DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy is rounding up the Scooby gang for a meeting to discuss how to get back to Sunnydale, while Spike has just discovered that his chip doesn’t work…
He had almost forgotten how it felt…the rage searing his veins as his fists battered against spongy flesh, the recoil a natural impetus for his next blow…the taut stretch of skin across his knuckles, tightening only to tear and weep with stolen blood…the sense of purpose that imbued his demon self, directing him with a decadent zeal that had somehow been lacking over the past few weeks. Not until it was returned did Spike fully realize how stripped he had felt, how bereft in the face of another’s power, but now…
With the chip unable to punish him any longer, the vampire was desperate to embrace what exactly that meant for him. It meant no second-best blood bags, but the real deal, the crimson lifeforce supped as it was intended…hot and gushing with the memory of a heartbeat still enriching its essence. It meant the right to pick his own course, to decide for himself if he was coming or going, to err or succeed based on his choice, not someone else’s.
It meant freedom.
Turning golden eyes toward the inert form on the sidewalk, Spike felt the fury that had only just started to subside, begin to surge forth again, the desire to kill Mack a coppery tang in his fanged mouth. One foot had even stepped forward, closing the distance between him and his intended victim, before Willow’s voice rang out in the night.
“Don’t touch him, Spike,” she warned. “You’ve done enough damage for now.”
“Oh, the damage is only beginnin’, Red,” the vampire crooned. “Mr. Mack here’s goin’ to learn just how much pain he can take before he’s beggin’ for me to kill him.”
“You lay one more finger on him and I’ll tell Buffy what you’ve done.” Willow grimaced, glad Spike wasn’t watching her, couldn’t see how lame she knew that sounded. I might as well wear a big sign around my neck that says, I’m a big fat tattletale, she thought.
That stopped him. Letting his demon face slide away, the vampire pivoted to look at the young witch, so keen to put as much space between them that she now very nearly stood in the club’s front door. “This is about Buffy,” he said evenly. “He thought he could just pay me off, like she was chattel or somethin’, like anyone could even think of putting a price tag on her, or on how I feel about her. I’d say that merits a little bit of punishment.”
“I’ll agree, not the nicest thing he could’ve done,” the redhead acquiesced. “But he’s already pretty badly beaten. Anything more will just be overkill.” She stopped, frowning. “OK, bad choice of words, but you get the idea.”
“Me and Buffy had ourselves a little breakthrough this afternoon, thanks to your spot of advice. Seems she really does love me after all. I think she’ll understand.”
Willow actually laughed out loud. “Hello? What world are you living in? ‘Cause the Buffy I know will stake you faster than you could say ‘bloody hell’ if she thinks you’re any kind of a threat.”
“Not me. She wouldn’t do that.” But the doubt was already beginning to creep into his voice.
“Because you think she loves you?” The young witch shook her head. “If you think loving you makes you immune to her sense of responsibility, Spike, you don’t really know her at all. She killed Angel and he had a soul. Why should you be any different?”
She was right, and both of them knew it. He’d actually forgotten about the poofter, how Buffy had sent him to a hell dimension in order to save her world, how she’d done that in spite of how she felt about him. And Spike wasn’t so blinkered that he thought she’d somehow ignore her calling just for him. He’d just…forgotten for a minute.
“Fine,” he finally said. “You win. But I’m moving up our plans. I need to get Buffy away now, get us and this whole situation sorted.”
As he started to march into the club, Willow jumped forward, braving proximity to physically stop him from entering by pressing her hand against his chest. “Whoa there, big boy,” she said. “Plan’s off. No way am I letting you get anywhere near Buffy with that chip of yours in full working order.”
“Because I’m goin’ to…what? Kill her? Don’t be daft, Red. I love her. She may piss me off sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I want her dead. I like her just fine the way she is.”
“What about the rest of us, Spike?” She was terrified, the all-too real possibility that she’d push the vampire too far sending bolts of fear coursing through her system, but she wasn’t going to back down. She couldn’t. “It wasn’t that long ago you were trying to kill me. What’s stopping you from finishing what you started?”
The blond vampire tilted his head, looking down at her through hooded lashes. Up to this point, he hadn’t really considered the ramifications of what not having the chip would mean in regards to the Scooby gang. His ravenous bloodthirst had been focussed on revenge, and the hunt associated with the kill, not on those meals that were nearest to him. Yet, considering it now, with Red’s throat so exquisitely exposed above the low-cut décolletage, Spike discovered that he didn’t really want to kill her. Not that she wouldn’t be delicious---of all Buffy’s little sidekicks, Willow was infinitely the most interesting---but somehow, it didn’t seem…right.
He almost groaned out loud as the word popped into his head. Turning into Angel after all, he thought. And I don’t have a bleedin’ soul to blame it on. But, it was there, and he couldn’t ignore it. He actually liked Willow, and he liked having her around. Not that the witch would ever understand that. And he’d sound like a bloody ponce if he tried using that as an excuse. No, had to tell her something she’d actually believe.
