DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Spike and Buffy have finally arrived in New Orleans, while back in Sunnydale, the Scoobies are facing their own dilemmas in the search for Willow…

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

Chapter 9: Footprints

He was trying to be as quiet as possible as he reshelved the books.  A very late call from Buffy had informed the small group of her safe arrival in New Orleans, refueling the Scoobies’ vigor in research.  As a result, both Xander and Tara had stayed up until well past six that morning, and were now collapsed in slumber on either end of the couch.  Even Anya, who had shown up on Giles’ doorstep the previous evening with no explanation for her earlier absence, had done her share, even if she didn’t last nearly as long as the others.  Giles was chalking that up to her relatively recent incorporation into the gang.  Tara might’ve been newer than the ex-vengeance demon, but at least her commitment to finding some answers could be explained by her devotion to Willow.  Anya really had no such ties.

The stack he was carrying slipped precariously within his grasp, and Giles quickly fumbled with the uppermost tomes, leaning them against his inner arm as he fought to regain control.  The top book skittered to the floor, landing with a quiet thump against his toes, and the Watcher winced as he crouched down to pick it up.  Over the open pages, however, his hand hovered, his eyes narrowing as he squinted to read the fine print surrounding the exposed picture.

It took only a moment for him to set the others in his hold aside, picking up the escaped text and crossing hurriedly to the desk where his glasses sat.  Another quick perusal, this time with his spectacles firmly in place, deepened the frown on his face, and his head lifted to stare at the sleeping ex-demon in the chair.

“Anya,” he said quietly, hoping she would wake up without disturbing the others. 

There was no response. 

“Anya,” Giles repeated, this time a little louder, his feet stepping involuntarily closer to her as if the reduced distance would aid in rousing her.

Still nothing.

Using his finger as a page holder, the Watcher tucked the book against his chest before striding to her side, reaching down to tap her lightly on the shoulder.  “An---,” he started.

She jerked at the first touch, eyes flying open to stare wildly around, little recognition for her surroundings in the brown depths.  “Not the black bunnies!” she shrieked, pressing herself back into the chair, her breathing suddenly ragged.

Her reaction startled Giles, driving him back by a step, while at the same time, it incited Xander’s own awakening.  It took only a moment of confused blinking for the young man to focus on the situation, and in a flash, he was up and at her side, brushing the hair away from her forehead, making calming shooshing noises under his breath.

“It’s OK,” he soothed.  “It was only a dream.  Everything’s all right.”  He smiled as she visibly relaxed, leaning her head against his hand.  “Which one was it this time?”

“The one with David Copperfield and the roulette wheel.”  She scowled.  “I hate that man.”

“What’s going on?” Xander asked, looking up at Giles.  “I thought we agreed that the occasional closing of the eyelids was acceptable.  Did somebody change the rules while we were out of it?”

The Watcher held up the book, baring the title for both of them to see.  “Did you go through this as I requested, Anya?” he asked.

She squinted, scanning the name of the text.  The smallest of hesitations separated the crease in her brow from the eventual nod of her head.  “You saw me reading it, Giles.  Just like you saw me reading the other four hundred and twenty-three books you asked me to look at.  There wasn’t anything in it that would help Willow.”

“Really?”  He flipped the book open and extended it so that the page was again exposed.  In its center, amidst a table of similar drawings, was an engraving of the same circle marking that had adorned Freddie’s wrist.  “Did we decide that our only clue as to Willow’s current predicament wasn’t worth further inquiry then?”

Rising to his feet, a frowning Xander took the book from Giles, scrutinizing the picture before looking back at Anya.  “How’d you miss this?”

She shrugged, striving for nonchalance even as her heart pounded in her chest.  “The pages must’ve been stuck together.”

As if to test it, the young man flipped the pages of the book, watching as they flowed smoothly with a hushed whisker, then returning to the one in question.  “Maybe you were just tired,” he said, but a flicker of doubt lingered in the timbre of his voice.

“Being tired does not exclude her culpability here,” Giles admonished.  He walked over to the stack he’d been returning to the shelves.  “If she was too tired to satisfactorily do the research, she should’ve taken a break earlier.  As it is, we’re going to have to go back through the books she’s already checked.  We can’t afford to miss anything else at this stage.”

