DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has invited Gino over for the night, while Spike has sought out Tony to have a little chat…

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

Chapter 14: Put Me to the Test

The musician flinched, coughing slightly, as Spike blew the cigarette smoke into his face, a hazy cloud now separating him from the deadly golden eyes. “If you ask me,” he drawled, glancing down over the other man’s slightly dishevelled appearance, “I just don’t get the appeal. I mean, you even had Buffy for a bit there. ‘Course, she’s got a tendency to go all blinkered when it comes to blokes who play the Mr. Sensitivity card, but still…” When Tony’s body tensed, turning ever so slightly to bolt, the vampire’s arm shot out, blocking the path to the kitchenette without actually coming into contact with the musician. “Didn’t want to talk, shouldn’t’ve invited me in,” the blond said. “And I’d lay good odds I’m just a bit faster than you.”

“What do you want?” Tony croaked.

“Already said,” Spike replied, taking a deep drag on his cigarette. “We’re goin’ to have us a little chat.” Turning ever so slightly, the vampire tilted his head in the direction of the couch, allowing the trumpet player just enough room to squeeze past and settle himself into the threadbare cushions. So far, so good, he thought. Keep him scared and won’t have to worry about this little chip problem.

“I’m not a thrall!”

His scarred eyebrow lifted. “That mark of yours says otherwise,” Spike commented. “That’s not a one-time suckjob. You only get that kind of scar when someone’s feedin’ from you regular-like.”

Tony shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “That still doesn’t make me a thrall. Melinda…loves me.”

“Sounds like a thrall song to me. I believe the next verse goes somethin’ along the lines of how she’s your world, how you’d do anything for her---.”

“Oh, god no!” The musician’s denunciation was vehement, two bright spots of red showing up in his pale cheeks.

Spike tilted his head, his lips curling in amusement. “Well, this just got more interestin’,” he said. “This Melinda…she tie you up…torture you…force you to be her little blood buddy?”

“Actually…” Tony ducked his head under the vampire’s azure gaze. “…we were high school sweethearts---.”

Grimacing, Spike held up his hand, cutting off the musician in mid-sentence. “Got it. You can stop right there. I’m not interested in hearing the lovey-dovey crap.”

“Then why are you here?”

“’Cause as much as I love Buffy doin’ the whole Florence Nightingale gig, I’m not really so fond of thinkin’ somethin’s going to muck up our little arrangement, you know, by killing her. So, dish the dirt, Tone. You know what’s goin’ on in Oz here, and you’re goin’ to tell me, or I’m goin’ to have me a tasty little treat for my afternoon tea.” He made a sucking sound through his teeth, golden eyes glittering, enjoying the other man’s discomfiture. “Hope you’ve got some biscuits on hand. Nothin’ I like more than a bick with my blood.”

“I don’t know…much…” Tony managed, swallowing hard as he tried to tear his spectacled gaze away from the vampire’s glistening fangs.

“Not much is more than what Buffy and I got. Fess up.”

The trumpet player cleared his throat. “Accidents.” The single word was almost inaudible, a hoarse whisper echoing in the tiny lounge. “People who come through the painting…seem to have…accidents…”

“Like gettin’ shot.”

Tony nodded. “Or the…scorpion Buffy mentioned. One guy came through, I saw him get run down in the street right in front of the club.”

“That could’ve happened to anyone. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Things have been happening to me, too.” His admission seemed forced and the musician finally found the strength to tear his gaze away from the blond vampire. “Not until recently, but they’ve been happening. I’ve been pretty lucky so far, though. Nothing too life-threatening.” He glanced up. “And your friend, the redhead? She gets knocked out on her first night here? You don’t think that’s just a little too coincidental?”

There was more to it than the musician was telling, but Spike could tell that the other man honestly believed what he’d already shared. And, since the vamp wasn’t too sure how far he could take this little demon-on-the-edge routine before he’d have to do some actual violence, he was sorely tempted to call it quits right then, take home his info and warn Buffy about keeping on her toes. He wasn’t too worried about himself; short of a well-placed wooden stake or an inopportune beheading, there was little the vampire had to fear. Getting shot or run over might hurt like hell, but it wouldn’t kill him, and that was the important thing.

