I want to start off by saying I simply couldn't wait for my betas to send me their revisions. I edited this chapter this morning, so I'm the only pair of eyes that's reviewed it. Any mistakes are mine and mine alone. Once I receive revisions, I will make the necessary changes.
I really hope everyone remembers this story. I know it’s been a really long time since I updated…like four months. I promise, it’s not for lack of interest, or even lack of trying. I just, for the longest time, couldn’t write. When I did write, I couldn’t stand what came out. It was forced and awkward and I felt I had lost all knack for writing naturally. It didn’t matter what I attempted my hand at…this story, another WIP, or even my original writing. Nothing came out right.
I’m not feeling 100% better, but I am encouraged by the fact that I was able to get this chapter done. I’m on vacation from work this next week and most of that time will be spent in New York City, but I am going to kick off the next chapter before I leave. I pray for your patience and understanding. Not being able to write is the worst disease I’ve ever had, and while I am optimistic, I’m going to take things one step at a time.
In the meantime, thank you all so much for your patience and support.
I feel like I’m obligated, as well, to mention my publications. My apologies for shameless self-promotion.
Ripples Through Time
And coming soon
Previous chapters of The Writing on the Wall can be found here.
“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.”
He was so tired. His bones ached, his muscles whined, and his skin hurt. The past few days had been generations in the making, and though he’d slept soundly at Buffy’s side, Spike was exhausted. He stood on shaky legs, eyeing the creature positioned between him and the tunnel out, and while he felt his demon answer the fight, the rest of him felt worn beyond repair.
He’d known what he was getting into the second he signed up for the crusade, and he would trade none of it for a moment’s rest. Not the centuries of pain or the heartache of finding Buffy as he had, or any set of experiences spanning the second his feet hit the cavern floor and right now. But it was always something—always another fight, another obstacle, another thing to defeat. And now this. Spike hadn’t reckoned Larry would let them go with little more than a smile and a nod, but Christ he’d wished it. He’d been through enough, and Buffy had been through even more, and neither one of them deserved another beating.
And yet, he distinctly remembered Larry’s warning: the promise he wouldn’t let them go without a fight. Hell stood too much to lose by letting them walk to freedom.
“Gotta say, man,” the demon continued, his eyes shining. “No one saw you coming.”
“Heard that before.” And he had…as he’d crawled to freedom, Larry had told him as much. Apparently Hell was graded at a learning curve. It didn’t seem they’d acquired anything in that particular lesson. “Warned you enough, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. After eons of empty bluffs, we wound up with egg on our face.” Larry shrugged. “Guess it had to happen sometime, didn’t it?”
Spike’s brows perked. “So that’s it, then? Your lot doesn’t take a shine at being proven wrong so you’re here to—”
“Shove you out the back door.”
The vampire smiled tightly. Yeah, he’d figured as much.
“What did you mean?” Buffy demanded, shuffling forward a step. The blood on her skin had almost dried; the red dying into a cold, flaky rust-colored pigment Spike knew all too well. “What you said about hope.”
Strange. That wasn’t the first question on his lips. The need to know gnawing at his insides staved off the instant the guardian stepped into the light, and no matter how starved he was for answers, at the moment, Spike didn’t figure it mattered a lick how they managed out. Not with Larry blocking the exit. They could suss out the particulars later as far as he was concerned.
But this wasn’t his game. It never had been. If the Slayer wanted answers, she’d more than earned them.
“Just that,” Larry responded, setting his eyes on Buffy in a way that made Spike’s stomach tighten. “Hope means game’s over as far as we’re concerned. Something that pure…man, gotta admire it.”
Spike expelled a deep breath. Buffy did, too.
“I still don’t understand,” she said, and he didn’t blame her. “I’ve felt…I’m sure I’ve felt hope before.”
Her words lacked conviction. Hard to remember, Spike supposed, after a thousand years without it. Still, he had to agree with her. With as much as she’d said otherwise, for as often as she’d voiced a desire to be something other than Chosen, Buffy’s life had not been short on joy. No, she’d celebrated her victories and taken her defeats. Her life hadn’t lacked hope, even at its coldest.
