DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: While being put up by Willow, Spike has discovered some of what is going on with Buffy, while William has agreed to undergo some defense training in order to appease Buffy’s wishes…
Every revolution of the carriage wheels tightened the crush around William’s chest, an escalating tempo that forced his heart to pulse so loudly that he was certain Buffy could hear it at his side.
Every revolution took them nearer to Richard’s home, nearer to the answers she sought, and nearer to the gaping loss William was convinced would be left in his life once she was gone. London had never seemed so small to him before that ride; briefly, he mused whether it would ever seem large enough for him again. How does one disappear in a city where borders no longer exist?
Every revolution sealed his fate just that much tighter.
Outwardly, William maintained a neutral mien, smiling appropriately when she would squeeze his hand in reassurance, commenting on the architecture she pointed at through the open windows, offering his handkerchief to cover her nose when they passed a particularly foul portion of town. It was simple to do; after all, he’d spent the greater part of his life keeping up appearances for his mother, and while they often didn’t fool the more astute gentry, Buffy was too wrapped up in her own little world to notice his distraction.
Because inwardly, William raged at the injustice of his entire situation.
Where was the equity in offering him a moment of blissful salvation, only to snatch it away in a fit of karmic pique? Prior to Buffy, not one person beyond his own household had ever bothered to look beyond the guise he presented, to see the passion of a man desperate for love but too frightened of spurning to risk asking for it. She had seen through his attempts at concealment, and liked him anyway---loved him, by her own admission. How could he be expected to just hand her back, to a world where the men in her life were blind to what she had to offer, where her responsibilities shaved shards from the moments she was allowed peace…
…to a world…where William wasn’t?
How he wished he had the fortitude to revolt against what was expected of him. Nothing would satisfy him more than to march into the Rhodes-Fanshaw home and announce in no uncertain terms that he was ceasing all communications with Richard’s precious Council, that Buffy was staying and that William was man enough to discover the truth about what had happened to his mother, and Richard and the rest of the world could just go to hell with their vampires and their demons and their magical teas that tore the fabric of time, because William had his own life to lead, with enough human monsters to shame their history books, and he was going to do it with the woman he loved at his side, damn it.
And Buffy would realize that she could stay after all. That this new and improved William wasn’t the fool who needed to be rescued at every juncture. That he was worthy of standing at her side---not to lead the way, for Buffy had more than proven she was capable of doing just that---but to provide his support in helping her in any way he could. That they could be partners, in every sense of the word, and he could live out his days knowing the warm touch of the woman he loved.
It played out beautifully in his head.
Just like his fantasies always did.
Decorum kept him in his seat as the coach rolled to a stop in front of their destination. Though the desire to act may swell inside him, William knew he would never act on it. Buffy had made her wishes more than clear, and it was impossible for him to deny them. The prospects of marrying her that had kept his spirit so focused during the night had their polish slightly tarnished by her accidental dismissal of his ability to defend himself, but he nursed them, nonetheless. It would merely require careful timing, he reasoned.
He smiled as he held out his hand to assist her out of the carriage, and warmed slightly when she smiled back.
Now, however, was not the time.
She paced in front of the closed door, feeling kind of like one of those fathers from the fifties walking the length of a hospital waiting room waiting for news of an impending birth. All she needed was a box of cigars to pass around, and Willow figured she’d be all set. Except the news she was waiting for wasn’t nearly as cheery as a baby, and Spike was the only one she knew that smoked, and no way was she going to let him anywhere near Buffy until she absolutely had to.
She didn’t care what Esme claimed about Buffy being safe around him.
When an elderly hotel guest rounded the corner, Willow came to a halt in front of the room, plastering a wide smile on her face while she looked her best to appear nonchalant, and didn’t exhale again until after the stranger had disappeared. There was nothing wrong going on inside, but somehow, she just couldn’t shake the impending sense of doom that had settled thickly around her, like that Eskimo parka she still had hanging in the back of her closet back home.
