DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy has called Giles about finding another place to stay, while Spike is wondering about the mystery of Cecily…

*************

Chapter 23: Black Satin

“Do you really think that’s such a good idea?”  Giles frowned as he watched Buffy toss the clothing she had only recently unpacked back into her bag, noting with confusion the sheen of the evening gowns Spike had bought for her as she carefully folded them.  Mopping at the sweat that beaded on his brow, he felt it begin an insidious path down the back of his neck, crawling beneath his open collar to add to the sticky rivulets that forced his shirt to cling to his skin, augmenting his discomfort beyond the headache he was already nursing.  At this rate, he might as well be outside helping Xander load up the car.  It might actually be cooler in the sunshine.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Buffy countered.  “Spike and I pretty much beat up our welcome wagon around Midnight to be any good on the recon detail, so until we either have more information or bigger firepower, it’s pointless for us to show our faces there.”

They had been going back and forth on this ever since that morning.  Buffy was adamant about everyone steering clear of Iris and her gang until they had more information, while Giles didn’t understand why she would ignore such a valuable source.  To him, it made perfect sense to try and find out if Willow---Sandrine, he had to keep reminding himself---was still with the vampire, and what better place than at the demon’s club?  Even Spike had said that human clientele was relatively safe there; in the few moments he’d been present after Giles had arrived, he’d portrayed the nightclub as a high-class but low-profile operation.  This Iris seemed to be more interested in keeping up appearances and having the nice things in life than making waves that would only draw attention to her more diabolical operations.  That’s why when the occasional unescorted human wandered in, they were left unmolested.  Generally speaking.

Of course, the irony that he was siding with Spike rather than Buffy on this didn’t escape the Watcher.  But he couldn’t help but feel that perhaps in this one instance, Spike might not know better than his charge.  After all, he was much more familiar with the comings and goings of New Orleans nightlife.  If his description was accurate, there was no reason a careful approach to the club couldn’t be made to gather more information.

“I understand that,” Giles said.  “It’s this search for your mysterious gris gris woman I’m debating.  I’d feel much better if you waited until daylight.”

She hesitated in her packing, her hand automatically reaching up to finger the leather bag hanging around her neck.  When she’d related the gris gris story to him over breakfast, Buffy had conveniently left out the details of the woman’s words and their correlation to Drusilla’s own visions.  That was between her and Spike, and until she could be sure of Giles’ reaction, she wasn’t willing to spill on that just yet.

“She’s the only reason you don’t have an extra-crispy Slayer right now,” she said instead.  “We need to know what she knows, and if at all possible, get more of these to protect us from Sandrine.”  She smiled.  “Maybe she’ll give us a two for the price of one deal.  Gotta keep an eye on that Watcher budget, you know.” 

The Englishman sighed.  “I understand the need to see her.  I’m merely questioning your timing.  Spike’s not completely healed yet.  He’ll be a liability---.”

“Hey!”  Despite the closed bathroom door that separated them, Spike’s annoyed voice rang clear.  “I heard that, Rupert!”

Buffy ducked her head, hiding her smile from her Watcher.  “I know it still looks bad,” she said, resuming her packing, “but he says he’s feeling about a hundred times better.  I have to trust that Spike’s going to know when he can and can’t contribute to a fight.”

The raising of his Giles’ eyebrows spoke volumes.  “This is Spike we’re talking about here.  He’s not exactly renowned for his calm and rational thought.”

“I think you’d be surprised.  He’s done nothing but be rational since we started this.”  She stopped just long enough to look at him, gaze steady.  “And I’m sticking by what I said.  I trust Spike.”

*************

He doubted the witch could hear what was being said in the other room---although after his outburst, Spike couldn’t be certain she wasn’t trying to at least pay attention to them---but he lowered his head anyway, averting his gaze as he was reluctant to have her witness the surprised elation in his eyes in catching Buffy’s words. 

