I have not been, nor will I ever be paid to write this story. All characters are the property of their respective owners. I’m just taking them out for a spin around the page.Spoilers/Setting/Canon Deviations:
SG-1 through season 9, post “The Scourge”. BtVS-verse is post-season 7 Buffy. Timelines altered to make it work. Faith killed Allen Finch accidentally. Buffy was not there at the time, and Faith did not tell anyone immediately after. Buffy and Willow were asked to return home from college in Chicago upon Faith’s confession and subsequent voluntary arrest. ANs:
This is not a sequel to Inspiration
. That one stands alone and most likely will never be expanded. Dedication:
For all of the amazing women who have inspired, helped, encouraged, badgered, and tempted my bunnies into writing. You know who you are. You blow me away.
The Palazzo Barberini
At the arresting audacity of the question, Daniel Jackson smiled to himself. Then, giving the diplomat’s inquiry every bit of the serious consideration it deserved, he slipped his hands past the hem of his suit jacket, and into the pockets of his slacks.
“Some mysteries are fleeting,” he began deliberately, enunciating with great precision. “A few translations here, a little research there, and all of her wisdom, all of her culture is laid bare before you.” Daniel paused before making his point, more for dramatic emphasis than from a need to gather his thoughts. “But the best ones are solved gradually, each layer of debris carefully brushed away, each word painstakingly won, each secret slowly revealed. These are the mysteries worth pursuing—the ones that take a generation or more to truly understand.”
Astonished, and a bit more respectful, the Defense Attaché replied, “You sound like an Italian, Doctor Jackson.”
Struggling beneath his cool facade, Daniel said something appropriate, polite, and utterly unremarkable, as he staved off another deep breath. Lemon. Every table, every chair, every dark-stained surface in the cavernous grand salon had been lovingly polished with lemon oil until the furniture reflected light like grained chrome, and perfumed the air with its fresh, clean aroma.
As it always did, the scent pushed the past into the present, rendering him unable to concentrate, irritable, and full of regret.
“Will you be able to visit Monte Testaccio, Dr. Jackson? I understand a few of your former colleagues from the University of Chicago are there, amusing themselves with some…pottery.”
Daniel frowned. “Unfortunately not,” he said, dragging out the last word, as if he had something weightier to say with it than the three letters could bear. “I won’t have time to visit the site, this trip.”
Reaching out to a passing waiter and offering a quick ‘thank you’, Daniel followed Cam’s lead and accepted a glass of sparking wine. His friend rolled his eyes skyward as the sarcastic Defense Attaché commented on Daniel’s pitiable circumstances as a man of science working for the American military, and the disgraceful state of said military’s priorities, before excusing himself from the conversation.
Turning his head dismissively, Daniel let the man go, holding back the words on his tongue sure to cause a scene in such refined
company. Cam, on the other hand, voiced his thoughts about the man’s opinions as soon as the Attaché passed out of earshot.
Despite the open cocktail and wine bar, the plentiful, tasty hors d’oeuvres, and the ornate red, white, and blue decorative spectacle not forty feet from them, one thing was clear to all who knew him. Cam was not having a good time.
Daniel appreciated the distraction.
“I didn’t join SG-1 to waste…” Cam began under his breath, as he checked his watch, “forty-two hours, fifteen minutes and counting, playing the pony in the I.O.A.’s diplomacy show.”
“I thought I was the pony,” the lovely blonde to Daniel’s right replied swiftly with a saucy grin. Accustomed to the rampant political posturing at such events from her early years at the Pentagon, Sam Carter pretended to object to Cam’s characterization. “If you
get to be the pony, who’s the dog?”
Cam’s shoulders went up and down good-naturedly. "You can be the pony, too. We'll both be ponies." Then he jerked his head to the side, indicating the person standing between them. “But Jackson's definitely the dog.”
“Very funny,” Daniel said with a smirk. Not that he was thrilled to be dropped into this or any other shark tank, but like Sam, he’d been paraded through enough Washington "social" events not to be fazed by yet another meet-and-greet.
It was the past, not the party, bothering him tonight.
Cam sighed, tasted his wine, and made an unpleasant face. “Tell me again how Teal’c got out of coming to this shindig?”
“Important Council meeting on Dakara,” Sam said.
“Thanks for the detailed analysis, Dr.
Carter. That much I knew.”
Sam grinned at his grousing. “I don’t know the details. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t ask.”
Cam caught Sam's attention with his eyes. “How important was it really? Life and death, do you think?”
Sam put her finger to her lips and nodded toward the cloister of men southeast of their position, made up of General Maynard, General Landry, the Joint Chiefs, and various other American military officers of considerable distinction. Together, Daniel and the Lt. Colonels watched as the Defense Attaché crossed the room and penetrated the closely-held territory of the group, clearly intending to speak to anyone courteous enough to give him the time of day. After a few minutes in the man’s company, General Landry’s expression of disdainful horror was priceless. Not a surprise, the small crowd of highly-decorated dress uniforms quickly abandoned the shop talk and the weasel-y little diplomat, in favor of the company of their wives, who were conveniently chatting near the dance floor.
Tilting her head toward Cam and Daniel, Sam chuckled. After so many years of close friendship and cameraderie, given the circumstances, Daniel knew her expressions well enough to predict the direction of her thoughts. Teal’c—ever observant and diligent at these mind-numbingly dull gatherings—could usually be counted on to frighten such people away.
“It must have been a ‘fate of the galaxy’ kind of thing,” she said. “At least, I hope so for his sake.”
Daniel glanced down at the flute of sparkling wine in his hand and cursed inwardly. He’d been nervously rolling the stem between his thumb and forefinger. Hardened by years of what could reasonably be described as active duty, it had been a very long time since he was the flustered, fumbling man he’d once been. Nevertheless, every now and then, one of his tells surfaced like a bad penny.
Rubbing the bridge of his nose and sinus cavities under his glasses, Daniel searched his mind for a more effective distraction.
While it was true that the Italian Attaché had been impressively condescending, at least he hadn’t been lying when he’d said that their host, President Cosimo Fiori, had a vintner’s palate. Taking a sip of his Cavalleri Brut, Daniel perused the crowd, absently weighing the soft, creamy apple and vanilla on his tongue against the citrus-y California bruts he’d had in the past.
Comparatively, he decided, the Cavalleri was subtler, but the Californians held a certain charm-
Suddenly, something at his two o’clock, just outside the towering, arched panes caught Daniel’s attention. At first he thought it was a reflection of someone behind him. No. The details and his reaction were much too strong. On the cobblestones below, a form passed in and out of the mellow streetlamp light, and a few seconds stretched out infinitely. He caught a fleeting hallucination, an echo of a memory.
In the corner of his eye he thought he saw a flash of blonde in just the right hue, eyes both luminous and haunted, and the profile of an angel.
Leaning back, looking over Sam’s shoulder, Daniel tilted his head to the side and peered out the window. No one was there. Of course. It wasn’t her, just someone who reminded him of her. As if he needed reminding tonight, standing around, biding his time until he could discretely slip out for some air and escape the clean, citrus scent of her hair, her skin. Like a hillside grove under the dazzling, hot Italian sun, the very air he breathed carried her memory, suffocating him, calling her ghost up out of his imagination.
“Well…too bad Teal’c’s missing all this fun, is all I’m sayin’,” Cam grumbled, his drawl more pronounced than usual.
Returning to the conversation just in time to second Cam’s dismay, once again, Daniel caught sight of her—knew in his gut it was truly her—and the world rocked on its axis.
The first and only time they’d met, all those years ago, he’d wanted her with a craving so fierce it bordered obsession. If not for the gate, Abydos, Sha’re… Daniel squeezed his eyes shut in a long, tight blink, not believing that Buffy was actually there, with him, in the same building. He’d been so certain he’d never see her again. But it was
her. Had to be her, poised just inside the front door.
What was she doing here?
While most of the party guests didn’t have sufficient security clearance to know the truth about the Stargate program, only a handful of the world’s most influential military and political leaders were even aware of this gathering. Italian civilians at large were not informed of the event, let alone American tourists, and it certainly wasn’t as if the Italian government’s I.O.A.-induction reception would have been announced in the society section of Il Messaggero,
Rome’s most popular newspaper.
Daniel shifted his glass to the other hand, weighing the possibilities. He usually didn’t believe in coincidences, but she would have had to have been extremely well-connected, and in some way directly involved in the program to be invited and flown in from the US, which was highly unlikely. And yet, there she was, less than 100 yards from him. True, they’d met by chance once before, but could she really just happen to have been in Europe, in Rome
right at this particular moment, in the Via delle Quattro Fontane, wearing a cocktail dress, deciding to try her luck crashing this very well-guarded event, hosted by the President of the Italian Republic?
If Vala were the girl in question, he’d say it was an excellent possibility. But this was Buffy. She was, or at least she seemed like a reasonable person when they met, so it was a little harder to imagine.
Once inside the large, open double doors of the entrance hall, she slowed her pace. He recognized what she was doing immediately. Grazing each doorway, each length of wall, each lavish line of trim work, her eyes studied and sized up the room she was about to enter, like a general looking over a battlefield before sending his troops out, like Jack on the other side of a trip through the Earth gate.
She spotted the ceiling and Daniel saw her gasp. Chin tilted up, the long, sculptural line of her delicate throat, cheek, brow, and the soft outline of her lips reminded him of one of the smooth, white marble statues set in the galleries down the hall. For a series of prolonged moments, she studied Pietro da Cortona’s masterpiece. Then, her face a mixture of pleasure and regret, she let it go. As she passed into the grand salon, the Italian Air Force lieutenant at the door accepted the envelope containing her invitation and announced her arrival.
“Signorina Buffy Summers degli Stati Uniti.”
Well, at least this answered one of his questions about Buffy and her unexpected appearance at the party.
For a few seconds, his view of her was obscured by a thick, black marble pillar. He located her again standing directly under the medallions in the fresco. Moving as she was with such easy grace, it seemed her presence among the politicos was a daily occurrence.
The orchestra, which had been playing one of his favorite Vivaldi pieces beautifully, fell silent.
Although he was acquainted with most of the guests, they seemed to have faded when his attention was diverted. Colorless, nameless, faceless, aimless people were milling around without a detectible purpose. Coming between them. He lost her for what seemed like hours. Finally, she ventured into his half of the oval room, shimmering under the crystal light like a mirage in the desert.
Daniel choked on the breath he’d been holding, taking in the sight of her as she surveyed the crowd. She’d left her hair down in loose curls. His eyes followed the trail of soft, golden waves. Tanned, bare shoulders and throat were interrupted, separated from her equally tanned legs by a tight swath of chic, sunset red silk. As she came forward, he could tell her dress and high-heeled shoes were held in place by the merest, thinnest straps.