Spike’s observation about Buffy had sparked all kinds of wrongness in Willow’s head, spurring her to call Esme as soon as she’d stashed the vampire in his room and locked herself in hers. The witch had seemed blasé about the potential of the situation, but agreed to have it looked into, mildly alleviating some of the stress that was wracking the redhead’s body into pre-final conniption fits. Now, all she had to do was wait, while the looking into got finished.
As if on cue, the door behind her opened.
“Are you done?” Willow asked, rushing forward. “Was he right? Please tell me Spike wasn’t right.”
Lydia’s lips were pressed into a thin line as she regarded the young woman. “What did Esme tell you about the spell?” she asked evenly.
“The one on Buffy?” A sharp nod. “Not a lot. Just that she’d charmed the book to act as the anchor to keep bringing Buffy back, and that the tea acted as the catalyst for the time traveling.” Her eyes widened. “Why? What’s wrong? What did you find out?”
“Not enough,” came the reply. “We need to get Esme here. As soon as possible. I don’t think I care for the ramifications of this spell she’s done.”
“Oh, because doing it in the first place was such a brilliant way for Buffy to go,” Willow muttered as she followed Lydia into the room.
The silence was oppressive when they finished their tale, though Buffy thought that maybe part of that was because of the massive furniture that comprised Richard’s study, or the rows of dusty books that made the walls seem to loom twice as large as they actually were. There was more than a passing resemblance to the high school library in regards to the atmosphere, but that worked in the Slayer’s favor. It made it much easier to relax when relating the previous night’s adventures.
“Are you all right?” Rose was the first to speak, her eyes sweeping between the two younger people. While Buffy had accepted the offer to sit on the leather divan, William did not, opting instead to hover stiffly at its side. Every so often during their recounting, his hand would drop to settle on her shoulder, abstractly playing with the soft tendrils at her nape, before withdrawing again into the preoccupied mood that had kept hold of him since leaving the Freston home. Buffy wasn’t trying to press the issue of his distance; she knew he was still somewhat shell-shocked from what he thought of as his failing at her talk this morning about self-defense.
The query prompted William’s fingers to lift unconsciously to his neck, twin spots of color brightening his cheeks. The Slayer, however, was the one who answered.
“As good as can be expected, considering I didn’t even know there was a vamp Slayer out there,” she said. “Or does this Council have the same standards on what exactly is shareworthy information as mine does?”
“If I recall, you stated you wouldn’t be out after dark,” Richard said. “And we agreed that our realms of knowledge shouldn’t overlap any more than was necessary, in order to protect the timeline. Why should I apprise you of an issue that should never have arisen when I assumed William would keep his word to have you home before sunset?”
“It wasn’t William’s fault,” Buffy interrupted. She cast a glance at him out of the corner of her eye to see him retreat even further into his shell at her intervention. “You really think a teenaged girl out clothes shopping in a new city is going to pay attention to the time? It was totally because of me we were out so late.”
The Watcher’s lips pressed together for a long moment. “You are not here to sightsee,” he finally admonished, and then softened. “Though I’m relieved to see you weren’t gravely injured in your encounter. April can be…unpredictable.”
Buffy shrugged. “She seemed pretty high on the predictability to me. She’s strong, but if her boytoy hadn’t cut in, she would’ve been dust fairly quick.”
Both Richard and Rose sat up straighter at the casual statement. “You think you can kill her?” Rose asked.
“She’s a vamp, isn’t she? That’s what I do. I don’t know why you haven’t just sicced the current Slayer on her.” When she caught the guilty glance the two older people shared, she had her answer, and felt surprising anger bubble up inside. “How many did she kill?” she asked tightly.
“Just one,” Richard admitted, and then sighed as he turned to stare into the fireplace. “A year after Masia was turned, I was in Batavia. The Slayer who was called after Masia’s death was positioned there, and I thought…I’d heard she was quite the warrior. So, I went there, knowing April would follow me, and hoped that the Slayer’s skills would be sufficient.”
“Sofani was dead the first night April was in the city. She drained her, and then left half of her on my doorstep to find, and the other half at Sofani’s Watcher’s. I was on a boat the very next day. I never again allowed myself to be in the same city as a Slayer. I couldn’t have another death on my hands that I could possibly prevent.”
