"Time Marches On"
"What do you want?" Angel snapped, rounding a tombstone as he stepped into view.
Lindsey smirked as he drew nearer. The scent of female arousal clung to Angel like a particularly expensive perfume. "Interrupt something, did I?" he asked with a wry grin.
"Yes, you did," Angel said, his voice deathly serious, "so you better have a damn good reason."
Lindsey sobered and automatically swung his gaze around the cemetery, ensuring they were alone. "I have some information your boss might want," he said, all earlier teasing gone.
Eyes slitting, Angel said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Sure you don't," Lindsey scoffed. "And that girl you were about to fuck when I interrupted you wasn't the Slayer."
Every muscle in Angel's body tensed. He'd been careless, taking Buffy to Caritas after marking her, walking hand in hand with her on the street. This wasn't the time in which he'd grown up. The Slayer's identity was no longer a secret. Any of the DHSTs or their human mates in the club could have recognized Buffy merely on sight. He wouldn't let her come to harm because of his recklessness.
"Easy," Lindsey said, backing up a step. "Your secret's reasonably safe. The people that saw you together tonight will keep her secret. They can't 'out' her without revealing their own involvement. Besides, even the most devout vampire haters have trouble stomaching what the Council does to Slayers that become intimate with their mortal enemies."
"What do you want?" Angel bit out, having no intention of discussing Buffy with the former lawyer.
"I told you," he said, "I have information that could be very important to the Council."
"What's your price?" Angel demanded.
"Protection," Lindsey said bluntly. "I used to be a human citizen, and a lawyer. I know that as a DHST, I have no rights. Walsh owns me. She's started to suspect that I'm up to something, and I know that by the end of this week, if I go back, I'll be nothing more than a pile of ash. This might not be much of a life, but it's all I have."
Angel sighed heavily, looking at the young man. He understood his need. "I don't have the power to offer you anything," Angel replied.
"But your boss does," Lindsey countered.
Angel nodded. "Follow me," he said.
Holtz nodded slowly as Buffy finished relaying the fact that Angel had made contact with Lindsey and the information they received on Walsh. She left out the part about Caritas, not wanting to betray Fred and Wesley's trust. Holtz's face was as inscrutable as always, divulging nothing of his thoughts. "You did very well this evening," he said to the Slayer.
"Thank you," she said quietly.
"I will have to discuss your findings with the Council's Executive Committee," he said. "I will let you know when they make their decision. I'm not sure what they will do, given that we do not yet possess any hard evidence. But now that Varkesh is being mentioned in connection with Walsh, they'll have to do something."
"Do you think it will take long?" she asked, knowing full well how slowly bureaucracy moved.
Holtz shrugged. "Longer than usual," he admitted. "The Divide Compound was attacked by a sizeable demon force earlier today. The majority of the Council soldiers were sent to help. It will be a while before they return and we can mount any sort of offensive."
Buffy swallowed harshly. The Divide Compound was a large human outpost, situated high in the Rocky Mountains. It was a pivotal community in terms of shipping and information flow. She wasn't too worried about it falling to Varkesh's forces. Given its crucial role, it was heavily fortified and could withstand a demon siege indefinitely. However, sending Council soldiers to help, left The City vulnerable.
"I need you to do recon," Holtz said firmly. "It shouldn't take more than a few days. I need to know where Varkesh is located. I've arranged for armed accompaniment, a small group of Council soldiers that remained behind. You must leave immediately. With the majority of our forces assisting elsewhere, we can't afford to be taken by surprise."
"What about Angel?" Buffy asked.
"He will be staying here," Holtz replied.
Buffy stared blankly at her adoptive father.
"I think at the moment that a little distance would be best for both of you," Holtz said pointedly.
Buffy's eyes lowered to the ground of their own accord. "I'm going to go home," she said. "It's been a long night.
"Very well," Holtz replied, but as she turned to go, he stopped her. "Buffy?"
She turned to face him, her exhaustion clearly etched on her features.
"You and Angel did exceedingly well tonight," he said softly. "The information you turned up and the contacts you made could prove invaluable in the future."
Buffy nodded, unsure of what to do with the unexpected praise. "Thank you," she said lamely.
"I do have one other thing to ask you," he continued.
