DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Trapped within the memory dreams that Spike requested Willow to orchestrate, Buffy has learned firsthand how William had been forced to deal with facing his father’s infidelity on a daily basis by the presence of Miss Owen within his home, and how the pair of them had allowed his father to die in the fire that destroyed his family home…

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

Chapter 32: A Corpse Within Its Grave

As her chest spasmed, the acid from her stomach shredding the lining of her throat even as the heat from the burning house behind her licked up her legs, irritation colored Buffy’s thoughts in titian hues.  I am sooo going to have a word with Spike when this is all over, she grumbled.  Lots of them.  Some of them will even have more than one syllable.  Because in the world of bad ideas, this little dream jaunt definitely rates Guinness mention.

She was still locked inside Melly Owen’s head, unable to do more than peer through smoke-stained eyes at the baby that was already asleep on the grass, the infant oblivious to the growing crowd or the inferno from which it had just been rescued.  Anne Burbidge was cradling it against her side, crooning to it in a reedy voice---something about early one morning?---and she could feel Melly’s reluctance to disturb them as a sticky pull at her muscles.

A baby.  Spike’s half-sister.  Well, William’s half-sister.  Wow.

She couldn’t see his face.  Upon emerging with the baby, he had promptly collapsed to his knees, his head dropping so that his forehead was almost resting on the ground, his fingers fisted into the grass as if he feared letting go would somehow send him reeling from the earth’s surface.  He could’ve been praying, and for some reason, Buffy wasn’t convinced he wasn’t, knowing now just what exactly had transpired between him and his father.  It was guilt he had cast aside once he’d become a vampire, but for what she suspected was another ten years ahead of him, William was just starting to feel the mass bearing down on his soul, the knowledge that his deliberate negligence had killed his father.

More than anything, she wanted to go to his side, hold his head in her lap and smooth back the hair from his pained gaze, wipe away the lines that she knew would line his face after this event.  It wasn’t all his fault.  Melly Owen had played him.  She had chosen the exact words necessary to seduce young William into choosing his half-sibling instead of his father, taunting that latent desire to punish the elder Burbidge for his misdeeds against his mother.  What his feelings were for Miss Owen, Buffy had no idea, but there was no denying the sense of responsibility for her current position that he wore around his flesh like shackles.  She knew he blamed himself for not stopping the assault that night in the study, and wished fervently that young William could understand that there was nothing he could’ve done without getting seriously injured himself.

The clickety-clack of wooden wheels alternating with slowing hooves on the cobbled street diverted her attention, and she turned her head in time to see a carriage roll to a stop at her side.  In the driver’s seat, with the reins of the horses hanging loosely in his hands, sat the portly messenger from earlier, and Buffy felt the world seem to sharpen around her, her muscles suddenly her own again, Melly Owen banished to the wayside.

Immediately, she straightened, ready to go to William’s side.

“There is no time, Miss Summers,” the messenger said, his voice quiet but firm.  “We have places to see, people to go to.”

“No,” she argued, and her tone cut through the smoke that billowed into the street with a clarity that surprised even her.  “I’m going to Spike.  He needs me right now.”

“That’s not your Spike, and you can go to him when our journey is complete,” he replied.  “For now, our next stop awaits.”

Her chin lifted in defiance.  “You know, I’m getting a little tired of being bossed around here.  I think maybe I need to be putting my foot down on your dream hopping.  Like, on your neck maybe.”

He surprised her by chuckling.  “I am not ordering you about.  I am guiding your path so that you will see what it is he wishes you to.”

“But that’s just it.  That wish?  Gone.  Poof.  Spike changed his mind about it when he saw us being turned into Howdy Doody back there. We kind of like being stringless.  People who try telling us what to do tend to get our backs up.  Not to mention our fists.”

“There is nothing new that is transpiring here,” he said.  “These are merely the trails of his memory that he wishes to lead you down.  I am merely---.”

“---my guide,” she interrupted, folding her arms across her breasts in annoyance.  “Blah, blah, blah.  That’s the line you’ve been spouting since I got here.  Only thing is, we’re ready to call this whole thing off and start over, but we can’t for some weird reason which I’m sure you are just dying to explain.”

“It is simple.  You cannot stray from the path once you have set upon it.”  His smile faded, his mouth thin.  “Now, Miss Summers, really.  Time is wasting.  I must request you get into the carriage before I am forced to place you in there myself.”

“And I told you---.”

