"Remember how much Harris hated the plan yesterday?" Spike growled, knuckles white around the handle of his mug. "Multiply that by a hundred and you won't even begin seein' how pissed off I am about this one."
"I think this one's a little different," Buffy argued from her perch near the window.
"Not by bloody much," the vampire muttered, and jumped to his feet to storm out into the kitchen.
She watched his back as he disappeared into the other room, the tension in his shoulders evident even under the loose shirt he wore. Everyone's tempers were a little short this afternoon; not only had almost all of the gang slept through the entire morning, but they had all arrived at the apartment in varying degrees of grumpiness. Surprisingly enough, the one who seemed least affected was Gino, though he was still nowhere near being the gregarious guy who'd played strip poker with a huge smile on his face just a few nights ago. However, that didn't mean that he, too, wasn't feeling the consequences of the previous evening, and she was mindful to keep her tone neutral as she addressed the group.
"So that's the Mack problem taken care of, kind of," Buffy said, turning to face them. "Now about Tony "
Willow straightened in her seat on the floor. "I've been thinking about that," she started.
Anya rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's just what we need," she commented dryly. "Another of Willow's wonderful plans." When the redhead turned her quizzical gaze toward her, the ex-demon went on. "No offense, but you're the reason we're in this mess in the first place. Well, second place, because we wouldn't even be here if Buffy hadn't touched the painting. But that's beside the point. We had our shot to get home last night and you blew it for us. If it wasn't for you, we could all be in Sunnydale right now, tucked away in our beds, waiting for whatever Big Bad wants to poke its head out again and try and end the world this week."
"Ahn---." Xander's hand settled on his girlfriend's arm, his voice low, but she shook him off.
"Don't Ahn me. I'm only saying what you all are too chicken-shit to say to her face. Willow messed up, big time, and I for one am not happy about going along with any plan she comes up with." She folded her arms across her chest, and glared at the group.
The young witch bit her lip. "Look, I realize that, OK, getting Tony's help was probably not one of my most shiny moments, but---."
Her eyes were wide as Willow's head swivelled to stare at Buffy. "What?" she said.
The Slayer's voice was steady, almost too calm, as she did her best not to hurt her friend even more. "You're not in the best place right now for plan-making, Will," she explained. "And we can't afford any more screw-ups." It would be the closest she would be able to come to actually telling the other girl off; the knowledge that she'd made her own share of rash decisions was enough to curb her statements. The fact remained, however, that the redhead's judgment wasn't currently top-notch, and no way could Buffy jeopardize the rest of the Scoobies in order to coddle her best friend.
"I'm tired of pussy-footing around the Tony issue," she continued. "I've been way too nice to him just because he's from our world. And I'm stopping it, as of today."
"Have you got a plan?" Giles queried.
"Yep. It's called Beat the Crap out of the Bugle Boy Until He Reverses the Spell plan."
A huge smile lit up Anya's face. "Oh! I like that plan!"
Turning her head to face the kitchen, Buffy called out, "Spike! Stop sulking and get your ass back in here!"
After a moment, the vampire appeared in the doorway but refused to come into the lounge, choosing instead to lean against the jamb, arms folded across his chest. "Not sulkin'," he said. "Just rinsin' out my mug."
"Uh huh, right." The Slayer turned back to face the gang. "Between what Giles saw and what Willow found out, we've got to assume that Tony's prepared for me trying to attack him. Besides, I can't do anything about him because I've got to deal with Mack." She ignored the snort of derision coming from the kitchen door and went on. "So, for muscle, we'll send Spike---."
"Spike?" Giles interrupted. "But he won't be of any use, not with his chip. Tony's not from this dimension."
"I know, let me finish. Spike's just going to be back-up. I think for this case, we need to use someone our little trumpet player's not going to expect." Buffy settled her gaze on Gino. "I can't make you do this," she said to the dark-haired bouncer. "And I know that our getting home is certainly not your problem---."
"You don't even have to ask," Gino said. "Just point me in the right direction and tell me who to hit."
The Slayer grinned, in spite of herself. Gotta love a man who can appreciate when it's time to fight, she thought. He's a lot like Spike that way. "Right. Then it's settled. Gino, Willow, and Spike will head over to Tony's---."
"Willow?" This came from more than one mouth throughout the room, but each person's tone was the same. Surprise with more than a little dismay.
"Willow," Buffy affirmed. "She's got an in with Tony. He'll open the door to her, more than he would to any of us. It's the best way for Gino and Spike to get inside."
"So, all she has to do is knock?" Anya asked, glancing down at the redhead out of the corner of her eyes.
