The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.
– Bob Marley
While Angel and Buffy were taking small steps in becoming reacquainted, Marcus Hamilton was seeking to curtail what he deemed as “information leaks” in the organization. Or, at least in the parts of the organization he was most concerned with.
“She’s a novelist. She writes fiction books,” Marcus mocked as Willow joined him in one of Wolfram & Hart’s many cavernous basement vaults. They met there so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard and their meeting wasn’t likely to be observed. It was always difficult in an organization of this ilk to know who could – and could not – be trusted.
Her jaw clenching and the slight slowing of her pace were the only signs she heard him as she made her way across the room.
“If I recall correctly, you said she wouldn’t find anything. There was nothing to find. And yet, let me see… Angel is now in his suite upstairs coddling Buffy, and is now doubly cautious and overly suspicious of everyone in the office; twenty – plus or minus – slayers are now free, and God knows where; the portal to Bjoutan is closed, the artifacts – many of which were quite rare and irreplaceable – destroyed or scattered to the wind; and Quentin Travers is locked up in our very own basement.” As he spoke, he ticked each item off on his fingertips. “That doesn’t sound like nothing to me. That sounds, in fact, like a great deal of something.”
When Willow didn’t respond, he continued, “Needless to say, the Senior Partners are not pleased.”
“Are they ever?” she returned bitterly.
Ignoring her question, the liaison to the Senior Partners crossed his arms across his chest. “Well?”
“Well what?” Her expression was one of bored indifference.
“What are you going to do about all of this?”
“Unlike you, I don’t think it’s much of a problem,” she murmured with a shrug. “It’s manageable.”
“You do understand that I’m not completely reassured by your glib statements,” Marcus declared, “after all, had this been managed adequately in the first place we wouldn’t be here now.”
“You’re overreacting,” she snapped, all the more annoyed by his implication that the current situation was her responsibility. It hadn’t been her plan to turn Buffy over to the Watcher’s Council; she had only… facilitated.
“First of all, the slayers aren’t a threat to anyone. I’m sure that Giles has them tucked away in the country somewhere studying demon manuscripts and doing practice drills. There’s no way he will want to give up any of the fawning students that feed his Watcher ego, so neither you, nor the Senior Partners, nor anyone else should have any concern that you’ll have do-gooders with super powers out fighting the evil you work so hard to set loose in the world. As for the portal to Bjoutan, who cares that it’s closed? The Watcher’s Council?” Rolling her eyes, she shrugged.
“Wolfram & Hart already has their cash for the deal. I’ve seen the contract – there was no guarantee that the dimension would remain accessible, so there is no recourse for any type of messy legal action. Not that the Partners care about that or the Council’s interests anyway. The Watcher’s Council is just an archaic organization run by a group of staid old men of average intelligence, with no imagination or real skill to speak of, and a somewhat lecherous interest in young girls. If anything, they’re an opposition and a hindrance. Slayers are, in general, not exactly… friendly to Wolfram & Hart’s typical clients so they should be glad that they’re out of operation. As for Bjoutan… it’s a humid, barely habitable dimension. If any of the Senior Partners have a notion to go somewhere as fun and exciting as that place, they can. They have ways to access any dimension they choose, you and I both know that. As for Quentin Travers-” Willow paused, tapping her fingers impatiently and thinking about an appropriate response to the former Council leader’s presence.
“The Senior Partners will be reviewing his contract later this week,” Marcus finished in answer.
“Well, then they’ll take care of him – or not – as they see fit,” the red haired Wiccan returned coolly and dismissively.
“They don’t like to have to get involved.”
“They don’t like having to get their hands dirty you mean,” she snapped, more familiar than she would’ve liked to be with their preferred mode of operation.
“They believe they hire competent people to run their operations. If you claim otherwise, then you speak only of yourself,” he countered antagonistically. “In your implausible chronicle of things that shouldn’t concern us, you failed to mention Buffy’s return or Angel’s renewed zeal in investigating her disappearance – that he now knows to be an abduction.”
“Her return is inconvenient, I agree.” She smiled darkly. “But not necessarily permanent.”
