DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Spike is back with both news from Willow, and Clara and Peter in tow; Halfrek has been caught, and Buffy is itching to make a move…

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

Chapter 37: Now's the Time

One foot in the living room, the other in the hall, Buffy’s gaze swivelled between the assemblage and babble before her and the distant rush of running water filtering from the closed door behind her.  Eight people were now congregated in the living room---well, seven people and a magically bound vengeance demon---waiting for Spike to finish showering so that information could be shared.  Once Clara had confirmed for the group that the threat of Sandrine could wait the time it would take the vampire to change and clean up, he’d been off to the bedroom like a shot, not even bothering to knock as he barged in and grabbed his things.

A bewildered Giles had wandered out after him, but the definitive click on the bathroom door had turned his head to his charge for answers.

“Surprise!” she’d said with a smile, and then nodded to the other new arrivals.  “And he even came back bearing gifts.”

So, now they were waiting for Spike to finish up.  Anya and Tara were wrapping up the details of what they wanted Halfrek to relay to D’Hoffryn, Giles was sitting in quiet discussion with Clara on the couch, while Freddie, Peter, and Xander were sitting in the middle of the floor, whittling some new stakes.  Her presence wasn’t really required here, Buffy decided, and stepped silently backward toward the bathroom.

The steam rolled in waves through the crack she allowed herself to enter, but as the door clicked shut behind her, Spike’s muttered, “Bloody hell,” echoed through the room.

“Realize it’s a bit too Brady Bunch these days with the lone bathroom,” he sniped through the shower curtain.  “But can’t a bloke get five minutes of peace?  Doesn’t seem that washing’s such a---.”

“It’s just me, Spike,” she said with a small smile.

Immediately, his platinum head poked around the edge.  “Buffy,” he noted with surprise. “You should’ve said straight away it was you.”  His eyes gleamed as a pale hand held the curtain back.  “Well, off with your kit then.  No tellin’ how long we’ve got and I’d rather fancy another taste of that delectable neck of yours before havin’ to listen to Rupert natter on about wishing to be blind again.”

Her smile widened, but she didn’t move.  “Oh, because both of us walking out of here soaking wet wouldn’t look obvious at all.”

“Thought it didn’t matter any more, luv.  Thought you squared everything away with the others.”  Spike’s voice had dropped, husky and seductive, and she felt her thighs begin to tingle as he lowered his head to look at her through his lashes, his tongue curling against the inside of his teeth.  “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to get in here.  I’m not the only one who’s been fighting tonight.  I can practically taste the sweat on you all the way over here.”

“Nice try, but I’m fine.”

“Oh?  You remember what this shower feels like.  All that pressure and whatnot.  You sure you don’t want one more bite of its hot, pounding sensations on your back?  Get the kinks out, it will.  Loosen you right up.”

Her skin was prickling from the heat, and she felt the itch of a line of sweat begin to snake down the back of her neck.  His words were making her mouth water, but reason was still winning inside Buffy’s head.  “As tempting as the offer is, something tells me we won’t be washing if I get in there.”

He pretended to pout.  “Not sure I like this hard to play act, pet.  Puts a crimp in my seduction here.”  The glint in his eyes returned.  “’Course, if you want me to come out there and get you, that might be fun, too.”

Her mouth opened to say he didn’t dare, but closed right away with an audible click when she hastily realized he would.  What was she arguing for anyway?  There wasn’t anything happening out in the living room that necessitated her presence, and it wasn’t like their relationship was exactly a secret any more.  And a shower did sound nice…

“You have to be quiet,” she warned with a pointed finger.  “We’ve got enough explaining about what’s been happening with everything when we get out of here.  I don’t want to have to add why you scream in the shower to the list.”

“Think it would be more like why you scream in the shower, pet.”

“Spike…”

“Let me scrub your back?”

“Of course.”

“Then, mum’s the word.”

