“So I’ve talked to Lorne and I’ve talked to Wes and Angel gave me this address the other day, so here I am. This - I can’t believe it. You’re with Gunn. That’s…great.”
Anne smiled. “I think so.” She cocked her head at Buffy doubtfully. “Except maybe it isn’t?”
“Oh no,” Buffy assured her, taking a last swig of coffee. “Of course it is. I’m just surprised is all. I’m really happy I caught up with you, too. I just…” Her face reddened.
“I get it. You need to talk to Charles for your investigation.”
“Right,” Buffy smiled. “Any idea when he might be back?”
“His day’s pretty jam-packed. Honestly? Probably the best place to corner him is out on patrol tonight,” Anne laughed.
“Gunn patrols?” Buffy blinked.
“Oh, yeah. Not as much as he wants to, he got a pretty bad leg injury a while back that hasn’t healed right but he’s out there,” Anne sighed.
“Any idea where?”
Anne shook her head. “Charles doesn’t talk about that stuff with me. Like, ever.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Buffy replied gently. “Trust me: vamp patrol? Major ick factor.”
“I’m sure you’re right. Still, it’d be nice to at least know - if he’s hurt, if he’s scared, how close he gets to…” She brought a shaking hand up to her mouth. “Anyway. Sorry I can’t be more help.”
“You can, though.”
“What?” Anne glanced at their empty, stained ceramic coffee mugs. “You want more coffee?”
“Sure, please, and some answers. Like, why you thought I was someone named Amy. That’s the second time I’ve heard that name today.”
“Oh, that,” Anne seemed to relax. She flipped a business card across the table to Buffy and got up to retrieve the coffee pot. “I was going to throw it out.”
Buffy scanned the card. “email@example.com," she read aloud. “Nothing else? No phone number?”
Anne shook her head. “Just the card.”
“I guess it’s a start.” Buffy looked up at Anne. “Can I ask what she wanted?”
“For me to join some group,” Anne frowned. “Something about survivors of Sunnydale getting what they deserve. Did you and your friends really make Sunnydale collapse?”
“Kind of,” Buffy hedged. “We had help. What did she say?”
“She pulled out my least favorite of a huge dead-beat pile of relatives as one of the ‘victims’ who ‘sacrificed’ themselves, then she promised cash money compensation. Believe me, my aunt being too wasted on drugs to walk out of a collapsing town is not a victim in my book.”
“So you told this Amy person to take a hike?”
Anne looked nervous. “In so many words. I’ve seen the good that you do and how you save people.” She filled Buffy’s coffee cup and glanced away guiltily.
“But she said something to you? Look, you can tell me, we can work it out.”
“She knows, Buffy. About Chantarelle, about all of the me’s. I’ve told Charles a little, about living on the streets. He even knows about me changing my name a bunch of times. He gets it, what you have to do when you’re out there. But the vampire wanna-be cult in Sunnydale?” She shook her head. “I don’t know how he’d connect with any of that.”
“You were a kid, we all do dumb things when we’re kids. Hey, get me, I blew up a gym once. Then a whole school.”
“You were saving people, not traipsing around begging for some sick, twisted fairy tale of immortality. I knew better, Buffy, and I still chose that life. How do I explain that to a sworn vampire hunter? His sister got turned for real and he dusted her - for real. No games. You know,” she paused. “Charles and I were friends for a long time before we started dating. Somehow I thought it would be better, but in a lot of ways, it’s even harder. You feel like you know them so well when you really don’t.”
“Let me guess,” Buffy sighed. “Amy’s holding this little nugget over your head. You don’t join her group, she finds a way to share your past with Gunn.”
“I’m in no place to be giving romantic advice, believe me. But blackmail or not, you have to tell this stuff to Gunn or it’s gonna get you. Keeping secrets just pushes you apart. Until secrets are all that are left.” Buffy fingered the business card. “Can I keep this?”
“Go ahead. You’re right. Maybe this is exactly what I need to come clean with Charles once and for all. Either we’ll move past it or… we won’t.”
Buffy put her hand over the troubled girl’s. “Anne… God, you have done so much more with that name than I ever could. All I did was wait tables and you,” she gestured around the room. “You built all of this.”
“With help,” Anne smiled wanly. “I’m still not great at taking care of myself but it turns out I’m pretty good at taking care of other people.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Especially Gunn.”
“Then keep on doing it. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Or if Amy makes a repeat performance.” She got up from the table. “I’ll trade her card for mine.” Buffy reached into her back pocket and pulled out one of her last business cards.
“Hey, should I have Charles call you, about patrolling?”
Buffy shook her head. “I have a feeling I’ll bump into him. Patrols are like that.”
As Buffy wound her way through the maze of cardboard boxes to the front door of the shelter, she kept touching the card Anne had given her that felt large and foreboding in her pocket. She had to be missing something here.
More than that, though, her thoughts kept returning to Anne and her beau. Silly, really, when you got down to it. Yet Buffy couldn’t help but over-identify.
Why oh why, Charles Gunn, are you keeping the love of your life from this huge chunk of your life? Hunting lights you up as much as she does, it’s what you need to do, even if it’s dangerous, even if you’re scared. Can’t you see you’re pushing her away?
Grieving for Spike had peeled away Buffy’s layers of pretense and laid bare how having a true partner, especially one who understood her unique life, could be such a comfort. Gunn didn’t know how good he had it.
But, she sighed, those were their problems, not hers, and could not be solved with a stake or a scythe.
Patrolling, though, needed both a stake and a scythe, plus would be the ideal way to get a statement from a Mr. Charles Gunn that would move her investigation in the right direction.
Just like that, Buffy had a plan for the rest of her day.
“No,” Fred whispered, dumping the contents of her purse on her desk one more time. “No, no, no, no, no. Please no.”
Thanks to the notes she’d jotted down when visiting Connor, she had such a clear picture in mind of how to organize the memorial service she had arranged for Saturday night. Now she wanted to review her ideas so she could make a program and a schedule for Harmony to distribute. Only where could the notebook be?
Lipstick, compact, wallet, checkbook, keys, cell phone, empty prescription bottle, three gel ink pens…clearly, no notebook. No small leather-bound notebook that had been her constant companion these last few weeks. Its loss hit harder than she would have expected from some material object. Yet it had come to mean a great deal to her beyond its surface value. And she'd lost it. Just like everything else.
"Ohh, no," she moaned softly, sinking to her knees on the floor. "It can't be gone. It just can't."
For the past month, she'd kept what passed for a miniature version of formulas on walls in this notebook secreted in her purse. Spike had thought that she'd simply gotten better, hadn't needed the dry erase boards that he'd bought for her recovery. Gradually, she had stopped using them and started using the notebook instead. While the white boards became less scribbled upon, Spike brightened more every day. No coincidence, his happiness, no further testing necessary on that result. She told him to take them down and from the look of relief on his face, she knew she'd made the right decision.
A small section of that same notebook had also held times, addresses, names and observations regarding one Connor Reilly and his daily whereabouts. With every covert visit, she'd gathered more information, more evidence that the selective amnesia they'd all suffered hadn't yet left Connor – the operative word here being "yet."
Any change to his systematic schedule-keeping bordering on the obsessive (laundry every Monday, library on Tuesday, groceries every Wednesday, beer run every Thursday, pizza every Friday, movies on Saturday, dinner with the family on Sunday), Fred would be the first to know. Or she would have been the first to know, had she not conveniently lost her notebook.
"I'll start over," she whispered. "This time I'll tell Spike. Maybe he can even help me. We'll go visit Connor together and he'll know all of the wonderful things about this beautiful boy that all of us were never supposed to remember."
The tears came hard and fast then for the whole cycle of loss that continued to spin them all like an out-of-control centrifuge. Connor had been erased from them all, even erased from himself. Would he, too, return or augur the arrival of someone else? Something worse, perhaps…
All at once, a wave of nausea swept over Fred and sent her careening to the lab’s unisex bathroom. For the first time since its appearance, the heartburn took on a life of its own and roared out as projectile vomit into the toilet. Heaving so hard, she felt as though her entire body cavity was turning inside out, she could barely catch her breath and imagined herself watching some particularly sick specimen going through this agony. Shaking violently, she rested her burning head against the cool porcelain of the toilet and fairly begged for relief.
Just as quickly, the sickness left her and with it, tapped out most of her energy. She slumped into a heap and rested against the tile wall, panting. The sickness had passed. She would get up. She would continue her day as though nothing had happened.
But not yet.
Under the sooty light of sunset, the men met each other halfway in the alley with arms extended for half-hugs and handshakes, a type of greeting recent enough to make them both smile self-consciously.
"How's the private sector these days?" Spike asked.
"They're all poor and so am I," Gunn chuckled. "But nothing beats the good night's sleep I get from a clear conscience."
Gunn grinned. "Yeah, she makes for a good night's sleep, too. How's our girl?"
"Good, I think," Spike said. "Yeah, better. I hope." He wondered how many times he had said or thought those exact words and the sentiment of worry and uneasiness behind them.
"She's goin' out on her own yet?"
"All over creation," he mumbled, thinking about Fred’s errands for Angel and her reticence about them. "Anyway, thanks for meeting up, Charlie. I know you don't need the muscle."
"Out on these streets, no such thing as too much muscle," Gunn replied, swinging the crossbow from behind his back into his hands. "Though I gotta say, didn't expect on you getting out here again so soon."
"Doesn't seem soon."
"Married life getting you down?" Gunn joked, but Spike could see the warning in his eyes for anything that could be read as injury to Fred. Good on him.
Spike met his eyes. "Not me. Fred on the other hand…"
"Ah, she gave you the boot," Gunn nodded, understanding.
"Hey!" Spike choked. "We're still together! Not in need of your shelter yet!"
"Nah, man, I mean, she got sick of you bein' under her feet all the time. Don't sweat it, it means she's getting better, ready to take on her life again."
"Right," Spike said softly, keeping these thoughts to himself: that perhaps her life meant a longer time back than he'd been in the picture.
"Look, I know Fred Burkle, and as it is, longer than you - not better, just longer - so listen up," Gunn said, slapping a hand on Spike's shoulder. "You got nuthin' to worry about. That girl loves you and take it from me, that ain't a decision she makes overnight."
Spike glanced at him. "He speaketh from experience."
"Yeah," Gunn nodded. "It's no secret I carried the torch for Fred longer than she cared about it bein' lit."
Spike suddenly wanted to hear more about that. "When did you know?" he asked gruffly. "When it wasn't lit from her, that is. She come out and tell you?"
"Fred?" Gunn asked incredulously. "You gotta be kidding. Nah, she worked up to it quiet. On the surface, everything looked tight. But she just kept pulling away, you know? Until one day," he shook his head sadly. "One day, I saw her right next to me but I knew she was gone."
Spike blinked. "Jesus, I'm a selfish fuck. Whingin' to you of all people 'bout Fred."
"It's cool," Gunn shrugged. "I said I carried the torch, didn't say it still smoked."
Spike couldn't help glancing at him. "Does it?"
"Truth?" Gunn walked silently for a few moments. "I didn't like the sound of you from day one. Angel had plenty of stories to tell."
"As he does," Spike sighed.
"Hated it more when I found out how much time you were spending with Fred, even when you didn't have hands to keep to yourself. But you give that girl a problem and she works it. I remember talking to her on the phone and I could tell she had it in her head that there was no giving up on you."
Spike felt his chest puff a little at that admission.
"Since then," Gunn continued. "Well, shit. I don't have to tell you all that we've been through. Crazy Slayer, car crash, Angel and his memory spell," he shook his head. "One constant in all of it has been you and Fred. You standing by each other. Gives a brother hope,” he grinned.
"So we're good?" Spike asked.
"Hell yeah," Gunn nodded. "You carry your own in a fight and some of mine, plus you're always up for a beer and a round of sticks, and no," he looked over at Spike. "I ain't still smokin' for Fred. Besides, can't say it went down bad lookin' at what I got."
"Annie's a keeper."
"She ain't the only one."
"I know it," Spike muttered, turning the corner of the darkened alley and feeling a strange mixture of comfort and embarrassment.
"Now for fuck's sake, let's kill something while I've still got my balls intact."