The frosty tone of the Watcher’s voice caused Anya to bristle, and she rose from her chair, hands on her hips.  “It was an honest mistake,” she argued.  “I can’t believe you don’t trust me.”

“Now, Ahn, that’s not what he said---.”

She jerked away when he tried to touch her arm.  “You’re supposed to be on my side, Xander Harris.  Isn’t that what people in relationships do?  I’ve certainly supported you, even when you looked like a complete ass.  Or have you forgotten the dead armadillo debate---?”

“I’m just saying, maybe there’s a good reason why you missed this.”

“And there is.  The pages were stuck together.”  Her voice was hard, her words clipped, and she waited expectantly for one of the two men to respond.  When she was met with silence, she threw up her hands and marched to the doorway.  “Fine.  Be that way.  If I’m so untrustworthy, obviously my research skills are no longer required.  Not like a chart of gardes is going to be much good to you anyway.  It didn’t even have the name or location of the djab it represented in there.”  Twisting the doorknob open, she shot one last angry glance over her shoulder.  “Have fun trying to find Willow,” she barked.  “Try not to get dead.”  And with that, she left the apartment, slamming the door behind her.

The reverberations it left in the room startled Tara into waking, and she sat up, blinking against the morning sunlight.  “What was that?” she queried softly.  “Did I miss something?”

“OK, color me confused,” Xander said, staring at the door.  “Now, I know that particular bunny dream has a tendency to leave Anya a tad on this side of crabby, but…whoa.  That was extreme even for her.”

Without saying a word, Giles extracted the book from the young man’s grasp and quickly scanned the text.  His frown deepened as he flicked through the pages, finally looking up to meet Xander’s bewildered gaze.  “The discussion on djabs is on three pages prior to this chart,” he said quietly.  Two sets of eyes turned to the door.  “How did she know that’s what the chart was for?”

His mouth was grim as he began heading for the door.  He didn’t know why she’d been hiding the information from them, but that was a thought for another day.  “I’ll go get her,” Xander said.

“What was that all about?” Tara asked again once she and Giles were left alone in the apartment.

He handed her the book.  “We know now what the mark on Freddie’s wrist was.”

“What are these?”

“Gardes.  They’re used in vodou culture as both a magical shield from djabs and as an identifying mark for worshipping members.”

“And a djab is…?”

Absently, Giles removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes.  “Literally, it means devil, from the French diable.  In this context, though, they are lesser spirits than the traditional lwa of vodou.  More individualistic.  Their primary function is for magic rather than religion, rather like providing a service in return for proper payment.”

“So Freddie is a member of some vodou group worshipping some unknown djab?”  Even the usually open-minded Tara sounded skeptical at this explanation.  “But what does that have to do with Willow?”

“I don’t know,” the Watcher admitted.  “But perhaps if we can discover the identity of this spirit, we might have a better clue.”

The young witch rose from her seat, yawning widely as she followed Giles back to the stack of books he’d abandoned.  “Is Anya all right?” she asked quietly.  “She was so…jumpy last night, but I thought it was just because of the research.  She didn’t seem to like any of the books you gave her to read.  She kept asking me to trade with her.”

The unsolicited confirmation of his fears regarding the ex-demon didn’t register on Giles’ face as he began sifting through the piles, removing the titles that bore any relation to the topic of vodou.  Somehow, Anya knew more than she was letting on, but for whatever reason, she wasn’t sharing.  Perhaps she considered her reasons valid.  Frankly, he didn’t care.  He wasn’t about to let anything happen to Willow, just because Anya had some hidden agenda.  If Xander didn’t return with her firmly in tow, Giles would go out and bring her back himself.

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

She was lost.

In spite of having the map from the desk, and in spite of the directions she’d gotten from the old lady with the glass eye, Buffy had still managed to turn herself around enough so that she wasn’t even sure which direction was which anymore.  Not that she really cared because she was having fun just taking in the local color, but Spike might have a few choice words if she showed up back at the house without his blood, simply because she couldn’t find the butcher he’d mentioned.  Not to worry, she thought.  I’ll just get it later.

