DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has stabbed the Soul Eater in the dream, Joyce has started breathing again on her own, and Spike is still unconscious…

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Chapter 35: From the Dim Verge of the Horizon

The dust of the desert swirled in miniature cyclones from the forces of the wind, lifting and falling with its silent screams in a tango that seemed to never end. All life had scattered, driven to shelter by the storm, cowering in fear from the monsters it housed. Even the stars had hidden behind the gray cumulus coating the sky.

They were hungry. The children of the wind had been denied satisfaction for longer than they had anticipated, and they were tired of waiting. In angry swoops, they perforated the earth, sometimes ignoring the passageways into the caverns that sheltered the two they sought, using whatever ingress necessary to reach their repast, heedless of the damage they caused along the way.

This would be no delicate supper. This would be a ravenous feast, and they would devour those who attempted to fight back until only husks were left.

This was the goal.

This was their right.

This was…

When it came, the wind seemed almost to hesitate, unsure all of a sudden as to which direction it should take. Pain, the dark one called it. New. Not pleasant, and…how was this possible?

The eddies began again, manic from an unaccustomed fear that succor would be denied, but its strength was lessened, as if something, someone, somewhere, somewhen, were draining the forces it needed to continue. Another break, and the storm seemed to falter, the rain slowing to a gentle patter that coaxed the desert earth into submission, the thunder rolling away into the distance.

And then…

Silence.

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

Feeling the air moving across their skin inside the cave was eerie, and each of the grotto’s inhabitants---those that were awake, at least---felt their hearts begin pumping harder in response to the encroaching threat. There was no more magic to be done. Joyce was alive, if not conscious. Buffy and Spike were asleep, presumably still battling with the dream form of the Soul Eaters. And the rest of them waited, hoping against hope that they would not be forced to run should the children of the wind get too near.

Dolly was the first to notice. Her head whipped to the side, eyes staring into the bowels of the cave, sniffing at the air like a dog on the hunt before the muscles in her shoulders relaxed. “It’s done,” she murmured, a hint of surprised respect creeping into her words. “Son of a bitch, the little Slayer actually did it.”

Giles picked up on her speech, and turned from his vantage point next to Buffy, eyes narrowing behind his glasses. “What did you…” he started to ask, only to cut himself off as the air in the cavern went calm.

“They’re gone,” Willow breathed. She slumped in her perch at the bed, breasts heaving slightly from the nervous panting she couldn’t seem to stop, the tension suddenly expelled from her lungs as recognition that everything was all right sank into her consciousness. “It’s over, isn’t it?”

He wanted to believe, but Giles’ gaze swept back to his charge lying asleep on the mattress. A new bruise had formed on her cheek, joining the gash that had bled into her hair, yet she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, her body motionless where it curled protectively against the inert vampire at her side. “Are you certain they’re gone, Dolly?” he asked. When the demon nodded her head, his own bowed, his eyes fluttering closed, and the deepest of sighs escaped his lips. “Fetch Cortina, please,” he quietly requested.

With the Soul Eaters gone, there remained two courses of action before them. He had promised Cortina to do whatever she wished in rescuing her children from the Council’s control, but first, he had to wait.

He needed to see Buffy waken with his own eyes.

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

She’d killed enough demons over the past few years to know when one was dead or not, but just to be sure, Buffy knelt down, searching the Soul Eater’s body for any sign of life, wondering if she dared to trust her own eyes enough to walk away from it.

A minute passed, and then another, and the wind that had been whipping around her disappeared, to be replaced by a satisfying calm that stroked the Slayer’s skin like a mother’s caress. Firmly, she grasped the hilt of the sword that still protruded from the Soul Eater’s chest, pulling it away with a sucking sound that was lost in the easing rain.

Still nothing. She was calling this one dead.

The wet grass tickled her ankles as she ran to Spike’s side, dropping to her knees so that she could run worried hands over his tortured flesh, hovering, afraid to touch lest the contact would make things worse. Burns adorned his arms, marks from some brand of torment the hellbitch had inflicted while Buffy had been awake for that brief period of time, but those didn’t worry her as much as the fact that the vampire was still out cold.

“Spike,” she whispered, thin fingers tracing the bones of his unmarked face. “You are going to be so pissed you slept through the grand finale. OK, technically, we both did, but…you know what I mean.” There was no response. “C’mon. Wake up now. You can’t watch my back with your eyes shut.”

There was not even a flicker that he’d heard her. Rain pelted his brow, dripping onto his dark lashes, and she had to resist the urge to bend down and kiss the beads away.

