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Hyacinth Girl

Chapter Text

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men

~*~

The first thing that Buffy became aware of was the aching in her bones. Later, it would remind her of the terrible growing pains she used to get when she was younger, when it had felt as though her bones were growing so fast that they would split apart.

Buffy only thought that later. She didn't think anything at the time. After all, a corpse isn't really capable of thinking, even if it is being remade by magic.

The second thing Buffy became aware of was a sharper pain than the aching in her bones. Later, it would remind her of the muscle burn she would get from working hard at something with Giles. Later, she would realise that this was because her muscles, tendons, sinews and nerves, were being remade, reconstructed after they had rotted away during her death. But at the time, she didn't think anything at all.

The third thing that Buffy became aware of was of a burning sensation in her skin. Later, she would liken this pain to when she had accidentally touched a hot pan and seared her skin. Later, she would realise that this was her skin being remade in the fires of magic. At the time, she didn't think anything at all.

The fourth thing Buffy became aware of was a pain in her head. Later, she would describe it as though she was experiencing the worst headache she'd ever had combined with a brain freeze combined with being hit on the head by an angry Hell God. At the time, she knew only the pain, as her rotted brain was made whole.

Then the pain was gone, and Buffy didn't dwell on it. It had been there, and now it wasn't. That was all she needed to know.

Buffy's first thought was I'm in a box followed shortly by There's not much air. I should get out. So Buffy fought to get out, fought through the cloying earth outside the box, fought through to the open air.

It didn't occur to Buffy that she should be scared. To her, there was only the thought that staying where she was would lead to her death. She knew this was undesirable and therefore she would avoid it, and the injury to her hands from freeing herself didn't matter.

Then Buffy was free, and she took deep breaths. Not to calm herself, because she wasn't agitated. Merely to fill her oxygen deprived lungs. It was purely a functional operation.

Buffy looked around, trying to figure out where she was. Then she saw a gravestone. Her gravestone, which meant that she had died.

Buffy didn't worry about that. She was paid more attention to the people who stood around it. Possible people who stood around it.

Buffy didn't think of them as possible people because they were monsters. She wouldn't have cared if they were. She wouldn't have cared if they weren't, either. She thought of them that way because they were difficult to see.

Not because they were invisible. They were just... nondescript. Difficult to focus on, due to their extreme mundanity. Buffy couldn't tell how many there were, or even what gender they were. They were all alike in their brown mantles.

"Who are you?" Buffy asked. Not because she was curious, or even interested in the answer. But because they were clearly supernatural, and it was her job to kill supernatural evil things.

One of them spoke. Buffy couldn't tell which one. It was difficult to understand. Not because of its voice, although that was certainly strange (it reminded Buffy of wind blowing through dried grass). And not because it spoke quietly, although it spoke only in a whisper. But because it was curiously hard to pay attention to what they were saying.

One whispered "We are the hollow men."

Another, or perhaps the same one, whispered "We are the stuffed men."

One whispered "We have come to lead you back to Death's kingdom."

"No." said Buffy. Not because she was afraid of dying again. But because she was alive. Living people weren't part of Death's kingdom. "You won't take me back. I'm alive. I no longer fall in Death's domain."

"Your loved ones have mourned you." One whispered. As it did so, Buffy's head was filled with images. Dawn huddled in a ball on the floor, unable to believe her sister was dead, knowing that it was her fault. Willow and Tara, holding each other, trying to be strong for the others, trying to hold everyone together and not succeeding. Xander, being bright and loud and telling jokes, his smile not quite covering the deep sadness he hid behind his humour. Anya, like her boyfriend, trying to be as she always had been, because she didn't know how to make the others feel better. Giles, wishing he could comfort the others, but not even being able to console himself, not being able to believe that it wasn't his fault as Watcher. And Spike, crying, drinking himself to sleep, drunkenly awakening, hoping that Buffy was there but knowing she never would be, only not staking himself because of a promise he'd made to keep Dawn safe.

Buffy watched her friend's anguish unmoved. They had mourned, they had grieved. It was fact, and she felt nothing witnessing it.

"Your loved ones tried to raise you." One whispered. And Buffy saw it happen. She felt nothing at Willow suffering through the trials of the spell. There was no point. It was done.

"And they failed." One whispered.

"No." Buffy said. "I am alive."

"You breathe. You walk. You think. But you are not alive. You are hollow. You are like us." One whispered.

Buffy knew it was true. She knew the old Buffy, the Buffy who had died, wouldn't have been so cold, so unemotional. That Buffy had died, and hadn't risen again.

"So we have come to lead you back to Death's kingdom." One whispered.

"No. You will not take me back." Buffy said. Not because she didn't want to go. She didn't care either way. But her friends needed her. It was her job, her purpose, to keep them safe. So she would.

"That is not what we said." One whispered. "We will not take you by force. Soon, you will see that your existence here is nothing but a heap of broken images. When you do, you will ask us to bear you back to Death's kingdom. On that day, we will show you the way."

Then they were gone, and Buffy was alone.

Chapter Text

Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

~*~

When Buffy left the cemetery, she thought she heard the roar of distant thunder. But there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Buffy would've liked a storm. It would've washed off all the earth that still clung to her from climbing out of her grave. But, as it was, the thunder was just a noise, dry, sterile, meaningless. It wasn't even thunder, then, not without lightning.

As Buffy got closer to the roaring sound, she realised that it wasn't thunder but merely some motorbikes. Demons on motorbikes. They dismounted when they saw Buffy. They spoke to her, but Buffy wasn't listening. She didn't reply to their threats.

She just killed them. It wasn't a violent action, there was no malice behind it. Buffy didn't care that they outnumbered her, or that she had no weapon. It was just a chore. Her job.

