A/N: Another chapter in less than four months. Go me!
Thank you so much to my loyal readers for not giving up on me. I’ll do my best not to let you down. Also thanks to my betas. I couldn’t do it without you.
I do have more than half of the next chapter complete, and while I plan on getting it done over the next few days, I seem to have come down with a rather nasty stomach bug. I ask your patience. Thank you.
“It was here?”
Spike swallowed hard and nodded without thinking. He hadn’t blinked once since Larry disappeared behind the black cloud; he couldn’t tear his eyes from her face. There were times when she wore her heart on her sleeve and others when her thoughts remained annoyingly hard to read. This particular time fell in the latter category. She hadn’t done anything since she tore herself away from the mouth of the cave but stare at the curve of rock where he’d spent three centuries as if the longer she looked, the less a reality his trials would become.
“That’s right,” he said softly. “Right there.”
“Yeah. Like the git said, it was a spider web. Caught me as I was running for it.” Spike inhaled deeply and took a step forward. “Buffy—”
“You did this for three hundred years.”
“Wasn’t so bad. I like the quiet.”
Buffy looked up at last, arching a brow. It was such a familiar look his shoulders nearly sagged with relief. Skepticism was one thing, but the haunted look he’d seen just moments ago was more than he could handle. And while her typical spark had yet to light her eyes, she wasn’t crying or shaking or anything of the sort.
“The quiet?” she replied. “Since when?”
“What can I say, love? It grows on you.”
“I can’t believe you did this…for me.” Buffy shook her head and looked down again, her eyes roaming the pattern of dirt where he’d fallen upon completion of the third trial. “You told me it was bad. Or…I guess I knew it was bad. It had to be because you wouldn’t tell me what happened. But never…God, I’d never think it was…this.”
“I was told I was full of love once.” She frowned, her fingers brushing her blood-soaked brow. “By a spirit guide. I’m still…it comes in spurts, what I remember. That stuff about Ken…I don’t know how I pulled that out of my head, but I did.”
“Who was Ken?” he asked. It was a distraction, if nothing else.
“A demented demon that trapped people in a hell-dimension and then spat them back out after a day. A day being, as you know, a hundred years in this world.” Buffy sighed harshly. “I think that was something I remembered when I first fell. How long the days were and whatnot. I helped a girl find out what happened to her boyfriend and then she took my…I guess that was when I was in LA, right after Angel died.” She looked up once more. “I was told I was full of love.”
“No, right before I jumped. That trip thing that Giles took me on before Glory…she told me I was full of love, and that love would lead me to my gift.” She snorted appreciatively. “But I don’t think I could have done this. Love or no love, three hundred years—”
“Don’t make me out to be a bloody hero.”
A fond smile flirted with her lips. “You wouldn’t have minded once.”
His nostrils flared. “We’ve been over this a time or two, love. Things change.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. It’s just…you were alone.”
“Not as alone as you were. I had friends to keep me company, didn’t I? Larry marched a whole bloody parade of them by. Angelus, Darla, Dru, even Harmony at one point, I’d imagine.” Spike took a step toward her. “I wasn’t alone. Not like you. You had no one.”
“And what’s more, I chose this. I knew what I was getting into.”
“You couldn’t know this.”
“Maybe not, but even if I had, it wouldn’t matter a bit. I could’ve cried uncle any time I liked, but I didn’t.” He let out a deep breath. “I couldn’t.”
Buffy blinked hard and looked away. “Yeah,” she whispered. “That scares me.”
“You, sacrificing so much. Waiting so long. Just…what he said was true, wasn’t it?” She waved at the arched rock. “Your body, your hair, your eyes…you really just starved for three hundred years, didn’t you? Waiting for—”
“I wouldn’t let them get the bloody best of me.”
“Three hundred years, Spike!”
His chest puffed out and his nostrils flared. “And I would’ve waited more if they’d asked!” he barked. “It was nothing to me. You kept me company, love.”
“It wasn’t nothing.”
“To get to you?”
