The car had been silent the entire journey back to the apartment, the air heavy with unspoken accusations. Even when Gino killed the engine, no one spoke, climbing out of their seats in a somber parade, shoulders hunched, hands buried deep in pockets, energy flagged. Gone was the joy from the afternoon, and in its place lay guilt, a leaden blanket that threatened to suffocate them.
Automatically, Spike held the door open for the two young women as they entered the building, then looked quizzically back where Gino lingered by the car. "You comin'?" he asked.
The dark-haired bouncer shook his head. "I think I'm going to take a walk," he replied, his voice low.
Willow stopped, turning around to look back at Gino, a small frown between her brows. "Are you feeling OK?" she asked, taking a step toward him.
He shrugged. "Just need to think."
The redhead returned to the cool night air, pulling her coat closer around her, nodding toward the pair who still stood in the doorway. Glancing quickly at Gino, and then to each other, Buffy threw her friend a small smile and disappeared into the foyer, followed almost immediately by a reluctant Spike.
His eyes were ebony marbles, shadowed in the dim streetlight, lids low as he stared at the ground. As Willow watched, he took a step away from her to sit heavily against the hood of the car, one meaty hand rubbing tiredly at his face. "You oughta be inside," Gino said quietly.
"So should you," she countered. "You just got out of the hospital this morning. You need your rest."
"Thought your magic took care of that," he replied, and there was no mistaking the harshness in his voice, the shards of uncertainty cutting through it with finely honed blades.
"You said you were OK with the spell thing." The sudden fear leapt into her throat, and the realization that she might have tread too far loomed all too closely in front of her.
"I was, until I found out what it cost everyone." There was no mistaking the anger in his gaze as his glittering eyes locked with hers. "What the hell were you thinking, Willow? How could you do that to your friends?"
"How many times am I going to have to say I'm sorry?" she shot back.
"Sorry doesn't get you home in one piece."
"Neither does being Mr. Mopey out on the street."
Gino ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm not the one who has to worry about taking it on the heel and toe before death comes a-knocking," he said. "You had a chance to get home tonight, and you messed it up, and now you've put you and Spike and Buffy and all the rest of your friends in a bigger jam than before, because how in hell are you ever going to be able to kill Mack now? And all because of me?" He shook his head. "It don't add up, Willow. No matter how many times you try to make it. And if something happens to you now " His voice choked, and he rose from his perch, turning his back to her to lean heavily against the car, head low, thick hands supporting his weight.
She wanted to go up to him, to touch him, to let him know that he didn't have to feel that way, but her feet were bolted to the ground, locked in the cement of her own guilt, and all Willow could manage was, "Nothing's going to happen. I'm going to fix this."
"Like you fixed me?" he muttered bitterly.
"No, I mean it. I've got an idea. Tony likes me, I think, and---." She flinched as Gino's fist slammed into the roof of the car, the resounding metallic crunch echoing down the empty street.
"Goddamit, Willow!" When he turned to face her, the redhead realized it was the angriest she'd ever seen him, angrier even than when he'd walked in on Marty's assault, and the knowledge that it was somehow directed at her---was because of her---was frightening. "How can someone so smart be so dumb?" he demanded. "You're not going anywhere near Tony. Not while I'm breathing. And definitely not while he can do the kind of magic that would protect Mack the way it does."
"That's half my spell, too, you know!" Her own guilt was starting to burn into anger, as Gino's over-protective streak began to shine through. "And I took care of myself just fine before you came along. Going Neanderthal on me now is not going to make things better!"
His hands balled into fists at his side. More than anything, he wanted to hit something, feel something give beneath his power, vent some of the adrenalin that was coursing through his veins. What he wouldn't do to have that musician standing in front of him right then. He didn't understand why she was being so stubborn about this, why she was refusing to see just how negligent she'd been in putting him above everyone else and it was frustrating the hell out of him. "I'm only trying to protect you," he said through gritted teeth. "Every minute you spend here, odds get worse that something's going to happen to you. And when you turn around and do something as stupid as hook up with that Tony, what do you expect me to say?"
"A little gratitude would be nice---."
"We've been over this. Why aren't you hearing me?" The flush in Gino's cheeks was apparent, even in the dim night. "Nobody's ever meant more to me than you do, and you know you only have to say the word and I'll do it for you. But asking me to say it's jake to be the one responsible for keeping you here, for putting you in even more danger, isn't fair."
"You're not responsible for anything," Willow argued. "This is all me. My fault. My bad. I was the one who did the spell, not you." She watched as he turned away, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets as he began walking down the street. He was leaving? After everything, he was just going away? Without thinking, the redhead rushed forward, grabbing his arm, scurrying around to stand in front of him. "What are you doing?"
"I told you. Going for a walk."
"But now? We're talking here."
"No, we're not. We're fighting."
"Even more of a reason not to just walk away."
