DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow has shown up in the land of the painting as a cigarette girl, while back in Sunnydale, Giles and Anya are doing what they can to figure out how to get everyone back…
Something about a hot shower always made him feel like a new man. Maybe it was the sloughing away of the day’s detritus as he scrubbed at his skin, or perhaps it was the sensations of steaming water searing into his skull, clearing it of extraneous miscellany and leaving behind only those thoughts that would provide use to his daily existence. Either way, when Giles emerged from the heat of the bath, stepping into the marked cool of his bedroom with wrinkled and wet feet, he felt for the first time since learning the truth about the painting that things would most definitely work out for the best.
He almost felt like whistling as he quickly dressed. He’d heard Willow’s call while he’d been in the shower, which meant that she’d listened to his message and brought the ingredients Anya had asked for. Now, all they would have to do would be to wait for Xander to bring over the ex-vengeance demon, and the four of them could set about to going and seeing this H’roven artist. The Watcher had done some follow-up research after learning of the painter’s existence, but had unearthed very little outside of what information Anya had already provided. Why she was so frightened of this particular demon, Giles had no idea, but it certainly must be based on something. He’d just have to ask her again when she arrived.
“I hope the magic shop didn’t overcharge you again, Willow,” the older man said as he came down the stairs, then stopped as he surveyed the empty room. “Willow?” he called out, but was answered only by silence. Strange. He could’ve sworn he’d heard her while in the shower. Taking the few steps to peer into the kitchen, he turned, facing the unoccupied lounge, his blue eyes narrowed as doubt began to creep in. Perhaps he’d been hearing things. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’d imagined he’d heard voices in the flat that turned out to be nothing.
The knock at the door broke him from his reverie, and Giles strode over to answer it, his brow still furrowed. Only then did he notice the bag by the entrance. Bending over to pick it up, his left hand turned the knob on the door, allowing whoever was on the other side to come in, his gaze concentrating on the abandoned duffle in his grasp.
“Um, a little help here?”
Giles looked up to see a struggling Xander with an armful of bags, teeth gritted in deliberation as he did his best to balance them without toppling over. “Oh,” the Watcher murmured, the bag forgotten as he set it aside, reaching forward to remove the uppermost sacks from the young man’s pile. Standing back, he peered into the nearest as Xander stumbled forward, dropping them into a hurried pile on the floor before exhaling loudly.
“Where’s Anya?” Giles asked.
“Bringing in the rest of the things,” the younger man explained. “She only let me carry the stuff she wasn’t worried about.”
The Watcher frowned. “There’s more? What could she possibly need so many things for?”
Xander shook his head. “Don’t ask me. I’m only the delivery boy.” As he straightened, he spotted the duffle the older man had just discarded. “Did Will have any problems getting the other ingredients?”
“I don’t know,” Giles murmured as he pulled out a very large jar of a viscous blue liquid. “She’s not here.”
“But…that’s her bag.”
The two men looked at each other for a moment, the question unspoken between them. Xander was the first to move, almost running to where the painting still sat on the desk, leaning over to stare into it intently before his brown eyes widened.
“Holy sweet hotsy totsy mama,” he breathed.
The Watcher was behind him in a shot, his heart pounding as the very real possibility of the witch’s disappearance loomed before him in the shape of…
Behind his glasses, his blue gaze narrowed as he absorbed the tiny outfit…the box around her neck…the unfamiliar length of the redhead’s hose-clad legs as she bent over a table at the edge of the picture. “Oh my,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“What’s oh my?” queried Anya from the doorway. “Oh my is not good.”
The two men stood back as she rushed up to the desk, shifting the bag to her other arm in order to get a better look at the painting. It only took her a moment before she sighed, “Oh my.”
“She must have…while I was in…and now she’s…” Giles seemed incapable of finishing any of his sentences, each trailing off into its own world before turning around to slap the other two in the face with their observations.
“Didn’t you tell her not to touch it?” Anya demanded.
“If you must know, I didn’t actually speak to her,” the Watcher retorted. “But I was very clear in my message, I’m sure.”
“So now we have two reasons to go see this H’whatsit guy,” Xander said, and rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get the show on the road.”
“Road schmoad,” Anya said, collapsing onto the couch and folding her arms across her chest. “I needed Willow. Without her, you can just say goodbye to this whole harebrained idea.”
“What’re you talking about?” Her boyfriend circled around, sitting on the edge of the coffee table to look at her expectantly. “I’ll just go pick up the stuff from the shop and we’ll be back in business.”