Frail, modest jewels sparkled at her ears and at the base of her throat. Not on her left hand, though. Then he remembered, when she was announced the lieutenant referred to her as ‘signorina’. To his dismay, Daniel found that he was more wickedly pleased by her lack of a husband than he had the right to be. Standing still, watching her moving through the crowd, was both swirling agony and crippling pleasure. Serene, defiant, and utterly self-possessed, she was as the celestial priestesses of Demeter must have been, existing half in darkness, half in light, walking among the common and earthy horde of mankind, while sheltering the divine, forbidden truths.
Buffy took a deep breath, but she couldn’t seem to get enough air. Something heavy moved inside her, rose up in her, shifting like a mountain of sand at the tail of a storm. Trying to be inconspicuous, she searched until she found him. At last. All doubts about whether or not he would remember her fled, and the strain she’d been holding together since she ran into General O’Neill the night before broke wide open, lashing her body with waves of anxiety. He
She took a deep breath and stiffened her spine. Remaining calm was key. He’d changed so much over the years, but her feelings obviously hadn’t. She had to play this just right. Looking for someone she knew, she found Giancarlo Amato and Jacques Dufornier not too far from Daniel, and approached them without a second thought.
As she turned his way, Daniel waited for her to see him. At first, it seemed that she wouldn’t, but then her face lit up with recognition. He smiled back, took a step forward. Two. His feet moved him into her path, unbidden by conscious control. She ventured further into the room, stopping to exchange exuberant words and warm looks with two men in expensive suits, who bent down to receive her kisses on both cheeks.
Daniel waited. But she stayed with them, never moving on.
Taken aback, a little too late he realized that none of that gorgeous happiness was for him.
Disrupting his thoughts, Cam nudged him. “Who’s that?”
“Hn?” For a second, Daniel’s gaze slipped to Cam’s face, then returned, pulled as if by gravity back to hers.
“The woman you’re staring at,” Sam offered helpfully.
“That’s Buffy…” he mumbled quietly, more to himself than to Sam, “…the…girl. The…getaway girl.”
Sam said something Daniel failed to hear and Cam replied. Both of their voices murmured—a low buzzing, a soft, cool white noise like the orchestra had been making for the last little while. Like a ceiling fan in a quiet bedroom, or the sound of air conditioning rushing through an intake vent in another room, he heard the whisper of her voice—her haunting, achingly sweet voice—and nothing else.
He couldn’t force his eyes to stray from her. He tried. He knew he was staring and ignoring his friends and it was absolutely ridiculous behavior, but she was so different from the girl she’d been, and yet in many ways, very much the same. Where once she possessed only a few soul-searing, life-shattering secrets, it was clear she had many now. And God, he still wanted them, wanted to lie down with her wearing nothing but candlelight, with the sweet music of her laughter, with the determined, steady cadence of her breathing, with the graceful, flowing, undiscovered slopes and hollows of her body, with the inexplicable power of her eyes and the siren song of her husky half-confessions.
A possibility occurred to Daniel. A theory. While untested, it felt plausible. It was likely that he wanted her more now than he did when they met. He weighed the evidence thoughtfully. There seemed to be more depth to her as she neared 30 than when she was 20: more beauty, more pain, and more strength. Time had gone by and it its wake, layers of history remained. He wanted to plunge his hands into the sands of her past, to sift her history through his fingers. He wanted to know her story—all of her stories. All of her culture. Her poetry. Her art. Her songs.
His palms itched, tingled. Daniel pressed and rubbed them together behind his back. She hadn’t aged at all, of course. Damn her. If anything, she’d patina-ed. He should have known. She
would. And he should have believed in the link between them, as taut as it ever was and just as invisible, at least to her. He thought he could almost make out the shadow of it even now. He ought to have believed they’d meet again, and prepared himself accordingly. As it was, he was almost desperately at loose ends.
He watched as restlessness stole her attention away from her charming friends. Her eyes drifted down, running along the edge of gold and blue silk carpet where it met the stone floor. A thrill of anticipation brushed his spine and taking in air became more and more difficult. His skin sizzled as she reached his shoes and followed the contours of his body. Higher. Higher. As if she took comfort in the lines of his face, she rested there, lingering amusement in her eyes from her friends’ conversation turning to inquisitive gravity. He was almost sure he’d connected with her, but beyond that slight change of expression, she didn’t react. For all he knew, her thoughts could have been miles away.
Dragging in a deep breath, Daniel pasted an impassive expression on his face and retreated to the relative safety of banter with his friends.
Buffy flushed at the heat and the voltage in his gaze. It searched her like a beat cop frisked a suspected murderer for weapons. Roughly. Urgently.
Demanding truths better left undiscovered, his gaze had weight. Yes, weight, more than any other she’d known, but not enough to help her. Trailing over her like a summer wind, like a hot hand hovering, running against just the hairs on her frozen skin, it provoked rather than soothed her. She wrestled with herself, trying to keep her eyes, her thoughts from him.
But how could she possibly?
He looked so damn good.
It was all she could do not to drag him out of the room and into some spare utility closet. She could see the scene with such clarity, feel his breath on her neck, his warm skin under her hands, his perfectly-pressed wool pinstripes pushed down, torn away, bunched up and discarded on the floor.
Not to mention what she wanted to do with that tie.
Correcting her balance at the last minute, she took a step back before swaying into Jacques, who reached for her arm to steady her. Alarm focusing her attention, Buffy managed to twist away at the last minute, beyond his reach. She knew it was foolish, but she felt too raw, her exposed skin too sensitive to allow anyone to touch her.
Despite her timeless beauty, Daniel acknowledged, she had changed. There was a subtle watchfulness that she didn’t have before. It never quite left her. She was more guarded now. His earlier questions rose up to plague him. What had her life become in the near decade that separated them? What had brought her here tonight?
He watched as she moved on to the next group of admirers, when another change in her occurred to him. For the second time in a matter of minutes, she avoided the outstretched hand reaching for her, and still managed to slide in close to trade air kisses with a man. An attractive man. Someone who could prove to be a potential rival, that very young, very accomplished English diplomat he’d met earlier.
Why did the lady not want to be touched?
She obviously liked Lord what’s-his-English-and-haughty-name. Daniel cursed the 20-something and all of the good things he could offer Buffy, like his time and undivided attention. Like a home and a life. He probably dabbled in yachting, race car driving, and yoga. No doubt he also did an enormous amount of charity work, like throwing lawn parties for under-privileged children at his country estate, and playing in polo matches for AIDS research, volunteering for bachelor auctions for cancer, and schedule permitting, high-profile runway modeling for vapid, glamorous fashion designers in need of a publicity boost.
Something else occurred to him as he was chronicling the Englishman’s numerous faults. How did Buffy move so cleanly, when she moved so quickly? Wasn’t there at least one irrefutable law of physics that should apply in this situation?
Daniel made a mental note to ask Sam later.
Without warning, directed by one of the men in her circle of devotees, Buffy turned to the side. Daniel tensed, bearing down once again as her questing eyes swept over his face, down his body, remaining long enough for him to feel a thick rush of heat. Firmly planting his feet, he tried not to calculate approximately how long it would take him to whisk her away from the party and into his bed. Fifteen minutes by car? Twenty? Counting the miles, he looked into her eyes and lost his place. Her admiration was unmistakable. She almost smiled at him. It was a half of a half-smile, a demi-smile, and he reveled in it. Turning to Sam, he stretched his back, pressing his shoulder blades together until they nearly overlapped.
Hell-o. He’d been holding Buffy’s attention for less than five seconds and already he felt stronger. Smarter. Sexier.
But that’s just the way she was, the way she made him feel. It had been like that before.
He stood a little taller, discarding his nearly full glass on the tray of another passing waiter. Turning to Cam, he said something small talk-y and inane, if the look Cam gave him in return was an accurate gauge.
But a small, very foolish part of Daniel wanted to show Buffy that he, too, was accepted here. He wanted her to know that this time no one was walking out on him. He swore inwardly. He was acting like a 12 year old with his first crush.
He sought her once again like a raptor honing in on its prey.
Finding her, reality doused him in icy disappointment. Buffy wasn’t looking. She’d allowed herself to be drawn into another conversation and had turned her back on him.
Surely, she recognized him. She had to know who he was. After all, he had just been pointed out to her by her freakishly handsome friend. As one of the handful of honored guests, along with his teammates, Daniel’s name was on the engraved event program held captive in Buffy’s right hand. Wasn’t she going to look at it? If not, why did she clutch it like it was the end of a line tied to a life preserver. When everyone else in the room had skimmed it and laid it aside, why did she keep it? What was the point?
She had to remember.
Unless…maybe she didn’t.
Over the din inside his head, Daniel heard Cam say, “Sam,” with a patent smirk in his voice.
“Yes?” Sam asked cautiously.
“You’re a woman.”
She shook her head in pseudo-disgust. “Good eye for detail there, Mitchell.”
“Think if I went over there and talked to her, she might look at me like that…after while?”
Before Sam could answer, Jack O’Neill breezed into the room, tossed his head at SG-1 in casual acknowledgement, and walked right up to Buffy as if they’d been friends for ages. She offered him her hand to shake and the general flipped it over, pressing a quick kiss to her knuckles.
Daniel had never seen Jack do that to anyone.
Old friends? Or were they more? She had been startled, but not displeased by Jack’s gallant maneuver.
Daniel’s attention shuttered and focused once again. His senses fixed on Buffy and Jack. Was she meeting him? Is that how she got the invitation? Was she at the party as Jack’s date?
“Hey, look,” Cam said, gesturing toward Jack and Buffy, “friends in common. Now maybe we can get that introduction.”
“Guys, no!” Daniel whispered, but it was too late. They were already flanking Jack on the left. Jack never used to leave himself open like that. Now that he was out of the field, the man was obviously going soft.
Resigned, Daniel joined them just in time to catch her rippling laughter at something Cam said. It was hard not to notice how very pleased with himself Cam seemed. Damn it. Fifty women at this party at least. Go find your own, Mitchell.
“Daniel,” she said warmly as soon as she saw him.
She extended her hand to him. Almost reluctantly, he accepted it. Sensations plowed through him, spiking his heart rate, arriving in his brain one at a time. Warm. Soft. Smooth. Firm. Daniel had to focus, to try hard to remember to let go of her once the ritual clasping of hands was over.
