Part 1: Choices
Beneath the high school, the battle had reached a feverish pitch. The combined roar of the earth’s trembling and the swath of sunbeams annihilating the enemy was practically deafening. Spike stood at the center of it all, his panicked expression slowly fading into something peaceful and accepting. The earth lurched violently, almost throwing Buffy and Faith to the ground. Spike, however, seemed to be held up by an unseen force and didn’t so much as waver as the ground beneath his feet began to give way.
It took a moment for Buffy to truly understand what was happening: Spike was going to die. And he didn’t seem the least bit upset about it. Though she had faced the same sort of sacrifice herself, she couldn’t understand why he looked so peaceful. “You’ve done enough,” she shouted over the roar of battle. “We need to get out of here!”
He started to argue with her, eyes flashing with fierce determination, but all she heard was Faith’s panicked cry behind her. “Buffy, come on!” she called, trying to maintain her grip on the rock formation at the entrance of the Hellmouth.
Things began to move in slow motion. Before she realized what she was doing, Buffy closed her hand upon the fiery amulet, ripped it off of his neck, and pulled him out of the deadly beam of sunlight that glared down from above. With an indignant but weak roar, Spike melted bonelessly to the ground, panting as if he was in great pain.
“Help me!” she cried to Faith, who immediately grabbed Spike’s other arm. Together they hefted his limp body up towards the Hellmouth entrance and out into the high school. The walls were screaming in protest, as if the very foundation beneath them was giving way.
“What the hell’s happening?” shouted Faith. “All the guy did was shine a little solar flashlight down there.”
Buffy ignored her as she urged them to go faster down the dust-filled hallway. “Blanket!” she exclaimed when they reached the doors. Letting go of Spike’s arm, Faith retrieved a blanket that had been purposefully placed near the entryway and threw it over his head.
Cries of panic came from the school bus as the people inside gripped whatever they could to steady themselves against the furious tremor. Buffy felt a wave of relief wash over her when she caught sight of her sister, safe and sound. “Buffy, hurry up!” Dawn cried, whipping around so that she could run up the stairs of the bus.
Breathing laboriously from both the weight of Spike and from the noxious air around them, Buffy and Faith barely managed to get themselves and the unconscious vampire through the door before Principal Wood threw the bus into gear and began speeding away from the high school.
“Shit.” Faith whispered, her eyes on the horizon behind them. “The school just collapsed. And there goes The Java Chip. Damn it, that place had kick-ass lattes.”
Giles looked pale and old as his eyes beheld the destruction. “It seems as if the damage is stopping there. That’s certainly a relief. The whole city could easily have collapsed.” There were several anxious cries from those who heard his words, but Giles ignored them. Turning back towards Principal Wood, he said, “Once we’re certain the earthquake and any aftershocks have ended completely, we should double back and see if our work is indeed complete.”
“Hold on a sec there,” Faith argued animatedly. “You’re talking about the city collapsing in on itself, and you want to go back? Are you fucking crazy, G?”
“If the topographic damage has ended, we should attempt to finish this now while the enemy is weakened,” insisted Giles. “We’ll drop off the wounded at the Summers’ residence, but those who are well enough to go on will return to the battlefront. It may well turn out that there’s nothing left to worry about, but if there is, we cannot afford to relent until our enemy is stamped out for good. Buffy, do you agree?”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
The truth was she hadn’t heard a word he had said. Ignoring just about everything around her, Buffy had collapsed breathlessly in the aisle. The wound that had punctured her back all the way through her stomach flared painfully as Spike’s limp but heavy form fell partially on top of her. She gripped him close nonetheless, willing to ignore the pain if it meant there was something solid pressed comfortingly against her. She couldn’t decide if it was her that was shaking so violently or if the earthquake had yet to relent. A wobbly breath eased from her chest.
“You okay?” asked Dawn, leaning over her sister with wide eyes.
“Help me get him to the back of the bus,” Buffy said, ignoring the question. Together they took hold of Spike’s shrouded form and pulled him down the aisle towards the covered seats set aside for him. Tugging back the edges of a small tent made out of thick, dark blankets, they carefully lifted him onto the seat.
“What’s wrong with him?” inquired Dawn when Buffy pulled the singed blanket away from his face. “He looks . dead.”
Buffy knew that what her sister was suggesting was impossible, but the words hit her hard nonetheless. Spike was a vampire, of course; if he was truly dead, she wouldn’t be looking at his corporeal body but at a small pile of dust. But seeing the way Spike’s head lolled around with each bump and turn concerned her deeply. Dawn was right; he really did look dead. Swallowing in hopes to wet her parched throat, Buffy gently pushed her sister back so that she could grip him by the shoulders. “Spike?” she said in the firmest voice she could muster, shaking him with nervous roughness.
