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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.
The scents drifting through the house were heartbreaking in their normalcy. Lasagna, cheese bread, and chocolate chip cookies—home smells. Delicious smells. Spike hadn’t eaten solids in days; he hadn’t been certain he could until Tara plopped him down at the Summers’s dining table and presented him with a plate full of pasta, complimented with blood she’d poured into a wine glass.
“Din’t know you cooked, love,” Spike murmured, seizing his fork.
“Yeah, Tara,” Xander agreed as he took his seat across from the vampire. “This looks all kinds of scrumptious.”
The blonde offered a shy smile, pink tinting her cheeks. “I just thought…none of us have been eating well and we deserved at least one good meal before…” Her eyes met Spike’s briefly before darting away again. “Well, I don’t get to play in the kitchen often so I thought I’d try.”
“I made the cookies!” Anya announced loudly as she swung into the dining room, a large bowl of salad in tow.
Tara nodded. “Anya made the cookies.”
Dawn favored the former demon with an encouraging smile. “They smell delicious.”
Thankfully, Spike wasn’t one to give a fuck about good manners, thus he had no qualms about digging in. He was too starved and the food smelled too good to wait until everyone had a serving in front of them. “Where’s the watcher?” he asked, shoveling a forkful of cheese-drenched noodles into his mouth.
“I think he passed out on a pile of books,” Xander replied.
“He’s waiting for Willow,” Tara corrected him. She glanced down once more, as though afraid her concern for her lover would lead to true tragedy. While she had stopped campaigning against Willow’s traveling into the Inferias, she had almost reverted to the Tara of the old days. She would never be a great orator, but the last year had seen leaps and bounds in her confidence and openness. Leaps and bounds which had receded since Glory’s mind-rape, and even more so with Willow’s voyage into the unknown. It didn’t dominate her disposition but was notable; every mention of the absent redhead had Tara’s rapt attention.
“So,” Dawn said, picking at a slice of cheese bread. “You guys are putting together a list of Buffy’s worst fears.”
How quickly relatively quiet turned to stark silence. Xander froze in mid-chew. Tara’s eyes went wide and her skin paled. Anya looked up, expression awkward; a sort of bewilderment she often adopted when confronted with a situation her demon-to-human sensibilities didn’t know how to translate. There wasn’t much to translate beyond what was understood. Dawn wasn’t supposed to know anything. Not a blessed thing. Buffy’s whereabouts, the recovery efforts, or anything involving their so-called adult meetings following her jump.
For her part, Dawn remained unflappable. “Vents,” she confessed, shrugging. “If you guys wanted to hold a secret meeting, you shouldn’t have done it in a place where I learned how to eavesdrop when I was five.”
A storm cloud rose from the table, thick and pregnant and ready to spit shards of lightning at a whim. Spike sighed, a long, tired sigh that started with his shoulders and rolled to his toes. Dawn knew. Dawn knew where Buffy was. She had the right to know.
It wasn’t the way Buffy would want it. Of course it wasn’t. But the Bit had learned a thing or two from watching big sis, including a fine knowledge of how to dance around the rules to get what she wanted. What Dawn wanted, in this case, was answers.
Answers she deserved.
“Dawnie,” Tara began softly, as though raising her voice above a whisper would cause the girl to break into hysterics. It was a maternal instinct, no doubt, but Spike found it amusing nonetheless. “Are you okay?”
Dawn pursed her lips and nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah.”
“You heard what we were saying last night,” Xander prodded.
“About Buffy. In Hell.” She turned her eyes to the lasagna and nodded again, twirling her fork in a mix of cheese and sauce. “Yeah. I heard. And I get it…why you guys didn’t want to tell me. But…well, I kinda had it figured.”
“What?” Harris and Tara echoed in shock.
Anya shrugged. “It wasn’t too terribly difficult to piece together.”
Spike’s eyes just slanted, his head tilting. “You figured Buffy to be in Hell?” he said gently, trying to keep accusation from his tone and failing miserably from the look the Bit gave him in turn. “Why would you ever think that?”
