DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The Scoobies have attempted unsuccessfully to close the tunnel to the Otherworld, and have had a night of rest before continuing their research and confronting Colin…

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

Chapter 20: A Rosebud by My Early Walk

They were congregated around the room---Spike leaning against the wall by the door, doing his best not to laugh out loud; Willow and Tara on one side of the bed, the redhead looking particularly plagued by something as her brow creased in deep furrows; the Watchers on the other side, while Anya and Buffy stood at the foot. In the middle of the double bed, Xander lay with the blankets thrown off him, one sock on with its mate discarded at his side. His brown eyes were wide as he gaped at his girlfriend. “You have got to be kidding me!” he exclaimed.

Anya shook her head. “I wish I was,” she said. “But I’ve seen it a thousand times. Hell, I’ve caused it a thousand times.”

“But how is this possible? I was fine yesterday.”

Giles bent over, peering through his glasses at the swollen flesh around Xander’s big toe, the angry crimson radiating a heat that the Watcher could almost feel even several feet away. “I really don’t know,” he said, and glanced at Anya. “You’re certain?”

The ex-demon’s nod was met with an audible whimper from Willow, and all eyes turned to the witch. “I think I know,” she said quietly. “In the car yesterday…isn’t that the foot---?”

Xander didn’t even let her finish. “You were chanting!” he exclaimed, shaking an angry finger at his friend. “Being all magicky!”

“It was an accident!” she defended. “And if you hadn’t been playing with my supplies, it wouldn’t have happened!”

Giles’ eyes widened. “You gave Xander gout?” he asked, amazed.

At the name of the infliction, the laughter that Spike had been struggling to contain erupted in a loud guffaw, and he bent over as it shook his body, hands on his thighs as his shoulders rose up and down in rhythm with his chortling.

Willow shot the vampire a dirty look before turning her gaze to the Watcher. “I didn’t mean to,” she said. “And I can fix this.” She glanced at her friend on the bed out of the corner of her eye. “I think.”

“We’ll have to go back into the market,” Tara said. “We don’t have the things here that we’ll need.”

Anya brightened. “Oh, can I go?” she asked. “I saw the cutest little top yesterday, but I didn’t get a chance to haggle with the woman who ran the stall because Xander interrupted us.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” the young man argued.

“You smelled of sheep! She didn’t want you near her nice things!”

“You still could’ve bought the shirt.”

“Haggling’s no fun if the other person’s distracted.”

Giles shook his head. “I can’t believe you gave him gout,” he murmured.

Though his laughter had started to subside, the repeat of Xander’s condition renewed Spike’s hysteria, and several in the group turned to look at him.

“It’s really not funny,” Giles chastised.

“Oh, no, you’re right.” His blue eyes danced as he straightened. “It’s bloody hysterical.”

“I’m glad you think it’s so amusing,” said Buffy with a smile. “It’ll help to keep you entertained while you’re keeping Xander company.”

His mirth immediately vanished. “What’s that?”

“Seconding from the sickbed,” added Xander, “with my own, ‘Huh?’”

“Well, we have to go into town again,” the Slayer explained. “And since Xander obviously can’t walk, he’s going to need someone to help him out.”

“And why does that someone have to be me?” the vamp demanded, his tone petulant. “Make Giles do it.”

“He needs to drive.”

“The other Watcher, then.”

“I’m not letting Colin out of my sight until we’ve got this Council business sorted,” Giles said.

Spike’s eyes locked with Buffy’s. “He’s your friend; you stay and sit with the boy. You don’t need to go into town.”

Her gaze widened in mock innocence. “But Spike, you asked me last night to get you some more shirts,” she said in saccharine tones. “And since everybody else is already going…”

He knew he was beaten, even as he scowled at the man on the bed. “Bollocks,” Spike muttered, and kicked at the wall behind him.

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

“I hope they don’t kill each other,” Willow commented as they strolled past a vegetable stand, her bag swinging lightly in her hand.

“I think we’re pretty safe there,” Buffy replied. “Spike’s chip’ll fire before Xander even needs to scream for help, and as for Xander, well…” She bit her lip as she tried to stifle her smile. “All Spike has to do is stay on the other side of the room out of arm’s reach, ‘cause Xan’s not moving any time soon.”

“He asked Anya for a long stick.”

“Then Spike just has to stay away from the pointy end,” the Slayer said. “Not like he hasn’t had years of experience doing that.”

Willow chewed on the inside of her cheek as she glanced at her best friend. There it was. Her opening. Ask and get it over with. Except what if she was wrong? Would Buffy totally wig at the suggestion? She was beginning to regret letting Tara go off with Anya; she’d know how to handle this. She was so good at the diplomat thing.

She watched as Buffy stopped and began fingering some men’s t-shirts, taking the cotton between thumb and index to test the thickness, before starting to walk again, wandering to the next booth. When the Slayer’s face lit up at the array of flowers that adorned the varying shelves there, Willow frowned. Good mood. Shopping for Spike. Excited over plants. Uh oh.

“Which do you think?” Buffy asked, turning to face her friend with a single flower in each hand. “Roses? Or…” She turned to the woman in the stall. “What was this called again?”

“That’s a dahlia, lassie.”

She smiled in gratitude and shifted her attention back to the redhead. “So, lassie,” she said good-naturedly, “roses or dahlias?”

“Um, not to be all bubble bursty, but why exactly are we buying flowers?” Willow’s eyes darted to the various displays before returning to Buffy. “I thought we were in clothes shopping mode.”

The Slayer shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “I just thought that some foliage around the castle might make it a little more homey, seeing as how we’re not actually getting to go home any time soon.” She pondered the stems for a moment. “I think we’ll go for the tried and true. Roses. Definitely.”

She was halfway back to facing the stall when Willow grabbed her arm and pulled her aside. “What are you doing?” the redhead asked. “You can’t be buying roses.”

Buffy shrugged. “Fine, I’ll go with the dahlias then.”

“No, that’s not what I meant either.” The flustered witch took both flowers from the Slayer’s hands and laid them back on the display. “Where is all this coming from? Is there something happening between you and Spike that maybe best friends should know about?” She hadn’t meant to blurt it out, but confusion and the need to know had gotten the better of her and sent her tongue wagging faster than she could catch it. Bad tongue.

The Slayer’s gaze immediately slid away as she turned to start playing with the flowers in the stand again. “Spike?” she said, her tone too light. “Are you kidding? Why would you say such a thing?”

Willow froze. “OK, see, now I know something’s not of the norm,” she said cautiously. “Because the first response from the Buffy I know would’ve been, ‘Oh my god, no!’” She paused. “Or hysterical laughter. That would’ve been appropriate, too.”

It took her a long time to respond. “Spike and I…we’re just making the best of an awkward situation,” the blonde said slowly, avoiding the other girl’s eyes. “We called a truce to make it easier on both of us. No big.” She began walking away from the flower stand, not even watching to see if Willow was following.

“OK, truce, I could get,” the witch said, scurrying after. “But since when do truces involve beds? Or long, meaningful looks? And yeah, maybe this really is none of my business, except I think it is because, hello, best friend here. Best friends share these kind of secrets.”

Buffy stopped and turned level eyes to Willow. “Really? You didn’t come clean about you and Tara until after that whole thing with Oz when he came back. Weren’t we best friends then?”

“That was…different.” The turnaround agitated her, and her brow wrinkled. “It was complicated. I thought you guys would freak out. Which you did, by the way. A little.” Her eyes widened. “Wait a minute. So there is something going on? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I didn’t say anything.” But she wanted to, especially since it looked like she hadn’t been as careful about keeping things mum as she’d thought. If Willow was picking up on sparkage between her and Spike, then that might mean the others were seeing it as well. Mentally, she shook her head. No, that was wrong. No way were Xander and Giles nearly as perceptive as the young witch. Maybe it was just her. And possibly Tara.

The fact of the matter was, Buffy was dying to talk to someone about it. All the events of the past three or four days were confusing to say the least. An outside assessment might help her clear some of the cobwebs from her brain to make sense of it. And they were best friends, she rationalized. If she couldn’t tell Willow, who could she tell?

“What’s got you thinking something’s going on?” Buffy asked carefully, keeping her tone relaxed, resuming her walking down the aisle past the stalls. “Not that I’m saying there is, but…why?”

“Well, Spike, for one thing. You should’ve seen him when you were still knocked out after the spell last night. He got all growly and hovery over you when he thought you were really hurt. For a second there, I thought he was going to rip Colin’s throat out.”

“Really?” She had to struggle to hide her smile of pleasure. For some reason, the thought of Spike turning into the avenging boyfriend just because he thought she was hurt kindled a flame in her gut, augmenting her confidence in the choice she had made. “He didn’t, though, right? No sudden attacks only stopped by the chip?”

“No, he didn’t.” Willow frowned. “Why? What difference does that make?”

“None. Just curious. Go on. What else have you noticed?”

“Well…that morning when I came and got you for breakfast. You were all…” She bit her lip. “…perky, and Spike was all…naked.”

“Spike was not naked,” Buffy defended. “He had on his jeans.”

“Semi-naked, then. But you were still all giggly. And he was definitely in the bed, like, under-the-covers in the bed.” She paused. “You’re not…both…sleeping in it…together…are you?” She was almost holding her breath as she waited for a response. If she’d had doubts going into this conversation, they were quickly dissipating. Every word that came out of the Slayer’s mouth only seemed to confirm what Willow had been suspecting ever since the previous evening in the dungeon, even if half of them were protestations to the contrary. But she just needed to hear it for herself.

“If I said yes---.”

“I knew it!” Willow stopped and smiled triumphantly into Buffy’s face. “I told Tara. She tried telling me it was the water here addling my brain, but I knew I wasn’t seeing things.” Her grin vanished, her green eyes widening. “You’re sleeping with Spike. Giles is soooo going to freak out.”

“Which is why I’ve been trying to keep this all hush-hush,” Buffy hissed. “I was going to wait until after we got back to Sunnydale, break it to you guys gently, but you’ve pretty much put a kibosh on that happening.” Her hazel eyes darted around, assessing the crowd surrounding them, and she lowered her voice. “And Spike and I haven’t…it’s just been cuddling. And talking. Major amounts of talking.” She gazed at her friend’s resolute face for a moment, and then ducked her head. “OK, and some kissing.” Pause. “Well, maybe a little more than some.” She bristled. “But, c’mon, can you blame me? The guy is hot. I mean, we’re talking serious voltage here. Oh, except maybe…” Her voice trailed off as she bit her lip, regarding the young woman with embarassment.

Willow rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “I’m gay, not blind. I can still appreciate a star player, even if I don’t play for that side anymore.” She hesitated. “But…what about…Riley? I thought you two were going good there.”

Buffy shrugged. “It’s so hard for me to put it into words,” she said slowly. “Riley’s always been…safe. You know…making with being Mr. Nice Guy all the time. Not that that’s bad,” she rushed to clarify. “It’s just…not enough anymore. I’m not sure it ever was.”

“I thought you liked the fact that he was normal.”

“I do, but…” She shook her head. “He’s never really understood me. Oh, sure, he’s tried, just like I’ve tried not to see how jealous he gets about what I can do and he can’t. But…it’s still there, and it’s always going to be about him playing catch up, and then getting upset when he can’t.”

“And you won’t have that with Spike.” It wasn’t a question, but there was a lingering doubt in the witch’s voice as she spoke that immediately put Buffy on the defensive.

“Spike’s different,” she argued. “Spike’s always accepted what I am. He even respects it.”

“That’s because you’re a death threat.”

“Maybe,” Buffy conceded. “In the past. But since he got the chip, that hasn’t really been necessary. Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of talk and smoke blowing, but that’s all it is. And…” Her eyes softened, a small smile curling the corner of her mouth. “There’s something…there. Between us. This…spark. And every time I look at him, or I think about him, it just gets bigger, and it only makes me want him more.”

Willow’s face was almost sad as she gazed at her best friend. “And you don’t think it’s the whole vamp/Slayer thing?” she asked quietly. “That’s a powerful draw. Maybe you’re just confused.”

The memory of the vampire’s face as he’d sat on the edge of the bed the previous night floated in front of Buffy’s inner eye, the dark longing that had gleamed there hiding the deeper feelings she was beginning to suspect were his true motivation for pursuing this physical relationship between them. “No,” she finally said. “I’m not confused.” Her gaze met her friend’s. “I know this is going to sound weird, but Spike’s been…different since we got to Scotland. It’s like, he doesn’t have to do all this posturing anymore. He can let his guard down. And I actually really like that person.” She grinned. “Believe it or not, he’s been kind of fun to hang around with. He plays a mean hand of slapjack.”

“There’s more to relationships than card games.”

“I know. But, for the first time in forever, I feel like I don’t have to hold back. That I can…push myself to do what I have to do, and that he’ll be right there beside me, matching me, stroke for stroke. And if he does happen to fall behind a little, he’ll be OK with that. Because, in a weird way, he’s proud of what I can do.” Scanning her friend’s face, Buffy’s eyes were dark with worry. “So spill. What’re you thinking? Am I totally off my rocker here?”

There was a moment of silence, and then Willow sighed. “I’m thinking we’re going to have to learn to be a lot more tolerant about Spike hanging around,” she said. “But if you two start acting like I heard you did last year during that spell…” She waggled a finger in fake reprobation.

Buffy laughed, and looped her arm through the young witch’s. “Consider me suitably warned,” she said as the pair resumed walking. “I’m not interested in joining Xander in the gout parade.”

“When are you going to tell the others?”

“Soon,” she promised. “As soon as this mess is cleared up with Colin and the Council. Do you mind not saying anything to the others until I do? Well, except for Tara, of course. You can tell her.”

Willow nodded. “I don’t want to be the bearer of that kind of news anyway,” she said lightly. “I think it might get kind of messy when Xander’s head explodes.”

After a moment of walking in quiet, Buffy spoke up, her voice reflective. “So, do you think I can buy a kilt around here someplace?”

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

“For the last soddin’ time, it was not!”

“And I’m telling you, it was.” Xander leaned forward, being careful not to move his exposed foot. “I knew this guy in high school, who saw him on a talk show---.”

“Frank Zappa was not the son of Mr. bloody Greenjeans!” Spike exploded and began prowling around the edge of the room. “It was a song! And it wasn’t even spelled the same! Only a total git would believe the two had anything to do with each other. And why the hell am I wastin’ the energy arguing with you about this? I’m right. You’re wrong. End of discussion.”

“But---.”

“Don’t make me bite you.”

“You can’t.” Xander’s voice was gleeful. “You’ve got a chip.”

“The headache’ll be worth it if it makes you shut your gob about this.”

Pause. “I’ve got a stick.”

Spike rolled his eyes. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.” His jaw tensed. “I say, if you’re feelin’ up to bickering over some stupid show for a bunch of ankle-biters, you’re up to waitin’ on yourself. I’m out of here.” He’d stomped halfway to the door before his patient stopped him.

“I’ll tell Buffy you walked out,” Xander threatened. “And that I had to hobble painfully all the way downstairs to get a drink of water just because you disappeared on me. She’ll kick your ass into next Tuesday for deserting me.”

The vampire’s eyes were fierce as he glanced back at the bed. “You bloody little liar,” he growled.

“Yes,” the young man agreed. “But a very bored little liar. C’mon. I’ve got no TV, no Gameboy, not even a good comic book to keep me occupado. And the only other person to talk to in this place happens to be Duncan the Wonder Cook, and we both know how I feel about him.”

Pursing his lips, Spike glared at Xander as he marched back to his chair against the wall. “You’re just lucky I’m in a good mood,” he muttered, and flopped down into the seat, legs sprawled out in front of him. “But no more drinks,” he warned, a little bit louder. “I’m not carrying you to the toilet again. You can just poke me all you want with that little stick of yours, but you’re goin’ to have to hold it ‘til your little girlfriend gets back. She can be your soddin’ nursemaid.” He began picking at his nails. “Should’ve been in the first place. Certainly not sayin’ much for your relationship if she’d rather shop than make sure her little boytoy was fine.”

“I’m not her boytoy!” Xander defended. “And you’re hardly one to talk, seeing as how you’ve been dumped by both Miss Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and the if-I-only-had-a-brain girl.”

He was about to shoot back that Harm was probably back in his crypt in Sunnydale right then, but remembered in time how Buffy and her gang didn’t know yet about the stupid bint’s idiotic notion that she was wanted by the Scoobies. Better to just let that one slide. “For your information,” Spike said instead, “there just happens to be little bit on the side who has spent her fair share of time tending to this sorry skin of mine.”

Xander’s eyes widened. “Spikey’s got a widdle girlfwiend!” he teased. “So, let’s see. You’ve done crazy, you’ve done stupid. Lemme guess. Blind?”

“She’s got better eyesight than you, I’ll tell you that,” the vamp countered. “And before you say it, she’s not a tart, and she wasn’t tanked up.”

“So cross off, paid for sex and too drunk to notice who she’s with.” He mused in mock seriousness. “Hmmmm. That would just leave---.”

“Drop it, Harris!” His tone had lost all sense of mirth, his words almost a snarl as he glowered at the man on the bed. “You prattle on about her like that any more, and I swear, you’ll be wishing it was only your toe that still hurt.”

