was rather depressing how quickly our old species degenerated into ignorance and savagery. Any looting that happens now is usually done by demons, and their interests, apparently, lie elsewhere." He purses his lips as he looks at the coat. "Wouldn't you prefer something shorter? With zips perhaps?"

"Maybe." Spike holds up the coat before him, draping it against his shoulder, then lets it fall over the top of the rack with an unsatisfied shake of the head. "Yeah. Never gonna find the old one again anyway. Might as well go for practical."

"We'll make you a fur cloak like mine for the length," Ethan decides. "They are multipurpose, so very practical. You'll have to make do with rabbit though; bears are hard to find." Ethan pulls out a biker's jacket and offers it to Spike. With a bit of scuffing and the stink of stale tobacco, it could be just the thing. "This one's nice."

Spike takes it, adding to the pile over his arm. Looks around for a moment until he fixes on the dressing rooms against the far wall -- then laughs and drops the pile of clothing where he stands. He shimmies into a pair of jeans that look like they ought to be a size too small, but aren't, then doffs Ethan's cloak, sliding the leather jacket on over bare arms and chest. "Not bad."

"Not bad at all," Ethan agrees, and he knows he's leering. It has been a very long time indeed since he has looked at anyone real and felt lust. "Cold, of course. But you can always snuggle up under my cloak until we make you one of your own." After smirking at Spike, he decides to pretend Ripper hasn't spoken and picks up the cloak, fastening it back around his own shoulders.

"Er, yeah. Or I could find myself a shirt or two." Spike's off again, halfway across the salesfloor, the clothes he'd been carrying still lying in the pile where he dropped them. "Don't think the Conan the Barbarian look's quite my style."

Spike's not dim enough to have missed the implication, or any of the ones that came before it, and he's certainly not shy with his body, so why he keeps letting Ethan's personal comments slide away is... a mystery. Mysteries are good; they pass the time, even the little ones.

Ethan follows, watches, enjoys... "Do you play guitar?"

"No." Spike is ripping open t-shirt packages, comparing -- what, the variances between three shades of black? "Tried to learn once. Wasn't pretty. Tutor ended up with his capo in a less than friendly place. Why?"

"No reason," Ethan replies, a little sourly. He moves away, wandering off through the darkened store to see what he can find. "I don't have to listen to you, you know," he mutters to Ripper. "You're not real. Not like he is."

***

Spike watches without watching, lips pursed to look like he's trying to decide between Hanes and Fruit of the Loom. Rayne moves though the aisles like a bizarre fur-covered magpie, darting in to grab some item of interest, then out again, turning it over in his hands like he's found the bloody Hope Diamond instead of a package of clean socks. He's muttering occasionally to himself, though he's too far away now for Spike to hear what he's saying.

That's alright. Spike's heard enough of the one-sided conversation to get the gist. The man's been wandering about by himself for so long, talking to his ghosts for lack of company, that at least one of them has started talking back.

He gets that. Spike's been there, from both sides of the looking-glass. Talked to plenty of spooks, both real and imagined, in his day, and heard the crazy side of a million conversations with the air. Never knew how much came from the inside of Dru's pretty head, of course, and how much was something he just wasn't equipped to hear. His own phantoms in that basement over the Hellmouth had turned out to be real enough, for that matter, for all that they'd run roughshod through his skull like he'd handed 'em a map and a key.

For a moment, he entertains the possibility that the wizard bloke really is haunted. Rupert Giles hanging round a hundred years past his death, just to look disapprovingly at Spike over his invisible spectacles -- Spike wouldn't put it past him. But that would be... Spike muffles a laugh that threatens to hurt his throat. That would be too kind really. The jackasses in charge of sending him back here, now, after everybody he'd ever cared about saving is gone... they wouldn't give him that. And Ethan's mutterings are too bitter and self-aware to be directed at any sort of real spirit.

Spike puts on a t-shirt; grabs a package of the same sort for extras, and heads towards Rayne and his non-existent Ripper, new and never as good jacket slung over his shoulder.

