They passed through the Hyperion, entering and leaving her own quarters without touching stairs or an elevator, despite the suite being located on the fourth floor. Next it was her old apartment in New York, then Rome. The wolf didn't look back as it bounded into an unfamiliar wood, and Buffy didn't hesitate to follow, even when the forest opened up into an airport and fireworks exploded overhead.
In another few strides, they were inside the Sunnydale High library. Faith and Spike were sitting at the table, looking through a leather-bound tome together and laughing peaceably. The wolf finally came to a halt and turned around to face Buffy, and she saw its eyes for the first time, solid blood red.
Faith looked up from the book and said to Buffy, "Toxoplasma," and Spike nodded and agreed, "Toxoplasma."
The library was suddenly filled with people - all strangers, she thought, until a short man browsing the stacks turned around and grinned at her. The wolf raised its muzzle to the sky, making Buffy aware that there was no ceiling. As a deafening howl filled the air, she looked up at the moon and saw it change from a crescent to a perfect circle.
Everyone in the room except for Spike and Faith began to transform, fur sprouting, ears turning pointed, voices joining the first wolf's howl. Buffy looked at her own hands, but before she could determine if it was happening to her too, the room began to shimmer, catch fire, and cave in.
Buffy felt no fear. She had known already that she was standing on the mouth of Hell.
Angel listened attentively, his gaze going back and forth between Buffy and the pot he had simmering on the stove. "Toxoplasma?" he asked.
She nodded. "I wrote it down as soon as I woke up, and then googled until I got the spelling right. It's a real word."
"Yeah. A disease, isn't it?"
"I should have skipped Google and just asked you," she said, smiling. "That smells amazing. When can I drink it?"
Angel poured the cocoa into a porcelain mug and set it in front of her, but before she could take a sip, edged it back away and requested, "Wait, one more thing."
She stayed perched on her stool at the breakfast bar, watching him retrieve what he wanted from the refrigerator. "Ooh, whipped cream! Wait, why do you even own that?"
"There are things to put it on aside from food," Angel said casually as he inverted the can over her cup and released a puffy white stream. He let her gape at him for a second, then said, "I'm kidding. I picked it up for you along with the hot chocolate."
"Sweet of you." She stirred until the whipped cream dissolved, a full moon sinking into a cloudy sky. When Angel had teased her about drinking hot chocolate in the middle of the Los Angeles summer, she pointed out that he drank his tea just as hot, and that any opportunity for chocolate was a good one. It was in his cupboard the very next time she came over. "Anyway, I'm not sure how this toxoplasma thing is going to be relevant. I gave it to Giles to research, but I don't think we need to sit on our hands until we hear from him."
"No," he agreed. "What else did you get out of that dream? Werewolves, Hellmouth, Faith and Spike, makes me think-"
"Cleveland," Buffy supplied at the same time he said it himself. It wasn't any great surprise. Over the past few years, the Cleveland Hellmouth had been practically docile in comparison with the Sunnydale one, but it was still a likely source for supernatural trouble brewing. "According to their local news, they've had a streak of mysterious deaths lately, so all we need now is a fortune cookie telling us to hop on the next flight to Ohio."
Angel hesitated. He had been enjoying the nostalgia of the moment: sitting with Buffy in his home, talking about her dreams, helping her figure out where her destiny would take her next. When they had first met, and even before that, he had never been able to get enough of her, leaving him in perpetual fear of the temptation to overstep his bounds. He wasn't so paranoid now, but they were finally together again, and he just wanted to sit and listen to her and look and smell while she simply was. As far as he cared she could just talk forever, as long as she was talking while in a good mood and sitting in his kitchen.
Instead, he had to ask the question that might shatter the peace: "Us?"
Buffy dabbed a napkin to her lips, cleared her throat, and said, "Full disclosure: I'm a little nervous about this."
That was an unusual thing to hear from her. "Because of your dream?" he asked. "I know it's been awhile since you had one, but that doesn't mean the enemy at work here is any tougher than usual."
"Huh? Oh geez, no," she laughed. "I'm not nervous about that." She took a deep breath. "Angel, would you like to go out with me?"
Caught off guard, he laughed along with her. "What?" The terminology hadn't quite been settled yet, but as far as he understood it, he and Buffy were already "going out".
After they had both moved back to Los Angeles, him in a modern one-bedroom apartment, her with her Slayers in the Hyperion, they had each received a message from Connor that tricked them into seeing each other and talking out their issues. His plan had worked, inasmuch as they were now relaxed enough to spend time together without dancing around the fact that they had never fallen out of love. They hadn't yet come up with a solution for Angel's standing ban on intimacy, but they had also decided that they didn't yet need one.
Being together again felt reckless, but he had expected that. It was the joy that surprised him. Not once since they had made the decision had he lamented his suppressed desire for her; not once had she complained about the limitations they had imposed on themselves.
"It just seems like this is a good opportunity for some quality time," said Buffy. "And, sorry I don't have anywhere better than Cleveland to take you, but we always had more fun on the slaying dates than the dinner-and-movie kind anyway, didn't we?"
Angel reached across the kitchen bar to thread his fingers through hers. "I like any kind of date with you." His past few years, with neither Buffy nor his team from LA to fight alongside, had been a low point in his life even by his standards. Whatever Buffy had in mind would be a vast improvement.
She smiled uncertainly and squeezed his hand. "I want to find a way to make this last."
"Me too," he replied. "But if it doesn't last, it will still be worth it." He let go of her hand and sat back. "Now who do you propose we get to cover us here while we're in Cleveland?"
Robin turned the key and got a satisfying click before the door swung open. The Hyperion was from an era when hotels in Los Angeles gave their guests real keys instead of cards, and he appreciated that Buffy and Angel had kept it that way. He wasn't overly enamored of the old-fashioned, but he did like the style here.
"Think this will do?" asked Buffy, hovering in the doorway.
He turned in a full circle, taking in the suite she had chosen for him. It was furnished in keeping with the Hyperion's grandiose origins, but decorated neutrally, as a commercial hotel room would have been. He didn't think anyone had been staying in it lately. "It will do just fine," he answered. "Anyway, I'm right down the street if I need anything from home."
Buffy nodded as they stepped deeper into the suite. "Cool. Well, we'll let you know when we have a better idea of how long we'll need you to stay here. The most important thing is that the Slayers know that you're around and that they can come to you with whatever problems come up. Unless they're woman problems, and they usually just talk to each other about those."
"Kate may stop in sometimes too. She's good with the younger girls."
Buffy seemed pleased. "Oh yeah? Does she want a room of her own?"
Robin had to laugh. "I hope not." It had taken him long enough to convince Kate to move into his own base of operations, a Slayer training facility where he lived and sometimes hosted allies, though the building was more suited to workout and strategy sessions. Buffy knew that he and Kate were involved, and that both were reluctant, for their own reasons, to let Slayer business absorb their lives too deeply, but she still took every opportunity to encourage them to spend more time at the Hyperion.
He couldn't really blame her. She was working toward a cohesive center to the Slayers' organization, and eventually that would mean merging Robin's program with her own. But he had been holding it down independently for years now, while she was living abroad and then in New York, and he wasn't sure he was ready to yield his position yet.
"What about Bethany?" Buffy asked. "We like Bethany. And there are so many girls her age here."
"Honestly, I think that's what keeps her away. She's not a Slayer. She'd feel left out." He liked Bethany, too. After the Battle of Los Angeles, she had searched for him on her own and found him, with no other objective than allying herself with someone who could help her use her telekinetic powers for a good purpose. She hadn't revealed everything about her past, but she trusted Angel and seemed to spend a lot of time on the phone with his son, and had easily warmed to Buffy by extension.
