Wordcount: This part, 7793
Summary: Through a series of conversations with past and present friends and lovers, Buffy tries to understand what changed between her and Angel.
Note: This story ties into several others I've written: Smoke Damage, Infinity Questions, Phases of the Moon, and The Further Adventures of Spike and Faith. It's not necessary to read those before this one, but if you have, you'll find a few Easter eggs...or at least, you can tell me if all of the hair-pulling efforts I put into continuity paid off.
Also, this is unbeta'd, and all the usual IWRY thanks apply, particularly to Dark Star and Jo. I'm likely to have additional notes after I post the second part.
“Is that everyone?”
Buffy did some quick math, dividing up the number of the people she loved in this dying city. “I think so,” she said to Anne. “As long as all the Slayers have a safe place to sleep, we’re good. Xander and Giles got hotel rooms, and Dawn can stay with one of them.”
Anne nodded and made a note on her clipboard - where she had found a clipboard, Buffy didn’t know, but it seemed to just come with the package of being the most organized person in the ruins of Los Angeles. “What about you?” Anne asked.
“I’m going to stick with the troops. I don’t want the girls to think I’m getting comfy in a real bed while they’re roughing it on the floor.”
“Okay. I’ll go start getting them settled in. It’s really good to see you again, Buffy.”
Buffy tried to smile. “You too. Yeah. You’ve really...I mean, I’m glad...” She took a deep breath. “Anne, did you lose someone?”
The look on the former vampire groupie’s face made her look as vulnerable as her old self. “Today?” she said. “I don’t know. Probably. Probably more than one. Did you?”
“Not yet.” The only two people she had been looking for, both of them vampires, had survived somehow and were healing up somewhere underground. She wanted to tell Anne the whole story, not just the part about finding Angel in the ruins and giving him her blood to save him, but the whole thing, from the moment she was called as Slayer to the way she had felt an hour ago when Faith waved her away impatiently and told her Spike would be okay too, if you happen to give a damn about that, B. But Anne was a busy woman, and the opportunity the two of them had once had for relaxing together and sharing secrets was over, so the stories of loss would have to go untold this time.
Finding herself with nothing to do for the first time since her arrival, Buffy soon wandered into the temporary barracks to check on her army. Most were still awake, chattering excitedly or bartering blankets and pillows with each other, and all were unharmed. That might change soon, though, if Angel’s team had left any real fighting to them in addition to the relief and cleanup.
Buffy sat down on a crate in the corner, where nobody approached her. Everything is different now. She was glad to have a place to put the girls; the city was grateful for their presence and she expected they would be given all the resources and support they needed for as long as they were there. Still, for her it only highlighted the urgency of having so many dependents and no steady source of income. In a way, the LA disaster had come as a blessing, finally giving her Slayers a purpose. She wondered how Angel had always kept his team and business afloat.
Everything always came back to Angel, Buffy thought wearily as she leaned back against the wall, hugging her backpack. That was okay, though. Maybe it meant that Angel would always come back to her.
Dawn’s eyes looked strangely flat when she met Buffy in the hotel lobby. “Someone here to see you,” she said shortly. “I’ll be out in the courtyard.”
It was far too late for a visitor to be meeting her here, was Buffy’s first thought. “At eleven thirty at night?” she voiced it. “Who would - ohhh.”
Dawn raised an eyebrow, not quite nodding, and then stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and walked slowly away. Buffy braced herself before knocking on the door of one of the rooms that Giles had booked. When she did, it was Giles’ own voice inviting her in.
He was seated on a wooden chair on one side of the room; Xander was across from him, sitting backward on his own. The only one there who looked completely at ease was on the third chair, legs stretched out in front of him so the soles of his big black boots faced Buffy. He was also the only one talking, telling some story of the battle heedless of whether Xander and Giles were really interested. Buffy found herself smiling warmly before she could think about what kind of reaction she wanted him to see her having. “Hello, Spike.”
He perked up, as if he hadn’t noticed her until she spoke, and pulled his feet under himself to stand. “If it isn’t the Slayer! Guess what, Buffy. I’m alive.”
“I see that.” She crossed her arms. She wasn’t going to go over and hug him, not while Xander and Giles were watching. Not when he wasn’t making any move to come over to her.
“Yeah.” He made a nonchalant gesture, probably wishing he could use it to light a cigarette. There were none in sight, but the odor of smoke still clung to him, even with the distance between them. “But it’s no surprise to you, is it?” he continued. “Might’ve been a few months ago. I’ll put in a bet that you even gasped. And from then on it was life as usual, until you found out your favorite forehead needed a hand.”
