DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has decided to take the bull by the horns and get the answers they need by getting their hands on the man who seems to have them…Quentin Travers…

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

Chapter 24: The Winged Seeds

He was beginning to wonder why he was bothering. At every turn, Buffy Summers and her friends were making it nigh on impossible for him to help her, thwarting his attempts to divert the Soul Eaters’ attention from her by separating her from Spike, rescuing Cortina though she was necessary for binding the children of the wind from harming anyone further, and somehow, snatching back the witches from his custody without even showing her face.

Though he hadn’t seen the Hound himself, Quentin had seen the carnage the beast had left behind, a trail of broken bodies littering the halls of what he’d considered his fortress left as haphazardly as a path of bread crumbs for him to follow. A path that led straight to the witches’ bedroom door. A room that was now empty. There was no sign of the beast’s own blood, and from viewing the various security tapes, it was obvious the animal had avoided all his men’s attacks, taking the way of least resistance, only attacking when absolutely necessary. Under other circumstances, Travers would have been appropriately intrigued by the Hound’s process, but now, with Buffy still missing, Cortina not in hand, and no bargaining chips with the Slayer’s friends, he was not in the mood for further analysis.

There was more, of course. Much more. His pale eyes stared at the video screen in front of him, watching as Willow and Tara walked into the room housing the two Vroleks, the audio muted so that he was unable to hear their conversation. Listening was unnecessary; simple reasoning could deduce that they knew now how their magic was being hampered, and the shocked recognition on their young faces was enough to clue him in that Cortina had told them more about her history than he had anticipated. Hitting the rewind button, he watched again and again as the redhead lifted her hand to touch the magical barrier that sheathed the Vrolek children in their stasis, the other’s finger pointing out the dais at the center. The only thing that currently offered Quentin any kind of relief was the knowledge that they had been interrupted before they could investigate it any further.

That, and the fact that he still held Joyce Summers’ body.

It was his last card to play. Though they had escaped his control, Willow and Tara carried with them the information that there was a way to save the Slayer’s mother, information he didn’t doubt they would share at their earliest convenience. The only thing he could hope for at this point---until someone came up with yet another plan that was sure to fail, he thought dismally---was that the prospect of having Joyce restored to life was too tempting for Buffy to resist, that she would come to him herself with Cortina in tow as an exchange for life as normal. She would even get to keep her vampire lover that way. All it would cost her was the price of one single Vrolek.

So intent was he on watching the playback of the witches’ escape, Quentin missed the blonde head suddenly appear on a far screen, standing with folded arms addressing an agape young man at the front of the building. When the man on the monitor raised his weapon, the blonde’s dash forward was Slayer-quick, disarming him with a swift kick before sending him sprawling to the ground. She reached down and pulled the cell phone from his waistband, her booted foot keeping him pressed to the earth by sitting between his shoulder blades, barking out an unheard query before letting her fingers fly over the number pad.

The phone rang at Travers’ side and he automatically picked it up, his gaze never straying from the picture of the witches and the Vroleks. “Yes?” he said, clearly annoyed at being disturbed.

“Not even a hi-how-are-you?” Buffy’s tsk through the phone line immediately caused Quentin to straighten. “And here I thought you’d be glad to hear from me.”

“Miss. Summers.” The calmness of his tone was in direct opposite to his racing emotions. Finally. Something was going his way. “I won’t even presume to wonder how you got this number.”

“Funny you should ask. You’ve really got to do some serious training on your bodyguards, Q. Oh, you don’t mind if I call you Q, do you? Because Quentin is just soooo British, and, well, you haven’t done anything to deserve me being all respectful by calling you Mr. Travers any more, now have you?” This last was brittle, her voice hardening, and in the monitor, she shoved roughly down at the man who was trying to rise beneath her foot.