So Buffy didn't hear their threats, their curses, or, later, their pleas. She heard the words, right enough, but there was no point in paying them any attention. They were destroying her home town. It was her job to stop them from doing that. So she did.

It didn't take Buffy very long. She didn't fight with the balanced fighting style she had used to use, with equal weighting on defence and offense. Nor the careless rage of the berserker, always moving forward. Even though they outnumbered her, the demons couldn't beat someone who simply didn't care whether she won or not.

Buffy even killed the one who surrendered and put down his weapons. Mercy was pointless.

Buffy would've liked to have taken a motorbike, but she couldn't drive. So she just walked on, the blood of the demons she had killed drying on her hands.

Buffy killed several other groups of demons before coming to the place where the thunder of motorbikes was coming from.

There were around twenty demons, cheering as four of their comrades on motorbikes wheeled around, taunting someone with chains, whipping them out to lash viciously at the person.

Buffy.

Except that it wasn't, because she was Buffy. She might not be the same Buffy that she had been, but she was still Buffy. So the person the demons were whipping with chains couldn't possibly be her.

The most reasonable course of action would've been for Buffy to run away. There were too many demons for her to deal with.

And that was probably what Buffy would've done, had she been afraid of dying. But she wasn't. These demons needed to die, and she would kill them. The fact that she might die while doing so was irrelevant.

Buffy crashed into the group with a looted sword in either hand. Half a dozen were dead before they even realised what had happened.

Some panicked, which was useful. They hadn't expected someone to attack them in that way. They had been secure in the knowledge of their strength in numbers. They had been complacent, and now they were afraid.

Some ran. Some tried to defend themselves, and died. Some banded together and attacked Buffy from various angles. They died too. Not because Buffy was more skilled than them. But because, when they cut her, she didn't care. She didn't stop, didn't slow down, as the swords slashed her. She only bothered to block the death thrusts, because those would interrupt her work. And Buffy only bothered to give death thrusts, because crippling them would be pointless.

Then Buffy stood amongst a group of corpses, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Some were serious, but Buffy didn't care. There were still the demons on motorbikes to deal with.

One drove closer, but not within reach of her swords. They'd seen her use them, and they were afraid. He lashed out with his chain, and Buffy caught it. Two of her fingers broke audibly, but she held on, ignoring the pain. She pulled, and the demon was yanked from his motorbike. A colleague of his, driving too fast, ran him over.

Buffy whirled the chain, aiming it at the demons. Unpracticed with such a weapon, she missed. She ignored the taunts, ignored the chains that snapped out at her (they missed too) and tried again.

She hit one. He died. One of the demons hit her leg, which snapped. Buffy buckled, but got up again. She had always thought that you couldn't walk on a broken leg. Apparently that was untrue. It hurt, but that was irrelevant.

The demons, seeing her still standing, still fighting, even after everything, lost their nerve and drove away. Buffy didn't care. She knew they wouldn't come back.

Buffy hobbled towards the prone form of... herself. Her robot self, she saw as she drew closer. It was even more damaged than she was.

Buffy didn't know if the Buffybot felt pain. She assumed it didn't. She did know that it had emotions, though, or at least simulated ones.

Had Buffy been her old self, she would've appreciated the irony. One Buffy, broken, battered and bleeding, in pain but not caring. And another Buffy, also broken, battered and bleeding (if only battery fluid), caring but not in pain. As it was, Buffy couldn't understand the irony of the situation.

All she knew was that she had done her job. The demon threat had ended. Oh, there might be a few stragglers, but the majority were dead (like she was), the threat with them.

Buffy didn't feel any satisfaction from this. Not even the pleasure she always felt from Slaying something, which, after Faith, she had always been just a little guilty about. She felt hollow.

The hollow men appeared. Perhaps they'd always been there, and Buffy simply hadn't noticed.

"Do you see now, child? Your life is empty, meaningless, and sterile. You have no place here. Let us show you the way back." One whispered.

Buffy didn't answer. She was armed now. The hollow men may not have actively tried to harm her, but they wanted her dead, and in her book that made them things to be killed.

Buffy thrust for a head with a sword. The blow connected, although Buffy didn't feel any resistance. She supposed that there wasn't enough substance for her blow to connect with.

The hollow men shifted slightly where they stood. Buffy noticed that they all leaned on each other, as though each was incapable of supporting their own weight. "You cannot kill us. We are dead." One whispered.

"Like you." One whispered.

Buffy ignored them. She might've carried out her duty for today, but there would be other days. She would fight and carry on fighting until her body died.

She touched the Buffybot, which awakened. Buffy assumed that it had shut down when the demons had overwhelmed it. No, her. Buffybot was at least as human as Buffy herself was, if not more so. Buffybot made no comment upon seeing Buffy.

The hollow men were gone, although several pieces of straw floated on the wind. Together, they limped back to their house.

Sometime later, they stood outside it.

Except that Buffy knew that this wasn't her house. Not really. She liked her house. She liked returning to it after a night of Slaying. But now, looking at it, she felt nothing. There was no sense that it was hers. That she had ever liked it, loved it, lived in it.

For the first time, Buffy began to think that she just might give in, go with the hollow men.

The door burst open. Dawn and Spike erupted through it. Dawn said "Buffy?", voice thick with an emotion that Buffy couldn't identify, couldn't empathize with, and couldn’t even sympathize for.

Spike said nothing. He merely sat down as though his legs had been cut from under him, and he cried silently, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Chapter Text

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion

~*~

Buffy didn't pay a great deal of attention to what her friends said. She answered truthfully when they asked her if she was okay. She was. She agreed that she should go the hospital to have her broken bones and other injuries attended to.

