There was a beautiful Picasso reproduction hanging over the couch in the waiting room. At least Buffy hoped it was a reproduction, the alternative was too unfair to consider. The painting was the spotlight of the elegantly furnished room, and she found the whole thing slightly galling. That evil should have such good taste.
That the bad guys could rest their bad asses on buttery leather couches and walk on plush dark hued carpets and have secretaries sitting behind massive oak desks.
She and Xander stuck out like sore thumbs. Especially Xander. He had dressed up for today’s meeting, which apparently meant a pair of un-pressed khakis and a black button down, over a white t-shirt. His hair was sticking out at an odd angle in the back and there was the slightest hint of sweat around his hairline, even though the room was most definitely climate controlled.
He looked rumpled and nervous and so like himself that it actually made Buffy feel less rumpled and nervous. Xander was a gratifying constant in her life, and it was only in recent months that she had begun to understand just how much that meant.
Not that he hadn’t changed over the past couple of years. Mid-twenties Xander was both world-weary and battle-hardened and it showed, in both his demeanor and his appearance. Now that all-night video game marathons and Dorito munching were a thing of the past, his body was tighter now, his shoulders broader. His face was thinner, his bones more prominent, and he had tiny laugh lines that Buffy loved. The now-ubiquitous eye patch gave him a rakish edge that was not altogether unsexy. Buffy smiled to herself. It was actually rather sexy.
“Care to let me in on the joke?” Xander’s voice was hushed, like he was in a library.
“Huh?” Buffy wasn’t aware she had made a joke.
“I’m just wondering why you’re grinning like David Duchovny just offered himself to you.”
“Oh. No reason,” she said.
Xander nodded like he didn’t believe her and looked down at his feet. He cracked his knuckles loudly.
“Xander,” Buffy chided. She’d been trying to get him to stop that.
“I’m not going to do this,” he said.
“Good. It’s a disgusting habit and I’ve heard it’s really bad for your bones.”
Xander looked momentarily confused. “No, not that. This,” he told her, raising his hand and gesturing to the room around them. “I’m sorry Buffy, but I’m not going to do this.”
The teeny tiny slice of a good mood that had been blooming inside of her died out. They’d had this discussion. Now was not the time to rehash it. “We’ve talked about this.”
“This isn’t what we do,” Xander said firmly.
“This is what we have to do,” Buffy reminded him. She didn’t like the way he was making her be the bad guy. As if it was somehow easier for her.
“Screw that.” Xander’s voice finally rose above a whisper. “I’m sick of being their bitch for hire.” Buffy smirked. “Man-bitch,” Xander corrected. “I’m sick of being their man-bitch.”
“Is that what you plan on telling Miss Morgan?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said petulantly. “Maybe. Well, I mean, not in so many words…”
Buffy sighed. Because part of her was annoyed he even suggested it and because part of her really wanted him to.
“Xander, we owe them. We knew there would be a price when we accepted the firm’s offer to help. But we had no choice. Without their info we would have never been able to close that Hellmouth in Detroit.”
“I’m still not sure we did.” Buffy glared at him. “I’m just saying, the place still looks exactly the same,” Xander mumbled.
She ignored Xander’s dig at the Motor City. “And you know that without the funds they provided, Giles wouldn’t be rebuilding the Watchers Council right now.”
“All right, all right,” Xander said, raising both hands up defensively. “I get it.”
Buffy wondered if he really did. He should. More than anyone, Xander knew how much the decision bothered her, how hard it had been to make. When Lilah Morgan had shown up last year offering the firm’s assistance, the idea of accepting seemed laughable. Getting in bed with an evil law firm, particularly the one that had caused so much trouble for their former friends.
“You know, I have to say, we’ve done three of these little errands for Wolfram and Hart and you didn’t seem to have so many ‘ethical issues’ until now,” Buffy said.
“That’s because none of the other odd-jobs involved asking me to sneak into my ex-girlfriend’s wedding,” Xander told her bluntly. “Lilah must be certifiably insane. How are we supposed to get in, anyway?”
Buffy herself wasn’t entirely sure. “Well, we were kind of her friends. Once.”
“Buf, I scarred the girl for life. Literally. And I haven’t seen her since graduation.”
“I have,” she responded dryly.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about your little trek to L.A. When was that, right before we left Cleveland?” Buffy nodded. “Well, how’d she look then?” Xander inquired.
“I was a little too busy beating the crap out of Angel to take stock of Cordy’s appearance,” she said.
