I See a Dark Stranger
by Alan Hitchen
Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: BtVS belongs to Joss Whedon and others.
Information: This is a prequel to Private Investigator and is set about a year previous to it.

"Ms Summers?" asked the woman.

"That would be me," Buffy answered, turning to meet the visitor who was standing in the doorway behind her. "Just call me Buffy, everyone does."

The woman stepped out of the gloom of the hallway into the office where Buffy could see her properly. Her experienced eye made a quick appraisal of the potential client; she liked what she saw. The striking brunette with the sparkling hazel eyes was encased in a black leather ensemble that accentuated every curve and muscle of her lithe athletic frame. Buffy realised she was staring and not speaking, so she reached for a folder to break eye contact.

"How can I help you, Ms..."

"McKenzie. You can call me Faith, everyone does," she said with an unfamiliar accent and a smile that turned Buffy's knees to Jell-O. "I want you to find someone for me. A friend of mine came to LA to be an actress. She's dropped out of sight and I'm worried about her."

Buffy realised this was her cue to respond but she found herself unable to do so. She had met many people in her line of work but never one that had had this effect on her before, not even her ex, Willow. She produced a chair for Faith to sit on, then sat down as well to give herself time to think.

"Well... Ms McKenzie... Faith, I'll need a few details about your friend," she said at last.

"Sure," Faith replied, fishing in her jacket pocket. Buffy caught sight of the tip of a wooden stake in the other pocket as Faith produced a photograph with a few salient details written on the back of it.

Buffy glanced at the picture and the details. "Thank you," she said. "Cordelia Chase is lucky to have such a good friend looking out for her welfare."

Faith chuckled at the notion. "I don't think she'd see it that way," she explained. Then her tone became serious. "Our break-up hit her pretty hard, but whether she likes it or not, I'm still her friend, I'm worried about her, and I want to know that she's all right."

"I understand," Buffy replied. "If she's in LA I'll find her, but I warn you, just because I'm not a big firm it doesn't mean I work cheap."

"That's not a problem," Faith said. "I didn't come to you because you're cheap. I came to you because you're good. I asked around, the word is that you're the best for missing persons."

Buffy smiled graciously. "Well, I can't fail you now can I? All right, Faith, consider Ms Chase already found," she said while rising to her feet. As she shook Faith's hand a vision slammed into her mind like a hot knife through butter.

"You all right?" Faith asked anxiously.

As the vision faded Buffy realised she was lying on the floor looking up into the concerned face of her client. Damn, she thought, no chance of a date now.

"I'm fine," she said as she got to her feet.

"You don't look fine to me," Faith responded. "What was that?"

"You might call it an occupational hazard," Buffy replied, slumping back into her chair.

"And that means?"

Buffy massaged her temples. "I get flashes, visions of things, people and places, they give me an edge with some of my cases. They're not usually this severe."

"This vision, did it concern me? Cordelia? Someone else?"

"I can't tell yet. All I can see is a dark stranger with sharp teeth."

"A vampire!" Faith exclaimed, then muttered something under her breath.

"You know of such things?" Buffy asked in surprise, now realising what the stake was for.

"You might call them my occupational hazard," Faith said with a disarming grin. "Didn't I say? I come from Sunnydale, the weirdness capitol of America."

"I thought that was Eerie, Indiana," Buffy quipped.

"Only on TV," Faith laughed back.

Buffy badly wanted to kiss Faith there and then, but decided not to press her luck and play it cool instead. After all, she didn't even know if Faith was available let alone interested in her.

"Are you staying in town?" she asked.

"Temporarily. My W... er, associate, and I are in town on business. This is where we're staying, and this is my mobile number," she said, handing over a piece of paper. "Well, I'll leave it to you." She smiled. "Just be careful of that dark stranger," she added with a note of concern.

"I'll be in touch soon," Buffy promised, and watched the alluring figure of Faith being swallowed up by the dark hallway, leaving her with more questions than answers.

It was the work of just half a day to find Cordelia Chase working at a seedy bar and grill, serving drinks to the bored clientele.

It seemed her career hadn't taken off quite as she'd expected it to. Her savings had run out, and instead of becoming a big star she was now living hand to mouth in-between mainly unsuccessful auditions. Her pride had prevented her from telling her friends about her reduced circumstances and rather than lie about it she simply stopped communicating with them.

However, she didn't seem to mind telling this to Buffy, but then she was the first person to start a conversation with her that hadn't involved an indecent proposition at some point. In return Buffy gave Cordelia the benefit of some good advice.

"It takes years to become an overnight success in this business and many don't make it at all. Your friends know this and wouldn't think any less of you if you told them the truth."

"You think so?" Cordelia said wistfully.

"I know so."

Cordelia looked at Buffy quizzically. "How come?"

"Because one of them hired me to find you and make sure you were all right."

Cordelia blinked uncomprehendingly for a moment before she refocused on Buffy. "It was Faith wasn't it?" she asked, her eyes brimming with tears.

Buffy nodded in reply.

"What will you tell her?" asked Cordelia.

"Just that you are safe and well. Or you can tell her yourself, by phone or in person."

"In person?"

"Yes, she's in town at the moment. I can take you to meet with her if you'd like?"

Cordelia considered this offer then smiled. "Yes, I'd like that very much. Pick me up here at seven?"

Buffy smiled back. "Seven it is. I'll see you then."

*****

Buffy was going call Faith from her car but decided to make her report in person. Any excuse to see her would have done, this was the best. They met in the lobby as Faith was leaving.

"Good news, Faith, I've found Cordelia and she's okay."

Faith broke into a relieved smile. "So soon?"

"Don't look so surprised. You did pick the best, remember?"

"How could I forget," Faith replied. She smiled again and Buffy almost forgot what else she was going to tell her.

