DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Cortina has shared her story with Giles, telling him how the Council's ritual to bind the Soul Eaters killed her children and spurred her to wreak havoc among them, eventually leading to her exile when she decided to stop. She has promised not to run, but instead to return herself to the Council's hands so that they can repeat the ritual in order to save Buffy
Her small hand soothed a gentle tattoo between his shoulder blades, head tilted so that she could keep an eye on Spike's contorted face, his cheeks flushed as the spasms that had wracked his child's form receded. "You gonna be OK?" Buffy asked, and tried not to look at the pile of sick that now adorned the too-green grass behind the bush. "You want me to go find some water or something for you?"
"No, I'll be right as rain soon enough." Wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand, he straightened, glaring at the motionless merry-go-round behind them. "Y'know, there's a bloody good reason those bastards got banned in England."
"You should've said something. I wouldn't have pushed so fast." Her grin was wide. "Although it was kinda funny to see you jump off so quick."
"Next time we go dream-hoppin', I wanna have a say in what goes on. No more kid trips, and no more death traps."
His mood did nothing to faze her smile. "You're the one who wanted to play," Buffy reminded him as he began to stride away, back towards the rest of the park. She hurried to keep up with him. "I feel better. Doesn't that count for anything?"
Spike stopped, and turned to look at her. "Counts for everything, luv," he said, pushing a strand of hair away from her cheek with a small smile. "Sorry for bein' such a git."
"And I'm sorry I made you sick." Leaning forward, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. "But I'm not kissing you for real until you rinse out your mouth, or we wake up, whichever comes first."
He glanced around at the thinning crowd, watched as children began drifting to the benches to take parents in hand and leave the playground. "What're we s'posed to do now?" he queried.
"Go home, I guess," she shrugged. Her blond head swiveled, body following after, and she frowned, hazel eyes settling on the vacant seat. "Where'd Mom go?"
Even the pushchair was gone. As the two children slowly paced off the distance, the crowds around them seemed to dissolve, until by the time they were standing before the empty bench, Buffy and Spike were the only two left in the park. Without thinking, her hand slipped into his, and she inched closer to his side.
"Knew it was too good to be true," he muttered.
"What?" Her voice was barely above a whisper. Any louder seemed sacrilege in the now-derelict air.
It was a tickle around his ankles, barely there and yet unequivocal. The chill that crept up his jeans stiffened his grip, his head jerking to stare at the clouds that were drifting over the sun, and Spike felt the human heart he was beginning to hate pound within his ribcage. "Run."
The ground sucked the sound of their running footsteps as they raced back toward the merry-go-round and away from the encroaching storm, leaving them in a vacuum that constricted around their thin bodies. Buffy could feel the panic creeping across her skin, and lowered her head, barreling forward as she fought to suppress it. She hadn't sensed anything until they'd started moving; now, there was no mistaking the wind that was whipping her hair across her cheeks, or battling against her chest, trying to drive her back. Though she desperately wanted to look over, to confirm that Spike was still at her side, she didn't, keeping her gaze focused on their destination, the haven that would shelter the pair from whatever it was that was after them. How did they know the merry-go-round would be safe? she wondered. It was one of those dream things; they just knew.
Buffy reached it first, swinging her legs over the silver bar to straddle the center of the ride. Her knuckles were white as she watched Spike stumble, breaking his fall with the heels of his hands, before tripping the last few feet to latch onto the circular dais, his glasses slipping from his nose to fall silently to the dirt track that surrounded them. As he blinked, squinting into the dimming evening light, the air around them whipped into a gale, tearing at their fingers, driving particles of sand into their skin and shredding it into tiny scarlet ribbons.
"Don't let go, luv," he hissed into her ear as he wrapped himself around her, placing his hands over hers as they hung on.
"Last thing on my mind," she replied, and squeezed her eyes shut as they waited it out.