Gino sighed. "I'm not thinking straight right now," he said. The heat was gone from his voice, replaced by an exhaustion Willow recognized all too well. "Everything that's happened today it's done a real number on my head." He pulled his hand out of his pocket, the fist gone, and gently cupped her face. "You're the smart one, remember? You gotta give me some time to sort this out. I've got all these feelings stuck inside me, and outside of the one that's telling me how much I love you, none of it makes any sense. And I hate that. I hate not knowing."
She swallowed, feeling the words choke in her throat. "Where are you going?" she finally managed.
"Anywhere. Everywhere. I just need to be moving. My brain seems to work better that way." The corner of his mouth lifted slightly as his black eyes softened, gazing down at her pale face. "I'm coming back, if that's what you're worried about."
"I wasn't " Willow blushed. "OK, yeah. But can you blame me? Me and fighting don't mix well. And I think this is our first really big one, right?"
"Go sleep," he said quietly, his hand returning to the warmth of his pocket. "We got our work cut out for us tomorrow."
The young witch bit her lip as Gino turned and resumed his journey down the sidewalk, broad shoulders hunched under the taut coat that hung over them. She didn't feel like sleeping; she felt like running after him, finishing what they had started, but she knew she wouldn't. The man who never asked for anything had requested just a little bit of time to try and come to grips with an intense past twenty-four hours; there was no way she could deny him that, not after everything, not after seeing the crippling throes in those black eyes.
Pulling her jacket tight around her shivering arms, Willow shuffled back to the front door of the apartment building, knowing that it wasn't the chill in the air that was causing her tremors.
Watching her, even when she was in this mood, was like feeling twenty-five year-old whiskey sliding down his throat fire etching its way through his veins that slight sense of giddiness swimming inside his head, making the colors before him dance in vibrant gaiety the smoky tang that sent sweltering fingers over each knob of his spine. She was grace, she was music, she was
pissed off as hell.
Spike's head tilted as she stepped out of her dress, kicking it across the room so that it slammed into the opposite wall, hooking on the manacles to hang there like some eerie wraith. "You goin' to tell me what's wrong?" he chuckled. "Or do I just get to enjoy the show?"
"What's wrong?" she repeated. "If you have to ask, it's even pointless for me to say anything." Her nails clawed at her hose, stripping one leg in a ragged tune.
"Not a mind reader, Buffy," he said. "Much as it may look otherwise sometimes. Now, are you goin' to tell me? Or are you goin' to make me guess? 'Cause I'm thinkin', my guesses might just piss you off more."
"I'm fine," she grumbled, sitting on the edge of the bed in her underwear as she struggled with the remaining stocking. "I'm tired. I just want to sleep."
Three fluid steps took him to her side, and Spike sat down next to her, brushing the hair away from her shoulder to expose her neck to him, his thumb skating over the matching pair of scarlet pinpricks that lay there. Her shiver was almost automatic, and Buffy's eyes fluttered briefly before she took a deep breath to steady herself.
"Wasn't twelve hours ago you trusted me enough to let me do this," the vampire murmured, sapphire eyes locked on the visible pounding of her pulse through her skin. "Now all of a sudden, you don't trust me enough to tell me what's botherin' you?"
It took all her willpower to leap from her seat, her breath ragged. "Don't you dare be talking about trust," she said, putting as much distance between them as possible. She couldn't let him touch her, not when every velvet stroke sent her system into overload, not when more than anything, she needed to think clearly, to sort out this mess she had created. "Who was the one keeping Will's secret, huh? You didn't trust me enough to tell me that."
"What, you wanted me to come and pull you off the floor as soon as I found out?" Spike frowned. "Sorry, but I'm not bein' your whippin' boy on this one, Buffy. I didn't do anythin' wrong. Red's the one you're brassed off with. And for what? 'Cause she was so gutted about losing Gino, she made a piss-poor decision to get involved with bugle boy? Hate to break it to you, but I don't know if I wouldn't have done the exact same thing if I was in her shoes."
"So now you're condoning her behavior?" Her hazel eyes were incredulous.
"No," he growled. "I'm sayin' if you were dyin' and I had a way of stoppin' it, I'd probably make a deal with the devil himself if I thought it would keep you breathin'." Rising, he took a step toward her, stopping when she countered him by backing up against the wall. "Don't try sayin' this is about me. Not after everything we've been through to get to this point."
Buffy's pacing resumed, skirting the edges of the room, the feelings of blame crawling over her skin like a swarm of locusts. "You'd never understand," she said. "You don't know what it's like, being me, doing what I have to do. You wouldn't get it."
Spike's teeth clicked as he fought to control his temper. "Especially if you don't give me a chance," he argued. "It must get awful lonely in that gorgeous head of yours, Slayer. Maybe if you'd stop thinkin' you're the Lone Ranger, you could open the door a crack and let someone else in. Maybe carry some of the Chosen's load. I just hope you do it before we all end up gettin' killed." Grabbing a pillow from the bed, the vampire marched to the door, yanking it open. "You feel like talkin', you know where I'll be."
