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: Celie has disappeared with Spike, and Buffy has taken the Scooby gang back to Cortina’s before heading out to find the vampire.

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Chapter 20: Preparations

Their toes dangled in the water, enjoying the warm caress of the stream, as Willow and Tara watched Buffy pace along its side. After explaining about Cortina, the Slayer had been silent for the rest of the entire journey, and they had both noticed her determination not to enjoy the beauty of her surroundings, especially in the carved-out lagoon, ignoring her friends as they oohed and aahed about the waterfall and benches. She’d taken up post near the entrance, only speaking when two squat demons had arrived, and then it was only to request that they fetch their mistress.

“I can’t believe we were so wrong about this place,” Willow murmured. “Definitely no more ooglies.”

“It’s all kind of romantic, don’t you think?” replied Tara. “Being shut away from the world, with this gorgeous grotto to play in. I’m not sure I’d want to leave.” She glanced over at Xander and Anya, cuddling nearby, and leaned into her girlfriend. “Do you think this is where Buffy and…?” she asked suggestively.

“Oh, goddess, definitely! I mean, wouldn’t you?”

Before Tara could answer, Cortina came sweeping in, her white caftan floating behind her. She went immediately to Buffy’s side. “My men told me you were back, and without Spike,” she rushed. “What happened?” The white demon noticed for the first time the other people in the cave. Her blue eyes looked questioningly back at the Slayer.

“These are my friends,” Buffy hurried. “You know Xander and that’s his girlfriend, Anya.”

“The ex-vengence demon.” Cortina called out to the pair. “Sorry again about the scratches!”

“The two with their feet in the water are Willow and Tara,” she said, gesturing.

“So they’re the witches,” the demon observed.

The redhead’s eyes widened. “How’d you know that?”

Cortina smiled. “I can feel your powers,” she explained. “Part of the whole Vrolek gig is our capacity for dampening magic. I could sense you guys coming in.”

Tara nodded knowingly. “That explains why our spell f-f-fizzled.”

Behind her, Giles waited patiently to be introduced. “And this is---.” started Buffy.

“Rupert Giles!” Cortina rushed past the young woman in order to get closer to the older man. Her frank appraisal of the Englishman brought a slight blush to his cheeks and he smiled nervously.

“You…know me?” he asked as smoothly as he could manage.

“Of course! A Slayer is as only as good as her Watcher. I’m sure that everything Buffy is today is completely due to your influence and training.”

Tara and Willow exchanged a surprised look. Cortina was flirting with Giles! What was even funnier, the Watcher actually seemed to be responding to it.

“Well, I can only take partial credit…” His words trailed off as he removed his glasses to smile at her more directly.

The white demon leaned into the Slayer. “You do surround yourself with the most handsome men,” she said. “Totally different types, of course, but handsome, nonetheless.”

A flabbergasted Buffy just gaped at her hostess. “That’s Giles,” she was finally able to spit out.

Cortina patted the young woman on the shoulder. “Oh, I know it must be hard for you to see him outside of his mentor role. Just trust me on this one.” She flashed a dazzling smile at Rupert. “You must have fascinating stories to tell.”

“Well, actually---.”

“Can you guys possibly do this later?” Buffy interrupted. “Like, outside of my direct line of sight? Right now, the issue is Spike.”

“God, how thoughtless of me!” Cortina pulled the Slayer over to one of the benches, forcing her to sit down. “What happened?”

“We were ambushed. The witch disappeared with him.”

The demon frowned. “Another witch? How did she use her magic in my caves?”

Buffy shook her head. “I turned the corner and, bam! Right into one of her blasts.”

“She must be very powerful,” Cortina mused.

“Oh, she is,” chimed in Willow. “But not so powerful that she couldn’t take the Hound with her.”

“That’s the dog I sent your guys after,” the Slayer explained. “It tracks things. We’re hoping it can find Spike.”

The demon’s eyes softened, and she reached out to stroke Buffy’s cheek, pushing her hair back out of her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “This must be really rough on you.”

There was a moment when Willow thought she saw her friend’s face soften, her hazel eyes gleam with unshed tears, but it quickly vanished. “I’m going to get him back,” Buffy averred.

“Of course you will.” Cortina stepped back. “In spite of her spell, there’s really only one direction she could’ve gone in. Her magic wouldn’t have worked in any other way, no matter how powerful she is. I’ll go get those maps I promised you earlier. You can still use them to pinpoint where your kidnapper is, but they should also help in getting you off in the right direction to find your---.” She broke off as Buffy’s eyes widened, her head shaking almost imperceptibly. “---Spike,” she finished. She turned and smiled brightly at Giles. “Would you like to come with me? I’ve got some wonderful books you might be interested in.”

