Pairings: Present day William and Buffy
Genre: Fantasy/ All human AU
Status: Work in progress
Summary :The premise is that William spent two years in prison for a crime he didn't commit and the story begins at the point at which he starts to rebuild his life. He'll find himself working with Buffy, sparks fly (of course) but she's got to get him to believe in himself again before he can love her. I'm thinking beach side setting, Victorian clapboard houses, antiques shopping, dressing up in costume, oh and a book called The Art of Seduction may make a cameo appearance.
Thank you to Gia who posted the initial idea at Spuffy Fantasy ideas factory and to Lady Anne my beta who is also a Lawyer and who is checking all the legal aspects for me. Also must mention Hazel and Becky who read through before I post and give their much valued opinions.
There was the cliff edge, and there was William. Hanging on by his fingertips. And there was a choice. Did he hang on, or did he let go? It wasn’t much of a choice. After a while his arms ached so much that he just longed for it to be over, even though he knew it would be the end.
He always let go. It was only a brief moment, that split second of weightlessness before he fell, but it was such a sweet relief. Almost worth the nightmarish plunge into darkness that followed it.
He always woke up before he hit bottom. Alone, amongst crumpled sheets, the silence of the morning broken only by the sound of his own panic. Harsh gasps as he struggled for air and the unsteady pounding of his own heart at least told him that he was still alive.
A few moments of bewilderment, taking in his surroundings, as if seeing them for the first time, and he’d know that another day had started. Another, predictable, day.
The sun always rose, the hours ticked by and the sun always set. Sometimes it seemed as if he’d counted every second of the day and sometimes it was nightfall and he couldn’t remember one single thing he’d done.
Sleep was always a long time in coming, but when it did it started all over again. Hanging on by his fingertips, feeling them slip. Letting go. Waking up.
It took him a long while to work it out. The thing that was different.
The room still stank of beer, of stale cigarettes, of yesterday’s meal.
The digital clock still rested on the haphazard stack of books that formed his bedside table, its large, luminous numbers flashing at him in the semi-darkness. His clothes still lay on the floor where he’d dropped them. The curtains, half-closed because they were too small to cover the window, still let in the weak morning light as they always did.
Familiar noises in the street told him that the world was getting ready for its day. Someone shouting, a car radio, a dog barking, that strange breathless sound of a bicycle being ridden at speed.
Same as it always was.
He lay very still and he listened. And for the first time since this nightmare had started he couldn’t hear it. No panting breath, no hammering heart, no cries of terror as he struggled from dream to waking.
The thing that was different, was him.
As he lay there, trying to work out why, half-remembered fragments of his dream drifted back to him. He mentally corrected it to nightmare, then back to dream again. Because that’s all it had been this time. Just a dream.
For the first time, he hadn’t let go. For the first time, he’d tightened his grip and pulled himself up, just far enough to see what was up there, and he’d found the world just as he’d left it. As if it had been waiting for him. And for the first time in a very long time he thought that maybe it was time to go back. Time to start living again. Time to pick up the pieces, put them back together and see what he had. To see what he’d become and to see what was left of the person he’d been before.
Every day was the first day of the rest of your life, but today it actually felt like that was true.
He lay for a while listening to the birds singing their morning chorus and then he drifted away, letting sleep take him once more. When he next awoke it was eight a.m. and the room was flooded with light, the world outside was in full flow and for a moment it seemed that nothing had changed.
Except for that small spark of hope that still burned somewhere deep inside him. It was only a tiny flame, and if he thought about it too hard he could almost convince himself that he’d imagined waking up earlier so unaccustomedly calm. But there it was. He hadn’t a clue what to do with it. It was so long since he’d felt anything like this. So long since he’d felt anything at all.
He rolled out of bed and stooped for his clothes, sniffed at the armpits of his customary black tee-shirt and let it drop, then he picked up his jeans and stepped into them. Moving over to the closet, he opened the door and scanned the meagre contents. He never dressed up these days but his business suit was still there, untouched for the last two and a half years. Still in its plastic cover as if it was frozen in time, just like his dreams. He’d bought it just as things were getting good, along with that stupid poster that had told him that anything was possible, as long as you believed.
Bloody hell, enough with the self-pity. All of a sudden it was too ugly even to think about. He swept the suit aside, along with the few shirts that hadn’t fallen off their hangers on to the floor, and he rummaged on the shelf at the back until he found what he was looking for.
It wasn’t much, and he wondered if anyone would even notice, but the longest journeys started with a single step – he’d had that poster too. The white tee-shirt smelled a little musty and he wasn’t even sure it was clean, but just that small gesture made the day feel different.
He put it on, and looked at the stranger who stared at him from the mirror he’d stuck on the inside of the closet door. The person who was too pale, too thin to be William. The man with the ridiculous poodle hair that hung in sandy coils over his eyes. The man who’d looked back at him and called him ‘loser’ every day for the last two and a half years.
The hair was definitely going. He took one last look and waved the man goodbye. Then he closed the door and went through to the living room, his limbs less heavy and his step a little lighter. The time for mourning was over.
Time to bring William back from the dead.
Chapter 1 deals with a rape accusation
There is no such thing as justice. It's blind for one thing. How the hell's it going to do its job if it can't bloody well see?
Two and a half years earlier.
The man beside her stirred and turned over, his hand sliding across her bare stomach. The girl froze as he sighed softly and relaxed into sleep once more. Then she opened her eyes.
A darkened room, the sound of voices and laughter. Music, thumping, like her head. She sat up. The room tilted, then righted itself and her stomach lurched.
"William?" She shook him lightly by the shoulder, her voice small. He muttered something, rolled onto his back and started to snore. As he moved, the sheet slid down to his slim hips and the girl averted her eyes. Just enough light to see that he was naked, like her. And she was in bed with him. And they'd just…oh my god.
She shivered as she slid from the bed and groped for her clothes, glancing back at him as the snoring started in earnest. Closed her eyes as she fended off the nausea. Remembered what they'd done. She wasn't even sure how they'd managed it, they'd been so drunk. But she'd wanted him. So much so, that when he'd hesitated and mumbled something about finding a condom she'd told him she was on the pill. An hour ago it had sounded so grown up and sophisticated. Now it just sounded like the most stupid thing she'd ever said.
She slipped her tank over her head, pulled on her shorts, leaned one arm on the bed and shook him again. He didn't move. An hour ago he'd been spouting poetry and telling her she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. An hour ago she'd been a virgin. Now she was no better than those girls her father talked about in his Sunday sermons. And if he ever found out about this, he was going to kill her. Not physically, but with words. He was good at words.
"Keep yourself pure, missy. Your future husband will expect no less of you. Neither do I."
She heard his voice as surely as if he was standing next to her and every thought of defiance that she'd had before now evaporated with the harsh realisation of what she'd done. They hadn't wanted her to go to college. Said she'd get herself into trouble and god help her, it was only the first week and she was already halfway there. Halfway to hell as her father would say.
As she staggered to the door his grim face loomed before her, and for a moment she straightened her shoulders and remembered why she'd been so desperate to get away from them all in the first place. Remembered how sick she was of all their self-righteous sermonising. Was it her fault if she'd given herself to the first man who'd said she was pretty? No, not pretty, beautiful. He'd said something about a rose and god, he'd been good looking. That's all it had taken. That, a great deal of alcohol and whatever had been in that cigarette he'd passed her.
She'd been so ripe for the picking, desperate to be a woman, and now she was.
And it felt like hell.
The hallway of the frat house was thronging with now very drunk students, some dancing, some kissing and touching each other up right there in the open. It looked repellent to her as she fought her way through the crowd but then she realised that she was one of them now. Someone who had sex with a stranger she'd known for less than an hour. That quaint, old-fashioned thing called a fallen woman. And where she came from, once you were down, you stayed down.
She just about managed to get herself behind a clump of bushes before she threw up, retching until her sides ached, then sitting back on her heels and wiping her face with the back of her hand. They'd been told not to walk around the campus alone at night but all she wanted to do was get home, so she hitched her purse onto her shoulder, looked around for the right path and set off.
The footsteps were behind her almost immediately. She heard them crunching on the gravel, the insistent whispers, but she didn't look round. Instead she quickened her pace, scanned the path ahead and realised with a sinking heart that she was lost.
