Buffy sat in the bathtub staring at her hands. Aside from being pruned from too long in the water, they were flawless. Therein lay the problem. When she limped out of Caritas several hours earlier, her hands had been bruised. Now her hands and even the knee that was carpet burned were all healed.
She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, hugging herself tightly. Angel's attack should have left her scared, shaken, traumatized even. She should be calling the cops and pressing charges. But she wasn't. How could she explain to the police that the injuries faded after a couple of hours? She couldn't.
Even more disturbing, was the fact that she hadn't been afraid. On the contrary, she felt alive for the first time in as long as she could remember.
Shaking her head, she stood up and stepped out of the tub, lukewarm water running off her body in rivulets. She pulled the plug on the drain and wrapped herself in a towel. It was a borrowed towel. Buffy ran her fingers over the well worn fabric and was so thankful for Willow. Buffy didn't know what she would do without her new roommate's kindness. She felt like an urchin showing up on Willow's doorstep with no possessions except a duffel bag full of clothes and sentimental items. But Willow hadn't seemed to mind. She had a spare bedroom complete with furniture and enough general housekeeping supplies to share. Buffy fully intended to pay Willow back when she had some money, but that would be a while yet.
Thoughts of money brought Buffy back to her current predicament. She was still angry with her father. But more and more, she was angry with herself. As much as she loathed to admit it, Angel had a real point. For far too long, Buffy had allowed herself to be taken care of, to be coddled. For so long, she let others do what she could have - and should have - done for herself.
The logical remedy to this seemed to be to make it on her own. Of course, to do that she needed two things: a job and money. She had both, compliments of Angel. It burned her to be indebted to him for anything, but no matter how many ways she looked at it, she didn't have a choice.
Or maybe she didn't want a choice. Buffy cringed at the thought, but admitted to herself that there was more than a grain of truth in it. Angel with all of his inherent problems still had something that she couldn't find anywhere else. Angel expected her to perform to the fullest extent of her potential. He believed in her. Oh, sure, it wasn't the after school special sort of believing in someone. He wasn't about pep talks or selfless concern. She didn't doubt for one second that he had an angle on this somewhere - she just couldn't figure out what it was. Angel never did anything for the benefit of anyone but himself. Selfishness was his modus operandi.
But evil machinations aside, he still took her seriously. Far more seriously than anyone else had ever taken her. He wanted her to give it her all - and not just Buffy Summers' all, the Slayer's all.
Buffy used her palm to swipe a path across the steam-covered mirror. She studied her reflection. She didn't look any different. Same long blonde hair. Same muddled hazel eyes. Same nose. But inside ... inside she felt different. The impromptu duel with Angel sparked something inside of her, something she spent the last three years forgetting. Just like she ignored Angel for the last three years. He was tied to this - to her dark side, to whatever it was that made her a Slayer. When she shunned her Slayer-self, she shunned him by definition.
Ever since that initial meeting ten years ago, there was an inexplicable bond between her and Angel. It wasn't something out of a sappy novel. It wasn't romantic or mythic or even enjoyable. It was terrifying. ShadowTongue was just one of many physical manifestations of their connection. Having a bond with Angel was not a happy circumstance. Angel was dangerous and Buffy had no desire to be tied to him.
She thought she had severed that bond three years ago. Tonight showed pretty strong evidence to the contrary. She hadn't stopped being a Slayer anymore than she had stopped being Buffy. The fact that another had been Called didn't mean that she ceased to be what she was. For the last three years she had been denying a part of herself. And tonight for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, she felt whole.
She met her own eyes in the mirror, shaken by the weight of her revelation. Everything seemed to click into place. She was Buffy, but she was still the Slayer. She couldn't stop being either of those things.
When Angel arrived at Caritas the following night, Buffy was manning the door alone. She was dressed conservatively in a pair of tight fitting brown pants and a long sleeved black shirt with a deep V-neck. The outfit managed to be attractive and functional at the same time. Rather than going to his office as usual, he took a corner table and watched her. He remained mute as Lorne joined him, both pairs of eyes fixated on the Slayer.
