It wasn’t a bed that he rested on so much as a tray. Hard metal, slightly warm from too-bright florescent lights above—although he did have a pillow. Limp and flat, it didn’t do much to cushion his head from the cold metal below, but the gift had been an unexpected surprise. It kept him off-balance and he hated it. He hated this place. Hated that he had to trust them because she had to trust them—and he had to trust her.
Cold. It’s so cold.
Outside looking in. Never more than here and now did he understand that. Listening to them bustle about, chattering with precise jargon he barely understood and medical terms he knew he couldn’t. The occasional stray glance of pity but mostly blank-faced disinterest. He knew what it covered. Hatred in some, more pity in others, bloodthirsty curiosity in one that smelled vaguely familiar. Mostly, though, it covered disgust.
They weren’t helping him.
Said they were, as they told him to turn this way and that, hold out his arms, put them down, look here or there. Said they would follow their orders, when it was clear that some wanted to stake him while others to cut him into little bits. He remembered that kind, in tiled white rooms with clear glass walls and white-noise blanking out his thoughts. Remembered men who watched him with eyes colder than his own, almost smiling with glee every time he winced and shuddered, biting back screams because they didn’t deserve to hear them. Pain was his, to give, to take, to gorge on, and they couldn’t have that, oh no. They could never have that.
It wasn’t his to give.
“. . . said that it was your choice, ma’am. Whatever you want, we’ll do.”
It was hers, now, just like everything else. The gifts of pain he’d received so long ago, bit by bit she’d sucked them out, drained him dry, until there was nothing but the dead shell he’d prophesied so long ago. His life for hers. His pain for hers, because he’d learned that lesson oh, so well. Pain was life and life was pain and he’d given anything for her, because that was what he was. What he’d always been and William laughed deep within his mind, a jagged sound full of loathing. He’d lived for her, died for her, tried for her—
And it wasn’t enough. Because his pain still hurt her.
Hiding had been costly, but necessary while he crouched in the basement, dirt in his hair, scratches on his skin, with visions mocking and taunting and tormenting—until it was suddenly too late. No more hiding now, not with fresh blood warm in his mouth. Did they know how much it burned? How sweet and lucius, just like she was right before her voice went high and breathless and keening—and just like then, it had hurt. Their whimpers were hers, their pain her pleasure, their pleasure her pain because he was good, so damned good, and he knew it. Crossing her past lines she hardly knew existed and him coming along for a ride he couldn’t control. Until he was back, back in the Bronze, an ally, a house, a stair well—staring at eyes screaming from a dead body, the words she’d thrown at him ringing in his ears.
Did they know how he’d wept for those souls?
He knew they thought his tears were for him, his pain, crocodile jewels on unlined skin. They weren’t. They couldn’t be, because his pain was gone, resting in a too-thin body and a face gone cold and hard. Blood that dripped down his hands etched into the smooth skin of hers and for her he’d cry the tears she no longer could.
Too late, again, trying to hide newer, fresher pain that shouldn’t have bothered anyone but him. When sharp shocks of white heat in his skull became lances of blinding agony, robbing him of anything but shaking limbs and watery insides, he had clung to the knowledge that this was his to bear alone. Inside his head, inside his heart and she couldn’t be touched by this, no one could be touched.
“Ma’am? There isn’t a lot of time. We need a decision.”
You could hear a heart breaking. Even now, when it had been shattered and patched up so many times that it resembled some new age-y mosaic instead of a solid entity. Again, it broke and he could hear the little pieces clattering on the ground. More pain. More of him, from him, for him, become hers again. The fear buried underneath forced purpose had killed him faster than the sharp teeth that had succeeded.
“The drug—he said there was a drug that numbed it?”
He’d wanted her to cry. Not because of him, but with him. To let wet heat scald him, powerful muscles shaking from the release she’d needed instead of the release she’d allowed him to give her. He’d wanted his death to offer her some comfort in her life, his violence a chance at peace.
His dreams were filled with her tears.
His nightmares, too.
“That was a compound similar to morphine. It did numb the pain, but Ma’am—”
“He’d be useless. They probably only gave it to him to knock him out—”
“So they could continue their experiments, yes. Very good, Ma’am. Agent Finn said that you were—”
“Don’t finish that sentence.”
Cracked lips tugged and tore, a hint of blood dripping back to wet his dry and swollen tongue. Conversations turned confused and wary around him, reacting to the malice they read in that smile. It was selfish because he was always selfish when he doled out his broken gifts, but he was proud of this one, removing the parasite before tiny suckers had buried into skin and bone. The one and only thing he’d done well for her, because of them all, he knew what Riley was to her. What Riley would do to her. Because when he did it—and there was always an it, always—with his sun-warmed skin and his corn-fed morals, there would be no shoehorn to put back viscera. No caulk to fill up gaping holes. No way to keep hot blood from stilling.
She needed the cold to keep her warm.
“If we wait too long, it isn’t going to matter. Ma’am.”
Her skin tasted like apples. Sweet and tart and hard, except where it was soft. He’d delighted in each and every soft spot until suddenly he was one and could see the dull brown surrounding him, stinking of rot.
“What if we just turn it off? You can do that, right? Some giant remote control you’re hiding somewhere in the flower shop? Just turn it off. Make him stop hurting.”
No. Nononononono. If she hadn’t taken all his tears, he would have wept again for her because this was the last thing. The unimportant, regrettable thing that didn’t sway the final decision. The pain she took from him was that of possibility, of chance and fate. The pain was the reason she had died twice, now, and why she would die again and again because no matter how hard she was beaten or how long her blood flowed she was the Slayer. Hero, champion, savior. Woman.
This pain was his and for once he wouldn’t share it. Skin quaked and quivered, forming ridges of hate on his brow. Shouts of consternation brought everyone closer, disgust less powerful than fascination, terror a sweeter promise. This was his. No more pain offered as benediction, the lessons taught by witch-dark grey eyes had become as distant as their owner. He was empty, alone, bereft, because all that he was, all that he had ever been was lodged underneath hair as bright as the sun he’d never see.
The sun he didn’t want to see.
Let me be cold.
“We don’t know what that would do. It was never meant to last as long as it—”
“Removing it could leave him brain-dead. That’s what you told me, right? That it could make him. . . nothing.” A gentle touch, stroking along his cheeks and the sensitive part right below his ear. Almost affectionate.
Let me stay cold.
“I need you, Spike. I need you to help me.”
Forcing his eyes to open, he wasn’t surprised when he saw tear-tracks. She always cried for the wrong reasons. “Slayer. . . finish it.”
Because it wasn’t enough, this half-life he lived. He’d forgotten the selfishness he’d supposedly been taught, the kind ‘pig’ and ‘monster’ had never really understood. He’d given everything, everything, even that burning spark and the guilt it brought. All of it was gone.
And nothing was pain, too.
“Spike, I don’t—I can’t lose you.”
The grin hurt, elongated teeth and eyes that burned with dead heat glowing with the ache of it, as he finally understood. The empty, aching, terrible cold was gone and he was suffused with knowing that either way, he won. Either way, he would be selfish again, the way he never had been before. Because he wanted it back. All of it. His pain for him alone, unshared with anyone. Wanted to revel in it, dance with it instead of just watching on the sidelines. He wanted to become it.
“You have to, Slayer. Let me be the man I was.”
And let him see what this pain could make of him.