Ethan, who is now in the sportswear area, seems to have found something in a tub holding many pairs of socks. The something is alive by the smell of it, and terrified, but small enough that Spike can't immediately see it. Ethan's cooing at it, but holding back. "She's a little too small to use as the start of your cloak," he says, as Spike gets closer. "Or even as your supper. I think she's pregnant. Isn't that ingratiating of her?"

"Why, were you planning on settling down and raising baby..." Spike peers into the bin, but can't quite make out what it is, beyond the scent of scared rodent. "Squeaky things?"

"I think she can probably do that by herself. They'll outlive us all, you know. They are the meek inheriting the earth."

Spike snorts, the irony building up in his chest just a little too heavily. "Great. Nice to know we saved the world from ultimate evil so Mickey and Minnie and all their fuzzy little sproglets could inherit it." He's assuming, of course, that they did save the world. Otherwise there'd be stone-age vamps swarming over everything and 'extinct' would be more likely to apply to humans than his own lot. Not that Spike had really known what his own lot was anymore, even before he woke up as a dodo.

Rayne reaches hesitantly forward into the bin, and the fear scent increases. Spike's ears can now catch a tiny heartbeat, impossibly rapid. Long-faced, Ethan pulls back again and says glumly, "They don't like me. Animals, that is. It stops the larger ones trying to eat me, of course. Silver linings and all that. And I can still kill them from afar. But there's destined to be no yapping dog at the ankles of this fool." He stares silently into the socks for a while, but then looks up suddenly. "You saved the world? Why ever would you want to do that? There was a vampire with a soul, I remember... but he didn't look remotely like you."

"Thank god for that. Last thing the world needs is two of him." Or even one, right? If there's a dull, ugly throb at that, in amongst all the other dull, throbbing things inside him, Spike isn't willing to pick it out and look it in the face. "Anyway." He's torn between bragging and giving all the credit to her -- and a pox on his stupid conscience-y soul that it even cares, when there's no one else alive who would. "It seemed like a good idea at the time? Saving the world, that is. Gather we won, but you'd have to ask somebody else for the details. I seem to have got a bit dead in the process."

Eyes that seem almost inhumanly dark are still staring at Spike. "No one else to ask, mate. Not that I care overly much. Unless the threat you were fighting was human stupidity, I'd say you succeeded." Rayne gestures dismissively around the store and gives him an ironic half-smile. "For what's it's worth. Are you hungry? If so, we need to hunt for you, as even if I'd let you near my veins, I somehow doubt my blood could sustain even a semblance of life these days."

Of course Spike's hungry; vampires are always hungry. Even on a full belly there's always that little nudge in the back of your skull that has you wondering when the next meal's going to be. The trick is drowning it out enough that you aren't slapping at your ear like there's a mosquito all the time, but not so much that you get lazy and stupid. "I could eat." What, though, is anybody's guess. Rabbits. Squirrels. Joy.

Ethan pats him on the leather-jacketed back. "I didn't see any signs of humanity on my way into this place. Recently living humanity, that is. I did see a largish herd of cattle however. Think you're up to a spot of cow-wrangling?"

Spike raises an eyebrow. "You're joking."

***

Ethan wasn't joking.

Neither is the well-fed -- no shortage of grain gone wild here in what was once tall corn country -- and highly suspicious cow Spike's facing down.

Right -- surreal as it is, it's not like he's never done this before. Granted the memory's dimmed by time and the sincere desire *not* to recall certain nights on the run when he'd been desperate enough to drink from anything that walked, but he thinks he's got the basic gist of it. Wait for the dozy thing to fall asleep, then slice it right down the side of the throat. Quick and sharp enough that it never even quite wakes up, never makes a fuss, and in the morning he'll be long gone, or at least curled up in some nice dark hole somewhere.

Except Spike doesn't have to worry about hiding from angry farmers now, does he? So he doesn't have to wait for the thing to fall asleep. He can just have at it.

Any time now.

"Do say if I can do anything to help," Ethan calls from the safety of the sidelines, sounding highly amused. He can't get closer, it seems, without spooking the cattle. "Perhaps you need a lasso or something. Or a hat. A nice ten-gallon maybe."

Spike tries to remember if there's a reason he shouldn't kill the man. Right. Soul. Plus if he's telling the truth, Ethan's the only intelligent company around for miles.

