Summary: Fred gives Buffy a crash course in using evil computers, and they discuss common interests. Fifth story in the "Slayer Central" series.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just borrowing them for a spell. . .

Rating: PG-13, for themes

Time Frame: About a week after the events in "Loose Ends," and following the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

LEARNING CURVE

Gunn opened the door to the training room cautiously--years of living around Angel had taught him the hard way to keep alert in places where a super strong warrior might be training, and the risk had multiplied thirty-fold with the arrival of the Slayers. Still, it was Saturday morning, and Gunn knew that their guests were by nature "night people"--he wasn't expecting to find a crowd of Slayers in what Xander called "pummeling mode." He looked in, and was surprised to see Dawn sitting on the mat with her eyes closed, next to Vi, one of the more composed of the younger Slayers. Gunn watched them for a moment, shaking his head. * They look like they came from Central Casting for "Saved By The Bell", but one of them could give Angel a good fight even-up, and the other one's been through as least as much crap as I have the last few years, without superpowers or even much muscle to back her up. Goes to show you can't know what's what by just looking on the surface * He dismissed the thought and cleared his throat quietly.

Vi opened her eyes instantly and scanned the room for threats--she relaxed and smiled when she saw Gunn. Dawn reacted a bit more slowly, and without the threat assessment: she blinked, yawned, and waved to the new arrival: "Hey, Gunn. What are you doing up at this hour?"

"I could ask you ladies the same question--usually I come in here and people are beating up on each other. What's with the deep breathing thing?" Gunn walked into the room as Vi crouched, then did a backward somersault to land next to a nearby table, where a bottle of water was sitting.

The Slayer took a long sip of water, then turned to Gunn and explained, "Before the change, I was a bit more. . .subdued than I am now. The change in personality has been a tad unsettling to me, and Buffy thinks that it's important that we shouldn't lose touch with what we were before we became Slayers, even though I like most of the changes. She taught me some meditation techniques she had learned a couple of years ago, and I'm using them to help with the transition." She turned to Dawn and smiled, adding, "Dawn's just here to keep me company."

"Hey, stress management techniques are a good thing to learn," Dawn commented, stretching and walking over to get her own bottle of water. Gunn nodded, and Dawn continued, "Besides, it's a pretty mellow way to spend a morning after spending all week trying to track down new Slayers online and on the phone." She walked over to Gunn and added, "You didn't come here for us to tell you about the wonders of meditation--what's going on?"

"Looking for Fred--we're setting up the permanent link between the computers here and at Wolfram & Hart, and she's got to sign off on a couple of things before we finish the job." Gunn saw sadness touch Dawn's eyes, and ignored it--as he suspected the cause of it and didn't want to go there. "Have you two seen her?"

Vi shook her head, but Dawn nodded: "She left for W & H about an hour ago with Buffy--Buffy needs to be trained on some of the quirks of the computers there, and Fred wanted Buffy's input on some stuff. They should be back by noon."

Gunn nodded again, and waved to them as he headed out: "Thanks!" The door closed behind him, and Vi and Dawn exchanged looks before settling down on the mat again and closing their eyes.

* * * * *

"Good morning, Director Burkle."

Fred waved at the desk guard and swept by him as Buffy followed behind her, fascinated by Fred's changed manner. Wesley had made the formal introductions when the Sunnydale contingent had arrived on the day Sunnydale vanished into the crater, and Buffy had been startled to see how shy the young woman who Willow had assured her was one of the most brilliant minds she had ever encountered was--she had taken Buffy's hand and whispered, "It's very nice to meet you, Buffy. I've heard a lot of stories over the years." Buffy had smiled, and waited for Fred to follow up on what for most people would have been a hint seeking more information, but Fred had never tried to initiate a conversation with her in the weeks following the establishment of Slayer Central at the Hyperion. She hadn't avoided Buffy, and she seemed to enjoy the social occasions that they had as a group (usually at the Hyperion's lounge, which Lorne had done wonders in making a fun place for both the senior members and the Slayers-in-training), but Buffy sensed that Fred was uncomfortable around her--she had resolved to wait and see if Fred would let her know what the problem was.

Meanwhile, Winifred Burkle was pretty much Mistress of the Universe here, as far as her demeanor and the way the few people at Wolfram & Hart on a Saturday were treating her were concerned. They encountered a guard in the elevator, another guard in the corridor as they stepped out, and a lithe-looking demon was sitting at the receptionist's desk as Fred and Buffy walked up to the door with the plate reading "Winifred Burkle--Director of Scientific and Technical Operations." All greeted her in the same manner: "Good morning, Director Burkle." Fred nodded to each of them in turn, and opened the office door without fanfare, gesturing for Buffy to follow her. The Slayer complied, giving the demon at the desk a quick glance to make sure she wasn't packing any weapons, and closing the door behind her.