Everything else, she tuned out. She ignored Dawn's crying after she realised that Buffy was truly alive, the way Xander sagged with relief when he saw that Buffy was alive and the spell worked, the way Willow fixed the Buffybot as she talked about how the trials that she had undergone to resurrect Buffy had been necessary and not all that bad, really.

Buffy did pay attention when Spike shouted at Willow, railing at her, telling her how dangerous the spell had been. She watched the way he didn't breathe before he spoke, just let loose a blistering torrent of invective that only stopped when he ran out of things to say. The way that Xander paused, obviously considering whether Willow had deliberately understated the danger before disregarding everything Spike said, because it was Spike who said it. And then Spike's declaration that no one told him about this because they knew that there was a chance that Buffy would come back wrong, and he wouldn't let them kill her.

Buffy noticed this because she realised that Willow, at least, had known that there was a chance that things would go wrong. That Xander was realizing that Willow hadn't exactly been upfront about the dangers.

Buffy realised that Willow had known that Buffy might come back wrong, but she had done it anyway. Buffy knew that she should've felt angry about that, but she didn't. Willow had done what she thought needed to be done. It hadn't worked out the way Willow had hoped, but that didn't matter. It was done.

And Buffy noticed, after that, everyone's flesh faded away, leaving skeletons in clothes, jawbones clattering away and conveying absolutely nothing, empty eye sockets blank.

Buffy knew that she should've found that strange. But she didn't. Chattering skulls were about as meaningful as her friends' real voices had been. They made about as much sense. Buffy wondered why people ever needed to talk so much about things. Why not just do what needed to be done and then forget about it? Why the need for endless babble?

~*~

Later, Buffy retired to her bedroom. Dawn didn't seem to want Buffy to be out of her sight, even for a moment. Spike, on the other hand, took the first available opportunity to vanish into the night.

Buffy didn't sleep for a long while. The dull throb of her broken bones and the sharper, brighter pain from her numerous cuts prevented that. Buffy knew they'd have healed a lot by the morning, and in any case, she never needed much sleep.

Therefore, Buffy was awake when Buffy entered her room.

It wasn't the Buffybot. It looked like someone had tried to copy Buffy, but had only the haziest idea of how humans moved. Whatever it was, it looked like Buffy, exactly, down to the last detail.

But there was none of the fluid motion that accompanies human movement. Instead of its legs passing through the intervening air between each footstep, the foot just appeared in front of it. Like someone walking, but with the walking part removed, just the footsteps.

Buffy sat up, and her broken leg protested at the movement. Buffy disregarded it, and reached clumsily for the sword that she always had under her bed. She knew she wouldn't be able to use it with any degree of finesse, not with her broken fingers, but that didn't matter. She could still swing it.

So Buffy swung it, and it passed through not-Buffy as though it was made of mist.

"I have to kill you." not-Buffy said. "I have to kill you so that I might have life of my own."

Buffy didn't struggle. She didn't call out. She didn't move. Buffy couldn't fight this thing, this thing that had a shape but no substance. So she didn't bother to try. At least, this way, something would have some benefit from her resurrection. Even if it was an evil killer.

Buffy did nothing when not-Buffy wrapped its hands around Buffy's throat. She didn't attempt to break free when they became solid. She didn't try to breathe, to force air down her restricted windpipe. She just sat there as the life was squeezed out of her, as dark spots danced before her eyes, obscuring her own face, twisted and warped with an unreasoning hatred.

Buffy did draw a deep, shuddering breath when not-Buffy inexplicably loosened its grip. She couldn't help herself. Her body took over.

Puzzlement twisted not-Buffy's face. "You're dead. You breathe, your heart beats, you think, but you're dead. I can't kill you, you're already dead. How can that be?"

Buffy knew that the old, living her would've made a quip at that point. But she didn't say a word, just watched as not-Buffy burst apart, becoming mist, and, eventually, not even that.

A voice came to Buffy on the wind, distant and solemn. "Now do you see? Now do you begin to understand?"

Chapter Text

They called me the hyacinth girl.
...
I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing

~*~

Sometime later (Buffy neither knew nor cared how long) Buffy became aware of a sound on the edge of hearing. A dripping sound.

Buffy remained lying on her bed for a while and let the sounds of life wash over her. The sound of her heartbeat, wind in the trees, the dripping of what Buffy assumed to be a leaky tap.

She remembered doing this before, after she had killed something. Listening intently to every little sound, because she could and whatever monster she had just fought couldn't.

It had used to make her feel so alive. Now, Buffy felt nothing. She got up to turn off the tap.

None of the taps were dripping. When Buffy got to the kitchen, she realised that the sound was coming from below her, in the cellar.

When Buffy got there, she saw that a pipe had come unscrewed. She didn't try to fix it - not because, with broken fingers and numerous other injuries to her arms, it would be difficult for her to do so.

But because there was no point. She knew that, before, she would have tried. Because she had to try to do everything herself. In the same way she hadn't told Dawn she was the Key, and assumed that burden herself. The same way she had tried to drive everyone away after the Master had killed her. Because she was the Slayer. This was her show, and she had to do everything.

Buffy didn't know how to fix pipes. That wasn't her job, that wasn't why she was here. Let Xander deal with it - no doubt he could deal with it more capably than she could.

So Buffy merely dragged a bucket under the leak and turned to leave. As she did so, Buffy noticed that the place was a mess. There was a broken glass, and she was sure that a rat had just scampered into a corner. Not Amy.

Normally, Buffy would've cleared this up, or coerced Dawn into doing so. But it didn't matter. None of it mattered. She was here to save lives, to do her job as the Slayer. Not to be a housekeeper. Not to do the mundane, everyday things that she had previously taken such pleasure in.

