DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Tension is rising between Giles and Spike, Riley has arrived in Scotland with Travers, and Buffy has gone out to try and kill Duncan, all with a storm raging through the Highlands…

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Chapter 35: Epigram on Rough Roads

An hour. Who had she been kidding? OK, maybe an hour if the weather hadn’t decided to thoroughly hate her and go from normal Scottish overcast to full-blown raging thunderstorms in what seemed to be thirty seconds flat. Soaking her through before she could even think about turning around. Not that she would’ve anyway. Not when she had a kelpie to kill. But still…it would’ve been nice to be warned. Maybe she would’ve brought an umbrella.

Buffy almost laughed as she bent her head against the driving rain. An umbrella. Right. Like it would’ve lasted two seconds in this wind. For a moment, fantasies of what it would’ve been like to be Mary Poppins, floating along the air with an umbrella as her sole support, distracted the Slayer from the discomfort of the icy wet, but those quickly dissipated as her foot got stuck in yet another unseen hole in the heather, her shoe squelching around the mud as she stopped to disentangle herself. This cold and the ground’s not frozen? she thought grumpily. Of course, if it had been, chances are she would’ve pulled the same twist trick with her ankle, only this time, she wouldn’t have Spike around to carry her back to the castle. Not that that hadn’t been its own kind of fun.

With a grimace, she tilted her foot, looking down at her ruined boot and wistfully remembering the worry she’d had about getting Frank squished along its bottom. That would’ve been a salvageable mess, rather than the squishy disaster that was now her lowermost limb. Yuck.

The only thing that was cheering her at the moment was the thought that most likely Duncan was stuck wading through this same storm. If she had to be miserable, it was only fair that the bad guy had to be as well. Or, even better, he was waiting it out in the Kelpie Cave, making him easy pickings for her to dispatch once she finally got there. If she ever got there. At the rate she was going, Buffy wondered if it might not have been better to stay back at the castle and wait until sundown for Spike to accompany her. At least then, she’d have somebody to talk to along the way.

Then there it was, looming in front of her like an open wound in the side of the mountain, and the Slayer knew automatically that she was too late. He’d made no attempt to hide the entrance this time, which could only mean he had left in a hurry. Probably pissed. But pissed meant more likely to make a mistake---at least she hoped so---and by all rights, it should be easier for her to track him now.

She stopped, lifting her head to stare around her, watching as the charcoal clouds flashed in brilliance as lightning danced through the air. The heather bowed in the wind, flattened to the earth against its power, and she had to blink more than once to clear her lashes of the rain that kept blinding her vision. She turned around once…twice…and was halfway through a third revolution when she saw the dark shadow on the horizon. It could’ve been anything, but in light of her current choice lackage, Buffy wasn’t going to ignore it, especially since it seemed to be moving. Away from her. Which meant…run.

Each step seemed to sink into the earth, dragging her pace, the weapon slung along her back jostling into her spine as she fought to maintain her balance without losing too much speed. Whatever it was---whoever it was---it was moving along at a good clip, and though the Slayer was faster, it was taking far too long to cover the distance between them, the storm doing everything in its power to slow her down. It was still impossible to recognize it, and Buffy found herself wanting to give up, when fate smiled, turning her target toward her, its dark head bent, its eyes glowing in familiar luminescence through the rain.

Duncan. It had to be.

A bittersweet flood of relief powered her legs to quicken, her arms to pump harder. This would all be worth it if she could just get close enough to use the crossbow. One shot and it would all be…

The wind hid its approach behind her until it was nearly abreast, and Buffy faltered as she glanced over and saw the familiar shape of a kelpie in its horse form suddenly galloping along her side. Her head jerked back up to her quarry, brow furrowing, before whipping back to her newfound companion.

“Frank?” she yelled into the wind.

From somewhere in the horse’s long neck, a voice seemed to rumble, and briefly, Buffy flashed on Mr. Ed when she saw its lips move. “The thief is mine, Slayer,” he said, and veered sideways, brushing against her with its powerful flank, sending her tumbling into the heather in a tangle of wet as it strengthened its pursuit of the other kelpie.

