DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Anya has figured out Spike and Buffy are together, and Buffy has returned to the castle with the harness, only to be confronted by the one remaining guardian kelpie…

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Chapter 33: News, Lasses, News

They faced off, both wary, both expectant of any movement from the other, regarding the unanticipated ally in each with suspicion and interest. Though she’d seen it---or something exactly like it---down in the dungeon, it now seemed to be in miniature of itself, standing at just about six feet, with almost human-like features. Well, except for the long razor-like teeth that extended from its mouth. And the black eyes that almost seemed too big for its face. And the fact that instead of bare skin, it sported a black pelt that rippled even in the dim light of the hallway. OK, maybe not so human-like.

“A guardian,” Buffy finally said slowly. “You have a name or something? Because calling you that guardian kelpie demon turns into quite a mouthful for me if we’re going to have a conversation here.”

“I’m afraid you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it in your tongue.”

She relaxed her stance, mildly annoyed. “Well, I’ve got to call you something.” She thought for a moment. “How ‘bout Frank? Good, solid name. That work for you?”

The kelpie’s confusion was evident in its dark face. “Do I look like a Frank?” it asked slowly.

Buffy shrugged. “You look like that thing that attacked me and Spike the other day.”

“That would’ve been my colleague,” the newly-dubbed Frank said, nodding. “Another guardian.”

“And you say you’re the last one?”

“Until more are called to replace those that have been killed in the line of their duty.”

“Nice to hear I’m not the only one who got called,” Buffy commented, and then frowned. “Wait,” she said. “There were more of you? How many more?”

“Three are required to effectively protect the entrance to the Otherworld---.”

She rolled her eyes. “There’s that number again,” she muttered. “So, you’re one, Spike killed number two when it attacked us downstairs…if you’re the last, where’s the third one? Don’t tell me it’s Duncan.”

“No. The third guardian was the one you killed out in the human world.”

The memory of the kelpie standing in the moonlight, its mane rustling in the slight breeze, the stray beams of silver highlighting its luxuriant coat, came rushing back to the forefront of the Slayer’s mind, and she flushed as if a child who’d just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “I didn’t kill it,” she defended. “I wounded it, yes, but I found it---.” She cut herself off, reluctant to divulge all the information she’d only recently acquired. There was still no telling what this creature’s full motives were, and until she had a firmer hand on what exactly was going on, Buffy wasn’t going to give any more than she had to.

“You said Duncan was your enemy, too,” she said, changing the subject. “Spike seems to think he’s a kelpie. Is that true?”

“Yes. Though I am ashamed to admit that he is of my kind. He has no honor.”

“And how do you know he’s our enemy? If you’re so busy guarding your Otherworld, you can’t have known what he’s been doing in my world.”

It took a long moment for the kelpie to respond. Its eyes were solemn, but not malicious, poring into her as if by doing so it could read her very soul, and Buffy found herself shifting uncomfortably as she waited for it to answer. Frank was doing his own assessment, judging her merit to determine how much to reveal, and the shift in their positions was disconcerting, to say the least. Don’t push it, she reminded herself. So far, his explanation has been without the routine kelpie touching thing that seemed required for her to be affected by its sway, so he’s doing his best to maintain his sincerity in this issue. No need to go all Slayer-y until he gives me reason to.

“The one you know as Duncan came to me the other day,” Frank finally said. “He attempted to lay the blame for his crimes at the feet of you and your vampire…companion.” For some reason, the guardian knew enough not to qualify their unusual relationship in other terms; somehow, he suspected she would not react well if she were to discover the pair had had an audience during their recent coupling. As it was…

“He what?” Her indignation colored itself in twin spots of red high on her cheeks, her jaw dropping as the statement sank in. “He said we killed all those people? Oh, I am soooo going to enjoy wringing his too-charming neck.”

“Not the deaths,” he clarified. “His theft.”

Though her pulse raced, she gave no outward appearance of having understood what he was referring to. But in her head, Buffy’s brain was firing, making the connections regarding the harness that had been eluding her, yet…it still didn’t coalesce into a cohesive picture. “Tell me what happened,” she said calmly. “What did he steal?”

The guardian sighed. “It’s a long story---.”

“Then I suggest you dive in. Unless you’d rather be fighting.” Her fists tightened at her words.

