disclaimer in part 1
Cordelia reentered the hotel. Gunn and Wesley looked up, and she saw the faint hope in their eyes fade.
"What now?" Gunn asked.
Cordelia shook her head helplessly. "We seem to be asking that a lot lately." She collapsed on the circular couch and slumped back. "He's going to burn the warehouse. To the ground he said." She covered her eyes. "I can't believe he's willing to let her die." She rubbed at her forehead with the back of her hand. "I thought..." She opened her eyes and looked at Wesley. "I just thought... I mean, it's Buffy. And Angel. If anything could have stopped him..."
"I know," Wesley agreed. "I believe we all thought the same."
Cordelia closed her eyes again. Her head still ached. "We were wrong."
"So, Angel's out," Gunn said. "Who does that leave?"
Wesley smiled, knowing, rueful. "Just us."
Cordelia sat up. She took in Gunn, his homemade ax on his shoulder, and a look of half-anticipation on his face. Eager, but all too human. She looked at Wesley, different now than the bumbling man who had come to Sunnydale, but different enough? And herself? She was different too. She liked to think she was better now than she had been, but when it came to stakes and swords she might as well just sit on the sidelines for all the help she'd be. It was a pretty sorry picture. A bunch of sidekicks, a back-up team, trying to play hero.
"It's suicide," she muttered. And for what? A girl she wasn't even sure she liked. But a girl who'd given everything to save the rest of the world, even when the rest of the world turned around and slapped her in the face as a thank you. So, okay. Now it was Buffy's turn to be saved. And maybe they weren't the best people to do it, but they were the only hope she had.
"Great," Cordelia said, pasting on her brightest May Queen smile. "Suicide. When do we start?"
Buffy woke slowly to darkness and the murmur of voices. For a moment, she was disoriented, then the memory of the trap slammed past the throbbing in her shoulder. She stifled her groan and kept her eyes closed, trying to get a sense of her surroundings without revealing that she was again conscious.
"Sorry you couldn't be here this time," Darla was saying, "but I know better than to give you another chance to stab me in the back." She paused, and Buffy heard movement behind her. She stayed still, even as the footsteps approached the back of the chair where she was tied. "And don't worry, you'll still get to watch her die. Even if video is so much less personal." A hand came down on Buffy's head. "Still it's worth the tradeoff. All the fun, and none of the risk to me. You've just got to love technology."
The hand on Buffy's head grabbed a handful of hair and pulled. Hair ripped from Buffy's skull, and her eyes began to water. She tried, despite that, to continue her unconscious act. A sharp slap cracked across her wounded cheek, and she felt the cut there break open.
"I know you're awake, little girl," Darla said into her ear. "You can drop the act."
Buffy opened her eyes and took in the video camera propped up on a tripod, facing her. Bright light surrounded her and the video camera, some kind of spotlight. Past the circle of light, she couldn't make out very much of the darkened warehouse. She couldn't see the exits or who else was out there. Just the camera. She slid her gaze to the right, and Darla smiled at her.
"Morning, sunshine." Darla looked over at the camera as her vamp face emerged. "Smile one more time for Angel." Her fingernail slid down the side of Buffy's face, drawing blood by the time it reached her chin. "Such a pretty smile." Her voice lowered to a whisper, and her lips brushed Buffy's ear. "Such a pretty girl." Her breath blew soft against Buffy's cheek. "He'll want to remember that smile because once I'm done with you, there won't be any pretty left."
Wesley's fear leaped as Cordelia confirmed what he already knew they had to do. The fear, the weakness, reminded him of the past. Of offering up Buffy, and Angel, and anything else Balthazaar wanted, in the face of torture. That memory fed his fear, deepened it, replaced it with the almost incapacitating terror that he would fail them again. That his fear would be too much for him. He hesitated on the brink. Cordelia and Gunn stared at him, waiting, expecting him to have an answer for them. In the face of that expectation of strength, his resolve hardened. "Right," he said. "First thing. We need to find out where Buffy is."
"And how exactly are we gonna do that?" Gunn asked. "We don't even know who took her."
