Time heals what reason cannot.
After Spike’s announcement that they would be returning from Bjoutan with almost 20 Slayers, Oz set out to find nearby accommodations. They’d need some time to figure out what to do with everyone, and some of the Slayers would need some time to recover. With tactful negotiating skills, and a bit of financial persuasion, he managed to secure the entire Toghill House Farm for the next few days, which would give them enough time to make further plans.
The current guests were expediently relocated to the Thistle Hotel in Bristol so the employees and guests of Wolfram & Hart would have the entire establishment to themselves for their ‘retreat’. With nine rooms and three cottages, the farm was roomy enough for such a large group, but most importantly it offered comfort, security, and above all, privacy, which they would not find as easily in a large hotel.
It took four trips before everyone was transported from Eastwood Park to the farm, Oz driving each round trip circuit and Giles going along with the first group in order to stay at the farm and help everyone get settled as they arrived. Angel and Spike were the last to leave Eastwood Park, staying along with Moire and Agatha to ensure the portal was securely and permanently closed. Buffy and one of the young Slayers named Paloma stayed to the end as well; Buffy because she thought it was her responsibility as perhaps the eldest Slayer, Paloma because she felt safer around the petite blonde and her rescuers.
Only three of the guards were allowed through the portal before it was closed and those three had been vetted extensively by the two vampires and had more than one of the Slayers vouch for their character. The remaining guards would be confined to the dimension indefinitely – unless they were able to somehow manage to open the portal from Bjoutan itself, which was doubtful. The objects used by Moire and Agatha to open the portal would be removed from Eastwood Park; they would subsequently be hidden or destroyed thus preventing anyone from opening the portal from this dimension.
When it was time for the last group to finally leave, Buffy didn’t hesitate nor did she look back. She wanted nothing more than to leave the horrible world of Bjoutan behind.
Despite the size of the group occupying the premises, Toghill House Farm was largely quiet. Some of the young women raided the kitchen to make up for long months of unpalatable food, while for others, the first priority was a long, hot bath or shower. Still others simply roamed the grounds, relishing their freedom. The few that gathered in groups to discuss their experiences talked in hushed whispers.
Giles began to meet with each of the women individually, hoping to assess their mental and physical health. He offered them a place to stay in Florence along with the other Slayers in training, and with Oz’s help began to make plans for those who would accompany him to Italy in a few days.
Meanwhile, Moire and Agatha bought clothes to replace the dirty rags most of the women still wore. They also purchased a duffel bag for each person that they filled with personal necessities, such as a toothbrush, as well as an assortment of other items, including fragrant soaps and lotions, pajamas, and even makeup kits.
Faith, having been in the prison longer than most of the other girls, bounced from bitterly vowing vengeance on all involved to withdrawing from everyone and lapsing into complete silence. Angel talked to her several times, which seemed to do some good, though the effects on her mood were not long lasting.
Many of the other women had never met actually met real vampires, much less vampires with souls, and were frightened enough of Angel and Spike that they stayed well away from them despite their gratitude at being rescued. Others were awed by the two vampires, as well as the two women who regarded them with such familiarity, and treated them with something akin to hero-worship.
Buffy spent most of her first day at the farm outside in the gardens. She sat quietly perched up on the fence watching the sheep in the nearby field, rarely talking to anyone. It was paradise to her to simply breathe in the clean, cool fresh air and feel the sun – weak though it was through the grey and mostly foggy day – on her face. She wasn’t quite ready to talk to anyone about her ordeal, but she began to think someday she might actually be able to feel something again.
She and Angel shared one of the three cottages, but they had yet to really talk. In the hours since they had arrived, it seemed everyone wanted his time. If it wasn’t one of the formerly imprisoned Slayers, it was Giles, Spike, or one of the two Wiccans, Moire and Agatha. At other times, he was on the phone in intense conversation with someone she could only guess was Wesley, or perhaps someone at Wolfram & Hart. After all, it was doubtful the business of evil had stopped in the time she had been gone. She was grateful he seemed to shoulder the burden of responsibility so easily, but she regretted that it seemed he always had to. As eldest Slayer, she should have done more to comfort the others and see to their well-being and their future, yet she was as emotionally closed and needy as they.
Buffy closed her eyes in distress. She had given up hope so long ago that she had simply withdrawn into herself and waited for death. Angel showing up at the prison and taking her away from there seemed like a dream. She wasn’t sure yet how to tell him about the loss of the son he never knew he was going to have, though he deserved to know. She also wasn’t sure she could ever tell him about the humiliation and indignities she’d suffered. She didn’t blame him for what happened to her, but she knew him well enough to know he undoubtedly blamed himself. He bore enough guilt without her adding to it. Yet, she also wanted to be honest with him… half-truths and non-disclosure had added to their problems too many times in the past. It was a dilemma she would have to face at some point. Right now, however, she knew he was giving her the time and space she needed, and she welcomed it.