Of course he was angry. She shouldn’t be disappointed. “I’m sorry. I know. I should have come to see you. I just got all these Slayers thrown in my lap, and I’m not overflowing with travel funds...”
“...And you’ve got your priorities in some kind of order,” Xander chipped in, throwing a glare in Spike’s direction.
Spike glared right back at him. “Priority one, save the world. Check, mate. Thought that was worth a bit of a nod.”
Giles coughed. “I believe you’ve been adequately thanked for your involvement in the Sunnydale battle, Spike. And for a parade of other accomplishments, the authenticity of which is still largely in question.”
“Guys,” said Buffy. “Could I talk to Spike alone?”
They left reluctantly, but they did leave. Buffy sat down on one of the beds, but found herself rising again when Spike wouldn’t follow suit. “So,” she said, desperate to break the silence. “You want to start?”
He shrugged. “Angel’s fine.”
Buffy reeled a little and hoped it didn’t show. “Then why didn’t he - why are you telling me that?”
“That’s what you were waiting to hear, isn’t it? He’s underground. So am I, for the record. Bit crowded, so we can keep busy having our territorial disputes, it’s a hoot.”
“Right...” She furrowed her brow. “So...what’s your plan?”
Spike chuckled. “Plan? One year away and you’ve forgotten everything about me.”
“Fine, then what’s your goal? Idea? Inclination? Give me something to criticize here, Spike. You’re sharing a space with Angel, so I’m gonna shimmy out on a limb and say something has changed. Is it you? Me?”
He paused for a long time, making her remember the time he hadn’t spoken all night. He had said that it was the best night of his life - was he thinking about it now too? “You said you loved me,” he said at last, gracefully leaving any tone of questioning out of it.
She tilted her head. “You said I didn’t.”
The glimpse of an introspective Spike was gone instantly. “Well, I thought I’d be sporting and give you a chance to put together a good retort. Didn’t really have time for it back there, me burning up and all.”
“You want me to say it again? Is that it?”
He held up his hands. “Done with asking you for anything.” He lowered them again. “Also done with giving back whatever you offer me, though.”
“I don’t have anything to offer you,” she insisted. “I told you. I don’t even know how to get my people through the next month. I’ve been running on private donations since I left Rome. I can’t be thinking about how to fill up my free time. I don’t have any.”
Spike looked dejected. “You won’t need my help, then?”
She tried not to shrug; it was bad enough to have to be so blunt with him. “What kind of help can you give?” A few long seconds went by, and she was the next to speak. “You know, I grieved for you. Alone. None of my friends would have understood, so I never even told them I missed you.”
“Hrm,” he grunted. “So you ran off on your own and took another name and lived anonymously as a depressed waitress, is what you’re saying.”
“Spike,” she groaned, exasperated. “Stop trying to compare yourself to Angel. You don’t have to be him. I don’t want you to be him. Anyway, I was a different person back then. I can’t afford to go on grief-induced temporary retirement jaunts anymore.”
He waved a hand. “Right, you’ve got that army to get through the month. I suppose you still wouldn’t enlist me to find you a bit of cash through alternative methods?”
Buffy shook her head, hiding a wry half-grin at the same time. “I’ve kept this thing legal so far, not gonna take up the gangsta lifestyle now.”
“Still.” He fixed her with his earnest eyes. “I’ll see what I can do. Legally.”
It wasn’t a very hopeful proposition, but he clearly meant it in good faith and she appreciated it. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the one to find you. I’m glad you made it out of the apocalypse zone okay.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Did she even tell you about it?”
“Who, Faith? Yeah, she said she dug you out of some rubble, while I was with--” She clamped her mouth shut, too late to keep him from getting back on his new favorite topic.
“Angel,” he finished for her. “You fed him your blood, saved his life. That’s what Faith did for me.” He softened his tone, a reaction, she guessed, to something he saw in her eyes. “We’re both alright, luv. There’s a party she’ll be at tomorrow, if you’d like to come along and have a chat with her.”
Buffy felt a flash of resentment at everyone attending social engagements she hadn’t even known about. “Like I have time to be partying,” she snapped.
Spike shrugged. “Can we carry on outside?”
