DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Iris has told Stella she will be accompanying her to the swamps, Giles and the Scoobies are on their way to New Orleans, and Buffy and Spike have had a talk about his insecurities about being his own man, culminating in their making love for the first time…

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

Chapter 19: Stella by Starlight

Lounging against the doorjamb, the smoke from his cigarette curling in wispy flumes to go drifting out into the dusky sky, Spike watched as Buffy carefully tucked her stake into the waistband of her leather pants, her sinewy body already glistening from a slight sheen of sweat as the New Orleans night permeated the cooler air of the hotel room.  They had been mostly silent for the better part of the last hour, waking from their nap curled in each other’s arms, setting to the task of preparing for what lie ahead with that grim determination of hers he’d always admired, sneaking glances at the other out of the corner of their eyes when they thought the other wasn’t looking.  Nothing had been said about what had happened in the shower.  It was as if she had spent her weekly quota of intuition, and now lacked the words for normal conversation.

He didn’t mind.  The fact that she’d done what she had, come to him and sought within her limited means to help him---and did so tremendously, in spite of her relative lack of expertise---was all Spike needed to cling to, letting their bodies sing in the ensuing revelry, relishing the delicate notes that were beginning to bind them together, even after they adjourned to the bed. 

She was game for another go, climbing on top of him, her hair hanging in wet strands around her shoulders as her hands skated over his chest, and while Spike’s body had been more than willing, his heart was surprisingly not, his need to just hold her overwhelming his desire.  Still, he had been unable to say no to the kisses she had rained across his jaw, lips joining hers to tangle in languid grace, tugging her to the side to lay next to him.  The combined heat of her body and the shower turned his muscles into molasses, and he soon tore himself away her mouth, curling her luscious form into the crook of his arm, spending the next ten minutes letting his fingers memorize her face, feathering over her brows, following the route of the tiny bend in her nose, savoring the never-restive muscles that hid beneath her skin.

Each stroke had audibly slowed her heartbeat, until Buffy’s eyes fluttered closed, a tiny sigh escaping her lips.  “This is nice,” she’d murmured.

His kiss across her lids had been tickled by the ends of her lashes.  “Would you be fussed if we slept for a bit?” he’d asked, hesitant to make the request, as if by doing so it would destroy the delicate understanding that had settled between the two.  “Not that I’m not interested in more, it’s just…”  His eyes were dark, gazing at her as she lifted her head, her pointed chin boring into the muscle of his chest.  “…I want a bit to enjoy where we’ve been.”  A tender brush lifted a damp tendril from her cheek.  “Got all the time in the world for the other, but Red needs us to be able to storm the so-called castle, not crumble to our knees because our bloody legs don’t work anymore.”

She’d slapped at him playfully.  “What happened to vampire constitutions?” she said.  “Don’t tell me you fold after just two times around?”

“Wasn’t talking about me.  Was talking about you.”

She’d giggled, an angelic sound that made his own lips quirk, and burrowed back into him, eyes drifting back shut to settle into a slumber that had quickly overtaken him as well.  It had only been his sense of encroaching sunset that had wakened them, still tangled together, and they had set about preparing for their evening’s attack.

Buffy stopped in her preparations and surveyed the room.  “You’ve got the crossbow in the car, right?”

Spike exhaled, directing the smoke outside.  “Crossbow, a shitload of stakes, a mess of knives.  Trust me.  We’re fully stocked and loaded to go.”

“OK then.  Let’s do this.”

His hand lifted as she began to march toward him.  “You’re forgettin’ something.”

“And just ten seconds ago you said we were ready.”

Spike gestured abstractly toward the nightstand.  “I want you to wear it.”  He was referring to the gris gris that she’d placed there before going into the bathroom, and her eyes followed his to look at it sitting in wait.

“No offense, but I’m trying to cultivate a death to all things evil look here.  You’d think that if that shop lady knew enough to expect me, she’d at least give me something that would coordinate with most of my outfits.”

