Disclaimer: The Buffyverse and its inhabitants do not belong to me. They are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This is purely for fun.
"Here we are," Giles said, pulling the SUV into the parking lot of a resort, miles away from Los Angeles. He had driven south for as long as he could after Dawn's insistence that she wanted to be near the ocean. Giles picked a good place, Buffy mused. Small cactuses grew in the gravel islands throughout the parking lot, but up ahead, the scattered terra-cotta buildings were surrounded by desert plant life. Fountains of yellow and purple flowers climbed the walls on thorny vines.
"I think this will do, don't you? It's likely to have pillow mints at any rate," Giles said.
"Looks promising," Xander observed, eyeing the luxury buildings and Spanish style architecture before fixing his gaze on an elaborate map.
Lots of fountains, lots of pools. Buffy threw a sidelong glance to Spike. She didn't have any plans to leave her room, but she would not be telling her friends that little detail. Buffy looked away again, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
The late afternoon sun was just beginning to sink westward, marking the start of early evening. They had been in that SUV far too long. Buffy felt her urges mirrored as Spike wriggled and thrummed his fingers on the seat, obviously desperate to get out of the vehicle.
"Wakey wakey, Dawn," Willow prompted from the backseat.
Dawn shook her head and mumbled something in Italian before Willow poked her again, eliciting a yelp.
Giles was the first out of the car, followed closely by Xander who gave a low whistle at the sight of the resort.
"Got your blanket ready?" Buffy asked, turning to Spike.
He continued to look straight ahead, his jaw clenched. Spike's mind was definitely elsewhere and his breathing was almost shallow. Buffy put her hand on his knee, making him jump.
"Hey, you awake in there?" she asked, tilting her head and squeezing his knee. Buffy kept her voice light, but her brow knotted.
"Don't worry, it's nothing," he muttered, his hand rubbing his chest. It was as if he had not heard her.
"Spike?" Buffy asked, looking him over. "Ready to go out there and, you know, not catch on fire?"
"Yeah," Spike said, his voice slightly dazed. "Sure."
Willow was helping a still sleepy, and protesting, Dawn out of the car. Buffy got out on her side and walked to Spike's door. He's tired, she thought in reassurance, we did have one hell of a morning.
It was a bad pun, but it lifted Buffy's spirits anyway as she opened his door.
He's just tired.
"Hey, this map says they have a featured continental breakfast," Xander observed and clapped Giles on the shoulder. "You've done well, my British friend."
"Spike?" Buffy asked again. Behind her, Giles, Willow, Dawn and Xander were already wandering toward check in. Her eyes flickered over him.
Spike turned to her with wide, half-startled eyes. "Buffy…"
Something was off, way off. Fear jumped in her chest along with a fierce surge of protectiveness and the need to comfort. Tentatively, she brushed her fingers across his cheek. It was as hot as if his blood were boiling. Bad, bad, bad, something inside of her screamed.
"What's wrong?" she asked in her most authoritative voice, hiding her panic with words and tone, yet gently held his face in her hands, smoothing her fingers across his throat. Buffy pulled the blanket over his head and helped him out of the vehicle.
Spike walked a couple of steps with her, his legs shook.
"Dunno," he said through gritted teeth. "Damn, if it doesn't feel like a—"
His groan cut off the rest of his sentence.
"Whatever it is, we'll take care of it," Buffy insisted in a clipped, assured voice. Slayer voice. General voice. The girl inside shook.
Buffy caught his waist and let him lean on her before she limped up a gravelly hill dotted with spiked plants and flowers into the shadow of one of the buildings. A tiny nook just beside them housed some vending machines and a water heater. It was perfectly shadowed. Buffy pulled Spike behind her into the shelter. The semi-darkness grew darker as the sun began to set. Buffy let the blanket drop from Spike and leaned him up against the wall beside an ice machine.
"It's okay," Buffy soothed, running her fingers through his hair. "I'm going to go get Giles and Willow. Stay out of the sun. Everything will be—"
Spike wasn't looking at her. His eyes, soft, blue, and wide with confusion, came over with something otherworldly, something bright. Buffy stumbled back against a vending machine as it subsided. The momentary intensity of his eyes was gone, but bewilderment replaced it as he braced himself against the wall. She couldn't leave him like this.
