DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXXVII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Lydia has told Spike Baltozar is on his way to California, Buffy has written another letter to Spike after finishing the ones he wrote her, and Willow has had her first meeting with Wesley regarding her magic…

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

Chapter 6: Where All Men Ride

Even though they had just patrolled it two nights earlier, Willow didn’t ask any questions as she followed the Slayer through the heavy iron gates of Restfield Cemetery. Buffy’s relief in the reprieve was almost palpable. It was a break in her usual pattern, but how could she explain the sudden urge without revealing the contents of Spike’s letter? Not that she was going to sit and read it like he’d described. She hadn’t even brought it with her. But the image had stuck in Buffy’s head, and her feet seemed to have a mind of their own the moment they’d left the dorm.

The sky was clear, the moon nearly full as it gleamed against the star-studded midnight. A slight breeze broke the stillness of the heat, and it was just enough to keep the sheen from the girls’ skin as they began to walk among the headstones.

“So, how’d it go this afternoon?” Buffy asked. She couldn’t stand the silence any longer. She’d asked Willow to come patrol with her specifically in hopes of talking about the situation with Spike, but ever since they had left campus, both young women had been lost in her own thoughts. “Is Wesley as stuffy as ever?”

“What would you say if I told you Wesley showed up on a motorcycle, dressed in leather, looking like Joe Cool?” Willow said with a mischievous grin.

Buffy’s jaw dropped. “Get out of here!”

“Well, it was more Easy Rider meets Gomer Pyle via Upstairs Downstairs, but yeah, that was the big entrance.”

“I guess getting fired agrees with him, then.”

Willow shrugged, and her smile faded slightly. “Maybe not so much, but…I’ll let you be the judge of that when you get to see him.”

They strolled along the grass for a moment before Buffy tried again. “But, did it help?” she asked. “I mean, I know what I said when we were at Giles’, but now that you’ve actually met with him, do you think it’ll make a difference?”

“I don’t know.” There was a tremulous worry that shaded her friend’s tone, and it made the Slayer frown as she glanced over. “Today wasn’t about what happened to me, or about magic, or about anything, really. We just…talked. Got to know each other again.” Her eyes met Buffy’s. “He’s changed. A lot. In some ways, no, maybe not really, but then in others…” Her voice trailing off, Willow’s gaze returned to the distance of the horizon. “I’m not making any sense.”

“No, I get it.” And she did. “A lot’s happened since graduation. To all of us.”

Another silence settled between them, although this one was welcome. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all, Buffy thought. Willow had her own problems to deal with; she didn’t need to listen to Buffy whine about not understanding what was going on in another vampire’s head. Especially a vampire who wasn’t even around.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” Willow said.

“For what?”

“For blabbing about Spike in front of Xander. I don’t know why I brought it up. I know Spike’s not a threat to you. ”

Something she said made Buffy pause. “You know?” she queried. “You didn’t seem so sure about Spike last night.”

The fraction of a second too long it took Willow to respond only deepened her confusion. “Because you said so,” the redhead said. “You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”

“No.” But, in spite of her earlier intent, her desire to talk about Spike had waned. Willow’s reaction curdled with wrongness, like there was more that she wasn’t sharing, but Buffy was frightened of pushing her friend too hard. Though the young witch seemed like herself most of the time, at others, there was an odd fragility that had never been present before, as if her consciousness wearied of maintaining some façade, and Buffy wondered if maybe there was something Willow was hiding about her magical whammy. So instead, she changed the subject.

“Did you guys come up with some kind of plan?” she asked. She hadn’t been keen on missing the meeting with Wesley, and from the sounds of it, it had gone quite differently than anyone had imagined. Whether that was a good thing or not, remained to be seen.

“It’s not like there’s a ten-step program for magic junkies,” Willow joked.

“There’s such a thing as magic junkies? Wow. They didn’t cover that in health class.”

“And I’m not a junkie,” Willow continued. “I’m more like a sponge that’s been soaking for too long.”

“And Wesley and Giles are going to wring you out?” At her friend’s startled glance, Buffy flushed. “Sorry, that came out sounding way more sexual than I meant it to.”

“I don’t know what they have in mind. Probably nothing yet. The witch from the coven hasn’t even arrived. I think she might be the one who knows the most about how to help me.”

It was Willow’s casual bandying of the term “help” that made Buffy pause in her steps. “I’m sorry it happened to you,” she said softly. “I should’ve stopped it. I should’ve made Rose take it back. If I’d known---.”

“Stop.” For a moment, the redhead’s eyes seemed to glow, her skin suddenly translucent to reveal the shimmering network of veins beneath its surface, but just as quickly, it disappeared, and Buffy blamed it on a trick of the moonlight. “This wasn’t your fault,” she went on. “If anything, this was mine. I’m the one who came up with the version of the original spell, and I’m the one who told it to Rose. I wanted to help. And I did, remember? No more uber-powerful witch trying to recruit Slayers into doing her nasty deeds. Now, there’s just little old me. And I can’t even get you to pick up your dirty socks.”

The last was said with a smile, and it drew the same from Buffy, though mirth was the last thing she was feeling at the moment. “Still,” she said, finding the need to press the issue, “if you hadn’t gotten all tied up in trying to wake me out my tea coma---.”

“---which would’ve happened in what dimension exactly?” Willow resumed walking, her hands deep in her skirt pockets. “I know I’ve been…off, and I know you’re all worried about me, but if I have to choose between helping and taking some unknown backlash afterward, or just standing back and doing nothing because it’s the safe thing to do but someone could die, I’ll help every time, Buffy. You know that.”

“But there are consequences,” she argued. “Sometimes helping isn’t worth the risk.”

“You risk even more every time you patrol.”

“I’m the Slayer. That’s my job.”

“And what’s mine?”

“You’re research girl. You’re my brain trust.”

“But I can be more.” She turned to stop directly in front of Buffy, and again, that odd glowing seemed to overpower Willow’s eyes for a second. “Don’t you get that? Yeah, this magic thing can really bite the big one a lot of the time, but if I can turn it around into something that can really make a difference, wouldn’t that be worth it?”

“Not if it means you get hurt.”

“That’s my decision to make, don’t you think?”

She didn’t understand how the conversation had degenerated into this. For a long moment, Buffy regarded the young woman opposite without speaking. Willow wasn’t upset, but there was a resolve that permeated her muscles in a way that only happened when she was most determined. Her eyes were clear now, the only glow remaining that from the moonlight.

“Buffy,” she said, and her tone was gentler, her eyes sad, “I know I was freaked out when Giles brought up dealing with all the changes this morning, but after talking to him and Wesley…I need to do this. You have no idea. It’s been…it’s been hard, like someone’s constantly running an electrical current through me and I can’t find the plug or the switch to change it in any way.”

“You never said.”

“I know. I didn’t want anyone to worry.”

Buffy threw her arms around Willow in a huge hug, relieved when it was reciprocated. “I love you, Will. I just want you to be OK.”

“I am OK. Or I will be.” They broke apart. “Don’t tell anyone I ever said this, but I’m kind of glad the Council butted in again. I really think working with Wesley and Giles is going to make a difference.”

She smiled. “That must’ve been some conversation you guys had. And in leather. Gotta try that next time I’ve got an apocalypse to deal with.”

“You wanna see Giles in leather?”

The sudden image made Buffy’s eyes widen. “OK, maybe not.”

“And I think Wesley’s allergic or something. He kept squirming a lot today.”

“Not helping with the visuals here, Willow.”

This time when they returned to their stroll, the atmosphere was less charged, some of the tension that had been building between then dissipated from their brief conversation. It’s now or never, Buffy thought, taking a deep breath, but before she could say anything, an engine roared to life in the distance.

Both girls stopped, frowns on their faces.

“What was that?” Buffy asked.

“It sounded like a car. A big car.”

“In a graveyard? In the middle of the night?”

Neither needed to say just how wrong that really was, and Buffy broke into a run toward the sound, her feet pounding silently against the grass as the cool night air whipped tendrils of her hair around her face. Within seconds, she rounded the corner of a mausoleum and skidded to a halt when she saw a van pulling away from a pile of broken earth.

The van was dark and nondescript, but the moonlight captured the hulking forms of two men standing near the upset grave, and Buffy’s brows shot up when she recognized the general features of the man who’d spoken to her the night before. He was in the same military get-up, but with the greasepaint on his face, it was impossible to be any more specific about whether he was young or old, blond or brunette. It was him, though. Of that, she was sure.

“How many does that make?” she heard him say.

“Two,” his partner said.

GI Joe shook his head. “Orders said three. We’ll have to do another sweep.”

“We’ve done two already. This place is dead.”

“That’s because it’s a graveyard. Kind of goes with the territory.” Buffy’s voice rang out through the clearing, capturing the two men’s attention as she strolled casually forward. She watched as the second vigilante began to reach for the weapon strapped at his waist, but his wrist was grabbed by GI Joe, pushing his partner slightly behind him so that Joe was the one she faced off when she stopped twenty feet away.

“Whatcha doing?” she asked brightly. “Is it a party? Because you know, the costumes are a dead giveaway.”

“You shouldn’t be out so late,” he said, ignoring her quips. “It’s not safe after dark.”

Her smile faded at the familiarity of his words. “Are you reading from a script or something?”

Her bluntness took him aback. “Huh?”

“It’s just, those lines are getting kind of old. You should really come up with some new material or people might start thinking you’re being insincere.” Buffy tilted her head to look at the man behind GI Joe, giving him a small wave. “Hi,” she said. “Are you shy? I don’t bite. Unlike most of what you run into out here.”

“Let’s go,” the second man hissed.

Joe jerked away from his partner’s hold. “You really shouldn’t be out,” he insisted. “If you want an escort---.”

“And that would be a world of ew. Oh. Wait. You mean someone to walk me back. My bad. I’m just not used to the chivalry. It’s almost sweet, in a sexist, demeaning kind of way.”

A scream in the darkness shattered all sense of Buffy’s playfulness, and her head snapped in the sound’s direction. She didn’t need to hear it again to know who it was, and broke off into another run before it could be repeated.

It was Willow.

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

That’s it, Willow thought as her heart pounded in her chest, her legs aching from the speed she’d inflicted on them in pursuing Buffy. I’m going to slap a sticky on that girl that reminds her, I’m a superhero. I run faster than my friends.

She couldn’t see Buffy any more, but she knew which direction she’d gone, and valiantly, Willow struggled to catch up, her pace slowing with every step as her lungs began to burn. The sound of the car driving away made her falter, and her head turned in its new direction, the sudden question of whether or not the Slayer would be following it driving her to second-guess her course.

She didn’t have time to dwell on her decision. Acting on impulse, Willow’s feet veered from her path, aiming her in a straight line toward the vehicle. Either she would run into Buffy, or she’d be able to find out what happened to the car. Both results were of the good, especially if the car turned out just to be some teenagers looking for a cheap, but deadly thrill.

Something furry brushed against her ankle, and Willow squeaked as she stumbled into the grass. Her knee slammed against a hidden rock, and a bolt of pain shot down her calf. “Ow!” she cried out. Her fingers clutched at the grass as she waited out the pain, glancing down to see the small trickle of blood that was already dripping from the injury. “Great,” she muttered. “And here I thought college girls didn’t get skinned knees any more. Silly me.”

Struggling to her feet, Willow winced when she put her weight back onto her leg. No more running for her, she thought as she bent over to examine the wound. She’d be lucky if she made it to the dorm without begging Buffy to carry her.

She heard the growl too late, red hair whipping around just in time to see the Metallica t-shirt and torn blue jeans of the attacking vampire before it knocked her back to the grass. The scream was torn from her throat, reason disappearing as it was replaced by instinct. Clawing and scratching at her assailant, she fought in desperate fervor to free herself from his grasp.

His breath was rancid, and Willow grimaced as she saw what looked like skin caught between the vampire’s teeth. “You’re supposed to brush after every meal!” she said, twisting and turning to try and get away. “Just because you’re a demon doesn’t mean you have to give up on personal hygiene!”

Her knee was throbbing, but the pain was inconsequential next to the rising panic in her throat when she misgauged one of the vampire’s lunges and inadvertently bared her neck to his bite. “No!” she screamed when she felt the fangs break through her skin. Electricity surged through Willow’s veins, and in the next moment, the world went red.

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

She felt the heat first. Like individual pokers stabbing into her bare arms.

Then…came the blinding flash. The one that burned her retinas and made Buffy yelp as her sight abandoned her.

She stopped, long enough to squeeze her eyelids shut in a vain attempt to will her vision back. When they re-opened, though, crimson dots still danced wherever the Slayer looked, disorienting her too much to do more than stumble forward in the vague direction from which the flash had come.

Willow’s crumpled form was a blur, but as Buffy approached, the edges around her friend sharpened in blood-dark relief. The witch’s hand was pressed to her neck, her chest heaving as she fought to catch her breath, and the unmistakable aroma of vampire dust hung in the air.

“Willow!” she cried out. She crouched at her friend’s side, but hesitated to touch, the distinctive crackle of energy making the hair on Buffy’s arms stand on end. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Slowly, Willow lifted her head, revealing dust-smudged cheeks and scorch marks down the front of her top. “Vampire go poof,” she said faintly.

She wasn’t moving from her hunched position, so Buffy reached out and peeled the fingers away from her friend’s neck. Blood had dripped between the appendages, but as the hand fell limply to the ground, it exposed an expanse of smooth skin, unbroken by anything remotely teeth-shaped.

“Well, at least it didn’t bite you,” she said. Her eyes returned to Willow’s, unable to hide the confusion from her drawn brows. “But…where’d the blood come from?”

“I…I…” But she couldn’t speak, and before Buffy could stop her, she’d collapsed to the grass.

Scooping Willow into her arms, she paused to look around as she straightened. Vampire dust shadowed the ground, patches of the grass burned away, and when she looked back in the direction she’d come from, Buffy realized the vigilante military guys hadn’t bothered to follow. Or, if they had, they were well hidden by the night.

She didn’t have time to think about it. With Willow unconscious, Buffy had to get away from the cemetery before any more demons decided to show up and take advantage of the situation. She’d just have to come back in the morning and poke around to see what popped up.

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

Something startled her from a sound sleep, and Esme’s eyes shot open to stare up at the hotel room ceiling. Her body was vibrating, a wonted resonance that made her want to weep from its familiarity, but by the time consciousness had fully whet the edges of her awareness, it was gone, leaving her hollow and stricken and feeling more aged than she had since that damned seer had stolen her magic.

Tremulously, Esme pushed off the blankets and sat up, ignoring the way the room swam around her. It was just as well. Her body was still on British time, and though the digital clock on the nightstand burned a midnight hour into the darkened room, it felt like morning. There would be no more rest for her tonight. She would be a shell when the young Watcher came in the morning to fetch her to Sunnydale, but his communiqué had made it clear she wouldn’t be meeting with the young witch right away. Esme would have ample opportunity after her arrival at the Hellmouth to catch up on sleep.

The night was still, only the distant hum of Los Angeles traffic reaching into her room’s silence with thick fingers that teased and taunted. Nothing within the walls leant itself to waking her, and she couldn’t help but muse on what it was that could have stunned her so effectively from her slumber. If she didn’t know better, Esme would’ve asserted that it was magic sending frissons through her flesh, but no such power lingered in the air. It wasn’t within her, either. A small attempt to open the drapes produced nothing, and she was left with only questions and speculation.

Perhaps the Watcher will know, she thought as she reached for the television’s remote control, though she doubted he would offer anything more than a cocked eyebrow and a stern warning. She was not supposed to be utilizing magic of any sort, and if she were to let it slip that she might’ve been exposed to it beyond the realm of her aiding Willow, it was entirely possible that Quentin would insist on her return to England. That would not be good.

No, she would keep this to herself. If it was magic, it wouldn’t take Esme long to discern the cause; this was her world of expertise, after all. And if it wasn’t…

Esme sighed, not even aware of the black-and-white film she had inadvertently selected on the television. If it wasn’t magic, it was just one more indication that it was over. Perhaps this was her body’s way of telling her to give up, that it was fruitless at her age to hope to regain even a taste of the power that had been stolen from her. Perhaps it was just a bad dream, made sensory real by her lifetime pursuit of the Slayer power.

But then…perhaps it wasn’t.

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

It was past midnight, and Wesley knew he should be anywhere but still in Giles’ flat, but the prospect of returning to his empty hotel room left him empty and more than a little depressed, especially in light of the rather enjoyable day that had transpired. Though nothing had been planned and no specifics were discussed regarding Willow’s newfound powers, the trio had engaged in an afternoon of stories, filling in the gaps of the past few months while they became reacquainted for this new endeavor. After so many weeks with only himself for company, it was a relief to actually converse with those who held shared experiences, and not an anonymous someone he happened across in a bar.

Staring into the empty tumbler cradled between his hands, Wesley debated asking his host for another drink. Perhaps not the wisest choice for him to make, he reasoned. He was feeling more than a little drunk and he sincerely doubted the addition of more alcohol into his system would help ward off the thoughts he no longer seemed capable of preventing.

At the desk, Giles finished the telephone conversation he’d been conducting and returned the receiver to its cradle. “That was Buffy,” he said, returning to his seat in the chair opposite Wesley. “Something happened to Willow while they were on patrol.”

Wesley stiffened. “Is she all right?”

“She appears to be,” came the reply. Casually, Giles picked up his glass, swirling the whisky around inside and watching as the light played in the amber. “Buffy was rather vague on the details but she’s under the impression Willow set a vampire on fire and got caught in the aftershock.”

“Aftersh…she used magic?”

“That’s the portion she was unclear on. Willow fell asleep when they got back to their dorm so she wasn’t able to discern the entire story. We’ll have to speak with Willow about it in the morning.”

The news sobered Wesley even further. “She has no idea, does she?” he said, his voice low and meditative.

Giles needed no clarification; both men were thinking of only one young woman. “Of which?” Giles asked. “The extent of her own power, or the Council’s inevitable refusal to release her as an asset?”

“Both, really.” He was warm, too warm, and set aside his glass in order to push his shirt sleeves up even further. He had long ago shed his coat, but his clothing was still too restrictive, and he wished, not for the first time, that he’d never purchased the leather ensemble. “I’d forgotten how…eager Willow could be.”

“I would imagine that better serves your purposes.”

Lifting his head, Wesley met Giles’ cool gaze in the chair opposite. He had been exceedingly cordial, even accommodating, during the course of their conversations through the day, but the moment Giles had requested the younger man stay on after Willow’s departure, Wesley had known the gloves would be coming off.

“We’re not adversaries in this,” Wesley said. “We both want only what’s best for Willow.”

Snorting in disgust, Giles broke from his regard to drain the remainder of his whisky. “Just because the Council has deigned to place me back on its payroll,” he said, “does not mean I still wear blinders in regards to its less than sterling practices. I know they wish to recruit her as a resource. Travers made that abundantly clear when we were still in London.”

“That’s secondary to ensuring she can handle the power.”

“Well, of course it is. If she can’t handle it, she serves them no purpose. It doesn’t negate the fact that they want to exploit an innocent young woman.”

Wesley sighed. He couldn’t respond. It was the truth, and both of them knew it. Any protestations he might make would demean him even further in his senior’s eyes, and he too desperately needed Giles’ support in order to make this a success.

“How much do you know of what happened this summer?” Giles asked.

“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it? I’ve read all the Council’s reports, but we both know that certain details have a tendency to be excluded when it comes to Buffy and her escapades.”

“Do their reports include the fact that William the Bloody was pivotal in defeating April and Esme?”

“Of course. Lydia’s report was quite extensive in regards to his involvement, though I was unsure just how much credence I could allow it. She’s always been rather enamored with the romanticism of his tale, hasn’t she?”

“You can believe it,” Giles said. “He was there every step of the way.”

“Once Esme summoned him, you mean.”

“No, I mean he was involved from the very beginning. Though his role was a bit…passive at the start.”

Wesley’s eyes narrowed. “What are you trying to tell me?” he asked carefully.

It was a long moment of close scrutiny before Giles shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I will. Until you can convince me that you’re not completely Travers’ pawn and that Willow’s wellbeing is your topmost priority, I’ll leave it to Buffy’s discretion to fill you in on the details regarding Spike. I can warn you, though, that you should be prepared to contend with him firsthand. I know you’ve had some direct experience with vampires because of our arrangements last year with Angel, but I assure you, Spike is not Angel.”

“I wasn’t aware he was in Sunnydale.”

“He’s not. He’s in Barcelona with Lydia. Though it’s entirely possible they’re on a plane to Los Angeles, even as we speak.”

He gaped, incredulous. “With Lydia? What…why…how on earth do you know any of this?”

Rising from his chair, Giles crossed to the desk where the whisky bottle sat and poured out another shot. He downed it in a single swallow before replying.

“Who do you think asked her to keep an eye on Spike in the first place?”

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

He slept. Though Lydia had pulled the necessary strings to grant him some privacy in the hold without being treated as luggage, Spike was taking advantage of the soothing dark and the gentle vibrations of the airplane’s engines to get some well-deserved rest. She had offered to keep him company, her excuses regarding his need for special care due to his “skin allergy” garnering her extra favor with the staff for some inexplicable reason, but he had turned her down. She was the wrong blonde.

The only one he wanted occupying his thoughts at the moment was Buffy.

Her letter was folded carefully and tucked into his front pocket where he could pull it out whenever he wanted to look it over. Somewhere, deep inside his heart, there was a small part of Spike that had been convinced it was over. She isn’t writing for a reason, it whispered in the darkest corners of the night. She doesn’t want you. But her note disproved that, sent the doubt scattering like ash in the wind, and he was going to cling to Buffy’s simple request until his nails tore and bled and were no more.

It was a relief, almost. Like a window had been unexpectedly opened when he’d been convinced the last was shuttered against him. He wasn’t proud to be returning without the results of his quest, but in light of Lydia’s avowal regarding Baltozar’s movements, Spike believed it to be for the best.

Whatever Baltozar’s motives, Spike was prepared to protect Buffy from them, to follow Rose’s request and be at the Slayer’s side. He didn’t pretend to understand why, but there would be time enough for answers later.

So for now, he slept.

And while he rested, Spike dreamed of his life to come.

 

To be continued in Chapter 7: Doth Prepare the Cup