The vise around her chest came from nowhere, and Buffy stiffened, incapable of breathing more than a few shallow puffs of air at a time before getting light-headed.  A quick glance down confirmed that there was nothing actually there, but she’d been around Willow’s magic long enough to know what it felt like.  OK.  Maybe he’d actually been serious about the time to go thing.

“Get into the carriage,” the messenger commanded, all traces of joviality gone from his demeanor.

She had no choice but to comply, stumbling forward until her hand caught the handle on the door.  Only then did the constriction around her lungs ease, but even as she straightened, trying to regain her composure, she felt it threaten to return, the merest hint that she would revolt its only impetus to do so.

His voice floated back to her as she collapsed onto the seat, gulping at the air with impotent anger.  “Our trip will be quite short,” he said.  “Do please relax.”

Do please relax, she mimicked in her head, and kicked half-heartedly at the seat in front of her, noting with a smile of satisfaction the grunt elicited from the messenger as the force of it jarred him slightly.  She had her Slayer strength back for now; she could just hop out and tear the guy’s head off.  It wasn’t really murder if it happened in her dreams, right?  Except she wouldn’t, and she knew it.  One foot outside the carriage and she’d be like a guppy flopping around on the road trying to breathe.  It didn’t look like she was going to have any choice but to follow.

For now.

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

Even as he felt William’s control dissipate, Spike knew she wasn’t there.  His head lifted, his tired eyes searching the side of the street for her familiar form though he knew it was in vain, only to light on the Soul Eater, now in power of his mother’s faculties, as it sat up on the grass, pulling the baby roughly onto its lap.

“She’s so much lovelier in the flesh than she is in your memories,” she singsonged.  One finger outlined the chubby cheeks, flicking casually across the closed lids.  “Do you purposely remember her as less than she was?  Does it make it easier to bear?”

“I don’t remember her at all, you bitch,” Spike replied through gritted teeth, and rose to his feet.  He wasn’t going to let her see weakness in him, not after what she’d done to Buffy, and if she started playing her little mind games, well, then, he’d just have to play a little rough himself.

The eyes so like his own lifted, gazing steadily at him.  “But you do.  That’s why you did this, isn’t it?  To show the dark one that you were really a paper tiger as a human?  The head of the house by default.  Because you chose to save his bastard child instead of him.”  She smiled, but there was no mirth in it…only a glittering hunger of satisfaction.  “The child you could’ve prevented from entering the world in the first place if you’d only faced him like a man that night instead of tucking your tail and hiding behind your mother’s skirts.”

The muscles in his jaws tensed, his hands knotted into fists at his sides, and Spike deliberately tore his gaze from hers, choosing instead to stare at the house burning across the street.  “Wanker deserved what he got,” he said simply.  He couldn’t let her taunts get to him.

Even if he felt each and every one of her words as truthful daggers that sliced into his unbeating heart with their candor.

“William didn’t think so,” she continued.  “He carried this night with him to his grave.  Do you not remember all those nightmares he had?  How desperately he clung to his fancy words and delusions of beauty because he needed to forget just how black his nights really were?  He was practically drowning himself in poetry by the time he died.”

“He loved it.”

“It was an escape.”

“S’nothin’ wrong with that.”

“Anne didn’t think so.”  The mention of his mother grabbed Spike’s chin and turned it to face her, eyes steeled against her verbal attack even as he felt his resolve weakening.  “Oh, certainly, she was supportive of his endeavors.  She loved William more than anything.  But even she could see how he used them to avoid facing the real world, choosing instead to bury himself in fantasies.”

“Leave.  Her.  Out of this.”

The Soul Eater laughed, a crystalline fragment that woke the infant in her lap.  “I do adore how protective you are of her, even as a vampire,” she said lightly.  Her hand settled over the baby’s mouth, dampening its cries with a casual aplomb, not heeding the fact that her fingers were effectively blocking its nose as well.  Spike’s gaze was riveted by the tiny figure’s struggling and he only half-heard the words that continued to tumble from the hellbitch’s mouth.

“It still stings, doesn’t it?  A century may have passed but you still carry the hurt of her words within you.  And not an ocean of bloodshed, or the thousands of begging cries you’ve had since, have erased---.”

He darted forward then, snatching the baby from her arms, watching as its skin shaded back to a fragile pink from the icy blue the lack of oxygen had done to it.

She laughed.  “Silly, silly William---.”

“It’s Spike!” he spat.

“It’s only a dream,” she said, ignoring his interruption.  “Merely a fragment of your past made manifest for these split seconds.  Nothing I do now will change what happened to her in your real world.”

