SUMMARY: When Willow is kidnapped by strangers with a mysterious agenda, Buffy is forced to chase after them to New Orleans, with a reluctant Spike along for the ride.
She was in rare form. A flurry of golden hair and tanned skin against the night sky, she seemed possessed of a fury incarnate as she thrust the stake through the chest of her seventh vamp that night, her quip lost to him as it floated away on the breeze. He wasnt really following her; it wasnt Spikes fault that Buffy had picked tonight to patrol his cemetery, or that she was moving from demon to demon with a feral determination, like a lioness on the prowl.
Better not use that analogy in front of her, he thought, blue eyes glittering in the moonlight as he dropped silently from the mausoleum roof, keeping an eye on the Slayer in the distance as she turned and began marching down a different path. Dont think shed appreciate the compliment in it.
Not that he was in the habit of passing around compliments to someone who hated his guts, but he certainly could appreciate the beauty she brought to her fighting.
And not that he in any way was associating beauty with the Slayer.
Or thinking about the Slayer in terms other than being a huge thorn in his side hed like nothing more than to pluck.
Not that he was considering plucking her in any way.
He was getting off this train of thought before it derailed and effectively cut off what balls he had left.
Even in the dim evening illumination, her skin was glistening, a sheen of sweat from the oppressive heat making her radiant, its musky scent somewhat lost to him as the slight wind blew from behind him. Although it was hardly June, the summer was promising to be a scorcher for Sunnydale; Buffy had arrived at the cemetery already gleaming from perspiration, hazel eyes bright as she sought out her prey. Each fight only heightened the stickiness of her skin, and Spike felt a sympathetic tattoo of her heartbeat against his flesh as it began to ease from her latest battle, her senses still alert but her body quieting in anticipation of the next. This was as close as he would get to the human kill, he knew, but something else lay within its power, an intoxicating elixir that called to him to follow, to watch, to
To not pay attention to where he was bloody going.
The stick snapped beneath his boot, crackling through the night air, freezing his muscles in mid-step as he watched the Slayer stop, golden head slowly turning to look behind her, her grip tightening around her stake. He waited, hovering behind the bush in the arc of the path that separated them, and was grateful he didnt need to breathe. The Slayer got cranky when she ran into him on patrol; he wasnt really in the mood to deal with her attitude at the moment.
I know its you, Spike, she said, and there was no mistaking the annoyance in her voice.
So much for stealthy.
You do realize your head actually glows from all the bleach on it, dont you? Buffy commented as she waited for him to emerge.
Stepping around the trail, Spike adopted his favorite smirk as he came into her view, letting his blue gaze travel over the shorts and tank top that made up her patrolling outfit. Muscles and soft curves shown off to perfection, and this time, he couldnt ignore the tightening of his jeans across his hips. Thrusting his hands into his duster pockets, the vampire nonchalantly pulled it shut in front of him, blocking his erection from her sight. No reason to let her know what she did to him. He had a hard enough time admitting it to himself.
Lookin for a good slay? he drawled, striving for casual. Surprised Rupert let you out in that little ensemble. Though, must say His eyes raked over her, lingering pointedly on her hips, the tip of his tongue skating along the edge of his teeth. you do make for tasty bait. Very Daisy Duke. Im sure theres a vamp or two around here whos just dying to get a bite out of you dressed like that.
Folding her arms across her chest, Buffy gazed at him in irritation. Its hot, in case you havent noticed.
Actually, I hadnt.
She exhaled loudly, blowing at the loose strands that clung to her forehead in an attempt to clear her vision. Stupid vamps and no body heat, she grumbled, and turned on her heel, taking three sharp steps before realizing that he was ambling after her. She stopped. What do you think youre doing? she demanded.
Youre lookin a little peaked, pet, he said, stopping at her side. Thought I might give you a hand in chasin after your nasties. Thats what we do, right? Fight the good fight, make with the mass destruction of all things evil---.
She shook her head. Youre just in this for the blood and violence, Spike. Dont think youre fooling anybody here.
What does that matter if they still end up dead?
