DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXXIX.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Esme has approached Willow about helping each other with their problems, while it’s been decided that Buffy will stay with William until Rose and Richard can figure out how to send her back to her own time…

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

Chapter 24: Slay Me Not

It felt like fantasy, a world derived from castles concocted in Sunday heavens where William spent more time imagining futures of peace and beauty than listening to the vicar’s endless sermons.  He knew it wasn’t real, of course, but from where he hovered at the side of the shop, William was just as involved in Buffy’s shoe-shopping adventure as she was, and the idyllic domesticity they presented---albeit false in nature---was addictive in its call for confidence.  When she asked for his advice, he gave it, even though his experience with woman’s footwear was minimal.  When she made a small joke that would inevitably embarrass the young salesclerk, William chuckled along with her, bolstering her impudence to do it again.  And when she deliberately chose the fawn-colored slippers he liked the most, he unconsciously puffed in self-importance.  After all, the woman he loved selected what would please him as well; how could he not take pleasure in that?

It was not a trip that had been condoned by either Richard or Rose.  Both had expressed their concerns about Buffy experiencing the outside world unnecessarily, but when she’d turned her green gaze to William for support, he knew from the first blink of those long eyelashes that there was no way he could turn down Buffy’s request to purchase her own clothing.  They had left the house on promises to return swiftly and to maintain the utmost discretion in their acquisitions, but the latter had only lasted until the first shop, where Buffy had launched into a long and convoluted story as to why an American was staying at the Freston home.  William caught the raised eyebrows shared amongst the older salesladies, but Buffy’s surprising good humor was infectious even with them and soon all aspersions were forgotten.

He was still unsure of how things rested between them.  In accordance with the tale she’d contrived, they’d maintained a gracious decorum both in the shops and in the coach, never bringing up the topic of her true presence in London or their conversations in his bedchamber.  She smiled, and he smiled, and they chatted as amiably as they had always done in each of the dream encounters, and yet…William feared to initiate any physical contact, even if it had been appropriate.

And Buffy didn’t solicit any such involvement, not when she turned to smile at him as he paid for her purchases, nor even when he offered her his hand to assist her into the carriage.  She just lifted her skirt and climbed onto its seat on her own, looking back at him in expectation as she waited inside.

Now, they sat opposite each other on the soft seats, the gentle rocking as the horses led the way back to the house lulling William into a slight doze.  They had been out much later than he’d anticipated; even now, dusk glistened on the horizon in a rose-colored dalliance with the city, promising a cloudless night and a calmer tomorrow.  Richard and Rose would long be gone; William was under instruction to contact them in the morning to find out what they may have learned.  Buffy hadn’t spoken of them all day, but more than once, he imagined he saw a sad confusion cloud her aspect, and he knew without having to ask that she was contemplating her circumstances.

The same such look shadowed her eyes now.

“Are you happy with your purchases?” William asked softly.

Buffy nodded.  “I guess shopping is one of the transcending time things, huh?”  She grinned.  “At least I got out of buying one of those corsets.  A man invented that, right?  Because no woman in her right mind would come up with that kind of torture device.  Unless it was to get a guy to wear it.”

He said nothing, but smiled anyway.  To be honest, he’d thought Buffy looked divine in the lemon-colored creation the first salesclerk had insisted she try, but her obvious discomfort had kept William from voicing his opinion aloud.  It would’ve been…interesting to see her in more traditional wear, but then again, it wouldn’t have been the Buffy he knew and loved.

“I haven’t said thank you yet.”  She was watching him, hesitant, her fingers tapping nervously against the window’s edge.  “You really didn’t have to buy all those things for me.  I mean, I probably won’t be around long enough to wear most of it.”

“It was my pleasure,” he replied.  “Tell me when else I’ll have such an opportunity to spoil you so?”

William’s mention of his happiness to have her there guided her gaze outside, away from his face and away from direct contemplation of his emotions.  “It’ll be good to get your life back in order, don’t you think?” she said instead.  “Get your mom back, work on your poetry, forget all about the Council.”

“Buffy---.”

“I mean, it’s one thing to talk about in our dreams, but the reality?  Not so pretty.  And I’m sure your mom’s going to be grateful in a huge way not to be mixed up with psycho witches any more.”

He cut off what was quickly turning into babble by leaning forward and taking her hand in his.  “Buffy,” William said again, but she didn’t turn to him, only pressed her lips together.  “I told you earlier.  I don’t regret having you here with me.  My life without you?  Dull beyond belief.  My poetry…before you, every word that came from my pen was hollow, and now…”  He faltered.  “I’m…sorry you don’t feel the same.  I know…this must seem rather…pedantic in comparison to your slaying, but…”

“It’s not that.”  Her voice was so quiet, he had to strain to hear her.  “It’s just…you deserve to have your whole life to look forward to, and getting mixed up with the Council isn’t exactly a primo first step in ensuring that’s going to happen.”

