"You look good," Ford said with a genuine smile. He looked around the dim interior of the tiny shop. Given its proximity to the unsavory part of town, he wasn't expecting to see anyone they knew, but it never hurt to check. Speaking sotto voce despite the lack of familiar faces, he said, "Sunday has some story going around about you getting a botched nose job."
Buffy frowned, concentrating on tearing open the woefully inadequate sugar packets and pouring them one after another into her steaming mug. She had always been a night owl, but functioning well at two in the morning was facilitated considerably by large amounts of sugar and caffeine. "I've been busy," she replied.
Ford slid into the booth and drummed his fingers nervously on the scarred tabletop. Buffy looked at him in obvious annoyance and he stopped. "What exactly are you sugaring to death over there, Summers?" he asked. "Cocoa?"
"Coffee," she replied wryly. "We're in a coffee shop. Appreciate the symmetry."
Ford frowned. "You don't like coffee," he said. Not, he noted, that her beverage necessarily had much in common with coffee. From where he stood, it looked equal parts coffee, milk and sugar.
"I've gotten used to it," she replied blandly. "It's all Angel stocks at the office. Cheap bastard."
Ford was very quiet. Buffy knew she should feel guilty for casually dropping the name of Ford's most hated enemy. But she didn't. Ford had no compunctions earlier about mentioning Sunday. And at the moment, Buffy was not in the mood to contemplate her withering social status.
"You, uh ... ," he trailed off, "spending a lot of time with Roarke lately?"
She shrugged. "Depends," she said. "I work for him. Sometimes he's around, sometimes he's not."
"You work for Roarke?" Ford asked incredulously.
Buffy looked at him seriously. "After our fun little interlude with the cops, I had a major falling out with my father," she explained. "I left home. That's why I haven't been around lately, not because I had a bad plastic surgeon. I'm out on my own and Angel took pity on me and gave me a job."
"Oh," Ford said lamely. "I didn't know."
"I know you didn't know," Buffy bit out. "You never even called to check up on me after the cops picked us up."
Ford shifted uneasily in his seat. "I just ... I figured you'd be fine. I mean, it's not like your dad was going to let you go to jail."
Shaking her head in disgust, Buffy said, "So that makes everything okay? I got busted for your stuff and you're completely absolved of guilt because I have a rich father?"
Ford smiled coldly. "You know as well as I do that money talks."
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't know anything about that anymore," she said.
Buffy glared at her former boyfriend, unable to conjure any pleasant memories that would remind her why she had ever given him the time of day. "You can be angry and bitter all you want," she said, "but don't you dare use that tone with me. I'm sorry that you think Angel is responsible for destroying your family, but there's nothing I can do about that. I don't have daddy looking out for me anymore. I have an apartment and a piece of shit car and two jobs."
Ford was quiet as he looked at her. And he did look at her, seriously, for the first time since he had arrived. It was more than a month since he last saw her and he could tell now that she had changed. She didn't look hard ... but somehow he knew she wasn't the bubble headed blonde he used to adore. There was a somber note to her that he had never before noticed. She was thinner, more muscled and the dark circles under her eyes were testament to sleepless nights.
He laughed sadly to himself. "No matter how much I want things to stay the same, they always change," he said.
In spite of her foul mood, Buffy smiled weakly in return. "We're not the prom king and queen anymore," she added.
He shook his head. "It was brutal trying to get back on my feet after my dad lost everything, but somehow it seems harder for me to imagine you not being one of the inner circle."
Buffy shrugged. "I'm not sure I'm used to it either," she admitted grudgingly.
"You were always such a princess," he said. "Queen B of all the rich bitches at school. It's strange to think of you not being a part of that anymore."
Cocking an eyebrow, Buffy said, "I don't know that I'm ready to give up the crown just yet."
Ford smiled. "You never could let Sunday win."
