DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: After being approached by Hornbrook about a deal, Spike has told Buffy, who has cornered Colin upon his return to the castle…

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Chapter 18: Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

His eyes darted from the stiff form of the Englishman in the chair, to the grim American girl standing before him with her arms folded across her chest, to the remaining guests of Dall Rath scattered around the table, before returning to Colin’s face again. “You’re sure you won’t be needing me?” Duncan asked. “Because I’m more than happy to---.”

“We’re sure.” The assertion didn’t come from the man, but from Buffy, her gaze level as she stared down at the Watcher.

“Everything is already prepared,” the cook explained as he backed his way toward the exit. “You’ll just have to…warm it, should you…leave it for too long.” He glanced up at the bleached man holding the door open for him. “It’s much better if it’s warm,” he repeated.

“Right. We’ll remember that.” The blond looked pointedly out the door, his exasperation painted across his face, and Duncan smiled in farewell to the remainder of the group.

“See you in the morning then,” he said, offering them a little wave before disappearing from the great hall.

Spike watched him for a moment as he walked down the hall, his brow slightly furrowed. It was the first time he’d ever been really close to the cook. Something…didn’t sit right with him. Mentally, he shrugged, shutting the door. “Thought the annoying git would never leave,” the vamp said to no one in particular.

“Now that we’re minus an audience,” Buffy said, “I think it’s time to start the show.” She held out her hand to Spike as he sauntered to her side, waiting as he placed the leather bag in the center of her palm. Carefully, she extracted the amulet and held it up for Colin to see.

“Where’d you get that?” he blurted, his eyes wide. Though his body was rocking in tiny sways back and forth, his desire to reach out and take the talisman from the Slayer was curbed by his overriding fear of retribution, and his knuckles grew white as he gripped the armrests of his chair. “How dare you go through my things!”

“Did you come back just to rifle through Colin’s belongings?” Giles asked, his voice incredulous, disbelief slacking his jaw. “Really, Buffy, if you didn’t trust him---.”

“It’s not Colin’s.” Her eyes never left his face. “This one belongs to your pal Hornbrook.”

The room was silent while everyone waited for the Watcher to respond. Finally, Xander shifted in his seat. “Who’s Hornbrook?” he whispered to Willow beside him, just loud enough for everyone else to hear.

“Wasn’t that the name of the local doctor who examined that woman’s body?” queried Giles, frowning as he gazed at his charge.

“Yep,” she replied. “Except he’s not a doctor and he’s not local, is he, Colin?”

“I…wasn’t sure,” he murmured, and pressed himself back into his chair as if the added distance would keep him safe from the young woman before him. “I wasn’t…told…what was going to happen.”

“And what exactly is happening?” asked Xander. “Because color me confused here.”

Buffy turned to look at the vampire at her side. “You want to start?”

Their eyes met, locking for a long moment before Spike’s lip curled. “Right,” he said. “Seems as soon as you lot left, I had me a little visitor. This Hornbrook chap. Worked for the Council, he said. Was there to offer me a deal, and for some reason, thought I’d be the most open to their little plan.” He couldn’t refrain from chuckling as his gaze swept over the group. “Guess they figured I was the most corruptible choice they had.”

“That’s because you are, Spike,” Giles said wryly.

The vampire shrugged. “Probably.”

“What did they want?” asked Willow.

“There’s something in the tunnels that’s captured their fancy. They wanted me to go in and fetch it for them.”

“In exchange for what?”

Spike grinned, catching the tip of his tongue between his teeth. “Believe it or not, in exchange for services rendered, they’ve offered to do something about my little chip problem.”

The room exploded, a chorus of “What?” and “Huh?” and one “Bloody hell” bouncing against the walls. Even Colin’s face went white, though the stern shape of the Slayer in front of him kept him from speaking.

