DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. The chapter title comes from The Doors’ song, “Soul Kitchen.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike’s fans have gotten Buffy’s ring back, while Buffy has run into Ethan at the hotel…
The story begins here.
The world had long ago stopped surprising Ethan. He’d savaged through his youth, desperately seeking out anything that would obliterate everything but pleasure, and when that stopped satisfying, he turned to Janus in hopes that chaos would at least prove challenging enough not to bore him to tears. In spite of that, there had been a few stops along the way, detours that had suggested perhaps such hedonism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Ripper had been one such diversion.
Buffy had most definitely been another.
Her death had cemented his belief that it was better to look out for oneself than it was to care for another. That was pain he had no interest in revisiting, and he’d moved on—successfully, he’d thought—to a renewed existence. But while avenging her honor by going after the Council had been satisfying, it had hardly been remarkable. There was little thrill in hunting caged animals.
Following the call of her ring was the most exhilarating event to happen to Ethan for almost a year.
He had missed her entrance. The swill they passed for whiskey in this place had sloshed over the rim of the glass when he’d pushed it away, and Ethan had been wiping the table when she walked in. It was her voice that had drawn his eyes back up, and he could only gape in disbelief as she talked to the red-haired waitress.
And then she’d looked at him. In those few instants, the past year had melted away and left him crumbling in front of a fresh gravestone.
She glowed with health. Skin more golden than he remembered, hair more honeyed. There was a plushness to her ass that he was certain hadn’t been there before, but the few extra pounds she had put on only made her seem infinitely more ripe. Like a peach freshly plucked, and if he sank his teeth into her, her juices would spill over his tongue, drenching him in the essence of Buffy.
The most important thing was that she didn’t run when she saw him.
Every step that took him closer convinced Ethan that she was just a phantasm created by his overactive imagination, and he had to touch her to make sure she wouldn’t disappear as so much smoke. Her slight flinch when he did was all he needed to be assured that it was indeed her.
“You’re looking remarkably well for a dead woman,” he said. He reached out and coiled a strand of her hair around his index finger, feeling it slide like silk along his skin. “New shampoo?”
Fire flashed in her eyes. His cock suddenly throbbed where it was trapped against his thigh.
“You shouldn’t have come here.” In spite of the steel of her jaw, her voice was barely a whisper. “Why couldn’t you have just stayed away?”
Ethan leaned in, pleased when she didn’t back away. She smelled even better than she looked. “Now how boring would that have been?” he murmured. “Do you really believe that I would pass up an opportunity like this?”
Neither of them moved. He closed his eyes in order to concentrate on the heat and scent of her.
“Buffy?” A masculine voice at their side startled them into separating, and Ethan looked over, then down, to see a young man in a wheelchair rolling up to them. Everything about him was unextraordinary, but the faintest emanations followed the man, like a bread trail unseen by mortal eyes. It was enough to put Ethan on edge.
“A friend of yours?” Ethan asked, returning his eyes to Buffy.
She looked like a child who’d been caught with her hand in the biscuit jar, and she quickly pushed past Ethan to stop the wheelchair from coming closer. “It’s OK, Kevin,” she said to the young man. “He’s not going to do anything to me. Not here.”
Kevin’s head shot up, his knuckles going white where his fingers were wrapped around his wheels. “Fuck,” he muttered. “This is really him.”
“It’s always such a pleasure to know my reputation precedes me,” Ethan said with a gracious smile. He took a step forward and stretched out his hand. “And of course, any friend of Buffy’s is a friend of mine.”
“No, I’m not.” His gaze flickered to Buffy. “Please tell me you’re still practicing that pants on fire philosophy.”
Ethan chuckled. “Such charming company you keep these days, my dear. Or is this some sort of new community service? Adopt a cripple, be exonerated from your past misdeeds.” He shook his head in mock sadness. “Somehow, I don’t believe it’ll be all the next rage.”
“That’s enough,” she said tightly.
But it wasn’t. Not nearly. “I must give him credit for not believing my rather shallow attempts at cordiality, though,” he went on. “A lesser man might have actually taken me at face value. Still. Appearances must be made, and all that rot.”
Kevin’s hands went whiter while his cheeks turned a deep red. “We should be going, Buffy,” he said, every word so carefully measured that Ethan thought the boy would shatter from their weight. “We still have…business.”
The way she snapped straight told Ethan what exactly that business was.
“Well, well, well,” he said, his brows lifting slightly in surprise. “It would appear that I’m not the only one interested in a certain vampire today.”
Her eyes were blazing when she turned back to glare at him. “You’re not to lay a finger on him, do you understand?” Buffy said. Kevin’s presence seemed to bring her out of her fugue, placing the Slayer he knew before Ethan once again. He wasn’t sure which incarnation of her he liked better. “If you even think about it, so help me--.”
“Oh, I do hope this ends with a certain promise of violence,” he cut off, gleefully. “We used to so enjoy that little game. Remember? In fact, I still have the cuffs packed away someplace. I’m sure I could find them for you.”
She remembered. The almost violent up and down motion of her throat as she swallowed was impossible to miss.
“Let’s go.” Reaching for Buffy’s wrist, Kevin tugged her toward his chair, causing her to stumble slightly.
Automatically, Ethan leapt forward to catch her elbow, helping her get upright before letting go. His fingers trailed across her bare skin for the scant seconds before she took a stronger step away.
“Why are we talking to this guy?” Kevin demanded. “I thought we were here for Spike.”
“Since we all seem to have the same purpose--,” Ethan started.
Buffy whipped around again. “I said, don’t.”
His humor about the situation fled. “He’s working with Wolfram and Hart, Buffy. If they were to learn that you are alive--.”
“They already know. And he’s not.”
The truth about why exactly she was here—who exactly she was with, still—was like a punch in the gut. He had mourned her for a year, had sought out enemies to appease the anger her death had roiled within him, but to think she’d chosen a life with Spike instead of--.
He could only stare at her. Perhaps this wasn’t his Buffy after all.
“How is it you know about Wolfram and Hart?” she asked. “I can’t believe that you’d be in any kind of hurry to have them find out you’re in town. That’s what you wanted the ring for, after all.”
Mention of Jutta’s Ring had Ethan automatically reaching to touch it on his finger, to remind himself that it was still there. “Trust me,” he said. “If I’d known that little tingle would lead me to our esteemed lawyers, I would never have followed the bread crumbs.”
“And now?” With every question, her voice softened. “If I asked you to forget that you ever saw me here…would you do it? Just…go away and pretend this never happened?”
He wanted to lie to her. He knew what she wanted to hear. But for probably the first time in his entire life, Ethan’s truth refused to be denied.
“That would be like asking me to forget about magic,” he replied. He dared to reach forward, fingertips skimming along her cheek, across her lips, down her chin, lingering for a moment too long just below her jaw before withdrawing again. “You’re a part of me, my dear. Your death didn’t change that, and I dare say your unexpected resurrection won’t either.”
When her eyes grew large and wet, the hope that had flared upon seeing her returned. The tears didn’t fall, though. She merely remained rooted to her spot, watching him as if she expected him to say something more.
“Buffy? We should--.”
“Oh, do be quiet,” Ethan snapped. The boy was starting to get on his last nerve. “Are you emotionally crippled as well that you can’t see we’re having a moment here?”
It was precisely the wrong thing to say. The walls came flying back up, and Buffy retreated to the wheelchair’s side.
“Let’s go,” she said, to Kevin and not to him. He disliked the little prat more than ever now.
She stepped out of Kevin’s way as he navigated his wheelchair around in a circle to face the exit, but it took actually walking away from Ethan for him to speak up.
“If you’re so eager to get Spike away from Wolfram and Hart,” Ethan said, “I would think you’d want to take advantage of any resource at your disposal to do so.”
He couldn’t let her simply walk back out of his life again. There was so much to say, so much still to do.
As he hoped, she stopped. Looked back. “You’re not seriously suggesting that you would help me.”
Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he shrugged, a good-natured grin splitting his features. “Spike was instrumental in rescuing me from their dastardly clutches. The least I can do is return the favor.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t do things out of the goodness of your heart,” she said.
“You know me so well.”
“So why the offer?”
“I thought you were dead. Do you really have to ask?”
Indecision warred across her beautiful features. In spite of everything, of knowing the choices she’d made, Ethan realized he could stand there and watch her all day.
Finally, Buffy held up a warning finger. “You hurt Spike in any way---.”
“You can’t be fucking serious!” Kevin’s exclamation drew the curious glances of the waitresses, but he was oblivious to the attention. “You can’t trust this guy, Buffy. If you don’t want to listen to me, just remember everything he’s done to you.”
“That’s the thing,” she said quietly. “I do remember.”
Ethan took a step closer. “Allow me to help and I give you my word I won’t lay a finger on Spike.”
“It’s not your fingers I’m worried about.”
“Stay out of this, Kevin.” Her eyes bored into Ethan. “No mysterious fireballs appearing out of anywhere, no stakes, no curtains sliding back to dust him with a ray of sunshine. No magic against him period. Deal?”
“Deal.” He closed the distance between them, ignoring the death glare from the nearby wheelchair. “Shall we shake on it? I’d suggest a kiss to seal the pact, but I’m afraid that might be pushing my luck.”
She didn’t answer. Pivoting on her heel, Buffy marched back out into the lobby, Kevin right behind her, Ethan a few feet further back. He listened to the boy argue with her about how badly Spike was going to take their new aid and was pleased when she shot him down without even looking at him.
That’s my girl.
It was hard not to look pleased as punch when Gazzer dropped the ring into his waiting palm. “That’s the one you wanted, right?” the young vampire said eagerly. “Manners didn’t seem too happy about us taking it.”
“That’s the one.” Letting the chain slip through his fingers, Spike gazed at the small gold circlet remaining in his hand. Hard to believe such a little thing could create such a fuss. Then again, Buffy wasn’t much more than a handful, either. Probably appropriate in the long run.
“I don’t suppose you’d let us tag along for the fight?” Gazzer asked. “We won’t get in the way. You’ve got my word on that.”
Behind him, the other vamps nodded vehemently, just as eager as their leader to be a part of what they thought was going to be some historical battle. Spike grinned at their exuberant innocence.
“Slayer would have you lot on the ropes before you could flash any fang,” he said. “She’s a smart one. Doesn’t fall for the usual tricks.” Gazzer’s face fell, prompting Spike to clap him on the shoulder in reassurance. “Chin up. If I muck up the kill, you’ll probably be next in line to have a go at her. In fact, I’ll put in a good word for you with the suits, just in case.”
Though the vampire’s disappointment was still evident, the offer seemed to do the trick. “You need to come see Jocelyn when she gets into town,” he said. “She’s going to love meeting you.”
Spike had no idea who this Jocelyn bird was, but he nodded anyway, willing to do just about anything at that point to get on his way. “Thanks again,” he said and turned on his heel to head back to the car.
Gazzer trotted to catch up, the others right behind. As he started to chatter on about anything and everything, Spike’s patience began to erode, ignoring most of the blather that came out of the vamp’s mouth as they took the lift down to the basement. None of it was enough to break the other’s enthusiasm, though, so that by the time they’d reached the service area off the parking structure, Spike was ready to tear the wanker’s heart out with his bare hands. Anything to get him to shut up.
“…nothing as notorious as bagging three Slayers, but she’s got her own stones, let me tell you,” Gazzer was saying as they stepped off the lift. “At New Year’s---.”
“I’m sure it’s a right splendid little story,” Spike interrupted. “But I’ve got this business to take care of, yeah? So…bugger off now.” The hurt on the vampire’s face at the dismissal reminded him all too much of Rollerboy, and he spat out the next word before he stop himself. “Please.”
Reaching into his pocket, Gazzer pulled out a rumpled business card and a pen. “This is where we’re staying,” he said, scribbling some numbers on the back of the card. “You need anything—and I mean, anything—you call. We’ll come running.”
I’ll just bet you will, Spike thought, but took the card anyway, slipping it into his pocket and out of his immediate awareness. A familiar squeak from the other end of the hall caught his attention, and he looked over his shoulder to see Kevin wheel into view.
“Well, now that’s just too lemon squeezy,” one of the vampires in the rear complained. “Where’s the fun if they can’t try and run away?”
Before Spike could respond, two more figures appeared behind Kevin. He’d almost expected Buffy; even a hint of Spike acting on his own would set her off to take back control. But it was the other, the one whose malicious smile he’d spent months trying to drive out of Buffy’s memory, that made his blood run even colder.
“Well, well,” Ethan said. “It looks like we have a little party.”
To be continued in Chapter 12: The Future’s Uncertain…