Name of the Game
Author: Dark Star
Summary: Ever wondered what happened to Acathla?
Thank you to Jo for the beta.
The splintered shutters rattled against the icy wind and the tattered curtains twitched in the resulting draught. Angel could feel the chilled air as he entered from the hallway, but the cold itself didn’t bother him much. He closed the door with his foot and put the boxes down on the table. He pulled the rug up against the door to cut out the cold as much as possible, and then carried his boxes through to the back room where Buffy was curled up in bed.
“What’ve you got?” she asked sleepily.
“Food,” he said immediately. He smiled slightly at her squeak of approval. “Canned, mostly, soups, and vegetables.” As he spoke, he put the boxes on the floor and unpacked the contents so that she could see them. “Soap, coffee… Some bandages, and medicines for you...”
Buffy pulled herself up into a sitting position and hugged the blanket to her chest to keep warm.
“We don’t need any more bandages. Or medicines,” she said pointedly, annoyance evidence in her voice.
“Yeah, we do. You do,” Angel said. “You aren’t getting any better, and we need you strong.”
“I’m fine,” she said obstinately, but the rasp in her voice betrayed her words.
Angel’s lips set into a tight line, something he’d been doing a lot lately, Buffy realised. She watched him pull a woollen blanket out of the box.
“Angel,” she said patiently, “I’m going to combust if you keep piling blankets on the bed.” She waved her hand over the stack on the bed to prove her point.
“You’re cold,” he said. “Buffy…. Please. I can’t stand to see you like this. Let me warm you.”
Buffy’s look was coy. “You could warm me,” she said, her voice a soft purr.
Angel frowned. “You can’t distract me like that,” he said. “You aren’t strong enough.”
The pout came next, and he swallowed. “You could be real gentle with me?”
Angel sighed. He knew what she was trying to do, and he couldn’t deny that the comfort of her body was an enticing idea.
Buffy moved, slithering down the bed, and pulled the cover down on the other side of the bed.
“Don’t you want to?” She sounded disappointed and Angel knew he wasn’t going to win. He pulled off his shoes and trousers and got into bed behind her. She wriggled back against his body and his arms curled round her waist, pulling her close. She was right, he did want her, and his grip tightened reflexively.
She started to cough. The sound was harsh and dry, and it took her several minutes to catch her breath. “Sorry,” she whispered.
His touch this time was gentler, stroking her arms, and waiting for her to stop shaking and gather herself before he spooned his body against her. Satisfaction was pushed to the back of his mind in his concern. Her skin felt cool to him, even under the bed sheets, and he frowned. Her health was deteriorating. She needed time, good medicine, and proper care if she was to recover, and they didn’t have any of them. The medicines he’d found were simple ones, and they really needed something much stronger. What would he do if she didn’t get better? What if she died?
“Stop it,” she said.
“It?” he queried, his tone sounding a trifle guilty.
“You’re brooding,” she accused.
“You have eyes in the back of your head now?” he asked, nuzzling against the back of her neck.
“I don’t need them,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the feel of his lips on her skin. Then she squirmed round to face him. “I’ll be all right,” she said firmly. “It’ll just take a little time. But blaming yourself isn’t going to help anything.”
“You’d be all right if it wasn’t for me.”
“You don’t know that. I could easily have picked up one of these mutant viruses wherever I was.”
Angel looked away, and when he spoke, his tone was bitter. “It’s not helping you when we live like this. We don’t stay in any place too long in case they find us. We can’t stop and build a new life for ourselves and you have nobody in the world but me. You deserve better than that.”
Buffy snorted. “We all deserve better than what’s happened.”
Angel’s eyes darkened, and she reached up to place a hand on his cheek. “It isn’t your fault, Angel! You didn’t cause this.”
“No,” he said, his body tensing. “But I can stop it.”
“Are you insane? After everything we’ve been through, you can say that? Nothing good will come of it, and you know that.”
