Love never dies a natural death. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.
— Anais Nin
“I was beginning to believe you had forgotten you had an office in the building.”
“And I was beginning to hope you had finally gone away – permanently,” Angel retorted without glancing up from the paper he was signing.
“Very much your old self I see,” Marcus noted drolly.
“You were expecting otherwise?” Angel casually inquired, glancing up only briefly before returning his attention to his work.
“The thought had crossed my mind that you might have been rather… shall we say, ‘perfectly happy’ with the return of your little blonde paramour, so I wasn’t sure who I might find minding these office these days.”
“I’m sorry if you’re disappointed,” Angel replied sardonically.
“Oh, no apologies necessary,” Marcus said, taking a seat in the chair at the desk.
Angel’s brows lifted. He leaned back in his chair and looked at the man now seated across from him. “Did you want something?”
Marcus smiled faintly. “I have to have a reason to stop by your office? Perhaps I was simply concerned and stopping in to inquire about Buffy’s health – which, I presume must be better given your return to the office to work.”
“And I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I find both your interest and concern suspect.”
“Well then, since you’re skeptical, I will say I was stopping by to ensure that the daily business needs of Wolfram & Hart are being properly managed once again. I had actually expected to find you were again neglecting your duties for personal concerns; yet here you are, working away industriously.” Marcus smiled mockingly as he nodded at the stack of case files on the desk.
“Then you can report that back to your superiors,” Angel said smoothly, “Unless, of course, you were hoping to tell them something else?”
“Not necessarily,” the Senior Partners’ Liaison replied with an ambiguous shrug. “Management turnovers here can be quite difficult.”
“And yet, you’ve manage to survive them,” Angel commented wryly.
“Hm. Yes, that I have.”
“Tell me something, Hamilton,” Angel began conversationally, “since you seem to know everything that goes on around here, how is it you didn’t know about the Senior Partners’ agreement with the Watcher’s Council? Or about the prison in Bjoutan for slayers? Or is it that you knew but chose not to share any information? Were you protecting the Partners or their client? We would’ve found that bit of information quite valuable after Buffy’s disappearance, but then I’m sure you know that.”
“You should know by now I don’t get involved in client business.” Seemingly unconcerned, Marcus adjusted his cuffs. “My job here is strictly as a liaison between you and management.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Angel murmured skeptically, “unless, of course, it suits you. Or unless it’s requested.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re implying.”
Angel’s gaze bored into him for several tense moments. “And I’m sure you do.”
Marcus took care to keep his expression bland. “I can only assume you’re referring to the contract which allowed Quentin Travers to take possession of Bjoutan, or perhaps his personal perpetuity contract. I know only that both were actuated quite before my time here. Perhaps you should discuss the matter with Eve. Oh, wait, you can’t. She’s gone.”
Angel scrutinized the man sitting across from him carefully, as if considering each word, each phrase, and every subtle nuance, as having something more than just it’s intended meaning. Several moments of silence passed. “That’s right. She is,” he finally murmured. “You were her replacement.”
Hamilton’s face creased into a tight smile, but his expression was masked. He had survived decades as a liaison for the Senior Partners because he never underestimated his opponents; he reminded himself it would be wise not to do so now.
“If there’s nothing else…” The implication was clear as Angel looked pointedly toward the door. “I do have work to do – as you reminded me so diligently.”
Marcus rose slowly from his chair. “You know, I really had expected to see Buffy clinging to your side. Rumor has it you never leave her on her own now. Or perhaps it’s you never let her leave your side. I never can get the gossip around here quite right.”
Angel’s dark eyes glittered dangerously for a moment before he answered, his tone silky soft, “I don’t see how it’s any of your business either way.”
“If it affects the business of Wolfram & Hart, then it is my business,” Marcus countered, seemingly undaunted. He was admittedly curious as to Buffy’s whereabouts. It was well known she and Angel had spent very little time apart since her return. When it was clear he wasn’t going to get an answer, he shrugged then turned and left.
Thoughtfully, Angel watched him go.
“Are you sure this okay?” Willow asked as Buffy pulled the BMW X5 into the tight parking lot, the angle askew with two tires clearly over the white line marking the spaces.
“It’s the Beverly Center. It’s more than okay,” Buffy said, opening her car door.
“And Angel knows?” Willow questioned, climbing out of the vehicle. Her brows lifted slightly at the bad parking job, but she made no comment as she followed Buffy to the escalators that would take them into the mall.
“Not exactly,” Buffy admitted somewhat guiltily. With a bit more force, she added, “But I left a note.”
And she had, on the counter in the kitchen, where it still sat unread. Angel hadn’t yet been back to the apartment, though it hardly mattered. He knew exactly when she had left the building, what car she took, and where she was. He wasn’t about to risk losing her again, even if it meant covert surveillance; surveillance he knew she would object to – that is, if she knew.
“He’s going to freak when he finds out,” Willow returned with a shake of her head.
“He may not even know,” Buffy countered. “Besides, he’s probably busy catching up on work. He said he was going to his office.”
“Oh, he’ll know. You know he’ll know. Or he’ll find out. He hasn’t left your side since, well… you know… since you got back. And it’s not like you just left the apartment, and went somewhere else in the building. You completely left the building. You left the neighborhood. You know he’s gonna know and he’s so not going to like it.”
“Well, then he won’t like it. I needed to get out, and I told him so this morning… and I need… some time,” Buffy answered reflectively. “Some time to… to think about stuff.” She wrinkled her nose almost guiltily. “I just may not have said specifically I was going to be thinking about stuff somewhere else. Somewhere outside the apartment. Somewhere, like, at the mall.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Willow asked as they stepped into the crowded mall. “The stuff you want to get out and think about, that is.”
