DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has found her mother dead in her home and suspects that she has been killed, but when Spike sensed a threat to the Slayer, he and Giles whisked her away to Cortina's cave, along with Willow and Dawn.

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Chapter 6: Cold and Low

The beauty of the grotto was lost to them. From his vantage point in the entrance, Spike watched as the two remaining Summers women clung to each other, their backs to him as they sat on the stone bench, Dawn's wracking sobs echoing throughout the underground cavern. He could see Buffy's stolid face, and knew without having to try that she was already walling herself away, turning off her emotions while she blanked out the memory of Joyce's lifeless body in her family home, willing herself to forget even as she encouraged her sister to let it go. No way was he going to intrude on this, even as much as he thought she was wrong. There would be time enough alone with her later, and then, perhaps, the young woman would be able to face her grief, to allow some of the pain within her tiny frame to escape through the tears that he knew would lessen the pressure that was swelling within her heart. Just as he would.

Though he heard him approaching, Spike ignored the Watcher's presence until he heard the clearing of his throat behind him, rolling his eyes at Rupert's still ever-so-present British civility. "S'pose you want me to leave 'em alone," he grumbled, not bothering to turn around.

"Actually, I was hoping that we might…talk."

The vampire glanced back over his shoulder, eyebrow lifted. "You think this is such a good time to give me hell?" he questioned. "'Cause gotta tell you, I'm not really in the mood for listenin' to lectures from---."

"It's not a lecture," Giles interrupted. "I want to discuss this new threat to Buffy."

"That's a chat that should include your Slayer, don't you think?"

"She's already told me about her dream. Now, I want to know what it was you sensed back at her house." He paused, the narrow line between his brows deepening. "We both know she needs this time to…grieve. Don't make this more difficult than it has to be."

The unspoken words hung between them---not if you truly love her---until Spike shrugged. "Not much to tell," he started, only to be cut off by Giles' upheld hand.

"Not here," he said, glancing over the other man's shoulders at the two young women by the water.

Spike's mouth was a tight line. "Right." Shoving his hands into his pockets, he sauntered after the Watcher, looking back only once before disappearing into the system of the caves.

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

Willow's head lifted from her book as the two men entered, eyes tired, and offered a sad, half-smile in greeting before burying herself back in its text. Reason told her it wasn't her mom who had died, but feelings dictated otherwise, and the young witch was doing her best not to let her emotions take the better of her, distracting from her task.

Spike picked up one of the books from the desk, scanning its spine before sweeping over the others. "Research, huh?"

She nodded. "A Scooby's work is never done."

"What about Elvis?" He glanced back at Giles. "We're not forgettin' Cort, are we?"

"I've already sent him out," Willow explained. "If she's still in the area, he'll find her."

"So, what do you want from me?" Spike asked, sprawling into one of the free chair. "What details are you hoping pickin' my brain is goin' to provide?"

"Actually, I know very little, outside of what Buffy told me about her dream," Giles said, stepping forth and joining them at the melee of books. "Although, to be honest, I'm not completely certain that the dream really has anything to do with it."

"It does." He ducked his head at the direct stares the other two proffered. How did he go about this without revealing just how much he knew? Buffy wanted to be the one to explain everything to her Watcher, so he was going to have to tread carefully if he didn't want to tip his hand too much.

"What makes you so sure?"

"The storm, for starters. The only time the Hellmouth gets anything but a friendly call from Mother Nature, it's because somethin's brewing. And the storm in Buffy's dream had all the makings of bein' a doozy." His blue eyes narrowed as he hastened to add, "So she said."

"That could just be coincidence," but even as he said it, Giles knew that he doubted very much that it was so. Spike had a point. Storms in Sunnydale almost always predicated the supernatural. Or a very bad weather forecaster.

"And then there's the whole wind thing," the vampire added.

"The…wind thing?"

"Yeah. That's what it felt like back at the house. Like wind."

"What makes you so certain it wasn't just poor insulation?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "You think I don't know the difference between a draft and something that's actually livin'?" He snorted. "Thanks, Rupes. Glad to know my powers of observation are so highly valued around here."

"It was living?" Giles leaned forward, his face intent. "How do you know that?"

"'Cause it had a mind of its own, it had a purpose. The thing was wrapping itself around Buffy like some kind of snake. If I hadn't noticed what it was doin', it would've kept on goin' until she couldn't breathe."

"And you couldn't see it?" At the shake of the vampire's head, he settled against the back of the chair, brow furrowed. "So, sentient wind. Interesting."

