DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Tony has decided to run after having discovering that the Scoobies are onto him and Melinda has come through the painting. Meanwhile, Buffy has gone to Mack to get ready to kill him once the spell is reversed.

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

Chapter 37: Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue

God, she was hungry. I should've eaten before I came through, Melinda thought grumpily. No telling how long this is going to take me, although sooner would most definitely be preferable to later. Listening to the grumpy fat man wasn't helping either, but she didn't really have a choice since she could tell it was daylight outside, leaving her stuck inside the club until the sun set. Stupid Tony, this is all your fault.

The redhead caught her attention as soon as she entered, not for the slight flush in her cheeks or the pounding of her heartbeat that Melinda could feel through her skin, but for the plain and simple fact that the female vampire recognized the new arrival. She'd seen the skimpy costume, the high heels, and the hair had certainly been unmissable, and if she hadn't known what the painting looked like before Tony had stolen it, Melinda would just have assumed that the cigarette girl belonged in this dimension. Except she knew different. Hours of staring at her most valuable possession had imprinted every aspect of it on her mind, and the redhead wasn't part of those memories. That meant only one thing. She had to be from Sunnydale.

She watched as the other girl noticed Lombardi and came rushing over. "What is it, Rosenberg?" he barked on her approach.

"I was looking for Tony. Have you seen him?" At the manager's blank look, she elaborated, "The trumpet player?"

Melinda's ears perked. Well, this just got interesting, she thought. What is she doing looking for Tony?"

"Band just broke up," Lombardi replied. "He's probably still in back, packing up."

"Thanks."

"Who's that?" Melinda asked, deliberately keeping her tone nonchalant, blue eyes glued to the redhead's retreating form as it disappeared through the exit to the back.

The manager shrugged. "Just Willow, the cigarette girl. No one you'll be dealing with."

As she followed him around to the bar, her thoughts were elsewhere. Lot you know about who I'm going to be dealing with, Melinda mused. "You know," she said out loud, "I think I need to use the little girl's room. Do you mind?"

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

Just left, just left, just left. The refrain drummed through Willow's head as she turned away from the band's conductor, green eyes scanning the dimly lit hallway before settling on the exit out to the alley. So, on his way back to his apartment, which means he'll run into Spike in the entrance, which means maybe I should head him off at the pass before we scare him away…

She saw him at the end of the alleyway, one foot hooked into the fence as he struggled to lift his weight up its height, the perspiration already dotting his forehead, dripping into his eyes. What's he doing? she wondered, a tiny line appearing in her brow. "Tony!" she called out, stepping out onto the single step before the door.

His body jerked at the sound of her voice, and he risked a glance back over his shoulder to see the redhead watching him. Shit. But it was only Willow, and as much as he liked the young woman, he knew at least that he could deal with her.

She didn't know what he was doing and was about to call out to him again, when the musician's hand reached out, pointing toward her, his lips moving but his words too low to be distinguishable down the narrow alley. Confusion reigned for a split second, but as the bright flash crossed the gap between them, Willow's throat constricted, her muscles tensing to turn and run…

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

She felt the familiar crackle of his magic crawling over her skin just seconds before she saw the redhead---Willow, he'd said her name was---crumple to a heap just outside the back door of the club. OK, so Tony wasn't glad to see the other girl either, Melinda thought irritably, rushing forward to stand within its frame. Leaning over as far as she dared without actually touching the sunshine that managed to slice its path into the alleyway, the vampire saw her ex's form clambering over the top of the fence, and grimaced. Fucker was trying to get away and there was nothing she could do about it except watch. Stupid sun.

Well, if I can't get Tony, I can at least find out what this bitch wanted with him, Melinda thought, and grasped the wrist that lay on the doorsill, pulling her roughly back into the safety of the club.

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

Gino appeared at the bottom of the stairs, walking through the smoke of Spike's cigarette to stand at the front door. "Is she still over there?" he asked, black eyes scanning the street.

"Yeah." Spike exhaled, dropping the butt to the floor before settling his toe over its scarlet tip.

"She's been gone a long time," the bouncer mused as he pushed open the door, letting more of the sunshine come streaming in.

"Hey, watch it," the blond scolded as he danced back away from the rays. "Some of us would like to make it through this without havin' to be taken back in a Hoover bag."

Gino wasn't even listening, his black eyes narrowed as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, gaze fixed not on the club but on the alley that ran down its side. Funny, for a second there, he'd thought he'd heard Willow's voice.

