The sound of carpet-muffled footsteps walking toward him didn't deter his focus from the papers he kept reading at his desk. It wasn't like he wasn't expecting the new arrival. Had called for him in fact. He needed all the help he could get.
"You shouldn't've put me in charge of this," he said, though his eyes remained down.
"I thought you could handle it," the new occupant replied confidently.
"These aren't normal contracts. It's not about bending the rules. It's about breaking them."
"Now let me stop you right there. We're not talking about breaking any rules. We just have to find a way...around them."
"It can't be done. They're air-"
"Nothing. Is ever airtight. Unless of course it's ours."
"Well, I wouldn't have so much confidence in those either," he muttered, and the older man sitting in front of him gave a short chuckle in humor.
"I wouldn't have given them to you if I believed it wasn't possible."
"Why did you?" he asked, finally lifting his eyes. "There are better people - smarter people who could've figured this out."
"Yes, there are. But none of them have your cunning. Your drive. They don't have the extra edge it takes to see this through."
Leaning back in his chair, the young man screwed his eyes shut, but he could still see the words dancing before him.
"You can do this," the older man said. "You don't need my help."
"But I would like an explanation," he said, snapping his eyes open. "This is out of our territory. We don't handle things like this for a reason."
"You're right we don't. They have their own people. Their own resources."
"Then why are we handling it now?"
"Have you gotten the new papers I sent you today?"
The young man looked around him. His desk a mess of folders and documents. He sighed in irritation, and looked around for the papers his assistant had given him. And much to his annoyance, he found them right underneath his current file, and placed on top of everything else he was currently working on.
"Good," the older man smiled. "Now I suggest reading those as soon as possible," he lifted himself from the chair and walked over to the door, "and then you'll see why this is so important."
He watched the door close after his mentor, a soft click in his wake. Opening the new file he leaned back in his chair and began to read. And then it all fell into place. And it made it all that much worse. His shoulders felt heavier from the weight of the new information, and not for the first time since he had been asked to be in charge of the case, did Lindsey McDonald realize he should've said no.
Not a single word. And rarely a blink. It was unnerving.
Buffy waited quietly for them to talk, to move, to...something! She wasn't stupid. She had been gone for fifteen months. And aside from the occasional word, had nearly disappeared from their radar. She knew they'd be upset, but this...this was just uncomfortable.
What? How? Huh? Exactly. What else was there to think when someone you haven't seen in months appears out of the blue? And apparently has been keeping herself busy while away.
"Buffy," Willow said in awe, the first one to break out of the daze and the silence. "You...you're here."
"And alive," Faith followed.
"And where the hell have you been?!" Anya demanded, snapping everybody out of their stupor. "Don't you know that everyone's been worried sick about you?!"
"Anya," Xander said, trying to calm her down.
"No, she needs to hear this," she said. "She needs to know that everyone's been all sulky and whiny because no one had any idea of where she was. Especially these two," she indicated to Harry and Draco. "They've been miserable for months. And so have Xander and Willow, and–and everybody! How can you disappear for over a year and just come back out of nowhere?! It's just so...so...irresponsible!"
Anya was now standing from her chair; her overrun of emotions had sprung her to her feet.
The people around her would've been embarrassed, especially Harry and Draco, had it not been for the fact that Anya was right. And had expressed exactly what they had wanted to say and wanted answers.
"Feel better?" Buffy asked sincerely.
"Yes. I do," Anya nodded and smiled at the sudden relief in her mind.
"Good," she smiled warmly. "Now if you'll take a seat I'll explain."
Calm and cheery, Anya sat back down with a very proud look on her face.
"I know I have a lot of explaining to do, but right now is not exactly the time," she said, her whole demeanor screaming business. "I brought all of you here for a reason. And it's not to show you my fancy new digs."
She waited for a smile or a laugh but none of it came. Guess they were more upset than she thought.
