By Jericho TGF
Buffy met Giles’ eyes over the bent head of her friend. Shifting her body to support most of Willow’s weight, she said, “We can’t stay here for long. We’re too exposed.”
“I agree, but we may need to entertain another option.” Giles replied. As he currently didn’t have one, he let the matter drop for the time being. Serious and thoughtful, he asked Spike, “How are you faring?”
Spike arched an eyebrow at the Watcher. At least a dozen snarky comments popped into his head. How was he faring after almost being torched twice in the same day? After getting dragged, slammed, bit, pummeled, bruised, impaled, tossed out a window, killed – albeit in the memory of some unidentified entity, almost attacked by a bear, almost staked? And those were just the highlights.
He wasn’t faring too bloody well, that’s for sure.
Twice he’d needed healing by magicks, a fact that chaffed his pride and tended to make him…surly, but he wasn’t all better. He could feel the blood loss rousing his terrible thirst, could feel the deep bone bruises and contusions that Willow’s magicks either didn’t or couldn’t handle. Not to mention he was more exhausted than he ever remembered being, which, when you thought about it, was really saying something.
All in all, he felt like shit, looked worse, and still had no idea how they were going to take down the beastie du jour.
One glance at the concern softening Buffy’s features as she waited to hear his response, though, curbed his tongue. The rising frustration and simmering anger banked enough for him to be able to swallow each and every one of those snarky retorts rolling around in his mind. He tried, for Buffy’s sake, to plaster a wry grin on his face.
“‘Bout sixty percent in the green…Pops.” Okay, so he wasn’t above a little bit of snark. He was still Spike, after all.
Giles, being more mature and therefore better able to control the urge to bonk the impertinent little twit over the head – preferably with a very large stick – took the high road and refused the bait. “Willow,” he asked, his voice stiff and properly upper crusty, “the gift that Nathan referred to was true sight, was it not?”
Breathing deeply, trying to expel the lingering physical effects of her view of the house, Willow nodded. Strength was returning slowly and her stomach was settling. She smiled gratefully at Buffy for the support, stood on her own steam, and consciously turned her back on the evil-seeped edifice. “Really hoping he has a return policy, too. You can forget what I said about this place being good for raising a family. U-Unless…ya know…Manson family.”
“Invoking the corners left you open to the effects of what you were seeing,” he informed her. “If memory serves, you have the ability to prevent the same from happening again. Unfortunately, that’s currently the extent of my familiarity with natural energies.”
“I-It’s okay, Giles.” She looked down at her clasped hands. “I know what I need to do.” Giles recoiled in surprise but she was quick to reassure him. “I don’t know how I know, but I do. There’s just some…innate knowledge, I guess. I mean, I still have a lot to learn, but there’s some stuff that’s just there. If I’d had some warning with the sight thing instead of just…Whoosh…instant ickiness…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged.
“Yeah, well,” Spike piped up, “the nipper inn’t exactly one for layin’ it all out there.”
“He really, really isn’t,” Buffy agreed.
“I assume he’s the reliable source you referenced earlier?” asked Giles, directing the leading question to his Slayer.
Buffy took a deep breath. The memory of what Nathan went through was still there, though muted in its intensity by the scare over Spike. “Nathan is pretty much the only reason Spike and I are still standing here. We wouldn’t have survived this morning without him.”
“Nothin’ like a helpin’ hand that knocks you down to help you out,” Spike mumbled under his breath.
She heard him. Gave him a look. “None of this has been easy. On any of us.”
“No,” Giles agreed wholeheartedly. “Nothing about this is easy.” Sighing, he took the lead and tried to steer things back on track. There was no benefit in standing around commiserating on that which could not be changed. “Willow, why the cellar?”
“The rest of the house is…closed. Covered. I’m not sure how to explain it.” The redhead grounded her power so she’d be able to look at the house without feeling more than slightly woozy. Not pleasant, but not debilitating, either. Dread trickled down her spine, but there was nothing she could do except ignore it and refuse to allow it to dictate her actions.
Steeling her mind, she turned slowly and took in the B & B once again. The manifestations weren’t as vibrant as before, but she could still see them. “It’s like there’s a blanket of energy over the whole house. Sick energy.”
“Sounds like what she did right after Spike and I were tossed out the first time,” Buffy offered. “It was kind of a slick, pulsing, invisible wall. As tactile sensations go, not one I’m pining away to repeat.” She shuddered slightly at the memory.
Willow nodded sympathetically before continuing in a matter-of-fact tone. “I can see strands of…something…being pulled into a black vortex over the roof. They’re coming from there.” Willow pointed to the left of the house, over the tree line, but as no one else could see what she was seeing, she may as well not have bothered. “There’s more of them coming from the basement. A lot more. And, guys, I don’t see anything covering the storm cellar doors. She isn’t blocking them. If you want in the house, that’s the way we go.”
“Sounds like a bloody trap to me,” said Spike. He wasn’t real keen on making it any easier than it had been for Miranda.
Buffy’s mind shifted into overdrive. “Why would she set a trap?” she asked rhetorically. “She hasn’t needed one so far. According to Her Uppitiness, we’re bugs in need of a good squashing. Keeping us out of her house makes sense, but giving us an in through the back door to lure us into a specific area? I don’t think so. It’s pretty clear that she can reach us wherever and mostly whenever she wants. No. There’s a reason that basement isn’t blocked.”
