DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Even more memories have come to the foreground---William’s witnessing of the girls mocking him for failing to save his father, the guilt laid upon him by his mother for the same in spite of the abuse she suffered at his hands, and Melly’s silence in supporting the young Burbidge in his claims of having done a good thing---while back at Cortina’s caves, the gang is trying to get Buffy and Spike out of the spell…

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

Chapter 33: By the Incantation of This Verse

They stared at the still form of the Slayer for what seemed an eternity.  No more thrashing, no more muttering, no more blood, and though they were relieved at the seemingly normal façade she now exhibited, each and every one of them was worried.  The disappearance of her wound didn’t make sense.

And not making sense was never good.

“Maybe Buffy and Spike have killed the Soul Eaters,” Dawn offered, the tentative smile on her lips not masking the fear that still lingered in her eyes.

“No,” Dolly said, sniffing pointedly at the air.  “They’re still out there.”

“Then, maybe the spell has run its course,” Tara suggested softly, swiveling her head to look over at Willow.

“Only one way to find out,” the redhead replied.  Taking the bag from Dawn’s hands, her thin fingers dipped inside, extracting some of the powder as her lips effortlessly formed the words necessary to wake them.  She tossed it, watching as it settled over them in a fine mist, but as the group waited, watching anxiously for any sign of change, it became increasingly evident that the pair was still locked within a heavy slumber.

“And that would be a big fat no,” Willow said with a heavy sigh.  “Which means back door, here we come.”

“I don’t know why you’re bothering,” Dolly interjected as she straightened to her full height.  “Let me go get Cort.  She shows up, your magic goes poof.  Problem solved.”

“I’m not certain that’s our wisest course of action.”  Giles lifted his head to gaze at the green demon, his brow wrinkled.

“Sounds pretty wise to me.”

“In theory, yes.  But we are in no position to predict what type of effects might occur as a result of disintegrating the spell.”  He began to pace around the cavern, his steps long, his body tense.  “By dissolving the fetters of the magic through artificial means---.”

“Cort’s defenses aren’t fake!  Those are the real deal, and you know it.”

“I meant, artificial as in outside the realm of magic.  I’m well aware of the…nature of Cortina’s abilities.”  His voice had suddenly chilled, and the three girls glanced at each other, all of them shrinking slightly from the older man every time he neared.  “What I’m suggesting is that if we were to dissolve the boundaries of the spell without taking the necessary precautions, we could very well leave Buffy and Spike defenseless against the children of the wind.  A shock to their soul system, you could say.  Without the constriction of proper sleep or the rituals of magic, we’d end up losing the pair of them before any of us could react in time.”  He stopped, turning to face Willow.  “Gather the supplies you need.  We need to do this as quickly as possible.”

Dawn watched as the two witches scurried to their bags, the spell they had been preparing earlier already forgotten.  Her face blanched even paler as her eyes grew luminous.  “What about…Mom?” she asked, her voice tiny.  “Is this…going to…”  She couldn’t even bring herself to finish the query, disallowing herself from looking at either her sister at her side or her parent near the witches.

Deliberately, Giles loosened his restraint, relaxing his muscles so that he could approach the young girl as gently as possible.  “We must be prepared for any contingency,” he murmured, resting his hand on her shoulder.  “If it comes down to it, you may have to choose.”

“Choose?”  It was barely a breath.

“Willow may need help.  If that happens, we won’t have the resources necessary to complete the spell to restore your mother, which means…”  He sighed, suddenly weary.  This was the last thing he would ever wish on anyone, let alone someone so young.  To be shown that it might be possible to have your life restored, only to have it snatched away from you, replaced with a dread decision that would leave guilt no matter which way it landed, was a massive burden for the strongest of people.  He had no idea how the young teenager would cope with it.

“The choice will be yours, Dawn,” he finally said.  “This is your family here.  Consider it carefully.”

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

Her head was aching.

As Buffy opened her eyes, she found herself greeted with darkness, her head nestled against something hard, her body folded into a clumsy lump as if she’d been tossed aside like a piece of litter and forgotten.  Her eyelids were vibrating from the pain inside her skull, and she winced as she tried to sit up.

