DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss', of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Recently breaking up with Riley, Buffy turned down Willow and Tara's invitation for a night out to patrol, where she ran into Spike. Meanwhile, at the Bronze, a new singer has captured Willow's attention, but when she is given the opportunity to meet her, the young redhead is drugged and knocked out…

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

Chapter 2: Bye Bye Blackbird

Bloody bitch thinks she's God's soddin' gift to slaying, Spike grumbled as he tramped down the sidewalk, his boots heavy against the concrete, the smoke from the cigarette dangling from his mouth a filmy cloud trailing after him. His hands were balled into fists deep in his pockets, the duster swirling in righteous anger around his legs, cutting a dangerous swathe through the people that darted out of the vampire's way as he marched toward the club. It was probably a good thing that others on the walk were jumping of their own volition out of his path; in his current agitation, there was no doubt that Spike would forget the effects of the chip and shove aside any unsuspecting interloper who might get in his way. Then, he'd just have another headache he could effectively blame on the Slayer.

He'd ignored her warning and watched her from afar as she dusted another two vamps before calling it a night, heading back to the campus lost in a world of her own. Research, he'd reasoned, ignoring the call of his flesh or the tiny voice in the back of his head that argued otherwise. Studying her moves so that the day I stop havin' to play nice-nice 'cause of this hardware in my skull I can get her out of my life, once and for all. The memory of Harmony's laughter came floating back, those endless taunts about how he was never going to get the Slayer and why didn't he just get over it stuck on repeat inside his brain, and his nostrils flared as he ripped the cigarette from his lips and tossed it into the gutter. I'll show her, he menaced. I'll show her good.

Except he wouldn't, and he knew it. When it came to Buffy, there was always something---that little niggle that pulled his punches from being completely deadly, the small voice which whispered complete dross about what a waste it would be if the Slayer wasn't around---that successfully stopped him. Which was why he was on his way to the Bronze to get as shit-faced drunk as the roll of dosh he'd nicked from the last vamp he'd staked would let him.

Spike snarled in frustration when the black van pulled out of the alley by the club, its tires squealing as it skidded into the street, heedless of the pedestrians that might bar its way. "Watch it!" he yelled, flipping the unseen driver off with a two-fingered salute, and rumbled deep in his throat as the vehicle accelerated down the road. A quick glance at the bumper revealed the Louisiana plates gleaming dully in the light of the streetlamps, and the vampire shook his head in disgust. "Damn out-of-towners," he muttered, and turned back, ready to head into the club.

It was the scent that stopped him, halting his body after only one step, his head lifting and swiveling sideways in the same arc that the runaway van had just taken. Blue eyes narrowed as he stared at it, watching it disappear around the corner, at the same time inhaling deeply in an attempt to clarify the smell. No, he decided. Make that smells. Very much the plural.

The first was unknown, somehow familiar but maddeningly elusive to his identification. Medicinal, maybe. Almost sweet. It was the second, however, that gave him true pause.

Would swear that was Red, Spike thought. Another sweep of his head gave him the confirmation he'd been seeking, and the vampire frowned into the distance, his body involuntarily taking a step in the direction the car had gone.

But Red doesn't drive.

Or own a van.

Unless Harris has finally bought himself a vehicle. That would at least explain why the barmy driver had tried to run him over. Leave it to the boy to try and put him back into the wheelchair when he couldn't very well fend for himself too much these days.

With a sharp shake of his head as if to clear it, Spike turned back, resuming his path to the Bronze. Got the Slayer and her mates too much on the brain, he grumbled. Red probably just walked this way to get into the club, and I'm readin' things that aren't really there.

She's not. In. The van. It wasn't even local, so just…let it go.

He shoved the thoughts away, stepping on the tiny fingers of worry that were creeping around his defenses that it really had been the red-haired witch---don't care, won't fuss, he silently asserted---and focused on his immediate goal. Alcohol. Lots of it. Anything to wipe the images of sweaty Slayer arms and legs that had been plaguing his head ever since he'd seen her step foot into his cemetery.

And maybe pick up some girl for a quick shag.

For some reason, he was horny as hell.

