DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Giles have managed to rescue Cortina from the Council, while Spike has showed up at the Summers' house to take care of Joyce, only to find her body is missing…

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

Chapter 9: Hectic Red

Her feet pounded silently against the pavement as they ran for the car, the quiet echo of Giles' steps behind her, the awkward gait of Willow in front. It had been easy, too easy she knew, but that was a thought for later, when they had put some distance between them and the Council, when they…

…not there…can't…not possible…

Buffy's muscles locked, riveting her in a rigor mortis that sent fingers of ice to clench around her heart. Her gaze turned inward, seeing what he was seeing…how?…the questions already piling up as her Watcher halted before her.

"What is it?" he hissed, eyes darting between his charge and the car.

"Mom…" she murmured, and her head jerked up, hazel blazing. "Get in the car. We have to get Spike."

…He was stumbling backwards, fingers gripping the doorframe, nails clawing at the wood, and she could smell it then, all around him…

With what will she could muster, Buffy forced her body forward, lungs not sucking in the clean night air but drowning in the sickly sweet that permeated her house, and when she felt Spike trip over his own feet, landing on his bottom with his duster tangled around his legs, her own limbs collapsed to send her sprawling to the ground, the heels of her hands scraping roughly against the concrete. The tears were right there, blinding her, threatening to spill as they welled, and she began gulping, unable to breathe.

Luv, don't…

I…can't…what…why…And the gulps evolved into hyperventilating swallows, where nothing could get in, nothing could get out, the black spots starting to dance before her eyes as air suddenly seemed like a precious commodity…

And he was back on his feet, out the door, slamming it behind him as his boots tore down the sidewalk…away from the house…the panic that had gripped him in its thrall dissipating with each step…his strength returning only to feel Buffy locked in a fight for breath…

She felt his arms under her shoulders, lifting, carrying her to the car, and the irrational thought of when did Giles get so strong flitted across her brain, causing Spike to chuckle somewhere deep within the recesses of her head. "Breathe, Buffy," Giles said, the comfortable familiarity of his voice a brace to which she could cling, and the echoing, breathe, luv, bolstering her will as she reached out, combining his tenacity with her own to consciously regain control.

Willow's face was a mask of fear as the Watcher slid Buffy into the back seat with Cortina. "What's wrong?" she asked, and watched as the white demon extended a slim hand to press gently against her friend's chest, her pale eyes sad.

"Can Dawn…stay with you…and Tara tonight?" Buffy asked, her voice barely audible as the air still burned in her lungs with a palpable stickiness.

"Sure, no problem." Her worried gaze flicked to Giles as he climbed behind the wheel. "I sent Elvis back to the caves. If you could just…"

"Of course." The car roared to life in his hands. "Where to, Buffy?"

"Your place," she murmured, lids flickering closed. "He'll be waiting…"

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

The water stung as they washed out the grit that had ground into her palms, and Buffy winced, shoulders slumped, head bent. She had insisted Cortina be seen to first, in spite of Spike's arguments, but now the two Englishmen were bustling around her like mother hens, bumping into the other as they fought to be the first to get the bandages, or the first to hold her hands still.

"You must think I'm a big old Slayer baby," she murmured, giving Giles a small smile of gratitude as he rinsed out the washcloth in the nearby sink.

"I think…you've had an incredibly difficult day," he replied. "And you are coping remarkably well."

Her laughter was a sharp bark, punctuated with the sudden tears that sprang to her eyes, and her mouth twisted into a grimace as she brushed them away. "I'd hate to see what your idea of not coping looks like."

"Now that Cort's taken care of, you can get some good solid sleep," Spike said, pushing back the hair that had slipped over her brow. "Thing's'll be better in the mornin'."

Liar, she thought at him, and was rewarded with a crooked smile.

"Spike, can I…speak with you alone for a moment?" Drying his hands on the towel, Giles turned to see two bemused sets of eyes watching him. "What?" he asked.

