Author’s Note: please let me know if I’ve handled Buffy’s reunion with Spike well, or if they seem OOC. Remember that Buffy’s made her peace with him (see TGoD chapters 14 and 15). Am VERY concerned with rendering Spike properly; if anything seems OOC I beg you, let me know.
This chapter dedicated to Boromir and Haldir. Here’s hoping they forgive me for how I sacrificed them for the sake of plot in the last chapter.
Without, Part 24
“I don’t trust you either,” rumbled Gimli from the far side of the fire pit.
Thranduil turned from his perusal of the river in the distance to face the dwarf. It was a lovely night, if one discounted the staggering heat, equally unpleasant humidity, and less-than-ideal companionship. A longing for the cool and shady forests of Mirkwood flashed through him, quickly and ruthlessly suppressed. Had he not lived enough of his life longing for what could not be had?
The elf surveyed Gimli a long moment. He was son to one of the party who had so kindly paid him a visit last century, but he could not be sure which. It mattered little; a dwarf was a dwarf, short and disagreeable and unpleasantly resistant to his machinations. That they claimed the ugliest language this side of the Ered Lithui did not help matters any, either.
“Your pardon, Master Dwarf,” he said calmly, the barest hint of overexaggeration in his tone. “But I was not aware that I had spoken, especially about your trustworthiness, or lack thereof.”
The dwarf smiled, a tight smile that held an unsurprising amount of warning. “You do not sleep now, because you do not trust a dwarf to keep watch.”
Thranduil’s gaze was cool, assessing. “Ah, you have found me out,” he replied smoothly. “How canny you are.”
Gimli’s eyes narrowed. “Now you mock me.”
“Not at all.” Thranduil clasped his hands behind his back and turned once more to face the river.
Gimli waited for him to say more, but the elf was silent. Shooting a glance to the others, he saw that Buffy and Legolas slept peacefully in each other’s arms to his right, and Radagast lay in deep repose to his left. Standing, muscles protesting after a long day of walking, he made his way to Thranduil’s side.
“What’s so blasted interesting about the river?” he demanded, striving to keep his voice low so as to not wake them. He followed the line of the elf’s gaze; try though he might, there was naught unusual or particularly fascinating about it; just some water, some rocks, and a damned lot of weeds if you asked him.
“There are many things about a river to intrigue a person,” Thranduil answered easily. “See how the moon reflects off the water? The ripples are like purest mithril. And the water itself—so black in the night, like a torrent of ink.” He took a deep breath, chest rising and falling with the evenly. “The smell is fresh, damp, primal—one can easily imagine the first days of Arda after Iluvatar created it, with that scent in one’s nose, do you not agree, Master Dwarf?”
Completely disconcerted, Gimli barely had time to stammer, “Er…” before Thranduil continued.
“The river teems with life. Fish, frogs, snakes.” He watched Gimli slap at a mosquito buzzing around his beard, and smirked. “Insects.” He turned his gaze, green where Legolas’ was blue, upstream and it sharpened, as if he expected to see something. Shadows cast by the moon carved a more severe cast to his profile; in this light, he closely resembled the hawks he’d been observing that day. “And, if one is patient, people.”
Up to this point, Gimli had been goggling at the idea of having such a… normal conversation with the haughty king, and Thranduil’s last statement redoubled his confusion. He already knew Legolas’ father was annoying; perhaps he was mad as well?
“People? In the river?” he asked, snorting disdainfully. “I think you might be mistaken, your fine majesty.”
Thranduil sliced a glance at Gimli, and a slow smile spread across his handsome visage. “But of course,” he agreed silkily. “I forget how inferior elven senses are to dwarven. But will you humour me, and tell me what you see by the water’s edge?”
Gimli was now positive that Mirkwood had a lunatic for a monarch, but felt compelled to look by the sheer force of Thranduil’s scorn alone. “Lot of mad elves,” he muttered, stomping down the embankment and through the reeds that loomed higher than his head. “There is no one here,” he called quietly up to where Thranduil’s dark form stood starkly against the moonlit sky.
“There will be,” the enigmatic answer drifted down to him as Thranduil turned and walked away, presumably back to the fire.
Great pity filled Gimli for his friend for the sad state of said friend’s father, and he made to return to where he was supposed to be keeping watch when he heard a voice.
It was coming from the river.
And it was familiar.
“I cannot believe you made us fall in the river,” it was saying. “So much for super-duper senses… aren’t you supposed to send out sound waves so you can tell where you are?”
“I’m a vampire, not a bat, you ignorant cow,” retorted another, male voice. It had an unusual accent, but the meaning of his words was clear enough. “And if you mention Dracula, I swear I’ll drain you dry and dump your body for the pygmies to make a fetish from.”
“I’ve already been their pincushion, what’s a fetish between friends?” the female voice replied sourly. “Can we get out now? This is twice in one day I’ve been waterlogged. It’s getting old.”
“Well, at least you’re clean,” the man said nastily, and rhythmic splashes told Gimli he was swimming toward the shore. “Your pong was starting to make my nose bleed after a day tramping through the jungle. You sweat like a horse.”
