*Thank you all for your reviews and follows (particular shout-out to Jandelfly and sherbsherb for your kind complements)! Not to make excuses, but I'm in a really hard college major and it takes up a lot of my time. Hopefully I'll be able to update about once or twice a week. This is a nice long chapter, so hopefully you'll think it's worth the wait. As always, suggestions, questions, and/or requests are always welcome!*

All rights belong to Joss Whedon (and unfortunately to the networks that cancel his shows)

If you missed parts 1-2, this is my AU of how 'Chosen' should have ended. Buffy remains with Spike as the Hellmouth crumbles, and they find shelter deep in the cavern, buried under miles of debris. There may be some canon mistakes with regards to Angel, but the story is pretty AU at this point anyway. Flashbacks sections are in italics.

Chapter 3: "Breathing" (Season 8, Episode 1, Acts III-IV)

"How's Rosa doing?" Vi interrogates the hospital orderly, wringing the sleeves of her striped arm-warmers. Though the young redhead now carries the mixed blessing-and-burden of Slayer power, the supernatural high from inside the Hellmouth has diminished, and she's back to her nervous, nerdy self.

"She's going to be fine," he reassures her. "After about six weeks with her left arm and leg in casts, she'll be back to normal."

"Not completely normal," Kennedy grins from a seat in the back of the ward, thinking of how much Rosa will enjoy experiencing her newfound Slayer strength, speed, and agility. The orderly glances at her with a confused expression.

"Nevermind," says Vi. "Thank you for everything."

The ward assistant nods – still looking like he's missed out on some inside joke – and heads for the door. Faith slips in as it closes, and she tosses a bag of multicolored gummies to Vi before collapsing in a chair next to Kennedy.

"Robin holdin' up?" asks the denim-clad younger Slayer.

"Not quite five-by-five, but on the mend," Faith replies. "Give him a week and he'll be fit enough take on anything. Where's our favorite Mystery Gang?"

"Talking with Angel, I think," says Kennedy. "Only saw him once, but boy did he look broody. Have to say, one good thing about this mess is he's never gonna go evil again, what with Buffy . . ."

She doesn't finish, feeling remorseful at the attempted joke.

"Wouldn't count on that. Angel had a pretty big fling with Cordy. Bet you ten bucks he's dating Harmony within the year."

"But that could be misconstrued as an improper work relationship, since Harmony is his secretary and all," Vi points out.

"So what?" snorts Faith. "B and Iowa Boy were hittin' home runs when he was still her TA, wasn't he?"

"I think they just dated then, but didn't actually start . . . you know . . ."

"You sure don't," Faith chortles with a condescending glance at Vi's matching beret and arm-warmers.

Kennedy elbows Faith between the ribs, but before the tussle can continue, the ward doors open. Giles, Xander, Willow, and Dawn enter, all of their eyes red-rimmed from sleep deprivation and grief. Behind them, Angel sweeps in, a palpable aura of loss surrounding him.

"Have all the girls' injuries been seen to?" Giles inquires of Vi, removing his glasses only to further smudge them with a corner of his fleece jacket.

"Uh-huh. They're all gonna be okay."

"Thank you, Vi. You may join the others in the waiting room if you wish."

The "if you wish" seems more like a "Now, please", and Vi hastily scurries out of the room. Kennedy makes eye-contact with Willow, nods, and follows the girl out of the ward. Faith sprawls deeper into her chair, snorting defiantly.

"Well I'm not leaving just because the Frown Crowd decides to migrate in here and be all mope-y. What happened, Angel turn his face into an STD?"

Xander can't hide the grin that crinkles his mouth at Faith's assessment of them, but Dawn gives the brunette Slayer the darkest sneer she can muster in spite of her swollen eyes.

"I wish you'd died instead of Buffy," she announces in a firm, cold voice, her gaze locked on Faith. Willow winces and raises a faltering hand to the tall teenager's shoulder.

"Dawnie, I know you're-"

"Leave me alone."

Elbowing her way past Angel, Dawn leaves the ward, her sobs already returning.

"Should I go with her?" Willow asks, looking to Giles.

