“So, just like that, he told you?” Willow asked, her shoulder pinning her phone to her ear as she carefully measured to the milliliter the proper amount of food to her fish swimming languidly around in the twenty gallon tank that filled up nearly half the available wall space on one side of her room.
“Yeah, exactly just like that,” Buffy reconfirmed her earlier statement to her best female friend in the world. “Said he found out right before I got das-booted from Hemery.”
“Wow! It's neat! It is neat, isn’t it?” the redhead inquired, her concern for her friend evident in her voice as she spoke.”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” the Slayer agreed, her relief at Ford’s startling declaration obvious to the redhead’s carefully listening ear. “I don't have to constantly worry that he's gonna find out my dark secret, then freak out and disappear forever or anything. It just makes everything…easier.” Willow could practically see the blonde slayer twisting the phone cord around her fingers in angst as she spoke.
“It’s pretty much the only good thing that’s happened the past couple days,” she admitted as she recalled both the Cordy-Xander lovefest and witnessing Angel meeting the mysterious brunette the previous night. The memory of his lying to her at the Bronze earlier only intensified the hollow feeling in her stomach.
“Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Will,” she said, trying to sound more chipper than she actually felt.
“Okay, Buff,” Willow nodded agreeably. “See you at school.”
Returning the phone to its cradle, she began brushing her long, crimson hair, then stopped abruptly at a knocking on her balcony door. Dropping her brush on the bed, she cautiously headed over and pushed the blinds apart to see who it might be.
“Oh! Angel! What are you doing here?” she asked as she carefully opened the door, trying to make sure it didn’t squeak and catch her parents’ attention.
“I wanted to talk to you,” the ensouled vampire said in the same quiet tone he typically used to convey dire warnings of impending apocalyptic occurrences.
“Oh. Well...” she gestured for him to come in, but he just remained standing on the balcony.
“Well?” she asked, curious as to his immobility.
“I can't. Unless you specifically invite me, I can't come in,” he explained.
“Oh!” Willow exclaimed nervously. "Well, okay, I invite you…to come in,” she elaborated.
“I-if this is a bad time, I can come back,” Angel said, noticing her nervousness.
“No!” the redhead immediately shook her head negatively. “I just... I'm not supposed to have boys in my room.”
“I promise to behave myself,” the vampire replied, and she was unable to decide whether the solemn expression on his face was completely serious or not.
It probably was, she decided after a moment’s contemplation, remembering Xander’s comment about vampires draining their victim’s sense of humor as well as their life’s blood.
“Okay. Good,” she nodded, still a bit nervous about having an adult male in her bedroom.
“I guess I need help,” Angel said after a rather awkward moment’s silence.
“Help? You mean like on homework? No, 'cause you're old and you already know stuff,” the hacker semi-babbled for a moment.
“I want you to track someone down… On the 'Net,“ he explained as he eyed her laptop.
“Oh! Great! I'm so the 'Net girl,” Willow smiled with relief as she sat down at her desk.
“I just wanna find everything I can. Records, facts, affiliates… I'm not even sure what I'm looking for yet,” the vampire went on.
“Good. What's the name?” Willow questioned as her fingers began flying across the keyboard.
“Uh, Angel? If I say something you really don't wanna hear,” the redhead said as she paused in her labor and turned to look over her shoulder at him, “do you promise not to, ah…bite me?”
“Are you gonna tell me that I'm being jealous?”
“Well, you do sometimes get that way.”
“You know, I never used to,” he commented as he sat down on the edge of her bed. “Things used to be pretty simple.”
As he spoke, Willow resumed her typing.
“A hundred years, just hanging out, feeling guilty... I really honed my brooding skills. Then she comes along. Yeah, I get jealous,” the vampire admitted. “But I know people. And my gut tells me there’s something wrong with this guy.
“He did say he was in school with you guys, right?” he asked, trying to verify the information he had heard earlier at the Bronze.
“Yeah,” she nodded, as she turned back to the laptop. “But if there isn't anything weird... Hey, that's weird.”
“I just checked the school records, and he's got these big gaps in his attendance records while he was at Hemery the past year. I mean, we’re not talking missing a couple days here and there…This is him missing out on nearly half the school year. He did manage to keep up his grades, though. And it looks like he quit the school’s gymnastic team at the beginning of the year, too,” she noted, her voice beginning to take on a preoccupied tone as her attention was piqued by the information she had uncovered.
