DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The trial has been completed, Duncan is dead, and everyone is headed back to Dall Rath to finish the closing spell, and to deal with Spike’s potential burning…

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Chapter 51: Farewell, Thou Stream

She wanted so desperately to close her eyes. Just for a second. A nanosecond even. A fraction of a nanosecond. Anything to relieve the exhaustion that was slowly turning her flesh into stone. But she couldn’t; she didn’t dare, not when they were still dwelling in the land of no answers. And so Willow continued to read, so much slower than when they had started, but reading nonetheless, the multitude of candles that they’d set up throughout the underground cavern casting flickering orange stripes across the already yellowed pages, her eyes sliding across the words that sometimes seemed to be dancing the two-step before settling into something that closely resembled the foxtrot. M’s are really funny looking letters, she thought, not for the first time. I wonder if that’s why they named the candy after them. M and M, and M, and M, and ooo, pretty…

When the hand settled on her shoulder, she jumped, dropping the book that had been propped up in her lap, the sudden surge of adrenalin through her system acting faster to wake her up than a mochaccino from the Espresso Pump.

“I’m up!” she squeaked, and proceeded to bump heads with Colin as they both leaned over at the same time to pick up the text.

“So sorry,” he apologized in a rush, handing it back to her as she rubbed at her temple. “I thought you heard me come back.”

“Guess I was just all absorby with the reading,” the redhead said with a small smile. “You know how fascinating translating Peloponnesian death rituals can be.” When the aroma hit her nostrils, her mouth instantly salivated, and her eyes widened in delight at the steaming thermos the Watcher was uncapping. “Please tell me that’s tea.”

Colin smiled. “I thought you and Rupert could use a little pick-me-up,” he said as he handed it to her.

The first sip, however, had Willow choking, her eyes watering, and she stared up at the Englishman in a combination of shock and dismay. “What’s…in that?” she gasped. Air. She needed air. Except that just reminded her that her throat was now on fire. Not good. Not good at all. But at least she was awake.

Quickly, Colin took back the flask and gave it a sniff. “Oh, my,” he murmured, and looked back over his shoulder at where Giles was frowning into his own thermos. “Be right back.”

As she watched, he strode over, mumbled a few words that sounded remarkably like “sorry” and “my fault,” and then returned with the other thermos, proffering it like some tithe of pardon, an embarrassed flush creeping over his cheeks. “Wrong flask,” he said in explanation.

“Do I want to know what was in the other one?” Willow asked, tentatively sniffing the contents before lifting it to her mouth.

Colin glanced back at the other Watcher. “Um, I’ll say no.”

As she sipped at the hot liquid, the witch’s wistful gaze flickered to the sleeping forms of Anya and Tara against the cavern wall, the blankets Colin had brought down on one of his earlier forays upstairs wrapped tightly around them. They had been reluctant to take a break from the research---well, Tara had, at least; Anya was too worried about Xander to really be much good anyway---and though Willow had insisted that they get some rest, she was beginning to wish that maybe she hadn’t been so nice about it. Or that she could join them. Joining would definitely be better.

They still had no solution to Spike’s combustion problem. Text after text after text had revealed absolutely nothing, except that the Council was really a bunch of super-clever, super-sneaky, kind of evil jerks for discovering the spell in the first place. Giles had even driven into town at one point to talk to Travers when he’d been unable to reach him on the phone, but that had borne exactly zilch. They had never had any intention of Spike surviving, so had made no effort to find countermeasures for that particular aspect of the magic.

When Giles had returned to Dall Rath, he’d hit the books with more vigor than Willow had witnessed since their arrival in Scotland, delving into more arcane texts in search of an answer. The look he’d shot Tara and Anya when they’d decided to sleep had been surprisingly dangerous, and the redhead found herself wondering why he was being so diligent in their pursuit for something that would save the vampire. He had been acting oddly ever since Spike had made his announcement about going in after Buffy, regardless of the consequences to him, and Willow couldn’t help but think that maybe Giles was finally beginning to see what Buffy had been all along. Too bad it was too late to do the Slayer any good.