Again they looked at him, waiting for him to say the right thing, to offer a solution, to lead. "So far the books have been useless," he said. "Maybe if the Host were to read us..." he trailed off. "He might at least be able to build on your vision, Cordelia. Although I have my doubts about-" He stopped. In the silence, a distant thud repeated itself. "Did anyone hear that?" he asked.
They all stood listening, heads cocked. Another muffled thud. Now the glances they exchanged turned uneasy.
"It's coming from the basement," Wesley said.
"What do you think?" Gunn asked. "Friend or foe?"
"The way our luck has been going," Cordy said, "definitely foe."
Gunn hefted his ax. "Well, we best go find out." He started for the basement door. "No sense waiting for it to come up."
"No sense rushing in half-cocked either," Wesley said.
"Don't tell me you want us to wait until it eats us."
"No, only until I have a moment to prepare myself." Wesley walked to the weapons cabinet. Fear. It was always there. But it didn't control him anymore. He knew pain, and death. He knew he was able to stand up, even when all he wanted to do was crumble. He was no champion. No Slayer. He was just a man. But he could stand.
The cabinet was nearly empty, Angel having removed most of the weapons long before, but a few leftovers remained. Wesley picked up a mace and a small crossbow. He tested the mace in his hand. There was comfort in the weight of it, despite the fact that these hands held a book more naturally than a weapon.
"Stay back if there's hand to hand." He handed the bow over to Cordelia. "And try not to shoot any of the good guys." She took the weapon with a grim nod of thanks.
"I knew there was a reason I liked you, English," Gunn said. "Aside from the handy organizational skills." He winked, and Wesley smiled at the crack.
Cordelia frowned at Gunn. "Excuse me? What about my skills? I'll have you know I ran this place single-handedly in the beginning."
"You've got some skills," Gunn conceded. "Not sure they're too much about the organization though. I've heard about that crazy filing system you had up in here."
"That system worked." Cordelia just barely stopped herself from waving the crossbow at him. "I could find anything within three seconds flat. I don't-"
They all fell silent at another thump from below. It sounded no closer or louder than the first. Which Wesley supposed was a good sign. Maybe. "Ready?" he said.
Gunn flashed a predatory grin. "I thought you'd never ask."
They moved warily down the basement steps, Gunn in the lead, Cordelia bringing up the rear. When they reached the bottom, Gunn swung around the side of the stairs, ax high. He lowered it abruptly, and Wesley bumped into his back.
"Foe," Gunn said. "Whatever's left of one anyway." Wesley felt Cordelia come up behind him, and the two of them moved around Gunn to get a look at what had caused his reaction.
"My God," Cordelia said.
Wesley stared at Lindsey McDonald. He was chained to a chair, bleeding, looking up at them through slitted, swollen eyelids. Wesley hardly knew where to look first, each individual injury not registering fully, only an overwhelming image of pain, bruised and bloody pain. Something Wesley was intimately familiar with thanks to Faith. Blunt, sharp, hot, cold, loud. "Angel did this," Wesley breathed. Angel was fond of sharp. Faith had been too.
Lindsey tried to laugh, the sound horse, harsh. "You're surprised?" He coughed and spat blood on the floor. "Not what you expected from your shining champion? Is torture beneath Angel? The hero." His swollen face twisted into a sarcastic sneer.
Cordelia moved to his side, her hands dropping to the chains that bound him to the chair, searching for a way to release them.
"Wait," Wesley said.
Cordelia turned to him, disbelief on her face. "He needs help. I know he's part of Wolfram and Hart, but we can't just-"
"Leave him," Wesley interrupted, his voice cold and hard, leaving no room for argument. He ignored the anger in Cordelia's glare, and the doubt on Gunn's face, concentrating on the wreck of a man in front of him. He wanted to feel sympathy for this man. He wanted to help him. "Leave him," he said again. He had a job to do. Cordelia reluctantly dropped her hands from the lock.
Buffy listened to Darla circle around in back of her, felt the fingers at the base of her neck, and then the fingernails sunk into her back and shoulders, sunk in until they drew blood. She stared into the camera and didn't wince.
