DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has given Willow an ultimatum about the order of the spells, Buffy has found Giles and Anne, and April has arrived at the house to finish off Richard for good…
Even William didn’t expect Buffy to start marching for the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked, darting forward to stand between her and the exit. “Did you not hear Richard?”
He matched her step sideways, continuing to block her way. “And don’t you think it would be wise to exercise just a little caution?” William said. “He has a valid point. They are freshly arrived, while we’ve been---.”
“---in the trenches all day, yeah, I was kinda there, remember?” This time when he mimicked her sidestep, Buffy sighed in exasperation. “Is there a reason we’re going with the Three Stooges routine here? Because last time I checked, there were vampires to kill and I am the Slayer.”
His eyes searched hers, his exhaustion forgotten as he tried to find reason to her actions. “It’s not safe,” he argued. No longer could he resist reaching and brushing back the loose tendril that had escaped just before the magic had fallen to reveal the house. It had eaten him not to feel free to do so in the cellars, but the sheer fact that he’d held Buffy’s hand had been as bold a maneuver as he dared in either his mother’s or her Watcher’s presence. Until they were formally told of William’s relationship with Buffy, it wouldn’t do to make them uncomfortable with improper displays. He’d had to settle for discreetly leaving his hand at the small of her back, all the while aching to take her in his arms and pronounce to the people he cared for the most how much he loved her.
“As long as we remain inside,” William continued, “they can’t hurt you.”
“As long as we remain inside,” Buffy countered, “we’re prisoners of our own fear. That’s not the way I work. You know that.”
He didn’t know if it was the silent plea in her gaze, or the affirmation of how well they understood each other that made him automatically step aside. He only knew that she was right, and if he stopped her from doing this, she would resent him.
“You’re a foolish little girl,” Richard said harshly when she opened the door. “April’s a killer.”
“Guess what?” Buffy said calmly. “So am I.”
When the door closed shut behind her, William heard the effects of her emergence long before he reached the window. Footsteps pounded up the stone steps, snarls and bellows filtering through the thick walls as they charged, and when he could finally see outside, he noted that five of them had rushed the porch in their vicious attack.
“Foolish little girl,” Richard repeated under his breath.
It was an instinctive reaction. With the rapidity of a man incensed, William’s fist shot out and slammed into Richard’s jaw, taking both of them by pained surprise. The Watcher fell backwards and stared up at his attacker.
“Coward,” William spat. The venom shocked him, but it was a long time coming, and flowed from his tongue with a vitriol that made his veins burn. “And to think that I actually felt sorry for you, and what you’ve gone through over the past twenty years.”
“You have no idea---.”
“No, I think it is you who fails to understand, Richard.” A sharp finger jabbed toward the pane. “That woman is the bravest person I have ever known, and she is out there at this very minute, doing what you should have done all those years ago. She does so, without any thought of recompense, with no regard for whether she will survive or not, while you hide within the cover of these walls, cowering and complaining because your precious Council just might learn of your deception. Tell me how that makes her the foolish one here.”
Slowly, Richard rose to his feet, wary now of another attack. “Your love blinds you, William,” he said.
“You’re wrong. If anything, it’s opened my eyes.”
“To what? A lifetime of danger? A love that will only end in heartache?” He began circling the younger man, frustration fuelling his steps. “Prior to Buffy, you were safe, with your cozy little books, and your too-precious verses. You had the luxury of not having to walk in the paths I’ve traveled, and not having to witness people you love perish because of vile monsters with no concern but their own amusement. Do you honestly believe that, given the opportunity, Buffy would want you to face such danger every day for the remainder of your life? If you do, you’re a bigger fool than she is.”
The muscles in William’s jaw ached from clenching them so tightly. “I would do it,” he forced. “For her.”
Neither spoke for a long moment. It was only when the door was yanked open and Buffy came hurtling in, that either of them moved.
“Are you all right?” William asked, rushing to her side.
Her blouse was slashed across the forearm, a new cut creating crimson rivulets along her skin before adding fresh stains to the white cotton. “Better than the four vamps I just dusted,” she replied as he pressed his handkerchief to her wound. She frowned when she saw the stiff posture of the Watcher near the window, her eyes darting between the pair of men. “I didn’t interrupt a lover’s quarrel or something, did I?”
