When it came to plans, it wasn’t really that complex. Ripper was their inside man, Buffy the go-to girl, and Spike the main attraction. When the Slayer had first made the suggestion, Spike’s first inclination was that it was suicide, for him mostly, but a bit for her and the Watcher, too. She wanted Spike to walk into one of the most heavily fortified dens of iniquity and flip the lot of them the bird, then keep them distracted long enough so that she could do her own b-and-e with reduced risk.
It took Spike all of five seconds to decide that it sounded like a hell of a lot of fun.
Once the sun was down, he was out of his car and up the low stairs in front of the building, slamming the glass doors open as he swaggered across the threshold. The lobby was deserted, the front receptionist replaced by a night guard with more stomach than brains, and in the distance, Spike could hear the harsh ringing of an alarm.
“Well, this is a tad disappointing,” he said, his voice too loud. He threw his arms out to the side, his coat hanging like black wings. “I was expecting something livelier. You don’t even have a sacrificial altar set up. Now, what’s a bloke got to do to find some evil around here?”
Behind the counter, the guard rose to his feet, a stake already in his hand. “Offices are closed,” he said. “If you don’t want to be dust, I suggest you leave the premises.”
Spike grinned. “This is the part where I start shakin’ in my boots, right? ‘Cause you’ve got the stake, and I’ve got…what?” He pretended to think for a moment before his left hand streaked inside his coat and emerged with a revolver cradled in his palm. “Oh yeah. This.”
The bullet hit the guard’s neck, blood spurting from the impact. The stake hit the ground first, leaving Spike shaking his head as the body crumpled afterward.
“You really think I’d be so daft to walk in here without bein’ prepared? Stupid git,” he muttered. He kicked at the dead guard in disgust, avoiding the blood that was already flowing across the floor as he hopped up on the receptionist’s counter. Facing the elevators, he waited for the other guards to start showing up, the gun ready to pick them off like flies when they did. It wouldn’t be long, and he wasn’t all too sure that the surprise element of a vampire armed with a gun wouldn’t already have worn off by the time they arrived. He was just glad that he’d taken Ripper’s suggestion to bring along a long-range weapon. It got him past the front line without even breaking a proverbial sweat.
The real fight was yet to come.
She broke in through a delivery door at the back. The long, narrow halls were mostly empty; Buffy figured that being evil didn’t necessarily mean employees couldn’t clock out at five. When she did spot the odd worker, she ducked into hiding, waiting until the coast was clear before continuing on her path.
She was bounding up the stairs when the alarm went off and risked a glance at her watch to check the time. She had to fight not to smile; Spike was right on schedule. The only thing to hope for now was that he’d last long enough to give her the time to get Ethan out of the building.
Instinct compelled her to stop climbing, and it was instinct that drove her into the fourteenth floor’s hallway, her body angling of its own volition down the narrow corridor, past the closed doors, past a couple open ones. When someone in a white coat stepped into her path, his mouth already open to speak and protest her presence, Buffy threw a solid punch at his jaw, knocking him unconscious before stepping over his slumped body. Ethan waited for her.
As she expected, his door was at the hall’s end, and the handle refused to budge within her grip when she tried it. A numbered keypad beside the door revealed how it was secured. Its red light flashed at her, mocking Buffy with its technological prowess, and she chewed at her lip, debating how best to proceed.
The debate lasted a total of five seconds.
Her fist slammed into the pad, and pieces of plastic flew through the air as Buffy curled her fingers around the broken faceplate and pulled it off the wall. Colored wires trailed from its back like so much intestinal refuse, but it took only a sharp yank to rip them from the wall as well, electrical sparks cascading at the disconnection. Something in the door softly clicked.
The skin on her knuckles was torn, beads of blood starting to well in the exposed flesh, but Buffy ignored the sting as she carefully nudged the door open. The room was exactly as she’d seen it in her mind, all the way down to the smell of antiseptic in the air. But all she could focus on was the bed along the far wall.
The only item of clothing he wore was his pants, and even those were charred from some kind of burns. Ethan was strapped in place, leather bands around his forehead, wrists, and ankles, but those did little to hide the skin that had been rubbed raw beneath them. Burns and bruises mottled the rest of his flesh, and Buffy had to swallow down the bile that rose up in her throat at the sight of his mangled body.
“What did they do to you?” she whispered as she stepped closer to the bed.
His eyes had been closed, but at the sound of her voice, his lashes fluttered apart, blinking once and then again as if to clear his vision. “Buffy?” Ethan croaked. He sounded like he’d been without water for weeks.
“Yeah,” she said, and closed the distance so that she stood right by his head. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides, and she couldn’t help the sweep of her gaze over his body, absorbing the true extent of his injuries. “It’s me.”
He tried to turn and look at her, but the strap stopped him, drawing a slight wince from his throat. Immediately, Buffy’s hands flew to undo it, and when the leather fell free, she couldn’t help but draw a single finger across the edge of his burned brow.
