DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The council has attempted to kidnap Spike without success, but it has managed to nab Cortina's while she was at Giles'…

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Chapter 5: Dark Wintry Bed

Giles winced as she daubed his knuckles with the antiseptic, the singe as the fluid seeped into his exposed flesh reminding with harsh alacrity of his own inadequacy to protect Cortina. "Sorry," Buffy murmured, and set aside the cotton balls to pick up the bandages. There was a moment of silence as she carefully wrapped his hands, stretching the white gauze around the wounds with a gentleness that surprised even her, and she hesitated before speaking again, a quick glance up into his face confirmation for the young blonde that his real pain didn't lie in these external injuries.

"How many were there?" she finally asked, letting loose his hands to sit back on her heels.

Giles leaned back into the couch, eyes fluttering shut. "Four. Five maybe. They were all dressed identically, and it happened so fast…" His lids opened, gazing down at his charge in weariness. "I'm not sure."

"Well, at least Cort put a fight," Spike said, nodding toward the claw marks that scarred the wall. "I'd wager she's givin' them a good run for their money."

In spite of his pain, the Watcher smiled. "Yes, she's definitely doing that," he agreed. "She has remarkable…spirit."

"Any idea on what they want with her?" Buffy queried.

"Most likely the same thing they want from Spike," Giles replied. "To study her. She's not even supposed to exist. I can't imagine how I ever thought they'd be able to resist such a temptation." His eyes flickered to her face, apology shining through the blue depths. "I never intended for you to get hurt by my…withholding the information I had. I merely didn't want to worry you unnecessarily."

"It worries me more when I start thinking you guys don't trust me," she said. "But the important thing is, they failed."

"Somehow, I don't think they counted on the Slayer bein' in my crypt," Spike chuckled. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have piddled about only sendin' three men."

"That doesn't mean they won't try again." Her voice was hard, her face grim, and the two men watched as she rose to her feet. "If they think that just because they give me a little bit of information on Glory, they can start interfering in my life and the people I care about, they've got another thing coming. This is one bud I'm nipping before they can even open their mouths to bite."

"I should've insisted she return to her caves last night," Giles said softly. "At least there, she's got defenses. Guards to protect her from such an attack."

"Stop blaming yourself."

His gaze was direct. "And who else is there?" He shook his head. "I should've known, should've been prepared. The Council is ruthless in its pursuit of knowledge, and Cortina---."

"---has us on her side." She sat herself down next to him on the couch. "The Council wouldn't even have me as a Slayer if it wasn't for her, and if they can't see the voice of reason in that, then we'll just have to introduce them to fists of fury instead." She smiled, trying to lighten the tone. "You know, one of these days they might actually learn that pissing me off is really a bad idea."

Spike and Giles smiled, their individual pride at the strong woman before them evident in both grins. "I…appreciate the support, Buffy," her Watcher said.

"Don't go thinking this gets you off the hook for not telling me about them gunning for Spike." Rising to her feet, she folded her arms across her chest as she glanced between the men. "As soon as this whole mess gets fixed, I'm going to have a bone to pick with you two. And not some wimpy funny bone, either. I'm talking huge leg-sized bones." She began heading for the front door. "So, while I'm gone, you two talk strategy. Figure out how we want to start on getting Cortina back."

"You're leaving me here?" Spike asked, stepping forward.

"You're leaving him here?" Giles echoed, back straightening as he leaned forward.

"I'm leaving him here," Buffy affirmed. "I think you two will survive an hour alone together while I run home to pick up some weapons and change my clothes. No offense, Giles, but these have gotten a little…icky." She plucked at the fresh stains on the hem of her top. "Not that there's anything wrong with Watcher blood, just not on my new blouse."

"I can always swing by the crypt to pick up my own weapons---."

The shake of her head was vehement. "I don't want you out alone, Spike. Not without some kind of protection in case they make another attempt to snatch you. The Council won't be expecting you here, so you should be safe until I get back."

The room was silent after she left, the two men refusing to look at the other. The blond vamp was the first to shatter the quiet. "Don't suppose you've still got some blood in the back of the fridge," he drawled, sauntering to the kitchen. "Council kinda put a kibosh on the whole breakfast thing."

"No," the older man replied, rising to follow him out. "But there is some Weetabix. If you're really hungry, you could try some the old-fashioned way, you know…with milk."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Don't be givin' me the Watcher attitude, Rupert. How the hell did you expect me to keep Buffy out of the know once your work buddies showed up?"

"They're hardly my 'work buddies'---."

"And I told you keeping her out of the loop was a bad idea---."

"I'm not going to keep apologizing for that!" Giles' fist slammed into the wall, startling both of them, and he winced as a bright spot of crimson appeared on the bandages.

"Y'know I'm goin' to get the blame for that, too, don't you?" he said, marching past the other Englishman to fetch the remaining gauze from the living room. "She's goin' to think you took a swing at me."

"Well, we just won't tell her then, will we?"