For a split second, he thought she might keep his hand a little longer. The way she said his name and her enduring touch made his whole body tighten as he flashed on the possibilities. Cam must have seen her brief unwillingness to let go of him as well, given the way his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Buffy coughed, trying to clear her tight throat. It was so strange. For some reason, she felt compelled to keep her eyes on him, and yet at the same time, she was at war with herself over it. Strong emotion had always been her ally, but not tonight. Once upon a time, he’d been a total hottie. Now, he was absolutely volcanic, not to mention polished and sophisticated in a way he hadn’t been before. The bourbon, vanilla, sandalwood, and cedar in his Chanel Platinum Égoïste cologne was going straight to her head. Not a new fragrance, but definitely a classic and so sexy, she was about to fall to her knees and crawl up his body.
For a short time, she toyed with the idea, wondering if he’d mind all that much. Maybe he wouldn’t make a fuss. There could be nuzzling, too.
Speaking of sexy, those wicked, pale blue eyes of his were scoring her flesh like rapid-fire, Chinese throwing stars. Just like she remembered, they reflected his emotions, all of his emotions—if you dared to really look. But what girl could do that for more than ten seconds and stay firmly in control of her mind?
He could feel Cam watching him and Buffy not talk to each other. Any minute now, Daniel felt sure Cam would give him a fraternal ‘see, she likes you, too’ nudge with his shoulder.
In the excruciating silence that followed their exchange of greetings, everyone looked to the two of them to see what would happen next. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Daniel blurted something idiotic.
“I believe you owe me dinner.” Stupid! Stupid!
She looked incredulous. “Is that what you think, doctor?”
What could he say? It was already out there, hanging in the air between them, and if you had to go down, better to go down swinging. “Yes.”
The irritation in her eyes raised the temperature of his blood. “No. I don’t think I owe you anything.”
Then, just as quickly as her anger came it was gone and only controlled detachment remained. “I waited,” she said. “You never called. I looked for you. You left town. I got the distinct impression you didn’t want that dinner after all.”
“I had a really, really good reason…ten years ago…to leave Chicago in a hurry,” he said, looking pointedly at the others.
She wasn’t buying it. “Oh?”
“It’s true,” he said.
“Care to share?”
Daniel glanced at Cam, Jack, and Sam. “I really…can’t.”
Buffy moved closer, examining his face, searching his eyes. “You found them,” she said finally, astonishment causing her voice to waver. “The pyramid builders.”
Daniel looked to Jack, who nodded begrudgingly.
“I did,” he said, and changed the subject quickly. “What about you? As soon as…as soon as I was able, I looked for you. Your hometown newspaper said you died.”
Buffy pursed her lips. “It didn’t work out.”
“I’ve never heard death depicted quite like that,” Sam said.
Jack smirked at her. “You sure about that, Carter? Mistaken identities, typos, these things happen all the time.”
Sam’s eyebrows lowered thoughtfully.
Although he should have remembered it from before, as Daniel watched her, he noticed there was something unexpected that existed behind, and went beyond any passing emotion in her eyes. A separation, an encumbrance, a silent, all-encompassing distinction, existed in her. Like a prism with light, this mysterious disparity in Buffy bent the world around her, shaped, and redefined it. In Buffy’s eyes, the ancient past existed in the present. When she was near, he could feel it, taste it, smell it—the hot, dusty Mehrgarh foothills, the bitter, savory, and sweet spices in the air, the ritual oils sealed in terra cotta jars. It was as if she were personally acquainted with the dawn of mankind, and carried it with her, tucked deep in her subconscious.
Buffy tried not to look at him. She did. What good could come of it, after all? But then she’d feel his eyes leave her for a second and she had to glance over at him, just to absorb something new and different about him. His body, for example. There had to be a decade, maybe more behind them, but if anything, his body was stronger and all of that flustered gawkiness was gone.
From beneath his suit jacket, the lines of his shoulders and biceps were thicker, and his torso was much more tapered. It made her fingers sting, wanting to set his buttons free from their clutching holes, to run her hands over finely woven cotton, to hear the gasping rustle of it ripping. What would Daniel sound like as she ran her hands across his chest? Would he sigh or hiss as she measured the latitude and longitude lines of his body, her fingers riding over the tops of his muscles, slipping into their deep, defining slashes? And if her hands fell lower, would he moan, or would he fall silent, holding his breath?
In her mind’s eye, Buffy slapped her hands. No! No more hotties. Especially not this one. Sure, everything started out great, then when you least expected it, loss and betrayal came as swift and hard as the Power’s vengeance, making the loneliness even harder to bear.
Her eyes lifted, seeking his. Pain squeezed her until she bled. Time had molded Daniel into a man more divinely attractive than ever before, if that were even possible…
Daniel’s thoughts reached for her, tracing the edges of the invisible wall between them. Her eyes were never still. Shifting, assessing, they moved over each person as they spoke in turn. But when they turned to him, the pain was so raw that he nearly stumbled backward under the weight of it.
It was as inexplicable as it was undeniable. Somehow this tiny woman had known violence and brutality, battles under the sun and wars under the moon. Even though he had once walked among the ascended, she knew things he never would about life, death, and the razor’s edge in between. She was so intimately connected to, and enmeshed in the distant past that she almost seemed to shoulder the weight of all of human history. You could find it there, he realized, every moment of it banked in her remarkable green eyes, if you looked hard long enough.
Suddenly, his ears picked up something potentially interesting pertaining to Buffy, and Daniel was drawn back in to the conversation.
“Sir, what’s going on?” Cam asked. “If it’s classified, fine, but this double speak is grating.”
There was a spark of some subtle, indefinable emotion that moved through Jack as he looked at Buffy. To Cam, he said, “I can tell you a couple of things, maybe.”
Buffy shrugged and looked past him, eyeing the open bar at the other end of the room like she was suddenly very thirsty.
“Ms. Summers has been on President Hayes’ alpha site evacuation list since he first came to office, but he won’t explain why.”
Sam smiled approvingly. “So you’re flying under the general’s radar as well, Ms. Summers?”
“Not so much… anymore.” Buffy lowered her thick, black lashes and asked Sam to use her first name.
“Care to comment about your presidential connections, Buffy?” Daniel asked.
“I have no idea what Jack just said, let alone it’s implications.”
Jack squinted. “No, but they do.”
“But, Jack-” Daniel began.
“May I continue?”
Jack gave Daniel a long look. “She’ll be meeting with General Landry at the mountain on Wednesday. Dr. Weir is interested in Buffy for Project Pegasus, which is a good thing, because the-”
Many emotions assailed Daniel at once. Shock. Disappointment. Outrage. “What? No. Jack!”
“Yes, Daniel?” Jack asked impatiently. “You wish to share?”
Daniel’s jaw locked. “Go on.”
“Well…anyway,” Buffy began, needing to explain her part in the interview, her eyes moving from Daniel to Jack with an intense curiosity. “I’m not sure how I can help with national security, especially as it relates to deep space radio telemetry.” Her right shoulder rose and fell. “I guess I’ll find out next week.”
“Given our present…situation, we need all the help we can get. Right here,” Daniel groused.
“In Italy?” Buffy asked.
Daniel shook his head. “At home.”
Sam lifted her chin, locking gazes with Buffy, sizing her up as if Sam had just realized that Buffy was someone more interesting than just his love interest. “Really, Sir? Project Pegasus?” she asked, and Daniel could almost see her mind working, trying to put the pieces together.
“Funny thing happened on the way to dinner last night,” Jack replied sardonically.
Cam smirked. “You failed to mention that at
“It was a…”
“Thing,” Buffy finished for him. “A tight-spot kind of thing.”
“Yes,” Jack said, nodding at her, his hawkish eyes revealing nothing. “It was. And now… It’s over.”
Buffy agreed readily. “Definitely over.”
“Wait a minute,” Daniel said with a bemused grin. “She. Helped you? Tight spots used to be your stock-in-trade, Jack.”
Jack growled a groan.
“They still are,” Buffy said primly.
“Thank you,” Jack said so cheerfully Daniel knew he was about to be beaten with Jack’s acerbic equivalent of a baseball bat to the back of the head. “Come to work for me, Ms. Summers, and I might just be in the mood to give you his...” he said, nodding in Daniel’s direction, “next pay increase as a starting bonus.”
Buffy turned to Daniel, her eyebrows lifted inquiringly. “Are you a hard worker? Will it be a lot?”
Daniel put his hands on his hips. “You wouldn’t.”
Jack shrugged. “Might be a good idea. Maybe she could use a little extra cash.”
“For shoes,” Sam quipped, signaling her solidarity with Buffy.
“However,” Jack went on, “I was able to witness a few of Ms. Summer’s skills first hand—the ones that probably got her on the President’s list, and I’d like to see her join the home team.”
“Buffy,” she corrected automatically and Jack grinned.
“Which home team, sir?” Cam inserted smoothly.
“As an additional member.”
Daniel was taken aback and it showed. “Really?”
Jack’s eyes flew open wide. Sarcasm dripped from his words. “Really. Really-really even.” Then he looked at Sam. “You guys may have to wrestle Shepherd’s team for her, while I take on the piranhas—er, I mean, politicians.”
Sam smiled coyly. “No problem, sir. We can take them. McKay fights like a little girl.”
Buffy feigned a shiver. “I hate it when they do that. It scares me.”
Nodding, Sam closed her eyes briefly in agreement. “Not to mention how embarrassing it is for every other PhD in the room.”
“Not Buffy, though,” Jack said, massaging his brow. “No girly fights for her. Plus, the President thinks she walks on water."
"So…big, sparkly bonus points,” Buffy added.
Astonishment touched Daniel’s face. “Do you?”
Buffy’s brows flickered a little. “Walk on water?”
“Which begs the question, what is it you do?” Cam asked, as if it suddenly occurred to him that his team might be getting someone who offered them more of a strategic advantage than a pretty face. “You don’t look old enough to be a world famous scientist like Jackson or Carter.”
Buffy bit her bottom lip. “What is it they say about the age and the mileage?”
“Your mileage can’t be that high.”
Buffy laughed, as relieved that she’d distracted the Lt. Colonel, as she was pleased by his words. “Thanks. Feel free to say that to me anytime.”
Jack blinked away the impatience in his eyes. “For the purpose of this unofficial, non-discussion, I think it’s a fair estimation to say that when it comes to saving lives Buffy knows her way around the block, the city, and the globe.”
“Is that true?” Daniel asked in open admiration. “How far have you been since the last time we saw each other?”
“To the end of the world," she said, giving him a meaningful look. "And back. Many times.”
“You don’t seem military or even medical, although I’m not ruling it out,” said Sam. “What kind of training have you had?”
