DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCV.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  April has shown up at David Howard’s and killed him in front of William, sending William back to Richard with a message that she’s in town, while Buffy is determined to get what information the Council has, directly from the source…

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

Chapter 19: The Story of Thy Days

They stared up at the stone edifice, the tiny windows black and foreboding, darker even than the night sky that pressed down from above.  Behind them, the early morning hour made the London street sound hollow in its vacancy, and the lack of life made Buffy all too aware of her heart beating evenly inside her chest.

“And we’re sure this is going to work?” Willow whispered at her side.

“You tell me,” Buffy whispered back.  “It was your brilliant idea.”

“Don’t say brilliant!  What if it goes kaplooie?  I’m not sure I really want that kind of pressure.”

“It’s no big.  It’ll just be the end of the free world as we know it.”  At Willow’s horror-struck eyes, Buffy poked her playfully in the ribs.  “I’m kidding.  Everything will be fine.  And why exactly are we whispering?”

Uncomfortable, the redhead shifted the bag on her shoulder, wincing under the weight.  “Can we go over the plan one more time?” she asked.

There was a creak from the alley that ran alongside the Council building, and both girls turned their head to see the sliver of light that was exposed by the side door opening from it.  Around the door’s edge appeared a slim pale hand, followed immediately by Lydia’s ramrod figure.  Her unsmiling gaze met Buffy’s and she lifted a condescending brow as she stepped further out to allow the two girls to enter past her.

“Too late,” the Slayer murmured, and began striding forward, her pace more confident than she felt.

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

He wasn’t intoxicated, not yet at least.  But, to William, the flicker of firelight through the amber in his glass was almost as hypnotic as the alcohol, dancing and swirling and churning in time with the rhythms inside his head, and the room began to dip and sway unbidden around him as he visually drowned in the ambient gold.  He’d toyed with the intention of calling on Richard directly upon fleeing the Howard estate, but etiquette and his shaky nerves had quickly dispelled that notion, sending him instead to his home and the whisky that was kept for special guests.  William wasn’t a drinker.  Tonight, however, he was prepared to amend that.

Only luck and David’s over-confidence had saved William’s life, of that he was certain.  Though he had contemplated the issue of his own mortality prior to the evening’s events, it had only ever been in the abstract.  Even hearing of Buffy’s daily life and death confrontations hadn’t prepared him for the inevitability of facing it himself.  Why should he?  Her existence, while bestowing such vitality to his, was still so very much separate to anything he’d known, could ever know…or that had been his assumption, even after he’d encountered Richard and the Council on his own.

But he’d walked away from death tonight, and she had laughed as he fled, and William wasn’t entirely convinced that what he’d done was the right thing.  A coward to the end, he thought bitterly as he took another sip of the whisky.  Or even to the not-such-an-end.

He almost didn’t hear the distant neigh of the horses as a carriage rolled to a stop out on the street.  Briefly, his eyes flickered to the closed curtains, but his curiosity stopped there, too weary to rise unnecessarily from his seat, too disconnected to care beyond the immediacy of his own situation.  Not even the knock at his front door was enough to rend his attention from the whisky, the atypical thought that’s what the staff is for keeping him in his seat.

After a timid knock that went unanswered, the drawing room door opened to reveal a nervous Meg.  “Pardon, sir,” she said, “but there’s callers.”

William waved his hand in vague dismissal.  “It’s late,” he said abruptly.  “Tell whoever it is to go home to their beds and praise their God that they’re able to do so.”

“Oh.”  She didn’t seem to know what to do with his response, and frowned as her gaze darted back over her shoulder.  “But it’s that Mr. Rhodes-Fanshaw again,” she started, and then jumped back in surprise when William leapt to his feet.

“Send him in.”  Mere mention of the Watcher was seemingly enough to resuscitate William, and his eyes blazed as they remained fixed on the door.

With a curtsey, Meg backed out of the room, the muffled sound of her voice emanating from the hall before Richard took her place in the doorway.  Directly behind him stood Rose, but it was only the Watcher that William could see at the moment.

