Angel trusted the plane’s necro-tinted glass well enough, but he didn’t think he would ever like flying. He wasn’t sure how humans seemed to tolerate it so readily, some of them with alarming frequency. Maybe it had less to do with their mortality, and more with the times they had been born into. When he had been Buffy’s age, the idea of climbing into a contraption like this would have incomprehensible, but for her, it was nothing but a sensible travel option.
She did spend much of the trip glued to the window, though, and he remembered that there had been few opportunities for flying in her youth. Her sense of wonder as the city’s contours faded out beneath them consoled him a little, and he leaned closer and murmured, “Say goodbye to Los Angeles.”
“You’re not my boss,” she informed him pleasantly without changing her position.
“Are you going to sulk about that all day?”
“Oh, please! When you do that everyone calls it brooding.”
He concealed a grin and rubbed her back, then weighed the possible consequences of standing up and decided to risk it. “I’ll just give you some brooding space, then,” he said. “Need to talk to Howell.”
“‘Kay. Tell him you’re not my boss.”
The cockpit was even more unsettling than the cabin in the small plane. Angel tried to follow Buffy’s example and focus on the view, but the vastness of the sky was impressive in just the wrong way.
Howell beckoned him in and indicated the co-pilot’s seat. “You vamps aren’t big on being airborne, huh?”
Angel could only answer with a pained nod.
“Just think of it as a flying coffin,” suggested Howell.
“Comforting.” He managed a chuckle, but thought it best to change the subject. “You’ve seemed a little on edge yourself. Is it me or Wolfram & Hart?”
Howell looked surprised. “Wolfram & Hart’s dead in the ground, and you seem like an alright guy. Why would I be on edge?”
“I can smell it. And I know it’s not for the same reason I am, so I was curious.”
For a moment Howell busied himself with the controls, checking a number of panels and indicators that could have meant anything. Angel didn’t know if the pilot truly needed to concentrate on his job at the moment or if he was buying time before answering, but the new wariness between them certainly helped his own nerves. Intimidating humans was a familiar ground, even if it was generally a source of guilt at the same time.
“Alright, answer me this,” Howell said at last. “What’s so important that a vampire and a Slayer have to catch the first flight to Cleveland?”
“I thought you didn’t care.”
“That’s what I thought too, but if I don’t care, why am I doing this? I don’t need the money. I wasn’t looking for an adventure. You’ve obviously got some connection to Wolfram & Hart, and that’s bad news for me and my redistributed plane. It’s just not worth it.”
Buffy entered as he was speaking and stood between them, her hand wrapped around one of the sturdy handles framing the door. “Seems like this could have been brought to our attention when we made you the offer.”
“Excellent point,” Howell replied, chopping the air with his hand for emphasis. “But it didn’t even cross my mind until we were over Nevada, and now all I can think about is how never in my professional life have I been straining at the leash like I was when you told me where you wanted to go.” His brow furrowed. “Well, that and wolves. Can’t stop thinking about wolves, for some reason.”
Angel had to make an effort to not catch Buffy’s eye, knowing the same thing was on both of their minds. He spoke quickly before she could voice it, knowing that there was a chance their lives depended on maintaining a casual outward demeanor. “How long until we stop to refuel? We could go to a diner, talk about it there.”
“Denver,” said Howell reluctantly. “About an hour. You two better get back to your seats. Turbulence ahead.”
It took Buffy’s firm hand to take his elbow and guide him out of the cockpit, but he knew she was right -- they were in no position to make any demands. They held each other tightly in their shared seat, Buffy still somehow capable of centering him even as he calculated their respective chances of surviving a crash.
But the turbulence turned out to be real, and when it was over, Howell announced over the intercom that he was beginning their descent. Their arrival in Denver came shortly after sunset, and they stepped out to a lonely station not far from the international airport but not, Howell said, affiliated with it. Everything here was clearly familiar to him, including the grizzled attendant who was firing jokes at them as soon as they stepped onto the ground.
Angel whisked Buffy behind the hangar while Howell and the old man took up a friendly argument about prices. “Toxoplasma,” he whispered. “Remember what Giles told us?”
Giles had called them shortly before they left Los Angeles to discuss everything he had turned up with his research. Most of his information on toxoplasma was a reiteration of what they had already learned on their own, but he had also come up with a helpful theory that related it back to Hellmouth business: the disease of the natural world had been shown to affect the behavior of rats, manipulating them into harmful situations. The nearest supernatural equivalent, Giles reasoned, was mind control, with the added complication that the victim would find it indistinguishable from his or her own desires. If an infected rat could be attracted to the scent of cats, a man like Howell might have been cursed to pick up passengers that he otherwise wouldn’t have.
“I know,” said Buffy. “The guy bringing us to Cleveland is under the control of something evil that wants us in Cleveland. We’re off to a great start.”
Angel sighed. “I should have sent him to Willow as soon as I heard where he got that plane. It was stupid to think they wouldn’t recover after the Battle of Los Angeles.”
“I don’t think Willow could do much about this anyway. If it works like a disease, she can’t exorcise it or break the spell. And if you’re really convinced this is your evil law firm we’re dealing with…”
“It’s not Wolfram & Hart. Just Wolf. One of the Senior Partners.”
Buffy sounded frustrated, her voice at the edge of the hushed tone they had been keeping. “You know how random this sounds, right? Is the Wolf himself, All Cower Before Him, really going to bother with a string of old school murders and tinkering with one pilot’s brain?”
“I don’t know.” Angel rubbed his forehead. “It doesn’t make sense to me either. But Lorne said that’s what the wolf in your dream meant, and we won’t know what his plan is until we follow this through.”
“Follow it through? You mean you’re ready to get back in the air with him?”
Getting back in the air with Howell was the absolute last thing that Angel was ready to do, but he didn’t see a way around it, and neither did Buffy. The people of Cleveland still needed their help, and they weren’t going to learn anything by stranding themselves in Denver. “If he was going to kill us he would have done it already,” Buffy pointed out. “Besides, you know I can’t look at a trap without wanting to spring it,” she added with a grin.
Angel nodded grimly. “What are we going to tell Howell?”
“As much of the truth as he can handle. If there’s a way to get the Wolf out of his system, we have to help him.” She glanced toward the hangar where they had left him. “Try to make him understand we’re on his side. If he wants to cooperate, he should stick around in Cleveland with us while we look for a cure.”
“I take it you’re assigning this job to me?”
She nodded, then stretched up on her tiptoes to kiss him. “I’m going to get the Hellmouth welcoming crew caught up. Meet you at the diner.”