She was back on her feet in an instant, swiping at the mud on her face, and resumed the chase with a growing sense of annoyance. Great. So Spike had been half-right. So much for putting her trust in the guardian. The only good thing about getting interrupted like this was at least she didn’t have to worry any more if any of her friends were actually demons in disguise. She had both of them in her sights right now. And she was closing in on them fast.

Duncan turned then, and this time, the pair was close enough for their presence to register through the violence of the storm. For a moment, she saw his eyes widen in fear, then steel coldly as he reached around, his hand disappearing from view, only to return a moment later to send whatever he had retrieved scattering into the wind.

She saw the tiny blades come slicing through the air, but noticed with growing alarm when the guardian didn’t. “Frank!” Buffy yelled as she dove to the ground. “Duck!”

Facing into the wind meant her words were carried behind her faster than they traveled forward, and the kelpie heard the warning just a fraction too late, grunting in pain as the knives embedded themselves in its flesh. It stumbled, buckling to its front knees, the coppery scent of blood joining with the flowering aromas that already permeated the air, its hold on its equine shape faltering so that it seemed to dissolve into blackness before her eyes.

A grim Slayer sat up, whipping the crossbow from its sling on her back, arming and bringing it up to shoot before her partner could react. Slinging through the air, the arrow was buffeted by the wind, but training had honed her aim to a deadly missile, and though it veered slightly astray, it still managed to meet its mark, sinking deep into the shoulder of the fleeing Duncan.

He stopped, screaming, his hand reaching around to clutch at the wood buried in his back, furious eyes whipping around to stare at the girl as she hurried to the guardian’s side. As the cook pulled it from the wound, his face contorted from the pain, shifting from one mask to another before returning to his true visage as a kelpie.

“I can see I underestimated you,” Duncan snarled into the storm, staunching the flow of blood with his hand.

Quickly, Buffy scanned the prone form of the guardian, assessing the severity of his wounds before rising to her feet. They were superficial; he’d live. Right now, she had to finish what she’d started.

“Yeah,” she agreed, as she slowly closed the distance between her and Duncan. “You’d be surprised how often I still get that. I think it’s the blonde hair. Oh, wait. Do they have dumb blonde jokes in the Otherworld?”

He was backing up as she neared, trying to keep himself as far away from her as possible, eyes darting between her determined face and the weapon still dangling from her hand. “For some reason, I always thought this would come down to me and Spike,” he noted, trying to keep his voice level. “He’s the only one among you who’s been intelligent enough from the beginning to even suspect me.”

“He is kind of smart that way,” Buffy said, and stopped, lifting the crossbow back into her arms. “But I’m the one who’s going to kill you.”

“Why bother?” he hissed. “I don’t even have the harness any more. You’ve got it.”

The Slayer shrugged. “I don’t like you,” she commented, and tightened her finger. “And I hate loose ends.”

You have it?”

Though the guardian’s voice from behind her didn’t scare Buffy, it did catch her attention just enough to jerk her arm in a movement so minuscule an onlooker wouldn’t even have noticed, allowing the arrow to veer right of its target. Duncan seized the opening, diving forward, avoiding the missile to go sliding in the mud and heather. She rolled out of his path, tucking into a ball as she held her weapon clear, jumping to a vertical position several feet closer to the wounded Frank.

His eyes glowed up at her in anger. “You lied to me, Slayer,” the guardian growled.

“Not a lie,” she said, shaking her head. “Just a careful omission of certain facts.” Her body whirled instinctively, the heel of her boot connecting with Duncan’s jaw, sending him reeling backward. “And don’t try sneaking up on me again,” she said to the ex-cook. “It makes me cranky.”

“When were you going to tell me?” Frank asked. “Or were you going to double-cross me with that, as well?”