She rolled her eyes. “I need Willow’s magic skills, you ninny. I’ve still got to make the protection amulets, and it takes two to complete the spell to contact H’roven.”
“Well, I can help with those,” Giles offered. “I’ve done my share of magic in my day, you know.”
“And leave only Xander on weapons?” Anya argued. “I don’t think so. I’m not doing this unless I feel one-hundred percent safe that I’m not going to get skewered like a shish kebab.” She glanced over at the young man. “Sorry, hon.”
“But this is it, Ahn. We’re the cavalry.”
She brightened. “Oh! What about that guy that Buffy and Willow keep talking about? What’s his name? Riley? He’s big. He could probably handle a sword or crossbow or something.”
“And we tell him…what? Buffy’s been sucked into some demon painting and we need to go find the guy who did it because he lives in some weird other hell dimension? Oh, and by the way, do you mind holding this stake and crossbow, ‘cause things could get a little ugly when Anya does her mojo.” Xander shook his head. “He won’t understand. There’s no way we could drag him into this now.”
“Then that’s it. Say good-bye to Buffy and Willow, ‘cause I’m going to burn that painting before anyone else gets sucked through.” She started to rise, only to be pushed back into her seat when Giles marched around and grabbed her shoulder.
“You are doing no such thing!” he ordered, his blue eyes flaring. “I am not going to let you whine your way out of this, Anya. You will do the spell, I will help you, and Xander will be more than fine on weapons. His experience working with Buffy for the last three years hasn’t been for nothing, you know.” He straightened. “And the sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll be back, so I suggest you get up and get down to the magic shop for those amulet ingredients before I---.”
“Fine, I’m going,” Anya interrupted, her thin face wrinkled into a scowl. She stood, pressing herself back into the edge of the couch cushions as she inched her away around the Watcher, heading for the front door. “But I just want you to know, when you get turned into Giles-on-a-stick, I’m going to be the first person to say I told you so.”
Hugging the wall, her eyes darted around the darkness, scanning for the young manager’s presence before venturing further into the hallway. Sammy had been very clear about when her break was supposed to be, and though Willow knew that she should’ve waited another ten minutes before coming into the back, her toes were begging her to ignore the rules for once and just get off her feet before they exploded from the pain.
It was only after she slipped inside the dressing room, closing the door silently behind her, did the redhead let out the breath she’d been holding. For some reason, that Sammy gave her the wiggins, running around with his little clipboard, always seeming to be in the middle of everything. She’d almost tripped over him twice this evening already---not that she needed any more help stumbling around in these impossibly high heels and may God smote down the idiot who ever invented them---and been scolded as a result. Somehow, she didn’t think painting Willow rated very high on the young man’s like list.
The sound of crying caused her to turn, gazing over the empty room, before stepping forward, trying to locate the source. Only one other door existed along the walls, and biting her lip, the young witch reached out to open it.
The huddled form of a sobbing blonde greeted Willow as she stood in the entrance. At the sound of the new arrival, she looked up, the make-up in black streaks down her too-full cheeks. “Go away,” she said through her tears.
The redhead stepped forward, crouching down to the other woman’s level. “What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
“Oh, like you care,” the blonde spat. “She’s your friend. She’s happy, you’re happy, and who the fuck cares what anyone else is feeling.”
Willow’s mind whirled. This being thrust into the middle of all these situations harkened back to her dreams about showing up for a play and not even knowing she was in it. What had they called that? An actor’s nightmare? Well, this was definitely hers. “You want to talk about it?” she offered, not having the slightest clue what the other was referring to but hating to see anyone suffer like this. “Sometimes it helps if you can get it out of your system.”
“He just used me,” the blonde murmured, her dark eyes averted as she rocked gently on the floor of the closet. “All along. I was just a piece of meat to him. Chewed me up and spit me out.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?”
She ignored the question. “You should’ve seen him last night. He was all over her, holding her, dancing with her, laughing at her stupid little jokes. I even went up and asked him for a dance, you know, for old-time sake, and he just brushed me off. Said last night was for her.” She looked up at Willow, her eyes brimming with tears. “Why do men do that?” she begged. “They tell you that they love you, and then someone else comes along, and bam! It’s like you never existed.”
The lump in her throat was almost instantaneous as the all-too-recent memory of a naked Veruca curled up against Oz---her Oz!---flashed across her mind’s eye, and she swallowed hard in an attempt to rid herself of it, as if that act could erase the picture that had haunted her over the past few weeks. “Sometimes…it’s not something…they can control,” the redhead finally managed, knowing as it came out that it was a weak argument, that even she didn’t really believe it.