Inhaling deeply, she opened her eyes and prayed for strength to face the days ahead.
It was light when Angel woke. He lay still, careful not to disturb Buffy who was finally sleeping after a restless night. He turned his thoughts to the next few days ahead. He needed to make arrangements for their return to Los Angeles, as well as to call Wes and confirm that everything was in order to have Travers transported back to LA as well. He should check with Giles to make sure all of the necessary arrangements had been made to Tuscany for all of those going with the former Watcher. Also, Moire and Agatha were planning on leaving later in the day and were taking several of the relics from the portal with them to hide or properly destroy. He needed to make sure they took every precaution for their own safety and to ensure the Council would no longer have access to Bjoutan. Spike would travel back to London with them as a precaution, and so he could help Wes with Travers. But all of that could wait. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to lie here for a little while longer. It had been much too long since he had been able to hold Buffy in his arms, and he was overwhelmingly grateful to have her back, especially after such an ordeal.
Nestled together in the queen size bed, he held her as the darkness turned to dawn, then dawn turn to the bright light of morning behind the thick twill curtains. He nuzzled her hair and gently stroked the curve of her back with his fingertips, wanting to let her know without words that he was there for her. He wanted to somehow infuse her with his strength and his love. If it would help her heal, he would surround her with it, saturate her with it. He didn’t know if it was his imagination or wishful thinking, but it seemed to him Buffy finally slept once enfolded in his arms.
The sound of the door to their cottage opening and closing and someone moving around in the small kitchenette finally forced him to rise.
Giles was sitting at the table, a cup of tea in his hand, when Angel entered the room.
“There’s more, or coffee if you prefer,” Giles said, looking up from the papers strewn on the table in front of him.
“Thanks,” Angel murmured, taking a cup from the cabinet and pouring a cup of coffee. He didn’t really drink it, but he liked the sensation of holding something warm in his hands. Noting the travel documents on the table, he asked, “Are you still planning on leaving Thursday?”
“Yes. I believe we’ll have everything in order by then. I’d like to get the girls somewhere safe where they will be able to settle in for a while.” According to Andrew and Dawn, both of whom Giles had spoken to yesterday, they were all now comfortably settled in their new location in the hills of Tuscany. They’d have to find larger accommodations eventually, but the house where they were staying would be adequate for the short term, despite their increased numbers. “They’ve all been through quite a lot.”
Leaning against the counter, Angel nodded.
Giles stacked the papers he had been looking at neatly and set them aside. He cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. “I’m sorry to barge in this morning, but I thought we might talk privately.”
Knowing the former Watcher wouldn’t have entered their room only to have tea, Angel had been waiting for the man to get to the real reason for his visit.
“I plan to offer Buffy a place to stay in Tuscany.”
Angel thought for a moment he must have misheard, but the former Watcher was looking at him so earnestly he knew he hadn’t.
“I believe she will be happy there,” Giles continued, though he looked away from the vampire’s piercing stare. “Just as I believe being around the other young women who were also… who spent time in Bjoutan, would be beneficial to all of them. I believe being together will help them all to recover.” He removed his glasses and began to clean them, a long standing habit when he was nervous or thoughtful.
“There’s also the simple fact that Buffy was taken from Wolfram & Hart. Someone in the organization was involved in her disappearance. You yourself have said you believe that to be true, but you also have not yet been able to identify who the person might be. It’s quite clear to me she will still be in danger there on her return, perhaps even more now than before. If Buffy returns with you, your attention will be undeniably divided. The demands of running Wolfram & Hart have not ceased, nor will they on your return, and yet Buffy’s safety is paramount. It would be best if you didn’t have to worry about her protection while you continue the search for those responsible for her abduction and take care of your other responsibilities. There’s also the matter of Quentin Travers and the Council that has yet to be dealt with…”
Angel listened, his expression inscrutable, as Giles continued his explanation. He couldn’t disagree, and his stomach constricted at the very thought of Buffy being in danger or worse, taken again. Yes, Buffy had been abducted out from under their very noses, but did Giles think he wouldn’t be prepared this time? That he wouldn’t take every possible precaution, that he wouldn’t trust just anyone with her safety? Though, admittedly, the man did have a point – he didn’t know who he could trust, nor did he know who all had been involved – but he would, soon. Until then, he would simply have to keep Buffy with him. Though, he knew it would be difficult. Buffy wouldn’t succumb to his desire to keep her under surveillance around the clock.
