He swallowed and cleared his throat. "Yeah, fine." He paused. "Just lost my train of thought."
"Happens to me all the time," she said reassuringly. "I was asking about my tacos?"
"I ate them," Spike explained. "They'd gone bad, anyway. That's what happens when you leave food sitting in a hallway for hours."
Fred sighed. "I'm really hungry. Can you go out and get me some donuts?"
He smiled apologetically. "I'd be happy to, pet, but the sun's already up."
"Didn't anyone tell you about the tunnels?" she asked. "They have them all through Los Angeles-"
"Sunlight's not a problem for me," Gunn interjected. "My truck's right outside. Looks like a fine day for taking a pretty lady out to breakfast."
"There's a lovely café around the corner," Wesley suggested. "They have fresh croissants and a truly wonderful selection of tea."
"Croissants!" Fred said ecstatically. "Oh! I'd forgotten about those. Do they have chocolate ones?"
Wesley brightened and walked over to her. "They do, and almond as well. They're lovely with a cup of Earl Grey."
"Okay," Fred said. She handed Wes a twenty-dollar bill. "I'll have one of each, and a big, big cup of tea with lots of cream and sugar. Thanks so much!"
"Would you- would you like to accompany me?" Wes asked hopefully.
"I don't leave the hotel," she reminded him.
"But you look so lovely," he said sincerely. "Surely it's a waste to keep you hidden away here."
"You're so sweet," she replied. "But I like being hidden away."
"I'll go get you your breakfast then," Wesley said, handing her back her money. "My treat," he said as he turned to leave.
"You're coated with demon goo, man," Gunn stated.
Wesley shrugged. "Francois has seen me looking worse. "
"Can I have a croissant too?" Cordelia asked. The door banged shut behind the Englishman. "I guess I'll go home and make my own breakfast."
Fred turned to her. "Oh my goodness," she said, tentatively reaching out her hand to remove a popcorn kernel from the other woman's hair. "You poor thing."
"I know I look disgusting," Cordelia replied briskly. "But I have to stay here and show Spike how to deal with the case files."
"It's Saturday, and we just worked all night," Gunn said. "Can't the files wait, Angel?"
"We can't just leave them all scattered around," Angel argued.
"Why don't you go upstairs and take a bath in my room?" Fred offered. "Spike found a suitcase full of pretty dresses and lingerie. That's where I got this." She pointed to her dress. "You can help yourself to whatever you want."
Cordelia's eyes lit up. "There's more like that?"
"A bunch," Fred said. "I moved next to Spike's room, out of that mess of papers I was living in. Just pick out whatever you want out of the closet. Take a bath, and take a nap. I'll help Spike get started with the files."
Cordelia smiled. "Would you really do that? Because I would love to deslime myself as soon as possible."
"I've read through all the files, and it made sense to me. I'll show Spike," Fred assured her. Cordy scampered towards the stairs, slipping and sliding a bit as she left a trail of green slime dripping behind her.
"Shower sounds good to me," Gunn said. "I'll catch you all later." He turned and left the lobby.
Angel turned to Fred. "I'd like to clean up myself."
"We'll get the office set to rights," she promised. "I wish we had a magic broom or a fairy godmother or something, but as long as you have adhesive dots I'll get it done in a jiffy."
He looked at her oddly. "Dots?"
"Don't worry," Fred said. She reached out to pat his shoulder, and realized it was coated with green bile. She backed away and made a waving motion. "Go on. Git." She took Spike's elbow and they walked into the office. "Boy, this is a serious mess," she commented.
"It was a mess to start with," Spike said defensively.
"Oh, I know," Fred replied. "Cordelia's mind is very interesting. Her system makes perfect sense if you take it from her point of view. It's all distillation, boiling it down to one word that brings to mind the situation for her. Like 'Eye' for a girl implanted by a Skilosh demon."
"I don't know the cases, so it doesn't mean much to me," he said.
"You should read them," she suggested. "The work they have done here is really amazing." She opened the office supply cabinet. "They don't have a label maker or dots. Geez, they don't even have any pens or post its. This is pathetic." She sighed. "Well first off, we separate the active files from the closed ones. Cordelia doesn't indicate which are which, so you have to open the case files and wade through to figure it out. First we can set aside all of the closed cases in alphabetical stacks, to get them out of the way."
She picked up a legal pad and a marker and made signs, taping them to the wall. Large letters indicated where to place the files. "Active files we stack over here," she said, slapping a sign on the opposite wall. "If a case is closed but it's still unpaid, then put it in the active file too."
