It was a mirage. It had to be. It was kind of funny, though. Buffy had always been under the impression that a mirage—by definition—was supposed to be something someone was desperate to see. Witnessing Spike stumbling weakly over sand banks as he trudged his way to her seemed way out of context for something she desired. However, she couldn't quite argue that she hated it. Not if it got her out of the desert. Not if it got her home. And it wasn't like her newly cleansed mind should have conjured up Angel as her knight in shining armour. Spike was looking very worse for wear but as he drew closer, Buffy was prepared to admit there was a certain satisfaction that it was him.
She stood, relinquishing her comfy boulder-shaped chair, and watched his slow approach. And watched. And watched. In the end, Buffy exhaled an irritated breath and stomped toward him. As she reached him his knees buckled and instead of him coming to her aid, she caught him right before his body could slide fully to the sandy floor at their feet.
"Geez, Spike. So much for the big rescue." Rolling her eyes in typical Buffy fashion, the Slayer looked around her for a boulder that might match her previous comfy couch and hauled him over to it. The vampire shivered in her arms and Buffy nearly dropped him in shock.
He wasn't so cooperative about sitting on the rock, sliding off it and passing out on the sand. She wished she could say she wasn't happy to see him—except the sun was going to be up soon and Buffy actually thought maybe she wasn't. She didn't relish at all the prospect of seeing him disintegrate before her eyes after he'd gone to so much trouble to come and help her.
Buffy looked around her, knowing without saying that there was absolutely nothing she could cover him with. Even if she tried to use her coat it would only work for a few minutes. She was completely aware that on the occasions he'd made his suicide runs to her house under a blanket he was still fizzing under the glare of sunlight. She vividly recalled his frantic steps on the abused cloth to stamp out the flames—and that was when he was inside the house. Out here there was nothing, not even a tree, to offer him any kind of protection.
Buffy turned back to him, feeling hopeless and desperate in a totally unaccustomed way, and eeped in surprise at the big kitty she'd remembered from the beginning of her journey.
"You bad kitty," she chastised. "Could have waited for me to actually be paying attention before you deserted me." But she couldn't hold back the smile as the animal peered at her without apology, bearing its sharp teeth in a yawn before flopping down next to Spike and lifting a paw to slap against the vampire's chest.
"O-kay," Buffy said, confusion making her brow quirk upward. "Let me get this straight. You, messenger kitty cat of the Powers, lead me into certain hunger and starvation for two days and then pull a disappearing act. Then, you return after presumably leading an incredibly flammable vampire to an even more certain death. What exactly are you? 'Cause I'm not really getting a clear distinction here between friend or foe."
The animal seemed to grin at Buffy, its great body shuddering with what she could only presume to be mirth. The Slayer struggled hard against giving it a good kick in the ribs.
"So, what we need here is a little bit of action. You know, you could do something totally cool and lead me back to Giles's car? Maybe, if we left now, we might even get Spike in the trunk before he combusts."
The cougar swung gracefully to its four paws—as graceful as the cat it was—and began to move away from the couple.
"Hey!" Buffy called urgently, afraid of being left behind once again. She bent down to haul Spike to his suddenly useless feet. In no way did the soles of his boots grip with the sand in any functional way and Buffy felt like growling herself. Resenting having to become a packhorse in order to return home to food and a hot shower, she looped Spike's arms over her shoulders and proceeded to drag him along behind her.
It didn't take long for her to feel incredibly tired. Pace slowing, Buffy started thinking up appropriate swear words and insults that she knew she'd never aim at Giles, even though she cursed him for giving in to her natural grief over her mother. Instead, she ran through the list aloud and aimed every single one of them at the completely useless Powers that repetitively screwed up her life.
The cat didn't once look back and Buffy even fancied the stupid animal had quickened its pace, forcing her to walk faster than she would have liked while hauling a lump the size of Spike as he dragged heavily across her shoulders, just so that she didn't get lost or stranded yet again.
"It's all wrong," Spike suddenly growled at her neck and Buffy froze, her feet stumbling in the sand. "Won't work," he added and Buffy dropped him to the ground, not liking how close he was to her throat when he was obviously delirious and more in need of blood than he ever had been.
"What won't work?" She waited but then the stubborn vamp had encased himself in silence, eyes closed and doing an excellent impression of a dead guy left in the sand for the vultures to pick his bones clean. Except Buffy didn't think those birds would be overly interested in Spike's unappetising dead flesh.
A quick look over her shoulder and she could see the cougar disappearing. Tired, hungry and pissed off beyond belief, Buffy grabbed Spike's hands and dragged him a few yards before her shoulder burn told her off for being crazy. In desperation she stepped close, bent down and grabbed the collar of his coat. Shaking him vigorously and stubbornly blocking out the vicious whip of his head, Buffy succumbed to panic. "Spike? Wake up. I can't do this without you and I'm not leaving you. Not that it will matter if you don't get your ass up soon because the sun will finish you off no matter what happens."