“No.” William glanced up sharply when Richard answered her first. “William and I were discussing what our best method of attack should be,” the older man went on.
“Oh.” She looked pleased with that response, smiling a little as she handed back the handkerchief. “What did you come up with?”
“The only thing we could agree upon was that you shouldn’t have to be out there alone,” Richard said. Resolutely, he reached for the sword he’d set aside when they’d first entered. “Is April still out there?”
“I think so. She’s acting like General Patton directing her troops. I think she’s waiting for you, if you really want to know.”
He didn’t know why the Watcher had changed his mind, but there was no time for William to dwell on the question. “You said you dusted four vamps,” he said. Using a clean edge of his handkerchief, he wiped down his blade as he spoke. “I counted five on the porch with you.”
“That little piggy when wee wee wee all the way back out to the road,” Buffy replied. “I figure there’s about eight or nine left, including April and her boytoy.”
“Enough to go around, then,” William said with a smile. It faded when he looked at Richard. “Ready?”
A grim nod from the older man. “Ready.”
It wasn’t a solution Rose thought she’d voice aloud. When the idea had first come to her, she’d believed it would have to be done covertly, for even Richard would be qualmish having his memory tampered with. But she saw no other way to avoid the pain that was inevitable with Buffy’s departure. And what of her effect on the past? All their intentions and well-spoken ideals about not tampering with the timeline meant little in the face of her direct involvement with April. How could Rose be certain that the restoration of each into their proper lives wouldn’t have catastrophic repercussions?
She knew at a glance that both strangers now regarding her were torn on the decision. The Watcher’s countenance, especially, was growing darker with each passing second, and she wasn’t surprised that he was the first to break the silence that followed her announcement.
“Those types of spells require serious magics,” he commented. “I’m not comfortable with my Slayer being subjected to such, regardless of the circumstances.”
“It wouldn’t be for Buffy,” Rose began to explain.
“You wish to alter William’s memories alone?” Anne interjected. “That hardly seems just.”
“It wouldn’t be only William. It would be everyone she’s interacted with. Your household staff, William, yourself. Even my husband. It’s the past we need to be careful in preserving, Mrs. Freston. I very much doubt that William was ever intended to meet with Buffy in the first place. It’s only Esme’s intervention that has clouded everything so, and I think it’s our duty to rectify the damage she has done if we can.”
“Yes,” Giles murmured. “Quite.”
“But…” Anne seemed perplexed by the argument, her eyes jumping to the door for a long moment before returning to gaze at the seer. “It will change him. I don’t know if you knew my son prior to his…involvement with Miss Summers, but…”
Giles stepped in when it became obvious she couldn’t complete the thought. “He’s not exactly the same boy you described to me, is he, Anne?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He’s…stronger, somehow. And I’ve never seen him disregard his appearance so completely. It’s as if…”
“…something else was more important to him,” Rose finished softly. “That would be Buffy.” She took a deep breath. “I did see your son before she arrived, Mrs. Freston. So I know the changes you speak of. I can’t say that this option fills me with joy, because it doesn’t. As much as I feel it’s a necessity, I also regret taking away such a gift as his relationship with her has been.”
“Does he have to forget…everything?” Anne asked, her voice almost a whisper.
Rose frowned. “He would have to,” she said simply. “Or else, the spell is meaningless.”
“And his life would proceed as normal,” Giles said. “Along the path originally dictated before Buffy’s arrival.”
“Yes.” He was hiding something, and for a moment, Rose regarded the Watcher with curiosity. It was very much like Buffy’s own elusion when the issue of the timeline had been addressed; if she had to wager a guess, she’d say that one or the both of them knew more than they wanted to admit about William’s future. It would be interesting to discover just what that was.
“I’m not certain why you’re telling us this,” Anne said. “I get the distinct impression that you’ve already made your decision.”
Rose held her tongue. Anything she said now would exacerbate an already egregious situation, and she had a sinking feeling that Rupert Giles was far more discerning than Buffy may have let on. For a moment as those piercing eyes contemplated her, she had the absolute confidence that he even knew what she was, that he could see the vestiges of her previous life etched in her face. Did the Watchers in his time know of her kind’s existence? Were the ramifications of Richard’s lifetime felt even with her intervention? Of what value was her obtrusion into the past if the deeds she’d coaxed from her husband were not enough to alter the future?
