DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Wesley has been asked by Faith to look for who hired Spike, while Spike has gone to see Dru…

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

Chapter 22: The Man Who Found Himself

She was doing everything she could to keep herself distracted.  Anything to keep herself from thinking, from dwelling on the what ifs, and the maybes, and the whys.  It wasn’t as if Buffy hadn’t become a master at it over the past few years; avoiding those kind of questions when it came to the fire and the loss of her family had been the only way she’d been able to get out of bed most days.  Focus on the immediate problem at hand.  Plan for the long term in baby steps.  That was the way to keep it together.

But Spike was a wrinkle.  While there was no denying the thrill of being with him, at the same time it frightened Buffy, the unknowns he brought to their involvement catapulting her back into the land of doubt and second-guessing.  Though she honestly believed Drusilla Conti was a possibility they needed to address, the irony that she had sent Spike back within the clutches of the love of his life did not escape her.

What if Drusilla wanted him back?  What if this was all just a ploy to get him to New York City and under her thumb?  Would he be able to say no to that kind of offer?  Would he even want to?  And if he did go, where did that leave Buffy?

It was better not to think.  Just do, she ordered herself.  She’d stayed with Willow at the diner when the others had left, but as the afternoon stretched on and there was still no sign of Wesley, the redhead had insisted Buffy go back to the apartment to clean up before going into Heaven that night.  Part of the chanteuse had been relieved, knowing that that would be where Spike would return when he was done.  A bigger part had been gutted upon arriving there, walking in to the empty living room and feeling its hollowness echo inside her.

Don’t think.  Do.

A bath first.  Something to wash away the residual tension left from the ambush.  All that time training with Mickey had finally served a purpose, even if it hadn’t been to put a bullet between the eyes of whoever had wrecked her life back in California like she’d originally planned.  She had no regrets about it---lives of people she was growing to seriously care about were at stake---but it didn’t mean she had to like the fact that one or more of her bullets had very potentially ended another human life.  Would she have felt the same way if it had been her true target who had died?  She wasn’t actually sure.

The warm water was a welcome haven, lapping silken luxury over her breasts as she leaned against the porcelain.  Somehow, she should’ve expected it to elicit the memories it did, but as the ghost of Spike’s touch challenged her flesh not to react, Buffy sighed in release, her eyes fluttering shut.

Those fingers, so strong, so gentle, teasing her into expectation as they danced with the terry over her back, offering promises with each fleeting graze that sent shivers of want undulating over the knobs of her spine.

Those eyes, darkened to a shade of a summer sky past sunset, no longer sapphire blue but not quite black, caressing her more assuredly than his hands as they followed paths and bends along her skin long untraveled with such tender diligence.

Unconsciously, Buffy’s fingers slid up the flat of her stomach, hesitating before skimming the upper curve of her breast.  It wasn’t her touch she was craving, though.  It was his.  The way Spike sparked her body to sing far more eloquently than her voice ever did, creating a rising symphony in her muscles that could only be conducted by him.

When her fingernail caught the hardened tip of her nipple, she gasped from the unexpected pleasure of it, her eyes flying open as her hand flew to grip the side of the tub.  Though her body screamed in protest, her mind was louder.  Wrong kind of doing, she thought.  This will only make it worse.

She hurried to finish her wash, economizing her strokes, studiously avoiding anywhere remotely erogenous.  Drying off was just as brisk, and when she stepped from the steamy bathroom with the towel wrapped around her body, her skin prickled in a coarsened scarlet, bearing the brunt of her scrubbing as a ward against further fantasies.

He was seated on the couch, his back to her, but the aching sight of his bleached head resting in his hands brought Buffy up short.  Her eyes flicked to the whisky bottle that sat in front of him, the full tumbler at its side, before returning to him.

“You’re back,” she said, stating the obvious.

He didn’t move.  “It’s not Dru.”  Spike’s voice was muffled, directed at the carpet, and it pulled her feet closer in spite of the rising dread in the pit of her stomach.

