DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has realized that she is in love with Spike but believes it to be unreciprocated, Willow has kissed Gino, and the remaining Scoobies in Sunnydale have gotten more information regarding getting everyone out of the painting…

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

Chapter 18: That Ol' Black Magic

“Are we just going to sit here and stare at it all night?”

It was the fourth time in the last hour that Xander had asked the question, each time hoping it would prompt Giles to break from the fugue that had seemed to settle over him since Anya’s departure. After moving the painting to the opposite chair, the Watcher had settled into the couch, removed his glasses, and scrutinized the picture, every so often tilting his head to get a slightly different perspective on it. Once, it had actually looked like he was going to say something, sitting up in the settee and clearing his throat, but Xander had been disappointed when the older man had merely shifted his weight.

“I betcha Ahn’s cooled off by now. What say, I give her a ring, see if she wants to come over.” He stood, crossing to the telephone, his brown eyes never leaving Giles’ hunched form. “Want some donuts? Maybe some nice jelly ones? She’d probably bring ‘em if we asked.”

No response. Xander’s hand hung in the air, the dial tone of the telephone audible in the quiet living room. Normally, he wouldn’t question the older man’s behavior---well, not seriously anyway---but this befuddled distance was beginning to border on the freaky, with a side order of deaky not far behind.

“It would have to be someone reasonably accessible, don’t you think?”

“He speaks!” Replacing the receiver in its cradle, Xander stuffed his hands in his pockets and ambled to stand beside the couch. “Thought I’d lost you to some exotic museum disease for awhile there. Staring off into artwork so much so that it sucks away your voice.”

Giles ignored his companion’s gibe. “Of course, I’m not certain I’d be able to take any weapons, but I’m sure Buffy and I could manage something.”

“So, is that the decision? You’re planning on going in after her and Will?”

“Can you think of another way to tell them how to reverse the portal?” The two men regarded each other, eyes steady, until the Watcher shook his head. “I can’t. Trust me, I’ve been trying.”

“Maybe she’ll figure it out on her own.” But even as he spoke, Xander knew how lame it sounded.

“My fear is that whatever desire the painting perceives they want will…distract them, perhaps with fatal consequences.”

“So we go. End of story.”

Giles frowned, replacing his glasses to stare up at the younger man. “We? You’re not going, Xander. I won’t allow it.”

“And you’re going to stop me…how?” He began pacing. “See, the way I see it, the more people we got on the inside, the better luck we have in finding this safety person.”

“Or the more people Buffy has to worry about protecting from being killed, perhaps?”

Xander waved away the suggestion in dismissal. “Unless the picture’s going to make me James Bond, I don’t think we’re in any danger of me getting my greatest desire, so color me safe.” He stopped, crouching down to look at Giles on an even level. “These are my two best friends we’re talking about here. They’ve saved my life so many times, on so many levels, that there’s no way I’m not going with you on this one. Besides, how hard can this be? We go in, take care of the safety, we come out. Easy as cake.”

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

Fluffy crumbs dropped to the small plate as Willow sank her teeth into the pastry, the grumbles from her stomach overly loud in the empty living room. She was ravenous, had woken up so, and as appealing as Gino’s offer to go out for breakfast had been, the redhead desperately wanted to be around when Buffy woke up. What she needed right now was some good old-fashioned girltalk, someone she could dish with about what exactly had happened over the last thirty-six hours, and, since neither one of them had really been in the position for that last night, hangover hell was really the only option.

Actually, as far as hangovers go, it wasn’t that bad. Sure, she had a slight headache, and her tongue felt too big for her mouth, but there was no nausea like she remembered from last time, and she didn’t feel like chopping off her own head. That was definitely a bonus.

She had a mouthful of muffin when the bedroom door opened, and she turned her head to see Spike saunter out, platinum head bent as he tightened the buckle on his belt. It took a moment for the connection to click, but when it did, her jaw stopped working, her cheeks puffed out from the unconsumed pastry.

He had already taken a few steps toward the kitchen when he noticed Willow staring at him. “Mornin’,” he said, and without breaking rhythm, continued on his way, leaving behind a confused redhead looking back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom door.

