DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Riley and Duncan have come to Dall Rath, while Buffy has deduced that Duncan is now posing as Hornbrook…

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

Chapter 42: Deluded Swain, the Pleasure

“Drive faster!” she hissed, fingers turned into claws around the leather seat in front of her.

“Any bloody faster, and I’ll rip out the transmission on this damned road!” Giles growled.

In the passenger seat, a white-faced Colin held a handkerchief to his mouth, every once in a while gulping at the air as he fought to quell his nausea. “It won’t do anyone any good if we die before we get there,” he stuttered.

“And it won’t do any of you any good if Spike is dead before we get there,” Buffy warned, and threw herself back against her seat. Ever since they had discovered Riley and Hornbrook’s---make that Duncan’s---absence from the bed and breakfast, she had been on autopilot, immediately ending the meeting with Travers and rushing the two Watchers out to their own vehicle. She didn’t know what the kelpie’s exact plan was, but she knew it wasn’t going to be good; the Council head had made it quite clear that Riley had been visibly distraught at the prospect of her and Spike being involved.

For a brief second, she felt sorry for her ex, being duped into helping the demon in retrieving the harness, his misery getting exploited by Duncan to further the kelpie’s own goals, but that was quickly shoved aside. He asked for it by flying out here in the first place, Buffy thought grimly. He shouldn’t have abandoned Mom and Dawn, not to mention the Hellmouth, just because his feelings got a little hurt. The fact that home was now not only Slayer-free, but Slayer-backup-free, did nothing to distract her current worry, though. The only thing she could think was, if he’d just stayed in Sunnydale, everything would be fine right now.

She just hoped she got back to the castle in time to stop him from doing something stupid.

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

“Well, well, well,” Spike drawled, head tilting as his gaze flickered over the tense man before him, resting only a moment longer on the dagger that was cradled in the palm of his hand before returning to Riley’s uninviting aspect. “Not really big on the knockin’, are you?”

He felt him move before he saw it, and had leapt back and out of the way by the time Riley lunged, putting the bed between them as he saw Finn go sprawling to the floor, tucking at the last minute to avoid his head colliding with the stone and rolling to safety against the far wall. Blue eyes sweeping the perimeter of the room, Spike assessed his situation with a century’s experience of getting out of tight scrapes before settling his gaze on the other person in the room.

“Is this about Buffy?” he asked innocently. “Or does this have more to do with that oversized Iowa ego takin’ control of that pea-sized brain of yours?” He pretended to sniff at the air. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say that’s pure testosterone I’m smellin’.”

“You’re a dead man, Spike,” Riley hissed, sparking a derisive laugh from his opponent.

“Welcome to the land of obvious, Soldier Boy,” he replied, spreading his arms in supplication. “Part of what bein’ a vampire’s all about.”

Slowly, the ex-soldier rose to his feet, switching the knife from one hand to the other, and then back again, as he regained his composure. “And would the other part have anything to do with trying to bag as many Slayers as you can?”

Spike considered this for a moment, before half-nodding, half-shrugging. “Yeah, that about covers it,” he said nonchalantly. “Don’t tell me you stopped by for a little refresher course in Vamp Psych 101, ‘cause hate to break it to you, but my class is all booked.” His eyes glittered. “Guess you missed your shot.”

The double meaning wasn’t lost on Riley, and his mouth thinned as his jaw locked. Don’t lose it, he warned himself. Don’t give him the edge. “It won’t work, Spike,” he threatened. “Your little quips aren’t going to distract me. I am going to kill you.”

“Slayer’s the one with the quipping habit. Not me. Maybe the change in time zones got you all confused.” He stopped, cutting himself off as if a sudden thought had just occurred to him. “Oh, wait. No, you’re right.” The vamp smiled. “Looks like that’s just one more thing Buffy and I have in common.”

The boy was off his game, Spike decided, as he dove to the side to avoid the next attack. Both moves so far had been telegraphed far enough in advance for him to effectively dodge, and though he wasn’t any closer to the still-open door, he knew that if he could just stay out of the way of either Finn’s fist or knife long enough to make a break for it, he could get downstairs to the rest of the gang and see if they could talk some sense into the deluded pillock. They wanted to be his friend? They could bloody well talk their other friend out of killing him.

