Without, Part 31
It took the group a long time to decide that one of them was going to dive into the water and see how safe it was for the rest to do as well; it took even longer to decide which would be the one to do it. In the end it was agreed that Buffy would do it, not because it made the most sense, what with her being able to come back to life if she died, but because she shouted the loudest.
And so, with a last kiss from her husband, a last hug from her sister, and quite fierce frowns from everyone else, she released her hold on Legolas and allowed herself to fall. Arms outstretched, eyes closed, it was a glorious feeling: air rushing past her, her body weightless, and then she remembered she had to dive or else hitting the water would hurt. She arranged herself into a diving position and braced herself for a shock of cold, but was pleasantly surprised to find the water was rather warm and pleasant, if somewhat mineral-tasting and cloudy.
With a few kicks of her powerful legs, she resurfaced and waved up at the group far above whom she knew had been waiting anxiously before making for shore. The current was insanely strong, coming as it did from the enormous waterfall at the far end of the long cavern; it kept trying to force her downstream and she had to thrash her arms with all her might to make it toward the shore. She was just about to heave herself onto the narrow strip of land when hands came out of seemingly nowhere and reached to lift her up.
“Thranduil!” she gasped. “You’re…” He was soaking wet, summer-wheat hair cascading in long ringlets over the broad shoulders to which his sleeveless tunic clung like a second skin, revealing the hard contours of a flawlessly sculpted chest. Droplets of water sparkled in his sable lashes, framing his eyes like diamonds around emeralds, and as she watched, a single bead of water rolled sinuously down his throat to rest in the hollow of his throat.
Why couldn’t he be balding and paunchy like a normal father-in-law? she wondered. Aloud, she finished her sentence. “You’re ok.”
He shot her a look that plainly declared, “I’m far better than merely ok, you fool,” but only said, “Yes, as is Radagast. I do not know about the vampire; he was gone when I awoke.”
“Where is Radagast?” Buffy asked.
“Pouting,” Thranduil replied. “He was not especially pleased to have a swim.” He smiled. “A pity; I found it refreshing in the extreme.” He led her around a jagged outcropping of rock where the wizard was sitting in an untidy heap, trying in vain to squeeze out the skirts of his robe. The ends of his moustache quivered in indignation as he lifted his head and spotted them approaching, but he said nothing.
In short order they decided that the others had to come down; Buffy and Thranduil would help them to shore if they required assistance. Back on the shore, they motioned to the others and one by one the rest of the company descended with mighty splashes into the water. Legolas and Haldir went first, both managing quite well to combat the current, and then Arwen and Elessar with only a little more trouble. Dawn and Boromir did indeed need assistance to get to shore but with all the rest helping it was no trouble at all.
Gimli struck the water like a dead weight, immediately beginning to sink until Buffy and Legolas dragged him up and hauled him to land, spluttering the entire way about how undignified it was. They chalked his surly mood to having to wake from his happy dream, and left him to wring out his beard in peace as Corinne, the last to jump, plummeted to earth.
The first thing Corinne realized was that the water felt more like a warm embrace than a shock to the system; the second, and infinitely more distressing, was that she was breathing. Breathing and not drowning, that is. Running her hands over her face and neck, she found that little flaps had formed on either side of her throat.
“Oh, good,” she said sourly, “I have gills. Perfect.” Her voice was echoey and vibrated in the water that caressed and undulated around her, and she found that she was, instead of rising as most people are wont to do, dropping like a stone to the bottom.
Above, she fancied the others were searching for her, but with low visibility, strong current, and their inability to match her newfound breathing apparatus, it wasn’t looking good for them. She tried to leap up, to swim toward the surface, but her feet were as if rooted to the riverbed. She sighed, feeling the swish of water through her gills, and tried to figure out what she was supposed to do now. She wished, not for the first time since breaking the cartouche, that she could have kept her ability to think to Haldir. It would have come in handy right about now.
“Greetings,” said a voice from behind her, and the water around her cleared to crystal purity. Corinne spun clumsily to find a short, dumpy man with myriad braids in his dark hair standing before her. In each of his chubby hands he held a curvy vase, and delicately tinted gills fluttered on either side of his neck. Behind him, and coming swiftly to surround her as well, was a host of marine life: crocodiles, frogs, fish, eels. All eyed her with wariness, as if they forbore her presence only because they humored their lord.
“Hi,” she replied uncertainly. “Do I have you to thank for the gills?”