I trust Spike

So different from before.  And saying it to her Watcher?  Unheard of.  Sure, she could turn around and mouth those kind of platitudes to Spike’s face, but to actually have the stones to say the same thing to Giles meant that it was important to her.  That the words actually meant something.  Not just lipservice about what he wanted to hear, and not an excuse to fob off in an attempt to get her Watcher off her back.  Red’s safety meant too much to Buffy; she wouldn’t do anything she thought would be a risk to losing her.

None of this had been expected, and if he’d been asked a month earlier about whether it was what he wanted, Spike would’ve given whoever suggested it a sound thrashing, regardless of the headache it might’ve caused.  Now, he was ready to fight to keep it, which meant getting this business with Red sorted as quickly as possible.  Nobody was going to fuck with what he had going here, and if it meant staking Iris himself, he’d be more than happy to do it.

A sharp stab in his shoulder jolted him back to the reality of the hotel bathroom, and Spike’s head jerked around, blue eyes blazing as he glared at Tara.  She was cleaning out more of his wounds, and though his pain was markedly less than when he’d first woken up, the coarse dampness of the flannel as she dabbed at the burns sent searing slivers of pain into his muscles when the threads caught on the worst of the injury.

She flinched at his reaction, yanking the cloth away.  “Sorry,” she mumbled, and turned to run it under the tap again, washing away some of the dried blood that had come away from the wound.

Spike forced himself to relax, smelling her fear as it wafted from her skin.  “It’s all right,” he said gruffly.  “Guess I should be grateful I’m at least standing, considering just a few hours ago, I was pretty much toast.  Owe you a spot of thanks for that.”

“It w-w-was Mr. Giles’ idea.  I just came along for the ride.”  The smile she offered him was hesitant, but he caught the slight gleam in her eye, the faint hint of pride at having her spell work out so well daring to poke out its head, and smiled back.

“Still, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t see how much you’re doin’ here.  You didn’t have to sit with me earlier, you know.  You could’ve just gone off and had your pancake breakfast with the rest of the little Scoobies.  I would’ve been just fine all on my lonesome.”

She shook her head.  “Buffy was worried.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes the Slayer---.”  He cut himself off, unwilling to divulge anything more than he had to. 

Her hands returned to his injuries, gentler this time if that was at all possible, and Spike could see the question flickering behind her eyes.  “Buffy takes care of the people who are important to her,” Tara finally ventured softly.  “That’s not such a bad circle to be in, you know.”

It dawned on him, then.  In spite of her limited exposure to them---hell, she’d only seen them interact with both of them conscious for the few minutes before dragging him into the bathroom to check his wounds---Tara had seen what had taken Buffy and Spike what seemed like forever to discover.  Are we that easy to read? he wondered.  Do I have to worry about Rupert and Harris sussing this thing out between us before we’re ready for it to air? 

He knew, though, that the answer to both questions was no.  This was a Tara quirk, this uncanny ability to see beyond the masks, to slough away the chaff and appreciate the shine underneath without introducing discomfort in those she saw.  Caring borne of pain, he realized.  No wonder Red loved her so much.

“We’ll get her back,” Spike said quietly, referring to the redhead.  “The Slayer’ll see to that.”  It was almost as an afterthought, reaching up to catch her busy fingers with his own, that he added, “I’ll see to that.”

She was silent, lost in whatever remnants of thoughts his words evoked.  “Sometimes…I wish…”  Her tone was faint, her words translucent as they floated to his ear.  “…I think that it would be…easier not to care so much, you know?  Because when it looks like you might…lose it…”  The tiniest of cracks appeared in her voice.  “…it h-h-hurts so much, and you just want to brick everyone out.   Because it’s safer.  And it’s lonely but it’s better than feeling like you’ve been eaten from the inside out, and you’re just a sh-sh-shell of what you used to be.”  She looked at him then, eyes shining.  “But then you remember what life was like before, how dark it was, how…chaotic, and you realize just what’s been given to you.  And you know you can’t give up on it, no matter what, because it’s just not worth it to go back to that place.”