At the mention of his guard, Quentin’s gaze scanned the screens until it settled on the camera for outside, his lips thin as he watched the Slayer. She was alone. But here. That was a good thing. Though he’d like to believe that she’d finally understood they were only trying to protect her, that her best interests were all that mattered to them currently, the brisk set of her shoulders told him otherwise. “I don’t see your friends,” he commented, leaning back in his chair. “Surely you didn’t come alone.” He almost chuckled as her blonde head immediately began turning, looking for the camera she suddenly realized was there, and then smiled as she lifted her eyes to look directly into it.

“I know you have my mother.” She was ignoring his observation, ready to get down to business. “I’ve come to talk about what exactly is going on.”

“So…talk.”

Another shove of her foot and Quentin winced as he saw his guard’s head smack against the pavement. “This really deserves a face to face, don’t you think?” she asked. “And since I can’t see yours…” Her head tilted, and he believed he could even see the gleam of anger in her eyes through the grainy picture on the monitor. “Not that I’m really thrilled with your back-stabbing, friend-snatching, secret-keeping, smug face right now, but at least if you’re in front of me, I can see firsthand what you’re up to.”

He didn’t even hear the disgust in her voice as the glee suddenly jumped to his throat. Yes. The Slayer back in custody. Under his control. Safe. “If you will just wait there, Miss Summers, I will have some of my men come out and escort you inside.”

“I don’t think so. Why don’t we have ourselves a little picnic out here?” She looked up at the sky. “It’s a beautiful day. No soul-eating demons wreaking havoc with the weatherman’s reports. I say we enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Forgive me if I pass.” He paused, considering his next move. He needed her inside, where his power was incontrovertible. Did it matter how she got in as long as she did? “Perhaps we could meet half way? Just you and I.” He smiled, even though she couldn’t see it. “To talk about your mother.”

The mention of Joyce made her eyes jump back to the camera, and there was a long moment of silence as Buffy just watched him. It was disconcerting. Though he knew she couldn’t really see him, those hazel eyes seemed to bore into his, like she knew what he was planning, and Quentin began to squirm in his seat.

“Fine,” she finally said. “I’ll stay on the line. You direct me in, but first sign of one of your guys and I’m out of there, got it?”

“Of course.” He rose, using the length of the phone cord to step to the room’s entrance and open the door, motioning for the guard outside to enter, but placing his finger over his own mouth to indicate the other man should not speak. “If you enter through the door to your right…”

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

“She’s in.”

“Right.” Giles turned away from Willow and the binoculars she was using to gaze at the building across the street to face Dolly and Cortina behind him. “We don’t know how much time---.”

“Giles,” the redhead interrupted. “There’s something we didn’t consider there.”

He frowned. “What?” Hesitantly, he took the binoculars she offered him, training them on the door Buffy had just disappeared through. “What am I looking at?”

“Upper left corner. Near the small window just under the eave.”

He saw it immediately and swore under his breath.

“What is it?” Cortina asked.

“Surveillance cameras.” Lowering the binoculars, his brow was creased as he mused out loud. “They’re going to see everything we do in there.”

“So take them out,” Dolly commented crossly.

“We don’t know where they’re being controlled, or monitored, or…” His voice faded. “I don’t suppose…you…could find them,” he questioned the green demon.

She straightened, pulling herself up to her full height, and folded her arms across her chest with a smug smile. “Aren’t you glad I’m not the sort of demon to hold a grudge?” she said.

“I don’t want you killing anybody,” he hastened to clarify. “Just take out the central station so they can’t observe us.”

Dolly rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s hardly any fun. Can I at least knock a few heads together? I promise not to break any bones, although I won’t swear to not jiggling some Council brains.” She bridled under his steady gaze. “Fine, fine,” she said as she began to fade. “Just give me a sec. Grumpy humans…”

The long breath Cortina exhaled was shaky as her friend disappeared, prompting Giles to settle his hand gently on her shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly, blue eyes probing hers.

“Can you believe I’m nervous?” She held up a hand and both of them watched as it visibly vibrated in the shade the building was providing her. Her anger had long ago dissipated in the advent of their plan, but now, she was finding it difficult to hold back the tears that threatened to spill. What if it really was them? What would that mean for her, for her future, for their future? Would it be possible to begin a fresh life? And where was Rupert going to figure into it if that happened?

