Angel used every contact he knew in his efforts to find Buffy. He still couldn't believe Dawn and her friends had kicked her out of her own home. It caused memories of his own break with the AI team to surface, that dark time when he needed their support. Putting down the phone after crossing out yet another dead end, his head jerked in surprise when he heard someone clearing their throat. Cordelia stood at the door with her arms crossed over her chest. He knew she was going to fuss at him about Buffy, and he wasn't sure he could handle her disapproval.
"Angel, you have to stop this. You're going to drive yourself crazy, and you won't be able to help anyone, including Buffy."
She watched his face shut down and sighed. Cordelia knew he felt guilty about not helping Buffy, but it wasn't as if their hands weren't full with their own battles. They should've known something was up in Sunnydale, since LA was overflowing with baddies. The last few months their numbers had doubled. Whenever that many demons and vampires got together in a concentrated area, invariably someone had decided to take over the world. They were working double time to take out the possible threats.
She thanked the Powers for making her part demon; otherwise, she wasn't sure she'd have survived. She normally received a vision every few days. Now, she got two to three a night. With Angel unwilling to leave his obsessive search for Buffy unless there was no other choice, she was pulling double duty helping with the fighting as well.
"Cordy, I have to find her. She's out there somewhere without her friends or family. Buffy's strong because she's always had a reason for staying alive. I'm not sure she can survive without them." His eyes pleaded with her to understand.
She walked over to stand directly in front of him.
"You haven't done anything wrong, Angel. Please, listen to me, we have our own battles to face and Buffy's a lot stronger than you or the others think. I know that in the past, I've never given her much credit, but I was wrong. When the Powers changed me so I could handle the visions, they gave me a choice. I realize now that Buffy never had that luxury. We'll find her, but we can't let the search come before everything else. We all want to help, and I think the best way to do that is to be out there where we have a better chance of getting the information we need."
He couldn't stop his guilty feelings regarding Buffy. He'd left her to have the life she deserved then ended up making one for himself. He knew he'd always love Buffy. That she'd own a piece of his heart and soul, but he was in love with Cordelia. He couldn't help but think that if he didn't find Buffy soon he'd lose her forever. It was an odd thought that produced a panicky feeling that seemed so out of place since they had lived relatively separate lives for several years.
He pulled Cordy onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her. Angel held her close not saying anything, just taking comfort from her. She stayed that way for several minutes, breathing in his unique Angel smell. Cordy leaned back to capture his lips in a soft kiss filled with love and support.
"I love you, Angel. It's okay that we love each other. I'm not sorry the Powers decided to bind your soul. They decided when it should happen, and us being together isn't a betrayal of what you and Buffy had. I know she was hurt when you told her about us, but she's had time to adjust."
He looked away, unable to tell her that he hadn't told Buffy about them. When he'd met her, what he had with Cordy was still so new, and Buffy had looked so fragile. She needed him, and he needed to hold her. He couldn't think of anything else except she was alive. He'd never told anyone about what happened at that meeting, and didn't plan to now, not if he could help it. Suffice it to say, they had parted as they always did, with her returning to Sunnydale and him coming back to LA, and Cordelia.
Giles didn't know what to think about the situation with Buffy's absence. None of them had expected her to walk away from them or the Hellmouth. The First's attacks became more violent within days of her disappearance, but for the past week, it was nowhere to be found. He knew the First wasn't through with them. This was the calm before the storm but the others wouldn't believe him. He even went so far as to tell them that Buffy needed to return as their leader. No one would listen to him. Kennedy spoke for the Potentials, saying they felt that Faith was doing a fine job as Head Slayer. Faith remained unusually quiet.
Willow had tried several locator spells, but with no luck. Xander thought Buffy would return when she was ready. After all, it wasn't the first time that she had run away from her responsibilities. Anya piped up stating that, if it was her, she'd go somewhere with nice beaches and cute cabana boys that deliver those drinks with the little umbrellas in them. She was starting to think leaving was looking good to her too. That earned her several glares, which she ignored in typical Anya fashion. Andrew went off on a Star Wars spiel that had everyone yelling at him.
