He'd found her, or at least, this was where the tug in his heart had led him; as far as he could tell, Spike was standing in a cemetery with Buffy, and she was talking to him. But things felt off, somehow, everything just slightly skewed from what it ought to be. The cemetery, for example – he couldn't place it; it was as if it had been built from the memories of all the graveyards they'd ever toured together, but wasn't any one of them in reality.
When Buffy spoke, the words made perfect sense for the barest instant, but then… then the concepts they represented seemed to vanish before he could really understand them, the sounds and shapes she made sliding away, just out of reach of his comprehension. The harder he tried to keep them, the harder he tried to listen, the less he was able to grasp; instead her words would echo weirdly and dissolve into sound without meaning.
Right, skip the listening, then; they could always communicate with their silences as easily as they ever had with words. Only… Buffy – or, perhaps, the shape in front of him that was supposed to be Buffy – she would flicker whenever he looked directly at her for too long; it was as if, like the cemetery, she herself were made of pieces and tatters, bits of memory rather than the real thing.
Even the tatters overlapped inconsistently: Sometimes when he looked at her she was clothed, dressed for patrol in a shirt and jacket, sensible boots, that sort of thing; other times, she was half-naked and bleeding from a scratch on her chest, and then there were times where she appeared to be so desperately wounded that only willpower could possibly be holding her together and upright. Spike couldn't tell which of those was the true image.
Confused, he tilted his head at her, tried to smile, but she didn't seem to notice. She would pause, and he would try to say something, and after a moment she would answer whether he was actually finished talking or not. Her expressions overlapped, earnest, sad, loving, suffering, and more besides – but at least they were all focused on him. That was something, wasn't it? Far as he could tell, Buffy was talking to him, didn't seem to have any difficulty perceiving him, didn't seem to notice anything strange. And yet, it was as if she didn't really see him, only some projected image on a screen that responded in ways that made perfect sense to her.
It occurred to Spike that whatever she was seeing of him was something that she controlled, not him. Only she didn't seem to realize that, seemed to accept completely that whatever she saw was perfectly real.
Frustrated, Spike reached out to touch her. Maybe he could break through whatever this barrier was between them, if he could just make contact, yeah? Only a force pushed his hand away before he could get close enough, like magnets pointed the wrong way toward each other; the harder he tried to reach her, the farther off course his hand went.
To be so close, and not be able to touch… he could almost cry.
Lightning crackled across the sky and right in front of his eyes, in weird colors that defied description. Somewhere he heard a drum beating, hesitant and out of rhythm; with every faltering blow of hand on drumhead, the cemetery around him would shift and waver, less and less real with every passing second. Only Buffy remained constant, or at least, as constant as a flickering, overlapping set of images could be.
Fireflies began to spark around him. Sounds vibrated, shaking apart the headstones and the trees, and the entire place, wherever they truly were, began to dissolve into chaos and void. Buffy didn't seem to notice.
"Pet," he said finally, "Buffy. I don't know if you can hear me, but I love you. I'll look for you again, soon as I can. I promise you, love. I'll find you. 'Nless you find me first."
The world crumbled. Thoughts, names, concepts went with it.
Then there was only the Place, and the Man within it.
"Hullo, pet," said Spike.
"Spike," she said, still almost completely silent. "Oh, god, Spike." She fought for breath, struggled for air enough to do more than whisper. "How are you here? You died. You burned."
"You of all people should know death doesn't have to be permanent," he replied. Lifted one shoulder, and the corner of his mouth. "What d'you reckon, love? Does comin' back put me in the ranks of you hero-types?"
"You – you're really here," she said. It wasn't an answer to his question but it was all she could wrap her mind around just then.
"In a manner of speaking, yeah," said Spike. "Tryin' to come back, at any rate."
"I don't," she began. Swallowed around the tightness in her throat, swiped the tears from her cheeks. "I don't understand."
"Well, it's a bit like you, innit," he smirked, "not really here, not really gone. Only from the look of things –" he paused. Looked down at the stake in the grass at her feet. Looked up at her through his lashes, quirking his eyebrow in that way he always used when he was trying to provoke her. "– maybe we're headed opposite directions. That it, pet? Me back to kickin', you back to kickin' off?"
"I –" she began. But what could she say? It was a mistake, she didn't really mean it? This wasn't what it looked like? Yeah, right. I'm a coward might be closest to the truth, but it still shamed her to admit that to him.
