Title: Hell's Gate
Summary: Buffy & Willow search for the Angel gang (Post Angel series finale)
Author's Note: I started this fic on a whim so there's a real possibility it'll never be finished. Follows on from my previous fic "Aftermath" but not really a sequel. Feedback is always welcome.
The woman at the car rental counter looked at them as if they were crazy. "Los Angeles?"
"That's what I said," Willow said, quelling her impatience.
The woman opened her mouth, began to speak, and stopped. She glanced around as if searching for a supervisor but there were no other employees in sight. Finally she said, "Look, I don't think you really want to go to L.A. The city's gotten real dangerous, a war zone they say."
Buffy stopped drumming her fingers on the counter. "Who says?"
"Everyone. You must've seen the news. No one goes there any more."
"Well, we're going there," Buffy said, leaning forward. "Now are you going to give us a car, or do I have to--"
She broke off when Willow touched her arm. The slayer exhaled an explosive breath and spun away. Putting on her most pathetic face, Willow turned to the woman.
"Please, we have friends there."
"I don't know..." The woman seemed uncertain. Biting her lip, she hunched over the counter and beckoned for Willow to lean closer. "They say there are monsters in L.A.," the woman said in a low voice.
Willow was touched by her concern. "Well--"
"And if the car doesn't come back in one piece..."
Oh good grief, thought Willow. She stared at the woman in disbelief. "You're worried about the car?"
"I'm worried about my job."
Out of the corner of her eye, Willow spotted Buffy barrelling towards them. "What will it take to change your mind?" Willow said quickly.
Fifteen minutes later, they peeled out of San Diego airport in a sedan and headed towards the interstate. Several wrong turns later they found the I-5 and were on their way to Los Angeles.
Slumped in the passenger seat, Buffy grumbled, "Did you have to take all the insurance options?"
"I'm sure the Watchers Council can afford it," Willow said, keeping her eyes on the road.
Buffy opened her window, letting in a roar of warm air. Without batting an eyelid, Willow pressed the button to close it again.
"You don't want your hair getting poofy, do you?" she chirped, knowing without looking that Buffy was pouting.
A few minutes passed in silence before Buffy began fidgeting, playing with the radio and blaring music into the car. Willow grit her teeth as Buffy cycled through Christian rock, country music and heavy metal. Grimacing, Willow slapped her friend's hands away and switched the radio off. She cleared her throat.
"Buff, I know you're worried and all, but you just can't go around bullying people."
Buffy shrugged. "Works for me."
"Really not the point."
"We're on a mission here, Will. I don't have time to worry about stepping on someone's feelings, or fingers for that matter."
"I get that, but...trust me when I say having people afraid of you -- not as much fun as it's cracked up to be."
The distance between them seemed to stretch, filled with memories of the past. Then Buffy's hand squeezed Willow's where it rested on the steering wheel.
"I know," Buffy said softly. She took her hand away. "But I have to find them. I have to fix this."
Shock rippled through Willow, causing her hands to slacken for a second. Fortunately her survival instinct kicked in before she lost control of the car. She realised now why Buffy had been so driven since they'd heard the news, and she felt like a fool for not seeing it earlier.
"Buffy, this isn't your fault."
"Isn't it? If I hadn't been in such a hurry to decide Angel had gone to the dark side, if I hadn't cut him off...maybe he'd have asked for my help."
"I doubt it." Willow felt a familiar surge of frustration rise from her gut. "The big doofus didn't ask for my help either, not even when he had the chance--" Too late she realised that she'd said too much. She hoped it would go unnoticed but the slayer latched on like a vampire with his first meal.
"There was a chance? What chance? Where chance?"
Willow coughed. "Well, 'chance' is of kind of an exaggeration. What I meant was that he could've picked up the phone and--"
"Willow," Buffy said in a voice threatening imminent violence.
"Er, Buffy, remember what I said about bullying?"
"You can't bully someone who can turn you into an amoeba," Buffy countered. "And don't try to change the subject. What are you not telling me?"
Willow heard the desperation buried in Buffy's voice, and realised how close she was to breaking point.
"Okay, okay. Angel called me a month ago. He needed a glamour crystal but he wouldn't say why, just that he needed a source he could trust."
"I dunno. There was something off about him."
"A little less with the vagueness, Will. What do you mean, off?"
Willow nibbled her lip; it wasn't easy to translate her intuitive impressions into words. After a minute she said, "It was like he was saying goodbye without actually saying it, you know?"
Buffy sighed. "Yeah." All of a sudden she went limp, looking deflated.
"I didn't want to worry you."
"I know. It's okay," Buffy said, looking away.
Willow knew it wasn't okay, but there was nothing she could say that would make it so. Instead she said, "Buffy, why don't you try to take a nap? You hardly slept on the plane."
"Need I remind you of my way too realistic nightmares, Will."
"Still, you need your beauty--"
Buffy glared at her.
"I mean, you need your rest. A sleep-deprived slayer is a pasty-faced slayer."
Turning away, Buffy stared out the window. "I won't be able to sleep until I find him...them."
Willow wondered which "him" Buffy had meant, or whether the slayer herself even knew.
"Well, you won't be much good to...them if you can't stay awake." Geez, thought Willow, when did I become my mom? "Just give it a shot, okay? I'll wake you if you get twitchy."
After a moment Buffy sighed. "Okay. But if I accidentally strangle you in my sleep, don't blame me."
"I promise I won't come back and haunt you," Willow said soothingly.
Buffy quirked her mouth, then curled up as best she could. Within minutes she was asleep, mouth open and snoring lightly.
Willow relaxed, glad to be alone with her thoughts for a time. She was afraid for Angel and the others, but even more worrying was her growing awareness of a vast gap in the fabric of the earth. The closer they got to Los Angeles the stronger she felt it; it was as if nothing lived in the city -- no humans, no demons, not even plants or animals.
She had no idea what to expect.