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The Darkling

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There came a point where there was nothing left in her apartment to clean. A point where everything, including the curtains and the crown molding, had been vacuumed; where the walls had been washed – twice; and where she’d even unscrewed the light fixtures to dust the bulbs.

Dawn had watched the entire process with a certain level of disbelief, but once Buffy got to the light bulbs she threw up her hands entirely. “Oh my god. You’re not seriously doing that.”

Buffy looked at her sister from the top of the stepladder, her mouth forming a grim line. “I don’t think anyone’s ever bothered to unscrew them,” was her only reply, before she attacked the fixtures with concentration worthy of the worst kind of demon.

“I think you’re the one with a screw loose,” Dawn muttered after a moment, before stomping out the front door. “I’m heading to Agata’s house.” There was a pointed pause. “Where her sister isn’t a grieving nutcase.”

“I’m not grieving!” Buffy yelled at the closing door.

She wasn’t grieving. She wasn’t. Grief was selfish. She wasn’t allowed to be selfish when her backyard was filled with the bodies of young girls who’d never get any older because her friends decided to drag her back to life. She wasn’t allowed to be selfish when said backyard didn’t even exist anymore, because the town didn’t even exist anymore.

Drawing in a sharp breath, she scrambled down from the stepladder and eyed the apartment furiously. It wasn’t allowed to be clean. This was Italy, damnit, where everything was old and haunted by pigeons and caked in plaster. Pursing her lips, she strode back to the kitchen sink to give it another scrub. There was a ring of rust on the right ledge that was probably good for another half hour’s worth of work. She hoped.

She wasn’t grieving.

Grieving implied there was something wrong. And there was nothing wrong about saving the world. There was nothing wrong about witnessing a selfless sacrifice by the man who at the very last minute…

“‘No, you don’t’?!” She glared at the rust spot as she scrubbed. “I swear to god, Spike, I’m going to bring you back to life, just so I can punch you for–”

Buffy froze mid-rant, the damp sponge falling from her fingers. Bring him back to life? Was that an option?

She wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or embarrassed that the thought hadn’t crossed her mind in the four months since Sunnydale. Admittedly, the first three months had been a blur; some mix of escaping and healing and then scattering to the four corners of the world to re-build everything that had been lost – all the while pretending that they weren’t all terribly scarred in some or many ways.

When the dust had settled, everything was different… and yet incredibly the same. Everyone still needed her to do things, even as they exclaimed how free her life was now. The new Slayers needed her to train them, Dawn needed her to caretake for and argue with her, Giles and the remnants of the Council needed her to report to them and wave the victory flag for them.

And she needed… she needed someone who was there whether she needed them or not.

She had needed Spike a lot in the last months of Sunnydale. He had transformed himself into her left-hand man nearly overnight – which really shouldn’t have surprised her, in the end. Despite his fashion style being stuck in the 80’s, Spike had pretty much reinvented everything else about himself on a regular basis. Up to and including getting a soul for her.

It was a gift she hadn’t asked for – something more extreme and devoted than a marriage proposal. Something purchased with nothing but pain because he thought it was what she deserved.

It had terrified her.

No one had ever done that kind of thing for her before: gone and changed their entire nature just to be better for her, to make her life easier and safer and kinder. But once she’d accepted the gift for what it was, it had taken her even longer to come to terms with what it meant to her – what he meant to her.

And then he’d gone and died in the most obscenely heroic way. But not, of course, before making sure his last words to her were incredibly stupid.

The noble jackass.

But maybe he didn’t have to stay dead. The thought made her tremble. She knew immediately that she was treading the same dangerous path her friends had tread two years ago – terrible need and hope crossing a line that should never have been crossed.

But she had been in heaven. Spike was a toss-up.

Half of her hated the idea that Spike might not be in heaven (shouldn’t saving the entire world sort of balance out all the deaths he’d caused? If it was a numbers game, he was several billion in the green) but a larger, terribly selfish part of her now hoped he wasn’t. Hoped that he was somewhere she could ethically bring him back from.

