DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’,
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Angel is having suspicions about Buffy’s involvement with Spike and gone to Faith’s to take out his frustrations elsewhere, while Giles has confronted Wesley about being a federal agent, dragging him down to face Spike and Willow…
She astonished him by practically begging Spike for a few minutes of privacy first, and, by the look on the other Englishmen’s faces, surprised them as well.
“You sure about that, Red?” he asked. Even though his hands were hidden, tucked into his armpits, Wesley knew Spike had them balled into fists, the only reason they weren’t worsening the injuries the agent already sported standing between them.
Her eyes were bright in entreaty. “He won’t hurt me,” Willow said, though her tone more than evinced that the damage had already been done.
“He could try using you as a hostage,” Giles said from his position behind Wesley.
“He won’t,” she repeated. “We’ll be in the kitchen, and you guys will be just on the other side of the door. He may be a big, fat liar, but he’s not stupid. He knows if he pulls anything, he’s a dead man.”
The air was thick while everyone waited for Spike’s response. Though he was grateful he might get the opportunity to explain himself to Willow, perhaps even to convince her of his legitimacy, Wesley held no false hopes that Rook’s approval would be as forthcoming. For the first time, he believed he was witnessing the raw danger of the ex-hitman that had inspired both awe and fear in those who’d encountered him. Was this the face the Mayor saw as he died? Wes mused.
Eyes blazing midnight, stoked from the fury within his lean frame.
Muscles so tense they twitched in direct remonstration to the vigor he must’ve been exerting over his self-control.
“Five minutes,” he finally said. His gaze was locked on Wesley’s. “That’s all you get. Then, it’ll be my turn to…talk.” With the untamed grace of a cat taunting its prey, he stretched his neck to the side, its deliberate cracking audible to all.
Willow rolled her eyes, grabbing Wes’ forearm to drag him to the other room. “Just whip it out, why don’t you,” she muttered as she disappeared into the kitchen.
As soon as they were alone, she dropped her hand as if burned, and turned her back on him as she went straight to the sink. He watched in mute query, his head a whirlwind of opening lines, each tossed aside as not nearly good enough, and he waited patiently when she returned to stand before him with a wet cloth in her hand.
“Thank you,” he murmured, as she daubed at the dried blood on his brow. “Though I hardly understand why you’re doing this.”
“You’re hurt,” she said as if that was all the explanation he needed. “Giles really did a number on your face.” Though she wouldn’t meet his eyes, he caught her small frown when the cloth hesitated at the bruise along his cheekbone. “Where are your glasses?” she asked. Her voice had lowered in concern, and Wesley had to consciously stifle the thrill of emotion that fluttered in his gut at the sound.
“In my pocket,” he replied, matching her volume. “Broken.”
Willow met his gaze then, the lines deepening. “He hit you while you were wearing them? He could’ve gotten glass in your eye.”
He smiled, his lips compressed into a thin, tight curve. “Somehow, I don’t think my safety was his top priority at the time.”
Silence again, and another of his five respite minutes ticked by.
“At least I know why you were able to off that bruno at Heaven with only your pen,” she finally said. She stepped away, dropping the cloth into the small sink, and pressed herself into the hard edge of the counter in a vain attempt to put even more distance between them. “The truth kind of makes you less mystique guy and more stab me in the back guy.”
“I planned on telling you---.”
“When? When you handed us over to the cops for the hit on the Mayor?”
“That was never going to happen.”
“The feds then. Even better.”
Though her sarcasm was thick, there was no mistaking the sheen over the emerald of her eyes, her stiff posture as she struggled to maintain her composure. Against his better instincts, Wesley stepped forward and cupped her cheek. “I’m so sorry,” he murmured. “This wasn’t how I wished you to find out.”
Willow turned into his touch for a fraction too long before wrenching away. “Don’t,” she bit out, and this time, the tear spilled down her face. “You don’t get to be sorry. Do you have any idea how much you’ve put me behind the eight ball here? I’m the one who told Spike he could trust you. Because I trusted you. Because I thought…because you made me think…” Her breath hitched. “I actually believed I meant something to you. That what happened between us was something real.”
“It is. You do.”
“Then why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t. I just…didn’t get a good opportunity to mention it.”
