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The Road to Return

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Sometimes, being taken for granted was a good thing.

Nobody asked any questions when Xander requested Africa. Well, at least, nobody asked the right questions. There were jokes about safaris, and there was advice about where to find sunglasses with only one lens, but not even Buffy made the connection he expected to be made. The only thing to come out of her mouth was…

“You should get a dashiki. I think it would totally work for you.”

So he smiled, and he took one of the new Council credit cards from Giles, and he hugged Dawn good-bye and pretended that he didn’t notice how soft she was in all the right places. Willow had already left for Rio with Kennedy, so that only left Buffy.

She gave him a stake in a box of Twinkies.

“You know, for emergencies.”

And that was that.

As his stomach dipped during take-off, Xander watched the ground fall away. It felt like that was all he’d been doing lately. At least this time, he didn’t have to watch his world crumble with it. This time, the ground would come back up to meet him, even if it would be foreign and sun-baked. He would get off the plane, he’d look up into the sun, and he’d take the necessary steps, back to the beginning, back to the source, in hopes of finding some peace.

Not for him, though. He wasn’t sure that was possible just yet.

But Buffy…She deserved more than getting saddled with this newfound Council responsibility. She’d lost as much as anybody during the big fight – more, if he weighed in all the karmic debt Sunnydale owed her for saving its ass so many times over the years. And for all her brave front, Xander knew what the loss meant, how deeply it ran. He didn’t agree with it – soul or not, Spike was still a vampire – and maybe nothing would come from looking for answers.

For Buffy’s sake, though, he had to at least try.

* * *

Hell isn’t supposed to be dark.

Hell is supposed to be a hot summer devoid of hope, sun bright and blood light.

Hell is supposed to be whiskey-soaked loneliness, because no matter where you look, someone undeserving has someone else equally undeserving. And you don’t.

Hell is supposed to be paved in piteous glances you’re not meant to catch, because you’re not really a vampire any more, are you, if you’re stuck relying on the kindness of sires just to eat.

Turns out, hell is none of that. Hell’s so bloody black, you can’t see a thing. You can’t even feel much because you can’t move, you can’t talk, you can’t smell, and you sure as fuck can’t taste. There’s something wrong about that, but without any of the other, there isn’t much room to debate it.

Hell, apparently, just is.

It would feel disappointing…if you felt anything at all.

* * *

By the end of the third day, Xander was ready to call a bad idea dead in the jungle. Nobody wanted to deal with a stranger from a strange land, even with the aid of a translator. They’d take his money, sure, and they’d tolerate his presence in their card games with rules he didn’t understand, but as soon as he started asking questions about what did a vampire have to do to get a soul around here, Xander was back out on the street again, usually with a few dollars less. Or birr, actually, since this was Ethiopia and not Miami. A loss was still a loss.

And maybe vampires with ill-gotten souls actually died when they saved the world.

All it took to get focused on his task again was to hear Buffy’s voice.

“How’s Africa? Gone on any safaris yet?”

“Addis Ababa isn’t exactly the Wild Kingdom, Buff.”

“But you’re not staying there for long, right? Giles said you were supposed to be picking up a couple Slayers in Nairobi next week. That’s, like, in a whole different country, right?”

“Yeah, south.” At least, he thought it was south. “And that’s another big city, so no lions, tigers, or bears for me there, either.”

They chatted as if an ocean and nearly two continents didn’t separate them, but by the time they disconnected, Xander had found his resolve again. After all, he still had seven whole days before he got delegated to Council duty.

Anyone from Sunnydale knew that a lot could change in seven short days.

* * *

You fight because you can.

You fight because if you don’t, someone will notice, and then someone else will say something about losing your edge, and the last thing you need right now is to look soft.

You fight because that’s what he did. That’s what you did. That’s what you did together.

Fighting has always been the easy step to take. When you couldn’t do anything else, you fought. When you didn’t want to do anything else, you fought. If you wanted to get philosophical about it, you would probably theorize that fighting feels good because it gives you a definitive result. There is no gray. You fight, or you die.

Easy.

Death can be easy, too, but you don’t say that out loud because then you get funny looks from people who love you, who worry that maybe acknowledging what you did once upon a time wasn’t exactly a hard choice to make might mean you want to do it again.

