"Damn," Willow sighed, her fingers flying over the keys of her laptop. "I'll say this for the evil corporation -- firewalls out the wazoo. Andrew, how's the password thing coming?"
"It's up to 'S'," Andrew replied, squinting into his own screen. "Looks like they're pretty good about getting their employees to use non-dictionary passwords."
Dawn turned another page in her book. "So this Wolfram & Hart is what... the official law firm of evil? What makes them worse than normal lawyers?"
"That's what we're trying to discover," Giles pulled down another book. "Angel has either become an extraordinarily powerful ally... or an incredibly dangerous foe."
"Do you think 'Wolfram & Hart' might be the same as 'Wolf, Ram, and Hart', like the animals? Cause if it is, I might have found something," Dawn pushed the book across the table.
"Wolf, Ram, and Hart," Giles murmured, pulling Dawn's book closer. "I'd be surprised if that were mere coincidence."
"See?" Xander smiled wistfully. "Anya warned us bunnies were evil."
"Giles?" Buffy called from the kitchen. "Your kettle is doing the noise thing!"
"Ah, will you take it off and..."
"Warm the teapot, yeah, yeah..." Buffy broke off, her voice softening. "Oh... you still have the 'kiss the librarian' mug..."
"I'm in, I'm in!" Andrew squealed. "Somebody used 'unicorn' as their system password..."
"What can you get?"
"Ummm..." Andrew's eyes slid back and forth. "Here's the human resources stuff... employee files, that sort of thing..."
Buffy reappeared in the doorway. "Can you pull Angel's?"
"Hang on..." Andrew tapped keys. "Got it. Nothing all that weird here... apparently they took over Wolfram & Hart right after Sunnydale pulled an Alderaan..."
"What about the rest of Angel's team?" Giles asked.
"Um... one sec... okay, here's Wesley... Gunn..." Andrew sighed. "These files are all pretty vanilla... like, sanitized for your evil... Fred, um, Fred's lab coat boyfriend, Lorne..."
"Back up," Buffy said suddenly. "The last one. The guy. The... non-green guy."
Andrew backtracked, and Knox's personnel file re-appeared on screen.
"These aren't even real," Buffy sighed. "That guy's been dead for almost two years."
"No, he's not. I met him."
"That's Holden Webster. Believe me, he's very dead. I dusted him myself."
"Knox is a vampyre? He sure didn't look like a..."
"Not is. Was. Spike sired him, I dusted him..."
"But if Spike sired him, he'd..." Andrew trailed off, biting his lip. "Never mind."
Willow peered out from behind her laptop. "I thought you said the guy was a psych major? What's he doing at a law firm?"
"Well... that's not Holden Webster, for starters," Xander said, catching a glimpse of the screen. "Webs was never that good-looking."
"Look, I'm telling you, it's Holden Webster. We had a big talk. It was a thing."
"Not unless he grew two feet after senior year, changed eye colors and had radical plastic surgery," Xander insisted. "Holden Webster made Jonathan look like Riley."
"This is Knox, Buffy, seriously," Andrew chimed in. "He's right below Fred in the Wolfram & Hart science department. We talked about Stargate. He's kinda cu... cool. Cool. He's got the best toys in that lab..."
Buffy blinked. "Did Holden Webster have a twin brother?"
"No, and if he did, he'd probably look like Holden Webster... which this guy completely does not. C'mon, Buff, you remember Holden. Looked like a leprechaun? Flaming red afro? Always wore those green Converse hi-tops?"
"Oh, yeah, green shoe guy!" Andrew grinned. "I remember him! Knox is so not him."
"I talked to this guy for hours, okay?" Buffy protested. "He told me his name was Holden Webster!"
"Maybe he said his name was Harry Webman or Horace Wooster and you, y'know, got the names a little confused," Willow said. "Too bad all our yearbooks got sucked into a hell-crater..."
"It was definitely Holden Webster, and he was definitely a vampire, and I definitely killed him. Look, you guys... I'm not crazy!"
"Well, as investigating the evil law firm goes, it's certainly a place to begin," Giles pointed out. "Can you -- do that computer thing you do on him?"
"Computer thing, comin' up..." Willow bit her lip, then looked up. "Anybody object if I give this a magic goose, get us to the good stuff?"
"Just be careful." Giles pushed his chair back. "I'll see about the tea."