Flashes of Kendra filled Buffy’s head, and she swallowed to stop the rise of guilty bile in her throat. “Don’t worry about her anymore,” she instructed. “I’ll take care of it.”
Richard shook his head. “I can’t ask that of you.”
“You’re not asking. I’m telling.”
“It’s not your concern, Miss Summers.”
“Yes, it is. As long as she’s alive, she’s a threat to people I care about. She’s a threat to William. I’m not letting him get hurt again.” The silent thought that he’d get hurt by Drusilla soon enough made her chin lift even higher.
Beside her, William cleared his throat. “Buffy and I have agreed that she’s to teach me some elemental maneuvers in order to protect myself from another attack,” he said. “It would be simpler if we could get your aid in the matter, since training is your line of duty, but even if you choose not to help, we will do what we must to remove April from being a danger. She’s gone too long unchecked, and too many people have died at her hand. We can’t allow that to continue.”
Maybe it was his continued use of the word “we” that made Buffy smile. There had been no further discussion of her request to train him since their earlier argument, and while she’d tried chattering away on the ride over as if nothing was wrong, the distance that stayed between them was impossible not to feel. She hadn’t said a word about it, though; when it came to trying to make things better, she had an inordinate capability of saying exactly the wrong thing, as so adequately proven during her explanations regarding her reasons for teaching him. So, she kept mum on the subject of his mood, and smiled as much as she could, and hoped that William would forgive and forget before it was too late.
It looked like maybe he had.
Richard was regarding them with narrowed eyes, his uncertainty about their united front making him hesitate. “As much as I appreciate your…passion,” he said slowly, “and as much as I might agree with William’s need for training, that might not be possible, considering your extenuating circumstances, Miss Summers.”
“Well, we’ll just have to extenuate them back in our direction, now won’t we?” she retorted, and then stopped. A gravity had settled in the room, exacerbated by the increasing fiddling with her skirts that was occupying Rose, and Buffy couldn’t help the feeling that something was going unsaid. “You know something,” she accused softly. “You figured out something about the spell that brought me here.”
“Potentially,” Rose conceded.
“And when were you going to fill me in?”
“They’re merely…suspicions at this point,” the older woman said. “I’d prefer more information to substantiate what I think I’ve discovered.”
“So tell me who to shake down for this information so we can get the show on the road.”
“That would be you two.”
They were making her be watchdog.
Under other circumstances, Willow didn’t mind being the lookout. Her magic wasn’t yet solid enough to be a reliable weapon, and she was much better acting as a distraction rather than actually staking a vampire.
These weren’t those kind of circumstances, though. This was her best friend’s welfare, and the fact that Esme and Lydia were shutting her out was making Willow cranky beyond belief.
They were in the hotel room now, supposedly going over the details of the spell Esme had used on Buffy, so that the fears that Lydia refused to share with Willow could be allayed. She’d been ordered to stand guard in the hallway, and to prevent Spike from entering while they had their discussion.
It wasn’t exactly a discussion, though. Even though she couldn’t make out any of the words, the volume of the Watcher’s voice and the rapid tempo at which she was speaking were the only clues Willow needed to know that not all was peaches and cream between the two Council employees. Lydia didn’t like something that was being said, and Willow would’ve given just about anything to know what it was.
With her ear pressed to the door, she didn’t even hear the presence come up behind her.
“Somebody forget your invite to the special ball?”
Willow jumped at the cool breath that tickled her ear, whirling to see Spike standing there with an inquisitive smirk on his face. “Stop doing that!” she hissed.
He pretended to pout. “And here I thought we were friends, Red,” he said.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” She stepped in front of the door with her arms folded across her chest, though both of them were more than aware that her slight frame would barely be a gadfly in stopping him. “You should be resting up for fighting April.”
“Got peckish. Thought I’d step out for a bite.”