Buffy hesitated, then dipped her head in acquiescence. "Well, anyway. Thanks for Slayer-sitting. And for finding the guy with the plane. I'm meeting him in an hour, so my road ought to get hit."
Robin had been flipping the key around in his fingers; now he pocketed it and began thinking about what kind of clothing and necessities he would need to collect from home. He wondered if Buffy enjoyed this part of her job, or if she had grown tired of relocating, like he had after years of hunting Spike and looking for a purpose. "You sure you don't want to just send someone else to Cleveland?" he asked. "I know you've got an affinity for anything involving a Hellmouth and a bunch of mysterious deaths, but all these Slayers aren't just for show."
"Mmhm," Buffy agreed. "They can take on any other mission, but this one had a dreamtag. I'm the one that's gotta be there."
"If the original Slayer is the one who has to take on this mission, why isn't she here?" Lorne complained.
Angel took a seat on the teal, retro-modern couch. Lorne hadn't invited him to sit, but for that matter, Lorne hadn't exactly invited him in, either. Since this chic little apartment was technically a demon's lair, there was no barrier against vampires. Angel wished he could believe that that suited Lorne just as well, but the tension that had risen between them before the Battle of Los Angeles had never really dissipated. "I didn't think you would want me bringing anyone else to see you," he replied.
"I'm the Host, remember? I host. Buffy has manners. Buffy is a glimmering star of righteousness. Buffy," he went on, beginning to sound heated, "has never once sent me to do her soul-crushing dirty work and then waste away in obscurity. Next time you need something for Buffy's sake, you can send her straight to me, because Buffy is always welcome here."
There had been a time that Angel would have argued him down. Now he just sighed and asked, "So you're not gonna let me sing?"
Lorne went across the room to his wet bar and began mixing a drink for himself, leaving Angel to marvel that he had found an apartment with the setup for a wet bar, and that he still wasn't tired of Sea Breezes. "You can sing," the demon informed him between clinks and splashes, "but not from your playlist of desperation. You know what you're hearing now?"
"I've heard it before," Angel admitted. He leaned over to peek at the record player, but didn't see a name on the album that was spinning on it.
"Then sing along."
Angel groaned. "Seriously? Okay, uh...'A-hooooooooo, wer-"
Lorne held up a hand to stop him almost immediately. "That's enough."
"There's only one thing you need to know about where you're headed, and it was waiting right under the surface. Let's try some free association, sugarplum. When I say 'wolf', what are the next two words that occur to you?"
Confused, but encouraged by Lorne addressing him with an embarrassing diminutive, Angel tried to play along. "Silver bullet?"
"No, no, no," said Lorne, taking an exasperated sip from his drink. "Not werewolf. Wolf."
"Ram," Angel replied, disquieted. "Hart."
Lorne lifted his glass in Angel's direction and nodded. "You didn't think you were going just to keep the Slayer company, did you? Take care, Champion. This is a dark ride."
At the edge of the city, far down a road that Buffy had never used before, she found a private airport and a pilot who introduced himself as John Howell. He was a middle-aged man of small stature, and though he was friendly toward her, he seemed to approach everything with an air of great intensity. Clearly Wood found him trustworthy, but Buffy decided to spend a little time alone with him to let her instincts feel him out before they were in the air and at his mercy.
"Where'd you get a plane like this?" she asked as they strolled into the hangar to take a look at it. She couldn't really tell one from another, but she'd been informed that this plane, typical as it seemed, had the rare quality of necro-tinted windows - an absolute requisite for long-distance vampire transportation.
Howell came to a halt at the plane's nose and laid a hand on it beside the painted word Romulus, the only ornamentation on it that Buffy could see. "Wolfram & Hart," he answered.
Buffy sprang back, hand poised to grab for her stake, but the pilot didn't show any surprise or fear. "It's alright," he said. "I'm not with them."
"Did you steal it?" she asked warily, keeping her fighting stance.
"Yeah, I stole it."
"Sounds like an interesting story and I want to hear it now, not later."
Howell shrugged. "I flew for them sometimes. Freelance. Most of us pick up that kind of work here and there, and there wasn't anything strange about them that I could see at the time." He sat down on a stepladder near the plane's wing, and nodded to a director's chair for Buffy. "There was some rioting when the battle busted out, well, I guess you know about that. Everyone else was going for liquor stores and electronics, I thought, hell, the company just went under, they're not gonna miss this baby."
Buffy settled into the chair, patting her concealed stake and leaving it in its place. She took another look at the plane, streamlined and shining under the hangar's bright lights, trying to see it from the perspective of a passionate aviation expert. "Wood told you why we need it?"
He nodded. "I know about the tinting. I know about Angel."
It wasn't the kind of reassurance she wanted. Angel might have a reputation bigger than the underworld he'd commanded, but to her, he was still a secret. Her secret. If Howell knew his weakness, he could hurt him.
"What are we paying you for this?" she asked.
"Would it help to threaten you too?"
He chuckled. "Are you afraid I'm some kind of spy for the law firm?"
"No, I'm afraid you're a smuggler for Jabba the Hutt."
At that, Howell's laughter rang out loud and clear. He stood up and pointed a finger at her. "If I am, just remember Han shot first." Still grinning, he patted the plane like a horse and turned back toward the hangar's office. "Go get your boss. The Romulus is ready whenever you are."
The largest bar in Cleveland was called Satellite 3, and the longer that Oz lived there, the more he found out about it. Behind the establishment's front door was an inclusive, popular drinking place with frequent live entertainment, a limited menu, and the alleged best bartenders in the city. The tables farthest from the stage were arranged around an enclosed stairwell leading up to another door, which was unmarked but had a bouncer lurking around it at all times.
Once Oz had made a few friends in town, he had been invited in and found a much more intimate setting, softer lighting, and the actual best bartenders in the city. As far as he knew, there was no official name for the club behind the second door, but everyone who was aware of its existence tended to refer to it as Satellite 2.
The bar in there was curved around a tiny platform just large enough for a solo singer. Behind it was the third door, which Oz had thought was an employees-only area until the staff explained to him that even they weren't sure who to talk to about getting permission to enter. They did, however, occasionally mention the boss having a meeting in Satellite 1, and it wasn't hard to connect the dots.
Oz never bothered trying to learn more. The regulars at Satellite 2 were diverse, but with a high proportion of werewolves, and he had been accepted there into a kind of inner circle within Cleveland's pack. The atmosphere among them was generally relaxed and warm.
A favorite topic of the inner circle was whether or not there was a fourth door.
Tonight, Oz didn't need to go any deeper into the building than through the first door. The bartender nodded at him as he approached, then went back to arranging pint glasses until he realized that Oz was waiting at the bar rather than passing through on his way to Satellite 2. "Looking for someone?" he asked after taking and filling his order.
Oz lifted the cold glass of IPA off the bar and replaced it with cash. "That guy," he said, nodding further down the bar. "Thanks."
Spike was alone, staring off into space and near the bottom of his own glass. He raised an eyebrow when Oz took the vacant stool next to him, and greeted him with, "Well, if it isn't Small Dark and Variable."
"Hey man." Oz ran a hand through his hair, forgetting for the moment whether it actually was dark, or if Spike just hadn't seen him since the last dye and couldn't tell in this light. "Where's Faith?"
"Home and sleeping, by now."
Spike tapped his fingers restively on the bar. "Pair of fire demons did a job on us. She took 'em out alright, but we thought she could use an early night of it. What did you want with her, then?"
