The Writing on the Wall by Holly

ReviewsRating: NC-17

Summary: There was no body to bury. There was no funeral. There was nothing but the three rules and the knowledge that a thousand years of torment was nothing compared to a world without her in it. Spike embarks on a journey through the Gates of Hell to rescue the one he loves, but in order to save her, he must risk losing himself.

 

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Chapter 23

Chapter Notes: I know, it’s been ten years since I updated this story. I’m sorry! One of my betas had a computer crisis, and while I am still technically waiting for revisions, I’ve decided I can’t wait any longer…so there will be a better version of this available—I’ll let you all know via my personal LJ when it’s up.

I waited for-freaking-ever to write this chapter…I really hope it comes across as intended.

Thanks so much to all my extremely hard-working betas and all my wonderful readers who have stuck with me through this story. Also, thanks to whoever nominated this story at The Fang Fetish AwardsIt won for Best Dark/Angst in the Spuffy category.


He’d been staring at his fingernails for a while now. Hours, maybe. That seemed reasonable. Certainly, hours could have passed without his notice. His mind was lost, occupied with the girl who had disappeared behind the bathroom door, wondering if she’d ever emerge.

Wondering what face she’d wear when she did.

Everything was blurry now. He sat dumbfounded in the sloppy room connected to the shower they’d used before, replaying the morning over and over again as if demanding the Powers to admit their joke. Even after what had happened, even after what he’d seen and experienced, it didn’t seem possible. He’d waited long and he’d been prepared to wait longer—months, years, lifetimes if necessary, and while he grew angry with the Powers for yo-yoing her back and forth—for giving him glimpses of her only to take her away again, the larger part of him had known these things had no time limit. Making her way back through her mind’s wilderness was a feat no one else had ever been asked to conquer, and through her journey, he had to be patient. He had to understand this wasn’t about him at all, and it never had been.

Yet here he was.

Spike sat on the edge of a worn mattress, surrounded by discarded clothing and gutted stuffed animals, eyes glued to his plain, unmarked nails as the shower ran in the next room.

She hadn’t spoken much since the walls came down. His name had escaped her lips half a dozen times, as though double-checking his realness, now that the nightmare had broken into the light. However, the storm he’d always anticipated had never come, nor had the sobs and the screams, save for that first one. Through his stupor, he supposed, his mind had switched off, autopilot guiding his feet to where they were now. And while she’d trembled and shivered, while her hands had grappled for his, while her eyes had darted furiously from one end of her hell to the next, she hadn’t shattered. She’d held onto him and let him lead her where he willed.

Spike shuddered a sigh, then tensed when he heard the water shut off. God, for all the longing, all the waiting, the crying and begging the cosmos for some divine mercy, he was bloody terrified of what he would see when she opened the door. He’d wanted this for so long—so long¬—and now that he had it, anxiety had frozen his nerves. He didn’t know what to do—what was too much and what wasn’t enough. If he was helping or hindering her right now, just by sitting on a bed and looking at his fingernails. He didn’t know what to do, and the not knowing rattled him with enough fury to render him nothing but a pile of bones.

The door opened. Spike drew in a sharp breath. Buffy stepped out.

She looked older than she had that morning—the carefree spirit with which ignorance had gifted her completely eradicated, the girlish gleam replaced with saddened maturity. She’d pulled on a t-shirt and a baggy pair of slacks that cut off at the ankle, her wet hair brushed and hanging over one shoulder. She was still for a time but likely not as long as it seemed, and when she met his eyes, the full burden of knowledge came crashing down.

“How long?” she said softly. Her voice was raw from disuse, a fact so small it was easily overlooked, but one that, for whatever reason brought everything into stark, unforgiving reality. Reality he thought he already understood.

Hot tears pricked his eyes but he refused to cry them. He had nothing to cry for. In the long run, there was little he’d lost—little to throw in comparison.

“A few days, is all,” Spike replied.

A weary, defeated smile crept onto her face, a splotch of color in a black-and-white strip. “A few days?” Buffy repeated.

“Since I got here, you mean?”

“Since…I jumped, right? I remember jumping.”