The other woman laughed, a harsh, wet sound that threatened to gurgle over the pair of them. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Control is not exactly Spike’s strong suit.”
The mention of the vampire’s name brought Willow back to the present. Spike? She’d had a thing going with Spike? Not the real Spike, she argued back to herself. He’s only been here two days, it was the pre-painting Spike. But who was this other woman she was talking about…? And then it dawned on her, remembering the blonde’s first words when she’d stepped into the closet. “You’re her friend.” Buffy? No! It couldn’t be…
“He can’t just get away with this,” the other woman was saying, struggling against her skirt to rise to her feet. “He has to learn. You can’t just trifle with someone’s emotions like that. You can’t cause them so much pain; it’s just not right.” A stunned Willow could only watch as she reached for a long coat, her hand disappearing into a side pocket before extracting a tiny gun, cradling it in her palm before turning back to face the redhead. “I think it’s about time he felt his own pain.”
As the young witch jumped to her feet, the same ankle that had turned earlier decided to do a repeat performance, and she grimaced in pain as she struggled to stay vertical. “Hang on there,” she said. “You don’t want to do this.”
The blonde shook her head. “Of course you don’t understand,”
she said. “You were so quick to move out when he moved in with Buffy,
to give them ‘space,’ you said, ‘cause they needed quality
alone time. You’ve been on their side all along.”
“I’m not on anyone’s side!” Willow protested. “I’m totally sideless!”
“I wish I could believe that. I like you. I’m really sorry.”
Maybe it was because she was distracted by the pain in her foot. Maybe it was because people in this painting world were blessed with super-human speed and strength. Or maybe it was just because she didn’t really believe the blonde would actually do it. Either way, Willow was totally taken surprise by the force of the other woman’s blow, sending her reeling into a black oblivion even before her body slumped to the closet floor…
He’d seen her wincing as she’d slunk her way to the door behind the orchestra, and he just knew that her ankle was bothering her more than she’d let on earlier. Why hadn’t she just spoken up to Lombardi? He would’ve let her go home for the night; after all, she’d come back from her vacation early and technically wasn’t even supposed to be working until tomorrow. Women, Gino thought, mentally shaking his head. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never understand them.
He’d been surprised to see her walk in earlier, her wide smile lighting up the back hallway like a beacon, calling out a casual hello to the dark bouncer before disappearing into the dressing room with the other girls. Ever since she’d starting working at the Rising Sun, Gino had found himself thinking of no other girl but her, watching her when he wasn’t supposed to, getting into trouble more than once to help cover up some of her mistakes. Willow was one of the few dames in the joint who actually talked to him like he was a person, not just a piece of meat necessary to guard their precious little selves, and he’d responded to her overtures of friendship like a hungry puppy. She was, without a doubt, the smartest girl he’d ever met, but at the same time, she didn’t treat him like an imbecile, not like some of the others. When he didn’t get something, she was patient enough to explain it for him, and that, more than anything else, cemented how he felt about her. As someone who was used to thinking with his fists, knowing someone thought that what was between his ears wasn’t just a waste of space was worth more than all the tea in China.
His eyes darted to the door again, and he couldn’t help the frown that came to his brow. She wasn’t back yet. Hopefully, that didn’t mean she’d run into the young manager; for some reason, Sammy had been gunning for Willow ever since she started. The last thing she needed right now was another run-in with the little twerp.
Without moving his body, Gino tilted his head ever so slightly toward Spike. “Call of nature,” he said, his lips barely moving. “Be back in a sec.”
“I’ll be right here,” the blond replied, his own gaze locked on the dance floor.
The dark bouncer could barely contain the smile as his eyes followed his partner’s path, ending on the twirling form of an effervescent Buffy as she moved in time with the music, carefully maintaining the distance between her and the elderly gentleman who held her in his arms. He didn’t care how many times the Englishman argued to the contrary; the thing that somehow connected him and his fiancée was bigger than anything Gino had ever seen before. It was almost as if Spike was afraid that if he wasn’t watching her, she’d somehow disappear. He shook his head as he ambled for the door behind the orchestra. If only he could get Willow to feel the same thing…
So lost in his own daydream, he didn’t even see the rushing blonde emerge from the back until the two had collided. “Oh! Sorry ‘bout that, Pauline.” His apology was automatic, and Gino was already back into his own thoughts and images of a certain redhead before he could notice the woman’s tear-stained face…
She forced her smile wider as the bottom of his foot connected yet again with her toe, squashing it under his weight before stepping away and sweeping her closer to the orchestra. Keep the customer happy, Buffy, she reminded herself. It’s only a dance, and you can grow another toe tomorrow. Just remember that it could always be worse.
