DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CLII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Giles has made the connection between Anne and William, deducing Spike’s original identity, while Buffy and William have formed a tentative détente in regards to the shift in their circumstances…

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Chapter 23: For All My Vows Are Oaths

Richard wasn’t anything like she’d been expecting.

First of all, he bowed when William introduced her, taking her hand in his leathered grip and brushing a courtly kiss across her knuckles.  She knew it was the polite thing to do in this time period, but still…since when does a Council Head care about making Slayers feel like people?

Secondly, it was the feel of his fingers against hers, the skin worn and rasped, as broken and rough as his clothing was smooth and polished.  Watchers read books, and got paper cuts, and had downy-soft palms that knew how to handle a weapon but didn’t bear the callouses of doing so for very long at any one time.  They didn’t have fingers that looked to have been broken and reset---more than once---and they sure didn’t have splinters from living with a stake in their grip.  But this one did.

Thirdly, when he straightened from his bow to meet her eyes, the corner of his mouth lifted into a sad half-smile that made Buffy feel like Richard was opening a door for her to pass through, welcoming her through an entrance that housed secrets he wished to share, because he knew he could trust her.  Maybe it’s a Slayer/Watcher thing, she wondered when her hand fell back to her side.  Something innate in order to help harbor hope for a scared young girl newly called.

But she knew that was a rationalization.  There was just something about Richard.  Kind of like there was just something about Rose.  They were most certainly a couple…although a couple of what, she hadn’t quite decided yet.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Summers,” Richard said smoothly. 

Her eyebrows quirked at the “finally” and she turned her head to the side to look inquisitively at William.  “How many people did you tell about me?”

He colored at her inquiry, but Rose saved him from an explanation by stepping to her husband’s side.

“William’s been quite the gentleman in preserving your privacy, Miss Summers,” she said.  “Richard’s only heard the sparest of details regarding your identity.  And those were completely by accident, I’m sure.”

Buffy returned her narrowed gaze to the Watcher.  “But you know I’m the Slayer,” she said carefully.

“I know you’re a Slayer.”

“Right.  Because there’s already one in this time period.”

She wasn’t sure she was supposed to catch the look exchanged by the two older people, but she wasn’t allowed to dwell on it when Rose took her arm and led her to the already-set table. 

“I’m sure you’re hungry,” she said.  She gestured toward one of the seats, taking her own without regard to the two men who hovered behind them in wait.  After only a moment’s hesitation, Buffy joined her, waiting to start until the others had taken their places.

It was muted, so-polite-it-made-her-face-hurt conversation that carried the quartet through the soup first course.  Out of the corner of her eye, the Slayer caught the curious glances cast in her direction by the young maid as she cleared for the next dish, but as soon as their gazes met, Meg bustled back to her duties, carefully avoiding any more contact.  She scurried from the room as if she couldn’t leave fast enough, but just before leaving, Buffy saw the maid steal one more glance at the young blonde, curiosity and a little bit of something she couldn’t put her finger on lurking behind her eyes.

It didn’t make returning to the meal any easier.  Everything about the arrangement was eggshells, and the longer it went on, the more she could feel it cracking.

Until she did.

“So,” she said, so chirpy it made Willow sound like Oz, “show of hands of everyone who doesn’t belong in this century.”  Buffy’s smile was bright as she patiently waited for a response from the startled ensemble, her arm the sole limb to rise.  “Just me then?  Guess we should probably do something about that, huh?”

William grinned, and then coughed to cover it up when Richard frowned at him, hiding his mouth behind his napkin as his twinkling eyes shyly met hers.

“Before we begin,” Richard said, “we should lay some ground rules.”

Buffy sighed, her smile fading.  “Yep.  You’re a Watcher.”

He ignored her comment.  “Assuming you’re on the same timeline as we---.”

“I am.  William’s journal in my time talks about me.”

“Then, we need to take extra care to minimize both your exposure to our time and ours to yours, in order to preserve the timeline as much as possible.  Only spare those details that are actually relevant to your presence here, as you see it, and we shall do the same.”

“Agreed.”  Frankly, she’d already reached that decision.  Even though she only knew generalities, Buffy wasn’t comfortable carrying the information that she did about the fate about the man opposite her.  Sometime this summer, he would die after receiving the mysterious crystal collection; even if she remembered the specifics---and boy, would Giles have a field day extolling the virtues of memorizing boring, historical dates with this one---she knew she couldn’t save him for fear of changing the past, and then changing the future.  If she wanted a home to go back to, she needed to keep things as close to how she knew they happened as possible.