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

The smell was intoxicating. All sweat, and copper, and hints of brimstone, with a salty undertaste that made his mouth water. Smells that prickled at his palate with enough intensity to draw forth an unconscious growl from deep within his throat. Enough to make him pause just inside the doorway. Enough to make him hard as a rock and inexplicably wishing the Slayer was around.

Should've eaten first, Spike realized, as his blue gaze swept over the packed club. Humans, humans, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The ultimate in Chinese water torture to be doin' this to myself. Still…sharing in the heat that emanated from the twisting bodies on the dance floor reminded him of his earlier walk with Buffy, those few moments when they'd been…well, maybe not at peace, but certainly a momentary truce…before he'd gone and buggered the thing up by letting her know he'd been watching her fight. Maybe I should've made a comment about how good she looked, he thought suddenly. Maybe it might've taken the sting out of me comin' across all stalker-like.

Except he wasn't supposed to even be thinking about the Slayer since that was his whole intention in coming to the Bronze, anyway. Right. Look over the crowd. Pick someone out. Someone who's not the Slayer. Someone interestin'. Someone…

He didn't mean to stop looking when he saw her head bowed over her drink. Long strands of dark blonde hung across her cheek, slightly hollowed as she sipped at the last of the fluid in the tall glass in front of her. Four other glasses were on the table, two empty, two full, and as he watched, Spike saw her look up, her wide gaze turning to the door that led backstage, his own following as if drawn by magnets.

Now what's bothering Red's little girlfriend? the vamp wondered, blue eyes sliding back to see her look at her watch, fidget on her stool. She was uncomfortable, and if he concentrated, Spike could pick out the raised tenor of her heartbeat, his familiarity with the Scoobies---even this most recent inductee---working to his advantage for a change. For that matter, he added, where the hell is Red? Girls' night out usually means more than one girl.

He didn't even stop to consider that maybe his assessment outside could've been correct. Unbidden, his feet led him through the crowd, easing himself past the tight bodies, nostrils flaring as the scent of a woman's arousal as he brushed against her at the edge of the dance floor hit his senses. It didn't make him stop, though, and before he knew it, Spike was standing at Tara's side, just on the rim of her peripheral vision, head tilted as he waited for her to notice him.

It wasn't until she looked up again at the door Willow had recently gone through with Freddie that the blonde witch saw him there, and stiffened in her seat, shoulders straightening. "H-h-hi there, Spike," she managed, and silently chastised herself for letting her stutter get the better of her in front of the vampire. Not that she had much control over it when she was nervous, but he didn't need any more encouragement in knowing that he still managed to scare her, in spite of his chipped status.

"Even I don't get that thirsty," he said, nodding toward the other glasses on the table. Though he would never have admitted it to anyone, there was something about this one that he responded to, that reminded him of Dru in those rare moments of nostalgia he allowed himself these days. That soft, vulnerable exterior housing a core of steel. She hadn't shown it yet, but Spike didn't doubt that this one would show her true colors for the Slayer some time in the future. Become another ally in their constant fight. He actually hoped he'd be around to witness it.

"They're not mine," Tara said. "They're Willow's and Freddie's."

His blond head swiveled, looking around the club. "Where is Red? If I were her, I wouldn't leave a tasty morsel like you around without some proper supervision."

She blushed, ducking her eyes. OK, evil, yes, but Spike had a way about him that made a girl think she was the only one in the room. That she was special. Probably a vampire thing, she thought, dismissing it quickly as she self-consciously tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Maybe that's why Buffy's always talking about him. Maybe that's something she's noticed, too. Hadn't Willow said that Buffy's first serious boyfriend had been a vampire, too? She seemed to have an affinity for them, outside of the whole slaying them thing, of course.

"She went out b-b-back," she explained. "To meet the singer who just performed." Another glance at her wristwatch. "Except she's been back there an awful long time."

"So go get her."

Her eyes went wide. "Oh, I couldn't do that," Tara protested. "She'd think I didn't trust her."

