DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Spike have reached a new plateau in their relationship, while Joyce has appeared at Maria’s…

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Chapter 38: There's a New Kid in Town

She awoke with a small headache, the kind that pulsed right behind the eyeballs so that it was impossible to ignore its presence. Doyle had warned her that would be an effect of the knockout spell they used to simulate being unconscious, but Joyce had hoped that having the cup of tea with Maria before going to bed would contravene the magical repercussions. It was the only reason she’d so readily agreed to it. From the moment she’d seen the older woman face to face, it had taken every ounce of her self-control not to demonstrate just how tough someone had to be when they lived on the Hellmouth.

The house wasn’t what she expected. From the way the ghosts had talked, Joyce had envisioned Maria as the Evil Queen from Snow White, tucked away in a stone turret as she cackled over her steaming cauldron. What she’d found instead was Martha Stewart’s much richer cousin in a house packed to the gills with style and art that made her gallery feel like a second class citizen. The room Joyce had woken in was the epitome of elegance, and the bed put hers back in Sunnydale to shame.

Note to self, she thought as she pushed the feather-filled comforter off her legs. It’s not the best idea to start getting jealous of the bad guys.

She was surprised to see fresh clothes laid out for her, the jeans and sweater she’d worn on her arrival completely missing from her search of the room. If they had fit perfectly, it would almost have been easier to gird her determination against the older woman, but the fact that the blouse was just a bit too baggy and the trousers an inch shorter than she would’ve preferred only made Joyce more ill-at-ease. It was too much like she really had just stumbled across the house. If Maria was such an all-powerful witch like Doyle and the others had testified, wouldn’t she at least have offered clothing that fit properly?

She hadn’t gleaned anything from the one brief conversation she’d had with her, either.

“I can’t thank you enough for…well, for getting me away from that thing,” Joyce had said, feigning a damsel in distress tone to her voice that she knew would make Buffy cringe. It certainly made her wince. “Do you know what it was? It didn’t look human.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Maria had claimed. Her eyes had been steady on Joyce’s as she’d lied through her teeth. “You were found alone, Mrs. Summers. I have only your assertion that this…creature was even responsible for your condition.”

She had only nodded. Maria’s pretense that Joyce had been the only person on the grounds would’ve been completely plausible if Joyce didn’t know for a fact that the demon’s dead body had been left with her. Doyle claimed it was the only way to confuse the witch into letting her inside. With Joyce’s story, Maria was to believe that the demon had been forced to amend his kidnapping, taking her directly to the witch when it looked like he was being pursued. It would explain his charred body being found with her.

She just hadn’t anticipated having to face a woman who purported not to know anything about it.

Joyce had been taken to the guest room and fallen asleep before she could consider anything else. And now here she was, suddenly a doubting Thomasina about the whole arrangement because there was no sign of Rupert and there was no sign of evil-doing. She would’ve expected being able to pick up on those sort of indications after so many years in Sunnydale.

The doorknob twisted in her hand before she could open it, and Joyce jumped back, startled, to see Maria standing on the other side.

“So glad to see you up,” the older woman said with a warm smile. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“Better. Thank you.” It occurred to Joyce that she hadn’t heard a knock, and silently pondered why that had been.

“I thought you might like to join me for breakfast,” Maria was saying. “Something a little more substantial than tea, if your stomach can handle it.”

Her stomach made the reply for her, by choosing that moment to gurgle loudly. Joyce flushed. “Breakfast sounds lovely,” she said, and closed the door behind her to follow Maria down the hall.

They walked in silence for a long moment, all sounds of their tread sucked up by the plush carpeting beneath their feet. It was only when they reached the curved staircase that Maria spoke.

“I find myself curious about this…traveling companion of yours,” she said, not bothering to look behind as she descended the stairs.

“Did you find him?” Joyce was eager to start testing the waters of what exactly Maria knew. She needed to know how close she was to finding Buffy; it was the only way to ensure that she didn’t get too close to the truth.

“No.” The answer disappointed Joyce. “What intrigues me is that you would be traveling with someone such as that in the first place.”

“I told you. He was holding me against my will. If it wasn’t for that last attack, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

“So…you’re unaware of what exactly his purpose was?”

She was supposed to say no. She was supposed to feign ignorance of any of the kidnapping arrangements. The way it had been planned out, Joyce was supposed to play the innocent puppet in all this and let Maria sink her own ship.

The only problem with that was Maria seemed far too in control of her rudder to allow any sinking to occur. Joyce needed to start looking for an iceberg.

“He was hired to kill me,” Joyce said. The bald statement was the first to stop the other woman, and Maria paused at the bottom of the staircase to look back at her with a raised brow. “I think someone considered me a threat.”

The cool sweep of her hostess’ gaze was accompanied by a small smile. “No offense, Mrs. Summers, but you don’t seem the type. Why would anyone possibly consider you a threat?”

“Because my daughter is the Slayer.”

There wasn’t even a blink of recognition.

“Is that some new teenager thing?” Maria quizzed. “I’m afraid I’m rather cut off from much of the modern world. I can never keep up with the latest trends and whatnot.”

“It means she’s the Chosen One.” Joyce was very glad none of the ghosts were around to hear her. None of this was meant to be revealed, but she just couldn’t think of any other way to chink at this woman’s armor. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Surely you’ve heard of her.”

“And why would you think that?”

Joyce’s lips pursed shut. No, she just couldn’t go that far. That would be suicidal.

Maria resumed walking again. “Perhaps that blow to your head did more damage than you think, Mrs. Summers. I believe I’ll call my personal physician so that he can take a closer look at you.”

“I told you, I’m fine---.”

“Women who are fine don’t profess to have birthed some supernatural demon killer. They also don’t have delusions about kidnapping schemes.”

“I’m not delusional!”

She stopped before heavy double doors and glanced back at Joyce before pushing them open. “Perhaps breakfast is too much for you,” Maria mused. “You seem…aggravated.”

“Because you called me delusional!” She took a deep breath. Calm down, Joyce thought. She was too quickly losing her cool. That would only get Buffy killed.

“I merely suggested that maybe you underestimated your injuries.” She stepped into the empty dining room, the scent of bacon wafting out into the corridor to tickle Joyce’s nose. “Are you normally so susceptible to suggestion? Should this be a…character flaw I should be aware of?”

There was no malice in her tone, her face placid, but Maria’s choice of words made it all too clear that she was deliberately goading her new guest. Joyce balled her hands into fists at her sides, and she counted to ten in her head before crossing the threshold into the dining room.

“Maybe you’re right,” Joyce said. Time to switch tactics. “I should probably get a hold of my doctor and see if he can see me. If you could just let me use the phone---.”

“That’s hardly necessary. I’ve told you, you can full use of my personal physician.”

“I don’t want to impose.”

“And I don’t want to be held liable should you leave my care and promptly have an attack or get hurt in some way.” Maria unfolded her napkin into her lap. “Do sit down, Mrs. Summers. The least you can do is have a good breakfast before you’re examined.”

“You can’t possibly think you’re going to keep me here against my will?”

“I’m keeping you here for your own good.”

“I don’t think so.” Whirling on her heel, Joyce marched toward the open doors. Before she could reach them, though, they slammed shut of their own accord.

“I said…Sit. Down.”

A shiver ran down Joyce’s spine as she slowly turned back to the table.

Maria hadn’t moved. She was carefully stirring sugar into her teacup, her other hand casually resting on the side of the table nearest the doors, but her eyes were fixed on Joyce, icy and calculating. “Is this any way to act as a guest in my home?” she commented.

“I’m a prisoner, not a guest.”

“Trust me, Mrs. Summers. Prisoners do not get treated as well as you have been. However, if those circumstances are more to your liking, I’m sure I can accommodate you. Now. I do believe I asked you to sit down.”

Reluctantly, Joyce took a seat at the table. She had been warned about the witch’s power, but since the older woman had been acting so…normal, Joyce had momentarily forgotten. No more. From now on, she had to play this smart.

They sat in silence as the food was brought in from another door, a cornucopia of eggs, sausage, pastries and bacon overfilling the plates. Another gurgle from her stomach betrayed Joyce’s hunger, but she waited until she saw her hostess begin eating before picking up her own fork.

“You’re not really going to arrange for me to see your doctor, are you?” She asked the question carefully, watching Maria’s reaction out of the corner of her eye.

“I might have,” Maria conceded. “If you had perpetuated your little myth about not knowing the truth about your traveling companion, I would likely have played the same game. For as long as you found it entertaining.”

“You think this is a game?”

Maria sighed. “No, Mrs. Summers, I think this is quite serious, and just the fact that you would treat it so lightly disturbs me more than you might guess.” She chewed thoughtfully. “Tell me. How is it you were able to convince the Ijua to bring you here? And how did you ever manage to overpower him?”

“I told you the truth. We were attacked.”

“And did you ever find your daughter?”

The question made Joyce’s blood run cold, her temper flare. “Obviously, since you’re so aware of my actions, you know that answer already.”

“Why would I ask if I already knew?”

“You tell me.”

Wiping her mouth on her napkin, Maria took a long moment to regard Joyce before rising to her feet. Her hand made a small, elegant gesture toward the doors, prompting them to open again, and Joyce did everything she could to remain as stoic in the face of the magic as she could.

“I believe it’s time to return to your room, Mrs. Summers,” Maria said. “I have work to do, and you...are proving a waste of my time.”

She waited, and Joyce knew that if she didn’t do as the woman requested, things could get ugly. Well, uglier. This was most definitely not turning out as she’d thought it would.

“Locking me in my garret,” she commented casually as she stood. “How very Wicked Witch of you.”

Maria’s smile was cold. “Except there will be no Prince Charming to ride to your rescue,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s already in my employ and will be far too busy for the duration to aid you.”

Joyce’s step was automatic as she followed the older woman from the dining room. Maria’s last words had sent her thoughts skittering in hope.

This was just one of the pieces of information she was hoping to glean in doing this.

Giles was here.

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

The little one roused just before dawn, but Buffy had heard the first sounds of her waking and scrambled to her feet before Spike could. Quickly donning a pair of sweats and a tee, she had bent to brush her soft lips across his temple, her hand on his shoulder keeping him down, murmuring, “Go to sleep, Spike. You’ve done enough for now.”

So, he’d slept, with visions dancing in his head not of sugarplums, but of green eyes gazing up at him in trust. Of golden skin splayed out below him like a glorious canvas. Of blood that flowed sweeter than any he had ever tasted. It was a Christmas unlike any he could remember.

When he woke, Spike’s vampire senses told him right away that it was only mid-morning, but his body attested to a more protracted slumber. It felt like he’d rested for a week and given Grade A infusions along the way; the only explanation he could fathom were the tiny bits of Slayer blood that he’d ingested in his encounter with Buffy.

Thinking of it made him smile as he rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling in satisfaction. Now that had been bloody amazing. He hadn’t really thought about biting her---not seriously, because the reality of the chip made the contemplation pointless---but when Buffy had deliberately cut her tongue on his fang, and those first coppery drops had suffused his being, the prospect had been too tantalizing. He had to know.

It wasn’t the taste of her blood that pleased him so profoundly this morning, though. Sure, there was no discounting the sheer ecstasy of her taste, or the amazing fucking that had accompanied it. But the belief she held in him, the confidence she carried that he wouldn’t hurt her, that was worth more than any of the other combined. It wasn’t about thinking he was too weak for her to worry about. It was about her trusting that he was strong enough to follow his gut, his heart.

It was about respect.

And that meant more than any words she could’ve given him.

Speaking of words…

Spike’s smile faded as he remembered what he’d whispered to her as she fell asleep. It had been the swell of the moment that had battered down his last defenses and allowed the emotion to surge forward, to take command of his better senses even before he realized the truth of it. Had she heard him? She couldn’t have. She wouldn’t have been so tender with him when Holly woke up.

But the feeling was still there.

He loved Buffy.

…Huh.

It wasn’t what he expected. Loving Dru had been about devotion, about worshiping the ground she walked on and ensuring that she was cared for every step of the way. There was unmistakably passion, but that came with its own baggage because Spike knew, under the right circumstances, that she was willing to share that passion with others. Like Angel. Like Darla. Like a pretty young thing she saw in the street. The fact that he was always having to be on his best to try and please his dark princess tainted the purity of his feeling for her. He didn’t know it at the time, of course. This was only a realization he had come to long after the fact.

He had little else to compare love with. There was William’s love for Cecily, but Spike knew it wasn’t real. It was just a young man’s desperate need to cling to an ideal; he had never known the true Cecily. And there was his love for his mother, but that was something else entirely. And Harmony…well, the less said about Harmony, the better.

Now…there was Buffy.

Loving Buffy.

It was easier than he thought it would be. The woman he’d slowly come to know over the past week was not the woman he had thought she was. Yes, she was strong, independent, and could go from sweet to stubborn in half a second flat, but she was also funny, and smart, and perversely narcissistic in all the right ways.

And if she cared for someone, there was nothing she wouldn’t do for them. Spike had tasted that one firsthand.

Loving Buffy wasn’t about trying to claim some ideal. He’d done that. With Cecily. With Dru. These days, Spike’s eyes were far too open to the Slayer’s faults, and it was those that actually drew him in the hardest.

