“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
With his hands in his pockets, Oz hunched his shoulders against the cool night air. He paced back from the private terminal to lean casually against the front of the Mini as he squinted into the distance. Inside the parked car, Elise sat waiting and chewing nervously at her fingernails. She kept thinking not so much of what she would say, but of how Angel would react when he heard the news.
When she had finally worked up the courage to call him, she told him only that she had been doing some research for her next book and that she had run into some trouble. Could he please come to London? He asked a few questions, mostly about her immediate safety, and she gave some vague answers. She agreed to do nothing more until he arrived, and within hours the Wolfram & Hart jet left Los Angeles.
Oz spotted the lights of Challenger 604 first as it neared the darkened field, descending and growing steadily closer. Several minutes later, they watched as it landed gracefully on the long runway.
When the pilot taxied to the terminal, Elise got out of the car. Her pulse was racing and her heart was in her throat by the time the plane finally came to a halt a short distance away. A few minutes later the door opened and Angel, followed by Spike and Wes, exited the plane.
Reaching Elise first, Angel leaned forward to kiss her lightly in greeting. Returning the brief perfunctory kiss, Elise felt her heart squeeze painfully. She avoided Wesley’s alarmed and inquisitive stare as she gave him a quick hug in greeting. She nodded to Spike who was rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers, and studying the entire scene speculatively.
Glancing beyond Elise at the man standing slightly behind her and to the left, Angel was surprised to find that he recognized her companion. “Oz.”
Oz nodded. “Hey.”
“Nice surprise,” Angel returned. He glanced curiously from Oz to Elise and back to Oz again. He didn’t know the two of them knew each other, but then again Elise’s recent book was on werewolves. It was possible they had met somehow, or had friends in common.
“Thanks. You too.”
“Been here long?”
“Here, not really,” Oz shrugged. “Europe? A few years.”
“Now what’s going on?” Angel asked, turning back to Elise.
Her eyes met Wesley’s briefly. She could sense his concern; he didn’t even know yet what she and Oz had found, so no doubt he was also avidly curious. She had debated calling and telling him before she called Angel, and again after. After all, he had been her sounding board on this from the beginning; and most recently, he advanced from sympathetic ear to partner in crime by actively helping with the research of her findings. Ultimately however, she decided against it. This was too significant. Wes would feel obligated to tell Angel, and Angel deserved to hear the information first, and from her, no matter how hard this might be.
Returning her gaze to Angel’s face, she struggled to speak, her thoughts in a chaotic jumble. Over the last several hours, she had rehearsed and rehearsed in her mind what she wanted to say, but her planned speech seemed to slip away now that he was standing in front of her. Instead, the events of the past weeks threatened to come out in one incoherent blurt. She took a deep breath in an attempt to compose herself.
“I’ve been working on an idea for a new book,” she began, her voice strained. She felt light headed suddenly, as if she might faint.
“Yes,” he answered, smiling faintly. His expression was indulgent as he studied her face. “And didn’t I tell you that one day your field research was going to get you into trouble?”
“Yes, you did,” she admitted, a nervous laugh escaping her lips. She sincerely doubted that he’d ever imagined that the ‘trouble’ he’d been referring to would be of this sort. “I actually started working on this before I left LA.”
“I remember. You said your editor was expecting an outline,” he reminded her. She had cancelled their plans once or twice with the excuse of having to work.
“Yes, she was. I mean, she is,” Elise mumbled absently, rubbing her forehead and trying again to collect her thoughts. The fact that Angel was waiting so patiently for her to speak, a look of concern on his face, was very nearly breaking her heart.
“Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” he returned calmly, reaching out to put a reassuring hand on her back. He was puzzled by her hesitation when she was usually candid and direct.
Chewing her lip, she turned and moved away from him. She couldn’t do this with him touching her, no matter how comforting it felt. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. There was no simple or easy way to do this. Opening them again, she looked directly into the dark, intense eyes watching her attentively. “Angel… I was researching Buffy.”
There was a long pause before Angel asked in a cold, curt voice, “Why?”
His tone was like a knife in her chest. Warmth and friendship had fled, and in its place was the formal, hard, all business persona she had seen him use with his difficult – and usually evil – clients.
“I… I wanted to write her story. Your story: a vampire and a Slayer in love. After you told me about her, I was curious… I started reading about slayers, and about Buffy. The more I found, the more intrigued I became, and the more I felt that I had to tell this story. Writing, telling stories… it’s what I do. And this… it’s a great story. I didn’t tell you because I wanted to surprise you.”
“It’s a surprise, I’ll give you that,” he returned flatly.