He tilted his head. "Listen, pet. One thing you're goin' to have to learn about this place. You're on the Hellmouth now. It's not about trust. It's about keepin' your skin intact, minus those pesky little neck wounds that seem to strike when you least expect it." Spike watched as she fidgeted again in her seat. Her worry was seeping from her skin, and a flash about the van out on the street pushed him closer to the table. The proposal was out of his mouth before he could stop it. "Look, if it bothers you to go back there alone," he said, "I'll go with you. Make sure there aren't any nasties lurking about." He smiled broadly. "Other than me, of course."

Her wide eyes were steady on his for a long moment, assessing the offer. He can't hurt you, she reminded herself. Willow's not even afraid of him any more. And though she didn't understand what his motivation would be to help her, Spike had a point. It had been foolish for Willow to go someplace with a relative stranger.

She slid off her chair. "It's probably nothing," Tara said. "But you're right. Better to be s-s-safe than sorry."

As he followed her to the back of the club, Spike found himself wondering why exactly he was doing this. Not like the Slayer's even around to see, he noted, and then grimaced as he realized that, yet again, he was letting thoughts of the petite blonde invade what should've been a nice night out for him. She's got nothin' to do with this, he silently affirmed. Of all the Scoobies, the two witches were the ones he liked the most; if he was going to insist on defining this moment of insanity, he'd just chalk it up to not wanting to see them at the wrong end of the evil stick. That's all. Nothing whatsoever to do with Buffy.

And as he stepped through the door, for a split second, he actually believed it.

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

The hallway was deserted, and Spike felt the blonde witch's disappointment float back to him as she hesitated at its mouth, her eyes flicking over the various doors that lined the dim corridor. "Where's that singer?" he prompted. "You said Red was comin' back to play fan, right?"

"Right." Her voice was faint, her step hesitant as she began moving down the hall. At each door, she stopped, glancing inside before moving on. She was ignoring the closed ones for now; Tara didn't do well in approaching strangers that way, so if she could avoid having to knock and bother someone she didn't know, she would.

She got lucky. At the third opening, he heard her breath hitch in her chest, her pulse suddenly race as she gazed at whoever was inside the room. Sliding himself over, Spike saw the tall black woman slipping a purse strap over her shoulder, her back to the people in the doorway. Not bad, he thought, blue eyes appraising her ample form. Definitely very African Queen.

"Excuse me." Tara's voice came out as a squeak, but it was enough to get the singer's attention. "I hate to bother you---."

"Oh, you're no bother, honey," Stella said with a welcoming smile. "You looking for an autograph?"

"Actually, I'm looking for my…f-f-friend. She came back here to m-m-meet you." Darn it, the stutter was back. Control, she reminded herself. After all, she's not going to bite you.

A small line settled between Stella's brow as she slowly shook her head. "No, don't think so," she said. "I'm sorry, but nobody's been back here since the set ended."

It was Tara's turn to frown. "But…Freddie said…he knew you…and then they c-c-came back here."

Another shake of her head. "I don't know anybody named Freddie. Again, I'm very sorry." She stepped forward, obviously preparing to go, and the pair in the entrance automatically stepped back and out of her way as she moved into the hall. "Good luck in finding your friend," she called back as she headed for the door at the end. "I'm sure she's around here somewhere."

As soon as they were alone, Spike's hand settled on Tara's shoulder and turned her around to face him. "Go get the Slayer," he instructed, his voice firm. "I'm goin' to go keep me an eye on our little Southern songstress before she hightails it out of here."

"Why?"

"Because she's lying through her teeth." He nodded toward the now empty dressing room. "Red's scent is all over this place." As well as that other smell he couldn't quite put his finger on.

"You think she's in danger?" It was a stupid question and she knew it. There was no way Spike would get himself involved in something like this if he didn't think something was seriously wrong. For that matter…why was he getting involved?

He was already following after Stella. "Just go get Buffy," he repeated, ignoring her plea. "Tell her I'll call Rupert if I find anything."

So much for my non-Slayer-related night out, he thought ruefully as he moved back out into the club, tracking the trail the singer had left through the throng. And how much do I wanna bet I don't even get credit for chipping in?

