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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.
No matter how hard he stared at it, the wall wasn’t going anywhere. It remained wedged across the pool. Sturdy. Steadfast. Unmoving. A stony dead-end in a journey that had barely begun. There was an answer—he knew there was an answer. An answer much simpler than the problem would indicate. He just couldn’t see it. He couldn’t get close enough to formulate a plan.
Couldn’t get close enough to see what exactly what he was dealing with here.
“Not as easy as it seems, now is it?” Larry observed from the sidelines, munching on something only a creature of his breed could find appealing. “All that tough talk…just gone.”
“Sod off,” Spike muttered, casting a hand through his tousled hair. His eyes remained transfixed on the stretch where the stone met water. The wall very clearly dipped below the surface, but how far? This angle didn’t provide the greatest view, but he wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of sacrificing his skin to investigate. He only had so much of it, and something told him he’d need it in the future. If the first trial melted off his flesh the next might demand his entrails. Those were things not easily replaced.
Not to say he wouldn’t heal. Skin, precious as it was, would grow back. Entrails might be a little trickier, but as long as his heart remained untouched and his head stayed attached, he didn’t think he would crumble to dust. It might make eating and all other pleasurable pursuits a little more difficult, sure, but he could manage.
“I gotta see how far that wall goes,” he said to himself. And there was only one way to do it.
He had to dive in.
“How far do you think you’ll make it before you start to fry?” Larry called. “One extra crispy vamp, comin’ up!”
Spike’s jaw tightened. Again, he willed himself to ignore the demon and instead returned his attention to the pool. It wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was he. There was only forward from here. Pain was just a sensation—one with which he was intimately familiar. Pain he could survive.
The price was worth the reward. It was. He was here for a reason.
He was here for Buffy.
“Jus’ water,” Spike murmured again, reaching for the hem of his tee before pausing. On second thought, disrobing before taking the very literal dive didn’t sound as good in reality as it had in theory. Clothing might slow him down but it provided a layer between his skin and the vat of acid into which he was about to leap. Better to remain dressed.
He just wished he’d thought of bringing scuba gear.
“Yeah,” Larry agreed from the sidelines, smiling unpleasantly. “Just water. Just your plain ole, vamp-scorching water. You think many people would boil a pot just to dump it all over themselves?” The demon paused and waved a scaly appendage at the wall. “Not to mention, that’s a dead-end.”
A cold blast of indignation seized Spike’s spine and held. “You know what you’re not doing?” he ground out.
Larry shrugged. “Yeah, well, that’s not in my job description.”
“Your…right. The job. That’s what keeps it from being personal, yeah?” Spike replied, eyes again fixed on the wall. “You keep Buffy an’ you keep your job. Doesn’t matter that she jumped—”
“—to save the world?” the guardian cut in. “I’m a creature from Hell. The world ends and it’s Black Friday down here, only it’s our customers who get trampled. And golly, the job opportunities. Did I mention the job opportunities? New, exciting hell dimensions, plus we get to double our population. Earth just keeps getting bigger and meaner, and we reap the benefits if it ends.” Larry smirked. “Meanwhile the only person who can save your world from certain doom just happens to be the little slip of a girl we have holed up for the next eternity. So yeah…I’d call it personal.”
The festering rage simmering in Spike’s belly quickly fired his nerves. Every muscle in his body tightened, and he instructed himself with empty words not to do something colossally stupid. He had to keep his focus on the wall. On the task at hand. If Larry managed to distract him, it could cost him everything.
However, knowledge could only get him so far. It couldn’t prevent his mouth from running.
“Don’t you know anything, you git?” Spike snarled, whirling around completely. “One girl snuffs it, the other—”
“Rots in jail. Don’t you know anything?”
The vampire froze, seized for a horrible instant by the memory of a nightmare. “But—”
“Faith’s the girl, kiddo. She’s the Chosen One, and all that. And since your girl was all noble and other soft, squishy humans decided to play interference, Faith didn’t get the death she had coming. So she sits, wasting away all that glorious strength while things get worse and worse.” Larry nodded to the barricaded tunnel. “Little Buffy was a reserve. She was the one who lived when she shouldn’t, but she was the only chance the world had for survival. Now she’s here…do you really need me to spell it out for you?”
