“The darkest place I’ve ever been – this is what lies beyond that.”
– Willow Rosenberg, "Chosen"
From a great distance, as though filtered through rushing water and roaring fire, a dim cry: “Spike! Spike, can you hear me?”
He lifted his head, or rather he tried to, but as he tried he felt a searing pain so consuming it seemed to come from everywhere at once, and he dropped his head and became still again, exhausted.
For a while, he forgot about the voice. Gradually the pain faded, enough for him to begin to register his surroundings. He realized he was on his stomach, splayed on cold, wet pavement that dug into the exposed skin of his face and arms. He could smell nothing but the wet road, and could see nothing at all – until a sudden flash of red across his vision made him flinch, then wince from the renewed pain, and then, all at once –
– the red oozed away to reveal more flashes – an army of demons, all shapes, all sizes; more and nastier creatures than Spike had ever seen, than he had ever even dreamed existed; all headed straight for them – Angel, raising a sword, his eyes aflame with anger (“Let’s go to work”) – Gunn, his eyes wide with fear and pain, flailing with sword and fists, screaming, before he fell, swift and silent, as a winged, hideously lizardlike demon ripped out his throat with a long, jagged talon – Illyria, howling several galaxies of rage and grief – slicing through demon after demon – and then, when her sword broke on the hide of a particular nasty, punching through flesh, tearing out organ after organ – until it too fell, and she moved to the next – until finally they were too many, and her strength was not enough – and the body that had once held a remarkable woman, and now held a remarkable demon, toppled for the last time, and was empty at last... – Angel again, locked in a struggle with a great blood-coloured beast – dodging blasts of flame from its nostrils – stabbing with precision at its thick chest – looking for all the world like a magnificent dark knight, fighting wildly for his kingdom – until finally, his dodges slowed and his parries weakened, and the great beast caught him in a flickering exhale, and shouting for Spike to keep moving, he vanished without a sound – and Spike caught just the faintest glimpse of a few black ashes floating upward, before the demon he himself was fighting came back around for another jab with its great, wet, black horn, ugly hatred in its pale-pink eyes – he dodged, rolled, grabbed a shard of metal from the carcass of a nearby car, stabbed at his adversary’s bulging neck – and missed – and suddenly there was an intense pressure in his midsection, a pressure that grew into a sharp, searing pain as the creature’s horn pierced his skin – he was lifted bodily off the ground, spun around, and thrown – he hurtled into the wall of a nearby building at high speed, – ricocheted, – hit the ground, heavy plastic siding from the wall collapsing atop him – he could feel the gathering dampness beneath him as the wound in his chest began to gush – and then everything went black, and all he could sense was the screaming all around him, in every pitch imaginable, the entire spectrum, filled with shrieks and shouts – some of which (he must have imagined it!) sounded human – and then the sound, too, began to fade – and then Spike began to fade, and faded, his mind racing through everything he had done and not done, in life and in death – and the black he had always thought he was prepared for, but never thought would feel quite so final, took him at long last.
His eyes snapped open, then rapidly shut again. The flood of memories was wedging open a Pandora of questions he wasn’t sure he really wanted to ask – where was he? All he had seen when he snapped open his eyes was a blinding whiteness – it couldn’t be day – and it didn’t feel like any hell he’d ever heard of – what had happened? Was he the only one left? Was he left?
Then, suddenly – there it was again. That voice.
It sounded clearer, and closer, than before – its tone was faintly familiar, though he did not know why, could not understand how… How could it be familiar, his mind raced, when there’s no way anyone familiar could have survived that bloody apocalyptic...apocalypse? Yet there it was, familiar, clearer and clearer – and clearly concerned that he had made no answer.
“Spike? Spike, please – can you hear me?”
“Unnhhgghh,” was all he managed to force out. That, however, seemed to be enough. There was a rustling sound, and then the voice, now completely clear and noticeably female, continued.
“It’s alright,” said the woman, “you’re alright...but I need you to try to move...I have to check for wounds. I’ll help you.”