“How’d you know Red came from the other side?” Spike queried. “And how come you knew about me and Buffy not bein’ from around here?”

“Because I’ve been here long enough to remember what it was like before you showed,” Tony explained. “One night, it was Gino. The next, both of you were at the door. The others might get their memories scrambled but I didn’t. I think if you’re not from around here, you don’t get affected in the same way by new arrivals. I didn’t know about Buffy until the party; I don’t pay too much attention to the dancers. But the redhead, well, her entrance was a little more...noticeable.”

Spike let his game face slide away, digesting this last bit of information. There was more, but without Buffy’s fists, getting it would be nigh impossible. The trumpet player was already starting to regain some of his composure, straightening in his seat, raising his head to stare down the vampire.

Taking one last drag on his cigarette, Spike dropped it into the half-full cup of coffee on a nearby table, hearing the butt sizzle as it was extinguished. “I’d say you’re feeding me a line of cack,” he said casually, “but somehow, I don’t think even you’d be stupid enough to lie to a vamp, not after your little tete-a-tete with…what’d you say her name was?”

“…Melinda…”

Spike shrugged. “If I were her, I’d be feeling like a right git for choosing you as a thrall---.”

“For the last time---.”

“Yeah, yeah, not a thrall. I’ve heard it.” He turned, walked over to the door. “Don’t be thinkin’ we’re through here, bugle boy. I’m sure Buffy’s goin’ to have some questions of her own for you.”

Tony laughed in spite of himself. “Buffy? She’s just a girl. I think I can take care of myself around a girl.”

His hand hovered over the doorknob as the blond vampire glanced back at the musician out of the corner of his eye. “Really? That Melinda of yours ever tell you about the Slayer?” He smiled when Tony blanched and pushed the door open. “See you at the Sun,” he called back, as he sauntered down the hallway. Nothin’ like a little power to put a bloke on top of the world.

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

“I feel bloody ridiculous,” Spike grumbled, his brows knitted thunderously together, as Buffy tightened the sling around his neck, yanking with unnecessary vigor against the fabric so that it burned against his skin. “Hey!” he yelled, jumping away and rubbing at his nape with his free hand. “I can think of better ways to pay me back for our little adventure last night, if that’s what got your knickers in such a twist.”

He watched as she marched to the open bathroom door, the first aid kit held tightly within whitened knuckles, her head held high, nostrils flaring as she fought to keep her temper in check. The blond vampire had barely beaten her back to the apartment, and though she seemed fine whenever she spoke to Red, he couldn’t help but notice how short Buffy was when she addressed him, clipping her words with an icy precision, hazel eyes shooting sparks that would’ve ignited his cold flesh had they taken physical form.

“You want to be the one to explain to Gino how you can get shot one night and be perfectly fine the next, you be my guest,” the Slayer barked from the bath.

“And what’s that all about?” the vamp demanded, stepping into the doorway to watch her struggle with a load of towels that had fallen from the cupboard. “Since when are we the entertainin’ types? I would’ve thought you’d want to maintain as low a profile as possible, stay away from the locals when we didn’t have to.”

“I thought you liked Gino.”

“I do, but---.”

“So I thought you might want some company. Pardon me for trying to be considerate.” She slammed the door shut on the closet and found herself facing a resolute vampire blocking the entrance. “What?” she demanded.

“You just goin’ to throw a wobbler, or are you actually goin’ to tell me what’s gotten you so pissed off? ‘Cause I’m not a big fan of the whole slammin’ door scene if I’m not the one doin’ the slammin’.”

Buffy glared at him, the adrenalin surging through her veins, drinking in his chiselled cheekbones, the sapphire eyes. It had been gnawing at her ever since the car ride, but did she have the nerve to bring it up? What could he possibly have to say about it? And why did she care so much about he thought anyway? What the hell, she thought wildly. It’s only Spike.

“What’s the deal with Pauline?” she demanded, folding her arms over her chest.