"Right," she nodded, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back against her desk. "Roughly, about a year ago, while I was...traveling, I got called up by the Powers that Be. It seems that the little near-apocalypse we had five years ago had really gotten their attention. And to say they were impressed is literally an understatement. What we did got them thinking. Seeing how well we worked together, and by we, I don't just mean the people in this room, I mean how well everyone did: Muggles, wizards, slayers, everyone in between, they were surprised we were able to work together despite the difference in our abilities. And how the pulling together literally saved our lives. They noticed that we were able to teach each other, pass on knowledge no matter how small it was, knowing that it would be useful. To blend what we knew, our magicks, our ideas, everything, because doing it would unite us into a powerful force. And that's what kept us alive. By sharing what we knew it helped us to fill in the holes when a new danger came our way. How we were all able to pull together and use all of our resources helped us to win. And to put it in the simplest of terms, it set off a light bulb. They realized that maybe what we had done wasn't such a bad idea."
Buffy paused as she recollected her thoughts to form the oncoming explanation. The one she had been trying to piece together before they got here. The one that would explain where exactly it is they were.
"The Allegiance is multifunctional, multipurpose corporation. The first of its kind. Our priority, our main objective, is to help those who are on the side of good. Muggle, Magical or Mystical. Think of it as the side of good's Ministry of Magic, or a United Nations kind of deal. We exist to help those who need it. To give them what we didn't have. An extra hand. But we do have our limits. We don't fight their battles for them. We don't step into their territory unless it is absolutely necessary. We don't get involved unless asked. We help, but we don't do their jobs. We're the assistance not the saviors. But, as the Powers keep reminding me, there is a catch, a very important catch. We may be a helping hand, but we are still very much business. Which means we do provide services for certain fees. The PtB may have given us startup costs but we do have to keep the business running. We're not government assisted and there are employee mouths to feed, heads to shelter and backs to clothe. Which means we are for hire. This isn't a charity."
Buffy gauged their reactions quickly, and if their widened eyes were any indication this was definitely not what they had been expecting.
"So what you're saying is that you're charging those who need help saving the world? You don't help them unless they pay some sort of fee?" Hermione asked, appalled at the idea.
"No," Buffy said. "Not all of them. When it comes to saving lives it's all pro-bono, but we do have other departments that could be of use to people who are in need of it. Good, innocent people. Like I said, this is a corporation and we do have many different resources that are available for hire."
"We offer the basics: Legal, Defense, Consultation, Research and Intelligence and so on. Then there are the specialized areas: Science, Medical, Wiccan Regulations, Magical Law Operations, Magical Creatures, Occult Department, and on and on and on," she explained. "We cover a lot of ground."
The words swirled around in their heads. This was a lot to take in. This place was definitely impressive by the sound of it. But it did lead to one question…
"This is all great, B," said Faith. "What you got going on here is real top notch, and not to be all rude, but what does it have to do with us?"
It was the awaited question and a tiny knowing smile was their only answer.
Buffy straightened up and put on a cheery face.
"Would you guys like a tour?" she asked.
"What?" Xander asked, taken aback by the sudden cheery attitude and complete dismissal of Faith's question.
"A tour," she repeated, walking over to the door. "It won't take long. Just a little looksie to give you an idea of what we got going on here." Pulling the door open, she jerked her head to the side. "Come on."
Slowly, one by one, they rose from their seats. Hesitant and confused, they moved to the door, and in a sloppy line they filed out, gathering in the lobby.
When Harry passed her, Buffy noticed he refused to look in her direction and was further away than the rest of them. With Draco not too far behind. But like so many things in her life, she didn't have time to deal with it. Maybe it was just better that way. Given her current status.
Closing the door behind her, Buffy moved in front of them. Calling out to her assistant along the way.
"Jonathan, we're leaving now. Anything that's not life threatening…"
"You'll get back to. Yes, Buffy," he said happily, sounding almost like a house-elf, kind of like Dobby.
She was starting to lead the group down the hall when she suddenly stopped, and turned around to Jonathan again.
"Oh, and that call I've been waiting for?" she said and waited until he gave a confirmed nod. "No message, no holding, I want to take it as soon as they say hello."
Buffy lead her group down the hallway, not noticing the confounded looks she was receiving from her group at this new business Buffy.
"Hello, Miss Summers."
"How are you, Miss Summers?"
"Good morning, Miss Summers."
And so it went. People greeted Buffy as they passed, and she smiled and greeted back. And although it hadn't been made clear before, they were starting to realize that Buffy was the one fully and firmly in charge. Buffy Summers, CEO of Allegiance, Inc.
