DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Spike is spending the night at Buffy’s, learning more about her past and comforting her; Wesley has gone to Willow and offered his protection to her for telling him about Spike, which she has turned down; and Giles has been approached by Lindsey and given a twenty-four deadline to kill the Mayor…

*************

Chapter 12: Cat and Mouse

She picked up on the first ring.  “Hello?”  Willow’s voice was wary but alert, and Giles immediately thrust aside his worry about waking her.

“I need you to get over here as quickly as possible,” he said.  He was still working on pulling his coat off, tucking the phone into his shoulder as he moved around.  “Someone’s just a lit a fire under us.”

“What?  How’d you---?  What’s going on?”

He began sifting through the file folders that were strewn over his still-made bed, relaying the new instruction from Lindsey as he worked.  When he’d finished, he waited for Willow’s typically scatty response---something along the lines of anxiety about the approaching apocalypse would’ve been appropriate, he thought---but was met instead with a prolonged silence.  “Willow?” Giles prompted.  “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“You don’t seem particularly surprised by it.”

Another pause.  “Let’s just say…it’s been a night of surprises.” 

Her sigh came through the phone line with a wispy caress, and Giles stopped in his tracks, concern immediately warming his skin.  His query, “What’s happened?”, shot out before he could curb the impulse and he automatically scowled at his own misplaced zeal.  Young enough to be your daughter, he reminded himself.  Get a grip, old man.

“I’ll give you the scoop on everything when I get over there,” she said.  “I assume…you’re bringing the guys in to plan our next move?”

“That’s the plan.  I rang you first because I thought you’d be sleeping.”  He paused.  He wasn’t keen on having to wait to find out what was plaguing her so, but his earlier worry regarding her rest resurfaced.  “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“I had a…visitor.  But he’s gone now.”

Her recalcitrance to say her guest’s name did nothing to appease Giles’ nerves.  “Who was it?”  A long silence.  He tried again.  “Was it Wesley?”

“He’s part of the not-so-good news I’ve got to share,” she said.  “He came to tell me…to warn me…” Yet another sigh, and he was going to throttle her for being so slow in telling.  “The Mayor fingered Spike tonight,” she finally said, and her voice was barely above a whisper, aching and miserable as she uttered the words.

“Oh, dear Lord.”

“And Allah, and Buddha, and every other religious icon you can throw in there, Giles.  And now that those lawyers are giving us a deadline---.”

“Why would he tell you this?”

“He wanted me to rat Spike out.”  He heard her sharp intake of breath, and when she spoke again, there was a harsh urgency to her tone that hadn’t been there before.  “You know I didn’t, right?  I wouldn’t---.”

“I know, I know.”  Taking off his glasses and tossing them onto the bed, Giles rubbed at his eyes as he contemplated this new information.  “Get over here,” he said, resigned.  “I’ll call Spike and Xander.  We’ll sort something out.  We have to.”

*************

Wesley had almost begun to hope that he’d guessed wrong, when he saw the cab pull up in front of the hotel and Willow immediately come rushing outside to climb inside it.  For the briefest of moments, the urge to run forward and pull her out, to stop her from doing what he knew she was, coursed through him, even prompting him as far as to step from the shadows of the alley in which he’d waited since leaving her room.  He stopped on the sidewalk, though, pressing himself into the cold wall of the building behind him to remain hidden from her view, and watched as the cab sped off down the darkened street.

Off to warn Spike, he knew.  Which meant by association that she would be speaking with Giles as well.  Most likely that Xander Harris also fell into the mix somewhere, though his role remained murky at best.

But it was Rook that consumed Wesley’s thoughts at the moment.  Rook and Willow.  Or rather, Willow and Rook.

It had to be a hit.  That’s what Rook did.  That’s what he’d been groomed to do since joining the Conti family as a child.  Using Willow and Xander as methods of scoping out the mark.

But just who was he intending to kill?

Someone at Heaven.  Had to be.  He was using too much manpower at one location for it not to be someone there.

Xander, spending time with Angel.  Having dinner with the Mayor and Faith, Angel and Buffy.

Willow, beautiful brainy Willow, working the club as a mere coat check girl.  Getting to know him.  Chatting with the other employees.