Too bad not everyone dances like Spike, she thought ruefully, the memories of their day of lessons flooding over her body, coursing over her skin like a velvet cloak, hardening her nipples as the recollection of his body pressed against hers drifted her away from her current partner and into naughty thoughts of icy tongues and strong hands. To be honest, she didn’t know what in hell was going on between the two of them, but one thing was for certain; there would be no more denying the physical attraction that bound them, seeming to leap between them like electricity every time he looked at her…she looked at him…
She couldn’t help her hazel eyes wandering to where he stood now in the doorway, back straight, the crisp lines of his tuxedo broadening his muscular frame. The clothes were different, but the costume remained the same…the shield of ebony the blond vampire’s marker for his claim to all things big and bad. Buffy had seen the fear in those cerulean depths when she’d been talking to Willow in Lombardi’s office, knew that he wasn’t looking forward to returning to Sunnydale and the half-existence he seemed to have there. For a moment, she felt a pang of guilt, then shoved it aside. We’re not even back yet, she admonished herself. Who knows what things will be like when we return?
The young woman wasn’t surprised when she saw him watching her in kind, saw the corner of his lips raise ever so slightly as he met her gaze, and felt the now-familiar tug on the cord that seemed to bind her heart and her sex, a gentle reminder to the former’s existence…a sudden flash of moisture to the latter’s…
It was the sudden glint of the light overhead as it caught the metal in the girl’s hand that jerked Buffy’s attention away from the blond vampire, snapping her head to see the gowned woman raise her arm…aim it at the doorway…
The Slayer’s voice cut through the music, immediately snatching the vampire’s notice, his body automatically stepping forward as if nearing her was necessary to respond. He didn’t see the other woman off to his side, only cocked his head in query as Buffy tore herself away from her dance partner, breaking into a cold run, damning her long skirts as they tangled around her legs.
Only Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.
The discharge of the gun pierced the air, sending the occupants scurrying for cover as many of the young women screamed in fear. The Slayer vaulted herself through the air, tackling the shooter about the shoulders, sending both of them sprawling into the orchestra, taking down several music stands and chairs at the same time. A tuba managed to somehow bounce against Buffy’s back, but she was oblivious to the cold metal as she wrenched the small pistol from the woman’s hand, tossing it aside and out of her reach, before sitting up and straddling her.
“What’re you---?” she began, stopping only when she felt the hand come down on her shoulder. She looked up to see Tony’s spectacled face frowning down at her.
“You better…see Spike,” he said, his voice low, his eyes darting over to the doorway.
As she scrambled to her feet, Buffy ordered, “Don’t let her go anywhere,” before hopping over the bandstand and rushing over to the club’s entrance. Just a few feet away, however, she stopped, her heart in her throat, as she saw the blond bouncer’s slumped form against the jamb, the blood smearing the wall where he’d slid down it. He was still conscious, but the pain he was experiencing was obvious from the grimace on his face, and the Slayer felt an uncharacteristic flash of fear that something could seriously be wrong with him. Right, she scolded herself. He’s a vampire, remember? Unless it was a wooden bullet, he’ll be perfectly fine.
As she knelt beside him, Spike’s blue gaze drifted to her face. “Well, I’d say it’s been a crackin’ day for both of us,” he commented dryly, wincing slightly as she pulled at the sleeve of his jacket, ripping it from the shoulder seam and exposing the crimson stain on his white shirt.
Buffy exhaled loudly as she tore away the remaining fabric and saw the scarlet trail left by the bullet where it had grazed his arm. “You’re just lucky she’s a lousy shot,” she replied, then glanced up at the stain running down the wall. “You know, you bleed an awful lot for a vampire.”
He was about to respond when she saw his eyes dart to over her shoulder, his lips thin as they pressed together. Turning around, Buffy saw the lumbering form of Lombardi shove his way through the throng.
“What the hell happened here?” he thundered, then stopped, paling slightly as he saw the blood staining both his bouncer and Buffy’s clothes.
“Go ask Annie Oakley over there,” the Slayer responded, nodding toward the approaching forms of Tony and Pauline.