You don’t. Even when you thought you might actually have stuff figured out.

And of course, all that depends on you looking at your world with philosophy-colored glasses and you wouldn’t do that. Or maybe can’t. The end result is the same.

Philosophy’s for the whiz kids.

For Slayers, there’s the fight.

* * *

More than once, Xander wondered if relying on the ravings of a crazy vampire and his own memory was a really good idea. Oh, sure, when it came to comic books or the oeuvre of Bill Murray, his memory was as good as, if not better than, Willow’s. But when it came to the cryptic, whether prophecy or Spike’s midnight babbles, he might as well have been Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. Maybe he was remembering the details wrong. Maybe that was why Buffy hadn’t blinked when he’d asked to round up the Slayers in Africa. It wouldn’t be the first time Xander messed up.

But then Wendimu, his translator, heard a story about a cave where dreams came true, and the next day, Xander was bouncing over dirt roads, on his way to the tribe that was rumored to protect the cave and its “sorcerer.”

Not surprisingly, nobody in the tribe wanted to talk to him, either.

“Tell them I’m not interested in a fight.”

“Tell them I just want to talk to him.”

“Tell them I’m looking for an old friend. Wait. Don’t tell them that. Just tell them I’m looking for someone their sorcerer helped. They’d remember him. Tell them he would have been a bigger pain in the ass than I’m being.”

Nothing Wen told them worked.

“Can they at least point me in the direction of the cave? I’ll find him myself.”

Not surprisingly, that just pissed them off.

Xander and Wen pretended to leave, waiting over the hills for the sun to set. The tribe’s reactions only convinced him that he was right, that the cave was around here somewhere, and if they got angry enough to want to protect it, there was obviously something important inside. Or someone. Or something. This was likely a demon, so thing was probably more accurate.

Being accurate didn’t exactly make him feel better as he traipsed through darkness dripping in shadows, with only a flashlight and a recalcitrant translator for company.

Whether it was fate or not, he found the cave with little effort, but taking that first step inside was harder than he’d imagined. It was as much about questioning just what he was doing as it was being absolutely terrified about setting foot inside what looked like a black hole. This was the fodder of horror movies, and even if his life surpassed anything Craven could have conceived, Xander wasn’t so naïve not to know that maybe there was a very good reason the tribe didn’t want him near their so-called sorcerer. Maybe it wasn’t protecting what was in the cave. Maybe it was protecting those who might go inside.

Except he’d come an awful long way just to turn around at the last minute.

Taking a deep breath, he aimed his flashlight into the maw and took that first step.

* * *

Somewhere between nothing and all, a whimper emerges.

It brasses you off. You don’t make that kind of sound. You scream. You rage. You pick up the nearest object and smash it over your knee. Or you sink your fangs into it. Or your cock, if the object is tight enough.

You don’t whimper.

Except you do.

Because all of a sudden, there’s more than dark. There’s sheets of fire consuming your flesh, and there’s a desert that’s taken up residence in your throat, scraping it raw. If you chose to scream now, your lips would crack and bleed, but not even those wonderful rivulets would be enough to slake what feels like the mother of all thirsts.

Maybe there’s more to hell, after all. You don’t have a rock to roll, but Sisyphus probably never had a thirst to quench, either.

Open your eyes. Try and see. Find the light and find the blood. Perhaps that will take the edge off the hunger.

But there is no light. If nothing else, hell is still dark.

Or your eyes have failed, which is always a possibility.

Once upon a time, your eyes were blinded by human frailty. It took death to open them up, death again to close them. It could be a temporary measure, just as the loss of sensation was temporary.

And just when you’ve convinced yourself that it’s all right you can’t see because what’s the point in seeing when you can’t move, a light bobs on the wall. A sound follows it, a sound that might be a voice.

It’s hard to tell when all you hear is a whimper.

* * *

Xander couldn’t stop staring.

It was bad enough seeing the paintings on the wall, the caveman drawings of blood and gore that made him want to gouge out his other eyeball, too. And dealing with the armored demon with the glowy eyes had been less than pleasant. The thing talked like it had rocks in its throat, which was never a good sign for winning the Mr. Congeniality award.

“You seek me, mortal?”

“Yeah. Well, kind of.”