"Hey, wait up."
A male voice called her, not unfriendly in tone, and she turned instinctively thinking it might be William. She wasn't even sure that was his name anymore, but she knew this wasn't him. The man who had run ahead of the group he was with and was now circling in front of her had dark, straight hair and she definitely remembered William's sandy curls.
His tone was light as he grinned at her, arms folded, barring her way.
"Not going, are you?"
Every possible dire scenario ever painted in one of her father's sermons ran through her mind. She glanced back at the house which now seemed rather a long way away and then she checked herself. The guy looked friendly enough and hell, if she was going to start imagining every man she met as a potential rapist then she might just as well pack her bags and go home right now.
She effected as casual a stance as she could muster, wishing that she hadn't worn the shorts which made her feel so exposed, or the scandalously skimpy top that the man was staring straight at.
"Not feeling too good, got to get back." She sidestepped, but he blocked.
"Where ya going?"
"Harington, I really have to go." She sidestepped again but he moved with her.
"I'll walk ya. We'll walk ya, won't we guys?"
"No, no thank you." Her voice dropped to a nervous whisper as another one moved in front of her, looking at her in the same way the first one had. Nakedly appraising her.
"A beautiful woman like you shouldn't be alone." He turned to his friends. "Should she?"
They all murmured their approval, five, maybe six of them. The panic was spreading through her so fast now that she couldn't even count them. She heard one dissenting voice calling his friends to reason so she turned to him, but he only lifted his hands and backed away. He obviously wanted no part of it but he wasn't going to help her either.
Even as she was running towards the trees she was thinking what a stupid thing it was to do. She was doing a lot of stupid things tonight. The group took after her with a series of yelps and howls and before long they had her circled again and this time they looked as if they meant business.
It all happened very quickly. The tree was at her back and she heard the tearing of fabric. She kicked out and the ringleader went down clutching at his groin. There was laughter and the sound of a scream cut short as a hand clamped over her mouth. Another hand on her throat as she struggled, then someone was pulling him off. She recognised the first guy who'd tried to talk then down, heard him telling his friends to go home, a few voices of protest and then one by one they melted away.
The man handed her her purse. "Get yourself home. It was just a bit of fun, right?"
All she could do was stand there and stare at him. Her hand went to the torn strap of her top, vainly pulling it against her. He pressed the bag into her hand and closed her fingers about it.
"Just a bit of fun. It happens. Get yourself home."
And then he was gone too.
She ran all the way back to her dorm, over a mile without stopping, so she had no breath to spare for tears until her room-mate found her sitting on the bed wrapped in a towel, her hair still wet from the shower she'd taken as soon as she'd got in. Numb, shivering, talking to herself.
"Just a bit of fun, that's all it was."
"What? My god, what happened to you?"
It all came out in a rush. Sex with William, no protection, getting attacked. By now she almost felt that someone as foolish as her deserved it all.
"Stop talking like that." Her friend had her by the shoulders, her eyes widening as she saw the finger-marks that would turn to bruises.
"Did he do this?"
"Who, William? No. It was them. The others."
"Listen to me. They're the least of your worries now. You know you could get pregnant?"
Her friend's face stared insistently into hers as she tried to turn away.
"And you could catch something, probably have. Hell, you don't know this William guy, he could have any number of diseases. What the hell were you thinking?"
That was the point at which the dam burst.
Her friend held her and let her cry, and then she smoothed back the lank strands of hair from her face and looked her in the eye.
"Your daddy is sure gonna kill you if he finds out about this, but it wasn't your fault, do you hear me."
It filtered through the fog of her hysteria.
"Not my fault?"
"No, he forced you, okay?"
She blinked away the tears, bringing her friend's face into focus once more.
"But he didn't…"
Hands gripped her bruised shoulders. "Listen to me, you stupid girl, my ass is on the line here too. I was supposed to be looking after you, right? Older cousin, you know how it works."
"It's okay, it's okay. We're gonna put this right."
The girl felt her cousin's finger trace the line of marks on her shoulders, along her jawline. Heard her murmur her approval.
"He held you down and put his hands like this."
The girl felt a hand move in front of her mouth, mimicking what the man had done earlier.
"He held you down and he raped you. You were in the bedroom, fooling around and when you tried to leave he wouldn't let you, wouldn't take no for an answer."
"He fell asleep. I felt so lonely lying there."
"The bastard. Deserves all he's got coming. He was rough with you, right?"
She nodded slowly. "I guess so, I don't know. It hurt," she said clutching at her cousin's arm, her voice rising. "But that's normal, right? The first time? Isn't it supposed to? Do we really have to do this?"
"When there's any chance your daddy might find out? Do you want what happened to Emily?"
"No." The girl closed her eyes for a moment. "You think they're going to believe us?"
"Only if we believe it ourselves." Her cousin stood and looked at her coolly. "Now, repeat the story back to me, and keep saying it until you believe it to be god's honest truth. And don't look at me like that. He's just some guy, right? Better him than you."
Words. Powerful things. Her daddy was good at words. Terrified the life out of them with his words. And she was her daddy's child. She'd learned from a master.
You could destroy someone using words twisted just right. And that night, she did.
He'd heard the words, thought he'd known what they meant. Until they were spoken to him. When the judge had delivered the sentence he'd found himself looking around to see who the poor sucker was. William Denham, this court hereby sentences you to ten years for the crime of rape in the second degree. He hadn't even recognized his own name. Poor sod, he'd thought. Wouldn't wish that on anyone. Banged up for something he didn't do. How the hell did you survive that?
He remembered wondering why everyone was looking at him, especially that nice Joyce Summers. The lawyer-lady who made such a mean hot chocolate. Always had those little marshmallows to float on top. Nice lady, he was going to miss her.
He remembered her face as she told him how sorry she was, her eyes bright with tears that she could barely contain. The way she'd squeezed his hand and held on as he heard the judge asking him to stand up. The way he'd reassured her that this was just a mistake and it would soon be put right, so they had nothing to worry about.
He remembered the hypocrite with the bible who kept bursting into spontaneous prayer and had to be asked to leave the courtroom. The girl who wouldn't look at him, or talk to him, or save him.
And even as they were leading him out, he remembered looking around for the actual culprit, because it sure as hell wasn't him. So why did they keep saying it was?
And he remembered that jolt that had gone through him as he looked at the handcuffs and realised that this was actually happening after all.
Words. It had come down to words. Hers against his, only hers had been better than his. Somehow sadder, somehow more convincing. Passionate and pleading when his had sounded dull and flat. His words of truth had been plain and simple and they'd fallen on deaf ears. But her honeyed lies had condemned him with their sweet eloquence. Their elaborate ingenuity.
Oh yes, he remembered.
It's strange how the things you want to forget are the easiest to remember of all.
October just couldn't make up its mind. Cold and wet to start, catching the tail-end of the hurricane season with such ferocity that many of the shops on the beachfront had rolled down their shutters and closed early for the year. Then it had seemed to take pity and remember that cold was coming and folks needed a little something to see them through. The result had been two weeks of glorious sunshine that was showing no signs of abating and had brought the shopkeepers scurrying back for a last fling before they disappeared to Florida for the winter.
And the times, they were changing. Formerly known only for its antique shops, the usually sleepy little resort had woken up with a bang this year. Two new bars and an art gallery had brought in a new mix of young trendies intent on partying the summer away, and, more importantly for Buffy Summers, a new wave of people with money to spend. People who were looking for something a little different to the ordinary junk that usually stuffed the windows of the run of the mill antique shop. And what had started as the brain-child of a late night drinking session was beginning to turn into quite a profitable business.
She dabbed in a few finishing touches to the painting then stood back to inspect her work. A little more contrast to the skirt, a few highlights to the hair and it was done.
"Oh, hi mom." Buffy turned to the sound of the door opening, her eyes lighting up at the two drinks her mother was carrying. "Just what I needed," she said, taking the frosty glass and rubbing it over her face and neck.
"Thought you'd appreciate it," her mother said, smiling at the familiar gesture. "Have you finished already?"
Buffy nodded. "Sure have, starting another tomorrow. So, what do you think?"