Her eyes widened at the implication, but she lifted her chin in defiance. “It’s still daylight. And you’re supposed to be bagging it until we’re done, Esme said.”
“This the same witch who locked you out of your own room?”
Willow flushed. “It’s not my room anymore. It’s Buffy’s. And, and, they’re just talking out some of the details about…what’s going on.”
When a particularly loud shout from Lydia escaped from behind the door, Spike’s brows shot up. “Awful loud talkin’,” he commented. Her nerves jumped when he leaned closer to the door, cocking his head as he listened in. “Guess they don’t much care for the Slayer’s off-hours entertainment choices, either.”
“You don’t---,” she started, and then the reality of his words hit her. “You can hear them?”
Spike rolled his eyes. “How is it you lot always seem to forget I’m a vampire? ‘Course, I can hear them. Not like they’re bein’ subtle about their fight.”
She really shouldn’t do it. Spike was the enemy. Her job was to keep him out of the fray while Lydia got everything sorted. That was the only reason she was out in the hall.
And if they hadn’t locked her out of fixing her best friend, she might’ve actually listened to that tiny voice of reason in her head.
“Can you tell me what they’re saying?”
Richard melted into the background as William and Buffy focused on Rose. “There are certain spells,” she said carefully, “that present situations similar to yours. Where those who are enchanted utilize the charmed catalysts to meet in other dimensions. A…middle ground, you could say, that provides a neutral setting for them to interact.”
Buffy nodded. “The park. It was the same every time.”
“And, I would assume, completely benign,” Rose said. “Did either of you ever have a negative experience while in the park?”
“No. It was always…” Her cheeks warmed as she remembered the silken slide of her body against William’s, and felt the corresponding rise in his body temperature at her side. “No.”
“There are variants on the spell, and anyone who is practiced can always modify it to suit their own purposes. This Esme…if she worked for the Council as you said, she would be quite proficient. She’d be able to manipulate the spell however she wanted.”
“But that’s just it,” Buffy argued. “We don’t know exactly what she wanted. Nobody at the Council knew why she stole the---.” She had to stop herself from blurting out the whole story, her eyes darting to Richard to gauge his reaction at her near slip. “---stuff,” she finished.
“Perhaps she conceived you as a threat to her plans,” Rose said.
“But I started drinking the tea before I actually got involved.”
“Which suggests she had knowledge that you didn’t.” Rose took a deep breath. “When you were in the park, did either of you ever…notice anything odd? You say the park was always the same. Were there any details that varied from encounter to encounter?”
She was growing tired of the repetition of the questions. “I already told you no,” Buffy said. “Everything was always---.”
“Buffy.” He wasn’t getting her attention, and when the Slayer looked up at William in query, his eyes were locked on Rose’s rather than her.
“What about Buffy?” the seer asked.
“She was often…hurt. I even had to bandage her foot once because it was bleeding so badly.”
Buffy shook her head. “But that was nothing. I told you it was from the slaying. It was no biggie.”
“From your slaying?” She looked back to see Rose staring at her. “While you were awake?”
“That’s a physical manifestation of your corporeal body in what you thought was an unreal world, Buffy. That shouldn’t be possible.”
Why was it anyone connected to the Council had to make everything so hard to understand? “English, please,” Buffy said. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“What do you mean, she’s not really here?”
Spike shrugged. “Just tellin’ you what the witch said, Red. If you’re lookin’ for sense of it, you’re not goin’ to get it from me.”
“But…that’s ridiculous. Her body is right in front of them. I even touched her when I was trying to wake her up. If she’s not here, then my name’s Joe Bob.”
“Well, that Esme seems pretty damn sure the Slayer’s not in residence.” He smirked before adding, “Joe Bob.”
“That can’t be right.” She pushed him closer to the door he’d inched away from. “Listen harder. And this time, get it right.”
He gave her the highlights as he listened to the conversation inside.
“The Watcher bird’s pissed because the Slayer’s been hurt.”
“Hurt? How? She was fine. You didn’t---.”
