DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Giles has had a talk with Jenny, and Joyce has had a discussion with Spike about his relationship with Holly…

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Chapter 50: Paint Red Rattles on Old Rollie

Two days.

Not even two days. Thirty-eight hours and change.

It was all the time she had left. She was even further away from her goal now than she’d been two weeks previous, because now she was missing two of her Watchers.

And Maria was just inches away from killing the one that remained.

She sniffed as Silas wiped at the perspiration that dripped down his face with a sweat-stained handkerchief. “Stop being so melodramatic,” she scolded. Her voice was colder than the frigid air within the rental car. “They did nothing beyond the scope of their duties.”

“I feel rather like No. 6,” he wheezed.

“Hardly. All they did was ask you a few questions. No wonder you performed so poorly with the Council. I’m surprised you’re still able to control your body functions at all.” She sneered in the face of his profuse sweating. “Oh, wait. You can’t.”

“They could’ve discovered the truth about why we were there.”

“But they didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you get us out of there? Why did you let us be subjected so?”

His rising voice bordered on histrionic, grating down Maria’s spine with a chalkboard ease that made her stiffen. “Because they were looking for Paul and Rupert,” she replied through gritted teeth. “I stayed on the chance that they would be brought in.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“We’re going to continue our search,” she replied. “Since Paul and Rupert are beyond our reach at the moment, we’ll focus our attention on Mrs. Summers instead.”

“But---.”

The flash from her hand left Silas gasping for air, clutching at his throat as he fought to loosen his tie. Keeping her palm facing him, Maria ignored his desperation, instead closing her eyes and focusing on the spell she’d placed on Mrs. Summers’ vehicle. It pulsed with a silvery tenor, calling and stretching before her mind’s eye with a tenuous precision that exemplified all her spells. That was her style. Clean and simple.

It was only when she heard Silas begin pounding on the steering wheel that she released him from the magical bond.

“Now stop asking ludicrous questions,” Maria said, lowering her hand. Her eyes were still closed, her mind still concentrating on the path she was seeing before them. “In fact, do me a favor and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. If you can’t abide by that, I’ll remove your tongue, do you understand?”

“Yes,” Silas croaked. His gasps rattled in his chest.

“Drive,” Maria instructed. “Go back to that Wal-Mart we saw Mrs. Summers leave from. Our path starts there.”

She was relieved when he didn’t speak and only turned the key in the ignition. Once they started following the trail left by the spell, she’d be able to determine where it was Mrs. Summers was headed. If luck was on Maria’s side, she went straight to the Slayer. That meant, she was likely with Holly, as well.

Maria smiled as the car vibrated around her. Thirty-eight hours was plenty of time. There was no reason yet to worry.

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

The sun was streaming in through the curtains when Giles finally woke up. Blinking against the brilliance, he saw Paul sitting at the table with Doyle, bent over a map as his thin fingers traced over an unseen route.

“Seven hours, if my calculations are correct,” Paul said.

“Eight, with the way Giles drives,” Doyle said.

“Oh. Well, yes, I suppose that’s correct. And we mustn’t forget the stops for the restroom---.”

“I only stopped once, you nattering twit,” Giles complained. Propping himself up on his elbows, he squinted at the two men, trying to see them through the bright sunshine. “What on earth are you doing?”

“Plotting the course back to Sunnydale,” Paul explained. “We’ve come rather far out of our way, and as I’m not familiar with the area---.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?” Fumbling on the nightstand, Giles grabbed his glasses while he sat up. “What time is it anyway?”

“It’s just gone noon. We thought it would be best for you to get as much sleep as you could considering your ordeal yesterday. How do you feel?”

Tentatively, Giles twisted his torso, testing the give and take of his ribs. When there was no immediate pain, he exerted himself a little more, grinning as he relished his newfound vigor. “Quite well, actually,” he said. “It’s rather…surprising.”

“That’s Jenny’s doing,” Doyle said. “She pulled in a few favors with the Powers to heal you up quicker.”

