“I know you’ve heard the stories,
But they all sound too good to be true.
You’ve heard about a place called home,
But there doesn’t seem to be one for you,
So one more night you cry yourself to sleep
And drift off to a distant dream. . .
Where love takes you in
And everything changes,
A miracle starts with a beat of a heart.
When loves takes you home
And says you belong here,
The loneliness ends and a new life begins
When love takes you in. . .”
From “When Love Takes You In” by Steven Curtis Chapman.
* * *
After she and her friends reached Los Angeles and celebrated with Angel and his group, she found that she didn’t feel quite right.
She wasn’t sure when she realized that she felt that way.
Maybe it was when Angel embraced her with joy upon her arrival and gave her a personal tour of Wolfram and Hart.
Or it could have been when Giles stood up, insistent that as one of two remaining Watchers if they counted Wesley, he needed to recount the story of what happened.
Maybe it was when, after a day of their scheduled, enthusiastic shopping spree, Xander burst into tears over his triple chocolate mocha and wept like a baby over the loss of his beloved Anya.
Perhaps it was when Willow came to her for a quiet chat about the events of the battle… what happened when she went beyond the darkness and revealed the joy and ecstasy of her consequent release from the murky swamp of insecurity.
And maybe the feeling came when she was standing in the bathroom, brushing her curling, wet hair with the cheap plastic brush she bought in the hotel gift shop. Through the fog of shower steam, she had had one of those elusive moments of self-awareness. Despite her revelations about who she was, where she was on the journey, and her plans for the future, she found that she still couldn’t bring herself to tell her friends exactly what happened to the one who sacrificed himself for them all. She had set aside the brush and smiled at the irony that even now, she remained who she was.
No matter when the feeling came to life, she was certain of a discomfort in the depths of her being, and when she woke in the middle of the night in the hotel room she was sharing with Dawn, Giles, and Xander, she went to the balcony, stared up into the moonless sky, and just *knew*.
With fresh surety, she sat at the cramped desk and scribbled out a brief note on the pad of hotel stationery that said she was going somewhere, that she needed to do something, and that she would be back in a few days at the most. She wanted to reassure them that she wasn’t running away from them.
She also took Giles’s credit card and left an “I.O.U.” in his wallet.
* * *
The rental car only drove so far to the edge of what once was Sunnydale. She persisted though and was able to go a little further by driving off the highway before she grew wary of reaching the edge and falling over. Jerking on the parking brake, she exited the vehicle with the urgency of one who had somewhere to go. . . someplace to be.
Despite her show of confidence, the hollow in the pit of her stomach told her that she really didn’t have anywhere to *be*.
The sky was still dark and cloudless, and only the stars lit her path. As she picked her way across the rubble mosaic that formed the border of the giant crater that she would inevitably face, she wondered about what lay in the pit beyond.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to face the scraps of people’s lives that were utterly destroyed in an instant. . .ripped to ribbons.
She didn’t know if she wanted to attempt comprehension of the thousands of memories scattered like broken souls in the wind.
Eventually, the city would be long forgotten. . . valued only as a would-be phenomenon to stop, stare, and marvel at. People would ask their loved ones, “What could have happened here to form such a huge hole in the Earth’s surface?”
But she. . . she would never forget what happened. . . even if she had to tape the shreds together.
The memory still thrummed with vibrant intensity, creating a long, deep wound in her mind that would turn to scar tissue but never completely disappear. She’d borne such injuries in the past. . . injuries that damaged her very essence. However, this time, she didn’t want the memory to wound her soul.
Beyond a shadow of doubt, she knew he wouldn’t want that to happen.
She walked. . . pushing aside the random but familiar surprise of her muscles contracting and releasing that comes with surviving something so dramatic.
A wind blew.
Tugging her jacket around her mid-section, she peered through the invisible push and found the edge of the pit.
The drop-off was steep. . . more abrupt than anything she could ever climb down without ropes and anchors. . . even if she was a Slayer.
“Where’s Riley when you need him?” she grumbled to herself, thinking that perhaps her ex-boyfriend would have some sort of tools or even technology to get her places.