And then there was that other surprise. Not everyone one was in suits. Robes made their appearances as well. Wizards and witches also roamed the halls with their pointy hats and occasional floating, bubbling, or strange magical objects. It was a strange sight. Suits and robes, cell phones and owls, briefcases and cauldrons. All them mingling together so casually. They never thought they'd see the day.
"Couple of flights down is administration, turn left here and go up one you'll get Seers, or turn right and three levels up is Gaming," she explained, as she took up them up stairs and around corners. It was getting almost as confusing as Hogwarts. "And here..." she started as she pulled a door open and led them down a narrow hall, "is Science."
They arrived at a very large, clean, and bright laboratory. Beakers, microscopes, measuring devices, unknown machinery, and many, many other different instruments were out on display along with the many white, lab-coated people moving about.
"This is incredible," Willow said in awe. Her green eyes widening. "Oh look, goggles," she squealed running over to a nearby table, "and tongs, and cylinders. I can measure things. Can I measure things?"
The Sunnydale group laughed and smiled at her giddiness. Being reminded of the old, nerdy Willow that they all adored.
"Everything in here is top of the line," Buffy said. "Most of it not even available to the outside world. We research, we test, and we try to find answers for questions the rest of the world has no clue about. But again, we don't do the job for them. We'll help them find the answers but we won't give it to them. Not straightforward anyway."
"Why not?" Wesley asked. "Wouldn't it be more beneficial that way?"
"We don't for the same reason the Wizarding world doesn't reveal their secrets," she said. "There'll be too many questions. They'll want to know more, and that means they'll expose certain parts of the Allegiance we try to keep hidden. Putting lives on the line. In some cases, certain areas aren't supposed to exist. Remember that. Also, if we do everything for them, how are they going to find the means to help themselves? People have a strange habit of taking the easy way out, and doing whatever it takes to get what they want. We're here to help, not to be used."
The group walked around the room. Touching things here and there. Especially those who have never been in a science lab before.
"What does this do?" Draco asked turning the small knob on a harmless looking pipe. Fire erupted from the opening in a large mass. Draco hit the floor, and so did the people nearby. Using her wand Hermione turned the knob off, seeing as she couldn't touch it without getting burned.
"What the bloody hell was that?" Draco asked as he rose to his feet.
"A Bunsen burner," Xander said as he stood. "Hey, would you look at that? Guess I didn't forget all that high school stuff after all."
"Bunsen burners usually aren't so volcano-y," Buffy muttered disapprovingly, as the rest of group gathered to their feet.
"Oh, yeah, sorry about that," a young man in a white coat responded. "It's been on the fritz. There's a sign on it."
They all looked, and yes, there it was in large red letters: 'OUT OF ORDER! DON'T TOUCH!' And then they all stared at Draco.
"What?" he said, as though he did nothing wrong.
"Take it off the gas line," Buffy told lab coat guy. "Never know what genius might come in and touch anyway."
She threw a look at Draco, who was busy looking around the room casually as if he hadn't just almost burned the place down.
"Sure thing, boss."
"Thanks, Knox," she said with a smile and turned to her group. "Come on. Got more stuff to see."
They filed out again, Willow straddling behind to take more in, and Harry straddling to keep an eye on Draco so he wouldn't touch anything else.
"Medical is down the hall. Seemed convenient to have it near the lab. It isn't hospital big; it's more clinic-like. But still roomy in case of the occasional accident." As she spoke, she led them into the elevator that was able to fit fourteen people comfortably.
The doors closed behind them and they all noticed the array of buttons with no numbers.
"How do you know which one to push?" Ginny asked after Buffy pushed a label-less button in the middle.
"Clearance," she nonchalantly replied, and the elevator began to move.
Floors later, past doors, and hallways, they arrived in a large circular room with weapons of all sorts lining the walls.
"And this is the training room."
Training room? Try training stadium! There were mats and gymnast equipment. Practice dummies. Opened cabinets filled with even more weapons and protective gear. It was a slayer and Auror dream and said slayer and Aurors drooled at the sight of it.
"Jesus, B. This is like playland," Faith said, grabbing an ax off the wall to admire up close.
"State of the art just like everything else," Buffy said proudly.
The group spread out and began to take things down from the walls, bounce up and down on the very cushy blue mats, and poke the practice dummies to their hearts content.
