DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXIX.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Xander and Spike have come to an uneasy truce, and Esme has tried to get some of Willow’s blood to analyze, only to be stopped by Willow herself…

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

Chapter 24: The Voice of Souls

Spike watched Red in his rearview mirror as surreptitiously as he could, wary of any more of her flambé outbursts. He didn’t really expect something to happen, but considering how unpredictable her magic had been and the fact that she was sitting in the back seat of his new car, he thought it best to be on the lookout, just in case. Good thing he didn’t have a reflection for her to cotton on to.

Didn’t stop Buffy from noticing, however.

He scowled when a particularly vicious jab in his thigh came from the passenger seat. “Quit it,” Buffy mouthed when he glanced in her direction.

“It’s OK,” Willow said from the back seat. The creak of leather preceded her elfin chin appearing on the back of the seat between them. “I get that I’m making Spike nervous. I would be, too, if I was extra-flammable and had a burning match in my new old car.”

“Not nervous,” Spike protested.

“And you’re not burning,” Buffy said.

“Not now,” Willow pouted, and then bitterly added, “But who knows? Piss me off and you, too, could have the sunburn from hell.”

“Way I see it,” Spike said, doing his best to appear nonchalant and not glance in the mirror again, “if someone’s daft enough to brass off a powerful witch, they deserve whatever it is you dish out to them.”

“But that’s just it.” She was leaning further across the seat, her rising mood bringing twin spots of color to her cheeks. “I’m not a powerful witch. I’m a loose cannon, and things keep going kerplooie on me whether I want them to or not.”

“So we just have to get Wesley and Giles to tighten you up,” Buffy said with false perkiness. It took a moment of both Spike and Willow staring at her in disbelief for her eyes to widen. “And I so didn’t mean that to sound as kinky as it did.”

“I need a drink,” Willow muttered.

Reaching across Buffy’s lap, Spike flipped open the glovebox and extracted his flask. “Only got a drop,” he said, holding it up for Willow to take. “But you’re welcome to it.”

Her nose wrinkled. “I was thinking more Slurpee-flavored, but thanks anyway.”

“Stop at the 7-Eleven,” Buffy instructed. “I’ll run in and get something.”

They rode in silence for the few blocks to the store, and Spike left the motor idling as Buffy hopped out to get the drinks. He was about to turn on the radio and start looking for some decent music, when Willow slid forward again to peek over his shoulder.

“Is Buffy OK?” she asked.

He twisted in his seat so he could look at her without craning his neck. “What’re you fussing about her for?”

She glanced quickly through the windshield to make sure there was no sign of the Slayer. “She was out of it before she got your note today,” Willow explained. “I think it’s just pregnancy stuff, but…I worry. She’s my best friend, and she’s not really talking to me right now.”

He heard what she wasn’t willing to say out loud. “It’s got nothin’ to do with you,” Spike assured, softening his voice to convey his sincerity. “Buffy’s just…preoccupied with everything, and yeah, she’s worried about you and the mojo, but her closing herself off is just classic Summers conditioning. You know that.”

“I know. Doesn’t mean I like it.”

“Just give her a couple days. Between the baby and this vigilante business, she’s got her head pretty full. Not to mention what hearin’ the old witch was in town did to her.”

“Plus, you.” It came out without thought, and Willow colored when he cocked an eyebrow in question. “You know what I mean,” she stammered. “All those love letters, and then showing up weeks later than when you said you would? And she can’t even try to justify it like she did with Angel. Not without the soul, though to be honest, I was kind of surprised she brought the whole issue up in the first place.”

It was the second time someone had brought up the issue of his lack of soul, but where Spike had been quick to scoff at Harris’ casual bandying about of the deficiency, hearing that Buffy had voiced something similar---and not to him---made him run cold.

The shock must have shown in his face, because Willow’s eyes turned into saucers, and she jumped to try and correct what she’d volunteered.

“It was just intellectual speculation,” she said quickly. “Of the, ‘did I think you’d be different’ variety.” She made a chopping motion with her hand. “But I put a stop to that kind of thinking right then and there. I told Buffy it wouldn’t do what she wanted, even if I could somehow figure out how to put your soul back---.”

“She asked you to do that?”

He knew he sounded like a wounded puppy, but it had never occurred to Spike that Buffy would try to make him over into Angel, and he couldn’t stop the pain from leaking through into his voice.

“No! That’s what I’m saying. It was just speculation. Definitely. And she hasn’t mentioned it since, so she’s probably even forgotten that she ever brought it up which means you should forget I ever said anything about it, too. Please?”