The two men looked at each other for a moment before both burst out into laughter, sharing the moment of their own silliness as it warmed the chill of the room. As the air quietened, the earlier tension replaced by a more relaxed ease, Giles watched as Spike returned with the bandages and set about replacing his dressing. "You should really stop whinging about feelin' guilty about Cort," Spike said. "I mean, those Council wankers caught you with your pants down. Hardly expect any man'd be able to put up a good fight with his tackle blowin' in the breeze."

The Watcher chuckled. "I suppose not."

"And don't know what Buffy's got her knickers in a twist about, anyway," the vampire continued. "If the Council won't play ball, we'll just find Cort on our own."

"That sounds much simpler than it actually is."

"Not really. All we've got to do is get Red. She'll take care of it."

"Do you think one of her locator spells will work?"

"Not her hocus-pocus. Her Elvis. Cort's still in the area, he'll sniff her out soon enough."

For the first time since Spike's arrival, he saw a light gleam in the Watcher's eye, the faintest glimmer of hope breaking through the clouds that had been shading the blue depths. "Yes," he murmured. "The Hound can certainly find her. We must call Willow."

Spike held firm to the other man's hands as he tried to walk away. "Let's get you patched up and sorted first," he said. "I'm not listenin' to Buffy natter on about how I broke her Watcher when she gets back."

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

The wind cut at her skin as she raced along the sidewalk, arms hugged tightly around her thin body in an attempt to stave away the cold. Maybe we should just reconvene at my house, Buffy thought grumpily. Giles has a car; he can bring Spike along and nobody has to be out in Hurricane Hellmouth. Although the rain had decided to take a break, the storm itself didn't seem in any danger of ending any time soon, and the thought of having to return to it laden with weaponry was growing increasingly bothersome to the Slayer. Yep, no reason why we can't do this at my house, she decided. Plus, hot chocolate. Big bonus.

She saw the SUV parked in the drive and only gave it a passing thought as she flew up the porch. Mom must've forgotten something, she thought, and tested the theory by turning the doorknob, feeling it twist within her grasp. So much for locked doors today.

"I never want to hear any more grief about playing hooky again," she called out as she pushed the door shut behind her. "Home in the middle of the day? People are going to…" Her voice trailed off as she came to a stop in the living room entrance, her smile fading. "Mom?" There was no response from the still form lying back on the couch. "…Mom…?"

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

"You need more biscuits," Spike shouted as he shut the cupboard door, the wooden frame reverberating dully as it bounced slightly in its slam. "And how the hell do you have McVitie's in the first place? These cost a bomb outside of merry old England---." The plate in his hand crashed to the floor, shattering into jagged splinters, as his hand reached out to clutch the edge of the counter, the world around him swimming in a kaleidoscope of crimson and gold, the air suddenly thick and too heavy as he found the unavoidable urge to begin gulping at it. The images were coming fast and thick, bombarding his inner eye with pain so exquisite he audibly winced as he struggled to straighten. Joyce…in her living room…lying back…not moving…god, no…

"Spike? Are you all right?" There was no mistaking the concern in Giles' voice as he strode from the living room, stopping in the doorway with a worried frown as he watched the vampire lurch forward, gripping the wall as if by letting go he risked toppling over, not even cringing when he latched himself onto the Watcher's arm.

"Buffy's," he snarled. "Now."

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

Movement meant acknowledgement, and acknowledgement meant admittance, and in the vacuum that now entombed the young blonde, admittance was the same as saying goodbye to the lifeline that had been her mother, and she wasn't ready to do that. Not yet. Not now. Not ever.

The cold crept up her body, inching its path through her limbs, leaving numbness in its wake, and Buffy found herself lost in the vision of an empty house, silence thundering between its walls, trying to suck her in just so that it could spit her back out again, a shell of what she was, walking through the days like anything really mattered when knowing inside that it didn't.

Buffy, luv, we're on our way

"Spike!" His name echoed around her, the relief in hearing him albeit in her head expelling the air so that she sounded for all intents and purposes that she was calling him from somewhere within the building.

Sshh…he reassured, his inner voice just as silken as his real one, stroking the golden hair of the scared little girl inside her head. You're not alone. Rupert and I will be there any minute. He felt the trembling begin in her knees, knew she was unaware of it, and wished more than anything that he could be there in the Summers' house instead of hiding underneath some blanket in the back seat of Giles' mid-life crisis. She needed to be held, needed to know that she didn't have to face this by herself, needed to know that Spike felt Joyce' loss just as strongly as she did. The stab of fear as he realized she was standing there immobile, not feeling anything but chill, sliced through his gut, wrenching a frustrated growl from his throat, stinging his eyes with tears. Not bloody fair, he thought, knowing Buffy could hear him but unable to hold back his own ache. Not Joyce. She deserved so much better.

It was then that he felt the swirl of air around his ankles and frowned. What the…? But the difference became clear in a moment when he recognized the sensations not on him, but on Buffy, the slight breeze wrapping around her legs, not his, circling and entwining as they swept upwards, a lissome spiral that seemed to be imbued with its own life…

Buffy!

