“What do you mean, there’s something dangerous in the crater?” Buffy exclaimed. “Willow! Can we be a little more precise here?”
Willow made a helpless gesture. “I don’t know what it is, Buffy! Something in that crater that used to be Sunnydale is putting out a lot of power, but I have no idea what it could be.”
“Maybe the Hellmouth isn’t really closed. Could it still be open in some way?”
Willow shook her head. “Absolutely not. The Hellmouth’s destroyed. That I do know. This is something else. I need to go and take a look.”
“No!” said Buffy sharply. “That’s too dangerous. That whole area’s unstable.”
“I must, Buffy. We’ve got to find out what it is.”
“Then I’ll go. I’m the Slayer. Well, one of the many now, but still. I’m the most experienced. You’re needed here in London. Giles can’t do without you. He’s got too much on his hands setting up the new Council. He needs you to get the Wicca slotted properly into place. I’m not needed that badly. Xander and the Potentials can keep an eye on all these new Slayers-in-training for a few days.”
Then she clicked her tongue irritably. She had to stop calling them Potentials. They were full Slayers now that they’d gone through that fight in the Hellmouth. That distinguished them from the SITs, who hadn’t.
Willow nodded, not really that unhappy about Buffy going instead of her.
Buffy hated having to return to that empty pit that was all that was left of Sunnydale. She was so reluctant to get there once she was back in the States that she almost crawled down the highway from L.A. and other drivers honked irritably at her, wanting her to speed up. But she couldn’t dump the dirty job of going back on Willow. Buffy had spent the seven most important years of her life in Sunnydale, but Willow and Xander had lived all their lives there before its destruction. Every single one of them, even Giles, had memories of Sunnydale that were both joyous and painful. All four of them had lost loved ones there.
But now even the graves were gone, Tara’s and Joyce’s and Jenny Calendar’s, while Spike and Anya didn’t even have graves unless one thought of the entire crater as one huge grave.
If she never went back, never saw the devastation there, she could hold on to the comforting delusion that nothing had changed. That none of the events of the last few years had happened and life was still going on as usual in Sunnydale and the only thing different was that she had just decided to move away. Could pretend that her mother was still living at 1630 Revello Drive, Tara still taking classes at the college, Jenny still teaching at the high school, Anya still running the Magic Box...
She wasn’t going to think about Spike. It hurt too much.
She let out a shuddering breath and parked her car well away from the crumbling edges of the pit. Even though she had seen the crater when all of them had stopped to look back while fleeing Sunnydale, the sight of it now was still a blow to the heart. She felt as if a wrecking ball had just slammed into her breastbone. That vast, vast, shattered hole in the ground. That yawning emptiness. Nothing left. Nothing at all. Just a pit, with only boulders and rocks and ruin at the bottom.
Willow had magicked an ordinary compass so that, instead of pointing to the north, the needle would point to wherever this unknown thing that was emanating power would be. Buffy checked to see where it was pointing, then climbed carefully down the side of the crater. It took her some time to reach the bottom, then over an hour to work her way through the tumbled mass of rocks and debris to where the compass indicated the power thingy was.
In this empty hole with no landmarks whatsoever, it was impossible to tell where anything had been, but she guessed she was close to where the Hellmouth had been located. Willow had not been mistaken: it was collapsed and gone. Buffy moved cautiously forward, then saw the needle on the compass suddenly start spinning in circles. She walked straight ahead a couple of yards more to test it and saw with satisfaction that the needle reversed itself and settled down pointing back the way she had come. She went back to where it started spinning again and looked around. Rocks and rubble, nothing else.
The source of whatever power the compass was picking up seemed buried under all the junk. Anticipating that, Buffy had sensibly picked up a shovel and a pair of heavy duty work gloves in L.A. She started to dig.
Half an hour later, she was still digging. The hole was more than shoulder high now and it was getting harder and harder to dig as everything was more and more compacted the further down she went. She was hot and sweating and fed up. What if the thing were yards down? Stupidly, she had never thought of that. Geez, it might take a backhoe or something to reach it. Maybe she should have brought Willow with her after all.
Something glinted in the earth at her feet. At first she thought it was just a crushed tin can, then realized it had links. It was a chain. She tossed the shovel aside and squatted down to scrape the earth and rubble away.
It was definitely a chain, attached to something still buried in the ground. She scraped with one hand and gently tugged the chain back and forth with the other, trying to work whatever it was loose. It came free suddenly with a jerk.
It was the amulet. The one Spike had been wearing. The one that had called the sunfire down, blasted the Turok-Han and the Hellmouth out of existence and...burned Spike to ash.
It hung from her gloved hand, green and gaudy, catching the sunlight as it swung to and fro, but not focusing it into that destructive beam. It was Spike who had done that. Spike’s soul, that had powered it.
