DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has decided to let Buffy in on his secrets, while Travers has explained that if Cortina's children are released from the crystal's field, they will die…

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

Chapter 26: Ashes and Sparks

The silence could've been shattered by a single pin drop. His words---they will die---hovered in the air, skewering the hope that had begun to grow in Cortina's chest as efficiently as one of Buffy's thousands of stakings, freezing the hearts of the others.

It wasn't even really that much of a shock to the Slayer. Her interrogation of the Council Director back in Sunnydale had carried with it hints of darker stories behind the Vroleks and the Soul Eaters, tales he'd been unwilling to completely share at the time. The carefully chosen words, the way he'd start and then stop as if he feared revealing too much, all of it made sense now in light of this admission. But there was no more time for games, not with lives hanging in the balance. Not with souls being messed with as if they were candy.

"Tell her about the ritual, Q," Buffy prompted, breaking the silence. Her muscles were stiff against Spike's, his fingers methodically stroking the veins that pulsed in her wrist. It was an oddly comforting gesture, but his attention was just as riveted on the scene playing out before him as the others.

Poor Cort, she heard him think, and felt his pity for the Vrolek weigh down the calm that had previously been suffusing him. She deserves better than this.

"Yes," Giles repeated. The tone of his voice sent shivers down Buffy's spine and she realized she'd never heard him sound so…dangerous before. "Tell us about the ritual, Quentin."

Travers sighed. "For obvious reasons, you know now that it does not actually kill the Vroleks that participate in---."

"Participate?" Cortina spat out the word, stepping forward to stand just behind Giles' elbow, knowing that if she separated the barrier between her and the bound Englishman, she would not be able to control her actions. "You make it sound like they joined a game. Say it for what it is."

He refused to let her visibly ruffle him. "As I was saying, the ritual does not actually take life in its completion. Have you not wondered in all these decades since your husband gave us the children---."

"Sold you my children. Please. Don't play your condescending word tricks on me at this point, or you're going to find yourself without a tongue to speak at all."

More silence where Travers regarded the two facing him. One last time to try to explain. Any more interruptions and he had no doubt that one of them would step forth to rip his heart out. He wasn't even sure which one it would be at this point. "It is a binding ritual," he said simply. "It requires Vrolek demons in order to work. The problems arise because magic doesn't work on your species. So we found a way to circumvent that, using qualities of the pelanthrope crystal that we'd heretofore not known. It allowed us to take advantage of the uniqueness of Vrolek physiology so that the children of the wind could be safely housed, thus preventing them---."

"Wait a minute." Giles' eyes narrowed as he took a step forward. "Did you say…housed?"

"It is a binding ritual," Quentin repeated as if that was enough explanation. "Not a death ritual. It binds the Soul Eaters to the host. Or, hosts, as this case may be. Cortina's children became…" And here he was going to have to use the word he'd dreaded when Buffy'd pressed on the same issue. God help me, he thought. "…receptacles for the Soul Eaters."

"But they're still alive," Cortina whispered. Though her voice was low, it echoed in the underground chamber, sounding hollow and desperate as she tried to assimilate the information he was now providing.

"They're in stasis," Travers clarified. "The pelanthrope is a powerful healing crystal. In order to ensure that the ritual would…endure, my predecessors deemed it necessary to place them within the crystal's field, keeping them alive for as long as they remained there. We don't know how the children of the wind were able to break free from it. We only know they did. And by following their paths, and learning what we did about Miss Summers and the cleansing ritual, it became quickly apparent who their new targets were."

"But if you had the Vroleks already," asked Willow, broaching the question she knew the others would be too afraid to ask, "why did you come after Cortina? Why not just put them back in her…back in?" Nope. Couldn't say the word. That one hurt even her.

"Because they are useless to us now," came the reply. "They are mere shells any more. The Soul Eaters have…destroyed what uniqueness the demon children had." In spite of his trepidation, his watery gaze was steady on Cortina. "That is why we sought out another."

"You bastard!" She leapt forward, fingers curled into deadly talons, and would've gouged his eyes out if Giles' arm hadn't shot forward and scooped her around the waist, dragging her back against him. The muscles in his arms bulged as he strained to contain her, for once the full measure of her demon strength unleashed in his presence, and his head bowed forward so that his mouth rested at her ear, the knowledge that he wouldn't be able to hold her for very long this way only too obvious.

