DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has told the gang about her and Spike, while Xander and Giles have gone to see Tony about his knowledge regarding the painting…
The door of the dressing room flew open and Willow came rushing in, face flushed, eyes glistening. “I’m late, I’m sorry, my bad,” she breathed, dropping her bag onto the floor before collapsing in a nearby chair. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing yet,” Buffy said, taking in her friend’s dishevelled appearance. Yep, over her head. Big time. “Giles was just about to tell us what he and Xander found out at Tony’s.”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” the Watcher said, wiping the lenses of his glasses. “He’s a rather…slippery fellow.”
“Did you get anything?” the Slayer pressed.
“He confirmed what we already knew. Melinda owns the painting and yes, she is a vampire, but he claims to have come through it by accident. He says that that’s what he told Spike.” A wry smile twisted Giles’ lips. “He doesn’t seem to…like Spike very much.”
“Big surprise there,” Xander muttered.
Buffy ignored both of them. “And he didn’t know anything about the safety? Who it is? How we can recognize him?”
“No. Again, he claimed ignorance of how the painting actually works. I think that perhaps we should try a more…direct approach tomorrow.”
Xander leaned forward in his chair. “Tell them about the magic.”
The Slayer’s eyes widened. “Magic? What magic?”
“Well, we can’t be sure---.”
“You seemed pretty sure this afternoon,” Xander interrupted.
“I could be mistaken.” Giles slipped his glasses back on, frowning. “There was a distinct…odor in the air, and he was wearing what looked remarkably like a protection amulet.”
“So bugle boy knows a few tricks,” she mused. “Do you think he’s dangerous?”
The Watcher shook his head. “I think he’s scared, frankly. I got the impression the amulet was to protect him from you. He’s quite frightened of you, Buffy.”
She couldn’t help the smile that crossed her face. “Fear is good,” she stated. “That’ll make getting information from him easier.” Jumping to her feet, the Slayer began making shooing motions toward the door. “OK, meeting adjourned. Go to work, Giles, and Xander, go do…whatever it is you do. Will and I have to get dressed.” When neither of the two men moved, she sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “That was me being polite about you leaving so that Willow and I can talk about boys.”
That did the trick. As soon as they were out the door, Buffy whirled to face her best friend. “OK, dish. Where’d you go? What’d you do? What happened? Details!”
“He took me to this planetarium, and it was amazing!” Willow rushed, the excitement of her afternoon coming through in her voice. “I never realized how far technology has come, or how jaded we’ve gotten about what we take for granted every time we look in the night sky. Did you know---?”
“Obviously, I didn’t make myself clear enough,” the blonde interrupted. “I want kissing boy details, not boring science details.”
The young witch smiled coyly. “What makes you think there was any kissing?”
“Well, that big ol’ hickey on your neck is a huge clue.”
“Ohmigod, where?” Willow whirled to look at herself in the mirror, pulling her collar aside to expose the red mark shining proudly from the curve of her neck. “Please tell me you have some make-up that will help cover this. Mr. Lombardi will kill me if he sees it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Buffy began digging through her bag. “So, was it fun?”
“You have no idea.” Her face softened. “Gino’s just not like any other guy I know. I mean, he’s so polite, and sweet, and he keeps saying he’s dumb but he’s not, not really. OK, maybe I do have to explain some things more than once to him, but he’s just so eager to learn, and have I mentioned what a great kisser he is? And those muscles…” Her voice trailed off as Buffy just gazed at her. “What? What is it?”
“Still going to say you’re not in over your head?” the Slayer asked gently.
Willow bit her lip. “Guess I’m bounding with just a little too much enthusiasm here, huh?”
“Just a tad.”
She sighed. “It’s a good thing Giles isn’t seeing this. I’d probably get lectured.”
“I dunno,” Willow shrugged. “I’m sure he’d think of something.”
Nothing was going to shatter his good mood tonight. The planetarium idea had come off better than he’d hoped, the joy in Willow’s eyes illuminating her from within as she’d dragged him from display to display, chattering away the entire time. When they’d finally hit the auditorium with the overhead projection of the night sky, she hadn’t even hesitated to curl herself into his shoulder, making that little sigh of delight he was coming to know so well, her hand playing over his thigh. More than once, Gino had been afraid that she would stray too high and discover the arousal he couldn’t hide, but then again, a small part of him had almost hoped she would. He blushed just thinking about it.
