disclaimer in part 1

Relief
by Rebecca Carefoot
-
PART SEVEN


Buffy dragged herself into the lobby of the Hyperion. Angel's car wasn't parked out front, and he was nowhere in sight. She felt she should be doing something. Looking for him. But not only was it pointless, she couldn't seem to muster the energy to do anything more than stare blankly at the front desk. Her eyes fell on the phone and she yawned, walking over to pick it up and call home.

"Hello?" her mother's voice said, slightly strained.

"Hi, mom."

"Buffy," Joyce said with a sigh of relief. "We were worried."

"Didn't you get my note?"

"Yes, but I wouldn't exactly call it reassuring."

Buffy yawned again, her jaw locking for a few seconds. "I'm fine," she said. "I may have to stay here a couple more days." Yeah. A couple days should be all I need to snap Angel out of it, she thought sarcastically.

"What about school?" Joyce said.

"What about it?" Buffy said. "It's college. Attendance barely counts." She sighed. "Anyway, I can't leave yet." She smothered another yawn, her eyes squinching shut. "Is everything okay there?"

"Yes," Joyce said hesitantly. "I-" She seemed to be listening to a voice, then she spoke again. "Let me hand you over to Willow. She came over to see if there was any word from you." There was a shuffling noise, and Willow's voice came through the receiver.

"Hey, Buff," she said.

"Hey," Buffy answered. "Anything major going down that you need my help with?"

"Nothing major," Willow said. "Minor stuff. Mainly between me and Anya." Buffy could hear a bit of exasperation behind the lighthearted comment. "No Glory sightings. But we're sort of slacking in the patrol department, what with you know- No super strength or military, uh-" She cut herself off. "Anyway, we're only taking vamps on when we have them really outnumbered or they look weak or injured. Separate them from the pack, you know, like-"

"Spike isn't helping you guys out?" Buffy said. She snorted. "But that's typical. What do I expect?"

"Oh," Willow said. "Well, he's...gone. We thought he was with you. Or..." She trailed off. "He didn't leave a note."

Buffy fought a sinking feeling. "He's probably just on a bender. I haven't seen him since I got here."

"Is everything going okay?" Willow said. "You weren't really clear in your note, but I know how it is with you and seeing Angel, and all of that...messy stuff."

"Yeah," Buffy said, propping her head up with her hand. She closed her eyes. "It's going fine. We're...um...not dead or anything."

"Okay," Willow said a little reluctantly. "You'll let us know if you need help with anything. Like magic-wise. Or just moral support."

Buffy hesitated for a moment, then shook herself. "It's all good really," she said. "I've got it all under control. Everything should be resolved soon."

"Resolution is of the good," Willow said. "And when you get back, you can check out the surprise I'm working on for you."

Buffy chuckled. "Please no spells that end up with me engaged to Spike."

"Right, scratch that surprise," Willow said. "Darn. I was so sure you'd like it."

"Next time. Cash."

"Noted."

"Tell the others I said hi."

She hung up, and stared at the front desk, her mind whirling back toward Angel in ever slower circles. Maybe he was in the basement, or his room, or one of the hundreds or fifties or whatever number of rooms were in this godforsaken place anyway. She frowned, her eyes falling on the phone again. He was either here or he wasn't. If he wasn't there was no point in looking for him. And if he was, then he wasn't being an immediate danger to the world at large. She wandered over the circular couch in the middle of the room and sank down on the musty cushions. They were softer than they looked.

Almost without thinking, she lay on her side, one hand tucked under her chin, her legs curled up against her stomach. She closed her eyes, and before her rational mind had a chance to protest, she was asleep.

*
Angel tried to remain calm. He tried to clear his mind. He tried to keep himself from pounding holes in the dashboard with his fists. He managed to do the last. He took a deep, unneeded breath, filling his dead lungs with air until they felt tight and stretched against his ribcage. Then he let it all out slowly.

He was never going to find them driving around LA all night. He had a better chance of getting struck by lightening. Twice. So. Think for a second. Just think. If you were Darla, and you'd just gained a bunch of minions, where would you be? What would you be planning?

