Huge shout out and thanks to everyone who took the time to review the last chapter, especially to Catlimere and Onlimain who do fabulously detailed reviews! Thanks also to LearnedHand for her (I think) constructive criticism. I agree with you about my tendency to overdo the internal dialogue, but I’m working on it! And although I don’t agree with your viewpoint on season 7 it’s still flattering to know that you continue to read anyway, despite the story being fundamentally against your viewpoint. Cheers guys!
It was dark by the time they piled out of the restaurant, the door closing on the carousal of girlish shrieks and a badly squawked version of happy birthday, the background noise of New York on a Friday somehow seeming peaceful in comparison. Daniel shook his head, trying to clear his ears of the echoes, laughing.
“God –I had forgotten just how loud teenage girls can be!”
Buffy matched his smile, her eyes sparkling.
“I haven’t. But I should have warned you. Serendipity is a pretty popular place to go for post prom and birthday parties. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. It was…fun. And the food was pretty good too.”
In fact it had been more than fun. Surrounded by the noise and bustle of one of New York’s more unusual restaurants, having to raise his voice to make himself heard across the table, Daniel had felt something rise that he had thought he had lost in too many years of stress and grind, buried in the sands with his past. Pure life, flowing through his veins, exhilaration for something other than a new artefact or a new people, an appreciation of humanity just as they were, in all their noisy, laughing discord. And the focus of this newly discovered appreciation had sat and laughed with him when the shrieks of teenage abandon reached dolphin pitch and made them both wince, before they were reduced to shooting shy smiles at each other as though they were still teenagers themselves.
“So do you spend a lot of time with teenagers?”
Buffy shrugged, a slightly rueful expression on her face.
“It’s part of my job. And I have a younger sister, although she’s not a teenager any more, thank god.”
He caught the echo of genuine thankfulness in her voice and smiled in commiseration.
“You have no idea.”
There was a definite air of finality in her voice and Daniel took the hint, moving away from the subject as they started to walk up the street, ambling aimlessly. He cast a glance at her, seeing the slight firmness of her lips and the jut of her chin that he had already, in the space of a few hours acquaintance, worked out meant a sensitive subject was too close to being breached. Sometimes it helped to be an expert in body language.
“A female friend of mine has a teenage daughter. Cassie. But she’s pretty level headed and apart from her it’s an age group that I don’t really have much to do with.”
Buffy looked amused.
“Count yourself lucky. I’m just glad I survived my teens.”
Daniel cast a quizzical look in her direction. There was an underlying grimness in her flippant statement that rang alarm bells with him. Admittedly his teenage years hadn’t exactly been great, but there was something in her voice that spoke of pain endured and concealed, far beyond what was normal for average teenage angst. But before he could think of how to broach the subject, she continued on, her tone deliberately light and bantering.
“So this female friend – just exactly how good a friend is she?”
Caught off guard by the sudden change of subject he could only gawp at her for a second before attempting to rally.
“Janet? I’ve known her for years.” Catching the mischievous twinkle in her eyes he shook his head in denial. “We’re not close in that way. She’s seen far too much of me on a purely medical level to be interested in anything else.”
“She’s a doctor?”
“Yeah. In fact she was the doctor you called when I was concussed.”
He caught the light of recognition in her eyes and raised a rueful eyebrow at her as she chuckled.
“Oh yeah, I remember her. She was tough. And really not very happy with you at all. I also got the impression from her attitude that it wasn’t the first time she’d had to treat you for concussion.”
He shrugged in faint embarrassment. “I do have a tendency to be a bit accident prone. You should have heard what Jack had to say about it.” He winced at the memory. Not pretty.
“Who’s Jack? I don’t think you mentioned him before.”
Whether it was as a result of the wine they had consumed with dinner or her company, he was so relaxed that it slipped out before he knew it.
“Jack’s my best friend. But he’s also my commanding officer, so it can be a little awkward.”
He had already ambled on about six feet before he realised that she wasn’t walking with him but had stopped dead on the sidewalk, warmth and animation draining out of her face to be replaced with a cool mask of suspicion. He wandered back to her, puzzled as to what could have prompted such a change.
“Buffy – are you alright?”
She regarded him silently for a minute before speaking. “Commanding officer, Daniel? You didn’t tell me you worked for the military.”
Oh shit. Jack was going to kill him. He had never been any good at cover stories, but this was bad even for him. But first he had fix this. She obviously wasn’t too keen on the military, which was a little strange for a security consultant, but puzzling out that particular mystery could wait.
“I told you I was an archaeologist and an linguist.”
She inclined her head in agreement. “But not that you worked for the military. And what’s an archaeologist doing working for the army anyway?”
