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Stronger Than Death

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SPIKE
Don't I get a cookie?

BUFFY
No.

William's mother was very grand. She wore silk and jewels, and she had at least a million ruffles on all her dresses. When it was cold, she wore a beautiful fur coat. And when she went to parties, she let William put the flowers in her hair.

Sometimes he got them crooked, but she never minded. She called her maid to fix it.

"Mother, what do you do for so long, when you go to parties?" William asked her. "You come home so late."

"And how do you know that, my dearest?" his mother asked him in turn. She smiled, with that special crinkle at the corner of her mouth that was just for William.

William was usually just an ordinary (and sometimes far too solemn) little boy with pretty curls, but like his mother, his smile was something special. He didn't hold anything back. "I know because sometimes I sneak out and sit on the stairs so I can watch you come home," he told her. "I pretend that I've been to a party too."

"Oh dear. I must have a talk with your nurse," his mother sighed. She gave him a far less special smile, the one that said 'no' at the same time. "You're far too young for parties, William. Talking and dancing and staying up late isn't healthy for young boys like you."

"Is that what you do?" William asked, deeply disappointed.

"Why, what did you think I'd do?"

"Sing and eat cake," William said promptly.

The crinkle at the corner of her mouth appeared again. "My dear, you must have a party for me, and we'll do nothing but sing and eat cake."

"At night? Like a real party?"

His mother pursed her lips judiciously. "No."

William's face fell. "Oh, please, mother..."

His mother shook her head and turned to her maid. "Netty, it's time for William to go back upstairs," she said.

"I want to have real party," William whined. It was not a pretty sound, and his mother was not sympathetic. "Please mother please, a real party with you..."

But it was no use. His mother shook her head and Nurse came and took him away, and then he was sorry that he'd whined.

But later that night, after he was startled wide awake by the locomotive roar of Nurse's snore, he wasn't sorry at all. Mother had been distracted. She'd forgotten to tell Nurse not to let him sneak out. She'd tell Nurse tomorrow, but tonight, he could still pretend.

His quilt was his imaginary fur coat, because the great hall was cold. His slippers were dancing shoes. The candles down by the front door were waiting for his mother too; they gave him just enough light.

He danced alone until his mother came home. The corner of her mouth crinkled when she saw him, and then, to his surprise, she ran lightly up the stairs and joined him.

They danced one perfect dance in the candlelight, then she woke up Nurse to put him to bed.

WILLIAM
First we'll feast. And then the night is yours. The theater
perhaps. Dancing... Tell me, what's your pleasure?

Heaven sure did a number on Buffy.

Spike thought he knew every sodding thing there was to know about death. He'd looked at it from both sides: life and death, dying and killing. Death was his savior. Since Dru bloody up and left him, death was his oldest friend.

But Buffy--

If he didn't know better, he'd think she was dying, just the same as his mother had been dying so long ago (not the way his mother died). Dying of consumption was a lengthy business, a long lesson in surrender. A long road to eternity, and she'd traveled it alone, no matter how he clung to her, and she to him.

Buffy was somewhere on that road. She breathed, her heart beat, and there was nothing wrong with her body -- Spike had been over every inch of it and he knew -- but she lived with heaven in her heart, and that was just another way of saying her heart was bloody empty, far as Spike could see. Nothing gave her pleasure. Not her friends, not slaying...not him. She was dead inside.

That wasn't the death he knew and loved.

SPIKE
I could feel this new strength coursing through me. Getting killed
made me feel really alive for the very first time. I was through
living by society's rules. Decided to make a few of my own.

Lessons were over and William's governess had released him to sit with his mother. William's mother was busy preparing for tonight's dinner party; she directed the maids to decorate, she directed the footman to move the furniture, and she directed William to leave her alone. William only got in her way.

He found refuge in the kitchen, where cook set him down in a corner out of the way and gave him some hearty soup and a pretty pair of jam tarts to eat. William was always hungry; just his age, mother said.

He ate the soup exquisitely slowly; good manners made it last longer. The tarts were so good it was harder to take small bites, but he imagined his mother was watching, and that made it easy. He wanted to please her.

He was almost done when Pickering, the butler, came down with last minute instructions for cook. William listened, comparing the formal dinner party to family dinners.

"And she said to ask that Mr. Thorne about the brandy," the butler said significantly. William pricked his ears. "What do you think, Mrs. S.? Is he worthy of her?"

"She wouldn't hardly be having him round so much, relative or no, if she didn't like him," cook said. "She's slowing down lately and that's the truth. Fewer parties and more quiet nights at home. If you ask me, it's time she settled down again, with a good man to take care of her. She's been gadding about ever since Mr. Pratt--"

"That'll be the day," Pickering said. "She'd never remarry. And if she did, you may take it from me, she'd find a dashing young gentleman in a uniform, like Mr. Pratt used to be, not a middle-aged clergyman like his dull cousin Thorne..."

"She's slowing down, I tell you. Needs a nice steady gentleman..."

"My mother is not going to marry Mr. Thorne," William said, very clearly.

"Heavens, love, I'd forgot all about you," cook said. "We didn't mean anything by it."

"I should hope not," William said severely.

But he didn't have the trick of being severe, because cook smiled and wiped her hands on her apron and set another couple of tarts in front of William. "Go on then, what's she think about him?"

William hesitated, but the kitchen maid was busy on the other side of the kitchen, so it was just cook and Pickering, after all. And it was very flattering, the way they looked at him. So as he ate the tarts, he told them that his mother never talked about his father, but that was the proof that she still loved him. "She cries when I do something to remind her of him," he explained. "And clutches me so tightly that I sometimes fear she'll never let me go. But she's really embracing him."

They nodded, impressed.

"I'm all she has," William said, feeling oddly proud of the distinction.

Later, William was sitting in the parlor reading when Mr. Thorne arrived. "Well, well, well, young William," Mr. Thorne said cheerily. "It's lucky I caught you alone, I've got something for you. I found it up in mother's attic. Used to belong to your father."

It was a regiment of toy soldiers. William didn't know what to think. They were exactly what he'd always wanted, and they were pure trouble if his mother ever saw them.

"They're very jolly," he said politely. "Thank you."

"Thought you'd like them," Mr. Thorne said. "And since you and I are friends..."

And then Mr. Thorne asked him about his mother. It seemed everyone wanted to know if mother was going to marry Mr. Thorne. But while mother wouldn't mind cook and Pickering, servants always knew everything anyway, Mr. Thorne was an entirely different matter indeed.

"My mother has a great deal of respect for you," William said politely, and however Mr. Thorne pried, that was all he would say.

"Look here, William, speaking man to man--" Mr. Thorne was quite stubborn.

"Oh, my dear Mr. Thorne, have you arrived? I'm so glad--"

William moved in front of the soldiers, but it was too late. His mother turned white the instant she saw them, and swayed alarmingly. William moved to put an arm around her, but she looked at him like he'd betrayed her and pushed him away. That look cut him to the quick.

William had no brothers or sisters, and very few friends. He had never learned what any other boy of his age would know: do not tattle. He always told his mother everything as a matter of course. So you must not think too harshly of him for immediately exclaiming, "Mr. Thorne brought them."

His mother turned the betrayed look on Mr. Thorne. "Oh, Charles, how could you?" She rang the bell for the maid.

"...belonged to William...thought young William could...didn't know you'd object, Anne..."

"We do not play at war in this house," his mother said. "Take them away, Jane. Burn them."

When the maid had carried them away, his mother burst into tears. Mr. Thorne moved to comfort her, but it was William she turned to.

"Don't be too much like your father," she whispered in his ear.

"Don't worry, mother. I'm going to be as good a man as my father when I'm grown, but I won't follow him to war."

Secretly, William thought he would make a splendid soldier. If only he had a chance, he was sure he could be as strong as Lancelot, and as pure as Galahad. Instead of a warhorse with burnished hooves, he'd ride a cavalry horse, and instead of a shield his many medals would sparkle in the sunlight. But a chivalrous knight would never trouble his mother with such thoughts. A knight protected the ladies.

He held his mother more tightly, let her rest her head on his shoulder.

ANNE
You think you'll be able to love her? You think
you'll be able to touch her without feeling me?

When Buffy's naked, pressed against him skin to skin, he can feel her blood circulating. There's nothing so intimate as blood. She moves against him, she moans or cries out-- he feels it with every nerve. Her heart beats and it's not nerves, it's deep and rich and warm and it's bloody life, calling him. His sluggish blood rises to the rhythm of her sprightly heartbeat.

Even when they've got more clothes on, out catching a quickie on the grass, or behind the Doublemeat Palace, it's still about blood. About life. Even for him, sex is an exultation of life. His body might be dead, but he brings her body to life.

He's bloody good at it.

BUFFY
Don't. That thing [the Buffybot]… it's not even real. What
you did for me, and Dawn, that was real. And I'll never forget it.

William spent the day he was meant to go down to Cambridge in his mother's sickroom. "Influenza," the physician said gravely. "A bad case. You must prepare yourself." Mother moaned and tossed in her bed.

"Is there no hope?" William asked. Mother looked so thin; when had she become so pale?

"Where there's life, there's hope, young man. Keep her calm, don't let her wear herself out, and make sure she takes this." He gave William a prescription and left, shaking his head.

A bad sign. Usually, William would ask mother what she thought, and she'd tell him if he really needed to worry. Mother always knew what people really meant; that was how she navigated society so sure-footedly. The dashing widow always knew exactly when to stop. William tried, but he never saw what she did. Too much imagination, she scolded him. He wished she was able to scold him now.

She called out for William in a weak voice. William ran to her side, and took her hand. Like magic, she became quiet, her eyes fixed on William as if he could save her.

He did everything he could. He stayed with her night and day, soothed her and gave her medicine and plumped her pillows. He read to her until his voice was hoarse, dried her wild tears when she realized that he wasn't the William she was really calling for, dried her tears again when she remembered who he was and tearfully insisted that she loved him more than life and tried to send him away.

He considered going, but as soon as he left the room she fell into a delirium, shouting so loudly the neighbors could probably hear. He rushed back to her side.

Days blended together. Somewhere, there was light and darkness, but in mother's room there was only the pungent smell of sweat and sickness. She grew so hot he could barely stand to touch her. The physician's headshakes grew even more grave.

"Mother, listen, I'll read you some of my poetry," he said. It was dark beyond the window, the servants were in bed. It was only him and his mother, but even in this dreadful solitude, he had to clear his throat more than once before he could continue. His poetry was the one thing that he'd never dared show anyone, not even his mother. "You know you've always wanted to hear. I hope it will inspire you toward life. Oh mother..." He didn't say If the worst comes, I dearly want you to hear this before you die. He didn't even think it. But the words he had struggled to put together, fighting them into place, seducing them into meaning, these words spoke of loneliness and comfort, of alienation and of love. He gave her the gift of every feeling he had in his heart.

She listened, he was sure of it.

The next night, he was reading her more of his poetry when the fever broke. Mother looked at him and her eyes were clear and benevolent. He kept reading until her eyes drifted shut and she fell into a restful sleep.

"She's through the worst of it," the physician said when he visited in the morning.

"Thank God," William said.

"But you must take care," the physician continued sternly. "She's still very weak. It will take time for her to recover fully. She may never be as strong as she was."

William nodded. It was a herculean effort of concentration, but he listened with utter attention to all the physician's instructions.

After the physician left, William wasn't sure what to do. Mother was sleeping, and he was so tired, but he didn't want to leave her. Finally, after making sure the quilt was tucked in snugly, the fire wouldn't need tending, and that there was cordial for her to drink if she woke, he retired to his room, leaving mother in the care of the maid.

He sat down on the edge of his bed, holding his hands toward the fire. There wasn't a bit of a shake to them, and that surprised him. He unbuttoned his waistcoat -- his coat and necktie were long abandoned in the other room -- and watched the fire.

He realized there were tears falling down his cheeks.

"Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean--" he murmured to himself, but it was a lie. He was a cauldron of bubbling emotions, joy and relief the easiest to understand. And fear, because it would be so easy for mother to relapse when she was so weak. And beneath all that, he was disappointed about Cambridge, his first adult adventure. He'd never been to school, he'd always had tutors, but Cambridge... He didn't think he'd be matriculating any time soon, not with mother so weak. All those plans belonged to the days that were no more. So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more...

He buried his head in his pillow and sobbed.

A knock at the door brought him back to himself. He wiped away the tears and straightened his clothes and called the maid in.

"She's asking for you," the maid said. "Says she'll get up if you don't come to her, and she mustn't. She's too weak."

"Thank you, Jane," William said. "I'll be right there."

His mother needed him. He abruptly realized that Cambridge or not, this was his first adult adventure.

WILLIAM
Think of it. No more sickness. No more dying. You'll
never age another day. Let me do this for you.

He'll take anything from Buffy. He'll take her blows, her disdain, whatever she needs to give him. She can use him like a punching bag, use him like a sex toy, his love for her will bloody well survive, whatever she throws at him. Love is stronger than death.

But don't get him wrong, he thinks about what he could take all the time. Take the surrender from her eyes. Take away the chains that keep her locked away in her own dismal world. With one bite, he could set her free.

But he can't give her anything, because she won't take anything from him.

SPIKE
I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of
course. But after that. Every night after that. I'd see it all
again, do something different. Faster or more clever, you know?
Dozens of times, lots of different ways ... Every night I save you.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Mother dissolved in a cloud of dust. William's mouth tasted like ashes.

"We should have eaten her," Drusilla sang.

"No!" William shouted. "No!!" His face turned beast-like with the intensity of his emotion. "I was going to save her. I was going to give her eternity."

"Don't cry, William." He wasn't crying. "It's just as well. You can't have two mummies, and I'm your mummy now. You must be my knight, you promised."

"It is not--!" William growled. "Why did she have to--"

"In a hundred years, you won't remember her," Drusilla said serenely. "Do you want to keep the dust?"

"No." He groaned. "There's nothing left of her."

"My poor William. You should have known."

He kicked the dust. "She should have known." Mother's dust settled again, coarse and gritty. "Stupid bitch."

SPIKE
You know I can't bite you.

BUFFYBOT
I think you can. I think you can if I let you. And I want to let
you. I want you to bite me and devour me until there's no more.

"Do you trust me?" he asked.

"Never," she said, but it's not true. She doesn't want to trust him, but she does. She turns to him when she's in trouble, she knows he'll be there for her. She leaves him a million openings that he could use if he was willing to take more. He could chain her to the wall -- he's done it before -- he could devour her in exquisite agonizing sips.

But he won't. And it's not just the sodding chip talking there. He's in love with the bitch. He'd be willing to suffer unimaginable agony for her, if it would give her what she needed. But he's not a monster anymore, and he knows better than to breed monsters. He's in love with her alive and kicking, with all that delectable blood safe inside her delectable skin -- she's cruel enough already.

So he'll be her whipping boy. He'll seduce her with darkness; he'll show her the glory in the shadows. Show her the side of death she's missing, show her the life that could be hers. He doesn't have to hurt her.

He can still save her.

SPIKE
You always hurt... the one you love, pet.