Reviews • Rating: 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.
God, it was her. It was really her.
There had been a moment when she welcomed him into her home. A huge moment—the sort of moment that didn’t care about time, or obstacles, or anything else that might interfere with its significance. Until Willow had told him Buffy’s invitation hadn’t been random—had instead been planned—Spike had assumed it probably didn’t mean anything to her. After all, inviting him inside was easier than handing weapons over the doorway, minimizing the time spent in the house. It would get them to Dawn sooner. And there was always the fact that she could banish him from her home at any time she liked. In the end, even if Buffy had wanted him back, the invitation itself probably hadn’t meant a lick to her.
To Spike, it had meant the world. Those seconds existed as affirmation that he had done something right. In the time between the colossally stupid idea of chaining her up and threatening her with his murderous ex, to allowing a god to torture the stuffing out of him, he’d evolved into something more than a vampire was meant to be. Something worthy of her space, if not Buffy herself. The days leading up to the invitation had intimated the same; she’d brought Dawn to him for protection, she’d come to him about the Winnebago, and she’d told him she needed his help…trusting he wouldn’t ask for anything in return. She’d defended him when her friends jumped down her throat at his presence, and she’d held his hands, if a bit roughly, to inspect the place where he’d held off a sword to save her life. The Buffy of Old wouldn’t have cared enough to even acknowledge he’d been hurt. The Buffy of New—the Buffy he’d seen emerge after her kiss of gratitude, cared enough to…well, care.
That last night, she’d invited him into her house. And she hadn’t bristled and stormed away when he began speaking, when he revealed how much her gesture, small as it was, meant to him. When he acknowledged she would never love him. Being treated like a man, though…that meant the world.
Spike hadn’t remembered that after she jumped. That morning, standing in the shadows to avoid the sun, eyes fixated on the square of concrete where her body should have lain—where Buffy should have been. Tears scalding his cheeks, his body shaking with harsh, terrible sobs, he hadn’t remembered anything of what had passed. All he had was the sure knowledge of what was to come.
Buffy was gone. She was gone, and he would get her back. His promise solidified in those horrible moments following the time when the world didn’t end. He’d known then he would travel to the ends of the earth and beyond to bring her back where she belonged. It didn’t matter how far he had to go. It didn’t matter how long the journey took. It didn’t matter what he had to sacrifice.
He would get to Buffy and he would bring her back. Back into a world that wouldn’t give her rest.
A world she had been willing to die for.
The journey to the center of the world had so consumed him that Spike hadn’t fathomed what he would do when he actually saw her. How he would react. How every twisted feeling, every breathless emotion he had ever entertained would evolve into a harsh, excruciating mass of raw energy. How even hearing her voice would trigger tears. He’d come so far in such a short amount of time, and here she was. Her beautiful face cascaded by shadows. Her soft skin just inches from his fingers, hair tumbling over her shoulders. Buffy. Buffy. She was here. She was with him.
And he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t find words—could barely remember the words he wanted to find. His skin was on fire, still sizzling from the aftereffects of holy water. Every nerve in his body ached, tenderized to the point where even blinking hurt. But it was all right. Everything was all right, because Buffy was with him.
Buffy was with him.
“Gotta get a move on,” she was saying hurriedly. “The demon’ll be back at any minute.”
Spike inhaled sharply. “Larry.”
“That’s the guy.”
She paused to favor him with an arched brow before rolling her beautiful green eyes. “That’s right,” she agreed slowly. “The guardian. The one we really don’t wanna run in to down here. Come on.” She extended a hand. “We gotta run.”
Nothing. He couldn’t move. Just seeing her had fried what little was left of cognitive thought. “Buffy…God…”
“Now would be good.”
“Are you hurt?” Spike asked instead. It took a few long seconds, but feeling eventually returned to his numbed senses, encouraging him to his feet. He blinked at her rapidly, waiting for the shadows to stake their claim. They did not. Buffy stood before him as though she had never disappeared at all. Beautiful. Irritated. Ready to leave.
Ready for him to lead her to the surface.
Perhaps it didn’t matter that none of this made sense. Rationally he knew he was still in the tunnel. Still two trials shy of earning entrance into Buffy’s personal Hell. What did it matter, after all, if she was right here?
And that was the bitch. The alternative was too painful to consider. It wasn’t right. He knew it wasn’t right. And he knew it was deliberate. This was too sweet to be real. Too much what he wanted to have it so easily handed to him. A thousand different instances, stolen moments, and painful regrets spanned their relationship. Since he saw her dancing in the Bronze—watched proudly as she killed the Annointed’s lackey. Since he devoured her confused face as her eyes drank him in for the first time. A thousand moments. A thousand things he’d do over again if given the chance.