With strength and confidence, Buffy replied, “I like to think of myself…as a natural.”
“So much so,” Jack said, as he continued her thought without missing a beat. “That President Fiori would like his government to fund a team of Italians led by Buffy, in At—on the Pegasus Project.” Jack slipped his hands into his pockets. “Apparently, the Italians feel that Pegasus is-”
Cam gave Buffy a conspiratorial wink and attempted to finish Jack’s thought. “-a sexier gig-”
“-project which is much better suited to Buffy’s particular-”
Sam laughed and couldn’t help but slip in, “-skills, sir?”
need more than they do,” Daniel said, surrendering to the anxiety and dread assaulting his restraint.
Standing next to him, Sam must have sensed his tension. “Exactly what are her skills, Daniel? Do you know?”
Jack’s gaze slid downward. “Are you?” he asked, as if he didn’t quite believe it.
Buffy shook her head.
Daniel wasn’t backing off. “Yes.”
Cam was just as steadfast in his denial. The words flowed from him quickly, his speech gaining momentum as if he were developing his thoughts as he argued his point. “No, I don’t think so… ‘Diplomatic’ is a good thing to be. If she really was diplomatic, she wouldn’t deny it. The lady knows her own talents.”
Thwarted, Daniel furrowed his brow. “She’s very persuasive.”
“That, I could see,” Jack remarked dryly.
Suddenly, Daniel remembered something. His eyes, shining with purpose, captured hers. Buffy looked back at him and mouthed, ‘what?’
“She saved me once.”
“No, I didn’t,” she denied with a tight shake of her head.
“You really did. Ten years ago. When we met.”
Her brows lowered, creased. “I don’t remember there being a saving.”
“I’m not surprised. I didn’t realize it until later myself,” Daniel said, and as he spoke, his mouth curved into the tenderest of smiles.
Buffy looked up into Jack’s eyes evocatively, laying a hand on his arm. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Not like when you-” she began, but that was the last Daniel heard before Jack pulled her aside.
Waiting for her to return from her little tête-à-tête with Jack, to turn away from Jack and acknowledge him once again, nourished the tightening muscles in Daniel’s shoulders, his stomach, and his hands. Seconds ticked away. The present became the past and he felt it acutely.
Over that ten years, so many moments were lost to them, too much time gone from the tiny, draining sand pool of each human being’s hourglass of opportunities, and they would never get it back. His leg muscles twitched. Regret tightened his chest. His mind drifted further away from the present.
Many times since the day they met, he’d thought of her. The time they shared was still so vivid. Memories, powerful and much too brief, fluttered around his head like the leaves of an ancient redwood riding the breeze, its canopy seemingly miles above his head. His thoughts returned to that rainy day in Chicago so long ago, when a strange and wonderful girl restored his faith in himself, and lent him the courage to take the first step on the road to his destiny…
Twenty minutes into his presentation, he had seen her slip into the room through the door propped open in the back. Nearly losing his place in his notes, he couldn’t help but notice her, and couldn’t fathom why everyone else failed to turn around and do the same. She entered the room in a blaze of red and black. In a sea of brown tweed and other such sensible textures, her colors pushed and pulled at him, flashing like a warning sign, like a beacon from beneath her very proper London Fog raincoat.
She moved with a friendly, open air, in complete contrast to everyone else in the fatally serious, paneled room. Captivated by her warm, genuine grin and her rapid, loping gait, he fumbled the piece of chalk he’d been toying with, wincing as it smacked against the linoleum floor, breaking into useless, tiny pieces. Once she was seated, Daniel’s gaze returned to her again and again as she scanned the space, searching for whomever she’d planned to meet there.
With the view of his hard-faced, blunt colleagues huddled together in haphazard rows to compare her to, Daniel decided she couldn’t possibly be an archaeologist or even an archaeology student.
If that were true, why was she attending the symposium?
As he wrapped up his speech—the majority of which had been eviscerated by the retreating American archaeological Gestapo, and delivered to an empty room save for her—Daniel moved closer, needing to stand with her. Or to be more exact, he’d had a sudden, perverse desire to warm his hands on her, to put his lips to hers and taste her scorching spirit, to merge with her and hide inside her skin, and prove to himself that he wasn’t impotent and alone. Fortunately, self-control won that round, but he did give in to the almost urgent compulsion to talk directly with the one person in a hundred who seemed willing to hear him out.
She stopped him. “No, stay there,” she called out from the last row. “I’ll come to you.”
After the humiliating disaster that signaled the death knell of his career, watching that befuddling, mythic beauty approach the podium in quick, certain strides was like recovering from many years of blindness. She was too dazzling, too intense to be anything but a figment of his imagination, and yet knowing that she was real and tangible made him want to experience her with all of his senses just that much more.
“Is this the first time a whole bunch of people have left the room because you were in it?” she asked.
Suddenly apprehensive, Daniel hesitated. Had she only stayed behind to mock him? One deep breath and he took a header off the cliff of those latent social inadequacies he felt rising whenever he ventured outside scientific circles. “Yes. Actually it is,” Daniel confessed in one exhalation, unable to stop himself.
The light in her eyes dimmed but continued to convey sincerity. “Stings a little.”
He agreed wholeheartedly. “It does.”
“You scared them,” she said, laying her hand on his arm, robbing his lungs of air. “You know that, right? No matter what they tell themselves, their leaving wasn’t about you. People need the familiar to feel safe.”
He grinned at her because he couldn’t help it, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Even you?”
She smiled, but sadness stalked it. “Especially me.”
“But you didn’t go.”
Daniel pushed his glasses up higher on his nose and crossed his arms. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. But…why didn’t you?”
She moved past him, and in her wake a soft, spicy, disturbing scent enveloped him. He was shaken by it. His mind swam. She smelled of myrrh and cedar, of cassia, of amber and blue water lily.
He recognized them easily. After finding the reference, wanting to know them, he'd mixed those oils together in high school.
She left him facing the back of the room, filled with questions. He found her again at the blackboard, running a finger over, and simultaneously erasing and re-writing the hieroglyphs he’d written earlier.
“Their writing was beautiful,” she said, and Daniel agreed. He wanted to say that and much more to her. He was dying to bewilder her with intellect, to impress and win her over with his knowledge, to launch into a rapid-fire discourse on the development of writing in ancient Egypt, its various forms, its origins. But he didn’t. He was afraid to disturb the soft harmony between them with his bluster.
Although he never thought of himself as being easily impressed, her presence summoned his awe. Not wanting to interrupt her thoughts, he took slow, shallow breaths, waiting for the moment she remembered he was there.
She didn’t make him wait long. Looking over her shoulder, she raised her eyes to catch him watching her. “Is this the truth?”
Her voice was velvet on his skin, rendering him unable to think, let alone respond. Known for his ability to communicate complex ideas effectively, Daniel was a talented teacher as well as a successful scientist. The irony of the situation was that his mind raced when she was near, but rather than making him wittier, it left him grasping for words and feeling utterly inept.
He had always prided himself on being observant, especially when it came to reading people. He should have detected the first clue to who she was earlier. But in the end this was unnecessary, her scent gave her away.
“Gone am I…” he whispered.
“Gone am I,” he repeated a little clearer, quoting from the Old Kingdom text. “Caught by the Underworld, yet cleansed and alive in the beyond…”
She looked at him like he’d suddenly sprouted a second head.
Chastened, his gaze dropped to the floor.
She cleared her throat, reached up and pulled a narrow, silver stick from her hair. Shaking her head, she released the pale waves down around her shoulders. Suddenly, he smelled something else... He inhaled deeply. Lemon?
Why would a seemingly normal, beautiful woman, wear the fourth dynasty Egyptian burial oils reserved for warriors, like a perfume?
And why did she mix them with citrus fruit?
Daniel colored. Had he said that out loud?
“Tell me your name,” he said pointedly.
Gesturing toward the marks on the board he’d made in desperation as his colleagues began to recoil, she repeated, “Is it true?”
Daniel smiled to himself. If holding information hostage was her game, he could play it, too. He kept his eyes locked on the Venus before him and repeated, “Your name?”
Her lips twitched, but not in amusement. Raising an eyebrow at him, she crossed her arms and waited.
OK, maybe he needed to practice the game a little more before he was ready to take on the title holder. Damn, she was good. Her eyebrow-and-irritation combination alone made him feel like he’d been sucker punched. He was not about to push further and find out first hand what other damage she could inflict.
“Yes,” Daniel relented with a sigh, suddenly reminded of the mass exodus out of his presentation. “Everything I’ve uncovered points to the conclusions I’ve asserted here today. Maybe there’s something I’ve missed, some other, still-missing piece of the puzzle… Believe me. I’ve tried to find another explanation.”
“I do,” she said, as if taking a vow.
“Do what?” he asked, turning to her, pushing his overgrown, sandy-brown bangs out of his eyes.
She replied slowly, as if she wanted to be sure she was understood. “I. Believe. You.”
By far the most pleasing sound he could remember hearing, her words warmed him from the inside out. Nearly undone by the possibility of her certainty, he smiled tentatively and leaned closer. “You do?”
She shrugged and smiled impishly, like she hadn’t just crossed a minefield of impossibly treacherous terrain and retrieved his soul. As if it were easy to pull him from the gaping pit of degradation and despair in which he’d tossed himself, his reputation, and his future, she said, “I like to keep my options open.”
“Oh?” he said, trying not to grin at her stupidly. “I never would have guessed.”
Her lips turned up at the corners. Not exactly a smile, it was more mysterious than that, more Mona Lisa-esque in nature. If smiles were by degrees, hers maxed out at approximately 10 degrees above the horizontal line dividing her lips.
Was she flirting with him? He checked his somewhat limited, but sufficiently colorful dating history. If she’d been another woman, automatically he’d have come back with a ‘yes’.
“Tell me your name,” he said, giving it one last try.
She held out her hand, granting him permission to touch her. Oh God. Blood stopped flowing to his brain, and the lack of it made him suddenly dizzy. Daniel tripped into one of the chairs.
“Buffy,” he repeated wryly, trying not to let her know how the touch of her hand affected him. “It suits you.”
“Thanks,” she said, going on to describe for him all the many different reactions she received for having such an unusual name.
Afterwards, they spoke about her life in general and his, getting to know each other. As people began filing in for the next lecture, they retreated to an empty conference room across the hall, where they spoke for a long time. As the conversation dwindled and he felt sure she would say no more, he was caught off guard by the sudden weariness in her voice.
“When I was young…”
“You’re still young…” he assured her.
