DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
SUMMARY: Buffy has taken off after drinking the potion and the Scoobies are trying to find her before the Hound does.

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

Chapter 5: Confrontations

The last of the flames flickered to life in the dark training room, and Willow straightened, stepping back to survey her work. At the center of the waxen display, a map of Sunnydale lay in half-shadow, its roads and landmarks barely discernible to the onlookers, the normally vivid colors now a dull gray. The candles' incense prickled their noses, burned their eyes, and, for what seemed the millionth time since she started, Willow hoped that the spell would come off.

"Tick tock, Red," growled Spike from the corner.

"Yes, Willow," Giles added. "It's been almost thirty minutes. Right now, timeliness is our primary concern."

"We're ready." Linking fingers, Tara and Willow sat opposite each other within the circle, eyes locked, their breathing slow and even. The dim light cast shadows across their pale skin, dancing in pirouettes along the walls, and their voices became a gentle murmur in the stillness. None of the words were distinct enough to be caught, but their power resonated along the men's spines, rooting them to their respective posts, quelling any arguments that may have remained.

As they watched, a faint glow began radiating from the center of the map, hovering just inches above the creased paper. It fluttered as if caught in some tiny, imaginary breeze, and they soon realized that it was moving in rhythm to the witches' cadences. A dart here...a dash there...it seemed unsure, hesitant.

How long is this bloody spell going to take? Spike thought irritably.

As if in response to the vampire's doubt, the spark of light started to inch toward the edge of the map, cautiously at first, then stronger, jerking along a jagged path of its own design until settled on a point unseen to the onlookers. With a luminous flare, it disappeared into the city plan.

The chanting stopped, and, loosening her grip on her partner's hands, Willow leaned forward to begin tracing the streets of Sunnydale with a thin finger. Her brow creased as her shoulders slumped.

"Did it not work?" asked Giles.

"I don't know," Willow confessed. "It looks like it did, but the result doesn't make any sense."

"And that's different from normal how?" piped up Xander.

"Where does it say Buffy is?" Giles prompted, shooting the young man a withering look.

Her brown eyes swept over her audience. "Right here. In the Magic Box."

"Knew we were wasting time," Spike muttered, and strode forward to snatch the map from the circle. "Right. Who gets what?"

Giles stepped up to look over the vampire's shoulder. One finger reached out to touch the spell's mark on the paper, and he glanced at the witches over the rims of his spectacles. "You didn't tell me it would burn my only map of Sunnydale."

"Sorry." Their apology was simultaneous, and encompassed more than the charred paper. It was always disheartening when one of their spells didn't work out as they expected, or not at all, and this one had obviously fizzled.

"I'll take the tunnels until sundown," Spike was saying. "Then I'll get the cemeteries. No reason for you non-vamps to have to worry about stakes and such when you've still got one pro left on your hands."

"I'll cover the neighborhood around Buffy's house," Xander volunteered. "Maybe she went to check on her mom and Dawn."

"Good, good," murmured Giles. "Now, Willow and Tara should..."

So lost in their ruminations, the gang didn't hear the back door of the shop swing open, or the soft step cross the threshold.

"Hey, guys," said Buffy. "What's going on?"

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

The red smolder of his cigarette was the only illumination in the cluttered shop basement, and Spike exhaled the smoke harshly through his teeth. The Slayer's sudden arrival had sent the Scooby gang scurrying to make sure she was OK, and everyone had promptly forgotten about his presence. As usual. Even Buffy had deliberately ignored him, only once glancing in his direction, and the anger that still seethed there made him want to take her out back and thrash some sense into her, once and for all.

He wasn't sure what he expected. How many times had he said that he didn't give a bloody rat's ass what happened to the lot of them? And it wasn't as if they were the most forgiving bunch. Xander still had a major problem with the poofter, and he'd worked side-by-side with the gang for years before taking off to LA. One lapse into Angelus and all his goodwill credit was withdrawn from the Scooby bank. How could Spike expect to be treated any differently?

He sighed, an unnecessary physical need but somehow obligatory in his current state of mind. It was times like this that he craved the simplicity of his pre-chip undead life. A bit of violence here, a killing spree there, he'd never had to worry about such silly notions as responsibility or a moral code. Dru had accepted him, loved him even, for the very things that these...children, really...seemed to hold in disdain, and he wondered yet again why he didn't just leave Sunnydale and his unrequited feelings for the Slayer behind.