"Is that what I'm looking for then?" Willow asked. "Stuff on wind that thinks and has connections to storms?"

"Yes, I believe that's as good a place to start as any."

Spike rose from his seat. "Well, if that's done, I'll just---."

"Actually…" Giles countered the other man's move, blocking the path to the door. "How are your translation skills?"

The blond's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

The Watcher blushed. "Although we have quite a few texts at our disposal here, I'm afraid that a good number of them are in demon dialects that I'm not…familiar with." He glanced back at the stacks. "I was hoping you might be willing to take a look at them. Perhaps there might be something in one of them that we might normally miss."

As he followed Giles back into the rows of books, Spike muttered, "How in hell you guys ever managed so long without me I'll never know."

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

She watched as Dawn rinsed her face in the water, her shoulder still damp from where the teenager had cried for so long. The tears weren't over, but she knew that the young girl was exhausted, her eyes so swollen that if it wasn't for the tragic circumstances, Buffy would've been teasing her unmercifully about an unfortunate case of the mumps. But with everything the way it was…better to just leave well enough alone.

Her own tears went unshed, weighing behind her eyes with an ache that felt like it was going to pull her whole face off her skull, but they were a luxury she didn't feel ready to afford. Too much yet to do, too much yet to say. There would be time enough for her own grief later.

"Dawn…" Buffy watched as the younger Summers lifted her head, sitting back on her heels to gaze with sadness at her sister.

"I don't know how you do it," Dawn whispered, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. "You're so strong, and I know I give you a hard time about the whole Slayer thing, and I'm sorry. But it's times like these when I wish I could be like you, that I could as brave as you are and not blubber like a baby."

"You think I don't feel like crying?" She couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice. "Don't you think this hurts me as much as it's hurting you?"

"I didn't say it didn't---."

"You didn't have to walk in on her," Buffy said, her eyes wild from the memory. "You didn't have to see her lying there. You didn't have to feel completely powerless because you knew you were too late."

"Too late for what?" Dawn's breath caught in her chest. "Is there something you're not telling me? Don't be holding back on me now, Buffy. Not when it comes to Mom."

"Come here." She patted the seat beside her and waited for the younger girl to settle down before continuing. "I didn't say anything yet because I didn't want to spring it on you all at once. But, you should know."

"Know…what?" It was the voice of a little girl waiting to hear what her punishment was going to be for her latest misdeed, scared, tremulous, with just a hint of curiosity as to what was going to come next.

"I think…well, Spike and I both think…Mom didn't die from natural causes. We think she…might've been killed."

"What?" Dawn's muscles tensed to jump to her feet, with only Buffy's grip keeping her in her seat. "By what? You said there weren't any marks on her. Were you lying to me? How could you…?"

"No, no, I wasn't lying," Buffy rushed. "It didn't look like anything had touched her. But…there was…something in the house, something…bad. It tried killing me, too, but Spike managed to get me out of there before it could."

"Then why are we here?" she demanded. "Shouldn't we be trying to find it? We have to kill it. It killed Mom. We can't just let it---." The teenager jerked her arm away, rising to her feet, only to be held from running off by her sister's firm grasp on her elbow as she joined her standing.

"That's what we're doing," the Slayer assured. "We don't know what it is, or how to kill it, or even what it might want with me. Willow and Giles are doing research right now trying to get some answers that we can use."

"Then that's where we should be." Dawn's blue eyes were suddenly clear as she gazed levelly at Buffy. "I know you don't like me mixing with your Scooby stuff, but you can't honestly think I'm just going to sit here and do nothing while you go off and try to do this on your own? I want…I need to help with this. I can read just as well as any one of you, better probably than Xander even, and if research is what we need to do right now, then I want to be a part of it." Her face softened. "Please, Buffy? She was my mom, too. Don't make me just sit back and feel useless. Let me help."

The two sisters regarded each other and finally Buffy sighed. "You're right. And we can use the extra set of eyes. We'll find what we're looking for faster that way."

Dawn threw her arms around her, hugging her tight. "Thank you," she whispered.

As the two girls walked away from the stream, arms around each other's waist, Buffy felt her inner voice reaching out, searching for her other half that had so graciously allowed her the few moments of privacy. Spike

His response was immediate. Right here, luv.

Where are you guys?

Cort's library. Know where it is?

Nope.

Turn left here, he instructed as he let himself watch the caves through her eyes. When he saw the direction her feet chose, he inwardly sighed. Your other left

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

The words swam before her eyes, blending into a sea of big words she only half understood and little words that weren't helping anyway. Time seemed to stop in the bowels of Cortina's caves, and Buffy found herself wondering exactly how long they'd been at it. How come she doesn't have any clocks? she thought irritably.

