DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Riley has shown up at Dall Rath and walked in on Buffy and Spike in the bath…

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Chapter 38: A Man's a Man for All That

He was the last person she had ever expected to see. Well, not the last, because she had known she was going to have to deal with Riley once they returned to Sunnydale, but certainly the least likely to show up in her doorway in the middle of Scotland.

While she was in the tub.

Naked.

With Spike.

Crap.

Even having Giles walk in right now would’ve been preferable than having to see the hurt shock that now illuminated her boyfriend’s face. Ex-boyfriend, Buffy hastened to remind herself. Except, she hadn’t actually broken up with him yet, so technically maybe not an ex, but still, an ex in her head. And Spike’s. And what the hell was he even doing here? And who was keeping an eye on her mom and Dawn back on the Hellmouth? And…

Crap. She was still naked.

“Is it something about me?” Spike was asking her, his blond head swiveling away from the door to gaze at her. He was completely unruffled by the interruption, annoyance seemingly the only emotion registering in those sapphire depths. “Do people just automatically lose the ability to knock if I’m in a room?”

“Shut up, Spike,” she ordered, desperation hardening her voice.

He shrugged, letting his hand reach up to brush the hair from her face, a proprietorial glance at the man in the doorway sneaking from the corner of his eye. “I’m just sayin’---.”

“She said, shut up, Spike!” The tension crackled in Riley’s tone, danger and hurt edging it to precision, his knuckles white on the doorknob that was still in his hand. The young man’s gaze swept past him to Buffy. “What’s…” He couldn’t even finish the question, the words choking in his throat. He’d spent the last few days imagining some pretty bad stuff, but none of it compared to…this.

“Riley, I’m…” Too naked, can’t do this with so few clothes on, she thought and glanced over to where the towels were stacked next to the bed. Too far. OK, plan B. “Can you shut the door please?” she asked instead.

“Yeah, in or out here, just make up your mind,” Spike offered.

“It’s…a little cold,” she rushed, trying to soften the effect of the vampire’s words. In the sudden draft that had filled the room, she folded her arms over her breasts, reminding her briefly of the wound on her shoulder. Unthinkingly, Buffy winced, a tiny line between her brows as she adjusted her limb so that the pain was lessened.

Spike’s nonchalance instantly vanished, replaced with his avid concern of earlier, and he pushed away her hand to inspect the injury. “Damn it, Buffy, are you deliberately tryin’ to get it bleedin’ again?” he demanded.

“It’s fine,” she said, trying to brush him away. “It’s just a twinge.”

“Twinge, my ass,” the vampire muttered, and leaned over the back of the tub to pick up the washcloth that had gotten knocked to the floor, oblivious that his nudity was on display to the other man in the room. “Told Rupert you’d be up here recuperatin’. You’re goin’ to make a liar of me yet, Slayer.”

Her shivering was starting to return, a combination of the incoming cold and the surprise of seeing Riley overtaking her muscles, and she swallowed hard, trying to rid her throat of the lump that had lodged itself there. This wasn’t supposed to happen like this, not without major prep work from her, not before she could break it to him gently. But somehow, her mouth didn’t want to work, lost between the dread that was slowly filling her at the upcoming conversation, and the reassuring calm from the vampire behind her.

The tremors did not go unnoticed, and Spike swore under his breath. “Told you to shut the bleedin’ door!” he barked at Riley as he hopped over the side of the tub, eyes glittering in anger as he yanked the towels from the bed and returned to the Slayer’s side. “Can’t you see she’s freezin’ here?”

Riley watched in amazement, eyes fixed on the tender way Spike was wrapping her up, being careful of the wound the ex-soldier had only now noticed. Buffy was still watching him, but there was sadness there, her lower lip caught between her teeth, gaze steady and apologetic, and Riley felt his stomach drop another two feet.

“You’re hurt,” he said, and it seemed too loud in the cold room. Ducking his head, he edged inside, pushing the door closed behind him. “Did Spike---?”

