DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has started reading Spike’s letters, learning of some of his travels though he hasn’t come clean about what exactly he’s doing, while Spike has discovered Rose’s dead body in Barcelona…

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

Chapter 3: The Crow or Dove

He was cutting off her oxygen and he knew it, but somehow, Spike couldn’t find it in himself to care. He’d lowered his defenses and allowed himself to trust the Watcher, even when his every instinct told him it was reckless to align with her in the first place. Now, faced with the prospect that she had been playing him for a buffoon all along, he felt like a bigger fool than William ever had.

“I…didn’t…” Lydia gasped. Her nails etched scarlet lines into the back of his hand, desperation driving her to struggle, and she was fighting to lash out with other parts of her body, writhing as she tried to lift her knee in defense.

Spike was having none of it, and pressed into her, smelling the sudden rush of her desire as it bloomed beneath her fear. “No more lies,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m tired of bein’ your bloody patsy.”

She shook her head as violently as his hold let her. “Not,” she croaked. “Please…Buffy…”

Only that name could shake his determination. Narrowing his eyes, Spike relaxed his grasp just enough to allow the air to pass into her lungs, watching as she gulped for the reprieve. “What about Buffy?”

“She…she wouldn’t…forgive you.”

With a growl, he let her go, whirling on his heel to prowl around the room as Lydia crumpled to the floor. Bitch was right. Though it hadn’t been discussed, Spike held no illusions that his continued killing would be a sore point with Buffy, and if word somehow got back to her that he’d offed a Watcher to boot, he could say sayonara to any kind of future they might have together. Leave it to Lydia to play into his desire to have that kind of life with the Slayer.

Though she rubbed at her bruised neck, Lydia took special care to keep an eye on the pacing vampire, visibly shrinking every time he came near. “I didn’t have anything to do with this,” she managed to say. “I left Baltozar in the square to go get you. He must have come back here on his own.”

“Not on his own,” Spike said. “There was someone else here with him. Could smell it when we got here.”

“And you thought it was me?”

“Who else would it be?”

It was his fury’s fault. Incensed that Rose had been killed before he could speak with her, Spike had lashed out unthinkingly, even when he knew in the back of his mind that the other who had been here with Baltozar had not been Lydia. He’d spent too much time with the Watcher not to recognize her scent in an instant now, and though he suspected the other to be a woman, it was impossible for it to be his companion.

Lydia cringed when his fist slammed into the wall, plaster shattering around Spike’s hand to dust his arm in white ash. “I thought we’d moved onto trusting each other,” she said, only to choke back a muffled cry when he returned to hover over her.

“You might’ve been sacked by ol’ Quentin,” Spike said, his voice a barely controlled growl, “but that doesn’t take the Watcher out of you, luv, and last time I checked, I was still a vampire. So, no, I don’t trust you, just like you shouldn’t be such a Pollyanna ‘bout why exactly you’re tagging along here. I needed your contacts, and you wanted your story.”

“Buffy---.”

“Say her name one more time, and I’ll tear your throat out, consequences be damned.”

The muscles in her neck tensed as she held firm against his anger, her eyes glistening behind her spectacles. “I didn’t know,” she said, reiterating her claim to ignorance. “Why would I have brought you to him if I thought he was going to do this?”

“You tell me.”

She actually stopped to consider his request. “Baltozar Marroquin is a mercenary for hire. Perhaps our interest sparked him to pursue his own investigation and he found something worth killing her for. After all, William, that’s what he does.”

“Lovely company you keep.” But her words were quickly deflating his mood, leaving Spike empty and frustrated and fervently wishing he’d never come up with this cracked plan. If he’d never launched this foolhardy search for her, Rose would still be alive; he just didn’t know why it was the Spaniard had needed to kill the seer before Spike could speak with her.

“I didn’t want this.” Lydia had completely regained her composure, though her hands kept flitting to her throat, as if she still didn’t quite believe he’d tried to strangle her. “I wanted to find her as badly as you did.”

“Which is why you were so quick to suggest we hop back to jolly old. Right.”

“Only because I know how eager you are to return to the Hellmouth.”

The last of his resolve crumbled, and Spike sagged, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor opposite her. Resting his head in his hands, he pulled at his hair, trying to ignore the churning within that heralded his failure. “She doesn’t want me there,” he rasped, his voice a harsh testament to the pain he could no longer contain. “Don’t know why I’m even bothering. It’s not me she wants. It’s that ponce William. The one she could wrap around her little finger with just a flash of leg and a smile.”

“You don’t believe that.”

He lifted bruised eyes to stare at her. “Then tell me why she hasn’t written back. Tell me how she can just ignore everything I’ve told her. She knows I love her, that I’d do just about anything for her. That’s what this whole bloody idea was about. If she didn’t want me there---.”

“She would’ve told you.” There was a sympathy in Lydia’s eyes that was all too familiar, and Spike had to duck his head again in order not to get scorched by it. “Since when has Buffy Summers refrained from stating her mind? If she didn’t wish your presence, I believe she wouldn’t hesitate to let you know.”

Tears stung behind his eyelids and he burrowed the heels of his hands deep into the sockets, as if to press the weakness into submission. He’d had such high hopes. Finding Rose would mean going to Buffy with something definitive to offer, whatever power it was that the seer and her ilk were so keen on protecting. Now, his only tie to that power was severed, a cold corpse like any other, and he was left with only the detritus that was the old woman’s nomadic life. Of what value was that? How could he hold his head up and stand by the Slayer’s side as her equal if he couldn’t satisfy this one little mission?

“I’ll go see Baltozar today,” Lydia offered quietly. “I’ll pretend not to know about his involvement here. Perhaps I can learn something that would be useful.”

“I should just bloody well give up,” Spike muttered. “That’s what you want. Know you’re only hangin’ about so that you can get more dope for your book. This won’t exactly help your romantic adventure marketing angle, but maybe you can just make a bit of something up instead. Give it a touch of spice to make up for the botch I seem to be so good at.”

“Now that sounds like the William you’ve been complaining about these past seven weeks.” Her voice had hardened, a clipped edge slicing through his malaise to jerk his chin up in astonishment. “Have you forgotten you’ve told me what happened?” she continued. “I know of the changes the Slayer rendered in your human self. You’ve admitted as much, and don’t tell me they were the blatherings of a drunken sot. Contrary to what you may think, I’m not so enamored with the mystery of William the Bloody to not know when a man---or demon, as is your case---is spilling the painful truth like a newfound spring. So, you can sit there, feeling sorry for yourself, attempting to convince yourself of facts you know aren’t true. Or you can get up, clean yourself off, and get back to the hotel before the sun rises so that you’re prepared to face another night of searching for the answers you want. Personally, I’ll be spending my day looking for reason behind Rose’s death. I’m not willing to concede just yet.”

It was the longest speech he’d ever heard her utter. Usually, when Lydia started talking, Spike left the room or found some cruel thing to say to shut her up. He’d enlisted her aid for her malleability and her contacts, not for the company. He wasn’t even aware that she’d been listening on those occasions when he returned from a bender, convinced it was all a big sham. He was going to have to be more careful about what he said, or there would be even more secrets out in the open that he wished to remain hidden.

“So, this self-righteous streak…” he said wryly. “Is this something they breed into you Watchers? Maybe a course at the Academy called ‘The Ins and Outs of Acting Superior?’”

She blushed. “I merely---.”

He waved her silent. Lumbering to his feet, Spike cast one last glance at Rose’s inert form before throwing his shoulders back, tilting his head to audibly crack his neck. “You should give the place a onceover, as long as you’re at it,” he said. His tone was back to being business-like; time to pick himself up out of the blood of Rose’s death and accomplish something that would actually benefit Buffy. “Maybe there’s some hint lurking about in regards to what the tosser was after.”

He didn’t see her nod, but Spike knew she was agreeing with him, even as he took long strides toward the front door. When he reached the book Rose had dropped, he hesitated, bending over to pick it up and flick through its pages before stuffing it into his duster pocket. Religious studies weren’t exactly his thing, but if it was important to the seer, then maybe it held import for him as well.

“Don’t make presumptions about the circumstances in Sunnydale,” Lydia said as he opened the door. She’d already turned away when he looked back at her, her expression hidden. “If this matters to you, then that’s what’s important. The rest…will sort itself out.”

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

She found herself standing outside the Factory, its windows black and blank, all remnants of the earlier fete scattered on the ether of memory. By all rights, she should’ve been back at the dorm, curled into her narrow bed and waiting out the night with restful dreams, but images of Spike in the faraway corners of the world that he’d described in his letters kept invading what should’ve been her nocturnal peace, and Buffy had slipped back into the night, restless and hungry for any modicum of amity she could find.

Trampled flyers littered the walk, a slight breeze ruffling edges that weren’t glued to the concrete from the weight of too many feet, and Buffy kicked at a loose sheet as she wandered around the corner of the building. This hadn’t been her original purpose in traversing Sunnydale’s paths at this hour, but her earlier instincts still screamed that this would be a new feasting place for the local demon population. As long as she was out, she might as well give it a pass to see how things were holding.