Buffy looked around the office, and was more than a little impressed. The walls and the furniture all seemed to be polished mahogany, and the office floor was black marble. Fred walked over to a TV/VCR setup in a corner of the office and fiddled with it a bit. Buffy walked over and asked, "What are you going to play?"

Fred turned to Buffy and replied, "I wanted to show you what this place was like when I got here, before Willow was able to help me get some of the. . .quirks out." The screen popped on, and a shot of Fred's desk came into view. Fred could be heard saying, "Are you getting this, Willow?" The camera shook slightly, as if nodding, and Fred called out, "Good. Dr. Jamison, would you restart the computer, please?"

After a moment, a thin man wearing overlarge spectacles came into view. He looked nervous, and looked off-camera to where Fred was apparently standing. He apparently received the encouragement he was seeking, and he proceeded to kneel before the desk. Buffy stared in disbelief as the scientist called out, "Blood and souls! Blood and souls! Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!" After a few moments, a metal extrusion with a sharp needle on the end protruded from the base of the computer screen. Dr. Jamison reached out and pricked his finger on the needle without hesitation, and the screen came to life, bringing up a standard login request. Dr. Jamison typed in his password and hit "enter," and the system logged on, bringing up a blood red screen reading:

WELCOME TO WOLFRAM & HART

ABANDON ALL HOPE

YE WHO OPPOSE US

The scientist turned to the camera and asked quietly, "Will there be anything else, Director Burkle?" The screen went blank, and then turned to snow.

Buffy turned to Fred and stated flatly, "Not doing that."

Fred smiled and replied, "Yeah, that was kinda my reaction too. He showed me how to do it the first time, and I immediately called Willow and asked her to observe, and to help me get a video of it so we could consult with others. The first thing we wondered about was this whole 'Lord Arioch' thing."

"Yeah--not thrilled about pledging my soul to some demon lord just to get online--AOL is enough of a pain in the butt." Buffy's tone was grim, and Fred remained impassive for a moment before bursting into laughter. Buffy frowned and asked, "What's the joke?"

After a moment, Fred calmed down enough to reply, "I was pretty much a geek when I was younger, but I didn't hang out in all of the geek circles--I wasn't much for reading fantasy and sci-fi novels. Apparently Wesley was--we repeated the chant to him and he started laughing, and didn't stop until he had walked into his office and retrieved a novel from his bookshelf." Fred reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a paperback novel, and Buffy leaned forward to read the title: "Elric of Melnibone." Buffy blinked in confusion, and Fred elaborated, "Arioch is a fictional demon lord from this book and others in the same series written by a guy named Michael Moorcock. There is no real Arioch--the chant is a meaningless exercise that happens to be part of the login process."

Buffy stared and shook her head: "And the blood?"

"Oh, the needle does detect whether human blood is on it, and who it belongs to." Fred shook her head, seeing Buffy's growing revulsion at the whole thing. "It's a very sophisticated mechanism, but it's not very useful as a security system--the blood could be put on the needle by anyone, and the chant could also be done by anyone, as there is no voiceprint identifier in the mechanism. The only reliable security measure in the system is the password screen. The rest is sheer sadism by the senior partners."

Buffy shook her head in annoyance. "OK, I'm hoping you fixed this, because I'm not donating blood to a demon lord--fictional or not."

Fred smiled wickedly. "Fortunately, I had the services of the most powerful cybermancer known to exist in the world." Buffy frowned, puzzled, and Fred elaborated: "A magic-user who can manipulate computers--it's a rare discipline, even these days. Willow is way ahead of everyone else, at least for the moment. She went into the guts of the system and ripped out all of the extraneous crap. It really freaked out the office staff when they tried the rituals the next morning and they didn't work." Buffy laughed, and Fred nodded and concluded, "I've had real voice analyzers installed for all of the stations--I had the company pay through the nose to do it quickly." She called out: "Computer: prepare to receive login voiceprint for new independent contractor--Summers, Buffy Anne."

Buffy watched as the screen popped on, and a login screen popped into sight:

PLEASE STATE YOUR FULL NAME: LAST NAME, FIRST NAME, MIDDLE NAME

THEN SAY ALOUD "WE COULD CRUSH THE BONES OF OUR ENEMIES INTO TALCUM POWDER, BUT HEY--WE DID THAT LAST NIGHT."