One eye slowly opened and Buffy wondered if she'd ever before noticed how blue they were.
"So not the time," she muttered to herself, then shook him again for good measure when that one eye quivered and made to shut again. "Hey buddy, kinda need your participation in the saving of us both.
"Got it for you, Buffy." He looked at her as if he were a man on the brink of losing it all despite doing everything in his power to gain everything the world could offer.
"What's that, Spike? What did you get? A black eye? If so, so wasn't necessary. I really could have saved you the trouble."
Buffy looked at the vampire in confusion. The sun was still a couple of hours away so she could hardly fathom how it might be burning him, but with the obvious injuries Buffy could only surmise that he had painful lacerations in places she hadn't seen yet—or would…ever. But they really, really didn't have time for any kind of exploration of said injuries. What they had to do was raise their asses out of the sand and get back after that cat.
"We'll talk all about your likely sunburn later—when you're not dusty. Now get up and move," she ordered, yanking his arm rather viciously and only flinching a little when his shoulder cracked and he moaned loudly in agony.
"Right. Home. Got to get you home. To the bit." His journey to his feet was stilted, but he made it. Swaying like a Weeping Willow in a gusty wind, he put one foot in front of the other, waited an agonising moment before trying the innovation again with the other foot.
"Brilliant," Buffy huffed sarcastically, then made the bold decision to grab his arm and started to pull him as quickly as she dared behind the cougar before the animal was completely out of sight.
An hour passed in silence, Buffy knowing exactly how long it had been from the frequent glances at her watch—easily illuminated in the moonlight—and from the circles she'd thought herself into as she tried to nut out Spike's obscure comments. He kept clawing at his chest and sniffling pathetically. Occasionally he sobbed in short, staccato bursts that were succeeding in driving Buffy completely crazy.
Something obviously monumental had happened to the vampire and being that she'd been gone from Sunnydale for several days, the options were many and varied. Besides, Spike could get himself into the most amazing situations with barely a blink of an eye. Unfortunately that brought a smile to Buffy's dry lips.
"Did it for you, you bitch." His eyes were wild, glassy and Buffy fancied that Spike might just be feverish. Wasn't the first time he'd called her a bitch but this time it kind of hurt.
"I know. You came and found me, and truly, I'm grateful. I know I'm being all ungrateful girl about it, and I'm really sorry, but the impending dawn should really be wigging you out just a little. I mean, it's not me that'll go up like a ball of flames. So if calling me a bitch will get us back to Giles, go for it. I can take it, and later I'll be nicer to you for helping to save my life. 'K?"
He looked at her as if she'd just spoken to him in some alien language—one he didn't have a hope of interpreting before sunup. And then he laughed, high pitched and scary, and Buffy realised that it was quite possible Spike had lost it. Wow. She had no idea being lost in the desert would have that kind of impact on a vamp.
"Knew you'd never love me," he declared and Buffy switched fast from concern at the unhinged vamp to terror at the beginnings of the unrequited love speech.
"You know," she started, backing off a step at a time but still moving toward the kitty, "this is so not the time."
"Knew you'd never give me a chance unless I got it—not when Peaches's was so shiny and defective. Got it for you and you still don't care." He collapsed to his knees and Buffy's feet froze.
Suddenly she didn't care if they lost their guide. Suddenly she wondered if maybe she was dead and this was some kind of weird, last minute psychodelic episode before she bowed out from the world completely. Because it kind of sounded…sounded like Spike had somehow managed to regain his soul while he'd been searching the desert for her.
"That's not possible."
He glared at her in anger, and then the softness he'd been subjecting her to lately returned. Until the pain clouded his eyes again and he ripped open his tee. Buffy could see an ugly, scorched handprint—way too big and cloven to be human—and Spike's own scratches around the place where his flesh had curled and darkened against the burn.
"Oh my God." Buffy covered her mouth, trying not to be sick. He'd obviously gained something and she could only take his word for it that it was his long-missing soul. Take his word for it and succumb to the horror of what it would mean for them all. Of how far into her life she'd feel compelled to allow him—of how ineffective he might be now in this fight to the death with Glory. Of how stable this soul was and whether she'd have to stake him if he lost it.
Tears blocked her throat, made her head and heart hurt and suddenly Buffy didn't know what to do. Couldn't unload some of this overwhelming burden of her life so she could still function…gain focus.
The call from Giles was distant, a broken sound in the night that was fast approaching morning and it was just what she needed to break her free. Grasping firm to the moment of clarity, Buffy latched hold of Spike's hand, ignoring the shakes of his and the tingle of hers, and tugged him in the direction of sanity, food and a speeding car to home.
"Come on, Spike. We'll work this out. I promise. But first, we have to get home to Dawn."
His eyes fastened on hers, heavy and hot and focused, and Buffy flushed in the fading moonlight.
"Gotta go save the world," he agreed, his voice serious and important, then giggled in that way she found earth-shaking and frightening. "Must be bloody Tuesday."
Buffy nodded, then fell behind as he took the lead and led them to Giles.
Led them home.