DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Cortina has told Giles that she knows what is after Buffy and Spike. They are called the Soul Eaters
She wanted to touch him, to feel him holding her, telling her that this was all a bad dream and that it was time to wake up. But it wasn't. And she couldn't. Not until he knew the whole story. And even then the choice to touch would have to be his.
Cortina's fingers traced the delicate edge of the spine, her pale eyes locked on the book in her hands. "You have no idea how much I'm fighting starting, 'Once upon a time in a land far, far away,'" she joked, although there was no levity in her tone, the somberness of the air weighing her words with lead. "Because the irony of it is, it's the most apt beginning for all this."
"Fairy tales are for children," Giles said, his eyes unintentionally hard behind the lenses of his glasses. "And we're not children."
"I don't suppose you have kids," she mused. "Of your own, I mean. Somewhere back in England maybe an accident from your Ripper days, perhaps?"
There was no mistaking his frown. "No, not that I know of. Why are you changing the subject again? I've asked---."
"I'm not." She looked up, determined to face this head-on, and swallowed hard. "Please. Bear with me. I haven't told this story in over a hundred years. I might be a little rusty."
Against his will, Giles felt some of his frustration dissipate, the pain that was etched across her fine features lending its own flame to the fire inside him. Whatever it was she had to share, it was eating her up, and he was powerless to help not until he knew the entire tale. "All right," he murmured, and leaned back into the chair. "I'll trust you on this."
"I know you love Buffy as if she were your own," Cortina started, "and I know that many of those feelings transfer to her friends, as well. I'm sure if asked, you'd do just about anything for her. And that's good. That's as it should be. For you." There was a slight hitch in her voice as she continued. "But when they're yours when you've borne them suffered for them bled for them and something comes along and takes all that away you break, and when you put yourself together again sometimes you find that you're different. Things are different. The world is different. And you don't care."
"You're not saying these creatures that are after Buffy are yours, are you?"
She couldn't help but laugh, unable to contain herself at the absurdity. "God, no. Not only are they centuries older than me, they're an entirely different species."
"I'm sorry. It's just you're talking of children, and you said the Council calls them the 'children of the wind.' I assumed---."
"That's just a euphemism they've coined so that they can fit them into one of their neat little boxes," she replied. "To catalog them away under their demonic texts."
"Then " Giles frowned. "You've never mentioned anything about having your own children."
"Because I don't. Not anymore. They're dead."
For the first time since she'd started, Giles leaned forward, reaching out to stroke her cheek as the tears spilled silently over her skin. "I'm so sorry," he murmured.
She shrugged. "It was a long time ago. It's almost funny, because I was actually thinking I was finally past all this. This week meeting you for the first time in years, I managed to forget. I was actually planning for the future. I haven't done that in ages, not to any serious degree. I had one job, one focus, and that was to hide. To make sure that no one could find me. And then when they finally do, it's because I decided to take a risk and open my door to you. How's that for irony?"
"I don't suppose Quentin told you how he discovered your presence?" Giles queried. "I assure you, I didn't---."
Cortina cut him off with a shake of her head. "I know. You're not going to want to hear this because it's just going to make you angrier at him, but when they came and did their little show-and-tell with Buffy about Glory, they set up surveillance on all the Scoobies, as well you and Buffy. That's how they found me. Not because of anything you did. Because of their own intervention. And their inability to let sleeping dogs lie."
There was a moment of silence as Giles dropped his hands to his lap, eyes down as he digested her words. "I had originally thought they had abducted you in order to study your species," he finally said. "I'm beginning to suspect that perhaps my assumption was a little naïve."
"Will I be hurting my case if I say I find that wonderfully endearing?" Cortina murmured. "That, in spite of everything you've ever done in your life, there is this hopeless romantic buried deep within you that desperately wants to believe in the best in those around him?"
"Forgive me if I don't agree with your assessment."
"No, I don't suppose you would."
"So, if their purpose was not for studying, why did the Council kidnap you?"
She smiled. "And here we cut to the nitty gritty." Gently returning the book in her hands to the desk, the white demon averted her eyes, keeping her face in profile so that she could continue without having to see the effects her words would have on him. "Quentin Travers wanted to make a deal with me. If I would agree to help them with the Soul Eaters, they would exonerate me from all my past misdeeds, and I could return to a life where I wouldn't have to hide anymore."