"Wanted to talk to both of you, actually," said Oz. "Giles called yesterday-"
He was interrupted by a cheerful, "Yo, Oz!" and turned to see a familiar couple, whom he had already smelled when they came in a moment ago.
It was the man who had spoken. "Tell me when we're gonna start a band," he continued. "You're killin' me here."
The woman laughed and Spike rolled his eyes, but Oz replied, "Right now. This moment. All of us are in it. Only instead of playing music we're going to solve those murders we keep hearing about in the Plain Dealer, and be ready to back up Buffy and Angel when they get here to fight whatever is doing it."
"Bloody hell!" said Spike. "When were you going to mention this?"
"I just got here," Oz pointed out. "Uh, you know Mr. E and Nina, right?"
Nina answered first. "Faith's boyfriend."
Spike nodded. "Angel's ex." He looked at E. "And...Angel's ex's boyfriend. Are you telling me he's on his way here, with Buffy in tow, well aware of this configuration? He's just a lit match looking for a puddle of gasoline, isn't he?"
Oz, who had never had much reason to fret about how the configuration developed, explained, "I think he's more the one who's in tow. Giles said Buffy had a Slayer dream and she's coming to check things out." He hesitated, not sure if he was meant to keep any part of his conversation with Giles private, but this much they deserved to know: "He said she dreamed about werewolves."
Mr. E and Nina shared a look with each other, then at Oz. "You know that killer is trying to frame us, right?" said Nina. "The bodies are all ripped apart, and people are already saying werewolves did it. Hell, people who didn't even believe in werewolves are saying that."
"I know," Oz assured her. "All the more reason we need to get involved."
She still didn't look happy, but Mr. E nodded. "We're here for whatever Buffy and Angel need from us," he said.
"Cheers," said Spike, but he was peering into his empty glass with a grumpy look on his face. "Lehane n' me are here for whenever you need someone to walk upright under a full moon. I'll go let her in on it." He stood up with a swirl of his black duster and headed for the door, throwing them a wave over his shoulder.
"That's a relief," said Nina. "Now we don't have to sit in this part of the bar."
Angel trusted the plane's necro-tinted glass well enough, but he didn't think he would ever like flying. He wasn't sure how humans seemed to tolerate it so readily, some of them with alarming frequency. Maybe it had less to do with their mortality, and more with the times they had been born into. When he had been Buffy's age, the idea of climbing into a contraption like this would have incomprehensible, but for her, it was nothing but a sensible travel option.
She did spend much of the trip glued to the window, though, and he remembered that there had been few opportunities for flying in her youth. Her sense of wonder as the city's contours faded out beneath them consoled him a little, and he leaned closer and murmured, "Say goodbye to Los Angeles."
"You're not my boss," she informed him pleasantly without changing her position.
"Are you going to sulk about that all day?"
"Oh, please! When you do that everyone calls it brooding."
He concealed a grin and rubbed her back, then weighed the possible consequences of standing up and decided to risk it. "I'll just give you some brooding space, then," he said. "Need to talk to Howell."
"'Kay. Tell him you're not my boss."
The cockpit was even more unsettling than the cabin in the small plane. Angel tried to follow Buffy's example and focus on the view, but the vastness of the sky was impressive in just the wrong way.
Howell beckoned him in and indicated the co-pilot's seat. "You vamps aren't big on being airborne, huh?"
Angel could only answer with a pained nod.
"Just think of it as a flying coffin," suggested Howell.
"Comforting." He managed a chuckle, but thought it best to change the subject. "You've seemed a little on edge yourself. Is it me or Wolfram & Hart?"
Howell looked surprised. "Wolfram & Hart's dead in the ground, and you seem like an alright guy. Why would I be on edge?"
"I can smell it. And I know it's not for the same reason I am, so I was curious."
For a moment Howell busied himself with the controls, checking a number of panels and indicators that could have meant anything. Angel didn't know if the pilot truly needed to concentrate on his job at the moment or if he was buying time before answering, but the new wariness between them certainly helped his own nerves. Intimidating humans was a familiar ground, even if it was generally a source of guilt at the same time.
"Alright, answer me this," Howell said at last. "What's so important that a vampire and a Slayer have to catch the first flight to Cleveland?"
"I thought you didn't care."
"That's what I thought too, but if I don't care, why am I doing this? I don't need the money. I wasn't looking for an adventure. You've obviously got some connection to Wolfram & Hart, and that's bad news for me and my redistributed plane. It's just not worth it."
Buffy entered as he was speaking and stood between them, her hand wrapped around one of the sturdy handles framing the door. "Seems like this could have been brought to our attention when we made you the offer."
"Excellent point," Howell replied, chopping the air with his hand for emphasis. "But it didn't even cross my mind until we were over Nevada, and now all I can think about is how never in my professional life have I been straining at the leash like I was when you told me where you wanted to go." His brow furrowed. "Well, that and wolves. Can't stop thinking about wolves, for some reason."
Angel had to make an effort to not catch Buffy's eye, knowing the same thing was on both of their minds. He spoke quickly before she could voice it, knowing that there was a chance their lives depended on maintaining a casual outward demeanor. "How long until we stop to refuel? We could go to a diner, talk about it there."
"Denver," said Howell reluctantly. "About an hour. You two better get back to your seats. Turbulence ahead."
It took Buffy's firm hand to take his elbow and guide him out of the cockpit, but he knew she was right - they were in no position to make any demands. They held each other tightly in their shared seat, Buffy still somehow capable of centering him even as he calculated their respective chances of surviving a crash.
But the turbulence turned out to be real, and when it was over, Howell announced over the intercom that he was beginning their descent. Their arrival in Denver came shortly after sunset, and they stepped out to a lonely station not far from the international airport but not, Howell said, affiliated with it. Everything here was clearly familiar to him, including the grizzled attendant who was firing jokes at them as soon as they stepped onto the ground.
Angel whisked Buffy behind the hangar while Howell and the old man took up a friendly argument about prices. "Toxoplasma," he whispered. "Remember what Giles told us?"
Giles had called them shortly before they left Los Angeles to discuss everything he had turned up with his research. Most of his information on toxoplasma was a reiteration of what they had already learned on their own, but he had also come up with a helpful theory that related it back to Hellmouth business: the disease of the natural world had been shown to affect the behavior of rats, manipulating them into harmful situations. The nearest supernatural equivalent, Giles reasoned, was mind control, with the added complication that the victim would find it indistinguishable from his or her own desires. If an infected rat could be attracted to the scent of cats, a man like Howell might have been cursed to pick up passengers that he otherwise wouldn't have.
"I know," said Buffy. "The guy bringing us to Cleveland is under the control of something evil that wants us in Cleveland. We're off to a great start."
Angel sighed. "I should have sent him to Willow as soon as I heard where he got that plane. It was stupid to think they wouldn't recover after the Battle of Los Angeles."
"I don't think Willow could do much about this anyway. If it works like a disease, she can't exorcise it or break the spell. And if you're really convinced this is your evil law firm we're dealing with…"
"It's not Wolfram & Hart. Just Wolf. One of the Senior Partners."
Buffy sounded frustrated, her voice at the edge of the hushed tone they had been keeping. "You know how random this sounds, right? Is the Wolf himself, All Cower Before Him, really going to bother with a string of old school murders and tinkering with one pilot's brain?"
"I don't know." Angel rubbed his forehead. "It doesn't make sense to me either. But Lorne said that's what the wolf in your dream meant, and we won't know what his plan is until we follow this through."
"Follow it through? You mean you're ready to get back in the air with him?"
