DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Sandrine has taken control of Willow’s body, injuring Spike before fleeing Sira Sommeil.  Back in New Orleans, she has forced Freddie to kill Stella.  With Spike hurt, Buffy is struggling to get him back to the hotel…

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

Chapter 21: Star on Cecily

Giles was scribbling something on one of the hotel notepads, the telephone cradled in his shoulder, when Xander pushed the door to their room open.  He kept his silence as he dropped the suitcase by the entrance, collapsing into the chair by the window as he automatically reached forward to begin playing with the air conditioning controls.  They had had to wait forever for a flight to New Orleans, and none of them were in a good mood.  It was probably a good thing that the girls were sharing a separate room while they were here; Xander didn’t think Anya liked him very much right about now.  For that matter, he wasn’t sure he really liked himself very much.

“What’s that about, G-man?” he asked when the Watcher set down the phone.

“Spike left a message on my answering machine,” Giles replied.  “He and Buffy have moved into a hotel.” 

“What, did he leave blood on the sheets at the last one or something?”  Xander rolled his eyes.  “Someone needs to teach that vamp how to be a proper houseguest.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Giles murmured.  Picking up the receiver again, he began punching in a new set of numbers, reading them from his scrawled notes.  “Did you get Tara and Anya settled in?”

“If you mean, did I get heat stroke toting enough luggage to make Imelda Marcos jealous, the answer to that would be, yeah.  Last I saw, Anya was searching through the pay-per-view options.  She seems to be under the impression that she and Tara are having a girls night in, complete with porn, popcorn, and pizza.  Not necessarily in that order.”  He leaned forward so that the renewed blast of cool air coming from the vent would hit him full in the face, and sighed in relief.

Giles shook his head.  “This is not a vacation,” he said.  “This is---room one-four-two, please,” he said into the receiver before looking back at Xander.  “This is for Willow.  We are not here for recreational purposes.”

“She knows that.  She’s just…venting a little bit.”  Anya had been like a caged animal during the entire flight, every mile that drew them nearer to New Orleans only increasing her agitation.  Every few minutes, she would get up to wander the length of the aisle, paging the flight attendant for the most inane of requests when she found herself tied to her seat.  Only Tara seemed to be able to get through to her at the moment; her calming influence had actually saved them from a huge scene when the attendant had mistakenly brought the ex-demon an orange juice when she’d asked for apple.  He had long since decided it was a good thing that the two girls were sharing a room.  Perhaps a little distance from him and his own disorderly thoughts and emotions was exactly what they needed right now to fix what had happened between them.

The silence stretched as he watched Giles wait for an answer, the older man’s frown deepening with each passing second.  Eventually, he pressed a button on the phone, and cleared his throat.  “Yes, there doesn’t appear to be any answer there,” he said into the receiver.  “Could I leave a message please?”

Xander’s eyes fluttered shut as he listened to Giles rattle off their hotel information before hanging up the phone.  “Does this mean we can sleep now?”

Wearily, the Watcher sat on the edge of the farthest bed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “I suppose we should rest while we can,” he said.  “There’s no telling when Buffy will call back.  I suspect she’s going to wish to start on searching for further information on the voix mortelle as soon as possible.”

“She’s probably out there right now, beating up some unsuspecting demon because he made fun of her shoes or something.”  He grinned.  “With a pinch of luck, that just might be Spike.”

Giles didn’t answer.  He hadn’t told Xander that it seemed as if Buffy and Spike were actually sharing a hotel room, and though he didn’t believe that it really meant anything, he couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened to his Slayer since she’d left Sunnydale that would convince her to willingly do so.  Perhaps some sort of détente has been reached between them, Giles thought as he put his glasses back on and rose to get his toiletry bag.  Having Spike as a genuine ally will give us a remarkable edge, both here and back on the Hellmouth.  He and Buffy could make a formidable team if they would just work together without killing each other.

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

“C’mon, Spike,” Buffy coaxed as she eased him from the passenger seat of the Desoto.  “We’re almost there.”

He was only half-awake, his flesh burning from some unseen heat beneath her touch, unintelligible mutterings under his breath a whisper against her skin, and she grimaced as he slumped heavily against her side.  She was exhausted, stress from fighting with the car’s mechanics as she attempted to navigate her way back to New Orleans on her own combining with the physical drain of having to keep Spike from getting hurt any further, leaving her barely able to keep her eyes open and desperately wishing that he would snap out of it long enough to be a help instead of a burden.  It wasn’t a fair thought and she knew it, but with dawn beginning to creep over the horizon, she just wanted to get him into their hotel room in one piece so that the entire nightmare ride home would’ve been worth it.

