Next (and last) update: Monday December 31st
"What happened?" Buffy ran up the small slope to where she could see Willow kneeling against the wall, one hand pressing against the cold stone for support.
Her friend was sucking in huge gulps of air; air that had begun to circulate at the moment of the demon's death.
"Oh God, Buffy. It—it was inside me. I could feel it. The anger, the hate—the power. It wanted to drain me until there was nothing left."
"It's okay, it's dead now. What about Giles and—Spike!"
Buffy dropped to her knees next to Willow and stared at the black clad form sprawled across the ground in front of them.
"Oh Buffy, I—I didn't mean to… It used me, it used me to find a weakness and it made me—is he okay?" Willow was practically hyperventilating.
"Well, he's not dust so he's not dead, um, dead-er," Buffy reasoned and ran her eye over him. She winced when she saw the stake embedded in his back. It had only just missed the heart, and luckily hadn't gone too deep. They should be able to pull it out easily enough.
"I didn't—when it let go of me I just—I barely had time. I tried to deflect it, but I couldn't stop it. Oh—Giles!"
Willow crawled over to the Watcher who seemed to be regaining consciousness, at least for the time being. He struggled to sit up and clutched at his head.
Buffy was relieved to see that Giles was okay, but she quickly turned her attention back to Spike and the stake protruding from his back. There was no easy way to do this so she grabbed hold, sucked in a breath and pulled. It came out with a sickly sucking sound and blood welled from the wound. He must be nearly drained by now.
Buffy shrugged off her jacket and pressed it against Spike's back in an attempt to staunch the blood.
"A little help here? We can all pass out in a minute, kay? Just as soon as we make sure we're all going to live through this."
Giles and Willow crawled over to Buffy to assist her. None of them turned to look at the body of the demon Buffy had left withering on the ground, its head sitting meters away from its torso, a trail of nasty ooze leaking from the remains.
Consciousness returned abruptly. The shock to his system as all his nerve endings woke up at once and announced the pain in capital letters made him let out an involuntary moan. Something touched his forehead and attempted to soothe him.
Voices. Several. He recognized them, but he couldn't tell what they were saying at first. One word kept repeating. He struggled to wake fully and opened his eyes to the dimly lit cave.
Sorry. That was the word being said over and over. He blinked and focused on the source.
"Red? Did we win?"
"Oh, thank God." Willow let out a breath as though she'd been holding it. "You're okay. Yes, Spike, we won. It's dead."
"Brilliant," he replied and tried to sit up. Bad idea. His vision fogged and unconsciousness claimed him once more.
"Is he awake?" Buffy asked.
Willow shook her head. "He was for like, a minute? But then he passed out again. Oh God, I feel so awful."
"Eh." Buffy shrugged. "He offered to kill you, you nearly killed him. Tit for tat."
"Yeah, but he's evil. I don't have an excuse," Willow argued half-heartedly before reaching up to pick at her teeth again.
"Did you hurt your mouth?" Giles asked from where he sat, leaning against a stalagmite.
They'd moved back up to the larger cave after they'd helped Buffy pour their entire stock of holy water as well as the lake water over the remains of the demon. It had sizzled and given off an acrid smoke, reminding them a bit of the way vampires reacted.
For good measure, Buffy had grabbed the cross that Spike had burnt himself on and planted it deep in the creature's chest. She was fairly certain it was dead before that though, the drop in temperature vanishing. Things had gone back to normal, and she'd warmed up sufficiently in the now cool, but not overly so, air. Still, they didn't want to take any chances.
"No," Willow replied, ducking her head. "I'm just making sure I don't miss any bits of Spike."
"I sorta, uh, ate his hand."
"Wait, you what?" When she did not reply, Buffy crawled over to Spike's sleeping form and pulled up the sleeves of his duster. "Oh my God. You did this? Oz didn't bite you, did he?"
"No! It was the demon in my head, I swear!"
"Relax, just a joke."
Feeling even worse now, Willow pulled at the shirt she wore under her sweater until it ripped, tearing off strips she proceeded to use to bandage Spike's mangled wrist and hand. Once she'd finished, she looked up at them with worried eyes. "I think I swallowed some. Does that make me a cannibal?"
"I don't think it counts if you eat the undead." Giles wrinkled his brow, as though he wasn't entirely sure. "Though technically it is human flesh I suppose. Or, rather, it was, once."
Buffy sighed. "Not helping!"