For his part, Larry shrugged his agreement, nodding his monstrous head. “Oh, I’m sure you have,” he said. “In its most diluted form. Humanity swims in the watered-down stuff, chugs it for breakfast, lunch, and even the occasional midnight snack. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is real hope. Real, stinkin’ hope. The moment of I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter absolution. Real hope is the purest commodity you could ever come across. Remember your ex’s little moment of pure happiness?”
Spike’s shoulders tensed and he tossed Buffy a speculative glance. She thought for a minute before nodding.
“Yeah,” Larry drawled. “The pure concentrate of any emotion is probably the most powerful intangible out there. Rage, sorrow, heartbreak, love, happiness…you name it, and it moves mountains in a big ole way. Down here, hope is a killer. That’s why we have the sign.”
“Not the version I heard, mate.”
The guardian snickered. “Yeah, well, you heard the version I was telling that day.”
“The sign?” Buffy asked, eyes bouncing between them. “What sign?”
“The one at the front,” Spike answered. Strange how fresh it stood in his mind. For all the time that had passed, every second since he descended into the Hellmouth remained fresh, untarnished. He possessed a handful of memories and all were at his disposal. Every one. He still remembered how the air had smelled, how it seemed different from Earth, even if he couldn’t remember why. He felt stone cut at his back and holy water blister his skin. And he remembered the sign.
The first thing he’d seen.
“‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’,” Larry supplied. “Kinda hard to miss.”
“Yeah,” Buffy replied. “It’s also kinda hard to stop and sightsee when you nosedive into a thousand dimensions.”
“Well,” Larry remarked, smirking, “that’s a shame.”
A dangerous growl rumbled through Spike’s throat, his feet carrying him forward before thoughts could connect with action, or the concern of possible repercussions. “You bloody bastard—”
“No, Spike!” The warm hand that seized his wrist was probably the only thing that could have stopped him from doing something stupid—something like getting a vampire-shaped hole pounded into the side of the cavern wall courtesy of the guardian’s stone-like fist.
“Isn’t he on a short leash?” came the condescending purr.
“Yeah, and I’m the one holding him back,” Buffy snapped. “The only reason you’re not fish food is you have answers and I have questions, and so long as it that stays that way you can keep breathing. Or not breathing. Or…whatever. Now answer me.”
Larry smiled and spread his claws. “What were we talking about?”
“Ah, right.” He paused and tossed Spike another amused glance. “It’s your boy, there. He had it figured out from the start, didn’t you? What it was? What set her off?”
Spike’s jaw clenched. He didn’t say a word. He wouldn’t concede anything now, even if his mind dragged him back to just minutes before—before the guardian had stepped out of the shadows. Buffy’s fingers brushing over the bite mark, her eyes far-away and confused. Yes, he’d known it then.
So had Buffy. She just didn’t realize she knew it.
“What?” she asked, squeezing Spike’s wrist. “I don’t…”
“The bite, love.”
He didn’t realize he’d spoken until the echo of his voice died down the corridor. Even then, all seemed too quiet. As though the words themselves lived only in his head and never quite made it to the surface.
Buffy’s frown deepened and the hole in Spike’s stomach expanded. “I don’t get it,” she murmured, reaching for her angered, fang-marked skin with her free hand. “I already told you—I’ve bled more—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Larry replied. “Not what he means, either.”
“Vampire bites are different than just scraping your knee,” Spike muttered. “Not like pain, see. Not if we don’t want it that way.”
“No,” Larry interjected. “That’s not it, either.”
He glanced up sharply, his brow furrowing. “The fuck you mean, that’s not it?”
“It has nothing to do with being…oh boy.” Larry whistled and ran a claw over his scaly head. “It’s really not that difficult, kids. When he bit you, a bond formed. Through that bond, you felt…well, why do you think we’re standing here?”
Spike shook his head. That didn’t seem right. “Rot.”
“No, I felt something,” Buffy agreed. “When you bit me—”
“That load is for Anne Rice fans and vampire wannabes,” Spike replied heatedly, turning his eyes back to Larry. “Blood doesn’t have magic powers, mate.”
“Is that so?”