“You know her. The Slayer. She’s why you come.”

“Like I said. Kind of.”

“Speak plainly, or I’ll reduce your flesh to so much rubble.”

Xander cleared his throat. “I’m looking for a vampire named Spike. You gave him his soul back last summer.”

“Not true.”

“Okay, time out. According to Spike—”

“I didn’t give it to him. He earned the right to possess it.”

Great. Just great. Why did demons have to be such sticklers for semantics?

“Fine. He earned it. Except he kind of used it to save the world a few weeks ago, and now I want to know where he is.”

The demon peered at him. Xander knew this because its glowing eyes turned into the tiniest of slits.

“Why?”

This was a question he’d actually been prepared for.

“Because he left behind people who care about him. And because I want to give those people some peace of mind if I can.”

“You speak of the Slayer.”

“Yeah. And her sister. And…others.” Andrew always counted in the “other” column.

The demon didn’t speak again. He just pointed. Into the darkest part of the cave.

Maybe heedlessly following the command of a demon when it gestured toward the bowels of what could only be described as sheer and unmitigated terror wasn’t the brightest thing Xander had ever done. Every step he took deeper into the murk, he told himself to turn around. And every step, his self ignored him. Stupid self.

But then he saw what it was the demon had meant for him to find. And both of his selves shut up.

It might have been Spike once. It might have had clothes, and it might have had skin, and it might even have had all its hair. Now, it was too hard to tell, with the stretches of exposed flesh charred and oozing. Now, it was just lying there along the wall, inert except for the faintest of sounds coming from its chest.

It didn’t breathe, though. For all its obvious agonies, it wasn’t alive.

At least, not in the conventional sense.

He considered it lucky that he got back out of the cave in one piece. Of course, he’d been running too fast to notice if the demon was paying any attention to his hasty retreat, but he didn’t want to get sick in front of him. This was worse than seeing Willow skin Warren Mears alive. A part of Xander secretly believed that Warren had it coming.

But for as much as he’d disliked Spike in the past, he wouldn’t have wished this upon him. Not after Sunnydale’s last stand.

His hands were shaking as he pulled out his phone. The signal was weak, but all it took was one bar to make the call he needed.

“Buffy? It’s Xander. Sit down.”

* * *

It used to be exciting to fly. To soar above the clouds. A grand adventure because you were little and planes were big and the world was even bigger.

The world’s not so big any more. And you’re not so small. Not for lack of trying.

Everybody flies, because it takes too long not to. And Willow’s not so reliable with the teleportation spells all the time. Plus, not here, and really, the last thing you want is for her to try and teleport you while she’s in Rio and you’re in Cleveland and the place you want to go is somewhere else entirely.

So you fly, and you try not to think of every other time you’ve been in an airport lately, all the people who have packed up and left, most never to return again. You’re not going to be one of those people, because this isn’t a moving out of someone’s life flight, this is…

You don’t know what this is. You only know Xander called, and there were apologies and mystical caves and pointed demons. Or demons who pointed. It was hard to tell because Xander lost signal, and then when he called back, he sounded sick, and all you heard was, “You have to come.”

So you go. Because it’s Xander. And what’s in Cleveland for you anyway except a bunch of little Slayers who don’t know how much you had to sacrifice in order to save the world a few hundred times? Well, Giles is still there. Funny that he’s the one remaining, when he’d been the first to try leaving.

Africa is as hot as Xander warned, but when you see him, when you stand back and really look, everything in you chills. Because something’s wrong, you can see it in his eye, and if you didn’t already know that he hasn’t started with the Slayer round-up yet, you’d think somebody else had died.

“Spike’s alive.”

Or maybe not.

* * *

Xander wasn’t surprised when Buffy went all quiet after he told her about Spike. She’d done that a lot over the past year, especially after the Hellmouth collapsed. He never would have called her introspective before, but dying the second time had changed that. When she got slammed with too much information – or shocks – she withdrew. If only for a little while.

She was still silent by the time they were rumbling over the road out to the cave. Too silent.

“Talk to me, Buffy. Yell at me. Call me Ishmael. Say something.”

Her head turned to stare out over the bleached horizon. “Is this why you picked Africa?”

“Well, I didn’t pick it for the gourmet chocolate.”

“Why did you even think he might be alive?”