“Do I?” he muttered, pulling away from her and sitting up. “I know that everything I touch turns sour. Just being alive seems to be enough to upset the balance of the universe. I can’t make my desires more important than the whole world.”
“Now look,” Buffy started to say, when Angel suddenly tensed and sprang out of bed.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“Heard something.” Angel sprinted to the door and grabbed the axe that leaned patiently against the doorjamb. “Wait here – I’ll check it out.”
Buffy pulled herself out of bed as Angel disappeared from the room. The world spun, and she grasped the headboard for support. She tried not to let on to Angel how bad she was feeling, but she knew that with his preternatural senses he could probably tell anyway. Shivering, she pulled a blanket over her shoulders and stumbled to the window to look outside.
The road outside looked empty. There was still an hour or so before dawn arrived, and all the shutters were down, so no lights showed anywhere. Mostly they tried to avoid the towns except when they needed supplies or when shelter was hard to find. She kept watch on the road until she heard Angel approaching from the hallway. She turned as he entered the room again.
“Nothing,” he said. “Buffy, we need to get going soon. If we stay longer they will catch up with us – will you be all right to go this evening?”
“Absolutely!” she enthused, her heart sinking. She was so tired, and feeling so dreadful, that the thought of travelling made her feel physically sick. But Angel was right; they had stayed here much longer than they should have and it was time for them to move on.
“You should rest,” Angel told her. “I’ll pack our things up, and then get you some breakfast. We need to be ready to go as soon as it gets dark.”
“I’ll be ready,” Buffy said, collapsing gratefully back into bed.
She awoke late afternoon, and took herself off to the bathroom to use the facilities. Angel was still asleep when she crawled back into bed. The room felt freezing to her, and she was shivering by the time she pulled the covers up around her neck. Angel stirred in his sleep, and she turned to look at him.
He hadn’t changed, of course. She had, and sometimes she wondered if he would ever tire of her. He had taken to sleeping in his clothes, mostly because the outside temperatures were so low, and her skin so cool, that he couldn’t seem to absorb heat any more. Sometimes when she curled against him he felt like the corpse they tried to pretend he wasn’t. The first time it had happened, she had been half asleep and dreaming of vampires, and his cold skin had freaked her out. That hadn’t been a happy time for either of them, and it had taken some cajoling on her part to get him to sleep with her again. Their future looked bleak, and the chances of her health improving any time soon were not good. In spite of what she’d told Angel, sometimes she doubted that she would recover at all.
Then she heard it. A quiet click coming from downstairs pulled her out of her musings and she froze, her senses reaching out for more. Had she imagined it? A soft voice wafted up from downstairs, meant to be low, but then, her hearing was far better than normal.
She elbowed the sleeping vampire in the ribs. “There is somebody in the house,” she murmured.
And then he was gone, and she was ignoring his ‘Stay here’ as she struggled out of bed and snatched up a jacket before she followed him down the stairs, her aching joints screaming with each step.
She could tell now that there were several people in the house. Two were already flat on the floor, unconscious by the time she got to the top of the stairs and looked down. The kitchen door opened, Angel appeared in the hallway just as the front door opened and a man strode in from outside.
“Are you going to do the right thing?” the newcomer snapped at Angel.
Angel scowled. “How do you know it is the right thing?”
“Because it has to be,” Giles replied. He became aware of somebody on the stairs, and he looked up. “Good Lord.”
“Hello to you, too, Giles,” she croaked, carefully treading down each step, using the rickety handrail to balance herself.
“You need help!” Giles exclaimed, clearly shocked by her appearance. “Come with me, Buffy.”
“So you can lock me up?” she said, pulling her jacket tighter across her chest and willing herself to stop shivering. “I don’t think so.”
“You’ll get proper care,” Giles said, his voice softer and then turned to Angel. “You’re supposed to care for her. How can you let her suffer like this?”
Angel grunted. “You’re supposed to care for her, too. How can you hunt her down like an animal? I guess we’ve both failed her.”
