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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.
Chapter Notes: So it hasn’t been quite as long between updates. YAY! And I am going to get cracking on the next chapter—hope to get a bit done this afternoon before I go to the movies with my mum.
Just a note about this chapter: this is the only time I’m going to write from Buffy’s POV…and even still, it’s not entirely from her POV. I know a lot of people wanted to see inside her head, but I resolved a while ago not to leave Spike’s POV, and I’m going to stick by it. I only broke that for this chapter because I felt if she spoke the words it would lose its impact. I went for more of a “we’re inside the narrative” effect. Not sure if it works, but that is what I was aiming to accomplish.
ABUNDANT THANKS to my wonderful betas, who hauled ass to get this chapter back to me. You all rock so very hard.
Spike supposed the sense of supreme unreality was a part of Hell, but he’d foolishly thought he had at least begun to understand her world. Standing with her, walking with her, was a part of that. She’d been quiet since leaving the apartment. Clean now, eyes burdened with the knowledge of a thousand years, and quiet. When he reached for her, she didn’t shy. When his hand wrapped around her wrist, she huddled herself closer, needing contact as much as he did. No, needing it more. She’d been without touch for so long.
Nothing was real anymore, and yet at the same time, everything was.
“It’s strange,” Buffy said.
He waited for her to elaborate. She did not. And he knew why—in this world, that statement was redundant, and clarification was unneeded. However, he needed clarification now more than ever. Whatever she was thinking, whatever she re-experienced, he wanted to know. He had to know.
“What’s strange, love?”
She licked her lips, pulling him to a halt. “I just woke up. That’s how I feel.” Her eyes wandered upward. “Like I just woke up.”
Spike stared at her for a long minute, then sighed and kicked up dust. She’d fallen asleep in a nightmare—a nightmare waiting for her when she awoke.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked, not expecting an answer. She had a long way before she’d chased down her memories.
Miles to go before I sleep.
However, in the still quiet settled between them, the storm brewing behind her eyes told a different story.
“Falling,” she said.
She'd always wondered what dying felt like. Would it hurt? How long would the hurt last—would she feel the impact, or would she be dead before she hit the concrete? Would she feel anything at all? What happened next? It wasn't over—she knew enough about dimensions to know the soul lived on after death. This was the start of something different, not just the end.
Where would death take her?
A thousand things spiraled through her mind. A thousand what-ifs. A thousand possibilities. A thousand faces of those she would take on her journey—people to remember and cherish. And oddly, as her body plummeted toward infinity, one constant kept surfacing. It was the conversation she had with Spike in the alley outside the Bronze. Death was her art, he'd told her, and she would want this someday. She would want the free-fall of not knowing what the next step would bring. It would be liberating and terrifying, all at once.
She'd understood what he meant then…far too much for comfort, but now, as the ground whisked aside and she tore out of her reality, Buffy found herself overwhelmed with the most profound peace she'd ever known. It was like the stories told by people who weren't supposed to live. The lack of fear, the certainty of fate, and the welcome embrace of whatever was to come. It consumed her, calmed her, and carried her from her world into a vortex of uncertainty.
She fell forever until the light faded into darkness. Her last thoughts were of Dawn, and how she hoped her sister knew how loved she was, but more than anything, hoped she would one day understand.
Death provided an escape. No more worrying, no more sleepless nights, no more Glory.
It would be so nice to finally rest.
The world she entered was wrong. Everything was wrong.
She thought perhaps if she didn’t acknowledge what it was, where she was, its reality would fade. After all, admitting to herself that she was in Hell was a particularly terrifying thing, but there was no doubt in her mind. From the second Buffy pried her eyes open, her body aching in ways it didn’t know it could ache, she’d known where she was.
She’d known it, but she hadn’t admitted it. She couldn’t. For everything she had sacrificed, for her all that she had offered, she couldn’t believe it. The first few days were spent wandering the haunted streets in utter disbelief, screaming the names of her friends, sure the Powers wouldn’t be so cruel. She’d given her life to save the world. She had peace coming to her. Rest. Solace. Comfort in the aftermath of battle, sleep after months of rotting away in fear of what was coming. All of that was supposed to end.
