DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Magic abounds---the closing spell has failed, Willow has inadvertently given Xander gout, and Duncan has the harness, which appears to have magical properties as well. The Scoobies are eager to find out why the spell failed, but there is still the issue of Colin to deal with…

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

Chapter 21: Inscription

His hands were shaking as he held the phone up in the air, turning in a circle as if that would draw whatever signal was in the air to his mobile phone, and he did his best not to jump when he heard the door open behind him. “What’s he doing?” Colin heard the Slayer say. “Some phone rain dance or something?”

“Reception is very poor here in the Highlands,” Colin offered, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye as he stopped in mid-revolution. “Sometimes, moving the phone about a bit makes a difference.”

“Just do get on with it,” Giles urged impatiently. He turned to face Buffy. “Is Xander all right?”

She shrugged. “We’ll know in a couple of hours. Willow seems to think that because the gout took awhile to set in, it’ll probably take as long to go away.” She nodded toward the other Watcher. “Is he clear on what he’s going to say?” she asked. “He’s not going to go all Gomer Pyle and flub everything up, is he?”

“No, he’s not,” Colin interjected, bravely squaring his shoulders to face her, before slowly shading a deep crimson. “Not that I know who this Gomer Pyle is, but I assure you, if this is what it’s going to take to convince you of my innocence of these matters, then I will do it.” His gaze ducked. “Even if it does mean I’ll most likely lose my position within the Council when they find out.”

“Aw, buck up, Col.” Buffy’s smile was wide, if a little insincere. “It’s not like there aren’t tons of job opportunities for compulsive organizers who like to stab people in the back. Isn’t that what they call middle management, Giles?”

“Got it!” exclaimed Colin, and hurriedly, he began pressing numbers into the phone pad before he lost the signal again. There was a moment as he brought it to his ear, and then, “Quentin Travers, please. This is Colin, Colin Sadler.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I really hate how he says that,” she muttered.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Travers,” the younger Watcher said, the cheer in his voice belied by the apprehension in his eyes. “And how are---?” He never got to finish his greeting, cutting himself off as he listened intently into the phone. “Yes, yes, all on schedule. Miss Rosenberg is proving quite handy in keeping things with the ritual on…” Another break. “Well, we did have an encounter the previous evening when the Slayer came across a demon out on the mountain. Unfortunately, it got away…No, no, nothing unusual about it. Probably just one of the local nasties…” His flush was immediate, and Buffy saw his lips begin to sputter. “Oh, yes, you’re quite right. My deepest apologies. It must be Spike’s influence. I’ve spent far too much time---.” Though he cut himself off again, Colin visibly relaxed as he listened to the man on the other end of the line, actually even smiling at one point. “Yes, sir. End of the month as it’s been decided. Shall I check in with you tomorrow at the normal time?”

This was the signal that the conversation was over, and Buffy turned to go back to the castle, the chill in the air that cut through her sleeves bringing goosebumps to her arms. Once he was done, they could finish hashing this out inside. It would certainly be more comfortable. The sudden shot of Giles’ grip on her elbow stayed her movement, though, and the Slayer swiveled her head to see Colin’s hands shaking, his knuckles white as he gripped the phone.

“You’re…certain?” the Watcher said, and the anxiety in his voice caused it to crack, his eyes darting from Buffy to Giles and then back again before settling on the ground before him. “Yes…yes, unfortunate. Perhaps I should tell….No, of course not. If you say so. There’s no reason for the Slayer to know.” This last was said deliberately, and he met Buffy’s gaze with a small shake of his head before saying, “Thank you for letting me know, sir.”

“There’s no reason for the Slayer to know what?” Buffy demanded as soon as Colin had disconnected.

The Englishman sighed. “The reason Miss Rosenberg can’t speak with the witch who conducted the ritual the first time,” he said, and began trudging toward the castle’s entrance.

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

“Understand, all of my information is secondhand,” Colin said from his seat at the table. “I didn’t come to Dall Rath until after the first attempt had failed, so I only know what I’ve been told.”

“That’s still more than what we have,” Buffy replied, her mouth a grim line as she stared at him.

“And you’d rather not do this upstairs?” His gaze darted to the various people scattered around the room---Willow and Tara sitting opposite him, leaning forward as they waited to hear the story… Spike lounging in his corner chair…Giles and Buffy at the head of the table, arms folded across their chests like waiting parents.

The Slayer shook her head. “We’ll fill Anya and Xander in on the details later,” she said firmly. “I’m tired of you squirming on your little hook here. Time to reel you in.”