“I’m glad to see you’ve come to your senses,” Richard began.  He was cut off by William’s sharp bark of laughter, completely bereft of mirth.

“And yet I wonder if it might not be better to be rid of them,” he said. 

Rose pushed her way past her husband, a worried frown on her face as she approached the fireplace.  “What’s wrong?  What happened?”

He skittered away before she could get close enough to touch him, his head ducking as he ran a shaky hand through his already disheveled curls.  “Can you not see?” he asked, and his voice dripped with a sarcasm that shocked even him.  He began to pace in front of the window.  “I can.  I have.  Too, too much.  And it makes me wish to hide behind walls that know nothing of Watchers, and monsters, and cowardice.  Where I can return to my words with innocence I fear I will never know again.”

Richard’s eyes flitted to the tumbler sitting on the table by the hearth, his gaze hardening when it returned to William’s.  “You’re drunk.”

“No,” the younger man shot back.  “But oh, how I wish I were.”

“You have to calm down,” Rose said gently.  “Something’s obviously agitated you---.”

“Not something.  Someone.”  William came to a halt.  “Did you know that I witnessed a man’s murder tonight?  In his own home, yet.”  He gestured toward Rose.  “He was standing no farther away than you are from me now, and still, I was powerless to do anything but stand and gawp like a terrified child.  I finally ran, of course, but it was too late for him.  Too late for either of us, really.  He was already dead, and I was already bearing the brand of my weakness.”

“Were you hurt?” asked Rose.

“Only my pride, but then that’s not exactly a sturdy beast, now is it?”

Richard sighed.  “It’s late, William, and we are all tired.  Why don’t you come with us and get a good night’s rest in our home instead of here tonight?  We can discuss what exactly happened in the morning.”

“No.”  He shook his head.  “I’m safe here.  As long as I don’t invite her in, this house should be impermeable to her attacks, should it not?  That’s the lore of the vampire, if I’m not mistaken.”

The look shot between Richard and Rose was unmistakable.  “You saw a vampire attack?” he queried.  “And you walked away from it unharmed?”

“She let me go.  With a message.  By the grace of hell itself, I was rescued from a similar fate as David’s, though I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps he did not receive the better bargain.”

“A message?” asked Rose.  “What kind of message?”

But William’s attention was trained on Richard, both sets of eyes riveted to the other as silent understanding passed between them.  “I think the time for asking me questions has passed,” William said.  “You had your turn, and now it’s mine.”  His head tilted in furious interest.  “Tell me, Richard.  Just who exactly is April?”

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

“Here’s the drill.”  In the dark corridor deep within the bowels of the Council building, to Willow, Buffy still somehow seemed to be larger than life as she stared down the female Watcher who’d accompanied them downstairs.  “I’m tired of playing games with you guys, but if you’re straight with me, I’ll be straight with you.”

“I would expect nothing less from the Slayer,” the Watcher said, just as evenly.

It failed to get a rise from Buffy.  “You want what I know about Spike, I want what you know about Esme.  Fair exchange of information, right?”

“Correct.”

“Except here’s the part I don’t get, Lydia.  How do I know you’re not going to run off and tell Travers that I’m here?”  Buffy’s eyes were cold.  “Why go behind your boss’ back at all?”

“Because you have information I can’t get anyplace else,” came the curt reply.  “People who encounter William the Bloody don’t usually survive to tell the tale.  Getting your input is an opportunity I can’t afford to miss.”

“Even if it means showing me the files on the sly?”

“Like I told you when you rang, there is very little in those files that Mr. Travers himself hasn’t already shown or told you about.  If he were to find out about your presence here---which he won’t, as I promised---it’s unlikely to cause any real damage to his investigation.”

“There’s risk to you, though.  You could get fired or something.”

“Highly doubtful.  Mr. Travers doesn’t operate that way.”  For the first time since greeting them at the door, Lydia smiled.  “I may not understand some of his decisions regarding you, but when it comes to how he manages the Council, there are protocols that even Mr. Travers cannot bend.”