“That’s reality. The same reality that gave me chance after chance to act on the very thing you’re now so worried I will, but didn’t. If I had wanted to see Spike, or you, or any one of your number behind bars, don’t you think I would’ve done it already? If that was my intention, I would never have offered to protect you. And I certainly would never have offered to ambush the parties who were following you in my place of employment, where it’s most likely one of my own bullets killed any of the bodies I volunteered to take care of. And I most definitely would not have insisted Giles bring me here so that I could try and convince you that I’m on the up and up.”
She stiffened when his hand slid inside his jacket, the slow, deliberate pace of his movement notwithstanding. Her eyes followed the path of the Mont Blanc he extracted as he held it up and tossed it onto the counter beside her.
“I didn’t fight back,” Wesley said quietly. For a moment, the only sound in the room was the soft rush of her breathing. “Please, Willow. Even if I can’t convince you to listen to your heart, you have to at least listen to reason. You’re far too intelligent to ignore the obvious. Even if it does hurt.”
She was stopped from answering by the opening of the door. Spike stood in its frame, sapphire eyes cold. “Time’s up.”
More than anything else, he was furious at himself for having been played for a sap, extending offers for both partnership and friendship after being suckered into believing the fed’s “trust me” act. Normally, Spike’s instincts were spot on, and while he’d been reluctant to yield to the other Englishman’s persuasions because of his over-protectiveness of Red, once he was assured of his intent there---or thought he had been---trusting him had been as simple as trusting Ripper or Harris.
So what exactly had gone wrong?
Containing his energy was proving a problem, and Spike paced in front of the couch, long strides that led him to the opposite side of the room far too quickly before he had to turn and head back in the other direction. He could see Red out of the corner of his eye, hovering in the doorway of the kitchen, while standing against the opposite wall, ready for whatever order he would issue, Ripper and Harris waited at the alert.
“Give me one good reason why I don’t plug you now and dump your body in the East River,” Spike said, finally coming to a halt in front of Wesley on the couch.
“I’ll give you two.” His eyes were calm, in spite of the wounds on his face, and he held his gaze steady under the furious scrutiny of the blond. For a moment, Spike flashed in respect for the other man; refusing to show fear when stuck between a rock and a hard place was one of the traits that he so often admired in others.
“This oughta be good,” Xander muttered.
Wesley’s gaze never left the man before him. “First of all, I’m not a threat to you---.”
Spike snorted. “You’re a fuckin’ fed. That’s about as threatening as you can get in my line of work.”
“One who’s broken at least half a dozen laws in helping you, if you care to remember. One who’s had ample opportunity to turn you in and has yet to do so.”
He bit back his immediate retort. The same realization had already dawned on him, and he couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to it. Wesley hadn’t had to tell them about the blokes who were tailing Red, and he certainly didn’t have to handle the clean-up afterward. And his instincts were still screaming at him that he wasn’t lying.
“You said you had two reasons,” Spike said tightly.
“What?” The tension burst from his wound muscles, and Giles bolted forward to confront his friend. “Are you insane? You’re not actually believing him, are you?”
“Back off, Ripper.” The fact that he didn’t even look at him didn’t disguise the barely controlled menace in Spike’s voice. “We both know why you don’t like him. And it seems to me, the song he’s singing isn’t so off-key.”
“How I feel isn’t of consequence. Look at how he used Willow to get to us---.”
Her voice took all of them by surprise, and Spike looked up to see the redhead come up behind the couch. Though the astonishment was apparent on Wesley’s face as well, it was quickly replaced with a small hopeful smile.
“Don’t, Giles,” she said, holding up her hand. “Think what you want about what he’s done, but don’t start trying to twist it around that I was in any way a non-willing participant.”
The room was silent as she stared at her friend, broken only when Spike returned his cold gaze to the man on the sofa. “You said, two reasons,” he prompted.
“Yes,” Wes said, nodding. “Back at Heaven, I volunteered my resources to try and find out what I could about Wolfram and Hart. I’d like to extend that offer to include determining the identity of whoever hired you---.”
Giles’ explosion cut him off. “Don’t bloody tell me you’re listening to this claptrap!” he exclaimed. “He’s just telling you what you want to hear, Spike. Why on earth would he want to help us?”