Giles felt they didn't understand the urgency he felt, and seemed to think they could just sit back and wait for Buffy to come back home. They were wrong. A deep-seated knowledge led him to research with even more dedication. Dawn, however, believed him, and decided to help him research. Her new found maturity took a step backward when she found that Buffy had left town. She soon got over it, and seemed happy that he appreciated her help.
Spike watched the Scoobies and the First, knowing there would come a reckoning. He didn't intend to break the promise he made to Buffy long ago, concerning Dawn's safety. After being manipulated by the First, he spent his nights carefully dissecting the root of all evil.
Usually he had no patience for deep thought, but with Buffy gone and no one to talk to, he let his mind look at everything from a different perspective. He hid his intelligence almost as well as Buffy did. It amused him to watch her pretend to be all muscle and no brains. The fact the Scoobies seemed to forget it was only an act showed how far the formerly close friends had strayed from one another.
Standing in the shadows, Spike watched the dark-haired Slayer lead a group of SiTs out on patrol. He shook his head listening to them yapping. They may not have liked how hard Buffy pushed them, but at least she gave them a chance to learn how to defend themselves. A vamp could hear this group a mile away.
Faith tuned the young girls out as she reached out to sense around for vampires. This training was so not her gig. The mini-mes tended to cramp her style, always asking questions and wondering what the proper way to hold this or that was. It was enough to drive a Slayer to...err...slay.
Everything took so freaking long to accomplish with them tagging along behind her. A simple vampire dusting ended up taking forever, rather than her usual 'see vampire and its dust.' Speaking of vampires, she spotted one just a few yards up ahead. She eyed the girls then looked around the relatively empty cemetery.
"Stay together and keep me in sight. Watch what I do, and we can do the Q&A thing afterwards."
He saw her head toward a shadow not too far off, leaving the SiTs alone but within shouting distance. He counted to five before he saw two demons step from the shadows to circle the girls. Cussing under his breath, he charged into the fight. The girls screamed then tried to remember their training. Their minds had gone blank with fear. They watched the bleached blonde vampire take out one demon in the blink of an eye. He smiled before he proceeded to beat the hell out of the other.
Faith returned just in time to watch him rip off its head.
"What are you doing out and about, Studly?"
She had never gone for the dearly dead, though she hated to admit she still felt twinges of jealousy regarding the men in Buffy's life. Wondering if she could catch this one's interest was titillating to say the least.
Her arousal hit Spike's sensitive nose. Underneath was the scent of her jealousy and the darkness that still marked her soul. Spike easily recognized it because he carried those same marks. Faith's problems stemmed from her need to compare herself to Buffy. He knew the dark-haired Slayer felt a small sense of triumph when the others picked her over Buffy, though according to Dawn she did try to give it back.
Problem was, she had no leadership skills. She worked on instinct with the thrill of the hunt racing through her system as the rest of the world fell away. It wasn't a bad thing for a Slayer, just not too good for others relying on that person. Slayers were meant to fight alone. Buffy was an exception. Her friends thinking Faith could just step into her shoes was the ultimate insult to the seven years they had lived and fought together.
The Scoobies thought they'd lost people. They hadn't even started to rack up the bodies. The First seemed to disappear along with Buffy, and everyone thought that, since she left, the fight was over. He felt the First like a prickling at the back of his neck. No matter what anyone said, Buffy was their only hope for whenever the First decided to rear its ugly head. He just hoped that, this time, it wouldn't use him.
Spike walked away from Faith's come on, much to her dismay and surprising disappointment. She was a good looking enough bird, but he'd had over a hundred years playing substitute, and that was plenty for any man, or vampire.
He'd wait for Buffy's return; he still had a message that was for her alone
Beck watched Buffy and Travis tease each other. The two had become fast friends in the few days they worked to get the restaurant ready for its grand opening. Travis' outrageous flirting with the beautiful blonde caused him to become even quieter than usual. Momma's words came back to him, and he wondered if she had told the wrong man to help Buffy. His quirky friend seemed to make her laugh, whereas he could barely get a word in edgewise.
Buffy looked up in time to catch him staring at her with a serious look on his face. She walked over to her new boss, a look of concern in her bright green eyes. "Are you okay?" Her soft voice shook him out of his daydreams.
