DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy has witnessed Spike’s father assault on a young woman as well as seen the results of abuse his mother received at William Sr.’s hands, while back at Cortina’s cavern, when a wound appeared on the Slayer’s shoulder, the incantation to break the spell around the pair of sleeping lovers failed…

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

Chapter 31: From an Unextinguish'd Hearth

“Willow…what did you do?”  Giles’ voice was crisp, slivering against the cavern walls in tiny blades that sent shivers down the redhead’s spine, and she visibly shrunk beneath his steady gaze, her face screwing up in anticipation of her protest, shoulders folding into her body in a manner reminiscent of Tara.

“It was just a little extra in the sleep spell for Spike,” she argued.  “Nothing major, just a…signpost really, on where his dreams would go.  Kind of like, yoo hoo, over here.”

“But they’re not waking up,” chimed in Dawn.  “You said you could wake them up.”  Her voice was rising, hysteria beginning to set in.  Although it had occurred to the teenager more than once since the story of the Soul Eaters came out that she could feasibly lose Buffy, or Spike, or even both, she’d never imagined that that would happen because of Willow’s magic.

“And I can,” the redhead assured, straightening slightly.  “It’s just going to need me to go in by the back door instead of being all upfront about it.”

“What kind of ‘extra’ are we talking about here?”  Giles was not ready to let go the issue of the spell, and folded his arms across his chest, hands tucked under his armpits, as he waited for a response.

“Spike wanted to dream about some things in his past,” she explained.  “So I mixed it up with a memory spell that I knew to direct him.”

From the far wall, a snort drifted to their ears and all eyes turned to look at Dolly.  “Amateurs,” she muttered, shaking her head.  It had been the first time she’d spoken since the spell had started, and her disgust with the current situation was apparent in the stiff set of her shoulders.

“Excuse me?” asked Willow.

“You heard me,” the demon said.  “You humans keep messing around with magic when you haven’t the faintest clue of what you’re really tapping into.  I stand by what I said.  You can have all the fancy titles you want, but when you get down to brass tacks, you’re just a bunch of amateurs.”

“Hey!  Where do you get off saying stuff like that?”  The young witch bridled in the face of the accusation, momentarily forgetting about her fear of Giles.  “I thought it was pretty ingenious what I did, and do you have any idea how many times Buffy has saved the world?  And died for it?  Not to mention coming back---.”

“Fine.  I’ll amend my observation.  She’s got the clock to call herself a pro, and maybe Ripper here when he’s not burying himself in doubts, but you, little girl, are messing with powers that you don’t understand.”

“But I do---.”

“Which is why your friends are now waking up from this little drabble of yours, right?”  Dolly rolled her eyes.  “Not that I’m one who hasn’t flown by the seat of her pants in her time, but at least I don’t go messing around in my so-called friends’ heads without knowing the repercussions of what I’m doing.”

“Enough!” Giles ordered, the single word cleaving the tension between the two in a vigorous wake.  “I refuse to waste what little time we have in petty bickering so if the pair of you would kindly shelve your estimations of the other for two minutes, perhaps we could concentrate on the matter at hand.”  His body opened, his feet taking him closer to Willow.  “You said you did a memory spell.  Why?”

“Because Spike asked me to.  I don’t know why.  I didn’t think I had time for playing at Columbo, so I didn’t press.  But he wanted me to make him dream about specific things, so I just mixed up the spell a little bit.  I didn’t think it would do any harm.”

“Well, I’d say not being able to wake them qualifies as harm, wouldn’t you?” sniped Dolly.

“I said, that’s enough,” Giles said tightly, then pressed his lips together as his brain worked over their current dilemma.  “You set them on a specific path,” he finally mused out loud.  “We can’t rouse them because they haven’t reached their destination yet.  That must be it.”

“But Buffy’s hurt,” Dawn interjected.  “Doesn’t that mean the Soul Eater is messing with them in the dreams again?”

“It would appear so.”

“Um, guys?”  The soft cadence of Tara’s voice captured their attention and the group looked over at the blonde witch hovering at the bed’s side.  She lifted a tremulous finger and pointed at the now-still form of the Slayer.  “Look.”

In the face of the quarreling, they had been diverted from the throes of Buffy’s dreaming, and had missed the abrupt dissolution of her muted sleep battle.  The blood still stained the skin of her exposed shoulder, but that was not the detail that Tara was attempting to point out to them.

The source of the scarlet, the gash that had suddenly appeared on the Slayer’s flesh, was gone.

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

The skirmish had been far too brief.

