Death is your gift….
The words swirled through Buffy’s head like the smoke from the fire. Death is your gift. How could death be a gift? Death…. Her mother had just died. That hadn’t been a gift. And before that….
The puma was back, resting his head on her knee. She absently reached out, stroking between its ears. Death was her gift. She was the slayer. It was right there in the name. Slayer. One who slayed. Slew. A killer. She killed, and she brought death to everyone around her.
The puma flickered out of existence for a moment, then was back, head still on her knee as it gazed at her. The eyes were a familiar, vivid blue. She frowned slightly. Pumas didn’t have blue eyes. They should have been yellow.
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not the only one vision questing right now?” she murmured. “Having a nap while you’re supposed to be watching Dawn, huh? You are so busted, mister.”
He made an annoyed coughing sound at her before fading away again. Leaving her alone with the fire and the patiently, silently waiting vision guide who had taken the form of the First Slayer.
Buffy looked down at her hands. Death is my gift, she thought, flexing her fingers. A rough tongue swept over them. The puma was back. She watched as he circled around to sit on the other side of the fire. His eyes were startlingly clear through the smoke and flames. The color shifted, becoming pale and a little watery. Vacant.
The wavering flames, drifting smoke, and the heat distorted her view, forming nightmarish shapes around those eyes. Just like…. She could almost see him. The way he’d been at the end.
Ten hours ago, everything had been fine. Then Graham had shown up, saying that without the chip in Riley’s chest to regulate it, the virus that had been swimming in his veins for the past year was a ticking time bomb. That it was sheer luck that it hadn’t gone haywire in all the time since Riley had pulled that chip out when they’d fought Adam.
One little shot was all it would have taken to fix him. But it would have rendered the virus completely dormant. That would mean no more boosted strength and reflexes. No more fast healing.
Ten hours ago, Riley had rejected that shot. He’d run away and had tempted fate one time too many. He’d gotten hurt badly enough to make the virus go nuts trying to heal him. And now….
My fault, Buffy thought numbly. It was all her fault. She should have tried harder to make Riley feel strong and in control. She should have…. Should have….
Riley roared and started forward, intent on the vampire crumpled at her feet. The fact that Spike’s chip had fired meant Riley still counted as human, even if he didn’t look like it anymore. Most of his body was twice as big as it had started, bulging with lumps of ropey muscle and pulsing veins under oily, mottled skin. His right arm was even bigger, ending in a twisted claw with a giant red eye in the middle.
Maybe Graham was wrong, she thought even as she bent down to pick up the flamethrower Spike had risked himself to bring her. Maybe Riley could still be saved. Maybe….
The eyes on his face were still normal, even if the actual face around them was distorted. Watery blue. Vacant. As dead inside as the people he’d killed in his mindless quest to infect people with G-Virus larvae.
“Goodbye,” she whispered.
Then she started up the flame thrower.
Ninety seconds was barely any time at all. It was an eternity. It was all the time the flamethrower had before running out of fuel, but it was enough. Oily, mutated flesh turned red. Then white. Bubbles formed, then burst and oozed. The scent of burnt pork filled the air while the haze of flame and smoke obscured her view….
The smoke from the fire began to thin out, leaving her staring again at a pair of blue eyes. Vivid. Alert. Full of intelligence and life, even if the owner of them was undead. Or well, he was when he wasn’t randomly being a puma in her slayer vision quest.
Buffy took a slow, deep breath. “Death….”
“Is your gift,” the guide confirmed.
Death…. She closed her eyes. It had taken her months to come to terms with what had happened with Riley, but she’d finally accepted it. Walsh and Adam had destroyed him. She’d given what was left the only peace she could. Death. Loss. Peace.
“I understand,” she said quietly.
When she opened her eyes, both the guide and the fire were gone. The puma, too. She was all alone, out in the desert. She took another deep breath, and then she was off, running at full slayer speed back towards where she’d left Giles.
She’d teased him about it, but she’d known, right from the moment when she’d figured out who the puma was. Spike took protecting Dawn seriously. He wouldn’t have fallen asleep. Something had gone wrong.
And now she had to get to Spike before it was too late.
She ran, her body on autopilot as it hurtled through the nighttime streets of Sunnydale. She didn’t know where she was going. Just… away. Somewhere where she wasn’t. Except she was always there, no matter where she went. A new city. A new name. It didn’t matter. She was still herself. Still Buffy Anne Summers. Still the slayer.
She still brought death and destruction to everyone she cared about.
Images flickered through her mind as she ran. Angel gazing at her, eyes full of confusion, then hurt betrayal as she stabbed him and sent him through a portal into hell.
Riley staring at her with only a flicker of recognition in his eyes. A woman hanging from his twisted claw, her mouth torn at the edges just like Spike’s when he’d burst into her dorm room the year before.
Riley again, all hint of recognition gone as he lurched towards her. Towards Spike, helpless at her feet because he’d tried to fight the monster Riley had become. And then she’d….