Spike winced, turning his eyes to the ground. He hadn’t truly fathomed how hard it would be simply looking at her. “You jumped,” he agreed. “An’ it was a week after that. I started then. You’d been gone a week when I left to find you.”

If she was surprised by this, it didn’t reflect in her face. “How long did it take you?”

“Three days.”

“So I’ve been gone ten.” Buffy turned away at last, and he looked up when he felt her move. Her back was to him, and her shoulders slumped. And without warning the storm came, tearing through her with such fury he didn’t realize it had arrived at all until she doubled over. Everything else fell away in a blink; Spike jumped to his feet and drew her into his arms on instinct alone, and for the next fifteen minutes there was nothing in the universe but them.

Holding her now was different. It was truly Buffy this time—not a shade, not a woman with her face. He kept her close, stroking her skin and murmuring wordlessly as the world around them trembled. And though it didn’t come at first, he steadily became aware of the moment’s unreality. He might as well have stepped into a painting. Buffy wasn’t the sort to seek comfort from people—least of all him. When she hurt, she suffered in silence, occasionally breaking the quiet so the world would feel her pain, but she usually opted to close herself off, putting distance between where she was and the place where hurt magnified into agony. At some point in her youth, likely around the time they’d first met, Buffy had stopped confiding in those closest to her; she’d seen what damage they could reap, and thought it safest to hide within the confines of herself.

Spike wasn’t used to Buffy crying. He’d sat with her once when she cried, but she hadn’t done much else besides allow him to be alone with her. She always appeared the epitome of fortitude, but more often than not, he suspected, it was because she had no other option. The world’s warrior couldn’t be fragile, even in private moments. To do so would be to call into question her every decision.

Warriors couldn’t be human. This was a lesson she’d gathered from experience.

“You came after me.”

The words were so soft he thought he’d imagined them at first.

“Of course I came after you,” Spike replied, tightening his arms around her. “Couldn’t bloody live with myself if I—”

“You were a vampire, right?” Buffy sniffed and pulled back, her eyes hollow and lined with red. “I don’t mean…it’s fuzzy. Everything is fuzzy…I see things I know. People I know. There are things I definitely remember and others I think I…but I do remember you. You were a vampire.”

He waved a hand and forced an uncomfortable grin. “Still am. Not the sort ’f thing you fix by poppin’ Tylenol, love.”

She didn’t smile and he didn’t blame her. There really was nothing to laugh about.

“I remember that,” she agreed. “I remember…Dawn. And Giles. And my mom.”

“The Scoobies? You remember them?”

Buffy licked her lips. “Dawn’s my sister.” She looked away without addressing his question. “How long have I been here?”

“A long bloody time.”

“You loved me.” Her eyes went wide with the weight of an epiphany, then dulled as though she realized it was something she hadn’t truly forgotten. “You loved me and that’s why you came here.”

He nodded. It felt so surreal hearing someone else fill the silence.

“I died for Dawn, didn’t I?”

“No, sweetheart,” Spike replied honestly. “You didn’t die at all.”

“I didn’t?”

“You jumped an’ disappeared.”

“And…this is Hell.” There was no surprise in her voice, not the sort of shaky revelation he thought she might make—the sort that resulted in more tears and screaming. It was something she’d known before she forgot. Something ingrained well before her memories were stuffed into a place she was supposed to lose forever. “I fell into Hell.”

“Jus’ one of many, if memory serves.” When she looked at him askance, he shrugged. Christ, what he wouldn’t do for a fag right now. “Been a bit for me, too, kitten. Took a piece to get to you.”

“What happened?”

Spike winced, his arms dropping to his sides. “Doesn’ matter.”

“No, it does. I thought it took you three days?”

“An’ it did.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“It doesn’ matter.”

“Spike…”

The inflection in her voice was heartbreakingly familiar. With that alone she had the power to reduce him to a babbling mess of tears. Spike sighed heavily and shook his head, turning away from her completely. “It doesn’t matter,” he said again. Then he twisted to face her once more; the ache in his belly worsened when he couldn’t see her. “I got here, an’ that’s all that’s important, yeah?”

Her eyes clearly disagreed with him but she didn’t press the issue. An uncomfortable silence settled between them.