Buffy turned amazed eyes back to the wounded kelpie. “Hello? Who was the one who didn’t want to be all chatty about what the harness actually does? I am so not the only one with cross issues here. And what the hell are you doing showing up like this? I told you I’d take care of him.” She saw his gaze flicker behind her and lashed back, feeling her foot meet the other kelpie’s chest and knocking him to the ground.

“He is mine to kill.”

Her telling gaze swept over the wounds that peppered his flesh and she shook her head. “You should’ve trusted me. He’d be dead now, and you wouldn’t be a pincushion.”

Lightning flashed, followed almost instantaneously by thunder, and Buffy found her senses temporarily overwhelmed, blinded by the sudden brilliance, deafened by the clap so close to her ear. It was almost as if she stood briefly in limbo, caught in a Scottish no-mans-land. Except…she wasn’t alone.

Before the thunder had dissipated, his hand wrapped around her ankle, his grip slick in blood and rain. “Drop the weapon,” Duncan said.

Her body obeyed before she could get the thought out---he’s touching me­---into the too-calm ether of her consciousness, and she could only watch as he smashed the crossbow beneath his free fist. “Let…go…” she struggled to say.

The cook chuckled, yanking viciously to send her sprawling into the heather. “I don’t think so,” he said gleefully. “And you don’t really want me to…do you…”

And suddenly, she didn’t, staring back at the kelpie’s dark face as he slid his way up her body, hands running along her arms, gripping her biceps in a force that would’ve crushed a normal human. This was just Duncan, she thought peacefully, and it wasn’t as if he’d really done anything horribly wrong. And she did have the harness. Killing him wasn’t totally…

When his teeth sank into her shoulder, Buffy’s back arched in pain, tiny slivers of white-hot daggers bearing down onto the joint, cutting through the muscles, grinding into the bones…

And then he was gone, and she was blinking up into the rain, trying to discern which shadow belonged to which kelpie, seeing the glint off the knives that were still embedded in Frank’s flesh as he grappled with the Otherworld thief only to be forced away when Duncan wrenched himself free. She struggled to rise against the torrent of pain consuming her shoulder, but just sank back onto the ground, feeling the blood dripping down her arm as it refused to support her weight. Damn Duncan, she thought. And god, am I going to get a boatload of “I told you so’s” from Spike when I get back.

The fight between the two kelpies was brief, both of them too hurt to battle effectively for very long. It ended when Duncan grabbed the remains of the crossbow from the ground and shoved a handful of arrows into Frank’s leg, sending him back to the sodden earth to writhe in pain. As Buffy watched, the thief smiled, or tried to, and gave her a tiny salute with his good arm.

“It’s been lovely,” he said, his voice slightly garbled from pain. “But I really must run now. And my apologies if I’m not looking forward to having to do this again.”

“That’s OK,” the Slayer replied through gritted teeth, rolling onto her side in a delicate flourish that sent him skittering away. “Next time I see you, you’re going to be wishing I’d killed you this time.”

She could only watch him turn and run, her own body incapable of following at the moment, and slowly, Buffy swiveled her head to look at the fallen guardian, its eyes closed. Wiping at the hair that lay plastered to her cheeks, she called out, “Frank? You better be alive over there because if you’re not, I swear I’m going to kill you.”

There was a long stretch of near-silence where the only sounds on the mountain came from the wind whistling past her ears and the rain spattering the soil. “Perhaps next time,” Frank finally said, lying almost completely immobile, his voice calm, “we should confer on a plan of attack ahead of time.”

She laughed, in spite of the waves of pain washing over her. “Yeah,” she agreed. “And maybe next time, you can tell me that you plan on tagging along.” She stumbled to her feet, and weaved across the heather to where Frank lay. “Thanks for the save, by the way,” she said, extending her good hand to him.

Though he looked worse for wear, his grip when it took hers was strong, and Buffy had to brace herself as he pulled himself up. His dark eyes flickered over her injury before returning to her face. “You need to get that bandaged,” he warned.

“So do you.”

He frowned. “You would…do that for me?”

Buffy started to shrug, then stopped, grimacing from the sharp needles that shot through her torso. “Sure, why not?” she said, turning to begin the trek back to the castle. “We’re on the same team here, remember?”

