By Jericho TGF
Giles was still shaken by the rather close brush with immolation, not to mention the astounding manifestation with whom he'd had up close and personal contact. He lowered the book-filled suitcase to the forest floor and glanced at her before looking around at the woods in confusion. Finally, he returned his attention to his impatient Slayer. "Well...we need to...ah... Wh-why are we here, exactly?"
Waving a dismissive hand, she gave a hurried response. "She won't come after us here."
Spike dropped the tattered comforter that had shaded him from the sun's rays more than once and lounged nonchalantly against a tree in the haven that lay above and around the remains of Nathan Morgan; the only place the Doo crew was safe from Miranda's wrath. With indifference that belied the intensity with which he listened to the conversation buzzing around him, he reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out his pack of smokes, grimacing at its crumpled appearance. Carefully removing a slightly bent cigarette, he put it to his lips and flicked open his lighter.
While he would have sooner cut out his own tongue than admit it, he was relieved that Giles and Willow had finally arrived. He and Buffy had been about as effective against Miranda as a rag doll in the jaws of a rottweiler. The cavalry currently looked more like a worried stuffed shirt and a fearful young co-ed, but Spike was uniquely qualified to acknowledge - to himself - that they were good at what they did...when they stopped yapping long enough to actually do it.
Squinting through the hazy smoke of his cigarette, he turned his attention to Buffy, studying her ramrod-straight posture, crossed arms, and serious face. Separated by mere feet, he could feel the Slayer's power as a subtle hot tension under his skin. It was a vampire thing. He could also hear the tremble in her voice when she spoke and saw the signs of exhaustion weighing on her. While that perception had nothing to do with his kind, apparently it didn't extend to the rest of the ragtag bunch. The witch and the Watcher seemed oblivious to the signs of strain and the air of desperation around her. Bloody fools, he thought.
Smirking slightly at the belligerent lift of her chin and confident tilt of her head, he knew she had been just a hairsbreadth away from complete meltdown not too long ago. It was he who had pulled her back from the edge, not them. That little gem of knowledge did wonders for his ego, and now that they were here, the Slayer would stay firmly entrenched in her 'defender of the meek and bookish' mode.
Willow and Giles were noticeably confused by Buffy's assurance that Miranda wouldn't come for them there. Carefully, Willow said, "Okay, question. Isn't she stuck in the house? The books said haunts are sort of doomed to an eternity in one place. Restricted to fixed locales."
An errant lock of tangled hair was pushed behind her ear as Buffy struggled to control her edginess. "Yeah, well, the Library of Dead People Do's and Don'ts must not provide a delivery service because no one told that to Miranda. This is the only place on the property she won't come. Well, that we know of, anyway."
Giles was dismayed and alarmed by the news. In all of his admittedly limited readings on haunts, nothing he'd seen or heard about this one conformed to the information he'd gathered. It worried him.
Willow looked back and forth between the two and frowned. She didn't like the expression on Giles' face, nor was she comforted by Buffy's words. Curiosity finally got the better of her. "Won't is good," she said. "Proud supporter of won't, here, but why won't she?"
Buffy glanced to her left. It was the barest flicker of movement, really, but her large hazel eyes were tortured before she tamped her emotions back in place and turned away from the unmarked grave of a little boy. Now was not the time for sentimentality. She didn't notice Spike staring at her intently, didn't know that he'd been the only one to see the black shade of sorrow beneath the depths of her resolve. In a toneless voice, she said, "This is where her son is buried."
Giles and Willow started in surprise, glancing around the shaded area with new interest.
Spike almost pushed off from the tree he was leaning against. He almost broke his façade of disinterest and crossed the clearing in two steps to swoop his woman into his arms and snarl at her friends for making Buffy revisit her pain. The desire to do just that was so strong that he could actually picture the expressions on Red and Rupert's faces with blinding clarity. Only one thing held him back.
When he and Buffy patrolled together or loved together, they were equals. When he nicked hot wings off her plate while they ate or she swatted playfully at his hands on her backside when they danced, they were equals. They were man and woman, both a little more and a little less than normal. Not in this. Never was the difference between he and Buffy as painfully pronounced as when the powwow of 'White Hats' was in full swing. In this, she was the epitome of a Slayer. And he was one of the things that go bump in the night. That's why he didn't go to her, wrap his arms around her.
Spike narrowed his gaze thoughtfully. He watched the scene playing out in front of him, familiar in its repetition of theme, if not content. But something was different. Something he hadn't thought about until just then. Things had changed since the last Scooby meeting he'd attended, lurking in the shadows until Buffy had pointed him in the direction of the beastie she wanted help offing. She loved him. The monster had been let in out of the cold.
He looked around a clearing that a haunt would not enter - not could not, would not - and recognized the uncomfortable if vague similarity in circumstance. For a more than a year he'd been on the fringes of the Scooby group, listening, watching, smirking in superiority every once in a while...sometimes feeling so left out that it choked him. He wanted in. She was there, and he wanted in. And the only one keeping him leaning against the tree, silent and speculative...alone...was himself.
Straightening slowly, he sauntered over to the little circle in the center of the shaded clearing. Falling in beside and just behind Buffy, the message was clear to all who took the time to interpret it. He was her partner. Period. And damn anyone who tried to say different, even the Slayer herself.
When Buffy felt his presence behind her and leaned into him just a bit, he trembled. Of course, it had nothing to do with the surprised pleasure that surged through him as if his heart had started beating, flooding his body with warm blood. Evil vampires didn't get choked up over something so incredibly poof-like. He was still evil.
Inching closer and reaching his hands up to rest gently at her hips, he repeated that to himself as if it were a personal mantra...right up until she rested her back against his chest. Damn her. Spike dropped his chin to hide his pleased grin from her friends.
Giles ignored Spike, used to his presence and relationship with Buffy - despite the original discomfort over the whole affair. He was far too wrapped up in the issue at hand to puzzle out the ridiculous grin on the vampire's face or the reasons behind it. Removing his glasses, he pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Y-you've been able to find out about her origins, then?"
Buffy stiffened imperceptibly. Sensing her distress, Spike squeezed her hips supportively. "Oh yeah," she told her Watcher dryly. "We've been busy little beavers while trying to not get dead and deader. Been wowed and amazed by the horror that is Miranda's origins."