“And where’s Gino?” Lombardi demanded. “That boy always disappears when he’s most needed.” He took a step closer to the pair on the floor, the lines between his watery blue eyes softening. “How is it?”
“Just a flesh wound,” Buffy said. “It looks worse than it actually is.”
The boss sighed. “Well, someone better get him over to the hospital, get a doc to patch him up. I can’t afford to have him out of commission too long.”
Spike tensed under the young woman’s hand, and she squeezed his arm slightly in reassurance. No matter what, she had to make sure he didn’t get seen by a doctor; somehow, she didn’t think she was going to be able to explain away the blond vampire’s lack of a pulse or his somewhat below-average body temperature. “You sure you want to do that?” she asked the older man. “They’re going to want to call the cops, ‘cause you know, gun wound. And then they’ll come around here asking questions…” She bit her lip, hoping it was enough to convince him not to follow through on the idea. When she saw the doubt begin to creep into his face, she plunged onward. “Let me take Spike home. All he needs is a good dressing and some TLC. I can take care of that.”
There were a couple snickers among the crowd as she said the last, but she ignored them, concentrating on Lombardi. “All right,” he finally said. “Get him---.” He cut himself off as the bulky form of his other bouncer emerged from the back of the club, the unconscious Willow in his arms. “And what the hell is this?” he demanded, the fire back in his voice.
“I found her in the dressing room,” Gino explained. “Someone’s cold-cocked her a good one. I…can’t get her to wake up.”
As Lombardi shot Pauline a dirty look, she immediately averted her gaze, ducking her head to hide the shameful flush that colored her cheeks. “This kind of shit is not rolling my dice,” the boss muttered before turning to the crowd. “Lola!” he shouted. Buffy watched as a very tall, very thin strawberry blonde broke free from the throng. “Go with Gino to the hospital,” the boss instructed. “Get her taken care of.”
Jumping to her feet, the Slayer grabbed Lombardi’s arm, pulling him around to look at her. “Let me go, too.”
He frowned. “You gotta take Spike, remember? Or does the phrase TLC not ring a bell in that pretty little head of yours? Besides, Lola’s her roommate. She can give the hospital all the information they need about Red. You’ll just get in the way.” The older man turned and grabbed Pauline’s arm, wrenching her free from Tony’s grasp. “And you,” he menaced. “I’m going to take care of you personally.”
Buffy could only watch as Lombardi led the other woman away, the crowd thinning…stepping back. As Gino stepped forward to leave, her hand reached out and grabbed his coat sleeve, looking up into his black eyes as she said, “Call me and let me know how she’s doing, OK?”
The dark bouncer nodded, his face somber, and exited the club with Lola trailing after him.
Buffy sighed, crouching again at Spike’s side. “OK, just for the record, I’m really starting to get annoyed with this place,” she said as she hefted him to his feet, allowing him to lean against her in a semblance of need, even though she knew he was probably fine to walk by himself. She turned, only to be met by Tony’s worried features.
“Is he going to be OK?” the trumpet player asked.
The Slayer nodded. “I think his ego is more hurt than he is,” she commented. “Big Bad Bouncer knocked over by an itty bitty---.”
“Hey!” Spike interrupted. “I’m standing right here.”
“I can’t believe…” Tony murmured, then cut himself off, clearing his throat, leaning forward so that his words couldn’t be overheard by any of the others. “You’ve got to be careful,” he warned. “This place…anything can happen…”
“I think we’re beginning to see that. Although watching one of our presents go crawling off on its own accord was kind of funny, in a warped and twisted kind of way.” She shrugged at the musician’s confused frown. “Someone sent me a scorpion as an engagement gift. Probably Miss Psycho who took a shot at Spike.”
“Wow,” Tony breathed. “I can’t believe how fast it’s started for you two…”
“How fast what’s started?” Buffy asked, tilting her head questioningly.
Before he could reply, the conductor came up behind Tony, clapping his hand down on his shoulder. “Back in the pit,” he said. “We still gotta play.”
As the two musicians walked back to the bandstand, Spike snorted in derision. “Knew I didn’t like the wanker,” he muttered. “Bastard knows something and isn’t sharin’.”
Although she didn’t voice it, the young woman couldn’t help but agree with the blond vampire’s assessment. The thoughts collided with each other in her head, struggling for dominance as she carefully led Spike out to the waiting car. Amidst the jumble, however, one kept jumping out, forcing itself to the forefront with a chilling vengeance.
Anyone with more information than she had could not be taken lightly…
To be continued in Chapter 11: Someone to Watch Over Me…