“You are going to take care of her?” Marcus asked with a life of his brow. “And just how is that?”
“I don’t think Buffy will choose to stay with Angel, at least not after she finds out a few things she needs to know. As to his zeal…” Willow paused for a moment, considering the recent visit the vampire made to her office. He’d asked several questions about Serge Dobryshkin, who had worked in her department. She answered his questions convincingly because he seemed satisfied with her responses when he left. In fact, she’d bet money that he didn’t have even a remote suspicion of the truth about Serge’s whereabouts, which happened to be mostly in the storm drain near 754 East 12th. The fact of the matter was that Serge had outlived his usefulness after driving the limo that took Buffy to the Watcher’s Council representatives outside of LAX, so that loose end had been… cauterized. “I’ve seen it. His fear of losing Buffy again makes him weak. Weak is careless, and weak is vulnerable.”
“We don’t want him incapacitated or permanently dead, just not with Buffy,” the Senior Partner Liaison warned.
“I understand,” Willow replied coolly. She’d heard bits of the prophecy, and she knew the Senior Partners fear of it. Together, Buffy and Angel were a formidable force, and it was not just their physical abilities to fight evil. It was much more than that. They were destined for something big, something important; something that would significantly weaken the Senior Partners’ evil reign for years, centuries even. It was as clear as prophecies tend to be, even as vague as it was. There was also the small fact that many of the Partners still held out hope that Angel could be relieved of his soul. The consensus seemed to be that the return of Angelus would turn the “extremely bad for Wolfram & Hart” prophecy into one that was extremely good for them. To that end, she had been coerced several times to research various spells and magic relics, though nothing certain had yet to be found. “I told you I don’t think you’ll need to worry about that.”
Marcus nodded. Angelus was important to the Partners and the firm; the Slayer however, was expendable.
“It might take some time.” Willow said, brushing an imaginary spec of lint from her sleeve. “But rest assured the Senior Partners will get what they…” she met his gaze levelly, “want.”
Marcus looked at his companion with a slightly raised brow. Her eyes were darker and her skin paler than he had at first thought when he saw her, giving her an almost unnatural, eerie appearance. A rare sensation of fear passed through him, though it disappeared as quickly as it had come. “And the Seymour woman? If she’s still intent on writing a book on Buffy, she’ll continue nosing around.”
Willow smiled. “That has already been taken care of.”
A slight frown marred Angel’s brows as he watched Buffy twist a water bottle in her hands, crushing the plastic. He wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea, but she had insisted and he fully intended to indulge her in all things. With a resigned expression, he closed the door behind them.
Buffy set the now damaged bottle aside, her expression chagrined. She hadn’t even realized what she had been doing to the now misshaped container. Perhaps she was a bit more anxious about venturing out of the apartment than she had thought.
For her first three days at home, she had done little more than sleep, eat, and take leisurely baths. Angel was always near if she needed something or wanted company, but he didn’t hover over her or smother her in any way. He often sat at the kitchen table, going through stacks of files and paperwork that someone apparently brought up from his office. When he wasn’t working, he lounged nearby on the sofa or the bed and read one of his many books. She liked those moments most, as she’d often curl up against him and he’d hold her, or he’d talk to her when she felt like talking, though never about her time in Bjoutan or their baby. She would have to tell him eventually, she knew, but she wasn’t quite ready for that just yet. She even deferred the calls from her friends, content to enjoy the peaceful solitude. Today, however, she was restless.
She shrugged out of her light jacket and dropped it on the bench next to the bottle. Some physical activity would do her a world of good. Her long unused muscles had probably deteriorated; it would take months of training to get back into her former shape, but she had to start somewhere. She rolled her shoulders, tilting her head from side to side.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked as he locked the door, guaranteeing their privacy.
Buffy turned at the sound of Angel’s voice. He was watching her with concern.
“Yes,” she said on an exhalation of breath. “I need to do something.”
He didn’t disagree, though he wasn’t sure that sparring with him in the training room was the best choice of first activities. When she said she wanted to get some exercise, he had been hoping for a walk on the beach or maybe even a jog. He didn’t want to risk her feeling threatened or vulnerable.