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

The third time he left the great hall, Willow followed after him, catching up to the vampire as he stood in the front doorway of the castle, staring out at the rain. “It’s like a watched pot,” she said. “She’s not going to get back until we stop looking for her.”

Spike was oblivious to the redhead’s comment. “Think the rain will put out any flames the bloody daytime will cause?” he asked, head tilting so that he could gaze up at the clouds. “That should stop me from combustin’, I should think.”

It was actually an interesting proposal, and the witch found herself pondering it for almost thirty whole seconds before she realized how silly she was being, and shook her head as if to clear it. “And you wonder why Giles is wigging on you?” she demanded from the blond vampire. “Hello? You’ve got worried boyfriend tattooed all over your face. I mean, you’re in, you’re out, you’re up, you’re down, and now you’re standing here debating if you can count on a storm to make you flame-retardant so that you can go out and find Buffy?” She took a deep breath. “She’s a big girl, Spike. She can take care of herself.”

“Fat lot you know,” he muttered. “You’ve been charmed, too.”

Willow’s brow creased in a confused frown. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “I thought you said she was just being checkout girl. Is there something you’re not telling us?”

Glancing back at her, Spike debated for a moment, wishing he could just blab the whole thing without having to worry if it was one of those kelpie demons getting more of their secrets under their belt. It took him only seconds to decide, and with a tilt of his head, he turned toward the witch, reaching forward to take a large section of her arm between his fingers and squeezing hard.

“Ow!” Willow cried out, yanking back and away from his pinch. She rubbed at her flesh as an echoing yelp came from Spike. “What did you do that for?” she demanded.

“Had to make sure,” he said through gritted teeth, shaking his head against the pain.

“Of what? That you’re a big ol’ bully who just wants to be mean whenever he feels like it?”

“No. That you’re actually Red…Red.”

That surprised her, and she stared at him dumbly. “Being in love is making you weird, Spike,” she said slowly. “Let’s say, we go back to the hall, sit down, maybe enjoy some ancient Celtic history over a cup of nice warm blood, and forget all of this ever happened, OK?”

As she turned to leave, the vampire grabbed her arm, forcing her look at him. “Buffy went out to kill Duncan,” he explained. “He’s been a part of this whole mess from day one. And her not bein’ back yet does not bode well for her success, if you know what I mean.”

“That’s absurd. Why would Buffy kill Duncan?”

Spike sighed. For a brief moment, he was jealous of the cook, of his ability to just talk to the girls and have them believe him, no matter what. It would certainly make explaining the current situation a helluva lot easier, and he wouldn’t have to put up with the never-ending third degree that always seemed to follow him around, no matter which of the Scoobies he was dealing with. “Prat’s one of those bloody kelpies,” he said, trying to keep the impatience out of his tone. “He’s been charming you birds ever since he set foot in this place. Buffy finally sussed him out, found where he was hiding the harness---.”

“Duncan has the harness?”

Had. Slayer got it out of his slimy little clutches without him knowing about it when she was out this morning. And was goin’ to take care of him after lunch, but the sneaky wanker made a runner for it.” He turned to gaze out into the driving rain, the muscles in his jaw twitching. “I swear, if he’s hurt her in any way, I’m goin’ to rip his soddin’ heart out and shove it up his---.”

“Spike, get back in the great hall. Now.”

The vampire didn’t move. “Bugger off, Rupert.”

The young witch stepped back as the approaching Watcher stopped short of the doorway. His mouth was set as he glanced down at her. “Please return to the research, Willow,” he instructed. “I have a few words I’d like to say to Spike.”

Spike snorted. “How much you wanna bet some of those words are goin’ to be includin’ stake, dust, or ‘over my dead body?’” he directed at the redhead before returning to his former position, fixing his azure gaze on the tableau outside the entrance.

“Maybe we should all go back---.”

