Title Ver Sacrum
Author Brutti ma buoni
Setting Post-series: quite soon after Not Fade Away, Buffy has a visitor
A/N Inspired by, among other things, three photos from the writerconuk photostream (two of them are mine, but the third is courtesy of curiouswombat), and my recentish trip to Vienna, where the Secession artists took Ver Sacrum as their motto.
They are the selected sacrifice. Once upon a time, each tribe chose its outcasts, for the good of the whole. Now, the world is far more sophisticated. Only one outcast is required, one girl in all the world.
She is not led, veiled, from the sanctuary of her homeland. She founds no colonies.
She fights. She dies.
The next is Chosen.
But not this time.
Buffy is an anomaly, no matter how you reckon it. Died twice, and still pretty. Two dead men walking got under her skin, into her pretty knickers. She’s seen Slayers die after her. No Slayer should see that.
She’s an anomaly, and the world is not comfortable with that.
It’s Spike who brings the news. Inappropriate, isn’t it?
“I thought you were dead.” Buffy apparently can’t think of anything else to say at that moment.
Spike grimaces, slightly apologetic. “I wanted to do something worthwhile. Pretty sure it was gonna kill me too. Thought I’d save you the bother of mourning me twice.”
A slap across the face that makes him grin. A kiss, long and entangling, that resolves none of their endless miscommunication and uncompleted love-declarations, but which says, clear as anything needs to, that no, Buffy would not prefer to miss out on months of living Spike to avoid the pain of loss again.
So there’s that.
He sobers. “You heard about the Black Thorn, though?”
“Duh. We could feel the quakes in Italy.” Probably means that metaphorically, though there was enough fallout from the final battle that Spike is actually not certain of that.
“Well, we found out some stuff…”
“Angel.” A pause, to acknowledge the departed. Re-departed. “Angel was our inside man for the Thorn. Got his hands on some good gen. Like, black magic and connections and power like hellooo Mamma-”
Buffy’s foot starts to shift, preparatory to tapping, and possibly kicking.
“And, love, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but the universe wants you dead.”
She blinks. Does not quiver. “I need wine.”
“You really did get used to Rome, didn’t you?”
And that’s how it begins. Because Buffy Summers is insufficiently sacrificed. And apparently something has decided that Buffy should be dead.
Not the Apocalypses. Not the Master vampires. Those are your average Slayer’s lot. Buffy’s had more than most, but she’s lived longer than most. (Apart from all the dying.)
But that time when her microwave exploded while warming soup? Not a part of Buffy’s legendary culinary ineptness.
The tomb shrine pediment that crashed down that one time that Buffy visited Ostia? Not just the Italian government’s famous parsimony on heritage maintenance.
The food poisoning? Not about careless food hygiene. The time she was nearly killed by a scooter crossing under the Vittorio Emanuele? Not just poor traffic management (though the other five times? Totally just Rome’s insane traffic and lack of street crossings).
“Well, that’s… that’s dandy.” Buffy sips at her glass of almost-drinkable house red in the neighbourhood enoteca that illegally lets Spike smoke in the bar. “I thought I was just accident prone. Like, my mind’s elsewhere so-”
“Awww, Slayer, you’ve been pining for your lost lover? Don’t fall under a bus on my account, love.”
Buffy snatches his cigarette, and grinds it under her (stylish real-leather-upper) heel. Not a blink of a reaction to the accusation of sentiment. “So, you’ve come back from the grave. Again. To tell me… what? I’m gonna die? Because that’s really old news. Been there. Or are you offering to guard my body-” she takes a half-breath, like that came out wrong. “-till the threat’s passed?”
Spike’s eyes drop to his own hands, loose on the bar now he’s got no fag to fiddle with. The polish is neater than Buffy is accustomed to. Can she tease him for getting soft, after so many months in an office? Even the fight with the dragon didn’t sharpen him up… No. Not time to tease. Not yet.
“Nah. ‘Fraid not, love. Nothing so pleasurable. Cos this isn’t somebody with a yen to end you that we can wait out or kill. It’s fate. Or destiny. Or the world. Or something like that. Point is, the world’s not going to settle till you’re in the ground.”
He doesn’t look happy as he says it. But equally, it doesn’t have the stark weight that Buffy would have expected. Certainly nothing to fit the swooping dive of her own stomach at those words. She’s died twice, and sure, eventually, she’ll die a third time, but that time isn’t now. Or she doesn’t want it to be.
