By Nan Dibble
Sequel to Old Blood
SECTION VI: INTO THE LIGHT
Chapter Twenty Four: Hellmouth
Tipping the broadsword onto his shoulder, Spike turned and walked backward a few paces, surveying Casa Summers--the light seeping around boarded windows, the shape of the roof, and the long porch in the bright moonlight that was everywhere. The moon was westering into some streaky high silver clouds. It was just past three, and he’d got away easier than he’d expected. It’d been a final briefing and sendoff--completely unnecessary. He wouldn’t have showed up at all except that he needed the amulet. He’d had to accept a twist of herbs and feathers Willow said was a clear-headedness charm, and various good wishes, handshakes, and hugs, but it could have been much worse. No arguments. Hardly any emotional outbursts except for Dawn, hanging on so and having to be patiently pried off before she’d let him go.
People did make such a fuss about things. But Spike wanted it simple, just turn and leave without dramatics, and mostly they’d let him do that. Even Buffy. It had been chiefly her reaction he’d been concerned about. Braced and waiting for it. But as things had fallen out, she’d never made a peep, which was uncommonly sensible of her.
The SITs weren’t back from patrol yet, so he’d ducked all that predictable flap too.
The amulet purred on his chest like a tiny motor at idle. Other banked energies he could feel, like the aura the witch claimed he was putting out, spread wide like wings. Didn’t altogether believe that, but felt as though it could be true. Likely just sick of being still, bent tight as a bow, impatient to be gone. Anyway, everything Planned: in place and set as much as it could be in advance of the event. His place in it locked in and certain.
Wheeling about, he continued down the deserted street. Off in the distance a house was burning with nobody taking any apparent notice. Quite a lot of feral pets about, a few cruising dog packs forming up and running silent along the suburban lanes though with sense enough to steer wide of him. Cruising vamp packs, too, sometimes: with people fewer and staying indoors through the dark times, hunting was bad enough that the cousins had been forced to turn creative. Since they couldn’t get in, they’d toss gasoline bombs improvised in soda bottles to drive the prey out. That burning house off aways was probably one such. Spike shook his head, still a little sad about how his idea of putting some of that wasted potential to use, turning the cousins into fighters, had fizzled out. Vamps wouldn’t stir one inch beyond what they had to, what they could see an immediate chance of satisfaction in. Spike had imagined something like a militia. Angel was quite content with a mob and would likely get what he wanted, since he didn’t want much.
Along about four thirty, Angel, Willow, and that Harris would set up in the bank building Angel had chosen and fortified. Then Angel would open the box. The witch would magnify and direct the enticing shriek of the Chaos Stone, identifying that location as the most desirable piece of real estate in the whole of Sunnydale. Vamps would start gathering from all over, drawn to it. With locks, barricades, wards, spells, and weapons, the cousins would be kept out long enough for the Biters to start showing up: drawn by the same call, the same promise of satisfaction. And of course they’d start fighting over it. Fighting with each other. Just fighting. Once a brawl like that got rolling, it would feed on itself till nobody was left standing.
Spike felt several ways about the Plan. He appreciated its simplicity, that meant not a lot could go wrong if you were prepared to accept the wholesale destruction of several city blocks and any people unlucky enough to get caught up in it as minimum collateral damage. He appreciated its indirection: it wasn’t the main battle but a diversion, to pull as many of the Turok-han as possible away from the school, to give Spike the best chance of slipping in unnoticed before sunrise.
When the light drove surviving Biters and cousins alike underground, into the tunnels and sewers, they’d find the limited ways back toward the school blocked by the Slayer and the SITs, who’d have an advantage in the enclosed spaces, with the opposition having to line up to get at them.
Spike’s job was to close the Hellmouth and prevent reinforcements arriving from behind. Close off the First’s access to this dimension altogether. End it all.
Spike appreciated the trust and responsibility that represented--what he’d endured the supplice for. This time, he wouldn’t fail. This time, he’d do the thing properly and get it right.
And of course Angel’s stratagem also promised to be a cracking marvelous brawl, the finest in centuries of vampire mayhem. Spike mildly regretted having to miss it.
Up ahead, somebody stood in the intersection leaning on a battle axe comfortably propped, blade down. From any distance and any direction, Spike knew that silhouette: Slayer.
Approaching, he shook his head and sighed.
Buffy swung the axe onto her shoulder and fell into step on his right. “I don’t join the show until after sunrise,” she remarked in her brightest, most unconvincingly cheerful voice. “So I figured you might not mind a little company.”
Spike didn’t say anything, just gave her a look. In spite of himself, he found himself shortening stride so she wouldn’t have to trot to keep up. She was so tiny, vivid, and indomitable. Her delicate ferocity never failed to tug at his heart.
She had no business being here, and they both knew it, and here she was anyway, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
She wore dove-grey slacks, little cuffed boots, and a dark green halter top with tiny spangley flecks woven in some way: a different outfit than she’d had for the sendoff. That was what’d kept her, then: she’d stopped to change clothes.
She’d pulled all the hair from her ears upward into a high bouncing ponytail. The rest swung free, golden and shining. She smelled wonderful.
He’d never expected to see her again.
“Do you?” she persisted. “Mind?”
“If you cared, you wouldn’t have come. And that’s no fit weapon for a tunnel. Be bangin’ into the walls, both sides.”
“You think so? Maybe. It’s what I felt like for tonight. Big blade, long swing. Be a good weapon against Bringers. Against Turok-han, not so much. You want to swap?”
He took a long stride and came to a stance, blocking her way. “Why are you doing this?”
“Making everything harder. Making yourself miserable.”
“I’m not miserable. Do I look miserable?” Without waiting for a response, she leaned to see past him. “Look, there’s Anya. And Dawn.” Buffy began waving. “Hi, Dawnie!”
When Spike turned, he saw the van parked up ahead. Anya and Dawn were leaning against it, eating ice-cream cones. With no effort he knew the sequence: the three of them piling into the van and getting ahead of him, then Buffy loping back to intercept.
As Anya and Dawn strolled toward them, Spike saw Dawn had a crossbow and a cylinder of quarrels hanging on a shoulder strap. Anya had a hand axe slung from a belt and almost concealed within the folds of her full skirt.
