A/N: Where do I start? Not gonna lie, the last year and a half has been a shitfest that I'm still recovering from, physically and emotionally. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though, so...yay. FYI, I have made significant revisions to some of the chapters for the sake of the plot. And thanks, Bee, for cheering me on.
"So. How long have I been out?"
Tom blinked for a moment, then pointed his wand off to one side and drew a small tight circle in the air. A glowing clock face appeared, hovering in midair. He blew out a breath, his expression visibly surprised, before dismissively slashing his wand through the air once and making the little clock vanish. Even for someone like Buffy, who was no stranger to all manner of phenomena weird and supernatural, the unaffectedly casual, almost offhand manner in which he wielded his magical power was startling.
"Nearly fifteen hours," he said, then paused, his eyes flicking back to her, "give or take."
"Give or take?"
"How long have you been sitting here?" His voice was deep, still husky from sleep, but his tone seemed knowing, maybe even amused.
Feeling her face flush slightly, she shook her head. "No, no, I woke up just before you." Inwardly, she winced. Nice. That wasn't the least bit lame or unconvincing.
The truth was, she'd woken up in an unfamiliar, narrow bed, wrapped in a fluffy, full length bathrobe, realizing fairly quickly that she was not in a hospital. Unsure of where she was, she'd tiptoed out into the darkened sitting room of what appeared to be a modest, sparsely decorated flat, without any recollection of how she'd gotten there.
Or precisely when she'd acquired a lovely new set of bandages, placed on parts generally not touched by members of the opposite sex until they were well past the handshake phase of a relationship. Great. Just what she needed, an awkward conversation about whether or not her benefactor was certified in First Aid because if not...Sure, let's just skip over introductions, flirting over coffee and dive straight into intimate wound care.
Given the alternative, though, she'd take mortification over the morgue any day.
In the dark, she checked over herself, rotating her shoulders to loosen up her achy, still healing muscles, surprised that she was in far better condition than she would have expected given how badly Ethan had ripped her open with his patented glove of evil. Not even Slayer healing could repair severe tendon and muscle damage that quickly. Tom must have helped the process along with magic. She was still fairly sore, but another day or so of taking it easy and she guessed she would be good as new.
For a few minutes she stood, silently watching the man who had just saved her life toss and turn, dark, wavy hair tousled in slumber, his long, lean frame sprawled across the somewhat threadbare looking couch. She moved closer, bare feet padding soundlessly across the thin, woven carpet until she stood directly over him. His wand lay on the coffee table next to her, and she regarded it thoughtfully. It was quite unique - pale, carved, almost resembling animal bone-though there was a spare, harsh sort of beauty to it, not unlike the man who wielded it.
Clearly, Tom and his magic stick played a significant role in her being not dead. Which was of the good for obvious reasons, but Buffy wasn't ready to trip over herself thanking him after... just...what the hell had happened anyway? She'd never experienced anything quite like it, and though some details were still fuzzy, she was reasonably certain he had tried to waltz in and take a tour around the inside of her head. Which was about ten different kinds of not okay, no matter that he'd rescued her, or how he tried to frame it as a friendly game of Getting to Know You.
She was so not falling for that. Her dismal track record with the opposite sex notwithstanding, she had boundaries.
He stirred and moaned quietly, as if having a bad dream, and Buffy found herself sitting down on the couch next to him, watching him as he grew more restless and agitated.
Damn, but he really was easy on the eyes. Powerful, too.
Her mind briefly flitted to the image of him standing in front of her, magic rippling and surrounding him like some sort of dark glorious halo, and she shivered. From what she'd seen and experienced of him in just that short space of time, she instinctively sensed that he was capable of utilizing his magic and charisma as weapons, like a cobra that disarms and hypnotizes with its beauty before it strikes. And if the brief, enticing glimpses of that dark, potent energy were anything to go by, that abundance of good looks and charm shielded what were most likely jagged, deadly edges underneath.
He was pretty, for sure, but...dangerous.
But you like dangerous.
She scrunched her face up as she mentally squashed the irksome little voice.
He was trouble - the kind that with a beguiling smile on his face and casual flick of his finger, would send all her carefully structured defenses and barriers toppling like dominoes.
Just to see what would happen.
Just because he could.
She stared at him some more as he began to toss and mumble.
So what if he was smart, powerful, and it looked like he had some decently defined muscles under that shirt to go with those chiselled cheekbones? God, those cheekbones -
Nope, she sternly reminded herself, danger BAD. Not falling for that. Or him. Just because he'd managed to hit the jackpot in the genetic lottery wasn't enough to -
Barely a second later she nearly gasped out loud as he lurched upright, wild eyed, his wand flying into his hand.
