Author’s Notes: Thanks to Megan, Mari, and Kimmie for betaing.
Post The Gift. S.6, wanders AU around Bargaining.
What he could not pay in blood, he more than made up for in tears. There had been nothing else for the first week. The first long, agonizing week that the world lived on without her. Spike died a thousand times that week. With every sunrise, every sunset, every time he heard a heartbeat that wasn’t hers. A heartbeat that existed because of what she had done. What she had sacrificed.
The world mourned her, even if it didn’t know it. And he died a little more every day. Until the skin he wore was foreign. Until his ribcage poked through his cotton tees and his body began to wither away.
Willow checked on him often. And she brought Dawn. She would sit with him when it was quiet—when his crypt wasn’t a haven for his screams—and talk about Buffy. The Buffy that she knew and remembered. The Buffy that he’d only known from afar. At first, Spike was convinced that it was all designed to punish him, but he found, as more time passed, that Willow was helping in some small way. She told him things that Buffy would never have shared, and she did so because she knew that he’d loved her. And even though he didn’t believe it, he couldn’t help but cry at the witch’s certainty that Buffy had loved him, as well. A little. Just a little.
He felt he knew her more in death than he ever had in life. It helped, and then it didn’t. It didn’t help loving her more after she was gone. And he did; God, every day, he loved her more. He touched her more after she was put in the ground. After the dress that Willow and Tara had picked out was over her sacred body. After the funeral. After the burial. After the woman he loved was plotted six feet beneath his feet.
His heart was buried with her.
Buffy’s friends were being surprisingly wonderful. Spike didn’t know how to handle kindness. Hatred was expected. Malice and contempt were anticipated. He knew the blacker side of the human psyche well. So well. For a hundred years, he’d dwelled as a thing who fed off raw darkness. Kindness, though…Spike didn’t know how to react to kindness. Buffy had kissed him after he’d endured torture from Glory. She’d trusted him with Dawn when Dawn needed protecting. She’d come to him for help when fleeing town. She’d looked at him in the eye and smiled and welcomed him back into her house, and Spike hadn’t known how to react. Kindness. Kindness from the woman he loved.
Kindness from Buffy was one thing. He treasured every genuine smile she’d thrown his way. Every time she’d spoken to him like a friend. An ally. A confidant. Someone that she could turn to when she needed help. Someone she could trust. Though her kindness had nearly slain him with hope. Hope for something that could never be.
It hadn’t been easy. In the beginning, he’d changed for Buffy. Well, he’d tried to change for Buffy. He’d tried to look like he was changing, and somehow, in that, he’d actually changed. It had stopped being a ploy; it had become something real. Something tangible. He’d changed. And near the end, Buffy had noticed.
And now she was gone.
Spike’s eyes flooded with tears, his head hanging under a sheet of sparkling stars. Stars that shone without her. Stars that lived when she did not.
Stars lived; Buffy didn’t.
Buffy was in the ground and he was above it. He was dead, but she was gone.
She was gone.
Spike honestly didn’t know what brought him to her side every night. He supposed, in some small way, that it was a poor man’s last attempt to know solace. She remained gone, no matter how many times he saved her in his dreams. No matter how often he pictured a new ending for the night the world was stolen from him.
He came to her side to speak with her in death as he wished he’d been able to speak with her in life. He came to her side to pour out the soul he didn’t have onto her sacred ground. He came to her side to love her, because there would never be another for him.
She was gone, and he was dead. They were truly made for each other.
“Hello, Buffy,” Spike said softly, a long, raucous sigh trembling through his body, carrying a choked sob with it. “We’ve gotta stop meeting like this.”
The words fell idle around her tomb, as they always did. There was no witty retort, no snappy comeback. There was only the whisper of the wind through the leaves. The cool, haunting whistle through blades of grass as everything moved, even if all was still.
“I don’t know why I keep coming here,” he continued, sliding his hands into his duster’s pockets. He couldn’t draw his eyes away from the inscription on her headstone. She saved the world a lot. It was so appropriate, but likewise incredibly limiting. He understood why her friends had chosen it. The days following Buffy’s sacrifice had left them all numb. They hadn’t wanted to believe it; none of them. Spike had forced himself to be strong for Dawn, just as he knew she’d been strong for him. Just as he knew she cried herself to sleep at night, because that was what he did. Every night that knew no savior.
“Well, yes I do. I can’t go anywhere else. You know it as well as I do, yeah? Got ole Spike caught by the shorthairs.” He smiled softly, but there was no light behind it. He smiled as he would if she were standing before him. As if she could actually see him, now. See the hollow ghost of a person that she’d left behind. “Then again, you always bloody did.”
The wind replied with a low howl. It was surprisingly chilly, for being late summer in southern California. Not that Spike felt the cold any more than he felt heat. The wind touched him, and he didn’t feel a thing. He honestly didn’t remember the last time he’d felt anything.
Another long sigh rippled through his body, and he forced himself to close the space between them. He neared and dipped reverently to his knees, his left hand reaching for the engraving of her grave marker as though magnetized. “I thought of something else,” he whispered, his vision blurring. “Another way. I told you the last time…I can’t stop. Every bloody time I close my eyes, I see it all again. How I…I know I shouldn’t chat about your death all the time. Your mates…Willow, especially, she tells me I should talk about other things. Did I mention that? They know. Red came across me the other night. She heard me…I think she was coming to chat with you, too.”
Spike broke off at that and sniffed hard, wiping at his eyes with his free hand. God, in all his years, he couldn’t ever remember crying so much. For days now, it was the only function that made sense to him. He hated the times that he remembered to eat; when Dawn scolded him and demanded to know when he’d last visited the local butcher. In so many ways, he hated himself for making that bloody promise to Buffy the night that he’d lost her. The promise to protect her kid sis. The promise that kept him tied to the earth.
