DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The Soul Eaters have arrived
Everything was going to happen in the grotto.
Giles had been the one to make the decision. In the face of everyone's distraction, he was the one who was rallying them forth, keeping them focused on the plan, barking out orders to demon guards and Dolly alike. With the possibility of failure all too real, the Watcher had decided that centralizing everyone within the cavern surrounding the stream afforded Dolly the best and easiest means of transporting everyone out, should the need arise. So, Joyce's body was brought in and laid out, with Willow and Tara preparing their restoration spell, while a makeshift bed was created for Buffy and Spike near the water's edge.
Cortina hovered in the background as the final arrangements were settled, watching as Spike nuzzled Buffy's hair, his whispered words of love lost to everyone but her. Who would've guessed that just a routine sweep of her caves a month earlier would lead the lot of them to where they were today? she thought. If her guards had let Buffy and Spike remain where they'd been hiding, she would never have met them, or Rupert, or learned about the existence of her children
She shook her head as if that would dispel the what if's from her skull. It was pointless dwelling on the past when this was where they were today. Take what they'd been given and try to make the best of it. Hope for chocolate mousse and pray they didn't get mud pies.
With a bright smile that didn't quite connect to her eyes, Cortina strode forward to the lovers' sides and lightly touched Buffy's shoulder to get her attention. "I wanted to say good luck," she said when the blonde turned to look at her. "Dolly's going to be getting me out of here soon, so I'm going to miss all the festivities. Darn the awful luck."
"You know, we're going to have to do something about this no-magic thing around you," Buffy said. "You're going to miss out on all the good apocalypses this way."
"Make them some old-fashioned, hand-to-hand fights, and I'm there." The Vrolek's pale eyes slid up to Spike's, softening when she saw the flash of worry buried in the cerulean depths. Poor vamp was really scared about this, she thought sadly. Gotta love his bravado, though. Probably only Buffy and I can see the truth. "Don't be getting yourself killed now," she instructed him with a false sternness in her voice. "I need someone around who can keep me company during the day when these two---," she gestured to Buffy and Rupert, "---go riding into the sunrise trying to save the world."
"Goin' to do my best," Spike replied. "Dying's not exactly high on my to do list today."
In an uncharacteristic flash of emotion, Buffy leaned forward and gave Cortina a quick hug. "As soon as we kill these things, we're going to settle the Council's issue with your kids," she promised in a whisper only the Vrolek could hear. "I'll even let you hit Q."
Her smile was sad as she pulled away from the embrace. "I'll hold you to that," she murmured, and then turned to Dolly who was waiting off to the side. "I'm ready. We should get me out of here so that these guys can get the show on the road."
The group was silent as the two demons disappeared in a soft whisper, leaving the gentle pitter of the water in the stream the only sound bouncing against the stone walls. Even Giles took a moment to reflect on the noticeable void Cortina's absence left in them, in spite of the fact that they all knew this departure was necessary for the magic to work effectively. It wasn't just about the restoration of Joyce Summers that would be at work here. In order to ensure Spike and Buffy would fall asleep, a slumber spell would be done to each of the pair in turn, with Dawn as the trigger for ceasing it, should the presence of the Soul Eaters get too close for safety. The teenager would be watching them, scanning their bodies for wounds that might suddenly appear from nowhere, ready to pull them back to the waking world should the threat become too severe.
"Spike." Giles' voice cut through the tension, causing his Slayer to jump and reflexively curl her fingers around the vampire's forearm. "Please. Get into position. We need to start."
"Right." A quick glance at Buffy, a shy lift of his mouth, and Spike turned away from her, striding with deliberate nonchalance to the bedside. He paused, frowning at Dawn's obvious discomfort as she hovered near the foot of the blankets. "What? It's not like you haven't seen me sleepin' before, Bit."
She shifted her weight uncomfortably, an embarrassed flush creeping into her cheeks. "Um, it's not that. It's you know." She gestured vaguely toward his chest. "Your shirt. You have to take it off. So we can see if you get any more burns or gaping wounds or anything."
"Ah. Right." With his fluid grace, the vampire pulled the cotton over his head and was halfway facing the bed when a sly smile curled his mouth and he glanced wickedly back at the teenager. "You sure that's goin' to be enough?" he teased, his hands straying to the fly of his jeans. "Hellbitch could make a swipe for my---."