Her face was wet. She was weeping.
All these months, she hadn’t cried. She had gone through the days with her eyes wide-open and dry and burning. She had gotten the Potentials and the Scoobies to safety, helped Giles as he arranged new quarters for them first at Angel’s Hyperion hotel in L.A. and then at the new Council headquarters in London, later on collected SITs for him, set up the routine of training them...Kept herself busy. Too busy to cry. Because she didn’t deserve to cry, didn’t deserve the release of tears.
Now she couldn’t stop crying. She flung the amulet violently away from her and leaned against the side of the hole she had dug. She didn’t sob, didn’t make a sound; but the tears just kept falling, flooding down her cheeks even as she swiped at them, the cheap leather of the now dirty work gloves smearing them across her face.
That ugly, gaudy, hateful thing! How could it have survived when so much else had been destroyed? Some spasm of the collapse must have thrown it out of the caverns and flung it this far, to be buried when the town folded in on itself. It lay there, winking in the sunlight, looking totally innocuous, completely undamaged even after all the destruction that it had caused.
Destruction of evil, yes. But also destruction of the one thing that she hadn’t even known was precious to her and, with that, all the rest of her life.
She wanted to smash it right where it lay. But she couldn’t do that. Who knew what energies still existed in it—something strong enough for Willow to pick up from London, half the world away. She had to get it back to Willow. She swung the compass around, just to check whether the amulet really was the freaking power source. Sure enough, it was. The needle pointed straight at it unwaveringly. No getting around that.
She swung herself out of the hole and yanked the folded cloth tote bag that she had brought with her out from where it was stuffed into the belt of her jeans. She flapped that open, caught up the amulet by its chain, dropped it into the bag, then tore off her gloves and threw them on top of it so that she wouldn’t have to look at the thing.
Then with all her strength, she flung the shovel away from her. It made a sweeping arc in the air, then clanged down upon a boulder. Its handle broke in two. Shouldn’t have taken her frustration out on the shovel. But it was either that or smash the amulet. She yanked the bottom of her T-shirt out of her jeans and wiped her face with it, coughed, then shoved it back into her jeans. Then she began the long trek back up to the top of the crater again.
A black and white pulled up beside her rented Ford just as she unlocked its door. CHP logo on the side; cops in khaki with the blue and gold trouser stripe. Highway patrol.
“Having car trouble?” asked the older, blond one, getting out. His blackhaired partner stayed in his seat, studying her with remote, suspicious eyes.
Buffy tossed the tote into the back seat of her car and shook her head. “No. Just...I used to live here. Back when it used to be a town.”
“Ah.” The cop looked at the tear stains on her face, then tactfully declined to comment. “Not a good idea to go down there. The ground’s still pretty unstable.”
“You did though,” his partner said, frowning at her dirt-smeared jeans. “People got no sense. This ain’t a tourist area.”
“I didn’t go far. And I’m leaving now. Won’t be coming back.” She smiled weakly. “Can’t be many people wanting to climb down there anyway.”
“You’d be surprised,” said the older one. “There was this one guy, first couple of weeks after the subsidence. Kept crawling all over the place. Thought he was a looter, but he turned out to be a rep from some big firm instead.”
“Doesn’t something like this get classified an Act of God?” asked Buffy wryly. “Do insurance companies pay out for that?”
“Wasn’t an insurance company. Something else with a weird name.”
“Wolfram and Hart,” muttered the other.
Buffy’s brows went up in surprise. Angel’s firm. Searching for the amulet maybe. Angel had given it to her, but maybe he wanted it back. She’d give it to him once Willow had checked the thing out and said it was okay. She didn’t want it anywhere near her.
“I’ve think I’ve heard of them,” she said vaguely. “Well. I’d better be going.”
“Put it behind you,” said the older one in a fatherly voice, meaning Sunnydale and what had happened there.
She nodded, smiling twistedly. “Good advice.”
She called Willow on her cell as she was driving up Interstate 5, heading back to L.A.
“It was the amulet,” she said curtly over the phone. “The one...the one Spike was wearing.”
“Oh!” Willow sounded at a loss for words. “I thought it was destroyed when he...when the Hellmouth collapsed.”
“So did I. The thing’s pristine,” Buffy said bitterly. “Cataclysms don’t seem to bother it. I’m bringing it back for you to look at.”
“Yeah, I really need to check it out if it’s putting out that much power.”
“You’ll have it tonight. I’m heading back to L.A right now.”