The Watcher couldn’t respond quickly enough. “That would be delightful. I so rarely get to see anything directly from the demon realm.”

She laughed, hooking her arm through his, leading him away from the stream. “I know. We do have a tendency to be a little private about these things.”

The cave was silent as the group of friends watched Cortina and Giles disappear. Finally, Xander piped up. “OK, who else is weirded out by Giles macking on the demon chick?” He held his hand up and looked around. Without breaking their stares from the exit the pair had used, all of the girls simultaneously raised their hands in kind. “Thought so.”

Buffy was the first to break the spell. “I’m going back to my room to get my things,” she said to no one in particular. “If they beat me back here, just start looking over the areas that Cort thinks the witch could’ve taken Spike.” She strode away, her head low, eyes on the floor in front of her.

Willow leaned over to whisper in Tara’s ear. “I’m just going to---.”

“---go talk to Buffy,” the other girl finished. Squeezing her hand, Tara watched as the redhead rose, picked up her shoes, and followed after her best friend.

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

When Willow rounded the corner, she was surprised to see Buffy just standing in the open doorway, seemingly unable to cross the threshold. “I knew it was a lame excuse,” the Slayer said softly. “I mean, I was kidnapped. What things could I possibly have here?” When she looked up to gaze at her friend, the pain in her hazel eyes shone like a beacon. “So have you come to talk me out of it? Because hate to disappoint here, but it’s not going to happen.”

“No.” Willow shuffled her feet, unsure of whether or not she should approach. “I thought you might just want to…talk.”

“It’s OK, Will. Spike told me that you and Tara knew.” Leaning against the door frame, Buffy slid down it until she was sitting on the floor. “Go on. I’m ready. Give me the speech about how I’m doing this out of some stupid sense of responsibility just because he loves me.”

Very carefully, the redhead stepped over and sat down opposite the Slayer, her legs curled up underneath her. “Nope, can’t do that,” she said softly. When Buffy raised her questioning eyes, Willow added, “Wrong speech.”

“Then, can I have the one where you tell me that chocolate is really brain food? ‘Cause I’m in serious need of some good news for a change.”

In spite of the small joke, neither girl smiled. The redheaded witch wasn’t sure how to start, and eventually said, “You know, Xander feels really bad about what happened---.”

Buffy held up her hand, cutting off her friend’s words. “Don’t. Start. The boy is so on my shit list right now.” She shook her head. “I just don’t get the why of it. Once he saw that I was OK, why didn’t he just forget about this Celie person? Why go through with giving over Spike?”

“I don’t think he knows about the whole, you know, feeling thing.” Willow bit her lip, braving a quick look into her friend’s eyes.
“That wouldn’t have made a difference, Will. In fact, I think if he knew that Spike was in love with me, he would’ve put a big bow around him and handed him over to Celie on a silver platter.”

“I didn’t mean that,” the witch said. She took a deep breath. “I meant, he doesn’t know about your feelings…for Spike.”

The friends regarded each other, two sets of green eyes wary of how far each could go. Finally, Buffy sighed. “I don’t suppose it’s even worth me trying to lie about it,” she said.

“Nope, not really.” In spite of her discomfort, Willow smiled and scooched herself over so that she was sitting right next to the other girl. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk about what exactly happened, but you know I’m here if you need me, right?”

Ducking her head, Buffy felt the familiar sting of a tear and blinked rapidly in an attempt to make it go away. “How’d you know? Am I really that transparent? Lemme guess, your next trick is you tell me what I had for lunch.”

“It was lots of little things actually,” the Wiccan explained. “Stuff you said during the fever, how you acted when you realized Spike was gone. Oh, and your sex dream about him. That was the pretty big tip-off that kind of got me and Tara thinking about it in the first place.”

Buffy eyes widened in horror. “He told you about the dream?”

“Not specifics, just that you had it.” She couldn’t resist leaning in, a wicked smile creasing her face. “Was it at least a good one?”

“Ohmigod, amazing!” the Slayer blurted, then blushed a furious red at her own eagerness.

Willow giggled. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed. Spike’s a major hottie, even if he is a vampire and all Big Bad and everything.” She sobered. “Is that what you’re so afraid of? That it’ll be just like it was when Angel went all Angelus on us?”

“No, not really,” Buffy admitted. “I mean, yes, Spike has this chip so he can’t hurt people anymore, but that’s not the same thing as having a soul. He’s still a demon, Will, but I keep forgetting that every time he does something unexpected. Like telling me that he loves me. Or agreeing to trade himself for me with Celie.”

“Is that what happened back there?” At her friend’s nod, the redhead let out a low whistle. “Wow. I mean, we kinda figured it was something like that, but we didn’t know for sure.”