He nodded and beamed at her. “It was indeed my pleasure,” he replied, juggling his vases briefly to free one hand so he could shake hers and revealing that he happened to be sporting quite the loveliest set of breasts Corinne had ever had the good fortune to clap eyes on. High and firm, perfectly round, and capped with pretty pink nipples, they were every woman’s fondest wish and every man’s wet dream.
“Wow,” she murmured before she could catch herself, then blushed as the catalogue of her mind flipped to the entry containing ‘man with breasts’. This, then, was Hapi, god of the Nile and, by extension, of fertility and fecundity.
“Always I receive this reaction,” Hapi said, and dimpled at her. “I find it amusing.” He juggled the vases once more until there was one in each hand, decorously concealing His bosom, and Corinne found she could look at His face once more.
“Sorry,” she said, embarrassed, but He waved her apology aside.
“There is no time,” He told her. “You must know that not all of the Netjeru side with Aker and Heka and the others; Seshat certainly does not, nor do I. We will do what we can to help you but fear it will not be much. Only know that in Seshat, in me, and in Her-Wer you have allies.”
Eyes wide, Corinne nodded.
“The vampire is being courted,” Hapi continued. “Heka will try everything He can to win the vampire over; offer him anything and everything his unbeating heart might desire. Is he to be trusted?”
Corinne thought, and thought hard. She hadn’t known Spike for long, only a few days, but in that time he’d saved her life time and again. She recalled his reaction when she’d mentioned Dawn and Mercas, remembered how gleefully he’d fought with Buffy until collapsing into tears of joy that he was with her again. He might not be completely reliable, but he’d die before doing anything to harm the Summers women; she knew this with utmost certainty.
“Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, he is.”
Hapi nodded. “For all our sakes, I hope you are right,” He replied with a sigh. “For the future of all Arda and Aman rests on his shoulders.”
It sounded distinctly ominous, and Corinne said so.
“Would you rather I lie to you, scholar?” He asked with a faint, tired smile.
She felt her shoulders slump. “No,” she admitted. “I’m just really ready to wake up from this bad dream now.”
Hapi smiled at her again, and tipped the vases toward her. Automatically she held out her hands, and four petals spilled out, two from each vase.
“Lotus petals?” Corinne inquired, frowning.
“To ensure what is already possible,” Hapi told her mysteriously, stepping back. “You must go back now; your friends are… concerned.” She read that to mean they were beside themselves with frantic worry, and thrust the petals into her back pocket with the palm frond Seshat had given her a few days ago. “Once you are with your companions once more, you must go beyond the waterfall.” He motioned to the animals around them. “My children will bring you to them.”
“Um… thanks,” she replied uncertainly as two enormous crocodiles came forward.
“Put your arms around their necks,” the Nile god directed, and waved his vases at her cheerfully when the beasts began swimming forcefully upward. Clasping them tightly, she could only nod farewell, and then they were hurtling away.
The water became murky once more, and she clung to the crocodiles as they seemed to slip between the currents rather than against them to speed toward the shore. Then with a lurch, they hauled themselves from the water, dragging her along with them onto the black sand. A shout sounded in the distance, but Corinne couldn’t be bothered to try and put a face to it—she hadn’t lost her gills yet and was gasping harshly.
“Corinne,” cried a voice, and Haldir dropped to his knees beside her, gathering her into his arms. “Corinne, doll-nîn,” he whispered, his voice rough, trying to still her she began to convulse, her body starving for air. Then he caught sight of the madly wriggling gills on her throat and drew back a moment.
The crocodiles, which Haldir had pushed roughly back, came forward once more. He growled at them, reaching for his daggers, but they merely grasped mouthfuls of her clothing and dragged her back into the water, too strong for him to prevent. Once submerged once more, Corinne stilled and her panic receded.
“Thank you,” she said to the crocodiles, who seemed to nod before leaving her. Haldir was trying to hoist her out of the water again, but she slapped at his hands until he released her. His voice, above the surface, was muffled but she could tell he was speaking to the others before she began having trouble breathing, again. Hands to her neck, she discovered the gills were shrinking, and with a gasp she raised her head from the water.
Sputtering, she cleared her lungs with a bout of hacking that made her eyes water. “Holy crap,” she exclaimed hoarsely as she collapsed into Haldir’s arms, exhausted. He lowered her to the sandy shore but did not relinquish her, and she sank gratefully into his familiar embrace, face pressed against his shoulder as the others crowded round. “Met another god,” she told them. “Hapi, god of the Nile. Wanted to let us know he’s on our side, and so are a few others.”
