Shards IV: Seconds


The word echoed in Buffy's aching head as she lay in Spike's arms atop their motel bed. As she fought off her sleep, distant flashes of light and low thundering rumbles made their presence known beyond the shuttered windows. The final battle between good and evil played on outside, while here in the comparative calm, Spike rested in her arms. Who was winning? she wondered. Surely not them. But did it matter? She only had a handful of hours to experience 'here' before moving on to the next dimension. Maybe they could just flake on the whole battle-to-end-all-battles thing and vote for a nice slow roll between the sheets instead.

Spike lay beside her, stroking her cheek with the slightest touch while his souled eyes watched hers, connecting. This scene was like a snapshot from their final days, when move by move they'd laid down their weapons and opened their arms to one another - forgiveness and acceptance slowly weaving them back together. Her heart ached for him, captured here in full color - cream, blue, black - not faded and dimmed with memory. This was the Spike she had loved. This was the Spike she had lost. She moved to touch his lips.

He drew a sharp breath and stirred, letting her go to sit up.

"Spike? What's wrong?"

He stood and made for the motel room chair. His t-shirt hung over it, damp from a recent washing. He flapped it out and began to put it on. "We need to get going," he said, avoiding her eyes. "Sun's going down."

Buffy sat up and blinked at the shutters. "How can you tell? The sky is all red and weird. And what are those flashes?"

"Hellfire, or dragon's breath - who the fuck knows anymore. But the sun's leaving us, I can feel it."

"Oh. Where are my clothes?" She was wearing nothing but her bra and panties.

Spike pointed to the bathroom. In the mirror she could see jeans and a blood-stained linen blouse and jacket combo hung up to dry over the shower. Those clothes had been her armor in Sunnydale's last stand against the First. Something must have gone horribly wrong for the sky to turn red and for Spike to still be…Spike.

She looked at him. Fresh pink scars had recently healed across his cheek and chest. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I'm well enough. How's your head?"

Buffy touched the back of her skull. Hard dried scabs met her fingertips. She must have taken quite a hit. Looks like they didn't have anything to bandage it, either. She was sore everywhere.

"Sorry to hurry you, love. But with night coming on and you bleeding, we'll have uber-vamps storming this place in minutes. We shouldn't have gone to sleep."

She felt her head again. "Well, the bleeding's stopped, I think, so we don't need to worry…"

Spike looked awkward. "Not that bleeding." His nostrils flared and he nodded downward at her crotch.

"Oh, shit." Buffy hurried past him into the bathroom. She'd taken the slight moistness between her thighs to be the simple result of waking up in Spike's proximity. A toilet paper wipe later proved her wrong and Spike's bloodhound nose right. Dammit! This wasn't going to be good. Time was when a menstrual flow meant little more than easy pickings at the graveyard. Vamps would come blindly sprouting out of the ground and into the path of Mr. Pointy. The First's fangy, talony uber-army was another matter. Somewhere off under the red sky she'd heard screams. No, this trip wasn't going to be anything like the slow lazy lovemaking she'd hoped for. But for certain, if they didn't move fast, somebody was going to get fucked.

Buffy dressed, and to her utmost dread, had to improvise with a folded washcloth and safety pins from a mini sewing kit. The bathroom didn't come with complimentary feminine protection. Useless plastic shoehorn, yes. Maxi-pads, no. Who the heck used a shoehorn anymore?

Buffy washed her face and came out. Spike was set, dressed from coat to boots, an axe looped into his belt. He looked anxious to get the hell out of there.

"Look, I know we need to run. But I think we should try and gather a few supplies. You with me?"

He nodded.

"Grab a pillowcase and let's go fill it up."

Out in the hall they rolled a pair of drink and snack machines for meals on the go for Buffy who could feel her borrowed body grumbling with hunger. A quick pause at the linen cabinet for spare towels (for bandages) and washcloths (for other small bleeding issues) and they were off, up to the roof so Spike could get a good look around.

To the west the sky was darkening into a deep velvet black; to the east a thread of red hot light cut just below the horizon, shooting bright flashes up at the cloudy sky. Beyond it, flowing towards them, was an erratic blast radius that shot out for miles on end, felling buildings and crumpling roadways. It was a miracle the motel was still standing. Or at least most of it was. The air was rank with the stink of sulfur and smoke. Spike had fashioned her a breath mask from the end of a bed sheet. Not that the missing managers would mind - she and Spike were the only occupants last night, or for many nights it seemed. What was left of this end of Sunnydale looked as if it had long been deserted. The ground all around them was coated in a fine layer of ash. The clouds passing overhead were composed of the falling, flaming stuff.

"What is that?" Buffy asked, shading her eyes from the falling debris and pointing to the bright gash on the horizon.

"The Hellmouth, I'd imagine," Spike said, coughing. He was alright as long as he didn't need air to speak. His answers came short and to the point. "It's getting wider. We should head west, to the coast if we can. Make our way out by sea."

She nodded. "Sounds good."

Spike jumped off the roof to the sidewalk below and motioned her to jump down after him. She tossed their pillowcase luggage down first and then took the leap into the arms of Hell.

They marched along, following Spike's nose to the sea. He carried the axe and she lugged the pillowcase as they navigated the torn suburban landscape. Gas mains had burst and power lines had fallen, sparking and flaming in the rubble. Broken sidewalks and driveways were periodically flooded with separated water lines. The sewer…Buffy didn't even want to think about the sewer. It was like the mother of all earthquakes had hit Southern California, rocking it to its knees. She wondered how far the damage had spread and if the population had escaped in time. She didn't see any bodies.

They hiked for a solid hour, the wind favoring them, keeping their scent off the keen noses of any demon-life picking over the carnage. Eerie sounds carried over the tumbled city blocks, but none were yet near. Buffy felt more tired then she could ever remember being before. And hungrier. She tugged at the back of Spike's jacket and he slowed.

"I need a minute," she said and they ducked into what was once a laundromat, now sporting a slanting roof and open skylight. Buffy kicked over a surviving laundry basket for a seat and dove into a bag of Super Cheesy Cheetos. Spike leaned back against an industrial dryer, heaving out a long scratchy sigh. He watched her munch with weary interest. She held the bag out to him but he shook his head.

"Food's for you, pet. Won't do me much good. Just get hungrier for all the chewing."

Buffy ate slower, feeling a little guilty, not that there was much she could do about it. Motels didn't carry hemoglobin snacks in their quarter machines. "When's the last time you fed?"

Spike closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the dryer door. "Rather not think too hard on that. But if you see a stray cat, you shout."

She finished off the Cheetos and a pack of Zingers - strawberry, blech - and washed it all down with a Diet Dr. Pepper. Thank God for red dye number 5, keeping slayers fed in post-apocalyptic Sunnydale since…since when, exactly? She didn't have much to go on as to why they were in this predicament, nor how long they'd been in it. She went to scratch her scabby head and the thought struck her she might just be able to use the wound to her advantage.

"Um, Spike. Not to get you worried, but this bump on my head, I think it took out some of my memory…recent memory."

His eyes shot open at that. "Say what?"

"I'm kind of, forgetting things, a little. Can you help me out?"

"What's the last thing you remember, love?"

She worked her lip. Had to take a wild guess here. "I think we all went to the high school to battle the First, right?"

Spike nodded. "Yeah, us and the mini-slayers…"

"And we went into the basement, opened the seal and crawled into the Hellmouth while Will mojo'd-up the girls and…the amulet? Was there an amulet?"

Spike sat up a little straighter. "Yeah, that trinket Angel brought. Fat lot of good it did."

"Uh…come again?"

Spike shrugged in disgust. "Didn't do a bleedin' thing, 'cept slow him down worrying over it. Poor old poof should have carried a crossbow instead like I warned him."

