DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. The chapter title comes from The Doors’ song, “The Crystal Ship.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike’s offered a deal to Lindsey, while Buffy has used the ring to ask Ethan for help…
The story begins here.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had hurt so badly. It had been bad before Manners had slipped her ring back onto her finger, but after, fighting the energy trying to tempt her to acquiesce, Buffy’s pain had exploded into sensations both real and imaginary. There was the throbbing in her shoulder from the gunshot, exacerbated by her struggles to get the ring off. There was the acrid burn of the sedative they had given her in an attempt to make her more pliable, searing veins when they should have soothed.
But the worst of all was the terror inside her head at falling beneath the spell again. It was the last thing on earth she ever wanted; more than once, Buffy had considered that she would rather be dead than fall under another man’s control like she had with Ethan. So she fought it with everything she had, everything she was, gathering strength from reserves she hadn’t realized she owned to try and resist the dark pull of the magic.
It all degenerated further when Manners returned to stand inside the doorway and watch her with inscrutable eyes.
“Please,” Buffy begged. She hated that she was resorted to pleading with the bastards, but by that point, she would have done almost anything to get it off. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Oh, but we do. Did you really think you had any value to us other than as a warm body, Ms. Summers? A simple Slayer is hardly worth Wolfram and Hart’s attention, all on her own.”
His total disregard for her wellbeing made her spit at him. “When Spike shows up, he’s going to make you eat those words. Literally. Right after he forcefeeds you your tongue.”
Manners laughed. “Though your passion is admirable,” he said, “I’m afraid there will be no vampire cavalry coming for you. I’ve seen to that particular detail personally.”
She was left shivering when he walked out of the room. Manners had to be lying to her, Buffy thought. It wasn’t possible that they’d actually killed Spike. He was too good of a fighter to go down so easily.
But the niggle of doubt was planted, and when she felt Ethan trying to reach out to her through the connection of the ring, Buffy had to squeeze her eyes shut in order to keep the tears from falling.
It would be so easy to give up. No more pain. No more questions. And there was something comforting about hearing Ethan’s gentle requests to help her. Something familiar. Something safe.
So she called to him.
And wept when he replied.
All Lindsey could hear were the singer’s words, resounding like a death knell to any last hopes he might have. Not her future.
Because Spike was. In a twisted, inconceivable way that Lindsey couldn’t deny now that he’d witnessed the vampire’s affinity firsthand.
For whatever reason, he believed Spike. His explanation about the ring made sense in light of Wolfram and Hart’s primary objectives, and the fact that Holland wouldn’t let Lindsey even see Buffy suggested Lindsey wouldn’t like it if he did. They weren’t interested in her for anything other than a way to lure Rayne back within their grasp, and if she died once they had him, that was probably all the better. The Senior Partners hated loose ends. They would want to tie this one up nice and tight.
Now Spike was offering a way to help Buffy and still survive the day. Handing Ethan over would work wonders in rebuilding his bosses’ goodwill, and Buffy would be alive to go on with whatever destiny she was supposed to have. It burned that it was with a vampire, but Lindsey couldn’t see a way around that right now. He was working on borrowed time. Winning meant making fast decisions. Staying on his toes.
When the door to the suite opened, Holland glanced up to see one of the guards step aside to allow a doorman to enter. “Can I help you?” he asked.
The doorman didn’t speak. Instead, he held out an envelope bearing the hotel insignia and waited for Holland to take it.
With a frown, Holland set down his pen and rose, crossing the few feet to retrieve the note. His name was scrawled across the front in elegant script, but he didn’t recognize the handwriting. Holding it up to the light, all he could see inside was a folded sheet of paper.
“What is this?” he asked.
“I was asked to deliver it to you,” the doorman said. “The gentleman said he didn’t know which suite was yours.”
Holland slid a finger beneath the barely closed seal and extracted the single piece of stationery. More of the same script, but it was the words that drew his frown tighter.
“The man who gave you this,” he said. “What did he look like?”
“Tall, thin, mid to late forties. He had a British accent.”
Could it really have worked that quickly? Buffy had worn the ring for less than half an hour, and while Holland had never doubted the efficacy of its power, the last thing he’d expected was such a speedy result. And how did Rayne know who he was?
If it was true, it was proof that the plan had worked. That kind of knowledge could only have been plucked directly from the Slayer’s mind.
As the silence stretched while Holland contemplated this new turn of events, the doorman cleared his throat. “I’m supposed to tell you that this is a limited time offer,” he said. “If you’re not downstairs within ten minutes of the note’s delivery, it becomes null and void.”
It was a hoax. It had to be. He said as much out loud.
“He said you’d say that.” Reaching into his pocket, the doorman pulled out another envelope and held it out. “Ten minutes, sir.”
With that, he turned on his heel and left the room, not even waiting for a tip.
The contents of the second envelope held only a hotel business card with a phone extension written on its back. Curiosity drove Holland to his phone, and he glanced at his watch as he listened to it ring.
“I had a feeling you would call,” a man purred on the other end. No salutations. No requests about who was phoning. Most importantly, Holland recognized the cultured British tones from Lilah’s interrogation videos.
“Mr. Rayne,” he said smoothly. “This is unexpected.”
Ethan chuckled. “No, it’s not. You wished my attention, and now you have it. Tell me. Is that charming Ms. Morgan with you? I’d simply love the opportunity to catch up on old times. We spent such memorable hours together.”
Holland ignored the dig for information. “Your note suggests you’d be willing to meet in order to work out a compromise,” he said.
“It actually asked for your presence down in the bar, but I suppose I’m not surprised a solicitor would extrapolate exactly what he wants to see from it.”
Holland’s ears were perked to try and get a clue about where Rayne could be calling from. There was no background noise, which precluded the lobby or casino. The extension hadn’t been a private room, either, but there was no doubt he was in the hotel. It was the only way Holland could have reached him.
“Why would you ask to see me if you weren’t willing to bargain?” Holland asked.
Another amused chuckle came over the line. “Point taken, counselor. So, will you be joining me for a drink?”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because we both have something the other wants,” came the swift reply. “And I am not a patient man. If you don’t meet with me, I fear becoming bored and taking more…drastic measures to ensure my Slayer’s safety.”
Spoken like that… “Then I shall be down in ten minutes,” Holland said.
“Seven, actually. Your time began to expire the moment the doorman walked out the door.”
Holland smiled. The man was smart, but not nearly as smart as he believed. The only way Ethan could have known such a detail was if he was close by.
“Seven minutes, then.”
“I’ll be the one with the rose between my teeth,” Ethan joked. The line went dead.
Grabbing his key, Holland marched to the door and waved for the guard outside to join him with the man stationed within the suite. “Ethan Rayne is in the hotel,” he said once the door was closed behind them. “And there is a very good possibility that he’s on this floor. Find him. Bring him back to the suite and keep him here until I return. I want every available resource on this job.”
One of the guard’s gazes flickered to the closed bedroom door. “What about the girl?”
Holland shook his head. “She’s not going anywhere. Your priority is Rayne.”
“And the men on the vampire?”
He considered that for a moment. “Leave one guard up there,” Holland said. “The vampire’s contained, but better to be safe than sorry.” Opening the door, he looked up and down the hallway, on the off-chance that Rayne was lurking somewhere visibly nearby. When he saw it empty, he started the short walk to the elevator. “I’ll be back as quickly as possible.”
Ethan watched the monitors from the dark shadows of security’s office, smiling when the guard hit a series of buttons on his control board. Immediately, red lights began flashing on a different panel, and, on a tiny screen, a black-and-white Holland Manners frowned as his elevator came to a dead halt.
“You’ve got ten minutes,” the guard said.
Ethan pulled another bill from his wallet and laid it on the console before turning for the door. “I believe I’d prefer fifteen,” he said. He didn’t look back, but knew the man was pocketing the money. People were so cheap to buy these days.
Using the service elevator, he rode up to the floor below Manners’ suite. Ethan knew Wolfram and Hart’s security detail was looking for him, and knowing how the lawyers worked, they were likely starting on their own floor. Though Ethan had managed to secure a hotel uniform, there was still the possibility that they’d be overzealous and insist on searching everybody who approached. He needed to be careful; Jutta’s Ring wasn’t foolproof, after all.
There was no sign of them as he stepped out of the stairwell. Silently, he hurried down the hall, striving for that air of servile snobbery these places seemed to cultivate, and slid a passkey into the door of Manners’ suite. When he saw the empty interior, he let out a sigh of relief. One less thing for him to worry about.
Even without the connection, he knew where he would find her. His hand was shaking as he slowly turned the knob to the bedroom door.
She was lying on the king-sized bed, looking frightfully tiny within the bevy of blankets and pillows. Her clothes were folded on a chair nearby, but when he looked, Ethan couldn’t see her bra straps. What he saw instead was a white bandage almost completely covering the far shoulder, with dried blood that someone had failed to wash away staining her tanned skin.
Her lashes fluttered open when she heard the door open, and his heart leapt at the recognition in them. “You came,” Buffy whispered. Her voice cracked, as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks, and Ethan immediately went to the bathroom to fetch a glass of water.
He returned to see her eyes still steadily watching him. Since focusing on his plan to get her out, he had blocked out the worst of the connection, ignoring her pain while he concentrated his attention elsewhere. But having it stare back at him in blatant need of acknowledgement was more excruciating than he could have imagined.
For a moment, he merely wanted to flee the room. Forget everything. Sever the tie and be done with it. Life was too short to be consumed by such pain and he wasn’t ready to let it take over his. Not even for Buffy.
Then she spoke. And his doubts fled.
“Tell me this isn’t just a social call,” she said. “Because I’m more in the mood for getting out of here than I am for chatting.”
In spite of his turmoil, Ethan laughed. “We’ll have time enough later on to get properly caught up,” he said. Crossing to the bed, he slid an arm beneath her to help her sit up, heedful of her injured shoulder. She had little strength, he realized. Even when the blanket fell to reveal her breasts, Buffy didn’t grab it up in modest haste to cover herself again. In fact, she let him hold the glass for her while she sipped at the water, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he felt her sigh in relief.
“Those bastards shot me,” she said when he set aside the glass. “And they say they killed Spike.”
Ethan nodded. “That was my assumption as well,” he admitted. “Otherwise, I’m sure he would’ve roared his way in here before I could.”
His fingers trailed along her arm, absorbing the heat she exuded from being smothered in blankets. Dreams were nothing compared to the reality. How many times had he woken up hard and aching for her just a taste of her golden skin? And here it was, bared and bruised, and his cock throbbed for just a little bit more.
“I…I…I need you to do something,” Buffy whispered.
It tore his gaze away from the pink tips of her nipples, and he looked up to see her face clearly for the first time. Evidence of tears still streaked her cheeks, and while her eyes were dry, he could feel the screams ratcheting through her every thought, pummeling against the ring’s power in a vain attempt to break free.
“Of course,” he murmured. “Whatever you wish. As soon as I get you out of here.”
Her hand wrapped convulsively around his when he attempted to push back the blankets. “No.” There shouldn’t have been that much strength in her voice, but there was, and it was followed even more powerfully with, “You need to do it now.”
“Of course,” he repeated, but already, Ethan could feel his hopes sinking.
Buffy swallowed, her tongue darting out to moisten her lips. “Take it off. Please. I…can’t.”
Though she didn’t specify, there was no mistaking to what she was referring. It took every effort not to recoil at the thought of losing her again.
“We don’t have time for this,” he said, pulling his arm from where it held her up. Turning his back to her, he strode purposefully to her clothes, picking up the shirt and holding it out to examine it. “First thing we do is get you something that doesn’t shout riot victim---.”
Such a simple weapon. She wielded it expertly, just as she did a stake or blade.
His shoulders sagged, but he refused to turn back and look at her. “You ask the impossible, my dear,” he said. “We both know you will run away again without the ring.”
“But you can’t possibly want me like this.” Her voice was rising, finding power from wells he knew she kept shielded for such occasions. “This isn’t real. None of it. Why would you want something that would just be a lie?”
He laughed, a dry, mirthless chortle. “And how, pray tell, is that different than the world we walk through every single day, Buffy?” Turning around, he met her fervent gaze with a shake of his head. “I dare you to find me a creature that walks this plane without denying at least a measure of the ugliness around him. It can’t be done, not even by a Slayer. And do you know why? Because we’d all go mad if we opened our eyes and saw the truth in all its rabid glory.” His fingers tightened around the shirt that still dangled in his fingers. “People lie. They will always lie. Nothing you or I ever do will change that.”
“You’re wrong. Spike never lied to me. Not once.”
Ethan flinched at the vampire’s name. “And yet, you were denying your relationship with him mere hours ago. If truth is so precious to you, I wonder why it is you choose to renounce him.”
“Surprisingly, it’s not. You’re the one who insists on making it so difficult, Buffy.”
Her sudden intake of breath was accompanied by a dizzying wave along the line of their connection, and Ethan reached out to blindly grasp the back of the chair to keep from toppling over. He felt the memory even as she relived it, heard Spike utter almost the exact same words Ethan just had, but it was the last part of the conversation that made him lift his head and stare at her.
She pressed her lips together while she regarded him with luminous eyes. “You know what Ethan---.”
“I do, and we’re not talkin’ about him. We’re talkin’ about you and me.”
“But who I am has everything to do with him. You think you know me, Spike? You know what Ethan created. Everything I know, everything I thought I knew…it’s because of him.”
“You said you cared about me,” Buffy said softly. “If that’s true, prove it. Take the ring off. Please.”
It hurt to have to repeat himself. It simply hurt. “You’ll run.”
“Really? Where would I go?”
There was a logic there, in spite of how much he might wish to deny it. “You think I’m not aware of how much you loathe what we had?” he said. He grimaced when he heard the break in his voice. This was weakness he didn’t wish to display, not even to Buffy. “If I give you the opportunity to go, you will. And I shall be alone again.”
The pity washing off of her made him turn away, busy himself with her clothes. This was not how he’d envisioned their reunion. There were supposed to be praises sung—his, of course—and she was to beg him to rescue her from Wolfram and Hart’s evil clutches. A kiss, perhaps, just before he whisked her away.
His smile was crooked. He had always been a romantic at heart.
“Ethan…” The call of her voice was too enticing not to respond to, and he glanced back to see her struggling to stay upright. “If you make me go with you without taking off the ring, you’re still going to be alone.”
In the dead of night, when he was tired and the world was black and silent, there was a single fact Ethan could never deny. He was not a strong man. He lacked the fortitude to step beyond his boundaries; it was much easier to draw others closer than it was to reach out. But in this, Buffy was right. He had known that before she’d had the strength to say so aloud.
He couldn’t even look at her glorious breasts as he picked up her hand. His fingers trembled as he slipped off the small ring.
The same hand came up and cupped his face. “Thank you,” Buffy murmured.
A snort of derision came from the doorway. “Something tells me I should’ve knocked,” Spike commented from where he lounged against the jamb.
To be continued in Chapter 17: Time to Run…