Even Spike, hanging out two nights in a row.  Watching the room and the show from a front row table…

The common denominator made Wesley’s breath catch, his eyes widening as his head swiveled to stare in the direction Willow’s long-gone cab.  How could she? he thought.  After everything he’d considered, after the offer he’d made her, after being so certain that her culpability in whatever this mess was, was minor…

His blood chilled.  She’d been working the angle even tonight.  Even as she had been flirting with him in his office, touching him, driving him mad with want, Willow had been gathering information to take back to William Rook, giving him the means to do what it was he was so good at.  Hell, Wes had even walked in on her doing it.

Finding out about Buffy Summers.

The common denominator.

Damn it all to hell.

*************

Xander was already there when she came rushing in, not even bothering to knock.  Her eyes quickly scanned the cluttered room, and she dropped her own stack of folders onto the pile on the bed.  “Where’s Spike?” Willow asked.

Xander didn’t respond, only sliding his gaze to the chair where Giles sat, replacing the receiver back into its cradle.  Dread sank into the redhead’s stomach, but she voiced the question again to the Englishman anyway.  “Where’s Spike?”

“Nowhere to be found,” he replied, his tone hard.  There was a pause, and then he abruptly picked up the pencil from next to him and snapped it brutally in half, throwing the two pieces at the wall before him.

Willow jumped.  “He’s…not at the hotel?”

“Not at the hotel, not at his usual haunts, not at the police station.  Nowhere.”  He rose and began pacing the length of his room, every muscle in his lean body taut, waiting to be sprung.  “For his sake, he better be at the fucking morgue, or I swear I’m going to kill him myself,” Giles finished under his breath.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Xander said, keeping his tone light.  “The night’s early for Spike.  I’m sure there’s a bar or three who’d still serve him at this hour.  Shoot, he could be at his new girlfriend’s, for all we know---.”

“What did you say?”  Willow’s head turned to her friend, the possibility he was suggesting leadening her even further.

“You know.  That new dame he’s so dizzy for.  He blew out of Heaven pretty early.  Could be he had a hot date or something.”

Flashes of Buffy and Angel leaving the club, separately, scattered through her head, and she sighed, picking up one of her folders even as she crossed to the desk.  “I think I know where’s he at,” she said as she settled herself in the chair.  Opening the file, her eyes scanned the text until she found the number she was looking for, ignoring the curious stares of the men behind her.

“How do you know?  Where is he?” Giles asked.

“Another of those surprises I was telling you about,” she muttered as she picked up the phone.

*************

It came from far away, a clarion call drifting across the ether, and Buffy groaned as she lifted her head to stare at the phone jangling near her ear.  A quick glance at the clock told her she’d only been asleep for less than an hour, and she sighed as she began to reach for the receiver.

“Leave it,” Spike growled from behind her, his arm tightening around her waist to pull her back into his warm body.

She glanced back.  His eyes were still closed, his lashes dark smudges against his cheek, and his bottom lip jutted out in a pout.  A smile curved her lips.  He looked absolutely adorable, years shorn off his face by the petulance of interrupted sleep.  “I can’t,” she said softly.  “It could be important.”  She didn’t mention the name, but the frown that immediately overtook his features told her that Spike knew she thought it was Angel.  No one else would call her at this hour.

“Hello?” Buffy said when she picked up the phone.

There was a breathy pause, and then a woman’s voice came over the line.  “Um…can I speak to Spike, please?”

Immediately, Buffy tensed, her muscles going rigid, and she sat up, away from her lover’s embrace.  The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.  More importantly, whoever it was knew that Spike was there.  Not good, her mind railed.  Not good at all.  Who could know?  Why would anyone know? 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Buffy said stiffly.  She ignored the curious lift of his head next to her, choosing instead to stare straight ahead.  Better to get this person off the phone and deal with him herself, she felt.  “I’m afraid you’ve---.”

“I know he’s there.  Please.  Tell him…tell him Red’s on the phone.  I really need to speak with him.”