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

Spike was standing at the stove, stirring a small saucepan over a low flame, when Willow showed up in the entrance. She heard the mindless humming first, and just watched him for a moment, tiny lines between her brows.

He had just come out of Buffy’s bedroom.

Getting dressed.

Which meant he’d been…undressed.

In Buffy’s room.

Wow…

“I’ve seen you in a kitchen before, Red,” Spike said, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. “I know you know what a cooker is for.”

“Is that…breakfast?” she croaked, getting up on tiptoes to get a peek inside the pan.

He tilted it slightly to allow her to see the contents. “I’m goin’ to say you’re not goin’ to be interested in this, not unless there’s somethin’ you’ve been keepin’ from us.”

Her nose wrinkled at the sight of the blood simmering away. That nausea she’d thought she’d managed to escape? It was actually right there, crouching down in the pit of her stomach, just waiting for something with a big enough ewwww factor to trigger it. She swallowed hard, inching away so that the vampire’s body blocked her view of the stove.

“Where’s Gino?”

The mention of the dark-haired bouncer brought back the memories from the early morning, and Willow was glad that Spike had his back to her so that he couldn’t see her blush. “He went home,” she said. “He said something about pinning on his diapers. I think he was talking about changing his clothes…at least, I hope he was, ‘cause if he wasn’t, I think I’m going to owe him a huge apology.”

He chuckled, and the redhead noticed for the first time how relaxed the vampire seemed, how at ease, how…peaceful. “Yep, that’s what it means,” he affirmed. “You two…sleep on the couch all night?”

Although he didn’t look at her, Willow noticed the hint of laughter in his voice and crossed her arms over her chest, suddenly feeling very defensive. “Yes. All night. Sleeping. Nothing else. We’re just…sleep buddies.”

“Too bad.” He turned the burner off and reached overhead to grab a mug from the cupboard. “Thought your little cheatin’ trick might actually work. I would’ve sworn Gino’d jump at the chance to get a few jollies.”

Her green eyes widened. “You knew, too?” she squeaked. “Did everyone know? How obvious was I?”

“Doubt Buffy saw it,” Spike offered, then realized what she’d said, his lips curling into a smile as he leaned back against the counter. “So. Gino sussed you out. And you two just…slept.” Lifting his mug to his mouth, he took a long sip, his blue eyes dancing as they peered at her over the rim, the redhead’s discomfort enflaming her face.

“Yes. Mostly.” Goddess, how long was he going to keep this up?

“’S’ok, Red. Your dirty little secret’s safe with me.”

She was desperate to change the subject. Somehow, the blond vampire had managed to turn the tables on her, changing the topic to her and Gino when they’d been talking about…Wait. She’d only been thinking those things, so really, she was still on the same side of the table. Fine. She would do the switcheroo then.

“So…where’s Buffy?” Willow asked coolly. There. Two could play this game.

“Still sleepin’.” Spike seemed unruffled by her question, answering with his usual cool detachment, sipping at his blood as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Buffy said…the other room was yours.” God, she was bad at this. “And I saw you come…out of, you know…her room.”

He didn’t reply, only watched her as he drained off his drink, sapphire gaze scrutinizing the redhead’s open features. How much did he want to tell her? And what would Buffy do to him if he did? “My clothes are in there,” he finally said. “As is the bathroom, in case you’ve forgotten.” Better to play it safe than sorry, he decided. Not that he was sorry about one bit of last night. No way.

“Nice try.” She was starting to feel stronger about this; although his unflappable explanation was more than true and certainly would’ve been sufficient under other circumstances, she wasn’t blind. She’d seen enough over the past day and a half to know something was going on; even last night, the way Spike had stripped those stockings off of Buffy’s legs had screamed conspiracy theory. And they thought she’d been too drunk to notice. Ha.