"What's that?" asked Xander, pointing up toward a large window.
"Observation deck. Its empty most of the time but it's used in case we need to observe training sessions."
Buffy let them have a few more minutes with the toys before she led them out of the room, with Faith being nearly dragged out by Xander as she ogled the weapons longingly before they were lost to her view.
The next room on the tour caused the knowledge seekers to salivate. There were books, and books, and books galore. On every subject. In every language. In every form. It was like the grand central of libraries.
"This is unbelievable," muttered Wesley.
"It's endless," Hermione said in awe staring at the rows upon rows of tomes.
"I don't know about endless. This is just the upstairs," Buffy informed them.
"There's five floors."
Hermione was lucky Ron was by her side, because the second her knees buckled he was there to catch her.
"I think she loves you," said Ron to Buffy, still staring at his glassy eyed fiancée.
"Wait till she sees the basement. She'll want to marry me then," Buffy replied. And for a quick second her eyes flitted to Harry, and she noticed the look of anger that briefly flashed across his face. But again, she did not have time for that, despite the regret that still lingered in her heart.
"What's in the basement?" asked Willow, and Buffy smiled in relief at the distraction.
"The secrets of the universe," she replied mysteriously. "If you have clearance of course. Can't have people walking in there all willy-nilly messing with the cosmos and what-not. But I'm sure the majority wouldn't want to see five floors of books, so let's keep on moving, shall we?"
They went from whence they came with a very reluctant Wesley and a nearly whimpering Hermione.
Buffy showed them a few more points of interest. The Greenhouse that had Neville drooling. The Wiccan/Wizard lab that had Willow, Tara and Hermione itching to explore. The Magical Creatures department that housed mainly monitors because the actual grounds were in New Zealand. The departments that held Magical Law Operations, Mystic Regulation, and a few others. All the rooms and stairs and hallways leading to one question…
"Exactly how big is this building?" asked Xander.
"Very. Internally and physically."
"There's a difference?"
Buffy answered him as she led them to the elevator yet again. "By what you've seen so far it's obvious that we house a lot, and no single building could cover that much ground without suspicion. So, of course, we've had to make some magical adjustments."
"Undetectable Extension Charm?" Hermione asked as they stepped into the metal box.
"Something like that," she replied, pressing yet another blank button.
Buffy turned to face them as the car began to rapidly descend, and seconds later the bell dinged, signaling they had arrived at their destination. But the doors before them didn't open. The ones behind them did. And Buffy's reversed position now made sense.
"If you please," Buffy said, indicating that they needed to exit through the opened door behind them if they expected to get out.
The door closed as soon as the last occupant, Buffy, stepped away. They walked down a short hallway between the bank of elevators, and into a room brightly lit by both natural and artificial light.
"Good afternoon, Miss Summers."
"Good afternoon, Miss Summers."
The respected greetings came again, and Buffy nodded and smiled her returns.
"This is the reception area," she said to her group. "The only way in or out of the building. Aside from the one exit through the basement tunnel for emergency or Nosferatu purposes."
The area was not like the lobby they had been in when they first arrived.
The floor was tiled in black granite. The walls were a muted grey with exposed steel beams. There was a large reception desk where four, friendly clerks, dressed in black and white, were stationed behind a black and grey half-moon desk. And currently occupied with phones, computers or arriving guests. Large, golden letters hung high on the wall behind them: Allegiance, Inc.
"Very official," Ginny commented dryly, but Buffy let it pass.
"These doors," she said as pointed toward the floor to ceiling glass wall peppered with two, double doors and one revolving one in the middle, "are the main entrances and exits, however, we also have our connection to the floo network." She pointed to the far end of the room, opposite the end of the elevator bank, toward a door where a wizard was just exiting through. "Kept hidden for obvious reasons. All weapons: Muggle, magical, wiccan or other, must be checked in and approved before leaving this area."
Oz glanced around. "No detectors."
"Not physical ones," Buffy replied. "Unknown guests must check-in and report any items. Employees, or known visitors, must do the same unless their weapon has been pre-approved and in which case they can bypass the check-in."
Buffy jerked her head to her right, indicating they should follow. She walked them through the reception area, past the guards placed at each entrance, and out into the very sunny afternoon.