"Angel wore the amulet?"

"Yeah, Buffy, he…God, you don't remember?"

She looked at her scuffed pointy boot toes. "No, I don't."

"Aw, love. Angel's gone. Pile o' dust. Here…" Spike reached into his coat pocket and brought out the trinket in question. Buffy reached out and he passed it to her. Traces of silver ash fell on her palm from its intricate ornamental metalwork. Angel.

"Oh, my God…" she couldn't say more. It hurt more than it should after all these years. Her real years. Angel wasn't her lover, not even the idea of one anymore, yet he'd always been a constant, a steady point of being she could count on existing, knowing, remembering her, her youth and her struggle, no matter how long she lived. Where Spike had vanished into thin air, the permanent metaphorical stake that was Angel had held her firmly earthbound. And now he was gone, too. Here, in this world.

"Sorry," Spike said and reached out to take her hand. She accepted it and squeezed back, holding on. Spike is here. Spike is here. But the world is all wrong and everyone in it is…

She caught his eyes. "Tell me everything, Spike, from the battle onward. I need to know. Everything. Who's here; who's gone. I have to know!"

He reached for her and brought her hard to his side, holding her as she shook.

She followed Spike west, passing what must have been the end of town as grass and trees took the place of shattered glass and buckled steel. They followed the highway, roughly. Most of it was gone, split apart into asphalt chunks or thrown upside down in the blast made when Hell opened its mouth three days ago to begin devouring the earth. They followed the highway at her insistence, hoping against hope that her friends had fled this way and were halfway to Cuba or someplace slightly less hellish than the local environs. Spike had told her everything, his chin moving against the top of her head as he held her close in the remains of the laundromat, delivering the script of the greatest failure of her slayer career. Of any slayer's career. She'd been right about this world, someone did get fucked and her name was humanity. All for choosing the wrong vampire for her champion.

That was the thought that plagued her now as she marched long behind the black silhouette of Spike's coat and axe. That Hell had arrived on earth, that countless thousands had been blown or burned to ash, falling from the sky and into her lungs with each hard breath - most of the girls, Anya, Giles, Robin - all gone in the first wave at the high school - (It was still unknown if the others had found the bus and driven away in time.) these were just givens. These hard facts were the solution to an equation she'd set in motion by placing the amulet into the hand of her first vampire lover instead of her second. The gesture had failed. The jewel wouldn't light for Angel. Of course it didn't. Wrong fuel, wrong fire. Angel's soul was his curse. Spike's soul was his by virtue of his will. Armageddons weren't won on tainted soil nor was victory handed to false heroes, however well-meaning. She'd made the wrong choice. That was done. What was killing her now was why.

An hour passed in red-black trudging silence until Spike stopped and turned his head to sniff the air.

"What is it? Vampire?" They'd left the ash-zone and the air had cleared enough for her to remove her mask. It was darker, less hell-light refracting through the clouds to see by.

"No, it's human." He turned his head and sniffed again. "Female. I can smell her blood."

Buffy sighed. "Great, another bleeder. Fantastic help we girls are."

"No, she's hurt. And…" Another sniff. "She's a slayer. Come on!"

She followed Spike across the broken clumps of an open field. The upturned end of an overpass loomed ahead, cracked in half and sunk into a now-dammed stream bed, filling with trapped run-off from the big bang. As they drew close, Buffy caught sight of a quick black figure moving across the ruin and dropping down below it and out of sight.

"Hey!" Spike yelled and ran to follow the fleeting shape. A crossbow bolt whizzed past his head. "Dammit! It's us, you crazy bint! Some of the good guys!"

"Spike!" the figure shouted, her voice cracking in the gloom. "Holy shit!"

"Faith…" Spike said and dropped his axe, rooted to the spot as Faith ran toward them at break-neck speed despite a limp in her right leg. She hurdled the last of the field clumps and leapt straight up into Spike's arms, wrapping her limbs around him and securing his mouth in a lip-lock…that lasted way too long for Buffy's comfort.

Faith broke the kiss for a sec to toss aside her thick hair and address her fellow slayer. "Hey, B, what's up? You been keepin' my baby-boy safe?"

Baby? Faith held Spike's face protectively in her hands. Her eyes were bright with happiness.

"Fuckin' look at you, handsome! I'd thought you'd gone to dust in that big quake. Thought everyone had. But, damn! Here you are, thank Jesus and the rest!"

Whoa, reality check time. It seemed there were a few details Spike had left off the laundromat play-by-play recap. Spike kissed Faith on the cheek and she bounced to the ground, grabbing his hand. He allowed this, too, though his expression was unreadable in the near-darkness. "Come on, we need to get under cover," she said, tugging at him, walking backwards as they moved forwards. "Came out here to collect water, but the vamps keep passing through this area in case folks wander up the road. Easy pickin's."

Buffy kept her astonishment to herself as Faith led her apparently more-ex-than-usual boyfriend to the water's edge where she had been collecting it in empty fuel cans. "You guys can help carry these for me. My leg's hurtin' like a bitch," she said, indicating the source of her limp. A recently scarred wound ran down most of Faith's right leg just below the point where her jeans had ratted off at the thigh. The injury still oozed slightly from one end. "Cut a lot of stuff up in there - tendons, I think. Still not working right. But I can walk, so who's complaining. Here, B, take this can. I'll carry your blankie."

Buffy handed over her motel spoils and shouldered the converted water can. "Hot damn! Ho-Hos! B, you're an angel!"

Faith finished off most of the Hostess Treats and Mug Root Beer as they walked while Spike filled her in on their share of the post-apocalyptic fun. He recounted what he'd told Buffy earlier about how the both of them had held the line at the Hellmouth for as long as possible for Faith and the remaining girls and Scoobies to make a break for it. Then they had made their own hasty retreat through the sewers and out at the edge of UC Sunnydale where a vanguard of the First's finest had surrounded them in a skull-crunching battle broken only when the earth went "boom" and slayer and good-guy vampire were blown miraculously out of harm's way and into a waiting swimming pool. The rest of the ubersquad had scattered in the confusion, so they'd just walked out from there on foot, staying downwind and under cloud. Problem was, vamps and other nasties kept coming up out of the big red pit o' flame - a dragon, for one, which Buffy hoped had flown off south for the winter, and some troll-like things with big heavy clubs. They had apparently hidden from them under a felled bridge before calling it a day at the last motel standing.

Faith had seen none of these fantasy hellbeasts on her travels, but it seemed the blast had given them some trouble with the bus.

"What kind of trouble?" Buffy asked as fear seized her. She'd assumed if Faith was here, the rest were too, somewhere. "Is everyone okay? Is Dawn okay?"

"Buffy, I'm sorry." Faith said as she came to the head of a chunk of up-turned asphalt that was once the highway. She cocked her head to look below. Buffy ran up next to her and Spike caught her arm as she peered down. The school bus lay on its side. Part of it was crushed by rubble, and the rest was slit down the side from head to stern.

"What…? Don't tell me. Faith don't tell me my sister's dead!"

Faith looked sick and glanced up at Spike who tightened his grip on her arm. "I'm sorry, B. When I woke up, they were all gone. Guess I survived on account of the fact I'm a slayer. I dunno. Kinda wish I'd died, too. Then I wouldn't have had to bury them all."

Little white strings tied to mile stakes Faith had plucked from the roadside marked the hasty memorials of her remaining friends. Vampire and slayer stood to either side of her as Buffy counted them, one to seven.

"Which one is Dawn's again?" she asked.

Faith cleared her throat. "Uh, that one, second from the left. I put her next to Xander. I thought you'd like someone looking after her."

Buffy nodded. They stood in another weed-choked rumpled field. Faith had chosen it because it was hidden from the road and the soil was loose.

