DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXXXIV.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has learned from Travers that Esme works for the Council, but in light of not getting any new plans to rescue Giles, has left the Council building; meanwhile, a visit from Richard Rhodes-Fanshaw has William about to visit the Council of his time…
Each clack of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones pounded with growing ferocity in William’s skull, every pace nearing and fearing until the anticipated building appeared outside his window. Exactly as Buffy had professed, just as she’d been correct about so much else. You expected less? a little voice niggled at the back of his mind.
Bowing his head, he clenched his jaw in a desperate attempt to brace his weakening resolve. It was one thing to face down the persecutors of his youth; it was another to endure the potential ire of a man who had the power of one of the most cogent organizations he’d ever heard of behind him. In his lap, his palms were clammy where he clenched them in white-knuckled apprehension, and William suspected his brow must be shiny with sweat beneath the curls that refused to obey his brush’s order. I am the exemplification of guilt, he thought with more than a little disgust. How can I hope to be strong for Buffy if I can’t even be strong for myself?
As the carriage drew to a stop, Richard said, “Relax, William. The spell is completely harmless. You have nothing to fear, unless, of course, you’re lying to me.”
He lifted his head to gaze at his companion, managing a
feeble smile at the same time. “Of
course,” William replied. The calmness
of his voice surprised him. “You must
understand, though, that this is all still a bit…overwhelming for me.”
“As it should be.” The elder man disembarked first, waiting until the younger was halfway out before asking, “If I may be so pre-emptive…how is it you know of the Slayer?”
Its effect was exactly as planned, visibly startling William to the point of stumbling over the last step. His left knee cracked against the walk when he fell, his glasses slipping from his nose, and he cried out in pain as he grabbed onto the coach.
“You should really be more careful,” Richard said calmly, extending his hand in assistance.
For a moment, he hesitated at the offer, and then took it with a heavy sigh. “You must be very good in your position,” William said, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his hands. “I hadn’t anticipated any more inquiries until after we’d gone inside.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes I fear I’m not quite good enough.” He paused, eyes wary. “And you’re avoiding my question.”
He’d spent the entire carriage ride wondering how he could circumvent direct responses regarding Buffy, and though the query itself had taken him by surprise, William was actually prepared with an explanation. “You mentioned Watchers. They go hand in hand with Slayers, do they not?”
“The short answer to that is yes.” With a tilt of his head, he motioned for William to follow him into the building. “But it doesn’t tell me how you know of Watchers.”
“Someone I care about is quite close to one. She spoke vaguely of his duties when I asked her.”
Richard paused at the entrance. “Would this be that…Buffy you mentioned?”
“Yes.” No reason to prevaricate. If he so chose, the Watcher would be more than aware of the truth in just a few minutes. William cleared his throat, ready to attempt to change the subject. “Does my need for an alias mean the spell will be done in the presence of your entire staff?”
He shook his head. “No,” Richard replied. “It’s merely a safety measure. My seer will be doing the spell. She and I will be the only two people you should be in contact with here.”
“You can do that?” he asked as he followed him inside. “In an organization such as yours, how do you keep such business private?”
“This is my Council. They know only what I want them to know.”
He ignored her until she spoke up, concentrating instead on the file before him and remembering his encounter with the Slayer. It hadn’t ended as he’d anticipated; of course, her arrival with news of Rupert’s disappearance was yet another anomaly in their quest to discover what Esme knew of the crystal collection. The entire affair had the sticky feeling of moving beyond his control, but Quentin Travers was determined not to loosen his grip. It was his responsibility to stay on top of things; this was just another bend in the road for him.
“Do you have any further instructions, sir?” Lydia queried from where she hovered in the library doors.
“Has Miss Summers left?”
He nodded. “Have the men been dispatched to follow her?”
“Four, just as you requested.”
There was no need to respond to that, and he turned back to his reading, listening to her heels brush against the floor as she fidgeted in her place. He let her stew for several minutes before saying, “You may say what’s on your mind, Lydia.”
It came out in a rush. “You told the Slayer about the coven, about Esme, didn’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer as they both knew it already. “Do you really think that’s wise? It will only serve to make her angrier than she already is.”
Travers swiveled clear eyes toward his employee, regarding her with an even stare without speaking. When he didn’t reply, she frowned in frustration, only to have it melt away as slow understanding dawned on her face.
“But…but…aren’t you afraid of what she might do?” she asked, finally comprehending his tactics. “She’s a wild card. She could…she might hurt someone. Aren’t your frightened of the potential repercussions?”
“Neither one of us believe that will happen,” he said smoothly. “Yes, she is dangerous, and yes, she wields her anger as a weapon more effectively than any other Slayer I’ve seen in recent years. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Buffy Summers over the course of her tenure, it’s this. She will fight to protect those she loves to her dying breath. With Rupert in danger, the only one to be threatened by the Slayer at this juncture is Esme. As it should be.”
He caught her frown as he turned away. “What about the men you’ve sent to track her?” she asked. “You know how she feels---.”
“They’ve been apprised of her skills,” Quentin said. “If they get caught, it’s their own fault, now isn’t it?” Her dissatisfaction was clear in the shuffling of her feet, but she remained silent as he listened to her prepare to leave. “Lydia?” he asked, turning once again to look at the blonde.
“Yes, sir?” She hesitated on the library side of the door, a finely manicured hand poised on the knob.
“Your permission to question my authority on this matter is revoked the moment you step foot outside this room. Is that understood?”
A long silence, ending with her perfunctory nod. “Yes, sir.”
Under other circumstances, William would’ve been drowning in pleasure at the sight of the library to which he was led. Books, upon books, upon wonderful books, lined the dark walls, with the long table down the center of the room perfect for reading. Plush leather chairs surrounding it only beckoned with more promises of decadent hours spent in the luxury of words. There were no windows, as if sunlight would distract the reader with its beauty, but the shadows only made the room seem even more cozy. It almost set him completely at ease.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, William quickly realized they weren’t alone in the room. At the far end of the table, a white head was bent over a text, but it tilted upward to reveal the kindest face he’d ever envisioned, a hesitant smile broadening at the sight of Richard.
“I was beginning to think you were never going to return,” she said lightly. When she rose to her feet, William saw with a start that the woman easily matched his height, her stride strong and confident in spite of her advancing years. Time had filled out already ample curves, but her size did nothing to detract from the supple grace as she moved, and were it not for his breeding and close attention to such matters, he was certain he would’ve stared with dropped jaw at her appearance as she approached.
Instead of a skirt, she wore trousers, much like a man, much like Buffy had said was done by women in her time. Her white hair, thick and lush, was pulled into a single plait that hung down her back, and her opaque eyes, such a dark brown that they seemed almost black, twinkled as they met his.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure,” she said curiously.
He bowed at the waist. Now was the time to practice his assumed identity, much as he may hate it. “David Howard, ma’am.”
“Are you a new associate of Richard’s?” the woman asked.
The Watcher shook his head, though it seemed to be directed at both of them. “His name is actually William Freston,” he said, and then turned to the young man. “There’ll be no need for your alias with Rose. She is---.”
“Is he in danger? Is that why you’ve brought him here?”
Her questions were rapid, the softness of her voice lost in what appeared to be genuine confusion. As William watched, the pair faced off, the comfortable air wrapped around them electrifying in the sudden tension. “I brought him to you to be questioned,” Richard said, seemingly perplexed at her forceful response to the truth.
“But why? He’s an innocent.”
“Don’t be taken in by his appearance.”
“I’m not referring to his appearance.”
“He knows of the Council.”
She fell silent, black eyes sliding to William in an appraising sweep. It was more probing than any scrutiny he’d ever encountered before, not in uni, not from his mother. Truth be told, the only other person who’d regarded him so intently before was Buffy. And Miss Esme. And it made him want to squirm.
“He’s an innocent,” she finally repeated, and looked back to Richard. “There is no reason for us not to trust his word. Don’t tell me you don’t see it.”
“I did. I just…” The Watcher sighed, suddenly appearing his age as his shoulders sagged.
She responded instantly, stepping up to him and pulling him into a warm embrace, her hands stroking his back with a soothing coo that set both men at ease. “You wanted him to be the answer,” she murmured. “It’s all right. Everything will be all right.”
The intimacy was beginning to make William feel uncomfortable, and he averted his eyes at the obvious display of affection. In many ways, her direct attitude reminded him remarkably of Buffy, but if this was Rhodes-Fanshaw’s seer, it left questions as to the exact nature of their relationship.
“My husband didn’t scare you too badly, did he?” Her voice made his head jerk up to see her gazing at him, her arms still around Richard though he know seemed embarrassed at the spectacle they were presenting.
“Your…husband?” William stammered. “I thought…you said only you and your seer---.”
“That’s me,” Rose said. “It makes him trusting what I have to say much easier, believe me.”
“And you…I don’t understand…not that I’m not grateful to be…” He trailed off, unable to vocalize the clamor of questions her statements brought forth. “Does this mean you’re not doing the truth spell?” he finally managed.
Rose turned to look at Richard in shock. “You wanted me to do a truth spell on the boy?” she demanded. “Why on earth would you want to go to such extremes?”
“He knows of the Council,” the Watcher reiterated, though this time much less emphatically. He finally extracted himself from her arms. “He has information, I’m sure of it. He may be able to tell me something that could help.”
She rested a calming hand on his forearm. “And so you ask, like a civilized person. I promise you, Richard, as sure as I was of the temporal folds around his home, this young man is of no threat to us.” The smile she shot William was warm. “I’m afraid that this April business is my husband’s Holy Grail. Or Sword of Damocles, depending upon your perspective. He tends to be rather single-minded in his pursuit of her.”
William merely nodded, confused by the reference to a woman Rhodes-Fanshaw had never mentioned. His head was a mishmash, relief at his release from the fetters of the truth spell combining with the queries his changing situation kept throwing at him. He didn’t dare ask, though. Answers would be coming soon enough.
“You look as if you could use a drink.” Rose was moving away as she spoke, and with her back to both men, William found it impossible to determine whom she was addressing. “Whisky, I know, for Richard, but for William…?” She paused at the doorway, a searching glance at him over her shoulder ending with the upturn of her mouth.
“Tea will be fine, ma’am,” he offered.
“Pish.” She dismissed his suggestion with a wrinkling of her nose. “Not nearly hearty enough. Something with more substance, I think.” She brightened as if suddenly surprised with the most brilliant idea. “I know the weather may predicate otherwise, but I believe hot cocoa is in order. For both of us.” And with that, she was gone.
She had all the best friend accoutrements ready when she heard Buffy at the door. Fresh pastries from the bakery, ice cream in the freezer, diet sodas chilling in the fridge. Now all Willow needed to find was the nerve to actually confront the Slayer about the journal. For some reason, that was proving hardest to locate.
Her hopes plummeted when she saw Buffy appear at the entrance of the living room. Gone was the unadulterated good mood from breakfast. Now, she wore the all-too familiar grim reaper face the Slayer wore every time she had to deal with the Council.
“Not so good, huh?” she said as Buffy flopped onto the couch.
“Would it surprise you to hear they were holding back on us?” She waggled her fingers in greeting. “Say hello to Buffy, the Witch Baiter.”
The mention of magic made Willow pale. “What did you find out?” she asked, her voice thin. “Does the Council know who’s behind everything?”
“Kind of. In a way.” Briefly, she relayed what she’d learned about Esme’s involvement in the Council’s coven, and how they’d only been interested in having Buffy search for her because they felt the witch’s obsession with the Slayer line would prove her downfall. “And to top it all off,” she finished, “they have absolutely no ideas on how we can get Giles back.”
“But they think she took him.”
“Either her or the vamps she’s working with.” Her nose scrunched up in thought. “He told me her name, and for some reason, it’s tiptoeing right on that line in my brain where I wanna remember where I heard it before, but I just can’t, you know? It’s bugging the heck out of me.”
“What was it?”
Willow was positive her heart literally stopped for a beat. Esme. That was the name of the clerk at the book store. The store where Buffy bought the journal. The woman who told Willow about the sleeping spell to help her friend. The woman Giles had never heard of when the redhead brought her up later.
Treading on the safer side of caution about the topic of William was no longer an option, she realized. “I think we might have a problem,” she said, and waited for Buffy’s weary gaze to turn away from the pastry she was flaking pieces off of. “I used the rod this morning.”
It was as if a light was turned on inside her friend. “Did it work? Tell me it worked.” Buffy sat forward on the edge of her seat. “I so need good news right now.”
Willow nodded. “I’m going to say yes,” she replied. Reaching under the coffee table, she extracted the stick and handed it over, watching as the Slayer tested its weight, waving it around like a small child playing witch. “It’s probably not going to work again, though. I think it got burned out or something.”
“But that means you’ve got enough of the magic to break through whatever barrier spell Esme put up, right? We can use it to find Giles?”
She hated that Buffy sounded so hopeful all of a sudden. She hated even more that she was going to have to be the one to burst her bubble. “Not really,” Willow admitted, and ducked out of the way when one of the Slayer’s swipes of the stick moved a little too close to her face. “I never actually left the apartment.”
Buffy froze. “The magic was here? But that proves she took Giles, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t find it near any of Giles’ things.” She swallowed, her mouth too dry to work properly. “I found it near yours. Well, kind of yours.” At Buffy’s confusion, she added, “The rod shorted out on William’s journal.”
She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. “Huh?”
It was Willow’s turn to play storyteller, though she wished that sometimes Buffy wouldn’t blank so completely when confronted with such a blatant statement of fact. When she was done, she bit her lip, dreading her next question. “Have you been…dreaming about this guy?” she asked, green eyes searching her best friend’s for any sign of cover-up. “Because there’s all this talk about his dreamgirl having the same type of dreams he was.”
“Not every night,” Buffy said, but under Willow’s direct gaze, she faltered. “Well, most of the nights, yeah, but...” She collapsed back into the cushions, all adrenaline sapped from her limbs with this new information. “He’s real,” she murmured to herself. “I can’t believe he’s actually real.”
“I’m not so sure he is,” Willow rushed to say. “I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now that you tell me this about Esme and the Council, I’m thinking there’s another explanation for this.”
“Like what? There’s a book in there as old as Methusaleh talking about me. That sounds about as real as you can get.”
“Not if the book’s not real.” She was getting excited now, some of the fear about the situation dissipating as she began to put the pieces together. “You said the Council used you for bait, right? Because Esme has a Slayer fixation?”
“So, what if she decided when she found out you were in town, instead of trying to take you on directly, she’d just distract you until she was done with whatever she’s planning on doing with the crystals?”
Pause. “Go on.”
“So she makes a book, a journal, about a guy who you’d respond to, who you’d feel all…sympathetic with, because it sounds like he’s going through some of the same things you are. Not that I know what that is,” she hastened to add at Buffy’s sudden alarm. “But the way some of his entries were worded…” How do I say this without getting into some of the more private issues? “…it sounded like you two…bonded over certain things. Like he understood you and you understood him. Simpatico.”
She wasn’t completely buying the theory, but Willow could see that the idea of William being real freaked Buffy out even more than the possibility of being the target of a carefully crafted spell. She went on. “So, Esme plants the book where you’ll find it, and then sits back and hopes that’s enough to keep you from digging into the crystal sitch.”
“But…I don’t get how it’s distracting me. I’m still on the clock in trying to figure out what’s going on.”
OK, back on thin ice again. Willow took a deep breath. “You’re a little distracted,” she said carefully. “Like…last night? With the wanting me to make you tea? Don’t you think that shows---just a little!---that maybe you’re thinking more about this William and less about Giles? I mean, look at what a good mood you were in this morning, and you didn’t dream about him last night, right? So…see? Her plan is working…kind of.”
A shadow passed over Buffy’s face. “But I did dream about William,” she said softly. “And it was because of things he said to me in the dream that I woke up so good moody.”
“But…you couldn’t. You didn’t have any…”
Both girls reached the conclusion at the same time, but it was Buffy who spoke first. “It’s the tea, isn’t it?” she said. Her tone was even and deceptively calm, but it still managed to send shivers down Willow’s spine. “You did something to the tea.”
“I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I thought it was just to help you sleep. And you were getting so rested! I honestly thought I was…helping.” She paused. “You had some left over, didn’t you? And the reason you’re not dreaming of him every night is because I haven’t made the tea for you every night. Oh my god. What have I done?”
They both sat in silence, mulling over the ramifications of what each had learned. She wouldn’t every say it out loud, but a place deep inside Willow was hurt from the understanding that Buffy was getting comfort, being helped through this difficult period in her life, by someone who wasn’t her. By a stranger. That someone constructed completely of magic and the Slayer’s imagination was capable of soothing her in a way that Willow wasn’t. It was kind of a blow to the best friend ego. Wasn’t that her primary purpose? And why was it that Buffy felt she couldn’t share it with her?
Buffy broke the quiet first. “It’s almost a relief, in a way,” she said softly. “That he’s definitely not…real. Not that I thought he was, except…the way I always felt when I woke up…like everything was OK. That was real. He just makes it so easy to lo---like him.”
Willow caught the almost slip, and frowned, hearing the words come from her friend’s mouth, but not really believing them. There was an ache that echoed in every syllable, more than a shadow of the pain that had been so prevalent before they’d left Sunnydale lurking in and around each letter as she spoke. “How is it a relief?” she asked, just as softly. Because it didn’t sound like it was.
“Because if he’s real, then I have to start considering why he looks like he does, and that’s just a bad, bad place for Buffy.”
“Why? What does he look like?”
Now, she looked uncomfortable. “Spike.”
“Spike?” A split second later the name sank in, and Willow’s eyes went wide. “Spike?!?” she repeated, shaken out of her mood by the shock.
“Yeah. Talk about being weird when I realized. Not with the bleach job and leather, of course,” Buffy added at the obvious confusion I her friend’s face. “Much, much, much more Victorian, with this…curly hair, and glasses. And his accent is different, too. More…smooth.”
“I guess that’s just more proof then that Esme made him up,” Willow said.
“Because all the Council records said that Spike was some kind of psycho or criminal or something when he was alive,” she explained. “Remember? We found that out in the research we did when he showed up in town. And this…William is a gentleman, by the sounds of it. Very non-Spike-like.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Willow saw the thoughts ticking in Buffy’s eyes, so when the next came, she wasn’t really all that surprised.
“So…since he’s not really real, and I think it’s pretty obvious the Big Plan of Distraction isn’t working,” Buffy said, though she wasn’t meeting her friend’s gaze as she played with the nap of the couch, “William’s not actually a threat…is he?”
She didn’t know what to say, and it broke her heart to see the Slayer seem so small. “Don’t,” Willow finally managed. “You shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. Haven’t I screwed things up enough already?”
“But it’s not, not really. I know what’s going on now, and aren’t you and Giles the ones always saying that knowledge is power?” The tiny smile she’d been forcing faded. “He makes me feel good about things again, Willow. Being with him is so…easy. Because he doesn’t expect anything. I don’t have to be strong if I don’t want to, but he doesn’t treat me like I’m going to break every second, either. He just…he makes me remember why it’s all worth it in the first place.”
“But he’s not real.”
“But the way he makes me feel is. Please, Willow. It’s not doing any harm, and I’m getting more and more capable of dealing with everything on my own every day. What’s it going to hurt?”
The world seemed washed in honey, the sun lower on the horizon than usual. In the treetops, the faint rustling of leaves was broken by the sporadic call of birdsong, cleaving the blue skies with its delicate music before settling back into serenity again, while the almost indistinguishable whistle of the wind spoke of secrets long forgotten.
On the bench, the paper lay forgotten, the edges curling to wave into the breeze, as if they were attempting to escape the prison created by the inks resting on their centers. The footsteps when they came seemed to excite them further, when the young man sitting at their side rose to his feet.
“Hello, Buffy,” he said softly.
She smiled. “Hello, William.”
To be continued in Chapter 15: The Fairest and Most Precious Jewel…