The girl. The girl. Get to the girl.
Something was wrong. The floor. He was on the floor. The man leaned over him. He was weak.
Shove the threat away. Get up. Fight.
A woman. He could smell her fear, hear the frightened hammering of her heart.
He charged and she didn't even try to get away, and he growled deep in his chest. Grab her arms, lean in — no.
Mustn't hurt The Girl.
He shook his head, confused. Leaned in again to catch her scent, just there, behind her ear. She was delicious. She was intoxicating. She was…
Pulled his head back, looked her up and down. Took in her wide eyes, her quick breath. Her fear — but not her terror. A memory — her hands on his shoulders. Her teeth, not bared at him but showing a smile. Words. Not a threat. Not prey. Not a fellow hunter.
But not his mate, either. This was not The Girl. The scent wasn't right.
Something was wrong. This girl was an ally. This girl could make it right. Could take him to The Girl.
Let go of her arms, step back. Push on her shoulder. Nudge her, gently, carefully, toward the door. No knocking this girl down. Not that kind of shove.
He had to get to The Girl. This girl could help.
Wesley picked himself up off the floor, knowing he would be too late. Spike was… if he was interpreting what he'd seen correctly, Spike was no longer completely aware of his actions. Likely he would believe later that he was dreaming when he attacked Fred, assuming he remembered it at all; the brain was a strange place immediately following an epileptic seizure.
That wouldn't make Fred any less of a corpse.
Wesley staggered up the hall, holding his head, and nearly dropped to his knees again when he spotted them. Spike, still wearing his demonic features, had his hands on Fred's shoulders, but instead of feeding on her, he seemed confused about what to do next. One corner of Wesley's mind wondered whether Spike had suffered such serious brain damage that his feeding instincts had been disrupted; the rest of his thoughts were occupied with trying to find a weapon, something to fend the vampire off, some way to protect Fred from a painful, terrifying death. It would be all but impossible to sneak up on him, though, and if Wesley's timing were off, if he were caught, it would be all over.
Except, while Wesley stood there for endless seconds, frantically trying to come up with a strategy to save Fred, Spike tipped his head, shook it — as if he were actually thinking, which in his state shouldn't be possible. After a moment, though, he seemed to reach some kind of decision; to Wesley's immense relief, Spike let Fred go and stepped back, swaying a little on his feet before he reached out again with one hand and… nudged her. When Fred didn't respond, he reached out and pushed again, a little harder.
"I don't — Spike?" Fred squeaked. All things considered she was holding it together remarkably well. "I don't understand what you want."
Spike showed no signs of comprehension, only looking at her, eyes half-shut, for a long moment before reaching out again. Clumsily, he grasped her sleeve and tugged her forward. Wesley feared he was either pulling her in for the kill or about to drag her off somewhere to hide the body, but when Fred shuffled a step forward, Spike let her go again.
What was going on?
Just then the medical team burst through the lab doors, two men wheeling a gurney and a third sliding down the balcony rail to land on the lab floor; more crowded in behind them as Wesley watched. Fred jumped, and Spike whirled with a snarl and shifted his feet into a defensive crouch. He grabbed Fred's sleeve again and shoved her behind him as one of the orderlies brought a tranquilizer gun to bear.
"Don't!" called Wesley.
Spike spun again at the sound of his voice, his fangs bared and a steady growl ripping the air as he glared at this new threat. Wesley froze, held his hands out to his sides, and kept his gaze focused on the medical team. "He's had a seizure," he said, pitching his voice low. "He's not entirely conscious just now, but he hasn't harmed anyone." Wesley stepped forward slowly, cautiously. "I'm sure we'd all like to keep it that way."
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Spike shuffle backward, where he could keep a better eye on both Wesley and the medical team. Interesting that he kept Fred behind him, he thought. The placement was significant, Wesley was sure — protective, or possessive. He only wished he knew which it was.
One of the paramedics spoke up. "Dr. Burkle, could you please step away from the v- … from our patient?"
Bad idea, thought Wesley.
"I-I don't think he'll let me do that," said Fred. Spike jerked his head back toward the men on the balcony, his growls becoming louder as his footsteps staggered slightly.
Of course, thought Wesley. Ordinary people — living people — nearly always fall deeply asleep following a seizure, their brains exhausted from the storm of activity; for all that he was a vampire, it was nevertheless remarkable that Spike had gotten up off the floor at all. He had to be on his last reserves of energy. All they had to do was wait him out. Wesley looked toward the balcony, and — yes. One of the paramedics had caught on as well; he was whispering in the ear of the orderly with the tranquilizer gun, gesturing at Spike. As Wesley watched, the orderly lowered his gun slightly.
Fred had her hands on Spike's shoulder and arm and was murmuring to him, soft words reassuring him — he was safe, it was all right, no one was going to hurt him. For his part Spike didn't seem to comprehend what she was saying, but he responded to her tone and her touch, letting her shuffle him sideways — away from the medics, Wesley noted — and toward one of the stools nearby. He kept most of his attention on the men gathered on the balcony, only glancing in Wesley's direction once or twice. When Wesley didn't move, Spike seemed to relax somewhat. His fangs were still bared and he kept himself between Fred and everyone else in the room, but his stagger was more pronounced and his growls were fading away.
"That's it," Fred was saying, "it'll be okay, they're here to help, you're —"
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Spike?" Angel. He slapped the door open and walked through like he owned the place — with complete confidence, and complete disregard for what everyone might be doing inside.
The chaos that erupted at that point, Wesley thought later, was likely inevitable. Of course Fred and the medical team would startle at the interruption; of course Spike would react with a roar and a step forward. Of course there would be simultaneous shouts of "Sir!" and "Angel!" and "No!" coming from all directions.
Of course the tranquilizer gun would fire, twice, odd little bursts of sound like a cat sneezing, louder than they should be amid all the shouting and movement. One dart struck Spike full in the chest, but Fred was still there, her hand on his arm, and they were both moving; the second dart caught her on the back of her wrist, and she cried out at the sudden sting and snatched her hand back, plucking the dart out quickly.
Not quickly enough; the dart had done its job, and she was already swaying on her feet as Wesley sprinted to her side. He managed to lower her gently to the ground as Spike stumbled back to one side, knocking the lab stools over with a clatter and landing hard on his knees. By the time Wesley turned around, Spike had toppled over onto his side, face slack and eyes staring blankly as his features shifted back to human appearance. He blinked once, gazing at nothing, and his hand moved aimlessly across the floor, but he was otherwise still.
The medical team quickly got to work, moving the gurney into place and tending to Spike. His head lolled but he made no sound as they lifted him into place and tightened the straps across his body. One medic was on the phone, telling the infirmary to ready another bed for Dr. Burkle. Two more were checking Fred's vital signs as she lay in his arms.
"I'm so sorry," said the orderly with the gun. "She just —"
"I know," said Wesley. "Will this drug hurt her? What about the dosage?"
"She should be all right, sir, but we'll monitor her carefully. She should just sleep it off and be fine. Another gurney is on its way."
Angel stepped forward, a hangdog expression on his face. "I could carry her," he began, but Wesley stood and cut him off with a look.
"I rather think you've done enough, Angel," he said softly. "Don't you?"
"I'm really worried, Giles." Dawn was pacing as best she could in the tiny hallway just off the doorway to their apartment's tiny kitchen, back and forth between their bedrooms and the living room as far as the telephone cord would let her. Two steps toward Buffy, turn; two steps toward the back of the sofa, turn; repeat. "I've never seen her like this," she said. "Not even after… after Mom."
"It's understandable that she would be, er, distraught," Giles began.
Dawn cut him off. "No, Giles, this isn't 'distraught'," she said fiercely. "She didn't stop crying, and I mean really really crying, hard, for like three hours. She didn't stop until after she threw up. She threw up, Giles — I've only heard of people doing that in like soap operas or something." Two steps, turn, two steps, turn…
"Yes, well," Giles soothed, "Buffy was under — we placed her under — a tremendous amount of strain in the weeks leading up to the final battle. It's not surprising that she should react so, er, intensely, once she allowed herself to do so. Once she no longer felt herself to be under so much pressure."
Dawn bit her lip. "I wish I could believe you," she said. "But she… when she first fell apart she was saying things about Spike. She wasn't making sense."
"They were," Giles stammered, "well, close, for some time, I gather…"
She rolled her eyes. Stopped in the kitchen doorway. "I know that, Giles. This was different. She made it sound like Spike was standing right there, like she thought he was still around somehow. She was freaking out about him being," her voice wobbled, "him being gone… but she was making it sound like it had only just happened. Like right in that second." Two steps toward Buffy, turn. Two steps toward the back of the couch. "Like I said — she wasn't making sense. And like I also said — I'm really worried."
There was silence on the line for a moment, then Giles said, "Should I come? Would you… do you think it might help if I were there?"
Dawn sighed, leaned against the wall. "I dunno. Maybe. Yeah."
"I'll make the arrangements," he replied.
They talked for a few more minutes more before hanging up; Dawn pressed the back of her head against the wall for a second, her eyes shut. With a sigh, she went into the kitchen and poured a glass of ice water, took it up the hall to Buffy's room. The door had been pushed closed but not latched; it swung open when Dawn knocked.