Ironically, she needed the person who had originally crossed the line to tell her where it was. Swallowing down the swirling pit of conflict that her stomach had become, she left the sponge in the sink and grabbed her cell phone from the kitchen table.

“Wil?”

“Hey,” was Willow’s chipper greeting. “Everything okay?”

“I need you to find where Spike is. The sooner the better.”

“Uh, Buffy…” There was an apologetic, worried hesitation. “You do remember that Spike’s dead, right? Like dead-dead?”

Buffy couldn’t help but roll her eyes, even as her throat tightened with the words. “Yes. I remember. But can you find him?”

A long pause held out over the line. She was sure Willow was about to barrage her with questions, but her friend surprised her with a simple, “There are thousands of hell dimensions. It could take years to go through them all…”

Buffy chewed the bottom of her lip. “How about heavenly dimensions? Can you... just make sure he’s not in any of those?”

“Um, well, that’s a little easier. Only a few hundred of those, but we’re still in the year plus range.”

“Oh.”

“But,” Willow’s voice brightened and gained speed, “there are only a few dozen that human souls can ascend to! I could probably get through those within a month or two. Three, tops.”

“The sooner the better,” Buffy repeated, grateful relief filling her. She exhaled loudly. “Thank you, Wils. Just– thank you. For not… you know.”

There was a small, rueful laugh from the other end. “Hey, I’m glass house girl here. No stones on my end. And you’re… checking first.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll be quick.”

“Thank you,” Buffy said again, before exchanging a quick goodbye. Then she collapsed limply, dazedly, onto the couch. She was going to get him back. As long as Spike wasn’t in a heaven, she would get him back. Somehow. Spike had fought for a soul for her – the least she could do was fight for him.

Then her second epiphany of the day nearly clobbered her over the head, and she scrambled back for the phone.

Angel picked up after two rings. “Buffy?”

“I need to know everything you can tell me about an African demon named Lloyd.”

She’d really thought Spike was screwing with her when he’d told her that the demon who’d granted him his soul was named Lloyd, but the vampire had just snorted, his mouth quirking into a crooked smile. “Believe me, it was about the only thing worth a laugh in the whole bloody place.”

Angel met her statement was a startled silence, followed by a slightly offended sounding, “Well, hello to you, too.”

“Hi,” she amended, slightly chastised. Then she frowned. Not even a couple dozen words in and Angel was already treating her like an errant child. Spike would have launched right into story. Well, souled Spike would have. Unsouled Spike would have probably given her some kind of stupidly sexual smirk and lowered his voice to a purr, with an infuriating, “What’ll you give me for it?”

Either way, he wouldn’t have reprimanded her.

“So, Lloyd,” she repeated, with a bit more steel. “Have you heard of him?”

“Uh, yeah. He’s an Asphyx demon – they’re cousins to vengeance demons. Wish-granters.” There was an abrupt pause. “Buffy, what are you doing?”

There was no way she was getting into that. The minute Angel heard Spike’s name, his jealous hackles would go up and she’d have to spend the next however way too long soothing his bruised ego. It was clearer now than it had ever been – certainly clearer than it had been before the battle with the First – that she and Angel were in the permanent “ex” category. He’d given her a magical amulet that killed its wearer and hadn’t even so much as apologized for it. Heck, he hadn’t even tried to get back together with her, which really just proved the suspicions that she hadn’t really wanted to be true, but that seemed to be: Angel wanted her love, but he didn't want her. Now that the threat to her heart was apparently gone, he was happy enough to go back to ignoring her.

As if reading her thoughts, Angel sighed. “If this is about Spike…”

“It’s about me,” she said tersely.

She could practically hear the disbelieving look on his face. “He died a hero, Buffy.”

She really wanted to know how much it cost him to say those words.

“He did,” she agreed calmly. And he was going to live as one again, if she had any say in the matter.

“So this isn’t some crazy attempt to get him back.” There was an odd swallow over the line. “Because he’s gone, Buffy. He’s not coming back.”