His hand passed wearily over his face. “Forget it. Right. ‘Cause that’s not a bloody elephant you’ve just set loose.”

Willow looked stricken, knuckles white from where she gripped the seat, and her eyes darted from side to side as she searched for her next words. “I know I haven’t had the chance to really talk to you about everything that happened this summer,” she began again, “but I told Buffy this, and now I’m going to tell you. I think you being around is a good thing for her.” He looked up at that, searching her open features for any sign of duplicity. “I mean it, Spike. I know how much you love her, and this summer, when Buffy was dreaming of Will---of you, that was the happiest I’ve seen her in a long time. Sure, things kind of went wonky after that business with Esme and April, but I think you just need to give Buffy time. She’ll come around. As long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

He snorted at that last, and turned away, staring through the windshield to watch his Slayer emerge from the shop. Backlit from the bright fluorescents inside, she almost seemed to pulse with life as she sipped at one of the two drinks she carried, and shot him a quick smile when their eyes met. It made him ache. Was he really what she wanted? Was he just deluding himself into believing that he could actually have a real place in her and the baby’s lives?

She was still smiling when she slid back into the car, passing one of the drinks over the seat to Willow. “I got you blue flavor,” Buffy said brightly. She nestled her own drink in between her legs and pulled out a small plastic bag from her purse. “And since they don’t exactly have blood on tap here,” she said to Spike, “I got this for you instead.”

He took the bag with a frown, but his brows shot upward as soon as he pulled out the tiny candy dispenser.

“It’s a vampire Pez,” Buffy explained. She reached and pointed to the top. “And see? He’s even got little fangs. Can’t give you a blood fix, but no reason I can’t cater to that sweet, non-bitey tooth of yours.”

“Thanks,” Spike said slowly. He wasn’t entirely certain what to make of the gift, especially when Willow started babbling excitedly in his ear.

“Aren’t these adorable?” she said. “Oz and I have a whole collection. They’re so cute, I can’t stop buying them for him. But, you know, werewolves and witches, and that kind of thing.”

Buffy flushed when she caught Spike’s amused glance. “I never said it was an original idea,” she said.

Grabbing her hand before she could pull away, he lifted it to his mouth and pressed a kiss to the palm. “All that matters is that you thought of me,” he said with more conviction than he felt. He was rewarded with the quickening of her heart, the slight rise in her body temperature, and set aside the doubt that Red’s words had instilled him.

For the time being, at least.

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

Baltozar was waiting for Havi when she finally returned to their apartment, pacing the floor in the tiny living room like a caged animal. He turned on her the moment the front door opened, striding forward to yank her inside and then pinning her violently to the wall.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he growled.

His forearm was pressed against her windpipe, and, frantically, her hands came up to claw at the corded muscles. “Let me go,” she hissed. She was strong, but he was stronger, and when his hold only tightened, Havi did the only thing she could under the circumstances.

Her knee jerked up, finding its target with painful accuracy. Immediately, Baltozar let her go, staggering back as he grabbed his crotch, gasping just as desperately as she was.

“What the hell’s got into you?” Havi shouted. She put the couch between them, unwilling to have to hurt him again but not keen to be at his mercy, either. “I told you I would be out late.”

“Late’s one thing,” he snarled. “All the time’s another. I want you to tell me what the fuck’s going on. What’s so goddamn hush hush about you being on the Hellmouth?”

When he began circling the furniture separating them, she countered his approach, all the while keeping her eyes trained for another attack. “You know what I am,” she said carefully.

“I know what you were. The seer’s dead, Havi. You’re not a part of that life any more.”

“Rose’s death changes nothing.” Somewhere, in the back of her head, she’d always known this confrontation would come. That Baltozar would push the envelope about her purpose in Sunnydale. And while Havi had her own suspicions about the extent of his involvement with the forces Rose had warned her about, she’d always hoped that his love for her would make him turn his back on it. There was a part of him that was good, deep inside, but often, she felt that she was the only one who could see it.

“Are you crazy? It changes everything. You’re a Protector with nothing to protect. If that doesn’t---.”

She must’ve betrayed something in her face, or else Baltozar made the connection more quickly than she would’ve ever imagined. He cut himself off, eyes narrowing in sly scrutiny, and stopped his prowling, regarding her in a growing silence that sent shivers across her skin.

“Who is it?” he asked suddenly.

“Who’s what?” she shot back.

She stood frozen as he took a step closer to her. The outward menace was gone, but in its place remained an eerie stillness that was almost more frightening.

