DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Duncan has decided to make it his last day at the castle, Buffy has gone off to search the area they saw the cook the previous night, while Spike has taken all the responsibility of the Scoobies’ jaunt out and been grounded as a result…

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

Chapter 31: Had I a Cave

Giles’ eyes flickered over the group, the slumped shoulders of Xander as he slouched in his chair, Anya’s drooping eyes as she rested her chin on the book in front of her, the two witches leaning against each other, Willow’s fingers playing with a strand of Tara’s hair as they read over the texts in their laps. Only Spike appeared as normal, audibly shifting in his corner chair, the occasional snort of derision punctuating his reading almost always immediately followed by the slam of the book onto the floor and a, “Next one, Rupes,” biting through the air. Each time, the noise seemed to reverberate against the stone walls, and though he wouldn’t have called it unnecessarily loud, the gang seemed finely attuned to it, visibly flinching when it happened.

There it was again---the snort---but as the group steeled themselves for the accompanying thud, Spike surprised them by rising to his feet. “Thought you said you and Junior had sussed something new out about the spell,” he said to Giles as he approached the table, tossing the text onto its top. “If that’s so, why’re we still bothering with the Gilgamesh rejects here?”

The Watcher peered at him over his glasses. “It was a theory Colin and I were bandying around,” he explained. “We were hoping to find something substantive to support it before voicing it to the group.”

“But it was good enough to use it as an excuse to lure us back here into research hell,” Spike snapped back. “So ‘fess up, Rupes. I’m not wastin’ my time any more if you’ve got something you’re holdin’ back.”

Behind his book, Xander bit at his lip in a semi-futile attempt to stop from smiling. Leave it to Spike, he thought. It was what everyone in the gang was thinking but no one dared to say; only the annoying bleached one could get away with directness like that when it came to Giles.

The two Watchers exchanged a look before the older one sighed and closed the book in front of him. “It’s just a theory,” he started. “Regarding why the spell failed both times it was attempted.”

“And remember, we’ve found absolutely nothing to deem our theory anything more than preliminary speculation,” Colin jumped in. “That’s why we haven’t mentioned it.” He glanced at Giles. “And why I thought we were going to keep it to ourselves until we knew for sure.”

“Well, the cat’s out now,” Spike drawled. “And those things have a way of scratchin’ if you try to stuff ‘em back in, so give us what you got.” He sat down in one of the chairs, propping his boots up onto the table as he waited expectantly.

Giles cleared his throat. “We believe there’s a…physical element to the spell that we’re overlooking. Some act that must be completed once the incantation has been said. It would explain the immolation of the corpse the Council used. Indirectly, it also explains why Willow was rejected as the host.”

“Yeah, about that host thing.” The redhead straightened in her chair. “Tara and I have been talking about it, and we definitely think that something inside me pushed it out. Literally. That’s what it felt like.”

“Yes. That something would be your magic.”

Xander frowned. “I thought her magic was supposed to be what was sucking whatever she’s hosting in. Turning her into a Big Gulp-sized straw.”

“Actually, the magic was channeled through all of us in the ritual,” Colin interjected. “Buffy, Spike, and the three of us on the outside. Willow was just acting as our mouthpiece.”

“And here I thought that was my job,” Xander quipped with a broad smile. “Being the…mouth…” Under everyone’s direct stare, he slouched back in his chair. “Never mind.”

“Our theory,” Giles continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “is that the spell requires the host’s aspect to be an empty vessel, to allow the spirit of the immortal sufficient room to animate it, so to speak, in order to complete the physical requirements of the spell.”

“An empty vessel?” Willow’s brow was furrowed. “What does that mean?”

“That means…no demon, no magic, no additional inner forces, per se.” He kept his gaze studiously away from the group. “We believe that means Xander actually.”

There was a moment, and then… “Me?” His eyes were wide, his jaw dropped. “How can that mean me? Anya’s demon and magic-free, too.”

“Yes, but she used to be a demon, as well as have all the skills that went along with it. We can’t be certain there might not be some residual effects.”

“What about you? Or Colin? I can’t be the only one empty enough to be able to do this.”

