DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: A wounded Buffy has reunited with the trio and the four are now in pursuit of Duncan and the harness…

*************

Chapter 48: O, Lay Thy Life in Mine, Lass

As soon as she jerked herself free from him, stopping to stand there with her hands on her hips, hazel eyes flaring even in the darkened night air, Spike knew he’d been right in saving that little tidbit for last.

“Are you completely crazy?” Buffy demanded, forgetting for the first time since venturing from the cave the pain from her injuries. “Why would you do such a reckless thing?”

“Didn’t have much of a choice,” the vampire retorted. “You were gone, Duncan was gone, Frankie was pretty much chopped liver. Our list of options was pretty much a list of one.”

She swiveled her head to stare at Riley, who had stopped in front of them to look back at the arguing pair, Xander’s still unconscious form flung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “And you let him?” she asked, and then held up her hand. “Wait. Never mind. Look who I’m asking here. The guy who hopped a midnight plane to nowhere.” She ignored the pressed set of his mouth, the flaring of his nostrils while he held back his rebuttal, and turned back to the vampire. “Knowing you took such a risk does not thrill me, Spike.”

“Not ten minutes ago, you were happy we were here, Slayer.”

“And ten minutes ago, I didn’t know you’d decided to go kamikaze on me. Not to mention dragging Xander along for the ride so that he could become Duncan’s little finger puppet.” As if in response to his name, the brunette moaned, eliciting quiet from the trio as they all swiveled their heads to look at him, waiting to see if he would awaken. When he didn’t, Buffy rushed forward as if nothing had happened. “Which part of this plan resembles sanity to you? Because I’m wandering blind on this one. You should’ve stayed in Dall Rath. Why you would---”

His lips choked off the words in her throat, bruising and searching as he pulled her against him, his hands gliding to her waist to dig into the curves of her hips. “That’s why,” he said when he broke away from the kiss, his voice ragged from the pent-up fear, and he trailed a path of icy fire to her ear. “Love you so much, pet,” he murmured, each syllable seeping into her skin. “Makin’ sure you’re still one of the living’s the farthest thing from stupid in my book. Can’t bear to think what would’ve happened if you’d lost much more blood.”

He made it so hard to argue with him when he held her so. He did have a small point; she was more than aware that she’d lost a lot of blood in the cave prior to his arrival. If he’d taken much longer, Buffy wasn’t convinced she would’ve been strong enough to walk out of there on her own two feet. Still…what was the point in saving her if he wasn’t going to be around long enough after for her to appreciate it?

All too quickly, she became aware of her body’s reaction to his semi-nakedness, his hands sliding and caressing along her arms, and Buffy stiffened as she remembered Riley’s proximity. Not fair to him, she thought as she eased herself away, her cheeks aflame as she did her best to appear unaffected by the embrace. A sly glance at her ex out of the corner of her eye, however, told her that it was pointless; his discomfort in watching the tender scene screamed silently from every muscle in his body.

Riley cleared his throat, tearing his gaze away from the pair to look forward in the direction of the tunnels back to Dall Rath. “It’s not a foregone conclusion,” he offered, voice tight. “Giles and Willow are researching while we’re here---.”

“They’ve been researching this for days,” she interrupted. “And they still haven’t come up with anything. What difference is a couple hours going to make?”

“A couple hours can be a lifetime,” Spike said softly, catching her chin to turn her head back to him. His eyes were dark, shiny, the white glow from the closing spell delineating them in silver as he scanned the planes of her face, almost as if he was trying to etch them into his memory. The pad of his thumb brushed over her swollen bottom lip, coaxing it to relax from the firm set she had returned it to when she’d pulled away from their kiss. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be by wastin’ your energy on bein’ mad about something you can’t change.”

She held his gaze for a long moment before grimacing. “I hate it when you’re right,” she grumbled, and then sighed. “What if we didn’t do the trial?” The tiniest glimmer of hope crept into her voice as she looked down at the urn she now held. “The spell wouldn’t get finished and maybe then you wouldn’t go poof.”

His eyes narrowing, Spike tilted his head, mulling over the possibility that seemed so obvious and yet heretofore had not been considered. “Never thought of that,” he said slowly.