Don’t think, she told herself. Don’t think. Don’t feel. She was the slayer. She was meant to be alone. She’d been killing people she cared about since she was fifteen. Friends from Hemery who had become vampires. Ford. Angel. Everything that had happened with Faith. And now…. She put on a burst of speed, still trying to outrun herself and her emotions.
Someone started cursing behind her, then that same person cried out in pain as a solid weight slammed into her back. Buffy hit the ground hard, pain exploding through her nose and chin as she skidded face first along the side of the road. Something snapped in her mind, the internal switch flipping from flight to fight. She bucked and twisted until she was on top of the person who had tackled her, pinning him to the ground.
Then she hit him.
Never good enough, she thought as her fist slammed into flesh. Never good enough, and everybody dies. So many people I couldn’t save. I turned Angel evil, and I couldn’t stop him. He killed so many people. He killed Jenny. My fault. All my fault. Riley was taken over by the virus. My fault, too. Those people he killed, they’re on my hands. My fault.
Each thought was punctuated by a double punch, one to the man beneath her and one to her own heart. She was a failure. She’d failed as a daughter and had driven her father away. She’d always been a terrible student. A terrible slayer, costing more lives than she saved. And a terrible girlfriend who drove good men to destruction.
“Load of bollocks, that,” Spike gasped out. “All rubbish. None of it your fault, pet. You just got left to clean up other people’s messes.”
Buffy stared down at him, for the first time consciously registering who she’d been hitting. He’d tackled her, which must have triggered the chip. Again. And then she’d started pounding on him while screaming out all the thoughts crowding her mind. One of his eyes was swollen shut and she’d smashed his nose. The skin had split in several places, including over his non-swollen eye and both cheeks. Blood from her own face dripped down onto his swollen and split lip. She watched, mesmerized, as his tongue swept out to collect the blood.
She wanted to hit him for it. To be utterly disgusted. Instead, she wiped her hand over her face before pressing it against his mouth. He stared at her for a moment out of his good eye, then that cool, pink tongue was lapping against her skin, making her feel….
She jerked away, crawling backwards a few feet on her hands and feet before dropping down onto her butt. She’d forgotten about it after Graham had shown up with his Riley bombshell, but now it all came back. Ever since the enjoining ritual, there had been some kind of weird dream sharing going on between her and Spike. She’d gone to sleep thinking about him while he’d been taking a nap in the basement. She could have disrupted his dream, but at first, she’d thought it was just a basic sparring fantasy. She’d stayed there, a little mouse in the corner, watching while a version of her and Spike fought each other. Watched while the two of them kissed. Listened when he said….
“You must be loving this,” she said bitterly. “What happened to Riley.”
Spike slowly sat up, reaching into his pocket for something to wipe his own blood off his face. Then he spoke. “Never exactly been a fan of the Tin Soldier, and can’t say I’m going to miss the wanker any, but all this?” He shook his head. “Hell if I know why, but you cared about him. Wouldn’t wish having to kill a loved one on someone I… work with.”
Oh, god. Buffy pulled her knees up and rested her head against them. She’d been hoping that she’d been wrong. That Spike’s dream hadn’t meant anything more than the ones she’d had a few times about him after he’d crashed Parent-Teacher night back in high school. There was no denying it, though, not with Spike’s awkward “save” there.
“You mean someone you think you love.” She meant it to come out angry and accusatory, but she just couldn’t manage it. She was just too tired, and fighting off the urge to giggle like a crazy person.
Like? she thought with a mental snort. No like here, Buffster. You are a card carrying certified crazy person by this point. A rubber room actually sounded pretty nice at the moment. Or even a place like the one her parents had tossed her into when she’d tried to tell them about her calling.
“Now see here, you,” Spike snapped, trying to scowl at her while not being able to look her in the eye, “just because a bloke lives in your basement and is friends with your mum and little sis doesn’t mean –”
She lost the battle. Laughter spilled out of her, and it wouldn’t stop. It kept coming and coming, even when the crying started.
“It fits,” she sobbed out against her raised knees. “Oh, god, it fits. I’m not good enough for Angel or Riley. Only a monster could love me.”
“Enough of that, now, pet.” Spike was suddenly there, right hand under her chin to lift her head while his left closed around the cross dangling from the chain around her neck. The cross she’d put on after seeing his dream. “Both your exes turned into monsters through their own doing, and they couldn’t love you after that, neither of them. Me, though? I can love you no matter, because my ego isn’t so big that I can’t see around it. And I’m no monster. Not all of me, anyway.”
He let go of the cross, revealing a completely undamaged palm.
She stared, dumbfounded. “What…? How…?”
“Only works for the left hand. Still undead and all, but no reaction to sunlight or holy objects. It’s another leftover bit from the enjoining ritual, along with sensing each other’s locations and the dream shar–” He broke off and stared at her for a moment, then murmured, “So that’s how it is, is it? You saw….” He shook his head. “Don’t matter how, cat’s out the bag either way.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair before sitting down beside her. “You’re going to mourn, and you’re going to feel awful about what you had to do. Nothing either of us can do about it. But there are things you have to hear, even if you aren’t ready for them, yet. Riley was gone before you even picked up that flamethrower. He was doomed the moment he refused that shot, and it’s nothing to do with you. He couldn’t stand the thought of not being stronger than you. Couldn’t handle not being the big, strong cowboy with you as his damsel in distress. Wasn’t man enough to just be who he is.”
“Not man enough to be love’s bitch?” Buffy whispered, staring at her knees.
She felt strange and kind of floaty. Like she was hovering above the pool of grief and self-loathing. She was going to eventually fall right back into it, but for now…. She glanced over at Spike in time to see his lips twitch into a slight smile. They were still puffy, but he’d healed a bit.
“Something like that,” he said.
Then his expression turned serious and he grabbed her cross again. With his right hand. There was smoke. Sizzling. The awful stench of burning flesh. Oh, god, no. No, no, no.
“What the hell are you doing?” she yelled, grabbing his hand and pulling it away. The chain broke, leaving the cross in his hand. She forced it open and flung the necklace away. “What the hell was–”
He was staring at her intently. Had his eyes always been that vivid a shade of blue? The one that had been swollen shut was still in bad shape, but he could apparently open it now.
“Listen to me, Buffy Anne Summers,” he said, voice quiet but firm. “You are the slayer. Chosen One, bloody The. You are strong. You are fierce. Your life comes with more than its fair share of pain and tragedy. No one who can’t handle a bit of pain, physical or emotional, deserves you. You’re also human, not a bloody robot. Anyone who demands that you be less than you are doesn’t deserve you.”
He took a deep breath and pulled her against him, while also leaning on her shoulder. His burned hand was still clutched in both of hers. She sat there stiffly, mind blank as she tried to understand what Spike was saying.
“Not going to try to court you while you’re grieving. Not that daft, am I? But I’m going to be the one who’s strong enough to lean on you when need be and who can be there for you to lean on when you need it.”
Someone to lean on… who wasn’t afraid to lean on her? She could still feel that pit waiting under her, ready to swallow her up. I should push away, she thought. Push away and deal with what she’d done. She’d killed the man she loved. She’d….
She let herself relax against Spike. Neither of them fell over. They just sat there, supporting each other.
It was enough. For now, it was enough. She’d deal with everything else later.
Someone opened the door to her house before she got to it, then closed it after they were all inside. Buffy wasn’t really sure who; she wasn’t paying attention to anything other than the tightly wrapped bundle slung over her shoulder. The windows were already covered, so she settled Spike on the couch and started unwrapping him. First the sleeping bag, then the blanket.
God, he looked horrible. Even worse than when she’d pounded on him after the mess with Riley. His face was a swollen mass of blood and bruising, and there were holes all over his chest and stomach. It looked like Glory had stabbed her fingers into him.
One eye opened partially and there was a vague twitch of his mangled lips that might have been an attempt at a smile. “What is it with you superpowered blondes trying to destroy my face?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Hey, you can’t really blame us. It’s not our fault you’re too pretty.”
That earned her a laugh, but it ended in a groan of pain. “Bloody hell, woman, don’t make me laugh. Bitch went after the ribs a bit, too.” Before she could apologize, he reached out and grabbed her hand. “Didn’t tell. Nibblet’s safe for now.”
“I know,” she said softly. It had never even occurred to her that he might tell. Even if he hadn’t genuinely cared about Dawn, he’d have never betrayed her like that. “You rest, and we’ll get you fixed up, okay? It’s your turn to lean on me.”
He nodded slightly, and she leaned down to press a gentle kiss to his forehead, one of the few places that wasn’t covered in wounds. “You did good. Rest now.” Then she tucked him in with the blanket before turning to face the others.
Giles, Willow, Xander. Even Anya. They’d all followed her into danger to rescue Spike while Tara had stayed behind to protect Dawn. None of them could survive what Spike had endured.
“Is he going to be okay?” Dawn asked. She was hugging herself, looking young and scared.
That’s because she is young and scared. Buffy took a deep breath, then let it out and forced a smile for her sister’s sake. “Yeah, he’s going to be fine.”
“That’s all well and good for Spike, but what about the rest of us?” Anya asked.
Buffy wasn’t sure about anyone else, but the ex-vengeance demon had figured it out. If Glory had gone after one of them, what would stop her from coming after the rest of them?
“We’re going to be fine, too,” she said quietly. “We’re going to get Spike better and then….” One of the scabby little minions had let it slip during the rescue. Glory had a time limit. And she couldn’t sense the key, or she’d have found Dawn by now. “We’re going to split into two groups and get the hell out of Sunnydale.”
With that, she headed up the stairs to get the reusable blood draw kit she’d been keeping in her bedroom for the past year.
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