Darla reached her other side, but Buffy didn't look at her. "Shall we begin?" Buffy continued to stare. The knife in Darla's hand flicked out and sliced open her left cheek, leaving a cut there to match the one from the fight on her right. She ignored it. She wasn't going to give Darla the satisfaction of sharing one second of her pain. And she refused to pass her pain on to Angel. Darla crouched in front of her, putting herself at Buffy's eye level. "Very brave," she said. "Stoic." She pursed her lips. "But I've seen Slayers beg. I've made them weep."
Buffy met Darla's eyes for the first time, dead-on, her gaze hard. "Do you really think you can break me?"
Darla looked deep into her eyes, and smiled. "No," she admitted, to Buffy's surprise. "But I know someone who can."
Buffy heard another pair of footsteps, the click of heels. Thin slender fingers rested gently on the top of her head. Drusilla spoke.
"Such thoughts you put in my boys' heads. Thoughts that burn like holy water. Let's see what's in your head. Let's see what makes you burn."
Buffy tossed her head once, futilely. She was locked in place. There was no way to escape those fingers. Abruptly, they lifted.
"So obvious," Drusilla said. "Like a clear pool. I can see the bottom." She put her hand on Buffy's shoulder as she walked around her, smearing the blood Darla had drawn over her fingers. She faced Buffy, licking her fingertips clean, and Buffy turned her head away. She knew how Drusilla's mind tricks worked. The vampire moved in close, her legs straddling Buffy's knees. Her hair smelled sweet, like fruit. Too sweet. Rotting fruit. Dru grabbed her chin in an unbreakable grip that hurt her jaw. She kept her eyes to the side, not looking at the other woman. But Dru only laughed, a low jitter, and the tip of her fingernail came into Buffy's line of vision.
As she drew her fingers back to the right, Buffy's eyes followed despite herself. "Be in me," Dru said softly. Those fingernails, bright as blood, traveled up to point at Dru's eyes. Buffy tried not to look, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. As soon as her eyes met Dru's she couldn't look away.
"Be in my eyes."
Lindsey clung to consciousness. He felt the pain less. It was so constant, it became a sort of feedback, always there, but something that could be spoken over. A deep hum instead of the shrill shriek it had been in the beginning. He looked down at the shallow cut on his wrist, at the hand he could have lost. For what? To make it look good for the senior partners, to play someone else's cards, someone else's game. He breathed through his mouth, avoiding taking in air through his bloody nose. The air tasted like blood.
He was going to throw up.
"We can't just leave him," Cordelia was saying. Arguing for him. "He needs medical attention." Beautiful. Filled with pity. With feeling. He wondered what it felt like to be her, to be filled with anything.
"And he'll get it," Wesley agreed. "As soon as he tells us where Dru and Darla are." Lindsey forced his head up, and met Wesley's eyes. It never ended. "Where did you send Angel?"
"Who cares?" Gunn said. "We're looking for Buffy. Or have you forgotten?"
Too late, the heroes. Lindsey spoke, his voice a rough whisper. "Buffy's already dead." He laughed again, his lip splitting open with the bitter smile. They were all dead. Buffy, Angel, Darla. Lindsey was dead too. He'd been dead a long time. They just hadn't realized it yet. He stared at his stump.
"Where is she?" Wesley asked.
Sitting in a chair like this one probably. He felt something. Not pity, never pity. But a kind of kinship with a girl he'd never met. "It doesn't matter now." He closed his eyes. He needed some codeine or a percocet. Several in fact. And a drink.
"Maybe not to you," Gunn said, his voice loud, full of attitude.
"Not even to her." Gunn stood there, tall, fairly shining with anger and righteousness. Not dead. These three were still alive. They still cared. But they'd learn eventually. How things really were. "She's past caring." The words scraped his throat.
"How do you know?" Wesley stepped closer. There was a knife on the long wooden table next to Lindsey's chair. It was already stained with Lindsey's blood. He picked it up. When Lindsey said nothing, he leaned in closer. "It doesn't have to be the hard way. But I think you'll find Angel isn't the only one willing to break a few rules. Or a few bones in your case."
