|The Writing on the Wall by Holly|
|Chapter #31 - Chapter Thirty-one|
|A/N: I’m immensely pleased with how quickly this came to me, all things considered, and I’m aiming for another chapter before Christmas, but that might be a bit optimistic. I’m also toying with Christmas fic ideas…though I’m beginning to think it’s a bit late to try. I’d really like something fluffy, to counter the angst, and something…all-humany. Don’t have any solid ideas yet (though a lot of really good suggestions!) so that may or may not come to pass.|
Thanks so much to my betas for their quick turnaround, and MASSIVE thanks for the amazing response to the last chapter. I was very grateful to see that this story still had readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
He’d never attended an apocalypse of any sort. Sure, he’d had front row seats to a few contenders, but fate, usually accompanied by the Slayer, had a way of intervening and making sure all remained as it was. Acathla hadn’t opened, the Hellmouth remained dormant, and Glory, despite her best efforts, never fully realized the truth behind ‘there’s no place like home.’ Therefore, Spike wasn’t entirely sure what the end of the world sounded like. He remembered the screams of the inter-dimensional rip—remembered the painted sky and the tremors rocking through the ground. He hadn’t been awake through the full of it, but he’d seen enough.
And it felt like this.
“What’s happening?” Buffy demanded, her hands pushing his shoulders to coax him up, but he was already gone.
Spike cast a wary glance to the warehouse entrance. The yellow sky had turned purple, angry storm clouds rolling toward them with menacing fury. “It’s happening.”
“Our cue,” he explained, snatching his jeans off the floor. “Find something to put on.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We don’t have much time.”
“Much time for what? Enough with the vague. Sentences are your friend.”
Spike found her eyes, a wealth of emotion pressing against his chest. There were no explanations; he had none. All he knew was Hell was folding in on itself, and though there was no reason why, he wasn’t about to sit around and chat. “If we’re leaving, it has to be now.”
Buffy inhaled sharply. It was all the prompting she required, even if the confusion lines marring her face refused to recede. The tremors below them grew stronger, and perhaps she understood, then, that there was no understanding. In less than a minute, she had donned his t-shirt and a pair of sweats, and then they were running—running out the doors of the warehouse and under the angry sky.
There were times when words themselves superseded their value—when communicating thoughts or actions became thoroughly useless, as though the script had already been penned and all that was left was for the actors to play their parts. It felt like a dream, a staged dream plotted so perfectly that was rendered futile. The second his feet hit the ground, he knew where to go. The only place to go—the only way out.
“The river,” Buffy said, but she didn’t need to say it. And when she looked at him, he knew she understood.
The ground splintered, spawning thousands of webbed cracks. In the distance, behind the skyline of the fallen city, a black wave of nothing lumbered over the horizon, conquering whatever it touched by swallowing it whole. It left nothing behind, because it wasn’t moving; no, it was growing. Growing upon itself as the sky hardened and chipped; as pieces of debris came barreling toward the shaken ground. The black cloud consumed, devoured, and engulfed landmarks Spike’s eyes had come to know with frightening intimacy over the past few days, as though the world had always been his, as well. He wanted to stand and look but his senses got the better of him.
The river. They needed to get to the river.
The river was the way out.
“It won’t be there!” Buffy screamed. She was ahead of him—of course she was. His warrior, his slayer. “It won’t be there!”
Spike didn’t answer. He knew it had to be.
One way in.
“It won’t be there!” she insisted again, the hopelessness in her voice making his stomach twist. He knew what she meant, of course; she’d told him about the river, about her numerous attempts to cross it, and how the world always cruelly placed her back at the start. He knew, yet the rules had changed. One way in, one way out. Right now—this time—it had to be there. It had to be there.
Wind ripped across his face, pulling against his skin as the black cloud drew nearer.
The end of the world. He never thought he’d see it.
He hadn’t thought it’d be like this.
The panic in her voice would have brought him to his knees any other time. The scared girl he’d rescued from the nightmare was back, and she wouldn’t do either of them any good. He needed her strong. He needed her to be the Slayer now.
“Right behind you, love!”
