So... I tried to write a brief epilogue. It really did not turn out that way. I'm posting the two middle sections here today, and I'll link the final parts once I've poked at them.
She never asked him how long 'a bit' was. How far 'a ways off' was. She never had time to ask, 'what for?' As the days all bleed together and become weeks, she rues her too-slow wits and too-passive body that night on the back lawn. But once in a while, deep in the dark, she thanks herself for them. Because if 'a bit' of time hasn't run out, he's still coming back.
Riley did. The all-American action hero, appearing before the Doublemeat counter one night with an adventure waiting in his open hand (which now bore a gold wedding band). She took the adventure, took off for the night, took off her Doublemeat costume and dressed up in a different one. Just call her Demon Slayer Extraordinaire. There was no hint of grey in the uniform he lent her. Nor in the adventure at hand. Action heroes deal in Good Guys versus Baddies, and it's all very simple on their two-tone screen. It was nice to feel like a Good Girl for a change. Nice to be told she still fits the costume. Even though he doesn't know she's been fucking a vampire in scungy back corners, yowling out her pleasure to the stars like an angry alleycat. And not just any vampire. Hostile 17. The one who refused to do what was expected of him. Of it. The one who disturbs Riley, more than he can ever admit. The one who pisses all over Riley's nice clean lines. She's glad, that night, that Spike is safely out of sight. For someone's sake. Perhaps all of theirs.
She slayed the suvolte demon. She smashed its eggs. She listened to Riley compliment her speed at killing things, and her new, improved, much more practical short haircut, and all but clap her on the shoulder and say you're heading in the right direction now, miss. Mrs Finn - Sam - wears her hair in a very tidy ponytail and fits her uniform like it was made for her. Perhaps it was. Buffy’s is already itching by the time they're getting ready to leave, itching like ropes, like a muzzle, like a straightjacket.
Riley asks about Hostile 17 - asks with all the irritation of having to actually do so to find out, asks with a vindictive little sliver of hopeful anticipation of a satisfying answer - and she stares at him silently for just a beat too long, thinking too much.
They can't feel pain, the hostiles, not really. They may emulate human emotions, reactions, behaviours, but it's all a deception to assist them in hunting. The screams that echoed regularly through the Initiative were fake and self-serving. This is all in the manual, which he learnt by heart and she never opened. He doesn't believe it, of course. Not really. You wouldn't try to use pain to control a creature unless you think it can feel it. You wouldn't terrorise without fear. She wonders how Riley would respond if she made that point now. If he'd twist words inside out to hide the inconsistency, or simply tell her she doesn't understand. And she doesn't understand, anymore. How to split the world into black and white when everything's grey. How to hear someone scream out their fear and frustration to an indifferent desert sky and not ache to comfort them. How to switch your empathy on for needy sisters and demanding friends, then switch it off again to do your job. But Riley's made his choice, somehow, and it's probably the right one, so she doesn't try to shake it.
She thinks about telling him the truth. Spike? Oh, I've been sleeping with him. Fucking him, sucking him, cuffing him to the bed and riding him into it, but worst of all, sleeping with him. In his arms, tucked under his chin. Like lovers. And now he's gone and left like one. Riley, at least, would give her the look of disgust and disappointment she deserves for it. Would tell her just how very sick and wrong she is.
But she looks at this man with his human soul who can so simply choose to soothe his conscience with convenient lies while walking past tortured screams, this man who chooses when to care and when not to… this man who doesn't care, not as she understands it, and she says, "He's out of town right now. On a mission for me."
Riley frowns, shifts his stolid weight just a fraction away, and she knows it's not for the words she's just spoken but because of the ones she didn't; because of the subtle note of deadly warning in her tone that said, He is mine. And I will kill you before I let you harm him. Which is ridiculous. She'd never hurt Riley. And Spike’s not hers. He's not even here.
Then Riley's not either, having made his grand finale exit with his lovely wife on his flash helicopter, and she can breathe a sigh of relief and claw at her itchy skin.
Xander's big day sneaks up from nowhere, from left-field, from her goofy gangly high-school buddy to this suit-wearing and quietly terrified… well, man, young adult man, and just, when? Where did the year go, her friends go, her life go, her self-image and her ideas about the way of the world go?
(Where did Spike- not now.)
She hugs Xander's arm to her side and does her utmost to rein in the emotions that keep wanting to come pouring out in a blubby mess of smeared makeup, because he's getting married, to Anya, who he loves, and who loves him, and someone, someone in Sunnydale, in the world - a Xander-shaped someone - is getting their happy ending. Christ, she's a basketcase. In a radioactive dress. Oh god, she wishes Spike was here (but not out loud, because there's at least two vengeance demons sitting out there on the bride's side of the hall).
