DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow and Tara have been snatched by the Council in an attempt to lure Buffy back to Sunnydale, while our other two couples---Giles & Cortina, Buffy & Spike---have been separated and are hiding from the Soul Eaters while they try and find some answers…

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Chapter 21: A New Birth

Her arm was stone as she lifted her hand to knock at Buffy’s door. I wonder if they’re still fighting, Dawn thought wearily. Although she had slept after their arrival at this…well, she was going to call it a hotel even though it didn’t look like any hotel she’d ever seen before---her dreams had been fraught with images of the blond pair arguing, physically fighting even though Spike’s chip was supposed to prevent that, their faces superimposing over the bodies of her mom and dad during the worst of their pre-divorce battles. She would not consider herself rested; instead, she was a bundle of nerves, frightened of what she was going to encounter on the other side of the door, worried that things might have actually gotten worse.

Worse is not possible, a little voice inside her head chirped. But even if they are fighting, at least that would mean Spike’s now up and that he’s all right. The teenager had yet to see him awake since Dolly’s rescue; Buffy had been quick to dispatch her to her own room once they had arrived, firmly shutting the door behind her even though Dawn’s arguments had still been coming as to why she wanted to be there when the vampire woke up. The blonde didn’t understand the depth of Dawn’s devotion to Spike, or the fears that plagued her that she was going to lose another member of what she considered her family. This was it. No more letting Buffy shut her out. She was putting her foot down here and now.

As soon as the door opened, she was speaking. “Don’t you dare close this,” Dawn warned, grabbing the door jamb so that Buffy would be forced to slam it on her fingers if she actually did so. “I need to make sure Spike’s OK.”

His head poked around the heavy wood at the sound of his name, a grin spreading across his classical features. “Mornin’, Bit,” he said.

Her eyes widened, and for the first time, she saw that her sister was smiling, opening the door further to allow her entrance as she stepped back to give her room to come in. It wasn’t one of those fake now-is-not-the-time-for-this smiles, either. This was relaxed Buffy, the life-is-actually-pretty-good Buffy, the Buffy she hadn’t seen since the night she brought Spike home for dinner. Dawn felt the tension begin to ease from her stomach, the words she’d prepared dissolve on her tongue, and she edged her way into the room, watching as the vamp crossed to the dresser and pulled out a shirt.

“Hungry?” Buffy asked, closing the door behind her.

The question took her by surprise. “Um, starving, actually,” she replied hesitantly. Her blue gaze flickered between the two, watching Spike’s pale muscles flex as he pulled a tee over his head---was that a wince she just saw?---before skittering to view her sister pick up the telephone on the nightstand. “Are you ordering breakfast? I want pancakes, a huge stack. With blueberry syrup.” She waited until Buffy was busy talking before crossing to the vamp, laying her hand gently on his forearm. “You OK?” she queried softly, eyes searching his face for any sign of a potential lie. He’d do that, to protect her, just like her sister would, but right now, she was past being able to handle that.

He gave her a playful poke on her shoulder, flicking the ends of her hair as he grinned. “You Summers women are a lot of fussbudgets, you are,” he teased, and then hesitated just ever so slightly, as if he were listening to something only he could hear. After a moment, he went on as if nothing had happened. “Don’t be frettin’ over my sorry carcass. It’s goin’ to take more than the Council of Wankers to bring me down.” He leaned conspiratorially in toward her, glancing at the Slayer out of the corner of his eye, the twinkle there unmistakable. “That honor’s probably goin’ to be your sister’s cookin’,” he added, sotto voce, and then ducked when a pillow came flying through the air, laughing as it hit the wall behind him.

Dawn joined in the merriment, grateful for the return of normalcy that permeated the air, even if she didn’t completely understand how it had happened. “Be thankful you have a liquid diet,” she added. “I’m the one she’s probably going to kill. Have you had her Pasta Surprise?”

Buffy set down the phone, hands on her hips. “That wasn’t my fault,” she argued, but there was a smile on her face, belying the quarrelsome tone in her voice. “That was the cheese’s.”

The teenager rolled her eyes. “Because cheese is supposed to be that color,” she said.

“It was pretty!”

“It was toxic!”

“Everything turned out fine, didn’t it? I see you standing here, being all about the complaining. It’s not like I actually killed you, you know.”

“Because Mom drove me to the hospital to get my stomach pumped!” Dawn turned to Spike. “Thank god at least you can drive. I think we’re going to need a delivery service to the emergency room with Buffy in charge of the kitchen now.”

He chuckled. “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, we’ll just rely on good old demon room service.”

“Is that where we are?” Her voice was a combination of shock and awe. “Some kind of resort for the demon set?”

“Yes, which means no more leaving your room unless one of us is with you.” Buffy’s tone afforded no room for argument. “The last thing I need to be worrying about right now is whether or not something’s taking a bite out of you. Although they’d probably just spit you back out again. I hear teenaged girls are actually kind of salty.”

Although the jokes bandied about were effectively clearing the air, lessening Dawn’s apprehension about the situation between her two favorite people in the world, it didn’t change the reality of why they were actually there in the first place. There was silence for a moment, and then her eyes settled on the stack of books near the bed, drifting over the leathered covers, the gilt corners. “So,” she said, and her voice had grown serious again. “I guess it’s back to the research, then, huh?”

The levity in the room eased, wiping the smile from Spike’s face, leaving a frown on Buffy’s. “Cort was right,” the Slayer finally said. “Without answers, we’re running blind here. We need to find some way to stop these…Soul Eaters without having to make any more sacrifices. I’m not prepared to lose anyone else over this.” This was as close as she could let herself broach the subject of her mother’s death at the moment. They had to move on, Buffy knew that, but she also couldn’t forget that this new threat was the reason Joyce had been stripped from their lives. And she wanted revenge for that.

“Did you have any more dreams about them?”

A guilty look passed between the vampire and Slayer, and Dawn swore she saw a flush creep into her sister’s cheeks. “No,” Buffy said. “Just…regular-type dreams. The…restful kind.”

Somehow, she thought there was more than was being said, but from the wicked gleam in Spike’s eye, Dawn suspected it was probably of the she’s-too-young-for-that-kind-of-talk talk, and instead crossed to the stack of books. “I guess we better get cracking then,” she said, and then grimaced as she glanced at the first page. “Are any of these actually in English?”

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

His reach for her was automatic, hand curling around her hip as he pulled her back into his, burying his nose in the white hair that spilled over her shoulder without even opening his eyes. His dreams had been troubled, images of Cortina being flayed by the Council while he was bound at the side, helpless to do anything but watch as Quentin Travers slowly peeled her skin from her flesh and fed it to a wraith-like creature chained at his feet. More than once, Giles had woken just to reassure himself that she was still there, laying his hand over her pulse point to feel her heartbeat tattoo against his fingerpads in a gentle reminder that she still lived and breathed, before allowing himself to drift back into slumber.

He couldn’t lose her. Even if the impediments to their relationship seemed insurmountable…even if everything she embodied was indicative of the forces he’d been battling for the last twenty years…even if it hurt sometimes to look into those pale blue eyes and see himself reflected back…Giles knew her absence from his life would be worse, would create an ache that would echo in every aspect of his existence.

And so he would fight. Together, they would find whatever answers were necessary to protect Buffy and Spike, and in the process, do what they could to keep her safe from the Council’s clutches. What would happen afterward, he had no idea. That was a matter to consider when the current catastrophe was averted, when they were through with the fighting.

Now, however, he wished to sleep.

She heard him stir and sighed, letting her eyes return to the book she had cradled in her arm. She had been up for hours, unable to let loose the fetters of her thoughts, and so had finally risen, returning to the bed she shared with Rupert with the first of many books she would read that day, searching for answers she was convinced they weren’t going to find. Cortina knew these texts, believed they hid no truths that she didn’t already know, and yet, she would read them through, searching for the keys to unlock their predicament. Because Rupert did believe, was a staunch supporter in the power of information, and for that, she would stand at his side.

“Well, aren’t you just too cute for words,” she heard from behind her, and glanced over her shoulder to see a diaphanous Dolly hovering at the foot of the bed.

“Shhh,” Cortina whispered. “You’ll wake Rupert.”

“Rupert’s already awake,” he grumbled, letting her loose to reach behind him for his glasses. So much for more sleep. “Hello, Dolly.”

She couldn’t help the giggle that bubbled from her throat as she glanced back at the Englishman, wondering if he realized what he’d just said, the urge to break out into song suddenly too inappropriate for the moment. Instead, she focused on her friend, sliding herself up and setting the book aside. “I’d say it’s so nice to have you back where you belong,” she quipped with a sly glance toward the man at her side, “but I have a feeling I might get scolded for being too silly this early in the morning.”

“Only if you tell her she’s looking swell,” he said dryly, and slid his spectacles onto his nose. He immediately frowned. “Oh,” he commented, gazing at the green demon. “You haven’t fully materialized. I thought it was just my eyes.”

“I stopped by because you’ve got a problem on your hands,” Dolly said.

“Well, yes, we’re aware of our problems, thank you. Soul Eaters, the Council chasing Cortina---.”

“More than that. Your Council’s playing hardball. They snatched the two little witches from Cort’s caves.”

Giles stiffened, senses alert, while at his side, Cortina rolled her eyes. Great, she thought. Yet another complication. Gotta give them credit for having balls, though. Kidnapping Spike, kidnapping her best friends. They must not be too interested in staying on the Slayer’s good side if they were willing to go to such lengths just to protect her.

“How do you know this?” the Watcher asked.

Dolly shrugged. “Gave the caves a little drive-by, thought I’d see how they were doing.” At Cortina’s amused gaze, she bristled. “You’ve really got to take better care of your pets, you know. One of these days, I’m not going to be around to save them from certain squashdom.”

“You didn’t exactly save them this time---,” Giles started, only to stop when Cortina squeezed his arm.

“Thank you for stopping by and telling us,” she said to her friend. “I don’t suppose you know where they took them?”

“Nope. Just thought you should be informed.” Her form began to fade, and the pair on the bed were just easing back with a heavy sigh when she re-materialized. “By the way,” Dolly added, “just so you know. The Soul Eaters are on the move again.”

That brought Giles back to attention. “How long before they find Buffy and Spike?”

“No way of telling. Really depends on whether or not they make any pitstops along the way. I’d say you’ve got at least two or three days, though.” She smiled. “I’ve got the lovebirds tucked away nice and safe, don’t worry.”

She left for good this time, leaving Giles and Cortina each lost in his and her thoughts. “Why would they take Willow and Tara?” he finally mused out loud.

“To lure us back. They’re the bait.” She paused. “I’m sure they’re not in any real danger. Even Quentin Travers isn’t that stupid.”

“No, I’m sure you’re right.” Except he wasn’t. Quentin was already proving to be unpredictable…kidnapping Cortina, kidnapping Spike, now kidnapping Willow and Tara. He’s seen one too many documentaries on the Lindbergh baby, he thought dryly. He only hoped that the two witches fared better.

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

“Try again,” she asked, blue eyes intent on her girlfriend.

Willow’s lids fluttered closed, her breathing slow and even, and the minutes seemed to audibly tick away as Tara waited, her legs tucked underneath her. “Nope,” the redhead finally said, opening her eyes. “I got exactly nada juice here.”

They were sitting on a bed identical to ones they had seen when they’d gone in search of Spike, and there was no doubt in either of their minds where exactly they were, or who exactly had grabbed them. The Council. And they were in the same building they’d housed Cortina during their brief interrogation of her. The why of it wasn’t exactly clear at the moment, but the sound of voices in the hallways convinced both of them that it probably wouldn’t be long before they were told. At least, that’s what they hoped.

All their attempts to utilize magic to affect an escape had been for naught. It was just as if Cortina was sitting in the room with them; every time they would attempt to garner the forces necessary to do any type of spell, something---someone?---sucked it all away, leaving them with empty air and increasing frustration. It’s not like they were really scared; in light of the danger that now threatened their friends, it didn’t seem so likely that the Council’s plans could be any worse. It was just maddening knowing they could get out if only they had the full use of their powers.

When the knock finally came at the door, neither girl was surprised, and Willow’s “Come in,” was automatic, blushing as she glanced back at her partner for her silliness. Two armed men in black entered, their weapons trained on the pair on the bed, and the girls straightened as Quentin Travers came in after them.

He stopped just inside the door. “If you would come with me, please,” he said, not even offering a greeting but turning back on his heel to return to the hall.

The guards waited for the witches to stand and follow after Quentin, frowns puzzling their faces. “What exactly’s going on here?” Willow dared to ask as they trailed after the Council head. “Why are we being held hostage? And why won’t our magic work?”

“You ask far too many questions, Miss Rosenberg,” he replied, never breaking stride. They turned a corner and he came to a halt in front of a different door. “How much has Cortina shared with you regarding…the Slayer’s current situation?”

They glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes before Willow turned her innocent face to the older man. “What makes you think she’s said anything?” she replied, holding her chin high, her voice just a trifle too loud. Play it cool, she thought. Don’t let him know that you know how much you know. God, that sentence hurt just thinking it.

Travers shook his head. “Come now, Miss Rosenberg. I have no time for such games. Rupert and the Slayer would not have fought so bravely against my men if the Vrolek had not made her circumstances very clear. Now. This will go much quicker if you cease being evasive and simply answer my question. Do I need to repeat it?”

There was no point in continuing to pretend. “She told us about the Soul Eaters and how you want to use her to stop them,” Willow said quietly.

“Good. Then, I don’t have to waste my energy explaining it to you.” He paused. “The children of the wind are already claiming victims in their search for our runaways. But, perhaps you know this already…” As his hand gripped the knob, Quentin quietly turned it, pushing it open to expose the room behind it, then stepped back to allow the two witches a clear view.

It was almost empty, but in the center of the room, laid out on a gurney, lay the body of Joyce Summers.

Willow audibly gasped, eyes going wide as saucers, as Tara found her lover’s hand and squeezed it tight. The redhead swiveled her head to stare at the older man. “You’re the ones who took her body?” she demanded. “Buffy’s been totally freaking out about that. Why would you do something so sick and twisted?”

“Because it might be possible yet to save her,” he replied calmly. “Provided we are able to bind the children of the wind in time.” His smile was tight. “That is why it is in your best interest to tell me where exactly you hid the Vrolek. We will forego trying to divert the children by splitting Spike from the Slayer if we can conduct the ritual within the next twenty-four hours. After that, it will be far too dangerous to leave them together and we will resume our search for the vampire in full earnest.”

“But we don’t know where they are,” Willow stated, her voice rising. “We’re not the ones who took them away.”y had left for him. Yes, this was the right thing to do. After everything she had done for him, he o

Though no emotions registered on his face, Travers’ silence was testimony to his regret at hearing such a reply. He had deliberately chosen to have the body sent back to Sunnydale, along with bringing in the pair from England to help contain the witches, on the assurance that once they knew the situation, the Slayer’s friends would do everything in their power to help bring her mother back to the world of the living. Now, though, it appeared that that would not happen.

“That…is…unfortunate,” he finally said, and reached past the girls to pull the door closed, his mouth grim. “I had hoped---.”

“But it might be possible to contact who did,” Willow rushed. She waited until he was looking at her to continue. “It would require us using magic, though.”

He shook his head. “That is not possible.” Quentin looked past them at the two guards. “Return them to their quarters.” Waiting until they had disappeared back around the corner of the hallway, he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as his mind worked over the shambles of a plan he had left before him. There was an additional party in the mix, someone who knew how to get to both the Vrolek and the Slayer, and now he was left with two ineffective witches, a corpse, and a burden he would rather have left in England. This was not turning out to be a very good day.

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

He had thought she would return. Every other time the redhead had left, she had come back within hours, or at least assured him that she would be there soon. This time had been different. She hadn’t even said good-bye, which, although her guardianship of him had been brief, was wrong, and the Hound knew it.

Lifting his dark head, Elvis sniffed at the air, her scent trailing on the wind like a beacon calling him home. He did not understand the pervasive medicinal scent that undercut it, but the aromas of the black-clad men were familiar. They had been at the end of the trail when he’d been searching for the white one. That had not been a good situation, and to think that his caretaker was now in their custody filled the Hound with a sense of foreboding.

Lumbering to his feet, the Hound began his trek across the brightly lit desert, his nose to the ground as he followed the path thewed it to the red-haired witch to go to her aid. She had, after all, come to his.

 

To be continued in Chapter 22: Less Free Than Thou