He didn’t even smile at her small joke.  “Humor me,” he said.  His eyes were serious as she turned back to look at him.  “That charm’s the real deal.  Now, I’m not even goin’ to begin to try and understand how or why that vodou bird had it ready for you, but the fact remains, she did.  And it’s an asset, whether you realize it or not.  Take it.”

The doubt still lingered behind her aspect, and Buffy frowned.  “Can it hurt me?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  That’s the thing.  That’s potent stuff there, designed for protecting and all.  You wear it, it’ll protect you from something, but without bein’ able to talk to this bird, I can’t tell you exactly from what.”  He shrugged.  “It’s not like you have anything to lose by takin’ it along.  And if it works, then all the better, right?”

When he saw her shrug, moving without hesitation to reach with a slim hand to pick up the leather strap, a piece that had been floating in oblivion inside Spike seemed to settle into place, as if rooted there by the simple acceptance of his request, seeping and spreading to burn his flesh from the inside out.  She trusted him.  One simple question on her part, and she had done an about-face on her decision to take him at his word.  Had it really been only that morning she had been questioning his desires to seek out additional help?  How was it possible for her to have come around so quickly?

He knew the answer to that even as he thought the query.  He had dropped the act.  In the face of his own insecurity, Spike had opened the door for her to see inside the dead space that should have housed his soul, and she hadn’t been frightened by what she’d seen.  In fact, she had pulled him from it, and demanded he see past the dark, acknowledge the truth for what it was, force him to accept his own strengths even if he didn’t see them as such.  He didn’t know why.  Even sleeping with her in his arms had done nothing to staunch the flow of questions that bled from his mind.

But it didn’t matter.  She trusted him now.  He wasn’t going to abuse that.

“Ready to kick Iris’ ass?” he asked as she walked to the doorway.

Her grin was wide.  “As soon as we get Willow to safety, that skanky ho’s butt is mine,” she retorted.  She held up a warning finger in tease.  “Remember.  Hands off.  I’ve got a score to settle with her.”

Spike grinned as she brushed past him and headed to the car, watching the casual sway of her hips as he contemplated the night’s potential.  Oh yeah, he thought.  Go in, kill some nasties, get Red out, and then come home and work off some of that extra energy the Slayer was sure to have pent up.  In her current state, he didn’t doubt she would do whatever she set her mind to, and he’d be there to follow her, every step of the way.  What could possibly go wrong?

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

So far, she wasn’t impressed.  Watching the tableau play out before her made Iris’ lip curl in disdain, and it was all she could not to whirl on her proverbial high heel and get out of the bog that was ruining her favorite boots.  Still, the potential for it to work was still there, and until she was certain that failure was inevitable, the vampire was going to see it through, even if the entire debacle reeked of amateurishness.  It wasn’t as if she had anything else to do that night.

Stella had balked at the coterie of vampires Iris had insisted escort them to Sira Sommeil, even though she was more than aware of the various teams that been placed around the perimeter of the swamp in an attempt to keep Spike and the Slayer from interrupting.  Though they were still present, they were hanging back amidst the overgrown trees, lost in the murky shadows as they watched the spectacle unfold.  The singer was convinced they would prove disruptive to the magics she was going to have to invoke, and though Iris didn’t agree, she acquiesced on this one point, fearful that her persistent intervention might actually curtail the proceedings.

And so there they were, the three so determined to bring Sira back into the world, or rather, the two, with the third waiting in the wings to be called.  Iris’ gaze settled on the redhead stretched out on the blanket on the ground, nostrils flaring as the fresh scent of the brand upon her wrist drifted from her prone position.

She had been unconscious when they had arrived, the young man just finishing whatever preparations had been necessary for the ritual.  She was younger than the other two, deceptively fragile, but the power rolled off her in waves, and it was that taste that prompted Iris to wait this out, to see for herself whether the pair would be able to raise the memories from her soul.  They needed the knowledge of the other in order to summon Sira; it would be fascinating to see how it would manifest itself in the thin redhead’s frame.

