DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy got wounded in a roadside vampire ambush, and after getting stitched up by Spike, shared another kiss with him, while back in Sunnydale, the Scoobies are still trying to some more answers to help get Willow back…

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

Chapter 7: So Near, So Far

There was something ironic about sipping a cup of hot tea while watching the sweltering California sun peek over the tiled roofs in a promise of another scorching summer day, but at the moment, Giles was too tired to dwell on it.

Eight-thirty in the morning, and an all-night research session had provided nothing of any relevance to aid them in Willow’s disappearance.  Oh, certainly, he’d learned quite a bit about various talismans that resembled the mark on the young man’s wrist, and he’d most definitely acquired more knowledge on the powers of singing than he’d ever thought imaginable, but none of it was pertinent to their current situation.  At least, he didn’t think so. 

And without something a bit more to go on, he was afraid that they would just be spinning their wheels here in Sunnydale. 

The thought that he had perhaps been too hasty in despatching Buffy and Spike on their own to New Orleans had crossed his mind more than once, but the Watcher was refusing to dwell upon it, or the idea of his Slayer spending so much time in the close company of the vampire at all.  Granted, it had been his idea to send them off together in the first place, but that had been borne of necessity more than anything else.  Just because Spike was chipped, it didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous.  He just hoped that the pair had reached some sort of understanding along their travels to make it as painfree as possible.

“Hey there, Mr. Ex-Librarian Man,” chirped Xander as he entered the courtyard outside Giles’ flat.  From his hand swung a brightly colored sack, the scent of fresh pastry already heavy in the air.

Giles looked at his watch with a small frown.  “Aren’t you supposed to work today?” he asked.

“I called in sick.”  A quick glance between the seated Watcher and his closed front door brought a confused smile to his face.  “Please tell me your air conditioning isn’t busted.  Because if it is, I’m putting my vote in right now for moving this research shindig to Starbucks.  No Willow means no playing coffee Nazi which means unlimited java goodness.”  It was a feeble attempt to make light of his best friend’s absence, but even he didn’t buy it, and Giles’ responding smile was half-hearted at best.

“Tara’s asleep on the couch,” he said in explanation.  “I didn’t wish to wake her just yet.  It was a very long, very unproductive night.”

“So no go on the information front, huh?”  He settled himself down on the step next to the Watcher and held the bag open to allow the older man to extract a donut.  “Guess that makes us zero for two then.”

“It’s unfortunate your friend didn’t have any additional information.”

“OK, first of all, not my friend.  We just graduated together.  The guy spent most of high school either stoned or in Snyder’s office.  I mean, yeah, he did clean up some senior year, but frankly, the fact that he’s pulling the graveyard shift at that gas station just goes to show he’s only got about two functioning brain cells left.”

“Weren’t you fired from that gas station?” Giles asked between bites, glancing surreptitiously at the young man out of the corner of his eye.

“And that’s so not the point here.”

Stifling his smile, the Watcher reached for his tea, sipping at it for a moment before continuing.  “You said when you rang last night that he recognized Spike as a vampire and that he seemed appropriately frightened of him.  You don’t think that might have curbed what information he shared with Spike?”

Xander shook his head.  “I think it made him more likely to spill his guts actually,” he said.  “He seemed genuinely shocked by the fact that Spike paid for his gas instead of just being a drive-off.  Kept going on about purple fans and thank yous.  It didn’t make much sense, but then again, no big shocker there.  The guy couldn’t even remember that Anya hadn’t been at our graduation.  Of course, he spent the whole time we were there staring at her breasts---.”

“Do you think he’s reliable then?  If his memory is so sketchy, perhaps his information isn’t trustworthy.”

Another shake of denial.  “Nah, he’s the real deal.  I can’t really blame him for being distracted by Ahn’s chest.  She was wearing that tiny little white thing when we went.  Doesn’t really leave a whole lot to the imagination---.”

Giles cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken.  “I suppose it’s late enough for us to wake Tara and resume our research,” he said, rising to his feet.  “I do hope Buffy calls us today with an update.  I’d like to hear that they’ve arrived safely.”

“Or that she’s finally staked Fangboy’s ass.  That would be good news, too.”  He stopped, brows furrowing.  “Wait.  Except that would leave the Buffster stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a big pile of dust and a rusty old jalopy she can’t drive.  Scratch that.  She can stake his ass once they get to Mardi Gras town.”