The last thing she remembered was watching William walk away with his mother, his head hanging in resignation, the slump of his shoulders clear indication of his defeat.  Her host had taken her time in following, but as she’d taken that first step, the world had slipped away from her, leaving her in a void.

A physical void, that is.  Emotionally, her senses were aflame.

More than anything, Buffy hated Melly Owen at the moment for having the nerve to ask the gentle young man for his aid in releasing her from the prison of her life, but not having the strength to stand by him when he asked for her help in kind.  She had no idea why; the Victorian’s feelings were heavily cloaked beneath both propriety and shame.  Maybe it was a fear of losing her position, but she doubted it.  Somehow, that seemed too simple for the feelings that stormed beneath her skin.  Whatever it was, the Slayer hoped that they had haunted the young woman for the rest of her days.  She deserved to suffer for what she had done to William.

Now, though, she was back in control, which actually wasn’t a good thing because every move made her muscles scream.  It felt very much like she’d taken on an army of vampires, and lost.  Of course, if she’d lost, then she’d be dead and not experiencing so much damn pain.  What she wouldn’t give for some good old-fashioned aspirin right about now.

“Buffy?  Luv?  Please tell me you’re awake.”

She jumped at the sound of his voice, jerking her head to look futilely behind her, eyes narrowed as they tried to cut through the darkness.  “Spike?” she called out.  “Where are you?  Where are we?  And why are you so far away and not holding me?  Or letting me hold you?”

He ignored her questions, but his voice remained distant.  “You have to try waking up again, pet.  Things are about to start getting bad around here.”

She laughed, in spite of the ache in his tone.  “You mean, worse than almost going up in a blaze of non-glory, watching you get humiliated for something that wasn’t even your fault, and then having to put up with not being able to get this bitch to open her mouth and tell your mom exactly what kind of monster she was married to?”  Her chest rattled, and she coughed, the muscles against her sternum aching.  “How much more do I have to watch here, Spike?  Because gotta say, I’m beginning to think this is one time I would’ve preferred to read the book than watch the movie.”

“It’s almost done.”  The sense of finality in his voice was chilling, and Buffy felt her skin crawl in fear.  “Which is why we have to get out of here.”

“Why do I hurt so much?”

She heard him move then, and though she still couldn’t see anything in the pitch of whatever space she seemed to be occupying, all of a sudden, he was next to her, his hands searching her face, molding over the contours of her cheeks, fingertips hovering at the corners of her eyes.  Instinctively, she threw herself forward, wrapping her arms around his neck, and was grateful that she was herself, that she could hug him and hold him, and try to squeeze away some of the pain she knew had to be lingering from their recent excursions.

He didn’t flinch within her embrace, instead letting his arms come up to cradle her against him, his face burying itself in her hair.

And it was then that she noticed.

For the first time since coming into his dreams, Spike’s flesh was cold.

She had to steel herself not to pull away in surprise.  Instead, Buffy willed her muscles to relax, lifting her mouth to graze her lips over the line of his jaw.  “I’m so sorry,” she murmured.  “I wish you’d told me.”

For the slightest of moments, he stiffened, as if the expression of empathy was the last thing he’d expected to hear come from her lips.  “It’s done,” he said simply.  “All in the past.  Nothin’ to fuss over.”

“If it wasn’t a big deal, then why did your brain shut it away so that I couldn’t see it?” She kept her voice as gentle as possible, afraid that any hint of accusation would make him shy away.

“It was probably protecting you,” he offered in explanation.  “No reason for you to know what makes no nevermind in the here and now.”

“Or maybe it was protecting you,” she countered.  “I saw William’s face, Spike.  I saw how hurt he was.  He felt…betrayed.  You felt betrayed.”

“No, that’s---.”

“They were wrong, you know.  They didn’t…they shouldn’t have said those things.”

“Just a bunch of babble from a group of birds that meant less than nothing to me.”