"Well, that, and she's there to help do the reverse of the spell, if Tony needs her," the Slayer said. Her eyes scanned the room, absorbing the varying looks of concern, frustration, even anger among her friends. Too bad, she thought grimly. This is our best shot at getting home, and I'm tired of playing nice Buffy. "Any other questions?"
Gino frowned as he watched Spike begin stomping on the smoking blanket, extinguishing the flames that had erupted along the hem as he'd made the dash from the car to the apartment building. It was the first obvious sign that he'd witnessed since finding out about the blond's true nature, and though he had been reluctant to believe that aspect of Willow's story, this strange occurrence seemed to support her testimony that his friend was actually a vampire.
"I'm almost of a mind to say bugger to the headache and let bugle boy just have it," Spike commented as he tossed the blanket into the corner.
"That would be the chip, right?" Gino asked, uncertainty in his face. "The one they put in your head?"
The vamp nodded. "Bloody nuisance. But, I s'pose it's responsible in a way for me and Buffy comin' together, so can't be all bad, I guess."
"Kinda like this painting you guys touched," the bouncer replied. "Not the best thing to happen to you, but it did give me Willow, so I can't hate it too much."
As if on cue, the redhead appeared at the bottom of the stairwell. "Are you two coming?" she asked, a slight edge of annoyance tingeing her voice.
"Yeah, yeah, don't get your knickers in a twist."
The trio marched up the stairs in silence, each lost in his or her own thoughts, all concentration on the task at hand. When they reached Tony's door, the two men hung back, staying out of sight should it open, allowing Willow to face it alone.
Her rap seemed too loud for the bare hallway, echoing dully against the wood, but the silence that followed was even more deafening. She found herself tapping her heel on the floor, the nervous energy contained within her body desperate for some sort of outlet, before raising her hand to knock again.
"Somethin' tells me the nest is empty," Spike commented.
"Where could he be?" asked Willow, glancing back at the two men.
There was a moment, and then Gino spoke up. "Maybe rehearsal ran late," he said. "Could be he's still at the club."
"Only one way to find out," the vampire said, turning on his heel to head for the stairs. "C'mon, Red."
He couldn't help the whistle under his breath as he packed his instrument, his fingers dancing lightly over the brass, giving it one final caress before snapping the lid shut. Life was good. OK, he still had the whole worry about dying going on, but so far, his spells were holding. The amulet warned him when danger was approaching, the few bits of magic he always had on stand-by were working well enough to ward off the problems that had presented themselves, and his protection spell on the safety seemed to be doing exactly what he'd hoped. Seeing Mack in the club last night, with so few visible signs of his fight with Spike, had been enough to confirm for Tony that the magic had actually worked.
Although he heard the voice in the background, it didn't register on his consciousness until Lombardi had come out to the front of the club, the girl trailing behind him. Even then, it wasn't until she laughed that the musician glanced up, catching the sight of the petite brunette out of the corner of his eye, almost dismissing her until she turned halfway around, cold blue eyes scanning the band as they were filing off the stand.
He wanted to throw himself on the floor, do anything to get out of her line of sight, but settled instead on ducking his head, pretending to be busy with his case as he let himself get swallowed in the crowd. Shit, shit, shit! He should've known. Things were going too good, too smoothly; it was time for his luck to finally run out. One last glimpse over his shoulder as he hurried through the exit was all he allowed himself to confirm no, she wasn't following him.
Just have to get home, Tony worried as he dashed for the back door of the club. She can't get in unless I invite her, and then once morning comes, I'll get out of here for good. I didn't go through all this just to have to go back to Melinda
The thought trailed away as he froze, eyes locked on the door of his apartment building as it opened onto the street. For a split second, he had been glad to see the redhead, but when he caught a flash of the platinum blond hair behind her as it ducked back into the shadows of the foyer, Tony realized that Willow had not come to see him alone. Why would she come with Spike? he thought, and then his stomach lurched into his throat, the realization that she must've figured out exactly what his spell had done sending fingers of fear crawling over his skin.
They were looking for him. So desperate to get home, they must've tried killing Mack and discovered the extent of the protection he was under. It had to be the only reason they would show up on his doorstep now. Tony pressed himself into the brick wall of the club, his heart pounding, his trumpet forgotten in his hands. Hello, rock, he thought. Hello, hard place. What the hell am I going to do now?
The answer came to him as he tossed a final glimpse around the corner of the building, watching as Willow disappeared into the front of the Sun. Only one option now, if he wanted to steer clear of Melinda, and avoid confrontation with Willow and Spike.
"Well?" asked Anya as Xander rested the phone back onto its cradle.