“Is that good news…or bad news?” she queried.

“Not sure.”

She stood there, silent, uncertain about what to do or say.  Every instinct she had was prodding at her to go to him, to wrap him in her arms and to kiss away all of the events of the past few hours.  His body was dictating otherwise, though, closed and hard with “not welcome” written all over it.  Seconds passed with neither doing anything, and when the growing chill in the room sent a shiver through her body, Buffy made the decision for both of them.

“Don’t go,” Spike said as she turned toward the bedroom.

She looked back to see him gazing at her.  His eyes were bleak, the planes of his face more pronounced, but the unruly curls his fingers had created of his hair gave him the appearance of a lost little boy, desperately seeking a friendly face to help him find his way home.

“Don’t go,” he repeated.  This time, he edged himself over into the corner of the sofa, his invitation for her to join him there unmistakable.

“How long have you been back?” Buffy asked, settling next to him.  She tucked her legs up underneath her, her hands knitting together listlessly in her lap.  This awkwardness was something she hadn’t expected, and more than anything, she wished it would go away.

“Just a few minutes.  Didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Did it go so bad you needed a drink to get over it?”  Her tone was gentle, no hint of accusation in it.  She couldn’t blame him for using it as a means to cope; she’d certainly done it herself once or twice after the fire.

“Haven’t touched it.  Thought I’d need to but…”

“But what?” she prompted when he fell silent again.

He took a long time to answer.  “Always did it to try and make it so the world didn’t hurt so much to be in it.”  Spike laughed, a dry rasping sound that made her heart bleed.  “Should probably know this now, pet, while you can still turn around and run, but underneath this rugged and manly exterior, William Rook is a bloody coward.  Didn’t want to come to New York, didn’t want to face Dru, and was terrified as hell last night I’d seen the last of you.”

“Cowards don’t face their fears.  They run.  You don’t look like you’re running to me.”  His silence urged her closer.  “If you’re mad at me about suggesting you go, you can say so.  I’m a big girl.  I can take it.”

Her question took him aback, drawing his brows together in a puzzled frown.  “Why would I be mad?” he argued.  “You were right.  It had to be done.”

“Then why this?”  Buffy gestured toward the bottle.  “Talk to me, Spike.  Don’t make me try and guess what you’re feeling right now.  I’m so jingle-brained from sitting her worrying about you, about us, that anything my head comes up with is going to come out duck soup.”

“You were worried?”  For the first time, hope gleamed in the blue depths of his gaze, and his hand reached out to stroke the bend of her knee with a single finger.  “Don’t be worried, luv.  If there’s one thing I’ve gotten out of havin’ my heart sliced and diced today, it’s knowing who already has it.”  He paused.  “If you want it, of course.”

Her face softened.  “How many times am I going to have to help get your ass out of the fire before you realize I’m not going anywhere?” she teased.

The hand that had been touching her leg slid up to her waist, tugging her to him so that she was nestled into his side.  With her cheek pressed to his chest, Buffy could hear the muffled rhythm of his heartbeat, and she closed her eyes against the soothing reverberations in her ear, letting it unwind the coiled knots within her muscles.  Why was it nothing else seemed to matter when he held her like this?  The gentle caress of his fingers under the wet strands of her hair only added to her lulled sense of order, erasing away the doubts and fears with every slide of his hand.

“As hard as it was seein’ Dru again,” Spike said, his voice a velvety rumble along her skin, “least it helped me come to some realizations.”

“About who’s behind the hit?”

“No.  About…other bits.  Dru was fairly useless about anything concerning Wilkins.  Only real thing she had to say about him was that she was goin’ to the funeral.”

“Great,” Buffy muttered.  “I get to watch her play the vamp for Angel.  Lucky me.”

She was jarred from her comfortable spot when Spike pulled her around to his lap, forcing her to look at him directly.  “I don’t want you to go,” he said.  His face was solemn.  “When we come out on the other side of this mess, it’s goin’ to be you and me, right?  That’s what all this talk of not leaving’s about, isn’t it?”

