disclaimer in part 1

Relief
by Rebecca Carefoot
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PART THIRTEEN

Cordelia cradled a cup of lukewarm coffee in her hand as she peeked through the window to Buffy's hospital room. The surgery had taken two hours. Two hours Angel spent pacing like a caged tiger, hackles raised, hissing and spitting...or rather, growling and snapping at anyone unlucky enough to attract his attention. The doctors had been understandably concerned. Wesley had managed to convince them that Angel was merely a very worried boyfriend, not a real threat that needed to be restrained or knocked out long enough to treat his burns and ship him up to the psych ward. Cordy could just imagine the bloodbath that would have ensued if they'd tried THAT.

Angel had practically worn a track in the floor pacing back and forth in the private room where they'd stashed him until the doctors had finally brought Buffy out of surgery. Cordelia had been dreading trying to convince the hospital to let them keep a slightly deranged man in the room with an unconscious girl. But as soon as Angel had seen the gurney carrying her, he'd immediately quieted. He sank down against the wall, and didn't move an inch while they brought her in and placed her in the hospital bed.

She’d been tiny and pale and broken looking in the bed. She was still bandaged and unconscious. They couldn't say for sure when she'd wake up.

Angel was still crouching there on the floor, back against the wall, as Cordelia looked in through the window. His eyes were on Buffy, unblinking, unwavering as if he could bring her awake through sheer force of will. Wesley sat next to the injured Slayer’s bed, uneasy gaze on the vampire.

Cordelia eased the door open, and Wes looked up. Angel's eyes didn't stray.

"Gunn?" Wesley said.

Cordelia waved it away. "He's fine. The big drama queen. Like anybody needs a spleen. A few stitches, a couple units of blood, and he'll probably be on his feet again by tomorrow."

Wesley smiled.

"Trade?" Cordelia asked.

"I would like to look in on him."

"He's a little out of it. Sedated, you know. But he was conscious enough to tell me not to drive his truck before I left." She grinned, then darted a look over at the motionless vampire on the floor. "What about Angel?"

"Hasn't moved since they brought her in."

Cordelia frowned. "Do you think he's...okay?"

"Physically? A few of the burns are perhaps rather serious. But they’ll heal."

"Not really what I meant."

Wesley met her eyes. "I don't know." He looked away. "I tried talking to him, but I couldn't get a response."

"Do you think she's safe with him..." Cordelia trailed off. "The way he is."

Wesley gave it a moment of serious thought. "Honestly? He's not stable. But I think she's probably safer with him than anyone else is." He paused. "He doesn't seem violent."

“Or evil,” Cordelia added.

"He's just..." Wesley continued.

"Incapable of human speech?"

"Very focused."

"Right."

Wesley stood up, stretching the kinks from his back. "I'm sure she'll be waking up soon. Slayers are incredibly resilient."

"And I get to chaperone. Goodie."

"I'll stay if you..."

"I'm kidding," Cordelia said. "Go get something to eat. And tell Gunn I'm out in the parking lot doing donuts or whatever in his beloved truck."

She settled into the chair he'd vacated and stared for a moment at Angel. He could be made out of stone for all the movement he was making. He wasn't even breathing for Christ's sake. She was staring so hard that when he did move, she thought for a moment her eyes were playing tricks on her. She blinked. He inched another step closer to the bed. He curled out of his crouch and stood.

Great. He didn't move for hours, but as soon as she was alone with him, he started getting rambunctious.

"Angel," she said, using the same voice she'd used when that crazed Siamese her mom had brought into the house was climbing the curtains.

He didn't seem to hear her, his eyes on Buffy. He reached out with his fingers and touched them to the uninjured ridge of her brow. What was he doing?

"Angel, she's still unconscious." Cordelia frowned. "She doesn't know you're-"

Buffy's eyes flew open, and a deep gasp of breath shuddered into her lungs. She blinked, and blinked again, trying to clear her confusion. Cordelia could see her unfocused eyes darting around the room, looking for something to give her bearings.

"Hey, Buffy," Cordelia said, still using her calm the wild animal voice. Angel's hands were moving now, pressing against the crook of an elbow, the curve of an ear, any unbroken, unbandaged part of her. She seemed to notice suddenly that someone was touching her. Then Buffy's eyes snapped into focus, locking on Angel's face above her.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

Angel reached for her again, hovering over her, trying to get close to her. Cordelia jumped up from her seat. He was murmuring in something Cordelia didn't think was English. Buffy shrank back and away from him, still screaming, panic in her eyes.