"The talking alone thing doesn't work so well when we're in each other's head," Buffy replied. "I mean, sometimes, if we're busy or distracted or something, it's easy to not pay attention, you know, to give the other one some privacy. But if you think I've got the strength right now to stick my fingers in my ears and go 'la la la' while you talk about me behind my back, maybe I'm actually looking better than I feel, 'cause it's not going to happen."

"Oh." The Watcher frowned, dropping the towel to the side as he leaned back against the sink. "Well, I wanted to talk about…Joyce, actually."

"What about her?" Spike's eyes narrowed.

"I know this might be…painful, but are you certain she was dead when you saw her the first time?"

"Yes." Their answer was simultaneous, unfaltering, and Giles took a mental step back at the unanimity of the response.

"And you didn't search the house? Is it possible she could've been moved to a different room?" He didn't even want to think by what.

Spike shook his head. "I didn't search, but I'd stake everything I've got she wasn't there. The place didn't smell like death. It smelled like…" He stopped, searching for the right words.

"Like a hundred cotton candy booths all bunched up together," Buffy put forward. "That kind of sickly sugary smell that gets stuck in the back of your throat. And not in a good way."

Removing his glasses, the Watcher began chewing on the end, musing out loud as the thoughts tried to arrange themselves in his brain. "If Joyce wasn't there, that only leaves two viable options. Either she walked out on her own---somehow---or someone took her out of there." Actually, there was a third choice, but somehow he thought that suggesting something could've eaten Joyce might be just a little too much for the young woman to hear right now.

"Why would they do that? What could they possibly gain from stealing my Mom's body?"

Giles shrugged. "I have no idea. Perhaps we'll uncover something we've missed when we return to Cortina's. This might narrow our search slightly."

Spike stood. "Rupert's right. We should probably get outta here before what's after Buffy susses out she's back in town."

"Make sure we let Will know not to say anything to Dawn when she gets back. She doesn't need to be thinking there's anything wrong. This is tough enough for her as it is."

"It's tough for you as well, Buffy."

She smiled at the gentle tone in her Watcher's voice. "Yeah, but I've got years more experience dealing with death than she does."

"Not this kind."

Her mouth opened to argue, but the firm pressure of Spike's hand on her shoulder stayed her tongue. Don't do this, he thought. Not now. Instead, she rose to her feet. "So, research party at Cortina's?"

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

When she heard the movement on the other side of the door, the white demon scurried away, resuming her seat on the couch so that they wouldn't know she'd been standing outside the bathroom door. I've really got to stop eavesdropping, Cortina thought. I so rarely like what I hear anyway.

She hadn't even meant to, but when the young redhead had left, the apartment had seemed too big, too empty, and she had really gone in search of company more than anything else. Her hand had been halfway to the doorknob when she'd heard Spike start talking about the smell, and when Buffy only confirmed what she had feared in the first place, there was no way she could complete the path, her fingers falling back to her side as the thoughts tumbled about in her head. Damn Travers for being right.

When Giles appeared in the doorway, Cortina automatically lifted her head, spreading a smile across her face that didn't quite meet the sorrow in her pale blue eyes. "Willow left," she offered before he could say a word. "She said now that the storm was past, she could just walk. She didn't want us to have to waste time by taking her home."

"I'll call her," Buffy said, and crossed to the phone.

The cushions sagged slightly as he sat down at Cortina's side, his gaze searching her face before picking up her hands to examine the damage to her fingertips and wrists. "How are you feeling?" Giles murmured.

"Just fine," she responded, but was glad he wasn't looking at her eyes when she said it. If he had, there would've been no way he could've missed the pain that was reflected in their depths, or not heard the silent apology that flitted across her mind. I'm so sorry, Rupert…

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

Buffy stood in the doorway of the library, eyes fixed on the stacks of books that littered the desk and floor, and felt her stomach sink, the knot in her throat tighten as the prospect of hours of research began to sound way too much like not fun. "I hate to sound too much like a spoil sport," she said, "'cause I realize that yes, this is all about saving my life here, but would you two mind if I…didn't…do this right away?" She gestured weakly toward the piles of literature, unable to tear her gaze away from it.