As she crossed the room, a comfortable sense of familiarity crept over her, boosting her confidence. They’d done this many times before, in this very same room, and also years earlier, at the mansion in Sunnydale. Just as he had then, Angel was wearing a body hugging white tank top and a pair of black sweats; there was something reassuring in the fact that while many things had changed over the years, some things had stayed the same.
She felt better, stronger, rested. The drugs were out of her system, and her stomach no longer ached constantly with hunger pains. She could do this. She was ready. “I’m ready,” she said aloud, reaffirming her thoughts. Raising her arms into a defensive stance, and rocking on the balls of her feet, she indicated that she was set to go.
Adjusting his stance to match hers, Angel nodded indicating that he wanted her to make the first move.
Buffy lunged forward and threw a punch with her right. Angel countered the blow as she shifted her footing and landed a short left jab on his upper shoulder. He returned a punch and she blocked it, then spun around threw a round-house kick that narrowly missed his midsection as he agilely backed away. They sparred back and forth, matching blow for blow and kick for kick, for almost half an hour. Her strength wasn’t yet back to what it had been, but she showed no signs that she’d lost any of her form or her understanding of the mechanics of the movements. With practice – and plenty of rest and nutritional meals – she’d be back to her full Slayer strength in no time.
Pleased that she hadn’t lost all of her skills, Buffy breathlessly pushed on even though she was tiring, her muscles beginning to quiver with fatigue. She whirled, attempting to land a back kick but missed and stumbled forward. Angel’s right jab caught her unexpectedly, and he sent her tumbling hard to the mat.
“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously, rushing over to kneel beside her. It wasn’t a hard punch as much as a luckily timed, well placed one. Cognizant of her still weakened state, he’d been careful to restrain his strength, but he hadn’t intended to land that last punch at all.
She was only half listening, focused instead on the impressive display of sleek, honed muscle now leaning over her. They had made love often after training together, many times in this very room, on this very floor, both inspired by the physical activity and close proximity. How long ago that seemed now…
“Buffy? Are you all right?” he repeated. Her dazed expression concerned him; had he hurt her?
She lifted her gaze to his face. His dark brows were raised in query. He’d asked her something.
“Yes,” she murmured, still half out of breath and hopeful she was answering the question correctly. She touched his arm lightly, her gaze drifting back down his lean form. It would be nice if he would come closer. Much closer. She had the urge to feel the hard, sweaty length of his body against hers, pressing her firmly into the floor. Her lips curved up in a slight smile. She must be feeling better if her thoughts were running in that direction.
“You’re sure?” he asked with a lazy smile, as if he’d suddenly caught the drift of her thoughts.
“Yes,” she replied distractedly, giving in to the impulse to run her hands along the curve of his biceps up to his shoulders. She was pleasantly tired and oddly comfortable resting on the training room floor mat. She would be content to lay here and relax for a while. She toyed with the short hairs at his nape. How much she had missed the simple pleasure of touching him and being touched in return.
“That’s enough for today, I think.” His voice was carefully neutral. Not that his thoughts weren’t going in the same direction as hers – they were – but he wasn’t at all certain she was ready for that, and he didn’t want to rush things.
“Mmm… okay,” she murmured, her hand idly stroking the now tense muscles of his chest. She tugged gently on his shirt and he accommodated her, moving lower so she could wrap her arms around his neck.
He kissed her then, gently as though she might break, hesitantly as though he was afraid he would frighten her.
“You feel good,” Buffy whispered, the tip of her tongue tracing his lips teasingly. She scooted closer, bending her leg.
“I missed you so much,” he murmured softly against neck, sending shivers up her spine. Guided by memory and by need, he was no longer thinking, only feeling.
Her thigh, clad only in the thin cotton-lycra of her workout pants, pressed against his hip as she moved even closer.
Angel drew in a sharp, unneeded breath at the intimate contact. Instant need raced like a flame through him.
Her fingers gripped his shoulders as she slid her thigh slowly up and down the long length of his. She felt him shudder, and it filled her with a fierce, unfettered pleasure. She loved that her touch could affect him as much as his did her; it gave her a heady sense of power. Turning her face slightly, she waited, breath held, until his lips returned to meld with hers.