He’d meant his statement to brighten her mood. However, mid-sentence, Daniel was shocked as he watched the metamorphosis of her pretty, smiling lips into an alarming pout. Her eyes darkened ominously. Suddenly very unhappy, she hopped down from the conference table’s edge.
Not really sure as to the nature of the crime he’d just committed, Daniel kept his mouth shut and prepared himself for the forthcoming tongue lashing. After living with his ex-girlfriend, Sarah, for a while, he could spot the signs. Looking to the open doorway for help, he hoped someone—anyone—would wander in and distract her.
With both hands on her hips, Buffy confronted him. “Do you want the benefit of my experience, or not? Because… I don’t like to be interrupted, and they’re having a shoe sale at Marshall Fields. I could be losing the perfect pair of slides right now, as we speak, to some poor, unsuspecting girl without the ankles to carry them off.”
She glanced down at her watch. “There may still be time. By getting to those shoes first, I would be saving her from a painfully embarrassing fashion blunder…” She paused to eye his wrinkled, serviceable clothes warily. “And I’m all about helping others in need.”
While he was fairly certain Buffy was the kind of girl who was exactly where she wanted to be at all times, Daniel decided to play along. “Of course,” he said, nodding his shaggy bangs into his eyes. Leaning back, he propped himself up with his hands on the table behind him, fighting to keep a smile from lifting the corners of his mouth. “Please, continue.”
She nodded, and turned toward the door, resting her lower back beside his knees, against the edge of the table. “When I was 15, I was introduced to another world. It’s scary…and violent, and it’s where I live most of the time.”
Startled, Daniel bleated, “What!” and shot to his feet.
She was out the door before he could stop her.
Catching sight of her raincoat as she turned the corner, he pursued her as quickly as he could. Only then, as he was chasing her down the hall, did he realize that she had predicted his second interruption. At least a small part of her had wanted him to fail her test, to let her off the hook.
She’d anticipated it.
Hell, she’d set him up for it.
Even as she tried to reveal her inner life to him, a part of her struggled to keep her secrets hidden. Just as he’d suspected, she wasn’t entirely the sweetness and joy she pretended, and perhaps even wanted to be. Somehow, that suited him just fine. She was funny and flawed and clawed, with Hollywood good-looks, and hopefully, she was looking to replace that friend or lover who hadn’t shown up to meet her.
“Wait!” he shouted, and she slowed, allowing him to catch up.
Even though not one minute in the last ten had made sense to Daniel, it was evident that she had tried to reach out to him. Clearly, something had spooked her, but maybe it was something they could overcome. God, he knew it was a long shot, but he really hoped it was a friend and not her lover she was looking for when she wandered into his lecture a few hours before.
“I’m sorry for interrupting,” Daniel said, willing her to believe him. Like trying to capture a jittery cat, he laid his fingertips down first, then a little at a time, his hand wrapped around her forearm. “Please tell me.”
She watched his eyes, not moving, letting him keep the contact. “Like anyone else would,” she said cautiously, leaning closer, “I shouted ‘Fire!’ when I saw the sparks.”
Daniel was attached to her at the arm, but she held him just as tightly with her eyes, her voice. He wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to be overheard, but he was glad. There was an intimacy implicit in her tone that made him vibrate. Her words, low and throaty, stoked that humming beneath his skin, until his whole body smoldered like hot coals under soft breath.
“I tried to tell people,” she said, looking up at him with those intense, vulnerable jade eyes, as if she were describing a tragedy in progress. Something was coming. Something bad. He could feel it. She was holding something horrible back from him. Would she find the words? Could she speak them? He watched her face for clues as the debate raged in her eyes.
At any other point in his life, he would have dismissed another woman speaking as she was, but not this girl and not this time. Buffy believed him. He felt compelled to meet her halfway.
Give it to me, he thought, unconsciously gripping her arm, pulling her in tighter. Open my eyes. I need to know.
Ever so slightly, he ducked his head.
She stretched up to him. “But finally, I realized that everyone else was deaf and blind. They didn’t want the truth, the burden of it was so...” She looked away, trying to distance herself from the rejection. “They wanted me to go back to the way I was before.”
Silent, straining at the bit, trying not to break the confessional spell she was under, he reached for her with his other hand, stroked her cheek reassuringly, luring her to him. She sighed as he laid his forehead against hers. I want to know. I’ve got to know. I’d never ask you to pretend to be something else.
“The reality of what I was dealing with was beyond the scope of their normal thinking. They just couldn’t handle it…” she paused and he tensed. Her lips were inches from his. Her warm, cinnamon breath brushed against his mouth. She sighed the last words. “…or me.”Tell me. Trust me. God. Please. Let me help you.
She retreated a few inches, searching his face. Her sadness was too fresh, too intense not to be recent. He looked down at his pale hand, knuckles white, squeezing her tanned wrist, making it red. She didn’t seem to feel it until his eyes left her face. Surprise broke her concentration more than any pain he might have caused. He let her go before she shook him off. She took a step back. When she raised her face to him again her eyes had changed, shut him out.
He sighed. She also took a deep breath and shoved it out. His was resignation. Hers felt more like she was preparing for something.
Daniel’s brow creased. He couldn’t tell whether he was more frustrated with her or with himself. The time of harmony and fragile trust between them had passed and he had lost Buffy in the bitter flash of her self-awareness. It wasn’t until then that he realized he had absolutely no hold on her, no knowledge of her beyond the few hours they’d shared, and what his gut was telling him.
At this point, he was beyond intimidation. “Have dinner with me.”
“Dr. Jackson!” a woman cried from behind him, startling him. Despite a strong natural inclination to be courteous, Daniel didn’t turn around. He couldn’t.
Buffy looked perplexed, glancing at the woman coming up behind him before finally asking, “Can you read Sumerian?”
“Yes,” he exhaled in relief, shocking himself by how pleased he was to be able to give her what she wanted. “I can read Akkadian, and the Proto-, Archaic-, Classical-, and post-Sumerian languages.”
The woman behind him cleared her throat—not annoyed, just determined. “Dr. Jackson, if I may…”
Turning to find a small-boned, elderly woman at his back, Daniel begged for time. “Just a moment, please. I promise, just give me a moment and I’ll be with you.”
The woman tilted her head slightly to the left and evaluated Daniel with intelligent eyes. Then she straightened and smiled at him. “I’ll be outside in front. My car is waiting at the curb.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Daniel said, turning back to Buffy. His shrewd eyes focused on her once again. He chuckled softly. “Sumerian. That’s a refreshing, if somewhat confusing response to a dinner invitation.”
“I’m an acquired taste,” she said in such a sophistic voice, he almost missed the warmth flowing beneath the words.
“Your stomach is growling,” she said, brushing her hair back from her shoulders.
He tracked the fall, capturing, savoring the image of it spilling down her back. “Hence the dinner offer. You still haven’t accepted.”
She grinned, her eyes sparkling. “I’ll cook for you.”
“What? Now I’m supposed to entrust my dietary needs to you?”
“You’re probably right,” she said with an adorable little shrug. “Play it safe. Good men have been lost, battling over my basil-mushroom-pinon ravioli with roasted red pepper sauce.”
Daniel winced. “You fight dirty.”
“You have no idea.”
“Now I do, and I’ll be adding that to what I already know about you.”
“What could you possibly know about me, Dr. Jackson?”
Her smile broadened. “I love that name.”
He was so pleased by her revelation that he was beaming like an idiot, and didn’t really mind at all. “I’m so glad to hear it.”
She leaned closer, looking up at him from under thick lashes. “You were telling me what you think
you know. I was interrupting…”
“Ah, yes,” he stammered, caught off guard floating in the stream of her admiration. “Well, you obviously need an accurate translation done, and you drive a hard bargain.”
She reached out and slipped her hand under his arm, leading him to the stairs. “Never doubt it.”
“So,” he hedged, stalling for time. “You. Me. The translation. What are we really talking about here?”
She halted their progress and swallowed. All indication of happiness left her features. “It’s a warrior myth. A legend about the war between good and evil in the last days.”
Confused by her statement, and worried about her sudden sadness, Daniel slid his arm through hers so he could take her hand. “Is there historical evidence you want me to validate? Research you need me to take a look at? What can I do for you?”
“Have you ever heard of the Seneyan Prophecy?”
He squeezed her hand. “No, and that’s unusual. My mentor, Dr. Jordan, is fond of prophetic writings. It’s Sumerian?”
She shook her head and tugged on their clasped hands, keeping her eyes on the steps. “No. It’s much older. It pre-dates writing. But the only copy we know of is in Sumerian. ”
Daniel rubbed his forehead with his free hand and stared at her. “Do you know what you have, Buffy? A heretofore un-translated, ancient document that, if authentic, may be the only one of its kind.”
She bit the corner of her lip. “I have lots of rare texts.”
She ignored the questions. “I also have nightmares, enemies, and scars, Daniel.” Withdrawing her hand, she looked him in the eye. “It’s better if you don’t get too close.”
Daniel tried to digest her statement and found that he couldn’t. He stopped her a few steps from the bottom. “Scars? God, Buffy. Let me help you-” But she wasn’t listening. She drifted a few steps ahead of him, her attention focused on a young, soaked to the bone, redhead entering the building through the glass doors in front of them.
“Buffy! Where’ve you been?” the girl cried. “I've been looking everywhere. You were supposed to meet me two buildings over. Remember? Dr. Stephen Rayner lecturing on the early Sumerian deities at 2 o’clock?”
“Sorry, Will,” Buffy called back. “I guess I…” she said, and then hesitated, glancing up at Daniel, taking hold of his hand. “…went to a place that was different.”
As her friend drew closer, under her breath, Buffy whispered to him fervently. “If you find another copy, don’t read the prophecy without me. I want to be there.” It was an order, not a request.
Daniel blinked. “OK.”
She tightened her hold on his hand almost to the point of pain. “Promise.”
“I do,” he soothed, repeating her words from earlier.
Reaching into the pocket of her raincoat, she pulled out a thin pad of post-it notes with a small pen. Rapidly, she scrawled her name and phone number. “Come to dinner,” she said, handing him the little yellow square. “I’ll show it to you. We’ll talk then.”
He nodded, accepting her contact information and her dismissal. He allowed her to walk ahead of him. When she joined her friend, he tried not to eavesdrop on their happy chatter. But he couldn’t help but catch a tiny bit of it, just before getting into the elderly lady’s military vehicle.
“Who was that?” her red-headed friend asked.
“The perfect man,” Buffy replied with a bemused grin.
A rush of heat stained Daniel’s cheeks. He smiled to himself at her grossly exaggerated endorsement.
“Oh!” her friend exclaimed. “Do tell. And don’t leave out a single tingle.”