Firm hands gripped his jacket at the waist and shoulder, and slowly pushed. Spike moaned softly, wincing as his body was gently forced to stretch out, belly up – and he became aware that the searing pain whose source he had not previously been able to determine was emanating from a slow pulsing in his abdomen, now painfully quickening as the pressure of the pavement was lifted. He felt the hands leave, then return a moment later and begin to clean his wound and bind it tightly, running the bandage under his back with practiced ease. Regaining some of his composure, he endured the painful jostling in silence, though he continued to squeeze his eyes shut against it. Then, slowly, gingerly, he opened them, squinting into a bright light. A rush of reflexive self-concern raced through him as his rapidly clearing head realized that the white was light – sunlight – but he exhaled as he recognized his immediate surroundings: he was lying under an overhanging fragment of plastic siding from the building he had been hurled into – how long ago? He had no idea... – and was sheltered by its precarious shade. As his eyes continued to adjust, he saw a face above him, in the same line of sight as the bright sunlight – a young face, but etched with a grave expression that seemed dissonant with the halo of light that surrounded it. As he felt the hands fastening the final bandage, Spike’s eyes finished adjusting, brought the last of the face’s features into focus, matched them to the voice – and boggled in disbelief, for their owner was someone he had never thought he would see again.
Ignoring the pain of it, he wrenched himself into a sitting position, steadying himself with one hand on the pavement, ignoring, too, the gravel as it dug into the bruised and battered skin of his palm, and reached out with the other hand to touch her face, stopped short, dropped the hand once more and simply stared at the wide, serious brown eyes before him.
“Dawn?” Spike rasped, his voice coming out as if through a cement mixer, “is it you? It can’t...can’t...” She smiled, a thin, forced smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and simply nodded. “But what – how – I mean, what the bloody hell – ” His strength began to wane, and his arm to buckle beneath him, and she reached out to steady him, and guided him back to the pavement.
“Shhh,” she said softly. “There’ll be time enough for all that – but for now, you need to rest. Just rest. We should be safe here for the time b – oh, my God...” As she spoke she had placed her hand in his, and as her fingers brushed his wrist, she stopped short. Looking up at her once more, Spike saw that her jaw was hanging loose, and she was staring at him as though she had just seen a ghost.
“What...what is it, Niblet?” he asked, reverting to his old pet name for her without thinking. He sat up again, the pain superseded by a growing concern for Dawn, rather than himself. “What’s wrong?”
“Spike,” she breathed, as though trying to hide her speech from a lurking enemy, “your wrist...Spike, you – you have a pulse.”
He simply stared at her, his mind unable to register the words at first. Then their meaning dawned upon him – and he laughed. It was a reflexive reaction, born of disbelief. But Dawn continued to stare at him with wide, shocked eyes. Pulling his left hand gently away from her, he shifted to sit cross-legged, and stretched it out in front of him. He brought his right hand up to his left, and cautiously, as though his outstretched hand was a ticking bomb, placed two fingers on his left wrist. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thum-thump. “What the hell...?” For a moment, his mind went blank. He just stared – at his hands before him, and at Dawn’s kneeling form, unfocussed, beyond them. Then suddenly, a flash of memory – Angel, failing to dodge that final, fatal, spurt of flame – Angel, shouting at him to move! – Angel, screaming in agony, and vanishing in a puff of ashes. Angel – dead. More than that – gone, vanished, burnt into nothingness. Angel gone, which meant...which meant that he...
“Shanshu,” Spike whispered, reverently, scarcely believing it. “Holy shit.” He looked at Dawn, and for a moment her look of shock changed to perplexity; then it shifted again, into one of understanding – and of awe.
“The prophecy,” she whispered. “The vampire with a soul will endure many trials, at the end of which he will be rewarded – by...by becoming human once more.” Her eyes began racing from side to side as though reading something; a memory, perhaps. Research mode, Spike thought to himself as Dawn took a breath and rushed on, her voice stronger now. “I read about that, asked Giles about it. He always said it must refer to Angel, and that anyway there was no way to tell how many centuries might pass before the final battles it spoke of...” As she spoke she had gotten a faraway look in her eyes, as though recalling a memory from a different life. She refocused on him, and asked the question he was dreading: “Spike, where is he? Where’s Angel?”
