Part 7: The Gauntlet
Eyes sparkling, Willow looked up at Buffy. "Tara called."
Buffy grinned at her excitement. "Really? Anything you can tell?" she teased.
"She and Anya were at the florist." Willow chuckled. "Having trouble pulling off the nightshade."
Buffy slammed down into a chair, with a bemused look on her face. "Ah, for the days of roses and stephanotis. Or even baby's breath."
"She just may have to make do." Willow said, frowning. "Or rent it from a hothouse or something... Anyway, they went by Willie's..."
Cordelia looked up from her review of Anya's shower gift. "Anything happening yet?"
Mischievously, Willow grinned. "Just girls, girls, girls. In screen print t-shirts. That are really tight and really cropped. That say 'Xander's Toy.'" Her eyes sparkled at the thought.
"Think I could sneak in?" she continued, teasing. "Talk in a deep voice? Stick around for awhile?" At the lack of response, Willow said in a thoughtful tone, "If I wasn't on the wagon, I could morph myself into one of those t-shirts." She looked at Buffy. "Course I won't. Right?"
Buffy just rubbed her face with her palm, ignoring Willow's hopeful tone. "Oh, God. Spike." She groaned. "Doesn't he remember Anya was a vengeance demon? Who has friends who are still in the biz?" She shook her head. "Any belly dancers yet?" she asked rhetorically.
Cordelia stared. "We brought her from L.A., remember, Buffy?"
"I know that. I just meant.... Never mind."
"Tara seemed pretty whoo-whoo about Spike," Willow continued. Cordy and Buffy looked up in surprise. "No, no. Not like that. Jeez, you guys, Tara's gay. But there's a certain amount of appreciation ... well, just 'cause we don't bed em don't mean we don't look." She said admonishingly.
"She just said that the Spike that's over at Willie's isn't like any Spike she ever remembers. She's really impressed. And not just with all those girls either. Food, two bars, bandstand. And she says he's got on new boots!"
Willow's face changed to a pout. "Aww. I just can't believe we're not going. I mean, Oz's band and Spike. And just the whole party, party thingy. Angel and Xand and the guys from L.A. I haven't even met Gunn yet, but Fred said he's really neat ... . I don't see why we can't go! Sure we'd be out of place, but I could try to butch up some before tonight."
Cordelia made a slightly rude noise. "You want to go to a bachelor party? With naked dancers and bimbo servers and..."
"Yeah," Willow said setting her chin as she faced down Cordelia. "I want to go. Xander's been my friend forever and the guys are going to have this decadent party and we're not."
Buffy looked up and said helpfully, "We've got a male stripper..."
Willow looked at her sadly. "Not really my Speedo, Buff. And I just want to see Spike's party." She brightened. "You know, 'cause when Spike does anything he goes all out."
Buffy blushed as she thought about all the different ways he could go all out and full out and on top and... She felt her skin redden and picked up the thread of the conversation.
"Oh, well." Willow continued with a sigh. "What did you get for Anya? I love what I got her but it's a surprise and I really don't want anybody to know what it is yet. Gimme, Cordy."
Buffy tuned everyone in the room out as she thought about everything she'd heard about the party. She had to admit she was pretty curious herself. But there was no way she would give Spike the satisfaction of knowing that.
Oh, and that party planner, that Anne, would be there, too. Just love to get a look at her and see what all the fuss was about. Bet she really wasn't really so all that. Anya was just blinded by her ... professionalism.
Buffy snorted out loud. Then, looked around to see if anyone noticed. But Dawn was rambling on about the things at Frederick's that Buffy had put her foot down about and Cordy was rambling about this cute little lingerie boutique in L.A., and Willow was off in her own little world.
Buffy had a quick flashback of the night before. And got all flushy just thinking about it. One thing about it, he sure could make a girl flushy and hot. Those hands ... And it had been such a long time. She shivered a little and looked around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed. Nope.
Buffy had actually begun wondering if Spike's attention was wandering in another direction. Not that that would be a bad thing, of course, she corrected herself quickly. But he was doing this party, meeting all those people (one in particular instantly came to mind). And he certainly hadn't been big on the contact lately. Innuendo, well, of course. But that sort of thing was like breathing for Spike. Or would have been if he'd still breathed.