Giles was speaking in a low, quiet voice so Buffy, still sleeping in the other room, wouldn’t hear their conversation. He was describing the benefits time in Tuscany would have for her and the others, and how he would go about ensuring that the girls would be able to protect themselves and each other. And in the course of his discourse, Angel forced himself to put aside his own wants and to consider what might be best for Buffy. Perhaps her former Watcher was right. An army of slayers protecting each other had definite merits. Buffy might, in fact, benefit from being around the other young women who had shared her fate. Too, if he knew she was hidden and safe, he could focus his full attention on finding her captors. And besides, there was a chance that Buffy wouldn’t want to return to Los Angeles; after all, they knew nothing about her abduction. She might not feel comfortable or safe at home in their penthouse suite, much less at Wolfram & Hart.
And yet, emotion didn’t succumb so easily to logic, and despite all attempts at rationalization, Angel still wanted her with him. Having just found her again, he wasn’t ready to consider being apart from her, even if it meant that he didn’t return to Los Angeles either. Unfortunately, he didn’t see any options for getting to the bottom of things without going back to where it all began, at least for a awhile, which meant he would have to go back.
Giles had stopped speaking and was waiting for his response.
Angel sighed and ran a hand through his hair, his indecision obvious. “When Buffy wakes up we’ll talk to her about it,” he conceded unenthusiastically. After almost a minute of consideration, he took the chair opposite Giles at the table. “In the meantime,” he said, his voice changed, cool and businesslike, “you can tell me all of what you know about Willow practicing magic, and why you don’t think I should trust her.”
“Do you think Travers has any loyal followers who will be a threat?” Spike asked Giles as he settled into an overstuffed chair in the farm’s main living room. It was late afternoon; a few hours yet before Spike, Moire, and Agatha would leave for London.
“Not initially,” Giles answered, glancing from the blonde vampire to Oz who sat opposite them, over to Angel who paced near the windows. “He will be missed eventually, and if they are organized, he will be replaced. With what agenda… it depends on who replaces him I suppose.”
“Do you know who it could be?” Oz asked with a contemplative frown. At base he disliked and distrusted the Council; perhaps his feelings carried over from those years ago in Sunnydale when they seemed more bureaucratic than helpful.
“No,” Giles answered pensively. He was as concerned as they about the future of any Watcher’s Council; it could be a threat to the young women in his care. He could only guess at who Quentin had recruited or who might follow him… It was doubtful any of them would be trustworthy.
“Too bad someone we know can’t take over,” Spike declared, “then we’d be able to keep tabs on the whole organization.”
Angel turned back from the shadows near the window, his expression thoughtful. “Why not?”
“Why not what?” Spike’s glance swiveled up.
The dark vampire looked pointedly at Rupert Giles. “Why not have someone we know take over the Watcher’s Council.” It was more a statement than a question.
“It is a good solution,” Oz remarked, his gaze also falling on the former Watcher. “And more importantly, it makes complete sense.”
“Are you suggesting I run the Council?” Giles inquired. He looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“I have to agree with wolf-boy. It makes the most sense. You have all the slayers, so you might as well have the organization too. Make it official, so to speak,” Spike remarked succinctly.
“I don’t know…” Giles began hesitantly.
“There isn’t much choice,” Angel briskly said. “Either you take it over and put people in place you can trust, or you remain in hiding indefinitely. Eventually they’ll reorganize and hunt the girls down. They’ll want the slayers.”
“Wolfram & Hart can draw up any paperwork you need to make it legal. Travers’ won’t be in a position to object,” Angel continued, his tone touched with a hint of menace.
“We can always remove anyone you think will be a problem,” Spike offered cheerfully. He stretched, settling more comfortably in the chair.
“I don’t know…”
“You don’t have to decide today, but think it over,” Angel suggested. His attention returned to the garden outside the window, where Buffy was sitting and flipping absently through a book. He stayed clear of the bits of dim sunlight shining through the windows, and attempted to control his anxiety when Buffy was outside, out of his reach should something happen. She seemed to bask in the outdoors and he didn’t want to take that pleasure away from her. Still, he waited anxiously for sundown when he could join her.
“I’ll give it some thought,” Giles concluded, rising. “Now I need to speak to some of the girls about our travel plans.”
“Was that Angel?” Elise asked from the kitchen, where she was cleaning up after a hastily prepared late lunch.
“Yes,” Wes said, setting the phone on the counter and crossing the kitchen to pick up a towel as well as a plate from the dish drainer. “Spike will be on his way back to London tonight. He’ll help take Quentin back to Los Angeles.”
“A Wolfram & Hart Gulfstream IV is already in route to pick he and Buffy up in Bristol. They’ll fly directly back to LA from there.” Wes left it unsaid that Angel didn’t want Buffy to have to see Quentin Travers just yet, another reason for taking a separate jet home.
