DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has spirited Buffy away to tell her about Esme, while Giles has learned that Havi is there to protect both Willow and Buffy from some unknown danger, and that the Guardians wish to recruit Willow…

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

Chapter 23: Blame Me Not

If she hadn’t seen the nearly-full box of donuts in the kitchen, Willow would’ve thought Xander was on a sugar high, what with all the fidgeting he kept doing. Giles had informed her that Xander now knew about Buffy and Spike and the baby, but still, in her eyes, that didn’t justify the constant fidgeting or the way he kept complaining about how they either had to do something about the vigilante guy, or Giles was going to have to get a second bathroom because the lack of privacy in the one he did have was just not good enough.

When she heard Wesley’s voice at the doorway, Willow was almost glad that she wasn’t going to have to hang around Xander any more. Whatever was agitating him, was starting to make her edgy, too, and the whole purpose for even being at Giles’ was to be non-edgy. Lately, Willow being edgy meant things went up in smoke, and it would be very much of the not good if the next thing to make her edgy was her best friend. Not good at all.

Before she could rise from the couch, icy fingers tickled down Willow’s spine, her bare arms erupting in gooseflesh. There was nobody behind her---almost everyone was still in the doorway---but the oppressive weight of something made her suddenly fearful of greeting the arrivals, the impulse to take flight stirred to rabid proportions. To where, she had no idea. Just…anywhere but here.

“Are you OK?” Xander was suddenly crouching in front of her, his warm gaze searching her face. “You look like you’re going to be sick.” A flash of panic made his outstretched hand jerk back, causing Willow to roll her eyes.

“No, Xander,” she said, annoyed. “I’m not pregnant, too.”

He let out a sigh of relief, and then caught himself, flushing an appropriate red. “Do you need me to get you anything?” he asked, desperate to cover up his jumped-to conclusion.

“No, I just…” Her voice trailed off. Esme had entered the room and now stood off to the side of the sofa, watching the display with barely disguised amusement. Swallowing down the fear that had glued her to her seat, Willow waggled her fingers at the witch in greeting. “Hi.”

“You look unwell,” Esme said. “Are you sure you’re up to starting this tonight?”

The question brought the Watchers into the conversation before she could reply. “Willow?” Giles asked, concern darkening his face.

“I’m fine,” she said. She waved everybody away. “Just…nervous.”

“To be expected.” Glancing around the apartment, Esme shook her head in disapproval. “This won’t do,” she said. “We’ll need privacy. She’ll never relax with an audience watching her every move.”

“What? You never said---.”

“You expected her to meditate while in the middle of a three-ring circus?” Esme shook her head. “You disappoint me, Mr. Giles. I’d thought you more perceptive than that.”

“This is your first meeting with her. If you thought you could---.”

“It’s OK, Giles.” Wobbily, Willow stood up, helped by Xander’s hand on her elbow. She felt better in a vertical position, but the fact that the feelings of panic grew stronger when Esme came closer weren’t lost on her. Something---the magic, it had to be---wasn’t thrilled about its old host’s presence, but something else told Willow not to voice that out loud. For whatever reason, she couldn’t let Esme know about the weakness.

“I suppose you could use my bedroom,” Giles said, gesturing toward the loft. “It’s not completely contained, but it will afford more privacy than…here.”

Esme nodded. “That will do.” She turned to Willow with a cold smile. “Shall we begin, then?”

“Okey dokey.” Wearing her best brave little toaster face, she trailed after the older woman, ignoring the pounding of her heart. She could do this. This was for her own good.

She just had to be strong.

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

It was taking every inch of whatever self-control Buffy possessed not to kick Giles’ door in. As it was, her hands were clenched so tightly at her sides that her nails were digging half-moon trenches into her palms, and her heels clicked against the sidewalk as she marched up to his apartment.

Be calm, be calm, she intoned silently. Don’t rip any heads off. Giles always complains about blood on the floor and that will definitely leave a mess.

Still, her knock was more violent than she intended, and Buffy winced as one of the carved panels higher up on the door cracked from the force.

Giles opened it almost immediately, but before he could say a word, she was brushing past him, eyes burning as they jumped around the apartment to survey the occupants.

