The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XLVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow and Havi have woken up, Xander has told Giles about Dr. Walsh, and Wesley and Graham have come to an unspoken agreement regarding Esme…

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

Chapter 50: The Defendant Doth That Plea Deny

The van was what tipped Graham off.

It was abandoned at the side of the road several hundred feet ahead, dark and nondescript. “Pull over,” he ordered, his eyes narrowing as he began scanning the area around the parked car.

Though he jumped at the barked command, Wesley did as he was told, not saying a word until the engine was quiet. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “We’re not there yet.”

Graham pointed. “I think somebody else is.”

Squinting through his glasses, Wesley leaned forward for a better look, inadvertently pressing the horn at the same time. He jerked back almost immediately and flushed a bright crimson when Graham leveled a stern gaze at him.

“Sorry about that,” Wesley said. “But why do you think that has anything to do with Esme?”

Being forced to work with someone as slow as this was enough to make Graham consider risking a return to the Initiative. “I’ve been doing covert ops for two years now,” he explained. “I know a little about sneaking around in this town.”

He didn’t wait for a bumbled reply, instead reaching around into the back seat and grabbing one of the crossbows that rested there. He would’ve much preferred a gun of some sort, but for whatever reason, these people didn’t believe in automatic weapons. Their penchant for every other kind of weapon under the sun was almost ironic; when it came to killing, they seemed to prefer a more hands-on approach.

Moving silently along the edge of the road, Graham hoped that the Englishman would just stay back at the car. He was a liability. He was easily distracted and had a tendency to fall over his own feet. Somewhere down the line, Graham had no doubt those traits would get Wesley killed, but in the meantime, he didn’t want to be in the path of the accident that was just waiting to happen. He had a threat to take care of.

He reached the house long before Wesley caught up to him. The front door was slightly ajar, the flowers in the front trampled and broken by careless feet. Whoever was inside had taken little care about being seen. Graham wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.

Circling the house took only a few seconds. The back was securely fastened; nobody had made any attempts at entry there, and it didn’t appear as if they were going to be coming out that way, either. He debated for a moment about using that to get in, but decided against it. If the door was locked, he’d have to break it in, and that would allow anybody inside the chance to escape through the open front. It would also put them on the alert to fight back. Without knowing how many men there were inside, that was the equivalent to slitting his own throat.

He stayed low as he crept toward the front door of the house. Voices filtered from the interior, all British, most of them male but with a single feminine one that kept interrupting the others. She sounded too young to be the old lady Wesley and Giles were at loggerheads about; Graham could only assume that she was this Lydia that Wesley lived with.

The conversation became clearer as he stopped just outside the door.

“…none of your business!” a man barked.

“It is,” the woman insisted. Lydia. Graham had to keep reminding himself that. “I’m the one who’ll be left to answer the questions---.”

“Which is exactly why the less you know, the better off you’re going to be.”

“I disagree. I think---.”

“Aw, shut it, Lydia.” Another man, this one obviously less educated than the first. His accent was thick, with glottal stops instead of proper consonants through half of it. He grunted, and the floorboards creaked. “We’ve done what we come for. If you wouldn’t bang on ‘bout what don’t concern you, we’d’ve been outta here by now.”

“Mr. Travers---.”

“---gave us explicit instructions,” the first man finished for her. “You want me to ring him so he can tell you himself?”

“Well, no, but---.”

“Let’s get crackin’,” the second man complained. “I’ve had more than an earful of her already. And this witch is gettin’ bloody heavy.”

Laughter rumbled from the room. That was not just the single other man responding, Graham realized. That was a whole bunch of them. If he went in, he was going to get his ass thoroughly kicked.

But they had the witch, and from the sounds of it, they were leaving with her. Considering how dangerous Wesley said she was, Graham knew he couldn’t let that happen.

The first arrow was whistling through the air before he was even through the doorway, a man’s shout of pain following almost immediately afterward. Graham found himself confronted with a roomful of people, too many for him to count without losing the element of surprise, and he settled for throwing his shoulder at the nearest man in black, half-smiling in satisfaction when that one went down as well.

“Out! Now!”