Spike awoke to voices once more. The pain had not lessened, but it hadn't increased either. He took that as a good sign.
"There you are." Buffy's face came into view above him. "Was wondering if you planned on sleeping the entire day away."
"Day?" He felt groggy and tried to shake it off.
"Yeah, it's daytime according to Giles' watch, though you wouldn't know it down here. How are you feeling?"
He paused to consider. "Awful."
"I'm so sorry!" Willow cried out from somewhere on his left.
"Not your fault, Red."
"No, it is. It really is." She fumbled with the sleeve of her sweater, tugging it up to reveal a bandage around her forearm which she swiftly removed. There was a decent sized cut underneath, and he vaguely remembered having stabbed her at some point.
She held her arm over his face, eyes large and panicky. "Drink."
He was about to protest when he thought better of it. Never say no to freely offered blood. If that wasn't a rule, it ought to be.
"Don't even think about taking too much," Buffy muttered under her breath, but she seemed to condone the act itself. He wasn't going to question that, either.
Fangs descending, he gently pulled Willows arm closer. She let out a small noise when he bit into the flesh of the wound, but that was all. Sweet, sweet (Fresh! Warm! Living!) blood filled his mouth and throat.
"That's enough, I think," Buffy warned after a minute had passed. She looked a little astonished when he immediately let go, pulled his fangs back and let his game face fade. She seemed to shake it off and turned to Willow. "Do you feel better about it, now?"
Willow nodded and pressed the old bandage against the spot where he'd bit.
"What's all this about?" he asked, curious as to what would make them willing to feed him au natural.
"I sorta, um, kinda staked you." Willow swallowed, then hurriedly added, "I didn't mean to!"
Right. That would be the thing that stabbed him in the back earlier. Clearly she'd missed, but it didn't make Spike feel much better about the experience. That had been way too close. If he'd been smart he would have just offed the pair of them and fought the demon with Buffy, but no—he had to be all noble. Wait, not noble. Never that… Merciful, that was it, because the Slayer had begged him to spare them. Spike frowned. That wasn't much better, was it?
Seeing Willow continue to fidget nervously while Buffy helped put a fresh bandage on her arm, Spike realized he ought to say something to calm her down. If that was even possible.
"You must be a terrible shot then, since I'm still here."
"I barely had time to change its course. Sorry." She wrung her hands until Buffy gently slapped at them to remind her to keep still.
"I'll let it slide—this time."
Willow seemed placated by that at least, though she was still jittery and stared at him like he might change his mind and lunge at her any second. Oh well, at least she'd stopped apologizing.
"What's the plan then?" He tried to sit up again against a fresh wave of pain.
Buffy finished with Willow's arm and, to his surprise, helped him sit up and lean against a rock so he could look around. They were in the chamber with the cave paintings, he realized.
"Well, we need to get out of here, but I don't think any of us are going to get very far right now. It was a struggle just getting back here, but it was better than staying down in the cavern with that—thing."
"It'll take a while, but the blood will help speed up the healing process. Once the worst of the pain fades I'll be reasonably good to go."
There was a brief pause in the conversation before Buffy spoke again.
"We bandaged your leg up."
Spike glanced down and noticed that his jeans had been sliced open on one leg so they could get to the axe wound. He was going to look a right state until he could get a change of clothes. Taking a second look at Willow and Buffy, covered, as they were, in dirt and blood and bandages he shrugged. Least he'd be in good company.
"You lot gonna last?"
"Of course, so you can forget about getting another free meal," Buffy said quickly. If he wasn't mistaken there was some hostility in her tone. He stared at her and she blinked, then her shoulders slumped. "Sorry. I guess I'm still not used to you being on our side. We're fine. We can make it."
"I'm not on your side." It was her turn to stare at him, and he paused, mouth open mid tirade. He sighed. "Except for right now when I sort of am," he amended, using his not half-eaten hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. "We need to get the hell out of here and soon, before my reputation is completely ruined."
"What reputation?" Buffy asked, and he scowled.
She smirked at him and rose to her feet. "Well, we should rest for awhile I suppose. We're gonna need all the energy we have left just to get back to the entrance."
Spike watched her walk off towards Giles as Willow huddled up in a ball in front of him, picking at her teeth every so often. She glanced over at him and he raised an eyebrow at her. She pulled her fingers away from her mouth and blushed, trying to hide behind her knees.