“No!” Her vehemence surprised him, though if he’d taken a moment to consider it, it shouldn’t have. He lifted his gaze back up, catching the sight of Spike grabbing his jeans from the floor to slide them on as Buffy perched herself on the edge of the bed, looking lost and impossibly small within the wide folds of the terry. “I mean,” she continued, in a calmer voice, “this is local demon-related. Brought on all by myself. Spike’s just…”

“…taking care of it.” There was no mistaking the bitterness in Riley’s tone, and the softening that had started at the sight of witnessing Buffy hurt disappeared, his eyes frosty as they darted to the other man in the room. “Yeah. I can see that.”

“Somebody has to,” the vampire said. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, his dislike for the other man leaking through with every word.

“Spike,” the Slayer admonished. “Not really helping here.”

“Helping?” Riley was incredulous. “Is that what you people are calling it now?”

Her hazel eyes widened. “You…people? And what exactly do you mean by, ‘you people?’” She bristled, her initial worry about his reaction gone with his accusation, and realized asking the question was enough to open the gates for the others to come streaming forth. “And what are you even doing here? You’re supposed to be back in Sunnydale---.”

“So is Spike,” he spat out. “Of course, when I heard him on the phone the other night…” He shook his head. “I knew something wasn’t right. How could you lie to me about him? Or, have you two been sneaking around my back for a while now? Pull the wool over the dumb boyfriend. After all, they grow them stupid out there in Iowa.”

“I didn’t tell you because I knew this was how you’d react to his being here.”

“And this surprises you?” Riley took a step into the room. “You’re obviously sleeping with Spike. How else am I supposed to react?”

For the first time, Buffy noticed the stake dangling from her ex’s hand, and her mouth thinned as she looked pointedly from it to his face. “You flew all the way to Scotland just to dust him, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I came all this way to protect you from him,” he countered. “Because you sure as hell don’t seem to be concerned with remembering what exactly he’s capable of.”

She shook her head. “You don’t know him, Riley. Not really. Or me, for that matter. Because if you did, you’d know that, first of all, I don’t need you to be playing Dudley Do-Right, trying to sweep in and rescue me when I very much don’t need to be rescued.”

“Is it a spell?” he asked, the pain in his eyes peeping from behind his anger. “Is that what’s making you act all crazy?”

“Because wingin’ it across the world with a stake clutched in your sweaty little meathook is a sure sign of your sanity,” the vampire drawled.

“Stay out of this, Spike,” Buffy warned. She sighed, pulling the towel closer around her frame, trying to stave away the tremors that still reverberated throughout her torso. Pleading hazel eyes gazed up at the young man by the door. “I am so sorry, Riley,” she said softly. “You’ve got to believe me, I was going to tell you the truth about everything when we got back to Sunnydale---.”

“And what’s that? The truth, I mean.” He waited, expectantly, for her response. Please oh please, be demon-related, he thought. Something I can blame this on. Someone I can blame that’s not Buffy.

Looking up at him, the joy from the last hour in the bath with Spike finished fading away, leaving her heart thudding nervously inside her chest. She took a deep breath, anything to calm her thundering nerves. “I don’t want to do it this---.”

“Are you in love with him?”

And there it was, the gauntlet, tossed so casually out there, as if this was something Riley had done every day of his life. All three of them could see it; all three had been expecting it. Not one of them had thought it would come quite so quickly.

With Buffy’s back to him, Spike couldn’t see her face, but he could hear her body, could feel the wild pace of her pulse as it skittered through her veins. It could mean anything---certainly getting interrupted so by the man you were cheating on could produce such an effect---but it made trying to figure out what she was going to say impossible to deduce. She’d only just admitted it to him, had said repeatedly how hard it was for her to say the words, and had still to tell two of her best friends even that they were involved. Did he really think she was going to tell the truth to Finn now? The prat was armed, looking for trouble, and taking Buffy by surprise was the surest way to raise those walls she was so damn good at. No way was this going to turn out good for the vampire.

Riley could see her face, but it didn’t do any good, that blank sadness that had haunted her eyes ever since he’d stepped through the door still shielding her thoughts from him better than a brick wall. He had surprised himself by asking the question. Though it hadn’t been something he’d seriously considered, seeing her now…hearing her words…witnessing the unexpected tenderness between his girlfriend and the vampire…it really seemed like the only thing he could ask. He had to know. And he had to know now.