For a moment, Giles fumbled with his teacup and donut, wondering which of his now occupied hands he could use to open the door.  He finally opted to stick the pastry in his mouth, holding it between his teeth as he pushed the egress ajar.

As a blast of artificially cooled air met the two already-sweating male bodies, Xander sighed in exaggerated relief, standing on the threshold with his head thrown back, basking in the comfort the inner sanctum offered.  “Ah, blessed arctic ambience,” he said.  “Sometimes, I really wish I was an Eskimo.  I’d even put up with all the whale blubber if it meant not being drenched in my own bodily fluids all day.”  His head lowered, glancing nervously at Giles.  “You know I meant sweat, right?”

The sound of Xander’s voice roused Tara from her spot on the couch, wide eyes blinking as she sat up.  There was a moment of blankness as she looked at her surroundings, followed quickly by the sudden realization of where she was, a hesitant flush staining her cheeks as she hastened to lower her eyes.  “I’m s-s-so sorry,” she stammered, jumping to her feet.  “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“No, really, it’s all right,” Giles assured.  “We did have a long night, after all.  And Willow’s fallen asleep in that same spot more than once.”  At the young woman’s surprised look, he amended, “Well, Xander has, at any rate.  Willow tends to be rather diligent in staying awake for our research sessions.”

Her gaze flickered to the doorway.  “Where’s Anya?” she asked.  “Isn’t she going to help us today?”

Xander shrugged.  “Dunno.  She was gone when I woke up.  She seemed kind of weirded out by our little gas station encounter last night.  But I’m sure she’ll show up some time.”

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

She knew she should go over to Giles’, but somehow her feet didn’t want to cooperate.  Instead, they were curled up against her, her knees drawn up while she hugged her legs close, and she was staring blankly at the opposite wall of her bedroom, her hair hanging limply around her face.

Anya hadn’t slept at all during the night, slipping out of Xander’s bed somewhere around four, walking herself home while she mused on thoughts of death, and mysterious warnings from old friends, and the possibility that something serious could happen to disrupt the life she was beginning to forge for herself.  As far as lives went, it wasn’t one she would’ve chosen, but things were finally beginning to shape up for her here in Sunnydale, and all of a sudden, it looked like Willow was going to be the one to smash the whole thing to smithereens.

Stupid witch, she thought irritably, perching her chin on the knees she hugged close to her body.  Why does she have to go and ruin my fun by getting herself kidnapped?  Everything was just hunky-dory.  Lots of sex, a nicely-shaped boyfriend who looked like he’d finally found a job he could stick with, no death on the horizon.  And then presto!  All of it was taken away in a blink of an eye, all because Willow was part of some apocalyptic nightmare about to happen on the other side of the country.  Well, maybe not all of it.  She still had Xander, even if he had been too tired to have sex more than once last night.  But her peace of mind was officially missing in action, and death…well, death had decided to pop its ugly head up and remind the ex-demon that this time, she could very well end up on his dance card.

She had actually started coming to grips with Halfrek’s warning, deciding that maybe her old friend was over-reacting, or that as long as she kept Xander from going to New Orleans, the pair of them could at the very least avoid the worst of the mass destruction and deliverance of all things evil that seemed to be brewing down there.  Then, they’d arrived at that damn gas station.

And everything had pretty much gone to hell in a human-shaped handbasket.

It was that clerk’s fault.  What was his name again?  Bill…Phil…Will…Kill… Anya scowled.  Kill, yeah, that’s what she wanted.  What she wouldn’t do to be able to shove a little lethal vengeance down the little creepmeister’s throat right about now.  Maybe have thousands of bees sting that wagging tongue of his.  After all, he was the one who’d brought up graduation, dredging up the past and forcing Xander to remember that, yes, Anya Jenkins had run away from the impending apocalypse, fearful of her own life, only to return when the coast was all clear.  They’d argued about it briefly on the way home, ending with Xander’s declaration that she would never do something like that now, not after becoming a member of the Scooby gang and all.  He hadn’t even bothered to listen to her when she’d tried explaining about the whole not-wanting-to-die thing, a pursuit she considered rather valid considering they had such a short span on the mortal plane, and instead returned the conversation to his growing worry for the redheaded witch.

Stupid Willow, she repeated.  This is all your fault.