"Yeah, just trying to go over everything in my mind."
He gave her a one sided smile.
She thought he was talking about opening night, so she patted a rather large bicep. Her eyes widened in shock when she felt a current of electricity race up her arm. She jerked her hand away blushing.
"Sorry, must be the new carpet."
He looked at her with dark unreadable eyes. "Don't worry about it, I'm a big boy. You didn't hurt me."
His eyes sparkled with mischief. They became darker the longer he stared at her beautiful face. He admitted that she intrigued him; she was equal parts woman and child. He was relieved to see that the circles had faded from under her eyes. She hid her pain well, but having caught a glimpse of it, he couldn't forget it.
Buffy couldn't stop from giving him the once over, once again. He was a big boy. She wondered what it would feel like to have that body wrapped around her. Quickly moving back to Travis, she tried to stop thinking about Beck, but found him firmly stuck in the back of her mind.
Trying to distract her naughty thoughts, she hummed as they put the finishing touches on Le Beck's Bistro, happy to do something far removed from slaying. She wondered what it felt like for Beck to finally realize his dream. She wondered what her dream would be if she ever sat down and tried to decide what she really wanted. She shrugged a shoulder, not wanting to think about her past. She would make the best of what life threw at her like she always did.
He paced the floor while he waited for Buffy and Travis to arrive. Tonight was it - the opening. He would either fall on his face or become a success. Oh, he knew people wouldn't line the block for his food. He also knew he had to impress the right people to succeed.
Travis walked in with a strange look on his face. Beck's eyebrow rose in question, but he got his answer soon enough. Buffy walked in wearing a short black leather skirt. It fit smoothly over her hips with pleats around the bottom, stopping mid-thigh. A sheer silky shirt that became translucent under the light. It covered a white lace bra trimmed with black ribbons. The bra winked in and out sight when the light hit it just right.
Buffy gifted him with a huge grin as her green eyes drank in the sight of him dressed in his dark suit. It fit his large frame perfectly, making his dark eyes shine. He looked good enough to eat, in her opinion, which caused naughty thoughts to fill her mind.
"You look beautiful, I mean, um, nice. That's not quite, what I had in mind for a hostess uniform. It will certainly cause a stir at the door."
Travis snorted at his comment. "Ya think My question is how are you going to last the night in those shoes?"
He pointed to her feet, which were clad in three-inch brown and black mule wedges with straps that crisscrossed over tiny toes painted red.
She giggled thinking of the nights she spent patrolling in inappropriate footwear
as Giles liked to call it. Thinking about Giles caused her smile to falter. Beck caught the flicker in her smile, taking note for future reference.
"I've gone all night in shoes worse than these," she replied with a smirk.
Beck forced himself to look away after a few minutes. Those tiny toes caught his attention. A desire to tickle and tease them flashed in his eyes. When he forced his eyes upward, they followed trim ankles to tone golden calves, dimpled knees and a few inches of firm thighs. He shook his head, knowing he didn't have time to get lost in the wonders of Buffy Summers.
"Okay guys, we need to wrap this up so we're ready to open. It's almost 6:00. Travis, go check the bar, and see that it's set up properly. Buffy, I've laid out the stations for the wait staff. Would you make sure everyone knows which tables are theirs?"
They had a few reservations on the books, but hoped ads and word-of-mouth would fill the other tables. Buffy worked hard to keep a concerned look off her face. She didn't tell them she had gone to several of the more renowned chefs throughout the city to personally invite them to the opening. Not to mention, Momma had pulled strings all around town to help make tonight special.
Thinking of the voodoo priestess caused contentment to fill Buffy's heart. There, standing at the door, was Momma Laveaux herself, wearing a beautiful silk dress that made her appear even more like New Orleans royalty. She smiled brightly at the small woman who seemed to know everyone. They hugged, and then proceeded toward the table set in the middle of the restaurant. Momma insisted on Buffy sitting with her for a few minutes.
"Da boy done good. I talked to some of my friends. They be coming on by to taste his cookin' later on tonight. Now, after you clean up and get a good night sleep, I want to you to pack your stuff and come and live with Momma."
Bright intelligent eyes as dark as the night sky looked into emerald green ones. The blonde Slayer clutched her necklace in shock.