She knew she was in the French Quarter, and from eavesdropping on some of the tourists that seemed to have multiplied like bunnies as soon as she’d emerged from Green Dolphin Street, Buffy had learned that she had stumbled onto the outdoor market, a popular shopping area for the locals and tourists.  The aroma of freshly ground coffee mingled with the spiciness of herbs she didn’t recognize, and it set her stomach to growling as she walked past the open stalls of fruits and vegetables, smiling at the various vendors who called out to her as she passed, each of them pressing her to buy his or her wares.  It didn’t take her long to succumb to her hunger, purchasing a small bag of apples to munch on as she walked. 

The farmers’ market merged into the flea market, a mishmash of tie-dyed dresses, carved masks, and mass-produced “stained glass” very obviously designed for the tourist trade, with the odd silver designer shop thrown in for good measure.  For a brief moment, Buffy considered buying something to take back---maybe one of those blackface pecan-shell magnets, or some of that hot sauce---but then memories of why exactly she was here in the first place took hold, and her step returned to the path before her.  Willow.  She was here for Willow.  This was save-her-best-friend time, not be-a-gawking-tourist time.  There’d be time for sightseeing later.

Turning herself around, Buffy made her way back to the produce stands, buying some more bits to take back to the house.  When one of the vendors smilingly suggested she try something more exotic, she hesitated before nodding in acquiescence, deciding this would be her daring tourist act for the day.  Food out of the way, she knew there was no more putting off finding the butcher and found a quiet nook away from the hustle and bustle to more closely examine her map.

“Can’t find what’s not lost,” a throaty voice chuckled from behind her.

The startled Slayer jerked her head up, twisting her torso to look at whoever had spoken to her.  In the doorway of the shop she sat in front of, lounged a heavyset black woman, her fleshy arm oozing over the doorjamb from the weight that pressed against it, a jangle of beads hanging from her neck.  A wide smile creased her weatherworn face, lighting the black of her eyes with a merry twinkle, and Buffy felt herself relaxing in the woman’s presence.

“Well, since I’m the one lost here, I don’t think finding myself’s going to be a problem,” she replied.  She gestured toward the map.  “I’m just trying to find---.”

“Alain’s.”

Buffy frowned.  “How’d you…” she started, only to see the name and address Spike had written out for her sitting in plain view on the ground between them.  She smiled, her disquiet ebbing.  “Oh.  Right.”  She hesitated.  “I don’t suppose…you can tell me where Burgundy Street is?”

“On the other side of Bourbon.  Not too far from here.  Very walkable.”  Her eyes narrowed, and her smile faded as she watched the young blonde begin the arduous task of refolding the map.  “He has after dark hours as well, you know,” she finally ventured.  “You should tell your…friend…to fetch it for himself.”

In spite of the heat, her words sent an icy chill across the Slayer’s skin, and she slowly lifted her hazel gaze to meet the black one boring down at her.  “What are you talking about?” she asked slowly.

The woman laughed.  “Alain’s is a highly specialized market, and it is very obvious…”  She looked up pointedly at the sunshine that beat down on Buffy’s bare legs.  “…that you do not wish to purchase his wares for yourself.”

“You knew it was a him, though.”

“Because I can see him floating all around you, darlin’.  Smiling.  Laughing.  You’re all covered with him.”

The chill had begun to seek into her flesh, and Buffy rose to her feet, holding her map and purchases close to her body.  “Are you a witch?” she quizzed, senses alert.  It had to be the only explanation.  Why else would she claim to be able to know about Spike?

Another laugh, deeper this time, rolling in amusement.  “Lord, no.  I just…see things.  That can’t surprise you.  Someone with your kind of power must have friends who are just like me.  Enemies, too, I’d reckon.”

“Yes.  No.  I don’t know.”  She shook her head, as if by doing so that would cause the confusion to settle into something she recognized.  “You said, I’m covered in Spike?  What is that supposed to mean?”

“Is that his name?  Spike?”  The woman nodded.  “Fitting.”  Her eyes twinkled.  “You might want to tell him to try experimenting with color, though.  He may like the black, but one of these days, he’s going to need to wrap himself in red if he wants to stay safe from the serpent.”

Now it was just getting weird, and Buffy’s feet began inching their way backwards.  “I’ll…tell him that,” she said, choosing her words carefully.  “And…thanks for the directions.  I’ll just…be moseying on along…”

  “Wait.”  There was no mistaking the command in the voice, and the Slayer stopped automatically, scolding herself even as she did so.  “Wait,” the woman repeated, and disappeared just inside the shop.

