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Southern Comfort

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Maplewood Inn was another in a long line of examples of how good Giles was to her. There were a number of hotels in Natchez, even more bed-and-breakfasts she’d heard about in the few hours since arriving, but none seemed as grandiose as the one she’d landed. And though she wasn’t in the house itself, she felt pampered, even welcome.

The bed-and-breakfast was small in size. It offered only three rooms in the main house, and on special occasions, rented a room from its neighbor, the Birch House, to accommodate travelers. The Birch House room was the one Buffy had acquired, and though she was super jealous of the bathroom she’d seen in the main house, she was not left wanting in her own lodging. Her room provided isolation and she didn’t feel as though she was causing a ruckus when she traipsed onto the grounds half past two in the morning.

Also, Buffy was a girl who liked to eat, and the inn’s proprietor, Jerome King, was one hell of a cook. The inn’s guests entered the premises through the backdoor, which led to one of the newer rooms on the aged property. It was modern and convenient, decorated modestly with a kitchen table, a china cabinet, a mini-fridge, and two doors that offset each other perpendicularly but both led to the private quarters where Jerome lived with his partner, Jeremy. And yes, they had heard all the jokes.

Atop the table was an exquisite centerpiece and a tray of homemade chocolate-chip cookies designed for Jerome’s guests or wandering neighbors. Though Buffy had only been with Jerome and Maplewood for a day, it was easy to pinpoint this was an ongoing trend. Jerome was warm and outgoing, and eager to go out of his way with tourist advice and information about local homes that were never on tour.

Not she was here to be a tourist. Nope, this was one all-work-no-play trip with one objective in mind: the Reaper.

Aside from the cemetery visit, she hadn’t had the chance to scope out the town.

Aside from the demons that had attacked her.

Aside from Spike.

Spike.

Sleep hadn’t cleared her muddled thoughts. Wrapping her mind around Spike and his unexpected presence seemed impossible. Seemed something more like a distant, bizarre dream than anything that could have truly transpired. How it was that she found herself so far from home yet unable to escape faces from her reality was beyond her…and yet it had happened.

There was no way he’d left town. She could warn him until the world ended, but he wouldn’t leave. And why should she care, exactly? She owed Spike nothing.

And yet, there was something about the blond idiot. Spike was hers. Hers to kill or not kill, though not kill seemed more likely from the magnificent way she’d allowed him to talk her to death last night without uttering more than an empty threat or two. The thought of ending his unlife was one she’d long ago given up on. Vampire or not, evil or not, the prospect of killing someone she knew was just…ooky.

She couldn’t kill Spike. She didn’t want to even think about it or do anything beyond put the notion into their venomous trades. There was no one she loved fighting more. Encounters with Spike were invigorating. Enthralling. They served as foreplay for the mind.

Not only for the mind.

Buffy frowned and shook the thought off with little success. Ever since the rogue notion that Spike was in some way sexy had crept into her addled brain last night, she hadn’t been able to shake the strange sense of unexpected…something…that seized her whenever his face surfaced in her thoughts.

It wasn't right. It wasn't natural. Once, she could understand. One time to find herself attracted to a vampire. One with a soul. One with special circumstances. One with whom it would never work because he’d never been there for her the way she needed. Not really.

Perhaps there was hope for her yet. Though there had been isolated incidents involving her and a desperate desire to bash in Angel’s head with a large mallet, she hadn’t truly allowed herself to get angry with the way he’d left things.

The way he’d left her.

Perhaps she thought Spike was sexy only because she knew it would drive Angel insane.

Or perhaps he’s really sexy.

The notion that her attraction to Spike could be real and not merely another symptom of her breakup was too terrifying to consider. For her sake, she hoped he’d listened to her and busted a quick move out of town. Then she wouldn’t spend time wondering about the texture of his lips or the wiry strength of his arms or contemplating how his height wouldn’t make her neck hurt or how she wouldn’t feel dwarfed were he to hold her.

Spike and sexy couldn’t be synonymous. Her life was confusing enough.

 Better yet to focus on the hunt for the Reaper. Giles hadn’t specified a method he thought would be best to locate her prey and had actually forewarned that finding the demon would be the difficult part of her journey. There was no way to know whether or not the same innate pull felt by other demons or paranormal entities would be shared by the Slayer—the Slayer who, while human, fell into the classification of something else.

It was anyone’s guess.

Right now, her best option lay in investigating the town. Hitting the places known to be haunted, and attempting to scope out those locals that were lesser known. Not that Buffy expected to strike it rich with tourist traps. While the Reaper might be collecting oogly booglies, she doubted he’d have much luck with reputed hauntings. Hauntings tended to disappoint; aside from the one isolated incident involving the doomed James and Grace, Buffy hadn’t encountered an honest-to-god ghost. Yet if there was energy to be had, the Reaper would have it. Demons received a cosmic whiff of his supreme wickedness and followed blindly until they were sharing space with loads of other unfortunate creepy crawlies.