“Let me just see what I can find...”
Sunnydale High School
The next morning
“Willow! Hold up a minute, will you?”
The redheaded hacker sighed and rolled her eyes as she heard Cordy’s voice calling over to her from across the quad.
If there was one person here at school she most definitely did *not* want to talk to, now or at any time in the near or far future, it was Cordelia Chase.
The brunette head cheerleader, reinforced by the empty-headed harpies who made up her band of sycophantic and slutty hangers-on, had been the bane of her existence since about kindergarten and now, as if that wasn’t enough, judging by the way she and Xander had been acting since Ethan Rayne had enchanted everyone’s Halloween costumes, she had apparently succeeded in seducing her best and oldest friend into her clutches. She knew she couldn’t compete with someone who looked like Cordy, and the realization that she might be losing her dearest friend to someone she had disliked almost her entire life was making her stomach churn and was probably giving her an ulcer earlier than was the norm for her family.
“Oh, good, you heard me,” Cordy flashed her a brilliant smile as she caught up with the redhead near the base of the stairway to the upper level. Willow merely gazed at the brunette as impassively as she could manage and waited for her to speak.
“I’ve been meaning to get together to talk with you for a couple days, now,” the cheerleader said, picking up on the distinct lack of friendly vibes radiating from the redhead and instantly realizing the reason for it.
“Look, I know we’ve never been the best of friends,” she began, the somewhat understated declaration drawing a small snort from the redhead, “and I know you’ve never really even liked me at all, but I know how close you and Xander are, and have been for practically all your lives, and I want to try to work things out between us, because I know he could never be totally happy if he and I are dating and there’re problems between the two of us.”
“And why do you care about whether he’s happy or not?” Willow snapped, a frown marring her flawless, if lightly freckled, complexion.
“I care about him being happy because I love him,” Cordy said quietly. Willow was more than a bit taken aback by the serious expression on the brunette’s face as she made that statement. Before this, the only declarations of love Cordy had made had been directed towards major fashion designers or jewelry.
“He and I belong to each other now,” the head cheerleader continued on in the same quiet, yet completely serious voice.
“I’m not going to say that we’re soulmates now, or that we’re destined to be together forever, or anything like that, because there’s no way I can think of that would prove it to your satisfaction, and you probably wouldn’t believe me if I said anything like that, anyway. But Xander is the major reason for existence in my life now, just like I’m his,” she told the hacker, who was staring at her in wide-eyed shock.
“I’m guessing that Dork-Head hasn’t told any of you guys this yet, but we both didn’t keep just the skills we had when we were possessed on Halloween,” Cordy confessed to her lover’s best childhood friend. “We also kept all of the memories Neo and Trinity had of their life together, and we saw exactly what loving someone completely and totally, the way they did, could be like.
“I saw the kind of person Xander is probably going to grow into, and I also saw the kind of person I could grow into, too; the kind of person I *need* to grow into, in order to be worthy of the kind of person that Xander’s going to be, someday,” she revealed, looking the redhead straight in the eye.
Willow could hardly believe her ears as she stared at her former childhood tormentor and listened to the words spilling out of her mouth.
Cordelia Chase was telling her that not only did she care about her childhood nemesis, Xander Harris, she was also actually declaring to her life-long nemesis that she loved him.
And that she cared so much about him that she wanted to be friends with a girl who had hated and despised her almost from the moment they had met, back in kindergarten.
There was absolutely no question about it, now; the Apocalypse had to be right around the corner.
Or maybe someone had slipped some kind of hallucinogenic drug into her orange juice at breakfast earlier this morning.
Of course, the next thought came forward reluctantly, there was always the remotest, slimmest chance – the barest, most unbelievable possibility – that Cordelia might actually be telling her the truth.
Personally, she was more inclined to bet on the Apocalypse showing up, but stranger things had happened in the past. She had to admit that, no matter how hesitant she was to do so.
And now that she thought about it, she had to admit that Cordelia had been much nicer to both her and Buffy ever since that night when everyone who had purchased their costume from Ethan Rayne had changed into their costume’s character.