"Amazing sweetheart, I don't know how you do it so fast." Joyce perched herself on the edge of a table and took a long look at the painting. "So you managed to talk someone into the bustle at last?"
"Yeah, weird that, I'd have thought it would have been more popular. Everyone wants to wear the regency stuff, more romantic, I suppose." Buffy put down her tea, then moved over to the sink. "I'll just get cleaned up then I'll come and sit outside with you, no more work for me today."
Joyce looked at her watch. "I suppose I can spare half an hour, and I did need to talk to you."
Buffy stopped, only now noticing that her mother was in full business suit mode. "Uh oh, you've got serious mom-face on," she said, throwing down the towel and retrieving her drink. "Something come up at work?"
Joyce was looking decidedly sheepish now, avoiding eye contact, like someone does when they have news that you're not going to like, so Buffy hurried out of the door with her mother following her, and together they sat themselves down on the low wall that formed the beach-side boundary to the house. Neither of them spoke for a few moments as they sat and appreciated the light breeze that was picking up and listened to the soft swishing of the surf as it licked at the shoreline.
Buffy took off her headband and shook out her hair, running her fingers through it as she waited for her mother to tell her what was so important that she needed to interrupt her vacation for it. That part of it hadn't been hard to guess, her mother's work was also her passion, but there was something else, and from the look on her mother's face, it wasn't going to be good news.
"I had an interesting phone call today."
"Oh yeah?" Buffy said it as casually as she could, hoping desperately it wasn't dad related, or even worse, Ted related. Her mother who was as cool and hard nosed as you could get when it came to convincing a jury of someone's innocence, was a walking disaster when it came to relationships. Another, even worse thought crossed Buffy's mind and she groaned audibly.
"Oh, please no."
Joyce put down her glass, looking a little indignant. "I haven't told you who it was yet."
"You don't have to. Let me guess." Buffy stood up, hands on hips. "A one legged, out of work circus performer? Joey the chimp? Who the hell is it this time?"
"Buffy, calm down." Joyce motioned her down and rested a hand on her arm. "You know how I feel about this, it's our duty to help those less fortunate than ourselves. You've never minded before."
Her surprised face caused Buffy to shake off her hand and stand up again.
"And you'd know that because you always consult me on these things?" she said looking pointedly at her mother. " Just for once, mom, I would like to celebrate Christmas without having a weird bunch of strangers staring at me across the table. I would like to have Thanksgiving with my family and not half the local homeless shelter." She started pacing at that point to work off the rapidly growing frustration at her mother's quite often misplaced benevolence. Joyce opened her mouth to speak, but Buffy hadn't finished yet. Years of having to play second fiddle to her mother's latest charity projects made her continue with her tirade way beyond the point at which it would have been prudent to have stopped.
"I thought it was just going to be the two of us. You know, quality mother-daughter time? No, wait, you don't know, you don't have a clue, do you?"
"For heaven's sake, Buffy." Joyce looked at her watch then stood up and faced her. "You will go jumping to conclusions when I've said nothing about inviting anyone at all."
"You don't have to. Mom, Gran left the house to me, and I don't want it filled with down and outs and weirdoes." She knew she'd lost the argument the minute she'd said that, and that she should have known better than to have tried arguing with a lawyer who was also her mother.
"That's very mean-spirited of you, Buffy. I'm sad to hear you say that when you've been so fortunate in life."
"That's not fair."
There didn't seem to be anything else to say at that point so Buffy just did what she usually did at times like this, and stared out to sea. Something she never tired of doing. And it never failed to have a message for her. In all its incarnations it seemed to call to her just when she needed it. Offering solace and peace when she needed to be calm, absorbing her anger when it became too much to hold and exhilarating and uplifting her when her spirits were low. It was both a friend and an enemy, though. She knew that too, one minute caressing her with its warmth and the next daring her to come nearer so that it could snatch her away in its fury and never let her go. Buffy always took care to treat it with the respect that it deserved.
"So, who was it, on the phone?" Directly in front of her were a thin line of dunes half covered with grass and beyond that a sandy cove which curved away to an outcrop of rocks that formed the base of a steep cliff. She had planned to have a long bath then take a book and spend the afternoon lazing on the swing-chair, but all of a sudden she felt the urge to be up there at the top of the cliff, with the wind in her hair. She waited for her mother's answer.
"William Denham, do you remember the case?" Her mother spoke quietly, almost apologetically, as if her part in the failure still hurt. Buffy turned to her.
"Could hardly forget that one. Didn't see you for weeks if I remember. You lost, didn't you?"
Her mother looked so sad for a moment that Buffy was almost tempted to give her a hug and then she remembered what William had been sent to prison for.
"You have got to be joking. Please don't tell me you've invited him here."
"Buffy, he was innocent and it was one of the worst cases of injustice that I've ever seen. It took me two years to find a witness that would tell the truth for him, and he needs work."
"But it was rape, mom."
"And he was innocent, we proved that, but I always believed it."
Buffy bit her lip to stop herself replying. She remembered the case alright. Remembered her mother's near-obsession with it, and how upset she'd been the day William had been sent to prison. Her mother rarely cried over cases, but she'd shed some tears over that one.
And Buffy remembered how resentful she herself had been over the time her mother had devoted to the case. Just at a time when she was making important decisions about her career, her life. Just at a time when she could have done with a mother around.
"I said I'd be here for him and he called today, out of the blue, and asked if I could put any work his way. He's into computers, website design, that sort of thing, so naturally I thought of you."
"No." Buffy took two steps back and raised her hands. "No way, absolutely not. I'll get Willow to design me one, it can't be that hard."
"Honey, if you're going to do anything with all these plans of yours then you'll have to go global, the website was your idea. You just need some professional help, what do you know about business plans, promotion and stuff? He's good at what he does, I've checked it all out and he had a promising career before all this happened."
"Okay, book a professional web designer, I know I need one. But why him? How do we know we can trust him?"
"Don't insult me, Buffy." Joyce folded her arms. "Do you think I'd have invited him if I didn't think he was safe to be around?"
"Of course I don't, but I would like to have been asked. Just tell him I've changed my mind and we'll get someone else in, I would like the website up and running. Okay?" Buffy finished her speech but she already knew what her mother was going to say.
"I can't, I've already told him to come. I'm picking him up while I'm in town and bringing him back for a few days. Just talk to him, Buffy. See if you think you can work with him." Then she added in a hopeful tone. "I think you'll like him, he's a nice guy."
"What is this, mother? A dating service I'm twenty three and I think I'd like to make my own decisions about who I work with; you've got to stop trying to run my life."
"Okay, fine." Joyce collected up the empty glasses and turned for the house. "I'll be back tomorrow, I've got a couple of clients to check up on."
Buffy followed her. "I'll be okay. Thinking of inviting Cordy over for a girl's night in, if she's not doing anything." She almost had to trot to keep up with Joyce who was striding determinedly towards the house. "Mom, wait up. I'm sorry about William."
"No problem." Joyce kept walking, muttering something about getting her car serviced when she was in town.
They reached the house and both of them went inside. Buffy pulled off the old shirt that she wore for painting and thought with longing about the bath she'd planned. And about the fact that her mother had given up so easily. It was so unlike her that Buffy followed Joyce into the kitchen instead of going upstairs. She found Joyce putting the empty glasses in the dishwasher.
"Look mom, I really appreciate you trying to help, really I do."
"I know, dear." Her mother closed the dishwasher door and reached over for the telephone. "Just call him and tell him that you won't be requiring his services, his number's on the pad over there."
Buffy had the phone in her hand but she couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You want me to do what?"
Her mother answered her calmly, her voice holding just a hint of steel. "Call him and tell him you don't want him to come, because I'm sure as hell not doing it."
"But you invited him, why do I have to do it?"
"Because I want you to hear his reaction when you tell him."
It was a low blow, but so like her mother. "That's emotional blackmail, mom."
"I know," Joyce answered. "Only marginally worse than you treating him with the same prejudice that most people will. Dismissing him out of hand without even having met him. Go ahead, make the call."
Buffy only managed to dial half the number before punching the off button and throwing the phone across the kitchen counter. Her mother was right, as she usually was. Buffy wasn't really questioning that. She could believe how hard it was to rebuild a life shattered by something like this. It was more her mother's method of delivery that irked her, the way she always assumed she knew best, the way she never asked before taking what were often quite monumental decisions that affected all of them.
She sighed as dramatically as she could manage, fully aware that she was now reverting to the behaviour of a ten year old. But was it her fault if that's how her mother made her feel? Then she caught sight of the satisfied grin that was forming on her mother's face. Oh she liked to win, that was for sure, but Buffy was learning fast. She stiffened her spine and replied.
"You're right, this isn't the sort of thing you do on the phone. That's not very kind, is it?" Her mother nodded, and patted her arm in understanding. Buffy gave her a bright smile and continued. "Bring him over mom and I'll tell him face to face, that's the best way to do it, isn't it?"
Joyce's smile wavered slightly but she recovered remarkably well. She was, after all, the expert in this game of verbal one-upmanship.
"I'll do that, Buffy." She picked up her keys and purse, checked the list of things to do that was stuck on the fridge, then she leaned over to give Buffy a peck on the cheek.
"I'll bring him back with me, and I defy you not to want to help him once you meet him."
Buffy folded her mother in a brief hug, then stepped back.
"It's going to be my decision, mom."
"I know, honey, goodness, must be going or I'll miss my meeting. I'll be back tomorrow about eleven am. And I know you'll do the right thing by William, you know I'm right in this, don't you?"
We'll see about that, Buffy thought as she listened to her mother's car pulling away. Slipping her tee shirt over her head she made for the stairs intent on thinking about nothing other than the long relaxing bath that was now long overdue. She always felt stiff at the end of a long painting session, but that combined with what had just transpired with her mother had given her the beginnings of a headache and she wanted to nip that in the bud before it got any worse.
She shed the rest of her clothes at the top of the stairs, loving the freedom of being in the house alone and consequently being able to leave her clothes where she liked without being grumbled at. Tonight was her first night when it would be just her in the house that she now owned. It was like a dream come true. She'd always loved this house and her gran had always said it would be hers, but Buffy had thought that was just one of those things that grown-ups tell children without really meaning them to be taken seriously. Never the less she'd always maintained the fantasy that one day it would be hers, even if she didn't really believe it.
It had been a genuine shock when the attorney had told her it was hers, even if one of the stipulations was that she retain the authentic Victorian furnishings that her Grandmother had spent a lifetime collecting. And that she continue to take part in the open house days that the resort was famous for. The former was no problem, the faded elegance of the old overstuffed sofas and brass beds lent the house a peaceful timelessness, which she loved and would never want to change. The latter she wasn't so sure about. To Buffy it had always seemed like an invitation for thieves to come in and help themselves. She'd have to think about that one very carefully.
After her bath she did something that she only did when she was alone in the house. She lay down on the polished oak floor in the hallway, closed her eyes and listened to the hypnotic ticking of the old grandfather clock. It was something she'd done often as a child and even now it would take her back to those days when she had nothing else to worry about but the feel of the smooth wood below her, the smell of the beeswax polish and the sound of the clock, ticking away the hours and minutes of her life.
When she was a child she couldn't ever imagine growing up, yet here she was, a woman at last. She couldn't imagine having to make decisions that might literally change someone's life, yet here she was about to crush William underfoot. He was trying to do something, get his life back together, but he was a man with problems. And her mother seemed intent on making his problems their problems too.
Wickedly uncharitable thoughts drifted through her mind as she contemplated how she would say it. She'd be polite, of course, but firm. And there was no reason at all that she should have to feel guilty about this, no reason at all, she told herself. He'd understand. He'd have to.
That thought spoiled her relaxation so she got up and decided to take a walk instead. Perhaps she'd drop by and see Willow and Tara who made the fabulous costumes that people wore in her portraits. But then again, perhaps not. They both had an uncanny knack of reading people and Buffy didn't want any searching questions thrown at her right now. Not when her mind was in such turmoil.
She locked up the house and set off for the cliff-path. As she passed by her studio she had a sudden urge to look at something she hadn't looked at in over two years. It was in an old folder where she kept her favourite sketches but she had no idea why she'd kept this one. A pen drawing on a piece of scrap paper of someone she'd never met, but who she felt she knew intimately. All she really knew about him was that he had curly hair and wore reading glasses. And that he'd gone to prison for something he didn't do. It had, strangely, been enough. Her mother had broken down in the kitchen on the day William had been sentenced and as she'd talked about it Buffy had picked up the nearest paper and pen and distilled all that emotion into this drawing. She had no idea if it looked anything like him or not, she'd been trying to capture feelings, the anguish and despair and there it was, staring back at her.
She stuffed the picture back into the folder and slipped on her old shoes. Not her problem, not her problem. Perhaps if she repeated it often enough she could really believe it. The last thing wanted was a certifiable basket case on her hands, not when things were going so well. Let him come. She'd listen politely to anything he had to say, then she'd just as politely tell him to go. Easy, right? They were only words, after all. He'd deal.
I built myself this wonderful, fantasy world in my head. Castles in the sky, that sort of thing. Trouble is, I thought it would be waiting for me when I got out. I still find myself wondering where all the unicorns have gone.
He hadn't realised how long his hair had gotten, or how silly it had looked. He was glad about the last bit. Of course, it was embarrassing now to think of the state he'd let it get into, but two weeks ago his hair had been the least of his problems.
Amazing how something as simple as a haircut had transformed him. He still had the problem that when he looked in the mirror, he didn't really know what or who he was seeing, but at least the guy looked vaguely sane now. On the outside, anyway. Inside? Well, that was going to take a bit of work, but he'd get there. And this was the first step.
And how had he managed to lose this much weight? Even belted up, the suit trousers looked ridiculous, so he pulled them off and threw them back into the closet. And the smart clothes made him look way too needy, anyway, as if he was trying too hard. It was only Joyce after all and he'd never dressed up for her. He slipped back into his jeans, teaming them with a plain, blue shirt and stood back to study the effect.
It would do. Joyce had called to say she was running late, but she'd be here soon. He took one more look around, spotted his watch and picked it up. Wished he'd tidied up a bit so he wouldn't have this mess to come back to. He'd asked the couple next door to keep an eye on the apartment, but the only thing worth stealing was his computer and that was going with him.
As he hefted his bag onto his shoulder and climbed the stone steps up to the road, he spotted Joyce, leaning on her car. Her face lit up with a bright smile when she saw him and she held out both her arms. She'd always been a hugger.
She did feel sorry for him, he could tell that by the way the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. Her mouth curved upwards, but her eyes were taking him in and clouded with concern.
He tried for a smile too, difficult when he was so out of practice, and with his insides jerking about all over the place.
"William. How nice to see you again."
He moved quickly out of the hug she gave him, knowing that she could feel how much he'd changed. How he'd gotten himself just thin enough to make a mother worry. And she'd almost been like a mother to him during the trial. She didn't say anything though, for which he was eternally grateful. He wasn't going to be able to do this if she made him worry about it, and she seemed to know that.
"Sorry I'm late, William, the meeting ran over."
"No problem Joyce. Shall I?" He held up his bag and she nodded towards the trunk.
"Please, I told Buffy we'd be back by eleven."
"So she's expecting us?"
"Oh yes. She was very excited when I told her about this, she can't wait to meet you."
"That's good." He reached into the back seat and deposited his laptop, then buckled himself into the passenger seat.
Polite conversation. Something he definitely needed more practice at. And he hadn't been prepared for the rush of feelings that just seeing Joyce had caused. Dark memories he normally kept carefully hidden away.
"So, how've you been?"
"You know, so, so."
He'd never found it hard to talk to Joyce, but he couldn't open up just like that. It had been six months since he'd seen her. Six months during which he'd swapped a prison cell for a basement apartment, and at times hadn't been able to tell the difference.
She left it at that, giving him time to relax as the car made its way across town and out onto the coast road. He leaned back into the seat, and closed his eyes, letting himself get used to it gradually. He'd lived his life in a box for so long, it was hard to suddenly see the horizon. He concentrated on the smell of the leather seats instead, and the sound of the music on the radio. And on the feeling of being taken over in a good way, rather than the evil, we're locking you away and there's not a thing you can do about it. Pride was a luxury he hadn't been able to afford for a long while and Joyce was good at this. Good at holding people's hands and leading them through dark places.
