Buffy and Angel both automatically stopped walking at the end of the long path to Nina and her boyfriend’s rustic wooden house. “Nice place,” said Buffy. She liked the wall of bamboo at the edge of the property and the rooftop solar panels glinting in the moonlight, although she knew the secluded hillside location was better suited to werewolves than Slayers.
“She’s good with plants,” Angel agreed.
Buffy eyed him sideways with amusement. “So on a scale of one to karaoke, how awkward is this going to be?”
He smiled back at her. “Depends. What are you plotting?”
“Don’t blame me, I just work here.”
“Then we should be fine.”
When Angel knocked, it was an intricately tattooed man in his twenties or early thirties who welcomed them inside, taking care to make the invitation explicit for Angel. Buffy allowed herself one sweeping glance around the interior before asking, “Mr. E, I take it?”
He nodded. “Eric, at home.”
The word home resonated with Buffy as she and Angel took the seats he offered them at the kitchen table. The house was modestly furnished, but everything seemed sturdy and hand-crafted. Art was everywhere -- big canvasses on the walls, unique sculptures on the countertops, a sketchbook left open on an armchair. There was a sense of harmony between the two occupants that instantly severed any doubts that Buffy might have had about whether Nina was truly over Angel, in spite of the absence of the ex in question.
“Where’s Nina?” asked Angel, voicing Buffy’s own thoughts. As far as she knew, the plan had been to meet both of them here.
Eric handed out bottled drinks as he answered, swiftly producing a ginger beer for Buffy when she turned down the microbrew he offered first. “She’s at work,” he said, before sitting down with them in the living room. “Her schedule’s a little haywire with these night classes she’s teaching. But I can try to help you out until she gets here.”
Buffy tried not to catch Angel’s eye. Mr. E was an important part of the Cleveland pack and she didn’t want to lose his trust, but on the other hand, it was the first time that either she or Angel had met him in person. Strictly speaking, they couldn’t even know for sure that he was the right guy. He might have broken in and killed Nina and Mr. E and was now acting the part so he could kill them too…
She tried and failed to smother a sudden guffaw, drawing confused looks from both Angel and the alleged Eric. “Alright, Wolf,” she said in her best faux-tough voice. “The Huntsman’s onto you, so cough up Red Riding Hood and Grandma before we split your belly open.”
After that -- and a timely reminder from Angel that only the real Eric could have invited him in -- the ice was broken. Eric relaxed and spoke at length about his friendship with Oz, and how impressed he was by Faith’s handling of the Hellmouth. Buffy wasn’t sure how to navigate their real purpose here, but Angel kept the conversation moving and she soon realized that he was steering it naturally toward questions about the pack. It was as good as any place to start, she thought, and sat back to hear what Eric had to say about it.
This would be their last chance to meet at night for the next few days, he reminded them, as the change began tomorrow. “It’s going to be crazy this month,” he grinned, shaking his head. “The full moon falling on the Fourth of July, that’s rare. Some of our younger members have never even seen fireworks while they’re transformed.”
Buffy blinked, imagining it. “Will they be okay?”
He affirmed that they would and explained the measures the pack had in place to keep each wolf safely contained, concealed from the public, and at minimal risk of hurting themselves or each other. When Angel inquired about the enclosures, Eric brought them out back and showed them the one that he and Nina used. Buffy couldn’t see much beyond the porch light and fireflies, but Angel pointed out a robust fence that disappeared into the darkness, and Eric described the others like it throughout the neighborhood.
“From our roof you can see two others besides ours,” he said. “One’s the biggest, too -- all the males without pack partners or families use it.” He gazed out into that direction, then swung back around to face them. “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you two come over on the Fourth and watch? If you’re researching werewolves, you won’t get a better view than this. Buffy can come early and get a burger out of it too.”
Angel was instantly appreciative, and Buffy loved the idea. “Shouldn’t we ask Nina first, though?” she said before accepting.
“Yeah, of course,” Eric said quickly, but he sounded solemn now, and he led them back indoors to carry on the conversation in the ample light of the living room.
“It’s true Nina’s working tonight,” he said as he removed the sketchbook from his armchair to sit, “but I also planned it so you’d get here before she did. Maybe you can set me straight if this is all my imagination, but she’s been acting a little weird.”
Before she even had to hear any more, Buffy’s heart dropped. She hoped desperately that it was Eric’s imagination, but past experiences had all but ruled that option out.
Angel leaned forward, real concern written on his face. “How?”
“It seems like...” Eric sighed. “Her priorities changed. We used to be on the same page about everything. We talked about marriage and decided we didn’t need it. We’re not planning on children, but we agreed to bring it up again once a year to see if we’d changed our minds. We’re saving up to buy this place--” he gestured at the snug walls around them - “and that’s all we wanted. I would say I thought we were happy, but the thing is, I know we were happy. We can smell it on each other.”