It was more than he’d ever heard come from the witch’s mouth, and Spike knew without her having to say so just why she’d chosen to share it with him.  These were thoughts nobody else could understand, not without having been to those ebony corners where shadows reigned, where he had lived.  Who would’ve believed that the pair of them could understand the other?  Certainly not him.  Yet here it was.  And surprisingly, he liked it.

The slight squeeze he gave of her fingers was reflexive, but it served to break her from her reverie with a nervous laugh.  “So…” she said, pulling away to turn back to the sink.  “Was that Cecily helping you guys?” Tara paused, catching her own flawed logic.  “Except…maybe not, because Buffy didn’t seem to know who I was talking about when I told her about her stopping by.”

The name chilled his good mood, and his mouth thinned.  “That wasn’t Cecily,” Spike said tightly.

She matched his frown with her own.  “B-b-but…she knew you.  And you knew her.  And…and…she called you William.  That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Haven’t been William in a long time.  And Cecily hasn’t been around in almost as long.  Whoever that was, wasn’t good news.  Buffy and I are going to find out just what’s goin’ on before any more of this nonsense walks in under our noses.”  His tone was cutting, and he watched her visibly retreat from his coldness, his unspoken accusation for allowing Cecily to enter driving her away.  Spike grimaced, and stood, turning his back to her to reach for his shirt.  “You couldn’t have known, ducks,” he tried.  “Don’t fuss yourself over it.”

“I don’t understand.  It was daylight, and I didn’t invite her in.  Was she a demon?”

He snorted.  “You know humans who disappear that quick-like?”

Tara seemed to consider this.  “Maybe she was a witch.  Able to teleport and..shapeshift, and read your…”  Her voice trailed away, the ridiculousness of what she was saying sinking in.  “I’m s-s-sorry.  I didn’t know.”

Reaching for his shirt, Spike felt her eyes on his back as he carefully pulled it over his head, trying not to wince when the stitched hem caught on the worst of the burn.  “It’s all right, pet, ‘cause apparently, she fooled these old eyes, too, remember?”  He knew even as he said it that that wasn’t exactly true, that he’d been more blinded by his pain than anything else, but the need to reassure Tara was great.

She shook her head.  “I just don’t understand why.  What does whoever this is gain by pretending to be somebody you know?”

His face was grim, his eyes glinting as he glanced back at the witch.  “Don’t know,” he admitted.  “But that’s tops on me and the Slayer’s agenda to find out.”

*************

“This is crazy,” Xander muttered as they neared the door of the club.  “We might as well be wearing signs around our neck saying, ‘Want a nummy treat?  Ask me how!’”

“You didn’t have to come,” Anya replied.  “We could’ve just as easily rented a tuxedo for Giles, you know.”  She stopped on the sidewalk, smoothing her hands over the black satin of her dress as she peered at the blacked-out window, using her faint reflection as a mirror to check her appearance.

He had to admit, she looked good.  Great, in fact.  The dress they’d “borrowed” from Buffy---and why exactly Buffy had not one, not two, but three evening dresses appropriate for going to Midnight, Xander did not want to think about---clung to Anya’s angular curves in a way that made him wish they were back at the hotel instead of about to go parading before the local demon brigade.  Sure, it was an inch or two on the short side, but the added exposure of her ankles only enhanced her appearance, he thought.  He was almost glad that none of the dresses had fit Tara; as much as he hated this plan, getting to be the one to show off his gorgeous girlfriend gave him a silent thrill.  Now, if he could just get her to look at him without that damning annoyance in her eyes, like he’d let her down, life could start back down the road of being good again. 

“I think any of us just waltzing into a vampire bar is insane,” he said, trying to reinforce to her how foolhardy he thought this whole idea was.  It had surprised him to hear Giles suggest it after Buffy and Spike had left for the French Quarter, but no amount of arguing had seemed to shake the Watcher’s opinion that they would be relatively safe.  And when Tara had chimed in on the wanting to do something proactive instead of waiting around for the two blonds to return from trying to track down their gris gris woman, he knew he had been outvoted.

Anya didn’t even look at him.  “Stop over-reacting.  It’s not any different from going into Willy’s for information, except we get to dress up and our shoes won’t stick to the floor.  We’re going to be fine.”