It didn’t help, of course, seeing some psycho in control of her best friend’s body.  How or why it had happened to Willow escaped Buffy’s grasp at the moment, and the fact that she had no idea how to fix it only cut deeper.  She beat things up, killed things.  That’s how Buffy solved her problems.  How could she even think about using the same tactics on this particular enemy when it wore her best friend’s face?  Though she knew she would do it if it came down to it---after all, she had actually killed Angel---the possibility of what a wreck it would leave in her life ripped her heart in two.  Maybe it’s just a temporary thing, she thought desperately.  Please only be a temporary thing.

In her arms, Spike’s murmurings grew louder, and this time she caught the occasional word of his ramblings.  Something about glowing this time, she heard, though none of it really made sense.  He had been floating between being out cold and this semi-conscious, delusional state since she’d poured him into the car back at the swamp, and Buffy was beginning to suspect that there was more to Sandrine’s little spell than just setting the vamp on fire.  He was behaving as if he were fevered, every inch of pale skin almost incandescent from the heat that was radiating from within, and the burns that scorched the left side of his body had only just stopped oozing a pale viscous liquid she didn’t recognize.  Plasma maybe, she thought as she stopped before the door of their room, fishing around in Spike’s pockets for the key.  She was being careful not to touch his wounds, and only hoped they didn’t hurt as much as it looked like they should.

The blast of cool air was a welcome relief as Buffy pushed the door open, guiding the vampire to the nearest bed.  When he pitched forward from her arms, landing with an audible moan directly on his burns, she flinched in sympathy, scooping her hands underneath his slim form to flip him over onto his back as cleanly as she could.  There was mud and blood everywhere, and quickly, she set to stripping him of his clothes, his boots and bedraggled coat landing in a pile at the end of the bed, his t-shirt torn in half and tossed into the wastebasket.  For a moment, she debated on taking off his jeans, but as the burns stopped just above his waistline, decided against it.  The less she moved him about, the better.  Now, she just needed to get some salve onto---.

“Buffy…” Spike groaned.

She was instantly at his side, eyes searching his face as his brow wrinkled as if in intense concentration.  It was the first coherent thing she’d heard from him, and her hand itched to reach out and brush back the curls from his forehead.  She didn’t, though.  She just sat perched on the edge of the mattress, ready for whatever was going to come next.  “I’m right here, Spike,” she soothed.

His head turned in the direction of her voice, and he tried opening his eyes, only to grimace in pain as his left refused to work properly from the swelling in his skin.  “Feel like hell,” he muttered.  Each word seemed to sap more of his strength, but there was no denying the snark underneath them, and she almost laughed in relief.

“Well, you look like hell,” she replied.  “Don’t move.  It’ll only make it worse.”

“Cold…”

Buffy frowned.  He never complained of the cold.  “I’ll get you another blanket.”  As she turned to go to the other bed, though, his hand shot out, grabbing her wrist with surprising strength, and she looked back to see the plea in his one open eye.

“Don’t go,” Spike asked.

“I was just---.”

“Don’t go,” he repeated.

“But you said you were cold.”  She noticed then that his thumb was stroking the inside of her wrist, but when she searched his face again, there was no acknowledgment there that he was doing it.

“You’re warm.”  Gently, he tugged at her, and she fell across his thighs, grateful at least that she’d missed the burns on his exposed flesh.  “Don’t go.  Please…need you.”

Sitting down put a whole new perspective on Buffy’s exhaustion, and suddenly the temptation of just curling up into Spike and sleeping seemed like the best one she’d had in days.  Worry about him, about Willow, about whoever the hell this Sandrine was and why she was hanging around with Iris…all of it was eating at her insides, and she wasn’t sure she had the fortitude at the moment to continue stewing on it.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she argued half-heartedly, but didn’t move from her position.

“Hurt more if you go,” he murmured.

