On Tuesday morning, Lizzie wakes up slightly early, early enough to lie in bed for a moment or two, trying to recall her dream.
She was getting married, she knows that, although the details of the wedding are lost to her. She remembers the kind eyes of a man, a strong hand shaking slightly before sliding into a pocket. She had whispered something to him, something that made the officiant blush and stammer and reach to swipe a handkerchief across the lenses of his glasses.
Lizzie gets up, grinning, and begins to dress, but her mind is still on the dream. She enjoys the fearless, cheeky self who lives there.
She has always been jealous of the gentle waves of Ava's Scottish accent, but it doesn't help in their French lessons.
"Mère," Lizzie enunciates carefully, emphasizing the appropriate accents.
Ava obediently repeats, "Mère," although she is not as careful about the pronunciation as Lizzie had been. At her teacher's skeptical look, she tosses her book away. "I wish we could just speak in English instead."
"Ava, your father," Lizzie begins, but the girl interrupts, knowing the speech by heart, even at six. "Yes, I know, the French language makes a solid foundation for a young lady's future education."
She looks so downcast that Lizzie brushes her book aside as well. "Well, I think that learning about one's natural environment is also an important piece of the foundation. Grab your coat. We'll go for a walk."
For a few moments, while they giggle into light jackets and slip out the door, there's a delicious feeling of rebellion to the simple stroll. But as they leave the house, Lizzie feels a pricking sensation in the center of her back, the slippery feeling of someone watching. She listens to Ava with one ear, letting her run around and collect autumn leaves in the name of an alleged botany lesson, devoting the rest of her attention to keeping a sharp lookout from the corners of her eyes.
That night after eating dinner with Ava- eaten in the lounge that adjoins Ava's bedroom rather than at the overly large dining room table- and sending her to bed, Lizzie sits up trying to focus on her novel. Even in her room, she has an unsettling sense of being watched. A faint click down the hall tells her that it isn't just herself and Ava and the staff in the house anymore. She puts the book down almost gratefully, and goes to talk to Charles.
Her memories of Charles stretch back as far as any of her memories do, but she still knocks and waits for a response before entering his study. He has a small glass in his hand, the bottom filled with what Lizzie is fairly sure is alcohol, and he uses it to gesture to the chair across from him.
"Hello, Lizzie. I hope that you're doing well and that Ava behaved herself."
Lizzie sits and allows him to pour her a cup of tea. He doctors it for her, adding the milk he believes she likes, although she truly just prefers sugar. "Yes, everything was fine. I hope that your trip went well."
"It was…satisfactory. Luckily it ended so I could make it back for Ava's birthday next week." Lizzie makes a sound to express her agreement at this happy coincidence and sips her tea politely. "Do you have any idea what I can get her?"
"I know that you could let her stop learning French." She tries to give the suggestion a light, joking tone, stepping cautiously around Charles's sensibilities.
Apparently it was not light enough. "Oh, Lizzie," he sighs, shaking his head at her apparent foolishness. "The French language makes a solid foundation for a young lady's future education. And I want my Ava to have the best foundation."
"Of course." Feeling the spied-upon shiver again, Lizzie asks quickly, staring down into her cup to try to avoid embarrassment, "Have you made any changes in the staff?"
Charles stares at her oddly. "No, although Hodgeson wasn't here when I arrived home. Why do you ask?"
Lizzie almost tells him, but she can clearly picture his expression turning to mirth that he might try to conceal and instead she says, "Never mind. Ava enjoys books about horses. You could try buying one of those."
"I'll have Hodgeson look at some reviews in the morning," he replies, thankfully dropping the subject and urging her to finish her tea before he sends her to bed.
But Hodgeson doesn't look at reviews in the morning. Whatever he was looking at was unknown to them, as he had vanished and no one in the household seems to know where he might be. Charles calls the police, who seem ready to ignore the request as low priority until they receive a call from a powerful council member. They come around after that and Lizzie can see them poking around before she shuts the door so Ava won't be distracted from her lessons by their investigation.
Still, despite whatever might have happened to the other gentleman, Charles still needs one around now that he is back in residence. The exclusive agency, with which he has had much luck until now, sends him a new man by the end of the business day.
