A/N: Thanks for the feedback and the patience. Sorry this took so long. Enjoy! ^__^
Xander was the first to speak. "Oh, shit."
Angela nodded and turned the skull a little to look at the structure, still unable to believe what she was seeing. "I'll see your 'oh, shit' and raise you an 'un-freakin'-believable.'" She looked up at Xander, who was already reaching for his cell phone, before she turned to Jack, mirroring his now-faded brilliant smile. "Thanks, Jack, I've got it from here."
His blue eyes narrowed, locked on her brown ones, unwilling to give an inch. "You recognize this?"
Angela laughed lightly and shook her head. "No, not at all. It's just...very interesting, isn't that right, Xander?" She gave her Watcher a tight, leading smile, begging him silently to go along with her admittedly lame excuse.
The dark-haired man nodded, his eye returning to the skull in his Slayer's hands. "Yeah, interesting."
Jack looked between the pair before nodding and exiting Angela's office, pausing at the doorframe. "Sure, just...let Dr. Brennan know when you've got something."
The Slayer nodded, flashing that dazzling smile again. "Will do. Thanks, Hodgins."
The second he stepped out of the office, Xander hit the speed dial on his cell phone, immediately dialing Giles in London. "Something like this, the G-Man is gonna wanna know, Ange. What can you tell me?"
She sat down, setting the skull on a base, staring at the artifact for several long moments. "I... I can't tell you anything, Xan. It's standard vamp structure. Except it's not dust."
Xander nodded, then turned away, speaking rapidly to Giles for several minutes. While her Watcher spoke to his boss, Angela continued to study the skull, playing out and dismissing theory after theory in her head, each more ridiculous than the last.
She only knew of one story involving a vampire skeleton that didn't turn to dust. Every Slayer who went to the Academy knew the story. The Master. Buffy's first death. The ritual. The sledgehammer. And Buffy ground his bones to make her bread, as Xander put it.
Xander snapped his phone shut with a frustrated growl. "Giles has got nothing off the top of his head. The only thing he could think of was..."
"The Master," Angela finished. "But it can't be him. Can it?"
Her Watcher shook his head and answered, "No, he's gone. Dust. Giles was sure of it. Until he and Wills can come up with something better, we're on our own." He crossed over to her desk, leaning down to study the skull closer. "In the meantime, I'm going to make some calls, find out some information. Maybe we can dig up something on the Master's line."
With a frown, Angela turned to him. "The Order of Aurelius? You think that they might have something to do with this? I thought the only surviving members were Angelus, William the Bloody, and possibly Drusilla. None of them particularly cared about the Master, if I remember my vampire history."
Xander nodded, a soft, proud smile on his lips. That's my Slayer, he thought, smartest there ever was. "You're not wrong, Ange. But I know people who know people who know more about the Order than the rest of us ever forgot. If there's a connection between this skull and the Master, they'll know about it." He slid his phone and his hands into his jacket pocket. "Keep working on this lane, and I'll travel down the other, and we'll meet at my place in the morning after your shift, yeah?"
"What if it is connected, Xan? I don't know if I'm ready to face something like this. I-it's too big." Angela stood up, crossing her arms over her chest. "If I have to face the Master... I mean, he killed Buffy, and she's the best."
The Watcher reached up, brushing a strand of hair out of her face, and his fingers gently cupped her cheek, smiling gently as he spoke, "You're good, Ange. You can handle this. You can handle it, because you won't be alone. You have me, and we will call in reinforcements. I promise, everything will be okay." He leaned in, kissing her forehead. "Okay?" She nodded, giving him a slightly watery smile. "Okay, great. I'm gonna go. Call me if you come up with something."
She gave him another nod, her smile brightening a little bit. "I will. Be safe, Xan."
He flashed her his best goofy grin. "You know me." He left her office without another word, nearly running into Hodgins on his way out.
The slightly odd, but seriously cute young billionaire stared after the equally odd, but seriously cute one-eyed man who obviously shared a very close relationship with His Angela. "So, what's his story?" he asked, leaning against her desk.
She didn't look up from her computer, her fingers flying over the keys as she started to put together two separate identities for the skull on her desk. "Hmm?" she said distractedly, "Oh, it's...complicated. He's a great guy, though. Real sweetie."
"Oh, yeah. A real sweetie. I was having trouble resisting the urge to throw myself at him," Hodgins deadpanned. He glanced at her computer screen, recognizing two different profiles. "Wha... Ange, what are you doing?"
She glanced up, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "I'm just...postulating a couple of different ideas. And I'm really trying to concentrate, Hodgins. Can we talk at breakfast or something?"
He nodded, a skeptical look passing over his handsome features. "Yeah, sure. Breakfast."
A brilliant smile lit her face for a few moments, directed at Hodgins, before she turned back to her computer, returning to her working profiles, subtly hiding the real one. Hodgins backed slowly out of her office. Something was definitely up with her and that Xander guy. And he wanted to know what.
Xander sighed heavily and sunk back into his ratty couch. Five calls, and nothing to show for it, but a half-eaten doughnut and a half-dead cell phone battery. He sat up and grabbed his Rolodex, flipping through each entry, pointedly ignoring the one contact he knew he should be calling. It wasn't like he hated them. Just the guts part. The last thing he wanted to do was bring one of the Soul Twins into this, but he was fastly running out of viable options. Not a single one of his snitches knew anything, and none of them gave up anything, even when he threatened them with bodily harm at the hands of one of his Slayer friends.
He heaved another heavy sigh and stared at the card in his Rolodex, finally pulling it out with an annoyed growl. "Fucking undead bastards. This had better be worth it," he muttered as his fingers dialed the California phone number.
"What?" a voice rumbled at the other end.
Xander rolled his eyes. "I hate you both, but I need some answers. Like, five minutes ago."
There was some fumbling on the other end of the line, and Xander wondered if the phone was flying through the air. He wouldn't be surprised. Neither of them liked telephones very much.
"Xander. What can we do for you?"
Xander smirked a little at the faux niceness in the other man's voice. "Well, Deadboy, it goes like this..."
"Thanks again, Angela. I really didn't mean for you to stay later than usual to finish this." Dr. Temperance Brennan smiled at her best friend, truly grateful that she'd stayed at the lab that evening, too.
The Slayer smiled and shook her head. "Not a problem. I'm avoiding a conversation I don't want to have with Hodgins anyway, so this is a good excuse."
Brennan frowned. "Is everything okay?" She turned around and leaned against Angela's desk to face its occupant.
Angela smiled and nodded, shutting down her computer and filing her folders away in the desk drawers, palming the half sheet of paper with her real profile of the skull on it. She slipped it into her purse before setting it and her bag on the desk. "Everything is just fine, I promise. Hodgins is just jealous of Xander. You know, that guy I met last summer? Tall, dark, needs a parrot?"
Brennan stared at her in confusion. "I don't know what that means."
Her statement drew a laugh and a true smile from the other woman. "It's a pirate reference. He wears an eye patch. He lost an eye in an accident a few years ago." She laughed again at the look of realization on her genius friend's face.
"Oh. That makes sense now." Tempe crossed her arms over her chest. "So why the fake face, Ange? That skull and that representation you showed me don't match up."
Angela's face paled as she stared at her friend. She should have known she wouldn't be able to put anything by the other woman. Brennan was just too smart for all that. "Trust me, Brennan, you really don't want to know, and you wouldn't believe me, so please, just drop it. Please."
Dr. Brennan tilted her head to one side, studying her best friend. She'd never known Angela to lie to her about or hide anything. If she believed in psychology, she might think that Angela was trying to protect her from something. But that thought received little to no attention her mind. Psychology was a soft science and served no purpose to her. "What's going on, Angela? You can trust me."
Angela gave her a soft, warm smile, one that shone with the gratefulness she felt. "Thank you, Temperance. I... That means more to me than I can say. But I'm asking you to trust me. I'm not in trouble, and I do know what I'm doing. If I think I can't handle this, you'll be the first to know. I promise." She hated lying to Brennan, who she did trust more than anyone else in the world, Xander excluded, but she knew the scientist in her would not be able to accept the truth.
Brennan smiled and reached out to pull her friend into a hug in a rare moment of physical affection that she initiated. "Okay. I trust you, Angela." She pulled back and smiled, making a note to look into the origins of the skull herself. "Good night, Ange."
"You too, Brennan." Angela let out her held breath in a long sigh. Well, crap, she thought. Xander was going to be so pissed.