“Tell you what,” the vamp said, setting down his mug. “I’ll make you a deal. You dish the dirt about you and Gino, and I’ll tell about me and Buffy.” He figured it was a stand-off; no way would Red agree to such an arrangement, not with her and the Slayer being such bosom buddies. But…part of him was kind of hoping she would. When he’d come back to Sunnydale after Dru dumped him the first time, Willow had been the one to listen to him spill his guts, wallowing in his sorrow. And then, it had been Willow again when he’d learned just what those commando bastards had done to him. ‘Course, he hadn’t really given her a choice in the matter either time between the kidnapping for the love spell and the trying to bite her bit, but still… “Totally on the QT, of course,” he added.

Although she’d been hoping that Buffy would’ve been the one who helped her sort this all out, the young witch desperately wanted to talk about it, get someone to tell her just what was going on, not just with Gino but with this whole painting world. Everything here seemed too real, and Sunnydale already seemed like forever away, and that couldn’t be good…could it?
But this was Spike. Hello…vampire? Chipped vampire, yes, but evil and Big Bad and hating the Scooby gang…and hating Buffy…Except she wasn’t so sure about that last one anymore, and he’d certainly been nice enough to her since she’d come through. And he was a guy---an undead one, but a guy nonetheless---and maybe he’d be able to offer some sort of different perspective on the whole Gino thing…

“Deal.”

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

The ingredients were strewn about on the table before him, carefully portioned into each of the bowls, dull and lifeless in comparison to the vibrancy of the room surrounding it. Gathering them had been no mean feat; although he’d been fairly certain that there weren’t any vampires in this world before he’d come through, Tony had known that he’d need certain magics in order to protect himself from the dangers of the painting. He’d just never anticipated having to use the uninvite spell again.

He was still angry with himself for falling for Spike’s trick in the first place. You’ve been with Melinda for how long? he mentally chided. Didn’t that teach you anything? But the bouncer had seemed so normal---OK, it had been pretty obvious that he didn’t really care for Tony, but the musician had just brushed that off as boyfriend jealousy---how could he have known that he was a vampire? And then there was the whole Buffy situation. The way the two had acted around each other---the kissing, the long looks, that whole giddy I’m-in-love-and-I-don’t-care-who-knows-it thing---he hadn’t seen very many demons be so touchy feely around each other. Well, Melinda had been that way, and there’d been a couple others, but generally speaking, vampires were only interested on who their next kill was going to be, not their next kiss.

Except Buffy’s not a demon, he reminded himself. According to Spike, she’s the Slayer. That little twist only muddied the waters even further. It made no sense that the Slayer would be hanging around with such a bad-ass vampire as Spike. Her job was to kill them. Melinda had been very clear about that; the danger of living in Sunnydale was that death lurked around every corner in the form of a very powerful, very prepared young woman. And now that powerful young woman was here. In the painting. And probably pissed that she’d gotten sucked through in the first place. Shit.

Pounding at the fine powder with the pestle, Tony’s face was grim as the recriminations tumbled about in his head. Should’ve left the fucking state, he thought. Hell, I should’ve left the fucking country. But how could he have known Melinda would be so diligent about finding the painting again? Actually, a very small part of him was pleased at the thought that she’d missed him so much that she’d gone to such great lengths to get him back. Except he knew that wasn’t the whole case. She’d paid a fortune for the painting, using it to get rid of that gang of biker demons that had been blackmailing them two years ago. No way was she going to let such an investment slip through her fingers. Plus, there was that whole woman scorned thing she probably had going. Human girls might get bitchy when you wanted to break up with them, but they had nothing on vampire girls who got dumped. They turned into outright monsters.

Rising from his place on the couch, Tony crossed the room to the door of his apartment, the uninvite concoction resting in his hand. He knew he was lucky Spike hadn’t shown up again; exhaustion had prevented the musician from finishing the spell last night, so the fact that he was still alive to do it this morning was a good thing. Of course, revoking the invitation would have absolutely no effect on Buffy when she came around, but he had other spells in mind to take care of her…

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


Stretching languorously, Buffy’s eyes flickered open, a small smile playing on her lips. No hangover. Yay. If non-stop sex was the cure to over-indulging, she was definitely never going to have to worry about drinking too much again. Not when the remedy was so much fun, not when her partner was so amazing.