He wanted so badly to wither away. To simply stop existing, as he’d so readily stopped living. But he had to eat. He had to keep himself strong, because Dawn was the only piece of Buffy that he had left. As long as there were baddies to fight—as long as she lived, he’d exist. He’d be there to shadow her. He’d be there to make sure that Buffy hadn’t jumped in vain.
He’d honor Buffy. His promise to her meant everything. She’d trusted him when she’d asked it of him. Buffy’s trust was golden, and he would never, ever violate it. Never.
Spike blinked and glanced down, then up again. “They’re bloody lost without you, Summers. We all are. An’…I know. What makes it worse is I know it’s us. It’s all us, right? I’ve seen enough ugly death to know when it…when it’s just the people who are left behind, scrambling around an’ trying to make sense of everything. Willow’s bloody terrified that you’re lost in a hell dimension.” He shook his head soundly. “I know better. God, if they let you near Hell, your light would purify everything, an’ all the evil uglies like yours truly would just…vanish.” He paused and forced a raw, near-maniacal laugh. “Not that I would mind vanishing. I want to be gone so badly. But that’s not what you…it’s…”
He broke off, inhaling sharply. “It’s hard. God, I never knew…do you have any idea how much easier this would’ve been if I could’ve jus’ killed you when I first saw you? All balls an’ bloody swagger back then. So confident.” He shuddered. “I was so confident. An’ if I could’ve killed you then, I wouldn’t…”
The thought, the mere suggestion, made his stomach churn. God, was it possible that he’d ever been so naïve? That he’d ever lived a second on this earth without knowing the gnawing pain of loving Buffy Summers? He didn’t remember it. He didn’t remember the century before she was born anymore than he remembered the years he’d spent trying to convince himself that he wanted her exactly where she was now. He didn’t remember anything beyond being consumed with her; beyond his insides being drenched with her purity.
Spike knew there was a time when he could have beaten her. Had circumstances been different, he could have beaten her very easily. Before she became damn near invincible. Before the only person who could kill her was herself. He could have known life without his love for her burning a hole in his chest. He could have, but he’d rather live with pain than remember what his life had been like without her in it. And knowing that he could have beaten her—that his hands could be stained with the blood of an angel—made him sick.
Even through his grief, he was a better man for having known her. And the memories he had of her—the few good and the many bad—were precious in their own right. Each had been a steppingstone to where they were the night she jumped off the tower. How they’d come so far. Buffy had trusted him. Buffy had been kind to him. And each trade between them had, in some small way, brought them to that crossroad.
He’d never know where it could have gone. Never. But he hoped.
And Willow said that Buffy had loved him. Just a little.
Spike drew in another sharp, shuddering breath. “I miss you,” he murmured, pressing his palm to the ground. If he tried, he could pretend he felt the remnants of her warmth through the soil. But no. Her warmth was gone. She’d taken that with her. “I thought it’d get easier, you know? I thought eventually…eventually it won’t hurt to wake up.” He paused and laughed shortly. “I know I’m pathetic, luv. I can jus’…but it’s every day. It’s getting through every day. An’ I shouldn’t feel so bloody sorry for myself. It’s just missing you, right? You’re…where you went…I know you’re…God, I hope so. I hope I haven’t just convinced myself you’re warm an’ happy where you are, because Christ, Buffy if you…you never had a bloody moment’s rest while you were here. Not one.”
There was a quiet moment. He sniffed again and wiped his tears away. Not that it did any good. No matter how hard he tried to rein himself in, there were always more tears. “Is it wrong to…a part of me wants Red to be right. A part of me wants her to tell me to…I want her to tell me you’re in Hell so I can go in and get you out. So I can get you back. I could do it, see. I could save you then. A part of me wants the witch to tell me that you’re somewhere where you need to be saved, so I can get you back.” He ran his hand over the ground, shivering at the feel of the grass between his fingers. “I want you back so much. Even if you hate me—even if it meant…getting you back an’ it being like it was before. You have any idea what it’s like here, luv? What it’s like waking up without…without anything? Of course you do…I tell you every night, right? I let you know…I tell you. I try to talk about something else, but it just comes back to this. It comes back to how much I miss you. I miss everything. God, I even miss those sodding punches you’d bruise my poor nose with. Isn’t that funny?” He knew it wasn’t. “I should talk about something else, shouldn’t I? It can’t be all about me. I’m not that interesting…an’ the stuff that isinteresting, I’d rather you never hear.”
Spike sighed and settled on the ground, pressing his back to her headstone, his hand resting peacefully over the earth where she was buried. And in a strange, pained way, he felt closer to her than he ever had. He always did when he was speaking to her. “The first time I saw you. There’s a good story, right? I bollixed that up good, didn’t I? In my defense, I couldn’t have known. I saw you were light. You were pure light. An’ I couldn’t have known that I would love you. That I would love you as much as I do. I should have. I should’ve seen you an’ known it. God knows Dru did. She knew it right off—she jus’ never said anything. Not until we left. But she knew the second that I came home that I would love you. An’ maybe I fell that night. Maybe I fell in love with you at first glance. I should’ve known it. I should’ve looked at you an’ known, like Dru did. Maybe if I’d done things differently from the start…maybe…”
He smiled fondly, his fingers stroking the ground as he would stroke her skin. “You were marvelous. I can’t get over how marvelous you were. I told you…last year in that alley, that the second slayer I fought had a taste of your style. It’s true, yeah, but only a taste. She was still business. But you weren’t. God, you weren’t. Not like that, anyway. Not so…there’s no way to even put it. You were so full of life. You were jus’ bursting with it. I knew you’d be a challenge, pet. Bloody understatement, that. You never stopped challenging me. Even after I fell…it’s a part of why I love you so much. You never backed down. Not once. You never stopped the dance—you jus’ amended it. You’d dance with your chums then go dance with whatever fledgling was…well, an’ then you’d dance with me. You danced your best with me.”
