The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The truth has come out about Robin so Lydia and Havi have been sent out to fetch him, while Spike, Oz, Giles, and Wesley go on the hunt for Esme…

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

Chapter 52: Renew Thy Force

They split up. No bloody way was he going to spend the bulk of his evening with the soldier boy, even if Buffy was falling for his white flag act. Of course, that meant he was stuck with the Watcher, but Spike figured, of the choices, he was the lesser of the two evils.

He was wrong.

“There! There!” Wesley’s arm shot in front of Spike’s face to point frantically out the side window, effectively blocking his narrow view through the painted windshield.

With a growl, Spike knocked the offending appendage out of his way as he straightened the car out of the veer he’d swung into. “Do that one more time, and I’m goin’ to snap it off at your fuckin’ elbow!” he bellowed. “Then we’ll see how much bloody pointing you can do to annoy me, Stumpy.”

Though he visibly flushed, Wesley didn’t cower away as he normally did. “I’m just saying, I think I recognized the van from the house.”

Spike frowned, glancing in the side mirror. “Where?”

“Back there.”

Though he hadn’t seen anything, Spike spun the wheel, ignoring the flashing red of the intersection to do a u-turn in the middle of the road. The blare of honking cars filtered through the open windows, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wesley grab frantically for the arm rest on his door in a vain effort to keep from pitching sideways. He bit back his smile of satisfaction.

“Now,” he said, once they were facing in the opposite direction. “Back there where?”

He looked expectantly at Wesley, but when the Watcher began to lift his arm to point, Spike only had to lift a single brow before the hand went shooting back into Wesley’s lap.

“In the alley,” the Watcher said. “The first one past the cinema.”

That was all Spike needed. The alley in question was several hundred yards ahead of them, barely visible from their current position. Pulling over at the first available parking spot, he killed the engine and shoved the keys into his coat pocket before twisting to grab one of the crossbows from the back seat. Wesley was just gaping at him in disbelief.

“I said, the alley.” He gestured toward the traffic that was passing by. “What in heaven’s name are you doing?”

“If you fancy announcing our arrival with a vintage t-bird, you be my guest,” Spike commented. “Just go find your own car to do it with. My baby’s not goin’ in the trenches.” He didn’t wait for a reply before getting out. By the time he’d slammed the door shut, Wesley was already scrambling out onto the sidewalk. “’Sides, we want to be stealthy ‘bout this, right? Can’t sneak in if we’ve got a black albatross ‘round our necks. It’s bad enough I’ve got you.”

More than one passerby shot the duo frightened looks as they strode confidently down the sidewalk. Spike figured he could’ve tucked the crossbow inside his duster, but frankly, strutting down Main Street with an armed weapon in full view had him hard and ready for the fight to come. It took all his self-control not to vamp out and really put the fear of Spike into the crowd.

They slowed their pace as they neared the mouth of the alley, coming to a complete stop at the building’s edge. Inhaling deeply, Spike caught the unmistakable scents of a large group of men, as well as the faint tinge from Esme. There were others, though, and he frowned as he sniffed again.

“What’s wrong?” Wesley said in a stage whisper. He was pressed flat against the wall, his body completely rigid as if he feared for his life should he move. “Isn’t it Esme?”

“And more,” Spike muttered. When he glanced around the corner, the tension released from his body as he began marching boldly into the alley. After a moment, Wesley came scurrying after.

The van was abandoned several dozen yards from the street, lost in the shadows cast by the tall building. Two men were circling around the front of the vehicle, but Spike never broke his stride as he walked right up to them.

“The version we tell Buffy is that I found it first, got it?” he joked with a crooked smile.

Oz stopped in his inspection of the car, his head cocking curiously. “Is that a hero complex I hear? I’d be careful if I were you. This might actually qualify you as a white hat now.”

Graham was studiously ignoring their camaraderie, moving from looking at the abandoned vehicle to the buildings surrounding them. “They’ve moved her,” he said to nobody in particular. “We just have to figure out to where.”

Oz and Spike sniffed the air at the same time, then simultaneously nodded toward the taller building closest to the van. “There,” they said.

Graham’s eyes were inscrutable as he stared at them. “You do realize that’s really creepy, don’t you?”

“Have we found her?” Wesley asked, coming up behind Spike.

“Just have to saddle up and ride in to save the day,” Spike said. He checked his crossbow, making sure it was still primed, before heading straight for the building’s side door.

Oz fell into step at his side. “If we find Esme---,” he started.

“No.” Spike yanked the door open, snapping the lock. This time when he looked at his friend, all amusement was gone from his face. “The bitch is my kill. It might make you feel better in the short run, but later, you’re goin’ to start secondguessing about how you could’ve spared her life and all that rot. It’s better this way.”

“I won’t---.”

“Yeah, you will. But there’s not a chance in hell I’ll ever feel guilty about gettin’ rid of the witch, which is why I’m takin’ this. You’ve got enough shit to be fussed over.”

“Neither of you are going to get to do it if we don’t start moving,” Graham commented from behind.

Spike led the way into the dark bowels of the building. He wasn’t convinced Oz still wouldn’t try something, but he was damned if he was going to let his friend shoulder the responsibility of the kill. Besides, he’d get a certain amount of satisfaction out of draining the bitch anyway. It was a win/win situation all around.

As soon as they found her.

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

Taking a deep breath, Lydia smoothed down her hair, pushing back a stray wisp that fell against her cheek. At her side, Havi just stared down at her, stiff and silent as she’d been the entire trip to Robin’s apartment. Lydia really didn’t like the girl.

“Don’t say a word,” she instructed, keeping her voice low. “I’ll do all the talking. We can’t afford to make a mistake at this point.”

“You mean, you can’t afford such a mistake,” Havi countered.

Lydia’s lips thinned, her cheeks coloring. “Just…be quiet.”

Her heart was pounding as she knocked at the door, taking a step away in anticipation of it opening. Muffled sounds came from within, a television’s volume being lowered, and then Robin was there, gazing down at her in surprise.

“Did I miss a meeting or something?” he asked with a wry smile. His dark eyes flickered to Havi’s presence in the hallway, a tiny line appearing suddenly between his brows. He quickly shifted his attention back to Lydia, though, and leaned casually against the jamb. “Is this a social call?”

“There’s a problem.” Without thought, she launched into the cover story she’d come up with. Since Robin had had no idea who Esme was during his last visit, she thought it safe to assume he knew nothing of the extent of her powers or the Council’s interest in her. She had to be careful just how much she revealed.

“Buffy’s found out who you are,” she said. She felt rather than heard Havi stiffen behind her. “I have no idea how, but Rupert says she’s grown quite agitated as a result. She’s insisting that she be allowed to speak with you.”

His face grew hard, the muscles twitching in his cheek. She’d never thought of him as a violent man, but in that moment, Lydia feared that he would lash out at her.

“I think I know,” he said. Straightening, he folded his arms over his chest. “What has she said to you?”

“She wants to talk about your mother. About how you felt about her being a Slayer. Frankly, Rupert and I think this is an over-reaction in regards to her recent scare with the pregnancy. She’s become obsessed in learning as much as she can for the baby’s sake.”

Again, his gaze darted to Havi, though it only lasted for a moment. “I’m not so sure that’s such a good idea,” he said carefully.

“Why?”

He was stopped from answering by the phone ringing from inside the apartment. “Hang on for a second.”

Lydia could only watch helplessly while Robin partially closed the door to go answer the phone. As soon as he was out of sight, Havi’s hand curled around her upper arm and yanked her away from the entrance.

“What are you doing?” Havi hissed.

“I’m trying to get Robin out of here without making a scene,” Lydia shot back.

“You are failing.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“I would think almost anything is better than the method you’ve chosen.”

Lydia’s hand curled into a fist at her side. She couldn’t afford to make her situation any worse, and while she knew that William detested the Protector as much as Lydia did, they were still on the same side. To retaliate against the person Buffy had assigned to guard her would only hurt her in William’s eyes.

