Chapter One: "Force of Habit"
"She said not to worry. That they wouldn't ever hurt us. I don't understand how she could know that. I mean, how do you know? How can you tell if something like that would hurt you?" Riley says, enunciating as well as he can after his fourth gin and tonic.
The woman sitting on the next bar stool seems amused by his words; it's the first thing he's said all night that seems to have made any impression on her at all. Not that it matters, of course. Nothing about her matters, except what she is, and what she can give him.
This bar is like most of the bars he finds the vampires in. It looks perfectly normal at first, if a little run-down: Neon signs advertising various beers gleam red and blue and green in the darkness. Ashtrays that haven't been cleaned out in far too long litter every table. Some crappy guitar band from the 70s is blaring from the jukebox, which doesn't appear to have been updated since Laura Branigan was a going concern.
But stay a few minutes, have your first drink or two, and you begin to sense that something's not right here. The loud laughter that wells up in most bars never rings out here. The bartender isn't hidden behind his usual mask of weary efficiency; he's edgy and uncertain, even though he's mixed these drinks a thousand times before. And the people who sit alone carry a very different edge of desperation than the kind you're used to seeing. They're hungry, but not the way other solitary people in bars are hungry. They're on the prowl for something entirely different.
Riley's been in bars like this many times before. Once upon a time, when he was young and happy and knew no better, he would walk into a place like this wtih friends. After a few minutes, they'd sense that the bar wasn't quite right somehow, though they'd consciously think no more than that it was dull, or cheap, or just not what they were looking for that night. They'd bolt the rest of their drinks, pull on their coats and wander off to someplace more warm and welcoming.
Now, when he finds a bar like this, he settles in. Has drink after drink, going as fast as he can without making himself throw up or pass out. And, sooner or later, one of them finds him.
The girl tonight is beautiful; they so rarely are. Riley doesn't much care what they look like, most of the time. Once their faces change, they all look alike anyway, as far as he's concerned. But sometimes they want more than his blood -- the drinking excites them, and sometimes he gives them whatever else they want, too.
He never did that before, when he was with Buffy. Back then, Riley turned them away. He couldn't betray Buffy, he told himself, denying how far he'd already crossed that line.
Now, though, who cares? He doesn't, not anymore. And this woman is lovely enough for him to think that he might actually be able to lose himself in her for a while. That's what Riley wants most of all, tonight.
"She thought she had it -- all under control," Riley continues. "I don't think she did, though. I think she was just pretending it wasn't that dangerous so -- so she didn't have to think about it --"
"And you like danger, don't you, naughty boy?" The woman across from him is positively gleeful now. Her large, dark eyes are brimming with delight, and her delicate little mouth has split into a surprisingly wide grin. She's shredding her cocktail napkin with her fingernails, never looking down at the nest of confetti she's making. Her naked, undisguised lust for what's about to happen both excites and disgusts him.
"Yes," he says. "And you're a very dangerous woman."
"Oh, yes," she whispers, giggling as she leans in and gives him a quick, soft kiss on the lips. Her mouth feels warm, at first, and Riley starts; then he realizes it's just the sting of the brandy she's been drinking. It heats his own lips, numbing them slightly. "Now shall we dance?"
Riley likes the English accent, likes her long, dark hair. He even likes the dark-blue velvet gown she's wearing; it looks old-fashioned, almost demure. If he weren't having a nervous breakdown, and she weren't an undead creature of the night, he'd ask her out. The idea strikes him as funny, and Riley starts to laugh, an uneven, broken sound that doesn't even seem as though it should be coming from his body.
She scowls at him, and he shakes his head apologetically. "I'm sorry. I wasn't laughing at you. Let's dance."
He belts the last of the gin and tonic; the bartender starts mixing him another immediately, but Riley shakes his head. As he gets to his feet, he feels the floor shift beneath him; he's drunker than he usually lets himself get. Dangerous, to get this close to losing control. But it doesn't really matter anymore.
Riley takes her hand -- such a tiny little hand, each finger tipped in the ragged remnants of black polish -- and begins leading her toward the center of the bar. Nobody else is dancing to this stupid music, but he's past being embarrassed.
But she begins to laugh. "Not in front of all the big eyes, staring, staring --"
"I thought you wanted to dance."
"Not with our FEET," she says.
He actually smiles at that, and though it's not a true, genuine smile, it comes closer than most of his attempts these days. "Well, then, let's go."
They stumble out together, coats pulled around them against an unseasonable chill. She is hanging onto him, giggling, and he puts an arm around her shoulders; they look just like any guy and girl out together on the town. Nice and normal. Just the way he always wanted it.
Is this the way he always wanted it?
Riley pushes that question to the back of his mind. He's gotten very good at that lately.
Normally, what happens next happens in an alleyway, or the back seat of a car, or maybe a suck house, if there's one close by. He's done it in a bar's restroom before, though that was too perfunctory and unpleasant to bear repeating. Tonight, though, the girl's loveliness and the night's chill conspire to make him spring for a motel room. He wants her to take her time with him, wants to be able to lay his arms and neck bare without shivering against the cold. Riley doesn't want to feel anything except the rush.