Buffy nodded.  Lydia’s explanation was essentially the same as she’d explained to the two girls on the phone when they’d called, but hearing it live and in Technicolor seemed to be all the Slayer needed to confirm the truth in it.  Not that Willow was sure of anything in this little scenario.  It might’ve been her initial idea, but she hadn’t really expected Buffy to run with it the way she had.  And she especially hadn’t expected to be standing in a dank English building in the wee hours of the morning carrying a bag she desperately hoped wouldn’t get searched.

“So how’s this going to work?” Buffy asked.  “You sit me down and ask me some questions while Willow copies the files?”

Lydia’s eyes widened behind her glasses.  “There will be no copying,” she said.  Reaching between the two girls, she pushed open the door that they were standing in front of.  “Miss Rosenberg may read over the files and take notes, but that is the extent of what I can allow.”

“But that’s not good enough.”

Doing her best to disappear into the wall, Willow listened to the argument between the two women, knowing full well that Buffy was doing it all for show.  It didn’t matter whether or not they were allowed to copy the files.  They were walking out with them in hand, whether Lydia approved of it or not.  Buffy just wanted to make it look believable by being as difficult as possible up front.

The redhead glanced into the room behind her.  It was tiny, barely eight feet by eight feet, with a table and two chairs against one wall.  A small stack of file folders was on one corner of the table, while on the opposite corner, a pen rested on a stapled bundle.  In between was a phone, and her eyes followed the cord from its back to where it disappeared into the wall.  Bingo, she thought.

“That should be OK, Buffy,” she interrupted with a bright smile.  “You know me and my notes.  That’s as good a copy any day.”

Buffy’s eyes followed where Willow had just turned from, and after only a short moment, she swiveled again to Lydia and said, “OK, so what about our little interview?”

“I’ve prepared a written questionnaire, if you remember, Miss Summers.  You should find the half hour I’ve managed to secure for you to look over the files sufficient time to complete at least a portion of it.”  Stepping past them into the room, she pulled out the two chairs, and waited for the girls to take the seats.  “As you can see from its rather austere furnishings, the Council doesn’t use this room very often.”  She pointed into the bare corners.  “It’s one of only three that aren’t even on our internal surveillance system, so you should feel completely secure.”

Buffy’s voice stopped her before Lydia had left the room.  “You know this obsession you have with Spike borders on the incredibly sick, don’t you?” she said to the Watcher when she looked back at the girls.  “Not that it doesn’t work to my advantage right now, but I would’ve thought someone as smart as you wouldn’t be taken in by a little bit of bleach and leather.”

Lydia smiled.  “You underestimate William,” she said.  “As I told you before, he’s not your typical vampire.  Perhaps you’ve failed to best him because you don’t truly understand what a complex creature he truly is.  Now.  You have thirty minutes.”

When the door was closed, Buffy turned back to Willow, shaking her head.  “You try to help a girl,” she complained, “and she runs upstairs into the arms of the boogeyman anyway.  Go figure.”

“Some people just can’t be helped,” Willow agreed.  Rising from her chair, she reached behind the phone and pulled out the cable, letting it fall to the floor as she knelt to where she’d placed her bag.  Under Buffy’s watchful eye, she pulled out her laptop and a second cable, and proceeded to hook herself into the outlet on the wall, settling down Indian-style under the table.

“You OK down there?” Buffy asked.

“Just peachy.”

“We’ve got twenty-nine minutes.  I got us inside the building.  Now you’re sure you can get us inside their system?”

Willow sighed, eyes intent on the screen in front of her as her fingers flew over the keyboard.  Her exploration at the apartment of the Council’s computer systems had showed her that once a certain point was reached within their files, a magical barrier prevented further breach.  She’d posited a theory to Buffy about how to get past it, mostly as a launching point for brainstorming on what to do, only to be shocked when the Slayer thought it was doable.  Now, she could only keep her fingers crossed that her hypothesis wasn’t a load of hooey.

“I’ll do everything I can,” she said out loud.  And meant it.