“As Watchers, part of our training includes extensive use of magics. We undergo quite strenuous instruction, as well as partake in numerous rituals and channeling exercises. It’s the same issue with us as it is with Anya. Unknowingly, we could possess lingering effects that would prohibit the spell from working.”

The younger Watcher leaned forward. “My skills are actually quite strong,” he pressed. “In fact, I would hazard a guess that my abilities could rival Miss Rosenberg’s---.”

“Colin. Do shut up.”

He flushed under Giles’ admonishing stare, pulling back into his seat. “Of course,” he mumbled.

“I was possessed once,” Xander offered. “Doesn’t that count?”

“Uh, no.”

Spike chuckled. “Well, guess the boy’s coming finally served a purpose after all,” he said, and then froze as Willow’s head whipped around, her eyes blazing. Bollocks. Too many secrets tumbling about in his head. Wasn’t supposed to let that one slip out so easy. Now he was going to have to deal with a pissed-off Buffy when she got back.

“What’s he talking about?” Xander’s surprise faded into confusion, turning from one Scooby to another, each of them reluctant to meet his gaze. Only Anya seemed as clueless as he.

Giles sighed. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I’m sure Buffy never meant for him to be kept in the dark indefinitely.”

“Then somebody, please, turn on a light for me. What did Spike mean about ‘finally serving a purpose’?”

“I meant, you two weren’t on the original invite list.” No one else was offering the information, each of them squirming uncomfortably in his or her seat, waiting for someone else to take the initiative. As usual, that someone was Spike. “Slayer had to barter to get you and demon girl to come along.”

“And we weren’t told because…?”

“She didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Willow interjected. “The Council was being all closed-minded about how much of an asset you are to the team. Which you are. An asset. A huge asset. An enormous, gigantic asset. The biggest asset---.” She shot the vampire a dirty look as he muffled the snigger in his throat. “Ass-et,” she stressed to Spike. “Stop trying to make me look bad. It was Buffy’s idea, remember? I just…” Her voice trailed off, guilty eyes flickering back to her best friend’s hurt face.

“…went along with it,” Xander finished for her. “Because poor old Xan can’t pull his weight around here. Or deal with the fact that nobody thinks he’s mature enough to handle the truth.”

“I never understood why they didn’t tell you in the first place. Made bugger all sense to me.”

“Not helping here, Spike.” Willow shot the older Watcher a silent cry for help.

“Regardless of what the Council originally thought,” Giles picked up, “your presence now is of tremendous value to the team. You need to replace Willow within the confines of the spell the next time we attempt it.”

“And that will be…?”

“Tomorrow night,” the redhead said. “That’s the next window of opportunity for us.”

“Some window,” Xander muttered. “How come just this once I can’t be the black lesbian Wicca? Then I’d be safe from this equal opportunity employer. And has everyone forgotten the Harris touch that seems to contaminate every spell I come into contact with? Just watch. Put me in this and you’ll have half of Scotland banging down our doors trying to kill us.”

“Buck up,” said Spike. “It’s not like you’re in any actual peril by doing it. Council’s not about to whack their precious Slayer with a spell that’s goin’ to hurt her.”

Giles cleared his throat. “Actually---.”

“Actually?” The vamp was on his feet in a heartbeat, leaning forward against the table to put his face into the Watcher’s. “Actually is not inspiring, Rupert,” he said, his voice deadly calm. “Don’t be telling me Buffy’s not walkin’ away from this without a scratch. You can just say sayonara to this sunny disposition of mine if something happens to her.”

Willow felt Tara’s hand squeeze her knee, her eyes wide as they just stared at Spike. Why don’t you just come out and say you love her, you stupid vamp? the witch thought wildly. Because if anyone had any doubt about it before, he had pretty much just blown it up with a live grenade at close distance, leaving no survivors. Golden glints of anger flashed in the azure depths, his knuckles even whiter as they dug into the table. If he gripped the wood any harder, she was sure his bones were going to pop straight out through his skin.

“Buffy is not in any danger.” Giles stared up at the blond, eyes hard. “I would not allow her to be.”

“Then…” As the truth sank in, Spike’s body eased, his head tilting as the two men squared off. “You’re bloody kidding me.”

“I told you he would take this badly,” Colin murmured, inching himself away from the pair.

