Buffy smiled at the smug, gray suited man as she walked into his office. She was expecting the look, and she got it; a mixture of incredulity, amusement and mild lust.
"You're-you're Buffy Summers?"
"Yep," Buffy extended her hand to shake his.
He laughed, the same nervous laugh she'd heard dozens of times by now.
"I guess- I guess I thought-"
"I'd be bigger?"
He pressed his lips together. "I apologize, of course. You come very highly recommended,"
"Don't sweat it," She pulled a floppy disc out of her jacket and tossed it to him.
"Take a look at this," she said.
He loaded it clumsily, still grinning. He looked at the screen and his face fell.
"I have other stuff," said Buffy, "Mostly on the order of who's surfing up dirty pictures on company time. But you've got a bigger problem,"
"This is our internal network map," he said, "How-"
"That's my job, see, to find the cracks before the termites do. You need incription software, a new systems integration program, and I noticed a funny glitch in the internal link to your thermal sensory systems. Is it possible anybody's got an itch to sneak in after hours and sweep?"
"I-I don't think so-"
"Let's have a look at the facility," said Buffy.
They were walking down the hall of the plant; Buffy's heels clicked on the tile. She gazed up and across the hallway. Same old set-up. Old. Full of holes.
She stopped and looked at the upper edge of the wall. "Could you get me a chair?" she asked.
He got her one. Buffy smiled at him apologetically. "You'll excuse me," she said. She stepped on the chair, reached up and pushed easily through the old- fashioned air vent, leaning aside to let the dust balloon past her. She pulled a latex glove from her jacket and slipped it over her hand; she reached up into the vent and rattled something. She pulled it out.
"Do you know what this is?" she asked, holding the object down for him. He coughed.
"No, no I don't,"
"Fun little toy. Works on the same principal as a scrambler. Messes up the signal from the sensory devices to the system, sort of like white noise, so the system can't detect any changes. This is a lot like that, it's messing up your thermal sensory capability. Your system is one-handed right now. At best. But, like I said, you've got a bigger problem," Buffy stepped off the chair, handed the quarter-sized, dusty object to him, and peeled off the glove, tossing it in a nearby trash can with a delicate gesture. She continued down the hall with her client following her.
"A bigger problem?"
"Taken a look at your phone bills lately?"
"Check your long-distance charges. I've got a feeling you're accommodating boiler-room scams,"
"Boiler-what are those?"
"Kids. Set up a boiler room. Hack into your phone system and dial out, charging you for all the calls. Credit card scams, stuff like that. It's not just the charges you need to worry about, it's accommodating criminal activity. If they can get one number in your system they might be able to get others. Sometimes they get pretty interesting ideas. You've got to get serious and invest in some real security,"
"Well, of course I need to confer with others in the company. It's not in the budget to-"
Buffy turned to him. "Are you wasting my time?"
"I can help you, but you've got to want help. I've got clients who take a real interest in improving their security and will take action on what I tell them to do. If you're going to blow off any part of my advice you are wasting my time. This isn't just about my fee. When you let creeps in through the cracks you encourage creativity of the worst kind. You're contributing to the problem if you're not part of the solution. I need your statement right now that you will take my advice, or I'm outta here. Don't jerk me around,"
"Of course," he was obviously shaken, "Yes. If-we could go to my office, I'll make some calls, we'll settle this right now,"
"OK," said Buffy, her eyes locked on his, searching for lies. He seemed
pretty level, but she needed hard input. Boiler rooms were a favorite money-
maker for vampires. Easy, make your own hours, dark locations, completely
secret, and a great way to scout hunting grounds, build little nests. When it
came to this stuff she got militant on clients. They always seemed to come
Buffy walked down California street, heading for the museum. She walked lightly, enjoying the sun. She paused, looking up at Grace Cathedral against a patch of blue sky, and thought about Angel. Never again, for him. No more sunlight. He'd always had a thing for blue sky, he liked movies with lots of daylight in them, and paintings with lots of sky in them. She'd always known it, but now it touched her poignantly. The ocean would always be black, never gray-green or turquoise blue or deep, cold blue or foamy white around the edges of waves; just black. The sky, black. She paused and looked up at the occasional clouds floating softly over the city, thinking about how many colors they were, deep gray, a very soft almost- violet, white. None of that for him, not ever again. She missed him with an abrupt, deep wrench, as if her insides had been seized by a warm hand, she missed the way he never complained about those things, about anything, really. Vampires could be whiners, just look at Spike, but Angel kept so much of that in. He wouldn't say that, though, she knew. He'd say he was happy, because he had her. And he meant it, more than any other man could ever mean it. He knew about being alone.
She walked through the glossy, echoing halls of the museum, smiling at various people, who pointed her in the direction of Giles. He was down in one of the archive rooms, she found him at last.
