DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Cortina has called upon Dolly to teleport Buffy and Spike, and she and Giles, to safety. Spike has awoken from his sleep with a burn mark on his chest…

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

Chapter 19: Lulled by the Coil

Her fingers shook as they massaged the cream into the burns, the accompanying sting in her own chest making her grit her teeth against the pain. You’re not hurt, she had to remind herself. Though it sure as hell felt like it.

On the bed, Spike lay motionless, eyes closed, jaw locked, and it surprised Buffy how solemnly he was accepting the treatment. She could almost hear the vortex of emotions running through his body, a distant hum that vacillated from a quiet ebb to a thunderous roar, yet none of it seemed apparent across the tapestry of his face. It wasn’t normal, not for the chipped vamp. In spite of protestations to the contrary, he was always so proud of his feelings; they were badges of honor displayed for anyone to see. And now he was doing his best to hide them away, tuck them into oblivion, desperately trying to keep them hidden from her. More than any damage his body might currently be displaying, this frightened the Slayer into her own silence. Because it meant he was afraid, and fear from Spike was not something she was used to dealing with.

“Where are we?” His voice was a low murmur, coated in thick sobriety, betraying none of the sensations coursing through him. He didn’t even bother opening his eyes, just rested in repose under her ministrations. It was eerie.

“Dolly’s gotten us away from Sunnydale,” Buffy said softly. “Someplace safe. For a few days, at least.” She added the next as an afterthought. “We hope.”

“Cort must’ve knocked some sense into Rupert then,” he replied. “Don’t see him hiring the demon train to help us sort out this mess on his own.” It was then that he opened his eyes, the sapphire almost completely overtaken by black, the whites bloodshot as if he’d been awake for days on end. “They here, too?”

Buffy shook her head. “Someplace else. Cortina thought it best if we separated for now. Give the Council different targets in trying to find us.”

Mention of the Council was enough to drive Spike to close his eyes again, and he sighed unnecessarily. “Bastards,” he muttered. “Just once, I’d like to get my hands on that Travers bloke and twist his bureaucratic neck. See how he feels havin’ his head messed around with for a change.”

In spite of the violence behind his tone, she couldn’t help but smile. This was the Spike she knew. Tread loudly and carry a huge stick. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed him over the past few days.

“S’pose I have Dolly to thank for the rescue,” he continued. “Don’t think Red’s repertoire extends to teleportation.”

“Willow found you first. The rest…” She let the words trail off, wondering for the first time why he was asking her so many questions. He should know these things; they were in her head, plain as day. All he had to do was go looking for them.

That thought he seemed to hear. “Too tired,” he mumbled. “Too hard.” He opened himself up then, letting the wash of exhaustion that was seeping through his muscles surge forward, enveloping her in velvet cloaks that made her want to curl up into his side and sleep. Whatever the Council had used on him had been powerful stuff, and combined with the escapades of his dreams, there was little fight left in the vampire. Only the desire to rest. For a very long time.

“You’re going to have to tell me what happened,” Buffy said, setting aside the cream before stretching out alongside him. Her body curved into his. “It was the dream, right?”

“Don’t know how,” Spike admitted, letting one hand come up to play distractedly with her hair. In spite of the pain, it seemed so far away now, dissipating into vaporous ghosts that fluttered too far along the edges of his subconscious to be caught. Holding Buffy, feeling her heart echoing in his own, drawing upon her strength even as he hated the fact that he was forced to do so…this was real. Not the other. Not the one who mimicked his past. Except, it was. He now bore its mark. Somehow, the Soul Eater had manifested his torture into a visible pain for the waking world to see, and there would be no more hiding, no more denying, no more wishing that it would all go away. It would soon be time to face the truth, to tell Buffy just what was going on and what he thought it meant. And to hope that she didn’t run from him when she knew.

“We can talk about it later,” she murmured, letting her own lids flutter shut. “Right now, just sleep.”

It was that word---sleep--- that drove him up, bolting ramrod straight, knocking a surprised Buffy aside. “No,” he rasped. “No more sleeping. Not ‘til we get this sussed. Not goin’ through it again. Won’t.”