“She’s still here, you know.” Buffy’s voice brought the posturing males back to earth, “And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk about me like that. I make my own choices. This one was forced on me, but it’s the life I’ve chosen.” She looked at Angel. “To keep him safe – it’s the only choice I could make.”
Giles scowled. “You were a good slayer once, Buffy. Before he corrupted you.”
By now, Buffy had reached the hallway, and Angel instinctively stepped to her side.
“Angel has done nothing wrong,” Buffy said. “You used to be good watcher, Giles. Before you let emotion cloud your judgement.”
“I didn’t bring forth Acathla,” Angel broke in. “What’s happened to the world is not my doing.”
“No,” Giles said, pulling the crossbow from under his coat. “But your blood will make everything right.”
Buffy stepped in front of Angel and said, “You’ll have to go through me to get him.”
“If necessary,” Giles said, his jaw setting hard. “But if he had any decency, he’d give himself up to save the world. To save you.”
Nobody moved for several minutes, before Angel said, “How old are you, Giles? Do you think you’re still fast enough to pull that trigger before I get to you?”
Giles winced inwardly, knowing he had never been fast enough. And now… Angel was right. But then… that was why he’d brought reinforcements with him. He knew Buffy would try to stop them, but he couldn’t allow his feelings for her to interfere with his duty. There was far too much at stake to do otherwise.
But he was shaken by her appearance, and he wished it hadn’t come to this. When Acathla’s disciples had grown strong enough to free him, the Council had ordered Buffy to do her duty and kill Angel. She had refused. She didn’t believe that sending Angel to Acathla’s hell would set the world straight again, she said, and she wouldn’t sacrifice Angel a second time on such a flimsy pretext. So the Council had targeted both Buffy and Angel, and they’d had no option but to make a run for it. They had been running ever since.
“Somebody is going to have to make a move,” Buffy said, bringing him out of his memories, and Giles raised his hand. Three more of the Council’s men joined them, and went to stand beside him. Under normal circumstances, even with the five men he’d brought with him, Giles had expected that they wouldn’t stand a chance. But Buffy was ill, and he doubted she would have the strength to do much to stop them. It was the vampire that posed the danger, and the one Giles wanted to take captive.
Giles made a sudden move toward Angel, and as both Angel and Buffy’s attention was trained on him, two of Giles’ henchmen fired drugged darts in their direction. Angel dodged his easily, but Buffy’s reactions were sluggish and she went down with a dart in her neck, and Angel couldn’t resist twisting to see that she was all right. While he was distracted, as per Giles’ plan, the third henchman’s dart hit Angel’s chest and with a furious grunt, he went down, too.
Giles breathed a sigh of relief. That had been a lot easier than he’d expected…
“Get everyone into the trucks. Make sure the vampire is damned secure – he’s good at getting out of the impossible.”
Giles himself rescued Buffy from the floor, and carried her outside as gently as he could; carefully he secured her in the back of the truck. She really did look ill, but they had medicine back at the complex that ought to be of help. He hoped.
She opened her eyes to a stark white world that stank of disinfectant. She felt odd, like her head was buzzing, and her arms felt oddly stiff. When she tried to move, she found that she was unable to. Closer inspection showed her that her wrists were chained to the bed, and she groaned. She appeared to be alone in something that looked like a hospital room. Except that hospitals didn’t exist any more, and she supposed that this was the nearest that anyone ever got to one nowadays. Her mouth felt dry, and she wondered how long she’d been out. Her head hurt, and she was in the mood to kill somebody for a drink of water.
She heard footsteps approaching, and she quickly closed her eyes again. Somebody was bustling around the room, and she risked a peek under her eyelashes. A middle-aged lady in a white coat was preparing an injection for her and she tensed. What were they going to do to her? The woman approached and Buffy suddenly opened her eyes and made the woman gasp in surprise.
“What’s that?” she snapped, glaring at the needle in the nurse’s hand.