"Thank you, Faith. You did this for them and you hardly knew some of them."

"They were brave fighters, Buff. Figured they deserved some kind of burial, after all."

Buffy felt numb. Not sad, or even grieving, exactly. Just numb. After all, there were worlds in which Dawn didn't even exist. Just as there were worlds in which Spike was dust and she had twins with Riley. Her babies didn't live in this world. Did that mean they were dead? How could they be when they existed elsewhere? As hard as it was to see these waving ties, her mind was beginning to change, broaden with the knowledge that the end wasn't necessarily the end at all, just one narrow linear way of looking at things. After all, in this case, the memorial was only symbolic. Faith had found no bodies.

"I hate to call this short, B. But we need to get in before something hungry and pissed spots us."

Buffy nodded and turned to Spike. Tear streaks marked his face in the meager light. To him 'gone' meant dead. Sure it did. He wasn't alive.

Buffy asked Faith tell the story over again as they wandered back to the crash site. It was a safe place to hide, Faith explained, because there was no blood and the hill of rubble kept the shell hidden from the east while providing a lookout. There was no trace of what had happened to the other occupants when the blast shook the ground and threw the bus into a tumble. A screech of brakes and a bounce and slide was the last Faith remembered before waking in pain in a ditch with a ripped up leg and no one to help her crawl to safety.

"Dunno, B. I just thought they got taken away by vamps. I've seen them do it often enough with other people these last few days. They don't leave the bodies lying around. Not their style."

"I don't know," Spike said, turning his face to the wind. "Can't smell them. Been trying to for a while now. If they died here, they would have left a trace - blood, rot, piss, something. They're just gone."

Buffy wasn't certain which was worse. All she knew was that the army of good was down to a trio of tired, hungry warriors picking their way back across the broken freeway.

They were navigating a channel, defined by tossed asphalt and rock when all three of them froze simultaneously. "You ladies hear that?" Spike asked.

"No," Buffy said, "but I feel it. And it's coming fast."

"Vamps! Shit! Punch it, kids!" Faith shouted as four ubers in war costume, broadswords and spears leapt down on them from a hunk of roadbed. Fists to sharpened steel, Faith and Buffy took on the leading trio, leaving Spike and his axe to deal with the uber in the rear.

Demon wails of delight rent the dark sky as Buffy kicked and danced her way around the rotten lurching creatures. They weren't like other vampires - they were swifter, more cunning and hard as steel to stake. The space they were ambushed in was narrow and uneven - caught between a rock and…more rocks. A mean line of snarling fangs and blades blocked any escape. It was fight 'n' stake or die trying.

"Faith!" Buffy cried. "We've got to split them up! Come around me and try to draw one off!" In a flash of bare arm and brown tresses Faith dove and rolled across Buffy's line of sight. Buffy knocked the leader down with a running kick and wrenched his spear free. Wooden shaft, thank the ubergods. She broke it in half over her knee and plunged the point through the uber's chest in a two-handed thrust that nearly took her shoulders off. Dust curled, adding to the messy soup collecting in her lungs. She spat and whirled about, checking the scene. Spike was a blur of black coat and sparking axe-to-sword action. He seemed to be holding his own. Faith was less fortunate and had come up from her roll into a pair of fangy jaws.

"Faith! Hang on!" Buffy whirled her spear point-first and took a running javelin throw at the uber firmly latched onto Faith's arm. Buffy struck with all she was worth, but the point failed to hit heart and lodged firmly into the beast's iron ribs. A blow from behind knocked her from her feet and it wasn't long before the rank breath of primitive vampire met her nape. She scrambled to gain her feet under its clawed grip as a zing and cry of "Buffy!" rang through the air coupled with a head-plop and a comforting fall of dust. Spike's axe was embedded in the dirt at her side. Nice throw, but it left him unarmed. One uber was match enough for her, or even two of hers; she had to get Faith free before Spike became another puff of cloud blowing around.

Buffy flipped to her feet and took up the axe. Another zing later and the mosquito at Faith's arm had wasted its last meal. "You okay?" she asked as Faith got up, holding her wound.

"Think so. Dumbfuck missed the artery, but made cube steak out of my bicep. Shit, it hurts!" Her eyes widened at the axe in Buffy's hands. "Where's Spike? He can't take on these assholes unarmed!" Both slayers dashed to the spot where Spike's own encounter with his ancestry had ceased to make growling, snarling noises.

"Spike!" Buffy yelled into the dim. Nothing. Where'd he go? She bent and felt the ground where he'd last been fighting. Ash came up on her hand. There was a nice soft pile of it. Her heart beat painfully as she held her palm close to her face, trying to examine it in the paltry light.

"Oh, fuck," Faith said, running up. "They got him!"

Buffy shook her head and presented her hand. "No, it's black. Uber-ash is black. Spike's is silver." Like Angel's.

Faith knelt to examine her own handful. "How the fuck can you tell, Buffy? Ash is ash!"

"It's not Spike's dust. Trust me on this."

Faith didn't waste time pondering this factoid as she reached up with her good arm to climb up the upturned roadside. "Spike! Where the hell are you? Maybe they carried him off, B!"

"It carried him…there was only one more. Hang on…Faith! Down here!" Buffy yelled, running forward toward a dark crevasse they'd passed earlier. Spike had fallen into it head-first up to his legs. Buffy grabbed a boot and began to pull. Faith jumped down and helped her.

"He's stuck," Buffy said. "There's a boulder lodged just over there…"

"I see it," Faith said and leapt over the opening to kick the rock free. Spike popped out like a leather cork and Buffy fell over backwards with him. She scrambled to his moaning head. He was gamefaced and scraped, half knocked-out by the fall.

"Spike! Spike! Can you hear me?"

"What the bleedin'? I fell in a damn hole, didn't I? Bloody brilliant. Those blighters sure are a bitch to dust. Buffy! You all right?"

Buffy nodded and kept looking Spike over for wounds. Faith caught up to them, laying a concerned hand on his scraped forehead. "Damn, boy; you sure can take a beating. Thank God it's just your head. Us girls can do the thinking, but we need the rest of you for the fighting and running."

"Faith, I don't think Spike's going to be doing any running for a while."

Faith looked up. "Huh?"

Buffy lifted the black t-shirt to reveal the raw ends of a foot-long wound dividing Spike's belly in two.

Together, Buffy and Faith limped Spike back across the not-a-highway to the remains of the school bus. Buffy eased Spike into a sheltered corner of tumbled seat cushions while Faith rummaged around the debris for the emergency first aid kit.

"Dammit, I know that lil' red box is around here somewhere. Andrew was sniffing the Bactine when we…"

Buffy gave her a 'hurry' look.

"…never mind. I'll find it."

Buffy lifted Spike's blood-wet shirt. The gash that crossed his belly was deep, sliced by the blade of an ubersword. Vampires didn't bleed excessively, but it looked as if the swing had gone any deeper, Spike would be spilling his guts. He hissed as she put her fingers to it.

"Fuck, ow! Why do you always gotta poke it?"

"Why do you always gotta whine so much?"

"Just wrap me up and give me a decent sleep. I'll be fine. I've had worse nicks."

Buffy heard a hunk of metal being turned over in the stern. "Gotcha, ya bastard! Here it is, B. Nurse in a can."

Buffy took the kit from her. "Thanks. Can you get me my pillowcase? There's some extra towels in it that might come in handy for putting Spike back together. Cut it into strips if you can."

Faith nodded. "I'm on it. Are you sure you don't want me too…"

"I've got it, Faith. Thanks."

"Aye-aye," Faith said and crawled out of the bus hulk.

Buffy opened the kit and began to dab at Spike's wound with a gauze pad and a squirt of stingy disinfectant.