Spike arched an eyebrow. He loved how her mind worked, even when he wasn’t loving what he was hearing. “And that reason is…?”
Looking at the expectant faces around her, Buffy gave a nervous shrug. “Isn’t knowing there’s a reason enough?” she asked, hopefully.
“Note me ignoring you,” Giles said, his words dripping with derision. He fell silent and gave his mind over to the issue of the cellar and its apparent easy entry. Everyone else looked at each other and waited. Finally, just when they were ready to prod him just to make sure he hadn’t fallen asleep or something, he said, “I agree with Buffy.”
“Go me!” Buffy exclaimed, grinning. She quickly sobered when he gave her one of his patented Giles glares.
“As I was saying,” he said pointedly. “Miranda would have no reason to lay a trap. There may be no cloak over the cellar for reasons similar to those that keep her from entering the area where her son’s remains lie.” Looking at Buffy, he gentled his voice. “There may be something in that cellar that she refuses to acknowledge.”
His suggestion puzzled Buffy and her brow furrowed. What else could Miranda deny about her past? She was about to ask him when Spike uttered a sizzling oath under his breath. Her attention swung to the vampire.
Spike ran a hand through his hair, his agitation peaking. Hiding out in the area where Nathan had been buried was bad enough. He’d seen the marked toll it had taken on Buffy but it had been necessary to keep everyone out of Miranda’s clutches. That the ‘keep away’ hadn’t ended well wasn’t the point. He would sooner turn himself over to Miranda for another fun romp through the woods than make Buffy enter the room where Nathan was killed.
Spike’s mutinous expression is what finally tipped Buffy off. Her eyes grew wide and her lips parted. “Oh,” was the only response she could manage while she tried to calm her thundering heart.
“Listen, Watcher,” Spike said. His normally laconic drawl was laced with an uncharacteristic fervor. “You’re the one said we should entertain other options.” He was getting worked up, jabbing the air with a finger as he pointed almost accusingly at Giles. “I’ve got as much a say in this botched bru-ha as the next and I say that’s what we do. So, get on with it then. Entertain us.”
Fervor was quickly progressing to the edge of hysteria. The sight of Spike losing it was so astounding, so bizarre, that Buffy, Willow, and Giles could only gape in astonishment.
When Spike didn’t get the response he wanted, whatever that might have been, his tirade intensified. His voice rose and his words shot out with rapid-fire acidic cadence. “I’ll tell you this, then. And pay attention, as I won’t be repeatin’ myself. If I had a guarantee that goin’ in there would do a yank and bank on the chip in my skull, I’d sooner burrow into my brain with a corkscrew than get my digits and danglies anywhere near that soddin’ death hole. I’m not goin’!”
Any personal trepidation Buffy may have been feeling about descending into the cellar was ignored in favor of easing the crushing weight of Spike’s tumult. He was obviously more affected by what had happened to them then she’d thought, and it pained her that she hadn’t realized it sooner. She had to try to make up for her self-absorption – again. That was the only thing that mattered at the moment.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him gently, mindful of the fact that he was still battered and bruised. “It’s okay, Spike,” she assured softly. He was trebling slightly under her soothing hands. When she looked up into his face she saw his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his jaw working. Tension radiated through him. “Listen,” she started, trying to inflect a calm and positive tone in her voice, “if you don’t want to go in there, we won’t. We’ll find another way, do something else.”
Giles, never one for leaving his glasses alone when emotions ran high, reached up and yanked them off his face, studiously cleansing their lenses in an effort to conceal how bothered he was by Spike’s vituperation. He had been completely unprepared and caught unawares. Still, given what Willow had told them…
Cautiously, he suggested, “I-I know it will be difficult. For both of you. I don’t mean to lessen – ”
All business, Buffy speared him with a look, slicing off his words before he could finish. “We do something else.” Intensity gave way to pleading and her eyes implored him. “Please, Giles.”
There was nothing in him that could withstand the entreaty in those eyes. Giles sighed and swiped his face with his hand before slipping his glasses back on and pushing them into place. “I won’t lie to you, Buffy, the cellar may provide us our first opportunity to make an offensive maneuver against Miranda.” His voice was weary, the strain of the morning growing more and more evident. “However, we may be able to better prepare ourselves. In our haste, we left the research books in the area where Nathan’s remains lie. There may be something…”
His words trailed off and he dropped his gaze to the ground. He wouldn’t provide false hope. There may be something in the books that would allow for a dual attack, one from within and one from without. If there was, and if Spike remained adamant about not entering the cellar, he could serve as protection – as best he could in his weakened condition – for either he or Willow while Buffy accompanied the other into the cellar for protection on that front. Unfortunately, even that slim possibility was moot unless they retrieved those two suitcases.
“We need to get those books,” he concluded, resigned.
“No,” was Buffy’s clipped response. “There’re too many risks. A casual group stroll is a really bad idea. Miranda could call something worse than cougars next time. What then?”
Buffy looked up at Spike, shocked that those words had come from him. “Boy, we just breezed right past bad ideas straight to the perverse,” she said cuttingly.
