Chapter 1: Once Upon a Summertime
She was in rare form. A flurry of golden hair and tanned skin against the night sky, she seemed possessed of a fury incarnate as she thrust the stake through the chest of her seventh vamp that night, her quip lost to him as it floated away on the breeze. He wasn’t really following her; it wasn’t Spike’s fault that Buffy had picked tonight to patrol his cemetery, or that she was moving from demon to demon with a feral determination, like a lioness on the prowl.
Better not use that analogy in front of her, he thought, blue eyes glittering in the moonlight as he dropped silently from the mausoleum roof, keeping an eye on the Slayer in the distance as she turned and began marching down a different path. Don’t think she’d appreciate the compliment in it.
Not that he was in the habit of passing around compliments to someone who hated his guts, but he certainly could appreciate the beauty she brought to her fighting.
And not that he in any way was associating beauty with the Slayer.
Or thinking about the Slayer in terms other than being a huge thorn in his side he’d like nothing more than to pluck.
Not that he was considering plucking her in any way.
He was getting off this train of thought before it derailed and effectively cut off what balls he had left.
Even in the dim evening illumination, her skin was glistening, a sheen of sweat from the oppressive heat making her radiant, its musky scent somewhat lost to him as the slight wind blew from behind him. Although it was hardly June, the summer was promising to be a scorcher for Sunnydale; Buffy had arrived at the cemetery already gleaming from perspiration, hazel eyes bright as she sought out her prey. Each fight only heightened the stickiness of her skin, and Spike felt a sympathetic tattoo of her heartbeat against his flesh as it began to ease from her latest battle, her senses still alert but her body quieting in anticipation of the next. This was as close as he would get to the human kill, he knew, but something else lay within its power, an intoxicating elixir that called to him to follow, to watch, to…
To not pay attention to where he was bloody going.
The stick snapped beneath his boot, crackling through the night air, freezing his muscles in mid-step as he watched the Slayer stop, golden head slowly turning to look behind her, her grip tightening around her stake. He waited, hovering behind the bush in the arc of the path that separated them, and was grateful he didn’t need to breathe. The Slayer got cranky when she ran into him on patrol; he wasn’t really in the mood to deal with her attitude at the moment.
“I know it’s you, Spike,” she said, and there was no mistaking the annoyance in her voice.
So much for stealthy.
“You do realize your head actually glows from all the bleach on it, don’t you?” Buffy commented as she waited for him to emerge.
Stepping around the trail, Spike adopted his favorite smirk as he came into her view, letting his blue gaze travel over the shorts and tank top that made up her patrolling outfit. Muscles and soft curves shown off to perfection, and this time, he couldn’t ignore the tightening of his jeans across his hips. Thrusting his hands into his duster pockets, the vampire nonchalantly pulled it shut in front of him, blocking his erection from her sight. No reason to let her know what she did to him. He had a hard enough time admitting it to himself.
“Lookin’ for a good slay?” he drawled, striving for casual. “Surprised Rupert let you out in that little ensemble. Though, must say…” His eyes raked over her, lingering pointedly on her hips, the tip of his tongue skating along the edge of his teeth. “…you do make for tasty bait. Very Daisy Duke. I’m sure there’s a vamp or two around here who’s just dying to get a bite out of you dressed like that.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Buffy gazed at him in irritation. “It’s hot, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Actually, I hadn’t.”
She exhaled loudly, blowing at the loose strands that clung to her forehead in an attempt to clear her vision. “Stupid vamps and no body heat,” she grumbled, and turned on her heel, taking three sharp steps before realizing that he was ambling after her. She stopped. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
“You’re lookin’ a little peaked, pet,” he said, stopping at her side. “Thought I might give you a hand in chasin’ after your nasties. That’s what we do, right? Fight the good fight, make with the mass destruction of all things evil—.”
She shook her head. “You’re just in this for the blood and violence, Spike. Don’t think you’re fooling anybody here.”
“What does that matter if they still end up dead?”
Buffy’s sigh was one of frustration. He was never going to get it, but then again, vampire there. She could hardly expect him to understand the whole doing it because it’s the right thing idea. It’s just that, occasionally, she forgot about that when he was around. “Go away. I don’t need a hand. I’ve got two perfectly good ones of my own here.”
