Buffy's been to some pretty horrible places in her time. Hell dimensions, mostly, plus, you know, Cleveland. So admittedly she might be a little jaded; she'll cop to that. But she was totally expecting New Jersey to take the cake, with what she'd been hearing and the way the girls at Headquarters crack on Stephanie all the time.
When they get off the Turnpike and they're driving north along 34, first she's grumpy, mostly because Fred has stopped letting her just shrug her off, mumble something about doing it later, and try to find another comfortable position to sleep in, or at least a slightly less uncomfortable one, and keeps talking about how she wants to make sure they make a good impression and it's kind of their duty and right, that's not gonna make her more nervous at all.
Then, after the waking-up crankiness, she's actually kind of disappointed.
"Huh," she says, as she looks out the window and gets a good look around for the first time.
"Is something wrong?" Fred asks her.
"No." Buffy feels her face wrinkling a little. "Just, you know, New Jersey." She looks back at Fred, frowning, and then out the window again. The trees are bare and there's unmelted snow blue in the shadows, but it's certainly no worse than Ohio in the middle of winter. Frankly, in the summer, it could actually be pretty here. "I mean, from the stories I've heard, I was expecting rivers of toxic sludge, or a flock of dragons or something. Is 'flock' right? What do you call a group of dragons?"
"Well," Fred says, "I think they generally don't spend enough time in groups without killing each other for that to be a big issue, but I heard it's technically a clan?"
"I'm learning all kinds of new things!" Buffy pulls on the handle, lets her seat back spring up and flops back against it. "I guess I should start figuring out what I'm gonna say, huh?"
"Well, yeah, that was kind of my point." Fred's grinning too big for this to be much of an imposition, though. It's kind of adorable.
"Okay, bossy," Buffy says, and grins back. "As it were," she adds, as she leans over. There's one of those flimsy plastic bags they put stuff in at her feet, stamped with the Exxon logo, and she rummages through it until she finds the Milky Way she bought at the last gas station, and the half-drunk bottle of soda. "I don't know why you didn't let me drive at all. And we could've flown, anyway. I mean, I guess this is more -- " she waves her hand and nearly whacks her with the candy bar while she's drinking, trying to stave off the sleepiness that sets in due to a combination of the driving, the sunshine through the window, and the heat they've got warming the car further. "Appropriate, or whatever, the whole road trip thing, but seriously."
"Well, we're supposed to be conserving our resources and all, and setting a good example, so I guess Mr. Giles had a point about not flying. And," she adds, darting a look over at Buffy, "Mr. Giles kind of warned me about putting you behind the wheel of a car."
"Okay, first of all, you can just call him Giles, I keep telling you, and second of all, what? What did he say?"
"Um," Fred begins, and settles a little further down into her seat. "Nothing."
"Well, I mean, there might have been something about it not being that cost-effective if we racked up a bunch of tickets, but I didn't hear it very well." It all comes out in one explosive breath, like if she says it really fast maybe it'll be like she didn't say it at all. "Anyway, I like driving, it's soothing. It's nice to be, you know, existing again."
She hardly ever mentions it, and Buffy doesn't pursue it, has learned better than to do that because Fred will talk about it when she wants to talk about it. "Whatever," she says, and opens up the armrest between them, the one that served as a CD case as well. She grins as she pulled one out and looked at the black-and-white photo on its cover. "I think you're just going all fangirl on me." She's been extra-bouncy even for Fred since less than an hour out, when she saw a sign for Youngstown and made some comment and then got all shocked when Buffy didn't know what she was talking about, and made them stop at Best Buy "so that we won't look completely ridiculous", and started lamenting how if she'd known Buffy's education had been so sorely lacking, they would've stopped by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before they left. Buffy figured it was just best to go with it; she knows better than to try and talk Fred down from anything by now.
She pops the CD in and takes another drink as she feels the sun on her face. "Seriously, though," she says, looking out at the trees that flash past now that they're off the highway, "I am majorly disappointed by the lack of wasteland."