At least he’s not beating around the proverbial bush, Buffy thought grimly. But then again, Riley’s always been Action Man. I couldn’t really be expecting anything less. Hoped for, yes, but of course, I also hoped that this was something I wouldn’t have to be dealing with just yet. It would’ve been nice to get this Duncan business done and over with before I had to start considering how I was going to handle Riley.

“Look,” she finally said. “Let me get dressed here. Just…go downstairs and wait for me. I’ll explain---.”

“Are you in love with him?” Riley repeated. His jaw was tense. “It’s not a hard question, Buffy. Yes or no. And I’m not stepping one foot out of this room until you answer it.”

It hadn’t been a gauntlet. It had been a shoe. And he was demanding that Buffy drop its mate. And they all knew it.

She was farther away now than she had been in days, and Spike ached to reach out and grab her back. Not physically. Physically, the distance was only a few feet. But mentally…emotionally…she might as well be back on the Hellmouth. Those damn walls of hers…and all because of Finn. Part of him wanted to hate the wanker for pressing her like this, but another part---a bigger, more insecure part---was waiting in desperate anticipation to hear what she was going to say, mildly grateful for having the issue pressed. If she thought it was hard saying when it was just the two of them, how would she respond when they had an audience?

Her eyes told him before the words came out of her mouth. “I am so, so sorry. I didn’t want you to find out like this,” she said softly. “I wanted it to be…”

“…easy? Grow up, Buffy. There is no easy.” Not any more, Riley thought.

The room held its breath, waiting in thickening eagerness for her to speak. It almost seemed to exhale when she finally opened her mouth.

“Yes,” Buffy admitted. “I love Spike.”

The instant the first syllable came out of her mouth, his determination fled, dragging Riley’s feet along with it. Run, run, run, his heart was chanting, before it can hurt any worse. And his body obeyed, his fingers loosening around the stake to let it clatter to the floor, pivoting on his heel to yank the door open and bolt from the room.

“Riley!” she called after him, and was on her feet, halfway to the entrance when Spike grabbed her wrist.

“Let him go,” he said. When she looked back at his face, there was no anger in his blue eyes, only an odd grateful understanding that she didn’t have time to try and figure out. “It’ll be---.”

“No, not like this,” Buffy replied through gritted teeth, and yanked her arm from his grasp, ignoring the sudden pain in her shoulder as she rushed to the wardrobe and flung open the doors, blindly grabbing her clothes from within.

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

Her skin was raised in gooseflesh as she rushed from the stairwell, racing for the great hall to fling open the doors. Cold, too cold, but not the time to worry about that. Time to find him. Time to explain. Just have to find him.

Her entrance was a surprise, causing everyone at the table to turn and look at her. “Where is he?” she demanded, eyes scanning the room, stepping inside to peer into the far corners.

“Where’s who?” asked Willow.

“Riley,” the Slayer rushed. “Where’s Riley?”

Xander frowned. “Ummm…Sunnydale?”

Buffy shook her head, her breathing growing more ragged as she realized that her friends had no idea what she was talking about. “No, he’s here. He was just in my room---.”

“Are you feeling alright?” Giles rose from his seat and came around the table, his eyes narrowed in worry.

“I need to find Riley,” she said distractedly. “If he comes back here, don’t let him go anywhere.” And with that, she turned and ran from the room.

“Did I miss a memo?” Xander asked after she’d gone. “Or did that make as little sense to you guys as it did to me?”

“Count me in on the missage,” Willow said, eyes darting worriedly from the open door to Giles. “Do you think she’s delirious?”

“I don’t know,” the Watcher replied. “Spike didn’t exhibit any side effects from the bite, and the bath should’ve warmed her sufficiently to prevent any rise in her temperature that would explain such a thing.”

“Perhaps kelpie bites have different effects on humans,” Colin suggested.

“Too bad Frank left,” Anya commented. “He’d be able to tell us.”

Another arrival in the doorway captured the group’s attention. “Where’s Buffy?” Spike asked.

Giles’ eyes narrowed at the vampire’s appearance. His normally slicked back hair was a mass of damp curls, and the black tee that constituted his normal wardrobe clung to his chest in several wet patches. A quick glance downward showed his pale feet bare against the stone. “She just ran out,” he replied tersely, his gaze returning the vamp’s face. “You assured me she’d be resting. What in blazes happened up there?”

“Had us a little visitor,” Spike replied, turning back toward the hall.