As twisted as that logic was, it would certainly explain why a cemetery that Giles had assured her to be docile had housed more demons last night than any of the post-Ascension patrols she’d taken back home. Before the three-on-one action Spike had caught her in, she’d been dusting and slaying left and right. The Natchez cemetery was supposed to be peaceful—a place where townspeople gathered during peak tourism times to stand over the graves of their ancestors and tell stories of the way things had been in the nineteenth century and before. It wasn’t a place known for demon romps.

Until last night. Until the Reaper came to town, bringing with him a parade of uglies.

And Spike. Spike, who had been in New Orleans when the Reaper was in New Orleans. Spike, who was now in Natchez but didn’t know why.

 While the sun was out, her best option was scouting the town and seeing if her spider senses tingled.

“You know you’ve been living in a small town when…” Buffy mused, plucking a tourism pamphlet off the back wall of the modern attachment to the Inn. Wonderful breakfasty smells floated in the air, signaling her poorly neglected tummy. It was her first time to sample Jerome’s cooking in the form of something other than cookies, and if the aroma tickling her taste-buds was indicator enough, her host would have to drag her from the dining room table.

While Natchez wasn’t a budding metropolis by any means, she still felt she had a lot of ground to cover. Nothing like Sunnydale. Sunnydale could be successfully covered in a twenty-minute walk, whereas twenty minutes in Natchez would only accomplish getting from the good part of town to the bad.

“I’d recommend Edgeview.”

As the Slayer, it wasn’t in her nature to be easily stunned, therefore Buffy’s teeth clamped down on her tongue as she whirled around to prevent her instinctive gasp from meeting freedom. “Edgeview?” she repeated, brows winging upward.

Jerome was an attractive enough man. He was somewhere in his late forties, just a couple inches taller than she was, with chestnut hair—accented with blond highlights—and a slightly stocky build. His face was oval and somewhat pointed, but he had friendly eyes and oodles of useless information at his disposal. Not to mention a thick New Jersey accent and an inability to correctly pronounce words like library, which, thanks to Giles, bothered Buffy more than it should.

He was an anomaly in a Southern town. Gay and from the northeast, yet he’d won the locals over. It wasn’t hard to see why.

“Right,” he agreed. “Edgeview. It’s the one house always open. Probably the most popular in town, and that’s no accident. Just off Lower Woodville.”

Buffy licked her lips and nodded thoughtfully, thumbing through the brochure. “What…I’m sort of…ummm…a ghost hunter.”

“Ah.”

It was a condescending sound, but she forced herself not to lose her smile. “Any…haunted places?”

Jerome cracked a small grin. “This is the South, you know,” he replied. “Every house has its ghost.”

She’d feared as much. “Yeah, but…”

“Really, anywhere around here. But Royal Pub is probably the most famous in town.”

“Royal Pub?”

“Yeah, it just changed owners, so the food’s actually edible. Jeremy and I go there every couple of weeks or so. You need a map?” He didn’t wait for a reply, rather reached past her to select the appropriate pamphlet off the wall. “Here. Here’s Maplewood…” He pointed to a dot that had very obviously been hand-drawn. Buffy wondered if Jerome made a habit of doodling the location of his bed-and-breakfast on every map he stumbled across. “And here’s Royal Pub. You’re with the tour bus, right?”

“I caught a ride with the tour bus. I’m pretty much pedestrianing-it.”

He didn’t pause. “Okay. Well, if you’re walking, just head up Rankin until you get to Jefferson and make a left. They don’t open till five; do you want me to make a reservation for you?”

There was such a thing as being too helpful. As it was, Buffy wasn’t sure she wanted to make concrete plans so much as she wanted to wander around town until her tinglies signaled the Slayer Alarm. With a grateful smile, she shook her head. “Ummm, not tonight,” she replied. “Maybe tomorrow. I just…kinda want to wander right now. But I am interested…in the, you know, haunted places.”

“Well, Royal Pub’s supposed to be haunted.” Jerome, however, didn’t look convinced. “There’s a ghost tour that’s run out of the visitor’s center. It’s not as good as it used to be, but it leaves every night at seven and goes all over town.”

That might be a better option.

“You know where the visitor’s center is?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Buffy nodded. “That’s where the bus dropped me off.”