Mention of her name was a soft burn somewhere in the region of his heart, and Giles sagged slightly as he remembered their conversation in the wee hours of the morning. “You’ll have to thank her for me,” he said.

“Actually, you can do it yourself.”

All three men turned to see Jenny standing by the bathroom. Her tone had been light, but there was no smile on her fine features. “Good afternoon,” she said when she had their attention. “Except, a little light on the good, as it turns out.”

“What are you doing here?” Doyle asked. “I thought---.”

“We’ve got problems,” she interrupted. “Maria-sized problems.”

Bolting to his feet, Paul skittered away from the exposed window, pressing himself into the wall. “Is she here? Are we in danger?” he spluttered.

“Not here, but on the move.” Her eyes locked with Doyle’s. “She must’ve put some kind of spell on Joyce. Maria’s taking the exact same path Joyce did yesterday.”

“Damn,” Doyle muttered. He looked back at the map, the pen he’d been holding tapping against the paper. “I guess blowing up her car yesterday didn’t slow her down as much as we would’ve liked.”

“If Joyce hasn’t found Buffy,” Giles started.

“She has.” Jenny nodded when he opened his mouth to speak again. “And they’re both perfectly fine, so you don’t have to worry about that, Rupert.”

“How long before she reaches them?” Doyle asked, still intent on the map.

“It depends. Estimates say five hours until she reaches the car, but how long it will take her once they start searching the forest, there’s no telling. Once she crosses the barrier, we’ll be out of luck.”

“Barrier? What barrier?”

She turned back to answer Giles’ question. “The one that’s keeping Buffy and Spike from abandoning their duty. It doesn’t dissipate until midnight tomorrow night. That’s---.”

“---when Maria runs out of time for her purpose for Holly,” he finished. “If she discovers them tonight, she’ll have an entire day to perform the ritual.” He rose to his feet. “We have to stop her.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Jenny said. “And that’s why Tara’s on her way to warn Buffy and Spike.”

“What happened to the Powers wanting us to keep them out of it?” Doyle asked.

“They changed their minds. Start packing.”

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

When he woke up, he could hear the melodic cadences of female voices down below, and Spike couldn’t help his smile as he rolled over onto his side to listen.

“I’m telling you, she won’t eat it. It’s orange.”

“Oh, Buffy, you have so much yet to learn. How do you think I got you to eat things when you were little?”

“I’m just saying---.”

“What is it?”

“It’s good for you.”

“It’s orange. Orange is yucky.”

“Look.” The sound of lip smacking was followed by Joyce’s throaty “mmmm.” “It’s really good. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Yes, I do. Yucky stuff.”

Buffy giggled. “Told you.”

“One little bite, Holly? Look at how tiny that is. That’s not even a bite. That’s a nibble.”

“Little yucky is still yucky.”

“Buffy likes it. Don’t you want to be like Buffy?”

“Buffy can have mine then.”

The fit of giggles was now full-blown laughter. “Mom, this is a lost cause. Spike and I have been trying this for a week now. It’s not going to work.”

“It will. You just have to be patient.”

“What’s patient?”

“It means…you keep trying or waiting without getting upset or giving up.”

“Like Spike was when Buffy got sick?”

Silence.

He wished he could see their faces.

“Yes,” Joyce said quietly. “Like that.”

Spike’s eyes drifted shut again. He’d still been awake when Joyce came down at dawn, and yielded to her command that he sleep upstairs while she took care of breakfast. By the level of light that permeated the loft, it was already after lunch---or during lunch, from the sound of the conversation downstairs.

The fact that Buffy and Joyce weren’t arguing about him, too, was a good sign. Spike had spent the rest of the night trying not to replay the conversation he’d had with the elder Summers woman in his head, wondering if he’d made things better or worse for them, and had finally decided that he thought too much. Better to just let things play out. All he could do was be himself.

It was certainly enough for Buffy.

He was just starting to doze again when a new voice seemed to join the others, low and soothing and oddly familiar. Before he could bother to wake fully to find out who it was, though, the soft creak of the ladder crept past his senses, and he opened his eyes in time to see Buffy’s head poke over the top rung.