"We'll stop by the Tourism Board on the way back to Ohio and register a complaint," Fred says, and Buffy grins and turns up the music as she tries to figure out what the heck she's going to say.
They stare at the door for about thirty seconds before Buffy finally turns and stares at Fred instead. "Well?" she asks.
"Well what?" Fred just makes that owlish little blinky face at her. "Go ahead."
"I'm not gonna do it!" Buffy protests. "You knock. And hurry up, I'm cold."
"Well," Fred says, "I'm technically a Watcher, which is supposed to mean I can order Slayers to do things, right? So I, um, order you to do it. So there," she adds, when Buffy just looks at her.
"Okay, first of all," Buffy says, "we took a vote, and I'm in charge, so if anyone's giving the orders it's supposed to be me, right?" she asks. "I mean, not to pull rank or anything."
"Of course not," Fred muttered, rolling her eyes.
"Second of all, you're the Watcher! This is your whole gig, not mine, you do it."
"Well," Fred says, "I mean, if you are the leader, then it might make a better impression if you're the one to do it. You know, being all leader-like? They probably wouldn't take me as seriously."
"What, because you're tiny and a girl?" Buffy asks. "Yeah, I'm sure glad I won't have that problem or anything. Oh, fine," she huffs, and at the last second manages to stop herself from banging so hard on the door -- what, she was just irritated, even Fred can get irritating sometimes, that's not so hard to believe; it's not like she's nervous or anything -- that she breaks it down or something. She knocks very carefully, manages to keep it to a gentle rap and everything. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" she asks, and then pauses. "It wasn't, right? Not too bad-cop, 'I'm gonna break your door down if you don't come out'? But not too gentle, either? I mean, what if they don't think I'm a good leader or something? Maybe I should've been more forceful. Oh, God -- "
And then the door opened, and Bruce freaking Springsteen was right there in front of them.
"Um," Buffy says, and forgets the totally brilliant speech she worked out in the twenty minutes or so since Fred woke her up. How's she supposed to explain this? He's not supposed to be here! It's just supposed to be his wife, who Buffy's talked to on the phone and who gets it. She said he wouldn't be here. "Hi," she manages, and feels like her face is maybe making a smile? It hurts a lot, though. "We were supposed to see, um -- is, is your wife home?" she asks.
But instead of laughing in her face or calling the cops or something, Bruce freaking Springsteen just throws the door open more widely and beams at them. "She told me you were coming!" he says happily. What the heck he's so happy about, she doesn't know, he just seems really really excited. Sort of like Fred, except she's more nervous and he's more just really happy. "You're from the Council, right?"
Buffy and Fred look at each other, and finally Buffy nods. "Uh, yeah," she says. "I mean, it was kind of supposed to be a -- she told you?" she asks. "Told you all of it?"
"Yeah, it's a great story." He laughs like he's remembering something, and shakes his head. "Great story. Come on in! You want something? I got cookies and beer, you want some beers? How was traffic getting here, you take I-95?"
He's way too cheerful for Buffy to deal with, and she figures she's done her part for the time being, and anyway, Fred was being way too speechless, so she grabbed her by the wrist and hauled her along, and was really glad when she picked up on what she was trying to get across there. "Um -- yeah, the Turnpike to 195," Fred manages, as they follow him.
And then they come into the living room and Fred comes to a dead stop, and okay, admittedly, so does Buffy. Because there's a huge group of people all sitting there, holding drinks and going over the three freaking plates of cookies, including one of sugar cookies that seem to have been cut into stake shapes, she doesn't even want to know, and generally chatting and laughing and making it feel more like they're crashing Bruce Springsteen's party instead of coming to talk serious Slayer biz with his wife. Who is sitting there laughing next to a blonde woman, with an empty spot next to her that Buffy figures was probably Bruce's, and -- "is that the guy from Sopranos?" she hisses to Fred. She knew from watching Conan that Max was in the band (is that what this is? is this the freaking band?), but he wasn't supposed to be here, not now, and she was totally not expecting Silvio freaking Dante.
