DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Someone has sent a deadly gift to Buffy, but she and Spike caught it in time, while back in Sunnydale, Willow has accidentally touched the painting…

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

Chapter 9: Fools Rush In

Her legs were like ice, encased in a silky mesh that clung to her skin like spider webs, only matched by the goosebumps that had suddenly erupted along her chest.  Willow glanced down and her green eyes widened at the sight of her exposed cleavage, thrust upwards and outwards by the satin sheath of her corseted bodice, only a tiny bit of lace edging the seam allowing her any sense of modesty.  Around her neck hung a large box on a strap, filled with row upon row of cigarette packs, and a casual peek at her feet showed her the tottery heels that completed her ensemble. 

Only then did the young witch notice the orchestra behind her, the brass instruments catching the light from overhead and sending shiny glints off into the heavens, each musician playing as if his life depended on it.  There weren’t that many people dancing, but Willow saw that the men outnumbered the women in the room almost three to one; those females that were there were already on the dance floor.

For a second, the redhead pouted.  How come I don’t get to be wearing one of the fancy evening dresses? she thought.  I could look pretty, and I’d be a lot warmer.  And then it hit her.  This is what happened to Buffy and Spike, they got sucked into the painting, followed almost immediately by…

...Oh sweet goddess…I’m in the painting.

So lost was she in her newfound knowledge, the young woman didn’t even notice the hand that slinked out from a nearby table, inching toward her, thumb and index finger at the ready…

Ow!”  The cigarettes went flying through the air as Willow jumped at the sudden contact, the cheek of her buttock smarting from the man’s pinch.  As she scrambled for her balance, her ankle turned, pitching her sideways over the edge of the bandstand and into the lap of a spectacled trumpet player.  The music screeched to a halt, and the redhead felt the eyes of everyone in the room turn to see what had caused the disturbance, settling on her struggling form as her hose-clad legs kicked uselessly at the air.

A tuxedoed man from the doorway bolted over, and Willow held her breath as he got larger and larger as he approached.  Wide-eyed, she stared up into his black gaze as he reached over, scooped her up into his burly arms, and tenderly deposited her into a nearby chair. 

“You OK, Willow?” he asked, his deep voice incongruously soft as his eyes flickered over her form.  “What happened?”

The redhead pointed a shaking finger toward the offending man.  “He…pinched me,” she explained, her voice wavering, then jerked her head back to look at the black-eyed man again.  “Wait.  You know me?”

But he was already gone, his tuxedo jacket straining across his back as he leaned over, picked up the now-pale pincher up by his lapels.  “You’re looking for some chin music, right, pal?” he menaced.  “’Cause I gotta think that’s the only reason you’re even thinking of letting your mitts touch Miss Rosenberg.” 

The pincher whimpered as the bouncer gave him a rough shake.  “C’mon,” he whined.  “Have you seen her ass?  And she was practically begging for it---.”  The sudden punch to his gut forced the air from his lungs, and he gave up struggling as his beefy captor began dragging him toward the club’s front door.

“She’s not like the other girls,” the dark bouncer growled.  “Willow don’t skate around.”

The young woman watched as the man who’d pinched her was tossed out onto the street, his outraged cry filtering back into the club as the doors slowly swung shut.  Behind her, the music started to play again, and gradually the couples returned to the dance floor, already forgetting the minor disturbance, concentrating only on their partners.

The bouncer reappeared in the entrance, jaw set, but when his black eyes came to rest on the redhead still sitting where he’d perched her, his face softened and he walked over, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets.  “I shoulda seen it coming,” he said as he stood before her.  “You shouldn’t have to put up with mugs like that, not a nice doll like you.”

Ummmm…thanks.”  As Willow rose to her feet, she winced as a sudden pain shot through her ankle, and would’ve sank back down if he hadn’t caught her.

“You hurt?”

“My ankle.  It’s a little…”  Her words faded as, all of a sudden, the young witch found herself scooped up again into his heavily muscled arms, a tiny doll in the grasp of an overgrown child, and held her breath as he began marching for a door behind the orchestra.  “My…box…” she said, pointing haphazardly at the cigarettes that still littered the floor.

