DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Xander and Anya have reconciled, while Spike has attempted to tell Buffy about the chip, only to be interrupted by Tara and the announcement that Freddie is freaking out back in the hotel room…

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

Chapter 32: Freddie Freeloader

It came out of the blue.

One moment, he was sitting on the bed, talking with Tara while they awaited the arrival of the pizza, laughing more amiably than he would’ve expected considering he knew how she blamed him for Willow’s kidnapping, wondering not for the first time how he could’ve gotten himself involved in hurting such genuinely nice people.

The next, it felt like a swarm of bees had decided to make their home on the inside of his wrist, buzzing and stinging and moving as if a dervish had excited them past agitation.

Freddie’s hand jerked at the sudden sensation, stopping in mid-sentence to look down at his arm.  Most of the time, he wasn’t even aware of the garde that he bore there; he and Stella had been only nineteen when they’d first initiated themselves with the symbol of the swamp djab.  But now, the twin circles seemed even more raised from his flesh, angry and pulsing, while the line that cut through their intersection seemed to scissor its way past the confines of the scar, slicing a path straight up his arm.

“Freddie?”  Tara’s voice was hesitant, fear beginning to trickle back into her demeanor by the abrupt change in his manner.  It had vanished while they spoke, his assurances that he was there to help them now enough to allay her worries, but his unexpected quieting had called them back.  He was almost not aware of the shifting of the mattress as she eased herself further away from him.

It’s never done this before, he thought wildly, his heart hammering in his chest as he saw his marked wrist begin to shake.  Quickly, he grabbed it with his other hand, but the trembling only increased, transferring its waves along his other limb as waves of heat suffused his muscles. 

“Freddie?” Tara repeated as if he hadn’t heard her before.  This time, she reached forward, an unsteady hand coming to rest on his arm as if to comfort him.

At the first contact, her skin to his skin, every nerve in Freddie’s body exploded in frightened protest, his arms flailing as he leapt from the mattress and away from the young witch.  Vaguely, he was aware of his hand coming into contact with her jaw, heard the soft thud of her body as she tumbled off the bed, but Freddie was more focused on trying to contain the skittering of fear that was coursing through his body.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” he chanted, his voice coarse.  He could feel her then, and as the furnace within his torso became stoked with his fear, he heard her screams of frustration inside his head, just as if she was in the same room with him.

Sandrine.

She knew.

Oh, god, she knew, and she was pissed.

Not possible, not possible, his mind ranted, but even as he thought the words, there was no denying the sensations of his body being torn apart, his head being in two different places at the same time.  While he knew he was still in the hotel room, and could now see Giles rising from his seat at the desk, Freddie could also see the destruction of Iris’ apartment, saw the shards of crystal flying through the air, smelled the pungent smell of Sandrine’s blood from where it flowed on her arm.

And more than that, he felt her fury reaching out to torch anything and everything in her way.

Terror turned his body into tinder, and his instincts took over.  As he began thrashing about, trying to extinguish the fire that only existed inside his mind, strong hands took hold of his shoulders, fighting to contain his movements but failing to maintain a grip.

“Go get the others!” he heard Giles bark.  “Now!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Freddie saw the flash of blonde scramble for the doorway, but Tara’s exit was of little concern to him.  It wasn’t supposed to be possible, his brain was arguing.  Sandrine never got the garde; she’d stated with little room for discussion that she didn’t need one to connect with the djab in the swamp as he was the one who’d brought her back.  Yet, there was no doubt in his mind that that was why he was experiencing what he was.  Their connection through the spirit they’d worshiped now linked them in more ways than one.  Somehow.  For whatever reason, maybe her heightened state of anger, maybe something else, he was now caught in her vortex, seeing what was swirling around her, burning from the poker-hot ire that was aimed at her surroundings.

But if he could see her…did that mean she could see him?

For a moment, he stopped struggling against the Englishman, the icy daggers of panic temporarily sluicing through his veins.  She was going to know.  After everything, all of Anya’s promises of protection, the Slayer’s words of support, Freddie was going to do the exact thing he feared would happen, outside of getting killed himself.

He was going to lead Sandrine straight to those who were trying to stop her.

They would be dead faster than they could realize what had hit them.  The Slayer may be physically capable, but not one of them could hold a candle to the redhead in the magic department, and Sandrine was getting stronger with every passing day.  If she came after them, he just knew she was going to annihilate each of them, their history be damned.  And it would be all his fault.  Their blood would be on his hands.  Just like Stella’s.  Hell, Sandrine just might make him do it himself before she killed him, just to twist the knife all that much more viciously.

