DISCLAIMER: We know they're Joss', right? Which really is a shame, because most of the time, we're so much nicer to them than he was.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Spike had a moment to talk and clear the air, while Wes told Angel about Ilona's connection with the Immortal and Adam vowed to get the Slayer for Riley...

* * *

The thing about memories, especially if you’d lived as long as Spike had, is that time had a funny habit of slapping on one of those soft-focus filters, the kind that used to make Garbo look mysterious and Lombard ten years younger. He’d constructed these ideals inside his head without ever knowing it, remembering the good stuff about Buffy and glossing over the bad.

Like what a bitch she turned into when she was convinced she was right and everybody else was wrong.

Currently, she stood in the middle of Giles and Joyce’s living quarters, arms folded across her chest, eyes flashing with self-righteous anger as she argued with all and sundry about her determination to get Adam.

Well, almost all.

The Other Spike was doing a fair job holding the wall up in the corner, watching the proceedings with dark amusement and holding his tongue. He was the only one not to voice his opinion about Buffy’s plan.

Spike was half-tempted to go over and beat his two-toned head in for not having the stones to stand up to her.

“I don’t care how many different ways you try and paint this,” Joyce said. She was the bravest of the lot, standing dead on with her daughter in a furious clash of Summers’ wills. “This is suicide. Not only that, it’s stupid. You can’t guarantee you’re not going to get killed, so why on earth would you do this to people back in your own dimension who obviously care about you?”

“It’s that whole gotta save the world complex she’s got,” Spike groused. “No discriminating against dimensions for our girl. Oh, no. She’s a bona fide, equal opportunity hero.” He glared at Buffy. “Even when she’s bein’ ridiculous about it.”

She whirled on Spike, jabbing her finger into his unyielding chest. “There’s nothing ridiculous about wanting to help people! Or has hanging around Angel and his LA Law-lessness made you forget that, Spike? There was a time when you would’ve been the first to pick up a sword and fight with me. What happened to that vamp?”

He caught the distinct flicker of her gaze to the Other Spike, and his eyes widened in disbelief. “Oh, no, you bloody didn’t!” Deliberately, he invaded her personal space so that she had no choice but to turn her little pointy chin up to look at him. The heat pouring off her was making him hard, the rhythm of their arguing so achingly familiar that Spike had to ball his hands into fists and shove them into his armpits to keep from grabbing her. “Know why he’s not givin’ you hell about all this? Because he doesn’t give a flying fuck about you, luv. He’d just as soon shag you as watch you slit your own throat with this daft idea---.”

“Oy!” All eyes turned back to Other Spike who finally seemed interested in the conversation. “I tried talkin’ her out of her original plan, remember. Points for that.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Well, at least I know digging for credit is a standard Spike trait, no matter what dimension I’m in.”

This time, both Spikes voiced their dissent in a ringing chorus that drew more than a few smiles among the group.

Giles growled, his fist slamming into the wall in a shower of broken mortar as if to punctuate his meaning. When Tara turned to interpret for Buffy, the Slayer held up a hand to cut her off.

“I got it,” she said. “I don’t need to speak Fyarl to know he thinks this is a bad idea, too.”

“There was a threat to hang you upside down from the ceiling like a fly in a web if you did it, too,” Spike offered.

Tara patted his arm, then stiffened as she realized which Spike she was touching. “I was going to leave that part out.”

Another growl from Giles.

“No, she’s not,” Tara argued.

Buffy frowned. “I’m not what?”

“His Slayer,” Spike offered. “Rupert here thinks he can invoke some Watcher/Slayer privilege and force you to change your mind.”

With a frustrated cry, Buffy threw her hands up in the air and backed away from the group. “How many times do we have to go over this? The only thing that’s going to change my mind about going back is knowing that the Adam problem has been resolved, once and for all. You can tell me not to do anything---hell, you can try and physically stop me. But that’s not going to change the fact that this is what I want. And in case nobody’s been listening to Spike, that’s what’s keeping me here. So do we want to waste even more time arguing about this? Or are we going to get off our high horses and actually do something?”

The thing about bitchy Buffy, especially for as long as Spike had had to put up with her, was that nine times out of ten, she was right. It might not come out cookies and cream, but it was hard to argue with her logic, especially when she was burning from the fire of her belief. Besides, it wasn’t like he hadn’t been known to be obnoxious when he was certain of something. He’d taken more than one blow to the nose from the Slayer herself as proof of that.

“Fine,” he growled. “We’ll get this Adam business sorted.” When Buffy’s frown shifted into a moue of delight, though, he lifted a warning finger to keep her silent. “But! You’re not turnin’ yourself over to Finn, understand? It’s too risky.”

