DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Quentin has explained what he can and was surprised by the Scoobies’ belief that the Soul Eaters could be killed. Buffy and Dawn have decided to try and save Joyce, while Cortina and Giles are debating the issue of her children…

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Chapter 27: From the Tangled Boughs of Heaven

Every time she stopped moving, the trembling began again. Losing her temper in front of Travers had really been expected; Giles didn’t doubt for a moment how deeply hearing the story about her children affected the Vrolek. Frankly, anything less than the display she had given would’ve surprised him even more. In spite of her struggles, too, he knew that she had willingly acceded to his restraint, the tempering of her more natural instincts to destroy those who barred her path shining brightly for him if not for the others.

It frightened him to a degree how well he knew Cortina, how much of her spirit called out to his, and how easy it was getting to read her moods, to judge what her next move would be. It shouldn’t be this rapid, Giles knew. Only on the rare occasion in his forty-plus years on this planet had he ever known such an affinity for another, and the irony that it was a demon who now seemed to be the one to place his world into an order he’d previously only dreamed about did not escape him.

For the first few minutes after settling themselves in her library, he had held her, arms wrapped around her shoulders, silently wiping away the tears that flowed freely from her eyes. She had cried so much over the past few days---too much, she had said on more than one occasion---and though these tore at his heart just as much as the others, there was a quiet sense of peace that accompanied them, like they were being drawn from the bottom of the well and only exiting her body in an attempt to flush out the remaining anxieties from her flesh.

The tremors that had begun shivering her small frame had driven her to her feet, and Giles had watched in mute fascination as she began prowling around the stacks, vocalizing her thought processes in a stream of consciousness that was both revealing and disturbing. So many questions. So many decisions to be made. And he could only be there as a sounding board while she hashed it out in her head. As much as he would like to believe otherwise, the choice would have to be hers, and hers alone. For these were not his children, a fact he was growing increasingly aware of with each passing minute.

“He had no clue about the possibility of killing the Soul Eaters,” Cortina was repeating for the sixth time. She kept coming back to this statement; this was the foundation to which she was clinging. “It’s as you said. He’s hardly omnipotent. For that matter, I’m beginning to think he’s not even semi-potent.” This last was said with a quick flash of a smile in his direction, one of her feeble attempts to gain some levity in the situation. She was desperately attempting to maintain control, and though it hurt to watch the struggle in her face, Giles found himself overwhelmed with a surge of pride at her fortitude.

“Why don’t you just come out and say it?” His voice was low, probing, but not confrontational, even as she hesitated in her route to look over at him quizzically. “You’ve been going over the same things for the last fifteen minutes, Cortina. I think you know as well as I do what your decision is. You’re just frightened of saying it out loud.”

She lowered her eyes then, hiding the shine from his gentle gaze, and resumed her pacing. “It’s hard to believe that I would be scared of mere words,” she said. “It’s not like they have any actual capability of physically hurting me.”

“It’s natural to be apprehensive of anything with power. It doesn’t, however, negate the fact that you’ve already reached your decision. Say it,” he coaxed.

Cortina disappeared around the edge of the one of the rows of books, and Giles could hear the shuffle of texts being pulled randomly from the shelves, dusty pages breathing in the air as she flipped through them, the slide of leather against the wood as they returned to their resting places. When the words finally came, they pricked the tension that had been knotting the Watcher’s shoulders, and he bowed his head as he listened to her whispered words.

“I have to get them out of there,” the Vrolek said. “I can’t just stand by. Not any more. I can’t watch them exist in some kind of limbo where it’s impossible for me to touch them, or hold them, or even know that they can hear me when I say I love them. I’ve spent the last century coming to grips with their deaths. Probably grieved for a lot longer than I should’ve, but when you live as long as I do, the passage of time becomes relative.” There was a pause, some more books being moved around. “If Travers is right, and they die when we take them out of the protection of the crystal, at least they’ll die feeling my arms around them. They’ll die knowing I fought for them until the end.”

When he heard her steps round the stack, Giles lifted his eyes to look at her wan visage. The corner of his mouth lifted in a gesture of reassurance at the silent plea in her gaze. “They would be very proud of you,” he murmured. “I know I am.”

“You don’t think it makes me selfish? That I’d rather they die with me, than live without?”

He shook his head. “Can you call what they’re doing, living? You’re freeing them, Cortina. That’s a noble thing. There is no reason for you to experience guilt regarding this decision. It will be difficult enough to face the consequences without adding your own self-flagellations to the mixture.”

His reference to consequences clearly gave her pause, and a slight color rose to her cheeks as she stepped closer to the table at which he sat. “There are…other issues, you know,” she said softly. “If Travers is wrong.”

He did know, and nodded. This discussion was coming much sooner than he’d anticipated.

“Have you considered it?” she continued. Another step closer. “Have you…wondered what it would be like?”