She was still charming as hell. To most of the patrons, she flashed a gleaming smile and flirted. They seemed to think it was cute that a waifish little girl was working the door. Some of them even tipped her. Angel made a mental note to pay a visit to an overly handsy little beatnik wannabe named Parker later in the week.
Angel caught Lorne's eye and realized his club's manager was watching him over the rim of his Sea Breeze. "What?" he barked.
Lorne shrugged, looking back at Buffy. "Nothing, Peaches," he said, "you're just sparking hotter than Eddie Murphy after a Sunset Boulevard transvestite."
Angel grumbled but let Lorne's comment slide. He knew that this was not his style. He rarely mingled with Caritas' clientele, much less brooded in a dark corner, staring at one of his own employees. People were bound to think it odd. Angel had never much cared what people thought, but he found he didn't appreciate Lorne's mental speculations. "Don't you have a job to be doing?" he barked.
"I am doing it," Lorne answered evenly.
"Really?" Angel bit out. "Doesn't look like it from here."
Lorne smiled tightly. "My job is to offer advice," he said. "Even to those who don't want it."
"Advice?" Angel drawled contemptuously. "You think your advice has something to do with me?"
Lorne looked pointedly at the door. "I knew enough to warn Gunn to keep his hands to himself," he said.
Angel's gaze narrowed menacingly. "Did Gunn say anything to you about her?" he asked in a low, dangerous voice.
Shaking his head, Lorne answered, "Definite 'no' to that one, Crumpet. But I can tell he likes her. Hell, everyone likes her. The girl is beautiful and a regular firecracker in the personality department. Quite a step up from your usual fare."
"Buffy is off limits."
Lorne took a deep breath. "I know," he said. "And trust me when I tell you that I don't need a direct line to the Powers That Be to pick up on that little gem."
Their conversation was cut short by a scuffle at the door. Two drunk human guys were trying to get inside and Buffy wasn't going to let them. Angel forced himself to sit in his chair while she worked. It wouldn't serve to remind her that she was the Slayer by rescuing her. He watched as she tried to flirt and charm.
It worked for a little while, but when the men realized she didn't intend to admit them, they became more forceful. One of them tried to push her away and Buffy caught his wrist. She didn't hurt him, she simply applied enough pressure to let him know that she wasn't kidding and that if push came to shove, he'd be on his ass in the alley. Reluctantly, the duo retreated.
Lorne whistled under his breath. "She did a damn good job," he said. "Groo would have caused a couple hundred dollars worth of damage before proving his point."
Angel merely nodded, though his face shone with pride.
Hesitant to break Angel's obvious basking, Lorne took a deep breath before he said, "Boss, you know, I've sort of picked up on a little tidbit that might interest you."
Frowning, Angel turned his attention to Lorne. "What?" he said impatiently.
"You," Lorne said carefully, "and the firecracker over there."
Angel sat up straighter in his chair. "What about Buffy and myself?" he asked in icy tones.
Lorne swallowed audibly. "It's just ... I don't know. I mean, I'm not crystal clear on this one, but you plus the Slayer." He shook his head. "It doesn't look good."
"Doesn't look good for who?"
Angel's dark expression made Lorne regret opening his mouth. "Explain."
Lorne shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. "I could be wrong. I mean, I've never actually read either of you. It's just this sort of ... psychic wake. It happens with big players on the ethereal plane. Most people are a match in a dark room. Powerhouses like you and the Slayer over there ... you guys are like sunrise on a clear morning. I get residual readings without even trying."
"Residual readings that tell you what, exactly?"
"That something's got to break," Lorne said seriously. "You two are fire and ice. You can't be around each other without something big changing. The only way to avoid that is to avoid each other."
Angel's expression gave nothing away, but Lorne had the sinking feeling that Angel would disregard his advice.
Jenny abruptly stood up from the table, her expression strained as she watched Buffy walk into the deli. The bright mid-morning sun made her pale blonde locks shimmer and Jenny sighed in relief at the realization that Buffy obviously wasn't living on the streets. Stopping in front of her stepmother, Buffy was hesitant until Jenny's face cracked into a smile and she wrapped Buffy in a crushing hug. Buffy hugged her back, letting herself admit for the first time in over a week how much she missed her family.