They passed Dawn in the hall, who was coming back in but not, apparently, to find them. She had only a glance for Buffy and wouldn’t even acknowledge Spike with that much before she returned to the hotel room. Buffy checked Spike’s reaction to this kind of slight and found him staring determinedly forward. She decided not to bring it up.
Nobody else was in the courtyard, a carefully groomed array of stone tiles and potted trees circling a large pool, which was covered for the night. Buffy sat down on a ledge near the door through which they had exited the hotel and hugged her knees, watching Spike light up his cigarette and pace a few strides in front of her.
“Why hasn’t Angel come to me?” Buffy asked. Since hearing Spike talk about his rescue at the hands of Faith, it had become more painful to hold it in than it was to say it. She hadn’t expected a fruit basket, but the Angel she knew had always found a way to show that her efforts were not in vain. This time it was as if saving his life had shut down all his motivation to even talk to her.
“Full calendar?” Spike replied. “Rescue an innocent, defeat a monster, oops, forgot to pencil Buffy in before the hair appointment?” Then, too casually, he added, “Ah, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about it. You’ve got that forever love, don’t you?”
Buffy tapped her fingers on the rough surface of the ledge, trying to remember how to control the art of hiding a deep inner sorrow by voicing it as a grumpy riposte. “You make me sound like a kid dreaming of a fairy tale. I never said anything to you about Angel and me having a forever love.”
“No?” He puffed the word out with a breath of smoke and mild surprise. “Oh, right. That was him. ‘Ours is a forever love.’ Big tender heart, that one.”
“He said that?” She knew Spike wasn’t lying, but she couldn’t think of any other response. Something within her had gone numb.
He nodded. “Angel and me, we went to Rome to find you. Found your little Wells instead, so I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. We had a bit of a row along the way - I won - and old Captain Forehead straightened me out about how things really happened with Acathla. Quite clever of you two, by the way. I knew you’d killed him, but the bit where he told you to do it really ices the story.”
Buffy leaped to her feet as if her seat had ejected her. “He never--!”
“Well not in words, no, but with his eyes?” Spike waggled his fingers at his own eyes to demonstrate. “Signaled you, didn’t he?”
Maybe he was lying, after all. Maybe he just wanted to rattle her. Ever since Andrew had come back from Rome, telling her that he had to divulge a huge secret because he knew that getting her and Spike back together was the right thing to do, she had wondered exactly what had happened between them, and Angel, and whether it was the reason that neither vampire had reached out to her again. Truthfully, it had hurt to hear that both were so easily fooled by her imposter, but Giles had advised her against interfering with any such misconceptions. It was better, he said, to know that the decoy was working.
“Suppose you might have missed that,” Spike went on, as if he couldn’t plainly see her temper about to break. “Rather unbalanced at the time, weren’t you, putting a sword through your bloke like that. I always wondered, what were your Scoobies thinking then?”
Buffy balked, losing the comeback that had been on her tongue. “What do they have to do with it?”
He shrugged. “Angel’s just put you through the heartbreak of a lifetime, and everyone decides you’re the one who’s got to take him out? Seems like a rotten thing for a mate to do. Of course, tragic hero that you are, you probably insisted on it. ‘No, Pa,’” he quoted in a mimicked Southern drawl that would have been funny if she weren’t so angry at him, “Yeller’s mah dog. Ah’ll do it.”
“God damn you, Spike!” Buffy exploded. “I didn’t want to fight you anymore! I wanted this to be the one simple honest friendship in my life I could actually keep alive! I told you, I missed you!”
”You forgot me!” he thundered. Every last shred of humor dissipated from the atmosphere as the condemnation hung between them. Spike dropped his cigarette, ground it out with his toe, and continued with his volume diminished, but not his fury. “You don’t know how that feels. I got a soul for you. I died in your Hellmouth. Now I find you again, and all you want is a simple bloody friendship. Well, bugger that. We’re not going shoe shopping together and I don’t need to copy your homework.”
For a moment Buffy could see it all so clearly. She could shout back at him, keep goading him until he said something else that crossed a line, and then she would punch him, hard, a hit that only a vampire of his strength could take. Around the courtyard they would go, trading blows, trading insults, wearing themselves down with the scorn and energy they released on each other, until finally Spike ran through the hotel to the front desk and got them a room. She could spend an entire night without thinking about Angel or private donations or whether her friends should have acted differently so long ago, and she could lie about it the next morning and pretend it had never happened.
Before the thought had even passed she knew it was nonsense. That escape route was closed to her; it had been since before Spike had returned from Africa, remade in another image. Everything is different now.
