You carry away with you a reflection of me, a part of me. I dreamed you; I wished for your existence. You will always be a part of my life. If I love you, it must be because we shared, at some moment, the same imaginings, the same madness, the same stage.
– Anaïs Nin
Buffy walked through the stacks at the Wolfram & Hart library idly looking at the shelves. She hadn’t had a destination in mind when she left the apartment but somehow ended up here. After meandering through the aisles for several minutes, she doubled back and began looking at the titles and author names as she ran a finger along the book spines. Three rows later, she halted her impromptu perusal of the various tomes, none of them provoking any interest for further review.
She paused and chewed absently on her bottom lip. Did she really want to know? No, she really didn’t, she thought as she crossed the room, her feet moving as if on their own volition. Yet, something compelled her just the same; that same something that brought her here, even if she wasn’t ready to admit it.
She sat down at the desk along the wall and stared for a moment at the twisting kaleidoscope of colors on the computer screen saver. Bumping the mouse, she watched the screen clear. With a deep inhale Buffy clicked on the icon for the web browser; by default it opened to the web search page. She deliberated for a few seconds before she finally typed “Elise Seymour” in the box next to “Search the Web”.
The first few links returned were book titles, presumably written by the woman in question. She selected the fourth one down, the link titled “Elise Seymour | Official Publisher Page” – and clicked.
There she was, the woman Angel… was seeing. Had been seeing. Had been with. Had sex with.
“Ugh,” Buffy sighed, rubbing a hand over her eyes and halting her train of thought. Blinking, she looked back at the screen and studied the photo of the brunette intently. The author had long dark hair, styled in perfect waves that fell past her shoulders. Her brows were thin and perfectly arched over golden brown eyes, and she smiled with perfectly straight white teeth. The royal blue of her shirt collar made her skin seem tan and perfectly flawless. She was… perfect.
Sighing again, Buffy scrolled down to the next photo. A less flattering angle, no smile in this one… OK, maybe she wasn’t perfectly perfect. Maybe the previous photo had the benefits of Photoshop. But she was… okay. Well, maybe she was more than okay… maybe some would even use words like… beautiful, or even those in the photo caption, ugh, stunning .
As if obligated to see the page in it’s entirety, Buffy scrolled to the bottom. The next and last photo appeared to have been taken somewhere near Santa Monica pier, maybe late afternoon, and at what appeared to be a semi-formal outdoor event. Unlike the previous 2 headshots, this one was taken from several feet away as the lady author appeared to be posed next to a booth. Great hair again, only this time she had it pulled back in a loosely curled chignon. There was a flirty half-smile on her face and she looked at something – or someone – just to the right of the camera. The short golden beige halter style dress she wore was gorgeous and beyond flattering…
Self-consciously Buffy glanced down at the pale pink hoodie and black yoga pants she was wearing. She combed a hand through her growing out but still not quite ponytail ready hair, smoothing the unruly strands. At least she knew it wasn’t Angel the woman had been smiling at, Buffy thought peevishly; the bright sunshine would have been a deterrent for the vampire.
Buffy sighed and abruptly clicked the small red icon, closing the browser window.
Angel had always had his pick of women, so it should be no surprise that this Elise person was not only apparently a successful author but drop dead gorgeous with a body to envy. An unwanted reminder that Cordelia had been that same sort of showy and well-built brunette flitted through her mind – was that more Angel’s type?
The blonde Slayer leaned back in the chair and nibbled absently at her nails. She probably shouldn’t have done that little bit of research. It certainly hadn’t made her feel any better nor had it resolved anything in terms of what to do now…
Spike nodded as he stepped into the elevator. “Hello Red.”
“Spike,” Willow greeted in response. “Working late?”
“Always,” he grinned with a lift of his eyebrows. “Work is pretty much all I do these days. I’ll be employee of the month soon, watch.”
Willow chuckled slightly. “So what are you working on?”