The part of it that was so maddening was Anya wasn’t even sure why Halfrek had even bothered to show up in the first place.  Self-preservation was very high on the ex-demon’s priority list, and even without her old friend’s coaxing, she would’ve moved the earth to make sure her safety odds were as good as possible.  So then why the extra nudge to stay as far away from New Orleans as she could manage?  It wasn’t like it was high on her exotic getaway spots.  Surprisingly enough, she’d only ever been to the Southern city once in her lifetime, well over a century earlier, and that visit was hardly motivation enough for her to return…

She stiffened, eyes widening in the dim light of her bedroom as flashes from her past streaked across her mind’s eye.  Holy crap, she thought.  That couldn’t be why Hallie’s gone all doomsayer on me, is it?  How could one have anything to do with the other?  That was a hundred and some odd years ago, with someone who was most definitely not Willow.  It couldn’t be.  Did Halfrek even know about the voix mortelle?  No.  It wasn’t logical.  And yet…

It was the only connection to New Orleans Anya could find.  And if this was the real reason she was being warned away from it, the idea of kidnapping Xander and disappearing to somewhere in Siberia all of a sudden sounded a lot more appealing…

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

The chill wafting across her shoulder was the last thing she was expecting, and Buffy’s eyes blinked against the dark shadows met by her waking gaze.  She was still lying down, but no longer on the leather of Spike’s back seat.  It wasn’t the slick vinyl of the sleeping bag, either.  No, what rested under her cheek was the stiff cotton of a cheap pillowcase, the scent of too much fabric softener filling her nose, and the cold embracing her skin was air conditioning.

Groaning slightly, Buffy sat up, her limbs stiff from inactivity, her legs swinging over the edge of the mattress as she glanced around the small hotel room.  At some point, Spike had stopped again, but how he got her inside during the daytime without even waking her was beyond the Slayer’s understanding.  She only knew that she was here, and the vampire was…

…sprawled across a chair in the far corner, legs kicked out in front of him, head propped up on a borrowed cushion from the bed.  His eyes were closed in slumber, the murk of the room deepening the hollows of his cheeks, but even in the gloom, she could see the angry welts adorning his hands and wrists.

“Spike!” she called out, leaping from the bed, all thoughts to her own injury gone in light of the burns she was now witnessing.  Stupid, pig-headed vamp.  What in hell did he think he’d been doing?  All he’d had to do was wake her up.  Her shoulder was doing much better; she certainly could’ve walked the few feet from the car on her own so that he could have his blanket for protection.  At the very least, why didn’t the demon own any gloves?

Crouching at his side, her hazel gaze scanned the wounds before flickering around the room, spying her duffel tossed to the floor next to the door.  She had her first aid kit in her hands in a flash, emptying its contents onto the bed, scrambling for the antiseptic cream before returning to Spike’s side, and was unscrewing the cap when his eyes opened.

“The Slayer kneeling at my feet,” he rumbled sleepily, lids heavy as he looked down at her.  “Must be in the middle of dream number fourteen.”

She ignored his gibe, lightly taking his hand in hers.  The heat of the burns seemed foreign on his cool flesh, and she winced silently at the lividity of the inflammation.  It was much worse up close, and Buffy wondered yet again why he would subject himself to this rather than wake her up.  “So, is this masochistic streak a vampire thing, or a Spike thing?” she said.  “Because I don’t get it.”

“’S’nothing,” he mumbled, eyes fixed on the lines between her brows as she set to work, easing the cream onto his hands.  Her tone was sharp, but there was no denying the worry haunting the hazel, even in the dark.  He’d spent the hours after their midnight pitstop listening to her breathing in the rear, reliving the kiss under the stars over and over again in his head, wishing he had the nerve to pull the DeSoto over and press the issue of whatever was happening between them.  She wanted him---well, her body did, at least---but was he merely a substitute for Soldier Boy?  Was she just interested in forgetting whatever had happened to her in Sunnydale?

“You needed your sleep,” he further offered.  “The less you move that shoulder, the faster it’ll mend.”

“You sound like Mom,” she said, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she glanced up at him through her lashes.

“And I’m takin’ that as a compliment, pet, whether that’s how you intended it or not.  Your mum’s a right smart bird.  Could do worse than---.”  He hissed as the cream came into contact with a particularly sensitive portion of his hand, almost jerking it away from her grasp.  “Don’t know why you’re fussin’, though,” he said through gritted teeth, reluctantly relaxing back into her administration.  “Not like I can get an infection from it.”

“It’ll make it feel better.”