As tempting as the opportunity was to make a comment regarding what she could do with those powerful little hands of hers, Spike chose instead to pretend to look around the graveyard. “You got Soldier Boy stashed someplace around here as your back-up?” he asked, already knowing the answer to that question. Buffy had arrived alone, no sign of that annoying boyfriend of hers anywhere in sight.
He was surprised to see the sudden shine in the hazel depths before she whipped her head around, renewing her march down the path and away from him. “Don’t start with me, Spike,” she warned. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Didn’t realize I was,” he replied, and ignored the threat in her voice to trail after her. “So, fess up. Finn throw a wobbler ’cause you made him stay home and wash your dainties? Because if he’s complainin’, I know a few blokes who’d be more than happy to get their hands on the Slayer’s knickers—.”
Her fist came out of nowhere, connecting with his nose to send him flying back, and Spike looked up just in time to see Buffy wipe furiously at the tear that had escaped her eye, pivoting on her heel to tramp as loudly away from him as she could. He frowned. Pissed off, he expected. Crying, he did not.
Leaping to his feet, his hand had circled her bicep before he could stop himself, forcing her to halt and turn to look at him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and immediately regretted the question. Though this wasn’t the Slayer he knew, his query had been prompted from some strange desire to find out what could drive her to this, a sudden anger rising in his gullet to destroy whatever had caused it. Just as quickly, he squelched the impulse, ignoring its implication as he loosened his grip on her arm.
She looked at him for a long moment, swallowing and staring, the muscles in her jaw twitching as she struggled to keep her composure. “Not that it makes any difference,” she finally said, her voice tight. “But Riley’s not even in Sunnydale right now, so stop…just stop.” Stepping back, Buffy waited, not moving, watching the vampire before her, silently willing him to go and leave her in peace.
He didn’t know why he asked; doing so was almost a certain invitation for her to hit him again. “You two have a blow-out?”
There was something in his tone, a softened shade masking a concern she was sure she was mis-reading, but Buffy found herself unable to stir, staring at the blond vamp as the events of the past few days played over in her head. “Out, up, all over the place,” she finally admitted. “Something about…” She rolled her eyes. “…my inability to commit to our relationship. He took off for Iowa today. I guess corn’s more interesting in me, so, not really in the mood for our usual quid pro quo here, Spike.”
“What the hell are you doin’ prowling around a cemetery then for?” he asked, heavy brows creased into a frown. “If I were you, I’d be out on the town, gettin’ blinding drunk, tryin’ to suss out a way to get back at the wanker.”
She couldn’t help the quirk of the corner of her mouth. “You did do that, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah.” If he’d had circulation, he would’ve flushed at the memory of his embarrassing behavior when Dru had dumped him the first time. “Still, Red should’ve at least—.”
“She offered. I turned her down.”
His brow lifted. “Since when does patrolling rate higher than hen night?”
Buffy shrugged and resumed walking again. “Since they arrest you if you start beating up the clientele,” she replied. “I’m not in the most sociable of moods right now, especially where the opposite sex is concerned. Not sure I can deal with the flirting and small talk without major combustion.”
He fell into step beside her. “That’s half the fun, pet.”
“Maybe for you.”
“And you’re sure doin’ with the fisticuffs is better therapy?”
“For this girl, most definitely.”
They walked in silence for a moment, the edge of his duster brushing against her leg with every step. The scent of her skin was much stronger so close, tangy to the point of prickling his tongue in moisture, and Spike had to struggle to keep the growl of his demon under control. This had been happening more and more as of late, this visceral response to her presence. Not the Slayer part, although that certainly was a big part of it. It was the answer of his own body to hers, a tug from someplace inside that he didn’t want to recognize and quite often ignored, because considering the ramifications of anything further only made him feel like tearing someone to shreds. Which was actually why he ended up going out on his own patrols so often. Nothing like a spot of violence to work through those unwanted instincts.
“Would’ve thought you’d bagged your limit,” he finally commented. “Not like seven’s not a lucky number or anything.”
Immediately, Buffy stopped, a frown on her face. “How do you know how many vamps I dusted?”
Bloody hell. Should’ve just kept his gob shut.
Her eyes widened. “Have you been following me?”