Dawn swallowed hard. “Because…she jumped into…a bunch of dimensions. And disappeared. And Glory was a hellgod, so it seemed…hellgod, hell dimensions. Or am I over simplifying it?”
“Nope,” Xander said dryly, turning over a layer of noodles. “Just simplifying it enough.”
“I always thought she was a very clever child,” Anya added.
“Thanks,” Dawn replied, smiling awkwardly. She glanced down once more, and everyone followed her example. It was a strained, awkward silence. The sort that ought to be broken immediately, even if one has no idea how to proceed. And yet, Spike wasn’t certain whether the pressure in his chest was thick with relief or anxiety when the girl cleared her throat to speak again. Talk did little more than make him eager for action, even if some things needed to be said.
“So,” the girl continued, “you need to know Buffy’s worst fears.”
Another long silence. Ultimately, Xander cleared his throat and nodded. “We think the dimension she’s in is one she made, so yeah. What would be Hell…for Buffy? Her worst fears.”
“Buffy made a hell dimension?”
“Not on purpose,” Tara leapt in, her voice strained. “Willow…the theory we have is when she jumped, her mind concocted images of what Hell would be like, and that was the foundation for the dimension she fell into. Willow thinks it might be a part of Hell reserved for people who don’t die, since that doesn’t happen except for when people willingly enter a dimension like that and get lost. She thinks people who lose their way while navigating hell dimensions get trapped in a world where their worst fears ensnare them to the point where they can’t escape. But we’re getting her back, Dawnie. I promise.”
Spike said nothing—just stared at his plate. Suddenly he’d lost his appetite.
“We think our list is good,” Xander said. “We know she was afraid of becoming a vampire…at least she was four years ago.”
Tara licked her lips. “Willow told me Buffy was…after she went into her mind, there toward the end…” Her eyes settled on the girl again. “After Glory took you, Buffy kinda…blinked out.”
“Yeah,” Dawn said softly. “She told me.”
“She was trapped in a place where she kept killing you, because she thought it was her fault.” The blonde glanced down self-consciously. “I…I’d put that on a thing to expect. It nearly killed her when she…was here.”
A long sigh rolled off Spike’s lips, his heart heavy. He no longer had a quiet. Whenever silence settled in, his mind took him to a place where Buffy couldn’t escape her fate. Jump or sacrifice her sister. Jump or lose the world. Jump or become the thing she hated the most. A coward. A killer. A betrayer. Her sister’s Judas. She’d jumped to keep Dawn alive, thinking all along that a fraction of a second had been at the cost of the Nibblet’s life.
Buffy trapped in a hell where she had to jump over and over again.
“She told me once she didn’t like roly polies,” Anya suggested, breaking the silence with a statement so ridiculous, Spike had to replay it several times to verify it was in English. The former demon merely furrowed her brow in thought before continuing, “Or green beans.”
The air fell silent with a series of exchanged glances.
“What?” she demanded, blinking.
Xander pursed his lips and reached across the table, covering her hand with his. “Thanks, Ahn.”
“That’s very helpful,” Tara agreed with a forced smile.
Dawn, for her part, seemed torn between laughter and tears. Her eyes were laden with emotion, the sort only true loss could induce. Her mouth tried to twist into a grin but gravity pulled it down again. The grief she exuded served as a black hole, dragging the table into a place where her pain belonged to everyone. Where everyone knew exactly how she suffered.
Spike knew, for he carried Dawn’s pain alongside his, and the burden was crushing.
“Yes,” the girl said, nodding. “Thank you, Anya.” She met Tara’s eyes and forced a grin. “I guess this would be the place to say Buffy was afraid of squirrels when she was little.”
A snicker bubbled off the vampire’s lips before he could help himself, his body lurching forward and his face falling into his waiting hands. And once he started he couldn’t stop. Something triggered. Something hard and primal. The image of Buffy, lost in a sea of nightmares. The thought of an adolescent Buffy scurrying away from neighborhood critters. The woman he knew versus the girl she’d once been. The girl who was now lost. Hard, body-consuming laughter rippled through his shoulders, pressing upon his chest and contorting until they emerged as harsh, raucous sobs. He didn’t know whether he was happy or sad, and for the minute, it didn’t matter.
