A/N: I don’t thank my betas enough, and I really should. They’re a wonderful bunch, and I can’t manage without them. So thank you—Megan, Beth, Mari, Deanna, Kimmie, and Sue. Thank you so much.
Only two chapters after this. I really can’t believe we’re this close to the end.
About ten minutes into the climb, Spike remembered how difficult the descent had been. He remembered rope digging into his palms, his muscles aching, cramping, and sending sharp pangs through his forearms and back. He remembered blinking dust out of his eyes and the cold, unforgiving blackness of what waited beneath. He remembered all of it, yet nothing could compare to the physical agony of dragging his body against the force of gravity.
It could have gone on forever: the gnawing abyss of black shadows tugging from the pit below. At least this time he wasn’t alone. The short, feminine grunts from the woman above saved him from the threat of collapse. His need for rest couldn’t outshine the knowledge of what awaited at the surface.
Spike’s heart jerked upward. “What’s that?” he gasped, heaving himself up another pace. “Buffy?”
“Air!” she cried, panting. “Oh God, I think…I think that’s air. Real air.”
The concept seemed too foreign to consider. He’d forgotten there was a difference at all until that moment. Suddenly, the space around him seemed clearer and crisper. Perhaps it was in his imagination, but he didn’t think so. “Real…?”
“It smells…different. It’s…damn, my arms are going to fall off.”
“Just a bit further, love…”
“Don’t tease me.”
Spike shook his head, inhaling another lungful of what had to be fresh air. And were his eyes playing tricks on him, or did he spy a bit of light just a few precious feet above Buffy’s crown? “No. No, just a bit further.”
Buffy rumbled an inaudible reply, heaving herself up another arm-length. They continued like that in strained silence—and then at last, no, his eyes hadn’t lied to him. A definitive break of light cracked through what looked like bits of fallen rubble. It wasn’t strong, but it was strong enough to stand against the black, taking shape and form. His mouth fell open, but no sound came out.
The end. This had to be it.
“Oh God,” he croaked.
Buffy gasped and swore, her feet kicking hard now. His eyes caught the outline of her small but defined arms grappling slabs of stone. Then she was gone, pulling herself through the thin opening, and leaving him alone in the cave.
A burst of adrenalin surged through his worn body. “Coming!” he promised, squinting upward. Though he couldn’t see her, he knew she was out. He wanted to sag with relief, but a remaining strain of logic pushed him forward. She was out—Buffy was freed into the world. Her world. The world from which she’d been torn. He’d fulfilled his promise, he’d done what he swore he would do. He’d gotten her out.
Now all he had to do was finish the climb.
“Be there in a pinch,” he murmured.
From above, what sounded like a strangled gasp pierced the air. The hairs on his neck stood at attention.
The space that had seemed so unattainable soon fell behind him. It wasn’t rare to hear her voice colored in panic, but it certainly wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. In less than a flash, Spike jerked himself from the twisted rock, ignoring the way roughened edges sliced into his skin or the unpleasant twist an unruly ledge gave his ankle. Dust clouded his eyes, but he managed to find her through the patchy shadows of a world he’d forgotten.
She was on her knees, her eyes bounding from one corner to the next in horror.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, no, no. This isn’t right.”
Spike blinked. Aside from her, he couldn’t see much. The light he’d thought he’d seen existed, but it was minimal. A lighter shade of black, if anything at all, and his usually heightened senses had yet to kick in.
“What’s not right?”
“They sent us back.” Buffy was on her feet in an instant. “This isn’t—this can’t be right.”
It took a few seconds for his vision to return completely, but when it did he immediately understood. The air they’d breathed was indeed fresher, but the tunnel had led them back into ruins. Rock littered the ground, scattered everywhere between slanted walls and crooked doorways. The ceiling above looked as though it were seconds from caving in; canopied curtains strewn lazily across closed windows. It was an instant pull back into the world they had just escaped, and had his senses not decided to kick in at that second, his reaction might have been something a bit more severe than panic. The rage he’d felt at the blood river bubbled in his tired chest, dying quickly but surfacing all the same.
Willow and Giles. Their scent was unmistakable. They had been here, and recently, and that was something he definitely couldn’t say about the place from which they’d escaped. It took remembering that to remembering where the Hellmouth opened, and within seconds everything locked in place.