Going back up felt so much harder than coming down. On the plus side, they now had more air to breathe, less stuff to carry and the feeling of claustrophobia was not so intense. The downside was, they were all completely worn out, bruised, injured, and had to force their way back through the often tight, enclosed spaces of the tunnel, the rock walls rubbing against their wounds and trying to trap them.
"Come on guys," Buffy called back from the front of the group. "We made it down with the demon's influence everywhere, we can make it back up." She faced forward again and marched steadily onwards. "No way am I surviving a battle like that to be done in by a glorified hole in the ground."
"You do realize that's a rather ironic statement, considering most of the evil you face on a daily basis comes from the Hellmouth," Giles said, as he panted his way up behind her. "Which, to all intents and purposes is a large hole in the ground."
"How far down did this tunnel go again?" Willow sounded beat.
"Much farther," came Spike's reply. "Move it, you lot, or we'll have to wait another day before we can get out of here."
Buffy grinned. "Spike, if I didn't know better, I'd almost think you were in a hurry to leave us."
"I am in a hurry to leave you," he retorted. "Soon as I get that ring I'm gone, never to lay eyes on any of you ever again, I bloody well hope."
"Where have I heard that before?" Buffy grunted as she squeezed through another tight gap in the wall and turned to help Giles. "Face it, Spike. You like Sunnydale, and you missed us. Why else would you keep coming back?" Buffy carried on as Giles turned to help Willow, wiping her brow and trying to judge how much further they had left to go.
"You're barmy if you believe that for even a second, Slayer. I've just had really bad luck is all. Once I get that ring everything will be fine. Plus, this isn't Sunnydale. Really, if you think about it, you came to me this time."
Buffy grinned wider as she carried on walking. The banter was helping. As long as they kept talking she didn't have to think about how tired her body was.
"You showed up at my house!"
"Might I suggest we do a disinvitation spell when we get back? To prevent any future surprise visits?" Giles said.
"Don't bother, Watcher. Like I said, soon as I get that ring I'm gone."
"You just keep telling yourself that, Spike." Buffy smirked again. Spike growled, and she chuckled. Teasing him was fun.
"I'm telling you, wolf boy's got to be rubbing off on you," Spike said, hobbling along next to Willow as they walked through the dead forest. "Should've seen yourself, pet, hanging on like a rabid Chihuahua with blood running down your face."
Willow grimaced, but said nothing. She'd already told him how sorry she was five times since they left the cave.
He nudged her in the ribs with his bandaged hand.
"Speaking of, you probably wanna take him on a trip to the vet when you get back, make sure he didn't give you rabies. Would explain your sudden blood thirst."
Willow made a sort of choked noise, halfway between a gasp and a hiccup.
"Might wanna invest in a good chew-toy, too, now that you've got a taste for it. Doubt wolf boy will appreciate waking up in the middle of the night with you nibbling on his leg or something." He paused for effect. "Or maybe get a muzzle. Could be kinky, you know."
Success! The witch finally broke down and started to laugh.
"See," he said, pleased with himself. "Told you it was funny."
She gave him a tentative smile. "I suppose I should consider it payback for that time with the broken bottle, huh."
"What broken bottle?" He reached down to run a hand over the deep cut in his thigh. It was itching, which meant it was healing, but he wished it would hurry the fuck up. He'd been limping the whole way, which had caused him and the witch (who considered herself responsible for all his injuries rather than just the hand and the stab wound in his back) to lag behind.
"You don't remember?" The tone of her voice told him she was offended.
"Wait a second," he said, scanning his memories. "That time I was drunk and lovesick?"
"Yeah. You cried on my shoulder and threatened to cut my face off."
"Oh. Right. Sorry about that, I guess."
She shot him a skeptical look. "You're not really sorry, are you?"
"No." He grinned.
She grinned back. "Thanks for pretending to be?"
By the time they reached what had been the very distinct edge of the Dead Circle, Buffy insisted on swapping places with Willow. She'd listened in on chunks of their conversation to make sure Spike was behaving and was pleased to find he was. Well, as much as it was possible for Spike to behave.
Everywhere that the black, rotten earth had been, the land was now brightening. It was as though the sun had begun to bleach away the corruption during the day, turning it a grayish color and making it look as if everything was covered in ash. It reminded her a bit of the aftermath of the forest fires that plagued California during hot summers like this one.
In fact, it was probably what the people in charge would say, if they even bothered to say anything at all. She sighed.
"What's the matter, pet?" Spike asked beside her.
"Nothing." She bit her lip. "Just, you know, I save the world, again, and everyone else trudges along, none the wiser."
