DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has found the truth about Duncan buried in the cave, while Xander and Spike have both learned some unwelcome truths about the upcoming spell…

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Chapter 32: Talk of Him That's Far Away

The first time, nobody noticed.

The second time, Anya glared at him out of the corner of her eye, and poked him in the side, wordlessly reprimanding him back into silence.

The third time, Xander felt an unwelcome kick in his shins from Willow across the table, along with another poke from his girlfriend, and ducked his head when Giles swiveled his gaze to stare at him over his spectacles.

The fourth time, Spike finally spoke up.

“Oh, for the love of everything evil, will you just stop with the nancy boy sighing already?” The vampire glowered from his chair in the corner. “We all get the idea. Just let it go.”

“What?” The young man looked innocently around at his friends. “I’m tired, and I’ve got one butt cheek snoring away with the other doing its best to join it, and I just want to do something other than stare at these books for a little bit. I don’t know what you guys are talking about.”

“Maybe you should go stretch your legs,” Giles offered. “Take a walk before lunch. Perhaps it will…refresh you sufficiently so that you can continue with our research without the…vocal accompaniment.”

“You’re lettin’ him go?” Spike’s voice was sharp in amazement. “A few bloody sighs and he’s gettin’ paroled. If I thought it was that easy to get outta here, I’d’ve tried it myself. Thanks so ever-lovin’ much, Rupert.”

Xander shambled to his feet. “You wanna come?” he asked the blond vampire.

The invitation took everyone by surprise, no one more so than Spike. He stiffened, brows furrowed, his eyes jumping from Xander to Giles, and then back to Xander again. “This a trick question?” he asked slowly.

The young man shrugged. “Just thought I’d offer,” he said, and turned away from the table.

“Hang on, then!” Spike was on his feet and across the room in seconds. “I didn’t say no.”

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Giles queried, gazing at the pair in annoyance.

“Don’t tell me Harris falls outside of your little grounding rules.” The vampire rolled his eyes. “’Cause unless you or Junior want to tag along, I’m walkin’ through that door whether you like it or not.”

The Watcher inhaled deeply, trying to control his rising irritation “I just meant, it’s noon, and daylight outside. Your options are rather limited if you’re interested in stretching your legs.”

Spike glanced at the unexpected ally at his side before turning back to the group at the table. “We could go scout out the dungeons again,” he suggested. “Do a quick sweep before the Slayer comes back for lunch. Maybe that beastie I killed the other night crawled into one of the nearby cells.”

It was actually a reasonable offer, taking the older Englishman by surprise as he regarded the pair. “Fine,” he finally said. “Just make sure you both take weapons. We can’t be sure what else might have come through from the Otherworld.”

Xander brightened. “Oh! Can I take that nifty sword Buffy had the other night?” he asked as he followed the vampire’s saunter to the doorway. “The one with the swirly things on the handle?”

Spike snorted. “Sure. If you can bloody well lift it.”

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

Their flashlights cut through the darkness as they descended the stairs into the dungeon, sending dozens of bugs scuttling into the shadows in the wake of their beams. Hesitating at the bottom, Spike waited for Xander to join him before gesturing off toward one of the adjoining halls.

“Slayer and I checked that one out pretty good last time,” he said, and nodded in the opposite direction. “I think this way’s goin’ to be our best bet at findin’ anything.”

“Is that what we really want?” Xander asked, and ducked his head, his cheeks slightly red, when the vamp cocked his eyebrow. “I just didn’t want to read anymore. I didn’t think we were actually going to be doing any serious patrolling here.”

Spike started ambling toward the latter portion of the dungeon he’d suggested. “I was just blowin’ smoke for Rupes’ sake,” he said. “Buffy and I have been through here more than once. Trust me. We’re not goin’ to find anything.”

“That a promise?” He double-timed his step in order to catch up to the vamp. Safety in numbers, after all.

“Since when do I make promises?”

“How ‘bout just a super strong assurance then?”

“Will it make you shut your yap?”

“Probably not.”

“Then no.”

