DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course,
and the chapter title comes from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXVI.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Giles has returned to London to tell the girls about the theft of a collection of crystal figures from the Council’s archives, while Buffy has finally admitted to William about what her life is really like…
“So,” she said, in as bright a voice as she could muster, “what’s the big game plan?”
From the spread in middle of the living room, Giles and Willow looked up to see Buffy hovering at the entrance, her hair and make-up already immaculately done to face the day. A smile graced her lips, but in their exhausted states, she could tell that they didn’t notice the shadow lurking behind her eyes.
“To tread softly and carry a really big stick,” Willow replied with a ghost of a grin. When Buffy giggled at the joke, the witch turned back to Giles. “Told you she’d think I was kidding.”
The Slayer’s mirth faded as she stepped into the room, perching herself on the arm of the couch. “A big stick?” she repeated. “You guys stayed up all night and you came up with the Neanderthal theory? No offense, but I could’ve done that.”
“It’s not like that.” Twisting, Willow began looking through the books that surrounded her, picking one up and setting it back down again as she spoke. “See, what the Council did was have their coven try tracing the magic, and when that didn’t work, they tried connecting it with this really cool demon locator spell. Except all that told them was that whoever was messing with the magic was protecting themselves from being found.”
Buffy was confused. “But they were found. The Council knows that they were here in London, right?”
“Only because you can’t completely hide that kind of power. Whoever did this tried, but what they did was just kind of scatter the effects. But basically, that still means the Council got bupkiss. So, what I was thinking…” Her voice trailed off, brows drawn in an annoyed scowl. “Where’d that book go?”
“I believe you’re sitting on it,” Giles offered, gesturing with his glasses toward her bottom.
Her frown vanished. “Oh,” Willow said, tilting sideways to extract the worn text from beneath her. She flipped through its pages. “Where was I?”
“Right. So, what I was thinking, what we need to do is collect what got scattered. Then, we can turn it around and use the magic itself to track down who cast it.”
“And how do you plan to do that?”
Folding the book open, Willow passed it over to Buffy, pointing to a picture in the center of the page. “With that.”
She looked at in confusion, turning the book sideways to examine it from that angle for a moment, before returning it right-side up. “It’s…a big stick.”
“Actually, it’s a divining rod,” Willow corrected. “Except instead of finding water, we’re going to be finding magic.”
“Why didn’t the Council do that?”
Buffy watched as Willow and Giles exchanged a quick glance, resulting in the Watcher dropping his glasses to his side and pinching the bridge of his nose. “It’s…unorthodox,” he said wearily. “What we’re considering doesn’t exactly fit Council protocols.”
“That doesn’t mean it won’t work,” Willow rushed. “All we’re doing is changing up the rod specs a little bit. You know…tweaking. To get it to do what we want.”
“And being tweaky isn’t going to backfire on us?”
Giles shook his head. “I’m fairly confident that the modifications we’ve made to the spell are mostly benign. It’s just…if the Council were to find out what we’re doing, they may attempt to stop us.”
Another look, and this time Buffy definitely felt like something else was going on that she wasn’t being let in on. They were trying to protect her yet again. Didn’t they get that she was sick and tired of being their damsel in distress?
“Some of our ingredients can only be obtained on the black market,” Giles explained. “Their collateral effect is completely salutary, but as you know, idiosyncratic methodology tends to be frowned upon by the Council.”
She couldn’t help her frown. “And you’re OK with this?” she asked her Watcher. “Since when is black anything good?”
“I wouldn’t be willing to do this if I wasn’t certain it was safe. Yes, individually, one or two of the requirements could be used for more diabolical purposes, but collectively, I honestly can’t foresee how anything but good can come from this. If it works, of course.”
“It’ll work,” Willow insisted.
“So let’s do it.” Buffy brightened. “Can I use it? I’ve been known to be pretty handy with long, pointy things.”
“Perhaps when the time comes.” Giles did his best to stifle a yawn, but failed as it overtook him. “There is a…drawback to the plan. It’s not exactly quick.”
“Define not quick.”
“A day to gather ingredients, two more to prepare. We won’t be able to actually use the rod until Monday at the earliest.”
Buffy crumpled at Giles’ announcement. Three days. Three days of wandering around the city without specific purpose. Three days of feeling useless while Giles and Willow did all the work. And she couldn’t try and distract herself with vacation-y stuff because she’d have to do it all by herself while they worked.
“There is something you can do, though,” he said when he caught the look on her face. “Though, to be honest, I rather dread asking it of you.”
She rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Giles,” Buffy said. “Whatever it is, it can’t be nearly as bad as being stuck here all day watching BBC1.”
“I’d like you to meet with Quentin Travers.”
Beat. “OK. You win.”