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

Only the light on the desk was on. In the sweltering heat, anything more seemed like it would only add to the temperature of the room, and the last thing Buffy wanted right now was to be even hotter. Lying on top of her blankets, she stared up at the ceiling, listening to the quiet from the campus filter through her open window, watching a black spot---was it a fly? God, I hope so---inch itself across the white plaster. Well, not so white, more like gray. Dark gray. Nighttime had a way of making everything look gray.

She almost wished that the dorm wasn't quite so empty, that she hadn't opted to stay with Willow while the redhead finished working on some project for one of her professors. It hadn't been difficult to obtain the special permission to stay just a little bit longer; teacher's pet Willow had matriculated with graceful ease into the college milieu, and getting things they wanted from authority figures was relative cake. Score one for brainy best friends, she thought. Well, score many. She had come through in a pinch on so many occasions, it was pointless to even keep track any more.

Maybe I should've gone with them to the Bronze, Buffy mused wistfully, pulling at the hem of the t-shirt she'd slipped into after getting back to their room, hearing it suck at her skin as her perspiration soaked into the fabric. I think too much when I'm alone, and that way only ever leads to badness. Plus, loud music and cute guys usually adds up to fun and excitement, right? Don't I deserve a bit of that in my currently single state?

Though her muscles ached from the pleasant exertion of a full night of slaying, she had to admit that the most exciting thing that had happened to her tonight was finding Spike following her. And that wasn't saying a whole helluva lot. It seemed like, no matter where she went, there he was. Or no matter what she had to say, his name would inevitably pop into the conversation. Like some weird, reverse kismet or something. She was being punished for being Chosen by having a chipped albatross around her neck. Or on her heels, as the case may be.

At least she didn't have to worry about protecting anyone from him anymore. Thank God for the Initiative for doing one thing right. He was even helping in keeping down the local demon population. OK, so he was doing it because they were the only things he could kill, and maybe sometimes he seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in making it as messy as possible, but still, help was help. She needed to stop looking a gift vamp in the mouth.

Speaking of mouths…why did it seem like he was always laughing at her? She squirmed at the memory of the twist of those lips as he watched her, making his cracks about Riley being in the bushes, and then settling into something else when he'd seen her start to tear up, so full…and soft…

Buffy bolted from the bed before the image could get any clearer. Bad thoughts. Spike lips are bad. Thinking of Spike lips is bad. Potentially dreaming about Spike lips is double bad, triple bad even. Her mind raced, a whirlwind in search of a solution and almost laughed out loud when she saw her towel draped over the back of her chair. A shower, her head announced triumphantly. That's what I need. A nice, cool shower will clean away all the sticky sweat, and make me forget it's about a thousand degrees outside, and relax me enough so that I can sleep.

The irony that she was taking a cold shower to escape having to think about Spike never even dawned on her.

It was only a matter of minutes before Buffy was standing under the icy spray, her head tilted back as it pelted against her throat, her sighs of relief audible in the community bathroom. Soooo…much…better, she crooned silently, her eyes closed as she just let her skin soak up the chilled liquid, willing her muscles to loosen under the onslaught of the water.

It had been days since she'd felt completely relaxed, the arguments between her and Riley escalating to the point where she couldn't walk away using patrolling as an excuse anymore. His words still rankled, coming back to bite her in the ass when she least expected them to, and she briefly wondered what the statute of limitations on replaying conversations over in your head was.

"I don't know what you expect me to do," he had said just last night. He'd stopped by her room after she'd cancelled on a date with him, using her slaying duties as an excuse not to have to face another fight with him. It was exhausting trying to keep up with the way his head worked, the scenarios he kept concocting as he tried to wring some answers from her. She was just trying to have a little break.

"I wasn't aware that I was imposing my expectations on you," she'd retorted, and then tried to turn it into a joke by adding, "Did we forget to add that pesky no-imposition clause into our relationship contract?"

"It's just…I love you, you know that. And I know you like me, and I'm not asking for anything more than that, trust me. But a guy likes to feel like he's needed, you know? Like you see him when he walks into a room." He'd shaken his head. "I'm beginning to think I need to sprout fangs and make with the growls in order to get any attention from you."

