The trio watched the female vamp struggle against the chains that bound her to the wall, the heavy irons around her wrists clanking mercilessly as she attempted to rip them from their hold. "And you're certain they won't break?" Giles murmured, his voice shaded in worry. "They don't appear to be very strong."
"Trust me, they may look like toys, but they've definitely got staying power," Buffy affirmed, sneaking a glance at Spike out of the corner of her eye, the faintest of flushes tingeing her cheeks.
"We don't have much time before we have to go off and do Mack's little show and tell," the blond vamp reminded.
The Slayer nodded. The past hour had been a whirlwind of information---showing up at the club to find out about Tony's disappearing act and Melinda's arrival, calling Giles at Xander's only to find out about Mack's new order, convening back at Buffy and Spike's apartment to try and get what information from the female vampire that they could. It had been agreed that they'd put on a little show for the club owner at the morgue, allowing him to view Spike's supposedly dead body---OK, literally dead body, but right now she wasn't going to argue semantics---and then hopefully put the whole cremation thing off just long enough for them to get what they needed from Melinda, get Tony back, and get home. At least, that was the plan. Who knew what might actually happen.
"Then we should probably get started then," Buffy said, striding across the bedroom to face off with the other girl. "Hi," she chirped brightly. "I'm Buffy, the vampire slayer. And you are?"
"You know who I am," the vamp hissed.
"Wrong answer," Buffy said, her fist shooting out to connect with the woman's jaw, jerking her head back against the wall with the impact. "Let's try this again. I'm Buffy, the vampire slayer, and you are ?"
" Melinda." She sucked at the blood between her teeth, her tongue darting out to catch the few drops that fell on her lips.
"See?" Her smile was wide, if not genuine. "That wasn't so hard. Now, let's say we get to the nitty and the gritty here. We know this painting is courtesy of your pocketbook, and we know the basics on how it works. What I'd love to have confirmed for us, though, is who's the safety?"
"The club owner. Mack."
"And you reverse the portal by killing him?"
She rolled her eyes. "Well, duh." The collision between Buffy's fist and Melinda's abdomen caused the vamp to recoil in pain. She glared at the Slayer. "What did you do that for?" she growled.
Buffy shrugged. "Didn't like your attitude."
From behind her, Giles cleared his throat. "Any other ?" he prompted
"Oh, yeah." The young blonde turned back to face Melinda. "Outside of killing Mack, is there any other way to get out of this place? Some secret trap door that we don't know about? Click our heels three times and we're home?"
The captive's face screwed up into a frown. "No," she said. "Why would you need one? And if you knew Mack was the safety, why have you been dragging your feet about killing him? You could've saved me a trip into this place." She grunted as another blow landed to her stomach.
"I'm not sure you've got our roles down yet," Buffy said. "See, I'm the big bad interrogator, and you're the skanky ho interrogatee. 'Kay?" She pivoted to look at the other two men. "So we're back to finding Tony," she said. "Mack's a one-way ticket. We gotta get to him."
Spike nodded toward the chained vampire. "She came this far for him. I think it's a safe wager to say she'd know where he's rabbited to."
"I agree," Giles said. "Although why she's here is still a mystery."
Buffy frowned, swivelling back to face Melinda. "Yeah, I was kinda wondering that myself," she mused. "Obviously you got your painting back, but if that was all you wanted, you wouldn't have come into it. So what gives? What's the scoop on you and bugle boy?"
The two women stared at each other, cold blue eyes glaring at curious hazel. "His name is Tony," Melinda finally said through gritted teeth. "And he's my boyfriend."
Spike snorted. "Not accordin' to him, luv."
"He is!" she shot back. "He's just confused right now."
"Sounds like you're the one who's delusional girl," Buffy commented.
"We've been together for almost ten years now. I'm not willing to throw it all away because of one little fight."
"Must've been a doozy if he was willing to run to a different dimension just to get away from you," Spike drawled.
"He wanted to hurt me," she retorted. "That's why he stole the painting; he knew how much I'd paid for it. But once he sees that I'm willing to have it destroyed just to get him back, he'll forget anything ever happened and we can go back to the way things were before." She turned beseeching blue eyes to Buffy. "C'mon, you've been in love, haven't you? Tony was the first boy I ever fell for. And I loved him so much, I didn't even turn him after I got bit, just because he asked me not to."
"Gee, that was generous," Buffy said dryly.
"Didn't stop the suckjobs," the other vampire added.