“I didn’t. I just thought…maybe I’d be able to get some answers for you.” He was glad when she looked back at him, even if all he saw was confusion in her eyes. “It was something you told me. That night with the rocky road when everybody else was asleep and I’d had that dream about Anya? You said Spike mentioned his soul down in the Hellmouth. That he could feel it. Which got me thinking about how he’d gotten it in the first place.”

“Spike never talked about it very much.”

“With you. With me, he was Chatty Cathy.”

Her brows shot up. “And you two became bosom buddies when?”

“It wasn’t like that. I was a…captive audience. And crazy Spike wasn’t exactly choosy about who else might be in the room when he’d start talking. Sometimes, all he needed was a wall. So I learned stuff. Not on purpose.”

“Like what?”

It had never occurred to him that Buffy and Spike hadn’t talked about the soul. After all, a soul was the holy grail as far as she was concerned. A soul forgave a lot. It forgave Angel, and considering how much time she had spent with Spike after he’d moved into the house, protecting him, arguing for him, Xander had just assumed that the topic would have come up. At least once.

Apparently, it hadn’t.

So he told her the tidbits he knew, the Bantu tribe Spike had rambled on about, the cave, the trials. He left out the parts like giving her what she deserves, though. That was like kicking a guy when he was already down, which, yeah, might have been fun in the old days, but considering what was going on with Spike, would be just a little too much right now.

Buffy didn’t ask the one question he kept expecting, though. As they pulled the truck up to a bluff outside the view of the local tribe, Xander realized she probably wasn’t going to. Which was more than a little ironic because it was the one question he actually knew the answer to.

Why did you do this for me?

Because I love you, Buff. And because I know if there was a way for me to get some closure with Anya, you’d do what you could to get it for me.

But she never asked.

* * *

Buffy made him wait until sunset before approaching the cave.

“If it is Spike, it needs to be dark for us to get him out of there. I’m not leaving him any longer than I have to.”

Xander could have argued that it might actually be in Spike’s best interests to be left, at least until it was more comfortable for him to travel, but one look at the grim set of Buffy’s mouth meant it would be a waste of breath. She was going to take him home, if she had to carry him every step of the way.

She went in unarmed, except for a stake in her belt and a knife sheathed in her boot. Xander instructed Wen to wait outside. Just in case. He gave him the cell phone that wouldn’t work inside, too. Just in case. There was a lot more of just in case he would’ve liked to do, but time was ticking.

“Hello?”

His greeting echoed against the walls, bouncing back to remind him that the cave was very large and ultimately, he was not. When nobody answered, he tried again.

“Lucy! I’m home!”

Silence.

“Candygram!”

“Look, Xan, maybe we should—”

“So. The Slayer comes.”

They both turned in the direction of the voice. Time had not dulled the memory of those little red eyes, though this time, Xander thought he saw fangs, too.

Buffy barely blinked.

“Can’t say the bed talk really works for you,” she said lightly. “Especially if you just jump straight to the good stuff. A girl likes a little foreplay, you know.”

Spike now, quip later, Xander wanted to say. But this was Buffy’s show now. He was just the usher. Complete with flashlight.

“I expected someone different.”

“Taller maybe?” She shrugged. “I get that a lot.”

“How could you be the one responsible?” the demon went on. “You’re nothing. A speck. How are you worth enduring what the dark warrior went through?”

“And I’m guessing by ‘dark warrior,’ you mean Spike. But what he did, what happened between us, that’s really not any of your business.”

“It is when you’ve come for him.”

Xander bit the inside of his cheek. Stupid demon had a point.

“He’s here, then?” To anybody else, Buffy probably sounded exactly the same. His ear caught the difference. “Where?”

“Where he's safe.”

“Well, he’ll be safer somewhere else.” She scanned the cave’s interior with a practiced eye. Xander had told her about following it deeper in order to get to Spike, and he knew the exact moment she figured out which direction to go.

So did the demon.

“There is only one way to get what you want,” he said.

When Buffy didn’t have a quip for that, Xander leaned over and whispered, “The trials. Spike did three of them.”

“I knew that,” she whispered back, though they both knew she hadn’t.

“There won’t be three for the Slayer,” the demon corrected. “Just one. A fight.”