"It sounded like he bought it," he said, brown eyes darting between the two women, his anxiety clearly etched between his brows. "But, you know, I gotta be agreeing with Spike on this one. This plan does not give me a happy feeling."
"It doesn't have to," Buffy replied. "You're not the one walking into the lion's den." She studied her reflection in the mirror on his apartment wall, rubbing at her eyes. "Besides, I shouldn't have to do this for too long. Not if Spike and Gino work their magic on Tony so that he'll do his you know, magic."
"And you really think you can pull this off? Do you not remember the talent show?"
"This is different. This isn't like having to memorize lines. This is more like pretending I'm sick on a school day so that I can ditch an algebra test, and trust me, I can do that."
"We're only concerned about your safety, Buffy." Giles' voice was low, and though it sounded calm, the tired lines around his eyes belied otherwise.
"Trust me, she's got nothing to worry about," Anya said. "There is no way that man is not going to be thrilled to pieces when she shows up."
"How can you be so certain?"
The ex-demon rolled her eyes. "You didn't spend most of last night listening to him drone on and on about the glories of Buffy. He doesn't want her dead. He's just pissed she married Spike."
"Plus, this'll have me in striking distance when the spell gets reversed," the Slayer chimed in.
"I'm still not happy about you killing him---."
Buffy held up her hand to silence her Watcher. "We're not getting into this again, Giles. The idea doesn't put me in happyland either, but there's no way anyone else can get close enough to do the job."
"Xander's not." Her hazel eyes were steady as the group fell silent, and the young woman was glad that none of them could see how much of a tumult her stomach was in. As much as she would never have admitted it to his face, she hated this plan as much as Spike did, the thought of Mack getting anywhere near her bringing her dream back to life all too vividly. Although she was hardly convinced it had been in any way Slayer-related, there was no way Buffy was just going to dismiss it out-of-hand. No, Spike's safety was paramount to her, as was all the gang's, and this plan was the best way to ensure that all of them stayed in one piece. Even if she despised every minute of it.
The drink lit him from within, an inferno in his gullet that brought a sense of peace to Mack that had seemed absent ever since he'd returned to town. It wasn't just the alcohol, though, that brought a glow to those things surrounding him. No, even inebriation couldn't make him feel this good.
He hadn't expected Xander's phone call quite so quickly. Must remember to give that boy a raise, he thought, as he watched the flames flicker within the fireplace. Above and beyond as usual. He wasn't sure why he'd been surprised, but didn't question the dedication of his right-hand man. He's just as driven by results as I am, Mack mused, lips twisted into some semblance of a smile. And now I just have to wait for the other
The knock at the door broke his reverie, and carefully, he set his tumbler down on the table, taking care that it rested fully on the coaster before rising from his seat on the couch. Hope it's not a messenger boy or something, he thought. It certainly doesn't look very good, me having to open my own door.
She was the last person he expected to see, her pale face made even more wan by the lack of make-up, golden hair hanging limply over her shoulders. Mack felt that familiar tightening in his stomach at the sight of her, but steeled himself to it, lifting his chin just ever so slightly as he gazed out at her. "Buffy," he said, the calmness of his voice in direct contrast to the sudden racing of his nerves.
He watched as she licked her lips, mesmerized by the sight of her pointed tongue as it darted in and out. "I didn't know where else to go," she said, barely above a whisper. "You can tell me to leave, if you want. I'll understand." Her hazel eyes jumped to meet his gaze, then fell back down, staring at some spot on the carpet in front of him.
He knew he shouldn't, not after what she'd done, but his body was determined to ignore his good sense and stepped aside, allowing her clearance to come into the penthouse. There was a moment as she hesitated, arms hugging her thin form, and then she was in, brushing past him, her flesh just inches from his own. A whiff of her perfume drifted along behind her, assaulting Mack's nose, and his mouth went suddenly dry, forcing him to swallow in order to speak.
"If you don't mind my saying, it doesn't appear as if marriage is agreeing with you," he said, deliberately harshening his tone in an attempt to distance himself from the situation. As he watched, she sat down on the couch, her back to him, burying her head in her hands.
"You haven't heard." He almost didn't catch it, so low was her voice.
He knew what she was referring to, and though yes, he had heard, the thought of hearing the words come from Buffy's mouth was almost too delicious. "Heard what?" he queried, crossing around to the front of the couch, looking down at her with steady grey eyes.
The young woman couldn't even lift her head. "It's Spike," she whispered. "There was an accident." She gulped, seemingly desperate for air. "He's dead."
To be continued in Chapter 37: Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue