Chapter 1: Pent in Walls of Glass
Her thighs throbbed.
Burning from the exertion of overstretching, sending tingles along the sinews that joined leg to hip to spine to neck so that her muscles vibrated against the body beneath her. Sweat dripped down the side of her neck to sidle between her breasts, the summer heat in spite of the midnight sky already sweltering and forcing the near-sheer fabric of her top to cling to her hardened nipples.
It was exhilarating, and yet not, and each pump of adrenaline through her veins made Buffy want to chisel and sharpen the angles of contact, twisting and writhing until exhaustion would claim her. Sleep was an absent friend currently, so she substituted the rush in its place, desperate for crumbs to which to cling while everything else that mattered tried to skitter away from her.
Or walk away, depending on who it was doing the leaving. Just like the others who’d once been in her life. Just like Angel.
It was the conscious acknowledgement of his name that made her fight the demon pinned beneath her all that much harder.
“Why. Don’t. You. Just. Die already?” Buffy huffed between punches, her knuckles bloodied from scraping against its coarse scales.
Its response was to lash out with its barbed tongue, aiming directly for her eyes.
She’d fallen for that trick once already, and had the jagged scrape across her bare shoulder to show for it. With a dodge to the left, she released her grip on its torso, rolling across the nearest grave to come to a stop at its newly-tended headstone. Her fingers wrapped around the small flag that was embedded in the earth, and yanked it out just as the demon lunged for her again.
“God bless America,” she muttered as she sank the sharpened end of the pole in its chest, using the force behind it to gut it as effectively as if she’d had a sword.
It fell on Buffy with a strangled gurgle, momentarily knocking the wind out of her, and she thrust it off with a disgusted grunt. Now her clothes were sticky with more than just sweat, and the sigh that escaped her throat as she rose to her feet was one of resignation.
“Bye bye, cute top,” she grumbled, and began ineffectively wiping off the worst of the goo as she headed for the gates of the cemetery. The thought of staying out to try and work through some of her frustrations just couldn’t compare to the benefits of a stinging shower at the moment.
She stopped at the sound of his voice, and turned with a frown to see Giles huffing and puffing through the graveyard to catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked automatically, her body tensing as her gaze searched the empty expanse behind him. She had last seen him that morning, when he’d encouraged her to take the night off in order to attend Xander’s impromptu going away party, and though she had suspected he was going to patrol in her stead, she hadn’t really expected to run into him when she’d ducked out of the get-together early.
“You’re not…at…the Bronze,” he panted as he came to a stop at her side.
“And…that’s a problem?”
He shook his head, bending over at the waist to inhale deeply before speaking again. “I just…didn’t expect…to find you here.”
“And so I ask again.” Another glance around him revealed the silent night blinking back at her. “What’s wrong?”
He ignored her question, fidgeting with his collar as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I know you may find this hard to believe, Buffy, but I’d rather hoped you’d take this opportunity of Xander’s leaving to take a break from your responsibilities. You’ve been…pushing yourself too hard since graduation. I worry—.”
“I’m fine.” She pivoted on her heel and resumed her march toward the gates. She didn’t even look up when he fell into step beside her. “The Bronze was dead, and as much as it looks like I’m into dead things, not so much when it comes to partying. That’s the only reason I left. So…no big.”
“That doesn’t explain why you felt the need to patrol. I thought I told you I had everything under control.”
“And who’s the Chosen One here?” she teased. “Kind of hard to ignore the call of destiny, Giles, remember? And I’m going home now anyway. I plan on getting intimately acquainted with a long shower so that I can get not so intimately acquainted with all this demon goop.”
“And sleep?” he shot back. “Or do you plan on spending another night dwelling on Angel’s departure?”
His words sucked the air from her lungs, immobilizing her step as she stopped to gape up at him. “What’re you talking about?” she managed to choke out.
The lines between his eyes eased, his demeanor softening in counter with the rigidity stiffening her shoulders. “Willow told me you haven’t been sleeping, Buffy,” he said softly. “And I spoke with your mother today. She confirmed you’ve been…out of sorts since graduation.” He held up his hand, cutting her words off before she could speak. “I know you believe this is none of my business, that I’m…biased when it comes to you and Angel, and you would be partially correct. But what happened, what he did…you can’t allow that to interfere with moving on with your life. That’s not what he’d want.”
“What about what I want, Giles?” she demanded. “Does anybody ever think to ask me about that? So I’m a little light on the sleep front. Considering we just averted major apocalypse number four less than a month ago, not to mention I graduated high school and watched someone I thought loved me walk out of my life as if I meant nothing to him, I think I’ve earned a little slack.”
“What you’ve earned is a vacation.” His voice was heavy as he rested his hand on her shoulder, but the small gesture leeched some of the tension from her muscles, commanding her to listen to him in only the way Giles could get away with. “That’s why I went and saw your mother today. I need to go to London for a month or so about some new texts. I thought it would be a good idea if you came with me. Take a holiday from the Hellmouth, so to speak.”