Can’t do it.  No more.  Not worth it.  I’m so sorry, Stella.  Can’t.  Won’t.

Run.

The cessation of his thrashing had lulled Giles into a sense of security, his hold on the young man’s shoulders loosening.  When Freddie lifted his gaze to meet the bespectacled one before him, he swallowed, silently apologizing for what he was about to do.

“Are you---?”

Giles never got to finish the sentence. 

Freddie’s fist shot out, connecting with his jaw, and without even bothering to look behind him as the Englishman fell away from him, he bolted from the room.

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

Don’t even know why I bothered with the drying when my clothes are still sopping wet from the pool, Buffy groused as she pulled her shorts up over her hips.  Behind her, she heard the water splash as Spike stepped out, the quiet shick of his jeans being tugged up over his wet legs.  For someone who had been so talkative just moments before, he hadn’t made a single sound since Tara’s announcement, and Buffy glanced back at him with a frown.

“You’ve gone all quiet,” she said, noting the flex of the muscles in his back as his arms stretched to slip his tee over his head.

“Thought you wanted to finish this up after we get your Watcher sorted.”  He didn’t even turn back to look at her, and his voice was almost indiscernible over the humming power of the whirlpool.

Immediately, warning bells rang in Buffy’s head, and she hesitated at the button on her waistband.  There was a coolness in his tone that hadn’t been there before.  Was he angry?  Wait, no ranting and raving and snarky comments.  Those usually accompanied Spike bad moodiness.  What, then? 

He was past her before she could stop him, yanking the door open and striding out of the whirlpool room without another word.  Her frown deepened.  She would almost say he was trying to get away from her quicker, but why would that be?  They’d been playing in the pool, and laughing, and there’d been the amazing oral sex on both ends, and then the whirlpool…and their chat.  Something about the chat.  Had she said something specifically to set him off?

“Are y-y-you all right?”  Tara was standing in the doorway, waiting for her to come out, and Buffy shook her head to clear it, grabbing her sandals to march to the other girl’s side.

“Yeah,” she said, though she really didn’t mean it.  Using the jamb as a perch, she stopped to slip the first of her shoes on, and then the second, before taking off for Giles’ room.  Spike was already gone.

Tara was quick to follow.  “Did something happen?” she asked.  “Spike looked upset.  He didn’t even look at me when he went by.”

“What?  No.  Nothing happened.  Just…”  The yank she gave the gate was too hard, and the hinges groaned in protest.  Still no sign of Spike.  Is he running? she thought irritably.  Stupid vamp.  What the hell did I say?

“Did you…talk?”

The hesitation in the witch’s voice lassoed Buffy to a halt, and she whirled to face her.  “How’d you know that?”

She couldn’t quite meet the Slayer’s direct gaze.  “I know h-h-he…he s-s-said something…this m-m-morning.”

In spite of the rush of knowing she was needed back at the room, and in spite of the anxiety curling around her stomach about what could possibly be wrong with Spike, there was no way Buffy couldn’t notice how the sharpness in her tone had sent friendly and relaxed Tara scurrying away, leaving behind the stuttering young woman who had hidden so well from them before she’d come to know the group.  Consciously, she took a deep breath, trying to soften her presentation before speaking again.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy said.  “I didn’t mean…yeah, we were talking.  In a not so finished way.”

“And it…didn’t go well?”  A little more sure, her shoulders a little less sloped.

“I don’t know what the hell happened,” the Slayer admitted.  Looking into the wide eyes of the other girl, she felt the wash of empathy coming off from her, and decided to take a risk.  “You and Spike…I guess you’re kind of friends now, right?”

The corner of Tara’s mouth lifted shyly.  “Don’t say that in front of him,” she instructed.  “Somehow, I’m not sure he’d like that.”

Buffy couldn’t help but smile in kind.  “Yeah,” she agreed, imagining the bleached blond pretending to get ruffled at the mere suggestion.  “So, I guess that means you know what it is he wanted to tell me.”  It almost came out as a question, and she caught her lip between her teeth as she waited for some sort of acknowledgement.

“Oh, I…couldn’t.  That’s for Spike to say.  Not me.  It wouldn’t…I really shouldn’t.”