“Where is she?” Buffy demanded through gritted teeth.

“I have no idea who---.”

“Don’t lie, Giles. Spike told me what was up.” She whirled on her heel to confront him, her voice rising. “I can’t believe you want that witch to fix Willow!”

“All right, first of all, Willow is not broken. Secondly, I’m certain that whatever Spike told you, you aren’t aware of the full extent of the situation at hand.”

“Is she here?”

“Yes, but---.”

“Then that’s all the extent I need to know.”

At the couch, Wesley looked panicked, and she caught the nervous glance he shot toward the stairs. It was Xander, though, who blocked her path to the loft, and she paused at the abashed shake of his head.

“I know you’re worried about her,” he said, “and I know you think that Esme is bad news, but you can’t go up there.”

It wasn’t the fact that he was trying to stop her that made Buffy frown. “You know about Esme?” she asked in confusion. “How?”

“Giles told me. So, yeah, I know what you did last summer.” He held up a warning finger. “That doesn’t mean you and I aren’t having a long talk about why exactly you thought you couldn’t tell me, but now’s not the time. Now, it’s about Willow. And she needs this, Buffy. She went up there of her own free will, even when Giles tried to keep a safety net for her.”

“Esme’s dangerous.”

“So’s Willow, or have we forgotten already about the Bonfire of the Vigilantes last night?”

Her hesitation wasn’t missed by either of the Watchers.

“Esme is certainly the most qualified to instruct Willow how to manage the magic,” Wesley said, coming around to stand at Xander’s side. “And should something go awry, Esme is fully aware that she will be shipped back to England without recompense.”

“I would never have agreed to this if I thought Esme posed a real threat any longer,” Giles added softly. “But the fact remains, she’s an elderly woman with no residual powers. Even if it came to a physical altercation, Willow would win.”

But Buffy wasn’t quite willing to give up. Ever since Spike had given her the news, all she could think about was getting back at the old witch. After all the turmoil she had caused, Buffy thought it was the least Esme deserved.

“I’m not leaving,” she announced. “I want my face to be the first she sees when they come back down. I have a few things I’d like to say to her.”

The or do to her remained unsaid, and Buffy let Xander guide her to the couch. She hadn’t expected to have guilt about him added into her baggage for the night, but at least she was being granted a reprieve from that particular conversation. Why deal with that stress today when she could deal with it tomorrow? It’s not like her plate wasn’t already full.

“I’m rather surprised Spike didn’t come with you,” Wesley said casually. “It was quite difficult to keep him from attacking Esme this afternoon when he discovered her presence here.”

The vampire’s name made Xander stiffen at her side. “Buffy’s still her own Slayer,” he said defensively. “She doesn’t need the bleached wonder glued to her side when he’s not wanted.”

She shrank slightly away from him. “Actually, he’s just outside,” she admitted. “He gave me a ride, but he didn’t want to get in the way.”

“Sounds more like he’s running scared.”

Buffy jumped up when Xander suddenly rose and started marching to the door. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“I just want to have a word with Spike,” he said. He ground to a halt when he reached the threshold, then turned back to grab a stake from the desk. “Just in case,” he said in explanation.

“He’s not going to hurt you, Xander. He promised.” She paused. “And I want the same from you.”

“That I won’t hurt myself? Sure. Never really been one about the pain,” he said with a grin.

“You know what I mean.”

His grin faded. She almost felt bad about asking but after what she’d walked into at her dorm, Buffy knew she didn’t have a choice.

“Yeah, OK,” Xander conceded. Very slowly, he set the stake back down, but his eyes never left hers. “But if you hear any screams, you’ll know we’ve moved beyond words into outright terror and come running, right?”

“Of course.” She gave him her bravest smile, hoping for one in return. All she got was a curt nod before he disappeared outside.

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

Dropping the cigarette butt to the gutter, Spike crushed the dying tip beneath the toe of his boot, already reaching into his pocket for another. Knowing who Buffy was confronting made him twitchy, and short of getting into the brawl himself, this was the best way for him to stay calm enough to let her do what she wanted.

He was taking a deep drag, his nose filled with the rich scent of tobacco, when the voice came from the direction of the complex.

