DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike, Xander, and Riley have arrived in the Otherworld to close the entrance and to help Buffy with Duncan…

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Chapter 46: No Churchman Am I

“Do you think some of the effects might last after we get out of here? I bet Anya would love that. And man, what I wouldn’t give to have some of those guys from high school see me now. See how they like getting a wedgie from God Xander himself, make ‘em pay for being such jerks to me. Oh! And I could help Buffy with patrol! Be her number one back-up man. SuperXan to the rescue! Faster than a speeding stake. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall demons in a single bound.” His laughter filtered through the night air. “Yep, not too shabby for being an empty vessel.” Slipping into a bad Scottish accent, he brandished his sword. “I am Xander McLeod, of the Clan McLeod...”

Gritting his teeth, Spike stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, quickening his step to lengthen the gap between him and the young man prattling along behind him. “Can’t you do something to shut him up?” he demanded from Riley as he came up to his side.

Riley glanced down at the vampire before reverting his gaze to the trail ahead of them. “You’re his new best friend,” he said tightly. “You shut him up.”

“My way of shutting him up involves him losin’ some teeth and me with a blindin’ headache,” Spike grumbled.

“Doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

They lapsed back into the uncomfortable silence that had wrapped around them since venturing into the Otherworld, the only sound in the clear air the joyful chattering of the young man in the rear of the pack. He hadn’t stopped since his unexpected discovery of his newfound status, and the glee in his words was wearing thin on his partners. When the splash came from the stream at their side, Spike almost sighed in relief, automatically turning to face the water, stepping back as Xander pushed his way to the front.

“Are we some kind of mystical demon-nip or something?” the vampire complained. “This makes the fifth soddin’ nasty to jump us in the last half hour. ‘Course, if these buggers could be killed by talkin’ it to death, we’d be all set.” He stared pointedly at Xander brushing past, oblivious to their irritation.

“The guardian warned us that there would be obstacles on the way to the trial,” Riley said, backing away as he cradled the urn in his arm.

“Obstacles I can deal with,” Spike muttered. “Annoying demons who just slow us down are another thing entirely.”

When the second kelpie-like creature had attacked them, Xander had rushed forward before the other two could stop him, swinging his weapon in a clean arc that had severed the demon’s head from his body, turning to face them with a huge grin across his face. “Didja see that?” he’d announced, picking up the new sword the demon had dropped and handing it to the vampire. “I’d say this empty vessel was pretty darn full.”

“Certainly full of something,” Spike had muttered.

Since then, they had just stepped back when the attacks came, allowing the brunette to have his go at the third while they watched in silence, almost interfering with the fourth when it decided to make Xander’s hand its new chewtoy. He’d emerged from that fight with his arm drenched in demon slobber, but still as animated as when he’d started. Not even nearly becoming a giant loogy could drag him down.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Riley said as they watched Xander raise his sword. “Maybe it’ll cut off his head. Without a mouth, he can’t talk.”

Spike’s lips quirked in an unbidden smile, and was about to come back with his own rejoinder when he saw the demon pull back its weapon to swing, its path clearly lined up with Xander’s neck. Maybe it was a learning curve or something, but this one wasn’t offering up any warning before going in for the kill, and the over-confident young man was oblivious to the danger that stood before him.

Before he could even think, Spike had leapt forward, tackling Harris and sending them both flying away from the creature, its sword cleaving the air just above their heads in an audible whistle. They landed in a tangle, Xander’s cry of pain muffled by the vampire’s forearm across his throat, and it took only a moment for Spike to return to his feet, whirling to face off with the new enemy before lunging again and sending both of them into the stream.

In a flash, Riley was at Xander’s side, helping him back up, frowning as they both turned to watch a livid vampire use the demon’s blade to skewer him in a vicious slice. When the dead body fell with a splash, coloring the water in crimson, Spike turned an angry visage to the pair on the bank.

“What the hell are you playin’ at?” he demanded as he waded his way back to the shore. “Do you have any idea how close you came to bein’ separated from your second favorite body part there?”

“Your chip didn’t fire.” Riley’s voice was low, edged in steel with just a hint of fear creeping around the corners, and slowly he placed himself between Xander and the vampire, using his larger frame to shield the brunette from Spike’s advancing step.