The longer she searched, the more she saw, the colder her terror became. Complete and utter isolation. The buildings were empty save for a few bits of scattered debris left behind by people who had likely never existed. She wandered the streets of fear come to life, cocooned under a sickly yellow sky. Every step she took shoved her deeper into the nightmare.
This was not right.
“Hey!” Her voice carried over the city and dispersed into a thousand whispers, all firing back at her with unforgiving precision. It didn’t calm the fury in her chest; rather than shrink away, she screamed louder. “HEY! I’m not supposed to be here!”
The whispers snickered and shot back all at once, drowning her cry under a sea of mindless noise.
Still, she didn’t give up.
“Willow! Giles!” Her eyes were heaven-turned, but thoughts of Heaven had no place here. “GILES! Willow!” A pause, then again. “Xander! Dawn! Giles! Spike! God, anyone! I’m here! I’m here! I’M HERE!”
She barely heard the words. The whispers were everywhere, sneaking into her ears and turning sound against itself. Within seconds, her temples throbbed and her eardrums vibrated and if it grew any louder, she was certain her head would pop right off her body.
They couldn’t hear her. No one could.
She was alone.
Hunger had transcended the pangs she’d grown up with. It wasn’t until she realized she was starving to death that she understood the sounds that kept her up at night; the animals she heard roaming the deserted city, were there for her and her alone…were there to sate her appetite.
Because she wasn’t dead. She still needed food.
And whatever was out there…she was supposed to hunt.
The river wasn’t going anywhere.
It was familiar now. The shock had worn off, though not as quickly as she would have liked. Every time her feet led her to this place she felt she had stepped out of her life and into a horror movie. But then, that was the point, wasn’t it? She wasn’t in her life anymore…and this was very much a horror movie.
In every sense of the term.
The river’s bank was saturated a dark crimson red that only deepened with age. She’d crossed it so many times. Up to her neck in blood, her arms fighting the current with futile strokes of arms weak with hunger and weighted with desolation. For some reason, it seemed so logical in her head…if she could just get across the river she could walk away. It might take days, weeks…it didn’t matter, but across the river was the only way out.
The whispers from the town couldn’t find her in the Out There.
It was a theory she’d tested over and over. And every time she managed to battle her way across the river of blood, she found herself standing on the opposite bank, right where she’d started.
The cold fingers of despair were always there to catch her when she collapsed.
It was foolish to think there was escape from Hell.
Angel had been lost for centuries. Not in her world, of course…not on Earth, but to him, he had spent lifetimes enduring torment she hadn’t been able to fathom until now. Though somehow, Buffy suspected her Hell was different than his. She didn’t see Angel being the type to mind the solitude.
Perhaps Hell was different for everyone.
Still, different versions of torture notwithstanding, it all boiled down to one conclusion. For the months she’d been gone, in the time since she jumped, there was every possibility no time at all had passed for her friends. And they would try to find her. Buffy knew they would try to find her. Her friends weren’t quitters, and they wouldn’t stand aside and let her rot away in whatever dimension she’d fallen in to. They would try to find her.
She could only hope there was something left to find by the time they arrived.
She'd once considered time an enemy, she had so little of it. The second she'd been called her life expectancy had been stamped with an unforgiving expiration date. Every day was a fight for survival. Grow too confident and she'd be the victim of arrogance, lack confidence and she wouldn't live to see tomorrow. There was no use fighting a losing battle, except when the fight was all she had.
Never enough time.
It wasn’t that way anymore. All she had was time. When months began to melt into years, she didn’t know. But days came and went and the world around her didn’t change. Every day she awoke with the same despair, the same dearth of hope, the same horrid knowledge that there was no escape.
She’d tried. God knows how she’d tried. The river had been crossed so many times, at so many points, and every time she made it to the other side, she found herself back where she started. She’d screamed until her voice gave out, screamed until she tasted blood in the back of her throat. And every day brought the same. She awoke with a hole carved in her heart, with desperation to which she’d long grown numb. How many years had passed? How did she even keep it straight?