“But…” His offer was a bolt from the blue, slicing through her momentary anger to cut her at the knees and leave her stumbling to understand. “…I’m the Slayer. I don’t get vacations.”
Giles smiled. “You’ve been the exception to just about every other rule I’m aware of. I see no reason you can’t be the exception to that one as well. And if you’re uncomfortable taking a complete hiatus, I’m certain there’s a vampire or two in London you might be able to slay.”
For a moment, the promise of what he was suggesting made her want to throw her arms around him in a huge hug, but just as quickly the impulse dissipated, leaving her as empty as she’d been once the high from fighting the demon had vanished. “It’s a nice idea,” she said, “but you know I can’t. Mom would never say yes—.”
“She already has. Otherwise, I would never have brought it up with you.”
“Oh.” Didn’t expect that one. “But who’s going to keep an eye on things around here? Xander’s leaving tomorrow for his summer of self-discovery, and Willow can hardly patrol on her own.”
“You know as well as I do that demon activity lulls after a major battle. A few weeks in London will hardly mean the end of the world here in Sunnydale.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, that does it. I’m not going anywhere. You’ve just jinxed it.” She began walking again, this time much slower, his suggestion still whirling around inside her head. “Not that I’m not grateful or anything, because I am, but weren’t you one of the thousands last year telling me I can’t run away from my problems? So I’m facing them this time. Score one maturity point for Buffy.”
“Sometimes, the mature thing to do is to recognize when it’s time to step back. Your attempts to cope with Angel’s departure are admirable, but…” He stopped in the path, waiting for her to halt as well before continuing to speak. “…they’re not working. Everywhere you turn, everything you see here…it must all undoubtedly carry with it a memory—.”
“And it always will,” she countered, her voice ragged. “Going away isn’t going to change that.”
“No,” Giles agreed. “But it might afford you the opportunity to rest, to temporarily free yourself of ghosts so that you when you return, you’re strong enough to face them again.”
It was so tempting. She’d been fighting the urge to run ever since graduation. Part of her wanted to go off in search of Angel, to tell him that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought, that she needed him if only as a friend. Another part wanted to find him so that she could rail against him for presuming to decide what was best for her. And yet another, more delicate part, the part she kept hidden from all of them because there was no room for it in Slayerworld, wanted to curl up into a little ball and cry because it couldn’t figure out what was so wrong with her that everyone wanted to leave her behind.
“I didn’t know unemployment was so bad that you’d want to hang out with a depressed teenager,” she joked half-heartedly. “And no offense, Giles, but I really don’t want my first college essay on ‘What I Did on My Summer Vacation’ to read, ‘got lost in stacks of musty old books with ex-librarian and spent the next month discovering new and unexciting ways to identify demon breeds,’ because, you know, kind of pathetic.”
“Yes, quite, which is why I’ve asked Willow to come with us if you agree to the trip. This isn’t about spending time with me, Buffy, or about furthering your Slayer skills, although, it would certainly be an excellent opportunity to…” He trailed off at her raised brows, clearing his throat. “There is plenty to keep you and Willow occupied in London while I go about my work. Museums, the West End, walking tours, shopping—.
“Shopping?” She perked automatically, but her brain was already ahead of her mouth. London with Willow. And her mom’s permission. And it would be kind of cool to see a different country. Maybe a change of scenery was exactly what she needed. It was running away with permission. Giles had gone to great lengths to work this out for her. Why was she arguing with him?
“You won’t make me eat anything gross like blood pudding or haggis or something?” she asked with a smile, the first genuine one she’d given all night.
“Haggis is Scottish,” he replied, “and no, London is quite cosmopolitan. You can gorge to your heart’s content on McDonald’s if you wish.”
Their pace recommenced, and though Buffy’s step was lighter, her mind occupied elsewhere as they chatted about the particulars of the trip, the wall between them remained, unseen and unrecognized as she held tight to the pain balled in the pit of her stomach. Giles might empathize with her situation—he might even believe that he understood it—but she knew she was alone in trying to deal with it.
That’s the way it always was. She was the cheese.
Because the cheese always stood alone.
The warm glow of the candle made a mockery of the blank page staring back at him, and William dropped his head into his hands, closing his eyes against the burlesque it burrowed into his soul, his fingers knotted in his unruly curls and tugging as if the sharp pains in his scalp would incite the words to come. They were there; he could feel them dancing just outside the circle of light, promising him rapture if only he could ensnare even one and yet refusing him partnership with an insidious taunt. He just didn’t understand how they could elude him so effectively.
By all rights, he should’ve been asleep. It had been a long day, hours of waiting in uncomfortable chairs, watching his mother make the arrangements for the dinner party she was going to throw, all the while insisting that he should take a greater interest since, after all, “this is entirely for your benefit.” Thrusting him into the social scene when he’d begged off repeatedly by bringing it into their home, inviting a myriad of acquaintances within their social circle who might be of interest to him. It could’ve been worse. She could’ve invited Cecily and her family, and while he would’ve adored the opportunity to see the lovely brunette again, William feared that he’d only blunder terribly in her actual presence. Just as he had done last time, knocking over that glass of wine onto his trousers and spending the rest of the evening with a napkin covering the unfortunate stain.
