"This looks funky," said Buffy. "Stop for a sec."
Miss Calendar had a clear view through the windshield at what Buffy found funky: two men being a little too discreet about loading some large boxes onto a truck, especially considering it was past sundown. Her first response, though, was to give her an incredulous look. "So we can do what? In your current state…"
Buffy didn't want to think about her current state. The loss of her powers had been by turns frustrating, frightening, and supremely inconvenient so far, and it had only been a day. She was sure it was going to take a lot longer than that to get used to not being the Slayer, and she hoped it wasn't going to last long enough to find out. "I just want to know if they're vamps," she bargained. "We can…tell Giles."
"Okay," said Miss Calendar, switching off the headlights and swinging the car in that direction. "But please, humor me and stay in the car."
She rolled to a stop near the truck as one of the men got into its driver's seat, and Buffy got a closer look at the other, who was headed across the lot with the last of the boxes. "Sorry," said Buffy, opening the car door and getting out before Miss Calendar could stop her. "I'm suddenly not feeling very humorous."
The man with the box hesitated briefly when he saw her, but then he kept walking, and Buffy dared to hope that she was wrong about what her intuition was telling her. "Ford?" she called out.
He stopped, still too far away for her to make out any details of his face. "Summers," he greeted her flatly, erasing the remainder of her doubt. "What are you doing here?"
"Conducting some independent research on people who were supposed to be dead. Care to participate?"
"Hate to disappoint, but as far as I'm concerned I was never supposed to be dead, so things worked out just fine here." He shifted the box up to his shoulder, stealing a glance toward the truck. "So, we'll catch up later, maybe?"
Buffy's hopes sank further. She remembered how excited she had been when he moved to Sunnydale, and how learning of his cancer had devastated her. That it had driven him to sacrifice the lives of innocents for his own sake was far worse than the mere prospect of losing him again, and her own arrival at the scene of the crime, too late to change anything, was the next level of horror. And now this. "Let's catch up now. Are you still worshipping vampires?"
Ford actually snickered. "No, no need. You still trying to slay them?"
It was the 'trying to' that got her. She had left the car with her hand still wrapped around a stake, hardly noticing that she had it, but now she felt like it was transmitting her Slayer instincts into her while the associated powers were on vacation. "Let's find out."
He turned and bolted, and she had to give chase. The huge box in his arms was slowing him down, but she wasn't at her top speed either, and she couldn't tell if he was going to reach the truck. She also wasn't sure what she was going to do if she managed to catch up to him first. Sure, he didn't know that she was currently stuck with the strength of a mere mortal, but if she attacked him he'd find out soon enough. Maybe she should just…
Headlights beamed suddenly in Ford's path, and Miss Calendar's car spun out in front of him, cutting him off. He skidded to a halt and whipped around to see Buffy closing in on him from the other side. Illuminated as he was by the headlights, his face was plainly in its demonic visage, and the sight of it shook Buffy's nerves all over again. He snarled at her, and then seemed to make a snap decision and dropped the box. With inhuman grace he vaulted over the back of the car and disappeared into the night, and Buffy opened the passenger side door and stopped to lean on it, panting heavily.
"Thanks," she managed between gasps. The truck had screeched away with Ford's vampire accomplice at the wheel, but she hoped she had disrupted their plan at least enough to make up for putting this much effort into a confrontation with no kill at the end.
"We'd better grab that box," the teacher replied.
Between the two of them they managed to get it in the trunk before anything else unsavory showed up, and then, to Buffy's confusion, Miss Calendar drove no further than the block it took to get to the Bronze's parking lot. "Everyone's inside," she explained as she turned off the car. "You want me to get the guys? We could have them carry the box."
"We can carry stuff without guys!" Buffy insisted. "God, one day as Powerless Girl and everyone starts treating me like a…powerless girl. And now rewind ten seconds and why exactly is everyone inside when the Bronze is closed?"
"For your surprise party," said Miss Calendar as she opened up the trunk again. She cast Buffy a rueful look. "Surprise."