So… “So you’re here to tell me I’m going to die and what? Offer to do the honours? Are there brownie points in ridding the earth of a sacrifice? Or- you’re not back to wanting to kill Slayers for kicks?”
He looks at her, serious, dark. “Slayer- you should know me better than to think I’d ever-” And then the laughter overcomes him. “Oh, love, I’m sorry. I know it’s not great news. But you’re always in danger, and we know what you need to do. Also, I’ve been there, and you can do it. I know you can.” He’s regarding her with a sort of bizarre pride. “It’s just some fighting, and such. Been through it myself. Well, something like it.”
“Oh crap. A quest?” Buffy Summers: not a fan of the questing.
“More or less. Got to dance with death, and be reborn, and then it’s okay.”
“Um. Died twice already? Kinda over it.”
“Yeah, but that was actually dead. Look, Wes worked it all out, Giles agrees. ‘M not just spinning you a line. If you do this, you’ll be okay. Well, so far as this particular curse goes.” He stands. “So, you coming?”
Buffy can feel her lower jaw hanging slack. “Now? You just walk back into my life, tell me I’m doomed, then we’re off on a quest. I haven’t even-” Found out how you survived. Offered you any pigs’ blood. Said anything about how happy I am that you’re here. Any and all of the above.
Spike’s extended hand jerks, irritably. “Yes, now. Why, d’you wanna sit around till the universe gets a clear shot?”
She grabs her purse. “Fine.”
It is in no way exciting, to be getting away with Spike again, after so long. In no way.
Less exciting when she sees where they’re going. “The Deeper Well?”
“Yeah. Got to get you under the ground somehow. There’s a bit more room to manoeuvre in this one than your average grave.”
“Yes. I remember.”
His hand brushes hers, in silent solidarity. Then he jerks his head, breaking the moment. “So, get in there.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Wish I could, love. But not on this occasion. Got to do the whatnot, spell stuff, call the quest-giver on your behalf.” He waves a large leathered tome, gloomily. It looks like one of Giles’s favourites. Then Spike adds, “They may let you have a knight, though, for the trials. We reckon they will, anyway. ‘M here, if you need me.”
Trials. Yay. This would be why Buffy doesn’t love the questing.
She steps towards the big, ugly, sinister tree, and an army of demons descends from the shadows. She cheers up slightly.
This, she can deal with.
Inside the tree that guards the Deeper Well, it’s every bit as fusty musty as you might expect. Now there is no Battlebrand to guard the place, Buffy didn’t have any other particular expectations of this. The mass slayage required to get in, not so surprising. She hopes there’s someone, somewhere guarding the Old Ones, though.
Eyes shine suddenly in the darkness. Not Illyria-blue, which is good. “Miss Summers. You have come to die.”
“Um. Yeah? But also to be reborn, so we’re clear. And no more curse, world wanting me dead, any of that junk? Is that do-able? ‘Cause if not, I’ll just-”
“Yes. It can be done. The trials are three.” Well, obviously. Whoever heard of a trial by four? Or two? “The steps into the sea. The ballroom of ghosts. And-” The owner of the eyes snickers. “Here.”
Buffy nods. “Okay. But Spike said I could have a knight to help. That true? Because I really would like some help if it’s available.”
“You may have your knight, yes. But your first challenge is to be reunited with him.” The eyes blink shut. The Deeper Well becomes a little darker in contrast. And something starts to move in the dark. A creaking, slithering move that sounds a little familiar-
Crap. The tree’s going to eat her.
Now Buffy Summers does not go questing unarmed. Many stakes – which are no use whatsoever against a wooden adversary – but also a good-sized axe. She gets working.
After altogether too long of hacking upwards blindly at tree roots that are trying to latch onto her, she sees a fragment of night sky and faintly hears Spike’s voice.
“Christ, Summers. Didn’t take you for a woodcutter in your spare time.”
Buffy’s attention is mainly on the treeroot sneaking up her thigh, like the tree is copping a feel as well as trying to kill her (awesome!), but she finds enough breath and time to shout. “You’re my knight! Be knightly! This is the first challe-”
A treeroot swipes her upside the head and she loses track for at least a minute. Two minutes later, Spike’s within sight. Swearing horribly (he feels about wooden enemies pretty much as positively as Buffy feels about questing), but he’s there. There’s enough moonlight to shine off his bleach job, enough to show the bared teeth and almost-smile. “Hiya cutie! Just lemme get at this sucker and I’ll be right with you.”
