Something hard and lumpy was digging into the small of her back, but her muscles were too liquid to obey her brain’s command to move it. Something else was tickling across her bare stomach, but Buffy knew what that was and had even less desire at the moment to make it stop. Calling a stop to it would welcome back the verity of her night, and she wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
Spike seemed determined to have his fingertips memorize every inch of her skin, stroking the soft flesh of her inner thigh, skating around the lower curve of her breasts, hovering along the lines of her neck. With her eyes closed, she couldn’t see him examining the bite mark he’d left, but from the proximity of his body and the occasional casual brush of his mouth across her shoulder, she knew he was there. Learning his enemy, she decided and had to stifle the smile at the thought that followed. From the inside out.
“Ready to try the bedroom now?”
His voice was like rough silk across her nipples, pebbling them without a single touch. The sudden yearning to turn back into his lean body, to take him in and swallow him down and satisfy his last remaining wish, was a hot rush of familiarity, images of another form, similarly shaped, saturating her consciousness.
Buffy’s eyes shot open. The white plaster of the dining room ceiling stared back at her and, in the periphery of her vision, she saw Spike lift his head and look at her curiously, heavy brows drawn together.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Only then did she realize her mouth was dry, her tongue too large and thick to speak coherently. Shaking her head mutely, Buffy sat up on the dining room table, the salt shaker that had been stuck to her sweaty back falling away with a heavy clunk, and swung her legs around the edge in an effort to stand up.
An unyielding hand clamped around her bicep, both preventing her from running away and giving her an anchor while she gathered her fugitive strength. “I’m not him,” Spike said firmly when she glanced back over her shoulder. “No reason for you feelin’ remorseful ‘bout what we did. We both wanted it. That’s a big difference between you and your Watcher, so don’t go playin’ like you’re some wounded kitten and I’m the big bad wolf set to eat you.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Unless that’s your kink, in which case, I’m sure we can work something out.”
Buffy yanked her arm away. “I’ve been here too long,” she said, sliding off the table. Her ass bounced where her perspiration made her stick to the wood, but she ignored the discomfort to focus on why she’d returned to the apartment in the first place. Studiously avoiding looking at the destruction she’d created, she walked to her bedroom, the sounds of Spike following after all too clear.
“What’re you plannin’ to do?” he asked.
“Pack a bag,” came her terse reply. “When this is over, I’m gone.”
The warm recognition of her belongings eased a fraction of Buffy’s tension, and she grabbed a duffel bag from the corner to start shoving her belongings inside.
“I meant with your Watcher.”
Spike stopped in the doorway and leaned against the jamb as he watched her through heavy-lidded eyes. He’d stripped naked at some point between the kitchen and the dining room, and the sight of his tightly corded muscles made her remember how they’d felt wrapped around her, what a welcome change it had been to fuck someone she wasn’t afraid of breaking. She dropped to her hands and knees, both to hide her flushed face and to reach under the bed for her weapon box.
“I’m getting him away from Wolfram and Hart,” she said. “I thought that was obvious.”
“Not really. You also said you weren’t goin’ to kill him. Why get him out if you’re not interested in a spot of revenge?”
She pulled on a clean pair of panties before shimmying into her leather pants. Her hands stung from the cuts and scrapes, but she latched onto the pain as something real as she finished getting dressed.
“Because I don’t do that. I can’t just leave him behind to get hurt.”
“Even after what he did to you?”
“Especially after what he did.”
“Well, that doesn’t make any bloody sense.”
Buffy started emptying her dresser drawers into the bag. “If I turn my back on Ethan now, that makes me as bad as him.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “But I don’t expect you to understand that. That’s the big difference between you and me, Spike. All you care about is saving your own skin.”
His jaw twitched. “Which is why I’m here with you, of course. Right, Slayer. You just keep on tellin’ yourself your pretty little lies. You should be good and used to them by now.”
She heard something snap as she shoved it into the duffel, but kept with her packing. “You already told me you’re here to kill me,” she said. “And if I can get some use out of you before we fight, then so be it.”
“I’m here because---.” Spike broke off, growling deep in his throat and whirling to march off to the other room. The quiet let Buffy focus on her task, but all too quickly he was back, buttoning up his jeans with a ferocious gleam in his blue eyes.