The urgency in his call wrenched the Slayer from the reverie staring at her mother's dead body had swallowed her in, and she turned her attention inward, feeling the rough texture of his blanket against her cheek. What's wrong? she asked.

Get out of the house. Now. Get as far down the street as you can.

Why? I can't just leave her here

Damn it, Buffy, just do as I say! He couldn't help the panic as he felt the tightening around her torso and thrust the sensations at her consciousness, forcing her to notice for the first time how difficult it was getting to draw in a lungful of air, even harder yet to let it out. Just run!

She stumbled backward, her legs prickling as if they'd been asleep for hours, her usual grace vanished on the wing of desperation. The air seemed almost palpable now, and this time there was no mistaking the brushes against her skin as she raced back to the front door, throwing it open to the renewed gales outside, and ran, head bent, down the street.

Giles saw her first, a golden wraith in the fervor of the storm, and honked as he pulled up along the sidewalk, jerking her attention to the street as she veered to meet him. He frowned as she slammed the door shut. "Are you…?" he started to ask, only to be cut off by the vicious growl from under the blanket in the rear of the car.

"Just drive, Rupert."

With one last worried glance at his charge, the Watcher yanked the steering wheel around, reversing the vehicle's direction, before taking off with a squeal across the cement. He allowed a moment of silence before his frustration got the better of him, and barked, "Will someone please tell me what the bloody hell is going on here?"

"Mom…" She was staring out the windshield in front of her, hazel eyes glazed in a distant whimper, all color gone from her skin.

"What? What about your mother?"

She couldn't answer, couldn't say the words. Too final, too real, not true…

"Joyce is dead," Spike said softly, raising the blanket enough so that he could look out at the immobile blonde in front of him.

"How do you know that?"

Buffy didn't move, but he felt it just the same. "I saw her, Rupes," the vampire said, mentally extending his hand to soothe the racing nerves in his lover's skin.

"How? You've been with me the entire time." Giles glanced into his rearview mirror and cursed the lack of reflection he was greeted with. How he desperately wanted to see Spike's face right now.

"Because I saw it." Her voice was almost inaudible, but it was loud enough for both men to hear. "I walked in, and she was just lying there, and she wasn't moving, and…"

The muscle twitched in the Watcher's jaw. "Are you telling me that Spike can see what you're seeing?"

"See, feel, but none of that is worth a toss right now. Not when we've got to get Buffy away from here."

"I don't understand. Was Joyce killed?"

And it was then that the connection became clear in Buffy's head, the correlation that Spike had sensed between the presence swirling around the Slayer's body and her own mother's inert form crystallizing. She stiffened, sitting up straighter in her seat, as a spark appeared in the hazel depths of her eyes. "Yes," she stated, her voice suddenly brittle, two high spots of color coming back to her cheeks.

"By what? Vampire? Demon?"

She shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "But there was something there. I…we…Spike…felt it. He's the one who told me to get out of there." For the first time, she turned in her seat to gaze at the blond in the rear. "Thank you."

"Someone's got to be watchin' your back," he replied with a wry smile. "And seein' as how I've got so much experience at it…"

"So where are we going?" Giles interrupted, his frustration edging his voice. "If there's a threat to Buffy, we need to keep her safe until we figure out what it is, how to get rid of it. I'm open to suggestions here, especially since you two are the only ones who seem to have all the information in this scenario."

"I'm sorry." The apology in her eyes was genuine. "I promise, I'll tell you everything."

"I say we kill two birds with one stone," Spike said. "Pick up Red and head out to the caves. Buffy should be safe there while Elvis goes lookin' for Cort."

Giles nodded. "Yes," he agreed. "That sounds good."

The Slayer stiffened. "Dawn!" she exclaimed. "I can't just have Dawn come home and find Mom like that. She'll freak."

"So we'll pick up Bit on the way." A quick glance at the seat around him made his shake his head. "Next time you decide to blow your dosh, Rupert, try and do it on something with a little more legroom, OK?"

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

Her whole body ached, the tape over her mouth endlessly tight, pulling at her skin with hundreds of little fingers that pinched and squeezed as if to remind her of its presence. In spite of the fact that her abduction had occurred hours before, she could feel the blood dripping down her hands, and knew from the pain in her fingertips that her nails were torn from their beds, most likely still embedded in Rupert's wall from where she'd fought to slow their exit, not that that made the pain any less.

They were humans who held her, armed with weapons that had effectively knocked her out until moments earlier, but who they were or what they wanted were unknowns, variables in this kidnapping equation that Cortina was desperate to decipher. They knew enough not to let her speak, her Vrolek scream her most viable defense, and her hands were bound behind her, but other than that, she was free to roam, should she choose to. Of course, the crushing ache through her flesh prevented any sort of movement, and she wondered what exactly they had done to neutralize her so.

Turning her head, Cortina felt the soft brush of cotton underneath her cheek, and knew she was in a bed, a feather dream beneath her body that belied the harshness of her seizure. She let her eyes flutter closed again. I need to rest, she thought, recuperate for whatever lies ahead. Whatever it is they want, they won't get it without a fight…


To be continued in Chapter 6: Cold and Low