DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Joyce has had a brief confrontation with Maria, and Tara has shown up at the cabin…

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Chapter 39: Angels and Shepherds

Buffy was poised in stiff caution as she faced off with the intruder, lips thin as her green eyes swept over the young woman’s form. Whoever she was, she wasn’t dressed for the elements, and Buffy hadn’t seen or heard the door open in order to let the woman in. That left only the mystical, or ghostly as the case may be, and the Slayer opened her mouth to address the issue of uninvited guests when she paused, her eyes meeting the other’s for the first time.

“Wait,” Buffy said slowly, when she felt Spike come up behind her. It was just as much to him as it was to herself. “I know you.”

“Don’t tell me this is another of Angelus’ castaways,” Spike commented. “First the gypsy girl, then Doyle. He’s really got a way of makin’ people into turncoats, doesn’t he?”

She ignored him. “You’re Willow’s friend, right?” Buffy continued. For a fleeting second, hope flared in her chest, her eyes darting to the door. “Is Willow here? How did you guys find us? Was it Giles? I knew he’d---.”

“Slow down,” the woman said with a small chuckle. “Maybe you should sit. This might take awhile.” Her gaze slid over Buffy’s shoulder, and the Slayer could’ve sworn she saw her eyes warm. “And Spike can just hover if he wants. I know how hard it is for him to sit still.”

“Awful friendly considerin’ I don’t know who in hell you are and this is our bloody house,” Spike said.

She sighed, shaking her head. “I keep forgetting you and I haven’t met yet,” she said, more to herself than to the vampire, before adding, “I’m Tara. We’re friends, or we will be. It’s all part of what I need to explain to you.”

“You’re a ghost, pet. And I don’t have any friends. Let’s say you try again.”

But all Buffy heard was the ghost part of his proclamation. “But…I just saw you with Willow a few days before finals,” she said. “What happened?”

“Oh, boy,” Tara said. “I knew this was going to be tough, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.” She knelt in front of Holly, giving the child a soft smile. “I’m a friend of Doyle’s,” she said gently. “Do you know what that means?”

Holly nodded. “I heard you and Doyle talking. ‘Bout protecting me.”

“That’s right. And I need to talk to Buffy and Spike about some grown-up stuff. Do you think you can go into the bedroom and play with your dolly while I do that?”

The little girl glanced back at Buffy, waiting for confirmation of the request. After a moment, the Slayer nodded. “It won’t be long,” she said. “And then we’ll get back to our puppets. I promise.”

“Can Spike be Mr. Monkeypants this time?”

She couldn’t stop the grin. “I think Spike would love to be Mr. Monkeypants,” Buffy replied. “Now shoo.”

The three adults waited while Holly tucked her doll under her arm and carried her from the room, casting one last lingering look at the trio before slowly closing the door. As soon as they were alone, Spike looked sideways at Buffy.

“Mr. Monkeypants?” he drawled. “You can’t be serious.”

“Be thankful she didn’t ask for you to be Mr. Pokey,” Buffy said. “There’s no way I could’ve kept a straight face for that one.”

“I’d forgotten how sweet she is,” Tara mused. Her eyes were still on the closed door, her face thoughtful.

“You forget how toxic she is, too?”

Spike’s question brought the edge back to Buffy’s mood, and she lifted her chin to stand with him against the intrusion of the ghost. “Yeah,” she said. “You’d think that would’ve been a detail you guys could’ve been a little bit clearer on.”

“I suppose I deserve that,” Tara said. Her head tilted toward the kitchen table. “Are you sure you don’t want to get more comfortable? Maybe finish getting your drink? I really do want to make this as easy for you as possible.”

Maybe it was the soft way she spoke, or maybe it was the nervous twisting of Tara’s hands, but Buffy’s natural inclination to argue with the ghost seemed to wane with each word she uttered. Whatever it was, this one was a hell of a lot more congenial than Jenny been. “How come you haven’t been the spokesghost all along?” she asked as she walked back to the table. She sat down and watched out of the corner of her eye as Spike returned to finishing his mug of blood. “I get why Doyle couldn’t because he was bringing her here, but why Jenny instead of you?”

“Because you just saw me alive a few days ago,” Tara replied. She didn’t sit, but instead stood at the head of the table. “You really think you wouldn’t have been weirded out by seeing me as a ghost?”

“Not any more than Jenny,” Buffy said. “I thought she was the First.”

“But you don’t now.”

The Slayer hesitated. “Let’s just say, I’m a little more open to the topic of conversation than I was before,” she said. “Holly can be very persuasive.”