Buffy laughed out loud, and turned to Fred: "Willow chose the ID phrase, I see." Fred nodded, and the smile on her face suggested to Buffy that Willow had told the story behind Xander's comment. Buffy turned back to the screen, and recited her name, then the phrase, in a calm, even tone.

The screen blinked, and then brightened again, revealing a normal desktop display with a photo of Willow, Xander, Dawn, Giles, and Joyce as the wallpaper. A calm, feminine voice said, "Good morning, Miss Summers. You have mail."

Buffy turned to Fred. "Fred, you did a great job on this--thanks."

Fred smiled and shrugged, "Willow did the hard part--I've just been working with what she's been able to show me." She reached for the keyboard and continued, "The phrase and your name gave the computer a big enough sample of your voice to operate with less trouble from here on in--you can just say 'Buffy Summers, signing on' from now on, and it'll get you in." Fred hesitated, then added, "We also thought of the possibility that someone might coerce you into signing on and allowing access to the system--you can choose another phrase that will warn the rest of us that you're in trouble if you use it while signing on, and it will prevent anything entered from that work station from allowing access to restricted files. Just say 'Buffy Summers--panic phrase' and whatever you want the phrase to be." She typed in a few lines, and the screen blanked, only to be replaced by the login screen. "Winifred Burke, signing on." The screen changed, revealing a group photo of Angel, Gunn, Cordelia, Lorne, and Fred. Fred turned back to Buffy and explained, "I've rigged it so you can get your personal screen in here, but I've also arranged for your own office--if we need to be working on the computer at the same time, you'll have your own space."

Buffy smiled broadly. "You mean I've got a whole office this time? That's more than Robin got for me--I'm going to let him know I'm getting better treatment these days." She grinned at Fred to let her know she was teasing, and added, "Thanks again, Fred--you've really done wonders here, even considering Willow's help." A thought occurred to her, and she asked, "Fred--Angel and Willow filled me in on your background. You were sucked in by that portal to Pylea in early 1996, right?"

Fred shivered and nodded, "Yes."

"That was right around the time I first became the Slayer--I was kind of busy, but I seem to remember that computers were pretty much Tinker-Toys compared to what they were five years later." Buffy paused, and continued, "But from what I heard, you were doing well enough six months after you came back to take over the computer research stuff from Cordelia, and Willow claims that without magic you'd be as good or better than she is with computers." Fred blushed, and Buffy shook her head as she concluded, "How did you catch up so fast?"

Fred shrugged again. "I was pretty out of it when Angel and the others brought me back, but I asked for an online connection and Cordy set it up for me. Had a lot of time on my hands, and when I wasn't drawing on the walls I was catching up with the last five years. I couldn't tell you who won the Oscars for that period, or how many hurricanes had blown into the Gulf of Mexico, but catching up in my areas of expertise--that I could do even scared and crazy, Buffy. Good thing, too--they needed me to get better, and I did."

Buffy watched the older woman for a moment, and obeyed an impulse by hugging her tightly. She felt Fred tense a little, but otherwise the scientist accepted the gesture. Buffy pulled back, looked into Fred's eyes, and said quietly, "Thank you, Fred." She saw the puzzled look in Fred's eyes, and she clarified, "Not for the office and the demon-free computer--thank you for helping my friends for the last two years. They mean a lot to me, and I like Gunn and Lorne, too--I wouldn't want anything to happen to them. I'm glad you're on our side." Buffy looked at Fred, and saw confusion there, and a touch of-- "Fred, are you afraid of me?"

Fred stood up and walked to the other side of the office. Buffy waited patiently, looking over at the older woman with a supportive expression on her face. Fred visibly straightened, turned to Buffy, and stated simply, "I'm sorry, Buffy. . .I'm just getting used to the fact that you're real."

Buffy was silent--not much you could say to that. Fred blushed again, and sat next to Buffy, explaining, "Buffy, Angel and the others had just saved me from Pylea--I know Angel and Lorne have told you what it was like, so I won't go over it again. Suffice it to say that it was not the ideal environment for a graduate physics student from Texas. This bunch of heroes saves me, saves the entire world from tyranny, and brings me home--and Willow's sitting in the lobby of the Hyperion with the saddest expression I've ever seen on a human face, before or since. Angel knew why she was there without her saying a word--have you ever seen someone deflate, Buffy? Like all of the air, and joy, and hope had been let out of them and there was nothing left for them in this existence? That's what Angel looked like in that moment, and it was more horrible than anything I saw in five years of living in Pylea. That was when I first heard about you."