"Giles!" Buffy shouted, trying her best to keep the desperation out of her voice. She turned back to Spike. Buffy ran her fingers through his hair in an attempt to calm down his erratic breathing. "Shh, it's okay. Giles is coming back. He'll know what to—"
Spike doubled over and clawed at his chest with a noise of surprise. Buffy was there in an instant, sliding down the wall with him. She kept her arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders, letting him bury his face in her neck. A vampire at her throat. Buffy made another soft soothing noise and stroked his burning skin.
"Does it hurt or…?" she asked and pulled back, revealing a bit of her panic and cursing herself for it.
"No," he said, but he looked unsure of exactly what he was feeling. "Doesn't hurt, just feels like my chest is…"
He couldn't seem to come up with the right word and pressed his face back to her shoulder with an uncharacteristic whimper.
Buffy felt her heart skip a beat and wrapped her arms around his leather-clad shoulders.
"What's happening to me?" he asked her.
"Giles," Buffy called again. Her voice fell to an angered mutter, "Get your tweed butt over here."
Spike's skin was still warm, but no longer burning. Buffy laid her hand across his cheek and realized that it was cooling. It struck her how close his temperature was to her own. She caressed Spike's face, his ear, his throat. A soft pulsing beneath her fingertips made her start. Buffy pulled back and stared at him, her eyes huge. Gently, she placed two trembling fingers just beneath his jaw. She pressed and felt the steady pulse there, echoing the loud beat of her heart in her ears.
"You…" Buffy trailed off. She sat back on her knees in disbelief.
Spike tilted his head and frowned. "Buffy?"
"You don't know…"
Without giving him so much as a warning, Buffy pushed the duster back from his shoulders and pressed her ear to his chest.
"Buffy," Giles called. The others were right behind him. "Where have you two been, I heard the shouting—what are you doing?"
Buffy felt Spike shrug apologetically, but kept her ear pressed tight against him.
"Buffy," Giles said, taking off his glasses and wiping them on the tail of his shirt. "If you are going to frighten me with shouts of desperation, I expect it to be something far more threatening than…vampire cuddling."
"It's not," Buffy began. She drew back and caught one of Spike's hands in both of hers. "Feel," she whispered to him.
Buffy placed his hand over his heart and almost laughed when his eyes bugged.
"Not bloody possible," he said.
"What's happened to him?" Giles asked, stepping closer. "Good Lord, is he…?"
"Heartbeat," Buffy said. "He has a heartbeat now."
Dawn ran past Giles, leaving behind a stunned Willow and Xander, and bent down to feel the pulse in Spike's wrist.
"He's alive," Dawn said in surprise and drew back, standing against the wall as if she feared losing balance.
"Giles," Willow said with measured caution, stepping forward. "How is that possible?"
"Yeah, I mean, are you sure he's alive and isn't just…I dunno, overheated?" Xander spoke up.
"I'm familiar with legends, snippets of texts dealing with the possibility of a vampire, ah, becoming human once more," Giles said. He took off his glasses to run a hand over his face with a sigh. "Unfortunately, I can't recall any details."
"I remember this," Buffy said. "Oh, what was it…? He must have shushanned or, wait, shamhooed…"
"Shanshu?" Giles asked, looking vaguely surprised.
"That's the one, Rupert," Spike said, his voice hoarse, but he stared at Buffy in absolute astonishment. It made a corner of her heart melt, warming her.
"Cordelia, she told me about it," Buffy said, a soft ache in her chest threatened her with the memory of what they'd lost. "She said that after fighting in the Apocalypse, Angel would…"
Spike stood on shaking legs at the mention of Angel's name, his hand still on his chest. Buffy moved immediately to help him.
"Still getting the sea legs with the new heartbeat, huh?" Buffy asked with unconcealed adoration.
Spike simply clutched the fabric of his shirt, a look of disbelief etched on his face.
"I've heard of the Shanshu, but only in pieces," Giles admitted, interrupting. "I was never able to get my hands on the full text. Last I heard, it was in the possession of one Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. I trust you all remember him."
"He's dead," Spike said as he struggled to remain upright.
"Oh," Giles's face fell slightly. "I'm sorry to hear it."
"And now Angel's dead too," Spike said bluntly, tilting his head back and sucking in a breath through his teeth. "Must be." He turned from Giles and whispered, "Buffy, pet, this was meant for him, not for me."
Buffy frowned and stopped him with a gentle touch. Once again, she was surprised by the warmth beneath her fingers, even through his duster and shirt. It felt different. Stranger still, it felt right. It felt like his.
"I'm gonna see if the rooms are ready," Dawn said.
"Right there with you, Red Dawn," Xander said, following quickly.