“Don’t turn around, whatever you do. Just keep runnin’!”
A waft of blood smacked his senses, and then the river stood in view, just as he knew it would.
And just as he knew it would, the ledge from where he’d crawled to freedom jutted proudly over the waves of red, at least twenty feet off the ground. He remembered the fall being greater, but that didn’t matter now. All that mattered was getting there—inside the cavern, back into the cave where he’d spent three centuries waiting to get into a world now falling in upon itself.
“Oh God,” Buffy panted, coming to a fierce halt at the riverside. “What the hell is that?”
“That’s our ticket out,” Spike retorted. He paused just long enough to place a hand on her shoulder, and though it didn’t last, he felt a ripple of calm ease through her. As though she needed physical reassurance he stood beside her. “No time to get dainty, love. Ladies first.”
Apparently, she didn’t need encouragement. Buffy slammed into the river, disappearing under a wave of blood. She moved effortlessly, seemingly mindless of the weight against her, the way the tide pulled at her skin and attempted to drag her downstream. Spike watched her just long enough to know he needn’t worry before diving in after her.
He’d never before truly appreciated how thick blood ran. He remembered falling into the river, sure—remembered his insides rotting inside out, starvation itself manifesting into an entity that nested in his bones, gnawing its way through the soft tissue of his exterior until it managed to turn his mind against itself. Oh yes, he remembered that. Only days had passed since then, even if he felt it could squeeze in a lifetime or two between first seeing Buffy and Buffy coming back to herself.
Just a few days ago he couldn’t have plunged into a blood river without attempting to devour every drop. Now, his arms fought the flow, his eyes fixed on his slayer ahead of him. He didn’t relax until he saw her pull herself safely from the tide’s grip and onto the crimson shore. He likewise didn’t realize he’d hit solid ground until his legs shook.
“I made it,” Buffy said. She looked like a doomed heroine from a horror flick, her skin smeared with blood, her hair soaked. Her eyes fell over the river, toward the looming cloud of black rolling toward them with alarming velocity. “I made it.”
He nodded jerkily and made a play for her arm. This wasn’t the time to reflect. “Slayer…”
“I tried…God, I tried so many times…”
Spike nodded again. “I know, love. We got to keep moving.”
“I just…so many times…”
She snapped back to him then, blinking. And without another beat, the fog behind her gaze lifted, and she was with him again. “Where?” she demanded, turning as she spoke. The question did not demand an answer; she knew where to look.
“Move,” she said.
No need to tell him twice. Spike sped to the stretch of rock wall, and side by side, they began to climb. His body had once been accustomed to exertion—a romp in the cemetery, a brawl in a demon bar, an apocalypse to avert, he’d never been short on action. The last few days had slowly reintegrated him into the lifestyle he’d left without knowing, but sparring Buffy and hunting wild pig just didn’t have the same ring as run for one’s life. It all felt very familiar, finding foot holes, hands grappling for a nook to fortify, all the while keeping his eye on Buffy even if he knew she handled herself better than anyone ever gave credit.
Still, with his veins red hot from the dose of slayer blood, Spike couldn’t deny the rush; the tingling in his belly, the contented purr of a demon that thrived on the buzz of the too-close-to-call moments, the sensation of death nipping at his heels. He’d forgotten what this felt like.
Buffy reached the cavern mouth first, and he wasn’t surprised. Even juiced, he couldn’t hold a candle to her.
Her eyes rose to the distance, widening. “Oh, God. Spike, hurry.”
He didn’t realize how close they’d cut it, really, but it made sense. These things always ticked to the very last second. When he was just within reach of the mouth, a breeze of cold swept through his body—cold unlike anything he’d ever felt. Cold that shook the bone before slicing it in two, cold that mashed shattered pieces into powder, cold that pulled and tugged. Cold that wanted him, wanted to consume, wanted to waste everything in its path. A vacuum of nothing, dragging the world down with it. The black cloud, he recognized, was the nothing, and it was upon them. It had swallowed the world whole and it wanted them, too. And for a second—a fractured second—the adrenalin switched off and everything became still.
