DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Well, the baddies are mine. OK, Cortina’s mine, too. But everything else really is his. Too bad.
SUMMARY: Spike and Xander have just discovered Buffy being held in Celie’s magic, and the rest of the Scoobies are on their way.

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

Chapter 19: Choices

The moon hung low in the sky, an orange orb illuminating the desert sands almost as if it was day. Although they’d brought plenty of flashlights this time, the group found that as they neared the coordinates on the map, the flashlights weren’t really necessary, relying instead upon the moonlight. The midnight hour encroached, and the temperature steadily dropped, leaving the girls hugging their arms around their bodies and wishing they’d worn heavier jackets.

“So much for global warming,” Anya muttered.

Giles peered up into the darkness, a relaxed smile on his face. “I think it’s really quite lovely. Bracing, actually.”

“That’s because it’s fricking Hawaii compared to merry old England,” the ex-demon commented.

At the head of the gang, Willow stopped in her tracks, her gaze riveted on a dark shape looming against the approaching knoll. “Ummmm, guys?” she said, her voice wavering. “Big black scary thing at twelve o’clock.”

Dropping the duffel from his shoulder, Rupert pulled out a crossbow and arrow, arming it with a deft hand. “Animal or demon?”

In the distance, the ominous form grew larger as it raised itself to face the new arrivals. Two tiny red pinpricks appeared against the blackness, prompting Willow and Tara to answer the Watcher simultaneously. “Hound.”

“Really?” Giles lowered the weapon, stepping up in front of the witches. “That must mean Buffy is nearby.”

“That would be my guess,” said Willow.

“Why isn’t it attacking us?” Anya asked from the rear.

“Because we’re not an immediate threat,” Rupert replied. “Most likely, should we advance, we’d find it slightly more intimidating.”

“Because six feet of dripping fangs and beady eyes is like Christmas,” the ex-demon muttered.

The redheaded witch cocked her head, watching the dog. “I don’t know, Giles,” she said softly. “Something’s not quite right. It’s not acting the same way it did in the alley, or in the cemetery the first time we saw it.” She took a tentative step forward, but was stopped by Tara’s gentle hand on her forearm. Turning, she looked at her girlfriend, a small line between her brows. “Can’t you feel it?” she asked.

For a long moment, Tara looked back at the Hound, then slowly released her grip on Willow. “Just be careful,” she whispered.

Giles raised the crossbow, aiming it at the dark mass in the cave’s entrance. “In case you’re mistaken,” he explained.

Taking a deep breath, Willow began walking forward, her gaze locked on the Hound. “Hey there, puppy,” she greeted soothingly. “Whatcha doin’? You waiting for somebody?” Her measured steps were short, unhurried, as she eased herself into the dog’s reach. Its ears perked, alert to her approach, but it betrayed no other signs of alarm. “That’s right,” the witch continued. “I’m not going to hurt you. See? Nothing in my hands.” She held them up as testimony before slowly lowering them back to her sides. “So why is such a pretty puppy out here all on his lonesome? Huh?”

The distance between the two had lessened with every word, until Willow stood only a couple feet away. Very slowly, the Hound sat back down on its haunches, its head tilted, its nose up as it sniffed at the air. “Does puppy smell something?” She brightened with understanding. “Are you hungry? You want my snack?” Without taking her eyes off him, she pulled open the flap on her bag and reached inside, carefully extracting something wrapped in tin foil. “I bet you like chicken, don’t you?”

From their vantage point, the remaining Scooby members watched as the Hound began nuzzling Willow’s hand, its giant teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Again, Giles lowered his weapon. “Incredible,” he murmured.

Tara glanced over at the older man, a smile lifting the corner of her mouth. “She’s got a way with animals,” she said. “You should see her with Miss Kitty Fantastico.”

“That’s all well and good,” came from Anya behind them. “But what about us? That thing’s probably got Buffy inside the cave. Is it just going to stand by and let us go get her?”

“Only one way to find out,” Giles said, and began the approach toward the knoll.

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

It only took the sight of Buffy’s blood to ignite the rage within the vampire’s breast, and he charged at the dark witch without any thought as to the headache it would afford him. He had only run a few steps, however, before a bolt of magic fired from Celie’s palms, slamming into the Slayer’s chest and pinning her even tighter against the wall. “Any further and she dies, demon!” she ordered.

Spike froze, but his face was a seething mask of hatred, his eyes glittering gold. “Let. Her. Go,” he said through clenched teeth.

She laughed. “Or what?” she taunted. “You’ll bite me? We both know you can’t, as much as you may wish to. Thanks to your companion there, I know quite a bit about your…limitations.”

Stepping forward, Xander held up his hands. “This wasn’t part of the deal, Celie.”

At the recognition in the other man’s words, Spike whirled. “Deal?” he yelled. “You made a deal with her? What in fuck’s sake were you thinkin’? She works for the bastard who’s after Buffy!”