“I was going to tell you about it when I was finished,” she offered lamely.
“Well, hey now, it’s not like it should be a complete shocker-” Spike began only to be shushed by Wes with a sharp tap on the shoulder and pointed looked.
Elise’s gaze flitted to Spike’s briefly. He shrugged, but gave her an encouraging wink. She turned back to Angel once again.
“I’m sorry, Angel. I am. I know this is a surprise.” Wetting her lips, she braced herself and continued, “But… I have to tell you… I think… we may have found her… Buffy… she may be alive.”
Angel felt stunned, as though someone had slammed a fist into his gut.
Behind her, Spike’s jaw dropped and the cigarette that had been dangling from his lips fell to the ground. Wes gasped loudly and looked from Elise to Angel and back again. Oz simply nudged a tuft of grass on the ground with his foot, his expression somber.
“What?” Angel whispered harshly, his dark eyes blazing. Grabbing her arms roughly, he hauled her forward. “What did you say?”
“I think we found out what happened to her.” Elise’s voice was barely above a whisper. She stared up at him, her eyes wide. “Buffy… I think… it’s possible she’s still alive.”
“Don’t say that unless you can swear on your life it’s the truth.” His voice was merciless, his expression pained.
“It is true, at least as much as I know.”
Releasing her abruptly, he stalked a few feet away and stood staring at the twinkling lights in the distance. Dare he believe it? And if it was true… where was she? Was she all right? Why hadn’t he been able to find her, despite turning over every lead and following every clue? What had he missed? How could he have missed anything?
Elise watched him quietly, rubbing at her arms.
Finally he said, “Tell me what you know.” He turned to look at her then, his eyes dark and unreadable, his expression remote and closed. “Tell me everything, starting with where she is.”
“I didn’t come to see my aunt. I came to London to talk to Rupert Giles, and to Dawn. I wanted to talk to everyone that knew her, that knew about… your life, and hers. I try to do thorough research on any subject I write about.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “You lied to me.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Though I really was going to tell you about all this… eventually, you know, when I had the first draft of the story written.”
He didn’t reply, only stared at her intently with his arms crossed over his chest.
“You knew that my stepfather, Charlie, was a Watcher. Purely by chance I ended up visiting a friend of his, William Wells. My hotel wasn’t far from his house, and I had come across it coincidentally while out for a bit of air, you see. Anyway William was also a Watcher. We had tea… We talked about my stepfather, and about the Council. I mentioned to him how disappointing it was that Council lost so much when their offices were destroyed a few years back. William all but said that the Council wasn’t destroyed, that a centuries old organization like that survives because they have contingency plans. It made me think that the Council was reformed, and active.”
“He wouldn’t say any more about it, but that was enough. I knew he knew something, so I… I looked through his office,” she confessed reluctantly, slightly embarrassed now by her casual snooping through her stepfather’s friend’s things. She hadn’t given it a second thought at the time, but now she wondered if Angel thought less of her for it. There was no help for it now; what was done was done.
She sighed. “Anyway, I found some addresses. I checked them all out on the chance that I might find something, anything. The Council kept extensive volumes on every subject, so I figured at the very least I might find something to help me with the book. Some background on slayers, some history, or something. After all, slayers were a primary concern for them.” She paused, drawing in a breath. “Instead, I found Quentin Travers. He’s still alive.”
“And?” Angel prompted curtly. He recalled the name from Buffy’s eighteenth birthday; Quentin had been responsible for the slayer trials that risked Buffy’s life by taking away her powers. When he had found out, he had wanted to pound the man into dust, but he stayed out of it in deference to Giles. Things had been strained enough between the two men at the time; killing a member of the organization that Giles took his orders from would not have helped. He wondered now if he was going to regret not following his instincts on the matter, however.
“He was in the explosion that destroyed the offices, so it’s curious he’s still alive, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t care. Tell me about Buffy,” he growled impatiently. A sense of foreboding joined the hope he felt racing through his body. “Where is she?”
“I am. I will. I just… you need to hear all of this first.”
“Then go on,” he insisted grimly.
“One of the addresses was the Council’s new offices. Or at least Quentin’s office. I got in one night and searched the place. I found some property deeds, including one for a place called Eastwood Park. Travers got the deed to it with Wolfram & Hart’s help several years ago. 1999, I think. Wesley pulled the files, and found that it’s actually another dimension. Bjoutan.”
“Wesley pulled the files?” he asked archly as he cast a sharp glance at the former Watcher. “You knew about all of this?” That explained why the former Watcher insisted on coming along, even when Angel suggested that it wasn’t necessary.
“Yes. No. Well, not all of it,” Wes replied awkwardly. “I don’t know anything about finding Buffy. If I had, I would have told you. I can assure you, this new development is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.”
“And you?” Angel asked, turning a piercing gaze on Spike.
“Yes. No. Yes. No, I mean, I knew about her book and all. Got to be pretty dull witted not to, after all. Horror writer, writing about real demons and such in our midst, and having such a juicy topic as the slayer come up, not to mention the ex of someone she’d shagging… But no, I didn’t know, about this,” Spike retorted indignantly, one hand swinging wide in gesture. “This being the Buffy being alive this. I had hoped, or thought that maybe, but then I’m good at denial whereas you-”
“I asked for Wesley’s help,” Elise interjected before Spike could continue. She needed to get the rest of the story out before her courage completely failed her.
“The file, the one for Eastwood Park, had a Wolfram & Hart phone number on it. I thought it was suspicious, so I called him and asked him to look it up. I also gave him the name of the lawyer that worked on the acquisition. The phone number belonged to someone that’s no longer there, and the lawyer… he did work for Wolfram & Hart, but now he’s dead. I also interviewed Spike, because he knew something about Buffy and about you. I talked to Fred and Willow as well. It’s what I do, interview people and gather facts for my story.”
“I even tried to talk to Xander Harris,” she concluded quietly. “Though he wouldn’t talk to me.”
Distraught, Angel ran a hand through his hair. Was everyone in on this behind his back? He had long suspected that someone from Wolfram & Hart had been involved in Buffy’s disappearance, but he never had any proof, much less even the smallest clue to follow. But now… if Wesley found files, there would be clues. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. However, finding who exactly was responsible, and how all the pieces fit together, was a secondary concern. He advanced toward Elise impatiently. “Where is Buffy?”
Elise looked up at his dark visage as he towered over her, the shadowy light of the moon behind him, and thought for a moment that he looked like a dark angel, fallen from grace. Shaking away the thought, she looked away from the intense eyes boring into her and focused on a flickering light in the distance. After a moment, she took a deep breath. “This Eastwood Park, er, Bjoutan… Angel. It’s a prison.”
Angel stood utterly still, his eyes trained on the woman in front of him.
“Bloody fucking hell,” Spike muttered in a hushed voice.
“My God,” Wes breathed at almost the same moment.
“How do you know this?” Angel’s voice was a pained whisper.
Elise looked up and met his anguished gaze. “Oz found this guy, er, demon. Half-demon guy, I guess. Anyway, he knew about Bjoutan. He told us his cousin had gotten a job there, as a guard.”
“Where is he? I want to talk to him myself,” he said, his words underscored with lethal softness.
Elise shivered, despite herself. “You can. We have him locked up at Oz’s place.”
“Good. Then we go to this Bjoutan.” He spoke through gritted teeth, one hand extended in front of him his fingers outstretched. Those who knew him recognized the gesture as one he typically used when seriously angry and attempting restraint; it was also eerily reminiscient of Angelus.
“Angel… There’s something else that you need to know. This place… Bjoutan… it sounds bad. Really bad.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “The women there, they most likely have been… oh, God, I don’t know how else to say this… physically and sexually abused.”
The moan of anguish that came from Angel sounded like that of a wounded wolf. It broke the stillness of the night, and made all who heard it shudder.
Sucking in a shaky breath and wiping at her eyes, Elise wished for a moment that she could take it all back. She wished that she had never decided to write this story, that she had never been the one to find the information, and most of all, that she had never been the one that had to deliver such horrible news.
“Hurry up,” Giles said as he walked through the hallway of the girl’s dormitory. “Take only what you need for a few days. Andrew will send the rest along within a matter of days.”
“But Mr. Giles,” Serena whined, slinging her duffle bag over her shoulder. “What if we don’t want to go?”
The former Watcher paused and turned to look at the curious faces of the young women following behind him. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a choice. We’ve lost our lease, and need to vacate the school by the end of the month.”
“But that’s not for another two weeks,” Kate protested. “And that’d give us more time to pack our things. And say goodbye to people and stuff.”
“We leave for Italy tonight. I don’t want to hear any more about it,” Giles countered firmly. He crossed the courtyard and entered the library. “Besides, I think you’ll quite like Florence. Some of the world’s finest art is there. The Uffizi Gallery, for example, is magnificent. The Bargello sculpture museum is also quite impressive, as is the Medici Chapel. Michelangelo’s statue of David is there at the Accademia.”
“Now you’re talking. That’s one piece of art I would very much like to see up close,” Serena interjected glibly. “My interest in art and all.”
“Yes, I’m quite sure,” Giles agreed, though he cast the girl a sardonic glance.
“But we like it here,” Kate protested even as she helped as the former Watcher began to take books off the shelves and put them into boxes.
“Yes, well, if I recall correctly you complained incessantly about the weather after we arrived. And that was only one of many complaints.”
“Okay, but that’s before we all got settled in and stuff,” Serena admitted from her seat on the now empty desk. “And before we got to know each other really well, or even to know any people in the area.”
“You’ll get to know people in Florence, and you’ll come to like them as well.”
“But it’s not the same,” Kate pouted, picking up an empty box and moving to the next set of shelves.
“Totally not the same,” Serena agreed sagely.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to adjust. We leave promptly at 8:15. All of us, except of course Andrew who will stay and see to the rest of the packing.”
“Make sure and pack your underwear,” Serena commented flippantly, smiling at Kate who laughed and nodded in return.
“What?” she asked innocently, noting Mr. Giles inquisitive look. “He would totally go through our, you know, girl things – our undies – if left alone.”
“Yes, well,” Giles mumbled in response, annoyed that he’d have to have a talk with the young man about that again. “Then do pack them, and I’ll have a word with Andrew.”
“Can’t we stay just a few more days?” Kate asked again, her eyes pleading. “This is so sudden. If you knew we were going to lose the lease, why couldn’t you have said so?”
“Kate, if you want to go and say goodbye to the young man you’ve been seeing, then by all means do so. Just be back by 7:00. You can tell him you’ll call or write or email, or whatever it is you do these days, once we’re settled.”
“Really?” Kate squeaked, surprised he knew about Bradley, and doubly surprised that he’d even suggest the continuation of a long distance relationship. He didn’t particularly encourage the girls to have relationships, explaining all too often that life as a Slayer was difficult for most to understand.
“Yes. And if Mia and Lacey are finished packing, take them with you. No doubt they will want to say their goodbyes as well,” Giles answered distractedly. He’d had to call in a favor with a friend to find a place for all the girls on such short notice, but it couldn’t be helped. He wanted to get them all out of London, and as quickly as possible.
Kate and Serena were already gone before he could say any more.
Giles sighed. He just hoped they’d be back on time.
Buffy woke just before dawn. She lay still and listened numbly to the squeaking and rustling of the rats moving through the cells in search of meager scraps of food. She knew they’d be hard pressed to find anything. What scant rations the women received, they tended to devour greedily – even the less than appetizing watery gruel that contained the occasional cockroach. She had long become accustomed to the dull gnawing in her stomach that never went away. She had even gotten used to the dirt and the smell. It had taken months, but eventually she conceded that resisting and fighting only brought more humiliation and pain, and used up every ounce of strength she possessed. The only way she was going to survive this ordeal, she told herself, if indeed she was going to survive, was acceptance. Simple quiet acceptance. The less she struggled, and the more she retreated into her mind, the more she could tolerate.
Gradually she became aware of an inexplicable sense of dread creeping through her. She remembered that today was the day for her weekly visit with Arno. She shuddered, and closed her eyes, willing herself mentally somewhere far away. She used her imagination to free herself from this place, and its horrors. Whenever possible, she spent long, pleasant hours with Angel, far removed from the dark and dank walls surrounding her.
She spent hours imaging what her baby would have looked like: tiny and perfect, with dark eyes and dark hair like his father. She would cuddle him in her arms, and he would open his eyes and smile at her. He would be sweet and clean and so innocent it made her heart ache.
Sometimes she would go back to Sunnydale, back when things were new and life seemed so simple. She and Angel would dance at the Bronze, their bodies moving together in slow, teasing, undulations, then he would walk her home or she would walk him home, but inevitably they’d end up somewhere along the way locked in a passionate embrace. She could almost feel his hands sliding tentatively under her shirt, gliding across her skin as their kisses grew more heated and passionate. She could feel his cool lips on her throat, her breasts, sucking gently. His hands would roam over her gently, then not so gently and she had responded eagerly to both in kind. He had introduced her to sensual delights she had never before imagined and she had loved every minute of it.
Other times, she would go back to their oh-so-few years together in Los Angeles. It was a dream come true for her in many ways – working together, fighting demons side by side, then going home together to spend their days together in blissful, and often more intimate, pursuits. Even the mundane things like going to the grocery story, or debating what movie to rent on a rare day off, took on special significance now.
The single most pleasurable thing she remembered in her life was Angel, and how he seemed to treasure their every moment together. He would look at her as though she was rare and precious, special. She could still feel the coolness of his skin against hers, and hear his whispered words of love against her hair when they’d curl up together before dozing off to sleep. And the moments after they would make love, when the violence of their passion, unleashed and savage, drifted slowly away, he’d look at her with adoration and something more profound and powerful. It never failed to take her breath away.
Buffy sighed. She would never be completely imprisoned as long as she could see Angel, his broadsword in hand and a rare, cocky grin on his face as he prepared to attack whatever demon was opposing them. The fight exhilarated him as much as it did her, the predator inside of each of them unable to be completely tamed.
One of her favorite escapes was into the heart of battle. She could smell the cloying scent of a decaying cemetery, and feel the smooth carved wood of a stake in her hand. Her confidence soared, and she felt as though she could take on anything. If ever she could greet the night with such confidence again, she would do so eagerly. To be free – truly free – would perhaps come only with death, which was something she no longer feared. Death was easy. Living… that was hard.
She no longer cared whether she lived or died. In many ways, she felt that she had been given more than one could ever hope for in life. She’d returned from the dead – twice. She’d stopped an apocalypse, or two or ten. She’d lost count. She’d known the exhilaration of sparring with – and often besting – one of the best champions the world had ever known. And she’d had Angel’s love. As long as he survived a part of her would as well, for she was a part of him, and would be throughout eternity.
The door to her cell opened, and the guard cast a leering glance in her direction. When she didn’t move right away, he crossed the room and pulled her from the narrow cot with a vicious jerk on her hair. Though she fell to her knees, she didn’t let out even so much as a whimper.
Twisting her arm cruelly, he shoved her out the door. They went down the long hallway, then up two flights of stairs to the courtyard. From there, they crossed to the main offices, which also served as the home to the prison warden.
“Need any help with this one?” The guard asked when he opened the door and pushed Buffy through.
“No,” Arno replied sneeringly, his beady eyed gaze roving over Buffy before finally turning to the guard standing on the threshold. “She’s learned her place here.”
With one last lingering look at Buffy, the guard closed the door.
“Strip,” Arno barked dispassionately.
Woodenly, Buffy went through the motions of removing her filthy, ragged clothing much as she had countless times before. She had learned to follow his orders; defiance was met with brutal reprisals. Even as she did as he commanded, she cursed herself for being spineless and weak.
“What do you think your high and mighty vampire would think of you now?” The beefy prison warden asked as he came closer to examine the fading bruises that covered her breasts. A satisfied smile crossed his lips. “You think he’d still pant after you?”
Buffy didn’t move, nor did she offer any reply.
“You reek like a common street whore,” he continued, walking around her slowly. She was wraith thin now. Her beautiful mane of golden blonde hair was short, dirty and lank. Her once beautiful face was sallow and haggard. Even her luminous green eyes appeared to have paled.
Closing her eyes, she mustered her courage. “Please let me bathe then.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked pleasantly. “Surely you don’t think that if you’re clean, you’d be able to bribe your way out of your punishment with sexual favors? Though that probably works with your filthy vampire,” he added with mock consideration. “Base, lusty creatures that they are.”
Buffy stared at the floor. She’d heard it all before, in some form or another, since she’d been here. Arno seemed particularly intrigued by her association with Angel, and had thrown it in her face at every opportunity. He often used it as an excuse for her weekly ‘lessons’, which ranged from simple humiliation of standing before him nude to cruel and vicious lashings. Thankfully, so far, he seemed uninterested in sex though he did appear to have a fascination with breasts.
“You know it’s within regulations for me to brand you, don’t you?” the beefy warden said, reaching out to viciously twist one soft pliant breast. “I think it should say Angelus’ Whore, don’t you? Right across your skinny backside.”
“No. Please,” Buffy whispered, her eyes liquid with apprehension.
“No? I thought you wanted the world to know since you bedded down so freely with the monster. You were living openly with him, or so I’m told. You arrived here knocked up, so don’t bother to deny it. Any Slayer that’d willingly spread herself for the very thing that she’s sworn to rid the world of deserves every punishment she gets.” He rummaged through the chest against the far wall. “I think the bullwhip tonight. It’s been weeks since we’ve enjoyed that particular bit of fun, hasn’t it?”
Buffy closed her eyes. She couldn’t object – he’d only make it worse. She couldn’t agree – he’d only make it worse. Quiet acceptance. It was the only way.
He showed no mercy on her whatsoever. He beat her with the bullwhip until she collapsed on the floor in a faint. Buffy’s last thought before she lost consciousness was that at least he appeared to have forgotten the idea of branding her.
Afterwards, he called the guard to carry her down to her cell, where she was tossed carelessly on the dirty floor.