“They’re paying me to kill you for them,” he announced, his voice triumphant.
It wasn’t what she expected him to say, and she sat back on her heels to gaze at him in confusion. “They?” she repeated. “You mean Wolfram and Hart?”
“No, I mean your precious Council. You think it’s an accident another Watcher shows up in this godforsaken town? They’ve sussed you’re a threat and got me on the job to get rid of you for them. Paying me a pretty penny to do it, too, I might add.”
“That’s an old song,” Buffy said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “The Council’s been tryin’ to kill me for years. You should’ve seen their pathetic attempts in Cleveland. And don’t get me started on Tijuana. At least you’re better looking than the demons they used there.”
Spike’s frown returned. “How’s that possible?” he asked. “According to Ripper, they’ve only just found out about you bein’ around.”
She shrugged. “Somebody’s lying to you, then, because Ethan and I have been on the run ever since I died.”
She could see his mind working and knew there was more he wanted to ask her. For a second, Buffy debated taking the time to answer him, knowing it would shatter what illusions he might harbor about his employer, but then thrust the idea away. She wasn’t here to coddle him, just like he wasn’t here to coddle her. She had a job to do now; there wasn’t time for these kind of word games.
“Go make yourself useful,” she ordered. “Find the ring Wolfram and Hart are so hot for.”
“How am I s’posed to do that?”
“Put your nose to the vampstone and sniff it out. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”
“You don’t think your Watcher took it with him?”
The look she shot him was condescending. “I know he didn’t,” Buffy said. “I cut off a guy’s thumb to get it. When it comes to blood, Ethan’s way too finicky. There’s no way he didn’t leave it for me to take care of in the morning.”
He was halfway out the door again before he asked the final question. Frankly, she was surprised it hadn’t been the first he’d posed.
“I want it for a trade,” she replied to his query. “They want the ring. I want Ethan. Sounds like a good deal to me. Nobody has to die or get hurt that way.”
That didn’t mean someone wouldn’t get hurt anyway, though. Buffy refrained from saying that part out loud.
The slamming of the car door jolted him awake, and Giles peered blearily at his watch as Spike slid behind the wheel. “It’s three in the bloody morning!” he said. Anger sharpened him from his sleep, and he sat up straighter to glare at the vampire. “Where on earth have you been?”
“Helpin’ the Slayer,” he replied. “And don’t think I’m not aware of just how buggered that really sounds.” Turning glittering eyes in Giles’ direction, Spike scrutinized him closely before speaking again. “Is there something about Goldilocks you feel like sharin’, Ripper?” he asked carefully. “Some…detail ‘bout this job that maybe I might be missing?”
The collected tone of Spike’s voice was his first alert that something was wrong. The vampire was rarely this composed. Though they had been traveling together for nearly a month as they searched for Buffy Summers, Giles had quickly learned that Spike’s impetuosity served as costume to the more calculating awareness underneath. There was an intelligence that the history annals didn’t record, and there was a perception of character that allowed little to escape. If William the Bloody had been human, he would’ve been a formidable resource for the Council. As it was, Giles was wise enough to tread cautiously when it came to Spike. Especially since he seemed to have acquired some odd affinity with Buffy Summers.
“What did you learn?” he asked, rather than answering the question. “Did the Slayer offer some information about Ethan that you feel was lacking?”
“Not Ethan,” Spike said. The coldness in those blue eyes was chilling. “Your fuckin’ Council.”
Giles started. “I beg your pardon? What could she possibly know about the Council? Ethan’s only a Watcher because he’s deemed himself as such, and as far as I’m aware, Miss Summers has never even met anyone else from the board until this evening.”
“That’s not how she tells it.”
Stunned into silence, Giles listened as Spike told what little he’d gathered, about the previous attempts on the Slayer’s life over the years, including the events down in Mexico. Flashes of the photographs the Council had provided on the massacre in Tijuana went through his head, and his stomach sickened at the possibility that they’d only obtained such evidence because they’d been somehow involved. He hadn’t thought to question how they’d retrieved such documentation, primarily because when it came to resources, the Council had a long-reaching hand. But if this version of the events was to be believed, it would lend credence to a far more sinister organization than Giles would’ve chosen to be affiliated with.
“I don’t understand how this can be,” he murmured, mulling over the details. “What could they possibly gain from keeping me in the dark about their previous efforts?”
“They get you to do the job,” Spike said. “If you’d known some of your mates had been sliced and diced doin’ the same, would you still have taken it on?”
“If that’s what they wished,” he replied automatically. But he could see Spike’s reasoning, and it seemed more than possible that the Council would interpret his reactions in such a manner. Then, another question raised its head.
“Why were you discussing the Council with the Slayer?” Giles queried.
Spike shifted away, squinting through the rain still pelting the windshield. “Told her why I was here, and one thing led to another.”
“You heard me.”
“Yes, but I can’t believe---.”
“The girl’s not stupid, Ripper. And when I lie, people got a way of seein’ right through me. Didn’t have much of a choice.”
“And she hasn’t staked you yet? How on earth have you managed that?”
The grin Spike flashed him was pure conceit. Thankfully, Giles was saved from the smug comeback by the opening of the back door.
“Let’s motor,” Buffy said firmly.
She looked remarkably better than when she’d gone inside, kohl-lined eyes staring defiantly back at him when he turned to face her. Though her features were placid, something brittle lurked within her tone, ready to strike should a threat arise, and he cleared his throat while deciding just how to phrase himself.
“I already know you want to kill me,” she said before he could speak. She settled back in her seat, the duffel bag she’d carried out of the apartment building tucked closely beneath her arm. “So unless you’re about to tell me that I won the lottery, can we just can the chitchat and get out of here? I’m really not in the mood to hang around this place longer than I have to.”
Spike turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb. “Where to, pet?” he asked.
“You know the plan,” she replied.
He nodded, leaving Giles staring at the pair, perplexed. “Well, I don’t know the plan,” he complained. “Would either of you care to enlighten me?”
Buffy sighed. Exhaustion was starting to make her wilt. “I’m trading Ethan for the ring unless you can come up with something better.”
“The Grand Poobah here always thinks he can come up with something better,” Spike said.
“Why would somebody want your ring?” Giles asked, remembering the small obsidian stone secreted away in Spike’s pocket.
Something dark fluttered behind her eyes, and Buffy’s mouth thinned. “Not my ring,” she said tightly. “This one.”
A plastic sack suddenly sailed over the seat, landing in his lap with deadly accuracy. Giles glanced inside, and then grimaced at the graying thumb that rested there, blood still clinging to the skin where it had been severed.
“Why did Ethan want this?”
Her shoulders lifted in a tired shrug. “I never got the specifics. Something about it being the master of all riddles. He’s been looking for it since we left Cleveland three years ago.”
There had been brief mention of Cleveland in the Council’s report on the Slayer. Another Watcher, a Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, had witnessed someone fitting Buffy Summers’ description fighting a notorious band of vampires, but the story had been dismissed as both inconclusive and unlikely, even after the Tijuana pictures had been discovered. Giles made a mental note to review the file again, this time more closely, once he returned to his hotel.
“Who exactly are we giving this to?” he asked, eager for more information.
“Wolfram and Hart.”
The name made his head snap back up, and he turned disbelieving eyes back to the Slayer. “Ethan stole a priceless artifact from Wolfram and Hart? Do you have any idea how dangerous they are?”
“What can I say? He’s got this uncanny knack for biting off more than he can chew.” Her nose wrinkled. “I thought you said you and Ethan went way back. How is it this can come as a surprise?”
She had a point. Delusions of grandeur were right up Ethan’s alley. But…
“Wolfram and Hart is one of the single most evil organizations in the entire world,” Giles said. “Their influence stretches beyond dimensional borders, far back before the recorded word. What could possibly be important enough for Ethan to steal, that he’d risk the wrath of people who can find him in any corner in which he might choose to hide?”
“Well, duh. That ring.”
At his side, Spike snorted in amusement.
It took little time to make his decision. “Go back to the hotel, Spike,” Giles instructed. “I have research I need to do.”
Buffy stiffened behind him. “No,” she said slowly. “We’re going to do this trade.”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t allow that. We don’t even know what this ring does, and to simply walk into their base of operations with nothing more than your determination and a stolen artifact is sheer suicide.”
“I don’t care.”
“And I do. In the absence of you having a Watcher, I have to insist---.”
He choked as her arm looped around his neck, pulling him so tightly back onto the seat that it was nearly impossible to breathe.
“First of all,” Buffy said, her voice low and lethal, “I have a Watcher, so I think you trying to pull rank right about now is a really bad idea. Second, there is no way I’m going to turn my back on Ethan and leave him with those goons. He’s saved my ass just as many times as he’s fucked it. That’s not something I can just forget, as much as I might want to.”
She ignored Spike’s attempt to interrupt, and the spots started to dance in front of Giles’ eyes.
“Third. If it was me that they’d snatched, there’s no way in hell Ethan wouldn’t be doing whatever he could to get me back. So, taking a detour so that you can sit around with some musty old books and tell me exactly nada in the end? Not going to happen.”
“Buffy…” This time, Spike curled his fingers around her arm and pulled, loosening her hold just enough for Giles to gasp for air. “Much as I hate to say it, Ripper’s got a point. You go in there now, and you’re goin’ to get the both of you killed.”
There was a pause, but her arm didn’t move.
“I thought that was your whole purpose in being here,” Buffy said. The sarcasm dripped from her voice. “Both of you want me dead anyway. Why do you care about any of this?”
“I don’t,” Spike replied. “I care about the dosh that’s owed me for bein’ the one to take you down.”
Unseen by the others, Giles rolled his eyes. Sometimes, Spike’s arrogance and stupidity could be quite staggering.
“I also think you’re smarter than that,” the vampire continued. “And you haven’t survived dodging the Council for so long by fallin’ for those kind of tricks.”
Perhaps not so foolish.
Her growing hesitation was the only impetus Giles needed to contribute to the argument.
“You have what they want, Buffy,” he said. “You have the power. Don’t be rash and throw that power away.”
Slowly, her arm slid back, and Giles lifted a hand to his sore throat. He would have bruises in the morning, of that he was certain, but for the moment, Buffy seemed to be listening to reason again.
“Get a good night’s sleep,” he coaxed. “I’ll stay up and find out what you need to go into Wolfram and Hart tomorrow properly armed. It wouldn’t do for you not to be at your best.”
For a moment, her face softened. “You sound like Ethan,” she whispered.
He didn’t know what to say to that. He just smiled, nodded, and turned his back on the Slayer while Spike headed back to their hotel. She was a growing enigma, so menacing one moment, so lost in the next. How much of it was Buffy Summers, the young woman, and how much of it was the construct Ethan had created?
It was a question Giles feared he wouldn’t find the answer to in time to save her, if indeed, she should be saved at all. Then again, perhaps the Slayer didn’t even wish to be saved. Her behavior certainly attested to that particular tenet.
For whatever reason, that conclusion was the most disheartening.
Lilah checked in on him one last time before leaving for the night.
“Any changes?” she asked, watching the monitor over the guard’s shoulder.
“Nope,” he answered. They both stared at where Ethan Rayne slumped against the holding cell wall, his torso streaked with burns left from his earlier encounter with Lilah. “He’s been in that same position since you left earlier.”
She sighed. “Thanks.” There was nothing more to be done until the tainted wine took its full effect. It would’ve been much simpler if Ethan had simply drunk it like she’d wanted, but then, that would’ve been good for Lilah. Nothing turned out the way she liked these days. Why should this second-rate Watcher be any different?
Her heels clicked along the corridor as she walked back to the elevator. She’d had to cancel all of her early meetings; unfortunately, retrieving Jutta’s Ring took precedence over her other clients. Just as unfortunate was the fact that none of this time was billable. It was her own fault the ring had gone missing, and if she tried to find a way to cover the costs, the Senior Partners would find out even more quickly about her error in judgment. She couldn’t afford that. Both literally and figuratively.
She’d get that ring back. Even if meant killing the Watcher herself.
The only neck that mattered in this particular game was her own.
To be continued in Chapter 9: Surrender to the Waiting World…