Now, Willow.” A slight pause. “Please.” There was no room for negotiation in his voice, and Giles waited until the two men were alone, watching as Willow retreated down the hallway, before speaking again. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?” he asked of the vampire, folding his arms over his chest.

Spike shrugged. “I dunno. Just something about a good Scottish storm, really gets my blood goin’.” His tone was light, but there was no mirth in his face, and the vamp’s knuckles went even paler where they gripped the doorframe.

“I am in no mood for your feeble attempts at levity.” The Watcher took a step closer. “Answer my question. What are you doing out here?”

For a brief moment, he contemplated playing the snark card again, biting back with his customary snide remark, but worry and exhaustion were eating at the vampire’s guts, shortening his fuse and settling his mind before he’d even realized it. “Lookin’ out for Buffy,” he admitted. “She should’ve been back already.”

Although it was the answer he was expecting to hear, once he was confronted with it, Giles hesitated, fear tempering his tone as he stumbled over his next query. “Do…you…have feelings for Buffy?”

Spike cocked his eyebrow. “Hello? Vampire here, remember? And she’s the Slayer. ‘Course I’ve got feelings for her. It’s called hate, loathing, and the desire to kill. You know, the usual odds and sods.” His head tilted, eyes glittering. “Isn’t that what you keep sayin’ that’s all us vamps are capable of, Rupert?” Not my place to tell, he intoned silently. She’ll be pissed as hell if I spill on this one. At least with the boy not bein’ invited, that can get explained away. This, though…

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Then you better elaborate, ‘cause…” His voice trailed away, his body stiffening, as a random movement from outside captured Spike’s attention. Blue eyes narrowed, peering through the rain, and all thought of the man at his side vanished from his head. When the scent of blood drifted in on the prevailing wind, every hair on the back of his neck stood on end, his nerves prickling in sudden fear. Buffy. Hurt. And getting closer.

Giles saw the change come over the vampire, and stepped up beside him, following his gaze out into the storm. It was the outline of the two pale bodies emerging from the gale that diverted his awareness from the argument at hand, pushing him out into the wet, scooping his arm underneath Buffy’s to aid her in the final few feet to the doorway. Neither man took notice of her companion as she slumped against the jamb, both of them locked on the teeth marks that peppered her shoulder.

“Is dinner ready?” Buffy asked feebly, her face wan as she attempted to smile. “Because I’m starved.”

As she took a step across the threshold, the Slayer’s knee buckled, causing her to lurch sideways, only being prevented from falling by Spike’s rapidshot arm around her waist. “Bloody told you so,” he muttered, blue eyes riveted to the exposed skin of the bite, watching as the blood that had already started to clot begin to run free again, dripping leisurely down her skin in scarlet stripes.

Pulling herself back to stand unaided, Buffy glanced at the dark-haired man still hovering in the entrance. “Ten seconds,” she said with a smirk. “I win.”

For the first time, Giles took notice of the fourth in the party, his frown deepening as he saw the blood-stained shirt sticking to the man’s chest. “What happened?” he queried as he ushered him inside. “Were you attacked by another…” He broke off, reluctant to finish the question, glancing worriedly back at his charge.

Her hand fluttered in dismissal. “It’s OK,” she assured. “Frank knows all about---.”

It was the name that did it. Before she could finish the sentence, Spike had grabbed the unsuspecting guardian, now in human form, and slammed him against the stone wall, holding him in place by drilling his forearm against the creature’s neck. “Told her you lot were trouble,” he growled into the kelpie’s face. It wasn’t struggling, merely bracing himself against the power of the vampire’s assault, its face blank in its calm. “Not that she bloody well listens to me, and now she’s got your little dentureprint to prove it.”

“Spike!” Despite her injured state, the vehemence in Buffy’s voice was enough to startle all three of the men, and the vamp turned his cerulean gaze to her furious aspect. “Frank saved me. Let him go!”

Though his face was a livid mask, the vamp’s response was immediate, dropping his arm to stand back from the kelpie. The menace remained, though, and Spike locked gazes with the other demon, folding his arms across his chest as Frank composed himself, stretching his neck as if to clear his throat of some unseen blockage. “Was this before or after he had himself an all-you-can-eat Buffy?” he asked, eyeing her shoulder.