His eyes were wild, his body teeming with electrical charges that animated him more than he’d been since waking. She was almost afraid to touch him; surely there would be some kind of shock in doing so. “So we talk about it,” she said, crawling around so that she knelt in front of him, his legs spread-eagled either side of her hips. “Tell me what happened. Where did you get this mark?”

“Her.” Venom dripped from the single word, hatred and frustration and hurt biting it from his lips. “Bitch was…pissed ‘cause I told you about her. Reached into my chest and started playing with my insides like they were soddin’ silly putty.”

“The Soul Eater is a woman?”

He shrugged. “Don’t think so. I think it just…picked that particular form to…get inside my head. Told you. It’s been messin’ with me, usin’ things only I know to…” His lips pursed, and he swung his legs around her to rise from the bed, pacing along the length of the room in a caged frenzy. “You don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to me, but that part of my cranium’s locked up nice and tight against the plundering hordes, which includes you for some reason, and the only one outside of me with the bloody key is that soul-eating hellbitch. And for some reason, she’s taken up residence. And it’s starting to brass me off.”

“So get off your ass and start fighting this thing.”

He stopped, blue eyes wide as he stared at her in amazement. “What the hell do you think I’ve been doin’?” he asked. “Who got you out of your house when you found your mum’s body? And who was the one that helped you on the playground? I deserve a little credit here, at least.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Buffy inhaled deeply, struggling to control her own temper. With their minds linked as they were, his fury was contagious and it was all she could do not to begin feeding off of it herself. “What I meant was…you’re angry? Then, use it. Focus it on beating these things.”

Spike snorted. “Like we know how to do that.”

“Maybe we don’t. But it means we try harder to figure it out. We’ve got allies in this…Cortina, and Giles…we don’t have to face these things alone.”

He stopped in his tracks, eyes hooded, gazing down at the flush in her cheeks. “Have we come back to this, then?” he asked quietly. “Because I’ve got no problems hashing this out.”

“Back to what?”

“Us. Partners. Facing things alone.”

She regarded him, hazel unwavering. “You’ve been out of it for a long time,” she said slowly. “And a lot of that time, all I could do was sit around and think.” She attempted to smile, and failed. “Not my favorite pastime activity. Makes my head hurt.”

“I meant what I said, Buffy. You’re used to bein’ a lone gun, even if you do have the witches, and Xander, and Giles for back-up. I don’t fancy havin’ to play at bein’ Mr. Slayer, and watchin’ you do my fightin’ for me.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “Not that I don’t love watchin’ you fight,” he murmured, and leaned forward to crawl onto the bed. “And not that I don’t appreciate havin’ you watchin’ my back. It’s just a matter of balance. And right now, you’re tryin’ to tip the scales.”

“It’s not like I’m trying to be tippy.”

His hand came up to brush back the hair from her face, to see the honest despair in her eyes. She believed that so strongly; maybe that was all that mattered. “Just don’t be thinkin’ that I’m not capable,” he said. It wasn’t an order; it was a request, softly spoken, hiding a century of pain. He needed her to believe in him so badly; he could only hope that she would understand that without him having to actually say the words.

“Trust me. That is one thing I don’t think.” Reaching up, Buffy skimmed a finger over the burn mark on his chest. “But I can’t stand seeing you in pain, either. And if that means I sometimes rush into fixing it the only way I know how, you’ve got to understand that’s because that’s who I am.”

Spike caught her hand in his, entwining their fingers. “As long as I get the same consideration.”

“Like I’m going to be able to forget that jump into the middle of the cleansing ritual,” she teased. “Mr. Impetuous. That’s who you are.”

This was better. This was familiar ground. The banter, the ease, the implicit trust. There was so much buffeting them at the moment, tossing them from rock to rock, leaving tiny wounds and scars along the way, that they both knew the only way they were going to survive intact was by holding on to the other, and most importantly…believing.

When his lips met hers, they lingered in a gentle caress, not completely devoid of passion but not consumed by it either. “I was thinking,” Buffy said as she pulled away.

