DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss', of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Colin and Giles have picked up a wet Duncan to bring him back to Dall Rath, while Spike has finally admitted to Buffy that he's in love with her…

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

Chapter 26: Behold the Hour, the Boat Arrive

Each step closer to the great hall was slower than the one before. It wasn't conscious; neither of them was deliberately delaying their entrance. But every foot, every inch, found Buffy and Spike loosening their grips, skin sliding against skin as palms separated, knuckles uncurled, until by the time they stood before the door, it couldn't even be called holding hands. Fingertip to fingertip, they hesitated, unwilling to cross the threshold and shatter the spell that bound them.

"Y'know, Watcher Junior's goin' to make us pull an allnighter lookin' for info on this guardian, don't you?" His voice was low, and though he strove for neutrality, anything to make the pretending easier, Spike's arm tremored as he stepped aside, widening the chasm between them even as his body screamed to pull the young blonde close. Stupid bloody promise to wait.

"It won't be much longer."

He shrugged. "Well, now that we've got something specific, Red and Rupes will probably find---."

"I didn't mean that." She looked up at him, eyes apologetic. "I meant us. Telling the gang. I don't…" Buffy's gaze returned to the closed door. "I hate this as much as you do."

Cocking his head to try and catch her eyes, Spike's lips lifted in a half-smile that softened his face. "So let's come clean," he offered. It's what he wanted; it's what he wanted to believe she wanted. She knew how he felt now and though Buffy had yet to say the words herself, he couldn't help but hope that the depth of his feelings might somehow be mirrored within her. "The witches already know. That's half the battle right there."

"No. They're the easy ones. We're fighting testosterone here. Xander and Giles are the ones we have to win." She hated doing this to him. Everything she had asked for---the waiting, the silence---Spike was doing without question, all because he loved her. Yet, she couldn't find the courage to tell the other men in her life about their relationship. What a good girlfriend I make, Buffy thought sarcastically, mentally shaking her head.

Taking a deep breath, the Slayer's hand curled around the doorknob. "Ready to face the lion den?" she said softly.

"The sooner we get crackin' on connecting Duncan to that beastie in the dungeon, the happier I'm goin' to be."

She stopped, swiveling her head to stare up at him in confusion. "What're you talking about?" she asked. "What does the one have to do with the other?"

His brows lifted. "You're kidding, right?" Spike waited for her to nod, but was met only with the blankness of her hazel stare. "C'mon, the bloody thing pulled the same trick on you that that bastard chef does. That can't be a coincidence."

"I really wish I knew what your problem with Duncan was," Buffy said, shaking her head. "Because coming up with these imaginary relationships between him and the kelpie downstairs makes absolutely no sense to me."

His eyes searched hers, looking for something---anything---that might indicate she was teasing. "You really…don't see it, do you?" he finally commented. "That thing talked you out of killing it, Buffy. You remember that, right?"

"I remember giving it a chance to explain itself. Huge difference, if you ask me."

"No, you let it distract you. It turned into a human, and you all but turned into Ulysses, minus the boat lashing." Grabbing her shoulder, Spike spun Buffy so that he could face her, full on. "Don't you see? I'll lay odds it's part and parcel of the whole kelpie mystique. Probably how the whole luring thing works."

"Spike." Her voice was quiet. "I thought we talked about this. There is no reason for you to be jealous of Duncan. Making up these stories---."

"This isn't about ---." His nostrils flared as the vampire felt the ire begin burning in his throat, and he let her go, running his fingers through his hair in frustration. "OK. So, maybe I don't like the pillock. But this isn't about that. This is about sleeping with the enemy and not even realizing he's in the same bed with you."

"Not an analogy you want to be using when you're the one I'm sleeping with."

"I'm just saying---."

"And I'm saying you're wrong." There was no anger in her voice, and her gaze was calm as she outlined her reasoning. "Giles has met Duncan's aunt. The man has roots here. He has not once done anything that could be regarded as dangerous, or threatening, or even slightly scary. There is no way he has anything to do with our resident kelpies." The next was joking, though the words were serious. "And if you don't drop this, I'm going to drop you, got it?"