“And your mom?”  She had hoped not to drag Anne Burbidge into this, but he was refusing to give in to his pain.  “Was that babble?  Does the fact that she basically called you a failure mean ‘less than nothing’ to you?”

It was the mention of his mother that broke him, wrenching the sobs from his chest and turning his hands into claws as he clasped her to him.  His tears were slick where they fell against her neck, the despair that had been bottled within his lean frame loosing itself in a torrent.

Buffy’s hands came up automatically to stroke his hair, making soothing sounds in the back of her throat, rocking him against her just as her own mom had done during more than one of the Slayer’s crying jags in her youth.  “Sshhhh…” she crooned.  “It’s all right.  I’m here.  Just…let it out.”  Over and over again, repeating the phrases in a rhythmic litany that kneaded the muscles of his back in an attempt to massage the pain away.  She wasn’t good at the comfort stuff.  Be strong Buffy, that’s what she was.  But this was Spike, and he had done the same for her upon finding her mother’s body, consoling her in her grief, lending her the strength to get through it.  Trying to do the same for him was the least she could do, especially since each sob seemed to smash her own heart into pulp.

“I…I…I…”  His voice hitched in his throat even as the sobs began to ease.  “I just…wanted her…to be happy for a change,” he finally managed.  “I did…did…my best to make it up to her.  To make her forget him.  She deserved it.  But he was always there.”  With each word, his strength returned, and though his crying had vanished, there remained a torture in the broken tone of his voice that ripped into Buffy like a razor blade.

“You were a good son.  What you did wasn’t wrong.”

“Maybe if that bitch Miss Owen had said even two words, it might not’ve hurt so bad.  But she didn’t.  And she and Mother had this whole post-fire memorial for the bastard’s sake.  Like losing him had ruined their worlds.”

She had no idea what to say to that.  It boggled her mind that people could canonize memories to the point of non-recognition, and though she couldn’t say she would ever tolerate such an abusive relationship herself, the fact of the matter was, she’d never really been placed in the position to do so.

“What happened to them?” she asked softly.  “To Melly and the baby?”

The mention of the child caused Spike to stiffen, and he pulled away from her, leaving her alone again in the darkness.  “I don’t know about the little girl,” he said quietly, and Buffy heard him begin to pace in circles before her.

“What do you mean?  I thought you said---.”

“Miss Owen left my mother’s employ shortly after the funeral.  The pair of ‘em left for somewhere up north.  A fresh start, mum said.  I didn’t see Melly again for ten years.”  His movement stopped.  “That’s why you have to get us out of here, luv.  Because this is where we’re at now.”

“Why?”  The dread that had been there when she’d first awakened in this portion of the memory trip returned, tightening around her chest.  “What did you do, Spike?”

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

Nobody noticed her leave.

So wrapped up in their little spell---well, counterspell, or whatever the hell they were calling it---the little band of humans didn’t even see her press back into the wall, slowly dematerializing so that it wouldn’t catch their attention.

It was better that way.  Somehow, Dolly had a feeling that if Cort’s boyfriend caught wind of what she was doing, he might have a few choice words to say about the matter.  Probably in the form of a spell.  One that would hurt.

He was not in the best of moods at the moment.

Still, Rupert was full of crap, she’d decided.  His nonsense about the dissolution of the spell via Cort’s natural abilities was a product of mortal fear, and she wasn’t going to stand by and watch him make a huge mistake just because he was being a little short-sighted, especially since she could smell the Soul Eaters getting even closer.  Problem was, the humans were too wrapped up in their magic to note the encroachment of the very thing they were trying to kill.  Just as well, she thought as her form solidified at her destination.  No way can Cort argue with me about going back if she knows how bad it’s getting.

From the bed where she’d been resting, Cortina lifted her head, frowning slightly at her friend’s sudden appearance.  “Is it over?” she asked, worry coating her words.  “Are Buffy and Spike all right?”

“They will be as soon as I get you back there,” Dolly said.  “Strap yourself in.  You’re going home.”

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

He never got a chance to answer her question.

“William?  Is that you?”