“Listen, Slayer, I’m faster than the Princess and the Pea over there.” Spike jerked a thumb at the surprised, and at least half offended, Willow and Giles. “You can get with the noble defenderin’ of the meek and doddery while I go do the dash and grab. Be back before your knickers get a chance to twist.”
Aghast, utterly at a loss, Buffy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When the words really sunk in and she realized she hadn’t just imagined Spike’s obscene lack of sense, she pulled away from him. Because it seemed like a good idea given the detour to the absurd they’d taken, she exploded.
“Have you completely lost your mind? What, did Miranda bash your head into one tree too many? Because if not, I’m might just do it myself. May knock some sense into that decomposing lump you call a brain.”
Affront ignited Spike’s temper. “Bloody hell, woman. Sod off with the Mistress of the High and Mighty routine.”
She saw red. Funny, she’d always assumed that was a metaphor. It wasn’t. Through a blazing, hazy screen she narrowed her eyes and advanced on him, poking him in the chest. “Shut up, Spike,” she hissed venomously. “Miranda almost killed you, you arrogant oaf. Again! If it hadn’t been for Willow, I’d be sweeping you into a baggie for the trip home. Right now, I’m wondering why that would be a bad thing. You’re weak, you’re running on maybe a half tank of blood at best, and you are in no shape to go prancing through the woods like some kind of demented wood sprite.”
Spike’s hackles bristled. He stood toe to toe and chest to…well…chin with the spitting hellcat that Buffy had become. Giles and Willow, transfixed, watched the show. Their heads bobbed back and forth between the quarreling pair like they were perched on the net line at Wimbledon.
“Oh, I’m an oaf now, am I?!” the vampire roared. “That’s rich comin’ from the blond bimbette who thinks matchin’ her nail polish to her fashion accessories is second only to savin’ the world when it comes to important life choices! Listen, girlie, the Watcher says he needs those books and I’m damn well gonna get them for him.”
Buffy crossed her arms over her chest, spread her legs, and snarled, “Over my dead again body. Here’s how this is going to happen. You are going to stay here. I’m going to get the books. Face it, Spike, I’m faster and stronger than you are even on your best day, and in case you’ve forgotten, this has not been your best day.”
“Faster and stronger, eh?” he sneered. “Look who thinks she’s grown a pair. We’ll just have to see ‘bout that.” He growled low in his throat and dropped back into a fight stance.
Willow, growing more and more uncomfortable over the ugly scene, moved to intervene. Giles reached out and placed a restraining hand on her arm before she got more than a step. She looked up at him in surprise, but the Watcher didn’t meet her gaze. He just shook his head and remained curiously silent.
Spike threw the first and only punch. Buffy ducked under it without bothering to uncross her arms. With a cold, calculating curving of her lips, she smirked victoriously at him. Slowly, almost sensuously, she unwound her arms, took a step forward, and gave Spike a none-too-gentle shove.
Only using half of what she was truly capable of, might-wise, the push would have been a joke if Spike had been at full strength. He would have laughed it off, taunted her for more, and taken the next step in their dueling dance. But Spike wasn’t at full strength. Not even close to it.
Instead of laughing, he staggered, struggled to keep his balance, winced as muscles protested the motion, and fell hard on his backside.
Buffy stood over him, hands resting tauntingly on her hips. “I’m pretty sure this is the part where I go, ‘Enough said’.”
She dismissed him with a jaunty toss of her hair and stepped over his fallen body without another word. Walking over to Giles and Willow, she worked to regain her cool. Neither of her friends commented on the glint of thrilled triumph twinkling in Buffy’s eyes, mostly because of the larger portion of temper there as well.
“Can you protect him?” She lowered her voice, directing the question at Willow, but it wasn’t low enough to avoid being overheard by vampire ears.
Willow had a sneaking suspicion that was the point. She offered Spike a guilty glance before answering. “I-I think so.”
Buffy reached out and grabbed Willow’s arm. Temper gave way to sincerity and she whispered low enough not to be overheard, even by Spike. “I need you to do more than think so, Will.”
“O-Of course. I will, Buffy. Miranda won’t get to him. I promise.” Willow got a grateful smile and an arm squeeze before being released.
“Giles, can you watch him? Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?” Buffy’s voice was back up where Spike could hear her.
Hear her he did, too. He was picking himself up off the ground when that last crack rolled over him. He rolled his eyes and snarled. “Bitch.”
Buffy, oddly enough, smiled. Looking at Giles, she grinned widely and didn’t even blink at the not quite complimentary label. It knocked the Watcher a little off kilter, actually, but not as much as the good natured, “Demon,” she called out to Spike in response.
“Beast.” Without missing a beat, she tilted her head and asked Giles again, “Can you watch him?”
“Y-Yes, c-certainly,” Giles stuttered.
“I’ll be right back. Round trip, fifteen minutes, tops.” Buffy paused before heading off. She glanced once at the vampire she loved, then back to her friends. “I’m counting on both of you to protect him.” Grinning tenderly, she whispered, “Even from himself.”
It was said so softly that they had a hard time hearing her. There was no way Spike had.
Buffy spun on her heel and stalked past Spike before she stopped, backed up, and grabbed him by the lapels of his duster. She pulled him to her forcibly and slammed her mouth down on his. Quickly, almost savagely, she assaulted the cool lips and tongue, then nipped his bottom lip before releasing him abruptly. Staring deep into his surprise-widened blue eyes, she promised, “I’ll be right back.”