Then again, he was biased. He saw her best when she was fighting him. She was so gorgeous when she fought.
“I want to wake up,” he whispered, the hard smile melting off his face, his eyes welling again with tears. “I want it to go away. Why won’t it go away? Every second gets a little worse. How is that?” A guttural sob tore at his throat. “The pain won’t end. I keep waiting for it to end, an’ it won’t. If it hasn’t by now…do you think that means it never will? I miss you. I miss you so much I can’t…why can’t I wake up? God, Buffy…I…”
Another breath of wind brushed over his skin. Spike shuddered and sighed, willing his eyes closed. He pictured her behind him. Pictured her hands on him, massaging his shoulders through his leather coat. If he concentrated, he could feel her fingers running through his hair. He could hear her melodic voice whispering into his ear. He could hear her reassuring him that everything would be all right. That she was with him as she’d never been with him. That things would be all right now. That the world would mend itself. That his heart would heal, and she’d be there to hold him when things got dark.
He could picture it. God, he was saturated in her scent. She was caressing him with her heaven-sent hands. Her silken skin was stroking his. He could almost feel her lips. False memories, of course. Bits and pieces of fantasy colliding with the few moments of intimacy they’d shared. Willow’s spell. Buffy’s soft kiss against his bruised lips. The look in her eyes when she told him that what he’d done was real. The softness she’d given him when he told her that night that he knew that she’d never love him. True memories mixed with fantasy. He’d never known her the way he wanted to. The way he did now.
The way she held him as he sat at her gravesite.
“It won’t end,” he whispered again, a note of resolution stinging his voice. “I won’t let it. An’ that’s the bitch, isn’t it? It could end, but I won’t let it. I don’t want to let go of you. I don’t want this to be…I can’t get through the day, Buffy, but I can’t let go of you, either. I don’t want to. I can’t. I need you too much. I…” He choked a sob and shook his head hard. “I don’t want to get over you. I don’t want to forget…an’ I’m bloody terrified that I will. So I come here an’ I talk to you…an’ it gets worse every day. An’ it could get better, but that would mean getting…getting over losing you. An’ maybe I should, but I don’t want to. I don’t want…”
He opened his eyes, but his vision was obstructed by a wall of tears. And the illusion was lost. Buffy’s ghostlike touch vanished. The whisper of her lips against his skin melted away. Her scent dissolved into nothing. He was alone. He was alone, leaning against her headstone. There was six feet of earth between them.
Buffy was gone, and he was dead.
And he envied her so much that his useless lungs choked on even more useless air. She was gone, and he had to be here. He had to exist when she didn’t. He had to pretend to live when she was gone.
Every day was getting a little bit worse.
He couldn’t let go. He couldn’t let her go. In a hundred years, he’d never lost someone like this. Not like Buffy. He’d lost her when she’d never even been his to lose.
He couldn’t let the world forget that she had died to make sure it went on. And if he had to remember for everyone, he would. There was nothing else for him.
Not with Buffy gone.
The summer knew many empty nights, even if he never knew any quiet. He spent his time patrolling with the others to keep as occupied as possible, for all the good it did. He lifted his chin when the Scoobies asked him if he was all right. He glared at the Buffybot when her back was turned to him, and turned his glare to Willow when the bloody machine’s synthetic eyes darted in his direction.
He hated that he was the reason that thing existed. That mockery of everything Buffy was and had ever been. That thing that wore her face and spoke as Buffy had spoken. The thing that appraised him with her Buffy-shaped eyes and complimented his body or his sexual prowess with her Buffy-voice. He hated being with them—the Scoobies—because it meant that he wasn’t where he wanted to be.
He wasn’t with Buffy. The real Buffy. The Buffy that lived with him in the cemetery.
He’d turned into a babysitter. A standby. He watched Dawn like a hawk when the Scoobies wanted her watched. He wasn’t about to turn around and let anything happen to her—not while he needlessly breathed air that should be hers. Not while he breathed and Buffy didn’t.
However, his determination to keep his promise notwithstanding, nothing could change the fact that Spike wanted to spend his time with Buffy. He was never wholly there when he was with her friends. His mind was always with her. What he’d say to her the next time he saw her. He’d never known himself to prattle on and on for hours before—it was something he’d associated with Dru. Talking when there was no one there to listen. But when he was with her, there was no stopping him. He’d tell her of a new way he could have saved her. He’d tell her how he could have not failed her.
Spike would tell her other things, too. He told her things he’d never shared with anyone. Never. Things he’d never repeated; not even to himself. He told her about his mother. He told her about the time when he was twelve and Gerald Connelly—some bloke that eventually met the business end of a railroad spike—had stolen sheets of his poetry and distributed them to his classmates. He told her how he’d worshipped Cecily from afar for so long, and how hard it stung when she threw his affections in his face. How he’d thought Drusilla was redemption personified. How much it hurt to love women who mocked him; women who used his love to get their kicks, then shagged Angelus on the floor right before his weeping eyes.
He told her that it hurt that she loved Angel, but had never loved him. But he was grateful that she never used him. He was so grateful for that. She never pretended. She never stroked him and kissed him before running to someone else. No. Buffy had always given him her honesty. Always. Even when it hurt, he could count on her to be exactly who she was. She never played him.