They walked along in silence for a moment, the knife that Xander had grabbed from the weapons cache gripped tightly in his hand as he focused his light before them. “Upstairs earlier,” he said, his voice sounding oddly hollow as it bounced around the stone walls. “You weren’t really going to walk out on doing the spell, were you?”

There was only the slightest hesitation in Spike’s step as he glanced back at his companion. “Were you?” he countered.

I didn’t actually get up.”

“But you thought about it.”

Xander shrugged. “But I wouldn’t have done it. Just kind of hit me hard, what with the whole not-being-wanted thing, on top of only being useful because I have absolutely no special skills to contribute, whatsoever. Not exactly a huge kick to the old ego there and a double whammy to boot. Useless and uninvited. Xander Harris, empty vessel extraordinaire.”

“Not so empty. I’ve seen the way you eat.”

“Donuts do not a man make. Unless your name is Homer. Or you’re a cop. Or---.”

“At least they expect you to get through this thing alive,” Spike interrupted. “Think about how I feel. Turns out, I’m just spell kindling. You just know they’re thinkin’, ‘good riddance to bad rubbish.’”

“Giles and Willow won’t let that happen. They’ll find a way to work around it. They always do.”

“I think Rupert would be happy to let me fry, right about now. He’s still just a tad vexed about last night.” That made Xander stop in his tracks, and it took the vampire a few seconds to realize the young man was no longer behind him. He halted, tilting his head to look back over his shoulder, his face swallowed in shadow. “What now?”

He seemed to hesitate to pose the query, then made the conscious decision to go for it. “About that…why’d you do it? Take the heat, I mean. Anya told me what happened. We’re all grown-ups here, Spike. And volunteers in the whole battle against evil shebang. It’s not like we’re going to get fired or anything. There’s no reason you had to---.”

“Told Red, and I’m not goin’ to repeat myself,” the vamp interrupted, resuming his pace. “It’s done, it’s out there, and the more people keep harpin’ on it, the more I regret doin’ it in the first place. So let it go.”

“Did you do it for Buffy?”

The Slayer’s name reached into Spike’s spine and jerked him to a standstill, his shoulders tensing as he debated how to respond. Couldn’t turn; even under the veil of darkness in the dungeons, there was no way Harris would be able to miss the truth on his face. Yet, the question held no malice, innocently asked in that trusting manner the young man usually reserved for the girls of the group. Somehow, he suspected that if he looked at Xander right now, Spike would see the wide-eyed artlessness that probably activated every protective instinct in Buffy’s body.

“It was just…the best thing. For all involved,” he finally replied. Good. Safe answer. Boy can’t argue with that one.

“Not for you.”

Bugger. He caught that.

The slight lift of Spike’s shoulders almost went unnoticed. “Since when does that matter? ‘Sides, not like it’s goin’ to happen on a regular basis. Enjoy it while you’ve still got a patsy vamp around to blame things like this on.”

Xander took a step closer. “You didn’t really answer my question, Spike. Did this have anything to do with you and Buffy?”

Spike gritted his teeth. He wanted to tell, even if it was Harris, but he’d promised her he wouldn’t. Sure, he’d slipped upstairs, letting his emotions get the better of him when he’d thought the spell was a threat to her. But had that been enough for Xander to figure out the truth? “Well, seein’ as there is no me and Buffy, that’s not very likely, now is it?” he said, and began walking again. Keep moving. Keep it light. Don’t let him know. Promises, promises, bloody promises.

The hand around his bicep came as a mild surprise, and this time, Spike turned and shone his flashlight in the other man’s face. There was no anger there, no hate, only that quirky half-smile as he struggled to find the right words. Times like this, the vampire knew why the Slayer let Xander hang around as much as he did. Annoying as hell, but still…something there.

“I see how hard you’re trying here,” Xander said. “And if being in love is what’s doing it, then hey, I say, all the power to you. Even if she doesn’t see it right away, no way can Buffy pretend you haven’t been on your best behavior when we get back to Sunnydale. Not to mention a huge help. Which I know is what you’re aiming for. Life on the Hellmouth is easier if you’ve got the Slayer on your side. I can personally vouch for that one.” He laughed. “And you won’t have to worry about her staking your new girlfriend. You can just hold last night over her head as blackmail material with Giles.”