Corinne met Buffy’s gaze, then Dawn’s. “Heka’s got Spike,” she told them. “He’s trying to bribe him to fight against us. I told him that Spike wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s right,” Dawn said at once. Buffy just remained silent, but her eyes gained a faraway look to them that bespoke memories flooding to the forefront.
“What do we do now?” Boromir asked, his arm looped around Dawn’s waist.
“Hapi said we have to go through the waterfall,” Corinne mentioned, pushing a hank of wet hair off her face and enjoying the feel of Haldir’s arms around her once more even as she wondered when he’d remember he didn’t want her anymore.
“Why? What is there?” Elessar queried, staring at the waterfall in the distance as if she could see past it to what lay beyond.
“I don’t know,” Corinne admitted. “He just said we had to go.”
“And we believe him, why?” Buffy demanded. “Haven’t felt a whole lot of love from the gods here.”
“Well, Seshat was good to me,” Corinne ventured.
“She still dumped you out on Iw-n-sisi,” Dawn pointed out.
“I do not see that we have much choice,” Radagast said. “We cannot go back the way we came.” He gestured at the cavern around them. “There is nowhere else to go.”
“So, we go, and stay on our guard and not trusting anyone,” Buffy said. “After the misery that has been this entire trip, I can’t say that’ll be a stretch for me.”
They had to scramble between two jagged boulders to squeeze behind the falls, but once they did they found themselves in another corridor, not unlike the first, but this time there were no minotaurs, no sirens, nothing.
“We must not drop our guard,” Elessar told them after nearly an hour of walking without incident. “They but try to lull us with this peace.”
“Give the man a prize,” drawled a voice, and they all spun around to find Spike lounging against the fall, cigarette dangling negligently from his fingers. “They didn’t just make him king because of his stubble collection, hey?”
“Spike!” Dawn exclaimed, and rushed over to hug him. He gave her a lazy one-armed hug, smirking over her head at the rest of them.
“Been having fun since last we were together?” he asked, eyes glinting in the torchlight. There was something… off about him, Corinne thought, and from the look on Buffy’s face, she felt it too.
“Yeah,” the Slayer replied flatly. “Loads of fun. Where’ve you been?”
“Had to see a man about a horse,” Spike replied enigmatically, a note in his voice that made even Dawn pull away from him and study his face.
“Spike, what’s going on?” she demanded.
He tossed his cigarette butt with great nonchalance over his shoulder and ambled a few steps away from her. “Nibblet, who am I?”
She frowned. “Huh?”
He smiled then, a rather melancholy smile, it seemed to Corinne. “Just ask yourself that.” Then in a dizzying blur of speed, his hand whipped out to grasp Corinne’s upper arm and her last sight was of Haldir’s face, both stern and alarmed, as she and the vampire disappeared from the corridor.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she shouted as soon as they were corporeal again. “What in the hell are you doing? Buffy is going to eviscerate you when this is all over, you know.” They were in a small chamber, the walls on three sides more elaborately carved stone, and the fourth wall seemed to be made of glass or crystal—Corinne could see through it to the huge room on the other side.
Spike grinned at her, but it was strained. “Shut it and listen to me,” he said, sidling close so he could speak directly into her ear. “I have to prove that I’m on their side, and committed to laying the smackdown on you lot. I took you because you can’t fight, and you’ll actually be somewhat safe here when the battle starts.”
She blinked. “What are you talking about, Spike?” she asked softly. “What do you have to do? More importantly, what do I have to do?”
He sighed. “We have to pretend I’m havin’ my way with you. And…” He hesitated. “I’m going to have to give you at least one or two marks, so it’s believable. If I don’t, we’re both dead, and so’re the rest of them.” He cocked his head to the side, listening. “They’re coming, we’ve got to do it soon.”
“Great.” This just kept getting worse, didn’t it? The impulse to fall to the ground and weep rose strongly in Corinne, and she closed her eyes to rally her courage. “Ok, do it.”
His murmured advice to yell loud was unnecessary; the pain of the blow on her cheek was quite sufficient to make her cry out.
“Corinne!” shouted a faint, female voice. “Oh, God, Legolas, they’re hurting her.” It was Buffy, and she was coming closer.
“Here we go,” Spike said grimly, and timed it so his next blow, though as light as the first, landed precisely atop it just as the company skidded around the corner into the room. She went with the motion and allowed her body to be knocked sideways so she tumbled to the floor at his feet
“Ow,” she said distinctly, cupping her cheek tenderly and glaring up at him, her anger not entirely feigned.