Buffy gestured emphatically, whirling around again, her eyes shining brightly. “Yes! Do you have any idea what this means? For you, for me…God, for everything? What you did for me…I knew it was going to be you. I remember thinking so, even telling you so…but this is…it’s too much. What you went through to get to me…”
“I love you,” he said, deflated. It was so simple to him; he didn’t know how to make it simpler for her. It was just the way he understood things. Love was worth anything and the woman he loved deserved whatever he had to give, no matter how long it took him to give it, or how he suffered to deliver it.
“This is different from love,” Buffy reasoned. “People don’t love like this.”
He spread his arms. “I’m not people, pet.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Spike retorted. “I don’t know what you want to hear, or what I can say that you haven’t heard already. You were gone, and I knew that I had to get you back. Living in a world without you was a nightmare. A real bloody nightmare, and no matter what I did I couldn’t wake up. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I just waited for your mates to find out where you were so I could get you out. This,” he waved at the archway, “was just three hundred years of what I would have had up there, but this time you were at the end of the tunnel.”
She blinked hard. “Spike…”
“I just did what I could.”
“I don’t know if I could have…” Buffy drew in a sharp breath. “If it was Dawn or…you…I don’t think I could have done this. I don’t think I could have survived what you survived.”
Spike just stared at her. “That’s what’s bothering you?”
“I just did what I had to do to get to you. That was all that bloody mattered to me.”
She pursed her lips and crossed her arms, fidgeting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “It’s just not…”
“There’s love and then there’s love.”
He shrugged, feeling lost and ineloquent. There were only so many ways to tell her and a limited number of words he could weave. How could he hope to make her understand when he couldn’t explain the obvious? “Sorry, sweet, I don’t know what I can…what you want to hear. Maybe not having a soul makes it easier for me. Not much white noise gets in the way. All I cared about was you.”
Buffy held his gaze for a few seconds before breaking eye contact, her shoulders dropping. “I was never fair to you.”
“I know we’ve talked about this, but it just…I’m sorry.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry for.”
“Can’t stop me.” She shrugged, aiming a grin his way. “Just the way I am.”
“And getting to you is the way I am.”
“I’ll never understand this.”
Spike smiled and reached for her hand. “You will,” he promised softly. “We got a lot of time together.”
The spark finally returned to her eyes, which didn’t fail to warm his insides. More of that and he would burn with enough hope to level the tunnels of Hell. He wouldn’t allow himself to ingest fool’s gold, but the way she looked at him couldn’t be insincere. If it wasn’t love it was a close relative, and he was a patient guy.
He could wait.
The cavern was longer than he remembered. It was easy to forget the twisted tunnels that stretched between the stages on which his trials took place, and even though his legs ached and his muscles strained and he had no idea what to expect when they reached the land above, the promise of home was almost more than he could stand. Larry had been defeated, and while Spike wasn’t naïve enough to believe the guardian was the only obstacle Hell would throw their way, the healthy helping of optimism Buffy fed him guided his feet and silenced the voices of doubt.
They were so close…
“I’ll never know how you found it,” Buffy gasped after rolling under the stone wedge situated in the middle of the holy water pool. The water itself had been drained, however, and Spike wasn’t about to ask why. Perhaps the time for trials had passed; the web hadn’t been there, either.
“Found what, sweets?” Spike asked, dipping to his knees to follow her under.
“The door,” she said after she was on her feet. “The way to get to where I was.”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah. Hellsville.”
He slowly rose to his feet with a heavy breath, cracking a grin when her words sank in. “That its proper name, then?”
“Seems appropriate to me.” Her eyes took a furtive glance at their surroundings, though for all the ground they’d covered in the last few hours, the setting hadn’t changed. “I don’t know how you found it.”
“Don’t know, either. Just bloody fortunate that I did.” Spike nodded toward the tunnel through which he’d walked lifetimes before, when the space in which he stood had been designed to make him wave a white flag, when the task at hand had seemed impossible. There was a slight lift of rock leading back to the path, and while it sat a good few feet off the ground, he was surprised at how shallow the pool seemed when not filled with water. Those few times he’d dived in had just about killed him…would have, had it not been for the contract he entered upon accepting the trials. “Can’t be that much further,” he said.
