The Writing on the Wall
Rating: Adults Only (For language, violent imagery, disturbing content, and sexual situations)
Timeline: Post-The Gift, AU.
Summary: There was no body to bury. There was no funeral. There was nothing but the three rules and the knowledge that a thousand years of torment was nothing compared to a world without her in it. Spike embarks on a journey through the Gates of Hell to rescue the one he loves, but in order to save her, he must risk losing himself.
Disclaimer: The characters herein are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. They are being used out of respect and affection, and not for the sake of profit. No copyright infringement is intended.
He'd wondered often over the past four days where he would be now if he'd been the one who could read the stars. How it would be if he'd had the foresight to see what was ahead. If he'd known the decision she would make. Would such realization have guided his feet, quickened his wit; would he have fought harder, risked more, sacrificed all of himself to save Dawn if he'd known what Buffy would do to save the world?
He saw it so clearly. Every night. A thousand different ways. Things he could have done different. Things he could have done right. Things he could have done to save her.
To hold her to the ground rather than see her fall through the sky.
Spike had no answers.
Eventually, he supposed, the screaming around him would stop. He had not the luxury. Silence only made the rage grow louder—only furthered his descent into a place from which he might never emerge.
He hadn't eaten since she jumped. Nothing could tempt him—not when he felt sick at the scent of blood. Not when the thought of living in a world where Buffy did not walk made his demon yearn for sunlight. The others didn't understand. They couldn't. Hunger wasn't something he felt—it was just another pain, and when his entire being was consumed in agony, it became increasingly simple to ignore.
Yet even if his will to live had faded, he knew he could not bow out. Giving up was not an option—not when the journey had yet to begin. She might be gone but she was not out of reach, and he had to find her. He had to find her. He owed her so much, more than he could ever repay, and right now, the bare minimum he could offer was tracing her footsteps to find where she had fallen. He had to find her, and if he failed in that, he certainly wouldn't fail in protecting what she'd left behind. The world she'd left would not collapse on his watch.
But that was beside the point, because Spike was going to get her back.
The pavement felt heavy under his boots, and the stars all but blinded him. He ran until his surroundings melted into a shapeless blur. He carried on up the familiar path to Revello Drive, his chest lacking the tightening he'd once experienced upon being so near the place where she lived. He passed the tree he'd made his home on many a night—nights with his eyes glued to her bedroom as his mind fabricated fantasy after fantasy with which to torment a yearning that would never be fulfilled. Spike's throat tightened but he didn't pause; he stomped up the steps and approached the front door. The door through which she'd invited him the last night. Where she'd looked at him like a man rather than a beast.
She wasn't there to open the door for him tonight. She wasn't anywhere.
She was gone.
Buffy was gone.
Spike inhaled sharply, his chest rattling, his heart screaming a nameless rage. He didn't have to knock. He didn't have to wait. They knew he was coming.
He'd been by every one of the last four nights. He'd been by every night since she jumped.
And he asked the same question every time he crossed the threshold.
"Have you found her yet?"
The demand tore from his throat before the door latched behind him. Giles and Willow glanced up from where they sat on the living room sofa, jointly poring over the ancient volumes of who-bloody-cared-what. Every second they spent reading was a second during which Buffy suffered. She was out there somewhere—lost, screaming, pounding on the gateways of some nameless hell, and her friends were reading about it.
Giles sighed tiredly, removing his glasses. "Spike—"
A growl tickled the vampire's throat. He took a menacing step forward. "Have you found her?"
"Anya and Xander aren't back yet," Willow offered. "We're waiting—"
"That's bloody great, but the longer you wait—"
"We know what's at stake, Spike," Giles began, his voice exhausted. "We're doing the best we can."
They'd had this argument for four nights now: a continuous loop without conclusion. Spike understood why the old man was tired but did not sympathize. Buffy wasn't resting. Her friends searched and prodded and ate good food and slept in comfortable beds. Buffy couldn't. Buffy was gone. And her friends were waiting.
A maniacal giggle bubbled off the vampire's lips. "The best? This is your best?"
"Need I remind you again that we do not answer to you?" the watcher said sternly. "And you are not the only one who cares about Buffy. We have been searching all bloody day. Tell me, Spike, what have you been doing?"
Spike snarled, closing another space between them. "Not sleeping, if that's what you're hinting at, Watcher," he growled. "I haven't slept since she jumped."
The fire in the old man's eyes faded a bit, but he didn't back down. "I know," he conceded. "None of us have."
"Remember what we decided last night?" Willow piped up, her expression falling into a kind, sympathetic smile which did nothing to conceal her own fatigue. "Anya has a few contacts left. A big oogly eye thing, and some others, if that falls through. She had to hunt down an old demon friend of hers to get access, but when Xander called an hour ago, things were promising. We're just waiting now."