A glance at her watch told her that the sun was rising outside, and that breakfast would be calling their names if the others didn’t return from the Otherworld soon. Colin had already volunteered to whip something up, but Giles had put him off, telling him that they would wait until the spell was completed before eating. Willow just hoped it would be soon. For every minute that passed, she feared that the odds of them coming back at all got worse. The thought that some auxiliary plan might need to be made to retrieve even more of their numbers was daunting.

A splash from the stream tore her gaze away from the page, and Willow lifted her head to see the guardian kelpie emerge from the water with Buffy clinging to his neck. For the first time, she spied the artifact that was the root of the whole mess also hanging from his neck, the golden bells of the harness ringing softly through the underground cavern as he set the Slayer carefully down to the ground.

“Buffy!” she called out, scrambling to her feet, heedless of the book as she rushed to her best friend’s side.

Giles beat her there, removing his jacket to place it around his charge’s shivering form. “Willow, go fetch her some dry clothes,” he ordered, his tone brooking no argument.

As he handed the retreating witch the amulet and incantation for the covering over the entrance to the tunnel, Colin turned back to face the dripping wet Slayer with a frown. “You’re hurt,” he commented unnecessarily, noting the blood stains on her shoulder and pants.

“I’m fine,” Buffy replied, brushing away his concern with a distracted wave of her hand. Her brow creased as she quickly scanned the cavern. “Where’s Spike and the others?”

“Not back yet.” Giles’ voice was tight. “We were unsure as to their success as we were…reluctant to take a break from our research to investigate. But they found you, I take it.”

She nodded. “And thumped little bunny foo foo to seal up the entrance as well, so you can stop the worrying about that. Now please tell me you found a surefire way to get around Spike’s fire indemnity clause in that stupid spell.” She was holding her breath as she waited, and when, after a furtive glance between the two Watchers, Giles shook his head, she let it out in a long, vocal hiss and looked back at Frank. “Guess that means we really do have to go to Plan B.”

Colin frowned as he watched the guardian slowly remove the harness from around his neck. “Plan…B?” he queried. The sight of the gold artifact was mesmerizing, but though he would’ve loved to discuss it further with the kelpie, perhaps even touch it for a moment---he was getting quite addicted to this whole field experience extravaganza---there were more pressing matters at hand.

“Well, I’ve been more affectionately calling it the ‘whatever the hell I can do to keep Spike from certain incineration plan,’” she said. “But Frank seems to prefer ‘plan B.’” Buffy shrugged. “We don’t even know if it’s going to work. But without having something concrete from you, I…” She sighed, exhaustion weeping from her pores, and rubbed tiredly at her eyes. “…we have to try. Spike doing this in the first place does not take me to my happy place. I’m not just going to sit back and watch him go up in flame if there’s something I can do to stop it.”

Tiredly, Giles removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. This was not one of those moments he liked playing devil’s advocate. “Buffy, this was something Spike decided---,” he started, only to be cut off by a sharp wave of her hand.

“Save it. He and I have already had this argument. I don’t agree with what you guys did, especially since it did absolutely nothing in getting me back through the entrance.”

“Actually, that’s not true.” It was the first time Frank had spoken since returning, but he didn’t buckle beneath her direct gaze. Her friends deserved to know the actual circumstances, if only to better aid her, he decided. She was far more affected by this impending separation than she was letting on, and they would be more appropriately concerned for her wellbeing if they understood the extent of it. “If they had not chosen to do the closing spell, Duncan would have the harness now and you would most likely be dead.”

It was the final word that caught Giles’ ear, and he straightened, flashing blue eyes staring at the Slayer. “Dead?” he repeated. “What exactly happened in there?”

“It was no big. Duncan got a little arrow happy, is all. Frank and Spike were able to stop him.”