“It would only be for today,” he hurried to add. “He’d requested to see you anyway, should you agree to help retrieving the collection.”
“What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I assume he wishes to discuss your role as the Slayer within the Council.”
She was almost quivering as the energy she’d been restraining vented through her frenetic pacing around the room. “I’m not going back to work for them!” Buffy said. “This is a one-time deal only. After the stunt they pulled, there is no way I trust them as far Willow could throw them. If he thinks---.”
“I’ve already told him this,” Giles interrupted. He rose to stand before her, forcing her to jerk to a halt and stare up at him with blazing eyes. “I understand your reluctance to speak with him directly, but I wouldn’t ask it of you if it wouldn’t be of value to us.”
“And it would only be today while we’re getting the ingredients to make the rod,” Willow chimed in. “You can go back to boring television tomorrow.”
At least now she understood why they’d been so reluctant to share any information, Buffy thought. They’d known all along that they were going to ask her to see Travers and considering the history, they were probably expecting an even more violent response from her.
“I’m not going back to work for them,” Buffy repeated. “And I’m reserving the right to call him an arrogant asshole for thinking I might.”
“He is kind of a goober for thinking that,” agreed Willow.
“Regardless of his…goober status,” Giles said, wincing slightly at the foreign word on his tongue, “I appreciate your help in this, Buffy. Thank you.”
She kept her retort to herself as she nodded and watched them begin picking up the books from the floor. Maybe it won’t be so bad, she thought. It’s just a meeting with one really annoying old man I could kick into next week if I had to. What could be so bad about that?
The sea of faces that greeted her when she stepped into the conference room made Buffy pause. She’d expected to be ushered immediately into Travers’ office when she’d announced her arrival at Council Headquarters. After all, she was the only currently active Slayer; surely, that afforded her a bit of celebrity here, if nowhere else. Instead, the wizened secretary had glared at her icily over her bifocals, and pointed to a straight-backed chair on the opposite wall.
“Sit,” she’d instructed. “I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.”
It had been a long forty-five minutes of fidgeting---and boy, what she wouldn’t have done for a seat cushion---before the secretary had given her another cold glance, this time after hanging up from a call that had come through. “Come with me,” she’d said, and Buffy had followed her through the narrow halls, getting lost after the third bend and second flight of stairs. By the time they’d stopped before the closed door, Buffy was well on the way to the land of regret about her decision to show up.
And now facing the wide, wide world of Watchers was enough to make her start actually missing the good old days of facing off with Snyder in his office. At least then, it had only been her against one stuffed shirt. This was a whole gaggle.
“Have a seat, Miss Summers,” Quentin said from his position at the head of the table. He gestured toward the lone empty chair directly opposite him, and waited until she’d perched herself on its edge before continuing. “I’m sure you’re curious as to why I’ve asked to see you.”
“Just call me George,” she said, her nervous smile already hurting her cheeks. It faded slightly as almost everyone at the table immediately began flipping through the manila files in front of them, and she caught her name on the outer tab of the one nearest her. Great. I really am the newest monkey in the cage.
“I’m surprised Rupert didn’t accompany you,” Quentin said, ignoring the confused reaction her quip had created among his colleagues. “His overprotection would seem to extend especially to us.”
“He’s busy,” she said. “With the books. And the…reading of the books. Because that’s what he does, you know. Read. Books. With all the…words.” Even as it was coming out, she could tell she was babbling but had no idea how to stop it. Giles had warned her about their potential inquiry, and she’d had this whole speech planned that would divert their attention from the shopping of all things magical that was actually happening. It figured that it would decide to am-scray just when she needed it.
“Yes.” Fingers steepled, he leaned back in his chair, gaze steady but inscrutable. “I suppose it’s better this way. I very much prefer discussing this without his presence.”
“This? Am I going to find out what ‘this’ is any time soon here?”
Quentin glanced at the woman who sat to his left, and nodded. As Buffy watched, the slim blonde straightened her glasses before rising to her feet.
“Historical precedence for the advent of a second Slayer during the current Slayer’s imcumbency is erratic at best,” she started, reading from the index cards she held in her hand. “Thus, with the actualization of your renewed allegiance to the Council---.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Buffy stood up, pushing back her chair to allow her room to stand at the table. “OK. I’ll admit to not really being the brainiac on Watcher-speak, but I understood that last part just fine.” She leveled her gaze at Travers. “Let’s get this straight, Mr. Travers. There is no allegiance here. I’m still a free agent, and you’re still the asshole responsible for almost getting my mother killed and then firing Giles when he tried to do the right thing. So, if this little show you’ve staged here is just to intimidate me into making me a permanent fixture on the Council’s agenda, then you’re wasting both of our time, because it’s never going to happen. I’ve been on edge ever since graduation. Don’t push me over it, or I just might take you down with me.”
