DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Sting’s, “Inside.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The plan to try and get some answers from Spike during his sleepwalking has led them to the conclusion that they need to take him back to the Hellmouth, for some reason known only to Spike…

*************

Chapter 14: Inside the Folding of the Land

Nobody said it out loud, but nobody really wanted to go. Reasons varied. None of them mattered. When the decision came to book the tickets for California, not one person voiced a dissent.

Dawn didn’t say anything directly, but Xander knew that she was glad he was going. Ever since her outburst about Anya, she had been increasingly demanding of his attention, forcing him to interact when he might not normally, encouraging the return to Sunnydale as his own grief therapy. Xander didn’t have the heart to tell her that he was only doing this for Buffy, and there was sure as hell no way he would admit to any of them that he was going for Spike as well. Better to just follow the crowd. Do what had to be done. He wasn’t the leader anyway. Never had been. Even after all these years, Xander knew exactly what his job was.

Spike had taken the news of what they’d learned with surprising grace. There had been a brief cloud of disappointment at being kept in the dark about their plan, but a quick intervention from Buffy seemed to blow it over. Of course, Xander thought that the small kiss on the cheek she’d given Spike had probably had a lot to do with his easy acceptance. He was swiftly getting past his fear of her. Xander wasn’t sure yet whether that was a smart move or not.

The only moment of discomfort came when Judd showed up at the Council offices to speak with Buffy. Nothing had been said again about their fight, but it was pretty clear to everyone who wasn’t Judd that it was over for Buffy. This time, Xander and Spike were there to witness firsthand when she broke it off, giving him the It’s not you, it’s me speech with practiced ease. Judd attempted to turn it around on her, using her confusion about her old boyfriend as a basis for Buffy to reconsider, but she held firm to her decision. The only part about it that Xander regretted was that nobody got to hit Judd again.

A solidly booked flight and their late purchases made their seating arrangements less than ideal. Willow and Giles took the two near the bulkhead, leaving a single seat in the middle of the plane, and a group of three in the rear. Grumbling, Dawn agreed to the loner, though the looks she kept shooting everyone told them she was less than happy about it. Xander, Buffy, and Spike settled in the back.

“I probably won’t sleep,” Xander said to Spike. “So there’s no worry if you need to get out and use the bathroom. Just poke me.” He held up a warning finger. “Not too hard.”

“What if I---?”

“It won’t matter,” Buffy interrupted. She took her hand in his and laced their fingers together. “Because I’m right here and we’re on the way to the Hellmouth. There’s no reason that you might start sleepwalking again.”

That seemed to appease Spike, and Xander turned away from the shy smile he shot to the Slayer. Yeah, he was definitely the third wheel here. Maybe he could get Dawn to hang out with him in the back and annoy the flight attendants. Anything had to be better than watching the googly eyes between Buffy and Spike.

Two hours into the flight, Buffy was sound asleep on Spike’s shoulder.

“May I ask you something, Xander?” Spike said quietly. He didn’t move, most likely from fear of waking Buffy. He just waited for the permission to give voice to his question.

“Shoot.”

“You said…I loved Buffy in my…previous life. Did she…love me?”

Xander sighed. Spike just couldn’t ask the easy questions, now could he?

“Your relationship was complicated,” he replied. “You had that whole mortal enemy thing going for you for awhile there, which personally, I thought worked out great. But then you fell in love with Buffy, and she died, and then Willow was all about the bad magic, and then Tara died, and…shouldn’t this be something you should be asking Buffy about?”

“I…tried. After we learned about the amulet’s powers. But…I couldn’t. I…kept hoping she would say something without my interference.”

“Buff’s not too big with the impromptu down on one knee confessions.”

“Yes. I think I’m learning that.”

They lapsed into silence, and Xander was glad Spike wasn’t pressing the fact that he hadn’t really answered the question on the table. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say. He knew about Buffy’s blurted profession while the Hellmouth was collapsing, but if she hadn’t brought it up with Spike already, maybe there was a reason for it.