Her words sent a chill through his veins that was in direct contrast with the warm air outside.  “Do you know something about my life to come?” he asked quietly.  “Until today, you didn’t believe me real.  How many times did we have those discussions while we slept?  But now…knowing what you do…I can’t help but feel as if you know something about my future, and that it, it…frightens you.”

When she looked at him then, his first inclination was that it was guilt he detected deep within the green of her eyes.  Quickly, though, it shifted, and her brows lifted, her small mouth forming a silent “o” as if a realization had only just dawned.  “No…” Buffy breathed, but William knew without having to ask that it wasn’t a response to his queries.  Her hand jerked away from his, leaving him desolate in its wake, and she pressed back into the seat cushion as if to distance herself even further from him.

“You do,” he said sadly.  “You know something.  From my journal perhaps?  Or maybe…through your dealings with the Council?”

She was shaking her head, but whether it was in denial of his questions or something else, William was unsure.  “This can’t be happening,” Buffy said.  “I didn’t…you were supposed to be…oh god, you’re really real, and that means…”

“That means what?” he pushed.

“William the Bloody…”

It was a name he’d never imagined hearing from her lips.  “How…did you read that in my journal?”

“It’s true, then?”

She wanted him to lie to her, that was more than apparent.  Her eyes gleamed with that hope, her bottom lip trapped by her teeth.  But his shock at her foreknowledge of the epithet that he so detested only loosened William’s tongue.

“David Howard was the one who started it.”  His voice was hoarse with pain.  “I don’t believe they meant for me to know of it.  It was...invective of the worst order, in reference to a verse of mine that Mother requested I read at one of her gatherings.  ‘William’s bloody awful poetry,’ I heard David say afterward.  I refused for quite some time not to do any more readings, but of course, Mother always insisted they were too lovely not to share…”

The tale made her soften, sympathy returning to her face.  “I’m sorry,” Buffy said.  Something about her tone made it sound like she was apologetic for more than what had happened to him so long ago, but he didn’t press the issue.

“I suppose that explains some of your prior questions,” William mused sadly.  “There are details that you know that disturb you.”  At the guilty duck of her eyes, he shook his head.  “I don’t expect you to tell me,” he went on.  “Richard was right about that aspect of your presence here.  Any more information than is beneficial to returning you to your proper place will only hurt us in the long term.  You shouldn’t feel regretful for not sharing what you know.”

Nodding, Buffy turned back away from William, lost in thoughts he had no privy to.  How much of what troubled her was about his future, and how much was about her present, he had no idea, but as the carriage rumbled toward home, he understood that she’d said all she was going to that night.  She needed time to think, and though he desperately wished he could help Buffy order her thoughts, he also knew that pressing onward at this point would only serve to drive her even further away from him.

A startled neigh from the horses preceded a sharp jolt of the carriage, rocking both its occupants.  It was too soon to be home yet, William knew as he glanced out the window to confirm his suspicion of their whereabouts, but before he could call out to the driver, a familiar voice slithered through the opposite opening.

“I’m so glad our meeting last night didn’t put you off keeping late hours,” April said.

Simultaneously, Buffy and William turned to see the smiling visage of the vampire framed in the window.  Though she didn’t wear the demon face she’d shown the previous night, even he could see the predatory glint in her eyes.

“Hi,” the Slayer said before he could speak up, much perkier than she’d been during the latter part of their conversation.  “You’re not one of those highwaypeople who rob stagecoaches or something, are you?  Because no way am I losing any of my new clothes before I have to.  Not when I’ve been out all day shopping for them.”

Does she not know? he wondered, assessing the two women even as they regarded each other.  Can she not tell April is a vampire?

“That was a swift promotion, William,” April finally said evenly.  “Was she only Chosen today?”

“You know I’m a Slayer?” Buffy asked.  “Impressive.  Was it the attitude that gave me away?  Not doom and gloom enough?”

“Let’s just say, it takes one to know one.” 

William felt Buffy tense at the admission, and realized then that she’d known all along, toying with the demon just as she’d described to him before.  “Do you have a purpose to this meeting?” he asked April before either could further their exchange.  It was bolder than he’d been the previous night, but with Buffy so close, he felt surprisingly secure.  “I assume you must have a message or something you’d like me to relay.”