He growled and cursed at the ceiling (or windows, as the bus was on its side). Might as well add salt to the wounds. "So, you and Faith…?"

Spike stiffened and groaned.

"That good, huh?"

"Didn't want you to find out like this. I wanted a chance to explain."

Buffy poured another tablespoon of 'ouch' into the gauze and began cleaning the lower half of the gash. He grimaced, but took it like a half-man. "You don't owe me an explanation, Spike. Whatever you and Faith have been up to, it's none of my business."

Spike closed his eyes as she put down the gauze and began to tear off strips of medical tape. "Thought you knew, to be honest," he said, sounding more weary than his battle wounds warranted. "Or…" his eyes opened again. "Maybe you've forgotten - that bump."

Buffy sighed. "Like I said, doesn't really matter. It's not like you and I were…not for a long time, anyway. Besides, I can't pretend to be surprised. Faith fits your M.O. to a tee."

"Buffy, it wasn't like that," he said, trying to lean up. Buffy eased him down with a shake of her head. "You've got to know, I could never…"

"Hey, B! Will these do?" Faith re-entered, towel strips in offering. "Had to cut them against the edge of the axe. I cleaned it first…if he can even get infections. We're short on blades around here. Don't suppose any of us thought to grab an ubersword."

"We didn't, but thanks, Faith." Despite this odd assembly of events and consequences, Buffy felt a warming compassion for her former nemesis. For all their history, Faith was at least giving her a senior slayer's due respect - even when it came to who had whose hands on the vampire. "Come over here and hold the wound closed while I tape him up."

Buffy came out of the bus and attempted to brush the grime from her jeans as she climbed the rubble heap to join Faith at the lookout. Spike was resting fairly comfortably, but he was in no condition to fight or run. She knew that might prove difficult if more vamps moved in as the night wore on.

"All quiet on the, what is it? Eastern front?"

Faith blew her hair from her eyes. "Yeah, gnarly old suckers are chasing meals off someplace else. They travel in small groups. Might be a while before we see any more vamp action. Good thing, as ours is bleeding. How is he?"

Buffy shrugged as she sat down on a hunk of concrete. "He'll live. But he's hungry and the blood loss doesn't help that one bit. He needs to feed if he's going to heal."

Faith scanned the red horizon. "That's not likely to happen any time soon. Vamps can't feed off other vamps, can they?"

Buffy shook her head. "Not really. Empty calories, or something like that."

Faith looked glum. "I'd cut a vein open for him if it'd help. I offered once, but he said if the cut hurts me, it'll hurt him to even lick off it. So no go."

"Hurt him? How?" Buffy had been seriously considering the same option. She figured there was enough super-healing slayer blood between the two of them to keep Spike on his feet for a while at least. If he could be talked into it.

Faith looked puzzled. "Man, you really did get your brains scrambled. The demon-zapper version 2.0. He told me, you got his muzzle fixed last time you dropped into the Initiative."

This-world logic began to fall into place like a mudslide. No wonder she and Spike weren't close. In this reality, she'd had Riley's commandos fix the chip. Why? When given the choice in her own time, she hadn't hesitated. Curbing a souled Spike had never even occurred to her. She trusted the soul far more than any technology the 21st century could dish out. Why didn't I trust him?

Buffy sighed and pulled her hair back from her face. She'd give anything for a rubber band about now. "Faith, I don't expect you to understand what Spike and I have been through together these last few years, but it's not…simple. And I'm not sure if I have the energy right now to lay it all out for you."

Faith shrugged. "Don't sweat it, B. Xander told me a little about what went down between you two. You died and came back all fucked up so you fucked him and life was good until something about demon eggs and a spat in the bathroom brought it all crashing down. Whatever, I know it didn't end pretty. He won't talk about it. Not a peep."

"It wasn't a spat, Faith. Spike tried to rape me."

Faith stared at her for several long seconds, then looked away and scratched her nose. "Oh. That explains a few things."

"What things?" Her new-found compassion for Faith was slipping.

Faith set her chin on her scraped knees. "He won't fuck, for one. He'll go for a blow or a grope and a smooch or two, but nothing that, well, gets him on top, so to speak. Thought it was just some mind-fuck you'd played on him or something."

"Mind-fuck? Faith, you do remember what Spike is, don't you?"

Faith turned back to her. "Course I do. His big cold boner gives him dead away."

"And so you think that sleeping with him will change that?"

"Does when you got it in your mouth. Gets allll nice and toasty. What? Don't get all Mrs. Prissy with me, B. I know you threw down for him. And it wasn't no 'whoops, your chocolate bar's in my peanut butter' kind of throw down, either. From what I've heard it was a fuckin' rodeo."

"Faith…!" Buffy didn't know if she wanted to shout or cry. Tears sprung up all the same. She scrubbed them away. Anya, Xander, Willow, Giles, Dawn - all dead or 'gone' and I'm crying over Faith doing my ex? And I thought Iowa was bad. God, this is one fucked-up world series. Welcome to this week's episode of 'This Is Your Hell,' with special guest, Buffy Summers!

"Hey, Buff. Sorry. Didn't mean it to come out so hard. But you've got to know, this wasn't about you at all. I know the thing with Angel and Riley…that was the bad me. This was…hell, I just didn't see it coming. And then I was coming…and I thought, 'Oh, fuck, here I go again, making Buffy miserable.'"

Buffy swallowed down her tears and rubbed her aching forehead. "So go ahead, make my day even more morose. Explain to me how this happened. What, you were fucking him in my house? Under the same roof?"

"Uh, not so much on the fucking, like I said. Was more like a petting zoo. You know, you had him all chained up like a bad little tiger in that basement. All helpless-like with the ever-missing shirt and the bed head. Didn't have no one to light his cigs, so I helped him out, bumming a few myself until he started to hide the damn things...and maybe this is just a smoker thing, but I had to punish him some over that and we were wrestling, just goofing around and whoa! Is that a stake in your 501s or are you happy to see me? So I just…helped him out. You know, got more smokes that way."

"You blew him for cigarettes?"

"It was a little sweeter than all that. But yeah, basically. Boy's got a monster in his pants. And I know what it's like to be cooped up. Gotta blow off a little steam now and again. Okay, maybe a lot of steam, and a lot of agains; but damn, I know I don't have to tell you that boy sure is pretty in the buff, Buff."

"Faith…I can't have this conversation with you. Ex or no ex, Spike is a vampire. A killer by nature. You don't want to listen? Fine. Jerk him off all you like, but keep one thing clear: He can still be dangerous. Especially if you play him like a…"

A flash lit up the sky, bright as a day it could have been if not for all the smoke.

"Demon lights are getting closer," Faith said, pointing to the horizon. "We've got to keep down and out of sight. Hell's on our heels and it's pissed as fuck. We need to get ready to move."

"I know, but Spike has to rest, Faith. At least until his wound knits. We all need to rest," she said, pointing to Faith's new arm bite. "Or what good are we going to be against more soldiers other than bleeding homing devices?"

"You think the ubers will come after vamp blood?" Faith asked with a nod toward the bus. "Cause I'm all healed up now. Dumped all my leg bandages in the river earlier. And the arm, 'Jaws' missed the tubes by a fang."

"They won't be coming after you or Spike. They haven't been. The ones we met on the road…they were coming after me."

"What? Why? You're not even scratched."

Buffy sighed. "You might say I'm on the rag, literally."

Faith's mouth opened in realization. "No wonder they jumped us so fast in that ravine. I just thought they got lucky. Man, sucks to be you right now, doesn't it?"

"You could say that," Buffy said. Not like there was a handy-dandy washcloth evaporation system handy. She'd been rolling them up and stuffing them down sewer drains, hoping that would keep the vamps off their trail. Pretty soon she'd need to make a trip to that river.