“Not really,” Buffy replied, turning toward Bloomingdales. Outside the store she paused at the window display, studying the moss green strapless dress with the appliqué flowers on the skirt. That, along with a pair of adorable espadrille-style wedges, would do for a start. It had been so long since she had the luxury of choosing her clothes, and of having something new. For that matter, it seemed like an eternity since she had the freedom of going wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She’d never take even a simple thing as a trip to the mall for granted again. She smiled a little half smile; some things hadn’t changed: a little retail therapy could still help to improve one’s mood.
“Did something happen?” Willow questioned again. “Something you want to talk about? Because you seem… kinda upset. Or like something is bothering you.”
“No. Yes. No. I mean, I’m not. I don’t know,” Buffy sighed heavily and turned her attention back to her friend. “I am I guess.”
“Listen girl, here. I can be that is, if you want to talk.”
“I don’t know,” Buffy paused, chewing her lip thoughtfully. After several seconds, she added. “I don’t know really what to say.”
“Just say what’s on your mind. I’m your best friend, and that’s what best friends are for – to listen and commiserate and console and stuff. And it’s not like we’ve had much of a chance to talk since you’ve been back. I mean, I know you’ve been recuperating, and I know you probably wanted to spend most of your time with Angel, but you know I’m still your best friend… Which means we should talk and confide and catch up on everything. It’s a best friend’s duty and obligation. And besides I want to talk and confide and stuff. I want us to be close, like we were. You know, back in Sunnydale… before LA.”
Glancing away from her friend, Buffy turned her attention back to the Bloomingdale’s window display. For almost a minute she was silent. She inhaled deeply, bracing herself for what she was about to say. Finally, she turned back to look at Willow. “This morning… Angel… he told me about… her.” Her voice was so low it was barely audible.
“Her?” Willow echoed, a sense of anticipation and excitement suddenly bubbling in her veins. It looked like she wasn’t going to have to find a reason to bring up the subject of Angel and Elise after all. It was something she had been contemplating since the very moment Buffy had made her surprise appearance in her office doorway almost an hour ago, and asked if she could escape for a while. Schooling her features to a perplexed solemnity, Willow asked, “Who her?”
“Elise,” Buffy answered quietly. “Elise Seymour.”
“Oh, that her. Elise her. Did he… what all did he tell you? I mean, did he tell you everything?”
Buffy glanced at her friend speculatively for a moment, mulling over the implication of Willow’s emphatic everything . Apparently Angel hadn’t been particularly discreet about his relationship with the author… but then again, was there anything at Wolfram & Hart that didn’t make it’s way through the exceptionally efficient rumor mill? It had seemed every detail of her relationship with Angel, from the rekindling of their relationship to her miscarriage and their struggles to have a child, had been known by everyone from the front desk receptionist to the highest paid scientists and lawyers.
“Buffy? What did he tell you?” Willow prodded earnestly.
“Um… well, he said he met her several months after I… after I was gone, and she’s a writer. She was researching… me, slayers, Angel, us, I’m not sure exactly… for a book she was writing.” She paused before commenting cynically, “Since she’s a she, and Angel’s Angel, I’m pretty sure I know what she was really researching.”
“Yeah? Oh, I mean yeah.” Willow nodded a little too heartily. She knew Buffy thought every woman who came in contact with Angel found him as sexy, charming and irresistible as she did. There was probably some truth in that, given the legions of sexual conquests he had left in his wake, but there was also no doubt Buffy was more than a little biased when it came to the appeal of the dark vampire. “So what else did he say about her?”
The petite blonde slayer shrugged one shoulder. “He said she’s the one who found out about Bjoutan and the Watcher’s Council and their link to Wolfram & Hart, and that’s how they were finally able to find me. He also said she was smart and persistent, or something like that. Oh, and nosy. I think he said nosy.”
“But that’s all he told you?” Willow asked cautiously, her eyes narrowing.
“No, that’s not all,” Buffy admitted reluctantly with a sigh. Looking back toward the green dress in the display, she suddenly wished they weren’t having this conversation. She shouldn’t have mentioned any of it at all; now that it was out there, she realized she wasn’t ready to talk about it.
“Really?” Willow eyes widened in disbelief. “You mean he actually told you he was screwing her?” She wanted to smile, but was careful to keep her expression neutral. She needed to appear compassionate and understanding, but clearly disapproving of Angel’s behavior during Buffy’s absence.
Buffy’s gaze swiveled back to her friend. There was a pained expression on her face from Willow’s blunt statement. Nope, definitely not discreet. An overwhelming feeling of heartache threatened to engulf her, but Buffy fought it, not wanting to have an emotional break down now, much less here, in public. “No…”
“Oh. I guess… I mean… he did tell you about that, didn’t he?” Willow softened her tone and grimaced self-consciously, as if she hadn’t meant to blurt out such a shocking disclosure.
“Well, no… I mean, yes. He did say they… that he… that they…” she broke off, searching for the words she could bring herself to use. After a moment she continued, “that he had been involved with her.”
Buffy paused, feeling the hated sting of tears in her eyes. She hadn’t wanted the harsh truth. Not from Angel, not from Willow, not from anyone. But Angel had insisted on telling her, and so she had listened carefully, or tried to, but it hurt so very much. He hadn’t been explicit or blunt, but he been honest and direct and had admitted they had been intimate – “sex” was the word she believed he had used though she wasn’t completely certain as in some part of her brain she really hadn’t wanted to hear. She had been locked away in a horrible cell, fighting for her life and for their child… and he was… having sex with this Elise person. He was probably smiling, and laughing, and having a wonderful time with this unknown, faceless stranger; this person she had never met, or heard of, or even knew existed.
What else they had done, what other moments they had shared, Buffy hadn’t wanted to know or even contemplate…the very thought of it all had all simply been too much. It was so very painful to know that Angel had essentially betrayed her, betrayed them … and that everyone, all of their friends, everyone in the office… they all seemed to know and to accept it. It made her feel even more like she hadn’t mattered… that they hadn’t mattered.
