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Chapter Thirteen: Guarded Optimism

SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 9:00 AM PST (5:00 PM GMT)
SUNNYDALE

-FRED-


It was the emptiness of the house that was getting to Fred.

It wasn't really physically empty, of course. Even with the furniture gone, Buffy's house didn't have the echoey stillness that used to live in the upper rooms and back corners of the Hyperion. There were still piles of tightly-packed boxes labeled in forest green Magic Marker, drifts of dust that hadn't yet been swept, and several living (or not) moving beings cluttering up the planes and angles of the architecture.

None of that stopped her from feeling as though she were standing in a ruined church, emptied of its inhabitants and its purpose. With every box the boys moved and every swipe of her dusting-cloth over the baseboards, a little more of its soul seemed to fade away. Maybe she was just imagining things-- she'd had too little sleep over the past couple of days and not enough coffee to make up the difference-- but the entire building felt as though it were mourning, and she couldn't help the occasional shiver in response.

Maybe it was mourning. In a town like Sunnydale you never could tell. Maybe something of Joyce had lingered in the spaces between the walls, watching over her daughters after her death, resenting these strangers who'd come to take their things. Maybe it wasn't the fault of some demon or spy that the sales contracts kept falling through...

Fred shook her head with a half-laugh, and turned up the corners of her mouth in embarrassment. "I sure do have a morbid imagination," she scolded herself, then sat back on her heels to brush stray wisps of hair out of her eyes. It had been, oh, hours now since they'd started with the moving and the cleaning, and her once-tidy braid had begun to get its own ideas about organization.

"You say somethin', Fred?" Charles called from the upstairs hall.

"No," she called back, thinking again about all that had gone on in this house-- the tales Angel and Wesley and Faith had told her of the Summers family, of Scooby meetings, and of youth left behind. "Just thinkin' out loud."

"Oh, that's cool," he answered, stomping down the stairs with a couple of garbage bags clutched in his arms. They bulged in strange places, like some kind of demonic egg-sacs, but she knew they probably only held shoes; this wasn't Pylea, after all, even if she sometimes felt like she was still back in that cave, dreaming of the real world. She suppressed a shudder, and gave him a tired smile.

"You almost done with that room?" he continued, returning the smile with cheerful warmth. "We're nearly done packin' the big stuff, if you want to wait and finish the cleaning next week. The quicker we get outta here, the better."

She sighed, set the rag down and stood, dusting her palms on her jean-clad thighs. "Sounds good to me. I should probably check for messages before we go, but that'll only take me a minute... the phone line's still connected, right?"

"Far as I know," he said, with a shrug. "We got a hold of Angel here earlier, right?"

"Oh, right." She laughed softly at herself again, then took a couple of steps away from the wall towards Charles' tall form. "Guess I'm more tired than I thought."

His smile gentled as she approached, and he leaned forward just a bit to meet her as she planted two small hands on his wide, muscled chest and stretched up for a quick kiss. "Mmm. Just a couple more hours, girl. We get to L.A., we can nap on the plane; it's a long flight over."

Fred wrinkled her nose at him. "I don't usually look forward to flying, but I think I'll make an exception this time."

He gave her another quick peck on the lips, then stepped back and adjusted his grip on the garbage sacks. "Did I mention how cute you look in that T-shirt?"

She rolled her eyes. The T-shirt in question was an oversized, wrinkled black thing out of Jonathan's travel bag, adorned with the self-mocking caption, 'Im a pogramar, Iam a programer, I'm a pogramor, I write code.' All but the last phrase were X'ed out. Of course Charles would get a kick out of it. "I thought you said I always look cute?" she teased him.

"You know what I mean." He rolled his eyes, too, then winked and stepped around her, heading out toward the moving truck. She followed him with her eyes, feeling obscurely comforted by his warm, protective presence, then turned to the front door and felt for the car keys in her pocket. Her laptop was still out in the trunk with the rest of their gear.

It didn't take long to retrieve the portable computer, hook it into the phone line, and perch on the counter while the software booted up. Fred didn't think there would be anything of dire importance waiting for her-- everyone knew the phone number of the house, and they all should have cell phones-- but she still felt she should check. The extended Scooby gang wasn't the only group of people she was in contact with, and with everything so topsy-turvy she didn't want to miss any significant information.

There were twenty-three new messages in her e-mail box, but sixteen of them were obvious "Bulk Mail" (the new, politically-correct name for spam) and four were from the various online message groups she subscribed to. She deleted the junk, transferred the others to a temporary folder, and scrutinized the return addresses on the remaining three. The one from redwitch@ucsunnydale.edu had an enormous attachment, which always made her leery of viruses, but there was no way that title could come from a mass marketer: 'Fwd: Rollright Feed: Price, Rayne'. It looked like Willow had found something.

Fred opened the message and set the file to download, then went back to look at the other two while it was busy. Both were from "ghost" addresses, generated by watchdog systems she'd set up-- ghost@init.army.mil, and ghost@wrh.com. The spy software snooped all incoming and outgoing email on those servers for specific names and keywords, something she'd come up with over the last few months with Willow's expert help. She'd never expected what she saw now, though; both messages bore the exact same title. Someone had sent a message from Wolfram & Hart to the Initiative.

"Regarding Hostile 17 and behavioral modification technology," she read aloud, then shivered. "That can't be good."

"Did you say Hostile 17?" An alarmed voice drifted toward her from the kitchen doorway.

Fred bit her lip and looked up to meet Angel's concerned gaze. "Looks like the Initiative isn't as dead as we thought," she said, "or Wolfram & Hart."

"Oh, that's just great." Angel threw up his hands, then strode into the kitchen with a heavy scowl. "With everything else that's going on, of course we need to worry about someone turning off Spike's chip."

She sighed and looked back down at the screen, then clicked on the Wolfram & Hart version of the message. Angel was being a little melodramatic about the whole thing, but then again, he probably had a point. The Spike that Fred had met was a sarcastic, fierce fighter for the Light and an intelligent research partner, but she knew from Angel's alter ego how easily a vampire could shed his 'goodness' and return to his true nature. She shifted a little on the counter, feeling the reassuring length of a stake in the pocket of the shorts Jonathan had lent her, and summarized the text of the message aloud.

--

"Dear Col. McNamara,

It has recently come to my attention that your Sunnydale facility was not completely destroyed as was previously reported, and that the research and equipment from those premises might still be extant, in some form.

...In the interests of continued cooperation between your superiors and mine, I therefore request any and all information or technology pertaining to the being labeled Hostile 17... The Los Angeles branch of our firm recently had the fortune to acquire him, and we would appreciate a more certain method of controlling his actions.

...You will, of course, receive proper compensation for your assistance.

Lilah Morgan."

--

Angel swore under his breath, and started pacing back and forth behind her. "Had the fortune? As in past tense? Damn it. When was that message sent?"

Fred checked the timestamp in the message header; it had been sent early that morning, at oh-three-twenty-seven in the morning. She checked the ghost message produced by the Initiative server to make sure there hadn't been a glitch in one of the clocks, and found it stamped at oh-three-thirty-one. "About three-thirty this morning," she said with a frown. "Spike was here that whole time, right?"

"That's just the thing," Angel said, stopping in his tracks to make distressed gestures with his arms and expression. "We had a big fight at two-something this morning, and he went storming out of the house to look for a 'bit of rough and tumble'. What if they caught him, did something to his chip, and returned him just before dawn? He's been a little off today, like he's got something on his mind. If they got to him..." He let his voice trail off suggestively.

"I don't know," she replied, with a pensive frown. "That seems kinda sudden to me. Even if Lilah did happen to show up in Sunnydale at just the right time and grab him, that's really short notice for the Initiative to respond. Besides, he's not all that subtle. If he hasn't started getting violent or killing people..."

"Who hasn't started killing people?" Charles' voice carried into the kitchen, and he poked his head in from the hallway. "Angel? We got trouble? The truck's all loaded, and we got Spike out there in the back with the furniture. Jonathan and Lorne are makin' sure the house is all locked up. Unless there's somethin' going on here, we're ready to go."

Angel glanced at Fred, then at Charles, then shook his head and heaved an unnecessary sigh. "No, I think we're fine. Nothing to worry about-- yet. Hey, why don't you and Fred both ride up front with Jonathan? We can leave the car here, and I'll sit in the back of the truck with Lorne and Spike."

Charles frowned at them both, aware something was up, but he didn't argue. "Yeah, okay. We'll have to come back up next week anyway to get the little stuff, we can get the car then."

Fred checked the download box on the digital video file, and was pleased to see that it had finished. She could always watch it on the way-- she'd call Willow from Jonathan's cell phone if she needed more information. "Just make sure you get everything out of the trunk," she told Charles, and started the process of shutting her computer down.

Angel snorted. "Yeah. We don't want to leave anything important behind, after all the trouble you went to getting it out of Vegas."

Charles sighed. "Okay, no problem. You might as well go on out to the truck; there's shade still, if you hurry. Fred?"

She pulled the modem cord from the wall jack and hurriedly stowed laptop, cord, and power plug in the carrying case she'd brought. "All done," she assured him.

"Good." He took the computer from her and shoo'ed her in the direction of the downstairs bathroom. "We probably won't be making any stops, so... anyway, we'll be waiting out front."

The reminder owed as much to the fact that she tended to forget everything in favor of her current research project as it did to her years in Pylea without amenities; Charles had gotten used to reminding her about the little things, and she'd almost stopped getting embarrassed about them. He was good that way, comforting and strong when she needed him to be, and never made her feel like the outcast she'd been all her life. He made her feel included, part of something, cherished and protected; if she was honest with herself, that was why she'd turned to him instead of Wesley. It hadn't had anything to do with the incident when Billy's violence had possessed Wes and made him attack her, as scary as that had been. With Wesley they'd have been two of a kind against the world. With Charles, she was just... loved. She had a sneaking suspicion that Faith was now doing the same for Wes, which made Fred feel much better about the whole thing.

Business taken care of, she took a moment to tuck the loose hairs back into her braid and splash some cool water on her tired face. The house had fallen silent around her; everyone else had gone outside, leaving her to secure the front door on her way out.

She paused in the front hall to glance around the bare front room, feeling that 'something of Joyce' again, the grieving spirit she'd imagined earlier. Maybe it was all in her head, but then again, maybe it wasn't. The Summers women had fought evil from this house for five long years, the entire length of Fred's time in Pylea, before falling to forces beyond their control and leaving Dawn behind to mourn them. Buffy had rejoined the living, but Joyce had not, and spirits never slept easily in this town.

"They're safe, Joyce," Fred said aloud, feeling a little silly. "They're just moving to L.A. They're beautiful, and strong, and they'll going to keep on making you proud. It's okay to let them go now."

Yes, maybe it was all in her head, but she could have sworn the air brightened at her words, and she felt much better going out the front door than she had walking in, hours earlier.

Now, if they could just get Faith back okay, and Wesley, and make sure Spike didn't go crazy on them... Well. It was just another day in their business. Everything would work out OK in the end; it always did. Eventually.

>> CHAPTER FOURTEEN
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