“If that’s your idea of better…”  Spike’s voice trailed away as a warm, directed stream of air caressed the flesh of his wrists, his gaze fixated on the tiny purse Buffy had made of her mouth as she blew across the cream.  He was instantly hard, imagining those lips in that exact same position, only aimed at his cock instead.  So bloody erotic, and did she have any idea what exactly she was doing to him?  Part of the vamp wondered if it was a calculated attempt to get a rise from him, or whether this was just another shade of Slayer seduction wrapped in Buffy innocence.

Bloody hell.

An even bigger part didn’t really care.  Not when he felt like this.  Don’t argue with it, mate, he thought.  Just enjoy it while it lasts.

“What time did we stop?”  Her voice was muted, matching the mood of the dimly lit room, but she didn’t move, keeping his hands lightly clasped in hers, even after she was done with the cream.  Somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to stop touching him.  The netherworld of her dreams had been ghosted with firm lips pressed to hers, strong arms cradling her against a firm chest, the throb of punk music echoing in glistening trails across their skin.  Logic told her she was taking a huge risk by opening this door, by allowing possibilities to take form and intrude on her day-to-day life, but for once, Buffy didn’t feel like listening to it.  “I don’t remember much after falling asleep.”

“Just before noon.  Thought I’d grab me a catnap while you were still out of it.”

A quick glance at her watch.  “And it’s just after three now.”  This time, she raised her eyes, meeting his for the first time since coming to his side.  “Are you still tired?  Because if you need more---.”

“You’d be surprised what’ll do me,” Spike replied huskily, and extracted his hands from hers, straightening in his chair.  “If we get back on the road now, we’ll be Big Easy way just after midnight.”  The corner of his mouth lifted.  “S’long as you promise to let me sleep when we get there, that is.  Can’t go on this way indefinitely, you know.  Gotta get myself sorted sooner or later.”

She smiled in kind.  “No, really?  And here I thought the Big Bad was a tough guy.  Turns out he needs his beauty sleep just like the rest of us.”

“You could stay awake for a century and still be beautiful, pet.”  The compliment was past his lips before he could stop it, and when Buffy flushed in embarrassment, standing and turning away from him, Spike mentally kicked himself, grimacing and shaking his head.  Oh, sure, play the poncy git when she’s just making with the funnies.  That’s not goin’ to scare her away.  Not at all.

“I think we’ll probably end up beating Willow there, don’t you?” she was saying, busying herself in packing away the scattered bits from the first aid kit.  “No way can that Freddie match your pace.  Not if he’s human like Tara says.”

“That’s probably goin’ to work to our advantage,” Spike replied.  “We’ll have time to do some pokin’ around before they get there.  I know some people---.”

“You keep saying that.  Are these people people, or are these demon people?  Because I’m not sure I’m really big on the needing to rely on a demon thing.”

“A bit of both.”  He stopped, his face suddenly serious.  “You’re gambling on my aid here, Slayer, and last time I checked, I had myself a tent in the demon camp.  Or…were those noises of gratitude just that?  Noise?”

Buffy waved her hand in dismissal.  “That’s different.  You don’t count.”

“Oh?  And why’s that?”

She seemed surprised by his change in attitude, eyes widening as she looked at him.  “Hello?  Chip, remember?  You can’t hurt me.  Or my friends.  Ergo, not a worry.  Not really.”

Even though the words were true, it didn’t lessen their sting, and the vampire scowled, ducking his head.  “Way to go for boostin’ a bloke’s ego, Slayer,” he groused.

“Because your ego is in such danger of deflating, right?”  She rolled her eyes.  “Try it on someone who doesn’t know you so well, Spike.  This girl’s not buying.”

She had turned her back on him, returning to her tidying, when she felt his hand wrap around her arm, swivelling her shoulder around so that she was forced to face him.  There was a flash of furious blue and then his lips came crashing down on hers, bruising her mouth in a ferocity that had nothing to do with the tenderness that he’d exhibited out under the stars, and everything to do with danger teetering on the edge of a cliff, threatening to jump and take everything with it.

It was over before she could respond, leaving her gasping, staring up into Spike’s demon visage, his golden eyes ablaze in a combination of righteous fury and sorrowful bitterness.  How even his vampire gaze could convey so much, she had no idea, but before she could even think to move, he had closed the gap between them again, his tongue darting out to the edge of her lip, catching the drop of blood that was beading there.

“Don’t think a moonlight kiss means you can just slip your leash over this vamp’s neck and he’s not goin’ to notice,” he murmured, his cheek hovering just millimetres from hers.  Even just a drop of her blood, that pungent Slayer lifeforce he’d thought he craved, burned his throat in an agonizing fire that made his erection throb within his jeans, forced the adrenaline through his veins with the force of a hurricane’s gale. Not the smartest thing he’d ever done, he decided.  Drinking at the font of temptation when they still had miles to go was sure to drive him to distraction.