“I know you’re up to something,” he said, his voice like rough silk. “I saw the scratches. And you know, I couldn’t help but wonder what you’d done to get them. In the middle of the night? Those don’t come from a normal workout.”

Her heart was hammering inside her chest when he advanced even more. Only Baltozar could mesmerize her like this, and while the danger of it was often exhilarating, there were other times when it made her wish she didn’t love him quite as much as she did.

“I always knew you were too eager to come with me,” he continued. He was within arms’ reach now, and stretched a hand to cup around the back of her neck, drawing her to him. “You wouldn’t just follow me because I asked you to. You came to the Hellmouth because you had to.”

“I came because you asked me to,” she managed to say. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already.”

His thumb was making small circles in the hollow below her ear, but it didn’t feel tender. It felt dangerous. Like he was preparing to squeeze. Havi stiffened.

“Why do you lie to me?” Baltozar murmured. “You know I love you, you know I’d do anything for you. Why can’t you tell me this one thing?”

“Because…” This close, she could smell the alcohol on his breath, suspected just what had been the impetus for his mood change. She whimpered when his mouth pressed into the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and then summoned all her strength to flatten her palms against his chest and push.

Baltozar stumbled backward, taken by surprise at her show of power, but when he moved toward her again, Havi was swift to reposition the couch between them.

“If you can’t trust me,” she said, “how do you expect me to trust you?”

“Because I love you.”

“Is that enough?”

He cocked his head. “It was before tonight.”

“Remarkable how that coincides with you attacking me so tonight, then, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t---.”

“Why are you doing this?” Havi demanded. His face was growing increasingly mottled, the efforts to contain his temper beginning to falter. “I was out, and now I’m home. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” Baltozar said through clenched teeth.

She skittered away to avoid his sudden lunge, ending right next to the still-open front door. “And here I thought helping you kill Rose would’ve proved my loyalty,” she whispered. “You know how hard that was for me. Thank you for making it meaningless.”

With that, she whirled and dashed out the door, disappearing into the darkness.

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

It took Buffy a few minutes of riding in stiff silence to realize something must’ve happened while she was in the store. Willow had gone from gabble girl to Marcel Marceau, curling into the corner of the backseat and staring out the window. Spike, on the other hand, couldn’t stop fidgeting while he was driving, changing the radio station every other second, playing with his rearview mirror, even pulling out the little Pez dispenser that had caught her eye and downing all its candy in one single gulp, like an addict popping his pills.

She wasn’t going to ask about it, though. Too much other stuff had gone on that night for her to be adding to the chaos inside her head; she wasn’t about to voluntarily add to it if she didn’t have to.

When they pulled up in front of the dorm, Willow surprised Buffy with a thin hand on her shoulder.

“If it’s not a big deal,” Willow said, her eyes darting from Buffy to Spike, and then back to Buffy again, “I’d kind of like a little bit of time alone. Just to…decompress.”

She didn’t like the idea of leaving Willow alone. “Are you sure?”

Willow nodded. “It’ll give you some alone time with Spike,” she said with a smile. Another glance, even more noticeable this time, and Buffy was convinced that something big really had been said between the two. “And…maybe you could go check on Oz? Not that I think anything will happen tonight, but…better to be safe than sorry.”

As much as she hated the idea of abandoning her best friend, Buffy had to agree on the goodness of ensuring Oz’s wellbeing, and gave Willow a quick hug before watching her head up the dorm walk. “You heard the girl,” she said when she slid back into the car. “Upward and Ozward.”

She waited until he’d pulled back onto the main street. “So,” Buffy said brightly, half-turning to face Spike, “feel like playing twenty questions? I’ll go first. What secret are you and Willow not sharing?”

He frowned as he glanced over at her. “Me and Red? You’re kidding, right? There’s no secret, luv. Girl’s just a bit rattled. Not that I can blame her.”

“OK, let’s try this again. How about…what were you and Willow talking about when I was getting the Slurpees?”

This time, she noticed the way his fingers tightened around the steering wheel before he answered, and knew she’d struck a nerve. “Red’s just worried about you, is all,” Spike said. “She wanted to know if I thought you were all right.”

The words came easily to him, flowing with either the ease of truth or the practice of a century of lying. Buffy’s gut told her that it was more of the former. “So, why does she want us to have some alone time?” she pressed.

“Maybe because it’s only a matter of time before the little one’s goin’ to make that a precious commodity.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. And it made sense for Willow to. For whatever reason, Willow had become head cheerleader of the Support Spike squad, and worry about Buffy’s pregnancy was a prime example of how she would want to ignore her own issues.

They were both quiet for a couple blocks as they lapsed into their own thoughts. As they approached the corner to turn left toward Oz’s hideaway, Spike suddenly swerved the steering wheel in the opposite direction, pulling them into the empty parking lot of the public library and killing the engine.

“What’re you doing?” Buffy asked with a tiny frown.

He didn’t answer, just opened his door and got out of the car. After a moment of watching him pace through the window, Buffy got out, too.

“What’s your problem?” she demanded, coming around the front of the car. She took a defensive stance by his door, barring his way with arms folded over her chest. “You’ve been acting all weird since we left 7-Eleven.”

Whirling with a sweep of black leather, Spike marched back to face her, opening his mouth as if to speak. He froze like that for a second, and then his jaw snapped shut again with an audible click, his feet spinning to send him stalking off in the opposite direction.

Now she was starting to get pissed off. With her hands balled into fists, Buffy strode forward and grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to turn around and look at her again.

“If you’ve got something on your mind,” she said, “then say it. Otherwise, quit with this passive-aggressive shit because it’s driving me crazy.”

He stared down at her, his skin glowing beneath the street lights, his eyes abnormally blue in spite of the moonlit sky. “Fine,” he finally said. “You got your question. I want mine.”

“Fine. What is it?”

His jaw twitched. “Would you really rather I had my soul back? Is that what it’s going to take to get a real place in your life?”

It wasn’t what she’d been expecting to hear, and the fact that he sounded more like William in that moment---both in choice of words and in intonation---only made it strike all that much deeper into Buffy’s chest.

“Why would you ask that?” she said faintly, but Spike was already shaking his head before she’d finished the question.

“Don’t try and deny that you haven’t thought of it,” he warned. “Red told me all about your little conversation.”

“Willow has a big mouth,” Buffy muttered.

It was his turn to grab her, to stop her from turning away. “Just tell me,” he said, and his voice was low from the entreaty he was trying so desperately to contain. “You’re the only one who ever thought I was just fine the way I am, Buffy. You’re the only one who’s ever believed that…” He stopped, choking on the next words, and all the anger that had been wound tightly inside of her dissipated at the bleak look she caught in his eyes before he turned his head.

“It’s not the way you think,” she said, taking a step closer.

“No point in sugarcoating it, Buffy. Just thought…after everything…” He glanced back at her through his lashes, the tilt of his head curiously diffident. “Is it true, then? You want me all souled up so you can have your Angel redux?”

“No!” Hearing Angel’s name made her snap. “Why would you think such a thing? When have I ever compared you to Angel?”

“You tell me. You’re the one who brought up this whole soul business.”

“I was only asking Willow what she thought about it because we’d just left Giles’ and telling everybody about the baby, and I was trying to figure out a way for everyone to get along. Did Willow tell you that? Of course not,” she said, answering her own question. “Because you probably didn’t give her the chance to. You got all tied up in your Angel jealousy, when, really, there’s nothing for you to be jealous of. If anything…” She poked him in the chest to emphasize her words. “…he should be jealous of you.”

Spike snorted, shaking his head. “I’d love to hear you try and justify that one, pet,” he said. “Angel’s too puffed up with his delusions of self-importance to ever give a toss about me, one way or another.”

“Oh, yeah?” Buffy lifted her chin defiantly. “So, you don’t think he’s going to turn green when he finds out that I’m pregnant and he’s not the father? Better yet, that I’m pregnant with your baby? Oh, wait, how about finding out I’m pregnant, you’re the father, and that I love you in ways that make what he and I had look like puppy love? We’re talking the Jolly Green Giant of Jealousy, Spike. So trying to turn this soul thing around on me? So not going to work.”

She waited for the snide retort, for the blatant ignoring of her point, but it never came. Instead, a look of wonder softened his face, and his lips moved silently for a moment before vocalizing his words.

“You said it,” Spike murmured. “I didn’t think you’d…do you mean it?”

It took racking her brains over what she’d just uttered to realize what he was referring to. For a split second, Buffy panicked, furious with herself for giving voice to the feelings that had been warring inside her over the past few days, the past few weeks. But when Spike’s delight started to fade as he became aware of her runaway adrenaline, he lifted a tentative hand to cup her cheek, and her terror faded away.

“Yes,” she said softly. It was just easier to admit, she decided. She’d been skirting saying anything resembling the words since she’d seen him at the Factory, though she’d said almost everything but. They both deserved to have it out in the open at last. “I love you. I’ve loved you since I was lucky enough to find you in those first dreams.”

He stiffened slightly, his hand stilling. “You met William in those dreams,” Spike said carefully.

“And I told you last night, I was wrong to try separating the two of you. I know he’s still inside you. Everything I love about William is standing in front of me right now.”

“But…the soul?”

She turned her head into his hand, closing her eyes to succumb to the sensation of his skin. “I was feeling overwhelmed,” she admitted. “Mom and Giles were freaking out about the baby, and you, and I was reaching for straws, trying to figure out a way to get them onboard with the idea of us.” Buffy looked up then, meeting the brilliant blue of his gaze. “But I’d already decided that it was a no go when I saw you that afternoon,” she went on. “I’m not going to pretend to understand why Angel was so different without his soul, but I just can’t believe that you getting yours back is going to make any real change to the William that I know. You wrote me all those letters without the benefit of a soul, all that poetry, all those beautiful words. You love me as much now as you did in London. And I can see how hard you’re trying to fit in with my life here. What difference is getting the soul going to make?”

Suddenly, she was crushed to his chest, his arms like iron around her, his lips seeking hers in a fervent kiss. They were both trembling by the time their mouths parted, and Spike leaned his forehead against hers, his lashes tickling her brow.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I know what I promised, and I know you never promised anything in return, but I started dreaming, right? There’s so much that’s good between us, and with it all…when Red said how you’d asked about the soul, it just brought it all crashing down.”

“We’ve both got a lot of stuff to deal with,” Buffy replied, just as quietly. “But what’s important is that we’re all in this together. This is what being in my life for real is like, Spike. It means relying on each other, and trusting each other. That’s how we get from day to day. That’s how we always end up on top.”

His lips pressed to her skin for a fleeting moment before he straightened. “Well, as long as you promise that I get to be on top at least part of the time, I think I can work with that,” he said, with a suggestive smirk.

Buffy smiled. “You know, the sexual innuendo thing has a completely different effect coming from you than it did when you were human.”

“Different, as in more shagging?”

Pushing his hands playfully away, she turned back to the car. “If you want to be the one to explain to Willow why we didn’t get around to checking on Oz, then sure.”

Scowling, Spike shook his head as he opened his door. “Dirty pool, pet. You know he’s the one bloke who’s been decent to me here.”

The grin she shot him was brilliant. “I know.”

He grabbed her as soon as she slid into her seat, pressing his mouth to hers in a quick and hungry kiss. “You could always say it again to make up for me having to wait for you,” he said.

“I love you, Spike,” Buffy murmured. She pulled away to meet his eyes. “Can I call you William sometimes?” she asked quietly. “Sometimes, it just feels right, but…I didn’t know how wiggy you’d think it was.”

“Thing is…” A strong hand pushed back her hair, his head tilting to drink in her moonlit visage. “With you, I can be him. I can let the git out without bein’ afraid of what you’re going to say.”

“Does that mean I can?”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “’Course. Just not in front of Harris. I have a rough enough time with that boy’s mouth as it is.”

They each settled back into their seats as Spike turned the ignition. “So, this thing with Xander’s mouth you have,” she teased. “Is this something for me to be jealous about?”

“Watch it, luv.”

Her laughter floated through the open window.

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

She feigned unconsciousness until Wesley had left her alone in her hotel room. Only then did Esme open her eyes, staring up at the black void above her head.

The bloodletting hadn’t gone as she’d anticipated. When young Willow had grabbed her hand, the blood making contact with Esme’s aged skin had burned with the force of a thousand suns, ending just as abruptly as it had started. There had been a long moment when Esme was convinced she was finally going to die, but when the pain vanished, and she’d woken to the hushed voices of the Watchers discussing what had occurred, all fear had fled.

There was no need to conduct an analysis of Willow’s blood. Esme knew now how she could set about getting back her magic. The pinprick and the Watchers had told her everything she needed to know.

They had said Willow had healed the tiny injury, and that that had been the impetus for Esme to collapse and break the magical circle that protected them. Rupert and Wesley had then gone on to discuss how Willow had done the same thing during a vampire attack a previous evening, being injured and then using the magic to both fight back and heal the wounds that had been left.

It was the blood.

When Willow’s blood flowed, so did the magic, returning to its source.

Returning to Esme.

She had felt it, in those precious seconds, beneath the pain. She had felt it in her hotel room when she’d first arrived in California, when it had woken her from her sleep before dissipating like mist. The magic had been hers again.

To get it permanently, all it would take was Willow’s death. Destroy the vessel, and the power would have nowhere to go but back to where it had originally been stolen.

Esme smiled.

She did so adore simplicity. And what could be more simple than a full circle?

 

To be continued in Chapter 25: The Living Record of Your Memory