“Not followin’!” Spike protested. “You have any idea how much of a blather you make when you’re on the hunt? Kinda hard not to know when you’re around, Slayer, ‘specially when you’re in such a snit. That last one took you soddin’ forever to finish off.”
The set of her mouth told him he’d lost whatever good will he might’ve garnered in their few seconds of camaraderie. “Go home, Spike,” she said grimly. “Before I decide to make you number eight.”
His nostrils flared as he watched her walk away. “Well, not like you should be here anyway,” he called after her retreating back. “If I were Red, I’d be mighty brassed off for bein’ stood up for a few stiffs!” As she disappeared around a bend in the path, not even bothering to look back, Spike grimaced, kicking roughly at a crumbling headstone nearby, disrupting a shower of stone and dust that settled like a fine mist on his boot. What was it about her that always made him turn into the village idiot? he wondered, rolling his eyes as he replayed his last few words in his head. He always seemed to come up with the better comebacks when she wasn’t around. It was certain that the perfect wisecrack would come to him as soon as she was out of earshot; he just wished he could time them to show up when she was still in his presence. Show the silly bint she wasn’t all that, that she didn’t get under his skin like molten lava rolling down his spine, enflaming his flesh in remembered heat, making him…
Bitch. How the hell did she do it?
The Bronze was packed, bodies pressed against each other on the dance floor, the air conditioning in overdrive to combat the heat rising from the gyrating flesh. At their table, Tara and Willow sipped at their drinks, condensation dripping down the sides of the tall glasses, as they watched the band onstage finish up their last number.
“I still wish Buffy had come with,” the redhead complained as the music faded away. “She needs something to distract her from the muddle going through her head about Riley.”
“She could still show up,” Tara said. “After she’s done patrolling?”
Willow shook her head. “Nah. Something tells me she’s in a staking sort of place right now, not a dancing sort of place.” Her mouth pursed around her straw as she remembered the closed-off look on her best friend’s face after returning from Riley’s. Buffy hadn’t wanted to talk about it, and not even the offer of chocolate-y goodness and cute boys clamoring to buy her drinks could elicit a smile from the Slayer before she’d disappeared into the night.
“Then we’ll just have to have her fun for her,” Tara said playfully, and reached down to squeeze her girlfriend’s knee.
The redhead smiled, grateful for the diversion, and turned her gaze to the musicians filing onto the stage. “Who’s this?” she asked with a small frown, watching as they plugged in a keyboard and set up the microphone directly in the center.
“There was a sign up front that said there’s a new act tonight. Some singer. I didn’t recognize the name. Stella something.”
They waited in mute fascination as the musicians took their place, lanky young men almost draped over their instruments. Only when they were settled did the lights go down, a single spotlight illuminating the space around the mic, and a tall black female stepped into the circle.
She was a large woman—statuesque would’ve been the gentle term for it—with skin the color of milky coffee and black hair plaited down her back. Thin fingers that belied her size wrapped around the stand, her long nails painted scarlet and tipped in silver, catching the light and sending it scattering across the faces of the people waiting for her to start. She could’ve been twenty, she could’ve been forty; the truth was most likely something in between. She just had one of those kind of faces that defied being labelled, flawless skin waiting in sobriety for the music behind her to start.
It began with a drumbeat, slow, steady, the bass rolling to fill the room, pounding against the occupants’ flesh in a tonal reminder of more primal impulses. Next, came the lazy caress from the keyboard, adding the melody line to create a song bathed in starlight, the call of innate vagaries lingering in its notes like a deep red wine. By the time thirty seconds had passed, the crowd was breathless in anticipation of the voice that would join them.
It was huskier than they thought it would be, a throaty tribute to the vocal stylings of an Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Smoky, reeking of sex, yet breaking from the anguish of an unspoken pain.
Willow was transfixed, her breath coming in tiny pants as she watched the singer take command of her audience, leading them through the paths of her song with a crook of her finger. Not the Bronze’s usual fare, and yet, so, so much better. Nobody was dancing. Somehow, it would’ve seemed sacrilege to disrupt the performance with something as base as that. But neither were they bored, lost in the woman’s voice as she sang the tale of loss and betrayal.