Instinctively, she hooked her leg over his hip and arched into him.
Lust exploded in Angel’s brain – pure, unadulterated, starved lust – and his mouth met hers with an intense, driving fury.
Buffy met his kiss eagerly, glorying in the delicious, overwhelming passion that she had thought never to know again.
He slid closer, pressing into her.
The door rattled. Someone knocked, softly at first then more insistently.
Tensing, Angel lifted his head, breaking their kiss.
The knock sounded again, louder this time. A muffled voice that sounded like Spike could be heard faintly through the door.
“We have company,” Buffy said with a deep sigh.
“We do,” he agreed. He gazed at her for a moment, struck again by how lucky he was to have her, and how lucky he was to have her back. How amazing it was that they found her, that she was as healthy as she was, and that she was here. Impulsively, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly.
“Do you think maybe they’ll just go away?” she murmured as she snuggled closer, her hazel green eyes half-closed.
The door rattled again, harder this time.
“I don’t think so.” He sighed resignedly, brushing her forehead lightly with a kiss. Forcibly restraining himself, he sat back on his heels. Taking another breath, he rose to his feet slowly. Reaching out, he took her hands and helped her up.
“I guess we’re done then,” she muttered, disappointed.
“I’ll bring you back tomorrow,” he offered, though he wasn’t sure if it was to indulge her or himself.
“Mmm… okay. I’d like that,” she murmured as she slipped under his arm, wrapping her arm around his back.
“One more kiss?” she pled softly, placing one hand on his stomach and tilting her head back.
“Just one?” he asked with a half-smile.
“At least one,” she corrected, returning his smile just before his lips met hers in a lingering, sighing, breathless kiss.
“How is she doing?” Wes whispered, setting a stack of manila folders on the kitchen table. He’d brought up more files that needed Angel’s review; ones he’d exchange for those that the Wolfram & Hart President had dealt with earlier in the day.
“Better,” Angel replied quietly. Despite her playfulness as they left the training room, Buffy had been exhausted. She was barely able to keep her eyes open in the shower, and had dropped off in a deep sleep almost as soon as she curled up in their bed.
“I heard the two of you were in the training room for awhile,” Wesley said with a slight smile, leaning back casually against the counter. Buffy’s return was big news; it had all of the Wolfram & Hart employees talking. And when the tidbit of gossip involved possible sexual exploits with Wolfram & Hart’s current President in the training room, it was guaranteed to travel through the rumor mill that much faster.
“She wanted to go.” Angel shrugged lightly.
“That’s good. The, uh, physical activity will no doubt be good for her recovery.” The former Watcher couldn’t help but grin.
Angel grunted, casting an irritated look at his friend. An intensely private person, he was uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny his personal life seemed to merit from the employees of Wolfram & Hart, as well as the gossip that seemed to follow. He supposed he should have been used to it by now, but he wasn’t, and now that he was doubly wary and cautious, he disliked the attention even more. “So what have you found?”
“Nothing more on Alex Smith than we already had. His cases were well documented and routine. The aneurysm that killed him may have been the result of natural causes, or it may not have, there’s just no way of telling at this point. He was cremated,” he added, answering the unasked question. “He does seem to have been acquainted with Quentin Travers, having traveled to London several times during contract negotiations, and apparently even to Bjoutan as well. However, he was dead before Buffy’s disappearance, so despite having a role in the procurement of Bjoutan for the Council, it doesn’t appear that he could have been directly involved in her abduction.”
“Aside from Travers’ personal contract with Wolfram & Hart,” he continued, “there are no other contracts that I’ve been able to find with Travers, Amaranthine Enterprises or the Council. I’ll do another search just to be certain, but it’s possible that this was the only business between the Council and Wolfram & Hart. Not surprising really, since traditionally they have held opposing positions in defining good and evil.”
“The only business that was contractual and documented,” Angel suggested grimly.