Refusing to be outdone, he reached out and imprisoned her arms in a grip just shy of bruising. Lowering his head slowly, teasingly, tauntingly, he captured her mouth. Where she had assaulted, he persuaded, where she had bowed him with her strength, he undid her with his tenderness. Savagery was answered with surrender, and the world trembled for both of them.
Drawing back slowly, sipping softly from her lips before withdrawing completely, his voice was a husky rumble of desire. “See that you are.”
He moved his hands up to her shoulders, caressing as he went, and spun her around to face the woods. Swatting her on her rear end after releasing her, he watched her take off at a run, quickly disappearing into the trees.
Buffy didn’t look back. Spike smirked. She wouldn’t.
After the last sounds of Buffy’s flight had faded on the breeze, Spike spun around. His duster flared out behind him as he sauntered towards Willow and Giles. They were still a little shell-shocked by the intense yet apparently quickly forgiven confrontation, and more than a little disturbed by the salacious tongue hockey they’d witnessed, so when he strode past them without stopping as if he wasn’t the least bit dented, they didn’t know what to think.
“C’mon, people. Let’s move.”
Spike’s command was hearty and filled with purpose. With eyebrows buried in their hairlines, Willow and Giles exchanged a look of utter surprise. As Spike didn’t pause, they were left with little choice but to trail after him.
“Wait, what?” Willow asked, suddenly very apprehensive. “No moving! This was definitely a non-moving plan.” Despite her words, she followed the retreating back of the vampire. As he didn’t deign to acknowledge her, there wasn’t much else she, or Giles for that matter, could do.
“Willow is right, Spike.” Giles called to the blonde head in front of him. “We should remain where we are until Buffy’s return. Y-You should be conserving your strength.” He was wasting his breath. Spike ignored him.
Willow tried again, louder. “O-Okay, so obviously there’s a new plan. I-I get that, Spike, but where are we going?”
The vampire stopped in his tracks. Willow and Giles watched as his shoulders rose and fell in a deep and long-suffering sigh that clearly illustrated his irritation. Slowly, he turned to them. “We’re goin’ into that bleedin’ cellar.” He spoke slowly, as if to small children for whom multi-syllabic words were a problem. “And as I’d like to get there before the sun rises on another fun-filled day at casa de la haunt, it would be greatly appreciated if you’d both sod the yammerin’ and try to keep up.”
He wasn’t nice, but then Spike had never been one to adhere to the social pleasantries of society, so neither Giles nor Willow was bothered by his caustic rudeness. They hardly noticed it. Besides, both of them were still hung up on the intended destination.
“Um…I’m confused,” Willow said. She didn’t want to tick Spike off by interrupting again, but she didn’t understand. “I thought you said you didn’t want to go in th – ”
Giles swore under his breath, cutting her off and, quite frankly, surprising her with his vehemence. “You ripe bastard, you manipulated her, didn’t you?” he asked Spike accusingly. “That petulant little rant of yours was for her benefit! You allowed Buffy to think you didn’t want to go down into the cellar, played on her emotions, and tricked her into taking off by herself.” Spike didn’t answer, didn’t nod, didn’t even blink. He gave no indication he’d even heard Giles’ accusation. “God, Spike, what were you thinking? She’s alone out there because of you.”
Outraged by the lack of response, the absence of regret, apology, any apparent caring at all, Giles grabbed the vampire and shook him. “So help me, Spike if anything happens to her…” He let his deadly glare and the vigorous shaking finish the thought for him.
Fed up with the fiend, Giles released him suddenly, disgusted by the thought of continued contact.
Spike backpedaled for balance but recovered quickly. He blinked bland eyes once, twice, then spoke softly, almost respectfully, definitely tiredly. “So you’d rather have her out there with the rest of us taggin’ along, splittin’ her concentration, spreadin’ herself too thin to make sure the lot of us don’t end up dead? You know, like the last time…because that was a banner plan. That’s what you’d prefer?”
Well, then. That was certainly another way of looking at it. One that Giles hadn’t considered, actually. “Ah…n-no, of course not, but – ”
“I see,” he continued, rolling right over Giles’ words. “So you’d rather have her go into that cellar where Nathan was killed, even knowin’ how it tore her up to stand on the soil where the pip was buried. Have her take on the room where Miranda drained him – and her though him – dry. Where she was cold. Blind. Tied down like a rabid dog. Where she listened to a little boy’s whimpers of fear, his beggin’ for mercy, his screams of pain. Where she was helpless to save him…or herself. You’d rather that, then?”
The emotions Giles had been searching for in Spike came home to him with a vengeance. It was he who felt guilt, regret, apology. He who was humbled. He who had been in the wrong. His throat was parched, tongue coated with gritty shame, but he owned his error in judgment. “No, Spike. I wouldn’t rather have that at all.”
Spike stared at him for a long moment, expressionless. Then, instead of claiming victory or rubbing Giles’ mistaken assumptions in his face, he just nodded his head once. In that nod were understanding, acceptance, and maybe even a little forgiveness.
If Giles lived to the ripest of old ages, he would never forget that instant. That exact moment when he looked upon Spike and for the first time saw not a vampire, but a man.