“Or that this little piece of plastic in my skull means you’ve sussed me out for good,” Spike added before she could respond.  His game face slipped away, and he pulled back so that he could meet her startled gaze.  “You don’t even know the half of what you’re playin’ with here, pet.  That’s not to say I’m not lookin’ forward to the game, but maybe you should consider reading the whole rulebook before you go makin’ your next move.  ‘Cause underestimating the other players?  Surest road to gettin’ yourself hurt.”  He pulled back and nodded toward the door.  “Now, why don’t you be a good little Slayer and scamper off to check us out of this joint, eh?  The sooner you settle the bill, the faster we can hit the trail.”

Buffy frowned as she watched him brush past her, frozen in her spot as his words whirled around in her head in a riotous melee.  “What’re you doing?” she asked as he picked up the telephone.

“Gettin’ our New Orleans accommodations sorted,” came the reply.  “I don’t really fancy any more hotels, do you?”

Her voice was faint, her confusion still supreme.  “I guess not.”  Her hazel eyes swept over the breadth of ebony as he stood with his back to her, punching in a series of numbers on the touchpad.  OK, admitting to herself that she was attracted to Spike had been a Goliath step for her.  She had even been enjoying the camaraderie that had been developing between them ever since they set out.  But his words---not a threat, but a promise that there was so much more she was only beginning to grasp---underlaid those emotions with an intoxicating thrill, tipping all of it on end, as if someone much bigger than she had picked up her world like a giant snowglobe and given it a hearty shake.

It was going to be interesting to see where they all landed once the flakes settled.

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

His hands were shaking as he pulled over to the side of the road, his face even more pale as he rested his forehead on the steering wheel.  The tremors that were vibrating through his body could have been withdrawal symptoms, or from some sort of fever, or a reaction to the weather. 

They were none of these. 

What shook Freddie now was fear.

A glance into his rearview mirror betrayed Willow’s sleeping form slumped in her seat, the slightest of sheens causing her freckled cheeks to glow.  In spite of the circumstances, she had been quite cooperative, and he’d even ventured to remove the tape from her mouth this afternoon so that she could have a real lunch, instead of some vitamin shake.  She’d just glared at him the entire time she’d eaten the sandwich, those green eyes doing their best to immolate him on the spot, but she’d remained silent until he’d started tearing a fresh strip of tape from the roll.

“I don’t like you very much,” she’d said tightly, her lips thin.

Her words had made him smile, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye as he returned the tape to the toolbox.  “That’s perfectly all right, darlin’,” he’d replied.  “You never have.”

Once she was back in place, he’d popped in the cassette Stella had specially made, watching the redhead slowly drift to sleep as the sultry songs orchestrated specifically for this purpose suffused the air of the van in piquance.  For a bit there, Freddie’s own lids had started to droop, but a quick stop at a gas station and two extra-large coffees later, and he was back to himself, head clear of the music’s allure. 

It had taken two hours for her to stir.  He’d expected a little bit of movement---he’d loosened her bonds slightly when they’d stopped for lunch---so the first rustling hadn’t garnered more than a quick glance in his mirror.  It wasn’t even the second that jarred the toolbox at her side.

It was the third.  The one that picked up the box of cassettes from the passenger seat and slammed it into his side.

Plastic had gone flying as the wheel jerked in his hands, and Freddie had fought to regain control of the vehicle, small eyes darting from the road before him to the redhead straining against her bonds.  As quickly as he could manage, he’d popped the tape out of the player, turning the radio on to a country station in an attempt to clear the air of the effects of Stella’s singing, and then watched as Willow immediately relaxed, her mind slipping into a normal sleep, the effects of her power dissipating like smoke.

He had been warned.  He’d even seen evidence of Stella’s power more than once.

All of that was nothing like the raw sway that had erupted from Willow.  And in her sleep. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

As he took a deep breath, Freddie waited for the shaking to subside, rubbing at the mark on his wrist that seemed to be pulsing in rhythm with the unseen power behind him, trying to will away the rising sense of dread in his stomach.  Stella had said this could happen, but she wasn’t worried about it. 

He had to trust in her.  It’s all he’d ever done. 

He couldn’t afford to stop now.

 

To be continued in Chapter 8: On Green Dolphin Street