Giles, however, looked nowhere near ready to leave. He cleared his throat and took a step closer to Spike, eyeing him like he was a particularly difficult language in need of translation.
"Spike, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to—"
"Giles," Buffy cut him off. "Just, give us a sec."
Something in her voice stopped him. Giles nodded and turned to leave, giving Buffy a soft look of approval before hand and a nod. His meaning was clear, it was acceptance. Willow stood a moment and shot Buffy an uncertain smile.
"I'll just go do that thing…" Willow said with a small wave in parting.
It was dark enough now for a small light to flicker to life above them. Buffy frowned as she saw something like anguish painted on Spike's face.
"What's the matter?" Buffy asked. Happiness so intense that it sent her own heart careening away was buzzing through her, searing through her chest. One dark thought broke through and brought it all down. "You don't want this," she said in a quiet tone.
"No! Course I do, Buffy, God, I do," Spike protested automatically. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Dreamed about it. Since I first heard, I dreamed about it. God, the things I could be for you, do for you…"
"Then what is it?" she whispered, unable to resist resting her hand over his heart once more to feel the steady beat. It mirrored her own, thrumming loudly in her ears. Buffy's eyes locked on her hand, soaking it in. Nothing had ever felt so real.
"It's not mine," Spike said, breaking the silence in just three short syllables, and the hope as well.
"What do you mean it's not yours? Spike, you're alive," Buffy insisted almost angrily, the Slayer in her rising up.
"You don't understand, pet," Spike said and pressed his hand over hers, just above his newly beating heart. "This—the ticker in there, that thing making you light up look at me like I'm something bloody worth it—it's Angel's."
Buffy kept her expression strong, unwilling to give in. "Doesn't seem like it from where I'm standing."
"I got it cause he died. Call it my mystical consolation prize," Spike said, burying that flicker of hope Buffy knew she could coax out.
"No, you deserve this. You earned this," Buffy insisted, "and I won't have you trying to convince me that you didn't."
"You did the unthinkable. You got your soul back on your own will, against all odds, all known vampire logic. And, let's face it, you guys aren't really known as a logical bunch. You defied your own nature, something no one has ever done before. That on its own would be enough for you to earn this if I were the judge," Buffy said. Her heart was swelling. It was as if she were trying to inspire the girls with one of her speeches, yet this was considerably more intimate. Her voice rose as she spoke. "And now that I think about it, who closed the Hellmouth in Sunnydale? Who fought evil in L.A. for almost a year, saving God knows how many people? Who killed the last living Senior Partner with its own weapon? Not me, not Angel, you."
"Look, pet, it all sounds great when you put it on paper like that, but…"
"But?" Buffy asked.
"It was his, Buffy," Spike insisted. His voice dropped, his mumble seemed almost ashamed as he said, "Supposed to be his."
"What does 'supposed to' even count for?" Buffy asked him in anger. "What does that have to do with reality, what people actually want and fight for? What does it matter what was supposed to be when something like this actually happens?"
She stared at him with desperate rage.
"Just matters, that's all," Spike said defensively, not quite meeting her eyes.
"From what I know, those big guys in the sky magicked Angel out of hell to get him to L.A.," Buffy explained. "If this was really meant to be his, I think they'd be pulling all stops to give it to him. But they aren't. This is yours. Spike, don't you understand that it's always been yours?"
Spike shook his head. "I just don't know."
"I do," Buffy insisted. She smiled at him gently and caught his hand in hers, drawing it to her chest so that his palm rested over her heart. His fingertips were warm on her bare skin. "You feel that?"
Spike nodded, but looked confused. "What's the point of this, pet?"
"Even if you hadn't shanshued, you'd have a heartbeat," Buffy whispered. She laughed through the pain and worry clouding her thoughts when he looked at her in amazement. "Feel it?"
Spike nodded and swallowed with a bob of his Adam's apple. "Feels good."
Buffy took one hand from beneath his and pressed it to the left side of his chest, feeling the thump beneath. Finally alone and able to take it all in, knowing that he was not hurt or dying, Buffy gasped again at the feeling of it. Spike's heart, beating. Buffy felt her breath coming faster, those tears just itching to escape her eyes began to well. She looked up at him in awe.
"I'm right there with you," Buffy said.
"I'm alive," he said and smiled at her so brightly that there were crinkles in the corners of his eyes. Buffy had to touch them. Touch him.
