DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike and Buffy have had a breakthrough regarding their feelings to each other, while the owner of the club has shown up looking for Buffy with Xander in tow…
His grey eyes flickered over the pair in the dressing room, lingering just a fraction too long on Willow’s stocking-clad legs before travelling up to her whitened face. “Miss Rosenberg,” he greeted, his voice a silken rumble, the deep baritone incongruous with his diminutive form. “I heard you had another accident. You seem to have recovered…nicely.”
Something about his tone made the redhead blush, suddenly too conscious of her scanty costume. “Thank you,” she stammered.
“Are you alone?” the man queried, stepping further into the room, his gaze darting around.
For a moment, Willow was reminded of the Alice’s White Rabbit, and she had to stifle the giggle that bubbled to her throat. He pulls out a pocketwatch, she thought, I’m going to lose it. Out loud, she replied, “Just me and Gino. Nobody else. Just us.”
“Pity,” he murmured. “I was rather hoping…” His gaze settled on the dark-haired bouncer. “I’m surprised to see you back here, though. Shouldn’t you be at the door?” The furtive glance exchanged between Gino and Willow didn’t go unnoticed, and the small man smiled in amusement. “Ah. Well. I’m glad Miss Rosenberg’s finally recognized your charms, Gino, but I’m sure Mr. Lombardi would prefer you fraternize on your own time, not…mine.” He turned back to the young witch. “I assume your roommate is running late as usual. When she arrives, would you be so kind as to let her know I’d like to see her at the bar?” He didn’t even wait for a response. With a perfunctory nod, he turned and headed out the door.
Stepping aside to let him pass, Xander stayed the smaller man’s exit with a tentative touch on his arm. “I want to have a word with Will---Miss Rosenberg, Mack. I’ll be out in a sec.”
“Take all the time you need,” the owner replied and disappeared into the hall.
Gino watched as Willow rushed forward, throwing herself into the other man’s arms. “Ohmigod, Xander!” she cried. “What’re you doing here? Are you stuck, too?”
“Hopefully not.” He broke out of the hug and stepped back. “Me and Giles found out how to get you and Buffy outta here.” His brown eyes flickered to the bouncer, whose countenance had been growing blacker and blacker, then back to Willow. “Should we be doing this in front of Conan here?”
“Oh.” The redhead turned to face Gino. “Do you mind? I kinda want to talk to Xander privately.”
“Nope, not going to happen.” Perching himself back on the edge of the dressing table, he crossed his arms over his chest, his jacket straining over his back. “I’m not leaving you alone. I don’t trust this guy.”
“Who is this?” Xander’s voice was incredulous.
“A friend,” she replied distractedly. To the bouncer, “Xander’s OK. I’m perfectly safe.”
“I don’t care. You’re not giving me the boot until he’s gone.”
“Look, here’s the thing…” Xander crossed the distance between him and Gino, only to blanch when the other man stood, straightening to his full height to glare down at him. “A very…big…thing…”
“That’s enough.” The redheaded witch stepped between the two men. “Xander, in the corner.”
“What did I do?”
Gino couldn’t help the satisfied smile that curled his lips as the smaller man shambled over to the edge of the dressing room. That’ll show him, he thought. It quickly faded, however, when a very angry Willow whirled to face him.
“What’re you doing?” she demanded.
“He’s…one of Mack’s trouble boys,” the bouncer floundered as if that was enough of an explanation. Why was she so upset with him? Harris was bad news, always had been, and with him being the bossman’s right hand now, there was no way Willow was safe around him.
“Don’t you think I can take care of myself?”
“Well, no.” Gino’s black eyes were bewildered. “You’re just a dame---.”
He flinched at the harshness in her voice. OK. That had been the wrong thing to say. Try again. “Willow, protecting you from guys like that is my job---.”
“Your job? I’m your job now?”
“No, that’s not what I meant…” He’d never seen her this angry before. The green of her eyes was bright, clear, glittering in righteous indignation, and two red dots lent her cheeks the only bit of color in her skin. He didn’t get it. What had he done wrong? “I just…can’t see you getting hurt,” the bouncer managed. “I thought…you know, after this morning…you understood that.”