“Once Spike rescued you from the cave,” the kelpie prompted. “And stopped all your bleeding.”

“Bleeding?”

Buffy turned annoyed eyes to the guardian. “Not really helping here, o favorite kelpie of mine.”

The kelpie ducked his head. “Sorry.” Perhaps that had been just a little too far.

“Like I said,” she continued, swiveling back to look at her mentor, “I’m fine. What’s not fine is---.” She broke off, stiffening for a moment before taking a step toward the side of the stream. Her hazel gaze sharpened, sweeping across the bank, following the curve of the water as every muscle in her body tensed, ready to spring.

Frank watched the confusion pass between the two Englishmen as they watched their Slayer move almost hypnotically away from them, but refrained from saying what he knew to be true. He’d seen her react this way from the beginning; the fact that those closest to her were still partially blind to Buffy’s sensory appreciation for the blond vampire was almost sad. Because that’s what she was reacting to. There were no cognitive signs as of yet, but the kelpie knew that they would come. She was never wrong in this.

It was their voices they heard first, a harsh rumble of arguing, indistinct words floating to their ears in a mishmash of baritones. As it grew louder, some of them became audible---there seemed to be an inordinate number of “bloody hells” and “you’re not listening” among the phrases they caught---until an explosive-sounding Riley cut all of it off.

“I swear, if you two don’t shut up this minute, I’m going to set fire to Spike myself and finish the business of cutting off your head, Xander! I don’t care if you’re immortal now!”

Giles frowned as they came from around the bend, only casually noting the urgency in Buffy’s step as she rushed forward to meet them, his gaze captured instead by the unexpected addition to the ménage. While Riley and Xander both carried swords---weapons they had most definitely not gone in with---with the ex-soldier also balancing the urn in the crook of his arm like a football, Spike was burdened with an overlarge dead demon thrown over his bare shoulder. A cursory examination confirmed it was a kelpie, though the Watcher found his lips pursing at the very glut of stab wounds that adorned its flesh, the absence of one of its hands yet another indication of some serious swordplay.

“What took you so long?” Buffy demanded as Spike dumped the kelpie’s body to the earth. Once his load was gone, she threw herself at the vampire, hugging him tightly as his arms came around her back, his nose burying itself in her hair, both of them completely disregarding her damp state.

“See, it’s like this,” Xander started.

“I am not listening to this again!” Riley growled, and marched over to the two Watchers, thrusting the urn into Colin’s hands. “We’re here now. Let’s just get this over with. If I have to listen to these two argue for one more minute…”

“What is…that?” Giles asked, motioning toward the corpse on the ground.

“Our last shot at saving Spike.” Her voice was grim, harder than she wanted, all traces of humor wiped away as she found herself just moments away from having to face her potential loss. Not going to break, she thought. There’s still a chance at fixing this. I’m not going to break.

Without stepping away from physical contact with Spike, she told the Watchers what they had discussed on their return to the tunnel, eyes flicking to the wall when Anya and Tara woke, not even breaking stride when Willow re-appeared with dry clothes and a towel. “We don’t even know if it’ll work,” Buffy finished. “But, since you guys came up with nada, and Frank’s given us the green light for us to use the harness for this, I say we give it a go.” She paused, swallowing the lump in her throat. “We already know the worst that can happen. We don’t have anything to lose at this point.” And everything to gain if it works, she added silently.

Colin and Giles regarded each other for a moment before responding. “It would have to be timed very carefully,” the younger man finally said. “If the harness inhibits magic, it might interfere with the completion of the spell, should Spike be wearing it when he enters the stone triangle.”

“And we’re unsure when the…burning might occur,” Giles added. “It’s quite likely that it might happen before we can hand it over to him.”

Buffy nodded. “We know that.” Her quick glance back at Spike was met with a corresponding nod. “But it’s all we have.”

“Then we should probably proceed then.” Colin stepped away, scurrying to retrieve the magic supplies by the wall, while the others took their respective places near the cairn.