“Wait a minute.” Riley frowned, uncomfortably shifting his weight as the burden of the man on his shoulder ground into his torso. “You’re telling me you’d actually consider not closing the entrance after everything we’ve done here? What about the guardian? He’s counting on us.”

A snort of derision came from the vampire’s throat. “This the same guardian who charmed Buffy into coming through in the first place?” he countered. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if he’d just kept his hands to himself.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the Slayer intervened. “Our priority at this point is catching up to Duncan and killing him once and for all. You said that was the only way to break his hold over Xander?” She waited for the nod of assent from the two men. “And you haven’t even found the trial yet. Just those demon things coming from the water, right?”

“And we haven’t even been attacked by those since we realized Spike’s chip wasn’t working on us,” Riley clarified.

“I wonder why none of them bothered me,” Buffy mused, a small line appearing between her brows.

“Does it matter? Think you’d be grateful not to have to be fussed with them.” Letting his arm return to her waist, the vampire began guiding her back along the stream. “Let’s just get this show on the road. The sooner we get rid of that pillock, the happier I’m goin’ to be.”

Buffy glanced over her shoulder as they walked by Riley. “You OK?” she asked, gesturing with a small nod toward Xander’s unconscious form.

“I’m fine,” he replied. He wasn’t---the young man was heavier than he looked---but he wasn’t about to give Spike the satisfaction of knowing he couldn’t pull his own weight on this. Or Xander’s weight, for that matter.

*************

Swimming with the harness was far from simple, weighing him down and slowing his pace until Duncan began to debate whether or not it might not be easier to just walk along the bottom of the stream. It was deep enough for that along its center, but the bottom was mucky and the kelpie feared that the pull at his feet would tire him more quickly; his strength was flagging enough as it was. No, better to keep on swimming, and just take it slow and steady. It wasn’t as if he had to worry about the completion of the closing spell with the harness now in his possession. That was going to be his free pass through just about anything, now.

He wasn’t worried about the humans---and vampire---catching up to him, nor was he anxious about the ones waiting on the other end. He’d merely bide his time within the stream until they all left, then use the powers of the harness to go through whatever magical barriers they erected over the tunnel to the dungeon. Escaping would be simple, as long as he stuck with just that. No more playing around with trying to kill any of Dall Rath’s tenants. That had gotten him into too much trouble as it was.

The water began to muddy, indicating Duncan was nearing the caves that led to the human world. He would miss the beauty of the Otherworld, that was certain, but the power that lay promised to him as the new owner of the harness was more appealing, thoughts of harems of beautiful human girls catering to his every whim dancing before his mind eye. They were fragile creatures, but not without their charms. It was only a shame he couldn’t have taken the Slayer along for the ride. Perhaps one of the others...the redhead maybe, or young Xander’s girlfriend. Now that one was a spitfire.

So lost in his daydreams, he didn’t see the shadows darken before him, and it wasn’t until he caught the gleam against a dark orb did Duncan realize he was no longer alone in the waters. Quickly, he dodged to the side, hoping to evade notice with this one as he had the two others he’d come across on his trek. But the claw around his ankle stayed his movement, jerking him to a halt, and he glanced back to see the battle-scarred guardian glaring at him in contempt.

Frank’s lips curled back into a snarl, the glint of glee at his success shining in his eyes. He was taken off-guard, though, when Duncan lashed out with his other foot, his heel connecting with the guardian’s jaw, the impact whipping his head to the side. His fingers loosened, and the thief took the opportunity to take a strong stroke toward the surface, breaking the grip around his leg as he fought to get away.

Swimming through the water had worked wonders in healing some of the superficial wounds that adorned the guardian’s body. Though he was still fairly badly injured, he could see that the thief was as well. Even better than that, he could see that the thief had the harness. Although that meant that the Slayer was most likely dead---and the twinge of guilt at being the cause of it burned in Frank’s gullet as he shoved the thought aside---it also meant that this could end here and now. All he had to do was kill the traitor.