“We think that’s why the Council was willing to bargain with your chip,” Giles said. “They didn’t expect you to walk away from the ritual.”

“Well, now, they can just bugger off then!” Spike pushed off from the table and began pacing the length of the room like a caged animal, muscles taut in fury. “No way am I risking my skin if it’s just goin’ to fry afterward. I’m not playin’ the patsy for a bunch of underhanded, troublemakin’ gits who’re only interested in havin’ a vampire flambé for tea. Not in this lifetime. Or any other, for that matter.”

“We don’t know that. We don’t know what the repercussions will be. That’s…why…we’re doing the research. And why we didn’t tell you in the first place.”

“C’mon, Spike.” Xander’s annoyance shone brightly in his face. “Don’t be backing out on such a great opportunity here. You were so quick to go all Gipper on me, remember?”

“That was different. You’re not the one they’re tryin’ to turn into Guy Fawkes.” He began marching for the door. “I’m outta here. You lot can bloody well suss this one out on your own.”

“Spike.”

She was the only one who probably could’ve stopped him, but as it was, Willow’s voice only slowed his pace, making him hesitate as his hand hit the doorknob. “Not goin’ to work, Red.”

“At least wait until Buffy gets back. Maybe she’ll have a solution to all this.” It was the magic word and she knew it. The song to soothe the savage beast…except a name, not a song. And not really savage. More like just…really, really pissed off.

Tara jumped on the chance her girlfriend gave her. “She’s supposed to be back by lunch time,” she called out as he hung in the doorway. “And that’s only…a little while away. You can wait a little while, can’t you?”

His head dropped, his eyes closing. Whoever said the witches couldn’t play dirty didn’t know them very well. “Fine,” he said, resigned. “I’ll wait for the Slayer. But I’m not changin’ my mind. No way are we celebratin’ Bonfire Night late around here. Over my undead body.”

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

The ache behind his eyes was starting to pulse, threatening to push out the orbs in its frenzy, making his eardrums quiver in resonance. It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. It was supposed to have been a simple retrieval of a demon artifact. Dig under Dall Rath, find the harness, bring it to London. Simple. They weren’t supposed to uncover an entrance to the Otherworld, and they weren’t supposed to lose a dozen good men trying to manage their mistake. And now…still no word from Hornbrook, and unable to get through to young Sadler. Quentin Travers was not having a good day.

Perhaps it had been an error in judgment to approach the vampire with their offer. Perhaps he’d gotten angry and had turned on Hornbrook…

But that couldn’t be, and Travers knew it. Spike was no threat to anyone human, though Colin had voiced his disagreement with that theory on more than one occasion. No, if something had happened to the Council’s agent in Scotland, it wasn’t at Spike’s hand. The question was…whose?

Popping the two tablets into his mouth, Quentin swallowed them dry as he reached for his telephone. The other end was picked up almost immediately. “Ready a plane for a trip to Dall Rath,” he said into the receiver. “If we can’t reach Colin, then we’ll just have to go see him personally.”

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

She stood at the top of the hill, eyes scanning the rolling sweep as the breeze lifted and swept across the heather. This was where she had seen Duncan; she was sure of it. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed the position the car had been in, and Buffy turned back, mouth grim. Time to search. Time to find out what exactly the cook was hiding.

She discovered it at the base of the swell, the opening hidden behind the heavy brush, obscured from anyone who wasn’t deliberately searching for something out of the ordinary. Not that a cave in the Highlands was odd. But considering the circumstances, she wasn’t leaving any stone unturned. Or…cave unexplored, as the case may be.

Though there was no mistaking the chill in the air, once she stepped through the fissure’s entrance, the first thing she noticed was how much warmer it was inside, a moisture she couldn’t place hanging in the atmosphere to stick in her throat. Buffy felt an odd sense of déjà vu, and stopped, looking around the dimly lit space, absorbing the earthen walls. Something about it seemed familiar, like someplace she’d been before, but where, she couldn’t quite figure.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she singsonged, walking further into the darkness. The knife in her hand played between her fingers. It wasn’t as if she actually thought she was going to find Duncan; it was coming up on lunchtime. He was back at Dall Rath, simmering away, probably getting out the dishes to prepare setting the table. So what was making her so nervous?

