"Very good, Ms. Summers!"
Buffy was breathing hard, staring at the quickly dissipating cloud of ash. Ash that had been a vampire. Ash that had been a vampire very recently. Like three seconds ago recently.
"I rule!" Buffy said, punching one fist towards the sky in a very respectable imitation of Lester Burnham. She had only been actively patrolling for two weeks and already it felt like an extension of her being. It was like walking or talking. The love of the hunt was in her veins. She was a force of nature.
Wesley's expression was markedly more reserved. "Let's not get too smug," he said.
Buffy rolled her eyes. That man had the entire British flag stuck up his ass. But she didn't care. This was a good day. She was finally patrolling, finally using her Slayerness for something positive. And she felt amazing. She was alive, truly alive. Even Wesley couldn't ruin that high.
Buffy bounced up the stairs to Angel's private study and pounded once on the door before pushing it open. She stopped just inside the threshold, staring at Angel and the woman. Her natural high disappeared in an instant. It took her several moments to find her tongue. "Hello," Buffy managed to say to the interloper. No one would have confused it for a warm greeting.
The woman twisted in her chair to look at Buffy and turned to Angel who sat behind his desk, face perfectly placid. "Mr. Roarke?" she asked hesitantly, her grip tightening on the pencil in her hand.
"Fred, this is Buffy Summers. She works for me. Buffy, this is Winifred Burkle. She works for me." Angel smiled at his deliberate evasiveness.
Buffy looked at the young woman seated in the chair across from Angel. The stack of folders on her lap indicated that this was definitely business and not a social call, but Buffy couldn't quell the irrational anger that burned inside. "And people think I'm skinny," she muttered. Fred was dressed conservatively in a long dark skirt and a plain blouse. Her hair was pulled back and she wore a pair of decidedly boring glasses. She looked like a school marm. She looked harmless. But what on earth was she doing alone with Angel in his house?
For a moment, Buffy reconsidered her own outfit. The pink spaghetti strap tanktop and black pants were fine, especially with the matching bracelets, but the black stocking cap with rhinestones that spelled out "bomb" was playful. At the moment, she had no desire to seem playful. Nonplussed, Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and fixed Angel with an expectant look.
"Is there something you need, Ionuin?" he asked lightly.
"I need to talk to you," she bit out in ShadowTongue, glaring at Fred. "Alone."
Angel smiled, slowly turning to face the woman in the chair. "Fred, would you please wait outside," he said. "We'll finish working on the documents as soon as I have a word with Ms. Summers."
Buffy did an admirable job of glaring a hole in Fred's back as she dutifully went to wait in the hall. "Who's she?" Buffy demanded.
Angel grinned broadly. "You're in a mood tonight," he said, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers together over his chest. "What do you want?"
"No, really," Buffy pressed, "you're not getting out of this one. Who is she? Is she a new Slayer? Do you just keep collecting them? I get it, you have ten Slayers but I'm the only one that actually has to work. The others just lounge around your mansion eating bonbons and sucking your toes with their bodies built for sin - "
Angel lifted a hand to silence her tirade. "Winifred Burkle is my new assistant," he said. "Wesley had filled that function, but since he's been spending so much of his time with you, I had to hire someone else."
Buffy took a deep breath and her anger sputtered out. She blushed. "Oh," she said.
"Now, are you going to tell me why you showed up at my house with your designer panties in a wad?"
Frowning, Buffy said, "Never mind. It's stupid. I can't believe I even came over here."
She started to walk away, but before she made it to the door, Angel grabbed her wrist, gently so as not to damage any of her bracelets. "Buffy," he said in ShadowTongue.
Reluctantly, she turned around, trying not to let on how much his predator fast movements disturbed her. Gently, she tugged her wrist out of his grip. "Okay," she huffed, not meeting his eyes, "it's my parents."
Angel's expression betrayed the fact that he had been hoping for something more salacious. "What about them?"
"They want me over for dinner tomorrow night," she said.
Buffy studied the toes of her shoes intently. Finally she let out a great sigh. "And it's the first time I've been home since I moved out and I wondered if I could borrow a different car from you to drive over there," she admitted.
"You don't like the piece you're driving now?" he asked deadpan, knowing full well that she hated it.