She’d kissed him. She’d invited him into her home. She’d treated him like a man. And then he’d lost her.
He’d lost her.
The hope in his chest was too brilliant to crush, but the longer Spike looked at her, the more aware he became of his reality. Two tasks left. Two left before he could see her. Before he exited the tangle of caverns and entered a reality Buffy had created.
Not the girl standing before him, because this wasn’t truly Buffy. This Buffy was unchanged. This Buffy was a constructed caricature. Captured in a memory—a snapshot in time. It was the picture of Buffy he’d known for so long, not the one who had emerged in the last days. This Buffy lacked warmth. Lacked heart. Lacked gratitude. She was beautiful, of course, for she wore Buffy’s face, but she was also cold. And Buffy, the true Buffy, was never cold.
Even when she shut him out, she did it with enough heat to power the sun. Buffy wasn’t cold.
And this wasn’t Buffy.
Hell had provided him with what he wanted most, and ripped it away just as quickly. Tears stung his eyes, directing his gaze downward so she wouldn’t see them spill. He wouldn’t cry here. Not in front of one of them.
They were using Buffy’s image for a reason. They knew what giving her to him would do.
She was his test. His greatest trial.
“You were here?” Spike asked softly, doing his damndest to hide how hard he was trembling. “Just…here.”
“Waiting,” Buffy agreed.
“The others said you were with…that you’d fallen into a hell dimension. One you created.”
She made a face and waved a hand. “Nope. Just here. Just…caught between realities, I guess. But you got to me, Spike. I can’t thank you enough.” A light burned her gaze, twisting and turning dark. And in that second, the proverbial ceiling came crashing down. The hollowed chambers of her eyes reflected a dark, endless nothing. Nothing. No kindness. No warmth. No soul.
There was no soul in her eyes.
Something crashed within him, screaming its outrage. Knowing it didn’t make the proof any less painful. Any less heart-breaking. It was still her face. Her face. Her likeness. Larry and his friends had stolen her image and plopped her in front of him, a glass of water for a man who was minutes away from dying of thirst. And they dared assume he wouldn’t notice.
Pure, black rage hardened his veins, and his thoughts must have been broadcasted for the Buffy-mask rolled her soulless eyes and tossed her head back. “No,” she retorted in the Slayer’s stolen voice, moving forward in the Slayer’s body. “We knew you’d know. I wasn’t exactly discreet.”
Spike shook his head, feet moving before his brain could catch up. “Get out of my way,” he snarled, brushing passed her with hard, unrelenting fury.
“We just thought you’d like to see a version more like yourself.” She appeared before him in a blink, her arms spread. “Call me Buffy 2.0. Better. More advanced. Guilt-free. Not hampered by the pesky little conscience that kept your girl from enjoying your more…” A disgusting beat passed between them as she raked her eyes over his body, licking her lips, “carnal attributes. Think of the fun we could have. You. Me. The world wouldn’t know what hit it. We’d paint it red, and enjoy every minute.”
A low snarl rolled through his lips, his fangs itching, demon roaring. “Out of my way.”
The mask pouted Buffy’s pout. “You don’t wanna play?”
“No, sorry, sweetie.” She tapped his chest, scorching him with her touch. “That’d be you. Here I am. The epitome of any man’s fantasy. Having it all, right? You could have it all. Have me. Have your precious Buffy. Have the world at your mercy. Hell, get that chip out of your head, while we’re at it. There’s nothing we can’t do down here, baby. And you don’t even want a taste?” The mask tsked and shook her head, sighing heavily. “Nope. Sorry. Pathetic’s really the word you want to define you.”
He stared at her for a long minute before breaking away with a harsh, incredulous laugh. “This is it, then?” he demanded. “This is what you gits decided to send me? A mock, skank-slayer all dressed to please an’ thinks the wrapping is what matters?” Spike shook his head, eyes blazing. “The wrapping’s nothing but pretty paper an’ bows. I had the wrapping, pet. I bloody well shagged the wrapping. I don’t want Buffy’s face, I want Buffy. An’ I won’t settle for some two-bit trick.”
“You really think you got a chance with the real thing?”
“No,” Spike barked. “Because she is the real thing. An’ the real thing’s too bloody good for me. Too good for you. She belongs to the world, an’ that’s what I’m gonna give her.”
He was gone, then. A whirl of movement, feet carrying him as far from the imposter’s face as they could bear. He moved without thought, without direction, without anything save for the knowledge that he had to get away. Get away from her, from the false image of the Slayer’s face. Away from the taunting rhetoric delivered with the Slayer’s voice. Away from everything that presented an image of what he didn’t have.