“Ah. How is… everyone?” Elise asked tentatively, her expression both curious and concerned. She’d heard very little about Buffy, and even less about her ordeal in Bjoutan. She knew about the other slayers who had been found and returned, and she knew many of them would be going with Giles to an undisclosed location in Italy. She also knew that, for the most part, the young women were in decent health – at least, no one appeared to have physical injuries they would not recover from. Their emotional and mental recovery remained an open issue. But if Angel or Giles had shared any other information with Wes, he hadn’t shared it with her.
“Doing quite well from what I understand, and certainly exceptionally well under the circumstances,” Wesley answered, putting away the now dry plates and reaching for the glasses.
“That’s good to hear.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I called the airlines. I can get on a flight Saturday,” Elise pronounced as she rinsed the last dish.
“That’s completely unnecessary, Elise. There’s plenty of room on the jet. You should return with us. I insist on it. In fact, Angel would insist as well,” Wes said firmly.
“Thank you, Wesley, but no. I already paid for my changeable with a small fee but completely non-refundable ticket that I’ve had to change twice already. I’d feel forever guilty for wasting money on the unused ticket, so consider it appeasing my conscience. Besides, I thought I might stay in London for a few more days. I think I’ll spend a day or two at the Sanctuary in Covent Garden. You know, get a massage, relax, and decompress a little.”
Wes cast Elise a questioning glance.
“I’m sure,” Elise said with finality. “I just… I could use some time.”
His expression grew suspicious. “Tell me you aren’t going to be doing some more research?”
“That I can say with some certainty I will not do. Already I have to make up an excuse for my editor to explain why the outline I owe her will now be late. My head isn’t on straight enough right now to be working, which is another reason I want to take a few days to myself.”
In all honesty she hadn’t decided yet if she was going to continue her book on Buffy and Angel – with fictitious names of course – or not. The feeling that it was a great story still nagged at her. And yet, everything was so complicated now. She wasn’t lying when she said she needed some time to clear her head and think it through.
He hesitated still. “If you’re sure…”
Elise forced a small, reassuring smile. “I am.”
“How are you feeling?” Giles asked as he sat down next to Buffy on the garden bench.
Buffy put down the book she was idly thumbing through and looked fondly at the man who was closer to her than her own father. “I’m okay.”
“Now why don’t I believe you?” Giles replied dryly, his gaze warm and affectionate.
Buffy forced a smile. “You’re a skeptic?”
“Perhaps. And I know you.”
Buffy sighed. “I am okay. Or I will be. It’s just going to take some time to… deal with… everything.”
“I understand,” he murmured sympathetically. He studied her for a moment before he offered quietly, “I’d like to help you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that,” she returned quietly. Leaning back against the teak bench, she cast him a rueful smile. “But there’s nothing anyone can do, really.”
“I’d like you to come to Tuscany,” he said firmly. “I think it would be good for you and for the other young women to spend time together.”
She gazed for a moment at the man who had once been a guiding influence on her life. His assignment as her Watcher had been to train her as a slayer, but, she suspected, it had become much more than either of them had expected. His withdrawal from her had hurt deeply, even if it forced her to stand on her own. How much their lives had changed since those days. “I don’t… Thank you, but no.”
“We’re not leaving until tomorrow afternoon. Please think about it.”
“You have your hands full,” she told him levelly. “You have another almost twenty women who need your help, not counting those already at the school, or Dawn and Andrew. Just those two by themselves are more than I think I could handle.”
“But I can certainly help one more,” he said, “and in return you will, no doubt, be of great help to me, and to them. The girls… they look up to you. You’d be a great influence to them. And I’m sure Dawn would like to see you too.”
Buffy dropped her gaze, immense guilt flooding her mind. She should consider the others, and her duty to them instead of what she wanted. She should go with Giles; at least until she was sure the others were all recovered from their ordeal. She was the eldest slayer; it was her responsibility. And too, it had been quite some time since she had seen her sister. She should make the time…
“Um, well, I…” Her throat closed on the words she could not bring herself to utter, the words that would separate her from Angel – yet again. Was it their destiny to always be apart? It was so unfair. Tears began welling in her eyes, a wave of melancholy inundating her senses.
“You want to go home, with Angel.” Giles submitted quietly.
She lifted her glassy, wide eyed gaze to her former Watcher. Was she so easy to read? She dabbed at her eyes, feeling desperately indecisive and torn. And guilty too, that she wasn’t feeling up to the responsibilities she thought she should shoulder.
“I know that you…” he hesitated at the intimacy involved, at the painful questions burning in everyone’s mind though no one had yet to utter them. It was well known among her friends and family that Buffy had been pregnant when she was taken; what wasn’t known was what happened to the baby. They all, however, could guess. “I know you lost your child,” he stammered, a heat rising in his face along with feelings of awkwardness at bringing up the difficult subject. “It must be difficult.”
