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03 November 2011 @ 11:07 am
Fic: Out of the Dark (7/13)  
Summary, Notes, and Warnings are located in the Table of Contents.

Chapter 7
 
By the time Nina had finished her shower and gotten dressed, she had recovered her composure, assured that she was simply being silly.  She got dressed in an outfit that was appropriately slinky without being slutty, spent maybe a little extra time on her makeup and hair, and made her grand entrance just after five.
 
She kept an eye out for Buffy while accepting hugs and handshakes, 'welcome home's and 'congratulations' from everyone.  Well, every one of their combined friends.  None of Nina's friends or family were present, due to the demon-y appearance of several of the partygoers.  So far, she hadn't seen any strangers wandering the festive lobby. 
 
If there was one thing Harmony did do well, it was to plan a party.  The walls were covered with newspaper reviews and clippings of Nina's art.  There was an hors d'oeuvre buffet table and a fully stocked refreshments table.  Chairs were scattered strategically in groups of three and four.  Music was playing and some people were taking advantage of the open floor area to dance.
 
As Nina sat sipping her drink with Angel, Wesley, and Fred, the elevator doors opened and out stepped a pretty blonde in a strikingly sexy outfit.  The black one shoulder blouse had an opaque liner that covered only what it had to, trailing sheer fabric past the hips which opened in front to reveal a taut midriff decorated with a shiny belly ring.  The faded jeans were form-fitting and extremely flattering to her thin figure.  She wore club makeup and tousled hair and everything about her was screaming that she was looking to party.  A glance at Angel and Wesley sitting, mouths agape, and Fred looking like she wished she were anywhere else, confirmed that this must be the infamous Buffy.  Nina began to get a little worried.  This wasn’t the poor, weak thing that she had envisioned. 
 
Buffy slithered her way across the dance floor, hips and shoulders rotating, and picked up a drink from the refreshments table.  Returning to the floor, she soon found herself surrounded by several of the male partygoers.  Nina smiled to herself, and mentally patted herself on the back for not pushing the conversation with Angel earlier.  Obviously, this Buffy had no interest in Angel anymore.  But just the same, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep tabs on him while she was around.
 
Over the next hour, Angel kept one eye on Buffy as she danced almost constantly, only taking a break to be introduced to the guest of honor and give her congratulations.  Again, the comparison with Faith was too strong to ignore, as he thought back to their 'dances' at the Bronze, when they drove the teenage boys into frenzies.  She took a break only once to come over and meet the guest of honor.  Timing it with the elevator arriving with a new load of well-wishers (or brown-nosers trying to suck up to the boss’s girlfriend) enabled her to get away with a simple “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.”
 
While on the dance floor, Buffy hardly took notice of any of her dance partners.  Despite the underlying truthfulness of her earlier conversation with Fred, she really didn't care if these men were responding to her or not.  She was constantly sneaking glimpses of Nina.  She was almost always with Angel, her arms around him, or running her hand across his back.  She was pretty, Buffy grudgingly acknowledged, and she definitely had her life together if these news reviews had anything to say about it, but it was the casual intimacy she had with Angel that really struck home.  Years of being with him, day in and day out, comforting him after a hard night's work, making love with him.  Buffy's imagination was running wild.  The worse her visualizations became, the more she threw herself into the music.
 
Angel cornered Fred.  "I told you to take her out for girly-type stuff; not to get her ready for a girly magazine!"
 
Fred said apologetically, "The outfit didn't look so..." she searched for an appropriate word, "well, extreme in the store. And the makeup and hair are both since we got back.   I'm sorry, Angel."
 
He shook his head.  There was no point in blaming Fred for this; it wasn't her fault.  And he didn’t really have any claim on Buffy anymore, he knew deep down.  After all, he was here with his live-in girlfriend.  So why did he feel like he wanted to blindfold every male in the place?
 
Buffy took a break from the dancing and wandered over to the refreshment table to nibble at some finger foods.  As she stood there perusing the options, Nina approached her.  Buffy felt her stomach tense.  She had done her duty, met her, been civil; to be expected to carry on a conversation with the perfect, nearly normal woman who had taken her place was really too much.  Taking a deep breath, she mentally repeated her mantra: It doesn't matter.  I feel nothing.  But she couldn't stop her heart from speeding up just a little.  She really wished Willow were here to help with the hating.
 
Nina smiled warmly at Buffy.  While she believed that Angel's ex presented no real threat to their relationship, it still made sense to make sure Buffy knew her place in the grand scheme.  The fact that she was taller than Buffy helped make it more concrete as she could look down at her throughout their conversation.
 
"Buffy, it is so nice to finally get to meet you.  You're the only one of Angel's exes who isn't a demon or dead."
 
"Angel's talked about me?" Buffy questioned blankly.  She hated the thought of being discussed and dissected with this new woman.  What was he saying? 
 