“You’re up,” she said.

“Just,” Spike replied. His voice was oddly hoarse, and he swallowed to wet his throat.

“Can you come down, please? It looks like we might have some trouble coming up.”

The mirth that he’d heard in her earlier conversation was gone, replaced by the gravity that was so typical of her Slayer-mode. Instantly, Spike’s mind sharpened, and he kicked off the blanket as he reached for his jeans.

“Give me two ticks, luv,” he said. “Be right there.”

He dressed in record time, sliding down the ladder to see Buffy and Joyce sitting on the couch, with Holly playing near the tree. The fourth in the room was fidgeting near the window, and Spike frowned as he met Tara’s eyes.

“Something tells me this isn’t a social call,” he remarked.

“It’s not,” Tara said. “It’s about Maria.”

His gaze was immediately drawn to an unaware Holly. “Should little ears be in on this then?” he asked.

“Probably not, but I need all of you to hear this.”

Spike crouched at the child’s side. “You wanna do me a favor, pidge?”

“What?”

“Remember how you asked if we could play hairdresser? Well, I’ll do it if you go in the bedroom to play for a bit.”

Wide eyes scanned the room before returning to Spike’s face. “Is everything OK?”

“Everything’s just fine, but this is goin’ to be boring grown-up talk. Trust me, if there was a way for me to cut out of this, I’d be in that bedroom with you. So, do we have an agreement?”

“OK.” Gathering her toys, she waddled to the bedroom with her arms laden down, only pausing when she got to the doorway to look back at the adults.

“What’s this about then?” Spike said, once the door was closed behind Holly.

“Maria’s heading this way,” Tara said. “We think she must’ve cast some kind of spell on Mrs. Summers to track her, because she’s taking the same path on the highway that Mrs. Summers did.”

“I never saw her,” Joyce said with a frown. “How could she have done that?”

“We’re not sure, but what matters is that she did. And since she can feasibly conduct the ritual she needs to any time before now and tomorrow midnight, you have to be on the alert should she turn up.”

“She’s human, right?” Buffy asked, casting a sideways glance at where Spike was perched on the arm of the couch.

“Yes, but very powerful. The scope of her magic exceeds anything I’ve ever encountered before.”

“That doesn’t mean she can sneak in and out past your little fence, does it?”

“In, but not out,” Tara clarified. “If she manages to cross, she’ll be stuck inside until the deadline, just like the rest of you.”

“Her magic won’t work on the little one, though, right?” Spike confirmed. “Moptop should be safe from her that way, at least.”

“Well, except for the ritual, which we still don’t understand how she’s going to get to work.”

Joyce frowned. “What exactly was this ritual supposed to do?” she asked. “Something about Slayers?”

Tara’s gaze ducked. “It has to do with Holly’s blood,” she started.

“It kills ‘em.” The muscles in his jaw twitched as fear suddenly lanced through him. “Moptop’s blood is lethal to Slayers.”

“We think…Maria plans on using the blood to steal Slayer power for herself,” Tara explained. “Which would---.”

“Kill Buffy. Believe that’s what I said.” Leaping to his feet, he began pacing behind the couch, his hands balled into fists at his side. “What the hell am I doin’ here then?” he demanded. “Bitch is human, which means I can’t touch her. What good am I in the grand scheme of things?”

“Maria uses demons all the time to do her dirty work. You’ve been doing wonderfully protecting Holly from them---.”

“You’re more than useful.” Buffy interrupted Tara and rose to block Spike’s path, forcing him to come to a stop and glare down at her. Her hand reached up to cup his cheek. “Holly and I would’ve both been dead by now if it wasn’t for you. You’ve saved both of us. Don’t you dare forget that.”

The simple heat of her touch seemed to leech the anger from his flesh, and his head turned automatically to press his lips to her palm. Briefly, his eyes caught Joyce’s, but for the first time since her arrival, he saw no reproof in them, only understanding.