Lindsey stared at the knife. He wasn't going to sit here and bleed again. He'd done his part for the senior partners. Everything was already in motion. Now it was about time he did what was best for him. And what was best for him was avoiding any more pain "Don't bother with the knife and the threats," he said. He tipped his head back, his face ached with every word, every expression. "I don't have a reason to hide what I know." He would have shrugged if he had the strength. "It's already too late to stop it."
"Let us be the judge of that," Wesley said. "You just stick to what you know. Where is Buffy?"
"It was Darla who took her," Wesley said, half to himself.
"But my vision..." Cordelia muttered. "That trap... How?"
Lindsey kept that part to himself. It was beside the point, and the ability to hijack Cordelia's mind could be to his benefit in the future. If he had a future. Ah well, dead men tell no tales. He was a dead man; he'd keep his tales to himself.
"You mean, Buffy is in the warehouse with Darla?" Gunn said. "That warehouse Angel is planning on burning to the ground right now?"
"Call Angel." Wesley's voice was urgent. Alive. "Try his cellphone." Cordelia ran for the stairs.
"Where is Darla?" Wesley snapped, his attention back on Lindsey. "Where did you send Angel?" He tightened his grip on the knife. Lindsey looked at it, and half-raised his eyebrow even though the movement hurt.
"Ease up, Wes," he said. "No need to get bloodthirsty. I can even draw you a map if you need one."
"Why are we trusting him?" Gunn said. "He's obviously working some angle. This could be another trap."
"Take it or leave it," Lindsey said. His dry throat caught, and he coughed, spitting out another metallic mouthful of blood. "I don't care what you do with the information. At this point, I'm just tired of being everybody's punching bag." He pulled a little against the chains. "I'm tired of doing what I'm told, and I'm tired of being afraid, and I'm tired of bleeding." He stopped, running out of breath, his ribs hurting. "I'm tired."
He looked up. "It's too late," he said. "But I'll give you what you want. Use it or not. I don't care." And he didn't. Mostly. He told himself he was giving them the address because at this point all they could do was get there in time to collect the bodies. But a part of him liked the idea of them getting there in time to muck up all the senior partners' plans. A part of him wanted the whole thing to fall apart, and fall apart because of him. The interchangeable, invisible man. The man who didn't matter. He met Wesley's eyes. Maybe there was a little life left in this dead man after all.
"Tell me," Wesley said.
Buffy blinked, and Dru was gone. She stared into familiar dark brown eyes. A shudder of relief ripped through her. "Angel," she breathed. He looked down at her, his body close to hers, his legs straddling hers, his fingers tilting her chin up. He traced the cut Darla had left on her face, his touch so gentle. His thumb brushed over her forehead. He smiled a little, and she smiled back. His head lowered, his lips pressing to hers. She responded hungrily, unable to reach up and touch him as she wanted to. Now that she finally had him, for the first time since she'd come to LA. Now that there were no more walls around him. She needed to touch him.
"We've got to get out of here," she whispered. "Can you cut these?" She strained against the ropes. He kissed her again, again gently. She shut her eyes, forgetting for a moment where she was.
He broke the kiss, and her eyes slowly open. It felt like a dream. He brushed the stray hairs around her face back, then straightened. He stepped away from her.
She looked at him, puzzled.
She wasn't ready when he hit her, the back of his hand connecting with her cheek. Light exploded into her vision. Her head drooped on her neck, and she blinked back unconsciousness. When she looked up at him, she whispered. "Angelus."
He shook his head. "Guess again," he said. He knelt in front of her, his hands on her knees. He ran his hand up her thigh. The ropes were too tight. She couldn't move her legs to kick him away. She didn't know if she would have kicked at him, even if she could. He felt like Angel. He couldn't be Angel.
"I don't understand."
"It's me," he said. None of Angelus's mockery in his voice. "Soul and all."
"No," she said. "This is a trick." She screwed her eyes shut, tight. She didn't want to look at him. She didn't want to see this happening. It wasn't happening. Not again. This was not happening. He pinched her earlobe gently between two fingers, and she leaned unconsciously toward his hand. The heel of his hand slammed into her chin. Her jaw closed down on her tongue. She tasted blood in her mouth. Pain radiating through her head. Her eyes opened again.
She faced him, unable to wipe away the tears that were gathering in her eyes. "What are you doing?" she said. She choked on the blood in her mouth. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because you deserve it, Buffy," he said. His voice was so familiar, so soft. It hurt to hear it. She wanted to scream. She looked at him instead, her head pounding, and waited for this to make sense. "You killed me," he said. His face twisted, flickering to anger, then sadness. "You sent me to hell. You killed my soul."
And the worst part was. It did make sense. She had done those things. She had betrayed him. "I didn't know." A little sob escaped. "I didn't know." He studied her, and she looked up, tried to reach for him. "I love you. I didn't mean-"
"Don't use that word," he said.
A helpless whimper escaped her. "What word? Angel, please-"
"Don't tell me you love me," he said. He sounded so sad. She'd done that to him. "I loved you," he said. "I loved you, and you made me suffer for it."
"No," she said. She shook her head, and her vision spun. She couldn't stop shaking her head, as if maybe denying it would stop it from being true.
"Now you have to suffer for me." When he brought his hand out from behind his back, a knife glittered in it. His hand darted out, too fast to see. Her arm burned, soaked in new blood. "You moved on." Knife. Pain. "You found someone else." Blood. Pain. "You killed me." He moved in and kissed her hard, his teeth biting her lip, drawing more blood. His tongue slipped inside to taste the blood inside her mouth. Then he leaned in close to her ear and whispered. "Close your eyes."
He stood back, waiting. The knife spinning from one hand to the other. She stared at him. This couldn't be Angel. She knew Angel, and Angel would never hurt her. Not like this. Not even if she did deserve it. She looked at his face, as if expecting it to fade away like a mask, and show her who this really was. What this really was. But his face was solid. Real. Not a mask. She met his eyes. His soul was there, inside him. This was real. She knew it was him. This was Angel.
She closed her eyes.
The knife sunk into her abdomen, not deep enough to kill, only deep enough to hurt. Bone deep, sharp, agonizing hurt. Like what she'd done to him.
Gunn ran through another yellow light. Okay, he admitted to himself, that last one was red. He glanced around to see if there were any cops waiting to bust him. Nope. Maybe the PTB weren't completely asleep on the job. He hoped someone was paying attention because they were going to need all the help they could get. He kept the gas pressed down as far as it would go, the truck at its maximum speed of 65. The engine was starting to groan a little, but he kept the pedal pressed to the floor.
Next to him, Cordelia dialed Angel's cell phone again. "Answer, damn it!" she cursed. "Idiot vampire." Wesley sat next to Gunn, a map of LA in his lap, the warehouse marked in red.
"Left here!" he shouted.
Gunn screamed into the turn late, the truck balancing briefly on two wheels. Everyone in the cab held their breath. It banged back down onto four wheels. For a moment there was only the soft whoosh of everyone breathing out. Then Cordelia started to dial again on her cell phone, and Gunn slammed on the gas.
There were only two guards. Angel snapped the first one's neck before it realized he was there. The second heard the loud crack of vertebrae splintering, and turned, seeing Angel. He opened his scaled mouth to yell. Angel's ax landed right between the horns in the middle of his forehead. He slumped. Angel pulled the ax out and replaced it on his belt. If anyone made it out of the inferno, he'd finish them personally.
He pulled everything he needed out of the trunk of his car. Chains and padlock for the warehouse door. Gasoline along the outside of the entire building and splashed against the door and the walls. He ducked back inside the car to grab his lighter. His cell phone was on the seat. Ringing. The damn thing wouldn't stop ringing. They wouldn't understand that this was something he had to do. He grabbed the phone and threw it as hard as he could. It shattered against concrete, its ring cut off.
He tossed the open lighter into a puddle of gasoline, and watched the flames leap up all around the building. It would all be over soon.