Another sigh. “If it will aid in your trust, so be it.” He took a deep breath. “As a guardian, my duties are twofold. First and foremost, I, along with my colleagues, protect the Otherworld from those who would seek to harm it, which unfortunately, we have come to learn means all intruders. So, we prevent any from crossing through the entrance.”

“You kill them,” she stated, remembering the attack on her and Spike during their first sojourn into the tunnel.

“We protect our species,” it reiterated. “Death is a necessary effect of that. As the Slayer, you should understand our need for such measures.”

She blushed slightly at the admonition in his voice. “What’s the other part of your job?” she asked.

“We guard what is considered one of the most valuable artifacts in the Otherworld. It has great potential for misuse, should it fall into the hands of someone with less than noble goals…”

“…and Duncan stole it out from under your noses.” Not time yet to say she knew he was speaking of the harness. Maybe that would come later.

The kelpie’s nod was one of saddened guilt. “It was the night of Samhain. We guardians were on alert because for the first time in years, men had uncovered one of the portals to the Otherworld, and we feared that they would utilize the one night of the year when the veil separating us is thin enough to allow themselves entrance. All of our attention was focused outward. We never expected one of our own to take advantage of that. The traitor…this Duncan…stole the artifact, then fled past us into the human world. We had no choice but to lay chase to him.”

“But you didn’t catch him, or he wouldn’t be downstairs right now cooking our lunch.”

“No. We attempted for almost a full day to track him down, but to no avail. When we realized it would take a much longer search, we returned to our post to plan further, only to find a group of men there attempting to enter.”

Colin’s story of the witch and the first try at the controlling spell came filtering back into Buffy’s conscious, and she now understood why the attack on the Council had come from the outside. The guardians had still been in human form from their excursion into the Scottish countryside, hence the confusion on the part of the single witness who had been left.

“Those men,” the kelpie was saying, jerking Buffy back from her thoughts. “I assume…your presence came so soon after their departure…you are working with them?”

“With is kind of a strong word,” she replied. “But I did hear about the fight. Why did you kidnap the witch?”

There was no apology in its voice. “She was the best choice to learn what the men were planning,” Frank explained. “As the only female, she would be the easiest for us to lure away, and there was no mistaking the fact that she had strong magical capabilities. We thought her the most powerful one of the attackers.” It sighed. “We were wrong. She knew next to nothing. Only that they were attempting to gain control of the entrance. Nothing about the…artifact, or how they meant to profit from having access to the Otherworld.”

“So you killed her? Nice interrogation tactics.” The sarcasm dripped from her voice, and Buffy folded her arms across her chest. She was no longer afraid of a pending attack from the guardian; by divulging so much of the story, he was slowly buying her trust, and her body language showed this.

“She had served her purpose. Once we had what little information she could give us, we knew we could not leave the entrance unguarded indefinitely. It was then that we decided to separate---two of us to return to the tunnels, while the third remained in the outside world to search for the traitor and retrieve the artifact.”

Now was the time for her to give in this little information tug-of-war they were playing. “I saw him,” Buffy admitted. “Your friend. Out on the mountain. At least, I think it was him. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Duncan.”

The kelpie frowned. “What makes you so certain?”

Shifting uncomfortably in her stance, the Slayer replied, “Because I wounded it. Duncan’s never showed any sign of being that badly hurt. Unless you guys have some sort of super-healing capabilities that we don’t know about.” She waited expectantly.

“No,” it said. “So you did…kill him?” Its voice was tight, and for the first time since approaching her, the guardian showed signs of tension, regret perhaps in trusting her enough to relate his tale.

“I don’t think so,” she argued. “Yes, we did chase it. All we knew was that some creature that matched the kelpie’s description had gotten out and was running loose, chowing down on natives. You have your job? Well, mine’s pretty darn similar. I’m here to protect people from demons who do that, so when Spike and I saw it, we tried taking it out. Tried being the operative word. I got close enough to wound it, but then it took off. And when we went back the next day to try and track it down, we couldn’t find the body anywhere.”

This relaxed him, though his unease still twined through his limbs. “The traitor claimed you killed my colleague. Perhaps he was merely making an assumption.”

“Or maybe he finished the job himself.” Time to take the plunge. “The thing of it is…when we saw the kelpie, it was wearing this…harness. Made of bells. Does that…mean anything to you?”