"Have you eaten?" Giles asked suddenly, reminding the vampire, if only for a second, of his father. "You look terrible."
Strange how quickly long-dead human shame could seep into his veins. Spike's eyes found the ground, anger receding. "No."
"She wouldn't want that."
That was a matter of opinion, but the vampire didn't feel like arguing over his diet. Instead, he turned to Willow, tension rolling off his shoulders. "Where's Dawn?"
"She's with Tara," the redhead answered, rubbing her arms. "You're not the only one with an eating disorder."
"The Bit's starving herself?"
Willow nodded somberly. "We didn't know until we found her dinner dumped on the back porch. She's been taking food up to her room and tossing it out the window."
"Why aren't you eating?" Giles countered, brows arching.
"Because I can't," Spike replied with a clenched jaw. "Every time I open a bag of blood, my stomach turns."
Willow wiggled a bit. "Well," she said. "It is a little ookie."
The vampire sighed and looked away, his eyes falling on the stairs where she'd stood that last night. Just five nights ago. Her eyes warm but distant, face fortified with determination. Had she known then? Had she known what she was going to do? What she was going to sacrifice?
Had she known she would never climb those stairs again?
"I'm going to repair the bot," Willow said suddenly, jerking Spike's attention away from Buffy's ghost. "We decided that after…you know… left. Some of her wires were fried, but—"
"What the sodding—"
Giles exhaled deeply. "Spike—"
"That thing is a bleeding abomination! It shouldn't—"
"We agree then," the watcher said, "but Willow made a good point. As far as the demon community is aware, Buffy is alive and well. They didn't see her—"
"Disappear." Spike looked away before his eyes misted. The pain in his chest expanded, creeping over his long-dead heart and nearly sending him to his knees. He didn't know how he stood without shaking. His bones rattled and his muscles felt inches away from slipping off entirely.
It had been the single most devastating scene he'd ever witnessed. As a demon, he'd always understood devastation even if he didn't feel remorse, and he saw it in the faces of countless figures coloring his past. Children he rendered orphans. Women he turned into widows. Mothers crying over their fallen sons, washing blood off their hands and crying out to a god who had long forgotten them. That had been devastation he saw but didn't understand—devastation with which he didn't sympathize. Couldn't sympathize…until now. Until he saw Buffy jump. She jumped just as the world had threatened to rip itself apart. Just as dimensions collided with dimensions—as demons and dragons crashed and fought, ripping into each other through air-turned-static, becoming something through which true monsters could tear.
Buffy had jumped and the world had righted itself.
Only she hadn't landed. Her body had fallen…fallen…
And she'd disappeared. She was simply gone.
"Until we can find her," Giles said softly, "the bot is our best shot at ensuring the Hellmouth remains under a slayer's watch. Willow is going to repair the damage it sustained so it can retain some usefulness. It's temporary, Spike…until we can get her back. Believe me, no one wants that, as you so accurately put it, abomination on a scrap heap as much as I. But we should utilize what we have until…until we recover Buffy."
Spike glanced down with heavy eyes. Perhaps it was Giles's uninhibited use of absolutes—the firm confidence that Buffy would be found, no matter the cost. No matter where she'd fallen. No matter what distances they had to travel in order to drag her back into this world. There was no room for ifs. Buffy would know this house again. She would sleep in her bed. She would fumble over cooking supplies in her kitchen. She would scream at Dawn when they were a hall's length apart. It would happen. It would.
Giles sighed, sliding his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. "I'm going to warm up some blood," he offered. "Buffy took to keeping some in the refrigerator."
Spike's head flew up. "What?"
"Toward the end," Willow confirmed with a nod, her eyes shaded with sadness she somehow kept from her voice. "When Glory…she told me and Tara she was considering letting you back in, and she wanted to be prepared."
"Your strength proved to be a major asset," Giles agreed before he disappeared into the shadows, leaving the vampire to bask in revelation.
She'd wanted him back. Before she jumped. Her invitation hadn't been random at all—it hadn't been because the world was ending, or because it was more convenient to collect weapons with two pairs of hands rather than one. She'd wanted it. She'd trusted him enough. She'd trusted him.
It was too sweet to be true.
It nearly sent him to his knees.
A part of him had known, of course. He'd seen the change as well as anyone. After the Slayer and her merry band of super-chums risked hide and hair to recover him from the hellgod's penthouse, he'd known something had changed. But not this. Never this. If anything, his time in chains had taught him something valuable. Something he hadn't wanted to accept, but knew all the same. His own shining inadequacies. The knowledge that he wasn't, and never could be, good enough. It was what had kept him from begging to be re-invited in five nights ago. He'd stood warily on the sidelines, watching her move through the house, waiting and hoping, but never truly believing. Never thinking Buffy wanted him back.