“That’s impossible!” Giles said harshly. “They wouldn’t do such a thing.” He took a step toward the small group at the head of the table. “As much as I’ve not approved of their methods in the past, it’s ludicrous to think that the Council could ever deliberately choose to unleash a dangerous creature such as yourself back onto the world.”

Buffy’s mouth was tight. “I think they’ve already proven they’re not too worried about what they let loose with this kelpie business, don’t you think?” She waited for some type of response from her Watcher, but getting none, nodded toward Spike. “Go on.”

“Not much more to tell,” he drawled, perching himself on the edge of the table. “I thought it was just a bunch of cack at first, and told him so. Asked him why they were bothering sealin’ up the tunnels in the first place if they were just interested in some good old-fashioned pillaging. Not that I’ve got anything against that. I’ve certainly done my fair share of plundering the spoils and all. It just didn’t make sense.” He directed his smirk to the Englishman in the chair. “That’s when he told me the ritual doesn’t actually close it up.”

“Yes, it most certainly does!” Colin shot up, only to shrink back in his seat as the group turned to look at him.

“You’re not seriously trying to get me to believe Spike’s lying about this, are you?” asked Buffy, a dangerous tone edging her words. She held out the amulet. “Because this pretty much says you’re a big fat liar, so the sooner you decide to come clean about the ritual and why we’re actually here, the fewer body parts you’re going to have to worry about not working when we’re through talking.”

Stepping forward, Giles took the amulet from her fingers, turning it over in his hands as he examined it. “And he just…gave you this, Spike?”

“Sure, after I said I’d do it for him.”

The Watcher turned narrowed eyes to the vampire. “And you expect us to believe that you’re telling us all this out of the goodness of your heart?”

Spike cocked his head, regarding the other Englishman in amusement. “Well, now that you mention it, I don’t think it’d be bang out of order if a little compensation made it my way. Y’know, let me go back to the Hellmouth with a little more than I came with. Dosh, I mean.”

Buffy’s cheeks flamed as she edged herself between the two men, the vamp’s innuendo not lost on her, even if it did go over the heads of the others. “Spike’s a member of this team,” she said firmly, and felt the vampire’s knee press into the back of her thigh, holding her position as she leaned just slightly into it. “He did what had to be done.”

“I just don’t see why we should trust him on this.”

“For one thing, because the amulet actually works,” she countered. “We tried it.” Her gaze slid past Giles to look at Colin. “And you Council guys are the only ones who know about it, right?”

“Right.” His voice was faint, his breathing shallow, and he looked for all intents and purposes that he was going to throw up. Colin swallowed hard. “But I honestly didn’t know about the ritual. I was instructed that it was for the closure of the tunnels. Why would I lie to you?” His eyes darted to Willow at the table. “You’ve read the spell, Miss Rosenberg. Tell her. It just closes them.”

All turned to look at the redhead, who blushed as she squirmed in her seat. “Just because I’ve read it, doesn’t mean I understand it completely. My Gaelic’s a tad on the sucky side.”

“Lucky for you, mine’s not,” said Spike, much to everyone’s surprise, and held out his hand. “Give it over, Red.”

He waited as Willow reached down to pick up her bag, rummaging through it as she brought it up and into her lap. When she pulled out the book, she quickly thumbed to the page and held it out to the vampire, keeping it open so that he could read it over. His brow furrowed in concentration, eyes carefully scanning the text before finally lifting to settle on Colin. “Looks like it’ll close it to me,” he commented.

“May I see it, please?” the Watcher asked, tentatively holding out his hand.

Spike looked to Buffy for confirmation, who shrugged. “Let him have it,” she said. “He’s only stalling the inevitable.”

Colin frowned as he took the book from Spike, reading over the text even more slowly than the vampire had, before closing the book to look at the cover. “Isn’t this the book you found the information about the moon cycles in, Miss Rosenberg?” he asked, looking up.

She nodded. “That’s the one I’ve been practicing from. I figured since it had the schedule we were using, I’d just stick with it.”