“Because this is about someone bigger than you, or Rook, or the little world you’ve created for yourself,” came Wesley’s rejoinder. Fury drew him to his feet, heedless of the warning coiled through Spike’s muscles. “I’ve seen the files those lawyers had on you. Someone has gone to a lot of expense and trouble to set all this up, which indicates an organization beyond your capabilities, no matter how silk you think you are. And if you want the pragmatic view, if the Department has a chance to spear a big fish or a little fish, the big one will win. Every. Single. Time.”
“Tell them about Faith,” Willow said from behind him.
Spike immediately frowned. “What’s this about Faith?”
“She asked me to find out who hired you,” Wes replied, although his ire wasn’t even slightly abated. His gaze shifted. “It seems she recognizes my capacity to help in this.”
“Why would she ask you?”
A second of hesitation. “Because she fingered me for a white hat,” he admitted. “She’s the reason the Mayor kept me out of the loop all this time.”
Against his will, Spike grinned. “Knew she was a smart bird.”
“One who I believe knows more than she’s telling.”
His smile vanished. “You think she knows who it is?”
“I’m fairly certain. She gave me a rather cryptic message, telling me to ‘follow the money.’” He shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense to me, though. The money trail for this job would lead directly from you to Wolfram and Hart, and back again. Unless there’s some connection between the law firm and the Mayor, I sincerely doubt they’d implicate themselves in such a way with a felony.”
“That’s not the only trail,” Spike muttered, and he turned narrowed eyes to Ripper.
It took a moment for the other man to understand what he was implying, but when he did, Giles visibly deflated from his earlier anger, caught up in the discovery of what his friend was suggesting. “Oh,” he said. “Of course. We’ve been so focused, we’ve overlooked the obvious.”
“What’s so obvious?” Xander asked.
“The flow of the money. Not ours.” His eyes glittered in delight, like a child proud of himself for solving a difficult puzzle. “Wilkins’.”
“Yes,” Willow chimed in, momentarily caught up in the fervor. “Who stands to benefit the most with the Mayor dead?”
“The one who gets all his money,” Spike said. His nostrils flared in distaste, his eyes steely diamond chips. “Angel.”
She didn’t know why she was surprised to see him sitting in her dressing room as she came back after her last set. After all, Angel loved to show up when she was done performing, even if he didn’t manage to catch the show. Still, when Buffy pushed open the door and saw him at her dressing table, a small lurch in her stomach made her hesitate.
“How was the show?” he asked. Nothing remotely unnatural about his voice. Even his eyes when they turned to look at her seemed their usual warm selves.
You’re being silly, Buffy chastised herself, and forced a smile as she closed the door shut behind her. This is guilt about Spike getting to you in a huge way. Since when has Angel ever been anything but the perfect gentleman?
“Quiet,” she replied. Crossing to the screen, she disappeared behind it, oddly grateful for the privacy. “I think people still aren’t sure what to do about your father’s death.”
His voice when it came again was too close, and she stiffened when she felt his fingers on the zipper at her back. “They’ll come around,” Angel said. “Tell me who can resist that voice of yours, dollface.”
His hands felt clumsy against her skin, and she wondered just when it was that he went from being the man she was ready to spend the rest of her life with, to this stranger whose touch made her yearn for the lean hunger of Spike’s fingers. It wasn’t that anything was wrong with Angel; it was just that now, she had learned that it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t right to be with someone just because it was comfortable, or because there was some sense of debt. There had to be that urgency, that need for the one at her side who understood without having to be told what exactly was going through her heart. The sense of simpatico. Completion.
“Angel,” she said quietly, although her voice seemed to boom in her ears, “I think we need to talk…”
“Yeah,” he said, just as softly. “I agree.” He didn’t move, though. Rather, his hands slipped beneath the straps of the dress to ease it from her shoulders, following their path over her arms as it pooled into ebony waves at her feet. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about the funeral tomorrow. You’re going to sing, aren’t you? He loved it when you sang for him.”
“Of course.” The response was automatic, and while she certainly meant it, inwardly Buffy cringed at the implications another day would bring. Can’t very well break up with him the day before we bury his father, now can I? she thought.
“It’s a shame he’s going to miss the wedding,” Angel was saying. His fingers had returned to her shoulders, massaging at the tight muscles. “It makes me wish I’d convinced you to get hitched sooner.” His touch firmed, kneading along either side of the slim column of her neck. “Did you forget to wear your ring tonight?”