The only ones not to move were Buffy and Spike. Turning in his arms, the blonde lifted her head, drinking in the dark shadows under his eyes, the slight quirk of his lips as he brought up his hand to gently stroke her cheek. “Don’t die,” she instructed, and felt the resurgence of the tears she thought spent in the Otherworld pricking at her eyes. Damn it, she thought. I didn’t want to do this now. I wanted him to see me being strong. Being his Slayer. Stop crying, Buffy. Be a grown-up about this.

Spike chuckled. “Already dead, luv,” he murmured. “What you mean is, don’t fry.”

She laughed, in spite of the pain, and slapped playfully at his bare chest. “Leave it to you to argue with me to the end,” she teased, some of the lightness returning to her voice.

His mouth brushed her temple before descending down the side of her face. “Someone’s got to keep you on your toes,” he murmured.

Did it make a difference that there was a possibility this was her last ever kiss from Spike? Buffy thought as their lips met. Did it change it? Make it better? Make it worse? All of the above, she decided as her mouth opened, allowing him entrance. Her arms lifted, tightening around his neck, deepening the contact between them, and she squeezed her eyes tight, willing the tears that spilled to evaporate before the couple broke apart and the others could see her weakness. No, she corrected. Before Spike could see her weakness. He was being so brave about the whole thing, cracking his usual jokes, smiling with that gorgeous mouth even if it didn’t quite reach the azure just a few inches above; the least she could give him was an equally brave front. And besides, she reminded herself, there’s still the possibility that this crazy idea might actually work.

The clearing of Giles’ throat behind her was enough to pull her from the caress, her breathing heavy as she met his dark gaze. “Love you,” she mouthed, and watched as his head came back down, his lips settling at her ear, the anticipation of what he was going to say sending icy tingles across her skin.

“See you in a few, pet. Be ready for the shagging of a lifetime.”

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In many ways, the tableau was an exact replica of the one that had started the spell. The Watchers and Tara stood at each outer corner of the cairn, their candles lit, while inside, each of the original participants sat in anticipation of its conclusion. The inclusion of the dead kelpie on the ground in front of Spike, however, disrupted the orderliness of the presentation, while hovering at the triangle’s perimeter were Anya bearing the urn, and Buffy clutching the harness.

Willow’s eyes swept over the group as she balanced the book in her arms, all signs of her previous exhaustion now gone. “Ready?” she asked, doing her best Pollyanna impression in light of the wan pallor on her best friend’s face. Buffy was doing her best to appear strong, but the redhead could see she was fighting a losing battle, her hope that the circumvention would work wavering as the moment grew near.

“Just get on with it, Red,” Spike said. He wasn’t watching the center of the triangle as he had when they’d done the spell the previous night. This time, his dark eyes were locked on Buffy’s face, his mouth firm, and there was no denying the why of what he was doing. If Spike was going to go out in a blaze of glory, he was going to make damn sure that her face was going to be the last thing he saw, every line etched into his skin, every curve a memory to his touch. Part of him---the part he was presenting to her, the strong side---honestly believed that this diversionary tactic was going to work, but, conversely, the vampire was far from stupid. He knew it could fail. But he refused to let go of the hope. He had too much to risk here, and if Buffy could be strong, then so could he. For her sake.

A short nod from Willow, and Anya was stepping forward, leaning to place the urn in the midst of the three men before pulling quickly back, glancing at the witch as the redhead began the practiced Gaelic phrases. Almost immediately, the urn reacted, locking the bodies of Spike, Xander, and Riley in the familiar rigor that they were coming to recognize, the keening splitting the air as the ghostlike tendrils of the Otherworld spirits seeped from their chests, swirling and eddying to entwine in a dance above the urn.

Buffy hovered just beside Spike, muscles tense as her eyes darted from the vampire to the urn, to the wisps hanging in the air, before returning back to Spike. So far, so good. Not vampire flambé, but the important part of the spell wasn’t over yet. Timing. Timing was everything.