Isolation was going to drive her insane. She heard voices. Everywhere she turned, voices followed. Had they always been there, or was she just hearing them now?
Time was an enemy, all right.
Only not the enemy she’d once thought it to be.
It was as though the corners in her mind had started to round, rendering the shapes upon which she relied into little more than familiar blurs. Names she’d known all her life began running together. Life before Hell seemed like a place she’d dreamed, an unanswered wish. People she’d kept with her had become nothing but phantoms, and every day she retreated further within herself. Every day, she lost something important. Something she should try to hold, but couldn’t despite her best efforts.
She was beginning to forget, and that terrified her.
She couldn’t let herself forget.
Dawn. Giles. Willow. Dawn. Xander. Tara. Spike. Dawn. Anya. Buffy. Giles. Xander. Willow.
She was on her knees in a corner of some random warehouse, nails digging into her scalp, temples pounding, heart racing, names speeding through her head, heedless that she was too lost to keep up.
Spike. Giles. Angel. Willow. Riley. Giles. Buffy. Dawn. Tara. Spike.
They were leaving her. She didn’t remember what they looked like. She didn’t know if they were real at all.
She just knew she had to hold on. She couldn’t forget.
“Can’t forget, can’t forget, can’t forget.”
Blood dribbled down her hand, glass tearing into her palm, but she didn’t blink, didn’t look away. Language had nearly lost meaning. She never spoke anymore, hadn’t in years save a word here or there, but for whatever reason it seemed important now. Words were important. Names were important.
She couldn’t forget, so she wrote. She carved. Name after name. Over and over.
Willow. Giles. Dawn. Spike. Xander. Buffy. Anya. Tara. Riley. Xander. Mom. Oz. Dad. Cordelia. Giles. Riley. Dawn. Angel. Faith. Willow. Spike. Buffy. Dawn. Angel. Willow. Giles. Xander. Mom. Buffy.
Over and over. Plaster dust stung her eyes and choked her throat. Her hand begged her lenience, but she would grant none.
She couldn’t let herself forget.
Spike. Giles. Buffy. Dawn. Xander. Willow. Tara. Anya.
She couldn’t forget.
The walls were covered. Her hands were scarred. Blood caked her skin. A body long numb to pain began to ache, but she didn't move. She couldn't. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the walls. She had to remember. If she looked away, she would forget. Her mind would leave her completely.
So she sat and stared, eyes roaming the names until letters blurred and darkness fell.
She wouldn't sleep. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't look away.
The names had no faces, no meaning, but they were important, and she had to watch.
They would disappear if she gave them the chance.
“Don't forget, don't forget, don't forget, please don't let me forget, don't forget…”
Something about the walls. There was something about the walls.
She wrinkled her nose and took a step forward. The marks carved were twisted, deformed…and important. They were important for some reason. She'd put them there. Her hands hurt. There was blood on the floor. She had put them there. The marks. The writings there were hers. They meant something. They were important.
There was some reason they were important.
But she didn't know why, and she didn't know what they were.
The words on the walls were meaningless.
Nothing ever changed. Never.
She woke. She wandered. She ate. She slept.
She stared at the walls and waited for them to make sense. She sat outside for hours and waited for the voice behind the whispers to present itself. She waited for something that never came.
She waited. And nothing ever changed.
There were things the brain didn’t remember without a trigger. It started with just a few words here and there. They had left the apartment complex perhaps thirty minutes ago, walking side-by-side, hands brushing with every stride. He’d asked an innocent question—a seemingly innocent question—though he didn’t remember what it was now, and Buffy had answered with a story that built upon itself as memories broke through her mind’s wall.
She told him more than he wanted to know, but things he needed to hear all the same. The picture she painted wasn't unlike the images that had plagued him, but hearing her voice, her words wrapped around experience, the small part of him that had been cushioned and protected from the reality of her nightmare shattered. His mind filled in the rest.
There were no words he could summon. No sympathies he could offer. He’d long known this would be the case—relating to someone who had lost everything was impossible. He’d known this, recognized it over and over, but knowledge didn’t soften the blow. Spike wanted words and there were none.
