DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy and Willow returned to the flat to find out the Council has ransacked it, taking their notes on the divining rod and William’s journal, but when Buffy went into the dreamworld to see William, she ended up waking up in his time, not hers…

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

Chapter 21: Time's Fickle Glass

“But she made you up,” Buffy said.  “You’re not real.  You can’t be.  None of this can be.”

From the far side of the room, William watched her twist and play with the sheet she now hugged tightly to her slim body.  The truth of their situation seemed to have sparked some sort of current through her veins, driving each of her limbs to agitate, as if the extraneous energy would somehow spontaneously produce the answers for which she was searching.  He had felt the walls come up between them, solid even while lacking true form, and given her the proper distance in accordance with her newfound fear, but inside, his heart was breaking.

Faced with the reality of William, rather than the dream of William, Buffy had retreated into the defensive shell she’d possessed at their first meeting.  It had taken him so long to crack through her trust, to show to her that he wasn’t like the others who had hurt her so, and she’d finally made him believe that she would hold fast to that knowledge, regardless of whether she regarded him as fantasy or not.  But now, confronted with the truth, Buffy saw him as something alien, viewing him through dubious eyes as she waited for her own reality to return.  It was not a look he’d ever thought to see on her face, though, in retrospect, considering his history, perhaps he’d just been naïve in assuming that.

And that understanding was devouring his soul.

“Why do you say that?” he asked softly.  He must tread lightly, he knew, but at least he had the advantage in knowing how her mind worked this time.  Perhaps he could save the situation after all.  “Did we not prove to each other that what’s real, what’s important, is what transpires between us?  What matter is it where it happens?”

“Because the where is supposed to be in our heads, not in jolly old England.  Emphasis on old.”

He couldn’t help the question that followed.  “Was that all it meant to you then?” William whispered.  He had to swallow hard to rid himself of the lump that had formed in his throat.  “I was just…a distraction for you?”

She visibly started at his choice of words, and for a moment, he thought she was going to bolt from the room.  “She made you up,” Buffy repeated desperately.  She seemed incapable of forming any other sentences, clinging to her rationalization with the tenacity she’d displayed during their many talks.  Only this time, it was the shattering world around her that she was trying to keep together.

“That’s the second time you’ve referred to this she,” he said.  The puzzle pieces were starting to fall into place, and he took a step forward, suddenly eager to share the information he thought could help explain the situation.  Maybe that was all it would take for him to get his Buffy back.  “You’re speaking of Esme, aren’t you?”

He hadn’t seen her move that fast since her demonstration with the tree.  As her forearm pressed against his neck, holding him in place against the wall, her small body quivered in barely constrained fury.  “What do you know about her?” she demanded.  “Tell me what you know.”

The force of her hold was causing the world to sparkle at the periphery of his vision, and he gasped for the air she was blocking with her arm.  Something in his eyes must’ve cut through her anger, and William was rewarded with a lessening on his windpipe.  There was still no way for him to move, however; Buffy was making sure of that.

“She’s been here,” he croaked.  “When I couldn’t sleep…”

“She gave you the tea.”  Without breaking her grip, Buffy’s head swiveled in search and quickly saw the tray resting on his nightstand.  “You’ve been drinking the tea, too.”

“I didn’t believe you were entirely real at first, either,” he managed to say.  “I only knew the tea brought us together.  That was all that mattered to me.”

Slowly, she pulled away, her eyes now jumping between the empty teacup and William’s face.

“I thought she made you up,” she said in a small voice.  All of a sudden, she was no longer the Slayer standing before him, righteous and beautiful in her deadly glory.  Now, it was merely Buffy, frightened and unsure but still somehow radiant. 

And also naked.

Moving past her to the bed, William pulled the sheet from its moorings and passed it back to her in silence, waiting as she wrapped it tightly around her nude form.  “Nothing’s changed for me,” he said.  At the swift rising of her brows, he hasted to add, “I mean, except for the obvious, of course.  Having you here is more than I ever dared---.”