“Dangerous,” Spike murmured with a smile.

She slapped at his arm playfully. “I was thinking,” she repeated, “that this Soul Eater doesn’t bother you as much when I’m with you, right?”

He immediately sobered at the mention of the other. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But it’s still there. Don’t forget the playground.”

“But we dealt with that. Together. So, maybe, if I go to sleep first, then you go, you can still get some rest, and we can have a mini-reprieve from things that go burn in the night.”

As much as he dreaded the thought of returning to face the Soul Eater, Buffy’s plan had a twisted Slayer logic to it, and Spike knew that both his body and his head needed the respite. With her there to help fend off any more attacks, surely it would be safe enough to risk. Her last dream had actually been kind of fun before demon Joyce stepped back into the picture. And maybe the distance they had gained from Dolly’s teleportation was enough to weaken the hold it seemed to have on his head.

“You promise not to dream of anything skating related?” he quizzed, his tone noticeably lighter. “Not sure if Slayer on Ice is necessarily better than dealin’ with demons that like to play field hockey with my entrails.”

“You should be grateful for one of those,” she said, pulling him gently back to lie down on the mattress. “I haven’t had one of those dreams where I find Giles and my mom having sex in my bed since this got started. That kind of thing will scar you for life.”

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

His back was to her, his head bowed over the book before him. He was tired, just as they were all tired, but his determination was unflagging, reading through the texts they’d brought with them with the same devotion she’d come to recognize in the Watcher as part of his dedication to his Slayer. “You’re being very quiet,” Cortina said from the bed.

“I’m reading,” Giles replied without turning around. “Contrary to the teenage mythos, it’s generally a silent occupation.”

“You won’t do Buffy any good if you’re too worn out to function. Come to bed.”

“And I won’t do her any good if she manages to get killed because we didn’t find the answers in time,” he countered.

Pulling her knees up to her chest, Cortina wrapped her arms around them, hugging them to herself as the shivering that had been threatening to overwhelm her since their arrival began to succeed. “Just come out and say it,” she begged. “I’m a big girl. I can take it. And it’s infinitely better than having to sit here and watch you play the Quaker meeting game any longer.”

She saw him raise his head, heard the heavy sigh as he pushed himself away from the desk. “What is it you expect me to say?” Giles asked, half-turning in his seat to gaze back at her. “Thank you for undermining my authority? Or perhaps you’re more interested in my undying gratitude for involving demons in what should really be none of their business. Either way, you’re not getting it.”

“And neither are you,” she bit back. “Big picture here, Rupert. I have access to resources that you don’t. As long as nobody gets hurt as a result, what does it matter if I take advantage of them?”

“You did it without telling me.”

“Because you would’ve stopped me if I did.”

“That’s not the point---.”

“No! That’s very much the point!” Her breathing was labored, her normally pale skin starting to flush from the combination of frustration and ire coursing through her veins. “I am not a child, and yet you’re constantly treating me like one. All right. So, maybe, I haven’t been exhibiting the most grown-up tendencies over the past couple days. I think I’m a little entitled to some rash behavior in light of the fact there’s a group of crazy Brits out there who are only interested in me as a…whatever, in this binding ritual of their’s. But you were the one who convinced me we can fight this thing in other ways, Rupert. So why start criticizing my methods when I do?”

“Because it won’t stop there. Involve one demon, and then there will be another, and another, and eventually, you will have turned this into exactly what it’s not, a battle between the demon world and the human world. I won’t allow that to happen.”

“Why not? That’s what you live, isn’t it? Guiding the Chosen One in her battle against the evil demon populace?” Cortina shook her head. “Don’t be fooling yourself into thinking this is something it’s not. You’re smarter than that. You’re better that that.”

His eyes flashed behind his glasses. “Since you seem to be so full of the insight into my thinking,” he snapped, “why don’t you share what you believe this is about?”

Her nails dug into the flesh in her arms, drawing blood that began to dot the fabric of her robe. “Don’t make me say it out loud, Rupert,” she warned.