Giles frowned and pushed his glasses back into place, concerned by Buffy's tone of voice. If he had a choice, he wouldn't push her for more information right away, but time was of the essence. Cautiously, he asked, "Were you able to discover why she's haunting the...ah...area?"
Her stomach knotted painfully at the thought of telling Giles and Willow what she and Spike had survived, what they had experienced. She had hoped it wouldn't be necessary, hoped that they would show up and do a chant, maybe burn some incense, and everything would be over. So much for hoping. "Miranda," she began slowly and carefully, trying to keep as much emotion out of her voice as possible, "was killed by a vampire in the Carr House almost one hundred and thirty years ago."
Surprised by the news, Giles sputtered. "Wh-wha... Are you quite sure? A vampire?"
"We're bloody sure, mate," Spike spoke up for the first time. Standing behind Buffy, out of her line of sight, he pinned the Watcher with a meaningful glare. "And this tale will go a good deal quicker if it's not interrupted every soddin' sentence."
Any attempt to clue Giles in on the toll the story would take on Buffy was lost on the startled man. Whether he was incapable of grasping the signals Spike was sending or just didn't see them at all was immaterial. "I...don't understand. A vampire? That's... You're sure?"
Buffy was puzzled by Giles' attitude. She twisted her head, locking her gaze with Spike's. The confusion and frustration she felt were mirrored in his eyes. Turning back to her Watcher, irritation tinged her voice. "Giles, it was a vampire. No doubt about it. What's the big?"
Shaking his head, taken aback, he finally said, "I-It's...well...h-haunts are extremely rare. The emotional impetus necessary to arrest the transposition of ephemeral energy at the moment of death is unique to their...species. Unlike ghosts, poltergeists, and specters, a haunt is a fully conscious entity, cognizant of its circumstances and surroundings. N-not only that, but the specific range of intense feeling is, without fail, rage-based. Hence there have been no recorded hauntings perpetuated by a vampire attack."
His explanation was met with expressions of blank incomprehension on Buffy and Spike's faces. Willow's eyebrows arched in a mild reproof that was softened by the grin tugging the corners of her mouth. She shook her head at Giles indulgently and translated his message for him. "He means that haunts are tops of the non-demony dead people food chain. Essentially people without bodies. Ghosts and the rest, they're more like memories of people than actual people. On top of that, to become a haunt a person has to be really, really mad at the moment of death. Furious, even. That's probably why they're large with the attitude problems, though I haven't read any direct reference to that as a cause, which is odd really, when you consider it. You would think there would have been some concrete correlation before now. You know, it would be neat if we could..." She caught the pointed look Giles shot her out of the corner of her eye and realized she was getting a bit off course. "...stop babbling and get back to the topic. Sorry. Anyway, that's why you don't have vamp victim haunts." Her gaze darted to Spike before she met Buffy's eyes and continued. "Most vampires are pretty terror-inducing. The people they bite are scared, not mad, when they die."
Spike looked affronted. "Hey, now! Still scary here. Still a big, bad vampire who strikes fear in the hearts of - "
"Anyone who doesn't know that you're less a danger to them than an infected hangnail. Yes, quite," Giles interrupted him drolly. "That, however, is hardly the issue at hand, here, Spike. Save the inane chest-thumping for...well...never."
Spike's temper ignited at the prick of Giles' sardonic derision. Glaring at the Watcher, his jaw worked as he ground his teeth. In a voice ripe with tension, he snarled, "Oh, sod off you git. At least I can explain a nasty without needin' the human dictionary over there," he waved a hand in Willow's direction, "to get my point across. Long-winded prat."
"Hey!" Willow protested. "Not nice."
The men ignored her. Giles narrowed his eyes and spoke harshly. "It consistently amazes me, Spike, that you have unerringly avoided the burdens of intelligence and wisdom. Quite a feat, really, considering your lengthy sojourn on this planet."
Spike stepped forward, a tumult of emotion churning dangerously beneath a pale exterior. It had been too much; the night, the morning, the haunt, the...whatever Nathan was. Giles' pompous sarcasm pushed him just over the line.
"You know what amazes me, mate?" Icy, venom-tipped words slid from his tongue. "That despite that enormously squishy frontal lobe of yours, you haven't got the first clue 'bout what's goin' on here. Look around, Watcher. That title of yours is supposed to mean somethin', inn't it? So look at her." Chest to chest with the equally angry Giles, Spike motioned in Buffy's direction. "Still haven't noticed the wreck she is, have you? Haven't noticed 'cause you don't want to. She is the Slayer, after all. Set 'em up, she'll knock 'em down, right? More than a job, it's a sacred bloody birthright. Well she doesn't have anythin' to soddin' knock down this time!"
Agitated, frustrated, Spike couldn't stand still. With a sharp turn, he started pacing back and forth in front of the Watcher. Hyper in his anger, his duster billowed out behind him with each long stride. His hands moved expressively, cutting through the air as he ranted. "See, our Miranda wasn't your everyday pathetic victim. She killed her son. Nathan Morgan. Dear ole Mum drugged him to the gills, stuck him in a pitch-black hole, and did a slice and dice on a vein. Bled him to death, she did. Fed him to his father like she did twenty-two other folk of the women and children variety. Proud Papa wasn't your average vampire, though. Poor sod didn't have the stomach for the blood of the innocents, didn't even know it when he tasted it. When he finally found out 'bout his wife's penchant for slippin' him the mother of all mickeys, found out she'd offed his son and all those people to feed him, he punished her. Ripped out her throat while he drained her dry. Ironic, inn't it? Know what's even better? Buffy was there. Had better than front row center for both Nathan and Miranda's big send off."
Spike stopped suddenly and twisted his head around to glare balefully at the man who should, by all accounts, know Buffy well enough to see when she's hanging on by a thread - yet never did. Without dropping his gaze, he moved dangerously closer, stepping silently over the carpet of dry leaves and ground clutter like a predator stalking its prey. Once again face to face with Giles, he stood like death personified, a warrior of chaos and mayhem. In a voice gravelly with barely suppressed contempt and fury, he snarled, "She lived it and she soddin' died it, so shut your bloody gob unless you've got somethin' useful to say in the way of gettin' rid of that dead bint!"
