disclaimer in part 1

Relief
by Rebecca Carefoot
-
PART EIGHT


Wesley sat up, jerking awake in the most uncomfortable chair known to man. He glanced around him, uncertain of his surroundings. After a few blinks, it came back to him. They were at the hospital with the girl from Cordelia's vision. Lisa, she'd said her name was. The three of them had decided to stay when they'd found she had no family or friends to notify. It wasn't as if they had pressing business elsewhere. The staff had reluctantly allowed them to flaunt visiting hours when the doctors had seen the panic Lisa felt at the mention of being left alone. The girl was asleep now in her hospital gown, bandaged, recovering. She would survive. Cordelia slept in the corner, her head propped up against the wall, her neck at a painful angle.

Gunn shouldered the door open, and handed Wesley a cup of coffee. Wesley nodded his thanks. He usually preferred tea, but today seemed to call for coffee. Which was to say, he could use the caffeine. He took a sip and waited for his head to clear.

Gunn took the last seat and slumped, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He lifted his cup of coffee and spoke softly. "Seems like I remember a time when we had other things to do besides sit in the hospital all night."

"Yes, well, the girl was frightened-" Wesley started.

Gunn shrugged. "Yeah, so are a lot of people when they find out the things that go bump in the night are real. But we ain't trauma counselors, English." He frowned. "We should be figuring out what's next." He tilted his head in Wesley's direction. "You got any ideas on that score?"

"I had supposed we would rely on Cordelia's next vision to indicate the direction from which our next mission will originate," Wesley said, sounding unbearably stuffy even to his own ears. Uncertainty always brought out his fussiest side, as if he could control things through the sheer force of language. As if presenting an image of competence, of formal distance, would give him the strength to deal with chaos and confusion.

'Yeah, right." Gunn rolled his eyes. "I got that. But I'm not talking about just our next demon ugly. I mean, the agency. Angel Investigations. Seems to me, we don't have the Angel part of that anymore. So some rethinking needs to be done."

"It's too soon to discount Angel entirely," Wesley said, his fingers folding in his lap. "I still have some hope that Buffy will be able to reach him." Gunn raised a skeptical eyebrow. And Wesley corrected himself. "But we do need a contingency plan, I'll admit."

Gunn sat forward, his face serious. "Do you think we can handle it?" He gestured with his coffee. "Without an undead superhero, I mean."

Wesley gave the question a moment of consideration before finally answering. "I don't know."

Gunn sat back, and grinned, purposely lightening the mood. "You think you can deal with working for a brother, English?" Wesley snorted. "Cause I'm thinking I'd make a great boss. Slip right into Angel's shoes." He snapped his fingers. "Like that. I got experience with this shit." He leaned back and put his hand on his chest. "I've led some demon fighting crews in my time."

Wesley smiled, and shook his head. "What about my experience?" he said. "I've got the Watcher training on my resume."

"Oooh, that's impressive," Gunn said. "But how well do you handle a battle ax?"

"I'm not working for either of you morons," Cordelia said from her corner, her eyes still closed. Wes and Gunn looked over at her, and simultaneously crossed their arms over their chests, cocking their heads. She opened her eyes a slit. "Seriously," she said. "You guys aren't even qualified to lead a waltz." Her lips turned up in a grin. "The Chase Agency is going to need strong, feminine leadership." Her eyes opened all the way. "Besides, who here gets the visions?"

"The Chase Agency?" Gunn said. "I don't remember agreeing to that."

"Neither do I," Wesley said. "Although Wyndham-Price Investigations has a certain ring..."

"Keep dreaming," Gunn said. "If you think I'm gonna run around LA telling people I work for Wyndham-Price anything, you're out of your head."

"It sounds like a department store," Cordelia put in. "Upscale department store, to be sure, but not exactly screaming 'we help the hopeless'."

"Oh really?" Wesley said, grinning. "And what will the Chase Agency be doing, representing actors or writers?"

Cordelia sat up straight, shaking her hair out of her face. "At least it's not as pretentious as Wyndham-Price."

"You realize there's a simple solution to this mess," Gunn said. They both turned to him. "Gunn Investigations." He held up his hands to stop their protests. "Strong and to the point. Kind of like me."

"We might as well just call ourselves-" Cordelia stopped, her hands clenching the arm rests of her seat, her jaw tight, her eyes fluttering, rolling up. She shook in her seat, and then tipped forward. Gunn lunged and caught her before she hit the floor. Wesley knelt beside them. She shook in Gunn's arms, her head jerking, her body convulsing as the vision took her. She gasped, writhing, her lips pulled back, her teeth exposed. She panted and moaned with the pain. Wesley watched, unable to help her, useless as he always felt when the visions knocked her down.

"Girl," she grunted. "Sometime tonight." She thrashed once. "Knives." Her voice rose, and she screamed once, before slumping.

"What's going on?" Lisa asked from her hospital bed, confused, lethargic from the drugs. Waking to screams couldn't have helped her state of mind.

"Don't be alarmed," Wesley said, distracted. He didn't take his eyes off Cordelia as Gunn lowered her to the cold tile and lightly tapped her cheek.