His jaw clenched, teeth grinding, and his grip on the steering wheel was almost enough to bend metal. He pulled up outside the hotel, and sat back for a moment, his eyes closed. In a sudden flush of anger, he slammed his fist down against the seat beside him, opened the car door and pulled it shut as hard as he could with a satisfying bang. He shook his head, forcing himself to regain control, and opened the door again.

Darla would want to pull something big. That much he was sure of. The fact that she was massing an army confirmed it. But what was she going to do with them? Pull down as much of the city as she could in one night, going out in a blaze of glory? Settle in for the long haul, using her muscle to back a play for power? Either way she'd need a place to keep the minions until she made her move. And she'd need money for whatever she was planning. Where would she get money? Finally, a question Angel was certain he knew the answer to.

Wolfram and Hart.

She and Dru couldn't possibly be on their most loved clients list after killing the entire special projects division. But Wolfram and Hart was one firm always willing to overlook the death of their own employees in the interest of the cause. The senior partners were interested in Angel, and Angel was interested in Darla, Dru, and now Spike. Therefore, it stood to reason...

Angel stepped inside the hotel, considering his options. Lindsey and Lilah were probably dead. He'd have to find out who was running the division now, and meet them, preferably in a dark alley where no one would be able to hear them scream. Then he'd- Angel froze. Buffy lay on the couch, curled in on herself like a cat, her golden hair gleaming dully in the dim light of the lobby, dried demon ick caked in the strands. Her chest rose and fell in a slow rhythm, her eyelashes dark against a pale cheek smudged with demon blood and dirt. Her lips were parted slightly, just the very tips of her teeth exposed.

Angel tried to ignore her, step past her to the file cabinet or the stairs to the basement. She was just another person he couldn't include in his life, another distraction, one more thing among many he had to purge from himself. Had to because the war depended on it; winning hinged on his emptiness, on his ability to descend to the level evil fought on. Love had no place in this war.

He couldn't move past her. His feet stopped beside the couch. He looked down at her, her tiny form so fragile, so peaceful, so... He tried to quash the thoughts, the spark of feeling that lit inside him. Unable to quench it, he tried instead to hide it, push it to the back of his mind, lock it away until later. He sat down on the couch beside her head. His fingers strayed to brush a lock of hair, still soft gold despite the filth, away from her face.

She shifted in her sleep, turning her closed eyes toward him. She whimpered a little to herself, soft drowsy sounds. Angel closed his eyes against memories of her sleeping body tucked next to him, warm on warm, during a day she would never remember. He pulled his hand away from her face, and stood up, turning away from her. His feelings didn't matter. Her feelings didn't- He cut himself off. All that mattered was taking Darla down. Destroying Wolfram and Hart. He couldn't- His arms were under her knees, against her back before he could stop himself. He scooped her slight form up off the couch. She stirred, her hand curled against his chest, her body cradled in his arms. He took the stairs carefully, treading softly so as not to wake her.

He wanted to put her in the room next to his. Or better yet down the hall, as far away as possible. Instead he nudged the door of his own room open with his shoulder. He laid her carefully on the bed where she snuggled against the sheets, her hand on the pillow. The length of the day was all over her, sewer sludge on her boots, demon blood on her clothes, in her hair. Dirt and grime and gaunt exhaustion trying so hard to tarnish the beauty of her. Failing. He stared down at her for a long moment more, then backed away. He shut the door to his room quickly, and hurried down the hall, taking the stairs at an almost run. He sat down on the circular couch in the lobby, the warmth of her body still in the cushions. He put his head in his hand, and closed his eyes, her scent clinging to his shirt, to the couch, her heat, her- He jumped up and grabbed an ax on the way to the basement.

It had been a moment of weakness. He couldn't afford more than one.

But he could still do this. He just had to clear his mind. His soul. He just had to train, train until he forgot everything, until his body could kill without thought, without hesitation. Until he could focus on the mission. Until his sweat drove her scent from his body, and he was deaf to the scream of her nearness.

