It was the softest blanket she'd ever felt, the fleecy texture like lamb's breath on her cheek, and it seemed like the last thing in the world she wanted to do was step out of it. Sleep, she thought drowsily. Just five more minutes, please, mom
The single word wrapped itself around her head, squeezing like a vise, forcing her to open her eyes and blink against the sudden brightness that seemed to be beaming down directly onto her face. The softness was gone, and instead Willow felt numb, her muscles frozen from icy disuse, the groan of pain escaping her lips as she let her lids flutter back shut.
"Why isn't she waking up?"
"If something's happened to her "
Their voices were a strident dissonance bouncing around in her skull, and feebly, Willow fought to lift a hand to her forehead, fingers dancing across its expanse as she struggled to reconcile the pain. Why were they all yelling? What could possibly be so important that she had to wake up for it? What difference could five more minutes make?
And the softness seemed to return, a gentle caress of her cheek that promised puppies and chocolate, if only she would open her eyes
"Wake up, Willow "
She knew that voice, the deep baritone wrapped in caramel, concern shining through its inherent gentleness. It brought back memories of soft kisses strong hands feelings of safety and her lids drifted back up, blinking once twice then squinting into Gino's worried face.
He seemed to be waiting for something, his black eyes scanning hers, before his lips softened into a small smile. "Don't scare us like that," he chastised.
"Why? What'd I do?" Her voice was barely there and impossibly high, but the relieved laughter that came from around her brought a wan smile to her face.
"Well, that's spell number one," she heard from somewhere behind her head.
"Somehow, I don't think Willow's quite ready for the other spell just yet." The quietly modulated response came from her feet, and she slowly turned her head to see Giles standing at the end of the couch.
"What spell?" she asked.
"The reversal of the protection spell," he clarified.
That's when it all came back to her the scene at the club as she watched Tony at the end of the alley the sensation of falling as the magic hit her Her brows crinkled, a gesture that almost hurt as the headache began to recede. "What did he do to me?" Willow queried. "Am I OK?"
"You're just jake," Gino soothed, pushing the hair away from her forehead. "He just made you sleep for a bit. But you're fine now."
"How'd you ?" Her gaze slipped over his shoulder, and she saw Tony's bruised face looking down at her, the apology unsaid in his eyes.
"Your boyfriend's persistent," the musician commented. "And he's got a mean right hook."
The last made Gino blush in shame, and Willow laughed out loud, in spite of the pain that went rocketing through her brain. "I don't suppose I could have some water?"
"I'm on it," Xander said from somewhere else in the room.
"We don't have much time." That was from Buffy, and the young witch lifted her head to see her best friend standing on the other side of the couch, Spike hovering just behind her. "Mack's going to have figured out by now that Xander lied, and he's going to come gunning for us. I'm sure of it."
"How long was I out?"
"Too long," Gino replied.
"But you're back now," Buffy said. "And as soon as you're up for it, we're going to do the reversal of Tony's protection spell. Then, it's hello Sunnydale and so long creepy painting world."
The shrill ring of the telephone split the air, and the room went silent for a moment as everyone just stood there and stared at it.
"It's gotta be Lombardi," Buffy said on the third ring. "Everybody else is here."
"It could be Mack," Anya offered. "Checking to see if you're here before he comes over and kills you."
"Whoever it is, they're not worth a toss in the gettin' home scenario so I say just ignore 'em." Spike looked around at the group, waiting for someone to disagree with him.
Nobody moved. The ringing went on once twice three more times before finally settling into silence. "Well," Buffy said, her chest relaxing as she breathed out a sigh, "where were---?"
And the peal of the phone returned, announcing the caller in a discordant voice that couldn't help but capture their attention again. It continued as before, ending after the sixth ring, but this time, when it finished, there wasn't a sound anywhere in the room.
It took only seconds for the telephone to begin its song again, and the frowns and confusion were worn by all. Anya rolled her eyes. "This is ridiculous," she muttered, and marched over to pick up the receiver. "Hello?" The room seemed to be holding its breath while they waited for the young woman, watching as she turned to face Buffy, holding out the phone in front of her. "It's for you."
"Like I didn't already know that," Buffy said under her breath, and crossed the distance to take the receiver from her friend. "Hello?"
She couldn't help cringing at the sound of his voice, his sanctimonious tone sliding over her skin like a snake wrapping itself around its prey. She felt Spike come up behind her, his hand in the small of her back, almost as if he was holding her up, and took a deep breath. "Hello, Mack," she replied.
"That was a very interesting show you and your husband pulled at the morgue."
"No more interesting than your little knife play."
He laughed. "I think you would win the award for theatricality, my dear." There was a pause. "And for surprises. Imagine my astonishment when I returned to my apartment and found both my most trusted employee and my favorite painting gone. I can only assume that has something to do with you. The timing is just too fortuitous for it not to." She heard the slight hardening in his voice. "How do you do it? Promises of sex? Offer him your body in lieu of loyalty to me? I warn you, Buffy. Xander's not a man who'll suffer being made a fool of, once he realizes your heart is with that monster. He will turn on you."