This was her chance to run, to leave the crazy woman far, far behind, but Buffy’s feet refused to move, waiting patiently on the walk until the woman reappeared.  As she approached, Buffy focused on the string that now dangled from her thick fingers, the small leather bag swinging gently from it.

“You have not been in my city long enough to have got one for yourself,” the woman said, and placed the string around her neck, letting the charm nestle in the vee of her tank top.  “This is a gris gris.”   She pronounced it gree gree, her accent lilting against Buffy’s ear.  “Even those who are chosen can need protecting sometimes.”

The Slayer didn’t say a word, keeping her gaze locked to the other’s as she backed away, waiting until there was several feet between them before turning around.  OK, first thing I do when I get back is have a word with Spike, she thought determinedly as she hastened her step.  Nowhere in the brochure did it say anything about psycho locals making with the mojo if you parked yourself on their stairs.  Somebody should’ve warned me.

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

The forest pulsed with life, from the slight rustle of the wind through the leaves overhead, jostling them aside to expose the errant stars to the ground, to the faint skittering of insects beneath the undergrowth that sprawled across the forest’s bed.  Even the smell of fresh rain that hung in the air filled Spike’s body with the tremors of life, and he inhaled deeply, drinking in the offering as if his existence depended on it.

He knew right away he was dreaming.  He may have been proud of his body, as far from shy as one could get without getting arrested---although that had certainly happened on more than occasion, much to the chagrin of more than one dead police officer---but as far as he could remember, he’d never stood naked in the middle of a rain-soaked clump of trees before.  Not that he wouldn’t have if the need had arisen, but the whole thing smacked of something ritualistic, magic, which, in Spike’s personal experience, never usually amounted to anything good for him.

So it was a dream.  Had to be.

He stood at the start of a dirt path, facing the depths of the forest with that surety that could only be provided by dreams that he was supposed to go into it.  His blue eyes lowered, watching the mud created by the recent downpour squelch between his toes, smiling slightly as he wriggled them in the mire.  Something about playing in the muck brought out the kid in him, not that it needed much impetus, and he was about to squat, to scoop a handful of it up so that he could feel it slide between his fingers when he saw them.

Footprints.

The unmistakable outline of small feet disappearing into the darkness.

Right then, he thought.  S’posed to follow.

So follow, he did, being careful not to disturb the marks of the one before him, walking slightly to the left of the path as he wound his way through the trees.  Deeper, and deeper, and while the shadows grew longer, they were punctuated with increasingly brilliant patches of moonlight, shimmering the green of the foliage so that it gleamed in a radiance that made the poet in him want to resurface.  He fought the instinct, though, keeping his mouth silent, traveling further into the woods with an uncharacteristic silence.

It wasn’t a clearing as much as a widening of the path, and Spike stopped when he saw her sitting on the wet earth.  The rain had soaked her through, gluing her golden hair to her neck in individual strands, drenching the gauzy gown so that it molded to her flesh like a second skin.  Her nipples were hard beneath the dress, twin shadows that made his mouth water, and as his gaze slowly slid down her torso, lingering on the curve of her hip, her giggle echoed throughout the forest.

“Took you long enough,” Buffy said, a smile playing on her lips.

“Didn’t realize there was a time limit,” Spike replied.  The sound of her voice tore his eyes from the promise of her skin, and he found himself shocked by the vibrant green staring back at him, shimmering with the same life that permeated the trees, reflecting their emerald hues in spite of the lack of sunlight.

“I have an expiration date, you know,” she said.  “Kind of comes with the job.  That’s why I have to grab what I can, when I can.”  Her smile grew wistful, pulling at Spike’s gut, drawing him a step closer.  “Except sometimes I forget that.  It gets hard.  You know.  Saving the world has a tendency to be mildly distracting.”

“Can’t say that I’ve got any personal experience with that, pet.”

“You helped me with Angel, remember?  The big giant stone statue ready to suck in the world?”

“And I didn’t stick around for the curtain call, if you care to think back.  Me and Dru were halfway to the border by the time you finished up there.”

“But you still helped,” she argued.  “You can’t deny that.  You can’t deny what you did.”