Everything seemed to happen at once.

As the last word fell from Willow’s lips…

…the candles extinguished, leaving the only illumination in the room the leftover glows from the trio’s chests within the triangle…

…the wailing rose to a shriek that echoed against the stone walls, bouncing and reverberating in a thunderous rhythm that drew nails of fire across everyone’s skin…

…the essences of the Otherworld combined in a brilliant flash before disappearing into the bowels of the urn…

…Buffy darted forward and dropped the harness in the incognizant vampire’s lap, being careful not to allow its clarion noose to slip around his neck as she did so…

…and the fire leapt from nowhere, igniting as if from the earth itself, to surround the pot at the center of the cairn, licking in scarlet and orange and yellow as it pulsed from some inner life.

Everyone outside the triangle seemed to hold their breath as the fire danced, crackling as it rolled higher and higher, finally drawing itself from the circumference of the urn to blaze in a single finger in front of Spike. His eyes were still closed, his body still locked within the effects of the spell, and where Riley and Xander were slowly relaxing, he seemed to tense even further.

Work, work, work, Buffy intoned silently, her face grim, hazel focused on the inferno that seemed to be taking far too long to do whatever it was there to do. The only thing she hated more than waiting for something to happen was the fact that she couldn’t tear her eyes away from it to look at Spike, so fearful that she was going to miss its response that she was sacrificing one last sweep of his handsome face in order to not to.

When it moved, it was like lightning. Standing there one minute, and the next, kindling the dead flesh of the kelpie in flames that stretched taller than Buffy, the sudden stench of charred demon scorching the air.

Immediately, Spike collapsed, all tension vanished as his unconscious body spilled over the edges of the stones. The Slayer’s hands were beneath his shoulders in a second, pulling him away from the fire that was already starting to lick at his legs, dragging him to safety along the far wall before he became a victim of secondhand magic.

She didn’t even hear the scramblings behind her as she knelt over him, the frantic rush of bodies as the gang beat out the spreading blaze, the ringing of the bells as someone pulled the harness to safety. The only thing Buffy was aware of was the fact that no light in the cavern meant she couldn’t actually see his face very well, a dim outline that her fingers jumped to trace. Still here. Alive. Well, undead. But still here. That was the important thing. Now if he would only wake up.

“Spike,” she murmured, and wished that he had a pulse, just that she could confirm that he was still with her. Don’t be silly, she chastised herself. He’s not dust, ergo, he’s still with you. He’s just…asleep.

Except she could hear both Xander and Riley talking behind her. If they were awake, why wasn’t he?

“Spike,” she repeated, a little bit louder. Light flared from behind her, the soft glow of candles as they were lit, one by one, illuminating the planes of the vampire’s face. It was then that she saw the flutter of his lashes, so dark against his pale skin, and felt herself smiling, her hand sweeping across his forehead as if she had to push back his hair.

“Wake up, lazybones,” Buffy teased, the relief and joy at seeing the silver-free blue gazing up at her a balm to the burning that had been searing her stomach. Over. It was all over. And he was in her arms, perfectly all right, and she could start thinking about tomorrow again, the tomorrow she’d deliberately stopped contemplating as soon as the possibility that he wasn’t going to be there arose. “I believe you promised me the shagging of a lifetime. Don’t think for a second I’m going to let you welch on that one, mister.”

It took him a moment to respond, one hand struggling to reach up and capture hers within its grasp as if the mere exertion was more than he could bear. Linking his fingers through hers, Spike lowered his arm, moaning as he tried to shift his weight, the faintest of grimaces marring his features before reverting back to the weak smile that had accompanied his waking.

“In the words of the formerly immortal Harris,” the vampire said tiredly, eyes trained on the soft hazel of her aspect, “please tell me that worked because I am bloody well not going through that rubbish again.”

 

To be concluded in Chapter 52: A Red, Red Rose