The Watcher’s arm shot out, grabbing the vampire’s bicep and stopping his exit. “Riley’s actually here?” he asked.

“She mentioned that, did she?” He nodded. “Wanker showed up without an invite and got himself an eyeful for his trouble. Tore out of there like a bat out of hell with the Slayer right on his heels.”

“Who is this Riley?” Colin asked, leaning into the group at the table.

“Buffy’s boyfriend,” Xander offered.

The younger Watcher immediately stiffened at the reply, eyes jerking to the doorway where the other Englishmen stood. No wonder the Slayer had been in such a blather. Someone, or someones rather, had obviously been caught out.

“Well, at least we know she’s not hallucinating now,” Willow said with a smile that was meant to ease the tension within the room. “But how, and why, no, scratch that. Just how. How did he get here?”

“He drove.” The adrenalin had run its course in her system, leaving Buffy slightly deflated as she appeared at Spike’s side in the doorway. “Just like he just now drove away.”

“So, you didn’t catch him then?” the vampire asked softly. Not that he’d really wanted her to, but her distress regarding the whole matter was not something she needed right now. And his being a prick about the whole thing would only make it worse.

“No.” Her voice was low, dejected. “I got out there just in time to wave goodbye to his taillights.” She shook her head. “This was so not the way I pictured this happening.”

“What? You expected him to throw you a coming out party?” Giles was amazed at his charge’s naivete, shaking his head in reproval. “I’m sorry, Buffy, but if you expect to behave in this manner, you really should be prepared to accept the consequences.”

“Lay off, Rupert---.”

“No, he’s right.” Her hazel eyes were shiny, exhaustion shading them darker as she looked up at him. “I should’ve been upfront with Riley from the start. At the very least, I should’ve said something to him when we talked the other night. Maybe that would’ve stopped him from racking up those frequent flyer miles.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over the room, until slowly, Xander raised his hand. “Not to sound like the village idiot here,” he said, “but what’s going on? So Riley showed up. What’s the big deal? Just one more muscle to help us with this whole black stallion mess.”

Nothing like getting thrown into the deep end, Buffy thought as she gazed at her friends at the table. First Giles, then Riley, and now Xander. Plus, can’t forget the “I love you” volleys with Spike. I don’t really do anything half-assed, now do I?

Taking a deep breath, the Slayer edged herself closer to the vampire at her side, relieved when his hand automatically came up to settle in the small of her back. It was a tiny gesture, probably unnoticed by the others, hidden as it was by their bodies, but for her, it was the pillar she needed to continue. “It’s a big deal,” she said slowly, and deliberately reached behind her to take the vampire’s hand in hers, interlocking their fingers as she let their arms fall to her side, “because Riley walked in on me and Spike.” She glanced up at him, catching the steady blue and holding it tight as she continued. “We’ve been kind of…involved with each other for awhile now.”

“What?” Xander’s voice rang clear in the great hall, his eyes wide. After a moment, he frowned, looking around at the others in the room. “OK, see, now I was expecting that to be a resounding chorus of many whats, not a resounding chorus of one what.”

Anya leaned over and affectionately patted her boyfriend’s hand. “That’s because the rest of us all know, sweetie,” she said.

“Wait,” came from a frowning Buffy. “You know?” Her gaze swept to the two witches. “How does Anya know?”

“Don’t worry, I guessed it,” the ex-demon replied.

“Yeah,” chimed Willow. “No offense, but Spike was getting to the point where even Anya could teach him a few things about subtlety.”

Xander’s head turned toward Colin. “What about you?” he asked. “How come you’re not joining the surprise brigade here?”

“Well…” The younger Watcher squirmed, uncomfortable under all the gazes that now settled on him, his face blushing as he did his best not to physically sink into his seat. “Their behavior was rather blatant. And when Spike reacted so strangely when the spell failed the first time---.”

“You’ve known since then?” Buffy’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t even know then.”

“That’s my job,” Colin defended with a bright fluster. “And when I tried discussing it with Rupert---.”

The Slayer whirled to face her Watcher. “You said this was all a surprise to you,” she accused.

“And it was. Just…not as surprising as it could’ve been had Colin not been so insistent with his suppositions.”

“And now Riley knows.” She shook her head, shrugging in resignation. “I’m so glad I tried keeping this all a secret.”