Buffy threw an arm around her friend’s neck. Over the shrieking wind and rain slapping against the concrete, he thought he heard her say, “He’s you, Will…in the body of a hottie…”
“Daniel?” Sam repeated louder, bringing him back to the present. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah. Fine. Why?”
Unmistakably entertained by his confusion, Cam grinned. “Well, you’ve been staring a hole into the back of Buffy’s head for almost two full minutes.”
“It’s true.” Sam tapped her watch. “We timed you.”
Damn. “Really? Anything else happen?”
His questions seemed to amuse Sam as well. “No. We were just talking.”
“You said earlier she was the ‘getaway girl’-”
Nodding, Cam interrupted. “Which I translated for Carter, from, you know, ‘fixated-guy mumble language’ to English, as being ‘the girl that got away’. Was that close, or…”
“Pretty much right on, yeah,” Daniel said.
As he finished speaking, Buffy glanced over her shoulder at him and Jack seized the opportunity to nudge her back into conversation with the others.
Massaging his forehead, Jack sighed. “Tell you what…I’m going to go hunt down some aspirin, and I’m taking Carter and Mitchell with me as back up. We’ll give you guys some time to work this out.”
“Oh!” Buffy exclaimed in surprise. “But you don’t have to-”
Daniel moved past his former team leader, narrowing the distance between Buffy and himself. “Thanks,” he said to Jack’s retreating back.
“Let’s take a walk.” Impatient to get her alone, forgetting himself and what he’d seen earlier, Daniel laid his hand against the small of her back, trying to guide her toward the hall.
The music and voices he’d rediscovered after returning from his foray into the past were silenced once again. Buffy hissed and whirled around. Pain clouded her expression. It had been there all night, hovering tightly behind her features. She had moved away from other people, Daniel knew that, but he’d been so caught up in seeing her again and talking with her, he’d missed the source of her discomfort completely.
Not wanting to cause her any more embarrassment, and remembering her reluctance to share, he gestured toward the hall. She led the way, elegantly feline in her movements. Unlike the other women strolling to and from the salon and exhibits, he noted that Buffy’s footfalls were soundless against the stone floor.
As she reached the stairs, she sat down on a small section of carved, stone balustrade. He didn’t like her sitting there. It would be so easy for her to fall backward over the side that he could almost envision it. Of course, he couldn’t say anything to her about it. Tense as she was, it would be an easy shift to anger. Where the hell were those safety-conscious security guards who herded tourists away from danger, when you needed them?
Daniel’s eyes moved past her, tracing the dramatic boundaries cut into the large space by pre-eminent, 17th century sculptor and architect, Giovanni Bernini, all those year ago. The lines of connecting balustrades, balusters, and columns, which followed along the edges of two balconies to Buffy’s left and to the right of the staircase she sat beside, were both beautiful and impressive, having been hand-crafted by Bernini himself, and his most talented apprentices. Leaning back against one of twin marble columns framing her seat, Buffy sighed, crossed her arms and closed her eyes, effectively shutting him out.
Her actions were predictable, but still they made him ache.
Daniel leaned against the side of Buffy’s column and looked at her. She’d been the source of so many thoughts, questions, and emotions over the years. He knew he should be content simply being this close to her. Whether he won her or not, he had to acknowledge that from now on in his mind, these assembled pieces of rock—this perfectly chiseled masterwork of Baroque architecture—was no longer the creator’s, no longer solely Bernini’s. From now on, the column supporting her back and his shoulder was Buffy’s column. Every time he visited the galleries in the palazzo, be it a year from now or 40, he would reach out and run his hand over the cool, smooth surface, and think of her and this night.
Shifting fitfully in her seat, Buffy turned her body away from him. Daniel scrubbed his face with his hands and sighed in frustration. Just by touching it, had he exacerbated the pain of her wound so much that she had to hide from him? Looking out over the side of the balcony, down the long row of identical marble columns flanking both sides of the staircase, she remained tense, cautious, and still. Her face was closed, even in profile, as if she were unwilling or unable to deal with him when the others weren’t around.
Actually, he had no real idea what she was thinking or feeling. He hated that, hated the tension that stretched between them like one of Jack’s beloved fishing lines, taut and transparent, bonding the rod to the struggling fish on the hook. Briefly, Daniel wondered who was the fish and who was the rod in this scenario. He honestly didn’t know. He put his back against her column.
Staring at nothing, he tried to unsuccessfully to come up with something non-threatening to say. “I guess I shouldn’t ask whether you’ve found a way out of the violence.”
Daniel turned toward her, laying his hand flat against the pillar. “It’s been a long time…to live this way.”
“You have no idea.”
Sliding his hand closer to hers, he disagreed. “I have some idea.”
She turned and searched his expression, saw his resolve, and offered him a small shrug. “Maybe you do.”
Daniel nodded toward her back. “Can I ask?”
“It’s just a stab wound. From last night…no big.”
“A what?” he asked, alarm locking his joints.
“Happens all the time.”
“How can you be so casual about life-threatening injuries?”
“Practice makes perfect,” she said in a sing-song voice.
Buffy wished he’d just go, or that she could figure out a valid reason to return to the party. She didn’t want to be away from him, knew that this would be the last time she could allow them to be alone together. But this whole thing—the whole talking thing—was pointless. Inhaling deeply because she was incapable of stopping herself, she pulled him into her the only way she could, luxuriating in the warm spicy scent of him. Why now? After so long, why did she have to meet him again?
Why did it have to be this man?
He made her so weak.
No, that wasn’t fair, she decided firmly. She made herself weak. Allowing all of the thoughts about him and the resulting feelings she had experienced since last night to go unvoiced was a bad idea. She should have called Willow or Dawn. Locking him up in her head, it gave her false hope. It made her think crazy, impossible things, like maybe she could have a real life and they could have some kind of a future together.
“Really, it’s fine. I’m a quick healer. Don’t worry about it.”
Finally, his hand reached hers, covered it. “I wish you’d let me.”
“What?” Buffy froze. Her eyes rested on his hand on top of hers.
“Worry about you.”
She closed her eyes. “Please don’t say things like that.”
Buffy slipped her hand out from under his and raised it between them, fingers spread wide, palm facing him. She wanted him to back off. He got the message. Not that he would abide by her wishes, but he would take a different tack. The long way around didn’t work. He’d try the direct approach.
“There’s something you need to know about me.” Daniel paused, trying to choose his words carefully, his stomach riddled with bees rather than butterflies. He shook his head. “This sounds so ridiculous, even to me, which is strange because-”
Buffy’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re Jack’s lover? Or Cam’s? Or Samantha’s?”
Daniel stiffened in surprise. “No. I’m not gay, and Sam and I are just friends. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay, if you are. But, I assumed you weren’t. Are you?”
She ignored his question. If he didn’t object to homosexuality, what did it matter whether she was or wasn’t? “If you’re not gay, then…” Buffy paused to work out her next few words. “Let me guess, you’re not actually a nice guy. You just play one on TV?”
Daniel raised his eyebrows. “Uh… No.”
“You’re married?” she asked, shifting gears. “Congratulations. Any kids?”
His eyes darkened. “Widowed.”
“Oh God. I’m so sorry.” Chewing the inside of her bottom lip, she watched the pain surfacing in him. Acidic remorse ate at her. Damn it all to hell, Buffy. Just let the man get it out so you can both get on with your lives.
Daniel shook his head, folding his arms over himself. “It’s all right. It was a while ago.”
Buffy laid a soft hand on the column, taking comfort in the cool, firm strength of it. Not wanting to see the pain in his eyes from her clumsy reminder of his dead wife, Buffy kept her eyes on her hand. “Should I go on guessing, or…”
Wanting some connection with her even if it was through solid rock, Daniel leaned against the column once again. “I might…I think… that is, I think-I might…”
“Like you. A lot.”
“You do?” Her mind instantly went to the bad place, the place where her hidden dreams resided, the ‘maybe the Powers have decided you’ve earned a normal life, after all’ place.
Daniel inclined his head, a wistful smile on his lips telling her more than she wanted to know. “Pretty sure.”
He had hopes, too. She could see them. So fierce, they were almost tangible.
Naturally, she would have to end them. It was her job. She always handled the ending.
Buffy stood to face him. It was respectful, the very least he deserved. Acute disassociation and sharp molars biting into the side of her tongue were the only things that stopped her from screaming at the sky. Numbness spread through her limbs, and she braced against the column to keep herself centered.
“Cool,” she said with a joie de vivre she didn’t feel. “The ‘like me like a sister’ kind?”
Daniel sensed the storm rising, the waves crashing inside her, as much as he witnessed their external side effects. Tension crackled in the air, in her body, and it seemed to be the only thing tethering her to the ground, stopping her from running. Still, he needed to get his words out. She could do what she wanted with the revelation. He couldn’t control her reaction, but he would be honest and give her his eloquent best. “No. Not the ‘like a sister’ kind,” he corrected gently. “The ‘I like your smile’ kind. The ‘I like the way you laugh, the way you think, the way you talk and walk and carry yourself like a soldier sometimes, and like an empress other times’ kind of like.”
She looked away, trying to keep his sweetness from touching her.
“Hey, it’s true.”
She disagreed. A short, stiff shake of the head.
Daniel extended his arm and stroked her cheek with his palm, bringing her sad eyes back to him. “I like the clothes you wear. I like your honesty. I like the way you smell… I love your eyes…and…”
Numbly, Buffy moved away, shaking her head harder, as if to clear it.
“Me, too,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘me too’?”
She stiffened her spine and moved around Daniel to lean against the pillar opposite him. “You like me. I like you. Great. Got that off our chests. Next subject.”
Shocked and hurt as he was, Daniel still couldn’t avoid noticing how torn she seemed. “Don’t you think we should do something about this?”
Now she was playing dumb.
Sliding his hands into his pockets, he shrugged. “Like…I don’t know. Have dinner. Go see a movie. Spend some time together.”
“Love fades, Daniel.”
At first, he was surprised by her use of the word ‘love’. Then, the rest of what she’d said hit home, and he took a minute grasping how quickly her words could stomp out his joy. He blinked hard. Obviously, she was referring to the past—her past, and not with him.
Was he in love with her already, he wondered, and more to the point, what the hell did she know about his capacity for attachment—not to mention, affection, perseverance, and fidelity? A small voice inside him whispered truths about the duration of their time together, or the lack thereof, and a few other things he didn’t want to hear. Daniel clenched his jaw. Love fades? He didn’t like her answer, and he didn’t appreciate her doubting him.
Daniel looked her directly in the eye. “Not. Mine.”