“How’d you do it?” Riley was demanding. “Is it a thrall thing? Tell me it’s a thrall thing. That’ll make killing you just so much more right.”

“You don’t want to know the answer to that, mate. Don’t think your fragile sensitivities could handle it.”

Riley snorted in contempt. “I think you’d be surprised what I can handle.”

He knew he shouldn’t, but seeing the prat’s smug face staring at him and knowing he couldn’t smash his fist through it made Spike want to lash out in other ways. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t asked for it, so really, it was his own fault.

“You wanna know how I got to Buffy?” he asked, cocking his head. “Simple. I just gave her what she wanted. What she needed. You know. Respect. Space to be her own Slayer. That kind of thing. Seems they were missin’ from her life.”

“I respect Buffy---.”

“Which is why you abandoned her sis and her mum to the dangers of the Hellmouth to go racin’ across the globe to protect your little ego, right?” Spike shook his head in mock dismay. “Nothin’ says I love you like leavin’ those she holds nearest and dearest to the mercy of a world of nasties. Remind me not to buy your book on one hundred ways to please your lover.”

Another lunge from Riley had the vampire dancing closer to the door, keeping it in sight of the corner of his eye. “You know nothing about love, Spike,” the ex-soldier spat, feeling the first twinge of doubt spark his step. Three swings and he had yet to lay a finger on the demon. But he wasn’t out yet. “You’re depraved, and immoral, and incapable of feeling anything for Buffy that could even come close to what real love is all about.”

Name-calling he could handle; hell, there’d been a time in his undead life he’d taken pride in being called depraved. But it was the accusation that what he felt for Buffy wasn’t real, that his feelings lacked the depth necessary for what she needed, that stung, clawing Spike’s hands into fists, his nails digging into the palms until he could feel his own blood begin to drip down his cuticles. Remember the chip, remember the chip, he intoned, every muscle in his body screaming otherwise.

Deliberately, he grinned, a wicked smirk mirrored in the azure depths of his eyes. “I think Buffy would disagree with that little assessment,” he said. “Too bad you didn’t show up a tad earlier last night. You missed quite the show.”

“I saw enough.”

“See, and now, I’m beginnin’ to think that maybe you didn’t. Although, I gotta ask, you know, man to man here.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Has the Slayer always been such a screamer? Not that I’m arguin’ because it makes her come all that much harder, and I guess it was the shaggin’ of a lifetime, but still, she would’ve brought down the bloody roof if I’d let her.” He shook his head in wonder. “And those special muscles she’s got…? Shoulda given a bloke some warning. Girl’s nothin’ short of a miracle in the sack. Frankly, I’m surprised she didn’t snap you in two.”

This time, Riley’s feint started before the words were even out of Spike’s mouth, and as the vampire dropped to roll out of the way, he felt the sharp edge of the knife graze against his arm, followed almost instantly by the pungent scent of blood. Damn, he thought as he glanced at the crimson trickle. Too caught up in my own sarcasm. Gotta be a little more careful about that.

The sight of the slight injury to the vampire was enough to bolster Riley’s confidence, whirling to face Spike again, knife at the ready. Though the room was small, it was that fact that had given the vampire the advantage; the lower ceiling made the taller man more self-conscious of how he was moving, slower in his reflexes as he fought to ensure he didn’t accidentally bang his head. Being smaller and generally more lithe, Spike was more in his element. Plus, he knew the layout, so when Riley drew his first blood, it was enough to renew his hope that he could finish what he had set out to do.

“Look, you tosser…” Spike ground out. The time for games was over. “Face the soddin’ music. Buffy’s moved on. Not that she ever loved you anyway, but the least you could do is be a man about it, and…Back. The hell. Off.”

“That’s what you’d like, isn’t it? Just because you can fool Buffy, doesn’t mean you can fool her friends---.”

