DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  The Scoobies know more about what’s going on and have decided to go to New Orleans, while Buffy and Spike have come across Pablo back at the cottage and gathered just a little more information regarding Stella’s plans for Willow…

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

Chapter 17: That's What Happened

He had the phone to his ear when she walked back into the cottage.

“Still no answer?” Buffy asked, casting a quick glance at Pablo’s unconscious form in the piano.

Spike shook his head, replacing the receiver back on its base.  “I tried Harris’ place, too, but same thing.  Ring ring, and then the bloody answering machine.  Someone needs to tell the boy to change his message.  Alf stopped bein’ funny five minutes before it ever hit the airwaves.”

She didn’t even hear the gibe at Xander as she frowned at the vampire’s words.  “Where do you think they could be?  Unless we missed some weather report telling the world that hell has officially frozen over, there’s no way Giles abandoned researching this.”

“Rupert still has to eat, luv.  He probably just ran to the shops or something.  We’ll try again when we get to the hotel.”

She didn’t like it, but in light of their current time crunch, Buffy knew she didn’t have much choice in the matter.  They couldn’t afford to be sticking around the cottage longer than necessary, and though she really wanted to know why neither Giles nor Xander was home, she couldn’t afford to dwell on it when they could just continue their efforts once they got somewhere Iris couldn’t find them right away. 

A pang of guilt about not having the phone numbers of her best friends’ significant others memorized stabbed in Buffy’s gut, but then again, she’d never really considered the possibility that Giles might not be home.  It seemed like all he did was Watcher-related, although there had been that time when the gang had said they’d caught him singing in public.  Not that she thought that was what he was doing now, but…She shook her head.  Rambling was going to get her nowhere.  They’d just try again when they got someplace safe.  And she’d call information and get Anya and Tara’s numbers, too, just in case.

A soft plink came from the piano, and Buffy broke from her reverie to see Spike shifting Pablo’s body, his hands burrowing into the demon’s clothing.  “What are you doing?” she asked.

“What’s it look like I’m doin’?” he replied, and promptly extracted a large wallet.  “The way I figure it, he owes us this.”

“You can’t take his wallet, Spike!”

“I’m not.”  He grinned, the wad of bills that had caused the billfold to bulge disappearing into his duster pocket.  “I’m takin’ his cash.”

With three strong steps, Buffy was at his side, pulling the money from his coat.  “I’m not lettin’ you do this,” she said and tried to grab at the wallet, only to sigh in exasperation when he held it over his head, out of her immediate reach.  “We’re not stealing from him.  That would be wrong.”

Spike’s eyebrow shot up in surprise.  “You’ve got no problem torturing a zemmiphobic Luravian demon with the sewers but you won’t nick a few bob off him?  Has anyone ever told you your priorities are seriously out of whack here, Slayer?”

“Hey!  My priorities are perfectly in whack, thank you very much.  And what’s being afraid of the Marx Brothers got anything to do with anything?”

He stared at her blankly for a long moment while the latter part of her statement sank in, then rolled his eyes even as the smile came dancing to his lips.  “I said zemmiphobic, not zeppophobic, you silly chit.  Rats.  His thing about rats, remember?  Which only goes to prove what I said about your soddin’ schools over here---.”

Buffy held up a hand.  “Don’t.  Start,” she warned.  “Or you’ll force me to start addressing you as Giles Jr.  Or maybe just Junior.”  She grinned.  “Somehow I don’t think you want me to get used to calling you names that imply something little.”

He snorted.  “You just give me a chance, pet.  I’ll show you what’s not---.”

She surprised him by jumping up, snatching the billfold from his grasp and landing back on her feet before he could finish the sentence.  Tucking the money back into the worn leather, she tossed it back into the piano.  “Oh, look,” she said brightly.  “Issue over.”

“Slayer---.”

“I’ve decided I want a Holiday Inn or a Marriott or something like that this time,” Buffy said as she grabbed his hand and began pulling him toward the front door.  “Maybe even a suite.  I think we deserve a suite, don’t you?”

“Can’t bloody afford a suite now,” Spike grumbled, but his amusement belied the gruffness of his tone.  Not that he exactly got what her problem was in taking Pablo’s money---after all, the wanker had sold them out and then had the balls to come back to their place to rummage through their fridge---but the sight of her righteous indignation coupled with the warmth of her hand in his was enough to make it a non-issue for him.  Besides, they were on their way to fresh beds---or just one if he could help it---with hours to squander before they had to get out to Sira Sommeil.  The last thing he currently wanted was for her to get pissed at him for something as trivial as a few bucks.  Not with what he had planned.