Intelligent company is overrated, Spike thinks, staring at the cow. Which is staring right back at him.

"I don't need a hat. I just need the bloody thing to stop *looking* at me."

It's ridiculous; he's killed human beings who stared straight into his eyes and begged for their lives. Drunk cow and pig, and in those babbling-in-the-basement days, he's pretty sure he chowed down on a few of Minnie the Meek's larger, plumper cousins, brain-chip or no. So why is this one animal driving him bonkers?

"Are you quite sure you don't have a soul?" the sorcerer asks, suddenly suspicious.

Spike takes a step towards the beast and grits his teeth. "I'm quite sure you're cracked," he shouts over his shoulder. Which isn't exactly a lie.

"Indeed I am," Ethan agrees easily, seeming unbothered by the fact. "But that doesn't mean you are properly soulless like a vampire should be." The other cows low, milling about uneasily.

Spike would like to believe it's because they sense a predator, but he's pretty sure it's Ethan they're afraid of, not him, given the relative calmness of this one. Even the animals can tell he's not what he once was.

"I could kill it for you if you like," Ethan offers. "But I rather thought you'd want a living victim. They won't let me close enough to entrance them."

"I don't need you to kill it for me."

Entrancing it would've been nice though. Dru could've, times gone. Could've hummed a little lullaby and had the thing nuzzling her palm while she drained it dry -- or drank just enough to get by, if the fancy took her. She'd let them wander off with a garland of daisies round their necks sometimes, hardly the worse for wear. Not something Spike could ever do, no matter how much it -- minus the flowers -- appeals right now. God, no, he doesn't want a living victim -- not that kind, not the kind that dies in his hands.

Except he does, wants to just shake off his human face and sink fangs into the nearest, warmest thing. Some part of him is even calculating the odds on the wizard's fingers being faster than Spike's reflexes now that he's at least half awake, because human is always better than not -- hotter and spicier and filled with all those things that make them... intelligent company.

Then there's the bit that makes him want to retch at the thought. The bit that can't even bear to picture those brainless brown cow-eyes going dull, much less a human's. Inconvenient piece, that. You'd almost wonder why the hell he'd asked for it back, for all the good it's done him so far.

It's that thought, oddly enough, that spurs him into action, because he recognises it for the self-pitying bullshit that it is. Spike moves forward with a speed that might just give chaos magic a run for its money, and slices his blade cleanly across the cow's throat, before it has the chance to blink at him. "Sorry," he mutters as the animal falls, though whether to the cow or his own wincing, nancing soul, he's not sure. "Well, don't just stand there and gawk," he barks at Ethan. "Bring me the sodding thermos."

"*Please*," Ethan emphasises primly, but he meanders casually over and hands Spike the large flask they liberated from the store. He looks down at the cow, at the blood pouring from its neck, with an expression of curiosity and slight distaste, and ponders, "I wonder what it feels like, bleeding to death. How was it for you?"

"Uncomfortable," Spike says shortly, catching as much as possible of the blood in the container. It still spills over his hands, scarlet against their paleness. Hot. In more ways than one, and there's a special hell Spike has in mind for whoever up there thought getting him hard over killing a cow would be a funny idea. One eye stares up at him, blank and glassy now.

"Too civilised to drink from the vein?" Ethan asks, still in that same tone of amused curiosity.

"No." The Thermos is full anyway, blood slopping over the lip. Won't do to waste the rest. He lowers his head and drinks.

He's crouched over this dead and cooling carcass, and there's cow hair brushing at his lips and itching, and the blood is warm enough to be almost right, and rank enough to be totally, totally wrong. The taste, the slickness, the fear hormones -- it's all mindless and wrong. It's always been wrong; it's not what he was made for. There's no... spirit to it.

Hungry as Spike is, and wrong as it is and always will be, more wrong is that even now he's thinking about how he *looks*. Feeding like an animal. From an animal. He's half-disgusted by the picture he's got to be making in Ethan's eyes, and half-proud of it, because it's still him. Still Spike. What he is. Whatever the hell that might be.

He drinks until his belly's full, 'til it threatens to make him sick. Then he turns and looks back. Lets his features melt away to human, *then* wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. "Never said I *didn't* have a soul," he points out almost casually, as he screws the lid back onto the container full of blood.