Colin took a deep breath. “Right. Of course. Well, you understand the power of three within the context of the ritual---.”

“Living, dead, host, we got it.” Buffy’s exasperation was beginning to show. “Tell us something we don’t know.”

“The ritual failed, you know that. Well, while they were extinguishing the flames on the dead body…” Spike’s snort of derision from the corner caused the Watcher to visibly flinch, and he took a deep breath before continuing. “…it was decided to take advantage of the witch’s protective capabilities and do some further exploration of the tunnels.”

“Why then? Wasn’t she part of the Council crew?”

Colin shook his head. “She was a local witch, very powerful I was told. And they didn’t want to employ her any longer than was necessary. I originally thought that it was merely a cost measure. Now…I’m not so sure.”

“So let me guess. Everyone went exploring and got a big ol’ surprise when Nessie poked its head from the water.” Dropping into the nearest chair as she spoke, Buffy waited for the confirmation, already weary of the tale’s predictability, her eyes colored in aggravation.

“Not…quite.” His eyes were furtive, and all of a sudden, the pencil in front of him seemed the most fascinating thing in the room as he picked it up and began twirling it around in his fingers. “They were attacked, but…not from the water. It came from…behind them. From…the dungeons.”

In the corner, Spike cocked his head. “Well, well,” he drawled. “This just got a little more interesting.”

Giles straightened. “Are you saying they were attacked by men?” he asked, incredulous.

“That’s never been…satisfactorily determined,” Colin replied. “When all was said and done, only one man remained, and his story has been…inconclusive.”

“So what you’re telling us here is that there’s another gang in town that wants to play in our playground,” Buffy said. “Only instead of trying to share, this one likes to kill everybody who gets in the way.”

The young Watcher held up his finger. “Ah. Now, I never said that. Don’t go putting words---.”

“You said it finished with just one man standing.”

“Actually, I said, one man remaining. That’s a world of difference.”

The great hall was blanketed in silence as his words sunk in, weighing the faces of the group surrounding him in sobriety, before Buffy finally spoke up, her voice steeled.

“How many attackers?”

“We’re not sure, at least, that’s what I’ve been told.” Colin dropped the pencil onto the table and let his hands fall into his lap. “The man who survived claimed a large group---six, perhaps seven---but the site evidence that was discovered after spoke to the contrary.”

“Evidence? What kind of evidence?”

He shook his head. “I was never told.”

“And so I’ll ask again.” This time, her hazel eyes were just as deadly as her tone. “How many?”

“Three. We think.”

“And Council guys? How many of them?”

“Seven. Plus the witch, so…eight.” He rushed forward, as if by doing so it would make the story less excruciating to be told. “It was all over very quickly, apparently, until it was only the witch and the other man left. The man pretended to be dead, so the intruders ignored him. They seemed very focused on the woman, and…left with her.”

“Left?” Willow’s voice was a mere squeak, her pale skin even more ashen as her throat worked in silent fury, swallowing desperately in an attempt to smooth the rasp of her mouth. Her fingers dug into Tara’s knee. “Why am I thinking they weren’t interested in a date and a movie…?”

“She was alive…when…they took her,” Colin confirmed, unable to meet the redhead’s eyes. He liked the young witch; she was one of the few in the group who didn’t give him a hard time and seemed to appreciate the hard work he put into keeping the project organized. It wrenched in his gut that she had to find out like this.

“So, that’s why we can’t talk to her,” Buffy concluded. “Because she’s missing.”

He braved himself for the next. “No,” he said quietly. “You can’t talk to her because she’s dead.” The weight of the five sets of eyes bore into his skin, and he stared at the edge of the table, concentrating on the woodgrain until it swam before him. “That’s what Mr. Travers confirmed for me,” he continued. “I hadn’t known…for certain until then, though I had suspected it for a couple days now.”

“And how…” She didn’t even need to finish the query, the pieces of the puzzle slowly slipping into place, and the Slayer shook her head. “The woman on the mountain. That was your witch.”

A single nod. “Hornbrook confirmed everything for Mr. Travers,” he explained.

“I thought you said it looked like the woman on the mountain got attacked by the same kind of demon that got Spike,” stated Tara.

“She did.” Buffy’s eyes were distant as her brain worked over the details. “Which means she either escaped from the men who attacked in the dungeons or…”

“…the attackers were actually kelpies in human form,” Giles finished.

“How is that possible?” asked Willow. “They were attacked from the dungeon direction, not the Otherworld direction.”

“I don’t know,” the older Watcher admitted, and then turned slitted eyes toward his colleague. “Why did Hornbrook show up in the first place?”

