DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Tara has talked to Spike about not having the chip, Freddie has taken Anya from Midnight, while Buffy, Xander, and Giles have fought a group of vampires in the sewers and intercepted the note from Willow to Freddie…

*************

Chapter 29: One Phone Call

“I think it’s a Y.”

“Are you kidding?  That’s clearly an X.”

“An X?  How many words have X’s in them?  I’m telling you it’s a Y.  You forget.  We used to pass notes in class.  I’ve seen her Y’s a billion times.  And that’s most definitely a Y.”

“All I’m saying is that I got just as many notes as you did, so I am intimately aware of what Willow’s X’s look like.”  He bridled when Tara glanced up from where she was sitting cross-legged on the floor, the book in her lap momentarily forgotten.  “Not that kind of intimately,” Xander quickly backpeddled.  “I meant, intimately as in very.”

“I still think it’s a Y.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a bloody rune!” Spike exploded.  Simultaneously, Buffy and Xander turned in their seats at the lone desk in the hotel room to look at the vampire sprawled in the chair.  “You haven’t got a single word from that note to make a lick of sense, so why sit around and fuss about one soddin’ letter?” he went on to say.  “Call it a wash, toss it away, and let’s do something about it before something else happens to cock everything up.”

The group sat in stunned silence at his outburst, Giles stopping in mid-pace to scrutinize him carefully.  “I believe Spike’s right,” he said slowly.

“’Course I’m right,” he grumbled, slouching further into his chair.  “And it’s about bloody time you realized that.”

“Clearly, we’re not going to decipher any more of Willow’s note,” he continued, ignoring the interruption.  “What’s important here, is now we know Willow is at least partially in control of her faculties.  She must be, in order to sign her own name.”

“But that wasn’t Willow in the swamp,” Buffy argued.  “She called herself Sandrine.  Even Spike knew it wasn’t her.”

“Think I was the one who told you first,” the vamp mumbled, and rolled his eyes when she shot him a pointed look.  The lot of them had been arguing for the better part of an hour, ever since their arrival from their failed recon, only stopping long enough for each of the trio to take a quick shower.  He’d ignored it at first, lost in his own thoughts, actually welcoming the respite to mull over his own course over the next few hours, but as it became increasingly clear that they were accomplishing nothing, his nerves began to fray.  Too much talking and not enough doing. 

Fidgeting had been inevitable, nudging at Tara’s book on the floor with the toe of his boot so that her pages would flip, dropping bits of cellophane from his pack of cigarettes onto what she was reading.  She’d given him more than one annoyed but amused look, but hadn’t moved from her position near his legs, settling for replacing the book in her lap so that he couldn’t reach it and slapping playfully at his knees when it looked like he was moving again.  Even that had lost its interest, though, and so his outburst had been pretty much inescapable.

“Perhaps Sandrine doesn’t have total control,” Giles suggested.  “Perhaps, Willow has discovered a way to regain some power.”

“But a note to Freddie?”  This came from Tara, her voice soft in its confusion.  “Why would she want to talk to him when he’s the reason she’s here in the first place?”

“I don’t know,” the Watcher admitted.  “That…remains a mystery.”

Silence descended again as they considered their options.  This time it was Xander who broke it.

“So, Chips Ahoy, you seem to be all about the ideas on what we should and shouldn’t be doing,” the brunette said, swiveling in his chair to face Spike.  “What is it you think should be next on the itinerary?”

He didn’t have a clue.  He’d just wanted them to stop nattering on so that he could have a few moments of peace.  No way was he going to give Harris the satisfaction of knowing that, though.  For a moment, Spike entertained the daydream of demonstrating for the young man just how gone the chip really was by giving him a matching black eye to go with the shiner he’d gotten in the sewers, but just as quickly, dismissed it.  Would be pleasant, but not worth the hassle.  Still, he had to come up with something.  They were all sitting there, looking at him, waiting for him to speak up.

“S’pose it’s safe to wager Red’s not at Midnight since that’s where you say the goon squad with the note was headed,” he said speculatively.

“Oh!  But Freddie probably is!”  Buffy visibly brightened, perking up in her seat as the connection finally made it in her brain.  She immediately deflated again.  “Or…was,” she added with a small frown.