He didn’t know. God, Spike thought. The poor git really is thick. Well-intentioned and mildly likeable, but still thick. “I’ll remember that, Harris” he said slowly. “Though I wouldn’t have thought you’d be a big supporter of something as underhanded as that.” His lips curled into a smirk. “Must be the demon girl’s influence.”

Ex-demon. Emphasis on the ex.”

“Still good to see she can corrupt with the best of ‘em.”

“I’m not corrupted!”

“You just encouraged me to blackmail the Slayer for personal gain. Sounds corrupt to me.”

“I just…” Xander’s voice trailed off, his brow wrinkled, and he loosed his grip on the vampire’s arm. “How is it you manage to turn every conversation I have with you into something that makes me want to drive something long, wooden, and possibly a little on the blunt side just for that extra bit of pain, right through your unbeating heart?” he asked.

Spike laughed and began heading back down the corridor. “Call it that vamp je ne sais quoi,” he drawled. “I got it in spades.”

“Have you figured out when we’re going to try this thing we planned in exposing the badness that is Duncan?” Xander queried as he hurried to the other’s side.

“We’ll see if the Slayer comes back with anything first,” the vamp instructed. “Somehow, I think any evidence she digs up might be a little more convincing to Rupert than us playin’ ping pong with the wanker cook’s head.” He grinned. “Though that would be fun.”

“You told Buffy? And she believed you?”

“Didn’t have to. When you lot were kipping it on the way home last night, we saw him out for a late night stroll on the mountain. Hard to argue with what’s skulking around right in front of you.”

“But Colin said this was his last day. She’s going to have to move fast if she’s going to---.”

“Junior said what?” The amiable atmosphere evaporated, hardening Spike as he whirled to stare at the young man.

Xander flinched. “Apparently, Duncan showed up this morning and said his aunt was doing better and that she’d be back in the kitchen as of tomorrow,” he explained. “Colin said so before you came downstairs.”

The ramifications of such a move on the part of the cook ticked over in the vampire’s brain, the muscles in his jaw twitching as he tried to figure out what exactly that could mean. Ready to make a run for it? But then why stick around for so long? What was his motive? And why play up to the girls for so long if he wasn’t going to follow through? Plus, couldn’t forget about the not too idle threat he’d made to Spike the night of the storm, even if he had tried covering it up later on with some half-assed apology.

“Don’t like it,” he finally muttered. “Something’s not right there.”

“But this is good, right?” Xander said. “I mean, if he’s not around, he’s not a threat. And the girls will stop acting so crazy without him in the picture.”

The blue of his eyes appeared almost black in the dim light of the dungeon. “And where exactly is he s’posed to be goin’?” he quizzed. “A kelpie roaming around the Highland countryside, eatin’ up the locals for tea? You think Buffy’s goin’ to be thrilled to hear about that? And we’ve still got that whole harness deal to be worryin’ about. That Hornbrook bloke said that came from the Otherworld. What if there’s some tie between that and our least favorite cook? We need to find it, suss out what it does. Maybe then we’ll get some answers about this whole soddin’ mess.”

“OK, I see your point.” Both men were silent, lost in his thoughts. And then, “That doesn’t mean we have to go back up to the research just yet, does it?”

Spike snorted. “Are you kiddin’ me?” he retorted. “We wait for Buffy to get back, see if she found anything. No reason for us to be bored out of our minds in the meantime.” With that, he swept his flashlight back to the corridor and began trekking further into the bowels of the dungeon, Xander close on his heels.

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

He should’ve known. They didn’t know he was there, blending amidst the velvet shadows. The vampire had obviously been too distracted to sense his presence. So there was no reason for them to lie. But their words, their worries…it only confirmed what he’d suspected from the beginning, solidified his plan. No other choice now. Must proceed forward.

He waited until their footsteps were mere echoes against the stone walls before emerging from the cell, his dark eyes glowing softly in the darkness. Instinctively, the guardian kelpie turned toward the stairwell, his own tread silent. Time to act.