Faith smacked her forehead. "Duh!"

Buffy blinked. "Huh?"

Faith reached out and applied a matching smack to Buffy's forehead.

"Hey! What was that for?"

"For being such a nit-wit, B. Spike's got a sucking gut wound and you've got his cure on tap."

"I what?" Buffy blanched. "Oh…"

"Eureka, already! Go feed the starving vampire so we can get the fuck outta here."

"Faith, I don't think…"

"Oh, don't even start. World's all gone to pig shit and you're gonna sit here with your legs crossed and come over all innocent? Don't tell me you never gave up a free meal before."

"I never…"

"Are you shitting me? You never…not even a little?"

"It…didn't come up."

"Jesus, have you ever been missing the main event."

Buffy made a yuck-face. "You and Spike?"

Faith did her best to look non-committal.

"You and Angel!"

"Look, this isn't about who did what with which vampire. Cause we're both gonna lose. Spike can't bite but he can go down. God, can he go down. So come on, what are you waiting for - fun all around. I'll keep lookout."

"You're just gonna sit here while…I…we…"

"Well, I could watch, but something tells me you're a little shy in that area."

Buffy threw up her hands (and nearly her Zingers, too). "I'm…going to go talk to him. See what I can - what we can all do about this…situation."

Faith shrugged. "Suit yourself. But if it was me, I'd…"

"I know! Please. I get it. Time for sharing is over. I mean, don't you even care? Do you just make it a habit of throwing your boyfriends at other girls?"

Faith's amusement faded. "No, seems like by the time I get 'em, they're already in love with you."

It was dark in the bus. The clouds had shifted, taking away most of the light, leaving them in a cast of deep-red outline and shadow. She climbed over the bus debris to find Spike where she'd left him on the cushions: eyes shut, chest still. Usually lack of breath meant he was sleeping, but she knew he was also trying to keep the wound still.


He opened his eyes. "Yeah?"

"I didn't want to disturb you."

"It's okay. Can't sleep anyhow."

"Are you in pain?"

He tried a small shift and winced. "A little."

"A lot, I think you mean."

"Fine, a lot, then."

"Look, I need to ask you something. We can't stay here much longer. We need to keep moving. Faith says those ubers travel in packs and - "



Spike's eyes were dark and narrow. "I want you and Faith to go. I'm nothing but a bloody liability - useless dead flesh against these uberbastards. They can have me. But you and Faith, you can fight 'em. You've got a chance, Buffy. You're both stronger than me."

"Spike, that's crazy. We're not going anywhere without you. That's not even an option. As soon as you can move we're going to…"

"Going to what? Make a blind dash for Westend Hell till sun-up and then it's 'dive under a sodding rock' till nightfall? Daylight's your only advantage, Buffy. Buggered or sound, I'm no good for it. Vampire, remember?"

"Ally, remember? I'm not leaving anyone behind. Least of all, you." Her words were firm but her emotion leaked on 'you.'

Spike's occasional breath stopped. Buffy wished she could read his face as clearly as he could hers in the darkness.

"I know things haven't been the best between us since…we broke up. But I meant it when I said I wasn't ready for you not to be here." And here's to hoping this-world Buffy managed to say it out loud. "You've brought us this far. We've brought each other this far and I won't give up. Not as long as there's still life in us, in our blood."

"Please don't say blood," he said tightly. "It isn't just the threat of daylight holding me back."

"I know, which is why I came back in here. I want you to feed and I know you can't bite Faith. So I…thought maybe…" She pulled back the tattered ends of her sleeve, holding her wrist out to him.

Spike moaned and recoiled as much as his wound would allow. In the hard shadow he turned his face away too late for her to miss the change. "Get out," he said, voice thickened by the prominence of his teeth. "Please."

"Spike, look at me."

He turned his yellow eyes on her as if she'd been blind to the obvious. "Christ, Buffy! You think I can't smell it? Another day of this and ubers won't be the only vampires you'll need a stake ready for."

"You won't hurt me. I trust you," Buffy said, crossing her arms and lifting her blouse up over her head to expose her skin. She shifted to ease down beside him. Spike's breath was coming out in shallow pants as his demon eyes flickered over her, fearful and hungry. She brushed her hair away from her neck. "Do it."

Spike made a pitiable sound and cringed in new pain. Yellow eyes blinked with shock and sudden rage. He growled and grasped his head.

"Oh, shit! The chip!" Buffy sat up and shifted away from his writhing form. "Oh, God, Spike. I'm so sorry. I didn't realize. I didn't remember!" New chip, new rules. Could it have killed you to ask?

"Bloody amnesia, I get it now," he said, with a hissing sob as the pain receded. "Thought that was too sadistic, even for you."

"They programmed the new chip so you couldn't hurt me anymore."

"Toss the lady a dolly; she's got the answer. Can't harm a hair on your head, love. Not for the world and a hand basket to carry it in. They saw to it."

Buffy felt the tears she'd managed to choke down for Faith come up and spill over her cheeks. She didn't think she could take another minute of this. Spike's pain. Her pain. Life was a terrible cruel thing - most of her lives, it would seem. Not the batting average she'd been hoping for when she first met him not so many hours ago on a moonlit beach. She reached out to touch his hand where it remained clamped to his head. When he didn't flinch she let her fingers sink into his hair, stroking him, hushing him. She touched his face when he calmed. Human again.

"Spike, listen. There's another way."

Buffy lay naked beside him, save for her bra which she'd elected to keep on for what shred of modesty might need to remain between them. It signified some frail claim that this was not what it could have been - a gift between lovers - but rather a last-ditch attempt at surviving another day in an earth-bound Hades.

She lay on the cushions above him, his cheek resting against her inner thigh. Her free leg draped over his shoulder. He couldn't spare much movement for the pain, so she'd made the moves for him, shifting and adjusting, asking, "Is this okay? Does that hurt? Can I move here? How does that feel?"

His answers were soft and she had to strain to hear them. "It's good, Buffy; you're good." His licks were shy at first, soft introductions to her folds. He cleaned her thigh to thigh, ever working toward her center in slow deliberation. His tongue combed her fur, softening the tangled clots and lipping them free. In any other circumstance the knowledge of what he was doing would have made her wig, but here in the fragile sanctuary of a crumpled bus, the grooming was oddly sweet and soothing. He'd tried to keep his demon down, but when she revealed herself and the full of her scent, she knew it would only torture him further. Let it go. Let it be. I trust you. Please. Be comforted.

His tongue was at her lips now, slipping between, gathering and drinking. The blood was fresh here and fed by the unavoidable stirring of her arousal. There was no hiding it - he could smell it, taste it, each lick to lick. But somehow they both knew it would be wrong to acknowledge it so he kept his movements low, away from the blood-roused pulse at her clit.

He fed steadily, his lips latched to her source, sucking slow and even, breath stilled, the wet workings of his mouth and throat the only sounds they made as the wind blew on outside. She hoped to God Faith was still on point, because she wanted nothing in the world to interrupt this. His hand came up, idly stroking her hip like a nursing babe, rapt with a primitive need to reward the one who fed him. That's when she heard it, what she had at first mistaken for a trembling of pain and hunger from Spike's chest evolve into a deep rhythmic purr he seemed as equally unable to subdue as his gameface.

Buffy's fingers twined into his hair and she squeezed him between her thighs as he gained more movement, healing as he ate, plumbing her with his strong tongue for more and more. All the while that beautiful sound rumbled through him. His animal pleasure was so raw and real. She'd never heard it before. All those times they'd made love years ago it had always been to his human face. Faith was right, she had been missing the main event.