Spike turned his head hard away. “Oh, come on!”
“Yeah,” Dawn chirped. “Nice of you to invite us.”
“You’re not invited, Bit. Not none of you. Where I’m going, you can’t go. What I do, you can’t have any part in. You know that! So what are you damn well playing at?”
“There’s been a change of plan,” Anya commented.
Dropping the playful pretense, Buffy said flatly, “Spike, I put you on notice some time ago. I know what you want and what you think you’re for. But what I do isn’t up to you. And I told you: if you go, we go. Both of us or none at all. If Faith has to break out of prison to field the next apocalypse, then that’s her problem. Somebody’s problem. Not mine. My duty as the Slayer has eaten about every damn thing I care about. It’s not getting this. You can’t argue me out or force me out.”
“And how about Dawn?”
Dawn said, “There are factors you don’t know about and can’t change. Sorry, Spike. I’m kind of obligated here.” She stood beside Buffy.
Spike moved a few paces aside, looking around and trying to think it all through. If he could protect neither of them, if they didn’t want, wouldn’t accept that from him, what was the point of anything he was doing? Where was the sense in even trying?
For an instant, he was angry. But the next instant, he let that go and was only desolate and resigned. He said to them quietly, “Maybe I been mistaken then. What is it, that you want me to do?”
He wasn’t getting it: Buffy could tell. Either she’d said it wrong, or he’d heard it wrong. Maybe it was some other damn vamp thing she didn’t know about and how could she, as though she was dating some freaking Elbonian exchange student with all these cockamamie rules you kept blundering into, worse than wicca-pagan Jewish lesbian geek Warren-killer Willow you had to tiptoe around, there were so many things they were touchy about.
He had his eyes back--steel blue, lifelessly downcast; and his eyes (and his shoulders and his voice and the way he was standing and all of it) told her this was more than hurt pride. This was get-away-from-me-evil-soulless-thing wounded. This maybe was even bathroom-I-could-never-trust-you wounded.
Dawn knew it too, exclaiming, “No, no, no!” running to him and grabbing his arm, then swinging both of them to face Buffy, demanding, “Say it a different way. He doesn’t understand.”
When even the official interpreter was stumped, what was scraping-by-C in Spanish 101 supposed to do about it? “What different way?”
“I don’t know, but we’re making it bad and it’s not supposed to be that way. Spike, tell her.”
He shook his head. “Dunno what you want, Bit. All I can see is, whatever it is, it’s not what I been doing. So I dunno anymore what you want.”
That of course was the moment the Potentials came sweeping up, all pleased and full of themselves to have played such a neat trick on him, then standing in awkward poses as even they saw it, that he hadn’t reacted to protection and concern and love dammit the way they’d expected him to, and if nobody else could figure it out either, if it was just him, he was just gonna have to suck it up and deal because nobody had time for his damn moods and cockamamie Victorian vamp sensibilities right now.
Buffy named the mark and sent them all off toward it with a word and a swing of her arm, that little alien routine of his that everybody had down with no misunderstandings, still facing him with one hand on her hip and the other of course occupied with the axe, and asked, “You coming?”
Still sad-eyed, he responded, “Yeah, I guess,” and fell in jogging on her left, exactly where he was supposed to be, dammit, and what was the freaking problem here?
Well, Buffy admitted, she’d known he wasn’t gonna like it, known it was gonna be a standoff. That was why she hadn’t even attempted to argue with him but instead presented him with a done deal too late for anything to be changed. He wasn’t gonna budge, and neither was she. OK, the mission mattered, and OK he was key guy on that because of the amulet. But how could anybody imagine that she was gonna let him try to get in there all alone, back to the place of his insanity and his torture that he still had nightmares about and was so deeply afraid of he could barely talk about it, and not surround him with all the layers of love and support that’d come clamoring to her, demanding to come along?
How could somebody contrive to take that as some sort of mortal insult?
The advance scout, Mike, who now had some connection with the SITs that Buffy didn’t understand either, came put-putting up on Spike’s motorcycle except it seemed to be Mike’s now (don’t ask) and stopped in the middle of the street to report to Amanda. When Amanda went on and all the SITs had passed, Mike swung the bike into a leisurely curb-to-curb Uey and then paced them on Spike’s far side. He was wearing jeans and a loose camouflage jacket over a green Hellmouth souvenir T-shirt.
“Hi,” he said to Spike, smiling pleasantly.
Spike waited a beat to acknowledge him. “Hullo, Michael. What are you doin’ here, then?”
That minimal exchange was followed by a couple of minutes’ silence, maybe in respect for the cool tough-guy terseness of it all. All uber-cool, Buffy thought: almost like a couple of Initiative lunks with their John Wayne imitations. Then Mike said, “I got a couple of cases of incendiaries together, past few weeks. Me and Huey, some others. Kept a few loose, just on principle. The rest, and some other small ordnance, I passed along to Angel. Thought he might see more use for it at his position.”
“That’s very enterprising of you.”
Mike scratched under an eye, still smiling. “He cussed me out. On account of it wasn’t specified in The Plan. Showed him my demon the whole time. He didn’t like that much neither.”
That got a sideways look from Spike, head actually consenting to turn.
After another couple minutes of silence, Mike asked, “Where d’y want me?”
“If ‘Manda says point, I expect that’s where you belong.”
“I kind of took point my own self. Free ranging at the moment. Independent unit. Open for assignment.”
“Don’t ask me, I’m not running this operation.”
Cutting in on whatever Mike had started to say, Buffy said, “Run it.”
No look, no immediate question or comment. Maybe a dozen strides in silence. Then Spike acknowledged, “Slayer,” in his most ironic, irritating drawl, halted Mike with a gesture, and mounted pillion. They roared off.
Buffy wasn’t sure that setting Spike in charge was the right thing to do. But she figured snark was preferable to sullen. Pair him up with another vamp, who might actually know what his problem was or pry it out of him and maybe make him deal with it. At least they knew the same hand signals. She’d let the spot to her left go empty for that.
With minimal direction, Mike pulled up by some parked cars in view of the sewer lid covering the most direct below-ground route into the school. Dismounting, Spike scanned the area, taking care to avoid the stretches illuminated by the streetlights.