Buffy was lying on her bed, facing the wall. Still dressed; Dawn had gotten her shoes off for her, after the worst of the crying had passed, but in all the time Dawn had been on the phone Buffy hadn't done anything else to get ready for bed. Hadn't changed into her pajamas, hadn't pulled the covers back. Really, it looked like she hadn't even moved.
In English class, Dawn had read a couple of stories where people "turned their faces to the wall". Especially in Ireland and Scotland, it seemed like, mothers would learn that their sons had been lost at sea, or daughters would be heartbroken that they couldn't marry their true loves, and they would go into their rooms, lie down on their beds, and "turn their faces to the wall".
And then they would die, of despair and grief.
Dawn swallowed back her fear and came in to sit on Buffy's bed. Buffy didn't move, but Dawn could see that her eyes were open. Every now and again she would blink, or swallow, but other than that she was still.
"I brought you some water," she said.
For along moment, Buffy didn't react, but then she rolled over and sat up. She wouldn't look at Dawn; her eyelids were horribly swollen and red, but the rest of her face was pale, almost bloodless, with huge dark circles under her eyes like bruises. Like that time after she'd let Angel drink from her, and ended up in the hospital. She looked half-dead already, thought Dawn, and the way her hand shook when she took the glass and drank brought the fear back all over again.
Buffy's hands never shook.
Dawn watched her take a few swallows, and took the glass back when Buffy handed it to her. Her sister lay back down and started to roll over again. To face the wall.
Dawn's hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"Please don't," she whispered.
Buffy closed her eyes. When she opened them, she just stared up at the ceiling, blinking her puffy eyes, and didn't say anything.
"You… you're hurting," said Dawn after a minute. "And it's okay. I get that. When Mom… I remember what it was like. I wanted it not to be real. I wanted to, to shut the world out — but at the same time I needed someone to cry with, you know? I accused you of not caring when really you were trying so hard to be strong for me…" She had to stop and blink away her own tears. "And you don't have to be strong right now, if you don't want to. It's okay — really. But please don't shut me out. Don't — don't turn your back on the whole world, just because you hurt so much right now. Okay?"
Buffy took a long, slow breath. When she spoke, her voice rasped and squeaked, worn out from hours of anguished sobs. "Why not?" she asked. "And don't tell me it's because the world needs me. I'm so… so sick of the world needing me. I don't care anymore what the world needs."
"I wasn't going to," said Dawn. "It's just, I remember how much worse it hurt when it felt like I didn't have anyone there with me. And if you cut yourself off... if you roll over and just stare at the wall like that… then you'd be alone. You'd have to go through all this by yourself. And you don't have to. Maybe… maybe this time you need the world, instead of the other way around."
"I don't need the world," said Buffy. Apart from the way it kept breaking, her voice held no tone at all. No anger, no sadness. No life. "I don't want it anymore. What has the world ever done for me? I've given it everything, over and over again. Everything I had. And the world — the world I'm supposed to care about, and save, and protect from evil — all it ever did was take, and take, until it took everything I had to give."
She blinked, and finally, finally looked at Dawn. Dawn had thought that would help with how scared she was feeling, but instead it made it worse: Buffy's eyes looked the way they had after she'd first come back from the dead. Only not even like that, because then she'd been as much shell-shocked as anything else. This time there was no surprise; no betrayal; no hurt. This time there was only despair in Buffy's eyes, and a bitterness so deep it made Dawn feel sick to her stomach.
What kind of hell did a person have to go through to get to the point where that kind of pain wasn't even a surprise anymore?
"Spike was right," said Buffy.
Dawn blinked. "Spike? I-I mean, about what?"
"I told him I loved him," she said. "In the cavern, during the battle. Finally. And he said, 'n-no you don't.'" She turned her face back toward the ceiling. A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye. "He was right."
"Buffy!" Tears sprang up in Dawn's eyes, too.
"This world? Being the Slayer. I gave it everything I had. Everything I was," said Buffy. "Being the Slayer took everything from me. It took my freedom as soon as I was Called. No choice. When they put me in an institution, I lost my faith in Mom and Dad. They were my heroes, and then they… I lost that. I gave up on telling them the truth, trying to make them understand. I turned to Giles, gave him my trust, and he took it and broke it. Him. Xander. Willow. Manipulated me; kept secrets; judged me whenever I didn't act the way they thought I should. Being the Slayer took my friends from me. Took away my capacity to be a friend, eventually. I couldn't be there for them. Didn't know how. Instead, I used them, the people who could have been my friends, and watched my sacred duty chew them up and spit them out." She stopped, swallowed. "I gave my life for my sacred duty. I gave my death for my sacred duty, and it still wasn't enough. They had to take my afterlife, too."
