DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: William has been questioned by Rose, leading him to question what he knows of Esme and the seer and subsequently flee, Giles has come to in some unknown whereabouts, and April and Nathan have shown up in 1879 London…
It wasn’t giddy, take-on-the-world Buffy from only twenty-four hours earlier that sat next to Willow on the swaying Underground, but it was pretty darn close. Ever since the Slayer had emerged from the shower so freshly scrubbed she seemed to glow, she had been Little Miss Chatterbox, bantering lightly over breakfast and then shifting into problem-solving mode with a verbal ease Willow hadn’t witnessed in months. She even spoke of William, briefly and with obvious affection, as if nothing was amiss in her doing so. Though she revealed no details of her most recent encounter, there was no mistaking the positive effects it had had on Buffy, and Willow couldn’t help but wonder just what had happened within the dream.
“Are you sure I can’t use your magic rod doohickey on the bookstore guy?” Buffy pleaded, not for the first time since they’d left the flat. They were on the way to the bookstore where Willow had encountered Esme. Since that was the only place she’d been seen, and since Buffy wasn’t willing to try the Council again just yet, she had hit upon the plan to go pay Charles, Giles’ friend who owned the bookshop, a little visit to see what he knew about the elderly witch. The way Buffy figured it, he had to have something on Esme in order to leave his business in her hands, and it was logic with which Willow just couldn’t argue.
She could, however, argue the point of beating any information out of him. “You wanna leave me with itty bitty magic matchsticks?” Willow said, slapping at the hand Buffy kept stealing in the direction of the bag that sat between them. “I told you, I’m not sure what’ll happen to the magic it soaked up if it gets broken.”
“What if I promise not to break it? I’ll give you my extra-special Slayer warranty of carefulness that I always give Giles. My personal guarantee to return weapons in A-one condition. It even comes with an optional post-slay polish if you want, free of charge.”
She couldn’t help but grin at the joke. “You forget, I’ve seen the state of the weapons locker after just one of your training sessions. You can’t fool me with your pretty promises, missy. I’m not as gullible as Giles.” At Buffy’s arched eyebrows, she protested, “I’m not!”
“I just hope Charles gives us something we can use,” the Slayer said. “The longer Giles is missing, the more unhappy it makes me.”
“Well, we can’t have that. I’m just getting used to having Happy Buffy around again.” As soon as it came out of her mouth, Willow realized her mistake, and saw the shutters come down behind Buffy’s eyes. She silently chastised herself, but held her tongue as she waited for whatever response her friend would have.
“You’re probably right about the stick,” Buffy said, changing the subject. Her tone was quieter, more introspective, and Willow knew her window for normalcy had just officially been closed. It was back to business now, and she would just have to wait it out until the next mood swing came around in her direction again. “You should talk to him first since you were the one who dealt with Esme the first time. Maybe he’ll tell us what we want without having to resort to force.”
“Maybe.” The train began to ease to a squeaky stop, and Willow glanced through the window behind them to see the station sign. “This is us,” she said, rising.
Waiting for the doors to open, she almost didn’t hear Buffy when the Slayer spoke up behind her. “I’m sorry,” Buffy said quietly. “About the mood thing. But it’s getting better. Honest.”
“I didn’t mean---,” she started as they exited the train.
“I know. And I know you want only the best for me.” A single slide of the Slayer’s eyes to catch her friend’s was all she allowed herself. “Just…don’t try so hard, OK? It’s easier if…it’s just easier if you don’t.”
Willow nodded in accordance as they pressed their way through the crowds towards the stairs. She hated being left out of what was going on inside Buffy’s head. She just hoped that the dream-friend William could get into the corners where Willow couldn’t reach.
He punched the number into his mobile phone as he watched the two girls disappear into the bookstore, no longer bothering to hide behind the newspaper he’d held on the train. “They just went into the Little Dickens bookstore on Charing Cross,” he said as soon as the other end was picked up.
“Hang on,” came Lydia’s voice. As he listened to her tap away at her computer, his eyes darted over the crowds milling around the Underground exit, noting the other members of his team situated strategically along the street. Each was dressed as innocuously as possible, per Mr. Travers’ instructions, and Stuart was more than a little chuffed that they’d managed to elude the Slayer’s detection so far. He’d been warned about her disregard for the Council and her disdain for anything resembling authority, so avoiding direct contact with her this long already was a worthwhile achievement, he believed.
“Oh,” he heard Lydia say.
“What is it?”
“You said…the Little Dickens bookstore?”
“Yes. Something significant about that?”
“It’s owned and operated by Charles Armistead. He and Rupert Giles have quite an extensive history.”
“That’s the Slayer’s Watcher, right? The one that’s missing?”
“Yes.” There was a pause, and the distinct sound of a door opening and closing. “Hold on for a moment, Stuart, will you, please?”
There was no mistaking the fact that she was talking to someone who had just entered the room, though both voices were muffled as if Lydia had her hand over the receiver. After a long moment, there was an electronic click and Stuart realized she’d placed him on speakerphone.
“I have new instructions for you, Stuart.”
“Are we giving up on the Slayer?”
“Not exactly. Mr. Travers is of the opinion that if Miss Summers considers Mr. Armistead worthy of a visit, perhaps we should question him before she can. You and your team are to prevent her from speaking to Mr. Armistead and instead bring him into Headquarters for interrogation.”
Stuart’s stomach fell. “She’s already inside,” he said in a fervent attempt to get out of the new plan. “I go in, and she’s going to know she’s being followed. I thought Mr. Travers wanted this to be a covert operation.” She’ll probably boot me into the New Year at the same time, he added silently. Just wonderful.
“I’ve changed my mind.” Stuart silently winced at the Council Head’s voice. “It’s more important we learn what is so valuable about Mr. Armistead. My suggestion is that you distract the Slayer and her friend while the rest of your team apprehends him.”
“No offense, sir, but how exactly do you think I should do that?”
He could almost see Quentin Travers smiling. “They’re eighteen-year-old girls, and you’re a reasonably attractive young fellow, Stuart. I imagine you can figure out the rest.” And with that, the line went dead.
It felt weird being back, knowing what she did about the book she’d bought there on her first visit. As she and Willow lingered near a display at the front of the store, watching the burly back of the clerk on duty as he helped out with a customer, Buffy had to fight the urge to descend into the bowels of the shop once again, to return to the dusty home of William’s journal. It was hard to think of it as all make-believe, that someone who didn’t know her from Adam could create a man who seemed to understand instinctively the way her mind worked, but of course, it was the make-believe that made her bravado during their last encounter completely possible.
He’d been so delightful, insecure and stumbling when they’d first started, and then growing in confidence and pluck as the dream progressed. Every time he touched her, something else seemed to open up inside, passion she’d long thought dead reawakening from its enforced hibernation, and the thought that maybe she wasn’t a curse after all, that maybe she had something to offer to the right man that was more than some ill-fated romantic interlude destined to drive him from her, had given Buffy the courage to persuade William’s attentions even further.
The traditional lovemaking had progressed into more adventurous territory when she’d forced him to lie back on the grass without touching her. His eyes had grown ever wider as she set out to taste every inch of his skin, and the moment her tongue had darted over the tip of his straining erection, he’d exploded with a wrenching shout. Afterwards, he hadn’t even been able to meet her eyes as he started to mumble an apology.
She’d silenced him with her mouth, kissing him deeply as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Stop saying you’re sorry,” Buffy had breathed when she broke away.
“But…you must find me quite ignoble in succumbing to such a base instinct,” William had stammered.
“I was the one using you as my own personal lollipop,” she’d countered. “Shouldn’t your logic make me the whatchamacallit one here?”
“But you’re not. You’re the most lovely---.”
She’d laughed and stopped his poetic speech with another kiss. “Did you at least like it?” she asked, suddenly shy.
His hand came up to stroke the soft curve of her cheek. “Every time you touch me, I wonder how it is possible that I have gone so long without knowing such pleasure,” William said. “And then I realize, it must be because I was waiting for you to be the one with whom I could share it.”
She’d wanted to tease him about such a romantic notion, but quelled the instinct, knowing that any slight of his nature would only bruise his still-fragile ego. Instead, Buffy nestled onto his chest, pressing her ear against the smooth skin to listen to his heartbeat, and said, “If there was anything you wanted to do, all you’d have to do is ask, you know that, right?”
The slight hesitation before he spoke made her smile. “We have all the time in the world for that, my love. For now, I think I’d just like to hold you for a bit.”
When she’d woken, sticky and sweaty from having orgasmed in her sleep, the initial embarrassment Buffy had felt had dissipated in the soothing balm of the shower, her head clear for what felt like the first time in weeks. It was then that the plan of going back to the bookstore had hit her; after all, that was where they had encountered Esme in the first place.
She was jolted from her reverie by an awkward knock against her elbow, and turned in the small space to see a dark-haired young man smiling at her in apology.
“Excuse me,” he said, in a clipped English accent. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, with a light jacket that seemed to belie the heat outside. “I don’t suppose I could get either of you to fetch that book for me?”
Both Buffy and Willow swiveled to see the text to which he pointed, perched precariously on a shelf high over their heads. Willow turned an amused gaze back to him.
“Not unless you expect one of us to sprout wings to get up there,” she said.
His eyes darted up and then back to the two young women who were so much shorter than his six-plus feet. “Right,” he said, with an abashed grin. “I guess in the way of brilliant ways to approach pretty girls, that rather failed to take the prize, didn’t it?” He held out his hand. “I’m Stuart, by the way.”
“Willow.” Tilting her head, she added, “This is Buffy.”
“You two seem to be a long way from home. Are you here for school or for pleasure?”
“Both,” Buffy said before Willow could reply. She ignored her friend’s raised eyebrows. As normal as this guy seemed, something about him was pinging on her Slayer radar and with everything so wonky on her at the moment, the last thing she needed was to be ignoring her intuition. “We’re on break,” she went on to clarify.
It dawned on her as he started chatting with Willow about what there was to do in London that Stuart effectively blocked her view of Charles and the back of the store, and Buffy inched herself sideways to try and see past him. The moment she did so, though, his attention shifted to her, and he turned his torso enough to obstruct her line of sight again.
“So what is it you’re studying, Buffy?” he asked.
“Just stuff. Nothing earth-shattering.”
Willow frowned at her almost rude response but he wasn’t thrown off by her noncommittal answer. “Too busy having fun, is that it?” he teased.
“Not exactly---.” She froze when she caught the flash of metal inside the gap of his jacket, quickly covering it with a fake, bright smile when she turned to Willow. “We should be going now, don’t you think?” she asked her friend.
“What? I thought---.”
“Don’t rush off on my account,” Stuart cut in. When he took a small step backwards, his jacket swung far enough to the side for Buffy to see the unmistakable hilt of a gun strapped beneath his arm. Time stopped as he caught her eyes locked on the weapon, and the smile he’d been sporting faded.
“I think you need to back off,” Buffy said, her voice low, her eyes flashing. “Very slowly.”
“I’m not here to hurt you, Miss Summers.”
“Wait. How does he know your name?”Her eyes never left his, not even to reassure Willow that she knew what she was doing. “My guess is that he’s one of the Council’s lackeys,” Buffy said. “Sent to either keep an eye on me, or take me in for another round of Twenty Questions. Word of advice, Stu. I’m a lot less punch-happy with people who tell me the truth from the get-go.”
Though he visibly paled, Stuart held his ground in the face of her warning. “Might I suggest we take this outside?”
“Why? You got a thing against books?” The Slayer laughed. “I thought that was the biggest requirement for a job with the Council.”
“I’m merely interested in assuring you I’m not a threat to you.”
“Giving me your gun might be a good start.”
“Buffy?” Willow’s voice was anxious, her face pinched. She had backed away from the confrontation, pressing herself into the shelves behind them, and now was staring past Stuart at the back of the store. “Where did Charles go?”
She didn’t wait for him to react. Grabbing Stuart by the lapels of his jacket, Buffy hurled him sideways into a dusty display of Victorian classics before bolting for the door to the store’s back office. Willow was right on her heels, and the two girls skidded through the exit, noting with increasing alarm the still-ajar door that led into the side alley.
“Damn it,” Buffy muttered, and dashed outside. She was met only with the distant honks from the street as the empty alley stared back at her. “Go back inside,” she ordered Willow. “I’m going to go around the front and see what’s the sitch up there.”
Her feet pounded against the uneven concrete, but when she emerged from the alley, Buffy saw only the brightly colored tourists strolling up and down the walks. The front door of the store was wide open and she raced for it, only to greet a disconsolate Willow.
“It’s empty,” the redhead said. “No Charles, no Stuart, no nothing.”
Buffy sighed. There was no chance of finding them now, she knew. The crowds and their familiarity with the city prevented her from being able to track them effectively. Not that she didn’t already know that they were headed back to the Council, but there was little hope of stopping them from getting there at this point.
“I guess that means we go ahead with Plan B,” she said.
“Yay for Plan B.” Willow paused. “What is it again?”
She began heading back to the Underground entrance. “I’ll let you know when I think of it.”
He felt like a fool.
As William walked along the path, his hands thrust deep inside his pockets, the fears and thoughts that had been battling for concourse inside his skull made his eyes ache. He’d always envisioned love as one of the simplest things in the world, a delicate bird eager to take roost, to be cosseted and cherished with every promise of his soul. That was the way it was with his mother, and certainly that was how it had been for every other important figure in his life, even those who did not necessarily know of his affections. It was not their fault that his own fears often restrained him from acting on his emotions publicly.