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

She waited until the two Watchers had stepped from the room before jumping into it. “OK, what the hell is going on?” Anya demanded, dropping her book to lean forward over the table.

Willow and Tara exchanged a quick glance, both brows slightly furrowed. “We’re…researching,” the redhead said slowly. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?”

“That’s not what I meant.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m talking about with Spike. And don’t you two go pretending you don’t know what’s going on. I saw all those little looks getting passed around. Xander may be blind to these kinds of things, but I’m not. Not after a thousand years of watching guys and girls falling in and out of love all over this stupid rock. So, spill. I want details.”

“Details about…what?” Even though she could sense it was pointless, Willow couldn’t bring herself to confess to the truth just yet. Anya was just going to have to…

“Spike’s in love with Buffy. Only a fool can’t see it. If there’d been one more wrong word out of Giles, we’d be scraping little bits of stuffy Englishman off the ceiling right now and Spike would be passed out on the floor from the headache that chip gave him for attacking Giles in the first place. Don’t think I can’t tell that the two of you know about this. So I want the truth here. Is Spike in love with Buffy?”

Willow visibly deflated. “Yes,” she admitted, her voice tiny.

“I knew it!” Anya’s smile was wide. “God, my instincts are good. I’m so glad I haven’t lost my touch. I worry about that sometimes.”

The redhead harrumphed, doing her best not to laugh in the other girl’s face. “Oh, yeah?” she challenged. “You might want to think again about how good that touch of yours actually is. Apparently, Spike’s been in love with Buffy for a while now, since before we left Sunnydale even, so fat lot of good those instincts are doing for you, I’d say.”

“Like I really spent a lot of time with Spike prior to this little Highland fling,” Anya countered. She shook her head. “Xander’s head is going to explode when he finds this out---.”

“You can’t tell Xander!”

The ex-demon frowned at the blonde witch’s outburst. “Why not? Everyone else seems to know about this. Well, except probably for Buffy.” She chuckled. “No way would she ever have agreed to the sleeping arrangements…” This time, there was no mistaking the guilty look exchanged between the two lesbians, and Anya’s jaw dropped. “That’s why you two were borrowing my bubble bath this morning! It was for Buffy!” She paused. “Well, good for her. Bathtub sex can be highly erotic, especially if there’s lots of soap---.”

“You’re not going to tell Xander, right?”

She went on as if she hadn’t heard a word what the witch had said. “His head is soooo going to explode. His best friend in love with another vampire? No way is he going to be able to process that one without some serious cerebral damage.”

“We’re not supposed to say anything. Buffy wants to be the one to break it Giles and, well, just Xander now.” Willow bit her lip. Their little secret wasn’t turning out to be so secret anymore. She just hoped she wasn’t the one who got blamed for it.

“Then she should have a talk with her boyfriend. He’s the one who’s got it written all over his face. Did you not see the way he nearly bit Giles’ head off?”

She had a point. “I’ll find a way to tell her what happened,” the redhead said. “But in the meantime, could you please just keep mum about all this? Don’t say a word to Xander until Buffy gives us the green light. OK?”

Anya shrugged. “OK,” she agreed. “Not like I haven’t kept secrets from him in the past.” She smiled. “There was this one time, when he wanted to have sex on top of the dryer…”

Picking up her book again, Willow slouched in her chair, hunching up her shoulders to try and cover her ears. Maybe if she thought about something totally different, like daffodils or Snoopy dancing or chem equations, she wouldn’t actually hear what was about to come out of the other girl’s mouth, or picture in her head what she was describing…

Nope. She sighed. Didn’t work.

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

He was reaching for his coat hanging delicately from the stand when the rap came to his door. “Enter,” Quentin called, not hesitating in his task.

It opened, revealing a trim secretary waiting in its entrance. “I realize you’re about to leave, Mr. Travers,” she said. “But I’m afraid something has…come up.”

He shrugged the heavy wool over his shoulders. “Unless it’s regarding the issue at Dall Rath,” he said, “or involves dire circumstances, it can wait until I return.”