Cordelia grabbed his arm, and pulled. “Back up!” she yelled. She pushed past Angel and got between him and Buffy. She tried to force Buffy to focus on her face. “You’re safe,” she said as soothingly as she could. Buffy was still staring at Angel, still screaming. Cordelia turned and looked at him. “She’s scared. Back up!” She could tell he heard her because he crumpled as if he’d been hit, wincing in on himself. He stumbled back a step.

Two doctors burst into the room, and Cordelia moved away from the bed as they crowded around it. She found herself next to Angel, who was craning to see what they were doing. Buffy’s thrashing and hoarse screams trailed off into silence after one of the doctors injected something into her IV.

The other doctor turned to them. “She can’t be aggravated like this. Who are you people? Are you family?”

“Yes,” Cordelia lied easily. “She’s my cousin. Amazing isn’t it? Obviously my mother got the bone structure and the good hair genes.” She flashed a smile, and glanced over at Angel. “This is her...fiancé. He doesn’t talk much.”

“Well, I don’t know what you two were doing to her, but-“

“She just woke up screaming,” Cordelia said. “We didn’t do anything. We just wanted to help.”

“She has been through quite a great deal of trauma,” the first doctor said. “She may not have known exactly where she was.” He clicked a pen and pulled her chart from the foot of the hospital bed. “I’m ordering a psych consult.”

“Great,” Cordelia said. “She needs it.” The second doctor gave her a slightly odd look. “I mean because she was attacked. Post-traumatic whatever.”

“Press the call button if you need help.”

“You got it.” She flashed another smile.

The second doctor narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Cordelia widened her smile and tried to look as vacant as possible. He hesitated, but followed the other one out. Once they were gone she turned to Angel. He was staring at Buffy. Cordelia grabbed his hand. He didn’t react to the touch. But at least he hadn’t jerked away.

“Angel,” she said.

He didn’t answer.

“Angel, I know you’re in a weird place right now, but you’ve got to snap out of it.”

He just stared, doing his best impression of a statue again.

Cordelia groaned. “You can’t help her like this. She needs you to be like a rational person!” She let his hand go, and turned to look at Buffy again. “I need you to be a rational person!” She frowned. “We have to figure out what’s going on.” There was fresh blood seeping through one of the bandages on Buffy’s arm where one of the wounds must have reopened during the struggle. Cordelia spoke absently. “She wasn’t just afraid. She was afraid of-“

“Me,” Angel said.

*

Drusilla was submerged in the bathtub. Her eyes were open, staring up through the cold water, and Spike could see her whimpering. Burned skin, waterlogged, trailed from her arms. Angry red marks scaled her ribcage, encroached on her breasts. He looked down at their joined hands under the water. His duster was charred, burned into the cooked skin around his wrist, across his back. He knew this in the back of his mind. He knew it hurt, constant, deep.

He knew, but he didn’t feel.

It was just pain.

“Spike,” Sammy called from the kitchen. “I talked to that guy I know. He’s not exactly a doctor. But he patches stuff up with no questions asked.” The red skinned demon appeared at the door to the bathroom. "He'll be here in an hour." He hesitated. “How’s she doing?”

Spike felt a bit like he was the one underwater. Everything seemed distorted, thick, slow. The light seemed to bend and waver around him. He blinked. There had been a question. Oh. “Yeah,” he said. “She’s not good. But she’ll make it.” He pushed some of her sodden hair back where it drifted into her eyes. “I’ve seen worse.” He corrected himself. “I’ve been worse.” Those dragging, torturous months confined to that blasted chair. Those horrible months, weeks, hours, minutes. So many interminable minutes trapped, watching her slip through his useless fingers. Watching Angel take her. Helpless. Pathetic. Bound by injury then as surely as the soldier boys had bound him with technology. Toothless.

He was free now. She’d set him free.

He still hadn’t been able to save her. To spare her this. He hadn’t been able to stop Angel from taking everything he wanted. From taking Dru. From taking Buffy. From walking like some messiah through a hail of weapons-fire, miraculously touched by nothing. They were nothing to him. Spike was nothing to him, not even an obstacle. He took what he wanted and burned the rest.

Just like the old days. Nothing really changed.

And Spike hadn’t been able to do anything but run.

Fucking helpless. Just like always.

Fucking Angel.

He held on tighter to Dru’s hand, turned the tap to let more water into the tub. She reached up a second hand to him, her muted crying rising up from under the water. He was glad he couldn’t make out the words. He didn’t want to know if she was calling for her Angel. Her Angel, even now. She pulled herself up, sat, trembling, her voice thin, wavering around him and breaking like light on rippling water.

“Spike,” she cried, and he felt something loosen in him, something sharp and tight. He couldn’t stand to hear anything but his name in her mouth. Not now. “Make it stop.”

“The doctor’s coming, and I’ll find you something sweet to eat.”