"Rooms and rooms and rooms, and everyone fast asleep," she says, as he fumbles with the lock. He has the strangest feeling that the parked cars in the lot are all filled with people, staring up at him, disapproving. He doesn't like the sensation. "Every room has a different treat. Like chocolates in a tin. You have to bite in to see what you've got for your sweet."
So she's a little strange. He's been with stranger.
Riley gets the door open, pulls her within. He shuts the door behind them, but doesn't bother locking it; he doubts anything outside is more dangerous than what's inside. She doesn't turn on the lights, just grabs his lapels and kisses him hard, right away. He finds himself returning the kiss, feels something akin to real passion as she pulls his coat off and begins unbuttoning his shirt.
Normally, if things turn sexual, it doesn't happen until afterwards, when his thoughts and reactions are muted. But this one wants it all together -- the sex and the drinking, and the thought of combining the rush of her bite and the rush of orgasm excites him on a level he hadn't yet discovered.
Deep within him, there's something akin to despair; he thought he'd sunk as low as he was going to go. He thought he'd accepted his slavery to his craving, his need. But this will be better -- even stronger -- and from now on, this is what he'll desire. He hates the knowledge that he is diving deeper still, and yet he welcomes it too.
Riley pulls his mouth away from hers long enough to whisper, "What do you want?"
"Many lovely things." She rakes her fingernails down his now-bare chest, and he shivers.
"You'll have them," he promises. "But I mean -- what do you want for this? For --"
His eyes, and hers, dart over to the arm she is exposing as she pulls his shirt off. The scars of past bites are almost without number, now. Sometimes he tries to remember things he's heard about junkies, about how their veins collapse and they have to inject drugs into their thighs or their feet, just to find a vessel strong enough to take the puncture. He never thought he'd actually need such information.
"Don't want money," she whispers. "I just want you."
And those are the words he's wanted to hear for so long, the words that make him crush her to his chest in an embrace that's almost real. She's not the woman he wanted to hear saying it -- but at least there's someone who wants him, just him, even if it's just for one night, even if it's only for this.
Riley begins kissing her again, reaching around her back to unzip her dress. She unwinds her arms from his body long enough to let the dress fall to the floor; she's wearing a little white slip, all silk and lace, and this excites him even more. They fumble their way to the bed, and he falls, pulling her atop him as they go.
The cheap motel bedspread is scratchy against his back, and the headboard is already clattering against the wall, shaking the aged light fixtures bolted there. Riley tries not to think about that, tries to think only about the beautiful woman astride him. Her skin is as pale and fragile as the slip she's still wearing; she's luminous in the darkness, as though her whole body were made of light, save for the hair and the enormous eyes.
Her hands unfasten his belt, slowly. "Wanted to wait," she said. "Wanted to have a lovely time with you, big strapping lumberjack man."
Lumberjack. He hasn't heard that one before. "We're having a good time, aren't we?"
"Yesss," she hisses, taking the buckle in her palm and pulling the belt free. She slides the tan leather through her hands. "But it is so long to wait."
She takes his wrists in one hand, guides them to the bedpost. Almost before his alcohol-fogged mind can comprehend what's happening, she's wrapping the belt around them, holding him in place. Riley isn't sure how to feel about this -- this is kinkier than he usually likes it, and it's dangerous, to say the least.
Then again, isn't danger what he's after?
Her body arches as she rubs herself against him in purely carnal bliss, then she drapes herself on his chest, nuzzles his neck. Riley turns his head to make it easier for her. Force of habit.
"Don't want to wait," she murmurs. Her face has changed now; he can feel the ridges against his skin, hear the lisp created by her fangs. His body tenses in anticipation --
And she bites him, pain and pleasure and degradation and glory and everything else all wrapped into one pure physical sensation. For one moment, Riley is not a disgraced ex-soldier, not a discarded ex-boyfriend. He has no history at all, scarcely even any consciousness. He is only the bliss coursing through his veins, bursting forth with every beat of his heart.
And then it changes.
The dizziness escalates. His heartbeat begins to rattle in his chest. And she only bites down harder, bringing the pain far past the pleasure --
"Wait," Riley gasps. "Stop."
She doesn't stop. Too late, Riley realizes what he's done, what's going to happen, and he is struck with a terror he didn't expect to feel, not when it really came down to this --
The door explodes open -- no other word for it. It flies off the hinges with a crash, and the vampire jumps up. He can see her face wet with his blood as she leaps from his body to confront the intruder.
The intruder isn't surprised to have a vampire coming at him; he backhands her viciously, and she stumbles back, crashing into the mirror on the wall. It's difficult to see, in the darkness, but Riley is pretty sure the intruder is a vampire too. No human would be able to throw her off that easily. This means that his situation hasn't improved all that much. Riley tries to push himself closer to the backboard, to create some slack in the belt that might let him get his arms free. But just the movement makes him dizzy again, almost to the point of passing out.