“No, sir, it can’t.”

The young man’s appearance behind his secretary surprised Quentin, and he frowned as he lifted his gaze. “You’re…Mr. Finn, correct?” he said.

Riley nodded grimly. “And if you’re going to see Buffy, I’m coming with you. That’s why I’m here.”

Travers shook his head. “I’m afraid you’ve wasted the trip for nothing, young man. I have no intention of involving you in Council matters at this time.”

“Look, I can appreciate that you have protocols you have to follow. I’ve been there. I know---.”

“Your government is hardly the same thing as my Board,” Quentin said smoothly, and swept past him. “Now, good day.”

Riley watched as the man walked away. He’d come too far to get the brush off this easily. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like no stop him from getting to Spike. “Buffy’s in danger,” he called after the Englishman.

Hesitating, Quentin glanced back over his shoulder to survey the veracity of his unannounced visitor. “And why would you say that?” he asked slowly.

“She called me. The other night. She didn’t say as much, but I heard Spike in the background---.”

“Spike?” The vampire’s name sent a trigger of alarm through Travers’ veins. “Was he threatening the Slayer in some way?”

No time for niceties. The only thing that mattered was getting to Scotland. “Yes,” he said, chin held high.

There was a moment of consideration, Quentin’s pale eyes flickering over Riley’s face as he seemed to be weighing his words. “I don’t approve of your methods, Mr. Finn,” he said. “No doubt you utilized your government contacts in order to locate me. But I do believe that you have only Miss Summers’ best interests in mind. Very well. You may accompany me to Dall Rath. But I will not have you interfering in Council business, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” The relief flooded through the young man’s body as he strode confidently behind Mr. Travers. One step closer to Buffy. One step closer to getting rid of Spike for good.

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

She stowed it in the brush outside the castle, doing everything she could to make its clarion ring as quiet as possible. Taking it inside would only be tipping her hand, and Buffy wanted to confront Duncan with as much ammo as she possibly could. If he knew she’d found the harness in his stash of dead bodies, no telling how he would react. But first, time to arm up.

His body just inside the doorway jerked her to a halt, and Buffy sighed as she tried to step around him. “Out of my way, Xander,” she said, heading down the hallway toward the weapons cache.

He followed after her, long steps sure, and grabbed her arm. “We need to talk,” he said. When she gazed back at him, hazel slightly glassy, his lips thinned. “In private,” he added, and began pulling her in the opposite direction toward the stairwell.

She followed blindly, not questioning her friend’s motives. It was only when they were on the upper floor, when he had let go of her arm, did she speak. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did something happen while I was out?”

“Kind of.” He stood back, and under her watchful gaze, straightened, lifting his head and staring at her with wide brown eyes.

It was the last thing she expected…the rippling of his skin as he seemed to shrink, his hair to grow…lighten…the chocolate of his eyes dissolving into hazel. Within seconds, Buffy found herself staring into her own face, grim and unsmiling, and only moments after that before she realized what it was standing in front of her.

Her foot lashed out, connecting with the kelpie’s gut, sending it reeling against the stone wall. “Nice trick,” she spat. “But I’ve got you figured out, Duncan, or whatever your name is. Don’t think I’m going to let you kill my friends like you killed all those other people. Not on my watch.”

“Not…wish to…”

It was weird hearing her own voice arguing back with her, and for a second, Buffy faltered, the punch she’d been about to throw catching for a millisecond before it landed. It was enough to allow the kelpie to react, to catch her hand within his, and to stay her movement as it began to shift again…sprouting the black coat she’d seen down in the dungeons…teeth elongating…

“You are a worthy fighter,” it said, its words gliding into her, using his charms to calm her nerves. “But I am not the one you wish to battle.” Very slowly, it released her from its grip, stepping back. And waited.

“Really?” she said, fists still poised, shoulders ready, prepared for another assault should it come. “Who are you then?”

“The last remaining guardian of the Otherworld,” it replied, “and we share a common enemy. I believe you call him…Duncan.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 33: News, Lasses, News