"Oh, God, Spike. Don't stop..." A shuddering that began in her lower spine grew suddenly and shook the pleasure right down into her depths where demon and slayer met, thundering her into orgasm. She cried out and crushed herself to his face, her clit pulsing and throbbing, gliding slippery over the demon ridges of his nose. He growled and sucked hard at her core, draining her as the blood rush gradually eased and faded into bliss.

Buffy lay sweating, her thighs damp and parted. They were still now. Spike was purring softly with his face against her leg, his hand on her lower back. His demon eyes were shut, lost in the sweet rush as her blood drifted from his belly into his veins. It couldn't have been much of a meal all told, but if legend served, slayer blood was the very elixir of the dead.

She touched his hair. "How do you feel?"

Spike stirred. His face shifted and the delicious sounds ended as he looked up at her with blue eyes. "Better," he said, letting her go to sit up. Together they tested the ends of his bandages. The cloth was loose and no longer stuck to his weeping skin. Spike took the taped end in his hand and ripped it back. A red new scar was all there was to show for the slice that had nearly bisected him not 15 minutes ago.

"You're healed," she said, reaching to touch the marvel for herself. She traced the length of the scar from rib to waistband, her fingers trailing off to brush over the hard outline of his groin. He gasped and their eyes met. "Spike, let me…" she said, moving to undo his fly. She wanted to taste that hardness so badly her mouth watered.

A look of panic crossed his face. He drew back from her, reaching for a shirt to cover himself.

"Spike it's okay. The blood, I know what it does."

He slid away from her. Shaking his head. His eyes darted around the bus like a trapped animal.

Buffy's gut ached as she backed off and reached for her blouse. Whatever happened to us that he'd be so ashamed? "I'll get Faith," she said sadly and dressed.

Buffy sat up at the lookout trying to keep warm. She'd exited the bus so quickly she'd forgotten to grab her jacket. Short-sleeved linen did little to stave off the growing wind. She shivered and wrapped herself in her arms. Her sex was the only heated part of her body. It refused to come down off its little supper experience. Talk about stirring the pot, the feeding had only made her crampier and bloodier. Unless Spike stayed latched to her 24/7 (and, God, didn't that thought have its appeal) vamps would be sniffing her on the winds for sure. It would be best to duck down, she supposed, and climbed into the lee of the fallen highway.

It was quieter down here; she could hear the twisted steel ribs of the bus moaning in the occasional downward gusts. Why was she keeping watch anyway? Her slayer tingles would indicate an ambush faster than her sight in the dark. Her body was so tired. It needed to rest, to get warm. Buffy started back for the shelter of the bus where Faith had crawled in to calm Spike half an hour ago.

Strangely, the moaning of the wind only got worse as she got closer to the belly of the ditch. Then she froze. The moans were coming from the bus. Quiet and muffled - it seemed the 'petting zoo' was still open for business. Her curiosity piqued as her heart grieved. She moved slowly, knowing all too well that the smallest sound would bring the slayer/vampire games to an abrupt halt.

Buffy could hear Faith's half-whispers as she neared the blown-out rear window. "Come on, sweet boy; just relax and take it slow. I'm not giving up; we're gonna take all the time we need…you know I'll make it good…" She could see Spike's head lolling against the back of a righted bus bench. Faith was on her knees in front of him, her brown head bobbed up and down rhythmically to his slow easy thrusts. She couldn't see his lap, but his jeans were a dark pool around his ankles and Faith's panties were dangling from his discarded belt buckle. Wet sucking sounds could be heard, along with the creaking rock of the unbolted seat and Faith's full-mouthed moans as she serviced the very organ Buffy had offered herself up to fill.

Although she couldn't see it, Buffy could imagine Faith's delight well - to have him between her lips, hard and surging for the back of her throat. It hadn't taken her long, years ago, to learn how to relax her jaw and reflexes to make a mighty masterpiece out of it. She wondered if he could tell the difference. Slayer to slayer, maybe one warm mouth was as good as another. No doubt Faith had more than a few tricks up her sleeve. Buffy oozed with warm blood when she noticed Faith's free hand was moving down out of sight between her legs. Not gonna think about that now, are we?

The brown head came up. A look of determination lit up her dark eyes. "Okay, boy, listen. You've got a fuckin' torpedo here all locked and loaded to go. And it don't seem to be gunning for my mouth. Time for holdin' hands and talking pretty is over," she said, climbing up onto the seat, straddling his lap. "We're gonna fuck, now. And you're gonna like it, love it, want it so bad you're gonna forget this fucking shit-hole world and everyone still in it, yeah?"

If Spike spoke Buffy didn't hear it. He didn't make a sound, but his whole body stiffened when Faith moved to impale herself on him in one slow descent. "That's it…easy, baby-boy; don't fight it. You're so hard. My pussy's gonna love it. No worries, now. Don't have to touch me at all. Just like back home in the basement; sit back, close your eyes, and let Faith drive."

Faith drove all right, right down on him at a dead gallop like someone had thrown the gates at the Kentucky Derby. And they're off! "That's my good boy, my sweet, sweet boy. Now we're cookin'…that's it, fuck me, fuck me, deeper, harder… fuck, that's so good…" She rode him freely like the slayer-bitch-whipped vampire he was. Chipped and souled, he was a bad, bad kitty all chained up, all but for that deep demon fire caged tight beneath the surface. Buffy knew that was the Spike that Faith was trying to reach - to thrust him open a crack and have herself a peek into that raw flame she saw in his eyes whenever he gave Buffy an unguarded glance. But Spike wasn't sharing as he gripped the seat with outstretched arms and surrendered to her pulsing, pile-driving flesh - his naked ass squeaking on the vinyl seat. One slayer twat or other, what did it matter? Faith couldn't make it all better, lick his wounds. No one could. It was much too late for that. So what if he got one off now and again? It was like spitting in the wind - aimless and dumb. Buffy wasn't excited anymore by this peep show. She just felt sad for him, for all of them.

She turned away from the window, from the sight of Faith with her hair thrown back and her eyes screwed shut - coming and swearing and fucking the shit out of a dead man's cock. Deader than it once was. Her seconds. That's all Faith ever got - the battered remains of her discarded lovers.

When the creaking died down and Faith's last raspy gaps subsided, Buffy made her noisy presence known.

"Oh, hey! B! Hang on, just changing in here."

Changing into what? Does she think I'm stupid?

"I'm cold Faith; I want to come inside!"

After a rattling stumbling chorus of hurried noises, Faith came to the upper end of the bus that served as a front door.

"'kay," she said, buttoning her shirt and opening a loose side-flap of metal. "Just keep it down. I finally got our boy to sleep."

"I bet," Buffy said, passing her by to take in Spike asleep with Andrew's abandoned windbreaker pulled up over his shoulders. She went to him and touched his cool cheek with the back of her hand. He murmured something in his uneasy sleep. "Go keep watch, Faith. I'll keep an eye on our 'boy.'"

Faith stayed a moment at the door, eyeing them both before going out. "Sure, B. Whatever you say. But we can't stay much longer."

"I know," Buffy said as she sat down slowly next to him, lifting his head from the sex-warmed bench to pillow against her thigh. Her fingers threaded through his tousled hair and she felt him relax muscle by muscle as the bad dreams faded; replaced, she hoped, by better memories. "It's okay, Spike," she whispered. "I think I'm beginning to understand."

Buffy had just fallen asleep, chin to her chest, when she woke with a start. A small green light was flickering a few inches from her nose. A flash later that flicker turned into Willow.


"Buffy! Hey! Sorry to wake ya. You didn't look too comfortable anyway. Oh, except for Spike, of course. How cute."

Buffy glanced at Spike still snoozing against her thigh. Green glowy Willow was floating a few inches off the ground. "Will, are you okay?"

"Me? Oh yeah, a little woozy still from the slam-bam make-slayers-of-the-ma'ams thing, but getting better. Less with the thud. More with the wakey. It's why I'm late picking you up. Locator spells kept going all blooey. You guys seen Faith?"