Yeah, well, if we all listened to your feelings on the subject of permanent deadness, I’d still be in the Master’s cavern.

“This isn’t about him,” she repeated, then added the only thing she could think of to get him off the subject. “It’s a Slayer thing.”

There was another long pause, then, “I’ll send you what information I have.”

 

***

 

For all his reluctance, Angel came through. Two weeks later, she had a stack of mail at her door with a slew of details about the recorded trials Lloyd had “hosted,” complete with a set of GPS coordinates to his desert lair.

Then all that was left to do was wait for Willow and figure out what in the world qualified as good survival gear for an African desert.

She gave up on cleaning the apartment after month four, to Dawn’s clear relief, but then found herself with a myriad of strange hobbies (trying to home-make pasta was the worst idea), while vacillating between anxious, aloof, and almost frighteningly giddy.

By month six, Dawn had apparently decided it was safest just to spend all her non-school hours at one friend’s house or another.

Buffy couldn’t help it; her insides were a complete wreck, everything entirely twisted with expectation and fear and worry. She felt constantly tipsy, as if she was on the edge of drinking one too many glasses of wine – her taste buds begging her for more, and her muscles too dazed to understand why it was a terrible plan.

It was, she realized, exactly how Spike had felt about her, once upon a time.

“You’re a bloody drug,” he’d whispered in her ear one night during their ill-fated affair, as he thrust lazily in her on the bed, the low rumble of his voice making her shiver with a million shades of desire and denial. “All my veins are burning for you. Feel like I’ll die if I’m not right” – he thrust into her so sharply that she gasped – “here.”

She’d melted into his words even as she’d stubbornly refused to acknowledge them. Acknowledging them meant they were real. And nothing she did in Spike’s bed, or on Spike’s floor, or on Spike, had been allowed to be real.

Nowadays, real sounded impossibly nice.

After an eternity, which was really the end of month six, Willow had an answer. “I’ve gone through them all, Buffy. I mean, all the ones he could go to.”

“And?”

“No evidence of him. I’m sorry.”

I’m not, was her immediate thought, everything in her tightening with fierce determination. No way was she letting Spike – her Champion – spend eternity in hell. She’d get him back and then do whatever she had to do to make sure that the next time he dusted he’d be headed straight for a good place. Heck, she’d make him so good that all the heavenly dimensions would be fighting over which one would get to take him.

The week after Willow’s call was filled with a strange kind of clarity. Buffy quietly made arrangements for Dawn in the off chance that her trip went sour, and she mailed the scythe to Faith in Cleveland. Unfortunately, all the records of Lloyd had made it clear the demon didn’t allow outside weapons in play, and she wasn’t about to risk the scythe getting lost in the middle of Africa. Despite their mutual semi-dislike, Buffy could always count on her sister Slayer to not ask questions when it mattered. All Faith had done was call after it arrived, with a grim, “Be careful, B.”

“I will.”

 

***

 

Careful was a relative thing for a Slayer who – for all intents and purposes – was offering herself up as a coliseum amusement act for an audience of one.

With the GPS coordinates in hand and a gigantic pack stuffed with as many protein bars and bags of water as was physically possible for it to hold, Buffy found Lloyd’s cave with relatively little issue, the long days of the equatorial sun brightening her steps.

And then she plunged straight into midnight. Boy, did she know how to pick vacation destinations.

The first few trials Lloyd set for her were relatively straightforward, though still deadly to the extreme. Kill demon A before it killed her.

She was good at that.

After the second demon, who she’d managed to impale with its own poisonous pincer, she even earned an amused sounding, “Entertaining,” from her illustrious host as he sank his rock-armored self back into the shadows of the cave.

Buffy just stared after his silhouette with a wry snort. “You really oughta get out more.”

It got a little trickier after that. Luckily, there were no beetles crawling under her skin like Spike had gotten, but being plunged into a pitch black pool for hours where the rock walls were glass smooth and she had no choice but to sink or swim, and then fending off weird spirits that hissed all her life’s failures at her like damning poetry meant the place didn’t exactly make it onto her ‘top ten most relaxing vacations’ list.