“Fine,” Buffy admitted. “Yes, even in my jealous rage she looked great. Longish hair. Prada stilettos. Breasts that made me question my sexuality. And, of course, a big honking diamond ring.”
“Well at least we know that’s gone,” Xander said.
“But I bet the breasts are the same,” she grumbled.
“Maybe this job won’t be so bad,” he joked.
Buffy shot him a withering glance and turned to stare at the large closed door separating them from Lilah Morgan’s office. They’d never met with her here before. That’s not to say Buffy had never been inside that office. Because it hadn’t always been Lilah Morgan’s office.
“If you’ll just wait inside Angel’s office, someone will be with you shortly,” the tiny brunette told her, opening the door for her but remaining outside.
She wasn’t the secretary. She was the woman the icy, middle-aged secretary had called when Buffy announced her name. She was dressed in an unprofessionally short jean skirt and a simple white blouse. Rather attractive, in a jumpy sort of way. But definitely not Angel’s type, so at least she didn’t have to worry about that.
Not that Buffy should be worrying about things like that. That’s not why she came. Officially. She just wanted to know how he was doing. She wasn’t sure she was ready for anything more. Not yet. It hadn’t even been a year since Spike…left.
“Right, so, um, I’ll go now. If you, you know, need anything, I’m Fred,” the young woman offered with a smile. She hesitantly held out her hand, jerked it away before Buffy could take it, and finally settled on a shaky wave. “I’m Fred,” she repeated quietly. Another uncertain smile and she was gone, closing the door behind her and leaving Buffy alone in Angel’s office.
It was nothing like his first office, the tiny one above his apartment. This was a grown up office. Big. Expensive. Intimidating.
And a lot brighter than she expected.
There were lots of books. That she had expected. Shelf after shelf along the wall behind his desk. Buffy smirked. They were probably all first editions. Knowing Angel.
Although, glancing around the room, Buffy wasn’t sure how well she did know Angel. There were flowers. Fresh, strategically placed throughout the room. The sleek black desk—she’d been picturing a scarred old clunker, made of oak and dating back to the Civil War. The plasma TV seemed out of place on the wall, as did the open copy of Glamour lying on the couch by the door.
And the flat-screen Dell on his desk? It was a little tough to imagine Angel checking his email and forwarding a chain letter to seven friends. It was a little tough to imagine Angel having seven friends.
She smiled, suddenly picturing Angel hunched over the keyboard, pecking at letters with his two forefingers. And what kind of screen saver would an ensouled vampire choose?
After a small guilty look at the door, Buffy walked around to the other side of the desk. The screen was black. A bright yellow sun bounced from one side to another, then up and down. Why did he insist on taunting himself with what he couldn’t have?
Straightening, Buffy’s finger knocked into the mouse and Angel’s desktop suddenly appeared. Buffy gasped, blinked twice, then looked again. It was still there.
Well, that was…odd. She wondered why Cordelia was dressed like a belly dancer..
Looking around the rest of the room, Buffy noted that there seemed to be an awful lot of pictures of Cordelia. Cordelia in a long black evening dress, being handed her wrap by a tuxedo-clad Wesley. Cordelia holding a present towards a young man with shaggy hair, who couldn’t be much older than Dawn. Cordelia and Angel by the water. Cordelia and Angel in what looked to be a very crowded bar. Cordy and Angel…in front of the MGM Grand? And what was on her hand?
Buffy heard footsteps outside the office, but didn’t move. Couldn’t move.
“Hey Fred,” she heard. That familiar voice. That familiar warmth, rushing through her. But something was wrong, something was terribly wrong. In that picture, on his desk, something was sparkling and it wasn’t the bright lights of Vegas.
“Angel, thank god you’re here,” the girl, Fred, squeaked. “This is huge. You won’t believe—”
“Whatever it is, it can wait. Can’t you see? I’m carrying precious cargo here.” There was a husky laugh, that didn’t sound like Angel or Fred.
“You don’t understand,” Buffy heard Fred plead. “There’s something you have to—”
“Exactly. There’s something I have to do, something I’ve wanted to do since I woke up alone this morning and I’m not going to wait another minute,” Angel said, chuckling.
There was another muffled squeak from Fred even as the door swung open and Angel walked in, arms full of a giggling Cordelia. Her hands were clasped around his neck. She shifted slightly and the soft overhead lights caught on the diamond ring she wore. Even from where she stood, across the room, Buffy could see it clearly. Fourth finger. Right hand.
That too was unexpected.