She had been remade too. She saw the choice before her now: give herself without reservation to the man begging for her love, or lose the chance forever. His hard blue gaze shimmered under the patio lights like the wet cover on the pool, and she had the sense that he knew exactly what he was waiting for.
A few more seconds ticked by, and her shoulders slumped. “I have to be up early tomorrow. The city’s only going to put the girls up for as long as I can show them we’re earning our keep.”
His sigh seemed to echo against the brick walls around them. “Fine. I should get back underground.”
“Spike…” She hesitated. Surely this conversation had gone on long enough.
“Go on then,” he challenged.
Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, then looked squarely at him. “I do know how it feels. You keep thinking you’ve got people in your life that you can count on no matter what, and then one day it’s put to the test…”
“...And someone fails.” He nodded. His voice was kind, but in a way she had never heard from him before. He spoke as if he not only understood her pain, but understood that there was no answer for it. “Angel hasn’t said a word to me about you, luv. I don’t know what’s got into him. I’m sorry.”
All of a sudden there were tears in her eyes, but she blinked them back. She could save them for Dawn, or Giles. “I thought if I ever saw you again I’d be so happy,” she said bitterly. “I thought, ‘Just one more hour with him and I could put everything right between us.’ But that was the fairy tale, wasn’t it? Do you realize we’ve just spent more time talking about Angel than about either of us?”
Spike stepped forward until he was right in front of her. His fingertips brushed tenderly against her cheek, and Buffy had the unsettling sensation that after everything she had done with him, all of the nameless acts of sex and violence they had shared, all the orifices and protrusions explored, all the hard truths revealed, the fear laid bare, the shame and fury, the desperation, and the long nights of believing that their lives were so entangled that there could be no separating them, after all of it, that this - this one meaningless incident of looking up into his swimming pool-colored eyes with their new kindness - was the most intimate moment that had ever passed between them.
Spike’s hand moved to her arm to steady her, as if the spinning of her mind had carried over to her body, but it didn’t stay there long. His lips hovered at her ear, and he whispered, “Take a hint.” With that and a quick kiss to her cheek, he was gone, coat flapping behind him as he left the patio with long, silent strides.
Only when the automatic glass doors had closed behind him could Buffy find the connection between the significance of that last moment and her own discomfort with it. She had verbalized nothing that she was feeling, and Spike had understood all of it. The last time she had experienced that level of communication was with a different vampire, in a different time and place, a different life.
What she had told Spike was true, then. She never wanted him to be Angel.
The room contained little more than eight chairs around a table and a water cooler in the corner; it was too impersonal to be intimidating, yet somehow Buffy was intensely aware of her sweaty tank top as soon as she entered. She was probably just nervous about bringing Slayer business into an official setting, she reasoned. In any case, at least it was air conditioned.
Robin Wood and Anne were standing at the far end of the table, leaning over a laptop and exchanging rapid words with each other. Buffy knew that Anne had become one of the leading organizers of the Los Angeles disaster relief movement and that Wood was cautiously establishing himself as an intermediary between the city’s human population and the various occult groups threaded into it, but she had very little idea of what the two of them had to discuss. As soon as she had seen how complicated the world was becoming after this latest apocalypse, she had made the choice to strictly contain her own involvement to Slayer business. With girls being chosen all over the world and no Watchers’ Council to guide them, she couldn’t afford to spread herself too thin, and it seemed that there were now more representatives for magic and warriors than she had ever known.
“Xander said you wanted to touch base with us before we headed to the airport,” she greeted Wood as he finished what he was saying to Anne and looked up. “He’s right behind me. We’ve got about forty minutes. Hi, Anne.”
“Hi, Buffy. You should come look at this.” Anne gestured at the laptop. She and Robin were wearing identical expressions, Buffy noticed - wary, but more intrigued than confused. Buffy slipped around the corner of the table to see the screen.
The first thing she noticed was her own name, followed by a list of financial figures in staggering amounts. “Is this more debt?” she groaned. “Please, I’m already throwing everything I can at this. The LA bank says they can--”
“It’s not debt,” Robin broke in. “These are credits.”
Buffy considered that statement from a few angles, then offered the sharpest commentary on it that she could come up with. “Huh?”
Robin scrolled down, revealing more numbers, the names of a few cities in America and Europe, some dates, paragraphs of fine print, and certain words in capital letters repeated several times, like ‘ACCESS’ and ‘CONFIRMED’. “You see?” he said. “It’s completely legal.”