“What’s that?” His dark brows knitted together as his eyes darted to Xander, watching as the young man rubbed at his neck. “I didn’t hurt you with that, did I?”

“Well, yeah, you kind of did.”

“But…” His voice trailed off, the realization that Soldier Boy was right hitting his gut like a sledge. The chip hadn’t gone off, and in the rush to make sure Xander came through this whole thing in one piece, he hadn’t given it another thought. “Must be the spell rubbish in us,” Spike mused out loud. “Messin’ with my head. You’re not wholly human anymore so I can whollop you as much as I want without turning into the king of pain here. Not that I’m goin’ to,” he hastened to add when he saw Xander’s eyes widen. “But that’s got to be the explanation for it all.”

“Does that mean you can hit Riley, too?” The question came out of Xander’s mouth before he could stop it, and felt instant regret as he saw the wicked gleam appear in Spike’s eyes, his blue gaze sweeping over the tall form that stood between them with new interest. It was obvious he was contemplating the possibility, and Xander found himself holding his breath, momentarily forgetting about the newfound alliance the vampire had made with the gang, only to exhale loudly when Spike shook his head.

“Made a promise to Buffy,” he said, turning away to pull his shirt over his head. “Not goin’ to go breakin’ it now just ‘cause the opportunity’s there.” The muscles in his back flexed as he wrung the water out from his tee. “Besides,” he went on, “can’t very well close the entrance if there’s only two of us, now can we?”

“Speaking of closing the entrance,” Xander said, eager to change the subject. “Any idea on how much longer we’re going to have to wait until we find our---.”

“Spike! Look out!”

He reacted to the warning instinctively, dropping to the ground only to feel the presence of a sixth demon soar above his body. Jerking his head around, the vampire rolled out of the way as he saw Riley shove the urn into Xander’s hand, grabbing the sword away at the same time, and rushed forward to plant his boot in the small of the creature’s back, sending it sprawling just as it was starting to rise from its leap. The fight took only seconds; a clean sweep of the blade sliced through the attacker’s midsection, neatly dissecting him into two pieces, and Spike frowned as he slowly rose to his feet.

“Thanks,” he said hesitantly, wiping the dirt from his hands onto his jeans. His eyes narrowed as Riley turned away, the question of why exactly his rival had been so quick to defend him lingering in the blue depths.

“Made a promise to Buffy,” Riley said quietly.

Xander’s gaze leapt between the two men, and made up his mind almost immediately. “I’m going to scout on ahead,” he said. “See what I can come across. Buffy’s just following the stream, right?”

Riley nodded. “Just keep your eyes open,” he warned. “The attacks are coming faster now. You have to be on your toes.”

“Yeah, or you’re goin’ to lose ‘em,” Spike added. “And I’m not carryin’ your ass if that happens. You don’t have a long, pointy stick this time to make me your beck and call vamp.” He knew what Harris was doing and in a way, was almost grateful. Not that he really relished having Finn all to himself, but too much needed to be said between them and with the chip working in the vampire’s favor at the moment, now was the time to say it.

“Thanks again,” he repeated once Xander had ambled off. “Could’ve been a nasty one back there.” The gratitude was more for appearances’ sake; Spike knew that reiterating it---even if he’d had enough trouble with it the first time---would make this whole conversation go down a little easier. For both of them.

“You said it yourself. It’s going to take all three of us to finish this spell,” Riley said, keeping his eyes straight ahead as he felt the vampire fall into step beside him. “And it’s not like you didn’t just do the same thing for Xander.”

“Somehow, I don’t think him pullin’ a Marie Antoinette was s’posed to be part of the whole god thing. Not that havin’ him quiet for a change wasn’t appealing, but still---.”

“I’m never going to like you, Spike.” His voice was cold, his words terse, prompting the same sort of response from the vampire at his side.

“Feeling’s mutual, Soldier Boy.”

“Tell me this…thing between you and Buffy didn’t start back in Sunnydale. Give me that, at least.”

“It didn’t. Well…not for her, anyway.”

“She deserves so much better than you. Hell, she deserves better than me, but I guess I thought…” Riley’s voice was quiet, his self-control only registering by the rigid tension in his shoulders. “You think you love her, don’t you?”