"Stay. Kennedy and Colleen will help her. We have matters to discuss with Faith."

At the mention of her name, Faith's eyebrows go up.

"You're including me in the Inner Circle, Merlin? Whatever'd I do to earn such an unwanted honor?"

"As the oldest and most experienced of the Slayers, it falls to you to guide the girls here and others who may seek us out," Giles explains, unable to keep a note of condescending irritation out of his voice. "And . . . we want your opinion on a matter we have been discussing."

"Mm'kay . . . what gives? Did we beat The First or what?"

"All evidence suggests that The First's hold over Sunnydale is broken," Angel answers, his serious visage even more weighed down with troubles than usual. "My team has been measuring the magical potential energy, and the Hellmouth seems to be permanently shut down."

"Score one for the good guys," pipes up Willow, smiling nervously.

"Then what's with Sadness Central?" Faith shrugs, adjusting in her seat so that her legs are splayed across the chair that Kennedy vacated as well as her own.

"There's . . . no indication that Buffy survived the Hellmouth's closing," says Giles forlornly.

Faith nods skeptically, her eyes meeting Giles's, then Willow's.

"Uh-huh . . . anything else? That can't be it, right? I mean . . . I thought B being snuffed was a given."

A loud crunch breaks the exchange of muted voices. Everyone turns to Angel, who had laid his hand over the aluminum footboard of Rona's hospital bed. The bar now bears a palm-shaped deformity in the spot where Angel's fist had been.

"Sorry," he mutters unapologetically. He glowers at Faith, clearing promising that, cursed soul or no soul, he's tempted to repeat the crushing maneuver on her neck. "Go on, Rupert."

"There . . . there is a possibility," Giles continues, his confidence seeming to drop with every word, "depending on the circumstances, that Buffy might be . . . brought back."

His statement sinks in for a few moments. Faith glances at them all, realizes the sincerity of their hopes, and then chuckles hesitantly.

"Are you bluffing us here, Headmaster? You really want to sing that tune again?"

"Believe me, we debated for a considerable-"

"We are going to bring Buffy back," says Angel threateningly, as if daring any of them to dispute his case.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who said you could call the shots, deadbeat?" Faith demands. "Thought I was being included in Morbid Musings 101."

"Buffy would want to be with m- . . . us," Angel corrects himself at the last moment.

"Yeah, because that's exactly what happened last time," Xander nods, looking reluctantly reassured that Faith has joined his and Giles's side. "Let's recap. We rip Buffy out of Heaven, she hates us and decides to shack up with Spike . . ."

Angel growls. "I would have been there to help her if any of you'd had the perceptive skill to notice what pain she was in and called me . . ."

"Hate to spoil your fantasies, Gel Boy, but in case you forgot, B's not even into you anymore. She's opted for the shorter, blonder, British-er model."

Angel mumbles under his breath, and to Willow, who's standing nearest to him, it sounds remarkably like, "Never said we were bringing him back too."

"And it seems to me that ya'll are forgetting one mighty important piece of your less-than-thought-out plan," Faith continues, ignoring Angel's grumblings. "Who's gonna be summoning back Miss Sunnydale 2003? Not Red here, right?" she waves dismissively at Willow. "I mean, of all the people to agree with me that this is the crappiest plan . . ."

"I'm not saying I'll do it," the witch interrupts, regretting her own suggestion to share their plan with Faith, "and depending on how she d-died . . . I don't even know if its possible to bring her back, but there are ways to . . . to check. Things I didn't think about the first time, to know what . . . what kind of dimension she might be in right now."

"So we don't extricate her from a heavenly realm again," Giles adds.

"Of anyone, she deserves to be in Heaven, 'specially after rapture number one got cut short," says Xander quietly. Willow wonders sadly if he's thinking of Anya, and what kind of dimension she might be resigned to for all eternity.

"And if she is?" Angel questions, knowing how selfish he must sound to them all.

"Then we could never consider ourselves her friends ever again if we disturb her peace," Willow answers him firmly.