The familiar presence at his elbow caused the bouncer to glance down, mostly out of habit. “Hey, Spike,” he said automatically, and had turned back to face the crowd before he realized what he’d said. His wide black eyes jerked back to stare down at the suited blond. “Spike! What’re you doin’ here? In case you’ve forgotten, Mr. Lombardi fired you last night, remember?”
The vampire chuckled and patted Gino’s shoulder reassuringly. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’m not here to work.” His azure gaze began scanning the women around the room. “Tonight, I’m a paying customer.”
“What about Mack?”
“Bastard’s still out cold in the hospital. He’ll never know I was here.”
“But his boys are here,” the dark-haired bouncer said, nodding toward the bar.
Spike glanced over at the two men sipping their drinks and shrugged. “Harris won’t touch me,” he said simply. “And if Harris won’t, neither will the other guy.” Out of the corner of his eye, he looked up at his ex-partner. “So, I hear tell you and Red had yourselves a little date this afternoon. And, since you’ve got a bigger smile than the Cheshire cat, I’m goin’ to say it went pretty well. Am I right?”
Gino laughed. “It went so well, I’m not even going to give you hell for calling her Red again, and not Willow.”
The blond vampire joined in the merriment, and both men were chuckling as Buffy emerged from the dance floor, her head tilted as she marched up to the pair in the doorway.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, facing off with her lover.
“Fancied a bit of dancin’,” Spike said, the light from overhead catching the glitter in his blue eyes.
“You’re supposed to be doing research.” She wanted to sound annoyed, but couldn’t, the very sight of him sending her stomach into flip-flops.
“Well, I figured since you got out of doin’ it this afternoon…” He stepped forward, his hand curling around Buffy’s waist, pulling her closer so that he could nuzzle her neck. “…it’s only fair I get out of doin’ it tonight.”
Her eyes fluttered shut as his lips made contact with her skin, searing a path to the line of her jaw before nibbling on the lobe of her ear. “I hardly call this fair,” she murmured, but melted against him, her hand coming up to play with the soft hair at the nape of his neck.
Behind them, the burly bouncer watched as the couple floated out onto the dance floor, barely able to keep their hands to themselves. It hadn’t been that long ago he had thought Spike was the luckiest guy on earth; now, he knew that wasn’t true. With Willow in his life, there was no way anyone was luckier than Gino.
“I still say we should take him out back,” he mumbled, sending daggers with his eyes to Spike’s tuxedoed back on the dance floor.
“And I told you, we do nothing until Mack tells us to,” Xander replied. He didn’t really like this guy he had to work with; Marty was everything the young man had hated when he was in high school---mean-spirited, a lech, and dumb to boot. But, for as long as they had to play make-believe in the painting world, he was going to have to put up with it. At least he had seniority. For once in his life, the asshole had to listen to him for a change.
There was a moment of silence as the two men sipped their drinks, and then Xander heard a low whistle at his side. “Would you look at the gams on that one…” Marty said, grinning lasciviously.
“Where?” He followed his partner’s gaze out past the girls on the floor, over to a table against the back wall, where an elderly gentleman was buying a pack of… “You mean, Willow?” he asked, incredulous.
“You think she’s on the roster yet?”
“No! She is definitely not on the roster!” Boy, Xander was glad that Buffy had filled him in on that little detail.
“Too bad,” Marty commented. “But that sure as hell didn’t stop you last time, did it?” He elbowed his partner in the ribs with a knowing grin.
“I don’t know what in hell you’re talking about,” he protested, half-hoping for the whole story, but his partner only laughed, shaking his head as he moved further down the bar and toward a pack of young women. Gonna have to find out about that one, Xander thought. ‘Cause somethin’ don’t smell right in Mayberry…
Gino glanced down at his watch. Three more minutes. It was going to seem like forever. Why had he agreed to wait for so long? Because she asked you to, he answered himself. And if Willow asks, you just do it.
It had been an arrangement they had made after leaving the planetarium this afternoon. Neither of them really wanted to go into work, and the kissing outside her apartment door had started getting quite heavy. He’d shocked himself when his hand had come up and cupped her breast, but he’d been even more shocked when the young redhead had answered his touch by running her free hand down the length of his hardened cock, outlining it beneath his trousers.
Gino had broken away then, pushing Willow back by her shoulders, staring down at her as he struggled to get his breath. She was just as flushed as he was, and when her tongue darted out to lick her lips, it was all he could do not to just scoop her into his arms and take her then and there in the hall. It must’ve been obvious in his face, because she stepped back, reaching for the doorknob, green eyes almost black from the dilation of her pupils.