In spite of the personal offence she felt, Willow’s resolve melted as she gazed into his face. His black eyes were averted from hers, his head ducked, and all of a sudden, she felt like an ogre. He’s just a big ol’ teddy bear, she thought. And, for some inexplicable reason, he’s genuinely worried about Xander.
“Hey,” she said, one hand reaching up to rest on his heavily muscled forearm. “I’m sorry. My bad.”
At the gentle tone of her voice, Gino visibly relaxed, shoulders slumping, returning to his semi-sitting, semi-standing position on the edge of the table. With a quick glance toward Xander in the corner, he extended a meaty hand to lightly grasp Willow’s hip, pulling her closer so that she stood between his legs, leaning just ever so slightly against his thighs. He didn’t remove his grip; another longer, more focussed look at the other man in the room stated it more clearly than if he’d said out loud. Mine.
“After what happened last time,” he started, “I just thought you’d want to steer clear of Harris. I don’t want you getting hurt again.”
Something had happened, something bad. That explained everything. “I know. But there’s some things he and I need to talk about, and it’s easier for me if it’s just a little more private than you standing over my shoulder doing the bodyguard thing.” When he opened his mouth to object, she rushed onward. “You don’t have to go, just…stay on this side of the room, OK?”
“I don’t like it, Willow. He’s packing. How’m I supposed to protect you from a gun if you’re all the way over there?”
“Trust me. Shooting is not what he wants to do.” Just the thought of it was enough to make the redhead smile, and she had to quickly check her mirth in light of Gino’s concern. “Relax, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” she added. “You’re my guy, remember?”
“What the hell was that all about?” Xander hissed, sneaking glances over Willow’s shoulder at the looming form of the bouncer near the door.
“Gino’s just a little…protective of me,” she said. “It’s a long story. So you said, there’s a way for us to get home? How come you had to come through the painting? Isn’t it something you could do from Sunnydale?”
He shook his head. “It’s definitely an inside job,” he replied. “And odds of you guys figuring it out on your own were about as good as Giles getting lucky.”
“So, let’s do it then.”
“There’s a problem.”
“We can do a problem. No problem.”
“OK, actually, there’s two.” He ducked his head. “First of all, technically, we know how to reverse the portal, but we don’t exactly know the specifics of it. It’s going to need a little research and some hunting around on this end before we can actually use it to go home.”
“Oh, yay! Research, I can do,” Willow smiled. “What’s the other issue?”
“I’ve lost Giles.”
That wiped the smile from the redhead’s face. “What do you mean, you’ve lost Giles?”
“Well, we touched the painting at the same time, but when I got past the upchuck factor of coming through, he wasn’t anywhere around. So number one on the to do list, find Giles.”
“And you work for Mack?”
Xander nodded. “Seems like I’m his right hand. On the way over here, he kept asking my advice on all these issues, like what I said was important. Oh!” He brightened. “And, I’ve got a gun.”
As he began to reach into his coat, Willow grabbed his hand, freezing the movement, glancing behind her to make sure Gino hadn’t caught it. “Not a good idea to pull that out right now,” she hissed. “Not if you don’t want to end up a big pile of goo on the floor.”
“What’s up with that?” Xander straightened, peering over her head at the other man. “He’s acting all…boyfriendy.”
“I’ll explain it all later.” She bit her lip. “We should probably get to work. When Buffy and Spike get here, we’ll fill them in on what’s going on, then figure out a plan to find Giles.”
“So Bleach Boy is still around? I’m surprised Buffy hasn’t dusted his ass by now.”
“Um…yeah. About Spike and Buffy.” The memory of her earlier conversation with the blond vampire was all too fresh in Willow’s head. She hadn’t known what she’d been expecting when they’d first started talking, but it certainly hadn’t been a secret love confession for the Slayer, or the suspicion---hope, really---that she might reciprocate his feelings. “You’re delusional,” Willow had said. “It must be part of the effect of the painting.” But listening to him talk, hearing him spill out his fears, watching the play of emotions he couldn’t hide from his face, she’d been reminded of how broken he’d been when Drusilla had dumped him the first time. And the more he said, the more real it sounded, until she hadn’t had any choice but to believe him. “Things are…different here,” she started, only to stop when the door opened and two of the club’s dancers entered, giggling and chatting away. Willow blushed as they tossed knowing glances her way. “Well, better get off to work,” she said too loudly. “You know, selling cigarettes and all.”