Spike's lips thinned. "Got it," he said tightly. She didn't see it. Whatever power Duncan was exerting over Buffy and the other girls, it was blinding them to what was so obvious to him and Xander, and trying to bring it to her attention was only going to piss her off. And the thing that had happened when the cook had left? No way could he bring that up without making himself look like a complete git. He was going to have to go about this one on his own.

Her hand returned to the doorknob. "Can we do this now?" she asked. On his nod, she smiled and pushed her way into the great hall.

"Hey, gu---." The greeting choked in her throat as she walked into the nearly empty room, her gaze automatically settling on the lone set of hunched shoulders at the table.

Spike frowned as he stepped beside her. "Where'd they all go?" he asked, scanning the corners of the great hall. "It's not that late, is it?"

"I don't know." Buffy turned back into the entrance. "You stay here. I'm going to see if I can round everyone up."

He grabbed her arm, stopping her from leaving. "How did I pull Xander-sitting duty again?" he demanded. "The boy's sleeping. He hardly needs me to watch him breathe in and out."

She didn't even bother replying. With a roll of her eyes, she had pulled herself free and was out the door, leaving Spike alone to glare at the young man's stooped back.

It took him only a moment to decide. If Buffy wasn't going to listen to him, the vamp knew that at least Harris would. He just needed to be awake to actually hear what had happened. In three long strides, he had crossed the distance to the table, his boot deliberately knocking the chair leg as he walked behind the sleeping Scooby to the adjacent seat.

Xander bolted upright. "I got the bleach, Mom!" he cried out, his brown eyes wide.

"Actually," Spike said, settling himself into the chair and propping his feet up on the table, "you never did get that straight."

"Oh, because you're the laundry guru." Rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his hands, the brunette looked around in confusion. "Where'd everybody go?"

"Buffy's bringing 'em around to go over what we found out."

He immediately perked up. "You found something on Duncan?" he asked. "Please tell me we get to kick him to the curb and that I get to wear steel-toed boots to do it."

"Not exactly." Quickly, he relayed the events from the dungeon, carefully editing out any references to what happened between him and Buffy, and watched as Xander's face grew darker and darker. "So the way I see it," Spike finished, "is we have to get our proof first if we want Buffy to believe us about him."

"Do you have any ideas about that?"

He didn't even bother hiding his smirk. "If I'm right about the wanker---and I know I am---I can go one on one with him without settin' off the chip."

Xander was quiet. God, he hated to admit he really loved the idea of Spike pummeling Duncan into the ground, the image of the dark man's bloody nose vivid in his imagination, but at the same time… "What if you're wrong?"

"I'm not."

"But what if you are?"

"And I say, I'm not." His feet came down as he leaned forward, blue eyes hard. "If you're goin' to whinge about it, I'll go it on my own, Harris. But I'm doin' this, whether you like it or not."

"Buffy'll kill you if you're wrong."

He thought about that for a second, remembering her warning in the hall. "Maybe," Spike admitted. "But if I'm right---."

"I thought you said you were sure."

His exhalation was for show only, his mounting frustration driving him to his feet, knocking the chair beneath him back. "Will you just bloody make up your mind?" he barked. "I am sure, so stop playing semantics and just let me know if you're in or out here, or god help me, I'm going to take that soddin' stick of yours---."

"I'm in, I'm in." Xander sat up. "What's the plan?"

"Thought that was clear. I'm going to hit the bloke and if I come out of it free and clear, we go to the Slayer. But you're goin' to have to be a witness to it 'cause if someone doesn't back me up, she's not goin' to believe a word that comes out of my mouth about that blighter." He stopped in mid-pace, heavy brows suddenly furrowing. "'Course, he's gone for the night so we'll just have to wait until mornin' to…"

His voice trailed off as the door to the great hall opened, and the Watchers and Duncan entered, each in varying degrees of saturation from the rain outside. As his jaw tensed, the vampire's gaze locked on the dark figure of the cook, watching as he shook the water from his coat, casually ignoring the pair they'd walked in on. "Or maybe not," Spike muttered.

"Where's Buffy?" asked Giles, stepping up to the table.

"Getting Red and the others." His platinum head jerked toward the door. "Thought he'd gone home for the night."

