DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet III.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: A restless Buffy has agreed to go to London with Willow and Giles as a mini-vacation from the Hellmouth, while in another time, a just as restless William wonders how to break down the walls that bind him…
Tucking the leatherbound book under his arm, William crept down the stairs, ears alert for the sound of his mother’s voice in her sitting room. He’d seen the dreadful Mrs. Howard approach the house and knew she was in a calling mood by the set of her chin. David’s probably won some sort of recognition again, he’d thought bitterly, which would only mean that Mother would insist he come down and entertain by sharing some of his poetry. Not that he didn’t enjoy reading it for her, for at least she maintained the presence of pretending to like it, but Mrs. Howard would titter behind her hand, and look at him with those watery grey eyes that screamed disdain, and the entire charade would leave him feeling like some secondary Dickens character, tossed in for the amusement of the masses.
No, it was best to escape while he could, so as soon as he’d heard the sitting room door close, he’d grabbed his inks and journal and slipped out the servants’ entrance, making a dash for the park as quickly as his feet would allow.
It was uncharacteristically warm for the beginning of June, and William felt the first trickle of sweat begin down the back of his collar, itching and crawling in its aloof path down his spine. Perhaps a lighter jacket would’ve been in order, he mused as he reached the edge of the green. But that would’ve required more time spent at the house, more thought given to his escape, and he wasn’t convinced it would’ve been worth the trade. Better to just grab the chance and go. He’d just live with the consequences now that he was free.
When he saw his favorite bench along the bank unoccupied, a smile lit his face for the first time that morning, and he rushed forward to snag it before someone else beat him there. The sigh of relief that escaped his lips when he slid onto its seat relaxed a modicum of tension in his limbs, and he just sat there for a long moment, gazing across the water, its crystal water marred only by the occasional ripple caused by the slight breeze.
“Such a lovely time of year.”
He started at the voice that appeared from nowhere, and sat up straight as he turned to see the elderly woman grasping the back of the bench. He was on his feet before he could think otherwise, bending slightly at the waist as he stepped away. “Quite,” he agreed, and then frowned when her wrinkled face spread into a smile.
“No need for gallantry when I’m too old to care,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. William swore he could almost hear her joints creak as she came around the edge of the bench and settled on the far end. “There’s certainly more than enough room for both of us here.” Her gloved hand patted the seat he’d just vacated. “Unless, of course, you’re worried I’ll compromise your virtue. You wouldn’t be the first young man I’ve sullied.”
His cheeks flamed at her words, both from her blatant tease and the bluntness of her manner. She was harmless, more frail than many women he’d seen her age, and wore the black dress of a widow, yet there was something in her flashing dark eyes that spoke of cunning, and a flicker of what he thought was respect.
That couldn’t be, however. He didn’t recognize her; she would have no idea who---.
“Don’t be such a ninny,” the old woman chided. “You’re Anne Freston’s son, aren’t you?”
So maybe she did know who he was.
“My apologies,” he stammered. “I’m afraid I’m being quite rude---.”
“Only if you continue to stand there and gawk.” She patted the seat again. “It’s far too glorious a day to waste it, William. Do sit down.”
He did as she commanded, his back stiff, his brow shiny with sweat. The bridge of his spectacles was threatening to slide down his nose, and he pushed them back up with an unsteady hand, furious with himself for allowing his discomfiture to show. So he’d failed to recognize one of his mother’s acquaintances; it was hardly the end of the world. He just hoped his ungracious manner didn’t get back to her ears.
“And how is your mother?”
This spot on way of hers of answering his thoughts was unnerving. “Very well, thank you,” he murmured.
“Oh. I’d heard she was unwell.”
His immediate reaction was to frown, but he quickly wiped it from his face. There had been some worrying incidents lately, but nothing that had been spoken of outside of the house. Surely, his mother wasn’t a part of the gossip mill already?
“No,” he reassured. “I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. In fact, she’s in the process of planning a dinner party.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, William swallowed, pressing his lips together. Oh dear. Mentioning an engagement to which this woman might not be invited---it would certainly help if he knew who exactly she was---was quite the faux pas. One of these days, he really was going to have to start thinking before speaking.
“And so you’ve managed to escape the arrangements.” She nodded, ignoring his mistake as her gaze slid to his coat pocket and the journal that jutted out from it. “A little light reading to pass the time?” she asked, and before he could respond, the book was out of his jacket and in her wizened grasp, thin fingers tracing the delicate tooling on the spine.
Behind his glasses, William’s eyes widened, fear choking him as he prayed she wouldn’t deign to open it. No one had ever read his journal other than himself. It held the deepest fears of his heart, the greatest hopes of his soul, the strongest desires of his flesh. It was the only part of his life with which he was completely honest; he would be properly scandalized should its contents be disclosed, and if word should get back to his mother…
She wasn’t opening it. Instead, she was muttering under her breath---Latin, from the few words he could catch, or a derivative thereof---and her fingers never stopped their exploration of the soft leather. By the time he’d regained his wits enough to clear his throat, the old woman was already looking up at him, her hand extended as she proffered the book.
“Lovely workmanship,” she commented. “I’m sure you must hold it dear.”
William had to refrain from snatching it back. “Yes, it’s…irreplaceable,” he said, and tucked it into his pocket. His fingers cradled the spine, the leather oddly warm to the touch.
Her eyes bored into his. “Odd how that applies to people as well,” she said, and the cadence of her voice chilled the beads of sweat that clung to his spine. “You know, you shouldn’t be so cavalier about your lack of sleep. So many restless nights can’t be good for your health.”
She knew. How, or why, or…how escaped his understanding, but there was no mistaking the knowledge glinting back at him from those obsidian depths. “Who are you?” William rasped. His body was torn between the rippled sensations of gooseflesh crawling along his skin and the fire that burned from his journal into his palm, but none of it was of consequence as his mind raced, desperate to try and make sense of the questions she raised. “What do you want?”
“Who was it that said, ‘Fortune favors the brave?’”
“Terence,” came his automatic reply. “In Phormio. Act one, scene four.”
He frowned at the sad shake of her head. “And perhaps it’s better to understand the classics, rather than capable of spouting off mere facts about them,” she said, rising to her feet. “Words can be an effective shield, William, but they can also be a wall if you choose to hide behind them. Be careful how you use yours.”
As she began walking away, he was up and halfway to her side when he forced his step to stop. Regardless of what she said or how it made him feel, he had no idea who she was, what her interest in conveying such cryptic messages, or even whether or not she was just an escaped inmate from Bedlam. Better to just let her go.
Even if he couldn’t shake the feeling that doing so was tantamount to slitting his own throat.
When Willow had suggested shopping, Buffy had jumped at the chance, her jet lag finally abated after three days to be awake enough for the excursion during normal daylight hours. Her expectations hadn’t been unreasonable, she’d thought. First, there’d be racks of designer tops and snooty sales clerks eager to take their American credit cards. Then, sitting in a café, sipping tea and watching the tourists go wandering by, laughing with her best friend about how ridiculous they all were while making sure to keep her own camera carefully hidden.
Finding herself in the musty basement of a used bookstore on Charing Cross didn’t even come close on the Buffy radar.
“Giles asked me to pick some books up,” Willow had apologized as she’d led her away from the tube station toward the long row of shops. “We won’t be very long. I promise.”
That had been half an hour earlier, and Buffy was starting to wonder just what Willow’s definition of not very long actually was.
Not that she was an expert, but it certainly didn’t look like any other book store she’d seen back in the US. Barely six feet wide, shelves from floor to ceiling took up most of the floor space, leaving a three-foot aisle that ran the length of the building. There didn’t seem to be any order to the books---not alphabetical, not categorized by type, not even stacked on end so that all the spines were visible---and Buffy got a crick in her neck from the twisting and turning of trying to read some of the titles. To top it all off, she didn’t even have Willow around to complain about the cramped quarters. Once she’d dropped Giles’ name, her friend had disappeared with the elderly clerk to a back room, rife with promises of returning soon but severely lacking in the actual follow-through.
When an overweight tourist elbowed his way past her, Buffy pressed herself into the nearest bookcase to get out of his way, skittering along the edge until she felt the wall disappear from behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. There, almost buried between the tall stacks, was a narrow doorway, cramped stairs with a ceiling anyone taller than her would have to duck below, disappearing down into near darkness. A handwritten sign on the wall said simply, “More books,” with an arrow pointing downward.
“Like that’s a big surprise,” she muttered.
Mr. Too-Large-For-Such-A-Small-Store decided he’d forgotten something and turned to double-back, leaving Buffy’s eyes darting around for escape. Couldn’t go up, couldn’t really go in without getting even more cornered, which really only left…
Her foot felt for the top step just as he pushed by, and she grabbed the iron rail to guide her descent into the basement. Maybe it was roomier down there. Maybe there were fewer customers. At the very least, there would be different books for her to stare at while she waited for Willow.
It was slightly larger, but that was most likely due both to the lack of shelves along the walls and the dearth of customers, with the books stacked along the floor in piles that threatened to teeter over if she as much as breathed too hard. What it lacked in organization, though, it compensated with dust, and the first thing Buffy did when her feet left the stairwell was sneeze violently.
“Gesundheit,” she said to herself, and stepped to the center of the room, pirouetting in examination of the texts that surrounded her. So many colors, so many shapes, so many words she didn’t recognize. “Oh goody,” she murmured, none too happy. “I’m in Watcher Paradise.”
She hated feeling ungrateful about the whole trip, but with three days now past, Buffy was beginning to wonder if coming to London was actually such a good idea. She was still not sleeping well, and now she had both Willow and Giles hovering over her every move, asking her how she was every other minute without giving anything in return but assurances that she’d feel better as soon as her jet lag went away. She didn’t even have the release of slaying to keep the demons at bay; until she could get around the block without getting lost---was anything in this country square?---Buffy didn’t trust herself to go out in the city alone.
Her fingers trailed over the nearest stack of books, a dust-free path echoing in their wake, and her gaze dropped over the exposed titles, the odd author ringing in her ears in the voice of English teachers she’d rather forget. Four books down, an empty spine blinked back at her, and she frowned as she stopped to focus on it.
It was worn leather, with intricate tooling spidering along its slim length. A bald patch in the middle announced the familiar grip of a single hand, the patterns fainter there where its previous owner had obviously held it for long amounts of time. Curious, Buffy lifted the books on top of it to slide it out. She had expected the cover to mirror the cool and gritty texture coating the other items in the shop she’d touched, but found instead a soothing radiance to the leather where it almost melted into her hand.
Closer inspection revealed yellowed, uneven pages that were loosely bound, and she knew instinctively that it wasn’t a published work. Old, yes, but there were older books in the store that showed more professional binding. That left private ownership, and as she traced the edge of the binding with a slim fingertip, the desire to take a peek inside swelled within her.
Don’t know what I’m so gunshy about, she thought as she hesitated. It’s a store, wanting me to buy its books. Of course it’s OK for me to see what it’s about. So, she swallowed the niggle of uncertainty and flipped open to a random page.
The script was ornate and fluid, a testimony to the ceremony of days gone by. Bonus points for being in English, Buffy mused, and let her gaze drift across the words until a particular passage demanded she stop.
“The question of selfishness lends me pause,” it read. “On the one hand, I yearn for the freedom of making a choice based purely upon my own desires. Yet, on the other, do I not owe those who know me the constancy of my character? I will always strive to fulfill my responsibilities, but I can’t help but ponder the argument that I am only half a man if I ignore the leanings of my heart. Writing of them isn’t of sufficient consequence. It is too solitary, with little fruit for sustenance beyond that which I glean on the odd occasion I share them. But to act further would undoubtedly be detrimental to my duties.
“And so I wait, and I write, and I look outside my window and see the world passing me by, oblivious to the man standing behind the glass. They go along with their day, secure in the knowledge that I will satisfy the demands of my obligations, yet they do not know me, and most likely will never know. For that would require my selfish side to take voice, and as it is currently mute, I fear I shall continue unheard.”
Her throat was dry as Buffy let the pages fall closed again. Not a regular book at all, but someone’s journal, with all their private thoughts and fears spelled out for just anyone to read. For her to read. She wanted to put it back into the stack, to hide it from other prying eyes and pray for the man who’d written it that it never got sold. Or you can buy it, a little voice inside her said. Keep anyone else from reading it and give a dead man the privacy he wanted. That would work, too.
Tilting her head, Buffy lifted the cover to peek at the top of the first page. William Freston, 1879. “Well, William,” she said out loud. “What do you think? Put you back or take you home with me?”
It took less time than she thought to decide. Curling the leather against her chest, Buffy strode to the stairwell, wondering how much teasing she was going to get from Willow about her first London purchase being a musty old book.
Counting out the bills from the money Giles had given her, Willow watched as the elderly clerk finished wrapping up the books, her gnarled fingers nimble in spite of their age. “I can’t wait to come back and really explore this place,” she said. “I’ll bet you’ve got some nifty stuff buried in here, just waiting to be all unearthed.”
“You can always look now,” the woman said. “I can hold these for Mr. Giles while you---.”
Willow shook her head. “I’ve been here too long already. Buffy---.”
“Your friend.” She nodded in understanding. “Not exactly her milieu, is it?
“Not exactly’s an understatement. I promised her fun and frolicking on Oxford Street, but I think I might’ve blown my frolicking window if her jet lag starts to catch up with her again.”
There was a hint of hesitation in the clerk’s hands. “You should help her with that. It would be a shame for her to miss out on your vacation because she’s not sleeping well.”
“Oh, Giles had tons of tips on how to get over it, but none of them---.”
“I didn’t mean tips. I meant magic.” Dark eyes met Willow’s wide ones. “You’re buying magic books for Rupert Giles. Are you going to tell me you don’t know anything about it?”
“No, but…what are you saying?”
The elderly woman turned toward the bookshelf in the back of the office, fingers combing over the spines before extracting a slim volume. “There’s a spell in here,” she said when she turned back. “Quite simple with just a few ingredients that I’m sure Mr. Giles will have on hand. It should easily take care of your friend’s sleep problems.”
Holding up her hands in protest, Willow smiled in apology. “I couldn’t. Me and the magic isn’t always such a good combo. I mean, I try, but---.”
“It’s simple,” the clerk repeated, and slid the book into the stack she’d already packed. “Just look it over. Maybe your friend won’t even need it, and if she doesn’t, you can always use the book as a paperweight.”
The smile she flashed untied some of the knots that had formed in Willow’s stomach. It couldn’t hurt to just look it over, right? And what kind of friend would she be if she didn’t help out when she could?
To be continued in Chapter 3: In Dreams, They Look on Thee…