Under a Harsh Light
Genre: Het, Suspense, Romance
Pairings: Buffy/Angel, Angel/Nina
Notes: sequel to Out of the Dark, written for the 2013 Het Big Bang. Lovely art for this was done by casper, and can be found on AO3.
Under a Harsh Light
The young man in the pale blue security uniform seemed drastically out of place as he sat fidgeting on the elegant sofa. Flickering candlelight dimly illuminated the room around him, revealing ornate wooden furnishings covered in a variety of deep red fabrics, each more sensual than the last. The air was heavy with incense which didn't quite mask the acrid smell of blood; he breathed through his mouth, trying to ignore it as he waited.
He looked up eagerly when the door finally opened. As always, he was instantly entranced by her smooth, pale skin and fiery red hair, the seductive swing of her hips. She held his gaze, but it was only a moment before the intensity in her eyes forced him to look away. She walked slowly behind the sofa until she was directly behind him. He shifted nervously but didn't look back.
She stood there, absently twirling her fingers in his hair. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and throaty. "It is a shame that Riley Finn failed so absolutely in achieving any of our goals," she said petulantly. A grim smile crossed her face. "But you were so alert, my dear Tim; so clever to think of killing him before he could reveal who had helped him." She leaned down and he shivered when felt her breath against his ear as she whispered, "Do they suspect anything?"
He swallowed nervously and shook his head. "No. They bought the story that he was trying to escape."
"Good," she purred. She walked along the room and stood staring out the window at the city spread out below her. "I need you to continue keeping an eye on things there for me. Riley certainly caused a commotion, but Angel is still there, still in power. And even worse, now Buffy is there too. As if one of them wasn't bad enough," she mused.
Why the Senior Partners had allowed Angel to take over was beyond her. With Angel had come a shift in the general nature of Wolfram & Hart's LA policies as well as their employees, who now ranged from hopeless do-gooders to those simply too scared of Angel to dare cross him. It made it difficult to find helpful people like her Tim.
"I need you to keep tabs on both of them and report back to me." A covetous look glowed in her eyes. "I am too close to let them ruin this for me."
She looked back at Tim, who had turned on the couch and was staring at her with wide puppy-dog eyes. Licking her lips, she continued. "I may need you again." She saw his breathing quicken and smiled. "We need to keep them off-balance for the next few months."
"I'll do anything you need," he replied quickly, anxious to please.
She smiled broadly at him. "I'm sure you will. Now go. I have work to do."
Buffy woke up, a scream still echoing in her head, nightmare images still burning in her eyes. Fighting to control her breathing, she rolled over and grabbed her clock, groaning when she saw the time. Too late to go back to sleep, although sleeping could hardly describe what she'd been doing at night for the past two weeks. Brushing the tears off her cheeks, she stumbled into the bathroom, turning the shower on and waiting for the hot water to fill the room with steam. Stepping in, she willed the water to burn the nightmare away.
She leaned forward, letting her head hit the wall with a satisfying thud. At least this nightmare had only been reliving, once again, actual events. Her brain seemed to also like to torture her by changing the way events had played out and letting her watch what had been done to her friends, or better yet, come up with all new ways to kill them. But the really super-special torment lived in the good dreams, the ones where she miraculously saved them. She would wake from those dreams in a moment of bliss, a smile on her face that would turn to sobs as reality crashed down on her.
Buffy wasn't really sure what the recovery time was for having your whole life ripped apart, spending three years on the run, and having your ex-boyfriend turn himself into a monster to try to kill you. Bet that wasn't covered in the Slayer Handbook. And she was pretty sure that two weeks was nowhere near enough time, but she was tired of feeling like this. It was an exhaustion that she couldn't shake. And with the added stress of trying to re-adjust to being around people constantly, she asked herself every day whether she had made the right choice to stay here at Wolfram & Hart when Angel asked her.
She automatically soaped up and washed her hair before shutting the water off. After she dried off, she pulled on a tank top and some yoga pants. Buffy sighed as she swiped the steam off the mirror to see as she began to pull her hair back. She looked too old for her age, although even the few weeks she had been here had already done a lot of good. She wasn't sick anymore and she was eating regularly. Not better yet, but getting there.
But her eyes still looked so old. And she always looked sad, no matter how she tried to hide it. It reminded her of what she would sometimes see in Angel's eyes years ago; something she had never understood. And now it was her. Damping down the urge to smash the mirror, she grabbed her gym bag and headed down for a workout before meeting with Angel later in the morning.
Buffy hadn't been working on the bag long before Connor showed up. As he approached, she nodded to him and asked, "Have you even been to sleep yet?"
The boy grinned cockily. "I don't need a lot of sleep." He nodded toward the open mat in the middle of the room and they moved into sparring positions.
"Whatever," she responded. "Just don't use your partying as an excuse when you're on your butt again."
Connor had been trying to show up for Buffy's early morning workouts as often as possible. Not only was sparring with her improving his own fighting skills, but it was some of the only real contact she had with any of the team. She was still fairly withdrawn from everyone, with the exception of training and patrol. Since Angel and Connor were the only two able to consistently withstand fighting with her, and since she was avoiding Angel even more than anyone else, it had fallen to Connor to keep the lines of communication open.
While they didn't talk a lot during these sessions, Connor could at least get some idea of her general well-being. As far as he could tell, she was handling it all about as well as anyone had a right to expect, which is to say, not that great. All attempts to start a conversation following their workout had been decisively rebuffed.
After they had sparred for a while, Connor excused himself, joking, "I should probably grab a nap before my class."
Buffy chuckled and waved goodbye, already concentrating on stretching. At the door, he turned and asked, "Patrol tonight?"
She nodded and kept working on her cool-down. It was obvious to her that Angel was not comfortable with her patrolling alone. Most nights Connor came along. She didn't mind too much; he was good backup and good company, not pushing conversation when it was obvious she didn't want it. She was well aware that anything she said would make its way back to Angel, so she kept what conversation they did have focused either on the patrol or on trivial topics.
The gym started filling up with employees getting a quick workout in before starting their day, so she quickly exited and headed out to get ready for her meeting with Angel.
Buffy fidgeted as she sat alone in Angel's office. She was early for their meeting, and when she had seen that his office was empty, she had opted to wait in there, rather than hang around in the lobby. People tended to stare, or try to talk to her.
She tried to figure out why Angel had asked to talk to her. It had been two weeks since she had decided to stay. At some point, she was sure they would have to have a talk about how she could earn her keep. That was probably what was going on. Although some part deep inside her was worried that this would be a 'I don't know what I was thinking when I asked you to stay' conversation.
She knew that it was insane to have stayed. The pain of seeing even passing glimpses of Angel over the past two weeks had not subsided any. It physically hurt to be in the same room with him. But she also knew that there was nowhere else to go, not right now. So she stayed, and she hid...
Angel sighed inwardly as he quietly paced the guest room in the penthouse suite. He'd been tossing and turning all night, thoughts of Buffy replaced by dreams of her when he did doze off. It killed him to see her like this, so broken and adrift. At least when she had first appeared in LA, she had had a purpose: stay alive. Now that the monster (and Angel could not think of that thing as 'Riley') had been destroyed, she didn't have any focus, and he was worried about her.
So, he'd come up with a plan and asked her to come meet with him. Everything should have been fine, except for the one formidable barrier between him and the office.
Every other morning, Nina had left for her studio long before he headed down to the office, but the one morning he really needed her gone, she seemed to be having quite a leisurely morning. Glancing at the clock, he realized that he couldn't delay any longer.
As soon as he stepped out of the guest room, Nina rose from the sofa with a smile. "There you are. I was just about to leave. We can ride down together." Pretending not to notice the disgruntled look on his face, she linked her arm through his and led him to the elevator. Harmony was the biggest gossip there was, so Nina had easily found out about his meeting with Buffy.
Nina wasn't stupid. The fact that Angel had been sleeping in a separate bed since Buffy had made her reappearance told her everything she needed to know. Not to mention that he kept trying to 'talk' to her when they were both in the suite. She had found ways to keep that talk from happening so far, while she considered her options. But there was no reason for everyone else to know that they were having problems, particularly Buffy. So Nina had decided that today was a good day to make an appearance together.
Despite Angel's fervent hopes that Buffy wouldn't already be in his office - would be running late or waiting outside or temporarily (but safely!) pulled into a parallel dimension - there she was, looking over to the elevator as soon as the doors opened.
The dismayed look on Angel's face when the elevator doors opened cut right through Buffy. He obviously hadn't expected her to be sitting in his office; she shouldn't have just invited herself in. She was probably interrupting their private goodbye.
Feeling distinctly uncomfortable in the face of Nina hanging on Angel's arm, a neat trick with the large portfolio and bag draped off her opposite shoulder, and chattering on about the antics of some friend that Buffy didn't know, Buffy started making a thorough mental inventory of the artwork on the walls, and the shelves of knick-knacks. She stared at one small piece that looked so familiar. Maybe it had been in Angel's apartment in Sunnydale.
Nina suddenly stopped talking as she started to step out of the elevator and Angel hung back, staring at Buffy. Nina looked over at her with exaggerated startlement.
"Oh Buffy, I'm sorry. We seem to be running a little late this morning. I hope Angel hasn't kept you waiting." She turned to Angel, tugging a little to pull him into the office proper. "Why didn't you tell me you had an appointment?"
Her innocent look wilted a little under his glare. Then she shrugged and reached up to kiss him goodbye. A quick turn of his head and the kiss landed on his cheek. "I'll see you tonight," she said brightly. "Bye Buffy!"
There was an awkward silence as the door closed behind her. Angel cleared his throat as he took a seat, following Buffy's gaze to the bric-a-brac shelf, some of the few things from Sunnydale that had survived both Angelus' reign and the destruction of his first office in Los Angeles.
Angel looked at Buffy sitting across from him. He had barely seen her over the past two weeks. She looked tired, soul-sick. He knew she was avoiding him; he'd had to have Harmony schedule this meeting just so he could talk to her. That was an idea: maybe he should try that with Nina as well.
He spoke before the silence could drag on too long. "I'm glad you agreed to meet with me."
Buffy raised her eyebrows. "Did I have a choice?" she asked acerbically.
"Of course, you did, Buffy. You're not a prisoner here."
"Right, like you don't know every move I make, between Connor and all your little security cameras."
Angel tried to choose his words carefully. "There's a difference between concerned friends and captors. I'm not monitoring you all the time, but I am keeping tabs on you. You've been through something horrible and I just want to be able to provide any support I can. We all do."
She just sat sullenly, arms crossed tightly and refusing to look at him. The stress he had been feeling all morning began to bubble over. "Why did you even decide to stay?" he snapped.
Her eyes flashed in response. "Is that why you called me in here?"
"What? No, I..." he took a moment to try to calm down. "I have a business issue to discuss with you."
"Then I suggest we move on to that," she said coldly, wanting desperately to find a neutral topic. She hated acting mad at Angel, but it was the only way to cover the heartbreak that was surrounding her right now. Judging by the wounded look in his eyes, she had succeeded in throwing him off the scent. And there was no way she could discuss her motives for staying when she wasn't even certain of them herself. It had just seemed like the right decision at the time; there wasn't an hour that went by since then that she didn't second-guess herself.
Wanting to push the issue, but realizing that pissing her off at this point would help neither of them, he put it aside. "Okay, so you know that we've been in contact with Faith, trying to figure out the status of all the Slayers, if they need any assistance, if there's any way we can all work together."
Buffy nodded. She remembered how excited all the Scoobies had been, especially Giles, to have this opportunity to start new with the Slayers, without the traditions and constraints of the Watchers' Council. And it had been wonderful, for a time. Then they had all died and she had fled, leaving the girls in the care of Faith and Andrew. She looked at Angel, anxious.
"Is everything okay?"
He smiled. "Surprisingly, better than okay. They've continued with the training regimen you guys had in place, and they've got some pretty good Slayers out there. They've lost a few girls over the years and they are still finding some more that weren't previously identified after you did the activation spell."
Buffy relaxed a little. Angel continued, "But Faith does sound a little over-worked. She is obviously using some of the more accomplished Slayers to help with training and projects, but we were talking about dividing some of the responsibilities."
"Divide between whom?"
"Well, between Faith and us."
"Us?" Buffy laughed. "Here?" Angel nodded. "You want to bring Slayers to Wolfram & Hart? Are you crazy?"
Angel shook his head. "I don't think so. This facility is mine to do with as I wish, as long as I turn a profit. I don't see why we can't add a Slayer training program. I think it would be great for the girls, give them the advantage of some different points of view. Additionally, between you, me, and Connor, I think we can provide some good fighting practice before some of the younger and newer ones go out there for real."
Buffy thought for a minute. "So it would be a Wolfram & Hart program..."
"But you'd be completely in charge of it. Your own department."
Her attention focused on Angel. "Me?"
"Ultimately, yes. I'd love for Connor to be involved also. I think he could be a good resource and, since he's graduating in a month, I want to hire him here."
Buffy nodded. That seemed logical. "What kind of training were you guys talking about?"
"Well, the younger ones will need some academic classes of course. We can hire private tutors to hold classes on-site. Other than that: physical conditioning, tactics, martial arts." He shrugged. "You'd know better than I would."
She remembered Giles' endless lectures on the importance of being prepared for anything and the sometimes insane exercises he would invent to keep her on her toes. She chuckled. "It'll be like Hogwarts for Slayers." Then she sobered up. "I don't know if I can do it alone though."
"Like I said, I think Connor could be there full-time, and you'll have the rest of us as needed."
She nodded slowly. "So this is how I earn my keep around here?"
"Like, it's do this or leave? No! I will make sure that you have whatever need, even if all you do is sit and stare at the walls all day."
"What would Nina say about you supporting your old girlfriend?"
"Nina has no say over my business decisions."
Buffy was grateful that at least he hadn't tried to pretend that Nina would be okay with it.
When she thought about it however, she knew that she would not be happy sitting doing nothing. This was as good an option as any.
She nods. "Okay, I'll do it."
They spent some time discussing the timeline for getting everything set up, and what Buffy would need to start a new department within the firm. Then Harmony's voice interrupted via the intercom, informing Angel that his next appointment was waiting... and oozing.
He watched Buffy gather up the notes she had made while they spoke and smiled at her as she stood to leave. He had been right, giving her something to focus on did seem to help ease the aura of grief that she carried. But it hadn't chipped away at the wall between them.
Before she reached the door, he said suddenly, "You used to be able to confide in me, once."
She stood still for a moment before turning around, a wistful smile disappearing almost as soon as he saw it. "Once upon a time... but fairy tales aren't real, Angel."
Later that morning, Angel shuffled through the never ending stack of papers on his desk, signing where Harmony had left bright pink x's without really reading. A tap on the door frame announced Wesley's arrival.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"About as well as can be expected. She agreed to do it, but I'm not sure she's really comfortable with the idea."
"Well, Angel, I'm sure that none of us were totally comfortable coming to work here at the beginning." His brow creased and he muttered, "Maybe not even now. And given her recent experiences, it cannot be surprising that she is reticent."
"Not surprising, no. I just... Are we doing the right thing? Maybe we should leave her alone, let her deal with all this in her own time." Angel sighed.
"Angel," Wesley's tone made Angel wince even before the words he was sure to not want to hear. "Buffy has always shown a particular talent for repression and denial. I believe that we would be asking for trouble by not forcing her to take an active role in her recovery. I know that you want to make things as easy as possible for her. We all do. She's been through something that is unfathomable. But I'm afraid that if we back away too much, if she's left on her own..."
"She'll wind up like Faith," Angel finished reluctantly when Wesley trailed off.
"It wasn't like it was easy to help Faith, you know. She had a real tendency to try to kill anyone who did."
Wesley gave a sour look; he, of all people, was well aware of that. "Yes, but this time we're working with someone who knows what she's fighting toward. Buffy always had that safety and support of family and friends and, I believe, deep down she wants that again. She just has to learn to trust it."
Buffy had spent the two days since meeting with Angel thinking about how she would adapt the training regimen they had implemented in Sunnydale to this new program, studying Wolfram & Hart's new employee materials, and trying to get a handle on what running a department would entail. She quickly came to the conclusion that she was going to need a lot of help on the departmental front, so she requested an appointment with Fred.
Fred looked up with a wide, welcoming smile when Buffy knocked on her open office door. "Buffy! Come in. I was so excited when Angel told us that you had accepted this position. I know you'll be perfect for it. And it will be so nice to have another girl around for a change."
Fred was ushering Buffy to a chair set up so that they could both have access to the piles of documents on her desk. Buffy looked at her in surprise as she took her seat.
"What about Nina?" Buffy was kicking herself even as she voiced the question.
Nervous laughter bubbled up as Fred looked at her wide-eyed. "Oh. Nina, of course there's Nina, you know. Of course, but she's not... it's not a work thing." Her words tumbled over themselves as she took her own seat. "Speaking of work, where did you want to start?"
Buffy grimaced. "Well, I know pretty much zero about..." She motioned to the stacks of papers. "I can do the training, but the other stuff is way, way over my head. Like Mount Everest."
"None of us had any experience with anything like this when we started, either." Her smile was a mixture of amusement and embarrassment. "There was a lot of on-the-job training."
"Okay," Buffy shrugged. "Train me."
They spent a couple of hours with Fred explaining the purpose and showing examples of most of the basic paperwork that crossed her desk: budgets, requisitions, personnel evaluations. As Buffy put her head on the desk with an overwhelmed groan, Fred patted her arm gently. "This is just a general overview. It'll be a lot easier once you're working with your own actual data. And I'll be more than happy to help you once you start that. A lot of it really takes care of itself."
Buffy looked up. "Thanks. It's just... a lot to take in." What the hell had made Angel think she could do this was a mystery. She sucked at paperwork, if school had been any indication - deadlines and research and projects were so not her strong point. But she would try.
She noticed that Fred was looking oddly at one of the papers and thumbing through a second stack. Fred muttered irritably to herself, "And then something like this happens." She reached for the intercom and called Knox in.
Fred handed him the document. "I have this receipt here for a gyrotron, but I don't remember any project that would require one and I can't find a purchase order for it anywhere. Did we buy this?"
Knox looked at the document and shook his head. "Doesn't look familiar to me. Let me look into it."
Fred leaned over once he had left and whispered to Buffy. "The real secret to successfully running a department is to make sure that you have someone you can count on to handle a lot of the detail stuff."
Glancing at the clock, Fred added, "And the other secret is not to eat alone. Wesley has a late meeting tonight. Want to grab some dinner?"
Buffy spun around, feeling strangely off-balance, wondering how she had gotten to wherever it was she was standing. Brick walls, defining a dark, narrow alley, stretched away on either side of her. In the distance, there was a light flickering blue-white. She started down the alley to investigate it, but was distracted by the sound of fighting.
She turned and headed toward the noise. As she did, the city alley around her dissolved into a dirt and cobblestone street. It was very dark and very quiet except for the sounds of bone hitting flesh and the occasional grunt of exertion. She turned a corner and froze when she saw the Master.
The girl fighting him was younger than Buffy and wore a long dress that swirled almost artistically around her as she moved. She was a Slayer, it was obvious in her movement and her speed, obvious by the fatalistic expression she wore. But Buffy had never seen her before.
They fought in the middle of the darkened street, the only light coming from the moon and candles in a few of the windows facing the street. The Slayer's long, red hair had half-fallen out of its braid and she was breathing heavily. It seemed to Buffy that she wasn't fighting to win anymore, just to survive.
Then Buffy saw it, saw the opening the Master would exploit. She tried to call out and warn the girl, even as she felt the Master's arm like iron across her chest, his fangs sharp as they pierced her skin and sank deep into her vein as he drank.
The girl's scream died out before the echo began.
In a dizzying double vision, Buffy felt the rough cotton skirt around her legs and the cool swirl of white satin. She watched as the Master drank the life from her own throat, reveling in the powerful blood of a Slayer. The cool night air morphed into the stale taste of the air of a ruined church beneath Sunnydale and back again.
Suddenly Buffy was back standing in the street. The Master had drained this other Slayer almost to the point of death. Helplessly, Buffy watched him rip a gash in his own wrist and hold it to her mouth, watched her futile struggles against this worst fate. Buffy gasped and choked at the sudden warmth on her tongue, at his scent filling her senses as she gave in and swallowed and wanted more. Needed more. A new kind of strength spread through her limbs and a new kind of freedom played in her mind.
A Slayer-Vampire. No one would be able to stop her.
Buffy opened her eyes, her hand automatically reaching to her neck, feeling for a wound that wasn't there. Her heart was pounding with the exhilaration and fear of being turned. She was in her own bed, the covers damp and twisted around her. She took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to relax, trying to figure out what the hell that dream was about, partly grateful that at least her subconscious had come up with a new theme this time.
Buffy concluded her presentation to Angel and watched anxiously as he perused the documents that Fred had helped her put together. She had thrown herself into the development of this new project with the same focus that she had used to reserve for slaying or, way back in the day, shopping. She resisted smoothing out the nonexistent wrinkles in her new skirt, and kept her hands folded in her lap, gripping each other so tightly she was afraid she might have bruises. But it was better than letting him see them shake.
He had been mostly quiet as she gave him the rundown on her estimates for budget, her requests for initial supplies, projected timelines, and training regimen, asking a few questions here and there, but mostly listening. She wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
She was surprised at how much she wanted this to work now, a little less surprised at how much she wanted Angel's approval of the work she'd done. Angel's expression betrayed nothing as he read through the paperwork that pretty much just said what she had been telling him anyway. Why was he taking so long?
Finally, he straightened the pile of papers out and leaned back in his chair. "Wow," he said with a grin. The sight of Angel grinning, smiling, showing any emotion other than remorse, regret, or frustration was still something of a shock to her. It softened him, brightened the room, and she was struck with the urge to put that smile there more often; then she remembered that he was her boss, not her boyfriend, and that wasn't her place anymore.
"Wow what?" she asked, hoping that the words would cover any lapse in her facade.
He indicated his desk. "You really jumped into this. I mean, I knew you'd do a good job, but this... I just didn't expect this much this soon. This is great."
"Well, Fred helped me a lot. And Connor too. It wasn't really just me."
"That's great too. We're a team here. I'm really glad to see you utilizing some of the resources we have. Everyone is more than willing to help out when someone needs it. Believe me, it won't be long before someone is asking you for help."
That fragment of desperate screaming echoed back at her from her dream, causing a tremor to run through her.
"Buffy, what's wrong?" Angel leaned forward with concern, looking at her carefully.
She smiled weakly. "Nothing, just a..." She bit her lip and then asked, "Angel, has a Slayer ever been turned?"
"Turned?" he repeated, brow furrowing at the odd shift in conversation.
"Yeah, I mean, in all the centuries that vamps have been killing Slayers, hasn't anyone ever tried turning one of them? For kicks, or... power?"
He shook his head thoughtfully. "Not that I am aware of."
She smiled ruefully. "I should have asked Spike. He killed two Slayers outright."
"Spike was never really big on turning anybody. He kind of liked the elite status, wanted to keep the vampire population small. He never wanted to rise up and take over, never had a whole End of the World mentality, not like..."
"Not like Angelus?" Buffy finished softly.
"Yeah." And the smile was gone. Trust good old Buffy to send Angel back into a tailspin of remorse and regret, she thought. Never fails.
"Angel," she said softly. He looked at her and she was shocked at the look in his eyes. Sadness, yes, but acceptance also. He had changed so much over the years they had been apart.
Before she could think of anything to say - he didn't need comfort, didn't need to vent or rehash the past - Harmony's voice blared from the intercom to tell Angel his next appointment was getting antsy in the lobby and they were going to have to call in the cleaning crew if he didn't get out there pronto.
"That happens a lot, huh?" she asked, as Angel winced and started clearing off his desk.
"More than I'd like," he answered. "Everything looks good, Buffy," he said as he slid the folder into a desk drawer.
Buffy shrugged. "So, I'll get to work?"
Buffy threw herself into preparing her new department with a vengeance, trying to wear herself out during the day so that when she went to sleep at night, maybe she would be tired enough to sleep without dreams. It hadn't worked yet, but still she kept trying.
She actually even got on the phone with Faith one day, so that they could hash out which girls went where. An apology was on the tip of her tongue for leaving Faith to deal with the Slayers all by herself over the years, but Faith cut her off before she could start. They ended the conversation on good terms and Buffy penciled in a weekly task on her calendar to contact Faith and a monthly task to trade progress reports with her.
Things got hectic once the Slayers arrived. The girls were all between 13 and 18, and came chaperoned by by Kennedy (at Buffy's request) and Vi. The number of Slayers was staying fairly constant at this point; they were fairly confident that they had identified all the Chosen Ones. New girls were called when current Slayers were killed, but thanks to a lull in Evil Plans, good training, and great support, that wasn't very often.
So the girls who filed into the Executive Lobby of Wolfram & Hart just days before Connor's graduation were not entirely overwhelmed, just jet-lagged and a little wired from having their spidey senses pinged so constantly as they stood looking at the vamps and other assorted demons wandering around.
Buffy introduced herself and led them to the newly christened 'Slayer Dormitory,' a far cry from when they had crammed dozens of girls into the house on Revello Drive. Three girls to a suite, each with her own bedroom, one common sitting area, and one bathroom. Kennedy and Vi would each get their own room, functioning a bit like dorm RAs, keeping the girls in check when they weren't in classes.
As they walked to the dorm area and while she gave out room assignments, Buffy looked at each of the girls, assessing, looking for obvious weaknesses, signs of homesickness, any other trouble. Only one stood out. A girl that Kennedy had introduced as Katie Brandt was not happy. She was sullen, carried her own dark cloud, and was very obviously avoiding, and avoided by, the other Slayers. She kept her head down and retreated into her bedroom as soon as Buffy called her name, slamming the door behind her.
Kennedy shook her head in response to Buffy's questioning look. "Don't ask me. She's been like that ever since she was called, about three months ago. Faith put her on the list to come here because they were having a few too many personality conflicts. She thought you might be able to get through to her."
Buffy sighed. Like things weren't hard enough trying to work with a bunch of teen girls with superpowers, she had to get teen bitch too? But she could do this.
She had a couple of informal meetings with the Slayers over the next two days - showed them the training room, the cafeteria, the rooms where they would be taking their academic classes (and smiled at the chorus of groans that greeted that).
They were in the training room, doing a light workout so that Buffy could assess where they were physically when Connor dropped by.
"Everybody, I'd like you to meet Connor Reilly. He'll be helping with your training."
The Slayers all looked at each other, murmuring quietly between them, some shifting defensively.