Spotting a sentry, a Bringer, off in an alley, he sent Mike to halt everybody at a new mark a block away and signal when they were in place.
Except that it wasn’t by mechanical means, nobody had yet figured how Bringers communicated. Spike wanted to give the sentry no chance to relay an alarm or be missed, either one.
He mapped out a route starting with a fire escape and over successive rooftops that would put him overlooking that alley. Using utter stillness and bursts of vampire speed, he crossed the street zig-zag: no direct lines, no sustained motion to draw the eye. He waited under the fire escape, laying the sword aside as unwieldy, until he caught a high-pitched whistle just off from a nighthawk’s shrill tone. Then he made an angled jump: to one wall high, then rebounding to the fire escape above where the last ladder would have creaked going down. Onto the first roof and then the way he’d mapped in his head, short jumps and soft, collected landings that made no sound.
It was well he’d taken care because there were two sentries. Not an unreasonable distance apart, if he dropped right. He took a taser in his right hand and his favorite hand axe in his left. Then he dropped, extending both arms in the instant of landing. Axe had to be more discriminating, so he made sure the angle and backhand force would take the one Bringer’s throat out, reaching more heedlessly with the taser because any contact would be good enough, any hit disabling. The second Bringer was dead too before it’d finished falling.
The spilled blood stank: though they started as human, whatever changed them to Bringers rendered their blood inedible and repulsive.
Spike showed himself at the mouth of the alley and pointed. Everybody started coming from the mark in small fast groups, to not make a congested bunch waiting by the sewer cover Mike was lifting. Spike backtracked to retrieve the sword and found a rag in a dumpster to clean the axe before suspending it from a belt loop. Didn’t need the stink of Bringer blood announcing him, just at the first, anyway. Later, it wouldn’t matter.
Slayer and most of the SITs were down. Mike held Dawn’s arm in a wrist clasp to lower her, and Spike laid the sword aside to do the same for Anya. He hadn’t the least clue why they were there but accepted that they were, since Buffy had made no objection and brought them along. Not up to him. Not as if he’d made the Plan, now was it?
All quiet below, so far. Spike named Mike rearguard and assigned him responsibility for Anya and Dawn. “Since you’ve gone free agent here, you’re not under my word. But I don’t want to have to keep track of you and I don’t want to set you to do something and then find you left it.”
Mike nodded, responding, “Understandable.”
“You don’t go off on your own without you let me know, is all.”
“I can follow--” Mike broke off, head lifting, flashing to game face.
Spike knew why because he’d done the same. Hellmouth, that was before them: vast and pervasive as wind. Not needing to pull because it was strong enough, just being. The new awareness was like tornado sirens in Kansas. Loud. Hot. An assault on the senses, reverberating in the bones. Full of excitement and promise.
Spike grabbed Mike’s arm as the younger vampire started moving. Mike took a stance and started breathing, open-mouthed, scowling heavily at his boots.
Spike told him, “You drop game face, it might be easier.” He waited another minute. “You drop game face or you go your ways. Can’t be around the children like that.”
“You first,” Mike growled.
Spike did, although that made it harder to hold his concentration and his balance. Lad needed the example. After a moment, Mike’s features smoothed, too. He said, “Set me at point. Can’t answer otherwise. Do less damage in front if I can’t hold.”
“All right. Only be a while. Enough fighting for everybody, soon enough.” Enough to keep the demon, increasingly angry and impatient from being denied, occupied and happy.
Between them, he and Mike got the sewer cover back into place from below. Then they edged among the SITs, moving through the column. Spike knew their scents and their voices, so even had there been no light at all, he would have known them all perfectly clearly. As it was, there was enough light for him to distinguish outlines. But it occurred to him that they had none of these familiar markers but voices maybe and he didn’t think any of them had ever been through the tunnels before. He paused in the midst of them and said quietly, “Here,” so they knew him and gathered close around.
He said, “There’ll be light soon. Torches on the walls. If anybody’s fetched a flashlight, don’t use it. Dark don’t bother Bringers, and showing a light will mark you and spoil your dark-sight for no gain. Slayer’s put you back in my hand, dunno why, but that means you keep an ear to her but I call the mark, all right?”
Amanda said flatly, “Good.”
“Sue, you sing out,” Spike directed. “Soft.”
“Here,” called Suzanne, from the back rank.
“Sue, you team with two or three others, don’t leave anybody short, and take rearguard. Mind Bit and Anya, all right? Sing out loud if anything comes at you from the back. ‘Manda, you keep an ear that way and turn and take it with your team if we get trouble from behind. Kim, if ‘Manda has to turn, you take point. Everybody clear?”
They all murmured Clear, Spike..
Spike added, “Willow’s running the Stone now. Any vamp you come across is gonna be sore distracted. Biters too, though I hope we won’t meet many if we just wait here a bit. See any, go right at ‘em. ‘S’not a good fighting space for them. Too constricted. And be mindful of Mike, he’s a bit off. He’ll do as best he can, but keep out of striking distance. Gonna keep him with me at point. Don’t dust him except he makes you. Or me, for that matter.”
Soft chuckles with an edge of nervousness but nothing severe.
“Anybody who wanders off is goat for a week and will get a real spectacular penalty. Or we’ll have her bones for soup. When time comes to move, hold hands like elephants and go slow. Want to let things clear out, up ahead.”
They sounded and smelled more settled, so he continued on through them to where Mike and Buffy waited at the head of the column.
Spike sent Mike on ahead to locate the next cross-tunnel junction. They’d have to be past that before open fighting began or opposition could come at them from the sides, cut them off. As soon as Mike was gone, Spike relaxed back into game face because that made it easier to hold focus. Not try to hold against the pull of the Chaos Stone, just let it drag a little and let go, like standing hip-high in strong surf. Breathe and release. Stay steady within the larger motions. He rubbed a hand across his eyes.
“Is it bothering you yet?” Buffy asked.
He laughed shortly because she could have any of about fifty things in mind and still be right. “Mark how we go, pet. You’ll have to come back this way. Pipe along here is pretty solid. I hope it’ll hold--long enough for your lot to get clear, anyway.” He set both wrists on her shoulders. “When it starts, don’t you hang about. Dunno what it’s apt to be, but I don’t figure it’ll be anything your being there is gonna change or stop. I want you gone.”