Quickly, she stripped off her clothes, feeling his eyes on her like a velvet stroke before slipping in at the opposite end of the tub.  Spike was on her like a shot, pulling the sponge from her hand and sliding around so that she stood directly in the spray. 

Almost immediately, the tension began melting away from her body as Buffy tilted her head back to allow the shattering droplets to pelt her skin.  The sigh that escaped her lips when Spike pressed himself against her, reaching around to run the sponge over the pebbled tips of her nipples, was almost a moan.

“Told you, you’d love it,” he murmured into her ear.

“Remind me to sleep some time next week,” she said, using his chest as a brace as she closed her eyes.

“You should get a spot of rest once we get the tales out of the way,” he replied.  The sponge slid between her breasts, gliding in circular motions across her stomach, daringly skirting the edge of her pubic bone with the vague potential of more.  “Red said Sandrine’s schedule wasn’t goin’ to start hoppin’ until tonight.”

It was the mention of her friend that drove her lids back up.  “Wait.”  Adrenaline straightened her limbs, and she turned around to face the vampire.  “What’s this about Willow?”

“That’s part of one of the blanks I was goin’ to fill in.  She’s the reason I was able to get away.  Somewhere behind that bitch Sandrine, Red’s still ticking.”  His lips quirked into a smile.  “Figure you and Tara would be pleased as punch at that little tidbit.”

“And you’re only now telling me this?” 

Her volume was rising, bringing a frown to Spike’s face.  “I believe it’s the first chance I’ve had, luv.  If memory serves, I’ve spent the rest of my time gettin’ jumped, sorting us out, and…oh yeah.  Gettin’ jumped.”

Buffy blushed, though part of her heightening color was surely attributable to the scalding water.  “Right, right,” she said, shaking her head.  “It’s just…been a long night.”

His fingers pushed back the tendrils of her hair that had yet to find water, soaking them beneath the spray while he gently massaged her scalp.  “This’ll wait then,” he said softly. 

She could feel the promise of his chest just a whisper away as she let her eyes drift closed again, savoring the firm caress of his touch as he washed her hair.  Spike was still aroused, but the fact that he was choosing to ignore it in light of her more pressing needs only reminded her yet again of just how far he had come.

“…get our plans in order,” he was saying.  “And then you and me are goin’ to curl up in that bed---.”

“We can’t.”

His hands paused.  “You need to sleep, Buffy.  Don’t think I’m lettin’ you face off with Sandrine tonight without bein’ up to scratch.”

“No, I just meant we can’t use the bed.  Well, I can’t use the bed.”  She cracked an eye to look up at him.  “Girls in the living room, guys in the bedroom.  Those are the sleeping arrangements.”

“Bugger,” Spike muttered.  “Whose brilliant idea was that?”

“Actually, mine.  That was before you pulled your great escape, though.”  His hands started up again, slower this time, spreading through her locks to loosen the shampoo, sending it spiralling down the drain as she sighed in satisfaction.  “How about I make it up to you as soon as we get Willow back, get her away from Iris before anyone can summon Sira, get the voix mortelle back to D’Hoffryn, and sleep for a month of Sundays?”

Spike snickered.  “Think maybe we’ll be makin’ it up to each other, luv.”  The taste of his lips against hers took her by surprise, and she smiled beneath his kiss, easing against him as his arms circled her back. 

“Maybe we shouldn’t wait,” she murmured when he pulled away.  “This might be our last alone time for awhile.”

“Maybe,” he agreed, and swooped back in for another kiss.

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

“Now.  Let me get this straight.”  Giles’ gaze was penetrating as he leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees to meet Spike’s eyes more directly, ignoring both the way Buffy was resting against the vampire’s side where they sat on the piano bench and the vampire’s absentminded stroking of her bare arm.  “Willow has control of Sandrine when she’s just waking, and told you when she was releasing you from the spell that we can bring her back by summoning the djab Stella and Freddie serve.  The one who brought forth Sandrine in the first place.”