Iris’ lips twitched as she watched Stella light the fire for the sacrifice, the knife she held in her hands capturing the stray beams of moonlight that filtered through the branches to mingle with the scarlet licks of the flames.  The night was the greatest of equalizers, casting each of them in an orange pallor that united them within their task.  The tang of the latent impulses buried within the mire of both the land and the souls at hand made the vampire’s mouth water, her demon within emerging of its own volition to witness the calling of the djab.

It hungered for what was to come.

The power.  The destruction.  The death.

And as the words tumbled from Stella’s lips, rolling cadences beckoning to the devil she worshiped, Iris believed for the first time that it would truly happen…

…and smiled.

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

They had to abandon the Desoto earlier than she wanted, but eyeing the miasma of the New Orleans outskirts, Buffy knew there was no way the car was going to make it inside.  So they were left trudging through the thick underbrush, the weight of weapons on their backs, the flashlights they’d brought along doing little but illuminate just the few feet directly in front of them. 

Neither spoke, but the night was far from silent.  Distant splashing from creatures she didn’t even want to consider was interspersed with the occasional croak from a frog, the near constant buzzing of various insects in the air underlying all of it to hum along their skin.

She let Spike take the lead, allowing his predatory nature and his knowledge of the area to guide them toward their final destination.  Though he was grateful for her unquestioning acknowledgment of his abilities, the vamp wasn’t exactly thrilled by the circumstances in which it happened.  Walking through the mud was a bitch, he thought with a grimace.  His step was weighted by the cumbersome nature of his boots, making his normal lithesome grace an awkward gait where he had to consciously extract his foot from the mire before setting it back down again, feeling it sink for that fraction before having to lift again.  It was perhaps the only detraction of their excursion, though; he was still floating high on the revelations from the hotel room to really be fussed about a little sludge.

They both should’ve been paying more attention.

The first assault came through the air, a volley of arrows whistling from the dark to send Buffy diving forward even as the first went soaring over her head.  Spike threw himself sideways, but the wrench of his feet within the morass slowed his dodge, and he hissed in pain as one of the arrows embedded itself in his thigh.  He landed with an audible squish, face screwing up in pain as he automatically reached down to yank the shaft from his flesh, his eyes glittering in gold as they searched the darkness for their attackers.

“They were ready for interruptions,” Buffy commented from somewhere to his right.

“They were ready for us,” Spike growled, the arrow snapping between his fingers.  He was suddenly certain that leaving Pablo to live was probably his stupidest decision ever.  It was the only reason to explain such weaponry.  Someone wanted to protect Sira Sommeil from a vampire’s approach.  From him.  If he wasn’t so pissed about getting hit in the first place, Spike just might’ve bristled in pride that Iris feared him enough to try and keep him away.

“How far away are we?” she asked.

“We’re on the edges now,” he replied.  Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw him nod ahead of them, his bleached head glowing in the moonlight.  “The center’s through those trees, about two hundred yards.  Then there’s a few more hundred yards on the other side.  Stella and her crew could be anywhere in there.”

“Well, since all the sharp pointy things are coming from that direction, I’m thinking that’s what they’re trying to keep us from.”  The smell of blood drifted to her nose, and she watched as he lifted himself to a crouching position.  His black clothing was doing well to hide most of his form from whoever was attacking them, but his hair was a beacon in the inky night, catching what little light there was to diffract and scatter, illuminating their position for anyone to see.

“Spike,” she hissed.  “Cover your head or something.  You might as well be Rudolph in the middle of a snowstorm for as much good you’re doing at blending in.”

With a quick yank, he pulled his jacket over his head, but the weight of the mud clinging to its hem made it awkward, causing him to flap like a wounded bird as he hurried to her side.