"She's out cold," he said. They watched, holding their breath. Her eyelids fluttered. She groaned, and lay still for a long moment, squinting up at the bright fluorescent lights. Then she extended her hand to Gunn, and he helped her rise to a sitting position.

"Remind me to pick up some morphine before we go," she said, her voice hoarse despite the smile she tried to direct at them.

"Are you all right?" Wesley asked, kneeling beside her. He tried to take her wrist in his hand, check her pulse. She pushed him away.

"I'm fine," she said. "Same old, same old. Crushing pain. Whatever." She closed her eyes. "The girl's tied down, and they're cutting her. I can't see their faces. Hoods, robes. I think it's a ritual. It happens tonight."

"Well, that gives us a little time," Wesley said. "Did you see anything that could give us a location?"

Cordelia frowned, her eyes still closed. "I'm not sure. Big room. She's on a...table. There are a bunch of tables. Chairs. It's a restaurant. There's a lobster tank in the corner. Anchors on the wall."

"So we find the Red Lobster gone evil," Gunn said. "And we get the girl out." He glanced at Wesley. "Buffy?" he said.

Cordelia opened her eyes and exchanged looks with Wesley. "She does lower our chances of dying."

Wesley nodded. "We'll keep her informed."

"I probably just shouldn't ask, should I?" Lisa asked from the hospital bed, her face pale, her breathing a little shallow.

"No," Wesley said, with as much compassion as he could muster. "You're better off forgetting."

She gave him an incredulous look. "Forget?" She looked down at the claw marks on her arms, now covered by thick white bandages. "Right."

Gunn shrugged. "You'd be surprised what you can forget. If you have to." He helped Cordelia rise to her feet, and she leaned against him for support before visibly gathering her strength and standing on her own. She winced, touching her hand to her head.

"I'm sorry," she said to Lisa. "But we have to-"

"Go," the girl finished. "Yeah." She hesitated, and they all started for the door, Cordelia limping slightly. "Hey, guys?" Wesley turned back. "Thanks."

He smiled. "It's what we do."

Cordelia scanned the hall for a bathroom as they headed out. "Just a sec," she said. "I want to go splash some water on my face." Her smile was tight, strained. "Maybe pop a couple aspirin." She slipped inside the thankfully empty bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. She splashed a handful of water on her face, then hands trembling, reached for the hem of her shirt. It couldn't be true. What she'd thought she felt had to be some afterimage of the vision, some extension of the mind-numbing headaches. A mind trick. Sympathy pains for the girl who'd been cut in the images that had flooded her. She pulled the shirt up and hissed as pain flared. Then the long knife slash that split her torso down the middle was revealed. She touched the barely dried blood, the swollen skin around the shallow but painful cut. It wasn't possible, but it was true.

"Okay," she muttered, her throat tight with fear. "This is new."

*

Buffy woke slowly to warmth. She shifted, burrowing deeper under the covers, into the softness of the mattress. She smiled slightly. Maybe she could just lie here, stay in bed forever. She'd never have to slay another vampire, or get kicked out of another school, or watch another man leave... She opened her eyes at that. Her eyes flicked around the room, dark except for one light over in the corner, as she tried to get her bearings. It was a bedroom. For a moment she didn't recognize it, then the brief glimpse she'd had the day before registered. Angel's room. How had she gotten here? The curtains were drawn, the door creaked open.

"Hey," she said, before Angel could sneak out. He was halfway through the door, the black he wore blending with the shadows around him. His pale face broke the darkness as he turned back to face her. She sat up, pushing the covers to her waist. She shifted and brushed at her hair with her fingers, feeling silly as they caught in the remains of last night's slayage. She was a mess. His eyes settled on her, intense, leaving trails of heat where they touched. She felt her cheeks flush. His gaze didn't waver, devouring her, and her eyes swept him into herself, ravenous. "Angel?" she said, her voice hesitant. Her hand crept over in his direction. There was something in him, in the way he was looking at her that felt like her Angel, like the Angel she knew. A softness in him that she hadn't been able to reach before now. She stayed still on the bed, afraid to move, to say something that would drive him away. "How long was I asleep?" she finally asked.

She was afraid he'd already withdrawn when he didn't answer. Then he finally spoke, his voice barely audible. "It's almost noon."

She nodded, her eyes still locked on him, her world so small, shrunken to just the pinpoint that was him. He was still poised for flight in the doorway, and she knew that the moment of hesitation would have to break. She had to say something. A bunch of things flitted into her mind, that she needed a shower, that he had to stop now, that Darla and Dru weren't worth it, that she'd missed him. But they were all wrong.

"Do you know why Riley left?" she said, her voice small, gentle, but still a shock because she hadn't known what she would say. He didn't answer, but he was listening, staring at her, eyes dark. If he felt anything at the mention of her ex-boyfriend's name, he didn't show it. But then, she hadn't expected him to. "I didn't love him," she said. She looked up from the bedspread around her legs, and met his eyes. "He knew."