There was silence. By the range of shock on the Watchers’ faces, it was obvious that few people talked back to Quentin Travers but it did nothing to shake Buffy’s resolve.
“Are you about finished, Miss Summers?” he finally queried, his tone unperturbed.
“It depends,” she countered. “Are you done with the Slayer recruitment scheme?”
“There is no scheme.” His eyes flickered to the blonde, and she resumed her seat without his saying a word. “Your presence here today is in conjunction with our search for the crystal. Lydia was merely trying to fill you in on some of the background before we set forth with our inquiry.”
“By bringing up Faith. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.”
“She was merely using Faith’s existence as an example of how unique you truly are.” His watery eyes darted to the blonde at his side, sending her shrinking into her seat. “In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t the most adept example to utilize.”
“So I’m one of a kind,” Buffy said, folding her arms across her chest. “But something tells me I’m not here because you want my autograph.”
As she watched, Quentin nodded to the man nearest her. Does he actually verbalize any of his orders? she wondered when the man pushed a colored file across the table toward her. She flipped it open, and immediately saw copies of the same photos Giles had shown her at the apartment. “You’re showing reruns here,” she said. “I’ve seen all these before.”
“And did they mean anything to you?” Travers asked.
“Only that even vampires can surprise you by having good taste every once in a while.” She shuffled through the pictures, tossing them one by one to the side, until she’d gone through all twelve. Underneath the last was a closed envelope, bulging awkwardly from whatever it contained. “What’s this?” she asked, picking it up.
“Something Rupert didn’t see.”
The answer made her hesitate for a fraction of a second before sliding her nail beneath the seal. Turning the envelope over, Buffy felt it before she saw it, a swathe of fabric alternately gauzy soft and dusty hard. It took only a moment to see why.
“OK,” she said, and set the blood-stained handkerchief on the table. “Let’s try it again. What is this?”
“We were hoping you would tell us,” Travers said.
“And I thought you stodgy English types would be the first ones to recognize a hanky when you see it. Or do they just stay stuffed in your coat pocket for the way they look?” Nobody was answering her, frozen in their regard as she waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, she looked back at the item in question.
It was yellowed around the neatly trimmed edges, aged from years of disuse. Where the blood had saturated the fabric, it had dried to a crisp ruddy brown, tiny dried flakes already beginning to come away as exposure to the air was starting to take its toll. There were no decorations, no ornamental design to the handkerchief; only its large size told her anything at all.
That it had once belonged to a man.
“You have this because of the crystals,” she said, certainty driving her eyes back to Travers’. “Did this belong to whoever gave them to you guys?”
“We believe so, yes,” he replied. Though he wasn’t smiling, there was a glint of surprised respect in his gaze at her astute conclusion. “When Council Head Rhodes-Fanshaw was killed protecting the collection, that handkerchief was used to try and stop his bleeding. Attempts were made to link it back to whomever it was who left it in his care, but the results were inconclusive. We’ve had it in our possession since.”
“So this blood is his?”
There was a pause. “Some of it.”
“And why didn’t you tell Giles about it?”
“Because we felt it was vital to speak with you directly,” Travers replied. “If Rupert had told you out of our presence, we believed there was a possibility we would never learn the truth.”
“The truth about what?” All amusement was wiped from Buffy’s face, her mouth grim. “You wanted me, not the other way around. All I know about this is what you’ve told me.”
“Is that so, Miss Summers? Then tell me something.” For the first time since she’d arrived, Travers’ tone grew dangerous, razor-edged with cold suspicion. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the theft of the collection forced us to re-examine what little evidence we had. So, how is it that our resources indicate that a portion of the blood on that handkerchief…belongs to you?”
He stood, staring at his reflection, all color washed from his skin to leave him bone-pale and appearing like he more aptly belonged in a coffin. No matter how long he looked, or how hard he may wish to turn back the hands of time, William knew there was no escaping the disaster that taunted him from the nether regions of the glass.
He remembered now the instructions he’d been bade by his mother.
“You mustn’t forget to take your coat and waistcoat to Mrs. Shemfield’s,” she’d said to him across the dining table.
It had been the day after his first dream of Buffy, and in spite of the time that had already elapsed, William was still adrift on the elation from the encounter. “Of course,” he’d replied with a reassuring smile, and then promptly forgot, preferring instead to dwell on the mischievous laughter of his newfound fantasy and not the harsh reality of the incident with the maidservant bearing the tray of merlot at the last formal dinner party he’d attended.
The evidence of both the accident and his forgetfulness gaped at him from the mirror. If he didn’t look closely, William imagined the jacket might not be too noticeable, but there was no denying the condition of his waistcoat. All his attempts to hide the stains only served to accentuate them. Mother would surely be apoplectic should he arrive at the table in such a state, but what other choice did he have?
