Her lungs burned from the smoke she couldn't help inhaling, but her eyes were clear, scanning the street around her as she mentally ticked off her Scooby list. Xander and Anya huddled near under the streetlamp, checking over the painting for damage Melinda looking pissy in the back seat of one of the cars and there was Gino, with Willow in his arms, striding purposefully toward an arguing Giles and Tony. Buffy frowned, her gaze making the sweep again. No, she hadn't been mistaken. He wasn't there. But he had to be, Melinda was safe and sound. Where could Spike have gone?
The Slayer's head swivelled to stare back at the door from which they'd just emerged. Was it possible he'd gone back inside? But for what? There wasn't anything they needed in there; everything and everyone of importance was out here, on the sidewalk, looking like extras from the Towering Inferno. There was no logical reason for him to have left the group.
She laughed, a harsh rasp that was drowned out by the roaring flames behind her. Since when had Spike ever been logical? Better to just skirt the area, see if he was just hidden by the smoke.
Tony's hand on her arm stopped her. "I need my stuff," he said, reaching for the bag that was strapped over her shoulder.
"What for?" Her brow was furrowed as she just stood there, watching as he took it away and began rummaging around inside.
"We're going to do the spell now."
Buffy looked up to see Willow and Gino behind the musician, the young witch's green eyes too-bright in the dusky smoke. "I thought we were waiting 'til we got to Giles' place."
"Spike said to do it now."
That's when it clicked, and the Slayer's head jerked as she stiffened. Only one reason he would say that. "Which direction did he go?" she asked tightly.
Even through the smoke, his eyes glittered, tawny orbs hardened against the sight of the man in front of him. "Shoulda known you wouldn't want to miss the show," Spike said. "Though I would've thought you'd get better seats, a big hotshot like yourself."
"Don't you ever die?" Mack commented, refusing to allow his fear of the monster to permeate his voice.
He shrugged. "Did it once. Don't really fancy doin' it again." Mack couldn't help but let his gaze flicker over the vampire's shoulder, a gesture that didn't go unnoticed by the other man, and Spike grinned. "Scared Buffy might be makin' an appearance?" he taunted. "Don't worry. This is between you and me."
"Does that mean ?" The club owner stiffened. This wasn't worth it if Buffy was the only one to die. Although he'd wished them both dead and out of his life, his priority had been on the blond Englishman; if circumstances reversed it on him, Mack was going to be pissed off as hell.
"It means I should've killed you when I had the chance." Spike's tone had hardened, knives dripping from his voice as he took a step closer. "Though I got a feelin' I'm goin' to enjoy this a helluva lot more considerin' what happened at the morgue."
They stood and stared at each other, grey eyes locked with golden, and Mack fingered the knife in his pocket. Though his skill with the blade was considerable, to do any real damage he would have to be up close, and frankly, he didn't doubt that the blond demon couldn't take him in such proximity. Yet he just stood there, not moving, his tongue flicking out to run along his fangs, almost as if he was waiting for something.
"How does it feel having to get saved by Buffy?" Mack queried, deliberately keeping his voice light. "She's the only reason you're not a walking Picasso, you know."
"Feels like she loves me, but you wouldn't know anything about that, now would you?" Spike's head tilted in amusement, watching the other man squirm in discomfort. "Makes your gut crawl, doesn't it? Like thousands of tiny worms gnawin' at your entrails, knowin' pretty soon, they'll make their way to that black lump you call a heart, only to chew it up and spit it out."
Mack laughed, a short, sharp bark that cut through the smoky air like glass. "That's very poetic, Spike," he commented. "Is that the kind of bed talk you share with Buffy? Drown her in your awful poetry until she falls asleep?" He saw the tiny flinch in the vampire's jaw, and his smile widened. "I believe I've struck a nerve," he said gleefully. "Please tell me it's the same one I sliced open on your face. I love opening up old wounds."