"I'm afraid I didn't walk quickly enough," Duncan said. "When they came across me in the road, Mr. Sadler was kind enough to bring me back here to escape further soaking from the storm."

"Is this a party?" Buffy was smiling when the men parted to see her standing in the doorway, the other girls hanging behind her. "How come we weren't invited?"

"A research party," Giles clarified. "And your presence is most definitely required. Where are the texts regarding our…" He glanced at Duncan before returning to his charge. "…preparations?" he asked, hedging his choice of words.

"We put them away when we went to bed," Willow explained.

"And thank you so much for letting me know you were going," Xander said. "You didn't have to leave me Rip Van Winkling in the dining room, you know."

"You looked too peaceful to wake up," Anya said.

"And Buffy and Spike weren't around to carry you upstairs," offered Tara.

"Still would've been nice to be---."

"The books?" Giles prompted. He watched as Willow scurried to the box in the corner and began rummaging around, leaving the remaining females to take their places at the table.

Spike's eyes narrowed as Duncan approached, hanging back slightly as he waited for the girls to seat themselves, then stepping forward to just behind Buffy. When the cook's hand came down to rest on the chairback, the vamp gritted his teeth as he saw him deliberately position his fingers so that they were brushing against her shoulder, so lightly Spike was certain she wasn't even aware of the contact but unquestionably there. So lost was he in the anger that was flaring inside him, he missed the first part of what the other Englishman was saying.

"…shouldn't have been so short with you."

Spike blinked. The wanker was talking to him. "What was that?" he asked.

"Earlier. When I was leaving." Duncan was smiling, his eyes sheepish. "I'm afraid I owe you an apology for my behavior, Spike. I really don't know what came over me." He laughed, edging himself closer to the blond vampire, only to strengthen the contact of his fingers on Buffy's shoulder. "It must've been the storm. All that electricity in the air is bound to short circuit something in the brain occasionally."

Unexpected. That was the only word for it. Out of the blue, unanticipated, and such a total line of bullshit, Spike was having problems looking at the guy with a straight face. Apologizing? They both knew the mutual threats had been more than intended, yet here he was, playing up with the so sorry routine, and there wasn't a damn thing the vamp could do about it. Not with that expectant smile of "I told you so" on Buffy's face. And especially not for as long as he was pulling that charmed act of his on the girls in the gang.

"Yeah," Spike drawled, squaring his shoulders as he thrust his hands into his pockets. His eyes glittered as he stared at the other man, the set of his jaw firm. No way was he going to let Duncan think he'd won, that he for a second bought the little apology act. But appearances still had to dictate otherwise. "Know a little myself about things messin' with your head. You should be careful. Can get a nasty headache if you're not paying attention."

The warning didn't go unnoticed, and the cook's mouth tightened in its smile. "Still," he said slowly, "it was hardly necessary for me to respond to you in such a fashion. Not when there are more…appropriate ways of expressing one's feelings. And I am most sincerely sorry that I allowed you to see me acting in such a way." His smile faded as he looked around the group. "I am in dire need of some refreshment," he said, changing the subject. "So I'm going to put the kettle on for some tea. Would any of you care for some?"

"That would be nice," Giles murmured, and gave him an absent wave of dismissal. "Thank you."

They waited until Duncan had left the room before speaking again. "I thought you were staying in town tonight," Buffy said to her Watcher.

"I've had some…revelations. I want to look at the control spell some more."

"But why? We're not even doing it, are we? I thought we were on the closing train here."

"We are, but Colin and I may have figured out why it went wrong. We want to investigate further."

Spike stepped forward. "Tell him about the dungeon, Slayer."

Giles frowned. "The…dungeon? Did something happen while I was out?"

"Oh, yeah." She rose to her feet. "And this one, you gotta see for yourself."

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

They stood along the bank of the stream, their flashlights cutting and crossing across the bare ground. "I'm telling you, it was right here," Buffy argued.

"And you're sure it was dead?" Giles asked. "It couldn't have stood up and walked away of its own accord?"

"You don't think I can't tell a fresh kill when it's right in front of me?" Spike said. "I broke its neck. It wasn't walking away from anything."

"Well, it's not here now, that much is certain," Colin commented. "It appears we have another mystery to puzzle out tonight."