His lips brushed against her forehead, at once both calming and electrifying. “Everything will be all right,” he assured. “Would you rather I---?”

Cortina shook her head, using the caress as a lifejacket, clinging to its strength as she straightened her shoulders. “No, it has to be me. I’m the only one who will know for sure if it’s them.”

“Hopefully you can tell me what the crystal is,” Willow said, trying for optimism but failing in the serious aspects of her two companions.

“Yes, well…” Giles didn’t like this part of the plan. Though he agreed with the others that their priorities rested in ridding the Council of the hostages it continued to house, the witches’ description of the field that bound the two Vroleks did not bode well. As much as he hoped that these were actually Cortina’s children, the fact that they could be held so meant that there was more to their demon physiology than they were aware, secrets that Quentin Travers obviously held and he could only hope that Buffy would extract before they were forced to flee the premises.

In the meantime, he had to do his best to ensure everything ran smooth. Dawn and Spike were safely ensconced back in their rooms, the vampire a liability in the face of both sunlight and humans and the teenager too headstrong to be predictable under the circumstances. Tara had returned to Cortina’s caves with Elvis, gathering supplies while she soothed the beast in Willow’s absence. And now the remainder of their little group was here, preparing to endeavor what he would have seen under more calming circumstances as an insane escape plan. Please, Buffy, he wished silently. Just keep him talking long enough for us to do this…

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

She was past the incapacitating anger. Some quiet time with Spike prior to their departure had managed to subdue the crimson waves roiling through her head, his arms wrapped around her shoulders as his cheek pressed against her hair, his murmured words of serenity and ease quieting the rage that fought within her breast. Buffy didn’t know if this was something she just hadn’t noticed before, or if it was something to do with the cleansing ritual, or something else entirely, but this still side of the vampire, the gentleness he brought to the table as he helped her focus past the hate, was not something she had ever expected to find in him, but not a gift she was willing to throw away. She had let him soothe her spirit with his voice, with the hands that outlined the veins on the backs of her hands, and though the remnants of their earlier disagreement regarding his dreams still tattered in the distance, both of them deliberately chose to ignore them, settling instead on the moment, and the other, and their current need. It was what they both wanted. To ensure that this plan---foolhardy as it might seem---would work.

She didn’t doubt that Travers was up to something as she paced the length of the room. It was taking him too long to meet up with her; a few more minutes and she’d call a halt to this, using the talisman that hung around her neck to contact Dolly to get her out of here. She had no worries about being ambushed; once she’d found the room he’d selected, Buffy had pulled the door off its hinges and set it aside so that she had a clear shot for the exit, could hear anyone trying to approach. And at least she wasn’t going to have to worry about magic being used on her. Willow had confirmed before Cortina had come through that the dampening field still surrounded the building, which meant the Vrolek children were still inside. That left only armed Council guys to defend herself against. And there were no doubts in her mind about how she’d fare with them.

There was no rush in his step as it came down the hallway and Buffy steeled herself for the next few minutes. Don’t kill him, she reminded herself. Keep him talking. Let Giles get the others out of here, and then you can focus on getting some real answers.

“My apologies for taking so long,” Travers said as he stepped inside the room. He held up his hands to show that he was unarmed. “I’m afraid that I had a few more flights of stairs to navigate than you did. I really should have considered having a lift installed prior to our using this particular building.”

“Where’s my mother?”

He nodded. She hadn’t let him down. He’d known she would cut straight to the heart of the matter. “Did Miss Rosenberg tell you why we were holding her body?”

“Because you think you’ve got the mojo to bring her back to life. Now where is she?”

“That’s actually only partially true.”

It wasn’t what she was expecting, and she hesitated. “So…you can’t bring her back?” No, she said to herself. Don’t feel disappointed. Focus on the plan. Talk. Just talk. Don’t pay too much attention to what he’s really saying. You can get the real answers later.

