He doesn't know how many nights have passed since he fell. His flesh still smokes, his wounds still bleed. He sits up, his body snarling in pain. His throat is raw, his insides are on fire. He looks down at his arm, a relief map of dirt and blood and starving veins. He needs he needs he needs
He hears a noise. A soft whimper. He sees the mouth of the cave, outlined in silver. He can smell the moon, full and white just outside, and his eyes tear anticipating the brightness. He crawls towards it as weak as he is, battered from the inside.
The moonlight hits his skin and it's cool and sweet and the sand is warm and soft beneath him. He lifts his head and the whimper comes again. There is a girl. She is tied to a slab of wood sticking up from the ground. He can see the whites of her eyes as she stares at him. He can see her trembling and he knows what he must look like to her. His skin, burnt and scarred, is now paper-thin and the empty veins beneath are ropes strung garland-like around his bones. He is a sight to see. He is every child's nightmare come to life crawling up from out of the darkness to take a bite.
And it would be so easy to do just that. The girl's neck is so long and so lovely and look at her tied up there, so helpless
He gets painfully to his feet and takes slow hesitant steps towards her. She's scared. He can see her heart beating in her throat, remembers the salty taste of it on his tongue. But she doesn't call for help, doesn't scream. She waits.
He reaches out. She closes her eyes.
He swipes at the ropes with his fingernails and they fall to the ground.
The girl stares at him. He whispers, "Run". She doesn't move. Her mouth opens. He takes her by her shoulders and shoves her away from him before she can speak.
She lies there on the sand, stunned for a moment, then scrambles to her feet. She kicks up sand as she goes, sprinting like a deer off into the darkness. She stops once to see if he's following. He isn't.
He feels a shadow touch his skin and closes his eyes believing it to be one of his own. He waits for it to strike him down.
"You didn't taste her." William turns his head to face the voice. It's the man he had brushed aside earlier, the one who had been guarding the cave. "You have passed all the tests then?"
"Looks like it mate" His voice is hoarse and it hurts him to speak. He coughs and there is a little puff of dust.
"You are not a demon then? You did not take our offering, you have been cured?"
Cough. Puff. He mumbles around his cracked lips, "Cursed, more like."
The man does not hear. He says, "follow me," he says, "You have earned our trust."
The man leads him into the village, past bonfires of dancing flames that hiss at him, Come join us
He aches for death even as he drinks from the cup that has been offered to him. He knows he doesn't deserve it. He has not earned his peace. Perhaps he never will.
The blood is sweet and warm, it fills his broken body, heals his wounds. The young girl who gave him the cup stares at him in wonder. It is the girl from before. The sacrifice. His final test. She nods at him, refills the cup. He refuses it. He's strong enough. He doesn't need anymore.
"You look better. Beforeyou were frightening. You looked like a monster."
"I am a monster."
"You didn't drink from me."
"I wanted to."
She leans towards him, she tilts her head back, exposing her throat to him. Her dark hair spills over his shoulder. His lips are a breath away from her skin. He feels the familiar throb starting up in his gums, spreading through his jaw.
"Do you want to now?" she whispers and he says "yes", because it's the truth. She leans back slowly. "But you won't. That's the difference."
He looks at her in the firelight, at her young face. "Why you?"
"It's what I wanted."
"To die?" She shrugs, looks away from him and into the fire. "Why?"
"I have nothing." She plays with a stick from the pile of wood beside her, peels the bark off. "Everyone is gone, dead." She looks into his eyes, drops a strip of bark into the fire with every word. "Mother. Father. Sister." The stick is now smooth, it gleams white in the darkness of her hand. She twirls it around her fingers. "You don't remember do you? You were here with the one that did it, the dark lady with the soft voice inside my head."
He remembers her showing him postcards of Egypt, of sand, the muscles and sinews of the desert looking like a rumpled sheet beneath the white sun.
"We'll see it in the moonlight my darling, blue and beautiful like a secret Africa"
They went because it was what she wanted. They took the village that sat there on the shore, ransacked it in the blue beautiful moonlight just because it was there. She took her victims one after the other, they were caught in her web, they went willingly. He warned she would make herself ill and knew she was doing it to spite him. Dru had been angry with him for taking her away from Angelus, for destroying her family.