“No.” The single word was brusque, and ice-cold, and Spike turned blazing eyes to glare at the man next to him. “I know I love her. And the sooner you get that through that thick skull of yours, the easier all this will be.”

“It’ll never be easy.” He swallowed, the sudden lump in his throat burning like bile. “I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with you. I must be channeling my inner masochist or something.”

“Well, if you need help in takin’ some pain,” Spike drawled, “we don’t seem to have my pesky little chip problem holding us back. Nothin’ sayin’ we couldn’t have us a little scrap here and now.” He bridled under Riley’s accusatory stare. “What? It was a joke!” His gaze returned to the night ahead, before he muttered, “Mostly.”

“I just don’t understand how she could let you touch her,” Riley continued. Now that he’d started, he didn’t seem capable of holding back the frustration that had been mounting since his arrival in Scotland. “This vampire fascination she has is just…wrong. And twisted. How she could do this to me---.”

Spike’s hand around the other man’s upper arm jerked him to a halt. “You can say whatever you want about me,” he warned, his voice low so that Xander ahead couldn’t hear. “Not like I give a toss what you think. But don’t for a second think that any of this has been easy for Buffy. It’s been eatin’ her up, wondering how she was goin’ to tell you. And for you to try and turn this around on her, after everything, just goes to show you’re an even more self-absorbed prat than I gave you credit for.” The glint in his eye was dangerous. “Get over yourself, Finn. Life’ll be a lot simpler for everyone when you do.”

They stood in silence for a moment before Riley carefully extracted his arm from Spike’s grasp. “Not that it matters,” the young man said. “But I always knew she wasn’t completely happy. With me. I just thought…if I could change just enough, I could be what she wanted. What she needed.” Riley shook his head. “Not that I expect you to understand. You have no idea what it’s like knowing you’re not good enough for the woman you love, knowing you’re just…second-best.”

Memories of Dru fawning over Angelus while Spike had been in the wheelchair came flooding into his head, followed quickly by the fleeting images of Cecily as she just stared disdainfully at him during his confession, and it took all his willpower to shove them aside. Finn wasn’t looking for commiseration and any attempts on the vampire’s part to tell him how mistaken he was would only be met with disbelief. But Soldier Boy was wrong. He knew exactly what he was feeling.

“I’ll never hurt Buffy,” Spike said quietly, turning away to begin following after Xander again. “You’re goin’ to have to believe me on that one.”

“You better not,” Riley replied. His tone was grim as he fell into step beside the vampire. “Because I will kill you if I find out you have.”

“If I do,” and this time Spike looked up at him, waiting for him to return his gaze before continuing. “You have my permission to do it.”

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

She’d been dreaming of Spike, hazy clouds of cool fingers dancing over her skin, blue eyes that seemed to appear from nowhere, that deep chuckle of his that seemed to resonate from somewhere deep within his chest. No guilt, no pain. Just carefree playing that was oblivious to the dangers that surrounded them.

That had to be the reason she was so slow to wake, even when her Slayer senses seemed to have been kicked into overdrive.

As her eyes flickered open, trying to adjust to the darkness that surrounded her, it took Buffy a moment to remember exactly where she was. Only when she moved, jarring the bag she was curled around so that the bells inside jingled faintly against the fabric, did everything come back, and she immediately sat up, hair swinging over her shoulders as she scanned the cave. It was dark. Too dark. Even when she’d settled herself in for her short nap, she’d been able to see the light from outside trickling in through its mouth. Now…there was nothing.

Silently, she stood, tensing her body in preparation for a fight. The tingles running over her skin told her she wasn’t alone, but no matter which direction she turned, there was no lessening of the sensations, no way for her to tell where exactly it was standing. Or lying. Or squatting. Hell, the stupid thing could be jumping up and down on a pogo stick and she wouldn’t have a clue; that’s how dark it was inside the bowels of the cave.

“You might as well give it up now,” she called out, her voice echoing against the walls. “I know you’re here.” The chuckle that answered her came from behind Buffy, causing her to whirl to face it, then freezing as its familiarity glided over her arms like a lover’s caress.

Duncan.

“One thing I do like about you, Buffy,” he said, and this time there was no mistaking where he was, “your confidence. Now, is that because you’re American, or is it a Slayer thing? Because if all the young American girls are like you, I do believe I’m going to have to make that the first stop on my trip around the world. Maybe…Sunnydale? Isn’t that where you’re from? I’m sure I’ll feel right at home on the Hellmouth.”