Whatever it was, though, it sure as hell wasn’t that she didn’t still love him. Xander might’ve only had one eye, but there was no way he couldn’t see that.

“I want to say thank you.”

Xander sighed. It didn’t look like Spike was done talking yet.

“What’re you thanking me for this time?”

“For…everything, I suppose. You promised me answers, and it appears that I’m going to get them. I owe you tremendously for that.”

“Well, you can buy me a drink when we get back to London. That’ll call it even.” His small joke was met with silence, and when Xander glanced over at Spike, he saw a quiet resignation that left him unsettled. “Stop it,” he chastised. “I know what you’re thinking, and…just stop it.”

“I’m not thinking anything,” Spike said, though there was a lot to be desired for his attempts at innocence.

“Do you have any idea how much power you’ve got watching your back?” Xander said. He began to tick them off on his fingers. “You’ve got all of Willow’s mojo from the great beyond. You’ve got the best of the Slayers. There’s Giles and Dawn, who aren’t too shabby around a spellbook themselves, and then you’ve got me to make sure you don’t get too bored. There’s no way in hell anything’s going to happen to you in the Hellmouth. Buffy would never let it.”

Spike turned to look at him, his eyes dark and solemn. “I will not be returning from this trip,” he said. “I’m as certain of that as I am that…that…”

But he couldn’t finish the sentence. Xander couldn’t blame him. There wasn’t a whole lot that Spike was sure of these days.

“Those are just your nightmares talking to you,” Xander said, dismissively. “Buffy is not going to kill you. There’s no way she could go through that again.”

As if she realized she was being talked about, Buffy stirred in her seat, nuzzling deeper into Spike’s sleeve. Both men turned their heads to look at her. Both men relaxed without realizing it.

“I hope you’re right, Xander,” Spike murmured. Carefully, he reached up and disentangled a lock of Buffy’s hair that had gotten lodged in the corner of her mouth, hesitating before letting his fingers trail over her cheek.

So do I, Xander thought. For both of your sakes.

*************

Landing at LAX was surreal, but the drive to Sunnydale was worse. The landscape that whizzed by on the other side of her window ached in familiarity, and while Buffy did her best to ignore it, chattering away with the others as if nothing was amiss, a flash of golden sand or a glint of sunlight off a passing car was all it took to make her stomach burn.

They were in two rented mini-vans, with a handful of local Slayers that Giles and Willow trusted to be discreet. Giles drove the lead car, with Xander following close behind. Buffy had specifically chosen to ride with Xander. She knew this trip was going to be just as hard for him as it was for her, and since he was the reason she’d gotten this second chance with Spike at all, she was going to do everything in her power to be there for him. It surprised her when Dawn insisted on sitting in front with Xander, though; apparently, they’d been spending a lot of time together since he arrived from Africa. Buffy made a mental note to talk to Dawn about it once this business with Spike was over.

Spike.

She tried not to think too much about him. The guilt that weighed her down for her role in this---whatever it turned out to be---was driving her to withdraw from everything but the most banal of conversation. She just couldn’t do deep right now. She wasn’t even sure what she was going to find at the site of the old Hellmouth; being so unprepared was something she was way out of practice with. It was taking all her energies just to stay positive about this whole endeavor.

When Giles pulled to a stop in the middle of nowhere, Xander frowned as he slowed behind him.

“What’s he doing?” he asked. “We’re still a good couple of miles away.”

“I’ll go check,” Buffy said, and hopped out of the van, glad to be free of Spike’s heavy gaze. He knew something was wrong, but he wasn’t saying anything. It was the first time since he’d come back that she was glad this version wasn’t so big with the talking.

Giles and Willow were squinting into the horizon when Buffy approached.

“What’s the what?” she chirped.

“The reports said that the area has been stable for over two years now,” Willow said, turning away from the blinding sunset.

“I’m sensing there’s a but coming.”

“Look.”

When Willow stepped aside, Buffy took her place, lifting her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the dying sun.

The horizon was flat and sandy, dry brush and the occasional greenery jagging the straight lines of the ground. The road that led to where Sunnydale used to be still stretched into the distance, but Buffy knew that it would dead end at the pit of her old hometown. The state had never gotten around to fixing the road that led to nowhere, just like they’d never really done anything about rebuilding the small town that just disappeared off the face of the map. They didn’t deem it “important” enough.

Buffy had always thought someone should bury the governor’s hometown and see how “important” he’d find it then.

Beyond the normal landscape, though, was something new. Clouds were darkening the sky, not the usual cover that came at night but huge, roiling cumulus that looked like someone had put a movie on fast forward. The wind had started to pick up as well, and Buffy’s hair began to whip around her cheeks.

“This can’t be good,” she muttered.

“It would appear that we’re expected,” Giles remarked.

“They couldn’t have just put out tea and cookies?”

“This close to the Hellmouth, they’d probably be like the cookies in Alice in Wonderland,” Willow joked. “Wanna be a hundred feet tall? Have a biscuit. Feel like playing with the ants? Here’s a sip of Earl Gray.”

The sound of dirt crunching behind her warned of another’s approach, and Buffy glanced over her shoulder to see Spike and Xander watching the clouds dance on the horizon.

“Am I the only one feeling Twister here?” Xander said. “I don’t suppose we thought to get insurance against cows dropping out of the sky, did we?”

Spike looked up at Xander’s remark, shoulders hunching as if he fully expected the prediction to come true.

“I’m reluctant to drive any further,” Giles said. “Who knows what we might find.”

“You’re giving up?” The look Buffy shot him was incredulous. “Are you kidding me? We just got here.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“It’s what I heard.”

“I think what Giles means is that maybe we should wait a little bit,” Willow interjected. “See if this blows over, or if there’s some other danger we need to be aware of.”

“No.”

All heads turned to Spike, who was staring off into the horizon.

“I do not wish to wait,” he continued. “If we are not driving the remaining distance, I will walk.”

“Are you certain?” Giles asked. “You don’t know what’s waiting for you.”

“And how exactly is that different from before?” Spike asked.

Score one for Spike, Buffy thought.

“I guess it’s a good thing my boots were made for walkin’,” Xander said with a grin. He tossed the keys he held in his hand to Giles. “I hope your Slayers still have to do such mundane things as pass drivers’ training.”

Willow’s eyes were wide. “Xander, you can’t be serious. What if there’s some demon in there, waiting to eat your insides?”

“Then it’ll be just like the old days,” he replied.

“We’ll weapon up before we head out,” Buffy said. “And can somebody please remember to grab a flashlight? None of us have vampire eyes these days.”

“Buffy…”

Giles’ voice trailed off when he saw the determination of her stance.

“Nobody else has to go if they don’t want to,” she said. “But we’re here now. And we’re going to do this.”

She warmed when she caught Spike’s smile, but quickly turned her attention back to the vans. The Hellmouth was still a few miles away. They couldn’t afford to waste the little time they already had.

*************

With the rising winds and occasional tremor beneath their feet, it took them over two hours to travel the distance to the edge of the crater. Giles stayed behind with the car rentals and the Slayers unwilling to make the trek, while Buffy led the rest through the rising storm. More than once, Spike stumbled, and if Buffy wasn’t there to help him back to his feet, Xander took her place, offering a broad shoulder for him to lean on when one particular fall left Spike limping.

Though night blanketed the crater with heavy black velvet, their flashlights were strong enough to reveal the fissures that split its bottom, leading down into even blacker hollows. At her side, Buffy heard Spike’s sharp intake of breath, and when she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, she saw the unmistakable sheen of sweat on his brow.

“Do you remember any of this?” she asked.

The wind tried to swallow her words, but Spike heard her anyway, shaking his head slowly in response.

“What now?” Xander asked.

“We go in,” Spike said.

“In?” Dawn squeaked. “In where?”

Buffy knew. Without a word, she began the rough climb down to the nearest of the fissures. The others had no choice but to follow.

 

To be concluded in Chapter 15: Holding Infinities in the Palm of Your Hand