The sun was a hot ball of fire. A slight breeze blew as they made their way down four steps and across a long concrete slab that lay between lots of bright green grass.
Good morning, Miss Summers. Good afternoon, Miss Summers. How had they not caught onto the time difference? When they left London it was six p.m., nearing dusk. But with the greetings, and walking in the bright afternoon sun, it was plainly obvious that it was not only not dusk, it most definitely wasn't London.
"I probably should've said this before, especially to those who haven't been, but…welcome to Los Angeles," Buffy said offhandedly.
"You brought us halfway around the world without telling us?!" Draco demanded.
"Nobody asked," she said continuing her pace.
"Are you kidding me?"
"I'm sure location isn't the only thing on your minds right now, but believe me when I say the Q&A portion of this tour will be coming up very shortly."
They didn't know what to say, and she was sure they had hundreds of questions. But there would be time for that later. She needed to wrap things up. And she wanted to show them all of her company before doing so.
She led them through the rest of the walkway, down a few more steps, turned around and looked up.
"This is the final stop. And I believe this answers your question, Xander."
As one they looked up, and up, and up the mirrored glass of the multistory building that seemed to stretch to the heavens. Their mouths slacking open upon realizing the true magnitude of Allegiance, Inc.
"It's very big," said Anya. "And overly ostentatious."
"Glass is Necro-Tempered. Soundproof. Bulletproof. And any other proof out there. Built of very sturdy construction as Los Angeles is known to rumble without the help of demonic interference."
Buffy was right. There was no way, no matter how big it was, that this very building could house as much as she had shown them. She'd need an entire city block for that.
"The building is visible to Muggles?" asked Hermione.
"Yes. It's not glamoured like Hogwarts. It's protectively charmed but still Muggle detected. When I said we help the innocent I meant all innocents - no matter who they are."
"Won't they notice all the Wizard robes, pointy hats and cauldrons when they enter the building?" asked Ron.
"Yes and no," she replied. "There's an enchantment put on them once they step through the doors. It'll all seem normal to them when they're here, but once they leave, they'll forget anything magical they've seen."
"Sounds like a very complicated spell," said Wesley.
"We're a very complicated company."
Buffy let them stand and stare until their attention began to waver. It was time to let the cat out of the bag, and possibly the worms out of the can.
"So this is it. This is the all," she announced. "So, if you'll follow me, I'll give you the answers you've been dying to know since you first got here."
Her tone was clipped. Her back was straight. It seemed like her whole demeanor had changed. Gone was the relaxed, friendly Buffy. Every vibe radiated business; even her steps were brusque as she led them back into the building.
Buffy said nothing else on the way back into the lobby they had Portkeyed to, and no one asked the questions that filled their minds. It seemed like their curiosity would be filled soon enough.
"Jonathan?" she called out questioningly on the way to her office.
"They're waiting in your office, Buffy," he replied.
She pushed her office door open and held it open until the very last one of her group was in. Shutting the door close with a firm click, Buffy moved to stand before them again.
"Please," she said, indicating they resume their previous seats. Seats that were not exactly empty.
"What are these?" asked Ginny, as everyone began to pick up the black folders from their chairs before sitting down with them in their hands.
It was thick with papers and embossed with a large, golden triquetra at the front. Their first initial and last names were stamped below in silver lettering. And with their interest piqued, they began to leaf through the pages. It did have their names on them after all.
"The Allegiance has the power to do some real good. It's the advantage we've been waiting for. A powerful weapon in our arsenal. With a nearly endless stream of resources at our disposal. It's the answer to a lot of problems." This was it. This was why she had asked them here. And she straightened her spine in preparation. "And I want you to help me run it. I'm offering you a job. Here."
They stopped their leafing. They stopped their casual listening. They all stared at her and realized she was completely serious.
"A job?" Draco asked, perplexed.
"All of us?" asked Hermione.
Buffy nodded. "Designated to each of your specialties."
"You mean we'll each be assigned to these departments?" asked Wesley as he looked through his file.
"No, you'll be given these departments."
"You mean we'll be in charge?" Xander asked.
"Of all the company's money?" Anya inquired in awe.
There was no doubt in their minds that this place was beyond impressive. Buffy was right. The Allegiance was the answer to a lot of problems. They could do some real good here. Help a lot of people. And she was asking them to not only be a part of it, but to run it. To be in charge of something that had never been tried before. It was almost mindboggling.