It wasn't a loud demand; it was a soft request. Buffy stood with her arms wrapped tightly around her body, trembling and tired, physically and emotionally spent. She ached inside. Like a sore tooth that your tongue just won't leave alone, she throbbed with the pain. But oddly, she was glad for it. Embraced it. As she stood there with her head down, she tried to puzzle out why she wasn't angry at the testosterone-induced scene she just witnessed. When she put her finger on the reason, the pain ebbed noticeably and her head shot up. New confidence imbued her actions and she took in the picture before her.
Giles looked stricken. Spike's eyes bored into him with glacial ferocity until he broke the contact and dropped his gaze. Any satisfaction Spike felt at having won the round was short-lived. Buffy strode up to him and shoved him back and away with Slayer strength before taking over his position in front of Giles. Spike didn't protest the indignity; he just struggled to remain on his feet, straightening his duster around him.
Buffy was ready to take care of business and go home. Playing referee for the two most important men in her life while they ripped each other to shreds was not something she was in the mood for, even if they had time for it. Miranda may be held back from touching them here by her own neurosis, but even now she was gathering her strength for the next confrontation. For now, though, taking care of business meant clearing the air between the men in her life, no matter how stubborn, bull-headed, and idiotic they behaved.
"Giles," she said softly when it became clear he was too embarrassed to look at her.
"W-Was he... I-I mean... Is it true?" His stuttering question was equally as quiet.
Giles' head shot up and he searched Buffy's face, hoping he would see signs that the vampire was way off base despite Buffy's bleak confirmation. Instead he saw the pain behind her eyes. His stomach dropped and he felt ill.
"But he left something out," she continued in barely a whisper of a voice. "He was there too. He saved me, Giles, more than once. No. That's not right. He did more than save me. He got me through it."
It was a reprimand of sorts, though a gentle one. For years, Buffy had taken for granted that Spike didn't deserve the same consideration of feelings that humans did because he had no soul. Felt no guilt. No remorse. Loving him had let her in on a little secret. Spike had feelings that could be hurt just as badly by neglect and abuse as anyone's with a pulse. She had hurt him badly, as had her friends.
Buffy didn't want him to hurt any longer.
"I-I'm so sorry, Buffy. I didn't realize how truly awful..." Giles' voice trailed off. Buffy blinked once and a melancholy smile drifted across her face. Giles reached up and placed his hands on her shoulders in a supportive gesture. "No," he said firmly. "I won't make excuses, only apologies. Please forgive my insensitivity."
She stepped into a warm hug, garnering strength from his unstinting affection. In a small voice that didn't carry, she whispered, "I'm not the only one who needs an apology, Giles." She found she still had the ability to grin in amusement when she felt him stiffen against her in surprise.
Gathering his English sense of propriety around him like a warm blanket on a bitter night, Giles drew away from Buffy and looked at the wary vampire.
Spike arched an eyebrow and waited for whatever Giles was going to say. He wasn't feeling terribly gracious at the moment, so the git had better choose his words carefully. That sickeningly sweet scene between surrogate father and daughter had left a bad taste in his mouth and he was still itching to spar. Had Spike been an introspective sort, he may have admitted that the noxious feeling eating away at his insides was jealousy. Giles got a hug and kind words. He'd probably end up with a glare and a cold shoulder. It wasn't fair.
Not that he'd ever been dealt a fair hand when it came to this lot. Sod it all.
Given where his black thoughts had roamed, when Giles extended a hand to him, Spike's jaw dropped in shock. Reflexively, his hand came out and clasped the one proffered without even realizing he'd done it.
"I owe you an apology, Spike."
Well, that was certainly new. And Spike bit back a snarky comment about the fact that Giles said he owed him an apology - he didn't actually give one. If the Watcher wanted to make peace, Spike was certainly man enough to accept it. For Buffy's sake, of course. It's not like he wanted Giles to respect him or anything. That wasn't happening this side of a closed hellmouth.
"Yeah, well...likewise." Where the bloody hell had that come from, he asked himself, stunned. Just because he had planned on accepting Giles' attempted apology didn't mean he had any intent to reciprocate it. So just what the hell had popped out of his mouth? Flustered, he gaped at the man when Giles' hand squeezed his firmly then dropped away. He turned away before Spike could figure out what had just happened.
Buffy strode up to him purposefully and crossed her arms over her chest. He wasn't so dazed by Giles' behavior that he deluded himself into thinking he was in for some snuggly cuddles. Opening his mouth to defend himself, the words died in his throat when she tilted her head and pursed her lips like she was getting ready to dissect him but was still trying to figure out where to stick the scalpel. So maybe blurting out the truth like he had wasn't the brightest thing he'd ever done.
Sighing deeply, he dropped his chin to his chest. "I'm sorry, luv."
"Didn't mean to - "
"I know, Spike," she interrupted him gently. And she did know. Spike's diatribe wasn't meant to hurt her, or to give her a big hello to the pain of their experiences. It wasn't really about her at all. Spike, who was just as tired and beaten up as she was, had tried to defend himself against Giles' taunts. While it was true he went more than a little overboard, as the ugly truth may have been better said in a calm and less brutally raw manner, it was understandable to a point. What was also true is that he did what Buffy herself had shied away from doing. That's why she'd actually felt better after it was done instead of worse. Whether by accident or design, Spike had once again shouldered a painful burden of hers. He'd told Giles everything when she was neither able nor willing to do it herself. She didn't really care if that's what he'd consciously planned to do or not. It didn't matter. Spike's first instinct - even when defending himself - was to protect her. That's what mattered.
"I know what you were trying to do, Spike." His eyebrows rose in surprise and he raised his head just enough to glance at her with a hopeful smile. She was quick to correct any impression that she condoned his behavior - or Giles'. "Oh, don't get me wrong, if you two ever go at each other like that again I'll remind both of you why it's never a good idea to make a Slayer angry. I love you both. Get along." She reached up and smoothed the front of his tee shirt a bit. "And for the record, thank you."
The tender smile that warmed her face told him all he needed to know and he reached out, grabbing her shoulders and pulling her to him. He couldn't have cared less what the Watcher thought of the show of affection. Wrapping his arms around her tightly and gratefully, he rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes in relief.
"Uh...guys?" Willow's hail drew the attention of the group and they all glanced over to her. She stood alone, wringing her hands and looking worried. "I...um...hate to bother anyone...but I have to go to the bathroom."