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

His guests were silent in the aftermath of his query, and as the seconds lapsed into minutes, with the twist of Rose’s head to stare at her husband and the falling of the logs in the fireplace the only movements in that time, William felt the wrenching in his stomach begin to worsen, his hands start to shake as the wait grew interminable.

“You saw her,” Richard finally said.  His normally healthy complexion had taken on an ashen cast, but his eyes glittered in unexpected fervor.  “How…did she…was she…?”

Each aborted question drew Rose closer to her husband, her worry rightly transposed with an alacrity William didn’t fully comprehend.  Richard shrugged her off when she reached out to him, though, opting instead to move closer to the younger man.

“Tell me everything she did,” he demanded.  “What she said, what she looked like.  Everything.”

William shook his head.  “I escape death, and you expect a narrative of the ordeal only minutes after?  I’m not one of your Slayers you can bend to your every whim, sir.  And might I add, you came to me.  It is your fault I was meant to die tonight.”  He lifted his chin, the small amount of alcohol he’d consumed fortifying his courage.  “Don’t think that because I may not be as…assertive as yourself that I’m so willing to just lie down and accept such a fate.  If that’s your purpose, we quit this alliance tonight.  I shall find my mother on my own.”

His proclamation shamed Richard’s tirade, causing him to hesitate.  “But…you said she killed another.  That she deliberately chose you to live.”

“Only because she arrived with specific intent.  I was dining at David Howard’s residence.”  He didn’t wait to process the shock of his guests before repeating his question.  “Now.  Who exactly is she?”

Heavily, Richard sank into the settee at his side.  “April’s the vampire who killed my wife.”  At William’s startled glance to Rose, the Watcher sighed.  “My first wife.”

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

Twelve minutes.  And Willow hadn’t said a word since she’d started, her fingers never stopping on her laptop’s keyboard.

Buffy was dying to ask her how it was going.

Lydia’s questionnaire sat in front of her, taunting her with the derivative queries that so fascinated the Watcher.  While she waited for Willow to give her the word, Buffy scribbled half-hearted responses, feeling very much like she was scamming her way through a history test she hadn’t studied for, knowing that if their plan didn’t work, she would need something to be able to show Lydia.  After all, the arrangement had been made in good faith.  If it failed---.

“Buffy.”

She jumped at Willow’s voice, though the faintness of it did not bode well.  “Do you have them?” she asked.

“Ummm…no.”  There was no mistaking her apologetic tone.  “I got more than I did back at the apartment, and I can see some stuff I couldn’t before, like…did you know there’s this whole huge file on the Watcher who had the figures?  That Richard Rhodes-Fanshaw?  All the stuff about how his Slayer and first wife got killed, and how his second wife went missing.  I don’t remember seeing any of this when Giles and I were going over the records---.”

“Did I mention we’ve only got fifteen minutes left?”

“Oh.  Right.”  The sound of scrabbling preceded the redhead from popping out from beneath the table.  “Well, remember that security wall I hit back at the apartment?” she said.  “I found it again.”

“The magic one?”

“That would be it.”

“Is it really that bad?  Now that you can see it up close and personal, I mean.”

“In the mystical world, we’re talking the Great Wall of China.”

“Damn it,” Buffy muttered.  Her face was solemn, her mind racing.  “I guess it’s time then,” she said with a sigh, and began to reach for the bag the redhead had carried in.

Willow clapped her hand over the bag’s top, blocking her friend from getting into it.  “I still think this is a bad idea,” she said.

“Do you think it’s not going to work?”

“I told you.  I’m just afraid that it might work too well.”

She’d been pacing around the apartment, twirling the divining rod Willow had made like a baton as they brainstormed for ideas on how to get into the Council, when the end of the stick had caught on the drape and nearly knocked over a lamp in Buffy’s haste to steady it.

“You have to be careful with it,” Willow admonished as she’d taken it away.

“It’s just a stick,” she’d countered.

“A stick holding about a thousand watts of magic inside it.  Just what it sucked up from your journal was enough to knock me on my caboose.”

Buffy grew thoughtful.  “Pretty powerful stuff.”

“Esme is a pretty powerful witch.”

“Powerful enough to fool the Council.”

“And then some.”

“Have you thought any more about what would happen if it got out?”

Willow shrugged.  “Probably overload everything remotely magical within spelling distance.  That makes the most sense.”

“Like a power surge.”

“Yep.  The mother of all power surges.” 

“Enough to wipe out the Council’s security blocks?”

For the first time, the redhead hesitated.  “You’re not serious.”

But she had been.  And she still was, in spite of Willow’s protestations to the contrary.

“Tell me there’s another way to break through in the next ten minutes and I won’t do it,” Buffy said.

They both knew the answer to that, and slowly, Willow pulled her hand away, allowing the Slayer access to the stick inside.  When the redhead curled her knees into her chest, ducking her head down to avoid Buffy’s gaze, she muttered, “Time to assume crash positions.”

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

“It was 1848,” Richard said, and his eyes were fogged from the memory replaying inside his head.  “I was living in Warsaw with my first wife when my Slayer was Chosen.  We’d been in Poland for almost a decade training Masia.  Her parents had been killed during an insurrection against the Russians, and so she’d come to live with us when she was nine years old.  She had just turned eighteen when she was called.  To be honest, I had begun to hope she wouldn’t be called at all.”

The Watcher seemed to have aged years just in the time since he’d first entered the drawing room.  Though William watched him with more than a little anger and frustration at his cavalier attitude toward the events at the Howard home, he couldn’t help but feel the rising pity for the older man begin to swell inside him.  The events of the past still plagued him, and William suspected relating the story aloud was but a shadow of the tale that must relive within him every single waking moment.

“It wasn’t as if she wasn’t prepared,” Richard continued.  “She was an excellent student.  Cunning.  Resourceful.  Strong-willed.  Oftentimes, I just sat back and allowed her free rein as she approached an enemy.  She frequently surprised me in her methodology for dispatching the demons.  What she lacked in strength and speed prior to being Chosen, she made up for in craftiness.  Then afterwards, she seemed unstoppable.  Warsaw’s demon population took a dramatic downturn once Masia was the Slayer.”  His face softened, his eyes shone.  “I was so proud of her.”

“You loved her.”

“As my own,” Richard confirmed.  He chuckled, shaking his head.  “I was reprimanded on more than one occasion for what the Council referred to as an unhealthy attachment to my Slayer.  ‘She is destined to die,’ they were fond of telling me.  ‘You’ll only make it worse for yourself by strengthening the ties.’  But I didn’t care.  I ignored their requests to move back to England and silently prayed that I would never be forced to watch this beautiful, brave young woman die.”

When he lapsed into silence, William took the seat opposite him, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees to intently study the Watcher’s face.  “Did this April kill her?” he asked, and the resurgence of his ire began to flow away from his guests and back toward the demon who’d mocked his weakness.  “Is this why she hunts you down even today?”

“In a manner of speaking,” came the eventual reply.  Richard’s heavy sigh was accompanied by the passing of his hand over his eyes, and it was only when Rose stepped forward to rest her hand on her husband’s shoulder that the Watcher was able to look up again.

“It was spring, and Masia and I had averted a minor disaster by destroying a sect of Iphrogia demons who were attempting to locate some mystical Key they were convinced would give them the power to open transdimensional portals.  The Council had concerns about a Hellmouth forming in the New World, and they were attempting to convince me to take Masia there to fight it.  None of us wanted to go.  Warsaw had become our home, and we were tired, and traveling was the last thing any of us wished to do at that time.  I begged off on replying, and instead chose to schedule a brief holiday for us.  A…reprieve from the stresses slaying was creating.  I didn’t bother to inform the Council where we were going.  I was young, and arrogant, and convinced nothing consequential would occur.”  His eyes fluttered closed again as he sank further into his seat.  “I was so very wrong.”

“What happened?” William prompted when the Watcher remained quiet. 

“We were attacked.”  Richard’s tone was muted, dripping from the pain of remembering, and the lines around his eyes deepened with each passing syllable.  “Our coach was delayed, so our arrival at the country house I’d leased for the week was postponed until the small hours of the morning.  I’ll admit, I dozed as we traveled.  As did my wife.  I was wakened by the horses’ screams, and the next thing I knew, the coach’s doors were torn from their hinges and we were dragged from within.

“They were vampires, a group of them.  I was never able to determine exactly how many, though it wouldn’t surprise me to find that there were at least half a dozen.  The fact that we were ill-prepared for such an attack was entirely my fault.  I hadn’t accounted for traveling at night, and our late departure meant that more than half our journey was spent under the cover of dark.  So when Masia began to fight, I had little to offer her in the way of weapons.”

“But she was the Slayer,” William said.  “And you said she was resourceful.”

Richard nodded.  “True.  But she was also tired, and I failed to take that into consideration.  She’d only killed one of them before they gained the upper hand.  I was attempting to defend myself when I heard her scream for help, and after I’d managed to stake the vampire I was fighting, I looked up…”  His voice broke, and it took several long breaths before Richard was able to resume.  “Two of them were holding Masia, but two others had my wife in their clutches as well.  The shadows seemed to pulse with all that evil, but all I could see was my wife’s eyes.  She was so terrified.  Though she knew of what we did, she never came into contact with it, not directly, and she was virtually helpless against their attacks.”

“Richard…” Rose murmured, but he didn’t respond to the consolation she was offering.  Instead, he rose from his seat and turned to the fireplace, staring down into the flames.

“Not a day goes by where I don’t wonder if I would’ve done it differently,” he said.  “But regardless of how many times I pose the question, and how many ways I present the situation, the facts remain the same.  Masia could defend herself.  My wife could not.  There was no other way.”

“You attempted to rescue the woman you love,” William said.

“No,” Richard replied.  “I did rescue one of the women I loved.”  His hand gripped the mantle, his knuckles white.  “When Masia saw me help not her but my wife instead, she began to fight again, so desperate was she to live.  It distracted the vampires sufficiently for me to free my wife and get her to the horses, but by the time I’d turned back to aid my Slayer…they were already feeding from her, like a living trough, and I could only watch as they drained her very essence.”

William frowned.  “But…I thought you said your wife was killed by this April,” he commented.  “What does any of this have to do with that particular event?”

“So impatient,” Richard murmured.  He glanced back at the younger man, sadness hiding his eyes from scrutiny.  “You remind me so much of myself when I was your age.”

“April assumed I was a Watcher.”

A smile.  “Yes.  She would.”

“Was she part of the group that attacked your coach?  Were you not able to get away?”

“We made it all the way back to Warsaw.  My wife was shaken, but unharmed, and I put her to rest immediately before setting off to communicate with the Council.  They knew of Masia’s death before I told them, of course.  Another had already been Chosen, and I was instructed to return to England as soon as possible for interrogation.  They weren’t interested in my mourning.  Only in what I could provide for them for their precious annals.”

This time, when Richard stopped speaking, William held his tongue, reluctant to prod his elder even deeper into the anguish relaying the tale was causing.  As heated as he’d become at being used as a pawn in the Watcher’s odd relationship with the female vampire, and as bothered as he was at his own cowardice in dealing with his situation, he couldn’t just ignore the distress that was visibly tearing Richard apart.  Thirty years of grief poured out in his every word, and not even Rose’s comforting hand could act as a balm against it.  It was inconceivable that William could allow himself to add to an already appalling state of affairs by reverting the attention back to his own attack.

“We took our time packing,” Richard said.  “Neither my wife nor I were in a hurry to return to London.  Warsaw had become our home, and it was only the prospect of continuing without Masia that convinced us to go in the first place.  I remember the weather turned, as it does in the spring, and we became housebound while it rained for days on end.  So when she showed up on our doorstep, soaked to the skin and begging for our aid, my wife did the only thing she would even consider.  She invited Masia inside.”