"Buffy, this is…" Willow began.
"Unbelievable," Harry scoffed, snapping the file shut and glaring at her. "After fifteen months with nearly no word from you, you expect us to drop everything. Our careers. Our lives. Just because you offer us a job at something that's your pet project? Did you honestly expect us to jump for joy? Sign up right on the spot because you say so? Because it's convenient for you to do what you want, when you want, with no regards to anyone else?"
Harry had been silent through most of the tour. He had avoided being near her as much as possible. He had bottled up every angry thought and word. But this was his breaking point. The audacity of her proposal caused all the hurt and anger and bitterness to escape in a tornado of emotions that he aimed straight towards her.
Harry's accusations had a lot to do with his own personal resentment of Buffy's abandonment than what she was propositioning. She knew that. She had prepared for his attack, and everyone else's, which was why she had put up her defense shield before she saw them today. An invisible wall that could temporarily deflect any emotional shards aimed her way. And it held, after surviving the first chink in her armor.
"I'm not expecting anything. I'm offering," she explained calmly.
The lid had been opened and the worms had been let out. The tornado grew larger and began to suck everyone into the funnel. Buffy could sense the wave of resentment growing larger, and she steeled her nerve.
"Funny. To me it seems like you're enticing," said Draco. He didn't know why but he felt like he was talking to a whole different person. Looking at a whole different person. This wasn't the Buffy he knew. The one he loved. He didn't know who this person had become, and Draco spared nothing to strangers. "You made a big spectacle of bringing us here under mysterious circumstances. And then, without even an explanation, you show us around hoping that the place will tempt us into your offer. It almost sounds like you're trying to trick us. Trying to catch us off guard so you'll get what you want. "
"That's not what I'm doing," she said coolly.
"Isn't it?" asked Ron, riding the wave of animosity towards Buffy. "You show up out of blue with all this information, no apologizes, no excuses, and expect us to jump on board. Sounds a bit shady to me."
It started to sound a bit shady to everyone, and all the excitement from all the shiny new things they saw today began to dull to a low glare of reality and skepticism. Drowning the room in bitterness and mistrust.
"You kept us in the dark a long time, B," said Faith
"If you had just said something…where you were, what you'd been up to…" Willow said.
"But this just seems selfish. I'm sorry," said Ginny disapprovingly.
What Buffy was proposing wasn't a simple job offer. It was a wrench in the lives they had formed. To uproot what they worked hard to place for something that was still a question mark. After disappearing for months, after letting them worry for so long, after popping them here without an explanation beforehand, and then dropping this bombshell of an offer, did she really expect them to jump on board with no reservations? Did she not expect them to be angry? Did she even think about their feelings at all? Did Buffy even understand?
"We've carved our paths, Buffy. You're asking us to change them," Oz explained.
Buffy had a deep connection to every person in this room. She would even say they each held a piece of her heart, some more than others. But her connection to Oz was little deeper, a little closer. They traveled the world. He had been the one familiar face in so many unfamiliar lands. Her constant companion through the ups and downs from Thailand to Mexico and beyond. He had become her voice of reason. He was the one who got her to see and understand like no one else could. And sometimes, most of the time, it just took a few words and a look. Like now.
"You're angry. Upset. Hurt. It's my fault. I wish I could've told you where I was. Why I was gone for so long. And I am sorry. Truly." Very, truly sorry, but Buffy couldn't say anything else beyond that. She had known that an apology and an explanation were going to be warranted, but now was not that time. They needed to understand how necessary they were to this organization. That this request was not one purely based on friendship. They needed to know how exceptionally talented they were, and how that talent was what the Allegiance needed to thrive. "But it doesn't change things. I still need your help. I know what you're capable of. I know that there's no one better fit for these positions than you. Everything you've faced. Everything you've done and fought for - it's been for this. This is where it led. This is the next step. This is where you could do the most good. And I'm not asking for your decision today. I didn't expect one. But…there is a time limit. These are not open ended offers."
It sounded so…formal. Strictly business. As a matter that's how it was since they arrived. Buffy didn't welcome them with open arms. There were no apologizes or hugs. It was business from the get go. And the realization of it stung.
