DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Spike have shared a romantic moment out on the mountain, while Willow has figured out the depth of the vampire’s feelings for her best friend…

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

Chapter 23: Let Not Woman E'er Complain

An innocent bystander wouldn’t have known where one ended and the other began. Legs wrapped around legs…arms curled around waists…hands clinging lightly to stretches of skin, both porcelain and gold…It wasn’t a matter of only having such a narrow space to sleep in. It was a matter of needing to hold on…him to her…her to him…because nothing else in the world existed. Not to them. Not at that moment in time. Or the next. Or even the next after that.

Words hadn’t been necessary when they’d returned to their room. They’d changed their clothes---no reason for screens anymore---each watching the other in mute admiration before Buffy took his hand and pulled him onto the bed, nestling her curves into the lines of his body even as she ran her lips across his cheek to meet his mouth, sucking at its fullness before releasing him with a heavy sigh.

“G’night,” she’d murmured, closing her eyes as she nuzzled his neck. He almost didn’t catch the next as her mouth was buried in his skin. “And thank you…”

No, Spike thought, inhaling her fresh clean scent, smiling softly as his own lids fluttered shut. Thank you…

And they both drifted off to sleep.

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

“Y’know,” she said, “the more I think about it, the more I’m thinking maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

Tara grabbed Willow’s arm as she moved to brush past her, pushing her gently back toward the closed door before them. “It’s a good idea. Relax.”

The redhead stared at the heavy wood, her arms locked at her sides. “What if Buffy answers the door?” she asked, her voice almost a squeak.

“Then we say we’re just here to get them for breakfast.” She slipped a reassuring arm around her girlfriend’s waist. “It’s OK. He won’t bite.”

The sound that came out of Willow’s throat was a cross somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “Fat lot you know,” she said. “You’ve never been one of Spike’s almost-entrees.” She took a deep breath and pursed her lips. “Better to just get this over with,” she muttered, and lifting her hand, rapped quietly at the door.

When the door opened, it was just a crack, revealing a scowling, rumpled Spike, and the witch’s eyes widened at the sight of the blond vampire. Oh my, she thought. More Spike semi-undress-ness. This was just getting way too familiar, even if it was…oh my.

No shirt again for Spike. This time, his articulated chest gleamed from the flickering candlelight behind him, each muscle whittled in precision, stretching down his taut abdomen to disappear in chiseled lines inside the black sweats Buffy had bought for him yesterday in the market.

“He sleeps in his jeans,” she’d said then. “These have got to be more comfortable.”

Looking at him now, seeing the way the thick cotton hung low on his hips, the ties in the elasticated waistband that seemed to only draw attention to the very unmistakable bulge between his legs, Willow wondered just for whom the Slayer had really bought the sweats. He may be comfy, but she was willing to bet that Buffy was enjoying them almost as much, if only for the show his hips were now providing.

“What bloody time is it?” Spike growled, blinking as his long fingers ran through his already-mussed hair.

“Is Buffy up?” Willow asked brightly, trying to sneak a look over his shoulder to see where exactly her friend was sleeping. OK, so she had admitted to the pair of them sharing the bed, but for some reason, probably something akin to being compelled to rubberneck when passing an accident, the redhead just had to see it for herself.

The vamp followed her example, glancing back before closing the door further, using his body to block out the vista of the room behind him. “No, not yet,” he replied, his voice hardening. “We didn’t get in until after three. She’s gettin’ some well-deserved shuteye.” His blue gaze flicked between the pair. “Tell Rupes she’ll grab some food later. Right now she needs to sleep.”

As he started to close the door, Willow’s hand shot out to catch it, stopping the movement. “Actually,” she said, lowering her tone, “we were kinda hoping that we could maybe…um, you know…talk to…you.”

Spike’s eyes narrowed, the muscles tightening across his cheeks as he regarded the two witches. “Why?” he asked hesitantly. “Something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Willow was quick to say. “We just…want to…chat.”

The query left his face, replaced with a calm annoyance. “Then it can wait,” he replied, and started shutting the door yet again.

“No!” shot Tara, biting her lip at her own boldness. “Something is wrong.” When her girlfriend’s head whipped around to stare wide-eyed at her, her shoulders lifted in an almost invisible shrug before she added, “With Buffy.”

That forced him to hesitate, the frown returning to the vamp’s face, while he stole a glance back at the sleeping Slayer. “Hang on,” he said abruptly and shut the door in their faces before they could stop him.

“What are you doing?” Willow hissed. “Now he’s going to be cranky. This is going to go a lot smoother if we have a crank-less Spike.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get him all cranked,” Tara said. “But he wasn’t going to come out. Don’t you want to get this over with?”

“Yes, but---.”

The re-emergence of the vampire through the door slapped wide, phony smiles on both girls’ faces, and they stepped backward, allowing him room to slip into the hallway, watching as he finished pulling the t-shirt over his head and shutting the door.

“OK, what is it?” Spike asked, turning to face them. “Did the Watchers find something?”

Willow blushed. “All right, um…you know, that’s really a funny story. See, Tara was kind of…um…not telling you the truth.”

He folded his arms across his chest, lowering his head to stare at them through hooded eyes. “’Bout what?”

“There’s actually…nothing wrong…” Her words trailed away as Spike snorted and rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he turned to go back into the bedroom.

“Find a different game to play, ladies,” he said without looking around. “I’m goin’ back to sleep.”

His hand was on the doorknob when she blurted it out. “I read the poem.” The muscles so evident through his shirt went rigid, and she felt her flush deepen as the blond head slowly turned to stare back at them. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought, and rushed forward. “And Buffy told me about the sleeping arrangements. That’s, kind of, what I wanted to…talk…” Her resolve faded as Spike, head still tilted, swiveled back around to face them, his blue eyes glittering as they locked on the redhead.

“Not nice to snoop,” he drawled, his voice dangerously low.

“It wasn’t snooping,” Willow defended. “I thought they were ritual notes. I wasn’t expecting…that.”

“So what’s this all about then?” Though his face remained calm, Spike’s insides were seething, anger and humiliation and frustration boiling into a gloopy mess under his skin. “Shouldn’t Rupes be here if you’re goin’ to tell me to leave Buffy alone?”

“That’s not why I’m---why we’re---here.” Willow grabbed Tara’s arm and dragged her forward so that they stood side by side in front of the vampire. Somehow, holding her girlfriend made her feel stronger, and she squared her shoulders, lifting her chin as she posed the next question. “When exactly do you plan on telling Buffy that you’re in love with her?”

He should’ve seen it coming. Red had always been the brightest bulb in the box, probably why he’d always liked her, and seeing as how she’d already admitted to reading the poem, Spike should’ve known that the young witch had found him out. Still…hearing the words actually said out loud, in a voice that didn’t belong to him, hit the vampire with a sledge in his gut. “Didn’t know I had to a schedule to stick to,” he finally said. “Or is that just a nice way of tellin’ me not to do it…?”

“No, no schedule, no nice,” Willow assured. “Just…curious.”

“Curiosity killed the cat, Red.”

“I’m not a cat.”

His eyes narrowed. “How come you’re not here tellin’ me how you’ll rip my heart out if I even look at the Slayer the wrong way?” he quizzed. “And how come Buffy’s talkin’ to you about our sleeping arrangements?”

“Can I take the second question first?”

He shrugged. “Take whatever you want. Wasn’t really expecting you to answer me anyway.”

Inwardly, she flinched. Darn it. She stepped right into that one. “Buffy only told me because I asked her to,” she explained. “Because I saw…you…in the bed, and then there was the whole Gone-with-the-Wind, sweeping her into your arms thing after the ritual, and then when she wanted to buy flowers in town and they were roses no less, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I asked her what was going on, and that’s when she told me about the smoochies between you two.”

When he’d first heard about Buffy’s confession to her friend, Spike’s anger had jumped, wondering why she had bothered to leave out that little nugget of information when they were out patrolling the previous night. Knowing someone else was in the know about them was definitely good information to have, especially since it seemed to lead to surprise confrontations when he was only half-awake to defend himself. But now, hearing that she was actually sharing more, that she’d admitted to more than a convenient sleeping arrangement…

His head tilted, his face softening as he took a step toward the witches. “What exactly did she say?” he asked, the curious surprise lending him the air of a besotted teenager.

The sudden shift took Willow by surprise, and her eyes widened. “Oh,” she said. “Just that…you two had…cuddled and…stuff. And talked. She definitely mentioned talking. Oh, and the spark thing.” She laughed. “Kinda hard to forget that one when someone starts tossing out words like ‘serious voltage.’” The pleased smile that creased his face wiped her own from her face, and the young witch realized that maybe that last was probably a girlfriend detail that should’ve just stayed between girlfriends. Double darn. Change the subject, change the subject.

“So, you’re really in love with her then?” she asked, and watched as the blue eyes fixed on some memory only visible to him, that mouth that was so often twisted in contempt for the Scoobies softening.

“Yeah, looks like,” he let slip, and then, as if realizing for the first time who he was talking to, Spike straightened. “But that doesn’t go anywhere but here,” he warned, trying for menacing but somehow falling short, the hidden plea in his words all too obvious to the two witches.

She shook her head. “Whatever you say,” Willow replied. “But…if you’re interested in secrecy and everything, you might want to consider, maybe, not doing the puppy dog thing when she’s around. That tends to be a dead giveaway and Buffy’s probably going to start catching on to that.”

“Oh. Right.” He took the advice in stride, nodding along as if what she said made the most sense in the world.

“Oh, and the poem?” she added. “Nice touch, but a little on the intense side. Buffy might freak if she sees it. Plus, she doesn’t really get poetry most of the time, although there was this one time, in high school, where she got all into Emily Dickinson---.”

Spike smiled, remembering the Slayer’s words. “Yeah, heard about that one,” he said. He tilted his head, gazing at her quizzically. “Why’re you helping me here? Not that it’s not appreciated, but Buffy seemed to be of the opinion me and her startin’ something up wouldn’t exactly be putting me at the top of your guest lists for dinner.”

She’d been asking herself the same question, because this little confrontation wasn’t happening at all like she’d scripted it in her head. “Are you going to hurt her?” Willow asked.

He seemed shocked by the question. “No, wouldn’t dream of it.”

“And there’s no secret plan to try and turn her, or something like that?”

“As tempting as that sounds…no. I like her fine just the way she is.”

“And this isn’t all some insidious plot just to mess with her head, or try and destroy the world again, or some other sinister act of vamp evil?”

This time he laughed out loud. “Uh, no.”

Willow shrugged. “So why shouldn’t I…?” Her voice trailed off as the door behind him opened, and Buffy squinted into the morning light.

“What’s going on out here?” the Slayer asked, waking quickly as she saw her friends facing off with Spike. When he turned toward her, stepping forward to join her in the entrance, her hazel eyes widened, darting between the three, and she quickly edged herself against the doorframe, as far away from the vampire as she could manage, trying desperately to look nonchalant.

“It’s OK, Buffy,” Willow said. “I told Tara.”

“Oh.” The blonde visibly relaxed, and immediately stepped within the circle of Spike’s personal space, her thin hand reaching down to hook a single finger around his thumb. “That’s good then.”

“Red came up to make sure we didn’t sleep through breakfast,” Spike said, effortlessly covering the content of their conversation with that single lie. “I was just tellin’ them to bugger off so that you could rest some more.”

Buffy turned to her friend. “I don’t suppose you know what’s on Colin’s schedule today, do you?” she asked.

“Research. For all of us. Oh, and he and Giles need to go into town for something. They didn’t say what.”

The Slayer grimaced. “Look, Will, I hate to ask this, but would you mind running interference for me and Spike? I’m really not that hungry and right now I just want to go back to sleep. Not that sitting and staring at smelly old books for the rest of the day wouldn’t do that for me, but I kind of prefer my bed.”

“If Rupes gives you hell for it, just remind him we’re on the graveyard shift here,” Spike offered. “He wants us at peak performance, he’s gotta let us sleep once in a while.”

“Sure. No prob…lem…” The word disappeared into silence as Willow watched the pair disappear into the bedroom, closing the door behind them without even a glance back.

“What just happened here?” Tara queried softly. “I thought we had a grand plan.”

“I don’t know,” the redhead admitted, her gaze thoughtful. “Somehow, I almost think…that was the grand plan.”

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

At Buffy’s request, he’d gone downstairs first. They had actually woken up at almost the same time, stretching against the muscles of the other, neither speaking as they sat up to face what remained of the day. There really wasn’t any need to. The measure of their rest said everything they could’ve. Or would’ve.

So, he was sprawled in his corner chair, a book propped up against his knee, doing his best not to be bored out of his mind, when she came bouncing in, her face creased into a smile even before she’d crossed the threshold of the great hall.

“Good morning!” Buffy chirped. “How’s the research coming?”

“It’s good afternoon,” Xander replied, “and it sucks.”

She stopped, looking around the group. “Where’s Giles?” she asked. “And Colin?”

“Not back from town yet,” answered Willow.

“And you really haven’t found anything useful yet?”

“Nope,” came from Anya. “Watcher resources are severely lacking.” She picked up books scattered across the table as she spoke, only to drop them almost immediately with a heavy thud. “This one talks about the Loch Ness monster. This one says kelpies are a myth. This one claims we’re actually in the Otherworld now and everything else is just a dream. And this one, well, this one is in a language I don’t recognize. I have no idea what this one says.”

Sitting down in one of the vacant chairs, Buffy’s eyes scanned the texts thoughtfully. “Maybe our answers aren’t in the books,” she mused. “I mean, this thing’s local, right? Maybe there’s some legend special to this area. Has anybody talked to Duncan yet? He said he was big on the whole lore thing, didn’t he?”

The guilty looks that passed around the tables spoke volumes, and Spike had to refrain from chuckling out loud. Sometimes, the Scoobies could be really thick. Leave it to Buffy to state the obvious.

“I’ll…go get him,” Willow said, and rising from her chair, disappeared into the kitchen.

“How’s the gout, Xan?” the Slayer asked as they waited.

“Gone. Thank god. And I vote next time someone has to get a funny disease, it’s Spike.”

“Well, that’s gratitude for you,” the vamp snorted. “After all the pokin’ I had to put up with. Least you could do is pretend to be thankful.”

The bickering was cut off before it could begin when the kitchen door swung open again, and a bemused Duncan followed Willow back into the great hall. His gaze immediately fell upon the Slayer, and he smiled as he steered himself to the chair next to her. “You really should’ve said something sooner about what you’re studying,” he said as he settled himself. “I was serious in my original offer. I’m more than willing to help in any way you need.”

As Buffy ducked her head in embarrassment, Spike’s eyes narrowed as he caught the lean of the cook’s body, angled just enough so that his knee was pressed into hers. She wasn’t even aware of it, or, if she was, she didn’t seem to mind, and the good mood that had been warming the vampire’s system slowly began to fade.

“Well, we didn’t want to look foolish,” Buffy said lightly. “Plus, we’re a little used to being the authority on these kinds of things. It’s kind of our specialty.”

Duncan laughed. “A group of beautiful girls being experts on monsters?” he kidded, his gaze sweeping over the other females at the table. “Now that I find difficult to believe.”

“Not just girls in the bunch, mate,” Spike said, rising to his feet and crossing to the end of the table. He glanced over at Xander, and saw that the young man was looking just as flustered as the vamp was feeling, although, as his eyes darted between the girls, he realized that each and every one of them was focused on Duncan as if he were the only other person in the room. What was it about this guy? Spike wondered. He just didn’t get it.

It was as if he hadn’t even spoken out loud. “So what do you know about kelpies?” Buffy asked, focused on the man at her side. “Other than, you know, big horses luring you to a watery death.”

Duncan laughed. “Horses are only one of their forms,” he explained. “And luring is relative. Have you read how to control them?”

“A harness, right?”

The cook’s pleased surprise at her knowledge was accompanied by a quirk of his lips that immediately set off warnings in Spike’s head. Too good to be true, he thought, glancing quickly at the others. The wanker’s got this down to a science.

“It’s quite sad, actually,” Duncan was saying. “To think that these beasts probably wandered into our world, unsuspectingly, only to find man trying to tether them in order to do their work. It’s really no wonder they grow feral in certain cases.” He smiled. “But that’s my personal bias shining through, I suppose. I’ve never been a grand proponent of tethering creatures so that it prevents them from living as nature intended. Cruel and unusual punishment, I rather think.”

Spike caught the slight tinge in Buffy’s cheek as her eyes jumped to the vampire before hastily returning to the man at her side. Well, that one hit a little too close to home, he thought dryly. So the bloke’s got one redeeming feature after all.

That momentary acceptance was shot out of the water when Duncan reached forward and lightly grasped the Slayer’s hand, turning it over to expose her palm. “Think of it this way,” the cook said as he stretched his hand out underneath hers, just barely supporting it. “You’re a strong and free-spirited creature, just going through your life, when suddenly---.” And before anyone could blink, the Slayer’s hand was trapped within Duncan’s. “---you’re caught, unable to move, unable to do for yourself.” He began moving his hand, forcing her arm to follow in each direction as he lifted, dropped, and then lifted again. “Obligated to do what you’re told, when you’re told, with absolutely no say in the matter.” His release of her hand was just as quick as its capture, and he smiled, his dark eyes dancing. “It’s really no surprise that they sometimes get a little…annoyed with men.”

It took her a moment to respond, sitting transfixed by his words. “I never…thought of it…that way,” she said softly.

“Me neither,” Willow echoed.

When Tara and Anya followed in with their own admiration for the new “perspective,” Xander and Spike’s eyes met, both sets asking the exact same question. What the hell just happened here?

“What about…special harnesses?” Buffy asked. “Is there anything like that in the legends?”

“Like what?”

“Like gold, ringing-type harnesses.”

He seemed to ponder the suggestion for a moment, and then shook his head. “Doesn’t sound familiar,” he said. “Are you sure it has something to do with the kelpie mythology?”

She nodded. “We---.”

The ringing of her phone in the center of the table interrupted Buffy, and with an apologetic smile to Duncan, she leaned over to pick it up. “Hello?” she said. “Hi, Giles. We were just talking about kelpies. Aren’t you proud of us?” Pause, followed by a quick glance over at the windows, her smile fading as her eyebrows came together. “Really? Well, actually, he’s right here.” She pulled the phone from her ear and handed it toward the cook. “Giles would like to talk to you.”

He looked surprised, but took the phone anyway. “Is there a problem, Mr. Giles?” Almost immediately, his eyes followed the same path Buffy’s had taken to the window, rising slowly to his feet. “Oh. Well, of course. I’ll just tell your friends.”

“What is it?” the Slayer asked, taking back the now-dead phone. Spike almost hissed out loud when he saw the slight caress of Duncan’s finger along the back of her hand.

“Apparently, there’s a rather large storm headed this way,” the cook explained. “Mr. Giles thinks it’s best if I were to head back to town as soon as possible. Otherwise, he thinks I might end up getting caught here overnight.”

“Oh, well, we don’t want that happening,” Xander said, just a little too loudly, his smile just a tad too wide. At the dirty looks shot to him by the females around the table, he bristled. “What? I’m just saying, the inn is pretty full here. Where would he sleep?” He held up a warning finger to Anya as her mouth opened to speak. “And you are not about to say, our room.”

“No, Mr. Giles is right. My Aunt Fiona will be up all night with worry if I don’t go home,” Duncan joked, and began skirting the room as he headed for the main door. “There’s a stew on the stove for your tea. It just needs a good stir every now and again before you’re ready to eat. And if you’d like, you can just leave the dishes until morning. I’ll take care of them then.” He flashed them a smile as he reached the entrance. “I have to admit, I do enjoy a brisk walk in an impending storm. It really makes you feel alive, don’t you think?” He nodded in farewell. “See you in the morning.”

Spike’s eyes were furious as they bore into the door shutting behind the dark cook. There had been definite touching, and holding of hands, and…more touching. Not that the vampire had any rights to be laying a claim…His nostrils flared. Hell, why not? Maybe they weren’t a couple out in the open like he wanted, but that didn’t make what they had any less real. Why couldn’t he lay a claim? His gaze flickered to Harris, who was watching Spike’s reaction with that infuriating I-told-you-so look that for once, he didn’t find annoying. When the younger man gave him a slight nod, Spike smiled, his lips hard, and began strolling to the door.

“Goin’ out for a smoke,” he said to no one in particular. “Be back in a few.”

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

He caught up to him just inside the front door. “Interesting speech,” Spike drawled as he pulled out his cigarettes. Sticking one between his lips, he offered the pack to Duncan, who shook his head in refusal as he buttoned up his coat.

“Aren’t you cold?” the cook asked, glancing from the vampire’s bare arms to the overcast skies outside.

Spike took a deep drag on the cigarette before exhaling slowly into the other man’s face. “Always,” he replied. He flicked his ash onto the floor. “You goin’ to share how you do it?”

“Do what?”

“The thing with the birds.” His lips curled into a vicious smile. “Not that I’m lookin’ for tips, mind you. Just wanna know what the trick is.”

The two men regarded each other for a long moment before Duncan responded. “Just talk to them,” he said. “Nothing special. You should really give it a try.” It was his turn to smile. “Buffy certainly seems to respond to it.”

Spike’s eyes narrowed, and he felt the growl rise in the back of his throat. “You’d be smart to stay away from her.” There was no mistaking the dangerous rumble in his voice, or the flash of gold behind his eyes.

“That sounds like a threat.”

“Consider it good advice for stayin’ healthy.”

“Perhaps you should consider it for yourself.” Duncan’s smile never left, but his dark eyes hardened. “She’s really not your…kind, is she? A bit out of your league, I’d imagine.” He didn’t wait for a response, merely turned on his heel and walked through the front door. After only a few steps, though, he hesitated, catching his pace as he half-turned to look back at the blond inside the entrance. “And don’t threaten me again,” he warned. “You really don’t want to cross me.”

Spike sneered, blowing a stream of smoke. “Or what? You’ll ladle me to death?”

“Only if it’s long, wooden, and pointed,” Duncan replied evenly, the smile now gone. Turning on his heel, he began walking leisurely down the drive, his voice floating back to the castle as clearly as if he was standing right on the threshold. “Have a good night with your Slayer, Spike…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: My Heart’s in the Highlands