DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has told Dawn and Buffy that the Soul Eater is taking the form of his mother in his dreams, while the Hound has arrived to rescue Willow and Tara, only for them to find two Vrolek children being held in the same building they were…

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Chapter 23: And Saw in Sleep

She didn’t understand why there hadn’t been any guards on the door. As security-aware as Travers seemed to be, the least she would’ve expected was someone watching to make sure the Vroleks were confined. Well, big fat duh, Willow thought, her feet unconsciously leading her to the edge of the beds. No reason to guard what isn’t really going anywhere.

And they weren’t. Though they appeared to be dead, the slight rise and fall in their chests betrayed the life that still slept somewhere in the two small bodies of the demons, white hair spilling to the mattresses, hands laid gently at their sides. If pressed, Willow would’ve put their ages at around ten, the female slightly older, the delicate curve of young breasts just beginning to thrust beneath the white robe she wore. Their skin was just as colorless, and if they’d been able to open their eyes, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see the same pale blue that reflected from Cortina’s aspect.

Slowly, Willow’s hand lifted, fingertips grazing the magical field that surrounded the pair, a shower of silvery sparks sifting harmlessly over her skin. “How is this possible?” she breathed, her voice full of wonder. “They’re Vroleks. This isn’t supposed to happen.”

Just behind her, Tara pointed toward the only spot of color on the pallor before them. “It might have something to do with that,” she said, just as quietly.

The redhead’s gaze slid from the faces in repose to the small dais that was situated between them, and the crystal that set on top of it. It glowed from an inner sapphire light, fading to white as the energy that seeped from it reached to spread and surround the two beds. “They found a way to counter their natural defenses,” she said.

“Maybe not counter. After all, we still can’t use our magic. But maybe…it’s like taking advantage of a blind spot or something.”

“It would explain how they were able to do whatever ritual they need to bind the Soul Eaters,” Willow said. “Cortina didn’t know the details when she told us what they did to her chil…” She couldn’t even finish the word, the connection finally making itself clear in her head. “You don’t…think…” Her eyes finally tore away from the demons to stare at her girlfriend. “These couldn’t be Cortina’s, could they?”

“That was over a hundred years ago. Wouldn’t they have aged?”

There was no time for Willow to respond. A sharp bark from Elvis behind them distracted them from the two Vroleks, turning their heads as they heard the distant shouts of men begin to grow louder. “We’ll think about it later,” the redhead said. “After we get out of here.”

All thoughts of the demons they’d discovered vanished as the witches returned to the hall and raced for the door at its end, the Hound on their heels. They recognized the exit now, but blinked when they stepped out into the sunshine, the sudden illumination blinding in contrast to the dimly lit hallways. More shouting from behind them, and Tara’s head whipped around to see a group of armed men barreling down the hall, their boots resounding against the floor.

“Get on Elvis!” Willow instructed sharply, leaning in to speak softly into the Hound’s ear.

Tara watched as the dog bowed to its front knees, lowering his head to allow them to climb on, and grabbed her girlfriend’s arm to steady herself as she clambered aboard. As she felt the animal’s powerful muscles flex beneath her, springing away from the building to begin running down the sidewalk, she clung to Willow, leaning against her for support. “Why do I feel like shouting, ‘Hi ho, Silver, away!’?” she yelled into the redhead’s ear.

“You can shout whatever you want as soon as we get to the Magic Box,” Willow cried back. “Just don’t fall off.”

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

In spite of the wall that barricaded Spike’s thoughts, Buffy could feel the raw emotion seeping through the imaginary stones…the anxiety that edged his nerves, an underlying love tempering them in reluctance, but most of all, a surprising fear that seemed to tint his thoughts in orange flames. It struck her that in the time they had been joined since the cleansing, in spite of being privy to all his other memories, not once had the specter of his mother arisen, even when they’d been forced to confront the issue of Joyce. That would’ve been expected, she realized. To think of his own mom when she had lost hers. And yet…

But he’d said when they’d first arrived that there was a part of his head that was locked away from her, that the Soul Eater was the only one to see. Knowing now that it was taking the form of his human mother made it logical that that aspect of his history was hidden from her for some reason. Why, though, she couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“What does she say to you?” Dawn was asking, her young face pensive.

Spike shrugged. “Just the usual bollocks,” he dismissed with a wave of his hand. “Nothin’ worth repeatin’. Nothin’ I haven’t already done the show and tell with, at least.”

“But it picks that form for a reason. You said that yourself.” She didn’t want to press him. Buffy could feel his nerves skittering like roaches fleeing from sudden light, and knew that even the mention of this subject was making him incredibly jumpy. But they needed answers. And it looked like he was the one who had them.

“Yeah,” Dawn agreed. “Did you have issues with her when you were still human? Is that why it can hurt you?”

“No.” His denial bordered on the vehement, and he rose to his feet, stalking the length of the room behind his chair. “Me and my mum…were just fine when…there weren’t any problems, all right?”

“It’s OK. Relax---.”

“Then let this go. What happened when I was one of you has got bugger all to do with what’s goin’ on in my dreams.” His jaw was clenched, the muscles working in his cheek, and he refused to meet either set of eyes watching him pace. Spike could feel Buffy tiptoeing around inside his head, trying to get past the wall that had sprung there of its own accord and unconsciously, he summoned a remembered image, a particularly vicious kill from those days when he’d been all about proving himself to Angelus, and let her feel the demon’s pleasure that had suffused his body at the time.

It was a tactic of desperation, not one he would’ve deliberately have chosen in other circumstances, but it did the trick, startling the Slayer into stiffening in her chair, her mind retreating from his like a kicked puppy. The shock in her hazel eyes faded into a hesitant hurt, and she quickly ducked her head, locking her jaw and closing off her mind so that he couldn’t do it again.

Dawn’s eyes flickered between the two. Though she wasn’t privy to the thought sharing, she was far from blind, and something was definitely going on. We were doing so well, she thought sadly. Can’t these two go five minutes without something blowing up between them?

“Then tell us why it’s messing with you, Spike.” Buffy’s voice was tight. “Why, all of a sudden, is it hurting you?” Please, she asked silently. Let us in so that we can help.

He felt like an ass for doing what he’d done, and rubbed wearily at his face, a mute apology stretching to caress the ache in the young blonde’s heart as he did so. “It’s not all of a sudden,” he confessed. “It’s been doin’ this sort of rubbish all along.”

“But I haven’t seen anything. No marks, no bruises, not even a scrape. You don’t heal that quickly.”

“OK, time out here.” Dawn held up her hands in a t-shaped referee position. “Back up. It’s hurting Spike? I thought it was just in his head, a dreamland kind of thing.”

His eyes met Buffy’s---show her---and carefully, the vampire grasped the bottom hem of his tee and pulled it over his head, revealing the still angry burn mark emblazoned at the center of his chest.

Dawn gasped, jumping immediately from her chair to cross to him, her fingers reaching out to touch but hesitating, hovering just above his skin. It was healing, but slowly, crimson and violet streaks where the Soul Eater had reached in and squeezed, the tight drawing of the skin around it evidence of the curative process taking its time to restore the flesh to its natural smooth finish. “Does it hurt?” she asked, although she already knew the answer to that.

“Like a bitch,” he admitted. His proud smile took them both off-guard. “Pissed her off good, I did.”

“Needless to say, definitely one of your stronger abilities,” Buffy teased gently. The wall was still there, but his regret at lashing out had eased some of her distress, his reluctant willingness to expose even this much to Dawn---knowing how much he felt she needed to be protected---enough to garner her respect. Seeing the evidence of what he was enduring at the hands of this new threat, too, was working to lessen her anger at him, replacing it instead with an overwhelming desire for blood. She felt his gentle remonstrations inside her skull---not now---and inhaled deeply, quelling the rising hunger for violence in a shaky balm.

“And a Soul Eater did this?” The teenager’s voice was disbelieving, her blue eyes searching his for any indication that he might be holding back on her. When he nodded, she shook her head in counterpoint. “That’s not possible. They’re non-corporeal. How many times did I have to hear Giles and Cortina beat that point to death?”

“I think this proves that at least in Spike’s dreams, they’re more of the solid non-corporeal type of demons,” Buffy argued.

“Did it do this before?” Dawn asked the vampire.

“First time,” he replied, shaking his head. “Must’ve made her really brassed off for it to happen.”

“Plus it was getting near,” the dark-haired girl ruminated. “That’s why we had to leave so fast, right? Because they were closing in on you two?” There was no need for an answer from the others. Her musings were more rhetorical than anything else, her attention riveted by the wound on the demon before her. They stood there in silence for a full minute before Buffy finally spoke up.

“What is it?” she demanded of her sister. “What’s going through that hormone-driven head of yours?” What she wouldn’t give for a second to read that brain, she thought in frustration, and then decided, maybe not. I’d probably be overwhelmed in images of boy bands and Clearasil. Been there, got the t-shirt.

“It’s just…” Dawn lifted her gaze, a hint of self-satisfaction flickering across her face. “I’m thinking…if this demon can manifest itself into something solid so that it can attack Spike…doesn’t that mean it can then be killed?”

The simplicity of the logic hit both of them. Cortina’s argument---can’t kill what you can’t touch---was moot now, the possibility of ending this once and for all a specter looming before them. Almost immediately, both their minds swirled into a flurry of activity---get my bloody hands on that bitch…do it together…just need to sleep…need to be closer---bouncing and ricocheting off the other in a frenzy that contrasted with the utter stillness of their bodies.

In the midst of it all, though, one thought became crystal clear. “We need Giles,” Buffy said firmly, standing up and heading for the bag by the door.

“Think Cort’s goin’ to be pleased as punch she’s not goin’ to be needed in this particular business,” Spike agreed, and knelt at her side as they began extracting the supplies necessary to contact Dolly.

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

To be honest, the last thing she expected to see was the bright red head of one of Cort’s pet witches.

“You’re back!” Dolly exclaimed in shocked surprise, hovering in a diaphanous cloud above the floor, and then frowned, eyes glancing around to see the dim room, the punching bag, the wall of weapons near the door. “Wait,” she said. “This isn’t back. This is---.”

“Giles’ shop,” Willow explained, and hopped to her feet. “The Magic Box.”

“You haven’t been here the whole time?” the green demon asked suspiciously. “Because I told Cort---.” The low growl from behind her cut her off, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Elvis hovering in the entrance to the alleyway, tiny eyes narrowed as his hackles raised at Dolly’s presence. “Oh, hush up,” she scolded the canine, batting at it with a wave of her hand. “What are you going to take bite out of? Air?”

“It’s OK,” the redhead soothed to the Hound. She glanced back at the frowning demon. “He’s a little protective of me. Which is probably a good thing because he’s the reason Tara and I were able to pull our great escape from the Council.”

Her discomfort eased. “So, they did grab you,” she snorted. “I figured as much. But if you just called me here so that I could tell Cort, you’re too late. I already filled her in. But I can pop back there and tell her you two are safe now---.”

“Wait!” Willow watched as the form that had been fading returned to its half-solid form. “I was hoping we might be able to fix up a meeting. Us, Giles and Cortina, Buffy and Spike. We’ve…found some stuff out that we think is going to…change things.” She didn’t want to bring up the issue of the two Vroleks they’d found just yet. She had to find out from the white demon if she’d ever actually seen their dead bodies before broaching the possibility that they could somehow still be alive. Willow didn’t want to be responsible for getting up hopes, only to watch them go crashing to the ground.

“Change as in fix? Or change as in make worse?”

She bit at her lip. “The jury’s still out on that one just yet,” the witch admitted. “But definitely change.”

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

Each in the room sat in stunned silence, lost in the tumult the new information on the table now presented.

For Giles, a guilty sense of regret masked his disgust for the organization he’d applied his allegiance to for so many years. The Council’s methods had never seemed dubious to him prior to his involvement with his own Slayer; now, in the wake of seeing how those somewhat arbitrary decisions affected people he sincerely cared for and loved, he was being forced to re-evaluate the dedication he’d given them, his own dealings with their machinations.

For Cortina, every thought was colored in scarlet, fury with the Council for lying to her for so many years about the death of her children and anger with herself for never confirming it with her own two eyes. That decade-plus of destruction could’ve been avoided if she’d only pushed further, hunted for the truth. But no. She had relied upon what had seemed like reliable witnesses, and paid the consequences by wasting a century without her family. She had no doubt that the Vroleks they held were hers; their eternal youth could be explained away by whatever magical stasis the Council had placed them in. And more than anything else, she wanted them back.

For Spike, it was a light at the end of the tunnel. Dawn’s revelation had presented him with the key necessary to rid himself and Buffy of the Soul Eater threat, and though his heart ached with his lover’s at the Council’s duplicity in dealing with Joyce, his relief that his own torture would soon be over was more prevalent. Perhaps it was his own weariness in facing the events from over a century previous; perhaps it was his revolt against the more human characteristics he’d seemed to acquire since the cleansing. Regardless, the vampire was itching to rid himself of the ghost of his mother, of the memories seeing her invoked, once and for all.

It was worst for Buffy. Willow’s story both horrified her and offered hope, the knowledge that the Council would steal her mother’s corpse on the off-chance of returning her to life comforting in a weird sort of way. Maybe they were only interested in helping her, even if they showed some sick ways of showing it. Kidnapping her friends and her lover did not rate highly with her. Still, Cortina said it wasn’t possible, that death by the Soul Eaters was permanent. But she’d been wrong about her children and the use of magic, a small voice inside the Slayer’s head argued, so maybe she’s wrong about this as well. Buffy didn’t want to wish that things could return to the way they were before, only to have her heart broken again, but even the possibility that she could was too alluring to ignore.

As she lifted her eyes to look over her friends, Buffy felt Spike’s love wrap around her thoughts, reminding her yet again why this was all worth it, and used the strength it offered to meet a level gaze with Cortina. The words passed unspoken between the two, and finally the Vrolek gave her a short, sharp nod.

“It’s the only way,” she said, her control unable to keep the anger from honing her voice.

Giles frowned. “What’s the only way?” he asked.

“I want this done,” Buffy said. “And in order to do that, we need the cards on the table, face up, no more surprises.” Her mouth was grim as she looked at her Watcher. “Let’s see how Quentin Travers likes being on the kidnapped side of things for a change…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: The Winged Seeds