He gets swiped in the chest by a root, or possibly it’s a branch now Buffy’s closer to up and out of the Well. Either way, wooden thing in the vampire’s chest. Big no good in Buffyworld. (Uh. This specific vampire’s chest, just to clarify. Other vampires: staking still very much the plan of choice.) She draws in her breath sharply, just for a moment, but he doesn’t crumble to dust before her eyes, just chops off the stabbity thing and keeps on hacking till she has a pathway out of the tree.
They are both bloody. But they’re both used to that.
Buffy aims for upbeat, and lands somewhere on the far side of hyper cheerleader. “Okay! Quest part one is a go. Now it’s the steps into the sea and the ballroom of ghosts, and then I’m done.” She feels her cheeks straining against the unaccustomed big fake smile.
“Excellent stuff, Slayer. Where to?” Spike sounds just as effortful and false. Yay Team Quest! Or not.
“Uh. Don’t you know?”
“Why would I know? You went into the Well. I’m just a sidekick, sort of thing.” He grins at her, letting her feel the weight of that. Spike, her sidekick. Just like back in the day. The weird, uncomfortable day, when the vampire without a soul was the one she could rely on. Before things changed all round and she lost him over and over.
Which is interesting to think about, but not helping to find the rest of her life-saving mission. Steps into the sea. “Are we near the sea?”
He looks at her like she’s a fool. “We’re in the Cotswolds.” But he must see how very little that means to her in practical terms. “Which is not on the seaside. Bristol Channel’s not far off, but I wouldn’t want to give you a guess about finding some random stairs anywhere on the coastline.”
Well, shit. What next?
He pats her on the shoulder, clearly intending comfort, but what happens is not comforting at all. A sudden tug in the gut, a blink, and they are outside. A small outside, that doesn’t feel quite natural. It is daylight, though not bright sunshine. Which is real enough that Spike starts to smoulder.
There are stone steps ahead, and they lead down into deep sea water. Nothing else is within sight, though given they can’t see far in any direction, that’s not saying much. There’s no obvious reason not to take the steps, except that Buffy has no idea what’s under the water (something challenging, no doubt). But the smoke rolling off Spike suggests that he really doesn’t have time for Buffy to be picky. They run down the steps, and into the water.
There was an obvious reason not to take the steps, Buffy realises. She can swim, sure, but she can’t breathe underwater. And whatever is in here is intent on ensuring that she doesn’t get back up to the air anytime soon. There are coils, something snakelike, many, many eels boiling in the water on all sides, wrapping around her legs, tugging on her arms and thighs, tangling in her hair. The less than shining light of day is getting further and further away. Buffy’s vision is clouding black, and the hand axe she’s packing isn’t getting enough tentacles to let her nearer an air source.
Thank all the gods (maybe not Glorificus) that her knight is a vampire, huh?
Spike’s pretty much entangled too, but he moves close enough to get his mouth on hers, and donate what air was in his system when they entered the water. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to give Buffy a little more time, and Spike hacks at her bonds more than his own. Between them, they get her loose enough for her head to break the surface, now and again. It’s painful. Lung-busting. Each breath has to last for too long, and each time her head goes below the surface, Buffy knows there’s a chance she won’t be coming back up.
But they fight on. Spike is slowly being sucked deeper, as he focuses too much time on freeing Buffy, but the creature is not infinite. Seems like it’s a single organism that’s fixed in place, like the most overgrown coral ever. There are new tentacles to replace those chopped off, but not every single one returns. It’s not safe to relax, sure, because now and again there’s a new, stronger tentacle that jerks one of them downwards in reach of more, lower-growing tentacles. But there’s a sense that they are winning.
When the last tentacle loosens its hold on Buffy, she rises to the surface and breathes for long, sweet moments. Then dives back down, deep lungful of breath with her. She feels stronger now, shuttling between surface and more underwater slice and dice. It’s not long before Spike is kicking free, the last couple of tentacles parting under his knife blade.
He follows Buffy up to the surface, where she floats, trying to recover. Spike ducks in and out of the salt water, trying to stay nicely non-flammable. They’re some way from the steps down which they entered the water. Not far enough to be dangerous, and there’s no very strong current. But not sure what comes next.