"Hi," she chirped.
Giles jumped. "Buffy," he said.
She grinned at him. "Looking up something spooky?"
"Y-yes, I'm afraid so,"
"Do I get to kill it?"
His hazel gaze met hers with mild annoyance. "Demonic phenomena are not always cause for a romp in the park,"
"So, I don't get to kill it?"
"It's along an entirely different vein than-spooky," he put down a book and scratched his ear.
"How about a steak?"
He blinked at her. "Oh-it went well, then?"
"Oh, yeah. They need me, they know it, I get money. I buy lunch,"
Giles looked longingly at a pile of books.
"C'mon, no cross-referencing on company time. Lunch. Sunshine. Air, Giles,"
"Y-yes, of course,"
"So," said Buffy lightly, around a mouthful of sourdough, "How's everything?"
"What?" he arched an eyebrow.
"You know-everything. You. Mom. Stuff. You OK?"
He paused, and Buffy saw the emotions flit across his features. Just a few years ago it would have been none of her business. Not any more.
"Yes," he smiled lightly, looking at his plate. "Quite well, actually,"
"Good. I was worried, you know, for a little while,"
Buffy smiled and smeared more butter on a crust. Celebrating, so butter was legal.
"And-yourself?" he asked.
"You mean, am I still brow-beating clients?"
"No. I mean, are you happy," he said. Buffy looked up in surprise. These sort of direct questions were becoming more and more common from him, but they still shocked her, she wasn't sure why.
"Um- yeah. I am. I mean, for now,"
"I just know one thing. I just know that I'm happier when he's around, there's always this big hole when he's gone, like a hole in my chest or something, just something missing all the time. And when he's around, I feel...complete. Like everything's somehow OK,"
"Have you gotten another letter?"
"Not since the day before yesterday, so probably today. Oh, damn!" Buffy squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.
"Oh, I forgot about the blind guy,"
Giles' eyes widened. "Blind-"
"Yeah-what time is it?"
"Just after one,"
"Oh," she sighed in relief, "So I won't miss him. He's coming at two,"
"You're seeing a blind person at two? For a class?"
"No," giggled Buffy, "Venetian blinds. Although," she paused and grinned at Giles,"That's not a bad idea. You can fight very effectively without sight. I've fought invisible before, I bet I could teach that,"
Giles laughed briefly. "Venetian blinds," he said, "Of course,"
Buffy sipped her water and snuck a look at Giles. They were carefully avoiding the subject of Angel's return, not in terms of his arrival, but in terms of where he would stay. Buffy hadn't discussed it with him. She felt anxious about it. Giles and Angel had made peace of a sort years ago, and she knew that he trusted her, but it must still creep him out to think about having a vampire so close by, especially one with the risk factor that came with Angel. She cleared her throat, trying to think of how to approach the subject.
Giles put his fork carefully on the edge of his plate and looked at her.
"Buffy, I want you to know that I trust your judgment,"
"We've grown together a great deal, and I've come to rely on your instincts and your decisions. No one is perfect, and we've both made our share of mistakes in the past, but it's important to me that you know that I have faith in you."
Buffy felt her eyes stinging. "I love you, Giles," she said.
He cleared his throat and scowled at the table cloth. "Hmm. Yes."
Buffy walked Giles back to the museum and then went home. She checked the mailbox, gleefully pulling out a thick envelope with an Irish postmark. She put it carefully on the windowseat in her apartment and changed from corporate-wear into sweats; she still had a good fifteen minutes before the blind guy was due and she needed to work off a little tension. She'd only been practicing jump back-kicks for a minute or two when the buzzer sounded. She paced while he was on the way up, looking at her windows. She should have washed them. They weren't too bad, but it's what her Mom would have done.
"Hi," she said cheerfully. The man was Asian, with pleasant features and a slight hint of the Valley in his speech; Buffy kept expecting him to say "dude".
"So, like, how many windows do you want to cover?"
"All of 'em,"
"Really?" he lifted his eyebrows. "Northern exposure, mostly. You don't get much light as it is,"
"Well, I'm a privacy freak, you know,"
"Tell you what. I've got some very cool sheers. Can't see anything from the outside, but let in a nice, diffused light. Cheerier than just covering them all up," he was looking at Buffy's necklace, a simple silver cross that Angel had given her years ago.
"Nope," she said, "Got my heart set on blinds. Keep it nice and dark when I want it. I keep odd hours, see. I need to sleep during the day a lot,"
"So, you'll just need them in the bedroom," he said.
Buffy's eyes narrowed and became sharp.
"Whole house," she said, "Every window. I'm a little busy, so could you get on it?"
"Sorry," he said, "It's just that light is healthy, you know. All living things need it. In Alaska people need to sit in sunlamps in the winter because they get depressed. Lack of light. Light is-"
Buffy laughed. "You're not much of a salesman, are you?" she said, "You're trying to talk me out of your product. You're making a case against window coverings,"
"I'm just saying, light's important. It kills depression. And mildew. And- other things," he was looking at her intently.
Buffy put her hands on her hips. "Like what other things?"
He was staring at her cross again. He looked her in the eye and laughed nervously "Oh, nothing," he said, "Just a light freak, myself, I guess,"
"Then maybe you should sell lamps," Buffy said.
"I'll just measure your windows," he said, "The sample book is over there, you can have a different color or style for every room, if you want,"
Buffy's inner alarm had sounded. She decided to keep an eye on him.
"Tea?" she said, "I've got some iced,"
Buffy filled the glass at the fridge, peering out into the living room to watch him. He picked up the letter on the windowseat. Nosy little window- covering guy, she thought. She gave him a minute more, and saw him holding it up in the window, trying to see through the envelope. "Light's also handy when you're spying on someone," she said under her breath, and she took the glass into the living room.
"Here ya go,"
"Oh, thanks," he laughed again. "Got relatives in Ireland?"
"Mom or Dad's people?"
"Husband's, actually," Buffy had no idea what made her say it, but she was glad she had, because he paled visibly.
"Oh," he said, "Oh..." he was shaken. His hands were unsteady with the measuring tape.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Hunh? Oh, nothing,"
"You're not much of a spy, either," said Buffy, "What do you want?"
"Whoa," he said, "What?"
"I said, what do you want?"
"I-I want to measure your windows,"
Buffy sucked gently on her lower lip.
"Tell you what," said, "You level with me and we'll both have a pleasant day. The way it's going right now, I'm getting a little cranky,"
"I don't know what you're talking about," his voice had gone up an octave.
Buffy walked up to him and started pulling out the contents of his pockets.
"Hey-hey, don't do that," he was struggling to get away from her, but Buffy was efficient. She shuffled through his belongings and tossed them on the floor, one by one, until she found a business card that caught her eye.
"What's CAVE?" she demanded.
"Uh...uh...you know, this isn't right...you assaulted me,"
"Prove it," said Buffy absently, staring at the card. "Tell me what CAVE is,"
"I don't have to-"
"But you better," said Buffy, "I'm getting crankier. And when I get crankier I call people's bosses. What is your deal?"
He stared at her plaintively. He looked panicked. Buffy picked up the phone.
"I have connections with lots of area business people," she said, "If you're not legit-"
"We are! We are...OK, listen. We're not out to hurt anybody, OK? We're just an awareness group,"
"Awareness of what?"
He swallowed. "I'm just supposed to make sure that everybody who gets blinds goes on a list, and I'm supposed to get as much on them as I can,"
"You're lying again,"
Buffy started dialing.
"Citizens Advocating Vampire Extermination," he blurted.
Buffy hung up the phone.
"Where are you based out of? Are you local?"
"LA..." he said, and then frantically backpedaled, "I mean, well, everywhere, you know,"
"Uh-huh..." Buffy walked toward him, slowly narrowing the space between them. "Well, I've got a message for your superiors,"
"I know you're full of it," said Buffy quietly, "You think that working for vampires is cool. It's not cool. They won't change you after you prove yourself. That's not how it works. They only change people because they feel like it. There's no ritual. They make that up to get you to do things for them," she walked away from him and looked him up and down, "So...somebody's a big fish in a big sewer now, and wants to keep control. Somebody thinks I'd fall for that stupid card. Somebody wants to make sure that my boyfriend never makes it off the pier,"
"Just hold on a minute....we're AGAINST-"
"The only people who believe in vampires are vampires and people who kill vampires," said Buffy, "With the occasional exception of people who think Goth is still in. You screwed up. Tell you're undead boss that I'm getting a manicure tomorrow at 5:30, and then I'm heading down to Fisherman's Wharf for some crab legs and then maybe I'll take a nice stroll down to the Presidio. If he really wants action, I'll give him action," Buffy leaned close to him. "But if I were you, I'd move out of state and do the lamp thing. He'll kill you when he finds out that you blew it. Get on the next bus to Oregon or something. You don't want to be messing with these guys,"
After he had scuttled out the door Buffy sat on the windowseat and sighed. Why did she still expect things to calm down occasionally? Where could she have gotten the idea that anything would ever be the slightest bit normal or maybe even boring, just for more than a day? It was a hope she'd never get rid of. Maybe she needed the idea to keep going, maybe she needed to pretend to herself that someday things would be routine and uneventful and boring. That would be heavenly, and it would never happen.
But at least, she thought, looking at the unopened letter in her hand, at
least she had something that made it all worth it, even on the really bad
days. What would she do when the letters ran out? Even after he gets here,
she thought, I'll probably make him write me notes all the time. She giggled
to herself, and opened the letter.