Buffy woke in her Trenton, New Jersey hotel room exhausted. Seven hundred miles was not that big of a deal but Giles had called her all in a tizzy and requested Buffy leave Cleveland immediately. Word was they had a slayer who did not know what she was wreaking havoc on Trenton with her vigilantism. It was a nice endeavor, but slayers were not supposed to hurt humans. It went against the rules, but instruction manuals had not been dropped into the laps of these girls when they were transformed from potential into full slayer.
So, Buffy was here on a search and rescue mission. She would bring the slayer to Cleveland where she would get the low-down on what she was. She would get some training and then get shipped off to England where Giles and others would train her on the book stuff. Buffy had decided to stick with what she was good at, slaying. So she was still here as a slayer with a side gig as trainer. There were some months she spent more time training then she did slaying but as more time passed since the spell they were finding fewer slayers.
They had met up with a few who did not want the training. In those cases, Buffy had Faith come and train with the slayer some right there. It was not as in depth as when the girls came with her to Cleveland, but she and Faith at least had confidence the girls would not die out from stupidity.
She turned the TV on for background noise while she got ready for the day. She had gotten into Trenton at three in the morning so sleeping until noon was not bad. She still had plenty of time to get in touch with Giles' contact and put in a good search for the slayer this afternoon. Giles and the rest of the watchers did not deem it worth the extra expense for Buffy to stay at hotels that offered room service, so she would find something to eat along the way. She was not big on McDonald's, but if that was what she had to eat it was better than nothing.
Showered and dressed for the day in a skirt and a black tank that tied around her neck instead of having sleeves, Buffy sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the notebook she carried with her at all times. She had notes on every trip she had taken in an effort to find a slayer and on the slayer she had gone to retrieve. This would be her thirtieth retrieval if the girl was truly a slayer. Not every assignment turned out to be legitimate.
She picked up the telephone and dialed the number Giles provided.
"Yo." He had an abrupt but businesslike voice, obviously not much with the small talk.
"Is this RangeMan Enterprises?"
A moment's pause and then, "I'm Ranger."
"I was given this number by Rupert Giles."
There was a longer moment of silence. He was on a cell phone and she could hear noise in the background indicating he was still there. "I was expecting you to call earlier."
She rolled her eyes. "I needed sleep."
He laughed lightly and Buffy could not help but think it was one of the sexiest sounds she had ever heard. She wondered what he looked like. There was no way he could sound like this and look as good. She closed her eyes and shook her head. He probably looked like Giles and was just as old. "Where are you?"
"Red Roof Inn."
"Nice." Buffy was not sure but thought he was being sarcastic. "Low budget expense account?"
"You can say that," Buffy muttered.
"I'll meet you at the Applebee's near there in," he paused for a moment. Buffy was growing more curious about this all-business man. "About twenty minutes."
"How will I know who you are?"
He gave a real laugh then and even through the phone it caressed her like silk. "You're by yourself." It was a statement rather than a question, as if that told her how she was going to know who he was.
He was not very forthcoming with the information. Buffy wondered how Giles had found this guy. "Yes."
"I'll find you," he said and then the connection was severed.
"Jerk," she said into the phone's mouthpiece for good measure. She dug out her phone card and called Giles.
"This is Rupert Giles."
Buffy smiled instantly upon hearing his voice. It was the strangest thing, but she found she really missed him. She missed all of her friends, but there must be something about the watcher and slayer relationship because she found she missed him most. He kept her in check over the years, grounded. "It's Buffy," she said, the smile she was giving him evident in her voice.
"Buffy, how good to hear from you."
"Like we didn't just talk yesterday, Giles."
"Right, of course, but I'm glad to know you got to Trenton all right," he paused and Buffy could picture him cleaning his glasses. "You did make it to Trenton?"
"Yep, sure did, staying at the gloriousness that is Red Roof Inn. You really need to work on getting me better places to stay, Giles."
"Buffy, this is not a vacation."
"I realize that, but geesh, is it too much to ask for a pool. Or a continental breakfast."
"Hotel food is not very good, Buffy."
"Yeah, but I like those Danish," she said with a pout.
"Buffy, was there something you needed?"
"I, well, geesh, what's with the dismissive attitude?"
"Buffy, please, we do have a lot of work to do here. You do realize this, right?"
She sighed heavily. "Yes, Giles, I know you're working hard. So, who is this guy I'm meeting?"
"I've never met him."
"Wait a minute, you're trusting some guy with Council business you don't even know."
"My contacts tell me he can be trusted, Buffy. He's former Special Forces and I've been assured he is discreet."
"Well, he's not a very talkative discreet guy."
"Buffy, this is not a social call. You're there to find this girl and stop her from breaking the law."
"So far she's only put gang members into the hospital, but she may take that last step. Faith has luckily reformed. I don't know if we'd get that lucky a second time."
"I understand, Giles. I'm all about the recovery. I just wondered who this guy is, that's all." She glanced at the digital alarm clock screwed into the nightstand and realized it was time for her to go. "I've got to go, Giles. I have no idea exactly where I'm going."
"Okay, Buffy, call with an update as soon as you have anything."