“Buffy can stay here,” William offered.  “I’ll be responsible for anything she might need.”

“What about your mom?” Buffy asked.  “I think she might have something to say about a strange woman living in your house.”  She seemed to notice for the first time Mrs. Freston’s absence.  “Where is she, anyway?  Doesn’t she need to eat, too?”

“You haven’t told her?” Richard posed to William.

“Told me what?”

William’s eyes were downcast as his fork suddenly seemed the most interesting thing in the world.  “I didn’t want you to worry,” he said softly.  “You had enough---.”

“And how many times have I told you I’m a big Slayer and can take care of myself?” she interrupted, back to all-business.  “What happened?”

“Mother’s been…missing for several days now.  She disappeared the same time your Mr. Giles did.”  He looked up at that, his hand coming out to cover hers.  “That’s why I didn’t mention it.  You were so focused on trying to learn what you could to find your Watcher, that I didn’t wish to burden you further with my own troubles.”

The reference to Giles served to drag Richard deeper into the conversation.  “Your Watcher disappeared?  Was it temporally-related as well?”

“We don’t know what-related it is.  The only thing we’ve learned is that it’s probably something to do with one of the Council’s witches.”

“This has to all be connected,” Rose said.  “There are too many coincidences for it not to be.”

Buffy’s lips thinned.  There was only one connection between Giles getting snatched and her encounters with William.  And with another temporal disturbance surrounding a missing Anne Freston…

“Esme,” she said out loud.

William was nodding, having reached the same conclusion as well.  “If she’s the reason we were brought together, it would be logical that she’d be involved with these other temporal folds as well.”

Richard’s gaze darted between the two younger people, brows drawn in concentration, eyes dark.  “I believe you two have some explaining to do,” he said sternly.

Avoiding the obvious Ricky Ricardo joke that he wouldn’t understand anyway, Buffy tentatively launched into the story about the tea, relating how she’d found the journal…how Esme had given Willow the spell to induce the dreams…how Travers had told her of Esme’s connection to the Council.  It was all done without specifics regarding the theft; she merely characterized her current problems as “Slayer-related vampire crap,” and left out all reference to the history and the crystal figures.  The fewer details, the better, Richard had said.  Well, she planned on sticking to that.

“What about you?” the Council Head asked, turning to William.  “What interactions have you had with this Esme?”

He was uncomfortable beneath the direct questioning, squirming and shifting in his seat.  “I met her first at the banks,” he stammered.  “She…seemed to know my mother, and I…I…I just talked to her.”

Under the table, Buffy stretched her leg out to reach William’s shin, rubbing her toe along the calf reassuringly.   “I thought she looked normal, too,” she said when his surprised gaze jumped to hers.  Some of his tension eased at the physical contact, and she let her foot hook around his ankle in a semblance of hand-holding.  “And she completely fooled Willow, as well as the head of the Council in my time.  I don’t think we need to feel bad about falling for her tricks.”

William nodded, and then his eyes widened behind his glasses.  “She had my journal,” he blurted.  “During that first meeting.  She took it from me…and…said something…”  He struggled to remember.  “Latin, I thought, or a derivative thereof.”

“An incantation on the journal,” Rose murmured, the first thing she’d said since Buffy had started speaking.  She seemed lost in thought.  “To provide a conduit through time for you to travel.  Ingenious.”

“Yeah, she’s a regular Albert Einstein,” Buffy said.  “Does that mean you know how to send me back?”

“Not yet,” Rose said.  “Though I fail to understand why you would suddenly be trapped in our time instead of your own all of a sudden.  What changed for you, Buffy?  Did you drink more of the tea, perhaps?”

“No,” she argued.  “Everything was exactly the same---.”

And then she stopped.

It hadn’t been the same.  Not exactly.

“They took it,” she said.  “Last night was the first time I didn’t have William’s journal.”

“They?”

Her voice was bitter.  “The Council.”

Confusion darkened both Richard’s and Rose’s faces.  “But that doesn’t seem right,” he said.  “Why on earth would they do that?”

“Because it’s physically impossible for a Council guy not to have a secret agenda,” came the derisive response.  “No offense.”