“It might not come down to that at all,” Tara said. “Doyle is on his way with Mr. Giles and the other Watcher. If they can get to Joyce’s car in time, they’ll drive it as far from here as possible. Hopefully, that’ll divert Maria long enough to get us past the deadline.”

Joyce frowned. “Doyle didn’t want them anywhere near here. He’s been spending the last week trying to convince me not to come. Why would he change his mind?”

“He’s not. We don’t have a choice any longer. We’re going to need all the help we can get.”

Buffy turned away from Spike, suddenly alarmed. “Spike and I were everywhere out there last night,” she said, her eyes jumping to the window. “Our footprints are all over the place. And they lead straight back here.”

“Bollocks,” he muttered. Not only were their tracks all over the place, they’d broken a few branches in their games, and there was at least one bush that was entirely smashed flat from where Buffy had shoved him out of a tree when he’d tried climbing up after her.

“I’ll have to clean it up.” Buffy began heading for the door. “How long do you think we have until Maria shows?”

“They’re driving. You should be safe until at least sundown.”

The Slayer nodded as she pulled on her jacket. “Spike, stay here and keep Holly occupied. Don’t let her know what’s going on. If you can, go through everything we have as weapons and get them ready for a fight. Mom? Feel like helping to avert your daughter’s potential demise?”

Joyce stood. “Considering some of those footprints are mine, I think that’s only fair.”

He was speechless as both Summers women disappeared faster than he could protest, leaving him with Tara. As soon as the front door closed, the bedroom door opened, and Holly poked her head out.

“Is the grown-up talk all over?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Spike said. His voice was brusque. He knew with his head that that this plan was the best; with at least another four hours of sunlight, he was useless to help clean up outside. But it didn’t stop the waves of worthlessness washing over him, and it didn’t prevent the all-too familiar sense of impotency from leaving his muscles feel like lead.

Tiny arms wrapped around Spike’s legs, and he was jerked from his momentary bout of self-loathing to glance down at the top of Holly’s curly hair. When she looked up at him, her dark eyes seemed to engulf her face, and without saying a word, he knew she’d heard every word that had been said, regardless of his efforts to protect her from the worst of it. With a small smile, he patted her shoulder.

“So, who goes first, pidge? You or me?”

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

Covering their prints in the snow gave her purpose, purpose that had been oddly lacking in the two weeks since their confinement. If Buffy was honest with herself, she’d have to admit to missing the rush of fighting for her life. Not that she got off on the danger, but that adrenaline that so often fueled her everyday life had grown complacent in the past two weeks. She only hoped it hadn’t left her soft, too.

She knew Spike would be chomping at the bit by the time she got back to the cabin, but as she and her mother worked to mask all the activity that had occurred outside, Buffy consigned herself to making it up to him later. He was doing a necessary job at the moment, and if he didn’t see the value in it, she would just have to find some way of convincing him, once they got past the threat to Holly. What part he could possibly play in that fight, she had no idea, but the Powers wouldn’t have wanted him there without a reason. They would just have to wait to see what that reason would be.

“I’m sorry,” Joyce said as they brushed the pine fronds over the snow, obscuring the footprints. It was the first thing either woman had said out loud since leaving the house, and Buffy jumped at the sound.

“What are you sorry for?”

“If I hadn’t come here, Maria would never have found you. This is all my fault.”

She shook her head. “It’s not anyone’s fault. If it wasn’t you, it would’ve been something else. You’d be surprised how easy it is sometimes for the bad guys to find a way.”

“Still---.”

“Look, Mom, no offense, but now is really not the best time for true confessions. I appreciate it, honest, but there are better things we can be doing, OK?”

Joyce sighed. “All right.”

They continued working in silence, the sun creeping lower over the horizon with every step. Finally, Buffy said, “If you’re truly feeling all remorseful, though, you can make it up to me with a shopping spree when we get back home. Take me to all the best post-holiday sales.” She grinned. “We can even drag Spike along. I bet he’d love a makeover.”

She caught her mom smiling out of the corner of her eye. “It’s a deal.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 51: Ave Maria