"Cordelia would like to see you. I'll bring her here about seven-thirty, if that's all right by you?"

"That should be okay. Thank you, Buffy," she said, shaking her hand. "I'm sorry, I have to do something right now," she explained, gesturing vaguely, "but I'll see you again when you bring Cordelia tonight."

And with that she was gone, leaving Buffy to bask in the warmth of her smile and the tantalising aroma of her perfume. After a while she realised she was still in the lobby and grinning like a village idiot. Hoping that no one had noticed she made away in some haste.

As she drove back to her office Buffy mulled over the situation. Love at first sight, like a unicorn, she had thought you could only find on 'Ally McBeal'. It looked like she was wrong.

She hadn't had much luck with women. Since Willow had left her life outside the job had been very lonely. Pickups in bars and one night stands didn't interest her, but no one seemed to be interested in a committed relationship - or at least not with her.

"What the hell is wrong with me?" she said in exasperation, examining herself in the vanity mirror. "I'm not that bad looking am I? Still, wouldn't hurt to gild the lily I suppose," she concluded, deciding she had just enough time to squeeze in a minor makeover before the evening.

Later that day she picked up Cordelia at the bar as arranged. Cordelia looked stunning out of uniform.

"I scarcely recognised you," Buffy said, admiring the figure revealed by the electric blue dress.

"I should hope so!" Cordelia shot back. "I don't want Faith to think I'm a bag lady do I?"

"I suppose not," Buffy replied, guiding Cordelia into the car. "You wouldn't know if Faith was seeing anyone at present?" she asked, instantly regretting letting her intentions slip out.

Cordelia regarded her with a cool stare, noticing for the first time Buffy's cerise jacket and skirt, silk top, high heels, restyled hair and wet look lips.

"Not you as well," she said. "Faith attracts all the good women like moths to a flame, while all I get is the barflies."

"Is that a yes or a no?" Buffy asked hopefully.

"It's a don't know," Cordelia replied irritably. "We've been out of touch, remember?"

"Oh, yes, it's just that..." Buffy didn't know quite what to say.

"If she's available you want me to put in a word for you, is that it?"

"Well, if you could."

Cordelia rolled her eyes to the roof. "If you want," she said icily. "Faith likes blondes. I came home one day and found her in bed with one," she spat out in disgust before quickly regaining her composure. "Well, she cared enough to look for me, so I guess she must still love me a little bit."

Buffy suddenly felt very foolish. Of course, she thought, that's why Faith was looking for her ex, to make up with her, to beg for a second chance. And here I am dressed up like a dog's dinner, what was I thinking?

She dropped Cordelia off at the hotel where Faith greeted her effusively and Cordelia likewise. Faith thanked Buffy again and arranged to settle the bill before she returned to Sunnydale. Buffy made her exit and drove off.

To take her mind off Faith she decided to do the round of her contacts. Kate had told her that there was a new man in town causing ructions in the underworld. To help her Buffy had put the word about for information. Strangely, no one could be found in their usual haunts. So after several fruitless hours she decided to go back to her office.

The building was deserted and the office was dark and quiet. Hardly had she entered it than she heard a voice behind her.

"Ms Summers?"

"Just call me Buffy, everyone does," she said as she turned to greet the visitor. As soon as she did so she recognised the dark stranger. This was the man from her vision, the one she now realised was going to kill her.

"Okay, Buffy," said the man. "I have a message from Angelus. He says, 'Have a nice death.'"

He lunged at Buffy fangs bared. She dodged away behind the desk, but the big vampire was not going to be put off for long. She moved this way and that, looking for a way around him, before diving for the drawer that contained her weapon. She was quick, but he was quicker and grabbed her. He dragged her over the desk and held her in the air for a moment before slamming her down onto the desktop. Held in a vicelike grip, the fangs descended towards her neck.

Please don't let it hurt for long, was all she could think.

In a last desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable she managed to grab the large glass ashtray from the desk and smashed it against the side of the vampire's head, thus making him lose his grip. She then pulled her legs up under him and booted him away with all the strength she could muster. He staggered back towards the open doorway, which he completely filled as he grabbed the doorposts to stop his backwards flight.

Suddenly, to Buffy's complete surprise, he grimaced in pain then exploded into a cloud of dust. Where the vampire once stood she could see Faith McKenzie, stake in hand, grinning at her.

"What brings you here?" Buffy wheezed.

"The champagne went straight to Cordy's head so she had to turn in early," Faith explained. "She's sleeping it off in my room. As the night was still young, as Cordy had mentioned you were interested in me, and as you've made a big effort to impress me, I decided to pay you a visit. It seems not a moment too soon. Was that the man in your vision?"

"Yes," Buffy replied, moving from desktop to chair.

"I did tell you to be careful, didn't I?"

"You did," Buffy agreed.

"By the way, the answers to your questions are no and yes."

"What questions?" asked the bemused Buffy.

"Am I seeing anyone and am I interested in you?"

"Oh."

"Oh? Is that all you can say?"

"Oh, I thought you'd come here to make up with Cordelia is what I was going to say," Buffy replied.

Faith sighed and sat down herself. "No, there's no chance of that."

"She mentioned something about you preferring blondes," Buffy prompted.

"She told you about that did she? Well, anyone can make a mistake. There was an explanation for what happened, but she didn't want to hear it. I still care for her but there's no going back. It's finished, I know that now."

"Why? Did she say that?" Buffy asked.

"No, I know it because I met you. She wasn't the one. You are. Will you marry me?"

Buffy was dumbstruck by the proposal, the searing kiss that followed it, and the sheer speed at which everything was moving. All she could do was nod her head in assent and return the kiss with interest.

Buffy was alone no longer.

...continued in Private Investigator...

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