Her foot caught in a depression in the earth, and Buffy glanced down, noting the uneven texture of the dirt, frowning as the furrows seemed to stretch back into the depths. Slowly, she kicked at a hard clod, knocking it aside to send it ricocheting against the wall, and felt her pulse begin to accelerate at the glimpse of pale coming from the hole it left behind. Another nudge…and more was revealed, a disclosure she hadn’t been expecting.

It looked like…skin.

Now why didn’t I think to bring a shovel? Buffy thought as she knelt down, hands scraping away at the earth, carefully avoiding direct contact with whatever it covered. Giles would call this being unprepared. Not that I really thought I’d be playing treasure hunt, but still…digging up bodies? Not anywhere near the top of my fun-things-to-do-in-Scotland list.

It took only a few minutes to uncover enough of the body to recognize it, but when she did, the Slayer’s heart dropped. Hornbrook. Not good. Not good at all. Her mind jumped back to the conversation she’d had with the cook, how he’d claimed not to know anything about the doctor showing up at the castle. Big fat liar, she thought irritably. But why on earth are you hiding his dead body?

If Buffy had learned anything by being the Chosen One, it was that one dead body usually led to two, and she quickly set about to scrape away the top layer of dirt at various points around the cavern. It was almost too easy; it was as if he’d been waiting for them to be found. There weren’t that many---well, anything more than zero was too many, but still---and when her hand touched the silky coat of the kelpie she’d chased across the mountain, she hesitated, knowing without having to look that the harness wouldn’t be around its neck, reluctant to dig further to confirm her suspicions.

“So, our Galloping Gourmet has the harness,” she mused out loud as she straightened. Not that there was anyone to talk to, but old habits die hard and she’d spent too many hours walking through cemeteries conversing with the undead. “The question is…why?”

Without answers, Buffy knew she was right back where she’d started from…unsure, with her hands tied until she knew for certain what was going on. But it did give her a springing off point, and right now, she felt like springing off on the smug cook’s face. That charming act of his suddenly seemed very not charming, in light of the plethora of corpses he was leaving behind. She just had to get back to the castle. Empty-handed. Not her favorite state. It was much better to be full-handed, or at least, partially full. Then, at least, she’d have a peace offering for Giles when she had to come clean about the previous night and why, all of a sudden, she’d thought to search this particular part of the landscape.

As she began covering the bodies back up, Buffy noted a small patch near the back of the cave, a recess in the wall invisible to anyone just standing in the entrance. Seeing it required coming deep into its bowels, and then to crawl on hands and knees for a few feet in order to reach it. A nice little hidey-hole, she thought, as she began the trek. Wonder what he’s got stashed in there.

There were more furrows in the ground, matching almost identically with the ones in the front of the cave, and the Slayer wasted little time scratching at them. She stopped almost immediately as a familiar set of dark eyes stared back at her, hitting her head against the low ceiling as she sat abruptly back.

Duncan Davison.

The real Duncan Davison.

Very much dead.

Crap.

There was no more time for searching. She had to return to the castle. She had to warn the others. Someone had left the stable doors open.

And the kelpie was running free.

First, though, she had to hide what she had done. Bury the bodies back up. Make it look like she had never been there in the first place. One of the few tactical strategies she had left to her devices was the element of surprise; if she could take the demon unaware, perhaps they stood a better chance of…

She’d been concentrating so hard on the lifeless form of Duncan Davison, she’d almost missed the glint that emanated from the nadir of the recess. A gleam of gold catching what little light managed to make its way to the back of the cave. A sparkle she hadn’t anticipated finding quite so easily.

And to the victor…came the spoils…

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

His breathing was heavy as he stood in the small cell, looking behind him to see the wall magically appear. When his hand reached out to touch it, the guardian was met with stone, and silently cursed. A spell. Which seemed to work only one way apparently. It also meant that he was leaving the Otherworld completely unprotected until he could find a way to return. With the harness, that would be no problem, but without it…

He refused to finish the thought, choosing instead to turn back and face the enveloping darkness, the light from the tunnel fading as he crept carefully toward the doorway. He’d come with a plan. Now, he had no choice but to see it through…

 

To be continued in Chapter 32: Talk of Him That’s Far Away