Getting back in the air with Howell was the absolute last thing that Angel was ready to do, but he didn't see a way around it, and neither did Buffy. The people of Cleveland still needed their help, and they weren't going to learn anything by stranding themselves in Denver. "If he was going to kill us he would have done it already," Buffy pointed out. "Besides, you know I can't look at a trap without wanting to spring it," she added with a grin.
Angel nodded grimly. "What are we going to tell Howell?"
"As much of the truth as he can handle. If there's a way to get the Wolf out of his system, we have to help him." She glanced toward the hangar where they had left him. "Try to make him understand we're on his side. If he wants to cooperate, he should stick around in Cleveland with us while we look for a cure."
"I take it you're assigning this job to me?"
She nodded, then stretched up on her tiptoes to kiss him. "I'm going to get the Hellmouth welcoming crew caught up. Meet you at the diner."
Faith found her hairbrush in the third drawer she opened in the bedroom. Dragging it through her hair, she glanced at the bed, and seeing that nothing had changed since she had left it, she nudged the mattress with her toe and said, "Yo, Cryptkeeper. Sun's shining and the birds are chirpy. Get your ass up."
"Faith," came the reply in a sour voice, muffled by a layer of blankets. "I am a sodding vampire."
"Really? Wow, that explains a lot." She turned and grabbed the mattress with both hands, giving it a good shake. "Doesn't get you out of this one, though. I'm gonna go pick up Buffy and Angel, so you need to get the guest room ready."
Spike poked his head out from the covers. "Made it out of Denver, did they?"
Faith put the brush back into the drawer and began the search for the shoes she wanted. "Yeah, B called again after you left last night and said they figured it out. That pilot who's possessed or whatever is gonna stay in town so they can maybe suss out what's wrong with him. Don't know where they plan on putting him, but Oz can probably get the pack to help, since we'll be no vacancy."
"No we won't," Spike countered, sounding just as sure of himself as he had last time they went over this. "Angelcakes will find any excuse not to share a roof with me. Buffy won't put up with the combination of any two of us. They'll thank you most sincerely and find somewhere else to lay their heads." He sat up and patted around the bed for his boxers.
She found them first and tossed them at his head. "Hey, maybe I'll just kick you out. Not like your name's on the deed." Her shoes finally appeared, and she sat down on the bed to tug them on. "Anyway, give 'em some credit. They won't make a fuss."
Spike rolled closer and latched his arms around her waist to kiss her neck before answering. "Don't throw me out, love. I'm the one keeps you lukewarm at night. And you'd have to do all the landscaping yourself."
His lips tickled, and she failed to suppress a laugh. "Whatever, just clean up that guest room before I get back with them." As she left, she noticed the wall calendar was still on June, and flipped the page to the new month. The image was a moonlit wildlife photograph, which made her smirk. When had her life become so wholesome?
The private plane that was carrying her guests had flown into a private airport rather than Cleveland Hopkins, so it was a longer drive to pick them up, but the parking was much easier. Faith's first thought when she saw Buffy with her luggage and Scythe was that she should have found someone to bring a second car. Her Mustang didn't have much trunk space.
As it turned out, though, she only had two passengers. "Howell got a taxi to a motel," Angel explained after they had all exchanged greetings and returned to the garage. "He's got some connections, so he said he'd take care of himself."
"You're not even keeping an eye on him?" Faith asked as they helped her load the car.
"It's really not scary enough to warrant constant supervision," said Buffy. "Angel, take shotgun, you need the legroom. Howell's been acting completely normal, he's just worried that he got touched by a hypnotic suggestion. Least we could do is dig up an answer for him."
Faith waited for Angel to arrange a blanket around himself to block the sun, and then started the car and pulled out of the garage. "Yeah, Giles called and gave us the same spiel about toxoplasma that you got. We're on Willow's mailing list, too. I heard a rumor she may be doing her astral projection thing so she can lecture us while we're all in the same place."
Buffy leaned forward from the back seat to stay in the conversation. "Hey, whatever works," she said. "Last I talked to her, she still sounded a little iffy about getting involved on your turf, but I think that was mostly about Oz. They've never really cleared the air. Have you seen him much?"
"Yeah, he shows up when Nina and I hang out sometimes. She's the alpha female of his pack, did you know that? Wait," she added, remembering Angel's connection. "Have you guys cleared the air?"
Angel laughed. "Yes. Months ago. I'm glad she's happy here."
"Alright," said Faith, taking that at face value. "Anyway, Oz does some extracurricular research for us, but he's mostly sworn to the werewolf population now. Nina didn't even realize he and I knew each other from Sunnydale until I told her."
Since Angel had never spent enough time in Cleveland to establish a presence, and Buffy had barely made an appearance, Faith took a few minutes to fill them in on how the current players operated. "The only other Slayers are, y'know, non-practicing. We were pretty organized while Dawn was here, but now that we get most of our tips from you guys, these days it's basically me and Spike reading our email and going out to knock down whatever comes up."
"And you and Spike are living together?" Angel inquired.
Buffy reached over the seat and smacked his arm. "Angel, leave her alone!" she commanded, sounding appalled. "It's none of our business who she's living with." She turned to Faith. "Are you, though?"
More amused than offended, Faith decided to challenge them and answered, "You'll figure it out when we get there."
Angel held up his hands under the blanket in surrender, making him look like a black Halloween ghost. "Indulge us for the sake of logistics. Oz only has the one extra bedroom, and..."
Buffy flushed and smiled. "Okay, Nosy Guy raises a valid point. We're trying to avoid the cohabitation thing until we have more of a game plan for...us."
The car picked up speed as they reached the highway. Faith calculated that they would make it home just in time for Angel to take the blanket off. "Consider your drift caught," she told them. "My place comes with Spike. Who wants us?"
There was a pause, in which Faith suspected that Buffy and Angel were trying to meet each other's eyes through the blanket before they decided. Her mouth quirked, but she didn't interrupt them, and Buffy finally released a rueful laugh. "I'll stay with you guys, if you don't mind. Angel and Oz can bask in each other's silence."
Spike had been half right, Faith reflected: Buffy was staying with them, but Angel wasn't. She wondered if it really was about trying to sleep separately, or if Spike was half right about their reasons, too. Either way, they should all be able to handle this arrangement, but that didn't mean she was going to be off her guard.
With a little foresight and courtesy toward the appropriate parties, Oz managed to set up a time to meet with Howell behind the second door. The staff assured him that only werewolves would be working in Satellite 2 that night, and that the bouncer would warn him if anyone of uncertain exposure to the underworld was about to enter.
"So you're the wolf expert?" asked Howell when they were facing each other across a two-seater table against the far wall.
"Not really," said Oz. "But we don't think you need one of those."
"Then what do I need?"
Oz scratched his stubble reflectively. "Maybe start by telling me exactly what happened."
The story was brief and direct, which earned the man a few points in Oz's book. Apparently, he was having doubts that his recent actions had been entirely of his own volition, and unlike the Sunnydale residents that Oz had grown up around, he had decided not to ignore them. "...I got a theory," he finished up. "I think I might be a psychic werewolf. Does that sound likely to you?"
"Hm." Oz thought about that for a moment. "What's a psychic werewolf?"
Howell's brow furrowed in consternation. "You mean that doesn't happen? You have to be bitten physically for it to have any effect?"
"Far as I know." People could get some weird ideas about what was real or possible now that they acknowledged the existence of the supernatural, but Oz wasn't tempted to laugh. He had heard weirder, and it wasn't as if anyone had been handed a guidebook. "What we've got so far is that there's an eldritch superbeing hacking brainwaves. It needed you to get Buffy and/or Angel here, so it made you want to do it." He paused to take a drink of beer, then went on, "There's been some deaths in town lately that the police can't explain. Bodies torn up, throats ripped out like a wild animal attack. And I know how it sounds, but they mostly haven't been on full moon nights. We're thinking the killer, or plural, is possessed by the same entity that nabbed you. So there's your silver lining if you want one - at least you didn't get mojo'd into killing anyone."