Head lift, likely a major glare. “We are not still having this discussion!”
“Well, yes, we are. I have to be there, see it out. You don’t.” He began rubbing a thumb along the edge of her jaw. She was so fierce and smelled so fine, exactly like herself as though no clothes were between them: demon was becoming real interested. Wanting to find some way to explode--fight or fuck, no particular preference. Strongly aware of her, Spike went on quietly, “Maybe you think because there were no good ways I could stop you coming, there’s not ways I could make you go. You’re wrong. Truly don’t want to fight you over this, love. But I will if you make me.”
“You and what army?”
“I always been all the army I needed until I started messing into apocalypses, missions, world-ending tripe. You want to do dumb stuff, then I’m gonna have to go back to doin’ dumb stuff, too. Wouldn’t like that to be the last of us, doin’ like that again.”
She lifted up and kissed him hard on the mouth, game face and all. Surely felt the difference but only pushed herself tighter, closer. He could feel his mark on her very plain, very strong. She said, “This isn’t gonna be the last of us. I won’t let it.”
“Pet, your hope could be the ruin of it all and us besides. Please. Put it away.”
“Never gonna happen. I’ve just gotten you trained exactly the way I want you and I’m not gonna let all that work be for nothing.”
Spike couldn’t help laughing. Still rubbing at the soft place under her jaw, he returned her kiss and then bent his forehead against hers. “If all this has been training, we both made a right mess of it because neither one of us will mind worth a damn. All right, you do how you do and we’ll see what comes of it. Not gonna argue with you no more.”
Returning then, Mike reported everything clear to the next junction. Everybody moved, gathering past that. Up ahead, some way off, the smooth curve of the sewer pipe became rough rock walls. The first pair of wall torches were visible. Even from that distance, it was enough light for vampire sight: catching Spike in game face, Mike growled and shifted too. It wasn’t worth discussing because those two tiny points of light were cut off by the crouched, stalking form of a Turok-han ducking low under the top of the passage. The rustling footfalls and motion behind it were dark-robed Bringers: enough to fill the tunnel from side to side.
“Finally!” said Mike, lunging ahead, and it was begun.
Crouched with Anya against the tunnel wall, watching Spike’s black silhouette carving up Bringers in shadowplay mayhem too far away for it to be gross, Dawn asked, “Are you really positively sure we shouldn’t tell him?”
“Absolutely really positively sure,” Anya confirmed, which sounded pretty decisive. “Tell somebody as inherently reckless as a vampire that he’s been granted invulnerability, much less invulnerability with a time limit, and the first thing he’ll do is forget the time limit. Therefore the second thing he’ll do is something totally reckless and stupid beyond the limit and get himself dusted. You never tell someone a thing like that. It’s certain doom. And defeats the whole purpose of the thing.”
“Anya…is there anything you’re not telling me?”
“Of course not. I had just the one marker to call in, and you heard all of that. They didn’t even have the manners to let me finish my sentence.”
“Yeah. I was afraid of that. Why couldn’t you have wished the invulnerability spread a little wider?”
“Self-serving wishes are seldom granted and always backfire even when they are. And look how vindictive and petty the Powers were even as it was. There’s such a thing as pushing your luck right off a cliff.”
“Oh! It’s not working! Look, it’s not--”
“He just got knocked down. Or tripped. Don’t be ridiculous. Invulnerability doesn’t protect against that. See?” Anya waved and pointed simultaneously. “He’s up again.”
Dawn worried, “Maybe we’re not in far enough. How far in is in? Do we have to be where he is, right there, for it to work right? Oh--they’re moving!”
That meant they had to move too, harried forward by Sue and her team, following the rest of the SITs toward the dim light ahead. Pretty soon they had to step over dozens of dead Bringers or at least Dawn sincerely hoped they were dead and jumped fast to each new place she could set a foot, like a macabre game of hop-scotch, because she was convinced one of the robed corpses was gonna suddenly roll and grab. Once she misjudged the jump and stepped on a hand, freaking herself into a swallowed screech.
When they reached clear running space lit on both sides by a succession of torches, Dawn was in no further doubt: they were in it now for sure.
Spike tried to concentrate on the fight to block out where he was fighting. Tried to face blank walls because every time he caught sight of the seal, there was sideslip. Every time he saw either the wall where he’d been secured or faced the direction that’d been all he could see for that long, terrible time of confusion, his certainty of now became more difficult to maintain.
The Plan was working: most of the Turok-han had been drawn away by the pull of the Chaos Stone, leaving only Bringers to defend this threshold, and the children had already reduced the number of defenders by nearly half, although more were still coming, summoned by the unseen First, which could act only indirectly, through its agents. Spike had Willow’s charm: nothing could get into his head, tell him lies of illusion. He, Mike, and Buffy had effectively split the cavern among them, disrupting and dividing the massed front of the defenders so the teams of SITs couldn’t be overwhelmed and had time to take on two or three Bringers at a time, drop them with tasers and finish them, then regroup to engage the next few.
Then a Bringer lunged in behind the swing of Spike’s broadsword and rammed a knife into his ribs. Or tried to. The knife skidded off without penetrating. The Bringer stumbled into Spike’s side. Reflex made Spike slam the pommel of the sword into the Bringer’s head, but certainty had collapsed.
As Spike slowly looked around, the sword tilted down of its own weight until the point rested on the floor. Everywhere, the battle continued. He was bumped and jostled by Bringers closing in around him. But none of their blows truly touched him. Everything slid aside. It wasn’t real. Just another in a series of hallucinated battles, rescues, escapes to get his hopes up only to fade and leave him fastened to the same wall trying to believe there was any hope at all.
So it wasn’t true, then: he’d never escaped this place. Buffy hadn’t come for him. Only something put into his mind. The defensive charm was only false comfort to make him rely upon it, feel secure until it was ripped away. Nothing was to be believed.
His hand opened. The broadsword clattered onto the floor. Refusing the other lie, he broke the cord and pitched the charm away from him.