Instead, he sat at his writing desk, his bed empty behind him, his page just as empty before. Sleep was a fugitive beyond his grasp, perhaps hiding in the vicinity of the poetry he wished to claim, and after an hour of tossing between his sheets, he’d risen to divert himself elsewhere.
Venturing into the rest of the house was out of the question. Though his mother had long retired for the evening, there would still be one or two of the staff up and about, and they would assuredly report his rising on the morrow, forcing him to field questions regarding his health when he knew there was nothing physically wrong. He had no idea why he couldn’t sleep, except for the understanding that his mind seemed incapable of escaping thought long enough to embrace slumber, and the last thing he wished was to get into a discussion on his wellbeing with a mother who, though he loved her dearly, did not understand the way her only son’s heart worked.
So he tried reading. And when that failed, he picked up his inks and paper, intent on creating something that perhaps he could share in the morning. Maybe he could translate his discomfort regarding the dinner party, and tell her through his verse why the prospect of conversation with vulgarians who took too much pleasure in belittling his own romantic leanings left him feeling small and insignificant. Surely, she wouldn’t wish her son—.
No, she wouldn’t understand. She wore blinders where William was concerned, and he didn’t have the heart to rectify her vision, even if it meant bearing the brunt of his peers’ humiliation.
A clatter in the street captured his attention, and, grateful for the distraction, he set down his quill to rise from his seat and cross to the window. He pulled aside the edge of the curtain in time to see the carriage pull to a stop in front of the Howard estate further down the road, and pressed himself into the wall when he saw David Howard emerge from the coach. One of the worst when it came to the ridicule masked in badinage, and William felt the bile rise in his throat at his shame in fearing seeing the man, even at such a distance.
He hated feeling like such a coward.
Dropping the drape, William began to prowl around the room, fingers agitated as they played with the tie on his robe. He spent too many hours hiding behind closed doors, even within his own home, and more than anything else, he wished that could change. There was a huge, glorious world out there, just waiting to be explored. It didn’t have to be as dark and vicious as the stories traded between vainglorious gossips painted it. There had to be beauty, and light, and radiance just ready to be found, ready to be experienced, and William could practically taste its luster on the tip of his tongue.
He could even see peeks of it through the walls that bound him to his life.
He just yearned for the strength to break them down, once and for all.
The crystal shattered where it crashed against the stone wall, and his fingers were curled around a second figurine before the voice from the table spoke up again.
“Keep that up, and you just might end up smashing her in the process,” the crone cackled.
“And that matters now because…?” he said through gritted teeth. His eyes glowed in the dim illumination of the cave, twin amber pricks ablaze with fury. “According to your little leaves of grass there, it doesn’t make a difference anyway. Not with both of them out there.”
“Both? One’s dead. He can’t lead an army if he’s dead.”
The vampire snorted. “Try telling that to the damn Powers. They have this amazing disregard for the normal rules of things. Dimensions, times, places…none of it makes a difference to them.” Carefully, he loosened his hold on the second figure, turning it out to stand proudly with the other assortment on the altar, his fingers gracing over the carved sculpture of its flowing hair. “So much for setting her free,” he growled.
With a heavy sigh, the aged witch swept the remaining dust from the table. “You’re giving up before you’ve even begun,” she said. “Think outside the box. If the so-called Powers refuse to reside within its walls, why should you?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you’ve just told me that if April comes back, she’s got to worry about not one, but two armies hunting her down? Kind of puts a damper on the welcome home party, if you ask me.”
“They’re only walls, my boy, only walls. They may block your path, but they’re not insurmountable. Climb over them or smash through, but don’t hide behind them if you truly wish her free again.”
He regarded her through slitted eyes, cunning working behind the intense gaze. “So what is it you suggest then?”
Gnarled hands began twisting the ropes of herbs that still littered the worksurface. “Start with what you know. Start with the generals.”
Her proposal prompted his agitation to begin anew, his feet circling the perimeter of the cave in long strides, lanky limbs acting in coordination with his words. “Start with the generals, she says. Are you out of your frickin’ mind? One of them’s the Slayer. I’d have to be crazy to try taking her on my own.”
“You are crazy, but you don’t have to kill her in order to stop her. The leaves tell me there are other ways.”
“Oh, yeah? Those leaves seem to be full of whacked out ideas tonight, remember? I’ve also got to worry about trying to find a man who should’ve been dead a century ago.”
The crone shook her head. “Then you’ve lost before you’ve even begun,” she replied, her cadences heavy in resignation. “If you believe in the leaves to find your enemies, then you must believe in their power to help you impede their intervention. You can’t have it both ways.”
His foot smashed to the left of the altar, sending a shower of dust from the ceiling to rain in his dark hair. “Those leaves of yours better be right,” he snarled, and he dropped to straddle the chair opposite her. “Now tell me how I go about stopping the Slayer and Mr. Yesteryear.”