“I can’t go back!” Buffy screamed, and the force behind her cry was so devastating it promptly uprooted him from his realization. Hollow and aching, desperate and savage, all within the lifespan of a second. “I can’t go back to that!”
“Buffy, Buffy! It’s all right.” Spike winced and yanked his ankle free from the confining wedge of rock. “It’s all right, pet. We’re home.”
She blinked rapidly. “I don’t understand.”
“The high school, love. You blew it to the moon, remember? This is where I came in.” He gestured to the vacant space and empty walls. “The library, I’d wager. Wasn’t that where the door opened?”
Buffy’s eyes hit the floor, numbness chasing away desolation. She nodded after a few long seconds. “Yeah,” she said. “I remember.” Her tongue poked out and took a swipe of her lips before her gaze found his again. “Sorry…I just…it looks just like—”
He staggered a step forward. “I know. Let’s take a peek outside, yeah? Feels like nighttime to me, so I doubt I’ll burn off anything valuable.”
She looked at him askance.
“Sunlight,” he said. “Permanent sort of allergy, if memory serves.”
“Oh, right.” Buffy frowned. “That’s going to be hard to get used to.”
“For you, I suppose,” he agreed with a grin.
The pain in his ankle faded quickly, though his arms felt like deadweights and every muscle in his body protested movement. Still, physical exhaustion had nothing on the wave of euphoria that timidly began creeping through his veins, tickling his insides until he was half-crazed with fear that the ground on which he stood would vanish. It was as though he had stepped into a dream or a painting he’d long admired. As though one of the thousand wishes he’d cast into the void had decided to take form, and at any second he would find himself in the cave again, still years away from breaking into Buffy’s Hell. But as the seconds ticked by and the world refused to fade, he felt it was safe to embrace the strange burn of what he assumed was respite in its purest form. And he knew then that Larry had been right—the concentrate of any emotion was enough to unmake realities.
The painting into which he’d stepped, this crazy place called home, didn’t fade into shadows or blink out of existence. For every step he took, the sounder his surroundings became. He smelled chalk and burnt books. Further away he detected movement: cars, horns, stereos, people walking up and down sidewalks, fast food restaurants catering to the local teens, and demons roaring through cemeteries as vampires picked off the slow and stupid from Sunnydale’s pitiful nightlife. These sensations couldn’t be created or replicated. They were real.
When he met Buffy’s eyes again, he knew she thought the same. While she didn’t cry, she looked torn between a place where tears were needed and one where tears would simply interfere with sensation.
Buffy stood again in the world from which she’d been ripped. The place he swore he’d never call home again if she wasn’t at his side. She was real, too. Everything was real. Her bloodied skin, her shoeless feet, her dark hair, and the age she betrayed when her eyes locked with his. The age she couldn’t convey through her youthful face. The one the recesses of the below had given her.
He’d do it all again. In a heartbeat, in a sodding blink, he’d dive back into the hole and get her out. If she was a mirage, she was the most perfect mirage he’d ever seen. But she wasn’t a figment or a dream. He’d touched her, held her, washed her skin and cut her hair. He’d shaved her legs and kissed her mouth, and he’d known her in ways he’d never imagined. That was real, too.
The world collided with experience. The vampire who had climbed into Hell was not the same one that emerged, and the woman he’d brought with him had changed beyond reproach. Changed while somehow remaining the same—it was one of those tricks played by time. One he couldn’t begin to fathom yet somehow already understood.
And when he reached for her hand, she immediately granted it.
He’d brought this with him, too. And he wouldn’t give it up without a fight.
It sounded bloody stupid in his head, but Spike had forgotten there were stars. He’d also forgotten streetlights and stop signs, and that headstones had carvings denoting who lay beneath the ground. For all intents and purposes, he considered his memory fairly intact. It had suffered greatly during the third trial, of course, but with the end of the trials came the return of oneself, and he’d carried that with him through every step of his journey. Yet still, as they dodged headlights and ignored the creative gestures of angry drivers, he took in deep, unneeded breaths and remembered things he’d forgotten to keep with him.
There were absolutes, however, that time could not eradicate. The path to Revello Drive was one of them, and how often he’d walked it, from every feasible corner of town. It was the direction his feet instinctively pointed, the only place he knew to go. In the end, he didn’t know if Buffy likewise remembered or if she was merely following him, and it seemed thoughtless to ask.