“Then you should’ve thought of that before you scarpered off,” Spike replied with a cock of his brow.  “’Sides, goin’ into that place was daft, and you know it.”

“Thank you!” Xander exploded.  “It’s so nice to know I’m not the only one around here who thought that plan was suicide.  Even if it does mean having to agree with Bleach Boy here.”

“Great,” the vamp muttered.  “Me and Harris as the voices of reason in this lot?  Red’s doomed.”

“You still haven’t told us what your suggestion is, Spike,” Giles prompted.

Damn.  They’d picked up on that.

“Well,” he said, stalling.  His mind raced, the fragments of a thought lighting on his tongue.  “I’d say, we need to suss out where that Sandrine bitch is---.”

“No?  Really?”  Xander feigned shock, as if the idea was something none of them had considered.

Tara’s glance at the brunette was just shy of reproach, and she twisted to face Spike.  “But we tried that already, remember?” she said.  “My spell didn’t work.  Every time it looked like I was getting somewhere, a big block would come up and scatter my spell.  She’s doing an excellent job of shielding herself.”

“So, don’t go looking specifically for her.  Look for someone around her.  What about Iris?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t have anything of hers to focus on.”

“So try a more generic spell.  Something for the demon set.”

Tara poked at his leg.  “I think this heat has melted your brain, Spike.  We’re in New Orleans.  I cast a spell to locate demons and it’ll set my whole map on fire.”

As he chuckled at the small joke, Spike caught the puzzled frown on Buffy’s face as she glanced from him to the witch.  She didn’t know what to make of the newfound camaraderie that had seemed to sprung up from nowhere between them, he realized, and felt a twinge of satisfaction.  It wasn’t often he enjoyed equal footing within the Scooby dynamic; this most certainly was a welcome change.

“The note,” Giles said abruptly, straightening as he put his glasses back on.  At everyone’s confused faces, he said, “It’s been touched by both Willow and the vampires she had acting as courier.  Perhaps we could modify the locator spell to instead focus on the path the note followed prior to our intercepting it.”

“Make it act like a homing device, you mean?” Xander asked.

“In a sense.”

Tara was shaking her head as soon as he made the suggestion.  “I’ll have the same problem I had trying to find Sandrine,” she said.  “As soon as I get anywhere near her, I’ll lose the spell.  She’s way too good.”

“We haven’t tried a locator spell on Anya yet,” Buffy offered. 

“Actually, we have,” Spike said.  “While you lot were out gettin’ your sewer groove on, we had a go at it.  Didn’t work.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true,” Tara amended.  “It started to work, and then it looked like she was moving, and then it just kind of fizzled out like my spell for Sandrine did.”

“That would suggest she was relocated to somewhere in Sandrine’s proximity,” Giles mused.

“Which takes us back to square one,” Xander complained.  “Find Sandrine.”

“Perhaps we’re approaching this in the wrong manner,” the Watcher said.  “It’s obvious magic isn’t going to help us at this point, not until we can find some way to neutralize or overcome what Sandrine can do.  Perhaps we should resort to doing it the old-fashioned way.”  He looked at Spike.  “Didn’t you use your local contacts to get to Iris in the first place?”

The vampire’s eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out where the other Englishman was going with this.  “Yeah…”

“And with Willow using vampires as couriers, it would probably be safe to assume her alliance with Iris is keeping her in close contact with her.  Couldn’t you use those same contacts to discover where Iris is during the day?  Outside of her club, of course.”

Spike shook his head.  “I used Pablo for that,” he said.  “And he’s officially crossed off my snitch list.”

“Well…uncross him.”

“We can’t.”  This came from Buffy.  “He kind of had a little accident with a piano.  And my fists.”

“And my cigarette,” Spike interjected.  “Don’t forget that.”

“And Spike’s cigarette,” Buffy added.  “Pablo’s definitely a no-go.”

“Are you telling me you only had one contact in this entire town?”

“Hey!”  Spike sat up and glared at the Watcher.  “I’ll have you know, I’ve got a literal bevy of contacts here.  I’m not goin’ to sit here and listen to you sully my bad name---.”

“So, call one of them.  I’m sure someone must be able to tell us what we need to know.”

He was caught, and he knew it.  As he scowled at Giles, Spike silently fumed for having fallen so cleanly into the Watcher’s plan.  How is it I’m the one who always seems to be saving their tails? he groused.  Where would they be without me?

