By Estepheia and Marcee
Part 23 - If Life gives you Lemons...
Finally, Buffy turned to the Watcher and said, "It wasn't all bad."
He didn't answer.
"I mean, they did say that I looked much healthier."
He turned to the Slayer, she was grinning absurdly. He couldn't help but chuckle.
"How is it you can find anything positive to say after that...that..."he couldn't find the words.
"That carnival of fun?" she suggested dryly.
He puckered his lips disapprovingly. "I'm sorry they were so hard on you," he told her, sounding genuinely regretful.
"No big. See, about halfway through the meeting I decided to hone one of my Slayer skills."
"Oh?" he asked, sounding mildly amused. "Which skill might that be?"
It felt good to be able to make Willoughby smile. Being so formal and orderly all the time must get unbelievably tiresome. After the Council members berated her for failing to kill Angelus, they went on to punish the Watcher for not preparing her properly. If that wasn't enough, they reprimanded him for failing to reprimand her for her failure. Talk about jumping through hoops.
"Anyway, thanks for sticking up for me," she said.
He only nodded.
"Look, Willoughby. I know how hard this must be for you," she said seriously. "This whole switched-Slayer thing. Especially not being able to talk to anyone about it." She pondered for a moment. "Well, actually, I don't know how hard it is because I've pretty much always had someone to confide in."
*What is she trying to tell me?* the Watcher wondered.
"See, what I'm thinking is...maybe you should bring some people into your world. I guess it's a little easier for me because I have friends back home." She smiled, thinking about the Scoobies. "I feel better when I vent to them. They help me carry this awful weight, you know? And they're always there for me. To help patrol or research or just to talk to. And I don't know why that wouldn't apply to Watchers, too. Don't you ever wish you could just talk about this stuff with someone?"
"I do," he answered, somewhat uncomfortably.
"You do wish or you do talk?"
"I speak with Director Bateley on a regular basis."
"He doesn't count," she answered. "I mean someone who's not part of the Council. Someone who doesn't have an agenda. Someone who's just there for you...a friend."
He shook his head, regretfully.
"Consider it," she told him bluntly.
A few more minutes passed in silence. Edward Willoughby looked like he was going to fall asleep any minute. Well, it had been a long and hard day.
"I'm glad Bateley will be okay," she said quietly. She wasn't dealing well with the silences. At home, people were always talking - always chatting. Those last couple of days in Sunnydale she had gotten sick of everyone yapping at her. She had wanted to tell them to go away - to shut up - to leave her alone, already! But now, after enduring these seemingly endless moments of quiet, she would give her arm for a bout of Anya's inane finance talk or Spike's ineffable charm. *Okay, maybe not an arm - but possibly my pinky toe.*
"So what's next?" she asked cheerfully. "Training? Patrol? Breakfast, maybe?"
Willoughby pulled out his pocket watch. "It is three o'clock in the morning! The sun will not rise for hours, yet."
"So?" Buffy grinned. "Is there a rule in the Watcher's handbook about eating breakfast early?"
Willoughby was getting used to Buffy's sarcastic humor, so he answered, "Actually, I think there's a whole section regarding the specific times meals are permitted." He smiled at his Slayer. "But that section is written in Latin."
Buffy chuckled. "After that little seminar, I'm in the mood to break a few rules! Let's be explorers! Have you ever broken into your own kitchen?"
The carriage stopped and Buffy helped Willoughby dismount. The man looked tired and in pain. Breakfast was fine, but he probably needed a brandy, first. He was a few years older than Giles, which made him pretty old. Too bad she couldn't share some of her healing powers with him.
"Dawson will still be up. Just knock," Willoughby told her.
Buffy's hand froze on its way to the brass knocker. There was a small stain on the door, no bigger than a pea, but visible enough in the pale glow of the street lights. It was brownish red, like dried blood and it shouldn't have been there. All of her instincts screamed `Danger!'
"Harper! Come down here," she called the coachman. She climbed back into the coach and dug into the secret compartment. "Take this, and look after Mr. Willoughby," she said authoritatively and handed him a crossbow and ammunition.
Harper hesitated very briefly. But he took the weapon and loaded it expertly. Something about him suggested that he had handled combat situations before. "Aye, Miss."
"What..." Willoughby stammered, finally catching on. "Oh dear Lord!" He blanched, looking like someone had knocked the wind out of him. "I have to... oh my god..."
Buffy slung her arm around him, not just to steady him but also to give him some moral support. "There's nothing you can do, Willoughby. But maybe I can. Trust me." *God I hope I'm not making empty promises here.*
"Harper, where's the back door, you know, the door the servants use or whatever?"
The coachman told her and gave her the key.
"Good. I will go inside. Wait ten minutes. If I'm not back by then, take Mr. Willoughby back to the club, you know, the one we just left."
Two minutes later, Buffy was quietly slipping through the service entrance into the basement of the house. All of her Slayer senses were reaching out, searching for the unmistakable tingle that meant a vampire was nearby. So far, nothing. The house was deathly quiet.
Stake readied, Buffy quickly checked the kitchen and the servants' dining room. Both were lit but empty save for signs that the servants had been interrupted: half full tea cups, chairs not pushed in...
She checked every door, even though she had no idea where they would lead. Various pantries. Closet. Closet. *Oh, a meat room, ew.* There were hooks in the ceiling from which to hang sausages and hams. That's where Buffy found the lifeless body of Mary, the shy serving girl. The gag was still in her mouth, even though she'd never make another sound. Ever. Her skin was almost white. There were knife cuts all over her body, but hardly any blood. A sheet of paper was pinned to her. It was the sketch Buffy had given the butler, with Angelus's portrait.
Buffy felt cold dread and a sick revulsion.
She continued her search until she came across a door she couldn't open. It was a sturdy door, but someone had tried to break it down. She strained to listen for sounds on the other side, hoping that if there were people behind this door, they would still be alive. She thought she heard someone sobbing, so she started to bang on it. Half crazed with hope, she began yelling and pounding on the door. "Is there anyone in there? Please! Please tell me if there's someone in there?"
"Miss Maeve?" she heard a small frightened voice answer.
"Yes, yes. It's me. Who's in there? Is everyone alright?"
"There are four of us, Miss Maeve," a second, more confident voice could be heard. Buffy recognized the cook. "We're alive, Miss. Just scared. Should we come out?"
"No. No," Buffy said. "Just stay where you are. I'll be back for you when it's safe, okay?"
"Yes, Miss Maeve," was the muffled reply.
Buffy silently crept up the stairs to the main floor. The door at the top of the stairs had been broken down. The hall was dark, but Buffy could make out the shape of another human body, sprawled on the floor, near the main door. She tiptoed closer. Dawson, the butler. She bent down and felt for his pulse. There was none.
She opened the door and slipped outside. Harper lifted his crossbow but then he recognized her. He was guarding Willoughby who was sitting in the carriage.
Buffy walked to the worried Watcher. "Dawson's dead, so is Mary." She quickly outlined the situation.
"Angelus," Willoughby said.
"Yes," she said simply. "I'm sorry."
"I'll send Harper to alert the Council," he stated flatly, trying to deal with the crisis rationally. "They need to get here before the neighbors get curious and someone calls the police."
They wrote a note and sent the coachman off. He drove away at a reckless speed. When Buffy had suggested Willoughby should leave with him, the Watcher had refused. He came inside the house but agreed to stay near the door while Buffy continued her search of the premises.
A quick inspection of the ground floor brought no discoveries, so Buffy quietly walked upstairs.
The door to George's room was slightly ajar. She peered inside the room. It looked undisturbed. Charles's room was next. She was shocked to find the door in splinters. She walked inside, trying to steel herself. The room was wrecked, as if someone had vented his anger on the furniture, but there was no blood, and no body.
The next room was hers. There was a jagged hole in the door, near the handle, about the size of a football. She tried the door. Locked. She listened for a moment. Then she stuck her hand through the hole to feel if the key was in the lock on the other side.
She felt the splash of a liquid on her hand, and instinctively pulled away. At first, she had assumed it was blood, but when she glanced down, there was nothing there. She reached through again, more cautiously and suddenly something was pressed against her hand. She snatched it back through the hole in the door and, to her surprise, found a wooden cross in her hand. One of many that she kept in a trunk at the foot of her bed. Who could possibly be in her room? "Charles?" she asked, tentatively. "It's me, B... Maeve. Are you in there? Where's George? Are you alright?"
"Maeve?" the relief in the boy's voice was evident.
Buffy heard the sound of a key being turned in the lock and of a heavy object pushed across the floor, then the door opened.
"Where is the vampire?" Charles asked. "Did you kill it?" His face was contorted with anger and there were traces of dried tears on his cheeks. There were black smears on his face and his clothes were filthy. He was holding a stake in his right hand.
"It's gone," was all Buffy could muster.
George was curled up on the bed, clutching his bible. He, too, was covered in soot.
Buffy noticed that her trunk was opened and the contents scattered around the room. Holy water bottles, crosses and stakes littered the floor.
"Are you hurt?" she asked Charles.
He shook his head no.
"He's... he's fine."
He didn't look fine to Buffy. She approached the bed and sat down next to the terrified child. "George?" He didn't move. "George, your father's downstairs. We should go to him."
"Mother," he mumbled almost inaudibly.
She heard Charles take a deep breath.
"George and I, we were talking, in my room," Charles began, slowly as if he couldn't believe all this had really happened. "And then we heard Mother screaming, so we went to look, of course, and then we saw him, he wasn't human. He... it had fangs and yellow eyes. It..."
"A demon," the younger boy interrupted, sounding dazed. He was still holding on to his bible, as if his life depended on it.
"Mother shouted at me, told us to hide in my room and lock the door, I wanted to help her, but I had to protect my brother..."
Buffy saw the doubt in his eyes. "You did the right thing," she hastened to reassure him. "There was nothing you could have done. If you hadn't listened to her you would both be dead by now. What happened next?"
"It told us to come out, otherwise it... otherwise it would kill her. I... I looked through the keyhole... it..." Charles paused, looking sideways at his brother. That was something George did not need to know, how that vampire had held their mother in an almost perverse embrace, one hand under her skirts, the other muffling her cries; how his fangs had pierced her neck so he could drink her blood, and how that creature had reveled in her fearful struggles. But the worst thing had been the look on his mother's face, the abject terror in her eyes. He balled his fists so hard the perfectly manicured nails were cutting into his palms. "It was a lie, because she was already dead."
Buffy squeezed his hand.
"I heard someone talking..." Edward Willoughby's uncertain voice startled them. "I couldn't wait... Charles, George!"
Buffy watched Willoughby embrace his sons, awkwardly because of his bandaged arms. He was touching their faces as if to make sure they were real. He was crying. Embarrassed, she stepped outside the room to scan the hallway. By now she was pretty certain that Angelus was long gone.
The door to the Willoughbys' bedroom was slightly ajar. A shaft of yellow light stabbed into the dimly lit hallway. A strange sense of foreboding filled her. Listening with one ear to Willoughby asking them more or less the same questions she had asked, and hearing Charles repeat his narration, she slowly walked towards that light.
She knew she didn't want to see what was behind that door, but she had to anyway. She put her hand against the door and gave it a slight push.
The bedroom was lit by dozens of candles. Angelus must have collected them from all over the house. Louisa Willoughby was intentionally positioned in a sexually enticing pose. Her head was propped up on her pillow so her dead eyes were staring at Buffy, accusingly. Her hair had been undone, the blonde curls loosened and artistically draped around her head to give her a slightly wilder, almost dissolute look.
Buffy noticed a little object lying on the pillow next to the body, the way hotels put pieces of chocolate there, for their guests. This wasn't candy, though, this was a little figurine made from carved stone, a cheerful little cherub. An angel.
Buffy wasn't really surprised to find Mrs. Willoughby like that. She remembered the death of Miss Calendar too well. She also remembered its effect on Giles, when he had found her in his bed. For a moment Buffy felt like she was trapped in an endless series of reruns, cursed to relive the same tragedies again and again. And she found herself wishing Willoughby's spell had never brought her here, into this century and into his family.