"Of course not," Giles replied. "We hardly expect you to be pushing yourself so hard as it is."

"Just go back to the room and try to sleep, luv," came from Spike as he dropped himself into one of the chairs, reaching to pick up the nearest book. "We'll take care of the brain work."

"Never would've pegged you for someone who likes research," she teased, letting her mouth lift into a half-smile.

His eyes were serious. "It's not about the research," he said solemnly. "It's about the answers. Now go sleep."

She left Cortina's library, allowing her feet to automatically lead her off in the direction of their room, but couldn't help the sense of closeness around her head, the walls suddenly too near, her skin itching as if she was being eaten alive by millions of microscopic bugs desperate for a meal. Gotta get out of here, she thought desperately. Just need some fresh air. I've spent too much time these past few weeks locked away in caves.

It took no time at all to escape into the cool night, and Buffy felt her heart pounding as she gazed up into the sky. Hard to believe it was storming so badly just earlier today, she mused. Even when…

She swallowed hard. No. Not going there. Can't think about that. Don't think period.

Her shoes crunched quietly on the loose soil of the desert, hands stuffed deep inside her pockets, inhaling the crisp chill so that it spread like a frost inside her lungs, watching her breath become visible as she blew it out, only to repeat the process, enjoying the simplicity of such a simple act. Don't take it for granted, not ever. Even Spike could appreciate it now. For those few minutes during the cleansing when he'd been human, he'd had to breathe, had felt the fragility of the whole thing, and given it back to her intact. It still amazed her how he could've done it…given up the gift of a normal life just so that she wouldn't be robbed of hers. He chose that, and if ever she had had any doubt about the depth of his ability to love, they were banished with that clear-cut knowledge.

As she rounded the curve of the hill, Buffy's senses immediately picked up on the presence of another, and unconsciously she straightened, hazel eyes darting around to inspect the shadows, search for some sign of…

And there it was, a man's form, slinking away into the distance. Whether he saw her or not was irrelevant. Here, in the privacy of Cortina's caves, anyone visiting could not be good.

Buffy broke into a run, arms pumping as her steps grew louder in the clear air, carrying to the other's ears so that he straightened to look back. His own pace quickened, but his speed was no match for hers, and she launched herself to tackle him, rolling with his dark form until they ended with her perched on top of his chest, knees pinning him down beneath her.

"You know, it's very rude to just show up unannounced," she said lightly, watching him struggle to free himself from her grasp. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to call first?"

"I was just…out for a walk," he said, striving for nonchalance.

"And how lame an alibi is that?" She shook her head in mock dismay. "At least if you're going to lie, you could make it a good one." Her face hardened. "So, let's just skip the usual quippage, OK? Who are you and what do you want?"

His mouth was a grim line, and Buffy knew right away that he wasn't going to talk. "Look," she went on, "you don't want to piss me off right now. I've had a really bad day." When he remained silent, she felt the anger begin to boil in her gut, fingers of flame licking their way outward to surge to her skin, tightening around her nerve endings. Before she could think, her fist shot, connecting with her captive's nose, and she felt it crumble beneath her force, the blood spurting so that he gasped, only to be cut off with a gurgle as she placed her hand around his throat.

"I'm only going to ask one more time," she hissed, and let her grip start to squeeze…

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

Stupid bloody G'trowen historians, Spike thought irritably, and tossed the book onto the table, rubbing at his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision. Can't just come out and call an apocalypse, an apocalypse. Have to spend six hundred fuckin' pages to say absolutely shit.

He felt his stomach rumble as he reached for another tome, and realized it had been twenty-fours since he'd had anything to eat. Should've stopped by the crypt before coming back. Don't think Cort's got any blood on supply on the off-chance a vampire stops by.