"I must have been far more fatigued than I realized," he said, hoisting himself into a seated position.
It was now his turn watch her, apparently, and her lingering embarrassment over scoping him out so thoroughly while he slept prompted her to avert her eyes, using the pretense of glancing around the spartan flat as he regarded her with unabashed curiosity. She noticed, to her enormous relief, Faith's katana atop the small kitchen table, as well as something that was...vaguely identifiable. As her brain puzzled to process what she was seeing, his voice distracted her.
"How are you even-" He muttered in disbelief, then broke off, almost as if he'd caught himself voicing his thought aloud.
"How am I what?"
"On your feet? Fourteen hours ago you were -"
"I'm good," she cut him off, then shrugged, trying to brush off and downplay the discomfort she was feeling at the intensity of his scrutiny. For some reason making any prolonged eye contact with him right now produced a sensation that was somewhat similar to what she'd experienced with him during their mind meld thing - strange and shockingly, unexpectedly intimate, and damnit, her face was heating up again, wasn't it? What was wrong with her? "Fine. Possibly even dandy," she declared with a confidence she didn't really feel, retreating back a few steps to give herself some distance.
He stared at her for a second, brows slightly scrunched in confusion. "Dandy?"
"I..I heal fast."
Ugh, this was uncomfortable. Why did he have to be so pretty?
"I'm really curious, why didn't you take me to a hospital?" She sincerely hoped he hadn't brought her back to his place just to perv on her.
Swiftly, he stood and strode right up to her. His demeanor shifted abruptly, becoming serious, almost stern. And he still really had a thing for getting in people's personal space, apparently. "Because, Buffy, you are not a witch," he said, enunciating the last word sharply.
"Obviously," she replied, confusion and irritation escalating. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Because nonwizarding folk who have the misfortune of encountering our world are summarily obliviated." he stated gravely, looming over her.
Whatever obliviated was, it didn't sound good. But of course, she couldn't know for sure, because Mister Wizard wasn't exactly forthcoming with details, which was beginning to piss her just a tad. If he wanted to play twenty questions he should really consider providing her with coffee, before she began to exhibit unpleasant side effects of caffeine withdrawal. Like punching him in the face. "What does that even mean?"
"All of your memories of us would be completely erased. You'd be dropped off on the street, thinking you'd simply bumped your head or some such rot. It's how our world has remained largely undetected for centuries," he paused a moment, then added, a hard edge to his words, "it's not always clean, or precisely done. Inevitably there are gaps - in some instances the recipient's mind is...damaged. Often permanently."
Her dismay must have been clearly written across her features, because he started to speak, but she cut him off. "Seriously? It's just standard operating procedure, regardless of the circumstances?" Jesus, and I thought the Council was uptight.
His posture was tense, and it occurred to her that he was quite possibly speaking from experience. "I don't make the rules," he replied, an almost bitter undertone to his words, "though one day I hope to change that."
She shook her head and whispered, "no, it's okay. I get it. It makes sense...in a completely screwed up, horrifying kind of way."
Because she understood, probably better than anyone the need for secrecy, the need to operate in shadows, hidden, and alone. If the Watcher's Council could have wiped her friends' memories under the pretext of protecting her secret identity, they wouldn't have hesitated. Safeguard your existence at any cost. It was a mindset she'd never subscribed to, and she'd essentially torched her relationship with them, not to mention a couple thousand years of standard Slayer protocol over the issue.
Still, the notion that an entire society routinely and cavalierly went all Men in Black on anyone who haplessly stumbled across their path was chilling, especially if they willfully disregarded the harm they caused in the process. Willow's one disastrous, ill considered foray into memory spells nearly got them all killed, and the sense of violation and betrayal of trust from that single botched spell had wreaked almost irreparable damage to their friendship, as well as to Willow and Tara's relationship.
So Tom had whisked her back to his place and healed her himself to spare her possible brain damage. That counted for something, right? She groaned inwardly. She was seriously not caffeinated enough to deal with this level of internal conflict. Plus, he was still right there, in her space, his eyes searching her face.
"I didn't want that to happen to you," he said, quietly.
A pang of remorse for her impulse to face punch him darted through her.
"I appreciate that."
Shit. His nearness, his intensity, his stupid pretty face - it was too much. He was like some kind of charismatic danger magnet, stirring up all her worst impulses, and she needed to get some distance before she did something hugely irresponsible and rash. Like date him.
She needed to bail. Fast. "Hey, do you have a phone handy? I need to let my friends know where I am."
For an instant he seemed completely and genuinely caught off guard, as if she'd just asked him a question in a foreign language, then his expression shifted as comprehension took hold and he said, "I'm sorry, I don't have one here - but I can take you to one."