Buffy stood before him, her eyes contemptuous. “As if you could accomplish anything. As if a pitiful corrupted wreck like you could have any power. As if anybody would trust you with any. You’d only spoil it, ruin it, keep it from the one person who actually could have done something with it.” Buffy was gone. Angel stood there, hand commandingly extended. “Give it to me, boy. You’ve bollixed the Plan but there still may be time to salvage something from this fiasco. Hand it over. Now!”
Shudders ran through him. He had no thought of disobeying. His hand went to the chain of the amulet and he was lifting it over his head when something slammed into him and knocked him off his feet because he wasn’t maintaining a proper stance, had only been standing, hopeless and confused.
“Spike, it’s not before, it’s now!” It was Dawn who’d knocked him down and was flailing at him, slapping and pounding. “You have to believe me! I never lie to you. Look at your arm, Spike! Look at it! Oh!”
As a Bringer’s knife stabbed into Dawn’s shoulder, Spike saw the tattoo spiraled around his left arm and remembered how and why it had been set there--real beyond any doubting and no part of this place. From after. Everything rearranged and came back into clear focus. Angel’s voice continued to rant but Angel’s smell was absent and there was no sense of his presence. Only a mask, a deception. Taking no more heed of the phantom, Spike twisted to shelter Dawn behind and beneath him and struck at the crowd of Bringers, calling, ”Here!” The Bringers’ blades had no effect and Spike didn’t understand but he fought them anyway, taking a stance over Dawn and knocking attackers away and into each other, his swinging fists and his arms weapons enough to hold them back until SITs came and surrounded him, clearing an expanding circle with deadly efficiency.
Game-faced Mike barged through, drawn by the bloodsmell, leaning toward sobbing Dawn. Spike got the taser out of his pocket and hit Mike in the shoulder, dropping him. Then Spike felt the amulet’s humming vibration strengthen suddenly against and within his chest.
Day had come.
Spike whirled, looking for Buffy. She was engaged with a crowd of Bringers. Spike sent the SITs that way with a wave, following as the Bringers retreated and were pushed back, and Buffy had to let the bloody axe head drop to avoid hitting the SITs. She turned and saw Spike coming. Their eyes met for an instant before he lunged and hit her in the back with a taser charge. Her mouth opened in a silent cry of protest as she collapsed.
The SITs were all gaping at him. He directed, “Take the Slayer and Dawn. Mark is the street, and then the van. Get as far away as you can. Go!”
Turning, Spike found Anya refusing to let the SITs collect Dawn.
“Spike, no!” Anya shouted. “We have to stay. And don’t even think of it!” She glared at the taser in his hand. “Go, go!” She waved the SITs off with flapping arms.
The SITs looked to Spike, then whirled and ran when he sent them off with a tilt of his head. No time to dispute such things. It would all go as it had to.
He was finding it hard to move. Everything seemed to have become heavier, denser. Pressure pushed in from all sides and somehow he was stretching, expanding, to meet it. The remaining Bringers were advancing. Spike slowly bent to pick up the sword and flung it high. The point impaled the ceiling. A single stone was dislodged and fell. Then the sword itself, clanging onto the rock. Pencil-thin, a sunbeam slanted down, a bright golden cord striking the wall near the rings he’d been fastened to for so long.
Anya helped Dawn stumble toward the point where the light fell. Following, Spike took Michael up and carried him, laboring against the forces that tried to hold him in place. The First flickered before him in successive shapes, shouting, howling, and yammering. Spike took no notice and laid Mike down against the wall. He didn’t know if that would be enough, but it was all he could do. He straightened and moved to put Dawn and Anya behind him. Then he turned, assumed a steady stance, and gave himself over to the light.
The bright rod of sunlight met the amulet. From the amulet an answering ray shot upward, in parallel, widening the chink in the ceiling. The down-slanting beam grew broader and so did the beam that returned, shuttling back and forth in thousandths of a second, expanding until the ceiling began to fall. The whole cavern was illuminated then. It began to topple and collapse, taking the Bringers with it.
Channeling the immense light, Spike was locked in place, perfectly balanced within it. He let none through to those he sheltered. No heat or harm touched them because he was between and that was exactly right. He felt that. He knew that. It made him glad.
And still the light grew. Everything was white, was golden. Cascades and spinning fireballs bouncing, rolling, exploding into sparkling destruction, chaotic and splendid. Spike started laughing. He could no longer feel his body at all. Only the flow of the light defined him and the light was his joy.
He directed the core of the light against the Seal of Danzalthar that his blood had been used to magically activate as an interdimensional portal, a stable gateway. Soon it began to bubble and sublime into the air. Its triangular plates twisted and withered like leaves. When the seal was gone, it was as though it’d been a plug in a drain. Everything started spilling into the widening crater. Masonry, whole walls toppled from above and were gone. The high school was collapsing, eaten away from below. Everything that fell vanished because the Hellmouth itself remained--immaterial, intangible, incoherent chaos within and without. Swallowing everything, even light, and spewing it back as random energy. A spiral, a whirlpool, a cyclone developed. For an instant the flows inward and outward exactly matched. The Hellmouth winked out and the flow of the light faded into daylight, general and unfocused, obscured by rising clouds of dust.
By the time the SITs rendezvoused with the SUV, somewhat haphazardly driven by Sue, Buffy could talk and she did. At length. Scathingly. She was chiefly furious at (and afraid for) Spike, but her ire extended to the SITs for dragging her out in the middle of a fight like a sack of potatoes.
Helping load Buffy into the back seat, Amanda said, “Be reasonable, Buffy: once Spike tasered you, what were we supposed to do? Leave you there? Try to form up and defend you while who knows what shit erupted around us?”
Kim chimed in, “That place was going up, that was the whole idea, right? We were escort, not attack force. The whole idea was get in, clear the place as much as possible, then get the hell out. Which we did.”
“Oh, God, look!” exclaimed Sue, and everybody did except Buffy, who couldn’t straighten up to see past Sue, Rona, and Chloe, packed into the front seat.
“Don’t look,” yelled Kim. “Cover your eyes!”
A giant flash camera went off just beyond the windshield and continued to burn there, red against Buffy’s eyelids. No heat. No concussion. Just searing, blinding light. Then an abrupt deep thudand the distant creak of tearing metal. More impacts, heard more than felt, and the glare cut off.
As the SITs sorted themselves out, four couldn’t see, including the driver, resulting in a Mexican fire drill of people piling out of the front and others sliding in. The SITs who couldn’t see were shoved in next to Buffy on either side, and the remainder clambered into the back.
Without consultation Kim, the current driver, headed back toward the street where they’d entered the tunnels. It was now full of spouting water mains, and large stretches of the pavement had begun to sag and buckle. A gas line had likely ruptured: nearly the whole block was afire. The water was several inches deep…and running into the storm drains. Into the sewer. No use trying that way.
Kim slammed the SUV into reverse, backing to turn. Except for Kim, everybody was pressed against the passenger side windows. Several blocks away, the high school was hidden within an immense rising dust cloud, golden-white in the early light.
Blinking, trying to clear away black after-images left over from the flash, Buffy asked, “Dawn?”
“With Spike,” responded blind Sue, beside her, calmly. “And Anya. They wouldn’t come. And Mike. Dawn got hurt--bleeding. Spike had to take Mike down.”
Kim shouted, “By the hardware store, right?”
Several SITs yelled back confirmation. Buffy said, “What?”
“Nearest sewer entrance between the school and the bank,” Amanda said. “Where we were supposed to be, except we detoured. Any Turok-han will use that line, trying to retreat to the Hellmouth, now that it’s day. We were supposed to be in front of them. Now we’ll be behind them. If the passage is clear. If.”
It wasn’t that Buffy hadn’t heard the Plan. She’d simply paid no attention, knowing quite clearly that she was going with Spike. And then he’d tasered her. If he wasn’t dead, or more dead, she was gonna murder him. But it wasn’t possible he could be dead. And if he wasn’t, Dawn was all right too, even though apparently wounded. It was beyond question that Spike would prevent any harm coming to Dawn. Or to Buffy, even if he had to hit her with a taser charge to do it, the bastard. So there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Buffy concentrated on regaining control of her body in the cramped space so that when Kim’s maniac driving brought them to the spot, Buffy wouldn’t jump out and fall on her face.
When the SUV screeched to a halt partway up the sidewalk, Buffy was able to climb over the SITs and step down with decent coordination. “Who has a spare weapon?” She didn’t care whether her battle axe had been retrieved: it wasn’t a good weapon for fighting in a confined space anyway.
Amanda passed out a heavy two-handed blade. “Take mine, it’s one of the good ones.”
“Yeah.” Buffy took the pommel with the sense of shaking hands with an old, trusted friend. She’d done a whole lot of patrolling with this sword.
In the middle of the street, Kim and Rona were kneeling by the uncovered sewer opening. Rona had head and shoulders into the hole. “No water yet. Lots of dust.” Gripping the opposite edge, she jackknifed her legs inside and was gone. Less acrobatically, Kim disappeared a minute later. Buffy named Meagan to stand watch on the SUV and its blinded occupants, then stepped off into the hole.
The half dozen SITs who’d preceded her were already out of sight, running noisily and in full cry. To draw any opposition back toward themselves, away from the school. If they succeeded in attracting any, they’d be in trouble. Buffy took off after them full speed. The rest of the SITs followed.
Buffy found the vanguard engaged with a greater number of Turok-han, but the SITs had the advantage. The Biters were impeded by their own numbers--only three at a time could turn and fight, and they had to stoop low, too tall for the space. But one Biter had gotten its claws on Kim and was lifting her bodily toward its jaws when hit with at least four taser charges, including Kim’s. Buffy jumped up on the narrow walkway at the side of the pipe. That gave her enough height to swing the sword into a Biter’s neck without endangering the SITs. As that Biter dusted, Buffy did a quick shuffle step forward in the backswing and hacked into the next, methodically cutting them down as the SITs, below, pushed forward with blades and tasers.
As the rest of the SITs arrived, they slammed right up the middle, not stopping to engage, striking only to keep from getting grabbed or delayed. Much of the yelling had died down, so the distant but unmistakable sound of Spike’s voice shouting, ”Here!” came clear. Grinning and hooting, everybody laid into the retreating crowd of Biters with even greater ferocity.
The farther the SITs went, the more problem the dust--of various sorts--became. Many had to back off and rip clothing for makeshift masks and still were wheezing, sneezing, and choking. Buffy’s eyes stung, but as long as she could find a target, she kept swinging. A Biter lacking an arm or sliced across the torso was still fighting, but a second swing was usually enough to dust it.
There came to be five layers of fighting. Buffy and what had become the rearguard had perhaps twenty Turok-han between them and the main body of SITs, who in turn were engaged not only with the Biters behind them but another pack ahead that were fighting some group yet farther on. It was the SITs in the middle who were in the most trouble, bottled up between the two groups of Turok-han. And alarmed calls said that the tasers were beginning to fail.
Even with a good blade, none of the SITs had the strength to behead a Turok-han; and nothing short of that was much more than an annoyance. Buffy concentrated on beheading, letting the SITs do what they could to engage and wound. Frequently, as a Biter dusted, the arc of Buffy’s blade carried it into the concrete sides of the sewer pipe. The sword rang and shivered but didn’t shatter. Buffy’s shoulders and arms were tiring with the shock of the rebounds.
Several SITs were wounded and down, but the bottled SITs had apparently been freed enough for some of them to turn back and concentrate on the Biters between them and Buffy’s contingent. There were a dozen. Then eight. Then none, and the whole group swept forward. And found themselves confronting, through the dust haze, a wall of stunned Biters--a wall over which Anya was precariously clambering with great haste. Following Anya, maybe pursuing her, were eight vamps in game face who halted, warily balancing--five male, three female--when they caught sight of the SITs. As one of the males shed game face, Buffy recognized him as one of Spike’s minions, and went forward to help Anya down and wave the vamps forward. As they descended, Mike appeared, carrying a kicking, protesting Dawn. And last of all Spike, grinning, looking for Buffy. When his eyes found her, he held up a length of piano wire by its one remaining wooden handle. His right hand had a belt wrapped around it and dripped blood. “A bit short of weapons, this side,” he commented, dropping in a series of two-footed jumps. “Could stop ‘em but not dust ‘em.” He hit the floor near where the other vamps had gathered--to Buffy’s right, away from the SITs--and was starting to say something else when Buffy belted him, knocking him back against the high mound of immobilized Turok-han, some of which had begun to stir. As he hit, a ropy grey arm closed around his chest. Buffy picked up the sword and swung, striking the arm. Then she sprang two long paces up the pile, grabbed Spike’s ankle, and yanked.
Depositing Dawn to stand on the floor, Mike remarked to the other vamps, “No problem, that’s just how they do. Should get clear now…Kim. Where’s ‘Manda?”
“Some eye problems,” Kim responded. “After the flash.” She considered Mike dubiously. “You OK now?”
“Pretty OK. Soon as that damn stone let up, had a bit better hold of myself. Clear away now, like I said.” Mike waved, and Buffy conveyed her agreement by dragging Spike backward by the collar, so all the SITs backed off too.
Shaking his head, Spike complained, “Fucking hell, Slayer!” so Buffy dumped him. Sitting, he began unwrapping the belt from his bleeding hand. Chloe came with the shoulder-case of first-aid supplies and handed him a wad of gauze, kneeling down, willing to apply it, but Spike waved her off, asking, “So is that the end of the dumb stuff, Slayer, or d’you want to have another go-round when I’m lookin’ for it?”
“Till the next time,” Buffy began, taking the gauze and unfolding it to find an end.
Motion caught her eye. The vamps hadn’t retreated with the rest of them. They were standing in a double row maybe twenty feet from the mound of Turok-han. Together they pitched something at the pile, turned, and dove. The mound exploded into flame that licked back along the ceiling in an incandescent wave. Spike ducked and Buffy threw herself on top of him. One of the vamps was burning, too…and then just gone. As was the pile of Turok-han. Nothing left but greasy, foul smoke that had everybody coughing and rubbing at their eyes again.
Pushing Buffy off as the SITs began retreating, collecting and helping the wounded, Spike stood up and said to Mike, still in tuck-and-cover position, “Oh, that was a fine idea,” in a scathing tone.
Mike cautiously uncovered. “Well, couldn’t before on account of the children.”
“What, no napalm? No flame-throwers?”
Another vamp, Spike’s glum-faced minion, was getting up, and the rest of the vamps around him. He said, “We gave them over to the folk in the bank. Flame-throwers, not napalm. Didn’t have any of that. Figured flame-throwers wouldn’t be too great at close quarters. For us, anyway.”
“Grenades were nice, though,” commented Mike, brushing at his knees as he rose. “Been savin’ them up quite a while now. Make a fine show, don’t they.”
“Yeah, if you don’t fry your own fucking stupid head off. Terrible bunch of nitwits, you lot. Huey.”
The minion advanced, and he and Spike shook hands. Spike’s hand made a bloody print, and Huey considered it, looking amused, then smiled and started licking it off. Spike aimed a cuff at his head that didn’t quite land as the vamp walked away down the sewer line. The SITs moved aside to let him pass.
“Grace,” said Spike, and offered his hand to one of the female vampires. She didn’t bother with a handshake, just bent enough to lick it and straightened, grinning, amber-eyed. As she followed Huey, Spike named the other vampires: “Mary. Isadora. Benny. Alfredo. Paul.” The males took a bloody handshake. The women smiled broadly and had a taste.
Some damn vamp thing, Buffy figured. She didn’t like it at all, female vamps licking him, but went to help Chloe bandage Dawn’s shoulder. Buffy looked up, noticing Mike’s name hadn’t been called. Spike was reaching toward the walkway, at least five feet away, and beginning to waver. Buffy and Mike reached him about together. Mike stood clear so Buffy could back and partly lift Spike to a seat on the walkway. Spike bent his head, eyes vague and dull. His hand was still bleeding.
“’M fine. Just come over dizzy there for a second. Be fine.”
Mike went and got more gauze. He offered it to Buffy, but she waved him to go ahead, sliding to a seat next to Spike. She hugged Spike lightly and pulled him to rest against her.
Wrapping Spike’s hand, Mike commented, “Strangest thing. When the garrote handle broke, at first the wire didn’t cut him. So he kept on. After awhile, though, it did. Kept on anyway.”
Her arm in a sling, Dawn came over and put a hand on Spike’s knee. “Spike. I could--”
“No, Bit. No more of that. I’ll be fine. Don’t trouble yourself.”
Dawn lifted the medallion, the amulet. Buffy hadn’t paid it any attention before. She now saw that the central jewel was fractured and blackened. Glancing up at Buffy, Dawn remarked, “He was all burning. All flame. All bright. You should have seen him, Buffy. It was really something.”
Buffy reached and smoothed Dawn’s hair. “But you were hurt.”
“No, not really. He stayed between and kept it from us. I can’t see auras the way Willow can. But I saw it then. Like an Elf-Lord revealed in his wraith--his astral body. Almost too bright to look at.”
“Oh, please,” Spike said. “No fucking Tolkien, Bit.”
“Well, it was. You don’t see you. I do. I did.”
As Mike finished tying the bandage and stepped away, Spike protested to Dawn, “And what the goddam fucking hell were you doin’ there to begin with? You and Anya? Makes no sense.”
Dawn made a judicious face. “Makes very good sense. Lady Gates required it. We had to be witnesses. So She would know precisely how it all happened. For it all to come out right. Spike, I really wish--”
“No, Bit. Just a little tired, is all. An’ then of course your sis had to haul off and pop me one.”
“You had it coming!” Buffy declared.
“Gave you fair warning, didn’t I? Would’a done Bit the same, if there’d been time. You’re not due any apologies from yours truly, Slayer. Not for that. If you can’t keep your priorities straight, I’m gonna do it for you. And next time, the same as now. I’m gonna do what I do, and that’s keep my girls from harm. Whatever way I can. Whatever is necessary. And if you slugging me afterwards is the price of that, then that’s the price. Anyway, I didn’t think…. Figured to get out of paying it.”
“I know you did,” Buffy said. “And that’s still not acceptable.”
“Well, it’s not happening now, so it’d be real dumb to keep arguing about it, now wouldn’t it?” Spike retorted, pushing to his feet. “Argue it some other time if you want to. But I’m done.”