But falling in love with Buffy, while glorious and strengthening beyond anything he had ever imagined, was more problematical than simply uttering the words. This world of hers to which she’d introduced him---fantastic, and magical, and inspiring, and terrifying, all at the same time---created dangers at every bend in his path, forced him to stand up and fight, or coerced him into fleeing like a frightened child, and he was beginning to wonder if he held the fortitude to embrace it as openly as she. He wanted to, or at least, part of him wanted to, and yet at the first sign of conflict, William had abandoned the fight, running from his own home simply because he feared the similarities between a woman who had only been kind and supportive to him---in spite of her morning interrogation---and the woman, or witch, who was responsible for putting him into this state of affairs in the first place. He didn’t even know for certain that Miss Esme was his enemy; how could someone who had given him the most prized gift in all the world be entirely bad?
So, he was returning home, and he would brave Richard and his wife again, and he would help them in any way they asked. There was so much at stake here, and William could not endanger those he loved any further by allowing himself to buckle under the weight of his own uncertainties. He had faced the derision of his peers at his mother’s dinner party; surely, he could contend with some uncomfortable queries from the people he knew held vows to protect the world.
His musings distracted him from his path, and as he rounded the corner onto his street, William collided with a broad chest. “So sorry,” he mumbled as he lifted his eyes. His heart fell at the condescending gaze of David Howard staring back at him.
“Head in the clouds again, William?” David asked lightly.
“I was just…I mean, Mother is…I’m late,” he managed to finish. When he attempted to step around his neighbor, however, he found his path blocked when David did the same.
“I’ve been meaning to speak to you since the night of your mother’s dinner party,” he said. “I was just going to step out for a drink, but perhaps we should take one here at home instead.”
It was the last thing in the world he wanted, but William was frozen in his tracks, his heart pounding inside the prison of his chest as the symbol of everything he hated stood before him waiting for an answer. Quickly, his eyes darted around to the neighbors’, noting the gardener at the hedge in one, Mrs. Stratton playing with her new baby in another. Any scene he made would be noticed and commented upon, of that he was certain, and though it hardly mattered to him what more they could possibly say, it would most definitely hurt his mother when she heard.
William swallowed down the lump in his throat. “I have guests waiting,” he said, tossing out his final attempt to abstain from accepting the invitation.
“They’ve already left,” David replied, and waved toward the empty street in front of the Freston home. “Tell you what,” he said, clapping a heavy hand onto William’s shoulder. “We’ll make a meal of it. I’ll have one of our girls send over word to your mother that you’ll be dining with me tonight. Mother and Father are away to the country for a fortnight, so I could use a little company.” His smile was smug. “I’m sure your own mother would more than approve.”
As he found himself being led up the path to the Howard house, William stiffened his shoulders in anticipation of the long night that would soon to follow. Think of Buffy, he silently instructed. If she considers you worthy of her affections, then nothing David can say should influence that. Just listen, and nod, and hold your tongue, and get out as soon as you possibly can.
He sighed as he crossed the threshold. It was much easier said than done.
Though she was ravenous and her stomach growled in its demand for sustenance, April forced the smile to her lips as the young boy she’d hired for the errand hung back in the doorway. “It’s all right,” she said when she saw his eyes dart to Nathan looming behind her. “He won’t hurt you.”
The boy was still unsure, but when April reached into her purse to extract the payment she’d promised him, his eyes lit up. “I got wha’ you wanted, miss,” he rushed and held out his hand. “Jus’ like I swore to you.”
“Did you see Mr. Rhodes-Fanshaw?” she asked. Delicately, she played with the coin, letting it roll between her fingers while she watched the child’s reaction.
“No, miss. ‘E was out. They say ‘e was visitin’ with some man who’d come in the other day. Someone ‘e’s all excited ‘bout workin’ with ‘parently.”
“And who is this man? Did you find out his name?”
“Better than that, miss.” He puffed himself up with pride. “I know where ‘e lives. ‘Is family’s one of the better-known in the city. I can take you straight to ‘im if you want.”
With a sigh, April pressed the coin into the boy’s greedy palm. She hadn’t planned on paying him; the original intention had been to find out what Richard was up to and then have the boy for dinner. She’d just have to make him a late-night snack instead and retrieve her money from his pockets then.
“Get our things,” she instructed Nathan over her shoulder. To the child, she said, “So tell me then. Who is my darling Richard visiting with this evening?”
“’Is name’s David, miss. Mr. David ‘Oward.”
To be continued in Chapter 18: The Keen Teeth from the Fierce Tiger’s Jaws…