Hello! Buffy thought derisively. Vampire slayer! Now that was exciting an exciting career choice! Meeting dashing demons and certain blond vampires who certainly knew how to make a girl ... Buffy felt a flush coming on and decided to go upstairs and try to get a nap in her room. Oops, Fred was in there. Okay, so a nap in her mom's ... Willow's room.
"Sure would like to see that party in full swing ..." were the last words Buffy heard as she left the kitchen.
It was finally dusk. Buffy smoothed her clothes and took a last look in the mirror. She heard a motorcycle outside and headed down, taking the steps two at a time. She hoped her plan worked. Hated to think she'd wriggled into this thing for nothing.
Angel looked up disinterestedly as she hurtled down the stairs and out the door. Cordelia looked at Angel and raised an eyebrow.
"That Buffy ... the one who flew by here just now ... looked amazingly like the Buffy I used to know."
Angel's eyes darkened a little. He opened his mouth to speak. Then he shrugged. It was just too much trouble to get worked up over it. He didn't even bother to look out the window. He looked back down at the patrol maps, trying to get a handle on tomorrow night.
Cordelia looked a little put out at his lack of emotion. "Well, what do you think is going on between those two? And it makes things easier, doesn't it? For us, I mean, right?" she said meaningfully.
"He's an idiot," said Angel dismissively. "Always was. Does dangerous things. Always did." Angel looked up and held up his forefinger and thumb, curved toward each other. "See that? That's how close he's been to being dusted. At least two dozen times I can name. Six of those times, Buffy almost had him herself."
Cordelia leaned forward. "And you never wondered about that?"
"Huh?" Angel looked at Cordy.
"Well," she said warming her to subject. "I remember when Giles told us about him. He kills Slayers. That's what he does. Or did. Goes after them and kills them. Some Super-Duper Vampire Slayer Slayer."
"I remember. I was in China with him. I know what he's capable of."
"So all of a sudden he can't kill this one? You know, Buffy?"
"Cordelia, Buffy is really good. The best I've ever seen."
"Then why can't she kill him? It's not like she hasn't had the chance. Angel, she's even killed you. But never did she come close to killing him."
"She came close!"
Cordelia folded her arms. "Right," she breathed out slowly. "But she didn't finish the job, did she?
Outside, Buffy was standing on the porch. Spike came up the steps. "Hey, Buffy. Waitin' for me?" He looked her up and down appreciatively.
She pretended she didn't notice. "Hey. How's the party coming along?"
"S'good. No snafus yet. Proper planning, you know."
"Right." She looked down. "New pants?"
"Yes," he said precisely, in a tone that forestalled further comments on his wardrobe. He turned the conversation to hers. "You're dressed to kill. Or be killed." He observed.
Buffy looked down, a little embarrassed. "I've worn skirts before on patrol."
Spike pointed at her skirt, a teasing expression in his eyes. "Short tight ones like that? Think I would 'a remembered, luv. Fact is, if you'd ever worn anything like that in the old days when you and me were mixing it up, I think you could 'a dusted me pretty easy. Of course, now I've seen the whole package, but even then, a little ... "
She looked up at him and her chin hardened at the amused glint in his eye. "Maybe I should go change."
He laughed, eyes sparkling. "Not on my account, pet! Please."
Buffy started to say something mean (she hadn't thought of exactly what yet) when Angel came out the front door and brushed by them and down toward the motorcycle.
"William, if you're ready ..." he said over his shoulder, not looking back.
Spike rolled his eyes. "'William.' Guess I'd better get 'mother' to his destination. He gets so impatient if you don't accord him the proper amount of respect."
Buffy bit her lip to keep from laughing. Spike looked at her, looked back over his shoulder, leaned over and brushed her cheek with his lips. "Be careful tonight. I mean it." he said intensely, looking deeply into her eyes before she had a chance to get mad. "I won't be there to watch your back."
Buffy saw that he was serious, so she didn't dust him. So far, so good. She smiled reassuringly. "I know. It'll be fine. Scoobie Girls Nite Out."
Spike grabbed her shoulders and shook her lightly, so that she'd pay attention. "The 'Scoobies' haven't done a patrol since you came back. That's months ago now. Makes me a bit nervous."
"I've got the maps. We'll go over them." She turned big eyes on him, all innocence. "Do you want me to check in with you when we're done?" she asked sweetly. Trap open.