“Yes, true,” Wes agreed somberly. “As for Serge Dobryshkin… None of the Dobryshkin’s listed in the book knew our former employee though I did get a description from his former landlord. I’m told that his girlfriend gave notice on his apartment over the phone, and he disappeared virtually overnight. The odd thing is the landlord never knew him to have a girlfriend at all. Boyfriends, yes. One in particular was often seen at the apartment. But women… he didn’t even have female friends that came by that the landlord remember, much less someone who would identify themselves as a girlfriend. I’ve started combing through the LA County missing person’s listings on the off chance that I’ll find a body matching his description, but that will take some time. In the meantime, Spike’s looking for the boyfriend. Maybe he’ll have heard from Dobryshkin, or at least have some idea where he went.”
Angel nodded. He talked to Spike briefly outside the training room, when the blonde vampire finally stopped banging on the door. He had said he wanted to know the minute anything even possibly related to Buffy’s disappearance was uncovered, and Spike was very willing to comply. At least, to comply when it suited him. Not that Angel was necessarily complaining – Spike had uncovered something of interest, though his timing could have been better.
“As soon as you find anything on Dobryshkin, let me know. I want to talk to the man myself when we find him.” Angel’s expression was dangerous.
Wesley nodded, recognizing the undercurrent of violence in the vampire’s voice. “Did you have a chance to talk to Willow?”
“Yes,” Angel replied thoughtfully. His voice dropped,”She’s hiding something.”
“More than practicing magic?”
“Probably, though it’s hard to say,” Angel said pensively. “She said Dobryshkin gave his notice, but then took vacation and never returned to work. She thought she remembered something he said about moving out of the area, but she never had a chance to talk with him beyond the one short phone call when he said he was quitting.”
“That’s essentially what’s documented in the personnel file.”
His expression skeptical, Angel gave a slight nod.
Wes gazed at him quizzically. “You think there’s more to it? Or she’s not telling the truth?”
Angel mulled over the questions for a moment before he answered. “Yes and no… but if she’s as powerful as Giles believes, we have to move cautiously.”
Wesley considered the implication for a long moment. “Do you think that perhaps… that she knows something more? Something she’s not saying?” At Angel’s grim look, the former Watcher’s eyebrows lifted and his face took on a startled expression. “Do you think that… that she was somehow involved in Buffy’s disappearance?”
“I hope not,” Angel’s voice went very quiet. “but I don’t know.”
“What have you told Buffy?”
“I haven’t told her any of this, and I won’t. I don’t want her to worry about anything right now other than getting her health back.”
“Perhaps she won’t need to know.”
“I’ll tell her, eventually. When she’s stronger and healthy, and it’s safe.”
“It may never be completely safe…”
“I’m not going to let anything happen to her again,” Angel tersely said, his jaw set and determined.
“We’ll find who was behind this,” Wes promised quietly. He was already turning over some additional ideas in his mind of how they mind find the missing Serge Dobryshkin.
Angel nodded. “We will.”
“I should be going,” Wesley said with a sigh. As he picked up the stack of completed files to return downstairs, he asked, “Oh, by the way, have you heard from Elise?”
Angel’s brows lifted in surprise. “No. You haven’t talked to her?”
“No… I’ve left her several messages, but she hasn’t returned my calls. I thought she was supposed to return from London on Saturday, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“Saturday? She didn’t come back with you?”
“No, she said something about wanting to use the ticket she had already purchased, that it wasn’t refundable and she’d feel guilty about wasting the money. Quite honestly, I think she was uncomfortable with the idea of flying with Travers. Not that I blame her.”
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
“Right before I left London. She said she was going to spend a few days at the Sanctuary – the spa – before returning to Los Angeles. I put her in a cab just before we left.”
“Maybe she decided to stay a while longer?” Angel suggested, though he said the words slowly as if unsure of his question.
“Maybe,” Wes replied, unconvinced. He felt sure that Elise wouldn’t just disappear without so much as a goodbye.
“Give her another call. I’ll try to call her in the morning as well. If we still can’t reach her, why don’t you go by her place and see if she’s there?”