It was a revelation.
When he’d recovered a little from the unique experience, Giles said, “She won’t thank you for protecting her.” The statement was wry with the knowledge of just what, exactly, Buffy’s reaction would be.
Spike chuckled dryly, humorously, and shook his head. “Yeah, well, that’ll give me somethin’ to worry about if we live through this bloody vacation.” Raising one shoulder in a shrug, he dismissed the thought.
“He’s not really protecting her, Giles,” said Willow. She hadn’t been unaffected by the scene between Watcher and vampire. Quite the contrary. There was a totally new urge to defend Spike welling up inside her. “Going back into the woods alone isn’t exactly low on the personal risk meter. Spike just kinda nudged her into the less catatonia inducing of the two evils. That’s not really protection. That’s…you know…nudging.”
Giles shot her a look filled with sardonic derision. “What it is, Willow, is manipulation.” Locking eyes with Spike, he relented. “A means I’m quite familiar with when dealing with a proud and occasionally stubborn Slayer. When the end is justified, of course.”
Two men shared a moment of amused understanding.
Willow, feeling significantly better than she did just a short while ago, asked, “So what’s the grand cellar plan, anyway?”
Spike’s clear blue eyes focused on her. “Simple, Will,” he explained. “We check the place out. You work your mojo. Give Miranda a last call to the free-for-all energy she’s drawin’ on. Cut her off. Should rob her of enough power to keep her from mashin’ all our bones to dust in a fit of pique. Might bring down that barrier round the outside, too.”
A loud and heavy silence filled the air. If Spike had reached into the pocket of his duster, pulled out a pink tutu, wrapped it around his waist, and started pirouetting around the yard singing, “I feel pretty,” at the top of his lungs, Giles and Willow couldn’t have been more horrified.
Giles, looking a little green around the gills and a bit peaked, finally tried to say something, but his voice cracked. He had to clear his throat before he could try again. “A-Assuming that Willow and I were both profoundly stupid and decided to go along with that deranged scheme which would, undoubtedly, leave us all quite dead, what where you thinking we would do next? Perhaps find a tall building to leap from without aid of ropes or a parachute?”
The sarcasm rolled off Spike’s back with a shrug. “Figure we’ll take it from there. Never was one for master plans and plot driven storylines.”
“That,” Giles said, struggling to get the words past his appalled disbelief, “is blatantly obvious.”
Willow frowned. She didn’t want to make Spike feel bad, but his plan was really, really…well, it sucked. That didn’t mean she wanted to rub his nose in it. She was still feeling kind of soft and squishy towards him for what he did for Buffy. Not enough to sign on to his harebrained scheme, but still. “Spike, I-I don’t even know how to separate Miranda from her incoming power without risking the drainees. A-And we don’t even know if those strands I see are where the power is coming from. It just wouldn’t be a good – ”
There was such simple sincerity and assurance in his voice that it made her pause. “You’re sure?”
She had no idea why she asked the question. Even if he were correct, to go in and attempt what he was suggesting would be tantamount to suicide. Still, when Spike’s head dropped and he rubbed the back of his neck with a weary hand, Willow held her breath and waited.
“Drusilla had the sight.” Spike’s voice was far away, his mind in a memory. “Had it since birth, she did. ‘Course, back then it was called a curse by all the God-fearin’ zealots in her village. Rotters thought she was the devil’s whore. She wasn’t. She was pure…until the devil rode into their village wearing the face of an angel. He remade her and she arose a black queen. Still the sight remained, stronger than before. The zealots fell to her hunger, their fear of God replaced by fear of someone much worse.”
Spike used to love listening to Dru as she recounted that story over and over to her collection of dolls. She’d always tell the tale in third party verse, like the events happened to someone else, someone she knew and liked quite a lot.
Pausing and shaking off the reverie, he roused from the soft bed of fond memories. He wasn’t that Spike anymore, didn’t care to be, and he was a little irritated with himself that his story had sounded like he missed the good old days. When held up against the unlife he was living with Buffy, the past was nothing but an icy winter, only a shade compared to the warmth of spring. Enjoyed at the time, but gone.
His mind snapped back to the present and his voice returned to its normal clipped cadence. “We were in Bucharest in the forties, Dru and I, when we met up with a Ghafrok demon. Havin’ a good time durin’ the war, that one was. They’re energy drainers. Dru could see it – strands of swayin’ candy, she called them, sweet like peppermints, or some such rot. ‘Course, she was completely off her bird. Most of the time I ignored her when she went trippin’ on her bleedin’ mind benders. Anyway, what I did hear matches what you say you’re seein’, Will. Minus the loonies, of course. We already figured she was drainin’ the lot at the innkeeper’s place. Makes sense she’d be sippin’ from the home flask as well.”
“But whose…?” Giles asked, interested despite himself. “You think her victims are still there in some form, continuing to fuel her?”
“Why not?” Spike shrugged. “The dead seem to be more active ‘round these parts than the livin’.”
“Ghosts?” Willow squeaked. “You mean there’re ghosts down there?”
“Not necessarily,” Giles assured her. “There could be disembodied spirits, apparitions…any number of various phenomenon.”
“Oh, good.” Willow nodded facetiously. “‘Cause that’s so much better.”