“That’s what she said.”

“And Sandrine is summoning Sira tonight.”

“She said that too.”

“That means she’s got the other half of the voix mortelle already,” Anya said.  Seated between Xander and Tara on the couch, she didn’t flinch when all eyes turned to look at her.  “At least that’s D’Hoffryn’s interest secured.  There’s no way he won’t show up now.”

“But she’s gotta be wrong,” Freddie protested from his place on the floor.  “It took two of us to get Sandrine here.  It’s goin’ to take two of us to make her go back.”

“Can’t one of us help you?” asked Tara.

“When was the last time you performed a vodou ritual?” he posited sarcastically.  Her embarrassed flush was the only answer he needed.  “So, I’ll say it again.  We’re not---.”

“I’ll help you.”  Clara rose from the dining room table and walked over to the group, leaving Peter to stand cross-armed against the wall.  She waved a hand of dismissal at the group.  “Oh, stop looking at me like that.  Like I’d walk away from you bunch after everything else I’ve done.  If I didn’t want to do what I can, I would’ve just given Spike the cab fare and told him where he could find Buffy instead of giving him the guided tour myself.”

Freddie’s shoulders slumped, his head dropping.  “We are goin’ to be cutting it real close, you know that, don’t you?”  His breathing was becoming audible, quickening and rasping.  “We can only summon the djab after sunset, and Sandrine’s plan is happening at the same time, and---.”  His words cut off when Giles settled his hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Relax, Freddie,” the Watcher murmured.  “Remember what I taught you.”

As everyone watched, the young man closed his eyes, entwining his fingers in front of him as he struggled to regain his control.  Slowly, his breaths evened out, disappearing into the still of the room.  When he lifted his head again, his eyes were clear, and he turned to look at the Englishman.  “Thanks,” he said quietly.

“So, that’s that, then,” Buffy said.  “We get out to the swamps as close to sunset as we can manage, do the switcheroo before Sandrine can do the summoning, and voila!  Problem solved.”

“Don’t you think we should get Willow away from Iris before we switch them back?” Tara asked.  “I mean, if we do it after, won’t Iris kill her when she realizes what’s happened?”

“We just have to do it fast then,” the Slayer said firmly.  “With two teams.  You and Spike will guard Freddie and Clara to make sure their end goes off without a hitch, and the rest of us will camp out where Sandrine is so that we’re ready to grab Willow when it’s done.”

“What about D’Hoffryn?”

She shrugged.  “Until he pokes his nose and says he’s in, I’m not counting on any extra bodies to be in the fight, even though it would be nice.  We’ll figure out what to do about him after.”  She looked around the group.  “So.  Are we settled then?”

“Not quite,” said Clara.  “One thing Spike said doesn’t make sense to me.”  Her gaze settled on the vampire.  “You said Sandrine told you she was going to use you to sacrifice to Sira, is that right?”

“I believe I got dubbed ‘the lucky one,’” he agreed with a nod.

“Now, I don’t know much about this serpent demon she’s calling forth, well, except for the part about it being just this shy of the devil himself, but since when can ritual sacrifices be done with dead creatures?”  She offered him a small smile.  “No offense, of course.”

Spike shrugged.  “None taken.”

Everyone was silent, looking around at each other before turning back to look at Clara again.  “What is it you’re saying?” Buffy asked warily.

“What I’m saying, is that these kinds of rituals require the giving of life.  The shedding of pure blood.  Most rituals that I know about, that is.  And as much as I like him, Spike’s not really either of things, now is he?  All I’m wondering is…why would Sandrine claim to be willing to use him that way if it’s just not possible?”

Her mouth was opening to answer, ready to say, “Maybe it’s a ritual you don’t know about then,” but the Slayer was interrupted.  The sudden burst of flames that engulfed the lanai doors made Anya shriek on the couch, jumping to her feet to put it between her and the entrance, the rest of the gang scrambling erect just moments afterward.