But then, Riley would never be out here. . . not based on a feeling of unease. He would have needed a goal to pursue, and he would have had to assemble a team. . . or at the very least, brought his wife, which was *so* not something she needed to deal with right now.
She kept traveling.
Every perfect shape had a flaw if a person looked hard enough, and she wasn’t taken aback when she found a tiny, less sheer path she could descend without falling several hundred feet.
Trusting her instincts, she avoided the pitfalls of loose dirt, sharp glass and metal that dotted the sediments. She almost lost her balance once when she stumbled over a chunk of broken roofing that she didn’t see, but she caught herself by bracing against the wall of the crater beside her. A cascade of dirt and other bits and pieces flew past her, coating her in a light cloak of dust. . . Sunnydale’s flesh.
She kept traveling.
A few wispy clouds formed in the sky above, partially covering her only light source. When stray raindrops began to fall, officially staining her light-colored clothing, she paused.
Eyes wide at the sky above, she shivered.
What was she doing here when she could be safely tucked away in a warm bed next to Dawn?
Rain droplets expanded in size as she watched, drenching her in individual water balloons. As a strong gust of wind and water washed over her, her eyes widened further.
Something whispered on the edge of her mind. . . in a voice that she would have recognized no matter how garbled by outside forces.
Was it. . .?
It was a memory. . . nothing more. . .
She bit her lip and remembered what he’d said to her the last night. She’d curled up against him and felt his arm strong around her waist. His voice had been soft as a song in her ear before she drifted to dreams, “I believe that we’ll be all right.”
And she had believed.
The precipitation let up, and frowning slightly, she shook off the hopeful chill that had momentarily filled her soul.
Even though she doubted her senses, she felt the urge to keep going. . . to continue her climb downward.
She took fifteen steps more and lost her equilibrium again.
And this time, she didn’t regain it.
As if on cue, the rain gushed in buckets.
Heart leaping in her throat, she seamlessly pulled herself into a roll to reduce any injuries she might incur. Simultaneously, she reached out for anything to stop her motion. She felt lost in the force of gravity, in the pounding rain, without the chance to analyze what was happening. . . like she’d been lost in the chaos of the final battle, in which she’d only relied on her instincts.
When she was starting to believe that the falling would never end and that she would certainly drown, her body contacted something hard. . . large. . . and warm. . . something very real and very alive.
Rain cascading over her, she remained unmoving until the dizziness that enshrouded her began to evaporate.
As the lightheadedness dissipated, she began to match the rain with her own inner storm. Sobs wracked her small frame so hard that she almost couldn’t take in further oxygen. All she felt was a primitive emotion she could only tentatively name loss. Her mind could not wrap itself around the feeling enough to overcome or make full sense of it, and she rode the waves as she had never done until she was gasping for breath and her ribs ached so much she thought they might burst.
Hiccups took over briefly.
Then, she quieted.
She focused on her heart beating and her chest rising and falling.
Her mind returned to itself and drew attention to the body before her.
The first coherent thought she had was that someone had not evacuated Sunnydale and that he or she had somehow survived and ended up on this. . . apparent ledge. Was this what she was to return for. . . to search for survivors?
Harnessing her inner strength, she raised herself slightly and opened her eyes, blinking away the steady raindrops.
She ignored the mud that caked her clothes, hair, and body, and she disregarded the loss of one of her shoes.
Between the darkness and the water, the body before her was indistinguishable to her vision. So, she reached forth with shaking hands and blindly *felt*.
The body’s muscles were compact and firm.
With the discovery that she’d found a member of the opposite sex, her thoughts tripped unwittingly over a montage of memories of *him*. Nothing was specific. . . remembrance of his touch, the way he smelled, the way he sometimes talked. . . or cried out. . . in his sleep.
Further exploration led her to discover that the male was completely naked. . . except for something around his neck. She fingered the heavy chain, and her fingers fumbled rapidly over each link until she found what lay heavily at the end.
Her heart nearly stopped in her chest, and a small cry escaped her lips.