"Then we're agreed," Giles concludes. "We shall return to Sunnydale and use Angel's sources and those from the Devon Coven to . . . assess what steps will be taken.

"Fine," Faith shrugs, crossing her arms over her chest. "Go Team Us. Anybody know the way to the nearest ex-Hellmouth?"

[Hundreds of feet below the ruins of Sunnydale]

Time is indeterminate, a seamless flow of minutes, hours, perhaps even days. How long has it been since the earth opened up and swallowed them whole?

Their eyes are somewhat used to the darkness now, their surroundings barely distinguishable tints of black and navy. It's nearly impossible to tell how far they've progressed, or even if they've moved beyond the fissure at all. The dirt they scrape out from one end is piled up at the other, the space around them a tiny moving cell inching its way through blackness, constantly deforming and migrating, but never growing larger.

Despite Buffy's repeated demands that he let her take a turn, Spike is still the one digging, insisting that he bear the work so that the air in their little bubble – her only supply of oxygen – lasts as long as possible. She waits behind him, helping to chivy the soil that he hefts out of the roof of their prison. He's panting hard though he doesn't need to breathe, his black t-shirt soaked through with sweat. His hands are caked in dirt, his fingertips and knuckles raw and bleeding.

"Thought my strength would be back up to par by now, but I still feel like a sodding lightweight," he mutters apologetically. He rubs a cramp in his bicep and runs one dirty hand through his hair, taking just a momentary respite from the labor. Buffy stands – their digging has transformed the dark clearing into a taller, narrower cell than its original coffin-like shape – and lays her hand on his damp shoulder.

"Spike, it's okay. No macho-ness required. We've got to be close to the top . . . or at least a pocket, or something. A minute of rest won't make a difference."

He shakes his head despite his weariness, reaches up to the dirt roof again, and pries out a boulder about the size of his torso.

"Can't stop, luv, not 'till I get at least one fresh draft in here. Just swear to me you won't fall asleep. You get tired, pet, you chat me up. I'll shake you a bit and keep you open-eyed, got it?"

She looks into the whites of his eyes, the most evident parts of his face in their shadowy enclosure. Underneath the exhaustion, she gets a glimpse of his barely bridled panic, his dread that she should slip into unconsciousness from the lack of breathable air.

"Yes, of course I'll stay awake," she reassures him.

His fear unmitigated, Spike turns back to the ceiling and hacks away. Buffy sits back down and wraps her arms around her knees, watching her protector. She realizes that this may be the first time she's ever witnessed him performing somewhat ordinary physical labor. She's seen his battle skills for years and knows first-hand how strong and lithe and wiry every inch of his body is, but to watch him take on menial work humanizes him in a whole new way. Buffy grins, admitting to herself that Anya had a point all those years ago, admiring Xander at the construction site. It's more enticing than she imagined it would be, watching Spike tunnel, his arms flexing, his brow shining, his blonde curls coiling loose from the hair gel, his entire being resolved to toil until he's saved her.

Once more, time is fluid, imperceptible, repetitive. Just the sound of dirt shifting from one edge to the other. Eyes happily trained on Spike, Buffy smiles, leans over with the scythe supporting her arm and, without even knowing it, slips gently into a memory-induced, blissful daydream.

[The previous evening, the night before the Battle of the Hellmouth]

She is stunned speechless, staring Spike full in the face as he kneels in front of her and reaches into one of the back pockets of his jeans for a palm-sized box made of black velvet.

"Spike . . ."

"Let me say my piece, pet," he cuts her off, then bites his lip for a moment, preparing himself. Taking a deep but unnecessary breath, he begins quietly, his voice steady and reassured.

"Buffy Anne Summers, you mean more to me than anyone I've encountered in over a hundred years. I've fallen deeply in love with you, your spirit, your kindness, your courage. I can't imagine wanting anything more in my . . . unlife than to spend it with you. I want to stand at your side and be your man as long as we're both still fighting, come what may."

His eyes sparkle with a slight mischievous look.

"I said some'it like this once before, as I recall. 'Just say yes, and make me the happiest man alive.' Well, now it's not some hocus-pocus gimmick making me think you're the one for me. It's true, now and eternally. You are my girl. So . . . will you marry me, Buffy Summers?"