Spike sighed, lowering his hands to the pavement and pushing himself up, getting to his feet. He looked off in the direction of the spot where he had last seen his old rival – and although his view was blocked by the ruined hulk of a truck, he could see that the spot was too still, too bright. It couldn’t be the same place where – “He’s dead. Burned,” he said, too loudly. Then, softer, more to himself than to Dawn, “He got to fight his dragon...but it was too strong...never thought I’d be sorry to see the bastard gone for good...” Spike felt his still-shaky legs begin to buckle, but she was up and before him in an instant, supporting him with a hand on either shoulder. He found himself face to face with a tall, lean woman who held herself a little straighter, a little more confidently, than the girl he remembered from his days in Sunnydale.
Her face was as stony as it had been in the moments before she’d felt his new heartbeat as she said flatly: “A lot of people are dead.”
Then she frowned, wrinkling her brow in thought. “If Angel’s gone,” she said, “then the prophecy should be null and void. If, that is – if it was about Angel. You know,” she went on; and as she met his eyes with hers there was that look again, as though she could see a roomful of books and warm coffee and clean, abstract questions in her mind’s eye, “I never said anything to Giles, but I always suspected...I mean, you wanted your soul, went after it, earned it, fought to keep it – and well, I always thought that made you the subject of the Shanshu. Fighting for something like that – that’s the mark of a champion.” At this Spike broke the gaze that had passed between them, embarrassed. He remembered the last time a Summers woman had used that word for him; he hadn’t felt worthy of it then, either. If he was the only one who hadn’t died in this battle, how could he possibly be a champion? He had failed. Dawn noticed his reaction, and rushed on, turning her speech back toward the prophecy. “Not that Angel wasn’t one after the fact, a great one, but, in my experience, these things tend to stick to the letter of the ancient law...”
Spike’s long lifetime had been filled with many different people, places, and experiences, ranging from the horrific to the exquisite – he knew a thing or two, in other words, about reading people. He found that he wasn’t quite ready to think about the incredibility of his own situation just yet – he was not only still mobile, but he had a pulse...he was human... – so he turned his attention toward the young woman wrinkling her brow in thought in front of him instead. Dawn wore a loose pair of slacks, dark sneakers, and a woolen sweater under a thick leather coat with a short, functional cut. She carried herself with a military-like bearing, and she spoke in an intellectual, matter-of-fact fashion that reminded him strongly of a former librarian of their mutual acquaintance. These things, added to the way her smiles fell flat before they reached her glassy eyes, and the ease of her transition to using the past tense for Angel, made him realize suddenly that he was looking at a grown woman – a woman who had seen things, many and terrible.
“Well,” Dawn’s even voice broke his train of thought and brought his mind rushing back to the present moment. “There’s one way to find out if what we think has happened has actually happened.” She nodded toward the sunlit street beyond the shelter of the plastic above their heads. “Can you walk?”
Spike straightened up, stepping away from the support of her arms. “Yeah.” He stared out into the bright sunlight warily, but with a burgeoning curiosity. He had lived this long, hadn’t he? He looked at Dawn, smiled a tight, nervous smile, and took three long strides – and without fanfare, there he was, standing in the warmth of the sun...and there wasn’t a whiff of smoke to be seen. “Bloody hell...”
He sensed movement behind him as Dawn gathered her medical supplies and slung her bag over her shoulder. She walked around to face him once more, frowned thoughtfully again, and grabbed his hand, the right this time. She raised it between them and felt again for his pulse. Thum-thump thum-thump thum-thump... Spike found his eyes locked in hers once more. She held his gaze for a moment, and for the first time her eyes showed real emotion; a strange combination of inquisitive awe and pained confusion. Then she broke his gaze, dropped her hand, and turned to survey the landscape. He followed her gaze, seeing the sunlight glimmer on the wet pavement and the smashed glass and random, gutted vehicles in the street. She turned back to him, her face again serious, and said, slowly and carefully, her words filled with purpose: “I need you to tell me everything you remember.”