More splashes; the woman was heading for shore as well. “Women glow. I was glowing,” she said at last, a little out of breath from her exertions.
“Well, you glow like a horse, then.” The man hoisted his body from the water and shook himself like a dog. Then he stopped suddenly and sniffed the air, turning unerringly to where Gimli stood half-hidden in the tall grasses not ten feet away. “Oi, there’s someone here. Someone short.”
She extricated herself from the river. “Not another pygmy,” she sighed tiredly. “I hate those little fuckers,” she added, limping up to him. “If I ever— Gimli!” she exclaimed when she caught sight of him.
“Corinne,” he gasped in reply, because she’d thrown her arms around him to hug him tightly enough to suffocate. She was also getting him all wet. “Stop. Stop now.”
“Sorry,” she replied, stepping back and stumbling when her leg gave way beneath her. Gimli’s hands came out to grasp her round the waist and hold her up.
“Let’s get you to the fire,” he said, his voice gruff to hide his gladness at finding her, even if she were accompanied by a very strange man who now seemed to be petting the long leather garment he’d shrugged off moments before.
“Gladly,” Corinne agreed, allowing him to assist her up the steep incline. At the top appeared a sleepy Legolas and his father, the former looking greatly surprised to see her and the latter, extremely satisfied.
“I bow to your skills of perception, Master Dwarf,” he told Gimli, smiling angelically, teeth and earcuff winking in the moonlight. Gimli only scowled; accursed elves, were there but two that didn’t make him long to murder them? He spared a glance for his friend, and thought of Galadriel, and slowly felt recede the urge to twist Thranduil’s head off his body.
Legolas frowned and elbowed his way past his father to scoop Corinne into his arms. “You are injured?” he asked, beginning to carry her to the camp, but before she could reply, Buffy interrupted, her voice muzzy from sleep.
“You found her? Where is she? Is she—“ Then she was interrupted.
“Sodding hell,” Spike grumbled, holding his duster up at arm’s length and watching it drip onto the ground as he came over the rise of the bank. “This will never be the same,” he declared mournfully. “Fifty years I’ve had it, and—“
He looked up then, and for the first time in nearly three decades laid eyes on the sight of one Buffy Summers. She stood before him, messy bed-head hair backlit by the fire behind her, and stared at him in complete, utter, poleaxed shock.
“Spike?” she whispered, too softly for mortal ears to hear, and then to his utter shock, she was in his arms, hugging him fiercely. “Is it really you? You’re not just some weird Powers-induced vision again, are you? Because with all the wiggy mind-games going on in this place, I wouldn’t be surprised…”
Head whirling, he was intoxicated by the knowledge that the vice-grip around his ribcage was, indeed, that of Buffy. She was the only mortal he’d ever loved as a vampire, the Slayer he’d never been able to bring himself to kill, the person whose death he’d grieved for decades, and she wasn’t making a lick of sense.
Dimly, a memory came to him of what he’d thought was a dream just a few months after Dawn had left to join Buffy. Something about a cave, about convincing her to let go of the Poof and be happy … “Buffy,” he murmured. Pulling back in his embrace, she gazed up at him and their eyes locked, held… a second seemed to stretch and lengthen, crystallizing and tightening.
“Ow,” complained Corinne, shattering the moment as Legolas placed her on the ground with rather more force than was strictly required.
Ignoring her, Legolas turned to his wife. “Will you not introduce us?” he asked, his voice taking on Thranduil’s silken tones of menace. She pulled free of the vampire’s embrace to cross her arms over her chest and glower at him.
Spike cocked his hip, managing to appear impossibly cool even whilst soaking wet. “This must be the old man,” he commented, ostensibly to Corinne. “He’s got that humorless married look about ‘im, don’t you think, pet?”
“I’m sore; come look at my butt and see if the wound is doing alright,” she directed, completely ignoring his question. “And stop teasing him; if he doesn’t gut you like a fish, his father will.”
“Father?” Spike looked around; beside Buffy the group seemed to consist only of two similar-looking, handsome young men and the squat hairy chap they’d first seen down by the river. He cast the hairy one a glance of great doubt before meeting the eyes of the other young man. Tall and fit, he walked languidly around the fire, and met Spike’s gaze with one of his own that managed to be both bored and challenging at the same time. In him, Spike recognized the kindred spirit of the overprotective parent, for hadn’t he always felt the same way about the Nibblet?
He nodded briefly at that bloke, and turned his attention to the one he supposed was Buffy’s husband. He was almost a carbon copy of the first, but with blue eyes instead of green, and an air of defiance that made his entire body quiver with tension. Possessive, this one, and Spike wondered how Buffy liked being hovered over, as she’d always been quite the independent chippie before she’d died.
A catlike smirk curled the corners of his mouth, and he lifted his hands in mock surrender. “I cry peace, mate,” he said, eyes shining with humour. “I’ve not come to steal your bride; she’d have nothing to do with me before her death, and I doubt she’s any more inclined now.” Then he looked at her and quirked his scarred brow suggestively; just as he expected, Buffy rolled her eyes and her husband seemed to swell with rage.
