The Gift of Death, Part 14
The next morning, Buffy was sad to see that Merry would not be joining them on their trek to intercept the enemy coming from the south.
“I have sworn myself to Theoden, and by him I must stay,” the Hobbit said proudly. Buffy had to smile; he was so incongruous, standing amoung his fellow Rohirrim, but his face wore the same fierceness, bravery, and determination as any hardened soldier. She shook his hand, then indulged herself by hugging and kissing his little face, which be bore with stoic patience.
They left for the Paths of the Dead, and the deeper they penetrated into the murky glen, the more morose everyone seemed to become. For the first time in many years, Buffy found herself doubting her choices and abilities. Did she really have any place in this war? Should she be at Aragorn’s side, or would she be better placed back in Forlinden, helping to control what must surely be chaos, now that most of the Rangers had come south to battle against the forces of Mordor?
They came to a tall spike of rock, jutting ominously into the late morning sky, and behind it was the Dark Door. The horses balked at entering, especially the Rohirrim horses, and it was only due to Legolas’ soothing song that they were able to be lead inside the tunnel. Gimli, alone of their company without his own mount, was left alone at the door, and stood staring at it in dread until Buffy poked her head back out.
“C’mon, Gimli, it won’t be that bad,” she told him.
“Do you promise?” he asked with apprehension.
“Yep!” Buffy replied brightly. “Cross my heart.” He still looked doubtful, but slowly and with great deliberation stepped across the threshold.
They walked until they came to a great room, and the light from Elladan’s torch glimmered on something of gold to one side. Laying before a stone door, it was a skeleton, a warrior, and a rich one at that judging by the quality of the mail shirt and jewel-encrusted weapons. His fingertips lay in the cracks of the door as if, after all these years, he were still trying to pry the door open.
“No, do not touch him,” Aragorn tried to warn Buffy, but desperate for a glimpse of some beauty after hours of nothing but grim terror, she brushed some dust off the garnets on the skeleton’s gold belt. Almost immediately she felt herself falling, and reached to grab something to stay upright, but there was no one there.
No one alive, that is. For as she fell with a thump to the floor of the tunnel, and looked around, the rest of their group was gone, and she was surrounded by ghosts. They surrounded her, creeping closer until she had scooted as far away as she could, and was pressed right beside the skeleton against the stone door. She studied them for long moments, saw the anger and despair and weariness on their translucent faces, and something clicked in her head—she understood them.
Wasn’t she a ghost too, really? Condemned to linger for eternity until someone decided she’d suffered enough? Her fear dissolved and she pushed away from the wall to stand, looking upon the ghosts with something akin to comradeship, if not actual sympathy. She was not an oath-breaker, after all.
“Very good,” drawled a voice from the back of the clutch of ghosts surrounding her, and they parted before the speaker as he approached Buffy. It was, amazingly, Spike, and he seemed as corporeal as she. “I was wondering how long that would take before you twigged.”
“Spike?” she croaked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“’Not really here, pet. S’not really me.” He stood there, so cocky just like she remembered, in that damned leather duster, bleached hair gleaming in the weak torchlight.
“Oh, great,” she muttered. “Hallucinations. Just what I need right now.”
“Don’t knock it, Slayer,” Spike scolded, waggling a pale finger at her playfully. “This might be exactly what you need.”
She placed hands on hips impatiently. “And what the hell do you mean by that, Mr. Cryptic?”
But he’d turned and was wading through the sea of ghosts that still ringed her. “You’ll see,” floated back his enigmatic reply to her.
He hadn’t gone long when another voice rang out over the tunnel’s rough-hewn stone walls. “Buffy!”
She’d slumped to sit once more, so shot to her feet, frowning as she struggling to recognize him. “R-Riley?” she stammered at last.
He strode forward, head and shoulders above the ghosts, a faint smile on his handsome, wholesome face. Unsurprisingly, he was dressed in some sort of military fatigues, though they were dark grey and rather ominous looking, she thought. “Hi, Buffy.”
“Hi, Riley,” she replied, feeling it an incongruously normal greeting for two people who hadn’t seen each other in almost twenty years, and had, apparently, both died. “Are you dead?”
“Yep,” he replied cheerfully, jamming his hands in his pockets. “About twelve years ago. Monpiltithan demon surprised me. Got Sam, too.”
“That’s too bad,” she said automatically, then, “Who’s Sam.”
“My wife,” he informed her. Married her a few months after I left you.” The words were spoken so casually that, even nearly two decades after the fact, Buffy found herself wincing. “Now, Buf, don’t be like that,” he admonished, seeing her reaction. “I’m here to tell you why I left you.”
“Pretty obvious, isn’t it?” She laughed then, a dry and humorless rasp in her dry throat. “I repel men. There’s something about me that does it, like that predator pee you can put in your garden to keep the deer away. One sniff and they run screaming for the hills.”
“Nah,” he said with an airy wave of his hand. “Got nothing at all to do with you, really.” The skeleton at Buffy’s feet seemed to interest him, and he squatted down to inspect it more closely. “People are really self-involved, you know that?” He poked at the figure’s hauberk, then ran a fingertip over the damaged sword by its side. “We’re so busy trying to make ourselves happy we don’t see what we do to other people.”
Riley stood then, and smiled at her. “If you weren’t so self-involved yourself, you’d understand that.”