The orders were barked by the first man Graham had heard, and he whirled in the voice’s direction, knowing that this was the team leader. If he took him out, the team would falter, and getting the rest would be simple. Without any more thought, he charged, his fingers busy with the crossbow.

A booted foot slammed into Graham’s side, throwing him off-course and temporarily winding him. The leader suddenly loomed into view, bigger than him by a foot and fifty pounds, but Graham had never been the type to be intimidated by size. Riley had always been his physical superior, but their sparring records had been evenly matched. It was just a matter of knowing your opponent.

And not getting distracted.

“Lydia!” Wesley shouted from behind him.

Graham’s reaction was automatic, glancing to the door where Wesley was wrestling with one of the black-clad men. He saw the taser appear from nowhere, but before he could call out a warning, a fist the size of South Dakota landed square in his jaw.

The world went black.

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

Spike was seeing red, and it was taking his last ounce of self-restraint not to punch his hand through the living room wall. “You can’t bloody do this to me, Buffy,” he said through gritted teeth. He stormed behind as she moved to the kitchen, wishing she would turn around and look at him for a split second to see how pissed off he was about this. “You can’t shut me out like this.”

“Don’t you get it, Spike? I have to.” That was when she chose to look, and it forced him to halt in his tracks. Her face was pale but her eyes were hard. She’d made up her mind on this, and this time, there was going to be no changing it. “We’re just going to talk to her, and if you come along, you’re not going to talk. You’re going to hit, and potentially kill, and the last thing we need right now is to screw this up.”

“That Walsh bitch is the reason we almost lost Red. Killing’s too easy for her.”

Buffy’s lips thinned as she visibly tried not to lose her temper. “We don’t even know for sure if she’s involved.”

“We bloody well do!”

“You’re jumping to conclusions!” It took her a moment to realize she’d raised her tone to match Spike’s. As she turned away to try and compose herself again, Spike crossed his arms in front of him, shoving his hands into his pits to stop from reaching out and grabbing her. He knew he shouldn’t be pushing her buttons like this, but he just didn’t understand how she could leave him out of something so big. The desire to shake some sense into her was overwhelming.

“If Dr. Walsh is involved in this,” Buffy started again, her voice back to its even cadences, “I promise, you can be right up in front for the fight. I know how much you care about Willow, and I know…I know that’s how you need to deal with this. But this is not the time, Spike. We have to be careful.”

“You’re letting Oz go.” He sounded like a petulant child, but he didn’t care. It wasn’t bloody fair.

“Because that’s what Willow wants. Besides, he’s less likely to lose it with Walsh than you are. Between the three of us, we should get all we need from her, once and for all.”

She was moving again, back out to the living room, gathering her coat so that she could join Oz and Giles out in the car. Again, Spike followed, knowing that at any moment she could put an end to the conversation by just walking out the front door. He wasn’t so sure she wouldn’t, just to get away from him. Between this and what she’d learned about Red’s spell and his other dealings, he wasn’t exactly in her best graces right now.

“You’re makin’ a mistake,” he said. “Goin’ in there like this, you’re just goin’ to tip the bitch off. She’s already had her goons after Oz. What if she decides she wants a Slayer now, too? Let me go, luv. The more muscle you show up with, the better your results are goin’ to be.”

Buffy didn’t say a word while she slipped her coat over her shoulders. It didn’t close properly any more over her stomach, but she refused to go buy another one, complaining that they made her look like a beached whale. Now, it hung open at her sides, and all Spike could see was her prominent bump. It made his chest hurt thinking she was putting the little one at risk over this.

“You’re over-reacting because it’s been an awful day,” she said, oblivious to the way he was fixating on her stomach. “Nobody’s tried anything with Oz since last fall, and nobody’s going to try anything now.” Tentatively, she took a step toward him, reaching for his hand to take it tightly in hers. “I know what you’re trying to do, Spike, but you have to trust me this time. Giles and I know what we’re doing.”

She brushed a kiss across his cheek and then slipped out the front door, leaving him standing and staring at it in disbelief. She was going. She really was shutting him out.

He sat down heavily on the bottom step of the stairs and buried his head in his hands. The notion of taking off and beating the lot of them to Walsh was the first to flit through his mind. He could do it. Though it was still daylight, he could find a way to make it happen. But his feet never moved. If he made that choice, Spike knew he’d be throwing away his future with Buffy with both hands, and that was something he couldn’t do. He was just going to have to suck it up and pray he was wrong about the Walsh woman.

With Buffy gone, the house was nearly silent. Joyce had run to the grocery store to get something that would feed everyone dinner, and, with their arms sickeningly around each other, Xander and Havi had retreated to her bedroom. The only sounds he could hear were Red’s quiet sobs. They’d started when she finally woke up, ebbing in the brief period when the entire gang was in the room checking up on her. She’d regarded them with blank stares, making Spike think she wasn’t really in there. Only the news about Dr. Walsh had provoked a response from her, making her eyes flash as she asked Oz to go with Buffy. The second the car left the driveway, the crying started up again.

Now, it drew him back to his feet, prompted him to start climbing the stairs. It reached into his gut and yanked, not as hard as it did when it was Buffy who was hurting, but some. It was enough to make him momentarily forget his frustrations with the Walsh situation.

The crying stopped when he knocked on the door. “Come in,” Willow called, her voice wavery.

He slipped in as discreetly as he could. She’d complained about the light earlier, even that which spilled in from the hall, and the room was still draped in shadows to accommodate her choice. Spike got that. The dark could be surprisingly comforting, but few ever really understood that. “They’re gone,” he said simply, regarding her swollen features.

Her eyes were bloodshot, and her nose was running. She looked like hell, but Spike didn’t see that. He just saw her. Scary resurrection or not, he was glad to have her back.

His choice of words seemed unfortunate, because her eyes filled with unshed tears. “Oh,” she said. “OK.”

He took a step closer. “You need anything?”

She shook her head, though he heard the slight hastening of her heart. He decided to try again.

“Could be worse,” he said. “Studs’ little trick might not have worked.”

A nod this time. Her hands twisted the edges of the blanket and she seemed to shrink into the pillows. The silence grew longer.

Spike sighed. This was going nowhere. “If you change your mind…” he said, retreating for the door again.

She spoke when his hand touched the knob. “It’s gone.”

He glanced back at her and said gently, “What’s that, pet?”

Fat tears slipped down her cheeks as she lifted her head to look at him. “The magic. It’s all gone.”

At least now he knew why she was crying. Letting go of the door, Spike returned to the foot of the bed, pulling up the chair from the desk to straddle it. “I know.”

Her eyes were luminous as she stared at him. “How…how do you…know that?” she asked.

“Was there, wasn’t I? I saw the wall you had up go down.” He hesitated before saying the next. “I saw you die, Red.”

She wasn’t bothering to hold back her tears any more. Keeping his silence, Spike let her continue to cry, her thin shoulders bobbing up and down. He had a feeling where this was going to go, but it was Willow’s pain, Willow’s loss. She had to lead the way at her own pace.

“I want it back,” she whispered when the sobs started to subside again.

He tilted his head, his gaze soft. “And why’s that?”

“I feel…I feel…”

Her struggle to find the right words to express herself hit a little too close to home, and Spike’s eyes dropped while he waited. Only when nothing came did he dare to look up again.

“Just spit it out, Red,” he said. “Say the first thing that comes to you.”

“I’m useless now,” Willow said quietly. “The magic…that’s why the Guardians wanted me. And…and…I can’t help Buffy now. I can’t do anything.”

He wanted to be sympathetic toward her. He really did. But something about her tone pricked his temper, and Spike snorted as he stiffened in the chair.

“What a load of rubbish,” he said. She’d obviously been expecting more of the same soft treatment, and her eyes widened almost comically as he went on. “If you ask me, you’re better off without. You managed just fine before you got the power boost, and you can do it again.”

“But…I can’t do the same stuff. With Esme’s magic---.”

“You were settin’ half of us on fire and scarin’ the other half.” He shook his head. “You were doin’ spells long before Rose did her switcheroo, Red. There’s no reason you can’t be doin’ them again. Just might not be as easy any more.”

“That’s an understatement,” she mumbled, burrowing deeper into the blankets. “I don’t know why I thought you’d understand.”

“Thing is, I do get it.” Rising, Spike carried the chair to the side of the bed so that he could be closer. “I know what it’s like to feel worthless, to think you’re not good enough, to be afraid that what you can do isn’t up to scratch. And I got over it.”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Ha. Got over it. Drusilla bit you, and you turned all-powerful. Evil, but all-powerful. That doesn’t really help your case, Spike.”

“No, you got it wrong. It wasn’t becoming a vampire that did it. It was meeting Buffy.” Some of the tension eased as his mind drifted to thoughts of those nights in the park, long before she became manifest in his daily life. “The first time. The real time. She helped me see that I had a bit of worth after all.”

“You must be catching some of Buffy’s pregnancy hormones,” Willow said with a half-smile, “because this is just way too Hallmark for the Spike I know.”

“Doesn’t make it not true. I know it hurts, Red, but I’ll wager it hurt Oz and Buffy and Harris a hell of a lot more when you weren’t here at all.”

She grew silent at that, slipping her hand between her cheek and pillow as she rolled onto her side. At least she wasn’t crying any more; that was a step in the right direction.

“I don’t remember what it was like,” she murmured. “I remember…fighting. And I remember…hearing the gunshots. But I don’t remember what came after. I don’t know if there was a light or a tunnel or anything. I just remember…waking up. And I was so empty, Spike. I didn’t feel like me.”

He couldn’t resist reaching forward and pushing the lank hair away from her face. “You’re not empty, pet,” he said gently.

“Did…did Havi say…why the Guardians brought me back?”

He shook his head. That whole business still didn’t make sense to him. “The way I see it, though,” he said instead, “if they didn’t want you just like this, why go to all the fuss of savin’ you? Must be something in there worth saving. Least, that’s what I think.”

It wasn’t necessarily a smile that fluttered across her features, but it wasn’t a frown, either. With a heavy sigh, Willow closed her eyes, her heartbeat slowing, her breath deepening. Within a couple minutes, she was fast asleep.

Spike stayed at her side for a long time, watching the peace that had finally come over her face. He believed what he told her; she’d be fine without the magic. But there was a small part of him that understood her fear. What if his demon was stripped away and he was left as weak William once again? He would likely be going through most of what Red was.

There was a sizable difference, though. William might not be as strong or resourceful as Spike, but Buffy had taught him he could still be valuable. It was just up to Willow’s friends to remind her of the same thing.

His mind wandered to what Buffy was trying to accomplish with Walsh. Never had their sense of white hat bureaucracy frustrated him like it did now. He was still angry about his exclusion, but that had receded in the face of Willow’s pain and all he could hope for now was that Buffy was right this time. Maybe the woman wouldn’t press beyond talking. She was a teacher, after all.

A teacher with an army at her beck and call.

Bloody hell. They were all fucked.

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

When they found both Dr. Walsh’s office and home deserted, Buffy realized with a sinking stomach where the woman likely was. The look on Giles’ face stopped her from making the suggestion, though; after what had happened to Willow, there was no way he was going to let her anywhere near the commandos’ underground hideaway. It would’ve been a huge risk even if she wasn’t seven months pregnant.

“We can try again tomorrow,” he said gently.

“She could be gone by tomorrow,” Buffy countered.

“Maybe Spike was right.” Simultaneously, Buffy and Giles swiveled to stare at Oz in the back seat, who gazed back with his usual inscrutability. “We’re not going to find her today. Maybe we should forget about talking to her at all.”

“We don’t just randomly attack strangers,” Giles said.

“We’re not.” Buffy sagged against her seat, rubbing at her weary eyes. “She’s the one, Giles. We know it. This is just stalling the inevitable.”

“I still think it would be best to talk to her---.”

“So she can tell us…what, Giles? They’ve been working under our noses for months now. They had zero issue shooting down a couple of girls. We were naïve to think we could just walk in and say, ‘Hi, we hear you’re the head of a secret military organization with crazy notions of controlling demons instead of killing them. Care to comment?’” She shook her head. “What we need to figure out is how to destroy their operations. That’ll take care of Dr. Walsh.”

“We’ve got Graham,” Oz said. “He can confirm whether or not it’s the same Dr. Walsh.”

“Do you really think we can trust him?” Giles asked.

“Yeah. He didn’t have to tell us about Xander, and the soldiers who attacked us made it pretty clear he was in trouble for selling them out. He’s either on our side or no side.”

“I like the idea of our side.” Buffy sat up straighter, newfound resolve giving her strength. “Let’s go, Giles.”

Their efforts, however, continued to be frustrated. At Giles’ apartment, Wesley’s car was noticeably absent, and when Giles emerged alone, Buffy knew he’d found nobody inside either.

“We’ll try his house,” Giles said, starting the engine up again. “Perhaps Lydia had another emergency.”

Emergency was an understatement.

They knew something was wrong when they passed Wesley’s abandoned car on the side of the road. Buffy twisted in her seat, watching the car recede behind them, when she saw Oz lean toward the window and sniff at the open window.

“Someone’s hurt,” he announced.

Giles gunned the motor the last remaining yards to the house, coming to an abrupt halt that made Buffy’s seatbelt tighten uncomfortably across her pelvis. Her fingers flew over the buckle, shoving it out of her way while she pushed the door open and bolted for the front door. She’d only gone a few feet before seeing Wesley’s unconscious body shoved like a broken doll to the side of the porch.

“Giles!” she called out, diverting his attention to Wes while she kicked the front door off its hinges. It shattered with a satisfying crunch, but her notice was captured immediately by a bleeding Lydia crouched over an unconscious Graham.

“What happened?” Buffy demanded, going to their side.

Lydia just shook her head, moving out of Buffy’s way with a pained grimace.

Graham’s pulse was steady and strong, the dark bruise blossoming on his jaw the only evidence of an injury. A broken crossbow was thrown a few feet away, its quiver’s contents scattered amongst the overturned furniture. Lydia was attempting to slide further from Buffy’s reach, but her bleeding leg made movement awkward, especially when Buffy curled a hand around her ankle and pulled her to a halt.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said. “Tell me what happened here, Lydia. Just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I can’t still kick your ass.”

The Watcher paled, wringing her hands in her lap. “It was…chaotic,” she said.

“I get that. Who attacked you?”

Oz appeared at Buffy’s shoulder. “The rest of the house is empty,” he said.

The implication was clear, and it only served to harden Buffy’s determination. “Take care of Graham,” she ordered Oz. Grabbing a nearby throw pillow, she pressed it to the bleeding wound in Lydia’s leg, pushing hard enough to cause Lydia to cry out. “Obviously you were awake for whatever happened here. Who was it? Did they take Esme?”

“I don’t know,” Lydia said vehemently. “They…broke in, and I was struggling when they shot me---.”

“She’s lying.” Wesley’s weary voice rang out from the doorway, and Buffy looked back to see him leaning heavily against Giles. “I was the one who shot her. She was helping the Council take Esme away.”

Buffy turned incredulous eyes back to Lydia, who had shrunk backwards at Wesley’s arrival. “Is that true?”

Silence rang throughout the house while everybody waited for the answer. It never came.

“This most likely confirms what we suspected,” Wesley said. “Esme has her powers back and the Council wishes to keep her under control.”

“They couldn’t do it the first time,” Buffy spat. “Why in hell do they think they can do it now?”

“Esme was still unconscious when they left,” Lydia offered.

Suddenly, it seemed imperative to Buffy that they get out of there. Though she was sure that the Council wouldn’t be coming back, the worry that they might be continuing their abductions elsewhere consumed her as she scrambled awkwardly back to her feet.

“I’m sure they’re all right,” Giles assured her as she and Oz hoisted up the still-unconscious Graham.

“I’m done with this,” she said. “Quentin Travers has been playing god with my life and the people I care about for too long. This ends now.”

“Buffy---.”

“No, Giles. I mean it this time. There’s too much at stake.” She shot him her best California girl smile. “He’s about to learn firsthand that pregnancy hormones are a bitch named Buffy.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 51: More Worthy I to Be