DISCLAIMER: We know they're Joss', right? Which really is a shame, because most of the time, we're so much nicer to them than he was.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike got impatient and went after Buffy, only to find the room trashed and Buffy and Other!Spike gone, Wes showed up with the leverage Angel needed to use against Ilona, and Buffy woke up to find herself Riley's captive...
She watched him prowl around the room, deceptively lithe in spite of his size. Riley had always been very aware of his body, but becoming half-demon had given him something he had never had as a human. Grace. Maybe it was a side effect of the transition, or maybe it come from the added years with the enhanced features. Either way, it gave him the appearance of a predator far more than he had ever exhibited as a commando, like something that capable of jumping out of the bushes and slashing your throat open before you even knew something was there.
It also made it so much easier to dissociate him from the Riley she had known and cared about, demon grafts notwithstanding. Now if only her muscles would start working, Buffy would be a happy Slayer.
He had brought her to what looked like a private room, sparsely furnished with the bed she laid on, a dresser, and a wall of weapons protected behind by locked glass doors. A door led to what looked like a private bathroom, and after making sure she was settled, Riley retreated there with a first aid kit in hand. The sound of rushing water filtered through the door he kept open, and she saw his arms moving up and down, the claw on the back of his hand very much visible, as he washed off the worst of the blood on his face.
Her mind raced. She had to figure out a way to get out. She had to find Spike, make sure he was OK.
“I’m not who you think I am, you know,” she called out. “I mean, I am who I am, but it’s not the who you think you know because the who you knew isn’t me.” She stopped, cringing at how she sounded. God, I’m channeling Willow.
“I know you’re not the same Buffy,” Riley replied from bathroom. The water turned off, and she lost sight of him in the doorway. “I saw her die.”
Her fingertips tingled. Being careful Riley didn’t unexpectedly step out of the bathroom, Buffy wiggled them beneath the chains. Bonus. Bit by bit, her strength was returning. Whatever poison or drug they’d used to sap it away was fading.
Riley emerged, drying his hands off on a towel, and she immediately stopped moving. “Did the witch bring you back to fight for them?” he said. “Is that what happened?”
There was a split second where he sounded like her Riley, and she had to wait while her good sense returned before responding. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” she admitted. It had been mostly true at one point anyway. “But they have nothing to do with this.”
He frowned. “They have everything to do with this. Hostile Seventeen and his rebellion are the only reason Adam hasn’t come to full power yet. That’s unacceptable. They must be stopped.”
“So if you think I’m fighting on their side, why didn’t you kill me back at the high school? Because, gotta say, as far as the big evil plan to take over the world goes? Bringing me back here kind of sucks.”
His mouth thinned, and his eyes grew cold. “Your capture is not part of any plan. Hostile Seventeen, on the other hand, will serve a definite purpose.”
Buffy bit the inside of her cheek to keep from sighing in relief. So Spike was alive. As long as that remained true, there still remained hope.
“I think you’re going to be surprised if you think that’ll change anything for the others,” she said. “They’re organized, and even better, they care about their humanity. Whatever you do to Spike will only make them stronger.”
Folding his towel, Riley stepped back into the bathroom in order to place it neatly on the sink. “That is not your concern.”
“Newsflash. Anything to do with Spike will always be my concern.”
He moved so quickly that Buffy barely heard his footsteps. One moment, he was blocked from view by the bathroom wall. The next, he was bending over her in the bed, his powerful hand around her throat, squeezing tightly enough to make it difficult to breathe.
“Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear.” His breath was hot as it fanned across her cheek, and his face was so close that Buffy could count the stitches along his cheekbone where human skin met demon flesh. “You’re alive only because I wish it so. If you do not want to become the next of Adam’s experiments, I strongly suggest you never mention Hostile Seventeen’s name to me again. Do you understand, soldier?”
She steeled against letting him see how dizzy the lack of air was making her. “It’s Buffy,” she said, matching his low tone. “And I’m not one of your soldiers.”
Her heart pounded, struggling for oxygen. Finally, Riley loosened his grip, though his fingers stayed against her neck, the tips beginning to caress her in slow, even strokes. “No,” he murmured. “You’re a Slayer. And now you’re mine.”
Paolo watched Hamilton stand at the window, looking over the London skyline, and wondered briefly why he was even bothering with the man. He respected his certainty that all would work out, and he appreciated the sense of calm the liaison carried, but in light of the current situation, Paolo did not believe it was necessarily well-placed. The vampires had already proven unpredictable, and order had been more than disrupted. He didn’t tolerate such chaos even from those he trusted. The Senior Partners were most definitely not on that list.
A sharp knock at the door rang through the spartan apartment. Without hesitation, Hamilton went to answer it, his footsteps silent in spite of the hardwood floors. At least the man knew his place.