She was reluctant to divert her attention from the Slayer, but gradually turned to face him.  “Did you speak to Richard?” she asked, and then answered herself.  “Of course you did.  That’s why you’re choosing to be guarded by a Slayer now.”

“I’m not his bodyguard,” Buffy protested.

“Oh?”  This sparked April’s interest.  “What are you then?”

Buffy’s mouth opened, then closed as the answer he was hoping to hear failed to come.  Instead, she bent over and began sliding off her slippers, an action that drew curious stares from both William and April.

“What?” she said when she straightened back up.  “I don’t want to get blood on my new shoes.”

The force with which she hit the door rattled the carriage’s frame, as well as sent both it and April flying back into the night.  As William watched, Buffy slipped through the now-empty space to land silently on the ground, reaching around to break off a spoke of one of the wheels to use as a weapon.

She’d demonstrated some of her prowess during their dreams, but the sinuous display he now witnessed cast a pallor over the grace she’d exhibited earlier.  The moment April charged Buffy, the Slayer skidded sideways to avoid the collision, whirling with a flurry of fabric from the skirt she wasn’t entirely comfortable in to land a broad kick in the small of the vampire’s back.  It knocked April to the road again, but she recovered again almost instantly.

“Someone’s trained you well,” April said with a wicked smile.  There was blood staining her lips from where she’d split it on the cobblestone, but she was oblivious to its drip onto her dress as she began to circle the Slayer.  “It couldn’t have been William, though.  Did he tell you that he tried to run from me last night like a scared little puppy?  It was almost funny, except, well, not.”

“Sounds smart to me,” Buffy replied coolly.  William was riveted to the determination that made her eyes glow, his heart pounding in his chest as he watched her defend him.  “Knowing when to walk away from a fight can mean he lives to fight another day.  Didn’t your Watcher ever tell you that?”

“That’s not exactly the lesson I walked away from Richard with.”

The casual dropping of the Council Head’s name startled Buffy for a moment, diverting her attention just long enough for April to surprise her with an uppercut.  Shaking it off, Buffy countered the onslaught with her own attack, blocking each hit while letting her bare feet lash out instead.

They were fairly evenly matched, William decided as he watched the two women fight.  Where Buffy faltered from the strangeness of her clothing, she more than made up in moves that clearly took April by surprise.  The demon was more adept to fighting in the constriction that was the current fashion, but she lacked the resourcefulness of the Slayer’s fighting style, relying more upon strength and speed than ingenuity.

On the other hand, Buffy was sheer magic to behold.  At one point, she grabbed the handgrip near the carriage door, leaving William to wonder just what she was going to do next.  Before he could blink, she’d swung up and over April’s head, her skirt floating like a cloud behind her, and landed softly on the vampire’s opposite side, her leg shooting out before she’d even stopped moving to deliver a strong kick to April’s back.

A part of him felt like clapping at the spectacle, but even William knew that not only would that be extremely childish, it would also only serve to distract Buffy from what she’d set out to do.  The stake had fallen to the wayside during one of their bouts, but when the Slayer pressed her advantage on a downed April, William saw that it had somehow appeared in her hand again, ready and poised to slam down into the vampire’s chest as she straddled her.

So intent on the fight, William never heard the door behind him open.  Before he could move out of the way, two lean hands grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him roughly from the carriage, dragging him unceremoniously around its rear to face the pair of women in the shadows.

“Let her go!” came the voice from behind him.  Though he’d never heard the speaker before, the combination of the possessive masculine tone and the demon-cool hands that felt like they were trying to turn his two shoulders into one convinced William that it had to be April’s male companion from the night before.  He tried to squirm from the taller man’s grasp, but it only served to make the vampire growl into his ear, the distinct sting of a sharp fang nicking the outer curve.

“One more move and I’ll snap your neck,” the demon said irritably.

At that, William fell limp against the vampire, no doubt in his mind that Nathan would follow through on his threat.  After all, he’d witnessed the callous destruction of the small child; a grown man with less sympathetic qualities could hardly be expected to survive.

Buffy was watching the pair of them, her eyes darting from William, to the vampire, and then back to William again.  “Don’t tell me you’re this ho’s cavalry?” she asked wryly.  “’Cause I’ve gotta say, that lean and hungry look is way overdone.”

“I’ll kill him if you don’t let April go,” Nathan repeated.

William saw the instant Buffy’s grip relaxed on the stake.  Confused, her gaze dropped to the grinning mask of the vamp beneath her.  “Your name is April?” she asked.

“Heard of me?  I’m touched.”

“Do I have to say it again?” Nathan was growing exasperated with the wait, and William winced as he was yanked even further off the ground.  “Your Watcher for April.  Last chance.”