She grabbed his hand before he could respond, dragging him toward the front door, leaving him to cast one last glance over his shoulder at the car parked just down the street.  Giles and Tara were waiting there, keeping an eye on the outside of the club while Xander and Anya scoped out the in, and though he couldn’t see them in the darkness of the night, he found it reassuring knowing they were only a phone call away should something go wrong.  Anya carried the cell phone, while he had the stakes she was adamant they weren’t going to need tucked inside his jacket.  That was the extent of their weapons.

He just hoped it was enough.

The inside of the club was not what he expected, its elegance dripping in crystal and clean lines.  While Anya seemed to slip into the ambience like a satin glove, he couldn’t help but suddenly feel like Bonzo, pulling at his collar as the artificial chill iced over the sweat that had sprung to his skin on the sidewalk.  Buffy had told them that the preponderance its patrons were vampires, but she hadn’t mentioned that they were good-looking vampires, with more style and grace than he saw in those Hollywood wrap parties on E!.  If he thought he stuck out like a sore thumb before, actually being inside Midnight made him feel absolutely gangrenous.

Anya acted like a woman with a mission, pulling him straight for the bar and flashing the man---vampire?---behind it her brightest smile.  “Two glasses of red wine,” she said, her outward demeanor fading only slightly as he tugged at her elbow.

“You’re going to get us carded,” he whispered.  “As much as I’d prefer jail to vamping, shouldn’t we be trying to keep a low profile here?”

Rolling her eyes, she pulled herself away, easing herself onto the nearest stool.  “For once in your sad, pathetic, human life, Xander,” she said, “will you just give me the benefit of the doubt and follow my lead?” 

Her voice was just as low as his, but there was no mistaking the anger in her words.  He knew, even as his mouth opened to speak, that this was the perfect opportunity for him to begin trying to make up for the hurt feelings she’d had regarding his reactions back in Sunnydale.  The smart thing would’ve been to stay silent.  The smart thing would’ve been to take his own seat and look out over the crowd, to see who would be the first person they would hit up for information.  The smart thing---.

It was the etched hurt in her brown eyes when she glanced back at him that froze his tongue, the single word tumbling from her lips.  “Please?”

Mute, Xander nodded, reaching for the wine glass that had magically appeared before him.  Something told him, this was going to be a long night.

*************

She seemed to glow, and as the minutes passed, Xander found himself unable to tear his eyes from Anya, listening to her laugh and chat with the various men who came to the bar as if he was seeing her for the first time.  She barely paid him any attention, focusing instead on the pointed conversations in which she engaged, but every once in a while, he thought he caught the corner of her eye, sharing those infinitesimal moments of partnership that had been much more plentiful before this whole mess had started.

Each one hurt.  Each one only served to remind him just how different they were now, how far away he’d driven her with his inability to see past what she’d done.  Was it really that bad?  Even this afternoon, lying next to her at the hotel, he hadn’t been able to grasp just why he had to apologize, but now…now he was seeing the woman he was throwing away with both hands, watching as she swallowed the fear that had bubbled her nerves ever since boarding the plane in Sunnydale to do what had to be done.  This was a risk; they both knew it.  In spite of the Watcher’s assurances, in spite of having Giles and Tara as a back-up just outside, there was still danger in being so near to the vampire Willow had last been seen with.

And yet, here she was.  Chatting and laughing as if nothing was wrong.

And he was feeling like the jerk of the century for taking so long to see just how much she was doing here.

“Ahn.”  He leaned forward, lowering his mouth to her ear, the smell of her shampoo filling his nostrils.  “Maybe we should call it a night.”  His intent was to get her out of there, to get her back to the hotel so that they could have the talk they should’ve had after breakfast.  But like everything else that had come out of his mouth lately, it backfired.

She stiffened beneath his almost touch, her shoulders straightening as her fingers tightened around her wine glass.  “I’m sorry I’m not getting information fast enough for you, Xander,” she said coldly, and slid from her seat.  “Maybe I should mingle.  I might actually be of some use to you people for a change.”