And now this. It wasn't how he'd dreamt, of course, but it was what he wanted. The look in her eyes had never died. The gratitude. The warmth. The knowledge of change. She'd witnessed it firsthand. She'd brushed her lips against his bruised mouth after Glory had nearly ripped out his insides. She'd looked at him differently. She'd looked at him like a man.
She'd wanted him back inside her house. She'd trusted him.
The scent of pig's blood warmed the air, and as it had the past few nights, his stomach rolled in disgust. The opposite of hunger, he supposed. Perhaps he was so famished that the thought of nourishment made him feel ill. He didn't know. All he knew was the thought of food sickened him.
Especially when it was served in a mug by one of the men who hated him the most.
"You will undoubtedly play a pivotal role when we locate Buffy," Giles said when he returned. "You, Willow, and Tara are the strongest…assets we have at our disposal."
Spike's brows perked, studying the mug's contents as though the watcher had laced the blood with arsenic. Not that it would do any good, aside from give his aching stomach a good wallop. "Never figured you'd be one to admit it."
"You care about Buffy."
"I love Buffy."
Willow pursed her lips. Giles's eyes darkened, but he didn't object. He didn't need to object. Spike knew well the watcher's views on vampires and what they could or couldn't feel. The same garbage he'd passed onto his protégés until fairytales became the truth. While a few shining examples served as the exceptions to prove the rule, Angelus most notably, there weren't many vampires Spike knew who lacked a side reserved for nature's softer sensations.
And yet, despite everything, despite all Spike had sacrificed, despite what he'd lost, Giles remained adamant that his feelings for Buffy were nothing but infatuation at the root and, most nobly, respect. Love was too human to be felt by a vampire. Vampires, after all, didn't know how to love.
Except vampires had been humans once, and Spike remembered well how love as a human felt.
It felt like this. Like this, only nowhere near as strong.
Ultimately, the battle over semantics fell to a draw. Giles sighed and glanced away. "You care about Buffy," he said again. "And you've made it more than clear you're willing to do whatever it takes to get her back."
"Bloody right I am."
"Then you will need your strength." He shoved the mug-full of blood into the vampire's hand. "Eat."
Spike sighed, his eyes dropping to the crimson liquid swirling in the ceramic mug. Never had blood seemed less appealing.
Another sigh, this one of conviction. "Right," he said, flexing his shoulders. "Bottoms up."
The mug's rim barely brushed his bottom lip when the door flew open, Anya and Xander loudly stumbling in. They were gasping, their eyes bright and wild, hair tussled—a telltale sign of inter-dimension travel. While Spike, personally, hadn't made a trip into a different realm in a lifetime or so, he well-remembered how disorienting the ride could be.
His dead heart leapt.
Giles turned. Willow bounded to her feet. "Anything?" the redhead demanded. "Did you find anything?"
"Oh we found something," Xander agreed.
Spike stepped forward. "Where is she?"
"It's bad," the watcher said softly. His eyes bounced from the former demon to her companion, the conviction in his voice crippling. It was only then Spike noted the desperation in Xander's eyes. The defeat crushing Anya's shoulders. It was only then he understood.
Xander nodded. "It's way bad."
"We found Buffy," Anya said. "In Hell."
There had never been a more profound silence. Sound faded in favor of a high-pitched buzzing. Spike's head grew light, his legs buckling, the mug in his hands toppling messily to the ground. He saw it shatter but didn't hear a thing. His senses were assaulted with a thousand wild distractions, and the ground spun too quickly to gain balance.
Long drones slowly replaced the hum.
"That's not possible," Willow objected, her voice shrill. "That's not possible!"
Spike reached for the frame supporting the junction of the living room and the entryway. His legs were about to fail him completely.
"It's possible," Anya replied. "She's in Hell. One she made."
"One she made?" Giles echoed. "Buffy wouldn't do anything like—"
"She didn't do it intentionally."
Xander sighed, his head hanging, emotion racking his body. "It gets worse."
"Way worse," the former demon agreed. She waited for a second for her boyfriend to continue, and proceeded on her own when he did not. "The Eye told us…well, none of this is good. Humans don't have the faculties to withstand Hell. Nothing living does. Often they make substitutions for things they can't understand. Granted, not many humans have ever found themselves in Hell…or not Hell as Judeo-Christian tradition depicts. Humans don't go to Hell—their souls do. Nothing human survives."
Willow released a trembling sigh. "I don't understand."