Just as quickly, though, the feeling was gone, and Giles was patting Anne’s shoulder, assuring her that everything would work out for the best. Rose took a step away from the pair, her gaze slipping behind to see the empty hallway, distancing herself from any further arguments.
“I’m going to see how things are faring upstairs,” she said. “The others…may need my help.”
“Wait. I wish to come with you.” Giles turned to Anne and offered her a courtly bow. “In the event I don’t see you again…it has been my pleasure, Anne. I sincerely hope that life treats you kindly.” When he straightened, his eyes were deadly as they slid back to Rose. “Now, we may go.”
She’d hoped the vamps on the porch would finish off the Slayer, leaving Richard and his beloved whore of a second wife as easy prey. But when the fourth had exploded in a cloud of dust and the last had come scuttling back to safety while the Slayer resumed refuge in the house, April knew she would have to take matters into her own hands if she was going to get the retribution she sought.
“Mind the carriage,” she commanded as she began marching for the porch.
Nathan’s grip yanked her to a halt. “You are not leaving me behind,” he growled.
“No, I’m leaving you as my rear guard.” She pulled her arm away and gestured toward the remaining vampires milling about the plot. “I’m surrounded by incompetents! You are the only one I trust to ensure none of the humans escape. If you want this to be truly over between me and Richard, you’ll do it. No more questions.”
She knew he was reaching the end of his patience for her vendettas. Though he was younger than her---in vamp years---he sported no such ties to the human race. His turning had marked his liberation, he always said; Nathan felt no need to have any contact with the people who’d populated his other existence. She almost envied him the freedom.
“One hint of losing and I’m going to be at your side,” he warned.
April smiled and pulled him down for a quick and bloody kiss. “I don’t lose, remember?” she whispered in his ear.
She had switched to her demon mask before she reached the bottom stair. “Don’t tell me you’re frightened!” she called out as she climbed. “Or are you tired? Does the itty bitty Slayer need a nap?”
April smiled when the door opened and Buffy stepped out, stake at the ready. “Why does everyone have such an issue with my height?” she said lightly. She began strolling down the length of the porch, away from the door she’d left slightly ajar behind her. “I’m not that short. OK, not exactly runway material, but still, I can reach my own drinking glass most of the time.”
As she watched, Buffy leapt onto the railing, balancing for a moment before vaulting onto the ground. “Acrobatics won’t save you,” April warned, joining her back on the lawn.
“No, I’m pretty much relying on this to.” Her expert lunge forward drove the vampire back and out of her range, the point of the wood snagging on April’s bodice but otherwise missing its target. “You know, this would go a lot quicker if you’d just stop moving around.”
“This fight isn’t yours.”
“And you’d just let a tasty little morsel like me walk away?” Buffy shook her head. “Why do I find that hard to believe?”
“My interest lies in Richard.”
“And William. He told me all about your job offer. And just so that we have it straight? He’s way too smart to be a messenger boy.”
She didn’t understand why the Slayer was talking so much. Other than her first thrust---and April wasn’t so vain not to know that it had been a mere feint---she seemed more interested in conversation than fighting. It was infuriating. It was distracting. It was---.
She heard the snap and reacted instinctively, twisting and diving out of the way as the blade whistled through the air. It still managed to slice through her collar, though, leaving a deep gouge along the back of her neck that surely would’ve succeeded in severing her head if she hadn’t moved in time. Golden eyes sought the weapon’s owner and met the burning blue of a brazen William.
“Looks like the little Watcher finally grew up,” April said, regaining her composure. Over his shoulder, she could see Richard fighting with two of her minions, while the others seemed torn between which battle to join. “I have to say, blood becomes you.”
“You know what?” Buffy said lightly. “I think I’m done talking now. I’m feeling more like kicking your melanin-deprived ass.”
Both of the humans charged at once, but April was ready, jerking her head toward the free vampires and shouting for them to join her. The call to arms drew enough of William’s attention for her to swat him aside with the back of her hand, leaving the Slayer as her only worthwhile opponent. “It would be my pleasure,” she snarled, and leapt toward the blonde.