“You said that an hour ago.”
“Didn’t mean it then.”
“But now you do?”
“That’s right.” He watched her heave herself onto higher ground before following suit. “This wasn’t too far,” he grunted, arms shaking with exhaustion, “from where I came in.”
Her nose wrinkled the way it so often did when she thought he was full of crap. “You said that an hour ago, too.”
Spike winked, shrugging a shoulder. “Let’s see what I’ll be saying in a few minutes, yeah?”
Buffy arched a brow and failingly tried to smother a grin. It was enough to supply his tired body with an extra dosage of energy. For her, he’d keep walking.
They couldn’t have much further to journey. Every end, after all, had its beginning.
The sign was still there.
Spike wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t anything. He stood just a few feet from the length of rope Willow and Giles had lowered into Hell’s mouth, occupying the space where his eyes had first absorbed the place that would be his home for centuries. He couldn’t feel anything, really. Not at this moment. It was numbing—a moment that wasn’t a moment. As though the eyes through which he saw were not his eyes, and the body in which he stood was not his body. His brain was too tired and his thoughts were too foggy, and he couldn’t quite grasp that the moment was real. It seemed too distant to be real.
Yet there it was. The sign.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
He turned to Buffy and forced a smile. “Nowhere to go but up.”
Her eyes followed the rope as far as they could before it dissolved into shadows. “Up?” she whispered.
“Our world…home…it’s…up there?”
“Few hundred feet above your pretty head.”
She swallowed, and for the first time it registered how hard her heart pounded. He should have heard it straight off, but somehow it hadn’t clicked until now. Perhaps he just hadn’t been listening.
“What if I forgot?”
“What’s that, love?”
Buffy expelled a deep breath and looked down again. “How to live up there. What if I forgot?”
“A thousand years, Spike. I’ve been by myself for a long time.”
“You’ve had me these last few days.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah, and if memory serves, throwing a spear through your shoulder was my way of saying hello.”
He waved dismissively. “Just rusty, is all.”
“What if I’m unfit to be around people? What if I freak? What if I hurt someone…Dawn, Giles…what if I—”
Spike sealed the space between them, his hands finding her shoulders. “You won’t,” he said firmly. “Not the Buffy I know. You were born for that world, bloody well made for it. It’s yours, you hear? The whole lot of it. You were never meant to be alone, and Christ, if you need proof, just look—”
“But I am. The Slayer…I remember that.” She blinked hard. “Just me. No one else. No one else. What if the reason I fell into Hellsville was that?” Her eyes brightened with a breath of epiphany, and before he could blink, she’d torn down an argument he hadn’t anticipated. “God, why didn’t I see it? I can’t just go waltzing back to my life as though I remember how to…I don’t remember how to live, Spike!”
“Then we’ll remember together.”
“It’s not that easy!”
He kissed her on impulse, swallowing her protests without thought. In easy seconds, they were warring with each other, lips clashing, tongues searching, delving into a rhythm that had provided solace when the world knew none. How long they stood, he didn’t know, only that her eyes were starry when he pulled away, and not just with the shine of tears.
She wouldn’t cry, he knew. She’d just give him a glimpse before reining it in.
“We’ll make it easy,” he promised her softly. “No one will expect more than you can give.”
Buffy snorted, but couldn’t hide her grin, no matter how small. “God, I love them, but we are remembering the same group of people, right?”
“Well, if any of them give you grief, you can just remind them that my chip fell out sometime around the third century.”
The grin she’d tried to smother came out of hiding, and while the panic in her eyes had yet to fully alleviate, he trusted the weight wouldn’t be unbearable any longer. He’d shoulder anything she couldn’t, and fight her for the right.
Things would be different. They had to be.
“What if I can’t handle it?” she whispered. “What if I hurt someone?”
“Just aim for Harris and all will end well.”
“Spike, get serious.”
His brows hit his hairline. “Serious as a bloody heart-attack. I’ll even help you dump the body.”
That earned an outright laugh. A very good sign.
From here, all they had to do was climb.
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