Even the Cordettes had cut back on their usual harassment, she acknowledged to herself, which she thought was something that should be considered a supernaturally-unnatural event on its own.
“Even assuming for the moment that I *could* believe that you might actually care about Xander, why on earth *should* I believe that you really do?” Willow asked the brunette standing before her, her most serious expression on her face as she clutched her books to her chest. “After all, you and your harpies have done nothing but ridicule and torment us since pretty much the first day we met.”
“Yeah, you’re completely right about that,” Cordy immediately admitted candidly. “We got off to a bad start in kindergarten because I was a spoiled brat who believed that whatever I thought was the most important thing in the world. And when you didn’t immediately start sucking up to me like most of the other kids there, it hurt my feelings and I figured that there had to be something wrong with you,” she explained.
Seeing the dumbfounded expression on the redhead’s face at that revelation, Cordy gave her a small grin, and added, “Hey, cut me a little slack here, okay? I was only five years old, you know, and I didn’t know any better, so I believed that everything my parents told me was the absolute truth.
“It’s not my fault that they believed that you could only be important if you had lots of money and power,” she stated with a somber look. “But the fact that I know better now still doesn’t excuse anything I did back then, though.
“I’m sorry for the shitty way I used to treat you, Willow,” Cordy said, again looking the hacker directly in the eye. “I hope you can get past that, because I’d really like to see if we could be friends.”
Eying the brunette with a stony gaze for a moment as she attempted to assimilate all aspects of this seriously surreal conversation, Willow finally nodded her head in an affirmative manner.
“Okay, I guess we can try that,” she tentatively agreed, with the barest hint of a smile. “It certainly beats being enemies.
“Great!” Cordy beamed back upon hearing the redhead’s response. “This is going to work out so well for everybody!”
“I just want to say one thing, though, Cordy,” Willow cautioned her erstwhile enemy. “I really don’t understand why, but Xander really does seem to care about you, so I’m gonna support him in this, even though right now, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea.
“I just want to make sure you understand that if you hurt Xander in any way, like using him and then dumping him, or treating him badly, or anything like that, I’ll make it my personal goal in life to make the rest of your life a living hell. Understand me?” The hacker’s eyes seem to almost blaze with fire as she warned the cheerleader about the possible consequences of her betraying the male Scooby.
“Perfectly! And I’m so glad to hear you say that!” The head cheerleader surprised Willow with a big smile upon hearing her warning, then astonished her further by moving in and giving her a quick hug. “I know you’re his best friend, Willow, and I wouldn’t expect anything less! Look, I’ve got to get to class now, but I’ll see you in the library after school, okay?” she said as she turned to head off towards the gym.
“Maybe we can get together and go shopping later, so we can get you some things that suit you better than that stuff your mother gets you. You’ve got a great figure, you just need to let people see it…Maybe something in leather. Talk to you later,” she added as she hurried off, leaving a speechless and thunderstruck figure behind her.
Suddenly, Willow was assaulted by the vision of herself in a leather Dominatrix outfit with whip in hand. The prostrate forms of Buffy, Cordelia and Xander all knelt before her awaiting her punishment for some small infraction.
“Willow wants to play,” her voice echoed around her mind.
The Scooby Gang’s premiere hacker was still standing there, dumbfounded by Cordelia’s response to her threat, as well as her little fantasy, when Buffy came up to her a moment later and lightly touched her shoulder, startling her.
“You okay, Will?” the Slayer asked her, her expression a mixture of curiosity and concern. “Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not sure, Buff,” the redhead replied uncertainly. “I’m thinking that maybe it’s possible that Cordy’s been replaced by a demon.”
“That’d probably be an improvement, Will,” Buffy replied with a grin. “The demon’d have to be nicer.”
“Is it healthy to refer to yourself in the third person?” the hacker asked the Slayer.
“Only if you’re a boxer or the Incredible Hulk,” was the blonde’s reply.
They grinned at each other before responding in unison.
Sunnydale High School
Later that afternoon
Buffy and Ford strolled into the library, to find Giles fumbling with the lock on his office door, while trying not to drop the briefcase clutched under his arm.
“Hey, Giles, what’s up? Where is everybody?” Buffy inquired, seeing that this entire section of the building was empty.