“Fine,” he muttered, stomping to his feet.  Stepping over Tara, he grabbed his blanket and began heading for the door.

“Where are you going?” Buffy asked.

He stopped with his hand on the doorknob.  “If you think I’m goin’ to make those calls here with you lot staring at me,” he said, “you’re off your nut.  ‘Sides, I’m peckish and all the blood’s back in our room.  I’ll be back once I’ve found something out.”

Tossing the blanket over his head, he was about to yank the door open when Buffy’s hand closed over his on the knob.  “I’ll come with you,” she said when he glanced back at her.  She smiled, and then said to the others in explanation, “Just to keep an eye on him.  Make sure he actually makes the phone calls instead of just hanging out long enough to make it look like he did.”

They seemed to accept her reasoning, and the two blonds stepped outside, Spike nearest the wall to avoid the sunshine that filtered in through the overhang while Buffy walked along beside him.  She was silent until they reached their room, and he felt his irritation ease, her presence soothing his disjointed thoughts.  It was just a couple calls.  Nothing to be wasting time or energy complaining about.  And if it helped Red and Tara, then so be it.  He wasn’t sure why the Slayer had insisted on tagging along, though.  She of all people should trust in him to help out in this.

Back in their room, Spike dropped the smoking blanket by the door, and was about to go to the phone when her hand settled on his forearm.

“What’s going on?” Buffy asked.  She was chewing at her lip, the tiniest of lines between her eyebrows, and Spike tilted his head as he regarded her.

“Thought I was doin’ my good deed for the day, pet,” he said.  “Unless you’ve got something else in mind.”

“No.  I meant…what’s going on with you and Tara.  You’re all…buddy buddy.”

He grinned.  Ah.  Now it made sense.  “And that bothers you?  Thought we talked about that little green chip sittin’ on your shoulder, luv.”

“I’m not jealous.  It’s just…where did it come from?”

“Well, considering she spent half of yesterday playin’ nursemaid for me, and then you foisted me off on her again this morning, don’t see why you’re so surprised we might’ve actually gotten along.”

“You do know she’s a lesbian, right?”

This was just getting too rich for words, and Spike had to refrain from laughing out loud.  “Do you know she’s a lesbian?” he countered.

“That’s not the point.”

“No, the point is, you’re goin’ to have to realize that there are a lot of birds out there who might find me interestin’ to talk to, pet.  And that I might find interestin’ back.  But it doesn’t mean I feel any differently about you.  Or us.”  He reached out, cupping the side of her face, long fingers intertwining with the hair at the base of her skull.  “Isn’t it better like this anyway?” 

“How do you mean?”

His blue eyes softened, and he leaned forward, catching her lips in the lightest of kisses before pulling back again. “Me gettin’ along with your mates makes them finding out about us easier, and that Tara’s a bit of all right.”  He stopped, considering for a moment, and then decided what the hell.  “You know she knows about us, right?  She sussed on to it and asked me about it this morning.”

Buffy’s eyes widened.  “How?  I thought we were being so good about not letting anything show.”

He shrugged.  “She’s a lot smarter than you think.  Not such a country mouse, that one.  She certainly surprised the hell out of me.”

“Is she…going to tell?”

Flashes of his conversation with Tara caused Spike to pause.  Tell.  As in the chip.  He needed to get it out of the way, and now, being here alone with Buffy, it was just as good an opportunity as ever.  Except for the fact that Anya was still missing and the little Scooby gang seemed to think they were under some kind of deadline to get her back.  Get this out of the way, and then I’ll tell her, he decided.  When she’s not distracted by something else.  It’ll make it easier for her to take in that way.  Sooner didn’t have to mean now, after all.

“She promised not to,” he said out loud.  “Said…it was our story to tell.”

She seemed relieved with this answer, and relaxed into his touch, stealing her arms around his waist to hold him tight.  “I’ll do it tonight,” she promised.  "Over dinner.  Xander with food in his stomach is much easier to control than Xander without.”

He smiled, brushing lips across the top of her head.  And he could tell her about the chip after.  Make it a whole night of confessions.  Yeah.  That sounded like a definite plan.