"It's not his fault," Giles hissed. "I detest what's happened, too, but Quentin has merely inherited this problem. He is not the one who did this to your children, Cortina. Don't exacerbate the situation by stooping to those levels."

"Rupert is correct. I was merely---."

"Shut up!"

The Watcher's voice was a gunshot in the cavern, blue eyes glowing in his fury, causing all but Spike to flinch at its intensity. Only the vampire understood the primal protective instincts that were now controlling the other Englishman, that driving need to shield at whatever cost the woman that he loved. His measure of respect for Rupert rose, even as his own grip on Buffy tightened.

"You would deny me this?" She had turned against him, pale blue eyes searching his, and Cortina couldn't keep the haunting incredulity from her tone. "After…after everything?"

"He could be wrong," Giles replied. "Remember, he believes there is no way to kill the Soul Eaters, either. It's quite possible your children will survive whatever…this state of…inertia they are in. Don't allow the hate to control you. We're better than that…remember? You're better than that."

The confusion masked the fear on Quentin's face as he watched the pair in their struggle. "Forgive me for my ignorance," he said, "but…did you infer you've discovered a means to destroy the children of the wind?"

"We believe so," Giles said, not even looking at him, his spectacled gaze still locked on his lover. "Spike, why don't you show our guest your most recent gift from the Soul Eaters?"

The vampire eased his hold on the Slayer, sauntering forward to stand before Travers, and pulled his shirt over his head to reveal the healing burn on his chest. "Courtesy of a little dream walk," he drawled.

"How…is that…possible?"

Spike shrugged. "Don't know, don't care. But we figure, if they can hurt me, then we can hurt them."

"Which is what we're planning on doing." Buffy stepped up to stand beside the blond vamp. "We're done running. We're pitching our tents and waiting for the Soul Eaters to show up so that Spike and I can finish them off, once and for all."

"What if you fail?"

Their responses were simultaneous, his accented baritone blending perfectly with the Slayer's clear voice.

"We won't."

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

All throughout the caves, there were decisions being made.

In the library, Cortina and Giles were discussing what they were going to do about her children. Should they free them on the chance that Travers was wrong? Did they leave them as they were? Could she bear watching them die all over again if the head of the Council was right?

In the grotto, Buffy and Dawn were debating the pros and cons of attempting to bring Joyce back, with Willow and Tara standing by to be friendly ears should the need arise. Their questions were much the same as the pair in the library. Was it worth it if something turned out wrong? Were they strong enough to watch her die again? For that matter, were they strong enough to deal if everything was mostly right with the eldest Summers woman but she still needed their help?

Spike's decision had already been made. He had no doubts as to what form the Soul Eater would take once he lapsed back into dreams, and he had decided that the best way for Buffy to deal with what had happened was to watch it for herself. Somehow, his words, his explanations, always seemed to make things worse, so he was going to trust her eyes to see the truth. Then, once she knew, they would fight the ghost bitch and get rid of her. Once and for all, as she kept saying.

His mouth twisted into a smile as he lit the last of the candles. If there was one thing about his Slayer that he knew he could always count on, it was her dedication to protecting those she cared about, the way she stood her ground to battle whatever came at her, regardless of the circumstances. He had no idea how she was going to react to the tales of his past, but felt a kernel of hope budding deep within his stomach every time he remembered her response to the wellspring he'd shared with her.

Spike was going to trust her. He was going to trust in the feelings they had about each other, and he was going to trust that Buffy had learned enough about him, both before and after the cleansing, that she would see that he wasn't exactly the same person he'd been back then. Oh, part of it was still there, still colored every other choice he made. But he'd moved on, had grown. Most importantly…he'd learned.

He just wanted her to see that.

That being said, he was taking advantage of the slight reprieve they had while they waited for the Soul Eaters to be close enough to warrant sleeping to have one last burden-free moment of peace with the Slayer. Well, more like many moments, all strung together. Closing off his mind so that Buffy could have a few minutes of privacy with her sister, the vampire had slipped back to the room they'd shared, to the bed where they'd first consummated and declared their feelings for the other. He wanted it to be special. He wanted her to feel loved. He wanted it to be…beautiful.