“You bloody know it’s so.” Spike sighed, glancing back to the Slayer. “It’s rubbish, you hear? I didn’t do anything—”
“And yet you’re the one always insisting it has to be about the blood,” Larry offered. “Backtracking so soon?”
“That’s not what I mean. Blood opens doors and what all, but it doesn’t form bonds. Not like that, at least. Not with a bite. You need a ritual for that. You need—”
“And what makes you think Hell’s rules are the same as yours?” The guardian crossed his arms. “I’d think you, out of anyone, would know that’s not the case.”
“So you’re saying what, exactly?”
“You said she was yours. You took her as a possession. That’s a different ballgame as far as we’re concerned.”
Another angered snarl escaped the vampire’s throat. “A possession?” he demanded. “That’s not what it meant to me, and you bloody well know it.”
“Not my problem. I was just answering the lady’s question.”
Buffy wet her lips and released a cool, trembling breath. Spike felt her racing heart as if it were in his own chest. Every rush she experienced, every ripple of fear and wonder, of anger and confusion, was his to share. “So…” she said slowly, “what happened back there was a…spell…or something.”
The demon nodded. “Or something.”
“It let me feel everything he feels?”
“At that moment, yes.”
“And I felt hope.”
“And the rest, as they say, is history.” Larry spread his arms, his eyes settling on Spike’s and flickering dangerously. “Therefore, without further ado, welcome to Spike’s…how did you say it? Home sweet home? Boy, I tell you…if these walls could talk.”
Spike’s insides turned cold, his mind opening a track to where the conversation was heading. Nothing concrete existed in the words, but from the look in the guardian’s eyes, he saw it clearly. The trials. The rules. The things he’d labored to keep Buffy from discovering, if only to sidestep her empathy and gratitude. He wanted none of it, and Larry knew it.
No. If the guardian went down that path, all bets were off. Bloody off.
“The things this boy’ll do for love,” the demon cooed. The spark in his eyes betrayed that he knew exactly what he was doing. “But then, word on the wire is that he’s too noble to tell the tale. What’s the matter, Spike? Afraid the girl will—”
“I don’t see the harm.” Larry grinned nastily, turning his eyes back to Buffy. “How many times do you think that pretty skin of his has grown back? I lost track of how often it melted off during the first trial.”
Rage bubbled under the skin in question, every muscle in his body winding tight and ready for the punch. “Shut your bloody gob,” he snarled, willing his feet to move forward but they seemed glued to the ground. It was a sensation he hadn’t experienced since finding Dru macking on a fungus demon—one where rage and terror melded into one, rigidly locking his legs in place before he shot off like a rocket. He likened it to being trapped between worlds, one where his heart disagreed with his head, and his body refused to draw allegiance.
His heart wanted to protect Buffy, to shield her from the horrors of his experience and keep her in a place where her feelings for him were dictated from something other than relief or thankfulness or anything other than genuine affection. It was the first time he didn’t want her to look at him like a hero. And yet for all his talk, all the lengths to which he’d gone to keep her from knowing the truth of what he’d endured to break through the wall to her prison, a small part of his defiant psyche wanted the truth revealed. He hadn’t even realized it existed until that second, and his chest tightened with disgust. It was the same part that had once craved praise for not feeding off disaster victims or demanded recognition for opting to be less evil than his nature suggested. He hadn’t wanted to admit it existed at all, and while he trusted his heart to overpower the greedy demon inside as it had so faithfully these last few days, he still couldn’t get his feet to budge a bloody inch.
“About which trial, precisely?” Larry prodded.
Buffy exhaled a small, sad sigh. “Oh Spike…”
“Oh, so she doesn’t know?” The guardian stepped forward eagerly. “Can’t imagine why you’d want to keep all that to yourself. You were her champion, weren’t you? Why shouldn’t your fair maiden know the lengths to which you went to rescue her from her prison?”
“Shut the bloody hell up!”
“The first one was holy water,” Larry said. “A great big pool of it, and a stone wall blocking Point A and Point B. I forget how many times he dove in to find his way across before he figured out the only way was a small sliver at the bottom.” He shook his head and grinned. “Not a pretty picture every time he climbed out. Skin falling off his bones, his muscles sizzling, the air crackling with the smell of meat cooking. Almost enough to make a guy hungry.”