She was right, and he knew it, but that didn’t mean he had to stand there and watch her suffocate the infant without a care.  “I never hurt her,” Spike argued.

“No.  You’re right.”  The Soul Eater smiled.  “You saved that for her mother.”

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

The short trip was straight out of that Willy Wonka movie, she decided.  Like the psychedelic boat ride from hell that had scared her so much as a kid, images flashed by the carriage windows in a frenzied blur, allowing her glimpses into moments that left her head spinning, caused the gooseflesh to crawl over skin like feeding maggots.  It was probably her punishment for lashing out, Buffy decided, because none of it made sense to her, not in the context of Spike’s dream.  Just residual magic crap, she thought.  It doesn’t mean a thing.

By the time the coach came to a stop, her stomach was in knots, anxiety about what could possibly be coming next twisting inside of her like a writhing snake.  They weren’t done, which meant more stuff Spike had wanted her to see.  She could only hope that the worst of it was over.

A quick glance out the window afforded Buffy a familiar sight; a carefully groomed cemetery splayed out before her, the overcast sky doing nothing to dampen the riot of color the various flowers painted along the ground.  In the near distance, she saw a small crowd assembled over a freshly dug grave, with Anne Burbidge at its core. 

“Where’s Spike?” she asked, leaning out the window, hazel eyes scanning the landscape in search of his familiar form.

“Master William is…about,” the messenger said, and all of a sudden, he was at the door, reaching up to offer his hand to her in guidance.

Hesitantly, she took it, and as she climbed out of the carriage, she noted she was still in the nightclothes she’d worn at the Burbidge home.  Buffy frowned.  “Um, not that I’m complaining because it’s infinitely more comfortable, but isn’t this just a tad inappropriate for a funeral?”  She gestured abstractly to her dress.  “It’s not even black.  I think they might notice.”

“You are not really here,” he replied.  “For this portion of the journey, you are merely an observer.”

Great, she thought wryly.  What a trade-off.  Can’t get hurt, but can’t talk to Spike.  Just wonderful.

“This way,” the guide said, and began leading her around the periphery of the grass, circumventing the solemn ceremony in favor of leading her to a cluster of carriages waiting near the graveyard’s entrance.

A quick glance over her shoulder caused the Slayer to frown.  Their own carriage was gone.  “Where are we going?” she queried.

“We are there.”  He stopped, bowing slightly to indicate she should proceed ahead of him.

Her steps were tentative, her gaze searching the gathering of vehicles for whatever it was he expected her to find, skittering slightly as a horse’s neigh caught her off-guard.  It was then she heard the voices, and froze in her place, muscles locked as if she feared getting caught.

“I find it quite farcical,” the first voice said.  Female.  Young.  Probably even younger than her.  “Did you see William?  He was actually crying.”

“Well, it is his father’s funeral.”  Another girl, a little older maybe.  This one sounded vaguely familiar, and Buffy realized it was probably one of the women from the party that had been annoying her so.

The sarcasm that laced the reply was palpable in the air.  “And we know why this is happening today, don’t we?”

“You shouldn’t tell tales---.”

“It’s not a tale if it’s truth.”

“You were not there.  There could have been…circumstances.”

There was a derisive laugh.  “There were no circumstances.  We both know Mr. Burbidge died because William is a coward.  If Melody Owen had enough time to save that---.”

“Don’t say it!”

“---child of hers, then there is no excuse for William to not have done the same for his father.  He is a man, after all.”  There was a snicker.  “At least, that is what he would have us believe.”

Anger roiled in Buffy’s stomach, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides as she automatically marched forward toward the voices.  Two little bitches were about to get a huge chunk of her mind, if not a piece of her fists at the same time; she didn’t care if she was in stupid Victorian England, or if they were supposed to be proper young ladies who didn’t resort to that kind of thing.  They had no right to say that about…

“…Spike!”  She came up short as she rounded the corner of the carriage, suddenly faced with a pale William hugging himself against the large wheel.  His eyes were closed, his face anguished, and she could see the battle playing out in the planes of his face as he fought to maintain his composure.  Behind his glasses, tears clung to his long lashes, hanging like frozen dewdrops, and she saw him swallow once…twice…a third time, before dropping his chin to his chest.

“Spike…?” Buffy repeated, more softly this time, reaching a tentative hand to his hair, but stopped when the laughter of the two women came drifting to them.  When his shoulders visibly slumped further at the sound, her eyes widened.

William had heard every word.

“It is time to go, Miss Summers.”