And as much as it was unbearable to think about – Angel being physically intimate with someone else – it hurt far worse somehow to think he had found someone else he had connected with emotionally. Someone he confided in, someone who provided him comfort, and love, and solace. Someone who could ease his heartbreak and his pain. He probably cooked for her, this Elise person, just as he had done so often… and fed her little bites as he smiled at her, that rare, little intimate half-smile Buffy once naively thought was reserved just for her…
“He really told you, just like that?” Willow gaped, genuinely stunned. She knew guilt was a huge motivator for Angel – something he was probably feeling now more than ever – but she never suspected he would have confessed about his relationship with Elise, and certainly not this soon after Buffy’s return and without provocation. Something must have happened that prompted him to come clean.
“Yes.” Buffy sniffed, dabbing at her eyes and attempting to shove aside the painful thoughts. She had endured so much worse; she could survive this.
“How did he tell you? I mean, he must have tried to make excuses. He was lonely. He was bored. She reminded him of you. Something to justify betraying you.”
Buffy’s mind winged back to the conversation this morning over breakfast. She chewed her lip thoughtfully. “No… he didn’t.”
“He didn’t?” The red haired Wiccan was perplexed. He hadn’t offered excuses, or some sort of justification for his behavior? “Of course he didn’t. He probably doesn’t even think he did anything wrong. Maybe he thought it was okay to sleep around because you were gone. Kind of like you guys were broken up or something while you were in that awful prison.”
Buffy’s eyes flared slightly in surprise. Angel assured her no one else outside of those immediately involved in the rescue knew the details of what happened or where she had been. He said it would be up to her, what she wanted to tell people and when…
Leaning over, Willow pulled Buffy into a tight hug. “I’m really sorry Buffy. I know this must be awful for you… you were in a horrible place, suffering, and Angel was here continuing with his life as though nothing happened. You know, working, going out to movies, and dinners, and plays and stuff, having sex with other women…”
“Women?” The petite blonde echoed flatly, her curiosity about Willow’s knowledge taking a back seat to a more unexpected consideration. She pulled back to look at Willow’s face. “There was more than one?”
“Well, probably. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but there were probably others. I didn’t spend a lot of time at the office, not for a while… I was out of my mind with worry for you, so I don’t really know what he was doing then, you know,” Willow offered sympathetically.
“Honestly, I’m totally surprised he told you about her at all, and I just can’t believe he didn’t at least try to make some sort excuse. But he probably just expects you to be okay with it, like he didn’t really cheat on you or like it doesn’t matter. And if you ask me, she wasn’t all that… she wasn’t pretty or smart. She was…” she paused, wrinkling her nose, “I don’t know, kinda skanky.”
“Well, he did say…” Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, seeking to collect her thoughts. She swallowed tightly, her throat feeling constricted.
A smile flickered over Willow’s features but she quickly schooled her expression into one of concern. Reaching out, she put her hand on Buffy’s arm. “What did he say?”
“He said he was sorry. Very sorry…” the blonde slayer answered with a deep exhalation of air. Opening her eyes, she ran her hands though her hair, smoothing a few unruly strands. Focused on her own tangled emotions, she missed the insincere pity in her friend’s voice.
“He said it would never have happened, he would never have even considered… if he thought I… that I was alive. He couldn’t feel it… our connection, our bond… anymore…”
Willow snorted skeptically.
“Which, I can understand because I couldn’t feel it… Angel… either…” Buffy continued, her voice wavering slightly. She was struggling now to maintain her composure; the world seemed to be crumbling beneath her feet with every word. Hearing the words out loud, telling someone else… it seemed to make it more real somehow.
“He thought I was… that I was gone, that I was… dead . I mean, even when we’re far apart, I can still feel him. But there, where I was… there was nothing. There was no sense of connection, no feeling of him… I get it. I would’ve thought something happened to him if I hadn’t realized I was in another dimension.”
“He did say he was lonely, but being lonely wasn’t the reason or even an excuse. He said there was no excuse,” she sighed and finished wearily. She was tired now of this conversation, exhausted by the emotional strain it was taking. She really didn’t want to talk about it anymore, not now, maybe not ever. It was a mistake to have mentioned any of it in the first place. She hadn’t sorted it out in her own mind, and she wasn’t ready to explain or excuse or understand or anything really with anyone else. And despite it all, she didn’t want pitying looks or attacks on Angel, despite her own unsettled emotions.
Nor did she want to talk about what she had been through or what she was going to do now. She honestly just wanted a slice of time away from the apartment, away from the office, away from Angel, away from everything; somewhere just to do something other than be alone with her own thoughts. For just a while she wanted to forget about Bjoutan and everything that happened there, about Angel’s apparent infidelity, about this woman who was now missing maybe because of something she found or knew or uncovered that had led to her return, and just anything and everything else unpleasant.
She wanted nothing more than to pretend – at least for a few hours – that none of it had ever happened. She wanted to lose herself in shoes, clothes, makeup, mochaccinos, and all of the other things she had enjoyed in what seemed a lifetime ago now. She wanted to go back, if only for an afternoon, to the woman she had been before any of this had happened.
“I’m sorry, Will, but this is just really hard for me to talk about.”
“Oh, Buffy. I’m sorry. Of course, what am I thinking! You must be devastated. I knew, about all of this, and I was going to tell you because I thought you should know, but I haven’t seen you very much, and it wasn’t the kind of thing I could just tell you first thing after you got back. But I would’ve told you eventually because you needed to know.”
“I know.” Buffy agreed flatly, noncommittally.
“Just buy whatever you need today, and of course, you’re staying with me until you figure out what you’re going to do. I’ve got plenty of ice cream, and we can watch Double Jeopardy or Enough or some other girl-gets-revenge-on-the-guy-that-treated-her-badly movie. We haven’t done the girl thing in a long time, so we’re way overdue. It’ll be fun, and I know you could use some fun.”
Buffy forced a smile. “Thanks, Will, I appreciate the offer, but… I promised Angel we’d talk about… all of this… later… tonight. We can’t just… not talk about it, even if I don’t know how I feel or how I should feel, or what I want to do.”