“You said it yourself, Red,” he said. “Buffy’d think it bang out of order and stake me before I could take the first swallow. Not that shutting Harris up once and for all wouldn’t be fun, but it’s not goin’ to happen.”
There was a long moment where the only sound on the street was the dull roar of engines as they whizzed past the club, the occasional honk accenting the automobile chorus. The pair just stood there, staring at each other, neither sure of the other anymore, until, finally, Willow stepped back, letting her hand fall from the vampire’s chest. “Buffy’s called a Scooby meeting,” she said coldly. “She told me to come get you.”
For some reason, that pleased Spike, knowing that the Slayer was including him now on their meetings, as if what he had to contribute might be of some value. Just another way of her showing how she feels, he thought. Even if she hasn’t said the words yet.
“Lemme just tell Gino I’m goin’ to take a break,” he said, starting to pass the young witch, only to be stopped by her hand on his arm again.
“You have to tell Buffy, you know that, don’t you?” She watched him appraising her, and when he didn’t respond, she added, “If you don’t, I will.”
Shrugging away her grasp, Spike stuffed his hands into his pockets and sauntered inside, whistling quietly under his breath. Willow sighed. Not good, she thought sadly. Things are most definitely not of the good.
Buffy couldn’t help brightening when the dressing room door opened and Spike came strolling in, lips pressed together as some indiscriminate humming emerged from his throat. “Took you long enough,” she said, smiling, and edged over on the table, making enough room so that he could sit down beside her.
He hesitated only for a fraction of a second before settling himself next to her, his thigh pressing into hers through the voluminous skirts of her dress. “Had some business to take care of,” he replied, unable to suppress his grin when she laced her fingers through his. She seemed to be ignoring the sudden frowns that clouded Rupert’s and Harris’ faces, and frankly, Spike was chuffed to bits. Let ‘em stew, he thought. Bugger cares what they think anyway.
When Willow slipped inside just seconds later, she kept her gaze away from Spike, sitting herself on a stool near the doorway. “We’ve only got a few minutes,” she warned. “Mr. Lombardi’s in the middle of something sticky, and I don’t think he’s going to be too happy if he finds all of us back here.”
“Right then,” said Giles, rising to his feet as he cleared his throat. “We’ve found out there’s a way to reverse the portal so that we can all get back to Sunnydale.”
“What portal?” asked Buffy. “The painting?”
“Yes. It’s actually a conduit between our dimension and this one, used by demons for rather unsavoury purposes. Normally, it doesn’t allow travel backwards, but we discovered the method to change that.”
“So what’re we talking here? Spell? Ritual? Human sacrifice?”
“Actually, human sacrifice is very close to the truth, Buffy.” The Watcher took off his glasses and began cleaning them abstractly. “Someone within this milieu has been chosen---literally marked---so that in the event one wanted to return to our world, his or her sacrifice would open the channel to allow that. Our job now is to find that person.”
“So you don’t know who it is…” Buffy bit her lip, suddenly lost in thought. “I bet I could find out. Right now probably.” At her mentor’s puzzled frown, she elaborated. “There’s another guy here, says he’s from LA. But he just knows way too much stuff about this place not to know more than what he originally said. I mean, he wasn’t surprised at all when Spike got shot, or when we told him about the scorpion---.”
“Wait a minute. Back up.” Xander cocked his head. “Someone took a shot at Spike? And I wasn’t around to see it?”
Ignoring the comment, the Slayer looked at the blond vampire at her side. “What do you think? Feel up to scaring Tony a little bit?”
His mouth curled into a wicked smile. “It’ll be my pleasure.”
As soon as the door closed behind Spike and Buffy, Xander jumped to his feet. “OK, what the hell is going on here?” he demanded. “Since when are they all Crockett and Tubbs? And the touching thing? That’s just seven kinds of wrong.”
Willow bit her lip. “You forget, until I showed up, it was just the two of them. A lot’s happened.” No way was she going to go into this now, not with both Giles and Xander looking like they wanted to personally dismember the blond vampire. OK, so she was ready to stand in that line right now, too, but it still wasn’t her place to say anything. Buffy could be the one to face the wrath of the Watcher. Just one more bonus in being Chosen.
“Someone told me…Spike and Buffy were…” He couldn’t even bring himself to say the words. When that Lombardi fellow had casually referenced their engagement, Giles had felt a sudden sense of panic, a return to those feelings when Willow had done her unfortunate spell. And now, seeing them like this…He, himself, didn’t feel as if he were under the influence of magic, and Xander and Willow certainly seemed normal…well, as normal as could be expected…so what possible excuse could Buffy have for acting the way she was toward the chipped vampire?
“Yep, they are,” the young witch confirmed.
“Are…what? What am I missing here?” asked Xander.