“Works for me. What am I fighting? Vampire? Fyarl demon? A good old-fashioned boogeyman?”

This time, Xander was positive he saw fangs.

“No, Slayer. Me.”

* * *

Punching armored demons is like slamming your fists into concrete walls. Not so much with the fun, and even less with the effectiveness, so that means finding new ways to attack. Feet are good, legs are better. Leap onto its shoulders, wrap your thighs around its neck, flip both of you over onto the ground.

The advantage doesn’t last long. You hesitate. It throws you against the wall like wet spaghetti.

You really have to stop pausing to listen for snarky commentary from the sidelines that hasn’t come in over a year.

A fist slams into your mouth, and you taste blood. You have to swallow more than once to get rid of the worst of it, but it’s enough to make you focus, make you mad, make you concentrate on what you’re doing and why.

It’s not the first time you’ve fought for Spike. If you have anything to say about it this time, it won’t be the last.

Weapons aren’t going to work on this demon, but the longer you fight, the more you wonder if this is about winning after all. He lands blows that hurt, and you bleed as much now as you did in the Hellmouth, but more than once, you see an opening for it to take that it doesn’t. A falter in your step. A kick that doesn’t go quite as low as you planned. You could have been dead a few times over, and yet, you aren’t.

Story of your life. And Spike’s, too, apparently.

* * *

Sometimes, it was hard watching Buffy fight. He’d long ago learned how to squelch the desire to jump in and help when she didn’t ask him to – too many hits to the noggin knocked that right out of his head – but when it wasn’t clear that she was going to thoroughly kick her opponent’s ass, Xander winced with every blow she took.

The slam against her solar plexus that left her momentarily winded.

The punch in the jaw that split her lip and left the demon’s fist bloodied.

The elbow to the side of her head when the demon sidestepped another attack.

He was half-tempted to go running back out to the truck and get the crossbow she’d insisted he leave behind. The only thing that stopped him was the fact that he didn’t think the heavy bolts could pierce its thick hide. Add in the possibility of accidentally hitting Buffy, and Xander’s feet stayed glued where they were, only moving to shuffle out of the way when the fight strayed too close in his direction.

“Stop.”

Its gravelly voice reverberated against the cave walls. The single word command was said so forcefully, even Buffy came to an immediate halt.

“You are not about to call a time out,” she said incredulous. Sweat dripped from her forehead, and there were bruises already blooming along her jaw and cheeks. Her bottom lip looked swollen, too. “That’s not the way this works.”

“The trial is over. You have passed.”

“I passed? I didn’t do anything. You’re still alive. And in my way, I might add.”

“Life and death were not the goals here.”

“Care to enlighten me on what was?”

With the fight over, the demon edged back into the darkness until only its glowing eyes were visible again. “The dark warrior fought to be what you deserve,” it said. “He fought long. Hard. Your trial was to prove that you would risk the same for him. You’ve passed.”

Buffy’s mouth opened as if she was going to argue with him, until Xander darted forward to grab her arm.

“One of Spike’s trials was about beetles crawling into his eyeballs,” he hissed in warning.

Her nose wrinkled in disgust, but it was quickly replaced by a bright smile she shot the demon. “So game over,” she said. “Now where do I find Spike?”

* * *

There’s a sense of expectation you can’t shake, like a breath waiting to be freed from the confines of bone and tissue. It’s not a new feeling, and it’s not an old one. It’s something borne of Sunnydale. Hellmouths have a way of mucking up the natural order of things, and this…this is just another residual that’s been steeped into your sinew.

Because the old days would have seen you grab the expectation by the balls and twist until it careened in the direction you chose. The new days have you standing on the precipice, abiding the unspoken order to let it come to you.

Maybe it is a new feeling. Maybe it’s time to take the leap and tell the consequences to bugger off.

The pain is still there. The thirst. And it’s getting worse, not better. For all that you’re convinced you really are in hell, it’s not necessarily unwelcome anymore. This is your joy, after all. The love you beget might not have been the first you’d hoped for, but what does it matter if the torment means she’s free? What she chooses to do with it now is her choice. The only thing you regret is that it took getting a soul for you to finally understand that.