“To do what? Take a flight right back? That might not be such a good idea, Buffy. You just flew in to LAX last night and, if you’ve found that amulet that soon, you must’ve driven down to Sunnydale bright and early this morning, probably in the middle of rush hour, and then started digging around there. You’ll be worn out right now and jet-lagged on top of it. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to fight your way back through L.A. traffic and then have to sit through an eleven-hour flight back.”
Buffy was tired and sad, and the very thought exhausted her. “You do have a point...”
“Your return flight’s a few days from now, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I didn’t expect to find the thing so fast. Once we finished talking, I was going to call and get my flight moved up. It wouldn’t have cost all that much more. But maybe you’re right...” She checked to see where she was. “I’m coming up on San Clemente now. I’ll book into a motel there for the night.”
“San Clemente? You should go surfing,” said Willow, amused, and Buffy laughed wryly.
“Surfing capitol, right. Nah, I’m rusty.”
“Take a few days off,” Willow said. “You’ve been rushed off your feet these last few months. And seeing Sunnydale like that must have been traumatic.”
“It was,” muttered Buffy.
“Couple of days on the beach might do a world of good. You never took time to grieve, Buffy,” said Willow, abruptly serious.
She didn’t specify exactly what Buffy would be grieving for, but the tone of her voice, careful and delicate, conveyed her thoughts. Buffy realized with a shock that Willow was aware of how she felt about Spike, however much Buffy had tried to hide it. Losing Tara had made Willow much more perceptive to loss. Buffy’s eyes blurred.
“I think you should,” said Willow gently. “Nothing’s going on right now. The SITs are getting along fine without you and you can always borrow the Wolfram and Hart company jet from Angel if some apocalypse comes up and you have to get back here pronto.”
She laughed a little and wiped at her eyes. “Guess I can. Yeah, okay. Keep me posted though.”
“Will do. Take care.”
She found a decent enough motel in San Clemente and checked in. Couple of days, said Willow. No. She couldn’t handle that. She had to keep busy, had to keep from thinking. She didn’t dare let herself grieve. That would break her. She’d call and get her flight moved up to tomorrow and sleep tonight. She’d be back in London and her duties by tomorrow night. But right now she just wanted to sleep. Pull the covers over her head and not think, not feel, just fall into oblivion. Didn’t ever want to wake up.
‘You have to go on living,’ Spike’s voice said softly in her head. 'So one of us is living.'
But, oh, she hadn’t realized how hard it would be to live without him.
She wished she had stayed with him, gone with him, instead of following his instructions and running out of the caverns.
Leaving him to die alone. Stupid, stupid, moronic fool!
Going through the motions. She had done that before, back when Willow had resurrected her. But she hadn’t felt anything then, had come back in a haze of apathy, hating having been dragged out of heaven and back into the world by Willow. But it was Spike who had really brought her back into the world, made her feel again, live again. Fucking Spike, fighting Spike, destroying Spike.
Hadn’t even understood what she had been doing to him, hadn’t really understood that even when she told him she loved him. No wonder he hadn’t believed her. ‘No, you don’t, but thanks for saying it.’
She’d only realized it after. Finally seen it once he was gone, in all those agonizing months after. Now she finally understood. And now she was going through the motions of living again. But this time she felt. Couldn’t stop feeling. Didn’t even want to—because to stop feeling would be to lose him. Lose even the memories that were all she had now. If she stopped feeling, they would fade and blur and finally dissipate to nothing.
She wouldn’t do that, whatever the pain; couldn’t lose those memories. She would live with the pain and the loss and the guilt and the self-loathing.
So she gritted her teeth now and went stolidly through the motions as always, showering off the dust and grime of her trek across the crater, then pulling on a robe from the suitcase she had yanked out of her car and, because she knew she had to eat something, nibbling desultorily at a old candy bar she found in her purse. There was a diner not too far away down the road, but the very thought of shoveling down greasy burgers and fries or whatevers made her feel nauseous right now.
Something green winked at her from the worn carpet. It was the amulet. She had thrown the tote bag onto a chair when she had entered the room and hadn’t noticed that it had tumbled onto its side. Both the amulet and her work gloves had fallen out of it and were now lying on the floor.
She stared at that gaudy, glittering thing twinkling there, unable to take her eyes away. She had once come across Spike sitting on his cot in her basement, holding that thing up by its chain and studying it with a pensive, incomprehensible expression on his face as it dangled and swung from his fingers. Had he known that it would kill him? That his life would be the price of victory?
Even if he had known, he would have done it anyway. He had always been willing to sacrifice himself for her. But she had never seen that, had always been so blind.
She wished it didn’t exist. Had never existed. She’d rather be fighting the Turok-Han again than lose Spike. Why hadn’t she ripped that filthy thing off him? The Turok-Han had been destroyed. The danger had been over. There had been no need to close the Hellmouth. They could have stopped right there. There had been no need for him to die! ‘I want to see how it ends.’ The hell with that! She should have yanked the thing off his head and dragged him with her up through the Seal and out to safety, instead of running as he told her and hearing him say that behind her. The last thing he ever said.