The sudden watering of his mouth took him by surprise, though, and he frowned, sniffing at the air. 'Cept maybe I'm wrong, he thought. 'Cause that sure as hell smells like blood to me.

If he hadn't been so absorbed in his reading, Spike might've sensed it sooner, heard what was going on outside the caves before the assault on his senses brought his demon to the front, his fangs elongating as the snarl rumbled from his throat, eyes blinking golden in the dim light of the library. As it was, the unsolicited shift jerked him to his feet, causing him to stumble over the books stacked around his chair.

He saw it then, heard her…ask one more time…and felt the pressure on his own fingers as Buffy strangled the life out of the intruder underneath her. The demon within trumpeted her on, but as Spike focused on the battle outside…good girl, catch the beastie…he picked up on what she was missing, and his vampire visage promptly disappeared.

Buffy! he called, desperate to get her attention.

I'm working here, Spike. Can we do this later?

Working? You're killing him!

I know.

And he felt the steely determination in her strength, tasted the bloodlust coursing through her veins…and panicked.

You can't do this, luv. He's not a demon. He's human.

…I don't care…

He had no choice. The fear that she would really do it, that she was about to cross that line Slayers weren't supposed to cross, was all too real in his mind, and Spike pushed his thoughts forward as he bolted from the room, his feet moving as fast as he could manage, careening through the corridors of the cave as he fought to reach her in time.

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

It felt good, the life seeping from his skin as he panted and gasped for air, soaking into her flesh as it hungered for the taste of death. Why had they never told her it could feel like this…? The power…the crimson tide that swelled around her, carrying her in its heady embrace to…

And then it wasn't the man she was seeing, her own breath stopping as her mother's eyes looked back at her, blinking in sadness, a small smile on her lips as if she forgave her eldest daughter for the murder she was about to commit…

Buffy leapt off, flying backward as she scrambled to put as much distance as possible between her and her…She blinked. No. Not Mom. The man. The intruder. The one who wouldn't speak. Only he was making plenty of noises now, gurgling as he rolled onto his hands and knees, trying to breathe again, the blood dripping from his broken nose. She'd been about to…no…she didn't do that…not Buffy…not the Slayer…not her…

"Bitch," he muttered.

She wasn't meant to have heard it. It had been low, under his breath, more of an autonomic response than anything directed specifically at her. Still…she had, and the cold slap of reality it gave her dragged her back to her feet, staring down at his hunched form, eyes like ice as she stepped toward him.

"Told you, you didn't want to piss me off," she said.

"Buffy…luv…"

Only then did she stop, swiveling her head to stare at him outlined in the moonlight, platinum hair gleaming as he tentatively neared her. "Wanna share?" she whispered. "I kill him, and you get to eat."

"Not like this, luv." His approach was methodical, like she was some rabid animal he needed to catch, and he kept his eyes locked on hers, the night creating two matching pools of ebony as the lovers regarded each other. "It's not worth it."

"Yes. It is."

Spike stepped again, once…twice. "It's the grief. Joyce wouldn't want…"

Buffy blinked. "That was you," she said, suddenly making the connection. "You made me think…"

"Had to. You were killin' him." She was within arm's reach now, and the vampire slowly extended his hand, pushing back the hair that curled against her cheek.

"Why would you do that?" Her voice was a blend of incredulity, anger, and, most of all, pain, the words tripping from her tongue as her tears returned.

"'Cause I love you," he murmured, and pulled her into his arms, brushing his lips over the salt that spilled down her cheeks. His gaze flickered to the man on the ground, who watched them in amazement, and his tone was low and angry. "Run, you stupid git."

He didn't need to be told twice, scrambling to his feet to lurch into the darkness. Behind him, the Slayer crumpled against the vampire, and Spike lifted her trembling body, turning away from the rising moon to carry her back into the cave.


To be continued in Chapter 10: The Comrade of Thy Wanderings