DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow and Tara have discovered that the Council has Joyce’s body, the Hound has gone to rescue his caretaker, and everyone else is working on the research front…

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Chapter 22: Less Free Than Thou

They could’ve been anywhere---in the Magic Box, the defunct high school library, Spike’s crypt. The fact that they were buried in research in the middle of Club Med for the demon set didn’t faze the trio in the least. Dolly had taken great care to secret them away, arranging for a room with no windows so that the vacationing hordes would be unable to see the Slayer and her entourage, choosing a resort that would cater to their specific human and vampire needs without calling too much attention to themselves, even leaving the supplies necessary should they feel the need to contact her. Not that she thought she would be able to handle the spell on her own, Buffy thought wryly, as her gaze stole to the leather bag slouched near the door. But it was nice to have the option.

It almost felt normal, in a weird, alternate-dimension sort of way. Dawn was teasing Spike, Spike was playing footsie with Buffy under the small table, and the Slayer was having her usual troubles focusing on the texts, wishing instead she could be out somewhere, beating something up to vent her frustrations. Those were fewer, thanks to their dream conversation and the fact that they’d actually managed to get some real rest from their slumber this time. No hint of the Soul Eaters, just uninterrupted bliss…talking, and having sex, and more talking, and more sex. It was only the residual burning sensation between her breasts, the phantom pain that mirrored Spike’s, that kept her rooted in the very real here and now.

In his chair opposite, the vampire shifted his weight, wincing slightly as he did so, a small line appearing between his brows as he absentmindedly plucked at the front of his shirt, pulling it just enough away from his skin to ease the friction.

The action didn’t go unnoticed by the youngest person present. “OK, that’s it,” Dawn announced, setting her book down in front of her with a loud thud. “Somebody do some spilling, because you’re totally flying me over the cuckoo’s nest here.”

Buffy frowned. “Spilling about what?”

“About why Spike is in pain. And don’t tell me he’s not. He’s been giving off this macho, not going to complain vibe, ever since I walked through the door.” Her eyes shifted between the pair. “Did something happen that you guys aren’t telling me because you’re worried about protecting poor little Dawnie? Because, gotta tell you, it’s a little late for that. I’m on this ride, whether you like it or not, and I’m not getting off until it’s run its course.”

The vampire’s mouth twitched. I’ll give Bit credit for one thing, he thought, aiming it directly at Buffy. She’s a helluva lot more observant than you ever were.

The blonde rolled her eyes. Thanks, she shot back, and sighed. “It was Spike’s dream,” she said. “He’s the one who should tell you about it.”

“And it’s like I said, you don’t need to be fussin’ over me,” he said to Dawn, awkwardly patting her hand in some semblance of reassurance. “It was just one of those Soul Eaters takin’ a shot. It’s done, it’s over with, and can we get back to the bloody books, please?”

It wasn’t so much his cavalier attitude about the whole thing; Buffy was used to Spike not wanting to dwell too much on his dreams by this point. It was the wall that immediately sprang up around his thoughts as he spoke to her younger sister, the scurrying she could almost see him doing to avoid addressing the issue in any depth. What’s going on? she shot at him, and was grimly satisfied to see him unable to meet her eyes.

Nothing. It’s nothing. It’s like I said. Don’t fuss.

Don’t make me dig on this. Please, Spike. If it’s something to do with these ghost things, the more information we have the better. God, I’m sounding like Giles. See what you do to me?

In spite of his reluctance to talk about it, Spike couldn’t help the smile that curved his lips. “Is this what it’s going to be like when we get back to SunnyD?” he asked out loud, shaking his head. “You two playing tag team in order to get to me?”

Dawn’s eyes went wide. “Is she think-talking at you again?” she quizzed. She faced off with her sister. “I thought you said you weren’t going to do that in front of me. It’s too weird.”

“Try being on this end of it,” Buffy replied. “C’mon, Spike. Tell us what happened. Why are you trying to hide on this?”