His charge at him was instinctual, a leap through the cloudy smoke based on hatred and the desire to hurt. In the same instant, Mack's body curled to duck, the air around him suddenly thick, charged with some unknown energy, and he froze as the electricity jumped the distance between the two men, striking Spike in the chest with a force strong enough to knock out a small elephant, sending the blond sprawling onto the pavement.
Mack's grey eyes widened, looking down at his own body in amazement before lifting to view the vampire on the ground. He had no idea what had just happened, but whatever it was, it had saved him from what had appeared most likely to be a fatal attack on Spike's part. His breathing slowed as he began to regain control of his racing thoughts, and the realization that the other man couldn't hurt him began slowly to sink in.
"Definitely struck something," Mack murmured, taking a cautious step forward. "Question is, what?"
Spike stumbled to his feet, the burning in his chest easing slightly as he fought to ignore the pain. "It ain't gold," he growled, and stood his ground, watching as the other man took yet another step, refusing to give him the satisfaction of retreating. C'mon, Red, he thought impatiently. I don't have all day here.
"I have to admit," Mack was saying, continuing his approach, "this certainly qualifies as the strangest day of my life. Men rising from the dead. Strange forces that turn on you when you try to attack me. And, you know, I got a hunch, you and Buffy know something about it, Spike. So tell me. What's the wire on it? Why don't you just go ahead and kill me? I know you want to. I can see it in your eyes. Even if they are yellow."
He was within striking distance now, and Spike saw the muscles in the other man's arm tense as his hand gripped whatever he was keeping in his pocket. Probably that bloody knife, he thought, but stayed his ground, chin high, eyes only slightly narrowed as he quickly surveyed his surroundings. He knew---could feel---it was just the two of them. Whatever men had done the deed with the fire were long gone, most likely too afraid they'd get caught bang to rights for the crime. The only ones here were Spike and Mack
And that was when he picked up the second heartbeat, his senses alerting to the stealthy approach of a third, this one most definitely human. It was behind him, although not directly, more like off to his right someplace, and its steady pace meant it would be alongside him in mere seconds. Not goin' down without a fight, he thought. Even if it fries me
"Please tell me you brought marshmallows," came Buffy's voice from the smoke as she stepped up, arms folded across her chest. "I hate letting all this pretty fire go to waste."
Mack's feet stopped at the sight of the young blonde, her face smudged from the smoke, and felt his anger rekindle. "I can see that I was right. Black really doesn't become you."
She ignored his gibe and turned to look at the vampire, noting the singe marks on his chest where the magic had hit him. Hazel eyes darted up to meet his, and she frowned. "You should've waited," she scolded.
"He pissed me off."
"Yeah, well, he's good at that." Gingerly, Buffy's fingers fluttered over the burn, a heated balm that immediately brought his cock to attention. "Doesn't hurt too much, does it?"
He shrugged. "I've had worse, usually from you."
She smiled, and realized for the first time that he was wearing his vampire visage. "Were you going for the if-I-can't-hurt-him-I'll-scare-him tactic?" she teased, reaching up to touch the ridges lightly.
As soon as her fingers met his forehead, Spike slipped back into his human mask, his unconscious step drawing him closer to her thin form. "Someone had to have a plan," he murmured. "And you were too busy leadin' the troops."
"Excuse me." The pair's eyes turned, looking at the third party in the mix, his anger contributing to the red flush in his face. "As touching as this little scene is, it's making me just a little sick to my stomach here." The knife came out of his pocket, catching the silver rays of the moon as it cut through the smoke. "You should've just stayed inside, Buffy. It would've been much cleaner that way."
The blade came sweeping forward, and though her instincts twisted her body to the side in more than enough time to avoid it, she felt Spike's body cross in front of hers, taking the edge of the weapon across his abdomen, the scent of fresh blood instantly mingling with the acrid smoke.
Mack danced back, his face tight. "How gallant," he snarled, his composure falling to pieces before their eyes.