Looking chagrinned, Buffy, Spike, and Giles exchanged surprised glances. They had forgotten all about Willow. When Buffy thought about the picture that the three of them had probably made for the distressed redhead, two Englishman standing in the middle of a forest going at each other one minute, all three of them acting out a sickeningly sweet Hallmark moment the next, she grinned. Then came the chuckle. Tension drained away like rain on a hard-packed desert floor.
"Sorry, Will," she managed with a self-deprecating grin. "This isn't exactly the Plaza, but when in Rome..." She turned to the men. "I'll take her over to the bushes. We'll try to stay as close to the clearing as possible."
"Um...but close in a fully private way, right?" Willow asked nervously.
Buffy grinned. "Check. Bushes, heavy on the leafy." To Spike and Giles she said, "Don't leave the clearing, and keep your eyes peeled. Haunts tend to be really good at sneaking up unnoticed. I'm pretty sure it's the no body thing."
"Yes, quite," Giles replied, amused.
Spike frowned, definitely not seeing the funny of Buffy out there where vicious hands could reach her, but knowing that there was no chance in hell she - or Willow for that matter - would accept him as an escort. "Be careful, pet. And be quick about it."
Buffy and Willow rolled their eyes at each other. "Right, Spike," Willow drawled. "Because I've been just waiting for an opportunity to take my time enjoying all those posh accommodations of twigs, underbrush, and dirt."
With that parting shot, the two young women slipped out of sight and were quickly swallowed by the crowding foliage. Giles and Spike shared an uncomfortable moment of aloneness before the Watcher finally broke the relative silence.
"H-how bad has it been, exactly?"
Spike turned at Giles' earnest question. He didn't say anything right away, but his lack of response spoke volumes. Giles felt his stomach clench in anticipation before Spike finally admitted, "'Bout as bad as it gets, I wager." Nodding his head in the direction Buffy took he said, "She's been holdin' it together, right enough - but barely. Touch and go for a while. Not havin' somethin' to stick a stake into inn't helpin', either." Spike straightened his shoulders and looked Giles right in the eye. "You and Red better have somethin' good for us, mate, or we're all royally buggered."
"Well that's certainly...honest." Giles studied the vampire intently, pausing to really examine his bruised and battered face. He had thought it was all Miranda's doing when he had first seen Spike back at the house, but something in the vampire's words just now had struck a chord. With it came understanding. "You were there." He spoke to himself, really, but Spike heard it.
"Bloody right I was there. Through the whole of it, too. Your stunningly dull point bein'?"
Shaking his head absently, Giles said, "That's not what I meant. You mentioned that not having something tangible to fight has made it worse for Buffy, made it harder to cope with the emotions and pain to which she's been subjected."
Spike narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "What of it?"
"You were there."
Rolling his eyes in frustration, Spike's temper started to twitch again. "Right. I was there. Are we plannin' on movin' this gab fest forward in this unlifetime or should I reserve you the room in hell next to mine? Could probably put in a good word for you. Get the fire and brimstone buffet set up all right and proper."
Giles ignored the sarcasm and veiled hostility shimmering off the vampire. "Your face, Spike. Miranda didn't do that, did she?"
As still as a marble statue, Spike stared hard at Giles with no expression on his face. Giles met and held his gaze and in it, he saw the truth. "You...you goaded her into taking out her feelings of helplessness on you." The surprise at Spike's selflessness could be heard in his voice. At Spike's raised eyebrow Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them rapidly. While he gave his attention to the lenses he was polishing, Giles spoke once more. "She could very well have killed you, you know. That was rather noble of you, actually."
"Don't strain too hard on that compliment there, Watcher, you'll hurt yourself." Spike spun away, intending to leave it at that. Too much of the touchy feely stuff wasn't good for a bloke. Wasn't manly. There was one small thing he could bring Giles up to speed on without treading into some kind of truly revolting mushy man moment, though. And it would be fun. A sly grin slowly grew on his face and a wicked gleam sparkled in his eyes.
Calling out over his shoulder, he said, "You're wrong 'bout one thing, Giles. Buffy wouldn't have killed me. Knocked me blue, sure, with a bit of black thrown in for good measure, not kill me. She loves me." Giles head shot up and his jaw dropped open all in one move. Spike's smile was mercenary. "Told me herself just last night, she did. So, you see, I'm doubly interested in gettin' my woman out of here in one piece so we can spend some quality time together...Dad."
Giles groaned audibly, never doubting that Spike was telling the truth. He'd been afraid of that very thing for a while now, seeing it coming yet being unable to, in good conscience, try to do or say anything to prevent it. Not that he would have been able to. It's not that he begrudged Buffy any happiness she could find, but it was Spike. A different Spike than he had been previously, that much was certain, but still. It was Spike. And now it was likely Giles would be seeing a considerable bit more of the bleach-blonde pest than he ever had before. "Oh...dear."
Before Giles could fully recover from the rather depressing news that Spike was the vampire equivalent of a son-in-law, Buffy and Willow emerged from the woods and stepped into the clearing. The Slayer was back to business and took charge of the group, striding forward, purpose and intensity in her posture.
She had time to think while she'd guarded Willow. That wiggly feeling she got in the pit of her stomach when she knew something bad was going to happen grew more and more acute as the minutes passed, letting her know that their time was running short. "Guys," she said briskly, "we need to Jane Fonda Miranda from The Carr House and we need to do it soon."
A beleaguered Giles cast a confused look at Willow, who just shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. Even Spike looked like he hadn't quite caught that train of Buffy's thought as it left the station. Giles turned back to Buffy. "Pardon?"
Sighing deeply, Buffy replied. "Jane Fonda? Workout woman?" No one caught the reference. "She's the exercise guru. We have a haunt that needs exercising."
Realizing what she was trying to say, Giles pursed his lips. "I highly doubt lifting barbells or donning tight-fitting outfits to perspire to the classics would be very effective against this particular foe. Unfortunately, neither would an exorcism."
Buffy stared at him in frustrated surprise for a long second before responding. "Okay, first? Sarcasm is not our friend. Second, it's 'Sweating to the Oldies' - totally a Richard Simmons deal, not Jane Fonda. Third, what do you mean, we can't exorcise her?"
Giles sighed deeply. "Buffy, even if we had the necessary supplies and contrary to religious dogma, an exorcism is only effective when performed to cast out a demon from a live human host. Miranda isn't a demon."
