The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XIX.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow’s death meant Esme got her magic back and then fell unconscious while the shadow disappeared from Buffy’s ultrasound, Havi teleported Willow’s dead body out of the Initiative to the Well of the Guardians and offered to trade her life for Willow’s, and the rest of the gang has managed to escape, dropping Spike off at the hospital before going to Giles’…

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

Chapter 47: The Long-Lived Phoenix

Spike didn’t realize just how bad he looked until two different nurses accosted him on his way to Buffy’s room, trying to get him to go to the emergency room so that his injuries could be tended. A well-placed snarl was all it took to get them to disengage, but their reactions made him hesitant to just barge in on Buffy. He didn’t want to scare her more than she already was. He veered toward the waiting room instead, throwing his blanket over his shoulders to hide the bullet holes in his back, in hopes of getting another opinion on just how bad his appearance was.

Joyce rose to her feet as soon as he entered, but the smile that appeared at the sight of him vanished when her gaze swept over his form.

“What happened?” she asked once she was at his side. She kept her voice low, her head tilted toward him to keep their conversation private from the other inhabitants of the waiting room.

Spike shook his head. “Just a bit of a scrap. Nothin’ to fuss over.” That answered his question, though. He’d have to clean up before going in to see Buffy.

Joyce seemed reluctant to accept his non-explanation, but the look on his face must’ve been enough for her to realize she shouldn’t press. “You got here just in time,” she said. “They’re discharging Buffy early. We can go home as soon as they finish her paperwork.”

At least one thing was going right today. “No more pains then?” he asked.

“Not a one. And the shadow is completely gone as well. They took that as a good omen that everything is going to be all right.”

Spike’s chest tightened, and he lifted bleak eyes to search Joyce’s. “What was that? You said…how do they know the shadow’s gone?”

“They did an ultrasound while you were out. Whatever was showing up yesterday isn’t there any more. The baby’s alive and kicking just as clear as day.”

He didn’t hear the good news about the little one.

What Spike heard was that all evidence of Willow’s magic was completely gone from Buffy’s scans.

Just like Willow was now gone from their lives.

That knowledge shattered the last of his resolve to be strong in the face of what had happened with Xander’s rescue. Tears sprang to his eyes, and his shoulders slumped as the sobs started to wrack his chest. Joyce’s warm arms were around him before he could stop her, but the comfort she offered only seemed to intensify his grief, his cries muffled as he clung to her.

“It’s OK,” she soothed. “I know it’s been stressful, but Buffy’s going to be OK.”

The fact that she didn’t even know why he was crying made it worse.

Suddenly, Joyce stiffened, pulling back as her hand came away from her embrace. Blood stained her fingers, and her face was pale when she looked at him. “This doesn’t look like something I shouldn’t fuss over,” she said.

The other visitors had started to stare at them in curiosity, prompting Joyce to take Spike’s arm and lead him into the hall. He kept his head lowered, hiding his face from those that passed, but when she pushed open the door to the hospital chapel, he saw the sign on the door and balked.

“We’ll have privacy in here,” Joyce said.

He didn’t have the strength to argue and followed her to the rear pews, turning when she guided him around. The sharp intake of her breath made his head drop, and Spike closed his eyes as he felt her fingers probe the various holes in his back.

“This isn’t about Buffy, is it?” she asked quietly.

He shook his head. His lashes were starting to stick together from his drying tears. “Red’s dead,” he murmured. “We ran into the wrong end of an ambush, tryin’ to get Harris back. Sniper took her out before her magic could come to the rescue.”

“Oh, Spike…” Her hands were warm against his neck as she tugged at the collar of his coat, forcing him to take it off so that she could get a better look at his injuries. “It looks like you were acting as a human shield. Did anybody else get shot?”

“Not that I know of. It was too late for Red, though.” Craning his neck, he tried to peer over his shoulder and see the extent of the damage. “Doesn’t feel like it’s bleeding too much any more. If I cover it up, Buffy won’t be the wiser.”

“You’re not honestly considering keeping this from her, are you?”

The incredulity in her voice made Spike lift his eyes to meet hers. “She’s goin’ to be broken up enough about Red,” he said. “I don’t need---.”

“You know…” Suddenly, all her sympathy seemed to be gone, and her eyes flashed with something that made Spike take a step backward. “This second-guessing you and Buffy keep doing, trying to tiptoe around the other’s feelings, has to stop. Here and now. I know you’re upset about Willow, and I know you think you need to do what you can to keep Buffy from getting hurt, but relationships don’t work that way. Well, Buffy’s relationships don’t. She hates being coddled, and if you keep doing it, you’re going to lose her. Take it from somebody who knows.”

“The baby---.”

“---will be fine,” Joyce finished. “Buffy’s strong, and with this latest threat gone, she’s got nothing to worry about. But when she finds out about Willow, the two of you are going to need to be there for each other, two hundred percent.”

Spike sagged onto the pew, burying his head in his hands. “She’s goin’ to hate me,” he muttered.

“She’s not going to hate you.”

He didn’t look up when Joyce sat next to him. “She doesn’t know what we did. She’s goin’ to blame me for lettin’ Red get hurt.”

The tears were free-flowing again, but this time it was fear for Buffy’s reaction as much as it was the fact that Willow was gone. Though he didn’t want to admit it, Joyce had a point. He had to come clean. He’d known he had to before she’d come to the hospital, but adding this onto the having to confess what had happened to her best friend was more than Spike was prepared to shoulder. The temptation to flee was tremendous, and if it wasn’t for the fact that it would hurt more the longer he drew it out, he likely would’ve bolted from the chapel that very instant.

He didn’t, though. He just cried until he couldn’t cry any more. He had to have that out of his system before he faced Buffy.

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

Joyce insisted on cleaning the worst of Spike’s injuries before he went to Buffy’s room, dragging him into a supply closet to bandage over the holes.

“We’ll go see Rupert when Buffy gets discharged,” she said. “He should be able to take care of you without you needing to see a doctor.”

He couldn’t hide the holes in his coat, though. He was going to have to explain those before Buffy could call him on them.

She wasn’t in the room when he pushed the door open, and for a moment, he thought he might’ve already missed her. Then, the toilet flushed in the adjoining bathroom, and she emerged, already changed back into her street clothes.

“Did Mom tell you?” she said, her smile brilliant as she rushed up and threw her arms around his neck. “God, you have no idea how relieved I was. I just wish…”

Though he’d automatically returned her embrace, Spike couldn’t stop her quick discovery of the state of his coat, and he didn’t attempt to prevent her from pulling away when her voice trailed off. Her eyes were dark when they met his, searching for some kind of an explanation, but he just took her by the elbows and guided her over to the bed.

“Something’s happened,” he said.

Taking her hands in his, he gave her the abridged version of what had happened in Xander’s rescue, watching her grow increasingly pale as the story progressed. When he reached the part about Willow’s collapse, her lips parted, her breath hitching as if she was going to speak, but nothing came out. She just continued to listen as he detailed how Havi had disappeared with the body.

“Then, maybe she’s not dead,” Buffy said. “Maybe Havi’s got some secret weapon with the Guardians to help protect her.”

“I don’t think so, pet.” His hand was shaking as he reached up to brush back a strand of hair from her cheek. “If Red was still alive, her magic wouldn’t be on the blink. And your mum told me that your scan came up clean this time.”

“What does…” But the question faded as her brain made the connection. “That was Willow?” she whispered. “What did she do?”

“It was just a protection spell,” he said dismissively, hoping that treating the subject so would make it seem far less important than it actually was. “It wasn’t ever meant---.”

“You knew?”

There was no denying the hurt accusation in her eyes, but she was already speaking before he’d finished nodding.

“You knew all along,” she said. “You knew, and you didn’t tell me? I thought…I asked you how many times, and you never even hinted that…”

“Buffy---.”

The pieces were falling into place too quickly for him to interrupt though, and he could only watch as she tore away and began pacing the length of the room.

“We were supposed to be partners!” she exclaimed. “You promised, and…I can’t believe you let her do that to Schmoo, after all your words about keeping the baby safe. God, I can’t believe you made me think something was seriously wrong. That shadow…”

It was the final puzzle piece slipping effortlessly into place that made her stop. Her hands had been fluttering as she moved, but now, they came to rest on the swell of her stomach, her eyes widening as the rest of the color drained from her face.

“It’s gone,” she whispered. “There wasn’t anything there. That means…Oh my god, Willow…”

He caught her before she crumpled, pulling her into his chest before they sank to the floor together. Her rattled sobs made both of them shake, drawing Spike’s tears back to the fore, but he murmured every word of apology and every wish of condolence he could muster. It was hard to celebrate the life that bound them together when another’s brilliance had been extinguished. Spike was just relieved that Buffy allowed him to share her grief. He was going to be grateful for anything she threw his way until she’d forgiven him for his involvement in Willow’s spell. She and the little one were all that mattered any more.

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

Wesley waited until Oz and Xander had left to take the latter home before cornering Giles in the kitchen.

“I know this isn’t the best time,” he said quietly, “but I fear that Willow’s death might have further reaching consequences than you realize.”

Giles didn’t move away from where he fussed over the kettle. For some reason, he was remarkably insistent about making a pot of tea. He was using the excuse that he needed to offer something to Graham, who had stayed behind, but Wesley knew that it was more likely to keep from thinking too closely about what had happened.

“Oh?” His casual comment could’ve been a response to the state of the weather.

Wesley angled his body so that Giles had no choice but to look at him. “Lydia’s call earlier?” he prompted.

“What of it? I thought you said…” Understanding made Giles hesitate, and he glanced away from the teabags in his hand. “You don’t truly believe that Esme’s collapse has anything to do with Willow?” he said.

“The timing is suspicious, don’t you think?”

“Esme’s powerless. It’s ludicrous to assume she had anything to do with what happened.”

“I’m not. I’m assuming she might be involved in the aftereffects.”

Shaking his head, Giles returned to making his tea. “She’s old. Nothing has happened that can’t be attributed to her age.”

“Except the timing of it.” He followed the other Watcher into the other room, ignoring Graham hovering in the corner. This was no longer the time for discretion. “Willow’s magic often acted of its own volition. Protecting its vessel. Taking control. Yes, she was gaining some mastery over it, but in the end, it was still almost a separate entity. What if…what if Willow’s death forced it to seek out safety? What if it decided to return to Esme?”

Clearly, the possibility hadn’t occurred to Giles, and he visibly paled. “That’s a…rather large leap of logic,” he said, though his voice lacked conviction.

“Didn’t Willow’s original spell act almost the same way?” Wesley pressed. “In your reports of what happened in London last summer. Didn’t you say that when she broke the rod that contained Esme’s magic, it returned the magic to its source?

“Eventually. But that was a different spell. Rose was the one who transferred the magic from Esme to Willow, and we never learned just how she changed the spell to get it to work as she did.”

“But the possibility exists. And Willow fell unconscious after receiving the power, just like Esme has now. The similarities are too many to ignore, Rupert.”

He wasn’t sure if the fact that Giles had no immediate response was because he believed Wesley or that he thought his theories rubbish. Graham took the tea Giles offered, but the way the young man’s inscrutable gaze met Wes’ left him uneasy.

“What are you suggesting then?” Giles said. “We couldn’t control Esme when she was at full strength. If you’re right, we’re going to be in the same dire straits when she wakes again.”

“We need to confer with the others,” Wesley said. “Perhaps we can---.”

“You need to kill her.”

Both Englishmen swiveled their heads to stare at Graham in disbelief. “I don’t remember asking for your opinion,” Giles said coldly.

Graham shrugged. “You’re the ones talking in front of me. I’m just saying what you two are obviously too scared to.”

“We don’t murder people.”

“No, you just kidnap them.”

Giles took a menacing step closer, but Graham didn’t flinch. “I still have my chains,” he warned.

Wesley was disappointed when the young man didn’t reply. Graham had been right. That had been exactly the conclusion to which he’d been hoping to lead Giles. It was the only possibility he could see that would solve the potential issue of a rogue witch nobody could control.

“We’ll talk to Buffy,” Giles said, turning away from his confrontation. “She often comes to rather unorthodox solutions. I’m sure she’ll have some ideas.”

Wesley nodded, though his heart wasn’t in it. Somehow, he couldn’t shake the feeling that delaying action would prove detrimental in the long run. Giles was just too blinded by his grief to see it clearly.

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

Lydia’s hands shook as she stuffed Esme’s clothing into a suitcase. She desperately wished that she was the one being taken away and not the old woman. When Wesley discovered the extent of her involvement, she would no longer be welcome in Sunnydale, regardless of what Mr. Travers might say. It wasn’t even so much what the two Watchers would do that scared her. If Spike learned that she’d turned on him, she knew that their past history would not be enough to save her from his wrath. He was possessive of the baby; when he learned she was planning on using it against him and Buffy, he’d kill her without batting an eyelash.

But Mr. Travers had been adamant when she’d called him.

“The only doctors I trust are our own,” he’d said. “A removal team will be there within the hour.”

“What about Willow?” she’d countered.

“Esme can hardly be useful in Ms. Rosenberg’s education if she’s unconscious.”

“And Wesley? How am I supposed to explain Esme’s sudden disappearance to him?”

“The team will take the appropriate actions to ensure you’re not indicted for this.” Mr. Travers had hung up before she could argue with him further.

Esme was still unconscious, just as she had been ever since collapsing in the kitchen. Her pulse was thready, her breathing too rapid for a woman her age. Frankly, Lydia was convinced that it was related to her old age and not something grim as Mr. Travers seemed to believe.

But she was under orders, and she would follow those orders through, praying that right would win out over wrong in the end, praying even more that the side she had chosen was the right one.

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

The air around the well rippled from the vigorous magics that suffused the cavern, the lapping of the water almost violent where it pounded into the bodies that were submerged within the pool. Neither moved, though one still pulsed with just the faintest emanations of life. It had been that way ever since Havi had placed Willow in the well, growing increasingly vehement when she’d lain alongside her. The Guardians had work to do. That work was creating a din.

When the voice came through, it was nearly eclipsed by the other sounds, a soft whisper in the cacophony of chaos. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. The magic continued.

“You have to stop,” the voice said again.

Near the entrance, the air grew thicker, condensing into something almost tangible. Long white hair became visible first, and then the arch of a high cheekbone. Before anything more could sharpen into focus, the form started moving though it made no noise as it approached the well.

“Your presence is not required here,” the voice of the Guardians said.

The noise of the magic didn’t abate, and the form turned toward Havi’s now inert body. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” the newcomer said. “You know this. I told you this.”

“It does not matter. This is the choice the Child of Life has made.”

“Then unmake it. I did not go through everything that I did for Havi to die.”

Enough of the form had materialized for distinguishing features to now be seen. Rose Rhodes-Fanshaw glared at the well, though her anger was clearly directed at the other Guardians rather than the two young women in its waters.

“This is no longer your battle,” the voice said. “You have paid your dues. Go and rest, Rose.”

“I can’t. You’re about to make a serious mistake, and if you think I can stand by without saying anything, then you’re not nearly as attuned to right as you should be.”

The air seemed to sigh, and the movement that had been enlivening the atmosphere began to ebb. Rose remained unmoving at the well’s side.

“The Powers should not have intervened and sent you here,” the voice finally said. “We need Willow Rosenberg as one of us. Without the Child of Life’s sacrifice, this is not possible. We cannot afford to spend any more time so weak.”

“You will continue to be weak if you allow Havi to die,” Rose said. “Willow’s power requires Havi to be at her side for many years to come. Those were the visions I saw. Why are you now ignoring them?”

“We have no choice.”

“There is always choice.”

“Not when there is life in the balance. You know the rules, Rose. This is how it should be.”

Rose’s frustration made her incorporeal form flicker in the silver and lavender light. “The fight that is to come will be lost if Havi is not there to take up arms,” she said. “Already, the power has shifted. Esme has regained the use of her magic and the others grow closer to the truth every day. You would really allow the Slayer’s power to fall into their hands just because of your own stubborn refusal to acknowledge other paths than your own?”

“We have no choice,” the voice repeated. “A life for a life. Havi has offered hers as it should be. Willow is her charge. It is Havi’s duty to do everything she can to save her.”

Rose’s lips pressed together, whitening impossibly in her gauzy appearance. A long minute passed where each party waited for the other to act. It stretched into two. Just as the air began to move again, Rose spoke.

“Take another life then,” she said. The magic stilled. Beads of water clung to Willow’s cheek in the pool, while something beneath Havi’s closed lids fluttered.

“There is no other.”

“You’re wrong.” She squared her shoulders. “I offer Baltozar Marroquin’s in exchange for Willow’s.”

There was a gust of wind, though Rose remained unmoving. Whispers began to swell and swirl between the walls, confused and garbled so that any passing stranger would be unable to understand them. Even the water seemed agitated, absorbing the proposal but unsure what to do with it.

“You know he’s not intended to wake up again,” Rose continued. “If it wasn’t for Havi’s intervention, he would’ve died months ago. Taking his life now will give him purpose. It will help counter the evil that’s been done.”

“Why did the Child of Life not suggest this?” the voice asked.

“Because she is too honorable. It would never occur to her to offer anything that wasn’t hers.”

“But you have no qualms about making such a proposition.”

Rose edged closer to the well. “I specifically forbade Havi to intervene when Baltozar took my life,” she said. “I knew nothing short of my death would tear her from her duty to me. As a victim of his crimes---.”

“A willing victim.”

“Still, a victim. As such, our lives are entwined. His is mine to offer.”

More whispering, more confusion. The wind rose and fell as the Guardians conferred.

“Why did you not tell Havi of her role in the upcoming fight?” they asked. “You could just have come to the Hellmouth instead of taking her around Europe and Africa while the vampire chased you.”

“Because William’s role is defined as well,” Rose replied. “But it was never clear for which side he fought. I needed to test his allegiance, see just how willing he was to pursue what he desired. If he had failed, I would’ve done just as you said. But he didn’t. He proved his worth to my satisfaction. What transpired was the only way.”

A soft sigh rippled throughout the cavern as the voices died away. “It pains us that you’ve been drawn from your peace to intervene in this matter,” the voice of the Guardians said. “You were a valued friend, and due to that, your opinion matters greatly to us. As you wish…so be it.”

The sound of Havi’s sputtered coughing drew Rose’s gaze down to the well, and a small sad smile formed on her lips. “Be well,” she whispered as her form began to fade again. “And be strong…”

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

The electronic hum of the life support machine began to beep in shrill tones that sent the medical staff scurrying to Baltozar’s hospital room. So little had happened there that the nurses were shocked to have to respond at all. Still, they worked as efficiently as they always did, bringing over the equipment the doctor ordered and aiding as best they could.

It was over just as quickly as it had all started.

“Somebody turn that damn machine off,” the doctor grumbled, stepping away from the bed. He glanced up at the clock on the wall, comparing it with the time on his watch, as the room finally fell silent. “I’m calling it. One forty-seven. Somebody call the next of kin and let them know Mr. Marroquin has finally passed away.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 48: Winter’s Ragged Hand