“I’ll get ‘em,” he said.  “You need to take a breather, make sure you haven’t done any serious damage to that...”  His eyes flickered over the curve of her leg, and Willow could’ve sworn he was blushing as he quickly looked away.

“That’s really nice of you,” she said with a smile, and couldn’t help it widening when his color deepened.  Now that she could see him up close, she wasn’t nearly as frightened.  Sure, he was large---OK, gigantic was probably more accurate---but there was something almost child-like in those dark eyes, and he was definitely leaning toward cute, in a big, boxer-like way.  No more reason to be scared of him, than it would be to be scared of Xander…except for the fact that he was nearly twice her friend’s size…

As he pushed open the door with his shoulder, Willow was jolted as they came to an abrupt stop, a scrawny young man with a clipboard blocking their path.  “Gino!” he scolded.  “Why aren’t you at the door?”

“There was a problem, Sammy,” the bouncer explained.  “I was just---.”

“Miss Rosenberg.”  For the first time, the manager noticed just who was being toted, and his mouth set in a grim line.  “What’s happened now?”

“It wasn’t her fault this time,” Gino rushed.  “Some mug grabbed her ass---.”

But Sammy wasn’t listening.  “You know I’ve got to tell Mr. Lombardi, don’t you, Miss Rosenberg?  And this, your first night back.  What’s he going to say?”

“I’m guessing it’s not going to be ‘glad to see you,’” Willow said with a weak smile. 

“You can bet your ass it’s not!”  The voice boomed from the open door in the hallway, and all three turned their heads to see the older man fuming in the frame, smoke billowing around his head as he ripped the cigarette from between his lips to speak.  “Get in here.  Both of you.”

Sammy watched as Gino and Willow disappeared into the office, his rat-like face wrinkling into a frown.  “But there’s nobody watching the door,” he protested.

“Where’s Spike?”

“Not in yet.”

Lombardi rolled his eyes.  “That means Buffy’s not here yet either, right?”  He didn’t even wait for an answer.  “I swear those two are going to be the death of me,” he muttered before slamming the door shut behind him.

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

Willow shrank into the chair, arms folded across her chest in an attempt to hide her cleavage.  She’d actually crossed her legs at one point, but when the tiny skirt rode up, exposing more of her thigh and potentially even more higher than that, she knew from the scarlet tinge in Gino’s cheeks that too much was showing and hastily set both her feet back onto the floor. 

Her head was in overload, trying to take all this new information on board without looking like she didn’t know what the hell was going on.  Obviously, the painting had been charmed in some way, and now she was stuck inside it.  I wonder if that’s what Giles had called to tell me about, she wondered.  Maybe I should’ve listened to my messages after all.

What frightened her even more was that she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Buffy or Spike since her arrival.  They’d been in the picture when she’d touched it, so that had to mean they were still here, right?  If something had happened to them, surely they would’ve disappeared from the artwork, and she would never have seen them, and therefore never have touched them, and then she wouldn’t be here…She blinked, trying to clear her head of the muddle her thoughts were creating, then bit her lip as the older man, the one she assumed was Lombardi, sat on the corner of his desk in front of her.

Lemme guess,” he started.  “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It wasn’t!”

Lombardi shot Gino an angry glare.  “No one’s asking you.”  He turned back to Willow.  “You wanna tell me what happened, or do we call this three strikes and you’re out?”  Behind her, the redhead heard the bouncer breathe in to speak, only to be silenced by the older man’s finger, pointing at him in warning.  “I said, stay out of it, Gino.”

“Someone…pinched me,” the redhead stumbled.  “That’s why I dropped my box…which is why I fell…and when I tried to stand back, my ankle hurt…which is why Gino was carrying me back here.”  She bit her lip as she looked up at him with wide green eyes.