“Robin is not a stupid man,” she said instead. “And he doesn’t know the situation with Esme. I’m not about to tip our hand unnecessarily. I’m sure Buffy would agree with me.”

Havi seemed less than sure, but Robin’s returning footsteps stopped her from speaking up again. Lydia wrenched her arm free so that she could return to where she’d been standing when he left.

There was an apologetic smile on his face when he stepped back into the doorway. “Listen,” he said. “About Buffy. I still don’t think it’s such a good idea if I talk to her, but I’ll do it.” He held up a hand to cut off Lydia’s response. “In the morning. Right now, I have to go help out a friend with something, but I promise that I’ll be at the Summers house first thing tomorrow. All right?”

She wanted to argue, but the look in his eyes made it clear it would be a fruitless endeavor. “I’ll tell Mr. Giles,” she said with a phony smile. “I’m sure he’ll be greatly relieved.”

Robin nodded and retreated back into the apartment, closing the door on them. Lydia didn’t have time to react before Havi grabbed her arm and dragged her back outside.

“This is not what we were sent to do,” Havi snapped. She continued to drag Lydia toward the walk, only coming to a stop when she reached a pay phone at the curb.

“What are you doing?” Lydia asked.

“Updating Buffy on our circumstances.” Cradling the phone in her shoulder, she jabbed at the numbers on the keypad, never easing on her tight grip of Lydia’s arm. The Watcher had no choice but to stand there and anxiously watch the front of the apartment complex, hoping desperately Robin didn’t come out and see what they were doing.

The conversation was brief. For once, she was grateful for Havi’s terse manner.

“We’re to follow him,” Havi announced after hanging up.

“Of course we are,” Lydia muttered.

The beginning of a headache was creeping in, and she lost her balance twice as the other woman dragged her back to the waiting car. As much as she disliked the new plan, though, she knew she had little choice but to comply. Buffy was the one in charge now, and unless Mr. Travers came swooping in to save the day---an image that even Lydia found highly amusing---she was stuck doing as she was told. William would be sure to tear her throat out if she dared do anything that bucked his precious Slayer’s good will, and while once upon a time the thought of being one of William the Bloody’s victims had been a romantic fantasy, now Lydia was quite certain that the reality would be far more painful than anything she’d ever imagined. She considered herself an intelligent woman, but bravery, unfortunately, was not her strong suit.

“What else did Buffy say?” she asked, once they were back in the privacy of Havi’s car. “Have the others found Esme yet?”

“No. But Buffy is confident they will.”

Lydia wasn’t. Esme was a master at this particular game. If she woke up, all bets were going to be off.

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

They sat on her mom’s bed, Willow’s notebooks strewn around them. Though her face was still pale and pinched, Willow had long ago stopped crying, giving Buffy hope that maybe some of their arguments about her usefulness had started to sink in. It helped that Xander had returned quickly with Willow’s boxes; it gave them something to do while they waited to hear from the others.

Neither was talking about the possibility that Spike and Oz wouldn’t be able to find Esme. That was a bridge they’d cross when they had to. There were too many other things occupying their attention currently to dwell on what if’s. It was bad enough that Havi had called to update her about Robin. Though she’d desperately wanted to tell the girl to knock Robin out and drag him back to the Summers house, Buffy knew they couldn’t. He had connections, and worse, he was an adult who’d probably press charges, regardless of the pseudo friendship they’d struck. They had no choice but to sit back and hope that not only were his night’s plans innocent, but that he’d hold true to his word and come to the house in the morning.

“Can you hand me the green one with the rainbow in the corner?” Willow asked.

Buffy snapped from her reverie to see her friend pointing to a notebook beyond her reach. Stretching, she picked it up and handed it over. “I thought you knew where the spell was,” she commented.

Willow sighed. “I thought I did, too. But my brain’s still a little fuzzy.” She smiled, a wan ghost of her usual perky self. “Probably from the whole dying thing.”

“I wish I’d known you were doing all this stuff,” Buffy said. “Some of these spells…I didn’t realize you were trying so hard to come up with things we could use on patrol. Like this sunlight spell? That would be way cool. Maybe not when Spike’s helping me, but you know, other times.”

She was about to turn the page when a notation at the bottom caught her eye. It wasn’t the searching spell Willow was on the lookout for. No, the word that made her stop and look it over a little more carefully was soul.

“What is this?” Buffy asked.

“What’s what?” Willow craned her neck to see what Buffy was pointing to, but the moment she did, her eyes widened and she jerked away. “Oh. You weren’t supposed to know about that.”

“But what is it?” Though the incantation itself didn’t make any sense to her, she read over the ingredient list again. At the bottom, one line was crossed through. “Orb of Thessulah?” Her eyes searched Willow’s face, desperate for an answer that made sense. “That’s what you used to give Angel back his soul.”

“It was just an exercise,” Willow rushed. She tried to snatch the notebook away, but Buffy held it beyond her reach. “I wasn’t actually going to do it to Spike. I just wanted to see if I could.”

She could hear the blood pounding in her ears. “We talked about this, Willow. You were the one who told me not to push it. That we didn’t know what it would do to Spike.”

“And I was right. About not doing it.” Her voice was doing that squeaky thing it did when she was nervous. “It was just messing around, like extra credit when you already have an A+. For fun but it doesn’t really mean anything in the long run.”

She got it. It was a weird Willow thing. “But why’d you cross off the orb?” Buffy asked. “Wasn’t that kind of a big deal with Angel?”

Something in Willow lit up. “Because I figured out that it wasn’t necessary. Well, I think it wasn’t. I never actually tried the spell, so as far I know, it won’t work anyway.”

“Huh?”

“The whole curse thing. I knew that would never work for you and Spike, because, hello, true happiness is kind of the whole point of being together in the first place. So I thought…” Her voice faded away as she realized Buffy wasn’t reacting in the way she’d hoped. “…that it’s really not that important anyway because it’s never going to happen, and I’m just going to go back to looking for that tracking spell now, OK?”

She buried her attention back to the notes in her lap, furtively glancing at Buffy through her lashes.

With a heavy sigh, Buffy tossed the notebook aside, flopping backwards onto the bed to stare up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m shouldn’t have wigged. I’m just so tired of all this. I’m tired of fighting, and I’m tired of being pregnant, and I’m tired of the Council thinking they know what’s best for me when, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have any idea what it’s like to be a teenaged girl with superpowers.” She grimaced as Schmoo kicked at her bladder. “Most of all, I’m tired of having to pee every five minutes.”

Willow watched as Buffy struggled to sit back up, finally leaning in to offer a hand of support. “You should go get some sleep,” she said. “I can look for the spell on my own.”

Though she hated the idea of leaving Willow, the notion of getting some real rest---after she’d gone to the bathroom---was incredibly appealing. “You’re sure you’re up for it?” Buffy asked.

“Since when have I not been up for a little research? It’s going to take more than being mostly dead all day to put a crimp in this girl’s lust for knowledge.”

With a small smile, Buffy rose and went to the side of the bed to give her friend a hug. “Just for a few minutes,” she said. “And if anything happens, you have to promise to come and wake me up.”

“Scout’s honor.”

The sound of her mother and Giles’ voices drifting from downstairs greeted Buffy when she opened the door. She wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but she lacked the strength to go and do anything about it right then. Later, she vowed as she stumbled into the bathroom. After a potty break and a little nap.

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

He watched Joyce bustle around the kitchen, cleaning appliances that weren’t in need of cleaning, wiping down surfaces that weren’t in need of wiping. She chattered while she worked, doing everything she could to avoid the more serious topics of Esme and the government installation humming beneath Sunnydale. Finally, when she went to the sink to rinse out her dishcloth in order to clean the stove yet again, Giles rose from his perch at the island and crossed behind her.

“Enough,” he said quietly, taking her hand in his. Carefully, he opened her fingers and forced her to drop the cloth. “You should do as the others and get some sleep.”

When she sagged against the edge of the counter, he felt a tug of sympathy at the defeated slump of her shoulders.

“I don’t know how all of you do it,” Joyce said. “Xander was telling me these stories when we were in the car, so I know this stuff with Graham and Lydia is hardly new to you. But I just don’t understand where you find the strength to deal with it. It’s taking everything I have just to keep up with Buffy and the baby, not to mention the issues with Havi and Spike.”

Gently, he turned her around to face him. “And you’re doing a remarkable job,” he said. “You’ve certainly been much better with Buffy than I have regarding the pregnancy. And welcoming strangers into your home? That takes its own brand of courage, especially knowing that one of them is a vampire.”

She gave him a half-smile. “There would’ve been a time when you would’ve told me that that was stupid, not brave.”

“And there would’ve been a time when I would’ve been right. But now…well, things are different now, aren’t they?”

The warmth in her eyes when she looked at him was not what he expected. Neither did he expect the slight lean of her body as she reached to brush a feathery kiss across his cheek.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, slipping away from him to reach for a dishtowel to dry her hands. When she was done, her fingers played with the terry’s edge, and when she spoke, there was no denying the solemnity in her voice.

“Sometimes I wish we’d never come to Sunnydale,” Joyce said softly. “That maybe if we’d stayed in LA, Buffy wouldn’t have been Chosen and she could’ve finished high school like any normal teenager.”

“Buffy was Chosen before---.”

“---we moved, I know. Still…I don’t really associate the slaying with what our lives were like before, so when I’m daydreaming, it’s easier to make the blanket assumption.”

He remained silent. He wasn’t sure why she was telling him this.

“Then…there are times like tonight. When I see her take charge of a situation, and I realize…she’s an amazing young woman. And I’m just so…proud that she’s mine, you know?”

This time, she glanced at him. Giles offered her a soft smile. “I understand exactly. But…that’s due in large part because of you.”

Joyce shook her head. “It’s because of all of us. Willow, and Xander, and you and me and Spike and even that Graham in a roundabout way. That’s when I decide that Sunnydale is probably the best thing to have ever happened. To either of us.” She tilted her head toward the doorway. “Willow’s in my room, so I think I’m just going to turn on AMC and curl up on the couch. Would you care to join me?”

He simply nodded and followed her from the room. In spite of the day’s nightmares, there was a small burn of contentment deep within his gut. Danger was far from gone, but in the strength of the people that surrounded him, Giles couldn’t help but believe that they’d be able to overcome it. They’d done so in the past. They would continue to do so.

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

They found the wankers, all right. In the end, it wasn’t even that hard. Spike and Oz followed the scent to the third floor, and then the rest of them stood back while Spike kicked the door in. He’d hesitated before attempting to cross the threshold, but knew within seconds that it didn’t matter whether or not this was actually somebody’s domicile.

The entire Council team was dead.

Wesley was the first to brush past him, heading straight for the plain square table at which two of the men were slumped. Deft fingers danced over pulse points, moving along to the next body with quiet speed. Spike thought it was a waste of time. He could’ve told the Watcher that none of their hearts were beating.

The two rooms had likely been an office at one point, but the Council team had equipped it as a temporary hideaway. The other door off the main room revealed a row of sleeping bags on the floor and a tiny cot in the corner. More bodies were in there, but while the bedding on the cot was mussed, the bed itself was empty.

There wasn’t a single living person in the entire place.

Esme wasn’t there either.

Graham looked over the dead bodies dispassionately. “I take it, this means the witch woke up,” he commented.

“Yeah,” said Oz. His eyes met Spike’s. Each man only had one thing on their minds, though the name was different in each.

“Buffy,” Spike breathed.

“And Willow.”

They were both running for the stairs before anyone else could say a word.

 

To be continued in Chapter 53: In Dead Night