Then she said, “I thought you were blond.”

Spike frowned. “Huh?”

A warm wave of pink tinted her cheeks, seemingly startling her as much as it did him, as if they’d both assumed she’d forgotten how to blush. “Umm, your hair,” she said, waving a hand. “My mind…I remember you being blond. Or was that someone else?”

He stared at her for a few seconds before allowing himself to grin. “You remember right,” he assured her.

“Very blond. We called you—”

“Bleach boy, an’ a few choice others.”

Buffy nodded. “I remember.”

“You used to be blonde, too,” he said. “Time jus’ washes it away.”

“So there was a lot of time, then. More than three days—much more.”

It took a second to realize she’d led him in a circle. “Bloody clever,” he murmured. “Bleach fades after a while, pet. You gotta keep it up regularly.”

“Just tell me how long it took, Spike.”

He sighed. There was no sense keeping things from her—she had a way of finding out. Always bloody did. “It was three days,” he replied, then gestured to the ceiling. “Up there, at least. I got locked into your time when I started.”

“Hell-time,” she clarified absently.

“Right.”

“So three days turned into…”

“Three centuries.”

There was no reaction at first; not a slack jaw, not a surprised gasp, not a solemn blink to even acknowledge she’d heard him. Oh, but he saw the pinwheels turning. He felt her calculating her own time served and felt the ripple of astonishment when she realized she’d been Hell’s prisoner for a millennium. However, when her eyes returned to his there was nothing but awe and gratitude. No sadness or despair, even if those things weighed her down around every other turn. She wasn’t about to start crying for herself now—or at least not again.

“Three centuries?” Buffy whispered. “You spent three centuries trying to get to me?”

Spike nodded numbly.

“But…we weren’t…we weren’t lovers, were we?”

“No. Not for lack of trying, though.” He smiled. “You hated me.”

“I did not.”

Of this she seemed certain. She wouldn’t be certain when the murky shadows fell away and the memories really began rolling in.

“You’re the Slayer,” Spike explained, shrugging. “I’m the one with fangs. You hated me, an’ bloody resented that I was in love with you.”

“But I was with a vampire before. I remember that.”

A dark shadow played across his mind. “That, accordin’ to you, was different. He had what I didn’t.”

Buffy nodded then, her eyes brightening with the touch of a memory. “A soul.”

“A sodding soul.” His jaw clenched. “I din’t. All I had was—”

“Something in your head. I remember this.” A long breath rolled off her shoulders. “You spent three hundred years trying to get to me?”

“I love you,” Spike replied. It was the most obvious thing in the world to him. “I would’ve waited longer if they wanted.”

“Who’s they?”

He hesitated, then sighed. Fuck. There truly was no sense keeping the truth from her. She had the advantage here; it was her world, her territory, and he was in love with her. He was the one with everything to lose, and Christ Almighty, wasn’t that a bit of déjà vu? Just when he thought he couldn’t possibly feel more at home…

“A guardian by the name of Larry,” he explained. “You remember Willow, love?”

Buffy nodded, but he sensed she didn’t truly remember until halfway through the nod.

“Willow an’ your watcher pieced it together. When you jumped, you created your very own Hell.”

“I created this.”

“Your fears, your…sod all, I don’t know the full of it, but this world, everything you see, everything you…it’s here because you fear it. Makes bloody sense to me, though it took actually making it here before I understood.” Spike sighed again, shaking his head. “Your worst fears, everythin’ you would call Hell…it made this, what you see. But you didn’t die, pet. You jumped into Hell but you didn’t die. That’s why I wager they keep shovin’ swine at you, an’ why you have water here. Gotta keep you fed somehow, yeah?”

Buffy just looked at him, agreeing with her eyes but not moving.

“You bein’ a slayer and alive made it bloody difficult getting in. There are rules, see. An’ only someone without a soul can get where I got. Human souls are bloody breakable. Thankfully, yours truly didn’t have that problem.”

“So that’s why you came after me.”