At that moment, she noticed that the rain had ceased, and she brushed the remaining precipitation and mud from her eyes. In the low starlight that persisted in peeking through the clouds, she was greeted by something she wasn’t sure was real.
Impulsively, she rolled the man onto his back, knelt beside him, and ran adroit fingertips over his forehead and cheeks, astonished at the heat radiating from his skin into her hands. She found his chest and pressed her hands lightly down, so they could rise and fall each time he inhaled deeply. Behind the movement of his lungs and ribcage, a faint beat thrust itself forth, telling her that he was alive. . . very much alive!
Tears rose anew in her eyes, but they were happy tears. She had to make sure her senses were telling her the truth.
Impulsively she closed her eyes and brought her face parallel to his, hovering over his mouth and nose. For the first time, they shared air heated by both their bodies. She was enthralled by the simplicity and significance of this.
Slowly, she lowered her head until her lips were on his. Her skin tingled with his presence.
But she didn’t kiss him.
She merely mouthed the words he’d said to her when they woke up for the last time together, “Looks like we made it another day.”
His body jerked beneath her, and their eyes flew open concurrently as he woke.
His initial expression was one of confusion and disbelief. He opened his mouth once to speak, but no sound emitted. She just watched him. Then, sadness rooted itself in his eyes.
His hand reached up and cupped her face. His next words were barely audible, but she heard them anyway, and she perceived the defeat. “You didn’t make it out in time.”
She couldn’t find a response, so she just shook her head with glittering eyes and a smile that said she was holding back.
“You did?” He was uncertain.
Mutely, she nodded.
“Then. . . you didn’t make it afterwards,” he stated without emotional intonation. “And you ended up here with me in this. . .” He paused to glance around at the desolate surroundings. . . or what he could see of them. “. . . hell.”
She shook her head again.
“And somehow, they took out your tongue when they put us in this godforsaken place,” he added with a trace of his old spunk. “Well, hey. . . at least we have each other. . . . Or in your case, maybe that’s not so good.”
When she didn’t respond but continued to stare, he asked, “What happened? Do you know? I mean. . . I think I remember some of the end but. . . .”
She’d been a little afraid to speak aloud in case she might wake from a dream, but now she summoned the courage. “You don’t know what you are?”
“What I am?” He was attempting to process too many things at once, and nothing was very clear.
Taking his hand in hers, she placed his palm flat over his heart. His face registered the heartbeat and breathing immediately, and he sat up abruptly, forcing her backwards. She held onto his knees to keep from falling.
Now, it was his turn to be speechless, and he stared down at himself as if expecting somehow that he would have a completely different appearance.
Her smile broadened into a grin. “Yep. You’re *alive*.” Her eyes widened. “And you’re *naked*.” She scrambled to peel off her saturated jacket.
Wrapping the tiny coat around his waist, he wondered aloud, “I’m *alive*? But why?”
She threw her arms around his middle, embracing him tightly, and his arms held her with equal strength. “I honestly don’t know, but I’m sure Giles will figure it out. . . o-or one of everyone else who does prophesy research.”
“Then, . . .” His fingers ran through her wet, dirty hair, and she felt like she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
“All the core Scoobie group made it. . . all but Anya.” She swallowed back tears of regret.
His tone matched hers. “Anya?”
“She died saving Andrew.”
He said nothing. Then, “And Faith? And Wood?”
She smiled. “All fine. Alive and kicking in L.A. They should make a T-shirt with that on it.”
He chuckled, and she relished the sound rumbling against her ear. “Or ‘I survived apocalypse number fifty-two.'” His good humor faded. “And Dawn?” He was ashamed that he hadn’t asked about her first.
“She’s fine! She bought a new wardrobe this weekend. . . or at least, the beginning of one.”
“Because you lost everything.” He laid his cheek on the crown of her head.
He took her by the shoulders and held her back. “So, we’re not in a hell dimension? We’re not dead?” he asked as if the truth was slow to register.
“Nope.” She pointed over the edge into the giant crater that still extended several hundred feet below them. “*That* is Sunnydale. The hellmouth: officially *closed* for business.”