“So…you and Spike…” Xander’s voice trailed off, watching his best friend intently from the table.

Buffy nodded. “Me and Spike.”

At her side, the vampire’s eyes narrowed, his head tilting as he regarded the young man in curiosity. “How come your head’s not exploding, Harris?” he queried. “Would’ve expected at least a mild wobbler to come from you, maybe even one of those ever-so-dangerous fingers in my face, tellin’ me to stay away from your Slayer.”

The silence was deafening as they waited for his response. “Not that I’m thrilled about being left out of the loop again,” Xander finally said, “because I’m most definitely on the side of not on that issue. And can’t say I’d be dying to be in Riley’s shoes right about now. But I’m not completely blind.” He rolled his eyes at his friends’ exaggerated looks of surprise from around the room. “OK, ha ha, yes, I didn’t see it when apparently they were doing it right under all our noses. On the other hand, I have seen the way Spike’s been acting lately. Like…not an evil thing. Capable of acting like someone who might actually give a damn or two about something other than himself. And if that’s because of him being with Buffy, then…great. Which is not a word I would’ve ever thought I’d be using in association with my best friend having another vampire boyfriend.”

“And here I had my heart set on a good old-fashioned tellin’ off.” Spike shook his head. “You disappoint me, Harris.”

“Get used to it, Spike,” said Xander good-naturedly. “Besides, the finger-pointing thing should probably come courtesy of someone who’s not dating an ex-demon himself, don’t you think?”

Willow’s eyes were wide in surprise. “Wow, Xander, that’s really…insightful of you,” she commented.

He grinned. “I’ve been known to be graced with the occasional revelation,” he said. “Even if it does kind of hurt the old noggin there.” His gaze returned to the blonds in the doorway. “So, I’m…kind of OK with this. I think. Plus, bonus for me, I get to go to being the big guy in the group again, because gotta say, standing next to Riley can be just a little intimidating.”

“Hey! Big Bad here! I can be plenty intimidatin’!”

“Because you’ll…what? Hit me with your best snark?” Xander shook his head. “Sorry, Spike. You lost me on the intimidating thing the first time you had to borrow my Bermudas.”

“That was your bloody dryer’s fault!”

“If you’d learned how to do the laundry instead of playing at Minnie the Moocher while you were living with me, you would never have shrunk them in the first place.”

“Told you then, and I’m tellin’ you again, I wasn’t your soddin’ housekeeper. Don’t do laundry, don’t do ironin’, and certainly wasn’t goin’ to organize those bloody---.”

As the genial argument continued around her, Buffy bit back the smile that rose to her lips. What the hell had she been worried about with Xander? From the sounds of the friendly banter falling around her ears, everything was going to be just fine.

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

He was reading at the small desk against the wall when the knock came at the door. “Come in!” Travers called out, and turned in his seat to see Ibbie poke her head in.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” she said, “but there’s a…gentleman downstairs who says he’s here to see you.”

Quentin frowned. “I’m not expecting anyone tonight.”

“I know, and normally I wouldn’t bother, but he’s…” She frowned. “…he’s a trifle worse for wear. And quite insistent.”

Sighing, Travers rose to his feet, removing his glasses to set them on the desk. “My apologies for the trouble,” he said as he followed her from the room and downstairs.

She led him to the front sitting room and hung back, glancing between him and the open door. “The surgery will be closed,” Ibbie explained. “But I’m sure I could find someone who would---.”

“That won’t be necessary,” he cut off with a smile, and stepped into the room. The sight of the portly man standing next to the fireplace immediately reverted his face to a frown, the multiple bruises that colored the arrival’s grizzled cheeks almost unnoticeable next to the blood-stained coat that hugged his rotund frame. “Or perhaps it will…” he murmured.

There was a moment of silence until he realized she was still standing behind him. “Thank you,” Travers said, stepping to the doorway and guiding the door closed. “We won’t be long.”

Once they were alone, Quentin immediately strode to the other man’s side, peering into his face to examine his wounds more carefully. “What happened to you, Hornbrook?” he asked. “You made no mention of this when we spoke earlier.”

“The Slayer happened to me,” Hornbrook replied. “The Slayer and that damn vampire…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 39: A Bottle and Friend