"I hardly pay any more attention to Spike than you," she'd protested.

The room had been wrapped in silence for a long minute before he'd replied. "I wasn't talking about Spike," Riley'd said quietly, and it was obvious that the correlation had never occurred to him until she'd brought up the demon's name. "I was referring to vampires in general."

And that had been that. The final nail in the coffin of her dead relationships. And, as usual, it was all Spike's fault.

Buffy turned in the shower, allowing the cool water to flow over her back, her eyes fluttering closed as she pressed her forehead against the cool tile of the wall. She was still furious with herself for jumping to the wrong conclusion. Maybe he wouldn't have left if I'd just kept my mouth shut, she wondered. Maybe everything would be all right now.

Is that what you really want? The little voice in the back of her head was almost impossible to hear over the tumult of her thoughts, but the Slayer stiffened as its words penetrated her fog. Of course, it is, she argued back. I want nice and normal, not dark and dangerous. It's what I've always wanted.

Uh huh, yeah, right.

Nobody asked you, she grumbled, and shoved it away, deliberately focusing her thoughts on anything but Riley at the moment. Slaying. Yeah, think about slaying. Nine vamps officially off the bloody path tonight. Not too bad for being interrupted. Plus, I got to hit Spike. That's always a good thing.

And there he was again.

Like a really bad rash that just wouldn't go away.

A rash that made her skin crawl from thousand upon thousands of tiny little fingers pulling and pinching at her flesh, coaxing it to life even as it sought to sear it away. That started someplace hidden, spreading outward to wrap her in its prickly embrace. Persistent. Persevering. Lasting…

When did it get so hot in here?

Reaching for her sponge, Buffy stepped back into the stream of the shower, turning up the pressure until it was pounding viciously against her skin, skin that seemed determined to stay flushed and hot no matter what she did to it. This is definitely not working, she decided. Time to lather it up and rinse it off so that I can go toss and turn in the comfort of my own bed.

It was a good plan. It probably would've even worked if she hadn't automatically lifted her leg to wash away the sweat that hid in the depths between her thighs.

As soon as the sponge flicked across her clit, Buffy gasped, suddenly all too aware of how on edge her body really was. Sparks shot up her stomach, and when she glanced down, there was no mistaking the hardness of her nipples, the goosebumps that were now erupting across her flesh as her fingers hesitantly traced the cleft between her legs. When did I get so wet? she wondered, eyes wide, oblivious now to the water cascading over her skin. Must've been the thinking about slaying. Faith always had a point about it making us horny and hungry.

As if they had a mind of their own, Buffy's fingers began gliding across her folds, up one side…down the other…studiously avoiding the top as her eyes fluttered closed, her breathing growing increasingly shallow. Each drop pelting her shoulders kissed in icy needles, tormenting her heated flesh with promises of reprieve, and the sponge fell from her hand, forgotten as her explorations deepened.

One finger inside…her nail scraping against the inner wall…the pulsations there already quivering in anticipation of more. Then it was two, and her thumb had found her clit again, lightly brushing against the hard nub, each touch forcing the air from her lungs.

Faster, and harder, and then there was a third finger, and Buffy had grabbed at the shower head to steady herself as her knees began to tremble, tilting her head back so that the water beat against her chest before dripping in thunderous rivulets to the tiled floor. Like vampire kisses, she thought suddenly. Cold, and wet, and everywhere at once. Angel's face floated before her inner eye, and she sighed in satisfaction, the memories of how his lips felt on hers blocking out everything Riley had ever done with a single sweep. Nice vampire kisses…

And then he was gone, and the Slayer found herself fixating on the bluest of blue, a storm rioting over sculpted cheekbones, gazing back at her from inside her head as if she was the last meal being given to a man on death row, filet mignon when he'd requested hamburger.

"Noooo…" she whispered out loud, but it was lost in the sound of the water echoing throughout the bathroom, the tympani of her pulse doubling in the space of a second. The hand between her legs didn't hear it either, speeding up its thrusts, strengthening its touch across her clit. More…and more…and oh god that was Spike…and her muscles didn't want to work anymore, fighting to keep her vertical as she neared her orgasm.