It was an unusually quiet night in Sunnydale, which once upon a time would have driven him mad. Tonight, Spike thanked the silence. Though he doubted a concerned motorist would stop to help, he didn’t want too many gawkers taking in their haggard states. Buffy was still drenched in blood, dressed in what she’d managed to throw on before the world caved in on itself. He stood only in jeans, himself, his chest splattered with dark, crusted blood. His skin was chilled but he didn’t feel the cold. With Buffy at his side, her hand in his, he could do nothing but hum with warmth.
Spike blinked and shot her a speculative glance which she didn’t return. Her eyes were fixed on the front door. “Yeah,” he murmured. “Home sweet bloody home.”
“It’s like something I imagined, you know? Something I wished for.” Buffy expelled a ragged sigh. “I saw it so often when I dreamt I didn’t really think it could be real. Not even when you helped me remember. But it’s here. It’s real.”
He didn’t say anything. He wouldn’t know where to begin.
As it was, she didn’t allow him much time to come up with anything profound. “Do you think they’ll remember me?” she asked.
That he hadn’t expected. “What?”
“It’s been so long…”
“Not here, it hasn’t.”
She nodded without feeling. “Yeah, but…I know that, but I’ve never understood it. I remember what happened with that Ken guy, and I remember Giles telling me Angel could have suffered centuries after I sent him to Hell, and I never really got it. How can time be so relative?”
“Asking the wrong bloke, pet. I just roll with the punches.” He squeezed her hand. “But even if a sodding millennia had passed for them too, they wouldn’t forget you. You’re the sort of girl no one forgets.”
Buffy expelled a shivering breath and looked at him. “You think so?”
Spike’s lips tugged into a smile. “Think so? I’m living proof. Now come on…won’t get easier by waiting.”
She nodded again and then they were moving. Taking strides up the familiar walkway and stepping up onto a porch that creaked under their weight as though to say, “Welcome home,” in a language only it understood. Spike thought about ringing the bell but it seemed asinine. Even so, it didn’t matter the next second; a well-known awareness washed over him before he could give the matter much thought. No heartbeat echoed within the home’s walls, no voices tickled his sensitive ears, no throb of a pulse tempted his hungry fangs. Buffy’s homecoming felt anticlimactic. No one was home.
He would have been annoyed had he not been so relieved. Just like that, he’d been granted a few more minutes alone with her. At once an endless supply, Spike had grown steadily aware how much of his time with Buffy now lived with a deadline. He didn’t think she’d take back the promises she’d made, but he couldn’t speak for how her chums would react once the excitement wore off and his newfound closeness with their Slayer came out into the open. It was an old fear—one he doubted he would ever completely banish.
Spike tried the doorknob, which was predictably locked. “Well, bugger.”
“No one’s home.”
Buffy frowned. “How do you know?”
“It’s a vamp thing. I know. Reckon they put the key under the mat?”
“Where are they?”
“Magic Box or Rupert’s, I’d wager. So under the mat, love?”
“They’re not home.” She trembled and shook her head, and immediately any sense of keeping her to himself died. It had been a selfish wish, after all, and one that felt nearly as familiar as the porch beneath their feet. Buffy would want to find her friends immediately. She wouldn’t be contented to wait until they turned up.
The words never came, though. Not those words. Instead, she patted her cheeks, felt her hair, then nodded to the potted plant sitting next to the door. “There,” she said. “I think…I don’t know, but I think Dawn and I would hide the key there. I remember digging around for it in the dirt.”
“No, we buried it.” Buffy inhaled sharply. “We’re always burying things.”
An excited thrill raced down his spine. “So we’re going inside, then?”
“I can’t face them like this,” she said with a nod. “I can’t just go over there looking like I just…”
Spike arched a brow, kneeling to the potted plant in question and dipping his fingers into the soil. Finding the key wasn’t difficult. Another nod to her memory. “Crawled out of Hell?” he ventured.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Hot shower oughta do it, yeah?” He slid the key into the lock and turned, and just like that another gateway opened. A portal into a place he’d nearly forgotten. The layout of a home he knew so well—the place he’d yearned to be welcomed. Spike drew in a breath and braved the threshold.