"I have a place to stay. When I get my first paycheck, I'll find something better."
Momma clicked her teeth at that. The laughter left her eyes turning them into dark pools of ancient knowledge.
"Child, don't argue with Momma. I have my great grandmama's house. We can keep each other company; help protect each other."
A long aged finger touched the large stone in Buffy's necklace. Something about the stone called to her; once it touched her skin, a sense of belonging flooded her body. She couldn't seem to part with the beautiful piece of jewelry, not even to shower. The more she wore it; the more it became an extension of her. Her hand unconsciously clutched the stone tighter. Small golden fingers interlaced with darker coffee colored ones. The two women stared at each other. They made up two parts of the Goddess - the crone and the maiden. They only needed the pinnacle, the mother to create a triumvirate of power. A warm gentle breeze ruffled Buffy's hair. The scent of hot chocolate spiced with jasmine, the two things her mother always smelled of, filled the air for the barest of moments.
"Mommy," Buffy whispered, closing her eyes to breath in the heavenly scent. Opening her eyes reluctantly, she took a deep breath in an effort to gather her thoughts. "I'll come."
It was all Momma needed to hear. She planned to heal this little girl's pain, before she had to return to finish her battles. Her face broke into a mischievous little smile. She all but rubbed her hands together. This little girl has fought alone for too long, and Momma's going to fix all that.
Beck walked over to Momma's table and kissed her cheek.
"Everything all right over here?"
His dark eyes wandered over Buffy's pale face. She looked as if she'd gotten some shocking but happy news.
"We just fine here, boy. This little girl gonna come live with Momma. Keep me company in that big ole house of mine. You help her gather her things, and bring round in the morning. I'll fix ya'll a real N'Orleans breakfast."
Momma patted their cheeks before she dismissed them from her table so she could enjoy her dinner.
Buffy moved in with Momma, and her days fell into an easy routine. The older woman greeted her each morning with a hearty breakfast. They talked while they ate, becoming fast friends. She didn't discuss Sunnydale or her friends, but would talk about Dawn and her mother.
The restaurant started to get a steady clientele. It wasn't an overnight success, but Beck hadn't expected it. New Orleans opened and closed restaurants like Vegas acts. No, he wanted to build his business by word of mouth and repeat customers. They were showing a slight profit, which surprised the hell out of his accountant. Overall, Beck was happy. His dream had become reality, so he should feel ecstatic but then, why did he feel like something was missing, something important?
"Afternoon boss," a happy voice chirped.
His head shot up to see Buffy standing there, dressed in shorts. He swallowed at seeing the large expanse of golden skin bared for his viewing pleasure.
"Uh, hey Buffy. What brings you around so early?"
"I was on my way to the zoo. Momma told me it's a pretty nice one, so I thought I'd see if you wanted to go with me." She gave him a bright smile.
His eyebrow quirked up at the invitation. The idea of spending the day with this beautiful woman intrigued him. He knew he should stay here to get things ready for tonight, but on impulse agreed to go. He didn't regret it. He couldn't remember having a better day.
Watching Buffy in the petting zoo, he saw her show a child-like wonder when she fed a baby goat and laughed at the ducks and chicks that followed a trail of seed. He grew fascinated when she turned from a child to womanly grace in front of the panther cage. Green eyes stared into a matching set as one predator recognized the other. The cat and the Slayer communed on a separate level, mourning the cages each felt trapped within. Buffy started from her trance when a large hand settled on her shoulder.
"Hey tiger, you okay?" He grinned down at her, but his eyes showed deep concern. "What do you say we grab something to eat?"
They spent the rest of the day getting to know each other. They left out the darker sides of their lives, but shared the parts most people never saw.
Buffy finally admitted that she liked Beck. She knew she found him attractive, but now she wanted more, and it scared her. The funny thing about it was that the same could be said for him. The past few weeks they spent their free time exploring New Orleans. She decided he needed to learn about the beautiful city he now called his home.
When they weren't working, they explored botanical gardens, antique shops, plantation homes, voodoo shops and palm readers - everything New Orleans had to offer. Momma told them of places off the beaten path, but the real excitement came when she took them to her great grandmother's grave site.