“Yes, okay, I will. Maybe she just got caught up in her work. I know she mentioned having to get an outline to her editor… ”
“That’s probably it,” Angel agreed, following Wesley to the door. Elise wasn’t irresponsible; easily caught up in her work and a tendency to be a bit reckless, yes, but she was conscientious about returning calls. She was probably just writing. At least, that’s what he hoped, though the bad feeling settling in his stomach said otherwise.
“Well, good night then.”
“Good night, Wes.”
Angel dialed Elise’s number for the third time that morning and listened to the sound of her voice as her voice mail picked up again.
“Elise? This is Angel, again. Please call me back when you get this. My cell phone. Call my cell phone that is. Thanks.”
He flipped the phone closed and set it on the table. He stared at the small device apprehensively. He felt a little guilty about the last conversations he had with Elise. He had been shocked, to say the least, by her revelations. He had been angry, too. Angry because he felt she betrayed his trust by investigating something so very personal to him behind his back. But in truth, his anger was less directed at Elise than it was at himself. He was furious with himself for not finding Buffy, the woman he loved more than life, himself; he should have done more, searched harder. He was angry at himself for not finding the same leads Elise had; he called himself a detective, for Christ’s sake. His anger was also directed at those who had taken Buffy from him, those who had subjected her to even the smallest hurt, and for everything that had happened to her.
There were so many things that frustrated and angered him, but Elise wasn’t deserving of the brunt of his anger and he had lashed out at her. Truth be told, he owed her an apology. More, since it was her persistence and discovery that led to Buffy’s return. It was a debt of gratitude he might never be able to repay, and he would gladly tell her so. But where was she?
Leaning heavily on the table, he ran one hand through his already disheveled hair.
He glanced up and smiled. “Hey, sweetheart. How are you feeling?”
“Ugh, sore,” Buffy said as she stiffly crossed the room. She really had overdone it in the training room yesterday – every muscle in her body ached.
“I prescribe a massage, followed by a hot bath, and plenty of rest,” he declared, holding out a hand to her.
“Sounds wonderful,” she purred happily as she climbed onto his lap. A massage from Angel was a not to be missed event.
“You have to take it easy. Only very short training sessions, and no more sparring until you get your strength back.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with mocking acquiescence.
“Buffy…” he murmured doubtfully, not at all certain she would heed his instruction.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Well, I need to spar to train. I mean, I can only do so much on my own. And if you won’t work with me, then I’m sure Spike-”
“No,” he interrupted firmly. “Not until you’re stronger.”
Buffy affected a disconsolate moue. “Then how will I get any better?”
His dark brows lifted. “Something tells me you’re going to get your way.”
“I guess you’ll have to work with me then,” she said sweetly. “I mean, if I can’t work with anyone else, and I need to train with someone…”
“We’ll talk about. Tomorrow.”
“Okay. Tomorrow then,” she said with melodramatic docility.
He smiled, dropping a kiss on her head. “Are you hungry? I’ll make you breakfast.”
Seated in the chair they had previously shared, Buffy watched as Angel moved around in the kitchen making her an omelette and fresh squeezed orange juice.
“So who’s Elise?” she asked, having heard his earlier call. She assumed he was working, as was often the case. She could also tell he was concerned about the woman in question. It didn’t surprise her; he often became personally involved in the cases that crossed his desk at Wolfram & Hart.
Angel’s gaze came up abruptly, the unexpected question taking him by surprise.
“I heard you on the phone,” she explained, tucking her bare feet under her on the chair and propping her chin on her hand. “Work?”
“Yes,” he replied, his brain carefully sifting through exactly what he was going to tell her.
“Can I help? I mean, not physically,” she corrected before he could tell her no, which she knew he would after their earlier conversation. “I mean in the figuring it out sense, not the actual doing anything sense.”
“Elise… Elise is Elise Seymour,” he began cautiously. “She’s an author. She writes fiction books, horror, supernatural, that sort of thing.”
“Cool,” Buffy said, taking a bite of the toast he set on the table in front of her. “But she’s missing?”
“I don’t know yet. Maybe.” He paused, still uncertain exactly what he was going to tell her. He didn’t want to lie to her… but he didn’t want to hurt her either. “Buffy… Elise… she’s the one that found you.”
“Oh?” she murmured, her curiosity piqued.