Buffy laughed. He was right. But her laughter died away leaving something much more vulnerable. "I don't know, Ford," she said. "I don't know if I can even compete with her and Cordelia anymore. It used to be so effortless, but now ... "
He snorted. "You're still you, Buffy."
"Maybe," she said without conviction. "But who I am is changing. My world used to be so steady, so one dimensional and now ... I'm afraid I don't know how to be that girl anymore."
Ford took a deep breath and let it out. "What are you doing for Roarke?" he asked, trying not to choke on the name.
Buffy smiled wryly. "I'm a Slayer," she said.
Laughing, Ford said, "No, really. What are you doing?"
"I'm a Slayer," she repeated.
Ford looked at her and realized she was being serious. He whistled through his teeth. Being well acquainted with magicks and sorcery, he knew exactly what a Slayer was. "A Slayer, wow," he said. "I never knew."
Buffy looked nonplussed. "Yeah, well, I wasn't exactly comfortable with it," she said. "But it beats the hell out of working fast food."
"And Roarke gets a Slayer on his payroll," Ford replied sardonically. "How convenient."
"Two Slayers," Buffy said. "I'm not the only one. We both work for Angel."
He smiled mirthlessly. "How nice."
"I'm not asking you to like it," she said. "I'm just telling you how it is."
"Touché," he conceded. "I guess that explains the recent identity crisis."
She nodded, taking a sip of the sweet, warm liquid. "I'm getting pretty good at being a Slayer," she said. "But I think my rich bitch game is suffering as a result."
"Aw, Summers," he said, "you'll always be a bitch to me."
Buffy smiled wryly at him and he winked in return.
Buffy groaned, looking over at her roommate as they walked up the street to the Hyperion. It was late and traffic had dwindled. Without the passing headlights to illuminate their path, they walked through the shadows between the wells of light under the streetlamps. "Not that I'm trying to ditch you, Will - because I'm not - but this is getting so old. When is Wes going to let me patrol by myself?"
Willow frowned sympathetically. "Buffy, it's not like Wesley's trying to punish you. He just wants you to, you know, be safe is all."
"I'm safe," Buffy groused. "I'm so safe I should be playing for the Dodgers."
"It won't be forever," Willow offered.
"Forever, such an interesting concept."
Buffy and Willow both came to an abrupt stop, staring at the man who had materialized in the middle of the sidewalk.
"Uh ... " Buffy droned, staring at the stranger. He was tall with shoulder length dark hair and piercing blue eyes. His skin was so pale he seemed to glow in the dim light. Demon. He was definitely a demon. She should be finding a stake. But he was kinda hot.
The man frowned. "You humans are such odd creatures," he mused, smiling just enough to flash fang. The rest of his face remained perfectly human.
Buffy pulled the stake out of her pocket, falling back in a fighting stance.
The man chuckled and then seemed to catch himself, sobering his expression. He inclined his head in a slight bow. "Ah yes," he said, "the Slayer. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dracula."
Buffy blinked several times. She and Willow looked at each other. "Get out!" Buffy exclaimed with a smile.
"Well, um," Willow stammered, "can I get you anything? Uh, coffee, soda, maybe something more ... viscous?"
Dracula smiled. It was almost a leer. His gaze lingered on her neck. "Are you offering?" he asked with his lilting accent. Under the harsh lights of the Hyperion's lobby, his mystique should have faded. He should have looked like a dork in a cape with too much white makeup and a bad euro-trash accent. But he didn't.
"Offering ... " she repeated rather dreamily. Willow shook her head vigorously, stepping backwards several paces. "No thrall!" she chided. "Bad vampire!" Turning on her heel, she grabbed Buffy's wrist and tried to make a beeline for Wes' office. Buffy didn't budge. "Come on," Willow hissed.
Shaking her head, Buffy extricated herself from Willow's grip. "Go ahead," she said firmly. "I'm a Slayer. It makes me immune."
Willow didn't look convinced, but she couldn't really force Buffy to do anything. With a huff, she turned back to the office.