Spike shook his head hard, willing himself to stop shaking. It didn’t work. “She didn’t die. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“Ah, but she did jump knowingly and willingly into a sea of hell-dimensions.” Larry grinned unkindly. “Besides, since when does anyone get what they deserve?”
“And it’s not like any of this matters, anyway. You’re here for a reason, right? Her righteous protector—righter of wrongs, defender of justice, the Slayer’s grand salvation…unless you’re giving up already.”
“And yet, I’m not the one about to sacrifice my skin for a booty call.”
There was nothing in that minute but white noise. Everything drowned away, and before logic could scream its warning, Spike was moving. Moving too quickly for his mind to slow his feet, for the bells deafening his ears to strike through the wall of rage caging him inside. It didn’t matter what happened next, in that blind streak of insanity his outrage needed a channel, and the demon standing between him and Buffy was the best target.
He wanted Larry to bleed. He wanted Larry to suffer.
As Buffy suffered.
He never got the chance. The smack of the demon’s retaliatory fist didn’t register until the ground beneath Spike’s feet fell from under him. It wasn’t until his heels slipped over the rocky ledge that panic sliced through the black hatred permeating his vision and he realized, a second too late, he couldn’t prevent himself from falling over the edge.
He hit the water with a harsh, unforgiving splash, and then there was nothing but pain. Torture in its purest form. It ripped through him, stripping him of every defense and rendering him a kicking mess of scalding flesh. Festering hot boils stretched across his body, fizzling feverishly until they popped, reformed, and popped again. Sharp pinpricks of scalding agony devoured his skin, burning deep into tissue and eating him from the outside in. It was a canvas of motion, thinning his flesh as layers dissolved, and baring raw muscle to the harsh whirlpool of toxic water. It sliced through his brain, disconnecting movement from thought. All he knew was he had to get out. Had to get to freedom. Nothing else mattered.
He had to survive.
Spike kicked his way back to the surface, releasing a hoarse, raucous cry as drops of liquid flesh slipped off his bones and puddled into the water. He could see the pink of his muscles. Saw the blood-red veins patterning his arms, naked and unprotected. He couldn’t feel his lips or his fingernails. His hair was rendered a mat of burnt fuzz, scalp scalded and fried. How he pulled himself to freedom, he didn’t know. The strength wasn’t his.
Stone sliced against him. All went black.
He awoke hours later with a throbbing headache and a harsh buzz surfing his veins. Not three seconds had passed before things crystallized and hardened into fact. His skin was molten, but it existed. Where before he’d seen his blackened insides, he saw nothing but his body as it should be. Flesh again lined his arms and legs, again stretched across his belly, again mapped him head-to-toe. Invisible flames licked his scalp, but a touch of his hand determined his hair had grown back as well. Aside from the pain in his head and his sore, ravaged muscles, he felt all right.
Felt like he hadn’t nearly boiled to death.
“The fuck…” Spike murmured, wincing as he sat up. The stone floor around him was splattered with freshly-dried blood. His blood. Blood which had poured freely from his body just hours before. Just hours. He’d nearly dissolved entirely…and yet here he sat. Healed. Scorched, but healed.
He ought to be dead.
Ought to be dust.
It didn’t make sense. None of it made a lick of sense. The vampire grimaced and fought to his feet. The water was still there, as was the wall. And he was still on the wrong side of it.
But he was alive.
Spike glanced down to his hand, eyes roaming over the scar he received when he was eight—the one that had never healed—to the last flakes of black nail polish and the age lines etched in his skin.
“I can’t die,” he whispered, turning back to the pool. “Jus’ gotta get to the other side.”
“You think so, huh?”
Larry was back, evidently. Or perhaps he’d never left. Spike didn’t know, and at the moment he didn’t care. His mind was running too fast to do an about face and address the demon at his back.
“Just gotta get to the other side,” Spike repeated. “Without cryin’ uncle. That’s what this is, isn’t it? Can’t kill me. Jus’ get me close enough. None of this can kill me.”