"No," Buffy said darkly, "she's worse."
"That very well may be, but the fact remains, an exorcism just wouldn't be beneficial."
"So what do we do? There is something, right?"
"W-well yes, actually. There is a cleansing ritual that has been proven effective, according to my readings but..."
Buffy's eyebrows rose as Giles' voice trailed off. She was not even remotely happy by the troubled frown that creased his brow. " 'But' is never a word you want to hear when discussing how to get rid of a particularly nasty nasty, Giles. What's the problem?"
Giles ran a hand through his hair, trying to find a way to explain. "Unfortunately, from what I - what Willow and I witnessed, Miranda is not a typical haunt, if there is such a thing. She's evidencing a significantly higher level of energy and sustaining it for far longer than any other documented case. While it's true that we haven't had sufficient time to completely exhaust all - "
A higher level of energy. Sustaining it longer. A memory tugged at the corner of Buffy's mind. Realization, while slow in coming, hit her right between the eyes - followed quickly by the palm of her hand as she smacked her forehead when the light finally dawned. She interrupted Giles. "The Heggan's house!"
"Oh, bloody hell." Spike murmured, knowing what Buffy was saying and chagrinned that he hadn't thought of it sooner.
"What?" asked Willow nervously. "What's The Heggan House?" Giles looked back and forth between Buffy and Spike and waited for an explanation.
Rolling her eyes, disgusted with herself, Buffy grimly said, "Not The Heggan House, Will. The Heggan's house. The innkeeper and her husband's house. It's where we sent the other guests from the B & B when we figured out that Miranda had been using them to keep on going and going and going like that fuzzy pink bunny in the commercials. She did some kind of...something to them. Knocked them out. Used their combined energy. We figured that was how she got so strong. The problem is, Ida - Mrs. Heggan - told us this morning that their house was on the grounds of The Carr House."
"And therefore still within Miranda's purview," said Giles, following the thought to its conclusion. "Yes, that would explain a great deal about the level of power Miranda has displayed, as well as the duration she has been able to maintain it. I hadn't realized haunts were capable of subverting energies from live human hosts, though Miranda does seem to be quite keen on resetting the bar in that area."
"That's like seven people," added Willow, "according to the computer they had at the desk and including Mrs. and Mr. Heggan."
Buffy shook her head. "There was a cook, too, so there might be eight if Ida didn't make it to off the grounds before Miranda resumed control." At the questioning looks, she briefly explained. "Ida was hurt when Miranda blew the windows. She got cut up pretty badly, but we were able to get the bleeding stopped before we sent her home. I hope she made it to the hospital."
Spike smoothed her hair with his hand in a gentle caress before dropping an arm over her shoulders. "I'm sure she's fine, luv. She's one tough old broad. She'll be okay."
Willow was fascinated by the supportive gesture Spike gave Buffy and the way he tried to assuage her concerns. She'd never really seen the boyfriendy side of Spike before. It was kind of like that whole 'Softer Side of Sears' thing.
Since the relationship between Buffy and Spike had evolved into the more kiss less diss stage, they had always been very private in their affection. At first Willow had thought that Buffy was embarrassed, or maybe even ashamed of caring for the vampire, but after time passed with no change, despite the fact that her friends had grown accustomed to Spike's almost constant presence, Willow assumed it was more because Spike didn't really want to have anything to do with the rest of the Scoobies. He always kept himself on the fringes of their group, apart from everyone except Dawn. But Spike certainly wasn't holding himself apart anymore. It was kind of sweet, actually. Willow felt herself echoing the grateful smile that Buffy gave Spike. Anything that served to drive away the anxiety and guilt in her best friend's eyes was a good thing in her book.
"Will, can you do that spell you did on that demon ghosty thing that showed up after you brought me back last fall? You made it fightable. Fightable would be of the good here."
She was so absorbed in the surprised pleasure of watching the loving undercurrents in Buffy and Spike's words and actions, that she almost missed Buffy's question. "What?" she asked, trying to catch up. "Oh, from the thaumogenesis. Um...I don't think so. Tara and I gave form to a demon whose natural state was one of full embodiment. Its body was just stuck between realms. Miranda's body is dust. There's nothing to pull forward to force her into."
Giles cleared his throat. "If we could separate her from the source of her external power, cut her off from the people that she's preying on, we should be able to perform the cleansing ritual with success."
"How 'bout one of those energy barrier things?" asked Spike. "Set one up 'round the house, bitch won't be able to reach out and touch anyone."
Willow shook her head regretfully. "I could do it, but if she's drawing power from all those people, there's an existing connection between them and her. Cut that off abruptly, it may hurt or even kill all of them. Even if it doesn't, she could have drained them all to the point where they just have enough energy to enjoy a good long coma. Plus, there's always the chance that the energy barrier wouldn't contain Miranda at all. She is energy, she might be able to pass right through it."
"Balls," said Spike, disappointed.
The four fell silent, lost in thought. Buffy, arms crossed over her chest, stared pacing in a short line, trying to think. It wasn't easy to concentrate with the growing itch on the back of her neck and the tingly feeling down her spine. Often referred to as her Spidey sense, it was quite literally a physical reaction to approaching danger. Call it hormones, adrenaline, whatever, there were times when the feeling was so intense she felt like someone was standing behind her screaming at the top of their lungs, "Watch out!!"
Now was one of those times. It made her downright jumpy.
"Okay," she blurted, more to keep a lock on her rising anxiety than anything, "this is what we know. Miranda is using energy from people to do all that wacky stuff she does. We can get rid of her, but only after we cut her off from the source of her power. So we have to figure out how to do that. How do we do that?" Three blank faces stared back at her. Silent blank faces. "Come on, guys. There has to be some way to unplug her."
Spike looked down at the ground and shrugged his shoulder expressively. In a quiet voice, he said, "Nipper told us to get her to admit her transgressions."
"What?" asked Giles, confused. "Who? What about her transgressions?"
Buffy's eyes were wide as saucers when she met Spike's resigned gaze. Discussing Nathan was not something she wanted to do right then, especially considering where they were. Shaking off the surprise at his suggestion, she turned her head to Giles. "It's a long story...that I'll tell you much, much later. Lets just say we had some advice from an unexpected source and leave it at that. A really, really reliable source. We were told that the key to defeating Miranda was getting her to admit to what she'd done when she was alive."