Buffy realised that she had finally become everything the Council had ever wanted her to be.

She was not surprised when the hollow men appeared at that point.

"So this is what life is." One whispered. "A tedious repetition of meaningless chores."

"No." Buffy asserted. "There are... other things. Friendship. Happiness. Love."

"Perhaps." One whispered. "But you are dead. You do not know what any of those things are."

Buffy knew that. She knew that her arguments were flawed, hollow. The sole reason that Buffy didn't accept the hollow men's proposal was because she was, at least technically, alive. In this state, she could help people.

Even if she couldn't help herself.

The hollow men faded away as though they had never been there. Which may, in fact, have been the case.

Buffy returned to her room.

~*~

The next day, Buffy called Xander. Xander called a plumber friend of his. The plumber friend discovered that the piping needed a complete overhaul. Anya revealed that Buffy couldn't pay for it. Buffy didn't ask why, but Anya, eager to fill the silence, went on and told her anyway.

Buffy needed a loan.

Why did everything have to be so difficult? Why did Buffy need to borrow money just to stay alive (for a given value of alive)?

Her friends looked at her anxiously. Buffy knew she should say something. But what could she say? They didn't have money. They needed money. Buffy would get money. That was all there was to it.

Except, of course, it wasn't. Because what loan application was complete without an attack by some kind of demon?

Buffy found herself on familiar ground. All this living stuff, it was beyond her. But killing was something she had always been able to do.

Normally, Buffy would've been against stabbing a demon in front of a bank full of people. Now she wasn't. If she was to do her duty as Slayer, there was no point shirking because there were witnesses.

So Buffy stabbed the demon in the throat with a pair of scissors.

After that, Buffy got her loan.

~*~

Later, Buffy didn't join in with the lively discussion about how to pronounce the name of the demon she had killed, nor on the rather more serious discussion about who had sent the mercenary demon.

Buffy had killed the mercenary. If its boss showed up, she would kill them too. That was all there was to it.

Buffy left the Magic Box, and, although she took the time to answer her friends’ questions as to how she was, she knew that they knew something was wrong.

She didn't care.

~*~

Spike was hovering around her front door when Buffy got back to her house. When he heard her coming, he whirled around and hid whatever was in his hands behind his back. "Buffy!" he spluttered.

Buffy noticed he winced whenever Buffy took a step towards him. She wondered vaguely if he was aware that he was more affected by her broken leg than she was.

She looked him in the face when she asked him what he was doing here. That was something that Buffy had never ordinarily done. While Spike would frequently gaze at Buffy as though devouring her with his eyes, Buffy rarely looked back. It had made her uncomfortable, knowing that someone held her in such high regard which she didn't reciprocate.

But now, Buffy didn't care. She looked at Spike with equanimity. Spike, however, couldn't hold her gaze and looked away.

"I, uh, came to give you these." Spike said bashfully, producing flowers from behind his back. "They're hyacinths. I thought they were, uh, suitable for the occasion."

"Why?" Buffy asked, making no move to take them.

"They - they symbolize rebirth, in some cultures. I thought about getting you lilies, at first - Dru always loved lilies - but they're, uh, a symbol of death. So, um, no good." Spike said.

Then Buffy realised that this was what she had told the hollow men about. Love. Someone who would pick flowers (Buffy had no idea where Spike had gotten them from, there were no all-night florists in Sunnydale) for a girl he knew didn't love him. Someone who would celebrate her return to life, rather than tiptoeing around her and asking whether she as okay.

Buffy didn't know how long she stood there, not speaking, not seeing. Not even thinking, not really.

Eventually, Buffy took the flowers. Although she couldn't explain why, she had the sense that she had come to some kind of crossroad.

Chapter Text

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

~*~

They wanted her to live. Buffy's friends wanted her to go out there into the world and do something with her life. They were too tentative to put it that way, though. After all, just a short while ago she had been dead. But now they wanted her to begin to live. All of them, even Giles, so very gently pushed her.

Well, Buffy could try it. Even though she was just as dead as she had been as a corpse, Buffy would try to live for something other than Slaying. Not because of her friends. Whether they were anxious on her behalf or not, the fact remained that Buffy simply didn't care what they thought, what they wanted.

No, if Buffy was going to put herself out into the world, try and find something to live for besides dying, then she would do it because of the hollow men. To prove to them, once and for all, that she wasn't so dead that she should die for real.

And, although Buffy wouldn't admit it, even to herself, it would be an attempt to convince herself that going with the hollow men wasn't the best option. Because Buffy had, so far, found nothing beyond her duty that might hold her to this mode of existence which her friends were pleased to call life.

Not even the hyacinths.

However, Buffy privately doubted that any attempts at life that she made would be successful. What roots could a dead girl make? What flowers could bloom from a corpse? No, Buffy was just the withered trunk of the mighty tree she had once been.

But still, Buffy could struggle not to fall.

~*~

Buffy couldn't reenrol at college yet, but Willow and Tara had offered to let her audit some classes until early registration.

Buffy couldn't follow Willow's class at all. She wondered if she could have, had she been alive. Buffy doubted it. The students' voices were meaningless, Buffy simply couldn't understand what they were saying. The dead had no need to hear.

Nevertheless, Buffy stuck with it, although she learnt nothing, because the words of the students had been as bees buzzing in her ears. When Willow asked her how it had been, Buffy answered truthfully. Willow's expression changed into one which Buffy was sure she should know, but somehow she was unable to grasp what it meant.

Willow was rather preoccupied when she led Buffy to Tara for her Art History class. Willow had been planning on spending time with her girlfriend, before the class actually started, but now she barely said a word to Tara before she hurried off. Buffy didn't notice this, beyond noting that Willow seemed to have grasped that saying more words than were needed was a waste of time.