“Oh, this and that. New case over in Silver Lake, demon probably. Ghost sighting in El Segundo. Vampire nest up near Malibu. May even take a trip down to Mexico for a look see at some big bad supposedly hanging around down there in a couple of the cantinas.”
“I see. And here I thought you guys were fully focused on Buffy’s… abduction,” she said, watching him carefully for any nuanced sign of surprise by her question or attempts to lie in response.
“Oh, the poof still is, no question,” he returned without blinking, his gaze trained on the red haired Wiccan with equal intensity. “I doubt Angel will stop until any and all involved are tortured, dead and buried. Or maybe just tortured and buried. But, then we may not even get a chance to get our hands dirty… Though, of all the cases where one would want dirty hands-”
“Why’s that?” She interrupted with a glance at the elevator numbers, noting that they were almost to her stop on the first floor.
“The limo driver turned up, or so I’ve heard. Gives us one less body for exacting retaliation,” Spike explained with a shrug as the doors to the elevator slid open.
Willow stared, a bit taken aback by the news. She had been fairly certain the body of the former Wolfram & Hart System Analyst would never have been identified; in fact, she thought the county had already buried him as an unidentified John Doe.
“Your floor?” he prompted, pressing the button to hold the doors open. “Sorry, gotta run or the boss will have my ass,” Spike added with a jerk of his head and the lift of his brows, his eyes shifting in hint toward the open doors.
“Well I hope you guys find whoever was responsible,” she answered finally, stepping out into the hallway. Unbeknownst to her, her eyes had darkened and her coloring had paled. “Let me know if I can do something, you know, to help,” she offered quickly, as if realizing further concern would be expected.
“Will do,” Spike smiled, nodding as the doors closed between them.
Buffy wiped the sweat off her face as she slowed the treadmill to a walking speed and finally to a stop. It wasn’t her usual pace or longest distance, but she was encouraged to feel her strength returning. And the endorphins generated by the physical activity had done wonders for her mood.
She plucked her water bottle from the nearby bench and took a long drink as she made her way to the locker room.
The exercise had also helped clear her head and come to some decisions. Mentally she began chronicling the rest of her day… the salon to do something with her hair along with a much needed facial and mani-pedi; a trip to some of the boutiques on Third or Melrose for some new clothes, including lingerie, which would help her feel a bit more feminine as well as confident; and of course, a call to Giles.
Then tonight, she’d need to see Angel. They would have to talk.
“We’re chipping away at the Lambert with an ice pick,” Spike groused angrily as he slid into the back of the Mercedes S65 AMG and slammed the door.
Wes flinched at the callous treatment of the expensive and new car, which now often served as their meeting location since they were increasingly distrustful of speaking in the Wolfram & Hart offices. He glanced back from his position in the driver’s seat at the vampire. “And when did you ever think otherwise?”
“Yeah, well, I’m getting tired of it, that’s all,” Spike added with grunt. He dropped his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes. “There’s got to be a faster way.”
“What did you find?” Angel asked from the passenger seat. He pointed to the right as Wesley eased the car away from the curb and into traffic.
“The little bundle of herbs, also known in certain circles as a talisman, contained mainly pennyroyal, coltsfoot and lavender. There were a few other odds and ends thrown in for good measure,” the blonde vampire stated, “but Pennyroyal by itself has been used for hundreds of years for natural abortion; combine that with the other dried weeds, add in some remnants of magic, and I’m certain it’s not a something for a pregnant woman to be carrying around.”
“And you’re sure Willow made them?” Wesley asked with a glance in the rearview mirror.
“Well, I didn’t see her do it but yeah, at this point I’d bet on it,” Spike replied. “You have anyone else in mind?”
“Buffy said she got them from Willow,” Angel confirmed thoughtfully. Could Willow have just been the messenger, or was she more directly involved? Had she been the creator as well?
“And speaking of our resident Wiccan, I saw her in the elevator,” the blonde vampire continued, “anyone else notice the pale skin and dark eyed look she’s rockin’ these days?”