Tears successfully blinked away, she squeezes Xander's arm in support, luck, something, and they step out into the hall. Where everyone wants to - needs to - simply must speak with Xander, right now, right this second please. His family and Anya's friends and people she's not certain either of them know. Mr Harris Senior is drunk and making a scene. A present has escaped. One with tentacles. Xander's getting paler by the moment and hands (ones which sadly are not tentacled, and thus cannot be dealt to by lobbing them off) are tugging at him from every side. The happy ending- Is In Peril.
She slaps away the next hand reaching for Xander, and chases it back to its owner with a warning glare that silences them before they can object. Two more get the same treatment, tight fury building in her stomach as she moderates her strength down to an acceptable-for-humans level. Then there's a clear gap ahead of them, and she's marching Xander through, sharp orders snapping off her tongue to anyone else who looks like they might get in her way. They make it to the podium. From up there she spots Dawn, and delegates her to locating their missing present. The remainder of the crowd are a sea of strangers, a restless sea of strangers, an insults-starting-to-fly-across-the-aisle sea of strangers, and Xander's pale is turning towards a queasy shade of green which would make him look less out of place on the bride's side of the room than his own family's.
"Buffy," he says in a quiet, pained voice.
"I know," she assures him, scanning the crowd, drawing a battle plan in case she has to intervene.
"Buffy!" he says again, more insistent. She jumps her eyes to him. "I think Anya's expecting a groom with two working arms," he squeaks.
"Oh." She releases his arm from her death grip and tries to smooth out a crease in the fabric of it. "Sorry."
But he's already looking away, out at the gathered people, some of whom are still trying to speak to him, most of whom are now arguing loudly with each other or the opposing faction or both at once. He looks like he might need a bucket, whether to puke in or put over his head. "Twenty-four years happily married," he mumbles under his breath, watching his father sneer at his mother in outright repugnance.
The happy ending is still in peril. Do they even exist, outside of TV? She tries to think of one, and comes up empty. But this one will. It has to. She needs it to. She takes Xander's arm again, lightly, but with slayerly strength ready and waiting to lock it in place up here if anyone tries to drag him away. Including himself.
A man breaches the front row of family and makes a grab at Xander, but she blocks with her body and shoves the man back. He's strong - too strong to be the old man he appears as - and shouting now, calling for a pause, important information, can't wait, etc etc. She turns to the bride's side, spots Hallie and D'Hoffryn in the front row. Almost the opposite of friends of hers, but she knows their names and right now, she'll take what she can get. Pushy not-really-an-old-man gets shunted their way to take care of, with a hissed reminder about this being Anya's special day.
And then she's there. And the music's playing, and she's laughing a nervous little titter of a laugh at it all, and everyone's sitting back down in their seats sheepishly, and Xander's beaming at her through his clammy face because she looks beautiful, really, really beautiful, and it - all - goes - perfectly.
Until they've been pronounced married, and Anya gets carried away kissing Xander, and the fight erupts and so does a gatecrashing demon… but it doesn't matter anymore.
At what's left of the reception, she watches the happy-ending couple dance, watches them watching each other and forgetting everything else, and the battle high of earlier fades and sinks down into a familiar glum despondency. At least she has one friend here.
She'll never have this. The dress, the cake, the photographer. The till death do they part. She's already dead. Or has been. Something. It gets hard to tell, at times, which one of them is living. Or got. Maybe he'll come back alive, a real boy, and she'll have completed her transformation into dead marble, just another statue in the graveyard, and then they'll know for certain. Everyone will.
He'd bring her flowers, if she was a statue.
They'd been going to get married once, under the trees, Celine Dion playing while they danced their first dance. It was all a spell, and it ended before they'd settled the Celine Dion argument, but he'd have done it, last month, if she'd asked. He'd have done anything. She doesn't know what she was asking him for - a solution that doesn't exist, a way out of the mess of them - but she knows it wasn't for him to leave. She wanted - needed - to end things, but she never wanted to let him go. He was supposed to be the one who wouldn't go, no matter how hard she shook him. No matter how often she went. Or how far.
She worries that she's sent him on an impossible quest, an endless journey for a grail that was only ever the thinnest of fantasies. Once he starts something, he doesn't stop until everything in his path is dead, Angel once said. But what if the path doesn't end? She worries that she hasn't sent him anywhere, that she's finally broken him, that he's finally done with her and here and didn't look back once he reached the town border and saw things outside of the sphere of her influence. She worries that she's finally broken him and he's… no. If he doesn't come back, it means he's done with her.
She worries his solution might be to change her, turn her, curse her, bespell her, obliterate the watchers council and thus her role… whatever wild notion struck him that night. Spike isn't exactly known for his cool and patient common sense.
The happy-ending couple leaves the floor, and she makes her way over to them. Makes her excuses, makes her goodbyes; makes a necessity of a virtue and begs off to patrol. Willow’s taking Dawn home later. The troublemakers have all blown off the reception. She's done here. Time to take her cloud of despondency away from this happy place.
In the darkness and open air she can let it out, unclip the leash of her black dog and let it roam freely. It doesn’t leave her side.
Maybe it's the loneliness of the wedding, maybe it's the loneliness of the past year, maybe it's just that it's been weeks now, but her feet lead her on autopilot to the door of Spike’s crypt. She stands there for a while, mind too blank to make a decision, then lets herself in.
It shouldn't feel so empty without him. The aloneness so complete. He isn't, hasn't been, here; she can feel as much the moment she crosses the threshold. Something in her slumps a little further at that, and she knows it's why she's stayed away.
There's broken glass scattered across the upstairs floor; the colourless shards of a whisky bottle, the smoky amber ones of what was once a tumbler. She tiptoes around them, avoiding the crunch of more things breaking under her feet.
The fridge smells, a faint aroma of rot escaping its seals, molecules of purification slowly diffusing out into the air she's breathing. The decay of recently-living things, blood that once sustained life turning noxious and toxic as it falls apart cell by cell. She opens the door and stares into it for a long time, then adjusts the thermostat down as low as it goes. The motor clicks on, humming quietly as it works to freeze the process of decomposition into so much inert ice. She closes the door on it gently.
Downstairs the bed is cold and still, and she creeps into it like a thief. The leftover scents of her own bath products and his cigarettes drown out any trace of him. The darkness is complete without candles, the silence too loud, and in her blind vision, the ceiling feels like it's inching closer. She closes her eyes and ignores it as long as she can, willing the ice of cold sheets to penetrate her skin, willing it to permeate her own red liquid and arrest the seeping poison of the grave. Nothing comes.
Targetlessly frustrated, she gets up and leaves.
It was the stupidest fucking idea he'd ever bloody had in an unnaturally long lifetime of them.
And it was the only good one.
No thanks to him (blinking idiot that he was, is, would be even if he'd had a complete brain transplant along with this utter transformation of the intangible self), the choice itself being a blind and near spur-of-the-moment decision made from frustration and spite almost as much as anything else. Frustration, spite, and… the feeling of someone rooting around inside the empty shell of him, scratching at the walls until her fingers ran red, searching and searching for something that wasn't and shouldn't be there. He could have taken her out, but he bloody fell in love with her in there. With the weight of her in that hollow, pain notwithstanding. And then every damn inch of reddened wall had begun to itch and nag whenever she stepped away from them, all of it a vestigial space made newly noticeable for the cavern it was. She was also rather fond of pointing it out, in case he forgot. So from that discomforting sensation, and the urge to prove to her once and for bloody all that souls were insignificant things really when compared to hearts, he damn well went and demanded one.
(Reasons grew, along the way, feeding into his stubborn determination to do or die. There was Loyd's mocking laughter, for one; the way the demon didn't believe in the slightest that he, William the Bloody, Slayer of Slayers, could possibly have it in him to beat his stupid trials. There was the knowledge that he'd left her, left her alone in her darkness and struggle, left her when she needed him most, and the fear that if he didn't catch hold of this stupid thing she stupidly needed him to have then she was going to drown there. He was going to drown her there.)
And so here he is, with this thing he claimed blindly and only truly recognises his need for through its lens, wondering what the hell he was thinking with… well, everything he's ever done, screaming at the hell of everything he's ever done, Loyd's laughter as he crawled from the wanker's cave still ringing distantly behind the screaming in his ears because this was the joke, wasn't it; not that he couldn't succeed, but that he might.
He's too scared to move, to risk influencing the world by any tiny degree, because his influence is bad bad bad and there isn't earth enough to bury the poison of him.
He doesn't know how long it's been, since the cave. How many times the sun's risen and set while he lies curled here in the earth and leaves and branches, listening to the screaming and sometimes adding to it. But, gradually, he begins to realise that it has been some amount of longness. And that he has a new choice to make.
Staying put is the default option. The little creatures crawling through the earth around him agree. The screaming in his head agrees. He agrees. But. He told her he would come back. He promised to be careful, and to come back. She's wrong, so very wrong to want him to. But she isn't wrong to ask for what she wants. And she never bloody gets it.
(The world is a howling vortex of wrongness with him at its centre, burrowing to bury it, burrowing down down down to turn himself inside out and hope to swallow his own ungodly life force. The magnetic poles of right and wrong have been reversed, undone, right obliterated and wrong spinning, spinning, spinning on the linchpin of him and suddenly demanding his notice. But. Then there's her. Right and wrong and neither, not fitting anywhere and felt everywhere. Buffy, just Buffy, with her simple request.)
So he drags himself out of the earth and leaves and branches, out into a heap on the ground in the last light of dusk. His body is one big wound, inside and out, a single kaleidoscope of different colours of pain. The physical part helps. Steals a few nerve receptors away from the other kind; floods them over well enough to jumble up the screams. All the same, it comes with an unhelpful side of incapability, muscles and tendons that refuse to work right when they're told. He lies there for a minute, two, staring at an arm that won't listen. Dead like the rest of him should be.
Trying to trap him here. Against her wishes. A weary sigh stretches through him, then he gets on with making it help him crawl to the nearest tree.
The tree gets him to his feet. And then he starts walking.