But Tara did, and she knew that it meant that Willow had a plan. Willow would probably tell her, but for now it was her job to try and elicit some emotion from Buffy. She didn't mind which.

Having even one would an improvement on the present situation.

Someone crashed into Buffy, nearly bearing the diminutive girl into the ground. Buffy didn't even seem to notice, Tara saw. So, in an attempt to draw Buffy from her shell (and cover the incredibly awkward silence that would ensue if she didn't), Tara began telling Buffy a humorous story.

Buffy didn't hear any of it, but not because of the usual reason. Rather than Tara's words being as meaningless to Buffy as the wind through the dry grass outside, Buffy simply skipped over them. There was a jump, and a sense of dislocation.

Well, Buffy thought, that was certainly a welcome development. No longer did she have to listen to interminable drivel that meant nothing to her. She could just skip over it.

Buffy decided to go home. She knew that she would skip over the entirety of the day if she did not. So there was no point in going on with it.

She didn't know if Tara tried to stop her. She didn't notice if she did.

Outside, people were moving very quickly, little more than blurs. Buffy could hear their voices, too, quick snatches that were too quick for her to follow. But then, as that was normal these days, Buffy didn't really care.

Trying to move through the streams of fast moving people was difficult, at first. Buffy was buffeted every which way. But, not heeding the pain, Buffy eventually found a technique that allowed her to pass easily enough.

However, after having expended effort in doing that, Buffy came to the realization that she didn't want to go home. If she did, her friends would ask her why she wasn't at college, and then expose her to emotions she didn't understand when she told them.

So she went to Spike's crypt. She knew that, if Spike felt something, he would be upfront and tell her about it. He wouldn't hold back for fear of hurting her feelings.

Buffy needed that. She needed someone who would say things that actually meant something to her.

Buffy didn't know how long it took her to get to Spike's crypt. But eventually she did.

Spike was asleep. It was daylight, after all, and it wasn't as though he had anything better to do anyway.

But he woke up when he heard the crypt door being opened very, very slowly. He was a vampire, and a vampire that didn't wake up when his habitat was disturbed would usually not remain a vampire for long.

Spike hurriedly threw on some clothes and went to see what was going on. He relaxed when he saw that it was Buffy opening the door.

But Spike realised that something was wrong when Buffy didn't speed up her opening of the door when she saw him. Indeed. She didn't even seem to know he was there.

Spike knew that something was wrong with Buffy, and had been ever since she'd been brought back. He'd barely been able to bring himself to see Buffy a handful of times as a result.

But this was a wrongness beyond even that. And Buffy had come to see him, Spike, the vampire that she detested, for help rather than her precious Scoobies.

It sent a thrill through Spike.

Still, Spike had to figure out what was wrong with Buffy first, before he could congratulate himself.

Spike figured that it had to be a spell of some kind. Which meant that it was likely that there was something on Buffy, some magical object, which made her the intended target.

Which meant that, joy of joys, Spike would have to strip Buffy. Normally, he knew that Buffy would beat him to a bloody pulp for this, but given that she didn't even seem to register his existence Spike thought that it would be for the best.

He tore off Buffy's jacket, rummaged through her pockets, checked its lining, and found something that, for all the world, looked like a miniature button-hole camera. Spike sniffed it, and found behind the general electrical tang of an object such as that, the scent of three people. Humans. But before Spike could distinguish further, the mechanical thing disappeared, bursting into dust.

Oh well. Spike hoped that he'd recognize the scents if he smelt them again. At the very least, judging by the way Buffy was suddenly moving at normal speed, the spell - or whatever it had been - had ended.

"Spike, why are you holding my jacket?" Buffy asked.

"Um... when you came in, you were moving really slowly, and you didn't seem to know that I was here, so I thought that you were probably under a spell, so there might be a hex bag or something on you, so I thought I'd find it." Spike said.

"And did you?" Buffy said.

"Yes. Well, no, not a hex bag, it was some kind of gadget, but I think that was what was causing it." Spike answered.

"Ah." Buffy responded. Then she just stood there. Spike felt awkward. Buffy didn't.

Eventually, Spike asked "Do you want to come in?"

"Yes." Buffy replied, and followed Spike into the crypt.

Spike lit a cigarette. It was something to do with his hands, and it stopped him from staring at Buffy. She was just so... still. Of course, as a vampire, Spike could easily overmatch her stillness - he didn't have to breathe, after all - but Spike was never like that. No vampire was ever as still as that, not without a reason. Certainly not all the time.

But Spike had seen it before. In humans, when they'd just decided to stop living. Even then, Spike had never seen a case as severe as Buffy's.

Spike resolved, then and there, that he wasn't going to let Buffy slip away. Not again. If he could save her this time, the he was going to. He was going to make her live again.

He was going to see her bloom again. Laugh. Smile. Cry.

Because Spike loved her, and he couldn't bear to see her this way.

Chapter Text

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

~*~

Buffy settled down to a normal life, after that. Well, as much as the life of a Slayer was ever normal. And as much as the existence of a dead girl could be called living.

Then, one day, there was a storm. And the storm brought Spike.

It was the first time that Buffy had seen him, since she'd gone to his crypt and he'd removed the miniature device from her jacket. The first time anyone had seen him. If Buffy had been capable of caring about the answer, she would've wondered where he had been.

As it was, Buffy wondered briefly how Spike could be out and about during the day without a blanket. Then she realised - the storm. The rain hadn't actually hit Sunnydale yet, although the weather report said it would soon. But clouds were blocking out the sun, and thunder periodically shattered the preternatural calm preceding the storm. Perfect for vampires.

"What are you doing here, Spike?" Buffy asked.