It was only when he managed to wrangle in his emotions that he noticed the others had suffered the same reaction. Xander’s face was red with a mixture of laughter and tears. Tara was either crying or giggling into a napkin, leaving Dawn looking immensely pleased with herself.
“Thank God we were never attacked by mutant squirrels from outer space,” Xander mused, sniffing hard and wiping his eyes.
“Or the Jolly Green Giant,” Tara added with a grin.
“Fine,” Anya retorted, throwing up a hand. “Mock the retired demon.”
“We weren’t mocking you,” the blonde amended quickly. “Anya, it was just…it was funny. And we needed to laugh.”
Dawn nodded in earnest. “Thank you, Anya.”
There was an uncertain pause during which the former demon’s reaction teetered; ultimately, she seemed to decide it was easier being humble than indignant. Therefore, with a prompt nod and an ear-to-ear grin, she asserted, “Glad to help,” before taking a bite of pasta.
It took a few seconds for tempers to calm again to the more-familiar stillness, though when the residual chuckles died into awkward silence, the air grew thicker than before. Forks scratched along plates. Chairs squeaked and people shuffled. They were trapped in an uncomfortable place between formality and casualness, sobriety and levity, tears and laughter. Laughter was good—Spike wanted them to laugh. He did.
Especially when all he could do was replay the visions plaguing his already-tortured mind.
He wondered should he be condemned to a self-made hell—if his would resemble Buffy’s at all, for all his worst fears had transformed into her worst fears coming to life. Tormenting her. Pulling at her. Consuming her.
And he was sitting at her kitchen table. Eating pasta. Surrounded by her friends. Waiting for Willow. Waiting for the Rule of Three. Waiting for Buffy’s watcher’s permission before he entered Buffy’s Hell to make good on his promise.
His promise to Buffy. His promise to himself.
His promise to get her out.
And before he could help himself, before he even knew what he meant, the word, “Normal,” slipped off his lips.
Quiet settled again. He sat staring at his cooling lasagna, aware of the eyes which had again landed on him, but too far submerged in memories to care. How often had he picked away at Buffy’s defenses by remarking on her inability to be the thing she craved the most? A year and a half ago he’d attacked her in the sunlight after her first disastrous attempt at normality. That battle, like all in which they’d engaged, had been hers to win, but his triumph at spearing her insecurities had been a matter of immense pride. She wanted normal so badly. So bloody badly. She’d hunted for it in Parker’s dorm room, in Riley’s bed, in Ben’s baby blue eyes—Christ, she’d peeked around every corner she could to find something normal. A nice normal boy for a nice supernatural girl.
Because of Angel. Because Angel had told her what she should seek. What she should be.
How best to honor his blessed memory.
Spike’s jaw tightened and his eyes fell to his lap. Now was not the time for jealousy to stab his heart, but stab it did. All those blokes—all of them—got a piece of Buffy he’d never touched.
All of them had seen her smile.
“What was that?” Xander asked, leaning forward. “Spike?”
He didn’t answer right away. He didn’t want to voice his thoughts. It wasn’t until a warm hand covered his arm that he jolted back to himself.
Tara smiled, favoring him with an encouraging squeeze. “Did you think of something?”
It took another second for his mind to stop spinning. “Urr, right,” he said, clearing his throat. “Jus’…Buffy had a thing about normal.”
Xander’s brows perked. “A thing?”
“She wanted to be normal,” Spike retorted. “But she couldn’t, see. It’s why she jumped college boy’s bones after two bloody seconds.”
Tara’s eyes went wide and she motioned to Dawn, who sighed heavily but covered her ears without complaint.