All eyes locked on the bonfire that licked up the white frames, and Buffy took a bold step forward when she saw Sandrine, draped in Spike’s duster, step through it unharmed.  “Insurance companies must really hate you,” she quipped, folding her arms over her small breasts.  “Although I have to say, the fire thing is getting kind of old.”

The redhead smiled, her eyes flickering over the group, searching their necks before coming back empty to the Slayer.  “I don’t see your little trinkets hanging around,” she commented.  “Pity.  That might’ve actually made this a little interesting.”

“That’s my coat, you bitch,” Spike growled.

“What’s the saying?  Oh yeah.  Finders keepers.”

When Sandrine laughed, Buffy felt the vampire press forward in an angry snarl, and held up a warning hand to keep him back.  “Now’s really not the time for that, Spike.”  Her eyes remained trained on the mambo.  Dawn was already outside, so she knew there would be no vampire back-up for Sandrine this time. It didn’t mean she was any less dangerous, though.  “What do you want?” she asked.

Sandrine lit up.  “Oh!  I know this one.”  Her face split into a huge, beauty queen fake smile.  “I want world peace, except, you know…”  It vanished just as quickly as it appeared.  “…not.”

“Fine.  Then I say we end this, right here, right now, because I’m kind of partial to the peace-having myself.”  Buffy’s muscles tensed to spring, but before she could move, the mambo’s finger came up, shooting an arrow of fire straight at her feet.

“I suggest you back off,” Sandrine gritted through her teeth.  “Or the next one of these goes right through Spike’s heart.”  When the Slayer froze, the redhead chuckled, a chilling, lifeless sound.  “God, you’re just as whipped as he is.  Can you be any more predictable?  Goody for me, of course, but not so goody for you.”  She took a lazy step forward, ignoring the flames that continued to burn behind her.  “Tell me how you did it, though.  Was it your little protection charm?  Is that how you got rid of my spell?”

“Did what?”

“Rescued Spike, you ninny.  I have to give you credit, though.  You did it a heck of a lot faster than I thought you would.”  Her gaze fell on Clara.  “That must be your influence.”  She held out her hand to the black woman as if in greeting, plastering a fake smile across her face.  “Hi.  We haven’t met.  I’m Sandrine.”  After seconds ticked by with no response from Clara, the redhead dropped her hand and shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  I just thought it was polite to introduce myself, seeing as how I’m going to be the one in charge of this town when this is all over.  Somehow, I don’t think you have enough gris gris to go around for everyone.”

It was then that Buffy realized Spike had been right.  Sandrine had no clue as to Willow’s presence inside her.  She believed the Slayer was behind the escape which meant that they still had a shot at getting this done.  It was just important to make sure that that knowledge stayed theirs for now.  “It was a set-up,” she said out loud.  “That’s why you took Spike.”

Sandrine turned back to face her.  “I only took Spike because you wouldn’t let me have Freddie, so really, anything that happens now is your fault, Buffy.  I knew Spike wasn’t going to cooperate.  You think I couldn’t see how head over heels he was for you?  So I hid out where you’d have least resistance to get him back, and kept his clothes so that I could do a location spell afterward.  Whither he goest, you goest too, and whither you were…”  This time, her gaze slid to Freddie, who was visibly trying to control his fear but failing miserably as his hands shook violently before him.  “Little Miss Bodyguard wouldn’t let him out of her sight for a second, I knew, not after working so hard to get him away.  And I figured Giles would do something to block the garde from working again.  Gotta say, I love having access to little Willow’s memories.  It makes figuring out what you guys are going to do a whole lot easier.”

Freddie.  This was all about Freddie. 

Buffy’s mind raced.  Sandrine needed someone for her sacrifice to Sira, but they needed Freddie in order to get Willow back.  No matter what happened, she couldn’t let him get into her clutches.