Fred doesn't answer, and her eyes are all big and she has basically just stopped where she's standing and is staring at the entire group with her eyes bigger than Buffy's ever seen them. Which is saying something, because Fred's eyes are really big. She manages to squeak a little, and Buffy has just enough time to think Great, they broke Fred, before Patti notices them and smiles really big and gets up from the couch.
"This is Buffy," Bruce says, holding his arms out and gesturing at them really big. He's still got that big smile on his face; it would be adorable if she weren't so busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on. "And...shit, I'm sorry, what was your name?" he asks, looking over at them again.
"This is Fred," Buffy says quickly, because Fred will kill her if she just lets her stand there gaping at them.
"Fred," he says, and grins. "Great to meet you." He's probably used to the whole gaping-fan thing, which is nice and means he doesn't say anything, but it's still leaving Buffy kind of in the lurch, and did they not make it clear to Patti that this was supposed to be a secret thing? Because Conan's bandleader, the guy from friggin' Sopranos, and one of the top-selling recording artists of all time does not seem very discreet to Buffy. "Right, Buffy, Fred, this is -- "
"Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Clarence Clemons, Steven Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, and Soozie Tyrell," Fred says in a rush, so that it's really more all one word than any actual sense-making sentence. Then she manages to smile a little, although she's looking really pale as she does. "Um, hi."
"Okay," Buffy says quietly, as Patti hurries through the group and joins them, "you're gonna have to repeat that for me later. Maybe we can make flash cards." Fortunately, Patti reaches them and puts an arm around each of their shoulders, hustles them away from Bruce and back the way they came.
"You just seemed a little overwhelmed there," she says. "I'm guessing he didn't warn you or anything," she says, a little more loudly, looking back towards the group and the very confused-looking Bruce. "They didn't give me your number, or I would've called you."
"My cell phone died a few weeks ago and, um, who are all those people?" Buffy asks as they head into the kitchen. It's quieter in here, although she can hear conversation starting up again back in the living room. "Because -- I mean, no offense, it's just -- how much did you find out about the gig before all of this happened?" she asks. What she really wants to say is 'this is supposed to be a secret', but even she's feeling a little shy right now. Also, no Mom-aged woman should be allowed to look that good. Buffy's not even gay (mostly, kind of, technically she's bi after all), but she's kind of jealous of Bruce.
"Yeah -- you want some water, sweetie?" she asks, in a total Mom voice, looking at Fred, whose eyes are still enormous and who, from what Buffy can tell, is maybe a little in shock? Oh, that's just what they need, for the Watcher to need watching, because Buffy actually doesn't know who's supposed to do that.
Fred nods a little, and Patti grabs a glass and a Brita pitcher from the fridge. When she presses it into Fred's hand, she downs it all without taking a breath, and then blinks again, looking up at Buffy and Patti. "That was the E Street Band," she says.
"Oh," Buffy says, because she didn't know that's what they were called. That also answers her question of who all those people were. They both look at her, and she shrugs. "What? No offense or anything. She's just the bigger fan than I am. Fred," she says again, carefully taking the glass out of her hand. "You doing better?"
Fred gives something that might be a laugh or might be a whimper. "I have to explain obscure prophecies to the E Street Band," she manages.
"Come on," Buffy says, and puts an arm around her shoulders as Patti waves them towards the doorway. "You'll do great."
Which she does, of course, once they get going. Fred just sits there at first, but then Bruce keeps trying to force cookies on her and finally she takes one and that, somehow, helps her. Buffy sort of understands; even in their line of work, it's hard to be too scared of someone after they've spent several minutes trying to force cookies onto you.
"So, if I can ask," Buffy says finally, because this is where she's a little embarrassed -- seriously, more people in the fight is never a bad thing, it's just that -- "why the group? I mean, not that we're not always grateful for more people, but -- don't you guys have other stuff to be doing? Concerts, for instance?" And she thought she'd heard somewhere that at least some of them have kids. You'd think that might be a concern here.
