DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XXXVIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has returned to the hotel while Lydia is going to search and find out what she can about Rose’s death, Esme is on her way to Sunnydale, and Buffy has encountered a strange group of demonhunters…
The delicate aroma of sugar wafted through the doorway when it opened, an expectant Giles caught in mid-bite as he stood there in greeting. Buffy’s mouth quirked at the sight of the half-eaten powdered donut he held in one hand and the white speckling around and on his lips, and bit her cheek to keep from laughing out loud as she brushed past him into his apartment.
“I see we’ve skipped straight to the Sugar Vanquishes All Evil portion of our slaying day,” she commented, her eyes falling on Xander and the two pastry boxes that sat open in front of him. She plopped down on the couch. “So which one is this demon susceptible to? Plain, jelly, or cream-filled?”
“We’re still conducting market research,” Xander replied before biting down into his own donut. “Help yourself.”
“Um, that would be no. I already had breakfast.” Truth be told, the sight of the donuts was making Buffy’s stomach unsettle.
“Where’s Willow?” he asked between bites.
“Picking up Oz. They should be here---.” A knock came at the door and Buffy twisted in time to see Giles open it again and reveal the two redheads. “---right about now.”
“Sorry we’re late,” Willow said brightly. “But we come bearing…” Her gaze caught the treats already laid out, and then jumped to the box she carried in her hand. “Oh.”
“No worries,” Xander said. He hopped to his feet and took the box from her hands. “There’s no telling how long this meeting could last. Better to be prepared than to worry about hosting our very own Donner Party.”
“Or be a South American rugby player stuck in the Andes,” added Oz.
Giles grimaced in distaste. “And on that particularly…unsavory note,” he said, “might I suggest we get to the matter at hand?”
The group lapsed into silence, each looking to the other as they waited for someone to speak. “Maybe the matter was on a foot,” Xander finally commented. “Anyone suffering from an ingrown toenail?”
“I’ll go first,” Buffy said. “Not that mine is apocalypse-worthy, but it definitely rates as wiggy.”
“This isn’t about Spike, is it?”
Willow’s blurted question took everyone by surprise, but it was Xander who jumped on it first.
“Spike? Spike’s back in town?” His head whipped around, surveying the agitation in the redhead’s features, the solemn masks put on by Giles and Oz. But it was Buffy’s darting eyes and flushed cheeks that held his attention and he faced off with the Slayer and repeated his questions.
“No, he’s not,” she assured. She turned to Willow. “And no, this isn’t about him. It’s about some weird vigilante group I ran into last night.”
She had to get Xander off the topic of Spike. The last thing she needed right now was to have to go over the events of the summer in greater detail, to witness the hurt on her friend’s face when he found out that he’d been kept in the dark about something as monumental as this. Willow was obviously regretting her too-quick assumption, and chewed at her bottom lip as if that would stop any more from spilling over her tongue. But Buffy couldn’t focus on her. If she did, that would only make Xander jump back to his original questions. And she just couldn’t answer them right now.
Giles was the one who came to her rescue.
“What vigilante group?” he asked. “Did you encounter something unusual while on patrol?”
Briefly, Buffy relayed the events in the alley behind the Factory, omitting the reason she’d left the dorm in the first place. “They got away in a van,” she finished. “By the time I had my head back together to think about following it, they were long gone.”
“And you’re certain it was a vampire that was attacking you?”
She nodded. “Had all the tinglies to prove it.”
“Maybe it’s just some local citizens trying to make a difference,” Willow offered. “After all, not everyone is completely blind about what goes on in Sunnydale. They could just be wanting to take a bite out of crime before someone takes a bite out of them.”
“I don’t think so,” Buffy said. “These guys moved more in sync together than a boy band. Plus, they had their little stun gun toys to zap the vamp with. That doesn’t exactly say fly-by-night operation to me.”
“Unless vigilante groups qualify for funding these days,” Oz said.
“And you say they didn’t kill the vampire?” This was the part Buffy had known would perplex Giles the most. “They merely…towed it away?”
“I saw it with my own two eyes. The only dust in that alley was from the people who came out from the Factory to smoke.”
The young people watched as the Watcher began to pace around the room, processing the information that had been shared. “It would certainly explain a great deal,” he muttered. “A great deal.”
“Someone’s not sharing with the rest of the class,” Buffy prodded.
Giles’ head snapped up. “What? Oh, yes, quite right.” He cleared his throat. “I received a telephone call from England this morning---.”
“No.” She cut him off before he could even finish the sentence. “You are not about to tell us that the Council has something to do with this.”
“No, I’m not. Mr. Travers called regarding another matter, but one of the things he mentioned was that there had been reports of lessened demon frequency in Sunnydale. Reports that didn’t add up to the ones I provided him regarding your slaying.”
“But that’s a good thing, right?” asked Willow. “Fewer demons means less evil in the world and more time for Buffy to have a real life outside of being the Slayer.”
“The Council’s not so certain about that,” the Watcher admitted. “While they’re often aware of the more prolific demon hunters, they haven’t been able to deduce who exactly is responsible for the lowered population here.”
“So tell them it’s these commando guys,” Xander said. “Problem solved.” He turned back to Buffy. “Which means we can go back to why Willow would think Spike was the issue you wanted to talk about.”
“The problem isn’t solved,” Giles said. “Mr. Travers’ primary purpose in contacting us was to inform me that two of the Council’s operatives would be arriving soon. And that I’m to give them my complete support in their new assignment.”
This drove the Slayer to her feet. “Just because you’re back on Council payroll,” she said, her tone brittle, “doesn’t mean they get the right to start riding slipshod over my life again. I’ve slipped enough shod from them for a lifetime.”
“Contrary to what you might think, Buffy, this isn’t about you.” He switched his spectacled gaze to the redhead sitting on the floor between Oz’s legs. “This is about Willow.”
“Me?” It was Willow’s turn to rise. “What did I do?”
“Nothing. The Council is still concerned about the effects of the magic infusion you received, as am I, to be frank. They’re sending two…experts to aid me in helping you integrate the new power more efficiently.”
“She doesn’t need Council experts,” Buffy argued. “She needs time.”
“She’s had time,” Giles countered. “And on this matter, I’m afraid I agree with Mr. Travers’ assessment. The longer Willow takes to come to grips with her powers, the more difficult it will be to make it a smooth transition.”
“But I am all transitioned,” said Willow. The color had risen in her cheeks, prompting Oz to stand and settle a soothing hand in the small of her back. “I don’t want to play lab rat any more for Watchers I don’t know. Hoops and mazes? Not so much with the fun, surprisingly enough.”
“You won’t be. I’ve made it very clear that I will be the one in charge of this, and as for the others, well…you know at least one of them, so it won’t be completely unfamiliar for you.”
The young people waited for Giles to elaborate, but when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to, Buffy sighed in exasperation.
“Please tell me it isn’t that Lydia,” she said. “I think both Will and I had our share of her in London.”
The Watcher’s mouth thinned. “No, it’s not Lydia,” he said. “He wanted to come to this meeting this morning, but I insisted that I tell you that he would be involved with this before he arbitrarily showed up.” He cleared his throat, his discomfort in stating the name obvious. “It’s Wesley.”
Eyes widened all around the group. “But he quit from Watcherdom,” Willow said.
“Actually, he was fired, but that’s neither here nor there. The Council has contracted him for this one assignment only, both because his knowledge of magic is almost as extensive as mine, and, well, because he’s already here. They thought it would be a more conducive environment for you, Willow, if you were comfortable with those guiding you.”
“You said ‘others,’” Buffy prompted.
“Yes, the third is a witch from the Council’s coven. Mr. Travers didn’t give me her name, though.”
With a dejected plop, Willow collapsed into the chair, her mouth drawn in a sulky pout. “And that makes just perfect sense,” she groused, “considering they couldn’t understand Esme’s magic when it was actually in Esme.”
“Actually, I kind of like the idea.” Oz perched on the arm of the chair, ignoring the surprise from the rest of the group to focus on his girlfriend. “You had a lot of power thrust onto you without any warning. I’d rather you had someone help you deal with it than watch you implode from trying to deal with it yourself.”
“But…it’s Wesley,” she protested weakly.
Oz shrugged. “Wesley came through when it really counted,” he said. “That’s enough for me.”
“If memory serves, Wesley ended up on a stretcher when it really counted,” Xander interjected.
“But he did try,” Buffy said. “Which already rates him higher than any of those jerks back in England. Not that I’m necessarily agreeing with putting you through the wringer again if you don’t want to be wrung, but at least Wesley’s a known quantity.”
They waited as Willow mulled over all of their words, finally granting them a small smile. “I guess I’m just not used to being important enough to fuss over,” she said. “But if you guys think it’s all for the best---.”
“That’s my brave little toaster,” Xander said with a wide grin. He clapped his hands together, rubbing them in anticipation. “OK, so that’s agenda item number two taken care of. Does anyone else have anything to talk about before Buffy explains what the deal is with Spike? No? Good.” He turned to the Slayer. “Spill.”
His brown eyes were ingenuous as he regarded her, but rather than soothe Buffy as they usually did, she began to squirm in unease. There was no way he was going to understand this. He’d hated Angel from day one, and Angel had had a soul. How could Buffy even begin to hope that Xander would be sympathetic about her encounters with William? Worse, how could she explain what had transpired between her and Spike? Only Willow was aware of those details, and that had been tough enough to share.
But she hated the thought of lying to him. When she’d hidden the truth about Angel’s return from the gang, it had taken ages for them to return to that place of trust they’d always shared. If she lied again, what were the odds that Xander would never forgive her this time?
She took a deep breath. “There’s a chance Spike is coming back to Sunnydale,” she said carefully. It wasn’t the truth as Xander wanted to hear it, but it wasn’t a fib, either, since she hadn’t actually had a chance yet to finish the letters to confirm or deny the statement.
“What?” Xander exclaimed. “Why?”
Buffy cast a furtive glance around, but none of the others seemed perturbed by her announcement. Of course, Willow already knew about the possibility, and Oz couldn’t be flapped if someone tied huge wings to his arms, but it was the non-reaction in her Watcher’s face that took her by surprise. She’d expected a scowl, or at least an “Oh, Buffy;” all she got was a duck of his head and an averting of his eyes.
“He…has unfinished business here,” she managed to say.
“And you know this how?”
“He told me.”
Shit. She should’ve known he was going to go there. “When I saw him in London.”
“You saw him? And you didn’t stake him?”
Trying not to notice the incredulity in Xander’s eyes, Buffy folded her arms over her queasy stomach. “It’s complicated,” she said. “And I didn’t really have time, remember? There was that whole turned Slayer thing I was trying to resolve.”
“But you had time to have a heart-to-heart with the vamp who made our lives miserable for two years?” Xander shook his head. “Don’t tell me he pulled another sob story about losing the love of his pathetic unlife again. That’s too sad, even for Spike.”
“I told you, it’s complicated.” She repeated it through gritted teeth. Her stomach was roiling, her nerves like frayed rope. “What does it matter, anyway? He’s not here now, and we’ve got other issues to be worried about in the meantime.”
“It matters because he kills Slayers.”
“He’s not going to kill me.”
“How do you know that?”
And there it was. The million dollar question. The one she could lie through her teeth about and potentially lose Xander as a friend if he ever discovered the truth, or confess everything and still potentially lose Xander because of his vamp hate. It was a lose-lose situation, no matter what angle she tried to look at it.
She wasn’t even aware when Willow appeared at her side, her hand gently touching Buffy’s arm. “Are you OK?” the redhead asked. Buffy turned her head to meet Willow’s worried gaze. “You don’t look so hot.”
“I’m---,” she started, but it was in that moment that her stomach chose to revolt, and she bolted for the bathroom, slamming the door open and crouching over the toilet just in time for the remains of her breakfast to come rushing back up.
Her throat burned from the heaving, and by the time Buffy lifted her head, Willow had arrived with a glass of water, offering it without a word. She gulped it down, surprised that her stomach felt almost normal again, and glanced guiltily back at the others who had congregated at the open door.
“Sorry about that,” Buffy said. “I guess I must be coming down with some sort of bug.”
“You should go back to the dorm and rest,” Giles said. “From the sound of it, you haven’t been getting much sleep since your classes started. You won’t do anyone any good if you push yourself too hard too fast.”
“I’ll drive you,” offered Oz.
She just nodded. She didn’t want to tell them that she was already feeling better, that retching out the contents of her stomach seemed to do the trick to get rid of the queasiness, but Giles probably had a point. If she was getting sick, it was better to nip it in the bud now rather than get even sicker later on.
It also gave her a good excuse to lie around in bed, finishing off Spike’s letters. Buffy kept her head bowed so that the others wouldn’t see the satisfied gleam in her eyes. Rest was of the good, every way around.
It wasn’t dusk yet, though it was very close to it, the long fingers of sunlight tinged in orange where they slithered around the edges of the drawn curtains. In the narrow line of the bed, Spike stretched, his muscles replete from the hours of slumber he’d gained even though his mind was not, and his eyes opened to stare up at the plaster ceiling.
He’d dreamt of the battle with April. Not the one at the Watcher’s house when he’d finally had the chance to snap that Nathan bastard’s neck. The one with Buffy back in the day, when a horrified Rose had hurtled the spell into the garden to try and protect her husband from the vampire’s clutches.
It had gone slightly differently in his dream, though. Instead of capturing the turned Slayer in the crystal collection, Rose’s spell had ricocheted back, her magic slicing into her fragile flesh like a knife through butter, and she’d fallen to a crumpled heap on the porch. Her blood was already dripping onto the steps by the time William could reach her, and his hands had turned scarlet the moment they touched her unbreathing body. It had only been the threat of losing Buffy that had torn him away, and he’d spent the remainder of the dream trying to get his Slayer to safety without the seer’s aid.
It was impossible to deny any longer the emotion gurgling within Spike’s gut.
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut again, Spike tried to will away the tears that had sprung in their corners as he remembered her from that fateful night. There was so much that had occurred that infuriated him, but that had all come after. During the course of those hours, when Rose had made it possible for William to show his strength in battle once and for all, and then afterward, when she’d maintained every composure as she ensured he got Buffy to safety, she had been golden, as formidable as his staunchest enemy but as compassionate as his own mother. He would always be grateful to her for giving him the chance to show his worth to Buffy, and, even more importantly, to prove his worth to himself.
She was a good woman
She shouldn’t have had to die that way.
Shaking his head, Spike leapt from the bed, cracking his neck and joints as he forced his body into action. Better to do. Better to not think. He had plans to make and a death to avenge.
He couldn’t wait to sink his fangs into Baltozar. That was one kill he planned on savoring the old-fashioned way. With hours and hours of torture. And maybe some disemboweling. He hadn’t enjoyed a really good evisceration since before Sunnydale.
He was freshly showered and slipping into a pair of jeans when he heard the suite door open. Grimacing when the familiar call of his name floated from the front room, he turned his back on the door to rummage through the dresser, pretending to be more concerned about which of the black tees to wear than Lydia’s impending arrival.
The knock came, along with the repeat of “William?” but Spike grabbed hold of his routine slighting and held firm; part of him was still pissed at the Watcher for her unsuspecting role in Rose’s death. Besides, she would just enter of her own accord anyway. Spike was convinced she was hoping to catch him starkers one of these days; in spite of her protestations to the contrary, she still harbored more than a passing attraction to him.
“I’m so glad you’re up,” she said as she stepped into the room. “I’ve so much to---.”
“Save it.” Settling on a shirt, he pulled it over his head, deliberately flexing the muscles in his back for her benefit, and then smirking unseen at the slight acceleration in her pulse. Fuck, she was so bloody predictable. It was a good thing this was a temporary arrangement between them. Any more time spent with the bint, and he’d be driven batty from the boredom.
“Did you find Baltozar?” he asked. He turned to his desk and began slipping his things into his pockets---some loose bills, his lighter. Spike’s eyes fell on the writing supplies carefully arranged in the corner, and mentally calculated how long he’d have to write his daily note to Buffy. It would likely have to be a short one this time; he had a feeling the night was going to be busy.
“No,” Lydia admitted. That got his attention, and though she paled at his angry scowl, she didn’t back away. “By the time I got to his place, he was gone.”
“Then what the bloody fuck are you doin’ back here?” Spike demanded. “I don’t keep you around for your company, you know. Find him.”
She ignored his gibe. “I already have. Or I’ve found where he went to, at least.” Stepping aside, she tilted her head toward the outer room. “Come. I’ve brought some things I think you’ll want to see.”
He followed her out to the tiny sitting room, his frown deepening when he saw the box sitting on the lone chair. “What’s this?” he asked, crossing to start pawing through its contents.
“Rose’s effects,” she replied. “Or at least, those that I thought would be of interest to you.”
It was a hodgepodge of items.
The first thing he pulled out was a journal that looked fairly new. A quick flick through it revealed entries detailing Rose’s life of the past few weeks. Spike sat that one aside to look at more closely when he was done.
The next he pulled out was a small wooden box, its top intricately carved. Lifting the lid, he saw an assortment of jewelry, including the simple band he remembered she’d worn when living her life as Mrs. Rhodes-Fanshaw. He quirked an eyebrow at Lydia.
“Nicking the valuables, too?” he commented. “Knew I’d have an influence on you, sooner or later.”
“Jewelry often has symbolic resonance when it comes to magic,” she explained. “And since Rose’s powers were still so unknown to us, I presumed it was better to be safe than sorry.”
He resumed his examination. Most of it meant nothing to him; Lydia had obviously been a bit overzealous in her acquisitions. But then, at the bottom, a worn atlas caught his eye, and his head tilted as he pulled it out.
Its cover was bent and wrinkled, the edges soft from frequent thumbings. Half the index page had been torn away, revealing the bottom half of the British Isles on the sheet below it. When Spike slowly turned it over, his gaze was immediately drawn to the graceful lilt of red script written over the Atlantic Ocean.
The world tunneled around him, fixing his eyes on the land mass of Wales. She’d known. Somehow, Rose had known he’d been looking for her. He’d always wondered why it was they’d always seemed to be one step behind the seer, and now he thought he understood. She’d watched him do it, every inch of the way.
Page after page, Spike watched the path of his and Lydia’s journey unfold. Every stop, every city, every country…it was all documented with the same crimson writing, an occasional note adding detail that only confirmed his suspicions.
Lydia watched him intently. “She knew,” she said softly.
“Can see that.”
“I think…I think she was leading us here.”
He looked up at that. “You spot a pattern I don’t?” Spike asked.
“Not there,” she said. Taking the atlas from his hands, Lydia set it to the side to pick up the journal he’d already discarded. She flipped it open to a recent entry, handing it over to him and watching him as he skimmed it over.
His lips thinned as the anger inside rekindled. “Son of a bitch!” Spike roared. He sent it hurtling against the far wall, the papers ruffling as the impact created a large hole in the plaster where it hit.
Even from beyond the grave, Rose was manipulating him like a puppet. Just like she’d stripped the memories of Buffy from him for over a century, she was leading him around by the short and curlies on what was inevitably a wild goose chase. Why? Why would she do this? What could she possibly have to gain?
And then he knew.
And the regret he’d felt at her death vanished.
She was keeping him away from Buffy. That could be the only reason.
The calm of Lydia’s voice cut through his rage, and Spike’s gaze swiveled to stare at her. “You’ve got to be shittin’ me.”
Her eyes fell to the atlas, and she flipped to a page in the back. Without saying another word, she turned the book around so that it was right-side up for him, and Spike glanced down to see what it was she was showing him.
Written elegantly along the California coast.
It took only a few strides to return to his bedroom, to grab the book he’d taken from Rose’s and to open it up to the title page. There was the red ink again.
There was his confirmation.
I’m sorry I didn’t believe.
Don’t give up.
He couldn’t tear his eyes from the words. It was the last thing he’d expected to see, and yet again, his emotions were doing a tap dance into the realm of irresolution. How was he supposed to stay mad at her when she pulled a stunt like this? And what the hell did all of it mean, anyway?
“She’s still leading us.”
His shoulders slumped. He didn’t want to listen to Lydia’s over-idealistic assessments of the situation. He wanted to take a break from pointless searches for Slayer powers, and seers who could never speak plain, let alone play it straight when it mattered. He just wanted to bury himself in Buffy; if he couldn’t feel her within his arms or hear her voice against his skin, then he’d settle for the verse writing to her always seemed to inspire these days.
“Don’t care,” Spike said, dropping the book back to the nightstand. He crossed to the desk and settled in the chair. “Get out. Need some time to get my head back on.”
As soon as he felt the pen in his grip, some of the tension began to unknit from his limbs. This was his best escape for now. There was something therapeutic in the ink and paper, something that had been lost to him for years before recovering the memories of those fateful weeks with Buffy. He just needed that haven for a moment. It would inevitably help him resuscitate the will to see this through.
When he realized that Lydia hadn’t moved away from the doorway behind him, he said, “Thought I told you to get out.”
“You can’t hide from this.”
“Who said I was hiding?”
“You’re writing to Buffy, aren’t you? You do this every time you start to lose faith in what we’re doing.”
Spike squared the sheet of paper, taking a second to relish the heavy feel of the weft along his fingertips before picking up his pen again. “Sod off, Lydia.”
“I said, sod off!” His head whipped around, his forehead ridged, eyes gleaming in bright yellow from the frustration wending through his veins. She visibly jumped at the sight of his gameface; it was the first time he’d turned it directly on her since their first week together. It did what he wanted, though.
“There is more,” she said, her voice quavering as she backed out of the doorway. “And it is time-sensitive. When you’re ready to hear it, I’ll be in my room.”
Then, she was gone, and Spike exhaled at the sound of the door closing behind him. He wouldn’t make it a long letter. Though he didn’t want to admit it to her face, Lydia was right about one thing. He couldn’t hide from what he’d started, as much as the desire to do so may overtake him.
Setting the nib to the paper, he watched the sheet soak up the flow of ink like a man long-lost in the Sahara.
They made a striking couple as they strode down the Heathrow walkway. Both were tall, both dark, and they carried themselves with a feral grace that had people shying to the side to allow them to pass with a wide berth. As the clerk watched them approach her terminal, she unconsciously straightened, trying to draw herself higher than her normal five and a half feet, but she still had to look up to address them.
“May I help you?” she asked brightly when they stopped before her.
The man leaned against the counter, and the clerk’s eyes were drawn away from his swarthy features to where his sleeves rode up. Both of his muscled forearms sported tattoos; on the right was a sword with blood dripping from the blade that disappeared beneath his shirt, and on the left was a woman, hair long and flowing as she seemed to be bent backwards in supplication. The ink was faded, indicating the age of the marks, and it struck her that he must’ve got them as a teenager because he couldn’t be more than thirty now.
“We’re here for our connecting flight from Barcelona,” he said.
His words were heavily accented, though there was a refinement to his tone that she found incongruous to his appearance. He wore his hair shaggy, his sideburns thick and down almost to his jaw, and his clothing did little to hide his heavy muscles. Not good-looking, but…arresting, she decided. If he hadn’t spoken, she would’ve thought he was a laborer of some sort.
“Tickets and passports, please.”
The woman who accompanied him never looked up as the man passed over the documentation. She wasn’t as dark as her partner, but her features were just as strong. A long nose that was probably just a bit too big for her face. A wide mouth that was currently pinched tight in obvious tension. Like Julia Roberts, but not pretty, the clerk thought. She’d called girls like that in school, “horsey.”
As the clerk began to process their check-in, her gaze surreptitiously slid up, through her lashes, to watch the two speak, their bodies turned slightly away for privacy, their voices low.
“You can sleep on the plane,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ll sleep until this is over,” the woman replied. Hers was a different accent. Maybe East European, the clerk thought.
“You worry too much.”
“We’re still alive, aren’t we?”
The clerk tried not to let the effect of her eavesdropping show on her face, lifting her eyes back to the pair with a smile she’d perfected after too many years in customer service. “Everything was sorted for you when you checked in, in Barcelona,” she said, passing back their paperwork. “We’ll be starting to board in half an hour. Have a good flight.”
Without another word, the pair turned away to sit, and she noticed then the piercings on the back of the woman’s neck. Four silver studs adorned the shaved nape in a trapezoidal shape, a pixie haircut showcasing them for everyone to see, and the clerk was struck with sudden morbid curiosity in how they could be affixed into place. The Americans are going to have a fun time with these two at arrival, she mused, but as soon as the next customer came up for service, all thoughts of the odd pair vanished from her head. Her job put her into contact with a vast variety of people. Baltozar Marroquin and Havi Aronowicz were just two more faces in the merging crowd.
To be continued in Chapter 5: Do I Not Think on Thee…