"Faith? Yes! Will, she's just outside, isn't she?"

Willow shut her glowing green eyes and hummed for a sec. She opened them. "Yep, she's out like a light, too. Up in the rocks. You guys need to work on your rest break rotation."

"Dawn! Oh, God, Willow. Is she with you?"

"Yeah…Dawnie, Xander, Kennedy, Andrew…they're all in a cabin together in Arcata. Or at least we think that's where I zapped everybody to when the bus went wonky." Willow paused to look around. "Gee, it's a mess. Ooh, there's Andrew's Red Dwarf jacket. He'll want that."

"You zapped everyone half-way up California?"

"Yeah, neat, huh? I wanted someplace safe, so I thought of trees and whoosh! Redwoods! I feel bad, though. I forgot to zap Faith. She must have been sitting behind me. I only had half a sec to make with the transport spell, and I just made it good for all the heads I could see. Think she'll be pissed?"

"I think she'll forgive you once the limp heals up."

"It's good you found the bus, Buffy. I green-fairied over here on the traces of my transport spell. The bus is still humming with it. So, you packed for the Pacific Northwest?" Willow asked, raising her green arms.

"Wait! Will, Spike and I can't leave yet."

Willow looked confused. "Why?"

"Because…something went wrong at the Hellmouth. Something that wasn't supposed to happen."

"Yeah, it went wrong all right, the earth cracked in half right under our feet. It's a big ol' mess now. You can't stop it alone, Buffy. Not even I can stop it…at least, I don't think so."

"I can't explain quickly enough in a way that will make sense, Will. But trust me when I say Spike is the key to repairing the busted hell zipper. I just need to get him close enough. Can you take us there?"

"Yeah, I guess, but I can't help out much - too green for this latitude," Willow said, passing a hand through the bus seat. "I'm anchored to Kennedy's spirit. I can't do much more than find people and move them around. Oh, and create force fields and make cows walk upright for some slightly disturbing reason…"

"Transport's all we need, Will. Go get Faith and zap her up to Arcata. I need to talk to Spike for a sec."

"Yo-kay. Back in a flash."

Willow green-spirited herself out of the bus and Buffy moved to shake Spike awake.

"Spike, wake up."

"Hmm?" He raised his head, a bit embarrassed to find it had been in Buffy's lap. "What's happening?"

"It's Willow. She here, more or less. She's come to gather us up and take us to the others."

Spike sat up, reorienting himself. "The others?"

"They're safe. All of them. You were right, Spike. They didn't die. She got them out before the bus crashed. She'll get us out too, but there's something you and I still need to do to fix this world."

Spike squinted at her. "Are you daft? Place is a shambles. Sunnydale's gone, Buffy. There's nothing left to do 'cept bugger out. Or did Willow come over all deus ex machina?"

"No, Spike. You did. Or you will. You're the answer to this, the one who can unscramble the mess Buffy made…I mean I made with this final battle."

"Don't follow you. This place is done with me, unless I fall arse over tit into another hole and dust."

Buffy took his hand. "Stop saying that. You're worth a hell of a lot more than dust."

He paused, looking at their joined fingers. "Buffy…I don't deserve…"

"Bullshit. You've earned every right to be here with us, fighting, to the very end of the world. I should have known better. I should have chosen you, but somehow…"

"Buffy…what are you saying, love?"

Memories shuffled and fit together in Buffy's mind. Scenes from her past, gone long ago for her now. Somehow the path to victory had been altered. She didn't want to look back, not that far, not to that night. The tentativeness Spike had now in his touch, the withdrawal, the shame, the chip, the chains, Faith…

"Spike, before we go, there's just one more thing I need to ask you."

He nodded, ever helpful. "Yeah, sure. What is it?"

She met his eyes. "Did you rape me?"

He froze, something very simple for a vampire to do. To stop.

"You heard me, Spike. I need to know."

His eyes moved first, searching for a focus. "I don't…Buffy…you don't remember?"

"I remember you throwing me to the floor. What I'm fuzzy on is exactly how far it went after that."

Spike looked like he wished the ground would open up again and swallow him whole. "Christ, Buffy, does it matter?"

"Of course it matters! Something made me not trust you. Even though you had a soul. Angel never should have worn that amulet. It was made for you, designed for you, for your soul, not his. But because I somehow get stuck in the middle of everything the decision fell on me and I made the wrong choice and that mistake has cost me Sunnydale and possibly the rest of the world, so I need you to grow a pair and own-up. Tell me, did you rape me or not?"

"I did."

Buffy sighed and squeezed his hand. She'd found the lynch pin - the point at which this world had unraveled from her own. Somehow her heart had found the courage to forgive intent but not action. Here lay the path to the end of mankind - a soulless vampire's love-madness and a slayer's weakness for things undead. What a glorious fucked-up mess.

"Buffy…I'm so…"

"Spike, please don't say you're sorry."

He came off the seat to face her. "But I am. Buffy, you don't know how much. It weighs on me…heavier than all my crimes together because I hurt…the one good…"

She raised her eyes to his. They were swirling with pain, regret, love. Story of their lives. He dropped to his knees.

"I'd give anything to live that day over. Anything."

Oh, the irony was thick here.

"You have Spike. There are other worlds, other chances. Maybe we can't always see them, but time is forever splitting apart into new realities from each step we take, each thought, each desire, each missed opportunity. There is a world in which Xander arrives before you leave your coat on the stairs; there's a world in which you go back to the crypt and just cry it all out; there's a world in which I don't let suvolte eggs and ex-boyfriends make me ashamed of you; there's a world in which I kick your ass into the towel rack and slowly learn to forgive you, even love you. But those are other worlds and this is now. We have to make do with what we have, and what we have, by whatever means right now, is your soul."

"I don't follow..."

Buffy reached into her back pocket and pulled out the amulet.

"This was made for you. The Powers, or Partners or whoever, I don't know anymore, made this to channel the purity of your soul. Angel was brave, and Angel was good, but he wasn't good enough to wear this. You are my second, my champion, not him. And if I could live a day over, it would be that night before the end. I wish I could give you that night now - to hand this to you and touch your face and lie down next to you unchained for once to sleep. But my time is short, about to end. And all I can tell you now is that I believe in you. So give me your hand and let's get this party started."

Hell On Earth they would have called it if one could tell the earth from the various Hell parts wreaking havoc on it. The scorched ground under their feet trembled as Buffy and Spike stood on a hill of steaming rock, overlooking the angry mouth of the underworld. Bright flashes tore up from the bottomless pit. Nameless creatures with scales and bat wings flew out on the vermilion waves, screeching and diving through the smoke and flame.

It burned her eyes to look at it, so she kept them on Spike.

"It's time," she said over the din. A green Willow-powered shield surrounded them like a membrane, keeping off the worst of the heat and flying debris.

Spike opened his hand and the long chain of the amulet poured from his palm. He caught it and looped it around his neck. Almost at once it began to glow. He staggered a moment and refound his footing.

"Bloody hell, that stings."

"So you've told me."

"Keep back, Buffy. I don't know what this bauble's got planned but it feels pretty damned enormous."

Spike kept his eyes on the amulet while the green protective shell overhead warped and Buffy worried it might collapse too soon. Will had created the shield to hold until Buffy gave the word. As memory served, it had taken the amulet a few minutes to rev up on Spike's soul. Jesus, he was going to burn up, all over again. What was she thinking?

"Spike! Are you sure you want to do this?"

He looked indignant despite the growing pain. "Course I do. Time I earned my keep around here. Don't go trying to talk me out of it now, Slayer. A deal's a deal. I'm the last demon standing with a soul, don't forget. I'm all we've got. Ow! Bloody…"

Buffy shielded her eyes from the glare as Spike began to light up like a Roman candle.