She pressed her wet forehead against his knee. Dark blisters marred her left cheekbone. “It hurts,” she moaned.

“I’ll make it stop, pet.” He hesitated with his fist half formed. “Look at me.” She tilted her head up to look at him. He held her steady with one hand, punched her hard with the other. Her head rocked, her eyes rolled up, and he slipped her unconscious back down into the water.

It couldn’t always end this way. One of these nights, the two of them would be on top. He bared his teeth. One of these nights.

*

Buffy was floating. The water was warm, and it felt like being held, the way it surrounded her and lifted her without effort.

She wiggled her fingers and felt the ripples against her ribs. She stared up at an endless sky so black it looked like liquid, filled with more stars than anybody in smoggy, constantly lit LA would ever dream were possible.

It was peaceful here.

Quiet.

Empty.

There was no pain.

*

“Angel,” Cordelia said in surprise. “You’re talking.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, a little bit sheepish. He forced himself to tear his eyes from Buffy. Cordelia’s head was cocked, studying him.

“So, are you...back?”

“I guess so.” He let his eyes slip back to Buffy. He tried to push the overwhelming instincts that buzzed through him down, aside. He tried to focus and feel the world around him as if it were three-dimensional and real and immediate instead of a blurry distraction to the one real thing. The girl lying in the bed in front of him. “I’m okay.”

Cordelia gave him a small smile. “She’s going to be alright.”

He wrenched his eyes up again. “I know. Of course, she will.” Words felt odd in his mouth, he could feel the shape of them against his tongue, like something cold and smooth and foreign. “I know,” he said again.

“But something happened to her,” Cordelia said. “I mean...partly it’s kind of obvious. What they did to her.” She motioned to the bandages and the stanched flow of blood and the wounds that Angel knew would heal. “But that doesn’t explain-“

“Why shouldn’t she be afraid of me?” Angel said bitterly. “She came here to help, and I pushed her away. I put her in danger. It’s because of me she was captured. Tortured.”

Cordelia shook her head. “You know she wouldn’t think like that or blame you for-“

“Why not? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“It was my vision that sent her into the trap,” Cordelia said. “She wasn’t screaming when she saw me. Something else is going on. Something they did.”

Angel forced himself to remember Buffy the way he’d seen her when he entered the warehouse. Bound. Bleeding. Drusilla with the knife. “Dru,” he said, understanding.

“What about her?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Maybe the doctors were right. Maybe it’s better if I leave. I don’t want to upset her.”

"Angel," Cordelia said. "Be reasonable. She just came out of a slight coma. She wasn't in her right mind." She hesitated. "That said. If you want to hang back a little right when she comes to, I wouldn't say no."

Angel lifted the fingers that had drifted to graze the back of Buffy's hand, felt the world come a little bit loose and unstable again. He stepped back and pressed his back to the wall, something solid, and wrapped his arms tightly around his chest.

*

Buffy tried to move her arm and couldn’t. She realized she couldn’t feel the water she knew must still be there, holding her up. In fact, she couldn’t feel her body at all.

Maybe she was disappearing. Maybe her body was already gone.

She didn’t really mind.

She heard voices, as if from far, far away. She thought she recognized them.

No.

She didn’t know anyone. She’d always been here. Floating.

Yes.

The voices had nothing to do with her.

She ignored them and concentrated on the stars. She would count them. That would take a long time. Maybe forever. By the time she was done, the voices would be gone. By the time she was done, maybe she’d be done disappearing. Maybe no one would be able to find her. Touch her. Reach her. Ever again.

Yes.

She started to count.

The voices continued, grew louder.

She shivered.

How could she be cold if she had no body?

And as suddenly as she thought it, her body was back. She wiggled her fingers. It hurt. The ripples bounced off her ribs. It hurt all over.

The warm water was draining away. She could feel herself sinking. The more she sank, the louder the voices got.

She did recognize them.

No.

Louder.

Yes.

She moved her arms, trying to swim, trying to pull herself back up, away from the voices, toward the stars. The pain just got worse.

She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to be.

It wasn’t just the voices. She couldn’t remember exactly what it was. What she was afraid of. Where she would go if she wasn’t here. But she knew she didn’t want it. She knew it was hard, and it hurt. She knew she was tired.

She was so tired.

The voices were right in her ears, and she felt herself land on hard ground. The breath whooshed out of her lungs, and she opened her eyes.

*

Gunn opened his eyes slowly. For a moment everything was a blur. Then it resolved itself into a white blanket covering his legs, and a bunch of beeping machines, and Wesley sitting in a chair next to the bed with a magazine in his hands.

Gunn cleared his throat, and whispered. “Hey, English.”