"God, sometimes I wish I could just walk away," she sighed, putting into words what she'd often thought since she'd been resurrected. "Let others deal with all this. Why do these things always happen to Buffy?"
The sound of her own voice stopped her in her tracks. Spoken out loud, her thoughts sounded so... so... self-involved. She knew exactly what Spike would say to her, if he'd been here to hear her say something like that: "Yeah right, Slayer, so this is YOUR tragedy?"
And he'd be right, as usual. Damn him.
The grief and anger and outrage she felt at Mrs. Willoughby's death was nothing compared to what Edward and his sons were feeling right now. This was THEIR tragedy, not Buffy's. Not. Everything. Was. About. Buffy.
She realized there was at least one thing she could do to make things better for them. She could make sure that they didn't get to see the body looking like that. So, she turned back to the body and took a deep breath to steel her resolve. *This is not the right time to go `ew' and be squeamish girl,* she told herself. She reached out and gently closed Louisa Willoughby's eyes. She bent over the body and rearranged the limbs. Finally, Buffy grabbed the sheet and pulled it over the naked body. Now it looked like Louisa was only sleeping. She blew out the candles and hid a few under the bed, she'd try to remember to see about disposing of them later. She grabbed the figurine and tucked it into one of the sashes of her dress.
Satisfied with what she had achieved, Buffy left the bedroom and went back to Willoughby and his sons. Charles was just telling his father how he and George had crawled up the chimney, hoping that the narrow passage would lead to a flue that also served the hearth in Maeve's room. He had known that Maeve kept weapons in her trunk.
When they had landed in Maeve's room Charles had tiptoed to the door and quickly turned the key in the lock. The vampire had been furious. He had smashed a hole through the door, but when he stuck his hand through it Charles had hit him with a cross.
"I told him I had enough Holy Water in here to fight a whole army of hell spawns like him," Charles said, not without pride, but he was still shaking with the after-effects of shock, fear and grief.
Buffy pulled the boy into a tight hug. "You were both very brave," she said. Then she did the same to George. "I am so sorry I wasn't here to protect you."
Victoria Crawford's favorite book was her atlas. She knew the names of rivers, mountains and deserts, of countries and cities she would never get to see. Sometimes she wished she had been born a man. Men were free to travel, to go wherever they wanted. Men learned how to fence and shoot rather than play the piano or to crochet. Men were free to lead a life of romance and adventure.
Well, not all men, obviously, but those who were well-to-do and who didn't have a mother and a sister to look after.
She sipped her breakfast tea and glanced fondly at her brother, who appeared to be deep in thought. There was a faraway look in his eyes. The buttered bread roll on his plate seemed forgotten. As usual, he had an open book lying on the table next to him.
"I wonder how much of the ancient legends is really true...," he mused, images of war-like Amazons fighting on the shores of Troy in his head. "I would very much like to see Greece and Turkey, walk where the Ancients fought..."
"You will," Victoria said. "One day we both will. We could be explorers."
William looked startled. He hadn't been aware that he had uttered his thoughts out loud. He tried to picture his sister in tropical clothes with a sun helmet on her head and smiled indulgently. "So, you want us to dig up old treasures for our livelihood?" he asked teasingly.
He took off his spectacles to clean them.
She smiled back. "I should prefer unearthing Egyptian mummies to marrying an old mummified bank director for his money," she said bluntly, referring to her mother's tenacious attempts to turn her into a suitable and desirable young woman.
"You know Mother only wants what is best for you," he mumbled without great conviction.
"Perhaps I should dress up like a man, with an artificial beard, like Queen Hatchepsut," Victoria said with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, knowing full well that her brother had read everything he could about the woman pharaoh.
They were interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Crawford.
William closed his book and rose to his feet to pull out her chair. Mrs. Crawford took her place at the table and unfolded her napkin in carefully executed movements.
The conversation turned to social events and this afternoon's invitation to the Willoughbys. Mrs. Crawford was of the opinion that such an invitation was not to be taken lightly and tried to draw her daughter into a discussion on which dress to wear.
William finished his breakfast in a hurry. He took his leave from his mother and sister and was about to step outside when there was a knock at the front door. It was a coachman who was delivering a calling card and a letter.