“I think the more appropriate question is…should your children survive, does there remain a place for me in your life?” His small smile was sad. He knew what she wanted to hear, but he wasn’t sure he was capable of saying it. “Our time together has been…extraordinary, to say the least. You’ve…touched parts of me I’d long thought dead. Opened my eyes to the possibilities of more than my Watcher existence. For that, I will always be thankful.”

Her movements stopped, her body growing rigid as her eyes widened. “You’re breaking up with me,” she said, disbelief in her voice. “Now? With everything that’s happening? How could you---?”

“No.” He was before her in a shot, his hands on her upper arms, feeling the stone of her flesh beneath his touch. Her entire body was rigid, pale eyes darting, unable to stay on his for more than a second at a time. “That’s not what I meant. But answer me honestly. Best case scenario…Quentin is wrong and your children are perfectly fine. Do you truly believe it’s possible for me to have a place in their lives? A human attempting to parent…demons?”

She didn’t even hesitate. “Yes. I thought we’d learned by now that, fundamentally, you and I are not that different, Rupert. I mean, perhaps it would be harder if I was a different species. One that was…more of a threat to humans.”

“Dolly did say that Vrolek children bite,” Giles gently teased.

Cortina rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe she’s still cranky about that. I told her not to provoke them, but did she listen?” She shook her head. “So, there are developmental issues. It’s not like humans don’t have the same thing.”

“We don’t bite people.”

“You’ve never been around toddlers, have you, Rupert? And don’t get me started on the whole hormone-driven teenage years you lot are stuck with.” A heavy sigh accompanied the slight relaxing of her body as she lowered her head, her fingers straying to fiddle with the buttons of his shirt. “What I’m saying is, that every species has their own growing pains. Sometimes, they’re a little dangerous, but if they weren’t manageable, we would’ve all died out ages ago. I couldn’t think of a better male role model for my children to have than you, Rupert. Even if you do refuse to believe that Descartes was a genius.”

The re-emergence of an old debate distracted him momentarily as his hands fell from her arms to fold across his chest. “I never said that,” he argued. “I merely stated I had issues with a man who began his philosophical inquiries by doubting all knowledge without exception---.” He cut himself off as he caught her looking up at him through her lashes, and shook his head. “It won’t work. You’re not going to divert my queries by rehashing some inane discussion we had over tea one night. This is a serious matter, Cortina. We shouldn’t be joking about it.”

“I’m not. I’m trying to show you that it’s not as serious as you think it is. Not everything is an apocalypse.”

“You have to know…I don’t understand how I can fit into that role in your life.”

“And you know what? I don’t know how it would work either. But I do know you have great instincts, and that you’re kind, and intelligent, and it would be very hard for me to imagine my future without you in it.” Finally, she lifted her gaze and he was relieved to see that some of the pain regarding her decision seemed to have filtered away, like she was coming to peace with it, accepting its potential consequences in hopes for the best. “I’m not asking you for any promises. I’m just asking that you don’t automatically dismiss the possibility.”

Giles nodded, lifting his hand to brush back the hair from her cheek. If she had pressed, he suspected he would’ve succumbed to her wishes, his current feelings for her overwhelming to say the least. He didn’t understand why she was giving him the choice when her own desires were so apparent, but he would not deny the gift she was offering. Perhaps time was all he needed to reach a decision. After all, she’d been able to make a much tougher one, just as Buffy and Dawn were doing at that moment in the grotto. Yes, that was probably all he needed. Just a little more time.

Lowering his head, the Englishman brushed a kiss over her forehead. “You are one of the bravest people I have ever known,” he said. “Not only for facing a choice that I’m certain every parent dreads, but also for suffering in this delusional fugue where you believe I would make a good…” He swallowed before saying the word. “…father.”

She giggled at his difficulty in saying it. “Well, I’ve been called worse things,” she said, and pressed her cheek against his chest, listening to his heart pound away inside. “Thank you.”

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

Travers’ gaze was cold as he watched the two witches sort through the supplies they had just teleported in from the Council building. “You’re holding that upside down,” he instructed as Willow examined a small oblong-ish statue. “If that remains in that position during the spell, you will only proceed to disintegrate Joyce Summers’ physical remains.”

The redhead frowned, glancing at the still tied-up Director out of the corner of her eye before carefully turning the object over. “Uh, thanks,” she said, and set it down on the ground alongside the rest of the stuff.

“You do know you lack the power necessary to successfully perform the spell, don’t you?” he continued. “I’d thought your skills were far more advanced, but now that I know you were not the ones who actually rescued Spike, I’ve reverted to my original assessment. You are not strong enough.”

“Is there a reason we didn’t gag him?” Tara asked her girlfriend.

“I think it was some veiled reference from Giles about respecting authority,” Willow replied, shooting Travers a dirty look before adding, “Even if they’re lying, back-stabbing, pompous meanies.”

“Perhaps it would be wise for me to call in someone to help you,” Travers said. “A third source from which you can draw to ensure the spell’s completion.”

“Giles is going to help us, so thanks, but no thanks.” She didn’t want to admit to the older man that she was actually afraid that he was right, that she and Tara didn't have enough power between them to do it, but there was no way she was going to give him the satisfaction to know that his ramblings were starting to get to her.