How much further he still had to go.
The hunger gnawing at his insides went ignored, as did the ache of his muscles and the weariness in his bones. The only thing that mattered was putting space between him and the mask—the only thing that mattered was moving deeper through the tunnel. He would do his best to ignore the shattered pieces of forgotten hope that lay scattered along his psyche, mourning the loss of the impossible. While it had been obvious—and it had been from the start, he couldn’t help the raw, unadulterated hatred from spreading through his body.
They had dared use her face. They had dared use her to test him.
They had dared give him hope.
God, he was such an idiot, such a bloody blind git. He’d wanted it too badly. He’d wanted to believe and therefore had allowed himself to be played for a fool. He’d heard her voice and, though he’d known it was impossible, he’d allowed himself a sliver of hope. For one blessed moment he’d envisioned it was over. The long, grueling days followed by nights without her. Without Buffy. The familiar pathway to the Summers’ home, long and empty. The town filled with people who didn’t know to mourn for the girl who had saved their lives by forfeiting her own.
He’d imagined warmth in a world left cold. And they’d played him for a fool.
“Second trial,” Spike murmured, stumbling against the cavern wall. “I passed the second trial.”
“You did, indeed.”
It took some effort, but the vampire found the strength to roll his eyes. “‘Lo Larry,” he drawled. “Was wonderin’ when you’d be back.”
The guardian flashed a particularly ugly grin. He had materialized from nowhere, standing just a few feet ahead with a nondescript glass curled in his claw. Something told Spike he didn’t want to know what it was. “Just can’t get enough of me, can you?”
“We won’ know until we try, now will we?”
“Awww, don’t be like that. You can’t expect us to play fairly, now can you?”
“Bit too much to ask, I suppose.” Spike staggered onward, doing his best not to growl when the scent hit him. Blood. Fresh blood. It was in the glass. Larry had a glass of blood. And God, it felt like years had passed since he’d eaten. Since he’d even sniffed, much less tasted blood that was not his own. The bagged stuff Rupert had shoved down his throat had long since drizzled into nothing. Perhaps his stomach had opened as he thrashed against the sizzling boil of holy water. Perhaps it was just what he needed to heal properly. Or perhaps he’d been a captive of Hell’s labyrinth longer than it seemed.
All he knew was he was starved, and Larry had blood.
Larry was offering him blood.
And he couldn’t take it. Couldn’t accept what was offered.
Pain sliced through his gums as his fangs descended. His eyes burned and his stomach growled, but he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t let anything slow him down.
Just one more test. One more.
Larry grinned nastily and held up the glass. “Drink?”
Spike roared and shook his head, a knife cutting through his brain. Every instinct in his body was against him. Blood. Sweet blood. He needed blood. Without blood he would wither away into nothing—become a living corpse in every sense, but one who could never truly taste death. Caught in limbo without an exit. He’d seen it before. Seen vamps chained by righteous townspeople and made to starve for generations, time weathering their skin and insides until they were nothing but skeletons covered in raw, tender tissue. Never dead, for starvation couldn’t kill a vampire. And that was the real bitch. Starvation couldn’t kill.
Bloody hell. Thoughts like that would get him nowhere. He’d gone longer without food. The days following the Initiative’s playing around in his cranium had been the longest of his life. This was a sodding cake walk in comparison.
“No drink?” Larry called after him.
“No can do, buckaroo. You and me have unfinished business.”
Spike shook his head again and staggered onward. “No more,” he murmured, waving the demon off. “Leave—”
“Is that defeat I hear?”
Another snarl tore through the vampire’s throat, and against his better judgment, he whirled on his heel. “Do we…really need to go through this again?”
“The bit about you not giving up?” Larry ventured.
“I don’ give up.”
“Yeah, I thought that’s what you meant.”
“But I’m done with you. You, your li’l cronies, all of it. Whatever’s next is next. I don’ need you whisperin’ in my ear.”
Larry quirked his head. “See, here’s what’s funny about that. I didn’t realize you were the one drawing up the rules.”
“And here we go again with the insults. They really don’t work, you know.”
“You sent me Buffy!” Spike roared. “You tried to…with Buffy.”
“Technically it wasn’t Buffy,” he replied. “And here I thought that was the problem.”
At last, the seemingly unmovable demon snapped. It was nothing remarkable. Nothing Spike could have predicted, but he was beyond the point of putting wagers on the table. One second Larry stood opposite him, bemused, and the next he’d rolled his putrid eyes and exclaimed: “Of course we sent you Buffy, you moron! What, you think we just started torturing people yesterday? She’s your greatest weakness. Your Achilles’ heel. Your faux fucking pas. You’ve made a good many mistakes in your life, my friend, but none so many and great as those made after your precious slayer came into your life. She’s the reason you’re here, right? The reason you’re letting us do whatever the crap we feel like—because you need to get to her. Do I need to remind you again where you are? This ain’t Disney World, pal, and we’re very good at what we do.”