That settled it.  As she stretched herself out along his right side, molding herself to his hard lines, her eyes drifted closed as her head nestled into his shoulder.  His flesh actually seemed warmer than hers, but he seemed satisfied with feeling her pressed against him, his arm curled protectively around her back.  Sleep.  Sleep would be good.  Sleep would give both of them what they needed---time to regroup, time to heal, time to rest.  I’ll just get a few hours, Buffy thought.  And then I’ll get up and call Giles.  He’ll tell me what to do.  He’ll help me fix all this.

She never saw the little red light flashing on the phone.

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

Insistent knocking from somewhere so close it could only be their door roused Buffy from her slumber, and she groaned as she buried herself deeper into Spike’s shoulder, as if by doing so it would make the sharp rapping go away.  The movement only served to bring into sharper focus the heat beneath her cheek, and she lifted her head, looking at the waxiness of the vampire’s complexion next to the lividity of the burns.  A quick glance at the clock told her that in spite of the five hours rest they’d had, Spike’s healing powers didn’t seem to have been at work, his wounds still as harsh as they had been at dawn, and she rolled herself away from him, being careful not to rouse him from his sleep.

She needed to call Giles.  There had to be something she could do outside of standard first aid that could help this.  Giles would know what that something was.

But she had to answer the door first.

Picking her way over the mess she’d left in their room, Buffy rubbed tiredly at her eyes as she reached the door.  “Who is it?” she called out, leaning her forehead against the wood, her jaws snapping wide in a tremendous yawn.

“Buffy?”

The sound of her Watcher’s voice was an adrenaline shot directly into her heart, and Buffy straightened, her hand flying to undo the lock.  Throwing the door open, she had launched herself directly at him before he could react, clinging to his neck with Slayer strength that made him gasp even as he hugged her back.

“Oh my god, Giles!  You have the best Watcher timing ever!”

He smiled in spite of his discomfort.  “Well, thank you,” he stuttered, and then saw the disarray of the room behind her, his gaze flicking from the pile of clothes, to the muddy footprints, to the unconscious vampire on the bed.

Buffy felt him stiffen beneath her and pulled away, stepping inside the room even as she saw the rest of the gang hanging back behind him.  “When did you guys get here?”

“Last…night,” Giles replied and followed her in.  His head swiveled, his face darkening with every sweep, until finally he turned back to look at her in barely disguised worry.  “What in blazes happened here?”

“We found Willow, that’s what happened”

Her words caused the others to freeze, hovering just inside the door.  “Is sh-sh-she all right?” Tara asked, her face white.  “She’s not here, is she?”

Buffy’s shoulders slumped.  “No, I don’t know where she is now.  You guys better have a seat.  I think this is definitely a sitting down kind of story.”  She waited until the girls had situated themselves around the table, Xander hovering behind Anya, while Giles crossed to the side of the bed to more closely examine Spike.

“Have you only just returned?” the Englishman asked.  “Is that why Spike looks like he fell asleep in the sun again?”

She shook her head.  “We’ve been in for a while, and Spike looks like that courtesy of some bitch named Sandrine---.”

“That’s her name!”  Anya exploded with a wide smile.

All heads turned to look at the ex-demon.  “What’s that, Ahn?” Xander prompted.

“Sandrine.  The name of the mambo I couldn’t remember.  I knew it was something French.”  She frowned, suddenly aware of why she now remembered.  To Buffy, she said, “Wait.  You saw Sandrine?  How is that possible?  She should be long dead by now.”

“I don’t know about the being dead part, but yeah, I saw her.  Well, I sort of saw her.  In a weird, I don’t know what the hell happened, kind of way.”  She sighed.  “This is the part I was hoping you’d all be sitting down for.”

Briefly, Buffy explained the events of the night before, skimming over the details of how they discovered the location of the night’s events and heading straight for the meat of the story in the swamp.  As she reached the part about Willow’s disappearance, Tara stiffened in her seat, fearful eyes darting from the Slayer to Spike and back to the Slayer again, before locking on her folded hands in her lap.

“It took me most of the night to get back here,” Buffy finished wearily.  “Spike’s going to throw a fit when he sees the dings I put in his car, but at least I got him in before the sunrise.”  She watched as Giles bent over the vampire’s sleeping form.  “He was delirious when he was awake.  I think there was something extra in the spell she used on him.  It’s like he’s sick or something.”  Her hand reached out to touch her Watcher’s sleeve, waiting for him to look back at her before adding, “You can fix this…right?”

For a moment, Giles’ eyes narrowed behind his spectacles.  It could’ve been just an indication of her own exhaustion, but he would lay good money that that was genuine worry on his Slayer’s face.  The fact that the other bed had not been slept in had not escaped his attention either, and this additional show of concern for the vampire was only leading him to conclusions that he wasn’t sure he was ready to reach.  Still, Spike had more than proven his right to their care with his diligence in rescuing Willow, so due steps must be taken.

“We can do a healing spell to help counter some of the effects,” he said reassuringly.  He looked at Tara.  “I’ll need your help with it.”

The witch nodded.  “We’ll have to get supplies.”

“And breakfast?” Xander piped up.  He bristled as they all turned surprised eyes at him.  “We haven’t eaten yet,” he defended.  “And this growing boy is in need of pancake sustenance.”  The look he shot Anya was pointed.  “Not everyone got to dine on pizza goodness last night.”

This time, there was no mistaking the worry in his Slayer’s eyes as she looked back to Spike.  “Is he going to be all right if we leave him here alone?” she asked.

“What’s he going to do?  Take a walk?”  Anya gestured toward the closed curtains.  “It’s daylight outside.”

“He was really out of it,” Buffy argued.  “If he’s still delirious, there’s no telling what he’ll do.”

“I’ll stay and watch him.”  Tara held her ground under Giles’ curious gaze. “I’m not really hungry anyway, and you and Buffy should really get caught up.”

“Are you sure?” he pressed.  “It might---.”  He stopped himself before he went any further.  To suggest hearing more details about Willow somehow being turned into this Sandrine would most definitely not make the young woman feel any better.

She nodded.  “I’ll be fine.”

Buffy seemed satisfied with that.  “Let me just change really quick,” she said, and with a final glance at Spike, grabbed her bag to head for the bathroom.

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

She waited until they were alone in the car before broaching the subject with him.  “Do you like Spike?” Buffy asked, watching Xander and Anya as they walked up to the IHOP to check out the wait.

Giles had suspected she would bring the vampire up sooner or later, but her question still managed to surprise him.  “It’s not always necessary to like those you’re forced to work with,” he replied, watching her out of the corner of his eye.  “Has the past week been difficult for you?”

She was twisting her fingers in her lap.  “Difficult doesn’t even begin to cover it.  Difficult would have to be the size of Montana to cover how hard this past week has been.”  She looked at him then.  “Montana’s one of the big states, right?”

Giles sighed.  So maybe things hadn’t gone as smoothly as he’d hoped.  So much for wishful thinking.  “Well, hopefully it won’t be that much longer,” he offered.  “With what Anya knows and what you have learned, I’m sure we’ll find a way to stop this Sandrine and get Willow back without much more interference from Spike.”

“Who said anything about interference?”  Buffy said, with a puzzled frown.  “Spike’s the main reason I know as much as I do.  He’s been bent over backwards to help me with this.  Any more backwards, and he’d be a pretzel.”

“I thought…you said…”  He stopped.  “I’m confused.  Are you and Spike not fighting?”

“Oh, we’re still fighting.  I don’t think that’ll ever go away.  But…I don’t know…”  She was at a loss for words, unable to meet her Watcher’s eyes.  She didn’t want to tell him about the kissing.  After what had happened with Willow’s spell the previous fall, she wasn’t sure he could handle knowing about that if he wasn’t already blind.  But it didn’t mean she couldn’t talk about some of the other issues.

“Do you ever wonder about why he’s helping us?  I mean, I can’t think of any other vamp who’d drive the Slayer across the country just to save her friend.”

“You did threaten him, Buffy.  And we almost always pay him for his troubles.  He uses us, just as we use him.”

“So that’s it?  That’s all it is?  He’s just using us?”  She turned her eyes to look at him then, and Giles saw the entreaty buried within the hazel.  She didn’t want to believe that was it, he realized.  She was sitting there, willing him to convince her that it was something else, and for a moment, he wished for her sake that he could.

“He doesn’t have a soul, Buffy,” Giles said gently.  “Everything he does, he does without the aid of any type of moral compass.  He’s not capable---.”

“But what if he is?” she argued.  “What if he deliberately chose to help us find Willow, not because he was afraid of me---which we all know he’s not, not really---but because he wanted to?  Because he might like Willow as a person and not as a potential dinner entrée?”