No matter how hard she squeezed her eyes, he remained right there, smirking, and watching, and she could almost smell him now, and…

"Spiiiiiike…" Buffy hissed as her body shuddered in its climax.

It was only when it was over that she realized what had happened, and hastily cleaned herself off in order to escape the memories of the shower. I did not just get off thinking about Spike, she thought, rubbing furiously at her flesh with her towel. I was already all worked up. And I was thinking about Angel first anyway. That's got to count for something. I'm just hot, and distracted, and…and…and I absolutely did not just come thinking about the chipped wonder!

She was still trying to convince herself of that when she stepped out into the hallway and saw Tara pounding at her bedroom door. Immediately, she frowned. Not the person she was expecting to see. Not that she was expecting to see anybody, but she was supposed to be at the Bronze. With Willow. "Tara?" she asked, continuing toward her. "What's wrong?"

The blonde witch whirled at the sound of her voice, and Buffy saw the worry etched in her wide features, her own thoughts stripping away to focus on the young girl in front of her. "Please tell me you've seen Willow tonight," Tara pleaded.

"Not since I left for patrol." She was at her side in a shot, sliding her arm around the shoulders that suddenly seemed to lose control, supporting Tara while trying to juggle her toiletries as she led her into her room. "Did something happen? Did you two have a fight or something?"

She looked up at Buffy, eyes shining. "Or something." She swallowed, trying to rid herself of the lump in her throat that had been lodged there ever since Spike's announcement back at the club. "I think Willow's in trouble."

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

Each of them was locked in his or her own world.

Giles was sitting on one of the stools by his kitchen, endlessly cleaning his glasses, blue eyes staring off into nothing. Ever since Spike's phone call, he hadn't said a word, just…sat there. Hopefully thinking up one of his brilliant ideas, Buffy thought. Something that would get Willow back as soon as possible.

Tara sat motionless in the overstuffed chair, hands folded in her lap, just watching the others in the room. She, too, had been mute, but her silence had been longer than the Watcher's. She hadn't said anything since repeating to the others the same story she'd told the Slayer.

Xander was eating donut after donut, ignoring the crumbs that were falling to the floor, doing his best not to shrug off Anya's constant stroking. His girlfriend didn't know what to do but try and console him by touching. She and Willow had never been all that close, and the fact that she was often jealous of the close relationship Xander shared with the redhead didn't help in boosting her sympathy factor at the moment. Still, a friend was a friend, and she was going to be there and support them in their moment of need. No more running for this girl.

And Buffy couldn't stop pacing, remnants of Tara's story playing over and over in her head as she fought against every instinct she had to just go out and hunt down whoever this singer really was.

"She wasn't really acting like herself, you know?" the blonde witch had said. "She barely said hello to Freddie and was hardly even polite to him afterward until he mentioned he could take her backstage. Then, she couldn't seem to get enough of him. It's weird, because she was all wrapped up in the music, l-l-like it was the only thing in the room. Oh, and that singer, too. Stella something. It was all so…un-Willowy. Like it was her body that was sitting there, but not her head." She'd sighed. "I'm babble girl right now. I'm sure I'm not making any sense."

Giles and Xander had been apprised of the situation as soon as they were congregated at the Watcher's apartment, and Buffy had been about to go out and do some looking for Willow on her own when Spike had called, announcing that the singer had just hopped on a bus out of town. A quick instruction to get over to the flat as quickly as possible had been issued between the two Englishmen, and now they sat in wait for the vampire to show his face.

When the knock came to the door, Buffy was there before he'd even lowered his arm, staring into that calm face as her own fluster blushed her skin in rose. "Well, well," he drawled, brushing past her with the ease of the invitation they'd never bothered to revoke, "looks like I'm missin' quite the party here."

"We don't have time for this," Buffy said tightly. "We need to know everything you saw at the Bronze. How you knew Willow wasn't there. What happened with the singer you followed. Everything."

His gaze was steady on the others as he hopped up onto the stool next to Giles, pulling his duster around his legs as he reached behind him for one of the biscuits on the counter. "You finally found Jaffa cakes," he commented to the Watcher nonchalantly, and was about to pop it into his mouth when the Slayer reached up and knocked it out of his hand.