"I will, Giles. Have a good evening," she said, mindful of the time difference.
"You, too, Buffy, and take care."
"I always do," she said and hung up the phone. She grabbed her stuff and left the room, putting the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. She did not have anything worthwhile in the room but she hated the idea of someone going through her things when she was not looking.
Buffy was sipping on an iced tea when a total hottie dressed totally in black walked in. He glanced around the restaurant and Buffy's heart skipped a beat when he walked in her direction. His hair was dark brown or black and though it was worn tied back in a pony tail it was obviously long. She glanced at her watch, exactly twenty minutes had passed. He was prompt. He was also very hot with the added bonus of an incredible body. She figured he was probably in his thirties, but definitely not old.
She was not the only one who stopped what they were doing to stare at the man as he made his way through the restaurant. He was obviously used to it because he did not seem to notice any of them were looking at him. He stopped at her table and she had to check to make sure she was still breathing. "Buffy," he said in the same amused tone she had heard throughout her life.
"It's my mother's fault," she said simply, her eyes closed at the idea that this guy thought she was a joke.
"Hey." He gave her what she was sure was supposed to be a casual shrug, but there was nothing casual about him and took a seat across from her. He set a flip phone on the tabletop along with his keys and stared at her for a moment. "You need some help."
"Yes," Buffy said, setting her glass on the table.
"You're not much for talking, are you?"
"I can be."
"All right," she said. Evidently, now was not one of those times. "I'm looking for a girl who has apparently been causing some problems."
Buffy arched a brow and stared at him for a moment. "Please don't tell me you're one of those men who think women can't do anything."
"I wouldn't think a girl could do the damage you're talking about."
"You don't need to think. Giles isn't paying you to think, he's paying you to help me find this girl." Buffy was not sure why she was getting so defensive, but felt the need to prove herself for some reason.
His eyes met hers and he said nothing for a moment. She was afraid he was going to get up and go, but he nodded his head simply as if she had passed some test she did not know she was taking. "Good point. Leads?"
"Just the parks. Are there cemeteries around here?"
"We have them."
"Well, I'll need to see the parks and the cemeteries. The cemeteries after sunset," she clarified.
"You want me to take you to cemeteries at night?"
"You have a problem with that."
"No," he said with an amused smile on his face.
The waitress came with Buffy's food. "Can I get you anything?" Buffy took her fork and realized it would be rude to eat in front of him if he was going to eat.
"No, thanks," Ranger said. He stood, glancing at his watch. "I'll meet you back here at five thirty. That will give me time to get a crew together for some nighttime surveillance. Eat before I get here."
A crew? He was getting a crew together to find one girl? Maybe Giles did know what he was doing after all. A crew instead of two people would definitely be nice. Then again, she had no idea what kind of crew he was getting together and how many people would be in this crew. For all she knew, his idea of a crew would be one man beside him. She doubted that somehow, he seemed pretty serious about his business. "What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"Do whatever Buffy's do during the day," he said.
"Hey, that's not fair," she said despite the fact he had already begun walking away. He came to a stop and glanced over his shoulder at her. The look in his eyes accompanied by a smile that had probably caused women to stop in their tracks made her blush. She realized that might have been the point. "Oh boy," she whispered, debating about calling Giles and telling him that she would do this without Ranger's help.
She finished eating and left the restaurant, squinting into the afternoon sun. "What would a Buffy do in Trenton?" she asked and spied a salon not too far from Applebee's. "Get her nails done? Sure, why not," she said, answering her rhetorical question.
Buffy was leaning against the back end of her car waiting for Mister Lacking Small Talk to show up. She had no doubt that he would drive up at five thirty on the dot. She had stopped at a KFC for dinner. She hated the food choices she had when making trips like this. She continued to hope at the end of each trip that it would be her last but new slayers kept popping up on the Council's radar. So long as she was stuck making these trips unless she wanted to spend a fortune at places like Applebee's she was stuck eating fast food. She was no gourmet chef, but she was getting pretty good at making pasta without burning the noodles. That was about the extent of her culinary wiles.
A bright and shiny black SUV pulled into the parking spot next to her and three men got out. She thought she looked pretty stylish dressed in her black leather pants, white top and black leather jacket that Angel had given her forever ago. She had nothing on these three men, though; each and every one of them absolutely put her to shame.
"Wow," she said with a slow exhale of breath as she checked them all out. Ranger was by far the most attractive, but they were all fine men.
"Tank, Hal this is Buffy." Buffy heard the amusement in his voice as Ranger said her name but his face displayed nothing.
"You sure do have a knack for taking the helpless ones under your wing," Hal said while the other one, appropriately named Tank just stared forward. He had sunglasses on so dark she could not see his eyes behind them but she could tell that he was giving her the once over. And it was not in a sexual way.
"I'm not helpless," Buffy said simply. "It's easier to have people who know the town help. I'm from LA, so Trenton is Siberia as far as I'm concerned."
"Thought you said she was from Cleveland," Hal said.
"She lives in Cleveland but is from LA," Buffy said. "Are all the guys you hang out with like you?"
Ranger just shrugged, Buffy took that as a yes.
"Okay, am I following you or what?"