The threat sliced through the suddenly too-thick air in the room, hanging before Xander in a delicate swing aimed at his carotid artery, wiping his amusement from his face. There was no mistaking the danger in the vampire’s face, and though he didn’t understand why, the young man knew he’d just stepped into risky territory. “Look, Spike…” he started, only to be cut off by a wave of the other’s hand.

“Forget it. Pick a new topic of conversation, mate. I don’t want to talk about this one any more.”

Xander frowned. “Wow. Are you actually in love with this girl?” he asked.

“None of your business.” He leaned back, closing his eyes as his head rested against the back of the chair. “Wake me up when you need something.”

The room was coated in quiet for a solid minute before he spoke up again. “Have you told her how you feel?” Xander ventured.

It was out of his mouth before he could stop it. “No.”

“You should. Girls like to hear that kind of thing. Even demon girls.”

“Don’t think I need advice from you, Harris. Managed my love life a long time before you even walked this planet.”

Xander snorted. “Dragging around your crazy ex-girlfriend from country to country, hoping she doesn’t shack up or fool around with another demon? Even my track record’s not that bad, Spike.” He didn’t even flinch when the vampire’s eyes opened to stare at him in receding anger. “What about her? Does she feel the same?”

The sudden remembered touch of her lips on his…those tiny but powerful hands clinging to his shoulders…the unspoken gratefulness as it gleamed within the hazel orbs…they all softened the muscles in Spike’s cheek, dropping his gaze as he slipped away in time if not in place. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Sometimes, I think, yeah. Others, not a bloody chance in hell. It’s only been recent I even thought she could.”

“So…do something to find out for sure. Give her something romantic. Just make sure it’s not something Buffy’ll need to stake you for.”

The sound of the Slayer’s name startled Spike, and his head jerked as he sat up in his chair. Fuck. How did the boy figure out who he was talking about? She was going to kill him if she found out he’d leaked their little secret. “Buffy?” he quizzed stiffly. “What does she have to do with anything?”

Shrugging, Xander replied, “I assume romantic to a vampire usually involves carnage and dead bodies. I was just saying, don’t let your grand romantic gesture be something that might piss Buffy off. Might spoil the mood a little bit if the Slayer decides to go gunning for you or your squeeze.”

“Oh.” Spike visibly relaxed. “Yeah. Right.” His head tilted as he regarded the other man. “You’re bein’ awful helpful here, considerin’ you don’t like me all that much,” he drawled. “What’s your angle?”

“Can’t I just offer another guy some help when he needs it?” Xander’s face blanked at an attempt at innocence, but quickly broke, creasing into a smile as he shook his head. “Nah. Can’t do that with a straight face, either. I was just trying to get you not so mad at me so that you’d go get me something to eat.”

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

He stood within the cell and held the leather bag before him, the gentle ring of the bells inside pealing through the dungeon. As he watched, the wall that had been there slowly disappeared, revealing the dark hole the magic had been concealing, and he smiled. He hadn’t been sure that the harness’ effect would work through the satchel; all other times he’d seen it utilized had been while it was actually being worn. This was good information to have. It would most definitely prove useful in the future.

As he stepped through the tunnel, he smelled the familiar rush of air as it wafted from the waters, and frowned. It was fresh. But that couldn’t be. They had done the spell last night; of that, he was certain. Had it not worked? Or…and the other possibility actually made him halt in his tracks. Maybe they had done the control spell after all, and someone from the Englishman’s organization was in there right now. He felt his control begin to slip, the hair on his neck prickling as his feet began to edge backwards, away from the cavern. If that was the case, he was already too late and should by all rights flee, risking his chances with the harness in spite of what he suspected about the Englishman.

But maybe there was another reason. The vampire and the young man remained upstairs, and the others had certainly shown no signs of packing up to leave prior to their excursion into town. Perhaps the spell had simply failed. In which case, there was no reason for him to run, not until he could ensure that the entrance to the Otherworld was sealed, once and for all.

Turning on his heel, he trotted as quietly as he could back to the cell, cradling the bag to his chest in an attempt to muffle the clarion’s call. He would wait until after lunch, listen to their conversations to determine what exactly could’ve happened, and make his decision after they’d eaten. An hour or two wouldn’t make a difference.

The thought of lunch made Duncan frown. Damn it, he thought irritably. I left the soup on high. I do hope it hasn’t boiled over…

 

To be continued in Chapter 21: Inscription