Chapter 1: Our Lives Rearranged
“I’m telling you, B. Wasted opportunity. You’re getting slow in your old age.”
“I’m not slow. I’m selective.”
“Yeah, well, if he’d looked twice in my direction, I would’ve been selecting him right there on the dance floor.”
“Is that what we’re calling it these days?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who spent the night Garboing at the bar.”
Buffy came to a halt outside her apartment door and turned an annoyed gaze toward Faith. Of course, Faith hadn’t spent the night alone, not looking like that. She wore her favorite clubbing clothes, a silk halter that matched her scarlet lipstick and low-slung jeans that showed off her second-best asset. Buffy hadn’t said a word when they’d left at sunset, mostly because she knew how badly Faith needed a few hours of distraction, but if this was going to be the thanks she got for not calling a ho a ho, maybe it was time to channel her inner Cordelia and stop this line of commentary before it got too far off the ground.
Then she saw the bruises Faith hadn’t quite concealed with her dramatic make-up and changed her mind. Faith was just being Faith. Buffy didn’t need to make matters worse by picking a fight.
“All I’m saying, he calls himself The Immortal and he hangs out at a club packed with twenty-year-olds. If that doesn’t scream ‘mid-life crisis,’ I don’t know what does.”
She caught the roll of Faith’s eyes before she turned to open her purse and dig out her keys. “Nobody’s asking you to marry the guy, B. A little rough, a little tumble, and everybody goes home happy.”
Yeah, like you’re whistling Dixie yourself, Buffy thought as she pushed open the door.
The light in the kitchen offered the only illumination in the small apartment. Skirting the small suitcase Faith had dropped in the middle of the floor when she’d arrived two days earlier, Buffy flipped on the lamp next to the couch and frowned when she saw the package and note sitting on the coffee table.
“I’m having a drink,” Faith called from the kitchen. “Want one?”
“No, thanks.” Buffy plucked the post-it from the box and promptly sighed. Dawn’s loopy scrawl announced she was spending the night at the Slayer safehouse and directed Buffy’s attention to the paper-wrapped parcel, saying it had arrived just minutes after she and Faith had left for the club. “Well, that didn’t take long,” she muttered.
Buffy tossed the note onto the table and flopped down onto the couch. “For Dawn to start testing my boundaries again.”
Taking the chair opposite, Faith propped her boots up on the table, popping two aspirin into her mouth before sipping at her bottled water. “Maybe we should’ve taken her with us tonight.”
Buffy snorted. “Right. Because I want to encourage these wild and willful ways. I thought sending Andrew to LA would keep her inside, but I guess I misjudged that one.”
“Why in hell would shipping off Geek Rogers keep the kid from going out?”
“Because when those two get together, the getting in trouble factor explodes by a thousand. Andrew has this weird talent for talking Dawn into these insane plans, which usually end up involving magic somehow.” She shook her head, remembering the look on Giles’ face when he’d caught the pair trying to use some ancient stone Giles used as a paperweight to kill a demon they’d accidentally raised in his conservatory. “All they’re missing are the costumes to sneak into the Tropicana.”
“She’s sixteen,” Faith shrugged. “Girl just wants to live a little.”
“Yeah, well, I’m more interested in her living long.”
Sitting up, Buffy pulled the package closer, rotating it clockwise in order to read the shipping label. When she saw the absence of a return address, her frown deepened, and she picked it up, turning it over in her hands to look for other clues where it might be from.
“Secret admirer?” Faith asked.
“The way my night’s going, probably a bomb.” Her fingers slid beneath the tape to open it, then hesitated as she brought it up to her and listened. Just in case, she told herself. She even gave it a short shake, but all she heard was a heavy thud of something hitting the sides of the box.
“You can take the Slayer out of the Hellmouth, but you can’t take the paranoid delusions out of the Slayer,” Faith muttered.
Buffy ignored her as she rose and went back into the kitchen. Being paranoid had served her well so far. Besides, she’d only been in Rome for a couple weeks, she’d been too busy shopping in real stores to order anything, and Giles would have given her a heads-up if he was sending her something Council-related. Something about this didn’t set quite right with her.
She had the paper off by the time Faith reappeared in the doorway, leaning against the jamb and watching her with heavy-lidded eyes. The box was just as nondescript as its wrapping, and when she opened it, she frowned at the silver metal gleaming back at her.
“What is it?” Faith asked.
“I don’t know,” Buffy admitted. “It looks like a laptop of some sort.” She pulled it out and set it on the table, flipping it open to reveal a tiny keyboard and screen. As soon as she did, a hard drive inside it came whirring to life, and within seconds, a message flashed across the monitor.
Searching for signal. Please wait.
“Looks like Willow’s sending toys. Tell her next time, I like mine vibrating and bullet-shaped.”
She could really do without Faith’s running commentary, but right now, all of Buffy’s attention was focused on the small screen, wondering what she was supposed to do with it when it finally finished booting. Why hadn’t Willow called to let her know it was coming? For that matter, why hadn’t Giles? And what was on it she was supposed to see? Hopefully, nothing too hard. There were certain things she could do with ease – e-mail, chat rooms, shopping from online catalogs. Anything more and she usually required Dawn at her shoulder, guiding her along.
The message disappeared, to be replaced by another.
Sound came first, muffled voices that sounded tinny coming from the computer’s miniscule speakers. They were interspersed with electronic beeps and metallic clinks, and somewhere in the background, Buffy could have sworn she heard chanting. Before she had the opportunity to focus on what was being said, though, the screen pixellated and brightened with a picture, coming to life to reveal an aerial view of what looked to be an operating room.
“What the…?” Buffy muttered. Sliding off the couch, she got on her knees in front of the table in order to peer more closely at the small screen. It definitely looked like something out of ER, with a bevy of masked and gloved nurses and doctors obscuring a table in the center. The electronic sounds came from the various equipment scattered around the room. There were some shadows near the edge of the screen that she couldn’t quite make out, but otherwise, it looked like any operating room she would see on television, all the way down to the observation ringing the space from above.
It was still hard to discern individual words the medical staff was saying, and Buffy scanned the keyboard, looking for some kind of volume control. Maybe if it was louder, she’d be able to figure it out. Nothing jumped out at her, but when she reverted back to the screen, she noticed a line of camera-shaped icons in the lower left corner.
“They’ve got numbers on them.”
So absorbed in the picture, Buffy hadn’t noticed Faith coming over to sit on the couch until she spoke up. “Thanks,” she said, but when she tried pressing the numbers on the keyboard, nothing happened.
“Try those F keys,” Faith suggested.
That did the trick. While F1 did nothing, F2, F3, and F4 all switched to different angles, each giving a different birds-eye view of the room. The audio changed only minutely with each, adjusting for the new position in the operating room, until she got to F4. Then the operating room sounds disappeared altogether, and her view shifted to an angle more focused on the glass-paneled observation room than on the table. Two men stood behind the glass, looking down into the operating arena, and Buffy’s heart skipped a beat as her gaze settled on the familiar broad shoulders.
“Angel…” she murmured.
“And that’s Wes with him,” Faith said, her voice just as low. “Where the fuck are they?”
Buffy didn’t know. She didn’t have time to say that before Wesley’s careful tones came through the small speakers.
“Have you got any rest at all since they brought him in?”
* * *
Angel’s gaze was unwavering as he watched the Wolfram & Hart doctors do their magic. Well, their medicine anyway. The shamans against the wall were the ones doing the magic. He had heard Wesley enter, but didn’t greet him, knowing the other man would come to his side without any prompting.
“I’ll sleep when it’s over,” Angel replied.
“How much longer?”
“It’s hard to tell. I was told to stop bothering them with questions around noon.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. Even with all the best magic and technology at their disposal, such fine surgery still took an excruciating amount of time. “I wasn’t expecting to see you. Did Andrew catch an earlier flight than we anticipated?”
“Actually, Andrew didn’t catch a flight at all.” Turning away from the window, Wes sat on the corner of a long table as he spoke directly to Angel. In his hand was a plain file folder. “I’m not certain what the Council’s intent is with Dana, but for the time being, they’ve placed her in a private facility here in Los Angeles. Andrew and the other Slayers who were at the distillery are there as well, though not as inpatients. Purely a precautionary measure, it would seem.”
“Find out what you can on it. I want to know where Dana is at all times.”
“Already done.” Wes held out the file for Angel to take, a bemused smile curving his mouth. “Please. Since when do you know me to come unprepared?”
For the first time since finding Dana at the distillery, Angel relaxed enough to chuckle. “I figure one of these days, I’ll catch you out.”
Considering how little time he must have had to pull it together, Wesley’s file on the facility was thick with detail, with several pages of statistics including OSHA reports, personnel details, and tax statements at the top of the sheaf. Angel scanned those quickly, finding nothing unusual enough to make him hesitate, and then flipped back to the more particular account Wes had prepared of the miscellaneous facts that weren’t otherwise documented.
His brows shot up at the first paragraph.
“Buffy went there?” he asked. “When?”
“It was before she moved to Sunnydale,” Wes said. “According to the records, Buffy’s parents admitted her, afraid that she was delusional because she told them she’d seen vampires. She was there for several weeks, actually, before she recanted and the doctors released her back under her parents’ care. I checked the dates. It was right after she was Chosen.”
Wesley’s clarification brought that time period back to Angel in roaring Technicolor. He could still remember seeing Buffy for the first time, remembered how her life and fire had brought fresh meaning to his pitiful existence. But he’d still been a mess then, and with Whistler’s prompting, he’d cleaned himself up, started working out to get back into shape for the fight he knew would be coming. The next time he’d seen Buffy, she was already starting to come into her own as the Slayer. She must have been at the institution in those weeks he was getting his act together.
“I wonder why Buffy would want Dana sent there,” he mused out loud.
“She might not even know.” Rising from his seat, Wes returned to Angel’s side and took the file from his hands, thumbing through several color-coded sheets before settling on a pale yellow page and handing it back. “The connection between the Council and the Watts Institute is hidden quite cleverly. It took us quite a bit of digging to trace it all the way back. And the Council has never taken a particularly active role in its administration. They only acquired it in the late sixties when a Slayer overdosed on hallucinogens and they needed somewhere they could control to treat her in accordance with the courts’ demands.”
Angel frowned. “Since when does the Council care about human laws?”
“They don’t,” Wesley agreed, “except when a powerful political figure’s son is killed by a drugged Slayer.” His eyes were solemn. “A political figure with a coterie of Wolfram & Hart attorneys at his beck and call. The Watts Institute saved the Slayer’s life.”
“Until a demon took it away from her,” Angel muttered. Closing the folder, he tossed it onto the table to finish looking at later. His head ached with everything that had happened ever since the whole Dana debacle had started, and it didn’t help that he was feeling more than a little guilty about how it had turned out. Common sense told him that they’d done everything they could, but seeing what Dana had done…
His mouth was grim as he turned back to the window. The doctors had shifted a little bit to allow the shamans room to approach the operating table, but it meant Angel could now see the angry sutures stitching Spike’s forearms back to his body. He supposed it was better than seeing them unattached and lying twenty feet away from Spike’s body, but only mildly.
“Fred assures me they got Spike here in plenty of time,” Wes said softly at Angel’s side. “And Dana’s cuts were clean. With the proper therapy, he’ll regain full feeling and motor control within days.”
“Which means he’s going to be underfoot even more than usual.” Angel sighed. “This day just keeps getting better and better.”
* * *
From the moment the doctors moved away from the operating table to expose their patient, Buffy hadn’t blinked. It had to be faked. There was no way what she was seeing could be real. He was dead. She had been there herself, waiting outside the sinkhole for hours to check for survivors. He had never come out.
She stopped breathing when Wesley said his name.
“Well, shit,” Faith muttered.
It was a sick joke, Buffy decided. That was all. Somewhere, somehow, she’d picked up a new enemy who thought he could get to her by making it look like Spike was alive. It was impressive, yes, but someone hadn’t done their homework. There was no way Angel would ever feel guilty about something bad happening to Spike.
“Dana. That was the psycho Slayer you and Giles sent Andrew after, right?”
Buffy nodded, jabbing at the function keys on the computer to see if the surgeon’s words were any clearer. Her finger hesitated when a different angle put Spike’s upper body in the larger part of the frame, and her stomach twisted as she drank in the dark shadows of his sunken cheeks, the way his lashes looked so stark against his pale skin. How many times had she watched him sleep that last year? He looked exactly the same. And in spite of how crazy the possibility seemed, everything about the figure on the table screamed Spike.
She switched the view back to the one that gave her Angel’s audio.
“…least she took his coat off when she did it,” he was saying. “He’s going to be pissed enough once the pain medication wears off. If I had to explain to him that that stupid coat was ruined, too…”
Buffy had chuckled at how true Angel’s statement was before she realized what she was doing. Without looking, she grabbed her purse and dug out her phone, hitting the first number in her speed dial.
“What’re you doing?” Faith asked.
“Finding out if any of this is even possible,” came the terse reply. “Giles? I need to talk to Andrew. Now.”
* * *
Lindsey leaned against the railing, staring out at the pink and violet horizon as the longneck bottle hung forgotten from his fingers. The sun would be setting soon, but tonight, LA would be minus both of its so-called champions. One would be in post-op, fighting through the haze of drugs that Lindsey recognized all too well, and the other would likely be at his desk, fighting through the stack of paperwork created by last night’s debacle. None of it had turned out as he’d planned. Tomorrow, he was going to have to regroup and figure out how to make this work to his advantage anyway.
The click of his apartment door filtered from behind him, but Lindsey didn’t move as Eve navigated through the rooms to join him on the balcony. Her arms wrapped around his waist, and she molded over his back to rest her pointy chin on his shoulder.
“I don’t think I’ve got enough pennies for these thoughts,” she teased softly. “You’re not still thinking about what happened last night, are you?”
Sometimes, he really hated how glib she could be about his plans, especially when they went straight to hell. “Any word on Spike?”
“Back in mostly one piece.”
Eve sighed. Her breath was oddly cool along his ear. “Locked himself in observation to watch the surgery. I didn’t risk going in to talk to him directly. He’s still a little touchy about the whole Selminth deal.”
With a sigh, Lindsey closed his eyes and bowed his head, trying to stave off the headache that was already taking residence inside his skull. That was another idea that had backfired on them, all because Eve hadn’t remembered to switch out her earrings. Sometimes, he didn’t get how a girl so smart could make such simple mistakes. If she’d been one of his interns when he’d still been employed at Wolfram & Hart, he would have recommended her for dismissal without batting an eye. Actually caring what happened to her was making this a lot harder than it had to be.
The weight against his back disappeared, and her heeled footsteps echoed as she went back inside. “I’ve been thinking about our next move,” she called out. “Did you know that the Council didn’t take that Slayer back to England?”
Her tidbit drew him from his dour thoughts. “What did they do with her?” he said, twisting against the rail to watch Eve get undressed.
“Well, somebody with a brain decided transporting a psychotic Slayer thousands of miles by air wasn’t necessarily the brightest idea. So they’ve put her in a Council-controlled asylum here in town until they’ve got her under better control.” Her eyes were bright as she shot him a look over her shoulder. “Complete with a couple dozen Slayer bodyguards.”
Lindsey jerked straight. This was the glimmer he’d been looking for ever since hearing Angel had lost Dana and he’d nearly lost his best means to get under Angel’s skin. Taking a long swig of his now-warm beer, his mind raced as he juggled the new pieces into his bigger picture, his headache receding as answers presented themselves. They weren’t his first choice, and they weren’t as elegant as the others he’d had, but they would work which was the important thing at this point.v
Eve appeared in the doorway, half-dressed in her bra and skirt. “Well?” she asked with that conniving smile that had first convinced Lindsey he could do this. “Do I get a prize for cheering you up?”
Setting down his bottle, he matched her grin and prowled closer. Though she laughed with delight when he yanked her against him, Lindsey’s thoughts were elsewhere than on the wriggling body in his arms. Maybe Eve didn’t have to worry about the Senior Partners, but he couldn’t afford to forget about them for a second. Lives depended on his head being clear.
Most importantly, his.