“What?” Wes hit the brakes sharply and jerked the car to the left, avoiding another vehicle that abruptly pulled out into traffic. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, downright witchy if you ask me,” Spike commented as he looked at the seatbelt and considered whether or not he should fasten it. With a dismissive shrug, he glanced out through the tinted glass of the window. It’s not as if an accident would kill him.
“You said St. Vincent?” the former Watcher asked as he firmly pressed the accelerator, speeding through the intersection as the light changed to yellow.
“Yes,” Angel affirmed. “Police report was for a Jane Doe matching Elise’s description. Seriously injured, sounds like she’s been unconscious since she was found.”
“If it is the lady author and it has anything to do with anything of this, why is she still alive?” Spike asked.
“I don’t know,” Angel replied with slow deliberation, his thoughts running in much the same direction. “We do know-“
“That there must be a reason, and whatever the reason, we’d be smart not to trust her, it, or anything in the vicinity of it until we sort all this out,” Spike interrupted impatiently. “Let’s just cut through all this shit and ask Willow what she knows.”
“You think she’d actually admit to anything?” Wesley asked with a skeptical lift of his brows.
“Who knows? We do know she knows more than she’s telling, if she’s not just outright involved. Besides, what’s that saying? Nothing ventured, nothing gained? We’ll let’s venture and gain,” Spike insisted.
“If she is involved somehow, we still don’t know the extent or even why,” Angel commented pensively. “If we can find that out, we’ll be in a better position when we do confront her. Until then… well, if she’s as powerful as Giles believes, we need to be ready.”
Willow drummed her fingers on the desk and absently stared at the computer screen in front of her. Just as Spike had said and was now confirmed by the report obtained through hacking into the LA County coroner’s office, Serge Dobryshkin’s body had indeed been identified.
Not that it mattered, she thought, turning in her chair and plucking the moonstone crystal off her desk. He was just a pawn at Wolfram & Hart, coerced into playing his part in the game. How and why one mere piece had been taken off the board wouldn’t affect the outcome.
Still, Hamilton would no doubt be on her ass when he found out about the discovery. She snorted softly in annoyance. He was too limited in his thinking, too much of a pawn himself. The red haired Wiccan twirled the stone, and watched intently as the cloudy moonstone seemed to shift from pink to blue to bright white. He might consider himself a knight in this particular game, but it was time for him to find out just who was queen…
Her eyes darkened, and her skin paled even more. “Pareo pactum quod servo mihi… Recolligo, phasmatis flamma,” she murmured, watching the formerly innocent moonstone crystal begin to glow. She’d be ready for the Senior Partner liaison next time he came to visit.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for the Jane Doe brought in two days ago?” Angel asked with a flash of his Private Investigator badge at the nurse behind the counter.
“Yes, she’s in…” Sherri glanced at the clipboard next to he computer to confirm, “405”. She smiled at the attractive man and idly wondered if he were single. He was wearing a ring, so no, of course he wouldn’t be… It was never her luck to meet the good and single ones. Strictly speaking, visiting hours were over, but badges in search of nameless patients usually meant official business which she wasn’t all that keen to be involved with – especially near the end of the day after a long shift. All she wanted was to get home to a glass of wine, her cats and a few episodes of Sherlock on Netflix. She shrugged and pointed left, down the hall.
“Thanks,” Angel nodded and glanced over his shoulder at Spike and Wes who had hung back in the lobby. They followed him down the hall and into the designated room.
Angel frowned at the grotesquely bruised and swollen face of the woman on the bed, her brunette hair matted around her head and still flecked with what looked like dried blood. He studied her for a few long moments before concluding that yes, it was, in fact, Elise.
“Oh my God,” Wes exclaimed softly, unable to restrain his shock as he too finally reached the same conclusion. “That is her… isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Angel confirmed cheerlessly. He should have anticipated something like this; he should not have let her travel back alone. He should have done something to make sure she was protected.