There was peace in the cold. After all, nothingness allowed no screams.
A warm hand found his wrist, jarring him back to himself and spearing his insides with heat. Buffy. His eyes found hers and used them as anchors, dragging him the remaining distance out of the world the Slayer had created.
She led him where the cold could not reach.
“I’ve got you,” Buffy whispered. And she did.
“I know,” Spike replied. And he did.
He remembered this.
The enclosed rock walls, the narrow pathway, the feel of dirt beneath his feet. It had only been days since he last inhabited this space. Battered and broken, starved and raw after three centuries of barely existing at all, he’d crawled to freedom. He’d crawled toward a light now extinguished, toward the promise of a lady he’d braved the underworld to find.
The darkened spots on the ground…that was his blood. It had only been days. Only days.
Spike had never considered himself claustrophobic. Not until that minute. Now, standing in the familiar mouth of the cave, his chest tightened and he warned his overly ambitious lungs they needn’t bother gulping down air.
The space. The cave. Years he’d spent here. He’d lived more of his life within these walls than anywhere else.
No, that’s not right.
Spike inhaled sharply and met Buffy’s wide, confused eyes, and the screaming in his head quieted. Time didn’t matter rot—all that mattered was her. And here they stood, on the opposite side of eternity in the only escape hatch he knew existed. What had happened remained beyond him, but for that second, that one precious second, he allowed himself to shove aside the whys and the hows for the miracle of certainty.
The way out. Somehow, they’d unlocked the way out.
What the bugger had happened?
“Where are we?” Buffy asked, her voice hoarse. She sat huddled on the ground, arms wrapped around her knees, her eyes bouncing from one corner of the cavern to the next.
His heart went out to her. Everything had happened so fast—so fast. One second nestled in each other’s arms and the next running from a force greater than he could comprehend. In a blink, everything she’d known for a thousand years had disappeared. The fact the world was a nightmare, in that sense, didn’t matter. On some level it was even expected. And even though the light in her eyes betrayed her timid joy, the shadow remained larger. The shadow betraying the crushing knowledge that nothing was ever as simple as it looked.
“The cave,” he said softly.
“My home sweet home, love. For three centuries, anyway.”
She frowned at him for a second before comprehension dawned. “Oh,” she said, giving the space around them another cursory glance. “Oh…God.”
“This…” Buffy inhaled sharply and climbed to her feet. “I don’t understand.”
“Understand what, ducks?”
“What happened. How we…any of it. How this was…here…what the hell just happened, Spike?”
He cast a tired glance to the doorway to her hell. It hadn’t sealed off as he expected, rather the emptiness that had consumed the world now kissed the rocky mouth, a Venus fly trap waiting for prey. A road to nothing deceptively costumed as a black wall. “Something changed,” he said simply.
“We were just talking—”
“I don’t understand. How…I tried so many times. I tried…and…God.” She broke away, pressing the back of her hand to her eyes. “What changed?”
Spike swallowed hard. The answer wasn’t buried under mystery, and he reckoned she knew it just as well as he did. It just didn’t seem possible—it didn’t seem real. None of this did. Not the walls around them or the bloodstains on the ground, or any sense fed to his eyes and nose telling him they had made it out. It couldn’t be real. He’d broken too many rules for the walls to fall that simply. There had to be a catch or a punch line waiting nearby. It couldn’t be as simple as biting her. It couldn’t.
Yet here they stood.
Her voice had lost its edge. When he met her eyes again, they appeared as saucers, wide, trembling, and filled with so much pained hope it nearly crushed him.
“This is real, isn’t it? I’m not…this isn’t a dream?”
“No,” he replied. “I woke you up, remember?”
Buffy licked her lips and nodded. “I dreamt you were gone.”
“It was…” She broke away again with a shudder. “I remember waking up. And then you were there and it was okay.”
“Then we…” The frown deepened with concentration. “But…that wasn’t new.”
“The sex?” Spike’s lips twitched. “I’d bloody well hope shagging me isn’t so forgettable you’d need me to remind you—”
“Just saying, fragile ego here.”
