disclaimer in part 1

Relief
by Rebecca Carefoot
-
PART TWO

Gunn knocked on a door inside the apartment complex, and after a second it swung open. Gunn entered the room with a quick duck of his head, but Buffy hesitated outside, looking puzzled. He glanced over his shoulder at her, and she indicated the empty doorway.

"Who opened it?" she asked.

"Dennis," Gunn said. "Former tenant. Dead at the moment." He saw her doubtful look and continued. "He's harmless."

Buffy shrugged, raising her eyebrows, as she stepped inside.

"Buffy," Wesley said, hurrying in from the kitchen. He stopped when he reached her, unsure, then awkwardly extended his hand. Her lips turned up in a half-smile as she shook the offered appendage.

"Wesley," she said.

Cordelia entered the living room from her bedroom and studied Buffy with a gaze that swept from head to toe. "Hey," she said finally. She put her hands in the back pockets of the designer jeans she'd picked specially to go with the striking, tight red top she'd changed into as soon as she'd heard the Slayer was coming.

"Hey," Buffy answered. "It's been a while."

"Well, you know what they say. Time flies when you're having..." Cordelia stopped. "I guess that doesn't really apply to any of our lives does it?"

"Not of late," Buffy agreed, her face as blank as she could make it.

"You should sit," Cordelia said, unable to keep a slight tightness from her voice as she indicated the couch.

"Okay," Buffy answered. She dropped her bag by the side of the couch and sat, raising her eyes to the others who still stood. She tucked her hands under her thighs, and raised her shoulders. "Anyone want to tell me exactly what's going on around here?"

"Angel's lost it," Cordelia said bluntly.

"Great," Buffy said. "That really helps. I'm so glad I'm here instead of talking to Angel right now. Really, this is indispensible wisdom."

"Outstanding use of sarcasm," Cordelia said, her own sarcasm cutting. "Have you been practicing?"

"It's all rather complicated," Wesley broke in, doing his best to regain control. Some small semblance of control. "Wolfram and Hart-"

"Already lost," Buffy interrupted.

"Evil law firm," Gunn explained.

"There's another kind?" Buffy asked. She sighed at the lack of reaction from the others. "What, you've heard that one before?"

"In any case," Wesley continued. "They brought Darla back from the dead."

"How is that even possible?" Buffy asked. "None of her bones were lying around."

"It was a complex ritual involving the sacrifice of four vampire lives, and the sacred-" Wesley started.

"Got it," Buffy said, cutting him off. "It was complex. Not really caring about the details."

"Quite- Quite right," Wesley stuttered. He hesitated and took a steadying breath. "Yes," he stammered again. "Yes, well. She found some way to control Angel's dreams. Then she appeared, pretending to be someone else; and because she came back human...the entire incident-"

"Made us think Angel was a loony," Cordelia put in. "He'd been acting pretty erratic with the sleeping all the time and whatever."

"And that would have been a good time to call me," Buffy answered, her voice heated. "You know, before it all got out of control and went to hell. I mean, a five second message to say...Hey Buffy, Darla's back. But the last time she inhabited the earthly plane she was trying to shoot off my kneecaps, so I can see how you'd think I wouldn't be interested."

"Hey, little miss self-involved," Cordelia said, putting her hands on her hips. "Here's a newsflash. Angel has his own life now. And it's not all about you. Not to mention, Darla couldn't have cared less about you, or your stupid kneecaps."

"Cordy," Gunn said, as she took a breath, preparing to continue.

"What?" she snapped. She kept her eyes on Buffy. "We all know that everytime he sees her or talks to her, it puts him in full on brood mode. I'm sure we really needed to add more horror and angst to the situation by bringing her-"

"If you think all I do is bring horror, then why am I even here?" Buffy cut in, her fingers curling into fists.

"Because at this point, you can't make it any worse than it already is."

"Hello to the claws," Gunn said, as Buffy stood up, her voice rising above his.

"How dare you even-"

"Ladies," Wesley said.

"-speak to me that way?" Buffy said, rolling over his protest as if she hadn't heard him, as if he wasn't even there.

"Because you're the only one with the right to rant and yell?" Cordy answered. "Well, guess what? There's at least one person in the world that isn't going to roll over and sing the praises of Buffy. I-"

"Hey there," Gunn said loudly. They turned with clenched jaws and angry eyes to look at him. He took a deep breath. "So I guess it's safe to say that neither of you girls care that much about Angel?" He looked from one offended face to the other and shrugged. "Hey, you wanna let your arguing get in the way of helping him, that's your choice. But how 'bout you take it in the other room, where the two of us who're still trying to save us all from gettin' our asses killed won't have to listen to it. "

After a long second, Buffy sat back down on the couch with a thump. After another moment, Cordelia stepped around the coffee table to sit down beside her, arms crossed over her chest, her bottom lip pouting just slightly.

"Where was I?" Wesley asked.

"Darla really was back," Gunn said. "So he wasn't as crazy as we thought."