“You are home, Duncan,” she replied, and edged herself forward, making sure to place herself between him and the harness. “And you’re not going anywhere near Sunnydale. Not while I’ve got a say in the matter.”

“Remind me to tell Sunnydale to have you removed from their welcoming committee,” he chortled.

She heard the click of the crossbow’s trigger before the arrow ever left its sheath, and instinctively threw herself sideways, tucking to roll herself to safety, only to be met with the very real solidity of the cave’s wall. It dazed her momentarily, making her shake her head as if to clear it, but just as quickly, Buffy was back up, feet parted in a fighting stance, knowing now the parameters of her space so that if another missile came flying at her, she’d be able to avoid it without turning herself into wall putty at the same time. Not that she was going to let him have another chance at her. She just had to get her hands on him first.

Somewhere at the rear of the cave, the arrow hit the wall, sending a cascade of loose dirt in a rainfall to the floor. “I don’t know why you have to make this so difficult,” Duncan said. “It’s just a silly little harness. Not even of your world.”

“Exactly. Not of my world. Which is why it needs to be brought back.”

She threw herself to the floor as she heard another arrow whistle through the air, but its course was so far from her position that Buffy laughed, ignoring the dirt that fell into her hair when it hit the ceiling above. “You really need to brush up on your---,” she started.

She never got to finish the sentence. Even as she was laughing, he’d reloaded the crossbow, firing again so quickly under her words that she didn’t hear it coming. The sharp pain as it embedded itself in her calf strangled the words in Buffy’s throat, eliciting instead a sharp cry of pain, and she rolled sideways, feeling the shaft of the arrow snap off, the blood already dripping down the inside of her trousers in sticky rivulets into her shoe.

“I take it from that delightful little shriek of yours that I actually managed to hit you this time,” Duncan commented. He was closer now, and Buffy inched herself against the wall, pressing herself against it as she reached down and yanked the arrow from her flesh, grimacing in silence at the fiery knives of pain shooting up her leg as she did so. Getting poked like a stuck pig was not part of the plan, she thought irritably. Of course, don’t really have a plan here, more flying by the seat of my pants, but still, even if I did, this would most definitely not be part of it.

Another arrow whistling overhead sent even more soil to the ground, and Buffy held her breath so as not to cough in the dust that suddenly seemed to proliferate the air. Not going to let him know where I am this time. Not going to give him that advantage again.

“Have you managed to rid yourself of the harness already then?” he asked, his voice even nearer. “You’re moving far too quickly to be bearing its burden.”

She bit back the quip that came automatically to her lips. Self-restraint, thy name is Buffy, she thought.

Another arrow. More dirt. It was getting increasingly difficult to breathe, and this time, a good portion of what had been dislodged landed directly on her head, sending her scooting off to the side during the noise it created so that he wouldn’t be able to accurately determine her position. Now that he’d ventured deeper into the cave, the entrance was unblocked, allowing some of the ambient light to return to the darkness. Not only could she focus on his stealthy footsteps, but now she could see the faint outlines of his body against the wall, and Buffy prepared to launch herself for his legs.

But if she could see him, he could see her, and before she could react, Duncan had whirled, aiming the crossbow directly at her, sending his last missile streaking through the dust.

The force of it drove her back as it drilled itself through her shoulder and buried itself into the wall behind her, pinning Buffy like some hapless butterfly waiting for the second to secure its remaining wing. Her hand came up to the injury as she cried out, tears of pain springing to her eyes, blinking them rapidly away as she saw Duncan smile at his success. Shouldn’t have fallen asleep, she thought dizzily, feeling the world beginning to spin slightly around her as the blood spilled from her body. Should’ve just kept on going. Stupid Buffy.

Lowering the weapon, Duncan sniffed appreciatively at the air, his lips curling into a smile as he began advancing toward her. “Wonder how your vampire lover would react if he could see you now,” he commented. “All that blood. Do you think he’d be able to restrain himself from sucking you dry?”