“Wasn’t me. Oh. Sounds like she thinks the Slayer’s been fighting. Something about knuckle abrasions.” He grinned. “At least that witch doesn’t believe in mollycoddling Summers like the rest of you lot. She’s the only one who doesn’t seem fussed about this.”
“That’s because it was her spell that did this to Buffy.”
“She didn’t know about the fucking, though. ‘Cept she sounds more happy about the Slayer gettin’ some than you were.”
“No. No happy. Happy isn’t good.”
Silence, except for the muffled arguing on the other side of the door.
“What’s she saying, Spike?”
He was frowning, the lines in his brow deepening as his concentration increased on the door. Finally, his head swiveled to stare at Willow.
“You sent the Slayer back in time? Are you completely barmy?”
“No! It wasn’t me. I told you, it was Esme.” She hesitated. “She actually said that? That Buffy was back in…time?”
Spike nodded. “Something about splitting her between time periods. That the mojo opened the door for her but with whatever that kept bringing her essence back to this one gettin’ trashed, the Slayer’s in a kind of limbo.” He looked furiously at her, and she shrank away from his pending explosion. “What the hell did you do?”
William’s fingernails dug into his palms, leaving crescent-shaped hollows from the force. “You must be mistaken,” he bit out. He could barely see Rose through the fury-hued fog that had settled in around him at her words. “There is no doubt that Buffy is here. Your divinations are wrong.”
Rose shook her head. “She’s only partially here. Your claims regarding her injuries during your dreams support my research. The universe requires order, William. It requires balance. Time travel spells especially need careful attention. One can’t simply transfer a person from one time to the next without paying a serious price. Magic doesn’t work that way.”
“But magic works to put me in two places at the same time,” Buffy said.
“Your body,” Rose corrected. “Your spirit, what makes you you, your lifeforce…that is in this time. Without the journal, you no longer have the anchor to pull you back. You’re…on a loop, so to speak.”
She didn’t know why he was so pissed. It was her best friend in there, and it was her friend that was obviously having sex with Spike---no, William, and why didn’t Buffy tell me? Isn’t that what best friends are for?---and it was her friend that was currently stuck in limbo because of Esme’s spell and Mr. Travers’ pigheadedness. None of this had anything really to do with him because he didn’t remember, right?
Oh god. Spike didn’t remember…did he?
“What’s going on now?” she asked, desperate to distract him. Her hands pushed at the immovable wall of his chest as she tried to guide him back to the door, only to be stopped by the deadly squeeze of his grip as he grabbed her wrists.
“I think it’s time to crash this little party, don’t you?” Spike said. His humor about the situation had vanished with the arrival of the new knowledge, and she was helpless against his decision when he reached down and twisted the knob, snapping the lock that had already been replaced by hotel management.
Esme and Lydia were on either side of the bed when Spike dragged her in, but Willow wasn’t aware of the tension between them, or the surprise that clouded their faces at the abrupt entrance. The only thing she saw was Buffy, stretched out on the bed between them, her left hand held firmly in Esme’s.
“What’re you doing?” Willow demanded.
“Proving my point,” Esme replied. A flash of silver appeared in her free hand, and it was moving through the air before anyone---even Spike---could react.
“So, we break the loop,” Buffy said. “Problem---ow!”
William jerked as the hand Buffy had been gesturing with snapped back into her body, her attention diverted to her fingers. As he watched, a sliver of crimson welled in the fleshy pad of her thumb, tiny beads of blood already spilling from the cut that had appeared from nowhere.
He was on his knees before she could respond, his handkerchief pulled from his pocket and pressed to the minor injury before she could protest. Behind him, the presences of Rose and Richard closed in on him, but all William could concentrate on was the disbelief that colored Buffy’s eyes.
“What happened?” he asked, though his gut was twisting from the potential of her reply.
It took her several moments to reply. During that time, her gaze flitted from his concerned aspect, to the pair that stood behind him, to her hand, all the while processing the implication of a wound appearing out of thin air in relation to the information Rose had just shared with her.
When she spoke, it was a single word.
