DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Spike have discovered that Tony, one of the musicians from the Rising Sun, is actually from their world, while it seems that Anya recognizes the painting.
They stood before the young woman, arms folded across their respective chests, gazing down at her as they waited for her to speak. Scrunching herself down into the cushions on the couch, Anya looked up at them through her lashes, feeling very much like a scolded schoolchild waiting to be punished, and squirmed, disliking the feeling intensely. “I have no idea how you guys ever managed without me,” she muttered.
“Please, Anya, focus,” Giles urged.
“Yeah,” agreed Xander. “You said it’s a H’whatsit?”
“A H’roven. And that’s the name of the artist, not the name of the picture.”
“And you know this because…?”
Anya sighed. “Because I recognize his style. It’s very distinctive. Plus, it’s got his signature on it.” She watched as Giles crossed to the desk to examine the painting further. “In the lower left corner, there’s what looks like a red splodgy thingamajig, kind of star-shaped. That’s his mark.”
Pulling off his glasses, the Watcher leaned over to peer at the artwork, and almost without thinking, his outstretched finger raised as it sought to trace the raised oil.
“Don’t!” the young woman cried out, jumping to her feet. “What did I tell you? You can’t touch the painting.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Giles straightened. “Because that’s what activates the magic.”
Anya rolled her eyes. “Are you guys even listening to me? It’s not magic, it’s a portal. Touching it opens it up, then sucks you through.”
“So where’s Buffy?” queried Xander from behind her.
“Technically? In another dimension. To us, it looks like she’s in the picture.” She came around the corner of the desk, edging around the older man to gaze down at the painting, her eyes scanning the rich oil for a moment before pointing, making sure that her finger stayed plenty of distance away from its actual surface. “There, in the blue dress. Near the orchestra.”
Giles squinted. “How can you be so sure? That could be anyone.”
“Because she’s dancing with Spike.”
“She’s what?!?” Almost leaping over the desk, Xander pushed his way to the front to stare down at the picture. “She’s not! She can’t be. I mean, she’s…” Very slowly, he looked up, his brown eyes wide and haunted, his jaw lax. “…dancing with Spike,” he intoned.
Anya shrugged. “Obviously, he touched it, too.” She smiled widely. “Good news is, Giles gets his shower back.”
“Are you absolutely certain they can’t come back?” the Watcher asked.
“H’roven would be out of business real fast if that was possible,” the young woman said. “Demons buy his work to get rid of their enemies. If the portal operated on a two-way system, that would kind of defeat the purpose.”
“So can’t we just get another painting to this dimension and bring the Buffster back through it?” asked Xander. “Spike can stay there, of course.”
“There won’t be another one. Each picture is a one-off. You have to specially commission H’roven to do one for you. He’s very expensive.”
She watched as Giles began pacing around the room, the earpiece of his glasses between his teeth, heavy lines between his brows. “There must be a way,” he muttered. “Perhaps if we destroyed the picture, it would neutralize the forces that sucked Buffy through.”
Anya threw her hands up in exasperation. “How many times do I have to say this?” she moaned. “It’s. Not. A. Spell. You get rid of the picture, you get rid of the portal, and you get rid of any chance you might have to get her back.”
“So you’re saying there is a chance?”
“Well, there’s always a chance, but I don’t know what it is. H’roven might…” She stopped as she felt both men turn their eyes to her. “Oh, no,” she protested. “The Anya information booth is officially closed. There will be no tour service today.” As she attempted to sweep past her boyfriend to head for the door, Xander grabbed her arm, forcing her to turn and face them. “I mean it,” she argued, wrenching herself from his grasp. “I’m not helping with this one anymore. You can’t make me.”
“What’s got you so spooked?” the young man asked. “Is this H’roven guy that bad?”
“In a word, yes. And he hates me. And he hates mortals. And I’m mortal now, which means he doubly hates me. I refuse to go anywhere near him.”
“But if there’s even the slightest chance we can retrieve Buffy,” Giles said, treading softly as he spoke, “we owe it to her to do everything in our power to do so.”
“Please, Ahn. If you won’t do it for Buffy…do it for me.”
A long moment passed as the ex-vengeance demon just looked at the two men, her face resolute. “You have no idea what you’re asking,” she finally said. “It’ll be bad. And you…” She squared off with Xander. “…You are going to owe me in such a huge way. Starting with large quantities of multiple orgasms.”
“Wonderful,” the Watcher interjected, hurrying forward to cut off this particular thread of the conversation. “So let’s go see this H’roven fellow.”
Anya stared at him in amazement. “And how exactly do you expect to do that right now?” she demanded. “I’m not a demon anymore; I can’t just teleport us to wherever we need to go. There’s procedures to follow, steps that have to be taken. You’re looking at tomorrow at the very earliest. And that’s only if I can actually find my Amulet of Trana. Understand?” She didn’t bother waiting for an answer, instead marching straight for the door. “C’mon, Xander. I’ll need a break in about an hour. You can start repaying me then.”