Slayer and vampire exchanged a quick look before she turned to face the two Watchers. "Listen," she said, "about the research---."

"You're not getting out of it," Giles pre-empted. "We need all the eyes we can manage right now."

"Doesn't killing our resident kelpie count for anything? I should earn extra get-out-of-research free cards for that one."

"If you're going to play that kind of game, technically Spike is the one who has earned the right to have an early night," her mentor countered. He glared at the vampire when he saw him brighten. "Not that that's going to happen, either," he added. "You two are the only ones who've had proper looks at both the kelpies and the harness. And now that there's this guardian business, I'm not about to allow either of you to shirk your responsibilities to the team by retiring early."

Their shoulders were slumped as they began trudging back to the tunnel, and Buffy kicked at some loose grit under her shoe. "Stupid research," she muttered.

Colin looked up at the older Englishman in amazement. "How on earth did you manage that?" he asked. "She's going to do it. I've been wondering ever since we arrived how to get the Slayer to pay any attention to my instructions."

"It's the law of averages," Giles explained as they followed after the pair. "Say something often enough, and eventually, she'll actually listen to you."

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

He blew gently at the tea, cooling it to tepid temperatures that would make it bearable to drink. Though his clothing still clung to his frame in a warming damp, Duncan was oblivious to the sensations, a lifetime spent in and out of the water dulling what discomfort getting caught in the rain might have provided. Instead, his concentration was focused on the voices on the other side of the closed door, a mingling of tenors that believed themselves to be hushed enough for privacy but were as clear to him as if he'd been sitting there at the same table with them. All it took was a matter of listening.

Another guardian was dead, but they had yet to discover that there were three, their confusion over the missing body sparking arguments between the Slayer and her mentors as they fought to find the answers within their books. He didn't doubt they would; someone, somewhere, had surely documented the existence of the Otherworld guardians, and with the resources this group seemed capable of commanding, it was most likely in one of the many texts they were now searching. But closing the pathway to his home now required either time for two more guardians to be placed, thus completing the triumvirate necessary to protect it, or the completion of the spell Duncan had provided the visitors. And he wasn't certain any longer that he wanted them to actually do it.

It was that vampire's fault. He felt his muscles tense, lips pursing as his control over his form tightened in his pique, and felt the surge of excitement course through him at the anticipation of an added player in the game. He liked the young people, especially that Slayer, even if she wasn't necessarily the smartest one of the bunch, but she was female and easily led, his initial interest in her capabilities waning as each day passed and she continued to be oblivious to what was right in front of her face. Power she commanded in spades, and as thrilling as that had been to touch, it was insignificant when it came to the bigger picture.

No, his true opponent was Spike, him of the capricious moods and possessive nature toward the humans surrounding him. He was the only one of the group to challenge him, noticing the lures, the touching, making the playing of the Slayer all that much more delicious because Duncan knew she would never believe anyone else while he could exert his control, forcing Spike to watch in impotence and growing frustration. Though he didn't care for being threatened---especially when it was done not-so-subtly as the vampire had done earlier---his desire to dole out the deserved comeuppance to the other demon was quelling any instincts to just take the harness and run, driving him to return to the castle and run the risk of the exposure, just on the possibility of showing Spike that he wasn't the cock of the walk as he imagined. Just on the possibility of winning.

He could be beaten. And Duncan could do it. With the aid of the information he had gleaned from Hornbrook, of course.

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

His hand hovered over the phone, picking it up only to replace it back into its cradle with a plastic thud. I don't want to do this, he thought, long fingers worrying his hair. This gets me back in, and that's not who I am anymore. It's not.

But the suspicion was gnawing at his insides, depriving him of sleep, creating black nightmares inside his head as he imagined the monster's hands on his Buffy. It was the only reason he was even standing there debating it, but the longer he stood, the more he knew how fruitless it was. He would make the call and ask. He had to. He couldn't just pretend he hadn't heard. Not when it was Spike. And definitely not when it was Buffy.

There was only a moment before he heard the familiar voice on the other end of the line. "I need a favor," Riley said, as his hand tightened around the phone.


To be continued in Chapter 27: Sensibility How Charming