'Cause Vroleks don't really care too much about time, Spike replied.

Glancing up, she saw the platinum head bowed over his latest book, seemingly intent on the text before him. To all outward appearances, he was engrossed in his reading, and she wondered not for the first time how he managed to keep so much hidden from the others.

The master of disguise, that's me, he chuckled. Her gaze returned to the pages of her own book, and she felt him softly reach out to her. How're you hangin' in there?

By my fingernails and there's a bitch with stiletto heels stomping on my hands.

You don't have to be here. Rupert would understand if you wanted to slip away.

No. Her denial was adamant. I have to do this. There'll be time for that…later.

He hesitated and then thought, to hell with it. As long as it's not too much later. You need to get it out, pet, before it eats you up from the inside.

She almost laughed out loud. Words of advice on how to deal with grief coming from a vampire? Now that's not something you hear every day. She instantly regretted thinking it, as the image of his very real tears crystallized for her, the sensation of his crying as he watched them in the grotto causing her own eyes to well up. I'm sorry, she apologized hastily. I didn't mean

Yeah, you did. He couldn't hide his bitterness from her. You're not the only Summers woman I love, you know. Your mum was the most decent bird I'd ever met in Sunny D. You think I didn't see that? And I would've thought you'd know by now that bein' a vamp doesn't mean you stop feelin'.

She couldn't help but look up, seeing the muscles twitching in his jaw as it tensed, his barely contained anger rising through his thoughts to the surface where the others would soon be able to see it for themselves. His pain cut through the barrier she'd erected, stabbing at her gut in innocence, and the air compressed in her lungs. This officially counts as the worst day ever in my entire life, she thought, as the first tear fell down her cheek.

The others looked up as Spike rose, taking Buffy's hand in his and leading her toward the door in silence, her head bent as the tears cascaded, tiny drops spilling from the end of her nose to the floor. No one questioned the pair, and when the door closed quietly behind them, they each resumed their reading.

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

The storm did not help in his pursuit, tossing the scents about on the wind like dust motes, only to occasionally lessen so that the Hound could resume his hunt. There was to be no fetching of this prey, though. His instructions were explicit…to locate the white one and then let them know. He did not understand why, but there was no mistaking his caretaker's concern for his safety and that was enough for him to push onward, to fight the dizzying waves that coursed through his black fur as if to push him back, daring him to fail.

The trail had not been difficult to find, the mingling of the human and demon scents slightly confusing but nonetheless distinctive enough. It had taken him down roads he hadn't travelled previously, and though the storm did its damage in misdirecting him more than once, it also offered him camouflage from those who might stay his path. And now here he was, a search around the perimeter confirming for him that his quarry had not traversed farther than this building, ready to return to the redheaded witch and lead her back. The scent was within, deep within, cloaked by layers of earth and metal, but the truth was indisputable.

The white one was here.

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

Although she was now sitting, the tape was still over her mouth, her hands still bound behind her, only now of course, on the other side of the chair back. They must've moved me in my sleep, Cortina reasoned, and would've laughed out loud if the gag hadn't prevented it. That's what I get for staying up all night with Rupert. I should know better by now to let my hormones get the best of me.

There were no clues as to her whereabouts in the meager furnishings of the room. It looked, for all intents and purposes, that it had been thrown together at the last minute, and she quickly realized that it probably had. Grey walls, the metal door…it could really be anywhere…

Her pale blue eyes lit on the entrance as it swung open, and a group of four humans walked in. Two of them she recognized from her fight at Rupert's, and noted with satisfaction the scratches that raked one of the pair's cheek. A third, female, was carrying electronic equipment, settling at the nearby table to set it up.

It was the fourth who captured Cortina's full attention, an elderly man still in robust health, grey hair receding from his round face, impeccably dressed in a dark suit complete with coordinating waistcoat. His air of command was unmistakable, and she watched as he waited for a chair to be placed opposite her, nodding with authority at the man who placed it, before sitting himself down to smile at her.

"My apologies for taking so long in seeing you," he said, his British accent wrapping a cold hand around her gut. "I realize we've never had the opportunity to meet and I do find it unfortunate it has to be under such…surreptitious circumstances." He paused as a fifth person appeared in the doorway, some device on a tall stand in his arms, and nodded to the space just off to the demon's right before turning back to gaze at her. "My name is Quentin Travers, and you, my dear Cortina, have been hiding from us for far too long…"


To be continued in Chapter 7: Destroyer and Preserver