Buffy followed and then, at last, burst into tears.
He didn’t know how long he held her. Months could have passed and he wouldn’t have cared. He’d held her like this before—he’d felt her tremble against his chest as hot tears scalded his skin in the wake of memories returning to a shattered mind. She hadn’t cried much since then, though fuck knew she deserved her tears. Hell, he didn’t know how she’d kept it in this long—standing in the middle of the foyer she’d never thought she’d call home again, in the center of a town she’d last seen while diving into a spiraling sea of hell dimensions. Buffy had been strong longer than anyone could attest, and she’d earned the quiet.
She’d earned this.
The waves of tears finally subsided, replaced by a cold, embracing calm. Buffy’s hands tightened around his shoulders before breaking away. She wiped at her eyes and took in a shuddering breath, staggering toward the living room as though in a daze.
“Err…” Spike moved forward with intent, his feet guiding him to the kitchen. “If memory serves, Big Red kept some vamp-juice in the fridge. Fancy seeing if there’s something nice to nibble on? Something not made from pig?”
Buffy nodded distantly, running her fingers over a lampshade. He stared at her for a second before disappearing into the kitchen. There he found a note on the island, reading a simple: Willow – Staying at Janice’s. It’s too quiet here. – D. It was so normal, so ordinary, he nearly thought it would vanish if he looked at it a beat too long, as though no time at all had passed.
But then, as the date on the newspaper on the counter proclaimed, no time had. Barely three days had gone by. Three days.
It was hard to imagine, like Buffy said. Hard to grasp that time could move differently. Hard to imagine that so much suffering could be compiled into such a sparing collection of hours.
Spike tossed open the door to the fridge and seized a bag of blood. There were three left, as well as half a carton of milk and a box of pizza. Not much time to shop, he figured. The Scoobies’ priorities were in a different place.
She appeared in the doorway, a shade of herself. “The kitchen,” she said. “Anything to eat?”
“An old favorite,” he assured her, snatching the box and tossing it onto the island. “You’ll remember it soon enough. Smells good. Safe to eat, that is.”
She nodded and picked at the lid. “Gonna have some?”
Spike held up the bag in his hand. “Got my nosh right here. Eat as much as you want, pet. Then we can pipe upstairs and wash up.”
Buffy’s eyes fell on Dawn’s note. “Do you think they’ll be back tonight?”
“Don’t know. This place was bloody buzzing before I left, but I can’t guess what they’ve done since I…came to get you. The witches might be cozy at their love nest and Harris has that pad for him and his demon.” Spike shrugged a shoulder. “If Dawn’s staying with a chum, they might not come back here at all tonight.”
She nodded. “Okay. Good.”
“I think I need the night. I think I need to wake up here before I put too much into it. Before I believe it’s not a dream.” Buffy blinked rapidly, gingerly taking a slice of cold pizza into her small hands. “You sure you don’t want some?”
Spike shook his head. “Think I’ll wait, too.”
“Just to see what happens.”
She smiled and took a bite. He raised the bag to his waiting fangs.
They stood soaked in dried blood in a kitchen that had forgotten them, eating and watching each other.
Out of everything he’d experienced, this moment was definitely the most surreal.
He sat on her bed in the dark, listening to the shower running in the next room. It felt wrong sitting on her clean comforter in his filthy, bloodied state, but she’d asked him to wait here, and here he’d wait. Cold pig’s blood churned in his stomach and while his demon demanded a second helping, he didn’t want Buffy walking into an empty room. She likely wouldn’t be much longer.
There were small details he’d forgotten. The pictures of Buffy with friends wedged in the mirror of her vanity, the scattered assortment of girly things across her dresser beside the stuffed pig. A heap of dirty laundry sat next to her closet door, where her purse still hung. Buffy still lived in this room. It was almost as though she’d never left.
Spike’s head jerked up as the shower shut off. A few minutes elapsed before the bathroom door squeaked open, and a sweet-smelling, towel-dressed slayer wandered over the threshold.
“Well, well,” he said with a gentle smile. “You look good enough to eat.”
“I hope you mean that literally.”
His eyes narrowed pointedly.
“That didn’t come out right. I mean…” Buffy wiggled as a cute blush warmed her cheeks. “Well, you know what I mean.”