Buffy shivered--Willow had never talked about that moment in detail. She took a deep breath. "Go on, Fred."

"Angel asked to see Willow alone: they talked for half an hour, and when they came out they wouldn't talk about what had been said." Fred continued, not noticing Buffy's expression twitch. * I know exactly what they were talking about--Angel demanded to know all of the details about how I had died, and she told him everything about Dawn, on the condition that he not reveal it to anyone else * Buffy composed her expression, and continued to listen as Fred added, "Angel took off soon after that, after telling us that you had died saving the world, and that he needed time to himself."

"Yeah, Angel told me about that--some place in the Himalayas. It was apparently nice until some cultists attacked him." Buffy commented in a deadpan tone, trying to break Fred's deadly serious mood.

If Fred noticed the attempt, she didn't react: "Buffy, all of the others were crucial to saving me, but Angel was the one I spent the most time with, the one I had grown emotionally attached to. When he left, I just locked myself away for months and didn't come out except to eat. I had never seen you and knew nothing about you, except that you dying took Angel away from me, and that you had given your life to save the world and given me a place to come home to." Fred looked up at Buffy, and the guilt was naked on her face as she blurted out, "Do you have any idea how awful it feels to hate someone that you're grateful to beyond words?"

Buffy blinked, and there were tears in her eyes as she stepped forward and embraced Fred again. She heard Fred crying softly, and waited for the sound to stop before pulling away and whispering, "Yeah, I really do. Let's get together some night in the Hyperion Lounge with a nice bottle of tequila, and I'll tell you about a nasty little ritual called the Cruciamentum and how it almost destroyed my love for a man who's been more of a father to me than anyone since I became the Slayer." Fred stared at her, and Buffy added: "Fred, I was an abstraction to you--an abstraction that made someone you really cared about go away, and you weren't exactly yourself then. Do you really think I'd hold that against you, and forget everything else good you've done since then? Cordy must have really told some nasty stories about me, if that's what you think."

Fred laughed involuntarily. "She'd make a snide remark about you, or Willow, or Xander, but it was nothing she didn't do with the others--or with me, once I was more sane. I think she really respects you, Buffy--even if she'd rather arm wrestle a porcupine demon rather than admit it to your face." Buffy smiled, and Fred added, "I just never really had a chance to work it out. Angel came back, and I was still kind of attached to him. It took some weird body switching magic to kind of put me off of him, and it was right then when the news came that you were back. After that things got more complicated." Fred looked down, and Buffy knew enough about the romantic mishaps that had followed to decide not to pursue the matter. Fred shook her head and concluded, "Anyway, it's something I'd never worked out, and it had always bothered me."

Buffy chuckled and replied, "Fred, believe me--I'd bet that every one of my friends has wondered if they'd have been better off if I'd never met them. I know for a fact that Cordelia has--that's how Xander ended up with Anya." Fred looked puzzled, and Buffy laughed, "Long story--we'll save it for that bottle of tequila." Fred relaxed, and Buffy decided to change the subject: "Fred--are you getting any sense for what kind of game W & H is playing with Angel and the rest of you guys? I'm glad to help, and I know the others are too, but you know these evil lawyer types better than we do--I need some guidance."

"Willow and I have been through the computers here, and we think we've cleaned out all of the tricks and traps the senior partners put in them, either through programming or sheer magical power." Fred was all business again, and she showed Buffy a printout. Buffy leafed through it, and raised an eyebrow at the length of the list of items on it. Fred nodded and commented, "On the one hand, maybe they thought they could sneak one or two things by me, since I don't have the magic oomph to blast out a few of the things here. On the other hand, they knew we were in contact with Willow, and they had already given Angel that amulet to extricate you from your problems, knowing what its effects on Sunnydale would be--I'm thinking that they had to know Willow would be here, and could remove that stuff. Meaning that as far as they knew, we'd have a computer completely clear of their influence within weeks of Willow's arrival. It makes me wonder what they're after, and how they plan on getting it."

Buffy frowned and put the papers in her shoulder bag. "We'll talk to Angel and Wesley about this--they might catch something you and Willow missed--there might be a pattern to the stuff they were trying to keep tabs on." She stood up and headed for the door, "Come on--I'll treat at Denny's. We can go through the Gauntlet of Fred Adoration one more time and grab some breakfast afterwards."

Fred grinned, and they departed, leaving the office empty and cutting off the sound of the receptionist announcing Fred's departure as the door closed behind them.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired