“I see what you want. Something glowing and glistening. Something… effulgent.”
It was hearing his own words falling from her lips that did William in. This woman, this fae creature of moonlight and darkness, had emerged from the shadows and entranced him with a word, and now he was utterly bewitched.
“Do you want it?” she asked. William had never wanted anything more. He wanted anything and everything she had to offer with every fiber of his being, and he would go into Hell itself if she were leading the way. The words of acquiescence and adoration and devotion rose up in him so thick and fast that they clogged themselves in his throat until it was a struggle to utter even a simple yes.
Suddenly a voice – easy and clear and, oddly enough, American – cut through the night air. Straight through the night air and through the fog William hadn’t realized had descended upon his mind until that very moment. “You seem like you’re having a hard time with that question, so let me offer some help. The right answer is ‘no’.”
William tore his gaze away from the woman before him to look to the owner of the new voice, a very slight woman. She was dressed well, but a bit too plainly to be considered fashionable, or at least so William surmised from his limited knowledge in the area. Yet despite her diminutive size and relatively simple garb, there was something about her, a certain presence that drew the eye in a way very much and not at all like the first woman. In fact, the two of them struck William as something of a study in contrasts to look at, the first as dark and mysterious as the stroke of midnight on a cold winter’s eve, and the second as bright and golden as a sunny summer’s day.
The dark woman pouted. “Slayer,” she said. Though it seemed clear that both her expression and words were intended for the golden woman, she didn’t look away from William as she spoke, continuing to play with his shirt where she had undone the top button. “Why must you come and ruin all my fun? You shan’t have this one. He is mine and I shall make him my black knight, all drenched dark and red with the blood flowing down, down, all over him. And just as soon as he wakes up he’s going to help me kill you, won’t you?” she said, reaching up to stroke William’s cheek. “My black knight will kill the slayer for princess?”
“I stand corrected,” said the golden woman, her tone still casual, leaving William aghast. How could she remain so calm when the dark woman was plotting her murder right in front of her? “The right answer to that question is ‘no, get away from me you crazy woman’ and then to run as fast and as far away as you can.” Her eyes sought out William’s and for a moment their gazes locked. In that moment William understood that her lightheartedness was a mask of sort, and in fact the golden woman was deadly serious.
The air was thick with tension, and William felt trapped by it, like a fly in a spider’s web. While both wome n seemed to remain almost preternaturally aware of the other’s every movement, both sets of eyes remained fixed on him, waiting to see what he would do. A demon and an angel, fighting over his very soul. “I-I…”
The tension shattered in an instant. The dark woman’s face transformed into a monstrous visage, though William caught only a glimpse of it before she turned around and launched herself at the golden woman. The golden woman immediately attacked back. The reason for her simple attire quickly made itself apparent to William; the golden woman never would have managed the moves she did had she been properly dressed up in a corset and bustle and such. It was amazing that she managed them even dressed as she was now.
William knew he ought to look away. What’s more, he ought to want to look away. Had he not said earlier this very evening that he wished no part of any dark, ugly business? And what could possibly be uglier than to women brawling like a pair of common street urchins? It was barbaric, vulgar even. He ought to listen to the one good piece of sense spoken tonight and get as far away as possible. And yet…
And yet he could not tear himself from the scene in front of him. He knew intellectually that this should be ugly business, but to look on it he couldn’t describe it as anything but beautiful. It was poetry, but instead of being writ in words, in rhyme and meter, it was crystallized in motion, in attack and retreat. It was as lovely as any dance he’d ever seen with a keen edge of danger to it and a powerful feel of something old and primal. Any illusions he had about his importance here dissipated like dust in the wind as he watched. It seemed clear to him that while the two might very well be fighting over his soul, it was only a minor battle in a much larger war and even then, his involvement was owed to nothing more than chance.
Just as abruptly as it had begun, the fight ended. One moment the two were a flurry of movement, and the next the dark woman was laid out on the ground, flat on her back with the golden woman astride her. The golden woman was using one hand to pin the dark woman’s arms to the ground above her head, and in the other hand she held a wooden stake that she had pulled out of her sleeve, its tip poised above the dark woman’s heart.
The dark woman’s face melted back into its human countenance and she gave the golden woman a deranged smile. “Mustn’t kill me, pretty. Daddy will be quite cross with you.”
The golden woman leaned in until their faces were so close that the two woman’s noses almost touched. “Ask me if I care.” She shoved with her arm, embedding the stake deep in the dark woman’s breast. The dark woman let out a burst of mad laughter, then suddenly vanished in a puff of dust.
The golden woman’s head remained bowed for just a moment, and William felt frozen on the spot watching her, waiting. Any second now this angel who had saved him would look up and he didn’t know which to expect from her: merciful compassion for what had almost happened to him or righteous fury for him willingly, if unknowingly, having allowed it to almost happen. Or worse yet, perhaps she wouldn’t look up at all; perhaps now that she had defeated her foe, she would have no more interest in him. That possibility left a coil of unpleasant feeling in his stomach, and as soon as it occurred to him, he became certain that was what would happen.
Which meant it took him completely by surprise when a moment later she looked up straight at him. Further compounding his feeling of being wrong-footed was her expression, neither compassionate nor furious, but… he supposed the best word for it was sheepish. She looked like nothing so much as a child who had been seen performing some bit of mischief, and was now more embarrassed at having been caught out at it than guilty over the misbehavior. “I don’t suppose you’d believe that this was rehearsal for a play?” she asked.
“A play,” William said, too taken aback by this turn of events, the whole evening’s strange series of events really, to do more than echo her.
“Yes, a play!” she said, really taken to the explanation now that he hadn’t immediately disavowed it as nonsense. “A new play… from America. About vampires and the vampire slayer and she and I were just rehearsing. For it. And trying out our new make-up and masks, from America. And the latest special effects. Also from America. Did I mention it was from America?”
“A few times,” William said. He had never been to America, so he supposed it was possible that they had a taste for plays about such a very dark and gothic sort of subject there. He had never seen any special effects quite so realistic when he had been to the theater, but again, he hardly knew what they were capable of over in America and whether or not it might be more impressive than what was to be had in London. It was altogether not a wholly unbelievable lie, but a lie it was. Even if the golden woman’s manner hadn’t been a giveaway, and even if he were willing to believe that a pair of actresses had seen fit to rehearse in the mews in some back London street in the dead of night, and even if he didn’t question how such special effects could possibly be performed without the benefit of things like trap doors and technicians and make-up artists, William still would have known it for a lie.
But how could he possibly presume to take her to task for it? William was nothing more than a small, ordinary man, and what happened tonight was not a small, ordinary thing. William had seen a touch of the divine, and if this golden angel who had saved him didn’t wish to explain herself, who was he to question her? “Right, an American play, of course. And you must have more… more rehearsing to do,” he said.
“Yes. I have more rehearsing and you should get home before you get accosted by any more actresses.” The woman’s tone was brisk and she quickly turned to leave. Now that she had completed her task and bought him off with a cheap lie, she had no more use for him.
“Wait,” William said, the word escaping his lips without any conscious effort. She turned back to look at him, but her eyes were vague and disinterested. He was beneath her.
Something in William snapped. “Is that it? You allow me to see something, something otherworldly and then attempt to placate me with a blatant falsehood before disappearing into the night never to be seen again? I may be a small, ordinary man, but I am still a man. And perhaps my presence tonight was merely incidental, but I was still present. I deserve an explanation for what has just happened here, a real one, and I demand you give it to me. Even if I am beneath you, I am not beneath consideration.”
Dead silence met his words. Her eyes were focused now, and had gone just a little wide with shock. Then, so slowly he thought he might be imagining it at first, her lips curled up in a smile. “Well, someone has a backbone.”
William immediately flushed with embarrassment at his behavior. Regardless of how she had treated him and regardless of what she was, an angel or actress or something else entirely, a gentleman did not speak to a lady that way. “I-I’m terribly sorry; I shouldn’t have-“
“Don’t apologize. Play rehearsal wasn’t my best excuse ever, but most people would have believed it anyway. Most people don’t want to think about these kinds of things being real,” she said. William thought she knew exactly what she was referring to. He was certain if Henry Blackhearst or Charles Haverford or really anyone at the party earlier had been the one here they would have accepted her explanation without question and buried themselves back in their ordinary lives. “It’s nice to occasionally meet someone who’s less…”
“Close-minded?” William suggested.
“Stupid,” she corrected.
“I see,” William said, thrown by her boldness, but charmed by it as well. “I feel I should point out that we haven’t officially met yet. William Pratt, very pleased to meet you.” It hardly lived up to the standards of any sort of formal introduction, but it was the best he could do under the circumstance.
Her lips twitched a bit in poorly concealed mirth. She swept him a curtsy and said, “Miss Buffy Anne Summers, vampire slayer.” There was a faint mocking lilt to her voice, but not aimed at him he didn’t think. He rather got the impression that she was mocking the notion of such courtesies at all. But then, she was American.
“That’s an interesting name. Is it American?”
Miss Summers crinkled her nose in distaste, and the small part of William that was concerned over what he had done to offend her found the expression utterly charming. “No, it’s as strange over there as it is here. My mother made it up, I think.”
“It’s lovely,” he assured her. Then he recalled what else she had said. “I’m sorry, vampire slayer?”
“Yeah, that part was not so much with the made-up,” she told him.
“Then you mean to say that that woman was actually a vampire? And that she was intending to, to feed off me. And to…” William trailed off. He had already come to the conclusion that he would have been dead now had it not been for Miss Summers timely intervention, but he found himself unable to give voice to the thought.
“No. Well, I mean yes, but if I understood her crazy talk, I think she was planning on turning you,” Miss Summers said, her tone gentle.
“Turn me. Into a creature like her, you mean?” William said, and Miss Summers nodded. “Ah. I think I need to sit for a moment.” He very nearly collapsed on the hay bale.
Miss Summers took a seat beside him, just barely far away enough for the distance not to be considered indecent. Or it would be so if not for the fact that they were a young, unmarried man and woman unchaperoned on a dark night sitting in one of London’s back alleyways. It was a very strange evening that William had been having. “I’m sorry, I don’t appear to be taking this very well,” said William.
“It’s a hard thing to take well,” Miss Summers replied. “Besides, you haven’t swooned yet, so that’s a good sign.”
“Do most people swoon?”
“I don’t know if I’ve told enough people to know what most people would do, but Cordy swooned.” Seeing his confusion, Miss Summers elaborated. “Miss Cordelia Chase, an actress and my… acquaintance is such a strong term.”
William chuckled, but then paled when he remembered Miss Summers’ peculiar euphemism from earlier and realized why she might be so hesitant to claim a relationship with Miss Chase. “By actress, do you mean to say that she’s…?”
“What? Oh, no. She’s a real actress, not a secretly actually a vampire actress,” Miss Summers said. “Sorry, I’m not very good at explaining. Giles is much better at it. He has this whole speech about one girl in all the world chosen to fight the forces of evil. I’m told it’s very impressive when you haven’t heard it a hundred times before.”
“And that one girl would be you, the vampire slayer,” William said.
“Let me guess, you would have expected someone taller,” replied Miss Summers. There was good humor in her tone as she said it, but the idea of her depreciating herself in any way sat poorly with William.
“Let me assure you that if I had known well enough to expect anything, then it would have been exactly you I was expecting, Miss Summers. When you first saved me I mistook you for an angel, but now I see that for the folly it was. Heaven has a multitude of angels, but there could only ever be one of you,” he told her earnestly.
Miss Summers’ eyes went round with surprise and for a long minute she did not reply. Finally William tore his gaze away from her, not wanting to see her expression shade with disgust as Cecily’s had earlier. Looking down at his lap, where his hands lay clutching one another so tightly his knuckles had gone white with the force of it, he spoke again. “I apologize. Sometimes I… please forget I said anything.”
Suddenly a delicate female hand entered his field of vision. Miss Summers touched his hands lightly and William’s head shot back up. She was watching him with the most wonderful soft expression and when she spoke it was with equal softness. “Mr. Pratt. William. Why on Earth would I want to forget the sweetest thing that has ever been said to me?”
William flushed and looked away. Somehow her approval, no not just approval, but outright pleasure, at his words was far more overwhelming than her disgust would have been. “You’re welcome. You uh, you mentioned a Mr. Giles?”
Miss Summers gave his hands one last pat with her own before drawing it away again. “I did. Giles is my Watcher.”
“Watcher? Do you mean he’s your guardian?” William asked. Perhaps watcher was the American term for it.
“No. That is, he is my guardian, but that’s a completely different thing from being my Watcher. A Watcher is the person who trains the Slayer and teaches her about demons and helps advise her in the fight against evil and does other Watcher-type things. Giles really would be better at explaining this than me.”