“It wasn’t him. I found Duncan.”

“Duncan? What in blazes does he have to do with anything? And why didn’t Spike’s chip go off?” Giles’ confusion stippled his voice, his pale eyes darting between the three.

Buffy sighed, a long exhalation that was more indicative of her mental exhaustion than physical, and silently wished she didn’t have to do this right now. “It’s such a long story, Giles. Do we have to go into this right now?”

“The Slayer needs tending,” Frank said firmly.

“You do, too,” she said to the guardian. “Duncan shoved a fistful of arrows into your leg.”

“It seems you both do,” the Watcher corrected. “Come into the great hall. You can tell me what happened while we clean out those injuries.”

Her moue almost made Spike smile in kind. “Have you seen my clothes, Giles?” she asked, her voice plaintive. “C’mon, I look like I mudwrestled a grizzly. Bath first, bandages and stories later.”

Though his worry for her wellbeing was foremost in his mind, the mention of the word “bath” brought an unexpected grin to Spike’s face, his head ducking to hide it as he flashed on the unfulfilled promise of that morning, thoughts of Buffy rolling around in the mud before stripping to wash away the grime tightening his jeans around his hips in unbidden pleasure. It was a gesture that caught her hazel gaze, and though it hadn’t been what she’d actually considered, the prospect she knew he was imagining nonetheless caused her own color to flare, her lip catching between her teeth as she looked furtively away from the blond vamp.

The exchange didn’t go unnoticed by the Watcher, and his jaw locked. “All right,” he said, his voice terse, eyes jumping between the two blonds. “I’ve had enough of these games. I want the full truth, and I want it now. You’re bleeding all over the floor, there is no logical reason Spike should be able to get away with manhandling this…man, and the two of you are acting like a pair of naughty schoolchildren keeping a secret from the headmaster. So. Both of you are going to start telling me what’s going on here, or I’m going to start making assumptions that, frankly, scare the bloody daylights out of me.”

She sighed as the mental picture of a steaming hot bath suddenly vanished from her head. Her eyes settled on the guardian, and after a small moment, she nodded. “Go ahead,” she urged, and clung to the wall, regarding the human form she’d requested Frank to take dissolve away into the kelpie visage he’d worn in the dungeon.

Giles paled, and took a step backwards. “That’s…not…what I was…expecting,” he murmured, his anger seemingly gone, dissipating in fascinated confusion as he gazed at the new arrival.

“Frank, meet my Watcher, Giles. Giles, meet Frank, the last of the Otherworld guardians.”

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

Wait until morning my eye, Riley fumed silently, his jaw tense as he marched silently down the stairs. He’s got to be kidding me. But he knew the Englishman wasn’t, that Travers was quite firm about approaching this…Dall Rath by daylight, almost as if he feared the place. Though he wanted to think that it was because of the storm, the ex-soldier had gleaned enough from the older man’s brief telephone conversation in the car to believe that things were not going well on whatever project Buffy was involved in, that serious steps were about to be taken in order to rectify it. Probably because of Spike, he thought, his enmity for the vampire burning under his skin, pushing him to hasten his step to the front room. It’s always because of Spike.

She was there, right where she’d been before they’d gone upstairs to unpack, and she smiled up at Riley when he stopped in the doorway. “Yes?” Ibbie queried. “Is everything all right with your room?”

“Actually, I was kind of hoping you could help me out,” he said, affecting his widest Iowa boy smile. “Mr. Travers said you knew the way to…” He pretended to stumble over the name.

“Dall Rath?” she prompted.

He pretended to chuckle at his own expense. “Yes, ma’am. Dall Rath. That’s it.” Taking a step closer, Riley lowered his gaze, ducking his head as he strove for an innocent sheepishness that he hoped would garner her good favor. “I was thinking, maybe, you might be able to tell me how to get there.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 36: She Says She Loves Me Best of All