The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XLIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Havi and Lydia are tailing Robin after he refused to leave with them right away, while Spike and the other have found the dead Council team but no Esme…
It helped that everybody in the house was asleep. Though she pulled on what little reserves she had to mask her presence, Esme was mildly relieved that she could relax her guard a tad as she moved silently around the Slayer’s kitchen, gathering what essentials she needed for her task. She was weary, and the less magic she expended, the longer she was going to last. It had taken a lot out of her when she’d killed the Council team, much more than she would’ve wanted, but it needed to be done if she didn’t want to end up under Quentin’s thumb. She didn’t plan on ever being under his control again.
Not a sound came from the rest of the house. The Watcher and the Slayer’s mother slept in the living room, while there were three answering heartbeats upstairs. Four, if she counted the baby, but since it wasn’t currently a threat to her, Esme didn’t take it into consideration. She just needed to be aware of where the Slayer’s friends were while she and Buffy had a small visit. Her window of opportunity was limited; she knew that it was only a matter of time before the Council team was found and her disappearance discovered.
She took the kettle off the burner before it could whistle and wake anybody up. Though she had made certain alterations to the spell to accommodate the circumstances, it was still essentially the same. It would serve its purpose to keep the Slayer out of the picture until the time came that Esme had the information she wanted. As soon as she had the location of the artifacts, the Slayer would become useful again. In the meantime, she had to be kept from messing everything up. Esme smiled. There was even a remote possibility Buffy would thank her for this little vacation. Stranger things had been known to happen.
Silently, she carried the tray up the stairs, affecting the glamour she would need in order to make this work. A very brief visit, she decided. She was too exhausted to do much more and still have the strength to leave afterward. She needed to rest if she wanted to be able to perform properly, and she needed it to be undisturbed by the Slayer and her friends. This was the only way she could think how.
The brief knock roused Buffy from her sleep. Blinking bleary-eyed at the door, she stifled a heavy yawn before calling out, “Come in.”
The door cracked open, and through the thick cloud of her half-awake state, Buffy watched Willow slip inside, shutting the light out from the hallway as quickly as she could. In her hands, she balanced a tray, and the warm scent that suddenly filled the room made Buffy’s mouth water.
“Did I wake you?” Willow asked.
Buffy heard rather than saw her approach the bed. Only outlines were visible in the dark room, and her grogginess did nothing to help in making things sharper. “What’s wrong?” she said instead of answering the question.
“Nothing, nothing.” Willow set the tray down on her nightstand. “I couldn’t sleep so I went downstairs and made myself some tea. Your mom thought it would be a good idea if I brought you some, too.”
“Tea?” As delicious as it smelled, Buffy shook her head. “I can’t. The caffeine---.”
“It’s herbal. Caffeine-free, so no danger to the baby.” Willow yawned widely. “It’s already working wonders on me.”
Buffy struggled to a sitting position as Willow picked up the mug and handed it to her. “Has anybody called?” she asked, taking the cup. The heat seeped into her palms, and she cradled it closer, leaning to breathe the tangy scent in more deeply. God, it smelled good. It was impossible not to take just a little sip, which slid so luxuriously down her throat that she immediately sipped some more.
“Nope. No news. Which is good news, right?”
The levity struck her as odd, but as Buffy finished the rest of the tea, she realized she didn’t have the strength to argue with Willow about the lack of reports. “Will you wake me up as soon as something happens?” she said, passing back the mug.
Willow’s smile gleamed white in the darkness. “Of course.”
Buffy was only barely aware of thin hands tucking the blanket back around her. Obviously, she’d been more tired than she’d thought, and as she rolled onto her side, curling her arm protectively around her stomach, she could’ve sworn she heard Willow whisper, “Sleep well, Slayer.”
The ringing of the telephone woke Joyce from her doze, and she opened her eyes to find her cheek resting on Rupert’s shoulder. Moving as carefully as she could not to wake him, she stood up and rushed to the kitchen, grabbing the receiver on the third ring.
“Mrs. Summers? It’s Wesley. Are you all right?”
His voice was panicked and too loud, as if he was speaking up in order to be heard. In the background, she heard the sounds of traffic and realized he must be calling from Spike’s car.
“We’re all fine,” she replied. “Sleeping mostly. What’s wrong? Did you find Esme?”
There was a pause, with Spike’s baritone unintelligible in the background.
“Yes and no,” Wesley said. “We found where they’d been keeping her, but she was already gone.” Another pause. “She killed the Council. We fear she’s after Buffy and Willow next.”
Joyce was suddenly awake. “Oh, god,” she murmured. When Rupert appeared in the doorway, a frown on his face as he slipped his glasses back on, she waved him closer. “What can we do?”
“Frankly, not a lot---.”
A muttered curse came through the line, followed by a brief scuffle. Then…
“Joyce?” It was Spike. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him sound so scared. “Where’s Buffy?”
“In her room. Sleeping, I think.”
“Do me a favor. Go check on her. Make sure.”
“Hang on.” Covering the mouthpiece, she turned to Rupert. “Can you go upstairs and see if Willow and Buffy are all right?” she asked. He immediately turned on his heel, and she brought the phone back up to speak. “Rupert’s going. He’ll be right back. Where are you?”
“On our way back to the house. Oz and the soldier boy are right behind us. Has Studs checked back yet?”
“She called and spoke with Buffy earlier. From what I understood, she and Lydia were going to be following that Mr. Wood.”
“Get her on the horn and tell her to get her ass back to the house. Wood can wait. Right now, we need all the muscle we can get to make sure that bitch of a witch doesn’t get to Buffy or Red.”
Rupert came back into the kitchen, drawing Joyce’s focus once again. “They’re both sound asleep,” he said. “No signs of anything amiss.”
She relayed the information to Spike as quickly as she could. There was no denying the sigh of relief that came over the line.
“Once you’ve talked to Studs,” he said, “you and Rupes sit in with the girls. Make sure nobody else gets to them before we get back to the house. We should be another ten minutes unless the Watcher here starts complaining about me runnin’ the reds again.”
She agreed, but when she hung up the phone, anxiety was making her heart pound in her chest. It took all her control to find Havi’s cell number and make the call Spike had requested.
Rupert’s hand was warm where it came to rest on her shoulder. “Everything will be all right,” he soothed.
Nodding, Joyce followed him back up the stairs, parting at the appropriate bedroom doors. She left the door open, the light from the hall spilling into Buffy’s room to reveal her daughter curled up on her side, lashes dark against her pinked cheeks. Her eyes strayed to the swell of Buffy’s stomach, the way Buffy instinctively protected it with her body. It wouldn’t be that much longer before she fully understood the anxiety Joyce went through each and every time there was a threat to Buffy. Even now, knowing Spike and the others were on their way, it was difficult to suppress the fear that gripped her insides.
Joyce had no doubt that Buffy was going to be an excellent mother. She just prayed that she survived this ordeal in order to prove that.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” Lydia said. Her knuckles were white around the door handle as Havi careened through traffic, and she was fairly certain that if the other woman kept up this breakneck speed, Lydia was going to be sick all over her shoes. “We’re going to lose Robin if we go back.”
“We’re needed at the house.” Havi’s jaw was bone-white from how tightly she was clenching it. “And he already agreed to come see Buffy in the morning as it is. We have no choice but to trust that he’s a man of his word.”
Lydia didn’t bother replying. Ever since Mrs. Summers’ call, Havi had become increasingly frightening in her intensity. It would appear that any threat to Willow Rosenberg was enough to turn the woman into a machine.
“I don’t know what they expect us to do,” she said a few blocks later. “If Esme has her powers back, we’re going to be helpless in front of her. Going back is ensuring our deaths.”
“Going back is increasing our odds of success,” Havi shot back. The look she gave Lydia was withering. “You are the biggest coward I have ever known. I find it very hard to believe that you’ve come so far within the Council, even knowing how corrupt they can be.”
“I’m not a coward!”
“Really? Why then do you choose your side based on who you think will win?” Her flinty gaze returned to the road. “That is the mark of a coward, whether you choose to believe me or not.”
Stiffening in her seat, Lydia held her chin high. “I’ll have you know---.”
“I am done listening to you,” Havi interrupted. “If you speak again before we reach the Summers house, I’m going to push you out at the next stop and tell Buffy that you changed sides yet again. I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to add you to the list of those she considers enemies.”
She held her tongue. There was no doubt in Lydia’s mind that Havi would do exactly as she promised. In fact, she was surprised the woman had volunteered to do it at a stop. With her violent tendencies, it seemed more appropriate to be pushed from a moving vehicle.
Frankly, Lydia would be surprised if she managed to get through this whole debacle alive. When it was over, she was going to retire from the Council and return to her studies. Books didn’t hold grudges.
For a while, Robin thought he was being followed. He’d blown off Lydia and the other girl to go meet with Maggie, but neither woman had looked pleased with his decision. Frankly, he’d believed it was them in the far distance as he navigated through the streets of Sunnydale toward the all-night diner out of town. But then the car had turned left when he’d gone straight and after a few more miles of not seeing it, Robin had dismissed it as paranoia. He was on edge because of everything. It made sense that he was seeing ghosts when there weren’t any.
Though he had no idea why Maggie chose such a remote location for them to meet, he didn’t question it. He’d been too eager to have an excuse not to see Buffy. What was he going to say to her? She wouldn’t listen to anything he had to say Spike, regardless of whether or not it was the truth, and if she was looking for a testimonial on how Slayers made the best moms, she was barking up the wrong Wood. He thought her child was a mistake any way she spun it, and he wasn’t about to pretend otherwise if she confronted him on the issue.
At least, he’d bought some time thanks to Maggie’s phone call. He might even consider asking her advice on what she thought he should say.
The diner’s lot was nearly deserted, and Wood pulled up to park next to Maggie’s car. Through the large windows, he could see her sitting in a corner booth, looking at something on the table in front of her. He glanced at his watch. He wasn’t late. How long had she been waiting for him?
She looked up as he approached the table, a warm smile creasing her features. The item that had been holding her attention was a plain manila folder. They were her favorite, she claimed, because they offered the gift of surprise. You never knew what it might contain. His stomach wrenched as he slid into the seat opposite her. So far, he did not like the way this was looking.
“I’m sorry about calling you so late,” she said, the smile never leaving her face.
He tried not to frown. “You said it was important.”
“It is.” She slid the folder closer to him. “We’ve found the artifacts.”
Robin stilled. He’d known about Maggie’s interest in Slayers when she had asked him to be her assistant, and she’d been forthcoming about why she needed Buffy on her team. These mysterious artifacts she’d talked about could only be wielded by a Slayer, and the power they promised was too much not to have on the Initiative’s side. But she’d never gone into specific detail, and after he’d backed off on trying to recruit Buffy, he’d thought the matter was over and done with. Apparently, he’d been wrong.
“That’s unexpected,” he said, his tone cautious. “The last I remember, you didn’t anticipate finding them until the spring.”
“I was being conservative. I didn’t want to get my hopes up in case we were wrong.” She tapped the folder. “If you ever had a question, there’ll be an answer in there. What we’re looking for, what they’re supposed to do. I thought it was about time I stopped being so stingy with the information.”
She smiled, but Robin wasn’t impressed with her attempt at levity. Neither did he take the offered folder.
“What’s this have to do with me?” he asked. “I’m not on your Slayer project any more.”
“Technically, there isn’t a Slayer project any more,” Maggie corrected. She sat back when the waitress approached, only leaning forward again when they’d both ordered coffee. “Aren’t you in the slightest bit curious? You worked all semester trying to get to know Buffy Summers better, just for this. Don’t tell me you don’t want to know it was all for.”
He hated that she knew him so well. Holding her gaze for a long moment, Robin finally sighed and picked up the folder. “Where did you end up finding them?” he asked as he began to scan the report.
“Outside the city limits. There’s a whole catacomb of underground caverns around here. The artifacts are located near some sort of well.”
“Wait. Don’t you have the artifacts already?”
For the first time since his arrival, Maggie’s smile faltered. “Well, no, not exactly. That was part of what we needed Buffy Summers for.” She paused, her gaze calculating. “That’s actually why I asked you here tonight.”
Closing the folder again, he pushed it back toward her. “I already told you. I’m not helping you get Buffy. She’s---.”
“I don’t want Buffy. I want you.”
To say he was surprised was an understatement. “For what? You told me you needed a Slayer.”
Maggie had the good grace to look mildly abashed. “A Slayer would be ideal, yes. But, technically, the artifacts can be retrieved by someone of Slayer blood. I never even considered the possibility of a relative of a Slayer attempting to get them out, let alone use them.”
“Maybe because the possibility is ridiculous. I’m not some superhero, Chosen to save the world.”
“No, your mother was.” She leaned forward, suddenly intense again. “But just think about it, Robin. All that power at your fingertips? Think of all the good you could accomplish. How many HST’s you could destroy. Can you seriously tell me that that doesn’t excite you even a little bit?”
He wanted to say no. He wanted to be able to stand up, tell Maggie that she was crazy, and walk away from Sunnydale, once and for all. He’d come with such high expectations, but finding Spike and being confronted with Buffy’s pregnancy on a near daily basis had tarnished them. That didn’t even take into consideration the complications added with Esme and Mr. Travers. If he had any sense at all, he’d pack his things and head back to New York.
The only thing was…Maggie was right. The possibility of having even a fraction of the power his mother had was tempting.
Slowly, he stretched his fingers until they touched the edge of the folder, drawing it back toward him. “You never told me what the artifacts are supposed to do,” he said, keeping his tone neutral.
She seemed pleased with his response, even if it didn’t definitively confirm her assertions. “Well, one of them is most definitely a weapon. A scythe. Presumed to be about five feet long and capable of incredible destruction. Our sources suggest that it contains the essence of Slayer power.”
Robin frowned. Thumbing through the pages of the report, he stopped at the sketch done of the scythe. “How is that possible?”
“We don’t know. That’s something we’ll have to determine after you retrieve it.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet, Maggie.”
The waitress arrived with their coffee, and the pair lapsed into silence as he continued to peruse the report. It wasn’t just a scythe they wanted. Supposedly, there were two other artifacts, a staff and some sort of box. The information they had on those was even sketchier than what they had for the scythe, though, which meant they had damn little. If he didn’t know Maggie so well, he’d almost be amused at how obsessed she’d gotten over so little.
“Don’t make up your mind now,” she said, breaking the silence. “Take the report home. Read it. Think it over. I don’t want you to do anything that’s going to make you uncomfortable.”
He almost laughed. He was surprised Maggie could say the last with a straight face.
It didn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t going to do exactly as she said.
Not even hearing Joyce’s smooth assurances that Buffy was fine could temper Spike’s anxiety as he pulled the Thunderbird into Revello Drive. The only good thing that came from the trip back to the house was the fact that the Watcher had kept his gob shut for most of the ride. Spike was fairly sure that if Wesley had said even one wrong thing, he’d’ve tossed him out on his ear.
He’d barely killed the motor before leaping from the car and dashing inside. The door slammed open from the force of his shove, and he was taking the stairs two at a time before it had even hit the wall. All around him was silence, but the soft heartbeats of his Slayer and little one called him just as assuredly as if they’d screamed.
Spike skidded to a halt at the open door of the bedroom. Joyce sat in a chair by the bed, but it was the sight of Buffy curled up on her side, her cheeks faintly pink from sleep, that finally began to quell some of the fear coursing through his veins. She was alive, breathing strong, dreaming as well, if the flickering behind her eyelids was anything to go by. The baby’s heartbeat was still steady as ever, too.
He sagged against the jamb. “Thank you,” he murmured to nobody in particular. Behind him, another door opened, and he glanced back to see Giles and a sleepy Willow standing at the mouth of Joyce’s room.
“What’s going on?” Willow asked.
“We gotta get you and Buffy out of here,” Spike said. “Esme’s awake and scarpered off.”
Her eyes widened. “Well…maybe she doesn’t care about me and Buffy any more. Maybe---.”
“And maybe she’s offed the entire Council team without blinking an eyelash,” Spike finished. “Pack it up. We’re going.”
“Perhaps running isn’t our best course of action,” Giles suggested.
“It’s not runnin’. It’s hidin’. Big difference, Rupes.”
“But Esme will still find us, won’t she?” Willow’s voice was still tight with fear. “She’s got the mojo back now. What’s going to stop her from finding us someplace else?”
He hated that she had a point, but everything in Spike was screaming to get out of the house. It wasn’t safe, not with Esme out there and unaccounted for.
“Willow and I can put up some sort of magical defense,” Giles was saying. “It might not be enough to keep Esme out, but it could slow her down so that we have advance warning of her attack.”
Looking at Red told Spike that she didn’t seem to think she could, but she held her tongue anyway. Truth be told, he had no clue where he could take Buffy to keep her out of Esme’s way. If nothing else, this might buy them a little time to figure out a plan.
“All right,” he conceded. “We’ll stay put. For now. But we should wake up Buffy so that she knows what’s goin’ on. If we need to leave at a moment’s notice, she’s goin’ to need to be alert enough to do it.”
“I’ll wake her,” Joyce offered. “The rest of you can start…doing whatever it is you need to do.”
Spike nodded. It was the best they could presently hope for.
The trio was halfway down the stairs when Joyce called out to them. Not surprisingly, Spike was the first to reach her side.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. Her eyes were wide, jumping from him to Giles to Willow. “Buffy won’t wake up.”
Willow hung back as Spike darted to the bed, bending over Buffy to start murmuring soft words she was sure weren’t meant for anybody else’s ears. When Buffy didn’t react, he scooped her up in his arms, slapping her cheeks lightly.
Still, there was no response.
“Call the hospital,” he barked at Joyce. “I’m takin’ her in.”
Willow took Joyce’s place in the doorway when the older woman rushed downstairs. As she watched Spike carefully pick Buffy up, her gaze strayed to the empty cup on the nightstand. That’s when she noticed the familiar scent in the air.
“Oh, god,” she breathed.
Spike immediately perked up. “What? What is it?”
Willow didn’t answer. Hurrying to the nightstand, she picked up the cup and lifted it to her nose, inhaling the smell that lingered inside. There was something about it that was slightly different, but the similarity was too close just to ignore.
She turned nervously toward Spike. “I don’t think we have to worry too much about Esme showing up any time soon,” she said.
“Because I think she’s already been here.” She glanced at Buffy’s face, so peaceful in her sleep. “And I think there’s a chance…Buffy’s not.”
It was the sky dreams were made of, brilliant and blue with no variations in shade, not a speck of cirrus to mar its crystalline perfection. She was in the middle of a park, rolling greens broken by trees that were all too familiar, their oddly shaped leaves flowering in irregular clusters against the sky. The path on which she stood wound like a silver ribbon through the grass, the finely crushed stone almost like sand beneath her shoes, and the bed of daisies and deep-purple clematis that snaked alongside leant the air a perfume that felt surprisingly like home. A stone bench several yards ahead beckoned to her, asking her to come, but she didn’t move, couldn’t move, frozen in place as she gazed at the world around her.
This time, she didn’t wear a sundress and sandals. This time, a long, tiered skirt flowed around her legs, the elasticated waistband yielding to her swollen stomach, and her arms were bare in a tunic that draped easily over her hips. She wasn’t entirely sure what was on her feet, mainly because she couldn’t see them, but in the long run, she knew it didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was that she was now standing in a place she’d thought she would never see again, shouldn’t have seen again. Even worse, she was alone.
Every other time she’d been here, William had been here, too. The fact that she couldn’t see him anywhere, no matter which direction she turned, could not be good.
“Oh, crap,” Buffy muttered.
To be continued in Chapter 54: Our Brains Beguiled…