Buffy lifted her eyes, refusing to allow him to see just how helpless she really was. She was firmly stuck; any more wriggling on her part would make the blood flow even faster, and she was losing too much as it was. “If Spike was here,” she said, “you wouldn’t be standing right now. Especially since you can’t rely on your little crutch there.” She nodded toward the crossbow that dangled from his hand.

Glancing at the empty quiver, Duncan shrugged. “I’ve bagged my limit, it appears,” he said, and tossed it aside.

Inwardly, she cringed when she heard the clarion call of the harness ring through the cave as the weapon landed with a soft thud against the edge of the bag. She watched as the kelpie’s face creased into a smile, his dark eyes gleaming even in the dim light, swiveling his head to pounce on his new discovery.

“Well, well, so maybe you weren’t able to get rid of it yet after all.” He was at its side in a moment, heedless to its ringing as he scooped it into his arms and turned to look back at her with a hungry grin. “Thank you ever so much for keeping an eye on it for me.”

Her fingers tightened around the arrow, the sudden realization that Duncan was going to kill her sharpening her senses just enough to drive away the growing sleepiness in her limbs. He was walking toward her now, his smile fading with each step, and she knew that her time was short. She had to do this fast, or she wouldn’t be able to do it at all.

“Such a shame it had to come to this,” Duncan murmured, stopping before her to gaze down at the gold of her hair as it caught what faint light filtered into the dim cave. The sudden possibility of a use for the harness darted through his head, the possibility intriguing, and he couldn’t help the return of his grin. Wouldn’t Spike just hate that, he thought. Oh, but wouldn’t it be fun to see the vampire’s face, right before Duncan told Buffy to kill him…

Lifting the flap of the bag, the kelpie extracted the string of bells, squatting as he did so. “I’d wager you’d look lovely wearing this,” he said softly, and leaned forward, ready to slip the harness over the Slayer’s head.

It burned as she wrenched it from her flesh, but Buffy was unaware of the pain as she focused her strength on burying the arrow into the arm of the demon before her. He screamed in agonizing surprise, eyes widening, and almost dropped the harness as he stumbled back. Now free, she gathered what remaining strength she had to position the heel of her boot against his stomach, sending him flying against the opposite wall before slumping into the pool of her blood that had gathered at her back.

He knew he should kill her. Seeing her chest heaving from the exertion of kicking him, Duncan suspected the Slayer had expended what strength she had to fight off his attack. But what if he was wrong? He had the harness now. He should just run. The first arrow had landed in her leg; there was no way she would be able to keep up with him on foot. And if he tried to get close to her again, he wasn’t completely certain he wouldn’t fall prey to yet another thrust from her powerful legs.

Buffy watched as he rose to his feet, weaving slightly as he clutched the harness to his chest. With a grimace, Duncan pulled the arrow from his arm, tossing it to the ground, and gave her a little salute before turning away. “Have fun dying,” he joked as he stepped toward the mouth of the cave. “So sorry to miss it.”

The sight of his back disappearing through the mouth of the cave was the last thing she saw before everything went black.

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

They had ignored him for most of the last hour, buried in their stacks of books, each and every one of them searching for the answer that would stop Spike from becoming a ball of fire upon the spell’s completion. From his vantage point in the stream, though, Frank could hear every word of their conversation, heard the doubts they shared about the vampire’s odds of survival, and felt more than one twinge of remorse for forcing their hand. It was for the sake of both our worlds, he reminded himself. The thief would only use the harness for evil. Buffy would not want that.

They were speaking of her now, and the guardian pricked his ears as he strained to pick up the thread.

“…get through,” the redheaded witch was saying.

“She’ll just come through with Spike or Xander, won’t she?” That was the other witch, the soft-spoken one.

“Just because they’ve got a pass, doesn’t mean Buffy will,” the other countered. “What if it won’t let her back?”

They continued their debate, but the meaning of it had already settled in Frank’s head. There was a chance that the completion of their closing spell would strand the Slayer on the other side, caught in his world when all she had ever wanted to do was help him. Well, maybe not all. She had her own motives as well. But her presence there was his responsibility. And it was up to him to ensure that she was paid appropriately.

With a silent splash, the guardian slid his body under the surface of the water, his limbs slicing carefully through the stream as he began swimming toward his home. He had a duty, an honor to uphold. He would not fail her.

 

To be continued in Chapter 47: Under the Pressure of Violent Anguish