"Okay, what's going on?" Buffy asked. She looked to one of the girls, who just kind of shrugged and looked down at her feet. Buffy stood and stared at them until finally one girl raised her hand.
"He's not human, or.. not quite; he's like us?" she guessed.
"That's pretty accurate. Good." Buffy smiled at the girl who had spoken up. Looking back at first girl, she said, "You have to learn to trust your instincts. Learn to speak up."
To everyone, she said, "Connor is mostly human, but..."
He interrupted. "I'm the child of vampires."
Looks of confusion crossed almost all their faces.
"You mean your parents were turned?"
Connor slouched against the wall. While he was much better adjusted now, he didn't like talking about his past. But he and Buffy had agreed that they had better get the information out there, than let the girls hear about it through the grapevine.
"No, well technically yes, they were turned, but that happened hundreds of years ago. My parents are vampires."
"That's impossible. Vampires can't have children."
Buffy smiled brightly. "Welcome to our world. The last decade of my life has been impossible, couldn't happen, prophesied against. Best to put that word, that concept, behind you. There are no absolutes."
Several girls opened their mouths to point out that that statement was in itself an absolute. Buffy held a hand up. "Just don't."
The whole Wolfram & Hart senior staff and Nina were in attendance as Connor proudly walked across the stage to accept his diploma. The pride on Angel's face sent a pang through Buffy's heart; another something they could never have, something she would never have. But underneath the pride was a tidal wave of other emotions fighting toward the surface: regret, loneliness, and an envy that became understandable when she watched Connor embraced by the Reilly family once the ceremony was over.
Connor extricated himself from his not-quite-family long enough to shake hands with the guys and accept hugs from Fred and Buffy, before heading back to the family celebration. Angel had arranged for a Wolfram & Hart party that coming weekend to celebrate. All the same, he watched wistfully as Connor laughed and smiled, joking around with his sister and parents as they walked through the parking lot. She waited for Nina to step up and soothe him, offer a hug or a kiss or an arm around his waist. It would have hurt Buffy, deeply, to watch that, but nowhere near as much as it hurt to stand there watching Angel hurt, alone in a crowd once again.
In the end it was Fred who stepped in after Nina offered curt goodbyes and headed back to her studio. It was Fred who looked at Angel and stepped into his arms, saying, "I can't believe he just graduated!" It was Fred who unfroze Angel, kicked him into protector mode and, in return, allowed him the physical comfort as he held her. When his eyes flicked over to Buffy's, she gave what she hoped was a warm smile, and received one in return.
The music was loud as Buffy entered the executive lobby to find Connor's graduation party already in full swing. The recent arrival of the Slayers added an extra element of youth, which was nice since Connor obviously couldn't invite any of his friends from 'outside.' She smiled as she watched him dancing with three girls at once: two Slayers and an intern from Wesley's office.
Gunn walked up and handed her a drink.
"Look at them," he commented. "Oh, to be young and free."
She looked up at him skeptically. "I thought you were young and free."
"Don't let the rugged good looks fool you, Miss Summers. I think my wild oats days are primarily a thing of the past."
At that moment, a woman that Buffy thought worked in Fred's lab grabbed Gunn by the hand and started pulling him onto the dance floor. He looked back apologetically but she shook her head and made shooing motions.
"Go. Sow! Could be your last chance, old man." She winked as he laughingly scowled at her before turning his attention to his dance partner.
Buffy sipped at her drink, pleased to discover that Gunn had brought her soda, instead of something alcoholic. She had to take some of the girls out patrolling later, and wanted a clear head.
Over the next hour, she gave Connor a big congratulatory hug, danced with several of the girls for a song or two before begging off to go and chat with Fred and Wesley.
Then the music was cut off and Angel strode to the center of the floor, followed by Nina. They made a stunning pair, Angel in a dark shirt and tailored pants, a cross between Sunnydale Angel and Angelus, while Nina shined in a formal gown, slinky and shiny with sequins. Angel scanned the floor and then motioned to Connor to join them.
"As you all know, last week Connor graduated from UCLA," Angel started proudly.
"With honors," Nina interjected, through the warm applause.
"Just the image of the doting stepmother, isn't she?" Buffy didn't jump when Lorne suddenly appeared at her side, but only through years of practice. For someone who dressed the way he did, looked the way he did, he sure did stealthy pretty darn well. Or maybe she was just distracted by the unwelcome familial scene playing out in front of them.
She couldn't help a small smile when she saw Connor shift a bit closer to Angel under the guise of bashfully waving to the crowd, and the hand Nina had stretched out to rest on his shoulder fell back to her side.
Angel continued. "This week, he starts work here as a full-time employee of Wolfram & Hart. He will be working with Buffy Summers to help train our new Slayers."
The applause was slightly less enthusiastic; Buffy knew that some of the non-humans, as well as some of the not-quite-not-evil humans, were concerned by the Slayers' presence.
"Buffy, come on up here," Angel requested, not looking around, but rather fixing his gaze immediately on her location.
"Oh god," she muttered, standing indecisively until she felt Lorne's hands pushing against her back. She grudgingly pasted a smile on her face and walked out to stand next to Connor.
"Let's give them a warm welcome."
Connor put his arm around her shoulder. The Slayers, led by Kennedy, were hooting and hollering; all except Katie, who stood off to the side, looking angry and sullen.
Buffy squeezed Connor back, wondering what they would do with the odd Slayer out.
Justica stood in the entrance of the darkened alley halfway down the block from the main entrance to the Wolfram & Hart building. She watched as Buffy led that night's group of Slayers down the street. Buffy hesitated, stopped, and looked around, and Justica took a small step further into the shadows. After half a minute, Buffy turned to move on, to catch up with the girls, and head out into the dark.
She just had to see for herself after she had heard the news from Tim. This was an interesting turn of events, the Slayers turning up here in Los Angeles. And Justica was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth. These girls could be very useful. Very, very useful.
Just as she was about to turn away, she saw a single Slayer emerge from the building, looking furtively up and down the now apparently empty street. The dark haired girl slouched off in the opposite direction from that which Buffy had led the others. Justica slowly, quietly stepped out onto the street once the girl had passed her, wondering just what this one was up to and how she might put it to her best advantage.
"You left the building last night. Where did you go?" Buffy waited for Katie to answer, but received only an annoyed stare in response. She had asked Katie to meet her in her office before classes started for the day. Katie's leaving hadn't alerted anyone, security had just thought she was a straggler trying to catch up to the group. It was when she returned alone at four a.m. that anyone figured she was not where she was supposed to be. Buffy would have to have a talk with Kennedy as well about instituting some sort of bed-check or sign-in / sign-out procedure.
She sighed. "You can't just leave without letting anyone know where you'll be."
"Are we prisoners?"
Well, she was talking at least. Sullen and confrontational, but talking. "No, you're not prisoners. But you are a minor and we are responsible for you. And to you. LA is a dangerous city, even excluding the demon factor. We just want to make sure you're safe."
Katie rolled her eyes. "I'm a Slayer. If I don't get consulted about it, the least I should get is some freedom. I can take care of myself."
"Is that what you're so mad about? That you weren't consulted? Join the club!"
"No, Buffy," she spit out her name. "This was different than when you were called or Faith or any other specific Slayer. You had no right to make this decision for all of us. You changed all of our lives without ever considering the consequences."
"I did consider the consequences. And the consequences of not doing the spell were far worse. So, yes, I'm sorry for what happened to your life, to all the Slayers' lives, but I'm not sorry for having Willow do the spell. I'd do it again."
Angel knocked on the door to Buffy's suite and answered her when she asked who was at the door. When it took her another half a minute to open it, he started to think maybe he should have called first. When she did open it, he knew he should have called first and he was so glad he hadn't.
She was obviously just out of the shower, the floral scent of her shampoo wafting through the door at him as she ran a comb through her hair. She was wrapped in a fluffy bathrobe that was tied loosely at the waist and Angel found himself lost in memories of the beautiful body beneath, golden skin, soft and tender, over strong, toned muscle.
He refocused to find her staring at him, mild irritation written on her face along with the ever-present fatigue.
"What?" he asked.
"I asked what you're doing here, Angel."
"Oh. I just wanted to stop by and see how everything was going. You know, with the girls, classes. See if there's anything you need."
She smirked briefly before her face went blank. She turned and went into the attached bathroom. Over her shoulder, she said, "Don't we have offices for this sort of thing?"
"Yeah, of course." He tried to remember what rationalization he had used to convince himself that this was a good idea. He wandered aimlessly while she finished whatever she was doing, resisting the urge to sit on the unmade bed. A corner of a book peeked out from under her pillow and he caught a glimpse of Dawn's 'Journal' writing.
"You have a special handwriting for your journals?"
Dawn looked up from her journal with a look that only thirteen-year-old girls can achieve, the look that can make even centuries-old vampires feel dumb. "Well, yeah. Because someday when I'm rich and famous, they're going to want to publish these, so it's important that they are able to read them."
Angel smiled sadly at the memory and touched the journal gently. The lack of movement behind him had him looking around to find Buffy standing still, her eyes wide. "Don't touch that," she said softly.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Buffy," he began. Thoughts of therapy, thoughts of getting her to let it all out, thoughts of a happy, whole Buffy skittered through his brain.
She set her jaw as she shook her head. "Just don't say it. Assume I already know everything you're going to say. Because, you know what? I do."
"You're not getting past it, Buffy."
She brushed past him to get to the dresser, pulling the drawer open with more force than strictly necessary. "I'm dealing, Angel. I'm sorry that I still need something to comfort me at night. I'm sorry if my healing isn't in accordance with your timetable, but I'm doing this in my own way, in my own time."
The drawer slammed and Buffy turned around, her arms full of clothes. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get dressed. I have a class to teach. You'll get my report at the next Senior Staff meeting, okay?"
"Okay, Buffy. I didn't mean to push. I just wanted to let you know that I'm here, we all are, if you want to talk."
She opened her mouth then shut it, looking vaguely disturbed. "Nothing to talk about, Angel. I'm going to be late." She opened the door and waited for him to go through it before closing it firmly behind him.
Angel stared at the closed door in concern. Comfort, she had said. She needed comfort. As he passed Harmony's desk on the way to his office, he ordered her to get London on the phone.
Buffy sat cross-legged, her back against the wall, and watched Kennedy lead the Slayers through their morning drills. She shook her head in amusement; Kennedy had mellowed out a bit, but she could still make a drill sergeant jump. Buffy suppressed a yawn and rolled her shoulders, trying to wake up a bit. Last night had been another one of the new Slayer dreams, disturbing and vague and not telling her anything she needed to know to take this to ... the team. There was a team again.
She closed her eyes, trying to let her body get some rest at least, even if her mind wouldn't. Kennedy wouldn't need her till they got to the sparring part, where both of them were needed to walk around and advise, correct, and praise.
A deep breath, slowly in, hold for four, out for four, and again. Again. Her mind drifted, the noises of the girls, footfalls, focused, harsh breaths, surrounding her then becoming muffled. She followed the exercises in her mind; they would be working on roundhouses now, kicking into the air, stepping forward, using their bodies to counter momentum where needed, to increase the forward force where needed.
Leg up, twist, down, leg up, leg down, leg up, leg down, pushing forward down the narrow street. Mama would be angry that she had gone so far, but it was a beautiful bird and she had only meant to follow it for a little way. It had hopped in short bursts, almost as if it had wanted her to follow. And oh, the treasure it led her to: the meadow such a brilliant rainbow of flowers, still wet with dew, so dazzling in the dawn light that she had had to shade her eyes.
She clutched the flower she had brought back for Mama tightly in her hand as she rounded the final corner and flung herself down the lane. She could see Mama now, standing on the street in front of the tavern that Papa ran. Mama was speaking with someone, a man she had never seen before and she slowed down as she approached. There were tears on Mama's face. They both looked at her as she neared them, the flower still held tightly in her hand, but forgotten. She could see Papa standing in the doorway, looking angry.
Mama's sob was loud in the morning air as the man stepped closer and knelt in front of her, gently removing the flower from her hand.
"Justica, I'm Mr. Jameson."
He was older than Papa and he spoke oddly, as if he were from far away. His eyes were blue and he smiled when she looked at him. "I've come a very long way to meet you, Justica. You are a very special girl."
"I am?" she asked, curious despite herself.
"Yes. You could be the most special girl in all the world. The Chosen One."
She shook her head. She wasn't sure what he was talking about, but it sounded important, which was all wrong, because surely something so important wouldn't be trusted to a girl. At least, that's what everyone kept telling her when she told them all her dreams of leaving this little town and doing something.
"Yes, my dear." Mr. Jameson stood up, keeping her hand tightly in his grasp. He turned to her parents. "You have her things?" he asked quietly.
Without a word, Papa handed a small traveling case to the man. Justica looked frantically between her parents and this stranger who wouldn't let go of her. He took the case. "Say goodbye to your parents, my dear."
"What?" She tugged against his grasp, now pulling at her as he took a step away from the tavern toward the coach which was now pulling up alongside. "No," she yelled, planting her feet against the cobblestone. "Mama! Papa! No!"
A second man exited the coach and deftly picked her up, avoiding her kicking feet. Together this new man and Mr. Jameson wrestled her into the coach, screaming all the time. She could hear doors opening as neighbors came out to see what the commotion was about. Mr. Jameson held her tightly, whispering soft noises into her ear, and she felt the coach begin to move.
"I'm going to tell you a story, Justica. Into every generation, a Slayer is born..."