“Wow.” He panned the pit. “I did all of this?”
She picked up the medallion that was resting on his moving chest. “Yeah. You and this thing.”
Their foreheads were almost touching.
He smiled almost shyly. “I’m a champion?”
“Yes.” She studied his face as he gazed at the jewel in her hand. He didn’t seem to believe what he had done, so she repeated her confirmation, “Yes, you are.”
The sky was becoming a faint navy blue. Dawn was approaching. Clouds were struggling to re-configure themselves into a more organized formation before the sun’s arrival.
She unexpectedly felt extremely uncomfortable in the dirt and realized that she didn’t want to get caught in the mud again. Disentangling herself from him, she stood self-consciously, aware that she didn’t exactly look her best. In the past, his face would have been a mirror of hurt at her departure from his arms, but now, his eyes were merely filled with a uncertainty.
“We should get out of here before it starts raining too hard again. It could make the ascent even more slippery.” She glanced at his half-naked form. “And we aren’t exactly dressed for hiking.”
He surveyed the path from which she had come and nodded. “I agree.”
She helped him up, and they began climbing with an amicable silence between them.
Sprinkles of liquid were starting to hit them when he asked from behind her, “How did you know where to find me?”
She didn’t look back. “I don’t know.”
Not letting the topic go, he asked, “I mean, you went to L.A., right?”
“And. . . you came back,” he continued.
She sighed because she wasn’t really sure of what to tell him. “I just had a *feeling*.”
She reminded herself that just because he was alive didn’t mean that he wasn’t the same annoyingly persistent person. She elected to like that about him. . . for the moment. She reached back for his hand and squeezed gently when he laced his fingers with hers. She cast him a fleeting glance and said, “I didn’t feel right inside. And something told me to come back here.”
The rain began to come harder as they climbed. Dry mud and grime slipped off of them as if they were shedding a second skin. With each step, she felt a little cleaner.
At last, they reached the top, and when they did, the precipitation lightened to a drizzle.
“Where’d you park? You did drive, right?” he asked a bit breathlessly from the exertion of climbing. He touched the area above his heart. “And. . . and my heart is pounding.”
She smiled at his wonder.
“I forgot what that felt like.” Then, his eyes caught the image of the giant crater behind him. “Whoa,” he breathed as if he hadn’t just seen it down below
She rubbed his arm with her free hand. “Yeah. Pretty big, huh?”
Astonished at the vastness of the view, he said the first thing that came to his mind, “Goodbye, Sunnydale.” Part of him was filled with sorrow at the loss of the tiny city that had been his home for so long, and the other half of him was oddly relieved to be moving on.
“Understatement of the year,” she remarked wryly.
She broke his thrall when she tugged on his arm. “Come on.”
Following her lead, he kept his eyes on the gigantic hole in the ground. “Where’d you park?”
She squinted but couldn’t see the rental car despite the continually lightening sky. She hadn’t thought she’d walked such a long distance. “Far, far away.”
He didn’t have a response to that, and they journeyed with a comfortable quiet between them.
Approximately twenty feet from the vehicle, the sun chose to peek above the horizon.
Being used to seeing the sun start its daily march across the sky, she remained unmoved, but he dropped her hand and knelt to the ground.
Alarmed, she turned to face him and was relieved to read the wonder painted across his face.
She went down beside him with aching legs, trying to put herself in his shoes.
“I never thought I’d see this,” he whispered, gaze unwavering.
The rays deliberately grew and expanded like golden streamers, granting red-blooded life to the edges of the remaining clouds and warming their skin.
He sat back on the dirt, knees jutting up to hold his wrists. Distracted by his change of position, she smiled at him. Slipping her arm through his, she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Well, Spike, it looks like we made it another day,” she said in a low voice, repeating her earlier words. Her expression was full of peace and contentment.
Smiling, he scooted her closer to him so that she was flush against him as they continued to watch the sunrise. “And, Buffy,” he said her name purposefully, “I think we’ll be all right.”
Without a doubt, she knew that she felt right again and that they would find the way home. . . together.