Pulling back, Jenny motioned for Buffy to sit and then did the same. They looked at each other a bit uncomfortably Jenny wringing her hands. "You look well," Jenny said.
Buffy nodded, unable to meet her stepmother's eyes. She knew what Jenny wasn't saying. She knew that her parents had been worried to death about her for the last week. She knew they had no idea where she was staying or what she was doing. "I'm fine," she said quietly. "I have an apartment and a job."
Jenny's shock was clear. She opened her mouth and then shut it again. "An apartment," she said. "I was ... well, your father and I both were hoping that you would be coming home today."
Shaking her head, Buffy pursed her lips together. "I can't," she said.
A waiter appeared to take their orders and they both opted for beverages only. When he was gone, Jenny continued. "Your father knows that he was harsh, Buffy - "
"I'm not a child," she said firmly. For the first time, she said it without sounding petulant. Her assertion was flat, dull, a boring fact of life. And it was real.
Jenny nodded slowly. "Indeed," she replied, folding her napkin to keep her hands busy.
Buffy took a deep breath and said, "I can't go home, Jenny. I don't belong there anymore. I need to be on my own, to live my own life, find my own way."
The expression on Jenny's face was an odd mix of admiration, regret and pain. "Your father- "
"Won't understand," Buffy finished. She nodded. "I know," she said, "but it doesn't make it untrue. He can't see me as an adult. I know a lot of that is my fault, but it has to change."
They sat in strained silence as the waiter left their drinks. Buffy took a sip of the overly sweet tea. Slowly, she reached into her purse and dug out a small yellow sticky note and handed it to Jenny. "It's my new cell phone," she said.
Jenny stared blankly at the paper, her face reflecting her hurt. "You don't trust us enough to tell us where you live or where you work?"
Buffy flushed. "It's not that I don't trust you," she said hastily. "It's just ... I have to have this to myself - for a while."
Swallowing thickly, Jenny nodded. "Just remember," she said, "you always have a home."
Willow was sitting cross-legged on the couch when Buffy walked in, still feeling off kilter from her meeting with Jenny. "Hey," Willow said with a smile.
"Hey," Buffy replied. She liked Willow, but she didn't really know her very well. Most of their interaction tended to be of this nature.
Willow laughed at the awkward situation and set her book down. "I need to run out and get some magick supplies, you want to get some fresh air?"
Buffy started to decline and then stopped. She didn't want to impose upon Willow, but yes, she did want to go. She had always been fascinated by magick. Plus, she could get her mind off her estranged family. "Sure," she said.
The crowded little shop was in a strip mall, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a taco place. Buffy smiled to herself at how mundane it seemed. The store was filled floor to ceiling with shelves packed with magick supplies. Narrow isles ran the length of the store. Buffy eyed the clerk who was half asleep behind the counter and whispered to Willow, "Aren't they afraid of shoplifters?"
Willow shook her head. "You can't take any of the items out of here without first removing the enchantment. Plus, you know, it's bad karma."
Buffy nodded, and went about her browsing. There were lots of books, mortars and pestles, and a case full of dried herbs took up one entire wall. Mixed in with the more mundane were the occasional startling items such as wicked looking knives, dried monkey's paws and highly polished runes. Buffy walked down the rows with her hands buried in her pockets, nosing along the shelves, her eyes the size of a child's in a candy store.
Buffy startled as she noticed a particular stone. It wasn't very large, maybe an inch by two inches, roughly rectangular. It appeared to be onyx, though Buffy wasn't entirely certain. It could have been obsidian. Carved into the front of the stone was a rough tribal pattern of a big cat, a panther or possibly a jaguar. She stared at the stone intently, startling when Willow spoke so close to her ear.
"Wow," Willow said in a breathy voice, her eyes locked on the stone, "I never thought I would see a real one of these."
Buffy tore her gaze from the stone long enough to look at her roommate. "What is it?" she asked.
"A Nottis stone," Willow said in an awed tone that indicated that Buffy should find some meaning in the words.
Frowning, Buffy asked, "What's it for?"
Willow smiled. "I thought you were a Slayer," she said.
Buffy shrugged, blushing slightly. "You might say I'm seriously lacking on the formal education part of the whole Slayer experience."