Buffy probably shouldn’t be startled when what happens next is that they’re whisked out of the sea by unseen forces and deposited in-
“A fucking ballroom?” Spike blinks, almost offended by the change in situation. They are, at least, not soaking wet. Spike doesn’t look right when drenched.
It’s not a normal ballroom, mind you. Not that Buffy knows from ballrooms, but in her head they usually have paint on the walls, and paper, and furniture, and music, and lights – candles, maybe – and ladies in gowns with fans and gossip. Not just bare stone all around, and a series of squares on the floor. Eight by eight. Alternately raised paving and flat floor.
“Checkerboard?” She looks at the floor doubtfully. “What do you think? Some kind of path through a maze?”
Spike shrugs. “Or a game, maybe.”
They stare awhile, before Buffy steps forward onto a square. A raised one, as it happens.
There is a rushing noise, and suddenly the room is full of ghosts. Sixteen face them across the room, darkly hooded and sinister. Fifteen line up alongside and before Buffy, one to a square, paler on this side, marginally less freaky looking.
“Might be checkers,” says Spike, dubiously. “Bet it’s chess, though. These spooky fuckers love a good game of chess or death. And, love, if it’s chess, you’re a bit… exposed.”
Buffy looks at herself. She has ghosts ahead, and ghosts to the side. Seems okay, assuming they’re friendly ghosts on her side. “Problem?”
Spike handwaves, doubtfully. “Maybe not. But looks like you’re the white king.” She shrugs at him, absent of chess knowledge. “Weak piece, love. Not a warrior, not your style. You’re what the others protect.” He squints. “Reckon I can get myself on the board? You need a knight. Or a queen, maybe.”
She snickers, and he flashes a grin at her. “No shame in being a queen in this game, Slayer. You should know all about women being the most powerful.” He steps onto the board beside her, and a pale ghost dissolves. “But I’m your knight in this, ain’t that right? Reckon I’d better stick to it.” But he’s pushed off the board at once, not allowed to keep his chosen position. “Or not.” He tries various positions, experimentally, but in the end it’s clear enough that Spike is intended to take the queen’s place. “Best piece on the board. Makes sense. You stick out of trouble and let me handle this, Slayer.”
As if. Except, “Spike? You know I have no idea how to play chess?”
He doesn’t even bother with an eyeroll. “Yeah, I reckoned. S’okay. Many decades of evil living brings you up against some pretty anal fuckers over the years. Like I say, deadly chess is popular. Plus, my mum used to like it. Not the deadly kind. Except when the rector came visiting.”
He adds, “Least we’ve got first move. King’s pawn opening.” The ghost in front of Buffy drifts forward two squares. She feels suddenly exposed. Spike brushes his hand against hers. “Don’t worry, love. I’m gonna protect you at all costs. Have to. Lose the king, lose the game.”
The game that follows is more than a little nightmarish, considering Buffy has no clue what is a threat and what is a positive for her side. Spike seems calm, but she has to wonder how much chess practice he’s had recently. Also, she guesses that anyone who chooses evil chess as a test will know pretty well how to play it. The chances of this being Evil Chess 101 are pretty small.
The fourth time Spike makes a move, he moves himself, halfway down the board in a diagonal that takes him to the right hand edge. Buffy starts to come unglued a little. Tries to hide it, but her knees are shaking. She can’t move her feet. Doesn’t want to speak and maybe distract Spike, till he throws a look over his shoulder. “All right there? ‘S all part of the plan.”
And he goes on. Two moves later, he moves onto a square occupied by a black piece. The ghost doesn’t simply dissolve; it fights, and Spike has to punch wildly at the diffuse air, taking blows as he does so. His eye swells, reddening.
“Fucking hell,” he says, finally, when he’s on the square he was aiming for and the ghost is vanquished. “That’s a bit much. Chess or a punch up, thanks. Not both.”
He’s directly opposite black’s King, and for a second Buffy hopes that’s the end, but of course it’s not. More moves, a bishop advances, some pawns vanish. Spike stays vulnerably front and centre, physically placing his body in front of Buffy’s, but not close enough for her to feel comforted.
There’s a moment, when a white bishop is taken by a black bishop and Buffy thinks it must be bad, but she sees Spike’s shoulders straighten a little. That’s good. Definitely good. That’s got Spike feeling confident. (Well. Probably good. Cocky Spike isn’t always tactical Spike. But she’s trying to stay positive.)
