He saw her before she saw him, standing in the doorway waiting for him, watching the people on the dance floor as her own body swayed gently to the music. All thoughts of what had happened in the alley vanished as Spike paused, slipping into the shadow of the wall so that he could watch her undetected, blending into the darkness even as his skin and hair glowed from the ambient light.
She wanted more. This sylph-like creature, rooted with a transient footing in both his world and hers, wanted him. Needed him. Her words. Not his. All he’d asked was that she vocalize them. He never demanded that she place such labels on it; he’d only grown tired of the uncertainty of the whole thing and needed the definitive word from the Slayer on what just exactly was going on between them.
If she’d said it was just about the sex, that would’ve been fine. Easier, even. Especially considering the ramifications of what a more serious relationship would mean to her friends. Briefly, Spike wondered if she’d thought about that yet. For some reason, he wasn’t sure Rupert would be that upset. Not thrilled, most definitely, but how many times had the vamp had to listen to that higher purpose lecture over the past few months? The Watcher believed that he could be a fit within their dynamic, and for once, Spike was beginning to believe him. A fit orchestrated by his relationship with Buffy.
Secretly, though, or honestly depending on how he looked at it, he was glad she wanted more. Not for what seemed an eternity had his world made as much sense as it did when she was in it. Grounding him. Giving him direction. Purpose, even. Light into the darkness, if he wanted to wax all bleedin’ poetic about it. His own feelings were a jumble, so he could only imagine what was going on through her head, but the possibility that he could love this stubborn, beautiful, infuriating, powerful woman loomed large on the horizon, and for once, he didn’t shy from what it offered.
Love the Slayer.
Yeah. He could do that.
Hell, he was mostly there already.
He saw her gaze shift then, turning to look directly at him, and she smiled, giving him a little gesture with a toss of her head, indicating for him to come out of the shadows and join her at the door. Automatically, Spike’s feet moved and the irony of his earlier thoughts did not go unforgotten.
Not ready to be at her beck and call, eh, mate? he thought as he sauntered to her side, his duster swirling gently around his legs. She didn’t even have to say the words this time and you were right there. So much for that so-called self-esteem you were so bound and determined to hold on to.
“I just remembered this little store I walked by,” she said as he approached. “I’m pretty sure it was near where I got the gris gris.” Her body tensed to turn, but something she saw in his face made her hesitate, a thin line appearing between her brows as the corner of her mouth lifted in confusion. “What?” she asked.
He couldn’t help the hand that came up to cup her face, or the way his thumb stroked the arch of her cheekbone. “You’re so beautiful,” he murmured, not caring how poncy he sounded. Before she could respond, his head had lowered, his lips lightly brushing across hers, but even that most gentle of caresses sent a charge over his skin, igniting the pit inside him, driving his other hand to slide up over her ribcage. His hand cupped her breast, and he could feel the hard bud of her nipple poking through the thin fabric, felt the heat rolling off her as his own skin soaked it up like a sponge.
Against his mouth, Buffy moaned, encouraging him to deepen the kiss. When he tried though, Spike was surprised by her pulling away, and looked up to see the concern mired in the green. “What?” it was his turn to ask.
Her fingers came up and trailed over the healing burns on his face. “I’m worried about hurting you,” she said.
Spike smirked. “You couldn’t have had that thought before you dropped an organ on my back?”
Her jaw dropped in surprise, and she pushed him away in mock-protest, taking care to avoid the burned side of his body. “That was more than two years ago, you jerk. And if you care to remember, you kind of had it coming. ”
As she began to flounce away, Spike laughed and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back against him. “Love seein’ you like this,” he said, nuzzling his face into her hair before drawing his lips down the side of her neck. “All fire and perky self-righteousness---.”
“---and glowing from havin’ just been kissed makes a vamp go all a-quiver,” he finished, his voice muffled as his blunt teeth caught the lobe of her ear and tugged playfully. He pressed his erection into her the curve of her ass, chuckling when he felt her heartbeat accelerate in response. “But nothin’ warms these old cockles more than knowing you’re concerned for my welfare.”
He couldn’t see her face, but Buffy smiled anyway. “Since when do cockles get hard when they’re heated?” she teased and slipped a hand behind her, between their bodies, to rub the length of his cock.
Spike growled at the touch. “You do know those bloody burns stop from the waist down, right?” he said into her skin. “We could forego that second sweep and just head on back to the hotel, you know.” Her sigh within his arms, accompanied by the disappearance of her hand, told him her answer. Not that it wasn’t what he was expecting. Buffy wouldn’t want to give up until all her options were exhausted. And if it took another look around the Quarter to do it, she would.