“It wasn’t supposed to go down like this!” Xander argued back, his face flushed in frustration.

Within the hold of Celie’s magic, Buffy lifted her head, fighting to regain control of her own body. Blinking against the blood that was running into her eyes, she stared at the witch. “You obviously want something,” she said. “Are you going to enlighten us, or do we have to play twenty questions? Because I am sooooo not in the mood for this right now.”

“I want a trade.” The witch cast her black gaze toward Spike. “I release the girl, and in return, you take her place.”

The blond vampire felt his game face disappear as the situation crystallized for him. Of course, that’s why Xander had insisted on a bodyguard to walk him back to the cave’s entrance, and why he hadn’t exactly been thrilled when Buffy had announced she was coming along. He’d agreed to exchange the Slayer for Spike.

A glance back at the young man confirmed his suspicions, as Harris was doing his best not to look directly at him, focusing instead on his friend in the magical field. Spike had never really had strong feelings one way or the other for his ex-roommate, but in spite of it all, a new niggle of respect danced in his regard for him. It took courage to face the wrath of Buffy---and this would most definitely piss her off---and Xander had made the choice anyway, believing that in spite of the consequences, it would save his friend, which ultimately was both of their desire. As to why Daymon’s witch was willing to defy his command in order to satisfy her own plans, Spike had no idea, but if it meant Buffy went free, he was prepared to make the deal.

He swept his sapphire eyes across the cave, and met the Slayer’s. The silent understanding passed between them, and she began struggling again. “Don’t, Spike!”

“Quiet!” Celie’s command was accompanied by another flash of magic, this time knocking the young woman unconscious. Spike’s steps toward her were instinctive, but he checked himself as the witch stiffened, ready to attack again. “The choice is yours, vampire,” she said, her voice suddenly low and seductive. Inwardly, she prayed that he wouldn’t notice how much weaker she had grown with each assault, that she was only now barely able to maintain her hold, that sticking with her resolve would mean temporarily deserting the Hound and her duties in favor of teleporting the vampire out of the cave.

Xander hung back against the stone wall, confusion coloring his brown eyes. Why didn’t she just take Spike? he wondered. She had the power, so all she had to do was use it. Even more bewildering, why did it look like Spike was actually seriously considering her offer?

“If I agree, you let Buffy go. No more hunting with that demon dog of yours, and she walks out of this cave on her own two feet.” His voice was cold as he delivered his terms, but it burned in Celie’s heart as a flare of hope.

“Agreed.”

He cast one more look at the battered form of the Slayer pinned to the wall. Her shirt was torn, revealing magical burns across her abdomen, and the gash on her forehead still bled, but he could see that all of her wounds were superficial; she would heal quickly. Don’t know what the witch wants, luv, Spike thought, but I’m going to do my damnedest to get back to Sunnydale, one way or another. Be strong, and give my best to your mum and Niblet.

He turned to face the black witch. “Done.”

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

It felt like an enemy had ripped out some internal organ, and he howled into the night sky, a forlorn cry that ricocheted against the nearby fauna, bouncing back to sink into the desert sand. Blinking against the blinding light flooding from the cave’s mouth, Willow and the others held their ears while the Hound bayed in agony, no longer afraid for their own safety, but now concerned for his.

As the light faded, the redheaded witch reached out to stroke the midnight fur. “Did you feel that, Tara?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

Her girlfriend nodded. “That was way powerful,” she agreed.

“Feel what?” Anya pried. “I didn’t feel anything.”

Before the witches could answer, a faint, “Buffy!” filtered from the cavern.

The ex-demon’s eyes widened. “That’s Xander!” she cried, and rushed past Willow and the Hound, following the sound.

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

He cradled her in his arms, brushing the stray lock of golden hair back out of her eyes. She was breathing, that was a good thing. As soon as Spike had agreed to Celie’s deal, the witch had turned, focusing her magics on the vampire, and the pair had disappeared in a dazzling flash. Once released from her hold, Buffy had fallen to the ground, landing in a crumpled heap, and Xander had rushed over as soon as he could see again. She didn’t appear seriously harmed, but since it was magic, he knew there was no way he could know for sure. He had to get her to Giles.

“Xander!”

His head jerked up at the sound of Anya’s voice, and he suddenly found himself in a stranglehold as his girlfriend flung her arms around his neck. “You had me so worried!” she said, her words muffled by his hair. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”

“Anya,” he choked. “Can’t…breathe…”

Sitting back on her heels, she loosened her grip but didn’t let go, almost as if she was afraid he would disappear again if she did. She looked down at the Slayer’s bleeding forehead. “She’s not dead, is she?”

“No, but I wish Willow or Tara were here to check her out.” As if on cue, Giles and the witches came hurrying into the cavern. At the sight of his unconscious charge, the Watcher ran to her side, bending over her to peer into her face.

“What happened?” he murmured.