He didn’t know what he wanted to tell her tonight. Maybe talk about how her Watcher was going back to England. About how Dawn was getting scrawnier by the day and he didn’t know how to handle it. About how he’d dreamt of her the night before, and how he’d awoken drenched in his own tears.
Then again, that was something he told her every night. It didn’t make him feel better, and it certainly didn’t stop her from haunting him in his sleep.
He blinked wearily and sat up, then quickly averted his eyes as Willow entered the Summers’ living room, an overly-perky Buffybot trailing behind her.
“Good news. You’re off the hook tonight,” Willow said with a smile. “Giles’s flight was delayed.”
Spike sighed, his eyes glued to the coffee table. “So he’s watching the Bit t’night?”
“Willow and I are going to the Magic Box,” the Buffybot announced with that note of merriment that he loathed. “She is going to buy supplies.”
“Imagine that,” he drawled, rolling his eyes and climbing to his feet. “I’m off, then. Have a nice patrol.”
At that, Willow tensed and forced a nod. He would have said something if he cared more. “Yeah,” she said. “Patrol. We’re…we’re going to patrol.”
“I slay demons with pointy weapons,” the Buffybot confirmed with an enthusiastic nod. “Spike, don’t you want to help me wield the large weapons?”
He shuddered and ignored her. “Try not to get killed,” he said, nodding at Willow as he marched toward the front door, snagging his duster from the coat-rack.
Time to go visit Buffy.
“I enjoy watching the taut muscles in your back as you move away,” the Buffybot chirped helpfully. “It really accentuates your tight posterior.”
Spike froze. “Willow,” he said softly. “If she doesn’t stop doing that, I’m gonna rip her robot head off.”
“I-I’m trying. Really. Her extra programming—”
“Just. Fix. It.”
“Y-yeah, okay. I’ll fix it.”
There was a shuffle. “Spike? Did I do something wrong?”
The question slammed him into a proverbial wall. Of course the bot hadn’t done anything wrong. She’d been made for him, after all. She was the Buffy that he could have. The Buffy that was supposed to be the better alternative. The Buffy that was supposed to make not having Buffy something that he could bear.
The bot haunted him. He supposed it was what he deserved. She was there with Buffy’s perfect likeness because he’d put her there. And now he couldn’t look at her.
No. The stupid bot hadn’t done anything wrong. She just wasn’t Buffy.
Spike trembled and sighed again, sliding his duster on without turning around. “You know where to find me, if you need anything,” he said shortly.
He was out the door before Willow could reply.
Everything changed when he went to visit Buffy that night.
He’d wanted to go right after he left her house. He wanted to wash out her false image. He wanted to rant about his own stupidity—about what a bloody fool he’d been to ever think that he could manufacture something to take her place. That a robot with her face and body could ever fill the void. Could ever have substituted for what he couldn’t have.
That was what he would talk about tonight.
Only he didn’t get there as soon as he’d wanted to. He stopped by the butcher’s to pick up his blood first. Then he went home, fixed himself a drink, and had passed out in his rocker after a having a good cry. He was always exhausted after crying.
He was always exhausted.
It was late when he left the crypt again, but there would be no night that he left Buffy by herself. Not one. And while he might be a sorry excuse for whom she would want at her side, he would make sure that she wasn’t alone.
He never wanted her to be alone.
“Sorry I’m late, sweetheart,” he murmured by way of habit as he approached the headstone, his steps heavy with burden and defeat. “I just…”
He stopped cold when he saw it. The world stopped.
The wind whistled. The earth groaned. The leaves around his feet rustled and danced. And something was wrong. Something he knew well. Something he’d seen a thousand times. Clumps of grass and soil had been unearthed, and he knew why. Something had risen. He knew this. He knew this, but he couldn’t believe it. There was no way. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible.
The ground was disturbed. Buffy’s ground was disturbed.
It wasn’t possible, but it was true.
Buffy was gone.
In the hundred and forty-seven days that Buffy had been gone, Spike hadn’t thought it possible for his life to get worse. For the sorrow encasing his chest to grow wider. For the hole in his heart to burrow any deeper. For the proverbial chord around his throat to tighten. Never, in all his years, had he thought it feasible for vampires to asphyxiate, and he’d been wrong. He’d been wrong about so many things.
Having Buffy back was a dream realized; only somehow, it had turned into a nightmare. Because she wasn’t with him—she wasn’t with any of them. She was a ghost, a shadow, a mirage of the person that she once was. Her life was gone. Her brilliance. Her smile.
She was deader to him now than she’d been all summer. She simply existed. She wandered. She spoke when spoken to. She would attempt half-smiles when she noticed that her melancholy was especially evident. There were nights that he found himself stalking her on patrols, just to make sure that she walked away from the few vamps she encountered unharmed. Buffy handled herself well; she always did. But there was no joy to her at all. She was robotic. She moved entirely on autopilot. And he didn’t know how to help her.
He didn’t know if she even wanted help.
He’d avoided her at first, which was hard because he couldn’t stay away from her. He’d found her grave unearthed and he’d rushed to her house, only to find her with Dawn and a bewildered Giles. Buffy. His Buffy. She’d been all in white when he saw her. Dawn was doctoring her bruised, broken skin. Her hands were marred with red. She’d clawed her way through her coffin. Because of Willow. Because of Willow and the Scoobies and their bloody magicks that had brought her back.
Buffy had looked up when he burst through the door. Her eyes had found his, and he touched the stars. He couldn’t stop staring at her. Buffy. His Buffy. Back to life. Looking at him with the eyes that haunted him every night. And for a second—for a blink—he imagined he saw something there. Something warm. Something precious.