The messenger’s voice did nothing to stop the prickle of tears from coming into Buffy’s eyes, but slowly, she withdrew her hand and straightened.  It wasn’t right, she thought.  None of them had any fucking clue what had happened to poor William, and yet he still remained the object of their mockery.  Her heart ached for the gentle soul before her, and she had to fight her every instinct not to throw her arms around him, to try and convince him that he wasn’t a monster, that those bitches didn’t know what they were talking about.  She wasn’t really there, she had to remember.  She’d probably just go through him like Patrick Swayze did in Ghost.

“You didn’t say watching was going to hurt more than actually being there,” she accused bitterly as they walked away.

“I don’t believe I said anything at all,” came the reply.

They trudged in silence for a minute, distancing themselves from the carriages, before she spoke up again.  “So where to this time?” she asked resignedly.

The messenger stopped and pointed.  “Over there.”

In the space of time it took to lift her head, the world around Buffy darkened, day suddenly becoming dusk.  The nightgown she had been wearing was replaced with the confining strictures of another dress, this one black, a long jacket shielding her arms from an advancing night chill.  She was standing at the edge of the cemetery, but the crowd was long gone, leaving behind only a seated Anne, with William hovering at her side.

As she took the first step forward, the rushing in her head she’d experienced when Melly Owen had first come to the fore back in the Burbidge drawing room recurred, halting her step as she swayed in the invisible breeze.  Crap, Buffy thought.  This is so not the time for this.  Can’t she just stay away long enough for me to talk to Spike for one minute?

But her words were locked beneath Melly’s awareness, and the Slayer was forced to watch from behind lowered eyes as she approached the mother and son.

“The carriage awaits,” Melly said quietly, carefully avoiding William’s gaze to concentrate on his mother.

Anne sighed, her head bent.  “I am shamed to confess my relief that we do not have to return to our home,” she said.  “To face it now without my William’s presence would be unbearable.”

Gingerly, the younger William knelt before his mother, smiling diffidently as he took her hands in his, gazing lovingly up into her face.  “I will be there, Mother,” he vowed.  “I will always be there.”

The gentle pat she placed on his cheek was accompanied by a small smile.  “I know.  You are a good son.  But that does not stop me from missing your father.”

Melly looked up then and Buffy could see the confusion flicker behind William’s eyes.

“But…he…”  The words hurt you hung there in the air, unable to be voiced, and the young man’s mouth settled into a perplexed frown.  She could see his mind working, his will working to exert itself and try again, and held her breath when his lips parted to speak.  “You cannot tell me you will…yearn for his…attentions.  Life with him was…disruptive, and…and…harsh, and---.”

“Enough.”  The strength in her voice surprised both of them.  “I will not have you speak of your father that way.”

“But he---.”

“I said, enough!”  Anne shook her head, extracting her hands from her son’s.  “You will show respect for him, even though he is not here to demand it himself.  It is the least you owe him.”

“I owe him?”  His incredulity drove him to his feet.  “I…owe him?”  William’s gaze lifted, meeting Melly’s, silently beseeching her to step forward and voice her support for him in this.  You know what kind of a man he really was, he seemed to be saying.  Please…help me.

When Buffy felt the young woman duck her head, deliberately sucking in the air around her to refrain from speaking, her fury erupted and the Slayer raged within her confines at her host’s silence.  Say something!  Help him out here!  He saved your baby’s life and this is how you repay him?

But she didn’t.  She held her tongue. 

And she abandoned the man who had liberated her from her prison.

It took William only a moment to understand his ally was gone, and his head tilted in quizzical sadness as the solidarity they had shared prior to the fire shattered in piercing splinters around him.  He was alone on this.  There would be no support of what he knew to be true, and if he’d thought that he would be able to find consolation for his transgression within the bosom of his family, he knew now that he’d been wrong.

“My apologies, Mother,” he mumbled, ducking his gaze.  “I should not have spoken so.  It must be…my grief.  It shall not happen again.”

His regret was enough to soften Anne’s features, and she reached up to take his hand back in hers.  “It is understandable,” she murmured, trying to soothe away the ache in his voice through her touch.  “You loved him as much as I did.  It just…saddens me that you…were not able to save him as well.  We have both lost a great deal today.”  Mrs. Burbidge rose to her feet, leaning heavily on her son’s shoulder and closing her eyes as they began making their way to the carriage.  “I am certain my William will forgive us for failing him,” Buffy heard her say as they passed her. 

 

To be continued in Chapter 33: By the Incantation of This Verse