I am so not in the mood for this, thought Buffy, rubbing her eyes. “Sure, but I’m tired and I crash computers by touching them on a good day. Just tell me what I’m looking at, please.”
He nodded, still appearing calm, and pointed to the inconspicuous logo in the page’s header. “This is a bank that specializes in untraceable private accounts. Six days ago, they opened one in your name so that someone could transfer all of these funds into it. You’re the only one who can withdraw from it, but they’re so discreet that they wouldn’t inform you about its existence through any method other than a face-to-face messenger, and, well, the one they sent you is dead.”
“Geez. May he rest in peace, I guess.”
Xander entered then, sizing up the room in the same way that Buffy had before joining them at the computer. “What are we up to?” he asked of no one in particular.
“Our necks in money, apparently,” Buffy replied without taking her eyes off the screen. “We were just getting to the part where Robin explains where it came from.”
“Holy smokes,” said Xander, peering at the funds indicated on the site. “All that is Buffy’s? From who?”
Buffy answered before Wood could, needing to air her hunch about it. “Who likes to go behind my back and leave me ill-advised presents? Starts with an A, hopefully ends with an L.”
“Angel?” Anne and Xander said it almost at the same time. Robin glanced at everyone and then finally seated himself to make it easier for the rest of them to gather around the spot at the table. Buffy followed suit, and Xander and Anne remained standing behind them. “Did he survive?” Anne continued. “Did you find him?”
“Yes, and no,” said Buffy. “I mean, yes and yes, but then yes to the first yes, and the second yes turned into a no...I don’t think he wants to see me. I know I won’t find him if he doesn’t want to be found.”
“I found him.” Wood dropped the words into the conversation like a coin, but they fell like a boulder. Three astonished pairs of eyes were turned to him, but nobody seemed to be able to construct another question, Buffy herself least of all.
Fortunately he continued his explanation without prompting. “There’s a mystic sage running a teahouse on the outskirts of the damage,” said Robin. “I don’t know how he gets his information, but he knew about your messenger and he knew about Angel, and he set up a meeting so Angel and I could fill each other in. Your ex is a decent guy, for a vampire. He’d been trying to find a way to get you into your account, but he was anxious that it should come to you from a friend.” He raised a wry eyebrow at her. “I was duly touched.”
Xander leaned closer, reaching over Buffy’s shoulder to scroll through the account information. “That’s a heartwarmer alright,” he said to Robin. “How’d he even know who you were?”
“I tried to contact him last year. He’d already moved out of his hotel, I don’t know to where, but one of my calls eventually got through to him and he responded just to say it wasn’t currently safe to know him, and that he’d find me later.”
Buffy searched for memories that would correspond with these events. “When last year?”
“When you and Faith were fighting. She and I talked about splitting off from the rest of your group.”
“Okay, but when last year?” The time had gone by in a whirlwind. It seemed like just last week, Buffy had been ushering Slayers off of the bus, and Faith had just begun butting heads with her over long-term strategy for their training and accommodation.
“Buffy.” Xander wrenched his eyes away from the laptop screen. “We don’t have a lot of time. Whatever’s going on with Angel, we’ll have to deal with it from New York.” He paused, then added with great reluctance, “Unless you want me to go ahead of you and try to book you on another flight. But I don’t know how much there is to say about the payload in question. There’s only one place he could have gotten that much money, right?”
She nodded. “Wolfram & Hart. It’s alright, Xander. I’m getting on the plane with you.”
Anne jerked with genuine surprise. “How would Angel get Wolfram & Hart’s money? Is that why the firm went under?”
“Sort of.” Buffy didn’t need to keep any secrets from Anne, but Wood would have to fill her in; Xander wasn’t wrong about their tight schedule. She sighed. “I need to talk to Giles before I make any decisions here.”
“I thought you might,” said Robin. “Call me when you get a chance. Your account isn’t going anywhere, but if I’m the guy in charge of the LA Slayers HQ, I’m sure I have a lot to say about how our funding gets divvied up.”
The thought of allotting funds to Robin, as the leader of those who were staying here in the city to represent the Slayers, made Buffy think about the potential fortune she’d been given in a new light. It wasn’t just a gift from Angel to her; it was a donation to her military organization from a wealthy benefactor. Oddly enough, she immediately felt better about it. If she did choose to accept the money - and she wasn’t at all sure about that yet, but now she could at least imagine doing so - she could provide her girls with training facilities, temporary and permanent places to live, education, tools, and legal backing if they ever needed it. She could get Wood and Faith out of their hotels and give them the salaries they were worth, not to mention Xander and Willow. Her entire operation could become truly legitimate, a project with an impact and a future. Angel knew that. He was offering assistance for a cause he believed in.