"Oh." So vampires had crashed the festivities again, as if she didn't have enough on her plate already. On the other hand, being mad at them for it was actually kind of a nice distraction from her other worries. Maybe it would even prove to be the danger from her dream last night, and then she could cross that mystery off the list. "Is there a cake in there? I could so use a sugar fix."
There was no way to cancel the cheer that followed her entrance, but Buffy was glad enough to see everyone that she didn't mind the way it died down when they saw that she and Miss Calendar were occupied with something else entirely. Not only was there a cake, but there were decorations, presents, Willow in a party hat, and best of all, Angel taking the heavy box from her arms without asking what it was. Soon they were all gathered around the box on the table while Buffy and Miss Calendar related the events that had brought it to them.
"You're lucky you got a chatty wuss vampire," said Cordelia. "I mean, the way you are now, any serious one would have kicked your ass."
Everyone was looking over Buffy: she was unharmed, but she knew she looked nearly numb. She definitely felt it. "It was Ford," she said quietly. "The vampire was Ford. I guess Spike gave him what he wanted after all."
"Oh, Buffy," breathed Willow, her eyes wide with distress. "I'm so sorry."
Angel said nothing, but shock was evident on his face too, and Buffy didn't hesitate to move into his arms and accept his embrace. She had done her best so far to avoid depending on him during her time of weakness, at least in the presence of her friends, but he was the only one who understood the true depth of how Ford's murder-suicide had affected her, and she needed to feel his support now.
Oz cleared his throat, and Buffy looked up, registering for the first time that he was there. Willow must have brought him as her date! That was perfect. They were going to be so good together. She couldn't wait to get Willow alone to hear her gushing about him.
"So," said Oz, "when Buffy says Ford is a vampire…"
Xander positioned himself a little too close to Willow and replied, "Right. When she says 'vampire,' what she means is 'evil undead creature of the night who wants to drink your blood, and is by the way completely real.' Lots of 'em live in Sunnydale. Willow will fill you in."
Willow obliged, beginning a conversation that broke off from that of the rest of them too soon for Buffy to see if Oz believed what he was hearing. She wasn't sure she'd be able to tell even if she did see, honestly: Oz's expression wasn't that great of an indicator.
"Hey Buff," said Xander, turning back to her and the box. "Are you gonna open this, or should we shake it first and try to guess?"
Buffy ran her hand around the lid. "There's a release here. Should I?"
Giles caught her eye and nodded. "If there were, ah, vampires attempting to secure it, we should see what it is they wanted."
Her hand went to the catch, but Angel's landed on top of it and stopped her. "Can I? It might be…" He shrugged sheepishly in response to her raised eyebrow and admitted, "I don't know what it might be."
"Fine," she laughed, stepping back to give him full access to the box. "Have at it."
Seconds later there was a disembodied arm holding him by the throat. Buffy very nearly screamed, but instead she grabbed at it and tried to pull it off of him. Giles, standing on the other side of Angel, was having no more luck than she was—the arm was armored, and its grip was so tight that neither of them could budge even a finger of it. Angel was the one who had to wrench it off of himself, and as soon as he did, he threw it back down in the box and slammed the lid shut.
"Are you okay? Angel? Are you okay?" Buffy stammered, and he set a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Yeah," he wheezed. "No big deal. Can't be choked. Remember?"
Her heartbeat returned to its normal pace as she saw that he was right; the hand hadn't truly endangered him. She might have actually done more damage to her own fingers by her ineffectual clawing at the solid metal, and he seemed to think so too, as he turned her hand over in his to look at it.
"Is this another vampire thing?" asked Oz.
Buffy nodded, not really paying attention. "Yeah, vampires don't need to breathe, so they can't be choked."
"I meant the arm," he clarified, and then, after a pause, asked, "Angel's a vampire?"
"Oh, there's some more explaining I have to do," said Willow apologetically, and then turned to Buffy and Angel. "Are you guys sure you're okay?"
Angel leaned forward, hands on the table. "I think I know what this is." He looked directly at Buffy. "And I don't think Ford is the one behind it."