"Yes! Yes, of course!" Giles said, excited. "If she is unable or unwilling to attempt to accost us here simply because this is where he son's body rests, she is obviously in complete denial of any wrongdoing on her part. Were she to face that unpleasant reality, she may be so affected by it that she'd let go of her victims."
"Right," said Spike, rubbing his shoulder absently. "Problem is, Mistress of the Self Righteous inn't exactly likely to own up to her dark deeds just because we ask her nicely. Last time we aired a piece of her dirty laundry, she almost choked Buffy to death from across a room and got a rib away from makin' me sweepable."
Giles frowned, thoughts racing. "Why is Miranda haunting the area?"
Spike rolled his eyes and huffed. "Senility. First sign of dodderage, mate. You asked us that already."
"Yeah," Buffy agreed - after shooting a warning look at Spike that he blatantly ignored. "Remember, Giles? Husband vamp bit wife psychopath, made a nice haunt for us all."
Arching an eyebrow, Giles reached up to remove his glasses. Apparently, sarcasm was only a friend of his Slayer's. "Quite," he said in clipped tones. "And that would explain why she's a haunt, not why she's haunting."
Buffy and Spike exchanged a look, clearly not grasping the distinction. Before either of them could ask for clarification, Willow spoke.
"See, haunts need a reason to stick around. Some kind of motivation. Usually it's something like revenge. Once the revenge is satisfied, their anger usually fades, and then so do they. Maybe Miranda is waiting around for a chance to sock it to Jacob. Spike, you were the first vampire to pop up since her death, so she's taking out her hostility on you...and us because we're with you."
"I don't believe that to be the case, actually," admitted Giles. "Though it would be easier if it were. The very fact that she has buried the truth of her past so deeply would seem to indicate a much more complex reason for her actions."
"Well," said Buffy, "Ida did tell us that whenever Miranda has shown herself to the less alive-challenged, she's always staring out one of the windows of the house. Um...south side, I think she said. She's apparently got a big mope-fest going on when she's doing it, too."
"And what is to the south of the house?" Giles asked.
Thinking for a minute, Buffy answered. "We are. Or...the forest is, anyway."
"Could she be pining for her son?" Willow asked. "That's kind of sad, actually. If she doesn't remember that she killed him, anyway. Then it's just ookey."
"Not her son," Spike said, pieces falling together in his head. "Her husband."
"But you said Jacob killed her."
"That's where you're wrong, Red. Beloved hubby couldn't kill her. He loved her. The demon inside him's responsible for the river of red flowin' from her neck. Least that's what the crazy bird thinks, anyway."
"Fascinating," said Giles, stepping closer. "Are you saying that Miranda viewed the vampire that was her husband as two completely separate entities sharing a body?"
"Oh, yeah." Buffy nodded and shuddered. "It was way creepy. Like Sybil with fangs. She thought feeding the demon let Jacob keep control of it."
"And he never told her...never explained the true nature of vampires?"
Spike shrugged, feeling uncomfortable about defending his kind. "Stuck out here in the boonies, like as not it took him awhile to figure it out for himself. Bugger, from what I saw, wouldn't surprise me if Jacob dusted the vampire that made him. See, a sire sticks around for the rise of his children. Whether it's to have a minion or a mate, there's a reason a particular human is changed over one that's just dinner. But our Jacob was filled with some ripe self-hatred for what he was; he probably caught his sire by surprise and killed him almost immediately after being turned."
Giles was astounded...and a little disturbed by Spike's colorful explanation. In all the years he had been a Watcher, all the research he had done on vampires, there had never been a record of one who reviled what he was. The only case Giles was aware of was...
Buffy placed a hand on his arm in understanding. "We know. Angel."
Willow looked at Spike, a guilty expression on her face. She knew he wasn't good with reminders of Buffy's first love. Surprisingly, there was a noticeable lack of expression on his face. He didn't look angry at the reminder of Buffy's past. Didn't look worried. He didn't look anything but reserved...which was unusual enough, really. She figured they had discussed this issue earlier, and while Spike wasn't thrilled by the connection, he was okay with it. That gave her the courage to speak.
"But Angel didn't keep his soul - it was returned to him. Is it even possible to keep a soul when you're turned?"
"I have never heard of anything of the sort happening before," said Giles thoughtfully. "I'm not sure how much importance can be attached to that fact, however. If you remember, there was never any information on Angel having a soul in the Watcher's records. We knew he'd shunned other vampires, but there was never any indication that he'd been returned his soul until he..." His words trailed off and he looked at Buffy nervously. Angel would always be the most sensitive of sensitive subjects.
"Until he came to Sunnydale and met me," Buffy finished in a matter of fact tone. She looked at Spike and smiled slightly, letting him know she was okay with the subject matter. He bobbed his head once at her in understanding.
"Yes, well, as it is, the issue is Jacob." Giles briskly brought the conversation back to their current predicament. "If what you believe is true, and Miranda is haunting the area out of some sense of loss of her husband...which would explain her response to me when I addressed her as Ms. Morgan, now that I think of it. She was quite emphatic in asserting that I was mistaken. It was Mrs. Morgan. Her motivation is most likely the desire to be with her husband again. Is that scenario even remotely possible, do you know?"
"Jacob dusted himself the morning after he killed Miranda," Buffy admitted. "He held her in his arms on the front porch of The Carr House and watched the sun rise. Big dusty pile of no on that scenario."
Mouth open in surprise, Giles stared at Buffy. Gathering himself slowly, he managed, "Truly remarkable."
"Listen, we'll have all the time in the world to go into Jacob's remarkableness later. Right now we need to deal with Miranda. Assuming she's hankering for a hunk of husband, how does that help us?"
"I-It doesn't, I'm afraid. I was hoping..." He shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to relieve the tension that had been growing there since the pre-dawn hours. Turning away, he strode to the edge of the protected area and stared out into the deceptively peaceful forest. He was at a loss.
"So we're right back where we started. Great." Buffy moved to Spike's side. He raised his arm to allow her to lean against him and wrapped it around her. For a long time no one spoke.
Willow frowned at Giles' back then glanced nervously at Buffy and Spike. So far, this hadn't been the most effective Scooby meeting on record. You would think getting rid of one pesky haunt would be easier than...oh...say destroying a Hell God, but that helpless and doomed feeling she had was remarkably familiar. Not that Miranda's continued existence was an end of the world kind of thing, thankfully.