For one precarious moment she wanted to strike out at Giles for daring to raise the subject she wasn’t quite ready to talk about. And when she was ready… Angel should hear it first. “Yes,” she answered ambiguously instead.
“If you want to talk about it-”
“I don’t,” she interrupted sharply. She inhaled deeply once, twice… then softened her tone. “I don’t. Not right now.”
“I understand,” Giles murmured with concern.
No, you don’t. You can’t possibly understand. But she left the words unsaid. There was nothing she could say to him that would make him understand completely her feelings of loss. Nor did she have the energy or desire to convince him of that just now.
“If you change your mind… I have a ticket for you.”
She nodded, glancing up as Angel approached. The sun had finally slipped below the horizon making it safe for him to join her outside instead of watching her from the windows where he had been off and on for the last several hours.
She was struck by his splendid dark beauty; his tall, powerful frame etched against the ashen sky. The sight of him affected her more now than when she had first seen him, and even then he had practically taken her breath away. As he drew closer, she noted his concerned expression and the question in his eyes. She could almost feel the tension in his body, their connection so acute. Her brows drew together then relaxed as she surmised the reason for his unease. Her lips curved up in a small reassuring smile, and she instinctively held out her hand to him.
The sight of her smile transfixed him; joy, gratitude, and something decidedly more primal surged within him. His gaze didn’t leave her face as he closed the distance between them, finally taking her hand in his own.
They simply looked at each other, unable to converse normally when raw sensation threatened to overwhelm them, both still in awe they were together again.
“I want to go home with you. That is, if you’ll have me,” she murmured finally, wanting to somehow dispel his concern.
At her answer to the unasked question, a feeling of relief washed through him in a rolling wave that nearly brought him to his knees.
“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” Angel replied simply, his voice low and intimate. His eyes held hers as he bent low to kiss her on the lips. He wanted to vow to her that he would spend the rest of his life loving her, that he would make this up to her somehow or die in the attempt, but he knew now was not the time for impassioned declarations.
“I’ve missed you,” Buffy whispered, enormously gratified by his mere presence. How much she had missed him! Lacing her arms around his neck, she kissed him tenderly.
“Um, I, uh, will leave you two alone,” Giles muttered, now feeling de trop. He rose to his feet.
“Thank you, Giles,” she said softly as Angel took his place on the bench next to her. “I’ll see you before you go?”
“Yes, I’ll be sure to say goodbye.” Giles nodded at them both before crossing the yard toward the house.
They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the soft sounds of distant, muted conversation and subtle insects in the surrounding grass.
“I wasn’t sure if you would want to go back to Los Angeles.”
“I’m not sure either.” She said nothing more. Next to her, she could feel Angel tense.
“We can go…” he searched his mind for a destination but came up blank. “Some where else,” he finished weakly.
Buffy turned toward him, her eyes searching his face. She could feel his strength, but she also detected an undercurrent of uncertainty and rare vulnerability. Very slowly, as though the words were difficult not only to say but to understand, she said, “No, I want to go home. I want to start putting all this behind us. I want to continue our lives together.”
“I love you. I won’t let anything happen to you.” He said with an unequivocal authority, his determination to protect her firm. It tormented his heart to think of how much she had suffered.
“I know.” Her voice sounded husky, emotional, to her ears. Reaching out, she laced her fingers with his, the simple touch reaffirming, a reunion of hearts, of souls, of lives.
“Is Angel here?” Faith asked without preamble when Buffy opened door.
“He’s in the shower,” Buffy answered in the same cool tone.
“I’ll wait,” Faith returned stiffly.
The two women stared at each other, neither of them moving. Finally Buffy broke the silence. “How are you doing?”
“Five by five, now that we’re out of that hell hole,” Faith said, her expression softening for just a moment before her stoic mask slid back into place. “Besides, you know me, I’ll survive.”
“Faith?” Angel questioned as he walked toward the two women standing at the door. Still prone to overreaction concerning Buffy’s whereabouts, he had rushed out of the shower at the sound of voices. As it was, he was bare-foot, clad only his slacks, which were now slightly damp from his hurried job of toweling off.
“Hey,” the brunette slayer greeted, her tone softening somewhat. The tall vampire was one of the few people she genuinely trusted, and he was in many ways like an older brother to her. It might have been more, had he given any inclination he was open to a relationship with her, but much to her disappointment that had never been the case. “I’m outta here.”
“Faith-” he began.
“Don’t try to talk me out of it,” she interrupted firmly, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulder. “I’m not trading one prison for another. I just… I want to do my own thing for awhile.”