"This isn't an all-night buffet, Spike. Spill."

His head tilted. "And here I come, all good will and bearer of information." His tongue clicked in reproval. "Thought you'd at least be nice to me, seein' as I'm the only one of the bunch of you who knows where Red's probably headin'."

That brought Tara to life, and she sat up in the chair to address him. "You know where she is?" she asked. "Did you see her with Stella? Is she safe?" The question, is she alive, hung there unspoken, the young witch without the strength to ask it aloud.

He shook his head and briefly explained what he'd seen before entering the Bronze earlier that evening, the Louisiana license plates on the van, the smell of Willow in the air. "That Stella's from New Orleans," he finished. "And that's where she's headin' back to, according to the bus schedule."

Giles frowned. "How can you be certain where she's from?"

"Recognize the accent. Probably French Quarter, but I could be wrong about that. It's a bit muddled."

"I never knew you for a linguist, Spike."

The vampire shrugged. "Just know New Orleans."

"Another city you had to run away from?" Buffy said coldly, her arms folded across her chest. Professional distance, she'd decided. What had happened back at the dorm was going to remain locked away in that part of her head where denial reigned supreme, and she was going to treat Spike like she always had. With a firm fist and every sarcastic quip she could muster.

His eyebrows shot up. "Are you kidding me? Have you not heard of Mardi Gras? One of the biggest parties in the world, Slayer. No way was I not there with bells on every chance I got."

"So you think this Freddie snatched her and is taking her to New Orleans?" This came from Xander, the first thing out of his mouth since Spike's arrival.

"I'd wager a pretty penny that that's exactly what happened."

The room was silent for a moment before Buffy exploded. "So, we have to go get her! I'm not just going to sit here and wait for some phone call saying they've found her body abandoned by the road somewhere in the middle of Texas or something." She wasn't even going to vocalize that other fear---that her best friend could end up as vampire or worse---because then that would mean actually confronting the possibility. No. Both Spike and Tara seemed to think that this singer and mysterious Freddie were both human, so it was probably just some evil human plot instead of some evil demon plot for a change. That still didn't make it good, though.

"I agree." Giles' voice was low, chewing on the end of his glasses as he mulled over the possibilities. "Buffy and Spike should leave straight away for New Orleans---."

"What?!?"

Their exclamations were simultaneous, both blonds staring at the Watcher like he'd grown a third head. "You did not just say, Buffy and Spike," the Slayer snapped.

"How did I get roped into this?" Spike demanded. "I never asked---."

"You're the only logical choice to take Buffy," Giles interrupted. Replacing his spectacles on his nose, he rose from his stool and faced the pair of them. "You have a car where Buffy doesn't. You've seen both this Stella and the van, which Buffy hasn't. And, by your own admission, you know New Orleans, which----."

"---Buffy doesn't," the blonde finished with a heavy sigh. Her Watcher had a point. All of their leads were stuck inside Spike's head, and short of cutting it off and dragging them out by hand---a thought which she actually considered for a brief moment in time---it was going to be best to have him around in order to help find Willow. Because that's what mattered at this point. Keep Willow safe. No matter what that meant putting up with.

Spike's eyes narrowed as he watched the conflict battle itself out across the Slayer's face. She was actually going to agree to this little arrangement, he realized with a start. 'Course, it was for Red, and she'd probably agree to gouge out her own eyeballs if she thought it would help in bringing her back, but still. A small flutter jumped in his stomach, and this time, he didn't tamp it down. This could be…interesting.

"What about the rest of us?" Xander chimed in. "Are we just supposed to sit here and twiddle our thumbs?"

"Although we're actually quite good at the twiddling," Anya interjected.

"We'll research whatever Buffy needs us to," came Giles' reply. "You have a job now, Xander. You're hardly in a position to go running across the country."

"But this is for Willow!"

"And should the need arise, we will go to New Orleans," the Englishman argued. "But there is still the possibility that Willow is here in Sunnydale. Someone needs to remain behind in order to search here, as well. Don't worry. You won't be…twiddling."