He opens the lid of the little velvet box, revealing a simple but elegant ring, a central diamond set off by three tiny rubies on each side of the thin gold band. Buffy is captivated, gazing at the ring nested on its black velvet pillow.

"Spike . . . I . . ."

Is it possible to resist the lure of those remarkable blue eyes, the soft smile at the corners of his lips, the truth in his words – that she can't imagine anyone else standing by her side, fighting as equals until the very end? She has to close her eyes to concentrate, forming a careful answer.

"Spike . . . I want to say yes . . ."

His hint of a smile disappears instantly, as though her words are a slap to the face.

"But you're not going to," he deduces. In one angry, fluid motion, he rises, turns away from her, and shoves the little velvet box deep into his back pocket again. He paces in front of her, just a few steps one way, then the other, and then without warning he retreats to a far corner of the basement, keeping his back to her.

"Spike . . ."

Crack! He drives his knee into one of the concrete walls, then lays his forehead against the corner, looking like a schoolboy being punished for misbehaving in class. He hasn't seemed so similar to the raving lunatic she had found underneath the high school in weeks.

"Spike, I haven't said no!"

"Well, you're bloody well not saying yes, are you?!" he snarls. "Is it soddin' Angel, Buffy? God help me, are you turning me down for him?"


"Do you think I'm doing this right now because I want you? I mean, of course I do want you, but I'm not trying . . . this has nothing to do with . . . I don't expect nothin' out of . . ."

"Spike, will you shut up and listen? I'm saying not yet, not tonight. After tomorrow we could-"

"Bollocks to after! Even if we both come out all our parts attached, not all of them upstairs are going to make it, I'm dead sure. What kind of selfish git would I be to propose to you then, with some of them girls dead, or Rupert, or Red, or Dawn?! I thought I was doin' things right by you, askin' now!"

Even from across the room, she can see him shaking intensely, struggling to keep his demon side under control in his spurt of anger and rejection.

"Spike, will you please just listen to me?" Buffy pleads, watching him briskly crisscross the room, his tormented face scrunched up tightly, clinging to his humanity. Finally, with tremendous effort, he looks back into her eyes, tosses one hand in the air, and gives a unenthusiastic chuckle.

"Fine, pet. Whatever you want. Whatever bleeding makes you happy."

He sinks down onto the cot, leans over with his elbows on his knees, and rakes his hands through his hair, dislodging some gelled strands from his carefully tamed mane of waves.

"You make me happy, Spike," says Buffy unwaveringly. He looks up and lifts a brow in skepticism, as if to remind her that their lives together haven't been all puppies and kittens.

"And angry sometimes," she concedes, "and crazed and passionate and . . . alive. With you, I have everything, the whole gamut of emotions. I don't have to hold back with you, in any area of my life. I can share everything with you . . . well, maybe not sunlit walks through the park, but every part of who I am. So . . ."

She walks up to him, squats down on her knees, and taps the box-shaped lump in his pocket. "For now, I'm saying wait. But, William . . . when you ask me after tomorrow, I'm going to say yes."

His eyes search hers, silently begging her words to be true. At last, after a long, penetrating stare, his face transforms – not with bloodlust, but with joy.

"Buffy? Hey . . ."

Eyes wide with concern, Spike kneels in front of her and holds her face in his palms. She smells the dirt and his blood on his hands and the arousing fragrance of his sweat, evoking a smile of dizzy-headed contentment.

"Buffy, luv, I know you're tired, but you've got to stay awake. You hear me, baby? You can't sleep now, not yet. Just a bit more digging and then we can rest again. Gotta find air. Come on, Buffy!"

His last sentence is a yell, and she sees tears sparkling in his eyes a split-second before he kisses her. It's a desperate, heart-racing, rough kiss, but sweeter than the many times they'd kissed before he earned his soul. His hands fist in her hair at the back of her neck, and his lips ravage her mouth with a strength that would bruise a non-Slayer.