She springs forward and hits the intruder, hard, an expert blow across the jaw. They begin fighting in earnest then, and Riley realizes in a flash that this woman was no ordinary vampire -- she's got real fighting moves, real strength, a quickness of reflex he almost never ran into in the field. And the intruder's a match for her, coming back at her with everything he's got.
Come to think of it, there's something sort of familiar about it --
The intruder finally gets the upper hand, slams her into the door jamb. She sinks to the floor as a rough voice says, "You shouldn't have come back here, Dru."
The female vampire -- Dru -- looks up at him, and Riley is surprised to see that there are tears in her eyes. "Will you hurt me now? I thought you were done hurting me, my Angel."
Son of a bitch.
Angel stares down at her, his face a cold, vampiric mask. "I've hurt you a lot," he agrees. "And I've given you chances I shouldn't have, because of it."
"You do me such nice favors," she says, her voice dripping contempt. And Angel's face changes at that -- it shifts back into human form, into the face Riley's seen and hated in his mind for months. He remembers that face as arrogant, hostile, closed-off.
Angel doesn't look that way now. He is staring down at Dru with something that seems very like guilt. But after a few seconds, he simply says, "I'm not doing you any more favors."
Angel lunges at her, and Riley can see something in his hand that's probably a stake. Drusilla screams as she spins out of the way, backhands Angel brutally. Angel stumbles back, and she hisses at him just like a cat. With one claw-like hand she grabs up her dress and runs into the night.
Angel stares after her for a moment, clearly debating the need to go after her versus the need to take care of her victim, then shakes his head. "Are you all right?" he says, voice gentled, as he turns around. "I know this probably looked really strange --"
Then Angel gets a look at him, sees exactly who it is splayed out on this bed, and all the gentleness and guilt are gone. "You."
"Me," Riley says. He finally gets some purchase on the belt and is able to tug himself free -- a small satisfaction to leaven the shame he feels. To be exposed like this, before Angel of all people, would qualify as his worst nightmare, if he'd ever dreamed of anything so utterly humiliating, which he hadn't. "I guess this must make you feel -- like a big man --"
"What are you doing here?" Angel's face vamps again -- slowly, slower than Riley's ever seen a vamp's face change before. It's scarier that way, he thinks. They should try it more often. "What were you doing with Drusilla?"
"I realize you don't get to have sex that often," Riley spits out, "but I'd think you'd still recognize it."
"How could you," Angel says, and his hand clamps onto Riley's arm like a vise. "How could you do this to Buffy --"
He jerks Riley into a sitting position, and that proves too much: The dizziness overtakes him, and the world goes from dark to black. When he comes to, surely no more than a few moments later, he is actually slumped against Angel's chest. Angel is now holding a cloth -- to judge from the scratchiness, one of the pillowcases -- against Riley's bleeding throat. He has unvamped again, but his expression is by no means kind. "Didn't you know what she was?" he demands. "Haven't you learned how to recognize a vampire by now?"
Shards of the broken mirror are on the floor. Riley can see his reflection in them. It looks as though he is leaning over at an impossible angle, as though he is all alone.
"I knew what she was," Riley says.
Angel looks down at him then, really looks at him for the first time. Riley watches his expression change as he sees the scars on the arms, on the neck. When he meets Riley's eyes again, pity and contempt are warring in his eyes. It's hard to say which one outrages Riley more. Angel says, "You get off on it."
"Don't you?" Riley says, and the reaction from Angel is so stunned that it almost makes up for the fact that he's still cradled in Angel's arms like a baby. He decides to press the point. "You ran Dru out of here. You owe me one. And all the blood's got to be getting to you, right?"
With effort, Riley leans back, exposing his throat to the vampire that holds him. "Come on, then," he says. "Finish me off."
He says it in a tone that spells seduction, with an inflection he'd never, ever in his life thought to use with a man. But he's not using it for seduction -- not for sex, not for drinking. He doesn't want either of those things, not now nor ever again. He's hit bottom at last, found the ultimate limits of his addiction and humilation, and there's nothing left but the end. If Angel can give him that end and damn them both to hell in the bargain, so much the better. All Riley has to do is make Angel mad enough to snap, just for an instant; that's all he needs --
Angel meets his eyes for a moment, then looks down to the exposed wound at Riley's throat. Then Angel takes the pillowcase and wraps it back around Riley's neck. He leaves enough space to breathe. The disappointment is so crushing that Riley feels tears springing to his eyes, but damned if he'll let Angel see it.
"You can't stay here," Angel says.
Riley wants to ask why not, but Angel isn't interested in a conversation. He slides off the bed, then pulls Riley forward onto his shoulder.
And as his head falls toward Angel's back, the dizziness claims Riley once more. The darkness lasts for a very long time.