“Oh, Buffy, tell me you aren’t thinking about forgiving him?”
The look that passed over her friend’s face made her slightly uneasy, and Buffy unconsciously drew back.
“You are, aren’t you? He cheated on you! As if that weren’t enough, it was while you were in prison and pregnant! That’s just… well, it’s nonsensical, that’s what it is. You can’t just go back to being with him like nothing happened, like he didn’t betray you.”
Willow stared at her, longing to reach out and shake her into compliance. Or use a little magic to sway her to her way of thinking. But she didn’t dare attempt a magic spell, much less one here now, in public. Buffy was fairly perceptive – she would know. In the car on the way home though… perhaps she could pull off a simple little spell that would convince Buffy to leave Los Angeles and Angel… Nothing too tricky… just a little something to nudge her thoughts in the right direction. It was so simple…
“I know,” Buffy glanced around self-consciously, hoping no one had heard her friend’s raised voice. The blunt mention of her pregnancy caused her heart to squeeze painfully and her throat to tighten with emotion. She had lost so much, her baby always in her mind without the need to be reminded.
“I mean… I don’t know. I haven’t really processed all of this, not yet anyway. I don’t know what I even think yet, much less what I’m going to do yet,” she managed to say finally. She genuinely didn’t know what she was going to do; she only knew she wasn’t ready to make any decisions.
“I really don’t think that’s such a good idea. You can’t just act like nothing happened!” Willow insisted angrily. “Not after what he did to you.”
“Buffy? Buffy?! Is that you?!”
Startled, both women turned toward the sound of the familiar voice.
“Wesley?” Buffy questioned, watching the recognizable figure rapidly approach.
“Yes, hello,” he greeted, coming to stand in front of the two women. “Buffy, Hello Willow.” He nodded, a friendly smile on his face.
“Let me guess, Angel sent you?” Buffy’s voice was not unwelcoming or unfriendly, just matter-of-fact.
“Actually, I was here at the mall to buy a gift,” he answered, evading the question and holding up a small Bloomingdale’s bag containing his purchase. “Though I must admit I didn’t expect to see you here. I didn’t realize you were feeling well enough to venture out.”
“Well, she is,” Willow snapped, annoyed by the interruption. “And don’t bother to lie. It’s sunny out, so the cheating bastard had to send someone else to do his dirty work.”
“The who?” Wes inquired archly. He couldn’t quite hide his surprise at Willow’s angry pronouncement.
“Angel. Who else? He told you to follow us, didn’t he? If not, then who’s the gift for, really ?” Willow asked derisively.
“Fred. It’s a small token of appreciation for watching my apartment and taking care of my ficus while I was away,” Wesley commented blandly. “An Orrefors glass vase. She mentioned having a particular fondness for this one in the light blue color, though I got only the briefest glance at the picture over her shoulder so I’m not sure it’s the right one. Would you like to see it?”
“I’m sure it’s very nice. We were just on our way to do some shopping ourselves. You’ll excuse us, I’m sure, since you weren’t following us,” Willow remarked with a dismissive tone.
Buffy’s brows drew together in a frown as she listened to her friend. Willow’s tone seemed unduly harsh. “It does sound really nice, Wes. I’m sure Fred will like it.”
“Yes, well, I hope so. And I’m sorry, but did I miss something here?” His perplexed gaze moved between the two young women.
“There’s nothing to miss. And if you’re talking about Angel, you probably know all the details since you were often hanging around in the library with her,” Willow commented brusquely. “Was she planning on including the nights of hot, sweaty sex with Angel in her book too?”
Buffy sighed heavily. Willow’s seemingly random tirade was causing the dull ache in her heart to throb insistently and crawl up her spine to her head. Rubbing the tension in her forehead with two fingers, she glanced from Willow to Wes and back. Had something else happened while she had been gone to cause a rift between the two of them? Was it her imagination, or did Willow seem strangely agitated by Wesley’s unexpected appearance?
Granted, he probably had followed them at Angel’s request… even Buffy didn’t quite believe he just happened to choose this very same mall at the very same time to pick up his gift. She was too newly returned, and Angel too overprotective. After days of not being more than a room apart, he’d left her alone in the apartment this morning with barely a protest, so he knew he’d send a bodyguard of some sort – and, if she were completely honest with herself, she’d have to admit she didn’t really mind. Her strength, as well as her confidence, hadn’t completely returned. It was a little comforting to have the backup. But that didn’t explain the tension, or Willow’s near hostility.
“Buffy?” Wes asked quietly. “Are you all right?”
“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry. I’m suddenly not feeling so great,” Buffy replied, dropping her hand and returning her gaze to her one-time Watcher.
“Let me drive you home. I was heading back anyway,” Wesley suggested softly, now a little alarmed. Buffy was pale and seemed distressed while Willow seemed intent on making a point about Angel’s infidelity. What did Willow tell Buffy about Angel and Elise?
“I can drive her,” Willow insisted, her eyes darkening ever so slightly. “That is, if she is even going back there.”
Turning to Buffy, she put her hand on arm. “Buffy, if you want to go and don’t want to drive, I can drive. We can go to my place and hang out there until you feel better. I think you should give yourself some time away to think about… well, all of this. You don’t have to stay with him. In fact, you shouldn’t stay with him. He cheated on you, for Hecate’s sake, when you were pregnant and in prison . Think about what happened to your baby… he can’t just pretend nothing happened, and go back to life like it was before.”
For a long moment, Buffy studied Willow’s face. “I’m sorry,” she murmured quietly. In addition to her aching head and aching heart, her stomach was now churning uneasily. Reaching in her bag, she fished out the keys to the borrowed BMW and held them out. “I’m sorry, Will,” she repated. “Would you mind taking the car back? I… I just… I just want to go home now. I know you wanted to pick up a few things while we were here and I’d feel bad if you didn’t get to do that, but I… I can’t stay.”