Silver lining or not, Howell looked understandably perturbed. "There are others? All programmed to do something, none of us realizing until it's too late?"
"How do I know I'm not earmarked to murder someone now that my first job's done?"
Oz looked him in the eye and answered, "You don't."
"Jesus Christ," Howell exhaled, sitting back in his chair. He finished off half of his glass in one long swig. "I need to turn myself into jail or something. You guys shoulda told me sooner."
"Nah, we got you covered. A lot of werewolves around here have ways to lock themselves up if they have to. Privately. We can modify the cage in my place real easy, make it comfortable, but you won't even have to use it if someone's with you. No need to make your life any more difficult when we know you're not a criminal."
Howell smelled afraid, but he looked grateful, and a little surprised. His eyes focused for a moment on Kell, the bartender, who had no other customers to deal with and was quietly organizing things behind the bar. Then he looked toward the door, then back at Oz. "Okay," he said, using both hands to emphasize his words. "Here's another thing. You just met me" - he checked his watch - "two hours ago, and now you're offering to put me up in your own house, not even batting an eye? How do you know you're not infected by this thing?"
Oz shrugged. "I'm always like this."
"Drink to that, I guess," said Howell, though his tone was skeptical. "Isn't there any way to, you know, get a diagnosis?"
"I don't know," said Oz. He hesitated, wanting to believe that the assistance he had provided so far was enough, and that he didn't have to pull himself any deeper into this. Howell still needed answers, though, and the killings in Cleveland needed to stop, and there was a resource that was still waiting to be tapped. "Hey Kell," he called. "Do you mind if I use your laptop for a moment?"
She took it out for him, and he got up and stood at the bar to type out a quick message. Howell, standing next to him, read it out loud: "'It's Oz, can we talk?' Who's the recipient here? This isn't even an email program."
"Yeah, she kinda transcended those." Oz saved the document with the name 'Willow', created a folder called 'Witch Network', and dropped it in. "She'll get it."
Buffy squirmed, missing the big tables in the Sunnydale High library and the Magic Box. At the Hyperion she had a designated war room for sitting down as a group and spreading out papers and pictures to pore over, but here they were confined to Faith's kitchen. It was surprisingly clean, but not designed for more than two chairs to be pulled up around its little square table.
Right now there were four, though, and nobody else was complaining about it, so Buffy kept her focus on their work. Faith and Spike had already been busy collecting information on the murders which had happened so far, and Angel had gone into detective mode, speculating about possible connections and asking questions that Buffy wouldn't have thought to ask.
Profiles on the victims were all over the place, with no clearly noticeable trait shared by more than any two of them. But Faith had spoken to a few of the victims' relatives and found they had been perhaps overly paranoid about werewolf attacks, and Spike's queries in the underworld had given him the same impression. In addition, three of the victims had been quoted in articles about Cleveland's residents and their dismay over the supernatural entities now revealed to be living among them.
"Look here," said Spike, pointing to a news clipping and reading from it. "'I hate it. I'm afraid I'll get eaten if I even go outside at night.' Could be someone reading didn't like the sound of that."
Buffy frowned. "A disgruntled werewolf? Doesn't really jive with what we've got so far on the Wolf and his toxoplasma."
"Yeah," said Angel, staring intently at the article, "which would work in his favor. People getting killed for being too vocal about werewolves sows chaos, and puts us on the wrong trail. Not to mention he could infect a werewolf to use as his weapon as easily as he could anyone else."
The last time Buffy had talked to Giles, he had told her the same thing: anyone who was human or had once been human was vulnerable to the Senior Partner's influence. His pawns might be forgotten after completing their tasks, like Howell seemed to be so far, or they might keep carrying the infection, unaware, until the Wolf had disposed of or wholly corrupted them.
"Most of these people died in their own homes," said Faith, pointing to some of the dots scattered around the map. "But there are a few locations we can take you to if you think you can sniff anything out of them."
Before Buffy could ask Angel, or answer for both of them, everyone looked up as a voice behind her said, "I get first sniff, okay?" Buffy swiveled out of her chair: the voice was Willow.
Four voices greeted her in various shades of enthusiasm, but Willow held up her hands and said, "No time for hugs. Also I'm intangible." As if to prove it, she waded directly into the table through the chair that Buffy had just vacated, so that the map was at her stomach.
"Yeah, about that," said Faith. "I didn't even think you knew where I lived. Is this just a thing that's gonna be happening from now on?"
"Oz gave me your address. Doorbells are not so much at the moment." She peered down at the map. "Okay, everyone start taking notes. You see this?" Her finger traced a path that connected each of the murder locations in a wide arc. "Not random. The killer is setting up a Fibonacci spiral."
Spike grumbled low, "It's worse than we thought. Maths are involved."
Willow ignored him. "I've seen spells based on this sequence before. It doesn't have any power on its own, but it can be used in a ritual, like material ingredients, or planetary movement. So what you can assume is that the victims were picked for where they were, not who they were. And I didn't get the full list of dates and times but I'd bet large sums that Fibonacci applies there, too."
"So they were all sacrifices?" asked Angel. "What kind of ritual is it?"
"No idea, but if you're sure it's the Wolf, you can expect the den mother of all bad days. Now, ready for the good news?"
Buffy perked up. "Oh how I love you, Will."
"Mutual, sweetie." Willow traced the curve on the map again, but this time continued it past the marker dots. "We can predict the exact place and time of the upcoming murders, and the final stage of the ritual, and prevent the everloving heck out of them." Her fingertip stopped, dipping slightly beneath the table's surface, at the spot where the coil had completed.
Faith half-rose from her chair to get a better look. "Hang on. That's Satellite 3."
"What's that?" asked Angel.
"Bar," Spike answered, with the same perplexed expression as Faith. "Down on Rye Street, not far from here. Good fried pickles. You mean to say that's where the ritual will go off?"
"I just came from there," Willow confirmed. "Werewolf hotspot, Oz says."
Buffy leaned on her elbows and inspected the unfamiliar place names on the map. "So how do werewolves tie in?"
Willow shook her head regretfully. "Figuring that one out is going to have to be your job. But remember, even if the Wolf is the one responsible for the killings, he's doing it by infecting humans. You've still got a culprit to find."
"A werewolf culprit would kinda make sense, yo," Faith pointed out.
"We'll sit down with the Cleveland pack leaders as soon as we can," said Angel. "Willow, can you tell us anything else about how this infection works? Is there a cure?"
Willow raised an eyebrow at him, as if surprised he would ask such a dumb question. "It's not a biological condition. It's not magic, either. It's a Senior Partner Special, so if anyone has a cure, it's a Senior Partner. Get one of those guys on our side and we'll see what we can do." She took a step back, so that she appeared to be standing around the table with them instead of fused with it. "The best thing to hope for is that it flushes out naturally after the host performs whatever go-fetch the Wolf wanted done. And it shouldn't affect the memory, so anyone who's killed someone knows they did it."
Buffy glanced from Willow to the others, and ended up directing her next question mostly at Angel. "What's more likely? That the Wolf picks a different killer each time to throw off the investigation, or that he puts it all on one person so they're less likely to confess?"
Angel was silent for a moment, then rubbed his chin and looked up. "Howell hasn't even done anything that bad, and he's already a potential wrench in the works just by cooperating with us. I don't think any strategic overlord would allow too many like him to walk free. Willow, what could the Wolf be working right now? Aside from the human sacrifices?"