"Ah...guys? What would happen if we just...um...left?" Three incredulous faces swiveled to look at her as if she'd just stripped down to her bra and panties and started dancing the Macarena. Her face burned hotly and she dropped her eyes to stare intently at her wringing hands. "I just thought...if Spike being here set her off and the rest of us just exacerbated the situation... I mean, she lived - existed here for over a hundred years without any major light shows or hostile power trips. If we left wouldn't things go back to the way they were?"
Buffy's face set into a hard, unrelenting expression and she pulled away from Spike. "I don't care if our leaving would turn her into a fluffy little lamb. When Miranda was human, she killed twenty-two women and children before she murdered her own son. She's not human anymore. Now she's in my jurisdiction."
Standing there in the shade was the Slayer. Proud, confident, experienced, this was a woman who had lived and died for her duty, only to live again. Willow straightened and raised her chin. "Okay," she said, solemnly.
The atmosphere changed subtly. Silence was charged with purpose in a way it had not been previously. But there was one other difference in the silence. It was absolute but for the distant hum of cars and trucks on nearby roads. In fact, every single sound that filtered through the trees was man-made. Considering they were in the middle of a lush and life-filled wooded area, that was more than curious, it was ominous.
Spike, with his hypersensitive hearing, was the first to be affected by the change. He frowned, unable to place what exactly was bothering him, and looked around warily. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. He brought his game face forward to maximize his senses. Straining his ears, he tried to listen for any sound that signaled trouble. When he realized it was the lack of sound that was the problem, he spun around in concern. Buffy and Willow were fine, they were standing near the center of the safe haven, but Giles was dangerously close to the edge. Spike's instincts - instincts that had served to keep him alive for over a century - were screaming at him. He didn't question them.
Moving with preternatural speed and shouting to get Buffy's attention, he reached Giles, wrapped his arms around him, and twisted his body to take the man's weight as they fell.
Buffy turned quickly and dropped into a fighting stance, pushing Willow behind her when she heard Spike's urgent hail. Her eyes flew wide when she saw the vamped out blur barreling towards her Watcher. She scanned the woods intently, looking for a potential foe. Willow was less composed. When Spike shouted, her head had turned to follow the sound. She saw a vampire large with the fang and grrr charging her unprotected friend. It wasn't a conscious thought - had she the time to think, she would have known what Buffy never once questioned. Spike wasn't trying to hurt Giles; he was trying to protect him.
But Willow didn't have time to think, and it was second nature to defend the man who was just as much a surrogate father to her as he was to Buffy. Her hand came up, magickal energy coursing through her veins as she readied a strike. Just as she prepared to toss a ball of electricity from her fingers, her arm was hit hard and the shot was deflected, shearing off a branch from a tree ten feet deep into the woods. The branch crashed loudly but harmlessly to the forest floor.
"Willow! What the hell are you doing?" Buffy was breathing hard, her heart having almost stopped when she saw Willow preparing to blast Spike with her mojo.
Reason finally caught up with her and she had the presence of mind to blush in embarrassment. "I'm sorry!" she said. "I-I saw him charging Giles and I just...reacted. I'm sorry!"
"Spike would never - "
"Buffy!" Giles and Spike called out simultaneously, halting any explanation of what Spike would or wouldn't do.
Spinning to face whatever challenge awaited, she gasped in shock at the sight of a large cougar, at least eight feet long from nose to tail, just a yard away, snarling viciously. Its tail thrashed back and forth malevolently as it crouched to pounce on the two men lying as still as death on the forest floor. Spike still had his arms around Giles, who was sprawled out on top of him with a face white with fear, matching almost exactly the color of Spike's unnatural pallor. Had it not been for the one hundred and fifty pound predator with the sharp teeth and deadly claws threatening their lives, Buffy would have laughed at the picture the men made. As it was, she was too worried about their safety to find anything even a little funny.
Without thinking, she leapt into action. Two long strides and she plowed into the cougar's side. They went tumbling, the lithe body of the large cat twisting under her hands. A powerful paw raked down her right arm and she felt the deep slicing pain of its claws and the warmth of her blood as it welled up and seeped through her tattered shirt. She tried to hold on, but the cat was too fast. With a powerful push of its back legs, it lunged up and out of her grasp. It didn't flee, though, it circled, it's scream of thwarted fury sounding chillingly like a woman suffering horrible torture.
The sound jarred Buffy and set her teeth on edge. A matching scream rent the air - but it came from behind her. She didn't turn, didn't take her eyes off the cat stalking purposefully in front of her. Inching slowly to her left, she protected Spike and Giles as they scrambled to their feet in a mass of flailing limbs and curses. Once they were finally upright and disentangled, Spike took his place beside his Slayer, making sure Giles and Willow were safely behind them. His game face still in place, he snarled at the cougar. There was no sign that the large male was even remotely impressed.
"There's another," he told Buffy, never removing his gaze from the one in front of her.
"Yeah, I heard."
"Still a ways away, but comin'. Probably this one's mate."
"Never a dull moment," Buffy said, dryly.
A third scream from off to their left dripped icy terror down their spines. They couldn't take their eyes off the one in front of them, but they were in a situation fast approaching untenable. Buffy was chilled to the bone by the human-sounding wail.
"Giles, what the hell is going on here?!" she asked, quickly growing frantic.
"It must be Miranda," he yelled. "She's summoning them."
"Summoning them?" There was disbelief and incredulity in her voice. "Are you kidding me? She can do that?!"
"Given the situation and the fact that cougars are exceedingly rare this far down from the mountains, as well as being solitary creatures by nature, I'd say it's a reasonable assumption that the sudden appearance of three predatory felines is directly related to Miranda's actions. Somehow she communicated with them and got them here."
Rolling her eyes in disgust, Buffy sighed. "Of course she did. How silly of me. Because that was in the haunt handbook as possible offensive maneuvers. Oh, wait." Sarcasm dripped from her tongue.
"Buffy, here's the second one," cried Willow, obviously distressed.