Spike balked. “No. Fuck no. After I figured where you were, the devil himself couldn’t’ve stopped me, sweetheart. You had it right the firs’ time. I came here because I love you. No bloody way would I have jus’ sat back an’ let someone else muck up the only chance there was at getting you out.”

It was probably wishful thinking, but he could have sworn her eyes sparked with relief.

“There are other things,” he continued. “I don’ remember everythin’. A lot of rot about some bloke who braved Hell once an’ knew how to sidestep the booby-traps. Got the rules from that, an’ then I came in after you.”

Buffy licked her lips. “What were the rules?”

Something he’d never forget. That’s what they were.

“No promises. Don’t take what you’re offered.” He paused. “Don’t forget your name.”

A significant silence settled between them. Her brow furrowed, and it didn’t take much to follow her train of thought. “That’s what happened to me, isn’t it?” she asked softly. “When I couldn’t…everything is so…I was all right for a while. I remember…God, I remember when I got here. It was…” She broke away, balling her hands into fists and shaking so hard he thought she might collapse. The spell didn’t last long, granted, just long enough to make him feel the pain of every day he hadn’t been there to rescue her from herself. “I forgot my name, didn’t I?”

Spike measured a deep breath. There was so much to say, and so much he felt he should keep to himself. “I think so, love.”

“And you helped me find it.”

“I don’t know—”

“I do.” The resolve on her face was unquestionable. “Everything changed when you got here, Spike. I didn’t…I can’t even begin to…” A pause. “Thanking you isn’t enough. I don’t know what enough would be.”

“Buffy—”

“I was horrible to you. I didn’t hate you. I know that…but I remember being horrible anyway.”

“You really weren’t, pet,” he assured her. “Not in the way you think. There at the end, you treated me like…like I’ve never been treated in my whole bloody life. Everything before that was…I surprised you, is all. You didn’t know how to go about it.”

She thought about that for a minute but ultimately offered no reply. Perhaps there was none.

“What happens now?” she asked instead. “There’s so much in my head. Pictures. People. So many…and it won’t stop.”

He remembered the way he’d felt when he toppled out of the cavern. A fraction of the time she’d spent here, he’d recovered in a manner that seemed damn near uncanny. He didn’t know what to make of that or what to tell her. There was no I understand in this world, because while he could grasp what she was saying, no amount of experience made for understanding. A thousand years of lost time gathering against her, bombarding her fragile memory with images and faces she’d long forgotten. She couldn’t be asked too much now.

She couldn’t be asked anything.

“Do you want to stay here?” Spike asked. “Not much, but there is a bed. An’ a shower. Step up from the other place, right?”

Buffy frowned thoughtfully. “No.”

“No?”

“The other place…the warehouse. That’s important.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t remember how, but it was important to me once. At some point.”

“The writing? The carving on the walls?”

She blinked, looking almost surprised. As though she hadn’t expected he would be able to see the words there. “Yeah. It’s important. It’s very…”

Her eyes grew distant, her voice chasing her mind down a path he could not follow.

“Buffy?”

“It’s important. I don’t remember why, but I needed to be there. I needed…”

“If it’s important, we’ll go back.”

She nodded numbly, then her eyes found his again. “Do you really still love me?” she asked, surprising the fuck out of him. Before he could respond, she went on, “Three hundred years is a long time, and I know there’s more. There’s more than what you’re telling me.”

“That’s one thing you never have to ask,” Spike replied firmly. “I’m yours, Buffy. Yours till dust. Always bloody have been. Longer than I knew, even. Don’t regret a second of it. I would’ve waited forever to find you.”

He wasn’t prepared for the look that stole her eyes or the tears that dribbled down her cheeks. Nor was he prepared to be taken into her arms. But she drew him to her breast and held him close, comforting him as a lover. It was perfect—a perfect stolen instant, one he didn’t quite grasp. One he didn’t fully trust was real.

“Thank you,” she whispered. And that was it. She didn’t say the words back; at that moment, he was glad. He’d never come to her to steal her heart, and even if it managed to happen, even if she let him touch her, it shouldn’t happen now. It wouldn’t be real.

Her body pressed to his, his wet cheek against her shirt, feeling the heart of her hug, that was real.

And he wanted to hold it as long as he could.


TBC

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