“But you know.”

“M-m-mr. Giles is waiting---.”

Buffy caught her arm as she tried to brush past.  “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, Tara.  I hate that I hurt him when I didn’t mean to.  I have to make it right.  Please?”

Long hair fell to curtain Tara’s face from her view as the witch ducked her head.  “What did he tell you?” she finally murmured.

She jumped at the opening.  “He kept talking about choices,” the Slayer rushed.  “About wanting to know if I thought we were always meant to be together, even before he got the chip.”

“And do you?”  She looked up, meeting the green eyes with more strength than Buffy had seen since the girl had shown up at the whirlpool.  “Do you think you could’ve…fallen for him…without it?”

“He was a killer then.”  God, that sounds even less believable the second time around, she thought.  And what does it really have to do with anything?  “An evil killer,” she tried again, but mentally shook her head.  Nope.  That sounded even worse.

“You called him an evil killer?”

Buffy frowned at the quiet reprimand in her voice.  “You do remember he’s a vampire, right?” she countered, suddenly defensive.  “That’s what they do.”

Tara took a long time to answer.  “That’s also what Slayers do,” she finally said.

“But…I’m not…”  She stopped, words once again failing her.

“And neither is Spike.”

The witch’s soft voice cast aside the lingering confusion in Buffy’s mind as she released the iron-grip she hadn’t even realized she’d been exerting on her Slayer mantra to see what had been before her the entire time.  Her heart had known it, had let her fall in love with the blond vampire even as she continued to stumble along blindly in her black and white world.   It had just taken her word-deficient brain too long to catch up, to see that underneath the swagger, behind the fangs, was a creature capable of so much more, a partner who was just as afraid of being hurt as she was.  Someone who loved her, not in spite of who she was, but because of it.  The only one to ever really understand that.

No wonder Spike had run.  She’d betrayed her faith in him.  After everything she’d said to him, after admitting to her that he loved her, after telling him she trusted him, she’d negated all of it by reverting back to her tried and true killer line.  Except not so true.  He’d proven that to her over and over again.  And she owed him so much more.

Her mouth opened to speak, only to close again when the words refused to come.  What was the point?  Tara wasn’t the one who should be hearing this.  Wrong blond.

Instead, she gave her a quick smile, and turned to run toward Giles’ room.  The sooner they got Freddie calmed back down, the sooner she could tell Spike how sorry she was and hear just what exactly he wanted to tell her.  She owed him that.

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

The girls stopped short when Spike emerged from the room.  “Canary’s flown the nest,” he said tersely.  As his head turned to scan the parking lot over the balcony, he added, “He clocked Rupert right good.  Your Watcher’s out cold in there.”  As they started to rush past him to see for themselves, he added, “He’s not bleedin’ or anything.  And I put him on the bed so he’s more comfortable.”  He snorted.  “Is there a state Rupert hasn’t gotten himself knocked out in?”

Buffy turned toward Tara, all thoughts of her personal issues shuttled to the back of her mind as she went into Slayer mode.  “When you said freaking out, what did you mean?  What was happening in there?” she demanded.

“We were talking and he just started shaking, and when I tried to find out what was wrong, he…exploded.  Not literally,” she hastened to add.  “More having a seizure-like.  Like Rainman?  He kept saying something about it being wrong.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll just want to drive around the parking lot then,” Buffy joked harshly, stopping when she saw Xander and Anya running up behind the witch.

“What’s up?” the brunette asked.  He glanced at the open door behind Spike.  “Tara said Giles needed us.”

“Freddie’s gone.  Tara, see to Giles.  Make sure he’s all right.  Xander, Anya, search the hotel.  Lobby, closets.  Anywhere he might hide.  Spike and I will take the outside---.”

“Prat’s scared.”

She frowned, watching the vampire as his narrowed eyes followed the slow turn of his head.  His nostrils flared and she could almost feel her own lungs swell in kind as he sniffed deeply at the air.  “Can you find him?” she asked.

His hands were curled around the edge of the balcony before the question was out of her mouth.  “Already have,” he said, and with a graceful leap, disappeared over the railing.

The four rushed forward to see the blond head sink into the darkness, landing silently on the pavement below before breaking into a run.  “Take care of Giles,” Buffy repeated to the group, aping Spike’s hold before following after him.

They were silent for a moment as the two pale streaks vanished out of their view.  “Should we go after them?” Anya asked.