“I did it for Dru.  Nothing altruistic about it in the slightest.  Makes a world of difference.”  Why was he having this argument? Spike thought.  Usually, when he dreamed about Buffy, it involved fists, sometimes fangs, very often other body parts as well.  This sudden penchant for conversation was unnerving.

“And driving me to New Orleans now?” she continued.  Slowly, she rose to her feet, but didn’t move from her spot, the gown falling in sticky folds to wrap around her legs.

“Funny what the promise of bodily damage to my person can motivate me to do.”

“That’s a load of bullpucky and you know it.”  Defiantly, she folded her arms across her chest, but instead of hiding her breasts, they thrust out over them.

His eyebrows shot up in amusement.  “See, now I know this is a dream ‘cause no way would the Slayer ever use the term ‘bullpucky.’”

“Someone’s being Mr. Avoidy,” she singsonged.

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Are…”  She sighed, shaking her head.  “This is such a waste of this dream, Spike.  We can go on and on like this until you wake up, but then where will we be?”  Her eyes softened, gazing at him in a way the vampire had never witnessed outside of his own imaginings.  “You saw a path, and you chose to follow it.  Why is it so hard for you to admit that you wanted to do this?”

“Y’know, this whole metaphysical debate with myself might work a helluva lot better if you didn’t look like the Slayer.”

She clucked her tongue, frowning in mock admonition.  “There’s Mr. Avoidy again.”

Spike growled, but was unable to take his gaze from her, watching as she just waited for him to respond, those green eyes driving into his chest to pluck out the truth, forcing it to his tongue.  “So…I like Red.  S’not a crime.  She’s smart, and she’s got a rough lot sometimes gettin’ stuck in the shadows.  I can relate to that.”

“And?  What about me?”

Another growl.  “You know I want you, Buffy.”  He could move then, muscles stretching to step forward, sapphire glued to her face as he closed the distance between them.

“And?” she breathed as he stopped just inches from her.

“And?”  Spike frowned.  “And?  No and.”  His hand came up, began tracing the line of her clavicle through her dress.  “Just want.”

“There’s always an and.”

“Y’know, I’m thinkin’ Dream Buffy’s just as much of a stubborn bint as Real Buffy.”  He remembered his nudity then, the prickles in his mouth wetting his tongue as it ran along his teeth, his cock throbbing where the tip brushed along her fabric-covered waist.

She laughed, and edged herself closer, allowing his hardness to nestle between their bodies as her arms lifted to around his neck.  Skimming her lips along his jaw, she stopped just beside his ear, her breath fanning warmly across his skin.  “Like you hate it,” she teased.

“Uh huh, hate you, Slayer,” he breathed, eyes fluttering shut as he savored her nearness. 

“That’s why you followed me, then?  Because you hate me?”

“Followed ‘cause you left a path a mile wide.”

“Exactly.”  Tiny teeth caught his earlobe, tugging at it gently as she pressed herself against his lean form.  “Why do you think that is?”

“Don’t…know…”  Christ, how’d she expect him to think when she did that?

“C’mon, Spike…think about it…”

“Can’t…”

Her mouth was open now, against his neck, sucking at his jugular with an insistent rhythm that matched the throbbing in his cock.  His hands curled into her waist, the moan escaping from the back of his throat as the world eddied around him.  When he felt her slide back up to his ear, he almost pulled away in frustration, his need for her to continue straining against his skin.  Stop talkin’, he wanted to say, but couldn’t, locked within her embrace as sure as if she’d lashed him to her.

The ringing that came from her mouth wasn’t what he was expecting, though, and Spike stiffened, confusion tempering his desire.  “What was that, luv?” he asked, his voice husky.

There was another ring, this time more shrill, more insistent.

Sounds like a bloody phone, he thought…

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

The third ring woke him up.

Spike’s body jerked reflexively against the white comforter, sliding along the satin sheets as his arm shot to grab the phone that sat on the nightstand.  “What?” he barked roughly into the receiver.

A moment of silence preceded the slight cough from the line’s other end, and the vampire fell back against the pillows, rubbing sleepily at his eyes.  “Bloody woke me up, Rupert, you know that, right?”

“I’m…sorry, Spike.  I assumed Buffy would answer.”