Too late, she glanced down and saw her bare finger. Damn. She’d forgotten all about it. “I was in a rush. It must still be in my purse.”
“I’ll get it.” Before she could stop him, he stepped back, and she reached for the blouse hanging over the screen just as he picked up her bag from the dressing table. He hefted the weight of it for a moment, a quizzical smile on his face. “Kinda heavy, isn’t it?”
Buffy’s face remained neutral as he opened it up, pulling out the small revolver tucked inside. When he held it up in curiosity, she shrugged, sliding her arms into the sleeves of her top. “I’ve been a little leery lately,” she explained. “A girl can’t be too careful.”
“You should’ve said something. I’d’ve assigned you some bodyguards.” He chuckled. “I mean, it’s not like you can shoot the thing…right?”
“Well enough. And you know how I hate having your men hovering around. I thought I’d made that clear.” She waited for him to put the gun down, but instead he cradled it into the palm of his hand, almost losing it in his meaty paw. His finger danced around the trigger, stroking the cool metal like a woman’s skin.
“I don’t like the idea of you packing, Buffy.” All amusement was gone from his voice, and when she met his gaze again, they had hardened in determination. “You’re better than this.”
“I’m also better alive than dead,” she retorted. “Now, please put it away before one of us gets hurt.”
For a moment, she wasn’t sure he was going to do it. Dark eyes locked on hers, and he just stood there, watching as if he was waiting for her to say something. The beginnings of a warning bell were starting to peal inside her head, when Angel finally shrugged, slipping the gun back into the purse. “Funny you saying you were in a rush,” he mused as he tossed the bag aside. “Someone told me they saw you around Heaven this afternoon.”
“Someone’s stringing you along then,” she replied automatically. “Because I was shopping all day.” She’d been prepared to give the excuse on the off-chance she’d been seen; she just hadn’t thought she’d be giving it to Angel.
“Oh. Of course. I didn’t really believe them, you know. I just thought it was kind of funny.” In front of her again, hands over hers as he finished with her buttons. “Bought yourself something pretty, I hope,” he said, and pushed a strand of her hair away from the collar. “It wouldn’t do to have my best girl not outshining the rest of the dames out there.”
She didn’t know what it was, but something about his behavior was odd. Carefully, Buffy watched him through her lashes, surveying the soft set of his mouth, eyes flickering to where his hands lingered on her front. He looked fine, and his words certainly sounded like his usual…maybe it was just her own tightly wound nerves expecting the worse. I’ve been listening too much to Spike, she decided, and forced the smile to return to her lips. His paranoia is starting to rub off on me.
“So I’ll meet you at the church in the morning?” she said, backing away to pick up her skirt.
His lids narrowed. “I was hoping we’d be driving there together,” he said slowly. “We haven’t been spending much time together lately. I’m feeling kind of…lonely.”
As gently as she could, Buffy lifted her face, brushing her mouth across his in a soft kiss. “Let’s get past the funeral first,” she said. “We’re both so tired from everything, and it’ll be…better if we can concentrate on what’s important tomorrow.” She hated lying. She was so bad at it, and while she knew that spending the night with Angel would only ruin what she had with Spike, part of her was wishing she could just go ahead and do it, to alleviate some of her own guilt for hurting him so much when the time came for her to leave. Angel had done so much for her over the years, and what he was asking for wasn’t exactly unreasonable. Maybe she was…
“Whatever you say,” he said. She noticed then the beads of sweat that were starting to form on his forehead, but before she could comment on them, he had turned away, taking long strides toward her door. “Good night, Buffy.”
It was all he could do to get out of her room before his temper erupted again. Breathing heavily, Angel leaned against the wall outside her door, head bowed as his fists buried themselves in his pockets.
She was lying to him. She was covering herself carefully, but he could see through it. He’d certainly spent enough years watching her to know when the truth came from those luscious lips. He knew her better than she knew herself; did she really think she could get away with deceiving him like this?
Had to be Rook. It was the only explanation. Somehow, he’d gotten to her and turned her against Angel, against everything she had decent in her life. That Lilah dame was right, which meant it was time for him to start listening to her about the other things as well.
Rook would have to pay. Far greater than any trip to the hoosegow. It was the only way to clear him out of Buffy’s system. It would mean meeting with the lawyers again, and there might be some arguing involved, but damn it, jail just wasn’t good enough for the bastard any more.
Angel wanted blood.
Finally, peace and quiet. It had taken far too long for Lilah to go to bed, but now that she had, Lindsey slouched in the couch, eyes closed as he rested his head against the back, the tumbler of whisky forgotten in his hand. There’d been no more movement on finding Rook, and frankly, he was sick and tired of her self-conscious preening in anticipation of his failure to complete the case satisfactorily. What he wouldn’t do to see the bitch get a little of Rook’s treatment. For some reason, Lindsey thought it would make a great show.
The knock at the door was more of a thump, and he frowned as he glanced at the clock. Who could it be at this hour? The only one with the moxie to show their face so late was Trick, and the idea of dealing with the mobster was almost as appealing as facing off with Lilah again.
With a sigh, Lindsey set down his glass and crossed to the door, straightening his tie along the way. Maybe it’s good news for a change, he thought, and almost laughed out loud. Uh huh. Yeah. Right.
Her bowed head was the last he expected to see, but the surprise on Lindsey’s face was replaced with stunned shock when she lifted her eyes to look at him. The entire left side of her face was mottled in blossoming bruises, the blood on her lip dried where it had been split. The right side crooked into a grin, though, as Faith pushed away from the jamb that had been holding her up.
“So how’s my favorite mouthpiece?” she joked. There was a slight slurring to her words, and in spite of her bravado, the effort to speak waned her strength even further, pitching her forward to be caught by his ready arms.
“What in hell happened to you?” he hissed, pulling her inside the suite.
“Met the wrong side of a door,” she quipped. Her eyes darted around. “We alone?”
His gaze flickered to the closed door of Lilah’s room. “Alone enough.”
With a heavy sigh, Faith collapsed onto the couch, reaching into her purse to extract her cigarettes. “Don’t suppose you’d be willing to help a gal lay low for a little bit,” she asked. “Seeing as how you’re my lawyer and everything.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened to you? For real? And no more bad jokes about doors or falling boxes.”
“Whatever you want.” There was no more fight in her as she lit up, the flame of her lighter dancing from the slight trembling in her hands. She took a long drag before sinking into the cushions, her lids fluttering shut. “Whatever you want.”
He watched her as she dropped the paper onto Finn’s desk, not even looking in his direction when she turned and left the precinct. Not like Kate Lockley ever noticed a guy like him anyway, Warren groused, but he waited until he heard the door to the stairwell slam shut behind her before rising to his feet.
It wasn’t much, just a few notes with a name and address scribbled at the bottom. Lindsey McDonald. For some reason, he knew the name should be ringing bells but its significance was escaping him at the moment. Didn’t matter though. It was just his job to relay information, not analyze it.
Tucking the paper into his pocket, Warren scurried back to his desk, checking the hallway once more to ensure he was alone before picking up the phone and dialing. It was picked up on the first ring. “I think I’ve got something for you,” he said into the receiver.
“What was that about?”
Trick frowned as he stared at the phone he’d just replaced on the cradle. “That cop we bought off says Finn’s getting interested in McDonald.” His dark eyes lifted to gaze steadily at his boss seated behind the desk. “How’d they cotton on to the lawyers so fast?”
“Did he mention Lilah?”
“Then it’s just Lindsey who’s the idiot.” He leaned back in his chair, long fingers tapping restlessly against the desktop. “I should’ve known when that bastard Rook got away that he’d mess this up.”
“You want me to meet with him?”
“No. I’m tired of meetings. For some reason, I think he’s the type to respond more positively to actions rather than words.”
Trick grinned. “Actions work for me. You just say the word. I’ll make sure McDonald gets the message loud and clear.”
“Let me make a call first. After all, this is a business arrangement. Just because there’s one bad apple, doesn’t mean the whole barrel’s gone off.” Flipping through the Rolodex at his side, he cradled the phone against his shoulder as he began dialing the number. His gaze glinted in satisfaction as he waited for the other end to pick up. “Holland Manners, please. Tell him it’s Robin Wood on the line…”
To be continued in Chapter 25: The Beautiful Sinner…