Buffy smiled, watching her roommate leave and then turned her attention back to Dracula. He accepted her perusal without comment, a small half-smile playing on his lips. "You do not fear me," he noted.
"I'm a Slayer," she replied with bravado.
"So you are," he mused, his expression becoming less casual and more predatory. He took several steps toward her. She had to crane her neck back to meet his gaze. "You are magnificent," he said, looking her over.
She blushed, but couldn't look away. "I bet you say that to all the Slayers," she replied awkwardly.
"Pull back your hair," he commanded gently.
"Look," she said, "if you think you can just waft in here with your music video hair and ..." she trailed off, looking at him blankly. Her hand moved up to brush her hair back from her neck.
He moved in even closer, his fingers barely touching her jaw. "I have searched the world over for a creature like you, a creature whose darkness could rival my own."
"You even think of touching her with your darkness and I promise you that your flashy gypsy tricks won't stop you from fitting neatly in a doggie bag. Permanently."
Dracula turned quickly, all of his attention focused on Angel. He released Buffy from his thrall so abruptly that she staggered. Angel strode down the stairs and clamped a hand around her upper arm, steadying her as he pulled her behind him.
"She," Angel growled, nodding toward the still dazed Buffy, "is off limits."
"My most humble apologies," Dracula said, bowing. "I did not know she was spoken for."
"Now you do," Angel countered darkly. "And you will be on your best behavior around all of my employees."
Dracula smiled tightly. "Understood," he said.
Behind Angel, Buffy blinked quickly, trying to clear out her head.
"I do business out of Caritas," Angel said tersely, "not the Hyperion. If you wish to see me, you will contact me there."
Dracula nodded, obviously displeased with his treatment, but he held his tongue. After a short bow, he turned and left the Hyperion.
Angel swiveled around, facing Buffy. "What the hell were you doing?" he demanded.
She stared at him blankly for a moment and then frowned. "What do you mean, what was I doing? I was talking to him."
Angel's teeth ground together. "He's a vampire. You're a Slayer. You two don't chat."
"Oh come on," Buffy scoffed, "he's Dracula! He's like bigger than Tom Cruise."
"He's a fruity gypsy vampire," Angel bit out. "One who had you under his thrall."
"Subversion of free will," Angel explained tightly. "He could have compelled you to do anything."
"Vampires don't have ... mind powers," Buffy said unconvincingly.
"He's a gypsy," Angel corrected. "He has a lot of tricks that other vampires lack."
"You're a gypsy," Buffy pointed out.
"So maybe I shouldn't talk to you," she offered petulantly. "Maybe you have thrall."
Angel rolled his eyes. "Please," he derided. "I don't need thrall to get women into bed."
Buffy glowered. She didn't want to think about Angel sleeping around. She decided to change the subject. "Well, if he's so dangerous, why was he looking for you anyway?"
"He's dangerous to you," Angel qualified, "not me. He needs my help. Apparently some upstart vamp is trying to take over his territories and he wants to put an end to it."
"So why's he asking you?" Buffy pressed. "Getting rid of a vamp is more my line of work. And don't even think about lending me out."
"First off, it would be hard for you to work for him considering that I'm not letting you go anywhere near him again." He continued quickly before Buffy had a chance to voice her outrage at his heavy handed comment, "And secondly, he doesn't want Spike dusted. He wants to make an example of him."
Buffy was quiet for a moment, considering him. "An example?"
"Oh, Ionuin, use a little imagination," he said silkily. "There are a lot of existences more unpleasant than death."
"You are so broken," Buffy said with disgust.
He smiled crookedly. "And yet you love me anyway," he said with a wink, turning and heading for the door before she could respond.
The doors had already closed by the time Buffy half-heartedly yelled "Jerk!" She watched the doors, but did not follow. "And I don't love you," she muttered under her breath, more out of habit than any actual vehemence. Her mood completely soured, she headed for Wesley's office. The remaining week before she could patrol was going to be a long one.
[End Chapter 7]
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