Colin cleared his throat. “Miss Summers’ description of the body gave me cause to worry, so I contacted the Council at that time.”

“You said you’d never seen the witch,” Buffy accused, sitting up in her chair.

“And I haven’t!” he argued. “I knew Miss Calvock was elderly, that’s all. I’d been instructed to be on the lookout, should she show up. Outside of organizing the ritual itself, that’s really the only direct order I was given. I wasn’t even supposed to check in with the board more than once a week. Only in the event of an emergency, they said. I have never been privy to any of the specifics. Even now, Mr. Travers didn’t say that Hornbrook was one of us. Just that my suspicions had been confirmed. And, of course, not to tell the Slayer.”

“I wish I hadn’t just let Hornbrook walk away the other day,” Buffy said. “I could’ve beat some of these answers out of him then.” Her eyes narrowed as she recalled their conversation. “You know, he never mentioned speaking to Spike when I saw him.”

“Well, he was bein’ all secretive-like,” Spike commented. “If I was playin’ cloak and dagger, I wouldn’t be sayin’ who I was meeting up with, either.” His blue eyes danced in silent merriment as they locked with the Slayer’s, their own covert relations very much in the front of his mind.

“It’s not that,” she said, breaking away from the cerulean orbs. “He told me he ran into Duncan. Maybe Duncan saw him do something or heard something out of the ordinary.” She glanced at the kitchen door. “Only one way to find out.”

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

Scurrying away from the door, Duncan plunged his hands into the dishwater, desperate for an air of normalcy when she appeared in his kitchen. They couldn’t know he was listening; he couldn’t run the risk of raising suspicions about him, not until he had more answers.

Her face was creased in a wide smile when she poked her head through. “Can we talk to you for a sec?” Buffy asked.

“Of course,” Duncan replied, feigning surprise as he reached for a dishtowel. He followed her through the doorway and stopped just inside the great hall, dark eyes quickly scanning the layout.

“We had a visitor yesterday while we were out,” the Slayer said, staying at his side. “We were hoping you might be able to tell us what he said, what he did, while he was here.”

His confusion was immediate as his brows knitted together. “A visitor?” Duncan repeated. “Yesterday? Are you certain?”

Her smile began to face. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “Dr. Hornbrook. He said he ran into you. Old, kinda heavy, really thick accent?”

The cook shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who you’re talking about. I’ve not seen anyone outside of your group here since I arrived.” As she began to turn away, he reached out and lightly grasped her arm to stop her. The charge was immediate, and it was all Duncan could do not to register the delight he felt in the power underneath his grip. He knew Slayers were strong but this…this was unexpected. It almost took his breath away.

“He’s not…dangerous, is he?” he queried when she turned to look at him. His eyes searched hers. “Is there reason for me to be concerned?”

She didn’t extract her arm right away, just stood there looking at him. “We don’t know,” she finally admitted and smiled softly as she edged away. “If we find out, we’ll make sure to tell you.”

With a nod of agreement, Duncan turned on his heel and retreated back into the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind him. There were enough secrets being bandied about Dall Rath; he hated the fact that this was one that had taken him completely by surprise.

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

Spike’s nostrils flared as he watched Buffy return to her seat, his eyes darting from her to the closed door while images of a dismembered Duncan stretched out before him danced across his brain. The pillock had actually touched her, innocently she would most likely argue, but she hadn’t pulled away, hadn’t disentangled herself for a full minute. Harris was right when it came to the cook, and the sooner they were rid of the place, the happier Spike was going to be.

“So Hornbrook was lying, but we still don’t know why your bosses are interested in me gettin’ this harness for them,” the vampire said, garnering their attention as they shifted in their chairs to look at him. Back to business. Get her mind focused on the problem at hand. “Or why they’d be willin’ to bargain against my chip to get it.”

“I don’t know,” Colin confessed. “Until you and Buffy said so, I didn’t even know it existed.”

“But they want it.” She was standing again, back in control of the meeting as she rose to her feet, and Buffy flicked her gaze over her friends. “And we have to find out why, because if that’s the price they’re willing to pay, their reasons can’t be good.”

“That means research,” chimed in Giles. “Lots of it. We have to figure what the harness does, as well as find out why the ritual didn’t work last night.”

“But I thought we knew about the harness already,” Willow argued. “You know, the controlling the kelpies thing.”

The Watcher shook his head. “We can’t be certain of that,” he said. “Although that’s certainly a possibility, the clarion nature of this particular item doesn’t seem to match what we’ve discovered regarding kelpie mythology. I’d like to have a more definitive answer.”