He snorted. "All part and parcel of the hero gig, isn't it? S'why I prefer being evil. Nobody thanks you, but you don't give a shit anyway."
She had to smile. "Listen, Spike."
Somewhere along the way she'd grown accustomed to hearing him say her name; it had stopped interrupting her trains of thought.
"I wanted to tell you that I appreciate what you did for Willow. Talking to her like that, I mean."
"Was nothing." He brushed it off with a hand gesture. A hand gesture with his bandaged hand, the sight of which she hadn't quite been able to erase from her mind yet. There had been tendons and bone and, just, ugh. She'd seen her fair share of necks torn apart by vampire teeth but hadn't thought that blunt human teeth could do pretty much the same amount of damage if enough effort was put into it.
"She was pretty freaked out."
He glanced over at her. "What about you?"
"Me? I'm fine," she said and smiled. "We won, it's all over and everyone's alive. That's an excellent result in my book. Now I get to go home and sleep in my own bed, which is even better."
It wasn't a lie. She did feel good about things, about life in general. Even Spike had been pretty tolerable throughout this whole ordeal. Most importantly, it was over. Spike would get his ring, then he'd leave, and she could return to her mom and continue being excited about college. Happy, normal life.
"And I can get my ring from that bint in the lake finally. Go back to Dru, where I belong."
She decided she was in such a good mood she wasn't gonna remind him how the so-called love of his life had treated him over the past couple of years. If he wanted to waste his efforts on the crazy vampire, she wasn't about to stop him.
The spirits appeared to be gone. Nothing moved, and Spike seemed much more relaxed than he had been on their previous visits. That sense of foreboding no longer filled the air. Instead, it was replaced with a more natural silence; at least until they heard the beating of wings and the screech of an owl passing overhead that made all of them, except Spike, jump. He just glanced up, casually, at the passing bird.
"Seems like the regular forest critters aren't going to waste much time moving back in," he said, and lead the way forward once Buffy and the others had recovered from the shock. "Not that there'll be much to hunt out here for a while until the plants grow back."
"As long as the place has settled down, I'm good. Time to go back home to functioning plumbing and a comfy mattress."
"Yes, I think we can all agree that it's high time we went back to civilized life," Giles added. "If only to have a rest."
"After this trip, I doubt I'll ever complain about regular patrol again," Buffy said, bringing the others up short. She stopped to look at their skeptical faces. "What?"
"I think I'd like that in writing." Giles smiled at her.
"We can do the camping in the backyard thing to remind you of the experience, just in case you forget why you said that." Willow grinned.
Buffy pouted. "No fair. And I really don't think I'll be forgetting this little vacation anytime soon."
"I will," Spike said, drawing their attention. "At least I intend to. Lots of alcohol. The strong stuff. Drink enough of it and you can erase anything."
"Uh huh. Because you totally forgot all about being dumped when you showed up in Sunnydale drunk off your ass."
Spike cocked his head at her with a fixed expression, but after a moment's pause simply shrugged. "Point."
"Come on guys. We're almost there. I'm even looking forward to the car ride home."
Buffy eagerly started walking forwards again when a bark pulled her up short. Whipping her head to the left, she inhaled sharply at the sight of a large grey wolf standing between the trees, watching them. The others had caught sight of it too and were openly staring.
"Is that...?" Giles asked slowly, voice tinged with hope.
"Looks like the bugger made it after all," Spike said from over Buffy's shoulder. "Never been much of a wolf fan, but good for him." Buffy couldn't help but glance up at that, raising an eyebrow. Spike met her eyes and shifted from foot to foot. "What?"
Buffy smiled and looked back at the wolf. It dipped its head a fraction, and she couldn't help but nod back out of respect. She was sort of amazed at herself, bowing to a spirit animal. The wolf shimmered before their eyes and vanished. Whether it faded away or just moved too fast to be seen, Buffy couldn't tell.
"Wow." Willow sounded almost breathless.
Buffy grinned at her friend and caught sight of Giles, polishing his glasses and smiling down at them. That wasn't... a tear in his eye was it? Buffy shook her head. Now things were getting a little too sappy. Especially since even Spike seemed cheered by the wolf's appearance.
"Come on guys, let's go home."
Willow hurried to catch up to her friend and grabbed hold of Buffy's arm.
"You know, I think Thomas is going to be okay, or, at peace at least. All the spirits will."
"You know, I think you're right," Buffy agreed, linking Willow's arm with hers.