DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXLI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy has appeared before Quentin Travers and a host of Watchers and been asked why a handkerchief left with the crystal collection over a hundred years previous has her blood on it, while William has fled his mother’s dinner party in the face of David Howard’s taunting, only to run into the same odd woman he saw at the banks…

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

Chapter 9: The Likeness of a Man

She was exactly as he remembered, if it was even possible to forget such a cryptic encounter as they had shared.  Standing directly in front of her, William marveled at how tiny the widow actually was, so tall in his memory but barely reaching his elbow in the grand light of day.  Or, rather, the dim dusk of evening.

Still, she held herself remarkably erect, straight and oddly powerful in spite of her advancing years, and he was left to wonder yet again at the otherworldliness to her, with those black eyes that seemed to see straight through to the heart of him.  He automatically took a step back, squaring his shoulders as he bowed his head, not just from the demands of courtesy but also the intense desire to escape her scrutiny.

“My apologies,” William said, and then added in a low voice as he grimaced, “and it certainly appears that I’m making many of those this evening.”

“Your mother’s going to be wondering where you are,” she said, ignoring his contrition.  “You don’t want to disappoint her, do you?  She was so excited about your reading tonight.”

Mention of his poem made his blood freeze, and he lifted his gaze to stare at her.  “How do you know…?” he started, and then stopped, remembering their first meeting…her odd comment upon first seeing him on the walk just minutes earlier.  “Who are you?” William asked bluntly.  The chill that was starting to nip the air sent shivers undulating across his skin, but he was oblivious to anything but the tiny woman before him.  “How is it you know so much about me?”

“You may call me Miss Esme,” she replied, thoroughly unperturbed by his lack of manners.  “And I know only what you wear on your face, William.  Of course, you do have this tendency to display any and all emotions there, so I’m afraid you’ll have to pardon me for being horrifically obvious in my observations.”

“You can’t have known about the reading merely by looking at me.”  He paused, unsure whether or not to continue, and then decided to throw caution to the wind.  “And you specifically addressed the issue of my ‘young lady.’  I don’t have one, and your presumption that I would be failing her in some regard, should she exist, is insulting.”

The anger was prickling around the edges of his temper, surprising him with its vigor, but when she began to chuckle, instead of receding into the quiet of shameful solicitude, William’s ire sharpened, drawing forth his words as if they possessed a mind of their own.

“I don’t understand---.”

“I don’t expect you to,” she interrupted.  Her face softened, her mirth fading as effortlessly as the sun.  “There is no reason for you to hide your feelings, William.  Even when they’re unpleasant.  And just because you’re frightened of the response, you shouldn’t allow them to discourage you from your poetry.  It has its place, just as you do, and you shouldn’t shirk your responsibility in claiming it.”

Each collected observation deflated his rising fury, until he was left hollow and gaping at her in confusion.  He didn’t understand, and it both frustrated and intrigued him.  There was so much more behind that wrinkled face than was immediately apparent, each declaration from her lips spoken as if she had other knowledge, with a surety that made it difficult to question her believed honesty.  “Miss Esme,” he murmured, but then stopped.  What could he possibly say?  She seemed to expect each utterance before its possibility even arose in his head, and yet, he didn’t know why, or how, or…why.

“You ought to be returning to your home,” she said.  “Dinner will be late unless you do.”

“They will not miss me.”

“The only one of us who believes that is you, William.”

So certain.  The word that sprang to his mind made him gulp as if swallowing it back down would make it disappear.

Foreordained.

“These things you say…”  He shook his head, stepping further away from her.  “It’s not possible for you to know what you…”  And just as if he were back in his room, struggling to find the correct phrase, the proper rhyme, his words failed him, leaving him pale and shaken.  Try again, he ordered himself.  You must try again. 

“I consider myself an intelligent man,” he started again.  “But…your observations leave me with questions I can’t answer.  Questions I didn’t realize existed.  Why is it you make these assertions I know with my head I have to deny?”

Miss Esme shook her head sadly.  “One of these days, you’ll learn that your mind is not your most valuable weapon.  Your young lady knows this already.”

“As I’ve told you already, I don’t have a young lady.”

“Then who is your poem for?  Your mother believes you wrote it for someone…special.”

William’s eyes scanned hers, searching for some sign of duplicity.  It was very possible for his mother to think such a thing, but he was surprised she would so readily share her thoughts with someone he couldn’t place as ever having been around their home.  “She’s not real,” he finally said, and was surprised at how much it hurt to admit that out loud.  “I was inspired by a dream.”

“Dreams have a way of becoming real,” Miss Esme said.  “Do you remember the Terence quote I asked you about that day you were writing on the banks?”

His eyes narrowed---Fortune favors the brave---and he slowly nodded.

“I shouldn’t be doing this.  Telling you, I mean.  But then again, maybe I was meant to.  Who can know?  Time isn’t stagnant.  It’s a raging river, flowing and surging and coming back onto itself when you least expect it.  But that’s a lesson for another day, I think.”  Slowly, she advanced and rested a wizened hand on his forearm as soon as she was within reach.

William started from the shock that leapt between them, his eyes like saucers behind his spectacles.  In the confines of his chest, his heart threatened to burst through his ribcage, the beginning of a fine sweat causing his collar to stick to the back of his neck.  “Who are you?” he whispered.  The name she shared was no longer sufficient.  Beyond his belief in the blue of the sky, in the power of the pen and such simple words as love and trust, he knew there was more to this woman than the casual acquaintance she claimed to share with his mother.

The thought then that she’d never actually stated as such, that her associations with his family had been made entirely in his head, did nothing to allay his certitude, and so he repeated, “Who are you?”

Esme smiled.  “A friend.”  Simple, quite nearly more direct than he’d expected.  And truth, he realized as his gaze remained frozen on her.  “And this friend thinks you should hurry along back to your mother’s party before she realizes you’ve gone.  You may consider your…someone special as illusory, but the effect she has on you is real, is it not?  And something tells me she would want to hear your work, should she be present.”

For a moment, he was no longer there.  For a moment, the clutches of the cooling London dusk released their hold on his flesh, and William stood in the radiant ambience of his nocturnal park, Buffy sitting on the bench before him, leaning back against her hands as she looked up into his face.  His heart lurched at what he imagined he saw there, that half-smile she often wore in his presence making her mouth delectably kissable, his own watering in response. 

Buffy wouldn’t be afraid.  Buffy would have the strength to go up to David Howard and tell him exactly where he could go, and then turn around and do whatever the hell she wanted, their reactions be damned.

If Buffy could do it, then so could he.

Buffy’s golden smile faded before him, to be replaced by the waiting visage of the elderly woman.  Her hand still rested on his arm, but when she saw him blink against the setting sun, she stepped back, shattering the last illusion to which he clung.

“Thank you,” William said simply, though what he was grateful for, he wasn’t entirely sure.  A small bow prefaced his departure, and he felt the air begin to cool the flush that had risen to his cheeks as he scurried back to the house.

Yes.  If Buffy could do it…

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

She didn’t know what they expected her to do about it.

Buffy’s simple powwow with the Council had segued into a daylong series of nightmarish meetings, bounding with enough tweed and stiff upper lips to make her walk away itching uncontrollably, while they tried to fathom out the reason her blood was on a century-old hanky.  Though she was just as eager for an explanation as they were, convincing Travers that she knew nothing about it was her first order of business.  She’d argued.  She’d threatened.  She’d tried walking out.  It had taken submitting to a truth spell that still had her feeling queasy before the Council Head was persuaded that she was being upfront with them about being just as in the dark as they were.

The story she had now was only slightly more detailed than the one Giles had shared.  In 1879, an alert had been sent out by Richard Rhodes-Fanshaw, then Head of the Council, demanding an immediate convening of the Council at an address outside of London none of them had recognized.  However, by the time the first Watcher had arrived, Rhodes-Fanshaw was lying semi-conscious across the threshold of the house, as if he’d been trying to crawl back inside to safety.  The handkerchief they now had in their possession had been pressed to the bleeding bites on his neck, and while copious amounts of vampire dust had been reported both on the site and on his clothing, no one else was found in the immediate vicinity.  Neither were any weapons.

He’d died just after the second Watcher’s arrival, directing them to the contents of a padded crate they hadn’t noticed on the porch and ordering it to be kept secure.  Both of the men who were at his side until his death reported his agitated ramblings, and while they didn’t completely mesh, enough overlapped so that they had somewhere to start their investigations.

The name of the man who’d delivered the crate.  David Howard.

The contents of the crate.  A dozen perfectly sculpted, crystal figurines, all female, radiating remnants of a spell so powerful it knocked out the witches they brought later to the scene.

The order that the figures be hidden and protected, no holds barred.

And a single word.  One that he kept repeating but whose significance was lost when Rhodes-Fanshaw finally slipped away.

April.

The board had assumed it was a deadline of some sort, that the owner of the figures would come to collect them in April, or that something tremendous would happen to them in that particular month.  But, as it was early July when the incident occurred, they could only wait until the following spring to see if their hypotheses were correct.

Nothing happened.

Just as nothing happened the following April.  Or the April after that.

And so they’d given up on that thread, especially since all their other attempts to learn more about the collection failed, and it had been relegated to an archive in Cambridge where it had sat gathering metaphorical dust until being stolen two weeks earlier by a group of vampires.

Buffy shifted in her seat, staring out the window of the car as the details of the story tumbled around inside her head.  Though they hadn’t said it out loud, she could tell that the Council was just as much at a loss as to what she should do as Giles was.  Her blood on an aged artifact had thrown all of them for a loop, and at that moment in time, she was most definitely the loopiest.  But such was her life.  If things weren’t loopy, she wouldn’t be the Slayer.

“We’re here,” came the quiet voice beside her.

Buffy glanced at the woman the Council had had accompany her back to the flat.  Actually, she’d been forced to stay at the Slayer’s side throughout the day, as if Travers thought having another female presence might make her more cooperative.  On more than one occasion, the Watcher---Lydia, she kept reminding herself, that was what Travers had called her in the conference room---had tried to initiate a conversation, but Buffy had shot her down.  She wasn’t there to be their friend; she just wanted to know what the hell was going on.

“Thanks for the lift,” Buffy said as the car eased to a stop at the curb.  Her hand was already on the handle when she felt the light pressure on her shoulder, prompting her to look back.

“May I have just…a moment of your time?” Lydia asked.

“You’ve had all my moments, all day long,” she complained, but relaxed back into the seat.

“This isn’t regarding the collection.  This is…more personal.”  Squirming slightly, her hands fidgeted in her lap as she continued.  “I’m hoping I can pick your brain, so to speak.”

“I think it’s all picked out.  You want a piece, you’ll have to pick up one of the scraps I left lying on the floor back at Watcher Central.  Right now, I just want to get upstairs and get some sleep.  Talking with you guys is more backbreaking than stopping an apocalypse.”

This time, she was stopped from exiting the car by a shuffle of papers from the briefcase near her feet.  “Here,” Lydia said, thrusting forward a small file.  “Just look it over.  If you could spare a few minutes before your next appearance with the Board, I’d appreciate your responses to the questionnaire I’ve prepared.”

Buffy frowned.  “What is this?”  Leaning toward the window, she tried angling the paperwork so that the streetlamp would illuminate it, and failed miserably.  “Is this the part where I find out you’re sneaking around behind Travers’ back and you want to offer me a deal to help you out with some evil and dastardly plan?”

“Oh, no, nothing quite as sinister as that,” Lydia replied, chuckling.  “It’s for my own research.  You’ve had personal experience with one of the most notorious and fascinating vampires in modern history.  I’m merely interested in gathering some firsthand knowledge to add to my studies.  I’m writing a book on him, you see.”

The last was said with a modest smile, but it did nothing to warm the chill that had settled around Buffy’s heart.  She closed the file and held it out.  “I’m not talking about Angel,” she said stiffly.  “Not to you, not to anyone.”

There was a moment of silence before Lydia’s eyes widened behind her glasses and she held up her hand to prevent taking back the file.  “I wasn’t referring to Angelus,” she said.  “My interest lies in William the Bloody.  You knew him as Spike, I believe?”

“Spike?”  It was the first time in months Buffy had given the bleached vampire any thought.  “He’s your fascinating vampire?”

“Oh yes!”  The floodgates opened, and for the first time that day, the Slayer watched the other woman become as animated as Willow on one of her caffeine jags.  “He’s quite the anomaly.  So charismatic, and yet he chooses to forge his own path oftentimes.  And then there’s the whole romance between him and Drusilla---.”

“Hold it.”  Buffy tossed the file onto the seat.  “OK, first of all, Spike and Drusilla?  Gross and evil and incredibly twisted.  Not romantic in the slightest.  And secondly, Spike’s just like any other vampire.  Looking out for number one and interested only in how high his body count is.”

“But that’s not entirely true.”  Picking up the file, Lydia opened it up and thrust it before Buffy’s eyes, pointing to various items as she spoke.  “William has always deviated from the traditional path.  On more than one occasion, he’s even contributed to the side of good, including your own battle last year, if I’m not mistaken.”

“He did that for purely selfish reasons.  His trampy girlfriend couldn’t keep her hands to herself, so Spike came to me so that I’d help him get rid of Angelus.”

“But William---.”

“Stop calling him that!”  Her vehemence surprised both of them, but Buffy was unwavering when Lydia pulled away.  “Look.  If you’ve got a jones for Spike, that’s your problem, not mine.  But I’m not going to help fuel your little fantasies.  He’s evil, remember?  There was a reason they called him William the Bloody.  I suggest you keep that in mind.”

She was out of the car before the Watcher could stop her, racing for the stairs and letting herself through the front door of the building with her borrowed keys.  It took seconds for her to realize her heart was hammering inside her chest, but why she’d be so flustered talking about Spike, Buffy had no idea.

OK, that was a lie.  She knew why she was upset.  And it didn’t have much to do with the issue of a blind Watcher’s obsession with a demonic sociopath.

It was the correlation of that name with himHer William.  The gentle poet who thought she was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen.  He was hers, damn it, and nobody else’s.

And she really needed to see him right about now.

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

Entering the dream was becoming easier and easier, and as she hurried down the stone path of the park, Buffy was grateful that for once, she was going to William without the awkward benefit of being hurt.  Without patrolling that night, she’d gone to bed with only a minor twinge in her ankle from the bite the night before, and though it still ached within the realm of the dream, it was infinitely easier to manage than a fresh injury for her brain to assimilate.

Her smile was ready as she rounded the familiar bend in the trail, but as soon as she saw the empty bench, it faded away, leaving her eyes burning and searching the countryside for him.  Had she beaten him here for a change?  But that never happened.  William was always the first to arrive, whether she came upon him or vice versa.  Had she finally stepped into a dream where he wasn’t going to show up at all?

Panic seized her throat, and Buffy whirled around as she scanned the horizon.  “William?” she called out.  She followed with her feet, her skirt swirling around her legs.  There was no sound but the distant gurgle of running water and the occasional birdsong drifting through the air, and it left her skin crawling in fear.

“William!” Buffy repeated, louder, more insistent.

Part of her felt ridiculous for coming apart at his non-appearance.  Only a dream, she scolded herself.  Not real, remember?

Except he felt real, and where everything else in her life was leaving her confused and wanting, William had provided an anchor she hadn’t expected.  Accepting her without question.  Admiring her without expectation.  She needed that so badly right now.

She heard it then, the softest of humming, and began running in its direction before she could consider that it might not even be him.  Legs pumping, her ankle protesting, Buffy raced across the grass toward the sound, her heart nearly exploding when she finally saw him clear a far knoll.

“William,” she said again, but this time only for her ears.  Before he could even look up, she tackled him to the soft ground, rolling with him as her arms clung to his shoulders.

“Buffy?” he asked, and then grunted in pain as her elbow accidentally jabbed into his side.  Keeping his fingers curled around whatever they held, his hands settled on her hips, forcing her to still as she came to a stop directly on top of him.  She could feel him tense beneath her, but didn’t loosen her grip, hugging him close as she pressed her ear to his chest.

“Where the hell were you?” she demanded.  Her voice was slightly muffled by his shirt.  “You weren’t on the bench.  I was getting worried you weren’t going to show.”

“I was too excited to sit,” he said.  “I went wandering and found these.”  His hand vanished from her hip and a spray of half-crushed lilies of the valley suddenly appeared before her eyes.  “I thought they’d look lovely in your hair.”

“Oh.”  A smile began to soften her mouth as she reached to stroke the tiny bells.  “That’s so sweet.”

William cleared his throat.  “Not that…I’m not delighted you missed me,” he said, “but perhaps…”  He squirmed beneath her weight, and for the first time, Buffy felt the growing length of his erection pressing into her stomach.

“Sorry,” she said, scrambling away from his length.  Sitting down on the grass next to him, she looked up to see William prop himself up, his excitement now hidden by the white fabric of his shirt.  It still glowed on his face, though, his cheeks pink, his breath quick.  Even his eyes seemed darker behind…

Buffy froze.  “Can you do me a favor?” she breathed.  His head tilted in expectation as he waited for her to ask it, and the knot in her stomach tightened.  “Take off your glasses.”

He did as she asked, laying the broken buds along the green before doing so.  As he folded them up, his gaze lifted to meet hers, and the curious glint in the dark blue only served to bother her further.

“You’re not squinting.”

“Because I can see.  They’re merely reading glasses.”  The amusement that had lingered on his face dissolved, to be replaced with a growing concern.  “What’s wrong?”

Her response was to stretch out her hand and run a tremulous finger across his smooth brows.  “You don’t have a scar,” she murmured, not really talking to him.  “I wonder why I did that.”

“Did what?”  The unease was in his voice now, and he reached up to take her hand in his, pulling it away from his face.  “I don’t understand what’s going on.  Are you all right?”

“Say ‘bloody hell.’”

“Pardon?”

“Say ‘bloody hell,’” she repeated, and looked up into the face that was growing more familiar by the second.  How could I not have seen this, she wondered, but when she saw the hesitation lurking behind his eyes, she softened her request with a small smile and a soft, “Please?”

When it came, it lacked the conviction she’d heard so many times before, but the cadences were the same.  A bubble of laughter rose in Buffy’s throat and she dropped her head to her bent knees, wrapping her arms around her legs as her shoulders began to shake from her hysterical amusement.

Way to go, Buffy.  Put the face of the only William you’ve ever known on your favorite dream and don’t even realize it until you’re already hooked on him.

She could feel his eyes on her, and knew she must look like some kind of loon, just laughing for no apparent reason.  But she couldn’t stop, not when the whole thing was so absurd.  “Let me guess,” she panted between giggles.  “You know a David Howard, too, don’t you?”

His sharp intake of breath was followed immediately by the disappearance of his shadow, and when Buffy lifted her head to see what he’d done, she just caught the swipe William made at his eyes before slipping his glasses back onto his nose.

“Why are you doing this?”  He couldn’t even meet her gaze, but there was no mistaking the pain in his tone.

It sliced through her agitation more effectively than having a bucket of cold water tossed over her head.  He might look like Spike in a roundabout way, and he might sound like Spike, but this was a patented William response, through and through.  So what if her subconscious was taking all the details of her day and slapping them together in some weird dream?  That’s what dreams were supposed to be all about in the first place; she’d just forgotten that in the rush of falling for William---.

Oh, god.  I can’t be.  He’s not even real.

But his distress seemed all too real, and it made Buffy ache to know that she was the source of it.  Immediately, she was on her feet, her hand on his arm as she tried to get him to face her.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I didn’t mean to laugh.  It’s just…I’ve only just figured out who you remind me of, and…”  Her words trailed away when she realized he wasn’t really listening to her.  “It’s kind of funny, if you think about it,” she finished lamely.  Except not.  Not anymore.

“And so now I’m an object of ridicule.  Thank you for clarifying that.”  Pain was replaced by bitterness, but he still refused to look at her, choosing instead to start marching stiffly back toward the path.

“Stop it!”  Jerking him to a halt, Buffy tugged him around so that he was forced to face her, exerting what strength was necessary to ensure he didn’t go away.  “Look, turning into Chuckles the Clown back there was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but running away from me when I want to talk about it doesn’t exactly make you Mensa material, either, bub.  Take it from me.  These kind of opportunities, where I’m ready and willing to take my place on the shrink’s couch, come along once in a blue moon.  Maybe even once in a purple moon.  So, throwing it away?  Kind of dumb.”

He regarded her in silence, his body wound like steel coils beneath her grip, and as the seconds stretched into a full minute, Buffy relaxed her hands, sliding them from his arms to press lightly against his chest.  Beneath her palms, his pulse galloped in a syncopation that made her ears pound, and she felt herself swallow as her mouth suddenly went dry.

“How do you know David Howard?” William finally asked, his voice expressionless even when his eyes were not.

“How do you?” she shot back.

“He’s an…acquaintance of mine.”  He stopped and waited for her response.

Of course he is.  Pull the name associated with vampires from my subconscious and slap it up with the vampire face I’ve put on the William of my dreams.  Makes perfect sense.

“Mine’s just a name that came up today with my slaying stuff,” she replied, and then shook her head.  “It’s probably not even the same guy or anything.  It’s kind of a common name, don’t you think?”

His eyebrow quirked, and the flash of déjà vu that flooded her senses suddenly made sense.  It was such a Spike-ism, but where on the vampire it would’ve seemed mocking, on William it was merely curious.  I missed this…how?

“It seems rather coincidental,” he commented, but his tone was no longer flat, some of the life returning to his words. 

“Well, yeah,” she conceded.  “Mine killed a boatload of vampires protecting a mystical crystal collection, which probably did something like save the world.  What did yours do?”

William snorted, relaxing even more.  “Nothing quite so altruistic,” he said.  His eyes dropped to her hands that still rested on his chest before slowly lifting his right to cover them.  “May I ask what amused you so?”  A whisper almost, like he was afraid to ask but couldn’t resist the question.  “Have I…done something that would…provoke such a response?”

“It’s not you.  God, William, it’s never you.  Can’t you see that?”

“But you were…laughing.  And the odd requests.  I’m afraid…”  He took a deep breath, and tried again.  “When people ask things of me, I’ve found I don’t necessarily come out the other side completely unscathed.”  His thumb caressed the back of her hand, though she didn’t think that he was even aware he was doing it.  “It was such a trying night, but I got through it because I envisioned you believing in me.  I’d hate to think I was merely a passing fancy for you.  Just a…diversion to entertain.”

“If that was the case, why would I keep coming back here?”  There was truth to his words---some, at least---but there was no way Buffy would vocalize them and hurt the gentle young man even more.  He was a diversion, one she’d obviously made to distract herself from the yuck factor that was her real life, but that was her rationale when she was awake. 

When she slept, when she was here, in the park, in his presence, talking and sharing and just being with him, William Freston the man was all that mattered.  And if she had to repeat that in every single one of the dreams until he finally believed her, she would.

“You said you got through whatever ordeal you had tonight because of me?”  She waited for him to nod.  “Because you pretended I believe in you.”  Another nod, this one slightly more hesitant.  “You weren’t pretending, William.”

It was the first time she’d seen the light in his eyes since rolling off of him.  With just those few words, a shutter lifted from whatever he’d been hiding behind, and the innocent delight she normally associated with him began to glimmer through.  “You never cease to surprise me, Miss---.”

“Buffy.”

He was momentarily rattled by her interruption.  “What was that?”

“No more ‘Miss Buffy.’  Can’t you just…call me Buffy?  That wouldn’t break you, would it?”

“You don’t think it would be improper?”

She smiled.  “You don’t see me calling you Mr. William, do you?”

His answering smile was sheepish.  “Well, no.  But…wouldn’t that be suggestive of a more…intimate relationship…Buffy?”

It was as if he was testing her, using her name without its more formal title, and she met the wary blue with an assurance that surprised her.  “You’re a good man, William Freston,” she murmured.  Before the pleasure had registered in his eyes, she was on her tiptoes, her lips brushing across his jaw, her nostrils filled with the healthy scent of his skin.  Buffy’s eyes fluttered closed as she settled her cheek against his, her mouth hovering just below his ear.  “And I am honored to be in any relationship with you.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 10: Toward Thee I’ll Run