“Oh! Buffy! Um... Yes, uh... Willow mentioned something about going shopping with Cordelia, and Xander informed me that he needed to head downtown, something about needing to see someone about an eagle, or a beagle, or something along those lines. Although why he might want to get a pet, I don’t understand, “ he informed her as he finished locking the door, then set down his briefcase and began searching through his pockets.
“Uhm, as it happens, Ms. Calendar and I are going... somewhere tonight, and she's given – ah, here it is!” he exclaimed triumphantly as he pulled a slip of paper from his jacket pocket, “She’s given me the number of her beeper thingy, uh, in case you need me for, um... study help, uh, suddenly,” he elaborated, eying Ford a bit doubtfully as he picked up his briefcase.
“He knows, Giles,” Buffy smiled at her Watcher’s circumlocutions.
“Ford knows I'm the Slayer,” the petite blonde explained.
“Yeah. I know all about the whole ‘fighting the forces of darkness in the night’ shtick,” the tall brunet agreed.
“Oh! Uh, very good. Yes. Uh, um, Buffy...” the librarian began as he led Buffy aside.
“If you’ll excuse us for a moment?” he said to Ford, as the two of them moved behind one of the shelves.
“Buffy, you are not, by any chance, betraying your secret identity just to impress, um, cute boys, are you?” he asked her, as he glanced back at Ford, who was currently idly inspecting the medieval history section.
“I didn't tell him. He already knew,” she smiled.
“Oh! Uh, right then. Well, uh, just remember, if you...” Giles hesitated for a moment, unsure of exactly what he was trying to say.
“Go! Experience this thing called fun. I'll try not to have a crisis,” Buffy smiled at the Englishman, as she gave him a gentle shove towards the library entrance doors. “And remember – no kissing on the first date!”
After a moment’s consideration, Giles shrugged, accepted her suggestion and headed out into the corridor.
“So! What do you want to do now?” Buffy asked as she and Ford followed her Watcher outside.
“Well, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment scheduled for about forty-five minutes from now, but after that’s done, I’m free for the rest of the night,” her companion replied.
“Are you okay, Ford?” the Slayer immediately asked, her deep-seated dislike and fear of hospitals coming to the fore. “What do you need to see a doctor about?”
“I’m good, Buffy,” the ex-Hemery High senior replied with a grin. “The doctor appointment’s some kind of insurance thing I need to get done if I ever want to be able to get car insurance and properly abuse my Dad’s trust in me to not do stupid things while driving his car,” he informed the diminutive blonde with a carefree smile.
“How about I get going so I can get the whole doctor thing over with, then meet you at your house after dinner, and we hit the Bronze and party with your friends for a while before you patrol?” he suggested.
“Sounds good to me,” Buffy agreed, reassured by the brunet’s explanation. “See you then.”
Yardley Biosciences, Ltd.
An hour later
“Damn, that feels weird!” Ford commented as he looked down at the intravenous line taped to his left arm and the clear plastic bag holding the dark medium-blue liquid that was slowly being fed through the tubing into his system. “Sort of like it’s freezing cold and burning hot, and a little itchy, all at the same time.
“So, Doc, how’re things looking?” he asked, turning to face the small, redheaded, white-coated physician who was currently examining a sheaf of papers that she had removed from a manila folder marked “Fordham, William.”
“Well, Ford,” the doctor answered, looking up from her review of the test results, “the results from your most recent blood tests are quite encouraging. Your globulin levels are up and your electrolyte levels have improved, as have all your enzyme readings. All in all, I’m very pleased with how things are going.
“But,” she continued, “more important is how *you* feel. Have you noticed any changes since we’ve begun the treatments?”
“Yeah, I have,” the brunet affirmed. “The pain’s not coming as frequently as it did, and I don’t think it’s nearly as bad, either. At the very least, it’s not getting any worse.”
“That’s good to hear! I think this might be a sign that this treatment is proceeding along exactly the way we had hoped it would, Ford,” the ex-Air Force officer stated, a small smile on her face.
“I’m gonna kick this thing’s ass, Doc,” Ford said, a look of determination on his face. “Bet on it.”
“I will,” Dr. Janet Lewis (formerly Janet Frazier) nodded as she looked down at her patient. “I don’t have any doubts about that, at all.”