“You saw it?” It was in her face then, crossing the distance between them before she could blink, its hands gripping her upper arms tightly.

“Let. Me. Go,” Buffy said through gritted teeth. It took more exertion than she thought imaginable; the pervasive sense of calm that swirled through her at its touch was distracting, but experience---and Spike’s warning---had told her that its power over her rested in its need for physical contact with her. This was not the time to not be in full control of her faculties.

Frank complied immediately but didn’t move, hovering just inside her personal space, staring down at her with those black pools. “You saw it?” it repeated, its voice only slightly calmer.

“Yes.” She took a small step backwards. “Is that what you’re looking for?” She already knew the answer to this; she just needed to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. So to speak.

“That is what was stolen,” it admitted, but the frown that creased its face betrayed his thoughts. “Though why my colleague should have possession of it, I don’t know.”

“Maybe he managed to get it back. Could be, he was on his way back here with it---.”

“---when you saw him.” The rest of the thought lay unspoken between them, but the accusation was clear. If Buffy and Spike hadn’t chased the kelpie on the mountain, it could very well have returned to the dungeon with the harness safely intact, leaving all three guardians still alive, and the artifact back where it belonged. Buffy flushed. Nothing like a little guilt to get the blood flow pumping.

“You said Duncan accused us of having something to do with the theft,” she said, desperate to return to the truce they had garnered. Shift it back to the bad guy. Focus his attention on that. Don’t let him dwell too much on the Slayer’s screw-up.

“He claimed that the vampire was in possession of the harness.”

Time for half-truths. “That’s ridiculous. Spike doesn’t have the harness.”

“I know.”

“Not that it matters, but you sound awfully sure of that.”

“I overheard the vampire speaking with another male down in the dungeon. He made it clear then that your group was still searching for it.”

“And we are. Still searching. Because we don’t have it.” OK, that one was a lie, but nothing in her voice or face disclosed her duplicity. She wasn’t ready yet to give away the only power card in her hand; the guardian didn’t need to know about that part just yet. “It’s not like we even cared about the stupid harness in the first place,” she added unnecessarily.

“But you’re looking for it.”

Buffy sighed. “Only in a my-boss-lied-to-me-and-I-want-to-know-why-so-I-can-beat-him-at-his-own-game sort of way. It seemed too important to too many people who didn’t want to tell us why. We couldn’t just ignore it.”

“And yet you were going to attempt the same spell to control the entrance.”

“No, we tried to close it,” she argued. “The Council---that would be the boss I mentioned---tried to trick us into doing their spell, but we figured out what they were doing in time.”

The guardian was thoughtful. “Yes,” it mused. “The traitor mentioned he had managed to arrange that.”

Well, that explained where the book came from, but… “Why would he want us to change the spell? And how did he know about it? He wasn’t with you when you did whatever to the witch, was he?”

“No, he wasn’t.” That was one of the many questions the guardian had raised in his mind when the thief had approached him in the first place. “And as for wanting the entrance closed, he asserted that he was concerned about protecting our species from outsiders, but that’s just another of his lies.”

“And you think this because…?”

“Because if I were him, I would want those who were hunting me down safely locked behind a spell that prevented them from chasing me…wouldn’t you?”

Piece by piece, it was all beginning to make crystal sense to the Slayer…clarification of what had happened to the first group to try the spell…why Duncan persisted in sticking around when he’d had the harness in his possession almost all along…most likely using Spike as a diversionary tactic to throw off the guardian…and yet, certain questions still lingered.

“How did Duncan get into the tunnel to talk to you?” Buffy asked. “There’s a spell blocking the way between it and the dungeon.”

He seemed reluctant to answer. “That was one of the…questions I myself had. Why I doubted his honesty in coming to me. When I came through and discovered the way back barred, I realized it was likely he had the harness in his control when he sought me out. It was the only way he could’ve crossed the barrier. That is one of its…side effects. It…dissolves magic.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Nice side effect,” she commented. “What else does it do?”

“No.” His denial surprised her even further. “You don’t need to know that.”

“Need…want…two sides of the same coin.”

There was no denying his vehemence as his hands clawed into themselves. “I’m not telling you,” Frank said again. “In knowledge lies power, and I am not about to arm you in such a way.”