“Spike, you pig,” Buffy seethed, flying to the glass and pounding on it with clenched fists. “Let her out of there or I swear you’ll wish I only staked your pathetic ass.”
There was a minute flicker in his crystalline eyes; only someone who knew what he was up to would have picked up on it. And then he was laughing. “Big words from a tiny Slayer,” he replied at last, grinning mischievously before reaching down to haul Corinne to her feet. At Buffy’s side, Haldir clenched his teeth so hard the muscles of his jaw could be seen working.
“Ow,” she repeated, trying to yank away from him. He backhanded her a third time, so confident in her acting ability that he barely touched her. Still, she fell over, hair falling messily over her face as she forced a tear to her eye. “I thought we were friends,” she said, voice full of reproach.
With a final grin at the others glaring balefully from the protective barrier of the glass, he strolled over to her. “Friends,” he repeated. “Yeah, we’re friends.” He dropped to his knees and wrapped his hand around her neck, thumb caressing her throat. “And we’re gonna be even better friends, real soon.”
A dull pounding made Spike look toward the glass; Gimli was slamming his axe with great determination against it, his face a study in resolve. Spike pushed his thumb harder into her throat, and her breath caught. “I suggest you stop that, dwarf,” he said. “Or I kill her right now, before I get to sample her wares.” He grinned lasciviously down at her and she was hard-pressed not to burst into anxious laughter.
That would be what’s known as an inappropriate response, she chastised herself when she saw the stricken faces on the other side of the glass. Spike’s face pled with her to step up the act, so she began to gasp and thrash in his grip as if beginning to suffocate. Predictably, Gimli lowered his axe, though his eyes burned with no less fury.
With a sudden wrench, Spike tore Corinne’s shirt off her. At least I wore my best bra, she thought irrelevantly, and lashed out with her feet. One caught him in the stomach, and he reeled back for long enough to allow her to dart up and across the chamber, but there was nowhere to go—no door, no window. No escape.
Before she had taken two steps, Spike had caught her, grabbing her and throwing her to the hard floor before dropping down onto her, hands roughly pulling her legs around his narrow hips. She reach out to claw at his face, push at his shoulders, anything, but he trapped her wrists in a crushing grip and yanked them over her head. Over the rushing in her ears as her heartbeat pounded, she heard Haldir bellowing her name.
“Don’t do this,” she begged, hating herself for begging at the same time she hoped he understood what he meant. Spike gave an infinitesimal nod and turned to look at their frantic audience.
“Much as I love the idea of having you fine folk see exactly why I’m the Big Bad,” Spike said, gyrating his hips lewdly into the V of her thighs, “the schoolgirl here doesn’t want to share such a private moment with you lot. And I find myself feeling… generous.” He grinned down at her heaving breasts, spilling over the lacy cups of her bra. “Among other things.” He punctuated his words with another raunchy bump-and-grind as the glass began to cloud and grow opaque, and Haldir flung himself once more against the barrier, hacking at it with his knives in a fury.
“I will flay you,” the elf promised, his voice almost too soft to be heard. “You will beg me to end your torment.”
Then it was solid rock between them, and nothing more could be seen of the other side. “Oi, Heka!” Spike shouted. “I want some privacy, so you lot can just sod off.”
Laughter echoed through the chamber. “As you wish,” came the disembodied voice of the god, and the torches winked out, leaving them in complete darkness.
Gingerly, Spike lifted himself off Corinne and removed his duster. Under it he wore both a shirt and t-shirt, and he took off the red oxford to settle it over her shoulders. “There,” he said, somewhat shakily, and she understood the great price he’d paid to have Buffy look at him like that. As if he were a filthy monster she wanted to crush under her boot like a bug.
She slipped her arms into it, buttoning it up to the neck before rolling its long sleeves to her elbows, moving very precisely in the pitch-blackness that surrounded them, feeling soothed by the rote motions. “How long do we pretend we’re at it?” she asked.
“As long as possible,” was the reply. “Because as soon as they think we’re done, they’re going to attack, and I want to buy Buffy and the rest as much time as I can.” He laughed, a short and humorless sound that echoed roughly off the walls. ”This isn’t going to be pretty, pet.”
There was a click as he snapped open his lighter, and his face was thrown for a moment into sharp relief by the flame as he lit his cigarette. He closed it again with another snap, and there were plunged once more into darkness as the pungent smell of the smoke swirled around them. “Not pretty at all.”