Ranger glanced at her Jeep that had seen better days and just smiled with a shake of his head. "Leave the Mom-mobile here."
"Why does everyone make fun of my car? And I'll have you know it was my mother's. Who is dead now," she added, hoping to get some reaction out of him.
"You should have buried the car with her," he said, with a slight hint of a smile.
"Very nice," she said, grabbing her duffle bag from the back of the Jeep and walking to the passenger side of the SUV. She assumed she was going to sit in back, but wondered with as big as the other two guys how either of them would fit. She saw her reflection in the dark tinted windows and the spotless car. The paint job was amazing. She was not a gear head but she knew enough about cars to know this one cost a good chunk of change.
The man named as Tank, a nickname Buffy was hoping, took the duffle bag. "I got it," she said, getting defensive at the idea that these men thought women were so hopeless.
"Just going to put it in back."
"Oh. Thanks," she said.
She sat in silence as Ranger drove the SUV on the road. She felt Tank's gaze on her and turned to regard him. He was a scary guy. They were all scary guys when it got down to it. Mercenary came to mind but she doubted the Council would get mixed up with those kind of people. Not with Giles in charge anyway. Quentin Travers would not have batted an eyelash. "Is there a problem?"
"Does this girl look like you?"
"If I knew what she looked like I wouldn't need you, would I?"
"I'm not testy," she said and turned to look out the window. "Do any of you know who you're doing this job for?"
"Watcher's Council," Ranger answered. "They're over in England."
"Do you know what we do?" Her question was met with no response. She sighed heavily and realized there was no way these guys would believe her if she told them. The government had been aware of the monsters, they had not been aware of the Council or slayers.
"So tell us, Bunny."
"It's Buffy." All three men snorted and she grew quiet. It was past sunset now. A good thing about winter in states like New Jersey, a slayer did not have to wait until god awful hours of the night to patrol because the sun set early. This could also be seen as a bad thing because it stayed darker longer so the vamps could be out longer.
"Take me to the park that has seen the most action lately."
"You're not armed and you don't have a vest."
"I have weapons," she said simply. "And I don't need a vest. If she can take them out without damage so can I."
"You know who this is then?"
"I know what she is."
"Because I am one, too."
She took a deep breath and sighed. "A slayer."
No one said anything, no questions were asked. Buffy did not know how to take that. Did that mean they believed her or that they just did not want to hear what she had to say? She wished she knew, but did not really want to get on their bad sides, not until she saw what she was dealing with.
Ranger stopped in a part of town that Buffy ordinarily would not be caught dead in. She did not need to know Trenton to know that this was the slums of the slums. Every city had them and they were easy to spot pretty much anywhere. One slayer had been in the projects in Chicago. That had been a hard retrieval because no one wanted to help her with the job.
She stepped out of the SUV thinking that Ranger did not seem the type who would back down from that retrieval. "Do you travel?"
"Do you leave Trenton?"
"Good to know."
"You haven't even seen us in action yet."
"I don't think I need to," she said as she took in the three men standing before her. They looked like Rambo, different styles of Rambo but she thought of war movie action heroes when she saw them. She opened her duffle and took out a few stakes which she stuffed into the waistband of her leather pants. She grabbed her crossbow and a few quarrels. "Is this armed enough for you?"
"Around these parts, Muffy, we use guns," Hal said.
"It's Buffy and what I hunt guns don't hurt."
"So long as you know how to use that thing."
She shook her head slightly. "So, tell me what damage she's done so far?" Buffy asked as they walked toward the park.
"There have been seven so far. That we know of." Buffy glanced sidelong at Ranger, surprised he had volunteered the information. He was not much with the talking so she had expected one of the other two to answer her. "Critically wounded, one that I know of was pretty near dead. That was the last one."
"She's getting worse then."
"Looks that way."
"Here's the deal," she said to the three men. "I'm taking custody of her. No one's died, so the police don't need to be involved."
"She's beaten the crap out of more than a half dozen people."
"All of them gang bangers from what Giles told me. This will end as soon as I find her. No one's dead, the police will just think the vigilante has moved on. She'll be my problem then."
"What if she tries to kill you?"
"The reason she hasn't been caught, the reason she won't get caught unless I'm here is that because cops aren't going to understand what drives her."
"And you do?"
"The mission," she said simply. "It calls to you and if you don't know what you're supposed to use the power of the mission against you'll use it against something."
"You talk a good talk."
"Don't worry," she interrupted Tank before he could finish. "I can walk the walk," she said with a roll of her eyes. "Been doing it for close to nine years now. Now, do you want to talk war stories or start working on making our retrieval?"
"You do know how to pick the spunky ones, no matter how hopeless they might be."
"He did not pick me, we picked him because he came highly recommended. Now, how many have been found at this park?"
"All of them," Ranger said.
"Any reason? Could she live around here?"
"Possible, but doubtful. The folks in this neighborhood generally don't turn on their own."
"Unless something happened to her or someone she knows that she couldn't stop. Until now."
"And all of the sudden she starts kicking gang banger ass?" Hal asked.
"She would have suddenly gotten unbelievable strength, basically overnight. So, yes, all of the sudden. She probably wasn't sure if it would stay or not so didn't come up with her plan until recently."
