Author's Note: This is a sequel to Cave, the oneshot I posted on Valentine's Day. That fic was never intended to be more than a vignette, but I loved the bleakness and gravity of that version of the Buffyverse, and it just wouldn't leave me alone. I can easily see these becoming a series, or perhaps even a novel. If you'd be interested in reading more of them, please review, email, or PM me and let me know.

Also, if you haven't read Cave, you probably should in order to understand what's happening here.

Finally, this is dedicated to Zelda, my wonderful friend and beta, for both giving me this idea and (on a completely unrelated note) letting me sleep on her dorm room floor all weekend.

Fall

She starts feeling the presence again just after what she thinks ought to have been her thirty-fifth birthday.

-

It's been snowing for weeks. She's an odd kind of sick, painfully weak all the time, and for the first time in more than a decade she can't find the energy even to run away.

When she looks in the mirror her gaunt pale reflection stares empty-eyed back, too young and too old for her age all at once. She's started hurting herself, mostly accidentally, her superior strength at last betraying her.

No one dared knock on her door the morning of her birthday, though she overhead Willow and Dawn through the paper-thin walls, talking as though she wasn't in the room next door, or wasn't able to comprehend.

Her body is trying to die, they think, the demon essence that made her so powerful finally poisoning the mortal parts of her cells. Punishment for being history's oldest Slayer. The Hellmouth's last guardian.

-

Sometimes at night she wakes up with her skin on fire. Pain sears up and down every inch of her, wave upon wave until she hopes that Dawn and Willow are right, that she really won't wake up in the morning.

Her head is going to implode, throbbing skull collapsing in on itself.

Too hot. No space. Out of time,

please.

-

When she wakes up from what feels like a coma, someone has opened the window and fluffy little snowflakes are piling up on the floor.

She manages to sit up far enough to see the deadbolt on her door. Still locked. She wonders for a moment whether Willow has used her magic to get in unnoticed.

She remembers Dawn's voice from what might have been the morning before.

"We can't just let her stay locked up in there all the time. She's dying. We have to get help."

"I'm working on it, Dawn." Willow never uses pet names anymore. They are all far too grown up for that. "But it isn't that simple. You know that we have other things to worry about, things that have to come first."

"Okay, I know that. But at least let's get her to open the door. I don't want to discover my sister's rotting corpse because of the smell coming through the keyhole!"

But they haven't done anything about it yet.

Buffy collapses back into bed, telling herself she doesn't care.

-

The longer she spends in bed, the more often she finds herself thinking about the crater into which her life has sunk. Most of the time she wonders why she fought so damn hard to jump onto that bus. She knew the moment the rumbling started that life as they had known it was over.

The too-bright light from the amulet blew the shadows of her apathy into wide-open oblivion. She'd been living a lie, forcing herself through the motions even after telling everyone that she'd managed to get better.

She knows now, because of Andrew, that Spike is alive. She knows that he was brought back, fought back, and didn't come looking for her. She's heard that he still prowls the ruins of what used to be Los Angeles. Some say he saves people, and some say he kills them. She suspects, knowing Spike, that it's a little bit of both. He isn't coming after her, not ever.

Deep down, she is glad.

She lies in bed and stares at the ceiling and remembers all the shallow things she used to think she couldn't live without. Her mother's vases and furniture, still not gotten rid of. Money, and weapons, and shards of glass that used to be windows she always insisted upon replacing. The photo of her and Willow and Xander, before they all started looking old and worn. Makeup and nailpolish and piles of clothes and shoes. Somewhere, under tons of dirt and rubble, disturbed by well-meaning men in Hazmat suits, a love-worn stuffed pig named Mr. Gordo.

Eventually, the objects turn into swirls of color that dance on the backs of her eyelids. Dirt covers her mouth and nose, and she falls back into the depths of fever dreams.

-

It might be days, or weeks, or months, even, but they finally do remove the door from its hinges. Sometimes Xander comes and sits by her bedside, though she gets the feeling he doesn't want to be there.

She knows, somehow, that they view her sickness as a betrayal. She walked out of her own house when they told her she wasn't welcome there. The woman who eventually walked back in was well on her way to being someone else entirely.

"You'll get better," he says sometimes, but even Xander has finally lost his humor. He never uses endearments either, at least not with her. "You're the strongest person I know."

Were, thinks Buffy. Not so much anymore.

"No I won't." Her voice is soft and strangely husky. She doesn't talk much anymore. "It's okay. You don't have to lie to me, Xander."

His face falls, and for a moment she thinks there is malice in his one good eye. He's become hard to read lately. Not that she tries much anymore.

-

She's started to drown late at night, in sweat that slicks her skin and soaks her thin military sheets. The metallic taste of blood fills her mouth when she coughs, and sometimes she stares at it on her fingers, thinking that it is beautiful.