Willow picked the stone off the shelf and held it out to Buffy. Obediently, she allowed Willow to place the stone on the palm of her hand. "What does it feel like?" Willow asked.
Buffy balled her fist around the stone. "Warm," she said.
Smiling, Willow replied giddily, "It likes you." At Buffy's wary expression, Willow explained, "Nottis stones are one of the few reactive relics. They are either warm or cold depending on whether they are in harmony or discord with the person holding them. Traditionally only Slayers can harmonize with them, and then only Slayers with an affinity for the totem animal."
Buffy rolled the stone over in her fingers, looking at the outline of the large predator.
"This is a rare piece," Willow explained. "I'm shocked that they have one here. I thought the Council had them all locked up in England. Nottis stones are made from quartz, any type. They're usually white or rose quartz, but this one seems to be onyx. They bear the mark of a particular Slayer's totem animal."
"Totem animal?" Buffy repeated, one eyebrow raised in question.
"Totem animals are largely symbolic," Willow explained. "They're a sort of mascot for the Slayer. It's rumored that some Slayers actually had an affinity with their totem animals, but I've never seen any documented accounts. Also, for whatever reason, Slayers were typically associated with birds. This is the first feline totem I've ever heard of, much less seen."
With a smile, Willow shrugged and left to resume her shopping. Buffy turned the Nottis stone over again, biting down on her bottom lip as she stared at it. The weight felt perfect in her palm. She studied the rugged outline of the large cat. Buffy never considered herself a cat person, but she couldn't deny that the stone seemed to pull at something inside of her. Her gaze traced the outline of the big cat, noting its sleek, deadly lines. Its power seemed to radiate from the stone. It reminded her of something ...
"Angel," she whispered.
Buffy jumped as she realized what she had said. She dropped the stone and it landed noiselessly on the dull beige carpet. Quickly Buffy bent over, picking up the stone and placing it on the shelf. She hurriedly walked down the isle, not daring to look back.
It took Buffy nearly twenty minutes on the ride home to broach the subject with Willow, but taking a deep breath, she asked, "How do you know so much about Slayers?"
Willow looked over at her roommate and smiled. "You noticed that, huh?" she asked, then laughed lightly. "I know about Slayers from Faith, but I'm trying to reserve judgment. I figure they can't all be that skanky."
"Faith?" Buffy asked. She thought it was the name of the current Slayer, but she wasn't certain.
"She was Called about two and a half years ago, and she's a mess," Willow said, her distaste evident.
"Why are you working with the Slayer?" Buffy asked. "I thought they were lone wolves."
Willow shrugged. "I think they generally fly solo. Most of the time Faith acts like she's a one-woman army. But she isn't. We all work for Roarke. Without him, even Faith would be out on her leather-clad bottom. Me; Faith; her Watcher, Wesley; Gunn; Groo; and an assortment of odd demons - we're all on Roarke's payroll."
"You work for Angel?" Buffy gasped in astonishment.
Willow shrugged, a wry expression on her face as she studied the freeway traffic. "Trust me, it wasn't something I ever planned on. Roarke's reputation precedes him and it's not good. He pursued me for months and I always told him no. But then I saw him work and it was just so ... guh. Spiritual almost. Once I got past my violent personal dislike for him, I realized he's actually not that bad of a guy. I mean, sure he has his issues and I want no part of them, but in terms of the amount of real good he does, he's pretty amazing. And for sheer power, no magick worker I've ever seen - good or bad - can touch him."
"Angel good?" Buffy choked out.
Willow nodded reluctantly, a sheepish grin on her lips. "I know. It shocked me too. He's very covert about it. I don't doubt that his behavior serves to further his own agenda, but he polices the demonic underworld in L.A. He keeps things under control. I'm sure his reasons aren't completely altruistic, but the end result is that he makes the city a better place for everyone."
Buffy leaned back in her seat, staring blankly at the flowing traffic. Angel was a good guy? She really couldn't wrap her mind around the concept. Okay, so she knew somewhere deep inside that he wasn't really rotten to the core. But he was definitely rough around the edges. And he most certainly did what was best for himself. But apparently somewhere along the line, he decided that making L.A. a safer place served his purposes. Good guy by default. Very interesting.
[End Chapter 5]
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