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

He waited a full five minutes after the door closed before even daring to open an eye.  His forehead hurt from the cigarette burn, and his jaw was a little sore from the Slayer’s punch, but all in all, Pablo had to admit that he’d gotten off a little easy from their torture session.  Of course, Iris might have different ideas about that once she realized Spike and Buffy knew where she was going to be that night, but it didn’t stop him from being relieved he didn’t have to worry about the rat dreams returning.  Kimmy got a little annoyed when he started slapping her in his sleep, thinking she was one of the rodents out to chew him alive.

Slowly extracting himself from the rubble that was the piano, Pablo saw his wallet fall to the floor, some of the bills escaping to flutter against the smooth surface.  He shook his head.  Spike’s going soft, he thought.  Slayer-whipped and he doesn’t even know it.  At least they hadn’t started making out in front of him again.  He didn’t think he could’ve faked his unconsciousness if he’d had to listen to them macking on each other.  One kiss from them and his gagging noises would’ve been sure to give him away.  He was just going to have to thank the hellgods for small favors.

Pablo grimaced as one of the piano legs finished crumbling, sending the instrument crashing to the floor on its other side.  Spike’s just lucky I’ve got insurance, he thought irritably, nudging the debris with his foot.  Here’s hoping Iris teaches him a real lesson when he crashes her little swamp party.

It was the thought of Iris that made his blood run colder, and his eyes slid to the telephone.  She was going to kill him when she found out Pablo was the reason Spike and his girlfriend were able to poke their noses into her business tonight.  No, first she’d probably have him flayed and left in the rodent cage at the zoo, then she’d kill him.  Of course, death would be welcome at that point, he couldn’t help but believe, but it didn’t stop the thought of it from making his scales crawl.

Gotta be a way to fix this, his head rushed, and stood there in silence, staring at the phone.  Trying to stop Spike and Buffy on his own was pointless; they’d already proven they could take him in a fight if it came down to being only him.  He would just have to find someone else to stop them.  Or, even better, Iris could stop them herself.  She was going to be pissed enough when she found out they escaped the police; she would probably be grateful for the opportunity to teach them a lesson, once and for all.

His hands were shaking slightly as he punched in the number on the telephone, and he found himself wishing that Iris wouldn’t be there.  He wasn’t sure he had the nerve to talk to her directly and if she answered---.

“What do you want?”

He took a deep breath.  Good.  A lackey.  This could be OK.  “It’s Pablo.  I need to talk to Iris.  It’s urgent.”

“She’s not here.”

Even better.  “It’s imperative I get a message to her before sundown.  If I tell it to you, can you see that she gets it?”

He heard some faint rustling of paper.  “Yeah.  Go ahead.”

“Spike found out about Sira Sommeil tonight.  He’s planning on showing up there with that Slayer girlfriend of his.”

The sound of scribbling.  “Iris isn’t going to like this.”

“That’s why I’m calling.  This way, you guys can stop him.  You’ll…make sure Iris knows I was the one who warned you, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

The receiver went dead in his hand and slowly Pablo set it back down.  There.  He’d done pretty much all he could.  Iris would know about Spike, she’d be so happy about getting the heads-up she wouldn’t hurt Pablo too badly about letting the secret slip in the first place, and life in the Big Easy could return to normal. 

Still…probably wouldn’t hurt to get out of town for a day or two. 

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

From his vantage point in the doorway, Xander watched as his girlfriend tried sitting on the top of her suitcase in an effort to close it, the pale line of a shirt sleeve caught in the lid poking its way out of the side.  He sighed.  “We should only be there for a couple days, Anya.  There’s no reason to pack your entire summer wardrobe.”

“Do you have any idea how hot it is in New Orleans this time of year?” she said, leaning forward to try and force the clasp together.  “It makes the Hellmouth feel like the Arctic Circle.”

His mouth was open to suggest that she just go without clothes if it was that hot when the realization that she probably would stopped his tongue, flashes of Giles and his potentially screaming reaction flitting across his mind.  Instead, he said, “With as much time as you’re taking, I’d almost say you didn’t want to go.”

Anya’s head jerked up.  “I’m the one who suggested it, if you care to remember,” she snapped.  “But if you’re implying that perhaps I’m reluctant to have to face pain and torture and the inevitable sucking of life from my body, then yes, maybe my need to overpack has slowed my pace just a little.”  She stood up and began yanking clothes from the suitcase, tossing them onto the floor before slamming the lid shut again.  Its closing click was loud in the small bedroom.  “There?  Happy now?”