She wasn’t going to give. He didn’t need to be able to read her mind to suss that one out. With a twist of his neck to relieve the tension that had suddenly sprung there, Spike leaned heavily back into his chair, lifting his arms to entwine his fingers behind his head. “First off, the fuckin’ bitch talks too much,” he growled to start.

“I sincerely hope you’re referring to the Soul Eater,” Buffy said calmly.

“The Soul Eater’s a woman?” asked Dawn. Why hadn’t anyone told her this little tidbit already?

“In my dreams, she is,” Spike explained. “And when she showed her face in Buffy’s dream, too. But my money’s on that that’s just a convenient form for it to take. ‘Cause that’s how it gets to us the most.”

The Slayer’s face was somber. “It talked to you.” She refused to call it “she.” She wasn’t giving it the satisfaction. “What did it say?”

“I told you some of it already. She got good and pissed when I said you were goin’ to kick her ass.” He grinned, the image of Buffy in the middle of a melee, all gold and black and power unrestrained, stiffening his cock, darkening his eyes as he regarded her.

Buffy blushed, crossing her legs to stifle the tingle that had sprung to her clit. “Not that I’m not glad you’re just as insufferable in your dreams as you can be in real life, but there’s more you’re not telling me here. Us,” she corrected hastily as Dawn shot her a dirty look. “What else got said that’s got your head doing its best Great Wall of China impersonation?”

Looking at those grey-green eyes, he could feel her edging around the borders of his mind, trying to coax her way inside without forcing his defenses back up, both soothing him with her presence and scaring the shit out of him by making him realize he wasn’t going to be able to protect her from this. In all their dream talking, and even in the snippets they’d had before slipping onto their fantasy beach, he’d deliberately refrained from sharing what the creature had said for fear of alerting Buffy’s Slayer instincts even more. Now, though, it was time to stop hiding, and face whatever wrath his partner was going to wreak when she found out the truth.

“You’re not their primary target,” Spike finally said. His voice was low, his blue eyes steady on her face, watching the emotions there settle into confusion.

“What’s that?”

“She called you dessert,” he said a little louder. “Not that that isn’t a delightful image, but apparently, the one they’re really after is me.” His lips curled into a mocking sneer. “This is one time I wish I wasn’t so damn appealing,” he joked derisively.

“But…at the house…” She could still feel the cold fingers winding around her legs, smell the sticky sweetness in the air. “The Council thinks I’m the one who’s most at threat here. Cortina said.”

Spike snorted. “Travers is a tosser, who’s managed to throw a spanner in the works at every turn he’s taken,” he said. “You think he’s got any real clue what these Soul Eaters want? Something tells me he’s not exactly been included on the invite list when they made up their little plan of attack. He probably knows just enough to get himself worked up into a lather and make the rest of us all run willy-nilly after our own tails, because we don’t have the full story.” He straightened, leaning forward to talk directly to Buffy. “I may not like what the bitch was saying, but damn if I don’t believe every word that comes out of her mouth.”

The anger and fear rolled off him in waves, but undercutting all of it was a sense of…awe? frustration?...could that really be it? Buffy frowned, probing at his thoughts as gently as he could, silently irritated when they refused to give beneath her touch. “Why is that?” she asked quietly. “You’ve said before it’s taking a form that gets to you. Who are you talking to when it visits you, Spike?”

He’d known she was going to ask, knew that his time for running from this confrontation had officially expired even as he’d settled into discussing it. Unbidden, the face floated before his inner eye, the blue eyes glittering from some ravenous hunger, the angles of her cheeks softened by the light brown hair curling gently against her skin, and he ducked his own gaze, concentrating on the worn spine of the book on the table, feeling the well of tears sting as they threatened to spill.

“Not that it makes a lick of difference in why I believe her,” he said, and there was the faintest of tremors in his voice as he spoke. “But the bloody bitch always comes a-callin’ looking exactly like my mum.”