The moment of silence was quickly filled by April’s casual tones.  “I can see what you’re thinking, Slayer, and yes, you probably could kill one of us.”  The menacing smile widened.  “But then, you’d lose your precious William, and well, would that sort of fuss really be worth it?”

He wasn’t sure if that was what convinced her or not, but as Buffy pulled back her stake, William was tossed violently aside, falling to his knees as Nathan grabbed April’s hand and pulled her into the murky night.  He knew only the sting of his skin being shredded by the rough stone before shadows began to dance at the periphery of his vision, threatening to overwhelm his wakeful senses.

“Breathe.”

She was right there, guiding him away from the ground to help him lean against the side of the coach.  For the first time, William saw the dead body of the driver drooping over the front seat, the stench of the blood that saturated his waistcoat now palpable in the air, and felt the bile rise up in his throat when he tried to do as she instructed.

Shame burned even higher than the churning of his stomach as he vomited in the street.  It hadn’t been this bad when he’d watched April kill David, but then again, he hadn’t been held like a helpless kitten by the scruff of its neck and forced to watch the woman he loved back down from a fight merely for the sake of his life.  While part of William was thrilled that Buffy valued him so, another part anguished over appearing so weak before her, and he kept his face averted while he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth.

“I guess the breathing thing might’ve been asking too much, huh?” Buffy said gently.  Her hand was rubbing small circles in his back, easing some of the tension it found, and in spite of his self-disgust at his behavior, William reveled in the gentle touch she was affording him.  “You should probably wipe your neck before you lose much more blood,” she added.  “I think April’s boytoy got a little too fang-friendly around your ear.”

“Thank you,” William murmured.  His skin was clammy in the cooling night air, and his collar stuck uncomfortably to his neck when he tried to pull it away and clean the area with his handkerchief.  “Are you all right?” he asked, desperate to deflect some of her scrutiny from his personage.

“Glad I took off my shoes,” Buffy said with a small smile.  “But basically, yeah, I’m fine.”  Hesitating, she gnawed slightly at her lip before continuing with the question he could clearly see she wanted to ask.  “That’s the vamp who killed David Howard last night, right?”

William nodded.  “My apologies that you’ve been dragged into this,” he said.  “There is a matter of…friction between April and Richard, that, unfortunately, my poor choice of an alias has led me to join.”

“I don’t think you were the one to suck me in,” she said, though it was so low that he doubted it was meant for his ears.  Louder, she said, “We need to talk, William.”

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

The edges of the pages were softened with age, almost like silk to the touch, but the beauty of the aged journal before him escaped Quentin’s notice as he slowly closed its leather cover.  Reading it had not done what he had hoped.  Though he now had little doubt that Buffy Summers was somehow dabbling in time travel, the connection between the man within the journal and the events surrounding Esme still escaped the Council Head.

The only correlation he could find was the coincidence of the dates.  The young poet who so eloquently scribbled out his feelings on the ancient pages described Buffy’s arrival just prior to the incident with the collection of crystal figurines as quite mundane.  There was no mention made of her skills; he spoke of the Slayer as just another woman, though one he was very obviously smitten with.  No feats of unusual strength, no tales of monsters bested within his presence.  Every word merely chronicled their many, many conversations, what she wore, how she looked…and then everything stopped, just two days after Rhodes-Fanshaw died handing over the collection.

It was almost as if the man had ceased to exist.

He was in the process of having any records of this William Freston exhumed, but that would be a time-consuming process since the comings and goings of an unremarkable young poet over a century before would leave few trails to follow.  In the meantime, Quentin was ready to pursue the time-traveling aspect that Buffy Summers had somehow lied about during her interrogation.  It meant bringing her back into custody, but considering how easily she fell for Lydia’s dupe, he didn’t presume that it would be a difficult task in the end.

Picking up the book, he casually tossed it into the fireplace, watching as the flames began to blacken and curl the edges.  Sparks flew up the chimney, threatening to scatter to the Oriental rug that lay heavy on his study floor, but Quentin was blind to any potential threat.  His mind was elsewhere.

The journal wasn’t of any use for him now; lacking details of anything Slayer- or Council-related, it was merely whimsy in light of the tangible proof of Buffy’s blood on the handkerchief he possessed.  When the time came to confront her again about her doings in the past, Quentin would much rather be armed with something useful than a collection of anecdotes on the Slayer’s charms.

He just knew that he had to act quickly if he had any hope of discovering the depths of Esme’s schemes.