Giles smiled sympathetically. “The point is, Willow, these particular strands of energy are from entities that are already dead, so severing their connection to Miranda won’t hurt them. It may, in fact, release them. Free them from their prison. Lessening Miranda’s power in the process.”
“I guess that means we’re basement bound.” Resigned – not thrilled, but resigned – she managed a weak smile. The Watcher laid a warm, supportive hand on the redhead’s shoulder, applying pressure and moving her along with him.
Spike reached the cellar doors first. After glancing back to make sure Giles and Willow were still behind him, he reached down and grabbed the handles, pulling the doors open with one heave. He might have been better served if he’d checked to see if they were locked before really putting his back into it, as they slipped out of his hands and slammed into the side of the house with a resounding crash.
Giles and Willow jumped.
A slightly sheepish Spike looked over his shoulder. “Sorry. You two may want to calm down, though. Those hearts of yours are makin’ enough racket to wake the dead.” Giles tightened his lips and arched an eyebrow; Willow crossed her arms over her chest and glared. Spike smirked at them. “Right then, let’s go.”
Ten steps later, Spike stood on the cool concrete floor of a cavernous cellar, a frown on his face. Looking around in consternation, he wasn’t seeing what he’d braced himself to see. In fact, what he was seeing was the B & B equivalent of the quintessential American basement. An oversized washer and dryer were off to the left, a line of floor to ceiling shelves packed and stacked with various sundry household miscellanies on the right. Boxes filled to overflowing with who knows what were piled in various stages of disarray along the floor. A clutch of Christmas decorations marked gaily with marker-drawn holly leaves and a cheery ‘Ho ho ho’ climbed towards the low-hanging ceiling in a neat column in the far corner. In short, there appeared to be nothing nefarious or macabre or even slightly out of the ordinary.
It wasn’t the room in which Nathan was killed.
“Balls,” he muttered. He was a little disgusted that he’d gone to all the trouble of keeping Buffy from being emotionally scarred for life, only to find out there was nothing down there to scar her. Unless she had some deep seeded aversion to the errant unstrung tennis racket or a couple of broken chairs. Somehow, he didn’t think so.
“Spike,” Giles asked when he heard the vampire’s quiet oath, “what is it? What do you see?” There was nervous tension in his voice.
Spike turned as Giles descended the final step into the cellar. “Look for yourself, Rupert,” he said, spreading his arms to encompass the room around him. Frustration was making him more short tempered than usual. “Bleedin’ box is just as mind numbin’ly normal as the rest of this soddin’ house, disregardin’ the dead bint with the attitude problem.”
“Yes, well, I’d love to look for myself, Spike,” Giles proclaimed aridly, “but as there’s no light down here, I’m having a rather rough go of it.”
Oh, right. No vampire vision. He’d forgotten. Rolling his eyes and smirking a little in superiority, Spike scanned the area for a light switch. Once found and flipped, two long rows of fluorescent lighting spanning the length of the ceiling flickered to life, bathing the room in cool white brilliance and chasing away the shadows.
“Bugger,” Spike exclaimed as he blinked against the brightness, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
Huffing impatiently, Giles asked, “What’s wrong now?”
“Bloody fluorescent lightin’ is what,” Spike complained. “Hate it. Makes a bloke look dead.”
Giles grew still and opened his mouth to comment, then snapped it shut again. Sometimes, it was just wiser to ignore Spike. Not that ignoring him ever made him go away. Unfortunately.
Spike, oblivious to Giles’ exasperation, glanced around the basement once again. “This inn’t right, Giles. It’s not where Miran – ” He broke off suddenly and spun around, his face flashing concern. “Where’s Willow?” he asked.
Giles thought she’d been right next to him. He hadn’t heard her slip away, but didn’t see her in the immediate vicinity. Panic clawed him in the gut. “Willow!” he called.
The cellar was ominously silent.
The two men shared a look and without another word, split up and started casing the large basement, Giles on one side, Spike on the other.
In a dark corner where light dared not penetrate, the slip of a woman stood with her hands pressed against a narrow door almost imperceptible in the gloom. Tears streamed unchecked from wide, sightless eyes, cascading in a sorrowful waterfall down her cheeks. Her lips were parted in a scream silent to the ear but deafening to the soul. Bone-jarring shudders wracked her slight frame, chattering her teeth.
That was Willow’s condition when Spike found her. He was taken aback by the sight and immediately alerted Giles even as he wrenched her away from her horrific vigil. Spinning her in his arms, he searched her abnormally dilated pupils, his fine tuned ear listened to the shallow sips of oxygen sliding in and out of her body and a pulse that was thready and erratic.
By the time Giles got to where Spike had gently lowered Willow to the ground, the vampire was already shaking the young woman and calling her name over and over.
“Dear Lord,” breathed Giles. “What happened?”
“Don’t know,” Spike answered, speaking quickly. “Found her in the corner, huggin’ the wall. She’s checked out, Giles. There’s nothin’ there.” He slid out of the way for the Watcher.
After kneeling next to the traumatized girl, Giles stunned Spike by hauling off and slapping her across the face, yelling, “Willow! Block it out!! Ground yourself, Willow! Willow!!”
He slapped her again, with only a little less force than before, but this time Willow blinked at the sharp contact. Giles continued his loud litany, shaking her as he shouted. Slowly, Willow’s eyes began to focus as she finally started to respond.
After what seemed like hours, she choked out a sob and buried her face in her hands, curling into a tight ball. Giles, exhausted, sank down next to her and rubbed her back soothingly, allowing her to regain a measure of composure. Soothing murmurs of support replaced shouts and commands.
“I-I’m sorry,” she hiccupped when she could find her voice. “I w-wasn’t ready. I s-saw the strands of energy and I r-ran my hand through them to see what w-would happen.” Moving stiffly, she sat up and pulled her knees to her chest, pushing tendrils of hair damp from her tears out of her face. She took a deep, steadying breath. “I saw…” Her throat tightened and her eyes welled up again, large iridescent drops of pain escaped their lashed corral and overflowed. “I saw…”
“It’s all right, Willow,” Giles assured. “Take your time. What did you see?”
Two huge orbs, aged beyond their years, pinned him. Before she opened her mouth, he knew he would regret the question.
“Death, Giles. I saw death.”
Sometimes being right was more of a burden than he could bear.
A shrieking crack exploded through the room, jerking a shocked squeal from Willow and causing Giles to clutch his chest to make sure his heart hadn’t burst. Searching wildly for the source of the sound, fear was replaced by a flash flood of temper.
“Spike!” Willow admonished, still trembling.
“Bloody hell, man!” Giles glared hostilely at the vampire and got to his feet. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
Spike reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it and taking a drag. He leaned against the wall next to the door that Willow had been touching, but the door wasn’t in one piece anymore. One thick board with the doorknob in place still stood in the doorway, but the rest of the decimated wood creaked and groaned as it swung out slowly on rusted hinges.
“Door was locked,” he replied nonchalantly, as if that justified and explained everything.
“The door was…” Giles shook his head in disbelief, not sure why he was surprised. He should be used to Spike’s antics by now. Dismissing the vampire with a frustrated wave of his hand, he helped Willow to her feet, gently questioning her. “Are you certain you can go in there?”
“No,” she answered frankly. “But I have to, Giles.” In an effort to alleviate his concerns, as well as her own toothy monster-sized fears, she added lightly, “I’ll just stay away from the rainbow of energy next time. There’s definitely no pot of gold at the end of it.”
“Quite,” he agreed. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, they walked over to the door together.
Pausing at the entry, Giles, Willow, and Spike shared cautiously expectant glances, bracing themselves. In the end, it was Spike who took the initiative, rolling off the wall and slipping into the dark hole that had seen the worst of human nature. With one last supportive squeeze, Giles released Willow and followed the vampire, dropping his head under the low frame. On a deep breath, Willow shuffled in after him.
The smell of decay and earth assailed and assaulted. Trying to gain any sense of bearing was impossible for Giles; he couldn’t see a thing. Even Spike, with his excellent night vision, could only make out shadows and…well…darker shadows.
Spike’s voice was oddly somber when he called out to Willow. “Hey, Will, can you spark us?”
Spark them? What she wanted to do was get everyone out and ignite an inferno, cleansing the claustrophobic room, caving it in, obliterating the scar from the earth forever. It’s not what she could see, she was as blind in the dark as Spike and Giles. No, it was what she was Seeing that was the problem. Faces. Women and children. Dozens and dozens of them. Uncountable, twisted, tormented faces. Hell was in that room. It terrified her. It enraged her. It was not to be borne.
Centered, grounded, she called, “Earth, Air, Water, Fire, help me, guide me, never tire. Dark surrounding shall be lighted; wrongs committed shall be righted. A circle I cast, protecting the meek, a circle I draw, defending the weak. No evil will pass; no harm shall come. Shelter and succor at my will be done. Sisters four, my power from thee, as I will so mote it be!”
The air crackled with electricity. Spike and Giles exchanged a wary glance when Willow slapped her hands together then cast out her arms. A wall of energy burst forth as if from Willow’s core, widening in a circle, passing over and through both men with a warm, tingling caress, then continuing on until most of the room was enclosed.
A peaceful calm whispered in the sheltering circle, stirred by a fragrant breeze. It was as if what was inside was separated and lifted above a black cloud of noxious evil being held back by Willow’s spell. Impressed, Giles and Spike looked around, as all inside the circle was bathed in a warm ambient glow.
“Gotta give her this much,” Spike drawled idly. “Girl knows how to light up a room.”
Spike’s mouth slammed closed in shock. Giles’ mouth dropped open. Both stared, wide-eyed, at what had been Willow. Glowing with purity, the form turned its attention to the Watcher. He was caught and held in the seemingly endless expanse of twinkling lights in her – their? – eyes.
A blend of five voices spoke as before. “We have come to relieve the suffering of their burden.” Giles was sure that one thread of the blend was Willow’s, the rest…he couldn’t even begin to fathom. He found himself nodding as if he understood – which couldn’t be further from the truth – as the voices continued. “We will release them.” Eyes shifted to the captivated Spike. “You are familiar with this room, are you not, William?”
“Y-yes.” An economy of a response, though stuttered, seemed like the best idea.
“Terrible tragedies took place here, as you well know. We will set those to right, as beseeched by our daughter. The responsible party is not within our purview. Those named Buffy, Rupert, William, Willow, will they continue in their endeavor?”