“Oh, no, we can. Provided it’s done quickly. But the Soul Eaters must be bound first.” Quentin paused, his watery blue gaze steady. “Which requires Cortina’s presence.”

She snorted, rolling her eyes. “What is she, the back-up plan? You’ve already got your Vroleks. Just do your little ritual and get this over with. I’m tired of your playing games.”

“I’m afraid they’re useless to us now. In order for the children of the wind to be stopped, we need a fresh…” He stopped, realizing he’d almost used a word that he was sure the Slayer would object to. “…Vrolek,” he finished. “I don’t suppose you thought to bring Cortina along with you?”

Buffy’s laugh was loud in the empty room. “Unlike you, Q, I don’t betray my friends,” she snapped. “And I’ve got this weird allegiance thing about people who are constantly saving my life. Color me old-fashioned that way.”

“Saving your life is exactly what I’ve been trying to do all along, Miss Summers. Surely you can see that.”

“Kidnapping my friends only pisses me off. I would’ve thought you’d be smart enough to figure that out by now.”

She wanted to smack the smile from his face. “But it worked, didn’t it?” Travers commented. “You’re here. Spike is not. The targets for the Soul Eaters have been divided, and now it’s just a matter of doing the ritual to stop them for good.”

“Are you deaf as well as dumb? How many times do I have to tell you? You are not using Cortina. There has to be another way to stop these things.”

“There isn’t.” The mirth was gone. “I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that the binding contained them for as long as it did. But they can’t be killed, Miss Summers. You can’t kill what doesn’t---.”

“---have a body, blah, blah, blah. Heard it a million times, and I’m still not buying. How can you save my mother? They’ve taken her soul. Cort says she’ll just be a shell if you restore life to her body. Soulless.”

“We’ve learned that it takes the children of the wind…time, to consume a soul. And we long ago learned of a way to retrieve that which had been taken. Really, you must allow us the opportunity to do this for you, Buffy.” It was the first time she could ever remember him using her first name, and she frowned as he took a step closer to her. He was trying to suck her in with his promises of life as normal, attempting to garner her trust again. And the thing of it was…she wanted to believe him.

“Cortina said she has all the books on the Soul Eaters. And if they’ve been out of commission for the last century, how could you have figured this out?”

“We…experimented during their…incarceration.”

His voice was expressionless, but Buffy wasn’t stupid. Her hazel eyes widened as the meaning of his words sunk in. “Those really are Cortina’s kids, aren’t they?” she said softly. She didn’t even wait for a reply. “You didn’t kill them. This binding thingamabob you did…it imprisons them, doesn’t it? In the Vroleks. That’s why they’re still alive. That’s how you knew when the Soul Eaters escaped. And you want me to trust you?” She shook her head. “You make me sick. They were children---.”

“They were demons---.”

“---children,” she reiterated, almost spitting out the word. “With a mother that still loved them. And you bought them---.”

“To protect the world from the children of the wind---.”

“---when for all you knew, there could be other ways to have that happen.” Her breathing was beginning to be erratic, the anger rising again in her gullet. If the truth of what had happened was affecting her this way, Buffy thought as she struggled to remain calm, what would it do to Cortina?

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

Willow watched in mute desperation as the Vrolek stood frozen next to the bodies, the tension in her arms causing her entire shape to vibrate as she struggled not to react to the sight before her. There had been no doubt who the children were as soon as Dolly had dropped them off in the room, but witnessing Cortina’s fight not to betray their location to anyone outside by maintaining silence was painful at best, heartbreaking at worst.

The tears streaked down the white demon’s face, falling to stain the front of her robe in damp as she gazed down at the unconscious pair of children, a combination of sorrow and anger mixing with the salt. How many times had she dreamed of seeing their faces just one more time? Made untold promises to gods and devils and everything in between for just one more chance to hold them, to tell them she was sorry for failing to protect them from harm? And now here it was, and she was powerless, unable to do anything but stand, and stare, and nod mutely in response to Willow’s question regarding who they were.