His eyes were locked on her hand. Before she’d drawn it away, his face had closed, his mouth twisting into a grimace. “Go away, Ms. Morgan,” he said. “I’m in no mood to play your little games right now. Unless, of course, you’re going to free me so that we can be a tad more evenly matched. I have a spell or two I think you might find interesting.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked in confusion. “It’s me. It’s Buffy.”
“Nice try, but the jig was up the last time you were here, remember? Don’t demean both of us by trying this foolish act again.”
She just shook her head. She had no idea what the lawyers had done to Ethan, but obviously it had messed with his head somehow. This, however, was not the time to stand around debating personality issues.
Quickly, Buffy moved down the bed, unstrapping his wrists and ankles so that he could get up. She really hoped he was strong enough to walk; if they were confronted on the way out, she needed him able to stand on his own two feet while she fought. But when she turned back to help him up, she was confronted with his frowning face.
“What?” she asked.
“You’re…letting me go?”
“Noooo,” she said slowly. “I’m helping you escape. And there’s not a white horse in sight. Trust me.”
She reached to slide her arm beneath his back, but Ethan grabbed her wrist, holding her more firmly than she would’ve believed considering his condition. While he pulled himself upright, his left hand came up to ghost over her trapped fingers, and then stretched to stroke them in feather touches.
He was trembling, though it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Buffy could feel it through her skin, feel the quivers of disbelieving muscles as he traced her slim hand. “No ring,” she heard him mutter. That’s when she understood.
“I took it off,” she said quietly.
His head jerked up. “You did what?”
Without a word, Buffy exerted enough force to break from his hold. Her hand dipped, slid into her pocket, and emerged with her ring resting solemnly in her palm.
“That was why I couldn’t find you,” Ethan murmured. His eyes searched hers, and she felt the first rush of tears threaten to overwhelm her at the familiarity in them. “And now you know.”
“Now I know,” she repeated. Turning away before she completely lost control, Buffy put the ring back in her pocket as she headed for the door. “We have to get going,” she said, her voice now all business. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
She had to stop. She had to.
He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his tone was clearer. “Why…if you know…did you come for me?”
She glanced back. He’d risen, using the edge of the bed to keep his balance. In the middle of his torso, she could just see the puckered edges of the scar he’d gotten in Tijuana beneath the mask of the burns.
“Because I’m all you’ve got,” she said.
She didn’t wait to see him follow her out into the hall. From overhead, the alarms continued to peal the presence of intruders.
He insisted that Lilah take the stairs.
“Do you have any idea how many flights that is?” she complained loudly, hoping her voice would carry enough for somebody to show up at her office to find out what the problem was.
Giles pressed the taser harder into her back. “Perhaps you should’ve worn more sensible shoes then,” he replied.
Though she remained calm, on the inside Lilah was fuming, furious with her own idiocy for getting caught in this situation in the first place. So much of what the Watcher had said had made sense. His whole story reeked of plausibility with just enough of the absurd to make it sound true. She should’ve known he was making the whole thing up when he said he’d hired a vampire to kill the Slayer. That was just ridiculous.
Before they left her office, Giles slipped his hand beneath her jacket, making it appear more natural if someone should see them. That put the weapon even closer to Lilah’s skin, and she had to force herself not to flinch as she walked. Its electrical hum buzzed along her flesh, promising pain on discharge. Only when they reached the stairwell did he pull it away, allowing her breathing to return to a gentler pace.
“That ring’s stolen property, you know,” she said as they began to descend to the fourteenth floor. “Is the Watchers’ Council prepared to face charges for theft?”
“I’d imagine not,” Giles replied. “But perhaps the better question is…are the Senior Partners prepared to face retribution for your defilement of the ring’s sacred grounds? I can think of at least three different holy orders who would be suitably outraged to discover what you’ve done, Ms. Morgan.”
Lilah pressed her lips together. She hated when she got outbluffed.
Two more flights and the alarms were grating on her last nerve.
“Will somebody please catch that damn vampire?” she shouted to nobody in particular.
The look Giles shot her was withering. “He took care of the team you sent this morning in less than five minutes,” he said. “Do you really think he’ll give in so easily now?”
“The security here is top-notch. Wolfram and Hart hires only the best, you know.”
“And yet, they hired you.”
She had the perfect comeback poised on her lips when the sound of shouting below took his attention away from her. Giles’ pace doubled, and she nearly fell on her face as he pulled her along, hopping on one foot and then the other to remove her shoes when they reached a landing. Briefly, Lilah considered hitting him over the head with them, but then she saw Ethan leaning against the wall and all hope finally fled.
Giles stopped in front of the other man, his eyes quick as they scrutinized the injuries. “Where’s Buffy?” he demanded.
Ethan nodded to the next level down. “Security decided to put in an entrance after all. I came up here to get out of her way. I’d hate for any of that lovely anger of hers to be wasted on me.”
“Idiot,” Lilah muttered.
For the first time, Ethan noticed her presence, but she just shook her head at his curious glance.
“If you were trying to escape, the most logical path is downstairs, not up,” she said.
“Which would be exactly what your men would expect,” he explained. He sighed as he turned back to Giles. “She’s beautiful, but not nearly as smart as she’d like to think. Shame, really.”
Giles reached into his pocket and pulled out a taser identical to the one he’d held on her. “How’s your grip?” he asked the other Watcher.
Ethan’s grin was lecherous. “Let’s find out.”
The moment he had the taser in his hand, Ethan felt worlds better. Power could be an intoxicating thing, and it wasn’t until he got some back that he realized just how badly he’d missed it.
Though he kept Lilah in sight out of the corner of his eye, the bulk of Ethan’s attention was focused on the battle below and the sight of Ripper joining Buffy in the fray. Her every blow carried the rage of angels, though he was quick to note that she didn’t kill any of the human guards, and she moved with that sleek grace that left him pounding for the want of her. Even when the blond man in leather appeared at her side, she never broke stride, never faltered in her assault. In short, she was radiant.
“That is one sick relationship you have with your Slayer,” Lilah noted with barely concealed disgust.
His lip curled back into a sneer, and Ethan shifted just enough of his focus to glare at her. “And yet, she came to save me,” he said. “Who shall come to rescue you, Ms. Morgan?”
“I think the Senior Partners might be interested.”
“Yes, but will they want to save your pretty neck, or snap it?” He pretended to mull over the question. “’Tis a puzzlement.”
A sharp cry from down below jerked his awareness back just in time for Ethan to see one of the guards thrust a knife deep into Buffy’s side.
“No!” he shouted, but his call was eclipsed by the roar of the blond man, his angular features shifting into ridges and fangs as he grabbed the guard’s head and viciously twisted.
Buffy stumbled away from the battle, her hand pressed to the blood already soaking her shirt. “Go!” she shouted to the vampire. “Get Ethan out of here!”
The dead guard fell unwanted to the vampire’s feet, but he just stepped over it as he tried to get closer to her. He was stopped by Giles’ hand on his elbow.
“You heard her,” Giles said. Sweat made his face gleam; Ethan hadn’t seen his old friend look so ferocious in years. “We’ll take care of this.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Buffy said. In spite of her injury, she managed to throw an elbow into another guard coming up the stairs, sending him tumbling back down and into the others behind him. “This was the always the plan, Spike. Now do it.”
“Fuck the bloody plan!”
“Don’t make me kick your ass, too,” she warned. A wave of dizziness must’ve overtaken her because she grabbed the wall for a brief moment, leaving behind a bloody handprint once she was steady again.
“I thought you had my back.” Her voice was lower now, more in control, and Ethan could’ve sworn he saw something akin to pleading in her eyes, even from that distance. “Just get him out of here, OK?”
He thought that the vampire was going to continue arguing, but then there was a swirl of black leather and the so-called Spike fellow was suddenly standing in front of him. He was shorter than Ethan by a good couple of inches, but there was a menace surrounding him that was unmistakable. It made him pull himself straighter, which hurt like hell. He decided he really didn’t like this vampire.
“You Ethan?” he demanded.
It wasn’t the brightest question he’d heard all night. “At your rescue,” Ethan replied with a smile.
Spike’s eyes gleamed a feral gold. “You’re the prat who gave her the ring.”
His smile faded. He barely had time to mutter, “Oh, bugger,” before the fist crashed into his face and everything went black.
Spike never saw her come out of the building. He was on his fourth cigarette when Ripper finally emerged, his suit torn, blood streaked across the side of his face, but before Spike could get out and demand to know where the Slayer was, guards began streaming out after the Watcher. Spike had no choice but to drive like a bat out of hell the moment Ripper slid into the front seat.
It didn’t take long to lose Wolfram and Hart’s people and only a few seconds longer to lose the rest of his temper. While Spike raved about the Slayer’s daft heroics, Giles just stared out the windshield, his face closed and stern.
“She did what she had to do,” he said at the first break in Spike’s tirade.
“She’s the Slayer. ‘Have to’ doesn’t apply to her. Not any more.”
Ripper had no reply to that. He didn’t say another word until they were inside the warehouse and pulling Ethan’s unconscious body out of the back seat.
“Before I left Wolfram and Hart, Buffy asked me to relay a message to you.” His tone was neutral, and he kept his eyes averted from Spike’s as they carried Ethan to the other car they had waiting.
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“She says…thank you.”
Spike didn’t stick around after that. As soon as the Watchers were packed, he took off, tires squealing in protest as he gunned his way down the empty road. He had miles to go before he slept.
To be concluded in Chapter 17: Wanton World Without Lament…