Giles stepped forward hastily as the entity’s gaze shifted back to him. “Y-yes, Sisters. W-we will continue to the end and beyond. T-that is our p-purpose in the world.”
A beatific smile beamed brilliantly on the entity’s face. “This pleases us, Rupert. We will be watching. Our daughter is young yet, but she has great strength. Your wisdom will compliment that strength. We are satisfied by your influence.”
Struck with an urge to bow, Giles was humbled by their words.
The glow emanating from the figure intensified, and their head fell back. That was all Giles and Spike could make out before they had to shield their eyes. With a final flare, the light banked, returning to the ambient glow of before. The voices spoke again. “It is done.”
Addressing Giles one last time, they said, “Our daughter will be weak upon our departure, Rupert.”
Without giving him time to figure out what they meant by that, the Sisters retreated, giving Willow back her body. She blinked her green eyes once, a positively serene look on her face, and said in an awed whisper, “They’re free. All of them. And the barrier is down.” That was all she could manage before those green eyes fluttered and rolled back in her head. As it turned out, it was Spike who caught her before she fell.
Vampires tended to be fleeter of foot than ex-librarians, but given what Spike had just experienced, he just didn’t have it in him to call Giles on the jest. He didn’t say a word as he lifted the boneless Willow into his arms, cradling her head against his chest with his chin to keep it from flopping around gracelessly.
In the calm silence, Giles and Spike just looked at each other. And waited.
Neither one wanted to discuss what happened, so eventually they turned away from each other and cased the tiny room. Until Willow woke, they didn’t want to risk stepping out of her circle, but it wouldn’t be long before Buffy was back. The unspoken agreement was to allow Willow to sleep until then.
Giles moved to the edge of the circle and studied the remains of a small bed in the corner covered with a thick film of grime and partially reclaimed by the nature sprouting from dirt walls. Desiccated leather bands were at the four corners. Age had not erased the visible, bloody, clawed furrows in the wall, in the wooden posts above and below the leather, on the leather itself, where human victims had struggled in vain for their lives. He swallowed forcibly, revulsion turning his stomach.
“It was an ice closet,” he mumbled absently, speaking more to himself than to Spike.
The words drew Spike’s attention from what he was studying and he looked over his shoulder. When he saw the bed and the ancient signs of struggle, he cursed low under his breath. Resigned, he spoke, “You might want to take a look over here, Giles.”
Relieved to turn his back on the bed, Giles crossed to where Spike was standing, staring at a small square table filled with bottles of varying size. And it wasn’t just the table that was covered, either. Bottles with contents hidden behind dusky-hued glass and roughly carved cork stoppers lined the floor, set neatly and precisely in rows against the length of one wall. There were so many, Giles couldn’t even count them all.
Confused, Giles frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I do,” Spike admitted reluctantly. “Dyin’ didn’t stop the killin’. The bottles are full – most of ‘em anyway.” He turned his head and met Giles’ eyes. “With blood.”
The horrific light of understanding dawned. Hoarsely, Giles said, “All these years…so many bottles…she’s still collecting – ”
His words broke off as a tremor shook the ground under their feet. Dirt and grime rained down on them from above and Giles leaned towards Spike, covering Willow’s head and chest with his own.
“Take her,” Spike commanded, sliding his arms out from under the still-sleeping girl as soon as Giles had her. He shucked his duster and draped it over Willow gently as a second tremor, stronger this time, rocked them both, almost knocking them off their feet.
As one, Giles and Spike looked up at the crumbling ceiling, squinting against falling debris. Spike spoke the words that neither wanted to admit. “Miranda’s awake.”
Motioning at Willow with his head, Giles said, “Down! Help me lie her down!” There was no longer any time to allow her to wake naturally.
On their knees on either side of her, they both called her name, shaking her gently, tapping her lightly on opposite cheeks. Again and again the earth shook with increasing magnitude and as each quake hit, they protected Willow with their bodies. She wasn’t responding – yet – and their situation was rapidly worsening.
“How unfortunate,” an airy voice spoke from the door.
Giles and Spike jolted in surprise and leapt up, standing side-by-side, keeping Willow behind them. Miranda was in the doorway. She wasn’t fully manifested, so they could see through her, but the vicious insanity burned feverishly in her eyes.
“It appears your friend isn’t feeling well. I’m so sorry.” The haunt’s words dripped saccharine insincerity.
“I’ll just bet you are, bitch,” Spike growled. His game face surged forward, capturing Miranda’s attention. Giles would later wonder if that was what Spike had intended, as it allowed him time to turn and pick Willow up and move her to the center of the circle she cast.
“You have proven difficult to dispatch, fiend,” Miranda hissed, dropping all pretense of polite conversation when she saw the ridges and fangs. “But difficult does not equal impossible. Perhaps it is time to see if you have any concept of sacrificing for those whom you proclaim to love.”
Hatred and naked contempt vibrated hotly in her voice, but when she brought her hand out from behind the wall, Spike stopped listening. He was too busy being overwhelmed by the heart-shredding roar of ultimate rage and terror that wrenched itself from his gut and tore from his throat. Dangling in the air, struggling in vain, battered and bloody, choking for breath, held by the neck in Miranda’s deceptively dainty hand, was Buffy.