Wesley looked up, putting the magazine aside. He reached for the small plastic water jug on the table next to Gunn’s bed. He poured some, and held it out. “Thirsty?”

Gunn started to nod, then stopped when he felt the pounding in his head start. He realized his body was mostly numb, and smiled as Wesley held the cup to his mouth. “These drugs are pretty hot,” he said. “Can’t feel a thing.” He had a sudden thought, and sat up, then sank back down when pain flared dimly in his midsection.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Wesley asked.

“Had a scary thought,” Gunn said. He saw the questioning look on Wes’s face, and sighed. “Not feeling anything shook me for a second. Like maybe it wasn’t the drugs.” Comprehension dawned in his friend’s face. “But it’s good. When I sat up, I sure as hell felt it.” Gunn forced a weak grin. “The others?” he asked.

“Buffy’s out of surgery. They had to stop some internal bleeding. She should be fine.”

“She’ll be good,” Gunn said. “Freaky Slayer powers and all.” He let a little admiration into his voice. “Never met a girl like that before.” He paused. “Don’t tell Cordy I said that.”

Wesley smiled, taking off his glasses to rub tired hands over his eyes. “Cordelia is with Buffy and Angel now. She said something about your truck.”

“Tell me she didn’t drive my-“

“She didn’t.”

“And Angel?”

“He’s still...”

“What happened back there anyway?” Gunn asked.

“I think when he saw Buffy in danger, he just...couldn’t think about anything else.”

Gunn took another absent sip of water. “Did you see the way he went in there? And those weapons just like...” he looked for the right word, “couldn’t touch him. They just bounced right off him, like he was-“

“No doubt protected by some sort of spell,” Wesley said. “The demons were able to touch him with their claws so it must have been the weapons themselves. They were probably enchanted in some way.”

“But why would Darla and them stockpile a bunch of weapons that couldn’t hurt the one guy who really wanted to kill them?”

“They wouldn’t,” Wes said. “Someone else must have enchanted them.”

“Someone who wanted Angel protected.” Gunn cocked an eyebrow. “At least they’re on our side.”

“Maybe,” Wesley said. “They have reasons for wanting Angel alive. Those reasons may not place them on our side.” He paused. “I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it.”

Gunn snorted. “I can’t wait.”

*

Lindsey was lying on the couch with a plastic bag full of ice sitting on top of half his face, and a half a glass of whiskey balanced in the middle of his chest. The inside of his mouth was sore, cut up and not quite finished bleeding. The whiskey stung with every sip. The pain slowed him down, but he kept swallowing anyway. He’d taken a handful of Codeine leftover from back when his hand got involuntarily amputated, but the throbbing of his entire body had yet to fade.

He wondered vaguely what was going on out there. Whether Cordelia and the others were dead. Whether Angel had… Well, whatever it was the Senior Partners wanted him to do. He couldn’t bring himself to feel more than a little abstract curiosity. A very little.

The knock on the door was unexpected. At first he ignored it. It wasn’t a very loud knock anyway. But it kept going, not loud but desperate. He groaned, secured his whiskey and his ice bag and staggered over to the door. For fuck’s sake. Couldn’t they leave a man to bleed in peace?

He had to put something down to fumble the door open. He decided to lose the ice. The whiskey seemed more important at this particular moment. He unlocked the door, not bothering with the peephole. It didn't really matter who it was. If it was someone here to kill him, he was pretty sure the chain lock wasn't going to stop them.

The door swung open, and Darla stared at him through wet, singed hair, and raw blisters that crawled up her neck. Her clothes were charred rags, soaked and dripping. He silently grabbed the ice off the counter and handed it to her. She took it from him without a word, the fingers of her right hand blackened, cracked.

They stared at each other for a long time. Her eyes were still bright, bright blue. Filled with pain and age and secrets.

"You double-crossed us with the weapons," she finally said. Her voice was as cracked as her skin, a ragged whisper.

It wasn't a question, but he answered it anyway. "Yeah."

She nodded, moved the ice bag from one hand to the other. "I guess I'm impressed," she said lightly. "I didn't think you had it in you." Her eyes were narrowed. Lindsey reminded himself that she was outside. That he hadn't invited her in. He was safe on this side of the door.

"You here to kill me?" he said.

After a moment, she said, "No." She shifted her weight, her tongue flicking against corner of her mouth, poking at the raw torn skin there. "Can I come in?" she asked.

Safe. As long as she was outside. "Yeah," he said, and took a step back. He'd never been very good at safe.

She edged inside the apartment, limping slightly. "So," he said. "I guess you had nowhere else to go." It wasn't meant to sound as defensive as it came out. She was pulling at her charred clothing, stripping it ruthlessly from her body, taking tortured skin with it. He grabbed her wrist with his good hand. "Hey, stop," he said. "That'll make it worse."