"But you said they can't be killed."
"They can't. But they can be bound. And for the Council, that's good enough."
"And this history is what you're trying to run away from now?"
"No." Her denial was firm, and took Giles by surprise, lifting his gaze to watch the play of emotions across her skin. "I'm not proud of what I was, but I've accepted it. My original exile wasn't an attempt to renounce it. I ran a century ago because I was being hunted for what I did. I had a nickname, too, at one point, although it wasn't nearly as charming as Ripper." She licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry. "I was renowned as Cortina the Destroyer, because I ensured that everything I touched turned to dust. There were those I felt had wronged me, so I sought them out and if I didn't kill them outright, I tortured them to such a degree that they'd end up begging to die." Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Cortina saw the frown creasing the Watcher's brow. "Does hearing this shock you?" she asked.
"I'd be lying if I said no," he murmured.
"It's all right. I know you spend most of the time we're together trying to forget that I'm actually a demon and you're not. Hell, I do it myself. But it doesn't change the reality of it. When it comes to things that mean a lot to me my friendships, my family, my loves I've always been reactionary, and not always in a good way." She waited for some kind of a response---anything---but was met with only silence. Not going to look at him, she vowed silently. I can't. Just go on. Do it. Tell him the whole story.
"How much do you know about the local legends?" she asked.
"Regarding you and the Lookout?" Cortina nodded. "Well, there are the tales that get told by the parents. How you ran away after your husband murdered your children, went crazy, and began kidnapping local kids, using their bones to dig out the caves in the desert." Giles' eyes narrowed. "You're not telling me that that's all true, are you?"
"Not all of it," she said softly. "But every good lie is based in truth. At one point, I did have a partner that humans might have considered a husband, and I did have kids, two of them, a boy and a girl. And, indirectly, he was the one responsible for their deaths." The deep breath she took did little to calm her racing nerves. "I left him when I decided it was over, and took our kids with me, but that didn't sit too well with him, and he kept showing up. I kept running, and the whole thing turned into this vicious cycle until finally I decided to play hardball."
He waited for her to continue, watching the tension in her jaw, the lines of her throat as she kept swallowing, almost as if the words were struggling to climb their way out of her voicebox. The tremor in her hands was more pronounced, fingers vibrating against the arm of her chair as she struggled to maintain control, and Giles realized just how terrified the white demon really was. He wanted to help her, the desire to take her in his arms---to tell her that none of it mattered---suffocating, yet knew he wouldn't couldn't not until she'd told him all.
"It wasn't pretty. Anger very rarely is. And when it was done, I realized too late that I'd pushed him too far. So he struck back in the way he knew would hurt me the most by kidnapping our children and selling them to your Council of Watchers."
Those were the words that finally drove him to his feet, his disbelief emanating from his limbs with every stiff flex of his muscles. "We they don't traffic in the purchase of children," he sputtered. "Not even if they're demon children."
"They do," she insisted, gazing up at him sadly. "Well, they did. This was a hundred and fifty years ago, Rupert. Times were very different then, and the fact of the matter is the Council needed my children, or rather, they needed Vroleks. My children were convenient."
"But why?" Giles demanded. "What on earth could be so important that they would---?"
"The Soul Eaters were free, killing indiscriminately along the countryside of England, and your Council had just learned of a way to stop them."
"You said they can't be killed."
"They can't. It's kind of hard to kill something that doesn't have a body."
"Are they ghosts?"
She shook her head. "No, they're non-corporeal."
"What's the difference?"
"Ghosts are creatures that were once alive. The Soul Eaters are alive, just without form."
His eyes were burning behind his glasses, and Giles slipped them off, rubbing at his closed lids as if by doing so it would magically restore his clear vision, make everything before him go away. "You understand this is quite a bit to digest," he commented.
"That's why I told you to read the book," she tried to joke, knowing even as she did so that it fell on deaf ears.
"You mentioned something earlier about binding," he prompted, his spectacles dangling from his hand.
Cortina nodded. "The Council learned of a ritual that they believed would permanently place the Soul Eaters into a sort of holding pattern, of which apparently, Vroleks were a key ingredient."
