DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has snatched Travers in an attempt to get all the answers they need, retrieving Joyce’s body at the same time, but Cortina’s children were unable to be moved, locked within the magical field provided by the unknown crystal…

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Chapter 25: Unseen Presence

“Describe the crystal to me,” Giles directed, his eyes hard but his voice low.

Dolly sighed, leaning heavily back against the wall outside his and Cortina’s room. “What’s the point? You’re going to find out soon enough from that Travers what it is.”

“Because he’s still unconscious, and if for some reason I do know what they’ve used, the sooner we get Cortina’s children out of that building, the better it will be for all involved.” Every muscle in his body was wound tight, and he had his arms folded across his chest, hands shoved into his armpits, in an attempt not to spring. “I’m quite learned in these matters. It’s possible I’ll know what it is.”

“And then what? They’ll get rescued, the Slayer and Spike will come up with some plan to get rid of these Soul Eaters without sacrificing Cort, and you’ll go toddling off into the sunset playing daddy knows best with two demon children?” She shook her head. “And here I thought you had a brain in that pea-sized skull of yours, Rupert. You haven’t really given your future with Cort any consideration, have you? One human and three Vroleks does not a family make.”

She wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t thought already while he’d been waiting for them to emerge from the Council building, but he refused to allow her to see that. “This isn’t about my future,” Giles argued. “This is about Cortina regaining whatever life she can with her children. She’s suffered far too much to endure much more of this, and if I can ease that burden in any way possible, you can bloody well be sure that I’m going to.” His blue eyes were flashing behind his glasses, his frustrated anger momentarily causing him to forget that he was actually squaring off with a demon.

Much to his surprise, Dolly started laughing, quickly covering her mouth to stifle the noise as she glanced guiltily at the closed door behind him. Her Vrolek friend was fast asleep on the other side of it, exhaustion and weeping sapping her strength until she’d drifted off in Giles’ arms. “If nothing else, I do like your balls,” she said through her hand. “Cort’s done a lot worse than you, I’ll give her that.”

“I’m glad I amuse you so, but that’s hardly the point here.”

“No.” She sobered immediately. “The point is, your bosses---.”

Ex-bosses.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Your ex-bosses have spent the last century lying to the woman you claim to love---.”

“I do love her.”

“Will you stop interrupting me? I’m trying to talk here.”

“And I’m trying to do something other than talk for a change.” Stepping forward, Giles raised a single finger in the green demon’s face, his temper straining to be unleashed. “I’m done with debating the finer points of Council mechanics and my relationship with Cortina. For someone who claims to be her friend, it seems to me you’re more interested in arguing semantics than helping find a solution to a nasty problem that’s been tormenting that poor woman in there for more than a century.” He took a deep breath. “Now. I’m grateful for the aid you’ve offered to this point, and I can certainly appreciate that you don’t like me very much, because I’ll admit there are times when I’d like nothing more than to stop your complaining once and for all. But the fact remains…Cortina needs us united in helping her through this, and if you’re not willing to do that, you’re merely a liability. And, if that’s so, you should do us all an enormous favor and just bugger off.”

The coarsening of his language was not the only indication of his fury. Twin spots of red highlighted his cheeks, and the hand that was not in her face was locked in a fist at his side. He hadn’t realized just how much enmity he’d been harboring toward Dolly, but her continued refusals to talk about this, her consistent dredging up of his humanity and his ties to the Council, had worn away the refined veneer until Ripper’s appearance was inevitable. Not that he regretted it in the slightest. There was no time for niceties right now, and if she was going to refuse to see that, he’d be damned if she was going to make it worse.

She didn’t seem flummoxed by his outburst. Cool eyes looked down at the Watcher, searching for what, he had no idea, and it was a full minute before she gave him a slow nod. “There he is,” she commented. “I was wondering how much it was going to take before he decided to show his face again and get it done.”

Her oblique reference caused him to frown. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Not a what. A who. The man who killed the witch to save a demon he barely knew. That’s the one who earned my respect enough to break my rule about helping humans in the first place.”

His confusion eased. She was referring to Ripper. “I’m afraid that my temper---,” he started.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” She cut him off, her voice rising. “Don’t be crawling back into your shell, Rupert. Drag him out, kicking and screaming, because that’s the kind of no-nonsense attitude that’s going to save your Slayer’s soul, and Cortina’s children, and keep you from getting chewed up and spit out once this whole mess gets into the thick of things.” Dolly couldn’t help her smile. “Just don’t be dragging him out in my face all that often or I’m going to have to slap him silly. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of used to being the one in charge.”