Buffy’s horror-filled eyes darted to Spike’s, color fading from her cheeks. “Oh, my God.”
The demon’s eyes sparkled. “The second?” he hissed.
“I’m gonna rip your scales off!” Spike screamed. He managed to inch forward, but only slightly. His body remained enraptured with the guardian’s tale, and the selfish demon in his chest, encouraged by Buffy’s disgust, grew in strength.
“The second…well, that one was a gem. I gave him you, of course. A Buffy of his very own, though with slightly fewer…reservations. He saw through that one, though. Knew it wasn’t you within…what? A minute or so. Was that right?”
Spike roared in fury while the inner demon cackled with delight.
“She offered him things you’d shudder to imagine,” the guardian continued. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak…or rather, your clothing. Your eyes. Your hair. Your voice. Your tits. You name it, she was it. And Spike could’ve had his Buffy just as he always wanted her. Footloose and conscience-free, and ready to paint any town red, red, red. We would have worked with the chip, of course. A little cranial surgery and the whole damn planet would’ve been yours for the taking. Well, yours and Miss Slayer 2001. Alas, our dear William wasn’t even tempted. Not even a crumb…were you, Spike?”
“Not for a second,” he growled, and he felt a rush of warmth from his side. Buffy had tears in her eyes.
Larry hummed. “You’re really the belle of the ball, aren’t you, Buffy? Poor Spikey-wikey wouldn’t be swayed. Not even by you, all dolled up and no soul to keep you harnessed. Every vampire’s wet-dream. Every vampire’s…” He turned back to Spike. ”Except yours.”
Spike raised his chin with pride. “That’s right.”
“And even that…even tempting him with Little Miss Priss wasn’t the worst of it, was it?” The demon took a heavy step forward. “The worst happened about ten feet behind me.”
Unwittingly, Spike’s eyes traveled the indicated distance to a nauseatingly familiar curve of rock, and the bottom of his stomach dropped without warning. Truth be told, he could have easily forgotten the first two trials for the horror of the third. The endless days that melted into months until years peeled away without thought. Hunger gnawing away at his insides, his body eating itself for survival until nothing but the binds of his mystical contract kept him alive. In the quiet, of course, Buffy’s phantom had kept him company. Buffy’s phantom giving him the hope of what he would find when his time had ended. When the trial was at last behind him…if the wait didn’t kill him first.
A soft breath reverberated through the woman at his side, jarring him back to the present. “What did you do to him?” she asked, and the tremor in her voice made his heart ache.
“No,” Spike snarled. His feet still refused to move. “That’s enough. That’s—”
Larry’s eyes twinkled. “More than you wanted her to know, right? Never knew you to be so noble.”
“Sodding stuff it.”
“See,” the demon continued with a careless grin. “We kinda caught him in a…spider web? Was that what it was? I guess the particulars don’t matter. The deal was if he could withstand waiting for three days, we’d let him crawl the rest of the way into your world.” He paused and turned to the vampire. “How long did those days last, Spike?”
“I forget,” he ground out. “Now let it alone. We know how this story ends, don’t we?”
However, Buffy wouldn’t let it go, and he understood she couldn’t be detoured until she knew the truth. He’d made the mistake of telling her how long it took to wade through the trials to her world, and he knew she had to have been searching for an indicator of where the time ate itself up. This was it. Suddenly he couldn’t hide anymore. Suddenly, it was all out in the open, and he could do no more than stand by and let it happen.
“It was a hundred years, wasn’t it?” she whispered. “A hundred years a day.”
“Very good,” Larry agreed. “So you knew that much.”
“He told me.”
“Yeah, but not in detail, I’ll bet. Not about the starvation or the loneliness. His hair falling off, his eyes sealing shut, his skin rotting away with time. Days, weeks, years…” He sighed, then frowned. “Doesn’t sound so bad when you say it like that, does it?”
Buffy blinked hard and looked down, her every inch trembling. Spike felt his insides recoil.