"How?" Ranger asked.
"A spell," she said simply.
"I'm taking a lot on faith here, Buffy."
"So am I," she replied. "I never liked the idea of bringing civilians in on Council business." Her comment was met with snickers from all three men. "In my world you are just civilians I don't care if in your world you're mercenaries. And civilians don't understand my world and that lack of understanding gets people killed. But I'm just Retrieval Girl, I go where I'm told, retrieve who I'm told, and work with who I'm told to work with."
"How many ways in and out?" she asked once they were at the location the other attacks had occurred at or near. No one seemed to pay attention to the blonde woman bearing a crossbow or the three very scary looking men walking through the park with her. "I should have asked this earlier but you haven't balked so far. If any of you have a problem taking orders from a woman now's the time to go back to the car. Because while we asked for your help I am not giving up control of this situation. You didn't question me on bringing in the cops, so I'm guessing this isn't going to be a problem but just in case."
"Okay, good," she said when none of them turned to leave. "I don't want you showing yourselves unless I indicate you should. I don't want to scare this girl off and you," she said glancing at each of them. She could not help but prolong her glance at Ranger just a touch longer than necessary. She realized it was probably just her hormones out of control. He was an attractive man and she had not been with a man in a long time. "Are scary boys. So, let me do the work and you can help me get her back to the truck if I need you to."
"What happens if she doesn't show tonight?" Hal asked.
"She'll show, maybe not tonight but she'll show. The time between the last one and the one before that was only a day or two apart. That was two days ago."
"You've done your homework," Tank said, Buffy saw a flicker of being impressed in his eyes before it was gone.
"Okay, boys, go hide without scaring away our bait." She was not used to using bait that was not cooperative or did not know they were being used. From the looks of the guys in the park right now and the things she had read about, she did not feel so bad about it. Rapes, drug deals, fights, shootings, knives, it happened in this area with frightening frequency.
She really could not blame this slayer for wanting to clean the area up, get rid of the scum that preyed on kids. She might have been tempted to do the same if the vampires and the demons and the apocalypses had not kept her busy.
She was too far away to hear any actual conversation going on between the guys standing around. They were drinking beer, smoking what looked like pot and were loud enough to draw the attention of passersby. She wondered why the police did not crack down. Maybe it was like Sunnydale with the vampires. They just turned their back on it, pretending the problem did not exist, hoping it would go away on its own.
She was nodding off when she saw her. Buffy did not know how she knew this girl was the one she was looking for, she just did like she had with every retrieval so far. She liked to think it was some sort of connection to them. Willow said she felt them when she had done the spell and Buffy knew she was connected as well.
She was tall, over six feet Buffy guessed, and slender. And as she strode confidently toward the gang bangers in the park, Buffy was taken aback by her ethereal beauty even though she still had yet to see the girl's face. She was not black but was not white either, a mix of different races maybe. Her dark hair was worn past her butt and straight. Buffy felt the power and strength roll off the girl as she approached the group that was well on their way to being drunk by now.
She never grew tired of this, getting her first glimpse of the slayer she had been sent to retrieve. She had felt so clumsy at first, she could not believe she looked as graceful as the girls she had retrieved so far did. They embraced their newfound strength and power. Of course they had not been required to pick up the stakes and crossbows that went with their calling right away.
It was not until she flipped her hair back and let one of the guys light a cigarette that Buffy realized this girl was far from perfect. The side of her face was full of scars. She was lulling the group into complacency, letting them think she was on their side. Buffy knew she had to act now or if there was bloodshed it would be her fault.
She hated doing it, but had to given the circumstances. She was not going to jump into the middle of a group of gang bangers without having the upper hand from the moment she made her presence known. She got her crossbow readied and stealthily made her way to the group.
Buffy found it interesting that the slayers she had retrieved so far could not sense her like she could them. She assumed it was because she was the one connected to them by way of the spell not the other way around. It usually worked to her advantage, though, because she could sneak up on them.
"Hey," she called out once she had the weapon trained on the girl. "You look like you're having so much fun, so I'm sorry to ruin it. But you boys need to run on home now. You," she said gesturing to the crossbow to the slayer, "you need to stay put." Buffy's eyes met dark brown ones through the crossbow's site.
"You don't really know how to use that," one of the guys said.
Buffy drew a knife from under the leather jacket and with barely a glance in the guy's direction tossed the knife so it landed just in front of his feet. "I wasn't even really trying. So do you really want to test that theory?" she asked. "I've also got three fellas out there just itching for some violence. And believe me when I tell you they're a lot scarier looking than I am and probably have no qualms about taking out a human or two. Now my business isn't with any of you, so just get out of here."
The girl did not make any effort to run nor did she give any indication that she was giving herself up either. Now that she was closer the scars were even harsher, even her lip on that half of her face was scarred. The other side of her face had tattoos on it, gang tattoos if Buffy were to take a guess.
Buffy had every confidence in the three men covering her back. She knew that they would ensure the gang bangers stayed away until her business with the slayer was done. It was nice to work with professionals. "What's your name?"
"I'm Buffy. I'm here to help you."
She laughed at that. "You can't help me. No one can."