Our friends. And there’s no foolin’ involved. Mutual trust and respect’s what we got. Well, that and the unlimited sexual compatibility. Gotta give that one some credit there.”

Riley’s laugh was a ragged rasp in the air. “Was it out of this respect you convinced her to steal an artifact from the Council?”

For the first time since the other man’s arrival, Spike was thrown, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “What in bloody hell are you talkin’ about?”

“Like you don’t know. But Mr. Travers is on to you, and your little plan to run away with Buffy and the harness---.”

“Are you completely off your box? We don’t even know what the thing is for. Why would we want to run with it? And who in the name of everything evil and unholy would be claimin’ we would?”

“Mr. Hornbrook---.”

“Hornbrook’s dead, so not exactly a prime source of information these days.”

“You’re lying.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Because you’re a vampire maybe? Or maybe, because you can’t handle the fact that as soon as I can tell Buffy the truth about you, about how you’re just using her to further your own agenda, she’ll stake you faster than you can squeeze out one more ‘bloody hell.’”

Spike stared at him through hooded eyes, his teeth clicking as he fought to control his temper. “Only agenda I’ve got is to make sure Buffy’s happy and safe,” he said, his voice low and dangerously calm. “Which means I’m goin’ to explain this usin’ short, simple words that’ll hopefully penetrate that thick, cornfed skull of yours. ‘Cause, bugger if I know why, she still cares what happens to your sorry ass, and I’m not goin’ to be the one who lets her down on that.”

It was a backhanded reference to Riley’s decision to kill Spike, in spite of Buffy’s avowal the previous evening, and both of them knew it, staring at the other in measured dislike. “There’s nothing to explain,” Riley finally said. “I’m telling you, Mr. Hornbrook’s not dead.”

“And I’m tellin’ you, Buffy saw the body herself. Bloke got himself killed by the same demon who stole the damn harness in the first place. Remember that bite on her shoulder? Well, she’s not the only thing he’s been sinkin’ his teeth into, apparently.”

“He told me---.”

“Then you’re talkin’ to ghosts, you git, ‘cause I’m tellin’ you he’s dead.”

“But he’s here,” Riley argued. “He came with me so that he could get the harness.”

It was the last puzzle piece Spike needed to splice together the story of what exactly had happened, and why Buffy had been called on the carpet the way she had. “You realize you’re makin’ Harris look like Albert-fuckin’-Einstein, don’t you, Finn?” he said, shaking his head. “The wanker’s usin’ you. Took advantage of the situation to have you keep me occupied so I wouldn’t suss him out.”

Riley was triumphant. “Aha! So you admit, Hornbrook is actually alive then.”

“No, sorry, he’s still dead. Ever heard of a kelpie, Soldier Boy? That’s what we’ve been dealin’ with here. They’re shapeshifters.” He enunciated the last word with careful deliberation. “And the one you’ve decide to partner up with is the same one who’s gunnin’ for Buffy.” The vampire grinned. “Nice show on gettin’ back on her good side, though. Sneakin’ with the enemy? She’s goin’ to loooove that.”

“What’re you talking about?” Though he was still tense, still ready to attack him, the argument Spike was making was confusing him. He’s just trying to cloud the issue, Riley thought. Stop listening to him. “It’s not going to work, Spike. You’re just interested in saving your own skin.”

“Well, you got me there. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the truth, though.”

“It wasn’t even Mr. Hornbrook’s idea to come out here, you know. It was Mr. Travers’.”

“The same Travers who called Rupes and Junior last night requestin’ a powwow with them and Buffy this morning?”

The missing car. Buffy wasn’t even here. But Hornbrook had said…

“That wasn’t part of the plan---.”

“Maybe not your plan, but you can go ask the others downstairs if she’s here or not. They’ll back me up.” Spike frowned as he watched Riley slowly lower the weapon in his hand. Not the response he’d been expecting, but certainly not one he was going to argue with.

“Hornbrook’s…looking for the harness right now…”

This wiped the frown from the vampire’s face, making him laugh out loud instead. “Then he’s bang out of luck, ‘cause Buffy took it with her.”