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

He was oblivious to seeming out of place as he prowled around the building, his red eyes staring, scrutinizing, contemplating what exactly his next move was going to be. She was inside, and the scent of her fear hung in the air, palpable even through the concrete walls, raising his hackles in anger. That same medicinal current lay beneath the aromas that now filled his nostrils, and though he could sense no blood, it didn’t stop the Hound from battling the fear that something dire had happened to his caretaker. He just wished he knew what to do next.

Sometimes, being a six-foot hellhound was not necessarily a good thing. For instance, though it might prove handy being so large and powerful while in a fight, when it came to traversing paths meant for humans---specifically, doorways and corridors---Elvis was at a severe disadvantage, his options limited. The red-haired witch was inside, and he was out, and each and every entrance to the prison that held her carried with it the danger of being confronted by one of the many men who also remained within. With his mobility impaired, he needed to ensure his path was as clear as possible before negotiating it. He had no doubt he could effectively contend with a few humans; it was the possibility of that few becoming a multitude that he feared.

That was when he saw them, the double doors almost completely hidden by the bushes lining the road leading down to them. They were loading doors, although he knew not the name for them; the Hound’s primary thought was that not only were they open, but they were also extra-wide and extra-tall, affording him plenty of space to move and fight, should the occasion arise.

A quick sniff at the air and he knew it was relatively deserted, a single man just on the inside. More would come, of that he was sure, and so his time to strike was now, while he could claim the advantage. And with his silent tread, Elvis crept toward the entrance.

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

There were supplies from England that were to be arriving any moment, but Travers’ mind was elsewhere, mulling over the circumstances surrounding the Slayer and her friends. Perhaps he’d been too hasty in denying Willow’s suggestion of contacting the person who’d removed Buffy from their reaches. So far, all the attempts by the seers in London to locate the missing parties had been futile, and the stresses along the Hellmouth were growing, the need to bind the Soul Eaters more urgent if they were going to be able to restore Joyce Summers to life. He couldn’t help but believe that if Buffy knew the true circumstances regarding her mother’s situation, she would be the first person to hand over the Vrolek. After all, Cortina was just a demon, and part of the Slayer’s duty was to protect the world from such.

Doing the spell to contact this outside party, however, would mean relocating the witches, and at this point in time, Quentin was unsure as to the wisdom in that. Here, they were powerless. Move them, and they could very well slip from his fingers.

When the telephone in front of him began to ring, he almost didn’t want to answer it, rubbing tiredly at his eyes as he sighed heavily. Sometimes, he wished he wasn’t the ultimate authority, that there was someone else who could shoulder some of the burden he carried. Now, though, it was not the time for having sundry dreams that were entirely made in the clouds.

“Yes?” he said into the receiver, his voice weary.

“Sir, there’s a problem down in the loading docks. I think you should come at once.”

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

Both of them had been silent for minutes, the image of Joyce Summers still hovering between them like…well, like a ghost. Willow grimaced. Creepy, and ooky, and did the Council really think they could bring her back from the dead when she didn’t have a soul anymore? That was powerful magic. Even she knew that you didn’t mess around with that kind of thing. People inevitably came back wrong. But still, why would they go to the bother if they weren’t sure it couldn’t be done? Travers even suggested some kind of window of opportunity, which leant his story a certain credence that the redhead was finding it difficult to ignore.

It wasn’t that she didn’t believe him. She’d loved Joyce, saw her as a second mom, and one of the hardest things Willow had ever had to do was watch her best friend suffer when she discovered her dead. If it was possible to bring her back, to restore to Buffy what had been stolen from her, the young witch would’ve been first in line to try. She just didn’t see how it could be done.

“Maybe it’s not our choice to make,” Tara said softly, the first words she’d spoken since they’d returned to their room. “Maybe we need to stop considering the what ifs and just focus on getting out of here.”

“You’re right,” Willow sighed, leaning into the gentle touch her lover extended. “I know you’re right. I was just, you know, in the whole contemplative place of my brain, the one where even the craziest ideas sound like they should work and not go kaplooie in my face.” She smiled wanly. “I think you’d be surprised how much time I actually spend in there.”