"Oh, like he didn't get anything out of it," Melinda snapped. "Me being a vampire opened a lot of doors for him and his stupid magic. I even helped him with most of his spells."
"You helped him?" This from Giles.
"Well, sure. You think he learned that little sleeping beauty trick on his own? I taught him that. Just like I taught him most of the other spells he knows."
"What about protection spells?" Buffy asked, suddenly tensing.
There was a moment where the female vamp just stared at the Slayer, and then her mouth formed a perfect little o. "Now, it makes sense," she said. "That's why you haven't killed Mack yet. So which one did he do? The fast-healing one? The disappearing one? What?"
"The lightning-bolt-from-the-chest-if-someone-makes-a-move-at-me one."
Melinda frowned. "That's not possible. That takes two people to do right." She waited for a response, but was met with their embarrassed silence. "Don't tell me one of you---?"
"She didn't know what she was helping with," Buffy defended.
"She? Tony got help from a girl?" The vampire's voice was rising. "I'll kill him. Little bastard thinks he can cheat on me."
"Hello? It was a spell. That hardly constitutes cheating. And Willow's already got a boyfriend. Kind of."
"It was Willow? That redhead he knocked out at the club?" Melinda's laughter began deep in her gut, bubbling forth from her bright-red lips to fill the room. "Well, fuck if you guys don't need my help," she sputtered in between giggles.
"Why? What do you know that we don't?" Giles stepped forward, his eyes narrowed.
"There's only way to reverse that particular spell, and it requires both of the castors to do it," Melinda explained, the smile still wide on her face. "So until you get Tony back to wake up sleeping beauty out there, you're shit out of luck."
Even if she was under the influences of magic, Gino loved watching her sleep, the delicate curve of her full lower lip, the tiny laugh lines around her mouth, the butterfly movement of her chest as she breathed. The innocence Willow fought so profoundly to deny while she was awake couldn't be hidden then, laying itself bare for anyone to witness, and it was all he could do not to scoop her into his arms right then, to shield her from any more hurt, hide her from any more pain.
He knew it was just a spell, and according to what that Melinda had said at the club, not a very dangerous one at that. Willow's not in pain, he had to keep reminding himself. She's just asleep. But the keen need to fix it, to wake her up from this slumber, was eating at his gut, a corrosive anger that chafed his patience. And the bickering couple next to the record player wasn't helping any.
"Just ignore him," Anya was saying. "We're going to get out of here soon anyway."
"And then what?" Harris replied. "I don't think you know what we're dealing with here, Ahn. Mack's dangerous all on his own. We ignore him and his orders, and there's no telling what he'll do."
"I admit, the man has a serious Napoleon complex," she argued. "But I hardly think he's dangerous."
Gino shot his black gaze at the other woman, his tolerance finally worn too thin not to respond. "Don't be a bunny," he barked.
Anya's eyes widened as she jerked back, his words almost a physical blow. "What?" she demanded. She turned to Xander. "Why would he say that? That's just mean---."
"He means, don't be stupid," her boyfriend explained.
"Oh." She visibly relaxed, and then straightened as Gino's full intent hit her. "Hey! That's still mean!"
"Your boyfriend's right," the bouncer said. "Mack didn't get where he is by playing nice. And if Harris doesn't do his dirty work, that don't mean he won't do it himself."
"See?" Xander said triumphantly. "Thanks, Gino."
The other man just waved his hand in dismissal and turned back to face Willow on the couch. She hadn't moved. Not that he really expected her to, but something, even a shift of her arm, would've been nice.
A loud crash from the bedroom jerked all of their attention to the door. "Buffy's going to bring down the roof, she keeps it up like that," Anya commented. "She can probably say good-bye to her security deposit."
Gino's eyes widened. "That was Buffy?"
"Probably," Xander shrugged. "Subtlety is not her strong suit."
"Neither is speed," Anya added. "How long is she going to take in there? We've got some killing to do."
On this, the dark bouncer agreed. Every second Buffy and Spike spent in the other room with Melinda meant one more second Tony got to get further away, which meant one more second Willow was under the spell. One too many seconds. And it wasn't as if he was accomplishing anything by just sitting here, holding her hand, waiting for someone to come out and actually do something. And even when they did come out, most likely they'd have to wait for the couple to return from the morgue before anything concrete was done about the trumpet player.
Xander frowned as Gino rose to his feet and headed for the door, face grim, hands flexing nervously at his sides. "Where you goin'?" he called after the other man.