"And stupid!" Buffy exclaimed, straightening and pulling the vampire to face her. Her gaze drank in the deep slash. "Stop playing the hero in this, Spike," she ordered. "If I can take on a group of rabid vamps, I think I can stay out of the way of one Napoleon wannabe."
"Sorry if my gut tells me to protect you," he growled, pressing his hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood. "You try arguing with instincts, see how far you get."
"Soooo not the time for this," she warned.
"Oh, a lover's quarrel," Mack oozed. "Please tell me this is just for me."
"Shut up!" Buffy barked, her eyes blazing as she glanced over at the club owner. "You are the last person I want to hear talking right now."
He actually seemed to be contemplating her words, muscles twitching as he stared back at the pair of them. "No," he finally said. "You seem to be forgetting, I'm the one with the power here." The blade of his knife flashed in the moonlight.
"And what power would that be?" she replied. "You haven't been able to kill us, Mack, in spite of numerous attempts. You haven't even been able to seriously hurt us, for that matter. A cut here, some arson there, and we're still standing in front of you, still alive, still together. And you? You. Are very. Much. Alone." She took a step toward him, gaze steady as she watched him begin to retreat. "It's really quite sad, actually. Everything you've tried---having us killed, trying to make yourself some Spike shish kebab, the little bonfire of your vanity back there---has been just a big pile of backfire on you, 'cause instead of taking him away from me, you've only pushed us closer together. Know why?" She waited, almost as if she really expected him to respond, before continuing. "Because now I don't have any doubts. Not that I had many, but what was there? All gone. Poof. And all thanks to you."
"You two deserve each other," Mack spat, stumbling slightly as his heel caught on a loose stone on the sidewalk.
Buffy continued her slow advance. "Don't be expecting a party, though. I get cranky when people try to kill me. Kind of destroys the trust, you know?" She opened her mouth to go on, ready to keep talking for as long as it took, when Mack suddenly convulsed, his head thrown back, mouth agape, arms locked at his sides.
They both felt the power in the air, and the Slayer stopped in her tracks, even going so far as taking a step backwards, to watch as the magic poured over the man's slight body, wrapping him in an orange mantle for what seemed an eternity before dropping him to the ground. She looked down at his semi-conscious form, noting the knife that now rested on the ground at his side, and slowly smiled.
"You want the first punch?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder at Spike.
"Ladies first." He watched as she turned back to the painting's safety, the concentration etched in her brow, and grinned as she leapt forward, leg extended, foot connecting with Mack's jaw in a crunching blow that sent his head reeling against the sidewalk.
Buffy rolled to safety a few feet away and beamed over at Spike. "God, did that feel good."
The vampire watched as the other man struggled to his feet, staggering sideways as he tried to walk away. "This is just goin' to be too easy," he growled, and tackled Mack's legs, sending both of them in a sprawling heap of various body parts, his fist throwing blow after blow while his other hand maintained a grip on the man's shirt so that he couldn't squirm away. He felt the muscles bruise under his power, bones crumbling into shards as sharp as the broken glass behind them, and stopped only when Buffy's hand settled on his shoulder.
"You're going to kill him like that," she said.
His lips twisted into a smile. "Thought that was the whole idea."
Her gaze was steady. "I can't let you kill a human, Spike. You know that."
"And I can't let you kill one, either, Slayer, so guess we're at a stalemate." He sat back on his heels, Mack's unconscious body between his thighs.
"This is my job."
"We've had this discussion before---."
"And you know the rules!"
Both of their tempers were starting to rise, and Spike deliberately took an unnecessary breath, showing her he wasn't going to take her bait. "Are you goin' to stake me if I do it?" he asked.
The question took her off-guard. "What? Why would I do that?"
"That was the condition of the rules, your rules, I might add. I break one, you stake me. So I'm askin'. Would you really stake me if I did this?"