But they explain it to her, so that she gets quiet, humbled, because the Council needs Patti. She was part of some bastard line, her family, they slipped out of the Council's books and never got called up, but she knows enough to know the stories, "all those poor girls," like she said to Buffy on the phone. And the rest of them, apparently, know a little, have picked up some stuff over the years -- "remember that nest of vampires in St. Louis back in '84?" and they all laugh -- but mostly they just decided that they aren't gonna let her go without them. Her husband isn't, certainly, and she's not even gonna try the secret identity thing with the rest of them, and he made them freaking cookies, and it's too much for Buffy, for a few seconds there.
She's not the only one, because suddenly Fred is up and moving, saying something about how she thinks she needs more water even though her glass is still half-full. "I'm fine," she calls over her shoulder, when Bruce starts to get up, and Buffy smiles at them all, or tries, and then bolts after Fred, grabbing a couple of cookies on the way. Cookies fix everything, right?
"Hey," she says -- Fred is messing with the pitcher, topping off her water and studying the glass and adding a little more after that, and she gasps when Buffy speaks, slops the water over the edge of the glass and lets out a low cry at that instead, scrabbling for paper towels. Buffy grabs a couple and starts wiping instead, just tells Fred, "Sorry, you work on filling up."
And then she's got nothing, realizes she had absolutely no idea what she was going to say, how she was going to start this conversation. But silence and Buffy are not well-known to each other, so she forges onward. "Well, rock stars-slash-evil-fighters, I mean, it's a little Josie and the Pussycats -- "
Fred gives her a little smile, but she's focused on her glass, on reaching some perfect mark that only she can see, and Buffy tosses the paper towels, can't take it anymore. "Fred?" she asks.
"I'm fine," Fred tells her.
Okay, it's always been clear which one of them is the brains of the operation, but come on. "Right, 'cuz this doesn't contains shades of freakout at all."
Silence, again, and Buffy has some idea what this is about. It probably has something to do with the fact that even when she was muttering more to herself than to everyone else, those first few days after she appeared in the parking lot in Cleveland, she could still get it together enough to say "No, don't call LA."
(That and "You were always there, Buffy," and mostly, at the time, she thought that maybe the fact that she cared about this more in terms of the pressure it put on her with Fred than what it meant for her and Angel meant that it really was over. Only later, like a few days before the trip, did she start to think that maybe it meant something else.)
"It's real nice," Fred says finally. "That they care so much about each other." And then, whispering, but with an edge to her voice that makes it more than her thinking-aloud-style mutterings, an edge that tells Buffy this is meant to be heard, if only by her -- "That they wouldn't give each other up."
"Yeah," Buffy says. She puts a hand on Fred's back, and when Fred finally looks over at her, Buffy kisses her.
"I'm sorry," she says softly, when she breaks it off, although not by much because her lips are brushing against Fred's even as she says it. Fred seemed to be getting into it, just enough that she was kissing back, a little, but all of a sudden Buffy feels even more awful about the whole thing, because oh my God, what if Fred thinks she's trying to blackmail her or something? "I just -- I've wanted to for awhile, I kind of figured out, and you seemed so sad, and -- there was a logical sequence of thoughts somewhere in there, I think." She's let Fred go by now, isn't sure what to do with her hands, so she picks up the pitcher and heads for the fridge instead, since Fred hasn't moved for it again. "Sorry," she says again, and then -- "And you know -- I mean, if you ever want to talk -- "
"I know." But Fred's smiling now, shaky and small and Buffy somehow figures she should ignore that little sniff she gives before she picks up her glass and puts her free hand in Buffy's, kisses it and then lets Buffy guide her back out to where, oh right, Bruce freaking Springsteen is sitting.