"How can I tell if it's paid?" he asked.
Fred held up a file folder. A smiley face was written on the outside in yellow highlighter. She sat down at the desk, pulling a rolling chair next to her. "Come sit," she invited Spike.
He shook his head. "I'll just sit on the floor over here." He grabbed two armfuls of files and leaned against the desk. They worked in silence; Fred making six tidy piles on the desk while Spike flipped through the files and tossed them on the stacks against the wall.
Their concentration was broken by the arrival of Wesley. He stepped past Spike and handed Fred a paper cup and a pink cardboard box. "Thank you," she said with a grin. "I am so utterly famished, I've never seen a prettier sight."
Wesley smiled at her widely. "Neither have I."
Fred leaned forward. "There was something I wanted to tell you." Spike pretended to be engrossed on the files, but every bit of his attention was focused on Fred and Wes. "You have an office supply problem," she said seriously. Spike smirked as Wesley's face fell.
"What kind of issue is there with the supplies?" Wesley asked.
"Well, the fact that you don't have any," she informed him..
"Cordelia usually goes out when we run out of pens," Wes said lamely.
"You don't have an account with an office supply store?" she inquired.
"No, I never really saw the need," he replied.
"Can you open one?" she asked. "There are a whole lot of things you're lacking that should be in every well organized office. For the files alone, you need a labeler, a set of tickler files, and colored stickers for coding files by last name, case type, and status. Without the proper tools, it's a very inefficient use of our time."
He looked bemused. "How do you know all of this?"
She looked confused. "I don't really remember." Her hands started to jitter, tapping along the desk.
Spike looked up at the noise, saw her agitated face, and glared at Wes. He stood up and walked around the desk, sitting next to her. "Doesn't matter," he said casually, smoothing his hand over hers. He looked up at Wesley. "Can you part with the blunt to get her the stuff she wants, or should I take it up with Angel?"
Wesley blinked. "No, it's just fine. Making the office more efficient, certainly an admirable pursuit." He pulled out his wallet and handed her an American Express card. "That's the company card. Just be as frugal as possible."
She smiled. "Thanks." Fred picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Oh, good! I thought this number was the right number because I'm extremely good with numbers but it's been a while. I was afraid that I'd just made up a random string of numbers in my head, but obviously that's not the case. You're the office supply store!" She listened to the other end of the line. "No, I'm not a crank call. I need to set up a new account. Business. Angel Investigations." She rattled off all the billing information. "My name? Winifred Langley. Title?" She looked blank.
"Office manager," whispered Wesley.
"I'm the office manager!" she exclaimed. "Okay, here's what I need, and I want it delivered by noon. Ten 513382, AVE2020LB, AVE2020RG, MMM654RPYW, 127878, ELD16881. What's the newest model of the P-Touch labeler? Okay, one of those, and 10 refills of one inch clear tape for it. Thanks!" She hung up the phone and grinned, obviously proud of herself.
"That was amazing!" Wesley gushed. "You have all the inventory codes memorized."
"I guess so," she confirmed. "Of course, if the stuff shows up and I ordered three dozen hot cups and a case of Wite Out, you're going to be unhappy with me."
"You did say one thing that was wrong," said Wesley. "Your last name isn't Langley, it's Burkle."
"I don't think so," she said hesitatingly. "My name is Winifred Anna Langley. I was born August 1, 1976 in Dallas, Texas."
"I went to the library where you worked, your university, and your apartment," Wesley reminded her. "Your last name is Burkle."
"My name is Winifred Anna Langley," she repeated, her voice shaking. "I weighed six pounds, seven ounces and was seventeen inches long when I was born."
"It's okay, love," Spike said, patting her shoulder. "Wesley must have just got it wrong." Sadness flared through him as he watched her tranquil mien shatter into pieces.
"I did not," Wesley said defensively.
"I graduated from the Hockaday School in 1994 and was valedictorian of my class." She looked at Spike, her eyes filling with tears. "I think. Am I wrong?"
"I'm sure you're right," Spike said confidently.
"I'm in the wrong place," Fred said, her voice trembling. She turned and looked at Spike. "This world, it seems like home. But is it?" Her brow furrowed. "Stupid," she said. "Hallucinations. None of this is real. Cow." She twisted her hands in her hair and her beautiful upsweep fell apart, the ivory pins scattering.
"This is real," he assured her. "You're home, and safe." She looked at him blankly, confused and suffering. Spike stalked across the room and switched on the radio. He turned the knob to a soothing light jazz, then walked back to the desk and stood in front of Fred. "You know what your problem is, petal?" he asked, gently pulling the remaining pins from her hair and setting it to rights with his fingers.