The feeling of well-being stole over him so gradually that when she next spoke to him he was just at that point where he was about to drift off into sleep. He came back with a jolt.
She laughed softly. "Sorry about that, William. I wouldn't have disturbed you if I'd have known you were asleep."
"No…no, I wasn't." He sat up, rubbing at his eyes and noticing that the road was now running parallel to the coast which must mean that they were nearing their destination. "Sorry about that, sort of zoned out for a bit there."
"No problem. Just wanted to let you know we're nearly home."
That sounded nice, and part of him glowed inside at the way she'd naturally included him. She hadn't said 'my home' or 'the house' she'd said 'home' as if it was as much his as anybody's. So typically thoughtful of her. They were only small things, these random acts of kindness, but he latched on to them like a starving man. When life was so bleak you not only learned to appreciate them, you learned to look for them and grab them with both hands. For a while after he'd come out of prison he'd gone through an embarrassing phase of tearing up whenever someone had done anything remotely nice for him. It wasn't quite so bad now, but it still caught him occasionally.
The small coastal town had an old fashioned, cosy feel to it, the neat rows of houses just well kept enough to speak of a faded gentility.
"I'm guessing most of these are holiday homes now."
"And you'd be right," Joyce said as they drove onto the main street opposite the board walk. "You can tell just by the cars parked outside. Most ordinary folk can't afford the property prices around here. Very few of the old families are left."
The houses and shops, weather-boarded and painted in the muted pastels typical of this part of the coast reminded him of lazy summer days, lost youth and of times when the world held no worries or cares.
He wasn't fooled by it. In between the elegant eating establishments and antique shops stood an arcade with a typically bored looking group of teenagers milling about outside, pushing and shoving at each other. Their shrieks pierced the peace of the morning. A gas station stood at the far end, its garish neon sign an anachronism that seemed completely out of place. He could well imagine a time when the curtains twitched whenever a stranger came into town. Each house would have a story to tell and its own secrets to keep.
Joyce saw him staring.
"That's the Angelus place. The old man fell out with the town council about something that nobody can remember any more, and the result was that sign." She laughed at the memory of it and then again at the expression on his face. "If you'd have known him, you'd have understood. His son Liam runs it now, only his dad racked up so many debts with the drinking and the gambling that there's no money left to change it."
William nodded, still looking out of the window. On the other side of the shops the row houses had given way to larger, grander structures each standing in their own grounds. Typically grand Victorian seaside houses from what he could remember of his architecture, which wasn't much.
"He was very sweet on Buffy at one time. Her first date as I remember."
William frowned and turned back to Joyce. "Who was?"
"Liam. Oh, I'm sorry William, you'd better get used to this if you're going to spend any time with us. We're all terrible gossips around here, you can't sneeze without it being all around the town."
She must have seen the brief look of alarm that crossed his face because she added hastily. "Don't worry, no one knows."
He relaxed again. "Thanks Joyce, appreciate that."
The house was the last on the row just at the point where the bay curved around in front of the road, making it impossible to drive any further. The road narrowed down to a track which wound its way down to the beach. A spectacular setting, and probably worth a fortune, and from what Joyce had told him, it belonged to Buffy.
Buffy. Who he'd never met, but who he felt he knew as well as he knew her mother. Joyce had liked to talk about things, mundane everyday things, before they went over their evidence. It had been her way of getting him to relax and he suspected, to present a more human face to him than just some lawyer who was in it only for the money. He knew that they'd had a dog that had fallen off the cliff and died. Knew that she'd been raised here until she'd married Buffy's father, and then they'd continued to come back every summer until her mother had died and left the house to Buffy.
Buffy, who'd broken her arm falling out of her bedroom window when she was ten. Buffy in her cute little skaters-skirt and boots, her hair done up in pigtails; Joyce kept that picture in her purse. Buffy who'd indulged her passion for dangerous sports until one of them had nearly killed her. And Buffy whose first date had apparently been Liam Angelus.
Joyce swung the car onto the drive. "Go stretch your legs while I put the car away," she said, "I won't be a moment."
William stepped out onto the gravelled drive and shaded his eyes against the sun, taking in the scenery as he waited for her. The grounds surrounding the house had a lush, sheltered feel to them. Just enough greenery to make him feel enclosed and safe from prying eyes, but not so much that it suffocated him. The house stood before him peaceful and serene, painted a cool grey that seemed to soften its edges and make it appear so much a part of the landscape that surrounded it. Lending it a timeless quality, even though it wasn't that old in the larger scale of things.
He just stood for a moment, breathing it in while Joyce pulled the car into the old wooden garage that had probably been a coach house at some time. A small, red car was parked on the curve of the drive and a very ancient looking bicycle leaned against the porch railings. A sweet, earthy smell, overlaid with the sharp tang of salt filled his nostrils, and after she'd killed the engine, the quiet was broken only by the gentle swish of the surf and the intermittent wailing of the seabirds circling and dipping along the cliff.
And there it was again. That sensation of well-being that he'd felt earlier. It settled over him like a warm cloak. A feeling that life was about to resume its usual speed once more. The ugliness of the last two and a half years melted away, and he almost felt normal, part of the human race again.
He accepted his bag and his computer from Joyce, who gave him a look of mild concern before patting him on the shoulder.
He replied with a brief nod and a whispered 'I'm okay' before falling into step with her. They climbed the steps to the veranda and he stopped for a moment as she reached for the door-handle to let them in.
"Thank you, Joyce."
She turned back to him. "You're very welcome, William. It's the least I could do."
Her smile faded a little as she said that, as if she felt she had to make up to him some failure on her part.
"It wasn't your fault, Joyce. You can't blame yourself. Just bad luck is all."
"I know, but I want to help you William, you do know that?" She looked a little pensive as she spoke and he found himself wondering if Buffy was going to be anything like her, and whether she was going to welcome him quite as enthusiastically as her mother had implied she would.
"Course I do. And I really appreciate you letting me do this." He looked down briefly. "Wasn't easy making that call."
"I know, but I'm glad you're here." She swung the heavy door open and motioned him inside, calling for Buffy as she did so. "And you must think of yourself as a guest," she said, putting her briefcase down on the hall table. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go find Buffy, she'll be dying to meet you."
She disappeared up the curving staircase, leaving him alone with only the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock that stood along the far wall for company. He put down his bag, deposited his laptop on a chair and glanced around. A large, square hall with panelled doors leading off. One revealed a comfortable looking sitting room, another a charmingly old-fashioned kitchen.
The pictures adorning the walls looked old, but they could just as well have been clever copies. He wondered if Buffy had painted any of them. If they were hers then she was good, very good. He needed to have a look at her work so he could get a handle on who she was. If she was going to sell, then her stamp had to be on that website, and to do that, he needed to get to know her.
He wandered about the hallway picking up an ornament here and there. Glanced at the local newspaper then dropped it back onto the windowsill. A large vase containing a solitary umbrella guarded one side of the front door, while a bentwood coat-stand holding a denim jacket and a couple of battered straw hats stood on the other. He'd only been in the house for a few minutes but already it was talking to him. Telling him that people had loved this place and been happy here. A twinge of jealousy hit him as he imagined the quiet comfort that it would provide to those lucky enough to live here. A cool, shady place in the summer, a warm, cosy embrace in the winter. He wondered if they knew how lucky they were.
As Joyce's voice faded away he contemplated the owner of the hat and jacket which he'd decided must belong to Buffy. Of course, he already had a picture of her in his mind which, strangely, the combination of straw and denim only reinforced. She'd wear them with a long flowery dress, her hair flowing across her shoulders. Like a shampoo advertisement he'd once seen on television. But of course, he knew that people were never how you imagined them.
The tap on his shoulder took him completely by surprise and in the split second it took him to spin around the house faded away and he was back in Cell Block B, knife in hand, terrified, about to do something he'd never done before, and never wanted to do again. It was only a momentary flash and his jerk back to reality was just as swift, but he still found himself staring down at the hand that was coming towards him, his breath catching in his throat. Wondering why it wasn't holding a knife.
"I'm sorry, did I make you jump?"
It was a young woman's voice, bright and perky. The voice had a smile and the expected long blonde hair, although it was pulled back into a pony tail instead of flowing around her like an advertiser's dream. It filtered through by degrees as he shook off the shock of the memory and the hallway came into focus once more. He knew it was Buffy and that he should give her his hand but his brain was having a hard time catching up. Usually when this happened to him he'd just run off and hide until the feeling went away, but that wasn't an option right now.
By the speed at which her smile was fading he knew he'd made just about the worst first impression possible. Her gaze dropped to his fist, which was still tightly balled and hovering in mid air, then flicked back to Joyce who was behind her now.
"Buffy, this is William," Joyce said, slipping her arms around her daughter. She gave Buffy's shoulders a squeeze and he saw her stiffen and pull away slightly. "William, meet Buffy, she's very excited about all this, aren't you sweetheart?"
Buffy's eyes widened and he got the distinct impression that if her mother hadn't been holding her she would have turned and run clean away from him. The hand was still there and he managed to get his to relax, at last, and take it. Managed to arrange his features as pleasantly as he could, or at least so that he didn't look a complete jerk. Eventually, he even managed to speak.
"You did, make me jump that is. Sorry about that."
She nodded, briefly and had hardly gripped his hand before she was pulling it away.
Joyce gave her a little push forward.
"Why don't you show William to the guest room? And I'll make us some coffee."
She didn't want him here, he didn't have to be psychic to see that, but she pressed her lips together as if steeling herself and motioned him towards the stairs.
"Would you like to follow me?"
He had to stop himself from laughing out loud at the formality of her tone, answering instead with a quiet 'yes, thank you," and reaching across for his bag and computer. As he followed her up the stairs he found himself answering her question again in his mind. Yes, he very much wanted to follow her and not only because he desperately needed this job. The money would be very welcome, since he was broke, but he didn't want to stay just for that. This place had called to him from the moment he'd stepped out of the car. Whispering seductively that he could be happy here, even if it was only for a short time. It promised order when his life had been chaos and it felt to him like a glimpse of heaven after he'd been forced to stare into hell. Joyce wanted him to stay, but he already knew it going to be Buffy's decision.
"You can have this room," she said, opening a door at the far end of the landing, and entering it. Perhaps he'd let the neediness show just a little too much, because she looked back at him and her tone softened as she continued speaking.
"It's got a nice sea view."
"It's lovely," he said, dropping his bags and joining her at the window. "Thank you."
There was a slightly awkward beat before she answered him. A moment where she might have realised that he wasn't only saying thank you for the room.
Then she muttered "you're welcome," and left.
The only feature she'd got right were his eyes, but it didn't matter, she'd still have recognised him. The blue had been a guess, but with his pale colouring and gaunt face they fit him well. It didn't matter that the rest was wrong because the eyes were enough. She'd managed to capture the pain and the helplessness in the picture she'd drawn, but she hadn't expected it to still be there. And now she had to add to it by telling him that she didn't need him after all.
The coffee maker was on, but her mother wasn't in the kitchen. She found her in the study booting up the computer.
"Oh, come here, sweetheart. I want you to see something."
"Mom, how could you do this to me?" Buffy said moving towards her, "he's a nervous wreck and now I have to add to it by telling him I don't want to work with him."
Her mother didn't look up. "How can you possibly know that when you've only just met him?"
"Did you see him in the hall? I thought he was going to hit me."
"Don't exaggerate dear, he'd never do that, you startled him, that's all." Joyce waved her nearer. "Now come here and look at this, I'll bookmark it for you so that you can read it properly later."
"What is it?" Buffy went reluctantly and looked over her mother's shoulder.
She scanned the home page. Burden of Innocence. "Mom, what is this?"
"It's a website that deals with the psychology of wrongful imprisonment, the effects it has on the individual, that sort of thing. Just thought you ought to read it so you can understand what he's going through. His experience will have had a profound effect on him."
"Do you think I don't know that?" Buffy said, slightly sharper and louder than she intended. She moved away from the computer, fully aware that her mother was slowly but surely backing her into a corner over this. And there wasn't a thing she could do about it. But then she'd known that the minute she'd set eyes on William. It just didn't help that her mother had the moral high ground in this, or that she wasn't going to give up until she'd had her way.
"How upset's he going to be if I say no?"
"What do you think, Buffy?"
"No, mom, I asked you the question. Just answer me straight for once, you're not in court now."
"Alright." Joyce pushed back the computer chair and stood up. "If you won't do it for him, and I do understand that you have no reason to want to, then do it for me. I want to do this and I need you to help me so I'm asking you straight. Let him do the job, be nice to him and let's help him get back on his feet. What do you say?"
Buffy closed her eyes, but all she could see was the way William had looked when she'd startled him in the hall. He knew he'd blown it there and then, and she already knew what it would do to him and that only she could stop that from happening now. These protests were only the feeble last gasps of someone who's already bowed to the inevitable, but just needs someone to tell them that the decision was well and truly out of their hands.
And her mother had done just that for her by asking her straight. She'd do it for her mom then, to assuage any residual guilt she had left over from losing the trial. William would get the benefits and Buffy wouldn't feel too manipulated.
Who was she kidding.? Hadn't she always been a sucker for puppy dog eyes? That's what it came back to really. His eyes. She'd been looking at those eyes for the last six months and now, here they were looking back at her. Asking for her help. For some reason she couldn't begin to imagine, fate had decreed that the task of rescuing William had fallen to her.
"It's too complicated, mom. I can't do this. What if I just mess him up some more?"
Joyce placed a quiet hand on her shoulder. "Yes you can, love, he's had all the professional counselling, just help him to connect with something real again. Be his link back to the world."
"But I'm just a kitchen - counter psychologist, I don't know anything about this."
"Then read the stuff I've shown you, but not too much, just go on instinct. He needs acceptance and reassurance, to find his place again."
"But why me?" Buffy's voice was very small now, like her protests it faded away under the onslaught of her mother's logic. "Who'd have a lawyer for a mother, eh?"
The hand slipped around her shoulder and she was folded in a hug. "Thanks Sweetie, I knew you'd come round. You'll see, he doesn't bite."
"He'd better not," Buffy replied, sitting herself at the computer and bowing to the inevitable."
The smell of percolating coffee caught her mother's attention then so she turned for the kitchen, but stopped again at the door.
"By the way, I think it would be wise not to tell anyone what happened to William, prejudice is going to be one of the worst things he's going to face in all this."
"Oh." Buffy bit her lip as she remembered the conversation she'd had with Cordelia only that morning.
Her mother spotted it immediately. "You've told someone?"
The hint of irritation in her mother's voice roused her once more. "Yes mom, I told someone, Cordy as it happens. I'm not the expert here, although you expect me to be. I said I might get things wrong and I have. So, I'll just call her and ask her not to tell anyone."
Her mother raised her eyebrows.
"Okay, I'll tell her how important it is. She'll be cool."
Joyce very wisely left it at that and went to see to the coffee. Buffy turned her attention to the screen and read.
A Perpetual Battle of the Mind, Number One - Shock, Disavowal and Initial Betrayal
Gee, she thought, my favourite subject.
Half an hour later she was still reading.
He was desperate for a smoke, but not in this house, he knew better than that. And he knew he needed to talk to Buffy too. Much as he wanted to do this, to stay here, if she didn't want him, he'd go.
The room was as comfortably furnished as the rest of the house looked to be. A queen sized brass bed covered with a patchwork quilt, no surprise there. A bowlful of fresh roses on the pine chest of drawers. That did surprise him because they looked fresh enough that Buffy might have put them there. But then again, maybe they had roses in all the rooms. Their thick, spicy fragrance went straight to his head and made his senses swim. Combined with a lack of breakfast it only increased his sense of being in another world. A much nicer one than anything he could remember. He sat on the bed and lay back.
It was very quiet, apart from the muffled pounding of the surf which at this distance made a gentle hushing sound that conjured up images of his mother soothing him to sleep, a finger on her lips. Telling him that there was nothing to worry about, no monsters under the bed. Not any more.
He'd left the knife behind, but he felt naked without it.