She’d whispered his name. She’d breathed his name. His name, on her lips, knew more life in that blink than he’d known all summer. And then, just as quickly, it had vanished.
Spike’s unsuccessful campaign to avoid her had started almost subconsciously. When he awoke, he’d think of her, and his gut would twist and ache. It seemed every fabric of his being was drawn to her—contorted with the desire to protect and comfort her, even when she refused the help he offered.
She’d told him about Heaven once, and there was nothing for him to say. Nothing to do. He couldn’t offer her a hug or his shoulder—he couldn’t pat her back and tell her that everything would be all right, because it wouldn’t. Her friends had torn her from paradise. And he was the only one who knew. She’d entrusted that knowledge to him, and he found it terrifying.
It wasn’t fair to expect her to live when she’d already died. But she was in pain. She was in so much pain, and he didn’t know how to help her.
He was the only one that knew why.
But he couldn’t talk to her. He never knew what to say. God, what was there to say? And while his insides were bursting with ecstasy at the knowledge that she lived—that Buffy was alive again—it was harder now than it had ever been before.
She wasn’t the girl that had jumped. She didn’t give him anything. Not the tentative kindness that had fueled his hopes before the apocalypse, and not even the cold repulsion that he had come to know as well as the taste of blood. His nose had not once been damaged by an angry slayer fist since she came back. She gave him nothing. Not kindness, not hatred. She treated him like an extra in a play.
Then again, that was how she treated everyone.
And in the midst of everything—adjusting to life with Buffy very much a part of it once more—Spike couldn’t bring himself to end his nightly ritual. He needed to be with her. He needed to be with Buffy. He went to her gravesite every night and wept, spilling confessions into hallow ground and begging her to give him guidance. How to help her. How to make things better. How to be a friend, even if she didn’t want him at her side.
Spike knew she didn’t love him, but on the same level, he felt a kinship with Buffy that went deeper than love. He’d spoken with her every night, and she’d held him when he cried. Perhaps it was all in his head—perhaps he’d fabricated a dream-world in which she understood him. In which she saw how much not helping her was killing him. But he felt he knew her better than anyone in the world, because he was the only one that had been with her at all while she was gone. He’d been with her every night just to keep her from being alone.
He couldn’t talk with the real Buffy now. He didn’t know how. It wasn’t fair to push all of his issues onto her fragile shoulders. She was dealing with something that no one could even begin to comprehend. To thrust his why-won’t-you-hit-me-like-you-used-to problems onto her, like anything was her fault, would make him more a monster than he’d ever been in the hundred years before knowing her.
But he needed to talk with her. He needed to do something. Forced separation was killing him. He had to remind himself constantly that, even if she had awoken in a state where he felt comfortable in approaching her, he’d never had any rights on her at all. She didn’t love him. Buffy didn’t love him. The Buffy that he loved, that he cried to, couldn’t stand the sight of him. She didn’t care. She barely tolerated him. She was kind, yes, because that was the sort of person she was. But she didn’t love him.
However, as long as he could, he would sit beside her in the falsified warmth of her phantom arms and talk. There was solace in that. Simplicity at its best.
Tonight, in that regard, was no different. He approached her grave the way he always did. His hands shoved awkwardly in his pockets, his eyes filled with reverence and sorrow. He read her epitaph again. And again. And again.
She wasn’t there, of course. Buffy wasn’t six feet beneath him anymore. She was breathing air and eating food and drinking water and going through the motions of being alive.
She’d seemed more alive to him when she was dead.
The air around her grave was still saturated in her scent. It had been for days now. Spike sighed and bowed his head. “Hello, sweetheart,” he whispered. “I keep telling you that we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
The wind whistled. Leaves rustled and danced.
“Right.” He shrugged helplessly and settled on the ground beside the gravestone. The ground knew him well by now. “That line has gotten a li’l stale, hasn’t it? Guess…I never know what to say, luv. How to start. It’s funny, I guess, ‘cause I usually end up blabbing my bloody head off. Just never know how to start.”
He glanced down, his eyes fluttering shut, and the pain in his chest intensified.
“I saw you today,” he said softly, his fingers grazing the grass above her empty grave. “Not long ago, point of fact. I was…I was going by your place. See if you needed anything. I’ve been trying to keep away…but I can’t. Not when you’re there an’ you’re…you’re not talking to anyone. I can’t touch you. You weren’t too keen on my touching you before…but now. God, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know…”
Another long sigh tore at his throat. His legs itched to pace, but he forced himself to remain stationary. He didn’t want to leave what, in his mind, was her side. The place where she knew peace. “What they did to you…I don’t…I know they hurt you, pet. I know it. They love you an’ they hurt you. They took you away from…from a place that I can’t even…they took you away from that.” He clenched his fists, exhaling slowly. The thought of what she’d been through always unmade him. “An’ you…I look at you now, an’ you’re just there. You’re just…you’re just there.”
Spike paused. “You’re there,” he repeated reverentially. “Do you have any idea how much I…it was like I woke up, when I saw you again. I walked through those doors an’ you were there, an’ my nightmare was over. It had never happened. None of it. I never had to see you dead. I never had…all of this was in my head. You were there. I saw you an’ my nightmare was over. An’ yours was just starting, wasn’t it? I look at you an’ I don’t see you at all. I can’t see you at all, Buffy. You’re just…there. An’ it sodding kills me.”
He winced the second that the words left his lips. He hated the way that sounded. How selfish he could be, demanding that she get over her pain so that he could get over his.