With a move as fluid as the most well timed choreography, Spike separated from Buffy. He spun around with an economy of motion to prevent the cats from charging, and squared off with the newest arrival. This one was female, smaller than her male counterpart by a good foot, but heavier in the middle. Pregnant, he guessed, and mightily brassed off at the disturbance of whatever it was doing prior to being called there. Not that she would take it out on the rightful party. Oh, no. Miranda would get off scot-free for this one. But the four of them were going to pay dearly if the animal got a chance.
With one warrior crouched, defending against one cat and the other in a similar position defending against the second, the witch and Watcher were left with either a Vampire or a Slayer between them and a bunch of teeth. For awhile, they held the status quo, but they ran out of time when the third cat materialized as if conjured out of thin air, silently slipping into the clearing with the attitude that he belonged there. Unlike his predecessors, he was monstrously large and more compactly muscled. From his whiskers to the last hair on his stiffly held tail, he had to be over ten feet in length and well over two hundred and twenty pounds. Huge for a cougar. Huge for anything.
Keeping their backs to Giles and Willow, protecting them, Buffy and Spike moved in a tight circle. If they kept moving, the three cougars were less likely to feel comfortable enough to take an opportunity to lunge.
"Willow," Buffy called softly in a singsong voice. "One of those nice little zapping balls of energy or a barrier of some kind would be of the good right about now."
"I'm working on it," the young witch responded in the same lilting tones. There was a problem, though. Her magicks weren't as effective when she couldn't concentrate on them fully, and three snapping, muscular jaws filled with long, penetrating teeth had a tendency to split the concentration from any task.
Closing her eyes to block out the sight of the threat just gave her mind free roam to slap horrendously grisly scenes on the back of her eyelids. Scenes like everyone getting their throat ripped out, disemboweled, and eaten. Her eyes shot open and she tried to quell the urge to retch. Shaking her head to clear it, she tried again to summon her magicks.
Willow finally felt the familiar power sizzle through her veins. It was working. Confidence flooded back to her and she readied a strike. Eying the closest of the three cats, the smaller of the two males, she pointed a finger at him. "Fra min hånd til De!"
An arc of fiery lightning burst from Willow's finger and seared the air. It slammed into the cougar and picked him up, the force of the blast tossing him several feet before he plummeted to the earth and crashed into the bushes. He didn't rise again.
"Way to go, Will!" Buffy cheered.
Her congratulations were premature. The two remaining cats pounced as one. The female slipped past Buffy and pounced on Willow, dragging her to the ground. She screamed in terror, barely managing to get her arms up to protect her face and neck from the predator's jaws. A cougar the size of the female could easily snap the neck of a large buck; a slender Willow had no chance against her deadly power. She was in serious trouble.
Buffy reacted quickly, grabbing the cat by the throat and yanking back with all her strength. No match for the Slayer, the surprised feline released her prey and tried to shake free from the choking grip. She was lifted off her paws and thrown bodily away. Twisting in mid-air, she managed to land on her feet, snarling in rage even as she regrouped and paced more warily around the pair.
Rushing to Willow's side, Buffy knew she would never be able to forget the sight of her friend falling under the cougar's onslaught. Nor would she ever forgive herself for allowing it to happen. It was no small miracle that she wasn't seriously injured, just shaken and bruised with a couple of small scratches. Buffy pulled Willow to her feet, checking the severity of her wounds, deeply relieved that she seemed okay.
Once reassured that Willow still had all her digits in all the right places, she turned to see how Spike was faring. Her heart dropped and her stomach pitched sharply when she saw him. He was down. The huge male cat had him by the throat and shoulder, one gigantic mouthful of vampire, and was dragging him away. As he backed out of the clearing, tugging slowly but steadily, Giles attacked him again and again with a large branch he'd picked up off the ground. Beating at the huge, muscular wall of flesh, he tried to get the cat to release the vampire. It was having no affect.
Spike kicked futilely, wincing in pain as he was dragged over sticks and ruts and rocks. He was on his back, his hands scrambling for purchase, trying to get to the cougar's eyes, the nose, anything that would hurt him enough to get him to let go. The scent of blood - his blood, Buffy's blood, Willow's blood - was a thick coppery cloud that tickled his senses with a demon's hunger. The searing hot agony from the teeth penetrating his neck and shoulder did more than an adequate job of keeping his mind on survival, though. What really bugged him was that he didn't dare try to twist out of the beast's jaws. With his luck he'd end up decapitated and dusty. Jerking abruptly as he got dragged over a tree root, his roar of pain echoed through the woods.
"Proteja com parede!"
The break in Buffy's concentration had given the female cougar the opportunity she was waiting for. Dragging her attention back to the she-cat, the Slayer gasped in surprise when she saw her flying through the air, having leapt at them from at least twenty feet away. Just before she reached them, the feline plowed into an unseen barrier and fell, shaking her head in confusion and snarling wildly. Backing up, pawing at her ears, the cat suddenly stopped. As if not realizing what it was doing or how it got there, her head swiveled from side to side. Finally, she hissed once more and disappeared into the surrounding foliage, not trying to move quietly. Buffy heard her crash through the woods in her haste to be away.
Tossing a grateful smile to Willow for that barrier spell, she spun to help Spike and Giles. But Spike was nowhere to be seen and Giles stood with his back to her, the limb in his hand dangling limply, forgotten. Buffy rushed to his side.
"Where's Spike?" He didn't answer her, just stared in horror at the woods. "Giles! Where is Spike?"
Slowly, as if in a trance, Giles faced Buffy. Swallowing audibly, he stuttered, "H-he's gone. The c-cougar pulled him out of the clearing. I-I tried to stop him. I've never seen anything like it. A-After the cat got Spike out, he just dropped him like he was of no more interest, then turned and disappeared into the woods. I rushed to Spike's side, I did. When I reached down, something grabbed him. Something...else. He flew out of my grasp and was dragged through the trees." His shaking hand came up and he pointed. "That way. I-I couldn't...I didn't... He was just gone."
"Oh, God," Buffy whispered hoarsely. "Oh, God. Miranda. She was trying to get him out of the clearing."
"Wh-what's that way?" Willow asked, scared.
"The house. She's dragging him back to the house."
"But, Buffy, what about the yard? She's going to have to take him across the yard. In the sun."
Buffy's head shot up and horror dawned. She was wrong. Miranda wasn't trying to bring him home; she was trying to burn him up. Without another word, Buffy sped off in the direction of the house at a dead run, Willow and Giles following as fast as they could behind her.
Continued in Chapter Twelve