The old William and the new one. Sometimes they felt like two different people and sometimes the images would merge and the focus would sharpen and there'd be an entirely new person looking back at him. He laughed softly to himself; no wonder he was messed up.
He hitched his feet up onto the bed, let himself drift into the soft, downy quilt and allowed himself the luxury of just being. It felt safe enough here to do that and nobody seemed to want him, for now.
If he closed his eyes he could almost hear fragments of times gone by, the music, the laughter, ripples of conversation floating up from the ground floor. Maids in long dresses with crisp white aprons and frilly little hats, comical bathing suits, ballgowns. The rustle of satin and lace. Secret assignations, the fluttering of fans cooling blushing cheeks. She'd soon be here, and he'd be waiting for her. Perhaps today she'd let him kiss her? Did you kiss someone you'd known less than an hour? Would it be improper? He just didn't know any more.
A voice jolted him out of the dream, but it wasn't the beautiful young woman he'd been fantasising about, with her blonde hair piled up on her head, laughing as she called him to join them downstairs for the dancing. It was Joyce telling him that lunch was almost ready. Flash-dreams that steal on you unawares always seem to be the most disorientating and for a moment he couldn't remember where he was, but the scent of the roses brought him gradually back to the present.
Swinging his legs from the bed he swept off the particles of dried mud that his boots had deposited on the quilt, relieved that they hadn't left a stain, then he found his cigarettes and lighter and stuffed them into his pocket. The welcoming smell of fresh coffee wafted up the stairs as he made his way down and he found Joyce back in the kitchen, making sandwiches. She turned to him as he entered.
"Help yourself to coffee and take a seat, I'll make us all lunch and then maybe Buffy will show you around the house and grounds. My Great-Grandfather bought the land in the mid nineteenth century, built the whole row on this side."
William poured himself a drink and slid along the bench seat to the large oak table that formed the centrepiece to the kitchen. He nursed it for a few moments, waiting for it to cool and listened to Joyce talk. It was her thing, taking the lead in conversation, making people feel relaxed. She'd know how hard this was for him, and how awkward he felt.
"Then he sold them off one by one and made himself a fortune. Is your room okay?"
"It's very nice, Joyce. And the location is fabulous."
"Isn't it? I've really missed it since I moved into town."
"I could see that. So this all belongs to Buffy?"
"It does, but she already practically lived here before she inherited, and I visit as often as I can."
"Big place for one person."
My mother left her a fund to maintain the place, or she really wouldn't have been able to afford to keep it. But she's doing quite well now that she's taking her art work seriously. And that's where you come in, William. Have a cookie, or two."
"Thanks, Joyce, they look delicious, home-made?"
Joyce laughed at that as she poured herself a coffee and sat opposite him. "No way, and Buffy didn't make them either, before you ask. Neither of us are big with the domesticity. Far too focused on our respective careers. These are Willow and Tara specials, couple of friends of Buffy's who make all her costumes for her. They have a crystal, new age type shop just off the boardwalk."
He smiled at that. The picture he'd made in his head of Buffy wasn't turning out to be anything like the real thing. "Like mother, like daughter, eh?" Then he turned serious. "How much is she going to mind me being here?"
"She's okay with it, I told you, you mustn't worry. How does lunch on the veranda sound?"
"It sounds great, but be straight with me Joyce. Buffy doesn't really want me here, does she? Thinks I'm some crazy lunatic and after what happened out there, I don't blame her."
Joyce inspected the cookie she'd just picked up, then put it back down on the plate.
"That's the second time someone's asked me to be straight with them today. Must be something to do with being a lawyer."
He kept his gaze steady. "I can't stay if she doesn't want me, you must know that."
"I do. Okay, I'll be honest, she wasn't thrilled with the idea, and I mean this in the kindest way, she is worried about your mental state, we both are."
"But for different reasons, I'm guessing."
"William," Joyce began, hesitating as if she was picking her words very carefully. "Buffy is the most precious thing in the world to me, and if I didn't feel I could trust you with her life, believe me, you wouldn't be here."
He hesitated too. Her faith in him was touching but also scary in its expectations.
"I'll admit she was apprehensive, but she's no shrinking wallflower. She may look small and sweet but she's done and seen more than most women her age. Got black belts in three different martial arts. I told you she nearly killed herself cave-diving a few years back. She doesn't do helpless female."
He'd already worked that one out. She was small but there was definitely something about her that told him she could look after herself. But just the word rape was enough to scare folk away. Most people didn't stop to find out if he was innocent or not.
"Are you telling me that part of her doesn't see me and automatically hear the word rape, even though in her mind she knows I'm innocent? Hell, some days even I could believe I was guilty. Prison does that to you. People go to prison because they're bad and after a while you just start believing that's you. Because why are you there, if you're not bad? Gets all kind of clouded up in your brain. You know?"
"I do, but you've got to believe it won't always be like that. And Buffy knows you're innocent."
Joyce finished up her coffee, but seemed to sense that he hadn't finished with what he wanted to say. She sat quietly across from him as he drank his down. He wondered if Buffy was going to be as good a listener as her mother or whether he'd be able to talk to her at all. And although he felt guilty for burdening them with his problems, he knew that this opportunity was a gift, generously offered, and one he shouldn't let slip through his fingers.
"Bloody complicated, isn't it? I feel kind of pathetic for needing this so much," he said it in a light-hearted, throwaway tone but Joyce wasn't fooled.
"We all need someone, William." She said it softly then stood up and fetched the plate of cling-film covered sandwiches that she'd made earlier. "Here, you take these and I'll bring the drinks, would you like a beer?"
"Okay, it's in the basement fridge, I won't be a moment. Go ahead, it's a shame to waste such a sunny day so late in the year."
"It is that," he agreed.
She disappeared into the hall leaving him to find his own way outside. The veranda wrapped around the house and he found a table and chairs as well as a swing seat on the back section so he deposited the sandwiches and sat himself down to wait for them.
He wished now that he hadn't made that comment about feeling pathetic. It was enough looking the part, without overstating it. And the sandwiches looked damned good - the cookies hadn't done any more than take the edge off his hunger, so he looked around for Joyce, or Buffy, wondering if they'd think him terribly impolite if he started without them.
That thought made him laugh out loud. After all he'd been through in prison here he was worrying about table manners. A small fragment of the old William again. Sometimes he recognised pieces of him and he stored them away thinking that one day he might be able to put him back together. But however much he tried, they just didn't seem to fit anymore.
William leaned his elbows on the table, rested his chin in his hands and thought about what Joyce had said. They all needed someone, and she'd sounded just now as if that applied to her as much as anyone. It gave him pause, and reminded him once again that appearances were often deceptive. He knew that. He'd just forgotten that it applied to other people too, and not just him.
She wasn't sure which Buffy it was that watched William from the study window. Buffy the psychologist, that was a new one. And her head was bursting with questions she was almost too scared to ask. If he'd been through half of what she'd just read then it was a miracle he'd survived at all. The mental stuff she'd been prepared for - the resentment, the regret, the fear of it happening again, but the other stuff had been a shock.
The culture of violence and intimidation. Knives and homosexuality, they'd come up time and time again in the testimonials she'd read. Things she'd thought were played up for television and films were more than real and could have happened to the man who sat just a few feet away from her.
Then there was Buffy the artist, who already had a pencil and paper in her hand, sketching his back view as he hunched over the table. Paying particular attention to the slender curve of his neck where his hair curled over his collar. Another part of the puzzle that was William she thought, sliding the sketch between the pages of a magazine she'd found on the window- seat.
And finally there was Buffy the friend, the one, she suspected, he needed more than anyone right now. He'd sneaked a sandwich from the plate and was stuffing it into his mouth, so she gave him a few moments, not wanting to embarrass him by letting him know she'd seen him. And then when he'd smoothed the cling-film back in place to his satisfaction, and was sitting back nonchalantly in his chair, she slid up the sash window and climbed over the ledge onto the veranda.
He had to be the jumpiest person she'd ever met. This time his chair nearly toppled over as she suddenly appeared behind him uttering a cheery 'hi there', which in retrospect wasn't the brightest of things to do given his earlier reaction to her sudden appearance.
"I'm sorry," was all she could think of to say, as he grabbed hold of the edge of the table and righted himself. "Didn't mean to make you jump. Again," she added, noticing how red his cheeks had gone.