William tried to picture that, sitting in a cheery little parlor in the middle of a sunny day with some older gentleman and sipping tea and discussing demons, and found he couldn’t; the image was too incongruent. Even when he tried mentally moving the scene to twilight in a study done up in dark woods and leather and changed the tea out for whiskey all it did emphasize how wrong it was to have himself sitting there. What could he, someone who had tried to create beauty by shunning all ugliness, possibly have to offer to someone like Miss Summers, who sought out all the dark places so she could bring the light to them? Why would she want William in her world? “I don’t understand why you’re even explaining all this to me in the first place.”
Miss Summers tilted her head slightly to the side and regarded him with a confused and surprised expression. “Correct me if I’m mistaken, but as I remember it you were the one who demanded I tell you the truth.”
William blushed at the reminder. “I did. But whatever I said you were under no real obligation to oblige me. Certainly there was nothing I could have done if you hadn’t. So why did you?”
Miss Summers appeared to consider her words carefully before speaking. “I told you because you stayed. When I was fighting with Miss Crazy Vampire you could have snuck off and run away, but you stayed. Even if that was only because of shock, afterwards I gave you a perfectly good – well, good enough – excuse for what happened and instead of taking it and pretending when you woke up tomorrow that this was all some crazy dream, you stood your ground and demanded the truth. You stayed.”
Miss Summers paused there for a moment as though she knew he need time for that to sink in. Not so much because of what she had said about him as because of the soft amazed tone she had said it in. Someone as wondrous as Miss Summers thought he, unimportant, unimpressive, William the Bloody Awful Poet, was amazing for doing something as simple as refusing to leave. Though perhaps it was less about him as it was about someone else who hadn’t stayed. Someone who had left Miss Summers and hurt her in doing so, and William was suddenly struck with the very ungentlemanly thought that he would like very much to hurt that person in turn.
Luckily, he was saved from this morbid turn of thought by Miss Summers standing up and announcing brightly, “And now that you’ve mastered ‘stay’, it’s time to practice ‘go’.”
“Go? Go where?” William asked, though he had already stood up to do as she asked.
“Why, don’t you trust me?”
Miss Summers’ words had been said lightly in jest, but William was gravely serious when he responded. “Implicitly.” Earlier he had thought himself willing to follow the dark woman, the vampire, into Hell itself because he thought the pain and torment would be worth finally being in the company of a woman who saw him as he was, but with Miss Summers… With Miss Summers he could follow her into Hell with an unwavering heart and the sure knowledge that she would lead him safely back out again, vanquishing any demons that they might encounter on the way.
Immediately after he said it, William felt terribly embarrassed, not helped by the high color in Miss Summers’ cheeks, and he quickly tried to cover with a jest of his own. “Though one might excuse my caution, given that the last woman who approached me here had apparently been intent on turning me into a creature of the night.”
“One might, if one didn’t remember I was the one who saved you from becoming all fang-y,” Miss Summers countered good-naturedly. “We’re just going to see Giles. I need to tell him about crazy vampire lady, since I get the feeling she wasn’t your run-of-the-mill vamp, and then he needs to do all the explaining stuff for you. You don’t have to worry about me having my wicked way with you.” Miss Summers swept her eyes up and down his body in a very blatant appraisal. “At least, not unless you ask very nicely.”
“You are very bold,” William said, stumbling over his words.
“Sorry. Giles is always calling me incorrigible, which I think means the same thing,” Miss Summers replied.
“It does. And you needn’t apologize; I like boldness,” William said. He offered her his arm, trying a bit of boldness on himself. “Shall we?”
Miss Summers accepted his arm, sending a thrill through William. Then she smiled at him again, but she had reverted back again from her boisterous expressions to soft and sweet and even a little shy around the edges. William found he liked these sort of expressions just as well as her fierce beauty earlier when she had been battling with the vampire, and he liked the duality of it and of her best of all. Though it did give him a little trouble, as now he was struggling to find a word to describe Miss Summers that could possibly do justice to the whole of her. Common words, like lovely or beautiful were completely out; they paled in the light of her. Resplendent? No. Perhaps glorious? But no, that wasn’t quite it either.
As they walked, the light of one of the street lamps caught on the shine in her hair, and for a moment William imagined the radiance of it flooded the night with the brightness of her. Ah, of course. Exactly as promised.
She glanced over at him and smiled again when she caught him watching her. This expression was caught between sweetness and boldness, and William, feeling equally caught between being overwhelmed and self-assured, smiled back. It was just as well that Miss Cecily hadn’t cared for his poem after all, he decided. Clearly the word was wasted on her.