The slam echoed through the room, and all of a sudden, Buffy felt incredibly small, shrinking within her skin as the silence surrounded her. What happened to never leaving? she thought wildly. How could he just walk out like that?
Because you shut him out, the little voice said, and there was no mistaking the sadness in its tone. He's only on the other side of the door; all it will take is opening it, asking him back in, telling him how this is all your fault. He'll understand. He always understands.
But she couldn't. Sleep. Sleep was what she needed. Not blue eyes staring at her as she struggled to find the words. Not porcelain muscles holding her, keeping the fears at bay. Not Spike.
The blindfold dangled from his elegant fingers, grey eyes dark as he surveyed Buffy from across the empty room. "You're not scared of me, are you?" Mack asked, the chuckle in his voice unmistakeable. "Big Vampire Slayer like you. I'm not even a demon. Just a man. Certainly not someone you should be frightened of."
"I'm not," she replied, and stepped forward to yank the black velvet from his hand.
"Just think of it as a training exercise," he said. "Turn around."
Her body obeyed him in spite of her determination not to, and she felt the soft fabric slide over her face, blocking out the light, swallowing her in darkness as it tightened around her golden curls. She felt his hands slide down to her shoulders, gently massaging them, sending shivers of disgust rippling across her skin.
"So beautiful," she heard him murmur. "My little killing machine."
It took her a moment to discern what it was he pressed into the palm of her hand, but the familiar texture of the wood, the small jagged splinters cutting into her flesh, brought back flashes of malodorous decay, the aromas of festering death so prevalent in Sunnydale's cemeteries, creating a cacophony of horror and relief within her chest. Yes, she missed patrolling, missed the reverberations of her stake crushing through bone, but here there were no vampires within the painting. Why should she need the weapon of a slayer?
"Find the demon," Mack urged, his voice an oily whisper in her ear. "Kill the demon."
And it was as if her body had a mind of its own, stepping forward to prowl the space, her senses alerting her to the presence of a vampire. Somewhere close use my training must slay must kill
Her arm tensed as the demon's presence made itself known. There off to her right but it wasn't moving though she could hear it
"That's my girl," he coaxed from behind her. "That's my Slayer."
Everything went into slow motion as Buffy thrust forward, her stake connecting with the cool flesh, plunging through the muscle, meeting no resistance as she felt her hand brushed against the demon's shirt. The soft exhalation just before the dust exploded into her face seemed so familiar, as if she'd heard it somewhere before, as if
but what vampires lived in the painting world? Only one and she hadn't she couldn't have
Mack's laughter could barely contain its glee. "Welcome home, Buffy..."
Her fingers tore at the blindfold, and her heart was racing as her eyes darted around, flickering over the dust on the floor before dropping to her knees, reaching out to touch it
She couldn't breathe, her eyes shooting open to stare up at the ceiling, her arm automatically reaching out to her side to search for the familiar sculpture of his flesh.
No impression on his pillow, no wrinkling of his sheets.
He'd never come back.
Throwing back the comforter, Buffy scrambled from the bed, choking on the sudden need to see Spike, to know that he was still in the apartment, the regret that she hadn't stopped him earlier overwhelming. Stupid, stubborn Slayer, she admonished. All he was trying to do was help
As she pulled open the door, the image from her dream came flooding back, the smell of the vampire dust still clinging to her nostrils. The prospect that it had been one of her prophetic dreams had already occurred to her, but she wasn't entertaining it, couldn't consider it, not if she was going to find the strength to get them out of this place.
Sometimes a dream was just a dream
He was exhausted, time having slipped away from him as he walked through the streets, too many thoughts, too many feelings, too much thinking. With the sun beginning to caress the horizon, he still had no answers, still didn't know what was going to happen or where he and Willow were going to fit into the whole mess her magic had created, but he'd decided that was inconsequential. All that mattered was getting back to her, holding her, letting her know that he was going to be there, and most importantly savoring what little time they probably had left together.
Gino winced as the door creaked upon opening, freezing for a moment before pushing it the rest of the way. He didn't want to wake anyone; they certainly needed their sleep after the night they'd had. When he saw the inert forms intertwined on the chair, he couldn't help the smile that came to his lips, creeping past them as silently as possible before disappearing himself into the bedroom.
When he heard the door close, Spike's lids lifted, and he rested his cheek on the top of her hair. In the circle of his arms she slept, nerves finally calm, eyelashes tiny butterflies on his bare chest. She hadn't said a word when she'd emerged, just curled up into him, pressed her lips gently against his before whispering, "Love you."
Seconds later, she'd been asleep.
Although no words had been said regarding Buffy's earlier mood, Spike wasn't worried, not now. She had come to him; she had been the one to seek him out, so he knew they would talk when it was time
To be continued in Chapter 36: He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings