Whispers in a Dead Man’s Ear (6/8)

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Whispers in a Dead Man's Ear
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Hope springs eternal… and is starting to spring here.

Part 6:

Set pre-Him, BtVS season 7.  Buffy couldn’t help Cassie, and Anya’s determined to find her own way, but there’s one person who needs Buffy’s aid—if she can find a way to reach him.

 

Whispers in a Dead Man’s Ear (6/8)

Buffy picked her way through the darkness of the basement, thankful for the flashlight that she’d brought along.  The occasional fluorescent bulbs were really only good for setting that ‘creepy basement’ mood that featured in every known horror movie, and she’d already had quite enough of the Romero treatment for one school year.

She had no idea how long she’d been walking through the strangely cavernous space, though she was pretty sure it had only been a half hour or so.  She was relying on the sound of his voice to help her find him, as it had the last few times she’d been here; the longer she walked without hearing even a whisper of sound, however, the more she began to think that he could be asleep.  As quickly as the thought came to mind, however, she dismissed it; the mere sight of him had been enough to confirm that he hadn’t seen much in the way of rest in quite a while.  She just needed to keep walking, keep listening.  Focus on finding him, and then worry about what comes after.

Buffy wasn’t certain when the need to help him had taken root inside her; she wasn’t yet sure that she was all that happy about it.  Her first conscious realization of it had come in the long sleepless night after Cassie’s death; feeling so helpless, so utterly insufficient in the face of a fate that seemed determined to resist her best efforts, she’d realized that there was one person who’d come to her aid that night fearlessly, someone who was in desperate need of some sort of assistance himself.

There had been something about seeing him with the torch, watching him wield a weapon that could be so easily and fatally turned against him, that had been a revelation of sorts.  She saw then, thought that perhaps she even understood, the magnetism he seemed to have for things that could destroy him, the strength he drew from playing with literal and metaphorical fire.  His lighter, sunlight, torches… her.  And one of them… well, judging by what she’d seen of him since he’d been back, the soul he’d told her that she’d necessitated certainly seemed to have succeeded where so much else had come up short.

Judging by the twisting of her insides, the strange hollow ache that the thought had caused, she didn’t like the feeling that Spike was broken beyond mending.

She’d tried to help him, but giving support in the middle of a crisis wasn’t her strong suit; she’d walked out of the school certain that she’d done more harm than good, that he would be better off if she stayed miles away.  The echo of that lost voice repeating “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” however, had haunted her waking moments, arrested her sleep from the moment that she’d thrown up her hands and walked away, unsure of how to handle him, uncertain that she wanted to try any harder than she already had.  The memory of him curled in on himself, in tears, lost and alone—that had made her decision for her, invading her mind until she had no choice but to find him, to try to save him.  Even with everything that had gone between them, she couldn’t forget that he’d done as much for her.

She had put off telling the others about the soul, stalled and dissembled and just flat-out refused to talk about what was going on with Spike until they’d stopped asking.  The restless night after Cassie’s death didn’t change that.  But the week of sleeplessness, the growing desire to help, and the loss at which she found herself when she tried to come up with a plan had forced her hand; resigned, she’d managed to pull Xander aside during the morning rush of coffee, cereal, and Dawn’s mad scramble for her books.

Xander had hated her idea, of course.  He was still angry over Anya, was still annoyed with Buffy’s unwillingness to let him handle that situation, and her news of the world’s second souled vampire and her plans to help couldn’t have been sprung at a worse time.  He’d ranted and refused, stormed out and slammed the door only to stomp back in and give her a new list of all the ways in which her idea was stupid and wrong and just wouldn’t work.  He’d refused to talk to her on the drive to the school and on the drive home, had honked from the driveway the next morning and glared determinedly out the window every time she tried to start even a casual conversation.  Her invitation to dinner and the discussion that followed, however, had turned the tide; she’d laid out the story as she knew it, thanked him for his concern, and topped it all with that little moue of mouth and fluttering of lashes that had driven men throughout history to defy even the most instinctive of impulses.  Grudgingly, grumbling all the while, he’d acquiesced, and just like that, Spike had had somewhere else to go.

Buffy stepped on a stray two-by-four and shot her arm out, pressing it against the wall for support as she regained her balance.  Once steadied, she shifted the straps of the bag she was carrying back up onto her shoulder and gave silent thanks for Willow’s suggestion that bagged blood, rather than plastic containers from the butcher, would travel better.  She’d blinked in disbelief when Willow had slipped the piece of notepaper into her hand, had raised a brow when her friend had explained that it was the security passcode for the hospital’s blood storage unit; stunned and touched by the gesture, she’d simply smiled gratefully and tucked it into her pocket.  It wasn’t exactly endorsement, but it wasn’t disapproval either, and after the days of alternating raised voices and abject silence, the quiet support had meant everything.

The flashlight beam landed on a rat scuttling furiously across her path, fleeing the hallway on her right.  It was as good a lead as any, and she stifled her shudder as she turned down the path the rodent had vacated; halfway to the hall’s end, she heard the first faint traces of Spike’s voice, a low murmur that steadily increased in volume.  She paused when the low hum became a yell, the words clear even through the cinderblock wall.

“Why won’t you believe me?  I’ve told you.  Over and over, don’t know how else to convince you.  Don’t know how to make you see it.  Tried to change… years of trying.  False starts, stepped wrong, but the heart was true.”

Buffy found her feet moving unerringly forward, towards the sound of his voice, even as her thoughts tumbled frantically.  This would have been easier if he was rational; she didn’t know how to talk to him when he was lost to whatever was terrorizing him down here.  Then again, there were times she didn’t really know how to talk to him at all, even when her voice was the only one he heard.

She reached the door, already partially open, and pushed it gingerly until she had an unobstructed view of the room.  As she’d expected, Spike was the only one inside, but that wasn’t impeding his conversation in the slightest.

“Knew I loved you, but still she died—pretty neck cracks, an’ girl in my arms.  Dead already, an’ still… blood I can have, first time in an age.  Want it, don’t want it… what would you do?”  His hand scrubbed through his hair, his pacing determined as he addressed the wall.  “’Must take it, my William,’ she says, ‘must be like Mummy again.’  Don’t want, do… shouldn’t.  One an’ all an’ it doesn’t matter, because it’s there an’ I can take it, an’ it’s so good.  Tastes like fire an’ heat an’ life an’ promise, an’ then I realize and it changes, tastes cold and bitter.  No good anymore.  Like damnation.  Too late, though, an’ it leaves me there.  Without you.  Stuck in the shades but wantin’ the sun… strange kind of heart, to make me want what’s meant to kill me.”

She stood there, frozen in the doorway, watching him speak.  He looked so focused, so desperate to be persuasive, that she couldn’t believe that he was talking just to himself.  Whatever audience he had, the one he had tried to tell her about before—it seemed to be there, pressing for answers of some sort.  Answers he was trying so hard to give.  She watched his hands clench and release, press against his temples and then his chest, watched his arms thrown wide and then drawn back against his body; his struggle to convince was written in every movement.

“Spike.”  She spoke quietly yet authoritatively, her tone designed to get his attention but not to startle.  It was a lesson she’d learned through her visits here, this careful modulation of her voice—too soft, and he’d never hear her, would stay lost in whatever netherworld seized him when he was alone; too forceful, and he’d be gone in an instant, folding in on himself and becoming one with the darkness in that way that only he had, disappearing from even the keenest and most searching of eyes.

She must have gotten the balance correct this time, because he looked to her, his face brightening for an instant before his head swiveled back to the wall; he looked back and forth, expression steadily growing more confused.  “Which of you… do you require me, or does she?  Whom should I address?  Terribly bad manners to keep a lady waiting, of course, but to have two vying for my attentions… presents a conundrum.”  His hands fussed with his hair, then rubbed against his pants as he offered her a shy smile, eyes slightly downcast.

The first time he’d spoken to her like this, she’d found herself both completely lost and longing for a dictionary.  It had happened several times since, always at random moments, each instance leaving her more confused until, late one night as her mind resisted sleep, she’d developed a theory; those moments, more than any other, were the moments that she was spending with his soul.  The tortured ramblings, the rantings and sudden tears and moments of almost catatonic stillness—those were the intersection of the demon and the soul, the two entities fighting for peace; that sweetness, that shyness, however—that had to be characteristic of that newest part of him.  It didn’t explain, of course, why those characteristics were not unfamiliar, why she’d seen them in the Spike she’d known before he’d disappeared those months ago, but she was willing to live with some uncertainty.  She didn’t think that that particular mystery was one that she wanted to solve, at any rate; she wasn’t sure that her worldview would escape unscathed should she try.

“Spike?  Who are you talking to?  Besides me, I mean?”  Her eyes traveled to the spot on the wall that he’d been addressing, and he followed her gaze, head cocking and brow furrowing in the instant before he turned back to her.

“Gone.  Not so strange, that.  No goodbye, but it’s often so.  And yet you’re still here.”  He sounded surprised, even gratified, in his bewilderment, and that was enough to urge a small smile to her face.

“I am,” she said, stepping further inside the room.

He gave her another smile, lowering his voice to a confidential, secret-sharing register.  “All the voices, hard to know a right one.  Know now how it must’ve been for Dru, tryin’ to pull the truth from all the noise.”  He shook his head, hand rubbing at the back of his neck.  “Would’ve been more patient, knowin’ how it is.  One more thing to burn for… another bit of hurt.”

“That can probably go pretty far down on the list,” Buffy answered uneasily.  She shifted the bag from her shoulder and put it down on the floor, withdrawing a bag of its contents and holding it up.  “Have you eaten?  Lately, I mean?  I wasn’t sure, and I thought…”

He turned and walked away, not taking the bag from her hand, and she straightened and looked curiously at him.  He stopped in front of a large piece of plywood propped against the wall, then picked it up and put it aside, allowing her to see the minifridge it had hidden.  He turned back to her, shame etched into his features. “Was in storage… someone’s name was on it, but only in tape.  Took it off an’ hid this.  Put the tape on the back, though, so I can find the owner later.”  Her incredulity must have shown, because he slid the plywood back into place and came back towards her.  “Know it’s wrong, stealing.  I’ll give it back, but… needin’ doesn’t make it right, but I needed it.  Bein’ hungry makes it worse… makes me weaker.  Gives them strength.”

“Where did the blood come from?” Buffy asked.

“Blood bank.  More stealing.  So many amends.  Sorry… so sorry.”  He brought his hands up, curled them into his chest.

“It’s—it’s OK.  You can give it back when you leave here.  The fridge, I mean.  I’m sure no one will mind.”

“And the blood?”  He sounded lost, like he was torn between equal desires to receive and avoid punishment.  As though he’d lost the ability to judge for himself which he deserved, and was willing to put the responsibility of decision on anyone else’s shoulders.

“We don’t cut off the hands of the hungry for stealing bread anymore,” she answered, crossing over and pushing the board away.  She retrieved one of the bags from the hidden appliance and looked at it.  “They couldn’t have used it anyway.  Look—they were probably getting ready to throw it out,” she added, pointing to the date on the bag’s label.

“’s that so?  Lucky, that,” he answered, face relaxing with his relief for a moment.  “Didn’t know that, though… don’t know when it is.  Days all look the same down here, no order or meaning or anything to mark them.  Made notches on the wall, but don’t know when I started, or when I left or when I came.  Meaningless gouges. Like these.”  His hand brushed over his chest, over the lacerations she knew lay unhealed beneath the dirty fabric of his shirt, before he took the bag from her hand and tucked it back inside the fridge, closing the door.  “Glad I did right, though.  Glad no one’s wantin’ for it because of me.”

“Everyone’s fine, Spike,” she reassured automatically, encouraged by the calm that he was displaying.

“Are you… are you you?”

“Am I what?” Buffy asked, taken aback.

“Are you… you?  The other… that was here.  Before.  She was different.”

“Oh.”  Buffy shifted uncomfortably, the memory of how she’d spoken to him when she’d last been here weighing even more heavily in the face of its only other witness.  “I… I said some things, Spike, the last time I was here.  I could’ve—should’ve said them better.”

Spike shook his head solemnly, dropping to the crouch that seemed to have become habitual for him.  “’s fine.  All fine.  Deserve all the hard, the dark.  Earned it all. Especially with you.  No sunshine to shine without the right words.  Never have the right words, not when it counts.  Bad poet, good man, bad man, still can’t find the rhyme.  Can’t make it right, make it fit.  Make it enough.  No sorry, no forgive me, nothing sufficient.  Nothing to make me good again.  It’s the dark for me.  Always the dark, where I belong.  But not you—that was another… more error.  Not good.  Wrong words, evil words.  Evil man.  Evil… thing.”

The last word was spat with such venom that Buffy found herself recoiling, her hand pulling away from him even as she tried to force it forward.  There was an echo in that word, in that tone, that tightened her throat, that made her think of damp alleys rather than musty basements, and it was that unwanted nostalgia that finally overcame whatever reticence had stalled her attempts at comfort.  Her hand landed uncertainly, awkwardly, on his shoulder, and he shrugged into the caress for an all-too-brief moment before wide horrified eyes looked up at her; in the space of an instant, he scrambled backwards, knees still bent, and curved himself into the corner.  He was still facing towards her, but his eyes scanned the room frenetically, landing on nothing for longer than an instant and avoiding her scrupulously.

“No touch.  Can’t touch.  Why can you touch me?”  He seemed to grow bolder, raising his eyes and peering at her, bewildered, confused, a bit angry; he was folded in on himself in a way she’d never believed possible before she’d seen it in this place, shielded and yet still vulnerable.  She held his gaze, and resignation smoothed his features in an instant.  His eyes dropped back to the hands wrapped around his upraised knees as he rocked forward onto the balls of his feet and then back onto the heels, back and forth in a parody of comforting.  “Words not enough anymore.  I see.  Is it time for flesh, then?  Word knives not going deep enough; time for the lash.  After the brain, then the body.”  He cocked his head, flinched even as he hazarded another upwards glance, though he didn’t dare meet her eyes again; this time, his sight remained resolutely focused on some point just beyond her left shoulder.  “Did Angelus teach you, too?”

“No, Spike,” she answered, voice as calm as she could manage when every part of her was vibrating with pain, with grief, with a thousand different feelings to which she couldn’t quite put names.  “Angelus didn’t teach me.  Neither did Angel.  Not about this.”  He hadn’t, of course, and she doubted that he could have.  She’d thought she understood the soul, the guilt, the weight that Angel had carried, but nothing had prepared her for Spike’s confession in the church, for the smell of burning flesh.  Nothing she’d seen of Angel’s struggle could have let her predict finding Spike curled in a corner of a basement, living as some sort of guilty shade, feeding off vermin and trying to cut out the spark.

“Angelus taught me, though,” Spike continued, something close to pride in his tone, and she noticed that his chin lifted in defiance and a minor show of bravado. “Taught me all about how to be what I was.  What I am.  Told me all about you, too.  Said I’d have to love you to kill you, an’ he was right.  All the times the bastard lied, but that wasn’t one.  Wanted it to be, but he finally told truth.”

He sat back hard, making an audible thump as he struck the concrete of the wall, watching his hands as they rubbed over his knees.  “Beautiful girl gone in a flash of light, an’ there I was, dirty and broken an’ responsible.  I was never fast enough, never won the races against the other boys.  Always laggin’, head somewhere else, on something else; if I hadn’t loved you, I wouldn’t have thought of you.  I could’ve run faster then, not so scared.  Head in the clouds slows you down, an’ then it was too late; blood and brick and light an’ you were there but you were gone.”  Shining eyes looked up at her, focused on her shoulder again, and she could see the tracks streaking the dust and dirt on his face.  “’m sorry you were gone.  Missed you.  Kept my word, though.”

“I know you did,” she murmured, hazarding another reach forward, another slight brush of her hand against his shoulder.  When he didn’t startle or pull away, she let her hand rest there.  “Can you look at me?”

He shook his head vehemently, hands coming up to cover his ears.  “Overstepped before.  Shouldn’t have.  Sorry, so sorry.  Not fit to see… not worthy.  Haven’t earned… can’t.”