He took a few deep breaths and in the time it took, considered her words as rationally as possible. He knew her life was difficult. She had lost people just as he had. Even if she hadn’t implied as much, he knew the signs. Perhaps not being romantically connected to someone was easier for her. He respected her enough to grant that it was a valid decision in her life, under the circumstances. If things were reversed, and the timing was wrong for him and right for her, he may very well feel the same way.
Daniel shook himself inwardly. No. Screw that. He cared for her. He wanted her. She was pivotal to his present and perhaps his future happiness. But what would work? What could he use to make her see reason?
“You may be right,” he began slowly, stopping long enough to watch some of the tension leak out of her shoulders. “It’s not as if I’ve been sitting around pining for you since the day we met. But I have thought of you.”
Startled, she looked up, suspicion riding her. Obviously, wondering whether she was being baited, Buffy was further along in their verbal chess match than he’d hoped. She was most definitely on to him.
Of course, he had
been trying to draw her out from behind her protective cover. She knew it, and a part of him didn’t like that very much. At the same time, he had to admit that for the most part, he found her swift realization captivating. Stimulating. He had always thought she was fairly bright, but Buffy was much more insightful than he’d given her credit for.
He lowered his voice, muting his mounting excitement as much as he could. “You’ve come to me—your face, your voice—slipping into my thoughts at the oddest times. You still do, you know, even after all these years.”
Looking for an escape route, she raised both hands, warding him off. “Yeah, but see, no pining. Where there’s true love, there’s pining.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, suppressing a grin at her rising uncertainty. “Maybe we’ll break all the rules this time.”
“Can’t get around this one,” she said sternly, and he knew immediately that she wasn’t talking about ‘pining’. “Everybody knows that.”
Daniel pressed forward, narrowing the open space she was edging toward, and had obviously planned to use to get by him. “You think I’m lying to you? Playing games to get something from you?”
Buffy parried with an insult. “I think you’re lonely. I think you don’t know me. I know you don’t know my life.”
Did she mean that? One foot lifted and fell back. Daniel got defensive. “That’s not fair. I-”
“Where do I live? Who are my friends?” She sensed her widening advantage. Her escape hatch was opening and she fought for the safe, empty freedom she craved. “Are my parents still alive? Do I have any siblings?” Her voice grew colder. “What do I like to do for fun
? What color is my car? What do I do for a living
Momentarily blinded by emotion, recognizing the need to re-group, Daniel’s eyes fell to the floor. Slowly raising his head a notch, he smirked in the general direction of his left elbow. Finally, lifting his chin the rest of the way, smirk firmly in place, he asked, “The funny thing is, in all of that protesting, never once did you mention a word about how you feel. Is it so easy to sacrifice me on the altar of your fear?”
Tables turned on her, instinct told Buffy it was time to retreat and that made her furious. “I’m going now.”
He rushed forward to cut her off before she reached the top step, grabbing her arm. She jerked it away from him, but still, she remained where she was.
“All you have to say is some variation of ‘we just aren’t compatible because ____’ and this is over. I’ll never bring it up again,” Daniel promised.
Buffy crossed her arms and glared at him. She could move past him, move him physically in dozens of painful ways, and this conversation would end on her terms. As Andrew liked to say, she was
‘slayer: strong and nimble’. Why couldn’t she force her body to do her will right now?
Daniel dipped his head stoically at her non-reaction. “OK, how about: ‘Daniel, you’re overestimating my feelings for you. In the last 10 years, I’ve never thought about you, let alone missed you…or fantasized about seeing you again’?”
Buffy’s eyes fell away from his. Frozen in place, she stared at the polished marble tiles beneath their feet.
“No? Hmm. What about ‘I don’t want you’?”
She bit the inside of her cheek.
Daniel huffed a little sigh. Was it relief or frustration? Buffy didn’t know.
“Or ‘I don’t want you in my life’?” he suggested, moving toward her.
Buffy remained silent, afraid all of her hopes and wishes would spill out now, escaping from the place she locked them away, if she so much as opened her mouth. He was coming. Would he destroy her? Rescue her? Both brought on the same dread. She pressed her eyes closed and waited.
Daniel took the last step remaining between them and put an end to their separation. His voice was husky, his words broken. “How about… ‘I’m absolutely not… falling in love with you’?”
From five inches away, her body burned like a furnace. The radiant heat from her flesh warmed the air between them, soothing and seducing him. His vision narrowed. The sparkling diamond cross pendant nestled in hollow of her clavicle caught his eyes. They drifted lower. Reflecting up on to the flawless, honeyed skin above her breasts, the fiery red of Buffy’s dress drew him closer. He wanted to see more of her, needed to connect with every inch.
His hands slipped into her soft, shiny tresses. One cradled the back of her head and the other fell down between her shoulders, as he whispered, “Or maybe it’s this, ‘I don’t want to kiss you. Especially not right this minute’?”
Her eyes lifted to his lips and Daniel hauled her against him. She gasped at the contact, at the feel of their bodies pressing, melding.
“Daniel…we can’t,” she groaned, pressing her face against his chest.
“I gave you the words. You didn’t use them.”
Her warm breath brushed his neck. “I couldn’t. They wouldn’t be true.”
“Nervous?” he asked softly.
Bright green eyes glittered, seeking his through her thick, lowered lashes. “I don’t get nervous.”
Her gaze returned to his lips.
Mind stalled, she suggest absently, “Maybe I’m cold."
Daniel dipped his head and took her mouth in a searing kiss. Her tongue teased across his, grazing, tasting, joining. His heart ached with relief. She wanted him. She couldn’t deny it or make them go back to the way they were before. Not after this.
Needing to get closer, to surround herself with him, Buffy shot up on her toes and flung her arms around his neck. She was boneless, weightless, and unable to feel anything but their connection. Having him there with her, inside the circle of her defenses and in her arms, made her senses spin.
Surprised by the strength of her fervor, Daniel allowed himself to fall back against a column. Jerking her tighter against him, he pulled her up so high her feet nearly left the ground. She shifted, slid one of her legs between his.
He should stop now. They should stop. Someone would see. Embarassed, she might run.
Buffy sensed his withdrawal. “More,” she panted against his lips, desire naked in her voice. Working in tandem, they struggled into the shadows, backing into a quiet corner out of the path of others.
Electricity buzzed, purring along the fused line of their flesh. His hands worked the muscles in her back as his tongue swept into her mouth and retreated, simulating sex. She rolled her hips against his in approval. Daniel gasped, and all the lights went out.
Buffy fed on his mouth, starved for him. Daniel tasted so good. So incredibly good to her, like sweet fruit and dry champagne, making her want to taste and take and devour. His lips were firm, moving over hers, tantalizing, feeding her craving for him.
Her thoughts in turmoil, her system was slow to transmit the fulfillment of her emotional need to the rest of her body. The release of tension took its time. Finally, intuition took her and everything crystallized. Her mouth softened under his and her body’s urgent movements slowed. An inch at a time, she relaxed. Desperation dissolved. Her breathing grew deeper. Inhaling that delicious sandalwood in his aftershave, she held it inside her, eventually, exhaling everything that was not Daniel’s scent back out into the air.
Her hands behind his neck unclenched, slid down the front of him, over his lapels and lower, under his jacket, stroking his stomach, his sides, his back through the crisp, starched cotton of his shirt. Delighting in the ridges of muscles under her hand, her conscious mind began to comprehend the reality her instincts knew already. This was Daniel. Daniel was to be savored. Pleasured.
But they needed to go somewhere not here, not where his coworkers were only a few yards away.
“Mmm,” she murmured, reluctantly breaking away. Her hands slid from his back, across his stomach to the buttons of his jacket. Trying to focus, she grudgingly straightened the jacket and fastened the tiny mother of pearl circles one at a time.
With a little smile, she finally glanced up at him. “I really don’t know what to say.”
He kissed her forehead and leaned back to look at her. “Tell me what you’re feeling. Honestly.”
“Shocked, mostly. I wasn’t expecting this,” she said, shaking her head and pulling back. “I need to think.”
“I would never try to push you into anything-”
“I believe that.” Buffy squeezed his hands and let them go. She looked out the window just beyond the alcove they’d rambled into; taking a step closer to the wide view of the gardens below, and another, she tried to think of a way to express her concerns. “It’s not me I’m afraid for.”
Daniel grinned at her knowingly. “I can handle myself.”
“I don’t doubt it. But you don’t know what’s coming your way. My life is…”
After that kiss, from the raging forest fire at the beginning to the soft, slow smolder at the end, he knew he needed to have her in his life, and that she need him just as much. He had to outsmart her fear, to win against her fight-or-flight instinct. No easy task, he reminded himself.
Daniel took a deep breath. “You can tell me,” he assured her swiftly, and then softened it at the end, “when the time is right.”
Buffy crossed the last few feet to the large French-paned windows. Turning around to look at him, she leaned back against the glass. “I’ve had a lot of pain. Most, but not all of it, has been because of my work. It’s not really conducive to much of a social life. I stopped trying to have any kind of romantic relationships about four years ago…” She looked at the floor and shook her head. “I thought I was through with this.”
Slowly, Daniel followed her to the window. That certainly wasn’t something he was expecting. He knew she would be a veritable obstacle course of discouragement. He was even expecting her to be seeing someone else. But it never occurred to him that she’d be sitting love out. Like him. “Four? Years?”
Buffy bobbed her head in swift confirmation and wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m sure you can imagine how good I’ve become at keeping people at a distance.”
“Yes,” Daniel said a little too vehemently.
“I don’t think I can do this. Not even for you.”
Daniel pulled her back against him. Brushing her hair over one shoulder, he massaged the tense muscles in her neck and upper back. “I think you’re underestimating yourself.”
Buffy stopped his hands with hers. Looking up into his eyes, she spoke from her heart. “Here’s the—this thing between us… I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. I don’t want it to be true. I don’t know what to do about it. My life is complicated and dangerous, and you’d be crazy to take me on. But the thought of letting you leave here tonight, of never seeing you again...”
“Putting it mildly.”
“No,” she said unsteadily. “You
don’t...” Shaking her head, she turned, tried to evade him, to push him away without hurting him.
He wouldn’t let her.
She stiffened, her hands forming fists. “Don’t do this.”
“It’s necessary that I do this.”
Digging her nails into her palms, she tried one last time to make him understand. “Don’t come down this road with me…if you can walk away, do it. Don’t get hurt because of me.”
“Don’t you see? You can stop this from happening, before it’s too late, you should…go…”
He pulled her toward him and she went reluctantly. Tucking her under his chin, he confessed, “It’s already too late.”