*

Lindsey pushed the door to his office closed with his dead hand. So. That was a promotion. THE promotion. Strange, how it wasn't anything like what he'd imagined all these years he'd been working his ass off to make it to the top. He frowned and rubbed at his eye with his good hand. Of course, in his early dreams of success, he'd never expected that when he finally reached a position of power like this he'd share it with a cutthroat bitch who'd be happy to see him dead. Not that he wouldn't mind seeing Lilah dead too, it's just none of this had been part of the plan. He'd always thought if he ever had the title of Vice-President of anything, even co-Vice-President, it'd mean he'd really made it. It'd mean he was someone. He sat down behind his big, beautiful desk. Only here he was, proud owner of a bonafide title, heading up the Special Projects division and he was still nobody. He didn't matter to Wolfram and Hart. Just like Holland hadn't really mattered. He was a warm body to fill a seat, and when he died nobody would miss him. He'd be replaced like Holland had been. The senior partners wouldn't even blink.

The game was starting to get old. Promotions and power had mattered at some point, he remembered. But now his hand was gone, and he'd watched more people die than he cared to count. Every time he turned around Angel was there, kicking him again. Angel, always Angel. And this damn place wouldn't do a thing about it, kept waiting for the guy to turn dark again. Like he ever would. Like the final battle even mattered. Lindsey would probably be dead before it ever even happened.

He tossed a pen across the room and listened to it thunk against the heavy curtains covering his new panoramic view of the city. It was a great office. So what?

"What an arm," a seductive female voice murmured behind him. Darla. Her lips came up next to his ear, and he shuddered even though he knew it was what she wanted, what she expected. He always did what she wanted, and she would never care. Another cutthroat bitch who'd think nothing of killing him. Sometimes he hoped she would.

"Darla," he said, and turned. She smiled at him, all bright blonde hair and gorgeous curves and smooth, perfect, unaging skin. He'd saved her when she'd been dying, turned her. But she would never see him as anything but food.

"So happy to see you're the one they chose," Darla purred. He knew it was a lie. Like he'd known she would be here. Like he knew every feature of her face, and the contours of her neck, and the soft brush of her hair.

"Lilah's still alive," he said, the words clipped short.

Darla pouted. "Can't imagine why they'd keep both of you," she said. Then she shrugged and smiled, showing teeth. "Ahhh, well," she said. "More for me."

"Grandmother's appetites are large," another female voice said. Lindsey looked past Darla for the first time and saw Drusilla wandering toward the window, her fingers tracing the wall. A man in a black trenchcoat followed her, his fists jammed in his pockets, his platinum blonde head tilted at a slight angle.

Lindsey's eyes narrowed. "Spike?" he asked. He'd read profiles in the archives of just about every person or demon that had played a part in Darla's first unlife. This guy matched only one.

The man looked over, and bobbed his head once. "At your service," he said, then paused. "Or actually, you're at mine." He grinned, cocky and self-assured. Lindsey hated him.

Lindsey returned his attention to Darla, who was now perched on the edge of his desk, her legs straddling the arms of his chair. He wished she couldn't hear his heartbeat. He could school his face not to react, but his heart was beating too hard and too fast. Like telling secrets. Still, there were some secrets he managed to keep. She leaned forward and traced a fingernail down the side of his face where stubble roughened his cheek.

"Late night?" she whispered. He nodded. "You're keeping my kind of hours." She gave him a little close-mouthed secret smile.

"Any chance of getting to the point this century?" Spike asked from the corner of the room where he had his arms wrapped around Drusilla's waist. Lindsey really hated him.

Drusilla turned in his arms and kissed him hard, drawing blood. "I'll distract my boy," she giggled. "While baby grandmother does her business." He claimed her mouth harshly, and then Darla's fingers turned Lindsey's head, and brought his eyes back to hers.

"We're going to need a few things," she said.

"I assumed you would."

"Penthouse," she said. "Warehouse." She met his eyes. "Weapons."

"Especially the weapons part," Spike said around a mouthful of Dru.