"Yes, and we eventually realized that," Wesley agreed. "But things continued to deteriorate, as it turned out Darla was dying in her human state. She was attempting to become a vampire again, and of course she wanted Angel to help her achieve that goal."

"But he wasn't having it," Gunn put in.

"Which didn't stop him from tormenting himself over it," Cordelia added.

"Because he wouldn't be Angel if he wasn't tormenting himself," Buffy said, offering a small smile to Cordelia, who returned it with only a little reluctance.

"He tried to save her life by undergoing a Trial," Wesley continued. "He passed, and by all rights should have won her life. However, her life had already been returned once when she was resurrected. And they refused to heal her. It was all for nothing." Wesley took a breath before continuing. "Darla had decided to accept a natural death." He met Buffy's eyes. "She seemed to be attempting to find some small measure of redemption."

"I'd trust that about as far as I could throw her," Buffy muttered.

"Which is pretty far," Cordelia pointed out.

"Well, then I'd trust it about as far as I could throw this building," Buffy corrected herself.

"What does that expression even mean?" Gunn said. "Trust about as far? You don't say how far do you trust me? I-" He noticed Wesley's impatient glare, and shut his mouth with a snap. "I'm just saying."

"Anyway," Cordelia said. "It doesn't matter because Wolfram and Hart stepped in again."

"They incapacitated Angel, and Drusilla turned Darla into a vampire right in front of him," Wesley explained.

"And that's when he really wigged," Cordelia said. "I mean he'd already sort of lost it. But compared to this, he was like the poster child for sanity."

"He tried to stake Darla before she could rise again," Gunn explained. "But both her and Drusilla got away."

"He was determined to catch them, and largely ignored one of Cordelia's visions from the powers that be to look for them," Wesley said, crossing his arms over his chest. He bowed his head. "But when he found them at a gathering of Wolfram and Hart employees, he..." the ex-Watcher looked up, his voice catching on the words.

"He left the lawyers to get slaughtered," Gunn said. Buffy's jaw tightened.

"When we confronted him," Welsey said, picking up the thread again. "When we told him we felt he was on the edge, turning to real darkness, he...fired us."

"No severance package or anything," Cordelia said. "Not that we were getting any benefits or much pay anyway, but you'd think maybe two weeks notice or a bonus, since after all we-"

"Cordelia," Wesley said gently.

"Yeah?" she answered.

"Let's try to focus, shall we?"

"I am focusing," she said. "On my lack of a severence package."

"I'm all caught up, right?" Buffy said impatiently. "So let's get it over with. Take me to him."

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather...think about what you're going to say to him?" Wesley asked, slightly hesitant. "Perhaps run it by us."

"No," Buffy said, standing up. Wesley and Gunn stood beside her for a moment, waiting. "That's it," Buffy said finally. "No, pretty much covers it." She looked at Gunn, "You ready?"

He turned to Wesley, who seemed to be at a loss for words, and waited for some signal. Wesley looked back helplessly, and finally Gunn shrugged. "I guess it's just you and me, blondie."

"And me," Cordelia spoke up, rising from the couch herself. Buffy appraised her with a hard look. "It's not up for debate," Cordelia said.

Buffy headed for the door, and the other two followed, leaving Wesley to watch them, confusion, indecision on his face. He frowned to himself in the silence of Cordelia's empty apartment. A cup of tea slid across the coffee table toward him, and he picked it up absently.

"Thank you, Dennis," he muttered, his eyes still on the door. He wished for a moment that they hadn't called Buffy. Only a second or two, before his concern for Angel overwhelmed the feeling that he was right back at Sunnydale High. Incompetent, inexperienced, and ignored. He took a sip of tea. He wasn't that man anymore. He'd changed. If only it weren't so hard to remember.

*

Spike entered the warehouse, taking in the group of about fifty demons of all shapes and sizes in the center of the largely empty space. They surged, a mass of noise and excited blood lust, around the pair that fought in the middle of the rough circle. There was a makeshift bar over against one of the walls. A small Gyrostia demon stood behind the bar that had bottles, crushed plastic cups, a few empty bags of blood piled on its uneven surface. Spike slouched over and ordered a bag of O+, plunking down on one of the crates that were the only seats. A few more demons entered, one of them coming over to the bar, the others heading straight for the fight.

Spike nodded at the red scaled demon as it grabbed a cup of something green, and it growled softly in return. It sat down, deliberately turning its back to Spike. He got a good view of the spikes that lined its spine poking through the thin material of its shirt. Spike frowned, slipping into game face. He tapped the thing on its shoulder. It ignored him.

"Excuse me, mate," Spike said, yelling over the noise of the melee a few feet away. The thing looked over its shoulder, its eyes burning gold. A growl still its only response. Spike curled his lip. "Your species not advanced enough for speech?" he asked with mock regret. "They let just anyone into the clubs in LA, don't they. A shame really."

"Don't touch me again, vampire," the demon said, its voice harsh, guttural.