"Doesn't seem like the Slayer I remember," he taunted. "What, you were worried one of us would get his one good day and decided to deny us the pleasure?"
"It isn't like that," she said. Willed him to understand. "It's – I don't have anything left in me. I don't have a reason to stay."
"Bollocks," said Spike.
"No, it's true," Buffy said. "This – after this last apocalypse – it took everything I had just to survive, and, and make sure the others would get through it. All my strength, all my willpower, all my… my faith. I had to lead them. Had to hold them up, and myself too, and I couldn't, I just – I tried, but – and then –" She held out her hands to him, empty and pleading. "By the end, all I had left was you, and then you… I mean, it wasn't your fault, but… I just don't have anything left in me, and they still expect me to pull it together. To – well. You know them. You know they do, or they will once they all have a chance to catch their breath."
"Maybe all you need is a chance to catch your own," said Spike. Reached toward her hair, but didn't quite touch.
Buffy looked at her toes. He shoes were wet from the dew in the grass. "The thing is… I'm not sure I want to anymore."
"How's that, then?" Spike shifted his feet, as if he wanted to step forward into her space. Buffy found herself leaning toward him, waiting for his embrace, but he kept his distance.
"Why should I rest – why should I even try to – when I know I won't get the chance to really enjoy it?" she asked. "When I know that my duty is waiting there on the other side? Along with everyone else's baggage and issues and needs and, and expectations for how I'm supposed to act," she scoffed bitterly. "It's like – god. Have you ever tried to sleep when someone is constantly tapping on your door, poking their head in, asking you if you've gotten enough rest yet, pestering you constantly so that you never get any actual sleep? And then after awhile they start implying that you have no business being so tired in the first place?" She leaned back against the nearest gravestone, hugging herself tightly, and shut her eyes. "It feels like that. It feels like that's all it's ever been. And after awhile you start to think, god, why even go to bed at all?"
"An uphill climb," murmured Spike. "Swimming upstream…" He leaned to one side until his shoulder thumped into the marker next to hers, a tall skinny obelisk with its name obscured by long grass and deep shadow. Rested his head against it as he looked into her eyes. "Yeah," he said kindly. "Reckon I know what that feels like."
They sighed, the two of them, at the same time. It was comforting, Buffy thought; almost like all those times they'd sat together on her back porch.
The silence stretched between them, and Buffy reveled in it, letting it grow and cover her in a blanket of stillness. Of peace. Somewhere in the distance, lightning flashed across the sky; Spike shifted just enough to glance up at it before putting his head back down. Smiled at her and said nothing.
Gradually, Buffy felt herself calm. The bitterness faded, not gone, but pushed to the background where it was more or less bearable. The weariness, the utter spiritual exhaustion, no longer seemed quite so impossible to endure.
"You're not really here, are you," said Buffy after a while. "I'm just dreaming. Right?"
"'S a good question," said Spike. Lightning flashed again, illuminating a far-off bank of clouds. Storm on the horizon, moving in slow.
"You got an answer?" She took a deep breath and thought maybe she could smell the rain, far away though it was.
He pushed himself away from the obelisk, rolled his shoulders and pulled his duster tight around his body. "Even if I did," he said, "'m not sure I'd be allowed to tell you. You know, answers from the beyond and all."
She huffed a little breath of laughter, shook her head at him.
Spike looked over his shoulder at the lightning, studied it for a moment before turning back to face her. "All I can tell you is that I love you," he said finally. "You know I do."
"I do," said Buffy.
"That'll never change," he said. "Promise. If there's any way for me to come back for you… well. You know that, too. At least, you'd bloody well better. I'll find you, love, unless you find me first."
Thunder rumbled, closer now, and Buffy risked a glance overhead, to see if the stars were still out.
When she looked back down, Spike was gone. Buffy shut her eyes, pained at the loss of him even though she knew he'd only been a figment in her dream. When she opened them again, Buffy gasped: in the place where he'd been, the mud-caked form of the First Slayer now stood.
It was weird seeing her like that – well, okay, it was weird seeing her in a dream at all – but the primitive young woman wasn't hidden behind flames, this time. Wasn't stalking her, or crouching low, ready to attack or defend against a threat. She simply stood, her arms at her sides, naked from the waist up apart from the mud and some kind of pendant around her neck, and gazed solemnly back at Buffy.