“You said…at first.”  She was careful with her words, still skittish but already wary in the face of his admission, and William tensed at his error.  “You knew?”

A knock at his door made him jump and his head twisted in time to hear a muffled, “Master William?”

“Thank God,” he muttered quietly.  He’d never been so grateful for a servant’s entrance than at that very moment, any respite---brief or otherwise---a desperate boon for him to collect himself for Buffy’s inevitable queries.

He was halfway to the door when her astonished hiss made him stop.

“You’re just going to let me flash any Tom, Dick, or Nigel who might come knocking?” Buffy asked in disbelief.

His gaze swept over her near-naked body, her improper presence in his rooms made even worse by the clear dishevelment of her person.  “Good point,” he said, and gesticulated toward the far side of the large bed.  “Hide yourself.  I’ll dismiss Meg as quickly as possible.”

He waited until Buffy was secreted from view, and then opened the door, mindful to block the young maid’s perspective on the room.  There was no mistaking the way her eyes jumped over his shoulder, or the queer tilt of her head as if she was listening for something.  But William ignored both, gripping the doorknob in an anxious bid to maintain normalcy.

“Yes?”  His voice crackled and he cleared his throat as discreetly as possible, hoping Meg wouldn’t notice.

“There’s company, sir,” she said.  “Mr. Rhodes-Fanshaw and his wife have returned.”

Though he’d retired not entirely at peace with the Watcher, in spite of his sympathy for his elder’s pain, the mere mention of Richard’s name now was all that was necessary to spark the tinder of renewed hope in William’s breast.  “I shall be down forthwith,” he rushed, and pushed the door closed on the maid before she could say anything further.

His eyes were bright when William turned back to face a rising Buffy.  “There may be something to alleviate some of your distress,” he said quickly.  “Some of the events around my waking life have been…unusual, to say the least.  The man who is downstairs now---.”

“He’s a Watcher.”

Her foreknowledge took him aback.  “How do you know that?” he asked.  “I didn’t tell you about…I mean, I was so careful not to…”  Each additional word that fell from his lips only caused the line of Buffy’s mouth to thin even further, her eyes growing colder as the depths to which he deliberately withheld information from her sank in.  “Yes, he is,” he finally conceded, and had to physically stop himself from shying away when she stepped up to him.

“Why?” she demanded.  It wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t livid, but the utterance of that single word ripped into William’s flesh as effectively as if she’d assaulted him with razor-sharp nails.  “You heard me explain it all away.  Like it was all just a big nothing when you knew all along that it was something.  A huge something.”

“Not all along.  It’s only been a day or two---.”

“But you still knew.  And you didn’t tell me.  I thought…you said…you’re the one who’s supposed to…”  She stopped as her voice began to betray her inner turmoil with the slightest of quavering, waiting only long enough for her to regain control.  “What are you going to do now?” Buffy asked, and William’s stomach plummeted at the coolness of her tone, witnessing the professional Slayer come back to the fore as she noticeably chose not to dwell on the more painful topic of his seeming betrayal of her trust.

“I was going to ask Richard for his aid,” he said softly.  “His resources…he could very well have answers to why exactly you’re here.”

“You know how I feel about the Council.”  Accusation.  Disappointment.

“This is not your Council,” William argued, though part of him agreed wholeheartedly with Buffy’s professed assessment as to the organization’s duplicity.  In this, however, he had to believe they would do everything in their power to find the answers.  At the very least, he knew that Rose would.

“Please,” he continued, “trust me.  Stay here while I go speak with him.  I’m certain he can help us.”  Silently, he wished that she’d just acquiesce, that even a modicum of the trust she’d shared with him would return so that he could do this for her.  And when she turned away from him, the sheet trailing behind her like a train, a resurgence of hope made him shiver.

“I don’t know what else you might expect me to do,” Buffy said.  “Sunnydale might be more enlightened, but streaking down the city streets of London still doesn’t rank very highly in the Things to Do Before I Die list.”