When Meg entered the room to clear the half-empty plates, the table fell back into silence, this time mostly uncomfortable from the new information that had been bandied about.  For Buffy, guilt about William churned what little food she’d managed to eat, distracting her from the cake that was placed before her for dessert.  He’d been coping with his mother’s disappearance without her support, and she’d been too wrapped up in her own world to notice.  It didn’t exactly score high points for being an attentive friend, and if she was even going to admit to being a girlfriend, it would probably score negative points there.

“Is that how you got involved with William?” she asked Richard once Meg was gone again.  “You’re helping him find his mom?”

“That’s how it began,” the Watcher said cautiously.  “But you mustn’t worry about his exposure to the Council.  They don’t know of his true identity.”

“They gave you an alias?” she teased William with a small grin.

He nodded, though his eyes remained immune to her kidding.  “To them, I’m David Howard,” he said simply, and then stared at Richard with what Buffy would’ve sworn was anger.  “Not a very fortunate choice, as it would appear.”

The two men began to argue on what seemed like quite a heated topic, but Buffy was oblivious to the details.  She may not have Willow’s smarts, or Giles’ intuition in deciphering the smaller pieces of Scooby puzzles, but this was one mystery that even Daphne could’ve solved, she realized.

William Freston and David Howard were one and the same as far as the Council was concerned.  And their records dictated that the latter, and the former if she wanted to be particular about it, had been the man Richard had named on his deathbed as the deliverer of the collection.

Which meant William was at risk from whatever vampires had been present when the crystal figures had been left in the first place.

And William had mentioned another vampire attack during their dream.

Whatever it was…it had already started.

Fast and furious, the thoughts tumbled inside Buffy’s head, images of a bleeding William lying twisted in their dream park blurring with his desire-darkened aspect when he’d gaze at her after lovemaking.  He was going to be hurt somehow in all this, of that she was suddenly certain, and there was no way she could trust that this uneasy friendship he had formed with Richard would be nearly enough to protect him from harm.  If she wanted him to remain safe, she would just have to see to it herself, for as long as she was with him.

“Buffy?  Did you hear me?” William said gently, interrupting her reverie with a jolt.

“Huh?”

“I asked if there was anything else you wished to ease your stay here.  More clothes, perhaps?  Rose has offered to send over anything you may want while she investigates the spell.”

“Oh, more clothes would be good.”  She smiled at him in assurance, and received one back, but inside, Buffy was already plotting what she was going to need in case William did fall into trouble.

There was no way he was going to get hurt.  Not on her watch.  Not if Buffy had anything to say about the matter.

She cared about him too much to let that happen.

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

No change in a sleeping Buffy meant the hour had officially arrived for Willow to take drastic measures in breaking the spell.

Well, the hour had arrived and gone already, considering she’d had her epiphany just before lunchtime and it was currently mid-afternoon, but it didn’t change the fact that she knew what she needed to do if she wanted to get Buffy back.

She had to find Esme.

And the only way she could think of to do that, without having a Slayer to use as bait, was through Charles.

Finding the shop owner had been ridiculously simple once Willow found his profile in the Council’s notes.  Though there had been no response at his home phone number---not that she really expected there to be, but she had to be thorough about finding him, didn’t she?---using his utility bills, she’d been able to hack into the BT corporate database and find another number, this one for a mobile phone issued under a different name but the same billing address, and on a lark, called it.

When he’d answered, she swore her heart had skipped a beat.

He’d almost hung up on her, but after some frantic pleading, Willow had convinced him to hear her out, spilling the story of Buffy not waking and Giles going missing.  She thought it was the latter that had him most interested, and when he’d suggested meeting up so that they could figure out how to best help his old friend, she’d jumped at the chance, even though she had yet to bring up the issue of Esme.

She wasn’t so foolish to suggest someplace where she wouldn’t be safe, so had arranged to meet Charles at one of the many McDonald’s in Leicester Square.  And there she sat, perched on one of the stools in the window as she watched the tourists go wandering by, her eyes straying to the long, winding line for the half-price theatre tickets booth and then back to the people who passed, and wondering if maybe she’d gotten confused and was sitting in the wrong fast-food restaurant after all.

“It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” came a voice from behind her.

Willow jumped in her seat, the straw that had been lodged in her mouth scraping roughly along the inside of her gum as she turned to stare into Esme’s dark eyes.  When Willow’s gaze jumped over the room, searching the crowd for any sign of Charles, the older witch just smiled.