"Yeah," he said relieved. Trap closed. "That'd be good."
"Uh." Buffy crooked her finger out to indicate Angel on the motorcycle. "He looks cranky."
Spike looked over his shoulder. Looked back at Buffy. "Constipated." He said raising an eyebrow.
Buffy spluttered. Spike stepped back and looked down to make sure she'd missed his shirt. "He looks like that when he's constipated. You bints think it's 'cause he's so deep." He shook his head. "Soddin' irregularity, that's all. Keeps you turned inward."
"You're crazy, you know that?"
Spike didn't pretend to misunderstand where that outburst came from. "For that little nothin' of a kiss? He didn't even see it. Too busy lustin' after my bike. Wasn't me kissed you like that anyway. That was 'William.'"
She nodded, smiling a little. " 'William' seems like he's a gentleman."
"Oh, yeah. He's a total wanker. Almost as pathetic as that waste of space sitting on my motorcycle." Spike turned to walk down to Angel, who was now crawling all over the big 'bike.
"I'll drive," Angel called out.
"I don't bloody think so!" Spike boomed back at him. Angel settled back.
Spike sat down on the seat and looked back over his shoulder at Angel.
"I saw that," Angel complained, as he nodded his head toward Buffy, still on the porch.
"Good," Spike smirked. And he peeled off on the motorcycle.
"Willow," Buffy called out gleefully in satisfaction. "Got you a widdle present. Invitation to the bachelor party!"
Cordelia jumped up. "What?"
Willow came flying in from the kitchen. "We're going to the party? Really?"
"Not precisely going-going, but we'll be able to peek."
Willow looked at her curiously. "How? I mean, how'd you pull it off?"
"Hard work and a wardrobe modification. Had to remind the ex-Big Bad that I'm a real girl. Hope it doesn't come back to haunt me. Now Spike's all worried about us 'gals' running the patrol without his perfect male self to back us up." she said sarcastically. "We're to 'check in.' I'm sure he won't be able to hear his cell phone with all the noise."
Willow walked in grinning. "Of course not. Why, the call may not ever even show up on his caller i.d.!"
Buffy's grin got bigger, as she nodded her head up and down. "Probably won't!"
Buffy walked over to the table and indicated some rolled up pieces of paper. "O-kay. Spike put together some patrol charts for us tonight. Places and the best times to be there based on activity for that area."
She looked up. "Willow, call Tara and Anya. See if they can come on over here or meet us at the shop." Buffy started up the steps to her room. "We'll pick up weapons there."
"Sure," said Willow. She watched Buffy go up in puzzlement. "Where are you going?"
"To change. You don't think I'm wearing this little bitty skirt out on patrol, do you?" She called back down.
Anya hung up the phone and went to the bathroom door, pushing it open.
"Ahn..." Xander pulled his t-shirt down over his knees. "Honey, please?"
"Your 'Xander' t-shirt is on the bed, along with clean jeans, underwear, socks and shoes. You might want to take a jacket." She pulled the door shut. He could be so helpless.
"I'm headed to Buffy's." she continued, in a voice shrill enough to carry through the door. "We're going to the Magic Box and then patrol. You just go do that bachelor party thing."
She stalked back and stuck her head in the bathroom. "Make sure you do it really well. I don't want us to have to have another one of these at any time in our future," she said sternly, as she waved her hand in the air.
"Is that every plot in Sunnydale? How can you read writing that small?" Cordelia seemed determined to drive Buffy completely insane. "What do those little lines mean? And those gray places? What do those mean? Seems awfully complicated for something we used to just ...do."
Cordelia sniffed in disdain, wrinkling her nose. "Spike can certainly be anal, can't he?" Willow's head swung around to the Slayer, who was weighing down the edges of the pages.
Buffy looked up quickly, eyes glittering. "Funny. And I was just thinking what a nice change it was. You know, someone on the team who goes out on patrol night in and night out. Doesn't just pop in when there's an apocalypse coming down, give out some cryptic warnings and disappear again. You know, 'cause if that was the deal ... with Giles gone, we'd really be handicapped now. As in maimed and dead?"
Willow's eyes went wide as she looked for Cordelia's reaction.