“Why?” Buffy quizzed the Watcher.

“May I?” He gestured toward the table, asking the young woman before him for permission to stand, only doing so when she nodded. Quickly, he picked up another of the books there, flipping the pages until he found what he was looking for, laying the two texts side by side while his gaze jumped between them. “Spike,” he finally said. “Do come here and tell me what you think.”

The vampire stood and sauntered around the edge of the table to stand beside the Watcher. “What am I lookin’ at?” As his blue eyes flickered over the pages before him, his forehead wrinkled, brows knitting together as his gaze moved faster, going between the spells even as he began to lean in order to get a better look. “Huh,” he finally said, and glanced curiously at Colin at his side.

“What is it?” Buffy asked.

Spike lifted his head to meet her gaze. “They’re not the same spell.”

“You said they were,” accused Willow, rising to her feet to join the two men in looking over the books.

“They’re almost identical,” Colin defended. “With the exception of just a couple words---.”

“A couple important words,” Spike interrupted.

“Yes,” he murmured. “I can’t believe I missed those.”

The group widened as Giles stepped around to join them, looking over Colin’s shoulder at the points on the pages he was marking with his two index fingers. It only took him a moment before he spoke. “How in blazes did you not see that?” he directed toward his colleague.

“It’s a rather long incantation, if you haven’t noticed!” The Watcher’s voice was rising, his confusion mingling with his fear to color his normally pale cheeks. “And the differences are buried in the middle. At the time it was brought to my attention, I was more concerned with the new information regarding the moon cycles than anything else.” He turned to stare at the young witch. “And you’re certain this book was in with the others?”

“For the millionth time, yes.”

“OK.” Buffy’s tone was firm. “What the hell is going on?” As her gaze danced over the group, it settled on her roommate. “Spike?”

The vampire sighed unnecessarily and picked up the two books, one in each hand. Holding up the one Willow had brought from her bag, he said, “This one---the one our mate Colin here said he didn’t bring---uses the word ‘duin’, while this one,” he shifted hands, raising the other while lowering the first, “uses ‘smachd.’”

“And for those of us in the English-speaking-only audience, that would mean…?”

Spike repeated the gestures. “This one closes it. This one commands control over it.” He glanced at Colin before tossing the books back onto the table. “Nice.”

“And I’m telling you, before Miss Rosenberg brought this one to my attention, I knew nothing of this book!”

The Watcher’s breath was coming in short bursts, and Buffy wondered for a moment if the man was going to start hyperventilating in front of her. “That doesn’t actually help your case here,” she said, folding her arms over her breasts. “Because that means you were planning on doing the control spell all along.”

He froze, the truth of what she was saying sinking in like a lead weight. “I’ll prove it to you,” Colin finally blurted, and rushed through his next words. “We’ll go do the closing spell tonight. Right now. Then you’ll see I’m not lying about not knowing anything.”

She had to work over his last sentence in her head more than once to determine what he was actually saying, but when she had, Buffy’s head tilted, hazel eyes narrowing slightly. His protestations had been expected, and she’d been prepared to confront the issue until he came completely clean. However, this thing with the different spells...and now the suggestion to do the closing spell as scheduled anyway…the Slayer was beginning to have her doubts. Maybe he didn’t really know anything. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Council played someone for the dupe.

“You’re on,” she agreed. “But this doesn’t get you completely off the hook, you know. Consider yourself pretty much still demon bait, Col.”

“Why?” asked Giles. “Not that I’m disagreeing, but…why?”

“Because closing the tunnel only messes with half of the Council’s plans,” she said. “There’s still the matter of what they wanted Spike to play fetch with.”

“But if we close it, surely we’ll be locking inside whatever it is that interests them,” her mentor argued.

She shook her head. “What they want isn’t in there anymore. It’s out on that mountain somewhere, probably wrapped around a dead kelpie.”