Willow’s jaw clenched, but she held out her hand for the offered keys. Pulling Buffy into a hug, she whispered, “You don’t have to go with him, and if you do go, you know you don’t have to stay. You really don’t. The offer to stay with me still stands. Call me, and I’ll come get you, anytime.”
“I know,” the blonde slayer answered vaguely, hugging her friend back lightly. Drawing back, Buffy forced a smile. “I need to go… Thanks for coming out with me, and for listening. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Okay, but Buffy, I really don’t think you going back there is such a good idea,” Willow returned grudgingly, her now dark gaze moving from Buffy to Wes and back again. Watching them walk away, she did not look pleased.
“Now tell me the truth, Wes,” Buffy murmured softly several minutes after they were settled in the car and moving out of the parking lot into traffic. Those were the first words she had spoken since they had left Willow in the mall.
“About?” The former Watcher asked, glancing at the young woman in the seat opposite him. She seemed so small and fragile against the black leather seats of the Mercedes he had borrowed from Angel’s car pool he felt his earlier concern about her health and well-being resurge.
“About what you were doing at the mall… About why the tense with you and Willow… About Angel…” She dropped her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. Her voice, when she continued, was low and strained. “About Angel and… Elise.”
“Angel is very concerned,” he said after a moment, carefully choosing his words. “I’m sure you know we believe someone inside Wolfram & Hart was involved in your abduction. Unfortunately, we don’t know who. We have only speculation and suspicions. Until we find out, Angel doesn’t want you to be alone or unprotected, but there are only a few people he trusts.”
“He trusts you.”
“Yes, I should hope so.”
“But not Willow? I’m sure he knew I left with her.”
“I don’t know,” he answered ambiguously.
“And you don’t trust her either.”
“I don’t know,” he repeated, glancing at her briefly, wondering if she noticed the growing darkness in Willow that the young woman seemed increasingly unable to hide.
“Did you tell her… where I was?”
“No,” he replied, his brows drawing together in a surprised frown. He glanced at Buffy contemplatively. She hadn’t told Willow about prison in Bjoutan? Then how had she known?
Sighing, Buffy absently drew a circle on the window with her finger. Spike must’ve said something about it then; he probably thought Willow already knew and mentioned it without thinking. She should’ve known they couldn’t keep it a secret – nothing at Wolfram & Hart was ever sacred. “Did something happen while I was gone? Something with Willow?”
Wes mentally debated his response. What could he tell her? That they suspected Willow had been increasingly active in practicing magic? That she had apparently taken on several assignments of a less than savory nature for the Senior Partners? They had only a few circumstantial facts to back up their suspicions, no hard evidence… Telling Buffy now might lead to her confronting her friend – which risked tipping their hand. Given the current state of their investigation, this was something they weren’t quite ready to do. And now, given that Willow seemed to know more about Buffy’s whereabouts than anyone had told her… more of a reason to proceed with caution.
“Willow and I perhaps have a disagreement or two,” he said finally, settling on something truthful that might be convincing. He was intentionally vague, hoping she wouldn’t press for details he didn’t think he could give her. Certainly at base, they disagreed about how much Angel should be vilified for his relationship with Elise.
She thought about his answer for several moments. It was obvious there was something more that he wasn’t saying, but she chose to let it go for the time being. They’d be at Wolfram & Hart soon and she had other questions she wanted answered. “Angel asked you to follow me?”
“Not in so many words, no, though it may have been… strongly suggested,” Wesley admitted reluctantly. “I would’ve come on my own anyway. We all know you’re the slayer and you can protect yourself,” he added before she could speak. “But you’re still recovering your health and your strength, as well as honing your skills. Until you’re feeling one hundred percent, humor us.”
“Angel… does he think someone is going to… take me again?” Buffy asked quietly. She had noticed the extra diligence in securing the apartment, and she sensed her safety was the topic of several intense conversations between Angel, Spike and Wes.
“It’s a matter of tying up all of the loose ends. We know the Watcher’s Council set up the prison in Bjoutan, and they chose the slayers they placed there. They considered you a rogue slayer like the others, since you disobeyed their orders and essentially quit the Council years ago. And even though the Council is out of business, and Bjoutan is closed, we don’t know whom at Wolfram & Hart helped to orchestrate your abduction. Someone had to have been involved. Angel won’t be satisfied until he finds out and… well, closes the loop. That’s how he is. You know that perhaps better than anyone else.”
She did, though this Elise person probably knew him just as well now, she thought jealously. Sighing, Buffy attempted to push aside the green-eyed monster and the accompanying resentful thoughts. She looked out the window at the passing traffic. “You said speculation and suspicions. Who?”
Wes glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t know how much Angel wanted to reveal just yet. “You should ask Angel.”
“I could, or you could tell me now, and then I’ll be better able to protect myself. I mean, what if I don’t get to talk to Angel until… I don’t know, days from now. Maybe I won’t even see him until later in the week. He’s got work to catch up on, after all.”
“You’ll have to speak with Angel,” the former Watcher repeated with a smile. He knew she’d press for detail; it was her nature but the likelihood of her not seeing Angel for days was slim to none. He would probably seek her out soon after their return to the offices – especially now that the issue of Elise hung between them.
“Is it someone I see often? Or just in passing? The mail clerk? The receptionist? The creepy little scientist guy on the fourth floor with the blonde curly hair and beady eyes?” she pressed.
“Buffy… you really should ask Angel. I can’t tell you anything more.”
“Fine, I’ll ask Angel,” Buffy sniffed almost indignantly, crossing her arms over her chest. “But you know it’s ridiculous for you to not tell me. This will only make me paranoid and suspicious about everyone. Maybe it’ll even make me turn into one of those survivalist people who live by themselves in some fortified bunker, afraid of everything. I can protect myself better if I have an idea of what I’m looking out for.”