“Magic,” Xander explained. “Bad magic. But I think she’s OK.”

Looking around the otherwise empty cave, Willow asked, “Where’s Spike?”

The pang of guilt stabbing into his stomach was unexpected, but before Xander could answer, the Slayer groaned, stirring slightly in his arms. Everyone’s attention was immediately diverted, and they held their breath as her eyelashes fluttered open.

“Buffy?” asked Giles. “How do you feel?”

Her hand reached up to touch the gash on her head. “Like I got stomped on by Bigfoot,” she groaned, pulling herself away and sitting up. Using the wall behind her as leverage, Buffy slowly rose to her feet. “Where’d she go?” she queried, looking around, a line between her hazel eyes.

“She’s gone.” No point in delaying the inevitable, Xander thought, and added, “And so’s Spike.”

Buffy sniffed the air, and realized for the first time that she could no longer sense her lover, that his absence was like a palpable hole in her surroundings, and that for the first time since her kidnapping, she felt utterly alone. She turned in incredulity to Xander. “What did you do?” she demanded.

Although he now stood in order to more ably face her head on, the young man took a step backward, unsure of the source of the Slayer’s anger. “I found you. Isn’t that what’s important here?”

“By selling out Spike to the Princess of Darkness? After everything he’s done for me, this is how you repay him?” She turned on her heel and began marching toward the depths of the cavern, toward Cortina’s realm. When Xander took a step to follow her, she whirled, holding up her hand to make him stop. “You so don’t want to be around me right now,” she threatened.

“Buff, he went of his own accord. It was his choice.”

“Because he thought it would save me from…what was your little pal’s name, Xander? Because I didn’t quite catch it.”

“…Celie.” His voice was low, and his growing fear began to gnaw at his gut. This time, his screw-up had been of monstrous proportions and even he was beginning to realize that now.

She nodded. “Nice to know you’re on such friendly terms with her, considering just a few days ago, she was only trying to, you know, hunt me down. God, I knew you didn’t like him, but I never thought you hated Spike enough to do this.”

“Hey, in my own defense, the math seemed pretty easy. Vampire, or Vampire Slayer. Pretty easy calculation.” He was getting angry now. Why couldn’t she see that he’d just been doing what he thought was best?

“She’s not even a demon; how is he going to defend himself? Did you even once think of how Spike was going to get away from her?”

Giles finally stepped forward to intervene. “Buffy, perhaps you’re over-reacting just a bit. After all, it was only Spike.”

The young woman turned wide eyes to her mentor. “Only Spike?” she said. “Next time you’ll be saying, it was only Anya, or only Willow. It’s not ‘only Spike,’ Giles. Not after---.” She cut herself off, ducking her head.

Behind the Watcher, Willow and Tara exchanged knowing glances. Buffy knew, and even more importantly, their own conclusions about her feelings seemed to be accurate as well. They watched her as she let out a long, shuddering breath.
“You just have no idea,” she whispered. “He’s saved my life so many times now, I’ve lost count. I’m not about to just desert Spike so that this Celie person can do whatever she wants to him. Not after everything.” She raised defiant eyes up to her friends. “If you’re with me, great. But if you’re not interested in helping me get him back, thanks for everything, but maybe you should think about heading back to Sunnydale without me.”

“He could be anywhere, Buff,” Xander said quietly. “Don’t you think you’ve got more important things to worry about than a wild goose chase?”

“Oh! Oh!” Willow brightened. “She left the Hound here. Outside. We can use him to find Spike!”

The young woman relaxed. “That’s great, Will. Now, I have to check back in with Cortina---.”

Giles’ eyes narrowed. “Cortina?”

“It’s a long story; I’ll fill you in on the way.” Buffy half-turned, then paused. “That is…if you’re coming.”

The Watcher looked at the solemnity in his charge’s face. Experience taught him that when she set her mind to something, there was no changing it, but even he had been taken aback at her vociferous defense of the chipped vampire. Something was different; he only hoped that she trusted him enough to confide in him. Adjusting the weight of his duffel, he strode to her side. “Well, it appears to be the night for walking. Lead on.”

“What about the Hound?” Willow chimed in. “He’s too big to come with us.”

“Will he run if we’re not around?” Buffy queried. “There’s got to be entrances big enough for him to fit into somewhere. I just have to ask Cortina about them, and then maybe she can send some of her men back to bring him in.”

“I can try explaining it to him,” Willow replied. “He seems to trust me for some reason.”

The Slayer nodded. “Do it. I’d rather not have my best shot at finding Spike go off after a desert bunny or something.” Without even looking over at where Xander and Anya stood, she disappeared around the bend in the cave, with Giles right on her heels.
“So, what’s the deal?” Anya asked. “Are we going to help, or are we going home?”

He set his jaw. “We do what we always, hon,” he said. “We help.” And taking her hand, Xander led her after the Slayer…


To be continued in Chapter Twenty: Preparations