The keyboard glowed as Willow's hands hovered over its surface, her eyes seeming to focus on a distant point. "Okay, I'm in... his personal directory... geez, obsess much?"
"He's got a major happy for something called Illyria. Tons and tons of files about it."
Dawn leaned over Willow's shoulder. "Given that this is the company o' evil, I'm guessing this isn't a cool new MMORPG?"
Willow's head tipped back, her eyelids fluttering. "Hang on... searching for 'Holden Webster' is returning some files..."
"See?" Buffy cried. "Told you I wasn't crazy."
Willow pulled her hands back, breathing heavily. "Get Giles in here."
"Thirty-one flavors of not good."
"And he wants to put this Old One... in Buffy," Giles sighed, polishing his glasses at breakneck speed.
"He needs a shell that can withstand having a God placed in it," Willow shrugged. "He thought the Slayer would be a perfect choice. But he wanted to meet her first, see her in action."
"He asked me a million questions..." Buffy rolled the 'Kiss the Librarian' mug back and forth in her palms. "What I don't understand is, how'd I dust the guy?"
"Glamour spell," Willow replied. "He talks about it in the notes."
"Jonathan used to do those," Andrew said wistfully. "He was so good at them..."
"So why didn't he stick the Old One in Buffy?" Xander asked.
"Well, he needs a thing. A sarcophagus-thing, with Illyria's... essence, I guess? In it. And he doesn't have it yet. The thing is... he doesn't want to put Illyria in Buffy anymore."
"What, am I not good enough for his hell-god now? Failed his little psych test?"
"No, he thought you were great. Totally worthy to be destroyed by the hell-god. Sure he'd let you list him as a reference. But... he's fallen in love with Fred. He wants to put the hell-god in her now, Buffy... we've gotta warn her."
"Okay," Buffy said. "Let's get on the phone."
"You should go," Andrew blurted. "Don't call. You should just go. Don't even tell them you're coming. Just show up. Element of surprise."
Giles set the teapot back down with a sigh. "Andrew, I rather think it would be easier and more prudent to..."
"Hello? Evil? They've probably got wiretaps on all the phones, a-and little cameras in the offices, a-and what if something goes down? You tip off Fred, she confronts Mr. 'I Heart Hellgods 4-Ever' with no backup? Best case scenario, he skedaddles, worse case, he goes all Weird Science on her. You just need to go in and take him out."
"I can't take on a whole evil corporation by myself, Andrew..."
"Yeah... speaking as someone who's been on the pointy end of another 'Mr. I Heart Hellgods 4-Ever'?" Dawn groaned. "Not a fun date."
"I'm not saying storm the bridge! Just... just pretend you're there to see Angel. I really don't think he's evil, Buffy. He'll probably take on Knox himself, a dark leather swirl of righteous wrath, his muscles rippling as he..."
"Stop, stop right there," Xander groaned. "Beyond the rippling muscles part, Andrew does sorta have a point, Buff."
"I really liked Fred," Willow added. "And if we go there in person, we can see the evil-or-not for ourselves. I've got a pretty good evil sniffer."
"It would certainly be quicker than our current inquiries," Giles mused. "Or a trap."
"It's not a trap," Andrew insisted. "And even if it were, someone would rescue you..."
Giles sighed. "I've met Angelus, Andrew. He's not much on heroic rescuing."
"I'm not talking about Angel, I'm... uh... Wesley likes you! He used to be your Watcher, right?"
"You're being even weirder than usual..." Dawn's eyes narrowed.
"I would feel better if I could see Angel with my own eyes," Buffy said. "This whole not knowing if he's gone evil or not gives me the wiggins."
"Should I make with the Travelocity?" Willow asked, hands returning to her keyboard.
"Huh. Fight a hell-god, go up against a possibly evil Angel, investigate a powerful secret organization? It's a vacation in the land of deja vu. Book 'em, Willow."
"Wow," Willow said in awe as they stepped onto the elevator. "And I was impressed by the hotel."
Buffy trailed her hands over the carved mahogany wainscoting. "Yeah... looks like we were wrong. Evil pays after all."
"Y'know, somehow I expected a fortress of evil to be less... beige."
"Don't worry, it's still evil." Buffy pointed her finger at the roof of the elevator. "Check the Muzak -- Barry Manilow. We're definitely in a hotbed of badness."
