Career Advancement

Two Ladies of Quality


Melvin hesitated, then turned back to Xander. "Starting up again. Just got one more block to fill in. How you doin', kid?"

Xander closed his eyes again. "Doing fine." He took a deep breath as the buzzing started and the sting came back. "Looking for a tattoo, Spike?"

"Nah," said the lazy voice, "had one back at the turn of the century, but it faded after a decade, so I figured why bother." He paused. "Turn of the last century, that is."

"Let me guess, blood and daggers and thorns."

"Little fish," he said after several moments. "Little burning fish. Chinese bloke did 'em."

Melvin grunted. "Chinese do good work with ink."

Xander thought he recognized the flat, remote tone of Spike's voice. It sounded a lot like that voice on his balcony that bad night. "You're probably the sort to do weird piercings, too."

That got a normal sounding laugh. "I've had more things pierced through my flesh than you can dream of, whelp."

"Not something I try to dream of at all, bleachie."

"I'm guessing you two know each other, then," Melvin said.

Xander and Spike both snickered.

Five minutes later, Melvin straightened and popped his neck. "And that's that." He picked up the hand mirror and angled it so Xander could see the finished product. "And there it is."

In the middle of a red, annoyed-looking spot was a deep black symbol about an inch high, permanently embedded in his flesh. A personal, perpetual place of quiet that would travel with him. He reached around to touch the edge of the red area.

"Stop that," Melvin said. He slapped a regular gauze bandage over the tattoo and taped it down. "Leave that be. You can show it off in the morning. And like your mother told you, don't pick at it or scratch it."

Xander pouted at little at having his new ornament hidden. "That's it? Nothing about treating it or if it starts mutating on me or anything?"

Melvin sighed and Spike snickered. "Gat," Melvin called to the gnarly thing that had been carving on the stone thingy and was now swigging a beer while he read an old People magazine, "where's the sheets with the newbie instructions for tattoos?" Gat headed for a file cabinet, dug around, then came back with a sheet of paper. Melvin glanced at it, then handed it back. "The human instructions, Gat." Gat shrugged, went back, and returned with a different sheet.

Xander took the paper and blinked at the amount of text, then he realized it was one paragraph repeated in about a dozen different languages. The instructions were little more than what Melvin had already said--including the phrase "like your mother told you"--so he decided a quick Google when he got home was a good idea.

He pushed himself off the chair, wincing at stiff joints and the pull of tape on his back. "So what do I owe you?" he asked as he pulled on his shirt. The waistband of his jeans rubbed against the bandage, so he unbuttoned the top button and let the waistband sag a little.

Melvin led the way to the front counter and the register. Xander raised an eyebrow at the credit card stickers on the register. "You guys take Visa?"

"It's the 21st century, kid--by human count, anyway. A modern business needs modern banking." He took Xander's card and ran it through the reader.

"The banks don't care that they're dealing with someone who isn't--" Melvin raised a furry orange eyebrow "--human?"

"It's the color of the money, not the color of the fur. Not everybody can cope, though." He nodded towards Spike. "Old vamps get lost easy."

"Oi!" Spike protested. "I cope just fine, thank you very much."

Xander snickered to himself as he signed the credit card receipt and added a tip, but he studied Spike out of the corner of his eye. The vampire had gone beyond lean and into gaunt. He watched the world around him, but his attention kept drifting to some haunted place behind his eyes, and his forehead knotted unhappily.

He handed back the receipt. "Thanks a lot, Melvin. I'll be sure to recommend you to any of my friends who are looking for tattoos."

"Much obliged, kid. Come on back if anything doesn't look right."

Xander nodded and headed out the door. To none of his surprise, Spike meandered after him.

Things were a little busier out on the street. Some nightclub type place had opened up down the block, with music coming out the open door and a crowd waiting to get in. Xander watched the activity for a bit, wondering what criteria were used in the demon world to determine who was hip enough to let into the hot spots.

"Is that the local equivalent to the Bronze?" he asked Spike, who snorted as he pulled out another cigarette.

"Just about. Desperate losers dancing stupidly to bad music and hoping to get laid." He grinned at Xander through the cloud of smoke. "You'd be very popular."

"Yeah, I don't think so." Xander hesitated, then turned the other way down the street.

"Didn't take you for the ink sort, whelp."

"Didn't used to be. But I've been thinking that my sort may not be completely figured out yet.." He looked over when he didn't get a response. Spike walked beside him with his head hanging down and his eyes on the pavement. The tip of the cigarette in his mouth glowed as he inhaled, and he blew the smoke out of the other corner of his mouth. "Was the tattoo in China Dru's idea?"

Spike stopped walking and closed his eyes as he took the cigarette out of his mouth. "Be careful how you say her name, human," he whispered.

Xander swallowed. It had been a long time since he'd actually feared Spike. "Dude, I know it hurts like hell, but you are not the only person to wake up in the morning with the dust of someone you loved in the nooks and crannies of your clothes."

Slowly Spike turned to meet Xander's eyes. "She was mine for over a hundred years," he said softly, in a voice without any trace of the punk Xander was familiar with. "You lost someone you knew for, what, a decade or so?"

Somehow Xander kept from screaming at him. Maybe because he knew so well how it felt. "I knew Jesse all my life. I know that doesn't sound like that much to you, but whether it's sixteen years or a hundred years, all your life is all your life. It's everything you ever knew--and then it's gone."

A shudder went though Spike's shoulders and he looked away. The hand that raised the cigarette back to his lips shook. Xander took a deep, uneven breath and started down the street again. He didn't look over as the vampire tossed the cigarette aside and fell back into step with him.

"This Jesse," Spike said after a minute. "He wasn't--I didn't--"

Xander fought a smile. "No, you weren't even here yet. The Master got him."

Spike grunted. "Pointy faced freak."

"Excuse me?"

"The Master."

"But I thought the Master was some sort of vampire god thing."

"Pffth." Spike's shoulder relaxed some and he waved a hand in the air. "'I've been around forever and I look funny and I live in a hole. Fear me.'" He smiled slightly at Xander's snicker. "Please. He was smart, I'll give you that, stayed up on what was happening in the world, but he believed in all those rituals, the Anointed One and all that shite."

"Whatever happened to the Anointed One? He was supposed to be this big fearsome thing, but then we never heard about him again."

Spike straightened proudly. "I happened to the Anointed One."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "Again with the excuse me?"

"I killed him. Right after St. Vigeous. Got sick and tired of him bleating about the sacred writings and how things should be done, and I tossed him into the sun."

Xander gave a laugh. "Well, yeah, that would do it, I guess."

Spike grabbed his arm and tugged him out of the way of a staggering green demon that was coming down the sidewalk towards them. Xander frowned, then he saw the chipped neon beer signs in the windows of the building next to them and the badly painted sign saying Willy's.

Spike smirked at him. "Fancy a drink, Harris?"

"It's undoubtedly the post-tattoo endorphins talking, but yes, I could go for a beer about now." He grinned at Spike's faint surprise and headed for the bar door.

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