"I've got something to show you." Spike answered, then gestured outside to the motorbike he'd driven in on. The motorbike with a two helmets hanging on it. "If you come with me, I'll show you."

Buffy went with him. Chances were, Spike had found some nest of vampires or something, and doing her Slaying duty was rather more important than just about anything else Buffy did these days.

On Spike's part, he was mildly anxious that Buffy would ask where he'd gotten the motorbike, (rightly) disbelieve him when he told her, and insist on getting off and walking. They'd probably miss it if they did that.

He needn't have worried.

~*~

Buffy noted that Spike drove past all the places that she would expect to find a nest of demons. Spike must've really gone looking to find one out this far from the usual vampire haunts.

Or, Buffy realised eventually, he could just be taking her to the beach. Which, according to the weatherman, was soon going to be hit by a storm.

What possible reason could Spike have to bring her here, now?

Spike drew up just in front of the actual sandy beach. "We should be just in time. Give it a few minutes, and you'll see."

Perhaps an army of sand demons was going to rise up?

Suddenly, lightning struck a large metal rod (a lightning rod, Buffy supposed) buried in the sand.

It couldn't have been more than 50 feet away. The noise was deafening, the light blinding. Spike instinctively clapped his hands to his ears, but Buffy didn't move.

But, for the first time, something other than physical exertion made her heart speed up.

It wasn't fear, not exactly (although Buffy was certain Dawn would be running screaming by this point), because Buffy was incapable of that. It wasn't exhilaration, either. But she felt - something. For the first time since she had been resurrected, she felt something. She didn't know what it was, and it was gone as quickly as it had come, but it was something.

Some proof that Buffy wasn't quite as dead as she had thought.

Spike smiled widely. "So, what did you think?"

"It was..." Buffy searched for words to describe something she couldn't. She waved her hands inarticulately to try and convey something that she didn't really understand.

"Yeah." Spike answered. "It was."

Then the rain hit them. It wasn't even rain, it was more like the sea was being tipped on their heads. The pair were soaked to the skin within seconds.

Spike grinned like a maniac "Wooohooo!" he yelled, his cry punctuated by another burst of lightning.

Again, Buffy felt something. She still didn't know what it was, but she felt it. It lasted a little longer that time.

Spike rushed out onto the beach, near to the lightning rod. He did something to something in the sand, something that Buffy couldn't see because of the rain.

And suddenly, the lightning rod was jettisoned into the air, being launched towards the sea. Lightning struck it again, as it flew.

Buffy realised where Spike had been, for the last few days. He'd been here. Preparing this.

For her.

She stepped out onto the beach, towards Spike. "Did you do this? Did you do this for me?" she shouted, to be heard over the storm.

"Of course!" Spike shouted back, spreading his hands as though to indicate that the entire storm was his work. "I needed to get you to live somehow!"

Feeling. Several feelings. Unidentifiable feelings, but still feelings. They were real.

By that time, the centre of the storm had moved inland, mostly. Buffy and Spike were still getting rained on, but not nearly as heavily. The lightning struck over the town, now.

So Spike and Buffy walked over the wet sand, feet sinking. They weren't talking. They didn't need to. They were silent, but it wasn't the silence of the grave. Just companionable silence.

That is, until Spike noticed something. Once he saw it, he couldn't stop.

There were three sets of footsteps. His, Buffy's, and - someone else's. There was no one there when he actually looked, but when he looked ahead he could see them, appearing on Buffy's other side. Dimly, through the rain, Spike caught a glimpse of a hooded, brown-robed figure.

Eventually, Spike couldn't help but say something. "Who is that?"

Buffy looked around. "Who?"

"That person, there, on the other side of you. The brown-robed person." Spike said.

Instantly, Buffy shut down. The softening that Spike was sure he'd seen was gone. "I've got to go." she said. There was nothing, no inflection to her voice, nothing. Just flatness.

Buffy was hollow again. Just like the hollow man, beside her.

She left. Spike didn't try and stop her.

Chapter Text

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars

~*~

The group that had given themselves the grandiose name of the Trio didn't do much other than watch the Slayer and her group. Amongst themselves, they said that this was so that they could gather as much information on them as they could.

In truth, it was because the attempts they'd already made to put their villainous plans into action had failed, because of her. She'd killed the demon that Andrew had summoned as a distraction from Warren robbing the bank, preventing them from funding their more nefarious plans. And she just simply hadn't cared about the device they'd used to alter Buffy's perception of time.

Still, it was only a matter of time before they found some way to get at her. After all, Buffy had died before. It had to be possible to kill her again.

Finally, it seemed as though the Trio had come up with a plan to take the Slayer out of play.

They didn't see the hollow men when they materialized in their surveillance van. They didn't hear the hollow men whisper in their voices like wind through dry grass: "No. Your struggles against her will only provide Buffy with more reason to cling to life. You must cease up your actions, and wait. Soon, she will accept that she is dead, and then she will come with us."

Of course, the Trio carried on regardless. After all, how could they listen to someone they could neither see not hear?

They did, however, stop as soon as every camera they had stopped working. Even the one in the Magic Box. They didn't know what had happened - as far as they could tell, the cameras were still working. But they weren't transmitting anything.

Normally, the Trio would've expected magic to be behind this. But the camera in Willow's room had conclusively proved that neither Willow nor Tara had any interest in performing magic. At least not the kind to make cameras stop working.

After much debate, the theory was put forward that Spike was behind it. He was, after all, the only Scooby that the Trio didn't have eyes on. They'd never dared enter the lair of the master vampire. And as a master vampire, who could tell what resources Spike had at his disposal?

It was the only conclusion that made sense. However, it didn't necessarily mean that Spike knew who they were. They didn't doubt that Spike would've come straight for them, if he did. But, if Spike could find their cameras, it was only a matter of time before Spike found them.

