DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss', of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare's "Sonnet LXV."
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has reunited with Willow, Giles and Spike, and while they are trying to figure out what to do next, Rose has shown up at Giles' flat…

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

Chapter 41: The Wreckful Siege of Battering Days

She had been watching for much longer than they knew. Her arrival outside Giles' flat had coincided with Buffy's, and she'd held back, keeping her presence cloaked during their reunion and throughout their explanations of everything that had transpired. It was just as well. Rose had been at first too aghast at seeing William, and then melancholy at the changes that had been wrought in him, to do anything more than stare, and it had taken much of her determination to break free from watching the ex-lovers. Hearing their debate regarding the witch who'd placed Giles and Anne Freston in the prison was all she needed to reveal her presence to them.

Buffy was on her feet first, crossing half the distance before drawing to a halt and openly gaping. "You should be dead," she announced.

Rose smiled. "It's nice to see you, too, Buffy," she said evenly. Her eyes flickered to the Watcher who had stopped in his pacing. "Does it feel good to be returned to your home, Mr. Giles?"

He was put off by her politeness, and frowned as he said, "We're just letting, but, yes." He cleared his throat. "Not to be incredibly rude, but…Buffy has a point. It's impossible for you to be here."

"From your perspective, I would imagine it would seem to be." She stepped forward, brushing past Buffy to stand before the other young woman in the room, and held out her hand in greeting. "You must be Willow Rosenberg. I'm Rose Rhodes-Fanshaw."

"How do you…oh!" Excitement quickened her handshake, her eyes bright. "You're the Watcher's wife who went missing! Except, you're not missing, are you, because you're here, just not in your own time. Why aren't you in your own time?"

"Believe it or not, I actually am," Rose replied. Releasing her grip, she turned and faced the countenance that tore at her heart. "Hello, William," she said softly.

He didn't say a word, didn't extend a greeting when she offered one, his knuckles bone-white where they clutched at the arms of the chair. Rose had heard enough of the conversation to know that Buffy and Giles were being circumspect in the details they shared, and that they did so on the understanding that "Spike," as they called him now, wasn't privy to the events of the past. But as she regarded him, the dark blue eyes swallowing her down like a man starving for the truth, she knew. She could still feel the soft cloud of the spell she'd woven over a century earlier---or mere hours, if she chose to look at it that way---but the primary block had been removed. He remembered, and her appearance at the flat had merely been another confirmation of the memories that must have been fierce for him.

"OK, so we've got the intros out of the way," Buffy said, stepping back into the group. "Why don't we try some explanations now."

"Yes, the obligatory explanations." She sighed. "Richard died in front of that house, but then, you knew that would happen, didn't you?" The guilty looks exchanged between the girls brought a sad smile to Rose's face. "There's no shame in death. He died so that you could live. So that others could be safe. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

"But you…what happened to your lectures on time requiring a balance? Why would you follow me to the now?"

"It wasn't a deliberate choice, Buffy. I'm here because my tie to the past was gone. I was only there because of Richard." She gestured toward the seats. "Sit down. This will take some…trust in me. By all rights, I shouldn't tell you at all but I've been granted leave to say what I must in order to help you. Certain wrongs must be righted, and it appears that I'm your best hope in doing so."

Rose waited until everyone was settled before continuing. "As you've seen, I have…powers that I used to help Richard in his duties. They aren't wholly mine, but rather, powers I share with others like me."

"You're a witch," Buffy said.

"Not exactly. I belong to a line of women whose purpose throughout the centuries has been to…watch over the Watchers. Our responsibility is to see that the Slayer line is kept as pure as possible. That the Slayer's design is untainted by bureaucracy or corruption."

Giles' harrumph was accompanied by a shake of his head. "I would think you've failed then," he commented. "The Council has so many rules and regulations, it's lost sight of the true mission."

"Not entirely," Rose said. "Rules are necessary for order, and without order, the Slayers would perish much sooner than they already do. Each generation has molded the Council as it's seen fit. We have no qualms with the general propriety of its structure at this point. Our dominion tends to be more…personalized."

"Richard."

"Yes. Richard." She began to pace as she spoke, the movement keeping her distracted enough from the grief that still threatened to overwhelm her at the most inopportune times. "I'm not originally of this time. This era, yes, but your reality is altered from the one I knew. My reality was…darker than this one, primarily due to the corruptive influence of a very powerful group of vampires. They were systematically destroying large sections of the populace and it was decided amongst my line that we needed to step in and stop it."
"But you deal with Watchers," Willow argued. "What did…" Her question trailed off, understanding slowly dawning.

"In my reality, April caught up to Richard a year after she'd killed Sofani in Batavia. Instead of killing him, though, she turned him, and together, they left quite a bloody swath across the world. When April was slain at the turn of the century, it drove Richard mad, and hence, his very careful annihilation of the other world he'd known."

"So you went back in time to change that," Buffy said. "And all your talk about not messing with the timeline was just a crock."

"We did what we thought was necessary. I risked returning to an unknown world when Richard died."

"So what're you doing here now? Your job's done---."

"My job is never done, Buffy. You need my help with Esme. As you told me before, I'm the only one who has ever had an effect on her."

"You also said you wouldn't hurt her," the Slayer argued.

"My sisters believe there is another way," Rose said. "And I'm rather embarrassed to admit that my personal opinions on the matter were negated by your present need."

"But, in essence, it's been only a few hours since we last saw you," Giles interjected. "How did you know we needed your aid? Or even, how to find us?"

"Because of you." Her smile was kind. "It doesn't matter who your employer is, Rupert. In your heart, you will always be Buffy's Watcher."

"Does this mean you have a plan?" asked Willow. "Because so far, we've come up with bupkiss. Less than that. We don't even have bup."

"I'm interested in seeing the spell you used to detect Esme's magic," she explained. "And did I hear you left her with Lydia? Do you think you might be able to convince Lydia to help us?"

"I believe I could do that," Giles offered.

"And I'll get the stuff about the spell," Willow said, popping up to head for the bedroom.

The awkward silence left in the wake of the pair's departure had Buffy visibly squirming in her seat, but it was shattered when Spike stood and grabbed Rose's arm.

"Like a word," he growled, dragging her toward the kitchen.

She let herself be pulled into the adjoining room, ignoring the Slayer's worried frown as they disappeared. When he shoved her against the counter, she caught the edge in order not to stumble.

"You remember, don't you?" Rose asked as she turned to face him.

His nostrils were flaring in his agitation, and she couldn't help but marvel at such a curiously human thing for a vampire to do. In spite of the physical differences, this close to him, all she could see was William, and the guilt she'd had at her most recent lie to him returned with a vengeance.

"It was you." Not a question, because he already seemed certain of the answer, his voice so low, it was impossible to be heard from the other room.

"It had to be done---," she started, only to stop in sudden fear when his fist slammed onto the counter.

"You had no right," he hissed. "You and all your do-gooder Council talk. Between you and that bastard husband of yours---."

"Stop." Though she didn't raise her voice, the command in her tone was chilling, and she lifted a warning finger to his chest. "You will not besmirch his name like that. Richard died so that you could get Buffy to safety. She wouldn't be sitting out there right now were it not for his sacrifice."

Silence. Only the storm of his gaze as he stared at her. And then…

"Why?" A whisper now, and it softened part of the shell she'd thrown up in response to his attack on Richard.

"For your own good," she said quietly.

He snorted. "In case you hadn't noticed, not exactly playin' for that team anymore, Rose."

"Really? And you're here to help because…?" She let the leading question go unanswered, watching the doubt and confusion play across his face. "You know it was for the best, William. Would you have been able to bear a century of knowing she wasn't even born yet? Would you even be here today if you'd gone on with Buffy's memory? I had no choice. It was the only way to ensure that you would be able to continue and to preserve what I could of the timeline."

"You let her remember." It was the petulant retort of a child, eliciting a smile from Rose.

"And do you think that makes it easy for her? If I'd known she was coming back to seeing you…like this, I would likely have chosen to block her remembrances, as well."

"Because now I'm not good enough for her, is that it?"

"You're a vampire, William. What do you think is the answer to that question?"

The air crackled between them, but he didn't reply. Rose hated being the one so state it so bluntly, but she'd seen too many vampires in the time she spent with Richard to be able to believe anything good could come from a relationship between the Slayer and the demon.

"You think you got me figured out, do you?" Spike had backed off from encroaching her space, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly. "You were always underestimating me. You thought you could just talk me out of my feelings, like it was all just a big game. Let me tell you, you didn't know what I was like then, and you haven't a notion what kind of vamp I am now."

"What are you planning to do?"

A small cough from the entrance stopped Spike from replying. "Giles is off the phone," Buffy said quietly. "He's got news."

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

As plans went, she liked it. It was relatively simple---so bonus points for fewer things to go wrong---and strongly featured Buffy getting to beat the tar out of April. Even Spike had seemingly approved of the arrangements, describing his fight with the vamp in enough detail for Buffy to know the ex-Slayer's weaknesses and then boasting to one and all that his added muscle would most likely sway the battle in their favor. She would've made some comment about being too big for his own fists, but the fact was, he was probably right. She wasn't completely herself yet, and having an experienced fighter like Spike on her side could only help.

It also helped that they were going to be able to take on Esme and April at the same time. Lydia's information that the vampire was likely holding Quentin hostage in his home had sparked the initial thought of combining the battles, with the female Watcher eagerly consenting to get Esme to the house for them. She'd been fending off the witch ever since Willow and Spike's disappearance, and she admitted to Giles that she feared Esme's powers were returning. If that was the case, the time to strike was now, before she got back up to full strength.

So, it was pretty easy. Rest up through the day, go to Travers' house as soon as the sun set, kill herself a couple of vamps while Rose and Willow worked their mojo with Esme.

Easy, except for the fact that she couldn't sleep.

The flat was silent, curtains drawn against the London day, the air oppressive with a surprising summer heat. After setting some protective wards around the building, Rose had settled to bunk with Willow, while Giles retired to his room for the first good night's rest he'd had in days.

That left Buffy in her old bed, and Spike on the couch, and her head somewhere stuck between a hundred years earlier and a grungy pub room on the other side of the city.

She had no doubts that he remembered. In spite of Willow's assurances to the contrary, Buffy knew those words that Spike had uttered. She saw the way he looked at her. She'd witnessed how Rose's appearance had infuriated him. Though she hadn't heard what he'd said to the seer in the kitchen, the mere fact that he'd been driven enough to speak with her was damning enough in Buffy's eyes.

But he continued to stay silent, playing up to Giles' evasive intimations of the past and Willow's stammering roundabouts with what she knew.

It was driving her crazy.

Pushing back the sheet, Buffy padded silently to the door, cocking her head to listen for any stray noises. The living room was still. Is he actually sleeping?

She had to know.

As quietly as she could, Buffy turned the knob, slipping into the hall and slinking along the wall until she stood in the opening to the lounge. There were no lights on, the only ambience that which filtered harmlessly through the curtains, but rather than a blanketed vampire on the sofa, she was met by a sitting Spike in the same chair he'd occupied earlier, bent at the waist, forearms resting on his knees as he stared at the floor.

He looked up when she hesitated, and she felt her stomach tighten at the solemnity in his eyes. "You should be sleeping," he said softly.

"I think I've done enough sleeping lately, don't you?" she replied, just as softly.

Spike shrugged, as if his disinterest was more important than her answer. "Your funeral."

Buffy took a step closer. "You don't think we're going to win?"

"Don't know what to think anymore."

She couldn't help it. He sounded so much like William in that moment, so lost and so broken, that she was across the room before she could talk herself out of it, kneeling before him and resting a tremulous hand on his arm. "Just tell me," she whispered. "Tell me and stop pretending."

Though he didn't pull away from her touch, he didn't acknowledge it, either, dropping his eyes to the floor. "Don't know what you're talkin' about, Slayer," Spike said roughly. "Just tired, is all."

Not as tired as she was of the games, but Buffy moved back off anyway. "Sleep's more comfortable lying down," she said, trying a different tactic. "Is there something wrong with the couch? I didn't know vamps could be so fussy."

"And I didn't know Slayers could be so nosy. What's a bloke got to do to get a little peace around here?"

"I was just---."

"Just stickin' your nose in where it's not wanted, that's what you're doin'. Take a page from Red's book, Buffy. If I say shove off, you'd best do it."

His antagonism had quickly triggered her from sympathy to annoyance. "I guess playing make believe is more tiring than it looks," she snapped, rising to her feet. "You think you're so clever, and it might be working on Willow and Giles, but you can't fool me, Spike. I know you're not nearly as blind as you're letting on. I've seen you go into denial, remember?" Her eyes glittered in anger. "Oh, wait. You don't remember. My bad."

"What is it you want from me, huh?" Leaping from his seat, Spike started stalking her, driving her back toward her bedroom, step by step. "I'm here, right? I'm givin' you my fists and fangs for the fight without askin' for anything in return. You think bein' a turncoat has me dancing in the aisles? I hate the thought that I need to do this. I hate that I look at you, and I'm prepared to just chuck it all 'cause I can't shake you out of my skull. There's something just not right about that. So, tell me, Buffy." He stopped, though Buffy continued backward until she was pressed against the corridor's wall. "What. Do you. Want?"

Her eyes burned from the tears that suddenly sprang there. "I want William," she said hoarsely, and whirled to flee back to the sanctuary of her room.

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

It was a subdued group that left the flat at sunset. Sleep had done wonders for Giles, recharging him to a saber-sharpness that had him barking immutable orders at both Buffy and Spike. Willow was bowing to Rose's lead, jokingly asking when she slung the pack of magical supplies over her shoulder if there was a proper name for a witch's caddy. Even Spike seemed to have gained a stay in his temper, his mussed curls telling Buffy that he'd finally managed to sneak at least a couple hours of sleep.

She wasn't dwelling on what had transpired between them. Though she'd eventually succumbed to exhaustion, her rest had been fitful, leaving her fidgety and anxious for the fight to be done. Over and over, she repeated Spike's instructions---can't see a left-comin' punch or kick if her life depends on it, you can use that, you can beat her and she's quick, but you're quicker, stay on top of that and you'll best her no problem---while she did her stretches in the living room. For a brief moment, she'd considered asking the vampire if he wanted to spar to get her properly warmed up, but he was taking extra care not to be around, slipping outside for a cigarette as he waited for them to finish preparing.

"You think it's the first time anyone ever had to take a taxi to stop an impending demonic disaster?" Buffy joked as they squeezed into the back of the vehicle they'd ordered. The women were on one side, the men on the other, and she had to tuck her legs tight against her seat when Spike's sprawl placed his feet dangerously close to hers.

"It's not quite as charming as Richard's carriage," Rose mused. When the cabbie laid on the horn when another car cut him off on a roundabout, she grimaced. "Or as quiet."

"What time did Lydia say she was going to get Esme there?" Willow asked.

"As close to sunset as she could manage," Giles replied. "According to her, Esme has grown increasingly bold in their search for Spike and Buffy. She doubted she would have many problems getting her out after dark."

"Only natural," Spike said. "All amounts of evil crawl from under their rocks without the sun lurking about."

Giles' mouth opened as if to comment, but then snapped shut, leaving the car in an uneasy silence for the duration of the trip. It was a grateful reprieve for Buffy; she was having difficulty enough focusing on the upcoming fight and not the way Spike's hands kept flexing and tapping, tapered fingers she knew intimately, knew how he twisted his wrist to accommodate writing with his left hand and not his right, knew how they would fidget without something to do or something to hold. It was a characteristically William thing to do, and she had to avert her eyes to the road passing by her window in order not to dwell on it.

She was the first one out when the taxi pulled to a stop down the street, hopping in readiness as she worked out the kinks in her neck. Behind her, she felt Spike approach and then stop, the audible sound of his knuckles cracking as he did the same as she. The distant voices of the others merged into the noise of the street as Buffy became all too aware of the prickling at the base of her neck Spike's presence was causing, her pulse accelerating as a natural response to the threat.

"Save it for your real enemy," Spike said, his low words intended only for her ears.

Risking a glance at him, Buffy jerked her head toward the Travers' house. "I'm going to go scout ahead," she said. "Let Giles---."

"He'll suss it out on his own," came the reply as the vampire moved to her side. "Let's go."

He wasn't waiting for her to start, instead striding with bold steps along the walk, his coat billowing around his legs. Determination made his boots echo in the dark, and she had to sprint to catch up to him.

"Scouting usually goes hand in hand with stealthy," she said dryly as she matched his pace. "This is most definitely not sneaky."

"So I like a bold entrance," Spike said. "Sue me."

"Have you forgotten this is my fight?"

"Last I checked, April had taken a chunk out of my hide, too," he shot back, and then growled deep in his chest, exhaling in a long absolution of the tension still wound in his muscles. "But we'll play it your way. I've got your back as long as you want me there."

"Thanks."

"Well, well, well. Looks like little Willie came back for seconds."

The pair stopped at the male drawl behind them, turning in unison to see Nathan lounging against the streetlamp they'd just passed under.

"You even brought dessert," Nathan continued. "How thoughtful."

"Geez, you talk as much as your ho girlfriend does," Buffy said. Her fingers tightened around the stake she carried loosely at her side, while her gaze scanned their surroundings. As far as she could tell, he and Spike were the only vamps in the vicinity. Where did that put April? Was she in the house?

"You plan on doin' a runner this time round, too?" Spike taunted. "Without your little minions scrabbling under foot, Buffy should be able to take care of your honey this time with her eyes shut and her stake tied behind her back."

"How pathetic. Recruiting a little girl to help you defend your honor. I think you're almost as sad a vampire as you were a human."

"Hey!" Buffy exclaimed, a bright faux smile on her face. "He doesn't remember me either. Looks like you two have something in common, Spike. You know, other than the fangs."

Both vamps looked at her with drawn brows, scrutinizing---though for different reasons---the meaning behind her words. This was better, she decided. This was Buffy back in control, keeping the demons off-balance as she did what she had to do. And without knowing April's exact whereabouts, she knew what that was.

Spike must've seen the decision in her eyes. A second before she grabbed the iron fence next to her, he dove at Nathan's street side, splitting the vampire's attention and giving them the advantage. Buffy used her momentum to swing around Nathan, grabbing him when Spike knocked him off-balance, and shoving him face-first onto the walk.

"Where's April?" she demanded, pressing the tip of her stake into his back.

He didn't answer, bucking up against her slight weight. Her bottom shifted backwards but as she fought to regain her equilibrium, Spike's heavy boot came down on Nathan's neck, pinning him down with an audible crunch.

"You heard the lady," Spike growled. "Suggest you answer her. She's not nearly as nice as me when she gets pissed."

Nathan's cheek was smashed against the concrete, his lips flexing in his best fish imitation as he tried to speak, and Buffy had to bite back the giggle that rose to her throat. "Not to discourage such enthusiastic interrogation methods," she said, "but I think he might be more apt to talk if he can actually, you know, talk."

Looking down at his foot, Spike nodded as he stepped back. "Looks like it's your lucky day, mate. Slayer's feelin' generous."

"Slayer?" Nathan croaked. He was trying to twist to look at the young woman still sitting on his back, but his neck was refusing to cooperate. His groan of pain was accompanied by the dead weight of his head hitting the sidewalk, and his eyes fluttered shut.

"Damn it," Buffy muttered. "I think you broke him, Spike. He's not going to be any use to us now."

"Well, then…" Crouching down, Spike curled his hand around hers on the stake, and gave it a violent shove downward, slamming through Nathan's chest and sending an explosion of dust upward around Buffy's legs. "One down, one to go."

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

Willow watched the fight from the distance, held back both by Giles' warning to leave the pair of blonds alone and by her own trepidation about getting caught in the sparks that were shooting between Buffy and Spike. Though she'd been pretending otherwise, she had a funny feeling that Spike was more than aware of what had happened to Buffy in the past, about his role in the battle that had freed Giles, and about the intimacy that had occurred between him and the Slayer. He'd looked like his head was going to explode when Rose had arrived, and though he'd been his usual snipey self during their planning session, there was a…diffidence in his contributions, as though he was unsure of what exactly his role was.

She was glad she didn't have to be in his head. Hers was wonky enough trying to come to grips with Buffy being in love with William.

"They did it," Rose murmured beside her. She'd been transfixed by the fight ever since it had started, watching them move in an innate synchronicity that almost sang in the night air. "They actually killed him."

"That's only one," Giles said. "And not April. They're not done yet."

Willow bit her lip to keep from talking. Giles had been referring to Buffy and Spike as a team all night; it was weird to the power of infinity hearing it, especially when half the time she caught him watching Spike with the same cautious scrutiny the vampire was bestowing on Buffy. Like there was a puzzle there he was still trying to fathom.

Yuck. More wonkiness. She needed to seriously reconsider trying to be the brainy one. Thinking so much about stuff like this was grounds for a serious headache.

At her side, Rose suddenly stiffened, turning to look at the deserted street behind them. Her hand closed around Willow's wrist, forcing a surprised cry of pain from the young girl.

"She's coming," Rose said.

"We should get ready then," Willow argued, trying to free herself from her grasp.

"There's no time."

The next thing Willow saw, was blackness.

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

From his chair by the fireplace, Quentin watched April flit from window to window, peering out into the darkness. "He's taking too long," she grumbled. "Why is he taking so long?"

"Most likely, he's dead," Quentin replied. "Perhaps you should've done your own hunting this evening instead of insisting on standing guard." He winced when she flew to his side, grabbing his bandaged hand and squeezing until another bone popped somewhere inside. He really must start learning not to answer all her questions. Most of them were rhetorical.

"I'm going to take such pleasure in killing you when this is over," she said. "Watchers make the best meals."

Shattering glass cleaved the air, sending shards flying into the room as a stone came hurtling through the window. April's attention snapped in time to see a familiar bleached head poke into view.

"Personally, I always thought Slayers made the nummiest treats," Spike said from his vantage outside.

"You!" she hissed.

"Little ol' me. So, you goin' to hide in there all night, or are you goin' to come out and play? In the mood for a little rough and tumble, myself. Thought for a bit there I'd get it from your boytoy, but well, he just decided to go blowin' in the wind instead."

She took a step forward. "What've you done to Nathan?"

"Just gave back as good as I got. With the added bonus of bein' a better shot than him. I didn't miss the heart."

With a gurgled cry, April flew through the air, breaking through the rest of the pane to go tumbling to the ground outside. Immediately, Quentin jumped to his feet, but before he could venture forward to see what was happening, the study door slammed open, revealing an armed Buffy.

"Get out of here," she ordered, heading toward the broken window. "Giles is outside, about four houses down. He'll help you get to the Council offices in one piece instead of on a vampire platter."

"Miss Summers," he stammered. She was, quite honestly, the last person he'd expected to see. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving your ass, in case it wasn't obvious." Her eyes were glued to the fighting he could hear outside, and when he didn't respond right away, she turned to glare at him. "Did she suck out brain cells, too? Go on!"

He felt foolish for obeying such an impudent young woman, but Quentin's feet did as they were told, taking him from the study and down the corridor toward the back exit. He had no desire to go out the front door, not with April and the vampire she'd fought the other day brawling in the garden. One thing was for certain, though. When this mess was over, he intended on having a long discussion with Miss Summers about her penchant for recruiting demons to aid her in her slaying.

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

The Watcher Lydia's assessment had been conservative, Rose realized as she teleported to within feet of where the two women stood. The air sizzled with the buzz of magic, leaving the same distinctive tang to the senses as had surrounded the house that had imprisoned Rupert and Anne. Esme was hiding it, however, only allowing the slimmest of fingers to go searching along the ether as she probed for demonic activity in the neighborhood. Why that could be, Rose didn't know, but she refused to waste precious time questioning her untold advantage, splicing together the threads of the spell she needed to incapacitate the elderly witch.

Willow was unconscious on the grass behind her. She regretted having to dupe the young woman in such a way, and was dreading Buffy and William discovering just what she had in mind, but Esme's power was too great to leave unchecked.

"She's here," Rose heard Esme say.

"I told you my sources said Buffy was---."

"Not her. April." Smug satisfaction coated her words. "She is---. Wait."

Licks of fear crept up Rose's spine as the witch suddenly turned and stared in the direction Rose had cloaked herself. Already, the magic she was tethering was augmenting under her control, preparing to be unleashed in ways unknown at the threat she could detect but not identify. Time was no longer a luxury Rose could cater to, and she muttered an apology to Willow for what she was about to do.

It was Willow and Giles' credit that she could do this at all. They were the ones who'd divined the original spell to gather Esme's magic. When Willow had told the story of the rod, how she'd used it to find the journal and then how they'd broken it to disarm the magic surrounding the Council building, Rose had known right away just what had been accomplished. She hadn't gone into details with them about what she planned to do---there simply wasn't any time for it---but it was the best solution she could discern that would cripple Esme without killing her.

Dropping the glamour that hid both her and Willow from their view, Rose knelt to place one hand on the young girl's chest, while at the same time, lifting the other to aim at Esme. Before the elderly witch could react, the words hung in the air between them, electrifying the air as an invisible conduit formed, linking the three women in a daisy chain of magic that made Rose feel drunk.

It surged through her with a power that crested on voltaic waves, a life all of its own made temporarily incarnate as it drained from Esme, fought the tidal pull from Rose, and settled into the unconscious Willow on the grass. It was nothing like she'd ever felt before, magic combining years of specified training with an inordinate natural gift, and for the briefest of moments, Rose was tempted to channel a small portion of it away. What harm could it bring, she thought, but quickly shook it off, refocusing her energies on completing the spell.

When it was over, all three women were on the ground, spent and riven from the stress of the magic. Air was suddenly a precious commodity for Rose, and she swallowed huge gulps as she listened to the female Watcher shout at her from somewhere far, far away.

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

Buffy didn't know whether she should be annoyed or amused. From the middle of the yard---well, what constituted a yard in a city like London, at least---Spike was dancing around in circles, taunting and tormenting April with jeers on everything from her hair and her fighting technique to her lousy taste in boyfriends. It wasn't anything Buffy hadn't seen before---or, for that matter, not been on the other side of---but for the first time, she had a birds' eye view of what a psychological advantage it gave him when it came to the fight.

It wasn't that he wasn't an accomplished fighter. In fact, now that she could see him as an outside party, Buffy recognized a lot of her own moves in his style. But the fervor he threw into his words, choosing and selecting the most keenly honed barbs in order to do the most damage, that was an art all to itself.

It was working, too. Maybe being out of it for the last century had dulled April's sense of play, but Spike's gibes were hitting just as often as his punches were. He wasn't going for the kill, though; they had agreed before setting on with their plan to get Quentin safely out of the house that this one belonged to Buffy.

Taking care not to cut herself on the jagged shards of glass that still clung to the window pane, the Slayer dove out the window and rolled safely onto the grass, pulling the stake from her pants as she did so. Her presence was immediately noticed, and April swept her leg out to knock Spike from his feet as she whirled to face off with Buffy.

And froze.

"Miss me?" Buffy quipped with a bright smile. Her fist shot into April's jaw, sending the demon flying back.

She tangled with the edge of Spike's coat, and snarled when his foot connected with her midsection to free her. "Did you get caught in that damn spell, too?" April rasped as she staggered back up. "Is that how you can be here?"

"Nope," Buffy replied. She saw the faint list in the vampire's left side and struck again, this time driving a kick into her opponent's knee. "Got a cab. Lot cheaper and way easier on the time traveling sickness. I highly recommend it."

Cartilage cracked and bone splintered. April cried out as her leg collapsed beneath her, but she rolled out of Buffy's way when the stake came plunging toward her. "Are your other Watchers vampires, too? Except they can't be, can they? I killed Richard myself."

Buffy's sudden fury blinded her to the ankle that hooked around hers, and she fell against a bush when April forced her from her feet. Her hand jammed against the wall behind the shrub, knocking the stake from her grip, and she bit back the shout of pain that threatened to erupt when she felt her wrist snap. When she heard the vampire move behind her, she tucked her hand into her stomach and pitched sideways, only narrowly avoiding a direct tussle.

"Buffy!"

His call was almost a surprise, and she looked just in time to see the stake he was tossing her sluicing through the air. Buffy's eyes caught Spike's, and the slight flicker of his gaze over her shoulder was all she needed to grab the piece of wood and twist around, driving it through the ribcage of a pouncing April.

The dust scattered, blinding her for a moment. Then, strong hands were pulling were away, hooking beneath her arms to set her gently down on the front step, and she looked up to see the platinum head bowed over her injured wrist.

"Now who's the stubborn sort," he commented wryly. His choice of words made her breath hitch. He was gently massaging powerful fingertips along the muscles in her arm, testing the strength in her wrist, but she was oblivious to anything but him. "You couldn't just stake her when you had her caught in your headlights. No, you had to go and---."

He was silenced by the slam of her lips to his.

She wasn't sure what she expected. There was no denying he tasted different; no longer the innocent honey of first kisses, Spike was smoke and ice and carnivorous hunger, hesitating only a fraction of a millisecond before responding to her caress. But where instinct tried to force Buffy to deepen the kiss, he held her back, releasing his hold on her hands to bring his own up to cup her face. He held her still, taking the time to make the kiss linger in zealous indulgence, tongue sweeping expertly with hers until she had to break away to breathe.

"I knew you remembered," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "I knew it. I knew you couldn't forget---."

"Buffy, don't do this."

She frowned as she met his eyes. They were dark with desire, but she could see him fighting to tear himself away. "Do what?" she demanded. "You kissed me, too. Don't deny it."

"How can I? But…you want William. You said so. And I'm not completely him, now am I? Not just the demon bit," he rushed to say. "It's the time, love. I've had a century to change from the man you met."

"But he's there," Buffy argued. "I've seen him."

"You're just all wound up from the fight." His thumb brushed over her swollen bottom lip before his hands withdrew and he rocked back on his heels, forcing the distance between them again. "You're not thinkin' straight."

"Don't tell me how I'm thinking," she started, but the sudden sight of Giles running up onto the grass captured her attention.

"Come," the Watcher said, his breathing ragged. "It's Willow."

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

She broke into a sprint when she saw her best friend lying stretched out on the grass, dropping to her knees as soon as she reached her side. Willow's face was flushed, her skin sweaty, and every breath that escaped her lungs sounded like it was being pulled out with a broken net, rough and jagged in every exhalation. Nearby, Rose was sitting huddled on the curb, while Lydia was jabbering away on her cell phone over the prostrate form of Esme.

"She'll be fine," Rose said when Buffy finally acknowledged her presence. "She's strong. She just needs to rest."

"What did you do?"

The seer's eyes fell to the street. "What had to be done."

"What…? No! You were supposed to use the spell to tap Esme's magic into a tree, or a rock, or a squirrel or something. Not my best friend!"

"It was never going to work that way. Her magic is too powerful to be held by something less than fully sentient---."

"So you were always going to double-cross us?" Buffy was ready for another fight. First the kiss with Spike---well, not the kiss itself, though she still wasn't sure what had been going through her head when she'd done that---and now Rose. What happened to teamwork? What happened to understanding what those people who promised to support you were actually thinking?

"I did what had to be done," Rose repeated, this time a little stronger. "Esme is no longer a threat, and yet she lives. That is the honorable way."

"So honorable you lie to us in order to turn Willow into a vegetable. Great. Just great."

"She's merely sleeping. When she wakes up, everything will be all right."

"When she wakes up? And when exactly is that going to be?"

Rose had no answer to that, leaving the night to its distant music of traffic and horns. With a shake of her head, Buffy stepped back to allow Giles to tend to Willow, making the redhead more comfortable on the grass while they waited for the vans Lydia had called for to arrive.

It was too much. Even with April's death under her belt, and even with knowing the threat of Esme was now gone, she felt like screaming and ranting in frustrated anger because how worth it could it be if she lost Willow at the same time? And then there was the whole issue of Spike, and the kiss, and the fact that differentiating between him and William had turned into something more nightmarish than finals she never studied for.

Automatically, Buffy's gaze swept around, looking for the bleached head as if it would give her the reassurance she needed. Her throat locked as she slowly turned, and she felt sick to her stomach as the awareness sank in.

Spike was nowhere to be seen.

 

To be concluded in Chapter 42: I Could Not Love You Dearer