"How long?" asked Wesley.
"You have one week to make your decision."
One week. One week to decide if they wanted to forego their current paths and throw their lives into an experiment. One week to decide how much they were they willing to risk. One week to decide if they could trust Buffy again.
"What if we say no?" Harry asked heatedly.
He was fighting her at every turn. He wanted to deny her everything she wanted, because he had been denied her for so long. Because denying her gave him a sense of control over the emotions he couldn't. Because denying her was as close to hurting her as he could get.
But Buffy refused his antagonism.
"If you say no then we'll have no other choice than to offer the position to the next available candidate. But I'd think about it very carefully. Once you decline the position than that's it. Offer's off the table. We won't ask again. For that position…or any else." The chinks in her armor were starting to give. But her friends weren't. There was no softness in their eyes or warmth in their stares. They looked hurt and angry and confused. As much as she wished she could spend the day explaining it all, to be back to what they were, it was becoming clear that the air between them was getting harder to breathe. She was overwhelming them, and they were digging into her. They needed space right now. And she was more than ready to give it to them. "Despite the vagueness of the invitation, I want to thank you for coming today. And for taking the time to view everything the Allegiance has to offer. I know everything's still trying to sink in, it is a lot." Everyone began to shift, knowing where this was leading. Buffy was discharging them. In the most detached way possible. And they wondered if she even cared anymore? Or if all she cared about now was employing her new and shiny company. "The files are yours, please take them home with you and read through them carefully. If you have questions pertaining to our offer, or the department you may be assigned to, I'm happy to answer them. But I suggest you read through the file first to be clear on all the information."
It was insulting. Infuriating. It was more than Ginny could take. She rose from her seat and glared at Buffy.
"Are we excused now?" she asked bitterly.
"If you'd like," she replied calmly.
That was it then. All that waiting and wondering and missing culminated into this. What was there left to say when Buffy had nothing left to say to them. Quickly they all stood from their chairs and began walking over to the door. No one meeting her gaze. Buffy could see some of them hesitate, but no one said a word.
"My contact information is in the folder," she said, just as Draco opened the door, pausing their steps. "If you have any questions please feel free to call me. Any time. Day or night."
A few eyes met hers. But they were the only responses she was going to get. They resumed their way out of her office. One by one they were walking out on her. But her voice of reason stayed behind. He looked at her and let some warmth enter his eyes.
"You have to understand," said Oz.
In the safety of his presence, Buffy relaxed and let her shoulder's slump a little. Her brave face giving to a tiny bit of real emotion.
"I do," she replied. She only wished they could understand her.
Oz stared, knowing there was more Buffy wanted to say, but he knew she would refuse to voice whatever she was thinking at a time like this. So he nodded and quietly shut the door behind him as he left. Leaving Buffy alone in her shiny, new office. An office that was now too quiet and too large.
With a heavy sigh, she walked to her chair and sank tiredly into the cushion. She let her head fall back and closed her burning eyes. She could so use a hot bath right about now. And some wine. Wine would be good.
The air shifted and Buffy tensed at the sudden change, but then relaxed just as quickly.
"Starting to regret your decision?"
"Only for personal reasons," Buffy replied.
He made no sound as he walked, but Buffy could sense his presence move from behind her chair to before her desk. And hear the slight groan of the seat as the leather shifted under his weight.
"You were the one who fought so hard to bring them here, remember?" he teased.
She opened her eyes and scowled at him. "I liked it better when you were broody."
And Angel couldn't help but smirk at her remark.
There was a beep on her phone, notifying her that Jonathan, the assistant, needed her attention, and his voice was heard as soon as she pressed the speaker, "Buffy, that call you've been waiting for is on line one."
"God!" she exclaimed in exasperation, and jolted upright. She released Jonathan and stabbed the button for line one. "Spike! Where in the hell are you?!"
Note: Update was a long time coming. Very long. Even though I don't update as often as I want to, the story is still very much in my brain. Chapters and story lines wreaking havoc all over the place. But sadly, for some odd reason, my motivation to put anything down on screen seems to be waning on all my fanfiction. Which frustrates me because I love writing. Especially since I have everything all planned out. But any way, thanks to anyone who reads this. I'm gonna try to update more, especially now that inspiration has bitten :-)