The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXXIV.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike and Buffy had another talk about their relationship, while Oz and Xander find Willow and Havi alive…

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

Chapter 49: The Prey of Worms

Spike hung back in the hallway as Buffy and Joyce finally emerged from the bedroom. As soon as Oz and Xander had arrived, they’d taken the still unconscious women inside, placing Havi on the couch while Joyce instructed them to put Willow in her room. She and Buffy had then set about checking Willow over, while Oz, Giles, and Spike waited outside. Xander had yet to leave Havi’s side.

“Well, she’s definitely alive,” Buffy said with a smile.

“Is she awake?” Oz asked.

Joyce shook her head. “Not yet. I’m not sure what happened, but…” Her gaze flickered to Spike. “Didn’t you say she got shot?”

“Yeah. In the back. Saw her go down, smelled the blood myself.”

“That’s what I thought you said.”

“I don’t know why,” Buffy interjected, “but we couldn’t find a mark on her. There’s holes in her top with the edges all burned, but there isn’t any blood or bruises or anything.”

“Perhaps it was her magic,” Giles offered. “It’s possible it healed her just as it did the last time she was hurt.”

The others murmured their agreement to the suggestion, but Spike remained silent. He didn’t think it had a thing to do with Red’s magic. He’d seen the barrier she’d had up go poof, and he’d heard her heart stop beating. She couldn’t wield her magic if she wasn’t alive.

“Can I go sit with her?” Oz asked.

Joyce nodded and stepped out of his way, nobody saying a word until the young man had disappeared inside the room. Then, Spike snorted and whirled on his heel to start heading downstairs.

“Where are you going?” Buffy asked.

“You want answers, Studs is the one who’s got them.”

Giles’ hand shot out and grabbed his bicep, jerking Spike to a halt. “You’re not seriously going to try and interrogate her?” he asked in amazement. “The girl’s unconscious. And if she is responsible for Willow’s miraculous recovery---.”

“There is no if,” Spike snapped. He jabbed a finger down the stairwell. “She’s the one who got Red out of there, and she’s the one they found her with. Whatever happened, you don’t think it was big? Red didn’t recover, Rupes. She was resurrected. That’s the difference between bein’ sick and bein’ dead.”

It was Buffy’s turn to step forward. “Willow’s magic---.”

“Was gone,” Spike said. “I saw it.” His eyes darted to the closed door, and he leaned in so that his voice was slightly lower. “I wasn’t goin’ to say anything in front of Oz because he doesn’t need this shit right now, but Red’s magic has nothin’ to do with her bein’ back. It can’t. She was dead, Buffy. Saw it, smelled it, heard it. Can’t wave a magic wand if you can’t pick the bloody wand up, now can you?”

“Maybe you were wrong. Maybe she was just very near to death.”

His scarred brow shot up. “You’re tryin’ to tell a vampire who’s been around for over a century he can’t tell a dead body when he sees one?” When nobody spoke up, he nodded and started for the stairs again. “That’s what I thought.”

Being pregnant didn’t slow Buffy down when she really wanted to move. Before Spike could blink, she was in front of him, arms folded across her full breasts. “I know you have problems with Havi,” she said. “But now is not the time for this.”

“And when is the time, luv?”

“When Havi’s up to being asked the questions, and not a second before.” She took a step closer and rested a hand on his arm. “Can’t we just be glad that Willow’s all right?” Buffy asked, her tone gentler, more wheedling. “With everything that’s been going on, can we just take a deep breath and have a shiny, happy moment before somebody else decides to try and make our lives miserable?”

When she put it like that, there was no way Spike could refuse her. “’Course, we can,” he murmured, and opened his arms to bundle her against his chest. He brushed his mouth across the top of her head, but his eyes remained warily on the stairs. Whether any of them wanted to admit it or not, Havi was responsible for all this. Yes, it was a good thing Willow was alive, but anybody who could mess around with magics strong enough for resurrection was someone to be reckoned with. Spike was going to be there when Havi woke up, regardless of what the others might say. There was no way in hell he was letting Buffy or the little one anywhere near somebody that potentially dangerous.

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

Xander wondered if she’d freak out when she woke up. His vision wasn’t clear enough for him to see his reflection in a mirror yet, but Buffy’s sharp intake of breath when he’d walked through the door and then Mrs. Summers’ sudden need to see to Xander’s every whim had pretty much told him that he probably weighed in on the walking dead end of the good-looking scale. Hopefully, he wouldn’t scare Havi too badly. She just had to wake up first.

He heard doors opening and closing upstairs, the voices filtering in and out of his awareness until two became louder as they came down.

“Do you need anything?” he heard Mrs. Summers ask.

Xander turned his head in her direction, more out of habit than anything else. “I’m fine,” he assured her. “How’s Willow?”

“Still unconscious. Oz is with her.”

“And Buffy?” He didn’t ask about Spike. He knew if Buffy was OK, the vampire would be, too.

“Resting.” There was a pause. “Are you sure you don’t want me to bring you something? A glass of water? Some cookies?”

After a second round of refusals, he listened to Giles and Mrs. Summers go out into the kitchen, murmurings of, “Shouldn’t we call the doctor?”, trailing after them.

He shifted back in his seat, reaching out to touch Havi’s arm again, using its length as guidance as he took her hand in his. Almost as soon as their palms touched, a small moan emanated from the dark, blurry shape that was Havi, followed by a twitch in the fingers he held.

“Please be awake,” he whispered, leaning forward. He said her name once, then again, hoping for some response.

On his third attempt, the hand in his tightened, and he heard, “Xander? Where…where…”

Her voice was hoarse, her tone confused. Squeezing her fingers even harder, he said, “Buffy’s house. You’re at Buffy’s.” He paused. “You’re home.”

“Home…”

When he felt the cushions shift against his knee, he realized she was trying to sit up. “Hey, hey, no getting up,” he said, reaching up to press her back down onto the couch. He didn’t quite find her shoulders. Instead, his hands came to rest on her breasts, and both of them froze.

“Xander?” Her voice was a little bit stronger, carrying beyond the confines of the living room walls. Footsteps echoed from the kitchen, and he jerked his hands away just as he realized what was happening.

“Havi.” Mrs. Summers was suddenly beside him, gently prodding Xander out of the way while she bent over the young woman on the couch. “How do you feel?”

“Fine. Tired.” The dark shape shifted as she sat up. “Where is Willow?”

“She’s upstairs,” Giles said. “Alive, although apparently, that’s a recent development. Oz and Xander found the two of you outside Sunnydale. Can you tell us what happened?”

Havi sighed, and sagged back onto the couch. “It worked, then. I thought…I shouldn’t be here if it had, but…as long as it worked.”

“As long as what worked?” Giles prodded. “What did you do?”

“I took her to the Well of Guardians. If Willow lives, it is because of their intervention on her behalf.”

They fell into silence while they digested the information. Finally, Xander couldn’t stand it any longer. “Why did you say you shouldn’t be here if Willow was alive?” he asked.

He wished he could see her face when she replied. “Because you cannot simply bring a person back from the dead,” she whispered. “It requires balance. A life for a life. I did the only thing I could think of to bring her back.”

The past two days had given Xander a lot of time to think. Starting with all his driving around, going over and over how Havi had been hiding her time with Baltozar, and then today, finding out how she’d been pivotal in coming to his rescue, the lengths she went to save Willow. Guilt had been the first order of the day, but that was nothing compared to thinking that she’d been prepared to sacrifice her own life for Willow’s. All his assumptions about her loyalties made him feel even more foolish than he already did. He owed her an apology. A big one.

“But you’re alive.”

“That’s our Giles,” Xander said. “Master of the obvious.”

He didn’t need his vision back to know that the Watcher was likely giving him the gaze of death.

“All I’m saying,” Giles continued, his tone just this side of condescending, “is that if what Havi says is true, the Guardians chose to exchange another life for Willow’s. We have no idea who that person might be.”

“Well, we know it’s none of us, so count me in on the not really caring who it is,” Xander said. “Maybe these Guardians finally got something right.”

“Xander…” He almost jumped away when he felt Havi’s warm hand come to rest on his arm. It was light, barely there, and for a second he thought she was going to pull away of her own accord. But then came, “May I speak to Xander alone, please?”

He was stiff as he listened to Giles and Mrs. Summer murmur their acquiescence and leave the room. Though he kept his head bowed, he heard Havi shift on the couch, and when she spoke again, she was obviously nearer to him.

“Do they hurt?” she asked softly.

It took him a moment to realize she was referring to his eyes. “It could be worse,” he joked. “The demon could’ve poked them out and eaten them for breakfast.”

Her hand left his arm, and the soft flutterings of her fingers tickled along his face. “I am so sorry,” she said. “This is my fault. If I hadn’t---.”

“Stop that.” Catching her hand in his, Xander carefully entwined their fingers. “I think there’s enough blame going around for me to get some, too. We both made some mistakes. The important thing is everybody’s safe now. You’re back, I’m back, Willow’s back. It’s a veritable backapalooza.”

“You don’t…are you still angry with me?”

She sounded lost, and Xander couldn’t resist lifting their hands to press a kiss to her fingers. “I’m not thrilled you kept me out of the loop for so long,” he admitted. “And if you’re going to insist on going and checking on Baltozar any more, you’re going to have to put up with me coming with you. Not because I don’t trust you. Because I don’t trust him. Coma or not.”

“And…us?”

“Do you still want there to be an us?”

He didn’t know why she took so long to answer. He was beginning to really hate the fact that he couldn’t see her face.

“I love you,” she whispered. “But I do not wish to be where I’m not wanted. It’s your choice, Xander. If you wish to just be friends, then---.”

“Wait a minute. Back up.” His mind was whirling. Had she really said the words out loud?

“Did I say something wrong?”

“That depends. You…love me?”

“Yes. You know that. I’ve---.”

“---never actually said the words out loud before,” Xander finished.

“But you knew,” Havi pressed. “You must’ve. Did you think I would agree to live with you if I didn’t?”

“Well, no, but---.”

“I love you, Alexander Harris.” She let go of his hand and reached up to run her long fingers over his face again. This time, they seemed to carry an intent that made his cock start to harden. “If you require me to say it more often, I will. But I thought you knew how I felt. Of all the gifts I’ve been given by coming to Sunnydale, having you in my life has been the greatest of those.”

It didn’t matter that he couldn’t see her. Well, it did when he accidentally kissed her ear instead of her mouth. But all too quickly, their mouths were fused, his arms tight around her. None of the other stuff mattered any more. The two women who meant the most to him in this world were both still alive, and in spite of his Beavis and Butthead tendencies to be incredibly stupid about relationship stuff, Havi still wanted him around. More importantly, she loved him. That was enough to make dealing with the rest tolerable.

Later. After he was done kissing her.

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

Spike pressed a kiss to the top of Buffy’s head and carefully disengaged from their embrace, sliding off the bed and padding silently to the door. In spite of her protestations otherwise, she’d fallen asleep almost as soon as they’d laid down, her luscious bottom cradled against his crotch. The little one had started moving immediately, and for a little while, Spike had been fascinated by the feel of Buffy’s skin undulating beneath his arm. He didn’t know how she slept through it; to him, it felt like Schmoo was being a one-baby chorus line. But still she slept on, snoring lightly, oblivious to any of the drama going on downstairs.

Spike lasted as long as he could, but when he heard Havi say something about a life for a life, he couldn’t stay still any longer.

The sounds of kissing came from the living room as he descended the stairs. That made his choice on who to talk to easy. He had no desire to see Studs and Harris going at it. Sauntering into the kitchen, he walked past where Joyce and Rupert were talking by the counter, and opened the refrigerator for a packet of blood.

“So, what’s the verdict?” he said, pouring it into an empty mug.

“About what?” Giles asked with a frown.

“Someone’s got to go talk to these Guardians, right? Find out just what in hell is goin’ on?” When neither of them responded, Spike snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re not fussed about this life for a life business. Those are serious magics they’re messin’ with. I’m as glad as the rest of you that Red’s OK, but I’m not so thrilled that there’s a group of people out there with the mojo big enough to do something like this, and the only one with a beat on them is Studs.”

“Havi’s done nothing but help since she arrived,” Joyce said. “And considering what she did for Willow, I don’t think we’re in any positions to be making demands of these Guardians.”

“There’s nothing to be done for it anyway,” Giles said. “According to Havi, the only people allowed to approach the Guardians are Slayers, other Guardians, and Protectors. We couldn’t go to them, even if we knew where they were.”

Spike scowled as the microwave pinged behind him. Rupert had a point there. That was a detail he’d forgotten completely about.

“We have other pressing matters on our hands to deal with,” Giles continued. “For instance, what are we going to do with Mr. Miller?”

“Could always chain him in your bathtub again,” Spike offered.

“You just left him with Wesley?” Joyce said, ignoring Spike’s comment.

“Yes. He’s made no move to get away. Frankly, I think he’s in just as much danger as the rest of us. His superiors can’t be happy about his abetting Xander’s escape.”

“Still like the idea of chaining him up,” Spike grumbled as he sipped his blood.

“Has he said who he’s working for?” Joyce asked.

The bend in the conversation sparked a memory in the back of Spike’s head, forgotten in the rush of Willow’s death and subsequent return. “Harris said something,” he said, before Giles could reply. “The doc who kept interrogating him was a bird named Walsh.”

“So?”

“So, that’s the name of Buffy’s psych prof.”

“It’s a common enough name---.”

“And remember those soldiers who tried goin’ after Oz the first time? One of ‘em was her TA.” He almost said, The wanker I killed, but then thought better of it. “Friends with Miller? Don’t tell me that’s just a coincidence.”

He could see it in Rupert’s face that he didn’t think it was either, and it took only a moment for the Watcher to start marching into the living room. Spike hurried after him. He wasn’t missing these fireworks for anything.

“Why didn’t you tell us you were being held captive by Dr. Walsh?” Giles demanded in the next room.

Xander and Havi broke apart from their embrace, Havi quickly readjusting her top over her firm breasts. “Because I forgot?” he said, his face red.

“You didn’t think that was important information to share?”

“I did share!” Bristling, he rose awkwardly to his feet. “Oz and Spike know, too. Why aren’t you yelling at them?”

Giles took a deep breath. “Why don’t we sit down so that you can tell me exactly what happened to you?” he suggested. “Assume I know nothing.”

“Well, that’s not a long stretch,” Spike muttered.

He hung back while they settled in to go over everything that had happened. He might not be able to do anything about the Guardians, but Walsh was another story altogether. She was just a human. His jaw twitched as his resolve firmed.

Humans were his specialty.

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

Graham Miller was the type of young man who’d always given Wesley nightmares as a small boy. Physically powerful with a silent cunning in his eyes obvious to anybody who bothered to look, his gaze followed Wes no matter where he moved throughout Rupert’s flat. Even when he was in the kitchen and there was a wall separating them, Wes could feel the soldier’s eyes boring into him.

He dropped the teacup he was holding when Graham appeared suddenly in the doorway. The glass shattered on the tiled floor.

“Mr. Giles wants to believe in the best of people,” Graham said. “It confuses his decisions when there’s really no need for it.”

Stooping to clean up the mess, Wesley shook his head. “Rupert merely needs to be thorough,” he said. “He doesn’t wish to make a mistake when human lives are at stake.”

“Do you think this old woman is really all that dangerous?”

He glanced up. It was impossible to read the true intent in Graham’s face. “If she has her powers back, yes.”

“Then the choice isn’t really a choice, now is it?”

Wesley sighed. Giles had been firm in his decision to hold off on any action regarding Esme. Clearly, Graham still believed he was right.