“There’s an ice machine at the hotel, right?” she asked lightly, grabbing to take his hand in hers even as she pulled away and headed through the entrance. The look she shot him over her shoulder was sly. “Maybe we can---.”
She was cut short by the looming figure of a large black man suddenly appearing before her on the sidewalk. “I have been waiting,” he said.
“That right?” Spike said, head tilting as his blue eyes swept up and down the dark figure. Bulging with muscles, bald as an eagle, with flashes of gold in his teeth to match the earring in his left ear.
And a pulse.
Damn. The bloke was human.
“You have been searching for the Old One, have you not?” The man’s black gaze settled on the hollow between Buffy’s breasts. “You wear her charm, so I know you are the one.”
Buffy and Spike exchanged a look, both frowning at the odd words. “I’ve been looking for someone---,” she said.
“The Old One,” he interrupted.
“She wasn’t really that old.”
He smiled. “I refer to her soul, not her flesh.”
“Oh.” The Slayer’s fingers strayed to the gris gris. “How’d you know we were looking for her?”
“The inquiries of she who is Chosen and her vampire companion have been heard. I’ve been sent to fetch you.”
“Guess stopping all those people paid off,” Buffy said, glancing up at Spike. “Bet you’re feeling bad about giving me a hard time about it now, aren’t you?”
He rolled his eyes in response. “Not bloody likely,” he said. “Just remember how you felt when I was chattin’ up that bartender.” He shoved his hands into his duster, staring at the man before them. “Where is it you think you’re takin’ us?”
For the first time, the black man looked confused. “I have said. To the Old One.”
“Got that. Meant the actual where, Mr. Clean. As in location? Don’t really fancy takin’ a trip halfway across the city just to scratch an itch about gettin’ my own gris gris if I don’t have to.”
“Oh.” The man turned, pointing down the street. “She waits at the store. Two blocks down.”
Buffy’s playful slap of his arm caused Spike to wince as a stab of pain from his injury shot down his side. “I knew we were close,” she said, suddenly excited.
“No, you knew we were lost,” he countered, and just shook his head as he watched her fall quickly into step with their guide. Not that he was bothered by this sudden turn of events. Even if Spike couldn’t really do anything if things turned, Buffy could certainly hold her own with Tall, Dark, and Dangerous, and getting the charms on order now just meant getting the Slayer back to their new hotel room all that much quicker.
He grinned as he followed after the pair. He’d show her that his little tricks back in the club were only the tip of the iceberg.
The realization that they’d actually passed the tiny hole-in-the-wall shop at least twice in their sojourns through the French Quarter did not go unnoticed by Spike, but he held his tongue as they crossed the threshold, noting the touristy displays near the front of the shop segueing into the more eclectic as they penetrated the bowels of the building. The air practically crackled with magic; it wouldn’t surprise the vampire if there was some type of spell on the place warding it from notice from unwanted visitors. Buffy probably would never have been able to find it without some sort of outside aid.
They were led up a narrow stairwell, and their guide stopped at the top, knocking at the door that was there. Muffled footsteps came from within, and it was quickly opened, revealing the fleshy outline of a very large black woman. She wore a brightly colored sleeveless dress, as well as a bright smile, and Spike felt a quirk of amusement tug at his lips. Someone who obviously had no qualms being comfortable with herself, he thought.
“Certainly took you long enough,” the woman said, stepping aside to allow the group entrance.
“And hello to you, too,” Buffy said as she slipped past her.
Slowly, Spike climbed the remaining steps, but hesitated at the uppermost, feeling the natural boundary holding him back. Inside the apartment, Buffy glanced back once she realized he was no longer behind her, and he just shrugged, leaning against the jamb.
“Got no problems watchin’ from here,” he said. “Not like I’m much use against this kind of mojo anyway.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed slightly as she met the vampire’s blue ones, probing even as her smile never dimmed. “You’re Spike,” she said slowly, and her gaze slid to the burns on his face before following the path down the wounded side of his body, as if she could see the injuries beneath his clothing.
Inadvertently, Spike stiffened under her scrutiny, feeling her eyes like a physical caress. Now he understood why the Slayer had wigged out like she had. The sway of the black woman’s magic rippled in the air between them, reaching out to search…something.
No. Not something.
A flash of fear behind his eyes---what would she find? Would he come up short?---left him feeling angrier than he expected, and he assumed his best Big Bad pose in an attempt to cut her investigations short.