Wesley chuckled. He could admit she had a point, but Angel would have his reasons for what he chose to disclose – or not – to her right now. “Angel-”
“I know, I know. Ask Angel. Which I will do when I see him,” Buffy interjected before he could finish. “So if you aren’t going to tell me who’s out to get me, then you can at least tell me about her .
“Elise?” he asked without guile, feeling slightly guilty now that he had at one time encouraged Angel’s relationship with the female author. “I, er, take it Willow told you about her?”
“No, Angel did,” Buffy answered calmly, though it seemed her heart broke a little every time she had to mention their names together. “Willow just confirmed that everyone at Wolfram & Hart knew – that he was involved with her. Sexually involved. And before you tell me to ask Angel, I didn’t have to. He told me himself he had… been with her.”
Ah! Now he understood the sudden change in routine: Angel, tense and on edge, appearing suddenly in his office after days of working from the apartment and not leaving Buffy’s side, and her abrupt departure from the building when she hadn’t even left the penthouse suite unaccompanied since her return.
Clearing his throat, he asked, “Well, um, what is it that you want to know?”
Buffy studied her fingernails for a moment, contemplating the questions she wanted to ask and wondering if she would really be able to handle the answers.
“Was he in love with her?” she asked finally, her voice throaty and emotional. He hadn’t said he was, but she hadn’t asked that particular question.
“No, he wasn’t,” he answered thoughtfully, guiding the car into the right lane and slowing to turn into the alley that led to the Wolfram & Hart parking garage. The need to pay attention to the narrow drive gave him a few extra seconds to compose his response. “I think he genuinely likes her, and I think he cares for her, but no, he wasn’t in love with her.”
“Then why…” she trailed off uncertainly, still unsure what exactly she wanted to know.
“Did he become involved with her?” Wes finished for her gently, watching the play of emotions on her face.
She took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“Buffy…” Even out of the corner of his eye, Wesley couldn’t miss the pained look on her face. “He missed you terribly, every day. For a while we thought he was going to lose his mind. We even feared his grief might somehow unleash Angelus. Elise… she was a distraction.”
Pausing, he checked the rear view and side mirrors as they stopped and waited for the large steel garage door to rise. “I don’t mean that in a shallow sort of way. You and I both know Angel doesn’t indulge in casual affairs.” Angelus, always… but Angel, not so much.
“We all thought… it had been several months, and there were no leads, no clues. And when Angel admitted one night that he could no longer feel the connection you shared, well, that led us to conclude…
“That I was dead,” she interjected quietly. She knew as much, and Angel had confirmed it even though he hadn’t said so in those exact words. How many times during her stay in Bjoutan had she thought that would, in fact, be her fate? So many she had even begun to accept it.
“I’m not explaining this very well, am I?” He didn’t want to admit that he, Gunn, and Fred had pushed Angel and Elise together, hoping the author could ease his grief and pain. She was a compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful woman… it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to think she could help, somehow. They genuinely cared about the vampire as their friend, but a brooding, grieving Angel was a difficult and dangerous Angel. It was better, and considered safer for everyone, when he was not in a dark frame of mind. Perhaps it had been selfish on their part… but ultimately, Angel had made the decisions he made, and the relationship with Elise had been his choice.
“It’s okay, Wesley. I just… I don’t know. I just wanted to understand… or try. Or maybe I wanted to know…” A wave of hopelessness washed over her. She knew Angel wasn’t one for casual affairs – which made it worse, not better, knowing he had been involved with someone else. It meant it wasn’t just a sexual gratification or physical release sort of thing; it meant there was an emotional connection between them, and that was so much harder to forget and forgive.
“I’m truly sorry, Buffy,” he said softly as he pulled the car into the dimly lit garage.
“So am I,” she whispered in reply.
“What? Who?” Wesley looked up from the papers he had just laid carefully across the conference room table.
“Travers,” Spike replied as he swept into the room, slamming the door forcefully behind him.
“What do you mean dead?” Wes asked, taken aback by the revelation.
“I mean dead, dead. Deceased. No longer among the living. Immortally challenged. Bought the farm. Kicked the bucket. Pushing up daisies. Figuratively, of course, not literally, since I doubt anything would grow in the basement here.”
“When? What happened?” Angel asked as he joined them from his adjoining his office, closing the doors behind him to give them as much privacy as they might find in an office seemingly full of spies.
“Can’t say exactly. I went to talk with him about our mutual friend Serge and found him face down on the floor. He’d probably been there over an hour, maybe two. Not much more than that.”
“You’re sure he’s dead?” Wesley questioned again, moving to straighten the papers that had blown around in the breeze stirred by Spike’s pacing around the room.
“Let me think about it.” The blonde vampire paused for one beat. “Yes, I’m sure. He’s dead.” At Wesley’s uncertain look, Spike added. “Very dead, and trust me, if anyone knows dead, it’s me.”
Angel swore softly.
Wes asked thoughtfully, “Suicide?”
Spike shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe.”
“But you doubt it.” Wes suggested.
“I doubt it,” Spike affirmed grimly.
“Travers thought too highly of himself to commit suicide,” Angel added briskly. His brows had drawn together in a scowl. “And he believed the Senior Partners would intervene on his behalf.”
“Maybe they did then,” Spike remarked. “Just not the way he thought they would.”
“That’s quite possible,” Wesley murmured, reaching for a stack of papers. He rifled through them quickly until he found the one he was seeking. He pulled it from the file and held it out for inspection. “This is the contract Quentin had on file. It’s similar to Lilah’s.”
“So they could’ve kept him alive as long as they wanted,” Spike surmised, glancing at printed paper with only mild interest.
“Or taken him out when they wanted, since he was technically already dead,” Angel finished.
“True. He was in the explosion that killed the majority of the Watcher’s Council. Clearly, he owed his survival to this contract,” Wes explained, shaking his head. “Should we have the lab examine him? Maybe they’ll be able to pinpoint the exact cause of death.”