Spike was already up and about; she’d woken up briefly when the vamp had left the bedroom but had decided to just sneak in a few more minutes of rest, reluctant to escape the comfort of the soft sheets, eager to return to the dreams that had visited her during the night. He’s probably got breakfast ready by now, she thought, and glanced leisurely over at the clock, totally unprepared for the time it was proudly displaying.

The Slayer bolted from the bed, eyes wide. Three hours? She’d slept three more hours? Crap. Half the day was gone by now, and there was so much she wanted to get done today…get Willow’s take on this painting world, go see Tony and see what he meant the other night at the party, get a manicure before going in to the club tonight. Now that was all shot. She’d barely have time to get ready for work at this rate.

She got dressed in record time, trousers and a long-sleeved turtleneck hiding the various marks from her night’s escapades. No reason to freak Willow out before it was absolutely necessary. Her plan was to break it to the young witch slowly, maybe tell her about the dancing first before leading into the kissing. The sex would probably have to wait; maybe Buffy could tackle that subject with the aid of some more wine…

She stopped, her hand frozen on the door knob, the voices filtering through the heavy wood. Spike and…Willow? Her heart pounding in her throat, the blonde pressed her ear to the crack, straining to make out the words.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” she heard Willow say.

“That’s ‘cause you aren’t seein’ the big picture here, Red.”

“But Buffy’s my best friend---.”

“Don’t be a silly bint. It’ll go down a treat. Trust me.”

She heard Willow laugh. “Do we have to go into your track record again, Spike?”

“You don’t do this, the whole plan’s not worth a toss.”

Buffy’s mind whirled. Plan? What plan? What in hell was going on out there?

“I’ve gotta be crazy for agreeing to this.”

“That’s why I like you, Red.”

“And you promise---.”

The Slayer didn’t catch the rest of the sentence. As she pushed open the door, the living room went silent, its two occupants turning in their seats to look at her standing in the doorway.

“Guess you were a little knackered, pet,” Spike commented, and lowered his leg from where it hung over the chair’s armrest, sitting up and reaching for the mug on the coffee table.

“I guess it’s not really good morning anymore then,” Buffy replied, stepping into the lounge, hazel eyes glancing back and forth between the pair. Neither looked like they’d been discussing anything more serious than the weather; just what in the world was going on? “So what did I miss?”

Willow shrugged. “Spike was just filling me in on some of the stuff at the club. No big.”

Buffy glanced over at the vampire, so casual in his seat. “What kind of stuff?” she pushed.

“The usual.”

The Slayer’s annoyance went up a notch. They weren’t sharing. Something was going on between Spike and Willow, something that required a plan, but for some reason, they were keeping her out of the equation, and the young witch was worrying that Buffy wasn’t going to like it. What she didn’t like was being shut out, but if she pressed much harder, they’d know she was eavesdropping, and then she’d have to start in on some embarrassing explanations to Willow about why she was anxious about what Spike might say to her, and that was a road she wasn’t ready to travel. Not yet.

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

“If the crowd likes you, I’ll make it a c-note a week, but for now, it’s just going to be the going rate, capisce?”

Giles blinked. Standing before him was a portly older gentleman, a cigar clamped between his teeth, watery blue eyes looking up at the Watcher. He couldn’t remember seeing him in the painting, but then again…His gaze darted around, drinking in the dark hallway, the closed doors. When he’d touched the picture, he’d been expecting to end up on the dance floor; this appeared to be someplace completely different.

“I…understand,” he murmured.

“Never had a male torcher before,” the other man was saying. “Folks usually like the dames to do the singing. But, if Buffy and Spike say you’re the best, then that’s good enough for me. Now, dressing room’s over there…”

But he didn’t hear the rest of the instructions, too engaged with analyzing the situation, figure out what exactly was going on. Buffy and Spike were here, and obviously still alive, and they certainly had some sort of connection with this particular fellow. And Giles was supposed to…sing? So many questions, so few answers, but the most pressing one at the moment was…

…What in the world had happened to Xander?


To be continued in Chapter 19: Mack the Knife