Buffy stood watching that carriage drive away, listening to the weeping woman beside her. She turned to them, the father's face set in shell-shocked rage.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Your daughter..."
Kennedy tapped her on the shoulder and shook her head. "No one has seen her today."
There was a mechanical sound coming from behind her and she whirled around, throwing her hands up against the blinding light.
With a start, Buffy opened her eyes to see the girls just finishing their roundhouses. Kennedy looked over at her oddly. Buffy just shook her head and got to her feet for the sparring exercises.
When Buffy returned to her office that afternoon, she found Katie waiting for her. Without preamble, Katie asked, "Do you ever wish you weren't the Slayer?"
Buffy closed the door behind her, smiling thoughtfully. "Yes."
"Would you change it if you could?"
"Would my life be easier if I weren't the Slayer, if I didn't know what goes bump in the night, if I didn't have to spend all my time in the 'real world' trying to make sure I don't accidentally break someone's hand when I shake it? Probably. But I truly believe the world is better because of what I do, because of what we do. It's kind of an awesome feeling."
Katie fidgeted with the pencil in front of her. Buffy perched on the edge of her desk.
"The way I see it, you have a few choices. You could stay here and learn to be a Slayer, be part of our team and work to save the world on occasion. You could go home and try to pretend that you're just a normal girl.
"Or, you could stay here and learn how to pretend to be normal. It's not easy and if you go off on your own, you're likely to end up in trouble or causing trouble."
"You'd help me with that? And then let me leave?"
"We don't want to keep you here against your will, and we don't want you getting into trouble that you can't handle, hurting yourself or someone else. So, yeah, it that's what you want, I'll figure out how we can help you with that."
Katie gave a kind of half-shrug so reminiscent of Dawn that Buffy had to fight against tears for a second. "I guess, maybe," she said and left without another word.
Buffy made a mental note to ask Connor to try to carve out some one-on-one time with the girl. Maybe he'd have better luck reaching her.
Buffy had managed to avoid Angel for the week between the time he came to her suite and the next Senior Staff meeting, which she was now required to attend. She thought about sending Kennedy in her place, but somehow she didn't think that would fly and the thought of Angel sending for her while she was working with the girls, or, worse yet, coming for her himself, was sufficiently worrisome that she showed up at the meeting on time, pen and paper in hand, ready to report and record.
She felt his eyes on her through most of the meeting as she tried to follow the reports of the others and stifle her own yawns. It wasn't that they were boring her, well they kind of were, but that wasn't the reason behind the yawning. Fred was reporting on the paperwork mix up she had discovered that day when Buffy was visiting that they were finally straightening out. Apparently a vendor had mislabeled a piece of equipment requisitioned by another branch, and some of the paperwork had ended up on Fred's desk.
"Are we sure that's all there is to it?" Wesley asked.
Fred shrugged. "I guess so. It seems all right. I mean, we most definitely do not have the gyrotron and I've checked everything and it doesn't look like they've actually billed us."
"What does that thing do, anyway?" Gunn asked.
The lawyer looked at Angel. "It never hurts to stay up to date with what the Senior Partners are doing. You know we're out of the loop now as far as their master plan goes."
"They're pretty much super-heaters. They can cause a substance to get very hot, very quickly. They're used in processing glass and ceramics, semiconductors..."
"Well, let's all just stay aware. There are very few things I'm willing to chalk up to coincidence where Wolfram & Hart is concerned." Angel nodded at the gang. "Okay, day's over. Let's all take a break. Buffy, if I could talk to you for a minute?"
Buffy had been on her feet the instant the meeting adjourned, but she sat back down slowly as she smiled goodbye at the others with a calmness she didn't actually feel.
Angel came around from behind the desk and sat in a chair opposite her. When he spoke, his voice was soothing, the voice she thought of as his 'client in trouble' voice; she'd certainly had enough chance to hear it when she'd first arrived here.
"It's not getting any better is it? The sleeping?" he clarified as she opted to go for confused Buffy face.
"Angel," she started then stopped. She didn't want to lie to him, but she couldn't break through that wall and confide in him. But on some level, that was all she wanted to do. It had been so long since she had just let go and let someone else deal with everything, since she had confided and let someone else make her feel better. She didn't know if she could do it anymore. And it certainly wasn't Angel's place to be that confidant for her.
Confusion and fear funneled so easily into anger. She stood and started pacing around Angel's office. It was easier than looking at that understanding face. "You think you know everything. You think that you can fix everything. God, Angel, just leave it alone. Just leave me alone!"
"I can't do that," he answered calmly. "Not when I see you looking more and more tired every day. You need something to comfort you, you told me as much last week."
"Oh and you're offering to, to comfort me? How, Angel? A hug? Do you think that would do it? Or are you angling for more? That's just..." She stopped and stared out the window at the setting sun. Still so strange to be able to see that with Angel. The fight drained out of her as the sky slowly darkened. She shook her head and said quietly. "We don't get to be that anymore."
Buffy hadn't heard him move, lost in her own pain, lost in the sunset, lost in the past and the future she would never have, but she felt him standing behind her. She looked at her own reflection in the window, standing alone, and laughed bitterly. How true. Even when he was there, he wasn't there.
He moved an arm around into view, holding something. Mr. Gordo.
"Where... How did you..." She reached out one hand to touch the stuffed pig as she turned slowly to look up at Angel with wondering eyes.
He pressed the animal into her grasp. "Faith kept all the stuff you left behind. After our conversation last week, I thought I'd check if he was there. I had Faith send him out."
Buffy slowly backed up until her legs hit the edge of the sofa, then she sat down. She stared at the pink pig, turning it over and over in her hands. Angel hesitated for a minute, then went to sit beside her.
"God, I'd almost forgotten him." She smiled. "I remember one time when Dawnie stole him from my room. She said she 'borrowed' him, but you know. It was one of the hardest nights of my life, sleeping without him. And, of course, I had to pretend like he didn't really matter, be all cool about it." She slumped down against the back of the couch, unconsciously angling her body toward Angel's.
"Thank you. I shouldn't have said... You know, I didn't mean it before, right?"
Angel smiled at her and put his arm around her shoulders. "I know. And you're welcome." He pulled her closer to him. "Just because we're not... doesn't mean we can't be friends. And you don't ever have to pretend that something's not bothering you, Buffy. Never."
She rested her head on his shoulder and held Mr. Gordo tightly to her chest. Just close my eyes for a minute, she thought. Just a minute.
Fifteen minutes later, Angel looked up as the door opened. Wesley poked his head in, but silenced his greeting as soon as he saw Buffy sleeping, her head in Angel's lap. He motioned Angel not to wake her. "No, no, don't get up," he said quietly. "Just heading out for the evening. I'll see you tomorrow."
Angel nodded gently and looked back down at the sleeping Slayer. She must have been truly exhausted not to have even budged when Wesley entered the room. He rested a hand on her shoulder, slowly rubbing his thumb back and forth over the thin fabric of her light sweater. He looked down at her fondly. He missed this, missed her. Wincing, he wondered how things had gotten so turned around. They were so far apart from each other. It was a miracle having her back even this close, but he still wanted more.
Angel lost track of how long they sat that way, the dim light of Angel's desk lamp and the diffuse city lights through the window the only illumination as he looked down at Buffy. She slept, occasionally twitching, muttering, but always finding that calm, restful place again when Angel would whisper to her, rub her arm, soothe her away from the nightmares. He would have been content to stay there forever.
Until the elevator doors opened to reveal Nina, an exasperated look on her face when she saw him sitting there.
"I made dinner," she said, stepping into the office and leaning on the doors once they had closed behind her.
Angel eased himself out from under Buffy's head and arms, settling her gently against the cushions. He walked over toward Nina and leaned against the edge of his desk, folding his arms across his chest. He shook his head. "Why are you telling me?"
She offered a small smile. "I was hoping maybe we could have a quiet night, just the two of us. Maybe have that talk you've been mentioning." She took a step closer to him, biting her lip, and running a finger just inside his shirt collar. "Maybe do something else?"
"Stop it, Nina. You know what I want to talk about and I don't think it goes with either a romantic dinner or 'something else.'"
"Don't I get a say here?"
Mr. Jameson had certainly understated the grotesque features on a vampire beset by the feed. She ducked under its clumsy reach, automatically, with no thought to her years of training. Her heart hammering furiously, blood rushing through her veins, she felt flushed with fear and with excitement. She tightened her hold on her stake and ran at the creature, surprising it by her assertiveness. Her skirts swirled around her legs as she sidestepped another of its attacks and came up under its arm, the stake in its heart before it had registered how close she was.
The look of fear on its face haunted her dreams for weeks. She'd wake in the night and soothe herself back to sleep, imagining Mama's soft skin and voice. "It's all right, Justica. Mama won't let anyone hurt you."
Buffy woke, pulled herself from the dream with an adrenaline surge that punched her back into reality. She felt the cool leather of Angel's couch beneath her as she recognized that he was no longer on the couch with her. From across the room, she heard him speaking with Nina; his tone was annoyed even as he tried to remain hushed in the quiet room. Nina's irate 'Fine' echoed through the office.
Keeping her eyes closed, Buffy listened to the soft thud of the elevator doors closing. Angel's footsteps neared, stopping a few feet from the couch.
"She's gone now. You can open your eyes." His voice when he spoke was tired and strained.
She cracked open one eye and looked up at him. "You knew I was awake?"
He gave her an indulgent smile. "Of course I did."
Both eyes open now, she studied him, trying to figure out what he meant by that, probably just that he was a vampire and sensed it. Probably. Instead of pursuing alternate theories, she hastily busied herself with sitting up and stretching. Angel sat down beside her, leaning heavily against the back of the couch.
She felt the stretch as she extended her arms above her head. "God, how long was I asleep?" she asked.
"Probably not long enough," he answered. "Bad dreams?"
"Want to talk about it?"
"God, no I really don't. But I have to. And not for the reasons you think." She pointed an accusing finger at Angel. "This isn't about Giles, or Dawn, or anything like that."
Angel held up his hands in mock surrender. "I'm listening."
"I'm pretty sure I've been having Slayer dreams," she began, and talked long into the night about Justica, the Master, and what Buffy was beginning to be pretty sure was a still-undead Slayer-Vamp.
Nina poked angrily at her salad as she related the events of the night before. Her new friend, Lucy, had been a lifesaver this past month, ever since they had run into each other at this little cafe not far from Nina's studio. Every table on the patio had been full when Nina finally got her food and Lucy had graciously offered to share her table. They had fallen easily into conversation and had been meeting for lunch once or twice a week since.
"He was just sitting there, petting her hair, so still and so quiet. While I'm upstairs setting up that romantic dinner like you suggested. If I can just get him to be open to the idea of sticking it out, maybe..." Nina trailed off. "I don't think I've ever seen him look at me like he was looking at her."
Lucy shook her head, the sunlight highlighting the deep gold of her hair. "Ungrateful creep. I wonder what story she fed him this time. Maybe you need to do something a little more extreme. He obviously has a blind spot when it comes to her. Maybe you need to do something to wave her off." Lucy grinned deviously. "And I have the perfect plan. You just need to find the right time for it."
Buffy stopped speaking when she saw Kennedy stick her head through the doorway and look around. Motioning Vi to take over, Buffy motioned Kennedy into the room. The other Slayer's expression was annoyed when Buffy met her by the door.
"I'm looking for Katie."
Buffy paused a moment. "Damn. I thought I was getting through to her. Did you check the security logs? Has she left the building?"
"That's my next stop. Connor's looking around, and I thought I'd come check and see if she was hanging out here, just in case, but it's weird. No one has seen her today."
Buffy looked around uncertainly. "She's probably just holed up somewhere being rebellious. Right?"
Kennedy shook her head. "When I say no one, I mean, no one. Not her roommates, no one saw her at breakfast, nothing."
Buffy turned back to the girls who weren't doing all that great a job of convincing anyone that they weren't trying to overhear the conversation. "Well, has anyone seen Katie today?"
Silence. A few heads shaking back and forth. A couple of shrugs.
"Okay, let's check her room and then security." She sighed as she felt a headache coming on.
Katie's room was, her roommates assured them, just as it always was. Buffy picked her way gingerly through the piles of clothes strewn across the floor. "You're sure?" she asked doubtfully. "This room really looks... ransacked."
"Nope, she's just a slob," said Sophia.
"And a pain in the ass," added Lauren.
Buffy exchanged looks with Kennedy. "Girls, I understand that you may not get along with Katie, but if you know anything at all, now is not the time to stick it to her."
"We really don't. I don't even remember hearing her come back in last night."
"We can check on that. She wasn't on the patrol roster last night. Do you know where she was going?"
Both girls shrugged. "I think she said something about some club," volunteered Lauren.
The other girl added, "I thought she was going to meet a friend. But she didn't say who, I don't think."
Buffy finished her examination of the room, although it was such a mess that she wasn't sure she'd be able to tell if there was any indicator of where Katie might have gone or not without a full cleaning crew or a crime-scene unit.
"Well, thanks anyway. Go ahead and get back to wherever you're supposed to be. Let us know if you hear from her."
Connor had caught up with the two in the Security Office, and now all three of them were sitting in Angel's office telling him how they'd lost a Slayer.
"Security has her logging back in at 11pm last night, but no one remembers seeing her after she went through the main lobby. As far as we can tell, and as far as her roommates know, she never went back to her room."
"So, she's somewhere in the building," Angel surmised.