“Ahn, look…”  He stepped forward, turning her around to look at him, his hands on her shoulders.  “I said I was sorry about the way I reacted.  It’s just…Willow’s been my best friend for as long as I can remember.  Do you know how much I hate the fact that I’ve been stuck here while Spike of all people gets to go with Buffy and do the rescuing?  That should’ve been me.  And it would’ve been if we’d known what this was all about from the start.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, I didn’t know for sure that this was what it was about until this morning?”  She pulled herself away, her arms folded across her chest as she struggled to restrain her temper.  There had been a lot of yelling already on the way over from Giles’, and frankly, she was tired of it.  She just wanted to get on with the making up. 

“I don’t want to fight about this anymore---.”

“Then stop bringing it up and carry my bag out to the car.”  She brushed past him, expecting his warm grasp to stop her, and felt her heart constrict when she made it all the way to the door without his moving.  Slowly, Anya turned to look back at him.

“You know…”  His eyes were soft, but his mouth unsmiling.  “I dated Cordelia.  I’ve been at the brunt end of the Mistress of Manipulation.  Don’t do this, Anya.  This isn’t about you.  This isn’t about me.  This is about doing what’s right.”

“But…I did the right thing.  I told you all I knew as soon as I had confirmation.”

“I just hope it was soon enough.”

“It’s going to have to be, Xander.  And you want to talk about manipulation?  How long are you planning on making me feel guilty about this?   Because maybe if I can put a note on my schedule about how long I can expect to be raked over the coals about something that wasn’t completely my fault, it just might make it easier for me to deal with.”

“I’m not---.”

“Yes, you are.”  Anya took a step closer to him, her body stiff but her eyes pleading.  “Why are your little Scooby rules so different for me?” she asked.  “Please explain it to me, because I just don’t get it.  Willow can screw up royally and then get instantly forgiven, but I have one lapse in judgment and I’m the leper of the century?”

“It’s more complicated than that---.”

“No, it’s not.  I mean, it’s hard enough having to live with the fact that no matter what I do, Buffy and Willow will always be more important to you than me, but---.”

“What?”  His gaze was incredulous.  “Ahn…why would you say such a stupid thing?”

Her returning look was just as bewildered.  “Because it’s true.”

Xander moved then, reaching out to brush back the hair from her face.  “I can’t believe you feel like that,” he said.  “Don’t you know how important you are to me?”

“No, I don’t.”  She could feel tears start to well behind her eyes, and straightened her shoulders, not ready to let them fall just yet.  “All I’m asking for is a little understanding, and so far, the only one who’s been halfway human about my little faux pas is Tara.  Don’t you think if she can be big about this, you and Giles can too?”

His gaze hardened, his hand falling back to his side.  “It’s not the same thing.  She hasn’t known Willow for as long as we have.”

“That doesn’t mean she cares about her any less.”  Anya shook her head.  “Newsflash, Xander.  How strong your feelings are for someone isn’t necessarily directly proportional to the amount of time you’ve been in their life.  Take it from the ex-vengeance demon who saw a millennia worth of relationships, even if they weren’t all happy-go-lucky.”  She dropped her eyes, her muscles suddenly weary.  “Can you please get my bag?” she asked.  “Giles is going to get pissy if we miss our flight and he has to rebook everything.  The last thing I need right now is another strike against me.”

He watched her turn and disappear out the doorway, his body still not capable of following.  Good thing Willow’s not here to witness my tremendous foot-in-mouth disease, he thought.  She had a rough enough time telling us about Tara in the first place.  I can’t believe I said that about me and Giles.

But he had, and what scared him most was that part of him actually meant it.  It was wrong, and it wasn’t fair to Tara, but it didn’t stop the feelings of ownership that he had about his oldest friend, the over-developed sense of responsibility he had for her welfare.  Logically, he knew Anya was right, but emotionally, that was a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.  Salmon swimming upstream against the current of reason.

And if he didn’t get them under control soon, he was going to lose Anya as a result.

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

He was stretched out on top of one of the double beds when she dumped the last load from the car inside the door, hands behind his head, ankles crossed as he watched her collapse into the chair by the window.

“Next time we stay someplace requiring luggage,” Buffy grumbled, pushing back the damp strands of hair from her forehead, “I vote for post-sunset check-in time.  You’re getting off way too easy on this whole moving in and out thing.”

“I unloaded at the cottage when we hit town,” Spike replied with a smirk.  He watched as she picked up the brochure that sat in the middle of the table at her side, using it to fan her face.  A single rivulet of sweat ran down the side of her neck, detouring slightly along the contour of her collarbone, hesitating as if aware it had an audience, before continuing its lethargic slide down her chest.  His gaze followed it down, his demon within growling in need, and felt his skin pulse as it disappeared between her breasts.

“’Sides,” he continued, his voice huskier.  “I think I prefer the hot and bothered version of Buffy.  Kind of…primal.”  His tongue ran along the edge of his teeth.  “Sexy.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “Ewww.  Kind of stinky, you mean,” she replied, oblivious to his scrutiny.  “So much for showering before we left.  I swear I can still smell sewer rat in my hair.”

Spike growled.  Surprisingly enough, the possibility of bathroom sex hadn’t occurred to him.  “Shower sounds good,” he drawled.  He hadn’t had one back at the cottage; maybe he could use this as an excuse to get his hands on her instead.  His head was flooded with sudden images of lathering her up, rinsing her down, her golden body arching back against him...

“Maybe after I unpack,” she was saying, and he frowned as she rose from her seat and tossed her bag onto the other bed, unzipping its top and pulling her things out.

“What’s the rush, pet?” he quizzed, sitting up and reaching for his cigarettes where he’d tossed them on the nightstand.  “We can’t go anywhere until sunset anyway.  We’ve got hours to waste here.”

“Spike, you can’t smoke in here.”

His hand stopped midway.  “And why’s that?”  When Buffy pointed to the sign attached to the wall, he grimaced.  “You couldn’t have asked for a smoking room?”

“You can smoke outside.”

“And go poof in the process.  No thanks.”

“Here.”  She reached into her bag and tossed something at him.  “You want something in your mouth, use this.”

He held up the brightly wrapped candy.  “A lollipop?  I’m not some bleedin’ Munchkin, luv.”  In spite of his grumbling, though, he pulled the cellophane off and shoved the sweet in his mouth, rolling it around his tongue as he watched her pull more items from her duffel.

“I still have to get a hold of Giles,” Buffy said.  “And if that means sitting on that phone hitting redial until the sun goes down, then I’m going to do it.”

“Don’t have to.”  His smug tone took her off-guard, and she hesitated in transferring her clothes to the drawers.  “Already called Rupes and left him a message about where we’re at.  Complete with room number.  We just have to wait for him to call us back.  So, all sorted.”

“Oh.”  Her eyes settled on his, searching the blue depths.  So much had happened over the past twenty-four hours.  It didn’t really seem possible that just this time yesterday she had been wandering around the French Quarter, trying to find that butcher for Spike.  Then last night at Midnight, the kisses, the dancing, seeing him in his element.  And the piano…

Her skin flushed at the memory.  Should’ve been just a little rougher with Pablo, Buffy thought.  He’s the reason we didn’t go any further. 

And it was the further she was contemplating now.  Today had been kind of rough, with the misunderstandings and arguments, but their teaming up on their would-be betrayer had forced the camaraderie to return to their relationship, putting them back on the same side.

And how weird is it to think of me and Spike on the same side? she wondered.  Except it wasn’t weird, not after everything.  Certainly not after what she’d practically admitted to him before her shower.  Love Spike?  It could happen, she knew that now.  Maybe that was what Riley had meant by everything, about his belief in her failure to commit to their relationship.  Maybe he had seen something there that she hadn’t.

She was still unpacking as she mused, although more as an autonomic response than anything else, watching the vampire on the bed as if trying to figure out what to say next to him.  He had rolled onto his side as she moved, head propped up in his left hand, hooded gaze glued to every motion she made, while his right hand kept hold of the lollipop in his mouth, cheeks sucked in as he worked at the hard nub of candy.  Every once in a while, his lips would part, and Buffy would see his teeth firmly trapping the stick in place, the sounds of his sucking reminding her of his tongue doing all those naughty tricks to her on the piano bench.          

Her fingers tingled as if from unseen electrical shock, the slightest of tremors compelling her to hasten, stuffing her clothes into the drawers with an uncharacteristic disinterest.  When they pulled out the necklace she’d received in the market, though, she had barely turned away when Spike’s voice cut through her fugue.

“What’s that?” he asked.

It wasn’t a casual inquiry.  The tone of his voice had sharpened, his body tensing as he stared at the leather bag dangling from the string, and she looked over to see the sweet forgotten in his grip.

Buffy frowned.  “It’s a gris gris,” she said.

Spike rolled his eyes.  “I know what it is.  The question is, why the hell do you have one?”

