The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Robin called Maggie when he saw Graham with Oz and Willow, alerting her to their impending arrival, so that when they broke in to rescue Xander, the gang was ambushed, ending with Willow getting shot in the back…
The force of it made her drop the tea cup she was rinsing out in the sink. She wasn’t even aware of the shards of glass slicing through her paper-thin skin, or the rivulets of blood that mingled with the tea washing down the drain.
It was fire across her flesh.
Fire through her veins.
Power she’d long thought she’d never feel again, though she’d kept up the semblance of hope when she navigated through her day.
Inside her fragile ribcage, her heart began to accelerate, trying to catch up with the pounding rhythms of the magic that was slamming back into her system, eager to relearn its old patterns. Esme gripped the edge of the counter in an attempt to stave away the vertigo insistent on taking control, and barely heard Lydia’s concerned voice filter from the other room.
It couldn’t be. It was too soon. He would never have worked that quickly.
The world glowed brightly around her, burning at the edges of her retinas in brilliance she hadn’t experienced in decades. The truth was undeniable. It didn’t make a difference how it happened, or that young Robin Wood had acted much faster than she’d imagined he would. What mattered was that her magic was back.
It burned within her. As brightly as if it had never left.
But before she could fully rejoice in her newfound power, Esme collapsed to the kitchen floor.
The bed was cold beneath Buffy’s back, but she was doing her best to try and ignore that fact. There were other, more pressing things weighing her down, and they were doing everything in their power to keep her heart jumping like some kind of southwestern bean.
“Spike’s going to be so pissed he missed this,” she said to her mother.
Joyce hovered at the side of the bed, watching the technician spread the gel across Buffy’s exposed stomach. “I’m sure he’ll understand,” she assured. “He hasn’t been able to attend one of your ultrasounds yet. This shouldn’t be any different.”
“The difference is that this could’ve been his only chance to actually see Schmoo.” Buffy’s gaze hopped between the monitor at the side of the bed and the shiny expanse of her tummy. “I just hate that he’s losing out on it.”
“He’ll understand,” Joyce repeated. “He just wants you two to be healthy.”
“Yeah, well, we would’ve been just as healthy or not in a couple hours when he gets back.” She grimaced as she watched the technician maneuver the transducer to get the best scan. “At least this means I get to pee soon. Schmoo’s been tap dancing on my bladder for an hour now.”
“You’ve got an active little baby here,” the technician said. “It doesn’t want to stop moving around.”
“See?” Buffy pointed at the monitor. “Nobody ever believes me.”
“You’re holding off on finding out the sex, right?”
Buffy took a second too long to answer the tech, compelling Joyce to peer at her with a frown.
“Did you and Spike change your minds?” she asked.
“Well, no.” Buffy flushed. “Spike still doesn’t want to know, but…”
It was a gentle prompt, but it was still enough for her to be embarrassed about her growing desire. “It would just make it so much easier,” Buffy said. “Picking out clothes, picking out a name. I don’t get why Spike is being so difficult about this.”
Joyce cast a wary eye toward the technician before replying. “You know how he can be…old-fashioned. He likes to pretend a good game, but deep down, he’s still William. You should know that better than anybody.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” She turned back to the tech. “No telling. Just call it Schmoo.”
“Understood.” The trio lapsed into silence, but it only lasted for a few seconds. All too soon, the technician frowned and leaned forward, examining the monitor more closely.
“Your records said that they found some anomalies in your last scan,” she said.
“Yeah,” Buffy said. “Some kind of shadow.”
“Then I’ve got good news for you.” She shifted to smile encouragingly at the two Summers women. “It’s completely clear. Schmoo looks happy and healthy. I don’t see any reason why the doctor would keep you any longer when he sees you this afternoon.”
Buffy sagged against her pillows. Relief flooded her body, her hands straying automatically to her tummy. Thank god, there was one less thing for her to worry about. Everybody had been right after all. It was just one of those freaky pregnancy things that she over-reacted to as normal. Stupid hormones.
Now, if only Spike would get back so that she could share the good news, everything would be perfect.
Time seemed to stand still as Spike stared down at Willow’s unmoving body. He’d actually started getting into the mindset that nothing could touch the witch; so many times over the past few months, she’d proven herself nearly invincible with the magic that lashed out at the slightest provocation. But this time, she hadn’t had time to react. She hadn’t been watching her back. This time, she was dead.
He started moving even before he heard Oz’s scream of denial behind him. Leaping over the railing of the balcony upon which they stood, Spike vamped out in a vicious snarl before his boots hit the floor below, grabbing the first soldier that dared to approach and twisting his neck in a satisfying crunch. Xander’s panicked questions about what was going on seemed to ring in his ears, and Spike whipped around to look up to where Oz seemed ready to jump down as well.
“Get him out of here!” Spike bellowed, jabbing toward Xander.
“I’m not leaving her!”
“There is nothing they can do.”
The sound of Havi’s voice only served to infuriate Spike further, and he wrenched away from the spectacle on the balcony to see her crouching over Willow’s prone body.
“You were supposed to protect her!” he shouted. “So much for doin’ your bloody job!”
“There might still be hope.” Reaching behind her head, Havi pulled at the uppermost studs in her neck until they came off in her hands, a small silver ball in one and a long silver bar in the other.
A volley of new gunfire had Spike lunging to throw himself over the two women, though he knew it was pointless in the case of one of them. Bullets tore into his back, and he growled against the pain, the scent of Willow’s freshly spilled blood making his mouth water and his demon roar.
“Get Xander out of here in safety and I will do what I can to save her,” Havi said.
“You can’t save her if she’s already dead.”
Inexplicable tears stung at Spike’s eyes, but he refused to acknowledge them as another wave of soldiers attacked. The carnage was quick and brutal, his grief fuelling him to violence he hadn’t experienced since coming back to Sunnydale, and it was only when there was a brief respite in the fighting that he saw Oz poised on the balcony with the crossbow and an empty quiver.
Havi was still bent over Willow, her long fingers spreading some kind of oil across the witch’s cheeks. The same oil leaked from the end of the bar she’d pulled out of her neck.
“What’re you doin’?” Spike demanded. “Let’s get out of here.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to accomplish,” she muttered. She finally looked up, one arm beneath Willow’s shoulders cradling her close, and the gravity in Havi’s face made Spike hesitate where he’d been about to approach again. “Get Xander out of here,” she repeated. “And tell Oz…I will do everything I can.”
Before Spike could react, Havi plunged the sharp end of the silver bar into Willow’s heart like a miniature dagger. A brilliant light exploded from where they were, knocking him back away from the overturned cart, and by the time he’d blinked to see what had just happened, both women were gone.
He had no idea what was going on. Spike had been shouting, and then Oz had started shouting as well, and what kept getting shouted couldn’t help but lead Xander to believe that something had happened to Willow. Something bad. Something unthinkable. So when Oz broke free and disappeared into the black ether, Xander went stumbling after him, desperate to find out what was messing with everybody. If his best friend had gone firestarter again, he wanted to know.
“What’s happening? What’s going on?” He kept asking the questions, over and over again, in every permutation he could think of hoping that one of them would get Oz’s attention. He couldn’t even find the other man. There was the smell of blood and the sounds of fighting and Xander was beginning to think that things might’ve been much better off if this had been one time when he hadn’t been rescued. The fact that he couldn’t hear Havi and Willow at all when they’d specifically come back to get them was worrying him to the point where he didn’t care if he was blind man walking, he was going to just start swinging punches and hope that he connected with something.
Oz’s shout was both panicked and desperate, somewhere off to Xander’s left. He honed in on it immediately, rushing forward until a steel bar jammed into his hip. A strong grip curled around his upper arm to keep him from toppling over.
“Get back, Xander,” Oz warned.
“Not until somebody tells me what’s going on,” he said. “This is one of those times where those annoying blow-by-blow commentaries would be greatly appreciated.”
A flurry of rustling leather whistled by his ear, and a much stronger hold grabbed his other arm. “If we don’t want to end up the same way as Red,” Spike said, already dragging Xander backwards, “now is the perfect time to run.”
Oz seemed determined to do his best wishbone impression on Xander. “We can’t just leave her here,” he argued.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, the birds have flown the coop,” Spike shot back. He yanked at Xander so hard that he pulled him free, wrenching Xander’s arm so that pain lanced through his back. “There’s nothin’ we can do here. Studs…”
But he didn’t finish the sentence, choosing instead to start running away from the fray. Oz’s footsteps took a second to echo after them.
Xander didn’t have the breath to say anything again until he was being shoved up some kind of ladder, Spike insistently pressing him from behind. Even then, the opportunity was lost when hands appeared from above and grabbed his arms, pulling him out of wherever they’d been and into the cool echo of a much larger space.
“Where are the girls?”
That was Graham. Xander’s heart leapt into his throat. The soldier had actually kept his word.
“Not comin’,” was Spike’s terse reply.
“Will somebody please tell me what the hell happened back there?” Xander exclaimed.
“We got ambushed, remember?” There was the sound of a body hitting a wall, and Spike’s snarl made it all too clear who was doing the slamming. “Care to share why that might be, soldier boy?”
“What are you talking about?” Graham gasped. Xander realized the vampire must be holding him by the throat.
“I don’t think it was his fault,” Oz said. “They were looking for him, too, Spike, and I don’t think it was for an official commendation.”
Silence. Then, a body hit the floor.
“Someone sold you out,” Spike said. “I suggest you run like hell or your little buddies will be makin’ you their next experiment.” He chuckled, but the sound of it made Xander’s blood run cold. “On second thought, stay right there. Serve you right, I think.”
“He helped get me out of there by going to you guys,” Xander interceded. “If they’re after him, we’re not just going to leave him behind.”
Spike was suddenly standing in front of him, so close that Xander could smell the smoke that lingered on his coat.
“Don’t think you’d be so quick about that peace offering if you knew what happened down there,” he said. “Red’s dead, Harris. And your little girlfriend is gone. Thanks to that little ambush, we get to be the lucky ones to tell Buffy that her best friend got killed while on our watch.”
The vamp’s voice was laced with bitterness, but the pain at Willow’s loss couldn’t be missed, either. But beyond what he said about Willow---something Xander was already suspecting anyway---his phrasing about Havi led to even bigger questions.
“Gone? What do you mean gone?”
“I mean vanished. Poof. Up in the proverbial smoke. She said to get you out of there and that she’d do what she could for Red.”
“Wait a minute,” Oz said. “You didn’t say that before.”
“Because we’ve just had all the time in the world to be sharing notes, right?” Spike snorted in disgust. “Start bein’ smart, Oz.”
“Oh, like you’d be a beacon for rationality if that was Buffy we’d just left behind.”
“Can’t very well leave anybody behind if they’re not bloody there!”
“Enough!” Graham’s voice rang out. “Can we argue about who would mourn more once we’re away from this place? Just because you’re up here doesn’t mean they’re stopping their chase.”
That seemed to be all it took for Spike to start moving again, his hand tight on Xander’s arm. Nobody said a word until they were all piled into Oz’s van, and it was a tense couple of minutes as the vehicle sped away.
Spike sat next to Xander in the back, slumped against the wall. After the vamp’s earlier outburst, Xander wasn’t so sure he wanted to bring up the subject of Willow again, but considering he still knew next to nothing, he didn’t think he had a choice.
“Will you tell me at least what happened back there?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
He heard Spike sigh, felt him move as he reached for something between them. The flick of his lighter was followed by the distinct smell of sulfur and cigarettes, and Xander had to bite back the retort about secondhand smoke killing. It would only make matters worse.
“She got shot in the back,” Spike finally said. “Sniper took her out, too fast for her to see or me to stop. Only good thing is I don’t think she suffered. Happened too quick for that.”
Tears dampened Xander’s eyes, making his lashes stick together behind his bandages. “What about Havi? You said…she vanished? How?”
“Looked like magic to me, what with the blinding light and all. One second she’s there, smearing some oil shit on Willow, and the next…”
Spike’s voice started to break, and he covered it up by taking a long drag on his cigarette. Xander decided that he didn’t care about the smoke any more. He felt so bad that death would be a welcome change.
“This is all my fault,” he murmured. “If I hadn’t…” His head dropped to his hands. “God, what have I done?”
The fact that nobody tried to reassure him that he was wrong about the blame only depressed Xander further. What made it even worse was that he’d been so harsh with Havi, questioning her loyalty, only to have her turn around and demand Spike ensure Xander’s safety so that she could do what she could to help Willow. He was glad that his bandages hid his crying from the others.
The van lurched to a stop, breaking him from his dead end thoughts. “Where are we?” he asked.
“Hospital.” Spike rose from his seat, grabbing something from around their feet. Xander assumed it was his blanket. “Promised Buffy I’d be back after we got you sorted.”
“Wait! Why is Buffy…” The van door slammed behind the exiting vampire. “…in the hospital?”
With Spike gone, he expected Oz to reply instead. It didn’t happen. The van just started moving again, and Xander silently berated himself. He wasn’t the only one grieving here.
“Where are we going to now?” he asked, switching tactics.
The single word reply was the last warning Xander needed to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t say another word until they were safely ensconced in the Watcher’s apartment.
Wesley sat and listened in shocked disbelief as Oz related the story of what had happened during Xander’s rescue. Willow…dead? What was worse was the timing of it. As soon as Rupert finished his tirade, Wesley was going to have no choice but to bring up the coincidence of his earlier call from Lydia.
“What on earth were you thinking?” Giles ranted. “It was both incredibly foolish and irresponsible for you to go in there without thought for the repercussions. How could you think you could trust him?” He gestured toward where Graham hung back in the corner. “And now Willow has paid the price for that arrogance.”
Oz wasn’t speaking. The young man had barely said a word since their arrival, his eyes dark and luminous as he just watched Rupert lecture.
“They couldn’t have stopped her,” Xander said. “You know how Willow has been getting lately. She thought she was Supergirl now.”
He was already slipping into past tense. Xander’s stomach clenched painfully at the realization.
Suddenly, Giles sank wearily into his favorite chair, removing his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Buffy is going to be devastated,” he said. “Things are already difficult enough with the baby, and now this…”
“Spike will do what he can to lessen the blow,” Oz said, finally breaking his silence.
“And maybe Havi will come through,” Xander offered. “She wouldn’t have just disappeared with Willow without having a really good reason, right?”
It was clear nobody wanted to consider the far-reaching possibilities, but Wesley knew better than to say anything about it. He also decided against mentioning the coincidental timing of Willow’s death with Esme’s collapse back at the house. Lydia had been quite upset about finding the witch unconscious, and while Wesley’s initial response had been that the occurrence was merely because of the witch’s age, he was now beginning to have doubts. It was just too fortuitous.
But that was a consideration for later. Now, they mourned.
Maggie listened to the reports with her usual stoic composure, but the moment the soldiers left her office, her shoulders slumped. Though there had always been the faintest of doubts since his abduction, she’d never truly believed that Graham could betray her. He was too much a part of the team. She’d handpicked him personally both for his skills and for his loyalty. Next to Riley, he had been one of her favorites.
If it wasn’t for Robin’s call, she would never have known about his duplicity. Even then, she’d hoped that it was merely coincidence, but when the entourage arrived for young Harris’ rescue, there had been no more room for doubt. You didn’t send a vampire, a witch, and a werewolf to do your business if you weren’t working for the other side.
Beyond her disappointment in his betrayal, however, there was fear that he would expose their operations. Granted, he’d been nothing but the model soldier since his unfortunate kidnapping in September, but obviously, he’d changed his mind about which side would have his allegiance. Now, the Slayer would know about what they were trying to accomplish with the Initiative. The only thing that gave Maggie any relief was that Graham knew nothing about her private interest in the Slayer artifacts. That was one secret that would remain hers until the time was right.
In the meantime, she would have to do what she could to get Graham back into custody. It would require more covert methodology, but she was an expert at that. She just had to be patient.
The oil burned where it touched Havi’s skin, but she ignored the pain as she lifted Willow’s body onto the edge of the well. The water was already rippling, the light an iridescent glow in anticipation of her arrival. The echoes of the magic pounded inside her skull, making it difficult to concentrate, but she bowed forward anyway, pressing her forehead to the headstone of the well as she waited.
“This is unexpected,” the Guardian’s voice murmured.
She didn’t move. She had to wait. She knew the protocols and if she wished for Willow to have any chance at all, she had to follow them.
“You have failed,” the voice said. “Why do you seek us out?”
“I did not fail,” Havi argued. “I stood by her side. I fought with her until…” Finishing that sentence was going to be very bad for her case.
“Until she died, you mean.” They didn’t care for the niceties. “This is the second charge to die under your protection, Child of Life. You disappoint us.”
“Rose’s death was ordained. There was nothing I could do to prevent it.”
“Willow’s was not. This was not how it was supposed to be.”
“And you don’t think I know that?” She sat up, suddenly not caring about the so-called protocols. Her eyes burned from her unshed tears. “We were only there because Xander fled in the face of my dishonesty with him. There would’ve been no need for a rescue if I’d been upfront with him from the start. I am more than aware of my blame in this.”
“And yet, you come to us anyway.”
“Yes. I have no other choice.”
Silence filled the cavern, the only sounds in the echoing space the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the well. Willow’s skin seemed ashen in the odd lighting, but Havi was doing everything in her power not to look at her. She had to be strong about this, and seeing the object of her failure would only break her.
“Coming to us in such a manner is for times of crisis only,” the voice said. “You know this.”
“Isn’t Willow’s death crisis enough?” she shot back.
“Her dying would be. But she is already gone. What would you have us do?”
Havi took a deep breath. “Bring her back.”
“That is not how things are done. You know this.”
Anger flared at the indifference she heard in their tone. “I know she should not be dead!” Havi said. “And I know you have the power to reverse this, should you choose. You wanted her so badly to be one of you. Why aren’t you fighting to keep her?”
“The power she wielded is no longer hers to control.”
“She was more than her magic!” She rose to her feet, desperate for any advantage she might have, even if it was only in her head. “She would’ve given the Guardians more than the ability to cast a spell. She would’ve given you compassion. Diligence. She would’ve brought back innocence without falling to ignorance. But she can’t do that if she’s dead.”
“It’s all part of the natural cycle, child. Even if this is not how we would’ve planned---.”
“There is nothing natural about being shot in the back!” Havi spat.
The voice sighed. The air within the cavern felt heavier. “Even if we were to choose to help,” it said, “we would not be able to do so. Balance must be kept. A life cannot be returned without another being taken.”
They were no longer saying no. The hope that they were offering was slim, but Havi grasped it with everything she had. “So…if someone else was to die, you would do what is necessary to bring Willow back?” she asked.
“That is the way,” came the reply.
Her mind raced. It was impossible to consider returning to Sunnydale without Willow at her side. She couldn’t come this close and fail. She just couldn’t.
That left only a single option.
Havi knelt again before the well, bowing her head in supplication. “There are no words to express just how ashamed I am that I have failed so,” she said. “So I offer the only penitence I can. Take my life for Willow’s.”
To be continued in Chapter 47: The Long-Lived Phoenix…