Xander nodded and walked toward the entrance. “Hey there, Mr. Harris,” one of the girls said breathily, her eyes gleaming. When he smiled back at her, she burst into a giggle and scurried over to the corner where her friend was waiting, whispering behind one of her hands.
Willow’s eyebrows shot up as he just shrugged. “Must be my animal magnetism,” he commented before ambling out.
He was standing just inside the door when Buffy pushed it open, her arms full of her skirt as she held it away from the rough edges of the jamb. “You know, just this once, I’m actually glad that you can’t be on time to save your life,” Lombardi growled, grabbing her gloved arm and pulling her into the hall.
“It’s good to see you, too,” she commented dryly, carefully extracting herself from his grasp.
“I got no time for games right now,” he said. “We both got bigger fish to fry.”
“As long as it’s not halibut,” she joked. “I’ve never really been a halibut kind of gal.”
He glared at her, chewing on the end of his cigar. “You need to know. Mack’s back, and he’s looking for you.”
Buffy felt the fine edges of her good mood begin to fray. Now what? she thought. Hadn’t she gone through enough already in this stupid painting? Scorpions, near-prostitution, boyfriend getting shot. So far, the only thing to have gone right was Spike. She couldn’t help the smile that came to her lips at the thought of the vampire, the fact that she’d been completely bone-headed in thinking he didn’t care sending her into major guilt overload and totally overcompensating in making it up to him. That’s why she was even later than usual. Not that either of them minded…
“What does he want?” she asked.
“Whaddaya think? Nobody’s told him yet about you and Spike, though, and I don’t want you to say a word, either. I’ll be the one to break it to him.”
“And Mack should care because…?”
Lombardi sighed in exasperation. “For once, could you just do what you’re told? Play along with him, just ‘til I get a chance…” His voice trailed off, and Buffy watched as the older man’s watery gaze darted over her shoulder. She began to turn around, only to be stopped when an arm slipped around her waist.
“God, I missed this smell…” Stiffening, the Slayer felt whoever it was---this Mack maybe?---lower his head to her neck, inhaling deeply. Her throat went dry, the similarity between this and Spike’s frequent nuzzling too spooky, too…wrong. What is it about men and my neck? she wondered irrationally.
“Good evening, Mack.” The Lombardi Buffy knew had disappeared, only to be replaced by this smiling, acquiescent figure, and she began to question just who this new arrival really was.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to show up.” Without his hands leaving her, he turned her around to face him, grey eyes smiling into hers.
She didn’t know what she was supposed to think, but the first thing to flit across her mind was…god, this guy is really short. “Girl’s gotta make a living,” she said as lightly as she could manage.
Mack laughed. “That’s my Buffy.” She saw his gaze wander downward, stopping at her neck, his head tilting as he appraised the jewelled choker. “I knew that was one of my better investments,” he commented. “And see? The fact that you picked to wear it tonight is just…kismet.”
Lombardi cleared his throat. “Can I have word with you in my office,
Mack? There’s some…business we need to discuss.”
“Can’t it wait?” The owner’s eyes never left the Slayer. “The joint’s still standing; it can’t be that serious.”
“Better we get it over with now.”
Mack sighed. “I’m just never going to get some alone time with you, am I?” Buffy’s eyes widened as he leaned forward and brushed his lips over hers. “Save me a dance,” he murmured, before stepping back to allow Lombardi to lead the way to his office.
OK, what the hell just happened here? the Slayer thought wildly as the two men disappeared behind the door. Mack…obviously someone with enough power to give Lombardi the wiggins…and she had some kind of past with him as well…he bought her the necklace?...and the kiss, major ick factor there…
With more questions than answers---isn’t that the usual in this place? she thought---Buffy headed for the entrance to the front of the club.
Willow was waiting for her as she entered the dance floor, grabbing Buffy’s arm to pull her aside from the throng. “We gotta talk,” she said conspiratorially.