"I don't know. I was just thinking there'd be more..."
The elevator doors opened, and Willow's brow wrinkled. "... adorable puppets?"
The puppet whirled at the sound of Willow's voice, plush eyebrows skyrocketing a moment before it dove through an office doorway.
"Well, two seconds in and you've terrified the Muppet," Willow said gleefully. "We're gonna own this place."
"Willow... did that puppet... look familiar?"
"Looked sorta like Guy Smiley..."
Buffy stepped out of the elevator, stalking towards the office with Willow in hot pursuit. "Hello? Stuffed Guy? Can we talk?"
"Go away," the puppet replied in a falsetto voice.
"I'm looking for Angel, and I..."
Suddenly, the doorway behind them was filled with a green-skinned, horned demon. "Angelcakes? I need to talk to... oh, hey, if it isn't that ol' Red magic! Long time no see!"
The high, tinny voice again. "Angel's not here..."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud, Angel, everybody already knows you've gone Sesame Street, you can quit hiding under the desk. I'm getting your signature on this requisition if I have to wrap your little fluffy fingers around the pen myself."
A resigned groan, and a shock of black puppet hair appeared over the edge of the desk, the puppet hauling himself into the chair.
"Oh, so cute!" Willow squeaked, and found herself the recipient of puppet glare.
"Lorne," Angel said in his normal voice, "I'd like you to meet Buffy Summers."
"Buffy..." Lorne took a step backwards, realizing. "Buffy. The Buffy. Who, I'm guessing, didn't know about the whole... puppet situation. Right-o. Maybe we can talk about that requisition later, Angelbear... can I get you ladies anything? Sea Breeze? They're delicious... I'll let myself out."
"Go ahead, laugh," Angel moaned, his face hitting the desk with a pillowy thump. "I know you want to."
"Considering I thought I might be coming here to confront Angelus? Cute and snuggly, not so much of a disappointment," Buffy said gently. "Can I ask, though..."
"It's a whole... puppet thing," Angel sighed. "Not such a great day for a visit... not that we really have good ones..."
"Well, we've actually come to make your day much worse... so... happy to see us?" Willow grinned.
"Not really in any shape to assist with an apocalypse. Unless you need things loudly counted in a Transylvanian accent."
"It's nothing like that," Buffy said quickly. "It's one of your employees, up to major badness."
"Well, that sounds like 98 of them..."
"This one's after Fred."
Angel looked between the two of them, heaved a sigh and smacked his plush hand down onto his phone.
"Guys? Get in here."
"Is this everybody?" Willow asked, looking around the conference table at Angel, Lorne, Fred, Gunn, and Wesley.
"I wish," Angel muttered. "No, he's just..."
"Sorry I'm late, Peaches," a voice called from the other room. "Was winin' n' dinin' your bint. Well, mostly tossin' raw steak through the bars of her cage, but she had that look in her eye. Y'know, werewolves? No bloody table manners, none at..."
Spike froze mid-word in the conference room doorway, his mouth hanging open.
And blinked again.
He was still there, looking as catatonic as she felt.
The silence stretched out, moments ticking by.
"Spike?" Willow whispered.
"Uh..." Lorne said carefully, "I'm guessing no one told them about Blondie Bear's re-entrance into the land of the living?"
Willow just stared. "How... how long?"
"I believe it was... nineteen days after you closed the Hellmouth?" Wesley said, looking at Fred and Gunn for confirmation.
Buffy wasn't even aware she'd stood up and punched Spike until he hit the ground.
"Bloody hell," Spike protested as soon as he'd regained consciousness and realized he was being dragged across the Wolfram & Hart lobby by the collar of his duster. "Did you drink the special beer again?"
"Kick his ass, Buffy!" Harmony called cheerfully, raising her pink pouf-tipped pen in salute.
Moments later, he was being thrown through a doorway, to land ungracefully in a sprawl across a conference table. "Y'know, I think that was an important meeting..."
"Willow knows more about it than I do anyway," Buffy spat, slamming the door behind her.
"I thought we'd agreed to end the cycle of violence, pet?"
"That was before you came back from the dead and didn't even call me!"
Spike scrambled up into a sitting position, shrugging his duster into place. "Uh, yeah... about that..."
Buffy crossed her arms over her chest, daggers shooting out of her eyeballs.