She was starting to lose her temper. “What the hell does that mean? Spike’s vague, you’re vague. Got a bellyful of the vague, you can stop any time now.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he teased, but relented at her expression of growing ire. He held up his hands in supplication. “Okay, okay,” he said appeasingly. “You think that all the men in your life leave you because there’s something wrong with you, right?” Buffy nodded. “Well, it’s not true.”
“No?” Her skepticism was blatantly obvious. “The statistics tend to prove you wrong. If we go chronologically, there’s my father, then Angel, then Parker, then you, then Legolas.” Saying his name tightened her throat and it came out garbled.
“Nope.” Riley shook his head firmly, serious for the first time since appearing before her. “We all left you not because there’s something wrong with you, but because there’s something wrong with us, Buffy.” He sighed. “I can’t really speak for the others, though I am pretty sure of Parker’s motivations, but as for myself, the reason I left was because you didn’t need me, and I needed to be needed.” He frowned. “I hope you understood that.”
She nodded slowly, and he continued. “I was used to being the leader. Of my soldiers, of the students when I was a TA, of my girlfriends. But you… you were the leader of your group, and though you made a place for me in the Scoobies, it wasn’t the place that I wanted. That’s why I got the suckjobs from those vampire whores—they needed me.”
Buffy started to look queasy.
“It’s true!” he protested. “Every pull of their mouths on my arm was like a massive stroke to my ego. They needed me, needed something I could provide. They made me feel necessary, essential. You didn’t.” The bluntness of the words made even him flinch. “Um, sorry. But that’s also why I gave you that ultimatum, to ask me to stay or I would leave. I was trying to force you to admit you needed me.”
Riley exhaled sharply, and stared at his feet. “It was wrong of me. Manipulation, emotional blackmail… there’s never really a time where that’s a good thing. It’s never really excusable, and I’m not trying to get you to forgive me. Just to understand me, to know that it wasn’t you.” He looked up. “That you were right when you didn’t give in to my demand.”
“But I did,” she whispered. “I did give in.” He looked confused. “I ran to the helicopter landing to ask you to stay, but you’d just taken off, didn’t hear me yell for you.”
Riley looked stricken for a moment, and then his face eased. “But Buffy, that was meant to be,” he explained softly. “You made the right decision, when it counted. It was only when you began doubting yourself that you made the mistake of coming after me.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand to halt her. “My time’s just about up now,” he said. “Remember what I told you. There’s nothing wrong with you.” Then he turned and walked back through the throng of ghosts, leaving her there. Her legs wobbled unsteadily, and she slid down the wall to curl up, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees.
It didn’t take long for the next visitor to arrive, and she wasn’t at all shocked to see who it was. “Angel.”
He smiled down at her for a long time, his dark eyes piercing as they gazed on her, noting every detail—the medievalish clothing, the hip-length hair, her dead and very thin companion. “Hello, Buffy,” he said at last.
“So,” she said, standing yet again. “What wisdom do you have to impart to me, O Ghost of Christmas Past?”
He reached out and brushed a wisp of hair back from her face, echoing Haldir’s caress of the night before. “I left you twice, you know,” he said by way of introduction, and Buffy was somewhat surprised to feel that the pain of those departures hadn’t much dimmed since they’d happened.
“I know,” she said softly, hand pressed over her heart as if she could stop it aching like that. Didn’t work, she thought sourly. Still hurts.
“And both times, it was just as Riley said. Because there was something wrong with me, not with you.” His hand now came to cup her cheek, and she leaned into it, feeling the still-familiar coolness of his dead flesh. His scent, leather and blood and some exotic spice from the Orient, filled her sensitive nostrils and she was swept back to her high school years, when that smell could reduce her to a blubbering heap of hormones.
“The first time, it was because of the curse. The second time, it was because I thought being away from you would help you in the long run. But it was really because I was weak,” he admitted. “Because I loved you so much, wanted you so much, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist making love to you for long, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Angelus coming back.”
Angel’s other hand came to cup her face, and she stared up at him, into his long-beloved face, watching his lips move as he spoke. “It was all about me, Buffy, and what I needed. What I was afraid of, what I couldn’t take. I should have been stronger for you, should have known that you were worth any sacrifice, any amount of hard work and torment. That being with you, even chastely, was better than being apart.”
He leaned his forehead against hers, and closed his eyes. “I was so wrong, Buffy. We could have searched for a way to end the curse, and even if we couldn’t find one, we would have been together. Would have drawn strength from each other. You can’t know what it did to me to know you were all alone that last year of your life… learning that you suddenly had a sister to protect, losing your mother… knowing I deserted you to bear that all alone…”
Angel stopped then, his throat too thick to continue for a moment. “It was a hell worse than where you sent me. Knowing I had condemned you to that, by my selfishness. And knowing there was nothing I could do to make it up to you.”
“Until now,” Buffy told him, and pulled away a little to smile crookedly at him.
He smiled back, even though tears were dripping off his chin. “Until now.” He trailed a finger through the tracks of her own tears. “You don’t know how I leapt at this chance to see you again, Buffy. To say goodbye.”
“Does it have to be goodbye?” she whispered, eyes pleading.
“You know it does.” He turned away then, hands fisting at his sides as he struggled to gain control of himself. “I was sent here to give you closure.” His voice hardened, as if he’d found a reserve of determination somewhere deep within him. “You’ve never really been able to move on from me, and you have to. You have a lot of your life to live still—a lot—and you can’t spend the next few thousand years moping about me. I’m gone now, gone for real, and I’m not coming back again. This is it.”