“Don’t be afraid, dear,” the nurse said gently, quickly recovering her composure. “It’s just medicine to fight your virus. I think you must have been feeling very poorly.”
Buffy glared at her suspiciously, but for some reason she found herself trusting the older woman. She considered putting up resistance, but in spite of her thirst and raging headache, she was feeling better. She nodded once, to acknowledge that the nurse could continue.
“How long have I been here?” Buffy asked the woman, watching dispassionately as the thin needle slipped easily inside her arm. She tried not to wince.
“About three days. You were quite delirious when they bought you in.”
The woman blinked. “I’m no angel, dear. Just doing my best to help.”
Buffy sighed. “The man…. Vampire…. They brought in with me. Where is he?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” came the reply. “I’ve only seen you.”
Three days. Was Angel even still alive?
“Can I have some water?” Buffy asked abruptly.
Reaching across to the small table beside the bed, the nurse poured out a little water into a small glass and held it out.
Buffy chinked her manacled wrists. “Bit difficult,” she murmured, giving the nurse her best I’m-a-helpless-girlie look. “Can’t you unchain me? Just so that I can get some water?”
The nurse hesitated; Buffy guessed that she’d been given instructions not to release her. Buffy’s lip trembled. She wished she could make her eyes fill up, but she had no idea how to do that to order, and she figured the tremble would have to do. She tried to make herself appear as unthreatening as possible. She had lost a lot of weight during her illness, and as she’d never been a big person anyway, it made her look vulnerable and almost waif-like. Coming to a decision, the nurse plucked a small key out of her pocket, and leant across to unchain Buffy’s wrist.
“I can only do the one,” she whispered conspiringly, “just don’t tell anyone.”
“That’s sweet of you,” Buffy replied, taking the water gratefully. The water tasted fabulous, and she began to gulp it down eagerly.
“Whoa,” said the nurse, “slowly, now.”
Buffy looked down, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
The nurse started to say it didn’t matter, but at that very moment the glass slipped out of Buffy’s hand and splashed across the bedcovers. Buffy’s raised voice, apologising profusely for the accident, mixed with the nurse’s soothing tones as she rushed to clear up the water. As the nurse leant down over the bed, and then turned slightly to get her cloth, Buffy’s free hand snaked up and wrapped around the nurse’s neck and yanked her backwards so that she sprawled on the bed.
The nurse squawked, astonished by the speed that her patient had moved, and the incredible power she felt in the arm around her neck. It shouldn’t have been possible – and the warnings she’d been given swam back into her mind. She was such a fool…
Buffy tightened her arm, and kept tightening until she felt the woman’s thrashing body relax.
“Sorry,” she murmured sadly. She slipped out from under the woman, scrabbling around to retrieve the key from the tangle of bedclothes and slid across the bed to free her other arm. Then she slithered back to check she hadn’t killed the poor woman, and was relieved to find her still breathing.
Buffy swung her legs off the bed and stood up. The room spun ninety degrees and she grabbed the bed end for support. She waited for the room to stabilise and her legs to stop trembling, and she took tentative steps across the room. A draught around her legs made her realise she was only wearing a nightgown and she looked around the room to see if it had any clothes in it, since she could hardly wander around dressed as she was. There was nothing. Okay – so that was her first plan. Clothes.
She opened the door and looked out. It was much colder in the corridor and she shivered, especially being as underdressed as she was. The corridor was clear and she hurried out, closing the door behind her. Walking as silently as she could, she hurried down the corridor, hoping to find a supply closet or cloakroom, but there were none to be seen. As she passed by one of the side rooms, the door was ajar and she could see a grey sweater draped over the back of the chair. She paused, entered the room carefully and saw that a sleeping woman occupied the hospital bed. A bit disgruntled that the woman wasn’t manacled as she herself had been, Buffy crossed to the closet and gently pulled the door open. The closet contained a single grey dress on a hanger, and Buffy eagerly pulled it out. Clearly, the sleeping occupant of the room was a little bigger than she was, but the dress covered her up and didn’t swamp her, so she was happy with that. She stole the sweater as well, but the woman’s shoes were too big, and regretfully, Buffy set off again barefoot.