“Spike,” she repeated, a little louder, a little more frightened. “Stop fucking around. I didn’t do all this to lose you, too.” Please, she added silently, as the tears began to swell in her eyes. I need you. Wake up…

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

“…wake up.” Her lids lifted, stone sliding up on of its own accord, and she was staring into the shadows of Spike’s neck, her body pressed against his side, that earthy smell that clung to his skin saturating her senses like a rich red wine. From behind her, Giles’ voice was a reassuring whisper, familiar and comfortable like a well-worn security blanket coveted from her youth. She felt suddenly old, and closed her eyes again, tightening her arms around the sleeping vampire.

“You don’t have to do this,” Cortina was saying. “With the information we got from Travers, Dolly and I can handle it on our own. You need to stay here with Buffy. I know you want to.”

“The Soul Eaters are gone. You’ve confirmed that. The threat to Buffy is---.”

“Gone, Giles.” Her voice was small, almost muffled against Spike’s neck, but it cut through the Watcher’s conversation as cleanly as if she’d yelled. She felt his hand not quite touch her, the heat from his palm radiating into her skin, and sighed. “And I’m fine. You should help Cortina. There’s no telling what the Council might pulling.”

“What happened? I assume---.”

“Can we do the show and tell on this later?” she asked, turning her head just enough to gaze up at him with weary eyes. “Unless there’s something I’m missing.” She waited for him to say something but was met with an uncomfortable silence. “Is there something I’m missing?”

Cortina’s hand squeezed reassuringly around Giles’ forearm, coaxing him to speak. “No,” he finally managed. “Nothing.” The smile he gave her was tight, but the relief that shone behind his spectacles was unmistakable. “I’m just glad…you’re all right.”

“So go. Time’s a-wasting. I’ll be here when you get back.” Buffy didn’t wait for a response, instead curling back into Spike’s body, raining the lightest of feather kisses across the harsh line of his clavicle as her eyes lit on the scratches ravaged across his chest. She barely heard them leave behind her, or see Dolly sweep by the end of the bed. It was only when Dawn came to sit in the spot Willow had vacated that she tore her gaze away.

“The spell worked,” the teenager said softly. “We think. Mom’s…not actually awake. But she’s breathing, and that’s important, right? I mean, a breathing Mom is most definitely better than a non-breathing Mom.” Her blue eyes settled on Spike. “I wish I could’ve seen you guys kick that Soul Eater’s ass. I bet Spike---.”

“He wasn’t there, Dawnie,” Buffy said. “He was completely out of it while I fought the thing.”

All of a sudden, Willow appeared behind Dawn, her brow creased into a frown. “Still?” she asked. “Did he get knocked out, or was he---?”

“I haven’t seen him awake since we were doing our little trip down memory nightmare lane.” Her eyes were moist as she rested her head, sweeping over the strong profile before lingering on the dark lashes, so long, so still, against the pale marble of his cheeks. “Where are you, Spike?” she murmured. “I miss you. Come home.”

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

It felt like he’d been set on fire as he stumbled up the stairs, his hand gripping the post, fingers digging into the wood so tightly that splinters drove their way into the soft flesh under his nails. He just wanted comfort, something to ease away the pain. Why Spike thought he could find that on the front porch of the Summers’ house was beyond comprehension.

Must still be part of the dream, he thought as he slumped against the jamb. But that didn’t make sense. The dream had been about…

And his flesh crawled as he remembered the feel of Buffy’s neck within his grasp, his powerlessness as he’d watched his newly-turned self taunt and torture the young woman. It was exactly what he’d feared when he’d first heard his father address her at the house, and though nothing had happened, though something had stopped the power of the dream before he could do any real physical damage, the shame that she had been hurt at his hands burned worse than the torture that hellbitch had inflicted afterward. He had no doubts that Buffy would hate him when he walked out of this. Or waked out of this, rather. How could she not? She knew the truth now. She knew that nothing in him was good, never had been.

His hand was on the knob, ready to open it and let himself inside, when it turned within his grasp, revealing the smiling face of Joyce just on the other side of the threshold. “Are you just planning on standing out on the porch all night?” she asked. “The hot chocolate I made is going to be lukewarm chocolate if you don’t get in here.”

He followed when she turned away, shrugging out of his duster along the path to the kitchen---when the hell had he gotten that back?---and inhaled the comforting aroma of cocoa and sugar that coated the familiar space. Without even thinking, he dropped his coat over the back of a chair before hopping onto the counter, exposing to her view the multiple burns that lacerated his arms.

Joyce grimaced in sympathetic pain as she handed over the steaming mug. “Those look like they sting,” she commented.

Spike shot them a glance before nodding. “Got a touch for the torture, she does. I’d almost be impressed if it didn’t hurt so soddin’ much.”

“Try dying and having your soul get gnawed on for a couple days,” she replied. “It kind of puts my getting annoyed at Buffy and Dawn for bickering all the time into perspective.”

They shared a quiet chuckle before sipping at their drinks, Spike’s gaze downcast as he mulled over this change in his dream’s venue. “Buffy misses you,” he finally said softly. All right, so this Joyce was just a figment of his imagination, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t use the opportunity to try and convey some of what had been going on with his Slayer since finding her mother dead. Or what had been going on with him because he sure as hell had missed the elder Summers lady as well.

“She misses you, too.”

Not the response he was expecting. Spike’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Not makin’ much sense here, Joyce. Me and Buffy split paths just a few minutes ago. Don’t know why, but it’s probably for the best seein’ as…” He shook his head. No. He wasn’t going to think about that right now. “Never mind. Point is, I’m not the one who’s dead.”

“Yes, you are.” The serious look on her face couldn’t hold, however, and she almost immediately burst out into laughter. “Spike, I’m kidding. You’re a vampire, remember? Being dead is part of the package.”

Relief flooded his system. For a split second, he’d flashed that he actually was dead, and this was some kind of afterworld, not heaven, not hell, but somewhere in between and Joyce was his own personal Charon. “You almost had me there,” he said with a smile. “Nice to know you still have your sense of humor, even if this is only a dream---.”

“Oh, this isn’t a dream, Spike,” she replied. “I meant what I said. She really is missing you. I heard her say so.”

“You couldn’t bloody well hear her. You’re dead.”

“I was dead.” She smiled. “I’m not anymore.”

“Wait…” The resurrection spell…his torture by the Soul Eater…his separation from Buffy now…she’d done it. He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face. His Slayer had actually done it. No more Soul Eaters and Joyce back to boot. Certainly called for a celebration.

“What happened?” He was suddenly too excited to drink the coca, letting his cold fingers curl around the warm mug as his eyes searched Joyce’s face. “You said you heard her?”

“I can hear all of them,” Joyce explained. “Willow’s there, and Dawn, and I heard Rupert for awhile, but he stopped talking not long after Buffy woke up.”

“So, what’s with the séance here? Did something happen to me? S’that why you’re sayin’ this nonsense about Buffy missing me?”

“It’s not nonsense.” She stepped forward, leaning against the counter next to the vampire. “And it’s not a séance. That would require one of us being awake, and as far as I can tell, it’s not yet time for that for us.”

“But you said you could hear them. Or is that just some line you’re feedin’ me to keep me out of the loop.” He stiffened. “Maybe you’re just that Soul Eater and you’re tryin’ a new tactic. Wouldn’t be the first time it tried looking like you.” Except even as he said it, Spike didn’t believe it was actually a possibility. This Joyce was nothing like the Joyce from the playground. He could see it in her eyes. This was his Joyce. Funny, how he considered all the Summers women his.

“Look, Spike…” And it was the tone of her voice, that gentle roll of her words that felt like a warm arm around his shoulders, that caused his eyes to flutter shut, his head to bow. “I’m not sure what exactly Willow did to you. They’re not…talking details. Just…I guess something went wrong.”

The vampire snorted. “One of these days, I’m goin’ to remember that askin’ for Red’s help in a magic spell never leads to anything good. Little witch got me and the Slayer stuck in…” Flashes from the past---Buffy’s face stained with smoke as they stood outside his burning house, her eyes wide as she gulped for air when he’d pinned her to the wall---choked the words in his throat. Wasn’t Red’s fault, as much as he would like to lay the blame for it at the feet of her hocus-pocus. It was his, for asking in the first place. For not having the nerve to just tell Buffy. For fearing that she’d go back to seeing him as a monster.

“She loves you, you know. You should hear her now.” Joyce smiled. “This probably sounds awful, but I’m feeling rather proud of myself at the moment. I’ve raised a pretty darn special girl there.”

“That she is,” he murmured, but he still couldn’t lift his head to look at her.

“I know you think it’s going to be rough when you wake up,” she continued, “but it’s only going to be bad if you let it. Buffy trusts you, and more importantly, she believes in you.” She nudged him slightly with her shoulder. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt you so much to believe in her just a little bit.”

His head jerked up, eyes blazing. “I do---.”

“Then stop trying to turn this into a one-man pity party. I know that sounds harsh, and I know things were…rough for you…for both of you in those dreams---.”

“How could you…you know about those?”

“I was there. Kind of. It’s…confusing.” Slowly, Joyce sipped at her hot chocolate, eyes soft as they gazed into nothing. “While they had me, it was like I could experience what they were experiencing. So, I saw what happened to you. What your mother...what she said. What she did.” She shook her head. “You can’t blame yourself for the things she said, Spike. Women in abusive relationships can’t always see it for what it is.” In an attempt to lighten the mood, the smile she gave him was wide. “I’ve watched enough Lifetime television to know that. Heck, I’d bet you’ve watched enough Lifetime to know that.”

“Just Passions. That’s the only thing that goes on my telly,” he said defensively, but her slight gibe was already easing his worry, his shoulders relaxing as the corner of his mouth lifted.

“Uh huh, yeah, right.”

“So…if that’s for real then, and Red managed to snatch you back for Buffy and the Bit…what the hell are you doing standing here gabbing to my sorry ass?” He was too tired to continue trying to delude himself that this wasn’t the real Joyce. Everything about her screamed authentic at him and even if he didn’t understand just what was going on, it didn’t mean he had to be a bear about it to her face. He was in her house, after all, and she’d only ever been nice to him there. No axe-wielding of any kind had ever happened inside Casa de Summers. Well, none from the matriarch aimed at his head at least.

“I’m not ready to wake up yet,” she said simply. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to recover from dying?” Joyce chuckled. “I just realized I get to join the club. Do you and Buffy have cards or something for it?” Her amusement grew at the baffled expression on his face. “The coming back from the dead club,” she elaborated. “You came back as a vampire. Buffy came back after the Master tried drowning her. But I’m going to put my foot down about Dawn joining. I think that’s enough death in the family, don’t you?”

Spike smiled. He’d known he missed Joyce, but…god, he really had missed her. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Buffy’s face when she realized her mom was back, that she was going to get a chance to go on with her life as before, before soul eating demons had decided to chow down on what was nearest and dearest to her. For a brief moment, he forgot about his own worry that she was going to turn on him, imagining the four of them as a unit---hadn’t Joyce included him in her little family description?---and then reality came crashing back, his eyes dropping to his cooling chocolate.

“So why’m I here?” he asked. “If you’re workin’ on patching up your soul before you have to face the lion den, what in soddin’ heaven am I doin’ taking up your precious time?”

“Because you’re healing, too.” Her answer stunned him. “And the way I figure it, home is the best place for that to happen.” Taking his cup from his hands, she turned in her place and dumped its contents out into the sink, rinsing it out under the running tap. “I’m going to get you a fresh cup. We’ve got so much to talk about and really not that much time.”

“I thought…you said…”

“You’re going to be waking up soon,” Joyce explained. “Believe it or not, you’ve done a lot of the work on your own. I just thought you might like a little company while you finished up the job.” All of a sudden, the mug in her hand steamed, filled to the brim with velvety chocolate, a sprinkling of tiny marshmallows scattered across the top. His hands shook slightly as he took it from her, and the vampire lifted his eyes, his head tilting quizzically as he searched her kind face.

“I like you, Spike,” she said quietly. “Buffy loves you. And Dawn, well, Dawn worships the ground you walk on, so don’t be taking advantage of that or I’m going to be investing in another axe. But---and you have no idea how weird this is for me to say this---you’re family. And family looks after each other. And so I plan on hanging out here for as long as you need.”

Spike shook his head. “You Summers women will never cease to amaze me,” he commented. “You do realize you’ve got bloody awful taste in men, don’t you? Buffy, especially. First Angel, then that prat from the college…then Finn…hell, textbook tosser there if I ever saw one…and now me. I’m not worth it, you know. Wasn’t worth it when I was alive, and sure as hell not worth it now.”

“I thought we weren’t having the pity party.”

“It’s not pity. It’s truth.”

Joyce sighed. “OK, so maybe you’re not quite as ready to go back as I thought. Just…know this, Spike. You have such capacity in you for good, whether you want to admit to it or not. I know, evil, I get that…but Buffy sees it, and Dawn sees it, and I saw it first, if you care to think back,” she added with a wry smile. “Truth is what you make it. If you spend all your time chasing after ghosts instead of focusing on the here and now, the only thing you’re going to be left with is air. You can’t change what happened, but you can learn from it. And you’re a smart man. Think about what actually happened. Trust me. Have I ever steered you wrong before?”

Each word was like a satin bandage laid gently over his bleeding wounds. “I still stand by Buffy’s track record,” he said, trying to joke, trying to see this through eyes that weren’t blinded by tears. “Bloody awful taste.”

“That, I’m afraid, is my fault,” she replied with a smile. “It’s in the genes. Did I ever tell you about the time I dated a robot…?”

 

To be continued in Chapter 36: Spirit Fierce