“I’ll go,” Xander said.  A quick glance over the side, and then he pointed to the stairs.  “I’ll just take the long way down.”

As the two remaining women hurried into the room, Anya glanced back over her shoulder at the railing and said, “Why were Buffy’s clothes all wet?”

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

They caught up to him almost at the same time, Spike stepping aside at the last moment to allow Buffy to be the one to grab Freddie’s arm.  The young man jerked to a halt, looking wildly behind him as he struggled to get free.

“Let me go!” he said, ignoring the odd glances from the people waiting at the nearby bus stop as he fought against the tiny blonde holding his arm

“Kind of defeats the purpose of chasing you down, don’t you think?” she quipped.  Holding him wasn’t difficult, but the feel of his skin beneath her fingers took her by surprise.  Not enough to let go, though. 

Hot, like feverish hot, as if someone was lighting him from within, with a Sahara dryness that was unnatural in this kind of heat.  He should’ve been dripping in sweat, what with running and external temperatures that were still through the roof in spite of being past sunset, but he wasn’t.  Flushed, yes.  Perspiry, no.

And it pulsed.  Maybe it was his nerves, or maybe it was the adrenaline from fleeing, but Freddie’s muscles were quaking enough to make her hand vibrate.  Spooked in a major way, she decided.  This one’s definitely getting cut off from the caffeine.

“You don’t understand,” he whimpered, still trying to extricate himself from her grip as he stumbled along after her.  “She knows.  She’s going to come.  Let me go.  You have to let me go.”

“She?”  Back on the edge of the parking lot and away from prying eyes, Buffy stopped.  “Do you mean Sandrine?”

He nodded furiously.  “I saw her.  You have no idea how mad she is.  You really don’t want to see her when she gets angry.”

“Don’t know about that,” Spike drawled.  “Green’s a good color for Red.”

She ignored his sarcasm, and frowned at Freddie.  “Take a deep breath and let’s try this again, OK?”  She waited as he followed her instruction and noticed for the first time the raised edge of the scar on his arm.  “Now.  You.  Running Away.  Why?”

“I saw her.  Felt her.  Sandrine, I mean.  I’m not sure how, but I think it’s because of this.”  He turned his wrist out so that they could both see the garde.  “She’s back at that vampire’s place, and lemme tell you, she is not happy.”

Behind them, Xander came trotting up.  “Who’s not happy?” he asked.

“The vodou bitch who’s shacking up with Red,” Spike replied.

“So you’re running back to her?” Buffy quizzed.  “That makes about no kind of sense.”

“Don’t you get it?”  Though he wasn’t moving, his skin was still twitching, his agitation not abating.  “If I can see her, she can see me.  And I can’t do it anymore.  I can’t do the killing.  You don’t know her.  She’s out of control.  Just ask your friend Anya.”

“As much as I appreciate your thinking you need to protect us,” she said, although her tone made it more than clear that she didn’t, “we can take care of ourselves.  We’ve had a little practice with the not-so-nice guys.”

“Is that why she lit your boyfriend up brighter than a summer day?” Freddie countered.  “I didn’t see you doin’ so well at taking care of yourselves out at Sira Sommeil.”

“Things have changed since then,” she said tightly.  “We’re ready for her this time.”

“Boyfriend?  You think Spike is her boyfriend?”

Xander’s laugh grated down Buffy’s spine and her grip unconsciously tightened enough around Freddie’s arm to make him wince.  She had to clear the air.  She could practically hear Spike grinding his teeth just outside her line of sight, and the desire to yell at Xander about how wrong he really was swelled inside her gut.  Get back to the room and tell everyone all together, her head said.  Now’s the time to show Spike just how serious you are about the two of you.

Before Buffy could say anything, though, Freddie was already speaking up.  “There is no ready.  She’s crazy.  Look at what she did to Willow.  She made your friend go bye-bye.  You’re telling me you really want to cross Sandrine’s path?”

“Willow’s still there,” Xander said.  “So just goes to show how much you know.”

“What?  What’re you talking about?”

“We intercepted a note Willow wrote to you.  Somewhere inside her perky little body, she’s still kicking and fighting to get back to us, just like the scrapper she is.  So why don’t you trust Buffy when she says we can handle this, OK, and come on back without us having to drag your butt up those stairs?”