"If it was only Buffy's soul we were worried about, her body would have been left behind," Anya explained somberly. "Since all of her vanished, we can only assume she didn't die."
"In Hell," Xander supplied, looking down quickly. The scent of tears hit the air, but Spike honestly didn't know who'd shed them. After a few difficult seconds, the boy continued, "The Eye said…God…I can't wrap my mind around this. Buffy in Hell. She's the Chosen Warrior of the Powers…how can they allow it?"
The look on Giles's face was damn near crushing. He had to fight to remain standing, moving only when Willow led him to the stairs so he might have a place to sit.
"And we don't know how to get there," Anya added. "Self-made hells don't have entrance rituals. And even if they did, there's no way to tell if it was Buffy we'd pull out."
Willow looked up imploringly. "Anya, please—"
"She's just telling you what we learned," Xander snapped, a flash of anger blazing in his eyes. "Buffy…she's alive, wherever she is. And she…God, we don't know how long it's been. We don't know what she's…she might be being tortured, like Angel. Or—"
"Or it could be worse."
"So what do we do?"
Conversation halted. All eyes fell upon the vampire. Funny. Spike hadn't realized he'd spoken until his voice faded. He glanced up slowly, not trusting his muscles to budge or his eyes to keep the tears clamoring for freedom at bay. It no longer mattered. These people had seen him cry rivers. Cry oceans. A few more tears were nothing.
Buffy in Hell.
A concept he couldn't wrap his mind around. The words lost their meaning.
"We don't have a lot of options," Anya said, sighing.
"That's nice," Spike replied. "What do we do?"
Xander looked up slowly. "Look—"
"We don't bloody well leave her there, do we? You heard what the bird said—Buffy's alive. She's alive in some…fuck all, you can't seriously consider leaving her…do you gits have any idea what Hell is like?"
"Do you?" Giles asked. It wasn't a glib question. When Spike met his eyes, the watcher's palpable need for reassurance would have crushed him were he not already broken.
And for a second, for a brief second, Spike wanted to lie. It would be easy. He was a vampire; he'd made a career of lying. But he couldn't bring himself to do it now, even when the truth was far crueler. "No," he replied softly. "But…she's alive, Rupert."
"For how long?" Willow asked. "H-how can we be sure she won't—"
"Living victims are difficult to come by," Anya said, her tone indicative of one trying to comfort, though one glance around the room would have revealed a massive failure in tactic. "She won't die anytime soon. Their rules are different than ours. Besides, as a slayer, she might be impervious to death by longevity."
The redhead frowned. "What?"
"Well, there's never been a slayer to live long enough for anyone to determine whether or not she experiences the human physiological aging process. Being a warrior to protect the world from immortal beings might make her immortal as well." Anya shrugged. "When I was a vengeance demon, Halfrek and I had a bet with a coven of purist vampires to see how long we could cage a living slayer. Unfortunately, once we captured the Slayer, one of the purist vampires proved to be not-so-pure, and—"
Xander weakly held up a hand. "Anya?"
The former demon broke off with a small smile. Not apologetic so much as understanding.
"Fascinating, really," Spike drawled. "But it doesn' help. How do we get to Buffy?"
"Gaining entrance into a self-made Hell?" Anya sighed, her head rolling back. "No one's done it before. The Eye said it's practically impossible."
The vampire nodded harshly. "Practically, but not entirely."
"Entrance has to be earned by the guardians of the Hell she created." Anya paused. "Every dimension has a guardian—most with really lax rules on how to hop in and out. But this one's special. Buffy's human. She's alive. And she's the Slayer. Earning access won't be easy, and even then, if you're able to reach her…"
Spike's nostrils flared. "I'll reach her."
"Who says it's you?" Xander demanded.
"Because it has to be."
Of that the vampire was certain. It had to be him. These children couldn't fathom Hell. Couldn't begin to imagine the horrors lurking below their feet. If someone was to break from one world into the next, he was the best contender. The only bloody contender.
He was her Champion.
"We don't know anything about these dimensions yet," Giles said, fighting to his feet. "Beyond what Anya has said. We need to research before we rush to conclusions."
Research. Bloody research. Research while Buffy suffered.
Spike's demon growled, and he turned away before the chip could fire.
"We don't have a choice," the watcher implored. Not that he needed Spike's approval, but there was something in his voice that begged it all the same. "We might only have the one chance, and we can't bugger this up."
A long pause. Spike glanced up and shivered.
If he closed his eyes he would hear her screams.
His mind was determined to torment.
"Right," he said at last. "Right…let's see what we can find."
The words were without feeling. He said them to appease the others.
To make it easier when they realized he was their only hope at getting her back.