He didn’t want to believe him; the last thing Riley needed right now was to have to side with Spike about anything. But if this was true, and he was just a pawn in some plot he knew nothing about, killing the vampire would be playing right into his hands. Hadn’t he just spent the last hour listening to the man coax and goad him into staking Spike? Not that the desire hadn’t been there already, and not that it was gone now, but the other’s thirst for it seemed to be just as great. And what made it worse was that, by lying to him about Buffy, it could only mean he was her enemy as well. And he couldn’t do that to her, even now. He still loved her.

“So, if Mr. Hornbrook’s dead,” Riley finally said, his voice low and deliberate, “who the hell did I drive here with?”

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

That was the problem with humans, Duncan decided as he crept away from the open bedroom door. Send them in to kill someone, and they waste all their time talking instead.

The ex-boyfriend was useless to him now. Spike had divulged just enough information, cast just enough doubt to make Finn pause, and now the vampire was playing it for all it was worth, calling it a truce for Buffy’s sake while they “sussed” out what the hell was going on. And what was worse, Finn was actually listening to him. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned vengeance? Duncan thought miserably. A little slice and dice amongst enemies? When did it get so damn chatty?

The only good thing to come from the two men talking was at least now he knew what had happened with the harness. The Slayer still had it. Which meant it was still possible for Duncan to get it back. Unless she ended up giving it to the old man. In which case, even better for him. Killing Travers would be infinitely easier than either Buffy or Spike, and anything that made the kelpie’s life simpler at this point was to be embraced. He just had to wait until she returned.

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

She was out of the car even before it had completely stopped, allowing for the slowing momentum as her foot hit the earth, using it to begin propelling her toward the castle, her strong arms pumping as she ran for the door.

Colin frowned as he unbuckled his seatbelt, shaking his head as he watched Buffy’s retreating back. “I don’t think spying that car in the layby really helped matters much,” he commented. “Do you suppose he’s actually here?”

“If he is, Buffy will find him,” Giles replied as he turned off the car’s engine. “And God help him if she does.”

“If something has happened to Spike,” Colin muttered as he followed his elder to the entrance, “God help us all.”

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

The two girls collided as Buffy rushed in, knocking both of them to their feet. “Will!” she cried out, jumping immediately back up and rushing to her friend’s side, offering her a hand to help her up. “Oh, my god, I’m so sorry. Are you OK?”

The redhead’s smile was wan as she rubbed at the back of her head. “I think I might have loosened a screw or two in the old noggin,” she joked, but when Buffy turned to bolt for the stairwell, her hand shot out, grabbing the Slayer’s arm. “Where are you going?”

“Spike…Riley…big mess…” Yanking her arm free, a flustered Buffy was halfway down the hall before Willow could speak again.

“Spike’s fine!” she called out. When the blonde stopped to gaze back at her, the witch offered a small smile. “He’s in the great hall.”

“Oh.” Her head was whirling, the adrenalin still coursing through her system as she slowly stepped back toward Willow. “And…um…I know this might sound a little, I don’t know, wacky, but---.”

“Riley’s fine, too.”

Her ex’s name stopped her in her tracks. “He’s here?”

The redhead nodded. “Now, before you start totally freaking out on me, I want you to take a deep breath.” She waited, watching expectantly for her friend to comply. “I mean it, Buffy, relax and hear me out.”

“OK, any sentence that ends with ‘hear me out’ can never lead to hugs and kisses.” Determinedly, she crossed the distance between them. “What’s going on?”

“Everything’s fine,” Willow assured, and began to inch her way back toward the great hall. “We took a vote and decided it was better if we caught you when you got in, so that we could…you know, prep you.”

“Prep me? For what?”

“For what you’re about to see.” She stumbled slightly as Buffy brushed past her. “Just remember, we had good reason to do what we did, so don’t get mad, ‘kay?”

She barely heard the last few words as she reached the door and shoved it open, jaw already dropping to speak. When she saw the spectacle before her, though, the Slayer instantly froze, hazel eyes widening as they darted from one end of the table to the other.

