DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXIII.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike and Willow have fled the hotel, leaving Lydia behind for Esme to find, while April in the past has followed Richard and Rose to William’s house; William was awoken at Richard’s arrival and learned that Buffy is still with him…
Shame was not an emotion that she often admitted to. It meant weakness, and years of stripping away her femininity in order to achieve the status with the Watcher’s Council that she so desperately desired had hardened Lydia to caring. Or, rather, it had girded her against conceding that she did. But lying to herself when she was too busy shredding the skin on her wrists trying to free herself was just too much.
She understood that it was entirely her fault. She’d given in to that schoolgirl fantasy about the bad boy vampire that she’d channeled into her thesis, and ended up strangled unconscious and left tied up on her own bed. For what purpose Spike had done it, though, she had no idea. When she’d come to, the first thing she’d done was sit up, and her reflection in the dresser’s mirror was the only confirmation Lydia needed that Spike had neither bitten nor raped her. The only marks he’d left were the bruises around her neck from where he’d come up behind her, and oddly enough, that made her angrier than if he’d actually violated her in some way. Fury had fueled her attempts at escape, and she’d worked like a madwoman, scraping the thin cords against the rough edge of the radiator, to try and free her bonds.
Esme had yet to return, which actually was the only thing in Lydia’s favor at the moment. Dawn was only just creeping over the horizon, and she breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the final fray disintegrated the cords around her wrists. Perhaps she could still save the situation. As long as Willow and Buffy were all right, Esme need never know that Spike had both returned and slipped through their clutches again.
She was almost ill when she found the Slayer’s empty room. But when frantic pounding at Willow’s door relinquished no response, Lydia knew that she was too late. Spike had absconded with both young women, most likely killing them. Esme would not be pleased about this latest turn of events.
The idea came to her as she walked past Buffy’s door. Without a Slayer to save, Lydia no longer had any use to associate with Esme. In fact, the elderly witch would most likely consider her a detriment and try to find some way to get rid of her. She’d already proven she could be more than ruthless if she needed to be. So, logic said that if Lydia couldn’t redeem herself in the Council’s eyes by helping Buffy, then perhaps she could do so by helping them finally apprehend Esme.
Not willing to run the risk of the elderly witch walking in on her, Lydia made the call to Headquarters from Buffy’s room. She wasn’t in the least surprised when it was picked up on the first ring.
“Marcus? It’s Lydia.” She spoke before he could even get his greeting completed, knowing that no one but he would answer his private line. When it came to friends within the Council, he was probably the closest she could claim.
“Lydia? Where are you? What happened? How in heavens did you get out of here?”
“It’s a long story, and I don’t think I have much time, so listen to me. I know Mr. Travers’ been kidnapped, but I also know you’ve probably tracked him by now---.”
“Well, we did, but that’s completely moot. He called here from his home just an hour ago.”
That stopped her. “What was that?”
“The vampire who kidnapped him encountered an enemy apparently. Quentin managed to escape as she was being dusted. He called to inform us that he’d be working from home today.”
Lydia frowned. Mr. Travers never worked from home. Even when he’d been ill with the rogue kularian virus, he’d still managed to help in recataloguing the Slayer transcripts in the archives. “Are you sure it was him?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“Of course. The men we had watching his house for his possible return confirmed that they saw him entering the premises. They even spoke with him for a few minutes before he dismissed them from duty.”
“And he was all right.”
“As all right as he could be considering he’d been tortured and such,” came the reply. “He told us he’d be seeking medical attention for his injuries later today.”
None of this was making sense. “But…did he say who kidnapped him?” Lydia pressed. “Were you able to firmly identify who it was?” Having seen the videotapes, she already knew it was April; Esme had confirmed it as such. It was inevitable that Mr. Travers would find out. It would be one of the first things he would try and discover from a captor.
“He said he never learned her name---.”
She hung up before he could go on. Something was dreadfully wrong. Everything that had happened with Mr. Travers went completely against what he represented; there was no doubt in Lydia’s mind that he was still in some kind of danger. That meant April was somehow pulling his strings, but for what purpose?
She paced as she thought. Piece by piece, strands of what she’d gleaned over the past twenty-four hours began to weave into a tapestry she could manage, even if she didn’t fully recognize it.
She and Mr. Travers were merely pawns in this war between Esme and April. Both women were bound and determined to destroy the other, and willing to sacrifice anyone to do so. Though the issue had never been brought up, Lydia knew that Esme must somehow be responsible for Rupert Giles’ disappearance, which meant that she was hiding additional tricks lest her original plans failed. Or he was the purpose for another plot entirely.
What neither opponent knew was that Lydia was now privy to where both of them were. Well, she would be if Esme ever returned to the hotel. And she wasn’t completely sure that Mr. Travers would be foolish enough to allow such a powerful vampire sanctuary in his home, but she was willing to bet that if she wasn’t there, she was somewhere close. And fetchable, should a certain someone ring a certain Council Head and tell him where he could find a certain runaway witch.
Maybe it didn’t matter that the Slayer and Willow were missing.
Maybe Esme and April would destroy each other…all on their own.
When the carriage lumbered to a stop, she dared a peek out the window, brows shooting upward when she recognized the familiar street. “Why would Richard need to visit that David Howard’s home?” April mused out loud. “We didn’t forget and leave somebody accidentally alive, did we?”
“Only that simp William you insisted be your messenger,” Nathan replied. His mood was foul. Everything about this trip to London was turning into a disaster, and the sense of doom that had plagued him since they’d first arrived was beginning to make his flesh fester. “Is your curiosity satisfied yet? Can we go home now?”
“I just don’t…Ohhhhhhh…” The last was almost an orgasmic exhalation, enough of a mood shift for his lover that Nathan couldn’t help but lean across to see what had captured her fancy so.
The street was deserted, the Howard home even blacker, but following her line of sight, Nathan saw the Watcher’s coach further down the street, and the quartet that were emerging from a neighboring home to embark it.
“---Slayer,” April finished. She’d unconsciously slipped into her demon mask, a weakness she rarely succumbed to, and her lips were curled back into a snarl. “I should have known.”
He could see where this was going, and he didn’t like it. “There’s too many of them,” Nathan said, pulling her away from the pre-dawn light. “The Watcher will be prepared, and the Slayer---.” He didn’t say it out loud---no matter how much she claimed to love him, April would never forgive him for believing a living Slayer could defeat her---but it was enough for her to shoot him a glacial glare.
“So, we follow them to wherever they’re going, and then return later with more,” she said tightly. The rap she gave for the driver almost drove a hole through the wall, but quickly, the carriage was moving again.
Nathan settled back into the seat. The festering was turning to rot, and there was nothing he could do but go along for the ride. Ironic that a dead man would be so frightened of dying.
“You just…sense these things?” Buffy asked.
William had to bite the inside of his cheek not to smile at the frown that was drawing his love’s brows together as she regarded the older woman at her side. She had been questioning Rose’s abilities ever since hearing what the Rhodes-Fanshaws had learned, and for some reason, he was finding her every mannerism unbearably darling this morning. Perhaps it was the residual exaltation he was experiencing at knowing he was going to have her for another day, though she hadn’t seemed quite as pleased with the situation as he was once she’d been fully wakened. But whatever it was, it left him with a snug euphoria that made him feel remarkably invincible.
And amused as hell at everything Buffy was doing.
“Yes,” replied Rose, with a surprising patience considering how many times she’d been asked the question. Though the two women were seated on one side of the lurching carriage while the men sat on the opposite, she was turned enough to face the Slayer directly. It was almost as if she was studying Buffy, though why that would be happening today and not the day they had first met, William didn’t know.
“I’m more sensitive to some magics than I am others,” she continued. “Esme’s, in particular, seem to draw my attention with quite a zealous fervor.”
“Probably because she’s so strong,” Buffy replied. “Strong enough that she can outfox my Council, but you work differently than she expects. She hasn’t figured out how to hide from you.”
“Or even that she needs to,” William offered. He smiled when a surprised Buffy met his eyes. It was obviously an observation that she hadn’t considered yet.
“Which works in our favor,” she said. “You can be our secret weapon.”