The door at the top of the stairs opened and Spike heard the soft tread of a female foot on the first riser. Most likely, the ex-demon coming down for some stock, he thought, and melted further into the shadows so that she wouldn't notice him.

"Spike?"

The voice was soft, slightly breathless, and Spike frowned. Not exactly who he was expecting. He held back, though, as her gentle step began to descend the staircase.

"Spike? You down here?"

The overhead light came to life above his head, and the vampire blinked against the sudden onslaught. "What is it?" he growled.

Biting her lip, Tara stopped where she was, her eyes riveted to the hunched form. A cigarette dangled from his fingertips, and she saw the remains of several others scattered around him. Although she was finally managing to get to know most of Willow's friends and acquaintances, this one still confused her, the colors surrounding him sometimes blacker than ebony, sometimes a rich crimson. Now, though, his aura was tinged with a light brown. How odd, she thought. What does Spike have to be discouraged about?

"Everyone thought you'd left."

"Sorry to disappoint." He straightened, glancing over at her. He could never remember this one's name; she always seemed to be trying to blend into the background, yet in Willow's presence, she glowed. Amazing what love could do to someone.

"Actually, w-w-we were kinda hoping you'd still be around." His gaze upon her was disconcerting, those steel-blue eyes probing more than made her comfortable. He was so perceptive; she doubted that very little escaped his attention. It was curious; was that a product of being a vampire, or was it just part of his nature?

"Maybe Spikey doesn't feel like playing right now," he said derisively. "I'm not the Slayer's beck-and-call vamp, you know."

"But Buffy said---." She broke off as she caught the involuntary wince on his part at the sound of the Slayer's name.

"Yeah? What does the bitch want?" He glared at her. "I assume she's still under the effects of the potion."

Tara's blush was all the response he needed. "We were only t-t-trying to help," she stammered. "And B-b-buffy's got a plan now."

"Oh? Let me guess. She's going to kill it, regardless of what her Watcher says."

"Yes. How'd you know?"

Because she's about as subtle as Velcro, Spike thought, but kept silent.

Tara went on. "Even with the potion, she didn't know how she'd recognize the hound. So, instead of getting taken by surprise, she left a trail for him to sniff out, so that she can fight him on familiar territory here at the shop. Plus, we've got the weapons here to handle him. And Willow and I can try some spells to help."

"Sounds like you've got everything under control then." Grabbing his duster from a nearby stack of boxes, Spike tossed his cigarette butt onto the floor and stepped on it, extinguishing its scarlet embers. "I'll just be heading back to crypt-sweet-crypt then. Tell Giles I'll drop my Slayer-sitting bill in the post."

"Wait." Her voice was firmer, strong enough to cause the vampire to hesitate. "Buffy's not herself right now, and yes, that's our fault, but that makes her...vulnerable." Her clear eyes met his and the pain she saw buried in their blue depths gave her the courage to run the risk. "I know if I thought Willow could be in danger, I'd do everything in my power I could to try and help her."

Stiffening, Spike's eyes narrowed at her implication. "I'd be careful who you said that in front of," he rumbled. "Someone might think you're sayin' Big Bad's got a soft spot for a certain Slayer."

Tara rushed on before she lost her nerve. "It's OK, it even makes sense, in a weird, cosmos out of whack kind of way. I mean, all right, I haven't known you guys that long or anything, but that gives me a little distance, you know? And you and Buffy, you both hide behind this big tough guy, I-just-dare-you kind of image, 'cause you think if you don't, you'll just end up getting hurt. Of course, there's the whole, she's good, you're bad thing going on, but it's just two sides of the same coin." Her voice trailed off as she realized she was babbling and Spike still hadn't moved a muscle. Lowering her eyes, she stammered, "Then again, m-m-maybe I shouldn't have taken that abnormal psych class this s-s-semester."

