DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Giles has learned more about the plans Maria has, while Holly’s blood has knocked Buffy unconscious, leaving Spike frantically tending her…
It wasn’t until Spike’s stomach growled that it dawned on him that he hadn’t given Holly a second thought since planting himself at Buffy’s side. She hadn’t said a word, either, holding true to her promise to behave while he did what he had to, so when he finally rose from the floor, his knees stiff from being bent for so long, he wasn’t surprised to see that she was no longer in the room.
Stepping silently to the open bedroom door, Spike peered into the darkness to see the huddled form curled into the pillows on the bed. Night had settled, and the cold light that filtered through the windowpanes only served to shadow Holly’s face. She was awake, watching him, but the only way for Spike to be certain what was happening in that small head of hers was to vamp out and use his demon’s senses to probe the shadows. He couldn’t do that. He’d scared the little one enough that day.
She’d sneaked in under his radar. Once upon a time, Spike would’ve gloried in his ability to frighten the child. In fact, he’d been fairly miffed when she’d first arrived that she hadn’t immediately run away from him, screaming in terror. Now, though, that same thought made his stomach churn. She wasn’t so bad, for a little mite, and the fact that she trusted him so implicitly was surprisingly soothing. It had been a long time since anyone had needed or wanted him so, not since before healing Dru. He’d missed it.
“Missed dinner,” he said nonchalantly. Folding his arms, he leaned against the door jamb. “Way I figure, we should just go straight to the dessert.”
He felt the jump in her heartrate at the mention of the sweets, but otherwise, Holly didn’t move. “Is Buffy OK?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“She’s holdin’ her own.”
Which was the truth. While she had yet to wake up, the symptoms that had been prevalent from the contact with Holly’s blood had halted, the bluing in her hands fading slightly, her pulse slowing even less. It gave Spike hope that he’d caught the toxin in time, but he knew that the longer she stayed unconscious, the more likely it would be he would lose her.
“Are you still mad at me?”
A small sniffle punctuated her question, and Spike sighed. “’Course not, pidge,” he replied quietly. “It’s not hardly your fault what your blood does, now is it?”
“I don’t want Buffy to die.”
“Me neither.” With just a few long strides, he closed the distance between himself and the bed, sitting on the edge to gaze down at her. This close, he could see the silvery tracks left on her cheeks from where she’d been crying, and though they were dry now, Spike was certain that it would take little provocation to get the child going again.
“You feelin’ up to talkin’ to me about it yet?” he asked gently. He needed answers, and the fact that Holly had already intimated she’d seen this before was all that was necessary for him to go digging for them. The answers had to be locked up in that tiny skull of hers; he just had to find the right key to getting them out.
“Are you going to yell again?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“You’re scary when you yell.”
His lips twitched. “Fangs don’t get you but a raised voice will. You are one weird child, moptop.”
She was silent, but slowly, her body unfolded itself. Reaching out a tremulous hand, Holly never stopped staring into Spike’s eyes as she touched his arm, then shifted to pour herself onto his lap. “Please don’t hate me,” she said, her voice muffled from where she buried her face in his shirt.
Automatically, Spike’s hand came up to caress the disheveled hair, resting his cheek on the top of her head. “Don’t be daft,” he chided. “As long as you don’t get all stroppy again, you and me are goin’ to be just fine.” Just Buffy we’ve got to worry about.
“Can I have hot chocolate?”
Simple request. Not so simple child.
“Sure, pidge,” Spike said, rising to his feet. “Let’s go get ourselves sorted.”
Forty-five minutes and three bowls of chocolate pudding later, Spike and Holly sat opposite each other at the table, each with their own cup resting in front of them. If a stranger were to observe, they would never have guessed that the child had had such a traumatic afternoon. Her chocolate-framed mouth was puckered up to blow across the top of her mug, cooling the hot cocoa that steamed inside, and her eyes were clear for the first time in hours.
“Feelin’ better?” Spike asked. He’d been biding his time, softening the girl up for his questions, and, in his experience, nothing loosened tongues faster than Joyce’s hot chocolate recipe.
Holly nodded. “It’s hot,” she said unnecessarily. She blew some more, causing faint ripples across the fluid’s surface.
“Take it slow then,” he instructed. “No reason to burn yourself if you don’t need to.” Carefully, he took a sip of his blood, eyes narrowed in assessment. What would be the best approach? He couldn’t afford to scare her again or she’d clam up. But he didn’t have the luxury of time on his side, either.
“Bet Doyle didn’t get you hot chocolate when you were on your way here.” Spike fought for casual, leaning back in his seat and propping his boots up on the table. “That was a long trip, I remember him sayin’.”
She nodded. “And cold.”
“Was it cold where you came from?” He had to zero in. Inch by inch. Question by question. Paint the picture of Holly’s existence so that he could best help Buffy.
“What was that like?”
This was going to be like pulling teeth. In the not so fun way.
She surprised him by elaborating.
“The dark made it safe. So nobody could go poof.”
Spike perked up at that. “Why would anybody go poof?” he asked warily.
“’Cause sunlight can kill you,” she answered simply.
He was silent while she sipped at her drink. It wasn’t a universal you she had used in that declaration. Spike was nearly convinced that she’d been directing that you specifically at him. Meaning vamps. How could she live among vampires?
It would explain a lot, though, if she had. Why she wasn’t startled by Spike’s gameface. Why it took so much to scare her, as if she’d already seen the end of the world and was ready to face even more.
It just didn’t make sense.
“Did you see a lot of ‘em?” It was a risky question; the supposition could be completely wrong. He just had a gut feeling it wasn’t. “Vamps, I mean.”
“Some.” The first sense of hesitation curbed her reply, and she was suddenly not meeting Spike’s eyes. “Can I have more pudding?”
“Think you’ve had enough, pidge.”
Rolling his eyes, Spike reached behind him and grabbed the bowl from the counter. Before he pushed it in front of her, though, he took his feet off the table, narrowing his eyes as he deliberately hardened his demeanor.
“You know it doesn’t make a difference any more, don’t you?” he asked. “What happened to you before…none of it means bugger all in here. It’s OK to talk about it.”
“But…I wasn’t s’posed to see.”
Spike grinned. “Snuck out to take a gander, did you? That’s my girl.”
When he pushed the bowl across to her, Holly relaxed back into her prior contentment, picking up the spoon resting in the pudding to start eating it again. “They were always fighting,” she said between bites. “They were loud.”
“Who were they fighting? Each other?” He imagined a pseudo, all-vamp Bloodsport, which, while it sounded like fun, didn’t make a lick of sense when thinking it was where Holly was kept. But her next words dashed that image to the ground.
“No. They always fought the other girls. The ones like Buffy.”
And then it clicked, and the picture it drew was just a tad more repellent than the gladiator scenario he’d originally envisioned.
It was Bloodsport, all right.
Vamps versus Slayers.
Except there were only the two, which meant they were Slayer wannabes instead.
That’s what it had to be, some sort of training ground for potential Chosen Ones. Brought together by the Council of Wankers in a contained environment to give their girls some firsthand experience without having to set them loose on the field. It didn’t surprise him. After seeing firsthand what the American government had organized, imagining a board of Englishmen who’d been in the demon business a hell of a lot longer doing something equally organized seemed completely reasonable.
Spike’s eyes narrowed as he watched Holly attack the rest of the pudding. That’s what she’d meant by others. She’d seen potential Slayers die from being exposed to her blood. That’s why she was so frightened for Buffy. But why put a child so deadly in such close proximity to those she could hurt?
It explained why she’d be wanted by someone with less than well-intentioned plans. If it didn’t directly affect Buffy, Spike would almost be impressed with the idea of harnessing such a weapon. It sounded like something he would’ve tried himself, back in the day.
“These people who watched you…they sound like me?”
A flash of confusion crossed her face, but then Holly nodded. “And Buffy. Both of you.”
An international effort, then. Didn’t necessarily preclude the Council from being involved.
“Ever hear of someone called a Watcher, moptop?” Her blank look was the only answer he needed, and Spike lapsed into another silence as he mulled over what he’d learned.
It was a gentle tug on his shirt’s hem that broke him from it. Glancing down, Spike saw Holly’s upturned face, the chocolate staining her mouth. “You can’t still be hungry,” he commented.
“Did you talk to Santa?” she asked. Her eyes were saucers, luminous in the orange-red ambience of the room, and they startled Spike with their solemnity.
“Told you I did.”
“Did he tell you I wasn’t bad?”
“He left you prezzies, didn’t he?”
“But…my blood is bad.”
Spike’s head tilted. “Oh, pidge, your blood’s just a small part of you. Told you, none of this is your fault. You gotta get that through your head.”
“It hurt Buffy.”
He couldn’t very well deny it, not when Holly knew all too well the effects it had, but giving her the affirmation just made her face crumple again.
“I wish my blood was back in me,” she whispered. “I’m never getting hurted again.” She looked up before he could respond. “Can we get it out of Buffy? Maybe then she won’t die.”
Shaking his head, Spike pulled her onto his lap, rocking her against him as she buried her face in his chest again. “What happened to the others?” he murmured. He deliberately kept up the soothing rhythm to keep her at ease. The last thing he needed right now was another hysterical fit. “Did you ever see them?”
“Their skin got all funny. And blue.”
“It got wrinkly and cracked. Like the muffins Buffy forgot in the oven today.”
Spike stopped. Though there was definite shading to the Slayer’s skin, it was still perfectly smooth and soft, no evidence of the symptom Holly was describing anywhere in sight. “How long did it take in the others?” he asked. “To die, I mean. Was it as long as it’s been for Buffy?”
Pulling away, she looked up at him and shook her head. “They were all faster. It was scary.”
Swifter responses to the poison. Symptoms Buffy wasn’t exhibiting. Maybe the Slayer was going to shake this after all. The others had only been fledgling slayers; they didn’t have the same constitution Buffy did.
Hope flared bright in Spike’s chest as he squeezed Holly close, but he swallowed to keep it from taking root too deeply. He would just have to continue a constant vigil; he would ensure Buffy survived this if it killed him.
It took all of Joyce’s willpower not to look over at the demon still strapped to the chair in the corner, but at least it wasn’t making those godawful screeching sounds from Doyle’s torment. She could hear the telltale drip of what she assumed was both its blood and its…venom? Icky, gooey, slimy sweat? She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She was just glad she didn’t have to watch any more.
After heaving the demon into the back of her car---and she didn’t even want to consider what the cleaning bill for that would be, or how she was ever going to get the smell out of the upholstery---Doyle had instructed her to drive a few miles down the highway before pulling in at the gas station that was closed for the holiday. He’d broken into the garage with veritable ease, and proceeded to secure the demon before stepping out to summon his ghost partners in crime. Joyce had only watched as the three argued about his idea, the women vehemently against the notion of more violence while Doyle attempted convincing them that it was their only remaining option.
They had eventually caved, but none of them were willing to let Joyce leave, fear that she would still go off in search of Buffy tempering their assertions. They had, however, agreed to keep her company while Doyle got to work. It was just too bad that his work was loud and stinky.
“Well?” Jenny asked, as Doyle stood in front of them wiping his hands on a spare towel he’d found lying on a nearby toolbox.
“Remind me never to suggest torturing an Ijua for information again,” he said. His nose wrinkled. “I don’t suppose we could go back to the hotel and talk about this? I could really use a shower.”
“What did he tell you?” Jenny pressed. “Do we know where Maria is? Are we going to be able to get to her before she manages to find Holly this time?”
“Yes and no. Yes, I know where she is, but no, we won’t be able to get to her. She’s got herself guarded against the mystical. She’s not exactly stupid, our Maria.”
“Well, I guess that’s that, then.” Jenny sighed. “She won’t leave the shielding of her magic until she’s certain she can get to Holly, and we can’t get through it to stop her. So much for that idea.”
Joyce just watched in amazement as the trio turned away to tend to the unconscious demon. “So…that’s it?” she asked. “All this time, and all this work, and you’re just giving up?”
“There’s nothing we can do, Joyce,” Doyle said.
“Maybe there’s nothing you can do,” she replied. “But the last time I checked, I was just a good old-fashioned human who happens to be the mother of the Slayer. Is that normal enough to get past this…mystical shielding this woman has?”
The ghosts looked at each other before turning back to Joyce. “You’re kidding, right?” Jenny queried. “You know we can’t let you get involved.”
“I know that you won’t let me go to Buffy to help,” she shot back. “But you’re stuck with me until you let me do something. I’m already involved, in case you hadn’t noticed. Why not put me to use?”
“Because it’s dangerous.” The soft-spoken third of the group spoke up for the first time since Doyle’s announcement. “Maria’s an incredibly powerful witch. For whatever reason, she wanted you dead. Sending you in would be a sacrifice without benefit. It’s unthinkable.”
“Then I suggest you start thinking again.” Joyce folded her arms across her chest. “If you thought I was stubborn before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The knock at her door was almost too faint to be heard. Setting aside the maps she had been examining, Maria lifted her head to call out the permission for entrance.
“You asked to see me?” Silas said, poking his head through the crack in the door. His eyes were jumpy, darting from her, to the striking clock on her wall, back to Maria, and then over his shoulder, as if he expected someone to approach him from that direction.
“Come in,” she repeated, and gesticulated toward the door he left ajar. “Please close that.” She waited until they were sealed inside, and Silas had narrowed the distance between them by a few steps. There was no way she could not notice the slight sheen to his forehead, nor the way he found it so difficult to meet her eyes. Vaguely, she wondered when it was Silas had grown so frightened of her.
“How are you?” she asked. “Have you had a nice holiday?”
She needed to set him at ease before she could even consider broaching her request. In his current state, he would bluster and sputter, and, without a doubt, fail the instant he came into contact with the others. That would never do.
“It was lovely, thank you.” Silas’ response was automatic, his hands twisting in front of him. “I hadn’t thought to have so many treats from home. It has been…a long time.”
“I’m glad. I hate to think that you would be cheated of such a little thing. Your dedication to your tasks has been overwhelming.”
He bloomed under the praise, exhaling loudly as he finally sank into the chair opposite her. Maria was lying, of course. Silas was good at what he was doing, but his output was greatly put to shame by Rupert Giles. It wasn’t just for his skills that she’d selected him, though. With his resounding guilt about killing his Slayer---regardless of whether or not she would’ve died anyway---she knew he would be entirely too easy to manipulate into doing her bidding.
It was the primary reason all three of the Watchers had been chosen.
Rupert Giles, fired from his post because he’d broken one of the Council’s vows of secrecy in betraying the truth of the Cruciamentum to his Slayer.
Paul McCallister, headboy at the Academy until his romantic entanglement with a Potential had resulted in the slaughter of a dozen fellow students, the direct result of abandoning his post for a clandestine rendezvous.
And Silas Geen. Whose Slayer lived recklessly in one of the most virulent countries in the world. Whose Slayer contracted HIV, and who, under confidential order from Quentin Travers himself, was forced to kill her before the disease could. Whose guilt from having done so compelled him to quit the Council in disgrace, and haunted him to this day.
The same man who was so desperately seeking redemption for what he felt was the ultimate betrayal, and was convinced he was going to find it under Maria’s direction.
“I’ve called you here for a reason, Silas,” Maria said softly. He was instantly at attention again, leaning forward to hear what she had to say. “You’ll notice Paul and Rupert are not present. That’s because you’re the only one I think I can trust.”
He seemed shocked by such a blunt admission, and finally nodded. “Thank you,” Silas said. “I just…I want…”
She smiled. “I know. It’s what we all want.” She feigned distress. “Well, I believe it’s what you and I want.” Quickly, she outlined her request, ignoring the blanching of the Watcher’s features. Even when it took a moment afterward for him to agree to it, she remained resolute.
One could never have enough precautions. If Rupert failed to respond to the threat on Joyce Summers, she wanted to be the first to know about it.
This time, the power would be hers.
To be continued in Chapter 32: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…