The sound of Anne Burbidge’s voice drifted like a windswept feather into the dark space, and Buffy turned her head in its direction, hearing now the soft patter of footsteps that accompanied it.  The creak of a door was followed by the faint glow from a lit candlestick, and for the first time, the Slayer could see enough to tell that she was in some sort of kitchen, still Victorian, and that her dress was very much the worse for wear, torn and soiled as if she’d been in a fight.

On the other side of the room, Spike’s outline tensed, his eyes morphing to glow in the ambient darkness before shifting back to their stormy blue, his gaze locked on the doorway.  “Yes, Mother, it’s me,” he replied.

Great, Buffy thought.  We’re back to Mastervamp Theater again. 

Anne stepped inside, a gentle frown creasing her brow.  It was obvious, even in the dim orange flickers cast by the candle, that she had aged considerably since Buffy had least seen her.  Her long hair was now mostly gray, plaited to hang down her back, and the lines of her advancing years made her skin seem like crumpled parchment.  There was a slowness to her step, an almost inaudible wincing as she lifted and lowered her feet, and the Slayer noticed the softening of Spike’s face as he watched her approach.

“Where have you been?” Anne asked him.  One tremulous hand reached out to touch his cheek.  “I have been most sick with worry.  When you did not return from the Addams’ party, I feared the worst.  There has been talk, you know, of unpleasant occurrences in the streets once the sun has set.  I was frightened you had fallen prey to something…unsightly.”

“I am fine,” he assured.  “As you can see, I am in good health---.”

“You are cold.”  Her hand dropped from his face.  “I will make you a nice cup of tea…”  She turned then, and noticed Buffy for the first time, the lines in her forehead deepening as recognition slowly flared in her eyes.  “M-m-melly?” she queried, and there was a hesitancy, a shivery fear wavering that single word that brought clarity to the Slayer’s confusion.

This was why Spike had wanted her to get them out.  Why he had feared for her safety.

And why his earlier counterpart was glaring at her with barely concealed hate, flashes of gold dancing in his aspect.

Carefully, Buffy rose to her feet, keeping her limbs as steady as possible, doing her best to maintain a modicum of dignity in her torn attire.  Why she hadn’t been shuttled away so that Melly Owen could take control of this, she was only beginning to figure out.  It was probably for the same reason she hadn’t been banished when William Sr. had forced his attentions on her.

Because Melly’s actions and Buffy’s actions would’ve been one and the same.

Confused, Anne turned around to gaze at her son.  “Why is Melly here?” she asked.  Her voice was harder, a slight note of admonition tingeing her question.  “Does this have something to do with your absence these past few days?”

“I have brought Miss Owen in order to show you something, Mother,” Spike said.

“Were you attacked?  Is that why she appears so?  We must fetch the doctor---.”

“We don’t need a doctor.”  His head swiveled to stare at Buffy.  “Do we, Melly?”

“But…I don’t understand.”  Anne gazed at the pair in perplexity.  “She has been hurt.  If you weren’t attacked, who has done such a thing?”

“It was William.”  Buffy kept her voice low, even, meeting the vampire’s visage with a lifted chin.  “Does this make it better for you, William?  Does this make it all go away?”

“Be quiet!” he hissed, and she could see his control over his human face begin to falter.

Anne’s hand had been moving to curl around his arm, but the force in her son’s voice caused her to shrink back in fear.  “Why does she lie?  My William would never hurt---.”

Your William,” he spat, and the venom oozed from his pores.  “Your William is a spineless worm, toadying to those around him because he is too frightened of his own shadow to stand up for himself.”  He edged himself closer.  “Or did you mean your other William?”  This time, his voice had dropped to a silky menace, forcing ice to run through Buffy’s veins.  This was not a creature she was sure she had ever met.  This was a newly turned vampire, feeding ravenously from the years of guilt and hate that had plagued his mortal self, more dangerous, she thought, than even Spike had been when he’d first arrived in Sunnydale.  By that time, years had tempered the edges of his loathing, quelled the memories of his human self into a controllable footnote in his history.  She wasn’t so sure that if she had met this incarnation of her lover with his current skills, he would not have notched a third Slayer kill to his bedstead.