It made sense in a strange way. A way he wouldn’t question. And it had to be the real test: the knowledge that no matter how bad things grew, he couldn’t see an end without surviving it. Either he survived or he failed. If he cried for help or screamed it was too much, the trials would end and he’d lose Buffy forever. Death was not an option. Death was too easy. If they offered him death, he wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to torture. As long as he was here they could do whatever they willed to his body; if he failed, they had his defeat wrapped in a bow.
If he died, they still kept the Slayer, but lost his crippling devastation.
Despair tasted sweet. Spike, of all vamps, ought to know.
“Can’t kill me.”
Larry sighed heavily. “Okay, fine,” he conceded, thundering forward. “So you can’t technically—what’s the word?— die. Not down here. Not while you’re protected by our contract. And yeah, once people find that out, they’re typically thrilled as a politician at a whorehouse…but it ain’t all sugar and puppies. Not being able to die is a terrible fate at times.”
Like Buffy. Buffy was trapped in Hell. She hadn’t the luxury of death. Spike forced back an instinctive growl and shook his head, taking a step forward.
Life would be so much easier if he learned how to block out blokes who pissed him off.
“Take that dive and you’ll be screaming for a death that won’t come,” Larry advised. “You know that. You barely lasted thirty seconds the first time; what makes you think this is any different?”
“I can’t die.”
“I tell you, that doesn’t make any difference.”
Spike shrugged. Didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
He just had to get around the wall.
And the more he thought about it, the more simplistic the answer became. He was looking at it too hard—expecting a complicated solution when there was none. The pathway continued on the other side of the pond. The wall was all that stood between him and the rest of the tunnel. If an opening existed and wasn’t above the water, it had to be below.
He’d have to swim deep into the pool to get to the other side.
And he had to do it without screaming his defeat.
He had to keep thinking of Buffy.
“Right then,” Spike murmured, rolling his shoulders. “Jus’ water. It’s just water.”
“Yeah,” Larry drawled. “Remember how well that little pep talk worked last time?”
Ignoring him, the vampire drew near the edge again. It was startling how innocuous something so sinister could look. Since his siring, there hadn’t been much reason to gulp down water, but he did so from time to time, as he found it was an additive for keeping his body in shape. He’d traveled the world to see oceans: to watch the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic. He’d dived into lakes in his skivvies with Dru cackling wildly at his side, her midnight hair streaking wildly across her alabaster skin. And while he’d had a run in or two with holy water, it had never been anything to alter his perception. He didn’t hesitate when it came to showering or drinking or swimming or anything else he felt like doing on any given day. Water was water. It wasn’t dangerous…not to him. Vampires couldn’t drown, after all. What worry did he have?
Water would never look the same. Lapping so innocently against the stony ledge, bubbling little warnings of what was to come. He knew what was to come. In seconds his skin would be stripped off his body. In seconds he would be as close to death as he’d ever been.
In seconds he would wish for dust while begging for the strength to push onward.
“Here goes nothing,” he whispered.
And squeezing his eyes shut, he dove in.
Pain was secondary. He had to remember that. Pain was a sensation that would fade once he made it to the other side. Water shifted and skin melted, and while he felt himself fading into a seemingly endless, unforgiving sea, he knew the other side existed. He knew he had to make it through.
For Buffy. He had to make it through for Buffy.
Flesh peeled layer by layer off his body, but he kept swimming. Boils blistered his body, but he kept swimming. His eyes were burned shut, but he kept swimming. Down, down. Down as far as he could take himself. Down until the wall was against his hand—his hand which sawed itself to the bone with every unforgiving stroke. He no longer had fingerprints and the soft, cushiony muscle that protected his palm had been ripped away. The water reddened with blood, and when he pressed himself again the wall, he felt the soft tissue in his arms cut clean through.
But he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t call for help. Couldn’t scream.
He had to keep moving.
And when he went down far enough to be proven right, to tear through the opening which lingered just a yard off the lake-floor, the thrill of victory was enough to drown out the pain.
How he made it back to the surface, he didn’t know. Nor did he know how he found the strength to swim to the shore. It took three tries to lift his weary, fragile bones out of the water, and when his body collided with the rocky ground, when he found himself deeper in Hell than he’d ever been, he dragged a gulp of air into his charred lungs and forced his twisted, lipless mouth into a grin.
He’d done it. He’d done it. He’d survived the first task.
Thick, harsh bursts erupted through Spike’s blackened throat, and it took a few seconds for even him to realize he was laughing. That he had anything to laugh about. He was crippled and crisp, but even now he could feel the cells in his body going into hyper-drive, preparing him for his next task.
Oh God. He had another task. Another task when all he wanted was rest.
He needed rest.
No. Can’t rest.
Have to get to Buffy…
“You did well,” Larry said, his voice distant, if real at all. If the demon was actually near, he didn’t reveal himself, and Spike couldn’t tell as his eyes were welded shut. There wasn’t an inch of him which hadn’t melted like hot wax. “Yes, yes,” the elusive guardian continued. “You did very well.”
“Oh, I’d save that voice if I were you.” The ground hummed with the weight of a footstep, betraying Larry’s position. Not that it mattered. If the demon wanted to kill him, there was nothing Spike could do to stop it. Even at full strength, it’d take a bloody rocket launcher to stop the beast…and Harris wasn’t around to whip one out of his ass.
Good thing guardians couldn’t attack, just spout orders.
And defend themselves if the Champion they were slated to annoy got stupid.
“Unless, that is, you’re asking for something.” Larry took another step forward. “You can ask for anything you like, you know. A glass of blood. Hell, a whole town of tasty humans to munch. You gotta be hungry after losing all that blood…and Buffy would—”
A pause. “No, huh?”
Don’t accept what you’re offered.
Hunger could rattle his insides, and he knew it would. His body was too twisted with pain to identify one sensation from the next, but he knew his stomach would begin screaming once it remembered it was hungry. And while the thought of blood had his fangs tingling, had his demon roaring with delight, Spike hadn’t forgotten. There were things he couldn’t accept. He couldn’t have blood. Not here. Not when it was offered. He hadn’t just sacrificed his skin to lose everything now. Don’t accept what you’re offered. He would never forget.
“All right, then,” Larry replied with a heavy sigh. “Suit yourself.”
Then he was gone again, leaving the vampire to the dark.
“It’s okay, now. Everything is okay.”
Silence lied. Spike knew this better than anyone. When the night had deepened to its darkest, when most of the earth’s creatures burrowed in for rest, the silence would lie. It would whisper promises the day wouldn’t keep. It would speak of things his dreams had concocted and fade as soon as the slightest sliver of light speared its shadowy cocoon. Spike knew it well. He knew the silence lied.
And he knew it was lying now. Somewhere between asleep and awake. Between the dreams he’d had in getting here and lying on the stone floor as his body pieced itself back together. He knew it was lying. It had to be lying.
Nothing was okay.
“It’s all right.”
“Look at me. We can go now. We can get out of here. We have to get out of here.”
He didn’t want to look—didn’t want to open his eyes.
She had the voice of a siren, and it was too good to be true.
Too bloody good.
“Look at me and tell me I’m not real.”
The ethereal whisper faded into silence, cushioning his fall with white strands of hope. Spike swallowed hard and turned his face up. It couldn’t be real—Christ, it couldn’t be. After all he’d been through, it couldn’t happen like this. They wouldn’t just hand her to him.
“We gotta roll, Spike. Now. Get off your pale ass and get moving. I don’t know how much time…I don’t know if we have any, but I’d rather not stick around to find out how right I am.” She sighed. “Get up!”
Warmth consumed him but he railed against it. This couldn’t be real—it couldn’t be real. And he couldn’t let himself believe. Couldn’t let himself believe he’d made it…and yet that was her voice. It was her voice. No one could fake that voice. That tone. That righteous irritation.
Save the girl from Hell and she doesn’t issue a thank you. It was her. It was Buffy.
A dam broke inside. God. It was Buffy.
The silence hadn’t lied.
“Buffy,” Spike choked, forcing his eyes open, willing her not to disappear.
And she didn’t.
“Finally,” Buffy replied with a long sigh, lips twisting into a tired, grateful smile. “Welcome back.”
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