The Slayer's lids flew open and she found herself staring at her mother, the wind suddenly dead around her, the swaddled form of a baby cradled in Joyce's arms. The older woman was smiling, but there was no joy there, and behind her, she felt Spike stiffen.
"Whatever you do," he whispered, "don't let her get to you. It's not your mum. Remember that."
She knew the truth behind his words---a dream, it's just a dream, she silently intoned---but seeing her, having her so close, alive Buffy felt her heart leap into her throat as Joyce slowly shook her head.
"Now, William," the older Summers woman said sadly. "Don't make me get your mother."
There was no mistaking the tension in his arms as she felt him bury his face in her neck, averting his eyes from the vision in front of them. "Not her, not her," he murmured into her flesh, and Buffy found strength in the light of his determination.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
"Just to talk," Joyce replied. "I miss our talks. Don't you?"
"You're not real."
"Oh, Buffy." Her head tilted, gazing at the girl as she shifted the weight of the bundle in her arms. "I wish just once you'd stop being the Slayer for a second, and try being my daughter. Your father would be so disappointed if he could see you right now."
"She's playin' you " She felt his words more than heard them, but the assurance he meant to convey didn't work, and Buffy's heart began to quicken.
"I was thinking some nice hot chocolate is just what we need. What do you say? It's always so satisfying, don't you think?" The young girl saw the glittering come to Joyce's eyes, hardening them to stone, and involuntarily began to inch forward, the siren promise beckoning to her even as her eyes remained fixed on the pair waiting outside of the safety of the merry-go-round. She knew with every inexorable slide that it was wrong, something wasn't right, but her body refused to cooperate, edging itself closer to the brink to join her infant sister in Joyce's embrace.
Although he lacked his vampire strength, Spike's grip was still a vise around Buffy's upper arm, stopping her just as her sneakered foot approached the empty space surrounding the ride. "It's one of them," he hissed. "And if you get off here, she's goin' to hurt you more than you ever thought possible." She looked back at him, his blue eyes black. "Trust me on this."
The scream that tore from Joyce's throat as Buffy eased herself back into position between Spike's legs shattered the stillness of the air, whipping it back into the frenzy that had attacked them as they ran. As the two children watched, her fingers stretched into talons, digging into the blanket that wrapped the baby, quickly slicing ribbons of scarlet into the white.
"Dawn " Buffy whispered, and held her breath as the blood began to drip from the baby, soaking into the parched earth in lassitude.
Wrapping his arms tighter around her, Spike said softly, "Now would be a good time to wake up, luv "
Her lids bolted open, and despite the reassuring presence of Spike's chest beneath her cheek, there was no denying the panic that was flooding through the Slayer's body as she fought to control the trembling that convulsed her limbs. She sat up, using the rock of his abdomen as a brace, and swallowed. Most of the images were already fleeing, skittering away from her consciousness like feral cats running from encroaching humanity, but the message remained. Dawn was in danger.
"Spike!" Buffy's hand shook at his shoulder, mentally cursing that he could sleep so heavily. "Spike, wake up!"
As the vampire began to stir, she jumped from the bed, reaching for the clothes that had been so carelessly tossed to the floor earlier. A quick glance at her watch told her what she needed to know, that they still had a couple hours until sunrise. Good, she thought. Just enough time to get it done.
He blinked, slow to release the blanket of sleep. "Next time, try to hold off on sleep until I'm out of it, pet," Spike drawled. "I like my dreams better."
"Get dressed," she ordered, tossing him his jeans.
"Don't tell me you're in the mood for another midnight stroll."
"Nope." She pulled her top over her head. "A drive."
His mouth opened, and froze as he realized what she wanted. "It was just a dream, Buffy," he finally said. "Dawn's safe with the witches."
"And she'll be safer with me. Now come on. I need you to drive."
"Rupe's not goin' to like us nickin' his car," Spike grumbled as he rolled from the bed.
"He's not going to know. We do this right, we're there and back before the sun comes up." Buffy grinned. "Besides, we just got Cortina back. You really think Giles is thinking about anything other than her right now?"