Before she had realized she was doing it, Buffy had shifted a little closer to Angel, and his arm came down subtly around her shoulders. She had been wary about acting as a couple during this mission, but Eric had made her feel welcome, and it was impossible to not think about her own relationship while listening to him. She couldn’t sniff out Angel’s emotions, but she had a hunch that it wasn’t so different from the empathic awareness of each other that they shared. Angel had been happy traveling with her, and that wasn’t a guess. “How is she different now?” she asked Eric.
He thought about it for a second, then said, “Ambition. I know that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but it came out of nowhere. She’s talking about our careers all the time, coming up with ways to make more money. Yesterday she told me, for the first time ever, that she missed living in the big city. And when it comes to the pack…”
Angel’s prompt sounded soft but urgent: “What about the pack?”
“Well, you know she and I are the alphas. But you know what that entails? Pretty much jack. We host a meeting once in awhile and send out a monthly bulletin. I honestly think ninety percent of the reason we were elected is because we’re both good at graphic design. But now, Nina wants to organize. She says I need to take a firmer leadership role. She’s bringing up things like combat training, with a straight face.” He rubbed a patterned hand through his hair, then looked up at Angel. “What possible use would we have for combat training?”
“Nothing I’d like to think about,” Angel replied gravely.
Eric raked a hand through his hair. “So, what’s your take? Am I just paranoid?”
“Let’s not say no to that yet,” said Buffy. “But for one thing, Eric, and I mean this, it’s good you told us. If there’s a way we can help you or Nina, we will. Just don’t go panicking yet.”
“It might not be supernatural at all,” Angel added. “Nina’s been through a lot. It can be hard to adjust to a good life.”
“I came home to Sunnydale once acting like such a creep that my friends were sure I was possessed,” Buffy piped in again. “And that was just the first time I died.”
Eric nodded pensively, then said, “...First?”
They all managed a slightly strained laugh, and the mood began to lighten. They were sharing stories and equipped with another round of drinks when Nina finally came home.
Buffy had given her feelings an honest examination before they came, wanting to know if she needed to brace herself, but she had concluded that she wasn’t jealous of Angel’s ex at all. When she took her hand and said how good it was to meet her at last, she was sincere.
However, she soon got the impression that Nina wasn’t. All of the right movements were there, the smiles and pleased exclamations, but there was a hollowed-out undertone to them characteristic of a bored spouse attempting courtesy at a social function. Buffy didn’t think Eric was the type to tolerate that in a relationship, and she knew Angel wasn’t. Nina introduced herself to Buffy with a limp hug that barely made contact, but then pressed herself to Angel in a very familiar and faintly sensual embrace. It didn’t last long enough for anyone to object, but Angel looked uncomfortable, and after that point they quickly moved on to the shop talk by unspoken agreement.
Since they hadn’t dropped any details on what they knew aside from Buffy’s Slayer dream, it was easy to keep Nina talking about her pack. “They’re wonderful,” she said with a big, phony smile. “They’re like our family. Nothing’s more important to me than the pack.”
“I know what you mean,” said Buffy. “Some of my friends have really become more like my family, too. Not nearly as many as you have in your pack, though.”
Angel came in with that tone he had that always seemed to put people at ease. “That raises an interesting point, though. Is every werewolf in the area part of your pack, or are there some that don’t associate with you?”
“No,” Nina replied. “None that we know about, anyway. Anyone in the city or the Hellmouth area is ours.”
“I see,” Angel said gravely. “I was hoping….” he sighed. “Nina -- Eric -- I know there’s been a lot of unfair discrimination toward your people lately, but we have to talk about the possibility that a werewolf really is behind some of the recent crime. Have you felt any suspicions about anyone you know?”
Eric looked distressed, Nina merely surprised, and she recovered quickly. “There’s one. Jordan Godfrey. He’s been so wild lately, and I want to say it’s just typical teenager stuff, but sometimes, really, he makes me nervous.”
“You never told me that.” Eric kept his cool, but his voice was wounded.
“Oh, I didn’t want to worry you.”
It wasn’t much later that Angel began suggesting that they had taken enough of Eric and Nina’s time, and Buffy followed his lead, wanting to talk to him privately. Before they left, they confirmed that they would be back for the Independence Day barbecue and wolf-watch -- “Won’t that be fun!” Nina cooed, and Buffy cringed and knew that the same reaction was behind Angel’s impassive mask.
Some tension seemed to leave him as they walked back out into the night, and he slipped his hand into hers as they made their way down the leafy tunnel that the trees formed over the road. “What did you make of that?” asked Buffy gently after long minutes of silence.
“Nina’s the Wolf,” he answered. “God help us.”