“And here I thought we were friends.”

“We are allies. Nothing more.”

“You told me about the magic thing.”

“Because that is secondary to the harness’ true power. I suggest you let this one go, Slayer. I will not be the one to disclose what you seek.”

She stared at it, thoughts ticking behind her eyes. Fine. If Frank wanted to play that way, she had no problem with it. He didn’t share what the harness actually did, she wouldn’t share that she now had it. Balance.

“So what now?” she queried, hazel eyes calm. “Feel like ripping off harness boy’s head? I can always use a strong fighter as back-up.”

“My original plan had been to do just that, but now…”

They heard it at the same time, the steps along the stairwell behind the Slayer, and in the space of Buffy turning around to see who was there, the kelpie had changed, hair lightening, black coat smoothing into a t-shirt and jeans. It had folded its arms across its muscled chest by the time Giles stepped through from the stairs, regarding the Watcher with cool blue eyes.

“Buffy,” Giles said, surprise quirking his brow even as his gaze flickered over her shoulder. The second name that came from his lips was far less friendly. “Spike.”

She whirled to see the kelpie in her lover’s form standing behind her, the vampire’s trademark smirk curling its lips. “You mind?” it asked. “Me and Slayer were havin’ a conversation here. Private-like.”

“Where’s Xander? You didn’t abandon him in the dungeon, did you?”

Kelpie Spike snorted. “Right. I chained him to the wall and left him to fend for himself.” It tilted its head. “The boy got bored and said he was goin’ to take a nap before lunch. I was just comin’ up to let him know we should be headin’ downstairs when I ran into the Slayer here.”

“Actually, I’m rather glad that I’ve found both of you,” Giles started. “There’s something I’d like to discuss---.”

Grabbing the kelpie’s arm, Buffy dragged him past the Watcher and toward the stairs. “Can’t right now,” she shot back over her shoulder. “I need Spike to help me check something out down in the tunnel. I think I’ve found some answers for us.”

“This really shouldn’t---,” he called, but the pair was already gone, leaving the Englishman frowning behind his glasses.

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

She waited until they were down in the dungeon before whirling to face the familiar---yet not---face behind her. “How can you do that?” she asked, amazed. “Looking like Spike is one thing. Talking and acting like him is another. You totally fooled Giles.”

It tilted its head in that Spike-like way, blue eyes narrowed. “But I wouldn’t fool you,” he commented. “You’re very…attuned to the vampire, aren’t you?”

“It comes as part of the Slayer gig,” she explained. “And that’s not the point.” Her fluster creased her brow in wrinkles that were hidden by the darkness. They had only the flashlight she’d grabbed on the way down for illumination, and Buffy was doing everything she could to keep it away from her face. Don’t want to give too much away, she’d thought.

“It’s no great mystery,” the kelpie said. “I’ve had the opportunity to observe him more than once. His mannerisms and speech patterns are quite…original. It makes them simple to mimic.”

“Still…” It was confusing, a havoc in her head where her eyes were telling her one thing and her body was screaming another. By all appearances, it was Spike…the clothes, the body language, the voice, even the little cock of his brow when he’d been talking to Giles…yet she knew with every inch of her skin that it wasn’t. And it was more than the Slayer/vampire connection. Much more.

Though the superficial was there, gone was the spark that lit the vampire’s face when he spoke, the delight that managed to dance in his eyes as he took his turn in playing the joy, the smolder that emanated from his flesh whenever his gaze would settle on her. It astonished Buffy that she knew so much about Spike without even realizing it, and surprised her even more when she realized it was the spirit behind the porcelain sculpture that captivated her so. That’s how she would always be able to know him. Because there could be no copying of Spike’s heart.

“If it bothers you, I can change,” it said, and as it spoke, began to shift again, reverting to the black coat and long teeth of its true form. “I have to admit, I am curious why you align yourself with a vampire. I thought it was your duty to rid your world of them.”

“Spike’s different. He’s…not a threat to humans. And why are you asking?”

“It’s that…unusual relationship you share with him that made me believe you would listen to me. That you would be open-minded to consider my story without hastening to kill me. Like you did my colleague.”

“Hey, do I tell you how to do your job? He attacked us. We defended ourselves. End of story.” She folded her arms across her chest. “And besides, that is so not the point here. We were talking about Duncan and our next step.”