By the time her final trial came around, Buffy was no longer sure how long she’d been in the dark. Five days? Eight? Either way, her water supply was running low, and she desperately hoped she could make it back to civilization before she died from dehydration. If Spike’s return from hell was anything like Angel’s had been, she’d have a feral vampire on her hands, and that was likely to take a couple days, at minimum, to deal with.

Oh, well. She’d had worse problems.

Case in point, her last opponent. She knew it wasn’t probably the best sign when Lloyd led her deeper into the dark, into some cavern with a ceiling taller than the torchlight could reach. In fact, she was pretty sure, upon initial viewing, that she was supposed to kill some kind of evil elephant.

“Wow, Lloyd, how do you stock this zoo? Do you have a special demon delivery on speed dial?” She tried to keep the perk in her voice as she went, despite the fact that exhaustion and pain were tugging at all her limbs with screaming impatience. She was staunchly ignoring the half dozen wounds battering her skin, and the very noticeable chunk that was missing from her left shoulder blade.

Lloyd, predictably, just blinked his glowing streetlamp eyes at her. “Begin.”

It was a closer call than she would have liked, but being trampled to death was definitely a vacation faux pas she didn’t plan to commit.

And she had a vampire to get.

As the giant gray demon toppled to the cave floor – his skull handily bashed with a stalagmite – Buffy straightened to a victorious stand, although her knees were shaking.

“Impressive,” Lloyd said impassively.

“I aim to please,” she replied dryly, nursing a deeply gashed and stinging elbow. She really hoped that wasn’t bone peeking through.

“You have endured the required trials,” the demon continued, with some small measure of annoyance.

She swallowed down the sudden dryness in her throat. Unlike with vengeance demons, Lloyd wasn’t really interested in twisting words – thank god. In fact, according to all records, he was far more interested in reading thoughts. For Pete’s sake, Spike had managed to say something as vaguely flowery and over-the-top romantic as “Make me what I was so Buffy can get what she deserves” and the demon still knew what he meant.

“It was seared in my brain,” he'd told her. “Whatever rubbish my mouth was spilling, all I wanted was my soul.”

She wasn’t word girl; and this didn’t seem like the time to try, anyway, so she simply said, "Bring Spike back.”

Her mind swirled with images of her vampire – hers long before she had wanted him to be. She thought of his true-blue gaze, and his unfairly full lips that could trace venom or love or pleasure, and his infuriating, shit-eating grin. She thought of his coat. Oh, especially the coat.

Not seeing him with it after he came back souled hadn’t helped with the wiggage one single bit. And then it had made her angry. How had it happened that he’d grown softer while she’d just grown harder? She couldn’t be harder than him. It would mean she was really alone up on that precipice, teetering between gravity and the battering wind of her mission.

She didn’t need some cowed pseudo-Angel, more interested in eating rats than killing ubervamps. She needed Spike. She needed the Slayer killer. What I want is the Spike that's dangerous. The Spike that tried to kill me when we met. It had been a cruel thing to say, but she couldn’t afford to be nice when the ultimate evil was breathing down their necks.

With her thoughts so caught up in themselves, she barely heard Lloyd’s intonation.

“Very well. I will take you to your Slayer killer.”

She snapped back to the present in alarm. “Take? You’re supposed to bring–”

But the rest of the words were lost as the ground shifted beneath her feet. Then she was falling through the dark and the damp, everything echoing with the deep, heavy squeal of moving rock. After a moment, the sound transitioned into the sharp grating of steel wheels, a burst of person-generated din swamping her senses as she plunged midair into some crowded space… straight down onto a very familiar figure in black leather.

She landed on him in a painful tangle of limbs, and they both crashed to the cement.

“What the bloody fuck!”

I will take you to your Slayer killer. Lloyd’s words echoed in her addled brain as she rolled off of Spike’s prone form, and her only coherent thought was that Lloyd was a tad too literal.