“I suck at the relationship thing. I’ll ruin this.”
“No you don’t.”
Buffy shook her head. “See, but you can’t know that. If you’re feeling a tenth of what I am, you’re really not thinking too rationally right now.”
“I can accept you, as you are.”
Pushing away from him she started toward another set of windows. “Don’t say that.”
“Why not?” Daniel asked, following her quickly.
“Because you don’t know what it’s like to be with me. How hard it is. I’m not like other girls.”
“I know that.”
“You don’t. Being with me is like…being wounded and healed at the same time. Eventually, the healing stops working and all that’s left is pain and blood and destruction.”
Her statement set his teeth on edge. He grabbed her hand, stopped her flight. “Who told you that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have a good life. Great friends. A sister who-”
“The hell it doesn’t matter. Someone you trusted said that to you?”
She shrugged. “It’s over. Let’s just not.”
Daniel balled his hands up in the pockets of his jacket. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Don’t you think I’ve considered all the reasons why being with you is a bad idea?” He asked angrily. On his fingers, he counted her faults. “You’re impulsive. You have a fuse the size of an ant. You’re short on trust and long on denial, and sometimes…you’re kind of a spoiled brat. But none of that matters, you know why?”
Hurt, afraid she was about to be hurt more, she shook her head warily.
Daniel took hold of her hand and sighed. Looking into her eyes, he said, “You are so good, such a good person, and yet, at the same time, so vitally alive in a way I have never been and have no idea how to be. I’ve known passionate people, but I never knew anyone could be that way and still be as sweet as you, at least not until I caught a glimpse of it ten years ago.”
He squeezed her palm between his. His thumb rubbed over the back of her hand reassuringly. “From the first moment you walked into that room filled with a bunch of pompous, narrow-minded intellectuals, you showed me what it meant to live. I was no one to you, and still you gave me your compassion. I told you the craziest story, and you believed. You made me believe in the possible existence of the impossible. You opened my eyes. That’s what I mean when I tell you that you saved me.”
“Let me finish?” he asked, and she nodded reluctantly. Daniel took a deep breath and prepared to lay his cards on the table. “You say I don’t know you, but you don’t have a complete picture of me, either. That takes time, we both know that.”
Daniel shook his head ruefully and flushed. Speeding through most of his words, lingering over a few at odd intervals, he said, “I’m not ever this aggressive—what I mean to say is—I don’t pursue women. Partially because of the risk of losing someone again, but also because my life is good, too. It’s safe and it’s comfortable. When I saw you tonight, it became obvious to me that it’s a little too comfortable. Not that I don’t have challenges, but they’re the same challenges over and over, just on a different scale.”
Buffy nodded. “I get that.”
“Thought you might.”
She smiled. “I do.”
He grinned back at her boyishly, and she fought down the urge to kiss him again. “When you walked back into my life, something strange happened.” Talking with his hands, Daniel rushed, “I found myself wanting to hoard all of your attention. When Jack first arrived at the party, I thought you were here with him and I hated it.”
“Then Cam was flirting, and I hated that, too. God, Buffy,” he said, taking her face in his hands. “I know it sounds completely primeval, but I wanted you to be here with me instead, always with me instead of anyone else, with a ruthlessness I didn’t know I had.” Caressing her cheek, he confessed, “I want to be the one you turn to, the person you look for every time you walk into a room. Even if I’m not there, I want you to wish I were.”
Buffy leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “Primeval works for me,” she said.
“Terrific. Say you’ll be with me.”
Buffy retreated. Her hands clasped in back. Then, as if she were nervous, they came together in front of her, the right one gripping, rubbing, worrying the left. “I’m so tempted to try.”
Surprised, Daniel blurted, “You are?”
“Not that I’m making any promises.”
A smile stole across Daniel’s mouth. “Of course not.”
“But I’d like the chance to get to know you better.”
Buffy could see the tension drain from his body, as he sighed, “Good.”
Putting her hand over his heart, she drew strength from the steady thrumming. “There’s so much you don’t know about me, and my life truly is chaos most of the time. And not a little dangerous.”
Looking into her eyes, he said, “It’s not stranger or more dangerous than mine.”
Buffy raised her right eyebrow. “I have stabbings, and dark alleys, and explosions, and cave-ins. Big, big, cave-ins.”
Daniel smirked and pulled her hand up to his mouth and kissed it. “I’ve got shoot-outs.”
He made a bored face and waved a hand breezily. “Sure.”
“Well, I’ve got cemeteries, crypts, and woo-scary-”
“Please.” He drew her up to him, until the length of his body grazed hers. “I’m an archaeologist. We spend hours and hours with the dead.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Because you study them, not because you have to fend them off with sharp sticks.”
She smiled wickedly and winked at him. “Losing interest already?”
He didn’t know quite what to make of ‘fending off’ the dead, but he knew he was close, that this was probably the last fence he had to climb, so he pretended it didn’t bother him. “Still…common ground.”
Her expression grew serious. “I’m always on the trail of some sick and twisted killer or other.”
Daniel leaned forward and dropped a kiss on her cheek. “Who isn’t?”
Buffy grimaced. “Fist fights, sword fights…”
Lowering his head, he kissed the corner of her mouth.
But Buffy kept talking. “…knives, sometimes there are 2x4s, and other… boards of various sizes…” Laughing, she dodged from side to side trying to avoid the kisses he was planting on her chin and jaw line. “…and axes!”
Daniel exhaled warm air on her skin. It spread through her, and she stilled long enough for him to drop a few kisses on her neck. “Been there, done that.”
Buffy turned her head, craning it to accept kisses on the other side. “You have?”
“Once or twice,” he said, pushing her hair to the side with his nose so he could kiss her behind the ear.
She moaned. “No fair. You’re distracting me.”
“Hey,” he whispered, soft lips dancing in a random pattern across her skin. “I’m a crack negotiator.”
Buffy stretched, baring more of her neck to him. “This is cheating. You're not a negotiator, you just wait until your quarry is at their weakest-”
He chuckled. “Like I said... Negotiating. Anyway, how is it cheating when I’m helping you reach the decision you want to make?”
Attempting to kiss her again, Daniel was surprised to find himself pushed up against the wall. Buffy blocked his attempt to escape with her body. Rising up on her toes, she made a small noise in his ear.
He looked at her suspiciously. “Did you just growl at me?”
Buffy bit the sensitive skin below his ear. “Maybe.”
Daniel shivered. “I have a great idea.”
“Really?” she asked in mock disbelief.
“Yes,” he said, nudging her hip with his in retribution for her teasing. “Possibly the most significant epiphany of my adult life.”
“What is it?”
“We should get out of here. Now.”
“Hmm...” she said between kisses to the skin just above his collar. “Maybe we can work that in… in just a minute…”
Daniel turned his head and caught her lips with his, sending a shock wave through her entire body. She latched on to his upper arms in a punishing grip.
Pulling back, he muttered against her temple. “When are you leaving for Colorado Springs?”
“Huh? Uh…Tuesday afternoon, why?” she asked hopefully. “Thinking of flying back with me?”
“I wish I could,” he said, shaking his head. “But I have a meeting on base as soon as we get back.”
“Oh…well…” she exhaled, trying to give him a supportive smile. “That’s OK.”
“Come home with me tomorrow. Spend the weekend.”
Buffy’s eyebrows shot up. “I can’t possibly. I-I need to prepare before we…we have ‘we’ time. There needs to be heavy, heavy exfoliating, and-and waxing!”
Daniel was momentarily stunned. “I’m not asking you for anything that requires waxing. I’ll stay in the guest room. I’ll be such the perfect gentleman that you’ll hardly ever see me.”
Buffy was more than a little skeptical. “Like that’s really going to happen. We’re talking about sharing a house for almost a week-”
“Even worse. Do you really think we’ll be able to hold out that long?”
Daniel feigned offense at her words. “I have a little more control than that, Ms. Summers.”
She bit her lip. “I was talking about me.”
“Oh. Um…I think-”
Buffy shook her head.
Turning away, she ran a hand through her hair. “I told you this whole ‘us thing’ wasn’t a good idea, because already, we’re out of balance. And balance is important. You’re sitting there with all your cool reserve of discipline, Dr. Control
.” Crestfallen, smothering a groan, she stepped back. “It’s easy for you. Apparently, I’m way resistible or you're just good at it. While all I’ve been able to think about tonight is…” she hesitated, gesturing to him, “how great you smell, and… unbuttoning, and the sound of clothes ripping, and your skin under my hands, and what you might taste like, and whether you’d moan or sigh or hold your breath when-”
Yanking her in tight for another long, golden kiss, Daniel stopped her babbling.
“I’m not leaving until tomorrow at 10,” he grunted. “Let me spend the time in between convincing you.”
Buffy waved a hand at the entrance to the grand salon. “Don’t you have to go back in there? You have responsibilities, to your team, to Jack…”
“No. Well, yes, but nothing I’d lose my job over…” Then an idea occurred to him. She watched as excitement lit his soft blue eyes and spread over his handsome face. “But I did want to walk through the galleries. You know, this building does house Italy’s National Gallery of Ancient Art. I’d really like to see if they’re doing anything new.”
“Hypothetically speaking, how many points would I lose if I nixed that walk-through until your next visit?”
Buffy pouted. “It’s just that…I was here last month and…”
Cutting off her whining, he said, “Fly home with me, and we’ll call it even. This time
“I want to. I really do.”
Daniel draped an arm around her shoulder. It slid to her waist as he ushered her toward the stairs. “Time is precious, Buffy. Never let anything—especially not fear—cause you to waste it.” As they descended, he hugged her tighter against his side. “Come home with me to Colorado Springs. Give us a try. See if you like how it feels. That’s all I ask.”
“I guess I could take a few more days off.” She sighed dramatically and laced her fingers with his at her waist. “Since it seems you can’t live without me. But next time, I get to pick our date destination.”
“Think so, do you?” he asked, as he pushed the door open for her.
Buffy leaned her head against his shoulder as they crossed the piazza. “I’m thinking Greece: blue waters, white sand, great food, friendly locals… Think we could be gone a month before anyone noticed?”
Steering her toward his car, Daniel pretended to give her suggestion serious thought. “So many islands… It would take quite a while to search all of them thoroughly. We could legitimately be ‘lost at sea’ for almost that long. I know people in Greece. Helpful
Buffy grinned up at him with admiration, affection, and the promise of a whole lot more in her eyes. “I knew the first time we met you had potential, Doctor Jackson,” she said with a sly wink.
“Did you?” he asked, kissing her before opening her car door.
Unable to stop smiling, she nodded. “I did. I've known it all along.”