“You guys can stay here and make with the books,” said Buffy. “I’m going to go out and do some more scouting around, see if I can find anything that Giles and Colin might’ve missed yesterday.” When her eyes settled on the younger Watcher again, they were cool, but not unfriendly. “So, game’s all tied up now, Col,” she said. “Only question I’ve got now is…whose team are you going to play for?”

He seemed almost startled by the query, and straightened in his chair. “I…thought I’d made that obvious,” he stammered. “I’m on your team, Miss Summers. I don’t appreciate being made a fool of.” That wasn’t the only reason, of course, but she didn’t need to know the fact that he was scared to death of her was far more compelling than any sense of revenge.

“Good.” She smiled, and for the first time since meeting her, Colin felt an ease begin to settle into his stomach. “And you’ve gotta stop with the Miss Summers crap. We’re on the same side here. It’s Buffy.”

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

So much information.

Though his head swam with the tidbits that had heretofore been denied him, the only outward sign of Duncan’s perplexity was the gleam in his dark eyes as he wiped distractedly at the soup bowls in the sink. First important fact. The spell had failed, and the group had every intention of trying the closing ritual again. The wide camber of his smile was irrepressible. He knew there was a reason he’d responded to the Americans so strongly, especially that Slayer. Practical girl. He liked that.

Second important fact. They knew about the harness. His smile faded. All right, they didn’t know specifics, but they were prepared to research for as long as necessary to find the answers they were seeking. It would only be a matter of time. He would have to keep that under consideration.

Third important fact. The Englishman’s organization didn’t trust him and had employed another party to secretly enlist the aid of the vampire. Duncan didn’t understand what the nature of this chip was they kept referring to, but obviously it held some bartering power if they thought they could control the demon with it. What was even more confusing was why Spike had given over this supposedly private information to the Slayer so easily. Slayers and vampires…not normally colleagues and yet there was a bond between these two that he wasn’t sure the others saw. It was inexplicable, and though it worked in his favor now, Duncan knew that it would bear watching; the inexplicable had a way of turning when one least expected it.

He didn’t like the fact that there was another party in the mix, especially one so eager to retrieve what clearly did not belong to him. This was his immediate problem, and like all of the others, must be addressed. What did they say his name was? Absently, he placed the bowl on the drying rack and wiped his hands on the nearby towel. It was a male, which was a shame. A female would’ve been so much easier and more pleasant with which to deal. As he slid the knife into the drawer, wracking his memory as it replayed the conversations he’d heard, it came to him.

Hornbrook. That was the name. That was all he needed.

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

Sapphire eyes glittered as they peered through his lashes at the retreating light in the window. Another soddin’ hour until sunset. Why in hell was this afternoon going by so fuckin’ slow?

Actually, he knew the answer to that, and glanced down at the paper tucked inside the book on his lap, the heavy scrawls and crossed-out words staring back at him in mockery. He’d told them it was for taking notes, in the event he ran across something in the text that was pertinent to the ritual, ignoring the frown from Rupert even as he’d snatched it from his hand. Spike didn’t care if they didn’t believe him. He was here, wasn’t he? Helping them in their bloody research when he’d much rather be out helping Buffy, the fact that it was physically impossible for him to currently do that notwithstanding. Oh, but no. And when she had chimed in to support the Watchers’ argument, Spike had known he’d lost.

“You know Gaelic,” she’d said. “That’s a huge asset right now. We need you here.”

It hadn’t been her words. It had been the silent plea in those gorgeous Slayer eyes, asking him for the help she knew he could provide. He knew he should’ve just looked away, but she’d fixed on him, and all of a sudden, everything else had seemed inconsequential, the sea of her gaze drawing him in, immersing him in green and blue, until the resolve melted away.

He’d followed her out into the hall, pretending to be furious at being left behind, even going so far as to slam the door shut behind them. Once it was just the pair of them, though, all tension evaporated from his muscles, and Spike reached up to push a strand of hair away from her cheek.

“Not that I have to tell you to be careful,” he’d started, and she’d shaken her head with a wry smile.

“You’re getting to be as bad as Giles,” Buffy’d chastised lightly. “I’m just doing some recon while we’ve got light left. You and I’ll go out tonight and do some serious searching for that kelpie then.”

“Red says there’s supposed to be something up with the moon tonight,” he’d drawled, eyes dark as they drank in the delicate arch of her face. “Maybe it won’t have to be all work.”

She had left then, tossing him a promising smile over her shoulder as she walked away, and Spike had watched until she’d disappeared before returning to the great hall. She wanted answers? He’d get them for her.