“Just for a second?”  This request wasn’t even acknowledged, and she wasn’t sure he’d heard her over his own voice.  “Spike, look at me.”  She’d thought the more commanding tone might work, might awaken something in him, whether it be scorn at her lack of compassion or anger at being ordered to do something.  Spike, however, failed to rise to the bait, shaking his head harder and humming as though to block out the sound of her requests.

“If you’re so determined to ignore me, why even face me?  Why not just stand in the corner like a bad little boy and pretend I’m not even here?  It’s not like I’m trying to help or anything, is it?   So go on.  Ignore me.”  She was beyond frustrated, certain that she’d never get him out of there, annoyed with herself and her own short rope of patience; as always, the feelings found vent in her words.  She felt worse even as she felt better, a phenomenon she’d grown used to over the last few years of her life.

Spike’s hysterical giggle sent a chill down her spine, and she looked down at him, watched as he raised back into a crouch and began his rocking anew.  “Can’t turn my back, Buffy,” he replied, and for a moment he sounded almost himself, his tone that combination of honest answer and mild, ‘that was a stupid question’ derision that she’d memorized over years of long nights spent patrolling with him at her side.  “You never turn your back in here.  There’s things… they wait for it.  Burdens bendin’ your spine not enough, oh no.  Hundred years or more of guilt and blood and pain, an’ still it’s not enough.  Not for them.  Want more… want to break and tear and use.  If you see them coming, you have a chance—can duck before they can jump on, add more to the load.  Always face them.  Never turn away.”

Buffy felt a part of her sigh with relief as she processed his words, realized that as devastated as he seemed, there was still that core of bravery, of determination in him.  If he was willing to face whatever it was that was haunting him, he had a chance of beating it.  She had a chance at helping him.  A tiny spark of hope flared, took hold, and she dropped to her knees, kneeling beside him.

“What are you doing?”  His head turned towards her, face wary as he took in her new posture, watched her sit back against the wall and stretch her legs out in front of her.

“Facing them.”

“You listened to me?”

The air of disbelief stung a bit, but she simply nodded, determined to keep calm.  “You’ve made it down here this long, Spike.  You’re doing something right.”

Another harsh bark of laughter prefaced his reply, and he stretched his hands out before him, staring at them closely.  “Would be the first thing in a long time.”  He shook his head and sat back, slowly mimicking her position.  “Done a lot of wrong.”

She was growing used to it, she realized, the ebb and flow of his speech, the blend of old Spike with this new, broken someone before her.  She was sure that if she looked closely enough, she could watch the changes run through his body, could use the miniscule shifts in muscle and bone to tell her when he was fighting for control and when he was losing the battle.  Right now, he seemed to be fighting, seemed almost himself, and she was determined to make the most of the window of clarity.

“You have to get out of here.”

“Don’t deserve to leave.  Earned this place, body by body.  Got to pay for it somewhere, an’ here’s where they seem to want it.  They all come visit, at least.”  He gave her another sidelong glance.  “Only company I have.”

The tone hadn’t been accusatory, not really, but it still infuriated her.  To have had hope, even for a moment; to have seen him fighting and then watch him acquiesce, resign himself to this… it stung something deep inside her, tilted much of what she had come to see as certain on its axis and unsettled her, and she wanted the ground beneath her feet stable again. She wanted back the world in which Spike was always a fighter, had become the one she could always count on to stand up and stare anything down.  She pivoted to face him, rising to her knees and turning her back on the room, paying little attention to the fearful gasp he gave when he noticed her new position.  She couldn’t tell whether he was frightened of her or for her, and she was too upset to care.  “So this is how you’re going to do penance?  Because it looks a lot like cowering in a basement to me.”

She was so busy watching his face, looking for any sign of indignance, of fury, of anything other than resignation, that she hadn’t seen one hand leave his leg, hadn’t noticed as it inched tentatively across the floor towards hers.  Not until she felt the touch—the very barest brush of his fingertip against the back of her hand—did she look down, just in time to see his hand jerk away.  He had begun mumbling again, words too fast and too low for her to hear, but she leaned towards him anyway in the hopes that she could make them out.