She was gone before he could stop her, a midnight fancy amidst a swirl of color, and his mouth thinned.  Way to go to push her away, Xander scolded himself.  And now she’s out there, without a weapon, and you’re stuck here at the bar with just a piece of wood to defend yourself.  Too bad that wood seems to be your head.

*************

For a little while there, Anya thought it had been working.  She’d been charming, she’d been funny, she’d been fucking adorable, and when Xander had ordered his third glass of red wine without taking his eyes off her, she had thought that that was it.  He was finally seeing what exactly he was missing.  Then he had opened his mouth and practically called her useless by suggesting it was time to go home, and she realized that he still wasn’t getting it.

She had hated the plan as much as he had when Giles suggested it.  And how annoyed was she that Tara couldn’t fit into any of the Slayer’s dresses?  It was her stupid girlfriend who was in trouble; she should be the one in here digging for more information on Sandrine and the voix mortelle.  But no.  She couldn’t fit Midnight’s stupid dress code, leaving Anya to be the Nancy Drew for the night.

Her hopes had risen when Xander had jumped to be the one to go with her, but all his complaining---at the rental shop, in the car, outside the club---had only showed her that he didn’t trust her to get the job done.  He couldn’t seem to wrap his brain around the fact that she’d dealt with demons for the last thousand years.  Did he think that she automatically forgot all that when she became human?  That all the experience she’d gained had suddenly vanished?

Obviously he had.  Because she was now alone at a small table, occasionally glancing at him sitting at the bar, wishing fervently he would just come over and tell her that he understood, so that they could both go back to the hotel and make up.

“Hey there.”

So lost in her reverie, Anya hadn’t noticed the forty-ish gentleman approach her seat, his pale complexion telling her without having to even blink that he was a vampire.  Her smile was automatic, though, and her response, seemingly genuine.

“I have got to ask,” he continued, his head tilting slightly as his eyes narrowed in contemplation, “because it’s been bugging me ever since you walked in.  I know you’re human, but why is it a lovely young thing like you smells like you’ve been around longer than I have?”

She blushed under his appreciative stare, surprising herself with her response.  “Ex-vengeance demon,” she admitted, and chuckled when his dark eyes went wide, holding out her hand in greeting.  “I’m Anya.”

“And I’m intrigued,” he replied, taking her offering between both his cold palms.  He was still holding her hand when he slid into the chair next to her.  “Tom.  I don’t think I’ve ever met an ex demon before.”

“I’m kind of on a break from the vengeance gig.  I thought I’d look up some old friends I haven’t seen in a while.”  The latter had been her standard line in introducing the subject all night.  So far, it had gotten her bupkiss.

Tom’s eyebrows lifted.  “Awfully risky since you’re human now,” he commented.

She smiled.  “Risky is my middle name.”  Though she had started getting tired of doing the flirting thing prior to moving away from the bar, Anya seemed to have developed a second wind, her eyes twinkling in satisfaction as she saw Xander straighten in his chair.  Serves him right, she groused.  I deserve to be flirted with, even if he doesn’t want to be the one doing the flirting.

Settling back into his chair, his dark gaze swept the room.  “So if you’re trying to find old friends, why is it you’re sitting over here all on your lonesome?”

“Because nobody’s seen her around,” she replied.  She leaned forward, fingers playing with the stem of her glass.  “Maybe you know her.  She’s a friend of Iris’.  Her name is Sandrine.”

*************

If the perks weren’t so great, he would’ve quit ages ago because living in fear of his boss and her little distractions was starting to get a little old.  Especially now that she’d hooked up with that little human.  Normally, he wouldn’t have given the small girl a second thought---except as dinner---but after hearing about what she’d done to Spike and having to dispose of that black singer’s body, he was beginning to re-evaluate his impressions.

He knocked at the door, body stiff as he waited to gain admittance.  At least he was showing up with less than dire news.  In fact, he was fairly certain that they would be pleased he’d actually picked up on this.  Maybe it would merit him a bonus in some way.