“Well, you know what they say about…Never mind.  What’s so damn important you’re callin’ and disturbing my beauty sleep?”

As Giles relayed the findings from that morning, Spike scrabbled for a pencil and piece of paper from the nightstand, jotting down a few notes as the Watcher spoke.  Better to get this right from the starting gate, he thought.  If I mess up the Slayer’s first real leads for findin’ Red, she’ll stake me for sure.

“Is that it?” the vampire asked when Giles fell silent. 

“We’re still…looking,” came the reply.  “Unfortunately, Xander was unable to find Anya, and rather than waste more time looking for her, we focused on the books she’d supposedly checked last night.”

“Any idea on why she’d scarper off like that?”

Spike could almost hear the rubbing of Giles’ glasses through the phone as the Watcher sighed.  “Not really,” he admitted.  “She’s been acting…odd since Willow disappeared.  Well, odder than her usual.  Xander seems to think she may know something more than she’s tellin’.”

Spike snorted.  “Doesn’t take a genius to suss that one out.”

“He’s going to resume the search for her now that we’ve covered the texts she didn’t.  I’m certain we’ll have some sort of explanation for all this before the day is through.”  There was an awkward pause.  “How are…you?” Giles asked, his voice tentative.  “Buffy merely said the pair of you had arrived safely when she rang last night.  You don’t…sound as if you’re…worse for wear.”

“Nah,” Spike said.  “You don’t have to worry about your Slayer goin’ Rambette on my undead ass.  She and I came to a…”  He grinned, glancing down at the erection that still lingered from his dream.  “…mutual understanding.  I scratch her back…”  He had to fight not to chuckle.  “…and she scratches mine.”

Relief flooded through the phone.  “I’m glad.  I was…worried you would be unable to work together on this.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but your help will be invaluable in our retrieving Willow safely, I’m sure.  I…appreciate what you’re doing.”

The twinge of guilt that sprung in his stomach took the vampire by surprise, and his smile faded.  “Hey, now, Rupes,” he warned.  “Don’t you be goin’ soft on me.  Or is this all part of your higher callin’ rigamarole you were spoutin’ at me in my crypt not too long back?  ‘Cause I told you then---.”

“Yes, yes, I remember.  You’re not a white hat, Spike.  I’ll make sure it gets announced at the next meeting, just so everyone is clear.”

It was all he could do not to slam the phone down.  Soddin’ Watcher was laughing at him!  There was no mistaking the patronizing tone of the Englishman’s response as he pretended to play along, and Spike pursed his lips to stop himself from saying something that would only get him into trouble with Buffy if she found out.

“You do that,” he said tersely.  “Are you ‘bout done?  Because I’ve got a few more hours of sleep ahead of me.  Made record time on this road trip, not that you care, but I just know the Slayer didn’t tell you.  Think that merits some extra shuteye, don’t you?”

“Yes, quite.”  He chuckled.  “Tell Buffy I will call if we learn anything else.”

Spike glared at the phone after he replaced in the cradle, anger at how the Watcher was perceiving him roiling in his gut.  Not a white hat, he groused.  Big Bad here.  Just doin’ this to get nearer to Buffy.  That’s all.  No other reason.

Dream Buffy’s words came back to him then, and the vamp scowled.  All right, so maybe he was a little concerned about the witch.  Didn’t make him a bloody good guy, now did it?  Just meant…fuck…he didn’t know what it meant.

His blue gaze flickered over the paper he still held in his hand, and his brain automatically began ticking over.  This kind of information actually narrowed down the search parameters considerably, whether Rupert realized it or not.  With this kind of a lead, Spike knew exactly who he needed to go to.  It just meant making a few more phone calls.

Before he knew what he was doing, the phone was back in the vampire’s hand, the number punched in automatically.  It wasn’t until he heard the demon’s voice on the other end that it dawned on Spike how quickly he’d gone into doing what he could to help Buffy and her friends.  Not goin’ to think about it, he decided.  Just goin’ to do this, and get it over with so me and the Slayer can get back to the important stuff of figuring out what the hell is happening between us.

Out loud, he affected his most Big Bad voice.  “Need you to do some things for me, Pablo,” he said.

 

To be continued in Chapter 10: ‘Round Midnight