“What the hell is happening here?” she demanded as she drank in the sight of Riley and Spike both tied up in chairs, sitting at opposite ends of the long dining table, their eyes locked on the other in sullen aversion.

Xander was the first to reach her side, a wide smile on his amiable face. “I know it looks bad,” he started, “but in all fairness, this wasn’t completely our idea.”

“Darn right,” Spike growled. “Blame it on the farmboy.”

“Hey!” Riley shot back. “I just suggested they tie you up. I never said a word about me having to go through this.”

“Like I can even lay a hand on you---.”

“Like you wouldn’t try even with that chip in your head…”

“I told you we should’ve gagged them,” Anya said, rolling her eyes as she joined them at the doorway. She looked at the other blonde. “Can you please do something about this? They’re your boyfriends.”

“Can we start with something easy?” Buffy asked. “Like, why are they tied up in the first place?”

“Because neither one of them trusts the other not to kill him,” Xander replied.

I’m not the one who showed up unannounced, twice now, with stakes and daggers, lookin’ for blood,” Spike said.

“No, you’re the one who tried throwing Riley into the fireplace,” Anya said.

At Buffy’s raised eyebrow, Spike shrugged. “It was there, he was there, it was too good an opportunity to miss.” He looked pointedly at the other man. “Not like I didn’t get a headache for my troubles.”

“OK,” Buffy said. “Now that we’ve gotten that established, does someone mind filling me in on why Riley’s here in the first place?” She stepped up to the table, folding her arms across her chest, and addressed him directly. “Like, maybe, Riley can.”

His lips were thin, his nostrils flaring, but for some reason, he couldn’t meet her eyes, fixing them instead on the bleached vampire opposite him. “He told me it was Mr. Travers’ plan---.”

“Who told you?”

“Mr. Hornbrook.”

“OK, first of all, that’s not Hornbrook.”

This time, he looked at her. “I know that now,” Riley said. “But when he showed up last night, the things he said…” His gaze darted back to Spike. “…made sense.”

“It made sense to come here and kill Spike?” She held up a hand. “Wait. Never mind. I don’t want to know the answer to that.”

“Our Galloping Gourmet is still lurkin’ about here someplace,” the vampire offered, turning an annoyed cerulean gaze toward the group of Scoobies congregating at the door. “I could’ve probably sniffed him out if he was still in the castle, but not when I’m trussed up here like last year’s Christmas turkey.”

“It was for your own good,” Xander said.

“He’s after the harness, isn’t he?” Buffy directed her question to Riley, who nodded in response. She took a deep breath. “Guess he didn’t figure on me taking it with me,” she murmured.

“Did you give it to Travers?” Spike asked.

She shook her head. “We had a little meeting interruptus when we realized Duncan was back in the mix. And that he’d decided to bring Riley along to play this time.”

“We’ve been filling him in on the big picture here,” Willow volunteered. “Apparently, Duncan, aka Hornbrook, is still sporting some pretty nasty bruises from your little skirmish yesterday.”

“Well, that’s at least one point in our favor.” Now that she could stop worrying about ex-lovers killing current ones, Buffy was back onto the kelpie problem, eyes darting to random points in the room as she began to pace the length of the table. No matter which way she turned, it all kept coming back to one thing, and it was about time that one thing got taken out of the equation.

“OK,” she said, turning her back on the two men tied up at the table to regard her friends in the door. “Here’s the immediate plan. Duncan’s still around here someplace, I’m sure of it. He didn’t go to all this trouble to just walk away empty-handed. Which means we have to find him. Split up. Girl/guy teams. We can’t risk Duncan using his charm thing against us by putting all our ovaries in one basket. And take weapons. He’s hurt, but he’s still dangerous. Remember, he could be anywhere, look like anything.”

“Way to go for giving us the easy job,” Xander muttered.

“What are you going to do?” Willow asked.

Buffy’s gaze darted to the two Watchers who had come up behind the young people, her mouth tight. “I’m getting rid of the temptation,” she said. “Frank’s getting his harness back as of right now.”