“But she was dead.  You said…you watched her die.  And the Council…” 

“I know.  And my wife knew.  But in that moment, facing those eyes, hearing her tears and the story of how she’d fought to get away…I doubt even I would’ve been able to think rationally.”

Memories of the vampire’s words when she’d been speaking to David all of a sudden clamored for space inside William’s head.

“You may call me April.”

“And yet, you’re not English.”

“No.  But…my father was, and being the sentimental sort, gave me the name for the month in which I was born.”

“They turned her,” William said unnecessarily.  When Richard turned his back on him again to stare into the fire, the younger man rose from his seat to stand at his side.  “But why would she come to you?  Surely, she knew you would try to kill her.  That’s what you do.”

“No, that’s what Masia did.  I merely created the killer.  Molded her into the perfect hunter.  And then when she needed me the most, I betrayed her.  I chose someone else, and the demon couldn’t forgive me for that.  So she took from me the only love I had left at the time.”

“Masia did.”

The look Richard shot William was fierce.  “Masia is dead.  April is the one who walks this earth wearing my Slayer’s face.  I refuse to allow that creature desecrate everything Masia accomplished during her lifetime by honoring her with her name.”

“And yet…she’s still alive.  In all this time, all these years…you haven’t killed her.”

He wasn’t expecting the slump of utter defeat in the Watcher’s shoulders.  “No,” Richard conceded.  “Not for lack of trying, but every time the opportunity would arise…”  A dry rasp took on the mantle of humor as the laughter erupted from Richard’s chest.  “And now she’s here,” he gasped.  “And all my years of trying to undo what she has done mean nothing because it isn’t about that any more.  She wishes the battle to finally be over.”  Bright eyes returned to William’s face.  “I am sincerely sorry, my boy.  It was never my intent to subject you to my own melodrama.  You’d be best to leave London for the time being.  My company is hardly safe any longer.”

“But you need me,” William blurted before he could stop himself.  “She claims to want me as her liaison to you, and should I run…she can find me, she says.  Is that a lie?”

“No.”

“So I have no choice but to stay.”

“There is always a choice.  It’s just that, often, one of the alternatives is unacceptable.”

As they lapsed into silence, William knew that his mind was already made up.  He had run once that evening, confronted the face of evil and fled from its threat, heedless of the repercussions of how his actions might be perceived by others.  Buffy would never learn of his cowardice except from his own tongue, but he would know, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t be able to meet the valor of her gaze without feeling like a failure should he let it rest at that.

“You need me,” he repeated.  “Just as I need your aid in finding my mother.  You promised me that you would do everything in your power to help me, so the very least I can do is offer you the same.”

“You would do that?” Richard asked, incredulous.  “After everything April did to you this evening?  Why?”

Because it’s what Buffy would do, he thought to himself.  Because I owe it to her to try.  But out loud, William merely said, “Because I grow weary of being frightened.  Because I’d rather die a right death than live a coward’s life.”

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

Even Buffy felt the reverberations of the magic as she broke the stick over her knee.  Like a resonant call from deep within her bones, the power erupted from its prison with the full force of a hurricane gale, rocking the Slayer in her place and slamming Willow into the far wall with a distinctive crack.

The witch crumpled to the floor, a cry of pain escaping her lips as her ankle twisted beneath her.

“Willow!” Buffy cried out, rushing to her side.

“Whoa,” Willow breathed, and brought a trembling hand up to her forehead.  “I’m going to say that kind of worked.”

“Are you OK?”

The Slayer’s arm slipped around her friend’s shoulders, guiding to her feet.  “I’ll live,” Willow replied.  “Which is always a good thing, right?”  Her worried eyes went to the door.  “I’ve got a sneaky feeling that someone out there’s going to know what we just did, though.”

“Me, too.”  Leaving Willow propped against the wall, Buffy crossed to the door and slyly pulled it open.  The hall was deserted, all lights still out, and she hastily closed it again.  “The coast is clear for now, but that fifteen minutes we had before is probably more like five now.  Can you get what we need off the computer in that amount of time?”

