The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow and Spike are worried about the something going wonky with Willow’s protection spell, Travers has discovered the truth of Buffy’s pregnancy and taken action, and Robin has met Esme for the first time…

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

Chapter 39: Eve's Apple

The interior of the house wasn’t what Robin was expecting. Books were stacked everywhere, leaning against the wall, tucked beneath the coffee table, even along the mantle where pictures would normally be. They ran the gamut, from old to new, some with leather covers, some without covers at all. There was no other decoration, not even a lace doily to betray his hostess’ age.

He couldn’t help his smile as he sat in one of the clear corners of the plush sectional. In a lot of ways, it felt like walking into Bernard’s old place back in New York.

“Are you a Watcher?” he asked, his eyes scanning the titles of the books at his side.

“God forbid, no,” came the reply.

Her voice was hollow, and Robin glanced up to see he was alone in the room. The sound of clinking china from the next room made him lean sideways to peer through the kitchen entrance, where he could see her pouring out the tea she’d promised. The counter seemed too high for her tiny stature, and he immediately rose to his feet to go and help.

“Thank you,” she said when he took the pot from her hand. Her smile was warm. “I can see that Bernard raised you properly.” Without preamble, she walked back to the living room. Robin got a feeling she was accustomed to having people do as she said without question.

“If you’re not a Watcher, how is it you know about my mother and Bernard?” he asked, following after her.

“A long association with the Council.” She paused, thinking for a long moment as she settled into an empty chair. “Very long. Some might say…too long.”

His curiosity was eating at him, but before he could ask anything else, there was one detail he needed to know. “I’m sorry, but I’m a bit of a disadvantage here. I don’t even know your name---.”

“Esme. Though I’d imagine that won’t mean much to you. I’m one of those deep, dark secrets Quentin is so fond of keeping.” She hesitated, her eyes suddenly narrowing, and Robin couldn’t escape the feeling of a bug being pinned beneath a microscope. “You’re not here because of Quentin, are you?” she asked carefully. “He didn’t send you to check up on me?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure Mr. Travers even knows I’m in Sunnydale,” he admitted. “I called him a few days before Christmas, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. He’s probably too busy celebrating the holiday.”

She laughed, a dry, coarse sound. “That would require Quentin to actually believe he could be spared from saving the world. I’m afraid his delusions of self-importance often get the better of him.” Sipping at her tea, her regard remained steady. “If you’re not here because of the Council, then, how did you happen upon my doorstep, young man? And there’s no point in trying to tell me you didn’t specifically come here to see me. I’m old, but I’m far from stupid.”

Robin nodded. That was a conclusion he’d already reached. “We have a mutual friend,” he said. “Willow Rosenberg.”

The announcement had a much stronger effect than he anticipated. Esme straightened, her eyes growing alert again, and she set down her teacup so that she could steady herself on the arm of the chair. “You’re friends with young Willow?” she asked. “That means you’re friends with Buffy. How interesting.”

“You…know Buffy?” He needed to tread carefully. None of Buffy’s acquaintances were aware of his knowledge of her calling. There was a possibility that Esme didn’t, either, though considering she’d identified him without a second thought, he highly doubted it.

“The son of a Slayer befriending the active Slayer,” she mused. “Well, isn’t that rather incestuous. And ironic, don’t you think?”

“Ironic…how?”

“William the Bloody kills your mother, and now you’re friends with the Slayer he’s in love with. Perhaps unfortunate is a better word.”

His blood went cold at both her casual mention of his mother’s death and the vampire’s feelings for Buffy. “How do you know that?” he demanded, all pretense at niceties now fled. “I was always told they didn’t know who killed my mother.”

“Well, of course, they would tell you that,” Esme said. “It wouldn’t do to have you getting yourself killed by going after him yourself, now would it? Quentin would have a coronary considering the repercussions of that within the Board.”

“I wouldn’t---.”

A wave of her hand cut him off. “Don’t demean both of us by lying, Robin. You have angry young man written all you. Which begs the question…why haven’t you done anything about his presence here in Sunnydale? Not afraid of him, are you?”

His jaw clenched, and he had to set down his cup in order not to break it. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “Buffy’s pregnancy---.”

“Buffy’s what?”

It was her turn to be shocked, and she sat there in silence as Robin related what little he knew. While he spoke, her eyes grew wider, her mouth forming a tiny o. If he looked closely enough, he would’ve thought she was literally salivating at the new information.

“I’ve got to be wrong, though,” he finished. “Vampires can’t have children. Bernard didn’t lie to me about that.”

“You’re right,” Esme said. “They can’t. But William was not a vampire when this happened.” His confusion must have shown in his face because she smiled in condescension. “I suggest you relax, Robin. I have quite the story to tell you.”

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

Havi didn’t think she could ever grow weary of the stories these young people told. As she sat on the floor, leaning back between Xander’s legs and listening to them joke and laugh as they recounted holidays past, a sense of longing began to settle in the pit of her stomach, something warm and hollow that made her want to sigh repeatedly. Though there were similarities in their current lives to her own, most of what they told was alien to her. The families. The camaraderie. The closeness. It was bittersweet to hear.

When he wasn’t talking, Xander’s fingers lingered near her neck, brushing across her piercings every so often as he stroked her shoulders. His fascination with the adornment amused her; when they’d made love, he’d spent an inordinate amount of time licking and tracing the studs, joking about how he would have to consider getting something pierced as well so that they matched. She’d refrained from telling him they were her badge to wear as a Protector. She thought it would’ve spoiled the mood.

Spike was the only one who didn’t join in the merriment. His demeanor didn’t detract from the pervading good mood, but Havi found it impossible not to notice the extra attention he seemed to be paying the Slayer. Normally, the touch of his hand on her stomach was gentle, almost unconscious. Tonight, however, he had Buffy secure in his arms, encircling her waist as if daring someone to try and take her away. It was confusing.

When he followed the Slayer into the kitchen for drink refills, Havi disassociated from the ongoing conversation to see if she could hear anything come from the other room. She was disappointed when, for once, their voices never rose, and they returned to the living room just as they had left it.

“…don’t you think, Havi?”

She snapped from her fugue to see Willow looking at her expectantly. “I’m sorry,” Havi said. “What did you say?”

“My magic,” Willow elaborated. “Nobody’s been torched lately, and I think my sessions with Esme are going really well. I was just saying that I think I can seriously start thinking about taking over some of Buffy’s patrolling duties, but I seem to be a party of one on that side. You think I’m ready, don’t you?”

She could feel Xander tensing behind her, his fingers still where once they’d been active. They had discussed this in private, or rather, Xander had talked about how worried he was about Willow and Havi had listened. Havi knew he thought the magic was a bad, bad thing---as he so often repeated---but her opinion differed. She had merely refrained from sharing that opinion until now.

Everybody looked at her in anticipation of her agreement with the group. Licking her lips, Havi lifted her chin and met Willow’s eyes directly, saying, “I think you are more than ready. You have great power in you. I told you that when we first met, remember?”

The others deflated even as Willow’s smile beamed.

“Maybe you’re not seeing the whole picture,” Xander said, easing off the couch to sit next to Havi. “Let’s say, Willow does go out and patrol on her own. And let’s say she runs into a whole slew of vampires straight away. Only they’re not on their own. Some of those military guys are there, rounding them up. Are you trying to tell us that you really think Willow can take down the vampires, without turning her own personal flamethrower on the all-too-human commando guys, and still not get herself killed?”

She regarded him solemnly before turning to meet Willow’s nervous gaze. “Can you control your emotions so that the fires don’t happen any longer?” she asked. When Willow nodded, her eyes slid back to Xander. “Then, yes. I do think that.”

“It’s not quite as simple as you might think,” Giles started, his tone gentle.

“And I do not believe it as difficult as you make it out to be,” she countered.

“Havi---.”

“No.” Though she was quick to cut Xander off, she did it as gently as she could without betraying her gravity on this issue. “I have been keeping my silence on the subject of Willow and her power ever since I arrived in Sunnydale. I have obeyed your wishes, but I fail to see why this deceit needs to continue. The Guardians are very patient, but even they are starting to question the delay when they see Willow growing stronger every day. I think it is time she is told.”

“Told me what?” Willow asked.

“Don’t know why you’re all surprised,” Spike said. “This is what Studs has been gunnin’ for since she got here. The lot of you are just too blind to it ‘cause she’s human.” The sweeping look he swept over her was disdainful. “Though I wonder ‘bout that, too, sometimes.”

“I have not been gunning for this,” Havi argued.

“Told me what?” Willow tried again.

For the first time that day, Spike broke away from Buffy to stand in front of Havi, feet apart, hands stuffed defiantly in his pockets. “If Harris and Rupert don’t think Red’s ready,” he said, his voice almost a growl, “then she’s not ready.”

It was impossible not to rise to the threat that Spike presented. Leaping to her feet, Havi squared off with him, eye to eye, grateful both that she was a tall woman and that he was not a tall man.

“There is a grander scheme here than you could ever imagine,” she said. It was taking all her control not to punch him in the face. “You might have garnered Rose’s trust with your pursuits for the truth, but I am not so easily swayed by your efforts, Spike.”

“No, you’re just a backstabbing bitch who thinks that a few months of having Harris wound ‘round her little finger gives you a place with this bunch.”

“Hey!” Xander cried out.

Though he rose to stand next to her, Havi was too angry now to give Xander much added notice. Spike always seemed to infuriate her with only the slightest of provocations, and the fact that he could spew such hateful things just meant that all his fronts of a truce were false.

“I would not be so hasty with such words,” she hissed. “Being the father of the Slayer’s child does not grant you immunity from responsibility for your actions.”

“Never said it did. But so long as we’re speakin’ of actions---.”

“Stop!”

The walls shook, the ornaments on the Christmas tree rattling from the forceful waves of Willow’s command. The insurgence of heat through her flesh made Havi waver where she stood, and she reached out to cling to Xander for balance, just as he did the same with her.

Only Willow remained unfazed by the blast, sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace, glowering at everyone before her. Havi amended her assumption of casualties when she saw Oz tensed behind the young witch, also untouched.

“I believe that resolves the question of her readiness,” Giles said, his voice shaky.

“It doesn’t resolve anything,” Willow argued. “You guys got exactly what I wanted you to get. You’re all talking about me, and I don’t know what the hell is going on, and Havi and Spike can’t go two seconds without turning into five-year-olds, and will somebody please tell me what you’re all arguing about? Because it sounds to me that I’m the only one not in the know here and it’s really starting to piss me off.”

Havi’s mouth opened to speak, but the tightening of Xander’s hand around her arm stifled her voice.

“It’s not that big of a deal, Will,” he said. He had that soothing tone that he always adopted when he was trying to smoothtalk his way out of a problem with one of his female friends, and Havi rolled her eyes at his obviousness. What was even sadder was that, most of the time, Buffy and Willow fell for it.

Except…maybe not this time.

“It’s a big enough deal for Spike to butt in,” she countered. “Spike never butts in on stuff that’s not Buffy-related.” She shot the vampire an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Spike, but it’s true.”

“We were only thinking of you, Willow,” Giles said. “When Havi arrived in town, you were…less than in control.”

“And now I’m more than in control. So.” Her features firmed, her arms folding across her chest defiantly. “Talk.”

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

Willow wore her best resolve face, but the more she listened, the more she felt like she had to look like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel.

A Guardian? Really? Little Willow Rosenberg who just two months earlier was fighting not to turn her nearest and dearest into roasted marshmallows? They wanted her?

It was like when she met Oz, and those scary suits had said they’d had their eye on her, and wanted her to be all corporate computer girl. Exciting and tremendously flattering, but a little creepy. And heavy on the oh my god you have to be kidding’s.

She had to bite the inside of her cheek not to say that part out loud.

“Please do not think you don’t have a choice,” Havi finished. “The Guardians only wish your alliance if you are fully committed to the task. But you must know, they have the utmost confidence that you would make a fine addition. Your powers are quite formidable.”

“But…” She had to swallow; her throat was parched. “…those are really Esme’s powers. I just have them on a kind of a loaner.”

“That’s not really something you’re going to be paying back,” Oz commented at her side.

“They are yours,” Havi reiterated. “You have taken a potentially dangerous situation and molded it to fit safely within your life. Your control over the magic is firm---.”

“Well, I don’t think I’d qualify it as that,” Giles murmured.

“If you don’t believe me,” Havi continued, “then perhaps you will believe the Guardians themselves. I can arrange for you to meet with them if you like. Perhaps they can allay your concerns better than I can.”

Rumblings of surprise echoed around Willow, but she was still caught up in the whole magnitude of the initial suggestion. “How could you do that?” she asked. “It’s not more magic, is it?”

Havi smiled, shaking her head. “No, it’s merely a walk. And some climbing. And a ritual to call them at the journey’s end.”

“So maybe, a little bit more than just a walk,” Xander commented.

“Are they local?” Buffy asked. “How come I’ve never heard of this before now?”

“They keep their presence very private,” Havi said. “But they are where they are required to be.”

“And I’d just have to talk to them?” Willow asked.

“Yes, that is all.”

Oz wrapped his arm around her waist, tugging her closer against him. “I can go with you if you want,” he said. “For moral support. I’d offer athletic support, but that could just get messy.”

Willow already had her mouth open to accept his offer when she saw Havi shaking her head.

“You can’t,” Havi said. “The ground is hallowed. Only a select few can travel it safely. Protectors, Guardians, those of the Slayer line. You understand.”

“What about Watchers?” Giles asked. “Surely I would be included in that list.”

“No, you’re not. The Guardians exist solely to protect the Slayer line and keep an eye on the Council. To allow Watchers to walk among them so freely would be counter to their purpose.”

“Nobody’s telling you to make a decision right away,” Xander said. “In fact, I think some heavy thinking might be in order on this one.”

She had to agree with him. As Willow asked Havi for time to consider the proposal and the conversation shifted away from the Guardians and back to eggnog, all she could hear was the resounding refrain of the original offer.

“You can make a difference in this world,” Havi had said. “As one of the Guardians, you would have no reason to question your ability to patrol. You would be just as powerful an ally for the side of good as the Slayer.”

It was tempting. Sorely tempting.

She could make a difference, a real one.

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

When Buffy yawned for the second time in five minutes, Spike decided enough was enough.

“Nobody’s goin’ to throw a fuss if you go to bed,” he said, leaning forward to whisper the words directly into her ear. “You’re sleepin’ for two, you know.”

“Just a few more minutes,” she replied, just as quietly. Snuggling back against his chest, Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, her body nestling into his. “Not really looking forward to Schmoo’s nightly calisthenics. This is much nicer.”

His arms stilled where he’d been tightening his hold. “What’s that?” he asked carefully.

“Oh, you know. I go to sleep, and Schmoo decides to wake up and do the cha-cha on my bladder. Really takes the fun out of sleeping, let me tell you.”

The worry about Willow’s spell came rushing back to the fore, and Spike had to fight to keep his voice low. “Have you talked to the doc about that? Could be, there’s something he could do about it.”

Buffy chuckled. “Yeah, he’ll welcome me to the world of pregnant women around the globe. It’s perfectly natural, Spike. When I’m awake, my moving around puts the baby to sleep, so when I go to bed, there’s none of the usual rocking Schmoo gets to keep it relaxed.” She twisted to look back at him. “You’re the one who gave me the book I read it in. Didn’t you even read it yourself?”

He had. But in the excitement of the past few days, he’d forgotten that detail.

“Still,” he said, “that’s not an excuse for not gettin’ the sleep you need. My spat with Studs this mornin’ put a kibosh on that happening last night, so---.”

“Fine, fine, I’m going.” Her disappointed moue was interrupted by another yawn, after which she blushed in embarrassment. “I hate it when you’re right.”

“Get used to it.” He accepted her light kiss and let her escape his hold for the first time that night, watching as she bade good night to her friends and family. The others used the opportunity as an excuse to make their own exits, and soon, it was just Joyce left in the room, smiling wearily at him as she started to tidy the dishes that had been left behind.

“Well, at least Buffy and her friends are never boring,” she said, picking up Xander’s empty plate from the floor.

Spike was there before she could straighten. “Let me do this,” he offered. “You’ve done enough today.”

“Thank you.” Letting him take what was in her hands, Joyce regarded him for a long moment, only just moving out of his way when he set to the rest of the cleaning. “Is it too hard having Havi around?” she asked suddenly.

He almost dropped the plates at the unexpectedness of the question. “What’s bringing this up all of a sudden?”

“Not all of a sudden. I’ve been thinking about it for awhile now.” She sat on the edge of the couch, her gaze contemplative. “I think today’s all the proof we need to see that you and she aren’t really getting along any better.”

“I didn’t mean---.”

“No, I know you didn’t,” Joyce interrupted. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. And Buffy doesn’t need the added stress right now. She’s entering the hardest part of her pregnancy, Spike. She’s going to be irritable, and she’s going to be distracted, and the last thing she needs is to be refereeing you and Havi.”

His stomach plummeted. Turning his back on her, Spike concentrated on clearing up, hoping that would both stave away his impending sense of doom and stop Joyce from seeing how shaken he was by her statements.

“It’s different with Buffy bein’ home from school, too,” he said out loud. He hated saying the words. He didn’t want to be the big man about this. He wanted to scream and shout and say he was more family than Havi ever would be and he shouldn’t have to be the one to bloody leave.

But a scene with her mother would only upset Buffy. There was too much other rubbish going on to add to the pile so unnecessarily.

He couldn’t go against Joyce’s wishes, either. He owed her a little more respect than that.

“So, do you think you could talk to Xander?”

The question was almost as out of the blue as her first. “Why would I need to talk to him?” Spike asked.

“Well, I was just thinking he hates living at home, and if you or Oz talked to him about the benefits of having his own place---.”

“You want me to live with Harris?” He stared at her in shock, aware that his voice had risen dramatically but really not caring in the face of her demand. “You’ve got to be bloody kiddin’ me! We’d kill each other before the first night was through! Hell, I’m pretty sure I’d kill him the first time he opened his mouth.”

“I never…” She stopped, her mouth crooking into a smile. “I was talking about Havi, not you, Spike. Trust me. I’m well aware of just what a bad idea it would be if you and Xander became roommates.”

He instantly deflated, astonishment replacing his anger. “You’d let me stay over Studs?” he asked.

“Well, yes.” She seemed confused by his disbelief. “You’re family now. And when the baby comes, Buffy’s going to need as much help as she can get. That’s easier if you’re actually here.”

“I just figured…” He shook his head, continuing his path out to the kitchen. “I’m just knackered,” Spike said when Joyce followed him. “Not thinkin’ straight. Never mind me.”

“It’s been a long day. Christmas has this way of doing that to you. It’s a good thing it only happens once a year.” She stood next to him at the sink and rested a gentle hand on his arm. “And I wanted to say thank you again for bringing Buffy home. That was the best gift I got all day.”

He kept his smile hidden until she’d left the room, waiting until he heard the floorboards creak upstairs before easing the tension in his shoulders. Joyce was right about one thing. It had been a long day, with too many surprises and worries popping up around every corner, in spite of Buffy’s blind spot to the contrary. He’d get a good night’s sleep and try to suss it all out in the morning, hopefully without the Slayer catching on to what was wrong.

Spike just hoped that nothing more came out of the woodwork to try and muck it up for him.

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

The apartment was too hot when he pushed open the door, but Robin wasn’t even aware of the excess warmth as he dropped his car keys on the hall table. His thoughts were elsewhere. They currently resided back in a small house with a little old lady who knew far too much about far too many things, dancing around subjects that made nightmares more welcome than the truth that now yawned before him.

William the Bloody really was going to be a father. The vampire who’d slaughtered his own mother was now bringing his own children into this world, poised, very likely, to teach the same corrupt philosophies that guided his own existence. It didn’t matter that the mother was Buffy Summers. Robin was convinced that once the baby was born, Spike would abscond with the child, never to be heard from again. It was the ultimate trophy, and Spike, the ultimate hunter.

He was on his knees in the bathroom, throwing up the cold remnants of the tea he’d had at Esme’s, before the disgust could settle. Nothing about this was right, not the pregnant Slayer, not the vampire who professed some undying romantic love all because a witch miscalculated in dealing with her enemies, not a Council who hid the truth from him when it was all too knowing of the identity of his mother’s murderer. In spite of the fact that he finally had the answers he’d always sought, Robin couldn’t help but wish that he’d refused Maggie’s offer of employment and stayed the hell away from Sunnydale. Ignorance would’ve been bliss in this particular scenario. And coming from a man who believed in the power of education, that was saying a hell of a lot.

His answering machine had clicked on by the time he became aware of the ringing telephone, and Robin wiped at his mouth as he staggered back to the living room. He stared at the small machine on his desk, listening to his electronic voice request a message, but when the beep came and the familiar cadences of Quentin Travers filled the room, Robin leapt to pick up the phone.

“I’m here,” he said hastily. “Sorry. I was…in the bathroom.”

It was the truth, but Robin was reluctant to admit it to the Council Head, knowing Quentin’s penchant for decorum at all costs. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ward off the headache that was determined to take over, and listened to what the other man had to say.

“…surprised to hear from you, actually,” Quentin commented. “It’s been some time. Last I heard, you were just finishing your degree, and now you’re in…Sunnydale?”

“That’s right,” Robin said smoothly. “My old mentor asked me to be her assistant this year, and I thought California weather would make a nice change from those awful New York winters.”

Quentin made one of those sounds in the back of his throat, but it was impossible to tell if it was in agreement or something else. “I assume the reason you called about the Slayer is because you saw her on campus.”

“Actually, I had her in one of my classes this past semester.”

“Oh? I would’ve thought…never mind.”

But Robin knew what he’d been about to say, and pressed on the subject. It was, after all, the reason he’d called Travers in the first place.

“She’s only six months or so along,” he said. “She was hardly an invalid.”

He could just see the old man leaning back in his big leather chair, contemplating what Robin had just confirmed. “Is that why you called?” Quentin asked. “Because you were concerned about a Slayer having a child?”

“No, sir, because…” It was pointless to pretend he didn’t know. “…of who the child’s father is.”

There was a long silence, and if it wasn’t for the sound of Quentin’s breathing, Robin would’ve thought he’d lost the connection.

“I see,” Travers finally said. “Understandable, certainly. He’s there, I presume?”

His jaw twitched just imagining Spike in Buffy’s dorm room. “Yes.”

“I’m glad you called me, actually. It’s good to hear that you care enough about the Slayer’s wellbeing to bring me your concerns.”

“Well, that’s not exactly---.”

“It’s important we do what we must to fight the good fight, of course. Tell me, Robin. Beyond your teaching, what are you doing these days?”

He felt like a child being called on the carpet. “I haven’t had a lot of time for patrolling since I came to Sunnydale,” he said slowly.

“Shame.” The single word was practically dripping with disapproval. “Well, there are other ways you can prove your loyalty, to be sure. In fact, I have just the idea in mind.”

Robin listened to the proposal in silence, his brows drawing closer and darker as Travers spoke. By the end of it, his head was pounding in full force, and he sighed as he sagged onto the couch.

“I’ll have to get back to you, sir,” he said. “I just…I don’t know.”

“Think about it,” Travers said. “That’s all I ask. I trust you to do the right thing, Robin. You always were a smart boy.”

The dial tone that followed made him want to throw the phone against the wall.

 

To be continued in Chapter 40: Call Not Me to Justify the Wrong