As the last note trailed away, there was a moment of hesitation before the room erupted in applause, shrill whistles punctuating the air as the singer took a step back away from the microphone and smiled for the first time since taking the stage. Willow’s clapping was just as loud as the rest, but as she gazed in wondrous awe at the performer, she felt a flush flood over her skin as their eyes met…held…her heart pounding in her throat when she broke away from the trance to glance at her girlfriend out of the corner of her eye. Oh goddess, she thought wildly. That was just too…intense.
But Tara hadn’t noticed, smiling and clapping along with the rest, and only turned away to smile at Willow when the singer returned to the mic. “She’s really good,” the blonde commented.
Before the other girl could reply, however, a voice drifted in to fill the space between them. “Actually, she’s amazing,” it interjected, the lazy twang of a Southern baritone catching both of their attention.
Their heads turned, two sets of eyes gazing curiously at the young man who stood behind them. Tall, but on the thin side, with an open face that bordered on the bland. Good-looking in a washed-out Ken kind of way, Willow thought, and affected her polite but not interested smile as she nodded in agreement.
He stuck his hand out as the second song started. “I’m Freddie,” he said.
Tara was the one who accepted his introduction, a welcoming smile creasing her friendly features as years of Southern breeding took hold and she responded in kind. “You sound like you’re from my neck of the woods,” she said, doing her best not to stutter over the words. “I’m Tara, by the way.”
He turned expectantly toward the redhead, who inwardly sighed. “Willow,” she offered with a waggle of her fingers. “Hi.”
The words to the next number came then, following the upbeat tempo as the vocalist beckoned to the crowd to get up and dance. Immediately, Willow was diverted, green gaze riveted back to the stage, the same physical response to this song as she’d had to the previous. The world seemed to slip away around her, the presence of the stranger behind her disappearing, and she found herself immersed in ethereal arms, pulling and tugging and holding her close as she became sucked into the music.
Her clapping was even more rigorous with the second song’s conclusion, growing in enthusiasm with each passing performance, and she was oblivious to the continued conversation that was happening between her girlfriend and the young man who was now sitting at their table. For some inexplicable reason, something about the singer called to her, a sense of familiarity, of sisterhood, springing from her gut that hadn’t happened since she’d first met Tara, and though it was in no way a sexual attraction, there was something there, just…indefinable.
The hollowness in her stomach when the set finished caused Willow to swallow compulsively, shocked at how strung out she felt. It was just music, she thought as she turned in a daze back to her half-finished drink, sipping at it cautiously as she prayed that it would fill the growing fissure inside her. This didn’t even happen when Oz played. Who would’ve thunk it?
“You know, Stel’s a friend of mine.” It was the first thing he’d addressed directly to her since he’d sat down, and the redhead turned to look at the young man—Freddie, he’d said his name was—smiling at her. He nodded toward the emptying stage in clarification. “The singer.”
“You know her?” God, redundant much, she scolded herself. He’s going to tell her you’re a big ol’ goof.
“Sure, we go back a long way,” he said. “When she got this gig, I asked if she minded if I tagged along. I’ve never been to California before. Had this whole mess of touristy stuff I wanted to do. ‘Course, I didn’t realize you weren’t exactly on Disney’s back door.” He grinned. “So much for taking a gander at Mickey while I’m here.”
“They’re from New Orleans,” Tara offered in explanation.
Willow brightened. “Ooo, land of Mardi Gras. I’ve always wanted to go there. The music, the costumes. All that history and lore.” She blushed at his raised eyebrow. “I’m kind of lore girl around here,” she added and rushed to change the subject. “How did you end up all the way out in Sunnydale? I would’ve thought we were pretty backwater compared to the streets of New Orleans.”
“Stella knows people. A lot of people. And when she decided she wanted a break from the humidity back home, she just asked around ’til something popped up.”
“Well, I’m glad the Bronze snapped and crackled for her, because I’ve gotta tell you…” The redhead leaned forward to make herself heard as the next band started playing up onstage. “She’s got the most wonderful voice.” She held up her bare arm. “I even got goosebumpy.”
“You want to meet her?”
Her green eyes went wide. “Could I?”
Freddie shrugged. “Sure. Stel loves meeting the fans. C’mon.” He hopped up from his stool and waited as Willow clambered down to circle around to his side. “You want to come, too, Tara?” he asked.