"But magic doesn't work on your species."
"Don't ask me how they did it, because I don't know. I don't know any of the particulars. I only learned about all this after the fact." Her voice hardened. "The only thing I can tell you definitively is that whatever they did, it killed my children. Their ritual did work, but at a price, and the day I found out, I vowed to take my revenge. Hence, my Destroyer phase." Cortina's thin fingers wrapped around the arm of her chair, knuckles white, mirroring the stone in her words. "I started with my beloved husband. Tortured him and when he screamed for mercy, I hurt him some more. I believe he finally died from blood loss. Then I killed his family, and everyone he had ever held dear. And when I got bored with that, I turned to those who'd actually conducted the ritual."
"The Council "
"I'd slaughtered half of their Watchers before they ever knew what hit them. Even tossed in a couple Slayers in training for good measure. I burned their libraries, sold their secrets, did everything I could to hurt them even a fraction of what they'd done to me. I even faked making a deal with them, just to get on the inside to do a little more damage."
"Why have I never heard any of this?" Giles asked. "Your species isn't even supposed to exist. Why would---?"
"Because they were embarrassed," she interrupted, and looked up at him. "I was a single female demon, and I managed to bring their organization to their knees. All. By. Myself. At least, that's what they believed. I actually had some help for parts of it." Her laugh was a rasp that grated over his skin. "There are a lot of demons out there who are more than willing to get involved in hurting your bosses. I took advantage of that, and ended up getting all the credit.
"The Destroyer part of my life lasted for twelve years. Twelve, very long, years. When I decided enough was enough that creating more deaths wasn't going to bring them back or make me feel any better I stopped. And I ran. And I hid on the Hellmouth for a hundred and thirty-seven years. And now the Soul Eaters are back, and so's the Council, and everything is falling to pieces again."
"I still don't understand why you want to run again, though. You say it's not because of your history, so I assume you weren't running because you were afraid to tell me." He almost looked hopeful as he stated the last, eyes darting to meet hers before dancing away.
"I was afraid to tell you. Even when Travers threatened to use you against me in order to get me to cooperate---."
"The man does his homework. He was prepared to sacrifice you in order to get me to agree to their plans, because he knew that I wouldn't be able to allow that to happen. Then, when he said the Soul Eaters were after Buffy and Spike, that was pretty much the clincher. As long as I remained in their custody, I would've done everything I could to make sure the three of you remained safe."
"And then we rescued you " He knew what was coming next, and mentally kicked himself for not having figured it out long before she had to spell it so clearly.
"And I got another chance. Contrary to what you may believe or what Buffy might think, I am far from noble. I do what I have to do to save my own skin. When the Council started actively hunting me, I ran and hid. Whatever this binding ritual is, it's lethal. It killed my children, and I see no reason why it won't do the same thing to me." Very slowly, she rose from her chair and stood before Giles, gazing up at him while refusing to allow their bodies to touch. "I don't want to die. I'm not ready to. That's why I was running. Well, that's why I was preparing to run. I'm not really going anyplace now, am I?"
"How can I? It was different before, when I thought before you said " Cortina smiled in spite of the tears in her eyes. "I can't believe this is actually harder than telling you about killing the Council."
Now was the time to touch her, to slough the trouble from her flesh like a dead skin. Giles could feel her need for him hovering there between them, spectral hunger that sang of pain, and though his own need was just as great, he hesitated, locking his arms at his side to stave off his own instincts, turning his head to avoid having to look into those pale blue orbs.
The demon sighed. "I'm going to rest in my room," she said softly as she side-stepped away from him, walking slowly toward the door. "I'll make arrangements to return to the Council's little hideaway in the morning so that they can do whatever it is they have to do to save Buffy and Spike." As her fingers slid around the knob, she glanced over her shoulder, seeing his bare back still facing her. "If it'll make you feel better, you can sleep outside my door to ensure that I don't run away, but it won't be necessary. You have my word on that."
The room echoed of silence after she had left, and Giles felt the tension wrap tighter around his chest, his head a tumult as everything she had just said whipped around. So much information so little time and he had no idea where to start in processing it
To be continued in Chapter 13: The Locks of the Approaching Storm