Their heads broke through the surface almost simultaneously, and the guardian frowned as he watched Duncan leap to the shore. Fighting on land would be taxing; he much would’ve preferred remaining in the water. But that was where the harness was, and so that was where he would follow…

*************

Because they walked in silence, they heard it far sooner than they saw it. Growls and grunts shattered the night quiet, carrying on the same slight breeze that had alerted Spike to the scent of Buffy’s blood, and the sounds brought tension to the muscles of the group, each one suddenly wary of what they might be approaching.

Spike was the first to see it, the pair blacker than the sky behind them, and noted with a returning ire that Duncan had now reverted to his kelpie form. His eyes flared when he saw the guardian stumble to the ground, and his body jerked forward, anxious to join the fray.

“Is that Frank?” Buffy asked, gaze narrowed as she peered into the darkness.

“The wonder kelpie himself,” the vampire muttered, and stepped in front of her, staring down into her eyes as he cupped her face. “Stay here,” he ordered quietly. “I’m going to finish this once and for all.”

“You can’t do this on your own,” she said. “Take Riley.”

Spike shook his head. “You’re in no shape to be putting up a defense in case the Galloping Gourmet up there makes a runner for it.” His gaze flickered back to the other man. “You’ll watch her.” It wasn’t a question; it wasn’t an order. It was a tacit understanding between the two that no matter what, they would do everything in their power to protect Buffy, albeit at varying ranges.

She, however, was having nothing of it. “I’m feeling stronger,” she argued. “I hardly need a babysitter.”

“Then think of it as me protectin’ his ass then,” Spike shot back. “He’s been totin’ Harris around for the last half hour, as well as having to play Errol Flynn back there while I got you out of that cave. He’s tired, which means he’s a liability---.”

“Hey!”

“---and I don’t want to have to be watchin’ his back as well as my own,” the vamp finished, ignoring the protest from Riley. “So he stays.” Before she could respond, his head descended, mouth settling over hers in a firm kiss, his tongue seeking entry even as she opened to let him in. The caress was short but searing, his fears and desires for her scalding in each sweep, setting the nerves of her skin alight as her hands came up to clutch at his biceps. When he pulled away, his lips skated across her cheek to rest at her ear, nipping the corner of her jaw in the process. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured, and then he was gone, the sword hanging dangerously from his hand as he strode in pale glory toward the pair in the distance.

Carefully, Riley set Xander’s unconscious form on the ground, balancing his weapon as he stepped between Buffy and the fight, studiously avoiding looking at her flushed face. “As long as that…boyfriend of yours doesn’t decide to showboat,” he said tightly, his throat almost choking on the description of the vampire, “this shouldn’t take too long.”

She sighed, oblivious to her ex’s discomfort as she stared at Spike’s pale back sauntering toward the battling demons, and rubbed her hands over her suddenly chilled arms. “It’s those showboating tendencies that I’m worried about,” she said softly.

*************

“You should’ve just died back under Dall Rath,” Duncan grunted as he leveled a foot at the guardian’s abdomen.

At the last moment, Frank rolled away, edging his way toward the harness the thief had been forced to abandon to the side. “You are not worthy to have my death on your hands,” he said, and eased himself up onto his haunches. In spite of his injuries, he was holding his own against the traitor, the only indication of effort on his part the slight raggedness to his breath.

Duncan rolled his eyes. “You guardians are so full of yourselves,” he mocked, and began circling around him, maintaining his wracked body between the kelpie on the ground and the harness. “It’s all about your duty, your honor. Where was your precious honor when you sent the Slayer scurrying into the Otherworld? I’m surprised Spike didn’t kill you on the spot when he found that bit of information out.”

“Not that the idea didn’t occur to me,” the vampire drawled from behind them, “but turns out he’s more useful alive than dead.”

Whirling, Duncan found himself facing the bleached demon, and watched as the moonlight glinted off the blade he so casually sliced through the air in a practiced stroke. His lips curled into a sneer. “Shouldn’t you be tending your beloved Slayer?” he hissed. “Or, and please tell me this is true, were you too late to save her? She was a little worse for wear when I last parted her company.”

Spike shook his head. “You should’ve learned by now Buffy always bounces back. It’s goin’ to take something a helluva lot more dangerous than you to be the one who brings her down.” His eyes flickered to the guardian. “How you doin’ there, Frankie boy?”

