DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LVIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Giles has told Xander about Buffy and Spike, while Spike, in search of Wesley, has caught his first glimpse of Esme…

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

Chapter 21: The Imprison'd Absence of Your Liberty

He had to blink more than once to be sure it was her.

She seemed smaller than he remembered, more frail. Paper-thin skin revealed the blue veins beneath, but contrary to her otherwise brittle appearance, the heart he heard was strong and healthy. Even without her magic, Esme was a force to be reckoned with, though she might look otherwise. Perhaps because she might look otherwise.

She stood amidst a brilliant patch of sunlight that filtered in through the front window, a black hole sucking up the energy surrounding her. As Spike slid from his booth, the leather of his coat squeaked against the worn plastic, and she turned her head toward the sound.

She immediately smiled. And Spike’s skin crawled.

“Bitch,” he muttered, and launched forward without thought, knocking over the overweight trucker sitting at the end of the counter. He flew into the light, and then immediately jumped back when his hands caught on fire, leaving Esme chuckling under her breath, untouched.

“William,” she said with delight, and her voice was exactly as he remembered. From both times of his life. It was disconcerting, like having the same echo repeating at slightly different intervals inside his head. One where she’d offered a hand of friendship, the other where she’d promised him the return of his love. Of course, Spike had assumed that she’d meant Dru at the time, but then both bids had turned out to be based on falsehood. Both parts of him hated the bloody witch.

Then again, both parts of Spike owed her for bringing him Buffy. It was kind of hard to hate that.

He grabbed the towel from the hands of the waitress who’d frozen in mid-swipe of the counter, and wrapped them around the burns on his fingers. “That takeaway better be for the plane trip back to England,” he growled, glaring at the witch.

Her smile widened, and she took a deliberate step further into the sunshine that protected her from him. “You mean you’re not glad to see me?” she commented. “My feelings are hurt.”

“Do you need me to call the police?” the waitress asked Esme, her eyes darting nervously from her to Spike and back again.

“That won’t be necessary,” Esme said.

“Like I couldn’t bloody take the old bill, anyway,” Spike muttered with a roll of his eyes.

“William and I are old friends,” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken.

“Oh, yeah.” His voice was suddenly too loud. “We go way back. Could say I’ve known the bitch since before she was bloody born.”

The waitress looked disbelieving, but with Spike seemingly held at bay and Esme’s apparent lack of fear, she backed off, watching them warily. “Your sandwich will be up in just a few minutes,” she said.

He was left glaring at the old witch, the pain in his hands just starting to ebb. Leave it to her to hide in plain sight, he thought angrily. He could risk jumping into the sun after her, but he had no doubt he’d be in flames within seconds. “What the hell are you doin’ here?” he demanded instead.

“The same as you. Having lunch.” Her dark gaze flickered over the patrons who were still observing the encounter, even as they pretended to be returning to their meals. “Well, perhaps not the same. I wouldn’t think your Slayer would be very pleased to find out you were snacking on the local population.”

“My…” A sickening sense of dread began to seep into his gut. “Stay the hell away from Buffy,” he growled. “For that matter, stay away from Red, too. You’ve done enough damage.”

Her mirth vanished. “On the contrary,” she said, “I’ve been victimized just as surely as your love or her young friend. That seer raped me of my powers---.”

“Leave Rose out of this!”

“Don’t tell me you’re siding with her,” Esme chided. “She stole your memories from you, just as she stole my magic. You can’t possibly think that was a good thing, William. You were denied knowing of Buffy for how long? And all because she thought it best.”

In spite of the slight sting of truth in her words, Spike said, “Rose was a good woman.”

Esme shook her head. “Rose was a manipulator, who chose to toy with the lives of people who deserved better.”

“Like you didn’t mess about with me and Buffy. Nice try, but it doesn’t wash.” He paused, the extent of Esme’s statement finally sinking in, and his eyes narrowed. “You said ‘was.’ What makes you think she’s dead?”

“Considering she lived a century ago, I’d say it’s safe to say she isn’t currently tending her garden in the heart of London. She was powerful, not invincible.”

The response came smoothly, without pause. It was logical, something he would’ve expected anyone with half a brain to say, but somehow, Spike couldn’t help but feel that it was just a little too easy. His gut was telling him that she’d had that answer ready, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it, and if there was anything he’d learned over the years, it was to trust his first instinct.

“None of this is tellin’ me why you’d show your puss around Sunnydale,” Spike said carefully. He began circling the edge of the sunlight that streamed in through the window, grateful that the sun hadn’t moved enough yet to make the exit unreachable, and stopped just by the door. “And none of this is tellin’ me why I shouldn’t tear your throat out here and now.”

A few of the patrons visibly started at his threat, causing Esme to regard her surroundings and the fact that it would now be impossible for her to leave without passing right by him. “Perhaps we should discuss this in private,” she said.

“Don’t think so,” he said, and took a sprawling seat in the bench by the door. “Rather like doin’ this here. It’ll keep you honest, if that’s possible.”

With a sigh, she turned her back to him. “I don’t understand what your concern is, William. I’m just an old woman, trying to hold on to what little respect she can. Without my magic, I’m perfectly harmless.”

“We both know there’s nothin’ harmless about you---.” The door opening beside him interrupted Spike’s thought, and he glanced up to see Wesley come to a halt just inside the entrance, the Watcher’s eyes widening as they jumped from Spike to Esme and back again.

“Spike,” he said, and then coughed to clear his throat when the single word came out as a squeak. “Spike,” he repeated in a lower voice. “What are you doing here?”

It took only a moment to size up the situation.

“Oh, no,” Spike said, rising to his feet. He jabbed a finger back at Esme, who had turned to watch the exchange with amusement. “That’s who that prat Travers sent here to help Red? Have you all gone completely daft?”

“Spike, please, let’s not make a scene---.”

“Bit late for that. Did none of you think for a second how Buffy was goin’ to feel about this? Not to mention Red.”

“Willow already knows, and she’s accepted this as necessary.” Wesley’s hand curled around Spike’s elbow, but was thrown backwards against the glass when Spike shook him off. Straightening as if he’d never intended to stumble, Wes lifted his chin. “Might I suggest we go back to my room? We can speak a bit more freely there.”

“Like I told the bitch, I’m not goin’ anywhere. I’m not about to let her slip through my fingers again.”

“I assure you, Esme won’t be leaving Sunnydale any time soon. And without her powers, she poses no threat to you, or Buffy, or Willow. There’s really no need for any further retribution.”

“That’s because you weren’t the one on the other end of her magic wand,” Spike muttered.

“If you’d just come with me---.”

“Can’t. Tried that already.” He rolled his eyes at Wesley’s frown. “Was comin’ to see you, all right? But the sewers don’t get any closer to your hotel than right here, so thought I’d kill some time while I waited for the sun to move out of my way.”

“Why were you coming to see me?”

Spike pressed his lips together. He’d hoped to make this look a bit more autonomous. “Something Buffy said to me,” he finally managed.

Understanding relaxed the Watcher’s tight features, and he nodded as if he’d known that was the case all along. “We can still have that discussion, if you wish,” he said. He glanced around the half-full restaurant. “Perhaps over lunch?”

“I’m not lettin’ that bitch outta my sight.”

“Then Esme can join us.”

He didn’t like it, but with the Watcher now around, Spike knew his choices in dealing with Esme were limited. Anything he did would be reported back to Rupert, which meant that it would only take as long as it took him to pick up a phone before Buffy knew, too. He’d been able to get away with killing the vigilantes without too much undue recourse because her friends’ lives were at stake. If he were to take the same freedom with Esme, he wasn’t so sure he’d get the same reception, especially since in so many sets of eyes, the witch really was powerless.

“I’ve already ordered,” he said, stalking around the sunlight to head back to his table. He shot Esme a malicious glare as he passed by. “But there’s always room for what’s not on the menu if I find myself peckish.”

“Let me just make a quick call,” Wesley said behind him.

He turned around and caught the Watcher in mid-flip of his cell phone. “Make sure you tell Rupes I didn’t touch her,” Spike warned. He chuckled when Wesley paled at being found out so readily. “You can tell him, too, that I’m not makin’ any promises I won’t.”

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

The three sat in stiff silence while they ate, though Esme’s amusement at the entire situation was too noticeable to be missed. Wesley had lost his appetite long before his food had been served, though he picked at the dry sandwich anyway. Well, truth be told, he hadn’t had much of an appetite before he’d arrived, but seeing Spike so obviously livid at encountering Esme had driven the remainder of it away. It was the worst possible scenario he could’ve envisioned, but he’d talked the vampire down as best he could, relief flooding him when it became obvious Spike wouldn’t attempt anything violent just yet. Even Rupert had seemed impressed, though admittedly, the other Watcher had been extremely distracted by his own awkward situation. The fates were not with them that day, it would seem.

Though Wesley attempted more than once to start a conversation regarding Spike’s purpose in seeking him out, the vampire’s surly responses weren’t exactly conducive to such discourses, most of his comments barely disguised threats aimed directly for Esme. To her credit, she remained unruffled, and when Spike realized he wouldn’t get a rise out of her, he’d promptly lapsed into a sullen silence, leaving Wes wondering just what he thought he could’ve possibly accomplished.

When he saw the vehicle pull up outside the diner, it took all of Wesley’s control not to react to its presence. He cast a sly glance toward Spike and was glad that the vampire was focused on stabbing his untouched burger to a non-dusty death rather than the activity on the street. A reprieve just might be possible, after all.

He didn’t hear the door open, but before he could question why such a middle America establishment didn’t have the proverbial bell over their door, the soft shuffle of footsteps approached the table.

Spike’s head snapped up at the new arrival, and immediately, annoyance clouded his eyes. “Oh, bloody hell,” he muttered. He sprawled back against the seat, shaking his head in disgust as his eyes met Wesley’s. “Decide you needed to bring the boy in to talk me down? Is that it?”

Oz frowned. “I don’t know anything about talking you down,” he said. “Giles called Willow to see how she was doing and mentioned you were stuck. I’m just here to give you a ride if you want it.”

Spike tilted his head as he assessed this calm assertion, his gaze darting back and forth. “Right,” he drawled. “And this has nothin’ to do with me and the witch here.”

“Nope. You ready to go?”

Before Spike could get up, Wesley cleared his throat. “We’re not quite done eating here,” he said. “Perhaps you’d like to join us.”

The roll of the vampire’s eyes and the slight line between Oz’s told Wes he hadn’t been quite as nonchalant as he’d wished, but it didn’t stop Oz from sliding into the booth next to Spike. This wasn’t exactly the aid Wesley had requested from Rupert, but it appeared as if it would work out anyway.

“You eating that?” Oz asked Spike, pointing to the mangled burger.

“Help yourself,” came the reply, accompanied with a push of the plate.

“I don’t believe you’ve met Esme,” Wesley said. His voice was too loud, but he wasn’t sure how to stop that. “Esme, this is Oz, Willow’s…boyfriend. Oz, Esme.”

For a moment, he thought he’d gone too far. Though little actually changed in the young man’s demeanor, Wesley had been around Oz enough to finally be able to tell when he was perturbed. The whitening of his knuckles as he tightened his grip on the burger. The deepening of the line between his brows. In the end, he only gave the witch a curt nod and turned his attention to Spike.

“I owe you some thanks, man,” he said. “That makes two now.”

“Who’s counting?” Spike grinned. “Oh, right, I am.”

“Buffy said you needed to get some wheels.”

“Thinkin’ ‘bout it.”

“It might not be much, but Devon knows a guy who doesn’t ask a lot of questions. I could take you to talk to him, if you want.”

“Thanks, mate. When?”

“Something wrong with now?”

Wesley could only watch, dumbfounded, as the two men stood up and Oz handed over his keys to Spike.

“I’m parked around the side,” he said. “I’ll be right out.”

With one last venomous glance at Esme, Spike strolled to the door, hiking his coat over his head before making a dash out in the sunshine.

“I thought---,” Wesley started.

“Save it,” Oz interrupted. “You didn’t really think you’d get anything accomplished with her sitting right across from him, did you?” When Wesley flushed deep red, Oz sighed. “Giles wanted me to tell you to be at his place at six. Willow’s going to be there.”

Esme’s voice stopped him when he started to walk away. “I suppose I should thank you,” she said.

“Don’t.” Though he didn’t move, the brusque tone of his voice conveyed it all. “I’m not going to pretend to like you, but I’m not going to stand in your way, either. Willow needs all the help she can get, and Giles made it clear that nobody understands the magic better than you do.”

“I---.”

“But if you hurt Willow,” he continued, without even so much as blinking, “I’ll be standing right next to Spike when Buffy gives him the green light to come after you. I promise you that.”

Esme smiled, a cold, knowing rictus, and Wesley winced as she refused to let the matter lie. “The Slayer would never allow a vampire to hurt a human. Even if she does love him.”

“Don’t be so sure about that. Buffy’s world isn’t quite so black and white any more.”

The waitress approached the table as Oz left it behind, setting the check face down next to his tea cup. “Anything else?” she asked.

“I’d like---.”

“Do be quiet, Esme.” He was suddenly weary, tired of feeling ineffectual. Shaking his head at the waitress, Wesley sighed as he reached for his wallet to pay for the bill. He had much yet to learn for his stay here in Sunnydale, and it would seem that the two most likely to teach him were currently out car shopping. In the meantime, he would do everything in his power not to allow Esme to hurt Willow any further.

“Let’s go,” he said, his tone curt as he rose from the booth. “We have much to prepare before we see Rupert.”

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

He could hear two voices, both men, neither familiar. Their words were too muffled for Graham to discern, but he’d heard shouting at one point before they had fallen back into normal conversation, and wondered through his somnolent haze if they were arguing about him.

He’d been captured; the chains wrapped around his chest and the duct tape over his mouth were more than enough testimony to that. By whom, however, he had no clue. The last thing he remembered was the van going off the track, and hearing the werewolf get free from the hold before he blacked out. His head still ached from where it had hit the steering wheel, though he could see the bandages on his injuries beneath the chains.

So, he’d been captured, but tended before they’d bound him. That ruled out HST involvement. At least he didn’t have to worry about being turned now.

Torture was another matter. Especially if they didn’t let him take a piss some time soon.

Footsteps echoed in the hall, and Graham quickly closed his eyes again, feigning unconsciousness. The door opened, but the steps stopped.

“How long can one guy sleep?” It was the voice of someone young, male. Graham didn’t recognize it.

“He took a severe blow to the head. We should consider ourselves fortunate he’s still alive.” This one was British. That definitely ruled out any involvement with the Initiative.

“So, let’s wake him up. Wasn’t the whole point of having him here to find out why he and his boys want Oz?”

Oz. Graham knew that name. The werewolf. These were friends of his.

“Be patient, Xander.”

Silence. But they weren’t moving from the bathroom door.

“Maybe he’s in a coma.” Xander again.

“He’s not in a coma.” The British guy sounded like he was getting annoyed. Frankly, Graham thought he would too, if he had to put up with so many stupid questions.

“I just think it’s weird you haven’t heard a peep out of him. When I left last night, it looked like he was starting to come around. Did something happen?”

“Nothing…unusual.”

“So, maybe he’s faking it. It’s not like you’ve been vigilante-sitting around the clock, right?”

All right, so maybe Xander wasn’t so stupid.

Graham came to a quick decision. If he continued to pretend to be out of it, there was no telling what Xander and the British guy would do to try and wake him up. He didn’t think the Brit would do anything unusual, but in light of Xander’s persistent nagging, it was probably better to face the situation head-on.

It didn’t mean, however, that he had to cooperate.

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

Giles was just about to drag Xander back into the outer room when he saw the vigilante’s eyes flutter open. Carefully, he took a step closer to the tub, watching for any untoward signs, but when none came, leaned forward and pulled the tape from his mouth.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

Intelligent blue eyes bored into him, far more alert than they should’ve been if he’d only just awoken. Xander’s jocular assessment seemed to be correct, and Giles kicked himself for failing to pursue the interrogation sooner.

“I’ll take that as an, ‘I’m fine,’ then,” Giles continued.

“Release me.” The voice was low, terse, but something about the clipped tones seemed familiar to him.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. Not until you’ve answered some questions for us.” When the vigilante’s lips pressed into a thin line, Giles sighed. “We’re already aware of your identity, Mr. Miller. All we’re interested in is knowing why you and your partners are so interested in capturing demons instead of killing them.”

Still, no answer, and Graham turned his head so that he was staring at the tiled wall instead.

“Aw, c’mon,” Xander wheedled from the doorway. “Not even name, rank, and serial number? That’s what all good hostages are supposed to rattle off. You’re disappointing me here.”

For a moment, Giles thought he saw the chained man start. Before Giles could say anything, though, Xander’s hand curled around his upper arm.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he murmured.

Following Xander back into the hall, Giles closed the door behind him so that they wouldn’t be heard. “What is it?”

“I realize I’m just the dumb but lovable sidekick here…” His voice was surprisingly low, his attempt to keep from being overheard obvious. “…but I’d bet my last donut that that guy’s involved in some kind of military operation.”

“Anybody can wear camouflage---.”

“It’s not just the clothes. I was just kidding about the name, rank, and serial number schtick, but the guy jumped at it, like I’d caught him out on something. And did you hear him talk?”

“Xander, he’s said two words to us.”

“I’m telling you, I’m right about this. Go ahead and grill him all you want, but there’s no way you’re going to get him to tell you anything. He’s trained not to talk. We’re going to need bigger guns.”

Giles frowned, glancing back at the closed door. “That may very well be, but I’m not willing to resort to those without exhausting more conventional methods.” His mind made up, he began walking back to the kitchen, Xander close on his heels. “I’m going to put the kettle on. I imagine we’re going to have a very long day.”

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

When Havi arrived two hours later, Giles had yet to get anything more from Graham beyond a request to use the bathroom and a repeat of his desire to be released. It was frustrating, especially in light of what little they already knew, cutting his temper ever shorter by increasing degrees. It took everything he had not to slam the door in her face when he opened it.

“Now is not the best time,” he said to Havi.

Her gaze darted past him to see Xander hovering in the background. “Is it Willow?” she asked. Her obvious concern for someone she barely knew, should not even recognize, was unsettling. “Has she not recovered?”

“She was doing just fine when I spoke to her this morning,” he replied warily.

“What of your prisoner?”

His eyes narrowed as he contemplated how to answer her. He still didn’t understand what she was doing here, what this protectorate she talked about actually was. The desire to find out was most definitely there, but with so many other volatile events occurring around him, he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pursue it at the moment.

“Giles? Who’s this? How does she know about our No. 6 and Willow?”

Havi looked past him to Xander, answering before Giles could think of an appropriate response.

“You’re Willow’s friend,” she said. “You took her home last night.”

Xander frowned. “Yeah…” he said slowly. “And again, who are you?”

“My name is Havi. I’m---.”

“Just leaving,” Giles finished.

Her arm shot out to stop him from closing the door in her face. “We still need to talk, Mr. Giles. There’s much I have to tell you.”

“And as fascinating as I’m sure it is, I have more pressing matters at hand than studying the Guardians. I’m sorry.”

But her strength was greater than his, and her arm unyielding. The compliance Havi had demonstrated on her first visit was gone, replaced by a solemn determination that stared Giles down, her dark eyes without remorse for refusing him the right to shut her out.

“I’m the one who’s sorry, Mr. Giles. I can’t let you avoid this any longer. There’s too much at stake now, including the wellbeing of your Slayer and her friend. Do you think the events of last night were an accident? Willow’s power grows beyond her control. Measures must be taken---.”

“Wait. What do you know about Willow?” Xander elbowed his way past Giles to face Havi directly. “What kind of measures? Are we talking a little ruler, or one gigantic yardstick?”

“We’ve already arranged for Willow to start the process tonight,” Giles said. “She’ll be working directly with one of the Council’s most powerful witches. As for Buffy, her only worries are for Willow, and for her studies. She is doing perfectly fine.”

“Really?” Havi’s gaze never wavered, though a single brow lifted in curiosity. “And what of the child she carries? Even with William the Bloody at her side, the Slayer will need stronger allies than her friends and the father of her baby. The Slayer needs me.”

At his side, Giles felt Xander stiffen at mention of Buffy’s pregnancy, but it was the chill that settled in his own gut that caught his attention. It was impossible for this woman to know of Buffy’s circumstances, when Buffy herself had only learned the truth two days earlier. Havi even knew that Spike was the father. How could that be?

She had worked for Rose Rhodes-Fanshaw, who had proven her powers on more than one occasion. None of this could be a coincidence.

Slowly, Giles lowered his arm and stepped away from the door. “Come in,” he said stiffly. It was almost a smile that curved her lips as she crossed the threshold, and she nodded in gratitude when their eyes met. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all, Giles mused. But, only time would tell.

 

To be continued in Chapter 22: Yet We Must Not Be Foes