"We've already asked Security to conduct a full sweep of the building. So far, they haven't found her," Connor offered. He was slouched in his chair, no trace of his customary carefree attitude.
"I hate to say it, but maybe she just left. We all know that she's been unhappy here. She's been thinking about leaving, maybe she just decided not to make a big deal out of it." The words sounded hollow even to Buffy herself as she said them, but they had to be said. She tried not to look at Connor staring at her, incredulous. He had taken Buffy's suggestion to befriend the girl to heart and had been spending a good amount of time with her.
Kennedy sounded doubtful. "So, somewhere between the lobby and her room, she decided to leave without taking any of her things with her."
"She wasn't going to leave." Connor's voice was harsh and biting. Buffy winced. "She wanted to give it a try, to stay and learn and find a place to belong. She wouldn't have just left."
"I..." Buffy faltered, the echoes of her dream mixing with Kennedy's words beating in her head. "No one has seen her today," she repeated softly and looked up at Angel, who had been silent so far, letting the three of them hash everything out.
"The dreams?" he asked.
"Maybe," she said slowly. "Katie wasn't in any of them, but something Kennedy said earlier was."
"What dreams?" Connor asked.
Buffy briefly explained the dreams she'd been having about Justica. "I had no idea that... there was nothing in the dreams to tell me that this would happen."
"We don't know for sure that anything has happened. Right now, all we can do is wait and see if Katie turns up. But in the meantime, I want to institute a buddy system for the Slayers. No one goes anywhere, in the building or out, alone."
It was cold. Two candles provided the only light. Her wrists and ankles were shackled, heavy metal chains securing her tightly to the concrete wall. Her head hurt; her whole body hurt.
"Wake up, little girl," came a voice, soft and deadly, from the darkness. "We're not finished yet."
"What do you want?" Katie tried to make her voice steady and strong; instead it just echoed back weakly in the large space.
"You are going to help me. Won't that be lovely?"
Another candle was lit just a few feet from where Katie was restrained, revealing two figures. The first was a woman (vampire, her mind automatically assessed), tall and beautiful with long red hair and such pale skin; the second was also a vampire, although he seemed to be a commonplace street vamp. He also seemed to be a little out of it, leaning up against the wall, staring down at Katie and licking at fangs, but making no move against her. Katie forced herself to remain still and show as little fear as possible.
"When I get out of these chains, I'll help you into a dustpan."
The redhead laughed delightedly and crouched in front of Katie, staring at her intently. "I remember that feeling." Suddenly her face darkened and struck out, slapping Katie's cheek. "Don't ever trust that feeling. A lesson we've both learned a little too late, I think."
The vampire stood and nodded to the other. "Michael, have a seat next to our dear friend," she snarled. She pulled a small box from her pocket and touched it reverently. "Time for our first test. Tell me if you feel anything." She winked as she pressed a button on the device.
Katie's screams combined with the roars of the vampire. Justica watched, seeing the energy flowing between them. When she saw the tears streaming down the Slayer's face, her stony mask faltered, for just a minute, a hot wash of shame tried to flush her face, but she had no blood of her own anymore.
The noise and the light was over. There was only a body and a pile of dust and a Slayer-Vampire.
The search continued in earnest the whole day. Every Slayer was questioned; they even had them all sing for Lorne. No one knew anything. No one had seen her after the camera had caught her returning the previous night; no one remembered where she was going or what she was doing. No one knew anything.
Buffy was sitting in Angel's office, along with the rest of the Senior Staff, Kennedy, and Connor. Patrol was scrubbed for the night. She focused on staring at the corner of Angel's desk, not wanting to meet anyone's eyes. Not even two months and she'd lost a Slayer. Not in the line of duty, lost. Lost lost.
Lorne had just finished his report, which involved some contraband alcohol and a myriad of crushes but no information on Katie. There was a heavy silence as they all weighed the possibilities.
"Okay." Gunn finally broke the silence. "She returned to the building but not to her room. She may have been grabbed between the first floor and the dorm floor, but I still don't see how they could have gotten her out of the building."
Wesley picked it up. "She could be hiding somewhere. Possibly, she was just trying to find some time alone, and now she's too embarrassed to come out after causing all this fuss. Or she is possibly incapacitated somehow, although in that case, it seems less likely that she would be able to hide so well for so long."
"Or she's playing games and messing with our heads just because she can, as some sort of parting shot, and she's outta here." Buffy winced at Kennedy's strident voice.
Connor jumped to his feet. "No! She didn't. Something is wrong."
Fred put a hand on Connor's arm, gently urging him back into his seat. Angel said, "Right now, we're just looking at all the possibilities. We need everything on the table, so that we can decide how to proceed."
Connor wouldn't look at Kennedy as he sat, a scowl on his face. With an effort he calmed himself and looked at Angel earnestly. "I've been working with her. She was still having problems, yes, but she was trying to work them out. She was trying. I know that she wouldn't just leave without saying anything to anyone."
Angel considered this. Connor's own past - good intentions gone wrong, teenage rebellion mixing with being the pawn of an ancient demon goddess - played heavily into his analysis of this situation. He over-identified with Katie, that much was obvious. But he also had a keen sense of people and Angel wouldn't discount his opinion out of hand.
He looked at Buffy, staring at her until she lifted her head. This was not what he had wanted when he had convinced her to stay, when he had convinced her to take over the Slayer Training Program. It was supposed to be a way to ease her back in to the thick of things, not to heap guilt and responsibility on her shoulders. He tried to show her that no one blamed her, that this, whatever it was, wasn't her fault. She took a breath.
"I agree with Connor. I'm not saying she wouldn't have left, just not without saying anything. That mixed with the dreams, something's coming."
Angel saw Kennedy tense as if to start her argument again and preemptively cut her off. "Kennedy, why don't you head back and see if you can't help settle the girls down? They've got to be pretty shaken up."
She stood stiffly and walked out.
"For now, we'll keep looking. She, or they, must have gotten out of here somehow. I want psychics going through the whole building, see if they can pick anything up.
He looked at the others. "Everybody keep your eyes open. Let me know if anything seems off or out of place. Anything."
Buffy remained seated as the rest of them filed out, subdued, pensive. Angel waited for the door to close behind them before coming around the desk to take the chair next to her.
"It's not your fault."
She shrugged. "I'm the Slayer." The same refrain that had been the hallmark of the last decade of her life. When it all came down to it, it was up to her to stop the buck.
"Yes, you are the Slayer. But you're not alone anymore."
"You're right," she snapped back tiredly. "I have a couple of dozen girls I'm supposed to be training and teaching and somehow shaping into responsible adults, because I'm such a great role model."
"That's not what I'm talking about." He put his hand on her arm, feeling the warmth pulsing beneath her skin, the life and energy that was part human, part Slayer, and pure Buffy. She looked at his hand and he waited for her to shrug it off, throw up the emotional walls, stalk out in a snit, but she just smiled, a little sadly, and looked back up at him, waiting.
"You're not alone." He would say it as many times as it took. He had spent too many years in the same boat, feeling disconnected, alone, responsible, and had lost too much to those feelings to let her do the same. "We are here for you in whatever sense you need. You need me to be entirely responsible, just say the word. You want to share the responsibility, tell me what you need. The only thing that's not going to play here is you taking it all on yourself. We don't do that here."
She moved her arm underneath his hand and turned it, so that her hand was now lightly clasping his. "I can't hand it all over. Even when I want to, I just... can't. And I don't know how good I'll be at sharing, but I want to try." She laughed without humor. "I kind of think I have to."
Her expression sharpened a bit and she continued. "But that thing where you make decisions that directly impact me, for my own good, without even letting me know until it's too late to do anything about it..." Her fingers tightened where she had threaded them through Angel's, not enough to cause pain, but enough to underscore how serious she was. "That's not going to play for me. Ever again."
Angel grimaced, both at the reminder of his attitude in their earlier relationship and at the way she parroted back the business buzzwords.
She squeezed his hand gently. "Don't worry. It's kind of cute."
When he looked at her, she quickly clarified. "The CEO speak, not the other stuff. But hearing you be all business suity, well it suits you."
"I'm glad you like it," he answered softly.
She blushed a bit and wouldn't meet his eyes, pulling her hand away as well. She stood and sighed. "I'd better get back and help Kennedy with the Slayers. It's going to be a long night."
She paused at the door. "You'll let me know..."
"If we hear anything at all, you'll be the first one I call."
For the first time since she'd shown up in L.A., the smile she gave him was genuine, a big Buffy smile. "Thanks."
Angel watched her leave and then looked back over at the elevator. It was well past time to have that talk with Nina, if he had any hope of ever bringing Buffy around to giving their relationship another try. He just didn't think he could do it tonight, on top of the day he'd already had. Sighing, he sat back behind his desk, reading through the day's reports one more time, looking for anything that might tell him what was going on.
"Oh, my Tim, I do so enjoy our visits."
The nervous guard gave Justica a wan smile. She looked tired; was that even possible for a vampire, he wondered. Tired, but pleasantly satisfied, he decided. "Tell me, how are things at Wolfram & Hart these days?" She ran a blood-red painted nail up and down his thigh as she sat next to him on the sofa.
"There's been a lot of activity, actually. One of the Slayers went missing the other day. It's been all hands ever since, searching the building top to bottom, interviews, the whole nine. It's got them all really worried."
Her lips drew together in a tight little frown. "I was hoping that they would just write her off," she said quietly, as if to herself. "Have they discovered anything of what happened to the girl?"
Tim swallowed at the memory of that Slayer collapsing into his arms after he'd injected her. She'd been strangely light for someone so strong. He shook his head. "No. They have no idea how she got out of the building."
"Good. That's something. And what of the star-crossed lovers? I hear that they may be growing closer?" Her voice dripped with disgust and the repetitive stroking of her finger became a stabbing pain and her hand clenched, nails digging into his skin.
"I'm not really, privy to that... information," Tim gritted out, barely managing to suppress his groans. Justica looked at him for a long minute, not letting up on the pressure at all, until she suddenly released him, gave his thigh a sharp slap causing a gasp of pain to escape him after all and stood up.
"Well, you'll just have to keep your ears open, won't you? Now, I have more work to do." She strode out of the room without a backwards glance.
Justica's office was filled with books, volumes of legend and myth, prophecies and lore, carefully gathered over centuries. The echoes of that girl's screams turned her stomach, and she snatched up the nearest volume and threw it at the wall, pages fluttering loose from the binding.
"I can't go on like this," she murmured. "It has to end."
She thought she should be cold when she saw the stone walls, felt the stone slab beneath her, but she didn't feel cold. She didn't feel anything at all. No, that wasn't true. She felt... hungry. A deep, driving hunger such as she had never felt before. She slowly sat up, taking stock of herself when she suddenly realized that she couldn't feel her heartbeat.
"Again," old Batface snarled. She had to be careful to not think of him that way too often; she wasn't entirely convinced that he didn't have some sort of telepathic powers. And she certainly didn't want to slip up and call him that out loud. The crack of the whip on her back reminded her of all the reasons why.
Blood poured down her throat; she could feel the heart, slowing, struggling, fighting against the inevitable. Fighting to hang on to its meager, pathetic life, as she had fought this for so long. Why had she fought it, she wondered, as she sank her fangs even deeper into the flesh and felt the warmth flood through her.
Things slowly returned to normal, or at least as normal as anything ever got at Wolfram & Hart. Buffy was a little dismayed to see how easily the girls got over Katie's disappearance; she wasn't sure if it was that they had already developed the emotional walls of a Slayer or if Katie had been that irrelevant to their lives.
It had been a couple of weeks with no further information, no further incidents. Patrol even had been quieter than usual and Buffy could see most of the Slayers starting to relax back into the routine, starting to drop their guard. She wished that she could, but a feeling of foreboding was still hanging over her. The dreams continued; every few nights her sleep was disturbed by fragmented glimpses of this turned Slayer's life. She reported each to Angel. They'd determined that Justica had been turned long before he was, probably even before Darla. But there was little other evidence coming out of the dreams. Just feelings of fear, frustration, need, and rage.
Buffy was overseeing a training session along with Connor. She was working with one of the girls, trying to demonstrate where her form was slightly off, when she saw the girl's attention caught by something at the door. She turned to see a stranger in a suit walk in, followed by several uniformed police officers.
She went immediately to meet them.
The man looked down at her. He was several inches taller than she was, and was trying to use that to intimidate her. She just waited. "Are you Buffy Summers?"
"My name is Steve Doran. I'm a detective with LAPD. We need you need to come with us."
"Why?" she asked, pleased that her voice came out steady and calm when her heart was racing. Had they found Katie?
"You are wanted for questioning in the deaths of four people in Cleveland several years ago."
Connor overheard the conversation from his spot across the room. He started moving even as he saw the expression on Buffy's face change to one of frozen fear. By now, all of the girls had stopped pretending to be working and had turned to watch the spectacle. A low hum of chatter started to fill the room as they started whispering to each.
One of the cops pulled out a pair of handcuffs and Buffy's panicked look increased. Connor approached carefully, ready to physically restrain Buffy if necessary, willing her to stay calm.
"Don't say anything, Buffy," he said as he came within earshot. He looked at the cops and said, "She has representation and she is invoking her right to counsel."
Not wanting to wait for the elevators, he ran up the three flights of stairs to the executive offices. Harmony jumped as the door from the stairwell crashed open and Connor sprinted across the lobby toward Gunn's office, narrowly avoiding Angel as he was greeting several clients.