Very good, mate. Was it worth it?
“You’ve had your fun,” he said softly, unable to look Larry in the eye. He couldn’t bear the git’s triumphant grin anymore than he could Buffy’s pity. Even the inner demon balked in revulsion, the empty satisfaction it longed for far from the mind’s eye. His body could move again, but the damage had already been done. There were no virtues to preserve or egos to protect. He’d failed in something completely rudimentary, and he had no one to blame but himself.
“Not nearly,” Larry replied nastily. “I told you. We have a reputation to protect. Kudos on the journey, and I really mean it, man. But we can’t have it getting out that one pesky vamp ruined our set-up.”
“Not the first,” Spike replied. “Seem to remember a chap who first dodged all your bloody bullets.”
“Brychantus? Yeah, but here’s the thing…he never pulled a living slayer out of her own personal hell. Do you have any idea how long we’ve waited to snag one of these? Gosh, we even came close with Buffy herself a few years—oh, I’m sorry—centuries back. But she had to go start a mutiny and—”
“Ken,” Buffy said suddenly.
Larry blinked. “I beg your pardon.”
“His name was Ken.” Her voice was so soft it was barely audible. “I remember that. I don’t know how, but I do.”
Spike tossed her a surprised glance but didn’t interrupt.
“Oh, yeah,” Larry purred. “Kenny boy. Poor old guy.”
“Yeah.” Buffy’s eyes slowly rose off the floor, and the cave could have darkened under the power of her glare. “Poor Kenny.”
It was her voice that did it. Her voice that made him understand the motive behind her body’s tremors, the reason she could barely stand to look up. He’d been a fool to think it was sadness or shock. Those emotions were on reserve for later; like him, Buffy wouldn’t feel it until enough time had passed to ease the wound. Her first instinct had always been anger, and now it poured from her every cell. Her hands had balled into fists, her face, still blood-caked from the swim across the river, set firmly with fury he had never witnessed, centering on the smiling demon whose calm demeanor failed to waver.
“You,” she said, taking a step forward. “You put me there.”
“Technically, I just stood watch.”
“Do you have any idea—”
“Pumpkin, look at me. I was made for these sorts of ideas.” Larry’s eyes shifted briefly back to Spike. “Hot little temper, your slayer has.”
“Hot temper.” Buffy licked her lips. “You know what I did to Ken, don’t you, Larry? It was a long, long time ago, granted, but I seem to remember bashing his head in with a very big club.” She paused thoughtfully. “Or was it an axe? I can’t remember, really, but there’s no surprise there. I mean, a thousand years have passed since then and my memory’s pretty much shot to hell, and hey! Check it out. There’s a pun and I wasn’t even looking.”
She took another step forward and Spike followed her without realizing it.
“In the end, I guess the details don’t matter, do they? But the point is…I was pissed. I was beyond pissed. And I let him off easy.” Buffy plastered on a dangerously sweet smile, covered another space separating her from the beast, and said, “You? I don’t want easy.”
It was over before it began. Larry realized it a second too late—a second later than Spike, who had the good sense to get out of the way. At once he could have been anywhere; Restfield cemetery, the alley behind the Bronze, inside a speeding Winnebago, or any one of a thousand different places watching the same scene unfold as though choreographed. He’d witnessed her take out too many beasts to tally, and in the end, he supposed, that was all Larry was. An oversized rock of a beast, and while Spike hadn’t been successful in doing much more than bruising the sod with his face, a pissed off Slayer was worth an army of vampires, and a pissed off Buffy much more than that.
She kicked him back to the opening of the cave, back to the hungry black mass that pulsated against the place where Hell had once been. There was nothing behind that—a great empty nothing, bleak and hollow, and for the flash of surprised fear in Larry’s eyes, Spike knew it was the sort of nothing from which no one emerged.
“Wait, wait!” Larry gasped, his claws coming up. “I was just the messenger, honest!”
“Yeah?” Buffy replied. “Well, you can deliver this message for me.”
Her leg slammed into the demon’s gut, sending him tumbling into a sea of black. He was survived by a scream so piercing the cavern walls began to shake, but it lasted only seconds, and then all was still again.
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