"Out," came the terse reply. "Tell Spike I've got some work to do." And with that, he closed the door behind him.
When the trio emerged from the bedroom half an hour later, they each looked tired, shoulders slightly slumped, eyes drawn. Xander leapt to his feet at the sight, crossing the distance between them in just a few steps. "Well?" he asked. "Any satisfaction from our Vampirella?"
"Yes and no," Buffy replied. Her hazel gaze flickered over his shoulder to the couch. "Any change with Willow?"
He shook his head. "Still little miss Rip Van Winkle."
"Crap," the Slayer muttered. "That means Melinda's probably telling us the truth on the other stuff, too." For the first time, she noticed the absence of the dark-haired bouncer and frowned. "Where's Gino?"
"He left. Said he had some stuff to do."
"Just like that? No explanation?"
"Just like that. But then again, we're not exactly bosom buddies," Xander said. "I don't think he trusts me enough yet to tell me anything."
"What did Melinda say?" asked Anya. "Can we reverse the spell without Tony?"
Buffy shook her head. "And not without Willow, either. And we were right about the painting in Mack's penthouse being the way home. Once he's dead, we've got an hour window to touch it before it becomes permanently closed, and we're stuck here for good."
"So, chop chop. Let's get on the Tony-finding bandwagon," the ex-vengeance demon said, rising to her feet.
"As soon as we get this Mack business taken care of," Buffy said. "You wait here with Giles, keep an eye on Willow. We'll be back as soon as possible."
"Uh, hate to be the wet blanket here," said Spike, stepping forward. "But Gino took off. How'm I s'posed to get to the morgue without bursting into flame?"
"We'll have to drop you off first," the young blonde decided. She sighed heavily. "I am going to be so glad to get back to the Hellmouth. Slaying's going to seem like a vacation compared to all this."
It looked exactly like it had when they had left earlier that afternoon, the thick wood still staring back at him stolidly, mocking him with its closure. With one last glance around the empty corridor, Gino grasped the door knob and tested its lock with a firm jiggle. Strong, but maybe not strong enough. He took two steps backward, bracing his wide shoulders against the wall opposite the door, and lifted his foot, lashing out at the latch with all the force he could muster.
The wood splintered, but didn't break, and his shoe came up again, landing a second blow that forced the door to open with a sticky creak. For a split second, he froze, wondering if the sound would be heard by anyone else in the building, if all his efforts to break into Tony's apartment were just going to end up with him getting hauled into the slammer by the cops.
Nothing. Either everyone was out, maybe at work or something, or they were ignoring the very obvious signs of breaking and entering. Either way, there was no one rushing forth to stop him, to prevent him from getting into the apartment and find what he was looking for. Probably just glad it's not their place, Gino thought grimly, and stepped forward to push the door open wide enough for him to slip inside.
She stared into his grey eyes, chin held high, remembering Spike's last words before they'd dropped him off. "At the end of the day," he'd said, "Mack's just a guy who thinks he's in love with you. Even if you can't hurt him physically, that still gives you power. And power is what he's all about." He'd leaned in then, intending to just give her a light kiss in farewell, and though he'd been surprised when she'd pulled him to her, lips searching his, arms clinging to his broad shoulders, Spike had reciprocated in kind, only separating when Xander coughed, none too discreetly.
Deep down, Buffy didn't doubt that they'd get out of this painting alive and intact, but knowing the vampire believed in her, that he had no fears she would do what had to be done, armed her even more strongly as she faced off with Mack in the doorway of his penthouse. We will do this, she thought. Together.
"I wouldn't have thought you'd dress for the occasion," the club owner commented, his gaze sweeping over her made-up face, the sweater and trousers into which she'd changed, clinging to curves that only fired his temper further.
That's because I got vamp blood on my other shirt, she thought irritably, but said out loud, "In case we run late. I don't want to rush to get ready for work."
"Car's downstairs," Xander offered from behind her.
"Thank you." Mack's gaze slipped over her shoulder to his right-hand man. "I won't be needing you for this, Xander. Go ahead and relax until I get back, help yourself to some of that Dalwhinnie I just got. It's some of the best whiskey I've ever had." His hand curled around Buffy's hip as he pulled her out into the hallway and past the other man, oblivious to the panic that had risen in Xander's eyes as he watched the pair disappear around the corner.
"I'll just hold down the fort!" he called after them, and glanced back through the open door into the penthouse. Buffy alone with Mack ? Somehow, he didn't think that added up to anything good
To be continued in Chapter 39: Careless