He waited for her to turn back to him, but as the seconds passed, William realized that she was done speaking, and that he was only going to be blessed with the view of the back of her head for the time being.  Still, he nodded as if she could see him, and backed toward the door.

“I’ll be as quick as I can,” he said, but as he stepped into the hallway, he hesitated, watching her curved shoulders with more than a mournful look.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered, not really knowing if Buffy heard him but not needing for it to be.  Quietly, he closed the door behind him.

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

She felt like someone had reached inside her chest and scooped out its contents with a dull spoon, leaving Buffy hollow and aching as she dropped heavily to the chair by the window.  It was hard enough to wake up in the one place she last expected; it was another entirely to realize that the person she’d trusted the most---even if up to just a few minutes earlier she hadn’t believed him completely real---had lied to her about what he knew.

And now he was dragging in the English Inquisition to try and make things better when he knew that everything the Council touched turned to ash.

What was perhaps the most frightening was how relieved she’d been in that fraction of a second between realizing where she was and realizing where she wasn’t.  Waking in William’s arms had been both wonderfully liberating and protective at the same time, and Buffy hated that it had been ripped from her all in the space of a single heartbeat.

Her mind was still tripping over the ramifications of her present location when a knock came at the door.  She stiffened, and glanced back, her lips tightening as she debated answering the maid on the other side or risking the servant just coming in unannounced to find a half-naked girl on the head of the household’s bed.  She didn’t really like either option at the moment.

“Miss Summers?”

It was a different voice than earlier, still female but more ragged with age.  It couldn’t be the same maid, she realized, as any member of the staff---and he has a staff, how weird is that?---would know that William was downstairs with his guests instead of in his room.  And this one knew her name.  How could that be?

Before she could talk herself out of it, Buffy called back, “Yeah?”

The door opened, and in stepped a tall, middle-aged woman, thick white hair pulled into a knot at the back of her head.  Dark brown eyes gazed levelly at Buffy, and the corner of her mouth lifted in amused appraisal as she seemed to drink in the Slayer’s appearance.

“You’ve managed to put young William in quite a dither,” the woman said finally.

“Well, I’m not exactly light on the dither scale either, you know,” Buffy shot back.

A smile of amusement.  “No, I’d imagine not.” 

Her even temper surprised Buffy.  There was a calming influence that seemed to surround the older woman, and surety about who she had to be spurred the Slayer to speak again.  There wasn’t any physical resemblance, but who else of that age would enter a room so purposefully if the house wasn’t hers?

“This wasn’t exactly how I imagined meeting you,” she said, pulling the sheet more tightly around her.  She was suddenly nervous, her stomach a bundle of surprised butterflies simultaneously taking flight.  Even though she was currently not a hundred percent with William, she was still anxious about presenting as best an image as possible to the other important woman in his life.  “OK, so I didn’t actually think I would ever meet you, since you’re not real, and the whole standing in front of me blows that theory out of the water, doesn’t it?”  She was babbling, but there was nothing she could do stop it now that she’d started.  “It’s either that, or Willow slipped some funny mushroom in my tea last night, which is majorly gross now that I think about it, but still, possible.  Well, as possible as it might be that I can be here in the first place.  Talking to you.  Or trying to talk, at least.  Because something tells me I’m failing and there’s no hope for extra credit to drag me up to a passing grade.”

The smile widened.  “Who do you think I am?”

Buffy faltered.  “Aren’t you…William’s mom?”

“Oh, no.”  She stepped closer, holding out her hand.  “I’m Rose Rhodes-Fanshaw.”

The momentary comfort she’d felt in the woman’s presence dissipated.  That name again.  “The Council,” she commented coolly.

A thin brow arched in surprise.  “You know me?”

Unsolicited memories of everything she’d learned about the Watcher flickered through Buffy’s mind---Giles’ notes, Willow’s offhand comments while they’d been stealing the Council’s files.  She desperately wished that she’d had the chance to find out more specifics; what was it Willow had said?  Something about the first wife getting killed and the second going missing?  Which one did that make Rose?