"Oh yes," Nina chuckled.  "We have no secrets from each other.  Angel told me all kinds of stories from when he dated you.  I can just picture him dancing with you surrounded by a bunch of high school kids."  Nina was taking a chance here, but if they really went out during most of her high school years, it stood to reason that he had gone out dancing with her and her friends at least once.
 
Buffy stood stunned.  Did he tell her about Prom?  About poor little Buffy's 'obsession' with the perfect high school memory?  She felt the blood draining from her face, and fought to maintain her composure.  She glanced away (It doesn't matter.  I feel nothing.) and back at Nina.  "That's good.  I'm glad you know.  I do hate having to watch what I say around people," she said stiffly.
 
When Buffy had turned her head, Nina was startled to notice a faint bite shaped scar on her neck.  Angel never even hinted that he had engaged in bloodplay since his ensoulment.  Then again, if he was into that, Nina wouldn't have wanted to hear it.
 
"Oh, I know everything.  Really, I'm glad you were there to help him make that difficult transition back into society.  You were really good for him.  He thinks quite fondly of you."  
 
It was really true.  Their relationship was nothing more than a distant memory for him.  There were no special memories, anything he held sacred; it was all out there for anyone to know about.    Buffy felt her chest tightening, and searched desperately for a way to get herself out of this situation.
 
"And I think it's so good that you felt like you can still come to him when you're in trouble," Nina continued.  "He told a little bit about it when we had a little chance to… talk before the party."  Her coyly embarrassed smile implied exactly what made their time to talk so short.  Inside her head, Buffy was screaming.
 
Suddenly, Buffy felt a tearing pain in her back, automatically pressing her hand to the pain.  When she drew it away, it was sticky with blood.
 
Angel, talking with Fred across the room, noticed her eyes widen as she watched something behind him at almost the same time he caught the scent he had noticed the other night, Slayer blood.  He turned as Buffy fell onto her knees.
 
Buffy couldn't catch her breath.  The wound burned like fire, the room spun crazily around her, and her legs buckled beneath her.  Dimly, she heard Angel shouting her name.  She looked up to see him standing over her.  When did he get there?  She tried to tell him that something was wrong, but her brain didn't seem to be making her mouth make the right noises.
 
Nina stepped back, a dismayed look on her face.  She looked around at everyone converging on Buffy and said, "I didn't do anything!"
 
Fred looked sharply up at this remark, but Angel was preoccupied with assessing Buffy's status.  As he reached for her to try to get her to a chair, he gasped, "She's burning up." 
 
Wesley leaned over, "Angel, we've got to get her back to the infirmary now."
 
"No!" Buffy cried.  "Angel, don't take me there."
 
"Buffy," he tried to reason with her.  "We've got to get your fever down."
 
"No," she was practically sobbing now.  "No more sewer talks.  Please."
 
Realizing that she was delirious from the fever, Angel scooped her up into his arms, cradling her against his shoulder to try to ease the discomfort on her wound.  Wesley went ahead of him to get the elevator, while Angel asked Fred to call ahead to the infirmary to let them know they were on their way.  For a beat, Fred stood there staring at Nina, who remained frozen with a shocked look on her face.  Then she turned, went to Harmony's desk, and called the medics. 
 
Fred, Gunn, Lorne, and Connor then followed Angel and Wesley down to the infirmary. 
 ~)O(~
 
As Angel and Wesley hurried Buffy to the infirmary, Angel felt his concern mounting.  Her fever seemed to increase by the moment and her ramblings were taking less and less coherent form.  He felt increasingly helpless as she talked to, and cried out for, her friends and family. 
 
They entered the infirmary where the doctor and nurses had already prepared and immediately placed Buffy on her stomach on the bed, surrounding her with cold packs.  The doctor noted her vitals as one nurse attached an IV and drew blood while a second cut away Buffy's shirt and removed the bandage from the wound.  She gasped as the wound was exposed to view. 
 
Wesley whispered, "Angel?"
 
"I see it, Wes," he nodded.  "That looks… It looks like it just happened.  But we were there.  Nothing attacked her."
 
The visible signs of inflammation surrounding the gash were markedly worse than the night she had arrived.  Red rivers spidered out from the center across her back.  There was a mixture of pus and blood seeping from the wound that would not be staunched. 
 
The others arrived and were also astonished by the unexplained worsening of Buffy's injuries.  As they stood there, each trying to develop an explanation for this new development, her mumbled ravings reached a fevered pitch.  "Angel, no!  Please!!"  Angel started to the bedside, but one of the nurses motioned him back. 
 
The doctor said curtly, "It's too busy in here.  Please move out of the room, so we can do our jobs."  To the nurse, he added, "Start IV antibiotics, and debride the wound."
 