Guilt chilled her veins.  “Spike---,” she started, only to be stopped by his fingers to her lips.

“No.  Listen to me.”  His hand slid around to cup her cheek.  “What I got from Dru was clarity, Buffy.  She opened my eyes so that I could finally see her, see who I am when I’m around her, and to see that as much as there’s a part of me that’ll always love her, I don’t want to go back to that.”  He shrugged at the unspoken question in her eyes.  “I won’t lie about it.  I wondered.  I wondered how I’d feel when I saw her.  What I’d say if she said she wanted me back.  She was my salvation back in the day.  My dark princess.  I killed for her.  I practically sold my soul just to keep her happy.  But when I got there…”  His voice broke, his gaze tearing from hers for the first time since she’d moved.

Buffy watched the shadows ripple across his face as he relived the memories, unaware she was holding her breath while she waited.  It was probably only a few seconds before he looked at her again, but to her, it seemed to last an eternity.

“Thought I was doin’ just fine these past five years,” he said softly.  “Turns out I was sleepwalking.  Met you and something inside me woke up.  You make me want to live again, luv.  And the thought of you spending even one minute pretending to still be with that tosser---.”

“It’s not really pretending, Spike,” she interrupted.  “I honestly care about Angel.”

The twitch in his jaw made her wish there was an easier way to say it.  “But it’s not the same as you and me,” he said warily.

“No, it’s not.  It’s nowhere near the same.”  Leaning forward, she pressed a light kiss to his lips, accenting her words.  Her hands were trembling when she pulled away, and she forced herself to meet his eyes, knowing that her next words would not make him any happier.  “But I can’t just disappear on him without some kind of explanation.  He’s done so much for me, more than you can ever imagine, and he deserves better than that.”

“Buffy---.”

“It’s your turn to listen to me now.  Please.  I know you don’t like him, and that’s just jake.  But Angel got me out of more than one mess when I was out in California, and he got me going here, and I can’t just forget about all that.  You can’t ask me to.”

Spike was still, and every moment he sat there mute, his dark gaze locked on hers, she felt her stomach plummet further, unease that she’d pushed him too far making her skin crawl.  “S’pose you goin’ missing so soon after the hit would like a mite suspicious,” he finally said slowly.  Though her face lit up at his acceptance, his remained somber.  “But after…when we’ve fingered whoever it is behind it all…you’re coming back to California with me, right?  I know it’s not exactly your favorite place, what with the bad memories and all, but if you give me half a chance, I’ll do everything in my power to try and give you new ones.  Ones that’ll make you smile instead of cry.  You have my word on that, pet.”

Tears stung the corner of her eyes, and Buffy buried her face in the curve of his neck as she hugged him tight, unwilling to let him see how deeply his words had gotten to her.  “California’s always been my home,” she murmured, keeping her voice steady.  “There’s so much you don’t know about what happened there.”

Strong hands reached up to begin stroking her damp hair.  “I’m not askin’ you to tell me anything.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“I know.  But I will.  I promise.”

“So…is that a yes or a no?”

Her lips kissed the hollow below his ear.  “I’d go to Timbuktu if that’s where you wanted to go, Spike,” she whispered.  “Home is wherever you are.”

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

Willow smiled as Mickey approached her table, the coffee pot in his meaty hand.  “You want another cup of joe?” he asked.

She shook her head, holding her hand over her empty cup.  “Any more and I’m going to have to take up residence in your bathroom, I think,” she joked.

“What about something to eat?  I’ve got some nice apple pie.”

Another shake.  “I’m good.  Really.  I’m sure he’ll be here any minute.”  She kept her smile plastered across her face even as he walked away, but it was a struggle, her heart heavy as her eyes darted to the front door of the diner for the millionth time since Buffy had gone.  Three hours since they’d left Wesley at Heaven, and while she didn’t have any doubts that he would eventually show with her things, the longer he took the more worried she became.  Could something have happened to him? she wondered.  Maybe the clean-up didn’t turn out so clean after all.