The second barrage followed only seconds later, and instinctively, Spike threw himself over Buffy, covering the pair of them with his duster while pressing them into the mud.  He was relieved that none of them found their targets this time, and when he felt the Slayer’s muscles tense beneath him, he knew automatically that she was going to make a run for it.

Even in daylight, it would’ve been difficult to follow them as they sped across the mire, two dark blurs amidst the trees battling against the ground that fought to slow them down, stopping only when they reached the nearest copse.  She wasn’t even panting as she pressed herself into the bark, reaching out with her Slayer senses as her hand curled around her stake.

“That way,” she whispered, directing Spike toward the break amidst the demons.  Better to get through them than waste time by killing them, she’d decided, and felt her feet fly over the surface in a blur.

Spike was the first to go down when they resorted to a ground assault, four of the sentries attacking from different directions to tangle in a flurry of snarls and fangs.  Buffy was left facing off with two, and though the question as to why they considered Spike the greater threat flickered across her mind, she didn’t dwell on it, focusing instead on the dispatching of her assailants.

A roundhouse kick sent the first flying into a nearby tree, and she couldn’t help her small smile when a chance encounter with a well-placed branch turned him into a smattering of dust.  Save the earth, she thought.  Because she’ll sure as hell save you in a pinch.

The second was a little more wily, but with two powerful punches, the Slayer had him down on the ground, her stake plunging into its chest.  She had turned to help Spike before the dust could settle, though, a predator’s gaze assessing the four---no, make that two, she thought with a strange sense of pride---that were attacking the chipped vampire. 

The smaller of the two had grabbed the hem of Spike’s coat, using it to keep him off-balance while his bigger partner tried to get close enough to use the nasty-looking dagger in his hand.  It was that annoying gnat that Buffy chose to concentrate on. 

Using what leverage she could gain on the slippery ground, the Slayer vaulted herself forward, gauging a pivot she could see poised within Spike’s body so that she connected with Shorty just as the trio landed to the ground under a towering cypress tree.  A quick jerk freed him from the leather, and the pair fell with a sticky spludge into the mire.

Buffy grimaced.  “Do all of you smell this bad down here, rodent breath?” she said, fending off his bared fangs with a quick punch.  “Or is it something in the local blood supply that gets under your skin?”  Her feet came up to plant themselves in his chest, propelling him off of her and against a nearby tree, dazing him just enough for her to leap up and finish him off.

There would be more to come, she thought turning to see Spike dance away from the remaining vamp.  Better to get this over with and get in there before it gets worse.

The knife had connected more than once with the blond’s body; she could see that once he was free from the fray.  Blood dripped from a cut high on his brow, leaving scarlet trails down the side of his face, while another stab at his already wounded leg was forcing him to favor his right foot as he moved around.  A wild grin still creased his face, though, and Buffy could see that Spike was enjoying himself immensely in spite of his obvious pain.

A vicious kick to his attacker’s midsection left Spike the only one of the pair standing, and with a quick glance of glee at the Slayer, he pounced, scooping a broken branch from the ground to drive it into the vampire’s chest.  He didn’t even wait for him to disintegrate.  He just jumped to his feet and strode over to Buffy, scooping her roughly against the smooth lines of his hard body as his mouth descended to hers in a fevered kiss.

For the moments their tongues battled, the adrenaline driving their bodies closer, hands clawing at the clothes that shielded them from immediate gratification, Buffy drowned in the succulent taste of Spike’s mouth, the ache of ice refusing to melt beneath her touch kindling the desire for more.  She couldn’t get close enough, each layer between them determined to shred what little resolve she had, and it wasn’t until she felt the sticky drip of his blood on her hand that she tore herself away from the caress.

“We better hurry,” she said, her breath ragged.

His dark gaze swept over her and it didn’t matter that she still wore all her clothes; Buffy felt with every indolent inch that he was drinking in the taste of her bare skin.  “Oh, there won’t be any hurryin’ if I have a say in the matter,” he drawled, deliberately misinterpreting her meaning.  “It’ll be slow, and scorching, and you’re goin’ to be screaming by the time I’m done with you, pet.”