“What?” He frowned. “Who the hell is Pauline?”

“The woman who shot you. You were messing around with her.”

“And when was I supposed to be doin’ that?” Spike asked. “When I was teachin’ you how to dance? Or maybe when I was savin’ you from that scorpion? ‘Cause I’d like to know---.” He stopped, cocking his head as his blue eyes narrowed. “You’re jealous.”

She stopped. “I’m…what? No.”

“Then what do you call gettin’ so hot and bothered by me doin’ some bird at the club? Especially when I didn’t.”

“But you did,” she argued. “You broke her heart. She told Willow you dumped her---.”

“When? Before we got here? Oh, that’s rich. Now I’m havin’ to take blame for stuff I didn’t even do.” The vampire’s gaze was incredulous. “You don’t see me taking the ump because you’ve fucked half the town---.”

“Because I didn’t!”

“Really?” Spike lifted his eyebrows. “That’s not what everyone at work thinks---.”

He didn’t see it until it was too late. The blood spurted from his nose as her fist connected with it, and his arm jerked from the makeshift sling, his hands coming up to catch the scarlet fluid. “Truth’s supposed to hurt you, not me,” he growled, pinching his nostrils.

“Don’t go calling me a ho then.”

“I didn’t. I was just tryin’ to make a point. Obviously, not very well.” The vamp stared down at her, sniffing to stop the bleeding, jaw locked as his mind raged. He should’ve known better than to think their truce would last; Buffy handled reality about as well as she managed her lovelife. Badly.

There was a moment of silence, each doing his or her best to stare down the other, before the young woman grabbed his arm and yanked him toward the toilet. “Sit,” she ordered, and went back to the closet she’d put the first aid kit.

“So why does it bug you so much?” Spike asked, his voice low, watching as she pulled out a wash cloth and crossed to the sink.

Her response was almost drowned out by the running water. “I don’t know.” With the dexterity of years of practice, Buffy wrung out the cloth and stepped in front of the blond vamp, tilting his head with her free hand before dabbing at the blood on his face. “You think I like feeling like this, you’re crazy. I was having a great day until Gino told me…” She was looking every place she could without having to meet his gaze, the steadiness she knew she’d find there too much for her to handle at the moment.

He didn’t need to hear her say it. Spike knew the truth, could see the pain etched in her fine features, and felt a strange spark flare deep within him. “What was so great ‘bout your day?” he asked, struggling for some sense of normalcy.

Buffy shrugged. “Woke up in a good mood,” she said simply. But those six syllables carried more import than she intended. The Slayer heard how they sounded as they drifted from her mouth to his ears, and she stepped back before it overwhelmed her. “Willow’s going to be wondering what happened to us,” she said, and turning on her heel, walked out of the room with a bemused blond watching her exit.

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

When the rap came, the redhead glanced nervously from the front entrance to the still-closed bedroom door, and back to the entrance again. She’d heard some faint yelling earlier, but everything had gone all quiet again, and Willow bit her lip as she wondered just what was going on, not for the millionth time since she’d shown up at the apartment. Buffy had given her a quick tour, and though she’d been eager to show her around, the young witch had noticed how studiously she’d avoided detailing Spike’s room, even going so far as to grab Will’s hand when she reached for the door knob.

“Not a good idea,” the Slayer had said. “He hates it when people go through his stuff.”

The knock came again, and the redhead rose to her feet, wobbling slightly on the narrow heels as she walked to the front door. There was only one person who could be on the other side of it, and as much as she kinda sorta liked the guy, the last thing Willow wanted to be dealing with right now was…

“Hi, Gino,” she said, smiling gamely as she held open the door.

It was the first time she’d seen him not in a suit, and her hazel eyes widened slightly as he stepped across the threshold, the stiff gabardine of his shirt brushing against her arm. If it was at all possible, he seemed even bigger, looming over her like a hulking shadow. Six-four, six-five easy, she thought irrationally as her gaze travelled up the length of him. And about two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. Wow.