Iris’ voice filtered through the thick door.  “Come in.”

He didn’t bother crossing the threshold, just hovering in the entrance as he looked to see his boss and the redhead lounging on the couch, both of them decked in black and looking absolutely amazing.  His mouth watered at the thought of the human’s heat searing down his throat, and he visibly swallowed as he forced himself to focus on Iris.  “There’s something going on out in the club you need to be aware of,” he said.  “Somebody’s asking around about Sandrine.”

The redhead stiffened.  “Is it Buffy?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “Another blonde.  Human.  She came in with a dark-haired guy but she hasn’t been paying him too much attention.  I sent Tom over to see if he could get any more information from her.  Apparently, she claims to be an ex-vengeance demon.”

The tension in Sandrine’s body eased, and the malevolent smile she turned to Iris glittered with glee.  “Remember what I said about the mountain?” she said.  “Get ready to meet Mohammed.”

*************

He didn’t want to watch her anymore, turning in his seat so that his back was to her, ordering another glass of wine without realizing he’d already more than passed his limit.  It hurt, seeing her laugh like that with someone who wasn’t him, and though Xander knew she wasn’t doing anything he didn’t deserve, part of him wanted to go over there, turn into Neanderthal man, and drag her out by her hair so that this whole charade would stop.  Except, was it a charade?  Was she pretending?  Or was she finally getting a chance to be the person he didn’t seem to let her be?

Turning around didn’t make a difference in not watching.  He could see her in the mirror behind the bar, which was more than a little disconcerting as the lack of reflections from most of the clientele was giving him the wiggins.  It was a cacophony of sounds behind him---laughter, and music, and the clink of glasses---and yet it appeared as if the club was nearly empty.  Anya, especially, looked odd laughing and talking to herself, even though Xander knew if he glanced back, he’d see the vampire sitting opposite her.

The flash of red in the corner would’ve gone amiss if there had been more to distract him in the mirror.  As it was, he had to consciously squint at the reflection, the briefest doubt flickering across his mind, before it appeared again.

Red hair.

Wide green eyes.

Willow.

Instinct took over, and Xander stumbled from his seat, jerking around to see his best friend hovering in the entrance to what looked like the ladies’ room.  The crowd between them seemed to multiply as he pressed himself forward, alcohol clouding his rational thought as well as loosening his limbs so that walking seemed to take extra effort.  But still he pressed.

Gotta get to Will, he thought.  She’s here.  Have to help her.

More than once, he got an annoyed elbow in the ribs as he bumped into the wrong person, and one vamp even snarled when he accidentally stepped on his foot.  Doesn’t matter, Xander kept silently chanting.  Doesn’t matter.  Get to Will.  Help Will.  Doesn’t matter.

The door loomed in front of him, but all signs of the redhead were gone, leaving in her stead a burly demon with a face not even a mother could love.  Glancing around, there was no sign of her, and tentatively, he reached forward to push the door open.

“Don’t think so,” the guard rumbled, stepping sideways to block the entrance.  Yellow flashed in his eyes, causing Xander to back up awkwardly, and the young man held up his hands in a gesture of peace.

“Just looking for my friend,” he said.

“Well, go look somewhere else.  This here’s off-limits to non-personnel.”

For a second, Xander considered the weight of the stake in his pocket and debated if he could force his way past him.  He’d seen Willow; he was sure of it.  And she needed their help.

It was the “their” in his thoughts that shook his head clear.  Safety in numbers, he decided.  We know now that Willow’s here, so I just have to go get Buffy and the others, and we can storm the proverbial castle to rescue her.  Just have to get Anya and get out of here first.

“My mistake,” Xander mumbled, and turned around, pushing his way past the throng he’d just navigated to return to his place at the bar.  Tossing a couple bills onto the counter, his glance into the mirror was almost habitual, the shock of what he didn’t see there startling him sober faster than spotting Willow across the room.  A jerk of his head only confirmed what he’d already seen.

Anya was gone.

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: Wait ‘til You See Her