Spike plucked the chart hanging from the foot of the bed and flipped it open. “Uh, GCS 8, ulna something or other…” he trailed off with a shrug, unable to make sense of the codes, comments, and values in the chart. He handed it to Wes.
“Serious brain injury, broken right arm,” Wes said after looking at chart for several seconds. “She hasn’t regained consciousness.”
“Some broken fingers as well, I’m guessing. Looks like defensive wounds,” Angel added, carefully lifting her lifeless hand. “Probably some kind of bat.”
“Excuse me gentlemen, can I help you?” A stern voice asked from the doorway.
“I’m Angel,” the dark vampire offered, placing Elise’s hand carefully back on the blanket. “Elise, uh, your patient, is a friend. How is she?”
“Oh good, we were hoping someone might come looking for her. She didn’t have any ID when she was found, so we haven’t been able to identify her. I’m Dr. Ahn,” the Neurologist returned with a relieved sigh as she closed the distance between them. She reached for the chart, taking it from Wes and flipping it closed. “Do you have any idea what happened to her?”
“No, I’m sorry,” Angel answered with a slight shake of his head.
“She’d been out of the country, her house had been broken into on her return… now we’re guessing perhaps she caught the burglars in the act on her arrival home and they perhaps… took her,” Wes offered as clarification. “We’ve been looking for her for several days. How serious is she?”
The doctor hesitated, unwilling to violate her patients confidentiality and well aware of the rules about medical disclosure and liability. “Her injuries are quite extensive. Do you know how we can reach her family?”
“Angel here is family,” Spike cheerfully volunteered. “Practically anyway. How many years before that common-law marriage thing is in effect? Five? Seven?”
The dark vampire shot the younger vampire a menacing look that would have halted most men – and demons – in their tracks.
“He might as well be married.” Spike continued cheerfully, undeterred. He returned Angel’s stare with a pointed look of his own before turning a sincere and somewhat flirtatious smile on the neurologist. He didn’t see a problem in stretching the truth to get the information that they needed. “Always wears that ring, and he’s been with his girl longer than most marriages last these days.”
“She has a mother, somewhere… we can probably find her information for you,” Angel capitulated slightly. Unaware he was doing so, he touched the mentioned ring. His thoughts drifted to Buffy, his concern for her, and his uncertainty about their future.
“That would be great, if you can get that for us.” Dr. Ahn, taking note of the unconscious gesture and the genuine look of concern on the taller man’s face, too pity and decided to let the rules slide this time. “Look, she took quite a beating. She has a severe head injury, trauma to the brain and possibly the spine. Her arm is broken, and you’re correct, several fingers and several of the small bones in her hands. We don’t know how long she went untreated before she was brought to the hospital, so there’s some risk of both infection and pneumonia due to exposure.”
“Who brought her in?” Spike’s head came up at the thought of a possible clue.
“Ambulance. Someone running along the Arroyo Seco trail spotted her, called 9-1-1.” Dr. Ahn explained. “The police came, took a report.”
“But her condition…” Angel prompted, glancing back at the still woman on the bed.
“We won’t know for a few days. If we can control the swelling on the brain, and she doesn’t end get pulmonary edema or cardiac arrhythmia, she can survive. But with this much trauma… she’s likely to have some significant long-term or permanent disability. Cognitive damage perhaps, as well as some physical debilitation.”
Angel shook his head in anger and frustration. Despite her subterfuge, Elise had been an innocent in much of this. And, he would admit, he was fond of her… he couldn’t have shared as much of himself with her as he had otherwise. But even beyond that, he owed her an enormous debt of gratitude for finding Buffy, for making it possible for her to return from the hell she had been kept in, and for bringing her back to him.
He would find whoever was responsible for her condition; there was no doubt in his mind they were connected to Buffy’s disappearance. He also had no doubt he would make them pay.