“There’s more.” The blonde took a deep breath, steadying her racing nerves. “Spike and I…had sex.”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Well, duh.” When an astonished Buffy just looked at her friend, the witch elaborated. “I’m not exactly blind. I was your roommate for a year, remember? I know what your bed looks like after you’ve slept in it.” She gestured to the unkempt four-poster behind them. “And I can recognize sex sheets when I see them.”

“And it doesn’t…freak you out?”

“Well, honestly, probably leaning a little toward the freaky.” She hastened to add, “But that’s my problem, not yours. You’ve got to do what’s right for Buffy, not what’s right for Willow, or Xander, or Giles. And if you think Spike’s the right thing…”

“But that’s just it,” the Slayer argued. “I don’t know if he is the right thing. What I do know, is that for the first time in, like, forever, I don’t have to hold back. He gets me, more than anybody I’ve ever known, and I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not.” Finally, the tear that had been threatening to fall slid down her cheek, and she turned shiny eyes to her best friend. “Do you have any idea how much I hate the idea that the person I relate to the most is a demon? What does that say about me?”

Willow’s voice was low, soothing. “That says you walk in some pretty dark places, Buffy. But you’re the Chosen One, and that’s part of the whole package. We know that…why don’t you?” Both of them knew she wasn’t expecting a response; merely asking the question was enough. She plunged on. “You don’t think it’s a Riley rebound thing, do you?”

“I considered that,” she said, “but I’m going to say…no. What’s happening between me and Spike started a long time ago, way before Riley ever came into the picture. I think it’s just really weird timing.”

The pair sat in silence for a long moment, each lost in her own thoughts. For Willow, knowing the truth was a relief; she hated the uncertainty, the second-guessing that sometimes went along with being Buffy’s friend. The question that was consuming her now was, how long before Buffy told everyone else?

The witch had no idea that her friend was considering exactly the same thing. Willow had been the least of her worries when she’d thought about breaking the news to the Scoobies. The redhead was a soft touch, quick to turn the other cheek and believe in the best in people. What concerned Buffy was how her Watcher would react to her newfound relationship with an ex-Big Bad. Demons were to be slain, not brought into the bosom of such a tightly knit group as the Scoobies…

“Can I ask you a question?” Buffy said, wiping the tears from her cheek. “Slightly OT.”

“Sure, shoot.”

“What do you think of Cortina?”

Willow shrugged. “She seems nice. A little on the flirty side, maybe, but nice.”

“That’s what I thought. And she doesn’t seem to have an agenda, which for a demon is just…not natural.” Slowly, she climbed to her feet, stretching her muscles. “Sometimes, I miss the old days. Demons bad, humans good. Why did they need to go and change the rules?”

Willow stood and smiled. “That’s what makes it all so interesting. Everyone knows that.”

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

He stared up into the night sky, the cold twinkling of the stars reflecting off the black slits of his eyes. He had forgotten this…the frosty rush of air over his scaled flesh…the smell of the dirt as it settled into the dark…the freedom to taste and savor the creatures that populated the wasteland of this human dimension…

Now that he’d had some sustenance, Daymon felt stronger than he had in decades, stronger even than in the years prior to his first attempt at the cleansing ritual. Perhaps he’d been mistake in thinking that the ritual was necessary, that maybe he could just resume his previous life…wreaking havoc among the mortals of this world…sampling the many diverse bloods that flowed so freely. But, deep down, he knew that that was only wishful thinking. Even now, he could sense that, just as before, the demon that possessed him was diseased and if he didn’t want to die a horrific and agonizing death, he must be rid of it. Hence, the cleansing…

So many scents…hunting the Chosen One would almost be a pleasure. He must remember to be gentle with her; in order for the ritual to succeed, she had to be in perfect health. However, he could still taste the anger he’d felt when she’d run off and Daymon worried that it would color his battle with her, push him too far, force him to injure her beyond healing. He almost hoped that Spike would be with her when he discovered her whereabouts; it would be a delight to force the vampire to watch him snatch away his love, watch her get torn from his grasp and know that he was powerless to stop him…

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

He didn’t know where he was. All he knew was that he ached, from the tips of his boot-clad toes to the ends of his unmoussed curls. He hadn’t hurt this much since that bloody church had fallen in on him, and the irony of that certainly didn’t escape him. The Slayer had been the reason then as well, although this time, he’d actually invited it by choosing to take her place.

Thinking of Buffy distracted him from the pain, and Spike fervently hoped that the whelp had done the smart thing and gotten her back to Cortina’s. The Vrolek would help her find the bastard who was hunting her; he only regretted that he couldn’t be there to enjoy it when the Slayer kicked his ass. Still, he had every intention of keeping his promise and returning to Sunnydale. With Buffy there, only a stake could keep him away now…


To be continued in Chapter Twenty-One: Watching