"And that just shows how little you know him," she retorted and instantly regretted letting him get to her. "What do you want, Mack?" she asked, slightly more evenly.
"Oh, the usual. Fame, fortune, a happy ending." His chuckle seemed to ooze from the phone. "Oh, wait. I've already got those."
"If you don't have a point to calling, I'm---."
"There's a point. There's always a point." She could almost see him standing there, the receiver in those too-manicured hands, grey eyes gleaming. "Since you were the one who suggested it earlier, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday."
"Huh? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I just wanted you to know I haven't forgotten your presents."
The line went dead in her hand, and Buffy frowned as she returned the receiver to its cradle. "What did the wanker want?" Spike asked, head leaning forward to gaze into her face.
She shook her head. "I don't know," she replied slowly. "But if I had any doubts about him being a danger to us, they are now completely gone. The man's wacko."
The red tip of his cigarette flared brightly in the darkness as he sucked at the filter, inhaling the fragrant smoke before letting it out in a directed stream. The nicotine was soothing, settling his excitement as his grey eyes fixed on the building down the road, and Mack carefully knocked the ashes into the gutter, watching them scatter in the slight breeze.
There were others inside---the voice of the woman who'd answered the phone had sounded vaguely like the new girl from the club---but frankly, he didn't care. Choose to associate with his enemies and suffer the burn along with them.
He could already begin to smell the acrid fumes as they began to drift down the street, and briefly wondered when the first signs of color would become apparent. His instructions had been explicit. From the bottom up. There could be nowhere for her and her demon lover to run. This time, though, no one would be coming to her rescue, no alarms would sound; one carefully placed phone call had ensured that help would arrive too late for the building and its occupants to be saved. Still, anything could happen, and Mack certainly wasn't going to miss the show. Not now. Not after everything the bitch had done to him
At least the room wasn't spinning anymore. Willow sat on the edge of the couch, her head between her knees, wishing that the nausea would just go away and wondering why if it was just a sleeping spell, she felt like such crap. She never felt like this when she woke up, maybe a little fuzzy but certainly not like she'd downed a swimming pool of margaritas the previous night and was suffering the hangover from hell.
Gino's arm around her shoulders was comforting, but suddenly too heavy, and she shrugged him away as she straightened. "Do we have everything we're going to need to reverse the spell?" she asked.
Giles nodded. "Tony assures us that he can make do with whatever is in the kitchen." He frowned as Spike stiffened, suddenly alert, blue eyes staring at the front door. "Is something wrong?" he asked the blond vampire.
"Be right back." He was out the front of the apartment before anyone could say anything, not even bothering to close the door behind him.
"So once it's done, what's going to happen then?" Willow's green eyes were worried. "From the sounds of it, Mack doesn't sound like he'll just drop by for a friendly cup of tea and a stake through the heart."
"We don't know," Giles admitted. "We're still working on that part---." His head whipped around as Spike came flying back, jaw locked, face tense. "What is it?"
"Gotta get outta here," the vampire ordered, hurrying to the kitchen only to come up short as Buffy stepped out.
She saw the tightness in his cheeks and immediately straightened. "What's wrong?" she demanded.
"Don't know why the bastard called, but at least I've sussed out what the hell he's plannin'. And we've gotta get everyone out of here. Now."
"Y'know how he wanted me to burn with him? Well, looks like he's decided to add you onto the funeral pyre, luv. The bleedin' building's on fire."
It only took her a second for that to register, Mack's words---Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday---finally making sense, the phone call his last attempt to flip her the bird before sending her off to meet her maker. Her hazel eyes grew cold, automatically going into Slayer mode. He doesn't know who he's dealing with, she thought grimly. No way am I going to get beaten by that little creep.
"What exit options do we have?" she asked.
"Stairs should be OK if we move now," Spike said. "It's in the basement, but it's goin' pretty good. No tellin' how fast it'll move."
Buffy turned to face the rest of the group. "You heard him, folks. Time to saddle up. Xander, you get the painting. Guard that thing with your life. We can't afford to lose it at this point, not when we're this close." Her gaze settled on the still-pale Willow sitting on the couch. "Are you OK to walk?" she asked her friend.
Tentatively, the redhead stood, only to reel from dizziness. Gino's hand shot out to her waist, steadying her. "I've got her," he said.
"Gino and Spike'll drive us over to Giles'," the Slayer continued. "We'll do the spell over there, and then figure out the killing Mack part." She turned to face the musician who had come out of the kitchen behind her. "You're with me."
"Hey!" Buffy's head jerked over to where Melinda still sat, tied up in the chair. "Highly combustible vampire here. What about me?"
For a second, the blonde looked as if she was contemplating leaving her bound, then sighed. "You promise to behave?"