"It'll heal," she said. "It's just skin." Her low voice was a half-growl.

"Yeah, but there's no reason to make it worse." He pulled on her wrist. "Come with me." Her wrist tensed under his hand. He half expected her to kill him right then, but her muscles relaxed under his fingers, and she followed him when he led her to the bathroom. "I know I have a pair of scissors in here somewhere." She climbed into the shower when his back was turned and stood under the water.

He stepped into the shower behind her, and started to cut away at her dress. She stood with her head tilted up into the cold spray while he stripped away most of the fabric. Some of it was charred into the skin of her back, her left arm. The cold water soaked through his own clothes. His teeth chattered together, and he shivered. She turned, and let him cut away the front of her dress. The burns were less on this side of her, and he pulled away the pieces of sodden fabric until there was nothing left. He stood still, his body shaking with the cold and stared at her. She cocked her head, arched her back. Her skin was so pale. The burns were so dark, sliding up her throat, her arms. He dropped the scissors.

She grabbed a handful of his soaked shirt, pulled him closer, under the cold spray. Her fists closed, and with a quick jerk she ripped his shirt apart like tearing paper. His skin felt like ice. When she slid her hands down his chest, pressed her fingers hard against the dark bruises on his ribs, he hissed at the pain, the sudden rush of heat.

She stepped closer, pressed her bare breasts flat against him, turned her head up, and pressed her lips to the underside of his chin. Then bit down, nipping at his jawline. It stung as she drew blood. It burned. Her tongue slid wet against his skin, and he closed his eyes.

"So I guess Angel-" he started. Her teeth drew blood again, sharp and bright. His breath hitched.

"Let's not talk about Angel," she whispered, husky against his ear.

Neither of them said his name again. But he was still there between them. Even when there was no space left between them, when all Lindsey could feel was her lips cracked and wet against his, his tongue in her mouth, her teeth inside him, and the slippery slide of skin on skin. Angel was still there. So close Lindsey could taste him on her skin, smell him on his own.

*

Buffy stared into a face she recognized. "Cordelia."

She was hovering anxiously over the edge of the bed. "Do you know where you are?"

Buffy glanced around at the sterile white walls, the monitors beeping softly all around her. "Well, this lovely gown would suggest the hospital," Buffy said. Her voice scraped at her throat, and emerged a soft rasp, like she'd been screaming too long.

"Do you remember what happened?"

She raised her bandaged hand to her head and winced as she remembered pain. She closed her eyes. Yes. She remembered pain. Fire. Angel carrying her. Angel hurting her. No. Drusilla. Angel. Pain. She took a shallow breath. "I remember enough." A movement caught her eye, and she noticed Angel hunched in the corner. She tensed. Then forced herself to let the breath she was holding go, to unbunch her muscles, unclench her teeth.

"Angel," she said.

"Do you want me to go?"

She wanted him to go so she could have peace. She wanted him to stay so he could have the same. It wasn't his fault. "No." She smiled. Her face warmed with a flash of pain. Her fingers hovered above the bandaged cut on her cheek.

"I know, Dru…" he started. "I think I know what she did. If I make you uncomfortable…"

"It wasn't you," she said. "It wasn't your fault."

"Can you tell us what exactly happened?" Cordelia asked.

"Dru did some mind warp thing on me. She made me think it was Angel when she was…" Buffy looked at Angel, his face strained with guilt. "When she did this," she finished, sweeping her eyes over her damaged body. "I know it wasn't you," she said to Angel.

He moved closer, his hand rising, fingers reaching toward her. He touched the outside of her wrist, and she shrank from him, pulled away before she could stop herself. He backed up a step. She couldn't look him in the eye.

"I know it wasn't you," she said stubbornly.

He nodded. "I'll just be outside."

"Wait." Buffy turned to Cordelia. "Could you…give us a seccond."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm perfectly safe."

"I know but…"

"You don't have to do this," Angel said.

"Hey, aren't you supposed to humor the person in the hospital bed?" Buffy said. "Doesn't surgery get me any power points to boss you people around with?" Cordelia frowned. Buffy frowned back. "Just a few minutes."

"You're the invalid," Cordelia said, exchanging a glance with Angel on her way out.

"You don't have to do this."

"You said that already."

"You don't seem to be listening."