“Speaking of the little one…” Hopping up on the counter, Spike leveled narrowed eyes at their guest. “Why is it none of you lot told us about the blood thing? Almost lost Buffy there and all because nobody bothered to share that little detail.”

“We didn’t have reason to think her blood would be an issue,” Tara said.

Buffy’s eyes widened. “She’s three! Are you really trying to tell us you didn’t expect her to skin her knee or cut her finger or something?”

“It didn’t occur to us,” came the reply. “You have no idea how sorry we are about that now.”

“What about the sleepwalking?”

Spike’s inquisition was far from over. Buffy could feel the frustrated tension that had been such a frosty tenor in his being over the past few days, and knew he was struggling to keep from lashing out. She didn’t even have to think. Rising from her seat, she took the step necessary to position herself between his legs, flashing him a reassuring smile before leaning against his chest and facing off with Tara as a joined front.

Tara’s smile softened at the sight. “I missed this,” she said, ignoring Spike’s question. “This was what I kept trying to get the others to see.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You. The two of you. Like this. Maria doesn’t stand a chance with you two working together.”

The mention of Maria was all Buffy needed to stop dwelling on the casual manner in which Tara consolidated the two of them and get back to the matter at hand. There was enough going on for her to sort out when it came to Spike and the last thing she wanted right now was for it to be done publicly. Not before she got a chance to talk to him herself.

“Sleepwalking,” she prompted. “You’re avoiding the issue.”

“No, I’m not. We thought it was a non-issue.”

“She goes wandering around in the middle of the night! How is that a non-issue?”

“She also has two guardians looking over her, both of whom are extremely nocturnal. We assumed when you took over the responsibility of watching her, one of you would always be awake.” The barbed accusations were drawing the good-humor out of Tara’s face, and she visibly stopped to compose herself before continuing. “Look,” she tried again, “this isn’t why I’m here. We know we made some mistakes. We should’ve been a little more upfront about some of Holly’s…specialness. But that’s why I’m here. To try and explain it a little better for you.”

“Why now?” Buffy asked. “Why not in the beginning?”

“Because I was outvoted. They don’t even know I’m here now.”

The solemnity of her statement made Buffy stop. Behind her, Spike’s hand absently stroked the line of her spine through her shirt, but she knew without having to look that he was just as affected by this young woman as she was. “Let’s start from the top,” Buffy said, deliberately softening her tone. “Beginning with how you can be involved in this when I just saw on campus a few weeks ago.”

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

It was hard to concentrate with Buffy between his legs.

Well, hard to concentrate on this Tara chit, at least. Spike wasn’t having any problems concentrating on the glorious Slayer scents that were assaulting him or the possessive tilt of Buffy’s head as she leaned it against his chest.

Those, however, had nothing to do with keeping the little one safe, and more than once, he had to wrench his attention away from daydreams of taking Buffy from behind at the kitchen counter to focus on Tara’s words.

Starting with the time issue hadn’t helped. Though he didn’t recognize her, Spike quickly gathered that this was a friend of Willow’s, someone Buffy knew only peripherally from the college campus, and that she’d been breathing and kicking just before they’d left for the Watcher’s faux conference. When the Slayer questioned her on being a ghost, though, Tara smiled and nodded knowingly.

“I know it’s confusing,” she’d said. “But time doesn’t have any meaning on this side of life. The Powers can be everywhere and everywhen, so those of us who continue to fight the good fight when we die follow many of the same rules. On your plane of existence, I won’t die for a few more years yet.”

“But…if you can just jump around in time, can’t you just stop whatever it is that kills you?” his Slayer had asked.

“But I don’t. Just jump around in time, like you say. I’m only involved in this time now because of my belief in you two. The Powers wanted warriors to protect Holly. I’m the one who pushed to have Spike here.”

“But why? Spike didn’t want to be here any more than I did.”

He held his tongue when the instinct to argue with Buffy leapt to the fore. While what she said was technically true, it didn’t encompass the depth of how he felt about the matter now. It was inconceivable for him to consider not having the past week with Buffy. How would he have gained the opportunity to get so close to her otherwise?

The look he shared with Tara told him that she, somehow, understood that.

“It couldn’t just be one,” Tara said, skirting the question. “A three-year-old is hard enough to handle without having the mystical going on as well. What if something had happened---?”

“Something did,” Spike piped up.

“And you took care of it, just as I knew you would,” she directed at him. “And don’t try telling me that you haven’t. We’ve been watching you. We know how much you’ve actually done. For Holly. For…each other.”