*************

“Do you think that’s such a good idea?”  Iris had her arms folded across her chest, ignoring the doubled-over form of Anya on the floor in front of her, as she stared down at Sandrine.  Briefly, her gaze flickered to Freddie hovering in the corner of the room.  “The boy’s an idiot.  You should really get rid of him.”

“He got Anyanka here, didn’t he?”  Lounging into the cushions of the vampire’s couch, her leg bounced where they were crossed, green eyes watching as Anya managed to rise to her knees.  With a quick flick of her foot, she shoved at the ex-demon’s shoulder, knocking her sideways against the cairn they had used for the spell, and smiled when the girl cried out as her forehead smashed into the stones.  “Plus, he lost the Slayer when he got her away.  Score bonus points for Freddie.”

“But leaving him here alone---.”

Sandrine rolled her eyes.  “You’ve got how many guards around here?  Besides, we left him alone at Midnight and he did just fine.  Stop being a crankypants about this.”  She pointed at Anya’s prone form on the floor.  “She’s bleeding on your carpet, by the way.”

Gold flashed in Iris’ eyes as she grabbed a box of tissues from a nearby shelf and threw them at Anya.  “Clean yourself up,” she snarled.

Brown eyes glared at the other women in the room as she reached for the tissue, wiping at the blood that dripped down the side of her face.  “You should really consider investing in hardwood floors,” she said coldly.  “They’re much better on the pocketbook for when you need to clean up after all those messy magic spells that make the poor humans bleed all over the place.”

“Oh, stop whining, Anya,” Sandrine said with a scowl.  “You didn’t bleed because of the truth spell.  You bled because it was fun for me to kick you over.  Be grateful I’m in such a good mood right now.  I could’ve set you on fire like I did to Spike.”

“Well, that truth spell wasn’t exactly a bed of roses,” Anya muttered.

“It’s your own fault.  If you’d just told me where the skull was in the first place, none of this would’ve happened.  But no.  You had to be Miss Holier Than Thou and stick to your guns, which, coming from the girl who ran from high school graduation?  Hello?  Big shock there.”  Her gaze swept over the black gown.  “Betcha Buffy gets pissy because you ripped her dress.”

You ripped it!”

“Because you wouldn’t lie still.”

“I’m sorry if I get a little squirmy when being coerced into spilling secrets I’d rather not share.”

Sandrine’s eyes narrowed.  “I think my good mood is starting to wear off,” she warned, and sat up, deliberately flexing her fingers so that Anya could see.  “Maybe a little inferno by numbers might cheer me up.”

“As much as I love having bonfires in the middle of my living room…”  Iris’ lips were curled back into a sneer, eyes glittering.  “…don’t we have a staff to be retrieving?”

“Right.”  Lazily, Sandrine rose to her feet.  “You were really dumb about hiding it, you know that, right?” she said, nudging Anya with the toe of her shoe.  “Access to thousands of dimensions and you leave it in this one?”  She clicked her tongue, shaking her head in reproval.  “Dumb with a capital D.”

“Are you coming or not?”  As the vampire strode for the door, Freddie darted out of her path, pressing into the farthest wall, completely motionless for fear of doing anything that might set either of them off.  “I’ve had a car waiting outside since your boy toy dropped the bitch off.”

“I’ll give you bitch,” Anya muttered.  When Sandrine looked down at her, however, she averted her eyes, staring at a suddenly fascinating spot on the floor beside her.

In the doorway, the redhead paused, watching Iris disappear down the hall before turning a venomous face to Freddie.  “Don’t let any of those fangfaces anywhere near her,” she ordered, indicating Anya. “I don’t know what Iris told them, but until I have the voix mortelle back in my hands in one piece, I need her to stay alive.   Anything happens to her, and I’m holding you personally responsible.”

The room was silent after she left, echoing her threats between its walls for only its occupants to hear.  “You are so dead,” Anya finally said as she managed to pull herself up into a sitting position.  Her gaze was calm as she stared at the pale young man, his eyes wide and dark, sweat beading on his brow in spite of the air conditioning that cooled the room.  “If you come out of this with any of your insides actually still on the inside, I’ll eat my hat.”

“Shut up,” he said, but there was no strength behind the command.

“Maybe you’ll get lucky and she’ll just let Iris eat you,” she mused.  “Of course, then you have to worry about being turned, and becoming a bloodsucking fiend that gets hunted down by the Slayer, but hey!  That’s not really that different from right now, is it?  Except for the fact that you’re actually still alive, that is.”