Spike watched as the other man began crossing the street, not even looking around for traffic, but heading determinedly for the tiny opening of the alleyway. Something had certainly captured his attention, but what it was, the vamp had no idea. He shook his head as a car honked its horn at the oblivious bouncer. That's what falling in love with a woman did to you, he thought. Made you blind to anything but her and her needs, and the potential of fulfilling them.

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

The alley was empty when Gino entered it, though he quickly noted that the back door to the club stood wide open. Mindful of the fact that he was supposed to still be incapacitated, the dark-haired bouncer crossed carefully to it, black eyes darting around in case someone should step outside. I get fingered and Buffy'll give me hell to pay, he thought, and then smiled. Can't believe I'm actually kowtowing to a dame. Go figure.

Willow's unconscious form was the first thing he saw as he peeked through the back entrance, and Gino rushed forward, his caution thrown out the window, scooping the redhead into his arms and ignoring the petite woman who knelt at her shoulders. His meaty hand came up and brushed the hair away from her closed eyes, and he felt the first rise of panic in the back of his throat begin to burn. "What happened?" he rushed, not even looking at the other girl.

"I don't know," she said. "I found her like that."

Gently, Gino began slapping at Willow's cheek, trying to rouse her. "C'mon," he whispered. "Wake up." His eyes scanned over the rest of her body, on the lookout for blood or torn clothing, anything really to explain her unconscious state, but returned to her face with nothing. What could've knocked her out without leaving a mark? he wondered. No bruises, no cuts…

When the possibility hit him, he quickly lifted his gaze, scrutinizing the darkened hallway. "You haven't seen a trumpet player by any chance, have you?" he asked, finally turning to look down at the other woman.

Her blue eyes narrowed. "Actually, yeah," she replied, her voice low and even. "He went over the fence in the alley." She stuck her hand out in greeting. "I'm Melinda, by the way."

"Gino," he said distractedly, and laid Willow's unconscious body back onto the floor, stepping out behind the club to survey the empty space. He was torn; part of him wanted desperately to take off after the musician, to catch him, bring him down, and then beat him within an inch of his miserable life. The other part knew he didn't dare leave Willow alone right now. Not when he didn't know what the hell was wrong with her.

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

The last thing Spike expected to see was a panicked Gino gesticulating like a madman for him to come over to the club. Bugger, he thought as he glanced up at the bright sky. I'm going to end up a big pile of dust for sure this time. He sighed. Life had been so much easier before he'd had to worry about friends.

He practically flew past Gino, throwing the flaming blanket from his shoulders as he skittered to a stop just inside the club. "Better be worth it," he growled, and then spotted the dark-haired man cradling Red in his arms. "Where's bugle boy?" he demanded.

"He took off. I didn't want to leave her alone here."

"Fuck," Spike muttered, frowning back at the sunlight.

"I'm going after him," Gino said, gently laying Willow back down onto the floor. "I think you better call Harris and get her back to your apartment. Maybe Mr. Giles can help her."

"She doesn't need the hospital?" He couldn't smell blood, but that didn't mean she still hadn't been hurt.

"I can't find anything wrong with her. I think Tony hit her with some of his magic."

Spike's eyes darted over to the fourth person in the mix, the petite brunette who'd slowly backed up against the wall since his arrival. Gotta have a word with him about talkin' like that in front of the locals, he thought and was about to look back when the realization hit him like a cold slap across the face. This one didn't have a heartbeat. His head tilted as his blue eyes narrowed, one foot stepping carefully forward, toward the young woman. "Don't recognize you, pet," he drawled.

"Oh, that's Melinda," Gino replied. "She found---." His eyes widened as he watched Spike leap forward, pinning the girl to the wall in a vicious move, his forearm pressing with barely contained fury into her neck.

"Let me go!" she hissed, fingernails clawing at his skin.

"So you can pull a Houdini? Don't think so. Not before we get some answers." His smile was vicious as he tightened his grip on her, enjoying the small wince that came out of her throat.

Gino frowned. "Who is she?"

Spike glanced back over his shoulder. "Say hello to the painting's owner. And Tony's vamp girlfriend." His head swivelled back. "Though, accordin' to him, it would be ex-girlfriend. That right?"

Her struggling grew more violent, lashing out with her foot to try and kick at his more vulnerable parts, only to be countered by being tossed against the far wall, landing in a small heap before Spike could pounce on top of her. "Just wait 'til Buffy gets her hands on you," he drawled, enjoying the feel of her squirms beneath him.

"Um, Spike?" Gino's frown deepened as his friend turned to look at him. "If she's from where you guys are, how come you're able to hurt her? I thought your chip didn't let you."

It hadn't even occurred to him, his natural instinct to attack the other vampire overriding any sense of programming the chip might have instilled in him up to this point. His sapphire eyes were calculating as he looked down at Melinda. "They shoved this thing up my brain to stop me from hurtin' humans," he mused. "Guess they don't mind if I take my frustrations out on other demons." His lips twisted into a smile. "Best bit of news I've had all day." He didn't even look back as he ordered, "Go call Buffy, Gino. Tell her we got her a little present here."

"What about Tony?"

"Yes," Melinda spat. "The longer you wait, the farther he runs."

Spike's head tilted. "Somehow, I don't think he's goin' to get very far with you in the picture," he commented. "Seein' as how you've come all this way just to get him back."

"But what about Willow?" Gino couldn't keep the anxiety out of his voice as he put forth the question.

Melinda snorted. "She's not in any danger," she said, glaring at the blond pinning her down. "Just one of Tony's stupid sleeping beauty spells." Her mouth curled into a sneer. "Of course, you don't get him back and she won't ever wake up."

Spike's fist shot out, connecting with her jaw with an audible crack, savoring the painfree pleasure of what hitting her was providing. "Never say never," he drawled. "Not as long as Buffy's still breathin'…"

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

OK, so far, so good, Buffy thought. He'd let her in, he was listening to her talk, and nothing bad had happened. Yet.

"Pardon me if I don't express my regrets," Mack said, and she stole a quick glance up to see him studying her, the look in his grey eyes not anger but more of a smug determination. She'd been there when Xander had made the phone call, knew the club owner was aware of Spike's faux death, but the fact that he was feigning ignorance slightly turned her stomach, the knowledge that he was enjoying her pain actually sickening to witness. "Why are you here?" he asked. "Because if you're expecting sympathy, you came knocking on the wrong door."

"I know…you didn't like Spike," she breathed, keeping her eyes down on the floor. This was much easier if she didn't actually have to look at him. "And I realize that all of this got sprung on you kinda fast, but you and me…" She swallowed; thank God Spike wasn't around to actually hear any of this. "…we go way back, and I was hoping that…as my…friend…you might let me just stay here for a little bit?" The next came out in a rush. "My place…without…just feels wrong…everything reminds me." Time to face the lion, Buffy; look up. "Just for a few hours. Until work tonight."

"Your husband gets killed and you're still going to work tonight?" Even Mack couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice, and for a second the young woman feared that she'd taken it too far. If this doesn't work, she thought, no way do I tell Spike the specifics. I'll be getting I-told-you-so's for the next twenty years.

"It'll distract me," she replied, and then remembered the first night she'd met him. "And a girl still has to make a living, you know."

The tension visibly dissipated from his shoulders and there was no mistaking the small smile that twisted his lips. This was his Buffy, Mack thought. The beautiful girl who knew the value of a dollar. Turning his back on her, he crossed to the liquor cabinet, picking up the bottle he'd opened earlier to pour out another tumbler full of the golden alcohol, and brought it back to the couch without comment, offering it to the young woman who sat there.

Buffy stared down at the glass, the thoughts clicking over in her head. Shit. No way could she drink this. If she started in, all her control went out the window and that would most definitely be bad. "I…haven't eaten," she offered lamely, carefully setting the whiskey down on the table. "And if I show up drunk, Lombardi will have my ass."

Mack could barely hide his frown as he quickly slid a coaster under the tumbler, leaving it in front of her for her to pick up at her leisure. "Lombardi won't say a word," he assured. "Not if I tell him not to." Although he desperately wanted to sit next to the young blonde, he settled himself in the chair opposite, lounging back to watch her through hooded eyes. "So what happened?" he asked. "Please tell me it was painful."

He saw the flare of anger in her face before she could stifle it, resuming the mask of grief she wore with silent pride. "You don't really want the gory details," she said bitterly. "You're just interested in hurting me by making me relive it."

He shrugged. "Can't blame me for trying. I haven't been anything but straight-up with you, Buffy. I always thought I could expect the same from you."