"I'm in the wrong dimension?" she guessed, looking up at him with wide eyes.
"Hunger," he said firmly. "Eat your pastries and drink your tea, and I'm sure everything will fall into place."
"You're right. I forgot to eat," she giggled. "I forgot I was hungry!"
"Good thing you have me here to remember for you," Spike said. Fred smiled up at him, and the light in her eyes made him smile in return. Her happiness was contagious, and Spike didn't want to see it fade again, lost in doubt and pain. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I'm going to have a word with Wesley," he said. "So just listen to the music and enjoy your food. I'll be right back." He took Wesley's arm and led him out, shutting the door behind him.
"She seemed better," Wesley said apologetically. "I didn't mean to upset her."
"She's not well," Spike reminded him. "You idiots ignored her for months, let her lock herself away. Now that's she's presentable, you just want to pretend there's nothing wrong with her. Shallow bastard."
"That's not true," Wesley rebutted, his skin flushing.
"Balls," Spike said forcefully. "The lot of you let her stay in that filthy room like a rat in a cage. Where was all your do-gooding then?"
"I don't have to be insulted by the likes of you," Wesley fumed. "She'd been through a traumatic experience. We all thought it was best to leave well enough alone."
"She's insane," Spike said. "She's not going to just wake up one day and be fit as a bloody fiddle."
"She wasn't insane before Pylea," Wesley argued. "There's no reason why she can't overcome what happened to her there."
"Are you certain she was sound before?" Spike asked. "How much do you know about her past?"
"She worked in a library, studied physics at university," Wesley said. "She couldn't have done that if she was mentally ill."
"Did you speak to any of her friends and family, tell them that she'd been found?" Spike asked. "Why haven't any of them come for her?"
Wesley looked uncomfortable. "I spoke with her sister."
"And she didn't care that Fred was alive?" Spike said in disbelief.
"She hung up on me," Wesley elaborated. "I sent a letter, explaining that her sister truly had been found, and enclosed a photograph." He cleared his throat. "I received a rather threatening letter from a law firm, and a copy of a death certificate for Winifred Burkle."
Spike frowned. "That doesn't make sense. Why didn't you pursue it?"
"I assumed that Fred would do so when she felt more settled," Wes explained. "I thought she would get better eventually."
"She could need medication, or some kind of therapy," Spike pointed out. "She could be getting worse instead of better."
Wesley turned and looked through the window. "But she seemed so normal this morning," he said, watching her eat.
"That's the thing about the mad," Spike said. "It's not the fits and rages that break your heart. It's the moments of lucidity, when you see what could have been, if things were different."
Wesley turned and looked at the vampire. "She's not Drusilla."
Spike's eyes turned cold. "What do you know about Dru?"
"I know every detail of her existence since she was turned," Wesley said. "Her file at the Council House is five inches thick. I know all of about her, and you." He looked at Spike with palpable dislike. "William."
Spike hissed. "Don't you dare."
Wesley raised his chin and stared straight at the vampire. "I know what your sire is, and what you are," he said. "I'll never forget for a moment the atrocities you've committed. Don't play the courtly knight for me; it's a waste of time. If you didn't have that chip in your head, you would have killed Fred by now. You're not fooling anyone with your façade of concern."
"You don't know anything," Spike said bitterly. "Watchers never do."
"I'm not a Watcher any more," Wesley stated. "More a man of action. You cross me, you'll be gone in a flicker."
"I'm not scared of you," Spike said.
"That just proves how stupid you really are," Wesley said. He turned and walked out of the lobby.
Spike watched Fred though the window. If Pylea had caused her mental problems, he wanted to help. If they were caused by her inner demons, he needed to know. If he could help heal her, he would. But he needed to find out what was wrong with her. She was so lost, and there was no one there to help her find her peace, no family and friends. There was only him.
He sat down on the round couch and dialed his cell phone. "Huh whah?" he heard, followed by a thump, and then muffled cursing
"Red?" he asked. "You there?"
"Hello?" she said faintly and then more scrabbling.
"It's Spike," he said. "I need help."
"Come over later," she said sleepily. "Tara's making pancakes."
"I'm in L.A., Willow," he reminded her.
"Oh, yeah," she yawned. "It's really, really early. What's wrong?"
"Do you know anything about alternate dimensions, portals, that sort of thing?" he asked.
"A bit," she replied.
"Have there been any documented cases of people slipping through, staying away for years and then making it back?" Spike queried.