"Angel," she said. "Come here." He had his back pressed against the wall like he was glued there. “Here,” she said again. She borrowed Willow’s resolve face, and he slowly moved away from the wall, slowly inched closer to the bed. He stopped at the edge of the bed, his posture brittle. She reached over and took his hand, cradled it palm up in her cupped fingers, before pressing her own palm to his. She kept her eyes on their hands, on their fingers laced together. “See,” she said. “It’s okay.” She looked up at him, felt her throat clench as panic tried to rush through her. She waited until it passed, until she could honestly meet his eyes, his worried, cringing eyes. Until she could look at him and not be afraid. “It’s okay.”

"It’s not okay,” he said. He started to pull back his hand, but she wouldn’t let him. She might have been just out of surgery, but she was still the Slayer and if she wanted his hand she was damn well going to keep it. “This is my fault."

"Please. I would roll my eyes but it hurts too much right now."

"I was blind. I pushed you away. I let you get captured.” He looked down at their hands, at the burns on her wrist. “I almost burned you to death."

"Yeah, you were and you did," Buffy said flatly. "You lost your mission, and you went off the rails. And there are things that are on your head. But you didn't do this to me."

"If I had just-"

"Did you ask me to come here?" Buffy said. "Clearly not. I came on my own. My choice. You didn't do any of this to me." He met her eyes, and she glared at him. “I am not going to let you do this.” He started to protest, but she steamrolled him easily. “You have enough to fix. You have enough stuff that really is your fault. Like Cordy and Wes and Gunn and what you did to them. Fix that. Worry about that.”

His fingers tightened around hers, and he reached for her with his free hand, brushed lightly over the top of her head, against her hair. His jaw clenched and unclenched like he was chewing on all things he wanted to say, wanted to scream. On everything he felt. When he met her eyes again, he had enough control to talk. “How can you forgive me? Again?”

“I just can,” she said. “How could you forgive me?”

“For what? You never did anything to me. I’m the one that keeps hurting you. No matter how much I try… No matter what I do…”

“Angel, I sent you to hell. I looked you in the eye, and I knew it was you and I killed you.”

“You were saving the world.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that simple, is it?” She cocked her head, met his eyes deliberately. “You know that better than anyone. Maybe it’s true that it was the only thing I could have done. Maybe. But it still felt like I was betraying you.” She looked away, focusing on the way her knees made lumps under the bedspread, trying not to remember. She whispered, “The way you looked at me.”

“No,” he said, and reached for her. He tucked a finger under her chin, forced her to look up. “Don’t do that.”

“You have to be angry with me,” she said. “You have to blame me.”

“It’s over. It’s done,” he said. “I didn’t blame you. I don’t blame you. And I’m fine. You didn’t kill me. You didn’t do anything.”

But looking at his face, she saw him cutting her. Hurting her. Punishing her. She squeezed her eyes shut. It hadn’t been him. It was Dru. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. But she could still see it, with her eyes closed. His face. The knife. He’d been so angry. So hurt. She’d done that to him. “You have to blame me,” she said.

“I don’t,” he said. He knelt down by the bed, pressed their joined hands against his forehead. “I don’t.”

She opened her eyes, and looked at the top of his head. Felt his lips on the backs of her knuckles. He turned to look at her, and his eyes were shiny, bright with pain. And she looked at him as hard as she could, looked for the resentment she thought he must hide somewhere, looked for that angry, cold man who’d cut her. Looked until she was sure she didn’t see it.

She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s just Dru. It’s stupid.”

“Buffy…”

“Look,” she said. “If you can forgive me for what I did, then I can forgive you too, okay? We’re not going to sit here and argue about which one of us hurt the other one worse. We both did plenty.”

He shook his head. His jaw was flexing again, and she reached out to touch his hand, to run her fingers through his hair. It was filled with soot and dirt. She lifted her dirty hand and laughed, then quickly stopped when it hurt. She kept smiling a little though. “You need a bath.”

He blinked, seeming to notice that he had a body for the first time. He winced. “Ouch.” He looked down at the burned patches on his jacket and reached up to touch the back of his neck. “I think I got burned.”

Buffy raised an eyebrow at the large raw patch where the top of his jacket looked like it had melted into his skin. “I didn’t want to say anything.” He winced again. “You should probably get it looked at.”

“Later,” he said, lowering his head to rest against her hip. “Right now I’m here.”

She smiled, her fingers lacing through his like the tumblers of a lock clicking into place. “So am I.”

*

Angel poked his head in through the door to Gunn’s room. Wes and Cordelia were there on either side of the bed, all three of them laughing about something to do with karaoke. They stopped laughing when they saw him enter. He cleared his throat uneasily, unsure what to say when there were no words that could possibly fix what he’d broken.

“How’s Buffy?” Cordelia asked.