His innocence was feigned as he looked back at Buffy. "What? I'm just sayin'---."
"Saying is not sleeping. Get into bed." She could hear his chuckle inside her head and had to refrain from laughing out loud herself as she saw the shocked horror that stretched her sister's eyes and mouth into saucers. Bad vampire, she chastised him as he settled himself on top of the blankets. Trying to corrupt the innocent teenager with your potential nakedness.
You know I wouldn't have done it, luv. Just wanted to see her face, is all. She saw the smile lingering on his face as he flashed on the memory. Gotta admit, it was funny.
Now is not the time for funny.
It sobered him immediately, and she felt the sigh of resignation waft through his thoughts. Right, there. A vampire being hunted for his soul isn't funny at all. It's wonderful, bloody irony, that's what it is.
Spike's eyes fluttered shut, and he stretched his arms out along his sides, exposing as much of his flesh to the scrutiny of the others as possible. With the vamp in position, Willow stepped forward, a small vial in her hand.
"How long will it take?" Buffy asked.
"It should be pretty much instantaneous," the witch replied as she knelt at Spike's side. Dipping her finger inside the bottle she held, she began chanting under her breath, the words of whatever language the spell was in, unintelligible. Sticky fluid stuck to the digit she pulled from the vial and carefully, she pressed it against each of his closed lids, watching as it seeped beneath his lashes to disappear into his eyes.
Buffy clung to the line between her and Spike's minds as she saw her best friend lean forward, her mouth pursed to---.
---love you always, pet---
---blow softly into the vampire's ear.
He was gone.
Silence. Shattering, ear-splitting silence. And Buffy had never before felt more alone than she did at that exact minute.
"OK," she chirped, ignoring the strain in the people around her. "My turn."
As she approached the bed, Willow held up her hand to stop her. "You have to wait a few minutes," she said gently. "Spike needs to get into a REM cycle, or this won't work."
"That just means you have to wait to put me under," Buffy said, carefully brushing her friend's arm aside. "That doesn't mean I can't lay there and hold him while I wait for you to do it."
They didn't stop her. What was the point? She was right. Folding herself over his inert form, stroking the sharp line of his clavicle as she nuzzled into his shoulder, wasn't going to do anything to affect when Willow did the second half of the spell. It would give Buffy a few moments of peace before the nightmares began. And her friends and family were the last people on earth to deny the Slayer even a second of that.
When it was done, Willow sat back on her heels and gazed down at the two blond lovers, one chest rising, the other deathly still. She was grateful for Giles' distraction; he'd been too absorbed in his thoughts to pay much attention to her while she put the pair to sleep. If he had been listening, he would've noticed how the incantations had varied, how the words she'd whispered to Spike had invoked not vague dreams, but specific memories. That had been at the vampire's request. She hadn't pressed as to why. It wasn't her place. But when he'd come to her before, pulling her aside while Buffy talked with Dawn, she had seen the naked need in his face for this to happen and had agreed before rational thought could interfere.
They were still dreams, she reasoned later. Just dreams of the memory lane variety. Nothing that wouldn't prevent the Soul Eaters from putting in an appearance.
The first thing she noticed was that she couldn't breathe. Well, she could breathe, just not very well.
A quick glance down and Buffy's face crumpled in dismay. Oh, crap, Spike, she thought as her gaze swept over the delicate lines of the long dress that clung to her thin form, the sweeping ruffles edging the skirt. How the hell do you expect me to fight when you've got me looking all Upstairs Downstairs?
Looking up, the musky scent of the cobbled street assailed her nostrils, the mist swirling in lazy tendrils around her feet. She felt a brief sense of panic when she saw it, and then eased, taking as deep a breath as the corset she was wearing allowed. The smell's not the same, she thought as she took a tentative step forward. It's not the Soul Eaters. It's actual mist. Can't hurt me. Unless Spike is dreaming about killer fog now. And if he is, I'm going to kill him. We sooo don't need that right now.
"Miss Summers!" The voice stopped her from the path forward she was taking, and Buffy turned to see a portly man standing on the walk behind her, a long handlebar mustache making him look like something out of a Dudley DoRight cartoon. "You're going in the wrong direction," he said. He gestured toward the house beside them. "Master William is waiting for you."