His gaze strayed to the wardrobe. His brown was more than presentable, even if not entirely of the fashion nor completely appropriate for the hour. Still, his other options were even less desirable. This would have to be his cross to bear for failing to remember his duty. As the man of the house, William owed it to his mother fulfill his role as host; to leave her to entertain on her own was unthinkable.
By the time he’d changed into his other suit, William could already hear the voices of arriving guests drifting up the stairs. He hastened with his shoes, grateful that they at least would pass scrutiny, but when he rushed into the hall, he bowled into Meg, the maid who’d first delivered the Cook’s special tea, sending her squeaking to the floor.
“My apologies!” he said, stooping to help her back to her feet.
Meg’s eyes widened as her gazed flickered over him. “Your mum sent me to fetch you,” she stammered. “She was afraid something was…” Another glance, and this time, William’s cheeks reddened. “…wrong,” she finished.
He swallowed. If this was the reaction of a mere servant to his attire, what chance did he have with his peers? They would be far more brutal if infinitely more subtle in their deprecation. Perhaps it would be better after all if he found some excuse to explain his absence---.
“William!” The voice boomed as it approached from the stairwell, and William crumpled inside as he looked to see David Howard striding confidently toward them. “There you are, old chap. I overheard your mother musing to mine about what could be detaining you, and decided to see for myself what could possibly be more entertaining than a gaggle of old women blathering on about the weather.” His dark eyes danced between William and Meg, his lecherous suppositions causing both of them to flush.
“If you’ll excuse me, sirs,” Meg said, eyes down, her knees
bending too rapidly for an awkward curtsey.
“I’ll just be getting back to Mrs. Freston.”
David’s beady gaze followed her curvy bottom as she fled down the stairs, too-full lips pulled back in a grin. “She’s a ripe young thing, isn’t she?” he commented, and William grimaced when he saw the other man deliberately thrust his hands into his trouser pockets. “It’s really no wonder you’re dawdling if that’s your primary distraction.”
“It’s not like that,” he countered. He flushed when David lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. “I’m merely late in getting prepared. Meg was sent to fetch me.”
“Ah, yes. Forever at your mother’s beck and call. Really, William, one of these days, you’re going to have to realize you’re the man of the house and not the other way around. How else do you think you’ll ever gain the attention of a particular young lady?” He smiled, a disdainful sneer masked in mock concern. “You do wish that to happen, do you not?”
His throat burned from the acid that rose up from his stomach. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t feel so small next to him, if he wasn’t forced to look up into David’s face, but the other man had a good three stone and four inches on him. As it was, William took a step to the side, averting his eyes as he tried to swallow down the shame he knew he shouldn’t be feeling. “I really must be going,” he started to say, and then yelped when a strong hand clapped down onto his shoulder.
“I tell you these things for your own good, you know,” David said, forcing him to turn to him. Though his face was easy, the grip on William was like a steel trap, pinching the nerves in an excruciating tingle. “Do you have any idea the talk that occurs behind your back? The things people say about you?”
He knew. Of course he knew. He was far from blind or stupid, and yet it seemed as if everyone thought of him as such. “Why are you saying these things?” he managed in a hoarse whisper, though he already suspected the truth of his reply.
“Because someone must, as it’s clear you’re not willing to better yourself of your own accord. Be a man, William. You embarrass the rest of us when you’re not.”
“Just because my interests lie elsewhere---.”
David’s scoff was a gust of hot air in William’s face. “That bloody awful poetry of yours is a disgrace. Do us all a favor and move on from it.”
With a wrench that made his arm feel like it was being pulled from its socket, William freed himself from David’s grasp and fled for the stairs, desperate to be anywhere but in his old tormentor’s presence and doing everything he could to block out the derisive laughter that floated after him.
Age had not lessened his harassment; it had merely changed its shape from the beatings and taunts of their youth to this caustic appraisal that left William wanting. Though his head was shouting at him that it was all a pack of lies, that David Howard was a ruffian in gentleman’s clothing, William’s heart was not nearly so hardy, cracking and crumbling as his feet flew down the risers, fighting back the tears that were already starting to spill down his cheeks. His only thought was to flee the house, his mother’s party be damned.
It took only seconds before he found himself on the walk outside his house, his feet leading him automatically toward the park and away from the laughter he could still imagine hearing from David Howard. Twenty yards away, though, a small shadow flitted from around the corner, and William stopped short as the wizened widow he’d spoken to on the banks stepped into his view.
She smiled when she saw him, her teeth gleaming oddly white against the night. “Running away again, William?” she asked. “And what would your young lady have to say about that?”
To be continued in Chapter 9: The Likeness of a Man…