Dawn reached out and stroked Buffy's hair. She wasn't even sure Buffy noticed.
"I gave up any hope of living a normal life. Being the Slayer took that, too. An education, a job outside of fast-food. I lost friends. I lost other peoples' friends. I lost Mom. I lost my virginity to Angel and my innocence to Angelus. Never would have happened if I wasn't the Slayer. I would have had a regular boyfriend, my first time. Instead, trying to just be a girl — trying not to be the Slayer just for a little while — trying to love… took Angel away and put a serial killer in his place. By the time he came back it was too late, and I had to kill him anyway. Send my love to hell, in order to save the world. After that I was so twisted around… love?" Buffy closed her eyes and scoffed once, softly. It was the most emotion Dawn had heard in Buffy's whole speech.
"Love is about giving, Dawnie. When Spike and I got together, all I did was take. I was giving away everything to the world and to my calling, and the only way I could stand it was to take from Spike, and not give anything back. I took from him until I broke him. And then he left because he blamed himself for hurting me, when I pushed him to that desperate place. So it was back to me and the world again, and my stupid, sacred duty. And I gave and gave, and gave, and the world just kept taking. And then the First came. I gave everything I had left trying to protect all those Potentials, trying to lead an army when I was only ever supposed to be the One Girl In All The World. And when I did what they demanded of me, and tried to lead them, tried to make those choices and decisions, they decided they didn't like how I was doing my job, and they took even that from me. You all did. You even took away my right to stay in my own home."
"And we never said we were sorry for that," whispered Dawn, as her tears fell.
"Doesn't matter," Buffy answered, her voice dull and rasping again. "Spike gave me the strength to get through those last few days — because I didn't have any strength left of my own to give. I still don't. So when I told him I loved him and he said I didn't, he was just showing me the truth, the way he always does. Did. Because by that time I'd given everything. Or had it taken. Same diff." She took another long, slow breath, let it out in a sigh. "I couldn't really love Spike. Can't. Because there's nothing left in me to love with."
Buffy fell silent, gazing up at the ceiling. Dawn wept, quietly, and stroked Buffy's hair, as the shadows grew long against the wall.
"I get what you're trying to tell me, Dawnie," she said, after Dawn's sniffles had grown quiet. "You want me to trust that I can lean on my friends, and let them hold me up, so I don't have to go through this alone. Instead of turning my back on the world. But I don't have that trust. I don't have anything left in me anymore. It's all gone, Dawnie. I've been sucked dry. I thought Spike was the last thing the world would be able to take away from me, and then today…" her lip began to tremble again, "today the world took away even the sense of his presence around me. He was dead but I could still feel him, you know? And it helped. But the world took that away too. Now all I have left is this… empty hole inside. It's all there is. All the trust is gone. I gave it all to this world I'm supposed to protect. Supposed to still find a way to care about, somehow. But see, the world isn't going to give me anything back, Dawnie. I know that now. It's taken everything else, but I'm not going to let it have the satisfaction of watching me try to depend on it — hope it'll somehow put me back together again — when it never has before."
Buffy blinked once, slowly; then she rolled over again, and turned her face to the wall.
Dawn stood up, her legs aching from sitting in one spot for so long, and left, shutting the door behind her. She went through the motions, washing out Buffy's water glass, using the bathroom, fixing herself something to eat, setting the table for one; but the whole time all she could think about was how scared she was for her sister. How exhausted, defeated — broken — Buffy had sounded.
She sat at the table and stared at her dinner, her head in her hands and tears welling up in her eyes. She had no idea of how to make things right for Buffy. Wasn't sure it was even possible. Dawn had said yes to Giles coming, but it wasn't because she thought he'd actually be able to help Buffy. No.
She'd said yes because Dawn was terrified that Buffy was going to die, and she didn't want to have to watch it happen all alone.
It was dark in the apartment, and silent, and her food was a cold and disgusting lump on her plate, when Dawn finally decided to go to bed. Again, she got up, went through the motions. Got another glass of water for Buffy, snuck into her room and put it on her bedside table. In the dark, it was hard to tell, but she thought Buffy's eyes were closed. That could mean she was asleep, or it could just mean that she didn't want to talk anymore. Dawn wasn't sure which.
She'd just finished brushing her teeth when the phone rang.
"Dawn?" came the voice on the line. She hadn't even said hello yet. "It's Willow. What's happened to Buffy?"