"No, it's not that," she stuttered. "It's just ... I don't ... I mean I don't want them to worry. I just know my dad. He'll see the company car and he'll freak and he'll ask me how many miles it has and if it has airbags and what sort of consumer reports ratings it got and - "
"and he'll want to make sure that I wear my seatbelt and he'll probably look into getting one of those little black box things for cars and he'll find out how I really drive and before you know it, I'll be in one of those defensive driving classes and ..." Buffy fell silent and looked at Angel. "Did you say yes?" she asked.
"Oh," she said.
Angel walked over to his desk and rummaged around. He tossed her a set of keys and said, "You can borrow the Audi."
She pursed her lips together and smiled her sweetest little girl smile. "I really like the Beamer," she said quietly.
Angel frowned. "You can borrow the Audi," he repeated.
Buffy smiled genuinely. "Thank you, Angel," she said in ShadowTongue.
"You're welcome, Ionuin," he replied in their language.
"You're too pale. You look like death warmed over."
Buffy rolled her eyes at her father's comment and took a sip of her water while Jenny admonished him. Dinner was strained to say the least. Even her two younger siblings were keeping quiet, which was quite a feat for them. Buffy agreed to attend a family meal with the understanding that she wouldn't be given the third degree. Her father had been amazingly well behaved until dessert was served.
"No, Jenny, I will not be silenced like a child," Rupert huffed, his feathers obviously ruffled. "Buffy looks pale."
Setting down her water glass, Buffy fixed her father with a wry expression. "I am pale," she admitted. "Don't get out in the sun much anymore. For the last couple of weeks, Wes had me training by nine in the morning and working phones until midnight. Though I suppose that will change. I mean I can't really keep training at nine if he expects me to patrol all night too. I need to talk to him about that."
Buffy's moment of evil glee was cut short by the expression on her father's face. She had wanted to torture him just the tiniest little bit, but the look of abject terror that darkened his features at the mention of her patrolling made her regret her words.
"P-patrolling?" he sputtered, his own complexion now far chalkier than Buffy's.
Buffy's expression was contrite. "Yes," she admitted, fighting to keep her voice from quavering. "I'm a Slayer. I've been avoiding that responsibility for three years and it's about time for me to start pulling my own weight."
Giles pasty pallor was replaced by vibrant red as he stood up, sending his chair skittering backwards on the parquet floor of the formal dining room. "Pulling your own weight?" he raged, trembling with the force of his anger. "Is that what this new Watcher is telling you? That you're not pulling your own weight?"
"Rupert, please," Jenny said, laying a gentle hand on his arm. "I don't think that's what Buffy meant."
He shook off her grip, his eyes glittering with outrage. "You weren't taking your status as a Slayer seriously enough, is that it?" he seethed. "Because I am pretty goddamned sure that when I found my daughter unconscious in a pool of her own blood that the whole damned situation was quite serious!" He shook his head in disbelief before throwing down his napkin and stalking from the room.
Jenny, Buffy, Xander and Dawn sat there in absolute silence. Far down the hallway, they heard the door to Giles' study slam shut.
"I never should have come," Buffy said tensely, her voice thick with tears.
"No, Buffy," Jenny said firmly. "This is your home. Rupert is upset, but you have to understand that his anger is not with you. It's with the situation."
Buffy looked at her stepmother incredulously. "Could have fooled me," she said.
"Ah yes," Buffy heard Wesley saying as she pushed open the doors of the Hyperion, "Ms. Summers would be happy to assist you."
Buffy's head snapped up at mention of her name and she saw Wesley standing with a man and woman in their mid-forties. They were both obviously upset. Buffy nodded. "Let me take care of a few things, I'll just be a sec," she said.
She hadn't planned on working. She wasn't even on the rotation at Angel Investigations tonight, but after her fight with her father, she really needed to get her mind off things. She had been planning to work out, but Wes was overbooked as usual. Not that she really cared, anything was better than sitting around rehashing the evening's events. She jogged to the locker room and changed out of her 'meeting the parents' outfit and into her regular Slaying outfit of worn jeans, a white tank, and a flannel button-up.
Five minutes later, she escorted the couple, Bob and Kathy Newton, into Wesley's office and shut the door. She took a seat in Wes's chair. "So, how can Angel Investigations help you this evening?" she asked.