It took only a moment for Giles to nod in understanding. “The bell harness,” he murmured.

“Exactly.”

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

Xander grimaced as he shifted his weight, the discomfort in his toes beginning to unsettle him to the point of fidgeting, but quickly froze at the dirty look from Anya at his side. “Sorry,” he whispered unnecessarily, and returned his gaze to the tableau before him, leaning back against the carved wall of the tunnel to alleviate some of the pressure on his feet.

Within a triangle of stones sat Buffy, Spike, and Willow, each at a different point, a clay urn at its center, while at the outer corners, the Watchers and Tara stood with lit candles. The shadows danced across their solemn faces, but all their concentration was focused on the trio within the cairn.

“Can you see OK?” Buffy asked, looking at her friend.

“Yeah.” Willow hefted the open book onto her lap. “You guys about ready?”

“Whenever you are, Red.”

For a moment, the only sound was the lapping of the water in the stream behind them. Even Xander found himself holding his breath as he watched the young witch settle her hands on her knees, all the time wondering if she was ever going to start reading the spell out loud. Any day now, Will, he thought, and felt Anya tense beside him.

The soft cadences of her voice swelled to fill the cavern as she began intoning the words of the incantation. As she’d instructed, Buffy and Spike had their eyes fixed on the urn before them, but even they weren’t prepared when it began to quiver of its own accord, its rounded bottom rocking against the earth. It quickened as the spell progressed, drumming its dull music into their flesh, until, when the last word fell from Willow’s lips, it froze upright, and three tendrils of…smoke?...floated from its mouth, slithering and entwining as they rose, only to break apart…separate…and drive each into the waiting chests of the three participants.

Both blonds immediately stiffened, their heads thrown back as their flesh seemed to glow from within. In the third corner, the witch felt the magic surge into her body, but almost as quickly, it was battled back, expelled by a fiery core in her gut that she’d never suspected existed. It left her panting, blinking as the smoke eddied before her, but before she could react, it started to wail, swirling in a tornado that seemed to gather its two other tendrils from the chests of Buffy and Spike before disappearing back into the urn.

Vampire and Slayer collapsed in a heap, both unconscious. Immediately, Giles and Colin knelt to check on them.

“Is Buff all right?” asked Xander, taking a step forward.

Colin nodded. “Her pulse is slightly elevated, but she appears to be fine.” He glanced at his colleague. “How is Spike?”

As he laid the vampire out onto the ground, Giles noted the burn mark that singed the front of the black t-shirt, and carefully edged aside the fabric to note the unmarked flesh beneath. “He’s not dust, so I assume he’ll live,” he said.

“Did it work?” This came from Tara, as her wide blue eyes darted from her girlfriend to the Watchers.

“I don’t know,” admitted Willow. “I didn’t…it felt…I don’t know.”

“Only one way to know for certain,” said Giles, and turned to face the tunnel as it disappeared around the bend. Everyone watched as he picked up the axe from the ground beside him and began walking away, footsteps too loud in the underground cavern, echoing in Doppler tones until both they and the Watcher were gone.

No one seemed prepared to speak, each lost in silence as they waited. It didn’t take long. Within a minute, Giles was back, his face grim.

“No,” was all he said.

“Didn’t Mr. Travers say it didn’t work the first time either?” Willow asked, slowly rising to her feet. “Do we know why that was?”

Colin looked uncomfortable, and he suddenly busied himself in re-examining the Slayer’s inert form before him. He stiffened when Giles clapped a firm hand down on his shoulder.

“Just because Buffy’s not awake,” the older man said, “doesn’t mean you can’t still get hurt for not telling us what’s going on.”

“I only know what I’ve been told,” Colin stammered. “And considering I’ve been left out of these other matters, I’m not sure I trust that information anymore.”

“Why don’t you let us be the judge of that,” said Xander.

“The spell requires the three---the living, the dead, and the host,” the Watcher explained. “In Celtic magic, the power of three is tremendous. Well, apparently, the Council attempted the spell the night after Samhain using an actual corpse as part of the triumvirate, and it failed magnificently. In fact, I was told the corpse actually burst into flame.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “You never told that to us,” she accused.

The man flushed. “No. We thought it might be better if you…didn’t know. We weren’t certain you’d actually do it if you understood all the risks.”

“It’s probably a good thing Spike’s out cold now,” Anya commented. “Somehow I don’t think he’d be too thrilled to find out he could’ve been a bonfire.”

Colin glanced at the vampire’s unconscious form, the knowledge that he was well aware of the threat clearly written across his face. “Obviously, that wasn’t the issue this time,” he said. “Otherwise…”

“I’m the issue.” Shakily, Willow rose to her feet, using her girlfriend’s arm to steady herself as the room pitched around her. “It didn’t want me as the host. I could feel something…inside…pushing it back.” She turned worried green eyes to the Watcher. “Are you sure I can’t talk to the witch who did the spell the first time?” she pleaded. “Maybe she can tell me what happened.”

He shook his head. “It’s impossible.”

“Don’t tell me she burst into flame, too,” said Xander.

“Um, no.”

He was rescued from speaking further when Spike stirred, groaning as his eyes flickered open. “Bloody hell,” the vampire muttered, sitting himself up. As he did so, he noticed the new hole across his chest and scowled. “Been here three days and gone through three soddin’ shirts,” he growled. “Goin’ to start askin’ for a clothing allowance, this keeps up.”

“Are you all right?” asked Willow.

He started to nod, but as he shifted his weight to stand, his gaze settled on the still-unconscious body of the Slayer next to him. His senses immediately alerted, and the group watched in amazement as he hovered beside her form, his fingers deftly searching for her pulse. “Slayer…” he murmured, before turning thunderous eyes to pin Colin in fear. “This another little secret you were hiding from us?” Spike snarled.

“She sh-sh-should…be all right,” the Watcher said, backing away from the pair. The fury in the vampire’s face was unexpected, and though Colin’s worry for his own safety jumped another notch, he couldn’t help but wonder as to the origins of such ire. “It’s just an…after-effect of the spell.”

“Yeah, you don’t even want to know what after-effect you almost were,” offered Anya.

“We should probably get her upstairs,” Spike said, and carefully scooped her into his arms, rising to his feet, oblivious to the curious stares from those around him.

“I’d like to suggest we all get some rest,” said Giles, blue eyes surveying the ragged couples scattered through the cavern. “There’s really nothing more we can do tonight. We’ll have an early start, try to figure out where exactly the spell went wrong.” He glared pointedly at his colleague. “And you can finish filling in the details we’re so severely lacking.”

In his arms, Spike felt Buffy stir, and stopped in mid-step as her eyes blinked open. “Slayer…” he said softly.

“Please tell me…I don’t have to…do that again,” she murmured, grimacing in pain.

“Sorry, pet.”

She groaned, and pressing her palm to his chest, pulled her legs from his grasp to right herself, allowing the vampire to lower her the rest of the way to the ground. Swaying slightly, Buffy used his arm as guidance, noticing for the first time the burn mark on his shirt, and then quickly glanced down at her own chest to scowl in displeasure. “And I really liked this one,” she complained as her fingers pulled at the singed edges of the fabric. She straightened to gaze coldly at Colin. “This is soooo not over,” she warned. “I’m going to be expecting some answers and new clothes here very soon.”

As the group trundled through the tunnel back to the dungeons, the younger Watcher’s heart thumped within his chest, his fears surging up his throat in palpable blisters. The morning was promising to be a nightmare, especially since he knew they were going to have questions he would be forced to answer. No more evasions. No more half-truths. And somehow, Colin didn’t think they would be pleased to hear that the witch who had conducted the first ritual was most likely dead…

 

To be continued in Chapter 19: My Highland Lassie