“I’ve been better,” Frank replied from his position on the ground. There was no longer any doubt in his mind as to how this battle would finish. The vampire glowed in the moonlight from barely contained fury, every sinew of his undead flesh an exercise in danger as he advanced on the thief. As long as he could keep the other kelpie occupied, Frank would be able to retrieve the harness with little problem.

Another swish of the sword and Spike was several feet closer, closing the gap in lightning moves that surprised the kelpie in their quickness. “You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to do this,” the vampire murmured, and before Duncan could react, he lunged forward, driving the tip into his shoulder and then extracting it in a sticky gurgle, the blood bubbling in blackened rivulets around the edges of the hole it left behind.

He screamed in pain, his hands automatically going to the fresh wound, and lifted blazing eyes to stare at Spike.

“Just a little taste test of what Buffy’s goin’ through,” the vampire drawled, eyes hard in hate. “Care to try another one?”

Another sweep, and a scarlet line appeared on Duncan’s calf, sending the kelpie diving forward in rage, under the retreating weapon, to tackle the vampire around the knees before he could move away, sending both of them sprawling to the earth and the sword flying through the air. Immediately, Spike vamped, eyes glittering golden as his mouth contorted into a snarl.

“Payback’s a bitch,” he commented, and brought up his feet to plant them against the kelpie’s abdomen, flipping him back over his head to land flat on his back behind him. He kept hold of the demon’s arms, however, and felt the joint in one of its shoulders snap from the socket, smiling widely at the yelp of pain that came from the kelpie’s mouth. As he released the limb, Spike rolled to his side, pouncing to retrieve the sword from a nearby patch of flowers before turning back to face him.

Duncan’s breathing was labored, his strength already sapped from the battles with Buffy and the guardian. Having a vampire attacking him at full-force was going to kill him, he knew, and he found himself summoning upon his reserves to shapeshift, believing that would be his only method of escape. Something small, he thought desperately. Perhaps a bird…to fly away…

Spike was faster. Almost as if he knew what the kelpie was considering, he raised the blade over his head, bringing it down in a clean arc to slice through the downed demon’s wrist, severing his left hand from his arm in a gush of blood.

The metamorphosis Duncan had been instigating halted in a curdling scream, ringing through the night as he rolled to get out of the way of the approaching vampire. Dark eyes lifted to stare into the smiling face.

“Really, if you think about it, this is all your fault,” Spike said casually, tilting his head. “Told you to keep your hands off her, but you just didn’t listen, did you?” He tsked his tongue in mock reproval. “Something tells me, though, that maybe that’s not enough to teach you your lesson.”

He was ready for it this time. As the sword came down a second time, Duncan tucked himself into a ball and threw himself toward Spike, his bleeding arm held tight against his torso as he made contact with the vampire’s shins.

The blade swung wildly as Spike stumbled backwards, and he fumbled at the weapon, grabbing it by the honed edge before he lost it completely. It sank into his palm, and he snarled at the sting, quickly switching hands before bringing the cut up to his mouth and sucking at it viciously. “Any time you feel like helpin’ here, Frankie,” he called out, “be my guest.”

“You seem to have everything under control,” the guardian replied. During the battle, he had edged himself closer to the harness, and was just then reaching out to grab it, the sight of the golden bells causing his heart to thump wildly. Finally. He would be able to save his honor. Now if the vampire would just go ahead and kill the traitor, he thought, life could back to normal.

*************

“What in hell is he doing over there?” Buffy asked, a perplexed frown wrinkling her forehead. Her eyes were glued to the tableau of demons in the distance, watching as a certain platinum head began circling one of the downed kelpies, the moonlight catching glints of silver off the sword that hung from his hand.

Riley’s face was grim. “From this angle, I’d say he’s showboating,” he said dryly.

“This is so not the time for this,” she muttered, and began marching forward, only to be stopped by her ex’s hand around her forearm.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to kill Duncan,” she retorted. “And then I’m going to beat some sense into a certain show-off vampire.”

Behind them, Xander started to stir, and the pair looked back to see his eyes flicker open. “Knew he was evil,” they heard him mutter as his hand came up to his head. “The vamp is going down.”