The dark is moving again. Shadows dance, flicker. You wonder if it’ll be the same hallucination you had last time. Hell’s got a bitch of a sense of humor, making Harris the first thing you see, but thankfully, it hasn’t come back.

For all your so-called noble intentions, seeing the vestiges of the past almost hurts more than all the rest of it put together.

Almost.

* * *

He knew what was coming, but that didn’t mean Xander wanted to see it again. He definitely didn’t want to witness Buffy seeing it for the first time. He’d avoided sharing details about what Spike looked like, only to say he was badly hurt and couldn’t leave the cave on his own. He only hoped that the two days he’d been gone from the cave had been enough time for Spike to heal so that he didn’t look like a marshmallow still burning in a campfire.

It wasn’t.

The sound Buffy made didn’t sound like anything he’d ever heard before. He’d heard her laugh, he’d heard her cry, he’d heard her make those little snorting gasps when she’d fallen asleep during long research sessions in the library. Maybe the only sounds he wasn’t acquainted with were the ones she made in her double-backed beast moments, but Xander was pretty sure this sound could never be misconstrued for something so intimate.

He refused to swing the flashlight away from the body against the wall to look at her. He wasn’t sure seeing Buffy’s reaction wouldn’t be worse than seeing what she was reacting to.

The steps she took to Spike’s side were quick, almost clumsy. When her body blocked the beam of illumination, Xander rounded the space to stand off to the side, aiming the flashlight down the length of the blackened flesh.

Spike didn’t even blink. He was too busy staring up at Buffy kneeling next to him.

“God, what did…”

The query died on her lips. Her hands molded the air over his injured chest, the slightest of quivers betraying her shock. Xander wasn’t sure how she planned on getting Spike out of the cave when she couldn’t even bring herself to touch him.

A shadow shifted in the hollow of Spike’s throat.

Nothing else happened. The only thing that moved was the flutter of Buffy’s fingers.

“Spike…”

“I’m not sure he can hear you, Buffy.”

“He has to. He sees me. I know he does.”

“Yeah, but he hasn’t moved from this spot since the last time I was here. And those are some pretty bad burns.”

Her gaze fell, sweeping down the length of Spike’s legs before crawling back up again. “Hellfire has a way of doing that to you,” she murmured.

* * *

This is what he would have looked like if you’d stayed. This is what you would have seen. Skin like burned paper. Flesh like the inside of a meat grinder. All before it crumbled into dust. The only difference is, you would have been lucky enough to hear him scream with pain—

No, Spike wouldn’t have screamed. He would have laughed.

You don’t feel like laughing now.

Xander is talking, and you know he means well, he just wants to help, but then there’s that movement again, that flexing of muscles in Spike’s throat, and you know – you just know – that Spike’s trying to say something. And that’s all that matters, because Xander’s had his chance to talk, he’s had the past month when Spike hasn’t, when all Spike’s had is this hole in the earth and echoes to whisper at him all night long, and all you want is to hear something, anything, come out of Spike’s mouth.

But it doesn’t.

“I’m going to fix this,” you hear yourself say. You might not know how, you might not even know what exactly is wrong, but you mean every syllable, as sure as you’ve ever meant anything else.

Spike blinks. You can actually hear it. His eyelids are so papery that they rasp against his dry eyes.

Before yours aren’t so dry anymore, you turn to Xander and you send him out to the truck to get the blankets that are in the back. He argues, or he tries to anyway, but how else are you going to get Spike out of here? You’ll hurt him if you touch him directly. Make him bleed. Make him bleed more. His flesh might slough away from the bone, or he might turn to ash, and then where will you be?

In a cave in the middle of Africa with a dusty soul staining your hands.

There’s enough blood on them already.

* * *

Somehow, they got him out of there. Somehow, Xander had the fortitude to watch Buffy cradle Spike’s scorched body in her arms, and to not listen to the whimpers that came from them. He didn’t know who they belonged to. They probably belonged to both.

Somehow, they got past the demon without further arguments. He melded into the darkness, only his little red eyes evidence that he was there at all, and though Buffy didn’t even look in his direction, Xander kept his hand on the crossbow he’d brought back inside. This was the point where the bad guy jumped up from where he’d fallen off the side of the building, waving his guns like a madman for one last attempt to vanquish the movie’s hero. But Hollywood let him down, once again. This time, though, Xander wasn’t complaining.

