The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy’s gone for a check-up, Robin has told Maggie he can’t help her, and Xander discovered Havi’s daily trips to see Baltozar…

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

Chapter 41: Millions of Strange Shadows

He couldn’t go home; there was a box of Havi’s stuff sitting right in the middle of his floor, and the last thing Xander wanted right now was to be faced with any kind of reminder of what had happened that morning. He needed distraction, something to take his mind off the ache of her betrayal. When he tried Oz’s place, however, there wasn’t an answer. Willow’s came up with nothing as well. According to her mom and that touch of condescension in her voice that she was so good at, Willow was with Oz. That left Buffy and Spike, the first of which was at the doctor’s and the latter, again, most likely with Oz.

Xander was on his own.

He scanned the schedule at the movie theater, but nothing escapist enough caught his eye. A ramble around the mall proved just as fruitless, and he returned to his car with jittery nerves and a stomach that refused to settle. Sitting in his car, he stared through the windshield, his fingers drumming along the steering wheel while he debated what to try next. Sunnydale was pretty lacking when it came to solitary entertainment, and over the past few months he’d grown accustomed to having Havi at his side.

He rested his brow against the steering wheel, his eyes closed. He still couldn’t believe she wouldn’t even make this one concession for the sake of their relationship. It was Buffy hiding Angel all over again, but he had a feeling that if he brought it up with the gang, their reactions wouldn’t be as clear-cut as they’d been with Buffy’s intervention. For the most part, Havi had their sympathies now. He would probably end up getting lectured on not giving her a chance. Except by Spike. And how much did it suck that his least favorite member of the gang was the one most likely to be on his side?

He needed to do something. Sitting in the mall’s parking lot wasn’t doing anything but making him think too much, and everybody knew thinking and Xander Harris were mutually exclusive. His gaze fell on the bag of weapons that was tossed on the passenger side floor. It was too early for patrolling, and besides, fighting to forget was more Buffy’s style than his. The notion that he could go to the hospital and beat the crap out of Baltozar made him smile for a moment, but he quickly dismissed it. Not only would the hospital staff probably have something to say about it, but fighting a guy in a coma was just sad, even by Xander’s standards.

Starting the engine, he pulled out of the parking lot, turning on the radio as loud as his ears could handle it. Driving was something. It wasn’t the best something, but it was better than nothing. Maybe he’d be inspired to do something better along the way to wherever it was he wasn’t really going.

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

Seeing the car already parked in the drive when he pulled in, Spike didn’t even wait for Willow and Oz as he grabbed his blanket and made a dash for the front door of the Summers’ house.

“I really hope Buffy has good news for him,” Willow said, climbing out of the back seat. “Spike’s going to spontaneously combust if this baby doesn’t show up soon.”

“I guess it’s a good thing he’s got the blanket, then.” Oz slipped his hand into hers, giving it a little squeeze as they headed up to the porch. “You’re not still mad about the plan, are you?”

It took the time to climb the stairs before she shook her head. “It’s not that I was ever mad,” she said. “It’s just that…well, you know how Spike’s always trying to find a back way of doing stuff? Lately, it seems like you’ve been…encouraging that. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you two have gotten to be friends, but I kind of hoped that you’d be the good influence rubbing off on him instead of him rubbing on you.” She paused, her nose wrinkling. “That sounded way less dirty in my head.”

Oz pulled her to a gentle stop before she could open the door. “I’m not saying Spike’s always right,” he said. “But a lot of times, he’s got a point.”

“But…” She struggled to find an argument that would work, but could only come up with… “What about Buffy?”

“She’s got enough to be worrying about, don’t you think?”

Though she knew there was a flaw to his logic somewhere, Willow couldn’t find it. Her shoulders slumped, and she gave him a half-smile. “I’m reserving the right to be the first person to say I told you so,” she warned as he pulled her inside.

They both came to an abrupt halt at the sight of Joyce hovering just inside the door. A frown creased her brow.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asked immediately. “Is it Buffy?”

“It’s not Buffy,” Joyce said, and then amended, “Well, not entirely, but Spike’s taking care of her.” She nodded toward the stairs. “Something’s wrong with Havi, but I can’t get her to come out of her room to talk about it. Do you think you could go up and see what you can find out?”

Willow bit her lip, her eyes darting to the upper floor before she gave her assent. “Did you try calling Xander?” she asked. “If something’s wrong, he’s going to want to know about it.”

“I tried, but his mother said he left this morning and hasn’t come back,” Joyce replied. “I left a message for him to call here when he gets in.”

“Go,” Oz said. “I’ll just wait down here.”

Willow climbed the stairs, listening for any telltale signs that would indicate what might be wrong. There was no sobbing, no smashing furniture. There was just an eerie quiet that left her wishing Xander was around to help with whatever was wrong.

Her first knock at the closed door was met with silence. After waiting a minute, Willow called out, “Havi? Are you in there?”

She almost missed the soft sniffle, and when the door finally slipped open, her eyes widened at the obvious tears that had streaked down Havi’s face. “Are you OK?” she blurted. “What happened?”

Havi opened her mouth to speak, but the breath caught in her throat and she ended up just shaking her head. “It’s not important.”

“It was important enough to make you cry.”

Havi pulled herself up straighter, her mouth setting in a firm line. “I’m fine. Please do not worry about me.”

She didn’t believe her. “Maybe I should just go try and find Xander myself---.”

“No.” Willow was surprised by Havi’s sudden grip around her arm, stopping her from walking away, and both women looked down at her curled fingers. Slowly, she let Willow go, but when their eyes met again, Havi’s were pleading. “He will not come,” she said in explanation. “He’s…angry with me.”

Some of the anxiety inside Willow eased. “First big fight, huh?” she said, her tone gentler. “Those suck.”

“I think…it may be our last, as well.”

“Everybody thinks that. Just give him time. He’ll come around.”

The doubt in Havi’s eyes revealed more than her ensuing silence. Willow had been surprised at the relationship that had sprung up between the Protector and her best friend, but she’d seen firsthand how good they were for each other. Xander drew Havi out, revealing a dry sense of humor behind the stern façade, and gave her a haven just to be a girl. On the other hand, Havi gave Xander stability, a focus of good that balanced his own. Though Spike might doubt Havi’s intentions, Willow didn’t. She could see the power that surrounded her. It wasn’t the same as Buffy’s, but it had its own purity that made it impossible not to believe in Havi. It was one reason why Willow was even considering the Guardian proposal.

“You know,” she said, contemplatively, “maybe if you talked about what happened---.”

Havi shook her head. “I don’t wish to discuss this,” she said. “There is no point.”

“The point is, it’ll make you feel better. I’m not exactly all-knowing when it comes to relationships, but I get straight A’s in listening.” When Havi continued to appear doubtful, Willow added, “You can tell me on the way to the Guardians. It’ll help kill the time. You said it was a long walk, right?”

Mention of the Guardians made Havi’s eyes widen. “You’ve chosen?” she asked, almost eagerly.

“No, I’m making a deal with you. I’ll go and hear what they have to say, if you tell me what happened between you and Xander. And don’t tell me it’s silly to talk about it, because I know silly on a first name basis and that isn’t it.”

Havi paused, considering the offer. “Buffy will not be pleased we’re going without her,” she said.

“Buffy’s in no shape to be doing the hike anyway,” Willow countered. The irony of her argument flashed through her mind, but she quickly dismissed the similarity to Spike’s earlier dispute. This was totally different. This wasn’t about Buffy in the first place, so there was no harm to be had.

“All right.” The agreement came quietly, almost a whisper. “But we should go now, to take advantage of the daylight for as long as possible.”

Willow nodded. “I’ll just go tell Oz we’re going for girl time,” she said, turning on her heel to head back downstairs.

“You don’t wish to tell him where we’re going?”

“And start a fight when Spike and his scary vampire ears overhear me? No, thanks.” She shot Havi a quick grin. “Besides, you said there isn’t any danger, right?”

“That is correct.”

“Then there’s no problem. I’ll meet you out front.”

As she descended the stairs, Willow shoved aside the niggle of doubt that had suddenly popped up in the back of her brain. She trusted Havi. This was for the good. And she was only going to talk, so no bad could come of that. If worse came to worse, she always had her magic.

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

She was sitting on his bed when Spike came down the basement stairs, her pregnancy journal in her lap as she scribbled away at it. His throat tightened when she lifted his eyes to meet his, and he had to fight not to crush her to his chest as he sat down next to her.

“You want to talk about it?” he asked gently.

Putting the lid on her pen, Buffy set aside her notebook so that she could curl into his side, their backs against the wall. “What did Mom tell you?” Her voice was soft and aching. It was almost worse than if he’d walked in and seen her crying.

“Just that I needed to come down here,” Spike replied. He rested his hand along the soft swell of her stomach, while he buried his nose in her hair. Fear made his gut clench, but the twin echoes of Buffy’s and the baby’s heartbeats did miracles in helping him ignore it. “Tell me what the doc said.”

“I have to go back in next week,” she said. “They’ll have all my bloodwork back by then, and hopefully that will give them some answers they don’t have right now.”

“Answers ‘bout what?”

He phrased the query carefully, not wishing to upset her, but Buffy surprised him by bolting upright and staring into his eyes.

“Did you know?” she demanded. “Did you…hear something, or smell something, or do something vampy that made you worry even more about Schmoo? Is that why you wanted me to go to the doctor’s?”

Her rising anxiety was elevating her pulse, but when Spike tried to reach for her to try and soothe her with his touch, she pulled away.

“Tell me,” she said, and her voice was harder than it had been when he’d first come down. “I know something’s up, Spike. Don’t try and hide it from me. This isn’t just about us or William’s ideas of chivalry any more. This is about Schmoo, and I won’t let you put this baby in danger by holding back on me.”

“It was just the vision,” he insisted. There was no way in hell he was going to tell her about Red’s protection spell; in Buffy’s agitated state, it would only make the situation worse. “Angel was so sure something was wrong with you, yeah? I wouldn’t tell him this to his face, but he had a bloody good reason to be. According to Rupert, Angel uses those visions to fulfill his soddin’ mission, whatever the hell that is, so if that old mate of yours said you were in danger, yeah, I got a bit worried. Now. What did the doctor say, Buffy? Is something wrong with the little one?”

She watched him for a long moment, her features tight and pinched. The added weight from the pregnancy had softened her body in many places, but when Buffy got upset, she still managed to look like one of those starving children out in Africa, all big eyes and hollow cheeks. It ripped him apart to see it. It always meant that Buffy was hurting in some way.

When she sagged, he was right there to take her back in his arms, letting her bury her face in his shirt. He listened to her deep inhalations, felt the calming of her pulse, and when she finally spoke, the anger in her voice was gone.

“He doesn’t know,” she said quietly. “He kept saying he didn’t think there was anything to worry about, but he couldn’t give us an explanation for what he saw. That’s why he did all the tests, but Schmoo’s heart sounded normal, he said.”

Spike could’ve told her that, but he knew she needed to hear it from the doctor in order to believe it. “What did he see?” he asked. “Was it on the ultrasound?”

“Yeah. It was…a shadow. Kind of. He thought it was the amniotic fluid at first, but whenever Schmoo moved, it did, too. They even moved me to a different room because they thought it might be the equipment, but it did the exact same thing there.”

“Where is it?” Silently, he prayed that it wasn’t on the baby’s brain. He knew that wouldn’t be good.

“That’s the weird thing. It’s kind of all over. Like…a shroud, is what the doctor said. But we could see through it, and nothing came back on the ultrasound that would make him think there was actually anything there. That’s why he called it a shadow. There, but…not.”

Buffy and her doctor might not know what was wrapping around the little one, but Spike had a strong suspicion. He was going to have to talk to Willow about the spell. As much as he hated seeing Buffy this worried, Spike knew this would scare her into being more careful so the spell would likely be redundant anyway. Better to get it off and remove the evidence of the magical tampering, alleviate Buffy’s worry before it got any worse.

He didn’t say a word about that, though. He just pulled her closer against his chest and rested his cheek on the top of her head, listening to the echoing rhythms of hers and the little one’s bodies. “Whatever it is,” he said, “we’ll get through it, just like we always do. You think this baby’s goin’ to give up without a fight? Can’t. It’s impossible. Look at its genes, luv. Look at what we’ve done just to get to this point. There’s no way the little one’s goin’ to get beat by something that isn’t even real.”

Though Buffy stayed silent, the way she wrapped her arms tighter around his back told Spike all he needed to know. He’d have to tell Oz and Willow to take off; he wasn’t going anywhere today. He’d find a way later to talk to Red about the spell. Right now, his Slayer needed him to hold her, to comfort her, to assure her that she was loved and that all would be right with the world.

That was something even William had always excelled at.

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

Willow had known that Havi was in great shape just from watching her fight when they were on patrol. But watching her and trying to keep up with her were two entirely different things.

Sweat dripped down Willow’s back, tickling her spine. It made her bangs stick to her forehead in uncomfortable patches, forcing her to blow upward to try and dislodge them, and it was starting to make her really, really, really wish she hadn’t agreed to this little excursion.

She’d gotten the story of what had happened with Xander early on in the trip; being a woman of few words meant Havi knew how to tell a tale as quickly as possible. Frankly, Willow didn’t see what the big deal was, but she also knew how strongly Xander had reacted to discovering Buffy’s betrayal the year before in hiding Angel from all of them. It made him paranoid about secrets, about violent exes who could come back and kill anybody Xander cared about without breaking a sweat. Knowing that Havi had continued to check in on Baltozar’s status, regardless of the fact that he was in a coma, had to have broken Xander’s heart.

Her assurances that he’d come around had fallen on deaf ears, but when Willow had heard what Havi hadn’t said, what she could’ve done to keep him from running out, she fell mute. That part, she didn’t understand. If it was her, she would’ve been trying to explain six ways to Sunday, and in fact, had done just that when she and Oz had had their brief break-up over the Factory debacle. But Havi was a different kind of woman entirely. She was used to keeping secrets, and though Willow knew that those secrets weren’t bad ones, Xander wasn’t privy to that kind of insight. He would see her actions and take them at face value. That was just what he did.

Willow almost bumped into her when she suddenly stopped. “We are here,” Havi said. She looked like she hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Now, comes the hard part of our journey.”

“The hard part?” Willow exclaimed. She pushed back the sweat-drenched hair off her face. “Are you kidding?”

They were standing deep in one of the woods on the edge of town, the canopy of trees blocking out almost all the ambient light. The ground was unbroken by much vegetation, but when Willow looked down, she saw the loose dirt falling into a chasm, black and foreboding even in the day. Havi stood at the edge of it, pulling out rappelling gear from her backpack.

“We must go down,” she explained. “The well is in a cavern beneath the forest.”

“How down is down?”

“In your measurements, about twenty yards. It isn’t far.”

“It is if you’ve never done anything like this before.” Carefully, Willow inched forward, but she stopped well away, stretching her neck to try and peer down into the hole. “I couldn’t even climb the rope in gym class, and you expect me to do this? You should’ve said something.”

Havi frowned. “But I did.”

“You said a little climb. This is Mt. Everest. Except, you know, down.”

“You will be safe. I’ll help you.”

“No, I’m going to be safe because I’m not going to do it.”

They stared at each other, each sure of her right in this. “Was this a ploy?” Havi finally asked. “To get me to talk?”

She faltered. “Well, no, but---.”

“I would not allow harm to befall you, Willow. My duty is to protect you. If you are willing to believe me about the Guardians, why are you not willing to believe me about this?”

It was a logical argument. Fear, however, was never logical.

“I will go down first,” Havi continued when Willow stayed silent. “If for some reason you slip, I will be there to stop you from falling.”

“You mean you’ll be the body I land on instead of my butt,” Willow said. Then, an idea suggested itself. “What about magic? Can I just zap us down there instead of climbing?”

“I didn’t think you were capable of teleportation,” came the wary response.

“I just haven’t tried it yet.” She liked this idea much better than the climbing, and her enthusiasm began to bubble back to the surface. “If I concentrate, I can do a lot of spells without too much effort. As long as there’s not something about these sacred grounds that means I can’t use magic, I think I can do this.”

She had her eyes closed before Havi could respond, stretching her senses to try and get a grasp on the energies near the chasm. Something warm and welcoming reached out to her, flooding her head with images too rapid to acknowledge, suffusing her body with growing heat, until she could feel every hair on the back of her neck standing up on end.

“Willow?” she heard Havi question, worry in her voice.

But when she tried to answer, she discovered she couldn’t, her will no longer her own, her powers swelling beyond the boundaries of her control as if they were skidding toward a destination she couldn’t even see.

Then, everything went black.

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

She woke with a splitting headache and the slight trickle of blood coming from her nose. Trying to stifle the flow, Willow winced as she sat up, the silver and lavender that seemed to surround her dancing and rippling in eddies that made her sick to her stomach. I hope I’m not dead, she thought, blinking to try and focus her eyes. Because being nauseous for all of eternity would really suck.

“You’re not dead.”

The soft chiming voice seemed to come from everywhere, above her head, below her bottom, emanating from the walls. As her sight sharpened, she could see she was in a circular room, a stone pool taking up most of the space right in the middle. The light came from the water that was fluttering within the pool, and Willow edged closer to see if she could get a better look.

Her reflection was distorted by the strength of the waves. Almost hypnotically, they lapped against the stone, and it took only a moment for her to detect the pattern within its rhythms. A slow smile spread across her face, in spite of the ache inside her, as she fell under the spell of the tempo.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” the voice asked. “It’s because we’re a part of you.”

“You’re the Guardians,” Willow murmured. Almost against her will, her hand rose and skimmed across the surface of the water. Where the water touched her fingertips, sparks jumped, spraying and dancing across the pool so that it shimmered.

“Whoa…” she breathed.

“We have been waiting for you,” the voice said. “Though we thought you would come sooner.”

She flushed in embarrassment at the chastising undercurrent in its choice of words. “I only just found out about you,” she said. “My friends got a little overprotective and Havi didn’t tell me about you until just a few days ago.”

“Ah…” It was a soft sigh, making the walls pulse around her. “Your friends are both your greatest weakness and your largest treasure. We expected no less.”

The pause that followed was filled with the sounds of the moving water, lulling Willow even further into a sense of calm. Though she couldn’t see herself in the water, if she looked beneath the waves, she almost imagined she could make out the pale lines of an elderly woman. It could’ve been Rose.

She paused, looking deeper.

It could’ve been Esme.

“There is no reason for you to be frightened,” the voice said. “She is not one of us.”

“I didn’t---.” It dawned on her then that it was the second of her thoughts she hadn’t voiced out loud. “Am I wasting my breath by bothering to speak?” she asked tentatively.

“No. On this ground, the force of your power gives life to your emotions, to your will. We can sense those as easily as your words.”

“So…you know about Esme?”

“We know about all of it. But it’s not as you think. Rose saw her death. She saw the hole her absence would leave with us, and so she did what she felt was best.”

There was a pause then. An obvious hesitation. Willow sat back on her heels, withdrawing her hand from the water so that the cascade of sparks faded away.

“There’s more, isn’t there?” she asked. “Stuff Havi didn’t tell me.”

“There is always more.”

“Isn’t that why I’m here then? To get my questions answered?”

“Is that what you wish? Is it not enough that Rose chose you to replace her?”

Willow froze, her eyes widening. “She…what?”

 

To be continued in Chapter 42: Steal Men’s Eyes