“No,” Angel returned in a frustrated growl. “No point. And too many people already know he was here. I don’t want the news to spread any further if we can prevent it.”
The two other men nodded in agreement.
“Lock up the body,” Angel continued, “in one of the secure vaults. Use magic if you need to. I don’t want him resurrected or able to leave here in any way.
“We should take care of it now then,” Spike declared, his expression grim. He turned to Wes, “I’ll get the body and the vault if you bring the magic sealant.”
Angel landed another hard right jab on the punching bag, a low grunt escaping his lips as he pounded the bag, each blow harder than the last. He was in a rage that the Senior Partners had taken Quentin, and therefore the little bit of revenge and retribution he could offer Buffy, slight though it was. It wasn’t much in the way of compensation, but he had wanted to give her the opportunity to determine Quentin’s fate.
With natural grace and innate ability, he moved around the swinging bag, eyeing it as though it were a skilled opponent. There was no doubt in his mind the Senior Partners had known about Travers’ plans for Buffy. He swung and hit the Everlast logo with a hard left, imagining the former Watcher’s face; what he had done to Quentin hardly seemed enough now. He never had a lead or any proof, but he had suspected the Partners were in some way involved in her disappearance right from the beginning. Whirling he landed a solid kick on the bag, nearly knocking it from its moorings.
He knew the Senior Partners had an agenda when they put him in charge of Wolfram & Hart; that had never been in question. He always believed in time they would reveal their hand, so he waited; time was certainly something he had. Perhaps taking the wait and see approach had been a mistake. It had been unquestionably costly… He threw a right hook followed by a left jab, stepping to the side to set up the next punch.
They wanted him to lose his soul, that much he knew. They had probably gotten their hopes up when he and Buffy renewed their relationship after Sunnydale’s destruction. When that avenue failed, however, a steady stream of mysterious ‘packages’ began to arrive. Often clever, sometimes clumsy, but all of which they surely hoped would prove the key to relieving him of his soul… His brows drew together. Clearly they understood very little about the nature of the curse that gave him his soul.
Turning, he hit the bag with a solid sidekick. He could understand their interest in Angelus, and their hope that they still could bring back his demon. But what he couldn’t understand was their plan if it were to happen… It wasn’t as if his demon would’ve simply kowtowed to them in gratitude, and yielded to their demands. Angel’s lips twisted into a bitter smile. Quite the opposite in fact… In short order they would’ve regretted gifting Angelus with such power as he would find as the head of an organization such as Wolfram & Hart.
He juked left and blocked the swinging back with a right side arm. But what did they have to gain by bargaining with Quentin? Fewer slayers to spoil their plans? That didn’t make sense… most of the slayers Travers had selected for incarceration were those more likely to work with the Partners, not against them. Even with Quentin in charge, the Council and the Partners objectives were often at odds. So what was it then?
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he attacked the bag again with a series of rapid blows. Maybe it wasn’t about the slayers at all, but maybe it was just as Spike had suggested: it was about taking something from him. Since he apparently wasn’t going to lose his soul by being with Buffy, maybe they thought losing her would be the thing that would push him over the edge. If so, they don’t know how close to correct they had come…
His intuition was telling him there was something to the idea, but a piece of the puzzle still seemed to be missing. They wanted them together if he were to lose his soul… but they wanted them apart if he wasn’t? Unbidden, a vague memory drifted through his mind… something about the two of them, together… something from years past… gradually the phrase turned in his mind until the sentence became completely clear…
“Together you were powerful. Alone you are dead.”
The Mohra demon. Pausing, his chest heaving from the exertion despite the lack of needing to breathe, Angel stared hard at the swaying bag. Those words had haunted him in the years following the Mohra’s demise and the day that wasn’t, particularly when Buffy had jumped into the portal and died less than two years later. He had failed her then, leaving her to face Glory alone, as he had undoubtedly failed her many times before and since. But never again, he resolved, shaking away the painful thoughts. Could it as simple as that? Did he and Buffy together somehow pose a threat to the Senior Partners or their plans? They were always putting a lot of credence into the various prophecies they – or their lackeys – spent so much time researching…
Thoughtfully, he plucked a towel from a nearby bench and wiped his face. He’d have Wes look into it and see if he could uncover anything. He’d call Giles and ask for help as well; the former Watcher had always been good at that sort of research, and was well especially well versed in slayer lore.
It was late afternoon by the time Wesley was able to leave Wolfram & Hart and make the drive over to Elise’s house. After parking alongside the curb, he cut the ignition and surveyed the house for a moment. There were several newspapers strewn in the narrow driveway and the yard, making it appear as though no one had been there for several days. Not a good sign.
As he walked up to the porch, he noticed a light on inside the house, though he suspected it was from a timer rather than an occupant since it wasn’t dark enough yet to need the lights on. He knocked on the door and waited; he heard only silence. The hair on the back of his neck rising, he knocked again, louder. The house was too quiet; he was certain no one was home. Whether it was from experience, or just an imperceptible feeling, he knew something was wrong.
The blinds were drawn on the front window, preventing any view inside the house. Glancing around to make sure he was unobserved, he crept around the side of the house. The windows and doors were all closed and locked; there were no obvious signs of tampering.
Returning to the front porch, Wesley once again looked around before drawing out his keys as though he were simply going to unlock the door. He eyed the double door lock critically before taking out a small tension wrench and several picks. Selecting one, he carefully picked the lock on the deadbolt. After just over a minute, the locks tumbled and the bolt slid out of the door jam. With a relieved sigh, he moved to the second, easier lock.
When the door finally opened and Wes stepped inside, Elise’s suitcases were the first obvious thing he saw. They were open, the contents strewn on the floor. Elise had returned from London – or at least her luggage had. His stomach tightened, and he looked around. A pile of mail sat on the table near the door next to several still wrapped newspapers. Apparently someone had collected her mail and papers up until her expected return.