“Right. Well, if you wanna do that, I suggest you head over after breakfast. Those tickets tend to go fast.” Jerome shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “In the meantime, I’d go here…” He circled a house on the pamphlet with a pen that seemingly materialized from nowhere. “…and here…and here today.”

Buffy smiled awkwardly. “Thanks.”

“Okay. Breakfast’s in a few minutes.” And without another word, Jerome disappeared through one of the doors leading to the private quarters, leaving her alone.

But only for a few seconds. The scent of yummy food could wake the dead…or in this case, the two older women inhabiting one of the upstairs rooms. Buffy had done her best to avoid the other patrons of the bed-and-breakfast, exchanging little more than a few awkward smiles and monosyllabic words since arriving. The concept of eating with strangers was entirely beyond her.

It must be a southern thing.

“Oh, look, Olivia,” the younger of the two elderly women was saying. At least she looked younger. She could be a rhyhad demon, for all Buffy knew. “Our young friend is awake!”

Olivia glanced up and scowled at Buffy as though she’d butchered a cat before turning her eyes downward again.

“Morning! Anne, right?”

The name threw her off momentarily. She and Giles had decided it was a better idea to minimize the use of her given name as much possible; she was already well-known in the demon world, and even if the Reaper was aware that he was her quarry, every little bit helped insofar as stealth attacks. So she was Anne.

Not that it particularly mattered with Spike in town. Knowing him, he’d blabbed to every ear that’d have him.

Glancing back to the friendly woman, Buffy forced a smile and nodded. “Yes, it’s Anne. Good morning…and I’m sorry…”

“Edith,” the woman kindly supplied. “Doesn’t Jerome’s breakfast smell wonderful?”

“Yeah.”

“My son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law are going to have such a fine time.” Edith winked scandalously. “I talked them into coming. Are you enjoying yourself thus far, dear?”

 She laughed awkwardly. Perhaps breakfast wasn’t a good idea, no matter how wonderful it smelled. Conversing with strangers was a talent she’d long ago lost in the quest to protect the world from its various evils. There was nothing about herself she could share, and all of the people in her life were already in on the secret, thus practicing stealth wasn’t something she did…ever. Not since her mother had discovered the truth.

Not since the last time she and Spike had forged a truce to prevent the apocalypse.

“Umm,” Buffy continued inelegantly, fingers tightening around her brochures. “Tell Jerome it smells…fantastic.” Mouth-wateringly so. “But, I—uhhh…I gotta run. Just…lots and lots of the town to see.”

It was sad to think she’d once been so good at socializing. Perhaps if she weren’t here alone, things would be different.

As it was, it was best to keep to herself. The fewer people she associated with, the fewer people in danger.

She just wished she didn’t feel so alone.

*~*~*

Something in the air made her skin hum. It was neither good nor bad, pleasant nor unpleasant; it simply was. And it surprised her more than she could say. Not that she anticipated a never-ending series of dead ends, but she hadn't truly believed she would encounter anything at Edgeview worth investigating. It was too perfect, and her world was never perfect.

Granted, there was nothing truly suspicious about the grounds save for her lightheadedness, which could very well have a totally rational explanation. Sleep had abandoned her the night before in favor of Spike-shaped speculation. The house stood as it had in the brochure, molded of red brick and white pillars, shaped octagonally on a small bit of wilderness off Sergeant Prentiss road. The facade was gloomy and gutted, beautiful in a truly ethereal sense.

The walk up the drive had been an interesting one. There was a drive-up gazebo in which one purchased tour tickets pending on how many people were in the party; Buffy suspected she was the first patron not to come in a vehicle. After quipping off a few quick facts and name-dropping Jerome and Maplewood Inn, the ticket-taker had abandoned his wariness and let her pass without further interrogation. Great mounds of earth rose above the paved way, therefore whenever a passing car began up the drive, there was little room for her to dodge.

Well, she could leap, but that would bring even more unwanted attention, thus she opted merely to press herself as close to the wall of dirt as possible until the way was once again clear. Good thing she’d left her favorite outfits in Sunnydale. This trip could well prove to be hell on her wardrobe.

Perhaps if she'd been driving, the change would have been subtler. As it was, Buffy was very much aware of her increasing uneasiness. How the air seemed to grow thicker with every step. How her head became light, almost weightless, and the dull heat rushing her veins turned into a low but very palpable burn. By the time the estate was in view, the sensation had passed, but the feeling remained with her throughout her walk around the grounds.

There was likely nothing here of consequence, but Buffy nonetheless felt uneasy enough to want to return later just to be sure. When it was dark.

When the evil things really came out to play.