“If it’s about that Mack guy, don’t worry. I’ve had the not-so-distinct pleasure,” the Slayer replied. “Who is he anyway?”
“He owns the place,” the witch answered. “And apparently he’s got a thing for you.”
“Yeah, kinda figured that one out already,” she said, still feeling the feather touch on her lips, doing her best to suppress the shudder of disgust.
“There’s more.” Willow was practically bouncing on her toes, the excitement wound tightly through her body. “Xander and Giles are here, and they’ve found a way for us to get back to Sunnydale. Only thing is, Xander hasn’t been able to find Giles yet---.”
The sound of the screeching microphone pierced the air, and both girls cringed as they turned to look up at the stage. Buffy’s eyes widened. “I think we just found him.”
In spite of his impeccably tailored tuxedo, the Englishman seemed flustered as he struggled with the mike stand. Blue eyes kept darting out over the crowd, and when the band began to play behind him, his initial response was to jerk his head around and just stare at them, almost as if he couldn’t believe what was happening. “I don’t think he’s adjusting too well,” Buffy commented.
“Oh, yeah, because we just slid on in, no problems,” Willow came back with, the sarcasm dripping from her voice.
“What’s he supposed to be doing?”
The redhead didn’t even need to answer. As the music swelled, Giles cleared his throat and closed his eyes. “Seems like old times,” he crooned. “Having you to walk with…”
“I’m going to say singing,” Willow responded, suddenly lost in the gentle tones of the Watcher’s voice.
“I didn’t know he could do that,” Buffy murmured. “Did you know he could do that?”
“I do now.”
The pair just stood there, transfixed by the Watcher’s song, until finally, the Slayer yanked her gaze away from the stage. “Well, that’s one down,” she said. “Where’s Xander?”
Willow couldn’t help the smile as she pointed over to the bar. Buffy’s eyes followed her finger, only to widen as she saw the swarm of young women who stood around her suited friend, all of them giggling, most of them doing everything in their power to find some reason to touch him. “He’s not, like, a gigolo or something, is he? Is that why they’re all googly over him?”
“He works for Mack. I guess he’s supposed to be some hotshot.”
Buffy sighed and turned back to face her best friend. “This painting works in mysterious ways.”
Although nobody had bothered to approach him, Spike had seen the others, noting with dismay that he was going to have to listen to Rupert sing here as well as in the shower back in Sunnydale. He didn’t understand why the birds were so enamored with Harris, though, or why Gino wouldn’t tear his thunderous gaze away from him at the bar, but none of it mattered. Not now. Not tonight. Tonight, for the first time since getting chipped, Spike was truly happy.
Buffy loved him. He didn’t have to pretend anymore. And though she hadn’t actually said the words, he knew, could see it every time she’d looked at him…touched him…kissed him…He was looking forward to taking her back to the apartment tonight, although how the rest of the Scooby gang was going to figure into the equation, he had no idea. Their arrival probably meant they’d figured out how to get them back to Sunnyhell, but Spike didn’t care. They could whisk them away to Timbuktu for all that it mattered. As long as Buffy was with him.
He felt Gino stiffen at his side, his black eyes finally leaving Xander to dart over to the small suited figure striding across the dance floor. The vampire had seen him earlier before he’d disappeared in the back, and though he had no idea who he was, it was obvious he was someone of importance. Had to be with the way everyone was kowtowing to him.
“Evening, Mack,” Gino blurted as he approached.
The owner’s grey eyes barely flicked to the bulky bouncer, settling instead on his partner as he stood before him. “Spike,” he said smoothly, “could I have a word with you, please?”
The vampire shook his head. “I’m on the clock here. Sorry.”
Gino’s elbow in his ribs forced a scowl from Spike, but he refused to turn away from the man before him. “Well, since it’s my clock,” Mack said, “I believe you’ll do as I say. Out front. Now.”
Spike stepped back and watched as the smaller man brushed past, exiting the club. “You better do what he says,” Gino said behind him. “You don’t want to piss Mack off.”
Maybe, the blond vampire thought. But what about him pissin’ me off?
At his very first opportunity, Giles left the stage and rushed over to Buffy’s side at the bar, waiting patiently as the crowd of men surrounding her stepped back to allow her exodus. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you,” the Watcher said, ignoring the amused laughter from the others behind him.