“There’s no other---.”

“There is. Now shut that gorgeous mouth of yours for two seconds while I tell you how we’re doin’ this.”

To her credit, her jaw snapped shut. Spike couldn’t help but relax slightly in the face of her acquiescence. That made this easier.

“Fact is, the light of day keeps you from doin’ a proper offensive,” he explained to the group.

“Us, you mean,” Buffy corrected.

He shot her a quick glance. “Us, then. You don’t want Finn anyway. You want Adam. You can’t risk havin’ to wage two battles and losin’ half your crew before you even lay eyes on the wanker.”

Her slow, even hiss of breath was audible but only to his ears. One glance at the Other Spike told him that he hadn’t been alone, though. Buffy was slowly getting the picture.

“What are you suggesting, Spike?” Joyce asked.

“They’ve made their attack today,” he said. “And they’ve retreated, empty-handed. They’re not goin’ to expect anything else. Probably will just sit back and wait for nightfall so they can start those patrols he…” He jerked his thumb at Other Spike. “…was telling about.”

Giles’ low growl was paired with a slow curve of his upper lip, a vicious sneer that even Buffy could understand.

“We avoid the troops altogether,” Spike said in response. “Go now. Strike at Adam directly. You know where he is. The last thing he’s goin’ to expect is for you to come after him when you spent the mornin’ hiding from his boys. His guard’ll be down.”

“His guard’s never down,” Other Spike commented. “And there’s something else you haven’t considered.”

“What?”

“Finn. Those two watch each other’s backs. He’ll be a threat.”

“That’ll be me and Buffy’s job.”

Among the noises of surprise at Spike’s announcement within the group, Buffy’s brows shot up in surprise. “What happened to me not goin’ after Riley?” she demanded.

“Don’t want you turnin’ yourself over to him like some sacrificial lamb,” he corrected. “Beating the shit out of him is another beast entirely.” He hooked a thumb through a belt loop and smirked. “Besides. Way I hear it, he’s got as much a grudge against Hostile Seventeen in this world as he did in ours. He’s goin’ to be wetting himself havin’ the both of us in reach.”

She still seemed annoyed, though her stance softened a bit at the compromise Spike had made. “You just want to keep an eye on me. Don’t think I don’t know that.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “Wait. If I go with you to take care of Riley, who’s going to be the one who goes after Adam?”

The two Spikes locked gazes. It took only a moment for Other Spike to shove off the wall.

“That’s goin’ to be my job,” he said. His eyes glinted with a fierce glee. “And it’s goin’ to be my pleasure.”

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

Angel delayed his appearance in the study downstairs for as long as possible. He didn’t particularly relish facing Ilona without a weapon of some sort, but until he heard from Wes again, he didn’t have much choice. And waiting upstairs with Buffy and Spike so near and yet so far was making him crazy. He kept imagining what they might be doing in the alternate dimension, if the reason they weren’t back yet was because Spike hadn’t found her, or if he’d found her and the two were fighting, and if they were fighting, did that mean they were fucking, too, because god knew, with their tempers and how much Spike loved a good fight, it was more than a reasonable conclusion.

Thinking about them was worse than when he’d found out about Riley. He didn’t have intimate knowledge of Riley, his military background notwithstanding. Without any effort at all, he could conjure up images of what exactly Spike would be doing to Buffy, how he was probably making her beg for more, and…

Yeah. Crazy.

Well. Crazier.

He passed the small kitchen where he heard Giles on the phone with Andrew and headed straight for the open door of the study. When he stopped on the threshold, Ilona had her back to him, head tilted as she scanned the book spines lining the far wall. As he watched, she pulled one out and flipped it open, crimson-tipped fingernails turning pages at a scarily rapid pace, while her eyes flickered over the text at what should have been an inhuman speed.

She might look like somebody had painted her into her dress, and she might try to distract her clients and opponents with the neverending cleavage, but this was more than enough of a reminder for Angel about who she really was. Nobody became the head of a branch of Wolfram and Hart without being cunning. For all her so-called talents as a diplomat, he knew there was enough acuity there to be wary.

“You won’t like that one,” he commented, leaning against the door jamb. He was glad to see her jump, slamming the book shut at his sudden arrival. “I’m pretty sure the good guys win in the end.”

Her unease lasted for only a moment, the familiar smile returning to greet him. “Is all a matter of perspective, no?” she said. “Good, bad, who cares for such labels when one is in the thick of it? The bad guy, he always has his reasons. To him, perhaps he is the hero and everyone else…simply does not understand him.”

Angel shook his head. “Nah. I don’t buy it. You’d be surprised how many guys I’ve brought down who were evil, just for the sake of being evil.”

A casual shrug of Ilona’s shoulders somehow pushed her breasts closer together, and Angel scowled as he automatically glanced at them. Fuck. She had to do that on purpose.

“You do not come to me now to debate this, I think,” she said. “The Slayer…she still has not awakened?”

“No. But I didn’t come to talk about her, either.”

“Then William?” A sly gleam appeared in her dark eyes. She was smiling as she chose that moment to lounge on the chaise, the slit in her skirt exposing most of her toned leg. “A vampire of his talents should have few problems enticing such a young girl. Though, perhaps, after the Immortal, her tastes have---.”

There was no way he was going to let her finish that sentence. “You said there was a price for the clock and the original spell,” Angel interrupted. “I want to discuss it.”

Ilona frowned. “You wish this now?” She shook her head. “This is not so wise. You are distracted, too worried about your Slayer friend. We should wait and talk the business after, no?”

“No. We won’t wait and we’re going to talk the business now.” He prowled into the room, kicking the door shut behind him with a liquid sweep of his foot. She remained unruffled as he loomed over her, though he didn’t really expect any different. She dealt with a wide range of intimidating figures, even the Senior Partners if his suspicions were correct. She would not be cowed by a lone, pissed-off vampire. Big mistake. “Don’t think because I haven’t brought it up yet that I’m not fully aware of your intentions,” he continued. “But Buffy is and always will be a priority. I suggest you remember that.”

“You and William make it very hard to forget,” Ilona replied. “I do not understand the attraction of this one girl. Paolo has the same clouded vision, I think. He could have any woman he desires, and yet, he chooses this one. It is puzzling.”

“Jealous?”

Her brows arched. “Of a Slayer? I value my life too much to ever wish to be in her shoes. But what of your jealousy, Angelus? It drives you, even now. Why waste such petty emotions when there are other, so much more pleasurable emotions to dwell upon?”

His mouth was open to respond when it dawned on Angel what she was doing. “Ah, ah, ah,” he said, wagging a disappointing finger at her. “This is like those discussions we had on the opera. You think you can distract me from what I really want to talk about. It’s not going to work, Ilona. Not this time. We made a deal. Tell me what you expect in return.”

She didn’t move, her large dark eyes unwavering as, for once, she seemed to weigh her words. “The Senior Partners are not convinced of your dedication to your work,” she said. “This payment is to them, not to me.”

“I kind of figured that. What more do they want from me? My soul?”

Ilona laughed, a rich, hearty sound that filled the room for several seconds. “I love your sense of humor,” she managed. “It’s so unexpected sometimes.”

He hadn’t meant it as a joke, and it annoyed him that she would see it as such. “And what exactly is wrong with my soul?” Angel demanded. It was hard to keep the petulance out of his tone. “It’s perfectly good. Most of the time.”

Her amusement subsided, though her breasts continued to jiggle as she chuckled silently. “The Senior Partners, they have already attempted to take your soul, do you not remember? And they witnessed your behavior last year when you had that unfortunate encounter with the Beast. Without your soul, you are too unpredictable, too variable for them to control. They have no desire to see you without it now.”

His features remained unmoving though his mind twisted with possibilities. “If I find out they want to mess with Connor again---.”

“And have their work unravel even more?” Ilona shook her head. “They would not be so foolish as to tamper with those kind of magics any time soon. Such a strike will only come when you least expect it.”

Though his stomach coiled at the prospect of having to fend them off in the future, Angel remained calm. “Then what?”

She regarded him with a close scrutiny. “It is not a thing they wish from you,” she said. “It is your aid. They require your assistance in a particularly…delicate matter.”

Her continued skirting around the subject was eroding his last nerve. “Just tell me what it is,” he ground out. “The Senior Partners can’t expect me to fly blind, and if you stick with this song and dance routine, I’m going to start getting cranky.”

A single arched brow shot up in amused curiosity, but Ilona refrained from any further evasion. “There is too much instability amongst your staff. The Senior Partners wish you to eliminate it.”

There was a catch. There had to be. But…

“All they want me to do is fire a bunch of people? I do that at least once a week already. Just check with Human Resources.”

“No, no, what they want is not so immense. Just one person. And they do not wish him so much as fired, as eliminated.”

Now that made much more sense. “They want me to kill this person.”

“Yes.”

“Any hints on who this walking target is then? And you better not say it’s Wesley. I know he’s been a little on edge lately, but that’s because of what happened with Fred. He’ll come back around. He always does.”

“It is not Mr. Wyndam-Pryce. The Senior Partners are actually quite pleased with his performance.”

“Then who?”

Ilona sighed and sank back into the couch. “It pains me to say because I adore him so, but the price for the Slayer’s life is William’s. You must kill Spike.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 23