In light of the vampires’ capriciousness, it made perfect sense to see Angel standing on the other side of the threshold. He filled the narrow doorframe, his face a dark mask of barely constrained anger, and when his gaze flickered past Hamilton’s shoulder to see Paolo lounging on the couch, there wasn’t even a modicum of surprise. Behind his shoulder stood a man with shrewd blue eyes. That one was human. Paolo frowned. Where was the other vampire?
“Angel,” Hamilton greeted. “You should have called. I would have had a car sent for you.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.” He tried to enter, only to be blocked. Growling in frustration, Angel said, “Invite me in.”
“I am afraid he cannot,” Paolo said, rising from his seat. “This is my home. The signore is my guest.” He took a few steps closer. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“I think you know what.”
Angel glanced to his companion and stepped aside to allow him to address Paolo and Hamilton more directly. “The Slayer’s taken a turn for the worse,” the man said. “We’ve come to discuss her situation with you.”
“And you are…?”
“Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. I work in Los Angeles for Wolfram & Hart.”
“I hadn’t realized Angel was calling in his big guns,” Hamilton said. “Inventive.”
“The circumstances dictated more mojo than the Watcher’s Council could provide.” Angel glared at Paolo. “Are we going to stand here and play twenty questions, or do you want to actually help Buffy?”
The decision was simple. “Come in. Let us…talk.”
The door whispered shut behind them, and the four men met in the middle of the room. Gesturing to the others to sit, Paolo waited until he was the only one left standing before speaking again. “You said she is growing worse. How do you mean?”
Though he addressed Angel, Wesley was the one to reply. “Her temperature continues to rise,” he said. “We’ve attempted to lower or at least keep it in check utilizing traditional methods, but because it’s mystically generated, we’ve been unsuccessful. At the current rate, if she doesn’t wake up, she’ll be dead before sunfall.”
Paolo glanced out the window at the cloud-covered sky. Rain spattered on the glass. “That is unacceptable.”
“Have you spoken with Ilona?” Hamilton asked. “From my understanding, she’s quite knowledgeable about the original spell and knew how to counter it.”
“She does. That’s not why we’re here.”
Angel leaned forward, arms resting on his forearms as his eyes bored into Paolo’s. “We know how to wake Buffy up,” he said. “We’re choosing not to.”
His head snapped up, the first visible sign of agitation he’d exhibited since Buffy’s unfortunate encounter. “What does this mean?” he demanded. “You kidnap her from my home, you take her away from everyone who can possibly help her, and now, you will allow her to simply die?”
Paolo’s outburst made Hamilton shift uncomfortably in his seat. “Angel, I don’t think you understand the sensitivity of the situation—“
“Oh, I understand it all right. I understand that you attempted to blackmail me into helping by putting a price on a Slayer’s life. So tit for tat, Hamilton. You want Buffy to live? Then so does Spike.”
It took a moment for Paolo to realize that that must have been the price that had been discussed in the car. But it was Hamilton’s silence that drew his immediate concern.
“Signore? Tell him he must do whatever it takes. I do not employ your firm to sit idly on their hands while those I care about suffer.”
Angel snorted, but Hamilton had grown thoughtful. “He’s bluffing,” he said. “Buffy Summers is too important to him. He’s using this to manipulate us into releasing him from his payment agreement.”
“I had a feeling you’d say that.” Angel nodded to Wesley, who pulled a small cell phone out of his coat pocket. “Never say I don’t come prepared to our little meetings.”
As everybody watched, Wes dialed a number. His eyes were solemn as he met Paolo’s, but his terse command of “We’re ready” was even more chilling.
The demand to know what exactly was going on was ready on Paolo’s lips when the air shimmered on the far side of the room, growing thicker and taking form as it coalesced before his eyes. Hamilton rose to his feet when a regal woman with blue hair appeared in the room, but it was the sight of Ilona struggling against the woman’s vise-like grip that made Paolo pause. His gaze flickered back to the two men on the couch, but both seemed unperturbed by the disruption. It would seem they were more than content with their little display.
“You gods never really grow out of your need for grand entrances, do you?” Hamilton commented. But there was no amusement in his tone, his eyes steel as he approached. “Let her go, Illyria.”
Illyria turned her eyes to Wesley, who nodded without a word. Abruptly, she released her hold on Ilona’s arm and took a step back.
“Do not think such disgraceful behavior will go ignored,” Ilona spat at Angel. It was the most vehement Paolo had ever seen his old friend in a long time. Clearly, the vampires’ allure had faded for her. “As soon as I return to my offices, the Senior Partners will be told exactly how you have treated me, how despicable you have been.”
“I think that might happen sooner rather than later,” Hamilton mused. He shifted toward Angel. “What exactly is the meaning of this?”
Angel shrugged. “You think I’m bluffing. I just brought along an uninterested third party to testify that I’m not.”
“Uninterested. Bah.” Ilona’s mouth curled into an angry sneer. “You dishonor everything we do in Rome, Angelus. This is not how you conduct business.”
“No. This isn’t how you conduct business. This is exactly how I get things done.”
Turning his back on their petty arguing, Paolo crossed the room to Ilona. He took her arm gently and led her a few feet away from the fray, absorbing the heat of her body as he began to caress her elbow. He felt her anger begin to dissolve, dissipating like so much fine dust beneath his attention, but it shocked him at how vibrant it was, how its edges felt like slivers of glass beneath his skin.
“What has happened?” he asked, his voice a soft murmur. “Tell me. He cannot harm you while you are safe in my home.”
An electric shock jumped from her to him, small and almost undetectable. Paolo narrowed his eyes as she carefully extricated herself from his grip, though she remained in touching distance should he feel the need to explore her emotions further.
“The Slayer is still asleep,” she said. “I am so sorry. I gave them the clock and the spell, and they found the necessary counters to save her, but…” For a moment, she looked like the ingenue who had captivated him in her street performances, soft and eager for guidance. She had been a delicious distraction for those months she’d shared his bed; Paolo chose to believe that he was the reason for her success now. “They choose not to,” she finished.
“I’m curious, Angel…” In spite of Ilona’s appearance, Hamilton sounded unconvinced. “Where’s Spike? I would have thought he’d be here lobbying for his life just as adamantly as you. More so, even.”
“Somebody had to keep an eye on Buffy,” Angel replied without pause. “He knows as well as I do that we can’t afford to lose our only collateral.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised he agreed to this little stunt. We believed he was as obsessed with the Slayer as you were. After all, he did die for her only last year.”
“Which is exactly why he’s not jumping through hoops to do it again. A soul doesn’t stop you from being selfish.” Angel scowled at Paolo. “Obviously.”
“They mean what they say,” Ilona said. “They even restrained the Watcher to keep him from interfering.”
Paolo considered all of it, the vision of Buffy lying pale and wan in his bed overlaying his careful thoughts. He did not enjoy being played so by the vampires, and he knew Hamilton liked it even less, but this was not the time for his pride to get in the way. There would be ample time afterward for retribution; the important thing at this stage was to get Buffy awake again.
“Agree to his terms,” he ordered Hamilton. “I will not lose my Buffy because the Senior Partners cannot control their own.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple—“
“Yes, it is, signore. You will find another payment to exact, or I will have Ilona draw up the necessary paperwork to sever all of my ties with your firm.” He looked to her for confirmation, knowing she would nod in agreement before she did so.
Hamilton pulled himself straighter. “I’ll see what I can do.” To Angel, he added, “I suggest you do the same. Before you lose your collateral for good.”
“Now was that so hard?” Angel commented, rising to his feet.
Though he would have loved to beat the smirk off the vampire’s face, Paolo didn’t say a word. He simply walked over to his wet bar and reached for his favorite red wine.
The smell of blood in the cool, sterile air was thick and pungent, drawing forth memories of battles he had waged over the past four years. Adam stood at the long counter that lined one wall of the operating room with a small smile on his face and a smaller blade in his powerful hand. The sensations were strange, but the journey back from the Hellmouth had been enlightening, to say the least. Riley claimed it was because he was happy, but Adam didn’t recognize those feelings. He was more interested in cataloging the various responses his flesh created.
Perhaps it was because the fruition of all his hard work was finally at hand. With the capture of the Slayer and Hostile Seventeen, he did not believe that the dissidents would last much longer. This was a heavy blow, and Adam had every intention to take advantage of it. His top strategists were already planning the next attack, and his soldiers all prepared for the battle to come that night. There would be no time for the dissidents to regroup.
He would finally win.
He worked quickly, efficiently, arranging his surgical tools in the order in which he would need them. The demon parts he planned on using laid in wait of attachment, and the only sound in the room was the metallic click of his scalpels against the tray. Those would come later, though. There were other steps to be taken first.
Turning to the operating table, Adam surveyed the unconscious Hostile Seventeen. The poison from Riley’s claw meant blood still trickled from the deep gash in the vampire’s temple, matting his hair to his head, and bruises bloomed all along his bare torso where he’d taken numerous heavy blows. They would heal well enough after the surgery, but for now, Adam had to treat the poisoning. It wouldn’t do for Hostile Seventeen to be too weak from blood loss to participate in the fight that night. Adam was quite looking forward to watching the vampire tear apart the very same people he’d spent the last four years protecting.
His smile widened.
Perhaps Riley was correct.
He was happy.
To be continued in Chapter 26…