Ava and Lizzie run into him for the first time as they search the library for another copy of Matilda (which Lizzie feels is more appropriate for a six-year-old than Jane Eyre, which is what her father expected her to read). Hodgeson was a bland looking forty-year-old. Two days after she last saw him, Lizzie can't really picture his face, just the general impression of one over a neat suit. The new gentleman is slightly older, but there is a comfortable kindness in his eyes. He introduces himself as Giles Brighton, and asks Ava about the books she has read in a tone of interest rather than condescension before he has to go off to finish the job Charles assigned him.
"He's nice," Ava says, tucking the Roald Dahl against herself. Lizzie agrees, but that night when she feels the sneaky eyes against her back while she walks back to her room, he is standing at the other end of the hall. She has to squint against the darkness to make him out, but it is definitely him.
The next afternoon, while Ava's piano teacher is there, Brighton asks Lizzie for a brief tour of the house. Not having anything else to do, Lizzie agrees. The house is large and full of objects that Charles had obtained in his travels, but Brighton does not seem particularly interested in any of them. The household staff stays away, as they usually do. They have never taken to Lizzie, although she can't figure out why, and although they are always kind and polite to each other. But even when she first came back from college to work for Charles and teach Ava, there were pitying glances that she pretended not to see.
Brighton looks her in the eye, which is a nice change. When he watches her point to a vase or an architectural detail she thinks he might find interesting, he has a bright gaze from behind his glasses that Lizzie has to smile at. But although he is engaged in the things she is telling him, for some reason, what interests him most is the basement.
"We never go down there," she informs him. "I believe that Charles keeps confidential files there." Although, as she says it, what she has always known seems thin and false. There are such files in his office and she has never been forbidden to enter there, so she adds, "Or perhaps there's some kind of chemicals or equipment down there. I…I've never had Charles explain it to me."
He gives a neutral response, something British, "Indeed" or "Quite," and they continue on. But later on as she collects Ava and they return to work, she spots Mr. Brighton looking at the basement door far more intensely than it truly warrants. He appears to be murmuring to it, although she is sure that cannot be right. Still, the odd feeling inside her increases and she decides to speak to Charles.
She waits until after she is sure that Ava is asleep and then steps quietly down to the hall, thankful for the decadently thick plush carpet that Charles enjoys. She is trying to figure out how to make her gut feeling sound logical instead of crazy. She hasn't figured it out by the time she gets to his door, but she is saved from knocking by the sound of Brighton's voice from the other side. He is speaking coldly and furiously, his tone so disrespectful and out of place that Lizzie feels triumphant, sure that Charles will listen to her now.
But when Charles responds, he is amused. "How did you presume that you were going to overcome me, Mr. Giles? With your books and research, or your minor skills in magic? Or were you going to try to physically attack me?"
"I am not alone-"
"Come. I know that your associates are away. I, too, can research and reconnoiter, and I did not make this attempt blindly."
"Oh, but you did." Mr. Brighton (or- what did Charles call him- Mr. Giles? Does he have an alias? Why?) speaks in a strong voice. "With your typical human blindness, your…your hubris and selfishness, you took away my daughter- my daughter- in an attempt to trade her for yours. And despite that, despite the fact that you have been poisoning her and robbing her of her memories and of herself, we can still help you with this-"
Charles laughs. He says, lazily, "I became who I am through taking risks, no matter what the cost. Unfortunately for one of us, Mr. Giles, today you are the cost."
Lizzie has had enough. She opens the door, because suddenly the lines have become blurred and she is frightened. "Charles, stop this."
For the first time, Charles looks vaguely alarmed. But he covers it quickly. Looking over at Giles…Brighton, he whispers, almost regretfully, "If only," and throws something toward him. There is a flash, and Lizzie stumbles forward, her eyes covered, to where Giles had been standing. Except that when she can see again, there is only one man left in the room.
"Catch," he says, tossing something toward her, and although she has never been athletic, something reacts within her, instinctive and involuntary. She catches a small glass orb neatly. "I can't see my reflection," she thinks.
On Saturday morning, Lizzie wakes up slightly early, early enough to lie in bed for a moment or two, trying to recall her dream.
There was something frightening in it, and urgent, but no pictures will form in her mind. Just a confusion of light and noise, and something lost.
She gives up trying to fit together the puzzle and throws back the covers, but even as she begins to dress, she feels that she will be haunted by what she cannot remember.
Ava is taking the opportunity of her one day off to sleep in, but Charles is awake and eating when Lizzie arrives on the ground floor in search of food.
"Good morning," she murmurs.
"Good morning, Lizzie," he greets her, folding up his paper and setting it aside. "Won't you have a seat?"
She sits automatically at his command, although she is a little off-put by it. She can't remember the two of them eating together since they were children, when Charles's father found her wandering on the edge of his property and took her in. He was only a few years older than she was, but although they grew up together, she still finds herself uncomfortable speaking to him.
"Here," he says, and calls for tea. He pours milk from the small silver pitcher and slides the cup over to her. She blows on it, not taking a sip until she realizes he is watching. Even then she just pretends. She wishes that she were just eating alone in the kitchen so she could have her tea plain and sweet, even if it meant the staff's odd looks.
"Where is Hodgeson?" she asks, realizing that he had not been the one to bring the tea service.
"Really, Lizzie." Charles looks over in disapproval. He reaches for his paper again, almost as if he is punishing her with the absence of his company. "Hodgeson left days ago. I don't know where your head is."
"Of course," Lizzie says, and manages to slip away before she has to have any of the tea.
Lizzie's head remains a little muddled. She manages to act normally for the most part, but as she and Ava practice cursive on Sunday (the normal kind along with some that has a few more curlicues and flowers attached to the corners than the workbook suggests) even the little girl looks up and asks if she is sick. She says no, but she can't sleep that night and the next day she answers the door, although Charles is very strict about allowing only the household staff to do it.
It is obvious that the strange man- impeccably groomed, already in uniform- is the new gentleman's gentleman. But he is younger than the typical one, handsomer than Hodgeson or any…others there might have been, and when he speaks, introducing himself as Liam Masters, he has an American accent tinged with a little bit of Irish. Charles has always been very particular about his employees. If they weren't English, they pretended.
Nevertheless Charles seems to find him unobjectionable. Masters catches on quickly to his habits, and manages to be silently holding out a pen or his favorite tie before the request is even verbalized.
Lizzie is glad that Masters seemed to be a permanent addition to the household. He is kind to her. He looks her in the eye, and within a day seems to know how she likes her tea. On Thursday, the day before Ava's birthday, she forgets the book of poetry that she was supposed to read in their lesson. When she bumps in to him, hard, as she comes back from the library, he doesn't yell at her, although she made him drop the folders he was holding. He calmly hands back the small volume before reordering the files and wishing her a good afternoon.
"Thank you, Mr. Masters," she says after an uncomfortably long while, when he is already down the hall.
"Liam," he corrects. "Please." His voice is formal. It is the first time she has heard him speak clearly rather than in polite murmurs, but still she can understand pain and a yearning in his tone.
Gently she says, "Alright, Liam," and turns to go back to Ava's room.
But the book she has now is not the Emily Dickinson that she thought her young charge would like, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Not wanting to alarm Ava further with her confusion, she simply reads the words as if she had always meant to. But as she starts the sonnet ("Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand/Henceforward in thy shadow") she can't get past the second line.
"Excuse me," she says, and drops the book to go find Liam.
She can hear voices in Charles's office and she raises her hand to knock on the door. But then she hears her own name.
"I knew that you wouldn't be able to resist coming for Lizzie. My only question is where have you been until now? From what I knew of you, you wouldn't leave your wife defenseless for this long."
"I was away, helping other people. I was told that my wife would be here rescuing your daughter from a monster of your own creation." Liam, who is always so quiet and controlled, sounds as if he is shaking. "But it turns out that you are a monster as well."
"Oh, so now a man is a monster if he tries to get ahead in life? I was nothing, an addict headed for a lower life than my lowborn father. I had no life to provide for Ava. So when I was offered a deal, I took it, even if it was with the devil. And I have been able to give her all of this while still keeping him off our doorstep." She peers through the crack in the door. Charles is advancing. He looks fierce.
"By sacrificing other girls. How many before Buffy? One every birthday, is that how it works? That means four others over the years, four innocents who you have bartered for another year with the daughter you promised away in exchange for money and power. And now my wife, who you lured here with a plea for help. Buffy can kill whatever you are hiding in your basement, I promise you that, but Lizzie…"
She shakes her head. She does not understand. Who is Buffy? Are they speaking in some kind of code? Perhaps this has something to do with corporate espionage. But how are she and Ava involved?
Liam moves forward. "With all the spells and protections on this house, it was difficult to get a weapon in. Fortunately, I'm fairly skilled without them." He moves forward. His body is powerful and she feels a leap of triumph seeing Charles move around the desk, almost frightened.
"Even if you kill me, your Buffy will be locked inside of Lizzie."
"Drugs. They'll wear off soon enough." Liam continues to advance.
"How will she trust you? She knows me, and I know enough about her to keep her under control. When she goes to sleep and wakes, how she takes her tea…" Charles is rambling, but no longer fearful. She sees his hand grip behind him, and the world shifts and then resets before her eyes. She pushes through the door to warn Liam. But the thick bat has already swung onto his skull and he kneels before Charles, who reaches into his pocket casually as he looks up.
"Lizzie, you always do manage to barge in at the worst of times," he admonishes. "Rewriting your memory is getting quite tiresome."
"I always thought I had great timing," Buffy says and kicks at his hand, neatly catching the orb he holds before throwing it at his feet. Angel is blinded, but she can see it crack, and she watches as Charles is pulled down into it, as if into a funnel, before it reseals around him.
It seems safe on the thick rug, so she collapses beside Angel. "Giles Brighton and Liam Masters?" She chokes a little, the tears already starting as she laughs. "I think you failed Covert Ops 101. He's evil, Angel, not stupid."
Angel wraps his arms around her, although he's clearly still a little dazed. "Yeah, drugging you was pretty smart. How did you break out of that?"
Buffy looks over at the small glass ball, resting seemingly harmlessly on the carpet. "He really should have remembered how I like my tea."
Later, after they have figured out how to restore Giles from his orb prison and how to keep Charles in his permanently, after they have sent the bewildered staff away and dealt with the creature in the basement, Buffy and Angel sit on the swing on their front porch.
"How long was it?" Buffy asks. She has realized since leaving the house that time there was different.
"Nine days," he says. "I got back from New Orleans and Giles had left a note telling me that he hadn't heard from you and that if he wasn't back soon, I should abduct the new butler on his way to the house and take his place."
"You were good at it." She plays with the fringe of the blanket they are sharing. "Maybe we can play a little bit of mistress and butler around here." His chuckle ruffles her hair and she snuggles back into him, smiling.
"Ava went down pretty easily in there," he remarks, some minutes later. "I would have thought that there would be a little more confusion. Or some reaction to the fact that her dad was willing to trade her life for a quick trip to the top of the social ladder."
"He might have loved her enough to kill four other people for her, but he didn't really care about how she felt or what she wanted. It was all about having the perfect daughter for him and she could tell." She sighs and shifts. "Did you and Giles dig up any family?"
"They would all have to be dug up, literally, to take care of Ava. And Charles had her expunged from every public record. Probably covering his tracks in case he wasn't successful in… keeping the demon at bay."
They both shiver, and neither pretends it's from the cold. "We're keeping her, aren't we?" Buffy says, and Angel doesn't even have to answer.
"How are you?" he asks after a while.
"Glad to be home with you." He holds her close, waiting patiently for more. "I hate the ones who take me away from myself, who make me into something I'm not."
"Lizzie was nice," Angel comments mildly, but she glares at him sharply over her shoulder.
"She was fine, but so weak. I hate to think that I could be that weak. Is that who I would have been in a different life, or with different circumstances?"
"Maybe. But it was you. Still. Always. If it was you, I would take it anyway." He tips her face so they are looking directly at one another. "I love all the parts of you, the ones that make up Lizzie and the ones that forced her out of you."
"Hmm," she says. She isn't sure how much she likes that. But then she thinks of all the parts that make up him and how she loves all of them, apart and together. She leans back on her husband, this man of deep and wide love, strong and steadfast.