"Stay awake, baby," he growls against her lips. "Don't you dare sleep! You hear me, Buffy Summers?"

"Mmhmm . . ."

"Not good enough, Buffy! You sleep, you die. I've done too sodding much for you to let you die on me now. You fight it, luv. Fight it. I love you so much, Buffy."

He's still kissing her greedily between his demanding words.

"Just a bit longer, baby," and his tone is suddenly a sweet promise, alluding to more kisses and the possibility of clothes being shed and sheets being tangled around them. "Stay awake for me just a bit longer, okay?"

"'Kay," she whispers, nodding against his frantic mouth. "Stayin' awake . . ."

"I'm gonna keep digging, but you must keep talking to me. Not too much, just a word now and then. Promise?"

"Prom's," she slurs.

Brutal fear in his eyes, Spike gives his lover one more head-spinning kiss before he turns back to the ceiling with a snarl, transforming into his vampire features. He wrests and scrapes the dirt with frantic desperation, shoving the dirt down around his feet.

"Keep talking!" he orders when she is silent for a few seconds, and she hears the slight lisp causes by his fangs. "Say something! God help me, Summers!"

"You . . . have . . . blue eyes . . . but they're . . . they're yellow now . . . because . . . you're in . . . game face . . ."

"That's it, baby! Keep talking to me! I love you, Buffy!"

Ignoring the pain that shoots through his ankle each time he takes a step, Spike rushes to the Slayer scythe on the floor beside her and swings the blade against the dirt above them, sending two large chunks flying and peppering them both with flecks of soil.

"Blue . . . and yellow . . . make green . . . my eyes . . . are green . . ."

"I love your eyes! You have such beautiful green eyes, baby! Just stay awake! Luv, I beg you, stay awake!"

He hacks at the ceiling with total ferocity, roaring like a mighty animal in a cage that is just barely strong enough to contain it.

"Think of Dawn, Buffy! Your Dawnie, our little Platlet! She loves you! She needs you! I need you!"

"Dawn . . . was a key . . . unlocked . . . Heaven . . . so light . . ."

"Almost there, baby! So close now! Have to be close! Oh, God! Buffy?! Buffy!"

The scythe clatters to the floor as Spike drops down beside her and shakes her shoulders, but her head droops limply, unresponsive.

"BUFFY! Buffy, no!"

With a leonine growl, he snatches up the scythe and drives the point straight upward into the roof, staking the belly of the dragon that has devoured them. Earth rains down on him, collecting in his eyes and hair and the creases of his demon visage. He impales the dirt ceiling all the way to the curve of the blade, then retracts the weapon and immediately stabs into the roof again, jerking the handle with a stirring motion to loosen the dirt.

"Please hold on, pet! Oh, please . . ."

He's too weak to notice when he reverts back to human form, his arms trembling violently but locked in their repetitive cycle of motion: stab, churn, withdraw. When the loose dirt inside the hovel reaches up to his mid-calve, he leans down to grab Buffy's wrist and yank her up on top of the new layer before continuing to plunge the scythe into the roof. If his heart could beat, it would be pounding fit to burst . . .

And then he smells the open sky. In another second a final shower of dirt dumps down on his shoulders, and he's momentarily blinded by the sudden moonlight that hits him like a spotlight. He can taste the rush of fresh air replacing the stale scent of the cave.

"It's air! Air, Buffy! Oh, thank God. Come 'ere, baby."

Tears streaming down his face, Spike crouches down and hoists Buffy in his arms, her head lolling on his right shoulder. He cries out as he stands - his left ankle buckling again from their combined weight. With repeated groans through clenched teeth, he limps to the beam of moonlight and holds Buffy's face as close to the source of renewed breathable air as his arms have the strength to lift her.

"Breathe! Breathe, baby . . . oh, God," he moans, half from pain and half from relief as she gives a tiny gasp and then starts to breathe steadily again. His chest shaking, Spike crumples to his knees and then onto his back, Buffy's still sleeping form sprawling diagonally across his body. He falls unconscious almost instantly, giving no thought to the fact that the circle of moonlight centered on him and Buffy will soon trade places with the sun . . .