"Look, love," Spike protested, "I was gonna... well... in my defense, I had this whole ghost thing where I couldn't get out of L.A..."
"You didn't feel like a ghost."
"Not a bloody ghost anymore... and why do you always go for the nose?"
Buffy glared directly at his balls. "You want me to branch out?"
"No... no... nose is good..." Spike pulled his duster protectively over his tenderer bits. "So, uh... how've you been?"
"Oh -- utterly miserable. You?"
"But... we won! And now you're not the only Chosen One anymore, you can have that real life you always wanted..."
"Yeah, we won! Woo-hoo! And I lost one of my best friends, and the guy I'm in love with -- that's you, by the way! Dances of merriment all around!"
"Well I..." Spike blinked. "What?"
"You heard me. And if you pull some lousy 'no you don't' crap, I'm gonna kick you so hard they'll be finding your teeth in Siberia."
"Y'know, love, you've got a funny way with declarations. Don't recall the campaign goin' 'Say It With Death Threats'..."
"Says the guy who chained me up and threatened to feed me to his psycho ho-bag ex?"
"Okay, point there..."
"What are you doing here with Angel? You hate Angel. And hello, livin' la vida cubicle? So not you, and why is Angel a puppet? And why is Harmony here? And Angel's dating a werewolf? You know, I'm looking around, and you know what I see besides beige and suits and evil? Phones! Phones on every desk! Phones on the wall! Fax machines! Computers! It's a communicapalooza!"
"You're telling me you have time to play zookeeper to Angel's hairy new squeeze, and not enough time for 'Hey, Buffy, it's Spike, I'm not dead, call me back?'"
"Don't you 'Buffy' me! Make with the explainy, right now!"
"Why don't you bloody..." Spike winced, "'make with the explainy'?"
"I'm not the one who..."
"Balls!" Spike said fiercely. "Not joinin' the poof's fan club, but what the hell, Buffy? The great poncy git's been watchin' your back for eight years, runnin' your precious second front, supposed to be your bleedin' tragic soulmate, and you don't even call him when you find out he's taken over Evil Incorporated? Not one bloody postcard of the Coliseum with an 'Italy's nice, heard you'd gone evil, wish you were here?' Instead you send Andrew and the girl power team, and you're surprised I might have gotten the impression that you'd gone off the undead?"
"You've been back way longer than..."
"Yeah, I have. An' I was a bloody ghost, wasn't I? You told me yourself, Buffy. You didn't like me, you only liked what I could do to you, do for you. Well, I couldn't bloody do anything! Took me months to learn to pick up a soddin' mug. All I was was me, Buffy." Spike took a deep breath, his voice softening. "If you'd rejected that... I'da known, wouldn't I? Woulda known all you ever wanted me for was throwin' punches and... other things."
"Spike," Buffy breathed in horror.
"An' here I was, bloody useless, can't fight, can't help... and I found people who liked me anyway. Soul's about guilt, innit? Not just for killin' people. I tried to leave, tried to go back to you, even booked a ticket... tried to say 'Hey, people who treated me like a person even when I wasn't one, thanks for puttin' yourselves in danger to save me, know you're all fightin' the good fight and could really use my help, but now that I'm cured you can all piss off... an' I couldn't bloody do it in the end, could I?"
"You owe me twenty bucks," said a soft southern voice in the doorway.
"Oh, hell," Spike swore, turning to face it. "Hey, Fred."
The corners of Fred's mouth quirked. "Hate the 'bloody' lot of us, huh?"
"You weren't supposed to... don't tell," he pleaded.
"Sorry to tell you this, Spike, but I think the secret that you're not a complete asshole has already gotten out," Fred clucked her tongue sorrowfully, shaking her head. "Gonna be so bad for your image..."
"Can't stand any of you wankers," Spike tried.
"Really? Hey, you wanna come back to the meeting? Turns out, Knox is trying to kill me..."
Fred caught him as he surged out the door. "Meeting first, rip Knox to shreds for threatening that girl you can't stand later. Come back to the meeting before I tell Angel you defended him to Buffy."
"Just might..." Fred teased, grabbing his hand and tugging it. "C'mon."
Spike looked over his shoulder as Fred led him away. "Comin', Slayer?"
"Yeah, I..." Buffy trailed off, watching their backs as he and Fred shared a grin. "I'm right behind you."