She was waiting for him when he came stumbling back into the room. The glance she shot him was icy, but Spike caught the catch of Willow’s lip between her teeth when she saw the blood dripping from his hand. Still, to her credit, she remained silent, just watching as he grabbed the still-damp towel from his shower he’d left wadded up in the corner and wrapping it around the gash to stop the flow.
“You look like hell,” Spike commented, sprawling into the chair.
“That would be hunger,” she said. “I wasn’t the one who got out to eat today, remember?”
He grunted in response, returning his attention to his slight injury. It was just a flesh wound, but it had served its purpose, distracting Spike with his day of wandering and brawling, doing everything he could to not think about what was waiting for him back at the pub. The diversion had been superficial, though, for wherever he turned, a glimmer of blonde hair or a particular scent would drive his thoughts back to the Slayer, and Spike would have to bury himself deeper into the next fight to try and forget for just a few more minutes.
It didn’t take her long to crack. “Are you all right?” Willow asked, rising from where she had everything arranged on the floor and slowly approaching, as if he was a wounded wild dog.
“’S’nothin’,” he replied, but let her take his hand and look over the cut. He jerked his chin toward the display. “You got everything set up for my half of our dicker?”
“I still don’t like it, but you’re not giving me a choice, are you?” She sighed at his raised brow. “I want to get this over with. I’ve got the spell for Buffy ready, too, because if your butt is still in that chair when I’m done with the first one, I’m nailing you with the second, you got it, mister?”
“That was the bargain.” Spike closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the chair. “Lay it on me, Red.”
His body was a conflict of physical exhaustion from ten hours of roughhousing and a wire-strung coil of fretfulness over what exactly was going on inside his head. All he wanted was peace---or in its absence, a drunken haze would do---and he did everything he could to block out the sensations of the room around him. Every pulse of the Slayer’s breath underlaid the witch’s murmured words, themselves barely audible in the suddenly thick air, and Spike’s limbs seemed to merge with the worn fabric of the chair, rooting him immobile as the magic began to swirl around him.
He couldn’t have opened his eyes if he wanted. Somewhere, at the base of his skull, tiny fingers began to inch around his scalp, encircling with a staunch tenacity that made blood-red spots dance behind his closed lids, each exhalation around him whispering in growing volume until his body was vibrating in porous rhythm with the melody. Flashes of Dru on her supplicating knees, blood pouring from penitent wounds as she offered herself to Spike, made him growl in satisfaction.
He deserved this. After the nightmares of the past few weeks, he was due this reward. He half-hoped the magic really would transport him back to South America. It would serve the Slayer bitch right to get stuck in her neverwhen after everything she’d done to him.
The fingers were probing his eye sockets now, finding purchase along the bone before slithering inside. It burned, and for an instant, the room became a vacuum, the only thing alive in it Willow’s voice.
The words themselves began to stretch and breathe with their own spirit. As he listened, a tickle of alarm began to fester somewhere in the recesses of his brain, but Spike wasn’t ready just yet to disrupt the proceedings.
That banished the fantasies of Dru, replacing them with a maelstrom of sound and color that refused to bend to Spike’s will. His fear mushroomed, and he fought to regain control of his muscles, forcing his eyes open to see the witch glowing on the floor before him. The magic cloaked her in its luminescence, but she seemed oblivious to its power as she continued to read.
He knew that word.
He’d boasted that his Latin was better than hers, and yet, in his rush to get it over with, he hadn’t bothered to check over the bloody spell. And there it was, like the sword of Damocles ready to slice his throat.
That single word.
His voice was a mere croak as he struggled against the magic to reach toward her.
But she heard nothing.
And as Spike summoned the strength to lunge at Willow and break the incantation through sheer force, her head shot back, the paper in her hand flitting to the floor. The magic released to slam into the vampire, dragging him back into the chair with its undertow.
No more visions of Dru.
No more daydreams of bloody reconciliations with his dark princess.
Now, the pictures and voices in his head belonged to only one person.
Spike’s eyes fluttered shut. “Buffy…”
To be continued in Chapter 38: Heavenly Alchemy…