“My break tonight,” she’d said. “When I go back, wait five minutes, then come back to the dressing room. I’ll make sure no one’s around.”
He’d only nodded, words escaping him, and he watched as she slipped
inside the apartment, her eyes never leaving him as she closed the door between
them. It hadn’t seemed that long then; after all, what was five minutes?
Well, now he knew the answer.
Five minutes was an eternity.
She couldn’t help her grin when the knock came to the dressing room door. “Come in!” Willow called out, and bent down to check out her hair and make-up in the mirror one last time. Not that it was going to make a difference because in about five seconds, Gino was going to be kissing her, but still…A girl had to look her best.
“Just the dame I was looking for.”
The voice was not the one she’d been expecting, and Willow straightened, a frown furrowing her brow as she turned to look at the man standing in the doorway. It took her a second to place him, and then remembered…Xander’s partner. What had he said his name was? Started with an M…
“You were…looking for me?” she said, as calmly as she could manage. Mike? No…Mark…?
“I was hoping to get a deck of Luckies,” he said smoothly, entering the dressing room the rest of the way, allowing the door to glide shut behind him.
“Actually, I’m on break right now,” Willow replied, edging slightly away. Not Mark…Marty! She smiled. “I’ve got about ten more minutes so if you want, Marty, I’ll make sure you’re my very first customer as soon as I go back out front.”
“Actually, I lied. I’m not interested in cigarettes.” He kept walking closer to her, cracking his knuckles surreptitiously in front of him.
“You’re not?” It came out more like a squeak than comprehensible words, and the redhead swallowed hard to try and regain control over her voice.
“Xander says you’re quite the dish.”
She blushed, a combination of embarrassment and trepidation. “Well…Xander’s been known to make up stories. You know how he is. All talk, no action. Likes to look important. Tries to…impress…people…” Her words faded away as Marty pressed her into the edge of the dressing table, forcing her to lean backward in order to escape his drunken breath. She was frightened now, her heart hammering in her chest, and her green eyes kept darting to the closed door of the dressing room. Where are you, Gino? she pleaded silently. Please oh please be early…
Marty’s hand shot out, grabbing her by the back of her neck, bending her back toward him. “See, now, I think I have to disagree with that assessment,” he oozed, his tongue licking across her cheek before sinking his teeth into the flesh along her jaw.
Willow flinched, hands coming up to push against his chest, trying desperately to break the contact between them. “You…better stop…” she warned. “Or I’ll---.”
“You’ll what? Scream?” He smiled, baring his crooked teeth, his face only inches from hers. “See, now that’s how I know Xander wasn’t lying. He said you were a dame who liked to be…persuaded.”
Her scream split the air in the hallway, cleaving it as sharply as if it were a scythe, and Gino’s whistle stopped in his throat, only one word echoing through his head…
The door flew open, crashing against the rails behind it, and Marty froze, the redhead struggling in his arms. “Get out, Gino,” he growled, pulling her back away from the door. “We’re just having ourselves a little bit of fun here. Don’t need an audience.” His eyes widened as the hulking bouncer rushed him, and he shoved against the girl, sending her reeling at the wall so that he could face the onslaught with both hands. Both men went down in a tumble, an ebony mass as one jacket blended with another, skin merged with skin, fist fused with fist.
For a second, everything went black for Willow as her head met the solidity of the wall, and she felt her muscles turn to jelly as she sank to the floor. She could still feel his hands on her skin, could see the death in Gino’s eyes, and opened her own as quickly as she could manage, only to squeeze them shut again as the world swam before her. Nausea swirled up from her stomach, and she heaved, thankful that she hadn’t eaten anything recently, the wretching only making the pounding in her head all that much more intense. Breathe…in…out…breathing is good…in…out…
The heavy grunts of the two men slowly broke through her consciousness, and Willow braved looking again, squinting as the dots danced before her eyes. She couldn’t tell…couldn’t see…one hand…another…Gino on top…his black eyes blazing…and the other…scrambling for control…reaching…
…And her own eyes widened as she caught the glint of metal, her mouth opening…
…the shot ringing through the now too-small dressing room…
“Noooooo!” she screamed as Gino’s burly form collapsed on top of the other man…
To be continued in Chapter 25: This Is Worth Fighting For…