The words were starting to blur before her, and the demon set down the pen to rub tiredly at her eyes. Though sleep was what she needed, so far, it had been elusive, slipping through Cortina's fingers like water, finally frustrating her enough to drive her to her writing desk. If she was going to do this---no, not if, she was going to do it---there were matters to be taken care of, arrangements to be made. And time was not on her side for a change.
As her hands fell from her eyes, her gaze slid to the pile of clothes folded up neatly at her side, the smell of his cologne wafting to her nostrils as she hesitantly extended a finger to trace the tiny stitches of a seam. At least it was over. Painful as it had been, Cortina didn't have to worry anymore about what Giles was going to think if he discovered the truth, or how he would react once he had that information in hand. She already knew. Not that she blamed him. It was a lot to absorb, and considering she had spent a good number of years destroying much of what he deemed precious, there really was no reason to expect that he would've responded any differently not, and still be the same man she knew and admired.
A quiet rap at the door behind her did nothing to break her attention from the scent of his shirt. "Come in," she called softly. It must be close to dawn, she thought. She had left explicit instructions she wasn't to be disturbed until it was time for her to go; it was a shame that time had already passed so quickly.
"I'm not interrupting you, am I?"
She refused to allow the sound of his voice affect her, and sat up, withdrawing her hand to turn and look at Giles standing in the doorway. "Of course not," she replied, chin high.
"I thought you'd be sleeping."
"It's hard to sleep when your brain refuses to stop working." She watched as he buried his hands deeper into his pockets. "Did you need something?" she prompted after a moment of silence.
Giles ignored her question and stepped further into the room, glancing over her shoulder at the paper in front of her. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Just taking care of some business," she said, turning back to look down at her work. "Leaving instructions for what should happen in my absence." The smile she gave him was fleeting. "You're going to have quite an impressive library when all this is over," she quipped.
His frown was immediate, his tone amazed. "You're writing a will?"
"Well, when you say it like that, it sounds quite fatalistic, doesn't it?" Cortina picked her pen back up and faced the paper again. "I just want to make sure that my books don't end up as kindling. I know you'll take care of them."
Giles snatched the pen from her grasp, stepping away to prevent her from taking it back again. "This is just a little too melodramatic, even for you," he said harshly. "I did not come in here to watch you give up."
"It's not giving up," she argued. "The Council's ritual proved deadly the first time they did it. There's no reason for me to think it won't be deadly again, and if I don't do this " She stopped, a tiny line appearing between her brows. "Why did you come in here?"
For the first time, he averted his gaze. "I was cold."
"Oh." Her disappointment edged her voice as she pushed the pile of clothes across the desktop and toward him. "There are extra blankets in the cupboard if that's not enough."
"And I wanted to talk." As he took a deep breath, Giles returned to the desk, perching himself on its corner to look down at her. "I don't like being lied to," he started.
Cortina bristled. "I haven't---."
"Let me finish," he interrupted, holding up his hand to cut off her words. "I can understand withholding certain facts when circumstances dictate its necessity, but bald-faced lies make me angry. And right now, I am furious. But not with you." Slowly, he took off his glasses and set them aside. "Though I can't say that I condone what you did, I do understand it. Pain, grief especially, has this remarkable tendency to push us in directions we may never have envisioned, and sometimes that means people get hurt."
"Why does that sound like you're not talking about me ?" Cortina murmured, pale eyes fixed on the determination in the Englishman's face.
"We all have pasts. We've all done things we're not particularly proud of. The important thing is to move on from it. Like you did."
"I didn't move. I ran."
"You made a conscious choice to stop," Giles countered. "And contrary to what you may think, you are not the same person you were a hundred years ago. The Cortina I know is generous of spirit, romantic to a fault, and outside of Buffy, the most persistently stubborn woman I've ever encountered. All of that may be as a result of what happened with your children, and the Council, but it doesn't matter. What matters to me is who you are now, because that is who I care about."