And if she really was in the past, was spilling what she knew going to screw everything up?  What if she changed history?  She’d seen Back to the Future too many times not to know that a single decision could change the course of a lifetime, and in spite of the load of responsibility she already carried, she wasn’t ready to take that one on, too.

“I’ve heard of your husband,” she said instead.  So what if it was Hollywood logic?  It was the only logic she had right now.  “He’s Richard, right?”

Rose grew thoughtful as she nodded.  “Slayers doing Council history as part of their training.  Interesting.”

Obviously, William had told of more than her name.  “How do you know I’m the Slayer?”

“Because you’re Buffy Summers.  You’re the one William is so in love with.”

She said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was a statement of incontrovertible truth, that some of the ache at William’s betrayal lessened for a split second.  He’d spoken of her.  Only after the initial rush of pleasure had vanished, though, did she wonder, what exactly did he say?

Time to change the subject.  “If you’re Council, you should be able to tell me what’s going on,” Buffy said.  “How I got here.  Why I got here.”

Rose nodded.  “We can certainly try.”  There was a careful slide of her gaze over Buffy’s body.  “Isn’t there something else you’d like as much as answers, though?”

“Clothes,” she replied automatically.  “Clothes would most definitely be of the good.”

“Somehow, I thought that might be so.”

The questioning wasn’t going away.  She had to ask.  She had to know.  “William…told you about us?  About…how he felt?”

“Only parts.  Until very recently, he’s been a bit possessive of your relationship.”  Her confidence faltered.  “Your query…it wasn’t we felt you said.  Do you not…feel the same?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy admitted.  It was pretty much pointless to try and feign ignorance.  Besides, there was something about the older woman that made her want to trust her.  “Don’t you get it?  William is supposed to live in my head, not in some Upstairs Downstairs real world set-up.  I was just starting to wrap my brain around how it could be possible someone I’ve only just met could know me so well, when I Rip Van Winkle, except backwards, and everything I thought I knew gets a good snowglobe shake.  My world is more Tarantino than Dickens, so if this is real, then that means…that means…”

All the resolve and all the regained strength she’d found since first meeting William dissolved in her mounting confusion.  Rose saw it, and with the instinct of a mother hen, took the Slayer into her arms, forcing her to nestle her cheek against her chest before the heaving got out of control.

“Ssshhh,” she said quietly, a strong hand rubbing Buffy’s back in a manner so reminiscent of her Mom.  Instantly, the sobbing stopped, leaving her with a pervasive sense of peace, an odd knowing that everything was going to be all right in spite of wondering otherwise.  “All that means,” Rose continued, “is that you’ve had a very unsettling morning.  We’ll get you sorted for clothes, get some breakfast in you, and then address the issue of your presence here.  But, Buffy…”  She pushed the Slayer back, forcing Buffy to look up and meet her gaze.  “There is no reason for you to start doubting your instincts regarding young William.  His is a true heart.  When he loves, it’s with everything he has.  The loyalty he offers is no less than your own.  That’s why you recognize it so.”

It was Mom advice, through and through.  Straight to the heart of the matter, with a short detour through the realm of practicality.  Buffy chuckled as she extricated herself from the comforting hug.  “For being married to a Watcher, you’re not nearly as large with the cryptic as I’d expect.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Good.”  She tugged the sheet tighter around her, feeling much more ready to face the reality of being in Victorian England than she had been prior to Rose’s arrival.  “Now, what was that about clothes?”

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

The only good thing about Buffy still being completely dead to the world---oh, not dead, just asleep, focus on the non-fatal adjectives, Rosenberg!---was that Willow had plenty of time to go through the files they’d filched from the Council, without any constant interruptions of, “I’m hungry,” and “I think there’s a lipstick sale going on at the mall,” and her personal favorite, “I’m positive, Willow.  They’ve one-hundred percent proven that reading too much can make your hair fall out.”