What is less good is what comes next, when Spike walks almost to the other end of the board, surrounded by dark ghosts on nearby squares. And suddenly they have weapons, and start attacking him. She thinks he’s lost, but he keeps batting them away. “Don’t think they can kill me, love. Not unless they actually take my piece, but I’m pretty safe here.”
He doesn’t look safe. And wounds are opening up on his arms and face as he fights on, almost absently directing more moves as he goes.
“Can’t you move back?” She hates this. Spike loves to fight, but this isn’t fair. And Buffy has to watch, with her feet like lead.
“Could. But this is better.” He’s short with her, so she falls silent, giving him space to think.
“Don’t suppose you’d consider resigning,” he asks thin air, shortly after. “No need to fight to the bitter end, is there?” A ghost slashes out at him, breaking a wound open on his cheek. “Fair enough.” He moves a pawn, and the ghosts wail slightly. Two moves later, Spike says, “Shah mat, mate,” and the ghosts scream and fall upon him.
Buffy’s feet finally unglue, and she rushes into the fight.
The ghosts aren’t so tough, but there are a lot of them left on the board, and black and white are both attacking Spike and Buffy, so it isn’t the easiest fight they’ve ever been in. But this part Buffy understands.
In the end, they’re alone on the board, in the empty stone ballroom.
“What now, do you reckon? Are we done?”
Buffy shrugs. “Seems like. I guess they let us out, eventually. Or we fight something to the death again.”
He smiles at her, a proper smile. “Yeah. That’s the way it goes. Meanwhile, may I have this dance?”
It’s more than a little weird, dancing on an ex-battlefield of uneven paving stones, and with only Spike’s slightly hoarse humming for background music. Buffy doesn’t know the tune, except it’s choppy rough and not ballroom-suited. Of course not. It’s still Spike.
But they have good co-ordination, and they’ve always moved well together, so they don’t fall. She feels him move, familiar skinny litheness matching her stride and enjoying her strength. She did love to dance with Spike; didn’t do it nearly enough before he died. It was one of her regrets, after Sunnydale.
They are still dancing when the room dissolves about them.
After the dissolve, there’s a moment of confusion, of course. But they seem to be right back where they started, in Buffy’s apartment. She hears a long, loud noise in her ear. Spike, exhaling. Well, that’s weird.
He’s bent over, hands on his knees, looking winded and exhausted.
“Uh, Spike? Please tell me you didn’t just go human? This was supposed to be saving my life, right?”
But she can tell immediately that he’s not truly breathing, just letting off steam, relaxing, now it’s all done. He was just that… that scared they’d die? Seriously?
“Oh…. Oh, fuck, love. I really didn’t think that would come off.”
“Um. What? Where’s Mr Questy Vamp Cheerleader? No biggie, lalala, just quest for the weekend and you’ll be back to normal?”
He stands up, sheepish fingers running through his hair, scuffing curls out of their plastered gel. “Well, we thought maybe you could do it. Just- Okay, no one else ever has, right? Usually they die, sometimes their knight dies, occasionally both of the poor sods do. But you and me, I reckoned we’d be okay.”
“Yes. I can tell by your relief that you were completely confident. The way you’re shaking is totally convincing.”
“Gimme a break, love. Thought I’d finally got back to you only to have at least one of us die. A-bloody-gain. But we didn’t.” He looks at her sideways, almost shyly. “So… Hello Slayer. I’ve missed you.”
This explains a whole lot, of course. The off-hand way he turned up. One kiss and no more. The lack of Big Talks about the Future, and What It All Means. Because he thought they didn’t have a future. Now… now she thinks they may.
“You want some blood?”
“Do I ever,” he says, heartfelt. “But where are you gonna-”
“I have some. Frozen, but it’ll thaw.” Buffy knows how insane it sounds. She thought both her vampires were dead. Knew for certain, in fact. She’s seen Angel’s ashes. She held Spike’s hand while he burned. But she still kept the blood, in case one of them came back.
She’s glad this one did.
The world is going to have to cope with Buffy Summers and her souled vampire. That’s just how it is. They are no one’s selected sacrifice.
NB: the moves in the chess game are from wikipedia’s sample chess game, which means black wasn’t playing a very good game. But I don’t have a chess brain, so best I could do. Apologies to anyone who knows how this stuff really should work.
Originally posted at https://seasonal-spuffy.dreamwidth.org/809972.html