DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXVIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow teleported an awake Spike back to the Summers’ house where the rest of the gang was about to head out to storm the Initiative in hopes of retrieving Buffy. Willow then teleported herself, Spike, and Havi directly to the Initiative in an attempt to find out and help with what was going on with the baby. After getting in to see Buffy, Willow learned that Esme’s spell had destroyed the baby’s soul, and that the baby was dying. Spike was unwilling to just let that happen and told Willow to use his instead…
Spike expected it to burn. Between witnessing Willow’s magic over the past few months and remembering the scant details he’d heard about Angel’s re-souling, he figured his role in Red’s spell for the little one would hurt more than a mite. That was all right. He’d walk through Hell itself to save the baby.
Which was good because that’s exactly what it felt like he was doing.
As soon as Willow finished the incantation, a bolt of pain more intense than anything he’d ever felt before shot through his body, making his back arch, alerting every demonic instinct in him to tear away from the inferno streaking its way up his arm. The human instinct was stronger, though, as was the witch’s grip, refusing to let Spike break the physical connection he had with Buffy and the baby. But in the midst of the mind-numbing pain was something else. Something familiar. A voice he hadn’t heard in over a century.
“It’s the right thing,” she said. He couldn’t see her, but there was no mistaking the scent of his mother’s perfume, forgotten all these long years. She hovered in the periphery of his awareness, beyond the reach of the pain but there nonetheless. Spike just had no idea why.
“This thing you do, this choice you make,” Anne continued. “You make me proud to be your mother, William. And I am certain that Buffy would be just as proud.”
He didn’t need the words of encouragement—hell, Spike wasn’t even sure he wasn’t hallucinating the whole thing—but the notion that his soul was in the same place as his mother’s gave him hope for the little one.
“I always knew you were a good man, my son,” she whispered.
A vicious flare within his chest ripped him away from his unexpected sanctuary, and suddenly Spike’s eyes shot wide, blind to the military room around him. There was a fresh weight within his body, and it carried with it a grief that made the poet in him want to pull his hair out and weep. Tears burned, spilling down his cheeks as horrors unfolded before him, rivers of blood and innocent screams that dared to rip through his sanity.
Then a new voice. Just as familiar. Just as strong.
“We’re halfway there, Spike,” Willow said. “Hang on.”
He almost giggled hysterically. Too bad the witch didn’t realize just how badly his fingernails were bleeding already.
Havi had been stunned into silence long before Willow started the spell. Hearing a vampire relinquish the lone thing that could separate him from the demonic hordes was unprecedented. She knew Spike cared for Buffy and the baby, but she had never imagined that it plumbed to those kind of depths. The magnitude of the sacrifice was staggering.
His roar of pain when the incantation was complete made Havi jump back, senses alert to a fight even though she knew there was no actual risk from the Spike she knew. His features shifted from human to vampire in the space of a single blink, but somehow, Willow kept him from moving away from the bed, both of their arms corded from the tension rippling through them. Buffy remained still. The only noises were the growing beeps from the machines around them.
When Spike started crying, Havi closed her eyes. She could not watch. It wasn’t right.
It was the voice of an unknown male that snapped her out of her waiting.
“Who let these people in here?”
She reacted as she’d been taught. Before any of the soldiers could lift a weapon, Havi disarmed the nearest and used the gun’s butt to knock out the man at his side. When the door opened behind her, her foot shot out and slammed it closed again. A muffled scream rang out from the other side.
“Stay away from the bed,” she ordered when the doctor appeared to start nearing it.
He stared at her as if she were crazy. “Ms. Summers is in serious need of medical attention. Private--.”
Havi jerked the gun toward the young soldier who’d started to advance toward her. “Nobody touches Ms. Summers until my friends are done.” She tried not to listen to Willow’s ragged breathing, tried to ignore Spike’s pained grunts.
“Her baby is in distress! If we don’t help her--.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a second soldier begin to creep forward as the doctor spoke. Havi didn’t take her eyes off the white coat, but swung the gun to the side, squeezing the trigger.
The soldier screamed and fell to the floor, clutching his knee. All Initiative eyes jerked to the writhing man and the blood already staining the floor, and then came back to an impassive Havi. All were stunned into immobility.
“Nobody touches Ms. Summers,” she repeated.
The pains changed.
At some point, curled into a ball within the grass, wishing that she had her mother, that she had Spike, that she had her mother and Spike, Buffy became aware that the waves through her abdomen were shifting. They were still painful, still frightening, and she desperately wanted to get her hands on whoever or whatever might be responsible, but as she laid there with her eyes squeezed shut, she could’ve sworn there was something new.
Like she was being immersed in a steaming hot bath and leaning back into Spike.
Soft whispers in the back of her mind corrected that.
It felt like she was being surrounded by William.
For the first time since the pains had started, tears spilled down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry, William. I did everything I could. I wanted this so badly. For both of us.”
The gentle caress of a voice made the tears lessen almost immediately. “You are the bravest, strongest woman I have ever known, Buffy,” she heard William say. “Don’t give up on us.”
“Do you remember what I told you? On the banks?”
She smiled in spite of the pain. “We spent a lot of time on the banks.”
“It was the night I gave you the new poem. When…we spoke of what might happen if it were possible for you to stay.”
How could she forget?
Her hand had slipped into his pocket and found the paper he’d so consciously remembered to bring, and William froze as she opened it to scan its contents. She didn’t look up when she was done, but instead returned her gaze to the top of the page, swollen lips mouthing the words he’d written to complete the poem he’d composed during their first joining in the dreams. When she reached the final verse, he recited it aloud as she read.
“But I was lost in a place ‘tween the sun and moon,
Where firm and figment merged this June,
And even beyond that place ‘tween moon and sun,
My love that burns for her is legion.”
She was smiling when he finished, her fingers tracing over the careful script on the paper. “You changed it,” Buffy murmured, and looked up to see him frowning.
“You…remember what the original was?” he asked.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
When she started to hand it back to him, he folded her fingers around the edge and pushed it toward her. “It’s yours,” William said. “I wrote it for you.”
“But why would you change it?”
This was what he wanted her to know; this was what had spurred him to write so furiously after their fencing bout. The shift in tense in those few lines made all the difference to him.
“Because I’m not lost anymore,” William said softly. “No matter what happens, no matter where the next bend in our paths takes us, you’ve shown me that fear doesn’t have to hold me back. That I have it in me to forge onward, even if hindrances may try to prevent me from doing so. This is your true gift, Buffy. You make those who love you stronger.”
“I shall be strong,” William said, though his voice was growing even fainter. “I promise you that.”
But the voice was gone. And the warmth was ebbing.
Struggling, Buffy sat up, wiping at her face. Newfound resolve surged through her, and she wobbled to her feet. Maybe walking would ease the pain, she thought.
But before she could take a single step, the park disappeared.
They came to a halt at a junction of hallways. “Do you see any problems reaching the containment area?” Giles asked, eyes glued to the swarm of soldiers that were converging on a restricted door.
“No,” Graham replied. He jerked his head in the opposite direction. “Cells are that way.”
“And you’ll only open those we agreed upon, correct?
“I’ll make sure,” Oz said. “Just vampires, like you said.”
“And only enough to distract the soldiers,” Giles said, raising a warning finger. “We don’t want a massacre. We merely want a diversion.”
Xander grinned. “Am I the only one who finds it ironic that we’ve started thinking of vampires as the fluffy bunny of the demon set?”
“Don’t linger in the containment area,” Wesley instructed. “We don’t know how much resistance we’ll discover when we find Buffy. The more men we have, the better our odds.”
“Fighters, you mean.” At their frowns, Xander shrugged. “It’s just that Havi’s definitely not a man, and I know for a fact that she can probably kick most of our butts. Collectively, even.”
“I’ll be on the lookout for Maggie,” Robin said. “She’s my responsibility.”
“Buffy’s our responsibility,” Giles corrected. “Now, let’s go.”
Maggie hadn’t expected to see so many soldiers blocking the corridors. “Why aren’t you at your posts?” she barked as she pressed her way through the throng.
“There’s a disturbance of unknown origins in one of the infirmary rooms,” a buck-toothed private said. “We’re trying to gain entrance, but the doctor’s been taken hostage and they’ve already shot one of the guards who was inside.”
“They? How many hostiles are we talking about?”
“Three, ma’am. But as far as we can tell, at least one of them appears to be human.”
“And the old woman?”
The private stared at her. “There’s no old woman. Two young females and a male vampire.”
Maggie continued walking, processing the new information. The old woman was obviously a witch, she’d already deduced. She’d taken Maggie’s form in order to gain entrance to Buffy’s room, and now she had changed into someone else in order to avoid detection. Maggie had no idea who the others might be.
The door was firmly closed, and one soldier leaned against the wall next to it with his head tilted back. Blood dripped from his broken nose. He tried to snap to attention when she approached, but she waved him down, pushing through to the spectator window in order to see what was going on.
At least one new face in the room was familiar. Next to an alert Buffy, Willow Rosenberg was attempting to calm her friend down, hands on her shoulders while she tried to keep her in a prone position. A tall, austere young woman was poised near the door with one of the soldier’s weapons, keeping the rest of the staff away from the bed, while the vampire, dressed in black leather, was slumped against the foot. Though his lips were moving, Maggie couldn’t hear what was being said.
“Get the speakers turned on now!” she barked. “I want to know what’s going on in there.”
She didn’t take her eyes of the tableau in front of her while two soldiers scrambled to satisfy the order.
“…to her,” the vampire was saying.
Buffy had calmed slightly in the few seconds it had taken to get audio, and her eyes were glued on the blond demon. What concerned Maggie was the way the Slayer kept clutching her stomach. When she’d called, the soldier had said the monitors were going crazy. Was Buffy in labor?
“You know what was happening?” Buffy asked.
The vampire nodded. “But we don’t have time to suss it all right now.” Though he was attempting to sound strong, Maggie could tell that he’d been seriously injured in some fashion. His shoulders were slumped and he kept passing a weary hand over his eyes. There was no blood on the floor, however. She wondered what was causing him so much pain.
“The others will be here any minute,” Willow said.
“How many times do I have to tell you people this?” Dr. Wilson piped up from the far wall. “She needs medical attention, and she needs it now.”
Without a trace of emotion, the young woman with the gun swung her arm and shot at the doctor. Maggie flinched almost as strongly as Wilson did when the shower of plaster rained down on top of his head.
“You were told not to speak,” she said in an oddly accented voice. “Next time, I will not miss.”
Before Buffy could argue, an alarm began to peal throughout the complex, the corridor suddenly bathed in red. Half the soldiers took off in a dead run, heading toward the containment cells. When Maggie noticed that the intruders inside weren’t bothered by the alarms, it took only a moment for her to put two and two together.
“Stand your ground!” she ordered. Turning away from the window, she shifted to block others from leaving. “It’s a hoax. They’re trying to create a diversion.”
“But…the hostiles,” a nearby soldier stammered.
“Are not loose,” she finished. “Ms. Summers’ friends are attempting to get her out.”
Something hard prodded in the small of her back, but before Maggie could shift to tell the soldier behind her to mind his weapon, a familiar voice whispered in her ear.
“It’s actually not a hoax,” Robin said. “And if you don’t want to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, I suggest you let them go do their job.”
Though she had no idea why he was doing this, she knew it was a gun he had on her. The fact that none of the soldiers were reacting meant they couldn’t see the weapon. She really had no choice.
“Go,” she said tightly to the nearest soldier.
“But you just said---.”
“I know what I just said, and now I’m telling you to go contain the hostiles! That’s an order, private!”
One look at her unyielding face and the soldiers went scattering, pushing past to race to the source of the alarm.
Maggie was surprised when they weren’t left alone, though. Robin guided her away from the door, drawing three other men into her line of sight. Her eyes widened slightly upon recognizing Xander.
“Your vision’s improved,” she commented.
He scowled but remained silent. The oldest man of the group stepped forward to the window and tapped on the glass, drawing the armed young woman’s attention.
“They’re here,” she said to the others in the room.
Maggie was moved further along the wall, losing her vantage point to watch what was going on inside. When the door opened, the vampire held it wide.
“’Bout time,” he complained. “Red and I are about done in.”
All the men but Robin moved to enter, but they were stopped when the oldest came to a halt just across the threshold.
“Where’s Willow?” Maggie heard him say.
When Giles knocked at the window, it wasn’t just Havi who looked to see. Willow and Spike did as well, and Willow decided then and there that she’d never been so glad to see anyone in her entire life.
Then, of course, she felt the familiar tug of magic in the pit of her stomach, and the room faded around her. When she blinked next, she was standing next to the Well.
She wasn’t alone.
“Congratulations, Willow,” Rose said with a gentle smile. “You have no idea how pleased we are with you.”
She blinked again. “You’re dead.”
Rose’s smile warmed even more. “Technically, yes, but because I’m the one who set you on this path, I requested to be the one to speak with you now. The others…” Her head tilted as if she were listening to someone unseen to Willow. “…were reluctant to disturb my rest.”
Willow took a step closer. Though Rose looked solid, there was a gossamer quality to her outline that told otherwise. It was just a little creepy. “What are you congratulating me for?” she asked.
“For passing, of course.”
It took a moment for the meaning to sink in. When it did, righteous fury swelled within Willow’s stomach.
“If you’re trying to tell me this was all some kind of test,” she said, and she could feel the energy start to spark between her fingertips, in spite of her exhaustion, “so help me, Buffy isn’t the only one you’re going to have to worry about kicking your ass.”
“It was, but not the sort you believe.” Rose gestured toward the edge of the Well. “Sit. Let me explain.”
The last thing Willow wanted was to blithely follow whatever instruction Rose was doling out, but she was tired from the effects of helping Buffy and sitting sounded like a really good idea anyway. She didn’t take her eyes off the Guardian as she did, though, and she stubbornly held herself more stiffly than she normally would to prove she wouldn’t relax completely.
“You are not a Guardian, Willow.”
Saying she wasn’t a girl would’ve been less shocking. “What?” Willow blinked in confusion. “But…I had more power…and the Well…we did that…thing.” Her pout was inevitable. “There was chanting.”
“You were given a small boost with your magic,” Rose explained. “Both to let you think that you had joined the ranks and to give you the power necessary to wake William.”
“But the souling spell--.”
“Was all you,” Rose finished. “The test I speak of was that to determine whether or not you were worthy of the honor.” She smiled. “You more than surpassed my expectations.”
The possibilities flitted through her head so rapidly, Willow couldn’t grasp onto any one in order to make sense of it. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Are you saying you let Buffy’s baby get hurt just to see if I could save it? Because that’s just---.”
“No.” Rose was quick to cut her off. Taking a deep breath, she came to sit down next to her, the energy of her form creating a buzz along Willow’s skin. “Do you know why I left London last summer?” she asked.
“How could I? Nobody’s seen you since then.”
“I had a vision. And it terrified me.”
“What…what did you see?”
Rose was silent for a long moment. “I saw Esme win. I saw Buffy’s child die, and I saw a Slayer and a vampire go mad with grief.” She began pleating the fabric of her dress, her voice soft. “I often think that my visions are as much a curse as they are a blessing.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Willow swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat. “Did my spell…not work?”
Instinctively, Rose reached out to pat her hand in reassurance, but remembered her incorporeal state in time. “Your spell was a miracle,” she said. “It was your test. To see if you had it within you to take on Guardian duties. The others were not pleased I brought William into it, but for me, he proved his diligence. He followed Havi and myself to find the answers he wanted, and only gave up when my death thwarted his efforts. His arrival here in Sunnydale didn’t necessarily start changing the potential outcome for the baby, but it did contribute. None of us knew if you could do it, or really, how you would. We just knew you had to be given the opportunity to try.” She smiled. “And you were splendid. That spell…it had nothing to do with Guardian power, Willow. That was entirely yours.”
The praise was overwhelming, but somehow she managed to murmur, “It was Spike’s, too. He’s the one who insisted I try using his soul to save the baby.”
Rose laughed. “And you have no idea how that is flummoxing a great deal of the higher powers,” she said. “A vampire volunteering such a selfless act? An unsouled vampire? There are many convinced this child is the next apocalypse.”
“So…it worked?” It was almost too much to hope for. “Schmoo’s all right?”
The Guardian sobered. “All right is not completely accurate,” she said carefully. “But it has a soul again, and most importantly, it has a fighting chance.”
Willow hadn’t known just how wound up she was until she heard that her spell had worked. The sobs ripped from her throat, relief and exhaustion spending themselves from her thin frame, and she buried her face in her hands as she wept. She had seen the torment Spike had gone through during the course of the re-souling; she knew exactly how devastated Buffy would have been if the baby had died. All any of them ever wanted was the right to live like any other human being. It was in the doctors’ hands now.
Her head snapped up as a frightening thought came to mind. “Esme,” she said. “You said, she won. Is that still true?”
Rose hesitated. “It is impossible to know for certain. My visions ceased when I died, and already, the world is a different place to the one I saw.”
“So we still have to stop her.”
“Yes. Destroying the baby’s soul would have been very draining for her, but she will regroup quickly. Her power grows stronger with every passing hour.”
Willow leapt to her feet. “She’s going to go after Buffy again as soon as she has a chance,” she said. “She needs her for whatever she thinks she’s going to get from the artifacts.”
“You know about the artifacts?”
“Kind of, in the very non-specific sense. I know Esme wants them, which means we have to stop her from getting them. If we even knew where they are.”
The water in the Well began to bubble and churn, drawing Willow’s eyes to the rippling surface. “The Guardians protect the artifacts until it becomes necessary for them to be used,” the crystalline voice from the Well said.
“But we still have to figure out how to stop her,” Willow argued. “We have to hit her while she is still weak.”
“There is only one way to stop Esme,” Rose said. Her face was solemn. “Give her what she wants.”
To be continued in Chapter 60: The World Without End Hour…