Which meant that they needed to kill Spike before he killed them.

Andrew wasn't sure that his demons were up to task of killing the vampire, and if Spike could use magic to destroy the cameras, then Jonathan didn't want to pit his skills against him. Fortunately, Warren was remarkably good with gadgets of all kinds.

A simple bomb ought to do the trick.

So it was that, that night when Spike left his crypt, a bomb went off. It destroyed the support structure of his crypt, meaning that the entire thing collapsed on him.

~*~

When Buffy saw the ruin while she was out on patrol she felt as though her world was shrinking. The stars above began to fade away, leaving the sky black and empty. She saw the rubble of Spike's crypt as though through a telescope, from an infinitely great height.

Spike couldn't be dead. He just couldn't.

Except Buffy knew that he was.

She didn't even notice when the hollow men appeared by her side. Not until they spoke.

"You anchored yourself to him. Tied yourself to his belief that you are alive. Now he isn't. People die. It is what they do. It is what everything does. You must come to terms that your struggle to keep them alive is ultimately futile. You are hollow and you are dead. Sooner or later you must accept this. Will you come with us? Will you cross to Death's kingdom?"

Buffy stood stock still for what felt like an age. She remembered Spike giving her the hyacinths. Taking her to the beach in the storm. Removing the device from her jacket.

It was the true what the hollow man had whispered. The only times she had felt alive had been spent with Spike. She had hoped that the dead man would teach the dead girl to live.

But now, Spike was really, truly dead. And she was as dead as he was, for all that she still breathed. So why not take the offer? Be dead in body as well as spirit?

"Ye-"

"Hello." said a voice. A proper voice, not a meaningless, near-inaudible whisper. More than that, it was voice that Buffy recognized.

"Hello." Buffy said neutrally.

"I wasn't talking to you." Drusilla said. "I was talking to them."

"The hollow men? Do they talk to you too?" Buffy said. She turned to look at the vampire, so that she wouldn't have to see the ruin of what had once been Spike's home.

"Oh, yes. For a long time now." Drusilla lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "But I don't listen to them."

"How can you not?" Buffy said, the words spilling out before she even knew she was thinking them.

"Why should I? I know what I am. I don't need the envoys of Death to tell me." Drusilla said calmly.

"It must be easier for you. After all, you can feel, even if you're just a walking corpse. How can you be dead if you still enjoy life?" Buffy said. Had she been capable of emotions, there might have been bitterness in her tone. As it was, it was as flat as it had been since her resurrection.

"Easy? I would not say that. There was a long time when I wanted them to take me away. But I didn't let them." Drusilla said softly.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm crazy. Because the name of every day has a 'y' in it. Because the sun rises in the east. Because I could say no. Because." Drusilla listed in a singsong voice.

"What kind of answer is that?"

"Because is the only answer there is."

"No, it isn't. It can't be. There has to be a reason that you said no. I said no because of my duty, because I wanted to protect my friends-"

Drusilla tilted her head. "Why?"

"Because they're my friends!" Buffy said, a tinge of exasperation creeping into her voice.

"Exactly. Because. You protect your friends because they're your friends. You do your duty because it is your duty. Your arguments are circular." Drusilla said, adopting the tone of a schoolteacher.

Buffy struggled for something to say, but she couldn't think of anything.

"Logic will get you nowhere. You have turned down the hollow men because. The actually reasoning you used to justify it to yourself is irrelevant. You said no. So what changed?"

"I don't know."

"Yes, you do." Drusilla admonished. "Only one thing has changed since then. Why do you seek to die in front of William's tomb? The only thing that has changed for you is Spike. So why did you change your mind?"

"I don't know."

"Yes you do."

"I don't know."

"Tell me the truth."

"I don't know."

"Stop lying!" Drusilla thundered.

"Because I love him!" Buffy shouted back.

Drusilla rocked back on her heels. "This card
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see." She said so softly that Buffy didn't hear.

Buffy wanted to ask what Drusilla had just said, but given her sudden outburst she thought it better she be quiet.

"Ah, Spike. I do not know how this will turn out. I wish you joy of her. Our debt to you is concluded." Drusilla said to the rubble.

Buffy watched Drusilla walk away with her back held high. She didn't look back at the resting place of the vampire that she had once loved.

Buffy stood alone under the dying stars, struggling with the once-familiar feelings that bubbled away inside her.

Chapter Text

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

~*~

Buffy didn't know how long she stood there, staring without blinking at the crypt that had been Spike's home, and was now his grave. She stood there, blinking away the tears that constantly threatened to spill. She stood there, listening to her heartbeat, and wondering why it didn't sound broken.

Buffy had felt feelings like this before, with Angel, with Riley. But these feelings were stronger, because she hadn't felt anything for so long. She didn't know how she could live with it.

Except that she would. Buffy would go home and hold Dawn, and apologise for being the way she had been since her resurrection. She would sit on Willow's bed and talk all through the night, like she had in the old days. She would live, even though she was out of practice.

Because of Spike. Because he had given her hyacinths. Because he had taken her to the beach in the rain. Because he had given her back her feelings, and because she had come to love him for it.

Buffy would live, because Spike would never forgive her if she didn't.

But not right now. Now, Buffy would stand here and mourn the death of the man that she had loved without knowing.

After an interminable eternity, some dust floated gently on the breeze towards Buffy. Buffy, after a moment's thought, snatched it from the air and gripped it tightly, so that it couldn't trickle through her fingers. This wouldn't get away from her, not like so many other things had.

Buffy didn't know if it was just stone dust from the collapsed crypt, or if it was the last remnant of Spike.

But, whatever it was, it sparked an idea.