Somehow, they got Spike laid out in the truck bed without any of his body parts falling off. There were flecks of black caught in the blanket’s weft, but for the purpose of his own sanity, Xander was going to consider that dirt for now. Yeah. Dirt. Not skin flaking off from contact with something else. He’d make sure to get a clean blanket for Spike once they got back to the hotel. And hope that he didn’t see fresh pink patches of baby skin where Spike’s had rubbed away.

“I need to ride back here with him.”

Xander had known that, was nodding even before Buffy had finished talking. The privacy might do them some good. Spike wasn’t talking, but neither was Buffy. She had ceased as soon as Xander returned with the blanket.

If anybody could get her to open up, it was Spike. There had been a time when he and Willow had satisfied those roles for Buffy, the confidants in a world that made both no and too much sense. But Buffy had moved on. Willow had moved on. Xander hadn’t wanted to move on, but nobody had given him a choice in the matter. Even Spike had moved on, though Xander wouldn’t have traded places with him, even if he was in front with Wen and Buffy was back there with the vampire who’d earned the soul to stand at her side.

He’d done what he could for now.

The rest was up to Spike.

* * *

It doesn’t feel real. There’s too much sensation for one thing, where before there had been none. Air whipping over your skin, like an ex-lover’s angry caress when that last fight turns into a fuck. Voices booming in your ears, enough to make your teeth vibrate. Light cleaving the dark, no pattern, no rhythm, until the dark isn’t quite so dark anymore and the light reflects off her burnished skin.

And the thirst, grown worse by the scent of fresh blood. She looks down at you with the bruised eyes of a woman who has seen more than she should. The mouth you remember in so many different ways – smiling, stretched taut around your cock, thinned and grim when her body sparks with anger – bends in asymmetry that is familiar and not, and you feel your fangs itch to burst the swollen flesh and let the droplets rain into your wounds.

“I meant what I said. We’ll fix this. I promise.”

The words are artless, her tone more so. This is a gift she has bestowed on others, one you’ve witnessed time and time and time again, one she gave to you when she was weak. You’ve thrust it back in the past, wanting and undeserving to want, but this time, you wonder what it would feel like to hold it for just a few seconds. Savor its weight. Pretend you can keep it. You’ll give it back again, of course. You must. But when you ache like this, when you want to dig your fingers into your own flesh and pull it off your bones in order to dilute the pain, it doesn’t seem so wrong to exercise selfishness once again. Just one more time.

“Oh, Spike…” You’d forgotten how breathy her voice got sometimes when she said your name. “You didn’t really think I’d leave you there, did you?”

There’s nothing to believe when you think you’re in hell.

But perhaps she’s been Orpheus all along.

Don’t look back, luv.

And she doesn’t.

* * *

Sneaking a charred vampire into a major city hotel wasn’t nearly as simple as it should have been. Xander sent Wen inside to bribe their way up the back stairs and elevators, but the night clerk wasn’t the same one who’d been working every other time they had coming in during the wee morning hours with suspicious looking bruises. This one wanted real answers to real questions, and in the end, it cost nearly the rest of Xander’s stipend to get him to shut up.

“Spike’s going to owe me when he’s finally over this crispy phase,” he half-joked as he held the room door open for Buffy.

He had to stand well out of the way to give her as much room as possible. Not looking at the harsh lines of Spike’s face was nearly impossible when it passed just inches away from him.

“We’re going to need blood.” The gentle way she laid Spike out was enough to make Xander feel like he’d walked into the middle of something not for his eyes. “Lots of it.”

“It’s five in the morning.”

“Oh. Right.”

He hovered near the door. “I’ll go as soon as the shops open, okay?”

“That’s good. Thanks.”

She still wasn’t looking at him, too intent on covering Spike up, closing the curtains, doing everything she could to make Spike comfortable. Make him safe. Xander turned to leave, but as he stepped into the hall, her soft voice called him back.

Her eyes looked too large, her mouth too thin. She looked tired, more so even than those first few days after the last stand. Without a word, she crossed the room and threw her arms around him, squeezing in that standard too-hard Slayer hug as she buried her face in his neck.

“Thank you,” he heard her whisper.

He hugged her back.

No more words were necessary.