As soon as she’d freed herself from the Soul Eater’s grasp, Buffy’s fist had lashed out instinctively, connecting with the delicate jaw of the older woman with a satisfying crack that told the Slayer what she’d been so desperately hoping for since realizing her strength failed her during Mr. Burbidge’s assault.  Although she was without her capabilities during the course of the memories playing out in Spike’s head, in the interludes that lapsed between the scenes, she was all Buffy, with all her fortitude and every fighting skill she’d acquired in the six years since she was Chosen.  Her only hindrance at this point was the restrictive clothing weighing her down, but that was something she could work with, she decided, as she saw the glimmer of hate sparkle in the Soul Eater’s eyes.

“He is your warrior, you know,” the creature said, the lightness of her tone belying the hardness of her aspect.  “He wishes to protect you from anything that might hurt you.  Including his past.  Are you enjoying the ride?”

“Can’t say it rates anything near to Space Mountain, but it’s definitely been…interesting.”

“He would die for you.”

“I know.”

“Would you die for him?”

Nobody had ever asked that of her before, not about Spike, and for a moment, Buffy faltered.  “I love Spike,” she said.  “I’d do anything to protect him.”

“Yes, but would you die for him?  If the choice came down to his survival or yours, would you sacrifice your life, your calling, your sister, so that he would live?”  She moved closer as she spoke, blue eyes boring into the Slayer’s with a hungry fervor, trapping Buffy in a glutinous mire around her limbs, driving any thought of escape from her head.  “Do you deserve to die for him?”

“What kind of question is that?  Are you deliberately trying to win the Miss Obtuse crown here?”  This wasn’t fitting the pattern, she realized.  Never before had Buffy felt so helpless in one of their dreams, and briefly wondered if this was the reason Spike had been so reluctant to share with her the nocturnal visits he received from the Soul Eater prior to their flight from Sunnydale.  She felt frozen by the demon’s words, fighting to maintain a semblance of her own head, but it was a losing battle, her words a feeble attempt to counter the thing’s approach.

“Your darkness often exceeds his.  Especially now.  It was the birth of the light within him that freed us from our captivity.”

“What…light?  What are you talking about?”

“My William’s soul.” She was right before her now, eyes level, the faintest of smiles curling her lips.  “Its emergence---or should I say, re-emergence?---shattered the fetters that had bound us for so long.”

“He is not your William.”  She spoke with gritted teeth, the sweat beginning to bead on her forehead from the exertion of returning control to her body, and felt the smallest of fissures begin to seam in the Soul Eater’s control.

The demon’s hand returned to Buffy shoulder, the long nail of her index finger sinking through the fabric of the Slayer’s dress, making contact with her skin as it sliced through it with searing slowness.  “Ah, but he is,” she crooned.  “Or he will be.  Once we have consumed him.”

It was the smell of her own blood that broke through the immobilizing charm, and Buffy’s arm shot up, knocking the Soul Eater’s hand from her body, sending the demon reeling against the wall with a dull thud that shook the heavy panels.  “You’ll never have him,” she vowed, and launched herself forward, ignoring the pain the gash was sending down her side to tackle the other woman in a flurry of skirts and long hair.

The encumbrance of clothing kept either of them from fighting effectively, but Buffy took pleasure in the wince of pain she heard squeak from the hellbitch’s throat as the Slayer’s elbow shot backward and into her opponent’s ribcage.  Too bad Spike’s going to miss the grand finale, she thought grimly, and rolled away, preparing to rise again to finish the Soul Eater off once and for all.  When a strand of golden hair fell across her eyes, she grimaced and blinked…

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

…and found herself staring into a fireplace, the heat from the roaring fire flushing her cheeks in crimson.

Her head swiveled.  The drawing room.  She was back in the Burbidge drawing room, minus the milling party guests.  Except not quite alone. 

Hovering by the slightly ajar door, the portly messenger who had guided her path inside the house to begin with, then led her to the study to meet up with Spike’s father, seemed to be waiting for her to notice him, his mouth widening into a smile when her eyes finally settled on his form.

“The others will be along momentarily,” he said.  “I trust you are comfortable, Miss Summers?  No ill effects from our journey?”

His question regarding her wellbeing brought into startling relief the lack of pain in her shoulder, and Buffy’s hand automatically shot up to touch the joint, turning it within its socket to test its soreness.  There was none.  The burning from the Soul Eater’s attack was completely gone, and somehow, she knew that if the confines of her clothing were stripped away, her skin would be unmarked.  “Who are you?” she asked, eyes narrowing.