Wincing, the witch stepped back to her laptop, crouching to work hurriedly on its keyboard.  Almost immediately, the lines between her brows disappeared.  “It’s already done,” she said in awe.  “The overload must’ve acted as a propellant or something on the system.  All the files I was trying to get are on here.”  Her fingers flew across the keys.  “I wonder why that is,” she mused thoughtfully.

“Wonder later,” Buffy prompted.  “Run away now.”

“Right.”

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

Lydia’s computer froze at the same moment the alarms began to peal inside the library.  Frowning, she glanced away from the security cameras she’d been monitoring to see the books that were usually held in stasis behind the magical shielding fall from their position, toppling to the shelf below and creating a cascade effect that turned the otherwise normally quiet room into a madhouse.

As she leapt to her feet, there was no doubt in the Watcher’s mind about what exactly could’ve caused this.

She only hoped that Buffy Summers had at least filled out part of the questionnaire, since it was going to be her fault when Lydia got fired.

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

She was watching April rising from her bed, fed and strong enough to stand on her own two feet, when Esme collapsed against the wall of the cave.  It was as if a vacuum had suddenly appeared inside her chest, sucking at her strength with the ferocity of a starving beast, leaving the elderly witch dizzy and confused as the earthen walls spun around her.

“I think your witch is broken,” April commented to Nathan.  She sniffed at the air as she approached where Esme had fallen, the lanky male vampire at her heels, and grimaced in distaste.  “She reeks of Watchers.”  Her head swiveled to stare at him.  “Is this the best you could do?”

“She brought you back, darling,” he rushed in explanation.  “She was the one who was able to break the enchantment.”

Light brown eyes fell back to the floor.  “And she’s still alive…why?”

Esme watched Nathan hesitate.  Fear still lingered deep within his aspect, but twisted with it was the desire to please the woman he’d fought so hard to bring back.  In her weakened state, she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop both of them, not with her body still reeling from the effects of whatever it was that had just sapped her strength.  So, she spoke up before he could.

“Because you need me,” Esme said.  “Because I can offer you power you’ve only dreamed of.”

The corner of April’s mouth lifted.  “I’m already powerful, old woman.  So unless you’re suggesting I make you dinner, I don’t think there’s anything I need from you.”

Gathering together her last remaining power, Esme muttered under her breath, her fingers swirling before her.  A glowing orb appeared in front of the two vampires, the faint outline of a sleeping William barely visible within it, and April hissed as her clawed hand swiped it into swirling motes that dissipated in the close air.

“I know your enemy, Slayer,” Esme said quietly.  “It would be wise to keep me as an ally.”

April didn’t say a word as she backed toward the entrance to the cave, her eyes unwavering as they regarded the witch.  It wasn’t until she was outlined against the moonlight that the vampire spoke again.

“My enemy is the Council and everything associated with it,” she said.  “That includes you.  Now, you may be able to conjure pictures of dead men, and you may be responsible for whatever magic got me free of Richard’s little glass fetish, but I’m not interested in parlor tricks.  Right now, I’m interested in dinner.  If you don’t want to be dessert, I suggest you be gone before I return.”

As the two vampires disappeared into the night, Esme knew the threats that had been uttered weren’t idle.  She’d been given a temporary bye due to her small show of power, but once April had fed, once her strength was rejuvenated even further, there would be no mercy. Esme would be dead if she stayed.  Without her power---and the question of just what could have drained her so was not forgotten, even in light of her current predicament---she was no match for the demons.  And she couldn’t be sure when her magic would return.

She had no choice.  Well, she did have a choice, but the option of becoming April’s nightcap was hardly an acceptable one.  She would have to leave the caves and wait until she’d regained a sufficient portion of her powers again before approaching the Slayer about the compensation she was owed.

At least she still had the Watcher and William’s mother in her keeping.  If all else failed, she always had them as bargaining chips.  If April refused to cooperate, perhaps the current Slayer would.

 

To be continued in Chapter 20: Hush the Night