She blinked. I did not just think that, she scolded herself. There is no wow here, wowage is not good. He’s not even real, this is all just some magical world thingy and he’s just a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Except, for a second, it was her imagination that was overacting, sudden flashes of sweaty muscles sweeping her onto a soft mattress, covering her, pressing her back into the bed…

OK, stopping now, she thought. Not productive and not helping in any way, shape, or form.

Gino smiled, hovering near the edge of the living room, black eyes darting to look at Willow as she hung back by the door. “I’m early, aren’t I?” he said. “I’m always early. I get so nervous about being late for stuff that I end up going a hundred percent the other way and show up miles before I should’ve.”

“Sometimes, early is good,” the redhead reassured, taking a small step forward. Oh goddess, that’s encouraging him. Can’t do that. Gotta be cool and distant.

“You’re looking better,” the bouncer commented, his gaze darting over her slender form. “Must be the dress. You always look great in green.”

“Really?” She couldn’t help moving even closer, her face puzzled into a frown. “I always thought it made my hair seem brighter, you know, too contrasty.”

“So? You got great hair. I don’t know why you keep trying to hide it. I know at least a dozen dames who’d kill to have hair like yours.”

In spite of her earlier conviction, Willow found herself blushing. “You’re just saying that.”

His coloring mirrored her own. “You know I don’t do that. Not with…” But he couldn’t finish the thought, letting it trail off until it hung in the room between them.

The pair stood there in awkward silence for a moment, each nervously avoiding the other’s gaze, before Willow finally said, “You know, you can sit down if you want. I’m sure Buffy and Spike will be out any minute.”

Gino laughed, glancing over at the closed bedroom door. “Yeah, right. They’re like rabbits, those two. Can’t keep their hands off each other. If they’re in there, we won’t see them for hours yet.” He looked back at the redhead. “Besides, I can’t anyway. You’re not sitting yet.”

She was saved from an embarrassed reply when the door opened and Buffy came sweeping into the room, a bandaged Spike strolling in after her. Willow’s eyes narrowed slightly as she saw the redness about his nose, the studied casualness about their manner. That was the fight I heard, she thought. Wonder what sparked this one.

“Right, now,” the blond vampire was saying. “Who’s feelin’ peckish?”

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

Giles hung back and watched as Anya poured the black powder in a circle on his living room floor, being careful not to disturb the symbols they’d already spent hours transcribing from the books she’d brought with her. “That’s not going to stain, is it?” he asked, the line heavy between his brows.

“Oh, no,” the young woman reassured. “A little elbow grease, maybe some meths, it’ll come right out.”

At her side, Xander leaned in, whispering, “I thought you said---.”

“Ssshh!” she hissed, then flashed a brilliant smile at the Watcher. “Almost done here,” she said, too brightly.

“Good.” It had been over three days since Buffy had gone missing, and, with each passing hour, Giles’ anxiety about her safe return grew, filling him with black clouds of doubt. Although he knew that---technically, at least---he wasn’t her Watcher any longer, that didn’t stop the concern over her well-being, the guilt about his own laxity in protecting her. I should’ve been here, he silently scolded himself. I could’ve stopped her.

Straightening, Anya stepped back to survey her work, scrutinizing it carefully while Xander set his jar down on the mantle. “You missed a spot,” she said, pointing to a small break on the far edge of the ebony ring.

The young man frowned. “Where?” he said, leaning over to inspect it more closely. “Don’t tell me you’re talking about this little itty bitty hole here?”

Anya sighed. “That little itty bitty hole is big enough for H’roven to harpoon you like a whale,” she replied. “Fill it.”

Although he didn’t know what the big deal was, Xander did as he was told, wishing yet again that his girlfriend had been a little more forthcoming about what was in store for them. Every time he’d brought it up, though, she’d buried him in more work. And the last thing he wanted right now was to be told to go and wash more of those newt eyes. Yuck.

The two men watched as Anya paced around the room, picking up various items before setting them back down again, inspecting the symbols a fourth and fifth time, correcting the placement of a tiny artefact that hung over the door. “OK,” she finally said. “I think we’re ready…”


To be continued in Chapter 15: Sentimental Journey