Willow had been able to resurrect Buffy. Admittedly, it hadn't worked out so well, with it taking months before Buffy had truly become alive again. But, if Willow could bring Buffy back to life, then surely Willow could resurrect Spike!

For the first time in an age, Buffy felt hope. She knew that a thousand things could go wrong (what if Spike came back even more damaged than she had?) but it was always better to try.

Buffy at last realised why Willow and the other Scoobies had acted the way they had. They hadn't spent all summer trying to resurrect the Slayer so that she could keep the town safe. They'd been trying to bring back Buffy, because they couldn't bear to let her go.

Finally, Buffy understood that feeling. Because she couldn't bear to let Spike slip away, not when she'd only just come to terms with how she felt about him.

As soon as the idea to act became firmly entrenched in Buffy's mind, the hollow men appeared by her side.

"You cannot do this." One whispered.

"It is bad enough that you have been wrenched from Death's kingdom, but to allow this vampire to return also? It will not be borne." whispered another.

"Will you stop me?" Buffy said in a low voice.

"We do not need to stop you. Your vampire has died a natural death, as much as one his kind can ever have one. There was nothing of the supernatural in the way he died."

"You're lying." Buffy said.

"Why would we lie? Everything is part of Death's domain. Sooner or later, this world and everyone on it will die. One day the stars will go out, and the universe will be dark. One day, everything will be part of Death's kingdom. We have no need to lie to claim one single person."

"Then why not let him go? And why do you keep pursuing me?"

"Because you do not belong here. Neither does the vampire. You are an abomination, the walking dead. You know this. You will return to us one day, whether you will it or not. But coming with us now will save you the hardship of dragging your way through each day, knowing that you are dead but lacking the peace of those in Death's kingdom."

Buffy lifted her head determinedly. "No. I don't accept that. I live, I breathe, I think. I even feel, now. I am not like you. I am not hollow."

"Believe what you like. You will realise the truth one day. And on that day, you will turn to us." One whispered.

Buffy held so tightly to the dust in her hand that her nails bit deep into her palm. Her blood began to mix with what had once been Spike.

Spike had always said that love was all about the blood.

Buffy was afraid. She was afraid that the memory of Spike wouldn't be enough to keep her going. She hoped that it would be, but living was hard. She had known that before she had died, and it was even harder now.

So Buffy clung to the mixture of dust and blood, because it was all that she had left to hold.

~*~

Eventually, Buffy went home. The sun was rising when she turned her back on Spike's resting place.

She didn't look back. If she had, Buffy wasn't sure whether she would've been able to leave.

Willow was waiting for her when she got back. She'd been worried when Buffy had stayed out for the entire night.

She knew instantly that something was wrong the moment Buffy walked through the door. More even than whatever had been wrong with her since her resurrection. The awful blank, opaque look in Buffy's eyes wasn't there anymore.

Instead, there was loneliness, and sadness, and grief. Willow hadn't seen Buffy look like that since she'd come back to Sunnydale after having run away to LA after the incident with Acathla. Back then, it had been dulled (even if only slightly) by the months that had passed since then.

Now it was fresh. Willow didn't know what was better, to feel such terrible things, or to feel nothing at all.

"What's wrong?" Willow asked, gently.

It was a long time before Buffy answered. "Spike's dead." Buffy said, in a voice so quiet that Willow had to strain to hear her. "I'm scared, Will."

Chapter Text

Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkling of a fading star.

~*~

Eventually, Buffy came to accept Spike's death. It took a long time, with her struggling constantly with the emotions that were so new to her. Many times she thought about accepting the offer of the hollow men - because what greater hell can there be than only being able to feel grief?

But she didn't. Each time she felt tempted, Buffy would go down to Spike's crypt. She would imagine him telling her that she was alive, and she should act like she was. For him.

Slowly, Buffy began to relearn emotions other than grief. She remembered how to smile. How to laugh. To begin with, she did it for Spike. Because he had tried so hard to get her to live.

Until, one day, Buffy came to do it for herself. Gradually, over time, she became more like the Buffy that her friends had known before her death. She began to consider other things besides killing demons as her duty. She began to function like a living person.

Buffy began to fill the hollowness inside herself.

The hollow men never stopped pursuing her, however. But Buffy didn't mind. She knew they were wrong. She didn't have to listen to Death's emissaries to know what she was.

Time went by. Buffy saved the world. She kept her friends. She made new ones amongst the new Slayers, once Willow called them with the Scythe. She told jokes.

But she never dated anyone. Eventually, people stopped bringing that up around her. It was the only thing that made her eyes go back to that flat, bleak, desolate expression that she had worn when she had been hollow. When she had been dead.

Because no one else was Spike. No one would spend such attention on her, trying to get her to bloom again.

She never stopped visiting Spike's crypt. Even after Sunnydale collapsed, Buffy had another crypt made, a replica of his. She would visit that, too.

Then, one day, years and years after her own death and on the anniversary of Spike's, Buffy stood in front of the monument she had made to Spike, and said to no one in particular "I am ready now. I have lived my life. I'm ready to die."

The hollow men appeared. Or perhaps they had always been there.

"Are you sure?" One whispered. "Once you go, you can never come back."

Buffy looked up at the night sky, at the same stars that had seemed to be fading away and dying on that night all those years ago. Tonight, they seemed brighter than they ever had.

Buffy smiled tremulously. "I'm sure."

When she looked down again, Spike was standing there, hand stretched towards her

Buffy took the dead man's hand and followed where he led.

Later, in the morning, several young Slayers found the old Slayer sitting upright, eyes closed, with a beatific smile on her face. At first, they thought she was asleep.

They weren't entirely wrong.

They found traces of vampire dust on her palm.