Buffys sigh was one of frustration. He was never going to get it, but then again, vampire there. She could hardly expect him to understand the whole doing it because its the right thing idea. Its just that, occasionally, she forgot about that when he was around. Go away. I dont need a hand. Ive got two perfectly good ones of my own here.
As tempting as the opportunity was to make a comment regarding what she could do with those powerful little hands of hers, Spike chose instead to pretend to look around the graveyard. You got Soldier Boy stashed someplace around here as your back-up? he asked, already knowing the answer to that question. Buffy had arrived alone, no sign of that annoying boyfriend of hers anywhere in sight.
He was surprised to see the sudden shine in the hazel depths before she whipped her head around, renewing her march down the path and away from him. Dont start with me, Spike, she warned. Im not in the mood.
Didnt realize I was, he replied, and ignored the threat in her voice to trail after her. So, fess up. Finn throw a wobbler cause you made him stay home and wash your dainties? Because if hes complainin, I know a few blokes whod be more than happy to get their hands on the Slayers knickers---.
Her fist came out of nowhere, connecting with his nose to send him flying back, and Spike looked up just in time to see Buffy wipe furiously at the tear that had escaped her eye, pivoting on her heel to tramp as loudly away from him as she could. He frowned. Pissed off, he expected. Crying, he did not.
Leaping to his feet, his hand had circled her bicep before he could stop himself, forcing her to halt and turn to look at him. Whats wrong? he asked, and immediately regretted the question. Though this wasnt the Slayer he knew, his query had been prompted from some strange desire to find out what could drive her to this, a sudden anger rising in his gullet to destroy whatever had caused it. Just as quickly, he squelched the impulse, ignoring its implication as he loosened his grip on her arm.
She looked at him for a long moment, swallowing and staring, the muscles in her jaw twitching as she struggled to keep her composure. Not that it makes any difference, she finally said, her voice tight. But Rileys not even in Sunnydale right now, so stop just stop. Stepping back, Buffy waited, not moving, watching the vampire before her, silently willing him to go and leave her in peace.
He didnt know why he asked; doing so was almost a certain invitation for her to hit him again. You two have a blow-out?
There was something in his tone, a softened shade masking a concern she was sure she was mis-reading, but Buffy found herself unable to stir, staring at the blond vamp as the events of the past few days played over in her head. Out, up, all over the place, she finally admitted. Something about She rolled her eyes. my inability to commit to our relationship. He took off for Iowa today. I guess corns more interesting than me, so, not really in the mood for our usual quid pro quo here, Spike.
What the hell are you doin prowling around a cemetery then for? he asked, heavy brows creased into a frown. If I were you, Id be out on the town, gettin blinding drunk, tryin to suss out a way to get back at the wanker.
She couldnt help the quirk of the corner of her mouth. You did do that, remember?
Oh. Yeah. If hed had circulation, he wouldve flushed at the memory of his embarrassing behavior when Dru had dumped him the first time. Still, Red shouldve at least---.
She offered. I turned her down.
His brow lifted. Since when does patrolling rate higher than hen night?
Buffy shrugged and resumed walking again. Since they arrest you if you start beating up the clientele, she replied. Im not in the most sociable of moods right now, especially where the opposite sex is concerned. Not sure I can deal with the flirting and small talk without major combustion.
He fell into step beside her. Thats half the fun, pet.
Maybe for you.
And youre sure doin with the fisticuffs is better therapy?
For this girl, most definitely.
They walked in silence for a moment, the edge of his duster brushing against her leg with every step. The scent of her skin was much stronger so close, tangy to the point of prickling his tongue in moisture, and Spike had to struggle to keep the growl of his demon under control. This had been happening more and more as of late, this visceral response to her presence. Not the Slayer part, although that certainly was a big part of it. It was the answer of his own body to hers, a tug from someplace inside that he didnt want to recognize and quite often ignored, because considering the ramifications of anything further only made him feel like tearing someone to shreds. Which was actually why he ended up going out on his own patrols so often. Nothing like a spot of violence to work through those unwanted instincts.
Wouldve thought youd bagged your limit, he finally commented. Not like sevens not a lucky number or anything.