Spike had told her about his offer to Wesley, and no matter how hard she tried, Willow’s thoughts kept going back to it.  Thinking about what was going to happen between them after all this was over had been filed away for later consideration, but maybe Spike’s proposal had made Wesley decide getting involved with her was a bad idea.  Her initial reaction had been excitement---all of them, working together, like one big happy family.  Spike and Buffy, her and Wesley, Giles looking out for all of them.  It could be good.

If Wesley ever decided to show up, that is.

When Mickey appeared at her elbow again, her smile was automatic, curling her lips but nowhere near her eyes.  “Really, I’m fine,” she started, only to feel it fade when she noticed his hands were empty.

“You’ve got a visitor out back,” he said.  “Someone with a whole bunch of luggage.”

She was out of the booth and halfway to the kitchen door before he was finished speaking, the weight that had been slumping her shoulders gone.  Past the stoves, and through the storeroom, blinking once against the darkness to see the back door of the diner wide open, outlining Wesley’s body in black as he stood there waiting.  For her.

She stopped right in front of him, but as his mouth canted into a small smile, her hand shot out and slapped at his arm.  “Where the hell have you been?” she demanded.  “Do you have any idea how much worrying I’ve done waiting for you?  We’re talking enough to power all of Manhattan.  If it could be converted into electricity, of course.”

Her reaction only made him smile wider, and before she could say anything else, Wesley was cupping her face in his hands and lowering his mouth to hers.

The kiss took her by surprise, the tiny mewl escaping her throat as his lips powered over hers, strong and forceful and more demanding than any other kiss they’d shared.  A tremor of excitement ruffled through her body, but before Willow could drown herself in it, it was over, and he had straightened to look down at her with a pleased grin.

“What was that for?” she said breathlessly.

“For being so absolutely adorable,” he replied.  “And because in about ten seconds when I tell you what held me, I’ll wager that you’ll be too keyed up for me to get another chance to do that.”

“What happened?”

He didn’t wait.  “I think I’ve learned of someone who can help us find out who hired Spike.”

Her eyes went as wide as saucers.  “Who?”

“Faith.”  The words came tumbling out, and in his enthusiasm to share what had happened, he never even noticed the growing line between Willow’s brows.  “She showed up at Heaven as I was leaving.  She asked for my help in nailing who’s responsible for Mr. Wilkins’ death, but I’m fairly certain she knows who it is and is afraid to tell me.  I’m sure if we exerted a little pressure…”  He paused when she stepped away from him, his glee diminishing at her sobriety.  “What’s wrong?  I thought you’d be thrilled about this.”

“Why would Faith come to you for help?”  Her words were cautious, carefully chosen as her gaze remained riveted on his face.  When the veil fell over his eyes, darkening the blue even behind his glasses, she swallowed.  Something was going on here that she didn’t know about, and the possibility that it could mean she was being played for a sap made her stomach lurch in revolt.

“Because she saw my loyalty to the family,” he replied.  “She thinks someone of my…intelligence could do what the police are refusing to.”

“How do you know she’s not trying to set you up?  Maybe she’s the one who hired Spike.”

Wesley shook his head.  “Absolutely not.  She’s a wreck, Willow.  She loved Mr. Wilkins.  There’s no way she has anything to do with the hit.”

“And you believe her.  Just like that.”  Her jealousy surprised her, but she couldn’t help herself when she pulled even further away from his touch.  She’d spent all her life being overshadowed by beautiful women, watching as men she cared about chose others over her.

“Yes.”  He seemed oblivious to the truth of her discomfort, and she visibly cringed at his next words.  “She’s a lot smarter than any of us gave her credit for.  Really, it’s remarkable.  I think if she wasn’t so scared, she’d be after who hired Spike herself.”

So, bye-bye to my intelligence advantage, Willow thought with more than an ounce of sadness.  Look at how passionate he is talking about her.  How did I ever think that someone like him would be interested in someone like me?

“Why aren’t you more excited?  This is a wonderful break for us.”

“Us?  Is there an us?  It’s not a you and Faith?”  She grimaced as the words shot out of her mouth.  Thinking it was one thing; saying it out loud was entirely different.  And really, really embarrassing.

He watched her for a moment before turning back toward the alley.  For the first time, Willow saw the car parked near the door.  “I’ve booked a room for us,” he said, ignoring her outburst as he strode toward the driver’s seat.  “It’s a trifle nicer than your previous hotel.  I think you’ll be pleased.”

“Wait.”  Hesitantly, she ventured into the sunshine.  “I’m confused here.  Aren’t you listening to me?  Because my ears seemed to be working better than my brain at the moment, and I could’ve sworn I just put my foot into it two seconds ago and you didn’t even blink.”

“I heard you.”  Pulling open the door, Wesley gestured toward the trunk.  “Would you mind terribly unpacking my things as well when you’re doing yours?  I’m running so late, I’m not sure I’ll have the opportunity before I go into Heaven.”

“OK.  Time out.”  She planted her feet, folding her arms across her chest, while she waited for him to look up at her again.  “What’s going on?  You show up, late, in a car you didn’t have this morning, after having had some mysterious assignation with the Mayor’s mistress, who happens to be smart and beautiful, and you’re hearing me but I’m not getting any responses because you’re too worried about your suits getting wrinkled since you’ll probably be late for work tonight.”  She paused, breathless.  “Do I get any kind of answers?  Or am I just supposed to go along for the ride?”  When he smiled, it was all she could do not to stamp her foot in protest.  “And stop laughing at me!”

“Right.”  Wesley affected a frown, though his eyes still danced in mirth.  “Is that better?”

“It’ll do.”

“So.  You want answers.  Well, first of all, the car is on loan.  I called in a favor and borrowed it.  On the off-chance we get fingered again, I’m much more comfortable relying on my own driving to lose a tail than a cabbie who barely speaks English.”  He stepped around the front of the vehicle, leaving his door open, to approach her slowly.  “Secondly, I thought we’d established this morning that I’m at as much risk currently as any of you, so in keeping with that and our…intimacy last night, I assumed that you wouldn’t mind if you and I shared a hotel for the time being.”

He had come to a stop right in front of her, his proximity forcing her to tilt her head up to look at him.  His frown was gone, the angles of his face softened as he regarded her intently.  The deep scent of his cologne struck her senses, and the urge to bury her face in his chest almost overwhelmed the redhead.  Supposed to be mad, she reminded herself.  Not supposed to think about nice smells, and how strong he is, and how much I really like his stubble, especially when it scrapes against my…OK, stopping now.  Supposed to be mad.

“What about…Faith?” she asked instead, her voice faint.

“Ah, Faith.  Yes.  Well, while I can hardly deny that I’m late because of taking a few moments to speak with her, and while she’s certainly a very attractive young girl with more intelligence than I previously gave her credit for…”  His index finger tapped lightly against the tip of her nose.  “…she’s not you, now is she?”

“And that’s…good?”

“That’s very good.”  Wes smiled, but this time, it was tipped not in humor, but in gentleness.  “My turn for a question now,” he said.  “This…jealousy that seems to currently have you in its thrall.  Is this an ongoing issue for you?  Because I hear that the women in California are quite attractive.  If I’m going to have to limit my contacts with only the male half of the species, I should probably know that now so we don’t have to worry about any unwelcome recurrences of this condition.”

It took her a moment to register completely what exactly he said, but when it did, Willow’s jaw dropped.  “Spike didn’t tell me you said yes,” she stammered.

“Because I didn’t.  I told him I’d think about it.”

“And you’ve done that?  Thought about it, I mean.”

“It actually didn’t require much thought at all, surprisingly enough.”

“And you’re jake with the idea of moving to California when this is over?”

“Will you be there?”

“Of course.”

“Then, whither thou goest…”  Wesley laughed out loud when she suddenly flung her arms around his neck, wrapping his own around her waist to hold her tight against him.  “Is it safe to presume you’re happy about my decision?”

“Presume away.”  Silly Willow, she thought happily, all thoughts of sultry brunettes wearing far too much lipstick vanishing in the wake of his announcement.  You’ve been spending far too much time with Spike and Giles.  All their doomsaying has rubbed off on you.  Time to sit back and enjoy what you’ve got for a change, instead of looking for ways for it to go bad.

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

When the phone rang, Xander was the one who answered it.  He didn’t even look away from the floorplan he was studying when he passed it over to Giles.  “It’s for you,” he said.

“Who is it?”

“Some dame named Olivia.”

Frowning, he took the receiver and turned his back on the desk.  “Hello?”

She didn’t even bother with any pleasantries.  “Are you that bored you had to send me on a wild goose chase just to keep yourself entertained, Ripper?” she asked.  Annoyance dripped from every word, and his grip tightened around the phone.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about that background check you asked me to do.  Or have you forgotten about it already?”

He glanced back at Xander, but noted that the young man was still absorbed by the layout of the hotel before him.  “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you about that so quickly,” he said into the phone, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.

“You thought it would take me longer to track down a dead man?” she commented sarcastically.  “Thanks ever so much for your vote of confidence in my abilities.”

Every muscle froze.  “What…was that?” he said.  He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but this was far from anything he could’ve imagined.

“Your man.  Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.  Officially?  One dead fed.”

She continued to prattle on with the details she’d uncovered, but Giles’ mind was already elsewhere.  They’d all forgotten about that detail in the furor of the hit’s aftermath, but now that it was back, he was shocked at how much now made sense.  All just a ruse in order to get further into the family.  And they’d all fallen for his act, inviting him into their circle, telling him their secrets.  Now, he knew everything there was to know about the hit and those who were involved in it.

When Spike found out the truth, Wesley was going to be dead for real this time.

If Willow didn’t beat him to the punch.

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

Angel’s knuckles were white where they gripped the back of the chair, his head bent as he had to force himself not to lift the piece of furniture and send it hurtling against the wall.  “You’re lying to me,” he growled, not even looking up to appreciate the slim legs of the woman standing before him.

“I wish I was,” Lilah replied.  “But I’m afraid my sources are irrefutable on this.”

“There’s no way Buffy’s gotten herself mixed up in this,” he repeated.  “Not my Buffy.  I don’t believe it.”

“Believe what you like.”  Her graceful hands closed the lid of her briefcase, the snap of the catches too loud in the expensively furnished living room of the Wilkins’ penthouse.  “I just thought you’d want to know.”  She didn’t look back when she strolled out of the apartment, but when the door closed behind her, Angel lost what little control he had and smashed his fist into the desk, wishing momentarily that it was her face he could drive it into.

Lying bitch, he thought.  Trying to tell me Buffy’s hooked up with Rook.  Like she even knows how to handle a gun or any other kind of weapon.  Stupid girl never even figured out how the fire got started at the gallery, for fuck’s sake.  Only thing she’s ever been good at is singing and looking like an angel.  How in hell could she get her head around something as crazy as a shootout?

But the thing of it was…he couldn’t figure out why the lawyer would lie to him about it.  Not that he knew this one from Adam, but she’d come with all the right passwords so there was no way he could deny her entrance.  And she was convinced Buffy’d been spotted with William Rook just that afternoon.

She wouldn’t do that to me, he raged silently.  Not after everything.  Not after what I’ve done for her.  I fucking made her.  No way can she stab me in the back with this now.

Still…a guy couldn’t be too careful.  He hadn’t gotten this far by being stupid.  He’d just have to keep an eye on her himself.

Just to be sure.

And if things got out of hand…it wasn’t like he didn’t have any experience in making men in Buffy’s life disappear.  He’d done it before; he’d just do it again.  Rook would be out of the picture and Angel would come out smelling like a rose.

Just like he always did.

 

To be continued in Chapter 23:  Three Black Eyes