She pretended to pout. "I can see I've been demoted." At his slight frown, she clarified, "Earlier, you said you loved me."
He couldn't help but smile at the restrained twinkle in her eyes. "This will go much faster if you just let me talk," he chastised mildly. "Now, I will admit, I haven't always been able to ignore personal history in dealing with people---."
His smile faded, but he nodded his head. "Yes," he agreed. "Like Spike. Like others. But I'm learning. And the fact of the matter is, I can hardly judge you by standards that are different than how I'd judge myself."
"I hope you don't think I've ever---."
"No, I know you haven't. You're probably one of the few people with whom I've ever even felt comfortable discussing my Ripper days. Which is how I know you'll believe me when I say that I can understand how Cortina the Destroyer can become the same Cortina who would even consider doing this ritual to save the Vampire Slayer. She is part of you, but she isn't all of you." Very slowly, Giles leaned forward to take her hand, pulling her to her feet so that she leaned against him, encouraging her to press her weight into his, brushing his lips across her forehead. "I'm sorry I couldn't say all this to you in the library. I needed---."
"---to process it all," she finished, shaking her head. "It's OK. I understand, though I will admit, I certainly wasn't expecting this. Hoping for, yes. Expecting it, no." The relief that loosened her limbs shone in her eyes as she gazed up at him. "But you said you were angry. If it's not me "
His jaw tightened. "Sometimes, I'm quite ashamed to be associated with the Council," he said grimly. "And don't think for a second that I'm going to let you deliver yourself to them like some sacrificial lamb. I plan on having a few words with Quentin Travers myself. I think it's about time I got some straight answers for a change."
"That doesn't help Buffy, Rupert. The Soul Eaters aren't going to stop until they're satisfied."
"There has to be another way."
"Not that I particularly like agreeing with them, but don't you think Travers would've tried finding it before he came to Sunnydale?"
"Not necessarily." Giles pressed his lips together as his hand lifted to pinch the bridge of his nose, his eyelids flickering shut. He had a killer of a headache, but things must be said, issues had to be considered. There would be time enough later to try and get rid of the pain. "You don't know the man the way I do, Cortina. He's brilliant, he's devious, and he's determined. If he knows a path, he takes it. And as far as he's concerned, the path that led to you was most likely a godsend in his eyes. Their ritual worked before. He probably sees no reason why it wouldn't work again."
"And I'm just a demon to him," she said softly. "Inconsequential."
"Only to him," Giles replied, re-opening his eyes to stare into hers. "Only to him."
When she felt the tears---of relief, this time---prick her eyes, Cortina quickly lowered her head, unwilling to let him see them yet again. Her gaze fell on the clothes that rested behind him. "You said you were cold," she murmured. "You should probably get dressed."
"I was hoping I might be able to get some more sleep before morning," he said, and straightened, taking her hand in his as he stepped away from the desk and toward the bed.
"You don't have to do this." She didn't want to say it, but neither did she want this to be about pity.
Giles stopped, looking back at her drawn face. "Would you rather I slept somewhere else?" he asked gently. "Because frankly, I don't want to be anywhere else but here right now."
Cortina smiled. "No," she said. "Here is good."
The crisp night air cut into their lungs as they waited. At the rear, a muffled cough traveled up the length of the group and Travers turned to look at the offender, brow furrowed in disapproval, choking off the sound with merely a glance. This was not the time for noise, not the time for distraction, and if the men thought he would stand by and allow even the slightest disruption ruin the task ahead of them, they had another thing coming.
"Are there any further questions?" he asked, his voice barely audible in the darkness. Although he waited in anticipation, all present knew that to speak now would be inviting disaster and inevitably severe punishment. Their instructions were clear and succinct; not understanding them now was tantamount to idiocy.
"Good." Travers nodded. He turned to look back at the cave's opening, a black mouth that gaped in the exposure of the desert. "Then, it's time "
To be continued in Chapter 14: Commotion