“I thought that was obvious,” he replied.  “I am your guide.”  Footsteps in the hallway turned his head and his smile vanished.  “I’m afraid duty calls,” he said, and pulled the door open enough to reveal Spike stepping inside.

Buffy noticed that he appeared even older than he had before---his shoulders just slightly broader, his step just a tad slower---and rose when he rushed forward, recognition flaring in his gaze as his arms pulled her tightly against him.  Over his shoulder, she saw the guide slip through the doorway, and made a mental note to ask Spike about it later.

“Luv…pet…Slayer…”  His voice was muffled in her hair, his lips brushing against the tresses that were piled in a careful knot on top of her head, and it hitched uncomfortably in his chest as he fought to keep the gnawing fear in his stomach at bay.

“What’s wrong?”  She pulled from his embrace, just enough to gaze up into him, to see the blue peering from behind the glasses in anguish. 

“You’re still…her…Miss Owen…oh god…”  His lashes fluttered closed, and Spike leaned his forehead against hers, a heavy weight that seemed to press into her shoulders, leaving her surprisingly tired.  “Luv, we don’t have much time.  There’s things I need to tell you, that you need to know before this all goes cock-eyed again and I’m stuck inside the poof’s skull---.”

“I saw what he did to your mother---.”

“This is so much more than that.”  He lifted his head.  “You’re not even wonderin’ why you’re still here?”

Buffy frowned.  “I thought I was here to watch.  Wasn’t that the whole reason for getting Willow to do the spell?”

“I meant…here.  In my house.  Rather, in his house.  As her.”  A sound from the hallway jerked his head, and his body stilled as he listened, hesitating only a fraction before returning to look down at her.  “He brought her back, you see.  After word got out that she’d been…that she was no longer…”  His Victorian self was struggling to voice the words, and Spike yanked himself away, running his fingers through the disheveled locks of his hair as he began to pace the room.  He may have looked like William, and his words may have sounded like William’s, but every feral movement of that lean body was pure vampire, his frustration pouring from the membranes of his skin with a musky scent that hung disingenuously in the air.

Realization dawned on Buffy, the century-old shame of a woman wronged cloaking her shoulders in righteousness.  “I’m his mistress,” she said flatly.

“Yes.  No.  I don’t know.”  His voice was ragged, and his blue eyes blazed as he looked over at her.  “I did everything in my power to stay away from here after I learned about his…about how he…when I saw the way he…  I only came back when school was out, or when my mum asked me to.”  Spike fell into the chair opposite the seat she’d been sitting in, burying his head in his hands.  “Mum always seemed so concerned for her, clucking about like some mother hen.  I never knew for sure if she…how much she was aware of.  If she…knew what went on between Miss Owen and my father.”

Slowly, Buffy sank back into her chair.  “What was her first name?” she asked quietly.  “This Miss Owen stuff is getting kind of clumsy, don’t you think?  Especially since it looks I’m going to be walking around in her---let me tell you---very uncomfortable shoes for a while longer.”

“Melody,” he mumbled, and lifted his eyes to look at her.  “My mum called her Melly after she came to live here.”

“Wasn’t this kind of thing, I dunno, frowned on back then?” she asked.

“Yes.  Mother didn’t care.  She…hurt for Miss Owen, and when my father suggested they do something to help---,” his voice dripped in acid with the word, as if detesting the very memory it dredged up in him, “---she leapt at the opportunity and offered Miss Owen a position within the household.  As a…companion, of sorts.”

“And your father still---?”

“Yes.”  Spike wasn’t about to let her finish the thought, knowing what she was asking even before she’d opened her mouth.  “Miss Owen was only one of many, of course, but unfortunately, his favorite, it would seem.”  The vestiges of his past was creeping back into his speech, foretelling the advent of yet another episode in the vampire’s “This Is Your Life” show, and Buffy stiffened, instinctively reaching for his hands where they lay helpless in his lap.

“You don’t have to worry about me getting hurt,” she assured, forcing her voice to soothe as best she could.  “For some reason, I don’t think I can.  After you left that last time, I had this fight with the Soul Eater---.”

His head snapped up, Spike leaping back to the fore, eyes searching hers as his hands clutched at hers.  “Fight?  Why?  Are you all right?  If that bitch hurt you---.”

“I’m fine.  Now.  She got a blow in, but when I showed up here, it was gone.  That’s why I don’t think---.”

“Melly?”

The feminine voice came from the bowels of the house, drifting delicately from above to reach the two pairs of ears in the drawing room.  Immediately, Spike stiffened, shoulders going back as he tore his hands from Buffy’s, the demon disappearing under the guise of William.

“You won’t tell Mother, will you?” he asked.  “I could not bear it if she found out.”

The request came from nowhere, and the Slayer frowned, wishing they’d had just a little bit longer to talk about their present circumstances.  What was it she was supposed to keep secret, she wondered, but the look on the young man’s face was so earnest, so heartbreakingly sincere, his blue eyes unable to meet hers as he suddenly seemed captivated by the flames in the fireplace, that she felt the urgent need to assure him of her loyalty.  “Of course not,” she said slowly, and was rewarded by the corner of his mouth lifting in obvious relief. 

His hand fell to the small table at his chair’s side, toying with the book she only now noticed sat there.  “Mother needs me to be strong,” he said.  “I do not wish to fail her.”

These were sentiments she was familiar with.  “You’re a good man, William,” Buffy said, and reached out a thin hand to rest it gently on his knee.

He jerked at her touch, leaping from the chair and unsettling the table beside him.  Clumsily, he circled around so that the seat he’d just vacated was between them, only then allowing his gaze to rise and meet the confusion on her face.  “She is calling for you,” he said stiffly.  “You should not tarry here or she will worry.”

She had opened her mouth to respond, the words already forming on her tongue to say she didn’t care, when it happened.  Like someone had grabbed her from behind, yanking her backward with enough force to make her senses whirl, yet the room before her never wavered, her slim body never moved.  She could almost hear the cage door slamming in front of her, locking her inside her own skull, crippling her will as she felt another presence step forward, soft…intelligent…Melly…?

“Walk with me.”  Her voice was so low, tremulous even, with an English accent that almost made the imprisoned Slayer smile.  Hey, it’s Stuffy Buffy, she thought, but then broke from her amusement to focus on the adrenaline that had suddenly begun to course through her body’s veins.  She’s really scared, came the realization.  But of what?

“It would not…you will be…he has already retired for the evening.”  William struggled in his attempt to reply, but the sense that this was a familiar transpiration between the pair slithered into Buffy’s awareness as she found herself scrutinizing the young man’s face.

“Is it so much to ask then?” Melly queried.  “Perhaps he waits.  To reach Miss Anne, I must pass his room.  He will not approach me if he hears that I am not alone.  You know this.”

That’s when it made sense to her, this quavering dread that had seemed to settle within her stomach.  Miss Owen was as much a captive as Buffy was at the moment, only hers was within her circumstances, trapped in the home of a man she hated, whose touch curdled what little food she was able to ingest, invoked recurring nightmares she fought to suppress from the other staff.  The only one to know was William, her co-conspirator in his father’s secrets, and they shared their shame in a consoling silence, a vain attempt to protect the delicate Mrs. Burbidge from even more unpleasantness.

His gaze fell, drifting to the scattered pieces of paper that had slipped from the book onto the hearth, the light from the fireplace dancing across his meticulous script in a frenetic caress.  He clearly wanted to say no, to deny the responsibility she was thrusting at him, and looked for all intents and purposes that he would, when she spoke again.

“Please,” she asked.  “I…need you.”

Buffy almost winced as the entreaty caused the young man to crumple before her eyes, his resolve to dissipate.  Melly sure knew what strings to pull, she thought with growing annoyance at the woman she had never met.  No way in hell can William ignore that.  Shoot, there would be no way Spike could refuse it; what chance did a properly taught, Victorian gentleman have against a damsel in distress?

“Of course,” he murmured, but kept his eyes away as he strode for the entrance, holding the door open as he waited for her to go through it.

She hung back, waiting for him to take the lead, and Buffy found herself treading almost noiselessly up the stairs, mimicking William’s careful step, even following his example when he purposely skipped one of the risers.  Must be creaky, she thought as they emerged into the hall it seemed she had only just left.  He doesn’t want to wake his father.

He stopped just outside a closed door, and the sound of a rocking chair squeaking across floorboards floated through the heavy wood in a hushed whisper that inexplicably raised feelings of warmth within Buffy’s breast.  “You should convince her to sleep,” he said quietly.  “She will not regain her strength otherwise.”

A faint smile rose to her lips.  “She may appear to be fragile,” Melly said, “but your mother has a stubborn spirit.  Arguing with her is very much like trying to convince a child to eat his vegetables.”

Their shared chuckle was cut short when the squeaking stopped, Anne’s voice calling out, “Is that you, Melly?”  Two sets of eyes turned simultaneously toward the door.