Her mind made up, Buffy set her jaw, her mouth thin as she began marching for the door. "Fine. Let's get this show on the road." She was halfway out the door before she realized that Spike was still perched on his stool behind her, and turned back to glare at him. "And is there a reason your undead ass isn't moving?" she queried coldly.

He stiffened, pulling himself upright. "I haven't said I'll do it yet," he replied staunchly, sniffing unnecessarily for good measure.

"You'll do it, or I'm going to staple you to the top of the UC library and stand back to enjoy the sunrise," Buffy threatened.

Rolling his eyes, he snorted in disgust, put upon more for her and her friends' sakes than anything else. Truth be told, this arrangement didn't bother him all that much. Maybe by spending a little extra time with the Slayer, he'd be able to suss out why exactly she was getting under his skin and exorcise her for good. "Don't get your knickers in a twist," he grumbled, sauntering to the doorway. "I've got no yen for blowin' into the wind just yet."

"Just remember who's got the stake here," she said as they left the apartment.

"Yeah, yeah, heard the song a thousand times, Slayer. Try singin' a different tune for a change…"

As their voices filtered away, Giles frowned, his blue gaze watching them melt into the night. Although he believed that this was truly the best course of action to take, he sincerely hoped that they would actually arrive in New Orleans intact, or rather, that Spike would. Buffy was going to need his resources in order to help Willow. He only hoped she'd come to the same realization the first time the blond vampire really pissed her off.

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

Her head felt fuzzy, kind of like someone had stuffed it full of cotton balls and was now blowing in her ear to make it go whoosh. For that matter, her tongue felt fuzzy, too, but that was more of a what-I-wouldn't-do-for-a-drink-right-now kind of fuzzy as opposed to the bunnytail kind.

As her mind slowly cleared, Willow's eyes opened to blink against the dim light, or rather, no light. She was in the back of a van, her hands tied behind her back, her ankles bound in front of her, and a strong piece of tape was pulling at her cheeks, effectively silencing her from saying anything. Where am I? she thought, trying to turn her head. In her attempt, something beside her clattered to the metal floor of the vehicle, and the radio she only just realized was playing all of a sudden went quiet.

"You finally up back there?"

She knew that voice, that accent. Freddie? What was he doing here? Was he the reason she was now trussed up tighter than a Thanksgiving turkey?

His chuckle echoed through the van, and she felt a lurch in her stomach as the vehicle pulled to the side of the road, the engine quieting. "Guess that was kind of a silly question to ask," he said, "seein' as how you can't talk right now." His body appeared against the windshield as he turned to come into the back, outlined in ebony so that his face was invisible to her. "I know the tape's a mite uncomfortable and all, but Stella says you're probably big on the mojo, so can't be taking any chances, now, can I?"

When he crouched in front of her, she finally saw his bland features, the friendly smile spreading his lips. How can someone who looks so normal be a psycho kidnapper? she wondered. She remembered now what had happened in the dressing room, the cloth over her nose that seemed to black everything out around her, how overwhelming the music and Stella's singing had been, how Freddie had said he'd be right back with Tara and their drinks. It felt otherworldly in a way, like it had happened to someone else. She only wished she knew why.

"We've got kind of a long trip in front of us," he was saying. "Now, if you can prove that you can behave yourself, maybe you can have something other than a liquid diet 'til we get there. Otherwise, I'm afraid you're going to be strawing it for a few days." He gestured toward the cooler off to their side.

Deep in her throat, Willow gurgled, trying to speak. Freddie frowned, watching her face, listening intently as he tried to decipher what she might be saying. "I know you've probably got tons of questions," he finally said. "But really, Stella's going to have to be the one to answer them all for you. She's the one with the grand plan, you know." He smiled, patting her cheek before turning to go back up to the driver's seat. "I suggest you get yourself some sleep there, Willow. I'll keep the radio off so you can rest, OK? And just think of it this way." He slid into the seat, looking up at her in his rearview mirror. "In just a few days, you'll be home again…"


To be continued in Chapter 3: Miles in the Sky