“I got it from the woman who gave me directions to the butcher.  Didn’t I tell you about that?”

“Not about this part,” he growled, and bolted to his feet, tossing the candy to the side before snatching the charm from her grasp to look at it more closely.  “Why’d she do it?  Did you ask her for one?”

“No.  She just gave it to me.  She said something about ‘even those who are chosen need protecting.’  Or something like that.”

At the word “chosen,” Spike’s head shot up, eyes blazing into hers.  “Jesus, Buffy, are you telling the whole bloody city who you are?  It’s no wonder Iris sussed us out!”

“I didn’t!” she shot back.  Her temper was rising now, his own edginess serrating her mood to elevate it to his level.  All thoughts of romantic intimacy vanished in his mood shift, and she squared off with him, head thrown back. “She just knew!  She knew a lot of stuff.”  She poked him in the chest.  “She even knew about you, you big jerk.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you.  All the way down to the black clothes.  She even supported my theory that you really need to inject some color into your wardrobe---.”

His hands gripped her upper arms, forcing her to look up at him, the leather strap wound through his fingers as he did so.  “Stop kidding around here, pet,” he said, his voice dangerous.  “Complete strangers don’t stop tourists in the street and give them some ol’ gris gris they just happen to have lyin’ about.  Especially ones as potent as this.  Now.  Tell me what she said.”

Her own eyes were flashing in tune to his anger.  “She really did talk about your clothes,” she protested.  “She said you needed to wrap yourself in red if you wanted to stay safe from the serpent.”

“The serpent?  What serpent?”

She shook her head.  “I didn’t stick around long enough to ask.  She gave me the gris gris and I took off.  After all her talk about me being covered in you, I was more than just a little wigged.”

If he could’ve paled, he would’ve.  Buffy saw the slight widening of his eyes at her words, felt his fingers loosen their hold on her arms.  His gaze shifted away from hers, focusing somewhere off to her right, as if suddenly he wasn’t even in the hotel room anymore.

“… I can still see her floating all around you, laughing.  Why?  Why won’t you push her away?”

“Floating,” he muttered, his eyes lost in memory.

Buffy stiffened.  “Yeah,” she said.  “And laughing.  That’s what she said.”  Puzzlement shaded her aspect.  “How’d you know that?”

“...You can’t blame the ghoul, Spike.  You’re all covered in her.  I look at you…all I see is the Slayer.”

He hadn’t had a clue as to what Dru had been talking about.  It didn’t make any more sense than any of her other babble, and he’d just chalked it up as an excuse to explain her behavior with the chaos demon.  Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. 

For every charlatan in New Orleans, there was someone with just as much real power, and the type of gris gris that Buffy had received from this anonymous woman was clear proof that she definitely belonged in the latter category.  Seers were real; he’d spent enough time with Dru to learn that.  Was it possible that someone had seen the same thing with the Slayer as his ex had with him?

Suddenly, his head started to pound from the confusion of his thoughts, and Spike stepped away, hand going up to grasp the back of his neck as he looked anywhere but at her.  He couldn’t think straight with her standing so close, and right now, it seemed imperative that he suss this out.

“Spike?”  Her voice was soft, her own bewilderment driving her forward to follow him.  “What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’,” he said, but his tone was hollow.  “Just…”  He shook his head.  “Nothin’.”  A quick flick of his wrist landed the gris gris in the middle of the bed.  Didn’t want to be touching it.  Had to think.  Him and Buffy.  What did all the hocus pocus mean?

Stepping to the bed, Buffy picked up the leather bag, turning it over and over in her fingers as if it could divulge Spike’s secrets, tell her why his mood had changed so.  “Do you want me to get rid of it?” she queried hesitantly.  “Would that make…whatever is wrong better?”

“No, no, not necessary,” he said.  Spotting his toiletries waiting to be put away was all the inspiration he needed to further the distance between them.  “Y’know,” he said, grabbing the black bag, “If you’re not too fussed about goin’ second, I think I’m goin’ to have a wash up.  Think that sewer smell’s finally starting to get to me.”

He was through the door, closing it behind him, before Buffy could react.  What the hell just happened here? she wondered, staring at the door that now separated them.  He’d been flirting with her only minutes ago---of that, she was certain---but this mood shift, this sense of distraction, had come out of the blue, shattering that.

Well, not completely out of the blue.  It had come with the extraction of the gris gris and the words the woman had spoken to her.

What was it Spike wasn’t telling her…?

 

To be continued in Chapter 18:  I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed by Anyone But You