“You can’t protect him now,” the redhead was saying, her hands lifting.  “So, if you don’t mind---.”

“Actually, I do,” Buffy interrupted.  “I told you before.  You can’t have him.”

“Quit with the stalling already.  Nothing you say is gonna stop me.”

“How about, you can take me instead?”  A round of “What?” and “Buffy!” and a lone “Bloody hell!” echoed behind her, but the Slayer remained stalwart, staring down the woman opposite as her offer hung in the air between them.  She could do this.  She would be safe because they’d bring Willow back, and then Buffy would be in close enough proximity to get her best friend away from Iris safely.  It seemed like the perfect plan.  Too bad she couldn’t actually share it with any of the rest of the group without giving it away to the bad guy.  Or, bad girl, as the case may be.

Slowly, Sandrine smiled, turning away from Freddie.  “Let’s see if I have this straight,” she said.  “You’re willing to trade places with that worthless pile of testosterone there, I get to make my sacrifice to Sira except with a Slayer-sized package, and I get rid of you at the same time?”

“That’s what it sounds like.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  An even trade.  I’m not letting you kill an innocent human being.  Not again.”

Sandrine laughed.  “Trust me.  He’s not so innocent.”

“I don’t care.”  She wasn’t going to give in to the false sense of gaiety the mambo was presenting, her face remaining closed and firm.  “That’s the deal.  Take it or leave it.”

“Have you gone completely daft, you silly bint?”

She could hear the anger in his voice, overlying the pain, but paying attention to it now was going to wreck her concentration.  Buffy took a step closer to Sandrine.  “What’s it going to be?” she asked.

“Gotta say I love that big old hero complex you’ve got.” The redhead raised her hands.  “I guess I’m taking it.”  And in a flash of light, she and the Slayer were gone.

It only took seconds before chaos broke out among the group, Xander and Giles rushing forward to tamp out the fire while the girls scurried to the kitchen for water.  With a violent roar, Spike sprang away from the flames, his arm swinging wildly until it connected with the wall, plaster showering down around his wrist in a fine mist from the impact.  He punched it again, and again, curses streaming under his breath, until Peter’s firm hand came down on his shoulder.

Clara was right there at his side.  “Now, did that poor wall ever do anything to you?” she teased.

He glared at her, tears springing from nowhere as the realization that Buffy was actually gone sunk in.  “Sod off,” he rasped, but the black man’s grip tightened when he tried to move away.

“She made a choice,” the seer said.  “Maybe you’re not seein’ the whole picture right now, bein’ so close to it and all, but what your Slayer did, she did with understanding.  Weeping for her isn’t going to change that.”

Blinking rapidly to stop the tears from actually falling, Spike turned away from her, fists aching for more release in spite of the blood that already dripped from his knuckles.  Everything was finally right again.  No more misunderstandings between him and Buffy.  Everything out in the open.  A plan to get order back into their world. 

Why did she have to go and bugger that up by offering her bloody trade?

“She trusted you,” Clara said quietly.  “Since when don’t you trust her back?”

And it was then that her earlier words clicked for him.  Big picture.  Freddie.  Willow.  All of it. 

Lifting his chin, Spike squared his jaw, marching determinedly over to the weapons bag.  As the fire at the porch doors abated, the members of the gang one by one turned to look at him stuffing the stakes that had been whittled earlier into the sack.

“What’re you doing?” Xander asked.

“You heard the Slayer,” the vampire said, no hesitation in his work.  “Two teams.  I’ll guard the vodou lot.”

“B-b-but…what about the other team?”  Tara’s brows were knitted in confusion.  “That was supposed to be Buffy.”

“Still is.”  Spike straightened, hefting the bag over his shoulder to carry to the door in wait for their departure.  The tears were gone, the blue bright and clear as they met with Giles’.  “She’s just working from the inside now.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 38: Miles Runs the Voodoo Down