The book they’d given him to read was not only useless, but boring as hell, and after twenty minutes of flipping through its pages, Spike had realized this was not how he wanted to be spending his afternoon. Red and Rupes would probably trump him and find the answers first anyway. And it wasn’t as if the vamp was known for using his brain as it was. But maybe he could still put this time to some use after all. Grand romantic gesture, Harris had said. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. Who knew the boy had it in him?

If he’d been back in Sunnydale, it would’ve been easier. He would’ve had more options. A fancy weapon, maybe. Or some good tips about the vamp population. Or there was that specialty chocolate shop near the Bronze. She liked chocolate. He knew that.

But here in Scotland…in the middle of bleedin’ nowhere…unable to even get out of the friggin’ castle during a time of day when a shop might be open…his choices were much more limited, and the only thing that Spike could come up with was something he hadn’t considered doing in decades. That was why he’d requested the paper and pen. He’d just write the Slayer a poem.

Except he’d forgotten how hard it was sometimes to find the right words, how elusive they could remain even when the images swam before his eyes, begging to be captured in fragile light, dancing away just as he’d reach, teasing and flirting and frustrating until it took all his self-restraint not to snap the biro in his fingers in half, to feel the ink seep through his fingers as it taunted him with his own impotence. Even now, the words and phrases he had managed to catch seemed insufficient, and he began to regret beginning the exercise in the first place. Not that a poem wasn’t still a decent shot here in the Highlands…just not one written in his own hand.

When the door opened to reveal Anya, Spike was grateful for the distraction, resting the book in his lap as she stepped just inside the entrance. “Xander needs to take a bath,” she announced.

“How’s his foot?” asked Willow.

“Better. We’re past the passing out phase when he tries to walk, and moved on to the minimal shrieking,” Anya replied. “Hence, the bath.”

Tara frowned. “Does he want the bath to make his foot feel better?” she queried. “Because the magic should take care of that.”

“No, I want him to have the bath because he still smells like a sheep,” the ex-demon explained. “I just came down to ask Duncan---.”

Spike snapped his book shut, marking his page with the paper, and jumped to his feet. “I’ll do it,” he announced, and dropped the text to his seat. At the puzzled gazes of the others, he bridled. “Need to stretch the legs.”

He was out of the room like a shot, the gang returning to their reading as Anya waited, but had returned within seconds, standing just inside the kitchen door. “Where’d he go?” he asked, his face darkened in a frown.

“Who?”

“You call yourself Watchers?” His amazement was plain as he jerked his head back toward the kitchen. “The bloody Iron Chef. He’s not in there.”

There was a mix of head-shaking and shrugs before Giles offered, “He’s probably just slipped out while we were all occupied. I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”

“Does this mean Xander doesn’t get a bath?”

“I’ll get you your water,” Spike volunteered. Anything to get away from the bloody books and words for a bit.

When the vampire had left with the first round of full buckets, Willow rose from her chair and crossed to the corner, picking up the book Spike had discarded and flipping it open to see what he’d been working on. He’d been furiously writing for the past two hours and yet remained silent; she was eager to see what he might have discovered about the ritual. Maybe there was something they could use…

Almost immediately, her green eyes widened, skipping over the phrases, a flush rising to her pale cheeks. Oh my. Not something they could use. And she was really glad that she’d been semi-prepared by Buffy earlier that day in the market, because if she’d seen this without…

“Anything interesting?”

Snapping the book shut, Willow whirled to face Giles, hugging the text to her chest. “No,” she replied, her voice a squeak in the great room, and she consciously lowered it as she repeated, “No. Just…randomness, and…doodles. Lots of doodles. Fangs and…dripping knives and…blood. Lots of blood. Nothing interesting here.”

“Really?” the Watcher pressed, and moved to remove the book from her hands, only to lift his brows in surprise when she hopped back, out of his reach. “He seemed quite intent. You’re certain there’s nothing---.”

“Absolutely, one hundred percent certain,” Willow affirmed. “Wrong track. Totally.” Brushing past him, she scurried over to the table, setting the book down at her side, well within reach should someone try grabbing it again but far enough away so that if Spike came in, he wouldn’t freak out about someone reading his stuff. Her heart thumped in her chest. No way did Buffy know about any of this, or she would’ve said something in the market. Which meant that Spike himself hadn’t told her yet. Oh god. And now Willow knew. But Buffy didn’t. Not good.

Sparkage between Buffy and Spike was one thing.

Spike being in love with Buffy was something else entirely.

 

To be continued in Chapter 22: Blythe Have I Been on Yon Hill