The results were disappointing, though. The empty alley gaped back at Buffy in desolate solitude, sucking her further into its depths as her eyes scanned the shadows. The faint scent of alcohol and cigarettes hung in the air, tamped butts scattered along the ground, and suddenly, all the images she’d been holding at bay became more than suggestion---

---the red cast from the end of Spike’s cigarette outlining his profile---

---the cotton of his shirt against her cheek, soft from wear, the smoke clinging to the weave with a determination so indicative of him---

---making her knees tremble, and driving her to perch on an overturned box before they gave out completely.

She should go back to the dorm. Do what she intended and get back to her single bed. Though it was the start of the weekend and she didn’t have to worry about waking for classes, Buffy knew she’d been short of good sleep lately, a combination of too much thinking and a stomach that seemed all jittery from the anxiety of starting college. Even if she didn’t want to sleep, she was pretty sure she could wake Willow and have a long overdue best-friends-fest; their tentative steps to try and cross the chasm that had yawned between them since London had been the highlight of her night.

Consciously, her fingers slipped to her left wrist, stroking the delicate silver that encircled it. OK, maybe just one of the highlights.

After the discovery of the poem and bracelet, Buffy had put away the rest of the letters to finish reading in the morning. It was all too much, especially when there was a tiny voice inside her head shouting in jubilance, released from the fetters she’d bound it in when she’d left William and Spike behind. “Told you so,” it kept shouting. “He loves you. He still loves you. You should’ve had faith.”

Regardless of the fact that its choice of words meant she now had George Michael shimmying relentlessly around in her head, the simple fact of its gloating made her want to give it the smackdown of a lifetime.

Still, there was a part of it that was right, which was yet another reason why Buffy was out and about instead of back in her bed. Dealing with the repercussions of another vampire being in love with her---and this one without a soul---had been torturous at first, hence her quick remedy of ignoring his attempts to reach out to her. With the knowledge now that Spike was merely interested in forging further contact---in a manner that was so quintessentially William---it was impossible to continue dismissing the truth, and time to start figuring out what it meant from here.

Starting with this one task.

Her hand slid into her pocket, fingering the smooth plane and sharp edges of the envelope. It wasn’t much---she’d only had a few minutes while Willow was in the bathroom---but the power of even the few words she’d chosen was starting to erode her will, indecision returning like an unwanted relative. Maybe she should wait. Maybe it would be better not to say anything until she’d finished reading the letters. Maybe---.

The air was forced from her lungs when the sudden attack from her side had her crushed to the ground, the vampire that had sneaked in under her radar pinning her from behind as his hand coiled into her hair.

Buffy didn’t allow the luxury of getting annoyed at her distraction slow her down. Instinct took over and she slammed her head backwards, feeling her skull connect with a bone-rattling crunch to the demon’s jaw, but all it did was elicit a furious snarl from him, his grip contracting even tighter as he bared her shoulder for an attack.

This was so not what she needed right now, Buffy thought as she tried to twist out from underneath him. He outweighed her by a good hundred pounds, as well as seemed at least a foot taller than her, if the fact that her backward kicks kept being met by fleshy thighs instead of knees or shins was any indication. She was about to switch tactics to something that might actually work when the charge of electricity sizzled through the air, followed immediately by a vibrating jolt that emanated from her attacker’s body.

The scrape of footsteps echoed through the alley as the vampire sagged against her, and before Buffy could push the dead weight off, it was gone, not in a cloud of dust as she might’ve expected, but lifted away as if it had been picked up like a doll. Leaping to her feet, she whirled in time to see two dark-shadowed hulks tote the unconscious demon the few feet to a waiting van, the vehicle starting to move before they’d even closed the doors.

“What---?” she started to say, but was stopped by a third person stepping in front of her, blocking her view of the departing van.

“Are you all right?”

He towered over her, his voice deep, and such close proximity showed Buffy that he was wearing army fatigues, his face smeared with greasepaint to mask his features. In his gloved hand, he held what looked to be a stun gun and Buffy realized with a moment of perfect clarity that it was that weapon that had taken out the vampire.

“What are you doing?” she said, instead of answering his question. She gestured furiously at the empty alley behind him. “Do you have any idea what your friends have taken away there? That’s not just a mugger, you know. That’s a---.”

“You shouldn’t be out so late,” he interrupted. He was backing away from her, his weapon still dangling at the ready in his hand. “The streets aren’t safe after dark.”

And then he was gone, swallowed up by the night while Buffy just gaped in disbelief.

Only in Sunnydale, she thought. Where every day was a monument of weirdness. And apparently, selecting Private Benjamin as its current fashion model of choice.

Returning to the street in front of the Factory, the Slayer took in a deep breath, dispelling that which she couldn’t do anything about with the undertaking she could. Her hand slipped into her pocket, the wrinkles and folds that now marred her letter evident beneath her touch, and her step turned firmly back in the direction of campus. There were plenty of mailboxes along the way. She should’ve just done that in the first place instead of stumbling across the Deathwish crew. Of course, this new development gave her something to focus on that wasn’t Spike, so maybe that was of the good. She would have to go see Giles in the morning to see if he’d heard anything about it.

And still…when Buffy stopped before the large metal box, it was the pale visage of Spike that loomed in front of her as she quickly slid the envelope into its depths before she could change her mind. The softer lines of William’s face ghosted over the vampire’s, and she had to swallow hard in order to squelch the sudden rush of emotion in her throat.

This would be easier if you were actually here.

I miss you.

Come back.

She just wasn’t completely sure all of her wishing was directed at the memory of a certain dead poet. She had a sneaking suspicion that the demon wearing his face and stealing his words was part of that wish as well.

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

Willow knew the exact moment Buffy slipped out of the dorm room. She’d been pretending to be asleep, because if there was one thing she’d picked up on since getting home from the Factory, it was that Buffy was back in that weird place inside her head she’d been in before going to London. She wasn’t depresso girl this time, but serious thinking always seemed to drag Buffy down, and worrying about Spike most definitely qualified for cold sober contemplation.

As soon as she was alone, Willow pushed off her blankets and went to the window, watching the grounds below until she saw the Slayer head off into the darkness. A quickly uttered incantation set up the warning she would need to alert her to Buffy’s return, and she hastened to crouch beside her best friend’s bed.

She wasn’t going to read the letters. With her burgeoning powers, Willow knew it would be simple to learn their contents without Buffy finding out, but that was an invasion of privacy she wasn’t willing to commit. She did, however, need to know if they contained anything threatening. Spike was still a vampire, and being in the Factory tonight had brought back too-vivid memories of how he’d threatened her with the broken bottle, eclipsing the more recent recollections of their collaboration in London. If there was something Buffy wasn’t sharing---because of a need to protect William’s memory, or a certainty that she could handle any problem Spike might create---Willow wanted to know about it. She wasn’t willing to be the victim of some creepy conspiracy again.

The spell was simple. It wasn’t something she’d picked up in any of her reading, and it wasn’t something she’d been told about in any of her talks with Giles. It was something that was borne from the wake of her contact with Esme, a credence to magics that had previously been veiled from her. Though the Watchers’ Council had questioned her over and over and over again about the repercussions of the power transfer, there were certain details that Willow hadn’t shared; this---this ineluctable surety of spells that had escaped her understanding before---was just one of them.

Not even Giles was aware of how deeply rooted the magic had grounded itself in her. He watched her like a hawk, always taking careful note of her moods, her emotions, quizzing her almost daily about how she was feeling. Always, Willow skated around the truth.

“It’s tough,” she’d admit. “Because I don’t know how much is too much, and sometimes I don’t know where it’s all coming from.”

But that was far as she would take it. How could she possibly convey to him the constant surges that electrified her perceptions, that made the world shimmer in layers of power that she’d never witnessed before? She could see it everywhere now. People wore their power like cloaks. It was more than just an aura; this was both more minimalistic and infinitely complex than such a simple representation.

Sometimes, it hurt her head to look at everyone. Those were times she retired from the world and feigned exhaustion in order not to deal with it.

She was just starting to come to grips with the advantages of such an influx. The best, and easiest, was the basic knowledge that sprung to Willow’s fingertips when she so wanted it. Spells that had been beyond her ken now tumbled from her lips with practiced ease, very much like the warning spell she’d erected at Buffy’s departure. They filled her head with taunts and pleas for usage, but she rarely succumbed to their whim. Too often, they frightened her. It was better to stay on the fringes of such a power than to relinquish what little control she had and enter their realm of dominion.

The threat of an unknown Spike, however, was enough to draw her in, and she readied herself with the boxes to learn their intents.

She didn’t take them out. Taking the lids off the shoeboxes, Willow rested a hand on each, feeling the sharp edges of the paper slivering into her palms. Her breath deepened. Her eyelids fluttered closed.

And she concentrated.

Dark. Always dark. Like sitting in a room without any lights.

But the paper glowed. Gleamed. As if it was…

Effulgent.

And then it came rushing toward her, burning and careening and so so icy-hot, but it didn’t want to hurt, no hurt no wounds no more pain, and she couldn’t stop it, couldn’t keep it away, helpless against its determined force when it grabbed her hands and took her in and promised to make it all go away---.

Willow’s eyes shot open.

Whoa.

The hair was standing up at the back of her neck, tiny goosebumps pocking her flesh as she slowly withdrew her touch from the boxes. She expected to see her hands---what? Different, somehow. But they looked exactly the same, just slightly tremulous in the aftermath of the spell. Kind of like the rest of her, all wobbly on the inside from the sheer strength of what she’d felt.

She didn’t have to worry about being hurt by Spike. The only thing on his mind was Buffy, and the only thing guiding him at the moment was a depth of love that Willow suspected she’d only touched the tip of. His letters were soaked in it.

Swallowing to rid her throat of the knot that had formed there, Willow carefully replaced the lids on the shoeboxes, tucking the letters safely away just as they had been kept. No wonder Buffy was so confused about everything. She’d actually read his missives, had lost herself in promises that made little to no sense. If Willow got such a surge from just gleaning a taste of their intent, what kind of jolt would the Slayer get from direct contact with the words?

Her body was still shaking when she crawled back into her bed. That was the effect she got most of the time when she tapped into Esme’s power. It was just another reason why Willow wished that she’d never agreed to the trip to London in the first place.

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

On the weekend, the city took on a different life, one that pulsed with the transience of tourists’ heartbeats, stank of the sweat of displaced thousands. So different from the staunch regularity of British routine, London during these two days bristled with a vibrant energy that would’ve served Esme well just a few months prior. She would’ve been able to reach out and tap into all those lifeforces, used those spurts of spirit to fuel any number of spells, and none would be the wiser.

Now, of course, she was relegated to watch from the sidelines, monitoring the city’s progression through the limo window as it rushed her to the Council’s private airport.

On the leather seat beside her, Quentin observed Esme with a wary detachment, his fingers drumming silently on the manila envelope that rested in his lap. She was weary of his distrust, even if it was deserved. She would be glad when she was no longer under his heavy-handed scrutiny.

“You’re certain you’re up to this?” he asked for the third time since leaving Council Headquarters.

It would be a relief to be free of his incessant questioning, as well.

“I have little choice,” Esme replied. Her dark eyes assessed his with a directness she knew he didn’t often garner. “If I wish to regain some purpose to my paltry existence, I have to play by your rules. You’ve made that very clear, Quentin.”

“I want to trust you, you know. I’m ignoring all of my advisors’ opinions in allowing you to do this.”

“Am I supposed to feel flattered by that?” She held a wrinkled hand to her chest, and bowed her head in mock obeisance. “Thank you for such an honor.”

Shaking his head, Quentin shifted his gaze to the passing scenery. “You will have only one opportunity,” he said. “I’ve instructed your partner in this to alert me to anything he deems suspicious. That means your best behavior, Esme. Anything less, and you’ll be flown back to London where you’ll serve the rest of your days in far less grandeur than you’ve been allowed thus far.”

“Anything without my powers is less than satisfactory,” she replied, her voice suddenly cold. “I’m merely doing this because I detest being so useless.”

He nodded. “It’s the first time you’ve been without magic since you were a child. Frankly, I’m surprised you lasted this long before agreeing to my arrangement.”

They lapsed into silence, the only sounds within the vehicle the irregular rhythm of the seams in the road. Esme’s fingers itched to cast a confusion spell at the Council Head, snap some of the smug overconfidence off his face, but even such a simple incantation escaped her abilities at the moment. That lack was precisely why she had finally acquiesced to Quentin’s offer. If she couldn’t utilize her magic herself, molding the young witch who now wielded it was the next best thing.

“Is the Slayer aware of my pending arrival?” she asked.

The twitching in his hands was the only hint of his discomfiture. “She will be told,” he replied. “In due time.”

She nodded, as if nothing else could’ve been conceivable. Without her powers, she knew she wasn’t in any position to compel the aid of Buffy Summers. However, it might just be that presumed weakness that would allow Esme to slip past the Slayer’s defenses. She was old, and she was infirm, and if she knew anything about Buffy, it was that the young woman harbored a protective streak a mile wide. Perhaps a deal could be struck.

Besides, it was Esme who was responsible for introducing William Freston into Buffy’s life. The fact that the demonized William hadn’t killed the Slayer---and vice versa---was proof enough that their harbored feelings ran deeper than the norm. Surely, Esme’s part in bringing them together would gain her at least a foothold within the Slayer’s circle.

After all, that was all she really needed.

 

To be continued in Chapter 4: These Curious Days