He explained everything, in as much detail as he could recall, pertaining to the final fight. Angel’s plan to take down the senior partners, to go down fighting, to cripple the forces of evil. He faltered a little as he recounted the memories of the battle that had flooded back to him – the terrible deaths of his comrades, the final blow from his horned opponent, and the fading screams as he lost consciousness. But he made it through, and then he waited, as patiently as he could.
But she didn’t seem to react, didn’t change her facial expression at all – she simply stood there, frowning in concentration, her eyes directed at him but not fixed on anything in particular.
Finally, the last vestiges of shock leaving his body, he broke the silence. “Dawn, do you know what any of this means? Why are you here? Why am I here? Is there anyone else – ”
She cut him off. “Follow me.”
She began to walk down the road, weaving in and out of wrecked cars and smouldering debris from buildings and newspaper stalls. Glancing around as he followed, Spike frowned – where were the bodies? There should be bits of demon everywhere – but there was nothing. He watched Dawn’s graceful, measured strides as she led him to the edge of the neighbourhood. Here there was a park – just a simple place, with a few cobbled-together planters and tire swing for local children – but the change was palpable. The sun filtered in through the single tree, and as small and sickly as it was, it seemed to overlook the park as majestically as a rainforest giant. A gentle breeze blew through its branches, seeming to brush them upward and outward, their leafy green sparkling in the sunlight. Dawn, her long hair drifting about her shoulders, knelt next to one of the flowerboxes, and reached out to touch what Spike saw, as he followed her gaze, was a large patch of brightly coloured flowers, as healthy as if they had grown on a wild forest floor, not in the depths of the city – and they seemed to be growing before his eyes. Spike blinked, hard, and turned to take in the rest of the park. Everywhere he looked, his eyes told him he was not in central Los Angeles anymore. There was healthy green sprouting, slowly but noticeably, everywhere. There was still debris and garbage on the ground, but it was overpowered by the sheer sense of life that emanated from the area. He heard a scuffling behind him, and turned to see two stray dogs, with shining, healthy fur, rolling about in a good-natured fight. Spike looked around once more, feeling as he did so that the warmth he sensed around him was more than just the sun blazing overhead.
“Dawn, I was here, but I just don’t...what happened? What does this mean?”
“I have a theory,” she said simply, standing to face him. “A theory which everything you’ve told me, not to mention your current condition, tells me is true.” She turned, walked towards a scorched but intact park bench, and gestured to him to sit down. He did so, stretching his legs so as not to scrunch up his belly wound, and looked at her expectantly. She sat down next to him, and looking him briefly in the eyes, began to speak.
“For so many years,” said Dawn, “so many generations, it’s been our side on the defensive. Throughout the entire span of our recorded history, death and suffering are commonplace, and goodness and light seem always to be exceptions to the rule. I’ve done a lot of studying this past year, since Sunnydale was destroyed, and I’ve come to understand that there’s a lot more to what’s been happening than meets the eye. It’s all been building up to something. We knew the First would never be gone for good – we simply pushed it out of that place, that time. But evil will always exist. The First, the Senior Partners – they’ll never really be destroyed. The world wouldn’t be the world without both good and evil. But now, things have changed. The tide has turned.
“Think about it. Last year, Willow awoke all the potentials, everywhere. For the first time, the power of the Slayer is a force to be reckoned with – not just in one place, not just as a stopgap against a single Hellmouth – not just as a last-ditch defence against more evil than can ever be contained. All of a sudden, we had the power to do some real damage to the forces of darkness. So the Slayers trained, and new Watchers, like me, trained with them...and as I learned, I also kept a close watch on events here in L.A., and elsewhere, trying to figure out where we were headed. And now that you’ve filled in the details, I know. When you, and Angel, and Gunn and Wesley, and that demon you spoke of, Illyria – when you destroyed the Circle, you hurt the Senior Partners – more deeply, I think, than even Angel could have anticipated. If he was willing to put his life on the line then – ” and here her voice softened a little, and when he looked into her eyes he saw just the faintest trace of moisture – “well, then I think he would agree it was not in vain. This was not just another pseudo-apocalyptic battle. This,” Dawn paused, almost theatrically, “was as close to an apocalypse as the eternal balance between good and evil can provide – it was a turning point. The Senior Partners, the First – they got lazy, contented. They wanted the most power for the least effort, and to do so they made use of human agents – and humans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to dedicating themselves wholly to either good or evil. They tied up their strength in fallible earthly resources – Caleb, Wolfram and Hart – and now they have paid for their arrogance. Because now,” Dawn continued, her voice steely with confidence, “the ball is in our court.