Connor put his hand on Angel's arm and motioned his head toward the hallway.  "Let's wait out there.  You'll know the instant anything changes," he said softly.  Angel reluctantly acquiesced, following the rest into the hallway with one last look back.
 
"What the hell is going on here, Wesley?" Angel exploded as soon as they were out of the medical room. 
 
Wesley winced.  Angel, soul or no soul, did not take well to things out of his control harming those he cared about.  He could become quite aggressive in expressing his displeasure.  Judging by the tension in his voice, they were nearing that point.  Of course, were it Fred on that table, he'd probably shoot anybody not cooperating, so, he supposed he understood Angel's feelings.  But he didn't want to be on the wrong end of them.
 
"Honestly, Angel, I don't know.  I can't begin to guess what aggravated the injury or even if it's part of the charm."
 
"Not good enough.  You've been researching over a day.  Haven't you found anything out?"
 
Wesley bristled.  Before things got too out of hand, Fred stepped in.  "Guys!  I have an idea."  Seconds passed before the posturing relaxed, and all heads turned to Fred.
 
"When we saw the manifestation of the charm cast on Buffy, we discounted the shading over her heart area due to, well, her recent losses.  But what if we were wrong?  What if it is part of the spell?  Somehow, they've linked her emotional state to the physical injury."
 
Gunn shook his head.  "What do you mean, linked?"
 
"What if extreme emotional states trigger a worsening of her symptoms?  The more extreme the emotion, the worse the physical manifestation." 
 
Connor looked sick.  "So, in a way, she's in control of whether she lives or dies?  She can try not to feel anything or this happens?"
 
Fred nodded.  "I think so.  I mean, it makes sense.  The wound was bleeding the first night she saw you, Angel, right?  The next time it got noticeably worse was when she dreamed of the attack, probably prompting fear or hatred.  And now, tonight," Fred concluded, matter-of-factly.
 
"What do you mean, 'tonight?'" Angel asked.  "What about tonight?"
 
"Well," Fred replied, "She was talking with Nina right before this happened."
 
Angel shrugged.  "So?"
 
Fred sighed.  "Sometimes it is still just absolutely amazing to me that you have a romantic history spanning multiple centuries, and yet you still seem to know absolutely nothing about women."  Even with the tense situation, everyone had to hide their grins.  "Your ex girlfriend was talking with your current girlfriend.  You don't think there was some emotional current going on there?"  Fred didn’t mention the other reason she was suspicious: Nina had acted so defensive when it happened, she must have been doing, saying, or thinking something.
 
Angel hemmed and hawed, but ultimately had to admit that Fred was probably right.  "Ok, Wesley, does this give you anything new to go on?"
 
Wesley nodded.  "This is definitely a unique characteristic.  I can get started on the new research first thing in the morning."  He glanced at his watch, "Which is only a few hours away.  Why don't we all go get some sleep?"
 
Lorne cleared his throat.  "I love sleep as much as the next red-eyed demon, but, uh, shouldn't we tell the doc what we've figured out?"
 
Wesley looked embarrassed at the oversight.  "Yes, of course.  They may be able to use it to help her recovery from this episode."
 
"You all go get your sleep.  I'll talk to the doctor," Angel said.   "I think I'm going to be staying down here for a while, anyway," he added, looking through the door to where Buffy lay, still fidgeting and talking in delirium.
  ~)O(~
After hearing the latest theory, the doctor added Valium to the medications being given to Buffy.  Within an hour, her fever was down to tolerable levels and the infection was under control.  She drifted in and out of consciousness as Angel sat by the bed; the doctor did not think it advisable for her to leave their care until they were sure that the infection was truly in remission.
 
Around 4:00 in the morning, Nina's voice echoed in the quiet room from the doorway.  "So, you're not coming to bed?"
 
Angel flinched at the harshness of the sound breaking the soothing monotony of the quiet medical sounds indicating that Buffy was recovering.  He got up and walked toward her.  "I'm not not going to bed.  It's just that someone should be here with her," he indicated Buffy. 
 
"That sounds like the doctor's job."
 
"It's not medical.  She's recovering nicely.  She just hates hospitals."  Neither of them noticed Buffy's eyes fluttering open as she swung to a vaguely conscious state.
 
"Well, this is an infirmary, not a hospital.  Problem solved!" Nina said brightly.  Angel glowered at her.  "Angel, it's just that I've been away for over a month.  I kind of thought you'd want to be with me as much as I want to be with you."  Buffy closed her eyes again, wishing she were anywhere else.
 
"I do," Angel replied.  I think.  "But…"
 
"But she takes priority over me," Nina finished bitterly.  "Just like your friends' misadventures, your job, just about everything!"
 
"Please, Nina, let's not have this fight again.  Not here.  Not tonight."  Angel looked behind him to make certain they weren't disturbing Buffy.
 
"When, Angel?  Look, when this wolf thing happened, you promised me that I could still live a normal life.  Where is that normality?"
 
Angel looked at her compassionately.  "I said normality was possible despite the werewolf.  I never said it was possible with me.  My work, my friends, the whole deal… it's my life.  I don't want to get away from it.  And yes, there are things that are going to take immediate priority over our relationship at times.  That doesn't mean I don't care."
 
"Whatever," Nina sighed in disgust.  She turned and walked out.
~)O(~
 
Fred snuggled under the covers.  "Wesley?" she said softly. 
 
"What is it Fred?" Wesley asked, as he pulled her into his arms and snuggled her against him.  He breathed in the scent of her hair and once again thought himself the luckiest man in the world.
 
Fred paused.  Really, the situation with Nina was none of their business.  She buried her head against Wesley's chest and mumbled, "Never mind."
 
They slept.

 ~)O(~
 
After what Buffy felt was a reasonable interval following Nina's departure, she drowsily opened her eyes to see Angel sitting in a chair next to her bed, elbows on his knees, head in his hands.  The sooner she left, the better.  On top of putting them all in danger from whatever was hunting her, her presence here was harming his relationship with Nina, even if it didn't sound as if it were on the most stable footing to begin with.  He deserved to have a fulfilling life without her around throwing monkey wrenches into everything.
 
Feeling her stare, Angel looked up at her.  Immediately composing his face to mask the internal struggle he was feeling at the moment, he smiled.  "How are you doing?  You gave us a bit of a scare."
 
Buffy made a kind half shrug and said, "I feel kind of like I've been skewered, smushed, and run through a cement truck."  Her face took on a questioning look.  "What happened?"
 
Angel decided the simple explanation was best for now, leaving the theories to Fred and Wesley in the morning.  "You collapsed at the party.  Your fever spiked and the infection was kind of running rampant in your system."  He suppressed a tremor as he remembered how dangerously sick she had been only hours earlier. 
 
Buffy did a basic physical assessment of herself, and looked at Angel.  "But all better now, right?"
 
"Well, they want you to stay at least until morning."  Buffy groaned.  "You were very sick, Buffy."  He looked around and grabbed some magazines of the bed table.  "Lorne brought these for you.  He's circled all the celebrities that we represent.  He thought you might like looking through them."
 
Buffy took the magazines with a resigned look on her face.  "Ok, I'll play nice and stay.  But just because I'm kinda all comfy here and don't really feel like moving."
 
Angel nodded, hiding a smile.  "Okay then.  I'm going to leave you to get some more rest.  I'll be back in a few hours."
 
Buffy pasted a smile on her face.  "See you then."  Angel bent over her and kissed her forehead, leaning close enough that she could smell the remnants of his soap mixed with his natural scent.  She swallowed hard.  The smile fell from her face as he left the room.  To go be with Nina.  She tried hard to keep her mind from visualizations that had been plaguing her since she met the woman.  Lorne's magazines were some help and eventually she dozed off.

~)O(~
 
Nina lay awake in their bed.  While there were certainly plenty of aspects of their life together that irritated her, she couldn’t help but admit that she had grown accustomed to certain aspects of being the girlfriend of the CEO of a major law firm: the parties, the limos, the money.  She hadn’t even had to work since graduating; Angel took care of her while she spent her time on her art.  It was paying off.  Her showing had been a hit, but still, it would probably be best to not alienate him.  She had a feeling that he may have been a bit put off by some of her behavior the day before.  Maybe it was time to walk some of it back.  She smiled as she rolled over, closing her eyes as she planned her appropriately contrite and caring speech for tomorrow.
 
Downstairs, Angel approached the elevator access in his office and shook his head.  There was no way he could go up to bed with Nina when he was so confused.  Their fight had been going on for months now, but somehow had taken a new tone with Buffy here.  Nina had always stayed away from the work he had done.  He had assumed it was because she lacked what she called ‘super-powers,’ but now he wondered.  The more often they had the argument, the more cold and callous comments slipped through.  She didn’t actually seem to care about the people they helped, or even about the fact that he did care.
 
But beyond that, he had to admit to himself that it felt like he would be betraying Buffy to go curl up in bed with another woman.  He shook his head tiredly, wondering how Nina had become the ‘other woman’ in this scenario.
 
He threw himself down on the couch and slept.

 ~)O(~

He stalked down the streets of Los Angeles, a slight smile on his lips.  She was here.  It had taken her longer to turn to the vampire than he had expected, but ultimately, where else would she go?  Cleveland had been fun, although he almost thought she wouldn't pull through that little scuffle.  It would have been a shame had she died too soon.  But now, all the pieces were in place.  It was almost time.  He continued his stroll, people almost unconsciously moving out of his way, as he chuckled at the thought of what was to come.