“I bloody hope so,” Spike replied, waggling his brows, his eyes taking a nice long detour down her scrumptious body. Fuck, but she knew how to set a mood in seconds.
Buffy laughed. It was miraculous. He didn’t think he’d hear her laugh again for a long while. “Hold that thought,” she said, waving at him. “At least until you de-Hellify.”
Spike smirked, rising to his feet. “Noted.”
He edged past her and stepped into the bathroom, wincing under the staggeringly bright overhead light. Like everything else in the house, the shower and the loo looked like something out of a dream—something imagined from a faraway land. He cast a quick glance to the mirror and was nearly startled when it reflected empty space. Strange how quick some habits could break. He supposed he would miss that; seeing himself in something other than Polaroids had been perhaps the one and only perk of living in the underworld.
He turned the faucet and water poured. The shower had a lived-in smell; it was another difference he'd neglected to catalogue. Spike scrubbed himself dutifully, a mixture of blood and dirt circling the drain. He didn't know how long the water ran; every time soap slid off his body he felt tainted again. As though Hell had chased him back to Revello Drive, as though it clung to his skin. He lathered his scalp and allowed his hair, longer than he typically wore it, to wrap around his fingers. First things first once things settled down around here, he’d chop off the curls and seize the first bottle of bleach he could get his hands on.
By the time he stepped out of the shower the mirrors had fogged and his flesh was pink. He reckoned his body would never again have this sort of color: his color was already darker than any vampire’s should be given the burn of the non-sun from Buffy’s dimension. Spike drew in another needless breath and toweled off, forgetting until he was nearly dry that in this world it did matter whether or not water splattered across the floor. He wiped up his mess and tossed the towel over the tub, then glanced at the dirty jeans he’d dumped beside the sink. There was no earthly reason to keep them beyond the laughable notion of sentimental attachment and he wasn’t about to slip them back on before bed.
Spike’s heart twisted. He hadn’t thought ahead this far. While he was certain Buffy wouldn’t want him to leave, especially given the obvious invitation she’d made before he stepped into the shower, things felt different here. He’d slept at her side for days now, but that was in a world with only two people. This was a world with many people, particularly those of the persuasion that he wasn’t worth the dirt he’d just washed off his skin. And while he knew Buffy had aged in ways no one could really understand, slipping in beside her in her own bed seemed too perfect to be reality.
He cleared his throat and stepped into the hallway, naked and incredibly aware of it. He hadn’t been so aware since the moments when a doe-eyed, innocent slayer of pure Id had discovered her own sexuality. He’d like nothing more than to stroll into her bedroom and flex like a cocky bastard, but he wouldn’t just assume things this time around. He’d assumed enough when he’d had nothing to lose. Things had changed; when one had everything to lose, the rules seemed a little more unbreakable than they once had.
Ultimately, he wasn’t doing anyone any favors by standing in the hallway. Spike stepped up to her doorway and stopped short of entering.
No response. He peered closer.
“Quick question about the sleeping arrangement, love…you do want me in there, don’t you?”
A beat. Still nothing. He inhaled sharply and stepped inside, his eyes immediately landing on her small, sleeping form. Spike’s shoulders dropped.
Of course she was asleep.
“Of course,” he murmured, nearing her bed. “Must be bloody knackered.”
Evidently, it wasn’t a very deep sleep. The sound of his voice was enough to make her stir. Buffy moaned and rolled over, her eyes blinking open. “Spike?”
He watched as she fought to retrieve memory and knew the second she remembered where she was. She sat up quickly but settled the second her gaze landed on the stuffed pig. It seemed enough to determine that she hadn’t dreamt the whole affair, for she settled back almost immediately.
“Spike?” she called again.
Spike grinned sheepishly. “Yeah.”
“Too tired. Come to bed.”
That was more than enough to relieve his concerns. In easy seconds he had crawled into bed behind her, folding her into his arms. Her sweet, unclothed body seemed to hum when he reeled her into him. Her hair fell across his skin and her warmth was enough to heat the bloody town, and it was so perfect he was almost afraid to let sleep take him.
If there was any chance the world would still be there in the morning, he’d have to take it. Not three minutes passed before exhaustion weighed down his eyes and settled across his tired muscles, and just like that he fell into a deep, black slumber.
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