“That screaming you heard as you lost consciousness – that was the people of this place, instinctively providing the final blow needed to change the balance. All of you – Buffy, Willow, Angel –" she saw him looking at her skeptically and forged ahead, smiling another of her not-quite-smiles – “Even you, yes, Spike, you – the champions, the ones who fought everyday against all the evil you could...you laid the groundwork. In Sunnydale, we got the First on the offensive, got it worried...the Senior Partners are part of the same machinery, and in response they ramped up their plans. Enough that Angel noticed, and mobilized the rest of you in a final offensive. And that was the final nail in their coffin – they were too eager for more power, for further domination – and now they’ve lost most of what they had to begin with. Not forever, it can never be forever – there is always a balance. But for now the scales are tipped in our favour. It will take the forces of darkness a long time to recover from such a rapid, systematic series of blows as we’ve dealt them this past year. From our point of view, it could even take them forever, if we handle things right.
"But we have to mobilize now. Beat them back, that’s done, that’s part of it – but we have to keep them there. Have to make this change as permanent as possible...make this world ours the way it’s never been before. These kinds of changes,” she gestured around them, to the park with its suddenly healthy plants, and the bright sun beating down upon them, “will be felt everywhere, must already be being felt, and now is the time to let everyone know that we can make this last.”
She stopped, and her eyes were bright, but the sparkle in them was a cold one. Spike could see that she was thinking of all of this in a military context, thinking of strategies and battles and defenses to be laid – but his new, beating heart, told him there was something more going on. If she was thinking only of strategy, only of the next move needed to maintain the foothold that light seemed to have gained, she would never have come here.
“Dawn,” he asked, “why did you come for me?”
She looked at him, surprised at the question. “What?”
“You heard me. Why are you here? A battle like this...even if your people knew everything that was happening, everything you just told me, they would have to know that there could be no survivors from such a brutal first wave...bloody hell, there nearly weren’t any...” he reached up to feel the pulse at his neck, looked off into the distance, then refocused on her face. “No. Enough about apocalypses and turning tides and the Senior Partners. Just for a moment. Why you?”
For the first time her confident manner began to waver a little; she crossed and uncrossed her legs, taking on a shimmer of the countenance of the awkward young woman he remembered, and her face went slightly pink. Then she found her voice. “No,” she began quietly, “nobody expected survivors. We had enough of this worked out to realize what might happen if you succeeded – but we didn’t expect to find out from any of you personally. I came here, as soon as I could get away from Giles, on my own. Because, well, let’s just say, I’ve had enough experience losing people that I...that if you were gone, I would have known.” She met his eyes with hers for a long moment, then dropped her gaze to her hands, then met his gaze once more. “And I didn’t, so I had to try,” she finished simply.
Spike couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stared at her for a long moment, until she shifted uncomfortably on the bench, and then he broke the look and tried to find the right words. “Right up to the end,” he began, “I thought you hated me. I really did. And...and, because it was you, I felt like I deserved it.” She shook her head, opened her mouth to speak, but he rushed ahead: “No matter what I did I felt I had to do more, because I wasn’t worthy of your respect. You always trusted me more than anyone, you saw me as a…as a person, before anyone, even me...and I let you down.”
She frowned her concentrated frown once more, and was quiet for a long moment. “I did hate you, I think. What you did to Buffy, and then when you ran away like that...even when you came back, I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive you... even after it looked as though she had forgiven you. But...I’ve seen a lot, and learned a lot, this year, and I’ve started to realize that everyone reaches a point where their whole world falls apart and they need to do something about it – I’m young, I know, but I learned that, and when I did I realized that that was what had happened to you. And then when I thought about how you reacted to that feeling – how you sought out your soul at such great cost, and the sacrifice you made for us in the Hellmouth...all you went through for good...and then when I heard you were alive, and working here, with Angel, still fighting the good fight...how could I not find it in my heart to forgive you? I realized that I didn’t hate you at all, not at all – because I know, however dimly, the feeling that made you do the things you did. You were fighting the darkness, and people with that much darkness – I’ve seen them go the other way. Redemption is a process of never letting go, always believing, always – and the way you do that...no. I don’t hate you. You’re...you’re an inspiration.”