On the way to the airport, she tried to consider the question of whether she should take the money, but found herself distracted from it by the question of how to put it to use, and the far less urgent but much more nettlesome question of where she stood with Angel. It didn’t help that Xander was completely focused on figuring out their next step, and kept interrupting her thoughts to bring her back to the topic at hand. “I know you think we need the money,” he said, “and I know you’re mostly right. But we’re gonna get by if you say no, I swear. You still have a choice. You don’t have to be in debt to him for the rest of your life.”
By the time they got out of the car, Buffy had spent all of the money in her head multiple times over, analyzed Angel’s trustworthiness from every angle, and relived the experience of watching his wounds heal before her eyes as she fed him her blood in vivid detail, but had come no closer to settling on a course of action. Xander’s feelings on the matter were doubtless colored by his feelings on the vampire, but he had a point. Accepting such a lump sum would indebt the Slayers to Angel, which would inevitably give him a measure of control over them. If she couldn’t fully count on him, that might be a big deal, and if he wouldn’t even show up in person to speak to her, she might not be able to fully count on him. Everything is different now.
The Los Angeles International Airport hadn’t been directly affected by the destruction in the city, but due to the subsequent chaos, it had been off-limits to civilians until recently. Buffy and Xander had managed to book an outgoing flight without much trouble, but those who didn’t share their official status as rescuers were less fortunate. The airport was reopening gradually, just one gate at a time, and getting a seat on a plane meant lengthy applications, waiting for hours or days, and sometimes just blind luck. There was a crowd when Buffy and Xander went to get their boarding passes, but Buffy knew that only a fraction of the people she saw would actually be flying today.
They had come substantially early, as they had been advised to, and as soon as they had checked their bags Xander noticed that Starbucks was open and asked if she wanted to sit down there while they waited. Buffy had just noticed something quite different: a tall man in a black coat, his back to her as he examined the one flight information screen that was running. “Order me a mocha,” she said to Xander. “I’ll meet you in a minute.”
As she approached the man and her certainty that it was Angel increased, joy began welling up in her heart. He must have come when he had heard that she was leaving California. She wouldn’t stay for his sake, but he must have known that, and simply had an apology - or a thank you - or an explanation he wanted to give her before she was gone. It would all be okay. He was still her Angel.
He seemed to catch her scent and turned to look for her before she had reached him, but the movement was too fast, too startled, and Buffy frowned. “I haven’t left yet,” she said. She had meant to say it in a teasing way, but it came out toneless.
“Buffy,” he replied, and she passed through a moment of internal unkindness, wondering how such an intelligent man could so consistently make himself sound like a complete moron.
“Look,” she sighed, “I know you’re justifiably paranoid about going public right now. There are a lot of people after you for all kinds of crazy reasons, and yeah, some of those people are probably mine. But if you do something for the Slayers, you’re doing something for me, and you don’t need to beat around the bush with it. You should have trusted me.”
A glimmer of hope seemed to reach his otherwise expressionless face. “You’re keeping the money?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said quickly. “I just want to be able to talk like we used to. I mean -” she blushed. “Not like we used to in Sunnydale. After that, when you had Angel Investigations and I had my Scoobies, and if I ever needed to ask you something or pass on some relevant news, I could just call you up. Remember that? And if you had a hard day, you could call me and I could try to make you feel better. And you came when my mother died, and Willow went to get you when I died, and that one Christmas I mailed you some paper snowflakes and you sent me that little Nativity scene drawing you did. That’s all I want, Angel. Open lines of communication. We shouldn’t have to do this dance where you come dashing to the airport after me because there’s one more thing you had to say.”
He looked chagrined, she thought, or nervous, but then she realized that he simply looked the same as he had when he first saw her approaching him. “Okay,” he said cautiously. “We can do that. But...well, there isn’t one more thing I had to say.”
She recoiled, at a loss. “Then why are you here?”
Angel looked back up at the screen, then at his feet, then back at her. “To pick up my girlfriend.”