Boy, did this man need rescuing, she thought pulling herself up a chair while trying not to stare at him too hard. Lovely bone structure, just thin enough to have interesting hollows and shadows. And it was one thing knowing the theory, but quite another applying it. Where on earth did she start?
"Seems you're good at that," he said, recovering his composure, but his gaze kept flicking to the plate of sandwiches and she just couldn't resist it.
"She makes a mean tuna-mayo, don't you think?"
"They look great."
She had to hand it to him, he had a very good innocent look.
"You've got mayo on your cheek, right there." She leaned forward and pointed it out to him, unable to resist adding a smug little smile. "Don't worry, I won't tell."
He wiped his cheek clean, giving her a bit of a smile in return. Rusty was how she'd describe it. As if he hadn't smiled very much in the last few years.
"Rumbled me then? Forgot to have breakfast, sorry about that."
"Do you do that often?"
"What, steal sandwiches?"
"No, forget to have breakfast."
She took pity on him. "Come on, let's get started, mom won't be out for a while."
He sat forward eagerly then seemed to remember his manners. "Shouldn't we wait for her?"
"No," Buffy said, pushing the plate towards him, "she'll be right behind that door, listening, but she won't appear until she thinks you and I have had a good talk."
She said the last part much louder, so that if her mother was there she couldn't fail to hear it. And William had only helped himself to two sandwiches so she took another two and dropped them onto his plate.
"Eat, and don't stop until they're all gone."
William raised his eyebrows in momentary surprise before muttering "yes mum," and digging in.
Buffy sat back in her chair nibbling on her own sandwich, watching with some amusement as he tried not to eat too fast. He'd finished all four before she'd got through hers and was already eyeing the remainder hopefully, but when she offered him seconds he refused. Just as she did when her mother implied she should eat more because she was too thin.
Okay, so it was a start, and her mother could come out any time now because she couldn't think of anything else to say. But it was William who opened up the next round of the conversation.
"That's better," he said, and fished into his pocket for cigarettes and a lighter. He offered her one, which she waved away since she didn't smoke and he didn't seem to have noticed that she was still eating.
"Mind if I smoke?"
Buffy popped the remainder of the sandwich in her mouth. "Go ahead, but not in the house."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
He flicked the lighter a couple of time and took a deep drag, turning his head so the smoke wouldn't blow her way. She pushed her empty plate towards him when he looked around for somewhere to flick the ash and it was only then that she noticed the thin scar running through his eyebrow.
"How did you do get? that?" she said tapping her own eyebrow to indicate what she meant.
He looked mystified for a moment and leaned forward, then he caught on and touched the scar. "Oh, you mean this? Few years back, last time I was in London. Got myself mugged."
"England?" That was a nice, safe topic of conversation so she latched on to it.
"Thought your accent sounded strange, so, you're English?"
"No, I'm as American as you. Was raised mainly by my Gran in England, though. Hence the accent."
"Oh." The conversation petered out once more as she racked her brain for something to add. Something that wouldn't be too personal, it was too soon for that.
He took a few more drags from his cigarette, then stubbed it out onto the side-plate.
"My parents did a lot of travelling, high powered careers, didn't have time really. Too busy wining and dining their very important clients. You know how it is?"
That was something they had in common. "I do, mom gets so involved in her cases, that I sometimes feel like I don't have a mother."
And that had been completely the wrong thing to say. The shutters came down immediately and he reached for another cigarette.
"She talked a lot about you," he said.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything. She does it with all her clients. A hundred and ten percent, that's my mom."
Another silence as he lit his cigarette. Buffy frowned at it, hoping he wasn't going to chain smoke the whole time he was here and the silence turned rather awkward as neither of them seemed willing to pick up the thread of the conversation. Finally Buffy decided that she couldn't do this by the book. What had her mother said? Go on instinct? She took a deep breath, causing him to look up at her.
"William," she said, then stopped to make sure that he was giving her all his attention. He was. But she also saw something else. A look of apprehension that clouded his eyes as he waited, for her to reject him, she realised. He thought she was going to tell him to go. And to be fair, she hadn 't really given him any reason to think otherwise.
"No William, it's not that, she added quickly.
He didn't move, didn't reply, but she could see the battle he was fighting. Jaw clenched, eyes wide as he steeled himself for what he must have thought was inevitable. As if he couldn't decide whether to beg her for it or run away.
And for the first time, Buffy realised the true value of the gift she was giving him. And how a gift can make the giver just as happy as the one receiving it. She actually leaned forward and put her hand on his arm because she didn't want him to go before she'd said it, and she couldn't get the words out quick enough.
"I want you to stay and design me a website. I've got loads of ideas, but me and computers, no go area. Mom says you're good, and she's never wrong, so what do you say?"
She saw his eyes scan her face as if he was looking for proof of what she'd just said, so she gave him another encouraging smile and a nod.
"Stay as long as you need to. Yes?"
For a moment he didn't say anything and she thought that maybe that she'd blown it, and he was just going to go anyway. A stab of panic ran through her at the thought, causing her to curl her fingers around his wrist and hold on, but not too tightly. She held him carefully because she could feel how fragile he was, and not just on the outside. What she'd seen in his eyes was a pale reflection of what he must be feeling inside. Just the tip of the iceberg, the bit he didn't have enough energy to hide.
But it felt as if he'd been strong, once upon a time, and that was a good sign.
"Please stay. I'd like you to."
She let him go and waited for his answer.
"I thought…" he began.
"Yes, so did I," she said. "But I really would like you to stay."
"Your mum beat you up, did she?"
"Yes, but the decision was always going to be mine."
"So, you're feeling sorry for me?"
"Obviously not as much as you are." She sat back, challenging him. "You are up to this, aren't you?"
"Bloody right, I'm up to this."
She relaxed inside. That had been a gamble, but he'd risen to the bait. What he needed was respect, not pity. Someone to make him realise that he was an okay person, rather than a sad one. He wasn't a blind man walking in the dark, and she didn't intend to treat him like one.
"Good, because you're gonna have to run fast to keep up with me."
"No problem, pet. I'll be there."
"I'm glad," she said, smiling for herself now. Because he looked different already and she'd done that. It was a good feeling.
Joyce joined them then, passing beers all round and cheerfully telling William he shouldn't smoke so much. He just as cheerfully stubbed the cigarette out and told her he wouldn't.
Small things, that mean so much. As they fell into a conversation about the merits of soccer versus American Football Buffy studied him and thought that perhaps she'd invite Willow and Tara over to meet him. Perhaps they'd be able to give her a better insight into what she was dealing with.
The way he'd risen to her challenge had heartened her. There was some fighting spirit left inside that rather pathetic exterior that he presented to the world. It wasn't that he was unattractive. She could believe that before this had all happened he'd been quite the charmer, and he had a most unusual face. Sharp angles, soft lips, light brown hair that looked just this side of untamed. No sign of the glasses, yet.
And he was way too thin, but she knew how irritating it was to have that thrown at you all the time.
"Ice cream," she announced as Joyce started to clear away the dishes. "I feel like something fattening, who's coming for an ice-cream?"
"No thanks sweetie," said Joyce. "It's just me, the swing chair and a good book this afternoon."
"Okay, William?" Buffy held out her hand. "You up for a Hogey's special?"
"What the hell's a Hogey's special?" he said pushing back his chair and standing up.
"It's a challenge," she said, laughing as she turned for the house. "I'll just get my purse, then I'm going to show you the biggest ice-cream that ever walked the earth. You'll never finish it."
"It's a sure one," she said, smirking at him and going inside for some cash. She met Joyce in the kitchen.
"That was a stroke of genius, Buffy. Take the money out of the jar, my treat."
"Mom, we're not a pair of teenagers. I think I can run to a couple of Hogey specials." She sighed. "But I'm going to get enormously fat doing this. You could have warned me that this would involve me turning into a blimp."
"He's not going to eat it alone though, is he?"
"I suppose not." Buffy pulled out a ten dollar note from the jar on the kitchen counter. "Can't even remember how much they cost. Okay, see you later, mom. Blimp-Buffy here we come."
"Come on William," she called as she went back onto the veranda. "Let's go put on weight."