And from there, it's actually pretty smooth sailing. Somewhere along the line all their Big Plans kind of devolve into a lot of stupid stories about weird vampire kills, and when Buffy mentions the musical incident a couple of the guys get this terrifying light in their eyes. But later Patti and Soozie start talking about finding cute-yet-supportive-and-also-comfy boots, and Patti recommends this place in New York that they are totally gonna have to check out, and then they mention this amazing-sounding spa besides, and Bruce keeps shoving more cookies at her, and Buffy decides somewhere along the line that she can't decide whether she wants these guys to be her new best friends/evil-fighting team or her new parents.
When she looks up, Fred is very seriously discussing rhythms and patterns and fractals and a bunch of other weird math-genius talk with Max, who looks like he might be bored, except that Buffy has watched enough TV that even she knows that's just what Max Weinberg does, so maybe he's not bored after all. He's nodding along, at least, which is good, because Buffy feels weirdly protective of Fred.
Or maybe, she thinks, when they're finally allowed to leave, it's not so weird. It's gotten dark and the cold's set in and they're both yawning on the way to the hotel -- they had to insist about twelve times each that no, really, it's not that far a drive, they don't need to crash here, they'll be fine -- and on the way into the room Fred reaches out, takes Buffy's hand in hers, and they walk like that up to their room. It's a double, two beds, and Buffy's ready first, curls up in one of them while Fred is still brushing her teeth. Which is kind of the coward's way out, but fine, sometimes there are things that scare even Buffy Summers.
Then Fred hovers at the edge of the bed for a second, and when Buffy rolls over and scootches, trying to be all stealthy about it, she thinks she can hear Fred smiling. She sits down, and turns off the light, and yeah, maybe that whole protectiveness thing isn't so weird at all.
The next day it's mostly just more meetings, some conference calls with Headquarters back in Cleveland. They want to spread them out, eventually, have them all working different offices, and Patti and Bruce will be the first stopover for new girls, can look into real estate nearby to put them up in. She and Fred spend the day next to each other on the couch.
At one point, Bruce asks if they're -- and then gets a whack from his wife, who's laughing even as she demands to know what's wrong with him, what the hell kind of question is that for their guests, and technically their bosses, anyway. It weirds Buffy out a little, when Fred puts a hand on her knee and Buffy realizes that just like that, the answer is yes, no ages of back and forth or anything.
The sunshine's been gone since they got here, clouds have rolled in like a blanket, the sun and moon just pearls of light behind them. There's a smell in the air that those of them not from the deep South or SoCal swear is snow, and Buffy privately thinks this is a bunch of crap, because no one can freaking smell snow, but she doesn't say anything because really, like she's gonna argue with the freaking E Street Band? Right.
It's a little heartgrabby, kind of, because there's still -- there's all of them, and okay, Buffy's got Will and Xander and Giles and Dawn, but there were others, and now they're all halfway around the world most of the time, and the idea of marrying one of them? Please. She's wondered, more than once since they changed the world, what will have become of them all in four years, assumed that this is somehow untenable from the beginning -- because it's too good to be true, really -- but the idea of forty...
And there's Fred, in the evening, and that night Buffy notices the angles of her body a little more than the smooth lines, and somehow she feels like Fred's getting a little of the same.
Which turns out to be not a bad guess at all. The third day, they get a phone call checking on them before they leave, like they're already part of something together here. Buffy makes the mistake of mentioning that they need to get food before they start driving, because she's not spending the entire trip on gas station food again. The next thing they know, they're being dragged to this ridiculous huge grocery store, and the entire band seems to be there under heavy protest, and Patti and Steve are trying to wrestle Bruce away from the cheese counter. Somewhere in between eyeing beers and poking the fruit Buffy realizes that she's lost Fred.
She finds her at the cafe; she's bought a pack of notebook paper and already surrounded herself at the table with sheets of it, scribbles all over it. When Buffy gets close enough, she realizes she's alternating between humming something, the same tune over and over, and muttering to herself.