“Yes.” The return to topic sobered the guardian instantly. “When will you be attempting to close the entrance again?”

She frowned, remembering. “I think Will said tomorrow night.”

“So it should be safe to assume he will not leave until he knows it is done. That means we must find the harness before then.”

The silence in the dungeon was deafening as both remained lost in their thoughts. “If I can get you the harness,” Buffy finally ventured, “do you trust me to take care of Duncan myself?”

He regarded her with fathomless eyes. “He must not live. He cannot be trusted.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve kind of got a thing about not letting the bad guy walk away from a fight. Usually it involves some sort of dust, or slime, or some other demony substance, but you guys don’t do that, do you? You just kind of lie there.”

“And you believe you can find the harness without my aid?”

She thought about the bag hidden in the brush outside the castle. “Yeah,” she said. “Pretty sure that one’s not going to be a problem.”

“Then I will trust you. I’ll wait in the cell with the magical barrier for you to return with the harness and news that the thief is dead. You can open it then, so that I may return to my---.” His gaze flickered to the depths of the dungeon. “Your friends are returning,” he commented.

“My friends…?” Buffy started, pivoting to see two spots of light dancing along the stone wall, growing larger as they approached. She turned back to the kelpie, only to be met with emptiness, and frowned. “Now where did he go?” she mused, glancing around before shining her own torch toward the floor. Wouldn’t do to be walking around if he turned himself into a bug or something. She would’ve just stepped on her first real outside ally in this whole mess. Plus, she kind of liked these shoes. It would be a shame to ruin them because of splattered kelpie guts on the soles.

“Hey, Buff! You’re back.”

The Slayer whirled, a wide smile plastered on her face, to see Xander amble toward her, Spike close at his heels. “I’m back,” she chirped. “What’re you two doing?”

“Doing our best to escape the evil clutches of butt-numbing research demons,” Xander replied. “Is lunch ready?”

“Yeah,” she said, grabbing on to the lifeline he extended. “Lunch. Giles said you two were down here.”

“I knew it,” the young man said.

“Your bleedin’ stomach knew it,” Spike countered, coming to a stop at Buffy’s side.

His presence hit her like a wall, and the difference between him and the kelpie when it had taken his form jumped into clarity. Her fingers itched to reach out and touch him, to return to a state of contact that had been promised so deliciously that morning with the bath, but she refrained, settling instead to close the distance between them so that her shoulder brushed against his. Make it look accidental, casual. Except there was nothing casual about the charges that leapt between them, even at that slight touch. And she could tell from the almost inaudible rumble in Spike’s chest that he knew it, too.

“That thing’s been growlin’ louder than a Whrontha demon for the past ten minutes,” the vamp continued, keeping his tone light. He glanced down at the Slayer. “Any luck in the search?”

“You could say that. I’ll fill you in upstairs.”

“And just wait until you hear what we found out,” Xander chimed, following the pair as they started climbing the stairs. “It’ll make your hair go white. Oh, wait, too late for Spike.”

“Very funny, Harris.”

“I’m just saying, maybe you should consider…”

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

The noon meal was done and their evening tea was simmering on the stove, bubbling and releasing tiny pockets of scents into the close air of the kitchen. Duncan could hear the voices of the group as they chattered away in the great hall; the Slayer, in particular, seemed to be in an exceptionally good mood, and he found himself musing on her capacity to hold her alcohol. She certainly doesn’t seem hung over, he thought, amusement twisting his lips. From the way the others had presented themselves that morning, he’d gotten the impression that the lot of them had tied on one the previous evening.

Not that it mattered. He’d already cornered the younger Watcher, making his excuses to leave early, claiming he didn’t feel well enough to stay on, but that dinner was cooking and all they would have to do was keep an eye on it. His excitement was building, his desire to retrieve the harness and make his escape growing, spurring him to cut his plans short. He had bought himself time by going to the guardian, and hopefully, Spike would suffer as a result. The pompous vampire deserved to be taken down a notch or two, thinking he could play in the same league as Duncan. It was all he could do not to laugh out loud as he slipped out through the pantry, into the hall, and out into the noon sunshine.

Life was good.

And about to get much, much better…

 

To be continued in Chapter 34: In the Prospect of Death