“Why do you think our magic isn’t working?”

Willow shook her head. “I’d say it feels like a dampening field, but I just don’t know how---.” A thundering crash out in the hallway startled both of them, choking the words in the redhead’s throat as they jumped from the bed.

“W-w-what was that?” Tara asked.

Muffled shouts turned into a tortured scream, and the pair shrank away from the door as the walls seemed to shake, grasping hands as they backed into the far corner. The scream burbled into silence, and the two girls just stared at the door, eyes wide, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

What dropped was the door. With a thunderous crash, it collapsed inward, shards of wood splintering through the air, and the girls shrieked, ducking their heads as they hid from whatever was entering.

His whine was the last thing she expected to hear. Peeking through her fingers, Willow’s green eyes went wide as she saw the hulking form of the Hound in the doorway, his red eyes fixed on them, tongue lolling as he slowly panted, waiting for them to see him.

“Elvis!” she cried out, breaking free from her girlfriend to rush to the dog’s side. Immediately, Tara joined her, two sets of arms and lips cuddling and kissing the canine’s black fur. “Such a good puppy,” Willow crooned, the relief that they were going to get out of the Council’s clutches after all suffusing her body. “Somebody’s getting a huge Scooby treat when we get back…” Her voice dwindled to nothing as she saw the bloody corpses of the two guards who’d been watching them strewn through the hall, and her smile slowly faded.

Tara followed her gaze, and paled. “Oops,” she joked, trying to make light of the carnage.

The redhead set her lips and held up a warning finger to the dog. “Not so good, puppy,” she warned. “What’ve I told you about eating people, huh? Repeat after me. People are not finger food.” The only reply was another whine, and Elvis’ tongue slowly licked the hand she held up to him.

“I think he’s glad to see you,” Tara said.

Willow’s resolve face melted. How could she stay mad at him when he’d just risked everything to come to their rescue? Of course, they still had to get out of the building in one piece, but now they had a six-foot hellhound on their side. The odds were definitely looking up. “Well,” she said reluctantly, and playfully scratched under Elvis’ chin. “I think maybe this one time we might be able to do the overlooking thing.”

“What about the escaping thing? Think we can give that one a go?”

“No maybe there. Let’s get out of here.”

The two witches eased their way past the Hound, looking up and down the hallway, trying to discern their bearings. Outside of the scarlet stains that now marred the floor, each way looked the same, and they hesitated, brows furrowed while they debated which direction to take.

Elvis made the decision for them, loping off to the right, the girls right on his heels. When he began bounding up stairs, Tara and Willow exchanged a surprised look.

“Did you teach him that trick?” the blonde teased gently.

“No, but I’m going to remember to thank whoever did.”

One flight, two…the numbers began to blur as they raced. They could hear the faraway shouts as the Council’s men were alerted to the escape, but chose to ignore it, concentrating instead on following the Hound to safety.

He stopped at seven floors, his head tilting as he seemed to be listening, then giving the air a distinct sniff. Immediately, Willow was at his side, rubbing his head. “What is it, puppy?” she asked. “You smell something interesting?”

Elvis hesitated only a moment longer then ambled a few feet forward, stopping at a closed door, nudging at the knob with his nose.

“You don’t think they got Spike or Cortina again, do you?” Tara asked as the redhead’s hand closed around the knob.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “But he wants us to see whatever’s in there so we better at least look.”

The room was in darkness when she pushed the door open, and Willow fumbled along the jamb, feeling for the switch. When she turned it on, though, her heart stopped, her green eyes wide, and she audibly swallowed as she stood rooted in her spot.

“How many dead people does the Council have around here?” she whispered.

At her shoulder, Tara’s face was equally pale, her gaze fixed on the center of the room. “Willow…I don’t think they’re dead.”

Two beds. The shine of magic surrounding them. And lying inert in each, two small Vroleks, one girl, one boy, eyes closed, chests just barely moving…

 

To be continued in Chapter 23: And Saw in Sleep