A quick survey of the house revealed ransacked drawers, particularly on her desk. The file drawers were pulled out and emptied, papers littering the floor. Her jewel case, in the top drawer of her open bureau, still held several expensive pieces of jewelry including a glittering platinum and diamond tennis bracelet Wes knew to be worth close to $15,000. Her purse was gone, but her laptop bag – the bag he knew she carried more than she carried a purse – was sitting on the floor, empty. Apparently the thieves had made off with her laptop and a few files, but from what he could tell little else. From all indications, it wasn’t simply the work of petty thieves. It appeared that whoever had been there had been looking for something specific – the question was, had they found it?
The biggest question and overriding concern was, however, where was Elise? Had she arrived home and interrupted the thieves at work? There was no sign of forced entry… unless they had surprised her at the door and forced her to let them in… Possible, perhaps, though he thought it more likely the person or persons had already been in the house when she arrived. Why he thought that, he wasn’t quite sure – it was just a feeling in his gut.
He’d start with the airlines and see if he could confirm when she returned; she would’ve taken a cab or a car service home from the airport. Maybe the driver would have seen something or know something that would be helpful.
With rapidly growing concern, he made one last check around the house. He wished he knew her place better in order to know what else, if anything, might be missing. Maybe Angel would have a better idea… though he hated having to ask the vampire to check, especially now that Buffy knew about his relationship with the author. They certainly didn’t need any more complications in their relationship just now.
On his way out, he gathered the newspapers from the yard and stopped at her mailbox. It was full of mail, mostly junk mail and flyers, but one thing caught his attention – a small package Elise had apparently mailed to herself from London. Collecting the rest of the mail, he tucked it under his arm and headed for his car.
Buffy left through a side door of the Wolfram & Hart offices and turned left toward the street that would eventually take her out to Santa Monica and the beach. She walked slowly, letting the fading evening sun and slight breeze soothe her tumultuous thoughts, hoping some fresh air and time away from the penthouse suite would soothe her tumultuous emotions, help sort out the uncertainty of her future, and prepare her for her conversation with Angel.
Elise Seymour . The name was etched vividly in her consciousness. Who was she, really? Had the woman author really been researching her, or was it an excuse to be close to Angel? And what was it about her that had so attracted Angel enough that he had become involved with her? Had her disappearance mattered so little to him that he could so easily start a relationship with a woman who interested him? Or was it really just a moment of respite after months of grief? A need to connect with someone else after feeling so very alone?
She grappled with the exact measure of her jealousy, along with her feelings of hurt and her indeterminate faith in Angel. Could she blame him for a lapse? After all, hadn’t she done the very same thing after her return from heaven? Spike had been her source of feeling, her reprieve from pain and grief.
But try as she might, she was unable to intellectualize away her feelings of hurt and betrayal. The memory of those days locked up in Bjoutan strengthened her resolve against her heart. She didn’t know if she would be able to forgive him.
She slowed, seeing Angel waiting for her a short distance away. Lost in thought, she hadn’t realized it had grown dark or that she was as far from the office as she had come. Apparently, she also hadn’t noticed Angel following her at a discreet distance in the sleek black Audi until he finally swept passed, parked, and got out to wait for her just before the entrance to the beach steps. He looked like any other Southern California man at the beach, clad in faded jeans and a dark blue button-up shirt left untucked.
“How did you find me?” she asked, closing the gap between them. He was still as gorgeous as ever, she thought, and wondered peevishly if Elise thought so as well.
“You always did like the beach,” he answered, shrugging one shoulder slightly. He was leaning against the car, though the relaxed, casual pose was an odd contrast to the tension in his body, the concern in his dark eyes.
Misreading his stance and bothered by her earlier thoughts, Buffy felt a touch of resentment toward him for his seemingly blasé repose. “Oh. And here I thought it was because you or one of your flunkies were following me,” she coolly said. She may not have seen him behind her, but she knew he’d send someone.
“Wes probably wouldn’t like being called a flunkie.”
Buffy’s brows lifted fractionally at the unexpected candor of his response. “So you did tell him to follow me earlier.”
“I didn’t have to.”
“I was coming back… I know we agreed to talk.” She wished now she had pressed for more time.
“I know. And I thought it might be… easier here.”
“Because the sounds of the ocean are soothing, and because there’s less chance we’ll be spied on or interrupted.”
“I see.” Her words were coated with a thin frost of resentment. His words affirmed her distrust in their surroundings at Wolfram & Hart, as well as the fact that he wasn’t telling her everything. “Did you meet Elise away from the office then? Or maybe you should’ve.”
“You have a right to be angry.”
“I do,” she agreed, walking past him to stand at the top of the stairs leading down to the beach.
“I’m sorry for everything that happened. I’m sorry you were ever taken, I’m sorry I didn’t find you before I did, and I’m sorry I got involved with someone.” His words were heartfelt, sincere.
“Did you love her?” Buffy breathed so quietly, if he didn’t have preternatural hearing the sound would have been inaudible.
“No,” he answered gently, though without hesitation.
Her eyes, unfathomable, held his for a long moment. “Then why…”
Angel studied her face, her eyes deep green pools in the fading light. Was there any way to explain away wanting to somehow ease the pain of loss, even for a moment? He brushed a stray hair away from her cheek.
“I’m not offering any excuses, Buffy, but I am offering an apology. I’m sorry, and if there’s a way to make all of this up to you, I’ll do it. I love you, and I’ve missed you. I want to find a way we can put this behind us.”
Buffy remained silent, steeling herself against the impulse to drown in those dark, soulful eyes or throw herself in his arms and have him hold her until the ache of heartbreak went away. The honest truth was that she didn’t know what she wanted right now. Her emotions vacillated wildly from hurt and anger one minute to relief, and almost happiness another. It was all too much for her, too soon.
“I don’t know, Angel,” she said finally, taut with conflicted feeling. “It’s not that easy for me. I need some time.”
“I have time,” he said softly. “Whatever you need, Buffy, I’ll give you. I love you.”
To be continued…