It didn’t change what he wanted, though. Her pain was his pain. And every time he was near her, he felt it in spades. How much she was suffering. How every second that she was with them on Earth was another second too long of her reevaluated sentence in Hell. “I want to know how to help you,” he whispered. “I want to know how to make it better for you. An’ I know I can’t. I know it. I can’t just give you Heaven back. I can’t…but you’re not alive, Buffy. God, I look at you, an’ you’re jus’…you’re gone. An’ I can’t stand seeing you so dead when you…I want to try. I know I can’t do much, but I want to try. An’ I have no way of…how do I even tell you that? How do I even…”
He broke off again, trembling. He had a handful of soil, now. A handful of the earth where Buffy had rested for a hundred and forty-seven nights. A handful of the earth where her ghost had clawed her way to freedom. “I want to try,” he whispered. “But I don’t know how. It’s not like I have any…you’re hurting so much, and I can’t help you. You don’t talk to me. You don’t talk to anyone. An’ when you do talk to me, you jus’…you’re only half there. An’ I can’t stand it.” Another quivering sigh tore through his lips. “I wish you’d give me something. Anything. You don’t even…you don’t even seem angry with what they did to you. You don’t care. If I thought that beating me senseless would bring you to life, I’d go do something to earn it.”
The wind answered him, as it always did. He caught a low howl as it collided with branches and ricocheted off cold mausoleum walls. Just the wind. The wind that carried her scent. She was everywhere; she was always everywhere. She wandered the cemetery at night. She likely came to see her own resting place. He didn’t blame her. Wasn’t often someone got to stand on their own grave. Not like this. And the thought left him completely unraveled. “I’m so sorry. God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that I can’t be sorry for what they did. They brought you back. They brought you back an’ you’re here, but you’re not…an’ I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I can’t wish you dead to make you happy. I love you too much to wish you dead. I love you too much to…I look at you, an’ it kills me. An’ I want to help so bloody badly. I want to help. And I can’t. I can’t.” He shook his head. “I can never help you. I tried saving you an’ I…I’ve saved you every night…but not when it counted. Not when you needed me. An’ when I could’ve saved you again, I didn’t. I could’ve…”
Spike wanted to believe that he would have stopped it. He really did. But he knew better. Had there been the slightest chance that he could have her back, he would have wanted it. Any chance that he could see Buffy again—that the gaping hole in his chest would mend—and he would have wanted it. A shudder raced down his spine and he shook. “You were lying in sunshine,” he whispered, his eyes fogging with tears. “I couldn’t touch you. You were lying in sunshine. All in white. You jumped because you had to. Because I wasn’t quick enough. Wasn’t clever enough. An’ when I wanted to hold you, you were lying in sunshine.
“I don’t really remember what happened after that. I think Willow…I think she an’ Glenda brought me home. I don’t remember. All I know is, you were in sunshine one second an’ I couldn’t touch you. An’ when I looked up again, the light was gone an’ I was alone.” He sniffed ineloquently and wiped at his face, bits of dirt falling through the cracks between his fingers. “I wanted to dust. I thought about it…about how to do it. How to kill myself. An’ somehow I didn’t. I’d like to think it was because I was strong enough to go on, but I’d made you a promise. I wasn’t going to fail you. Not again. I’d already failed you once an’…I wasn’t gonna do it again. An’ then Red came by an’ asked me to help her with the arrangements. She said it was gonna be a night funeral…so I could be there. So Angel an’ I could be there. She let me pick out your shoes, an’ I put one of my rings on your finger.” A sharp, high-pitched titter rang through his throat. “I wanted to be there. I wanted to climb down there with you an’ just…but I couldn’t. I’d made you a promise.”
He paused. “An’ then I saved you every night. But not where it counted, right? An’ not even when I could have again. I’ve been here so many times, Buffy. I’ve sat here with you an’ now you’re back. An’ I didn’t get a chance to save you. You’re back an’…I can’t handle it. I can’t.” Spike inhaled sharply and shook his head. “You’re not in sunshine anymore, but I still can’t touch you. I look at you an’…I hate them for what they did. I hate them an’ I love them, an’ I can’t touch you because you…I don’t know how to help you, Buffy. I wanna help you so much. An’ I try to reach out but I can’t because I didn’t save you. I can’t talk to you. You’re not…I want to make you alive again. They brought you back an’ I want to bring you to life. But I can’t. You’re a ghost. You’re a sodding ghost. I touch you an’ you feel nothing. I touch you an’ I feel cold. I can’t give you Heaven. I can’t even save you.” He shook hard, a harsh sob choking through his lips. “God, tell me, Buffy. Tell me how to save you. Tell me what to do. Tell me how to…I don’t know how… I love you too much to just sit here an’ do nothing, but…God, just tell me what to do. Tell me how to make the hurt stop. Please.” He shook his head and shuddered, the whole of him dissolving into tears. “Please tell me how to save you.”
And then he couldn’t speak anymore. His body was tense and drawn with the harshness of his grief. He knew the taste of his tears well by now. So well. He knew how hard his body shook when he couldn’t sustain the weight of his sorrow. He knew his lungs would fight for air that he didn’t need. He panted and choked and sobbed, tried to get a handle on himself before breaking again completely. He was sprawled out of her grave, his cheek pressed to the ground, and he listened to the sound of his own cries as the wind tried to calm him.
He felt her fingers on him, again, as he had a thousand different times over the summer. He felt her skin against his. He felt her arms. He heard her voice. He was surrounded in her completely, and it was only getting worse. And that was the way things had been ever since she’d returned from the dead. He imagined her pulling him into her arms, coaxing his head to her shoulder as she soothed him. As she told him that it was okay. That everything, somehow, would be okay.
He wanted to believe her so badly. The whisper of a girl that no longer existed. He wanted to believe that she was right.