The magic that contained them was still there, and because they didn’t know how it worked, Cortina could not even think of touching the barrier for fear of it somehow affecting her in the same way. The crystal on the dais was not something she had ever seen before, and she wanted nothing more than to be able to crush it between her fingers, to break whatever spell it was holding over her children. But nothing they did made any difference. Willow had brought along a few tricks she’d hoped would nullify the crystal’s effects, but these did little more than create some pretty sparks.

“We have to wait for Dolly,” the redhead finally said quietly. “She’ll have to find a way to teleport them out of here so that we can work to free them from…” She gestured futilely at the dais. “…whatever this is.”

“I want him dead.” The monotone of her voice was frightening, sending shivers down Willow’s spine, but Cortina was oblivious to the effect her words were having on the young witch. “When we get Quentin Travers out of this place, please tell Rupert to keep me as far from the bastard as possible, because if I see him, I promise you, I will shred his skin in fire and make him feast upon his own liver before I even consider letting him die.”

“Um…OK.” She didn’t know what else to say, and for the first time since meeting the Vrolek, Willow was feeling genuinely afraid of her. She was saved from any further response by the sudden appearance of Dolly on the other side of the beds.

“I’m going to guess that your human’s little parlor tricks didn’t work,” the green demon said with surprising softness.

“Can you teleport them out of here like this?” Cortina asked, lifting her gaze away from the beds for the first time since arriving into the room.

“I can sure as hell try,” Dolly replied.

Before their eyes, she began to fade away, lifting her arms over the Vrolek children as she did so. Nothing happened to them. They remained as solid as ever.

“Damn,” she muttered, coming back. “Maybe if I got inside it,” she mused out loud, and began to vanish again.

Willow realized she was holding her breath as she watched Dolly try over and over again to move the children, eventually letting it out in a long gasp when the demon finally shook her head.

“I can’t do this all day,” she apologized. “Maybe if I had more time…” There was genuine sorrow in her gaze. “I’m so sorry, Cort.”

“I can’t…” Cortina’s hands curled into fists at her side as she stumbled away from the beds. “You don’t really expect me to leave them here, do you?”

“I expect you to do whatever it’s going to take to free them from whatever...mess that stupid Council’s gotten them into,” Dolly retorted. “And for now, that’s going to mean coming back later. When you know how to get through to them.”

“We’ll find out from Mr. Travers,” Willow offered. Her eyes flicked to Dolly. “Buffy’s still talking to him, right?”

“I haven’t gotten a distress call yet, so I’m assuming yes. And I’ve already gotten her mother out of this place, so it’s time to start wrapping this shindig up before someone figures out what I did to those cameras.”

Cortina’s bloodshot eyes returned to the children. Leaving them again was impossible, but reason told her it was the only she could help them at this point, even if it was going to tear her up inside to do it. “I’ll be back,” she whispered. “I promise.” And the next time, she would die herself before parting from them again.

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

They were divided again.

As soon as he had seen Cortina, Giles had ordered Dolly to return them to their room, where he proceeded to bundle the Vrolek into his arms and hold her wracking form as the hysterical sobs overcame her, his hand tangling in her hair as he murmured what he could only hope were words of soothing into her ear.

Joyce’s body was at Cortina’s caves with Willow and Tara, as they waited for whatever instruction Buffy would offer once she was done interrogating Quentin Travers. They were more than a little creeped out at being the designated corpse-sitters, but the possibility that they might somehow be able to reverse the unnecessary death was sustaining them as they began their research on the crystal.

Meanwhile, the Slayer and her hostage were back at her rooms. He was a little worse for wear, unconscious from the sudden teleportation, so she was taking advantage of the reprieve to fill Spike and Dawn in on the details she’d gleaned so far. The vampire already knew some; his worry for his lover had kept him in close contact with her thoughts while she was gone. Now, though, he eased back, and let her tell the story as she saw fit, taking advantage of her distraction to begin formulating his own plans. This would end, very soon, if he had any say in the matter, and she would be grateful afterward.

And the children of the wind flew ever closer…

To be continued in Chapter 25: Unseen Presence