“Great,” Buffy said under her breath. Pulling her arm from Riley’s grasp, she took advantage of his distraction to make a bolt for the fighting. “Spike!” she yelled as she ran. “Hurry your ass up!”

*************

He heard her call his name and silently cursed her impatience. Got everything under control here, he thought irritably as he ran his sword through yet another of the cook’s limbs. Don’t know what she’s so hot and bothered about.

His blue eyes were trained on the bleeding kelpie, darting from one injury to the next, savoring the damage he’d inflicted. Numerous stab wounds dotted his flesh, and Spike was starting to hope he could make a pattern of the various punctures before the blighter up and died on him when he saw Buffy come to a halt on Duncan’s opposite side, arms folded across her chest, that what-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-doing look plastered across her face.

“You look luscious when you’re all brassed off like that, pet,” he said with a smirk.

“Stop goofing around,” she said. “You’re acting like a kid who plays with his food before eating it. Stick a fork in him. He’s done.” She noticed for the first time the severed hand resting just several feet away, and her eyes widened, jumping back to see the amputation on the kelpie. “What’s with turning him into Captain Hook?” she demanded.

Spike shrugged. “Thought he needed a reminder to keep his hands off you,” he said.

“He needs to be dead. Our resident zombie’s awake.”

A quick glance over her shoulder saw Riley struggling to keep Xander from rushing to join the fight. “Bloody hell,” the vamp muttered, before returning his gaze to the kelpie before him. “Fine. Have it your way, Slayer.”

And before Duncan could move, the sword came down between his shoulder blades, burying itself in his flesh, pinning him to the cold, hard ground.

With a quirk of his lips, Spike looked up into Buffy’s face. “Better?”

“Other than being a tad on the extreme side, I’d say much.”

The vampire shrugged. “You’re the one who said ‘stick a fork in him.’ Figured I’d improvise.”

Though she shook her head, there was no mistaking the amusement that flickered in Buffy’s eyes as she watched him step around to join her. “You’re impossible,” she commented as he pulled her against him.

“And you love it…” Spike replied, the words almost lost as he buried his mouth in the curve of her neck.

***************

Brown eyes widened in shock as he saw Riley’s fist come hurtling through the air toward his face. “Hey!” Xander yelled, throwing himself stomach first to the ground in a desperate attempt to avoid the blow. “What did I do? What did I do?” he screeched, his voice rising an octave in fear.

Riley stopped, freezing in mid-punch as he frowned at the young man cowering in the grass, his arms over his head as if to shield himself from a massive beating from the ex-soldier. “Xander?” he questioned hesitantly. “You…OK?”

Xander peeked between his arms. “Am I OK?” he squawked. “Am I OK? You’re the one who’s gone all Rambo on me.”

“I’m trying to keep you from killing Spike.”

That made him pause. “Why would I want to kill Spike? I thought that was your thing.” He sat up, head swiveling as he surveyed his surroundings. “Where is Spike, anyway?”

Relaxing his stance but still alert to any trouble, Riley ignored the question. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Xander’s face wrinkled into a frown as he thought, and it took a full ten seconds before his eyes went wide, jerking his head to stare up at the other man. “Buffy’s hurt!” he exclaimed. “She’s---.”

“---right here,” the Slayer finished as she stepped up behind Riley. “How’re you feeling?”

“Frankly, a little confused.” Xander’s gaze darted between them, jumping to Spike’s approach, with a harness-laden Frank limping along behind. “Did I miss something here?”

“Only all the important stuff,” the vampire said dryly. “As usual.”

“Well, at least that’s one thing back to normal,” Buffy said with a sigh, rubbing tiredly at her face. “Which leaves us the million dollar question. What now? Do we go ahead and close the entrance, or do we take a chance and try it again later when we know how to keep Spike safe?”

The vampire was about to respond, but his attention was captured by a splash from the water. Turning his head, his eyes narrowed as they watched the creature emerge from the stream, and his lips pursed. “Think that,” he said, gesturing toward the dripping form approaching them, “pretty much gives us our answer.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 49: On a Bank of Flowers