“She was investigating slayers. You. Us. She wanted to use it – your story – as the basis for her next book.”
“Oh. Uh… Oh-kay,” Buffy exclaimed, surprised, flattered, confused, and uncomfortable all at once.
“I didn’t know. About her research or her book,” Angel explained. “Not until she told me just before we found you. It was through her research that she found the Watcher’s Council, the paperwork on Bjoutan, and some demon who knew you were there. She put the pieces together.”
“I had wondered, you know, how…” She had wondered how they had found her after all this time. She would never have guessed it was due largely to a woman she had never heard of.
“She’s a good investigator. Unafraid to ask questions, or basically, just be nosy. And she’s one of the most persistent, and inquisitive people I’ve ever met.” It was clear from his tone he meant what he was saying as a compliment.
“Um, how… where did she come from?” It wasn’t the only question in her mind, just the first one she could voice. She wanted to know how, and why this unknown woman knew about her, about them, and why she had chosen her as the subject of her book. She wanted to know how she found her, when the others couldn’t or didn’t. She wanted to know who this Elise was, how Angel met her, and, somewhat concerning, how well he knew her, since, from his tone, he seemed to know her well.
Setting the omelette and fruit on the table, he took the opposite chair. He searched for the words for several seconds before he began, “About six months after you disappeared, I met her when I was investigating a werewolf attack and so was she. She was writing a book about them. I gave her access to Wolfram & Hart’s library to finish the research for her book, since it was a safer form of investigation.”
Buffy watched him, waiting patiently for him to continue, knowing from his expression there was more to come.
“She came to the office often after that, looking up various things. It turns out that her step-father had been a Watcher, so the supernatural wasn’t exactly unknown to her. I knew she was working on her next book, but I didn’t know what it was about. I never asked. Honestly, I probably would’ve tried to stop her had I known…” A flicker of fear shone in his eyes and his voice dropped as he considered the implication of his statement. “I’m very glad I didn’t.”
“Me too,” she murmured agreeably. After a few seconds of consideration, she asked thoughtfully, “You don’t think… I mean… could something have happened to her because… because of me?”
“No,” Angel replied firmly, though his voice when he spoke was guarded. “The Watcher’s Council set up Bjoutan as a prison for slayers they considered rogue or disobedient to their authority. Elise is not a slayer, and if her disappearance is related to any of this, it’s not because of you. It’s because someone has an agenda we don’t yet understand.”
Despite herself, Buffy trembled.
Moving out of his chair, Angel squat down in front of her, moving so their eyes were level. He touched her cheek gently with his fingertips. She looked so very pale and fragile; it unnerved him. “I won’t let anyone take you from me again,” he quietly said, still haunted by the nightmares where she was gone from his life.
“I know,” she whispered. “But-”
“It’s possible Elise squirreled herself away somewhere to write and isn’t answering her phone. She was under a deadline; an outline was due to her editor this week.” He sat back on his haunches and watched her.
Buffy searched his eyes for a long moment. “But what is it you’re not telling me, Angel?”
“So how’s things in the world of computers and technology?” Spike asked as he strolled through the open office door. He glanced disinterestedly at the sleek Mac on the desk, picking up a one of several metal ring puzzles that sat next to it.
“Fine,” Willow replied, looking curiously at the blonde vampire.
“Keeping busy, then?” The metal jingled as he moved the pieces, trying to separate the metal rings.
“Yes, always. There’s no shortage of work around here.” She smiled slightly, sitting back in her chair and watching him. The puzzles, brain teasers of sorts from the 12th century, stumped most people.
“Ain’t that the truth?” he replied with a grin and a quirk of his eyebrow. The rings slipped apart, and he held them up proudly.
“Did you want something? Because you usually don’t wander down here or really anywhere where there’s actually work being done,” Willow asked. Her tone was light, but there was something dark, serious – and cautious – in her eyes.
“I resent that,” he replied cheekily, setting aside the rings and taking a seat opposite the desk. “Well, mostly.” He grinned. “It’s true, I’m not interested in all this computer mumbo jumbo. It’s a bit dry for me.”
“I just thought you might have some news,” he said seriously.