Immediately, Buffy stopped, a frown on her face. How do you know how many vamps I dusted?
Bloody hell. Shouldve just kept his gob shut.
Her eyes widened. Have you been following me?
Not followin! Spike protested. You have any idea how much of a blather you make when youre on the hunt? Kinda hard not to know when youre around, Slayer, specially when youre in such a snit. That last one took you soddin forever to finish off.
The set of her mouth told him hed lost whatever good will he mightve garnered in their few seconds of camaraderie. Go home, Spike, she said grimly. Before I decide to make you number eight.
His nostrils flared as he watched her walk away. Well, not like you should be here anyway, he called after her retreating back. If I were Red, Id be mighty brassed off for bein stood up for a few stiffs! As she disappeared around a bend in the path, not even bothering to look back, Spike grimaced, kicking roughly at a crumbling headstone nearby, disrupting a shower of stone and dust that settled like a fine mist on his boot. What was it about her that always made him turn into the village idiot? he wondered, rolling his eyes as he replayed his last few words in his head. He always seemed to come up with the better comebacks when she wasnt around. It was certain that the perfect wisecrack would come to him as soon as she was out of earshot; he just wished he could time them to show up when she was still in his presence. Show the silly bint she wasnt all that, that she didnt get under his skin like molten lava rolling down his spine, enflaming his flesh in remembered heat, making him
Bitch. How the hell did she do it?
The Bronze was packed, bodies pressed against each other on the dance floor, the air conditioning in overdrive to combat the heat rising from the gyrating flesh. At their table, Tara and Willow sipped at their drinks, condensation dripping down the sides of the tall glasses, as they watched the band onstage finish up their last number.
I still wish Buffy had come with, the redhead complained as the music faded away. She needs something to distract her from the muddle going through her head about Riley.
She could still show up, Tara said. After shes done patrolling?
Willow shook her head. Nah. Something tells me shes in a staking sort of place right now, not a dancing sort of place. Her mouth pursed around her straw as she remembered the closed-off look on her best friends face after returning from Rileys. Buffy hadnt wanted to talk about it, and not even the offer of chocolate-y goodness and cute boys clamoring to buy her drinks could elicit a smile from the Slayer before shed disappeared into the night.
Then well just have to have her fun for her, Tara said playfully, and reached down to squeeze her girlfriends knee.
The redhead smiled, grateful for the diversion, and turned her gaze to the musicians filing onto the stage. Whos this? she asked with a small frown, watching as they plugged in a keyboard and set up the microphone directly in the center.
There was a sign up front that said theres a new act tonight. Some singer. I didnt recognize the name. Stella something.
They waited in mute fascination as the musicians took their place, lanky young men almost draped over their instruments. Only when they were settled did the lights go down, a single spotlight illuminating the space around the mic, and a tall black female stepped into the circle.
She was a large woman---statuesque wouldve been the gentle term for it---with skin the color of milky coffee and black hair plaited down her back. Thin fingers that belied her size wrapped around the stand, her long nails painted scarlet and tipped in silver, catching the light and sending it scattering across the faces of the people waiting for her to start. She couldve been twenty, she couldve been forty; the truth was most likely something in between. She just had one of those kind of faces that defied being labelled, flawless skin waiting in sobriety for the music behind her to start.
It began with a drumbeat, slow, steady, the bass rolling to fill the room, pounding against the occupants flesh in a tonal reminder of more primal impulses. Next, came the lazy caress from the keyboard, adding the melody line to create a song bathed in starlight, the call of innate vagaries lingering in its notes like a deep red wine. By the time thirty seconds had passed, the crowd was breathless in anticipation of the voice that would join them.
It was huskier than they thought it would be, a throaty tribute to the vocal stylings of an Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Smoky, reeking of sex, yet breaking from the anguish of an unspoken pain.
Willow was transfixed, her breath coming in tiny pants as she watched the singer take command of her audience, leading them through the paths of her song with a crook of her finger. Not the Bronzes usual fare, and yet, so, so much better. Nobody was dancing. Somehow, it wouldve seemed sacrilege to disrupt the performance with something as base as that. But neither were they bored, lost in the womans voice as she sang the tale of loss and betrayal.