Lindsey opened the top drawer of his desk, and pulled out a key on a delicate keychain with a small, antique box attached, gleaming gold. He'd thought about putting a cross pendant on it, just to see what she'd do. Or to show her she couldn't play him forever. But then even if he had, they'd both know that was a lie. He tossed the key at Darla, and she plucked it out of the air, her nails hard, bright red. "Penthouse," he said. She twirled the key around her finger. "Address is in the box."

She nodded, and raised her eyebrows. "And the rest?"

"The weapons will be delivered to the warehouse."

She leaned forward, her lips almost touching his, no breath between them because he was holding his. "I need them by sunset tonight," she said.

"I'll notify you personally," he said.

"Before sunset."

He sat back in his chair, pulling away from her. "And the target?" he asked.

"Does it really matter?" she asked. She pushed his chair back with her foot, and he rolled a few feet while she slid off the desk. He stood up.

"The target," he said, keeping his voice as cold as he could.

She studied him for a moment, then dipped her shoulder in a half shrug. A shrug that said she'd tell him because he wasn't important enough to stop her plans even if he wanted to. "The Slayer," she said. Lindsey raised an eyebrow. She met his gaze. Lindsey smiled and shook his head. "What?" she said, her voice losing the seductive edge and turning impatient.

"Jealousy, Darla?" he said. "I would have expected more from you."

Spike laughed. "Then you obviously don't know her very well."

"I thought you were going to kill Angel," Lindsey said. "Not his girlfriend."

Darla's jaw clenched, her eyes heating with anger. "Shut up," she said. She took a few steps, almost too fast to see and put her hand around his throat. She stroked the skin there, and dug her nails in briefly. Lindsey stood absolutely still. "I have plans for him," she said. "Plans that are all about pain. Which is why he's going to watch her die like he should have-"

"That time he killed you?" Lindsey interrupted coolly, though his heart was beating so hard he thought his ribs would be bruised tomorrow. "This plan of yours didn't work so well the first time." Her fingers tightened again on his throat. They stood that way for a moment, her hands on him, his breathing shallow when he breathed at all. She released him one finger at a time, and slid her hand around to the back of his neck. She leaned close, and he tensed. Her tongue darted out and traced the side of his throat, slow and wet. He stopped breathing again.

"I won't make the same mistake twice," she said. "This time Angel's dust. And his Slayer dies screaming."

"He's in the mists," Drusilla said. Lindsey didn't look away from Darla, but he could hear the other vampire moving behind him. Spike came up next to Darla and insolently put his arm over her shoulder. She shot him a look of smooth, controlled anger.

"If she won't kill him, I bloody well will," he said to Lindsey, grinning. "We all know she's got that soft spot for him, all gooey in the center like a candy bar, but me? All I've got in my candy center is nuggets of blinding hate for the big poof."

"In the grey mists," Drusilla murmured. "Neither here nor there. She keeps him anchored, my Angel, but he struggles for the dark."

Lindsey's eyes darted from Spike to Darla. Neither of them seemed to have a clue what Drusilla was talking about either.

"Shut up, Dru," Darla said. "Let mommy finish."

Spike left Darla's side, and wrapped his arm around Drusilla's neck. She leaned back against him. "Bright like the sun," she said. "The sun can burn the fog." He pressed a kiss to her temple.

"All right, baby," he said.

"My Angel," she breathed. His jaw clenched, but he only smoothed her hair back with a gentle hand.

"He'll be gone soon," Spike said. "And so will the fog and the sun and whatever else he puts in your head."

She smiled and nestled against him. "Lovely blood spilled on the street." He laughed, and she smiled, slow and cruel.

Darla snapped her fingers, and Lindsey turned to her. He tucked his plastic hand inside his pocket, and stood as casually as he could.

"Sunset," she said.

"You'll hear from me."

She smiled and pressed a quick, hard, kiss to his lips. Then she turned to the other two. "Let's go." They slowly disentangled themselves from each other, and followed her when she sauntered out the door. "Always a pleasure, Lindsey," she said as the door shut behind her.

He let out a shaky breath, and rubbed his good hand over his face. He looked up at the newly placed camera in the corner of the room, letting the senior partners see that he knew they were watching. Then he looked to the phone. A second later, it rang.

continue