The phone was ringing in the tiny apartment Buffy and Dawn were sharing in Queens, but Dawn had left the premises and Buffy didn’t feel like withdrawing her hands from the soapy dishwasher, rinsing and drying them, and then maybe not getting back to finish the dishes because someone had some kind of emergency that took up her attention for the rest of the day. Dawn had complained constantly that Buffy hadn’t done her share of the dishes, and while at the time that had mostly served as a good excuse for some amiable bickering, now that the chores were Buffy’s sole responsibility, she felt repentant, not to mention intent on proving to herself that she could be her own housekeeper.
Four loud annoying rings, and then the answering machine picked up and Xander’s voice filled the apartment. “Hello, Buffy! This is your highly respected Watcher, Giles! Jolly good! I’m just sipping tea and cleaning my glasses, and I thought I’d give you a ring to say you should jolly well take the bloody money from bloody An--”
Buffy gave a frustrated groan, wiped her hands on her jeans, and snatched the cordless phone from its base. “Xander, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Hey Buff. I know I’ve been the voice of don’t-accept-the-evil-money so far, but I’m sitting here in our crappy office and a piece of the ceiling just fell off. And this isn’t just a matter of one bad tile, this is a full ceiling replacement deal, and that’s to say nothing of the hundred and fifty other things I’m trying to fix in this place, and long story short, we can’t afford it.”
“There’s plenty of what we can’t afford. I nearly broke my ankle tripping over the remains of that mini-wall you took down. You’re not going to make up my mind based on a ceiling tile.”
“It landed in the plant. Next one will be on your head while you’re sitting at your desk talking to someone important. Mark my words.”
“I told you, I’m not spending one nickel of that cash bomb until Giles gets here with the rest of the lowdown on it.”
“I know! That’s why I was pretending to be him. Clever, huh?”
“If I fix the thing that tripped you, will you promise to become immeasurably wealthy and get us out of this Hellmouth-inspired office?”
There was a knock at the door. “Augh!” Buffy yelled at the phone. “He’s here. I am never going to finish those dishes!” She pressed the button to hang up on him and went to let Giles in.
He looked tired, and Buffy was starting to realize that she had that exact thought every time she saw him again after a few weeks of absence. Everything is different now. She worried about him, but then, everyone she knew seemed to look tired a lot lately, and she was more or less accustomed to being in a constant state of worry about them. She could only imagine what everyone thought when they saw her.
Giles had flown in from Los Angeles the day before. He had stayed behind to keep everyone’s continuing efforts coordinated: Anne with her disaster relief and shelters, Robin Wood with his regional defenses and alliances with occult groups, Faith setting up shop in Cleveland, and Buffy’s own plans for a worldwide network of Slayers. They started out by discussing his progress with the latter and his news on everything else, but Buffy knew that he had intended to seek out Angel too, and soon she asked about it, without embarrassment or caution. Angel was merely business now; he had ensured that himself.
“There’s no reason you shouldn’t accept the account,” Giles said right away, and continued right through her open astonishment. “It’s quite safe and legally yours, and I’m convinced you should begin employing it at once. Good Lord, Buffy, how long have you been living with that ceiling in your office?”
Buffy stared. “Back up. I wasn’t even expecting you to give me a straightforward opinion, let alone a gung-ho endorsement. How are you so sure that Angel isn’t going to turn around and demand something in return?”
“I believe he knows you better than to expect you would comply.”
That much was probably true enough, she had to admit. “Well, what about the ethics of it? This money came from Wolfram & Hart. It’s…what do you call it. Blood money. Tainted. Right?”
He nodded gravely, one hand at his glasses. “This is a fortune built on tragedy. To be sure. Every dollar must have the story of a ruined life behind it. If we could go back through time and, and find each victim, reimburse them, repair the damage, then of course, that’s what I would advise. But the best that we can do now is to help those in need, and use what power we have to turn Wolfram & Hart’s resources into a force for good.”
Buffy blinked, sitting up straighter. “You mean we should donate it?”
Giles gave her a crafty look. “You’re no stranger to helping those in need, Buffy, and it hasn’t been through charity donations.”
The truth of what he was telling her began to dawn, with such hopeful implications that her heart was beating faster. “My girls. The Slayers. We can send them all over the world, let them fight evil everywhere. We’re the best there is at killing vampires. We can finally make a real difference. Giles, you’re a genius!”
“Not to argue,” he said with a modest smile, “but I was simply paraphrasing what Angel told me. You see, his offer is legitimate and without strings. I spoke with Faith extensively as well, and she confirmed it: he’s committed to the Slayer cause, and he quite naturally views you as its leader.”