There was no mistaking Tara’s blush. Spike felt the rise in Buffy’s body temperature as it dawned on her what the ghost was referring to, and tightened his grip, refusing to let her yield to the embarrassment he knew was shaking her resolve. “So, why are you here now?” Spike asked, eager for his Slayer to change the topic at hand. “If we haven’t mucked anything up, why poke your nose in what doesn’t concern you?”

“Because I thought you needed to know the truth. In light of Buffy’s…encounter with Holly’s blood, the more information you have regarding her situation, the better equipped you’ll be to protect her.”

And so the story unfolded, and in spite of Spike’s rising misgivings, he listened without any more interruption.

“Holly’s mother was a potential who was never called,” Tara began. “Holly never knew her. She died in childbirth.”

“Did…?” Buffy started, but the question refused to coalesce into anything more definitive, just hanging between the two women before the ghost slowly nodded.

“She doesn’t know that,” she said quietly. “She will never know that. Holly will have a hard enough time in life without thinking her mother would be alive if it weren’t for her.”

The Slayer nodded in silent assent. There was an undercurrent of something more than vehemence in Tara’s choice of words, but neither was willing to call her on it. Though she seemed perfectly harmless on the exterior, there was a tightly contained power in the young woman’s demeanor that warned against interference.

“The Council was aware of Holly’s uniqueness from the start, but it wasn’t until Maria made her first attempt to kidnap her that they realized the gravity of the situation. They hid her away where they thought she’d be safe, in a remote part of Canada where they conducted training for potential slayers. Their reasoning was, that with so many skilled fighters around, she would be safe from Maria until the time passed when Holly wouldn’t be usable in her plans any more. Unfortunately, they were wrong.”

“What’s Maria’s connection to the Council?” Buffy asked.

Tara paused. “Familial,” she finally replied. “Her sister was a Slayer.”

“Then it must be revenge. She wants Holly because Holly has the ability to kill Slayers.”

“Not quite. That’s why Maria wants her, but that’s not the motive.”

“Then what is?”

“Jealousy. And greed. Maria’s discovered a way to use Holly’s blood to destroy the Slayer line and take the power for herself.”

The room fell silent at the simple statement. The urge for Spike to squeeze Buffy close and physically stop anyone from trying to take her away from him was overwhelming, but he refrained from anything overt, choosing instead to run his fingers softly up and down her arm. Her muscles were taut in disbelief, though what Tara offered certainly made sense, and he knew she felt like lashing out. Only the fact that they were speaking to a non-corporeal being prevented her.

“Why are you telling me this now?” she demanded. “Why not come clean about this from the start?”

“There were fears you’d react…unpredictably,” Tara said. “We didn’t want it coloring the way you treated Holly.” She took a step forward, her face earnest. “Buffy, she’s just a little girl. An innocent. And she’s already had such a hard life. Would you have acted the same way around her if you knew the truth? She doesn’t need people being scared of her, or feeling sorry for her. She needs a family. She needs people who aren’t going to treat her like a science experiment or the next apocalypse.” She stopped, her eyes begging them to understand. “She needed you guys.”

It took Buffy a long moment to respond. “That still doesn’t clue me in on why the big show and tell now,” she said, and the hollowness of her voice made Spike pull her in closer to his body.

“We’ve found Maria---.”

“Then it’s over!”

Tara shook her head. “No, we’ve only located her. Her magic is too strong for us to get past. It won’t be over until New Year’s Day. Holly will be four then, and it’ll be too late for Maria to do the ritual.”

“Then why---?”

“Because of a lot of things that have happened that none of us could have predicted,” Tara answered. She seemed to be steadying herself for the next. “There’s no way you could’ve known this, but your mother was looking for you, Buffy. Giles called her and---.”

“Giles is alive? You’ve found him?”

The constant interruptions were beginning to wear thin, and Spike leaned in to whisper in Buffy’s ear, “Let her tell the story, luv.”

Tara simply nodded, as if his aid was entirely expected. “He’s alive,” she confirmed. “Maria has him.” Quickly, she outlined how Giles had contacted Joyce, the pretenses he’d used to rouse her suspicions, and how Mrs. Summers had then taken it upon herself to search for Buffy on her own. When Buffy heard how close Joyce had actually been, her mouth opened to pose another question, but then closed again when Spike tightened his arms around her.

“This is the part where I need you to not get upset,” Tara said, when she’d finished.

“Well, now that was just dumb,” Spike commented with a wry cock of his brow. “Tellin’ the Slayer not to get riled is usually the surest path for that to happen.”

“I mean it,” the young woman pressed. “There’s nothing you can do at this point. Right now, it’s all in your mother’s hands.”

What’s in my mother’s hands?”