The soft leather crumpled between his lean fingers as the vampire slowly sank onto a box, unaware of the duster dragging along the floor and through his forgotten ashes. "Word of advice, witch," he said, his voice subdued, his eyes darkening. "Buffy's not too keen on being confronted with truth, in fact, she sucks at it, so if I were you, I'd keep your little theories to yourself."

They both knew it was as much of an admission she was going to get from him, but it was enough. Tara smiled. "I'll let the gang know you're down here," she said, and started back up the stairs.

"Yeah," Spike muttered. "I'll be right here."

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

Buffy sat on the step outside the door, staring up at the stars pinpricking the black velvet sky. Already, the spell was beginning to wear off...scents not quite as sharp, her head not quite as clear. Instead, if felt as if her body was slowly overheating, a small furnace deep in the pit of her stomach, alternating blasts of tremendous fire along her skin with tendrils of excruciating cold. Nobody knew about those; everyone was too focused on her decision to take the potion herself.

"How could you be so rash?" had been Giles' remark.

Willow hadn't questioned her actions; instead, she'd just pursed her lips in displeasure and quizzed her endlessly about what she was sensing, what she was thinking, how she was feeling. Between the two of them, they made Buffy feel about six years old.

Like a phantom, Spike appeared behind her, and Buffy realized that her extra sense of smell wasn't completely gone. Part of her still wanted him desperately, ached for him to grab her...throw her against the wall...drive himself deep to her core...block out the rest of the world. Between her dream the previous night and her very overt appeal this afternoon, the possibilities of their coupling caused her mind to whirl, the colors to shift maddeningly behind her eyes. Still...she had a fight waiting, and she had to focus her energies on that.

"It's near."

His voice was a rumble, coldly detached, and Buffy fought the urge to apologize for her earlier behavior. Instead, she took a deep breath and stood. "Where?" she asked.

He didn't have to reply. The red eyes pierced the darkness, announcing the hound's presence before it moved into the light that bathed the alley. For the first time, Buffy had a good look at her new enemy and began to speculate on her plan's ability to work.

He was a beautiful animal, luxuriant jet fur that seemed to disappear against the night sky, a long muzzle delicately framed by those small eyes and tiny ears. Easily six feet at its shoulder, it would've stood taller if its head wasn't down, poised for the prowl, while its body was over eight feet in length, heavily muscled, yet graceful as it slowly padded toward her.

"Nice puppy," Buffy crooned, edging away from the door to allow Spike and the others access to the alley. Her fingers scrambled against the wall, searching for the niche she'd found earlier, wrapping tightly around her weapon once she'd found it in the crevice.

Spike began circling in the opposite direction, his step slow, steady, his eyes never leaving the hound. In the doorway, Willow and Tara appeared, fingers already dipping into their tiny leather bags, their lips moving almost silently as they chanted their incantation.

The Hound of Laelaps, though, never took its scarlet gaze off Buffy, following her movement with its head, its pace even and controlled as it encroached...closer...twenty yards...fifteen...ten...

In a flowing sweep, the two witches tossed the contents of their bags into the air, blowing in the dog's direction, and waited for the spell to take effect. As the dust settled over the animal, however, a loud clap echoed throughout the alley, followed almost instantly by a golden flash. The girls blinked against the sudden brightness, but then stared as the beast continued moving, impervious to the effects of their charm.

"What happened?" came from Xander, as he leaned forward to whisper in Willow's ear.

"It's under a protection spell," Willow whispered back, her eyes wide. "Nothing magicky we do is going to touch it."

The realization that her friends' efforts didn't have an effect on the animal sent Buffy's heart racing faster than normal. Out loud, she said, "What's wrong, poochie? Don't have a taste for witchcraft?" She shook her head. "Not nice to let my friends down. They get cranky."

Spike wasn't sure what her little diatribe was supposed to prove, but it didn't stop or even slow the dog from its measured approach. His blue eyes flickered to her hazel ones, waiting for her signal.

For the spectators in the shop doorway, everything seemed to happen all at once. The stiletto that Buffy had curled against her back flew from her fingers, aimed with deadly accuracy at what she perceived the dog's only weakness to be...its eyes.

Roaring, Spike leapt into the air, hurtling himself toward the animal's back, attempting to control it from there, to allow the Slayer to come in for the kill. And the hound...what was it doing?

Instead of attacking its prey, the creature dropped to the ground, its head resting on the cement, its legs coiled to spring. The dagger flew harmlessly over its head to clatter against the dumpster, while Spike completely overshot his target and collided with the opposite brick wall, crumpling to the ground. He staggered to his feet, blood dripping from a gash on his forehead, and immediately vamped out. So, Rover wanted to play rough.

With her dagger lying on the ground instead of being embedded in the beast's eye, Buffy found herself suddenly facing the hound, each armed only with their own natural weapons. Its jowls lifted slightly as the growling increased, and she could see the razor-sharp teeth lining its mouth. OK, she thought. Take stock. He's stronger than me, probably faster, too. Those teeth are killer, but I'm smarter, right? I've got to be...

From behind Willow and Tara, Xander watched the battle unfold, his foot tapping nervously. Not looking good, he worried. The Buffster without any weapons...the witches' magic just bouncing off the hound from hell...Spike looking seriously overmatched, even in full vamp regalia. And here he was, standing behind the women, doing nothing...yet again. "Not this time," he muttered, and disappeared into the shop.

The hound was only five yards away now, and Buffy wondered for the first time why it hadn't yet attacked her. Without her dagger, she was almost defenseless against its strength, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to take her out. She certainly would've, if she'd been in his position. Instead, he seemed intent on cornering her. Was he just playing with her, torturing her in the anticipation of feeling her bones crunch between his jaws?

Before she could give the thought any further consideration, however, she saw Spike land on the animal's back as he'd originally planned, his long fingers tangling themselves in its fur as he struggled to regain his balance. Since he'd already realized the fruitlessness of trying to bite the beast, this time he'd opted for a different tack.

His hands inched forward, reaching for the corners of the hound's mouth and behind its deadly teeth. The muscles in his arms and shoulders strained as he worked his lean fingers inside, and Spike clenched his jaw as the exertion tore at his back. The animal's saliva dripped down his wrists, inside the sleeves of his duster. Great, he thought. Doggy drool.

His golden eyes caught the movement in the doorway as Xander pushed his way past the witches, the gun cradled in his arms. The young man's jaw was set in determination, a cold steel in his normally laughing eyes, and Spike had no doubt that the young man would hit his target. The question was, would he somehow manage to get the vampire at the same time?

Oblivious to all but the prey before him and the vamp on his back, the hound maintained his careful course, keeping the Slayer in his sight as she inched back against the wall. He was aware of nothing else, even as Xander brought the gun up to his shoulder, sighted along the barrel, and began to squeeze back the trigger...

"No!!!!!"

The woman's scream ripped through the night, disrupting everyone's attention in the alley. Xander's shot went wild as his arm jerked back at the sound; Willow's head whipped around to see the female outline on the roof across the street. Even the dog stopped in its tracks, mesmerized by the urgency in the cry, slowly swiveling its head to turn around and look at her.

Muttering under his breath, Xander hurriedly prepared for another shot. He'd lost his first opportunity, but it looked like this woman was going to distract the creature long enough for him to get another. The gun rose back into position.

Barely discernible against the ebony sky, the woman raised her arms, but Spike was the only one who could hear the familiar rhythms of her voice as she started to chant. Looking back at her, his eyes glittered in the darkness and he could've sworn he heard her hesitate. Did she see him? Regardless, she quickly resumed, and the vampire knew he had only seconds to get off before...

...a furious clap of thunder saturated the alley...

...a sudden gust of wind whipped Buffy's hair into her eyes, obstructing her view...

...and then...

Silence.

Both the dog and the woman were gone.

Scrambling to his feet, Spike wiped the dust from the seat of his jeans and began walking toward the shop's back entrance. The gang in the doorway was standing frozen, staring at the empty space behind him.

"What happened?" Tara murmured.

"I don't know," said Willow, her voice just as low. "A teleport spell, maybe?"

"And just when I was about to---." Xander interrupted his own wisecrack as his brown eyes widened, the gun dropping to his side, his heart suddenly racing.

Spike frowned, and with the rest of the gang, slowly turned his platinum head to look at the opposite corner of the alley.

In the spot where the hound had cornered her, Buffy lay in an unconscious heap.


To be continued in Chapter Six: Fever....