This seemed to startle Rose. “I’m not a weapon,” she hastened to say. “What I do---.”
“I believe Miss Summers may be correct, dear,” Richard interjected. “If it turns out that we must confront her, you will likely be the one who will be able to slip through her defenses.”
“You’re not asking that I kill her, are you?” She sounded aghast at such a suggestion. “Regardless of what she’s done, she’s still human.”
“She’s got a point, Dick.”
William choked trying to hold back his laughter. For some reason, just that morning, Buffy had taken to addressing Richard by this unfortunate nickname---which for some reason, coming from her lips, sounding undeniably profane---and he had a strong suspicion it was a direct response to whatever confrontation they had shared the previous night. While Richard colored at the label, however, she remained bright-eyed and artlessly collected every time she used it, and that only made it all the worse.
“She will need to be dealt with,” he said stiffly.
“So we’ll figure out a non-lethal way of doing it,” she replied. “I don’t kill humans. Even you should know that’s not part of the Slayer job description. Well, not until after they get themselves turned, that is.”
William’s mirth vanished at the decidedly scornful remark. It was a low blow, even considering what might have happened between them, but it accomplished what she had obviously wanted. It silenced Richard from the conversation.
“Do you think she took someone else?” Buffy asked, resuming her interrogation of the seer.
Rose cast a watchful eye toward her husband before replying. “I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “I wasn’t aware that Mrs. Freston had been taken when I sensed it the first time. And I most definitely wasn’t aware that you’d arrived at the second happenstance.”
This brought the frown back to Buffy’s face. “You don’t think it’s possible someone else has come back in time, do you?” She directed the question to William, who shook his head in response.
“That would require someone being in the park when we were, wouldn’t it?” he reasoned. “And I’m fairly certain we were alone.”
“Do you recognize the address or anything? Some long-forgotten relative she might be interested in snatching?”
Another shake of his head. “I’m not familiar with that part of London at all, I’m afraid.”
“Huh. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see, then.”
The carriage lapsed into quiet for the remainder of the trip, each lost in their individual thoughts. When the jostling stopped, the creak of wood from the driver’s seat followed by the slight rock of the coach’s body announced their arrival, and Buffy was the first to alight, nearly knocking over the driver when he tried to open the door for her.
William was the last to get out, and he blinked against the bright light. “This can’t be right,” he heard Buffy say.
He looked in the direction the others were staring, and blinked again. “Are we there?” he asked. A swivel of his head revealed that the surrounding area was just as deserted as the plot in front of them. There were houses in the far distance, back in the direction from which they’d come, but otherwise, only grass and scattered bushes occupied the allotment and its neighbors. “There’s nothing here.”
“There is.” Rose had paled, her gaze transfixed. Slowly, she took a step forward, and William noticed the sudden shift in her breathing, the instantaneous response from Richard when he grasped her elbow to steady her. “It’s so…potent…”
As he watched, Buffy inched closer to him, her hand reaching out to entwine with his. “Serious magic always wigs me out,” she murmured for his ears only. “Give me something to hit, and I’m fine. But this…” She shook her head. “What is she doing?”
He wasn’t willing to admit his ignorance and instead squeezed her hand, hoping she would see it as a reassuring gesture. He froze, though, the spider legs of disquietude creeping down the back of his neck, when the faint sound of breathless singing filled the morning air.
“Early one morning, just as the sun was shining…”
“Mother…” William whispered.
Richard shot a frown over his shoulder. “What did you say?” he asked over the murmured song still coming from a mesmerized Rose.
“That’s…one of Mother’s favorite songs,” he stammered. His eyes darted across the barren field that seemed to stretch before them before returning to the seer. So regular…like a carefully laid table…too uniform in its casualness…
Too good to be true.
William straightened. “She’s here,” he said quickly. His eyes were bright as he glanced at Buffy. “The magic that Rose is feeling…it’s hiding them. It has to be.”
Before Buffy could respond, Rose collapsed against her husband’s arm, prompting the younger people to rush forward and ease her back up. When her breathing evened, her gaze settled on them, more lucid than they would have imagined she would be under the circumstances.
“We have work to do,” she said quietly. “Get my things.”
The first demon appeared from nowhere.
Rose had found a place near the carriage, surrounding herself with a plethora of candles---in daylight? Buffy was having a hard time wrapping her brain around the efficacy of that one---that seemed to drive her into some sort of trance. For the past four hours, she’d remained frozen within the circle, while the remaining trio just watched. And waited.
So, when the air seemed to thicken in the field in front of them, and the horned, seven-foot demon came snarling and drooling from a fold in the space, Buffy was almost grateful for the distraction, because it meant she had something to do at last.
Until it headed straight for William.
“No!” she screamed.
The cry broke through the concentration he’d been directing at Rose, and William turned in time to see Buffy rush forward and tackle the demon from behind, rolling into the brush with a flurry of skirts and fists.
It was big, but it was stupid, and as quickly as she’d landed on its back, the Slayer had grabbed its horns and given its neck a violent twist, tumbling with it to the ground when it fell over dead. She was wiping the scales from her hands when William bent to help her to her feet.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He held her out at arms’ length and looked her over, a critical eye on the hunt for any sign of injury.
“I’m fine,” she replied. She turned a knowing gaze to Richard, who had stopped halfway en route to the carriage for weapons. “Guess that’s our answer, huh?”
Richard’s nod only seemed to perplex William. “Our answer to what?” the young man said.
“That we’re on the right track,” Buffy said. “In my experience, if someone starts throwing big, tall, and uglies at you, you’re usually starting to piss them off.” She began walking toward the coach. “There’s going to be more. I need to arm up---.”
She was forced to a stop when William’s arm curled around her bicep. “We need to arm up,” he said. His chin was high, his eyes earnest, and she realized…she’d never loved him more than she did in that moment.
Buffy smiled. “Right,” she said. “We need to.”
For a demon bed, it was surprisingly comfy. As soon as Willow’s head had hit the pillow, she’d been out for the count, not even Spike’s presence in the room enough to keep her from dreamland. Her sleep had been surprisingly nightmare-free considering the recent events, so when she felt the first stirrings of consciousness swipe away the wool inside her head, she actually sighed in bliss.
“’Bout time,” Spike said from somewhere in the room.
Willow’s eyes shot open. He must’ve been up for awhile, because the vampire’s hair was still damp from the shower, curling into wayward curls that softened the black of his attire, and the t-shirt he wore was oddly clean and free of holes. At her side, Buffy was still unconscious, though the duvet was back up to her neck as if it had never been drawn.
“How do you feel?” she asked, sitting up. When the blanket fell down around her waist, she saw his cocked brow at the muppet on her chest, and promptly pulled it back up to her chin.
“Better,” came the terse reply. He began pacing at the foot of the bed, the rapid force of it making the mattress slightly vibrate. “Look. ‘Bout last night---.”
“Last night?” Willow deliberately affected her most innocent stare. She didn’t want to think about what she’d told him, and she certainly didn’t want to dwell on how he might’ve taken Buffy’s opinion of his poetry. That was between the two blonds. She would feel much more comfortable if they could just straighten it out themselves. “What about last night?”
A growl escaped Spike’s throat. It was then that she realized that she’d not once seen him look at Buffy. In fact, he seemed to be going out of his way to look at anything but Buffy. Her disposition grew darker. What exactly happened between them last night?
“I’ve been doin’ some thinking---.”
Oh, that’s never good.
“---and the way I suss it, the Slayer’s not goin’ to be too thrilled to see me hanging around when she wakes up. I trust you, Red, though fuck knows why sometimes, but when it comes to Buf---Slayer there, well…” His agitation was increasing, and Willow wondered just how long he’d been waiting for her to wake up.
“What is it, Spike?” she asked, trying for calm in hopes that might soothe some of the hurly-burly inside his head. “Just spit it out.”
He stopped in his tracks to stare at her, but the gleam in his eyes made her unexpectedly shiver.
“Think there has to be a new order to this mania of ours,” Spike said, his voice a menacing rumble. “My order…”
To be continued in Chapter 36: From You Have I Been Absent…