"Hey," Buffy says, and sits down next to her. She doesn't take both of her hands, but she takes one, the one she's not writing with, the one that's just holding the papers down while she scribbles on them. "Hey, Fred, you okay there?"
Fred gives a little shake of her head, mumbles something that's pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of what she's mumbling to herself about, mostly "some unpronounceable name's principle" and "Joe what's his face's theory of whatever" and why she has to account for them.
"Hey," Buffy says again, and puts a hand on the back of Fred's neck. She wants to grab hold of her and pull her towards her, and every instinct in her is screaming for her to do it, but sometimes Buffy is actually able to recognize when brute force is not called for and this is definitely one of those times. So she just puts a hand on the back of her neck and rests it there, and it feels like light enough that Fred will be able to shrug her off if she wants to. "Fred, it's okay."
"She all right?" Bruce asks, and Buffy jumps up, startled, because last she saw everyone was trying to get him away from the pears. Now that she's up, she moves quickly, puts herself between him and Fred, blocking his view of her.
"Fine," she says, because if Fred realizes Buffy let any of these guys see her freaking out, she'll totally kill her in her sleep. "She's just not feeling so hot."
"Two objects can't occupy the same space," Fred finally says. It's the clearest thing she's said yet, and Buffy turns away to look at her again. "You can't fit that engine into a '69 Chevy, Mr. Springsteen; I'm sorry, but the song is wrong." Then her eyes are back on Buffy, big and made bigger by her glasses. "I've tried to find a way around it, Buffy, but there isn't one. It's basic physics, but I'm -- and she's -- it doesn't make sense." Her voice drops again on that, and that glazed look returns to her face. Buffy gives another look at Bruce but can't keep it up anymore, trying to get him to take a hint; she kneels next to Fred and catches her face in her hands before she can turn away.
"A lot of stuff doesn't make sense," she says. "It doesn't have to, okay?"
"Yes," Fred says. "It does."
"Okay," Buffy tries again. "Okay. Then maybe you just don't know the rules yet."
That seems to sink in, and Fred is silent for a second or two, she's even still. Then, with the pen still in her hand, she reaches out and smoothes Buffy's hair down, blinks at her. "He told me about you," she whispers.
"Angel," Buffy says, even though no one needed to say it.
"And the rest of them," Fred adds. "Well, except for Charles, obviously -- but they told me about you, all of them. They said you don't do a whole lot with the rules."
"Well, it's not like I've got some kind of vendetta or something," Buffy says in her own defense. "I mean, okay, maybe I burned down and/or blew up multiple buildings while I was in high school, but -- "
Fred laughs, and Buffy isn't sure where she was going with that but it doesn't matter, really, what matters is that she's okay. She's here. She's laughing, even. "We're all making this up as we go along," she says, and Fred leans down and rests her forehead against Buffy's, right there in the middle of a grocery store in freaking New Jersey -- Buffy can't decide if it's weirder than their first kiss being in Bruce Springsteen's kitchen or not, but it's right up there.
It's Fred who's strong enough to break the touch first, straightening up, and she even looks over to where Bruce is still standing, looking at them both with concern sweetly obvious on his face. "I kind of didn't exist for awhile," she explains, while Buffy helps her gather the papers up, and Fred tucks them, carefully, into her bag. He approaches them slowly, and like clockwork, suddenly, they're joined by everyone else. It's kind of impressive.
"You girls sure you don't wanna stick around another day or so?" Patti asks, putting an arm around her husband's waist just as Buffy feels Fred's fingers curl up in her own. "We'd be happy to -- "
"Okay," Buffy says, and squeezes Fred's hand. Looks at her for a second and smiles before turning back to them. "Not like it's any warmer in Cleveland, after all."
They finally get outside, and okay, it's not warm -- it's not even sunny -- but there's snow starting to come down, just a flurry. There are flakes in Fred's hair and on her jacket, and even the parking lot, right now, is the prettiest thing in the world spread out around her.