William tore the envelope open and read the contents.
"Oh no," he exclaimed, "Mr. Willoughby sends his regrets, but there has been a tragic death. It seems Mrs. Willoughby had a weak heart. She died last night." He passed the letter to his mother.
He felt more than a twinge of disappointment. He had to admit to himself that he had been looking forward to that visit. The prospect of seeing that strange girl again had occupied his mind ever since young Willoughby had invited them.
He sighed and tried to put all thoughts of Penthesilea out of his mind.
"We were lucky the Council guys arrived before the police did," Buffy said, stirring some sugar and cream into her coffee. *I wonder if Angelus saw us coming home and alerted the police then... just to see a Watcher involved in a murder case.* "Harper must have driven like a bat out of hell."
"He's a good man," Willoughby replied absentmindedly.
It was afternoon. Neither of them had had any sleep. Painful self-recriminations and strong black coffee had kept them awake.
"So, what's going to happen now?" Buffy asked.
Willoughby sighed. "We will do what needs to be done."
They were sitting in Director Hartford's study. He had offered his hospitality to the whole Willoughby family, Maeve included. His house was large enough to accommodate them and three more families besides.
Willoughby and Buffy were currently alone, because Hartford was overseeing Council matters and George and Charles were being looked after by Mr. Hartford's daughter-in-law.
The surviving servants of the Willoughby household had been given paid leave, after two somberly dressed Council operatives had put the fear of God in them. The men had claimed to act on behalf of Queen Victoria Herself and had told the servants under pain of death never to divulge to anyone what had happened last night.
Meanwhile, Council operatives were busy at the Willoughby residence, putting up magic wards in order to de-invite Angelus and removing all traces of last night's murders. The bodies had been removed already. Four in all. Louisa's, Dawson's, Mary's and that of another maid, who had been found murdered in her bed. In each case, a doctor in the Council's employ had certified natural causes as cause of death.
At Willoughby's insistence the Council had agreed to pay a small lump sum to the relatives of the killed servants.
"I could ask my sister to live with us," Willoughby pondered. "Catherine has a little cottage in Sussex but I think she'll come if I ask her to. She is very fond of the boys. I would send Charles and George to visit her, but I'm not sure..." he petered off uncertainly.
"Angelus would find them, and neither of us would be there to protect them," Buffy said. "I think even your sister might be in danger."
They both knew that given half a chance, Angelus would finish what he had started: the complete destruction of the Willoughby family.
"I will sell the house."
"I will get private tutors for the boys. I am not sending them back to school next term."
Buffy nodded again. It was good that Willoughby was making plans. "Will you teach them how to defend themselves, you know, tell them about the Council and all that?"
Willoughby sighed. "Council membership is more or less hereditary. I was going to have Charles initiated, but now I am not certain if that is a good idea."
"Trust me, it is. He already knows you're fighting vampires. Maeve must have told him. You saw how he handled himself. He'll make a fine Watcher."
*And I hope all that training doesn't turn him into a complete asshole.*
"Who will?" a voice sounded.
Buffy and Willoughby started. They'd been too tired to hear the sound of the door being opened. Mr. Hartford stood there, leaning heavily on his cane. He limped inside and took his seat behind the large desk.
*Speaking of assholes...*
Buffy disliked the man intensely, even though he was a generous host. He gave off the same sanctimonious, condescending I-know-what's-best vibe she had always hated about Quentin Travers.
"We were talking about my son, sir," Willoughby replied. "Charles."
"Ah, yes a bright young man, indeed. His initiation might indeed be in order, to make sure he does not go off on some foolish vengeance mission on his own. We can't have civilians attempt vampire hunts without proper supervision."
*Blah blah blah.*
Buffy caught Hartford's disapproving glance and realized she'd actually moved her lips. *Oops.*
"Right you guys, I'm gonna hit the sack," she said, way too tired to concentrate on what she was saying and most of all how she was saying it, "I really need my beauty sleep now, if I'm supposed to go on patrol later tonight. I mean, we all know the world's gonna come to an end if I don't, right? Any prophecies I should know about? Cause if there aren't, I'm just gonna call it a night." She frowned. "Or afternoon. Whatever." She got up and gave Willoughby a quick hug. "Go get some sleep," she whispered in his ear. She swept out of the room, leaving two slightly confused Watchers in her wake.