“Legolas, relax,” she told him, her demeanor shifting instantly to loving and concerned spouse; fascinating, thought Spike. “He’s just an old friend.”
“I’m more than that, Slayer,” Spike purred. “I’m the only vamp you were never able to best in a fight.”
“That’s crap,” she replied flatly, a glint coming into her eye. “There were dozens of times I could have taken you out, and you know it.”
“Do I?” His words were soft, rebellious. “Then why didn’t you?” When she didn’t answer, he continued. “I think you just like to dance.” Stepping back, ignoring how his wet boots squelched on the ground, he spread his arms wide. “Care to dance with me, Slayer?”
Buffy smiled at him, the slow feral smile she always wore when she was looking forward to a challenge, the smile he’d fallen in love with all those years ago, and her stance shifted marginally, becoming looser, more ready to spring. “I’ve learned a few new steps, Spike. Think you can keep up?”
Spike’s borrowed blood sang through his veins, filling him with exhilaration. “Oh, I can keep up, Slayer.”
He barely had time to deflect the tiny fist that flew at him with the force of a troll hammer, but he managed it and used her momentum to fling her past him, meaning to have Buffy land flat on her back so he could pounce. Instead, she twisted mid-air and landed on her hands and knees. He barely had time for a smirk before she launched herself at him, knocking him backwards over the sputtering fire—he felt the flames flick at his backside-- to pin him to the ground. Her hands came at him in a flurry of punches, some of which he blocked and some of which he allowed to hit just because he, in moments of perversity such as this, rather enjoyed the sudden shock and sting of pain such blows would bring.
There was triumph in her eyes, those glowing green-gold eyes that used to haunt his sleep and make him smoke endless numbers of cigarettes under that bloody tree outside her bedroom window. After her death, he’d smoked countless more in that very spot, trying to drown his grief in tobacco smoke and cheap whiskey as he stared up at her window and waited for the silhouette that would never come again, but it hadn’t worked. Only time had solved it, that and the acceptance that she was gone, gone forever.
Except that she wasn’t. She wasn’t gone, she wasn’t dead, and a mass of anguish twisted with relief roiled up from the depths of what he’d have called his soul, had he possessed one. Dropping his arms, he took a good solid punch in the face, then another, before she realized that not only was he not fighting back, he was shaking.
“Spike?” she asked uncertainly as she stopped hitting him, frowning in puzzling when he shoved her off him and buried his face in his hands. “Spike?”
“He missed you,” Corinne said softly from where she stood leaning on Gimli.
Buffy hesitantly put one arm around him, then the other, and drew his head to her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Spike,” she whispered to him, at the same time seeking out Legolas with her eyes and begging him to understand, to not be angry or jealous as the vampire’s arms came around to grip her tightly.
“Reluctant as I am to interrupt this reunion,” Thranduil said, his voice like velvet in the firelit night, “I feel compelled to tell you that there is evil in the air; we are not alone, nor safe.”
“That’s just me,” Spike said with a hint of his usual balls-and-swagger comportment and grinned at Buffy, who sat back on her heels and grinned back, vastly relieved he was recovering. Cocky!Spike she could handle without a problem, but Needy!Weeping!Grief-stricken!Spike made her distinctly uncomfortable.
The elven king’s mouth curled in a one-side smirk. “I think not,” he answered, and in a single motion drew both daggers from their back-sheath, spun in a circle, and decapitated the discolored zombie that had been about to attack him from behind. Radagast frowned and muttered something about being in the middle of talking to Arwen, but swiftly raised his staff to counter the assault.
Buffy and Spike were on their feet before the zombie’s head hit the ground, and when she saw the pitiable state of the vampire’s weapon she tossed one of her swords to him. “Ta, luv,” he said, and cleft in twain another zombie as it staggered into the clearing. “Ring around the schoolgirl!” he called happily, mood improving drastically now there were things to kill. Or, in the case of the already-dead zombies, dismember.
The inhabitants of Arda exchanged puzzled glances as they defended themselves, but Buffy and Corinne seemed to know what he meant as Corinne limped hurriedly to the centre of the clearing and Buffy joined ranks with Spike to stand with their backs to her, keeping any of the zombies from reaching Corinne. Twigging, Gimli, Legolas, Radagast and Thranduil took position around her as well, and it was with almost embarrassing ease that they defeated all comers. To the surprise of all but Radagast himself, he fought not with magic, but with his staff itself, bashing quite effectively with its stout oaken heft.
The battle was somewhat slow, and more than a bit boring as zombies have little going for them besides their undead status, but what they lacked in excitement they made up for in sheer numbers. Hack and slash, hack and slash, for over an hour until the flow of adversaries slowed to a trickle and finally there were no more.
When it was over and they all turned to grin in triumph at each other, Corinne’s plaintive voice could be heard: “They were teal, too. Is that what’s going to happen to me? Really not wanting to be a zombie. I have enough problems.”
“Let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it,” Buffy said, pushing a stray wisp of hair off her sweat-sticky forehead. “For now, let’s just say you’re available in fashion colours, and let’s leave it at that, ‘kay?”
Ered Lithui = Ash Mountains, forming the northern border of Mordor.