“It’s not the army, it’s the air force.” Again the words were out of his mouth before he could pull them back and he cringed mentally at how Jack was going to slaughter him if he found out. It was also clear from his companion’s closed off expression that a mere admission of branch wasn’t going to cut it. He took a deep breath, carefully constructing a fabric that held as much truth as possible while not getting himself even further into the mire.
“I do some freelance consulting for the air force, mostly in regard to linguistics. Even the US air force needs someone who can translate sometimes.”
He was watching her closely and he saw the imperceptible relaxation in her shoulders as she took in his carefully worded explanation.
“I see. Translating and things?”
He nodded slowly, watching her expression for a reaction. “Basically. I can’t really talk about it. It’s all a bit sensitive.”
She was still watching him carefully, trying to fit this new unexpected and unwelcome facet of him into the picture she had so tentatively build up over the last six months.
“You mean classified.”
His expression didn’t change. Instead he met her eyes calmly, neither confirming nor denying her suspicions and she suddenly knew that she was being a little ridiculous. He didn’t really owe her any explanation and she knew that if it had been her being questioned in such an aggressive way by such a recent acquaintance she wouldn’t have been half so patient. He wasn’t the Initiative and she had to stop reacting as though every person with connections to the military was going to drag her right back there. This was Daniel. Just Daniel. Not Riley, or Walsh, or any of that fucked up crew. It was gone. They were past. She had to let go.
He caught the moment when she relaxed, breaking eye contact with him, looking aside and away, a flush of embarrassment staining golden skin and he moved forward, reaching to tip her chin so she was gently forced to make eye contact with him again. She took a deep breath, and smiled a little wanly at him.
“I’m sorry. I know I sort of over reacted. I just have a bit of bad history with the military and I wasn’t expecting you to have a connection with them. I mean, you never said.”
He shrugged, accepting her apology without any sign of irritation.
“It’s okay. I used to be very anti military too. But a lot of my best friends now are in the services and I’ve learned to see things a little differently. “ He smiled down at her still slightly clouded expression. “And I didn’t mention it before, because it’s something I’m not really meant to mention at all. In fact Jack’s going to kill me if he finds out I mentioned it this much.”
A faint frown creased her forehead. “Will you get in trouble? Will you be okay?”
He hastened to reassure her. “No, no, it’s okay. Don’t worry. He’ll just scream at me for a few minutes and then let it go. It’s fine. I just probably shouldn’t talk about it any more, just to be safe. I know it can seem a little ridiculous to other people, but in my job there are some things that I do that I’m really just not meant to talk to anyone outside about. I’m sure with your security consultations you have to deal with similar situations.”
He was still touching her face, holding her gaze and he was aware of a myriad number of emotions moving behind her eyes, things that couldn’t quite put a name to. But whatever he had said it seemed to strike a chord with her and she nodded in acknowledgment, the pressure on his fingers causing him to remove them, not without a certain wistful reluctance.
“I can get that. “
She was still regarding him with those unfathomable eyes and he shifted, slightly uncomfortable with the scrutiny and then regarded her quizzically as she stuck out a hand.
“A bargain. I’ll not ask about your job and you won’t ask about mine. I think we’ve both got secrets to protect.”
He hesitated a moment and then nodded, reaching out to shake her hand and seal the agreement. Her hand was warm and strong in his and he firmly put aside the twinge of curiosity that her mention of secrets had ignited. She would tell him eventually, or not and until then he would have to live with it. He wasn’t Jack, to bulldoze his way through a person’s privacy.
There was a moment’s awkward silence and then Buffy shifted, aware of her hand still wrapped in his. “So, what times your flight tomorrow?”
“Nine. So I suppose I’d better get back to the hotel at some point.”
Her smile was starting to come back, sparkling in her eyes and quirking at the corners of her mouth.
“So I suppose I can’t persuade to come out for a night of hard house clubbing?”
The laugh spilled out before he could stop it, startling them both.
“Not this time. But maybe next?”
She caught the underlying question in his voice and dimpled up at him, trying not to flush at his very obvious appreciation.
“I’d like that. Next time then.” Catching his suddenly widened smile she tried in vain to hide the blush that was now spreading like crimson across her cheeks. Still a bit embarrassed she started padding up the street again, pausing after a few steps when the tug on her hand told her that he hadn’t moved. Looking back over her shoulder she found him staring after her with an expression that made her blush even more. She gave his hand a little tug.
“Are you coming?”
He shook himself like a dog and then moved to walk beside her, the two of them threading through the slowly diminishing crowds, content to enjoy the city and the warmth of the summer night. And if it was made so much more special by the company, well, neither was going to say anything that might disturb the fragile accord they had created. Or that might draw the other’s attention to the fact that all the way back to his hotel their hands had quietly remained entwined, a small point of contact that bridged a gap created by two very separate lives.