“There’s always the possibility that I’m wrong,” Wes said. “It could be just a coincidence.”

“Your argument sounded pretty strong to me.”

It did to him, too. “Even if I think Rupert is making a mistake,” he said, “I can’t act of my own volition. Rupert would be furious, and if the Council should find out---.”

“So, you don’t do it. Old ladies have accidents all the time.”

A shiver crawled down Wesley’s spine. Slowly, he stood up again, his gaze locked on Graham. “She’s not a demon,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Wasn’t that your organization’s intent?”

“I signed up to protect this nation,” Graham said. It sounded like something out of a textbook, but Wesley was convinced that in spite of everything that had happened, the young man still believed every word of it. “Evil takes many forms, sir. It just so happens that Sunnydale is rife with the demon variety.”

“But what you’re suggesting is murder.”

“I’m suggesting that the needs of one don’t always outweigh the needs of many. Sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to protect the greater good.” He paused, and something calculating passed behind his clear eyes. “Oz understands that. I think his friends might, too.”

He didn’t know what Graham’s motivation was in pushing the issue, but frankly, Wesley was desperate to yield to it. Culpability could be taken completely out of his hands if Esme’s death was deemed an accident or blamed on the soldier. This possibility could work in everybody’s favor.

Rinsing out the tea-stained dishcloth, Wesley struggled for neutrality while he spoke. “I should go check on her anyway,” he said. “Perhaps she’s woken up already.”

There was a pause. “Mr. Giles asked you to keep an eye on me.”

“Then you’ll just have to come with me, won’t you?” He dried off his hands, studiously avoiding looking at Graham. “We shan’t be gone too long. Rupert will never know we stepped out.”

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

Opening her eyes hurt, but Willow struggled anyway, blinking against the brilliant light that seemed to be streaming from everywhere. It looked like someone had overexposed the world, leaving everything white and washed-out, with details blurring into nothingness no matter where she turned her head. She could feel softness beneath her cheek, and her back felt kind of funny, but none of it told her where she was. Until she heard his voice.

“You’re awake,” he murmured.

It was warm and so quiet that it could’ve been part of a dream. She tried turning her head in the direction from which the voice came, but movement was difficult, dizzying, as if she’d forgotten how. That couldn’t be. She knew this. She knew the voice. It was…

But the specifics escaped her.

“How do you feel?”

Her mouth was dry, and all of her muscles felt like they’d been coated in cement. Something inside her felt hollow, as well, as if somebody had reached into her body with a big scoop and dug out all her internal organs. How could she feel too light and too heavy at the same time? That wasn’t right.

“It’s OK if you can’t speak,” he said. “It’s kind of been a long day. You just have no idea how glad I am you’re awake.”

Something cool touched her forehead, and her hair tickled on her skin where it was being brushed back from her eyes. Without thinking, she turned her face into the caress and was rewarded with the same touch along her cheek. Her nose twitched. She could smell soap and something woodsy. Dirt maybe. She blinked again, and this time, the world was a little less bright, a little more focused.

“I’m going to go tell the others you’re awake,” he said.

When the touch disappeared, Willow panicked. “No,” she managed to croak. “S-s-s-stay.”

“OK, sure.” The touch returned.

Seconds passed, merged into minutes. The world sharpened with each breath, until she could see outlines, colors, him. She knew him. She was sure of it. She just had to find the right…

“Oz…”

He smiled gently. “Don’t push yourself. Just relax. It’ll get better.”

Willow nodded and let her eyes flutter shut. Yes. That was easier. Maybe she could just sleep…

But remembering his name made other things come hurtling back, almost as painful as the light had been when she’d woken up. Images too fast to see, filled with emotions to turbulent to ignore. Her heart started pounding in her chest.

Fire. She remembered fire.

And pain, as something had been ripped from her. Something essential. Something she needed. Something that was a part of her.

She knew then why she felt so empty. All that power, all the magic she’d had had at her fingertips, it was all gone.

The tears started flowing before she could stop them.

 

To be continued in Chapter 50: The Defendant Doth That Plea Deny