As the last note trailed away, there was a moment of hesitation before the room erupted in applause, shrill whistles punctuating the air as the singer took a step back away from the microphone and smiled for the first time since taking the stage. Willows clapping was just as loud as the rest, but as she gazed in wondrous awe at the performer, she felt a flush flood over her skin as their eyes met held her heart pounding in her throat when she broke away from the trance to glance at her girlfriend out of the corner of her eye. Oh goddess, she thought wildly. That was just too intense.
But Tara hadnt noticed, smiling and clapping along with the rest, and only turned away to smile at Willow when the singer returned to the mic. Shes really good, the blonde commented.
Before the other girl could reply, however, a voice drifted in to fill the space between them. Actually, shes amazing, it interjected, the lazy twang of a Southern baritone catching both of their attention.
Their heads turned, two sets of eyes gazing curiously at the young man who stood behind them. Tall, but on the thin side, with an open face that bordered on the bland. Good-looking in a washed-out Ken kind of way, Willow thought, and affected her polite but not interested smile as she nodded in agreement.
He stuck his hand out as the second song started. Im Freddie, he said.
Tara was the one who accepted his introduction, a welcoming smile creasing her friendly features as years of Southern breeding took hold and she responded in kind. You sound like youre from my neck of the woods, she said, doing her best not to stutter over the words. Im Tara, by the way.
He turned expectantly toward the redhead, who inwardly sighed. Willow, she offered with a waggle of her fingers. Hi.
The words to the next number came then, following the upbeat tempo as the vocalist beckoned to the crowd to get up and dance. Immediately, Willow was diverted, green gaze riveted back to the stage, the same physical response to this song as shed had to the previous. The world seemed to slip away around her, the presence of the stranger behind her disappearing, and she found herself immersed in ethereal arms, pulling and tugging and holding her close as she became sucked into the music.
Her clapping was even more rigorous with the second songs conclusion, growing in enthusiasm with each passing performance, and she was oblivious to the continued conversation that was happening between her girlfriend and the young man who was now sitting at their table. For some inexplicable reason, something about the singer called to her, a sense of familiarity, of sisterhood, springing from her gut that hadnt happened since shed first met Tara, and though it was in no way a sexual attraction, there was something there, just indefinable.
The hollowness in her stomach when the set finished caused Willow to swallow compulsively, shocked at how strung out she felt. It was just music, she thought as she turned in a daze back to her half-finished drink, sipping at it cautiously as she prayed that it would fill the growing fissure inside her. This didnt even happen when Oz played. Who wouldve thunk it?
You know, Stels a friend of mine. It was the first thing hed addressed directly to her since hed sat down, and the redhead turned to look at the young man---Freddie, hed said his name was---smiling at her. He nodded toward the emptying stage in clarification. The singer.
You know her? God, redundant much, she scolded herself. Hes going to tell her youre a big ol goof.
Sure, we go back a long way, he said. When she got this gig, I asked if she minded if I tagged along. Ive never been to California before. Had this whole mess of touristy stuff I wanted to do. Course, I didnt realize you werent exactly on Disneys back door. He grinned. So much for taking a gander at Mickey while Im here.
Theyre from New Orleans, Tara offered in explanation.
Willow brightened. Ooo, land of Mardi Gras. Ive always wanted to go there. The music, the costumes. All that history and lore. She blushed at his raised eyebrow. Im kind of lore girl around here, she added and rushed to change the subject. How did you end up all the way out in Sunnydale? I wouldve thought we were pretty backwater compared to the streets of New Orleans.
Stella knows people. A lot of people. And when she decided she wanted a break from the humidity back home, she just asked around til something popped up.
Well, Im glad the Bronze snapped and crackled for her, because Ive gotta tell you The redhead leaned forward to make herself heard as the next band started playing up onstage. Shes got the most wonderful voice. She held up her bare arm. I even got goosebumpy.
You want to meet her?
Her green eyes went wide. Could I?
Freddie shrugged. Sure. Stel loves meeting the fans. Cmon. He hopped up from his stool and waited as Willow clambered down to circle around to his side. You want to come, too, Tara? he asked.