"You don't have a phone? How about next door? Maybe one of the neighbors?"
He smiled, ruefully. "I'm afraid no one uses them around here."
What kind of weirdos don't use telephones?
"Then...how do you-"
Tap! Tap! Tap!
She broke off and turned toward the source of the noise. It was at the window. Her eyes widened as she saw a magnificent, tawny eagle owl flapping its wings impatiently, pecking at the glass.
I had to ask.
With a subtle wave of his hand, Tom opened the window, and Buffy watched, dumbfounded as the owl swooped through the room and dropped a neatly folded parchment into Tom's hand, then perched on the back of the couch. What the hell was she even witnessing?
"Thank you, Titan," he said, as he wordlessly summoned what appeared to be a small, square brown biscuit, which he offered the owl. The impressively large bird hooted once, snatched the treat, then turned and launched itself back out the open window, disappearing into the clear blue midday sky. Clearly, this was a regular occurrence.
She jabbed a finger in the direction of the window as Tom unfolded the paper and scanned it.
"So...no telephones, but you send notes. By bird. Because of course you do." She met his eyes and held his gaze, her expression hardening. She wanted information. Now. "Tom...where are we, exactly?"
"I told you. London," he answered, pocketing the note.
"Mmhmm," she nodded, "that you did. Look, I'll be the first to admit I'm not familiar with every obscure custom in the Land of Tweed, but I'm pretty sure I would have heard about Her Majesty's Secret Pigeon Post."
"Whatever." There was an unmistakable edge to her voice now.
He regarded her steadily for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. "Alright. We are in my flat in part of the magical community." Moving to the window he gestured toward the bustling street below. "That street there is called Diagon Alley. Technically, this place exists within, but is...separate from Metropolitan London. It's part of a world unseen - protected from and invisible to those without magic, and unfortunately, by extension, nonmagical devices do not work within our boundaries."
It was difficult to suppress a growl of frustration. She needed to get out of here now, to let Giles know what was happening - especially with Ethan being on the loose. She took a cleansing breath, then squared her shoulders. "Listen, I truly appreciate everything you've done for me, but I need to get home. I'd like to get my clothes and get to that phone, please."
"Oh.I'm afraid your clothing was...damaged beyond even my ability to repair."
"Excuse me?" Even she was surprised at how her voice took on a sharp, strident edge. It wasn't helping that he didn't even have the decency to look sorry.
"Your clothes were destroyed," he repeated, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Honestly, you don't strike me as the sort who would allow false modesty to supercede your survival."
Her jaw dropped.
Okay, face punching is totally back on the table.
"You can't possibly be that clueless."
He went rigid with indignation. "Clueless?" he echoed, disbelievingly, "you...you aren't actually suggesting I committed some sort of impropriety toward you while you were unconscious, are you?"
"You really don't understand why I might find this upsetting, do you?"
"No, I think I understand perfectly well. Tell me this, though. Would you have honestly preferred I preserve your clothing? Or your life?" The volume of his voice increased, and again she felt the fine prickle of energy skating across her skin, only this time the sensation intensified, as if to mirror his growing agitation.
No. Danger magnet, remember? She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her focus from wavering.
"Do you believe I was unaware how you might possibly react? You were bleeding to death, you...ridiculous woman! Yes, under the circumstances, I chose to transgress that particular boundary," he stalked closer to her, drew himself up to his full height, and added, decisively, "and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again!"
Damn it, he had a point. Under similar conditions, wouldn't she do the same thing?
Still not off the hook, though.
"Okay. But you shouldn't have gone into my head. That was inappropriate."
Several moments of tense silence hung between them, and she wondered if they had perhaps reached an impasse, but all at once the static hum of magic dissipated.
"Fair enough." His tone was ever so slightly grudging. Then the corners of his mouth curved up, and he said, wryly, "You were right, you know."
"You don't do helpless very well, at all."
"I'm pretty terrible at it, actually," she deadpanned.
"Look, I don't know about you, but I'm famished. Would you consider accompanying me to lunch? After we eat I'll take you directly to the nearest telephone that I know of. Is that amenable to you?"
"I would love to, but I'm afraid I don't have anything decent to wear."
He graced her with a devilish smirk that sent a strange flutter through her stomach, summoning his wand and raising it toward her in one smooth motion.
"Hold still," he commanded, swishing the wand back and forth a few times. At once, she felt a tingle of energy cascade over her. Looking down, she watched in amazement as the robe shifted and transformed into a full skirted, knee length dress. She peered down at her feet at the pair of elegant, shiny leather kitten heeled pumps he'd created for her.
Well, bippity boppity boo.