Spike didn’t know what to say, except a simple, whispered “Thank you.”
Dawn smiled at him and stood, taking his hand and pulling him up. “Come on, we have to go. I need to report back in with Giles, and we have to plan our next move. Are you still okay to walk?”
Spike looked into her face, felt her small, warm hand in his, and realized that the world really had changed – and so had Dawn – and that she, despite all her theorizing and detective work, and despite her large, forgiving heart, had missed the point inherent in this turning of the tide.
“Wait, Dawnie...wait,” his voice had taken on some of its old strength, and she looked up at him, puzzled, but silent, waiting. “Yes,” he continued, “after everything you’ve told me, I think you’re right – we need to mobilize. We have to keep the upper hand, continue to twist this knife in the gut of evil, a knife that Angel, rest his, well, soul, shoved hard and deep. I was there with him, and with Buffy – I know. But I think that what being a…champion...” he tried the word out cautiously, and found that he could use it without flinching, “has taught me is that just surviving through to the next fight – it’s not enough.”
He paused, breathed deeply, and the taste of the air flashed through his mind – he was a little boy, laughing, splashing in clear country lake. Then his vision cleared and he pressed on, staring into Dawn’s deep, serious brown eyes.
“‘We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.’ Fred told me that Angel said that once, and now I think I understand what he meant. Now we have to chance to really live that way, to really mould a new world. This,” he said, gesturing to the sunlight, the trees and flowers, the tangible life spreading and growing around them, “is what the world can be, and I think that this is our chance, all of us – to plan, and fight, yes, all that – but more than that; to live. I’m feeling this heart beat in my chest and I’m realizing for the first time just how dead I was, for so long, even before I died, because I lived just like we all have, forever: in fear. If you’re right, and I think you are, we don’t have to do that anymore.”
Silence fell, and Dawn did not break it. Looking into her eyes as she took in his words, Spike could see, for the first time, that she really was the same little girl who had befriended him when he hadn't even known he'd needed a friend. And now she stood here before him, tall and strong; she had been through so much pain and loss, but still went on, because going on was all she knew. He looked into her dark eyes as they widened with understanding, and with fear, as she absorbed the impact of his words. He realized, suddenly, absurdly, that thought she had the trademark Summers strength, she looked nothing at all like her fair-haired mother and sister. She must look like her father, he thought, realizing with a start that he had never even seen a picture of the man. Living through death and darkness without a father to lean upon - he knew what that was like, what that could do to a young person. Knew all too well.
He felt the blood in his veins and the sun on his skin – and he realized he knew why he’d been spared.
Everything in his life until now had been a battle against something – against time, against death, against change and limits and his own nature – against more enemies than he could count. But now, as Dawn looked at him, and held his hand…now, as she seemed to tell him, silently, with a smile that finally, tentatively, reached her eyes, that she was willing to try, willing to live – now Spike realized that for the first time there was something to fight for. In that moment he was aware of everything, inside himself and out, as though he had just been born – born into a brave, new world. In this world, he suddenly knew, fighting would not mean fists and weapons and blood and pain – fighting would be as natural and fertile as breath; as simple and powerful as love – living, truly living, would be more than enough to keep evil at bay.
As this realization washed over him, his guilt over surviving, over claiming Angel’s prize, suddenly evaporated. He knew now that his new life, his true life, his path to redemption, would be to help Dawn – and others like her who had seen too much, had never had the chance to live a life free of constant pain and worry. To share the joys and comforts of this new existence that pulsed steadily all around him, and within him… to prepare for tomorrow; but to live today.
He looked down into her eyes, this girl who stood before him too young for her scars, too old for her smile. He opened his mouth to speak, to somehow make her see all that he had seen in that moment… And then suddenly the urgency drained away, as he realized that – for once – he had all the time in the world.