She shook her head. You guys go on ahead. Ill order us some more drinks.
Willow leaned in and brushed a kiss across her girlfriends cheek. Be right back.
It hadnt really worked. Patrolling was supposed to clear her head, not fill it with even more doubts, and questions, and worries that maybe the things Riley had said had been right. The only thing that was better was that the anger shed been feeling since hed left had pretty much gone, to be replaced with a strange sense of sadness. Not loss, which was actually the weirdest part because thats what shed been expecting. To feel more upset about not having him around anymore. No, the sorrow that hung in her heart rested in the fact that, yet again, Buffy had failed at a relationship because she couldnt give her partner what he needed. Bad Buffy.
What did that say about her? she thought as she pulled her room key from her shoe. Angel had left because what they had had couldnt really go any further without him going all bumpy and dangerous again. Parker hadnt even been interested long enough to make what they had last longer than one night. At least Riley had stuck around a little bit longer, but once the last of his ties with the Initiative had been severed and hed focused more on them and their relationship, the more hed claimed to realize how she wasnt really there for him, that he was giving one hundred and ten percent to making them work by being there for all the practices, and she was just showing up for the games.
Stupid basketball analogy, Buffy grumped as she stepped into the darkened room. Like I even like the dumb game. A quick glance at Willows bed showed that her roommate was still not back from her night out with Tara---or is spending the night over there again, she added with just a hint of jealousy about the solid relationship the two lesbians seemed to share---so she flicked on the light switch, bathing the room in yellow as she kicked the door shut behind her. Gonna have to remember to ask Will how she does it, the blonde decided as she peeled her sweat-damp clothes from her skin. How does she keep finding the magic? For that matter, how does she give herself so easily?
So you enjoyed the show? She was watching her in the dressing room mirror as she wiped the sweat from her brow, dark eyes friendly, the slightest of smiles haunting her brown face as her gaze studied the young witch hovering in the doorway.
Willows grin broadened. Oh, yeah, she enthused. Totally enjoyed. Your music, its not the Bronzes usual rock-em-sock-em kind of thing, but soooo good. Different. But good different, not weird different. Very primal. Of course, thats probably because of all the drums in it, but then, most music uses drums so maybe not. And Im babbling now, so Ill just shut up and stand here in unbelievable respect for your talent. There was a moment before she added, Im excitable, not crazy, just so you know.
Stella laughed, a deep chuckle that filled the small room. Just shows you have good taste. Her accent wasnt as strong as Freddies, mellow in its gentle cadences, calling to mind hot summer breezes and ice-cold lemonade. It speaks to you because youre an old soul. You understand about power. About sources that go deeper than most mens understanding.
The smile on Willows face froze. Kind of a curious statement, she thought. Well, not if youre a Scooby because we deal in those kind of platitudes all the time, but coming from an outsider? Oh, I dunno, she hedged. I think I just like the music. Its got a good beat. You can dance to it.
This time her laughter bounced off the walls. Oh, honey, you dont have to play the innocent act with me. We bathe in magic in New Orleans. There aint anything you can say or do thatll shock me. She turned around and stepped closer to the young woman, towering over her as a long hand reached up to brush back a loose strand of red hair from her cheek. On the other hand, Stella said, I think I might be able to offer you a surprise or two.
Willows eyes went wide. Oh goodness, she thought wildly. Shes coming on to me! What to do, what to do...and where the hell had Freddie gone? I have a girlfriend, she blurted, stepping back and stumbling against the door jamb, using it to steady herself as the singer edged away.
Good for you, she murmured. Although, kind of a shame, really
Before Stella could reply, the drug-soaked cloth was clamped over Willows face, Freddies arm holding her tight against him as the young witch clawed at the fabric, kicking at the unseen assailant behind her in a futile attempt to break free, only to finally succumb and slump into unconsciousness.
Because I do believe shell miss you, Stella crooned to the sleeping young woman as she watched Freddie scoop the redhead into his arms and carry her out into the hall, down the corridor, leading out to the van they had waiting.
To be continued in Chapter 2: Bye Bye Blackbird