She looked at him quizzically. “News?”
His eyelids lowered, shuttering his gaze. “You’re going to make me spell it out, then?”
“I think you’ll have to if you want me to know what you’re talking about.”
“Buffy,” he answered, watching her intently.
“Buffy?” Willow echoed, her brows lifting. Her voice was touched with constraint.
Spike hesitated, dropping his gaze as though reluctant to answer. “I was just wondering how she’s doing and all that.”
“You didn’t ask Angel?”
He shrugged. “Well, no, I didn’t ask Captain Forehead. He’s a bit tetchy these days, particularly when it comes to all things Buffy. Besides, we don’t have the best history there, you know.”
“And I’m not sure what to say anyway,” he continued gruffly. “Hallmark doesn’t make a card for ‘I’m sorry you were imprisoned, welcome back’.”
“I just want to know how she’s doing, if she’s all right, and all that,” he murmured. “I still care about her, you know.”
Willow studied him for a moment before she answered. “She’s fine. At least she seems so. Getting better.”
“Yeah? So you talked to her then?”
“Did… did she tell you what they did to her? Not that I want details or anything like that…” Spike looked away, as if uncomfortable with the question. “I just want to know that she’s… no permanent damage kind of thing.”
“She hasn’t said much about any of it,” Willow said with a shrug. “I think she just wants to forget what happened. You know, put it behind her.”
“I can understand that,” Spike replied thoughtfully.
“You haven’t been up to see her?” She wasn’t surprised, though she managed to sound like she was. She knew that other than the first night of her return, Buffy hadn’t seen – or talked with – anyone other than Angel. Still, if Spike thought she talked with Buffy, she wasn’t going to correct his belief.
“No,” he answered somewhat morosely. It wasn’t a lie really, as he hadn’t been “up” to see her in the penthouse suite she shared with Angel. He had seen Buffy briefly outside the training room. He had hugged her, and she had thanked him for helping get her out of Bjoutan. He asked how she was, she told him that she was doing okay, and he said he missed having her around. She managed to smile, and said she missed being around. They exchanged a few more banal pleasantries before Spike cut it short, saying he had to talk work with the boss. Buffy, leaning tiredly against Angel, didn’t insist on joining their conversation as she normally would’ve. Instead, she excused herself and ducked into the locker room to collect her things giving Angel and Spike a few minutes to speak privately.
“Hm, well, I’m sure she’ll be out and about soon enough,” Willow remarked. “Then you can see her.”
Spike’s head lifted. “Maybe… though the big poof will probably be in her shadow wherever she goes.”
“He can try,” she retorted. “But Buffy won’t let him smother her for long.”
“Yeah, well, he’s always been a tad bit overprotective where she’s concerned,” Spike noted. “Now I’m guessing more than ever after all this.”
Willow snorted. “I guess.”
His brows lifted questioningly. “You disagree?”
“I just think for someone that supposedly cares so much, it didn’t take him long to replace her.”
His pale blue gaze took on a sharpness as he anticipated a potentially revealing remark. “The lady author, you mean?”
“Buffy wasn’t even gone a year when Angel starting having her around. I think that speaks volumes about the depth of his feelings for Buffy,” Willow asserted. Surveying her companion carefully, she added. “I’ll bet he hasn’t even told Buffy.”
“You think he should, then?” The blonde vampire inquired blandly.
“Of course,” she retorted. “He should tell her the truth.”
“Now? When she’s just returned and still getting her health back?” he asked sardonically, “Like she hasn’t been through enough, so one of the first things he should tell her is he was seeing someone else while she was being starved and beaten in prison?”
“She has to know,” Willow maintained stubbornly.
“I suppose,” Spike murmured after a moment. “I mean, being her best friend and all, you’d have her best interests in mind.” His tone wasn’t entirely sincere. He rose to his feet. “I guess I’d best be going. Supposed to be out looking for a Gorak demon in West Hollywood.”
She gazed at him with cool regard. “They travel in pairs.”
“Ah. Thanks.” He tipped his head then left the office.
Willow stared thoughtfully at the door where he disappeared for several minutes before dismissing him from her mind and returning to her work.