It didn’t change a thing, though. Her black gaze remained amused, rapidly assessing him as it swept up and down, finally returning to the burns on his face. She shook her head wryly. “That wasn’t the kind of red I was talking about, darlin’.”
He frowned, shooting Buffy a curious look before turning back to their hostess. “Sorry to disappoint. Don’t s’pose you’d mind sharing what kind of red you had in mind then?”
Her laughter filled the stairwell. “Well, now that wouldn’t be much fun, now would it?” she boomed. “Now, get your skinny ass in here. I don’t feel like standing here all night with all my bits hanging out.”
“Um, he has to be---.”
She cut Buffy off with a wave of her hand. “I know he’s a vampire, child. I wasn’t finished. Consider yourself invited into my home, Spike.”
Tentatively, he straightened and stepped over the threshold, thumbs hooked into the waistband of his jeans as he came to a stop just inside the room. It was just as bright as she was. Garish throws of every hue covered the broken-down couch, while a huge mural was painted directly onto the walls around him, pictures of small brown children playing in a huge field making him feel very much like he’d suddenly stepped outdoors. The bright green carpet didn’t help to dispel the notion.
In the corner, an empty birdcage hanging from the ceiling swung silently in minuscule circles as if caught in some invisible breeze. It didn’t go unnoticed by Buffy, and Spike had to refrain from chuckling out loud when he saw her eyes widen, her hand automatically flying to the charm around her neck only to stop from actually touching it. She’s goin’ to have bird nightmares for the next week, he thought in amusement.
The woman motioned toward the sofa. “Have a seat. I’ve got some lemonade in the fridge if you’re thirsty, although…” She stopped, looking between the two blonds, but as she opened her mouth to speak again, she shook her head. “Don’t think anything I give you two is going to cool you down, now is it?” She chuckled, waving again towards the furniture. “Sit, sit. I hate people who hover. Vampires, too.”
Awkwardly, Buffy tried positioning herself on the edge of the cushion only to fall back into its plushness, the broken springs failing to support her. “We won’t be here long,” she rushed, trying to cover up her clumsiness. “We wanted to talk to you about the gris gris.”
“What’s there to talk about? It worked, didn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, and thanks for that and everything, but---.”
“What the Slayer’s tryin’ not so gracefully to ask,” Spike interjected, perching himself on the arm of the couch, “is how do we go about gettin’ our hands on some more.”
“No!” Buffy argued. “That’s not it!” But under the direct gazes of both the vampire and their hostess, she faltered. “OK, so maybe that’s partly it,” she admitted. “But I also want to know why you did it. Who are you? What do you have to do with Sandrine?”
“I’m nobody, but you can call me Clara. And I only did it because I happen to like this little corner of the world we live in. I’m not that interested in seeing…what did you say her name was?”
Clara shook her head. “I kept getting tree imagery on her. I don’t know why.”
“That’s because the bitch is currently inhabiting my best friend’s body. Her name is Willow.”
“Ah, Willow…” There was a moment of silence as the woman seemed to digest this information. “She won’t be the one who weeps, though,” she finally said thoughtfully, not really focused on her guests surrounding her.
The two blonds waited for her to continue, but instead sat in an awkward quiet for several minutes. “Looks like you were right about her bein’ all Delphian,” Spike finally commented with a lift of his eyebrow.
“Huh?” Buffy looked up at him in confusion.
The small exchange brought Clara back from her thoughts, and she joined in Spike’s flippant mood. “I guess it’s a good thing she’s strong, huh?” she said to him conspiratorially.
“Hey! Sitting right here!” the Slayer protested. “And we found you, didn’t we?”
“Actually, Peter here found you,” Clara said, gesturing to the hulking figure of the bald man now leaning against the door. “And I only sent him to fetch you because you were starting to attract the wrong sort of attention from all your questioning. I like my privacy. I thought it would be better this way.”
“So…you saw all this happening?” Buffy inched forward on the cushion, keeping her balance this time, her face serious as she scrutinized the large woman. “You saw Sandrine and me coming to New Orleans?”
“There have been rumblings for some time now, darlin’. Creatures coming from the shadows to try their hand at getting things that don’t belong to them. Stars screaming out their songs like tomorrow’s not on the schedule. Now usually, me and my kind don’t bother getting involved. These things always have a way of working out, one way or another. Someone makes a mistake, or someone else steps up to the plate to put a stop to it. The scales inevitably always get balanced. But this time…” Clara sighed, her lumbering frame shifting as she crossed the room to the window.
As she pulled aside the curtain, patterns from the moonlight filtered through the glass, and Spike frowned in contemplation as he saw the etchings along the top pane, symbols he didn’t recognize now cast in silver on the carpet. They were wards, he realized, but against what he had no idea.
“…this time,” she was saying, “even the lwa are nervous. They warned of Sandrine’s return, and when signs indicated that the Vampire Slayer would be arriving, I chose to do what I could to help.” She glanced back to smile and wink at Buffy. “You were very easy to lead to my store.”
“So do you see how this is all going to turn out?” Buffy’s face was tight.
Clara shook her head. “There are many possible paths. It…changes with the flow of time. Auras shift as new developments arise.” Her black eyes settled on Spike. “Choices are made when doors are opened. No matter what, though, the blood will flow.”
He flinched under her direct gaze, but said nothing.
“But you’re still willing to help, right?” Buffy insisted, rising to her feet and stepping toward the other woman. “That’s why you gave me this gris gris. You’ve got to be more powerful than Sandrine if this was able to protect me.”
“I’m not more powerful, child. I wish I was. I’d take care of the little witch myself. Problem is, it’s not just her anymore. She’s gained allies. The vampire Iris stands by her now.” She nodded toward Spike. “Your intervention has introduced a new player that I did not see when I first offered my aid.”
“Some kind of seer you are,” Spike muttered.
She ignored his comment and turned back to the window, tracing the patterns on the glass with a thick finger. “If the path that has been taken is completed, the serpent will rise again within a week’s time. It can be defeated, of course, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell the Chosen One that life would be much simpler if it never got to that point.”
“Stop the snake demon. Got it.” She paused. “Can you…my friend…I don’t suppose you can tell me if she’s all right.”
“All right is relative,” came the reply. “She’s still around, though, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s the addition of her power that makes this Sandrine such a threat to the order of things. The past belongs exactly there.”
“But can we help her? Can we get her back?” Buffy’s voice was rising, more insistent, but its inflection did nothing to ruffle the other woman in the room.
“Fell the tree and its roots remain. Damaged, of course, but even life can spring from that which appears lost.” With a small nod toward Peter, Clara gestured toward the door. “I have prepared another gris gris for you to use,” she said. “Go with Peter and he will get it for you. My apologies that it is only the one. My resources were limited. I’m sorry it can’t be more.”
He opened the entrance, standing aside to indicate they should go out first. For a moment, Buffy waited for the black woman to say something but when it became apparent she was done, she stepped toward the door.
Spike rose to follow, and it was then that Clara turned. “I’d like to have a little chat with you, if you don’t mind,” she said to him. When she witnessed the two blonds exchange a frown, she added, “This’ll only take a minute. Then you’ll be free to go.” She waited until they were alone to speak again. “You’re going to have to tell her, you know. It won’t be good if she finds out some other way.”
“Tell her what?” His eyebrow lifted in a mocking arc. “That you’re a daft quack with a flare for the melodramatic?” He didn’t really believe it, but the penetrating ebony of her stare was unnerving and he willed himself not to fidget before her, lifting his chin to stare her down himself.
“I thought for a second when you showed up that you couldn’t be the one I saw,” Clara mused. She began to circle where he stood, hands waving around him, as if they were sculpting the air that surrounded Spike. “All those tiny blue shocks that had been there when I’d seen you all around her before were gone. Those burning baby fish are no longer swimming, are they? Just lying there dead, like they’d never even been.”
Panic began to wriggle in a growing frenzy within his gut, but Spike remained still as she moved, watching her out of the corners of his eyes when she disappeared behind him. “Can’t you ever just speak plain?” he complained, but his voice was tight, his words clipped in barely controlled trepidation. “Say what you mean, mean what you say. It’s a good credo. You should consider takin’ it up.”
“You’re impatient,” she scolded as if to a child. “Rash. That’ll be your downfall, darlin’, if you allow it to be. You’ll hurt her when you don’t want to.” She stopped in front of him, their eyes level. “You could hurt her now if you chose.”
The rush of pushing back against the man in the alley.
The silence in his head afterward.
“The chip…” Spike murmured, as the pieces fell into place. Horrible, wonderful, hopeful, damning pieces. “It’s not working.”
Clara shook her head. “Can’t work if it’s not there.”
“But…how…when…?” She said she’d seen it before, he realized. Which meant some time since he and Buffy had arrived in the Big Easy, he had lost the chip.
“Time is not the only healer. Sometimes, it wears the face of years gone by, even if we don’t recognize it for what it truly is.” Her hand lifted, her fingers feathering over his brow, sliding down the worst of the burns on the left side of his face.