It didn’t mean that she wasn’t glancing over at the bed every minute or two, hoping to see some sign that Buffy might’ve moved since the last time she looked.  But each time, it was the same old scene, and the longer it stretched on, the more erratic Willow’s thought processes became.

Maybe it’s a magical sleep, was immediately scolded with the of course, it’s a magical spell, don’t be completely stupid.  From there, the witch’s mind hopped from every magical sleeping spell she’d ever heard of, until she’d managed to convince herself that the only way for Buffy to wake was to be kissed by her own Prince Charming.

OK, really need to lay off the caffeine while I’m reading, she thought as she glanced at the empty pot of tea nearby.

In between the irrational means of saving Buffy, she was gleaning some excellent information from the Council’s records.  The first thing she’d done was look at the video file, only to discover they’d recorded their interrogation of the book shop owner, just as she thought they might.  They’d cast a truth spell on him, to guarantee his honesty in answering their questions, and proceeded to ask everything he knew about Esme.

As it turned out, he had known the elderly witch.  In fact, he’d been completely aware of her desire to hook up with Buffy.  Willow waited for one of the trio who was quizzing him to ask him why, but they completely avoided the issue, focusing instead on digging around to try and find out where Esme was currently.  There, they drew a blank, and no rewording of the question could make Charles budge on knowing nothing about that particular topic.

The files they had on the Council Head who’d been killed were fascinating as well.  After the vampire attack that had killed his first wife and the Polish Slayer he’d watched, Richard Rhodes-Fanshaw had turned into quite the caped crusader, taking on the riskiest of missions as he traveled throughout the world, averting nearly a half-dozen apocalypses over a twenty-year period as well as personally avenging the deaths of his loved ones by ravaging the vampire community.  It was during those years that he met his second wife, an anomaly who avoided any detailed inquiries by the Council, in spite of her obvious talents for prognostication and sensing magic.  The opportunity to run the organization was presented four times before Rhodes-Fanshaw finally accepted, and then, only on the requisite that his wife be his personal assistant.

He’d been in London for just a few years when the incident with the crystal figurines had occurred.  The wife was never told about his death; by the time the Council reached the Rhodes-Fanshaw home to tell her, she was gone, never to be heard from again.

All Travers’ notes that she’d read to that point, while rounding out the picture of what had occurred a century previously, managed to definitely confirm one thing for Willow.  His focus on this matter was on Esme, not the figures.  It was clear he viewed them as harmless, a legacy he’d inherited that he was surprisingly glad to be rid of.  Most of his inquiries were into her whereabouts, and the fact that he kept making comments about a missing Giles could only mean that that was just as much of a mystery to him as it was to Willow and Buffy.

She still had over half the files to go through, and the more she read, the more Willow hoped that one of them was an in-depth analysis of who exactly Esme was.  What did the Council know about her that they weren’t sharing?  How was it she was so powerful?  Why were they so interested in the first place?

And most importantly, how could Willow find out how to break the magical hold the dreams seemed to be having over her best friend?

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

Esme would kill for even a fraction of her power to return.

As she limped down the hallway to the small room she’d rented in the local pub, she winced against the pain that shot through every muscle, the blood that trickled down the front of her blouse making her want to squirm even more.  There were any number of healing spells that would alleviate her injuries, but not even the easiest was within her grasp at the moment.  Whatever had drained her powers the previous night had done too good of a job; she was nowhere near being strong enough to try anything again.

It was her own fault.  She’d disregarded April’s warning and lingered in the vicinity of the caves, waiting for them to return, hoping that either her magic would come back or that the vampires would somehow honor the original agreement.  So when the pair had turned on her, attacking without warning and sending the witch rushing toward the nearby town, the only thing to save her life was the approach of the rising sun, the distinct sizzle of demon skin being fried accompanied by the stench of scorched flesh.  It was little satisfaction in light of her forced flight, and there was nothing Esme wanted more at the moment than vengeance.  Or complete cooperation to fulfill her goals.  Either one would do.

Unfortunately, both required outside assistance at the moment.  It was time for her to ask for help again.

She’d deliberately asked for a room with its own phone, and punched in the mobile number she knew from memory.  When the voice mail responded, she wilted, eyes drifting closed as she plucked at the blouse that clung to her front.  She should’ve expected not to reach him; after all, things were most likely heating up in London.

“It’s just me,” she said when the message was over.  “We need to talk, but you can’t reach---.”  Esme jerked when the other end of the line suddenly went live.

“You’ve got some cheeky nerve calling me after you’ve done,” Charles barked.  “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t find out about what you did to Ripper?”

She was too weary to deal with the shop owner’s attitude, but the fact that he brought up the Watcher could only mean one thing.  “You’ve talked to Quentin.”

“Bloody right I have.  He came after me just like you said he would.  Not too kindly about it, neither.”

“Ever the predictable one, he is.”  Unfortunately for her.

“Not like you, though.”  Charles wasn’t ready to give up on the topic just yet.  “If I’d known you planned on snatching Ripper, you can bet I’d never have agreed to help.  Me and him got too much history for me to be stabbing him in the back like that.”

“Which is why I didn’t tell you.  Don’t worry.  He’s perfectly safe.  I just needed him for insurance in case everything went belly up.  Which it has, by the way.”

The silence on his end was deafening, but the fact that he hadn’t hung up yet left a small flame of hope burning inside Esme’s chest.  “I did my part,” Charles finally said.  “You just count me out of whatever it is you’ve got concocted this---.”

“Quentin interrogated you?”

“Yes, complete with the truth spell you suspected he’d use.”

“So he knows about it?”
“It?  You mean, the journal?  ‘Course, he does.”  His exasperation bled through the phone.  “That was the whole point of keeping me in the loop, wasn’t it?  So he’d go after it?”

Sighing, she leaned against the headboard.  “Damn it,” Esme muttered.  Sometimes, she hated being right all the time.

“Oh, now, don’t be sounding like that.”  His dander was back up.  “I thought you wanted Travers to get hold of the book so that it would take the Slayer out of the picture.  Isn’t that what you told me?  Without the journal to give her an anchor in this time, she’d be lost in the past.”

“Yes, that was supposed to be how it worked.  Except I need her now.”

“And you’re bothering with me…why?  You’ve got your Slayer vampire to help you now.”

“Not exactly.”

“I don’t even want to know.”

The unmistakable noise of him moving to hang up the phone made Esme startle to attention.  “Something stole most of my power last night, Charles,” she blurted.  under normal circumstances, she would never have admitted to the weakness, but these were hardly normal, and she desperately needed his help.  “Without my power, I can’t control April.”

“But you said you couldn’t control the active Slayer, either,” he argued.  “That all of Travers’ reports made Buffy Summers too hard to predict.  That’s why you opted for the vamp.”

“And now that vamp is out for my blood, and by the time enough of my power comes back for me to defend myself, I’ll be Christmas pudding for the two of them.”

“So you’re looking for a champion of the people to come to your rescue?” Charles mocked.  “Guess you should’ve thought of that before you took the Slayer out of the picture.”

“I was rather hoping it hadn’t come to that yet.”

“A day late and a quid short, Esme.  Best luck to you.”

More noise to hang up.  “Wait!”

Charles sighed.  “This is getting old,” he said.  “I already told you no.  Not after your stunt with Ripper.  I don’t care what you promise me this time.”

“All I’m asking for is a little help.  I can’t just let April come after me---and you read the transcripts, you know she will.”

“Buffy Summers most likely can’t help you now.”

“No, you’re right there.”  Esme took a deep breath.  This was where she had to swallow her pride.  “That little friend of hers can, though.”

“Who?”

“Willow Rosenberg.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 22:  As Any Mother’s Child