But she wasn’t real. She was never real. And when he opened his eyes, the chimera would be gone. The Buffy he loved would be gone.
Only it felt so real; he could believe the fantasy a little while longer. Just a little while.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, brushing her lips against his brow. “It’s okay.”
Spike shivered and rubbed his cheek against her, his sobs subsiding as his body calmed. “Buffy…” he whispered. God, she felt so real. Too real. It was possible that he’d finally lost what little sanity he’d had left. She felt too real to be a figment. And yet, he knew that she would vanish as she always did. The dream got a little more tangible with every passing night, but that knowledge did little to cushion the fall. He’d open his eyes, and he’d be alone. That was the way it was. The way it had always been.
“Spike…” She ran her fingers through his hair. “Spike. Open your eyes.”
He shook his head.
“Please open your eyes?”
Another quivering breath raced through his body.
No, it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible. But he felt her. He felt her beneath his fingers. Her warmth. Her purity. God, he could even feel her heartbeat. Her heart was beating against him, and she was weaving her fingers through his hair, her lips caressing his skin softly.
It’s an illusion.
“Spike.” Her hands were on his face now, pulling back ever-so-slightly. And then she kissed him. It was brief, but heartfelt. It was, quite simply, the sweetest kiss he’d ever known. She tasted like sunshine and warmth. She tasted the way he remembered her. The girl that had lived all summer in his heart. She tasted like Buffy. “Spike, please. Please look at me.”
It wasn’t possible. When he looked, she’d be gone. She always was.
But he couldn’t stay here forever. He couldn’t live for want of pretend. Spike sighed his defeat and opened his eyes.
And dissolved into tears again when Buffy graced him with a smile.
There were times when she thought she’d imagined it. For the first few days after Willow had raised her, she’d begun to wonder if she was fabricating memories for want of belonging. But no—she remembered the talks well. Too well to have imagined them. She remembered them the way she remembered Heaven. She remembered warmth and compassion. She remembered unlocking things that she’d never thought to touch. She remembered clarity.
Death provided clarity. The idea struck her as laughably cliché at times, and when she’d lay awake at night, waiting for sleep to find her, she pondered how much knowledge she’d gained in Heaven. She’d told Spike once that she’d been warm and safe and loved…and finished. And while that was true, it was only the tip of the iceberg. She’d been so much more than that.
Enlightenment was the ultimate state of Nirvana, and for one hundred and forty-seven days, she’d lived there. She’d watched the world fall time and time again perilously close to plummeting over the edge of another apocalypse. She’d watched her friends grieve and cling to one another—like a movie with the mute button permanently in place. She couldn’t hear them, and while she wanted to comfort them, she’d known it would be all right. That all would eventually be all right. Death inspired grief; it was human nature. And eventually, they would come to terms with their grief and move on. It was the way things were. She wanted to tell them that she was okay, but she couldn’t. Instead, she watched and waited for them to move on, never hearing a word.
Not unless they spoke to her. Buffy couldn’t hear a thing unless they spoke to her. And Spike had spoken to her every night. He’d gone to see her every night, and she’d digested every word.
It was tragically humorous, the way the universe lined up. It took dying to see him as she had—as she did. It took being away from him to get to know him at all. And he told her about himself. He babbled to her endlessly, whether or not he was standing at her gravesite. When he awoke, he’d talk to her. When he was hungry, he’d talk to her. He’d talk to her in his head when he was with her friends. He’d talk to her while watching Dawn. He’d talk to her while dodging the Buffybot’s endless inquiries. Spike never stopped talking to her.
There was no want of prejudice where she’d lived. No anger, no resentment, no definitive lines of right and wrong. She’d seen Spike for the first time after dying, and since he talked with her every night, she’d grown to know him more and more. He wouldn’t let the world forget her, even if it killed him to remember. Her memory, to him, was something precious. Something that pained him. Something he treasured.
The wealth of his love was too much at times, especially when it tagged his grief.
And then, in a blink, everything had ended. Buffy had awoken in a coffin, torn from warmth and enlightenment. Of love and understanding. She no longer had Spike’s voice whispering in her ear. She’d been torn from light and placed into cold earth; into a body that no longer knew how to live. And since then, life itself had been on autopilot.
Heaven, in many ways, was turning into a dream. Something she knew that she’d experienced, but was having more and more trouble remembering. At first, there had been nothing but a blank wall. All she’d known was that she had been warm and now was freezing. Her nerves were raw. Her skin was numb. There was a void carved in her chest. She felt nothing, because she’d lost everything.
She remembered her first night back. Remembered feeling like a stranger in her house. Remembered Dawn’s room-by-room tour. Remembered Giles’s befuddled cleaning of his glasses and his unwillingness to stop hugging her for the first half-hour. And as Dawn was cleaning her hands—hands that she’d used to claw through her coffin—Spike had burst into the room.
The look in his eyes…if she lived another thousand years, Buffy would never forget the look in his eyes. He’d swallowed her with all the warmth of what she’d lost. He’d looked at her, and for an instant, she felt she was exactly where she belonged. That nothing had been forfeit at all.
But it was only a shady memory. She didn’t know why she felt so drawn to him; she just did. She couldn’t remember. She couldn’tremember. Only that he was there and she felt she needed him, and that thought—new to her recently reborn earthbound psyche—had been as confusing as it was disturbing. There were certain things that Buffy knew about her life. Spike was a good ally, and he loved her. But he wasn’t Heaven.
Buffy couldn’t remember that he’d been in Heaven with her. She just couldn’t.
However, her uncertainty over her feelings for him had led to several revelations. He was the only one who knew. She felt confident in telling him her secrets; she didn’t know why. And the more she told him, the more she wanted to tell. The more she wanted to tell, the more scared of herself she became. And with every second that passed—every second that she spent cold and numb—she lost more of what she remembered. She lost more of her afterlife.