The fear of failure she masked under a self-confidence that so rarely cracked called to him with particular fervor. Because when Buffy failed, people died. And when people died, so did a tiny part of her. He admired that kind of passion.

What was so strange was that, somehow, in the past week, Buffy had come to see him as an equal. Gone were the days when she would tear him down, just for the sheer pleasure of hearing her own voice. She hadn’t even tried hitting him in days, which, truth be told, Spike wasn’t so sure was a good thing. He was going to have to teach her how a little pain could make the pleasure all that much better.

His smile returned.

What a glorious lesson that would be.

Maybe it was the little one’s influence. She’d taken to him like a fish to water, and though it had infuriated him at first, the fact that Spike had grown attached to her had to have been obvious to Buffy. Maybe that had been the deciding factor for the Slayer.

Whatever it was, it made them partners. Equal partners.

Her words.

Her actions.

Was it any wonder he loved her?

Still, wouldn’t hurt to tread carefully today. She hadn’t been willing to admit that much yesterday; without being certain whether or not she heard him, Spike wasn’t willing to destroy what they had built during the night. It was the most precious thing anyone had given him in a very long time. He wasn’t so stupid that he was going to bugger it up with a few wrong words.

At least, he hoped he wasn’t.

He was buttoning his jeans when he pulled the door open, but the sight that greeted him made him stop and tilt his head in amusement.

In the middle of the living room floor, Buffy and Holly sat opposite each other, legs crossed Indian-style, their hands covered in socks. The child’s were a pair of Buffy’s, white anklets with a pink stripe around the ribbing, while the Slayer had a pair of Spike’s, the tip of her left index finger visible through a small hole in the tip.

The opening of the bedroom door caused the pair to stop what they were doing, and both of them turned their head toward him.

“Hi, Spike,” Holly chirped brightly, the waggle of her fingers obvious even through the sock.

“Someone’s lookin’ bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this mornin’,” he drawled.

Holly giggled. “I don’t have a tail, silly,” she said, turning back to their game.

Buffy’s eyes were locked on his, and he knew she was more than aware his statement had been meant for more than the child. “I didn’t expect you to get up so soon,” she said. “It’s not even lunchtime yet.”

“Since when have you known me not to be up when the occasion merits it?” He waggled his eyebrows at her, and was answered by a shake of her head, though she smiled as she turned away.

“Oink, oink, Spike,” she simply said.

“That’s a pig,” Holly announced.

“Yes, it is,” Buffy confirmed.

“People aren’t pigs.”

He wasn’t sure if Buffy would come back with her usual retort---Spike’s not people---and couldn’t help the widening of his grin when the Slayer merely said, “No, they’re not.”

“So,” he said, striding over to the kitchen, “do I want to know why you’ve nicked my socks? Looks kind of kinky.”

“Mine’s not hinky,” Holly chirped. She held up her hands, palms out. “Mine’s white.”

Buffy rose from her place on the floor and crossed to join him, hopping up on the counter as he began to warm up some blood. “Holly started getting upset this morning about touching me again,” she explained. “The socks seemed like a good alternative.”

“For what?” he asked.

“Well, it started out as Miss Susie, but she’s a little young to be that coordinated---.”

“Miss Susie?”

“You know.” She began to mime the game as she chanted. “’Miss Susie had a baby, she named it Tiny Tim…?’”

A single eyebrow lifted.

“What? That’s the way it goes!”

“Whatever you say, pet.”

“It’s not what we were playing when you came out, anyway. She kept smacking me in the knee so we switched. To hand puppets.” Buffy held up the hand with the holed sock, wiggling her finger even more through the opening. “I call this one Mr. Pokey.”

Holly’s voice stopped the riposte from coming.

“Um…Buffy?”

They turned simultaneously to see the little girl staring wide-eyed at the front door of the cabin, and their gazes slid to match hers. Immediately, Spike stiffened, just as Buffy jumped down, crossing the distance to put herself between Holly and the object of their attention.

She wore a flowing skirt and soft blouse, her long dishwater-blonde hair pulled away from her simple features in a low twist. Her fingers twisted anxiously in front of her, but even if she hadn’t been dressed completely inappropriately for the weather, Spike would’ve known from the lack of any scent or heartbeat that this was another of their bleeding ghosts.

The young woman raised a hand in nervous greeting. “Hi, guys,” she said.

 

To be continued in Chapter 39: Angels and Shepherds