Spike shook his head and turned again on his heel, rushing down the open tunnel. Rushing deeper into darkness, uncaring of what lay ahead. The pathway twisted and narrowed, expanded, and narrowed again. The third trial. He needed to get to the third trial. Buffy lay beyond the third trial, and he was so close. Christ, he was so close he could taste it.
Holy water had burned and he’d survived. Buffy had tormented, and he’d survived.
He didn’t care what lay before him so long as it got him where he needed to be. Hunger chased him and he ignored it. Fatigue nipped at his heels and he ignored it. Dizziness pounded against his brain and he ignored it. He ignored everything. Everything. He just needed to run.
Needed to get away.
And he was. He felt it. He felt how close he was.
The tunnel widened just a fraction, his weak eyes fixating on a nonexistent light. So close. So close…
And in an instant, everything changed. He didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late—wouldn’t have thought anything of it, even if he had. It was something small—something he’d felt before. Something so incredibly insignificant his brain would have failed to register. It was innocent enough. Things like this always were. Faint wisps of soft thread slipped over his arms and snagged his neck, roping around his legs before he could blink. And in a hair of an instant, the floor slipped from under him, jerking him to the fiercest halt he’d ever known. Spike howled, his head rocking back, a tortured gasp clawed for freedom as his mind raced, his starved stomach dropping from under him and his stilled heart thumping hard against his chest as though clamoring for freedom.
Spike blinked hard, gulping harsh breaths and craning his neck the best he could to figure out what the bloody hell had happened. His arms pressed against the restraints to little avail, his feet kicking, his body contorting, but nothing gave way. He was captured. Caught. Suspended awkwardly a good two inches off the ground.
Then he knew he wasn’t alone. The guardian was back. The guardian had never left. He’d probably followed him through the shadows. Watching. Waiting. Laughing.
Knowing all along how much further the vampire had to travel.
“Yeah,” Larry said as he stepped out of the darkness. “This looks messy.”
Words abandoned him. Spike had nothing to offer but a stare.
“Third trial,” the demon explained. “This is it.”
Incredulity took him by storm. “This?” Spike demanded, straining against his binds. “This is the third test?”
“The spider-web. You’ve done really well. Incredibly well, actually. I can’t remember the last time someone made it this far.” Larry inclined his monstrous head, banging his claws together in something resembling applause. “Really, William, well done. Though I gotta say, I knew you’d do it all along. That hero complex of yours…you got it, and by gum you wanna put it to use. So you don’t give up. Not even when the odds are dead against you.”
Spike ignored him, eager legs twitching. Buffy was just a little further down the tunnel. He knew it. Christ, he could taste it. “What’s the test?” he demanded. “Tell me the sodding test.”
Larry looked at him a minute longer, sighing heavily. “You never talk to me nicely,” he complained. “Would it kill you to say please every now and then?”
“Don’t fuck with me. What’s the test?”
“All right, all right. Mr. Touchy.” The demon blinked hard, shook his mammoth head again, and waved at him. “That’s a spider-web,” he explained. “Or…the rough equivalent.”
Spike’s eyes shot to his arm—to the white, filmy thread binding him in place. “All right,” he said slowly. “I’ll buy that.”
“And this being the third trial, we obviously want it to be the most difficult…”
“But really, I don’t think we ask too much.” Larry shrugged. “All you have to do is…well, hang out for a few days. Three days, to be exact. Three of your world’s days. No more. No less. I’ll check on you every now and then—”
“Three days?” Spike barked, unwittingly straining against his confines. “Buffy’s already waited—”
“And she can wait longer.”
“She needs me!”
“And providing you get this right, she’ll get you.” Another shrug. “I really don’t see what your deal is. After all, you’ve come this far. What’s three more days, huh?”
A sodding eternity. Spike’s eyes fluttered closed, forcing his temper back.
Three days. Just three more days.
Three days of knowing she was just a little further down the tunnel. And she needed him.
In the end, he had no choice. There had never been a choice. Buffy was the only option and he wouldn’t turn his back on her. She’d waited a week while her mates pieced together theories and methods and dug around old books for demonic fairytales. She’d waited as Larry toyed with her fate, constructing hoops and commanding Spike to jump. She’d waited for so long, and though it killed him, she would have to wait now.
He was the only hope she had, even if she didn’t know it.
He was all she had.
And to be saved, she would wait longer still.
He just hoped time hadn’t already cost them everything.
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