“Engaged,” Giles murmured, as he sank back down into his seat.
“Again?” His incredulity almost sent echoes throughout the room. “What is it with those two and getting married?”
“I really…don’t…want to know,” said the Watcher, and carefully replaced his glasses. “Really.”
“He knows we’re on to him,” Buffy said as they made their way back to the dressing room. “That’s got to be the only reason he skipped out of work tonight.”
Spike shrugged. “Can’t say that I blame him,” he said. “If I’d had the choice, I’d’ve stayed home tonight, too.”
The young woman smiled, stopping just outside the door. “You know,” she murmured, “I’ve been dying to find out what that swing is for---.”
Lombardi’s voice boomed through the hall, and the vampire’s head dropped. Shit. Here came the other shoe. “Go on and tell the others,” he said to Buffy. “I’ll take care of this.” He watched her slender form disappear into the dressing room before tilting his head to look at his boss’ stampeding approach. “Don’t even start,” he warned.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Lombardi barked. “You’re specifically looking for a Chicago overcoat, aren’t you? You know he’s in the hospital. Fucking unconscious, probably a coma, knowing my luck.”
“Bastard tried paying me to stop seein’ Buffy! What the hell do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to keep your trap shut and let me deal with it. I told Buffy to just play along with Mack until I got him smoothed over about you two. I just expected you’d have better sense than to clock him, especially right in front of his own joint.”
“Nobody tells me what to do,” Spike menaced. “Certainly not some blighter with piss poor timing. He had it comin’ to him, and I’d do it again without blinkin’ an eyelash.”
Lombardi sighed. “I fucking hate this,” he muttered. “You know I gotta let you go, don’t you? No way can I let you stay on without Mack saying it’s jake. You’re just lucky the coppers aren’t going to get involved.” He shook his head. “Just get your stuff and go home, Spike. Make it easy for both of us. And when Buffy gets off work tonight, you just better appreciate her for what she’s costing you. ‘Cause things are going to get real cold around here for both of you until Mack’s OK.”
The blond vampire just stood there for a moment, coolly appraising the older man before shrugging. “Tell Gino to keep an eye on the guy in the bowler at the bar,” he said as he walked away. “He’s just dying for trouble tonight.”
Lombardi watched as the bouncer disappeared out the back door, the sinking feeling he’d had since finding out about the fight plummeting even further. How the hell am I going to replace someone as good as Spike? he wondered. His thoughts were interrupted when the dressing room door opened, and Xander Harris came wandering out, Buffy right on his tail. “I was just coming to look for you,” Lombardi said to the young man.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Mack’s in the hospital. You should probably get down there and make sure he gets all checked out.”
Buffy frowned, pushing her way ahead of her friend, standing with folded arms before her boss. “What happened?” she queried.
Lombardi snorted. “What happened?” he echoed. “Your boyfriend is what happened. Spike beat the crap out of Mack, left him unconscious in front of the club.”
He turned back to Xander. “He’s at St. Mary’s. The car’s out front to take you there.”
As the older man walked away, Buffy felt the vise tighten around her chest, squeezing as it tried to suck away her air, her head beginning to pound as the newfound knowledge stole away her breath. Spike…fighting…it wasn’t…possible? But Lombardi said it was, said the proof was lying in some hospital bed, that Spike had been the cause. If that was true---why would he lie?---then that only meant one thing, and that one thing was tunnelling her world, undercutting the tenuous foundation she’d been beginning to lay…
…If Spike could fight, that meant he could now…
She stumbled over the easel that lay on the floor, swearing under her breath as she did so. This was certainly not someplace she’d ever thought she’d be seeing again, but desperation and lack of options had really left her no other choice. Stupid Tony, she thought. I’m going to kill him when I see him again.
Peering into the darkness, Melinda wondered again just how he managed to get any work done. I can’t see anything, she grumbled. I sure as hell don’t see how he can. When the light came on from nowhere, the vampire found herself temporarily blinded, blinking rapidly to try and get rid of the spots that now danced before her eyes, frozen in her place as she tried to figure out where exactly she was standing.
“Somehow, I had a feeling you were going to be showing up.” H’roven’s voice was almost a cackle, and she heard the soft pinging of his spines as he moved around inside the tiny room.
“Oh? ‘Cause you missed my sparkling personality?” She paused. “Wait a minute. What did you just say?”
“I figured it was just a matter of time before you came to me,” the demon said. “You know, you should really take better care of your things. Especially things that cost as much as my paintings.”
Melinda’s heart jumped. “You know something,” she rushed. “Tell me you know something.”
“I know lots of things. But I’m going to bet what you’re interested in, is the location of your picture. Am I right?”
“You know where it is?”
He laughed, a brittle sound that seemed to break as soon as it hit the air. “Honey, not only do I know where it is, but I so desperately want you to get it back, that I’m going to tell you…free of charge…”
To be continued in Chapter 22: Full Moon and Empty Arms…