“I said, shut up.”  A little harsher this time, and Anya could see the flaring of his nostrils as his breath began to quicken.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know,” she said.  “Buffy found me pretty darn fast over at Midnight.  It’s probably not going to take her long to find me again.”

“Won’t matter if you’re dead, now will it?”

“But I won’t be.  You heard Sandrine.  She needs me in case her little truth spell didn’t work.”  She snorted.  “Which it did, of course.  I can’t believe I was so stupid not to just give it back to D’Hoffryn in the first place.  Then I wouldn’t even be in this mess.”

For the first time, Freddie seemed interested in something she had to say.  “Who’s D’Hoffryn?” he asked.

“My old boss.  The original owner of the voix mortelle.  The one who’d do just about anything to get it back.”

He seemed to crumple at this.  “So, he’s a demon, too, then?”

“Kingpin of the vengeance world,” she confirmed.  “So if you think dealing with a pissed off Sandrine is touchy, just wait until D’Hoffryn finds out she’s got the other half of the staff.  Nobody does vengeance like him.”

“Great,” Freddie muttered, and slid down the wall to sit on the floor, putting his head in his hands.  “Just great.”

No longer able to see him, Anya sat up, grimacing slightly as her aching body silently complained, and eased herself onto the sofa to look over its back at him.  “Whatever happened to my purse?” she asked.

The query took him by surprise, and he lifted his head to stare at her.  “What purse?” Freddie said, his voice a little too loud, a little too clear.

It was the only confirmation she needed.  “It had a phone in it.  And in its memory, is the number of the phone Xander and Giles and Buffy are using.  You could---.”

“Don’t even suggest it.”

“If you haven’t guessed by now, Sandrine is pretty much gone over the deep end.  If she actually summons Sira, she’s going to be ten times harder to beat.  Toss D’Hoffryn into the mix, and things are going to start getting ugly.  If we get out of here now, Buffy can---.”

“I said, don’t!”

Freddie’s face was flushed, his hands shaking as he rubbed at his eyes, as if that simple movement would clear his head.  He was a wreck, fear clinging to him with a ferocious tenacity that would’ve been contagious if she wasn’t already terrified out of her mind.  The only difference between them right now was that Anya was used to being fearful of her losing her life.  Living on a Hellmouth had a tendency to do that to a person.

“Buffy would protect you,” she pressed.  “Even if she didn’t like you, she’d still make sure you were safe.  You should see what she’s done for Spike, and he’s not even human.  At least…consider the option, Freddie. Getting killed by Sandrine because she decides you’re expendable?  Or, getting a lecture on how not to be evil from the Slayer but coming out of this whole mess alive?  The choice is yours.”

*************

They were huddled over the map, watching as Spike drew circles around three different street blocks.  “According to my sources, she gets bored,” he said to the group.  “And she’s got enough dosh to have more than one hidey-hole around town.  These were the only three I could get confirmation on.  They’re all high-class, low-profile kind of places.” 

“If I get close enough,” Tara said, “I’m pretty sure I’d be able to tell if Sandrine was near, or had been there.  Her magic leaves a very distinctive signature.”

“I don’t want to split up to check them out,” Buffy said, shaking her head.  “I’m not risking losing anyone else.”

“We don’t have to,” Spike said.  “You three sit in the back of the Desoto and the witch sits in the front.  Weapons go in the boot.”

Giles frowned.  “Why are you driving?”

 “Because I know this town.  And because I’m not spending the afternoon under a blanket if I don’t have to.”

“But you don’t have air-conditioning,” Buffy said with a grimace.

“You’ve got your little fan---.”

“Why does Spike even have to go?” asked Xander.

“Do we need to have our talk again about Spike being a member of this team now?” the Slayer shot back.  “Besides, if it comes to a fight, I want him---.”

The muffled ringing of the phone took them all by surprise, cutting Buffy off as all heads swiveled to Xander’s pants.

He fumbled as he pulled the cell from his pocket, its ring growing louder as it cleared the fabric, and froze as he saw the number splashed across its display.  “It’s Anya,” he murmured, and broke out into a wide smile of relief as he hit the “talk” button.

 

To Be Continued in Chapter 30:  Springsville