He didn’t know how to answer her.  It was obvious she’d been mulling these questions over for quite some time, and though Giles wanted to give her some type of definitive answer, the truth of the matter was, when it came to Spike, he was flying just as blind as the rest of the gang.  Certainly, he had his own theories about the chip reconditioning the vampire’s way of thinking, acting as an artificial means for affecting a new model of behavior, but that’s all they were.  Just theories.  Until he had proof before his eyes that something fundamental had changed within Spike to indicate otherwise, he was going to be forced to consider him a potential threat, muzzled most surely, but still…a threat.

A tap at the window saved him from replying and he looked out to see Xander.

“Who’s in the mood for pancakes?” the young man asked, smiling broadly.

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

Her original plan had been to pop directly inside his hotel room, but the presence of the human female at his side had put a kibosh on that, leaving Halfrek standing outside the door, focusing her energy as she prepared to knock.  Get rid of the girl, do what she had to do, and get her tushie out of there.  Cake.

Frankly, though, she was tired of D’Hoffryn’s impromptu assignments in regards to this little obsession of his over the voix mortelle, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he had authorized a use of her powers that would normally require someone making a wish, she would’ve put up just a bit more of an argument.  OK, maybe not really.  He was still her boss.  But she would’ve at least pulled a face when he asked her to pop over to New Orleans.  She could’ve gotten away with that at least.

Straightening her skirt, she settled her features into an obsequious smile, preparing for the charade she was about to put on.  It was a brilliant plan, she had to admit that.  It would most definitely serve to distract the Slayer from this current business.  But how D’Hoffryn knew Halfrek was going to get away posing as this old acquaintance of Spike’s, she had no idea.  Oh well.  Not her problem.  One knock, and she heard the light footsteps approach the door.

“Hi,” the blonde who answered said, a polite but confused smile on her face.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m Cecily.  I’ve stopped by to check on William,” she said, her faux English accent firmly in place.  She let her gaze flicker over the blonde’s shoulder.  “Oh, my.  Did I get the wrong room?”

“William?”  A moment, and then recognition.  “You mean Spike?”

The vampire’s name seemed to capture his attention and both women watched as his eyes fluttered open, blue turning to blink against the sunshine streaming in through the doorway.  “Cecily?” he muttered. 

Thank god for passing resemblances and magical fevers, the demon thought as she brushed her way past the young girl.  “Hello, William,” she said softly, stopping at the side of the bed.  She leaned forward and brushed the curls away from his forehead.  “You’re looking a little worse for wear.”

Hallie was glad the blonde couldn’t see the confusion in his eyes, and took care to shield his face from her when she stepped closer.

“I’m s-s-sorry,” she apologized.  “I didn’t know---.”

“That’s perfectly all right,” Halfrek interrupted.  She shot the girl a smile.  “I don’t suppose I could get you to fetch me a soda from the machine?” she queried.  “This New Orleans heat just does me in, I’m afraid.”

She was torn between her duty to her charge and her Southern upbringing, and the demon watched as the blonde let the debate play out silently across her face.  Manners won out in the long run, and she smiled at the arrival politely.

“Of course,” she said.  “I’ll be right back.”

As soon as she was alone, Halfrek turned back to the bed, perching herself on its edge, ignoring the vampire’s wince of pain as she brushed against the worst of his burns.  “We really shouldn’t dally with this, now should we?” she said lightly.

“You’re not really here,” Spike croaked.

“You just keep thinking that, William.” 

When her hand settled on his forehead, he flinched, trying to pull away, only to be held firmly in place by her hand pressing down onto his scorched shoulder.  “Hurts…” he muttered, but he was rooted, unable to move against her strength.

“I know, I know,” she crooned.  “But not for much longer.”

He struggled beneath her hands, but Halfrek’s face was firm as she held him down.  There was a flash, and the veins popped out in his neck as Spike’s back arched away from the bed, his teeth gritting against the pain, eyes now wide as they rolled back into his head.  It lasted for only a moment, but seemed an eternity, frozen there in time as both demons locked within the throes of her power.

When he fell back against the mattress, his lids were shut, his body unconscious yet again, and slowly, Halfrek pulled away, rising to her feet, the hand that had been on his head curled protectively around its silicon treasure.

“No more pain, William,” she said, and in a blinding flash, she was gone.

 

To be continued in Chapter 22: In a Silent Way