“Sleeping,” he said. “She’s doing better. Considering.” He slipped through the door, glancing behind him as it clicked shut. “I’m going back in a minute, but I wanted to…” He hesitated. “Well, she said there were things I needed to try to fix. With you. And she was right. I…”

“Let me guess? You’re sorry?” Cordelia said. Angel shrugged a shoulder, of course it wasn’t enough, but what else was there. “That’s great, but what stops you from plunging straight off the deep end again four months from now?”

“I can’t make any promises,” Angel said. “You know that. All I can do is say, I know I was wrong. I see that now.”

“And I’m glad. But that? Not really reassuring,” Cordelia said.

"I think what we’re trying to say,” Wesley put in. “Is we do need you, Angel. We want you on the team, and we can forgive you for slipping.”

Gunn choked. “Slipping? Is that what you want to call it?”

Wesley continued. “But it's clear that we can't depend on you to run this business. Forgive me, but we need someone stable. Someone who-"

"-we don't have to worry is going to turn evil," Gunn said.

"Or fire us," Cordelia put in.

"I understand I have to earn your trust back, and I will." So this would be his penance. If this was the price, he would hand it all over to them, hand himself over to them and try to trust that he could follow, that they could lead. He could do this. He was good at penance. Angel spread his hands. “I’ll accept whatever you decide.”

"The only problem is,” Wesley said. “If it’s not you, who gets to be the boss? We still need a leader."

Cordelia and Gunn both raised their hands.

"We're not going to call it The Chase Agency," Wesley said.

"Actually, smart ass,” Cordelia snapped back. “I was going to nominate you to be the bossman."

Gunn grinned, "Great minds."

"Angel?" Wesley said. Angel could hear the doubt in his voice, and he couldn’t say he was completely free from doubt himself. Wesley, a leader? Could he handle it? Was he strong enough? He would have to be.

Angel nodded. "I third the motion."

"You can't really be surprised, Wes. Look at the shallow pool we're drawing from here."

"Don't let it go to your head, English."

Wesley was still hesitating somewhere between proud and terrified.

“You’ll be great,” Angel said.

Wesley bobbed his head in a nervous nod. Could he really run this? Keep the business afloat? Keep them all from killing each other? Keep them all from getting killed? Had he changed that much or was he still the bumbling Watcher? He’s always been a failure, a disappointment, had anything really changed? He wasn’t sure, but who else was there? He took a deep breath. “Right then,” he said. “So what do you think of Wyndym-Price Incorporated?”

Cordelia made a gagging motion.

He smiled. “Kidding.” He looked at Gunn and Cordelia exchanging goofy faces at each other. And Angel his head bowed, his mouth turned up in a slight smile as he shook his head. Wesley took another breath. These were his people. He wouldn’t let them down. He wouldn’t fail. They were too important. He would do whatever it took; he would be whatever he had to be to keep them all safe.

"We do have a few things to figure out,” he said. “Like why Cordelia's visions are suddenly manifesting themselves on her physical being."

"Yeah, and we should probably look into why that one vision cut me too."

"What do you mean?" Angel said, his head snapping up. "When did this happen?"

"While you were busy having a meltdown," Gunn said.

"I had a vision of a sacrifice. Buffy went to stop it."

"And it was a trap," Gunn said.

"Have you had any other visions since then?" Angel asked, his eyes narrowed in thought.

"Yeah, of the warehouse. That's why we were there."

"And did that vision hurt you?"

"Not outside the normal head-splitting migraine from hell."

Wesley looked at Angel, and could see his own suspicions reflected there.

"Okay boys, share with the rest of the class."

"It's just, shall we say, interesting that the vision with the unusual side effects was the one that led Buffy into a trap," Wesley said.

"Is interesting really the world?" Cordelia said. "There could be scarring, people."

"You think someone planted the vision," Angel said.

"It's a possibility."

"Wait, you're saying someone hijacked my head?"

"And somehow manufactured a false vision,” Wesley said. “Perhaps. This is, of course, speculation."

"How could someone even do that? Don't the PTB have a lock on there or something?" Gunn raised his eyebrows.

"It would require a good deal of power."

"And who has the resources to find someone strong enough to hijack a tool of the Powers?" Angel’s lips twisted cynically.

"Wolfram and Hart," Wesley answered. Angel nodded back at him.

"Hey! Who are you calling a tool?" Cordelia burst in.

"So how do we stop them from doing it again?" Gunn asked.

"Obviously whoever it is, is working with Darla," Angel said.

"Uh oh," Cordelia said.

"I'm not going to go off the deep end."

"Again," Cordelia corrected.

"Again," Angel agreed.

"So you say."

“Despite any past obsessions,” Wesley put in. “Angel is correct. The vision led Buffy into Darla’s trap, therefore she must have been connected to it in some way.”