"I'm sure you think that. I'm sorry no one was here to help you when you needed it. But I can now if you let me. You've been given a great gift and I can teach you how to use it."
"You know why this happened to me?"
Buffy was not sure what she was asking about. "The strength?" April nodded. "Yes, I know and I can help you use it to do good things. Save the world type stuff. It's dangerous, you could die."
"I died a long time ago," April said.
"Me, too," Buffy agreed. She did not have the physical scars April bore from her life's journey, but she had scars of her own. "But hurting humans won't make it go away. Nothing will make it go away, April."
"You don't know that."
"I do know. Has it helped you? Have you gotten back at him yet?"
"Whoever did that to you?" Buffy realized she was probably treading on iffy ground.
"Let me help you. I'll show you here in Trenton what you can do. If you want to come with me and learn more about our mission and who you've become then you can come back to Cleveland with me and never look back at this place again."
"You mean that?"
"I do." Buffy could tell the girl was thinking. She really was not a girl. She was probably closer to eighteen or nineteen. She was still striking to look at despite the scars. She understood why the girl chose to keep her hair long, though, she could use it to frame her face like a curtain and keep curious onlookers at bay.
"You don't know me."
"I don't know you personally, no, but I know what you are. You don't. Let me help you at least that much."
"I could really get out of here?"
"You could be on your way to Cleveland with me tomorrow if you want to."
"I've got a baby."
"The baby can come to," Buffy said simply. "In fact, I would hope for the baby's sake you'll come with me. You'll end up in jail if you keep this up and never see your baby again."
"She'd end up in foster care."
"Probably," Buffy agreed. "Can I put this down now?" Buffy asked with a wiggle of the crossbow.
"Where are you going to take me?"
"You'll just have to wait and see," she said letting the crossbow fall to her side. "I'm Buffy, by the way. Buffy Summers."
"Nice to meet you, April Sanchez. Let's go see what you can do."
"Do you really have others with you?"
She had almost forgotten about Ranger and the other two. "Yep," she said as the first of the men emerged from his hiding spot.
"This your girl?" Ranger asked.
"Yes," Buffy replied simply.
"Let's go then."
"Can you drop us some place and come back after you get these two where they need to go?" Ranger regarded her for a moment and nodded simply. She gestured for him to follow her to the back of the SUV where she rummaged through her duffle bag. She took out the obituaries section of the newspaper she had brought along. "I need to know where these two would have been buried."
"Easy as pie, Bunny," he said with a wink before he walked to the driver's side of the SUV.
"Thanks," she said with a shake of her head. She never would have imagined him to be the teasing type.
"So, that's all there is to it?" April asked and Buffy laughed lightly. She was beginning to like her and hoped she would not be disappointed with her. Some retrievals left Buffy with a good impression and some did not. April was one of the good ones.
Buffy had just taken out the second vampire of the night. She had let April do the actual staking so she could get a feel for how it was done once Buffy had him under control.
"Yup," Buffy said as she tucked the stakes in her waistband again. "That's all there is to it. But this is what's been driving you, April. This is what you're called to do. We don't hurt humans, but we can kick demon ass."
"What about humans that are evil?"
Buffy sighed slightly. "I've met a few of those, April. We can't just go around killing people, that's what the legal system is for." April glared at her then and Buffy knew she had said something wrong. "It's not a perfect system, but we're not judge and jury of the humans. We're slayers not executioners."
"Could have fooled me," Ranger said as he strode toward them. Strode was too common a word, but she could not think of a more glorified term for what he did. He was one hundred percent bon-a-fide male perfection.
"I didn't hear you drive up."
"Parked back there."
"Oh," she said glancing in the direction he had come from. "You're early."
"I wanted to see."
"I've heard things."
He shrugged. "Slayers."
"You didn't say anything on the way to the park."
"Tank and Hal wouldn't know."
"But you do?"
"A while back there was a big government project that I did some security work for."
"I don't know. It was in Southern California somewhere, underground."
"Yeah," he said.
"It's on a hell mouth, attracts all kinds of baddies."
"I was called in afterward to disarm the system completely."
"So you got to see the mass death and destruction."
"Pretty brutal. Were you in on that?"
"Yeah," she said simply. "Not our finest hour as far as keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, but the way I look at it the government was asking for it."
"I signed away my life for that job."
"What?" she asked, not sure she heard him right.
"I swore never to mention anything about it. I could go to jail."
"So why are you talking?"
"I hear things," he repeated what he had said earlier.
"You know, it's a good thing I've been around guys before you who aren't big on talking."
He smiled that killer smile of his. "I say what's necessary to say. So are you done?"
Buffy glanced at April who had been quiet while they talked. "Yeah, I guess so. Can we drop you off somewhere and I can meet you in the morning?" She noticed that April kept the scarred part of her face in the shadows as much as she could. She wondered how she got them, but it was none of her business.
"I can walk, I don't live far from here."
"I'll drop you off and pick you up in the morning. You might not be too popular right now with those guys from the park."
He handed her a business card. "Call me in the morning when you're ready to be picked up."
Buffy watched as April slipped the card into the back pocket of her jeans. "If you don't want to leave, April, you don't have to. I can stay here for a few days and train you as best as I can."
"I have nothing here."
"Your baby's father?"
"Gang initiation," she said softly and Buffy did not know what to say. "Hey, I don't need you or anyone else feeling sorry for me. I've done all right. I work a job and everything. I just have to stay with my mama is all."
"Nothing wrong with that. I'd probably still live with my mom. Well, except for the she's dead part, but it's no big. Is it?" she asked Ranger.
"Let's get you home then and we'll get you whatever time you tell us. I realize it might take you a while to get your stuff together."
"Don't have much stuff, but yeah it'll take me a while. I don't know what to tell Mama."
"Tell her whatever she'll believe. She won't believe the slayer stuff, April."
"No," she agreed. "She believes in voodoo, but I think vampires might be taking it a step too far."
"I'm staying at the Red Roof Inn so if you have any problems or change your mind just call me okay? I'm glad you're coming with me, April, I think you'll be a great slayer."
"I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and have this be a dream am I?" she asked.
Buffy placed an arm on April's forearm and met her gaze, holding it for a moment. "No," she said looking straight into her dark eyes without wavering. "You're not dreaming and I don't think this will be something you'll regret. I live alone but we can arrange for a babysitter for the baby very easily. There are plenty of other slayers around who will pitch into help. They were all like you, had no idea what they were, just knew they suddenly had strength and speed."
Buffy gathered their things up and started walking the direction Ranger had come from. "All set?"
"Yup," Buffy said as she and April followed him to the SUV that gleamed under the streetlight.
"I'm surprised it's still here," April said. Ranger gave her a look that stopped both women dead in their tracks. "Okay, I guess I'm not."
Buffy glanced at April's house as the girl walked to the door and let herself in. "Will she make it?" Ranger asked, breaking her thoughts.
"Yeah," Buffy said wistfully. "I think her chances just improved one hundred percent." She laughed lightly at that.
"Funny that I should say that her chances at survival have gone up because she's a slayer."
"Talk to me."
"I tell you what, take me to a Denny's or something that's open this late so I can burn off my post-slaying hunger and I'll talk your ear off."
"You drive a hard bargain."
"Do you put any pollutants in your body?"
"The occasional beer and a slice of pizza."
She was quiet for a moment as she looked at him. He had an interesting profile. He did not have the scars April had, but she could tell that he had seen a lot, too. You get a look in your eye after a while and it was easy to recognize it in someone else. No, he was not a slayer but he had seen death and combat, too. He was immensely handsome and his being perfect physically just added to the mystique that enveloped this man. "It shows," she said simply.
He smiled simply, gracing her with a wink before turning his attention back to the road.
"I know how to pick them. You're not helpless or hopeless but you are spunky."
"Why is your wife spunky?"
He laughed heartily and shook his head. "No, just another woman I work with. She gets herself into messes that we have to bail her out of sometimes. She's a bounty hunter, probably one of the worst I've ever come across but she's incredibly lucky. That luck has kept her alive and catching her skips."
"Oh," Buffy said. It sounded kind of interesting. She had never met a bounty hunter before. "It sounds dangerous. Is that what you do? Bounty hunt?"
"We're back to the lack of talking."
He smiled again but said nothing as he pulled into a twenty-four hour diner near the Applebee's where her Jeep was. "Thanks," she said as she got out and joined him on the parking lot.
"No problem babe, you can pay me back."
"Oh boy," she said softly, not sure she wanted to be indebted to this man.
Buffy wasn't sure she'd ever get used to winter outside of California. The past week had been positively balmy with getting into the fifties during the day. Cleveland was where it was at, though, so she had little choice in the matter of where she chose to reside. She fed little Katarina while April slept in. They'd come up with a pretty strong vamp last night. Buffy hadn't realized until it was too late that he wasn't a newly risen vamp and April had paid the price. She'd be fine, but a little sleeping in was in order.
At twenty, April was one of the oldest slayers Buffy had found. She was not sure why that was the case. Maybe once potentials hit a certain age they couldn't become a slayer. There were some older that had gained some of the slayer goodies like strength, but they were just extra strong human women.
The light in April's eyes was beginning to come back. Buffy hadn't known her before, but she could tell the slayer was enjoying her new life. Buffy couldn't say that she blamed the woman. Katarina turned the sippy cup full of milk upside down on the highchair tray. Buffy was glad the top was secure. She'd never been around babies before and while Katarina qualified as a toddler not a baby it was pretty much the same to Buffy. Diapers needed to be changed and she couldn't understand more than a few words the little girl said. But even the little girl seemed to sense the change in her mother. She ate better and where she had originally fussed at the idea of Buffy feeding or changing her, the slayer and the toddler had come to some sort of understanding.
It was cases like this that Buffy was extra happy they'd gone with doing the spell. As much as she didn't want to imagine what a woman like April's life would have been like, she could see it clearly. And what would have become of Katarina? Would she have suffered the same, or a worse, fate as her mother? The idea of someone hurting her, marking her as they had April made Buffy want to vomit. From everything she could decipher from April's fragmented conversations about her life before Katarina and becoming a slayer, Buffy believed April had no idea who Katarina's father was. It was sad, really, the little girl was adorable. And April, even with the scars and the gang tattoos, was striking.
The doorbell rang and after making sure April was content for a minute, Buffy got up to answer the door. She was not too surprised to see him standing there. He had indicated he'd try to get here to check on them. Buffy wasn't sure why he felt the need to, but she didn't balk at his offer. She also wasn't counting on it happening. A woman not prone to give into her base urges since Parker, she had the night before leaving Trenton. Both knew what it was about so neither left her room the next morning with false hopes or broken hearts. It helped that he had been as amazing as she imagined.
"Hi," she said brightly. She noticed even his rental car was sleek and black. She wondered if rental agencies stocked the type of vehicle he preferred just for him. If she were an agent, she'd do it if he asked her to. He was that yummy.
"Katarina and I were having breakfast. Did you eat?"
"Okay then. Can I get you anything?"
He followed Buffy to the kitchen and regarded the toddler. "Just a glass of milk."
"I can do that," she said, setting about doing that as he sat at the table and regarded Katarina. It had been over a month since her trip to Trenton. No new slayers had been discovered so she'd been in Cleveland the entire time. She admitted that she hoped to see him again, but she hadn't counted on it. And she certainly wasn't expecting anything from him. She got that he wasn't capable of giving her more than he already did. It surprised her she was so okay with that.
"How is she?"
"Fine. She got a little beat up last night so I let her sleep in. I figured getting Katarina breakfast couldn't be that difficult. I mean, I slay vampires, how hard can one toddler be?"
His lips curved up into a smile as she set the glass of milk in front of him.
"Yes, I know, I'm an idiot, but once I got her settled in her highchair she was fine. Do you have kids?"
"Oh," she said, trying to picture what the woman looked like who had his child. Exotically beautiful and the child, too, assuming the child took after him. Okay then, he wasn't going to offer any information. Not surprising, but a little off putting to know she'd been intimate with someone she knew next to nothing about. He regarded her as he drank his milk and Buffy wished the ground would swallow her. She wasn't used to such intense scrutiny anymore.
"So, what brings you here?"
"Just wanted to see how a Buffy lives."
She snorted. "Right. You really need to get over my name."
He arched an eyebrow over the glass of milk.
"Okay, I admit, it is a rather silly name. I don't know what my mother and father were thinking. Perhaps they were both on drugs when they filled out the birth certificate. I don't know."
He set the half-empty glass on the table. "It suits you."
"I," she frowned. "What do you mean?"
He shrugged, the gesture should have been casual but on him she noticed it wasn't. "It just does."
"Thanks, I think."
"So, she's adjusting? Wants to stay here?"
"She seems to be and yes. Is that why you came?"
"No sense in making her think she is stranded here."
"Is there work for you every night?"
"No, not always. When I first got called I patrolled every night, but now I pick a cemetery or two, but otherwise read the obituaries, check online for death records."
"You're earning a salary?"
"Not much of one, but yeah. The house is paid for, the utilities and everything with it, too."
She shrugged. "The least they can do is compensate me."
"Agreed. Want some more compensation?"
"I'm here on a skip and it occurred to me that if I get skips in this area I could just forward them to you."
No response. Okay.
"Uh sure, I'd be happy to help."
"That will work out well."
"Do you get tired of traveling?"
"That's why I surround myself with the best people."
"I'm one of the best?"
"I knew after cleaning up that underground tomb that if I ever found the people responsible for such destruction I'd want them on my team."
"Well, it wasn't all me. I had help and there were demons that had gotten loose."
"Yet you survived."
"That's all the proof I need."
"Thank you." He placed his hand over the top of the now empty glass and spun it around on the table. "We're okay?"
"I'm not commitment guy."
"I already got that. I don't normally do that, but it's okay. I got the impression by the way you talked about this Stephanie that you could be commitment guy."
He chuckled, but his face was blank. "Not anytime soon."
"Well, I hope it works for you, however you want it to work. And we're fine."
"Morning," Buffy said brightly.
"Mommy," Katarina squealed in excitement.
"April," Ranger said simply.
"Good seeing you again."
"How are you feeling this morning?"
"I'm fine. I thought I'd be sore, but I'm okay."
"Benefits of slayer healing. You'll get used to it. I promise you, though, there are some mornings you will wake up sore."
"Thank you for getting Kat breakfast."
"You're welcome. I was up anyway so it was all good."
Ranger stood. "Walk me out."
"Sure, I'll be right back."
"No problem, I'll take Kat downstairs for a while."
Buffy followed Ranger out to his car. "I'll set you up with a few things you'll need. A fax for one. It'll be pretty simple and straightforward most of the time. I'll probably bring the first couple to you personally and work with you. We'll get you licensed, which isn't difficult."
"I have a name for you. I didn't want to mention it, but those tattoos are removable." He handed her a business card. "I've already talked to him, told him about April, he said he'd do the work. He's in Chicago, but he's good so it'd be worth the drive if she wants to do that."
It was the most she could recall hearing him say at one time. It touched her heart that he had gone out of his way to find out information for April. It was something that Buffy had thought about herself, but she had no idea where to begin. Or how to bring it up. "That's very nice of you."