Angel turned as he passed. "Connor!"
Connor didn't stop, just yelled back over his shoulder, "It's Buffy."
Angel froze, then turned back to the clients. "I'm afraid we will have to cut this short. Harmony can reschedule our appointment."
Gunn looked up as Connor practically crashed through his door. "What the hell, man?"
Connor panted. "Police, trying to arrest Buffy. Training room."
Gunn was on his feet immediately and heading out his door. Angel had arrived in time to hear Connor's explanation and he joined Gunn and Connor as they headed back through the lobby and hurried down the stairs. He yelled to Harmony, "Harm, there are some police officers in the building. Tell security not to let them leave and to inform me immediately if they see them try."
Before they exited the stairwell, Gunn stopped them. "Take a deep breath. We need to appear calm." He looked pointedly at Angel. "We need to be calm."
Angel twitched and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he nodded. "Let's go."
The three men walked into the training room. Kennedy had gathered the girls and taken them into an adjoining room. Several faces peeked around the edge of the doorway.
Angel was stunned to see Buffy standing in the middle of the room, her hands cuffed behind her. Only with Gunn's recent warning still echoing in his brain was he able to restrain himself from flying into a rage.
Gunn knew a fair number of LA's finest. Over the past couple of years, he had made great strides in changing Wolfram & Hart's reputation with the police. These guys, he didn't recognize, and he didn't know where they fell on the 'Wolfram & Hart are evil incarnate' scale. "I'm Charles Gunn, senior counsel for Wolfram & Hart, Los Angeles. You want to tell me why you are detaining one of our employees?"
Doran replied. "She is wanted in connection with four suspicious deaths in Cleveland."
Gunn glanced at Buffy, remembering the night she had told him the story. Her eyes were wide and he could see the guilt already beginning to write itself across her face.
"We're taking her in, Mr. Gunn. You are free to talk to her after we process her."
Gunn stepped in front of Buffy. He looked at her seriously. "You don't say a word. I mean it. They ask you if you want tea or coffee, you don't answer." He put his hands on her shoulders. "I can get you out of this if you do what I tell you." She stiffened in resolve and nodded.
He turned to Doran. "We'll be right behind you," he said, staring pointedly at the detective. In response, Doran lifted his chin defiantly and led Buffy by one arm through the doorway.
It didn't take long for them to process her and lead her to an interrogation room where they removed the handcuffs from one wrist and secured her other wrist to the table. Then she was left alone. She knew that Gunn and Angel were out there somewhere trying to get her out of here. She looked around the dingy room and wondered if this was the same room where they had interrogated Faith when she had turned herself in. She grimaced. Faith had ended up going to prison; that was probably not the right thing to be thinking about.
After about ten minutes the door finally opened and the detective stepped into the room. He opened the file he held in his hands and pulled out some photos. When he dropped them on the table in front of her, she could see that they were crime scene photos from the alley in Cleveland. Against her will, her mind turned to that night; she could hear their screams, smell the blood as they were killed. She shut her eyes as if it would block out the memories. Stupid kids who didn't need to die. They shouldn't have been there. She shouldn't have been there.
"So, Miss Summers," his voice was overly loud in the confined space. "We would like to ask you some questions about these deaths." She opened her eyes. Detective Doran looked at her intently. He smiled to himself as he read the guilt in her expression. If his guys outside could delay Super-Lawyer for just a little while, he was sure he could get a confession.
She licked her lips which felt dry. "I have a lawyer. I'm not answering any questions."
He nodded and turned the chair across from her around, straddling it. He leaned over the back of the chair and looked at her. "Where is he?" he asked.
He chuckled. "Your lawyer? I didn't see him out there and I don't see him in here." She swallowed, wondering the same thing herself. She didn't like the look in this guy's eyes. She wanted to get out of there, to get away from the screams echoing in her head.
"You know what I think," the detective kept on, pleased at the panic he saw emerging on her face. "I think that that lawyer just told you to be quiet so that he could start finding a way to distance you from Wolfram & Hart. I mean, it's got to be a PR nightmare to have a, what are you there, a teacher?" At her faint shrug/nod, he continued, "to have a teacher associated with them accused of murder. I bet they are cooking up something even now to discredit you." He nodded, looking pleased with himself. "You're on your own, sweetheart."
Gunn and Angel were currently sitting in the car in the police station parking garage. Angel was drumming his fingers against the steering wheel while watching Gunn on the phone. There was a lot of nodding, a lot oh "Uh huh"s, but Angel still wasn't seeing Buffy. And until he saw Buffy, safe and sound and in this car with them, he would continue to drum and stare despite the increasingly exasperated looks Gunn was throwing his direction.
Finally, Gunn hung up the phone and dropped it on the seat between them. He looked grim as he shifted in the seat to face Angel. "This didn't come from Cleveland."
"What do you mean?"
"Dammit," Gunn muttered softly. His concern for Buffy was written clearly across his face. It surprised Angel how deeply these two had connected; it hurt sometimes, too, as it was another reminder of what type of experiences she had endured while on her own. And while Angel certainly had a lengthy list of choices and actions that skirted the darker side of the grey area, it had been Gunn she had turned to. Maybe he hadn't done them that great a favor by trying to hide his past from her.
Gunn shook his head. "A couple of months ago, I checked on the status of the investigation into those kids' deaths. It's a cold case, man. One which I just confirmed they still have no intention of reopening."
"But if they didn't issue the request for her detention," Angel started slowly, his fingers slowing their motion and gripping the steering wheel tightly instead. The idea that this was more than bad luck, that this was a deliberately directed attack on Buffy, was infuriating.
"Right. I just had my guy check and, as far as he can tell, no one has even looked at that file since I talked to him last."
The fury continued to build. "It's someone in our office." There was no question in Angel's voice; even after five years working there, he wasn't surprised at the prospect. They would never be able to root out all the evil at the firm, not to mention the petty jealousies and infighting that exist everywhere in the corporate world.
Gunn sighed. "Yeah, that's the best I can come up with. Unless it was someone who happened to be there in Cleveland when it all went down." He shrugged. "But why now?"
"I don't care why now," Angel growled. "Just tell me how you're getting her out of this."
Doran mentally patted himself on the back. He could see that what he was saying was finally getting through to the girl. This was going to make him famous. Sweet little blonde thing, hiding for years, and unearthed by Detective Steven Doran. He would definitely have to throw a special thank you to his informant.
She looked up at him tiredly. "So, you're saying, what, that they're trying to sandbag me? Throw me to the wolves?"
He made a big show of looking around the room. "Well, they're certainly not here trying to help you. But if you agree to talk to me, maybe I can." He took a seat and leaned forward across the table, smiling warmly. "I mean, a little thing like you killing those kids. That's hard to believe. Why don't you just tell me what happened that night?" He sat back in his chair and then, as if it was an afterthought, he pulled a typed sheet of paper out of the folder. "Oh, but you've got to sign this first."
Buffy slowly took the paper detailing the waiver of her Miranda rights and looked at it. Her hands were shaking and the paper transmitted the motion. She quickly put it down on the table. Then she looked up at Doran. "Thank you," she said quietly.
It took some effort not to let the smile slip from warm to smug as he answered. "No problem. I'm here to help you."
She smiled and looked him directly in the eye for the first time since he had entered the room. He felt an odd chill run through him. "Oh, you definitely were a help. I mean, if you hadn't been so obvious in your lies, I might have actually trusted you."
He sputtered. "What lies? What are you talking about?"
As her anger grew, the sounds and smells and sights flashing through her head faded. She held on to that anger and let it strengthen her. "Don't you do any research before you try to manipulate people? You really think that I would believe that Gunn is just going to leave me hanging?"
Her familiar reference to the lawyer gave him pause. So did the growing confidence with which she held herself.
"How can I put this?" She thought for a minute. "You know the bond that I'm sure you have with your fellow officers? They've got your back, you've got theirs? You guys literally trust each other with your lives, right?" He nodded weakly, unsure of the turn this interrogation had taken and completely lost as to how to regain control. "Well, it's the same way for us."
Doran's eyes brightened for a second. "Oh, honey, he's your boyfriend? I hate to break it to you, but pillow talk doesn't often hold up against a murder charge."
She laughed and shook her head. "He's not my boyfriend. And I'm not just talking about Gunn. And you don't have to understand, but just know that you made a fatal mistake when you tried to convince me that Gunn is out there plotting against me."
Trying to salvage something out of this debacle, he offered, "He will if that CEO of his tells him to. I've heard that Angel is someone you do not want to cross."
"Give me the shovel. Please. You really want to stop digging now. Trust me when I say that Angel is absolutely someone you don't want to cross, but you've already done that. Thanks for reminding me that I have friends. I'll just wait for them."
Her flippancy pushed his button and he stood abruptly, ready to take this interrogation to a new level. He stopped as the door opened to reveal the lawyer, the CEO, and the Chief of Police. The two from Wolfram & Hart brushed past Doran immediately, but the Chief just beckoned Doran out into the hallway.
An hour later, Buffy, Gunn, and Angel were stepping off the elevator into the Executive Lobby. Buffy was practically bowled over by an enthusiastic Harmony, squealing excitedly, as if Buffy had just been released from a multi-year prison term instead of an afternoon in an interrogation room. With a patient smile, Fred set to work distracting Harmony, as Wesley and Connor offered Buffy hugs of relief.
Angel hung back, and slowed Gunn with a hand on his arm. "Do I want to know how you made this happen?" he asked in a low voice.
Gunn smiled. They had decided in the first year at the law firm to start to do business differently: letting the police off the payroll, discontinuing bargaining by threat and coercion. "I didn't do anything any other lawyer couldn't have or wouldn't have done." Which was true. He'd called in a couple of favors, handed out a couple of markers to get the right people talking to each other. "There's no case anymore, Angel. She's safe."
Angel nodded. "All right." There was still a lot that was uncomfortable with about the wheeling and dealing that went on - give him a straight demon killing any day - but he trusted his people to get the job and keep everyone safe.
The two were heading over to the celebratory group surrounding Buffy when Angel noticed Kennedy entering the lobby with a grim look on her face. He and Gunn reached the group just as she did.
Kennedy wasted no time. "There's been another abduction."
"What? How?" Buffy asked incredulously. "No one was supposed to be alone!" Angel angled himself past Wesley and Fred to stand next to her. She was already tired and emotionally drained after the day she'd had. He put an arm around her shoulders, feeling the tension and the small tremors in her frame.
Kennedy shook her head helplessly. "It's two of them this time: Abigail and Divya. They were on their way to the training room and just... disappeared. I've already checked the video and the security logs. They didn't leave the building and they aren't anywhere else. It's just like Katie."
And it was just like Katie's disappearance, except that Abigail and Divya had been much more sociable and it was hitting the other Slayers a lot harder. But no one knew anything.
Patrols, as a training exercise, were stopped entirely. Buffy, Kennedy, and Angel's team took over patrolling the vicinity of the Wolfram & Hart offices but nothing seemed unusual, except possibly that things were a little quieter than normal. Buffy would return at the end of the patrol more keyed up, more tense than when she had left, not finding the outlet that a successful slaying session could provide.
Angel would watch her smile wanly at him and head dejectedly down the hall toward her room before turning to slip silently into the guest room of his penthouse suite. As the week drew to a close, he realized that he had let the situation with Nina go on long enough. Whether Buffy was in the picture or not, it wasn't fair to either himself or Nina to let this continue to drag itself out. He promised himself that he would talk to her before the end of the weekend.
From the master bedroom, Nina listened to the soft rustling coming from the guest room and frowned. He was being so stubborn. But she was finally ready to put Lucy's plan into action. It had taken some doing to get ready; Angel was ridiculously cagey about his password. But she had finally found it and she would make sure that they had the time they needed this weekend.
Buffy leaned against the back wall of Angel's private elevator, trying not to fidget as it rose to the penthouse. The email had been vague: simply a terse request for her to head up as soon as possible. She couldn't imagine what he needed to talk to her about at midnight on a Sunday, especially when they had just returned from patrol about an hour before.
The elevator doors slid open and she stepped out into the suite's living room and froze. The lights were low and there was soft music playing. And there was Angel, naked except for a towel loosely knotted around his waist, hair still wet from a recent shower. He was sprawled at one end of the couch, watching with a stunned look as Nina danced sinuously in front of him, a silk nightie sliding down her torso to pool around her feet.
Buffy pivoted on her heel, the image still flashing before her eyes as she stared at the elevator doors. She was unable to keep a soft, "Oh god," from escaping her lips.
She heard Angel's voice from behind her. "Buffy, wait."
Buffy pushed the button to call the elevator repeatedly. Why wasn't it opening? It was a private elevator; where the hell had it gone? "No, I'm obviously interrupting. I'll just go... anywhere else," she said miserably, trying to erase the image she had just seen from her brain. The elevator bell finally dinged and she slipped inside the open doors. The doors closed just as Angel approached. She could see Nina sitting sulkily on the couch, pulling an afghan around her.
Buffy ran from the elevator as soon as the doors opened, racing through Angel's office. She didn't want to be here when he inevitably came downstairs to talk things through. Tears gleamed in her eyes and she kept her head down as she slowed her pace to avoid attracting attention in the lobby. Her heart was breaking. She was so angry at herself; she knew that Angel was with NIna, but she just hadn't ever seen them being intimate, not even covert glances. Her stomach churned as she revisited Nina's dance again and again.
She ended up in the gym, deserted at this time of night. Not bothering with gloves or workout clothes, she began pounding on the heavy bag, sweat mixing with the tears, trying to drive herself to exhaustion. She didn't turn when she felt Angel walk into the room.
"Buffy," he said. She continued to hit and kick at the bag. "Buffy!" he called and kept calling, growing louder until she glanced over at him. He was terrified by the desolate look in her eyes. She seemed almost more alone than when she had first appeared in L.A.
She turned her attention back to the bag, redoubling her efforts, still saying nothing to Angel. He waited for a couple of minutes and when she showed no signs of stopping, he walked up slowly behind her and gently put his hands on her shoulders. She shrugged him off. He tightened his grip, slowly sliding his hands down her arms and locking them in front of her, holding her tightly against his chest.
"Get off, Angel!" She struggled weakly against him. "Go back and finish what you started with Nina. Just leave me alone," she sobbed.
"Buffy, I need you to listen to me," he whispered in her ear. Straining to hear the low rumble of his voice stilled her movements. He let go and gently turned her to face him.
"What you saw tonight, it wasn't what it looked like."
"It doesn't matter, Angel. She's your girlfriend. You can do whatever you want. However, inviting me to watch it, that's a little over the top. Were you looking to add a little extra kink?"
He shook his head. "I don't know why she was doing that, except maybe out of desperation. I haven't been with Nina since you came to LA." She looked at him disbelievingly. "Not once," he swore.
The desperate sadness on her face was mostly replaced with a tired confusion. "I don't understand. You two live together."
He laughed harshly. "We're basically roommates at this point. I'm sleeping in the guest room. She keeps saying she wants to work on things, that we shouldn't give up, but Buffy..." He brushed away her remaining tears with his thumbs.
"What do you want?" she asked in a timid voice, staring up at him with wide eyes.
"This," Angel said as his palms cupped her face and he lowered his lips to hers. She tasted of salt and sweat and strength and power. He suddenly remembered how right it felt to be with her, as if nothing in the world could stop him as long as he had her by his side. She responded to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her body into his. His hands moved lower, caressing her back, lifting the hem of her shirt as his fingers sought the electric contact of bare flesh. Then all was need and want and abandon as the gym was filled with the sound of their gasps and sighs as they found each other again.
Some time later, they lay tangled together on an exercise mat. Angel chuckled and she looked up, smiling. "What's so funny?" she asked. Her hand traced light circles across his chest.
"I'm just thinking what people will think if they come in here tomorrow morning to find their boss half naked on the floor with the Slayer."
"Yeah, that would definitely fuel the water cooler for quite a while. Maybe we should go somewhere more private," she suggested.
"What'd you have in mind?"
"How about my place?"
It was too much trouble to get dressed again, so they grabbed bathrobes from the locker rooms, and chased each other down the hall, giggling like they were in high school. And for Buffy, this was the most free she had felt since those years. They rushed into her room, slamming the door behind them and set on one another again.
Buffy remembered the one night they had had together, her 17th birthday. It had been incredibly beautiful, full of gentleness and love and tenderness. But it had only been the one time; there was so much that they thought they had time for later. Now, later had arrived. She eagerly explored his body through touch, through taste, learning him in an entirely new way until they fell asleep together, sated and relaxed.
Morning crept up on them too quickly. The Monday morning staff meeting dictated that they couldn't just stay in bed and enjoy each other, as tempting as Angel made that seem as he twice pulled Buffy back when she tried to sneak off to shower. Finally, she dragged him into the shower with her, which didn't actually save any time, but was quite enjoyable.
As they were dressing afterwards, she looked over at Angel. "What will you tell Nina?"
Angel frowned. "That it's over, that she needs to move out. She and I have been over for a long time, since well before you came back. I just..."
She smiled wryly and wrapped her arms around his waist, looking up at him. "It's hard to be the white knight when you're breaking up with someone. But you give it your best shot, don't ya?"
He pressed a quick kiss against her lips, then pulled her more closely against him. She felt so good there, her heart beating against his chest, the warmth of her skin, the feel of her breath hitting his neck and radiating down his arm. He tightened his arms around her, not wanting to move from this space and open the door to the real world that had consistently found ways to deny them this.
He asked, "So, what do we do now? Do you want to move in upstairs?"
He could feel her shrug and the way her face scrunched against his chest. "I don't know. It would feel weird, moving in right after she moves out." She disengaged and searched through the dresser for a shirt. "It's not that I don't believe you that it's been over, but... I don't want to be 'that woman'."
"You know no one would think that about you." He watched her pull her hair back in a ponytail. The mirror's reflection displayed her dubious look perfectly. "Well, how about I empty a drawer or two for you?"
She turned around, her breath catching in her throat. "You remember that?"
He chuckled. "I remember everything," he answered. The smile on her face warmed him like nothing else ever had.
She nodded, her eyes alight. "That sounds really good."
When the two of them arrived together ten minutes late to the staff meeting - Buffy still flushed and Angel distinctly rumpled - the others found themselves hard pressed not to let their knowing smiles be too obvious. Angel took his seat behind the desk and Buffy slipped into an unused chair. Fred slipped her a pen and a spare notebook when Buffy suddenly realized she hadn't brought any of her supplies.
"So," Angel cleared his throat. "Any new business?"
After a fairly ordinary meeting, Angel excused himself with a warm grin toward Buffy and headed upstairs. He was actually a little surprised to find Nina there; she was usually at her studio by this time of day, especially with the way she had been avoiding him lately. She was sitting on the couch, flipping through television channels without really seeing anything that was on.
Angel took a seat at the far end of the couch. "Nina," he began.
She turned the tv off and threw the remote down on the coffee table, then turned to face Angel. Her expression was neutral, as she waited to see which way this conversation would go. The fact that he hadn't returned the night before was a pretty good indicator; she just didn't know how angry he would be.
He stared at her. "You set that up, here, last night?" he asked.
She stared back, stonily, not saying anything.
"Okay, it doesn't actually matter. I'm sorry," he said. "I never should have let this go on as long as I have. It was just easier, I guess. But it was unfair on all of us. It's over, Nina. I'd like you to move out as soon as possible. You can have any available apartment here, either permanently or while you look for your own place. I just need to know that you're not going to try to cause any more problems between Buffy and me."
Nina pressed her lips together and sighed. "When does she need my stuff out?"
Angel kept his face still; Buffy had been right. Bad idea to move her in right away. "She's not moving in, but we are trying to resume our relationship. I'm sorry if that hurts you. It's been over between you and me for a while now and I take responsibility for not just making a clean break of it. But this is how it is."
She nodded. "Well. I guess that's that." She felt like she should be more upset, but all she really felt was the sting of losing. She hadn't really felt that passionate connection with Angel for years. She looked at him sitting there calmly and wondered if he had ever really felt it at all, or if he had just been trying to make something happen out of loneliness or a need to connect.
Nina stood up. "She wins. I'll go talk to Harmony about where I can move my stuff." At Angel's wary look, she continued. "Might as well start the grapevine with actual information."
"Okay. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you." Angel stood as well. "In the meantime, I need to head back down to the office."
She watched him leave and shook her head. "So much for the perfect idea, Lucy," she muttered, reaching for her phone. She definitely needed a friend right now.
Connor perched on the edge of Buffy's desk during one of the training breaks that morning. She had been waiting for this, ever since everybody's eyes had lit up when she and Angel had entered the office that morning.
She tried to ignore him and continue her research, but it took only a couple of minutes before she looked up to find him grinning smugly at her. "What?" she asked innocently, although her cheeks were already shading to pink.
"So, you and Angel?" Connor wasn't going to give her too hard a time; he was incredibly happy that Angel had apparently finally decided to do something. And it seemed to be for real, if the gossip he had just heard about Nina moving out of the penthouse was accurate.
Buffy couldn't stop the happy smile that spread across her face. She gave a half-nod. "Me and Angel," she confirmed.
"Nice," he replied, nodding. Hopping off the desk, he added, "But I'm not calling you 'Mom.'"
The look Lucy gave Nina upon hearing that she and Angel had split up was disbelieving. "You what?"
"I'm moving out. And you know what? I think I'm happy about it." She considered for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I'm happy."
Lucy shook her head. "But didn't you give him that surprise we talked about? Make sure that she knew he was spoken for?"
Nina winced. Her behavior since Buffy had come to town had been appalling and she really couldn't justify it, even to herself. "I did. Well, I tried. And it definitely clarified that he was spoken for. Just not by me."
"You can't just give up!"
Nina accepted her raspberry iced tea from the server with a smile and looked over at Lucy. "I'm not giving up. I lost. Game over. I'm going to move in to the studio as soon as I can arrange the movers. I'd like to leave town, but really, where can I go? I mean, there's not a lot of places that can handle three nights..." She trailed off, looking warily at her friend, but Lucy seemed lost in thought. Nina sighed. She was glad Angel was willing to let the past stay in the past. If she had to take the chance of running into him three times a month, at least she knew it would be amicable.
The scrape of metal on concrete drew Nina's attention as Lucy suddenly stood up. "I have to go, Nina. This changes everything."
"What..." the hell? Nina finished her sentence as a thought because there was no one left to hear it. Lucy was hurrying through the crowded cafe without a backward glance.
Buffy could hear the others behind her as she pursued the vampire down the dead-end alley. He skidded to a halt at the brick wall and turned around. He was young, not just his physical self when he was turned, but he had the bearing of a newly-turned vamp.
He laughed nervously and held his hands out in submission. "Just go ahead and stake me."
She approached him slowly, stake at the ready. "That's new," she mused aloud. "You'll understand why I'm waiting for the punchline."
The vamp was shaking. "It's either you or her," he said. "At least with you, it's quick."
Angel and Connor were now standing right behind her. She held up her free hand to signal them to hang back. The vamp's eyes were jumping between Buffy and the two behind her. If he saw an out, he'd take it; Buffy knew Angel and Connor were too good to let that happen. She concentrated on the conversation.
"Who's 'her'? What's she doing?"
"Justica," came the reply, whispered in both fear and reverence.
Buffy froze. She resisted the impulse to look back at Angel. "Okay, tell me what Justica's doing?"
"I don't know. She's got some weird setup, techno-voodoo shit." The vampire was pacing across the width of the alley, kicking up debris, as he spoke. "She's grabbing your girls, right? Well, she's taking us too," he said indignantly. "Doing some kind of experiments. And man, no one can stop her."
He eyed Buffy. "Can you? Can you stop her?"
"Maybe," she replied. "Where is she? Where'd she take the Slayers?"
"I can show you where they are. Yeah, I can take you there, but it's not where she is. She just dumps the bodies. Not us vamps, though. Oh no, she just sweeps us up." A strangled cackle echoing through the alley caused Angel to take the last half-step up, so that he was standing arm to arm with Buffy.
She let herself indulge in a minute's comfort before saying, "Take me to them."
Angel called back to the office to make sure someone would be there, just in case the girls really were there. The three of them followed the vampire through the city streets down to a deserted neighborhood. In the middle of the block was an abandoned construction site. The vamp led them to pile of rotting wood in a far corner.
Buffy looked at the two bodies laying between the wood and the half-finished brick wall. She raised a shaking hand to cover her mouth. It was Katie and Divya, still and silent and almost looking like they were sleeping. "Where's Abigail?" she gritted out.
The vamp shrugged. "Is that her name? There was one girl still there, she kind of survived the test. First one. The vampire that was paired with her didn't though." He twitched. "Boom! Big explosion that one. That's how I got away, lost in a cloud of dust." He laughed.
Angel barely saw Buffy move, the image of the vampire pinned to the wall by her stake taking longer to process in his brain than lasted in reality.
"There's your cloud of dust." Her voice was disgusted and tired.
Angel exchanged a concerned glance with Connor. Connor nodded. "I'll wait here."
Angel wrapped an arm around Buffy and gently tugged her back toward the entrance of the lot. "Come on."
"No, I should stay with them."
"Connor's here, and Gunn and Wesley are on the way to... retrieve them. It's okay. You and I are going to go home now."
She allowed him to lead her through the debris and back along the city streets. They walked slowly, not talking, just touching every now and then, hands or arms brushing.
She didn't know what to say or what to think. She just kept seeing the two Slayers and dreading finding the third. Responsibility was nothing new for her, but this was so far beyond that familiar burden that she had no idea how to cope.
She stopped with a gasp as they entered Angel's suite. "Oh my god, I've got to call their parents." She walked blindly toward the phone. Angel's hand covered hers on the handset.
"Tomorrow," he whispered. "When we know more."
She looked up at him. "I don't know what to do."
He pulled her to sit down on the couch next to him, wrapping his arms firmly around her. "You don't have to know right now. Wesley and Fred will tell us what they've learned in the morning. And then we will all work together to end this."
She felt her eyes dragging shut as she shifted to find a more comfortable position.
Abigail was glowing, that was the only word for it. Lit with an otherworldly light that seemed so at odds with the raw fear emanating from her. She and the vampire were caught in the light, and it swirled between them, pulling and bending reality. Tears flowed down her face, shiny and crystalline, but no sound came from either of them.
She watched, waiting, this would work, it had to. And then she felt it, the light from two funneled toward her. She closed her eyes as it filled her and soothed the edges her torn spirit. She felt her own tears, of joy, of wanting, of accomplishment, and then... nothing.
With a startled cry, Abigail was released from the light, her eyes open, staring at nothing as she fell to the floor through another dust cloud.
So close. Justica knew what she needed, knew who she needed.
She would be at peace again.
She turned and smiled. "My brother."
Buffy woke and shifted, reaching for Angel, only to find that she was still on the couch, and that he was nowhere in sight. She sat up quickly.
"Angel?" she called out. He wasn't there, she could feel it. She tried to push aside the memories of another time she had woken without him. The first rays of dawn were just starting to stretch across the sky outside the window, and Buffy hurriedly threw some fresh clothes on before heading downstairs to see if he was in the office.
His office was empty, and there was no sign that he had been there since the night before. Ignoring the sick churning in her stomach, she opened the door to see Harmony just arriving.
"Harm, have you heard from Angel?"
Harmony affected her best 'duh' look and replied, "Uh, no, Buffy. I just got here."
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Buffy smiled as pleasantly as she could, and said, "Could you please check and see if he left any messages for you. Maybe about where he is?"
Wesley's door opened as Harmony sighed dramatically but started dialing into her voice mail. "Buffy, is there a problem?"
"I hope not." She turned a worried look toward him. "I can't find Angel."
"I'm not aware of any appointments he had this morning. Have you tried calling him?"
Buffy reached for her cell phone, only to find her pocket empty. "Can you? I left my phone upstairs."
Wesley dialed and listened for a few seconds, as Harmony reported that there were no messages. "Angel, it's Wesley. Give me a call when you get this message, please."
Buffy swallowed. "She's got him, Wes." She had never been more certain of anything.
"We don't know that, Buffy."
"Maybe you don't, but I do. Justica has Angel." She turned and walked back into Angel's office, and stood, looking out the window. Behind her, she heard Wesley instruct Harmony to call all the senior staff to the office right away.
Buffy stared at the now-bright sky as she listened to them debate whether Angel had really been taken, although the longer he was out of contact, the more willing they were to believe it. They discussed search strategies, and magics they could use, and everything that was the same thing they had done when Katie, and then Divya and Abigail, had disappeared.
The futile feeling that had been haunting her since this had begun began twisting into rage, into desperation. She wanted to scream, to cry, to smash things to bits.
She turned abruptly, and everyone stopped talking. "I..." she started. "I need... I'll be upstairs." Buffy hurried over to the elevator and pushed the button to close the doors as soon as she was on, trying not to look at their shocked faces. She leaned against the back of the elevator; she just needed a few minutes to get surging emotions under control. After a moment, she realized that the car wasn't moving and realized that she hadn't pushed the floor button.
As she reached toward the control panel, something shifted, and a new button appeared: a red dagger on a black background. She had heard the stories about the White Room and other secret locations accessible from within Wolfram & Hart. Of course, that was how Justica had gotten the girls out without leaving a trace. She went to open the doors, to tell the others, get some weapons, and go rescue Angel. But what if the button didn't appear again? What if this was a one-time fluke and she lost her only chance to find him?
Buffy took a deep breath and pressed the new button, readying herself for whatever it would lead to. There was a strange shimmer in the air around her, then the elevator doors opened, not to Angel's office or to the penthouse, but to a dim hallway. She could feel Angel without even trying; he was nearby.
She stepped quietly out of the elevator, and the doors slid silently shut behind her. Squinting into the darkness leading down the hall in both directions and seeing nothing of note either way, she opted to try the left first, and she began walking.
After a few hundred yards, she became aware of a flickering light ahead. She stepped softly, approaching the dimly lit doorway slowly, staying as close to the wall as possible. She peered around the edge of the doorway, and wasn't surprised to recognize the room. It had played a starring role in many of her dreams; this was where Justica had been performing her experiments.
She barely stopped herself from rushing in when she saw Angel, chained to the wall, bruised a bloodied, a fresh neck wound still oozing slightly. The knowledge that Justica had fed from him, sharpened all of Buffy's feelings of helplessness and anger into a white-hot rage.
There didn't appear to be anyone else in the room, and Buffy risked a few tentative steps toward Angel. His eyes flicked up to look at her tiredly.
"Get out of here," he whispered.
She hurried to his side and began to examine the chain that bound him. "Not without you." It was set too firmly into the wall, probably magically enhanced, and she couldn't loosen it at all. She started feeling along the metal, looking for any weak spots. "I'm getting you out of here."
Angel's voice was harsh, taut with worry. "You don't understand, Buffy. She's waiting for you, for us. She needs both of us..." He looked beyond her and sighed. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she felt someone watching them. She gently put the chain back down.
"He's right, Slayer. I do need both of you, and you were just so accommodating to come right to me."
The voice from her dreams, soft and deadly.
Buffy stood and turned to look at their captor.
"Justica," she said tersely.
"You know me? How delightful. This one," she gestured to Angel, "hasn't said a word. Or... do screams count?" She smiled nastily and stepped closer to Buffy. "Now be a good girl and sit down next to your boyfriend."
"So you can kill me like you killed Katie and Divya and Abigail? Right? Abigail's dead now too?"
The redhead narrowed her eyes. "How do you know so much?" She laughed suddenly. "Slayer dreams. I should have thought of that. But no matter. You think you know so much, Slayer? Then you should know that there is no point in fighting me on this. The two of you offer me my only chance to fix this. And I won't let you go until that's done."
There was an edge to Justica's expression, in her movements, that made Buffy think of every psycho serial killer she'd seen in slasher movies. She had no trouble believing that Justica meant what she said.
"Tell us what you want. Let us help you," Buffy offered.
"I don't want to feel this anymore!" Justica screamed, suddenly immediately in front of Buffy, staring down at her, the echoes still reverberating around them. Buffy couldn't look away from the green eyes. Justica's voice quieted and softened, as she said, "Do you know why they don't turn Slayers? Because we can't be turned, not completely."
"What do you mean, 'not completely'?"
"I mean, that it changed my body, and it gave me the thirst, and it showed me what a wonderful, dark world there is out there for the taking, but it couldn't change my soul. I am forever torn between light and dark, between what I need and want, and what I can have."
Buffy grimaced. "You're kidding, right?"
Justica blinked at her flippant response.
"Get in line." Buffy gestured to Angel. "He's been doing it for a century. And really, I mean isn't that just part of the Slayer job description? We're not sweetness and light. We always have to walk that line."
"I was never..." Justica sputtered. "It was always for the good of..." She growled, her face assuming the vamp mask. "Chain her," she ordered her lackeys.
Buffy put up a fight as the came at her, significantly aided by the fact that the vamps obviously weren't supposed to kill her. But with no weapons and seriously outnumbered, it wasn't long before she found herself restrained next to Angel.
"Justica," she tried again.
"Shut up!" the vampire roared. "They stole it all from me. My childhood, my light, my life! And for centuries, I've been this half-thing, and it will end now. I can pull your essences, thanks to the foresight of your predecessors at Wolfram & Hart and their 'Special Projects in Perpetuity' program. I will combine that which makes each of you unique and consume it, and then I will be..."
"Completely batty?" Buffy suggested. "Sorry, you're already there."
"No, it didn't work with the others because they weren't as powerful, or as connected as the two of you." Buffy was pretty sure by this point that Justica wasn't hearing anything she was saying, just ranting on. She was content to let the rant continue, because she had a feeling that at the end, Justica would trigger the light she had seen in her dreams, and Buffy didn't think she and Angel would fare too well.
"You, one of the darkest, most powerful Slayers ever to exist. So much stolen from you... even Heaven. And to love a vampire, a vampire with a soul whose struggle mirrors my own, who came from my own line. You two are the answer."
"Is this anything more than wishful thinking here?"
Justica pulled out the control box and paused in front of them. For just a second, she looked sad.
Buffy looked at Angel, still woozy from the blood loss, and she stretched out her hand, only just able to touch him. He shifted slightly to stretch his hand nearer and wrapped a finger around hers, looking at her with sorrowful eyes.
"I love you, Buffy."
"Angel, I love..."
And there was the light. Buffy and Angel both automatically cringed away from it, but their joined fingers pulled them back toward each other. The light swirled around and enveloped them, as Buffy had seen in her dream, but unlike in her dream, there was no pain. Instead, she felt warm and safe, protected. The light shimmered around them, reflected in Angel's eyes as he tightened their tenuous hold on each other.
Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, as Buffy turned to look at Justica. The energy was surging and pushing out toward the redhead, but she didn't look excited, as she had in the dream. The first tendrils touched her and darkened. Justica's body went rigid as the light circled her, becoming a dark, whirling vortex, moving more and more rapidly until Buffy couldn't make out any more than a blurry form in the center.
Buffy was vaguely aware of Justica's henchmen fleeing the room, as a high-pitched whine began to build in intensity. The blur in the center of the vortex shifted, distorted, and the noise grew louder and louder. Yet through it all, she felt fine, physically aware only of Angel's fingers touching hers, and the pounding of her own heart. The light around them remained bright, shimmering colors dancing in thin threads.
But the noise continued to intensify until it was nearly unbearable, and under it, she thought she could hear screaming. She looked back to Angel, who was still watching her. He smiled sadly and shook his head. "It's too late for her," he said, his words cutting through the noise and confusion. "Hold on to me."
Buffy stared into his eyes, losing herself in the love and hope he projected, as the noise reached an intensity that felt like it was beating against her brain, as the screams grew more and more frantic. The light grew so bright it nearly blinded her, centering her entire world on Angel's eyes, their joined hands...
Then all was darkness.
Slowly, Buffy became aware of voices and a loud, banging sound that kept repeating and echoing and beginning again. Her head hurt, and she really wished this could wait until later. "Cut it out," she complained.
The noise blessedly stopped for a minute, then the voices all rushed toward her. "Buffy? Can you hear us?"
She slowly blinked her eyes open to find her friends crowded around her. "Yeah, I can hear you, and it's making my headache worse."
The group around her exchanged nervous smiles of relief. "We'll be as quick as we can, but we need to get these chains either off of you or out of the wall. The wall seemed the best option in the circumstances."
She looked around to see Angel lying next to her, the chains leading from his wrists now laying free next to him. It all rushed back to her. Buffy sat up quickly, looking for Justica.
"If you're looking the RedHead She-Devil, plumcake, I don't think you'll be finding her." Lorne explained. "Her little experiment worked just a smidge differently than I think she anticipated."
"What? How do you know... Huh?"
Wesley cleared his throat. "Explanations can wait. First, I want to get them both out of this place."
Buffy stared at the stone walls and nodded. "Yeah. Out of here would be good."
In the end, it had been dumb luck that the gang had found them. Connor had seen one of Justica's vamps hightailing from the building and had managed to corral him. It hadn't taken much arm-twisting to get him to sing, literally, and from then on it was just a matter of Lorne sorting out the avalanche of information that the PTB threw at him.
"So, basically Justica wanted to be either a Slayer or a vampire, but not to have to worry about the pesky drive to save the world existing simultaneously with the drive to eat the world. She blamed her crisis of conscience on being turned, but truthfully..." Wesley trailed off.
Buffy nodded, where she sat on the couch next to Angel. "It probably would have happened even if she hadn't been turned, is what you're saying."
Fred picked up the story. "She had been working on this project for years. We really don't know how many. Apparently, under our predecessors, there was some sort of shadow fund that handled long-term projects. It was buried so deep, that we never knew about it, and, obviously, we never shut it down when we took over." She paused, then continued with a tinge of guilt in her voice. "That gyrotron receipt... It was for her project. Maybe if I had looked into it more." She sighed and Wesley put a hand on her shoulder.
Angel responded quietly, "There was no reason to."
Wesley spoke again. "Justica thought that by combining the essence of a Slayer and a vampire, she could reset the balance in herself. When it didn't work, she became convinced that using you two was the only way. Angel being of her bloodline and the deep connection between the two of you, made her think that was the answer. And it was, just not the answer she was looking for. There either wasn't enough of her left to save, or, maybe it never would have worked. I'm not really sure."
Buffy looked at Angel, wondering if he had felt that protective field as well, if they should say something. He smiled warmly down at her. She smiled back. It could wait.
Connor asked, "How'd Justica get you down there anyway?"
Buffy explained about the sudden appearance of an extra button in the elevator and Wesley nodded. "I'm theorizing that it was somehow keyed to the presence of a Slayer in the chamber. When Justica was there, the button could appear, if she wished it. Fortunately, it seems that your presence operated in much the same way, which is how we were able to find you."
She nodded. It made as much sense as anything else in this insane place. Then she looked toward Angel. "But what about you? How'd she grab you?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "She used something like the Master's thrall. I woke up and could hear someone calling to me, pulling at me. I couldn't really fight it. I just had to go find the source of that voice."
Buffy leaned her head on his shoulder, feeling him relax just lightly under her touch.
Gunn looked serious as he said, "We also learned that there were at least several employees here on Justica's payroll. Lucy Freeman in Billing - we've got her in a holding cell until we can figure out what to do with her. She was passing information on to Justica; could be where she got the Cleveland info. There's also Tim Walker, a security guard. We haven't been able to locate him yet. I'd be willing to bet there were more. I suggest we do a full house-cleaning over the next couple of weeks."
Angel nodded, his brow drawn tight in concentration. "Tim Walker? Isn't he the one..."
"Who shot Riley Finn? Yeah," Gunn confirmed with a sympathetic look toward Buffy.
"It never ends, does it?" she asked.
"Maybe not," Angel answered, putting his arm around her. "But we can enjoy these moments."
Buffy looked around at the room full of friends, at the love and support evident on each of their faces, and nodded. She snuggled tighter against Angel's side. "I think I can live with that."