Buffy jumped when Xander laid his hand on her shoulder. “Sorry,” she offered. “Zoned out for a minute there.”
“He should have told you Buffy,” Xander said quietly. “You shouldn’t have found out like that.”
She smiled grimly. “Yeah, well, it was years ago.” Buffy was pleasantly relieved at how easy it was to shrug the memory off now.
She knew why. She wondered if Xander did, and worried that he didn’t. She decided to test the ground. “Maybe I had it coming. It’s stupid to think that someone’s going to wait around forever for you.”
“It’s not that stupid,” Xander said softly. He suddenly seemed to realize he was still holding her shoulder and abruptly withdrew his hand. “Uh, it’s, it’s strange to think about Angel moving on from you.”
Buffy slowly exhaled. They really needed to have a talk. This undefined thing was getting a little old. “Speaking of moving on Xander—”
Xander and Buffy both turned to look up at the slender blond secretary.
“Miss Morgan will see you now.”
Lilah Morgan was exquisitely beautiful. Xander had seen more than his fair share of lovely women. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Anya. Faith and Dawn. That girl who’d chained him up and tried to sacrifice him that last year in Sunnydale had been a stunner. Hell, even some of those young slayers had him thinking impure thoughts. None of them affected him the way Lilah did.
She scared the hell out of him. Women were not that beautiful and that confident unless they were a little bit evil. The only person who’d come close to causing this kind of innate fear in Xander was Cordelia, back in high school, and even she was a distant second.
Lilah was seated behind a huge black desk. She looked up when they entered. “Mr. Harris. Miss Summers.” She smiled and Xander had the irrational urge to turn and run.
Buffy nodded a greeting. “Ms. Morgan.” She elbowed Xander in his side. He grunted a hello. Without looking away, Lilah discreetly closed a thick black file folder and then covered it with an innocuous looking notepad. The move did not go unnoticed by Buffy.
Xander couldn’t stop staring at Lilah’s neck. This happened every single time they saw her. As usual, she wore a scarf. Today’s was maroon, a soft-looking silk that went perfectly with her severely fitted suit.
The rumor, according to Giles, was that Lilah was neither dead nor alive. The first time they’d met her, the night she’d arrived at the door of their cramped walk-up in Detroit more than a year ago, Dawn had asked her what happened. Ms. Morgan had only adjusted the scarf and warned the girl “Never piss off an ex-cheerleader.”
There was a children’s book Xander remembered from grade school. About a woman who would never take off the green ribbon around her neck. The husband would always ask why and she wouldn’t tell him. One night, the husband waited until his wife was asleep and untied the ribbon. Her head rolled right off.
Ms. Morgan always made him think of that book. The story had scared the hell out of Xander. It still did.
Lilah made no move to stand up. “Please, have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the two chairs in front of her desk. “Or, not,” she added, when Buffy slid into the seat on the right but Xander remained where he stood.
“Xander,” Buffy hissed. Lilah smiled broadly and reached up to twist the end of the scarf around her finger, like she knew that it made him nervous. Who was he kidding? Of course she knew.
That was what made him mad enough to break the hypnotic spell of her neck. Xander stalked over and placed both hands on the well-oiled desk. He leaned down at her, over her. “Listen lady—”
The intercom on the phone buzzed, cutting him off before he even began. “Excuse me just a second,” Lilah said sweetly. Xander felt the anger-induced bravery leak out of him, and when Buffy tugged on his arm, he let himself be pulled into the chair behind him.
Lilah pressed the red button on the top of the phone. “Is he here?”
“Yes Ms. Morgan.” The secretary’s voice came out loud and clear over the intercom.
“I’ll be out in just a moment,” Lilah said, then swiftly removed her finger from the phone. “Now, where were we?” Her gaze zeroed in on Xander and he swore he felt his dick shrink just a little bit. “Oh, look at you, all fussy and glaring. You really hate me, don’t you Mr. Harris?” She seemed intrigued at the prospect.
“I, no, I don’t, I mean…” Xander felt like he was back in 10th grade, being questioned by the principal.
“What about you, Miss Summers? YOU hate me, don’t you?” Lilah inquired.
Buffy was silent for a moment, considering. “Xander and I can’t exactly afford to hate anyone right now.”
Lilah laughed. “Well said, Miss Summers. How very mature of you.”
Xander saw the small tic in Buffy’s jaw, but all she said was, “Shall we get down to business?”
Lilah gave her an appraising glance. “Absolutely.” She leaned back in her chair. “Here’s what’s going to happen. This will run just like your last three assignments. We give you directions and background. You complete the initiative successfully and all’s well that end’s well.”
“And this time really will be the end,” Buffy stated.
“You will have satisfied your debt, yes. If you no longer wish to prolong this arrangement, I certainly can’t force you. Although, I have to point out, it has been mutually beneficial. Surely you can’t deny that.”
Xander and Buffy said nothing. Lilah sighed, but didn’t seem too surprised by their decision. “Your instructions are to infiltrate Cordelia Chase’s wedding. We haven’t been able to adequately bug that place in nearly a year and the Senior Partners get antsy when they don’t know what she’s up to. You will—”
“Why?” Xander interrupted.
“Because according to the Senior Partners and despite what you or I or Miss Chase herself thinks, she’s a major player in the good and evil battle we all enjoy so much.”
“No, I mean why haven’t you been able to bug her house? Doesn’t this firm have people that are in MUCH better positions to do that for you?” Xander said, enjoying the slightly unsettled look Ms. Morgan was getting.
“I don’t know who you mean” she shot back.
Xander looked incredulous. “Hmm, I don’t know, what about Cordelia’s ex-husband?”
“Or what about that friend of hers, Fred?” Buffy added.
“Miss Burkle is no longer in our employ,” Lilah stated calmly, deftly ignoring the Angel reference.
“But what about her husband. I heard she was married to a partner here,” Buffy said, frowning.
Lilah paused. “You, you don’t know who she married?” It was the first and only crack in her armor that Xander had ever seen.
“We don’t exactly keep in touch with Angel’s little gang,” Xander joked.
“We just heard that he’s some uber-powerful Wolfram and Hart yes-man,” Buffy said. She couldn’t help but notice the way Ms. Morgan was tightly gripping her pen.
Lilah caught her stare and abruptly dropped the utensil. She seemed to force her body to relax. “That’s neither here nor there. Where was I? You will attend the wedding, as well as any pre-wedding activities you can get invited to. You will set up the equipment, according to the blueprints in that file.” She pointed a long red-tipped finger at the blue file on the right corner of her desk. “You will take accurate and descriptive notes about the people around Cordelia, particularly Angel’s son.”
Lilah stopped for a second and watched Buffy carefully. If she was waiting for some reaction to the mention of Angel’s Miracle-Gro child, she wasn’t going to get one. Xander wanted to laugh. Too bad bitch, he thought, we found out about that one years ago. Sure it was two years after the kid was born, but at least Lilah wasn’t going to get a thrill out of springing it on them.
Seeing she wasn’t going to get any response, Lilah concluded. “And finally, if for any reason, you see Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, you will page me immediately.” Buffy wondered if she was imagining the faint blush that stained the older woman’s cheeks.
For a moment all three of them were silent, the room engulfed in Lilah’s satisfaction. Then Xander exploded up out of his chair, nearly knocking it over backwards in his haste to stand. “This is awful. You people are incredible. We can’t do this. We’d have to be like you, we’d have to be evil, to do this. We’re absolutely NOT doing this,” he shouted.
“How do we get in?” Buffy asked quietly. Xander sat back down.
Lilah didn’t bat an eye at his outburst. “Come now, it’s not like you’re strangers.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Please. This firm had the skinny on The First, you had information on how to close the Hellmouth in Detroit. So I’m thinking you gotta have files on all of us. Neither of us are exactly close with her.”
Lilah seemed unperturbed. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got someone on the inside that will help with all of that.”
“Ha!” Xander shot back up out of his chair. “You must not know Cordelia Chase very well.”
“That’s debatable,” Lilah said. She touched the scarf again.
Xander snorted. “Yeah well I guarantee you lady, there’s not a man alive who could convince that woman to let me in her house.”
“That’s true,” the lawyer agreed lightly and Buffy looked confused.
“Well then,” Xander smacked his hands together, “we’re done here.”
“Sit down Mr. Harris,” Lilah said, all humor gone from her voice. Xander complied. “I was merely agreeing that there wasn’t a man alive who could get you into that wedding.” She stood up, casually tugging on the bottom of her suit jacket and smoothing back the hair that curled down over one eye.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a moment,” Lilah murmured. Not bothering to wait for a response, she walked around her desk and out the door, closing it quickly behind her. She quickly scanned the waiting area and her eyes caught on him. Lilah felt a pleasant hum of excitement as she gave the man leaning against the wall a quick, cursory once-over.