"I'm just a nice guy."
"I get that," she murmured with a smile.
"Thanks for the milk."
"Hey, anytime, if the milk's better in Cleveland, come by anytime."
"Right." He slid onto the driver's seat. Buffy couldn't help but admire his movements. He was graceful but there was no denying he looked serious, deadly, a force to be reckoned with. "See ya, Bunny."
"Yeah, yeah," she said with a wave as he backed out of her driveway.
She stared for a minute at the business card. She wondered which April would prefer to lose, the scars or the tattoos. That was assuming she wanted either to be gone. She was still beautiful, Buffy had noticed Xander paid attention to her when they met.
She frowned as she walked inside, wondering just how much work he would send her way. Probably as much as she was willing to handle. For some reason she liked the idea that she impressed him. Giles had filled Buffy in on some details of Ranger's career and Buffy suspected it would take quite a bit to impress a man with his experience.
"What did he want?" Buffy had found April and Katarina sitting on the couch in the basement watching one of the children's videos.
"Nothing, he wanted to know if I'd be willing to help him out with some work."
"I just bet he did."
"Not like that. He also wanted to make sure you were okay."
"That was nice of him."
"I think he's a nice guy."
"That's a switch."
"It is, isn't it?" Buffy sat on a nearby chair, unsure how to approach the subject. "He gave me a card. A guy in Chicago he said could take care of your tattoos."
"No, April, I think he just thought now that you were out of Trenton, away from there, you might want the chance at a fresh start. Completely fresh. Here's the card. If you want to call and make an appointment, I'll arrange to get you there."
"I'll still have the scars."
"You're still a beautiful woman, April. And no one's making you."
"I know, I can't even remember what I look like anymore without them."
"I wish I could say I understand, but I can't even begin to. You don't have to decide today or even tomorrow."
"Hey, what are friends for?"
"I've never had a friend. Not a real one."
"You do now."
"I get that. I still can't believe I'm out of there. That Kat is safe."
"She is. I can't say that this life will be normal compared to what she would have grown up with, but we'll do what we can."
"Any idea where I might end up?"
"No. I don't do the assignments, but I could ask Giles if you want me to."
"Any chance I could stay close to Cleveland?"
"You can stay here as long as you want."
"But you think I'm ready to go out on my own?"
"Last night proved to me you are, yes."
She nodded. "All right. Tell Giles I'm ready then."
"Yes. If I do decide to get the tattoos removed, I'll need someone to take Kat."
"I'll take her, no problem. We're buds now."
"You changed our lives."
"I'm glad it's for the better. I admit when we did this, when I came up with the idea, I didn't really give much thought to the girls whose lives I was changing. I needed their power though, your power. No matter that you weren't in Sunnydale with me physically, without all of you we wouldn't have won."
"I still can't believe some of this is true. I've seen it with my own eyes and it's still weird."
"It will get more believable. You should have seen me in denial when I first got called. And I didn't have someone like me to train me. Watchers are great for the book stuff, but they're just not an effective trainer for the field. I'm not sure why the Council never realized that." She shrugged. "Now enough about that. I think we had talked about shopping today."
"That's right, because shopping can cure anything that ails you."
April laughed. She hardly laughed at all when she'd first gotten here, but now she was starting to more and more. Buffy liked to think that was a good thing, it meant she was healing. April missed her mother, Buffy knew that, and that made it difficult sometimes.
It was a difficult transition for all of them. There wasn't one so far that had nothing to leave behind. There were times Buffy felt guilty, but then she'd meet one like April and realize what a difference she'd made. No one had been hurt by what they'd done, some had been able to get out of impossible situations.
"I'm going to get Kat ready."
"Okay, no hurry, we've got all day."
Buffy let her head fall back against the chair's headrest and sighed heavily. That had gone better than she'd expected. She was afraid April would think she was telling her to change, which wasn't the case. She thought on Ranger, tried to get mad that he just waltzed in and out again, but just couldn't find it in herself to do it. She didn't take that to mean she was ready for casual relationships, something she didn't think she was capable of. She took it to mean that she was finally in a place where she could start thinking about her future. A relationship with someone who wasn't a vampire yet might not be averse to knowing the truth about Buffy.
She had been afraid that like Robin's mother she had gotten to be all about the mission, the slaying, but she knew now that wasn't the case. She just needed time to grow up, to adjust to her new status in life. Going from being the one to one of many.
She heard the squeals of Katarina upstairs as April dressed her for the day and Buffy's heart lightened almost immediately. The little girl tugged at her heartstrings, made Buffy wonder what type of mother she'd make. It was something she'd never thought of until now, having Katarina around the house.
No, there was nothing about doing the spell she regretted. Some might claim she was selfish because it made her life easier, but that wasn't really true. Getting out of her gig as the slayer had not really been a factor in her decision. She could not let evil win on her watch and she'd do it again if she had to. Whatever it took, she'd never done anything less and she wouldn't now either. She'd be right there with Giles and the rest of the girls for the next apocalypse. And as much as the new slayers liked to deny it, she knew there'd be another one. Evil never took a rest for very long.
They'd be ready.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com