Willow seemed to be putting some effort into maintaining a neutral tone. "Yeah, that's the other thing. He's going to want a body. A permanent one."
The idea of an innocent man being possessed by a Senior Partner for the rest of his life seemed to spread through the group, one by one. Nobody voiced any questions, but Willow filled up the silence anyway, saying, "Any of his targets could become his host. And, honestly, probably already has, although it may take time to manifest. If your Howell guy keeps doing stuff without knowing why, or if the stuff gets worse and he starts finding ways to justify it...he's probably the one. I'm not telling you what to do about it, but: no cure. Just keep that in mind."
It wasn't going to be hard to keep that in mind, Buffy thought. She doubted she'd be able to think about anything else for a while. "Can you point us to the next murder?" she asked.
"I'll have to get the exact times and places of the other ones and do some calculations, but give me the approximates right now."
"Three days ago and twelve days before that," Angel answered promptly.
Willow nodded. "Good, then you have at least four days. I'll be in touch." Her projected form flickered, just enough to be noticed by someone who was looking directly at her.
Faith cleared her throat, sounding vexed. "Yeah, hey, Willow. Is this not worth hauling your actual body out here to help us?"
Even Spike looked surprised that she would venture there, but Willow only glared a little and said, "Look, you don't have an arcane disaster monopoly here. I'm doing what I can but I'm stretched skinny. Email me." She faded and vanished almost instantly, and Buffy couldn't tell if she had meant to say goodbye to them first or not.
After that, there wasn't much left for the four of them to discuss without her. Buffy and Angel volunteered to patrol, and Faith and Spike left the house with them, locking the door behind them. "Got a few more sources to check with," explained Spike. "Most of 'em folks you'd scare away if you came with us."
He and Faith set off down the street together, and Buffy slipped her hand into Angel's as they went walking in the other direction. It was a pleasant neighborhood, the street lined on each side with houses that were small, but maintained with pride. "They seem to be doing well," said Buffy, the only positive commentary she could come up with at the moment.
"Mm," Angel agreed. "That doesn't bother you, does it?"
"No. Not anymore. They didn't get this for free." She sighed deeply. "Willow looks worn out. She hadn't told me much about what she's up to lately. If she's going to keep doing everything over astral projection anyway, I wish she'd at least leave her body with us."
Angel hesitated, then said, "Sounds like she talked to Oz before us. I'll ask him about it when I see him."
"Thanks." Buffy smiled, genuinely. Talking to someone about something personal was an offer that Angel didn't make lightly.
Ten minutes' walk took them out of the neighborhood and into an area where they were more likely to find a vampire if any happened to be out tonight. It was a rare advantage to be hunting in a place where they wouldn't be recognized, and Buffy kept her eyes and ears open, hoping for the satisfaction of a good slay. Before long, though, they fell back into conversation, and unusually, Angel was the one who started it.
"When I went to see Lorne before we left, he accused me of making other people do my dirty work. At Wolfram & Hart it was always about the lesser of two evils, every single time. I don't think anyone's ever really forgiven me for the choices I made."
Buffy didn't have to stop to consider her response. "I have."
He squeezed her hand. "Coming back to you is the one thing I know I'm doing right. From now on we make these choices together. If Howell is hosting the Wolf, you're the only one I trust to decide what to do about it."
"Angel, don't elevate me like that. I don't always know what to do. I've got a long log of my own mistakes to dwell on."
"Then I forgive you for those," said Angel, "so talk to me if you think you're about to make another."
For the briefest moment, Buffy felt like everything had fallen into place. If she could hold onto it a little longer, she might begin to understand how to live.
There were more people on the street now than they had been seeing so far, and Buffy realized that many of them were clustered around the only building on the block still lit for business. Overhead was an old-fashioned neon sign with a cosmic design and the name "Satellite 3".
"This is the place that Willow was talking about," Buffy realized out loud. "The center of the spiral."
"Well," said Angel. "Let's go in."
"There's no fourth door," a slightly drunk werewolf was saying. She waved her arm in expansive gestures to support her theory. "Satellite 3 is out there, Satellite 2 is in here, Satellite 1 is in there. Three, two, one. What would be next, Satellite Zero?"
"No no no," replied her companion, also a werewolf, at about the same level of intoxication as she was. "The point is, each room is a satellite, so they have to be orbiting something." He cast a hazy look at the door to Satellite 1. "I bet it's a meth lab."
Oz had explained to Howell earlier that he was likely to overhear a few conspiracy theories about the fourth door, but Howell had departed not long ago, pursued by his own paranoia, so Oz kept his amusement to himself as he sat at the bar until the couple had exhausted that topic and moved on to another. He didn't want to join in anyone's conversation, but he didn't exactly want to be alone, either.
Seeing Willow again had rattled him. She had been cordial, if distracted, and had spent only a few minutes with him and Howell before taking her astral form away to visit Faith's house. He wished he could tell how she felt about seeing him again.
The conspiracy theory couple made their way to the door back out to Satellite 3. They were the last patrons there except for himself, Oz realized, and he checked the ornate clock over the bar. "I can get out of here if you're trying to close up," he said to Kell, who had her feet up and looked like she was doing a crossword puzzle.
She shrugged, but then put down her book and pen and stood up. "Hey," she said, leaning over the bar. "Didn't mean to eavesdrop, but you guys weren't that quiet and you can't really hide an astral projection in here. I just want to know if something's coming up that all of us should be worried about."
"I don't know yet," he answered. "If anything, it's probably already here."
Kell nodded sadly. "The killings..."
"And whether or not it was one of us, we'll get blamed for it. Yeah. I'm on it, but stay safe, Kell."
Before she could respond, there was a loud crash coming from outside the room. Satellite 2 was soundproofed enough that it was a surprise to hear anything at all from Satellite 3, even with the supernaturally sharp hearing that Oz and Kell shared, and they only had to exchange one worried glance before both headed to the door and down the stairs, dismissing the bouncer as they passed him on the way.
The crash was followed by angry voices, and by the time they got into the main room, most everyone there had backed up to the walls, forming a spectator circle around a tipped-over table. The werewolf couple who had just been talking upstairs was there, the man standing before the woman as if to protect her from an unfamiliar girl in a short dress and smeared makeup. "She's a monster!" the girl screamed, pointing. "She's a werewolf!"
The werewolf woman wasn't saying anything at all, and the man's words were too fast, with too many interruptions, to be coherent. He made one threatening step toward the girl in the dress, and another man came up to push him back. About five different onlookers accused them, and each other, of being drunk.
Oz wasn't sure if there was a hope of calming anyone down, but he knew it was his last chance before the fight became physical. The werewolves would recognize him, so he turned to them first, holding out his hands disarmingly and moving slowly to get between them and the others. Before he had made it there, though, he saw to his surprise that he wasn't the only interfering pacifist.
"Hi Oz," said Buffy over her shoulder as she stepped in front of the girl who had been screeching accusations. Angel, at her side, looked at him and nodded once.
"Buffy, Angel," he greeted them each in turn. Having three people in the middle instead of one was a significant advantage; already the combatants didn't seem to know who to be yelling at. "Been a while. How's LA?"
Buffy shrugged, looking and sounding as casual as if nothing of interest was happening around them. "We get by. Thanks for letting Angel stay with you, by the way."
As she talked, she shifted her feet and moved her body subtly so that nobody behind her could walk through the conversation and get at their opponents. Angel was doing the same thing, gradually widening the zone of neutrality that they had created, and Oz realized that he had been doing it himself. It was working. People near the back were dispersing, bored, and the ones at the center of the dispute seemed reluctant to continue it without a mob to back them up.