Angel studied the young woman standing at the door, her back rigid and her expression closed. What Giles was offering was not prison; it was a place to stay and an opportunity to learn. But there would be guidelines and rules, which for Faith, would undoubtedly seem overly restrictive. He nodded diplomatically, “I understand.”
“You do?” Faith cocked her head. It wasn’t the reaction she had been expecting. She thought he’d try to talk her out of leaving on her own, expecting he’d insist she go to Italy with Giles and the others, or to LA with he and Buffy.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
“You’re leaving?” Buffy asked, having guessed the reason for Faith’s early morning visit. She knew her sister Slayer had been at Bjoutan as well, but other than a brief greeting in acknowledgement, they hadn’t talked. They’d never really been close, and that hadn’t changed in the years after Sunnydale’s demise. They’d seen each other only once in the years since, though Buffy knew Faith kept in touch with Angel, calling the office every few weeks or so.
“Yeah,” Faith answered stiffly. “Me and a couple of the other girls are going to get out of here.” Her gaze moved back to Angel. “I appreciate what you did, getting me out of there and all but…”
Nodding, Angel asked with concern, “Do you need anything? Money? A ride somewhere?”
“I got a train ticket, but some cash would help. I’ll pay you back-” Faith paused. How many times had she told him that before? More than she could count, yet not once had she ever managed to repay him. She would this time, she vowed silently, somehow.
“Hold on,” Angel said as he disappeared into the bedroom.
“So I guess you’re going back to LA, huh?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“I kinda figured,” Faith murmured in acknowledgement, shrugging away her curiosity.
“So where are you going?” Buffy asked conversationally.
“I dunno. Maybe Prague, Istanbul, Madrid, I’m not sure. Regan has some friends in Ibiza, maybe we’ll hang there for a while.”
Angel returned then, sparing them from the need to make additional small talk. “Here, take this,” he said, pressing a wad of bills into Faith’s hand. “If you run into trouble or need anything, call.”
“I will,” Faith said, stuffing the money in her bag.
“I mean it,” Angel insisted, knowing her sense of pride and unwillingness to ask for help even when she needed it.
Faith looked at Angel uncertainly for a moment before suddenly throwing herself at him and hugging him tightly. After several seconds, she stepped back, her expression guarded once again. “Thanks. I owe you.” She gave a small wave and nod to Buffy, then without another word, she turned and walked away.
“She’ll be all right,” Buffy murmured, hoping to convince herself perhaps more than the man next to her.
“She will,” Angel agreed, a small concern in his voice as he thought about the volatile young woman out in the world without restriction.
Turning slightly, Buffy regarded him with interest. “Do you think we should have stopped her?”
“I don’t know that we could have,” he returned plainly. Short of locking her up, which he wouldn’t even consider after what she and the others had been through, there was no way to make Faith stay if she didn’t want to.
“But should we have tried?” She watched him intently, a hint of jealousy rising to the surface. She and Faith had a complicated history; she couldn’t put aside long held feelings easily, even if she wanted too.
“No,” he said, reaching out to put his hand on her waist. He wanted to help Faith and the others, but his priorities were clear.
“You’re sure?” she asked with a fleeting grimace. Perhaps she should try to be more charitable, but her attempts to help Faith in the past had been rebuffed all too often.
“I’m sure,” he murmured, pulling her closer and dropping a kiss on the top of her head. “Now, are you hungry? I’ll make you an omelet if you promise to eat it.”
“With cheese?” she smiled slightly, fondly recalling the many nights he’d cook for her after a night out slaying, the two of them alone in his kitchen, and in later years, their kitchen, talking and sharing until the early hours of the morning. In many ways, those shared moments of companionship seemed more intimate than the passionate encounters that often followed.
“With anything you like,” he returned, pleased just to see her smile.
When the Gulfstream jet touched down in Los Angeles, Buffy’s heart began to thunder in her chest. She hadn’t realized she’d be so nervous about returning or facing her friends. Only those involved in her rescue knew where she had been; the curious others could be told anything she wanted or nothing at all. It was her choice, Angel assured her.
She nervously smoothed her hair and dabbed on some chapstick, but avoided looking in the mirror. She didn’t need to be reminded that her new clothes hung on her thin frame, or that her hair was badly cut and uneven. It would only add to her growing insecurity.
The plane taxied to the private terminal where a Range Rover waited to take them home. The ride to the Wolfram & Hart building was quiet, Buffy too tense to make conversation and Angel all too aware of her growing disquiet.
She felt his hand on the small of her back, encouraging her as they stepped in the private elevator that would take them to their suite of rooms on the top floor. She was grateful for his support, her knees weak since they had stepped off the plane.
As they stepped out of the elevator, they were surprised to find they had company. Willow and Xander stood on one side of the door, and Fred on the other, holding a bouquet of balloons, including one shiny silver mylar with the words, “Welcome Home”. Behind them stood Harmony and another dozen or so people from the office, their expressions a mix of curious and welcoming.
Buffy resisted the urge to turn and run. She glanced briefly at Angel, who gave her a reassuring smile, his arm still around her shoulders steadying her. He hadn’t expected anyone to meet them, but it was hard to keep anything a secret at Wolfram & Hart. Wes may have mentioned something to Fred who passed along the news to the others, or the pilot that was sent to Bristol to bring them home may have mentioned something in passing.
Buffy’s friends tried not to stare as they immediately surmised that wherever she had been, she had been gravely ill. She was normally petite, but now she looked so fragile a strong wind might blow her away.
“Uh, hi everyone,” Buffy murmured in a low, strained voice.
Xander came forward then, hesitating only briefly before pulling her into a tight hug. Fred followed, then Willow as they tearfully welcomed her home. No one asked where she had been, or how it was that she had been found – something Buffy was profoundly grateful for. She had not yet had time to compose herself enough to decide how she would answer those inevitable questions.
After a few minutes, Angel ushered them all out, explaining it had been a long flight and Buffy needed her rest. On their way out, Xander and Willow both promised to call to check up on her.
“It was nice of them to come,” Buffy said half-heartedly after the door closed, and Angel locked it behind them.
“It was,” Angel agreed, though he wished he had anticipated the group and headed them off until much later. “And now you should rest, and I’ll order dinner. Or how about a bath? You always liked to soak in the tub.” He tugged her hand pulling her behind him into the bedroom. “Now would you like for dinner? Pasta from Maggiano’s?”
“That’s fine,” she said, taking in the well remembered bedroom. The crimson silk sheets and patterned duvet were gone; in their place were sheets of soft, buttery ecru cotton and an elegant tan suede coverlet. Several pictures were missing from the bureau and the nightstand, but the rest of the room was as she remembered.
A while later, settled in a steaming tub of water filled with her favorite bath salts, Buffy set aside the tray containing her half-eaten dinner.
She felt the color rise in her cheeks when Angel came in the room, and she sank lower in the water.
He gave no sign he even noticed her reaction, taking a seat on the edge of the tub. He had no intention of forcing things between them, but he did want to reestablish some degree of intimacy. Glancing at the food on the tray, he urged, “Sweetheart, can’t you eat more than that?”
Opening the untouched container of lemon cookies, he plucked one from the dish.
“You used to love these,” he reminded her, holding one cookie to her lips.
“Mmm,” she sighed, taking a bite. Never again would she take a hot bath or an excellent meal for granted. “You’re going to spoil me.”
“I want to,” he said, feeding her the remainder of the cookie. He couldn’t resist running his finger along one bare, delicate shoulder. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered reverently.
“No, I’m not,” she disagreed softly, dropping her gaze “Not any more.”
“You are,” he insisted. With a finger under her chin, he urged her to look up at him. “And I refuse to hear otherwise.”
She smiled weakly. After a moment, she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to tell them. My friends.”
“You can say you were trapped in another dimension and leave it at that. No one else need know anything more. Anyone except me, that is,” he prompted gently. “How did you get there, do you remember?”
For almost a minute she seemed to struggle with her thoughts. At last she said, “I wish I knew. I was in the limo on my way to Long Beach harbor to meet you, and next thing I knew I woke up in chains on a plane to somewhere. They gave me a shot, some kind of tranquilizer I guess, so I was out of it most of the time. The next thing I knew I was…” she paused and inhaled deeply before continuing, “in a cell with that horrible Arno and his goons. I was kept blindfolded most of the time on the trip, so even when I wasn’t unconscious, I couldn’t tell much of anything about my surroundings or the people.”
“I’m so very, very sorry, Buffy,” he said softly, though his eyes held a menacing fury. Tenderly he brushed a hair back from her face. “Arno is dead. I killed him.”
Her eyes lifted to his. “He won’t be missed.”
Reaching down, he took one of her hands in his. He squeezed it gently then lifted it to his lips. “What did he do to you? Did he-”
“No, he didn’t,” she interjected quietly, “He… did other things, but he never raped me.”
“He was a cruel… thing.” She couldn’t even bring herself to call him a man. “He enjoyed causing pain and humiliation to anything weaker than himself. I couldn’t fight him. My strength… my slayer abilities… they were gone. It was drugs, or lack of food, or both.” Her whispered voice sounded as though it were coming from a distance. Shaking her head, she attempted to will away the painful reminder of the humiliation she had suffered at the hands of the awful warden. “I don’t want to think about it ever again.”
Angel’s throat closed in frustrated rage as a teardrop rolled down her cheek. He brushed it away with gentle fingers and wished he could kill the burly warden again, though slower and more painfully this time. He had known the girls had been beaten; that was evident by the whips and canes in the man’s office chest and the smell of blood that clung to them. What else the man had done to them, he hadn’t wanted to contemplate.
Leaning down, Angel brushed her forehead with a kiss. “If there’s a way, I’ll make it up to you.”
Buffy gazed up at the man she loved more than anything in the world. Tears welled in her eyes and she began to cry. “You already have.”
Moving quickly, he lifted her from the tub and wrapped her in a fluffy, oversized bath towel. He carried her into the bedroom and sat on the bed. He felt bereft of adequate words to ease her pain, so he simply held her tightly in his arms until long after her tears subsided.
Finally she lifted her head and looked into his eyes. The compassion and love she saw almost made her tears start anew. With effort, she wiped at her eyes and sniffed, gratefully taking the tissues he handed her. “What did you think?”
“About?” he asked carefully.
“About me being gone.”
It was a few minutes before he spoke. “I knew right away you had been kidnapped. But other than your ring and a few strands of hair, there were no clues, no leads, nothing. It seemed as though you vanished from the limo,” he muttered in frustration. The limo he had never sent, with the driver who had never been found. But he wasn’t going to tell her that just yet. “I- we looked everywhere for you. I nearly went crazy.” It was an understatement, should you ask anyone else at Wolfram & Hart during those months after her disappearance. For a moment more he considered his heartrending impotence during that time, and then he continued in a low murmur, “What scared me most was that I couldn’t feel you.” His arms tightened around her as if to reassure himself that his former fears were now unfounded.
“I know,” she whispered, touching his cheek tentatively with her fingers, seeing the pain of remembrance in his eyes. She was surprised by the rare disclosure, Angel not one to easily share his feelings or his fears. “I’m glad you found me.”
“Me too,” he said quietly.
They sat for a few more minutes without speaking, content to simply be together. When Buffy started to doze off, Angel rose and helped her into a pair of flannel pajama shorts and tank top.
“Get some sleep,” he whispered as he tucked her into their big bed.
Comfortable and safe for the first time in almost two years, Buffy slept deeply.
Elise groaned audibly when she saw the length of the cab line outside of LAX. Of course, it seemed as though hers was the last luggage to appear on the baggage carousel, giving everyone else plenty of time to get in line ahead of her.
She sighed tiredly as she waited. She idly wondered if Angel and Buffy were back in Los Angeles already, and if Wes and Spike had already arrived with Quentin Travers. She thought for a moment about calling, but quickly changed her mind. She wasn’t sure what she would say to Angel that wouldn’t seem nosy or interfering, and she wasn’t sure he’d even welcome her call. No doubt his time was occupied with Buffy, her recovery, and of course, the never ending stream of cases that passed through the doors of Wolfram & Hart.
She should call Wesley though. After all, she hadn’t talked to him again after Spike and Oz returned to London and she left the apartment for her sojourn at the spa. He had left a message for her, but she hadn’t gotten it until late in the evening, and by then she thought it too late to return his call. She would call him, she decided. Later. When she was home, unpacked, showered, and maybe settled in with a nice glass of brandy.
Her two day vacation at the Sanctuary had been nice, but not as restful as she had hoped. She brooded constantly over what to do about her novel, but she hadn’t been able to reach any sort of a conclusion. On one hand, she had an amazing story. On the other hand, she had an amazing story that was intensely painful to those involved; how could she expose such a heartrending event, even in fiction? And there were own complicated feelings about Angel, and their… relationship, if you can call it that. Her editor, Gwen, hadn’t been at all understanding when she finally called her and asked for more time. It hadn’t helped that Gwen was annoyed with her for not returning her calls in almost a week, but it forced Elise to promise that the outline would be for a novel worth waiting for. And yet, she wasn’t sure she’d even have such a thing…
Right now, she simply wanted to get home and sleep in her own bed. Perhaps rather than basking at a spa, it would be a few days in comfortable surroundings that would finally allow her to clear her head.
It was almost half an hour before she was in a cab, and another hour and fifteen minutes before the cab pulled up at her door, the Los Angeles traffic worse than usual this evening due to a car stalled on the freeway.
The driver lugged her two heavy suitcases up to her door and inside, earning Elise’s profuse thanks and a generous $40 tip.
Closing the door behind him, she dropped her keys on the table near the door. With a sigh, she kicked off her shoes and started toward the kitchen. It was only then she realized she wasn’t alone.
Slowly, she turned toward to face the woman standing in front of her fireplace.
“Welcome home, Elise.” The cool tone was anything but welcoming.