He looked down at her for a full minute, blue eyes narrowed, jaw locked, before grimacing.  “How do you expect me to stay mad at you when you pull that innocent face on me, Red?” he said, breaking his gaze to stub out his cigarette behind him.  “If you’d’a lied this time, you’d be out on your ear right now, you know that, don’t you?”

Willow nodded vigorously.  “Oh, yes, sir.”

“And you,” Lombardi said, turning to Gino, “your job does not include keeping an eye on the cigarette girl.  Now, if she was on the roster, that would be a whole different ball of wax, but she’s not, so keep your paws to yourself, capisce?”

“Yes, Mr. Lombardi.”

“How do you expect me to trust you to put you on the roster if you keep pulling shit like this, Red?” the boss continued.  “I know you want it, and you’re certainly just as much of a looker as any of the other girls, but if you can’t even sell the decks…”  He let his voice trail off, shaking his head.

Willow’s head raced.  Roster?  Other girls?  Then it clicked.  The other women she’d seen…they were paid to dance with the men; that must be the roster Lombardi was referring to.  She felt her heart quicken.  Dancing was better than selling cigarettes, plus…more clothes…

“I can do it,” she said eagerly, straightening in her seat and smiling as wide as she could.  “Let me give the roster a go tonight, Mr. Lombardi.  I’ll prove to you I’m just as good as the other girls, better even.  I can show you now if you want…”  Thank god for those dance lessons for Jason Green’s bar mitzvah, she thought. 

Lombardi chuckled.  “Well, you’ve got moxie, no doubt about that, but I don’t think I need a private demonstration.”  He pursed his lips as he just studied the young woman, then finally nodded.  “OK, you got one shot.”  A knock at the door pulled his attention.  “What?” he barked.

Sammy poked his head in.  “The car just pulled up with Spike.  You want me to---?”

“Get him in here,” Lombardi growled, interrupting the young manager. 

Willow’s eyes widened.  Did he just say Spike? she thought.  Maybe that means Buffy’s not too far behind…

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

“I’m going to ask around tonight, see what I can find out,” Buffy said, pulling her coat closer around her as they entered the rear entrance of the club.  “Maybe there’s someone who doesn’t like me, although I can’t imagine why.  I haven’t been around here long enough to piss anyone off.”

“Probably some bird who’s jealous I picked you instead of her,” Spike commented, grinning back at her wickedly.

The young woman kicked at him good-naturedly, as much as the long skirt of her gown would allow.  “Big-headed much?”

The pair were stopped short when the young man with the clipboard materialized before them.  “Mr. Lombardi wants you in his office, Spike,” he said, his eyes darting back to where Buffy stood.

The blond vampire sighed.  “Wonder what the hell I’ve done now,” he muttered and started to saunter after the young man, when the Slayer’s voice stopped him.

“Hey!  Since when don’t I get a good-bye kiss?”

He tilted his head as he looked back at her over his shoulder, blue eyes darkening as he tried to suss out her intentions.  After their little adventure with the presents, she’d disappeared to get ready for the evening, only emerging when he’d threatened bodily harm if she didn’t get down to the car.  For the entire ride, they’d only discussed what had happened with the scorpion, what it could mean, who might have sent it; not once had there been any mention of the more personal portion of their earlier conversation.

Still…her attitude was changed towards him, more relaxed, more like she’d been the previous evening at the party, more…intimate.  The wall that usually surrounded Buffy was still there, but somehow it seemed lower, more like she was standing right up to it, leaning over, and less like she was thirty yards back and ordering workers to add more bricks to make it taller.  But this…

Her hazel eyes gleamed, a soft smile curling her lips, and Spike wondered for a moment if this was all just part of the act for Sammy’s benefit.  Hang on, he thought.  Hadn’t they both established that they hadn’t been pretending, that they’d both enjoyed the kiss, that they’d both enjoy…more?  Who cares, he decided.  She was offering; only a fool would say no…

Sammy watched as the blond bouncer closed the distance between him and Buffy, his head tilted in that way only Spike could pull off, his tongue running over his teeth.  The young manager’s gaze was riveted on the young woman as he saw her breath quicken, her chest begin to rise and fall even faster, her smile of anticipation making his own mouth water, and he felt the familiar rise of jealousy in his throat as their lips met, teasing at first, his teeth nipping at her bottom lip before skating over their surface.  Buffy’s hands lifted to Spike’s neck, pulling him closer, forcing him to intensify their kiss, her body leaning forward to press against his.  Only then could Sammy look away.  Somehow, he always felt like a peeping tom when he watched them like this.

Buffy was the first to break away from the kiss, her breathing ragged, her eyes dark, two high spots of color on her cheeks.  “You’d…better go,” she murmured.

He pushed a loose strand of hair off her forehead, and grimaced.  “You know, it’s probably a good thing I have to stand for my job,” he commented.  “Don’t think sittin’ would be too comfortable right about now.”

She laughed and shoved him away.  “I’ll see you later.”

Turning on his heel, Spike followed the young man with the clipboard to Lombardi’s office, a noticeable lightness to his step.  Yep, she’d most definitely be seein’ him later…

“You two get around to unwrapping your gifts yet?” Sammy asked as they approached the door.

The mention of the presents brought Spike back into the moment, and his eyes narrowed as he watched the little man’s back.  “Yeah,” he drawled.  “Which one was yours again?”  Not that he really expected him to admit to sending a deadly scorpion, but hey, didn’t hurt to ask.

“The book of poetry,” the manager said with a blush.  “I know she likes it…”  He quietened as he knocked, waited for the perfunctory “What?”, and pushed it open, standing back to allow Spike free entrance.

The sight of Gino standing just inside the room, arms folded across his burly chest, didn’t surprise the blond vampire in the slightest.  It was the red-haired, green-eyed, scantily clad woman who swivelled to see who was in the doorway that did.

Seeing Willow in the boss’ office sent Spike’s stomach into a downward spiral, and it was all he could do to keep a stoic face.  Her presence could only mean one thing; Rupert had found a way to get them back, and he needed the witch on the inside to sort things out from this end…and that pretty soon, he and Buffy would be back in Sunnydale and things would be exactly like they were before.  For some reason, that was the last thing the vamp wanted right now, but he also didn’t want to give the Slayer any more reason to hate him when this was all over.

Holding up his hand, Spike said, “Hang on,” and stepped back into the hall, spying the young woman about to enter the dressing room.  “Buffy!” he called.   When her gaze jerked up, he nodded his head in the direction of the office.  “Better get in here.”

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

Buffy’s eyes widened when she saw her best friend sitting in the small room.  “Willow!” she exclaimed, rushing forward to sweep her into a huge hug.  “You’re here!”

“Well, where else did you expect her to be?” Lombardi commented.  “Vacations got to end sometime.”

“How are you?  Are you OK?” asked a concerned redhead as the pair broke apart.

“Just fine,” the Slayer assured her.  “You know…considering.”  Her hazel eyes rolled discreetly, and she gave her friend a small smile.

“Yeah, it’s a little…weird, isn’t it?”  Willow brightened.  “Oh!  But guess what?  I get to be on the roster!”

That stopped Buffy.  “What?”

“We’ve just been talking about it,” the young witch continued.  “Just for tonight, though.  I have to prove myself.”

The Slayer swept past her to square off with Lombardi.  “Take her off,” she ordered.

“She’s the one who asked for it, Summers.”

“She’s not…ready.”

Willow grabbed her friend’s arm, turning her around.  “No, Buffy, really, I want to do this.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Trust me, Will,” Buffy said, speaking very deliberately.  “You don’t.”

The redhead’s smile faded.  “I…don’t?”

“A strong and emphatic no.”

“Are you two about done?” Lombardi sighed. 

“Yes,” the Slayer said, turning back to face him.  “It’s decided.  She doesn’t go on the roster.”

“Fine.  Then get out on the floor.  You both got jobs to do.”

“Is your foot OK, Willow?”  It was the first time Gino had spoken since the boss’ reproval, and everyone in the room turned to look at him as he stepped forward to face the young woman.

She tested it, rotating her ankle before smiling up at the dark bouncer.  “Much better,” she said.  “Nothing broken or bruised except for the old ego.”

“C’mon,” Buffy said, looping her arm through her friend’s and pulling her out the door.

Spike turned to follow, only to be stopped by Lombardi’s voice.  “No, you stay.  Gino, get back on the door.”

The blond vampire watched as his partner turned, hesitated, then took a deep breath and pivoted back to stare at the boss.  “You know,” he said.  “You shouldn’t call her Red.  She’s got a name, you know.  Willow.”

Lombardi shook his head.  “As long as she’s my employee, I’ll call her whatever I want.  Now get your lovestruck ass outta my office.”

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

Buffy pulled Willow aside as soon as they were clear of the others, eyes darting surreptitiously at Sammy hanging around the hall.  “Please tell me Giles figured out how to get us back,” she begged, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I wish I could,” the redhead replied.  “But I can’t.  Sorry.  I’m just as stuck as you are.”

The Slayer physically deflated.  “Well, I guess that just means we play make-believe for a little bit longer,” she said.  Her gaze travelled over Willow’s clothes.  “What are you supposed to be?”

“I’m the cigarette girl---.”  Her mouth clicked audibly shut as the door opened and Gino came out, hands thrust deep into his pockets.  He glanced down at her, blushed, and rushed off, with both girls looking after him with a frown.  “And I think the bouncer likes me,” she added.

“Yeah, one of the things about coming through is that the painting seems to make up this whole history for you,” Buffy said.

The sound of a crash on the other side of the office door was followed by a long stream of English curses, catching both of their attentions.  “Is Spike in trouble?” Willow asked.

“Probably.”

“What does he do here?”

“He’s a bouncer, like Gino.”

The redhead turned back to Buffy, a frown worrying her brow.  “What about the chip?” she queried.

The Slayer shrugged.  “Hasn’t come up yet.”  Behind them, Sammy cleared his throat, and Buffy rolled her eyes.  “We better get to work,” she said.  “We can talk later.”  She turned, then stopped, biting her lip.  “Oh, and if anyone says anything about me and Spike, just…kind of…go with the flow.  Don’t argue with what you might hear.  I’ll explain everything after---.”  The manager cleared his throat again, and the young blonde’s head shot around.  “I heard you the first time!”  Sammy visibly cowered, and Buffy sighed.  “Later,” she promised to Willow, before sweeping out into the main room.

Willow hung by the door, watching as the young manager went scurrying past.  It all seemed so…real; it was boggling the amount of detail the magic entailed in creating this world.  For the first time since coming through, the young witch began to wonder who exactly would ever want a painting like that…

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

Her long nail ran along the boy’s bare chest, dragging a line of crimson in its wake, and she sighed as she reached his navel, circling it in a lazy way before etching a path down his hairless thigh.

“C’mon, Melinda, stop playing with your food.”  The other woman’s voice was thick from the blood that clung to her lips, but the annoyance still shone through.

“I’m not hungry,” Melinda pouted, and rolled over onto her back, staring up at the ceiling of the cavern.  “Somebody just go ahead and stake me.”

“Stop being the drama queen and just get over it, will you?  The painting’s gone, Tony’s gone, and your little demon friend isn’t coming back with good news, if he bothers to come back at all after the scare tactics you pulled on him.”

“I know.”  She felt her fangs retract, her game face sliding away, and turned blue eyes to peer over at her friend.  “I just can’t believe he ran away, not after everything we’ve been through.  And it pisses me off.”

“So stop moaning and do something about it,” her friend advised.  “Although why you’d bother for a human, I’ll never know.”

“He was different.  Special.  And I love him.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Melinda sighed and sat up.  Even if her friend didn’t understand, she did have a good point.  It was time to stop wishing for everyone else to sort out her problems and tackle them herself…

To be continued in Chapter 10:  Pistol Packin’ Mama