The corridor branched out in a four-way intersection. The area had a small window set in it, and from that she could tell it was nighttime. A bright light reflected through the window, and she could hear voices coming in from outside. She quickly glanced around to ensure she was alone, and then crossed to the window, careful not to let herself be illuminated by the light from the corridor.
The window overlooked the car park and the area was alive with activity. It was full with cars and armed men, all with places to go to, it seemed.
Well. It looked like she needed to get outside, as that seemed to be where all the action was taking place, and she moved off again. She was so tired; whatever the medicines were that they’d given her, she was still far from well. But she needed to find out if Angel was still alive. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if they’d killed him already.
On the walk to the exit, she managed to find a pair of small lace-up shoes in one of the bedrooms. They didn’t fit that well, but at least she had something on her feet and it helped to make her feel warmer.
Once she got outside the building, the chill wind made her catch her breath, and she used the sleeve of her jumper to mask the resulting coughing fit. She waited, expecting to be discovered at any moment but nothing happened so she kept as far into the shadows as she could, crept out of the car park and looked around. What to do now? Since she didn’t know where Angel was, her next bet was to look for Acathla. Something that size had to be in a largish room and ought to be easy enough to find. She just hoped she wasn’t too late.
A pair of security officers in charge of the guards pouring out of the car park soon had them organised and sent in differing directions. Buffy eased closer to the two men, hoping to eavesdrop on their conversation. Which she did, but found their choice of conversation singularly uninspiring. They were, among other things, discussing the guards in sector three, the mistress of one of the guards, a stray dog that kept stealing sausages and the need to get some new shoes. She sighed, and stepped back, intending to skirt around them when one said, “Is everything ready for tomorrow?”
“Yes. Why Giles needs the full moon for his ritual nobody knows, but he usually knows his stuff.”
“And it? Is it coming tomorrow?”
Buffy’s hands curled into fists. Surely it didn’t mean…
“Yes. Tomorrow the vampire dies.”
The guards hovered on either side of the van, watching him climb down slowly from the dark interior. Angel tried to appear unconcerned, and stretched his cramped muscles as nonchalantly as his bonds would allow. He was gratified by the nervous stirring of the guards as he did so, and the uneasy glances they exchanged with each other almost made him smile. Giles came out of the side door, more guards by his side, and led them down a corridor into the waiting hall where they manacled Angel securely to the wall.
A huge stone statue dominated the room, and Angel’s skin prickled uncomfortably with being so close to Acathla again. It had taken him so long to escape from the demon’s hell that the thought of returning there filled him with terror. Giles was avoiding meeting his eyes as he bustled around the room.
“Got your tutu, Giles?”
Giles flinched, as Angel had known he would, and he finally turned to face the vampire.
“The world will be better off without you,” he said.
“Can’t argue with that,” Angel replied calmly. “But is that what you’re telling yourself so that you can sleep at night?”
“I’m sleeping just fine, thank you,” Giles lied. “And soon, the rest of the world will, too.”
“Will it?” Angel responded. “You’re sure of that, are you? Who are you going to pin the blame on when this doesn’t work?”
“It will work,” Giles said, his voice sounding firmer than he felt. “It has to.”
“Why? Because you don’t like the world as it is?”
Not bothering to answer, Giles turned away again to continue gathering the things he needed for the ritual. He bent to retrieve the ancient sword from the shelf, and frowned. The oilskin cloth that the sword had been wrapped in was still there, the sword was not. He started to look around for it, but his heart was already sinking fast.
“You aren’t going to find it, you know,” she said.
Giles turned slowly to face her. He raised an eyebrow at her choice of clothing, but wisely decided not to comment on it. “You can’t save him,” he said finally.