He remembers he hadn't been eating that night. He had been too humiliated, tormented with thoughts of the slayer. He had stared off into the black ocean, at the violent waves crashing against each other like enemies, like lovers. Dru had come to him, holding the hand of a little girl, dragging her along like a doll. "You should eat luv" She had crooned in his ear, kitten scratched at his neck. "I've brought you a present" She had shoved the girl forward and the little thing had looked up at him, her dark eyes calm and unafraid. A baby. Four at most. She was in Dru's thrall as well; no knowledge of what was going to happen to her, what had already happened to her family. He had looked down at her, wondering why Dru always brought him children. She knew he never accepted, not since the girl in Paris. That hadn't been a good kill. He'd been disgusted with himself afterwards, but at least Dru had gotten a new toy out of it.
He had said no and Dru had bent to take her. He had stopped her, told her she had had too much already and he wanted to leave. He hated Africa. He hated the ocean.
They had left the little girl staring after them all alone by the water while the village burned and bodies lay scattered across the sand. He hadn't noticed the cave at the time, felt no shiver of premonition as he walked past it that night. He hadn't given a thought as to what was inside and what part it would play in his future.
"You didn't kill me then," the girl says and she's nine now. Her eyes are clear and hard and sad, but still as unafraid as before. "I wish you had. They said you had come back, and I thought you came for me, to finish. I hoped They thought if they made you an offering you would take it and go, and not do what you did last time. But when I was there, when I saw you coming"
"You changed your mind."
"Yes." He looks at the sharp stick resting lightly in her hands.
"I would have killed you that night, I just wasn't hungry" So sharpan easy push right into his flesh. She isn't strong but she can do it if he doesn't fight back. She can do it. "I'd already fed off your parents," he adds desperately. She looks at him, knows he's lying. She lifts the stick, pointing it at him.
"You just want me to kill you, to end your suffering." She tosses it into the fire. "I won't. You deserve to live with what you've done." She gets up, leaves him, but the man is still there. He has been watching all this time, silent.
William stands, shoves the flap of the tent aside and steps out into the air.
He had felt himself changing in the past two years, changing into something he thought could pass for human. It took the bloody chip for it to happen, and maybe it wouldn't have if that little piece of metal and wire had never wound itself into his brain forcing him to think about his life beyond the bloodlust, but it did.
When the option of being a complete monster had gone what had been left was Buffy. Dru had seen her there inside him before he had been able to admit to himself that he wanted her. And once he did she was all he thought about.
But she hated him like Cecily had hated him. He disgusted her. He wasbeneath her. Those were the words that had triggered it, that had made him reach for the shotgun. He would have done it, but her eyes...
She let him see her weak. She let him try in his clumsy way to comfort her. Her pain was more important than his pride and that had been true ever since.
He thought that because he loved her, because he cared for the Little Bit and bagged a baddie for the scoobies every once in awhile it made him worthy, more man than monster. But that hadn't been enough and he knew it. Maybe he had wanted this all along, his soul. If that was the only way he would have a chance
But you don't you stupid sod.
Ask me again why I can't love you.
She had looked so young. The image of her standing there in the harsh light, clutching her bathrobe closed, tear tracks drying on her cheeksthat was going to stay with him for the rest of his life.
And what was that he'd told her when she'd accused him of spying on her?
I don't hurt you.
What a lie. The worst kind because he had believed it. That night in her bathroom he hadn't just betrayed her. He had betrayed himself, his heart. He thought he wanted to go back to the way things were when he could kill without a thought. When all he had wanted to do to the slayer was rip her throat out. But even as he faced the trials in the cave he knew he wouldn't be able to do it. Because he could have killed her right there in the bathroom after he'd tried to But he hadn't. He had just gone. Her pain was more important than his pride.
What he had really needed was an exorcism.
He got a soul instead.
Warmth splashes onto his back as the tent flap opens again and the man comes out.
"I promise never to come back here."
The man nods, says nothing.
He thinks about telling him that he is sorry for what happened here, he thinks about asking him to tell the girl but what good would it do? She's already been scarred.
He says goodbye. He walks out of the village and into the darkness. He has nowhere to go. The sun will rise in a few hours. He doesn't know if he will be able to find shelter. As tempting as it is to embrace the sunlight, to ash himself he won't. Buffy can do it if she wants. And if she doesn't
Well the girl was right, he deserves this pain. He deserves to live with it. Maybe he'll never earn his peace, but he feels he has to try.
For the moment his shadows are still and he is alone. He understands now that that's all he has ever been.
But he's going back anyway.