Spike held up his hands in surrender. "I'm not looking for trouble." He paused. "Actually I am, just a different type." The demon was ignoring him again. He deliberately lowered his hand onto the thing's shoulder. It turned its head slowly, its muscles tensing. "You see," Spike said casually. "I'm looking for two vampires. Darla and Drusilla. Just wondered if you've seen them."

The thing didn't answer, instead springing up from its seat, its drink falling to the floor. Its hands closed around Spike's throat, and Spike, unfazed, landed a punch to its kidneys, then slammed his elbow up into the demon's tusked mouth. Its grip on his neck loosened slightly, but didn't fall away. Spike grabbed the demon's elbows, and the two of them twisted to the side, the crowd swallowing them, making room as other demons backed up to watch the new entertainment.

Spike pried the demon's hands from his neck. It responded with a lifted knee that he blocked with his hands. Then its head snapped back as the heel of Spike's hand made hard contact with its chin. It roared, and Spike laughed. It drove him to the ground, and they rolled together, end over end against the concrete. A taloned hand tore into his chest. Spike couldn't stop grinning.

*

Buffy stood outside the main entrance to the Hyperion. She glanced back at the truck where Gunn and Cordelia were waiting. She'd convinced Cordelia to let her talk to Angel alone, but she was having second thoughts. The familiar butterflies were fluttering drunkenly inside her stomach, and her throat was tight with the thought of him. It had been so long since she'd seen him. Everyday she tried not to think of him. Tried to fade her memory of him until it would no longer hurt her with the sharp lines of its flawed beauty. Her hand trembled slightly as she reached for the doorknob. She wanted so much to see him, everything in her was straining with it, stretched taut. And she wanted so much to never see him again, because each time she did, the ache of what she'd lost grew searing.

She took a deep breath and pushed the door open. The lights were off in the lobby, leaving the room full of shadows. She stepped inside. There was a faint glow from behind the main desk. She approached it cautiously, her head craning for a glimpse of where he lived now, the darkness of the room hiding the full age of the building in both its grandeur and its disrepair. The lit lamp on the desk shone on an empty expanse of wood. Whatever had been there before was gone now. Cleared out. She turned, at a loss for where to go next. She looked for the door to the basement. Cordelia had mentioned it.

As she stood hesitating, she heard a sudden crash echo through the lobby. She noticed a door to her left, and moved toward it. She turned the knob and the door creaked open, faint light spilling up into the lobby. She descended the wooden stairs quickly on silent feet, her hand on the rough banister. She paused halfway down when she caught sight of him. His back was to her, his tattoo half visible under the white tank top that covered the broad expanse of muscle. He kicked aside one of the barrels that rolled toward him. A slight sheen of sweat covered him, and she saw his demolished punch bag lying on the ground, a small cloud of dust rising in the midst of the barrels it had landed against. She descended another step, and the stair creaked softly. He spun at the sound, and their eyes met, locked. She caught her breath, just staring, unable to think or speak. For a moment, the world was just the two of them again, the way it always had been when they were together. But the brief moment of shock passed. A hard mask settled over his features, his eyes blank, cold. He turned his gaze away, and started across the room without a word or another glance.

"Angel," she said, her brow wrinkling. She reached the bottom of the stairs, and stepped into the room. He ignored her, pulling a sword that was impaled through a table top free of its confinement. He swung it in a broad arc, then drew it parallel to his chest.

"Angel, we have to talk," she said. She approached him with her arms crossed over her chest, her face wary. He continued to move, the sword slashing the air as he practiced a different parry, a different thrust. "You can't just pretend I'm not here," she said, an edge finding its way into her voice. She reached his side, standing just a couple feet away, her eyes on his profile, the way his arm moved, the way the sword cut the air. He didn't even bother to turn his back, for that would have acknowledged her existence. She studied him, hurt and confusion twisting her face. Her jaw firmed, and her hand shot out, grabbing his wrist, holding it immobile. He strained against her.

"Angel, this is serious," she said. "I get that you want to find Darla and Dru. I even halfway get what you did to the lawyers. And if you want to-" He managed to jerk his arm free, and continued to sweep the broadsword through the air.

"I get that you want to protect them," Buffy said, switching gears to reference his friends, knowing he'd understand who she meant. "But you're making a mistake. You're forgetting what's important." There was no response, but she continued. "And you can't do this by yourself."

She gritted her teeth and grabbed for his arm again. "Angel, stop it," she said. His wrist relaxed, and he dropped the sword. It hit the floor with a clang, and she tried to meet his eyes. He avoided her gaze, his eyes locked on something in the distance, something she couldn't see. She released his arm, and he turned away, picking up a mace that was on the floor a few feet away.

"Angel..." her voice broke, the name a plea. She watched his face for some sign, any sign that he'd heard her. That he would answer, that he wanted to. Not even a flicker crossed his features. Her brow contracted, her lungs sucking in a quick hitch of air. She turned on her heel and ran up the stairs.

continue