“She wanted to help. We didn’t want her coming here because then you’d only start worrying about protecting her, too, so we tried to get her to go back to Sunnydale and wait for this to be over. But she wouldn’t. And when the assassin Maria sent after her---.”

“Whoa. Back up. Assassin? This Maria bitch tried to kill my mother?”

“We don’t know why. But then Mrs. Summers got it into her head that she could help from the inside, and we couldn’t talk her out of it, and the next thing you know, Doyle and Jenny are helping with the magic to get her inside Maria’s house---.”

“She’s where?”

There was no way Spike was going to hold the Slayer back on this one, and he just watched as she wrenched from his grasp to stand nose to nose with the ghost. The color had blanched from her cheeks, her hands balled into fists at her sides, and she was using every ounce of her self-control not to draw Holly’s attention from the other room.

“You did not,” she said in a low voice, her jaw nearly clenched from her constraint, “tell me that my mother is now in the house of the same woman who’s trying to kill that little girl.”

“It wasn’t my idea. We couldn’t stop her. All we could do was help as best we could. You have to understand that.”

“I understand that you’ve been holding out on me from the start,” Buffy continued. “And I understand that you probably expect me to fix everything you guys have screwed up. What I don’t understand is how you could let my mother get put into such danger when she doesn’t have anything to do with all of this!”

“She chose her own path, Buffy. In case you haven’t noticed, your mother is a little strong-willed. And it’s not like I could step in front of her to physically stop her from going. She would’ve just walked straight through me. Doyle got all the corporeal mojo for this, remember?”

The mild attempt at humor fizzled disastrously, but Spike could see the point the gentle ghost was trying to make. “You forget this is the same woman who knocked me out with an axe to protect you, luv,” he said. “Your mum’s fierce when it comes to you. This doesn’t surprise me in the least.”

She whirled, eager to redirect her pent-up anger on something a little more solid. “What do you know about my mom?” she hissed. “A little hot chocolate and you think you’re bosom buddies?”

Hopping down from the counter, Spike closed the gap between them. “Don’t have to know her,” he said. “I know you. And not all of that piss and vinegar comes from bein’ the Slayer. You get that backbone from your mum, and if she thinks she can handle herself, then I’m inclined to believe her. Just like I’d be inclined to back you up if you decided to go waltzing into the lion’s den.”

“Oh, get over yourself, Spike. If you thought I was in any danger, you’d be the first one to try and tuck me back into my bed. That’s what you’ve been doing all week, remember?”

The muscles in his cheek twitched as he fought not to lose his temper. “That’s different,” he said. “You were hurt. I was just makin’ sure you didn’t make it worse, is all.”

“My mom doesn’t have super Slayer strength, or magical powers, or anything that’s going to help her if Maria decides to take a hands-on approach to killing her.”

“She’s got her wits. Counts for a lot.”

“Try telling that to the pointy end of a sword when it’s aimed at your heart.”

He shook his head, tired of the word games. “Just bloody do it and get it out of your system, Slayer,” he growled.

“Do what?”

“Hit me. You’re itchin’ to, and it’ll make you feel better. Just do it and get it over with so we can get back to sorting out this mess.” He lifted his chin in preparation for the blow, but his gaze never left hers.

The blunt request stunned Buffy into silence, and she took a step away from him, disbelief shining in the green of her eyes. Behind her, Tara sighed, finally stepping forward to intervene in their discussion.

“You two just never take the easy way, do you?” she commented.

But Buffy ignored her, her attention still trained on Spike.

“I’m not like that,” she said, more to herself than to anyone in the room. “I don’t hit people I---.” Then, she stopped, as if a memory chose that moment to make itself known, and her skin paled even more.

“It’s all right, luv,” he said, and this time, his tone was gentler. “I know what you need, and it’s all right.”

“No, no, it’s not.” And with that, she pivoted on her heel and ran from the cabin.

The slamming of the front door was followed almost immediately by the bedroom door being opened and Holly poking her head out between the crack. “Can I come out now?” she asked in a small voice.

Spike growled as he marched to where his and Buffy’s coats were draped over a chair, snatching them up before continuing on to the front entrance.

“Spike!” Tara’s voice made him glance back, his hand poised over the knob. “You can’t follow her. It’s still daytime out there.”

For a moment, he considered her words, his gaze sliding to where Holly watched him in wide-eyed expectation. His Slayer was hurting, and to top it all off, she’d run out without her coat again, and bugger if he was going to just stand back and let her suffer when he could do something about it.

“Then I guess I’ll be yellin’ at her from the porch,” he announced, and yanked the door open, his final words just barely trailing back inside. “Always knew the bitch would be the death of me anyway.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 40: As Long As You Love Me So