She rolled her eyes. “Somehow I doubt it.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I was just trying to figure out what changed. What we did different. That we hadn’t…” Her gaze brightened again; he practically saw the pieces fall into place—saw comprehension shine through uncertainty, and those last few seconds before the world unmade themselves weave together again. Her hand stirred from her side and found the fresh bite mark on her throat. It was an easy detail to forget, he supposed, even if he knew it hadn’t been far from her mind. With the intensity of what had just inspired, just about anyone could overlook details while seeking out answers.
Anyone but a vampire.
“Oh,” Buffy said simply.
Spike kicked at the ground but didn’t say anything.
“You bit me.”
She didn’t say anything, and he found his stomach tightening with a familiar sensation—a desperation for her to understand something about himself, something flawed and rudimentary, something he couldn’t change. Vampires craved blood. Always had, always would. But blood shared between lovers transcended description in its significance, and the fact that she’d opened herself up to him, even in the heat of the moment, meant the world.
He didn’t want to hear now that she regretted it. A foolish fear, perhaps, as he was damn near convinced her blood had opened the door between worlds and she would have done anything to escape, but a real fear nonetheless.
“I remember,” Buffy murmured, looking up again. “Oh, God…”
“Look, I didn’t mean for it…I didn’t mean for it to…if I’d been thinkin’, it wouldn’t have happened, yeah? It was just at that moment…with you…hard to resist.” Spike offered a half smile and shrugged a shoulder, slightly subdued at the confused look on her face. “But I think the blood’s what did it.”
She nodded distractedly. “Got us out.”
A quiet beat settled between them as she considered his theory before breaking with a shake of the head. “No.”
Spike frowned. “It’s always the blood, love.”
“I’ve bled too many times to count for it to be that simple, and that’s not even the point.” She drew in a deep breath, fingers still absently stroking the freshly pricked skin at her throat. “No…it was something…it was something else. Something went through me. I felt…God, I’d never felt anything like that.”
Every muscle in his body tensed, his mind pulling him back to the look in her eyes. The pure, awed shimmer that echoed in her voice. The way she’d gasped and clung to him, the way she’d seemed on the verge of tears and laughter, and not in the manner with which he was familiar. It had been so brief and his nerves had been strung between ecstasy and fear, but he remembered the look on her face and the reverence in her words. He hadn’t known what it was—he still didn’t—but it had moved him like he’d never before been moved.
Was it possible she’d felt something tangible through his bite? That whatever she felt had torn the world apart?
“What was it?” he asked softly.
She didn’t respond. Instead, she said, “You did this.”
“You. It was you. You…I felt it, and it was because of you. That…whatever that was, it’s what made this happen.” Buffy gestured at the cavern mouth, and even though he understood the words she spoke, he couldn’t connect them with reality. “It was you,” she said again.
“I felt it. I felt it because of you.”
A tremor rumbled through the ground before the Slayer had a chance to answer. Spike whirled around…and immediately wished he hadn’t. The eyes that clashed with his made his skin ache.
“Hope,” Larry responded. “That’s what we call hope.”
“Oh my God,” Buffy gasped, her voice painted with revulsion. Spike didn’t blame her; it had only been a few days, but he’d somehow managed to forget what a disgustingly ugly beast Larry was.
Still, he found the strength to swallow his loathing. There were greater issues at hand.
“Hope?” he asked.
“Son of a gun, you found the one thing that can’t survive in Hell.” The guardian smiled nastily and took another thunderous step forward. “And, gotta say, man…I really didn’t think you had it in you.”
“To give the girl hope?”
“Who the hell is this?” Buffy demanded.
Spike tilted his chin. “The bloody prison ward, ducks.”
“That’s right,” the demon agreed.
“Don’t suppose you’re gonna just let us by?”
“You know, you really think I would. With all the pain and suffering you two lovebirds have endured and…well, wait. That’s right; I live for pain and suffering.” Larry closed another step between them. “Rules schmools, that’s what I always say.”
“I got her out,” Spike snarled. “Gig’s up, mate.”
“Not all the way out.” The demon’s eyes turned black. “And I’m here to see that you won’t.”