“Sorry, past obsessions aren’t that far past,” Cordelia said. “It was like yesterday. So I hear Angel say the name Darla, I get jumpy.”

“You’re not the only one,” Gunn said.

“Even so, we will have to deal with this,” Wesley said. “Before another vision is forced on you.”

“Believe me, I’m on board with me not getting cut up or worse. I’m just saying… it makes me jumpy.”

“Whatever was, or is, between me and Darla I can handle it,” Angel said. “I know this is about helping the helpless, not about winning a war. I'm not going to lose sight of that.”

Cordelia raised a doubtful brow, but shrugged her shoulders. “We’ll see,” she said.

“If we can try to move on to something productive, I’m going to get started on the research,” Wes said.

“I’ll help.” Cordelia waved away his look of surprise. “Hey, it’s my ass on the line here.”

“I’m going to go make sure Buffy’s okay,” Angel said. “But I’ll check in with you tonight.”

“I’ll just stay here then,” Gunn said. “Maybe sleep or see if I can score some tasty IV fluids or something.”

“And that, folks, is what we call a plan,” Cordelia said.

Cordelia patted Gunn on the shoulder, and Wes clasped his hand before they moved toward the door. Angel nodded gingerly in his direction, and after a moment Gunn nodded back. It was a start.

*

Buffy woke from a dreamless sleep, opened her eyes and for a few seconds had no idea where she was. For a few seconds she was at peace. And then she heard the monitors beeping, and felt the dull aching of her body, and remembered. She closed her eyes again, grasping for that empty dreamlessness, that nothingness where there was no pain, no monsters, no fight, no nothing. No Buffy. But it was gone.

She looked up as Angel quietly pushed the door open.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he said. “I meant to be here when you woke up.”

“Ah, I know your type. Always off carousing while other people are sleeping or stuck in their hospital beds.” She smiled, and it felt brittle and her cheek hurt worse than before so she stopped. “Did you talk to them?”

“Yeah, things are…” He let out a breath. “We’re working on it.”

“Good.”

The looked at each other for a time. Him with his arms crossed by the door, her plucking at the blue hospital blanket.

“Are you okay?” he said finally.

“Is that a trick question?” She waved at the bandages. “I’m great, obviously.”

“I’m not talking about that. I know how fast you heal. You’ll be out of here in a couple days.”

“And heading back to Sunnydale.” The thought was like a Bezoar sitting on her chest, crushing all the air out of her lungs. “Good old Sunnydale.”

“I’m sure they’re worried about you.” She concentrated on picking fuzz off her blanket and rolling it between her fingers into a ball. “I’m worried about you.”

“You’re worried? You’re the one who-“

“I know, but you’re-“

“I’m the Slayer, Angel. This is how it goes.”

“You didn’t used to be so…”

“Tired?” She flicked her fuzz ball off toward the foot of the bed.

“Something like that.”

“Of course I’m worn out. It’s just…”

“Lonely.”

“Yeah.”

“Relentless.”

“Yeah.” She felt tears start to prickle in the back of her nose. She blinked them back. “I’ll be fine.” And it was a lie. But she didn’t know how to tell the truth, not about this. Not even to him. Especially not to him.

And she knew he could see the lie, but he smiled and lied too when he said, “I know you will.” She nodded because she knew no one could help her. Not even him. Especially not him.

Then Angel's hand was in hers, and his lips were on her forehead. And then they pressed gently against her swollen lips. She closed her eyes and breathed in long and slow. She was so tired. She could feel the ache of her wounds under the medication. And in another day or two she'd be on her way back to Sunnydale and her mom's cancer, and protecting Dawn from the invincible, and battles that never, never ended. Back to being alone even when she had her family, her Xander and Willow, her Giles. Always alone, and it was so heavy.

But that was tomorrow. Or the next day. Today she was holding Angel's hand and his lips were soft and hungry and desperate against hers, and he filled her emptiness up with something warm. They were both so broken, but when he kissed her for a second she felt whole. Whole and strong and no longer alone. When she let out her breath, breathed into his mouth, she thought maybe this would be enough to take back with her. Enough to live on when she was in Sunnydale, and she started to forget what it was to be happy, to feel anything past duty and bone deep weariness. Maybe this was enough.

Maybe it wasn’t.

The end

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I apologize for how long this fic has taken to complete, and for any sucking that may have slipped through here in the last part. I hope I was able to write the conclusion this fic deserves, but seeing as it’s been languishing unfinished for years now I figured even if there are dubious patches you’d rather have it finished than unfinished. I know I would. Thank you to anyone who read this fic when I started it, to anyone who’s kept up with it as the years dragged on unforgivably with no updates, and to anyone who’s just now finding it. I appreciate it more than I can say.

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