There was no point in denying the smile her words brought to his lips. “Does that mean you’re going to tell me what the crystal looked like?” Giles asked.

She nodded. “But first you get a word of advice.” She paused for dramatic effect, and leaned down to whisper conspiratorially. “They bite.”

“Pardon?”

“Vrolek children,” she clarified. “It’s one of those things they eventually grow out of, but it can make for…interesting times while they’re still in their development stages. Just so you know. For after all this over.”

It was her olive branch, and he took it gratefully albeit in slight bewilderment. “About the crystal…” he prompted.

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

He’d slipped away, escaping to a lounge area of the resort, when Dawn and Buffy pulled out the books to begin looking for possible answers to the crystal dilemma. Travers, the pillock, was still out cold, all attempts to revive him so far futile, so they were resorting to the research again while they waited. It wouldn’t be that much longer, she had promised. If the Council director didn’t wake of his own accord within the next hour, she was going to wake him of her accord.

Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Spike slumped forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his knees as his shoulders bowed. Though Buffy’s mood as indicated by her presence inside his head had eased to the weight of feathers, his own had plummeted, the realization that he was no longer going to be able to shield his past from her slowly breaking through his wall of defense. He had reacted too vehemently to the Summers girls and their efforts to get him to talk about his mother, and he knew it. Something about it, though, dredged up every fight or flight instinct he had, with flight clearly winning for one of the first times in his undead life. Normally, he wasn’t one to run from a confrontation, regardless of how nasty it was going to be, so the fact that he was doing so now made him feel even weaker than he had prior to his hashing things out with Buffy. And if there was one thing he hated more than anything in himself…it was weakness.

Sod it. Just going to tell her and get it over with. Put to test her little “we’re in this together” philosophy, once and for all.

His decision made, Spike rose to his feet, tamping out his cigarette in the dish at his side as his gaze stole to the windows that overlooked the resort. It wasn’t a bad sort of place, he’d decided. Maybe not up to Slayer tastes, but certainly somewhere he would’ve taken Dru if he’d known such a place existed. Though it was daytime, he’d carefully avoided where the light spilled through the glass when he’d settled himself, watching the shifting colors of the sky outside as he’d mused on his issues. The vibrant blue of earlier had slowly darkened, and Spike realized for the first time that those were actually storm clouds rolling in over the far-off mountains, the trees already beginning to bend in the growing winds.

He frowned.

An approaching storm.

Wind.

Shit.

The damn Soul Eaters had found them.

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

His warning cut through the words that were already starting to blur before her hazel eyes, jerking her upright as she listened to his terse thoughts.

On their way, luv. Time to pack up and ship out.

So much for Dolly’s couple of days hope, Buffy thought, and realized she’d put much more stock in the green demon’s assessment than she’d intended. Shaking it away, the Slayer directed her mind toward Spike. What about Travers? she asked. He’s still out cold. And we don’t have any answers yet.

Then I suggest you wake him up.

She could hear his boots tramping down the hallway, could feel the tension in his shoulders and wondered if his aggravation was because of the Soul Eaters’ approach or something else.

Something else. There was a hesitation, a distant tinge of fear that she felt the vampire deliberately swat away before he went on to add, And I’ll tell you ‘bout it once we blow this Popsicle stand. I promise.

When the wash of emotion coursed over her body, she gasped, the surprise of it manifesting itself in such a physical manner rooting her in her chair, curling her fingers around the edge of the table. For just a few seconds, Spike had opened the gates inside his head, allowing everything to gush forth, bridging the gap between them so that it blanketed her in fire and light and ice and everything in between, saturating her skin as her pupils swallowed the hazel irises in ebony, her throat suddenly sandpaper, her stomach filled with thousands of butterflies on speed.

Love, such overwhelming love, blazing and brilliant and drowning in need…not just for her, but for Dawn, and for the memory of Joyce, and for…was that his mother?...and others…

And the fear, and frustration, and anger, and bitterness. So much of it directed toward himself, and others shockingly aimed at her, and the Scoobies…Giles…

And then it was gone, and Buffy was left breathless. Why, Spike? she questioned before stopping to censor herself, not understanding his reasons for granting access to the whirlpool of his emotions, feeling for all intents and purposes as if she’d just stood at the precipice of a gaping chasm and fought back the need to jump.

Because you need to know, he thought. You need to see it all so that when I show you the other, it doesn’t…you don’t…you’ll understand. There was a pause and then…I love you so much, Buffy. For always. You know that, right?

Now he was beginning to scare her. Of course, I do. I love you, too.

She could almost hear him sigh, tension easing away with the unneeded exhalation. Out with the bad, in with the good, right, Buffy? he thought, unable to hold back the ironic tinge to the words. It’s all right. I’m…all right. You just better get Dolly on the horn. The sooner we get out of here, the happier I’m goin’ to be.

It was like disconnecting a phone line. Immediately, Spike’s mind closed off to hers and Buffy felt the sense of loss she was beginning to associate with his absence. She didn’t like it. She’d begun to grow reliant on knowing he was there, feeling the cool comfort of his presence inside her head as a leveling balm in the face of all the flurry. As her gaze slid to Travers’ unconscious body on the bed, she stood, her immediate choices flashing across her mind as she crossed to his side.

“What is it?” Dawn queried from behind her. Something was going on; her sister’s sudden weird behavior could only be attributed to another person-to-person call from Spike.

“Get the stuff ready to call Dolly,” she instructed. “We’re checking out.”

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

No more moving around, Buffy decided grimly as she watched Giles pass the smelling salts underneath Travers’ nose. They were back in Cortina’s caves---for the last time, she’d announced to anyone who cared to listen as Dolly had brought her in through the ether---congregated to begin their interrogation of the Council director and search for the remaining answers that were still hanging so elusively from their grasp. She’d volunteered to wake him with force, but had been met with a reproving glare from her Watcher, forcing her to step back into Spike’s waiting arms, leaning heavily against him as they watched the spectacle before them.

Though his muscles remained tight, there was an ease to the vampire’s thoughts that hadn’t been there since prior to their discovery of the Soul Eaters’ identity, and they flowed in and out of Buffy’s head with a vaporous simplicity that would’ve made their unspoken communications seem like the product of a decade-long link. Images of her and him, body parts entwined, mingled with scattered observations from the grotto surrounding them, the memory of their first time in the underground stream making his erection press into the curve of her buttocks as he pulled her tight against him.

You really think this is the time for this? she teased him silently, not letting her amusement at his arousal flicker across her face. She wasn’t sure what had caused this reversal in his mood, but she wasn’t going to argue with it, the relief at having her solid, snarky, constantly horny vampire back outweighing the questions it brought.

Betcha I could get you off without havin’ to even touch you, he taunted in return.

After. Let’s get our answers first.

All work and no play makes Spike a horny vampire. Unheard by the rest of the group, he growled into her hair, inhaling deeply the scent of her shampoo, grateful for the pervading peace reaching his decision had given him. It was pointless trying to escape it any longer; he could only hope that she would be willing to look past it, like she’d looked past the other parts of his vampire history. Somehow, he was beginning to believe that she would.

Buffy was diverted from replying by Travers jerking in his chair, jumping against the ropes that bound him, his eyes blinking as they focused, grew accustomed to the dim light of the cave. The first thing he saw was Giles standing before him, his arms folded across his chest, blue eyes cold behind his glasses, with Cortina standing just behind him.

“Rise and shine, Quentin,” she said, fighting to maintain as much neutrality in her voice as possible. The tears she’d shed on Rupert’s shoulder had served to take the edge off her anger, just enough so that she felt safe enough in the bastard’s presence not to rip his throat out. At least…not before they got their answers. The man still needed a voicebox to speak.

She swept a graceful arm sideways, gesturing to the cavernous space surrounding them. “I’d say, welcome to my home, but you’ve already been here, now haven’t you?”

He ignored the Vrolek, choosing instead to gaze at Giles. “I would comment on your seeming desperation,” Travers said, “but I fear that it would reflect poorly on my own…past deeds.” It was then that he saw the others, the two witches sitting at the water’s edge, the teenager glaring at him in righteous hate, the Slayer and her vampire lover leaning against the far wall. “Are you leaving young Harris and his paramour from this particular adventure?” he questioned. “It appears that he is the only one currently missing.”

“He’s the only one you haven’t bothered to drag in to this mess by kidnapping,” Buffy said dryly. “So, he gets to stay home, safe and sound, for now.”

“’Sides,” Spike added, “someone’s got to mind Rupes’ shop since you’ve got him chasin’ after ghosts here, tryin’ to protect Buffy and Cort.” He wasn’t going to deign to include himself in Giles’ concerns, though the vamp suspected that for some inexplicable reason, he would be on the list. “Man’s gotta make a livin’, after all.”

“Especially since I’m inclined to believe I will no longer be on the Council’s payroll after this matter is resolved,” Giles added.

“Certainly, drugging and kidnapping your superior would be grounds for dismissal,” Travers replied.

Cortina snorted. “You weren’t drugged, you big baby. You passed out. Just got a little teleportation sickness, that’s all.”

“Tick tock, Rupes,” came from Spike. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

“Right.” Giles cleared his throat. “I’m sure you know why we have you here, Quentin, so I won’t patronize you by going through some long, boring explanation about what we want and how many enormous mistakes you’ve made in this entire debacle. However, I’ll start with an easy question first. Joyce Summers. You told Buffy she could be revived. We want to know how.”

He knew there was no point in delaying the inevitable. They were primed for answers and would not take no for an answer, would probably stoop to torture to ensure they got what they wanted. “Magic, of course. A spell we’ve perfected over the years in the event the children of the wind should someday be released.”

“But this spell has an expiration date.”

“Yes. Souls taken by the wind children are consumed over a gradual period of time. There reaches a point where too much has deteriorated to warrant saving the person who’s been…taken.”

“What’s necessary for the spell?” This was from Willow.

His watery gaze flickered to her young face. “All the spell’s components are back at my headquarters in Sunnydale. We were fully prepared to conduct it once we had the children of the wind bound.” Though he could feel Cortina’s cold eyes boring into him, he refused to meet them, concentrating instead on those who were directly addressing him.

“Does it require them to be bound?” At his superior’s confused frown, Giles elaborated. “Can the spell be done if the Soul Eaters are merely in proximity?”

“If they’re in proximity, that means they are still a danger.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“And I can’t satisfy your curiosity on that one,” Travers replied. “We’ve only ever performed the resurrections when they were suitably trapped---.” He stopped, unwilling to say anything further should Buffy’s earlier observations not have been transmitted to Cortina. He didn’t doubt she would be vengeful once she knew the extent of her progeny’s current state and seeing as she was now reasonably calm, he could only assume that she was still ignorant of the whole story.

“Will she come back wrong?” Dawn’s voice was tight, the memory of Cortina’s warnings still fresh in her head.

“Wrong…interesting choice of words.” He paused for a moment, visibly contemplating the question, forcing the group to wait as he pondered his next response. “We have noted…changes in some of the subjects who survived the spell. Perhaps an increased propensity for more rash behavior. The occasional lapse in memory. A certain…disposition for making inappropriate decisions. It didn’t occur in all, and in those where the changes were more marked, we…terminated the effects of the spell before the situation could get out of hand.”

“You killed them.” Giles’ voice dripped in disgust, his barely disguised sneer contorting his features. “Does life mean nothing to you people?”

“Oh, it means everything to us,” Travers was quick to reply. “But in our fight for the preservation of our world, there are casualties. You are more than aware of this, Rupert. All wars will have their wounded. Ours is no different.”

Arguing the ethics of everything the Council stood for was fruitless, Giles knew, but it didn’t stop the surge of anger from burning his veins. Concentrate, he reminded himself. He’s answered your question. Move on to the next.

“The Vroleks you are holding. They’re in a…stasis field of some sort. Is the crystal that’s shielding them a pelanthrope, perhaps?” The description Dolly had offered had immediately triggered something in the Watcher’s memory, sending him scurrying to his books, and though he was fairly certain he was correct in his assessment, he would feel much safer proceeding once he had confirmation from the Director.

Quentin’s eyes narrowed. “When did you see it?” he queried.

That was all he needed. “I didn’t.” Damn. He’d almost been hoping he was wrong. The literature he had on the crystal was scanty, with no mention of magical properties. Ordinarily, it was used in a healing capacity, providing sustenance for the wounded, not barring them from joining the real world. “How do we nullify its effects?”

“I wouldn’t advise that.”

“We’re not asking for your counsel. We’re asking how to get those children free from its bondage.”

His watery gaze was measured, and this time, Travers let it slide to Cortina. And here it was. The moment he’d been dreading. He had no doubts she would react violently to the truth, but the question remained…would Rupert beat her to the pain? His concern for the young Vroleks was bordering on obsessive, his determination to aid his demon lover unflagging if morally dubious. Would Quentin die at the hand of one of his own, simply because he’d not had the fortitude to dispose of this matter while the two Vroleks remained in England?

“The effects of the pelanthrope are only operative when it’s used singly. Place another crystal in tandem with it, and it loses its potency. They…cancel each other out, so to speak.” He steeled himself as he saw the relief relax Cortina’s features, the glint of hope begin to shine in those pale blue depths. This was not going to go well. “But if you do that,” he continued, “if you remove the…children from the protection the crystal offers…they will die.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 26: Ashes and Sparks