Buffy opened her mouth, meaning to ask why the other girl was there, but before she could say anything, lightning flickered, and Buffy blinked, and the First Slayer vanished too.
Wesley blinked, uncertain how long he had been staring at Dr. Sato after hearing… well. What was it exactly that he was hearing?
"I'm not entirely certain I understand," he began slowly. "That is to say, your explanation of the, er, physiology, was clear and concise, thank you. But the implications – or perhaps, the potential implications…" Wesley stopped, shook his head to clear it. "Are you saying that the activity in Spike's brain stem is causing the seizures? What does it mean that a part of his brain is trying to regulate bodily functions that he couldn't possibly need as a vampire? Could he –"
Could Spike have begun the process of becoming a living being? But Wesley didn't want to ask that question just yet. Not out loud. Not until he'd had a chance to reexamine the texts that referred to the Shanshu Prophecy.
Not until he'd made up his mind what to say to Angel.
Apparently none of his unease was apparent on his face, because Dr. Sato only bobbed his head, as if he were trying to bow while still seated. Sato picked up his grilled cheese sandwich again, gestured at Wesley with it. "It is only a theory, of course," he said, "because we have never seen anything quite like this before; however, I believe that the seizures are partly physical, but also, possibly, partly mystical as well."
Oh, he would take another bite of his sandwich instead of elaborating. Wesley frowned, began to work it through.
"You said that ordinarily the demon controls the body directly, without utilizing the brain," he mused, "and now the brain itself is attempting to control at least a part of the body. You think that they're in conflict, in a manner of speaking."
"Just so," said Sato. He beamed at them both. "That may be a mystical cause for Mr. Spike's present condition. As for the physical, it is very amazing to watch, hai? Very exciting! We may learn very much from our observations. You see, I think that in Mr. Spike's case, the brain stem is attempting to send impulses to the rest of the brain, which is either not responding at all, or only creating random signals in response."
Fred leaned forward. "Spike told us that he felt pins-and-needles, a few minutes before the first, um, episode," she said. "'Like my skin is too tight', is what he said. And he was really sensitive to light and sound, more so than usual."
Sato's expression shifted gradually, from delighted to intrigued. "Interesting," he said, "interesting…" His eyes were far away. "Sensory input perceived differently… I wonder."
"Yes?" asked Wesley.
Sato said nothing for a long moment, clearly lost in thought. Wesley and Fred waited. His voice, his focus, were still elsewhere when he said, "It will be interesting to see if activity increases, as time goes on."
"Dr. Sato?" Fred prompted him.
Sato blinked, shook himself again. "Very sorry," he said. "I only wonder whether more of Mr. Spike's brain will begin to respond to stimulus. Higher brain function. Whether the demon will continue to command the body directly, or if it will utilize the brain instead."
"But – why would it need to do that?" asked Fred. "I mean, you said yourself the only reason Spike's brain stem would normally be active is if he were…"
Her eyes widened.
Don't say it, thought Wesley.
Sato's eyebrows went up.
It was the First. That primitive, cave thug, proto-vampire bastard had been playing with Spike again, must've just just finished holding him underwater. Didn't need to breathe, but water didn't belong inside dead lungs any more than it did live ones, and it bloody well hurt when it got in.
That must be what it was.
Flat on his back and choking, Spike's body heaved, struggling to bring up everything that had gone down. Weakly at first, then with more strength, he coughed, heavy and wet, until finally he hacked up something thick and foul-tasting that filled his mouth. Only semi-conscious at best, he barely managed to roll to one side and spit it out before the coughing started again, harder; it went on and on until his sides ached with the force of it, stopping only when his throat and mouth were coated with sticky, disgusting slime. He gagged and spat and coughed some more, again and again, until finally his chest felt lighter, emptier, and the fit subsided.
Exhausted and sore, Spike slid back into unconsciousness, still on his side, it never occurring to him that no tormentor had lain a finger on him the entire time that he lay there. He'd never opened his eyes, never realized that he was on a padded gurney instead of the sand and grit of a cave floor. Never saw the thick globs of black mucus he'd expelled instead of water, splattered on the tile below him.
Never noticed it when the muscles of his abdomen began to move from time to time, their rhythm faltering and hesitant, but the lift and fall of his ribs visible all the same.