"Be careful," he said, his voice oddly pleading.
"It was risky," she said, "but sometimes that is necessary."
He smiled conciliatorily. "That's not what I mean," he said gently. "Be careful ... with Angel."
Buffy blushed bright crimson. "I don't..." she stuttered. "We didn't..."
"Discretion," Holtz said forcefully. "You have always been a good girl, Buffy. The Council has always been thrilled with your performance, but the Council is fickle. Do not give them a reason to persecute you. They will burn you at the stake, Buffy, literally. They have done it before."
Buffy swallowed harshly, chilled by his words. She knew just how painfully true they were. Holtz watched his ward, Justine, burned for misconduct. Buffy was in the Council's care at the time and as such, had participated in the public execution. Though she was only four, she remembered it vividly. She shivered involuntarily.
"I understand," he continued, "that Angel is in a unique position to appreciate you for who and what you are. I know that he probably understands you better than anyone. And he has proven on many occasions just how dedicated he is to you. I have no illusions. I know he did not volunteer to be a DHST because he is a fan of the Council."
Buffy silently absorbed the words, neither confirming nor denying his assertions.
"But discretion is imperative, Buffy. I know you are lonely and isolated. But do not lose your head. Do not get careless."
"I'm not careless - " she began.
"You have bruises, Buffy," Holtz said sharply. "Bruises in the shape of bite marks on your neck. Your hair is tousled, your lips are swollen. That is not discrete. Behavior like that can get you killed, either by the Council or your own distraction. Either way, dead is dead and I have no desire to bury another child."
"Where is he?" Holtz asked quietly as he sipped the scotch, staring blindly at the wall.
"He hasn't returned yet," Giles answered quietly. "According to Buffy, he is meeting with Walsh's pet vampire, Lindsey."
Holtz caught the hint of displeasure in his fellow Watcher's voice. "I'm not oblivious to her pain, Rupert," he said. "I know she is lonely. I know that William Fordham is little more than a scavenger and I detest how he treats her. But I will not sit by while she throws away her life for that beast. I know I haven't been an outstanding father to her, but I will not allow her sacrifice herself needlessly."
"I do believe she deserves some happiness," Giles replied, pouring himself several fingers of scotch.
"Indeed," Holtz mused. "I did not forbid her to pursue a relationship with him, I merely pointed out the dangers of such a relationship being brought to light and the need for discretion."
"The Council would murder her," Giles replied, his voice sounding oddly desolate.
"Yes," Holtz replied, "they would. Not even I could protect her."
"She's little more than a child. She deserves to know love at least once in her life."
"People are already talking," Holtz said baldly. "His attention to her at the Council ball was decidedly regrettable. I'm afraid we cannot risk them being seen together in public again."
Giles nodded in acquiescence. Buffy's safety was his number one priority.
Holtz looked the vampire up and down, his expression guarded. "Were you followed?" he demanded from Lindsey.
"I don't think so," Lindsey replied bluntly. "Walsh doesn't trust me, and with good reason. I know she has me followed most nights, but I'm fairly certain I managed to lose them this evening."
"Then she knows that you're going to betray her?"
"She knows that I hate her with everything I have," he replied vehemently. "She knows I will do anything to destroy her, to make her pay for what she did to me, and when I go missing, she will assume I've come to you."
Holtz sat back, taking a deep breath. Lindsey's reckless action had just forced everyone's hand, but with any luck, Walsh didn't know it yet. "We have to act quickly," he said to Giles.
Buffy was a warrior, and as such, did not grouse. But she wanted to. She wasn't accustomed to a life that ran on a predictable schedule. Being sent out on a mission with less than a moment's notice was nothing new. However, she now found it infinitely more annoying than she had in the past. It wasn't hard to figure out why.
A huge part of her wanted nothing more than to be stuck in some dark corner of the library at this very moment, picking up where they left off in the crypt. Instead, she and the group of soldiers were a couple of miles outside of the wall, heading for Hope Crossing, a bridge that separated The City from the Wastelands.
In short, she was on the job and not likely to get any cuddle time for the foreseeable future. Which was a shame, because it was all she could think about. Every spare moment when something else wasn't actively demanding her attention, Buffy's thoughts were of Angel. Everything about him overwhelmed her consciousness. Even now, she could clearly remember the feel of his fingertips biting into her hips, of his tongue gliding past her lips, the way he purred when she ran her fingers through his hair ...
Buffy stifled a growl of frustration with herself as she squinted into the rising sun. Pining over Angel wasn't going to make anything better. In fact, the distraction could get her killed. She forced herself to push thoughts of him away. She had a job to do, and the sooner she got it done, the sooner she could go home.
As they approached Hope Crossing, the sun finally cleared the horizon and everything was eerily silent. The bridge spanned the huge ravine that almost entirely circled The City and was the only way in or out, unless you wanted to spend days hiking down one side of the ravine and then up the other. The ravine, more than the huge concrete walls, was actually what kept Guardian City separate from the Wastelands that surrounded it.
Abruptly, Buffy stopped, her vision scanning the surroundings. Nothing seemed visibly out of place ... but it didn't feel right. Slayer instincts were not something to be taken lightly. Logically she wanted to simply get across the bridge and out into the Wastelands. The sooner they pinpointed Varkesh, the sooner they could go home. But she couldn't deny her gut feelings. Something was definitely amiss.
"What is it?" Riley asked quietly, coming to stand beside her. He had quickly volunteered for Wasteland duty with the Slayer.
Buffy shook her head, unable to place the sensation. "Something is wrong," she said, mindful to keep her voice low.
"She's imagining things," Forrest muttered under his breath. "No demons would be stupid enough to get this close to The City."
Buffy whipped her head around and glared at the overly confident soldier. He was well trained, one of the elite, but he had too much faith in humanity. He regarded the demons only as mindless beasts, with no higher thought processes. Buffy knew better, and treated her enemies with the respect they deserved, especially when the bulk of the Council defenses were occupied elsewhere.
"Pull back," she snapped. "There's a rise a couple hundred meters from here. It overlooks the bridge. I want to scout the area. I'm not about to walk into any traps."
Forrest started to open his mouth and Riley threw him a murderous glare. "You heard her," he bit out.
Forrest clamped his mouth shut and reluctantly did as he was told. He had never felt comfortable taking orders from a woman. Forrest was a close friend of Riley's and as such was privy to personal information about his friend. Riley made no secret of the fact that he liked the Slayer. Forrest couldn't understand it. Buffy Summers was a freak of nature. It turned his stomach to think of his friend involved with the bitch.
Angel looked expectantly at Holtz. The Watcher merely shook his head and cursed. Around them, teams of Watchers and Council soldiers were tearing Walsh's labs apart, but coming up largely empty-handed.
When they arrived, with a Council issued search and seizure order, the labs were deserted. Filing cabinets had been overturned, documents shredded and burned; the holding pens used to contain Walsh's DHSTs had been littered with ashes. A cursory inspection told Angel that contrary to what Walsh wanted them to believe, the ashes were not vampire remains. For whatever reason, she wanted to make them think that she destroyed her DHST subjects in her hurry to leave, but they knew otherwise.
"Where could she have gone?" Holtz demanded rhetorically.
As the Watcher stalked off to vent some frustrations on his underlings, Angel looked around the rooms. Walsh had cleared out in a big hurry. Odds were that she'd forgotten something. He narrowed his gaze. He had always been a damn good tracker and he wasn't about to just sit idly back and wait on Buffy to return.
Angel watched as forensic detectives scoured the labyrinth of rooms that branched off of Walsh's large main office and holding area. There were close to thirty interconnected rooms that wound around the basement of one of Nabbit Industries' bigger laboratories and they were all in the process of being searched.
Walsh's labs had been designed for hiding things. Or at least that's how they appeared ...
Angel looped his way back to the main lab space. In comparison to the rest of the rooms, it was extremely boring, nothing more than a big white box. The room was square, roughly forty feet by forty feet, with every available space covered in white tiles. The ceiling was about fifteen feet high, with glaring fluorescent lights that illuminated every crook and crevice in harsh relief.
It seemed the least likely room in the entire complex to try and hide something. Which is why Angel suspected it was the most probable. Dropping into a crouch, he started the arduous task of examining the tiles. With infinite attention to detail, he ran his fingertips over the cold, white ceramic.
[End Chapter 11]
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