Buffy was still glowing with the thought of the new possibilities being opened, but the mention of Faith sobered her a little. She didn’t need another nail in the coffin of Angel’s feelings for her, but they kept coming anyway. Faith and Angel weren’t romantic, she knew that, but somehow Faith had become his confidant, while Buffy heard all the news about him third-hand. “So, did he totally bankrupt himself with this? No leftover funds for, say, taking a trip out to New York and introducing me to his new girlfriend?”
Giles sighed. “Actually, both of them plan to head to Cleveland next, to help Faith, ah, put down her roots there. I’ll join them myself for a time, but I’m afraid the situation with the loose ends from the Watchers’ Council has become rather urgent, and I’ll need to get a flight to London within a few days.”
“Already?” She had hoped that Giles would be with her for at least a month. “Well, I guess everyone’s got places to go. Problems to solve. Werewolves to…”
He cleared his throat, loudly. “I understand you’re upset with Angel. His conduct of late has hardly been above reproach, but it’s most important that we can count him as an ally and not a threat. If he’s making a particular effort to avoid you, he has his reasons as always, and given the circumstances I’m less inclined to question his choices in matters of etiquette.” He gave her a reproving look. “Also, I met Nina and she’s a lovely girl, there’s no call to find fault with her.”
Buffy held up her hands. “Fine. No grudges. I’ll get started on spending that money.” She pushed her chair back, her mind already on how to buy an entire apartment building in New York City and move dozens of Slayers into it. She was far from home here, and she missed it, but at least she was far from Angel, too.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Giles replied. “But Buffy, there’s one more thing you should know. If you’re willing to relocate the Slayer headquarters to Los Angeles, Angel is offering you his hotel.”
In the outer office, Xander was banging away with his tools, and Buffy sat at her desk behind a closed door, staring miserably at her computer. She had a pile of work to do, mostly involving bookkeeping and communication with Slayers who had contacted her but hadn’t yet been registered as members of her ever-growing ‘Council’. She still called them Potentials out of habit, but each had been Chosen when she and Willow cast the spell with the Scythe, or at some point afterward. Through various means they were finding their ways toward guidance, and each other. Buffy had tried to reach out to them, but she had to be discreet. The last thing she wanted was interference from the government.
At the moment, though, she couldn’t even seem to start an email. The official opening of her account from Angel had added a world of complications to her life, and she didn’t know where to go to get a suitable financial advisor. Giles had left that morning, and she already missed him. Willow was constantly on the move, Kennedy always in tow, and Buffy missed her even more.
Worst of all, Dawn had decided that Cleveland was the place where she was needed most, and that morning she had called to say she was ditching the plan to come back to Queens before the new school year began. Buffy didn’t want to be away from her, but she only wished it was as simple as missing her sister: Dawn’s intelligence and researching skills had been an invaluable asset to the operation. Now the New York team was pared down to Buffy herself, Xander, a few junior Slayers, and Andrew.
Really, she might as well move back to LA. She wanted to talk to someone about it, but she had discovered certain limits lately to what counted as safe topics with Xander. He seemed to take it for granted that after Angel’s confusing behavior over the last few months, even Buffy would see that his distaste for her former love was justified. The way his expression hardened at any mention of Angel hadn’t changed, except that now, she sensed, it had a protective edge. Deep down inside he was probably gloating - again - that he’d been right about Angel all along, which annoyed her deeply. He was also the most hardworking and versatile person on her team, and she depended on his support more than ever. No such thing as a simple friendship, she thought. I should tell Spike about this. He’d love it.
She shivered. Since she’d moved here she had been telling everyone she loved New York, and it was true in some ways, but she didn’t love the weather. Truthfully, she was homesick for California, and living in a classy Los Angeles hotel with room for all of her charges sounded like heaven. Xander, who had adjusted to the Big Apple much better than she had, could hold down the office with Andrew and the local Slayers, and Buffy could finally establish a real home for herself.
Once again, the opportunity was so advantageous that she barely felt she had a choice but to accept Angel’s offer. Once again, he was wrapping her around his finger on a professional level, while rejecting her outright on a personal one. Everything is different now.
In the other room, she heard the radio turned off, then Xander’s voice conversing with a woman. Buffy had told him that she wanted to be left alone to finish her work, but she wasn’t getting anywhere with it anyway. She raised her voice to be heard through the door. “Xander, if that’s a Potential, just send her in.”