The cavern was silent for a moment as the two girls worked on organizing their ingredients. Only the soft gurgle of the water as it lapped intermittently against the stones along the bank sifted through the air.

“Do you have means to detect the approach of the children of the wind?” Travers asked, breaking the lull.

After sharing a look with Tara, Willow sat back on her heels and nodded at the Englishman. “Dolly and Cortina gave us some hints on how to find the Soul Eaters,” she explained. “We’ve got wards set up out in the desert to let us know when they get close. That way we can give Buffy and Spike the heads up to do their sleep slaying.”

He nodded, eyes thoughtful. “Ah, yes. This…attempt to kill them. Pardon me if I’m a trifle…hesitant to put my faith in such a plan. It seems unnecessarily foolhardy when there is a perfectly good means of controlling the children of the wind without risking either the Slayer or Spike.”

“Buffy and Giles warned us you might pull something like this,” Willow warned with a wag of her finger. “Cortina’s our friend. We don’t go Sybil-ing our friends by sticking an entire demon species in their bodies. It’s not nice.”

“And what if their plan fails? Will you stand by and watch your friend die?”

They won’t.” She was sure to emphasize the “they.” After everything, Spike was turning out to be just as much of a friend as Buffy. “If it looks like the Soul Eaters are getting too close, Dolly’s just going to whisk them to safety and we’ll try again later.”

“The traditional stalling technique. I see.”

How did Buffy put up with this guy as a boss for so long? Willow thought as she felt her defenses jump up, her lips pressing together as she bit back the retort that jumped to her tongue. “It’s not stalling,” she finally said. “It’s very much stall-free. It’s, well, you know, it’s…” In quiet desperation, she looked to Tara for help.

“It’s regrouping,” the blonde chirped, her chin high.

Willow lit up. “Yeah, regrouping. That’s it. Not stalling.”

“And when will you attempt the spell to resurrect Ms. Summers? You’ll have quite a small window of opportunity, you realize. The children of the wind should most likely be close in proximity, but not so close as to be a true threat.”

“Don’t worry. We have a schedule. We know what we’re doing here.” She frowned again. “Why are turning into Chatty Cathy all of a sudden? Are you deliberately trying to distract us so that this doesn’t work?”

“On the contrary, Miss Rosenberg, my only desire since the children of the wind escaped has been to ensure the Slayer’s happiness and wellbeing. Everything I’ve done has been in the name of keeping her safe. I have no wish to see her harmed at this point in time. She is far too valuable to us in our current battles.”

“But you kidnapped Spike.”

Quentin sighed. “As I’ve already explained to Miss Summers, we did so only with the best intentions.” As he regarded them, he blinked once, twice, and then gave them what they thought he was trying to pass as a smile. “Believe it or not, I am your ally in this matter. Use my wherewithal if you wish. Or don’t. The choice is yours.”

It was pointless for him to speak further, he knew. The witches were faithful to a fault, loyal to their friend and her mentor without question, and all he could do was be honest at this point. They didn’t believe him, but that was partially his own doing; after all, he had been the one to order their kidnapping, even if it hadn’t been his original idea. I must remember to speak with Clive about that when we return to London, Quentin thought. His suggestion most certainly did not work according to plan.

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

She had no idea how long they had been lying there. Hours, probably, although in so many ways, it felt like nothing. A blink. Not nearly enough time. But was there ever really enough time? she wondered. She’d always taken the issue of her life expectancy relatively lightly…well, as lightly as could be expected. She knew it was part of the Slayer gig. And as much as she fought to keep that expiration date as far away as possible, Buffy also knew that she’d long ago come to terms with the possibility that it could end at any single moment in time.

And there it was again. Time. The lack thereof.

Beneath her cheek, Spike’s skin was reassuringly cool, and delicately, Buffy traced the burn marks that remained on his chest. “At least it doesn’t hurt anymore,” she commented softly.

“Wouldn’t matter if it did,” he said, his voice barely audible, eyes closed as the arm that was wrapped around her traced the line of her spine with a single finger. “I can take anything as long as I know you’re safe.”

She lifted her head, the candlelight dancing in her eyes as she looked at him. “You’re not going to go and do something amazingly stupid like try to kill this thing on your own when we go head tripping, are you?”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a half-smile even as his lids remained shut. “Now, would I do something like that?” he drawled. He chuckled when her tiny hand slapped at his shoulder. “Think I’ve learned my lesson, pet. In this together. I promise not to do anything profoundly daft until you show your pretty little face.”

Her lips parted, the short intake of breath to speak the only sound in the room, only to be stopped by a quiet rap at the door. Immediately, Buffy stiffened, and simultaneously, both she and Spike turned to look at it. “Come in,” she called, and felt her heart thumping in her chest.

The door creaked open and Willow’s red head poked apologetically around its edge. Her eyes were solemn. “It’s time…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 28: As in My Boyhood