The Slayer almost didn’t hear any of the exchange.  When she turned to talk to Xander, she was caught by Spike’s inky gaze locked on her, and stopped, drinking in the shadowed planes of his face.  I’m sorry, she thought at him, and wished that she could say it out loud.  But this was an apology that needed to be said in privacy, so when she realized that the young man in her grasp had relaxed at Xander’s words, she eased her grip on him, waiting to see if he would run.

He didn’t.  Though his body was still strung tight as a bow, his eyes betrayed his desire to believe them.

“Take him back to the room, Xander,” Buffy said softly.  “Spike and I will be there in a second.”

“C’mon,” the brunette said.  As he reached to take the other man’s arm, a pizza delivery truck pulled into the parking lot, its headlights flooding them momentarily in brilliance before aiming itself at the bottom of the exterior stairwell.  He smiled.  “I’m going to call that fortuitous timing.  No way can pizza ever be the bearer of bad news.”

She waited until they were out of earshot before stepping forward to stand in front of Spike.  Inside her ribcage, her heart thumped in anticipation, while the clean scent of his skin filled her nostrils, making her head swim.

“Don’t tell me you want to finish our little convo now,” he said quietly.

With his back to the streetlights, his eyes were hidden, bottomless pools that made her want to drown, and instead, Buffy settled for lifting her hand to cup the side of his face.  “Not really,” she said.  “That can wait.  What can’t wait is me telling you that you have a real idiot for a girlfriend.”

Just because she couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t mean she couldn’t see how quickly his scarred brow shot up at her statement.  “Sounds like you know something I don’t,” Spike murmured.

“Yep.  I know that my mouth often decides to do its own thing before consulting my brain.”  Her thumb glided over the satin skin and she felt her mouth water as his hand came up to cover hers.  “Whatever it is you think you need to tell me, I don’t want you to worry about how I’m going to take it.  I trust you, Spike.  I’ve seen you do the right thing.  And I’m sorry that it took me this long to realize just what you are.”

“And…what’s that, pet?”

How she ached to see the look in his eyes.  It always amazed her how expressive they were, changing color depending on his mood, revealing every little thought and feeling that he seemed to be experiencing at that particular moment in time.  Stretching to brush her lips over his, she whispered, “The man I love.”

Her deliberate use of the word “man” and not “demon” didn’t go unnoticed, and Spike’s arm curled around her waist to pull her against him, the slight tremor in his muscles betraying to her what his eyes did not.  His mouth danced over her brow, peppering butterfly kisses as it blazed a path down her face, only to meet hers with a shaky sigh.

There was no hesitation in her response.  Lips parting, tongues darting out to dance with the other in a heated tango, coaxing and soothing and urging all at the same time.  Hands curled into hair, desperately clinging as if needing the anchor to root them to the ground, each believing that if they let go, the other would disappear in a diaphanous dream, leaving them to wonder if such a thing as what they’d felt was even possible.

“Love you so much, Buffy,” he breathed when she broke away.

She rested her cheek against his chest, feeling her pulse pounding in her ears as his body picked up on the rhythm.  “I know,” she murmured, and then because she knew he needed to hear it again, just as much as she needed to say it, “I love you, too.”

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

The room lay in shambles around her, a small fire still burning in the corner of the couch.  Disdainfully, Sandrine plucked the shard of glass from her palm and tossed it aside, sneering with disgust when the vampires who still hovered in the doorway sniffed hungrily at the blood that clung to it.  “Can you be any more gross?” she complained.  “I’m having an epiphany here and seeing you drooling after my little boo-boos like they’re filet mignon is kind of distracting me.”

“Does an epiphany include full-scale destruction of my home?” Iris said coldly.

Her eyes were like brittle emeralds as they swung to meet those of the vampire’s.  “This isn’t even close to full-scale so don’t start whining unless you’re interested in being kindling for my next bonfire,” she warned, a casual flick of her fingers sending a bolt of magic off to Iris’ right.  She smiled when the demon flinched.  “And no, my epiphany has absolutely nothing to do with your hideous décor.  If you really want to know, I’ve decided we need to go on a little road trip.”

“We just got back from a road trip.  You said you wanted to wait until morning to get the staff.”

“And we are.”  The vampire hadn’t seen what she had, hadn’t felt Freddie’s fear as he witnessed Sandrine’s wrath.  And she certainly had no clue that the Slayer and her little friends had actually managed to convince the idiot to go back with them.  “Think of this as more of a…midnight raid.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 33: Electric Red