Ninety minutes of a date with a man who chewed with his mouth open and spit every time he said a word with a p in it could last an eternity.
Ninety minutes when Lilah had her whole career on the line and no way of knowing if she was about to be stabbed in the back or not, disappeared faster than water going over Niagara Falls.
She glanced at her watch as she stepped into the elevator. Damn it. She was already five minutes late for her mysterious appointment. What if he decided not to stick around? If he was on the up-and-up, her best shot at getting Jutta’s Ring back was going to vanish, all because Security couldn’t pull their thumbs out of their asses fast enough to do what she needed. Lilah knew they had their own protocols to follow, but they’d already bent the rules nearly in half to hide Ethan Rayne’s immediate presence from anybody at Wolfram and Hart who might be looking over her shoulder. She didn’t see what the big deal was to bend them just a little bit further.
Still, it was done. Whether her six o’clock panned out with anything usable or not, at least she was prepared when it came to the Watcher.
She saw him as soon as she emerged from the elevator. Seated in the waiting area, he was younger than she’d imagined, with hair that was just starting to go distinguishingly gray. His dark suit was elegantly cut, highlighting his long, lean form, and when he looked up to see her approach, Lilah was struck by how bright his eyes were behind his glasses.
“Mr. Giles,” she said with a smile, her hand outstretched in greeting. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
When he rose to his feet, she was delighted to see him stand even taller than she, and she lifted her eyes to gaze up at him. “I should be the one apologizing to you,” he said. “I’m just glad you were able to fit me into your busy schedule.”
At the sound of his accent, it occurred to Lilah that Rupert Giles was very likely an associate of Rayne’s. Weren’t all the Watchers British? She couldn’t remember; Wolfram and Hart didn’t do a lot of business with Slayers. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, however; this meeting could still swing either way.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked, and then gave him her best embarrassed smile. “Or we have tea. Some of the finest in the world.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. Your secretary already offered me some.”
She leaned toward him conspiratorially. “They make us call them personal assistants now,” Lilah said, her voice in a mock whisper. “That doesn’t mean we pay them any more, but it seems to make them happy.”
Though he smiled at her small joke, it didn’t reach his eyes, and Lilah’s doubt began to creep its way back. Tilting her head to indicate he should follow her, she led him away from the waiting area toward her office, keeping her head high and her step determined. She stood to the side of the door to let him enter first, and only when it was closed behind her did Lilah speak to him again.
“So, what can I do for you, Mr. Giles?”
He waited until she was seated behind her desk before taking a seat himself. When his eyes met hers, they were dark and inscrutable. “I believe you’re looking for a piece of jewelry,” he said.
“Oh?” She was ever so good at feigning nonchalance. “And what makes you think that?”
“Because I was at the hotel you had attacked this morning.”
“Spare me the petty protestations, Ms. Morgan.” Gone was the polite warmth. All that was left was steel. She thought she liked this version even better. “It’s beneath both of us.”
With a small smile, Lilah leaned back in her chair, turning just enough to allow herself room to cross her legs. Her skirt rose above her knee, but she was disappointed when his gaze remained steady on her face. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Do you have the ring?”
He shook his head. “I have better.”
“There is no better, Mr. Giles.”
“Really? And here I thought you wanted the Slayer. My mistake.”
She stiffened when he started to rise. “Are you protecting her?” Lilah demanded. “Is that why you were at the hotel?”
Though he remained standing, he didn’t move toward the door. It amazed Lilah that his features could stay so perfectly still, and yet appear so livid with thought. “Buffy Summers is a dangerous woman,” he said. His voice was as even as his gaze. “I came to Los Angeles because the Watchers’ Council believes she’s a threat. Those idiots you hired attacked the vampire in my employ to take care of the problem. If it hadn’t been for your unfortunate intervention, my business in this godforsaken city would be complete and the Slayer wouldn’t be a thorn in either of our sides now.”
The corner of her mouth lifted. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she murmured. “Is that what you want me to believe?”
“Personally, I don’t care what you believe. Since it seems you’re not interested in conducting business, I won’t waste any more of your time.”
She bolted from her chair to place herself between him and the door, her hand on his chest to physically stop him. When Lilah realized what she was doing, she eased, sliding her fingers over the expensive fabric in a false show of straightening his lapels.
“I’m always interested in new…partners,” she said with a smile. “Considering the effort you’ve made, it would be remiss of me not to hear what you have to say.”
His hand curled around hers, and he deliberately removed it from his chest. Rather than let it fall free, however, he kept it contained within his long fingers as he answered her. “Contrary to my title,” he said, “I’m a man of action, Ms. Morgan. The question is, are you ready to take it?”