It pulled him from his seat, compelled his feet to cross the distance of the expansive room to the foot of the bed. The tension wound through his body in serpentine coils, but his increased proximity did not open his eyes regarding his lover’s agitated state. Instead, Giles seemed focused on her face, his own jaw rigid. “This is so much bigger than you think, Cortina,” he said, his voice deceptively soft. “Your dilettante psychoanalysis is only a distraction. I won’t let you distract me from helping Buffy.”

“But it’s not,” she argued, and let herself go, crawling forward to the edge of the mattress to kneel in front of him. “Bigger, I mean. It’s about the same thing it’s always been for you. Get the answers to stop the bad guy. One on one. Or two on a horde, as this case may be.” Slowly, she lifted a trembling hand to press it against his chest. “You want me to say it? All right.” The deep breath Cortina took rattled through her lungs. “You don’t want me contacting anyone remotely demonish for help because you’re afraid that I’ll return to being the Destroyer. That it will somehow open a door for me into the violence I used to get off on.”

When he began to edge away, her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt, hooking him so that he was forced to stop, to confront her as she laid it bare for him. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, but his voice lacked conviction, the truth of what she was offering only now seeping into his consciousness.

“No more ridiculous than you thinking that if that can happen to me, it could happen to you as well.” Cortina’s mouth softened, her eyes sad. “I know you fear it. I know that you live every day with Ripper just underneath your skin. Mine is the voice of experience, Rupert. I think you should listen to it.”

“I am not…I told you. Those days are behind both of us. We are who we are today because of them, but they are not us anymore.”

“Yet the fear remains, because when times get hard, and we find doors closing around us, it becomes more and more difficult not to revert to methods we know have worked in the past. Destructive, nihilistic, and violent methods that terrify the people we are today. Even as we remember the thrill of the freedom it gave us.” Her pale eyes dropped. “I can still taste the bloodlust when things get bad. Hot, and spicy, and so alive that I wonder how I ever gave it up in the first place. And then I remember their screams. And I remember the pain. And I remember not liking myself very much.”

His arms went around her automatically, forgetting his own thoughts as he lived through hers, and when he felt her press her cheek against his racing heart, Giles closed his eyes, bending his head to press his forehead against the white of her hair. “I don’t want to lose you,” he murmured.

“And you won’t,” Cortina assured. “Just like I know I’m not going to lose you. We’re stronger than that. We can’t run from our pasts. You told me that, remember? But we can’t ignore them either. Not when they offer so much for us to learn from.”

Against his will, the chuckle rumbled from his chest. “Just my luck to fall in love with someone smarter than me,” Giles said, pulling away just enough to look down at her again. “I’m going to have to do something about that.”

“Sleep,” she instructed, tugging at his hand. “That’s all you need.”

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

The time for playing nice was over. As his jet cut silently through the air, Quentin regarded the colleague who sat opposite him in cold approval. “That’s an interesting suggestion,” he said, rolling the pen between his fingers. “Not one I’d expect to hear from a Watcher.”

“These are desperate times,” the young man said. “Normally, I wouldn’t presume to approach you with such an idea, but---.”

Travers waved a hand in dismissal, cutting the other man off. “No reason to justify your motives,” he said. “Your assumption is correct. If we don’t stop the children of the wind from finding the Slayer, we not only lose our strongest warrior, we will potentially also lose our reason for existing as an organization. There are forces gathering on the Hellmouth for which we need Buffy Summers, in peak fighting condition. We cannot afford to have her sacrificed if there is a way for us to prevent it.” He wrote a note on the pad in his lap. “Are they still watching the others?” he asked.

“Yes. We’ve received word that the two witches returned to the Vrolek’s caves. The other two seem to be going about life as normal. It doesn’t appear that the Slayer has involved them very heavily in this.”

Quentin nodded. “I’m going to have the seers back in London intensify their search. In the meantime, dispatch a team to bring in Miss Rosenberg and Miss Maclay. It seems that Buffy may need some encouragement to return to the fold…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 20: Summer Dreams