Not even Spike was bothering to hold her back as she rushed forward and grabbed the blade from Esme’s grip. “Ever heard of the power of speech?” Willow barked, forcing her way between the witch and the bed so that Buffy’s hand fell back to the mattress. “It’s this amazing thing where it’s possible to argue your point without slicing and dicing my best friend!”
Esme was entirely unperturbed by the attack. “Lydia was proving difficult to convince,” she replied.
“I’m afraid I agree with Ms. Rosenberg on this,” the Watcher interjected. “I never asked you for a personal demonstration. And I fail to see what exactly this is going to do.”
All eyes followed Esme’s as she watched the Slayer’s slumber in the bed. Now that she was up close, Willow could see some of the things Spike had mentioned---the freshly broken skin on Buffy’s knuckles, a bruise on her shin that was too bright not to have been made within the past twenty-four hours. Mix that in with his observation regarding the recent sexual activity, the results of which had been confirmed by Lydia’s earlier physical examination, and Willow had no choice but to accept the fact that what Esme said was true.
Her breath caught in her throat when even more evidence started bleeding before her.
“Bloody hell…” Spike muttered.
She heard rather than saw him take a step away from the bed. Slowly, Willow crouched down, a gentle finger reaching out to trace the air over the fresh cut on Buffy’s thumb. “Not too bloody, thank god,” she murmured.
It was a shallow incision, crossing the first to make a distinguishable X. Short and clean, it looked entirely too controlled not to be deliberate, and as its implication sank in, Willow let out the breath she’d been holding in an audible stream.
“She knows,” she said triumphantly.
Little by little, his heart was breaking.
“She’s figured it out,” Buffy was exclaiming, her voice fast and pitched in her excitement. “I knew Willow would do it. The girl’s got a brain as big as Texas.”
Her face was flushed, her eyes sparkling, and the handkerchief that he’d wrapped around her hand after watching her create the second cut in her thumb was long forgotten. The newfound enthusiasm made her teem with life, and though William thought she’d never looked more beautiful, inside, he’d never felt so insignificant.
He didn’t even hear most of her ensuing conversation with Rose. While he’d accepted that Buffy would have to leave at some point, the fact that her friend had already deduced the truth of her existence didn’t bode well for her departure being in the far future. In fact, if she was as intelligent as Buffy professed, he held little doubt that it would be much, much sooner, and all his dreams and all his fantasies of marriage and shared time were sent adrift in the forced wake of the blonde’s eagerness to proceed.
He felt Richard’s eyes boring in him, but one glance at the older man was all it took to send William scuttling back to his mental corner. I must be wearing my disappointment too blatantly, he thought. If Richard can see, then surely Buffy will, and I can’t blemish her goodwill on this.
Taking a deep breath, William eased himself from his kneeling position at her feet to sit beside Buffy on the divan, taking her uninjured hand in his and squeezing it in support. He smiled when she looked up at him in surprise, and said, “What is it you wish me to do?”
“There’s nothing you can do.”
Willow gaped at her in disbelief. “But there has to be. Buffy knows now. I can’t just sit back and wait.”
“We’ve already done what we can. It’s as I told Lydia. William is here to bring her back now that we don’t have the journal. Once he kills April, you and I will cast the spell that powers him to act as her anchor, and before you know it, you’ll have your friend back.”
“As long as Buffy drinks the tea on her end.”
“Which she will. She’s an intelligent girl. She’ll know what she has to do to return.”
Willow sighed. “So, we’re back to relying on Spike. Great.” As she turned away from the bed, she noticed for the first time since barging in, that the room behind her was empty. No vampire. No Watcher.
And the door standing wide open.
Fear swelled inside Willow as she ran from the room, only to plow into Lydia coming down the hall. The Watcher’s normally perfect bun was disheveled, and she was limping with her broken shoe in her hand.
“What...?” Willow started, just to have the question die on her lips when Lydia shook her weary head.
“He bolted while you two were arguing,” she said. “And I tried to chase him, but...he’s so fast. I’m sorry, Miss Rosenberg. William is gone.”
To be continued in Chapter 29: A Poet’s Rage…