She found herself in the hallway of an unfamiliar house. She'd been led through the place upon their arrival, but at the time she had been quite caught up in other things to memorize the general layout of Hartford House.
*Bed. Food.* Buffy told herself and nodded. *No, wait. First food, then bed. Yes.* It was close to five o'clock, surely there was a nice buffet full of cake and other comfort food waiting for her, somewhere. If only she could find the dining room.
She opened a random door. No. Another one. *Ooh library!* She took a few steps inside. "Hello?" There was no answer. Too bad. She was pretty sure that Mr. Crawford would have been able to show her the way to the dining room.
She turned around with a flourish but the hem of her dress caught on some piece of furniture and when she pulled, it tore, causing her to stumble against the library door. She heard a muffled cry of surprise and pain and the sounds of various fragile objects shattering on the ground.
"Oh no," Buffy sighed, pulling the door open. "Oh no," she repeated in dismay, as she took in the mess. The broken porcelain, namely cup, saucer and plate, the blob of cream, the wet stain and the white little puddle, that were ruining the carpet. "Oh no," she said a third time, when she recognized the person she had bumped into.
William stood aghast. When the door had hit him, it had upset the tray he was carrying. Not only had he dropped everything he'd been carrying but he had also spilled hot tea all over his jacket. *Ouch.* Tea stains were hard to get out. And surely his employer would be cross with him.
"Oh," he said, as he recognized the ephemeral red head as the cause of his collision. "Oh." He found himself quite at a loss for words. He also realized that this was the second time a meeting with this girl resulted in an embarrassing accident. "Oh."
And then they were talking at the same time.
"I'm... oh my god, I'm so sorry," - "Oh dear, how clumsy of me." - "Sorry, what did you say?"- "I beg your pardon" - "Huh?" - "Goodness me!" - "Here, let me help."
They both knelt down simultaneously to pick up the mess. He held the tray awkwardly and Buffy scraped the cream off the carpet with a porcelain shard and ladled it on the tray.
He looked at her earnestly. "I heard what happened," he said gently.
"You did?" Buffy answered warily. She picked up a squashed little cake and put it on the tray.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am," he continued. "My sister and mother send their condolences, too. It must be especially awful for the boys."
*Sister? Oh yes, Charles mentioned her.*
"We didn't know Mrs. Willoughby had a weak heart."
*Heart? Weak? Oh, right.* "Yes, well, it came as a shock to everybody," she answered noncommittally. *God, I so don't want to talk about this.*
He seemed to sense her reluctance to dwell on that sad subject, but he had to ask, anyway: "Is there something I can do?"
"What?" It came out sharper than intended. She was flustered.
She stood up, almost causing him to drop the tray again. "No. No helping. I mean, yes. Um... where do I find the dining room?"
William decided to overlook her nervousness and escorted her to the dining room. He pulled the bell cord and while he was waiting for a servant to come, he surreptitiously watched as Buffy started piling up enormous amounts of food on her plate.
She sat down and started munching on a sweet little cake. She was absolutely ravenous, having missed several meals since the big dinner party. *Two days ago, was it really just two days ago?* It was hard to believe..
The parlormaid arrived. William quietly exchanged a few words with her and handed her the tray to dispose of the broken china. The girl left, but she returned several minutes later. He took the smaller tray out of her hands and dismissed her with a friendly nod.
Buffy had almost forgotten that she wasn't alone when he put down the little tray beside her.
"I have taken the liberty of having this prepared for you. It always helps me when things look grim," he said awkwardly. He gave her a fleeting smile and left the dining room.
Buffy looked at the little silver pot and the porcelain cup then at the door through which William had just left. She lifted the lid. When she recognized the aroma she found herself smiling, not broadly but smiling nonetheless.
"Thanks," she murmured and poured herself a cup of hot chocolate.
Continued in Part 24 - With Plans Like These...