“Wes, my darling plum, is that you?” Lorne greeted with a smile as his solemn coworker turned the hallway corner headed toward the offices at the end. “You and the big guy seem awfully busy these days. Everything a-okay?”
“Hm, Lorne. Yes, yes, it’s fine.” Wes absently replied as he ran a hand through his already disheveled hair. He wanted to get copies of the police report that had been taken on Elise’s arrival at the hospital; they needed to know the details of who found her, when, and exactly where. Perhaps they could find some clues at the location, something the police missed – if they had even searched.
“Right, I can see that,” Lorne countered, unconvinced. “Something you want to talk about? Something I can help with?”
“No, just… I just have some things on my mind, that’s all.”
“Well, hey, let me know if, you know, there’s something you want to say, or hey, sing. I’m here,” the green demon offered, patting Wes on the back.
“Yes, sure,” Wes returned, his thoughts clearly elsewhere as he fished in his pockets for his keys. He couldn’t get the vision of Elise’s severely battered face out of his mind, and he feared things might only get worse before they could get to the truth.
“Oh, hey, let me get that.” Lorne picked up the card that had fluttered to the ground from Wes fumbling in his pockets. “Dr. Ahn? Neurologist? St. Vincent’s? Everyone Ok? Or, should I ask – anyone I know?”
“Uh, no, just, we thought it might be related to a case,” the dark haired former Watcher forced a smile as he grabbed the card out of the demon’s hand. “But, it, uh, isn’t.”
“Sure, whatever you say, sweetie-pie,” Lorne skeptically replied as he started to walk away. He knew Wes wasn’t telling the truth, but he knew better than to push for details at the moment. Pausing, he turned back and added, “Go home and get some rest. You look like you really need it.”
“Yes, I think that I’ll do just that. Good night,” Wes nodded, his mind already elsewhere.
Marcus stepped out of the hallway shadows after Wesley’s door closed. He interlaced his fingers together, bringing them to his chin thoughtfully. Angel and his cohorts had been a bit more secretive as of late… Talking in hushed whispers, taking more frequent trips together out of the office…. Was there something or someone of interest at St. Vincent’s? Maybe he should check out why they had been to see this Dr. Ahn.
Angel set the bags containing the takeout food on the counter. He had ordered one of everything he remembered that Buffy liked; he knew she had been out shopping for most of the day, and she probably hadn’t taken the time to eat.
“Is that Thai Orchid?” Buffy asked from behind him. “Wow,” she added with awe, noting the sheer quantity of food.
“Yes, I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just ordered… some of your favorites,” he admitted haltingly, realizing now that he had enough food for at least a dozen people. Well, he conceded, he could always take it down to the W&H kitchens where it – like any free food – would disappear in no time flat.
After he turned around, Angel couldn’t conceal his surprise. His brows lifted and his lips curved up in a smile, as his gaze roved over the blonde slayer appreciatively. Her hair was cut in a stylish crop, the rich golden color a shade different than he knew it had been this morning. The dark blue and artfully ripped jeans were figure hugging and flattering, as was the black almost sheer and fitted lace-trimmed henley style top. Her jeans were tucked into knee-high platform boots that added a good 4 inches to her height, and were the very definition of sex appeal.
At his speechless stare, Buffy held her arms out and looked down. “What? Does this look funny?”
“You’re beautiful, but then you always are.” Spontaneously he closed the distance between them, bending to kiss her cheek. While there was no doubt he sincerely marveled at her beauty, or that her appearance had a predictable affect on his libido, he was as much or more pleased that she seemed to be feeling better and was less reserved around him.
“Thank you,” she replied, a small smile playing on her lips. She recognized the appreciative look in his eyes, and admittedly felt a heated flutter of nerves in response. Her gaze dropped to his lips, her hand came up to rest on his ribs, and she swayed forward slightly.
Angel tensed, waiting for her kiss. Instead, Buffy drew back, patted him lightly on the stomach and stepped past him to reach for one of the many bags of food on the counter.