“Still here… still the girl.  Not the other.  Still flesh, still warm.  Words different.  Harder now.  Hurt the girl, made her cry.  No kiss this time.  Made her angry.  Takes so little.  Hands to fists and words to weapons and care just goes away.  All the forward just slides back.  Monster again.  Never enough.”

“Spike…” she began, her finger tracing the same tentative path along his hand as his had just blazed over hers.  When he went to wrench his hand away, to slide it back from her, she closed her fingers around it, stopped its backwards progress and held it in hers as she shifted back into a sitting position next to him.  “I didn’t… shouldn’t have said that.  I just… you can’t stay here, Spike.  You can’t be here anymore.  It’s hurting you, making you crazy.”

That maniacal giggle again, slowly fading, blending into the low chuckle that she knew so well.  He shook his head regretfully, pulling his hand out from beneath hers, bringing it to his chest and rubbing at the gashes there.  His voice, when it came, was husky, reflective, somehow holding her at arms length and drawing her in simultaneously.

“Try sometimes at night… try to believe it wasn’t me.  Wasn’t me that left you hurting, made you bruise and beg and…”  Spike bit his lip, turned his head until she could no longer see his profile.  “Try sometimes to say it wasn’t me, to shut you up when you’re here, when you’re so cruel… want to make you the one of all of them that’s here, that’s silent, so I can believe that you don’t hate me, that you could love…”  He gave a derisive snort that interrupted his words as he turned back to face her, eyes clear, if glistening.  “It never lasts, but I have to try.  Have to keep tryin’, like Sisyphus.  Roll the burden, roll the burden, an’ maybe someday I’ll push it off. Problem is, the burden’s me.  Tell myself it was the other, the thing beneath… ‘cept that’s me, too, isn’t it?  Beneath you?”

Buffy’s hand reached towards him again, but Spike shifted away, clenched his arms about himself in response; the gesture offered no protection from the enemy inside him, though she could see from the flexing of his hands on his shoulders that he was still attempting the fight, however vain the battle.  That readiness in the face of futility—it was still there; buried deep, but still there.  She breathed a quiet sigh of relief that she had been right, that at least that hadn’t changed.

“Never works. Can’t believe the lie, Buffy… can’t bear the truth…” His words were interrupted by a combination of sob and laugh. “Can’t escape the punishment, not when the judge is inside, in here.” Fingers tapped against the muscle covering a dead heart, dug into the fabric covering the skin. “Leavin’ here, goin’ anywhere, it won’t do any good. Can’t run, can’t hide… everywhere I turn, I’m there. Or they. Or you. An’ none of us will give me quiet.”

She felt flattened to the wall, pressed against it, struggling for breath. The pain… she hadn’t known if she could forgive him, hadn’t known if she could honestly attempt it, not until she bore witness to this torment of soul; faced with the weight of his guilt, however, she had to go out on the limb. She couldn’t not try; not now. Not after this.

“Spike,” she began, shifting back to her knees and scooting to face him, defying his attempt at turning away. “The hiding; it’s not helping. You know that, I can see it. I can hear it.” She ducked her head in synch with his, finally succeeding in catching and holding his gaze. “I can’t make it be quiet.  I can’t make the voices stop. I can’t change anything that’s happened. But I can… I want to try to help.  I want to get you out of here, and I want to see you try to beat this thing. I want to help.” She stood slowly, looking down into his upraised face. “Can you believe in me enough to trust me?” she finished, holding one hand out towards him. The look on his face took her breath, the hesitance with which he reached to take her hand sending a sharp pain through something inside, and yet she held steady, willing her hand not to shake.

His fingers brushed against hers, and his eyes widened again at the contact.  “You’re really here this time.  You really mean it.”

“I really do.”

He watched her for a long moment, his fingers a near-phantom weight on hers, and then nodded once, determinedly.  His hand slid forward, fingers wrapping around hers; gingerly, hesitantly, he rose to his feet, releasing her hand when he was standing.

“What do I do now?” he asked quietly, eyes shy, almost worshipful.

“Come with me.”

 

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/50919.html

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