"I can ask Giles and do some research," she said.
"I want to know if it has caused mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, any kind of problems," he elaborated.
"Okay," Willow replied. "I'll keep that in mind."
"I also need to find out any information you can find on someone named Winifred Burkle or Winifred Langley," he said. "She was a physics student at UCLA, says she graduated from somewhere called Hockaday, and was born in Dallas on August 1, 1976."
She paused. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you have a job at a detective agency?"
"Yeah, what of it?"
"Couldn't you use their resources to find this stuff out?" she asked. "I mean, you should talk to the people that you work with. Cordelia, Angel, they would help."
"I want to do this on my own," he said.
"Team player," she reminded him.
"Look, I'm helping the helpless," he argued. "Bona fide helping is going on here, so don't bust my stones about it."
"Just this once," Willow said. "I'm not going to enable you to be broody loner dude. They already have one of those in your office."
"Don't compare me to Angelus," he snapped.
"Someone hasn't had a warm mug of good morning blood yet," Willow said cheerily. "I'll call and let you know what I find out. Be good, and tell Dawnie to check in."
"Will do," he promised. He hung up the phone and went back into the office.
Fred was polishing off her last croissant, and she looked up with a smile. "You were so right," she said brightly. "I feel like a shiny new penny."
Spike sat down next to her. "I'm always right," he announced. "One of those little things about me only my friends know."
"No one can be right all the time," she said. "It's statistically improbable."
"I'm a vampire," he pointed out. "Isn't that statistically improbable too?"
She laughed. "Good rebuttal." She leaned forward and hugged him. "You're so sweet."
"No, I'm really not," Spike argued. She tightened her arms around him, and he closed his eyes, relishing her warmth and softness. His nose was filled with her scent, and he sighed with contentment.
"Oh my God," she whispered. She ran her hands lightly over his back, and he shuddered. "Hugging."
"Yes, we are hugging," he said stupidly, as he ran his hands over her lower back.
"Oh, I'd forgotten that there was such a thing. Gentle arms, soft hands. Nice touching," she murmured, resting her head on his shoulder.
Spike really enjoyed being hugged. Hugs had been out of his experience as a vampire until Dawn. She hugged him often, and secretly it was one of his favorite things. They made him feel safe, and secure, and happy. This hug was different. He wanted to cup her breasts, and kiss her neck, and bury his face in the shining glory of her hair. Abruptly, he pushed her away, the wheels of her chair clattering.
She looked at him with pain in her eyes. "What did I do wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, wishing he'd handled this better.
"I'm sorry I touched you," she said. "I do the wrong thing all the time." She tapped her hand on the desk, biting her lip.
Spike took her hands in his and pulled her into his lap, making her squeal in surprise. "Let's have a little fun," he suggested. He shoved off with his legs, making the chair shoot across the room. She laughed uproariously as they ran into a stack of files. Another good kick against the wall and the chair flew out the door, whizzing out into the lobby.
Fred held fast to the arms of the rolling chair as Spike pushed with his feet, scooting them around the marble floor at high speed as they both cracked up. "Whee!" she cried out, lifting up her arms. Spike spun faster and faster, until finally he clipped the corner of a fern on a stand, and they both went flying.
Fred crashed into the floor, and Spike landed heavily on top of her. His head slammed into the back of her skull, and he felt his nose crunch. "Fuck!" he cried out. He rolled off of her, holding his face in his hands.
"My head," she cried out as she whimpered with pain. They both lay on the floor in agony.
Cordelia walked up to them with a frown. She looked down at them with the same regard she'd give a pair of naughty puppies. "Call me anal, but this looks completely unlike filing."
The lobby door opened, and a man walked in pushing a trolley laden with cardboard boxes. "Office supply delivery for Winifred Langley," he said.
Fred sat up, wincing as she held a hand on the back of her head. "Be right there?" She groaned. "I think."
"You okay, love?" Spike asked as he stood up, rubbing his nose.
She looked up at him, her eyes filled with tears. "My head hurts," she said in a small voice.
He helped her up and gently felt the back of her head. "You've got a knot growing there," he said. "I'm so sorry you got hurt. I'm a big hulking idiot."
" No you're not," she contradicted, reaching out to pat his nose."I'll be fine, as soon as my head stops throbbing."
"I'll get you some ice and aspirin," he said, his eyes full of concern.
Cordelia looked at them in disbelief. The affection between them was palpable, and Spike the vicious killer was nearly crying because he'd bonked Fred on the head. This place just kept getting weirder.
Continued in Chapter Four