She shook her head. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll order us some more drinks.”
Willow leaned in and brushed a kiss across her girlfriend’s cheek. “Be right back.”
It hadn’t really worked. Patrolling was supposed to clear her head, not fill it with even more doubts, and questions, and worries that maybe the things Riley had said had been right. The only thing that was better was that the anger she’d been feeling since he’d left had pretty much gone, to be replaced with a strange sense of sadness. Not loss, which was actually the weirdest part because that’s what she’d been expecting. To feel more upset about not having him around anymore. No, the sorrow that hung in her heart rested in the fact that, yet again, Buffy had failed at a relationship because she couldn’t give her partner what he needed. Bad Buffy.
What did that say about her? she thought as she pulled her room key from her shoe. Angel had left because what they had had couldn’t really go any further without him going all bumpy and dangerous again. Parker hadn’t even been interested long enough to make what they had last longer than one night. At least Riley had stuck around a little bit longer, but once the last of his ties with the Initiative had been severed and he’d focused more on them and their relationship, the more he’d claimed to realize how she wasn’t really there for him, that he was giving one hundred and ten percent to making them work by being there for all the practices, and she was just showing up for the games.
Stupid basketball analogy, Buffy grumped as she stepped into the darkened room. Like I even like the dumb game. A quick glance at Willow’s bed showed that her roommate was still not back from her night out with Tara—or is spending the night over there again, she added with just a hint of jealousy about the solid relationship the two lesbians seemed to share—so she flicked on the light switch, bathing the room in yellow as she kicked the door shut behind her. Gonna have to remember to ask Will how she does it, the blonde decided as she peeled her sweat-damp clothes from her skin. How does she keep finding the magic? For that matter, how does she give herself so easily?
“So you enjoyed the show?” She was watching her in the dressing room mirror as she wiped the sweat from her brow, dark eyes friendly, the slightest of smiles haunting her brown face as her gaze studied the young witch hovering in the doorway.
Willow’s grin broadened. “Oh, yeah,” she enthused. “Totally enjoyed. Your music, it’s not the Bronze’s usual rock-em-sock-em kind of thing, but soooo good. Different. But good different, not weird different. Very primal. Of course, that’s probably because of all the drums in it, but then, most music uses drums so maybe not. And I’m babbling now, so I’ll just shut up and stand here in unbelievable respect for your talent.” There was a moment before she added, “I’m excitable, not crazy, just so you know.”
Stella laughed, a deep chuckle that filled the small room. “Just shows you have good taste.” Her accent wasn’t as strong as Freddie’s, mellow in its gentle cadences, calling to mind hot summer breezes and ice-cold lemonade. “It speaks to you because you’re an old soul. You understand about power. About sources that go deeper than most men’s understanding.”
The smile on Willow’s face froze. Kind of a curious statement, she thought. Well, not if you’re a Scooby because we deal in those kind of platitudes all the time, but coming from an outsider? “Oh, I dunno,” she hedged. “I think I just like the music. It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.”
This time her laughter bounced off the walls. “Oh, honey, you don’t have to play the innocent act with me. We bathe in magic in New Orleans. There ain’t anything you can say or do that’ll shock me.” She turned around and stepped closer to the young woman, towering over her as a long hand reached up to brush back a loose strand of red hair from her cheek. “On the other hand,” Stella said, “I think I might be able to offer you a surprise or two.”
Willow’s eyes went wide. Oh goodness, she thought wildly. She’s coming on to me! What to do, what to do…and where the hell had Freddie gone? “I have a girlfriend,” she blurted, stepping back and stumbling against the door jamb, using it to steady herself as the singer edged away.
“Good for you,” she murmured. “Although, kind of a shame, really…”
Before Stella could reply, the drug-soaked cloth was clamped over Willow’s face, Freddie’s arm holding her tight against him as the young witch clawed at the fabric, kicking at the unseen assailant behind her in a futile attempt to break free, only to finally succumb and slump into unconsciousness.
“Because I do believe she’ll miss you,” Stella crooned to the sleeping young woman as she watched Freddie scoop the redhead into his arms and carry her out into the hall, down the corridor, leading out to the van they had waiting.