Buffy bit her lip, frowning. It seemed like forever ago since she'd made up those damn rules, and this was really the first opportunity that had come up for her to test them. No killing humans, she'd said. She'd really meant no feeding off them and killing them in the process, but hadn't actually said that out loud at the time, not realizing that they would ever be placed in this situation. And staking Spike for doing what would essentially be a good thing for the Scoobies? Even she couldn't rationalize that away.
"No," she finally said, "I guess not."
"Well then." Spike smiled. "Problem solved."
She grabbed his wrist before he could turn back to Mack. "Why do you want to do this?" she asked.
His face softened. "Truth? 'Cause he pissed me off. Thought he could hurt you and I wouldn't do anything about it. So tastes a little like revenge to me." His head tilted as his blue eyes bore into hers. "Does that change your answer?"
Buffy's grip relaxed just ever so slightly. "No."
It practically leapt out of his hands, causing Xander to jerk forward in an effort to keep it steady. "Whoa, Nellie," he said, his eyes widening as he looked down at the painting, its colors all of a sudden seemingly to glow as if from within.
Anya peered over his shoulder. "I'm going to say Mack's dead," she said.
"So, what now?" Xander asked, looking over at Giles as he stood guard by the car.
"We touch it and go home," the older man replied. He straightened as Spike and Buffy emerged from the smoke in the road, arms around each other, the blood still dripping down the vampire's front from the slash Mack had made. "Are you all right?" he asked, his worried gaze darting between the pair of them.
"I can honestly say I've been better," Buffy replied, and immediately noticed the huddle on the sidewalk, Gino cradling an unconscious Willow in his arms as Tony leaned back against the streetlight. She rushed forward. "What happened?"
"She passed out after the spell," the bouncer said. "I think it was just a little too much for her."
Buffy glanced over at the trumpet player. "You didn't do this, did you?" she accused.
"No!" His denial was vehement. "It was the reversal. It sucked everything out of her to do it."
"He's right," Giles interjected. "She was fine until the spell was completed. She's just drained."
The Slayer looked around at her friends. "I can't believe I finally get to say this, but it looks like it's finally time to go home," she said. "Who wants to be first?"
One by one, the Scooby gang touched the painting. Giles went first, in spite of Anya's protest about going in reverse order of arrival, followed immediately by Tony and Melinda, then Xander Anya and finally Spike. Before laying his hand on the canvas, he looked back at Buffy and smiled. "See you on the other side."
When it was just Buffy and Willow left, Gino finally spoke, saying his first words since the Watcher had disappeared into a rainbow of light. "She's not going to be able to touch it on her own," he said, brushing the red hair away from her still-closed lids. "Someone's going to have to help her."
"I can do it," Buffy replied, her voice equally low. "That's how Spike came through with me in the first place. If I hold her, she should go back with me."
His black eyes met hers. "Let me do it."
There was a pause. "You don't have to---."
"I want to." His gaze returned to Willow's face. "All I've been able to think about since I found out about you guys is what was it going to be like around here without her. Would I remember her? Would it even be worth it? And I thought, maybe, if there was a way for me to go back with Willow, then I'd do just about anything to make it happen."
"It might not work, you know," Buffy said gently. "This is the world you belong in."
"No, Willow's is the world I belong in." Gino looked up at the young blonde. "Besides, as crazy as these past few days have been, I gotta admit, they've been the best I can ever remember. You and Spike are the best friends I've ever had. The way I figure it, what've I got to lose?"
She smiled, in spite of herself. "Well, you'd definitely make a good Scooby," she said. "Finding Tony was a trick and a half. I don't think I've thanked you enough for that."
He ducked his head. "Nah, that was just dumb luck."
"I'll take any kind of luck I can get if it gets results like that," she shot back with a grin. Leaning forward, Buffy kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Here's hoping I see you in Sunnydale "
To be concluded in Chapter 43: For You, For Me, Forever More