Willow kicked at the loose gravel on the slope of one of those 'I'm such a desert landscape' styled areas surrounding the walkway and sent it scattering down. She hopped back down from the hill to the path again. The stars were out, bright and familiar and welcome. Willow drank them in, her eyes following the lines of constellations.
"Big day," she mused. "We got out okay, we lost so many people…and now Spike's alive. It's just too much. I need a mocha."
Her head swam a bit. She toed a pebble loose from a crack in the concrete and kicked at it. It scattered away.
"I know, it's surrealish, like—" Xander agreed. He paused and chuckled. "And with a single 'like' I feel that I have just reverted to California speak. Just goes to show that a man can be as worldly and dashing as me, going from Africa to hell and back, yet still retain his roots of the Golden State."
"I like our roots," Willow said quietly. She frowned and turned to Xander. "How long did we know Cordelia? Kindergarten, I think?"
Xander cleared his throat. "Yeah, I think so, Will."
"And now she's probably dead. I mean, you heard what Spike said about Angel," Willow said. Everything felt grave in the face of the losses. There's got to be a saying about that, Willow mused, 'people change, but battles always stay the same', but snappier.
"I heard," Xander said with a shaky exhale of breath. "That means that she…"
"Yeah," Willow finished for him. She still felt dizzy from opening the portal and queasy from loss.
"So where is Morbius the Living Vampire?" Xander asked, breaking the heavy silence.
"He's with Buffy," Willow said. "They've been extra snuggly lately."
"Oh ho, I have noticed," Xander said. He shuddered dramatically and said, "You're just lucky your room at Hell Hilton was on the first floor, Will. I was right down the hall. Where the action was. The loud, inconveniently timed action."
Willow wrinkled her nose at him and opened her mouth to give him a talking to about saying snoopy pervy sounding things when movement in the corner of her eye made her start. She threw out an arm in front of Xander and he stumbled against her.
"Shh," Willow said. She closed her eyes, gathering her spent energy before letting it splinter out, searching. "Somebody's here," she whispered.
"Yeah, it's a resort, a place where people go for rest and relaxation, hence the copious humanity," Xander said.
"No, I know," Willow agreed. "It's just…"
She closed her eyes, feeling once again the way the coven had instructed her to what felt like so long ago. Something strong broke over her in waves. Strong and familiar. Willow turned herself around completely, her eyes locking on two figures standing in a planter full of lantana not even ten feet away.
"Willow?" Xander asked. "Do you see…what I'm seeing?"
"Not possible," Willow said in shock. "That is not possible…"
Cordelia was holding tight to Angel's hand. She grinned a wide grin and gave them an excited wave, a tiny squeal. Angel was also smiling, blindingly bright. It was nice. Different from any expression Willow had ever seen him wear, and far more genuine.
Willow took a tentative step toward them; her foot on the concrete and the distance babble of a resort fountain were the only things she could hear.
"How…?" Willow asked, her mouth falling open as she drank them in.
"Let's just say, there's something miraculous about this girl," Angel said with a nod toward Cordelia.
Willow was still reeling in disbelief. She turned to Xander. He looked vaguely nauseous.
"Aww, he's so sweet. Do you guys hear how sweet he is?" Cordelia said.
"Yep, he's a sweetie all right. A bringer of cavities, a dentist's nightmare," Xander said. When Cordelia raised an eyebrow at him, he managed a nonverbal apology with a goofy, self-deprecating smile.
"Are you at all confused right now?" Willow whispered to Xander.
"Always," Xander replied.
"Well, we're heading off," Cordelia said. "We wanted to let you guys know that we're okay, and not to worry—"
"Where are you going?" Willow blanched, suddenly desperate. She ventured closer. "You just got here. We have been worried for hours. We thought you were dead!"
Xander spoke up. "What took you so long anyway if you were still among the—well, not the living, but…?"
Willow shrugged in response to Cordelia's less than amused expression.
"We made some pit stops," Angel confessed, looking a bit guilty for it.
"Angel wanted to see this place where there are all these shrimp and—"
"But how did you do it?" Willow pressed. "It's a metaphysical miracle."
"Let's just say you can't be stuck if there's nothing to be stuck to," Cordelia said.
"But the dimension's collapsing force would have made it a vacuum and worse. The force of its collapse and constriction should have crushed you into atoms," Willow exclaimed. "Well, in theory anyway."
"Like I said, Cordelia worked some magic," Angel said. He was smiling with a sort of humbleness that Willow had never seen on his face before as he looked down at Cordelia. She gave Angel a warm smile.