"What are you talking about?"

"How do you think I felt when I found out you were married? When I realized that you two had already gone and gotten yourselves hitched when I saw you at the hospital? And you didn't say a word?" His frustration began to leak into his voice, and Mack struggled to maintain his composure. "It's as if everything I ever did for you meant nothing, and you were both laughing at me behind my back. And I don't like being made a fool of. You, of all people, should know that."

"We weren't laughing. It wasn't about you at all." OK, huge lie, but Buffy could feel her hold on the situation starting to slip, desperation taking hold as his anger began to become more obvious. He's really unhappy about this, she thought, and then almost laughed. Like ordering Xander to kill you and Spike didn't already tell you that? the little voice reminded her.

"Oh, that's right. I almost forgot. The world revolves around Buffy Summers and what she wants, regardless of what others may feel." Now there was no mistaking his fury, and he jumped to his feet, marching over to the front door and yanking it open. "I think you better get out of here before you start regretting coming around in the first place," he said, unable to meet her eyes, the muscles in his jaw twitching.

The Slayer stood, hesitating before taking a single step toward him. "You're…kicking me out?"

He steeled his nerve, raising his grey gaze to stare coldly at her. "I've never been one for sloppy seconds, my dear."

Crap, crap, crap, she thought as she crossed the room, heading for the exit. So much for plan A. "I'm sorry we can't be…friends," she said, stopping for a moment before him. Last chance, she told herself, and biting her lip, Buffy leaned forward and brushed her lips over Mack's, a feather kiss of farewell, before turning and walking out of the room.

He didn't move, not even as he heard her footsteps echo down the hall, away from him. Letting her go had to have been one of the hardest things the club owner had ever done, but pride didn't allow him to let her stay, not now, not yet. He may love Buffy Summers more than life itself, but damned if he was going to let her dictate to him how to live it. Mack played by his rules, no one else's, and one of these days, Buffy was finally going to learn that.

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

"It didn't work?" Anya's voice was incredulous, her hands on her hips. "How is that possible? That man was all beside himself last night talking about you."

Buffy shrugged. "Guess he didn't believe me," she said, but the relief was evident in her voice. Having to suck up to Mack had rated too high on the ick scale for her not to be happy she didn't have to do it anymore.

"I realize you're not Meryl Streep," Anya continued. "But couldn't you have at least pulled off Heather Locklear?"

"Well, I, for one, am glad Operation Little Big Mack was a big ol' bust," Xander said. "Didn't like it from the get go. And don't you dare be telling Spike I said that."

"Speaking of Spike," the Slayer said, rising to her feet. "I should probably go help them out with Tony since I'm not going to be of any use on the Mack front."

"Let us know when the spell's reversed," Giles instructed as he followed her to the door. "Xander and I will stay here for as long as necessary."

Buffy nodded. "I guess you got your way after all," she commented. "But if I hear one bit of gloating from you…" She waggled her finger at him in mock reprimand before heading down the outer corridor.

"I still don't see how he could've just turned her away like that," Anya said. "I was sure---."

"Let it go, Ahn," Xander interrupted. "It doesn't matter---." He cut himself off when the phone next to him rang, reaching over automatically to pick it up. "Hello?" There was a long pause, during which time the young man's face grew increasingly bleak. It finally ended with, "Sure. Got it, Mack. Just give me ten."

"What was that?" Giles asked as Xander put the receiver back in its cradle.

"I'm not so sure Buffy's plan didn't work after all," he commented. "Just not in the way she was hoping."

"Why? What's wrong?"

"Well, good news is he's called off the hit on Buffy."

"See? I told you he didn't want Buffy dead!" Anya said triumphantly, and then frowned. "Wait. Saying that's the good news means you have bad news, too."

"Yep." Xander slouched back against the rear cushions of the settee. "Mack wants to see a body."

"That's not so bad," Giles said. "Spike doesn't have a pulse, so there's no reason for Mack not to believe that he's dead."

"Yeah," Anya chimed in. "All Spike has to do is remember to keep his eyes shut."

Xander sighed. "He wants me to take Buffy, too---"

"That's still---."

"---so that she can place the order to get Spike cremated," Xander finished.

The trio sat in silence for a moment before Anya sighed. "You know, I'd say we've just gone out of the frying pan and into the fire, but that wouldn't really be very funny right now, now would it?"

 

To be continued in Chapter 38: Why Don't You Do Right