“He’s not here,” she said.  “But then again, it wasn’t really him you wanted to see, was it?”  She gestured toward one of the tables away from the window.  “Do you mind if we sit over there?” she asked.  “A young thing like you might not have problems with these tall stools, but I’m afraid these old bones aren’t quite up to the challenge right now.”

She didn’t wait for a response, but went over with full expectation that Willow would follow, sitting down tiredly in the farthest chair.

Esme really didn’t look good, Willow decided as she moved her fries and vanilla shake to the new table.  Dark shadows made her wrinkled face seem even older, and beneath the high collar of her coat---and wearing a coat in this summer weather?  How much sense did that make?---she could’ve sworn she saw the edges of a white bandage poking through.

“What happened to you?” she asked before she could stop herself.

“I’d tell you it’s nothing, but that would be a lie,” Esme joked, only to immediately sober again.  “Aren’t you surprised to see me?”

“After everything that’s already happened since we came to London?  Not so much.”

“Tell me you’re at least a little nervous.  I think my ego would be bruised if you weren’t at least marginally frightened by my presence.”

“No offense, but after being threatened by a psycho Slayer and then killing a giant snake demon before he can eat my graduating class, everything else pretty much feels like small potatoes.  Although, if it’ll make you feel better, you’re probably more of a hash brown than a tater tot, you know, because of the whole magic thing.”

“Well, considering beggars can’t be choosers, I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with that.”  When Esme shifted in her seat, Willow couldn’t help but notice the wince of pain that crossed the woman’s face.  “You saved me a lot of trouble, you know,” she went on, ignoring her pain.  “And considering time isn’t exactly on my side at the moment, that’s a very good thing.”

“What are you talking about?  You’re not dying, are you?”  The abruptness of her inquiry shocked Willow, even as it came out of her mouth, and her eyes widened as she hastened to cover her clumsiness.  “Not that you’d naturally be dying, of course, just because you’re so much older than me, because we’re all dying if you think about it, and to ask if you’re dying is pretty moronic since I won the science award the past three years and everything, and…I’ll just be shutting up now.”

Esme smiled at the babble.  “You’re a very smart girl, Willow.  That’s good.  It’ll get both of us very far.”

“Both of us?”

“I need your help.  That’s why I’m here.”

A chill went down Willow’s spine.  “Oh, no.  You’re kidding, right?  I can’t help you.  You kidnapped Giles!”

“Well, yes---.”

“And the Council thinks you’re public enemy number one because you stole that crystal collection.”

“Actually, technically, I just helped orchestrate the theft---.”

“And that stupid tea you told me about put my best friend in some magic-induced coma.  These are not things that are conducive to me helping you in any way.”

But Esme was no longer listening to her, the elder woman’s brows pulled into a frown as Willow’s last statements sank in.  “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she muttered as she began pulling her coat tight around her again to stand up.

“What is it?” Willow asked.  Her eyes followed Esme when the witch stood up, although considering how short the woman was, it wasn’t that long of a path.  She’s leaving?  She can’t be leaving!  I haven’t found out how to fix Buffy yet!  “Where are you going?”

It was as if she was reading her mind.  “You want to save the Slayer, right?”

“Well, yeah.  Can’t you just…unzap whatever it is you did?”

A tired sigh.  “You should know it doesn’t always work like that, young lady.  Now, if you’d managed to hold on to the journal for a little longer, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now, but since you’re worried for your friend, I’m guessing that means Quentin already took it away from you.”

“How did you know that?”

She was walking away, albeit slowly, and Willow had no choice but to hop up and follow her if she wanted any chance of getting Buffy back.

“Because that’s what I wanted,” Esme admitted as she headed for the exit.  “Because I needed the Slayer out of the way.”

“And now you don’t?”

“Exactly.”

“So…what is it you’re going to do?”

Esme paused in the entrance, her gnarled hand trembling slightly as she held the glass door open.  “We,” she emphasized, “are going to get the journal back.  Now hurry it up.  We need to purchase a few supplies before we head to the Council building.”

She stood there in shock for a long moment after Esme stepped out into the busy square.  “Wait a minute!” Willow called after the witch when she finally came to her senses.  She scurried to catch up.  “You want me to break into that place again?”

There was no reply at her side, just Esme’s amused chuckle, and the odd pair of women disappeared into the crowd.

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: Slay Me Not