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

They had nearly reached the Council building when Esme collapsed against her.  Though the witch’s weight was insignificant under normal circumstances, the sudden burden against her shoulder caused Willow to stumble, almost dropping the small bag she was toting.  “Whoa there,” the redhead said, snaking her arm beneath Esme’s in order to steady her.  “Is there a crack in the sidewalk or something?”

A gnarled hand clenched at Esme’s stomach, and she groaned against some inner pain.  “We’re too late,” she said through gritted teeth.

“What?”  Willow glanced up to see the Council building in the near distance.  “We’re not even there yet.”

“No.  The journal.  It’s gone.”

“How do you know that?”

The look she shot Willow was withering.  “We’ll have to switch to Plan B,” she said, ignoring the redhead’s direct question.  She nodded toward a nearby alley.  “Go in there.”

A quick glance at the impenetrable darkness was all it took for Willow to dig in her heels.  “You weren’t even that clear on what Plan A was,” she argued.  “I’m not going skulking about creepy alleys when I don’t know for sure what I’m doing on a Plan B you’re only now mentioning.  I haven’t lived on a Hellmouth all my life for nothing, you know.”

“It’s simple,” Esme said.  She began to totter toward the opening.  “We’re going to do a locator spell.”

She kept waiting for the older woman to stop, but it never happened.  “But you just said the journal was gone.”

“It is.”  Only Esme’s voice reached Willow now.

“So what are we going to locate then?”

“Not what.  Who.”

Curiosity---and a serious lack of other options---finally drove Willow to follow into the alley.  Esme was sitting on the ground, pulling items out of the bag she’d been carrying---a strip of aged silk, a broken pocket watch, a vial of freshly ground sage.  “Do I get to know who it is you’re going to locate?” she asked.

The older witch pointed opposite her.  “Sit.”

Willow’s nose wrinkled at the debris that was scattered on the ground, but stayed silent, taking out the small towel she’d brought to clean up afterward and laying it out before taking a seat.  Once her legs were curled beneath her, she said, “You still haven’t told me what you need me for.  You know, except for carrying around all your magic stuff since you’re so…so what do you want me to do?”

“You’re going to do the spell.”

Her smile immediately disappeared.  “But I’ve never…you’re kidding, right?  I can’t do that.  Not without some serious research and mucho practicing, and even then, it would probably go wrong, because let’s face it, when it comes to the magic, I’m not always at the head of the class---.”  Her voice trailed into a squeak when Esme suddenly grabbed her hand, yanking her forward across the tableau that had seemingly come from nowhere.

“Repeat after me,” Esme instructed.

The Latin phrases that followed were only half-understandable to the redhead, though she caught enough to recognize that it really was a locator spell they were doing.  What she didn’t expect, however, was the sudden tug in the pit of her stomach when the incantation was complete, nor the electrical flow that flowed from each of her pores and into Esme’s hand.  Her breath caught as a dervish of images began saturating her senses, and she sat, bound to the elder woman, as they slowly began to settle into a discernible pattern.

“Finally, something in our favor,” Esme muttered. 

As soon as the magic began to ebb, Willow tore her hand away, the breaking of the contact ceasing the tingling that had begun to burn her palm.  “What was that?” she said, her breath suddenly failing her.  “You…what did you do?”

“I used your magic,” came the calm reply. 

“What?  Why?  What happened to yours?”

“If I knew the answer to that now, I wouldn’t need you, now would I?”  With a wince, Esme rose to her feet.  “Come,” she ordered.  “We’ve got more work to do.”

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

She was bored.  If she’d known it was going to be this boring, she would’ve packed more reading materials for her temporary incarceration.  As it was, she’d been in the holding cell for less than twenty-four hours and she was already starting to think that she’d just about sell her soul to the first bidder if she could just get out.

She was re-reading the file she’d managed to sneak in when she heard the first noise in the hall.  Freezing, she cocked her head as she strained to listen, but could hear nothing but the muffled sound of women’s voices.  She was about to go to the door to see if pressing her ear to it would help in discerning who it was out there, when the knob turned, the lock that had been keeping her securely inside falling to the floor with a clatter.

Her eyes widened at the elderly woman standing in the entrance.  “Esme…” she said.  “What did---?  Oh!”

It was the sudden appearance of Willow Rosenberg behind the witch that surprised her more.  “Hi,” the redhead said with an embarrassed smile and a waggle of her fingers.

“You’ve gone completely crazy now, is that it, Esme?”  All she could seem to do was shake her head.  “Mr. Travers will---.”

“Quentin will never know,” Esme replied with a dismissive wave of her hand.  “But that requires you to stop talking, Lydia, and come with me…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 25: Kiss Me, Be Kind