When the fits reach their worst she can only shiver convulsively, knees drawn up to her chest, teeth chattering so hard she can barely open her mouth to cough. Sometimes she thinks her jaw will shatter.

Always, when she's decided that death isn't quite as scary as before, even though she knows she won't end up in Heaven this time, someone is there to brush sweat-soaked hair from her eyes. Gentle hands help her to sit up, and hold a basin for her to spit black-tinted blood into. The old familiar sense of comfort settles over her even as she wonders whether there will be a world for her to wake up to in the morning, reminding her of the days when she was just learning to be a Slayer.

She's certain it isn't anyone from the compound.

Nobody there loves her anymore.

-

She's started dreaming more often than not, and she's beginning to wonder whether they're hallucinations or visions.

Something is calling her.

Something dark and all-encompassing that she thinks just might be her own mortality. It's been months they've all been waiting for her to die.

"Something's keeping her here," Dawn echoes Buffy's thoughts, not daring to let one modicum of hope creep into her voice. "Physically, she might as well be dead already."

"I can't imagine she's trying to stay alive," says Willow. "She isn't a fighter anymore. She hasn't been for a long time."

Buffy closes her eyes and dreams of emerald hills.

Willow is right. She wishes she knew.

-

"Ireland," she says one morning when Willow and Xander and Dawn are gathered around her bed. She woke up with the word on her lips, desperation coursing through her fever-ridden body. "I have to get to Ireland."

"Buffy, there's no way," says Dawn immediately. Willow's brow pinches, and she looks at the floor. There is shame for them, shame in seeing their once-leader so far diminished that she is raving like a lunatic about traveling cross-country when she barely has the strength to get out of bed on her own.

"Find one," she insists, some of the old passion creeping back into her voice for the first time in more than a decade.

"Buffy, you know we would if we could." Willow's voice has gotten very high and fast, the way it does when she's lying badly. "But you're not strong enough, and besides, it's not safe."

There is a war going on, she knows. Maybe she's even responsible, by some perverted form of responsibility. She is weak, and it's making everyone around her weak as well. Besides, there are secrets, secrets she should have kept safe. She can't quite remember if she has.

She can't quite care if she hasn't.

"I know," says Buffy, and curls up shivering under the covers. Only this time, for the first time in months, it is mostly an act.

-

It's summer the day she gets on the dingy little plane, and warm. She's purchased her ticket using one of the many aliases that once were for the most dangerous undercover work only. She tells herself that this mission is no different. Something is calling her, she's convinced.

The weather is turbulent, the ride bumpy, and she finds herself covered in cold fever sweat the entire way. Other passengers glance furtively at her and shrink as far away in their seats as possible. The part of her that was created to protect them wants to say don't worry, that she isn't contagious.

The part of her that's learned love is too big a risk feels vindicated by their fear.

Back at the compound, the others will wake up to find her gone. She wonders whether they will look for her, or simply let her go.

-

The dingy little bed and breakfast is one of the few buildings still standing on the street full of rubble. There is a haze in the air, and it's getting dark out though it's only late afternoon. There's a chemical scent to everything around her, reminding her that she's in a war zone. It's nothing new.

But everyone's world is a war zone now, not just hers.

Stepping into the room with dead plants on the windowsill she's been dreaming of for a week, she's nearly overcome by a fresh coughing fit. The adrenaline that's managed to get her this far fades, and her knees fold under her.

-

She's not the least bit surprised to wake up with him standing over her. He's carried her to the bed and covered her with threadbare blankets, and she wonders how he got inside because it was daylight when she collapsed. His hands are at his waist, fingers steepled, and there is a look of stillness about him that makes her think he's been watching her sleep for a very long time.

"Angel," she says, her voice damaged and thin from coughing. It sounds alien in her own ears as it echoes off the bare walls and floor. "You brought me here."

"Yes." He nods almost imperceptibly, and she thinks, bizarrely, that he must be stealing her lucidity. They seem to feed off the same power, lately, alternately weak and strong, but never both at the same time.

"Why?" She knows that he's been there for months now, his hands at her back in the middle of the night. She's known all along, but not dared believe.

"Your birthday." He comes closer, and sits on the edge of the bed, moving with the fluidity of a shadow. "You didn't come this year. I knew something was wrong."

"I think I'm dying," she says softly. It's the first time she's admitted it aloud. "I think it's all finally killing me."

"Do you want to die?"

His hand moves to brace her weight as she struggles to sit up, and suddenly she can't stop moving until her arms are around his neck. He crushes her against him, lending her the strength she no longer has. The strange stillness he exudes engulfs her, and she lets her head rest against his shoulder, hot tears streaming down her cheeks.

"No," she whispers. It's the first thing she's felt in fifteen years.

It is a start.