Like her.

Spike?

Right here, luv.

Where are you?

Carefully, Spike opened up his thoughts just enough so that she could see the bed, and felt the gentle start of recognition warm inside her head. You and Bit get everything sorted?

Yeah. There was a pause. Are you…looking for privacy? Or…can I…

Privacy for two. If that's OK for you. There's not something we have to do to get ready for anything?

He heard her sigh. Dawn's going to help Willow and Tara with the spell to try and save Mom while we're asleep, she explained. Dolly's going to do some more taxiing around so that they can get the stuff. So…if that invitation's open…

Always for you, pet.

He felt her quicken her pace as he turned back to give the room one last survey, the candles lit beside the bed, the fresh flowers he knew she loved adorning every other free space. Thank god Cort believes in one-stop shopping, he thought, and noted with satisfaction that everything was as he wanted it. Of course, if it could've been done without the specter of these damn Soul Eaters over their heads, it might've been better. And one thing was for sure. As soon as they got back to Sunnydale, Spike was investing in a new place. Something nice. For both of them.

He didn't turn as he felt her step into the doorway, heard the slight catch in her breath as her eyes scanned the bedroom. Instead, he waited for her to walk up to him, knowing she would, his lashes fluttering closed as Buffy slid her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek against the curve of his spine.

"Well, aren't you the big ol' softie," she gently teased. "Should I be calling you the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man? You've got the skin for it."

"I think you're goin' to find out I'm hard all over," he chuckled, his eyes opening, and was rewarded as her hand slid down the flat of his stomach, gliding over the erection under his jeans.

"So what's the special occasion? I'm not missing anniversaries already, am I? Because I am the world's worst when it comes to remembering these kind of things."

"No special occasion." The rumble reverberated throughout his torso as Buffy's fingers slid inside the zipper to trace the veins along the length of his cock. "Just thought we deserved some down time before everything goes to hell in a handbasket."

"Does hell fit in a handbasket?"

"Let's not find out any time soon."

He could feel her lips trailing across his shoulder blades through the cotton of his t-shirt, the contact so near and yet so far away. Gently, Spike reached down and pulled out the small hand inside his jeans, tugging tenderly at her arm so that she was forced to stand before him. "Let me do this my way," he said softly.

Buffy was transfixed as she watched his blond head lower to meet hers, his cool mouth gliding effortlessly over her forehead, down her temple, along her jaw, until his lips came to rest on the pulse point at the base of her neck. As the tip of his tongue darted out to trace the scar from his bite that rested there, her eyes closed, basking in the attentions of his mouth as he suckled at her skin. She would never be able to get enough of this, she decided, moaning softly as her hand came up to tangle in the curls at his nape, holding him closer as his own fingers worked the buttons of her blouse. And she would fight to her dying breath to make sure she didn't have to lose it.

That same breath was quickening as the cool cave air met her already heating flesh, her nipples hardening to tight buds as Spike's palm brushed over their tips. So barely there…cooling her flesh while at the same time scorching her in flames. She wanted it harder, her back arching to force him into more direct contact with her breasts, only to feel him lift his hands to her shoulders, firmly pushing her away so that the distance was maintained between them.

"My way," he reiterated.

"Your way is too slow," Buffy pouted. Nevertheless, she stood still as his mouth came back down, sucking her in for the lightest of kisses, before gliding to the soft flesh of her ear lobe.

"My way will make you scream so loud, we'll have our own skylight 'cause you'll be bringin' down the bloody roof," he murmured.

The promise sent shivers down her spine, and she felt the moisture that was already beginning to seep through her pants cling stickily to her outer lips. When his hands slid under the shoulders of her blouse, pushing it to fall silently in a huddled mass to the floor, Buffy nuzzled her cheek against his, smooth skin to smooth skin, feeling the harsh angle of his cheekbones cut in delicate slices under hers. The sensations made her mouth water, and her lips parted, sliding to meet with his in a featherweight caress.

It was the gentlest of kisses, but lasted an eternity, sucking…nibbling…and…oh god when did the room start spinning?...all the while, Spike's nimble fingers working the fabric and fastenings of the Slayer's trousers until she stood naked before him.

No fair. You still have all your clothes on.

In due time, pet. In due time.