“We need to confab ASAP,” she said. “You got a break right now?”
“Well, yes.” He frowned behind his glasses. “Is that important?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting on Lombardi’s bad side until I don’t need a paycheck anymore.” She scanned the crowd, catching Willow’s eye and waving her over. “I know it’s weird, Giles, but you’ll get used to it. I promise.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he murmured.
“What’s up?” asked the young witch as she joined the pair.
“Scooby meeting,” Buffy replied. “Go get Spike and meet us in the dressing room.”
“Gotcha,” Willow said, and turned toward the door.
Watching her walk away, Giles asked, “Spike? Is that really necessary?”
Buffy couldn’t meet his gaze, choosing instead to look around for Xander. “Yeah,” she murmured. “It is.”
Sauntering onto the sidewalk, Spike watched as Mack pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket, playing with the gold foil for a moment before holding it out to the bouncer. He hesitated, then thought, what the hell, taking one of the white sticks as he reached into his own pocket for his lighter. Neither man spoke as they lit up, each taking deep drags and exhaling into the cool night air. The smoke swirled around their heads, dissipating into pale clouds as it floated away, and the vampire wondered not for the first time what this was all about.
“You’ve been very busy since I’ve been away,” Mack started, not even looking at his employee as he watched the cars pass by on the street.
Spike snorted. “Listen, you want to piddle about with small talk, be my guest, but I’ve got a job to do inside, so if you don’t mind…”
“I wonder how it was you actually got Buffy,” the owner mused. “I mean, you’re certainly a good-looking fellow, but let’s face it. I don’t pay you enough to keep her in the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed.”
Now he had his attention. At the mention of the Slayer’s name, Spike’s eyes narrowed, the cigarette forgotten between his fingers. “Buffy loves me,” he growled.
“Yes, I suppose you would think that. You know, she told me once she loved me.” For the first time, Mack looked at the blond vampire. “Right after I bought her a diamond bracelet. She can be very…grateful.”
“What do you want?” It was all he could do to keep his voice level, to keep his demon in check. He didn’t like what he was hearing, or how it was being said; the way this Mack was talking, it made Buffy sound like…
“…just a cheap whore, really,” the smaller man said. “Hardly worth losing your job over, don’t you think? Of course, she isn’t without her charms, and we both know that she is one of the best at what she does…don’t we?” He chuckled. “Still, I can understand why you’d be infatuated with her. What do you think it will take to…break you of her spell?”
Spike watched as Mack reached into his inside coat pocket and extracted a long, thin billfold, the fury rising in his throat like lava about to spew. “Whatever it is you’re suggestin’,” he snarled through gritted teeth, “I suggest you don’t.”
“No, really. What’s the going rate for girlfriends these days? One thousand? Two?”
That was it. With a roar, the blond vampire leapt through the air, tackling the smaller man, sending them both crashing to the sidewalk with a bone-crunching thump. His fist came up, swung down, connecting with the other man’s face, again…and again…his anger and disgust spilling out of him in waves.
“Spike!” Her hands tugged at his arm, trying her best to pull the vamp off his victim, shocked at how powerful his muscles felt under her grip. “Spike!” Willow tried again. “Stop it! Get off him!”
Chest heaving, the blond sat back on his heels, allowing the young witch to drag him away, his blue eyes never leaving Mack’s unconscious form. “I’m goin’ to kill him,” he growled. “I’m goin’ to rip him limb from limb and…”
Willow’s hands dropped from his coat sleeve like she’d been stung. “Spike…” His head swivelled to see her edge slowly back, away from him, her green eyes wide with fear. “You…hit him.”
“Yeah? You shoulda heard what we was sayin’ about Buffy!”
“But…” The redhead swallowed. “Your chip…”
He frowned, his hand going automatically to his head. For a moment, he’d forgotten, lost in his wrath and the sheer pleasure of pummelling the smaller man. But now…
As the realization dawned on him, his frown faded, to be replaced by a tight smile, a delicious gleam in his eye…
…The bloody chip had never been activated…
To be continued in Chapter 21: Looking for Yesterday…