The worst was being aware that it was happening. The worst was the recognition that she was losing herself. She felt the wisdom she’d gained in death had been lost the second that she fell back to Earth. And while her nights were haunted with dreams—with snippets—she always awoke less a sentient being and more a shallow mockery of human existence.
Spike started avoiding her then, and she didn’t know why it cut like it did. Not until tonight. Not until she’d seen him at her gravesite.
Not until the locked door finally flew open, and she remembered everything.
And suddenly, everything made sense. The world made sense. And while the ache was still very much present, while her skin was still numb and her insides still frozen, there was something now that she’d feared she’d lost. Something that could, in time, thaw her internal winter.
A spark. A spark of warmth. A spark of something beyond the sisterly love she felt for Dawn and the begrudging affection she had for her friends. The knowledge that, in their eyes, they’d done right by her. Those emotions were standard. They came with her, because she’d died with them. She’d died loving her sister and her friends. She’d died with that.
But loving Spike? That was something that dying had given her. Something she’d brought back. Something that her human memory had tried to reconcile with the experiences of a non-human entity. She’d loved him wholly in Heaven.
And now, holding him, she remembered everything.
Spike was dazed when his sobs finally subsided. He held onto her, and from the look in his eyes, she knew that he wasn’t entirely convinced that she wasn’t a figment. A tribute to wishful thinking. And even though he had his arm around her waist, even though he kept murmuring her name to verify her tangibility, there was nothing she could do or say to truly prove to him that she was real.
It wasn’t until they were at his crypt that he finally said something other than her name. His fingers laced through hers, a note of panic hitting his voice, he tugged her to him and murmured, “Are you leaving?”
Buffy drew in a shuddering breath and shook her head. “No,” she whispered softly, smiling. “I’m not going anywhere.”
And she didn’t. She didn’t go anywhere. She led Spike to the downstairs of his crypt of her own accord. She ushered him to bed, climbing in beside him.
She wrapped her arms around him, holding his head to her breast, the rest of her giving over to the first note of solace she’d known since awaking. She ran her fingers through his hair, because she knew he liked that. And she waited. She waited for him to speak.
There was nothing for a long while. Nothing but his arms around her. Nothing but the feel of silent weeping as his tears resurged and dampened her blouse. She didn’t try to stop him. She knew sometimes it was better to cry.
Right as he was falling asleep, Spike’s arms tightened around her. The trembles wracking through his body absolutely unmade her. He was a tower of strength, and he’d been broken all summer. Broken because of her. Broken because he’d sent himself with her, only God hadn’t allowed him inside. And now he was with her, trembling.
But it was different. Everything was different. She remembered him. She remembered that she loved him. And it was time to heal.
“Please be real,” Spike whispered. “Please.”
Buffy brushed her lips across his brow. “I’m real.”
Her reassurance seemed to calm him, and she followed him into sleep.
The next morning, she awoke to find Spike staring at her, his tired eyes rimmed with red and filled with fear and wonder. “Buffy?” he whispered, reaching up to touch her face. “Am I dreaming?”
The hoarse disbelief in his voice filled her eyes with tears. “No,” she whispered. “You’re not dreaming.”
And then she lifted her chin and caught his lips in the sweetest kiss she’d ever known. It was a rebirth, in many ways. Kissing him like this, in a body that was experiencing life all over again. She whimpered when he whimpered. She tasted tears, but she didn’t know whose. She explored his mouth and cupped his face. She kissed him like the world was ending, only it wasn’t.
For Buffy, it was only beginning.
That night, they stood at her gravesite, hand-in-hand.
“It’s time to say goodbye,” Buffy murmured. “I’m…I’m no good at this sort of thing. I never was.”
“It’s not goodbye,” Spike replied, squeezing her hand and coaxing her eyes to his with little more than a gasp. The awe that blanketed her gave her such warmth. Such hope. He didn’t know how much he gave her simply in a look. “You’re right here.”
Buffy blinked rapidly and smiled. They would pay their debt in tears. She doubted he would ever stop making her cry. And it didn’t bother her. The tears that Spike inspired were of release and joy, not pain and sorrow. Those tears were precious. She’d never gotten to cry them before, and now, she’d relish every second. “You know I love you, right?”
The look on his face would remain with her forever.
“I love you,” she said again, turning her eyes to the headstone before her vision blurred completely.
The girl that had jumped from the tower was no longer there.
The girl that had jumped from the tower had gone to Heaven and grown up. And she stood now with the man who loved her, holding his hand and sharing his tears.
Her eyes fell to her epitaph and she shivered.
Beloved sister. Devoted friend.
Buffy released Spike’s hand, wrapping her arm around his waist.
“I love you, too,” he whispered, kissing her temple. “I love you so much, Buffy.”
She saved the world a lot.
She saved the world. She’d earned Heaven and the world had given her Hell. And Spike had saved her. Spike had saved her from Hell. Spike had rescued her from her self-constructed inferno. And if she lived a thousand years, there would be no way to ever repay him.
“Goodbye,” Buffy whispered, staring at the headstone and shivering hard.
Goodbye to the girl who jumped.
A long sigh rippled through her. She turned to Spike, wiping her eyes. “Take me home?” she asked softly.
He nodded and kissed her, and the world melted away.
The girl who jumped was gone, and in her place was the woman who lived. The woman who lived and the man that loved her. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand. Gaining back Heaven with every step. With Spike at her side.
He chased the cold away and gave her warmth. With Spike, she would remember how to live.
And in that, there was no greater peace.