"So, you know how I said vampires are evil and Buffy has to kill them or they'll kill us? Well, there's one exception, but he's the only exception, so still please be really careful if you see any others. Angel was all gypsy-cursed with a soul and a conscience…Oz?"
Willow nodded; she could tell he was listening. He was good at showing it. "I just have to wonder, are you really believing all of this, or are you just holding out to see how much crazier I'll get before the night ends?"
He shrugged. "Well, you all seem pretty on board with the vampire story, so I figure it's either the truth, or I walked into the middle of a really elaborate larp. And the larp would actually explain less."
"You're so cool!" Willow bit her lip. She hadn't exactly meant to say that out loud. "I mean…doesn't it scare you?"
"Oh, it's got definite scare potential. We'll see."
"Alright, then. Um. Do you have any other questions?"
Oz put his hand in his chin for a moment, then met her eyes and asked, "Have you ever seen A Summer Place?"
"…I meant about vampires and stuff."
"I know, but if the vampire questions go on for too long we might not get back to the Willow questions while the time is ripe." He smiled, a sight so charming that she was without any defense against it.
"Oh, well, in that case…" She thought about it. "I have questions too."
Suddenly she was completely unable to differentiate the important queries from the rest of the ones bombarding her mind, and, as so often happened, she opened her mouth anyway. "Why didn't you graduate last year? What's a larp? What are they talking about over there?"
They both turned to listen to the conversation around the table. It had elevated to an argument at this point—everyone had agreed that Angel needed to take the box away, but Miss Calendar was urging him to do it this very night, and Giles seemed to feel differently. Buffy, naturally, had taken his side, though he wasn't being entirely clear about why he was on that side, and her pleas were having some sort of effect on Angel's resolve.
"It's my birthday," she said to him. "Just a few more nights won't make a difference. Right Giles?"
"One more certainly won't," he agreed, rubbing furiously at the glasses in his hand with a kerchief.
Miss Calendar crossed her arms. "How can you be so sure of that? They're probably already looking for this thing. As long as it's in Sunnydale it's putting us all in danger."
"Surely we can keep it concealed for a single night. I'll put it in my own house."
Angel cut in before she could retort. "They know you. We'd never be able to get it out of there without being attacked."
Xander stopped scowling at Cordelia, who was across the table from him occupying herself with Buffy's birthday cake, long enough to submit his opinion. "Yeah, you and the insta-choker should hit the road. Sooner the better."
"Rupert, we have too many other things we're dealing with. Angel can get this one taken care of right now if we just let him go."
"Well I'm glad this is so easy for all of you!" Buffy fumed, sounding considerably younger than the eighteen years she had just reached.
Willow wanted to find some words of support, but there was nothing she could say to help either side reach a decision. Usually, they could all count on Giles to know what kind of action needed to be taken, but he had been the first to cite the great danger that the Judge would bring if assembled, and it was enough to make Willow feel nervous about just being in the same room as the arm.
Mostly, she had to wonder if Buffy was afraid to lose Angel's protection while she was still without her own power, and if she would ever admit it, or if anyone would dare to ask. Maybe that was what all of them were thinking.
"I've got it," said Angel, attracting everyone's attention even though more than one voice had been trying to make itself heard. "There'll be a cargo ship at the dock that's not leaving until tomorrow. I can hide the box there for tonight and then leave with it tomorrow."
There was a silence as the sense of this plan sank in for everyone. Giles and Miss Calendar were looking from Angel to each other. Angel wasn't looking anywhere but at Buffy, and even at her distance, Willow could see his shame as he failed to find words that could make it better. "Then let's go," Buffy said finally. "The cake can wait."
Willow turned anxiously to Oz, wondering what he would make of her friends after this was the way he had to meet them. He blinked at her. "I guess I have a few more questions."
She was still trying to find answers for him when Buffy and Angel left with Miss Calendar. The remainder of the group was awkward and depressing without them, but what really bothered Willow later was the way she had seen Giles draw Angel aside and say something to him, and the way Angel's eyes had narrowed before he nodded in response. What on earth could Giles want to say to him that he wouldn't say to Buffy?