Ethan's expression is bizarrely... sympathetic? His hand flicks out, a long finger almost but not quite touching Spike's face. "Missed a bit."

Spike wipes it off with his thumb, then licks it away. "Tastes like shit, but you can live on it." Somewhere Paul Hogan rolls over in his grave, or at least it pleases Spike to think so.

"After a fashion." Ethan smiles, leaving his hand held out for Spike to pull himself up on. "What would you care to do now? The night is young and the world is old and empty."

Spike glances down at the dead cow -- and at the rest of the herd, just now noticing that something's not right with their neighbour and heading in his direction. 'She always was a bit of a loner, but we never expected she'd get mugged right there in the field. What's the world coming to?'

He reaches for Ethan's hand, slicking it unavoidably with blood. Not a flinch from the other man. "Could do with getting the hell out of here, for one."

Ethan waves his hands lazily at the herd, and they shy back, tripping over each other in their haste to not be close to the sorcerer. They low nervously from a respectful distance away. "I think it's true to say that I have no plans."

That's the last thing Spike expected -- or wants -- to hear. Plans are good. Plans... will keep him moving. Doing something; anything. "Tell me you don't mean you actually *live* here. In... Podunkia, USA. You've got to be passing through on the way to *somewhere*."

"Passing through, yes." Ethan's tone is still irritatingly amused. "But on the road to nowhere. There's nowhere to go, dear boy. Well, there's climate still. One can head north for the cold, south for the heat. I travel for a change of scenery. And because Ripper gets restless, of course."

Ah, Ripper. Of course. If Spike felt like standing still long enough to think about it -- about anything -- he could probably waste a good, oh, half an hour calculating the irony points the yoiks upstairs deserve for pairing him up with this one. The one bloke in the world who not only remembers the same world Spike does -- or at least a tiny, twisted bit of it -- but looks set to remind him of it constantly.

Spike wipes the blood from his knife blade onto his jeans -- denim'll wash, steel's worth taking care of. Even the cheap sort you can find in a department store Sporting Goods section. Maybe especially that sort, since who knows when they'll come across another. He tucks the knife away inside his jacket and realises, without thinking about it any harder than he has to, that he's thinking in terms of 'they.' Asking where the wizard's going, like it matters, like Spike couldn't bugger off in any random direction he cares to.

Which is why he's standing in the middle of a field, holding a thermos full of cow's blood and going absolutely nowhere. Because there's nowhere to -- "Scenery," Spike says, to drown out the echo of Ethan's words. "And fucking Kansas is your idea of an improvement on the last place you saw?"

"I just walk where whim takes me, and she's such a capricious creature. I think she wanted us to meet." Ethan takes a single step forward. It takes him into space Spike considers his own. "It doesn't do to disappoint the bitch, I've found."

If he'd somehow missed the bloke's open compliments before, and he hadn't, he'd have to be stupid, blind, deaf, and noseless to mistake Ethan's meaning now. Spike isn't any of those, though for a second he considers pretending to be at least the first.

Spike steps back, wipes his hands on his jeans as well. "Yeah? I've disappointed a few bitches in my time. Usually came off better for it." If better was a hole in his chest where a goddess had tried to pull out his heart, weighed against a kiss from the Slayer, for instance. Or a little more recently and closer to the subject at hand, a cold bed when a twice-ex vengeance demon would've been perfectly willing to warm it up for him.

Ethan's lips quirk. He seems neither hurt nor put off by the obvious rejection. "Too soon? Yes, you're quite right of course. Can't expect you to be ready yet." He rolls his eyes suddenly. "For once, my dear oppressor, you spoke the truth. Now be a dear and shut up, would you?" Turning from Spike, he looks across the prairie at the low half-moon. "That brings us back to the question of what next, of course. We can stay here for a while, see what other treasures Emporia holds, cut some more bovine throats... or we can move on to the next empty town. Your choice, Spike. New boy's treat."

*His* choice? God, Spike doesn't know. He's supposed to make decisions, when what he most wants to do right now is... Spike doesn't even have a clue, aside from the 'close your eyes and when you wake up it'll all be a dream' option. He kicks poor Bossy's carcass with the toe of his cheapie-mart boot, which brings an utterly ridiculous flash of guilt and at least the edge of a decision, though it's more stalling than any sort of real answer. "You in the mood for steak? Might as well stay long enough for waste not, want not."

Ethan turns, looks down at the dead cow, and sighs. "It's really not the same, I've found. Not without the condiments, chips, and all the rest of the gubbins. And once you've butchered one of those things and smelled its guts, it's really not something you want to put in your mouth." He poked it in the distended stomach with his shoe. "Onion rings. I miss them, don't you? No, I suppose you wouldn't. What era do you originate from anyway?"

"Victorian. God save the ever-lovin' Queen and her never-ending litter of sprogs. Which has squat-all to do with onion rings and God being stupid enough not to save *them*." His mouth, still coppery with animal blood, waters at the thought. Onion blossom. Barbecue wings. Good whisky and cheap beer. Man U. Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester bloody -- yeah.

Ethan's lips are pursed. "We could make a nice beef stew, I suppose. It would be something to do. Some of the canned vegetables back in the town should still be palatable. But there's no need to worry about food on my account. I need it less than you do. It's mere nostalgia."

Rayne doesn't eat. Of course he doesn't eat. He gets by on magic, same way he's managed to survive a hundred years. Is it a hundred years since things went to hell or a hundred since Spike went up in flames? Spike doesn't know, doesn't want to ask. Ethan doesn't eat. But they could make beef stew. For nostalgia.

"Beef. Stew." Spike laughs so hard, he's sure he's torn a hole in his throat. He can't have, though, because here comes another one. And another. He should stop now, since if he doesn't, he might never. Funny, though, they keep coming. "Beef." Choke. "Fucking. Stew." They keep coming 'til he's sprawled on the grass next to a dead cow, arms resting on his knees, head hanging between them. Wheezing just to get enough air in to laugh again. Pretty sure the thing that feels like it's cracking in the centre of his chest has jack-shit to do with oxygen deprivation.

He feels a hand on the back of his neck, fingers massaging softly into his hairline. "Shh," Ethan murmurs soothingly. "There's nothing anyone can do."

It sets off another paroxysm of laughter, because Spike can *see* exactly why it's meant to be comforting, and damned if it isn't, just a little. Nothing Spike can do. Nothing Ethan can do, so no use asking if he's got any time travel spells up his sleeve or up his arse. Nothing the Wonderful Wizard of fucking Oz can do, so no use in setting off from Kansas in the greenest direction. No use in wondering where Spike might've gone wrong, if maybe whatever it was wouldn't have happened if the amazing flaming vampire had been there to sort it out or rescue the ones the world just doesn't seem real without.

They're really gone. Buffy. Dawn. Dru, wherever she'd flitted away to. Sodding, smirking Angel and his terrible, no good, very bad hair. Poor one-eyed Harris and Anya, who the idiot should never have let slip through his hands. Giles, no matter what mocking echo of him Ethan carries round in his haunted head. *It's* really gone, the world Spike thought they were saving when he told Buffy to climb the hell out of that hole and leave him to see how it ended. *This* is how it ended.

Running won't fix it, sleeping won't fix it, not thinking won't fix it. Screaming, or pretending it doesn't make him want to, won't fix it. There's nothing he can do, so there's nothing he *has* to do. Except... be. Or not. Even that's up to him.

Spike breathes in deep and laughs again, this time softer, and less ragged, though his throat is raw. "Fuck," he says quietly, and then just to see if he has it left in him, shouts it. Hurts. Doesn't fix anything. Except maybe a little.

"I did offer," Ethan points out.

This time, though it tortures his throat, Spike's laughter is real. "So you did." He holds up his Thermos. "Even took me out to dinner, didn't you." He runs his other hand through his hair, pushing tangled curls off his forehead and only half-wondering if he'll be able to keep himself in gel and bleach. If it matters anymore. "Maybe later. Don't want to get a reputation for putting out on the first date."

He looks up in time to see Ethan's lips forming an amused moue. "Oh, don't worry," the old sorcerer says, "I won't tell."

TBC
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