"No trouble," Oz responded to Buffy.
Angel caught the double meaning and grinned at him. "I don't make much noise."
There was the sound of a woman stalking away in a huff, and Oz quietly noted their victory. Then someone touched his shoulder, and he snapped back to wariness until he registered that it was Kell. "The boss is watching," she said in a hushed voice. "He wants you and your friends to leave."
Oz looked up and around. He didn't know who Kell's boss was, but there was an unfamiliar grey-haired man in a suit jacket near the door to Satellite 2, leaning against the wall and looking very, very cross. It had to be him.
How their actions could have offended him, Oz didn't know, but it wasn't time to ask questions. "Okay," he said to Kell, then motioned at Buffy and Angel. "You guys ready to bounce?"
They both looked confused, but acquiesced easily once they saw that the fight wasn't about to rekindle. Oz led the way to the exit, and Kell accompanied them, casting the occasional worried look in the direction of the glowering suit. When they were all safely outside the door, she said at a normal volume, "Thanks for not making a fuss. You're not 86'd or anything, we just can't negotiate his rules when he's here."
"I've never seen him before," said Oz. "Who is he?"
Kell raised an eyebrow at him. "Dameon Wolfe," she stated. "He owns the place."
The Wolf watched the sacrifice, and the sacrifice watched the clock, a sharp kitchen knife held in her lap. When the minute changed, she lifted the knife to her neck and slashed hard. There was time, before she lost consciousness, to question the act. She had felt fine, she thought, when she woke up this morning. For how long had she meant to do this? Why had the digits on the clock become her signal to end her life?
She saw the Wolf, naked and hungry, standing over her as she lay in her blood on the floor, and then her eyes closed and did not open again. The Wolf's jaws lowered to her throat.
The phone rang in the early morning, and Giles woke up wondering, as he often did, if he was about to learn of a death.
It was Faith, calling from Cleveland - five hours behind, meaning she hadn't yet gone to sleep. Her voice was apologetic, but tense. "Willow wants to talk to both of us. She's coming to you, if you're okay with that."
"Yes," said Giles, reaching first for his glasses and then his dressing gown and slippers. He went out to the parlor holding the cordless phone, and found Willow already there. She was sitting on the couch, looking almost natural except for the way the light hit her. In fact, he could see places where it was going right through her.
She greeted him with a small, "Hi," but he could only answer, "Willow, are you quite alright? You look..."
"Translucent?" she suggested. "Yeah. I'm under some strain. Is Faith on the line?"
He picked up the parlor telephone, set it on speaker, and turned off the cordless. Faith's voice came through and cut straight to the chase. "We had another murder in town. Want to fill him in, Red?"
Another murder. Cleveland. Hellmouth. Buffy and Angel. Giles wanted to ask about them, but he knew that he would only interrupt the relevant news. "She was ripped apart like all the others," Willow said. "All alone like the others. Along the same path as the others."
Faith's breath gave the room a second of static. "Spike and I are at the scene, but the cops won't talk to us. Willow, I thought you'd plotted out the spiral so we would know when the next one was coming. Did you misplace a digit or something?"
"I misplaced a whole life," Willow confessed. Giles noticed that her face was streaked with drying tears. "It must have been a, a homeless person, or someone nobody knew about. It wasn't in the news. The sequence is further along than we thought."
"Can you recalculate to account for it?" asked Giles.
She nodded. "But, Giles, this isn't about getting our strike team into the right place at the right time. The death roll will keep gaining momentum as long as the Wolf has control of at least one human body. Soon he won't even have to send assassins; the deaths will just happen, and all he has to do is take his host to the center of the spiral and be there when it terminates." She drew a deep breath, then looked at him, and at the phone, with an oddly defiant expression. "Isn't anyone going to ask what happens if he completes the quest? Or is it too obvious that he'll be invincible and we're all doomed?"
It was no wonder she looked so tired, Giles thought. She must have been researching incessantly, in addition to projecting herself all over the world to communicate with everyone, if she had come up with this much knowledge on the ritual in play.
There was a brief pause, and then Faith said, "So we'll skip the strike team crap and go straight for the host."
Willow stared at the floor. "How? We don't even know who it is."
"We have a decent lead," Giles noted. "Two, in fact. Buffy called tonight…" he looked at the clock. "Er, last night. The owner of the club where the spiral will end is a man named Damien Wolfe. A bit on the nose, but I would be even more surprised to find it was coincidence."
"Howell doesn't exactly look like a coincidence either," said Willow. "Oz put me in touch with him, and he called me yesterday and said he knew how the ritual was supposed to work and he didn't know how he knew. And neither of them are werewolves."
Faith groaned. "Well, do they have to be?" Her voice became more distant for a moment as she spoke to someone on her end of the call: "I know, I'm talking to them right now. Hold on."
Giles shook his head. He hadn't sat down yet, and he realized that he was subconsciously hoping that his "guests" would leave before it was worth getting comfortable for the conversation. "No," he said. "Buffy's dream featured werewolves, but we don't know if that's of any importance."
"It's probably of any importance," Willow countered.
"Okay, so what are we supposed to do about it?" Faith pressed her.
Willow's form left the couch and paced the room, losing a little more opacity as it did. "I don't know! You're the one in Cleveland! Tell Buffy, tell Angel. Make Spike start earning his keep. Oz can get the wolfpack on your side. We're running out of time. This is a virus. It's only going to spread."
There was a pause, with some unclear sounds coming from the speakerphone, and then Faith said, "Spike wants to know if the person the Wolf chose as his human body still has their soul."
"Oh, Spike is the one concerned about that?" Willow snapped.
Giles cleared his throat and gave her a reproachful look, then answered Faith himself. "As far as we understand it, yes. But as the condition means progressive corruption, it seems that allowing a clean retreat to the afterlife would be the greatest act of mercy we can deliver."
Both of the girls went silent. It crossed his mind that Faith was a disembodied voice, and Willow was a psychic projection. He was, in fact, alone in his own home.
He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
Buffy and Angel both automatically stopped walking at the end of the long path to Nina and her boyfriend's rustic wooden house. "Nice place," said Buffy. She liked the wall of bamboo at the edge of the property and the rooftop solar panels glinting in the moonlight, although she knew the secluded hillside location was better suited to werewolves than Slayers.
"She's good with plants," Angel agreed.
Buffy eyed him sideways with amusement. "So on a scale of one to karaoke, how awkward is this going to be?"
He smiled back at her. "Depends. What are you plotting?"
"Don't blame me, I just work here."
"Then we should be fine."
When Angel knocked, it was an intricately tattooed man in his twenties or early thirties who welcomed them inside, taking care to make the invitation explicit for Angel. Buffy allowed herself one sweeping glance around the interior before asking, "Mr. E, I take it?"
He nodded. "Eric, at home."
The word home resonated with Buffy as she and Angel took the seats he offered them at the kitchen table. The house was modestly furnished, but everything seemed sturdy and hand-crafted. Art was everywhere - big canvasses on the walls, unique sculptures on the countertops, a sketchbook left open on an armchair. There was a sense of harmony between the two occupants that instantly severed any doubts that Buffy might have had about whether Nina was truly over Angel, in spite of the absence of the ex in question.
"Where's Nina?" asked Angel, voicing Buffy's own thoughts. As far as she knew, the plan had been to meet both of them here.
Eric handed out bottled drinks as he answered, swiftly producing a ginger beer for Buffy when she turned down the microbrew he offered first. "She's at work," he said, before sitting down with them in the living room. "Her schedule's a little haywire with these night classes she's teaching. But I can try to help you out until she gets here."
Buffy tried not to catch Angel's eye. Mr. E was an important part of the Cleveland pack and she didn't want to lose his trust, but on the other hand, it was the first time that either she or Angel had met him in person. Strictly speaking, they couldn't even know for sure that he was the right guy. He might have broken in and killed Nina and Mr. E and was now acting the part so he could kill them too…
She tried and failed to smother a sudden guffaw, drawing confused looks from both Angel and the alleged Eric. "Alright, Wolf," she said in her best faux-tough voice. "The Huntsman's onto you, so cough up Red Riding Hood and Grandma before we split your belly open."
After that - and a timely reminder from Angel that only the real Eric could have invited him in - the ice was broken. Eric relaxed and spoke at length about his friendship with Oz, and how impressed he was by Faith's handling of the Hellmouth. Buffy wasn't sure how to navigate their real purpose here, but Angel kept the conversation moving and she soon realized that he was steering it naturally toward questions about the pack. It was as good as any place to start, she thought, and sat back to hear what Eric had to say about it.
This would be their last chance to meet at night for the next few days, he reminded them, as the change began tomorrow. "It's going to be crazy this month," he grinned, shaking his head. "The full moon falling on the Fourth of July, that's rare. Some of our younger members have never even seen fireworks while they're transformed."
Buffy blinked, imagining it. "Will they be okay?"
He affirmed that they would and explained the measures the pack had in place to keep each wolf safely contained, concealed from the public, and at minimal risk of hurting themselves or each other. When Angel inquired about the enclosures, Eric brought them out back and showed them the one that he and Nina used. Buffy couldn't see much beyond the porch light and fireflies, but Angel pointed out a robust fence that disappeared into the darkness, and Eric described the others like it throughout the neighborhood.
"From our roof you can see two others besides ours," he said. "One's the biggest, too - all the males without pack partners or families use it." He gazed out into that direction, then swung back around to face them. "Hey, I have an idea. Why don't you two come over on the Fourth and watch? If you're researching werewolves, you won't get a better view than this. Buffy can come early and get a burger out of it too."
Angel was instantly appreciative, and Buffy loved the idea. "Shouldn't we ask Nina first, though?" she said before accepting.
"Yeah, of course," Eric said quickly, but he sounded solemn now, and he led them back indoors to carry on the conversation in the ample light of the living room.
"It's true Nina's working tonight," he said as he removed the sketchbook from his armchair to sit, "but I also planned it so you'd get here before she did. Maybe you can set me straight if this is all my imagination, but she's been acting a little weird."
Before she even had to hear any more, Buffy's heart dropped. She hoped desperately that it was Eric's imagination, but past experiences had all but ruled that option out.
Angel leaned forward, real concern written on his face. "How?"
"It seems like..." Eric sighed. "Her priorities changed. We used to be on the same page about everything. We talked about marriage and decided we didn't need it. We're not planning on children, but we agreed to bring it up again once a year to see if we'd changed our minds. We're saving up to buy this place-" he gestured at the snug walls around them - "and that's all we wanted. I would say I thought we were happy, but the thing is, I know we were happy. We can smell it on each other."
Before she had realized she was doing it, Buffy had shifted a little closer to Angel, and his arm came down subtly around her shoulders. She had been wary about acting as a couple during this mission, but Eric had made her feel welcome, and it was impossible to not think about her own relationship while listening to him. She couldn't sniff out Angel's emotions, but she had a hunch that it wasn't so different from the empathic awareness of each other that they shared. Angel had been happy traveling with her, and that wasn't a guess. "How is she different now?" she asked Eric.
He thought about it for a second, then said, "Ambition. I know that doesn't sound like a bad thing, but it came out of nowhere. She's talking about our careers all the time, coming up with ways to make more money. Yesterday she told me, for the first time ever, that she missed living in the big city. And when it comes to the pack…"
Angel's prompt sounded soft but urgent: "What about the pack?"
"Well, you know she and I are the alphas. But you know what that entails? Pretty much jack. We host a meeting once in awhile and send out a monthly bulletin. I honestly think ninety percent of the reason we were elected is because we're both good at graphic design. But now, Nina wants to organize. She says I need to take a firmer leadership role. She's bringing up things like combat training, with a straight face." He rubbed a patterned hand through his hair, then looked up at Angel. "What possible use would we have for combat training?"
"Nothing I'd like to think about," Angel replied gravely.
Eric raked a hand through his hair. "So, what's your take? Am I just paranoid?"
"Let's not say no to that yet," said Buffy. "But for one thing, Eric, and I mean this, it's good you told us. If there's a way we can help you or Nina, we will. Just don't go panicking yet."
"It might not be supernatural at all," Angel added. "Nina's been through a lot. It can be hard to adjust to a good life."
"I came home to Sunnydale once acting like such a creep that my friends were sure I was possessed," Buffy piped in again. "And that was just the first time I died."
Eric nodded pensively, then said, "...First?"
They all managed a slightly strained laugh, and the mood began to lighten. They were sharing stories and equipped with another round of drinks when Nina finally came home.
Buffy had given her feelings an honest examination before they came, wanting to know if she needed to brace herself, but she had concluded that she wasn't jealous of Angel's ex at all. When she took her hand and said how good it was to meet her at last, she was sincere.
However, she soon got the impression that Nina wasn't. All of the right movements were there, the smiles and pleased exclamations, but there was a hollowed-out undertone to them characteristic of a bored spouse attempting courtesy at a social function. Buffy didn't think Eric was the type to tolerate that in a relationship, and she knew Angel wasn't. Nina introduced herself to Buffy with a limp hug that barely made contact, but then pressed herself to Angel in a very familiar and faintly sensual embrace. It didn't last long enough for anyone to object, but Angel looked uncomfortable, and after that point they quickly moved on to the shop talk by unspoken agreement.
Since they hadn't dropped any details on what they knew aside from Buffy's Slayer dream, it was easy to keep Nina talking about her pack. "They're wonderful," she said with a big, phony smile. "They're like our family. Nothing's more important to me than the pack."
"I know what you mean," said Buffy. "Some of my friends have really become more like my family, too. Not nearly as many as you have in your pack, though."
Angel came in with that tone he had that always seemed to put people at ease. "That raises an interesting point, though. Is every werewolf in the area part of your pack, or are there some that don't associate with you?"
"No," Nina replied. "None that we know about, anyway. Anyone in the city or the Hellmouth area is ours."
"I see," Angel said gravely. "I was hoping…." he sighed. "Nina - Eric - I know there's been a lot of unfair discrimination toward your people lately, but we have to talk about the possibility that a werewolf really is behind some of the recent crime. Have you felt any suspicions about anyone you know?"
Eric looked distressed, Nina merely surprised, and she recovered quickly. "There's one. Jordan Godfrey. He's been so wild lately, and I want to say it's just typical teenager stuff, but sometimes, really, he makes me nervous."
"You never told me that." Eric kept his cool, but his voice was wounded.
"Oh, I didn't want to worry you."
It wasn't much later that Angel began suggesting that they had taken enough of Eric and Nina's time, and Buffy followed his lead, wanting to talk to him privately. Before they left, they confirmed that they would be back for the Independence Day barbecue and wolf-watch - "Won't that be fun!" Nina cooed, and Buffy cringed and knew that the same reaction was behind Angel's impassive mask.
Some tension seemed to leave him as they walked back out into the night, and he slipped his hand into hers as they made their way down the leafy tunnel that the trees formed over the road. "What did you make of that?" asked Buffy gently after long minutes of silence.
"Nina's the Wolf," he answered. "God help us."