“An’ this entire last year with the soldier—”
“Don’t start in on Riley,” Xander contested hotly. “Just because you wanted to get into her pants—”
Spike’s eyes flashed. “Doesn’ sodding matter what I wanted, mate,” he snarled. “Buffy was built for more than normal. She’s the Slayer, for fuck’s sake. You think the girls before her got to settle down with a nice normal bloke, have the two-point-five kiddies with a picket fence an’ Sunday lunch with the family? Buffy wasn’t made for it. It’s why she went for Angel. For Dracula, for Chrissake. Why it failed so brilliantly with anyone else she tried to touch. An’ that sodding terrified her. She couldn’t have normal no matter what she tried because it was everythin’ she wasn’t. Believe me, I know.”
Xander nodded harshly, his gaze black with that old familiar hatred. It was almost welcome—a refreshing breath of normality in their suddenly upside-down world. There was no love lost between them, and once Buffy was recovered, their relationship would return to the comfortable, mutual loathing with which they were most accustomed. It was bracing in a way, knowing some things never changed. Some things remained reliable, and Xander’s animosity was certainly one them. And as tiresome as that was, Spike much preferred a world where he knew who his enemies were. While he’d never lose sleep over Xander Harris, he likewise knew the boy wouldn’t think twice about shoving a stake through his heart.
“And none of this has to do with the fact that you’re obsessed with Buffy?” Harris demanded.
Spike snorted and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fuck off.”
A small cry erupted from the head of the table, where Tara sat with wide eyes, shaking her head rapidly, silently begging him to end things before they grew out of hand. And for her, he might have—would have—had Xander not opened his mouth again.
“No. And this is exactly why I didn’t want it to be you.”
“You don’ say?”
“You really think—”
Nerves ebbed, Spike slammed his fist against the table hard enough for the wood to splinter and crack beneath the cloth, his eyes burning yellow and gums tingling as his fangs threatened to burst into his mouth. “No,” he snarled. “You selfish, ignorant git. There’s no one else, you hear? No one else who can even get to her…let alone get her back. You think I planned it this way? You think I want her lost in a sea of her own nightmares so I can prove how bloody worthy I am of her? You think this is about anythin’ other than getting her back? I’m doing this to repay my debt. Nothing else. I got her into this an’ I’ll sure as fuck get her out.” He broke away with a harsh shake of his head. “It’s my obsession, see. The woman I love is in Hell an’ I could’ve stopped it. You think that doesn’ kill me? You think I don’ replay that night over an’ over? It’s nearly driven me as loopy as Dru, seeing what I could’ve done. What I should’ve done. What I didn’t do. I see it all the time—it won’t bloody go away. If I’d only stopped Doc…” Spike’s eyes fell shut, every inch of him drawn tight and trembling with the strain of keeping control. “I get Buffy out, an’ that’s it. She can go back to punching me in the face every time she sees me. I don’t care. Fuck, I welcome it. At least she’ll be here. She’ll be where she belongs.”
Silence settled again. The vampire sighed, took a hard swig of blood, and nodded at Tara. “Sorry to ruin your nice set-up, pet.”
The witch smiled as best she could. “It’s okay.”
“You’re not the one who ruined it,” Anya muttered. When Xander looked at her askance, she heaved a deep breath and rolled her eyes. “Spike has done nothing but help since Buffy disappeared, and even when he’s the only hope at getting her back, you have reservations. Why? Because he’s a demon.”
Harris didn’t reply, just swallowed hard.
“He also happens to love her,” she continued. “He allowed Glory to rip him apart, and even Buffy agreed he loved her enough to die if that was what was needed.”
“He’s a vampire—”
“And I’m a demon.”
“Former,” Xander insisted. “You’re human now.”
“Yes, but I’m still a demon here.” She tapped her head. “I didn’t magically get a soul when my powers were stripped. I don’t regret what I did in the past. I did it because it was my job. It was who I was. Spike loves Buffy, just as surely as I love you, you penis. Furthermore, as he said, he’s the only one who has a chance of even getting there, so you better stop hating him and start being grateful he’s here at all, and that he does love her. If he didn’t, none of you would ever see her again. So back off and let the man eat.”
White noise filled the air. Spike slouched back in his chair, too stunned to speak, much less move. It had happened recently with Buffy. It had leaked to Willow and Giles. It had touched Tara and remained shining with Dawn. Now Anya. They all accepted him as he was. To have it spoken by one of them—by someone who understood—had his mind spinning wildly out of control, had sounds drowning into long drones of incomprehensible nonsense.