Her gaze slid to the dwelling, drinking in the long, thin windows that looked like gashes across its front, the orange and scarlet flutter of candles behind the net curtains almost making them look as if they were bleeding. The distant tinkle of a piano emanated from inside, and she could hear the muffled rumble of many voices, could see now the shadows of those same people standing within. It was a party, it seemed. And she was invited apparently. Because Master William was waiting.
Following the gentleman into the house, Buffy paused just inside the door, drinking in the carefully placed furniture, the spotless sterility of the décor. Immaculate, and expensive, and not at all what she would've expected. Just because she had access to Spike's memories didn't mean that she had necessarily dipped into them all that frequently, so seeing this house---was it his or someone else's---came as a surprise. She was still too used to it being all about the Big Bad Spike, not about the bloody awful poet William.
"He's in the drawing room," her guide explained.
Hazel eyes darted between the multitude of closed doors going off the foyer. "And the drawing room would be ?"
His arm swept to his left, and she followed its path with her gaze, her feet still rooted to the floor. "Master William is waiting for you," he repeated.
"Right," she muttered, and stepping forward, pushed the door to the room open.
It seemed as if the bulk of the party was inside, the small room crammed with people, men of all shapes, sizes, and ages scattered about, some with cigars, some with tumblers of amber-tinted whiskey. The women seemed to be confined to the seats in the room, except for the one who sat at the piano, playing the dainty melody that Buffy had heard in the street. A fire roared in the fireplace, and the first flush of heat crept up her breast, reminding her of the tight corset and her lungs' current restrictions.
"Would Miss Summers care for something to drink?"
Her affirmative response froze on her lips when she turned her head, the sight of the twinkling blue eyes behind the glasses catching her by surprise. "Spike!" she said, and then blushed when a few of the guests glanced sharply in her direction. "I mean, William!"
He was chuckling as he bowed deeply, his eyes sweeping over her curves within the dress. "Is there a time period you don't look absolutely luscious in?" he asked, his voice barely above a murmur when he straightened.
It was disconcerting at best, she decided. In so many ways, he looked like an older version of that child on the playground, the light brown hair carefully arranged yet still managing to slip into curls across his forehead. His body was leaner than what she was used to, not quite filled out as he neared the end of his teenage years, a delicacy accentuated by his long, slim hands, hands that looked as if the hardest thing they'd done was turn the page of a book. And yet, in spite of his careful mimicry---actually was it mimicry if he'd really been there? Perhaps memory was a better word---of the manners of the period, she had no problem seeing the Spike inside the façade the glitter in the sapphire depths of his eyes the sardonic curve of his mouth as he edged himself to her side the liquidity of his movements, boneless and ever so lithe that promised more than an eighteen-year-old Victorian male should even know about.
"I've got a bone to pick with you," Buffy accused lightly.
His hand found the small of her back, fingertips dancing up her spine. "Get outta those clothes and I've got a bone I can give you," he teased.
She blushed. Again. As inviting as his innuendo was, it seemed horribly out of place amidst the throng, and she glanced furtively around, wondering if anybody was paying them any attention. "I'm serious. Well, I guess my bone is with your subconscious. It couldn't have picked a more suitable place for a demon fight? Like the training room at the Magic Box maybe? Lots of nice weapons at hand, and I wouldn't have to be trapped in the Iron Maiden here."
The reference to his subconscious immediately sobered him, and Spike straightened even further, shoulders thrown back as he turned his head to look out over the crowd. "About that," he said softly. "There's something I need to tell you. You might not like it much."
Buffy frowned. "Is it the Soul Eater? Is she here?" She craned her neck, eyes jumping from one woman to the next, wondering which one was his mother. Access to his memories did not mean she had a picture of the woman who'd raised his human self anywhere to be had, and she found herself wondering why that was.
"No. I was told Mother would be late in joining us." His words were awkward, hints of that nervous young man he'd been prior to his turning shining through, and he seemed to all of a sudden not to know what to do with his hands. "How they can mess with my head so much, I'll never know."