“I’m starting to think the bleach is a good thing. It makes you glow in the dark. Anything that gives me the time to run away has to be a plus, right?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “What do you want, Harris?” he asked. “Fancy havin’ another go at staking me?”

“Nah, Buffy already made me surrender my weapon. Besides, I think she might get a little pissy if I killed her baby’s father.”

He said it so casually that it was impossible not to know he meant to took Spike by surprise with the knowledge. Good thing Spike had a century of knowing when to expect the unexpected.

“Told you, did she?” he said instead.

“Nope. Giles did.”

Spike’s brow lifted. Well. He hadn’t seen that one coming.

“He told me a lot of things,” Xander continued, stepping closer to where Spike leaned up against the hood of the car. “Like what really went down this summer, and why it is Buffy all of a sudden thinks you’re the second coming, and…is that a Thunderbird?”

Pride swelled inside Spike’s chest. “It’s my bird,” he announced.

“Fifty-nine?”

“Sixty, actually.”

Xander nodded as he began to circle the car. “She needs a paint job. How’s the engine?”

“Solid.” Spike cocked his head, watching the inspection in bemusement. “Didn’t take you as the sort to be interested in this sort of thing.”

“Never used to be. But Buffy and Willow weren’t the only ones around here who had a summer of adventure.” He turned a speculative eye back to Spike. “So who’d you have to kill to get this? More importantly, does Buffy know that you’re killing just for cars these days?”

He straightened, bristling at the accusation. “She’s mine, all square. And as for Buffy---.”

“Save it,” he said, cutting him off with a wave of his hand. “I’m not the one wearing Spike-colored glasses. I know you couldn’t have afforded this. It’s a classic.”

“Well, I got myself a deal. Bloke let her go for a song.”

“Really? What’s wrong with her?”

The two men stared at each other for a long moment, both determined. Finally, Spike let out a sigh, tossing aside his cigarette.

“You have to promise not to tell Buffy,” he said, pulling the keys from his duster pocket and going around to the back of the car.

A grin split Xander’s features. “This sounds promisingly like blackmail material,” he gloated as he moved to join Spike. “I think I like it.”

“Got your word?”

“Sure, just tell me---.” He jumped away from the car when the trunk opened before him, his hand clamping over his nose. “God, what died in there?”

“More like what didn’t,” Spike said, looking ruefully down at the expanse. “Used to be owned by some shark who used it to move around the bodies of the gits who didn’t pay up when their time came ‘round.”

“Shut it, shut it.” Waiting until the trunk was closed again, Xander began gulping at the clean air. “How in hell did Buffy not notice that?”

“There’s a dampening spell around it. The bloke I bought it from put it on, hoping to find some idiot willing to buy it without popping the boot.”

“And he got you. Figures.”

Spike leaned against the car and stuffed his hands deep into his duster pockets. “Just part of the work I’ve got to do on her,” he said defiantly. “I can get rid of it before Buffy’s ever the wiser.”

Xander wrinkled his nose at the obvious possession in the vampire’s voice. “Which brings us back to why I’m out here in the first place,” he said.

“What? You didn’t come ‘cause you missed my sparkling personality?” He clicked his tongue in mock reproof. “I am shocked and dismayed, I tell you.”

Stepping forward, Xander poked a finger into Spike’s chest. “I know what you’re doing, so don’t think you’re getting away with this. It’s not going to happen.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“Buffy loving you. OK, so maybe she did fall for William, but newsflash, Spike. You’re not him. You don’t have a soul. It doesn’t matter who the father of that baby is, you are never going to be the guy who gave it to her and you are never going to be a real part of its life, understand?”

Spike moved before Xander could react, reversing their positions so that he could pin the young man to the car. “I’m only goin’ to say this once,” he hissed. He loosened his grip on Xander’s wrist when he felt one of the bones start to give; the last thing he needed was to give the prat ammo to use against him. “That baby is mine, just as much as it’s Buffy’s. She knows that, and you know what? She’s fine with it. Even more, she knows that I’m goin’ to stick by her and the little one until the day I dust, so if you’ve got a problem with it, I suggest you either learn to keep that gob of yours shut or start accepting that Buffy’s a grown woman who knows what she wants.”

“You can’t seriously think that’s you,” Xander spat.

“No reason it can’t be.”

“Oh, yes, there is. It’s called a soul. She couldn’t be with Angel without one, so do you really think you can do better than that?”

Shoving Xander quickly against the car before letting him go, Spike took a step away, shoving his fists deep into his pockets to keep from using them on the boy’s face. “You have no bloody idea what you’re talking about,” he said, his voice tight. “You weren’t there, Harris. What happened between me and Buffy---.”

William and Buffy. Big difference.”

“Not really, you nit. You’re just too soddin’ stupid to realize it. But my point is that not one of the lot of you has the right to start judging Buffy. She’s saved your pathetic lives how many times now? And you repay her by making her miserable. That’s bloody terrific.”

“We don’t make her miserable. We’re her friends. We just don’t want her to make another huge mistake.”

Spike shook his head. “Buffy’s a helluva lot smarter than any of you give her credit for,” he said. “All you see is the Slayer---.”

“Like that’s not all you see, Spike. Another kill for the record books.”

“Not so. Not any more.”

“Why? Because she’s pregnant?”

“No. Because I love her.”

Spike was expecting a flip rejoinder, some glib comment about how he wasn’t capable of any kind of real emotion, but for a second, Xander looked unsure. Brown eyes squinted in confusion, scanning the vampire as if seeing him for the first time. It was actually more unsettling than dealing with Harris on a normal basis.

“Last time I heard, you loved Drusilla,” Xander commented.

“Things change, mate.”

“Not you.”

“Really? So, that wasn’t me who saved your friends’ skins the past couple nights?” Spike shook his head. “Bloody pathetic. You bang on about helping Buffy, but you’re too daft to see what’s right under your nose.”

“What’s under my nose is a vampire who doesn’t know when to get out while the going’s still good.” Xander’s voice was tight, though not quite as vehement as before. “Why do I think buying the Thunderbird wasn’t so that you’d have to walk it when you skip town?”

Spike’s eyes narrowed. “Need wheels to get around, don’t I?” he said warily. “And Buffy doesn’t drive. She’s goin’ to start having appointments with the doc soon enough. Bein’ her friend…” he practically sneered the word, “…I’d’ve thought you’d be all for anything that makes life a bit easier for her.”

“I am. I do.” He took a deep breath, and his gaze fell, the next said so quickly that Spike almost missed it. “That’s why I’m not going to be the one rocking the boat for her.”

“Well, that’s right big of you.”

“That doesn’t mean I won’t be watching you, though. And I don’t care how many promises I make to Buffy, if I find out that you’ve hurt her in any way---.”

“Save it. You’ll have to stand in line.” Bored with the conversation, Spike glanced up at the apartment complex. “I’m guessing by the lack of bloodcurdling screams that ol’ Rupert’s talked Buffy down. Shame, that.”

“She was talked down before I came out,” Xander said. “Stop changing the---.”

“So what’s she still doin’ in there?”

“Waiting for Willow and Esme to get done. She said she wanted to talk to the old lady. Look, Spike---.”

He tilted his head. “Why exactly are you still blathering, Harris?” he commented. “Got the picture already. I’m an evil, soulless creature, unworthy of even bein’ in the Slayer’s presence, and if I hurt her, you’ll stake my sorry ass. That about sum it up?”

Xander looked nonplussed. “Well, yeah.”

“Fine. Now, sod off. I’m in the middle of a right pleasant nicotine fix, and you’re spoiling the effect.”

He had another cigarette lit and was standing in front of the new grille he’d spent most of his dosh on when he realized Xander hadn’t actually gone back up to the apartment. Instead, the young man was loitering on the walk, his gaze jumping from Spike to various parts of the car.

“What?” Spike asked, annoyed.

Xander shrugged. “Just wondering what kind of work you’re going to be doing on her,” he said.

“Why? You fancy offering a hand?”

“I might even offer two if you’d let me take it for a ride once or twice.”

“Ha. Not bloody likely. Not with my baby.”

“I just thought you might want some help from someone who’s actually worked on T-birds before.”

That made Spike look up. “You’re kidding me.”

“Nope. Well, it was only one T-bird, and I probably did more ogling than actual working because Marco was kind of anal about who touched his car.” He grinned. “Kind of like you, it looks like.”

“Who the hell is Marco?”

“Just some guy I worked with this summer at the str---.” He stopped, his face suddenly turning red. “Long story and I’m not going to share it. My point is, I can help, if you want.”

From threatening his unlife to offering a hand in fixing up his car. The boy had more personalities than brains, it looked like.

Spike was about to demand what the fuck was going on, when a new idea struck him.

Buffy would love this idea. She wanted everyone to get along, wanted everyone to play nice. With so much else already in flux, she was counting on the people she trusted most around her to help make that as easy as possible. It was likely Xander was counting on Spike telling him to go to hell, and then turning around to gloat to Buffy that he’d at least tried, and come out looking like the better man.

Couldn’t have that.

“Think we can work something out,” Spike said. He grinned when he saw the surprise in the other man’s face. Oh, yeah. Buffy was definitely going to love this.

Playing nice was just the first step in getting her to finally admit out loud that she loved him, too.

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

The first step had been surprisingly simple. Young Willow was so eager for any kind of direction, she’d accepted Esme’s instructions without argument, tracing the circle that surrounded them and even uttering the small protection spell so that they couldn’t be interrupted now. She’d had no clue the extent they were now cut off from the others; otherwise, she would never have slipped into the meditation as easily as she had. Now, Willow sat opposite Esme in the circle, her breathing slow and even, eyes closed.

Oblivious.

Considering her more insidious fantasies over the past two months, what Esme had planned was reasonably harmless. She just wanted to get a drop of Willow’s blood to analyze. If she could determine how it was the seer had done the transfer---a detail even Quentin had been rabid about protecting---perhaps she could discover the way to undo it. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find someone on the Hellmouth willing to make a trade to aid her in her quest.

Carefully, Esme pulled her trousers leg up to expose the safety pin she’d attached to her stocking. She hadn’t known how paranoid the Watchers would be, whether they’d go so far as to search her for dangerous weapons before allowing her to work with Willow. Since her requirements were so few, the safety pin had seemed like the most innocuous tool she could use; it was the primary reason she had insisted upon such privacy.

Without moving any more than necessary, Esme reached across the circle to grasp Willow’s hand lightly in hers. The girl was deep within the meditation, easily led, but it was always wise to be cautious. Her skin was pale, peppered with the occasional freckle, and it amazed Esme that such a vessel was coping as well as it was with the powers within its frame. The strength of youth, she decided as turned Willow’s palm upward.

She jabbed the point of the pin into the fleshy part beneath the thumb, and immediately, a drop of crimson swelled to the surface. A jolt of electricity jumped between them, and Esme gasped, just as Willow’s eyes shot open.

“Ow!” she cried out, yanking her hand away.

But Esme was unheeding of the alarm in the girl’s voice. Her dark gaze was fixated on her gnarled hand, watching her fingertips glow from an inner power, the startled seeping of magic---cool, glorious, intoxicating magic---already beginning to permeate deeper.

“What did you do?” Willow demanded. Her voice had risen, but when Esme didn’t respond, the pinpricked hand darted forth and wrapped around the frail wrist.

The pain was excruciating. All Esme could do was scream.

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

They’d heard Willow cry out, but it was the death rattle of Esme’s voice almost immediately following that compelled them to dash up the stairs, Buffy in the lead. The sight that greeted them made them only hesitate for a second before the Slayer took charge. Or tried to.

Within a circle of flickering candles, Willow and Esme sat opposite each other, the younger woman cross-legged, the older awkwardly situated on a pillow. Willow held Esme’s hand in hers, but when Buffy rushed forward to try and separate the two, she ended up bouncing off an unseen barrier.

“It’s a protection spell,” Wesley said before she could ask. He watched the display with rapt attention. “To safeguard them during the meditations.”

“Yeah, well, it’s keeping me from breaking this up!” She waved a frustrated hand at the pair. “Get rid of it!”

The sound of the front door slamming echoed from downstairs, and Spike and Xander burst into the loft, skidding to a halt when they saw everyone else just watching helplessly.

“What’s going on?” Xander asked, breathless.

“She cut me.”

All heads whipped around to stare at Willow, who still focused on the elderly witch opposite her. Buffy took a tentative step closer.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

Slowly, Willow let Esme go, and lifted her hand to see the small droplets of blood smeared on her palm. There was a moment of dead silence, and then she pursed her lips, blowing a directed stream of air onto the injured area.

Buffy’s eyes widened as the blood disappeared, leaving behind a stretch of unbroken skin, as if the wound had never happened. The instant the blood was gone, Esme fell backward, knocking over several of the candles and collapsing half out of the circle.

Everyone surged forward. The Watchers gathered an unconscious Esme and stretched her out on the bed, while Buffy and Xander hovered around a suddenly shaky Willow.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she kept saying, but let her friends guide her from the room anyway. Spike trailed after them, staying in the background as they led her to the couch.

Buffy took Willow’s hand in hers, looking over the smooth skin before letting it go. “I guess you can handle yourself around her after all,” she commented.

“I guess,” Willow echoed faintly.

“Neat little trick you’ve got there,” Spike said. “Could prove handy in a fight, I’d reckon.”

She shook her head. “I’m…I don’t know how I did it. I was…meditating, and so relaxed. More relaxed than I’ve been since all this started, I think. And then…” Glancing down at her palm, she brushed over the pad with a trembling finger. “…she cut me.”

“Pricked you, actually,” Giles interrupted from the stairs. He held up a safety pin as he approached. “Hardly lethal, but enough to draw blood.”

“Why?”

“We won’t know until she wakes up. She seems to be unconscious from whatever it was you did to her.”

Wildly, Willow’s eyes jumped to the faces of the people surrounding her. “I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I just…”

Buffy slipped her arm around her friend’s shoulder. “It’s OK,” she soothed. “Whatever it was, it’s going to be OK.”

“And hey, no flashfires this time,” Xander joked. “That’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?”

Nobody laughed. “I think…I think I need to go home,” Willow said.

Buffy glanced up at Spike, who nodded almost immediately. “We’ll take you,” she said. She helped Willow stand, and together, they followed Spike’s long stride to the door.

“I want you to call me in the morning,” Giles said. “When you’re up to discussing what exactly happened.”

Giving him the assurance they would, the girls slipped into the darkness. Nobody knew quite what to say, and thus stayed silent all the way to the car. It wasn’t until the car had pulled away from the curb that Buffy even remembered the other reason she’d wanted to see Giles that night, but now, in light of what was going on with Willow, vigilante groups clearing the demon population almost seemed insignificant.

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

He heard the scream, muffled through the closed bathroom door. Though he didn’t think they’d honestly forgotten about him, Graham instinctively realized that he was no longer the top priority for whoever it was that had captured him, especially when the minutes dragged by and nobody poked their nose in to try and start up with the questions again. He wasn’t so sure whether that was a good thing or not, though considering the low-tech aspect of the kidnapping, he was inclined to think it didn’t matter one way or another. These were just a bunch of amateurs, with problems of their own to sort out. Once they got tired of his non-answers, they would let him go.

The one thing that did worry him was what would happen once he returned to the Initiative. If they suspected he’d breached security, he knew there would be no hesitation about punishment. He’d probably be shipped off on some dangerous mission where everyone was expected to die, and while he certainly believed in the good of what the Initiative was doing, he didn’t particularly have any sort of death wish he wanted to see fulfilled.

Closing his eyes, Graham listened to the muted voices from the outer rooms, wondering just how many people were out there now. The girl he’d heard shouting earlier was either no longer speaking or gone; his money was on gone because she’d been fairly vocal up to that point. As for the others, it was hard to tell, but one by one, they drifted away, leaving the apartment in silence.

The opening of the door startled him, and the chains scraped against the tub as Graham looked up to see the British guy hovering in the entrance.

“I suspect you’re probably hungry,” he said. His voice was weary, sparking even more curiosity in Graham’s thoughts about what had actually transpired. “Would you like some soup?”

After only a moment’s hesitation, Graham nodded, watching as the man left again. He didn’t have any fear that it was going to be poisoned, not with this crowd, and he needed to keep his strength up. He would find a way to escape; he would just have to bide his time for the perfect opportunity.

Which wouldn’t be tonight, unfortunately.

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: The Voice of Souls