Nothing happened at first, but eventually his eyes slowly peeled apart. Blinking as though in a daze, Spike drew in a wheezy, unneeded breath. The blue of his irises was completely eclipsed by his pupils as he gazed emptily back at them.
Despite his appearance, Buffy found herself sighing with relief. The fact that he had regained consciousness eased her mind, and she felt released to turn her attention to the others on the bus. Asking Dawn to stay with him, Buffy rose and started down the aisle, checking on injuries and counting heads. When she noticed a flash of red hair, she made her way over to check on Willow, who was barely conscious but seemed to be on the edge of a magical high that had her practically giddy. She appeared only slightly more aware of her surroundings than Spike, but she nevertheless wore a bright smile on her pale face. “Am I good or what?” she said with a wink.
Buffy didn’t remember what she said in reply, but she doubted Willow would have heard her over the roar of the bus anyway. In the distance, Buffy caught sight of dust and debris flying in the bus’s wake, but it didn’t really register in her mind what had happened outside. One thing she did notice was that they were closing in on Revello Drive. The prospect of home seemed almost ridiculous to her, as if she’d never expected to see it again. She glanced at Spike, knowing if it hadn’t been for him, none of them would have even survived. She would have a lot to thank him for later on, when he had recovered.
Buffy was forced to grab onto the edge of a seat as Principal Wood hit the brakes and brought the bus to a complete stop in front of her house. Giles stood and began shouting orders as everyone started rushing towards the doors. Too exhausted to bother getting tangled in a crowd, Buffy moved aside so that everyone could file off in front of her. It was then that she felt Xander tapping her shoulder.
“You, uh, didn’t see Anya, did you?” he managed, looking around the bus as if she might pop up from behind one of the seats unexpectedly.
Buffy followed his gaze, frowning as she realized Anya was no longer in their company. “Oh God, Xander.”
She said the words more for his benefit than anything else. Of course Anya was a great loss, and Buffy knew that down the road she would have the strength to care more. But at the moment, all she wanted to do was limp off the bus, curl into a ball, and sleep for several years. “Maybe Andrew knows something,” she suggested hopefully. “He was with her, right?”
Xander looked slightly nauseated as he nodded, glaring down at Spike’s vulnerable body lying in the seat next to them. Without another word, Xander unceremoniously gripped the unconscious vampire’s arm and began toting him out of the bus towards the house.
“Buffy,” began Giles as he made his way down the now-empty aisle towards her. “What caused this?”
“Caused what?” she replied weakly, collapsing into the seat that Spike had just vacated.
“The Hellmouth collapsed in on itself,” he clarified, sounding duly impressed. “Well, at least partially – the bits surrounding the high school. I’m not certain a complete collapse would be beneficial to the topography of this county, to be perfectly honest. But what caused it?”
“Spike,” she answered mechanically, not realizing until that moment that she still had the amulet gripped in her hand, its chain wrapped tightly around her dirty wrist. “This thing nearly killed him. I ripped it off of him before it could.”
Giles regarded her silently for a moment before reaching out a hand. “May I?”
“Be my guest,” she said, unwrapped the chain from her wrist and handing over the amulet indifferently.
Giles studied the markings on it curiously, holding it up to the sunlight, which was partially obscured by the dust still flying in the distance. The opaque jewel inside sparkled innocently as the glimpses of light hit it, but to Buffy’s relief, the amulet showed no signs of launching into another brilliant lightshow like the one it had provided earlier. “I’d like to study this further, if that’s all right.”
“Sure,” Buffy replied, her voice still on autopilot. She rose at last from the seat and slapped the thighs of her jeans to force out some of the dirt clinging to the denim.
“I wanted to let you know.” began Giles before she could slip past him. “That is . I wanted to tell you how very proud I am of you. Not just for today, but for the entire year. And for the record . you were right about Spike.”
Buffy glanced up in surprise at his words.
“I still don’t approve of his presence in our operation here,” Giles clarified, “but his actions today at least prove that he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good. I daresay not many others would have done what he did. Perhaps he’s come further along than I assumed.”
“You should tell him that yourself,” suggested Buffy. “It would probably mean a lot to him.”
“And voluntarily associate with that brainless pillock?” Giles quipped, ripping his glasses off his head in indignation. “I think not.”
Buffy smiled at his teasing tone, feeling a bit of the resentment she’d felt towards her former Watcher fade away. “I’m gonna head inside, if that’s okay.”
Returning the awkward smile, Giles nodded and turned. He wandered down the aisle in front of her, muttering something under his breath about the pity of Bilbo, a reference Buffy didn’t come close to understanding. Holding an arm across her injured stomach, she fixed her eyes on the dust-filled horizon, wondering exactly how much or how little they had accomplished.