 

*~*~*

 

There hadn't been much sun at all throughout the day's duration, and though the sun was due to set sometime around seven-thirty, Buffy was not at all surprised to find it mostly dark by the time she again departed Maplewood just after six. If she wanted to make the ghost tour, she'd have to hustle her way through the now-closed Edgeview grounds. The jog would be a heavy one but there was no one here she needed to impress. If she arrived at the visitor’s center drenched in sweat, it was her business and hers alone.

Not that Buffy was generally in favor of Buffy-stink, but without a car and with a demon to hunt, some things had to be sacrificed. As it was, she was likely wasting time. Chasing down an inkling because of a feeling that had followed her up the drive of some katrillion-year-old manor wasn’t exactly a productive way to spend her time, but Giles would insist upon leaving no stone unturned. If she felt a tingle on the Slayer line, it merited checking out.

No matter how small the tingle.

No matter that investigating required walking alone through a thicket of towering southern trees as the sky grew dark.

No matter that every step added another heebie to her jeebies.

By rule of thumb, it took a lot to creep Buffy out. She’d seen too much, done too much, killed too many squishy things and saved the world from total destruction a record of four times now. Walking up a wooded pathway seemed, on paper, a piece of cake. Something she could do with her eyes closed were she so inclined.

So why did this wooded path give her the wiggins?

“Okay,” Buffy whispered loudly, “I’m not creeped out. I am so not creeped out. I am of the non-creeped out nation. I’ve seen woods darker and…well, darker pretty much sums it up. I am so totally not creeped out. And yes, all the healthy people I know talk to themselves, so I’m obviously of sound mind.”

Gravel crunched beneath her feet. Bugs chirped and the wind made love to newly budding leaves. Above her, clouds rolled and the sky grew even more ominously dark. The fresh spring air had chilled, and as she wrapped her arms around herself to conserve as much heat as possible, the total idiocy of her quest came crashing down at full force.

There was nothing here.

“I am absolutely out of my mind.”

It happened simultaneously. Her inner vamp-radar started blaring just as the words tickled the air.

“Are you?”

Buffy whirled around. He was there. Of course, he was there.

“It’s funny, that is,” Spike continued with a grin, taking slow, intentional steps forward. “’Cause just a second ago, you were of sound mind.”

“What are you doing here?”

It was a redundant question. They both knew perfectly well what he was doing here, thus it came to no surprise when he ignored her question.

“Now, I’m a man who knows my crazies,” he drawled instead.

“I’ll say.”

“And while I’ll give you points for effort, love, I gotta say you lack the essentials.” Spike’s grin broadened as he shrugged, hands diving into his duster pockets. “Slayer, must admit, never pegged you one for breaking and entering.”

“Spike…”

“Well, not dumps like this, at least.” He rocked slightly on his heels. “What are we doin’?”

“I am…investigating,” Buffy retorted, crossing her arms and cocking her head. “I was here earlier and…what does it matter? What are you doing here?”

Spike shrugged. “What’s it look like?”

“Wasting my time?”

“I’m helping.”

“Helping?”

He nodded as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I reckon I got nothin’ better to do, so I’m here to beat the baddies. Don’t wanna be sitting on my hands when this wanker decides he wants my hide for his collection, yeah? I’m not the sort’ve bloke to go down without a fight.”

Buffy just stared at him for a second. “No.”

“No what?”

No to this. No to you helping. No to everything.”

He pouted. The walking-nuisance had the audacity to pout.  “Why not?” he whined. “You got no one else, do you?”

“By choice!”

“I’m here for a reason, you know. The Powers aren’t so fucked up they wouldn’t toss me your direction if it weren’t with a purpose, right?” Spike tilted his head as he studied her. “You need me.”

Buffy reeled. “Nuh uh.”

“There’s the makings of a good argument.”

“Spike—”

“What’ve you got to lose?” he demanded.

“Besides my dignity?”

Spike glowered. “Fine then. Have it your way. Just figured you wouldn’t mind a bit of company, seein’ as you’re chatting yourself up to keep from goin’ bonkers. I’ll be on my merry way, then. Hope the git rips your stuffing out.” He waved and began to backtrack down the path. “Cheers.”

It was the most pathetic and obvious bluff she’d ever heard. And yet, as Spike’s familiar form began to fade into shadow, part of her succumbed to panic. She really didn’t want to be alone; another thing that seemed good on paper yet failed miserably in reality. Thus before she could reconsider, she heard herself call after him.

“Spike, wait.”

His answering grin was the one of a canary-stuffed cat. “Miss me already?”

Buffy sighed and wagged a finger at him. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Spike just shrugged, not bothering to hide his satisfaction as he took his place at her side. “Not much chance of that, is there?”

No, there really wasn’t.

Yet as they started up the path, side-by-side, Buffy couldn’t bring herself to mind.