Spike strode forward and began undoing the other vamp's fetters. "'S'ok, Slayer," he said. "I'll keep an eye on her."
She nodded. "Let's move."
The smoke was already beginning to curl up the stairwells as the group filed down, Xander and Anya in the front, Spike taking up the rear. Heat from the fire below scorched the walls, making them too hot to touch, sending burning flushes across any exposed skin and speeding their steps even further. Between the growing warmth and the spreading smoke, it was getting increasingly difficult to breathe, the humans in the group holding hands over their mouths, as if by doing so it would filter out the bad stuff and leave only clean air in its place. Not for the first time, Spike was grateful he didn't need to worry about oxygen. Now if he could just stay away from the fire
With one floor still to go, Xander stopped, gazing down at the flames that were already eating away the next flight. "I think we made a wrong turn at Albuquerque," he commented tightly.
Buffy pushed forward, leaning over the railing to discern the extent of the damage, only to straighten with a frown on her face. "There's another stairwell," she said. "Follow me."
Backtracking, she jogged down the hallway of the apartment building, wondering why no one else seemed to be in such a hurry to get out. Probably already had the rest of them evacuated, she thought bitterly. Mack just wanted to trap me and Spike like two little mice and watch us go up in smoke. She pushed the thought aside, though, along with the feelings of anger it incited. Can't think about that now. Focus on getting everyone to safety.
From the back of the group, Spike watched the Slayer run along, her golden hair flying along behind her, lean muscles working in elegant accord. When she concentrated like this, she reminded him of a finely honed weapon, a blade so sharp that the merest whisker of a touch would penetrate flesh to the bone, and his unswerving pride in her capabilities seemed to swell. That was his girl up there. His Slayer. And the phrase seemed almost like a song in his ears.
When Buffy opened the door of the second stairwell, the black smoke came rolling out in swirling waves, sending a ripple of coughs down the line of the group. Holding her hand over her nose, she dashed quickly inside, then darted back, staring down at her friends. "OK, the smoke's pretty bad in there, but as far as I can tell, there's no fire yet, and stairs actually where they're supposed to be is a huge bonus for us. We're going to have to make a break for it. Just keep your head down, your mouth covered, and meet up at the cars. Got it?"
The next two minutes were a blur. As each of them emerged onto the street, faces blackened from the smoke, lungs screaming for fresh air, they each went off into their own little world, pulling themselves together, trying to separate themselves from the growing inferno at their backs. The two least affected were the vampires, and, grabbing Melinda's arm, Spike yanked her over to the nearest car, shoving her into the backseat with a graceless thrust, before slamming the door shut. Behind him, Gino came staggering up, a coughing Willow in his arms, his own face a dark smear in the moonlight.
"You OK?" he asked.
Spike nodded. "How's Red?"
"Red's fine," Willow said weakly, lifting her head away from Gino's chest.
Stepping back into the road, the blond vampire tilted his own head back, staring up at the building as the flames began to lick up its side. It was a good job, for an arson attempt; he'd certainly torched enough places in his time to know the hand of a master when he saw it. But something about it didn't sit right with Spike. Something was wrong. Something was
Very slowly, Spike's head swivelled, staring through the smoke down the road. He couldn't see it. He couldn't smell it. But he knew. It was there. Out there. And it wasn't expecting him.
"How long will it take you to do the reversal spell, Red?" he asked, the word slow and even, his blue eyes fixed on the nothing ahead of him.
"Once we get everything set up, only a couple minutes. Why?"
"Get Tony and do your thing. Now." There was no room for argument in his tone.
Willow frowned as Spike began to walk away. "Where are you going?" she called out after him.
"Got a spot of unfinished business to take care of," he said, his voice drifting back to them on the waves of smoke that hung in the air.
His own cigarette seemed redundant in the wake of the black smoke that was now filling the street and Mack tossed it to the ground, looking down at the sidewalk as he ground the glowing tip out with his heel. The fire was now visible as it travelled up the side of the apartment building in sheets of orange and red, crawling through windows, sending tinkling shards of glass flying to the cement as pane after pane shattered from the heat. In the velvet blackness of the night, the club owner couldn't help but think that it was truly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
His head was still lowered when he heard the crunching on the road, and his eyes were fixed in a frown as he looked up, peering into the dusky fog that separated him from the blaze. For some unknown reason, Mack felt the hair on his arms prickle, and a surge of adrenalin began pumping through his veins. Ever so slowly, his hand stole into his pocket, playing with the knife he kept sheltered there, calming himself with its steely promise of death.
The smoke was starting to burn onto his pupils, and his foot stepped back, edging him away from the encroaching danger. Probably time to go, he thought. I've certainly seen enough. But his body refused to respond, riveting itself to the ground as the black form became outlined against the mist in front of him, thickening to a steadily approaching solid mass with eyes gleaming golden through the smoke
To be continued in Chapter 42: They Can't Take That Away from Me