Strong hands guided her back to the bed, those lips never leaving hers even as her knees buckled beneath her, her body collapsing into the mattress. She didn't remember it being so soft, but frankly, she probably wouldn't have remembered her address at that moment in time. A tiny mewl escaped her throat as he stretched out beside her, his fingers returning to trace curlicues around her nipples.

When his mouth finally abandoned hers, Buffy closed her eyes and sank into the cool fire the caress of his tongue was lighting across her flesh. He was taking his time, not an inch of her exposed skin spared from the bounty of his kisses, licking across the line of her clavicle…the hollow at the base of her throat…around the ripe curve of her breast…each stroke punctuated with an ever-growing insistency from his hands as they followed.

There was no world…well, there was, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered, only her and Spike, and this moment, and the next, and the need that was rising deep within her pelvis, causing her clit to tingle in anticipation of his nearing mouth. Her fingers clawed into the blanket as he nipped at the jut of her hip, trailing a line of raw bites across the top of her thigh, instigating a series of quivers throughout her muscles.

"Spike…" she whispered. "Please…"

He ignored her, lost in the scent of her desire, his own flesh begging for succor even as he denied it. Darting out his tongue, Spike ran the tip along her outer lips, feeling the coarseness of the hairs as he lapped at the moisture that was collecting there. Her hips bucked, driving her heat into him, and he grazed the hard nub at the rise of her inner folds with his teeth, chuckling when her hands clutched at his head to force him deeper.

Chest rising up and down in a vociferous rhythm…breathing not working the way it should…thousands upon thousands of singing lights skittering behind her lids. Every lap at her juices, every nip at her clit, every stroke of those long fingers that were now gliding in and out of her channel…all of it served to destroy what tenuous hold she had on her surroundings, drowning in the eddies that were undulating through her flesh.

Her orgasm brought her knees up, curled her legs around his shoulders to hold him in place, quivering and shivering and crying out as it rocked around her. She felt the door inside his head crack open, his own satisfaction at pleasing her leaking out to suffuse her limbs in lava, his love intermingling with hers as she drifted along on the aftershocks.

Somewhere, somehow, his clothes disappeared, the pale ivory of his body pressing against hers, the tip of his dripping cock hovering at the nexus of her thighs. His mouth was back on hers---I could die like this, he thought---while one arm slid along the line of her spine to hold her to him. One lift, one slide, and he was delving into her wet heat, taking his time though it ached inside not to just plunge in one rabid stroke. Each time he did this was sweeter than the last, a nectar that quenched his thirst for her even as it made Spike hunger for more, and when he felt himself buried inside, the heavy sac of his balls resting between the cheeks of her ass, he waited, silently counting off, making it last. It was only when she realized what he was doing and slapped playfully at his hip did the vampire begin the excruciating journey out, measuring each thrust in and out in the eternities of light being with Buffy gave him.

Whenever he felt himself getting close, Spike would stop, holding himself inside for however long it took for the tightening of his balls to relax, all the while feeling his Slayer's powerful hands massaging the corded muscles of his back as he kissed her delectable mouth, swallowed down her delicious breath as if it was his own. She came at least twice more before he even considered establishing his own release, each time her body shuddering beneath him, spurring him further.

His orgasm broke through the barrier he'd placed on the fount of his emotions, and lost in the swell, they swept over the pair in bittersweet sparks, catching and igniting and burning, pledging the earth and heaven and everything in between as they reveled in what both knew could feasibly be their last time together.

I love you so much, Buffy's mind whispered through the miasma that surrounded them.

I know. There was a pause. No matter what, luv…my heart will always be yours. Just…remember that.

She knew that all of this was the result of Spike's decision to share with her the source of his agony in his past, that he worried about how she was going to respond to whatever it was he was going to share, and wished she could convince him that it didn't matter. He wouldn't believe her, of course. Though he came across all swagger and sarcasm, she knew that deep within the folds of leather lived a frightened young man who'd never been shown true trust prior to being turned to his current state of unlife. Buffy could only hold his hand, and do what he asked, following where he would lead, watching what he would show…and believing in him to the end.
Because that's what you do when you love somebody, she thought, snuggling her cheek into his shoulder, lashes tickling his skin.

You believe in them.


To be continued in Chapter 27: From the Tangled Boughs of Heaven