She was nearly out the door when Spike’s call stopped her. “Hey! Still tied up here, y’know!” he shouted, then eased back against his bonds when she turned to look at him. “You’re not just goin’ to leave us like this while you get to have all the fun, are you, pet?”

It took her a moment of considering the two men before she would reply. “What guarantees are you going to give us that you’re not going to kill each other if we let you go?” Buffy asked. “Because I don’t have time for male posturing right now, so if you want to help, you’re going to have to shelve those alpha male tendencies of yours for awhile.” Her gaze hopped between the two. “That goes for both of you.”

Spike shrugged. “I’ll give you my word for it, but only for as long as Captain Cardboard there keeps his hands to himself.”

“Riley?”

In spite of his steady hatred for the vampire across from him, the young man was smart enough to realize that revenge was not his best option right now, and slowly nodded in acquiescence. “But if I see him do one thing to threaten you, Buffy---.”

“You won’t, you nit.” Spike’s tone was low, his barely concealed disgust at the mere suggestion curling his lip. “But same goes for you.”

It was the best she was going to get, and she knew it. With a quick smile at Spike, she turned on her heel and walked down to Riley’s end of the table, leaning over so that her words would be slightly more private. “There’s a lot of stuff going on now,” Buffy said softly. “And I know that I’m the one to blame for how you’re feeling, but you’re going to have to work with me---with us---on getting it sorted out. That means playing for the team, Riley. So if you can’t do that, you need to tell me now and get your tail out of here before you get in the way even more.”

“What about him?” The ex-soldier nodded brusquely at the vampire across the table.

Buffy glanced back over her shoulder and saw her friends starting to untie Spike, his blue eyes locked on the pair opposite him. Her smile was automatic, a response to what she knew already, and it brought a corresponding quirk of the vampire’s own lips. Riley might not get it, but she sure as hell did, and by the looks of things, so did her friends. She swung back to look at her ex. “Spike’s one of us,” she said simply.

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

“Frank!”

Her voice seemed hollow in the mouth of the tunnel, and awkwardly, Buffy stuffed the amulet and paper back into her pocket, the muffled clarion call of the harness pealing through the heavy sack as it shifted against her body. The cavern seemed deserted, and she silently prayed that he’d been telling the truth the previous evening in his plans for returning to the stream. Now is not the time to be lying to me again, Frank, she thought grimly. Don’t make me resort to, “Here, kelpie, kelpie…”

Calling out his name again, the Slayer began walking down the bank, further into the depths of the tunnel, balancing her flashlight with the bag. She had to be quick about this; the rest of the gang was upstairs, combing through the various floors and rooms in search of the missing Duncan, and she wanted to get into the hunt as soon as possible. It wasn’t just a matter of wanting to rid herself of her kelpie infestation; the worry that Riley and Spike might somehow end up at each other’s throats was still very much there, in spite of their mutual promises to behave. And the sooner she could be there to referee, the better.

The splash in front of her brought her to a halt, and Buffy watched as a dripping Frank emerged from the stream, her gaze automatically scanning his torso for signs of yesterday’s battle. They were still there, but much fainter, and he no longer moved as if in pain. Guess those really are healing waters, she thought.

“You’re looking much better,” he commented, his dark gaze sweeping over her form before resting on the site of her earlier injury. “How is your shoulder?”

“Good,” she replied with a small, tight smile. “Looks like you got your own bit of mending done as well.”

He nodded, but it was obvious he was most interested in the bag she held in her arms. “The harness?” he asked.

“Yep. Just like I promised.”

“Does that mean the traitor is dead?”

She didn’t have a chance to respond. The arrow came swooshing through the air, cleanly missing her shoulder to embed itself in Frank’s abdomen, causing him to grunt in pain, bending slightly as his hand flew to the wound, the blood already seeping through the claws.

Buffy whirled, the bag still clutched to her chest, to see Duncan, back in his shape of the cook, standing at the bend in the tunnel, crossbow in his arms, a wide smile on his face.

“So sorry to interrupt,” he said lightly. “But my ears were burning…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 43: Tho’ Cruel Fate Should Bid Us Part