The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet VI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Rose showed up at the Well to trade Baltozar’s life for Havi’s, Wesley is growing fearful of what will happen to Esme now, while Spike has confessed everything to Buffy when telling her of Willow’s death…

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

Chapter 48: Winter's Ragged Hand

She called Rupert while Spike was in with Buffy. As much as Joyce wanted to be there for her daughter when she got the devastating news about her best friend, she also knew that what Spike had to say---whatever it was---was far more important than her maternal needs. It ate her up having to stay away, but it was hardly the first time she’d been forced to sit through a difficult decision for Buffy’s sake.

Rupert’s voice was rough over the line, and Joyce was horrified to think, for the first time since meeting him, that he sounded his age. More. Willow’s death was obviously affecting him just as strongly as it was the younger people. Joyce was going to have to remember to offer him a shoulder to cry on once everything was settled.

“I believe Oz mentioned that,” he said in reference to Spike’s injuries. A low murmur in the background sounded vaguely like Wesley, and there was a pause before Rupert continued to speak. “It’s probably best if I meet you at your house. I can pick up a few supplies on the way. Does Buffy need anything?”

“No, she just needs to go home, I think. I’m not sure how her hormones are going to make her react to the news, so I was wondering if you could have Oz and Xander come over as well? Maybe if they’re all together, it’ll make dealing with what happened easier.”

“I agree. I’ll ring them and make the suggestion.”

“Thank you, Rupert.”

He hung up before she could get in any words of consolation, leaving Joyce still feeling half at odds. There had to be more she could do, but she would likely have to bide her time to do so.

Buffy’s face was swollen and pale when she and Spike finally emerged from her hospital room. Without a word, she broke away from him and rushed to Joyce, throwing her arms tightly around her waist as she buried her face against Joyce’s shoulder.

“It’s OK,” Joyce soothed, automatically lifting her hands to brush over Buffy’s hair. Her eyes met Spike’s, but he lowered them to the floor before she could read them effectively. “Let’s go home.”

The SUV was silent all the way back to Revello Drive, and Joyce was relieved to see Giles’ Citroen parked on the street when she pulled into the drive. He was out of the car before she could turn off the engine, opening Buffy’s door and helping her from the front seat.

“You know,” she said to him softly.

It hurt Joyce to hear her daughter sound so small.

Rupert nodded. “I tried to reach Oz and Xander to have them here as well,” he said. “But neither of them has returned home yet.”

“Spike said…Xander was hurt?”

“Temporarily blinded, we were told. Xander said he’d been treated, but the effects hadn’t taken hold yet.”

“They’re probably still together, then,” Buffy said. “They’re not going to want to be alone. Not with…”

Her eyes ducked as her voice faded away.

The discreet clearing of Spike’s throat from the back of the SUV got Joyce into action. “I feel like a cup of tea,” she announced, going around the front of the car. She smiled when Giles looked up at her gratefully. “Buffy? Why don’t you come and help me while Rupert takes care of Spike.”

She put her arm around Buffy’s shoulder as they went inside the house. The silence continued, even after Joyce heard Giles and Spike’s murmuring come from the living room, even while they set about making the tea she had promised. Buffy was lost wherever it was her thoughts had taken her, sitting perched on the stool at the island, eyes dry and hollow as they gazed at nothing. It took all of Joyce’s willpower not to intrude.

Spike was the first to come into the kitchen. He was stripped to the waist, his bloodied t-shirt dangling from his fingers. Bruises mottled his pale skin, but they were inconsequential to the shadows haunting his eyes. He took the mug of warmed blood Buffy handed to him and tried to smile, but the effort seemed to exhaust both of them.

“We need to talk,” Buffy said quietly.

Rupert entered just as Spike was nodding in agreement. He hung back as the pair headed toward the basement, the door whispering closed behind them, and only ventured further once the footsteps descending the stairs fell silent.

“Thank you,” he murmured when Joyce pushed his waiting teacup closer.

“How are you going to explain this to Willow’s parents?” she asked.

When he shook his head, it looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. “I have no idea. I can’t even wrap my mind around the fact that she’s gone. I always assumed Buffy---.”

He stopped, and the guilty glance he shot in Joyce’s direction finished the sentence for him.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Ever since I found out about Buffy being the Slayer, I’ve had those kinds of nightmares on a regular basis. Considering what she does, it makes sense to think she’d be the one to get killed.”

Giles sipped at his tea, eyes downcast behind his spectacles. “I never envisioned this,” he confessed. “We’re trained to guide our Slayers, and we’re warned of attachments. We enter the relationship already knowing of its demise. Maybe not the when, but most definitely the how. And sometimes, that makes it easier. This, with Willow, though…more than anyone else, she was a constant. A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed reminder of just why I chose to become a Watcher in the first place. Not because she was the girl Buffy needed to save, but because…”

He stopped again, as if the words became too difficult to vocalize. Joyce did nothing but wait, leaning against the edge of the counter with her steaming cup cradled between her hands, waiting for him to find the ease he needed.

“She would’ve been brilliant,” he finally said, and then chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, hell, she already was. But she could’ve been magnificent with the proper guidance. In time…I’m sure she had the potential to surpass us all. She was still a child in so many senses of the word. She shouldn’t have…”

Joyce heard the thickening of his speech before his voice finally broke, setting her cup down and reaching forward to place her hand over his where it rested on the counter. He stiffened at her initial touch, his gaze shooting upwards to stare at her in confusion. Unshed tears made his eyes gleam too brightly, but behind the blue, she saw the relief that he’d been afraid to voice, the need for contact when something treasured has been ripped away.

Neither said a word. There was nothing more either could offer.

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

Oz was glad that Xander hadn’t spoken since they’d left Giles’. It made it easier to concentrate. Without the reminder of who it was sitting next to him, he could focus on the task at hand. Or nose, as the case may be.

It wasn’t a complex plan. In fact, it had pretty much stemmed from the overwhelming desire to put as much distance between himself and Graham as physically possible. Standing in Giles’ living room and seeing the representation of what had dragged them down beneath Sunnydale was too much for him to handle. Having Xander at his side didn’t count. He was a pawn in a much bigger game. And Oz knew that he would’ve traded places with Willow in a heartbeat if the choice had come to that.

So, driving through the streets of Sunnydale with the excuse of taking Xander home had been his own personal form of therapy. Away from the need to do something violent. Away from the temptation to say to hell with everything good that Willow had ever shown him and letting his more primal instincts take over. Driving was soothing, numbing in more than an ass-tingly kind of way. Right now, he was welcoming the numb.

It was when they’d turned the corner near the Factory that the thought occurred to Oz. Scents from the street drifted in through his open window, and he was struck with the sudden wish to smell Willow’s hair. His hands had tightened around the wheel, his knuckles going white. It was a good thing Xander couldn’t have seen him or he probably would’ve been a little freaked out.

But without a body, there would be no smelling of Willow. There would be no more seeing. No more touching. No more anything. He wondered where Havi had taken her, and then realized that if it wasn’t that far, he could find them on his own. He knew Willow better than he knew himself, or at least, he liked to pretend that he did. It made forgetting about the past less painful.

He was about to give up and just take Xander home when he caught a whiff of something familiar. It wasn’t Willow; he would’ve recognized her without hesitation. But something about it nagged, like he should know it if he only concentrated.

Slowing the van, Oz turned his head more to the side, breathing in the outside air in long, slow swallows. He caught Xander’s quizzical turn of his head out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t say anything, choosing instead to pull up alongside the road and kill the engine. Here, just beyond the city’s limits, the air was cleaner, less tainted by the Hellmouth’s undercurrents of oil and blood. Here, he could focus on just what it was that had compelled him to stop.

“If you’ve got a flat tire,” Xander joked, “I’m afraid you’re all on your own in changing it.”

“No. It’s…” Pushing open the door, Oz stepped out into the afternoon sun, already beginning to grow dim on the horizon.

Not finishing the sentence right away prompted Xander to speak up. “Does this have something to do with the fact that it’s taking us nearly three times as long as it should to get to my house?” he asked.

Oz’s eyes scanned the nearby brush. It looked like it always did, dry and desperate for nutrient as it stretched off into nothing. But the scent was stronger here, and it was mingling with something that made his cock twitch.

He recognized it then. His entire body stiffened.

“Xander?”

“Yeah?”

“Reach under the front seat. I’ll be right back.”

Loose grit crunched beneath his shoes as he started to head toward the scents. From the car behind him, he heard Xander’s muffled curse as he did as he’d been instructed.

“Wait…Oz? This is a stake in my hand, right? Please tell me you’re not leaving me alone in the dark. Blind man sitting, remember? I’ll end up stabbing through the vampire’s kneecaps if something happens.”

“It’s still daylight,” he called back. “That’s just to make you feel safe until I get back.”

“How long are you going to be gone?”

But Oz was too far away at that point to respond. His path veered left, then right, as he followed the scents. He didn’t think they had actually come this way---the smells weren’t strong enough for that---but they were definitely here. That was all that mattered.

He saw Willow first, and his heart sped up at the sight of her red hair nearly hidden by the bush she was next to. Breaking into a run, Oz closed the distance to where she lay crumpled on the earth, almost not noticing Havi’s unconscious form nearly on top of her. He fell to his knees when he got to her side, pulling her up and against him without thinking, burying his nose in her dusty hair and inhaling until his lungs hurt.

This was what he’d wanted back in the fight. To be able to hold her, say good bye, anything more than what he’d been given. He knew Spike had had a point about leaving, but a part of him hated the vampire for making him go. If it had been Buffy---.

That was when he felt it. A soft rustling across his ear. Tickling, almost.

It could’ve been the wind.

It wasn’t.

With his throat suddenly so tight he couldn’t breathe, Oz loosened his hold so that Willow slipped away from his chest, her head falling back over his arm so that her neck seemed impossibly long. It looked so fragile, but as he watched, a tiny fluttering near the juncture of her shoulder seemed to eclipse the pounding of his own.

“Willow?” It was a whisper, like he didn’t dare speak her name any louder should he be wrong. His hand was trembling as he reached up and touched her face, then trailed down to hover over her neck until he found the courage to press down, just lightly enough to determine whether or not he’d imagined the faint pulse.

He hadn’t. It was there. Soft and thready, but there.

His eyes stung as he scooped her against him. Heedless of her weight, Oz stumbled to his feet, lurching sideways until he found his balance. The distance back to the van seemed like nothing compared to how long he’d thought he’d been walking, and he was calling out Xander’s name long before he reached the door.

“Open the back, open the back,” he said when Xander felt his way around the front of the van.

Without hesitating, Xander continued along the vehicle’s side, faltering only slightly when he reached the back doors and yanked them open. “What is it?” he asked, stepping out of the way.

“Willow.” Oz laid her down along the carpeted interior, pushing her hair out of her eyes though they were still closed. “It’s Willow.”

His best friend’s name seemed to charge Xander, and his head jerked around as if he was looking around him. “Is that what we’ve been doing?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I didn’t know.” Kneeling next to her, Oz leaned over until their foreheads were almost touching. “C’mon, Willow,” he murmured. “I know you’re in there.”

Xander suddenly froze. “Look, Oz, man, I know you’re just as upset about what happened as I am, but---.”

“She’s alive. Spike and Havi were wrong, Xander. Willow’s still alive.”

The announcement leeched all the color from his face, and his mouth worked silently as he struggled to find words. “How? Did Havi…?” And then, more vehemently, “Where’s Havi?”

The question reminded Oz of the other young woman lying unconscious out in the brush, and reluctantly, he tore away from Willow to clamber back out of the van. “She was with Willow,” he said.

He’d only taken a few steps when Xander’s hand clapped onto his shoulder, pulling him to a halt. Oz turned just in time to see Xander clawing at the bandages over his eyes, exposing his reddened corneas and blistered skin.

“Can you see anything?” he asked.

Xander squinted. “In the words of the great Han Solo, instead of a big dark blur, I see a big light blur. Now, please tell me I’m not standing on the edge of a gigantic hole with a snggle-toothed monster about to eat me.”

“If you can’t---.”

“Don’t say it. I’m coming with you.”

With Xander’s hand clamped firmly on his shoulder, Oz led him back across the terrain, carefully sidestepping obstacles that might trip his friend up. “Here,” he said when they reached Havi. He took Xander’s hand and guided it down to her body. “She’s unconscious. We’re going to have to carry her back to the van, too.”

“But she’s alive, right?” Xander’s fingers were flying over her face like a blind man’s, then slid around to the back of her neck. “Wait. She’s missing one of her piercings. No. Two of them.”

“She used those to do whatever magic she needed to get her and Willow out of the fight,” Oz explained.

If it had been the movies, Havi would’ve woken up at that point to see Xander crouching over her, and he would’ve miraculously regained his sight in time to see her looking up at him. Violins would’ve swelled in the background, and everybody would’ve had their happy ending.

But this wasn’t pretend. Havi didn’t react as they lifted her up, and she didn’t make a sound as Oz led Xander back to the van. She was just as out of it when she was finally laid next to Willow as she had been out on the desert.

“Are they hurt?” Xander asked. “Do we need to take them to the hospital?”

Oz slammed the doors shut. “And tell the doctors what?”

“Good point. Giles’, then?”

“Giles’.”

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

She could see that Spike was itching for a cigarette. He kept brushing his fingertips over his scraped knuckles, his head bowed and gaze firmly on the floor. But Buffy had to give him credit for one thing. At her request, he didn’t utter a word while she said her piece. He didn’t even look up when she was done.

“You think I don’t know I buggered this whole thing up?” His voice was husky, rough from tears both shed and not. His mien now fell into the latter category, though. “It went all to cock because of me. I should’ve talked Red out of it in the beginning. But all I could see was the chance to help protect you.”

He looked up then, and his eyes were such a brilliant blue that something stabbed in Buffy’s chest. She kept her reaction from showing, however, and just stared at him until his gaze slid away.

“When you came here last fall,” she said, “you were all about helping me. Fighting at my side. Watching my back so that we could be partners. What happened to change that, Spike? Why couldn’t you just stick with the original plan?”

“What happened?” His tone was incredulous. “You’re kiddin’, right? You’re pregnant, Buffy. How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not just goin’ to sit by and let something happen to the little one. I can’t.”

“I was doing just fine until Willow’s spell went all wonky.”

“You think so? That spell’s the only reason you haven’t been seriously hurt before now.”

She folded her arms across her chest, though it lost a little of its prior imperiousness with her forearms coming to rest on her swollen belly. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the demon population’s actually on the decline,” she said. “Even Giles said so. Why do you think that is? Well, it’s not because I’m at home, waiting for someone to go out and slay for me.”

This time, he rose to his feet. “No, it’s ‘cause Oz and me are out there, busting our tails makin’ sure they know you’re off-limits,” he shot back.

Buffy froze. “You’re…what?” she asked carefully. This was new. He hadn’t even hinted at anything like this in his confessions.

Indecision flickered across his face for a scant moment before Spike’s jaw firmed. “You heard me,” he said. “Couple of ‘em caught wind of you bein’ pregnant back around Thanksgiving. I’ve been doin’ everything I can to make sure none of ‘em get close enough to do anything about it when you’re not completely up to scratch.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

“Fuck,” he muttered, and strode the few feet that separated them to press his palm flat against her stomach. “How many different ways do I have to say this? You and the little one…you’re all I have. You think I can just stand idly by and watch you get taken away from me? I couldn’t have done it when I was human, and I sure as hell can’t do it now.” He grabbed her arm when she tried to step away. “Buffy, listen to me. You want me to admit I fuck up? Right then. I fuck up. A lot. Always have, and likely always will. But you’re not goin’ to get me to say that I’m wrong in wanting to keep the ones I love safe from harm’s way. Isn’t that why you do what you do? Because you don’t want your little friends to get hurt?”

They’re your friends, too, she wanted to say, but what came out instead was, “I never had a choice about my slaying.”

“You had a choice ‘bout how long you’ve lasted at it, though,” he replied. “And don’t tell me that doesn’t make a difference. I know you. I know how much you need them and your mum.”

This time, the words she wanted came bubbling out of their own accord. “I need you, too, you big jerk.”

His grip on her softened, just as the determination in his face did. Tilting his head, Spike lifted his free hand and stroked Buffy’s cheek, his fingertips dry and cool against her flushed skin. “Never get tired of hearing that,” he murmured. “Especially knowin’ you’re as brassed off as you are. Makes it mean all that much more.”

“You should’ve told me,” Buffy said.

“You would’ve told me not to do it.”

“Well, yeah, but---.”

“And I would’ve said you’re off your box for thinking things could go on like they were, and then you would’ve got all stroppy, and then everything would’ve gone all pear-shaped and I would’ve done it anyway. I just cut out the part of us bein’ miserable.”

“See, it’s that ‘I would’ve done it anyway’ part I’m having a problem with.” Taking a step away, Buffy broke the physical connection between them in order to think more clearly. It was too distracting when he was in such proximity. “I get that you have your way of doing things. I don’t like it, but I get it. But not even taking into consideration how it’s going to make me feel? That isn’t a relationship, Spike. That’s not what I want for us. It never was.”

“It’s not that easy, pet.”

“No, it really is. You just don’t care enough to try.”

She didn’t mean it. Well, she didn’t mean to actually express the sentiment out loud. Especially when she saw the hurt and rising fury darken his eyes.

“You don’t think it’s not bustin’ my balls changing my ways for you?” It was nearly a shout, accompanied by a vicious turn on his heel as he whirled away from her. “A century, I lived without you. And here you are, thinking I can just turn off everything I was, and everything I am, like it was some sort of bloody spigot. You want to talk about relationships, luv, let’s talk about Dru and Angelus, shall we? Who we are today is part and parcel of what we went through with them, and if you try and deny that, you’re not half the Slayer I thought you were.”

“I loved Angel, not Angelus,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, no, you don’t. That sort of Buffy logic means you love William and not me. Is that what you want me to think?”

“You’re twisting my words---.”

“I think I’m just starting to straighten them out.” He was before her so quick that she was startled into stumbling backwards, only stopping when his hands shot out and caught her upper arms. “You can’t have it both ways, Buffy. You can’t stick us into those little compartments with Spike labels and Angel labels and pretend everything is a lovely black and white. You love me. I know that now. And I know you love the William part just as much. But that means you can’t punish me for havin’ a life before you came along, before I knew what you were to me.”

“You mean, like how you punish me for still caring about Angel?”

His lips pursed together for a long moment before he answered. “Right. Point there. It still winds me up knowing he can get to you so easily. But I’m working on it, yeah?”

“So am I.”

“Really? So, the fact that I spent decades doin’ for Dru means nothin’ when you’re tryin’ to suss out why I didn’t tell you what was goin’ on .” Spike shook his head. “This is what I know, luv. When I told Dru ‘bout my plans, she either didn’t hear me for that bloody doll of hers, or she heard me too well, and went off and bollocksed everything up. It got so that I just did what I had to.”

“But I’m not Drusilla.”

“And I’m not Angel. The trick is for us to keep on remembering that, so that when things get fucked, we don’t end up flying off at the handle.”

What he said made sense. A lot of it. It didn’t excuse what he’d done, but it cast a new light on it that Buffy hadn’t considered before. “So, where does that put us, then?” she asked.

For the first time since their fight had started, his eyes seemed to plead with hers. “You tell me. Feels like a bit of a draw.”

She didn’t know what to say. She was tired of arguing, and she was tired of trying to think this through. She was just tired period.

Spike seemed to sense that. His hands loosened their hold on her arms, slipping around her back to pull her against his chest. She hugged him back automatically, taking care not to disturb his bandages, and buried her face into his skin.

“You’re knackered,” he said softly. “Best get you up to bed and try to rest. Today’s been a pisser of a day. We can sort out the next step when we’re a bit more awake to the world.”

“Yeah,” Buffy agreed. Echoes of Spike’s declaration about Willow resounded through her skull, but when the tears spontaneously returned, she squeezed her eyes tight against them.

“Stupid hormones,” she muttered.

He didn’t speak, just held her close, and let the sobbing she couldn’t control vent against his bare chest. Occasionally, Buffy would feel the brush of his lips across her temple, but that was as far as he pushed it.

Neither of them was really aware of the footsteps echoing overhead. It wasn’t until the basement door was pulled open and a shaft of light came streaming down that Buffy turned to see her mother outlined at the top of the stairs.

“You two need to come up here,” she said quietly.

“Mom, can’t you see we’re---.”

“It’s Willow.” Coming down a few steps, Joyce bent just enough to meet Buffy’s gaze. “Oz and Xander just called from Rupert’s. They’re on their way over. They say…Willow’s still alive, honey.”

Spike stiffened at the same time Buffy pulled away. “But she wasn’t breathing. I checked her myself…” He paused, cocking his head. “Did they find Studs?”

Joyce nodded. “They found both of them. Unconscious, but alive.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 49: The Prey of Worms