Cordy tapped her foot, folding her arms on her chest. "What do you mean by that?" she asked dangerously.
Buffy's face smoothed out. "Nothing. Just a thought I had. While I was going over these maps. Maps that even Wesley could use and do a real patrol."
"Hey!" Cordy sputtered, "Wes could ... well, maybe not when he was in Sunnydale ... but now that he's in L.A., he's a valuable member of the team!"
"Buffy!" Willow leapt into the stony silence. "Let's see those mappy thingies. Oh, wow. You and Spike came up with this last night?" she said, nodding big nods at Buffy to confirm it.
"Right" said Cordelia loftily. "Like it took you all night to *talk* about it. Angel may be all 'Oh-Buffy-wouldn't,' but I saw you two with your little secret language this morning, and we all know how he feels about you. Dru was pretty forthcoming with Angel...."
"Hey! Back down a little, Cordy." Willow didn't like the look on Buffy's face.
"Willow, this isn't about you. Buffy isn't being honest. In fact, nobody's being honest and I'm pretty sick of tiptoeing around just because ..."
Dawn came down the stairs, looking from reddened face to reddened face. "What's up?" she quipped. She really had wanted to hear more, but Cordelia was making her mad. Nobody could fuss at her big sis that way but her. Hence, the perfectly timed interuption. Cordelia's mouth closed and tightened into a straight line. Just then, Anya walked in from the kitchen. Must have come in the back door.
"Nothing," Buffy answered Dawn, lowering her head and gathering up the charts. "Nothing is going on. Hey, Anya." she said weakly. "Was Tara coming right now?" she asked Willow, in a clipped voice.
"Oh. No. She'll meet us at the Magic Box. Told her I'd catch her up on everything then."
"Okay. Weapon time. Dawn, where's Fred?"
"Upstairs with Connor. Duh."
"Help her out tonight, okay? Don't know how late we'll be."
"Kay." Dawn watched the four women file out the door, Buffy clutching the rolls of paper. "See you later?" Dawn called after them. She ran to the window and grinned, looking out. Just because she couldn't listen to it didn't mean she didn't want Cordelia to have at it.
Boy, this was fun.
Angel whistled in appreciation as he and Spike walked in the bar. Spike looked up at him in surprise and grinned.
"This is some spread," Angel commented, looking around.
Spike looked around himself, but he was a little bemused at Angel's whole change of attitude. Funny how well the two of them got along once the women in their lives were out of sight.
"You looking at the food or the bints?" Spike teased.
Angel looked at Spike suspiciously. "Where did you get the money for this? This was not cheap. Those girls are not cheap. This food was not cheap. When we had the open house at the Hyperion, it almost broke us. And we had Lorne helping out, calling in all kinds of favors."
"The girls are mostly students. Do a lot of parties for the woman who's helping me with this. And the food ... well, everything really ... was negotiated for turnkey cost. Anne keeps what she saved."
"It was expensive," Spike admitted. "Especially bringin' Oz and his boys back in here and keeping them in food and beer." He shrugged. "But I don't plan on having one of these once a week, y'know. Not even if the whelp and demon-girl don't take."
"Spike," Angel said proddingly, "the money?"
Spike thought fleetingly about telling him to 'sod off.' But instead he grinned and his eyes sparkled.
"Been uh, playing a few games of cards. High stakes stuff. Against some gentlemen with questionable morals. Rather redemptive really, in a sense. For me, at least. Robin Hood, without the stealing. Well, not precisely Robin Hood, unless you look at Harris as the 'poor.' Which I do.
"Anyway, I prevent these 'gentlemen' from reinvesting their ill-gotten gains by relieving said gentlemen of their money. Quite civily, of course. They are very polite 'gentlemen,' after all. Dangerous, but polite." Spike loved the look of surprise on Angel's face. "Didja think I was lootin' liquor stores or something?"
The surprise on Angel's face returned to a look of suspicion. "You're cheating at cards to pay for a bachelor party for someone you loathe?"
"'Loathe' is a strong word. Harris has his good points, I guess. Haven't seen many of them lately, though. As to cheating, well, somehow it didn't seem ... fitting." Spike suddenly looked as puzzled as Angel. "Guess it would feel like nicking a gift. Anyway, I needed to get out of that kitten poker trap. This is much better. And it's a more widely accepted form of currency." He chuckled.