There was only silence.
“My throat hurts,” Buffy volunteered, aiming a strained smile in his direction when he met her eyes. They were outside the warehouse—the one she’d marked—but had yet to step inside. It was another threshold; something would be different when they entered, and Spike reckoned she wasn’t eager for the past to gain any more footholds than it already had.
So they stood outside together, the spell broken. Her memories were between them—she’d given him a story in black and white, but his mind had filled in the color, and he figured she was at a loss for words just as much as he. Funny enough, now that she’d regained them.
Spike’s mouth twitched. “Not used to talking, I’d wager.”
She nodded and looked away. “It took you three hundred years to get here.” It wasn’t a question, rather a thought she needed vocalized; as though she could see the words and make better sense of them when they lived in the air. “I thought that…”
“You thought what, love?”
There was no answer. Her eyes had focused on something he couldn’t see, and the look painted across her face was something he’d only seen in old war veterans, recalling horrors beyond imagination. She wasn’t frowning or upset or anything that could be named; rather, she was blank, completely vacant, and that very vacancy resonated more than tears ever could.
Then she shook her head and blinked, and just like that, she was with him again.
“I—ahh, umm, I thought…my friends would come for me.”
“I didn’t get here fast enough.”
Buffy frowned and looked at him. “Don’t,” she implored softly. “Spike…my mind isn’t…memories are coming, and I remember more the more I…but please, don’t apologize for doing…don’t apologize for anything. You got here.”
“Not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. I brought it back, didn’t I?”
“The world, you mean.”
She exhaled heavily, her eyes falling. “It’s going to…it’ll be hard. I keep getting images and feelings and faces…and things I know I should know but can’t remember. But you can’t imagine what it was like before you arrived.”
No, he really couldn’t, nor did he want to. The thought alone was terrifying…and knowing that she’d suffered centuries of exile, of feeling things he didn’t want to imagine, only made it worse.
“When I saw you it terrified me,” Buffy whispered. “I didn’t know…I didn’t think other people were real anymore.”
Spike licked his lips and nodded. The encounter in the alley was still fresh. Buffy clawing at walls, trembling and cowering…a shade of the girl she’d been. “I know.”
Another quiet settled between them. Her voice trailed away, and he saw she’d balled her hands into fists again. Tremors had seized her body, harsh ones like those back at the apartment complex, and his body immediately knew what to do even if his mind couldn’t keep up. It would take a long while for him to get used to her curling into his proffered embrace. He expected her to shy or jerk away, but the second his hand fell on her shoulder she was wrapped around him. She clutched and shook, and he held her through it. There were no tears this time, just the comfort of silence.
Then she was whispering against his skin, and every nerve in his body sparked to life. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Spike…thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
His heart broke. She had already thanked him at the apartment, and he didn’t know how much more of her gratitude he could handle…especially when he felt nothing like a hero. He’d made it here, yes, but she’d still lost. She’d still suffered. He hadn’t been able to prevent that.
Her lips brushed his skin and his knees nearly buckled. “Thank you. Thank you for coming for me.”
Spike inhaled sharply and shoved his own shortcomings aside.
This isn’t about me. It’s for her.
“I love you. Of course I came.”
But that wasn’t always the case—love didn’t always triumph. Love, when tested, most frequently failed to beat the odds. And even with her faulty memories, the way she held him let him know with no uncertain terms that she understood his sacrifices, even if he fully did not.
“Thank you,” she whispered again.
His arms tightened around her. The words he had to say felt ridiculous; even still, he knew they were what she needed. “You’re welcome.”
A long sigh rumbled through her body. She hugged him tighter but did not respond.
The door to the warehouse waited. The sky above darkened. The whispers drifted around them. And though nothing had changed, when they finally pulled apart the air between them felt charged.
There was still so much to do. So much to say—so much to unravel. So much to revisit. However, before Spike took her hand and guided her back into her nightmare, he wanted a moment of quiet.
He had a feeling they were both going to need it.
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