In the bright confusion, Buffy felt more than saw Willow reappear in floating form to her left along with an unexpected guest.

"B! What the fuck? What are you doing to him?" Faith rushed up to Buffy, grabbing her arm. Faith's nails dug into her skin as she squinted into the Spike-light. Faith reached out to touch him.

"Faith! No! It'll burn you up. Spike has to do this. Trust me. Will! I told you to send her into the woods!"

"Sorry, Buff. Faith wouldn't go. She begged me to take her ringside instead."

Faith was in Buffy's face. "Was that your plan? To zap me off so you could offer up my boyfriend to Hell like easy-light charcoal?"

"Faith, Spike has a destiny. The amulet will close the Hellmouth and destroy the scourge on earth if you just give it - him, a chance!"

Spike, more or less oblivious to their exchange, cried out and the green shell broke apart in a rain of green sparks. His chest burst forth with a white piercing light fanning out in all directions. In the distance the answering cry of beasts in pain rose up and were silenced as they were annihilated by the penetrating force. The magic was brilliant; he was brilliant. Tears sprung to Buffy's eyes. I missed this before. This is what it looks like. His soul…until it faltered and Spike groaned, dimming and falling to his knees.


The Hellmouth roiled in answer. Buffy's whole vista went wobbly.

"Yipes!" Willow squeaked. "The dimensional fabric of this world is unraveling! It's unstable. Whatever Spike's doing it's not enough…I'm losing touch with …"

Her magical greenness flickered and faded, replaced by Faith's growing wrath. "You had no right!" she yelled over the din. "How long are you going to make him pay? Whatever he did to you, there's no making up for it, is there? Is this what you wanted, B? His death?"

Buffy stood, shocked and shaken. She looked to Spike withering in the heat - spurting with inconsistent light as his soul fought to regain the upper hand. Why wasn't it working? Her heart screamed for her to go to him, to rescue him from this. But wait, bigger holes needed bigger fuel, right? That's what the amulet wanted. Someone with a soul, yet more than human…a rare vampire or else a slayer could bear it. But Angel had forbidden her to try.They hadn't known the price. But this was different now and she wasn't about to stand around waiting for Hell to ring Spike's number up.


Ignoring Faith's cry, Buffy got down on her hands and knees and crawled to him, feeling with her hands, eyes slitted against the brilliance. She reached him and wrapped her arms around her ill-fated lover and dragged him to his feet. Buffy gasped as Spike's eyes opened and met hers, piercing blue. Yellow flames leapt up from Buffy's stomach, chest and arms, every place where slayer and vampire met. She knew this fire, had held it briefly in her hand, felt its pull, the burning. They'd always been flint and stone, sending up sparks - if only the kindling would light.


Buffy hit the ground, hard. She shook out the stars and scrambled around to see her attacker framed in the starburst. She started to get up, but Faith knocked her back down with a full-slayer-force kick to the side, cracking ribs.

"Faith! Are you insane?"

"No, B. Just tired of you always hogging the dance floor. Sorry about the smackdown but I figure the only way we ever really communicate is with our fists."

"But, Spike needs…"

"I know what he needs! I knew the second I saw him tied up next to your motor oil and fabric softener! He's done with you. Deep in his guts, he's done. Ruined by you. And I should know, Buffy. Talkin' to the expert here. So if somebody's gotta take the fall with him it sure as shit better be somebody from the same floor or this cosmic clean-up's gonna short right the fuck out!"


"Beat it, B. You've done yours. Got the tombstone trophy to prove it. Let the cellar dwellers pick up the tab tonight."

With effort Buffy got to her feet, holding out a hand to keep Faith at bay. Her fellow slayer was rampant with conviction, glowing with a self-pride that lit up nearly as bright as Spike's sputtering soul.

"Faith…I can't just walk away from this. I know why you want to try but it's not your place. Not your destiny."

"Buffy, listen to her," Spike said, straining. "Girl's got a point. You've had yours. I couldn't bear it. Not again. Leave off, love. For Dawn's sake if nothing else."

"Spike…I…" What can you possibly say to him now? That you love him? You do, God knows how much, but not here. Not in this time. And back when it was true, he didn't even believe you.

"Goodbye, Buffy. Kiss her for me."


Buffy stood frozen in the molten heat as he opened his arms to welcome Faith. She smiled as she went to him and wrapped her arms around him, holding tight. The flash threw Buffy back as Faith's soul caught and lit, doubling the amulet's power. Between them there were no flames, only pure white light.

The Hellmouth trembled. The ground cracked and the rocks shook as the defiled earth began to collapse in on itself to seal the gash. Whatever demon fire Faith had hoped to draw from Spike - she was receiving it now, loud and clear, melting her apart. The ground began to give and Buffy was forced back, scrambling up the rock as it began to crumble into the abyss. The chunk of stone that held up the joined pair remained steady as their light grew and cut through the darkness, making day.

"Buffy! Now! I have to get you out of here!"

Buffy got to her feet, holding her arms out for balance. "What? Will? Where?"

Willow had rematerialized, floating above the shifting boulders. "Take my hand, I've got to get you out of here before this all goes boom!"

Buffy glanced back. The beautiful searing light had swallowed up Faith and Spike entirely, transformed them from beings of flesh into beings of light. Just as she might have transformed herself in another time and place, had she just held on to his hand.

"They're gone, Buffy. Spike and Faith - their souls are bound to the rising dimensional shift. I can feel them. They're together. They're at peace. But I've got to get you out or poof! No Buffy!"

"Will! I can't do this! I can't let him go again!"

"You can, Buffy. Think of Dawn! She's waiting for you!"

Think of Dawn, yes. Think of another world, another Spike, another chance to get this right. Tell him I love him. As soon as I see him. I need to move quicker, be smarter. Less selfish. Mastering love is a lot like selling mummy hands. Get it done before I fade.

Buffy reached up and took Willow's green hand.

It was quieter now. The cacophony of the Hellmouth was gone and replaced by the subtler warble of pond frogs and tittering of insects. The soothing lap of a nearby fire warmed her side. Somewhere in the distance, a bird cawed.

Buffy opened her eyes and sat up. She was lying in the dirt by a crude campfire, surrounded by grasses and wild fern. A dark forest of strange tangled trees skirted her campsite, and a smatter of stars decorated her outdoor ceiling. She smelled icky and wore an unwashed furry garment around her waist. She was free-boobin' it, except for an interesting polished bone and nut necklace that hung from her neck - which wouldn't have been too out of fashion a few years back with a tiger print skirt and… A low predatory growl switched her thought-channel from fashion to fight!

"Hello?" Buffy called out, standing and looking for a weapon. There was a funky spear to her right. She grabbed it and tested its weight in her hand. She flipped it point first as a rustle in the jungle shadows thundered into a full-bore roar.

"Shit!" Buffy screeched as a leopard came lumbering out of the trees. Buffy heaved the spear back to throw for the slick black throat when something in the beast's eyes made her hesitate. The momentary lapse of action allowed the black cat to go whoomp! against her belly, knocking her to the ground and into a thrashing, giggling slap-fight with wet cat tongue.

"Hey! Wait! Stop that! It tickles!" The giant cat licked her face, neck and breasts and finally rolled off, exposing its belly, tail twitching expectantly in the dirt.

Buffy leaned over the magnificent creature and with a brave "Here, kitty, kitty; there's a nice kitty," began to scratch the soft tummy. The furry legs went limp and the powerful spine arched in purring pleasure. The diamond-pupiled yellow eyes drooped and the cold nose nudged her working fingers. The beast purred and the cat lips pulled into a feline smile…full of pearly fangs only a slayer could love.