Angel shook his head. "Thinking about how your mind works makes my head hurt. I need a drink."
"Me, too. C'mon." Spike led Angel to the bar and motioned to the man stocking the liquor. "Bourbon." He looked at Angel. "Right?"
Angel shrugged. "Yeah, sure."
When the bottle was handed to him, he motioned for two shot glasses, which then appeared on the bar. Spike poured two healthy shots and handed one to Angel. "Here's to parties on the Hellmouth." He drank, as did Angel.
Spike looked around, mentally ticking off the progress in the preparations since he'd left to pick up Angel. Angel noticed him doing it. Noticed a lot of things. Like the satisfaction he felt emanating from Spike. Angel sighed. "Look at you. Who would have ever thought it?"
Spike turned to Angel. "What?"
Angel chuckled. "You were so ... useless ... when you were turned. Then you just got nuts."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "Oh, and you were the 'sanity' poster child? Those weeks you'd spend stalking some young girl or young man, terrorizing them and their families until you made your move? Someone like Dru?" Spike hackles had risen at the thought.
Angel bristled slightly at that, then sighed. "Well, the gypsies took care of that."
"*And* the Wiccan. You just gotta love Red, even when she's deep endin' it, like right now."
Angel was curious. "Just what's up with that? Haven't had a quiet moment to ask anyone much of anything. I'd ask Willow, but ..."
"Suffice it to say that old Red is having to come up with new coping strategies for her lack of self-image," Spike said. Oprah was definitely good for something besides the book reviews. "Like she wasn't worthwhile without the spells. Never understood it myself."
"One night, when I first got 'chipped,' I was huntin' up the Slayer for a ... talk and found the Wiccan instead." Spike said. "Gave her a choice, dead or undead. But the chip started hummin' and I couldn't do a thing."
Spike shook his head. "It was horrible. A bit like not being able to ... well, you know." Angel nodded. "Well, Red gets it into her head that it's because she's not ... attractive enough." Spike snorted. "And you know how cute she is. Little turned up nose and great big eyes. And that hair! Hell, I'd have turned her, kept her around. Now *she* would have been an interestin' little vamp.... Wicked!"
Spike's eyes took on a far away look. He shook his head and looked at Angel. "Women! They make everything harder than it is."
"Speaking of which, what's the deal with Buf ..."
Spike interrupted him. "There's Oz. I'm needin' a word with him. Have another drink." Spike said as he hastily got up. "Or six."
"I don't know what you're in such a snit about," Cordelia complained loudly. "Your boyfriend called *us*."
Buffy whipped around in the middle of the sidewalk. "What 'boyfriend?'" Buffy sputtered, looking over her shoulder at Anya, who was looking way too interested. "And you and Angel are an 'us' now?" She rushed on, grasping at anything to get off the boyfriend thing.
Cordelia stopped dead. "First, on the boyfriend topic? Get a clue, Buffy. Any fool can see there's something going on here, whether you want to admit to it or not. We all know you've got a thing for the undead. And second, 'us' is Angel Investigations. We're a unit! A family. Something you 'Scoobies' ought to know all about. "
Willow made a choking noise that faintly resembled a chuckle, cut off in mid-chuck by the looks Buffy and Cordelia swung in her direction.
"Walking here. Stubbed my toe," Willow said lamely in explanation.
Buffy turned back to Cordelia with a look in her eyes like frozen sea water. "Spike and I slay together. He backs me up. I don't see where ..."
"Backs you up? That's a new one. Mind if I use it sometime?" Cordelia looked at Buffy appraisingly. "I just bet he does back you up. Up against tables, walls... Or is it you who's doing the backing? You were always pretty forward. A take-what-you-want type. Don't think I don't remember how you threw yourself at Angel."
Buffy looked back at Anya, very conscious that this wasn't a private conversation. That was one thing she had forgotten about Cordelia. She'd say anything, anywhere, in front of anyone. She thanked God one more time that Giles was nowhere around right now. Buffy didn't see the big change that Willow had been harping about. She seemed just as obnoxious as ever.
Buffy turned her back on Cordelia, headed to the Magic Box and the sanity that was Tara. Then, she turned back to her.
"You know, Cordelia, you're just as rude as you ever were. Don't know why everyone in L.A. didn't just relocate when you moved in the neighborhood. To Paraguay. We're stuck with each other tonight, so let's just make the best of it. Best of it being, your mouth closed unless you're insulting something to death. Besides me."
Buffy turned back to continue on her way, very aware that her little rejoiner was lame. But Cordelia could take the snarkiness right out of her. Buffy secretly hoped that something on the patrol tonight would take some snarkiness out of Cordelia.
Angel watched Spike with Oz and the rest of the band, as he nursed his third bourbon. He had reached behind the bar and gotten an old-fashioned glass and had given up the shot glass. Too much trouble to keep raising the bottle to pour those little drinks.
He swirled the liquor around in the glass, musing. He didn't drink very often. Didn't like the reminder of being alive that the false warmth of the alcohol gave him. Unlike Spike, he thought. Who drank in large amounts and often. Another difference between the two of them.
He remembered going to see Dru and Spike in New York once, during the seventies. He'd followed them, found out where they were living, looked inside. And was shocked when he realized that they'd basically set up housekeeping. Basement apartment in the East Village.
Dru's collection of dolls placed haphazardly shelves, furniture, knick- knacks, queen size bed. Lots of brocades in deep rich colors. Dru rocking over in a corner clutching Miss Edith to her breast, while Spike carried on a 'normal' conversation. Talking to her about his plans for the night, what she would be doing. If she would like to get out with him for a little while. It had put a knife through his soul to see him. To see her. And know that he himself was the reason for this sick parody of 'normal' life.
Then, Dru had sensed him and he had run.
A normal life ...
Spike appeared at his shoulder, smiling. "S'goin' great!" He rubbed his hands together. "You're gonna love it, Peaches. Just love it." Spike reached for the shot glass and bottle, expression changing to curiosity. And maybe a little concern. "What?"
"A normal life." Angel said still looking at his drink.
Spike sat down, trying hard to misunderstand where Angel was going with this. "Well, this is as close as it gets, right? For us, anyway."
"This is the reason I left."
"Think you're startin' the conversation in the middle, mate. Have another drink."
"Buffy. I left so she could have a normal life."
Spike's eyes glinted dangerously. "Angel, we are not having this conversation right now." Spike's eyes changed imperceptibly. "But hell, since you already started it without me, I'll play. Okay, normal life. Buffy. Let's see..."
"Normal life?" Spike spat out. "Good God, you imbecile, she's a vampire slayer!" Spike's eyes hardened. "How could her life ever be normal?"
"She might have beaten the odds..." Angel murmured, looking back at the glass.
"She already has," Spike hissed. "She's alive, isn't she? Again. Don't think you can feed me pablum like that baby of yours, me hangin' on your every word of wisdom. You may be family, but you're bloody stupid if you believe that Buffy can have a normal life."
Angel turned his eyes from the glass on the bar to Spike.
"We," Spike continued, as he swung his forefinger from his chest to Angel's, "are what she knows. Us and the night and the crawly things that go bump in it. Real things happen for her in the dark. Her life happens in the dark. Where we live."
Angel sighed. "Spike, that's not true. Buffy is like the light of the ..."
Spike let out an impatient breath. "Sun? Buffy is a candle. I've seen that light go out. She's a flickering candle that stands between safety and danger. She's everything we aren't ... and everything we are. She's a hunter. A killer. Just.Like.Us."
Angel tried to interrupt, but he really wasn't certain how to argue this.
"Look, you left her. I won't. You didn't have the balls for this, but I do. And it wouldn't matter if I left anyway. She's got the taste for it. Like all slayers do, and I know a lot more about slayers than you do. Most slayers just don't get the chance to find out what she knows. It's kill or be killed, usually."
"But this slayer is different, Angelus. She knows. And she'd just find another one if I left anyway. One who probably wouldn't be on a leash like us."
Spike shook his head and looked down at the bar, smiling ruefully. "No, I'll just stay on until it kills one of us. And the way things are going, it'll probably be me. So, cheers." Spike looked Angel in the eye, smiling recklessly, and lifted the glass to his lips, slugging down the bourbon.
Angel looked at Spike sadly. "You were always an idiot. You're in love with her."
"That's not what's important, mate. That's not the thing. I understand her. Something you never did."
Continued in Part 8: The Party