"It's our - " the woman began before breaking down into tears.
The man did his best to comfort his near hysterical wife, but his efforts were largely useless. "It's our daughter," he said, "Cassie. She's missing. The police say we can't do anything until she's been gone for at least forty-eight hours, but we can't just sit here. This isn't like Cassie. She doesn't just take off. She's a good girl."
Tears pricked Buffy's eyes as she watched the man before her. He was barely holding together, so worried about his missing child that he was trembling all over. He was merely a father who wished to protect his little girl. Just like Rupert Giles. "Okay," Buffy said, "I need some basic information. How old is Cassie? When was the last time you saw her? Does she have any usual hangouts? Do you have a current picture of her?"
Buffy took notes as Mr. Newton answered all of her questions. The look of unbridled anguish on his face as he removed his daughter's school picture from his wallet had tears streaming down Buffy's cheeks.
"Don't worry Mr. and Mrs. Newton," she promised. "I'll find your daughter and bring her home safe."
"What the hell is goin' on?" Gunn asked as he killed the truck's engine and joined Buffy, Groo and Wesley on the sidewalk.
Buffy handed each of them a photocopy of the picture she took from Mr. Newton. "Her name is Cassie," she said. "She's fifteen, blonde, about five, three. She was last seen on this corner. As we all know, this is prime hunting territory for a local baddie named Mr. Trick. We have to assume that he or one of his boys nabbed Cassie."
Gunn shook his head in disbelief. "You've got to be kiddin' me," he said. "You pulled me off of my case to come all the way down here and help you?"
Shocked by his gruff demeanor, Buffy sputtered, "Uh, yeah."
Gunn wadded up the paper, his face hard. "This is bullshit. You may be the Slayer, but let me tell you girl, I've been doin' the work of a Slayer for the last eighteen months. I've been the one bustin' my ass night after night while you were goin' to the prom and bein' a cheerleader and shit. Nuh uh. I am not dropping everything to answer your call like some damn dog." He turned, reaching for the handle to the truck's door.
Buffy recoiled almost as if he had hit her. Gunn had always been so nice, so supportive. His outburst was completely unexpected.
"Gunn," Wesley said, pressing his hand against the truck's door so it could not be opened. "I don't believe that Buffy was trying to overstep her bounds. It's merely that with this case, time is of the essence."
"Step off, English," Gunn bit out. "You think time isn't important to the Lincolns? You think they won't mind if I take a night off from lookin' for the ghoul that killed their aunt? You think they'll think this is more important?"
"Gunn-" Wes began.
"No don't, Wesley," Buffy interrupted, her voice hard. "Don't make excuses for me. Don't try to explain anything to him."
Gunn, Groo and Wesley all turned to face Buffy who was now obviously angry. Her jaw was set, her fisted hands rested on her hips in a fighting stance. "You don't need to understand anything, Charles," she said, her voice rife with condescension. "You may have been filling in for Faith, but trust me, you're not a Slayer. You're a grunt and when I say jump you better damn sure ask me how high."
There was absolute silence from all of the males. Even at her most productive, Faith had never imbued the essence of a Slayer to this extent. She had never commanded respect the way Buffy did now.
Gunn swallowed harshly and nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said with a sly grin.
Wesley's face broke into a grin too, though his was of obvious pride. Buffy did not doubt that he felt himself completely responsible for her transformation. While she couldn't discount how much he helped her, she couldn't give him all the credit. She wasn't exactly sure what had come over her, she only knew that she had to find Cassie Newton. For whatever reason, it was deathly important to her.
Buffy picked up the wadded paper Gunn dropped and handed it to him. "Her name is Cassie," she said. "We have to find her. Mr. Trick's bad news. Slick. It will take all of us to track him and find Cassie."
Gunn studied the photograph. "How long she been missin'?"
"Since last night."
"B, you know the odds aren't good," Gunn said quietly.
Buffy's teeth ground together. "Her parents say she's a fighter," she said. "We'll find her."
"Buffy - " Gunn said gently, reaching for her.
She backpedaled, glaring at him. "We will find her," she repeated clearly. She held up her cell phone. "You all know the drill, if you find anything you call into the office and Willow will page everyone out to your location. Don't play hero on this one. I need everyone to be safe."
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
[End Chapter 8]
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