The silence hung between them like a drawn curtain, cloaking each of the pair in his and her thoughts, shielding them from the war of emotions battling it out in their heads. Neither would look at the other; Buffy’s eyes were closed as she leaned her head against the window, while Spike stared out into the passing night, his fingers playing distractedly with his pack of cigarettes, his face immobile. In the front seat, even the chauffeur noticed the difference from the previous evening, and spent the entire trip to their apartment wondering what had happened at the party.
She was tired, but that didn’t stop her brain from working, surging into overdrive as she tried to assimilate everything from the past few hours. Tony seemed not to be too bothered about being here, blending in so well that she would never have picked him out if it wasn’t for his scar. And the fact that he’d been here for two weeks didn’t bode well for Spike and Buffy’s immediate return, either. How much longer would they have to keep up this pretence? she wondered. It had only been a day and a half, and already she was starting to forget about what life had been like in Sunnydale. That couldn’t be good.
It’s all this painting’s fault, she grumped. Everything about it is too realistic; it must be doing some magical thing to my head, making me think things that I shouldn’t. Kinda like Willow’s spell. Liar, the little voice whispered. It’s nothing like that. Buffy hesitated, then acquiesced to the voice’s insistence, allowing it permission to voice its opinions.
There had been no doubt, remember? Just a mindless euphoria, that certainty of your feelings, that Spike was The One. And what have you now? it asked. Questions, questions, and more questions. Ambiguous actions from a certain chipped vampire. A body whose responses you refuse to acknowledge. This is as different from Willow’s “will it so” spell as night is to day.
But it’s all an act, Buffy argued. Spike said so himself when we were dancing. We’re just pretending, right?
And who did he say was doing the pretending? the voice quizzed.
Her mind searched for a response, trying to remember exactly how the blond vampire had phrased it, but came up with a blank, the sense that maybe she’d misinterpreted his words veiling down her spine. It had certainly seemed easy for him, slipping so effortlessly into the role of the doting fiancé, possessive of her time, attentive to her needs; was it even possible that all that sprang from something…real?
And you…? The little voice was whispering faster now, bombarding her with questions too quickly for her to oppose. Why react so strongly to a mere suggestion that something might be going on between you? Perhaps it’s a case of hello-pot-you’re-black-too. Why don’t you listen to your body for a change? You do when you fight; why not when you…
And that’s where she stopped it, cutting the voice off before it could say the word. OK, so maybe she was attracted to Spike; it’s not like she was blind and couldn’t see how hot he was. And he’d certainly been laying on the charm since they’d come through…the joking…the dancing…the camaraderie they’d shared knowing they were in this particular boat together…how could she not be reacting to it?
She felt the car ease to a stop, and opened her lids for the first time since sliding into its back seat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Spike slip his cigarettes into his coat pocket, long fingers gleaming in the moonlight. Before she could say anything, he disappeared, opening his door and hopping out into the street. Buffy sighed. He’d been acting strangely ever since she’d confronted Tony, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. In fact, truth be told, she was actually kind of missing the Spike from the party…
The handle moved under her fingers, and she raised surprised hazel eyes up to see the blond vampire holding open her door, his left hand proffered in aid of her alighting. His face was inscrutable, his blue gaze black in the streetlamps’ dim illumination, and the Slayer found herself holding her breath as she slid from the seat. Once on the pavement, she froze, allowing her hand to remain in his, waiting for him to be the first to break the contact.
“Go on upstairs,” Spike said, his voice low, his touch gliding down her arm to cup her elbow. “We’ll bring up the gifts.” With a gentle nudge, he guided her toward the front door.
She desperately wanted to look back, to give him one last glance before entering the building, but Buffy bit back the instinct, concentrating instead on steadying the pulse that had decided to all of a sudden pound out of control, placing one foot in front of the other without giving anything away. Wordlessly, she disappeared inside the foyer.
Spike watched as the Slayer walked away from him, her blonde head low, feeling her heartbeat echo through his skin. He’d thought he had it all figured out; the car ride had certainly given him more than enough time to consider everything, replay it all again in his head. He’d been convinced that she was just using him to get out of this place, taking advantage of every tool at her disposal---he was just a vampire, after all, something for a Slayer to play with, right before she disposed of it---but now, he was back to not knowing again, her reactions to him puzzling, giving him a bigger headache than the bleedin’ chip ever did.
“She’s probably just tired,” the chauffeur offered beside him, before slipping around to the trunk of the car and opening it. “Everything’ll be cherry once you both get a good night’s sleep.”
Spike stood back, taking the bags as they were passed to him, his gaze stealing to the upper windows of the apartment building. “You married?” he asked the other man.
“Yep. Over twenty years now.”
“Ever wonder what in hell you’ve gotten yourself into?”
“Every single day.”
The two men shared a smile, and the blond vampire found himself relaxing for the first time since leaving the club. “I just don’t get what’s goin’ through her head sometimes,” he found himself saying. “She acts one way, she says somethin’ completely different, and all the time I’m thinkin’, this would be a doddle if everything else would just disappear.”
“You’re not saying anything men haven’t been saying about dames since time began,” the chauffeur replied, easing the trunk closed without dropping any of the parcels in his arms. “But I don’t think you need to be worrying about Miss Summers. You two are in it for the long haul.”
Spike snorted. “I think Buffy would have a few choice words to say about that.”
“Probably,” the older man agreed, a vision of her animated face during one of the many fights he’d witnessed flashing across his mind’s eye. “But doesn’t make it any less true.”
She heard the door of the apartment open, followed by the low murmur of the men’s voices as they brought in the presents. The sound of Spike’s laughter warmed her stomach, and she almost winced as the thrum returned to her heartrate. What had the little voice said about listening to her body…?
When the front door clicked shut, Buffy turned the knob of her bedroom and slipped out into the main room, hanging back as she watched him start emptying the bags onto the coffee table, his jacket-free back to her, the muscles evident even under his shirt. “You know what I just realized?” she said. “Not only haven’t I killed anything since we got here, but you haven’t had any blood either. I think tomorrow I’ll go out and look for a butcher for you. Can’t have you wasting away to nothing before we get back to Sunnydale. Giles will give me hell for being mean to helpless vampires.” The last was meant to be a joke, but the smile faded from her lips as Spike glanced back at her over his shoulder, blue eyes enigmatic.
“You don’t have to do that,” he said. “I can last a few more days before I need to feed again.”
She took a few tentative steps closer. “We have to be prepared for the possibility that we might be here longer than we thought,” Buffy said. “If Tony’s been here two weeks already…” She let the sentence trail away, allowing the vampire to finish it for her.
“Thanks.” He straightened, turning to drink in her thin form. Although her hair was still up, Buffy had already slipped out of the ball gown and into a long satin robe, belt cinched tightly around her waist, the pale pink accenting the slight blush in her cheeks. Seeing her like this---so fresh, so very much there---just drummed home the realization that had finally occurred to him in the stairwell. Somewhere, somehow…all of this had stopped being a game to him…and had become all too much real…
“Right. I’ll just be callin’ it a night then.” Shoving his hands into his pockets, Spike was halfway across the lounge, heading toward the second bedroom, when her voice stopped him.
“Where are you going?”
The blond vampire frowned as he glanced back at her. “You’re not really expectin’ me to sleep in the bloody bathroom, are you?”
“No!” Buffy flushed in embarrassment. “Never mind. I guess…I just wasn’t thinking.” She bit her lip as he began to turn away, before blurting, “Tonight was fun, don’t you think?”
This time he turned completely around, crossing his arms over his chest. “What is it you’re tryin’ so awkwardly to say, Slayer?”
What was she trying to say? She couldn’t answer that, standing there like a fish gasping for air as her mouth opened and closed, then opened again. Her hands worried the belt of her robe, rolling it around her index finger, unwinding it again, all the while feeling as if her heart was going to jump from her chest, it was beating so hard.
Very slowly, Spike’s arms lowered, and he cocked his head as he took several languorous steps toward Buffy, closing the distance between them with excruciating grace. “Tonight was fun,” he agreed, his voice a rumble over the young woman’s skin. “But I can think of something that could make it even better.”
“What?” she breathed, eyes riveted to his approaching form, the excitement dripping down her thighs.
He stopped before her, inches away, and although their bodies didn’t touch, Buffy could’ve sworn she felt his hands sliding over her flesh, covering her in ice that burned, overwhelming her senses as her lips parted, hazel eyes fixed on that full bottom lip as his head slowly lowered.
It was a slow duet, an aching tangle of tongues as each explored the other, savoring the experience as if it was their first time. No other parts of their bodies met but neither noticed, so lost in the tactile crush of their kiss that the rest of the world seemed to melt away, enveloping them in a midnight void that sucked at their very cores. He swallowed her breath, consuming her heat, and Buffy felt the burn in her pelvis, craving more, but desperate not to break the contact.
When she heard the groan, the young woman thought at first it had come from her own throat, then realized that it had actually rumbled from Spike’s. Knowing she was the cause, that he was hungering for her just as powerfully as she was for him, quickened her pulse, raising gooseflesh along her arms until she thought it was impossible not to be holding him.
As her body leaned in closer, the blond vampire eased his lips back, ending the kiss but hovering just millimetres from her mouth. His blue eyes flickered open. “Go to sleep, Slayer,” he murmured. “We’ll…talk in the morning.”
“You expect me to sleep?” Buffy gasped. “How is that possible now?”
He chuckled. “Don’t expect I’ll get much rest either.” He straightened, his cold lips brushing against her forehead, and his hands came up to settle on her shoulders, gently pushing her away and toward her room. “But I’m not goin’ to just hand you your excuse on a silver platter,” he said. He didn’t wait for her to move; instead, Spike backed up the few feet to his own room, his unwavering gaze never leaving her face. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” he murmured, before disappearing into the darkened space behind him…
To be continued in Chapter 8: This Changing World…