He remembered Buffy snapping at her friends before they piled into the Winnebago. Remembered the look on her face when she entrusted Dawn to his care in the days following his rescue from Glory’s penthouse. He remembered that, and though he’d known it as gratitude, he’d accepted it as something greater. He’d finally proven himself to her, and somehow, someway, she trusted him.
He’d changed without knowing it. The change in the beginning had been window-dressing. Something he called change to win over the Slayer’s heart, though knowing at the core he was the same vamp he’d always been. When the true transformation had taken route and shaped him into something else, he didn’t know. Obsession first, then love. He knew it was love that had reformed him. Changed him. He knew it. And at some point, the others had noticed. Her friends. The people he didn’t want to like. The people he needed to get to her. They might not call it love—and hell, they might—but they knew what Buffy was to him. They knew he cared.
Spike blinked and glanced up. Tara was standing next to him, cordless phone in hand. He hadn’t heard it ring.
“Willow?” he asked.
She nodded. “Back from the Inferias. She has the Rule of Three.”
He was on his feet in an instant, tossing back the last of his blood. “An’ Rupert?”
“You need to be at the Hellmouth in ten minutes.” Tara shivered. “It’s time.”
The last time he’d ventured into the ruins of the school, he’d learned the chip in his head didn’t prevent him from hurting demons. He’d tossed a bunch of ugly, smelly gits in the very hole into which he was about to crawl. He’d roared with triumph and exorcised weeks of repressed outrage, doing his best to ignore the googly eyes Buffy and Riley made at each other while secretly hoping she’d drop the wanker as they climbed toward freedom.
“The rules again,” Willow urged, handing him a bag of blood. ”Say them again.”
“Don’t accept what you’re offered,” Spike recited, tearing into the plastic without hesitation. His stomach was full but there was no guarantee of when he’d eat again, something he hadn’t considered until Giles presented him with more bagged blood than he typically consumed in a week and told him to gorge. He needed his strength, and he needed it to last. “Don’ make any promises. An’ the great grand-daddy…”
“Don’t forget your name,” she said sternly.
“Don’ forget your name.” He tore into the bag again, not pulling away until it was empty. “Ninny lot of rules, those.”
“They’re important,” Giles insisted. “The documents Willow found—”
Spike held up a hand. “I know.”
“—and the extra reading she did while there—”
“I was makin’ a joke to lighten the mood.” He shrugged off his duster. “Guess it din’t take.”
The fire died from the watcher’s eyes and was replaced with a worn smile. “Ah.”
The vampire glanced down, fingers caressing the weathered leather of his prized coat. He’d had a mind to give it to Dawn to look after, but on Tara’s insistence, the girl hadn’t come to say her goodbyes. He’d made the journey to Sunnydale High on his own, walking through the town where the Slayer didn’t live. Walking with the determination that when he saw the night sky again, it would be with Buffy at his side.
“Tell the Bit she can have this if I don’ make it back,” he said, thrusting the duster into Giles’s arms.
A pause. The unspoken implication hung in the air but remained unspoken. Buffy would be back, even if Spike was not. It was how they understood things. How they understood each other. All that mattered was getting her back.
If Hell demanded a replacement, it would have one.
“Thank you,” Willow said, wiping at her eyes. “I can’t…thank you.”
Spike smiled softly. “You cryin’, pidge?”
“No!” A few sniffles followed.
Giles stepped forward with a grim smile, patting the vampire awkwardly on the shoulder. “Thank you,” he said earnestly. “I trust…this is…I…”
“Better to stop there before this gets weird.” The vampire heaved a sigh, kneeled forward and snagged the rope they had prepared to lower him into the Hellmouth. It seemed such an elementary way of doing it, but he wouldn’t complain. Let this one thing be simple. “All right, then. ’m off.”
They looked at him expectantly, waiting for more. Waiting for something he couldn’t give. Spike wasn’t one for goodbyes. He turned, heaved a sigh, and began his descent.
And then the world disappeared.
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