“You need to sleep as well,” William said carefully, gaze locked on the dark wood. 

“I will.”  Her hand was on the doorknob, turning it within her grasp as she heard him begin walking down the hall toward his own room.  “Thank you,” she whispered, unsure if he would hear her.

The slightest hitch in his step told her that he did.

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

Spike had known even before they made the jump forward in his dream what was to come next.

Smoke.

Lots of it.

Fuck.

Grabbing the handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers in their press as he leapt from the comfort of his bed, William covered his mouth and nose with it as he raced for the door, the adrenaline in his body enlivening Spike’s undead flesh---not really, but that’s sure as hell what it felt like---inside his cranium so that even there he could feel the licks of heat searing into the young man’s bare feet.

The smoke was thicker in the hall, and he raced toward his mother’s room, not even bothering to knock as he pulled it open, tore inside to witness Anne’s inert form on her bed.  Heedless of the need to protect his breathing, he dropped the fabric shielding his face to scoop the small woman into his arms---Buffy, what about Buffy-- turning and racing for the stairs.

One step. 

Another. 

Hot, hot, so damn hot. 

Get Mother to safety, mustn’t let her know that I swore, even in my head.

And they were outside, across the cobbled street, the chill of the night air raising the goosebumps to the young man’s flesh that seemed scorched from the flames that were already consuming the interior of the house.

He laid her out along the grass that stretched beside the road, smoothing back the hair from her pale face and sighed in relief when he saw the slight rise in her chest.  Alive, she was alive, thank god she was alive.

Buffy’s still inside, Spike raged, and vented his frustration outward, trying to will his former self to hurry back inside, even though he already knew that he would.  Faster, you wanker, get in there faster.  I’m not havin’ Buffy suffer more than she already has…

And he was back inside, trying not to look at the flames that were pouring out of the drawing room---stupid bloody poems, should’ve picked them up---racing up the stairs two at a time, grateful that Miss Owen’s room was the nearest door on the landing.

Pulling it open.  

The air almost as thick inside as it was out.

Peering through the darkness to see her stirring in the bed, struggling against her bedlinens as her body registered something was amiss, even if her mind did not.

At her side.  Helping her to her feet.  Her eyes locked on his in fear.

Does she see me?  I’m here, luv, you’re going to be all right.  So sorry, so sorry, so sorry.  Please don’t hate me for this.

Almost dragging her to the door, her body fighting his, William’s momentary confusion as to why jerking his head around as she turned toward the corner.

And Spike saw it for the first time in a century---not it, not really, not fair to call her ‘it’, not her soddin’ fault---through an ashamed William’s eyes that he could forget, that he could ever not remember why exactly his father had brought the young woman into the household in the first place.

A resounding crash from downstairs frightened both of them, and Miss Owen---Buffy, damn it!---yanked herself away, urging herself toward the cradle, stumbling against the bedframe as she did so.  Her head connected solidly with the four-poster frame, and William barely caught her before her knees gave out, the line of blood on her forehead dripping into her eyes.

“We must hurry,” he hissed, trying to get her to stand on her own feet, his own consternation at so much physical contact with a female not his mother battling his need to save her from the blaze.  “Can you walk?”

“I’m not…leaving her,” she gasped, a slim hand wiping the blood from her eyes in order to better peer through the cloudy air.

It was then they heard his yells, oddly enough coming from his study downstairs, and in spite of the growing heat within the room, icy shivers ran down both their spines.  William met Melly’s eyes---Spike could see Buffy floundering somewhere within those terrified depths, hold on, luv, the Towering Inferno portion of our little escapade is almost over---and he remembered the barred hall, the fire that was already beginning to creep up the stairs.  It would be possible to save his father if he left right then to do it, but any longer would mean certain death for both of them.

She knew.

She saw it in his eyes.

And she made his decision for him.

“Save her,” Melly whispered.  “I will manage myself.”

Even as he relived it, the moments following were still a blur for Spike.  He remembered grabbing the baby from the bassinet, but the time between doing so and depositing it on the grass outside next to his mother and Miss Owen’s vomiting form evaporated from his grasp.  It was only when Anne turned her head, looked at him with those eyes that so intimately resembled his own, and asked, “Is everyone safe?,” did he snap back into the moment, lifting his chin to look at the house in which he’d been raised burning across the street, his hatred for the man he knew was still locked inside singeing him in a malevolence that shocked his gentle soul.

“Yes,” he murmured, and collapsed onto the ground…

 

To be continued in Chapter 32: A Corpse Within Its Grave