“Is that who you wished me to emulate, Mother?” he asked.  “Your other William?  The one who beat you.  The one who reveled in hurting others.  The one who shamed you by carrying on---.”

The sharp crack of her palm across his face split the air.  “You will not speak of your father that way,” Anne ordered, her strength returned in the face of his accusations.

“Why?” he argued.  “Because he deserves that?  Please, Mother.  Admit this to yourself.  He has been in the grave for ten years now.  There is no viable reason for you to continue protecting him.  He never protected you.  That was what I did.  That was my duty.  And yet, he is the one you defend.  Why is that?  Tell me.  Please, I beg you.  Why is that?”

His tone had disintegrated to pleading, and for a moment, shame flickered across Anne’s face, her head lowering as she found herself unable to continue meeting his eyes.  She glanced at Buffy.  “Please, William, this is not a conversation we should be conducting in the presence of those who are not immediate family---.”

“I think the mother of my half-sister qualifies as immediate family.”

Her head whipped up at that, jerking from Spike to Buffy, and then back to Spike again.  “Why would you say such a thing?” she demanded.

“Because it’s the truth.”  Before anyone could react, he had crossed the distance of the room, his hand lashing out to grab the Slayer by the throat, thrusting back and upward to pin her to the wall.  He smiled as she clawed at his hands, letting his vampire visage to slip into place as he watched her struggle to breathe.  “Isn’t it, Melly?”

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

Her nails were bitten to the quick from the amount of chewing she’d done in the past few minutes, and Dawn hurriedly pulled them away from her mouth when Willow finally looked up from the book.

“Ready,” the witch said, and met the eyes of her blonde partner across the bed.

At the foot of the mattress, Giles stood with the gourd he’d rushed to get from Cortina’s bedroom, poised to begin the spell.

Dawn didn’t even pretend to be paying attention to the foreign words that spilled from Willow’s mouth, instead locking her wide blue eyes on the sleeping forms of Spike and her sister.  Every inch of her was wound in fear that something was going to go wrong, that she’d somehow lose both of them as well as her mother.  So far, no request for her to choose had been made, but that didn’t mean it might not still happen.  It wasn’t fair; she was only fourteen.  Why was she supposed to be making these kind of decisions?

The magical energy began to crackle in the air, the gourd in Giles’ hand starting to vibrate in resonance as the power increased. 

Dawn saw the flash out of the corner of her eye first, her head jerking automatically to see what it was, and gasped when she saw Cortina appear on the other side of the cavern.  “No!” she cried out, just as the gourd exploded in the Watcher’s hand.

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

Blackness.

Again.

And she still hurt, only this time a good deal of that pain was centered on her neck.

Her lungs burned as Buffy gulped at the cool air, grateful for whatever had happened to stop Spike from strangling her.  Had Anne dropped the candle?  Was that why it was dark?  But why would that have stopped the vampire?  It’s not like he would’ve been shocked by the sudden lack of light.

Speaking of…

“Spike?” she called out, straining to hear anything that might give away where she was, or more importantly, where he was.

What she got instead was a throaty chuckle. 

Female.

Fuck.

Soooo delicious,” the Soul Eater crooned.  There was a sharp clap, followed by a blinding implosion, something sucking away the darkness into a swirling vortex to reveal the vampire’s unconscious form sprawled on an expanse of grass, the Soul Eater crouched over him, black clouds roiling in the heavens above them.

Buffy blinked, trying to focus on the sight before her, noting with satisfaction that she was no longer dressed in the period garb but in her more familiar leather pants and tank top.  She wasn’t the only one though.  On the floor, Spike was in his usual jeans and t-shirt, while the demon that hovered above him wore an outfit identical to the Slayer’s own.

“Get away from him, you bitch,” Buffy growled, straightening in spite of the pain in her limbs and neck.

The Soul Eater laughed, letting her fingers trace over the vampire’s cheeks, not even bothering to look up at the other woman.  “In due time, dark one,” she singsonged.  “Once we have been sated…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 34: The Impulse of Thy Strength