Marie Laveaux's death day celebration brought Momma, Buffy and Beck's worlds together in a way none but Momma could foresee. Cemeteries in New Orleans provided part of the tourist attractions as much as Bourbon Street. Marie Laveaux's grave, the High Priestess of Voodoo, had more visitors than any other in the world.
Beck and Buffy walked beside Momma, at her insistence, while the rest of her family followed behind. The crowd parted like the Red Sea when they saw the small black woman approach. She walked with the bearing and grace of a queen. Momma was true Voodoo Royalty. The natives of New Orleans knew it, and, although they wouldn't admit it, so did the politicians. Nothing happened in this town that Momma didn't approve, or there would be repercussions. No one spoke of it, but everyone knew about it.
Momma wore full Haiti regalia, making her appear as if she stepped out of the 18th century. The material wrapped around her frail body, leaving her chest and arms bare. From her elbows to her wrists, gold and multi-colored bracelets jangled each time she moved. The dress stopped mid-calf, framing small, bare feet. Buffy had begged her to wear shoes, but Momma just laughed, saying the Earth welcomed her. She raised her arms; the crowd hushed; total silence surrounded them, even the crickets stopped chirping.
The suddenly still night sent a chill to racing down Buffy's spine. Her spidey-sense went haywire, as the air grew thick with magic.
Beck remembered how a small statue changed an entire village. His dark eyes took in the events of the night - the people, the mood - but most of all, the small blonde who stood a few feet from him. Oddly, she looked perfectly at home in the moonlight, which seemed strange. Buffy personified a California blonde - golden hair and skin. Daylight should be her natural habitat. It obviously wasn't; her home was the night. Beck wondered how he could have missed something so important, so vital.
Momma circled Marie's mausoleum with black and whites stones. Inside the circle, she carefully sat a glass of whisky, an egg, gold coins and a straw doll. She then lit a black candle, which she placed on the left side of the circle. Then, a white one she placed on the right. Taking a large drink from the whiskey, the old woman started to sway.
"Marie, I call you to come forth on your day of death. Cross over to bring us news from the other side."
Her voice sounded as if she spoke through a megaphone. It boomed through the quiet cemetery. Everyone watched in anticipation then awe, as a tendril of smoke wafted from the grave. It snaked through the air, hovering over the c stones. Gasps rang out as it dipped down to lick up the whiskey. The egg floated in the air then disappeared. Next, the straw doll was placed at the smoke's center. It stretched out, growing around and inside the smoke. They bonded together until they became solid, fleshing out into smooth cafe au lait skin. Before the silent crowd, stood the embodiment of Marie Laveaux, in all her youthful glory. Her coal black eyes held the secrets of untold universes, knowledge she only shared when it pleased her. High cheekbones spoke of her aristocratic bloodline. She was a striking woman even in death.
"Who disturbs my peace?" Her voice whispered on the wind, sending chills down everyone's spine.
Everyone except Momma, the great granddaughter of the Voodoo priestess, stood up proudly.
"I did," Momma replied.
"Why should I bring knowledge to you when you have plenty of your own? Perhaps, I should take some from you instead." Marie challenged with an icy tone.
Buffy's back stiffened, the Slayer in her roared to the fore. Momma was hers to protect. Without thought, only the need to take out the threat, she pounced forward. People only saw a blonde blur of motion. Now, they watched in shock as the small woman-child confronted the spirit of the greatest voodoo priestess with no fear.
"You won't touch her."
Momma hid her smile while she made a show of trying to stop Buffy.
"No, child, you mustn't interfere. My grandmama's spirit may hurt you." She put the right amount of worry in her voice.
Emerald eyes never left the coal black ones of Marie's spirit. "It won't be the first time, Momma. She can try, but one thing's for sure; she isn't going to hurt you."
The crowd, spooked by what was happening, rushed away, leaving only Momma's family, Beck and Buffy. Beck stepped closer, but Buffy's voice stopped him.
"Don't interfere. This is just between us girls, isn't it Marie?"
The Slayer caused her voice to come out almost in a growl.
He remembered her in front of the panther cage and stopped. His instincts told him to trust her. He didn't like it, but he watched and waited.