More familiarity, and an unshakeable certainty about Spike’s presence.  Carefully, her heart beating in her throat, Buffy pulled the phone away from her ear and handed it out to the blond.  “It’s for you,” she said, willing the tremor away from her voice so that she could appear calm at all costs.  “Someone named Red.”

He changed right before her eyes.  Recognition dawned within the blue, sinking Buffy’s stomach even further, and a steel hardened his jaw as he sat up, carefully taking the receiver from her hand.  “How the hell did you---?” he started to say into the line, only to be cut off by whoever this Red person was.

She didn’t even hear most of what was said---not that he said that much---and instead watched his face grow darker and darker, a lean hand coming up to run through his hair, mussing it even further.  “Shit,” she heard him mutter once, but by that time his head was bowed, his eyes closed, as this Red said whatever it was she needed to say.

He couldn’t be married; she hadn’t sounded like an angry wife finding out her husband’s infidelity.  Or maybe he was, and this was such a regular occurrence that Red was used to it by now.  Oh god, Buffy thought.  Not only have I thrown caution to the wind for a relative stranger---not a stranger, a tiny voice whispered, Spike---but I’ve done it for a married stranger as well.  Like her whole life didn’t mean anything.  Like she had the luxury to risk everything she had been working toward for the past three years like she was the Queen of Sheba or something. 

Oh god, what have I done?

She couldn’t even meet his eyes when he handed her back the phone, feeling him rise from the bed as she replaced the receiver back in its cradle.  Cold settled around her, joining the ice that already dwelled inside, and she pulled her knees up, hugging them to her chest as she heard him fumble with his pants.

“Don’t let the door hit you on your way out,” Buffy said frostily.  No way was she going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d gotten to her.  Bastard didn’t deserve it.

Though there was a hesitation to his movements, Spike continued to dress, and she could feel his eyes boring into her.  “It’s not what you think,” he said.

“Oh?  So you’re a mindreader as well as a cheater?  Good to know.  Of course, it would’ve been nice to know before---.”

His hand shot out, grabbing her chin to force her eyes upward.  “I’m not married,” Spike said grimly.  His eyes were stormy, searching hers, obviously unhappy about what he was finding.  “Red’s a business partner.  Something’s come up I have to take care of straight away.  I hate havin’ to go like this.  You need to know that.”

She wanted to believe him.  She wanted all the wonderful words he’d whispered to her as they’d laid together to be true.  But she also had a heart to protect.  And he was already proving far too dangerous and unpredictable for her to just give in to him so easily.

“You tell all your business associates about your affairs?” she quizzed.

“No.”  He let her go then, stepping back to sit on the edge of the bed to put on his socks.  “Red’s just a helluva lot smarter than I’ll ever be.  Somehow, she piped on about me and you.”

“And she crooks her little finger and you just go running?”

“I told you, it’s bloody well important!”  He exploded, jumping from the bed to begin prowling around the room.  “The whole reason I even agreed to come to this godforsaken place again is about to explode in my face if I don’t get out there and do something about it right now.  And the last thing I need is for you to be second-guessing me, pet.  I’ve been straight with you.  I’m.  Not.  Married.  The only dame I want anything to do with at the moment is sittin’ right in front of me, staring at me like I’ve grown a third head, and I’d like nothing more than to shag you senseless to prove you’re wrong about me, but I can’t.  I have to go do this.  You’re goin’ to have to trust me on that.”

Buffy bit her lip, watching as he grabbed his shoes.  “Are you coming back?” she heard herself asking.  Way to go for being strong, she admonished herself.

He softened slightly at her question.  “As soon as I can make it,” he promised.  “I want you to do me a favor, though.  I want you to stay put for the day.  Call in sick or something to get out of singing tonight.  When this is all done and over with, I need to be able to find you without having to comb through every corner of this soddin’ city to do it.  I’ll explain everything then.”

He didn’t wait for her to answer, just swooped in, cupped the back of her head with one large hand, and drew her lips to his in a hard, searing kiss.  She was panting when he pulled away, eyes luminous.  She was a fool.  She was going to believe him.  For now.

“Be fast,” she said.  “I’d rather not have to call in to work.”  Too hard to explain it to Angel, she added silently, and hoped that he would understand.

“I’ll be back yesterday,” he vowed, and swooped back down in for another kiss, devouring and swallowing her down as if it was going to be their last.

She was still breathless when he walked out the door.

*************

Two for two, Wesley thought grimly as he saw the familiar bleached head emerge from Buffy’s apartment building.  “Stop the car,” he told the driver, and held his breath as the taxi eased to the curb, allowing him to watch from a distance as Spike headed for a black DeSoto parked down the street.

Alarm that he was too late to help the chanteuse curled his fingers around the door handle, waiting for the sidewalk to clear before making a break for her apartment, when he saw a familiar blonde figure step out onto a fire escape overhead.  He let out his breath in a long sigh.

Buffy.  She was still alive.  There was still time.

“You want me to stick around?” the driver said, oblivious to his fare’s tension.

“No, that won’t be necessary.”  Reaching into his wallet, Wesley extracted a few bills without even looking at the meter and handed them over, his eyes never leaving Spike as he pulled away with a low roar.

His own cab was soon following, and Wes looked up to see Buffy watching in the direction Rook had gone, a pensive sadness softening her face in the waning moonlight.  She wasn’t going to like what he was going to tell her, but at least she was going to be alive to appreciate it, he thought cheerlessly, stepping toward the front of the building.

Now if he could just figure out how to deal with Willow…

*************

“What I don’t understand,” Giles was saying, “is why you would risk everything---our futures, your life---on this…this…”  His lips pursed, his face red as he struggled to find a word that encapsulated his anger towards the new woman in Spike’s life.

“…absolutely amazing woman,” the blond finished for him.  He took a deep drag on his cigarette, turning his head to stare out at the burgeoning orange and crimson sky, the faintest of yellows tingeing the heavens as the sun began to rise.  “And if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, Ripper.  It started before I knew who she was, and what it means now has absolutely nothin’ to do with the job at hand.”

Xander shook his head from his seat on the bed.  “I still can’t believe you bagged the torcher,” he said.  “You are the luckiest bastard I know.”  At Giles’ stern look, he blushed.  “And the stupidest,” he hastened to add, affecting a firmer set of his mouth.  “You should’ve been on the square with us, Spike.  We’re your partners in this.”

“And your friends,” Willow chimed in.  “Don’t forget friends.”

“What happened to all those sentiments you expressed in California?” Giles asked.  “For all we know, Miss Summers will go to the Mayor as soon as she knows about you---.”

“She doesn’t know what I do,” Spike bit out.  “And she wouldn’t do that, anyway.  She understands about loyalty.”

“Which is why, of course, she’s cheating on her fiancé in order to be with you,” the other Englishman added dryly.

“Can we just drop this?”  Throwing his cigarette to the ground outside, Spike rose from the windowsill and faced off with the group.  “All right, maybe I should’ve come clean a little sooner about me and Buffy.  But I didn’t.  But right now, who I’m seein’ is the least of our worries.  Not with those shysters breathing down our necks and the Mayor on to who I am.  Can we please get back to the bloody issue here and start organizing how we’re goin’ to do this?”

He was right and they all knew it.  Time was ticking away, and with the sun already dawning on their last twenty hours before Wolfram and Hart played their ace in the hole, there was little room for squabbling.

Willow flushed as she looked down helplessly at the file on her lap.  “We still don’t have a handle on the Mayor’s schedule,” she said.  “It’s too erratic for us to plan something so close---.”

“We don’t need his schedule,” Spike interrupted.  “I’ve already sussed how I’m goin’ to get to him.”

“Really?  And you were going to share this with us…when?” Giles asked.  “Before your midnight assignation with Miss Summers, or post-copulation while the pair of you were basking---.”

“Giles!”  All the men jumped at the harshness of Willow’s voice, turning their heads to look at her.  Twin spots of color were high on her cheeks, her nostrils flaring.  “I don’t feel like going to the hoosegow any time soon here, so if you could please stick to the subject without sounding like my Uncle Morrie when he gets drunk at Passover, I would greatly appreciate it.”  She waited, staring him down, until he’d ducked his eyes, and then continued in just as tight a voice.  “Spike messed up.  We get that.  But he’s not going to be the only one who loses out here when we get this job done, just remember that.”

While they’d waited for Spike, she’d filled him and Xander in on what exactly had happened between her and Wesley, even going so far as to tell them about the kiss.  The fact that she was getting burned by losing what could’ve been a great relationship wasn’t lost on them, and she just wanted them to be aware of it.

“Now,” she went on, her tone calmer, “what’s your plan, Spike?  How are we getting to the Mayor?”

“Not we.  Me.”  Blue eyes jumped between the other men.  “What kind of info did you get on that Faith dame?”

The mention of the girlfriend took them all by surprise.  “Quite a lot actually,” Giles said, frowning.  “Why on earth do you need it?”

Spike smirked.  “Because I can’t very well set a trap without havin’ some bait to put in it, now can I?” he commented.

*************

Wesley’s forearms rested on his knees as he leaned forward, the coffee she’d made for him forgotten at his side.  “I’m so sorry, Buffy,” he said, his blue eyes kind.  “You have no idea how badly I wish I was wrong about this.”

“I…just…”  She couldn’t even formulate a complete sentence.  The shock of it all was still too raw, the knowledge that she’d fallen for it heartrending.

A hitman for the Conti family.  Not only a hitman.  The hitman.  Even if Wesley didn’t know where exactly he’d been for the last few years.  But Buffy knew.  Because Spike had told her.  California.

And he was out to kill her, using his friend Xander to get close to Angel, putting Willow in at the club to befriend her, arranging to be at Willy’s that night…oh god, that night…

It had been a set-up from the beginning.  There she had been, thinking she was being so clever, when all along, he’d been playing her for a sap, orchestrating their meetings, using whatever information he’d gleaned from whatever his sources were to get to her as quickly as possible.  It had been too good to be true.  And she’d fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker.

But he’s had ample opportunity to off you, the little voice said inside her head.  If what Wesley says is true, why hasn’t Spike killed you already?

But Wesley wouldn’t lie.  He was one of the good guys.  Buffy knew for a fact that Wes was one of the few within the Wilkins family who wasn’t actually in on any of the shady dealings; Angel bragged constantly about how great it was having someone so squeaky to front to the authorities if ever things got a little hot.  They didn’t let him in on any of the family secrets and they never asked him to do dirty work.  Not that he wouldn’t have.  He was the loyal sort.  But nobody believed that it was in him to do any of the shadier dealings, so nobody asked him to.  She had no reason not to believe him if he said Spike was there to kill her.

He’d only run from her tonight because Willow had called to warn him about getting fingered by the Mayor.  As soon as Wesley had mentioned the connection between the coat check girl and Spike, Buffy had figured out immediately who it was that had rung.  And he’d bolted, like a scared rabbit, so that he could plan his next move.

She blanched.  He’d asked her to stay put.  His last request to her before leaving had been not to leave because he wanted to be able to find her without having any trouble.  To kill me, she thought, and swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump that had suddenly risen in her throat.

She had no idea why the Conti family wanted her dead.  Of course, she’d never figured out why someone out in California had wanted her dead, either---.

The dots connected then.

Spike had been out in California for the last five years, he’d said.

Which meant he’d been out there at the time of the fire.

She’d been wrong all along.  It wasn’t someone in the Wilkins family who shot her.

It very well could’ve been Spike.

Buffy raised steady eyes to Wesley.  Though her insides were seething, anger was beginning to replace the shock that had initially attacked her body.  She wasn’t going to let him win.  She’d come too far to get shot down by a pair of penetrating blue eyes and a baritone that made her toes curl.  “Thank you for telling me,” she said, her voice calm. 

“We have to keep you safe until we can get Rook in the hands of the authorities,” Wesley said.  “I can help with that.  I know a place---.”

Buffy shook her head.  “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary.  I have somewhere I can go for a while.”

“I’d like to stay with you for a bit, if possible.  Just to ensure your wellbeing.”

“Thanks,” she said again, and this time, gave him a little smile.

No way in hell was she going to let Spike get to her again.  She’d shoot him herself, if it came down to it.

 

To be continued in Chapter 13: Danger By My Side