"Don't knock it. It's giving us the means to kill them." Her hand slid up his arm, hesitating when he stiffened beneath her touch. "Can we slip away? Is it something you're not comfortable talking about here? Because personally, I'd love to get out of this dress. Maybe that subconscious of yours can whip up some jeans for me," she joked.
"That's just the thing, pet." When he glanced down at her, his glasses began to slide down his nose, and his hand rose automatically to push them back up. "Not really sure how much control I'm actually goin' to have this trip out. It's not my subconscious steering the boat."
"What're you talking about? Of course, it is. I watched you go to sleep. This is your dream."
"Not exactly." He took a deep breath and for the first time, Buffy realized that he'd been breathing all along. Is he ? She stopped the thought, saw the flush in his cheeks and before he could continue, lifted her hand to touch his face.
Warm. Alive. Oh my god.
The surprise of it caused the room to swim around her, the air she'd been struggling to hold onto exiting her lungs with a vengeful whoosh, and her hand shot out to grab on to the wall behind her in an effort to stop herself from pitching forward. It hadn't occurred to her to think of him as being human before, yet made perfect sense considering where they were. Had he been human when they'd been on the playground? He must've been and she'd only been too wrapped up in her grief to notice, too tired to see the life that had crawled beneath his skin.
"Buffy?" His arm was a rock around her waist, steadying her, the tiniest of cracks in his voice as his concern sent his pulse to race. Spike began guiding her toward the door. "C'mon. I'm getting you out of here so that I can explain this in peace."
The quiet of the hall wrapped around her, and Buffy found herself crazily wondering what had happened to the man who had brought her in. She stumbled as Spike eased her into a chair, crouching before her to scrutinize the sheen on her forehead, the panting she couldn't seem to control. "I'm going to get you some water," he said.
"No." Her fingers curled around his arm, coaxing him to stay. "I'm all right. Honest. Just you're breathing."
He looked embarrassed by that, ducking his head as his cheeks flamed. "Yeah, well, turns out I'm almost always human in these little jaunts," Spike admitted. "Guess I managed to leave that detail out, huh?"
"Guess so." Sitting made it easier, the black spots that had been dancing before her eyes now a pale shade of gray. Now that the initial shock was gone, she was feeling guilty for over-reacting so, and her mind raced to change the subject. "What were you saying inside?" she prompted. "Something about this not being your dream?"
Right. Time to tell. "It's like this. All this stuff about my mum I didn't want to share I thought, maybe if you saw for yourself what happened, it might you might it might make more sense than if I tried tellin' you myself. Sometimes, my mouth doesn't seem to be attached to my brain and what comes out of it ends up making things worse."
A chill settled in her veins. "What did you do, Spike?"
He stood then and began pacing the corridor in front of her. "It's not bad," he rushed. "Least, I don't think so. Not any more bad than if I'd told you, or if you'd tried sussing it out on your own. And I know what's goin' to happen, more or less, so that's good, right?"
"What. Did you. Do."
He sighed, pulling off his glasses in a gesture remarkably like Giles. "I asked Red to put a little spice in her mojo," he admitted. "Asked her to make me dream about something specific. To make me re-live the stuff I've been afraid of you seeing."
The voice behind him made him stiffen, his hand jerking to return his spectacles to his nose, and Buffy saw the flare of his nostrils, the slight tremor in his fingers as he visibly composed himself, slipping into his Victorian persona with the ease of well-worn slippers. "And let the show begin," he murmured, low enough so that only Buffy could hear.
"We have guests, William. Do not suppose I shall allow you to malinger in the hallway when you have a responsibility elsewhere."
Buffy frowned, rising slowly to her feet. Her hand reached out to touch Spike's arm, but he stepped adeptly away from her, expertly maintaining the traditional veneer he'd affected. She watched as he bowed his head, turning away and aside to expose the young woman before him.
"My apologies," he said, and her eyes widened when she heard the change in his accent, the roughness gone and replaced with the silky tones of the uppercrust. "I was merely aiding Miss Summers. She was unwell." He lifted his gaze, his hand gesturing between Buffy and the new arrival in the hall. "I don't believe you have been properly introduced. This is Miss Buffy Summers, here from across the ocean. Miss Summers, may I introduce my father? Mr. William Burbidge, Senior "
To be continued in Chapter 29: The Thorns