She hadn’t thought, had just reacted. And now she was paying for it. She hated herself for having failed him. Hated that thing lying there winking at her. She felt as if it were grinning at her, as if it were mocking her pain.
She jerked forward and snatched it from the ground, intending to throw it back into the tote where she wouldn’t have to look at it. The minute her fingers touched it though, it heated up and started to vibrate in her hands. She gasped and dropped it. It bounced onto the carpet, but didn’t stop vibrating.
It hadn’t reacted like that before when she had picked it up in her gloved hands. The touch of her bare skin must have done something, set something off inside it.
A black tornado erupted from it, blasting at the air in the room so that the curtains snapped and Buffy’s robe whipped about her legs. Within the whirlwind, orange sparks flared into existence, then began to coalesce into a shape, something beginning to materialize within that swirl of black.
A man’s skeleton. Sparks flashed to it, filling it out. A form, his head back, screaming in agony, the sound tearing the air. Black leather duster, black jeans, black T-shirt, platinum hair...
The whirlwind vanished. Then Spike was standing there, doubled over in pain and gasping, staring about him with glazed, unseeing eyes. She leaped forward, grabbing at him.
“Oh, my God! Spike!”
His legs folded. Under his weight, she went down with him to the floor, holding him tight.
“Fire,” he gasped, sagging against her as she braced him, both of them on their knees. “Fire...”
“Not now! It’s over! It’s over! Oh, God, Spike! You’re back!”
“I know. Oh, I know. Sshh, sshh. I’ve got you. It’s all right...”
Everything was all right now. He was back. The amulet had given him back to her. She knelt there, holding him fiercely to her as he panted against her collarbone.
Oh, God, to have him back, solid and real in her arms! She could feel his chest and stomach heaving against hers as he fought for breath, his face in the curve of her shoulder, his hair against her cheek, the texture of his skin against her lips, the scent of him, leather and cigarettes and whiskey and beneath it all that unique, particular scent that was Spike himself...She could have held him like that forever, not asking for more, just knowing that he was alive.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered and she nearly laughed, nearly cried, at that oh so familiar expletive.
His breathing was steadying now, the pain fading away. He drew back a little, bracing his weight upon his spread hands on the ground, still resting his forehead on her shoulder. She felt him turn his head to look around.
“It’s a motel room in San Clemente. I know that won’t make any sense to you. But that’s where you are. The Hellmouth’s gone. And so were you—for months! You brought the Hellmouth down, but you burned, Spike! You burned!”
“Fire...” he whispered again. That recollection was vivid for him, the last thing he had known.
“Yes. I’m so sorry, Spike! I never thought...I never intended...No one knew how that amulet would work, that it would bring the sunfire down, channel it through you. You destroyed the Turok-Han, destroyed the Hellmouth. You saved all of us, Spike. Saved the world!”
“Saved the world?” He sounded utterly bewildered.
“Yes! But you died! We thought you’d gone forever!”
He drew back completely at that, sitting back on his heels and staring at her.
“I died?” He looked down at himself, brows rising. “But I’m not dead. How...?”
“I don’t know. Something to do with the amulet. I touched it and there was this whirlwind and you came out of it. We’ll have to ask Willow about that. Or Angel. That amulet was Wolfram and Hart’s property. Maybe Angel will know.”
“Angel...” he muttered blankly. “Willow...”
“Willow made it out of Sunnydale. So did Xander and Giles. And most of the Potentials. They’re all Slayers now. Willow’s spell worked. She activated all the potential Slayers right across the world. Giles says there’s over eighteen hundred of them. We’re collecting them at the new Council headquarters in London.”
“I’ll tell you all about them later. Right now all that really matters is that you’re back!”
He smiled a little shyly at that. He was studying her intently, that vividly blue gaze moving over her face, searching and puzzled.
She caught his face in her hands, needing to touch to believe that he was really here, her fingertips delicately stroking the planes of his face—his temple and that scarred eyebrow, those spectacular cheekbones, the hollow of his cheek, the strong jaw, his mouth. She leaned forward helplessly and kissed him gently, tenderly, just a brush of the lips, just tasting him.
She felt him smile. But he didn’t kiss her back, the way she had expected. Before, just that light brush of their mouths would have been enough; Spike would have been all over her the next second.
She drew back and looked at him in bewilderment. He was looking at her with that familiar tilt of the head, his lips smiling, but a tiny frown in his eyes.
“That’s nice,” he said. “I like it. But...who are you?”