Yes, Buffy reflected, he was done, all right. In all senses. Still not steady on his feet, shoulders shoved forward and head still bent with the effort of moving.
“I would,” said Mike, falling in beside them. “Only you say it’s no help. No good.”
Belatedly, for Buffy, the penny finally dropped. She understood what Dawn had been offering, and Spike refusing. What Mike was willing about, even though it didn’t work that way. What Spike would never ask for or suggest except in one special context.
“Dawn, you and Mike go on ahead. Tell everybody, get home. I need to have some words with my vampire here.”
Buffy watched them out of sight, then turned to Spike, who’d settled exhaustedly back against the walkway. Evidently, impersonating an Elf-Lord, closing the Hellmouth, and keeping three people besides yourself from going extra-crispy in a flashfire inferno bright enough to damage the vision of those watching from four blocks away really took it out of a guy. And then fighting Turok-han and blood loss on top of that.
“What is it now, pet?” His tone expected more arguments and was resigned to them.
Buffy stroked his face and kissed him. “Now comes the good part. Where you’re a vamp and I’m the Slayer and we keep each other going. Where you damn near die and don’t let me come with you, so you come to me now and let me make it up to you. And you don’t say no. You don’t say anything. You change for me because I ask you to. And then we do what we do.” She drew him close and kissed him again, holding him until she felt the change come upon him. Then she laid her head on his shoulder.
Pressure, no pain. Then the intense connection, orgasmic but not sexual now. Warm and loving, with a large tenderness. An intimate embrace of complimentary needs gently filled. Communion. And then, after only a minute or two, his soft mouth on her, on the tingling mark, slowly licking it shut. Nuzzling softly against her neck.
They were quiet and breathed together a little while.
Eventually he murmured, “Not how it was, that I dreamed…. Doesn’t have to be so. Can do without. Don’t want to, though. Yours regardless.”
“Yours regardless too. Come on: Xander has his truck. That dust was pretty heavy. Maybe the sunlight….”
Of course nothing would do for it, per Angel, but to have a big follow-up meeting, post-mortem, debriefing, some dumb fucking thing, where everybody could match their performance against parameters and explain why what’d worked was different from the Plan and therefore was probably a mistake anyway and goddam apologize for it in words of more than one syllable.
Why a bunch of cousins, drawn (per Plan) to the Stone, had split off on their own hook and instead of doing Biters in the street by the bank, had chosen to lob incendiary grenades at Biters in the sewer tunnels by the Hellmouth, which hadn’t at all been allowed for except by Mike, of course, who hadn’t bothered to tell anybody except maybe some SITs, who didn’t sit in on Scooby Council meetings and so everybody had to sit around and wait till the right SITs were fetched to chip in their tuppence worth of utter codswallop.
Spike, sitting on the floor with his back against the couch, at Buffy’s feet, inquired, “So we’re playing Clue here, are we?” but was taken no notice of and contented himself with having another drink, continuing his own private unauthorized victory celebration and toasting the bewildering, astonishing miracle of not being dead about which he had his own suspicions except Bit and Anya were being all smug, mysterious, and silent and hitting them until they admitted it just didn’t seem an option somehow.
So instead, when the SITs were dragged in, everybody droned on about why nobody had considered eye protection and when the affected SITs were expected to recover. And on to the fascinating topic of why Buffy and the SITs had utterly ignored the Plan by providing escort service for a subordinate vampire and two fucking noncombatants with no business whatsoever on the sodding grid, right into the Hellmouth itself, leaving their assigned position uncovered. Said noncombatants continuing all smug, mysterious, and silent about it all, of course, and no budging them on it.
For a wonder, Buffy kept mum about being tasered and forcibly removed from the fucking goddam grid because Angel would have had an absolute cow and that was altogether too sickening to contemplate.
Angel was having enough of a cow glaring at the nice fresh bright mark set just above Buffy’s collarbone, that Buffy had left all naked and uncovered and proud but they didn’t talk about such things in front of the others, oh no, it was just there and not a thing Angel could do about it, the wanker. Couldn’t make Spike stop petting Buffy’s ankle, either, except to keep yelling at Spike to quit “fidgeting,” and that wasn’t specific enough to quite make Spike mind, or keep minding, now was it?
Because it wasn’t fidgeting. It was petting. Like what Buffy’s fingers were doing in his hair and on the back of his neck, that felt all sorts of good, and Angel would turn three colors of red before he was gonna comment on that or try to make her stop, like to see him try, the bloody ponce. And she smelled all excellent too and none of it for Angel, and as soon as this bloody fucking irredeemably stupid meeting was through Spike was gonna give her such a seeing-to that neither of them would be fit to move for a week nor want to, neither.
And now Anya was nattering on about having incurred several expenses in furtherance of the Plan, namely losing a great bloody expensive crystal and no point billing Dawn for it since Dawn had no income, and also namely and to wit, the cost of the Eye of Ra, no longer in salable condition, he’d purely ruined it (cauterized its image and shadow right into his goddam chest and likely to scar, he thought, rubbing the mark absently, hadn’t even known it was there until he pulled off the intact shirt to shower the dust and the ashes away). The point of all the foregoing being that Anya wanted the Stone (nearly silent in its box at Willow’s feet) as compensation for her losses, it was only fair, and she thought there might be a profit in it considering that the Hellmouth itself, that civic attraction that brought in thousands of tourist dollars per annum, had been shut down and you couldn’t expect that the word of that wouldn’t get around, resulting in a substantial drop-off of trade and who the hell fucking cared.
It seemed that Angel did. Buffy was willing for demon girl to have the goddam rock, and Willow passed the box over, except that Angel got up and took it because it was his, he’d had his L.A. team research and find it (even though it was no use for getting into bloody Quar’toth, that Peaches still hadn’t admitted to Buffy, having a son with Queen Darla, never would admit what he’d got up to with his sire and you’d think you’d share that kind of news with your goddam fucking soul-mate ex even if she was apt to explode and disarrange your terrible stupid hair when you did).
So Spike uncurled, all sudden, and did the only reasonable thing--hit Angel a good one, grabbed the box, pitched it to the handiest SIT, and ran like hell.