He was coiled like a spring, almost vibrating with tension. She continued, expecting each word she said to be the one that sent him out the door, away from her. "I was running," she said. She wasn't telling it right. There's no way he could understand what she was talking about as she jumped without explanation. But he stood there, and she continued. "I chased him, to ask him to stay." Angel bowed his head, waited. Buffy laughed, bitter. "Not because I wanted him to stay. Because I owed him a chance." She kicked the last of the covers off, and he jerked at the movement. She swung her legs over the side of the bed. "I hadn't tried to love him," she said. "I didn't want to." She wanted to touch Angel so badly, to trace his skin with her fingers, to press her body to his. She stayed on the bed. "I didn't know if I could love him, but I thought I owed him. That I at least had to try." Her jaw clenched. "I was too late. He'd already gone. And do you know what I felt?

Angel looked up from the floor, and their eyes caught. Buffy felt herself slip, fall into him.

"Relief," she whispered. They stared at each other for a long moment. "You think I don't understand what you're doing?" She stood up, keeping her hands at her sides, barely. "You think I don't know what you're feeling?" She shook her head. "I know how much easier it is to feel nothing."

"I never wanted that for you," he said, his voice cracked and broken.

"What we want has zip to do with the real world, I learned that a long time ago." She took a step toward him, tentative, not wanting to scare him. He stayed where he was. "It hurts less sometimes to be alone. It hurts less to push other people away." She took another step. "It's not brave," she said, her voice taking on an edge. "It's not selfless. No matter what you tell yourself. It's not to win any war. It's because you don't want to hurt, or hurt anyone else." One more step. "I know because I've done the same thing."

"No," he said, but he stayed in the doorway. She took the last step, and put her hand lightly on his arm. He trembled under her touch. She looked up at him.

"Please, let me help you." She felt tears fill her eyes, and impatiently blinked them away, hoping he hadn't noticed. "I'll stop being alone, if you will."

He looked at her, his head tipped down. His thumb brushed against her cheekbone, swept her cheek. Then it dropped away from her. "I'm sorry," he said. He turned away.

"Wait." She reached out. He pulled away, and headed for the stairs.

"I have to go," he said. "I have a lead."

"I'll come with you." She hurried behind him, trying to grab the back of his shirt. He dodged her hand, then turned and faced her one last time.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "But this is all I have." His eyes set her skin on fire again. "I have to do this." She followed him doggedly down the stairs, and as they reached the lobby the phone rang. She looked from it to him. He pushed through the door to the basement. The phone rang again.

Buffy sighed and picked it up. "Yeah?"

Wesley spoke on the other end. "Buffy?"

"What is it?" Buffy asked. "Angel's going off into the sewers again, so if it's not an emergency..."

"Cordelia's had another vision."

Buffy slumped against the counter and watched the basement door swing shut. "I'll be ready in twenty minutes."

*

Dru watched as the lawyer with one hand passed Darla the keys to their warehouse. She could see his hunger when he looked at Grandmother. Grandmother loved to tease. She'd wrapped that little towel around herself because she knew how much he wanted her. Sometimes Dru thought Grandmother wanted him too, a little. Grandmother liked to play. And desire made the blood warmer. Delicious.

Dru sat back on the couch in their new penthouse, and let her fingers weave a pattern in the air. Red. Always red. And black of course. White, although it hurt her hands. But also grey. There was always grey now, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker. Cold. Dru shivered, and felt Spike's heavy leather coat drop down over her. He touched her hair and headed for the door.

"What did you need the restaurant for?" the lawyer was saying.

"All part of the plan," Grandmother answered.

"So fill me in."

"That's need to know," Spike said. "And you don't." Dru snuggled deeper under the coat. The lawyer didn't need to know. He had his own plans. They were too dark to see. She closed her eyes. Dark.

"Give me something," Lindsey said. "I need to write this up for the senior partners." Dru shivered again.

"Paperwork isn't my concern," Grandmother told him. She patted his cheek. Dru could hear his heartbeat pounding in her head. She wished it wasn't so loud. She could barely hear anything else.

"Darla," he said, and they all knew it was begging.

She gave him a coy little smile. "Why don't you ask Lilah to fill you in?

Oh, he didn't like that. Dru giggled. His face got all hard and angry, and the dark parts of him turned purple like a bruise. "Don't play with me Darla," he said. Dru laughed again.

"There's no way to stop the game," she said. Spike looked over at her, his head tilted. She smiled at him. Her baby Grandmother and the lawyer ignored her, but she didn't mind. Her words came from her head, and her insides were her own. It didn't matter if no one but Spike wanted to share. He was enough. For now.

"All your partners need to know is that the Slayer isn't going to survive the night," Darla said. Dru's eyes flitted to Spike again. The Slayer had her hooks in him, sharp, drawing beautiful blood. She held him as tight as the metal in his head had held him. But Dru had broken the bonds that muzzled him. She would tear out the Slayer's hooks.

"The seer is blind," she muttered under her breath. Grandmother and her Spike shut the lawyer out, and his heartbeat faded from her ears. Spike flopped down next to her on the couch, and pulled her close. Her head rested against his chest. She listened to the absence of a heartbeat. Such loud silence. "The Slayer will fall," she finished, not even aware she spoke.

continue