“If you can’t find the sword, I can,” she reasoned. “The ritual won’t work without that.”
“Then cutting his head off with something else will have to do.”
“Spite doesn’t become you,” she chastised him, coming down the steps from the doorway to the left of Acathla to stand – not quite in front of Angel – but close. The guards tensed, but she ignored them. “It can’t work without the sword, and you know that.”
For a moment, Giles looked stricken, before shaking it off by exclaiming, “He needs to die!”
Angel noticed the small tremor in her hands at Giles’ words. In spite of her apparent strength and control, he knew it was a front. She had been very ill recently; he assumed she had been given some strong medication when arriving at the complex, but it couldn’t have had much time to work yet. He had no idea what kind of resources she was pulling on to give herself the confident air she was projecting, but it must be incredibly draining for her.
She moved smoothly forward, ostensibly to be closer to Giles but Angel noticed that it also put her nearer the guards. Was she planning on taking them on? Was she strong enough?
“Find another way,” Buffy advised him. “You aren’t getting Angel this time.”
She turned to indicate the nearby guards. “What about these two? They look nice and dispensable to me.”
Shocked, both guards turned to look at Giles, and in that fraction of a second when their attention wavered, Buffy moved – fast and deadly, and the two men lay unconscious on the floor. Giles could see it coming, but couldn’t stop it, and he rushed toward her. Too slow – far too slow, and she had the guard’s gun in her hand and had turned to face him before he’d even got halfway. He stopped.
“You won’t hurt me,” he said.
“Want to put that to the test, do you?” she said grimly, the gun pointed unswervingly at his head.
“After everything we’ve been through?” he said disbelievingly.
She snorted. “Didn’t stop you trying to hunt us – hunt me - down, did it?”
“I could have had you killed,” he said softly. “But I couldn’t do it.”
That thought had occurred to her. He could have left her behind in the deserted house, and without medication or Angel’s protection she would probably have died. She knew that, and as she kept Giles at arm’s length, she stepped slowly back to where Angel still stood chained.
Giles started to move again, and he heard the gun click. He stopped.
“Don’t push me,” she warned. “I don’t want to hurt you Giles, but if it comes to making a choice between you and Angel…”
“It will always be Angel,” he said sadly.
Buffy scowled. “There was a time when I put the fate of the world before everything – even Angel. But this is wrong. Angel had nothing to do with the summoning of Acathla, and I won’t let you turn him into your scapegoat.”
The last metal cuff fell away from Angel’s wrist, and he stepped free. Giles took an involuntary step back.
Angel’s hand closed carefully over Buffy’s and he took the gun from her hand, slipping the safety back on.
“We should go,” he said softly.
Buffy let him lead her away, her eyes locked on Giles. “Come after us again…”
“No,” he replied, looking past her at Acathla and shaking his head. “It’s too late, anyway.”
Then they were sprinting along the corridor and down the steps to the main door. Angel could hear Buffy’s breath labouring and he frowned. They made it out of the front door and halfway down the main driveway before Buffy’s legs buckled, and Angel smoothly swept her up in his arms. She was too tired to even argue at the indignity and instead just leant against his chest and let him carry her away from the semi-modern complex.
How long he carried her along those winding rural streets as he jogged doggedly away from danger, she had no idea. All of their worldly goods had been left behind when Giles kidnapped them, and they had nothing left. No clothes, no food or belongings, nothing. But then Buffy gave a small smile. That wasn’t entirely true, because she had the most important thing in her life right here.
As if he could sense her looking at him, he looked down. “We’ll be all right,” he said, and she wondered if he’d been reading her thoughts. “We’ve had nothing before, and we got through it.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she kept silent. The rhythm of Angel’s strides along the empty roads were somehow soothing, and she let her head rest back against his chest. Survival was the name of the game these days; and nobody was better equipped to deal with it than they were.
They’d be all right. Wouldn’t they?