“You knew…and you invited me into your home anyway?” Through the maelstrom of his emotions, the question suggested itself in a rattled disbelief, voicing itself of its own accord, his blue eyes searching hers for some sign of fear.
There was none. “Demons speak in satin tongues,” Clara said obliquely. “They make promises that man knows to be false and yet there is something seductive about their voices. Something that makes man want to answer. To follow the path they offer. Some do. Some don’t. But everyone has a choice.” She stepped away, turning her back on him to open the door of the apartment again. “She’s waiting for you, darlin’. Don’t want to disappoint her, now do we?”
She was smiling as Spike brushed by her, only half-aware of the reassuring pat on his back when he passed. Too many thoughts, and fears, and hopes, and everything, swirling around inside his skull to be aware of much more. He was halfway down the stairs when her voice drifted down to him again.
“And I was serious about that red,” she called. “Don’t you be forgettin’ that now.”
He slumped in the back seat, feeling the sway of the car as Giles turned the corner to pull into the parking lot of the hotel, but nothing about it was relaxing. The seat was too empty, his side bereft of companionship, and Xander’s heart ached in guilt.
It was his fault. Though neither Tara nor Giles said anything, Xander knew that the blame for Anya’s disappearance lay entirely in his hands. All because he hadn’t followed her. He’d let her get away and now she really was…away.
A search of the surrounding area of Midnight had revealed nothing, and the trio had returned to the car knowing what they had suspected all along, that Sandrine and Iris had managed to snatch Anya right out from under their noses. Giles especially was disappointed in his failure to recognize the ex-demon’s potential contribution to the voix mortelle mess, and had stewed in his own silence during the trip back to the hotel, leaving Tara curled uncomfortably against her door, eyes furtively darting from the two men every so often just to see that they were all right.
Wordlessly, they climbed out of the car, shoulders slumped. “I-I-I’ll go see if Buffy’s back,” Tara said, but Giles voice’ stopped her before she could turn away.
“The Desoto’s not here,” he said. The parking lot was nearly empty; it would’ve been impossible to miss the behemoth vehicle even in the dark. “I’ll go to the front desk and leave a message for her.”
“I’ll just get the weapons upstairs,” Xander offered. Taking the keys from Giles, he was soon left alone as Tara traipsed after the Englishman, but as he turned to go to the trunk, his eye was caught by the glint off the phone lying forgotten in the front seat.
They hadn’t bothered to call her, he realized, stopping to stare at it. After everything, they’d just forgotten about this potential lifeline. She could just be hurt, or she could be trying to escape. Maybe if he called, she could tell him where to come get her.
It was a long shot---OK, a nearly impossible shot---but desperation drove Xander to open the front door and reach for the phone. It wouldn’t hurt to just call, he rationalized. And it could do a world of good.
He was sprawled in the chair opposite the couch, head thrown back, not even watching the girl Sandrine and Iris had ordered him to keep an eye on. Freddie actually felt sorry for her, getting dragged into this whole mess. Not that he really knew what was going on with her, what she had to contribute to it. Only that she was somehow connected to Willow’s friends back in California. She seemed familiar to him, but until Sandrine took it upon herself to fill him in on the details, he would just do what he was told and pray he didn’t piss the redhead off too badly to want him dead as well.
At least he didn’t have to put up with having them around at the moment. He’d been called in earlier and ordered to watch the girl while they went out and had “some fun.” He didn’t want to ask what kind of fun, and didn’t even argue about the cadre of vampire guards they already had out in the hallway. Just sat himself in the chair and waited for them to leave. That Iris gave him the creeps. Always watching him like he was dinner or something.
Which he probably would be if he ever screwed up.
The muffled ring of a telephone woke him from his reverie, and Freddie frowned as he sat up. There wasn’t a phone in this room. Where the hell was it coming from?
Another ring, and his eyes slid to the doorway, noted the small purse on the chair near it. The sound was coming from inside it, and he slowly rose from his seat to pick it up. A third ring, growing louder as he undid the clasp.
“Everything all right in there?” the guard boomed from the other side of the door.
The voice startled Freddie, and his fingers fumbled to disconnect the call. “Just fine and dandy,” he called back. Dropping the purse back onto the chair, he held the slim phone in his hand as his eyes slid back to the unconscious girl on the couch. Her phone. Probably her friends calling to check up on her.
The thoughts ticked over in his brain, and slowly, Freddie slipped the phone into his pants pocket, feeling its weight settle heavily against his thigh. “Just fine and dandy,” he murmured, and resumed his watchful place on the chair.
To be continued in Chapter 26: Nothing Like You…