"So Cordelia jumped you guys out, like that thing she was doing in the Bridge?" Xander asked slowly. "I must add that it was kind of disturbing, Cordy."
Cordelia raised her eyebrows, but ignored Xander's quip.
"Really, what did you do?" Willow asked.
"Well, like he said, I'm kind of a miracle worker," Cordelia said, nudging Angel's side playfully.
Willow smiled and bounced on the balls of her feet as it dawned on her. "You reconnected to something else, another dimension when that one broke down, didn't you?"
"Try, oh, I don't know, all of them," Cordelia said with a grin. "Well, at least a hell of a lot. The things I can feel. You wouldn't believe—"
Willow felt a million questions rise up inside of her, excitement bubbling up. "Ooh! You must have access to all kinds of dimensions now, something that no human has ever—Where did you go? What did you see? I want to hear every detail. Tell me, was the shrimp world nice. I bet it was nice."
"Very nice and served with asparagus garnish," Cordelia agreed. Angel grasped her hand, as if in reminder. "If you guys don't mind, there's somewhere we need to be right now."
Willow walked toward them, as if to make them stay. "Wait, you guys don't even know about the—"
"You see, there's this thing…" Xander continued for her, but stopped.
"Angel…" Willow began and cleared her throat. "I need to tell you something."
"Cordy," Angel said. "Give us a sec."
Cordelia shrugged and waited as Angel walked with Willow to the end of the path toward a courtyard. Xander remained behind. The bubbling fountain was lit from within. It cast eerie shadows and light along the cobbled courtyard, metal-worked chairs and end tables, scattering curlicue patterns in its wake.
Willow took a deep breath and twisted her fingers together. This was not going to be easy. "Angel, you should know that—"
"Spike shanshued," Angel finished for her in a soft voice.
Willow felt her mouth gape, open and shut again and again. The fountain bubbled on in the momentary silence. "H-how did you know that?"
Angel smiled that tired, worn-out smile that made him look over two hundred years old. He seemed wistful, not quite bitter or angry, as Willow had half-expected him to be.
"I think I've known for a while now," Angel said, running a hand over his jaw, a self-conscious gesture of acceptance. "Ever since…" he trailed off, his brow furrowing into what Willow thought of as the patented 'Angel look of brooding self reflection'.
I like the smile better.
"Does it bother you?" Willow asked quietly.
"No," Angel said and looked skyward, sucking in a deep breath, "and yes."
"You're not going to…" Willow searched for the right word, "hurt him or anything, are you? Cause, hate to break it to you this late in the game, mister, but Buffy's my best friend and if you did anything to—"
"Willow," Angel interrupted. "I'm not going to do anything to Spike."
"Well," Willow said, trying to stick to her convictions despite a lingering feeling of awkwardness. She stuck out her chin, "Good."
It was silent again, just the fountain and the sound of late night swimmers running to the nearby pool, their feet smacking the wet pavement. Angel chuckled once and then laughed. Really laughed.
Willow found herself grinning before laughing along with him. She reached out and grasped his shoulder for balance and, she had to admit it, to confirm he was real.
Willow giggled once more and drew back. "Does Cordelia know? That you know, you know."
Angel nodded. "I told her that the prophecy wasn't mine anymore, she figured it out from there."
"How'd that go?"
"She was devastated," Angel admitted in a hushed tone that Willow barely caught. He shifted his shoulders, his body language reading: 'it's private'. "Well, we've got a plan. We're going to see if Connor wants to come with, see the sights of the multiverse and we're going on a Mohra hunt."
His face lit up at the prospect and Willow found her heart softening.
"And we've got to learn more about Cordy's powers. They're incredible but…"
"You don't understand them," Willow said. That's always scary. "I'm heading out soon too. Well, Xander and me are. If Cordelia doesn't kill him when he slips back into jerkish ways."
"You've got to admit he's kind of a jerk," Angel said, half-muttering.
"Yeah, but he's my jerk and it's reflexive. Leftover high school defensiveness in the face of Cordelia. Besides, he's still one of my best friends, occasional warty behavior and all," Willow said, smiling wider. "So I guess it really is a new beginning, for everybody."
"Yeah, Willow, I guess it is."
Author's Note: We are still not quite to the end, but getting close. Thanks to Gravenimage, nrdhrd3, ginar369, Secret Slayer, Red Reaper88, a guest, and Magnusrae for the reviews. Another thank you to anyone who followed or made a favorite.