The tall vampire held back a disappointed sigh. He wasn’t going to push anything after all she had been through, and he had offered her time to sort out things between them. He would honor that. “How was your day?”
“Productive. Lots of retail therapy and girl-stuff,” she answered taking a bite of egg roll. She chewed slowly, savoring each bite, and studied Angel under her lashes as he sat down at the table. It had been so very recently she’d given up on ever seeing him again; it was almost a miracle they were here together, now. And her feelings for him… those hadn’t changed despite everything that had happened, or any of the hurt, disappointment, and anger.
Which made what she was about to do that much harder.
It was tempting to join him at the table, to have casual conversation over dinner as they had done so many times before, and to pretend things were somehow normal, like nothing bad had ever happened. But that wasn’t the truth, and the feeling wouldn’t last. She was only delaying the inevitable. She needed to do this; it was like tearing off a Band-Aid – you just had to brace yourself and do it.
“Angel,” Buffy began haltingly, putting down the food and wiping her hands. She eased back, leaning one hip against the counter, as if the support provided would somehow make this easier. She inhaled, her gaze drifting slowly around the room. She absently chronicled the contents and décor while she composed her thoughts, searching for the right words. Finally she looked at his face, meeting his eyes. “I’m leaving.”
The dark vampire wasn’t certain he’d heard her correctly. He tensed, and started to rise. “What? Buffy-“
She held up her hand, the small gesture effectively holding him in place. “I talked to Giles today, and I’m… I’m going to Tuscany,” she said firmly, wanting to get the words out and get this discussion behind her.
“I can help at the school, train with Giles and the other girls to get my game back. See Dawn.”
Angel didn’t want to hear this, not now, not after he’d just gotten her back, not ever. He wanted to say something, to find the words to change her mind. He also wanted to quell the rising fear that something might happen to her out of his sight, his protection.
“I don’t know who I am anymore.” Buffy took another deep breath. “I don’t know if I can get over everything that happened and still be… me. Or anything even remotely close to me. Or something close to what used to be me. The normal me. Which was never really normal, but-”
She silenced him with a look. “And even if there wasn’t all of that, which is a lot of that… I don’t know who we are, not anymore…”
She ran a hand over her hair, and looked away from him for a long moment. “I understand, I think… at least I’m trying to understand… about Elise, about what happened… And maybe in time, I can forgive or forget, or I don’t know… maybe I can get past it. Maybe we can get past it.”
“But right now… I… I can’t. And I won’t ever be able to… to do any of this, if I can’t stand on my own. I have to go.” she finished in a near desperate whisper.
For several long minutes Angel struggled with what to say. He wanted to rage at the thought of her leaving; he wanted to take her in his arms and convince her to stay, he wanted to lock her away not only to keep her safe, but with him, and he wanted to take away the uncertainty and doubt and fear in her voice. He wasn’t even sure he would survive without her…
“I don’t want you to go. But I understand… that you think… that you need to do this,” Angel said finally. He didn’t want her to leave him, he didn’t want to lose her, but ultimately, above everything, he wanted her to be well and to be happy. Whatever he had to do, whatever he had to sacrifice for her, for her safety and happiness… he would.
“I’m not leaving until next week. In the meantime, I need to do something.” Her slayer strength was returning as was her confidence, but she knew too that she still needed some time. “I can take a few of the easier cases, you know, just for the time I’m still here. It will be good for me… I need to get out of my head and do something.”
Angel stood, his eyes dark with emotion.
After a long moment, Buffy closed the distance between them. She took his hand, and lifted it to her lips, kissing it softly. “I need to be me again… I need to do this Angel. And if you care about me… if you… love me even a little, you’ll try to understand.”
He reached out and cupped her cheek, drawing her closer with the light touch. He didn’t want her to leave the apartment, or him, much less Los Angeles, but wanted her to have anything and everything she wanted.
“I know. And I do, love you,” he admitted grudgingly. “But I don’t have to like it.”
To be continued…