She laughed then, but didn’t answer, turning back to her desk instead. The hold he had on her meant he followed, but once she’d perched herself on the corner of it, he let her go.
“I think we need to get better acquainted,” Lilah said, and reached to hit the intercom on her phone. “Arlene? You can go home now. I won’t need you any further tonight.” She disconnected and pointed to the empty chair with her foot. “Sit down, Mr. Giles. There’ll be time enough for action once we both have the answers we need.”
“Still think it’s a bloody daft idea.”
“There’s no other way for us to find out for sure,” Buffy shot back. Her head was spinning; the temperature inside Spike’s car was easily twenty degrees hotter than the last time she’d been in it, and her t-shirt clung to her torso in sticky patches of sweat. In her hand sat her ring, the metal even warmer than the air around her, and it weighed heavily against her palm, though she knew that was a figment of her imagination more than anything physical.
“Just…keep an eye out,” she added. “If it looks…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. The thought of what she was about to do made her want to throw up.
“Got your back, Slayer,” Spike said quietly.
Swallowing against the tightness of her throat, Buffy picked up the tiny circlet and held it poised over her fingertip before sliding it down past the knuckles. It came to rest where it had resided for the past eight years, blocking out the pale skin beneath as if it had never left, and she held her breath while she waited for the connection between her and Ethan was re-established.
Carefully, Buffy flexed her hand, testing the weight. Her hand felt balanced for the first time in twenty-four hours, but beyond that, she felt exactly the same.
“What’s wrong?” Spike asked. “Lost its spark?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. The possibility that Ethan could be dead began to gnaw at Buffy’s confidence in her plan. If he was dead, this was all just one big waste of time. If he was dead---.
Her body went rigid at the sudden stabs throughout her body.
Lots of it.
Searing. Debilitating. It hurt so badly, Buffy wanted to strip her flesh of its skin to get rid of it.
Then, she saw him. It wasn’t too late after all.
Though he probably wished it was.
It tickled. Around the edges of his fantasy, making the corner of his eye twitch. It made the daydream fade, made the ache from the burns and his broken ribs reassert their rights to control the flesh, control the paths of his thoughts, until Ethan throbbed from the returned awareness.
He groaned. His head felt thick, but when he tried to shake it to clear the cobwebs, a strap of leather around his forehead chafed along his skin, burning where it rubbed against sweat-slick skin but refusing to yield to his efforts. Opening his eyes, he saw the endless nightmare of acoustic tiles, the numbing white of sterility stretching from ceiling to wall. It was likely the floors would be white as well. Antiseptic. He’d been moved from his cell to…here.
Vaguely, he remembered Lilah’s return, the squeaking gurney being pushed in behind her. Strong hands in not-so-naughty places. A sense of weightlessness. Beyond that, however, his mind drew a blank. He’d been fortunate to pass out from the exertion of fighting her again, though he was rather disgusted at his weakness. Lilah had likely mocked him all the way back to her plush office.
But the tickle remained. Even with his eyes open, Ethan could feel the pulsing breath somewhere along the periphery of his mind, like somebody was watching him. Waiting.
Waiting for what?
It wasn’t until he heard her voice that he understood.
“I don’t know.”
Buffy. He could hear Buffy. As clearly as if…
But she wasn’t in the room. Her voice sounded hollow, like she was in a small, close place. She wasn’t here.
That didn’t matter.
Using what little strength he had left, Ethan reached out for the tickle, gathering his will to grasp it like a towline. The first tug flooded his senses with heat---warm, glorious, sweaty Slayer---while the second made his cock jump to attention, rigid against his thigh as the relief at feeling her made him sag against the bed in which he was strapped.
Buffy was there. Buffy was alive.
Buffy was hurting.
Flashes of what she’d experienced since leaving him the night before burned into his retinas, but the worst of it settled on his chest and pushed, compressing his lungs until he found it almost impossible to breathe. This was a tsunami compared to the usual flood of her emotions, carrying him along to slam him into the reef and leave him bleeding. He forced the strength of it aside to try and reach back to her, gentling her intemperance with practiced ease. The onslaught softened, swayed, then bent beneath his will, but just as he was about to direct her to come and get him, the worst possible thing he could’ve envisioned occurred.
The scent of her blood was already starting to fill the car, setting Spike’s nerves on edge more than they already were. She’d scratched her skin in her desperation to get the ring off; even now, Buffy’s heart jackhammered inside her chest, and her breathing was so erratic that he was half-tempted to tell her to stick her head between her knees. Frankly, he was impressed she’d had the wherewithal to take the ring off without his intervention. Whatever hold her Watcher had on her through its power was either weakening, or Buffy was learning how to get around it, now that she knew it was there.
He had a feeling it was a little bit of both.
When she’d told him and Ripper her plan to locate Ethan, Spike had been quick to point out its flaws, primarily that he wasn’t about to give up the ring in his possession for her to give it a go. Then, she’d pulled it out of her pocket, and he’d realized that it wasn’t just her knife she’d taken back when she’d left his room that morning. Wasn’t too much he could say then. She was ready to fight him tooth and nail to hold onto the blasted thing.
Now, she held it in her trembling hands, seemingly unsure what to do with it. When Spike reached to take it away from her, though, her fingers closed around the tiny scrap of metal and she stuffed it back into her pocket.
“Take it you had your encounter of the creepy kind,” he commented. “Get what you wanted?”
Slowly, Buffy nodded. Her pulse was starting to calm, replaced with the same eerie control that had taken her over after she’d pulverized Javier. “I know where he is,” she said. She glanced at her watch and then peered through the slit in the window’s paintjob. “You ready for this?”
Spike rolled his neck, audibly cracking the joint, and nodded. “You haven’t asked what happens after.”
“Tell me why I should care.”
“I got a bounty I plan on collecting, pet.”
“No, you don’t.” For the first time since putting on the ring, Buffy looked at him, and the bleakness of her gaze revealed more than her words. “Contract’s off. Giles told me himself.”
“The Council’s not the only one who’ll pay for a Slayer, you know.” He waited for her reaction, his features decidedly neutral, glad that she didn’t have the same ability to read his inner workings like he did hers.
He was disappointed when she merely shrugged. “Then I guess you’d better hope I walk out of this alive,” Buffy said. “And then, you have to find me.”
She opened the car door, sending a low shaft of sunlight slicing across the front seat and driving him back into the corner as she climbed out. It slammed shut behind her, ringing loudly, and Spike was left wondering if he shouldn’t just drive away from this whole mess right now, leave her and the Watchers in the belly of the beast to see if they’d get eaten alive. It would be a good show, that would be certain. But for him to know that, he’d have to stick around to watch.
He sighed, reaching into his coat pocket for his cigarettes. Slayers always had a way of buggering up the best of plans.
Lilah Morgan was far more attractive than his sources had said. She was intelligent, shrewd, and had legs that seemed to go on forever. She also had a vicious streak a mile wide, and it was that single attribute that Giles credited for keeping him prey from her charms.
“At her apartment,” he lied when she asked how he’d found the Slayer. “Spike, of course, was of little use since she’s hardly foolish enough to invite a vampire into her home, but she had no reason not to trust me. After all, I’m a Watcher. She’s been taught to listen to us.”
“I’m sure the devilish charm didn’t hurt, either.” Lilah smiled. There was no mistaking the coquettish slant of her lashes. “So, tell me, Rupert Giles. You obviously have some grand plan that brings you to my doorstep. What is it exactly you want from Wolfram and Hart?”
He rose from his chair and took a step closer to her, casually slipping his hand into his trousers pocket. “A partner,” he said. “You want Jutta’s Ring, and I want the Slayer back. If we pool our resources, I’m sure we can do something about satisfying both of those goals.”
“No offense, but one side of this potential relationship seems a little light on what it brings to the table. And that side isn’t mine.”
“On the contrary. I have more information about Ethan Rayne and Buffy Summers at my fingertips than you can even imagine. Considering you’re even deigning to speak to me, I think it’s safe to assume you’ve just about exhausted your options in retrieving the ring. Am I right?”
Her lips thinned, and something ugly passed behind her eyes. “My options aren’t even close to being gone, Mr. Giles,” Lilah said.
He took another step forward. “Then you don’t need me. Perhaps I should go after all.”
It was a risk he was taking. So far, the encounter hadn’t transpired as he’d imagined its script would go, but Giles was keen enough to suspect it wasn’t over quite yet.
Lilah’s eyes never wavered from his. “Perhaps I---.”
An alarm began sounding through the room, breaking their concentration from the conversation and diverting it elsewhere. “What’s that?” Giles asked.
“A vampire just walked into the building,” Lilah said. She was already looking bored from the observation, as if it was an everyday occurrence. “Hang on.” She stretched sideways, twisting slightly to reach behind her desk. “Let me just turn off---.”
She was silenced when he put his hand around her mouth, pressing his body against hers to pin Lilah to the desk. Pulling out the small taser he’d had in his pocket, Giles positioned it against the small of her back, leaning in so that his mouth hovered just above her ear.
“What was that you were saying about options, Ms. Morgan?” he murmured.
To be continued in Chapter 16: Angels Dance and Angels Die…