Her mouth opened to respond, but the words froze in her throat as a shrill screech pierced the swamp air.  Buffy whirled to look behind her.  “Willow.”

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

She’d been wrong, so deliciously wrong, and her skin crawled in syncopation with a thousand millipedes as Iris watched the redhead writhe from her position on the ground.  The young man---Freddie, she’d heard Stella call him---knelt beside the young Willow, one hand pressed to her forehead, the other clawed into her stomach, but even with the strength of the djab that now possessed him, he was finding it difficult to contain her thrashing, her soft flesh tearing and scraping along the ground, the blanket long since bunched to a tattered rag that lay crumpled under her legs.

Summoning the djab that inhabited Sira Sommeil had been straightforward, and it had arrived with little fanfare, driving Freddie to his feet in an awkward dance as Stella offered the sacrifice up to him.  Iris had felt her own mouth water as the young man bit into the still beating heart of the goat that had been sacrificed, the blood running down his chin, staining the t-shirt that clung to his thin frame.   She didn’t know the particulars of this particular djab, not his name nor his special skills, but that was hardly unusual.  There were many around New Orleans, and without the proper mambo to call them, they could lie dormant for decades.

Still, living in the very swamp where the demon Sira had been driven so long ago, it made sense that those who had called him the last time would seek out the means to do it again, searching for the power that had been denied them in their previous incarnation. 

Iris had learned of their search for the third soul when the singer had summoned this djab a few months previous, and followed her quest from afar as the information they’d gleaned from the spirit’s ramblings led them to California.  They needed the other to learn the location of the staff, an artifact the vampire had every intention of taking control of once it was discovered; her only wish was that Spike and his Slayer girlfriend had not gotten involved in the first place.  That was a kink for which she had not prepared.  Still, the warning from Pablo had been fortuitous, and hopefully, Iris had placed enough of her guards to ward them away until the knowledge about the staff was brought forth.

A shrill scream erupted from the redhead’s throat as her back arched impossibly away from the ground.  It held there, frozen, the night ringing from the pain in her voice, and Freddie fell back, energy spent as whatever had been housed within him vanished as cleanly as it came. 

Unconsciously, Iris took a step closer, the anticipation scraping her flesh raw as her eyes glittered in the darkness.  Before she could near further, though, the erratic pulse of the redhead stopped, the body collapsed, and there it remained in limbo for a full thirty seconds as the pair just stared down at her.

“What happened?” Freddie breathed.

“I don’t know,” Stella replied.

“She can’t be dead…can she?” he asked.

Anger roiled in Iris’ throat, frustration that the entire exercise had been a waste, that these dilettantes had ruined the best chance at waking Sira from his swampy repose, when the sudden thumping of Willow’s heart joined in with the tattoo of the others in the clearing.  She saw her gulp for air, her eyes shooting open to stare up into the sky, and heard the others gasp in surprise, rocking back and away from the young woman as she bolted upright.

Freddie was the first to react.  “Willow?” he asked tentatively.

There was a pause, and Iris saw the slow tilt of the witch’s head, as if she were listening to some far-off tune.  Her smile when it came was deliciously malevolent, teeth gleaming otherworldly white in the moonlight, and the vampire felt an odd kinship with her as she looked up to gaze in hunger at the stars in the night sky. 

“Willow’s gone,” she heard the young woman say as she rose in a single liquid motion to her feet, a dance of sensual grace and fire contained within her petite musculature.

There was no mistaking the sudden acceleration of Stella’s pulse as she and Freddie also stood.  A cautious hand reached out, came to rest on the redhead’s shoulder.  “Sandrine…?” she queried, her voice almost too faint for even Iris to hear.

The one who had been called forth by the djab, who now lived within the body of a former Willow Rosenberg, turned her seductive smile upon the others beside her.  “It is so good to be home,” she drawled…

 

To be continued in Chapter 20: Yesternow